The amount of waste we generate is scandalous. We know it’s wrong, but we go along with it. During most of 2020 my wife and I had a lot of food and other supplies delivered. The amount of plastic (and cardboard) waste just the two of us generated was embarrassing.
My particular annoyance is with trivial, beautifully engineered items that are designed to be thrown away. Like mechanical pencils, which are cheaper to buy and toss than to refill them with leads. Or those little white-out tape dispensers (see my previous comment about those) and what I found recently; a dimmer switch.
Now the switch itself is fine; it works, it saves electricity, we can change the mood of the room.
The packaging is OK. The instructions are OK, I guess, although nobody reads them and if they are needed they are online. The same company prints instructions for other switches on the inside of the packaging.
But that little thing on the lower left? It’s a second rocker switch and dimmer slide in almond color. The actual switch comes with a white panel clicked in place. If I wanted almond I would discard the white and insert the almond one. It’s a great idea!
BUT it means I must throw away a functional item of plastic (with a small steel spring). Somehow it grates. It indicates that the designers, engineers and marketing people have convenience, shelf space and ultimately profit as their leading criteria. The reduction of waste should get at least equal, if not primary, consideration.
As I said, my preoccupation is with trivial things. White-out dispensers will probably go the way of ink wells and crank handles.
But in other things we do generate a lot of waste. Suppliers and shippers don’t help. Do paper towels and toilet rolls really need inner and outer plastic wraps? What happened to those biodegradable packing “peanuts”? (Actually I see they are readily available.) So why not use those instead of single use air-filled plastic? (I know the answer to that as well: Cost/Profits!)
There seem to be two types of stories circulating about the environmental crisis right now. There’s the “We’ve lost, we’ve passed the tipping point” style, and then we have the “This is exciting! Look at all the technological possibilities” set.
Both genres at least acknowledge the science and recognize a need for action. It is so tempting to ignore the “It’s all a hoax / The economy is what matters” end of the spectrum. Unfortunately we need to keep it in the picture because so many voters and decision makers inhabit that space.
Doom or bright new technological future?
My inbuilt pessimism leans toward doom and that is supported by some new reports. But I also feel that is all the more reason to do more and do it now. Not soon, but now!
The technology stories – more solar, more wind, more batteries, smarter grid (central or local), hydrogen (and ammonia) of various colors – are interesting and exciting. They open up new possibilities and are necessary – but not sufficient! All seem to miss some major points:
They address climate change, specifically greenhouse gas effects, and ignore all the other factors like species loss, soil degradation, deforestation, pollution etc. Climate change is a cause of many of these other problems, but population growth, consumption habits, economic drives and political motives also play a major part.
They tacitly assume that it is necessary to generate and distribute energy at the same, or even higher level, than at present. At the limit that argument ends with all the world population consuming energy at the level of the industrialized nations. (And wouldn’t the profits from that consumption be great!). I believe that without major reductions in consumption none of the technology stories will prevent a ghastly future.
They are tailored for the people lucky enough to live in the rich, industrialized, countries (and if you’re poor in those countries they don’t apply either). Arguments of a hydrogen vs. battery transport infrastructure have no meaning to a huge portion of the world population.
Can we do more, can we do it now? And just how can we do it? That is exactly the point raised in the ghastly future paper: “…what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action”?
There have to be answers. In democracies it means we need a significant change in voting patterns. It is not impossible; in times of war people have voted for leaders who have asked for, and enforced, sacrifices. Time to do it again. We can’t keep having “economic growth”, which means more consumption. The mathematics of the biosphere does not allow it.
The Colors Of Hydrogen
The potential “hydrogen economy” has relatively little exposure in the USA. It is a more common topic in Europe and Australia. There is much discussion about green or blue hydrogen. What does that mean? The diagram below gives a quick overview:
Blue and Gray are the same process, but gray releases the “waste” CO2 into the atmosphere, while blue captures and stores the CO2. The gas people say that makes blue practically green, but there are lots of loopholes and problems associated with CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) – so not really green.
Brown (also called black) is worse than grey because of the additional pollutants. And note how the diagram does not show the waste products for brown, or gray.
Green and pink are also the same process; electrolysis. Which gets us into the “Is nuclear power green?” argument. (No, it’s not)
Ammonia (NH3) is produced in large quantities, primarily as a fertilizer. Its role in the hydrogen economy is as a transport medium for hydrogen because it is much easier to store and transport than pure hydrogen. Producing ammonia starts with the hydrogen processes above. The hydrogen is then combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process. When ammonia is referred to by color, it is based on the “color” of the hydrogen used to produce it.
If you are not familiar with the Fritz Haber story it is worth reading. In a nutshell; Nobel prize for the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed vastly increased food production and arguably saved millions from starvation, development of poison gas weapons in WW1 and development at his institute of Zyklon A.)
At the point of use the ammonia is converted back to hydrogen, with the nitrogen released. A promising process is described in this article.
The devil, as always, hides in the details. If you take truly green hydrogen and then power the Haber-Bosch process with more green electricity and transport the ammonia with gray fuels and then use pink electricity to release the hydrogen for end use, what color is that final hydrogen?
OK – we have lots of fun technological solutions, including “a renewable fuel made from sun, air and water” – so why all the doom? Because of:
Fires, drought and heat in the western USA
Smoke haze and smell all the way from the west of the continent to the east coast (Picture: Rt 84, CT, July 26, 2021)
Fires in Siberia, Brazil and seemingly everywhere else
The Amazonian rainforest turning from net CO2 sink to net emitter
Deadly floods in Germany, Belgium and Holland, etc.
All these items, and more, are referenced in World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021. Some key items from the report are in the graphs below. It’s not all gloom; there are pledges, carbon pricing, fossil fuel disinvestments and so forth. But these measures have yet to show a measurable impact. Only Covid19 has had an effect – for all the wrong reasons.
A 2020 paper, by many of the same authors and cosigned by more than 11,000 other scientists, contains this statement: “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle. The most affluent countries are mainly responsible for the historical GHG emissions and generally have the greatest per capita emissions”
We better do something now, before the future becomes inevitable. Sure, the rich will be OK. They will bemoan the loss of their favorite dive site or ski slope. They will complain of the exorbitant price of almond milk and the poor quality of the salmon. But they will make do with their air conditioned houses, shaded pools and electric cars.
It’s not going to be so nice for most of our children and grandchildren.
For some huge majority of the world population it will be very, very unpleasant – “ghastly” may well be the proper word.
And finally, what can we really do? Sure we can take steps to reduce personal consumption. But in a democratic nation the most potent action is – to VOTE – if at all possible.
I have tried for months to write a (1bio) story about the water situation in California. I want to blame my procrastination on the amount of information I need to digest, the speed at which things change, new reports emerge and other tasks claim my time.
But those are not the real reasons. Unlike global topics like biodiversity or the latest IPCC report this subject is too close to home, too personal, too emotional, too complicated. Decisions like where are we going to settle, what should we advise our family to do, will our health suffer if we stay where we are?
Questions like that must be similar for millions around the world. For us it’s a reasonably simple problem; more or less comfort, more or less money. The climate refugees drowning in the Mediteranean have arrived at a different answer at the stark extreme of the equation. Yes, that’s an alarmist view, but I hope it can lead to some tough questions – to ourselves and to our representatives.
What is the California water story? In a nutshell (almond or walnut…):
Too little water supply – and likely to be less.
Too much water demand – and likely to be more.
The problems are fully documented elsewhere. So what are the solutions?
Let “them” fight it out. They who have the most power will get the most water.
Who will we elect to steer us through this difficult and disruptive time?
We have the power to select our future. We can’t return to an idealized past. The idyllic Central Valley of marshes, lakes and pools, antelope and elk, bears, wolves and mountain lions is gone. We do need industrial agriculture to survive, but we need an intact biosphere even more. Somehow, very soon, we need to find a balance.
Quotes and Links:
“How do you measure 100m dead trees and the risk to forest fires that could be attributed to that drought? How do you measure the death of 95% of the Chinook salmon? How do you measure the impact on poor communities who were left without water? We don’t put dollar values on these things, and so we don’t directly see or feel the impact.”
