tag: Climate change



12
Jul 2013

Solar activity Vs anthropogenic Climate Change

I read the news today, oh boy.

New research has been published indicating that solar activity has been in steady decline since the 1940s. This suggests that there is a tug-of-war currently under way between the effects of reduced solar activity on the climate (making the globe cooler) and the effects of human carbon (and other) emissions on the climate (making the globe warmer). Right now, it seems humanity is “winning” the battle.

Solar ActivityHowever, it does seem possible that might change if solar activity continues to drop as is predicted by the new research. Far from offering ammunition to climate change sceptics (how long before fossil fuel companies seize upon this as a marketing opportunity?) this presents an even more terrifying prospect for human (and other) life on this planet. Because it seems to me that this research conclusively demonstrates that we have passed the important tipping points with regards to atmospheric changes; the worst effects of which may have been masked by the decline in solar output.

So even if we do find ourselves drifting into a mini-Ice Age, the historical precedent for this drop in solar activity seems to suggest it will pick up again after a relatively short period of time (there was an 80 year period in the 17th century during which solar output went through the same kind of decline). One assumes the atmospheric changes we have wrought with our industrial output will be massively magnified once the sun starts to ramp up again. From Ice Age to near-global desertification in the space of a century?

We need not only to radically cut our emissions, but we need to return large areas of arable land to uncultivated woodland in order to capture some of the carbon we’ve already released. I suspect that’s politically impossible right now… let’s hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


3
Apr 2013

Arctic Methane: Why The Sea Ice Matters

I just came across this short film (made at the end of last year) discussing the impact of Climate Change on the Arctic permafrost and the methane hydrates on the floor of the Arctic Ocean. The four contributors are right at the top of their fields and probably know as much about the Arctic environment and climate as any four people on the planet.

I should warn you, however, that what they have to say is bleak. Very bleak. It’s not for the faint-hearted. They seem to feel that unless we do something really quite dramatic to combat the rising Arctic temperatures, we are looking at a global catastrophe. The film has forced me to significantly revise my ideas about Climate Change “worst case scenarios”.

Part 2 of the film is currently in production and is to be dedicated to possible “solutions”. I’d like to think there’ll be something in it to prompt a corresponding revision of my faith in humanity to actually do anything about this. I’m firmly of the opinion that we’ll burn down the last tree before we even consider abandoning the quest for “more, more, more”.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


12
Jan 2012

Against High Speed Rail

Over in the UK the government has just thrown their weight behind a High Speed Rail (HSR) project to connect London and Birmingham. The project is backed not only by the Tory government (including their sycophantic whipping-boys the Liberal Democrats) but also by the opposition Labour Party. Indeed, with the exception of a few rebellious members of the main parties (mostly from constituencies through which the new rail line will run, but who don’t get any obvious benefits because trains won’t actually stop there) along with parties on the fringe, this HSR project has universal political support.

High Speed Rail (HS2)This contrasts with the striking lack of support from people living in those aforementioned constituencies which will be negatively impacted (some in reality, some perhaps just in perception) by the scheme. Homes will be torn down, the countryside will be cut through (despite parts of the route going underground, there will still be plenty of trees felled and habitats destroyed – 160 important wildlife sites according to unnamed “wildlife groups” in the BBC report) and idyllic rural villages will find their peace and quiet periodically shattered by the thunderous whoosh of a high speed train passing through.

The government, as has become de rigeur with these kinds of project, held a “public consultation” on the matter. These public consultations are one of the most annoying developments in modern political theatre. Basically the government of the day makes a decision, asks the people affected by the decision to agree with it – in the hope of sharing the responsibility if something goes wrong – and then completely ignores the results of the consultation if it turns out that people don’t agree with the decision. It’s the sort of craven and cowardly strategy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how craven and cowardly our political classes have become, but still manages to frustrate and annoy because of the magnanimous manner in which these consultations are generally announced. “Why yes, we will let you little people have your say on this matter… just don’t expect us to actually listen.”

In the case of the London to Birmingham HSR project (known as ‘HS2′; ‘HS1′ being the Channel Tunnel link) almost 90% of the 55,000 responses to the public consultation objected to it. Whether you agree with the project or not, this surely demonstrates that the actual consultation was a waste of time and money carried out in the vain hope it would provide positive PR. It makes no sense whatsoever for there to be a legal requirement to hold a public consultation unless there is also a legal requirement to actually listen to the results.

