Saturday, April 23, 2022

“Four Meals From Anarchy” – We Must Grow More Food Locally.

A friend sent me a link to this video interview of Michael Raw, an agricultural consultant, about the fragility of Britain’s food supply, which frankly shocked me. The “four meals from anarchy” is a quote to MI5, meaning that Britain could descend very rapidly indeed to large-scale disorder, including looting and rioting in the event of a catastrophe that stops the supply of food.

The UK’s food policy substantially presumes that foreign countries will continue to send us shiploads of food, and currently over half of what is consumed here is imported. This is perilous indeed, especially at a time when many nations are adopting their own protectionist policies, restricting food exports so to feed their own people. Should supply shortages occur, currently high food prices will escalate further still. For example, at an undersupply of 3% a 12% food price increase is expected, at 5% this rises to 20%, while at 10%, food prices would probably double.

The implementation of rationing cannot be ruled out, as happened during WWII, although this actually continued until 1954, when the “housewife” had to spend 30-50% of her budget on food. [Now, the food shopping costs more like 8-10% of a household’s total income, whoever actually goes out to buy it, the difference being used in other areas for discretionary spending and overall growth of the economy]. Despite the immense debt borne from the war, the UK government subsidised the nation's farmers, which guaranteed oversupply, and meant that although prices did increase, the gradient remained within manageable limits, unlike the 21% increase that has occurred in only the past 12 months.

Even though farmers have been calling for food security for a number of years, this has had little effect. Raw avers that a time is very likely at hand when supermarkets will experience massive queues, but merely to get inside the buildings, since with their shelves empty there will be no one waiting in line at the cash tills. 

Soaring costs of fertilizers might be taken as an indicator of what is likely to happen to food prices. Thus, a tonne of what is essentially ammonium nitrate, sold at £180 in the autumn (£220 in the spring) of 2020, then increased to £350 in spring 2021, and is now trading at £650, with quotes for spring 2023, i.e. for next year’s harvest, at £1,000 a tonne. So, a farmer who was paying £20,000 for his/her fertilizer in 2020, can expect to shell out £100,000 next year. This is a disastrous situation for many farmers, who could not even borrow this much from the bank, given the huge overall financial loss that this represents.

As a way around the fertilizer problem, some farmers in the South/East of the UK, whose land is intrinsically well supplied with phosphate and potash, have switched to growing leguminous crops, such as red clover and field beans as animal fodder, which naturally fix nitrogen, and so do not need the application of increasingly unaffordable artificial nitrogen fertilizers. Not all farmers are so fortunate, and need to buy and apply phosphate and potash; however, since 33% of the world’s potash comes from Russia-Ukraine, a serious supply shortage seems likely for the foreseeable future.

Hence the availability and price of fertilizers will determine the crops that farmers are able to grow over, say, the next five years. There is much more in this interview, which is excellent, and the interviewer remarks appositely that “we should be making a documentary talk show, but this is actually a horror film...” Raw makes the point that rather than rewilding, more of the available land should be used for food production, although this would cost money, which we don’t have. However, this was exactly the situation during 1945-1954 when the government supported its agriculture, obviously finding the money from somewhere. Controlling exports and securing imports, with farmers producing more food are identified as critical factors, but what can people do individually to make sure they have enough food?

Raw agrees that having a chest freezer is not a bad idea, but stresses the importance of growing your own food, and says that 50% of his family’s food comes from an allotment and some raised beds in the back garden, which they use to stock their freezer. He says that having an allotment ought to be a public right, and we could see legislation go through parliament, which would enact upon parish, district and county councils, so that anyone wanting an allotment can get one in three months, rather than going onto a six year waiting list. This would necessitate a compulsory leasing (not compulsory purchasing), and it should be a public right to be given access to a piece of land to feed your family.

Elsewhere, it has been estimated that 40% of the UK’s fruit and veg (most of which is imported) could be grown in gardens, along with some of the “spare” land in parks, playing fields, watersides and other urban green spaces that are currently overlooked. At a time when allotment provision across the country is vastly oversubscribed, taking a broader view of such neglected sites could rapidly increase the possibilities for local food production. Some changes in our diet would be necessary, to substitute fruits and vegetables that grow well over here, for those currently imported that are not suited to the British climate.

