Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

The seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope’

November 10th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The seven megatrends that could beat global warming: ‘There is reason for hope'” was written by Damian Carrington, Environment editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th November 2017 07.00 UTC

‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”

But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.

“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”

No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”

Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”

Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”

THE TRENDS
1. Methane: getting to the meat

A lab-grown burger.
A lab-grown burger. Photograph: David Parry/PA

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.

The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.

What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.

Perhaps even more telling is that major meat and dairy companies are now piling in with investments and acquisitions, such as the US’s biggest meat processor, Tyson, and multinational giants Danone and Nestlé. The Chinese government has just put 0m (£228m) into Israeli companies producing lab-grown meat, which could also cut emissions.

New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”

Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”

Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”

Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products are growing fast

2. Renewable energy: time to shine

Solar panel installation.
Solar panel installation. Photograph: Kristian Buus/Corbis via Getty Images

The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.

This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.

In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.

Global wind and solar is soaring

3. King coal: dead or dying

The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.

The cause is simple: solar and wind are cheaper. But the consequences are enormous: in pollution-choked China, there are now no provinces where new coal is needed, so the country has just mothballed plans for 151 plants. Bankruptcies have torn through the US coal industry and in the UK, where coal-burning began the industrial revolution, it has fallen from 40% of power supply to 2% in the past five years.

“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.

Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”

World coal production peaked in 2013

4. Electric cars: in the fast lane

Vehicles being charged at China’s leading maker of electric cars, BYD Co, in Shenzhen, China.
Vehicles being charged at China’s leading maker of electric cars, BYD Co, in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.

China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.

“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.

“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.

It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.

The rapid rise of electric cars has left the oil giants, who have a lot to lose, playing catchup. The oil cartel Opec has increased its estimate of the number of electric cars operative in 2040 by five times in the past year alone, with the IEA, ExxonMobil and BP all bumping up their forecasts too. Heavy transport remains a challenge, but even here ships are experimenting with wind power and batteries. Short-haul electric airplanes are on the drawing board, too.

Global electric car fleet is following a rapidly rising curve

5. Batteries: lots in store

A lithium-ion battery.
A lithium-ion battery. Photograph: Alamy

Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.

Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”

It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.

Battery costs are tumbling

6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts

A zero-carbon house.
A zero-carbon house. Photograph: Alamy

Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.

Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.

But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”

In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.

One sector that is lagging on energy efficiency is industry, but technology to capture and bury CO2 from plants is being tested and ways to clean up cement-making are also being explored.

Energy efficiency has improved in EU homes, transport and industry

7. Forests: seeing the wood

The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.

This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.

In fact, new research has shown that better land management could deliver a third of all the carbon cuts the world needs, and Wolosin says there are some grounds for hope that new forests can be planted. “Achieving large-scale forestation is not just theoretical. We know we can do it because a few countries have done it successfully.”

In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.

Global tree losses are increasing

The race against time

Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”

Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.

“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”

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The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower

February 23rd, 2016

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower” was written by Shane Hickey, for The Guardian on Sunday 21st February 2016 09.00 UTC

When he was working on an academic project with Nasa, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, a Swedish industrial designer, realised there could be parallels between sustainability in space and on Earth. The extremes of space required that the vital resource of water be used in the most efficient way possible. Water should also be used like this in the home, he thought.

Inspired by those experiences with the space agency, Mahdjoubi created a shower system that reuses the same water in a circular loop, while two filters take out impurities as it circulates.

This Shower of the Future , from his company, Orbital Systems, can operate on five litres of water. The water constantly circulates for 10 minutes or so – the time of an average shower – in turn saving also on energy.

“The reason that we make it work sustainably in space is because we have to do it,” the Swedish industrial designer said. “What if we try the same things on Earth … [if] the house was like a space capsule, how would we go about it? The most sustainable lifestyle is the one that we have in the most extreme environments and that may be in space or in a submarine where you actually have no choice but to really care for the resources that you have.”
Mahdjoubi said that while savings have been made in how water is used in toilets and washing machines, the same was not true of the shower. “Without changing the technology, we seem to just heat up water and put it down the drain,” he said. In Sweden, where the company is based, the average shower emits 15 litres of water a minute. During a 10-minute shower this amounts to 150 litres, he said.

