Actually there is no bad news, just challenges or maybe new opportunities. I've had a number of interviews over the last few episodes, which means that a lot of stories have been backing up. Some, I'm afraid, will just slip away as I try to remain topical. But here's my latest selection.
First the Bad News
The latest sea level rise forecasts are alarming some scientists, while others warn that the Atlantic circulation is at its weakest in 1,000 years. The British government has announced £1billion to spend on reducing the carbon footprint of industry but the Labour opposition claims that the government approach is stuck in the past. The budget statement by the Chancellor earlier this month disappointed many, and other governments, notably India and Brazil are attracting criticism. The general secretary of the United Nations has a harsh warning for all countries, the OECD has a new climate-sceptic head, the tropics are becoming uninhabitable for humans and globally we waste nearly a billion tonnes of food each year.
On the other hand…
Food waste could perhaps be turned into aviation fuel, AI could come to the rescue of the planet, Drax power station has scrapped plans for the largest gas-powered plant in Europe, there’s growing pressure against the expansion of Leeds/Bradford Airport and against the UK’s new coal mine planned for West Cumbria and finally there’s a very rich man with a surprisingly altruistic outlook.
Sea Level Rise
Last week I spoke with Kim MacCoy about waves and beaches and he explained how the total melt of all Greenland ice would lead to a 7m rise in sea levels and he pointed out that where I live, York UK, is just about 7m above the current sea level and so would be under water. I took comfort from the fact that he didn't think that would happen in my lifetime. In fact the assessment by the IPCC, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, indicates that a rise of 1.1m can be expected by 2100. However a recent article in Ocean Science from the European Geosciences Union says, “..some studies conclude that considerably greater sea level rise could be realised, and a number of experts assign a substantially higher likelihood of such a future.” Even a rise of 1m will increase the volume and power of storm surges and the distance inland that they reach. Commentators point out that many nuclear power stations are on coasts, and new stations are planned for coastal sites in the UK and probably elsewhere as well. The plant at Fukushima is on the coast of Japan and was overwhelmed by a tsunami. A storm surge could have much the same effect.
While storm surges can cause devastation, the Gulf Stream keeps us warm. Therefore it’s a bit worrying to read an article in Nature Geoscience from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research which says, “Never before in over 1000 years the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), also known as Gulf Stream System, has been as weak as in the last decades. This is the result of a new study by scientists from Ireland, Britain and Germany.”
“[Researchers] found consistent evidence that its slowdown in the 20th century is unprecedented in the past millennium – it is likely linked to human-caused climate change. The giant ocean circulation is relevant for weather patterns in Europe and regional sea-levels in the US; its slowdown is also associated with an observed ‘cold blob’ in the northern Atlantic.”
The authors warn that as the current slows down....more water can pile up at the US east coast, leading to an enhanced sea level rise. In Europe, a further slowdown of the AMOC could imply more extreme weather events like a change of the winter storm track coming off the Atlantic, possibly intensifying them. Other studies found possible consequences being extreme heat waves or a decrease in summer rainfall. Exactly what the further consequences are is the subject of current research.”
Another article in Nature Geoscience suggests that holding global warming to 1.5℃ will prevent most of the tropics from reaching a wet-bulb temperature (TW) of 35 °C, the limit of human adaptation. Wet-bulb temperature is a metric which combines temperature and humidity.
The British government this week announced a major blueprint to create green jobs and slash emissions from industry, schools and hospitals. I’ll examine that later, in the Good News section. Meanwhile, other governments have come in for criticism.
India, Facebook, Twitter and Google
Naomi Klein writes in The Intercept how India targets Climate Activists with the help of Big Tech. She recounts the case of Disha Ravi, a nature-loving 22-year-old vegan climate activist. She’s one of the founders of the Indian chapter of Fridays For Future, the youth climate group started by Thunberg, and she co-edited a protest toolkit. For this she was arrested for sedition, incitement, and involvement in an international conspiracy whose elements include Indian farmers in revolt, and denied bail. After 9 days the judge ruled that there was no reason for bail to be denied, and issued an 18-page ruling. The police’s evidence against the young climate activist is, he wrote, “scanty and sketchy,” and there is not “even an iota” of proof to support the claims of sedition, incitement, or conspiracy that have been levelled against her and at least two other young activists.