The pandemic and Brexit have provided a taster of how vulnerable our food system is to import supply shocks. Farmland in the UK is already under pressure, not only for agriculture, but from urbanisation and demand for new homes; however, a two year pilot study indicates that urban plots can be as productive as conventional farms. Brownfield sites should not be overlooked either for food growing, by using raised beds to get around problems of soil contamination.

Providing sufficient access to affordable food for its population is an underpinning prerequisite for any properly functioning society, and given the clear risks posed by the UK’s current heavy reliance on imports, far more domestic – particularly locally based – food production must be established as a matter of urgency, i.e. before people begin to go hungry.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Russia-Ukraine War and the Changing Energy Landscape.

The can of worms that is our global use of energy, has been levered open yet further by the escalating war in Ukraine. Prices of all types of energy had already been hiked dramatically as a result of a strong economic rebound post-covid, but with limited capacity to meet additional demand. As a result of a potential embargo on Russian fuels, the UK price of natural gas briefly hit 800p per therm, or sixteen times that of March 2021. Oil prices too, are at a high not seen since just before the Great Recession of 2008, with Brent crude spiking at $128 a barrel, and driving record prices for petrol and diesel. Since energy underpins everything we do, its cost sets the baseline for all other commodities, including food, whose prices are also surging globally.

Europe is dependent on Russia for around 40% of its gas, thus making any supply restrictions extremely problematic, to put it mildly: for example, if Russia were to carry out its threat to cut off the gas. Similarly, refusals by the West to buy Russian oil beg the question of whether matching quantities can be secured from elsewhere. Given that oil is the lifeblood of industrial civilization, and we run the risk of a demand/supply gap, leading to soaring prices – $200 a barrel has been suggested – the economic consequences would almost certainly be catastrophic.

The European Commission has now pledged to curb massively its purchase of Russian gas: by some two thirds by the end of this year. The proposed mechanism for this includes establishing a greater diversity of suppliers, biomethane production, and energy efficiency strategies for buildings, including behavioural changes such as turning down thermostats to curb energy demand. Indeed, demand reduction must be a salient part of any viable future energy blueprint.

Although the UK is far less dependent on Russian oil and gas, the government has taken a cue to build energy security, to which end it intends to roll out more nuclear power, renewable energy and domestic production of fossil fuels. Now this is where a number of forces converge, namely, domestic energy production, final energy use, and climate change.

Thus, to maintain our reliance on oil and gas – whether imported (from wherever) or home grown – clearly flies in the face of intentions to cut current emissions levels practically in half by 2030: just 7 years and 9 months away. However, an according expansion of energy production from nuclear or renewables necessitates that it be used in final form as electricity, and so those aspects of transportation, running buildings and industry, currently directly reliant on oil and gas, would need to become increasingly electrified.

In this same spirit of energy security, the huge amount of energy wasted must also be reduced, especially by retrofitting buildings with thermal and draught insulation, and reconfiguring towns and cities so that more can be done at the local level (including growing food), thus eliminating unnecessary transportation and its fuel requirements. Such actions would help to curb carbon emissions, and reduce demand for additional “low-carbon” energy, noting that the most reliable form of renewable energy is energy not used at all. Through a combination of such measures, overall energy demand in the UK could be more than halved.

It has been proposed that an army of volunteers should be mobilised to install small-scale renewable energy across the UK, thus furthering national energy independence. Moreover, some degree of decentralisation of our energy system would contribute to local and regional energy resilience, thus providing a necessary buffer against the many storms of a changing global climate that are likely to prevail upon us.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Confronting the Changing Climate: COP26 - Scientists’ Warnings into Action, from Local to Global.

