In November 2012, four reports relevant to climate change appeared within the short span of about three weeks. Alerted by brief media reports I went and found them online. Even after just reading their summaries I was alarmed. Here is my summary of them, in the order in which they appeared.
5th November 2012: PwC UK Too late for two degrees? Low carbon economy index for 2012.
This was the fourth annual low carbon economy index report from the UK member of the global PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) network. This global network of accounting and corporate advisory firms is hardly a radical left-wing deep green environmentalist organization; however the economists in their global sustainability and climate change practice have for four years now been calculating the carbon intensity of the global economy (measured in tonnes of emissions per $million GDP), watching how it changes from year to year and calculating by how much it needs to change if warming is to be limited to 2 °C. The news was not good, and this is their summary from the beginning of the report:
The PwC Low Carbon Economy Index evaluates the rate of decarbonisation of the global economy that is needed to limit warming to 2°C. This is based on a carbon budget that would stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at 450 ppm and give a 50% probability of limiting warming to 2°C.
This report shows that global carbon intensity decreased between 2000 and 2011 by around 0.8% a year. In 2011, carbon intensity decreased by just 0.7%.
The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1% every year from now to 2050 to achieve this carbon budget. This required rate of decarbonisation has not been seen even in a single year since the mid-20th century when these records began. Keeping to the 2°C carbon budget will require unprecedented and sustained reductions over four decades.
Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C appear highly unrealistic.
One of the great advantages of the PwC approach is that it gives us a yardstick against which to judge emission reduction objectives. An annual reduction of 5.1% represents a halving of emissions in just under 14 years – a 50% reduction from 2013 emissions by 2027, assuming no increase in GDP. Australia’s current target is a 5% reduction from 2000 emission levels by 2020.
12th November 2012: International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2012.
The International Energy Agency (known as the IEA to energy policy aficionados) is an independent agency established by the member countries of the OECD to advise them on energy policy. Every year the IEA publishes its World Energy Outlook, a compendium of energy data and energy policy options, which the IEA organises into scenarios. The full document is expensive; however the IEA helpfully publishes an Executive Summary in a number of languages which can be freely downloaded from its web site. For several years the IEA has been pointing out with increasing force that actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases are falling short of what is required to achieve the current global target of constraining warming to 2 °C. In the 2012 report the IEA starts by discussing the very important role energy efficiency can play in reconciling disparate policy objectives, then follows with this section which I quote with their emphasis:
Energy efficiency can keep the door to 2 °C open for just a bit longer
Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2 °C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies – as in our Efficient World Scenario – would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon reserves”, measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves. Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas. Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia. These findings underline the importance of CCS as a key option to mitigate CO2 emissions, but its pace of deployment remains highly uncertain, with only a handful of commercial scale projects currently in operation.
So to summarise the IEA’s first paragraph, if we wish to limit warming to around 2 °C we have until 2017 – 4 years away – to either get very serious indeed about energy efficiency, or at that date we have to completely stop building all coal fired power stations, all gas fired power stations, all other coal and gas fired equipment (industrial furnaces, gas home heating, gas hot water services, etc), all airplanes, all trucks (apart from electric ones), all cars (apart from electric ones), and all ships – apart from sailing ships. Further, the second paragraph tells us that we had better not plan to burn ourselves or export for others to burn all of Australia’s large coal and gas reserves – they need to stay safely in the ground.
How much have you heard people from Australia’s mainstream political parties or from the mainstream media talk about leaving our coal and gas in the ground? Compared with where the mainstream Australian political dialogue is at, these recommendations of the IEA are shockingly radical.
18th November 2012: World Bank Report: Turn Down the Heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided.
The World Bank was assisted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics in this detailed (≈ 100 pages) report which:
• reviews observed climate change impacts such as rising global mean temperature, increasing ocean heat storage, rising sea levels, increasing loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica, ocean acidification, heat waves and extreme temperatures, and agricultural impacts.
