Monthly Archives: February 2021

Carbon Emissions: Billionaires & the BBC

Last summer I wrote a blog about the carbon emissions of billionaires. This week an interesting article was published in The Conversation where two economic anthropologists from Indiana University looked in more detail at the individual carbon footprints of twenty of the richest people on the planet. Their findings reveal that the individual carbon footprints varied from Michel Bloomberg’s 1,782 tons to the staggering annual emissions of Roman Abramovich at 31,199 tons. In my blog I’d estimated the carbon emissions of all, or nearly all, billionaires to be over 1,000 tons. I’d also implied that their average would be even higher than this, and some individuals would be almost unimaginably high emitters. This new data backs up my previous blog.

Global average carbon emissions are currently something around 5 tons per person. Many people have miniscule carbon emissions, of perhaps a few kilograms or even just a few grams. The vast majority of such people are small scale African or Asian subsistence farmers. Some people who are doing ecologically regenerative farming systems will have negative carbon footprints, meaning that the carbon they are sequestering in the soil is more than that they emit in other ways. I follow lots of African climate activists of Twitter and many of them are doing amazing projects setting up tree nurseries, clearing up plastic pollution, educating about ecology and setting up ecologically restorative farming systems.

Meanwhile BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting Bill Gates’ book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’. It is a pretty awful book, concentrating entirely on technological innovation and ignoring the vital aspects of social innovation and climate justice. Last week I reviewed Jason Hickel’s book which focuses on the absolute need to move to a post capitalist economy to combat the climate and ecological emergency. I could recommend dozens of other books, maybe hundreds, that are much better than Bill Gates’ one. So why are the BBC reading his one? Is it because he is a billionaire, and the BBC really has become a mouthpiece for the greedy global elite? As the figures published in The Conversation reveal Bill Gates’ personal carbon emissions are 7,408 tons. Rather than write a book his time might have been better spent looking at his own carbon footprint.

Last month I posted a blog about the people who have inspired me over the last year, and I named three young women activists from Africa who all are doing great work on climate, ecological and social justice: Patricia Kombo from Kenya, Kaossara Sani from Togo and Oladosu Adenike from the Lake Chad Region. I could have added many more names to this list. Africa is bursting with great climate activists. Why does the BBC focus on Bill Gates? Is it because he is a rich white man from America and not a poor black women from Africa?

There are many great books and ideas about how to adequately address the climate and ecological emergency. Most call for some pretty radical changes implying huge social, economic and political change as well as technological change. Why do none of them get coverage on the BBC? Is it because the BBC has become too deeply embedded in the present social, economic and political system that they cannot contemplate any challenge to this system, even when it is glaringly obvious that this needs to happen to avert climate, ecological and social breakdown?

Jason Hickel: Degrowth

Jason Hickel’s book ‘Less is More, How Degrowth will Save the World’ is I think the best yet critique of growth and of capitalism. He draws on ecology, economics, history and many other disciplines to chart how this pervasive and destructive ideology came into being and how it spells disaster for humanity. In the light of the Climate and Ecological Emergency the need to rapidly and radically change direction could not be more urgent. Hickel makes only general indications about what a post growth and post capitalist world might look like, but he does give us at least a glimpse of that possible future. (The book I am writing is much more detailed on that front.)

Economic growth, as measured by GDP, is the fundamental goal of nearly all governments. For most of our politicians and media it is taken as a ‘good thing’. It is the bedrock upon which capitalism as a system has been built, and without continuous growth capitalism would collapse. Because capitalism is so ubiquitous it is taken for granted without really being understood as a system and Jason Hickel is particularly strong in outlining exactly what capitalism is and why it is so destructive. People often think of capitalism as the right to trade and to use markets, but trade and markets pre-date capitalism by thousands of years. What emerged about 500 years ago was a system predicated on extracting value from trade to reinvest in ever larger scale trade. Value had to be continually extracted from the natural world and from people in order to have ever larger sums to invest in ever larger enterprises. Profit acquisition for investment replaced the earlier system of trade to acquire things for their usefulness. Stock markets grew and they depended upon profits to pay interest and attract investors in an endless cycle of continuous growth.