Of course, just because a majority of people along the route of a rail line object to it, does not itself make the project A Bad Thing. The concerns of those directly affected by any infrastructure project must be factored into the decision making process. But they should not – necessarily – over-ride all other factors. Major projects like HS2 have an impact far beyond the route itself. They provide economic benefits that radiate out from the project for quite a distance. And they may offer environmental benefits should the trains reduce the use of more damaging transportation. So it may often be the case – as with wind farms, for instance – that the objections of local residents must unfortunately be over-ruled in the knowledge that the wider benefits to society outweigh those objections. The impact on local residents should be minimised as far as is practical, and compensation should be offered where necessary.

The Question

So the question becomes: Does HS2 provide sufficient benefits to outweigh the negative impact on those directly affected and upon the countryside through which the line will run? Over on twitter, John Band made his position pretty clear when he wrote: “I think HS2 has now officially joined bendy buses on my List Of Transport Things Where It’s Fair To Assume An Opponent Is A Dick.” Now, I like John. Even if he is calling me a dick.

Because, frankly, I think the HS2 project is a ridiculous and damaging waste of resources.

Don’t get me wrong, investing UK£33 billion (almost €40 billion) in rail infrastructure is a bloody marvellous idea [UPDATE: As John points out in the comments, the 33bn covers the entire HSR network rather than just the London-Birmingham line, though this doesn't affect my basic position]. It’s exactly the kind of thing that governments should be doing right now (and it’s a crying shame that our government here in Ireland is pouring money into zombie banks; money that could be upgrading our public transport network… or building hospitals… or employing teachers… hell, spend the billions on beer and pies if you must, it would still be a better use of the cash than pouring it into Anglo-Irish Bank). But investing money in the rail network is not necessarily synonymous with spending a massive lump-sum on a vanity project.

And that’s what it is. A vanity project. Railways are a great idea. High Speed Rail is a terrible one. A recent US study (High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S.*) of the carbon emissions of various modes of transport suggests that travelling on HSR produces 20% more emissions than going by conventional rail, and almost double that of coaches. And that’s without factoring in the environmental costs of the actual infrastructure (which are high thanks to the large amounts of concrete and steel used).

And it’s not as if it’s providing a massive time saving either. HS2 won’t be teleportation. It’ll be more expensive than conventional rail and will reduce journey times by a shade over 40%. So the average saving between London and Birmingham will be roughly half an hour. Are the Tories really spending a fortune to cut up the countryside, screw up the lives of local residents and increase the cost of train travel, all to save a half hour? With WiFi available on UK intercity trains these days, it’s not like it even needs to be a half-hour “away from the office” for a lot of people.

Yes, from an emissions standpoint HSR beats cars and planes – by a considerable margin it should be said – but it’s really not in competition with them. Most people who make the journey by car are unlikely to switch to train without a major incentive. That incentive is on the way, of course, in the form of peak oil. But because HSR carries far less passengers than conventional rail, it makes much more sense to absorb any large switch from car to train using conventional rail [UPDATE: In the comments John points out that this is not the case... which invalidates one of my objections to HSR, though I still think that conventional rail - albeit on an upgraded system with a few billion invested in it - is far better than HSR in the face of Climate Change and resource depletion. So I still say that British rail investment should be going into upgrading the current rail network... increase platform lengths, buy some extra carriages and develop a new signalling system].

In fact, it makes even more sense to absorb the migration from private car into a new, integrated coach network. You want to travel from London to Birmingham? Simple. Build a large new coach station in Brent Cross, North London (i.e. within sight of the M1 on-ramp). Link it directly to the tube either via the Northern Line or the Jubilee Line (it would require a new branch of no more than a few hundred metres in either case). Then dedicate an entire lane of the M1 to express-coach traffic only. This will reduce journey times for coaches while providing an additional incentive for drivers to ditch their cars.

Yes, yes, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the motoring lobby will hate the idea… but frankly they will become increasingly irrelevant as oil price rises start to make private car use a luxury – long before HS2 is due to start running in 2026. Motorways will be half-empty by that stage anyway. No, an integrated coach network may not as sexy as HSR, but it makes a damn sight more sense environmentally, is a fraction of the cost to set up, makes use of existing infrastructure that will soon be significantly under-employed and will cost far less for the end user.