• looks at the likelihood of a 4°C world before the end of the 21st century and the implications of such a world for precipitation, droughts and cyclones.
• reviews risks from sea-level rise and how they vary from region to region.
• discusses changes in extreme temperatures, with the emphasis on projected increases in heat extremes and the impacts of more frequent heat waves.
• reviews the potential impacts of the changes already discussed on agriculture, water resources, ecosystems and biodiversity and human health.
• finally considers the risks of non-linear and cascading impacts. Up until this point, issues such as sea level rise had been considered on their own; now the report discusses how problems could add to each other (a “cascading impact”), or how tipping points could be reached, leading to a non-linear response. An example of such a non-linear response is the sensitivity of some food crops (such as maize, wheat and soya) to temperature; growth rates can reduce quickly if temperatures exceed a threshold.
The concluding remarks of this report are:
A 4°C world will pose unprecedented challenges to humanity. It is clear that large regional as well as global scale damages and risks are very likely to occur well before this level of warming is reached. This report has attempted to identify the scope of these challenges driven by responses of the Earth system and various human and natural systems. Although no quantification of the full scale of human damage is yet possible, the picture that emerges challenges an often-implicit assumption that climate change will not significantly undermine economic growth. It seems clear that climate change in a 4°C world could seriously undermine poverty alleviation in many regions. This is supported by past observations of the negative effects of climate change on economic growth in developing countries. While developed countries have been and are projected to be adversely affected by impacts resulting from climate change, adaptive capacities in developing regions are weaker. The burden of climate change in the future will very likely be borne differentially by those in regions already highly vulnerable to climate change and variability. Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward developmentgoals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.
27th November 2012: United Nations Environment Program: Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost
Permafrost is frozen soil, and currently occupies about 24% of the exposed land surface of the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost typically contains organic matter; if the permafrost thaws, then the organic matter is expected to decay releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Thus thawing permafrost is a mechanism for runaway climate change: warming thaws permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, which causes further warming, which thaws more permafrost, which releases…… and so the process continues.
As well as describing permafrost and the large potential for emissions as it thaws, the report tells us that permafrost thawing is being observed, but there is not much information available to tell us how fast it is currently thawing. The main paragraphs from the conclusions section of the report are:
Climate projections indicate substantial permafrost loss and degradation by 2100. Wide-spread permafrost degradation will permanently change local hydrology, increasing the frequency of fire and erosion disturbances. The number of wetlands and lakes will increase in continuous permafrost zones and decrease in discontinuous zones. Overall, the total number of wetlands and lakes will decrease as the continuous permafrost zone shrinks, impacting critical habitat, particularly for migratory birds. Risks associated with rock falls and erosion will increase, particularly in cold mountain areas. Damage to critical infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, will incur significant social and economic costs.
Degrading permafrost can release enough CO2 and methane to influence global climate, amplifying warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Permafrost contains approximately 1672 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon in the form of frozen organic matter. If the permafrost thaws, so will the organic matter, which will then decay, potentially releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Emissions from thawing permafrost could start within the next few decades and continue for several centuries, influencing both short-term climate (before 2100) and long-term climate (after 2100).
Let me try to brutally summarise all the above:
1. A very dramatic and complete change of direction in our collective greenhouse gas emissions is needed very soon (before the end of this decade) if we are to have any hope of avoiding more than 2 °C warming. Making that change in direction requires us to turn our backs on fossil fuel reserves we already know about and have counted as collective assets. It will also require us to start shutting down the fossil fuel industry, perhaps the largest and most successful industry in human history.
2. A world in which we fail to limit warming to 2 °C will be very problematic. We cannot assume that we will be able to feed, house and keep relatively healthy those members of the human family that we can now.
3. While we don’t think we have crossed the threshold into uncontrollable runaway climate change, we don’t know where that threshold is. We do know we are drawing ever closer to it.
So what is to be done? Clearly Australia’s two main political parties are light years away from where they should be if they were serious about this issue. Time is short. So activists everywhere, I propose a one-year moratorium on all campaigning – except on climate change. That’s right, drop everything (even the forests!), and concentrate on climate change. It’s that serious.
