Peter Paul Bunyard
Climate impact and solutions
20 Jan 2010
Download the paper here http://good.ly/o68d2
Our single species has had momentous impact on the planet. More than 40 per cent of the primary productivity of the land surface has now been sequestered by humans and, with our population set to increase to 9,000 million during the century, the trend is towards even greater sequestration. Inevitably, our planet will become impoverished as species get squeezed out and disappear. Indeed, in our efforts to channel the sum of life’s activity for our own use, we have disrupted the web of life, eliminating competitors when they stand in our way and through the use of technology becoming the most powerful predators of resources that the Earth has ever seen. That way of thinking and behaving is represented in our economic systems such that we consume natural resources as if there were no limits, as if the bounties of Nature would continue for ever. Whatever resource we look at, fresh water, forests and minerals, we see growth of consumption doubling every 30 years or so. That exponential growth indicates that during every successive doubling of consumption we are actually consuming more of that resource than has even been consumed before.
At the same time we cannot escape that it is the nature of climate to change. Conditions are never the same. The sun is more luminous, more energetic, as time goes on, quite aside from sunspots and the sun’s own varying cycle of rhythms. The earth’s orbit and how it is affected by the conjunction of the other planets and masses in our solar system, let alone through gravitational and other cosmic forces across space, also displays its own varying cycle of rhythms that help push the modern earth in and out of ice-ages. In addition the earth has its own peculiar characteristics, such as its atmosphere of life-regulated greenhouse gases or its varying colours that like a chameleon’s skin, flicker through a range of light-absorbing or light-reflecting colours, as the seasons change. And now the earth has human beings who impose their own conditions upon the earth, contradicting the activities of life support systems by ripping them out and replacing them with less than adequate substitutes.
Ignorance may have been bliss, until now. But, with modern communications, we are all linked, whether we like it or not, to what is happening elsewhere in the world. An indigenous person in the Putumayo tropical rainforest now has the ability, through television or radio, to know that the Inuit in the Arctic Circle are facing a world that is turning into melted mush; he or she will also know that the seasons are changing, that when it used to rain it is now scorchingly dry, that the palm trees by the swamp, so important in the subsistence of the Siona or Kafan in the Colombian Amazon, so important too for woolly monkeys, are no longer giving fruit and, vice versa, that the rains when they do come are damaging in their sheer intensity and then they are gone. We all know, whoever we are, whatever we do, that climate is changing dramatically and many of us are worried, not least the majority of climatologists and meteorologists who try to make sense of a tricky and chaotic system that, nonetheless, follows rather than defies the laws of physics.
Since our own responsibility in bringing about climate change is no longer in doubt, what can we do? Are we already too late? Have we already exceeded certain limits and passed those tipping points when the entire climate system jumps to a different state that may be less than hospitable to the majority of human beings? And we should remember that other great and elaborate civilizations, like those of the Maya in Guatemala, the Zenues in northern Colombia, the Nazcas in Peru, or the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, came to grief in good measure because of a sudden flip in climate, no more than a brief spell of years when the rains failed and crops withered away. A few consecutive years of strong El Niños would play havoc with the world’s ability to grow enough food to feed an expanding population. We have only to see the impact of El Niño on a country like Colombia, which at the beginning of 2010 had to restrict the use of irrigation because of rapidly falling levels of water in the country’s reservoirs, and all that taking place against the background of vanishing glaciers. Could that be the future which faces us?
We can now ship goods and food almost anywhere in the world in a matter of days following a catastrophe, giving us the opportunity to respond to disasters that affect our families, our neighbours, our countries and increasingly peoples in other parts of the world. The terrible tsunami of December 2004, the earthquake disaster in Pakistan in 2005, the massive floods in Mozambique of 2000 or the sight of starving people in Africa, capture our attention and elicit a response, however inadequate to the reality and horror of the situation. But, our efforts to help in the near future may be hampered by the sheer scale of the impact of climate change on our ability to grow food. We are now thousands of millions more people than we were even a few centuries ago and, without radical action now to limit climate change, we could be seeing millions of refugees on an annual basis, with nowhere to go. We may have created cushions against catastrophe, but our vulnerability is as never before, just by the sheer dint of numbers involved and how close to the edge we are.
