Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Year 2020: Last Chance to Avoid Rebound into Carbon Chaos.


The decisions made during the remainder of this yeara mere 6 months – to recover economically from the COVID-19 crisis, are likely to determine the practical actions set in motion for the next 3 years, regarding the control of carbon emissions, and thence the course of the climate crisis up to 2050... and beyond.

It is now part of the public psyche that to mitigate climate change requires curbing our use of fossil fuels, although the vast scale of this, as needed to check global warming to within necessary limits, is less readily comprehended. Likewise, that there should be such a large difference in consequences between a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, and one of just half a degree less than this, is not immediately obvious, until the massive amount of additional energy absorbed into the Earth system that this represents, is appreciated.

It is sometimes tempting to despair that zero-carbon will be attained by 2050, and the chances of doing so by 2030 appear far less compelling. Nonetheless, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that have been “achieved” as an inadvertent consequence of locking down to control the transmission of the coronavirus, by almost one sixth in April 2020, compared with 2019 levels, might be taken to indicate that significant progress along this path is indeed possible. The question arises, however, of whether such an ameliorated emissions level might be preserved in the longer run, but the subsequent “rebound” in CO2 being poured into the atmosphere to within about 5% of 2019 levels, somewhat dilutes optimism about this.

Clearly, by simply curbing the milliard tonnage of fossil fuels that we burn, CO2 emissions would be attenuated, but with economic catastrophe as an unwelcome bedfellow. Huge sums of money are being pledged by governments across the globe this year, to stimulate their economies post COVID-19, totalling $9 trillion. Since, with the aid of these fiscal booster-jabs, the die will be cast for the global economy over the next 3 years, how the money is spent is critical, and if it does not coincide with a dramatic and permanent fall in CO2 emissions, climate targets will become unattainable. In short, the time is now or never.

However, according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, a “green alternative” is within our grasp. Not surprisingly, this requires a principal emphasis on the proliferation of wind and solar energy, but also that buildings and industries be made more energy efficient, and that electricity grids are remodelled and updated. The creation of millions of new jobs across the world is vital, particularly in those nations where very many have been rendered unemployed, as a result of the lockdowns imposed to hold the COVID-19 crisis in check.

The report concludes that rather than injecting finance into the prevailing high-carbon economy, more jobs can be created by investing in such activities as retrofitting buildings, fabricating wind farms, installing solar panels, inaugurating new power networks, implementing greater numbers of electric vehicles, improving the energy efficiencies of industry, long distance transportation, and appliances in general, along with more end-use renewables, biofuels production, and creating environmentally sound urban infrastructure. It is thought that such a “sustainable recovery plan” could generate an annual 9 million new jobs.

While the European Union, for example, appears poised to initiate a swathe of green as part of its recovery, globally, little money has so far been directed toward low-carbon industries, with the majority of the pledged funding aimed toward their high-carbon counterparts. For example, the aviation industry is targeted for a $33 billion bailout. As the Executive Director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, has commented, governments “had an excuse” to support these industries, as a first reaction to dealing with the suddenness and scale of the COVID-19 crisis, since “the first recovery plans were more aimed at creating firewalls round the economy.” However, some governments are still investing in high-carbon projects, such as coal-fired power stations

There is an additional danger, namely that the currently available cheap and plentiful oil might act to derail the essential transformation to renewable energy. Especially at this critical time, to allow this to happen would be very short sighted, to say the least, and it is the longer game we must prepare for. As has been stressed elsewhere, the oversupply of oil is temporary, and will finally be drained away into the enlarging backdrop of declining conventional fields.

Investment in the countryside has also been proposed as a potentially significant source of new jobs. Sir Mark Rylance, the actor and former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, in London, has said that members of the theatrical profession are not happy “just sitting on their butts”, furloughed or unemployed due to COVID-19, and would prefer to be occupied in hands-on environmental activities. He has declared that, due to his own freelance status, he is prepared to devote one month per year for the next decade, to carry out building and digging work in the service of countryside and environmental initiatives, which he very much believes in. Sir Mark is also said to have proposed that the UK government invest £315 million in a range of countryside and environmental projects which could create (paid) jobs and improve the nation’s health.