PwC report is available from http://pdf.pwc.co.uk/low-carbon-economy-index-nov12.pdf
IEA World Energy Outlook summary is available from http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/English.pdf
World Bank Report is available from http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf
UN Environment Program permafrost report available from http://www.unep.org/pdf/permafrost.pdf
David Hamilton is a semi-retired physicist, energy consultant and tree grower who moved to northern Tasmania in 2009 and has not regretted it for a moment. He can be followed on Twitter at @DavidHTassie
• Talk given to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, 11/5/2013 by Dr Frank Nicklason
Thank you for inviting me to speak at the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) National Day of Action.
It is an honour to talk to your excellent organisation.
Recently I have attended 2 events in which AYCC has played an important role, or has organised.
The first of these events was in Adelaide several weeks ago, at the medical student’s chapter of Doctors for the Environment Australia convention. One of the most memorable presentations at this convention was given by Dan Spencer of AYCC. Dan spoke of the brilliant ‘Repower Port Augusta’ campaign. The aim is to replace coal powered energy generation with solar-thermal. AYCC has garnered broad community support for such a transition. AYCC have elicited this support by a grass roots information campaign and, crucially, by gaining the involvement of Joy Baluch, the city’s mayor, who is gravely ill with cancer associated the long term effects of inhaling coal dust. Later that afternoon AYCC’s Katya Glogovska and Sarah Cohn led workshops designed to give their members the skills to increase community awareness of the implications and impacts of global climate change and how to be involved in working for solutions. Two weeks ago I attended a seminar at the University of Tasmania hosted by AYCC, another, interesting, very well attended, and energising event.
It has been great to witness the energy, passion, skills, and commitment of AYCC members!
‘The bystander phenomenon’ is well known to social psychology researchers. How is it that people can observe clear wrongs and then simply avert their gaze? Various reasons for this type of disengagement have been offered. These include fear of physical harm and fear of litigation relating to public statements/actions against wrongdoers. A very interesting and consistent feature associated with the bystander phenomenon is that the more observers there are of a wrong doing the less likely it is that any of those observers will attempt to either help or stand up for the victim(s). A variety of excuses may be offered; ‘I’m just one’, ‘I’ll mind my own business’, ‘What will other people think if I make a fuss’. What sort of message do young people get when observers of wrong doing include political, religious, and business leaders, media organisations, and the community at large? And what sort of example is set when there is collusion with the wrong doers?
All of this is, of course, relevant to the issue of climate change. The extraction, and subsequent use, of fossil fuels from massive industrial open cut and long wall coal mines, and from coal seam gas operations represents a massive contribution to climate change. AYCC are well aware that if current plans to expand these activities are realised then Australia will be the source of about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions by year 2020. This is an appalling prospect. Some 2020 vision! AYCC are smart to focus so much of their attention to these projects.
I was asked to talk about some of the health related issues associated with these fossil fuel extraction projects. When considering these issues it is important to think broadly. Some of these health issues are quite obvious and are underscored by unequivocal research evidence. Coal dust inhalation is associated, acutely, by worsening of asthma and of emphysema symptoms. Long term coal dust exposure increases cancer risk.Very small dust particles, so-called PM2.5s, are able to gain access to blood vessels and cause inflammation, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Long term effects of heavy metal, and other chemical, water contamination associated with coal mining are also of great concern.
What is is less well studied, understood, and publicised are the individual mental health effects and the implications for community health, wellbeing, and cohesion, of industrial scale landscape destruction, 24/7 mining and transport noises, and in fly in, fly out employment.
