In this episode I'm going to catch up on a number of stories which I've not been able to deal with in the last few weeks, and I’ll also report on growing demands for the protection of biodiversity and for recognition of the true worth of Nature.
First of all, an update on the Green Homes Grant scheme. Two days after my special report the issue was featured in The Guardian newspaper. Probably a coincidence. Pressure is building and I understand that questions are being asked of the minister and questions will be asked in parliament, probably on the 9th February.
Fish and Fisheries
Last week’s episode, about fish and fisheries, was about natural resources we need to protect to ensure that our planet will continue to support its human population. This week I return to stories about CO2 and the imperative to mitigate climate change. While much is being said by major corporations about being environmentally responsible, how far are they really committed to change and are their actions really making a difference? While governments are committed to net zero by 2050, why are they continuing to punish those who point out that governments are still not doing enough to meet their own targets?
It’s not all bad news. Greenbiz have identified the top ten 2020 trends in sustainability and most of them are positive, David Attenborough has just concluded his Perfect Planet series on the BBC with a clear statement of the challenges we face.
First, some energy news.
Store-dot, an Israeli company, announces a battery for electric cars which can be recharged in 5 minutes to give a range of 300 miles or 480km. Good news and bad news. The good news is that being able to recharge an electric car in much the same time as needed for a petrol or diesel car will make electric vehicles much more attractive to the consumer. The manufacturers of this new battery say that it will cost no more than current lithium-ion units. So far we do not know how many charge/recharge cycles the battery will support before having to be replaced.
There are a number of potential downsides. First of all a network of high capacity chargers will be needed. These will no doubt be grouped together on service stations just as petrol pumps are grouped together at present. No need to charge on the street. Existing electric cars of course will not benefit from this new technology, so it may lead to the replacement of electric cars which are perfectly good in every way, except that they do not have the range or the charging speed that the new technology brings.
Many people say that electric vehicles are the future, but replacing a petrol engine with an electric motor will do nothing to reduce traffic congestion. And while an electric vehicle has no exhaust pipe and no gaseous emissions, it still has brakes and tyres which release particulate pollution just as those on petrol and diesel cars do. Public transport should be the future, but of course in the present circumstances of social distancing it's just not practical. Nevertheless, we must thoroughly examine our need for travel, and having to work from home during the pandemic has revealed just how very many journeys are just not necessary.
Gas is Over
Presenting the European Investment Bank’s 2020 results last month, the president of the bank said that Europe needs to acknowledge that its future is no longer with fossil fuels. “To put it mildly, gas is over,” Dr Werner Hoyer said at a press conference on the EIB’s annual results. Under its climate bank roadmap published in 2020, the EIB plans to use 50% of its activity to support climate and environmental sustainability, unlocking €1 trillion for green funding by 2030. It will also ensure that all activity is aligned with the Paris Agreement.
As long as so much of Europe relies on Russian gas for heating homes and generating electricity its 2050 net zero target is going to be difficult to achieve. While the UK does not import Russian gas, at least not directly, gas is used as the fuel of choice for home heating and represents a very large proportion of the fuel is used in the UK for electricity generation, frequently approaching 50% of the fuel mix. Let’s hope that the Green Homes Grant scheme can be saved from collapse in time to move British homes away from gas central heating.
Oil is Over
Gas is over: maybe oil is over too. As one of its final acts, the Trump administration auctioned drilling rights for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. None of the oil majors took part, and the sale raised less than $15m (£11m) - far less than the government had hoped. Environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief, at least I suppose they did, on the assumption that the small players who actually bought the licences will not have the resources to exploit them. Drilling in a wildlife refuge? It makes about as much sense as bottom trawling in a marine preservation area. Oh, but that goes on too.
There are signs that the investment community is taking sustainability seriously. The key question is whether this is genuine, or mere lip-service or green-washing. We’ll look into this in more detail as far as personal investments and savings are concerned in a future episode. For the moment here are some anecdotes about how some of the majors are approaching the climate crisis.
Fifteen pension and investment funds are pushing HSBC to reduce the loans and underwriting services offered to clients which rely heavily on fossil fuels. This will be voted on at the AGM in April, and a sufficiently large majority will bind the company.
On the other hand, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, holds investments worth $85bn in coal companies, despite promising to dispose of them. They are relying on a loophole in their commitment where they said that they would not divest from organisations which gained less than 25% of their revenues from coal. $85bn is still a big investment in coal, and does not demonstrate commitment to the idea or the urgency of sustainability. More on coal next time.
Meanwhile Climate Action reports that Aviva Investors has announced its Climate Engagement Escalation Programme. Focusing on 30 major corporations within its portfolio it aims to work with them to radically reduce their carbon emissions. The engagement programme includes companies from the oil and gas, metals and mining and utilities sectors that substantially contribute to total global carbon emissions. Its stipulations include the adoption of science-based targets covering the full carbon footprint of the businesses, the reframing of corporate strategies, business plans and capital frameworks, adjustments to management incentives and lobbying activities. The programme will continue over 1 to 3 years and Aviva is committed to divesting from those organisations that do not make sufficient progress.