So… by objecting to HS2 I’m objecting to a massive infrastructure project that will damage the environment, will cost a lot more than it needs to, will be a dreadfully inefficient use of resources, will inconvenience more people than is necessary and will be more expensive to the end-user than the alternatives. If that makes me “a dick”, then so be it. Better that than flush money down the toilet and screw up the planet because I like shiny things that go fast. Which I do, but I’m not so idiotic as to want to base public policy on that fact.

* Although the study is titled High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., they actually looked at a variety of projects around the world and based their calculations on the emissions produced by the Danish IC-3 system, which they felt were representative of HSR as a whole.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


10
Jan 2012

One point two five billion euro

And so 2011 slips behind us and into the pages of history. While ahead looms 2012. And it looms ominously I’m sorry to say. Not because of Mayan prophecies or the mutating neutrinos of Roland Emmerich, but because the problems of 2011 – despite seemingly endless summits and photo-ops attended by our political class – have not been solved. In fact, the problems of 2011 were often little more than the ones we failed to address in 2010. As for the problems of 2010? By and large they were unfinished business from 2009. And the problems of 2009? Well, I’m sure you can see the emerging pattern.

In South Africa the governments of the world met for a few days and cobbled together a strategy for dealing with Climate Change. In Belgium (and elsewhere) the governments of Europe met for longer periods of time and cobbled together a strategy for dealing with the debt crisis. What unites both strategies is the bizarrely transparent manner in which they fail to achieve their stated aims. I’d always heard that if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing well, but apparently that’s not a philosophy shared by those in power. Had the Durban conference concluded with a joint statement from participants to the effect that they would insist upon compulsory piano lessons for all giraffes, it would have had roughly the same chance of halting Climate Change.

As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, “We could have saved it but we were too damned cheap.”

Three Stooges (Merkel, Kenny, Sarkozy)Never forget that the reason the big issues facing the world are not being addressed is because the people in charge don’t believe we’re willing to put in the necessary money and effort. And never forget that we put them in charge precisely because that’s what they believe. They promise us easy solutions to problems we know are difficult, and in return we elect them.

Even our more manageable problems, such as the European debt crisis, are left to fester until they threaten to visit catastrophic social collapse upon entire nations. And why is this? Well part of it, and this is really quite depressing, is because our political leaders are completely incapable of admitting that they might be wrong about anything. I really do think it’s a psychological disorder. I’m not sure if it’s something they succumb to as a result of a proximity to power, or whether something about politics attracts those who already suffer from the condition. Either way, it is one of the greatest obstacles to progress.

The austerity policies in place around Europe are just plain wrong. We have created a society that imposes poverty and suffering on the general population unless it is experiencing economic growth. And at the same time we are implementing policies that are guaranteed to prevent growth. Personally I think we need to restructure society so that it no longer relies on growth, but until we do that, economic policies that prevent growth are nothing less than deliberate, calculated attacks on the citizenry by those in power.

The trouble is; even as this becomes clear, even as the failure of austerity slowly sinks in, those in power are pathologically incapable of admitting it. The very fact they supported a policy must mean the policy is the right one. The alternative is unthinkable… that they publicly accept they are fallible. These people should not be running countries, banks or large institutions. They should be heavily medicated, under supervision and kept away from sharp objects let alone the levers of power. They are mid-level bureaucrats of modest ability who have been accidentally elevated to positions of power by a runaway ambition-gland. And it’s broken them; made them delusional. We should not permit them to inflict their delusion on the rest of us.

Ireland, January 25th 2012

CapitalismIn two weeks time, assuming Europe lasts that long, that delusion will once again be inflicted upon the people of Ireland. In what is the ultimate ongoing demonstration that our government represents the interests of casino-capitalism above that of the citizenry, the next of the Anglo-Irish Bank payments will be made. On that day, the Fine Gael / Labour coalition will hand over €1.25 billion of public money to unsecured, unguaranteed bond-holders. It’s mind-blowing really. There is no legal requirement for the government to do this. It is not a condition of the IMF/EU “bail-out”. The payment is not part of the disastrous 2008 Bank Guarantee. Let me repeat; there is no legal requirement to pay this money. Indeed I would argue there is a moral imperative to not pay it.