Questioning growth as a goal goes back decades, certainly to the early 1970’s, with Herman Daly’s ideas of a ‘Steady State Economy’, Donella Meadow’s ‘Limits to Growth’, ‘Blueprint for Survival’ and many others. Where Jason Hickel is particularly strong is on the insanity of constant growth projected very far into the future, given the impossibility to completely decouple growth from the material through-put of the economy and the associated waste and pollution. He is also very good in his connecting capitalism’s need for growth with its never ending need to colonize and exploit ever more aspects of people’s lives and of the natural world.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years. The hardback edition came out last August and a paperback version is due to be published in a week or so, on 25th February.

There are writers such as Mark E Thomas, of the 99% organisation, who are still in favour of growth as an overall objective, but who distinguish between good growth, growth that is irredeemably bad and growth that can be transformed from bad to good. Other writers, such as Kate Raworth, author of Donut Economics, describe themselves as growth agnostic. What I’d love to see, and to participate in, is a debate between them. I think we would all agree on what sectors of the economy need to contract, which ones still need to grow and which ones can be transformed. The trouble is any discussion of radical economic contraction of any sectors of the economy is still taboo for most politicians and the media. That needs to change, as a matter of extreme urgency. As Greta Thunberg keeps reminding us, we are in a crisis, and it is about time we started treating it as a crisis. The obsession with endless economic growth on a finite and fragile planet is perhaps the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunity. If you are not convinced then do read this excellent book by Jason Hickel and judge for yourself.

Offshore wind and energy hubs

Denmark Greenlights North Sea Energy Island Hub
Denmark is planning to build an artificial island in the North Sea, to be used as an energy hub.

On this blog I’ve written about wind power numerous times, but not much over the last four years. During those last four years lots of interesting trends have continued with both individual wind turbines and windfarms getting bigger. Costs have continued to fall, and are predicted to continue to fall, especially as new materials are coming into use. More and more countries are developing offshore wind power. The usefulness of wind power is also increasing as wind to hydrogen technology and batteries are deployed and as more interconnector cables are laid between countries.

Way back in the 1980’s when I first started getting interested in renewable energy there was an assumption that not more than about 8 or 9% of the grid capacity could be made up from wind power: more would destabilize the grid. Like many such assumptions it was in the interests of the existing coal, gas, oil and nuclear industries that such things were believed. It is true that the wind is famously fickle, but relatively minor adaptations to the grid have allowed countries like Denmark to produce a lot of their electricity from the wind. At times of low demand and strong winds, back in 2015 they managed to get 140% of their demand from wind, and that has continued to climb so now it is several hundred percent, and this will keep growing. Surplus wind generated electricity will increasingly be sold to neighbouring countries, or stored in batteries, hydrogen or many other ways.

The news this week shows just how offshore wind power is ramping up. Denmark is proposing building an artificial island in the North Sea, 80kms off the Jutland coast, to act as hub for up to 10GW of offshore wind farms. Cables will connect to Germany, Belgium, and probably other countries, and also back to the Danish mainland. Over in the Baltic the Danes are planning to use the island of Bornholm in a similar way as a wind power hub, in this case linked to Germany, Poland and Sweden. Meanwhile South Korea has just announced a $43 billion investment in 8.2 GW offshore wind projects. USA is also now just beginning to get serious about large scale offshore wind.

In 2010 I wrote a blog about the increasing scale of wind power, both of individual turbines and of wind farms. At that time the largest wind turbine was 7MW. Now the largest wind turbine in production is the Haliade X at 14 MW, and Siemens Gamesa are planning something similar. These are double the size of the biggest ones from a decade ago.

In Sweden they are starting to build wind turbine towers made from cross laminated wood. These look like they will be lighter, cheaper, and stronger and also entail less carbon emissions than steel. They may also be the basis for taller towers. Wind turbines blades may also get lighter, stronger and cheaper by being made out of new composite materials, such as those being pioneered by Scottish start-up ACT blade.

Individual turbines, and offshore wind farms, will get very much bigger over the next decade. Solar power, hydrogen production and several other clean technologies are also ramping up quickly. This ramping up of cleantech is one crucial part of what we need to do in response to the climate and ecological emergency. There is of course so much more that we need to do.  

An Open Letter to World Leaders

There is an open letter from young climate activists to world leaders stating their demands of governments. It was written by Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Anuna de Wever van der Heyden and Adelaide Charlier. They sum up the global situation with admirable clarity and to me their demands are sensible. They are seeking more signatures to this letter.

Please read the letter and sign it. The more of us do so the more the media and world leaders will pay attention. Thank-you.