A considerable opposing force to making such vital changes is the incentivisation of global capitalism, which, as a result of its massive resource consumption, is now reckoned to be eroding the safe, operating space of human civilization, leading to breaches of key planetary boundaries, such as land-use change, biosphere integrity and climate change.There are also indications that it may be more difficult than is generally thought to transform to a low-carbon society, and until renewables have been established on a sufficient scale to achieve net energy payback a large-scale expansion of low carbon energy capacity will rely upon subsidies from the fossil fuels, which are, in any case, becoming increasing scarce.

Most probably, a redesign of our system of industrialised civilization, to use less energy overall, primarily involving relocalisation strategies, is the critical approach to addressing these and many other issues that confront us, and it would be perilous to overlook this.


I dedicate this article to the late Bruce Arthur (“Woody”) Wood, author of the “Values Trilogy” set of essays, and a stalwart in the communities and co-operatives movement, with which he was involved for over forty years.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

Just a few days before the influence of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus began its remoulding of everyday life in Britain, I chanced upon a television broadcast of a brilliantly executed film that I hadn’t seen for many years, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire.” Although this was first released in 1961, I was struck by an uncanny resonance with broad undercurrents of our present times, and, over the past couple of months or so, since the UK lockdown was imposed, this has consolidated into a pulsating impression of living within the plot of a sci-fi drama. Indeed, the periodicity of our daily flow, with its social distancing and unaccustomed emptiness of places and spaces, normally thronged, imbues a palpable sense of the “unreal”.

“The Day the Earth Caught Fire” depicts a crisis situation in which peoples across the globe try to cope with unparalleled high temperatures, brought upon them by the Americans and Russians simultaneously detonating (“testing”) two super-hydrogen bombs near the poles, which causes an alteration in the Earth's nutation, in concert with a shift in the tilt of its axis by 11 degrees, and, as is revealed later in the film, a change in its solar orbit, which leaves the planet barrelling towards the Sun so that, as one of the plot’s protagonists asserts, they have about four months,"before there’s a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind."

Scenes of chaos and social breakdown are embodied in the wanton, antisocial acts of “beatniks”, who are squandering water by pouring it over themselves and each other. Meanwhile, tap water supplies are turned off to people’s homes, in a government declared state-of-emergency. Public showers are installed and drinking water rationing arrangements are introduced, with inevitable punch-ups ensuing, both at the water dispensing hubs, and en route, as the hero battles to the home of his love interest, who is being tormented by an out-of-hand group of teens and 20-somethings. One of her assailants meets his demise by falling down the lift shaft, as a further metaphor for descending civil order.

Documentary “authenticity” is lent to the film by the plot’s setting in the actual offices of the Daily Express – then a credible newspaper – and centred around a group of journalists and their editor, who are trying to “get the truth out”, while the government downplays and downrightly lies about the severity of the situation, finally having to come clean, once the paper breaks the story about what has really happened, and the facts can no longer be concealed.

Clearly, we are in no such exact situation and probably never will be. Yet, the sense of an unsettled and vulnerable civilization, portrayed in the film, is mirrored in the feelings of unease and uncertainty about the future of the world, that are now pervasive almost 60 years later. Back then, the major terror was that nuclear war would break out between the two great superpowers, perhaps “World War III”, and engulf the world in a cataclysmic conflagration.

Although such fears had long been allayed, the recent nuclear sabre rattling, with threats of hypersonic missiles, too fast to be shot down, has fanned their embers once more. That this spectre should reappear is both surprising and distressing, but reflects more profound tensions over securing a sufficient share of various finite and rapidly depleting resources. The lack of any firmly set plans to use them less carelessly than we have done so far, can only aggravate future unrest.

