Category Archives: Climate Change

A Bad Week for Big Oil

Climate activists campaign to get the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline stopped

A matrix of crises is simultaneously unfolding. Species are going extinct, atmospheric carbon levels are increasing, new diseases are emerging, and inequality is getting worse. In many ways things look bleak. All these crises call for a radical change of direction. That change may be happening. The signs of change are many, some are subtle and slow, but sometimes change can be sudden.

This week has been a terrible week for big oil, and a good week for climate activists. A Dutch court has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Climate activists have also been influential as shareholders, with successful coups against the management of both Chevron and Exxon. All this unfolded only a week or so after the International Energy Agency released it’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report, which essentially advised against any new fossil fuel projects.

The French oil multinational Total is currently constructing the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, or EACOP, across Uganda and Tanzania. It will have devastating impacts on the local ecology and lock us into higher carbon emissions. Local activists are trying to stop it. Today Total is having their AGM. The news from IEA, Shell, Chevron and Exxon will no doubt be on their minds. EACOP is a project that should be cancelled.

Shell is planning to appeal the Dutch court’s decision, and no doubt the management of Exxon, Chevron, Total and the others will try and keep their business as usual model going, with a token bit of greener investment in renewables to try and keep the activists quiet. Most of the oil majors have been involved in decades of systematic lying, backing climate denialism when their own research revealed the huge climate impacts of their industries. In my view most of them have left it too late to change. Probably most will go bankrupt. They have such vast assets which this week’s developments are making look increasingly like worthless stranded assets.

I just want to say a huge thank-you to climate activists everywhere. There are many more battles ahead, but let’s pause long enough to celebrate this week’s victories.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Coal Collapses: Renewables Rise

UK electricity 1920 – 2020

Coal is collapsing. The above graph shows how coal use grew up until the 1980’s, then slowly and erratically declined until about 2012, and then plummeted over the last eight years. In 2019 it made up less than 2% of UK electricity supply: in 2020 it will be less than that, and soon it will dwindle to nothing. As of today, 13th May 2020, the UK has gone for 33 days without using any coal to generate electricity, for the first time since the 1880’s. Countries across Europe are permanently shutting down their last coal fired power stations. Belgium was the first to do so, in 2016, followed last month by Austria, then days later, Sweden. Over the next few years many countries, including UK, will permanently shut their last coal fired power stations.

A few years ago there was a lot of nonsense talked about Peak Oil and how demand would outstrip supply causing energy prices to skyrocket. Energy prices have been falling for years, and this process is made more acute by the Covid 19 pandemic further suppressing demand. Oil prices actually went negative recently, for the first time ever, with people being paid to take it from the overflowing oil field facilities.

As the above graph shows UK electricity demand has been falling for nearly two decades, as is the case in many mature economies. Low prices, coupled with the disinvestment campaign, have made it increasingly hard for coal companies to expand, even in Australia which historically had a very profitable coal sector. Most fossil fuel extraction is now unprofitable.

Renewables are on the rise. Prices are falling and performance is improving. Storage and interconnection technologies are making it ever cheaper and easier to rely on renewables for all our electricity needs. As heating and transportation systems are electrified electricity demand will rise, but this rise can be dealt with in a 100% renewables scenario.

As countries emerge from the Covid 19 pandemic they will need to make choices about the kind of future they want. Old coal, oil and other obsolete sectors of the economy will be lobbying for bailouts. We can have clean air, better health, less road accidents, more social justice and a whole raft of other benefits by opting for a Green New Deal. At the heart of any Green New Deal is the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Of course we need huge other changes to create a more socially just and less polluting future, but let’s celebrate the progress that has been made. One indicator is our individual carbon emissions stemming from electricity use. In UK these have fallen from 2.6 tonnes per person in 2010 to below one tonne in 2019. This is very good news and has been due to the decline in coal, made possible by falling demand and the rise of renewables.