“Citing as a pretext the supposed need to protect a three-inch baitfish called the Delta smelt, environmental organizations filed a succession of lawsuits beginning in the 1990s that forced the state to divert billions of gallons of water away from farmers and families…80 percent of the water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack is dumped into the Pacific Ocean, but if that number were merely reduced to 75 percent, there would be plenty of water for everyone—farmers, cities, and the environment.”
On May 27, 2021 the Australian Federal Court found something it never has before: a Duty of Care by the Minister for the Environment to Australia’s young people not to cause them physical harm in the form of personal injury from climate change. Conservationists lauded it as “a landmark judgement on climate change, marking an important moment in our history”.
The language used in the judgement is graphic:
“It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence presented in this proceeding forecasts for the children.
As Australian adults know their country, Australia will be lost and the world as we know it gone as well.
The physical environment will be harsher, far more extreme and devastatingly brutal when angry. As for the human experience – quality of life, opportunities to partake in nature’s treasures, the capacity to grow and prosper – all will be greatly diminished.
Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain.
None of this will be the fault of nature itself. It will largely be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.
To say that the children are vulnerable is to understate their predicament.”
The class action case was brought on behalf of all Australian children and teenagers, against the Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley (and Vickery Coal Pty Ltd as a second respondent) .
Their aim was to prevent Ley from possibly approving a coal mine project, near Gunnedah in New South Wales. They argued that approving this project would endanger their future because of climate hazards, including causing them injury, ill health, death or economic losses.
The case – “Sharma by her litigation representative Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v Minister for the Environment ” was heard by Judge Bromberg of the Victorian Registry of the Federal Court of Australia.
The judgement is narrow in one sense; it orders the parties to come back to court to answer questions and make suggestions. It denies the children’s request to stop development of the mine and leaves that decision to the Minister.
But the breakthrough (in my non-legal opinion) is in the following points:
The judge has formally declared that the Minister (i.e. the Government) has a Duty of Care to the children of Australia. “By reference to contemporary social conditions and community standards, a reasonable Minister for the Environment ought to have the Children in contemplation when facilitating the emission of 100 Mt of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere. It follows that the applicants have established that the Minister has a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury to the Children when deciding … to approve or not approve the … Project”.
The scientific basis for the findings is part of the judgement and now becomes legal precedent. It is also a good primer on climate change for anyone still not convinced of the science. (The diagram below is one of many in the judgement)
The Minister for the Environment (i.e. the Australian Government) did not challenge any of these scientific facts: “Looking to the future, the Minister accepts that under all future emission scenarios, it is very likely that: (a) average temperatures will continue to increase and Australia will experience more heat extremes and fewer frosty days; (b) extreme rainfall events will become more intense; (c) southern and eastern Australia will experience more extreme fire-related weather; (d) the time in drought will increase over southern Australia; (e) sea levels will continue to rise throughout the 21st century, with increased frequency of storm surge events; and (f) oceans around Australia will warm and become more acidic. The Minister also accepts that the projected effects of climate change vary depending upon the extent of global emissions of greenhouse gases in coming years.”
By logical extension the Duty of Care extends to ALL CHILDREN: “although the applicants did not press for relief in relation to children residing outside of Australia, those children remain represented persons in the proceeding”.
And finally; the legal precedents for this judgement have been researched and recorded. I have not read this section of the judgement and do not intend to 🙂
The Future – Options – (Please note again; I am no lawyer!)
The Minister may approve the mine extension anyway. Certainly the company sounds optimistic. The minister may also be influenced in this decision by more immediate political reasons: “One of the Coalition’s most senior women, the federal environment minister Sussan Ley, is expected to face a challenge in her rural New South Wales seat of Farrer amid allegations of “toxic” branch-stacking by far-right conservatives in the seat” (from this article)
Some other agreement after the responses requested by Judge Bromberg.
The meme “Duty of Care” will remain !
The 1bio story is: “We have a “Duty of Care” to the children of today”
I simply took the words of the judgement and extended it in two ways; first by including all children (which is already there) and second by including all adults as the holders of that duty. Sure it is the Minister and her equivalent, elected or appointed, officials who have the power to make these decisions. But it is us who have the power, through voting and other civil action, to influence the elections and appointments.
Time is short
The second half of this century, going into 2100, seems a long way off. That’s how it feels. Plenty of time to look at alternatives, develop new technologies, and do some more studies.
But it’s less than 80 years away! Most of us expect to live close to, or beyond, our 80’s. In 2100 the children of today will be old and will have children and grandchildren. All of them will have to cope with the decisions we make today. Today they are essentially powerless. We owe them this Duty of Care and use our power to make the right decisions for them. We adults are expected to care for our children and prepare them for life in general. So clearly we also need to leave them a viable biosphere.
The adults of 2100 will be shaped by our decisions now, but in an additional dimension because the effects will not be confined to the universe of human ideas like nations, politics and economics, but will result in changes to “Nature” – to the biosphere.
The “trail of proof” for the story is the detail of the judgement and the extensive references to basic research and analysis. It is telling that this scientific basis was not challenged by the government of Australia!
Other legal stories that came up as I was writing this post:
A duty of care similar to the Australian case was found in the Netherlands in 2015, as a global first. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld that duty – the Dutch government owed its citizens a duty to reduce emissions in order to protect human rights. The Australian case follows that lead.
A report indicates that a proposed post-Brexit trade agreement between Australia and the UK includes an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) scheme, which allows firms to sue governments when they believe policies have left them out of pocket. ISDS is a system of private courts convened in private and arbitrated by judges, allowing firms to bypass domestic civil courts. The original intent was to protect international companies from seizure of their assets in the aftermath of a coup or by a rogue state, for example a mine being nationalized without reasonable compensation. Recent ISDS cases include a Swedish energy firm suing Germany for policies that cut water pollution; a US drugs firm suing Canada for trying to reduce medicine prices; a French multinational suing Egypt for increasing its national minimum wage and the Dutch government is being sued in these courts for phasing out coal power
A California politician is taking steps to declare a fish legally extinct. The Delta smelt originates in the San Francisco Estuary and grows to about 4 inches. They are considered threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The fish is at the center of a battle between farmers and environmentalists. Smelt species protections mean a larger water flow through rivers and eventually to the Pacific, and less for farmers. The fish has teetered on the edge of extinction for years. The politician argues there is no reason to wait any longer to call the fish extinct, not when water is so important in the central San Joaquin Valley. “We can’t let a technicality or government regulation get in the way of what our whole economy relies on,” he said. “Our economy relies on water.”
Declaring a species legally extinct so that it needs no further protection is truly dystopian in scope. I leave it to you to explore how far that thought can be taken…
Note 1 – Quotes from the Judgement
[In 2016]”…, Whitehaven applied to the Minister to expand and extend the Approved Project in accordance with s 68 of the EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act. Vickery replaced Whitehaven as the proponent of the Extension Project on 17 July 2018. If approved, the Extension Project would, amongst other things, increase total coal extraction from the mine site from 135 to 168 million tonnes (Mt). When combusted, the additional coal extracted from the Extension Project will produce about 100 Mt of CO2.
The Minister has before her the decision to approve or refuse the Extension Project under s 130(1) and s 133 of the EPBC Act. This proceeding concerns that decision.
In this proceeding the applicants claim that the Minister owes each of the Children a duty to exercise her power under s 130 and s 133 of the EPBC Act with reasonable care so as not to cause them harm. That duty of care is said to arise by reason of the existence of a legal relationship between the Minister and the Children recognised by the law of negligence.
The applicants apprehend that the Minister will fail to discharge the duty by exercising her discretion in favour of the approval of the Extension Project. The applicants seek declaratory and injunctive relief designed to preclude the Minister from failing to discharge the duty of care they claim she has.
The particular harm relevant to the alleged duty of care is mental or physical injury, including ill-health or death, as well as economic and property loss. The applicants assert that the Children are likely to suffer those injuries in the future as a consequence of their likely exposure to climatic hazards induced by increasing global surface temperatures driven by the further emission of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere. The feared climatic hazards include more, longer and more intense bushfires, storm surges, coastal flooding, inland flooding, cyclones and other extreme weather events.