Human civilization stares out over a cliff edge. As a species in ecological overshoot, our journey cannot continue on its present path. The first Scientists Warning paper was issued in 1992, stressing mainly the ecological damage then inflicted by humans, and a 2017 study demonstrated that the subsequent twenty-five years had only witnessed further destruction of the ecosphere. The World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency report, published in 2019, which has now been endorsed by a total of 14,594 scientists from 158 countries, emphasised a set of collective actions, aimed toward restoring and protecting natural ecosystems, conserving energy, reducing food waste, the adoption of a more plant-based diet, population control and economic reforms. However, two subsequent papers, in 2020 and 2021 merely confirmed a further, dramatic deterioration of all climate markers.


The “WORLD SCIENTISTS’ WARNINGS INTO ACTION” (SWIA) paper was published on Friday, November 12th (2021), formally the concluding day of the COP26 climate change conference, although a final agreement was not actually reached until late on the Saturday (13th).

It is the “Into Action” qualifier that sets this publication apart from the previous warnings, since it offers practical means for steering away from the abyss, and toward a new territory where human needs are met, harmoniously, within the biocapacity of the Earth. SWIA summons all levels of leadership, from local to global, as are required to make real the proposed changes. Only immediate, rapid and far reaching action has a serious chance of keeping the Earth’s mean global temperature below the 1.5 degree limit.

Nonetheless, we do not “only” have to stop the Earth from heating (as a result of excess energy restrained from radiating into outer space by greenhouse gases), which drives climate change. While this challenge is, of itself, massive, it is really a single identifier of a whole system that is out of balance: a mechanism of resource hyperconsumption which transgresses several vital, but interwoven, planetary boundaries, powered by burning 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels per year.

The term “changing climate” has been used previously as a means to not only refer to global heating and climate change, but also encompass the many other indicators of systemic collapse, which are now part of our daily experience. Since it is the system of civilization that must be fixed, any means to accomplish this must, of necessity, also be systemic in nature, and bring about a consolidated amelioration of climate change, biodiversity loss, and relentless degradation of the ecosphere.

Hence, decarbonising our energy sources, alone, will not put everything to rights, if the human animal still remains in a state of overshoot. Thus, reduction in our use of energy, and of all resources is essential, otherwise our climate targets may prove no more than hopeful and unrealistic attempts to preserve business as usual.

At various points during COP26, murmerings could be heard that, “it may take some time”, but delay is a treacherous luxury, since actions must be well underway during the five-year planning cycle, 2022-2026, setting foundations to build upon, out to 2030, and onward to 2050. Without such urgent and cumulative action, we will fail to attain the necessary trajectory and momentum to turn the current situation around.

The SWIA paper underlines six principal areas where effort must be focussed: Energy, Atmospheric Pollutants, Nature, Food Systems, Population Stabilisation, and Economic Reforms, of which the following is a highlighted summary:


Energy.

• A rapid decrease in global energy demand, including the inculcation of citizens to adapt to a less energy-intensive future, while a low-carbon energy supply is aggressively pursued.

• Re-establishment of regional economies and commerce, so that populations are provided for as much as possible by regional resources, thus reducing reliance on carbon-intensive traded goods.

• Buildings must be retrofitted, to curb the energy costs of running them, along with an acceleration of small-scale energy generation.

•“Luxury” travel and trade, especially flights, inefficient vehicles and imported luxury goods must be curbed by the imposition of heavy taxes.


Atmospheric Pollutants.

• A new tipping point threatens, arising from dramatic Arctic warming, with the potential for a rapid and massive release of substantial reservoirs of methane, trapped in permafrost, into the Earth’s atmosphere with likely calamitous consequences.

• Methane emissions must be intercepted at source, primarily from agriculture, and oil and gas production.

• Furthermore, the safe and effective reduction of atmospheric methane levels must be achieved through a combination of nature-based and technological means.


Nature.

• Some of the Earth’s major tropical and temperate forests have become carbon sources, rather than sinks.

•Interdependent ecosystem processes - pollination, natural flood control and water purification have been damaged as a result of human activities.

• Widespread conservation, restoration and rewilding are necessary, for natural habitats to recover sufficient resilience to support human survival.

• The wholesale destruction and degradation of critical carbon-accumulating ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and grasslands must be halted immediately.

•Proforestation practices must be implemented, to protect mature forest ecosystems, while allowing secondary forests to continue growing; thus maximizing carbon storage, preserving and restoring biodiversity, and curbing emissions from harvested forests.


