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human activity and the destruction of the planet


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Covid-19, population profiles and climate change

As we face 1 million Covid-19 deaths, can some climate change benefits come out of the pandemic?

In a previous posting, I discussed some of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that occurred during lockdown and how these were very temporary.  In this post, I want to look at population statistics and how these might be influenced by coronavirus deaths.

We have known for many years that human population growth has been in exponential territory for many years and is rapidly approaching 8 billion worldwide, as shown in the graph below, which shows the world population increasing ever since the industrial revolution began.  

Many people have written at length about population growth; for example, the eugenicists love to speculate on how we might improve the genetic make-up of the entire human population, usually by ethnic cleansing. I believe this to be a distraction from the real issues associated with population growth.

However, human population growth does need to be addressed. The more people that live on the earth, the more crowded the planet becomes and the less food there is for everyone.  With increases in consumerism, fuelled by big business and rampant advertising, there is also more waste and fewer places to dispose of it safely, so that we are filling oceans with junk, affecting marine life, as well as contaminating the countryside with land-fill sites. Over-crowding is also causing increases in migrants, seeking a better life elsewhere, where they think food and jobs will be more available. Over-crowding also means that humans are encroaching on the habitats of the creatures we share this planet with, leading to their extinction and possibly also, the release of killer viruses like Covid-19, as we come into closer territorial contact with wildlife.

The Chinese addressed their high population increases in recent years, by limiting each family to the birth of one child. However, this policy created other problems, such as an age imbalance in the country and a shrinking work force. So it was abandoned but the birth rate there has continued to decline (see the yellow line in the graph below).

The relationship between human population size and climate change is discussed in chapters 5 and 9 of my book, where I include population growth as one of 10 interrelated factors which are working together to exacerbate climate change and the consequent destruction of all life on the planet.

So, if there are too many people already living on this planet, should we not embrace a reduction in numbers caused by deaths from the coronavirus, however tragic that might be for the families and communities who have lost their loved ones? The saddening fact is that the loss of one million people to the virus, is not enough to make a significant impact on the overall numbers of humans on the planet.  The tragic loss of 20 million people during World War I had little impact on the overall population number, which soon continued on its relentless upward trend.

So, the reality is that 1 million Covid-19 deaths, will have little impact on human numbers, unless of course the pandemic cannot be controlled and the coronavirus continues to wipe out huge numbers of people worldwide. Statisticians are already predicting that there will be 2 million deaths before a vaccine becomes available.

In a related way, the lockdown introduced by many countries to control the virus, did, for a short period, reduce greenhouse gas emissions in industrial areas, but these too have continued on their upward trend, as lockdown is eased.  As we rebuild the economy, there needs to be a determined effort to stop using fossil fuels, alongside properly thought-out strategies to reduce the other factors which work together to exacerbate climate change, shown in the graphic above.

One of the things that the pandemic is demonstrating is the Darwinian principle of “Survival of the Fittest”, for it is the old and frail and those with underlying health conditions, that are most likely to succumb to the virus. Some people are advocating that we allow “herd immunity” to develop, even though there is evidence that people who contract the virus do not develop immunity and may catch it again later. The herd immunity idea is a corollary to the “survival of the fittest” principle, though relying on it shows little compassion for those in society who are not fit and who succumb to the virus.

So, there are a number of issues here and questions that need to be answered. Over the last century, there have been huge breakthroughs in medical care, surgical and intensive care practices and the production of antibiotics and other life-saving drugs.  These have allowed us to keep people alive for longer, with more and more people living into their 90s and 100s, whatever their quality of life may be. This has all contributed to the surging population numbers. And so, we have created a society in which the age balance has changed and the financial burden of caring for the frail elderly has become phenomenal. Is Covid-19 bringing that balance back to what it was in the last century? Should we be keeping people alive in care homes and hospitals beyond their normal life expectancy, especially if dementia has taken hold and they lose their dignity and no longer know who they are or even where they are? No, I am not supporting the “right to die” or “assisted dying” movements – the arguments for this are very different and the movement already has its vocal advocates.