The applicants allege that such harm will occur in the future and mainly towards the end of this century when global average surface temperatures are forecast to be significantly higher than they are currently. Broadly speaking, it is at that time that, unlike today’s adults, today’s children will be alive and will be the class of persons most susceptible to the harms in question. Indeed, the applicants say that today’s children will live on Earth during a period in which, if CO2 concentration continues to increase, some harm is very probable, serious harm is likely and cataclysmal harm is possible. This seems to be the basis for the proceeding being directed to providing relief to children, as distinct from all persons. On this basis, the applicants say that the Children are vulnerable to a known, foreseeable risk of serious harm, which the Minister can control, but they cannot. In addition, the applicants say that by her position in the Commonwealth Executive, the Minister has special responsibilities to Australian children.The applicants say that if the Minister approves the Extension Project, carbon presently stored safely underground at the mine site of the Extension Project will be extracted, combusted and emitted as CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere and will materially contribute to CO2 concentration.
The Minister does not dispute that climate change presents serious threats and challenges to the environment, the Australian community and the world at large. However, the Minister denies the existence of a duty of care as alleged.
The risk of harm to the Children is not remote, it is reasonably foreseeable and it is therefore a real risk for reasons already explained. The Minister has direct control over the foreseeable risk because it is her exercise of power upon which the creation of that risk depends. To my mind, there is therefore a direct relation between the exercise of the Minister’s power and the risk of harm to the Children resulting from the exercise of that power. The entirety of the risk of harm flowing from that exercise of power is therefore in the Minister’s control.”
Note 2 – Minister for the Environment
Given the different political systems in the USA and Australia it is difficult to draw an equivalence between the Australian “Minister for the Environment” and the corresponding position in the USA. The closest may be the United States Secretary of the Interior. However Sussan Ley, the current Minister for the Environment, is also the elected lower house member of parliament for the rural New South Wales seat of Farrer. As such she is subject to the same election pressures as any other member of the Australian parliament.
Note 3 – Sister Arthur
As a result of the age of the applicants, the proceedings were brought by their representative, 86 year-old Sister Marie Brigid Arthur, who is a Sister of the Brigidine Order of Victoria. She has been an activist in a number of cases including refugees, the treatment of juvenile offenders, solitary confinement and other matters.
Note 4 – Justice Bromberg
Justice Bromberg is part of the Full Federal Court (similar to a US Federal Court of Appeal). The High Court of Australia, equivalent to the US Supreme Court, is the highest and final court in the land.
Judges on the Australian High Court, and the Federal Courts, have a mandatory retirement age of 70 (vs. lifetime appointments in the US). There are formal qualifications for appointment and the process is similar to that in the US; i.e. nomination and, effectively, appointment by the government in power. However the Australian process has wider input and is a far less public process than in the US.
Note 5 – the case in Justice Bromberg’s words
“In a nutshell, the applicants’ case is that the scientific evidence demonstrates the plausible possibility that the effects of climate change will bring about a future world in which the Earth’s average surface temperature (currently at about 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperature levels) will reach about 4°C above pre-industrial temperature levels by about 2100. Supported by unchallenged expert evidence, the applicants contended that a 4°C future world may come about in one of two ways: first, where the greenhouse effect upon the Earth’s increasing temperature is driven by an approximately linear relationship between increased human emissions of CO2 and increased temperatures, and second, in circumstances where continuing human emissions of CO2 will result in ‘Earth System’ changes, which diminish the Earth’s current ability to reflect heat, absorb CO2, and retain CO2 currently held in carbon sinks, triggering ‘tipping cascades’ which propel the Earth into a 4°C trajectory.”
“The IEA has surrendered its integrity to the mob rule of climate activists” was one response to a report released by the International Energy Agency on the 18th of May 2021.
Ah, yes, the mob, painted in druidish symbols, waving “∃!Ⓑ” banners, storming the concrete ramparts of 9 rue de la Fédération and smashing urns of priceless vintage crude until the IEA surrendered its integrity…
Taken together, this Roadmap, the Dasgupta Review and the “Ghastly Future” paper paint an excruciating picture of the problems we have created and also offer a path to solve them. However success will call for major and urgent behavior change from the personal to the international level. We have done it before – but only at times of war. This fight for the biosphere is a step beyond.
In 224 pages, the Roadmap lays out a path for getting to Net Zero by 2050. To me it appears like a Rorschach test; we all “see” something different. Climate champions welcome the sense of urgency and call to action, while questioning a number of specifics. Fossil fuel people react in more or less polite anger. The nuclear guys like what they see but want more. (See Note at end)
Let the Roadmap speak for itself:
“…the pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C”
“…clean energy transitions must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind. We have to ensure that developing economies receive the financing and technological know‐how they need to continue building their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies in a sustainable way. It is a moral imperative to bring electricity to the hundreds of millions of people who currently are deprived of access to it, the majority of them in Africa”.
“The transition to net zero is for and about people. It is paramount to remain aware that not every worker in the fossil fuel industry can ease into a clean energy job … Citizens must be active participants in the entire process, making them feel part of the transition and not simply subject to it.”
“Priority Action” items from the Roadmap are:
Make the 2020s the decade of massive clean energy expansion – All the technologies needed to achieve the necessary deep cuts in global emissions by 2030 already exist, and the policies that can drive their deployment are already proven.
Prepare for the next phase of the transition by boosting innovation – Clean energy innovation must accelerate rapidly, with governments putting R&D, demonstration and deployment at the core of energy and climate policy.
Clean energy jobs will grow strongly but must be spread widely – Energy transitions have to take account of the social and economic impacts on individuals and communities, and treat people as active participants.
Set near-term milestones to get on track for long-term targets – Governments need to provide credible step‐by‐step plans to reach their net zero goals, building confidence among investors, industry, citizens and other countries.
Drive a historic surge in clean energy investment – Policies need to be designed to send market signals that unlock new business models and mobilize private spending, especially in emerging economies
Address emerging energy security risks now – Ensuring uninterrupted and reliable supplies of energy and critical energy‐related commodities at affordable prices will only rise in importance on the way to net zero.
Take international co-operation to new heights – This is not simply a matter of all governments seeking to bring their national emissions to net zero – it means tackling global challenges through co‐ordinated actions.
Total energy supply – going down! IEA expects everybody in the world to have access to electricity, while saving enough through “behavioural” changes to have a net reduction. [What a great goal. Is it realistic?]
Renewables – a big increase in all renewables (except Hydro).
Solar – “For solar power, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. To reach net zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion”. [Wow…]
Bioenergy – this increase has drawn criticism from a number of sources. [Can it be done and also ensure biodiversity, long term soil health, community integrity? See my previous post on biomass.]
Traditional biomass: “Some 40% of the solid biomass was used in traditional cooking methods which is unsustainable, inefficient and polluting, and was linked to 2.5 million premature deaths in 2020. The use of solid biomass in this manner falls to zero by 2030 …”. [A laudable goal and in line with the goal of providing access to electricity to all. Can it be done in less than 9 years? In the face of tradition and poverty?]
Nuclear – The IEA has been a supporter of nuclear energy through its history and does not change in this report. The word “nuclear” appears some 90 times in the report (to be fair so do the other fuels). However the word “waste” does not appear anywhere near “nuclear”. The report does state: “The large fleet of ageing nuclear reactors in advanced economies means their decommissioning increases, despite many reactor lifetime extensions”. [What happens to the waste from these reactors? The nuclear waste issue is not solved. Of all the countries using nuclear power only Finland is in the actual construction phase of a High Level/Long Term Waste storage facility. Many countries, including the USA, China, France and Sweden, have identified and planned sites. But all have run into roadblocks preventing construction – from my previous post on nuclear power]
Fossil Fuels – As expected these take the greatest hit in the roadmap. Adding the “unabated” (i.e. with direct GHG emissions) and the “with CCUS” numbers the drop from 2020 to 2050, in exo-joules, is: Gas; 137 to 60, Oil; 173 to 42 and Coal; 154 to 17 – with the attendant loss of revenues and employment. [The problem here is that although CCUS is known technology, “rapid scaling up of CCUS are very uncertain for economic, political and technical reasons”]
KEY UNCERTAINTIES called out in the Roadmap are: “…behavioural change, bioenergy and CCUS for fossil fuels. These three areas were selected because the assumptions made about them involve a high degree of uncertainty and because of their critical contributions to achieve net‐zero emissions by 2050″.