Among the 100 billion tonnes of natural resources that are now consumed annually to feed the demands of a human population that grows relentlessly, both in its number and acquisitiveness, are fifteen billion tonnes of fossil fuels, whose combustion is thought to be the major driver of climate change.The term “changing climate” has been coined, to stress that it is not only the likely consequences of global warming that need concern us, but to encapsulate a whole range of effects, some of them involving the Earth system, as a whole, such as degradation of land, air and water resources, while others are more societal and political, but often linked to resource depletion, although they are all bound together, by mutually interconnecting threads, into a complex web.

Indeed, what are mostly perceived as individual problems, to be solved in their own right, really provide a litany of interrelated signs that the overall system of resource-consumption is failing. To this list, we might add the “culture of fear” that has emerged, from the combined and continual impact of these global troubles on our awareness, especially as spun by an arsenal of media which increasingly and constantly bombards us.

The latter sounds a steady drum beat which initially terrifies, then begins to dull the senses into torpor. Thus, a state of denial of the fundamental issues emerges, and a lack of belief that there is anything we can do to change the impending worst outcomes. It is either salient or ironic, that the much vexed 5G is able to beam out vastly more “information”, even though it may be causing great human harm in the process. This is, therefore, a single example among many, of an experiment in which we all are both participants and subjects, in real time. Thus, although the overall consequences of our collective tinkering with the environment are as yet unknown, it is a reasonable inference that by the time the experimental results are available for scrutiny, our geographical and human landscapes will be so transformed that “going back” is impossible.

In the fictional “The Day the Earth Caught Fire, an attempt is made to bring the Earth back into a stable orbit by simultaneously detonating several massive nuclear bombs in western Siberia. However, the ending is left ambiguous, with two versions of the newspaper’s front page being prepared, one reading “World Saved” and the other “World Doomed.” The film ends, giving no clue as to which one will be published.

The fate of our present reality is also unclear, but is likely to involve a mixture of salvation and loss, rather than a clear selection of one over the other, due to the complex nature of the Earth system, and that different influences will unfold varyingly across the biosphere. Nonetheless, all projected efforts to limit the rise in mean global temperature (since pre-industrial times) to 1.5 oC, at least by 2050, most likely represent steps in the right direction, albeit that the expansion of various low-carbon technologies may be limited in scale by the availability of critical raw materials.

There is great uncertainty over the likely course of the COVID-19 pandemic, as is true of all complex phenomena, but the current state-of-fear is at a red-alert, probably not previously seen during peacetime, and for most born since 1945, certainly in mainland UK, a complete novelty. The current lockdowns across the globe have changed our outlook immeasurably, to one of living in the moment and within the zone (in permaculture terms, the zone 0 of our closest surroundings, but also the contentiously termed zone 00, the inner landscape, which, to me, means the “core self”: body, mind, self-awareness and spirit).

Thus, some of our attention has been diverted from more trivial distractions such as video games and social media, while the latter have now taken on the importance of communication lifelines, and the “core self(s)" extend beyond individuals to a collective mindset of mutual awareness and care. Accordingly, kinder communities have emerged, and while the forecasts are dire for the economies of nations, and indeed, the entire world, it is breathtaking and inspiring, to see what can, or might, be achieved when the human family unites in all purpose, action and identity.

During the absorbedness of dealing with this virus, and even having vanquished it, the broader indicators of a changing climate yet beckon us to act in solution of the overall “problem”, as cracks in a weakening wall that will tumble if left ignored and unbutressed. While the overall course we choose to take must respect the planetary boundaries, it is important to contemplate what we mean by sustainability – i.e. as taken in the context of the likely duration of a civilization – and how we will maintain our destination once we arrive there?

But, I wonder, who will “we” be by then? A mere statistic of 10 billion – or more than this, or far fewer – or whether however many humans there are will have become a true collective, thinking and acting as being interlinked with all other riders on Spaceship Earth? Will we construe complexity and synchronicity as being implicit to the integrated whole that is Nature, having evolved a worldview that no longer believes in its own exclusion and detachment, with labels such as inanimate and separate, no longer useful, but anachronisms?