In Tasmania we are familiar with broadacre landscape conversion associated to clearfelling of native forests and establishment of monoculture pulpwood tree crops on cleared forest coupes and on productive farmland. The details of the anguish of a man living at Rose’s Tiers in North East Tasmania are relevant. This German (Berlin) born man, Roelf Roos, became increasingly distressed by clearfelling forest destruction, aerial spraying of dangerous chemicals, baiting of browsing native animals with 1080, and so-called “regeneration burns”. Roelf Roos pinned his last hope on the election of Mark Latham in 2004 and the proposals that the Labor party had to restructure the Tasmanian forest industry. With the re-election of John Howard, Roos lost all hope and shot himself, within days of the election.
A word has been coined to describe the mental and emotional devastation of confronting the destruction of beloved home landscapes.
That word is solastalgia. It was proposed by Glenn Albrecht and was first applied to locals who witnessed recent severe droughts on mainland Australia. Solastaglia is a state that health care professionals are going to have to recognise and address as the extreme weather events and fires associated with climate change become ever more frequent. No doubt Australian people living in rural and regional NSW and Queensland are experiencing solastaglia. Solastalgia is the homesickness you can have whilst still at home. The extent and scale of coal mining and coal seam gas activities is mind boggling, literally. Industrial incursion is a potent cause of solastalgia. One lesson of solastalgia is that it can be fatal and it can wreck relationships.
What has impressed me about AYCC is the approach and commitment of it’s members, now 80,000 Australia wide. They have not exhibited anger visibly, though surely there is reason to be disgusted with decisions made by our political leaders and by the CEOs of multinational companies. AYCC are not passive bystanders, not fearful. Responsibility is accepted for our mutual future. AYCC is creative in forging relationships with all those people who are hurting and who can be encouraged to take a stand in whatever way they can. It is understood that coping with climate change involves consideration of food security, water resources, community cohesion, as well as biodiversity and world heritage. So relationships are forged with farmers, fishers, tourism operators, community groups, and any one who can help.
Another word has been coined by Albrecht. An antidote to solastalgia was required. That word is soliphilia.
Soliphilia is the solidarity and alliance that is required, between us all, in order that we can be responsible for a place, a bio-region, the planet. Soliphilia stands up against the tactics of those multi-national corporations who are digging up our country, laying to waste food producing land, and drilling thousands of holes in our soil in search of gas, in the process threatening our water supplies. The tactics of multi-national corporations are to divide communities, to mislead, and to falsely claim the middle ground with the pretense of balance. Their characteristics are deceit, untruthfulness, lack of empathy, false charm directed at the favoured few, entitlement, arrogance, and displays of breath taking ruthlessness. There is manifest disconnection from the needs of others. These are the hallmarks of psychopathy.
AYCCs characteristics are intelligence, connectedness, courage, and positivity. Your responses are inspiring and I wish you well, you will have important wins.
Thank you and good luck.
• Dr Frank Nicklason: Dear (Mercury) Editor
The Australian (13/5) reports that Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh last week met NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to discuss concern regarding the overturning of approval for a major project by a Rio Tinto Subsidiary, Coal and Allied.
Coal and Allied wished to extend their existing open cut coal mine near Singleton in the Hunter Valley.
Dr Frank Nicklason
PS I am a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. Respectfully I suggest that this organisation should be contacted for their policies/views about this matter.
• Chris Sharples, in Comments: Response to #37: So you are sure that you have dis-proven the consensus of thousands of working professional atmospheric and climate scientists who (no doubt in a concerted world-wide conspiracy) provide evidence that a global anthropogenic CO2 rise over the last two centuries is real and progressive, and moreover that average temperatures are continuing to rise as a result? Then why don’t you submit your research findings for critical review in a professional journal? Citing an unreferenced blurb on a blog simply isn’t a convincing refutation of a global consensus amongst actual professional climate scientists, I’m afraid. Maybe those historic CO2 measurements weren’t accurate or representative of average global concentrations, how do we know otherwise from your assertions? What is certain is that the popular denier claim that you repeat - that there has been no warming for 16 years - is inaccurate cherry-picking of the evidence, and is simply wrong.
• Jon Sumby, in Comments: Also in the news today: A comprehensive assessment of climate change research has found an overwhelming consensus among scientists that recent warming is human-induced.