The Orbital Systems shower starts with five litres of water and adds more if some is splashed out or is taken out of the system by the filters.

Water is first pumped through two filters, one which takes out larger particles such as sand, skin and dust and then a finer filter to extract bacteria, viruses and blood.

From there the water travels through a heater that moderates the temperature, which is set by a wheel control the user can change from hot to cold. The water then exits the shower nozzle as normal.

But when the water trickles through the drain it goes through a sensor which analyses it. If it is contaminated, the sensor recognises this and replaces the water.

The company says water flows at a rate of 20 litres a minute, compared to conventional showers, which typically range between seven and 12 litres a minute.

The shower takes in water from the mains until it senses that there is enough to go in a constant loop, said Mahdjoubi. “Even though the water is clean we would always flush it out before the next user. Comparing [it] to a hot tub where you sit in your own dirt for however many minutes, this is way more hygienic. When you stand in front of one of these showers you completely forget that the water is being recycled. It is the most unremarkable thing.”

The shower unit can be fitted as either an integrated system in the floor or as a standalone cabin with glass walls. The first units were delivered in December with most of the sales to commerical customers such as gyms, residential homes, swimming pools and the Swedish military. Nursing homes and hospitals have also bought them, said Mahdjoubi, because of the filter system.

“Not because they really want to save a lot of water but because you can guarantee that the water is clean and free from Legionnaires’ disease because it is always being filtered.”

How much money is saved depends on the cost of water and energy and how often the shower is used, he said. The company claims that a UK home can save £1,100 a year assuming there are four showers taken a day lasting nine minutes each.

Offsetting this is the price of the shower. The cheaper of the two residential units, where the shower is integrated into the floor of the bathroom, costs £3,300 while the standalone cabin costs £4,100.

As sales increase, Mahdjoubi said, the price would fall to less than £2,000 in three years. “I would say that we are steadily going down in price but we have to start where the market can afford it, that is why we have this premium and commercial focus we have right now,” he said.

A family would need to spend an average of about £110 every year replacing the purification capsules.

So far hundreds of the showers had been sold, said Mahdjoubi, and there had been particular interest from Denmark (location of one of the highest water prices in the EU) and from California, where there had been persistent droughts over recent years.

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The Guardian view on COP 21 climate talks: saving the planet in a fracturing world

December 14th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Guardian view on COP 21 climate talks: saving the planet in a fracturing world” was written by Editorial, for The Guardian on Sunday 13th December 2015 20.16 UTC

In the late 20th century, those who stood against globalisation were charged with swimming against an unstoppable tide, caricatured as “Stop the world, I wanna get off!” But in the 21st century, history is running with the anti-globalisers. World trade talks have gone nowhere, immigration controls have shot up the agenda, and two post-national EU projects – the euro and Schengen – are under strain. Figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen – who failed to convert a remarkable first-round victory in French regional elections into any outright wins – are all peddling one form of nationalism or another. Rumours of the death of the nation state, then, have proved exaggerated: globalisation is spinning into reverse.

Looking back on the future as it appeared in the 1990s – as a technocratic, transnational order – a democratic push-back was surely inevitable, in some senses even desirable. But when problems from the overuse of antibiotics to terrorism refuse to respect national borders, the retreat from the dream of global governance has some frightening consequences, especially in connection with climate change, the archetypal global problem. Saving the planet in a fracturing world is a daunting challenge indeed.