Food Systems.

• 8 billion people cannot be fed sustainably by the present food system, which is also responsible for 25+% of greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of freshwater consumption, and the majority of deforestation and nutrient runoff, the latter causing freshwater contamination and the emergence of coastal dead zones.

• Widespread famines are likely within the present century: hence, leaders must act urgently at all, local, regional, national, and global, levels, over food production, land use, and farming practices.

• It is also essential to shift rapidly from animal products to low impact, more plant based, foods, thus enhancing the efficiency of land and water use.

• More regenerative (less degenerative) farming methods must be introduced rapidly, to protect and restore soil and other natural habitats.


Population Stabilisation.

• The human animal is in ecological overshoot, numbering 8 billion, and the Earth cannot sustain us. The addition of another 80 million people, year after year, only thwarts any efforts to alleviate climate instability, ecological destruction, famine, social and political instability and insecurity.

• Leaders must acknowledge population and consumption as the two underpinning ‘multiplier threats’ to a sustainable civilization, and take bold, equitable, and just action by 2026 to bend the curve.

• Support must be provided for wealthier families to have fewer children as the single most effective way to individually reduce their lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, while allowing poorer families to improve their situation, both economically and educationally.


Economic Reforms.

• The great magnitude of the current human enterprise drives climate change, biodiversity loss, and overall converging crises of the ecosphere. Since this is underpinned and driven by a system of growth economics, we need to rapidly supplant this by a new economic model that functions within planetary boundaries.

• An urgent implementation of economic frameworks that support and prioritise the protection and restoration of natural capital and ecosystem services (including carbon sequestration, flood control, water purification, pollination, disease control).

• An instigation of reforms to ensure that farm and forestry lands, like the oceans, rivers and wetlands, are managed for the long-term benefit of nature and humanity, rather than short-term profits.


We call on all scientists to sign this paper, and act in a united effort to avoid a catastrophic collapse of civilisation. https://www.scientistswarningeurope.org.uk/signature


The time is now or never. Cooperation is fundamental to our success, and only by uniting as a human family, on all levels from local to global, can we hope to achieve an equitable and concordant future on our Mother Planet.

Monday, October 04, 2021

The Energy Crisis and the Climate Crisis.

Here is a short interview of me by Ed Gemmell, Managing Director of Scientists Warning Europe, in the run up to COP26.

Help Drive Climate Action at COP26 Support our record-breaking campaign for COP26. There are just a few days left. https://bit.ly/warningintoaction

What actions must be taken at COP26, and what happens if this doesn't happen? What can individuals do to help tackle the climate crisis? Find out in this short interview with energy expert, Professor Chris Rhodes.

“The world must quickly implement massive energy efficiency and conservation practices and must replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables and other cleaner sources of energy if safe for people and the environment. We must swiftly eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels and use effective and fair policies for steadily escalating carbon prices to restrain their use.”

In this brief episode, Ed Gemmell, Managing Director of Scientists Warning Europe, talks to Professor Chris Rhodes, who is a Scientists Warning Europe Board member and well versed on all aspects of energy. Chris quickly puts the limited transition towards renewable energy we have made so far into perspective with how much more needs to be done by 2050.

See the video version of this conversation at https://youtu.be/zkZrGIl8UJ8

Scientists Warning Europe presents and promotes science endorsed solutions which will lead to a just transition for our World to a sustainable and equitable future. Learn more, sign up for updates, and support our work at https://www.scientistswarningeurope.org.uk

This podcast series is made possible through the generous help of The Overpopulation Podcast and the GrowthBusters podcast about limits to growth.


LINKS:

Scientists Warning Europe
https://scientistswarningeurope.org.uk/

All Three World Scientists’ Warnings
https://scientistswarningeurope.org.uk/warnings

Planet in Crisis Pre-COP Video Series
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLyl1v07bfIaLHtXjYBtaca3YdlPaKC9Vx

GrowthBusters podcast
http://www.growthbusters.org/podcast/

 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

IPCC Climate Report Signals “Code Red” for Humanity, but the reality is so much worse.