Behavior – This is mostly in flying, driving and heating/cooling behaviors
Bioenergy – “….there are constraints on expanding the supply of bioenergy: with finite potential for bioenergy production from waste streams, there are possible trade‐offs between expanding bioenergy production, achieving sustainable development goals and avoiding conflicts with other land uses, notably food production”. [As stated before this does not address concerns re biodiversity, species loss, quite apart from the aesthetics of “wild places”]
CCUS – “The use of CCUS with fossil fuels provides almost 70% of the total growth in CCUS to 2030 in the NZE. Yet the prospects for the rapid scaling up of CCUS are very uncertain for economic, political and technical reasons”
Others, in my opinion equally uncertain are:
Innovation – “Innovation is key to developing new clean energy technologies and advancing existing ones. The importance of innovation increases as we get closer to 2050 because existing technologies will not be able to get us all the way along the path to net‐zero emissions. Almost 50% of the emissions reductions needed in 2050 in the NZE depend on technologies that are at the prototype or demonstration stage, i.e. are not yet available on the market”
International Cooperation – “Take international co-operation to new heights. This is not simply a matter of all governments seeking to bring their national emissions to net zero – it means tackling global challenges through co‐ordinated actions”.
BOTTOM LINE: Massive, urgent, international and personal change is needed to meet global warming goals. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done? The probability is: No. But let’s surprise ourselves.
“Of the investment in energy supply, $23 trillion is in fossil fuel extraction, transport and oil refining” (Fatih Birol was the IEA Chief Economist at the time)
Comparing the 2014 statement ($23 trillion) to now “no new oil and natural gas fields are required beyond those that have already been approved for development” shows why the new Roadmap is such a departure for the IEA and why it has prompted such strong responses.
Note 3 – Dasgupta Review and the “Ghastly Future” paper
The “Ghastly Future” paper refers to Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future – by Bradshaw Corey J. A., Ehrlich Paul R., Beattie Andrew, Ceballos Gerardo, Crist Eileen, Diamond Joan, Dirzo Rodolfo, Ehrlich Anne H., Harte John, Harte Mary Ellen, Pyke Graham, Raven Peter H., Ripple William J., Saltré Frédérik, Turnbull Christine, Wackernagel Mathis, Blumstein Daniel T. in Frontiers in Conservation Science.
The abstract from this paper, [with my bulleting and highlighting] is:
“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.”
Note 4 – War
For whatever reason we are capable of banding together, even across national boundaries, to kill each other and cause as much destruction as we can during times of war. Individual behavior can change to an extraordinary extent and somehow the money always seems available. Sure, there are the profiteers and others who sit at the sidelines benefiting from the carnage all round, but they will always be with us.
This fight for the biosphere will need similar levels of behavior change and similar international cooperation.
But we need a leap of the imagination. We have no problem demonizing enemies, providing they are human, in thrall to some perverse ideology or cowed by some monstrous dictator and his apparatus. What if the demon enemy really is us and the perverse ideology is that of consumption, growth, waste and personal indulgence?
In my previous post I discuss the 6 world regions (China, USA, EU (including the UK!), India, Russia and Japan) that are most important to any healing of the biosphere. Given the internal political status of those regions and the animosity between some of them them I wonder how they can come together with one goal. There are some tentative moves. Will they be enough?
“The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report, released today, concludes that nuclear energy will make a “significant contribution” to their Net Zero Emissions scenario, and will provide an “essential foundation” in the transition to a net-zero energy system.
[The IEA’s Net Zero Emissions scenario] “puts too much faith in technologies that are uncertain, untested, or unreliable and fails to reflect both the size and scope of the contribution nuclear technologies could make”. WNA notes that the NZE scenario’s projection for nuclear growth sees the share of nuclear energy in the global electricity mix falling from 10.5% to 8%. “Given that more than 60% of the world’s electricity is currently generated by fossil fuels, if we are to eliminate them in less than 30 years, the IEA’s assessment of the role of nuclear is highly impractical.”
“WNA notes that, in addition to electricity, nuclear energy can generate zero-carbon heat. “This is an opportunity that the IEA’s report barely touches on. Existing reactors are already being used to provide steam for district heating systems and to produce fresh water. New reactor designs under development and deployment could provide heat and feedstocks for industry (chemicals, steel, concrete, cement), fuels for heavy transport (shipping, aviation) or generate hydrogen directly.”
“IEA itself regularly acknowledges that half the technology to reach net zero has not yet been invented. Any pathway to net zero must include continued innovation and use of natural gas and oil, which remains crucial to displacing coal [way to go guys; kick coal while it’s down] in developing nations and enabling renewable energy. Our industry is committed to shaping a cleaner future by advancing technologies and policymaking to reduce emissions while providing the affordable, reliable energy modern life depends on.”
[I find it interesting that this analysis uses the issue of gas boilers as the headline. But it is a very good example. Today an entire industry segment – from gas suppliers, pipeline people, boiler manufacturers to the local plumber are selling and servicing high efficiency gas boilers as a cost effective heating solution. To bring that industry to a full stop in 4 years is a big ask. Of course, with 20/20 hindsight, if we had pushed (even more efficient) heat pumps 15 years ago life would be easier now.As part of the article the BBC simplifies items from the report, which I repeat here for background]
Fossil fuel use falls drastically in the net‐zero emissions scenario by 2050, and no new oil and natural gas fields are required beyond those that have already been approved for development. No new coal mines or mine extensions are required.
Emissions from electricity generation fall to net‐zero in advanced economies by 2035 and globally by 2040. Renewables drive the transformation, up from 29% of generation in 2020 to nearly 90% in 2050.
The number of public charging points for electric cars rises from around one million today to 40 million by 2030, requiring an annual investment of $90bn by the end of the decade.
By 2035, nearly all cars sold globally are electric, and by 2050 nearly all heavy trucks sold are fuel cell or electric.
Per capita income from oil and gas in countries that rely on fossil fuel production falls by around 75% from $1,800 to $450 by the 2030s
“The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth. Moving the world on to that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.”
Isn’t it something to get on your bicycle at Carrowmore Beach and strain to climb the hill behind, knowing that in a year, or a few, you will be in Singapore. There are dangers of course; weather, illness, wild animals, breakdowns. But the way is open; no borders, no organized mass murder, no roaming bands of refugees. You have the choice of going south, meeting the people, tasting the food, marvelling at the cultures and treasures of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Or you can choose to go further north, through the vast southern edge of Russia, into Mongolia and south through China.
There’s nothing in the way but geography. The biosphere has no borders. People worked together and came through the greatest crisis ever faced by humanity. What made it possible? Stories of course. Simple little stories, like “There’s just one biosphere”, “We’re part of it, it’s part of us”, “We’re all here together”.
Yeah, right – that’s not going to happen.
But, just maybe, 1biosphere can be a tiny push toward that chimeric future. Let’s look at it once more under the following headings:
Purpose and Goals – 1biosphere – To generate Action – To halt, and, if possible, reverse, the damage to our one biosphere – Working for and with existing Environmental Organization.
Current Status – better than last year, but a long way to go.
Generate Action – from positive, but currently inactive, groups in the population
Here is a restatement: 1bio wants to craft stories to move people, who agree that the biosphere is in crisis, towards action. Action at an individual level, but more important at a political level.
“You know the biosphere is in trouble. Do something about it: VOTE.”
. 2 .
Action means Politics
Voting? That’s it?
No, of course individuals must take meaningful direct action (Recycling, insulation, water use, public transport…). But action at the scale needed to make real progress has to be at a national and global level.
We have a mini example in the Covid19 pandemic. There we have an invisible threat, we find it difficult to grasp exponential growth, there is much expert opinion, life is weighed against money and in the end political decisions ranging from wise to ludicrous determine the outcome. In a situation like this “An individual can only go so far to protect themselves from something like Covid. People actually need to be supported by an enabling state”, (Rebecca Wells, professor, Lancaster Environment Center).
The same can be said of the much larger, more threatening, Environmental Crisis. Compared to Covid19 it is a slow moving beast. But the effects, unless we treat it with more urgency, will be worse, for us humans and all other life on the planet.