Klein quotes the case as an example of collusion between Big Tech and the government. For example, after some early resistance from the company, Twitter accounts critical of the Modi government have disappeared in the hundreds without explanation; government officials engaging in bald incitement and overt hate speech on Twitter and Facebook have been permitted to continue in clear violation of the companies’ policies; and Delhi police boast that they are getting plenty of helpful cooperation from Google as they dig through the private communications of peaceful climate activists like Ravi.
Complicity in human rights abuses, it seems, is the price paid by Facebook, Google and Twitter, of retaining access to the largest market of digital media users outside China, says Klein.
The judge who ruled on Ravi’s bail wrote: “Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic Nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies.”
Freedom in Danger
I hope British parliamentarians are listening. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is currently going through Parliament containing wide powers for the police and the Home Secretary to define and outlaw protest. As somebody said, it’s probably all right if your protest doesn’t annoy or inconvenience anyone, but an unnoticed protest achieves nothing. An article in politics.co.uk complaining that two stages have already been voted through is headlined, “Anti-protest Bill: Freedom dies in silence.” Still time for the bill to be amended. I hope it will be.
Land sales in Brazil
Another country up for criticism this week, indirectly at least, is Brazil which is rapidly becoming a failed state with political turmoil and a COVID fatality rate nearly as bad as UK levels. On eBay people have been selling land in the rainforests and in so-called protected tribal areas for clearance and agriculture. They do this without title to the land and without fear of inspection or sanction by the government.
Fabricio Guimarães, who was filmed by a hidden camera, said, "There's no risk of an inspection by state agents here.” He told an undercover BBC reporter that he had a job in the city and simply saw the rainforest as an investment opportunity.
More criticism for the UK government
The Guardian reports that the UK has “systematically and persistently” broken legal limits on toxic air pollution for a decade, the court of justice of the EU (CJEU) has ruled.
Toxic Air Pollution
Levels of nitrogen dioxide, mostly from diesel vehicles, remain illegally high in 75% of urban areas and the court said the UK had failed to tackle the problem in the shortest possible time, as required by law.
The case began before the UK left the EU and the legal limits remain in UK law. The UK could face financial penalties if it still fails to take action to comply. The court also ordered the UK to pay the legal costs incurred by the European commission. UK ministers had already been defeated three times in British courts by environmental lawyers ClientEarth.
The worrying thing is that despite these legal defeats the government appears to believe that it is above the law, and so does nothing.
We’re Wasting Food
The UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Food Waste Index reveals that 17% of the food available to consumers - in shops, households and restaurants - goes directly into the bin; almost a billion tonnes per year. 60% of that amount is wasted in the home, but the good news is that since lockdown the total has been declining. Nevertheless, the global problem is much bigger than had been previously estimated.
Ahead of major global climate and biodiversity summits later this year, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen is pushing for countries to commit to combatting waste - halving it by 2030.
"If we want to get serious about tackling climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, businesses, governments and citizens around the world have to do their part to reduce food waste," she said.
Richard Swannell from WRAP.org.uk (Waste & Resources Action Programme) told the BBC: "Wasted food is responsible for 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions, so if food waste was a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet.”
New Leader for the OECD
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has a new leader, secretary-general designate Mathias Cormann.
While many countries congratulated Cormann on his appointment some reports were less complimentary. “A Climate Change Vandal goes to Paris”, said the International Policy Digest. Cormaan was Australia’s longest-serving finance minister and notorious for his climate scepticism. In the Australian parliament he had voted to “repeal Australia’s successful carbon price” in 2014. He had attempted to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewal Energy Agency. “As finance minister, he tried to abolish the very same green finance bodies he will no doubt be promoting as evidence of his green credentials for the job,”says Australian Greens leader, Adam Bandt.
The OECD itself has reproached Australia’s climate change policies. In a 2019 report, the organisation notes Australia’s “progress in decoupling the main environmental pressures from economic growth” but that it remains “one of the most resource- and carbon-intensive OECD economies.”
Before I move on to the good news - and yes, there is some, the most worrying story to cross my desk recently comes from the UN.