But, in a way, the coronavirus has created an irony where, to a large extent, children and the youngest members of society are hardly affected by it and the old are disproportionately targeted. So, gradually it is moving the age profile downwards to a younger society. There is evidence that younger people are very aware of climate issues, as the “Fridays for the Future” movement takes off across the globe. So, one good thing may have come out of this terrible pandemic – that the ardent young will be able to bring about the changes needed to address climate change and the sustenance of all life on this planet.


Fridays for the Future demonstration

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CBI says that Britain must become a global leader in tackling climate crisis

Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the CBI, is launching its ‘green recovery roadmap’. She says that Britain needs to step up and become a global leader in climate action, creating a number of green jobs and boosting productivity to help the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/sep/14/uk-must-become-global-leader-in-tackling-climate-crisis-says-cbi-carolyn-fairbairn-covid-19


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New solar and lighting technology could propel a renewable energy transformation

This article was published in The Conversation on September 1, 2020 and written by Simon Stranks, a lecturer in Energy and Royal Society and University Research Fellow, University of Cambridge. He is also a co-founder of Swift Solar Inc.

https://theconversation.com/how-a-new-solar-and-lighting-technology-could-propel-a-renewable-energy-transformation-133658

The demand for cheaper, greener electricity means that the energy landscape is changing faster than at any other point in history. This is particularly true of solar-powered electricity and battery storage. The cost of both has dropped at unprecedented rates over the past decade and energy efficient technologies such as LED lighting have also expanded.

Access to cheap and ubiquitous solar power and storage will transform the way we produce and use power, allowing electrification of the transport sector. There is potential for new chemical-based economies in which we store renewable energy as fuels, and support new devices making up an “internet of things”.

But our current energy technologies won’t lead us to this future: we will soon hit efficiency and cost limits. The potential for future reductions in the cost of electricity from silicon solar, for example, is limited. The manufacture of each panel demands a fair amount of energy and factories are expensive to build. And although the cost of production can be squeezed a little further, the costs of a solar installation are now dominated by the extras – installation, wiring, the electronics and so on.

This means that current solar power systems are unlikely to meet the required fraction of our 30 TeraWatt (TW) global power requirements (they produce less than 1 TW today) fast enough to address issues such as climate change.

Likewise, our current LED lighting and display technologies are too expensive and not of good enough colour quality to realistically replace traditional lighting in a short enough time frame. This is a problem, as lighting currently accounts for 5% of the world’s carbon emissions. New technologies are needed to fill this gap, and quickly.

The article then goes on to describe a new family of materials being developed in a laboratory in Cambridge. These are called Halide Perovskites, which are semi-conductors, which conduct charges when stimulated with light.

Coloured perovskite light-emitting inks that can be cast down into thin films

There are still challenges to developing this technology commercially but the author sets out the way forward. Please see the article for a full description.

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WEF: The World’s Greatest Threat is not the Coronavirus

The World Economic Forum, on it’s web page has made the announcement in the title of this post.  They say that true sustainability will only be achieved through drastic lifestyle changes.

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/affluence-bigger-threat-than-coronavirus-scientists-capitalism

The article is headed by a massive photograph of landfill rubbish and goes on to state the following:

  • Affluence is the biggest threat to our world, according to a new scientific report.
  • True sustainability will only be achieved through drastic lifestyle changes, it argues.
  • The World Economic Forum has called for a great reset of capitalism in the wake of the pandemic.

A detailed analysis of environmental research has revealed the greatest threat to the world: affluence.

 

That’s one of the main conclusions of a team of scientists from Australia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, who have warned that tackling overconsumption has to become a priority. Their report, titled Scientists’ Warning on Affluence, explains that true sustainability calls for significant lifestyle changes, rather than hoping that more efficient use of resources will be enough.

 

This assertion is taken from an article published in Nature Communications 11, Article 3107 (2020), the Abstract of which is as follows:

For over half a century, worldwide growth in affluence has continuously increased resource use and pollutant emissions far more rapidly than these have been reduced through better technology. The affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions. We summarise the evidence and present possible solution approaches. Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements. However, existing societies, economies and cultures incite consumption expansion and the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies inhibits necessary societal change.

The reference for the article is:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-16941-y#Fig2

and it is published by Thomas Wiedmann, Thomas Lenzen, Lorenz T. Keysser and Julia Steinbergen,

The figure below is taken from the article and is entitled “The Safe and Just Space for Humanity” and is reproduced on the WEF website.