The Paris COP 21 talks surpassed expectations in rising to it, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by determined diplomacy, even while working within the unbending red lines of jealously sovereign states. A formal treaty was precluded because it would hand a veto to the intransigent legislators of Capitol Hill, while also offending the sensibilities of Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately, it proved possible to work within the fudged alternative framework of a “legally binding instrument”. Everyone offered up voluntary emission targets, and agreed, too, to a five-yearly review of these. While the targets on the table are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 2C of warming, the surprise inclusion of an aspiration to cap temperature rises at 1.5C signals a shared understanding that the targets will have to be tightened at each successive review. The destructive standoff between developing and developed countries that doomed Copenhagen six years ago has been transcended: the big developing economies, which now produce the bulk of emissions, are no longer pretending that they can delay doing anything until the rich world is perfectly green; at the same time the rich world is effectively accepting that it will have to help shoulder the “loss and damage” costs inflicted by the long legacy of western pollution.

This is, on the face of it, a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason, but serendipity played its part too. It happens, for example, that in 2015 there is a progressive US president who never has another election to win. It happens, too, that China is the midst of replacing filthy old power stations, which is already curbing its emissions growth, making it less painful than before for Beijing to engage. Indeed, the latest global CO2 data registers a striking levelling off, raising the tantalising possibility that technological progress could be entering a phase where the cast-iron link between emissions and growth begins to rust. If that pattern were borne out in future years, future climate negotiations could get smoother on every front. Then there is the great oil price crash, which facilitates a more fruitful discussion on fossil fuels, by making it much more imaginable to keep it in the ground.

One anxiety is whether this fortuitous alignment of political and economic stars will remain, as nations move from making promises, towards real action. Paris cannot guarantees success, but it does encourage hope – and particularly if Ms Le Pen’s chauvinist form of nationalism can be seen off. The Front National dabbled in greenwash last year, but its insistence on an ecology defined by “patriotism and the national interest”, and its instinctive suspicion of a multilateral UN approach is precisely the attitude which could thwart the translation of impressive COP 21 words into deeds.

Paris has given the world new hope in the possibilities of pragmatic diplomacy, at a time when France’s own politics illustrate the difficulties of assuming solidarity extends beyond national borders. If the answer to climate change is going to have to be found in continuous haggling between 200 nations, then success is also going to depend on winning the argument against narrow nationalism in every corner of the world.

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Keep fossil fuels in the ground to stop climate change

March 11th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Keep fossil fuels in the ground to stop climate change” was written by George Monbiot, for The Guardian on Tuesday 10th March 2015 12.00 UTC

If you visit the website of the UN body that oversees the world’s climate negotiations, you will find dozens of pictures, taken across 20 years, of people clapping. These photos should be of interest to anthropologists and psychologists. For they show hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives.

The celebratory nature of the images testifies to the world of make-believe these people inhabit. They are surrounded by objectives, principles, commitments, instruments and protocols, which create a reassuring phantasm of progress while the ship on which they travel slowly founders. Leafing through these photos, I imagine I can almost hear what the delegates are saying through their expensive dentistry. “Darling you’ve re-arranged the deckchairs beautifully. It’s a breakthrough! We’ll have to invent a mechanism for holding them in place, as the deck has developed a bit of a tilt, but we’ll do that at the next conference.”

This process is futile because they have addressed the problem only from one end, and it happens to be the wrong end. They have sought to prevent climate breakdown by limiting the amount of greenhouse gases that are released; in other words, by constraining the consumption of fossil fuels. But, throughout the 23 years since the world’s governments decided to begin this process, the delegates have uttered not one coherent word about constraining production.

Compare this to any other treaty-making process. Imagine, for example, that the Biological Weapons Convention made no attempt to restrain the production or possession of weaponised smallpox and anthrax, but only to prohibit their use. How effective do you reckon it would be? (You don’t have to guess: look at the US gun laws, which prohibit the lethal use of guns but not their sale and carriage. You can see the results on the news every week.) Imagine trying to protect elephants and rhinos only by banning the purchase of their tusks and horns, without limiting killing, export or sale. Imagine trying to bring slavery to an end not by stopping the transatlantic trade, but by seeking only to discourage people from buying slaves once they had arrived in the Americas. If you want to discourage a harmful trade, you must address it at both ends: production and consumption. Of the two, production is the most important.