And what about a climate change prediction that we may or may not experience for decades? Do we act now to prevent a disaster that has barely touched the horizon, especially when some sceptics are telling us that the ups and downs in local weather are nothing more than the vagaries of a natural system, such as fluctuations in the energy received from the sun? Just how should we cater for a climate change event that hasn’t yet happened or may not happen, if climatologists, with their models, have got it wrong? Some of us, because of some gut feeling that we cannot continue consuming the resources of the planet in the way we do, may feel compelled to do something, like cutting back on holiday travel, using public transport, recycling waste packaging which seems to be umbilically connected to every item of consumption, or lowering the temperature of the central heating system, even though such gestures may be little more than token. The question is what we can do? What should we do?
If we believed that the climatologists were in the right ball park, that their projections were not wide of the mark, we would try sensibly to carry out a damage-limiting exercise through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while not forgetting that the world’s surviving ecosystems are vitally important as buffers against change. Or we could do nothing, as Born Lumberg suggests in his book, The Sceptical Environmentalist, other than to help in the fight against global poverty through better trade agreements and through debt-forgiveness, all of which would be far more cost-effective, he claims, in helping humanity to survive the future than if we were to pitch out efforts in what would be nothing more than an inadequate attempt to hold back global warming.
But, even though Lumborg may have changed his tune, from a person in denial of human-induced climate change, he still fails to understand the full nature of what is happening. Like those who believe that changes in solar luminosity explain all, Lumborg does not understand that our persistence in consuming the Earth’s natural resources, especially the remaining forests of the planet, is also a strong, vital component in the equation of climate change. The attempt to alleviate poverty, if not combined with an effort to reduce future climate trends, will prove a fearful waste of resources, while simultaneously failing to prevent a collapse of the Earth’s essential, life-support ecosystems.
What about the Earth’s resources? Through advances in technology we have created modern consumer societies; through international trade and communication, managed by transnational companies, we have brought more and more of the world’s population into the ambit of ‘economic’ development. The net result of all such activity is that we are reaching the limits of what the earth can provide or even exceeding them. A city such as London with its 7.5 million people requires the resources of a land mass more than 100 times greater – that is when we consider its needs for fresh water, energy and food. The footprint takes into account the watershed for providing water, the networks of roads and rail, energy in the form of electricity and fuels for transportation as well as the agricultural base, whether in the UK or abroad. If we were to take the needs of an average person living in London and multiply them by the world’s population on the basis that what is good for a Londoner should be good for someone in India or China, then we would need the resources of several planets the size of the Earth.
Obviously that cannot be: obviously something is wrong with an economic model of development based on the notion that the resources of our planet, combined with human technological ingenuity, can overcome any shortages in the fundamental necessities of life. Already, millions of people face shortages in fresh water, and the projection is for such shortages to become chronic as a result of climate change and global warming. Meanwhile, through the exigencies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund more and more countries have been persuaded that self-sufficiency in food is unnecessary — when cheaper food can be imported from elsewhere. But, climate change may well put paid to food surpluses, and countries that have turned their backs on food self-sufficiency, may find themselves in deep trouble when the food granaries of the world, such as the corn belt of the United States, dry up and fail as a result of climate change.
Meanwhile, agro-industry sees that much is to be gained from investing in crops for biofuels, whether to substitute for petrol and diesel, or to power electricity generators. The value of biofuels is mounting all the time as a ‘green’ and therefore ‘good’ fuel based on the notion that it is far more carbon neutral than petroleum or natural gas, and therefore likely to bring carbon emissions down, even in a world where demand for energy is increasing rapidly. But biofuels are far from being carbon neutral: they need fertile soils and large inputs of fertiliser and biocides, as well as transportation systems that can bring such crops to a central point for production and then distribution, all of which demands an investment in energy that currently is fossil fuel based. Moreover, in Indonesia and Malaysia, where African Palm has replaced native tropical forests, the loss of carbon from that transformation is never likely to be recovered, at least not for hundreds of years. And the same is true of the destruction of the Chocó rainforest of Colombia for African palm, a crime against ecology if ever there was one.