 

Fig. 2




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Net Zero: CCC recommendations on how to achieve it

The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s statutory advisor, published its progress report at the end of June.

CCC

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/25/road-to-net-zero-what-the-committee-on-climate-change-recommends

According to the report, a number of areas need urgent attention, if the government is to reach its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  These are:

  • Energy Efficiency – insulating Britain’s homes;
  • Domestic Heating – looking at low carbon alternatives;
  • Electric Vehicles –  the CCC suggests that a complete switch to electric vehicles can be achieved by 2032, earlier than the government’s target of 2035, though car manufacturuers are opposing this;
  • Carbon Tax – this would not hit consumers but could raise £15 billion a year, according to the CCC;
  • Agriculture and Land Use – such as tree planting and nature-friendly farming, which could change agriculture from a major source of emissions to a net absorber;
  • Reskilling and Retraining Programmes – a new workforce will be required to install low-carbon boilers, home insulation and offshore wind farms;
  • Behavioural Changes in Lockdown – showed that many people can work from home, reducing emissions from transport emissions. A new infrastructure to encourage people to cycle or walk to work needs developing;
  • Targeted Science and Innovation Funding – for the development of low-carbon technologies;
  • Adaptations to the Effects of the Climate Crisis – flood defences, protecting homes from hotter summers etc.


 


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UK’s biggest onshore wind farm planned for Shetland

From the BBC website:

_112946141_viking

Scottish energy giant SSE Renewables has said it plans to press ahead with what would be the UK’s biggest onshore wind farm in Shetland.

The 103-turbine Viking 443MW project would cost £580m, and create hundreds of jobs.

It is subject to energy regulator Ofgem approving a subsea power cable between Shetland and the Scottish mainland.

In April, Ofgem said it was minded to approve the link. Shetland’s current power station is to close in 2025.

It would be the UK’s largest onshore wind farm in terms of annual electricity output.

It is hoped construction will start in late summer, and the project completed in early 2024.

SSE Renewables said it would create about 400 jobs at peak construction.

Jim Smith, managing director of SSE Renewables said: “This project will bring benefits threefold for the island; harnessing its renewable potential, securing its electricity supplies for the long term, and helping decarbonise electricity.

“After more than a decade working closely with the community we are delighted to reach this stage and be playing our part in Shetland’s net-zero future.”

Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse, said: “This is excellent news for Shetland, and for Scotland’s renewable energy and climate change ambitions.”

When complete, the power cable project would connect Kergord in Shetland to Noss Head on the Scottish mainland, near Wick in Caithness.



 


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Petition: Rebuild the economy out of lockdown with a Green New Deal

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government has intervened in the economy in an unprecedented way.

The recovery must not simply reinstate ‘business as usual’ – Parliament must introduce a radical 10-year strategy for public investment to decarbonise the economy and eradicate inequality.

The following petition has been lodged on the Government’s petition website.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/317343

It needs 10,000 signatures for the government to respond to the petition and 100,000 signatures before it will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Please share the petition.  It closes on 15th December 2020.



 


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Kyoto Protocol’s second phase emissions on target – but don’t celebrate just yet!

This post is copied from the website of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is encouraging news, though do note the sentences below in bold, which sound a note of caution.  Please note also that several significant countries did not sign up to the Kyoto Protocol and these are some of the worst polluters (eg USA; Canada; Russia; Japan).

windfarm

The report from the UNFCCC (released June 2020):

https://unfccc.int/news/kyoto-s-second-phase-emission-reductions-achievable-but-greater-ambition-needed

A new UN Climate Change assessment shows that greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions of 18% compared to 1990 levels under the Kyoto Protocol’s second phase seem fully achievable and likely to be exceeded.

The Protocol’s second phase, called the second commitment period, was established by means of the Doha Amendment in 2012 and runs from 2013 – 2020. The Amendment strengthened quantified emission limitation or reduction commitments for developed countries and set a goal of reducing GHG emissions by 18% compared to 1990 levels.

The assessment of the latest information received from Parties with commitments under the Doha Amendment (Annex B Parties), based on data for the period 1990-2018, shows that total aggregate GHG emissions in 2018 were 25.3% lower than in 1990.