Climate: Action Required

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has said that capital markets are financing projects likely to fuel a catastrophic rise in global heating. This of course is exactly why Extinction Rebellion activists have been rebelling in the city of London this week. Carney also pointed out that companies with assets concentrated in the fossil fuel sector are likely to go bankrupt, just as others in the cleantech sector flourish.

The scale and speed of the energy transition required to avert catastrophe is way beyond what any politicians are advocating. Let’s take the energy debate in Australia where they currently generate about 20% of their electricity from renewables, and which the governing party energy minister thinks is too much, and is advocating for huge investments in coal. The opposition parties are advocating increasing renewables by 2030, the Labor party to 50% and the Green Party to 100%. Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, is calling for a goal of 700%, which to me seems a sensible way forward. Cheap wind and solar could easily meet all Australia’s electricity needs, and facilitate the energy transition in the transport and built environment sectors, and open up a huge new market in the form of clean energy exports. Already plans are afoot to lay an undersea cable to Singapore to directly export renewable electricity and for a huge growth in green hydrogen for export to Japan, Korea and China, helping them rapidly decarbonise. These are the sort of economic changes to which Mark Carney was referring. The question is where are the politicians needed to implement such profound and rapid changes?

Meanwhile Prince William is in Pakistan and has called for climate action after seeing for himself glacial retreat and consequent flooding and drought problems. He has called for greater cooperation between the UK and Pakistan on the issue. Pakistan, like Australia, has enormous solar potential. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has published a detailed paper on ‘Pakistan’s Power Future’, where they point out that solar and wind are already the cheapest forms of new energy and are projected to only get cheaper. Currently solar provides only 0.5% and wind 1.5% of Pakistan’s electricity. Pakistan currently generates 61% of its electricity from largely imported and expensive oil and gas. It would be good for Pakistan’s balance of payments, for local communities currently struggling without electricity, and for the global climate if their politicians worked with the many people who could help them rapidly develop their renewable energy potential.

Here in UK Boris Johnson has just announced that he will chair a new government committee on climate change. It is right that the Prime Minister chairs such a committee, but hard to imagine anyone less qualified to do the job. If I was to chair the committee I’d want to invite Professor Peter Strachan from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and Jeremy Leggett from Solarcentury as my key advisors. Sadly Boris is unlikely to listen to such voices and unlikely to take any sensible action to avert climatic, ecological and financial collapse, which is why Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Greenpeace and others will keep up their protests for urgent and radical change.

Muddle… or Decisive Action?

Students lobbying Councilors to declare a Climate Emergency

Students lobbying Councilors to declare a Climate Emergency

Last Friday Herefordshire Council unanimously declared a Climate Emergency. It was an inspiring day. About a hundred of us old environmental activists were outside the Shirehall when along came about one hundred and seventy young students who had marched chanting from the collages, down Aylestone Hill and through High Town. Our councillors had seldom, if ever, seen so much support for a motion to be passed. Yesterday the same council approved their own Transport Package, which essentially commits them to spending vast sums of money on road building and peanuts for walking, cycling and public transport. This, of course, is exactly the kind of policy that shows they are not serious about the Climate Emergency that they themselves had declared just a few days earlier. It reflects the muddled thinking of governments around the World, who continue to give billions in subsidies to keep the old fossil fuel industries going, while at the same time professing to be concerned about climate change, ecological breakdown and appalling air quality. It is why more and more people are taking to the streets globally, with groups like Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate Action, demanding immediate and decisive action.

This coming Friday, 15th March, there will be a global school strike for climate action. As of this morning 1209 actions in 92 countries have been announced, and many more are being added each day. I follow many of the organisers on Twitter, and these young people, some only ten years old, are so powerful and eloquent speakers. They put most of our elected politicians to shame.

We need to make policy and investment decisions fit to the physical realities of the ecological crisis. Take road building. While our local council’s top priority seems to be to build ever more roads George Monbiot suggests a target of reducing car use by 90% over the next decade. Halting the manufacture, sale and use of fossil fuel cars, lorries and buses is a political decision. As I have repeatedly argued on this blog battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell alternatives already exist, and having most of the cars in car sharing clubs rather than private ownership we can further decrease the damage they do and the space they take up. If we are serious about action on climate change, or children’s health, or the liveability of our cities, then we have to make planning policy decisions in the understanding that the era of the privately owned motor car is over.