Governments are also increasingly promoting the idea of energy crops without taking into account that a growing population needs food and freshwater. Where will that food be grown to sustain an increasingly urbanised population? Agro-industry gains both ways, first through the production of value added energy crops and second, because of such production, the generation of food scarcity.
The irony is that petroleum and natural gas have a few decades at best, given current and future demand, before consumption will exceed the discovery of new deposits. After that point in time, potential consumption of such fuels will exceed the energy industry’s capacity to produce, and the costs of production will send prices rocketing up. From a purely economic point of view, biofuels would then come into their own, with all that that would entail in terms of disenfranchisement of rural communities and environmental destruction on what is likely to be a human-wide suicidal enterprise.
The demand for energy is increasing everywhere in the world, despite improving efficiencies of use, such as motor vehicles that have double or triple the mileage per gallon compared with consumption a few years ago. Every time world energy consumption is doubled, in the region of a 30 year doubling time, more energy is consumed during the course of the next doubling than has ever been consumed over all time by humanity. How possibly can the world afford to fuel such growing demand?
Nuclear power is bandied around as one answer, on the erroneous basis that it is greenhouse emission neutral, since its energy derives from splitting the atom. In the same breath, we are also being told that all we need to do is expand rapidly the power base of nuclear power stations, until maybe in 40 years’ time we will have ‘fusion’ reactors up and running. These ‘options’ are government-controlled, centralised options that will necessitate constant vigilance against acts of terrorism and acts of war between countries or even between factions in countries, where violent struggles for independence and domination are pursued. Just think how much the United States and European powers are suspicious of Iran’s intentions in establishing a nuclear industry. Is Iran’s nuclear programme for ‘peaceful’ purposes, and even were that so, could such a programme be easily converted into a military programme? Nor can safe operation be guaranteed, and just one major accident, on the scale of Chernobyl or worse, can make vast swathes of land unsafe for human beings over a century or more or even uninhabitable.
Nuclear power currently meets approximately 3 per cent of the world’s primary energy needs and consumes 60,000 tonnes of natural uranium, prior to any enrichment of the fuel. At that rate ‘economically recoverable’ reserves of uranium — about 10 million tonnes — would last less than 100 years. A worldwide programme of 1000 nuclear reactors, hence three times the current proportion of nuclear power, would give us 50 years of uranium, and if the world’s current demand for electricity were met by nuclear power, the uranium would last 4 years.
Although uranium is ubiquitous, the problem, once high grade ores have been used up, is the amount of energy, largely fossil fuel energy, which has to be invested in mining and extraction, given the rapid tailing off of good quality ores. Even with the good ores that are currently in use the energy gained compared to that invested over the lifetime of the reactor, including its decommissioning and safe nuclear waste disposal, is small at best. According to Jan Willem, Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, in their analysis of energy inputs and outputs, the use of poorer grade uranium will result in net deficits in energy.
Far from being ‘carbon neutral’ as claimed by the nuclear industry nuclear power stations have been built and will be built on the back of the fossil fuel industry. The extraction of uranium from mines, its processing, its transportation, quite likely from Australia or Canada, its enrichment in fissionable uranium, its manufacture into metal-clad fuel rods, and then the construction of the nuclear reactor, with its massive concrete containment, are all fossil-fuel supported activities, as indeed is the management of spent nuclear fuel and finally the decommissioning of the reactor.
Decisions we take today, whether to opt for nuclear power, will determine the future. The immense investment required to fuel the world’s energy needs from the atom means essentially putting alternative ways of raising and using energy on the back burner. As has been pointed out innumerable times, investment in energy efficiency, all the way down the line from how the electricity is generated to the moment when the consumer flicks on the switch, is many times more cost-effective than building costly nuclear power stations, or indeed large power stations of any type.
Clearly efficiency on its own can never be the whole answer: we will always need to generate electricity. But, today, we have an enormous advantage compared with 50 years ago. We now have electronic technology that can switch smoothly and effectively between ‘end-use’ needs and actual electricity generation. Such switching systems are ideally suited for combining different mini-sources of power at low cost in real terms. Critics of renewable energy systems such as wind-power, photovoltaics, wave-power, quite rightly point out that such systems are ‘intermittent’ and relatively speaking ‘unpredictable’ compared with a coal-fired or even nuclear power generating facility.