Could do Better
In the year of COP26 and the 5-year review of progress against the Paris Agreement the United Nations has warned that the commitments of countries across the globe to tackle global warming are ‘nowhere close’ to the targets.
Secretary-general Antonio Guterres said 2021was a “make or break year” to confront the global climate emergency.
“The science is clear, to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must cut global emission by 45 per cent by 2030, from 2010 levels”, he stressed.
He called on major emitters to “step up with much more ambitious emissions reductions” targets for 2030 in their NDCs, highlighting that COVID-19 recovery plans offered the opportunity to “build back greener and cleaner”.
“Decision makers must walk the talk. Long-term commitments must be matched by immediate actions to launch the decade of transformation that people and planet so desperately need”, Mr. Guterres urged.
Now let me play you clip from my very first podcast, back in 2007.
“The time for doubt has passed.” That’s what UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said at this week’s climate summit. The chief UN climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, said, “The time is up for inaction.” Billed as the largest ever high-level meeting on climate change, the event re-emphasised the commitment of global governments to action.
It seems they are still talking, still saying the same things, 14 years on.
And now for some good news…
Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission
The launch of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission took place this week, with speakers including the mayor of Sheffield, the CEO of Yorkshire Water, representatives of the TUC and the CBI and Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change. It’s one of many similar bodies across the country and indeed the world. It’s an advisory body with now powers or sanctions, but it can inform, encourage and share best practice. The most encouraging thing for me was that 400 people joined the online launch event last Wednesday evening. It shows that the climate crisis is finally being recognised by more and more people and organisations.
The British government this week announced a major blueprint to create green jobs and slash emissions from industry, schools and hospitals. They described it as an ambitious blueprint to deliver the world’s first low-carbon industrial sector and over £1 billion to cut emissions. I’ve put it down as good news, but we need to see some action to confirm that. £1billion is not very much in comparison with the £2billion budgeted (although now withdrawn) for the Green Homes Grant Scheme. It’s not a great deal in comparison with the £37billion set aside for the Test and Trace system, although arguably just as important.
The Labour opposition lost no time in criticising the government for not going far enough and claimed they were living in the past.
There was criticism, too, of the Chancellor’s budget earlier this month. Once again he decided not to raise fuel duty, for the 10th year in succession. Cars are becoming larger and less efficient, using more fuel and producing more CO2 per mile. By not index-linking the duty, fuel is becoming cheaper so people more readily waste it with no thought for the consequences for our survival.
Food Waste to Jet Fuel
I reported the bad news above that we are wasting significant amounts of food. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US reveals the good news that food waste can be turned into a type of paraffin for use as aviation fuel. The authors of the new study say the fuel cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 165% compared to fossil energy. Let’s hope that can turn that claim into reality.
AI to Save the Planet
According to Raconteur, there are at least six ways in which artificial intelligence can save the planet. These include preserving species, improving recycling, protecting forests, cutting air pollution, minimising food waste and reducing sewage pollution. There’s a link to the article at the end of this episode.
Drax scraps plan for Europe's largest gas plant after climate protests
The Guardian reports that Drax, operator of the UK’s largest power station, has scrapped plans to build Europe’s largest gas-powered station. This echoes remarks in Bill Gates’ book that I spoke about recently. He says that while replacing coal with gas will give an immediate GHG reduction, the problem is with the life of the new plant. Such a plant would have an expected life of up to 50 years and would not be economic if it operated for a shorter time. That means it would still be producing CO2 in 2050, by when our emissions should be zero.
A report from UNESCO reveals that three of Australia’s world heritage-listed marine sites have more than 2bn tonnes of carbon dioxide locked away in their vast seagrass meadows, coastal mangroves and tidal marshes. The good news, reported in The Conversation, is that as the world warms mangroves are increasing globally, and mangroves can trap and store as much CO2 as rainforests.
There’s continuing opposition to the expansion of Leeds/Bradford Airport. Almost 250 professors, academics and researchers from Leeds University, including two of the lead authors of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, have written to Robert Jenrick, the minister for housing, communities and local government, predicting dire consequences for the climate crisis if the plans go ahead.
They argue the proposals would breach guidelines set out by the Climate Change Committee in its sixth carbon budget, published in December, and make it “much more difficult and costly” for the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets.