Annex 1 emissions trends

Moreover, if current annual average emissions of Annex B Parties (amounting to 5,696 Mt CO2eqin the period 2013–2018) remain at this level for 2019 and 2020, the emission reduction target of 18% could be further exceeded.

Assigned amount vs cumulative emissions

“While the results of this assessment are very encouraging, they only apply to a group of some 37 countries that agreed to emission reduction targets under the Doha Amendment,” said Ms. Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change. “Globally however, emissions have been rising, which clarifies the urgent need for greater ambition,” she added.

This year is critical with respect to climate change ambition as 2020 is the year in which Parties will submit their new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

NDCs are at the heart of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Each NDC reflects the country’s ambition, taking into account its domestic circumstances and capabilities.

“The submission of new or updated NDCs represents an important opportunity for all countries to raise their ambition and to put the entire world onto a reduced emissions pathway,” said Ms. Espinosa.

“The current global emissions pathway would likely result in an increase of global average temperatures of 3C or more,” she explained. “This would be significantly higher than the temperature limits of less than 2C and as close to 1.5C as possible as contained in the Paris Agreement – hence the urgent need for greater ambition.” 

The assessment under the Doha Amendment revealed that the GHG reductions have generally been achieved through national mitigation actions.

“This shows the potential of consistently implementing climate change policies and actions at the national level. Through the NDC process, countries have the opportunity to further advance climate policies and actions, and to ratchet them up over time” Ms. Espinosa underlined.

The new figures present themselves without the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol having officially entered into force and the commitments thus having become legally binding. To date, 138 of the needed 144 instruments of acceptance to enter the amendment into force have been received.

Ms. Espinosa said: “The United Nations is actively engaging with countries to encourage governments to ratify the Doha Amendment as soon as possible. The amendment’s entry into force would be a valuable signal of a unified, multilateral commitment to the fight against climate change”.

The Kyoto Protocol, which took effect in 2005, sets binding emission reduction targets for developed countries. Its first commitment period ran from 2008-2012 and set an average reduction target of 5% compared to 1990 levels.

During this time, the emissions of the 37 developed countries that had reduction targets declined by more than 22% compared to 1990, far exceeding the initial target of 5% compared to 1990.

The Protocol thus clearly plays a key part in reaching the objective of the UN Climate Change Convention, namely to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations and reduce the consequences of climate change.



 


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COP 26: New date agreed for UN climate summit in Glasgow

COP 26, due to be held in Glasgow in November 2020, has now been postponed for a year.  The COP26 UN summit will now take place between 1 and 12 November next year.

It was originally supposed to take place in November 2020. However, it had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

Dozens of world leaders will attend the gathering, the most important round of talks since the global Paris Agreement to tackle climate change was secured in 2015.

This year’s event was due to take place at the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow, which has been turned into a temporary hospital in response to coronavirus.

‘Clean, resilient recovery’ from Covid-19

COP 26 President Alok Sharma said: “While we rightly focus on fighting the immediate crisis of the coronavirus, we must not lose sight of the huge challenges of climate change.”

Mr Sharma, who is also the UK government’s business secretary, added: “With the new dates for COP26 now agreed we are working with our international partners on an ambitious roadmap for global climate action between now and November 2021.

“The steps we take to rebuild our economies will have a profound impact on our societies’ future sustainability, resilience and wellbeing and COP26 can be a moment where the world unites behind a clean resilient recovery.

The UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa, said: “If done right, the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis can steer us to a more inclusive and sustainable climate path.”

COP 26 will be the event at which countries are expected to come forward with stronger emissions cuts to meet the goals of the Paris 2015 deal.

Plans submitted so far put the world on a pathway towards more than 3C of warming, though the Paris Agreement commits countries to curb temperatures to 1.5C or 2C above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

But with countries around the world grappling with coronavirus, and many putting citizens in lockdown, governments have prioritised the immediate global health crisis.

Since the pandemic took hold, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped sharply as industry and transport have been curtailed, but experts have warned that pollution will soon bounce back without climate action.