Countries, Regions, Entities – There are 6 absolutely necessary entities that need to be covered. They currently emit nearly 70% of the world’s total CO2. They are: China, USA, EU (including the UK!), India, Russia and Japan. (More detail in Note 5)
Historically, from 1751, the top three GHG emitters are the USA (410 Billion tons CO2), EU (354) and China (220). Germany (92) and UK (78) top the European countries.
The 1 bio intended audience is outside the “bubble” of environmentally active people. It is intended for those who are aware there is a problem, but who have taken only very minor steps to help solve it. The #1 goal is to have this group “vote” for “pro-environment” office holders at all levels and in all areas where such an appointment is possible. In addition to the political sphere at local, state and country (or in the EU at multi-country) level I include all other elected positions; union reps, judges, sheriffs, company board members, community associations, the PTA etc. etc. Even in countries where direct democracy is not possible the voice of the people has an impact and can be carried upward by the selection of lower echelons.
Ideally 1bio can be a framework for stories everywhere, but the comments from here on are most applicable to the USA.
I set out some thoughts on the audience and some of the reasons why they have not acted on the stories created so far in a previous post.
The diagram shows a possible distribution of people in a population;
EA (Environmentally Active),
Mid+ (the primary 1 bio audience – Aware of the crisis and receptive to calls for action, but too busy, distracted etc. to comb through and evaluate floods of information),
Mid? (Aware of the crisis, but have other priorities),
ER (Environmentally Resistant. Not willing to change course, for multiple reasons).
We want to tip the balance.
In the US, a third of eligible voters did not vote in 2020. If we convince just a small fraction of those abstainers to vote on the side of environmental action it would create a landslide result. Of course every other interested party has the same idea. So there are many alternate stories to overcome. A further complication in the US is that these extra votes need to come in key sections of the country. Extra votes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston or New York are nice, but will not change things. Very few votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine can make an outsize difference.
The US, as the #1 or #2 polluter, depending on definition, and still the #1 world economy, can set an example to the rest of the world. What happens here matters.
. 3 .
Stories for Political Action
There are countless stories on the Environmental Crisis, with more added every day. Each one of them can be construed as a message for political action. I split this section into pro and con stories. The basic question is; how can we get pro stories to our intended audience and how can we identify, resolve and counter the con stories?
Pro Environmental Action
We, inside the environmental action “bubble”, are more or less familiar with these stories. The volume is such that nobody can read them all. They range from slogans like “Water is Life” (more on that later) to the hundreds of pages of formal reports.
Let’s be honest; most are written for consumption inside the bubble; academia, government, environmental NGOs and environmentally aligned business. Which is totally necessary of course, but much of the message does not get through to our intended audience. The same is probably true of stories created for wider appeal; news articles, videos and so on. I oversimplify, but we are not getting to that key swing audience.
My hope is that 1bio stories can be a little more effective.
Con Environmental Action
Stories discouraging environmental actions take many forms, some pretending to be pro-environment but, intentionally or in error, a mask for something else. Con stories tend to be simpler, more emotional and more accessible. I try to place them under some headings below (and welcome any suggestion for a better classification):
“It’s the economy, stupid”.
We can’t spend the amount of money needed because it will cripple the economy. Everybody will suffer.
I will have less money, and less money means less power, less respect, less things that make me feel good.
Or weasel words, like “Australia is taking real action on climate change and getting results. We are successfully balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and economic future.” (Translation: we will approve new coal mines and gas fired generators if it means more money)
Cheap, safe, clean nuclear power
Geoengineering, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Clean hydrogen, Clean Coal
Technology is being used and will be needed to achieve the environmental goals. The problem with some technology stories is that by promising solutions they delay other necessary action. Delay will lead to doubtful and expensive technologies as the only choices left. And some technology stories are just money stories in disguise.
You go first:
Country or region or individual X has to go first.
Mostly X = China, being the largest emitter. Often X = USA, as the historically largest and currently richest. X can be any developed nation as seen from the developing world.
If we do this, then our competitors will have an advantage. We can’t change until they do.
I’m going to keep watering my lawn unless X, the guy next door, stops as well.
Anger / Fear:
What will happen to me, my family, my community when “they” close the mine, feedlot, logging operation, fishery?
It’s a left wing hoax, trying to establish a central government and take away our freedoms. They’ll take away your diesel pickup, your boat and your RV.
Aliens will save us (Not illegal aliens…)
This is foretold. It’s Armageddon. The chosen will be saved.
Mischievous fun, or deliberate sowing of discord and confusion? Maybe/probably in support of some of the motives listed above.
You have to admire some trolls; one managed to start a long name-calling online argument by observing that 400ppm was only 0.04% and therefore all the climate nuts were liars.
Many articles in the mainstream media try to be even-handed. Which leaves our audience with no clear signal for action. 1bio stories must be fact based, but they must also be a clear indicator for action.
. 4 .
The most basic 1bio story:
We have “exactly one biosphere”. There isn’t another in all reality. Or, if there is, none of us will ever reach it.
Vivid – in any medium, in any form; anecdotes, slogans, symbols, pictures, sound bites, memes…
Polarizing – taking a position, presenting a clear path to action
The “Numbers” – a chain linking the story back to underlying analysis, data and eventually basic scientific principles. Why do we even need this? If the story is so clear and vivid isn’t that enough? Will adding heaps of “proof” get us back to the thousand page reports that nobody reads? To use a quote from a Covid skeptic; “When someone pushes something really hard, I sit back, because I don’t like people telling me, ‘This is what you need to do,’“I need to do my own research.”(Quoted in this article) For similar biosphere objectors we need to facilitate that research and lay down a trail through the masses of data and analysis, again in a clear, accessible manner.
We need to do the same for opposing stories and either expose the hard decisions to be made or show they have no foundation in fact.
Here I ask for help from the theorists and technologists.
Can we build a trail without expending a huge amount of valuable labor?
Can we string together known technologies and present a trail that is accessible to our intended audience?
We need to do the hard work to make the 1bio story rock solid. It’s the invisible 90% that needs to be made clear, and accessible, to our audience. Starting from the bottom of our iceberg model:
Standards – in measurements and comparisons. Given the US does not use the metric system we need to show dual measurements. If the context demands it we also need to give some guidance on more difficult measurements (e.g. ‘1bbl oil ~ 5.8 MBtu / 1,700kWh of energy’, and ‘How do you get from inches of rainfall to acre feet of runoff’?)
Basic Science – the intent here is to provide a link to the basic science relevant to the story (e.g. How come that such a small amount of carbon dioxide makes such a big difference. Is going from 0.03% to 0.04% really significant?)
Database Technology – Organizing the underlying data is a database technology job. I am sure there are many such databases in existence (see Note 3). Can they be used for our purpose? Can a newer approach be used to help automate the classification of data?
Can artificial intelligence, pattern recognition, automated language analysis be used to classify and label research papers, analysis and reports? (e.g. pick keywords from papers and also identify words, in their context, that suggest the intent of an article). What about formal verification methods? Can blockchain technology keep the trails clean and spot attempts to corrupt the data or the analysis?
Network Analysis – an analysis of how data from various sources is linked. Such analysis exists as part of separate research (diagram below) and from analyzing the citations of published articles. Is there a way to further automate such analysis? How can we introduce other, more social, concerns such as impacts on communities, social aspects and individual psychology?
Visualization – intended as a supporting part of the 1bio story and a guide to traverse the underlying material. This could range from simple block diagrams to more detailed designs or descriptive drawings. Ideally the visualizations will be derived from the network analysis (automatically as far as possible?). Just a few examples:
In a post on The Idea for 1biosphere I laid out a diagram of the interaction between the biosphere, humans and the whole imaginary universe of human ideas. The main deduction from that diagram is that our beliefs come not from the biosphere (or “Nature” if you prefer) but from this construct of ideas. I have used ℂ, the mathematical symbol for complex numbers (often called “imaginary”), for this invented universe we live in. Calling it “Society”, or “The Economy”, or “Faith” does not cover the complexity of this thing.
What we do in the biosphere is guided by those stories, coming from ℂ, that get past our beliefs, past our filters. And those beliefs are incredibly strong. What could possibly convince the Easter Islanders to chop down every tree? What convinces us, over and over, to kill others in the name of religion or nationality or ethnicity? Why do we foul our planet because advertising campaigns encourage us? Why do our governments make, and we abet, conscious decisions to let refugees drown, or live in ghastly camps? And so forth…
So that’s the modest aim of 1biosphere; to change the belief systems of the world to accept that we are part of Ⓑ as much as we are of ℂ – and then act on that realization.