Bank of England
The Bank of England is coming under pressure from members of parliament to align its corporate goals with the Paris Agreement. The Environmental Audit Committee has calculated that the Bank’s corporate bond purchases are currently aligned with a “catastrophic” 3.5°C temperature rise. They want re-alignment carried out before the COP26 climate conference in November.
The Economist magazine, no hotbed of climate activism, has produced a video.
Find the link below.
Bloomberg reports that global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will be 50% higher this year than before the start of the Industrial Revolution, according to forecasts that show the rapid pace at which humans are polluting the atmosphere. It took more than 200 years for the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to grow 25% by the end of the 1980s. The majority of the damage has been wrought in the last 30 years as the pace of deforestation and burning of fossil fuels picked up rapidly.
The Guardian reports that global heating could stabilise if net zero emissions are achieved. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University points out that CO2 is constantly absorbed by nature and if we can bring our emissions down to that absorption rate then the system will stabilise. The article quotes a report from the journal Nature, headlined “Greater Committed Warming after accounting for the pattern effect”. This seems to indicate that the effect of the oceans has not been sufficiently taken into account in predicting future CO2 levels, and we may have less headroom that was previously thought. All are agreed that the imperative is to reduce man-made emissions.
Writing in Frontiers in Conservation Science, academics from the United States, Mexico and Australia warn that we are “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”. They say,
“We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action. First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action. Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public. We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends. The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.”
Scientists as Communicators
I reported a while ago that there were concerns that scientists had traditionally seen their role as providing advice and leaving it to others - politicians and governments - to take action. Scientists are not campaigners, but this article clearly demonstrates frustration with the lack of action in the face of clear advice.
As the authors say in conclusion,
“…our goal is not to present a fatalist perspective, because there are many examples of successful interventions to prevent extinctions, restore ecosystems, and encourage more sustainable economic activity at both local and regional scales. Instead, we contend that only a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges facing the international community might allow it to chart a less-ravaged future. …Given the existence of a human “optimism bias” that triggers some to underestimate the severity of a crisis and ignore expert warnings, a good communication strategy must ideally undercut this bias without inducing disproportionate feelings of fear and despair… It is therefore incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and “tell it like it is.” Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”
The United Nations Environment Programme has a similar story to tell.
“2020 was not only the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, they say, “it was also the year of intensifying climate change: high temperatures, floods, droughts, storms, wildfires and even locust plagues. Even more worryingly, the world is heading for at least a 3°C temperature rise this century.
“We need strong action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C. This would limit the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities and ecosystems.”
You’ll find a link to the UN’s Adaptation Gap report below.
Of course there are things we can do and things being done.
Carbon Capture & Storage (again)
The Guardian newspaper reports that Professor Stuart Haszeldine, of Edinburgh University says, “Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is going to be the only effective way we have in the short term to prevent our steel industry, cement manufacture and many other processes from continuing to pour emissions into the atmosphere.”
Meanwhile campaigners at Global Witness and Friends of the Earth Scotland said last week that a reliance on CCS was not a reliable way to decarbonise the energy system, and published a paper last Monday from the Tyndall Manchester climate change research centre that they said proved that CCS has a “history of over-promising and under-delivering”. I've certainly commented on it on many occasions and it seems to be very much like nuclear fusion. That's the nuclear technology which will produce clean energy and is only 30 years off from commercial implementation. The problem is that it's only been 30 years off for the last 30 years. Apparently the UK government will invest £1 billion into research into carbon capture and storage. That will replace the £1 billion that the then Chancellor George Osborne offered and then withdrew six or seven years ago. I've mentioned David Attenborough's new book and in that he strongly advocates carbon capture and storage. However it's clear from his book and from other sources that natural carbon sequestration by planting trees, stimulating sea grass, kelp and mangroves and preserving peat bogs is vitally important. Listen to 39 Ways to Save the Planet on BBC Sounds for more ideas.
Writing in The Conversation, Brant Walkley, Lecturer at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Sheffield, explains that cement production alone (excluding other aspects of construction) accounts for around 8% of global CO₂ emissions, about half of which results from chemical reactions inherent in the production process. By comparison, global aviation accounts for only about 2%. As other industries such as energy and agriculture reduce their share of emissions, cement production may account for nearly a quarter of all human-driven CO₂ emissions by 2050. However, Walkley believes that replacing traditional Portland cement with sustainable cement could initially eliminate 1.7 - 2.7 billon tons of CO₂ per annum, rising to 11.6 billion tonnes by 2050. Alternative binders can be generated from industrial waste or by-products such as coal fly ash, blast furnace slag, calcined clays, finely ground limestone or silica fume. It’s the circular economy in action. So far the construction industry has been slow to use sustainable cement. The article does not reveal whether it costs more, but of course it all depends on how you define cost. Developers will look at the effect on their bottom line. The effect on the climate is not their concern.
The Value of Nature
It’s appropriate, then, that the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity was published this week. This was commissioned by the UK Treasury, led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta and follows the Stern Report of 2006. You can read the 600-page report, a much shorter abridged report or a 10-page headline summary. These are the headlines:
- Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature.