Following on the heels of the “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap (NZE) from the International Energy Agency (IEA), is the latest IPCC Climate Report, which signals a “code red” for humankind in terms of widespread extreme weather events. It also unequivocally establishes a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions, as a result of burning fossil fuels and deforestation, and the planetary warming that is driving climate change.

Such a relationship accords that a carbon budget can be used to quantify necessary mitigation requirements for restricting warming to within specific limits; most significantly, it may be deduced that in order to stabilise human-induced global temperature increase at any level, net anthropogenic CO2 emissions must be brought to zero. Curbing methane emissions, too, is a critical factor in limiting the global temperature increase.

Both reports agree that if immediate action is not undertaken to drastically reduce carbon emissions, the warming, systemic behemoth of the Earth’s ecosphere will break its leash at a temperature rise of 1.5°C, with projected climatic adversities unfolding across the globe. Nowhere will be safe. While all scenarios considered by the IPCC suggest a 1.5°C increase by 2040, it is in the latter decades of the present century that the full ramifications of a heat-driven changing climate will be discharged, which, at the extreme range of high greenhouse emissions, where the global temperature rises by 3.3-5.7°C, has been described as a “hell on earth”.

One critical action, both reports make clear, is for no new coal fired power stations to be built beyond 2021, while NZE specifically emphasises no more drilling for new oil and gas fields. Furthermore, the IPCC stresses, the OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, and all others do likewise by 2040. In their ending of new fossil fuel exploration and production, all nations are urged to shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy, and by 2030, a quadrupling of solar and wind capacity should have happened, with a trebling of renewable energy investments, in order to keep on track for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Since a degree of warming of 1.2 °C above pre-industrial levels has already taken place, an urging of further climatic effects can be expected as the Earth warms up to the full 1.5°C, even if it were to stop there. Hence, the deployment of adaptation strategies like working with nature to address societal goals is a critical factor, to build resilience against the inevitable changes already factored into the climate system, as the UK government’s Chief Scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, has summarised:

“We must also recognise that the climate has already changed, and will continue to do so as we near 1.5 C. The seas are rising, and floods and wildfires are more frequent. Again, science and engineering can help us to adapt, boosting the resilience of the most vulnerable and strengthening global food security. Existing tools can anticipate adverse events, while adjusting the design of cities, transport systems and agriculture can minimise their worst effects.”

Fair enough, but although CO2 has been identified by the IPCC as the main driver (>50%) of climate change, to focus entirely on eliminating carbon emissions misses the systemic nature of a changing climate, and by merely recasting the source of our energy supply (gargantuan task though this surely is) degradation of the natural environment and depletion of resources will not be abated. The fundamental driver is a massive overconsumption of resources, as has been more bluntly expressed that the human animal is in ecological overshoot. Hence, without a complete redesign and downsizing of the human enterprise, to bring it back within the carrying capacity of the Earth, the system cannot be “fixed”.

According to the Global Footprint Network, humans crossed the global overshoot threshold of “one planet” in 1970, and now, we are using up the equivalent of “1.75 planets”. However, the situation is even worse than is formally expressed by this metric. For example, no biocapacity is set aside for non-human creatures, even in the face of irrefutable biodiversity loss and species extinctions, and neither is the depletion of non-renewable resources (e.g. fossil fuels and minerals) explicitly accounted for.

Other impacts, such as depletion of fossil aquifers, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, wildfires, floods, chemical and waste pollution, ocean acidification, pollinator decline, plastics in the oceans (and everywhere else), are not reckoned either, as has been noted: “Environmental Footprint estimates are actually conservative for several reasons. In particular, while the method can estimate the area of ecosystems “appropriated” by humans (the human EF) and compare this with available productive land and water area (biocapacity), it cannot account for erosion, other forms of depletion or lost productivity through pollution.”

One further wildcard that could profoundly affect the course of the Earth’s climate is the loss of stability and weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), and the Gulf Stream.