Again; Yeah, right – that’s not going to happen.
GHG emissions per capita
To be fair we should list our target countries in order of emissions per person and tackle the worst offenders first. If we do that we get:
Palau? Population 18,000. What are they doing? Possibly a large cement plant?
New Caledonia? A coal power plant to support nickel mining? A French overseas territory!
Qatar ( with Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia) we can understand. Huge energy expenditure to create cool luxury in the desert.
Curaçao? Oil refinery it seems. Curaçao is a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands!
My definition is probably wider than most. I include everything that we humans can reach using our tools. (In faux math symbols: ℝH∊Ⓑ , see The Idea). If you want you can include space capsules and the like, because they are just tiny containers of biosphere hurled out of the gravity well at huge energy cost. It’s lots of fun, but trivial in the immediate future.
Everything in the photos above is biosphere, as is the coal in the ground and the electricity flowing through the cables, as is the computer where you are seeing the photos. As are we and the remains of all our ancestors. It’s (almost) a closed system. The oxygen atoms I breathe are the same ones that your great-grandfather, Leonardo, Confucius and the velociraptors breathed – it’s trite, but fascinating to think about.
A book of laws, the judge who rules on the law, the gavel and the bench, the prisoner, the cell and the bars are all biosphere. But the idea of laws and judgement, the idea of punishment and rehabilitation are something else.
Our ideas about the biosphere will shape it. If we want to live in concrete and glass, with air conditioned luxury for the few, we will have it. If we want diverse nature available to all we can have that.
The biosphere will not care. It just is. The human minds of the future will have ideas and those ideas may not be kind to us. Do we care?
Databases are necessary to the foundation of a 1bio story. There appear to be gaps and inconsistencies among the databases technologies available to fully draw in the widely differing data into a consistent action plan. Especially if the connection wanted is between something like “soft” community impact and “hard” like technology replacement. There are of course many efforts to close those gaps. My personal knowledge is quite insufficient to make a judgement between them. There are also database standards and practices needed to make stories accessible and relevant at the local level. I briefly list those at the end of this note.
Below are some sites re databases I found of interest :
“When scientists and engineers want to search for and use environmental observations data, they are generally faced with the following problems …:
data are not sufficient or do not exist;
data are not published and are hard to locate;
data are not easy to access, they are either private or expensive, or require costly preprocessing before they can be used;
data are not easy to use because they are inconsistent or noncompatible; and
data are not adequately documented.
Addressing these issues is one of the main challenges influencing recent developments in environmental information systems, which include water resources and hydrologic information systems…”
Standards and practices within database design to facilitate local access and relevance:
Probably trivial, but units need to be local. So databases will need to carry 2 sets of numbers; SI and local. That is especially needed because the audience we need to reach in the US is not comfortable with SI measurements. Of course conversions can be done at the point of presentation/visualization, but will that be done? And the reverse holds true; e.g. AcreFeet is the common measure of water resources in the US. We need that number, quickly, in SI for other audiences. “Local” may also mean audience groups that have their own preferred system of units which mean little to outsiders, like barrels, container loads, cords etc.
Internationalization – (I like the abbreviation “I18n”) – refers to a database (and code) that is structured to make Localisation (“L10n” below) easy. e.g. Unicode, additional fields for local units as above, etc.
L10n – Local language, use of local examples, local metrics, sensitivity to local challenges
The abstract of the paper is: “Despite rapid growth in biofuel production worldwide, it is uncertain whether decision-makers possess sufficient information to fully evaluate the impacts of the industry and avoid unintended consequences. Doing so requires rigorous peer-reviewed data and analyses across the entire range of direct and indirect effects. To assess the coverage of scientific research, we analyzed over 1600 peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2009 that addressed 23 biofuels-related topics within four thematic areas: environment and human well-being, economics, technology, and geography. Greenhouse gases, fuel production, and feedstock production were well-represented in the literature, while trade, biodiversity, and human health were not. Gaps were especially striking across topics in the Southern Hemisphere, where the greatest potential socio-economic benefits, as well as environmental damages, may co-occur. There was strong asymmetry in the connectedness of research topics; greenhouse gases articles were twice as often connected to other topics as biodiversity articles. This could undermine the ability of scientific and economic analyses to adequately evaluate impacts and avoid significant unintended consequences. At the least, our review suggests caution in this developing industry and the need to pursue more interdisciplinary research to assess complex trade-offs and feedbacks inherent to an industry with wide-reaching potential impacts.”
(The network diagram clearly illustrates the concentration described. The same is a key concern of the Dasgupta Report; that the issue of Green House Gases and alternative fuel sources overshadows attention given to biodiversity, human effects, soil degradation, aquifer depletion, pollution etc. etc.)
This book was a starting influence on my thinking about the biosphere. Sadly Dr. MacKay died in 2016. I like his deceptively simple approach:
Here are the numbers
Here is where the numbers came from
Here is what adds up, and here is what doesn’t
The detail in his book is largely confined to the UK. I posit the development of a world-wide equivalent set of data, and it’s clear presentation, as one of the deliverables of 1biosphere. Dr. MacKay’s conclusion, which he maintained in one of his last interviews, was that nuclear energy was the only feasible solution for the UK. While we may not agree with that conclusion we do need to acknowledge the numbers.
“The planetary boundaries concept presents a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come”
There is no way I can do justice to the complex, important and emotional story of water usage in the Central Valley of California (let alone California in general). I do hope to post a more detailed comment soon and show how two stories; “Water is Life” and “No Water. No Food” represent totally different views of the same reality.
China – 1.4 billion people, 1 party rule, taking large green steps, but also set to remain the single largest GHG emitter. #4 in GHG/head in our “Group of 6”. We can’t use China as an excuse not to do things in our own backyard. It’s pointless to treat them as adversaries. We need continued engagement at every level.
USA – 0.3 billion people, 2 party rule. #1 GHG/head. A political system where both ruling parties are committed to capitalism and, compared to western Europe, are conservative. This conservatism, built on a history of success and wealth, has created a system of unequal representation and legal polarization. Current steps toward greater engagement in a world-wide response to the environmental crisis could be halted or reversed at any time. (Hence the countdown to 8 Nov 2022 on the home page)
European Union – 0.5 billion people, 27 countries + the UK. All are democracies, with varying interpretations of what that means. #5 GHG/head
India – 1.3 billion people, and with current growth rates set to overtake China as the most populous country in the world. The world’s largest democracy, but… The lowest GDP/head (#6) of the nations we are looking at. But they have the expectation to raise their standard of living. We must support that and we certainly have no right to oppose it. What we need to do, for our own preservation quite apart from any humanitarian instincts, is to ensure this happens without catastrophic environmental effects.
Russia – 0.1 billion people, the largest country in the world in terms of area (more than 4 times the size of Europe, and almost twice that of China or the USA). With Canada it is the country most likely to benefit from global warming, in terms of additional land available for farming and settlement. #2 GHG/head
Japan – 0.1 billion people. Highly industrialized. #3 GHG/head
Relevant to any discussion of the biosphere is the fact that of our 6 all but Japan are nuclear armed (EU represented by France and UK). The USA, China, Russia, France and the UK also have veto power on the UN security council.
We also need to be aware that the figures in the table shown earlier are only CO2 emissions. Other equally troubling aspects such as destruction of habitat, pollution, water use, topsoil degradation and so forth are not included. If we include these factors then many more countries enter the list we need to address – Brazil, Canada, Australia, Indonesia etc.
Schools, at every level, should change from ruled to square paper.
It will help to broaden thinking, from 1 dimension to 2. It will help in basic math and practically everything else. Scientific facts will become easier to understand, poetry easier to write, drawings easier to draw and doodles will reveal meaning.
In short; squared paper is a first step to conquering the environmental crisis.
My initial reaction, echoed in many comments by others following the article, was; How can cutting trees in the US, turning them into pellets, shipping them to Europe and burning them to produce “carbon neutral” electricity make any sense? That’s the initial 1bio story: Burning trees to produce electricity makes no sense!