- We have collectively failed to engage with Nature sustainably, to the extent that our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on.
- Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations.
- At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure.
- Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge. These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets.
- The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it.
- We need to change how we think, act and measure success.
- (i) Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.
- (ii) Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.
- (iii) Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.
The report concludes:
- Transformative change is possible – we and our descendants deserve nothing less.
Of course Lord Nicholas Stern said much the same in his 2006 report. Will governments listen? Will governments act?
The various reactions of governments across the world to the pandemic are an indication of how they are likely to manage the climate crisis. Putting it like that makes it sound as though it’s something to be ready for, rather than an immediate crisis of the here and now. As the scientists mentioned above ask, “what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action?” That is probably the most important question of our time. Although I’m no supporter of the present British government, I will pay tribute to the way that the COVID vaccination programme has been rolled out in the UK. A problem was identified, multiple vaccine doses were ordered even before they were known to be effective or approved, sites were planned and set up, staff and volunteers were recruited and organised, and yes, you can call the outcome world-beating; although it’s not a contest. No-one will be safe until everyone in the world is safe.
Let’s hope that world governments will put the same effort into the climate crisis as the UK government has into the vaccinations. We need to shout down those who insist that saving the economy is more important than saving lives.
UN global climate poll
The United Nations has published the results of the Peoples’ Climate Vote. With 1.2 million respondents, they say it is the largest survey of public opinion on climate change ever conducted. Using a new and unconventional approach to polling, results span 50 countries covering 56% of the world's population. Even though the survey was conducted during the COVID-19 crisis, there was still widespread recognition of climate change as a global emergency in every country surveyed.
Four climate policies emerged as the most popular globally:
- Conservation of forests and land (54% public support);
- Solar, wind and renewable power (53%);
- Climate-friendly farming techniques (52%); and
- Investing more in green businesses and jobs (50%).
People therefore are increasingly aware that the climate crisis is a crisis.
And some people, you may say the usual suspects, are tirelessly continuing to urge action now. One of the most steadfast campaigners is Charles, Prince of Wales. I remember attending the MayDay climate conference which he hosted back in 2007. It was sponsored by BT and linked groups in real time across the country. It was repeated on a smaller scale the following year and the year after that, and gradually faded away. Charles’s latest initiative is Terra Carta, the Earth Charter, urging organisations to recognise the value of nature and echoing the message of the Dasgupta Review.
XR in the Dock
Extinction Rebellion have been prominent activists, using non-violent protest to emphasise the urgency of the issue and demanding that governments take action now. Should we praise them for their foresight? Priti Patel, Britain’s Home Secretary, clearly does not think so. Thousands of people were charged with minor offences, mainly obstructing the highway, during the three main protests over the last two years. The Home Secretary has decided that most of them will be prosecuted and despite COVID travel restrictions must travel from their homes all over the country to attend court in London. I call this spiteful. It's a case of blaming the messenger for the message.
Other protesters are protesting against HS2, the high-speed rail line from London to the North. They have built tunnels beneath Euston Square in London to hold up construction work. They are protesting against the destruction of landscapes and ancient woodlands along the route but there are also questions over the viability of the project. Cost estimates continue to rise. The latest is £105 billion. Even before Covid, there was no clear idea of exactly how the project would pay for itself, how many people would actually take the high-speed train and what they would pay for it. Since Covid and working from home have demonstrated that many journeys are not necessary there must be serious questions over HS2. It is difficult to argue against spending the money instead on improving existing rail routes in the Midlands and the North, which are pedestrian by comparison with anything available in London and the Southeast.
More news is breaking as I write. Some of it concerns coal and that’s the theme of next week’s Sustainable Futures Report.
I leave you with thoughts from Greta Thunburg who has just turned 18:
“I’m not telling anyone else what to do, but there is a risk when you are vocal about these things and don’t practise as you preach, then you will become criticised for that and what you are saying won’t be taken seriously.”
“I don’t sit and speculate about how the future might turn out, I see no use in doing that,” she said. “As long as you are doing everything you can now, you can’t let yourself become depressed or anxious.”
And my thoughts are with those in Western Australia where a 130 kilometre wall of flames continues to threaten homes in the Perth Hills region. In some places it is too late for residents to evacuate safely: they must shelter and hope the fires pass them by.
More evidence of the pressing urgency of the climate crisis.
And that’s it.
That's it for another week. I've tried to catch up on a wide range of stories but I still haven't completed everything I started out with. The climate crisis is such an enormous topic. The underlying theme is that we and our governments need to act and act now. That has been the message for as long as I can remember, only now it's even more urgent.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
I’m Anthony Day
Until next time.
Electric car battery that can charge in minutes
Oil and gas
Global heating could stabilize if net zero emissions achieved, scientists say
Top scientists warn of 'ghastly future of mass extinction'
Countries adapting too slowly to climate breakdown, UN warns
Carbon capture is vital to meeting climate goals, scientists tell green critics
Shareholders push HSBC to cut exposure to fossil fuels
BlackRock holds $85bn in coal despite pledge to sell fossil fuel shares
Bank of England