So why are we paying this money, despite there being no requirement? Because our leaders don’t want to upset the markets. Oh, they’re happy to upset the people they were elected to represent. Happy to cut child benefit and disability benefit. Happy to slash the incomes of the already poverty-stricken. But they don’t want to upset the markets. Markets, remember, that Ireland has been effectively excluded from by crippling interest rates (hence our need for the IMF/EU “bail-out”). The markets will screw us alright, but heaven forbid we Irish upset them.

To a nation the size of Ireland, a payment of €1.25 billion is massive. It represents more than half the spending cuts made in our recent budget. As a letter to the Irish Times recently put it, “the proposed payment is equivalent to the salaries of 5,000 extra nurses for five years”. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. By the end of this year, the Irish people will have paid roughly €2 billion of unsecured, unguaranteed bonds. On top of that, we’ll also be paying more than €3.7 billion of bonds covered by our insane Bank Guarantee. And that’s for Anglo-Irish Bank alone. Yes, that’s right, more than €5.7 billion of public money is being handed over to investors in a single (now defunct) bank in a single year. It’s beyond nonsense and into the realm of criminally insane.

We’re constantly being told that we must live within our means, while those doing the preaching are throwing our money away. It’s time we put an end to this idiocy.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


17
Nov 2010

Food shortages: still a serious issue

At the start of the year I wrote a short blog post entitled “2010: A year of global famine?” In it I linked to an agricultural analyst who suggested that crop yields were down across the globe in 2009 and would continue to fall in 2010. He suggested that we were facing global food shortages.

Today a comment was added to the post by Frank Maloney. I started to respond on that thread, but my comment grew to the point where it merited a post of its own. And here it is!

How’s that whole global food shortage for 2010 working out? Everyone just about exhausted their emergency supply of MRE’s?

The only thing that causes food shortages in modern societies is politics. Look at Ethiopia which has always been a poster child for famine, despite the poverty, cycle of droughts and hunger the region is producing and exporting huge surpluses of food on private farms owned by mid east governments.

Frank Maloney

Wrong! (and glad to be so)

Let me start by saying that the fact food shortages in 2010 weren’t as bad as were feared should be a cause for celebration rather than triumphalism and internet point-scoring. I’m very happy that predictions of global famine in 2010 were wrong. The predictions of worldwide food security issues for this year were shared by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and I suspect they are also very happy to discover that their worst fears were not realised.

That said, I fear we risk a dangerous complacency if we simply dismiss the issue because the worst case scenario for a single year failed to materialise. We should be happy that less people found themselves suffering food shortages in 2010 than had been expected by many analysts, but we should also be concerned by the numbers that did — nonetheless — face famine conditions and very worried indeed by the developments that created this year’s shortages. Because although a global famine did not occur, the situation remains extremely precarious and many — including the UNWFP — see it as a crisis postponed rather than a crisis prevented.

To an extent I agree with Frank’s comment, in that historically the primary reason for famine and food shortages has been political. However I disagree that will always be the case and believe we are already beginning to see it change. This change is being driven by two primary factors; Climate Change and resource depletion. The latter, resource depletion, covers a multitude of direct and indirect problems. Water shortages (also linked to Climate Change), peak oil (which drives up biofuel production — in the US this year, almost one third of all corn produced was converted to ethanol — as well as damaging fertiliser and pesticide production) and a looming shortage of essential nutrients such as phosphorous. All of these threaten to significantly impact the quantity of food being produced on our planet.

Now, there’s no doubt that you can tenuously link all of these things to “politics” rather than “nature”. But in doing so you essentially blur the distinction between the two to the point of meaninglessness. The Climate Change-driven droughts become “a political problem” because we have failed to find the political will to curb our emissions. Peak oil becomes “a political problem” because we haven’t found a politically acceptable way to eliminate non-essential consumption of crude oil. And so on.

But as I say, that’s semantics. Historically, when we spoke of famines as a political problem we generally meant that the shortages in a given area were the result of inequitable distribution due to the political machinations of corrupt (or incompetent) regimes. So while the Russian grain export ban (extended for another year in September) is obviously a political decision, it’s just sheer-bloody-mindedness to insist that the reason for that ban — successive low crop yields due to unusual weather — is also political.