It’s a bad deal. It’s like saying; ‘Give me a thousand dollars today,if all goes well I’ll pay you back, at zero interest, over 25 years”.
If it’s such a bad deal why is it happening? Why are European countries subsidizing pellet burning power plants, with Japan and South Korea planning to follow suit? How can this be termed carbon neutral when greenhouse gases are expended at every point of the cycle?
It’s an “accounting error”; The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was a major achievement of international cooperation, but still a political exercise. The counting of greenhouse gas emission and capture in the protocol is subject to intricate rules. The accounting reference manual itself is a 130 page book. In effect none of the emissions (B, C, D, E) count against any country’s total. Logging and pellet manufacture (B and C) are largely covered by “forest management” exemptions. Shipping emissions are lost in the complexities of ownership, registration and so forth.
The major emissions, when the pellets are turned into electricity (E), are carbon neutral on the basis of good forestry practice in the supplying countries. That means a country can burn wood, instead of coal, oil or gas, and claim emission reductions, when it is really adding large amounts of greenhouse gases.
In 2009 Timothy Searchinger and others published a key article titled “Fixing a Critical ClimateAccounting Error – Rules for applying the Kyoto Protocol and national cap and trade laws contain a major, but fixable, carbon accounting flaw in assessing bioenergy”. One snippet from the paper: “The straightforward solution is to fix the accounting of bioenergy. That means tracing the actual flows of carbon and counting emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks whether from fossil energy or bioenergy.” [Further articles on the issues of biomass burning are at Note 4]
More recent developments are:
The IPCC released “Climate Change and Land. An IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems” in January 2020 [see Note 5 for some detail and links]
In July of 2020 an advisory board to the Netherlands government warned that burning biomass is not sustainable. More details are in news reports from Euractiv and Dutchnews. This advice fits with an overall European review of the practice, based on the IPCC special report. However, ”Whether or not forest biomass will still legally be considered as a carbon neutral and renewable source of energy by then [when the review is complete and EU laws altered] remains to be seen.”
In summary then; it makes no sense to use trees to generate electricity! BUT – despite all this data, analysis and eloquent advocacy it is likely that the opposite will happen. More countries will use pellets, with subsequent higher demand for the fuel, because wood pellets do make excellent sense to many people;
National policymakers who are faced with a requirement to lower emissions and stay within a budget see the “carbon neutral” burning of biomass as a way to achieve both. They rely on the suppliers of the fuel to ensure carbon neutrality.
The lumber industry sees an income, or at least an eliminated cost, when they can dispose of “waste”, such as dead trees, sawdust, offcuts and branches.
Landowners see opportunities, beyond dimensional lumber, in forest maintenance paid for by selling low value trees and understory and/or in conversion of low value land to higher value timber stands
Some environmentalists are in support of clearing the “trash” from the forest floor to prevent a buildup of flammable material and so reduce the incidence and severity of wildfires, which cause much more damage than responsible management activities.
The pellet manufacturers point to jobs and community support (plus profits of course).
The shippers are happy that investments in ships and port facilities give a good return..
Local politicians are content because the industry pays taxes, creates jobs and keeps the community alive.
Decisions about our biosphere are never easy. At least we can still make them. As time goes by we will have less choices and these decisions will only become more disruptive, more expensive, more gut wrenching. (see The challenging politics of climate change)
Just based on the facts above we should stop the large scale use of wood to generate electricity. And we have not even taken into account other biosphere concerns such as biodiversity (see my previous post on the Dasgupta review), ecosystems, monocultures, habitats, water conservation or local pollution.
However we live in an imperfect world; rules will be bent, loopholes explored, laws not enforced.
Accountants will move accounts and lawyers will argue law. The biosphere does not care about any of that; we need to play by its rules not ours.
The overview so far leaves a lot of questions unanswered [Some are in Note 10]. But that’s OK. I hope I have left a sufficiently solid trace to explore both the pro and con sides of this industry. I do think there is room for wood pellets in private use or in situations where carbon neutrality is more evident and controllable [Note 11].
The 1bio story becomes: Burning trees to produce electricity makes no sense! Stop!
To reiterate the 1bio story is not intended to repeat the data gathering, analysis and reporting already done. It is meant to be a “meta narrative” [Note 9] with a short headline, a few paragraphs of background and then a trail of evidence to support the story [Note 6].
Bottom line: I believe the evidence strongly supports the story. As always I will appreciate thoughts on how to make that support line stronger and easier to develop.
More Detail On The Initial Diagram
We cut a 25 year old tree and plant a new seedling at the same time (A) [In the USA this is likely to be a loblolly pine – see Note 7 below], logging operations and transport (B) generate emissions, as does the manufacture of the pellets ( C). Transport overseas creates more emissions (D). The pellets are then burned (E) and electricity finally distributed (F). That electricity is termed to be “Carbon Neutral”. The red stepped line shows the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Let’s say it takes a year for that cycle. The seedling we planted at (A) has started to capture CO2 from the air, but very little – it’s only 1year old.. But all the CO2 from its 25 year old, very much larger, predecessor is in the air. Let’s now draw a 25 year picture in the lower part of the diagram. The year (A to F) is compressed to the start. The red area (G) is the CO2 emitted, the green area (H) is CO2 captured.
So, we’re all good, the carbon got recaptured, it’s carbon neutral. What’s the problem? The problem is that for those 24 years after the major emission (E) the excess CO2 has been hanging around contributing to global warming
Anyone studying the diagram will point out some major ERRORS – which I will try and explain (or excuse?) briefly:
25 year old trees don’t get cut for biomass, they get used for dimensioned lumber! Yes, in most cases. However as demand for biomass increases cutting of mature trees will happen. If not in the US or western Europe, then in less regulated countries. Also the scale of the diagram does not matter; if we cut 10 year old trees, then the regrow time will be 10 years (plus – see next point)
The regrow time is too short, the emissions generated by felling, transport and processing are not included! Yes, that’s a mistake. I tried back of envelope calculation but rather than guess I left them out. Anyone have numbers?
The slope of the carbon capture line is all wrong! Young trees absorb carbon faster than old ones and very old trees take up practically no carbon! Not so. Young trees absorb a higher percentage in carbon (much like young animals grow very fast) but as the tree matures the absolute amount of carbon stored each year increases. For one data point see this practical study.
In practice we plant much more than one seedling to replace a mature tree. We then cut some of those new trees when semi-mature for biofuel while leaving others to grow to full “commercial lumber” size. So the payback time is much shorter than your 25 years! I don’t have enough knowledge to counter that claim. If correct, and carried out under careful forest management, it will shorten the carbon recapture time. But there will still be a time lag and for that time the free atmospheric carbon will do damage. I suspect that this point has been analysed somewhere in the mountains of studies I mention. Any input?
500 Scientist Letter: The following excerpt is from the February 2021 letter from 500+ scientists to US, EU, Japan and South Korean leaders: “The result of this additional wood harvest is a large initial increase in carbon emissions, creating a “carbon debt,” which increases over time as more trees are harvested for continuing bioenergy use. Regrowing trees and displacement of fossil fuels may eventually pay off this carbon debt, but regrowth takes time the world does not have to solve climate change. As numerous studies have shown, this burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. That is true even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental. Forests store carbon – approximately half the weight of dry wood is carbon. When wood is harvested and burned, half or more of the live wood in trees harvested is typically lost in harvesting and processing before it can supply energy, adding carbon to the atmosphere without replacing fossil fuels. Burning wood is also carbon-inefficient, so the wood burned for energy emits more carbon up smokestacks than using fossil fuels. Overall, for each kilowatt hour of heat or electricity produced, using wood initially is likely to add two to three times as much carbon to the air as using fossil fuels.
Trees are more valuable alive than dead both for climate and for biodiversity. To meet future net zero emission goals, your governments should work to preserve and restore forests and not to burn them”. [my bolding]
[BTW: As an independent viewer, without the backing of an academic organization or commercial corporation I find the costs for reading full articles like this one a major impediment. I could spend hundreds of dollars chasing just one fact through the mesh of publications. Just another reason why I hope 1biosphere.net will, one day, in some form, take on a more organizational shape].
An excerpt (from page 66 of Chapter 4) reads: “Moreover, assessments of climate benefits of any mitigation action must also consider the time dynamics of atmospheric impacts as some actions will have immediate benefits (e.g. avoided deforestation) while others may not achieve net atmospheric benefits for decades or centuries. For example, the climate benefits of woody biomass use for bioenergy depend on several factors such as the source and alternate fate of the biomass, the energy type it substitutes and the rates of regrowth of the harvested forest (Laganière et al. 2017; Ter-Mikaelian et al. 2014; Smyth et al. 2017). Conversion of primary forests in regions of very low stand replacing disturbances to short-rotation plantations where the harvested wood is used for short-lived products with low displacement factors will increase emissions. In general, greater mitigation benefits are achieved if harvested wood products are used for products with long carbon retention time and high displacement factors.” [My bolding]
The Iceberg Diagram: The key to the 1bio story lies in the 3 step trace; Verify, Publish, Annotate.
The “Verify” stage is complex. To dig through the data would take a big team and time. That is why I come back to the question; can this be done at least semi-automatically by tracing references to basic research and comparing economic factors?
After that it is relatively easy (not trivial by any means) to “Publish”
I see “Annotations” as asking some of the meta-questions [😉] raised by the story. What do we really want to/need to do and what are the alternatives?
Loblolly Pine: The most likely tree to be felled for wood chips in the US is the Loblolly Pine. It is the second-most common tree in the United States and is regarded as the most commercially important tree in the Southeastern U.S. “Left to grow, this tree can reach 100 or more feet and over 4 feet in diameter. The largest was found in Georgia – 185 feet tall and 11 feet across! Sadly, it was cut down 35 years ago.” [1985?]
Albedo: is a measure of surface reflectivity. A darker, less reflective, surface (lower albedo) means more heating and worsens the climate change problem. Pine trees are typically darker and so absorb more sunlight, while hardwoods tend to reflect more sunlight. The differences are small but significant. In winter pines stay dark green, while hardwoods lose their leaves. In areas where it snows the albedo will be higher in deciduous forests (hardwood) because more snow will be visible through the naked branches. Admittedly snow is rare in the SE USA regions mentioned in the news report (NYT) that triggered this post.
Meta-Narrative: I came across this term in “The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One (Metamodern Guides 1)” by Hanzi Freinacht. Much as I am suspicious of any phrase starting with “meta” I do think “meta-narrative”, a story about a story, does fit 1bio. I will hold off any comment on the book as a whole until I finish it.
Unanswered Questions: As I was writing this post a number of questions came to mind. Some have been answered, or at least approached an answer, within the post. Some are open The devil, as always, is in the details and those are hard to find.
Does the carbon neutrality definition take time into account? We burn the pellet product now, but how long will it take the newly planted tree to reabsorb the released carbon? 20 years? 40? Longer? Will we pass a trigger point that starts a carbon feedback loop within that time? [Answered, I think; it depends on the age of the base fuel e.g. a ten year old tree will have a 10 year grow back time PLUS the pay-back time for the emissions during transport and processing.]
How much of this process is accounting and legal argument versus actual reduction in emissions? The pellet producers can claim their industry creates minimal carbon output in the US, because the Europeans do the burning. A very similar argument is used by Australian coal exporters; how can they be held accountable for carbon emissions, when it is India and China who burn the coal? (Just a reminder: the biosphere has no borders nor does it do accounting) [Answered, I think]
Under the laws of most countries can there be or should there be control over logging on private land? Is it legal, ethical and practical to even ask that question? The treatment of contracts between owners and commercial or governmental entities is a separate, but equally valid, concern.
Should dead trees and undergrowth remain, at least in part, to provide animal habitat?
Will planting pines versus hardwoods change the albedo significantly? (see short explanation in Note 8 above)
What is the political will to verify compliance to the terms of the various contracts? That question applies at both ends. What is the mechanism for the European users to verify what happens at the US (or other suppliers!) end? Equally, how much supervision is there on the supply end, especially at the local level, where both the benefits (jobs, income, taxes) and risks (pollution, environmental damage, health effects) occur?
Can we define small scale biofuel users based on size, proximity of fuel to user and genuine, verifiable, forest management? Can we then differentiate between small scale use and large scale use for electricity generation and apply different measures to each?
Personal Experience – admittedly very slight;
Customers in more remote parts of New Jersey, where there are no gas lines, were unanimous in praise of their pellet burners; inexpensive fuel, easy to maintain and giving comfortable heat. But they were rare in comparison to users of oil or propane fuel.
The photos below show a biofuel plant owned by a Bavarian abbey. It supplies heat to the abbey itself, plus accommodation buildings, a butcher’s shop and restaurant. In addition there is high pressure steam for the abbey’s brewing and distilling operations. It is fuelled by wood chips from their own forest and has been in operation since 2005. Although it is a carbon emitter the claims for environmental neutrality are somewhat more convincing. The forest supplying the material is owned by the abbey, is close by, and has been under their stewardship since 1119. It is unlikely to be clear-felled or damaged while the abbey retains that control. The abbey also uses extensive photovoltaic areas to supplement their electricity use.
“In contrast to the combustion of fossil fuels, biomass plants do not cause any additional pollution, but are considered environmentally neutral. When wood is burned, only the substances bound during growth are released again. They form the basis for the growth of other trees and plants. The biological cycle can begin again. Therefore this process is CO2 neutral. The balance of carbon dioxide savings of 2,751 tons per year compared to a conventional oil-fired system should also be emphasized”
I do think there is a case for biofuels in personal and limited examples like this. However given the content and direction of this post I can only attest that the restaurant was warm and the beer good.
“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not. Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer. We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.
The UMWA is prepared to work with members of Congress, the Biden administration, community organizations, NGOs and other labor unions to achieve these principles. To do otherwise would be to abandon our responsibilities to the people we represent, their families and their communities”
Those are the final paragraphs of a document released by the United Mine Workers of America this week. It is just five pages long; the cover above and four pages of text. One can argue some of the points made, but most seem to be common sense and just.The excerpt below states a very plain requirement that I have noted on this site before:
“Secure adequate resources to create a true transition for workers and communities in the coalfields. This cannot be the sort of “just transition” wishful thinking so common in the environmental community. There must be a set of specific, concrete actions that are fully-funded and long-term.”
And to be “fully-funded and long-term” there has to be economic and political adjustment. For that to happen there need to be votes. (You can see where this is going…). For votes there need to be stories to generate political action. Stories like 1bio stories.
“This year’s specials include a Greta Thunberg documentary, a David Attenborough extravaganza, James Cameron on whales and Cher rescuing an elephant.”
“In (a discussion between Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough from) “A Year to Change the World, ”Thunberg is unfailingly polite, but you can see what she’s thinking. When she asks if he has ideas for how to “activate” older people into environmental activism, he has nothing to offer, other than to praise her.” (New York Times)
Yes, that’s the issue; how to “activate” people? Older or not. Just maybe 1bio stories can do their little bit to help in that?
The report lists impacts on what UN secretary general António Guterres said was the planet’s “life support system”. Sea levels are rising, coasts are eroding, waters are heating and acidifying and the number of deoxygenated “dead zones” is rising. Marine litter is present in all marine habitats and overfishing was costing societies billions. About 90% of mangrove, seagrass and marsh plant species were threatened with extinction.
(The report authored by UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, excerpts above from The Guardian)
The report is downloadable in 2 volumes – totalling 1090 pages! It clearly is a comprehensive document and of value to professionals in the field. But for most of us the length and complexity make it essentially inaccessible. That is why we need stories woven from the findings of these reports, and solidly linked back to them.
“Researchers fear increasing energy in these eddies could affect ability of Southern Ocean to absorb C02” ‘“The world’s oceans soak up most of the carbon dioxide that humans dump into the atmosphere. The Southern Ocean in particular absorbs about 40% of the entire ocean uptake and much of that uptake is achieved by ocean eddies” Any change in the ocean eddies in the Southern Ocean can … “potentially impact the carbon sink and the ability to uptake carbon that we might continue to emit in the future”
Fox News is the leader in primetime viewership (in the USA) according to Nielsen Media Rating.Just one more reason why the trace supporting the 1bio stories needs to be accurate and complete. We will not sway the opinion of the committed Fox viewer by factual analysis, but we do need to solidify the opinion of the silent majority.