Climate signup new

The extraction of fossil fuels is a hard fact. The rules governments have developed to prevent their use are weak, inconsistent and negotiable. In other words, when coal, oil and gas are produced, they will be used. Continued production will overwhelm attempts to restrict consumption. Even if efforts to restrict consumption temporarily succeed, they are likely to be self-defeating. A reduction in demand when supply is unconstrained lowers the price, favouring carbon-intensive industry.

You can search through the UN’s website for any recognition of this issue, but you would be wasting your time. In its gushing catalogue of self-congratulation, at Kyoto, Doha, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Lima and all stops en route, the phrase “fossil fuel” does not occur once. Nor do the words coal or oil. But gas: oh yes, there are plenty of mentions of gas. Not natural gas, of course, but of greenhouse gases, the sole topic of official interest.

The closest any of the 20 international conferences convened so far have come to acknowledging the problem is in the resolution adopted in Lima in December last year. It pledged “cooperation” in “the phasing down of high-carbon investments and fossil fuel subsidies”, but proposed no budget, timetable or any instrument or mechanism required to make it happen. It’s progress of a sort, I suppose, and perhaps, after just 23 years, we should be grateful.

There is nothing random about the pattern of silence that surrounds our lives. Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure. They protect these interests from democratic scrutiny. I’m not suggesting that the negotiators decided not to talk about fossil fuels, or signed a common accord to waste their lives. Far from it: they have gone to great lengths to invest their efforts with the appearance of meaning and purpose. Creating a silence requires only an instinct for avoiding conflict. It is a conditioned and unconscious reflex; part of the package of social skills that secures our survival. Don’t name the Devil for fear that you’ll summon him.

Breaking such silences requires a conscious and painful effort. I remember as if it were yesterday how I felt when I first raised this issue in the media. I had been working with a group of young activists in Wales, campaigning against opencast coal mines. Talking it over with them, it seemed so obvious, so overwhelming, that I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t on everyone’s lips. Before writing about it, I circled the topic like a dog investigating a suspicious carcass. Why, I wondered, is no one touching this? Is it toxic?

Ice sculptures in the shape of humans are placed on the steps of the music hall in Gendarmenmarkt  public square in Berlin September 2, 2009. Hosted by the German World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 1,000 ice sculptures made by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo were positioned on the steps in the German capital at noon, to highlight climate change in the arctic region. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo’s ice sculptures in the shape of humans are placed in public places to highlight climate change. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz / Reuters/REUTERS

You cannot solve a problem without naming it. The absence of official recognition of the role of fossil fuel production in causing climate change – blitheringly obvious as it is – permits governments to pursue directly contradictory policies. While almost all governments claim to support the aim of preventing more than 2C of global warming, they also seek to “maximise economic recovery” of their fossil fuel reserves. (Then they cross their fingers, walk three times widdershins around the office and pray that no one burns it.) But few governments go as far as the UK has gone.

In the Infrastructure Act that received royal assent last month, maximising the economic recovery of petroleum from the UK’s continental shelf became a statutory duty. Future governments are now legally bound to squeeze every possible drop out of the ground.

Timeline

The idea came from a government review conducted by Sir Ian Wood, the billionaire owner of an inherited company – the Wood Group – that provides services to the oil and gas industry. While Sir Ian says his recommendations “received overwhelming industry support”, his team interviewed no one outside either the oil business or government. It contains no sign that I can detect of any feedback from environment groups or scientists.

His review demanded government powers to enhance both the exploration of new reserves and the exploitation of existing ones. This, it insisted, “will help take us closer to the 24bn [barrel] prize potentially still to come”. The government promised to implement his recommendations in full and without delay. In fact it went some way beyond them. It is prepared to be ruthlessly interventionist when promoting climate change, but not when restraining it.