High food and fuel prices

If you take a look at the UNWFP website, you’ll see the phrase “high food and fuel prices” crop up time and time again. Frank Maloney’s comment makes specific reference to Ethiopia, so I checked out the Ethiopia page. Because although the feared global famine did not appear in 2010, we did nonetheless suffer food shortages in several places this year and also witnessed food riots around the world. Ethiopia was one of the places to suffer, with the food security of over five million people coming under serious pressure. This is attributed to “a combination of factors: poor and erratic rainfall over the last two years, the high food and fuel prices that hit the country in 2008 and are persisting and the global financial crisis.” Of these factors, only the last one is unambiguously a political problem.

It is my contention, and I believe this is backed up by the evidence, that the current high food prices are here to stay (which isn’t to say that there won’t be periodic dips in the price, but like oil I feel we have reached a production peak — or perhaps “plateau” might be a better word — and that a long term drop in global food production is inevitable). As I say, there will be peaks and troughs; perhaps the weather in Russia and China will be perfect next year and we’ll see a bumper crop, but it looks almost certain that we’ve entered a new phase whereby Climate Change and resource depletion have placed our global production on a downward trend, notwithstanding the occasional spike.

In the wealthy countries this will mean we’ll have to spend more on our weekly shop. There’ll be some belt-tightening but starvation is unlikely. Here in Ireland, for instance, the combination of high food prices and economic collapse has resulted in a 2.6% drop in food consumption per capita in 2010 alone. For a nation that, by-and-large, has been overconsuming for a couple of decades, that’s not going to create serious hunger. But in the parts of the world already close to subsistence-level, that’s the kind of reduction that can tip them over into famine.

And it’s not the result of political decisions, or at least, it’s not only the result of politics; instead it’s the result of a very real drop in global food production. And there are few serious analysts suggesting that’s not set to continue.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


18
Aug 2010

Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s governing coalition (Kingsnorth: Back from the dead?). Actually, you know what? I’m just going to start referring to the current UK government as a tory government. The presence of the Liberal Democrats*, just like the involvement of the Greens in the government here in Ireland, is an irrelevance; a technical footnote rather than a meaningful truth. The only impact they have on the government is to allow the dominant party to float policies they always wanted to, but that might be unpopular with their own hardline supporters. So here in Ireland, for instance, we’ve had a carbon tax ostensibly as a result of the Green presence in cabinet. In reality, Fianna Fáil wanted an alternative revenue stream to help with the crippling deficit and were delighted to find one they could blame on someone else.

So let’s start again…

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s Conservative government. Prior to the election they had unambiguously stated that under their administration, any new power stations would have to meet a strict Emissions Performance Standard (EPS).

This would mean the carbon emissions rate of all electricity generated in our country cannot be any higher than that generated in a modern gas plant. Such a standard would mean that a new generation of unabated coal power plants could not be built in this country.

More than that, this pledge wasn’t merely a campaign promise (a term which, let’s face it, has become little more than a euphemism for “bullshit”), it actually made it into their Programme for Government (PDF file).

We will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.

As Merrick says, that’s clear, definite and unequivocal.

Three days ago, however, they admitted their pledge to introduce an EPS was basically just a lie to make them look more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Despite the unambiguous nature of their promise, they have shelved the EPS and will no longer be introducing legislation to implement it. Instead they will “open a consultation on the idea in the autumn with the results being presented to parliament as a white paper in the new year.”

Be under no illusion, that’s just a diplomatic way of abandoning the idea. It’s the modern political equivalent of holding a press conference and shouting “suckers!”

Of course, you could argue that anyone who believed a tory government would really implement a strict EPS kind of was a bit of a sucker. Sorry. But the fact is, it was pretty obvious that this policy would be unpalatable to any right of centre government in current circumstances.

Climate Change: nothing to do with us

See, the title of this post — Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change — expresses a very real tension that now exists at the heart of modern civilisation. As we lurch towards a looming energy crisis precipitated by the global peak of conventional oil production, many of the steps we might take to cope with that crisis will directly conflict with many of the steps we might take to deal with Climate Change (note: I read an analysis just this morning which suggests that “during 2011, OPEC’s spare capacity may be completely eroded”. This is a serious problem indeed, and will torpedo any economic recovery politicians and economists tell us is underway right now.)

