Monthly Archives: December 2020

Carbon Emissions: have they Peaked?

In an article published today in Grist Shannon Osaka considers if global carbon emissions peaked in 2019.  2020 saw emissions fall by 7%, or 2.4 billion metric tons. Clearly 2020 has been a weird year, and the fall may be due mainly to the Covid19 pandemic. As the above graph shows emissions have sometimes dipped in certain years, due to various crises, only to rebound the following year. It is of course too early to say for sure if emissions have peaked and if and how quickly they will then descend.

In December 2015 I wrote a blog wondering, and hoping, that carbon emissions had peaked in that year. Instead they rose again from 2016 to 2019. In that blog I posted two graphs, the first highlighting the small decrease in emissions in 2015, the second from the UN assuming a peak in emissions in 2030 and what the UN called an impossibly steep cut in emissions thereafter.

The fall in emissions in 2020 has been dramatic. Most opinion is that post Covid there may be some rebound toward higher emissions, or that emissions may jog along not going up or down a great deal. There is of course another possibility that emissions will plummet every year from now on until we reach net zero, and then into net negative, where the Earth is sequestering more carbon than is being emitted.

If we look at the graph below it shows how various energy technology costs have changed over the last decade. Solar photovoltaic panels have been coming down in price for many years. Between 1976 and 2019 the price of solar modules has fallen by 99.6%., and as the graph shows the fall in the last decade has been 89%.

Wind, both onshore and offshore, concentrating solar thermal and many forms of energy storage such as batteries and green hydrogen have all also fallen in price by considerable amounts. Fossil fuels and nuclear are slowly pricing themselves out of the market. Worldwide more coal power stations are closing than are being built, and this trend will only accelerate.

Of course to get to net zero as soon as possible will require more than just market forces. We need to change almost every aspect of our global turbo charged capitalist throw-away society. More and more people understand this and are busy creating the new economy. Millions of activists are raising their voices in calls for change. Most of our politicians are utterly inadequate for the task at hand, but even they may move in the right direction. Some better politicians are emerging in many countries, and over the coming months I’ll highlight a few of the best.

For now I just want to stress that the Covid pandemic, combined with falling costs of renewable energy, give us a window of opportunity to reconsider our collective future as a species. Let us cooperate to rapidly bring down emissions, and build a better future. We live in a multifaceted emergency, out of which something better may just be beginning to emerge.

The Wye, Reimagined!

Extinction Rebellion activists hold a vigil for the River Wye, Saturday 19th Dec 2020

The River Wye, like so many of Britain’s rivers is in a sorry state. It is suffering from decades of damage caused by poor farming practices. Phosphate pollution is a major issue stemming from intensive poultry units, excessive use of artificial fertilizers and old and poorly functioning sewage works and septic tanks. Excessive ploughing is leading to soil erosion after heavy rain. Maize, unsustainably grown for bio-digesters, is especially vulnerable to soil erosion. These are just some of the problems affecting the Wye catchment area. Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s Andrew Nixon gives his list of what is wrong here. Helen Stace, the Trust’s director, writes about a recent act of ecosystem vandalism by a local farmer on the River Lugg. Investigative journalist Nicola Cutcher writes about pollution on the Llynfi, a Welsh tributary of the Wye. Yesterday Extinction Rebellion held a vigil on the old bridge in Hereford to draw public attention to the crisis affecting our rivers. George Monbiot, Franny Armstrong and Nicola Cutcher are crowdfunding for what I am sure will be a fascinating live documentary to be called Rivercide.

All this is about what is wrong, with just a little about some of the small things that could be done to mitigate the damage. I want us to now re-imagine the whole Wye catchment differently. We could utterly transform the whole ecosystem, producing more food while also massively benefiting wildlife. Here’s how.

Protecting and rebuilding soil is of critical importance, and the scope for solving multiple problems is immense. Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota, has been a pioneer in regenerative agriculture. He has five principles of soil health: ‘no-till or minimal tillage, keeping the ground covered, diversity in plant and animal species, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and the importance of integrating animals.’ By applying these principles he has managed to increase his soil organic matter from 1.9% in 1991 to 6.1%, so increasing the rate at which water can percolate down into the soil from half an inch per hour in 1991 to eight inches per hour now. This increase in permeability massively reduces risks of both flooding and drought. The raised level of organic matter also increases fertility while sequestering carbon. Imagine if all farmland in the Wye catchment adopted these methods.

We could go further, as agroforestry pioneer Martin Wolfe demonstrated at Wakelyns farm over the last 25 years. Now several others are developing the most amazing farms utilizing agroforestry alley cropping. Outstanding among them is George Young of Fobbing in Essex. He is planting rows of the most extraordinary variety of fruit and nut trees, with a great diversity of nutrient rich grains and legumes grown in the alleys and is now integrating red pole cattle into the system. He, like most regenerative farmers, is gradually reducing all his chemical inputs and slowly converting to organic systems.

If we return to reimaging the Wye catchment where the entire area was converting to systems of organic agroforestry, with a very much greater diversity of trees and bushes, arable crops and livestock all integrated into each acre. As we did so we could close down all intensive poultry units and replace or repair all malfunctioning sewage works and septic tanks. We would then have massively reduced the risks of flooding and of drought, of pollution and of soil erosion. We could of course go further still. Many areas would benefit from rewilding. Some farms might want to follow the extraordinary example of rewilding set by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at Knepp farm in Sussex. The reintroduction beavers would have a very positive effect, acting to slow the river, reduce erosion and create a wonderful network of habitats for more species to colonize. The Wye could once again have the biodiversity and health it had hundreds of years ago, and it could simultaneously produce more and better food than it ever has.

Carbon Emissions & the Scale of Change

Carbon Emissions need to fall to below zero. Historically prosperity has led to high emissions. That needs to change.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are today at 413.66 parts per million (ppm). A healthy biosphere would ideally be at around 285 ppm, which is roughly what it has fluctuated around for the past 10,000 years, or the entire duration of human civilization. Climate scientists often talk of 350 ppm as a safe upper limit. The Paris Climate Agreement was signed five years ago in an attempt to reduce emissions, but it has failed. Emissions need to drop to zero and then we need to sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. Most governments talk of reducing emissions, and in some sectors of the economy they may succeed, but no country is yet at zero emissions, let alone the required net negative emissions.

If we look at the graph above it shows the extent of our challenge. Historically increases in wealth have only come about with rising emissions. The countries with the smallest carbon footprints are all very poor whereas all the richest countries have higher carbon footprints.

It seems to me entirely possible to have prosperity for all 7.8 billion of us human beings, and to do so in a way which is carbon negative. To achieve that everything needs to change. This is not just about how we generate and use energy, or about how we farm or about ending our throwaway culture. Yes, all those things need to change, but so too does the distribution of power and money.

A recent report by Oxfam stated that the carbon emissions of the richest 1% are more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity. Richer countries, and especially richer individuals, have a huge moral responsibility to reduce emissions.

Many millions of people are active campaigners for climate action and climate justice. We have been on demonstrations, lobbied MP’s and tried to live more sustainable lifestyles. Some people have even set up innovative companies to try and change the technological basis of our society. The global school strikes movement deserve particular praise for keeping the issue in the media spotlight.

For my part I am currently writing a book about the scale of change required, and once every month or two I give a talk on Zoom, the next one being on 6th January. These things have kept me rather pre-occupied during the last few months and so these blogs have been rather less frequent than they used to be: apologies for that. If you want to be added onto the talks and discussions list, which includes my talks, and lots of other interesting things from The Left Bank programme, you can fill out this MailChimp form.