From another perspective, climate change has been described as a “Wicked Problem”, that is to say, one characterised by complexity, and lacking a simple solution, unlike a “tamer” challenge such as solving a mathematical equation or winning a game of chess. In this context, “wicked” does not mean “evil”, but signifies a resistance to resolution. The lack of balance that is signalled by the many apparent “problems” (the changing climate), including those just mentioned, occur because the system overall, is in a state of distortion. Hence, only the application of a systemic approach might improve the outcome; as, for example, in permaculture, where the overall functioning of a given system is optimised, through mutually harmonising the arrangement of its constituent elements, working together in a dynamic equilibrium.

In order to begin optimising the elements of humans within the limits of the biosphere, we might approach the latter with an emphasis on protecting nature and allowing it to achieve its full potential, in which case various problematic issues begin to fall into line. Such thinking is at the root of proforestation, forest and land regeneration, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, and other nature based solutions.

Clear culpability for overshoot has been placed at the door of our neoliberal economic system, which requires perpetual “growth” to feed it, positing that the only way out of this is through re-localisation into smaller communities, none of which exceed the regenerative limits (carrying capacity) of their local region: “The most adaptive form of this new civilization might be a network of cooperation-based eco-regional economies supporting many fewer people thriving more equitably within the regenerative capacity of their local ecosystems.”

It is further proposed that a global population of “one to two billion... could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.” Nevertheless, how such a population contraction by 6 billion or more might happen exactly is a moot and open question. As viewed through any lens, such a future landscape does look vastly different from the present, with all pretence razed that we can carry on (over)consuming more or less as we do now, having "only" net-zeroed our carbon emissions by putting renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. Quite correctly, the need for a complete, corporeal reconstruction of society is identified, not just a makeover.

Certainly, if we do nothing, or only half-heartedly, we all cook together in the same planetary pot. So, we have to reduce emissions. Depletion of finite resources and degradation of the natural environment are associated issues. Since the richest 10% produce 52% of emissions (which can also be taken as a kind of proxy for resource use, in general), this is where the greatest reductions must be made.

Energy efficiency is an essential counterpart to low-carbon energy generation: for example, better thermal insulation and draught-proofing of buildings, while working from home or locally, avoids commuting and reduces demand for transportation fuels. Heavy carbon taxes could be introduced, but not across the board, so to avoid the poorest people being hit unfairly by rising energy costs; rather, to target “luxury” activities, such as unnecessary flights and travel in general, excessive car ownership (number and size), and purchase of (mostly imported) non-essential consumer “stuff” - frippery that no one really needs, and may not truly want.

A reconfiguration of towns and cities is necessary to assist non-carbon intensive travel (walking and cycling), based around community hubs where accommodation, work and leisure activates are integrated into the same area, along with low energy local food growing and soil improvement. Natural regeneration/rewilding can be introduced within and around community spaces, so that low maintenance pollinator corridors and habitat are created in cities, towns and villages, thus converting them into a network of insect reserves. By installing remakeries and repair cafes, the overall consumption of resources and the production of waste can be ameliorated, along with associated emissions of greenhouse and landfill gases, and plastic pollution too.

There are good reasons to believe that there will be less overall energy available to us in the future than we currently “enjoy”, which is a further critical reason for undertaking a designed energy descent. We may take an optimistic view of re-localisation as the best single strategy for significantly curbing demand for oil and energy in general, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, building community resilience, improving health and wellbeing, increasing energy security, and reducing supply chain vulnerability; although, it is most likely naive to think that such a transition would be a simple and painless process.

Nonetheless, despite the remarkable technological advances and “progress” of our “civilization”, humans may remain too immature to cooperate to the extent necessary to pull off the great “energy” transition, and will continue to squabble and bicker on into the flames of Hell!

There is no "getting back to normal”; now is the dawn of a new age, either by design or default. We have to thoroughly transform how we live, or it will be transformed for us. Indeed, it may well prove “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for humanity to shift its prevailing paradigm and embark on a planned, voluntary descent from a state of overshoot to a steady-state harmonic relationship with the ecosphere—in just a decade or two.” 

The alternative, however, is the fulfillment of Paul Kingsnorth’s warning averment, that, quite simply, industrial civilization “will run on, until it runs out.”