Prof Julia Steinberger, a lead author with the IPCC, said: “The Leeds Bradford airport expansion represents a firm commitment to worsening climate breakdown now and in the future … If we want to avoid the worsening of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, we must ramp down fossil-fuelled sectors.”
If we are serious about zero carbon 2050 we cannot afford investment in facilities which will support the increased use of fossil fuel. It may be possible to run aircraft on paraffin from waste food, but we are by no means there yet.
By the way, Professor Julia Steinberger appeared, of course, on the Sustainable Futures Report last year.
West Cumbria Mine
More good news, in my view at least, is that more international voices, including climate envoy John Kerry, are urging the UK government not to allow the development of the proposed new deep coalmine in Cumbria, northwest England. In a BBC Newsnight interview he said that coal was not the future. "No investment firm is going to invest in a new coal plant," he said. This follows the letter from leading climate scientist James Hansen to PM Johnson. In it he said, “In leading the UK, as host to the COP, you have a chance to change the course of our climate trajectory, earning the UK and yourself historic accolades – or you can stick with business-almost-as-usual and be vilified in the streets of Glasgow, London, and around the world.
“It would be easy to achieve this latter ignominy and humiliation. Just continue with the plan to open a new coal mine in Cumbria and continue to invest funds of the British public in fossil fuel projects overseas, in contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature.”
On the other hand the local mayor, no doubt thinking of jobs, said he felt a lot of the criticism levelled at the mine in terms of its impact on climate change lay in "misunderstood" conclusions. His concern is that people do not realise that the coal would not be burnt in power stations but would be used for steel production, for which he says there are no alternatives. That is not necessarily true, although alternatives like hydrogen are very expensive and will need investment in new facilities. If cheaper coal continues to be produced the incentive for investment in these new facilities will be less attractive.
The government initially said that the decision on the mine was a local issue, but it has now agreed to an enquiry.
The very private life of Sir Chris Hohn - the man paid £1m a day
The very thought that anybody could be paid £1 million a day or that anybody could be worth that is difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, the story of Sir Chris Hohn is quite unique. There is no rich ancestor or inherited wealth, he built his fortune from zero. What is interesting about it is that he has pumped £4billion into a children’s charity which he set up and he is promising to use his fund’s $30bn of investments to “force change on companies who refuse to take their environmental emissions seriously”. He is also the largest donor to XR.
I don’t really approve of very large amounts of money being in the hands of a very small number of people, but I am grateful to those who use it to the benefit of the rest of us.
And that’s it for this week.
Many thanks to Ian Cray, Ian Jarvis, Carol Dance, Andy Walker and Alice Courvoisier for feedback and ideas. I’m working through them and hope to include them in future episodes.
Do you remember Solar Impulse and the solar powered aircraft which flew around the world? I’ll be interviewing the pilot next month.
Before I go let me thank all the patrons who support the Sustainable Futures Report and tell you how you can also become a Patron. For a small monthly contribution you can help me cover the costs of the Sustainable Futures Report. It’s the only source of income as there’s no advertising, sponsorship or subsidies. As a Patron you will have exclusive access to the A-Z of Sustainability which I’m launching this month. (A is for Action as I told you last time - and for a lot more besides.) I’m always grateful to patrons for information and ideas. If you want to sign up you’ll find the details at patreon.com/sfr.
Thank you for listening.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
Latest sea level rise forecast alarms scientists
Atlantic Ocean circulation at weakest in a millennium, say scientists
Global heating pushes tropical regions towards limits of human liveability
How big tech helps India target climate activists
Illegal land sales in Brazil
UK has broken air pollution limits for a decade, EU court finds
People wasting almost 1bn tonnes of food a year, UN report reveals
UK warned not to back Mathias Cormann as new head
Countries nowhere near targets
'Government stuck in past' warns Labour
Climate and the budget: Sunak fails the green test
Food waste Jet Fuel
AI to Save Planet
Drax scraps plan for Europe's largest gas plant after climate protests
International scientists join call to halt Leeds Bradford airport expansion
West Cumbria Mine
The very private life of Sir Chris Hohn - the man paid £1m a day