Examples of this conflict are too numerous to mention, but include widespread deforestation to clear land for biofuel production, the draining of peat bogs and marshland for the same reason, increases in coal use (and the mind-bogglingly damaging coal-gassification process) to make up for shortfalls in oil and gas, the exploitation of oil shales and tar sands (also an incredibly damaging resource from an ecological perspective) and so on. All of these attempts to mitigate the energy crisis will result in the acceleration of anthropogenic climate change.

Yet we are ploughing ahead full steam with them. More than that, politicians who made explicit promises to restrict the damage that coal burning might do, for example, are abandoning those promises without even trying to deliver on them.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. In the case of coal-burning power plants in the UK, the government has realised that new electricity generation needs to be brought online within the next few years. The only alternative would be to mandate higher energy efficiency and ultimately a reduction in consumption. It is simply easier, politically, to contribute to Climate Change than it is to speak unpopular truths to the electorate. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that politicians will always choose the easy option above the right one. It’s almost a job requirement.

See, Climate Change is too intangible a problem to be blamed on any single government. And they know this. Power cuts, on the other hand, will always be blamed on the government of the day. So Cameron (and his counterparts in damn near every other party… let’s be under no illusions here, Labour would do precisely the same if they were in power) much prefers to contribute to an ecological disaster that can’t be pinned on him, than try solve a political one that can.

It’s a measure of the moral cowardice of the man and of the entire political establishment.

An energy crisis is looming folks. It’s very real, and it’s not far away. But we seem willing to burn down the entire planet rather than accept a change in our outrageous over-consumption. And this is despite the fact that our over-consumption doesn’t even seem to be making us all that happy.

* I’m well aware that I reluctantly endorsed a Lib Dem vote in the May election on the single-issue of electoral reform. In retrospect, I was wrong. A vote for the Liberal Democrats turned out to be a vote for an undiluted Conservative government and I would never knowingly endorse such a thing. Sorry about that.

AFTERWORD: those wonderful people over at The Onion have recently published a very funny, albeit darkly funny, article about our oil use. Check out: Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


5
May 2010

Airtricity SmartSaver Green Plan

I’m not the sort of person to provide free advertising to corporations. Nonetheless, I’m willing to make an exception in this case. A couple of years back, I switched my electricity supplier from the ESB to Bord Gáis. They were cheaper and they claimed to generate 10% more of their power from renewable sources. At the time, my research into alternative suppliers didn’t offer a better solution.

Then, at the beginnning of this year, I stumbled upon Airtricity’s Smartsaver Green Plan (click on the relevant tab on that page). Because I’d just begun a new billing period with Bord Gáis, I couldn’t switch straight away, but I put the wheels in motion. Then, a couple of months ago there was a bit of a muck up with the paperwork and the switch was delayed again (in fairness to Bord Gáis, it seems like it was an honest error by Airtricity rather than them trying to keep hold of me).

Anyhoo, the upshot of it all is that I’ve just received a letter from Airtricity informing me that I’m now, finally, on their system.

If you know anything about how national power grids work, you’ll know of course that I can’t claim the actual electrons being sucked into my home to power my appliances come directly from windfarms. However, what Airtricity guarantee is that over a year, their windfarms will add 100% of the power I use to the national grid. Barring a decision to go off-grid and self-generate (the ideal route, perhaps, but also somewhat impractical for me right now) this is the best solution available from an environmental perspective.

So well done to Airtricity for their 100% scheme. If we’re going to shift our society towards sustainability, this is the kind of thing we’ll need to be doing. I urge my Irish readers to make the switch.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


29
Mar 2010

The collapse of British Airways

John Band has a good analysis of the current British Airways strikes over at his place. It’s well worth a read.

He opens the piece by pointing out that BA’s “business model is unsustainable”. This is true in the sense that he describes it. But it’s also true in another sense; one that’s shared by the airline industry as a whole. Some within the industry have begun to belatedly wake up to this fact. A month or so ago, Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines fame) had this to say…

The next five years will see us face another crunch — the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well.Richard Branson | Quoted in The Guardian

Of course, anyone who has been aware of the peak oil problem for longer than ten minutes will find themselves shaking their head in dismay at Branson’s statement. His belief that five years represents enough time to prepare for “the oil crunch” is roundly contradicted by every serious analysis of the problem that’s been carried out to date. Most famously (and arguably most authoritatively) the Hirsch Report, carried out by the US Department of Energy, has this to say about the length of time required to prepare for, and mitigate, the effects of peak oil.