System Change not Climate Change

The World is getting warmer. This graph depicts the global temperature changes from 1880 to 2018. The data on which it is based is from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the graph is courtesy of Levke Caesar.

This week in the UK we’ve been enjoying unseasonably warm weather. Lots of us have been outdoors actively making the best of it. However there is also the worrying knowledge that this lovely weather is not how February in UK should be. Weather records are being broken all over the world. Some of these events are pleasantly enjoyed by millions, such as this warm spell in the UK. The other side of the coin is that many people are experiencing life threatening weather events: floods, droughts, hurricanes.

What is of course most worrying is that the warmer global temperatures are increasingly triggering a number of feedback loops. Ice is melting from the Arctic to the Antarctic causing sea levels to rise. As the oceans warm the water expands, further adding to sea level rise. Less ice means more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the ocean, further contributing to warming, and to sea level rise. As the sea warms methane is released from the ocean floor. Permafrost is melting releasing more methane and carbon dioxide, further intensifying climate breakdown. As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, turning some of this into carbonic acid and thus making the oceans more acidic, with potentially catastrophic results for humanity.

The science is clear. We need to get to a zero carbon economy as quickly as possible. As I’ve repeatedly said on this blog, we have technological and political choices. Our politicians consistently hold on to outdated concepts, like economic growth and national self interest. The young people involved with school strike for climate, and so many of us in ecological activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, understand we need system change, not climate change. If our species is to have a future we all must start acting in the interests of our own species, as a unified collective entity. We all need a stable climate and a fully functioning biosphere. That will entail reallocating resources on an epic scale. It will involve the closing down of many industries, and the expansion of others. Our decisions will need to be guided by the ecological imperative, and that will need to trump all concepts of profit and power. A big ask, but absolutely necessary.

Greta Thunberg: My Person of the Year

Greta

Greta Thunberg, who started the School Strike for Climate movement, and is my Person of the Year 2018

For the last few years on this blog I’ve chosen a person and/or a technology to celebrate as the Person of the Year or Technology of the Year. I try and highlight ideas, people and technologies that might help humanity move to a better future, where climate breakdown is averted, mass species extinction halted and where people can live in a peaceful and prosperous manner, without wrecking the planet in the process.

The hydrogen fuel cell is my technology of the year. Lots of companies and research programmes have made important progress over the last twelve months, and many of them I’ve written about. In September I posted two blogs on the subject, here and here, and one in March.

We have the science that informs us we must combat climate change and the technologies to do so. Our planet is dominated by politicians who don’t want to understand the dangers or learn about better ways of doing things. Carbon emissions rose last year, when the science tells us they need to be falling fast.

The biggest and most positive thing to happen over this last year has been the emergence of a new generation of climate activists. In August the 15 year old Swede Greta Thunberg started her school climate strikes, taking every Friday off school to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Her tweets and videos have gone viral and young people in hundreds of cities around the World have joined her in going on school climate strikes. In October Extinction Rebellion launched its programme of non violent direct action in London, and it too has rapidly become a global phenomena. Linked with these street based activist movements has been the growth of political movements advocating radical action on climate breakdown. In October I blogged about Green Parties gaining ground in elections in Luxembourg, Belgium and Bavaria, and during most of November and December most of my blogs have been about the growth of this climate activism, especially with the emergence of the Sunrise movement, the Justice Democrats and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez since the American Midterm elections in November. In Britain, where our politics in general seems so totally dysfunctional Caroline Lucas seems to be the most popular politician, and the only member of Parliament backed up by policies that might yet avert the worst. If I have to pick one person to represent this global wave of climate activism it would undoubtedly be Greta Thunberg. Do please watch this two minute video of her addressing COP 24 in Katowice, and check-out her Twitter for more news and videos.