What if we were to get away from the concept and operation of an all-dominating central grid system with large power stations transmitting electricity all over the country? Isolated, central grid power stations, including nuclear reactors, lose as much as two-thirds of the energy generated in the cooling systems. Instead of such grossly inefficient systems, we could build up localised, embedded electricity generation that switches between intermittent sources, such as wind generating systems, and combined heat and power plants (CHP). CHP plants can be designed to burn natural gas (methane) or locally derived biofuels to give both electricity and heat for local industries and households. Meanwhile, any excess electricity in the system, for instance when the wind blows, can be put into storage systems such as a heating circuit with its storage tank or into batteries of electric cars. That would maximise the gains from the system. There is even talk of using charged car batteries as electricity storage systems, such that, during the day, when the car is not in use, it can be connected to a local grid and provide electricity on tap. That kind of innovative system would certainly help even out surges in output and in demand.
In end-use terms, such embedded localised systems are twice or more as efficient as electricity generated from far afield. They are also independent of imports, whether of coal, natural gas or uranium, therefore giving security of supply, and they offer no targets worth the making to terrorists or other would-be aggressors. Not least, such embedded systems do not put the country at risk from reactor accidents.
Ideally, we would use an electronic switching device to provide a smooth transition, when necessary, from one generating source to the other, using the combined heat and power plant as an important, work-horse back up. In the home and factory, another switching device, such as developed for mini-hydro electricity generating systems, would enable the user to limit the electricity required at any one moment. The switching device would shuffle electricity around such that the refrigerator, for example, would be switched off, when someone is ironing or hoovering. The electricity supplier would benefit enormously from such a system, as it would smooth out the peaks in demand and reduce the need for power plants waiting in the wings for sudden surges. The consumer would benefit from substantially lowered costs in real terms.
And, were there to be a time when electric vehicles had become the norm, the switching device could shuffle power to heat systems, such as heat storage cookers and boilers, as well as the charging of batteries when other needs had dwindled, as during the night. If we were able to have such a system at our disposal, then in one stroke we would be saving as much as half on the average amount of primary energy used today. Such embedded, combined, electronically controlled systems would be virtually carbon neutral.
Meanwhile, we waste enormous quantities of electricity in maintaining our appliances, such as television sets, hi-fi systems, washing machines and computers, in state of stand-by. As a result, states DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK emits an extra one million tonnes of carbon emissions. That is enough electricity to power the needs of 400,000 homes, and if all such devices were turned off when not in use, we could reduce electricity requirements by the equivalent of one large-sized generation plant.
Across the world, every locality would have its own ‘take’ on the system, whether photovoltaics in sunny climes, wind machines in windy locations, wave and tide machines where such devices make sense, and all could have a biofuel-back up system, including one that generated methane for cooking and other direct-use purposes.
Agriculture, too, needs again to become ‘embedded’ such as to provide the needs of localised populations, not only in terms of food products, but also in providing energy, as in biofuels. Farmers’ markets should not be on the fringes of society, but central to its needs.
Without question we will need all the ingenuity at our disposal to prevent climatic disaster, while somehow alleviating poverty and misery for a growing world population. We must learn again to become resourceful and as far as is possible, self-reliant, although we now have the distinct advantage, through trade and communication, that we can respond quickly to the needs of communities in distress because of some environmental disaster, including the impact of climate change.
What is becoming increasingly certain is that we cannot hope to survive if we continue rampaging across the planet, as if we owned it. James Lovelock is right to talk about the vengeance of Gaia. We are utterly dependent on the earth’s ecosystems to maintain equilibrium, to help distribute energy across the length and breadth of the surface of the earth. Greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting global warming are part of the problem, particularly in pushing up against tipping points, but our preoccupation with global warming must be tempered by a proper understanding of the role of global ecosystems, such as polar regions and the tropics, and not least the Amazon rainforests. We still have time, but only were we to act effectively now.