Mitigation Efforts Will Require Substantial Time

Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

Even taking this into account, there’s a very real possibility that — with regards to the modern airline industry — the problems presented by peak oil simply cannot be mitigated. Even if we had two decades, which appears not to be the case, there’s just no alternative fuel for modern commercial aircraft.

Let me stress that nobody sane is suggesting that oil or jet fuel will disappear overnight. Peak oil will result in a gradual reduction in crude oil production capacity of between 3% and 6% per annum. This will, however, be more than enough to cause massive economic upheaval of the kind that will certainly overshadow our current credit crisis*. More specifically, it’ll be enough to put an end to mass air travel in anything like the form we presently enjoy.

Put bluntly, British Airways is part of a dying industry. Flying millions of people around the world in jet aircraft is unsustainable in the short to medium term and while some form of commercial air travel will surely remain available to the extremely wealthy, the industry will soon be a tiny fraction of its current size.

I like to imagine a future — say a hundred years from now — where we have successfully weathered the twin storms of resource depletion and Climate Change. Where we have achieved, almost certainly through terrible suffering and struggle, some kind of balance with our environment. Where we have adopted an ethos and a lifestyle that allow us to look towards a sustainable future. And in this future, I imagine our great grandchildren flying across oceans in magnificent solar-powered airships.

But that’s science-fiction. A speculative future that becomes less and less likely every day we persist in ignoring the need for it.

* I happen to believe that peak oil had a part to play in precipitating the current crisis, but it was mostly a result of breathtaking folly and greed within the global political and financial establishment.

17 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


18
Jan 2010

The essential disconnect

It’s not part of my brief to go, I’m quite satisfied with what I hear and what I see on video with the standards of the factories. It’s the job of the buyers and the ethical trade team to visit the factories.

That’s how we do it. How we keep it all going. A clothing retailer. A supermarket. A chain of petrol stations. A million other things. That chain of insulation. Our delegation of consequence and responsibility. The essential disconnect.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


8
Jan 2010

Copenhagen: EPIC SUMMIT FAIL

It’s been over for a few weeks now, and the general consensus seems to be that the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit achieved nothing worthwhile. In fact, the view that the summit actively damaged efforts to combat anthropogenic climate change seems more plausible than the idea that it helped in any way.

In an attempt to save face, a few Western governments have claimed limited success for the summit… the UK wheeled out John Prescott to insist that “some progress” had been made, while the Irish environment minister described it as “underwhelming” (both of which fall a long way short of an accurate assessment). Having spent a year preparing for a ten day summit which failed to achieve a single thing of real value, it was obviously rather impolitic to use phrases like “abject failure”, “sheer incompetence” or “couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery”.

Environmental writers are split on who was primarily responsible for torpedoing the summit. Some blame China, others blame the USA. It seems rather obvious to me though, that neither the Chinese nor the US governments actually wanted an agreement that would do anything to limit their economic activity. So they were both happy for the summit to fail by being seen to disagree.

See, it’s really quite simple. Any nation or government that genuinely feels combating Climate Change by limiting emissions is more important than economic growth (hint: it is) would simply announce unilateral cuts and wait for the rest of the world to catch up. They go down in history as The Good Guys, and they get a head start on the rest of the planet when it comes to coping with peak oil. That no major industrial nation is doing this (hint: they’re not, carbon trading and PR campaigns notwithstanding) tells us that either (a) our governments don’t consider Climate Change to be as big a threat as a planned reduction in economic activity, which means they are idiots; or (b) they do consider it a bigger threat but don’t think they can sell it to their population, which means they are crap at their job.

Either way, why the hell do we put up with them?

The sheer magnitude of Copenhagen’s failure was brought home to me earlier this week by a headline over at the BBC. Copenhagen climate deal ‘satisfies’ Saudi Arabia, it read. That the world’s largest producer of crude oil is happy with the outcome of the summit pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. Ultimately our failure to deal with Climate Change — which is what Copenhagen will long represent — is as perfect an example of our inability to live sustainably as can be imagined.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion