Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Climate change goes construction mainstream

Last week we were asked to look at 'How to Make Your Home More Environmentally Friendly' on the Stanmore Contractors website. We were promised:

“plenty of valuable information such as:
  • How increasing populations, strained natural resources, carbon emissions, and deforestation are all contributing towards global warming.
  • The many health and economical benefits of reducing our carbon footprint, and having an energy efficient home.
  • Tips and advice on how to assess energy efficiency
  • Making the most of government schemes and incentives”
Frankly I was expecting puffery and special pleading. I was pleasantly surprised.
The site gives a simple and accurate account of climate change. It mentions sea level rise, Arctic ice, droughts and heatwaves and notes that “hundreds of coastal towns, cities and islands around the world [are] at risk of being underwater within the next century.” And it’s uncompromising about human responsibility for this, referring to both fossil fuels and population increases. That last point is better than some environmentalists I could mention!
So what are we to do? There are lots of suggestions, all sensible though some rather minor, and home insulation, part opf Stanmore’s business, is not given excessive space. It does mention the need to eat less meat but not the need to fly much less.
Let me repeat – I’m glad to see an ordinary business addressing climate change.
But there’s a problem – really three problems. First the site does not say that climate change is a crisis that threatens many lives. The death toll from the Paradise fire is still rising as I write and 993 people are missing. That’s in a rich country but most of the death and damage will be in poor countries with much worse services.
Second it does not say that we are on track for catastrophe:
  • The world is on course for 3-4 degrees of warming.
  • The UK’s policies are too weak to deliver the fifth carbon budget.
  • No (or almost no) country has policies consistent with keeping within 1.5 degrees – the Paris target.
Third the advice implies, by omission, that we can address climate change by relatively minor lifestyle changes and some green shopping. And that’s nonsense. Of course it doesn’t say that and the author probably knows better but there it is.
Avoiding a climate breakdown requires immediate, vigorous action by every government. It requires major investments by businesses in every sector. And it requires all of us to accept change we really won’t like.
Perhaps I'm asking too much. Stanmore is a business, not a political party or a Green lobby. And the advice from environmental NGOs often falls into the same trap.
Yet it adds to the sense that avoiding catastrophic climate change will be easy. It won’t.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Unplugging the space Internet

Mark Handley of University College London has revealed Elon Musk's Starlink to be a leading contended for the title 'world's worst technology project' (New Scientist, 10/11/18 p 5).  The project will consume a lot of skilled effort. And it will add to climate change from the manufacture and launching of 900 comsats per year - a vast number.

And for what?

Starlink will allow some banks to gain a milisecond level advantage in that form of automated high-stakes gambling called high-frequency trading (HFT). HFT is a singularly useless activity that supports no businesses and feeds no children. And though it does make some bankers richer few of us are likely to see that as an advantage.

There are better uses for the money and effort that Starlink will consume. Musk should pull the plug now.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Caught in a NET?

Of course in a sense they are right. NETs are unproven at scale and very uncertain as to cost. It would be better to cut emissions hard now than to continue emitting CO2 that will be removed from the air later. Prevention is better than cure and so on.

In a sense. But it's almost certain that we won't cut emissions hard enough so we will have to capture CO2 from the air. You have only to look at the pathways in the recent IPCC report on staying below 1.5 degrees to see that they represent, and are explicitly stated to require, an almost unprecedented economic transformation. 

We have been making this argument for 20 years. We have stressed the costs of inaction, the human benefits of mitigation, the moral case to reverse the harm we have done. And emissions have risen. Actions have been inadequate at best. Need I mention Putin, bin Salman and Trump? Perhaps not.
We are imposing large economic costs, the destruction of much of the natural world and perhaps a high death rate on future generations - now probably in our grandchildren's lives - to avoid cost and inconvenience to ourselves. This is a serious moral failure on the part of almost all governments, and indirectly of us. But that is now the baseline. 

We cannot now avoid presenting future generations with the bill for NETs. The best we can do NOW is to invest in the technologies needed, starting with CCS and a selection of NETs.

So where are we with NETs? Greenpeace cites an authoritative report on NETs which says that NETs "offer only limited realistic potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere and not at the scale envisaged in some climate scenarios".

The reasons for this conclusion are not clear. The report also notes "A recent study (Marcucci et al., 2017) concluded that ....substantial deployment of (direct air capture] (several gigatonnes of carbon removals per year by 2100) would allow these targets to be met." The big issue is simply cost. DAC will cost a lot more per ton than CCS used on a power station or cement works but the costs are highly uncertain, being quoted as $30-$1,000 per ton CO2!

There are still many technical options. The sooner we put serious money into R&D and pilot plants the better!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Peatfires - 15% of Climate Change!

You may hardly have heard of peatfires. You may vaguely remember a big one in Indonesia - in 1997 - which spread smoke halfway across Asia.

So you might be surprised to learn that that period of burning produced 13-40% of all the greenhouse gases emitted that year.

And that's not all. According to  Guillermo Rein, a Reader in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, "Smouldering megafires are the largest and longest-burning fires on Earth. They ... are responsible for 15% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. This is the same amount attributed to the whole of the European Union, and yet it is not accounted for in carbon budgets."

And they form part of a positive feedback loop. Their greenhouse gas emissions drive up temperatures and that makes more fires more likely.

Another thing to worry about.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Wasting the Water of Life

I want to recommend the work of Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, University of Twente.

Hoekstra invented the Water Footprint, similar to the carbon footprint, and has published vast amounts of data. He also has emphatic views:
In Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint: the vast majority relates to the products you consume ... about 90 per cent of our global water footprint relates to food. About one-third relates to the production of feed for the animals we consume.
In California, for instance, the state’s biggest water use is for feed crops. Meanwhile, you have this drought going on, and all of the time the focus is on how terrible it is to have a drought. But the real focus should be on how stupid it is to have such a big water demand in a region where droughts are fully expected.
You can use less and less water per unit of production, but if your population is growing and your consumption booming, then that is simply not sufficient.

Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable.  

We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
 All round the world we are mining water rather than recycling it. Ground water WILL run out and if we aren't ready we will all be in bad trouble.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

RIP Bramble Cay melomys

The Bramble Cay melomys has the distinction of being the first mammal to be driven to extinction by climate change.

The Bramble Cay melomys is, well was, a small rodent found on a single coral island in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. When first recorded by Europeans there were many animals. Even in 1978 there were 'several hundred' but the melomys has not been seen since 2009 and is believed extinct.

According to a report by University of Queensland scientists the extinction was due to habitat loss caused by a combination of "severe meteorological events [and] anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise". Sea levels rose particularly fast in this area and the area of vegetation shrank from 2.2 ha in 2004 to 0.065 ha in 2014.

The authors commented that “Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change”.


Did Kyoto work?

Not really.

That seems to be the conclusion of a new study Compliance of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in
the first commitment period. Climate Policy, doi.org/bjz4.

No time for more.