 


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“Planet of the Humans” removed from youtube

This controversial film, produced by Michael Moore, argues that green energy sources, including biomass energy, wind power, and solar energy, are not truly renewable or sustainable. The film has been criticized as outdated and misleading. The film was removed from YouTube on 25 May 2020.

Here is a critique of the film by George Monbiot and published in The Guardian, 8th May 2020:

“How did the radical film maker Michael Moore become a hero of the far right?”

Denial never dies; it just goes quiet and waits. Today, after years of irrelevance, the climate science deniers are triumphant. Long after their last, desperate claims had collapsed, when they had traction only on alt-right conspiracy sites, a hero of the left turns up and gives them more than they could have dreamt of.

Planet of the Humans, whose executive producer and promoter is Michael Moore, has now been watched 6 million times on YouTube. The film does not deny climate science. But it promotes the discredited myths that deniers have used for years to justify their position. It claims that environmentalism is a self-seeking scam, doing immense harm to the living world while enriching a group of con artists. This has long been the most effective means by which denial – most of which has been funded by the fossil fuel industry – has been spread. Everyone hates a scammer.

And yes, there are scammers. There are real issues and real conflicts to be explored in seeking to prevent the collapse of our life support systems. But they are handled so clumsily and incoherently by this film that watching it is like watching someone starting a drunken brawl over a spilled pint, then lamping his friends when they try to restrain him. It stumbles so blindly into toxic issues that Michael Moore, former champion of the underdog, unwittingly aligns himself with white supremacists and the extreme right.

Occasionally, the film lands a punch on the right nose. It is right to attack the burning of trees to make electricity. But when the presenter and director, Jeff Gibbs, claims that “I found only one environmental leader willing to reject biomass and biofuels”, he can’t have been looking very far. Some of us have been speaking out against them ever since they became a serious proposition (since 2004 in my case). Almost every environmental leader I know opposes the burning of fresh materials to generate power.

There are also some genuine and difficult problems with renewable energy, particularly the mining of the necessary materials. But the film’s attacks on solar and wind power rely on a series of blatant falsehoods. It claims that, in producing electricity from renewables, “You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place”. This is flat wrong. On average, a solar panel generates 26 units of solar energy for every unit of fossil energy required to build and install it. For wind turbines the ratio is 44 to 1.

Planet of the Humans also claims that you can’t reduce fossil fuel use through renewable energy: coal is instead being replaced by gas. Well, in the third quarter of 2019, renewables in the UK generated more electricity than coal, oil and gas plants put together. As a result of the switch to renewables in this country, the amount of fossil fuel used for power generation has halved since 2010. By 2025, the government forecasts, roughly half our electricity will come from renewables, while gas burning will drop by a further 40%. To hammer home its point, the film shows footage of a “large terminal to import natural gas from the United States” that “Germany just built”. Germany has no such terminal. The footage was shot in Turkey.

There is also a real story to be told about the co-option and capture of some environmental groups by the industries they should hold to account. A remarkable number of large conservation organisations take money from fossil fuel companies. This is a disgrace. But rather than pinning the blame where it lies, Planet of the Humans concentrates its attacks on Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org, who takes no money from any of his campaigning work. It’s an almost comic exercise in misdirection, but unfortunately it has horrible, real-world consequences, as McKibben now faces even more threats and attacks than he confronted before.

But this is by no means the worst of it. The film offers only one concrete solution to our predicament: the most toxic of all possible answers. “We really have got to start dealing with the issue of population … without seeing some sort of major die off in population, there’s no turning back.”

Yes, population growth does contribute to the pressures on the natural world. But while the global population is rising by 1% a year, consumption, until the pandemic, was rising at a steady 3%. High consumption is concentrated in countries where population growth is low. Where population growth is highest, consumption tends to be extremely low. Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people. When very rich people, such as Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not us consuming, it’s Them breeding.” It’s not hard to see why the alt-right loves this film.

Population is where you go when you haven’t thought it through. Population is where you go when you don’t have the guts to face the structural, systemic causes of our predicament: inequality, oligarchic power, capitalism. Population is where you go when you want to kick down.

We have been here many times before. Dozens of films have spread falsehoods about  environmental activists and ripped into green technologies, while letting fossil fuels off the hook. But never before have these attacks come from a famous campaigner for social justice, rubbing our faces in the dirt.”

www.monbiot.com