During December’s climate talks in Lima, the UK’s energy secretary, Ed Davey, did something unwise. He broke the silence. He warned that if climate change policies meant that fossil fuel reserves could no longer be exploited, pension funds could be investing in “the sub-prime assets of the future”. Echoing the Bank of England and financial analysts such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative, Davey suggested that if governments were serious about preventing climate breakdown, fossil fuel could become a stranded asset.

This provoked a furious response from the industry. The head of Oil and Gas UK Malcolm Webb wrote to express his confusion, pointing out that Davey’s statements came “at a time when you, your Department and the Treasury are putting great effort into [making] the UK North Sea more attractive to investors in oil and gas, not less. I’m intrigued to understand how such opposing viewpoints can be reconciled.” He’s not the only one. Ed Davey quickly explained that his comments were not to be taken seriously, as “I did not offer any suggestions on what investors should choose to do.”

Barack Obama has the same problem. During a television interview last year, he confessed that “We’re not going to be able to burn it all.” So why, he was asked, has his government been encouraging ever more exploration and extraction of fossil fuels? His administration has opened up marine oil exploration from Florida to Delaware – in waters that were formally off-limits. It has increased the number of leases sold for drilling on federal lands and, most incongruously, rushed through the process that might, by the end of this month, enable Shell to prospect in the highly vulnerable Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea.

Similar contradictions beset most governments with environmental pretensions. Norway, for example, intends to be “carbon neutral” by 2030. Perhaps it hopes to export its entire oil and gas output, while relying on wind farms at home. A motion put to the Norwegian parliament last year to halt new drilling because it is incompatible with Norway’s climate change policies was defeated by 95 votes to three.

Ice sculptures in the shape of humans are placed on the steps of the music hall in Gendarmenmarkt  public square in Berlin September 2, 2009. Hosted by the German World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 1,000 ice sculptures made by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo were positioned on the steps in the German capital at noon, to highlight climate change in the arctic region.
Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo’s ice sculptures in Berlin, September 2009. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz / Reuters/REUTERS

Obama explained that “I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you, right now, are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem?”

Money is certainly a problem, but not necessarily for the reasons Obama suggested. The bigger issue is the bankrolling of politics by big oil and big coal, and the tremendous lobbying power they purchase. These companies have, in the past, financed wars to protect their position; they will not surrender the bulk of their reserves without a monumental fight. This fight would test the very limits of state power; I wonder whether our nominal democracies would survive it. Fossil fuel companies have become glutted on silence: their power has grown as a result of numberless failures to challenge and expose them. It’s no wonder that the manicured negotiators at the UN conferences, so careful never to break a nail, have spent so long avoiding the issue.

I believe there are ways of resolving this problem, ways that might recruit other powerful interests against these corporations. For example, a global auction in pollution permits would mean that governments had to regulate just a few thousand oil refineries, coal washeries, gas pipelines and cement and fertiliser factories, rather than the activities of seven billion people. It would create a fund from the sale of permits that’s likely to run into trillions: money that could be used for anything from renewable energy to healthcare. By reducing fluctuations in the supply of energy, it would deliver more predictable prices, that many businesses would welcome. Most importantly, unlike the current framework for negotiations, it could work, producing a real possibility of averting climate breakdown.

About the artist

Left to themselves, the negotiators will continue to avoid this issue until they have wasted everyone else’s lives as well as their own. They keep telling us that the conference in Paris in December is the make or break meeting (presumably they intend to unveil a radical new deckchair design). We should take them at their word, and demand that they start confronting the real problem.

With the help of George Marshall at the Climate Outreach and Information Network, I’ve drafted a paragraph of the kind that the Paris agreement should contain. It’s far from perfect, and I would love to see other people refining it. But, I hope, it’s a start:

“Scientific assessments of the carbon contained in existing fossil fuel reserves suggest that full exploitation of these reserves is incompatible with the agreed target of no more than 2C of global warming. The unrestricted extraction of these reserves undermines attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We will start negotiating a global budget for the extraction of fossil fuels from existing reserves, as well as a date for a moratorium on the exploration and development of new reserves. In line with the quantification of the fossil carbon that can be extracted without a high chance of exceeding 2C of global warming, we will develop a timetable for annual reductions towards that budget. We will develop mechanisms for allocating production within this budget and for enforcement and monitoring.”

If something of that kind were to emerge from Paris, it will not have been a total waste of time, and the delegates would be able to congratulate themselves on a real achievement rather than yet another false one. Then, for once, they would deserve their own applause.

• Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com

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World’s biggest offshore windfarm approved for Yorkshire coast

February 18th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “World’s biggest offshore windfarm approved for Yorkshire coast” was written by Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, for The Guardian on Tuesday 17th February 2015 18.37 UTC

Plans for the world’s biggest offshore windfarm have been given the green light by the energy secretary, with planning permission for an array of up to 400 turbines 80 miles off the Yorkshire coast on the Dogger Bank.

The project, more than twice the size of the UK’s current biggest offshore windfarm, is expected to cost £6bn to £8bn and could fulfil 2.5% of the UK’s electricity needs.

Covering about 430 sq miles, the Dogger Bank Creyke Beck project will – if fully constructed – generate enough electricity to power nearly 2m homes, and could support an estimated 900 jobs in Yorkshire and Humberside, according to the government.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary, said: “Making the most of Britain’s home-grown energy is creating jobs and businesses in the UK, getting the best deal for consumers and reducing our reliance on foreign imports. Wind power is vital to this plan, with £14.5bn invested since 2010 into an industry which supports 35,400 jobs.”

Although the UK does not manufacture large wind turbines, the Department of Energy and Climate Change says half of the costs associated with building and operating a windfarm are spent buying services and products from UK businesses.

Dogger has long been mooted as a possible location for offshore windfarms, because the shallow seabed, only about 30 metres deep, should make it easier to lay foundations and construct large turbines there, but no company has yet ventured into the area.

If built, the Creyke Beck turbines would be the furthest offshore that have ever been attempted. They would be the first stage of a project that could eventually be three times the size, if further tranches are also constructed.

Nick Medic, director of offshore renewables at RenewableUK, the wind industry association, said: “This is an awesome project and will surely be considered as one of the most significant infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the wind industry. Dogger Bank demonstrates the sheer potential of offshore technology to turn our vast ocean and wind resources into green energy.

“It is a project that pushes the offshore engineering envelope, demonstrating how far this technology has evolved in the 10 short years since the first major offshore windfarm was installed in North Hoyle just five miles from shore.”

Construction of the first turbines could still be years away, however. The Forewind consortium which is behind the 2400MW capacity project has yet to make a final investment decision. The consortium comprises Scottish and Southern Energy, Germany’s RWE, and Norway’s Statoil and Statkraft, the former the country’s majority state-owned oil business and the latter its state-owned electricity company.

Though the granting of planning permission may encourage a positive decision, the falling oil price and uncertainty over what may happen to wind energy subsidies after the general election make long-term investments in the sector more fraught.

About £60m has been spent by the companies so far on surveys alone.

“Achieving consent for what is currently the world’s largest offshore wind project in development is a major achievement and will help confirm the UK’s position as the world leader in the industry,” said Tarald Gjerde, general manager for Forewind.

The consortium said the Creyke Beck project could create up to 4,750 new direct and indirect full-time equivalent jobs and generate more than £1.5bn for the UK economy, especially in Yorkshire and Humberside owing to their “historic strengths, existing skills in large-scale production activities and a marine support legacy”.

The UK’s last biggest offshore wind site, the London Array, ran into difficulties soon after gaining the government’s green light in a long drawn-out process from 2005 to 2007. Costs spiralled, investors withdrew backing and the future of the project for long periods hung in the balance. However, the windfarm, with 175 turbines, was inaugurated in 2013.

The UK currently has about 1,200 offshore wind turbines, with a total generating capacity of about 4GW.

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