Saturday, July 17, 2021

Covid-19 and the Changing Climate: Seeking the Word.

The prospect of getting back to normal, of being released from the current peculiar restricted condition is suddenly almost as overwhelming as was the initial lockdown. Then, I felt something close to panic: a sense of imminently being trapped, and yet, a year or so on, while I can’t say that I like the situation, an accustomed routine and familiarity has crystallized around me. It is indeed a bubble of me and mine, cocooning us from normal expectations and demands. Once the bunker doors are again thrown open (practically all lockdown restrictions to be lifted in England on Monday, July 19th, and fanfared as “Freedom Day”) this metastable state of limbo will cease to exist, and we will be impelled to move forward into a landscape that has grown all the more uneasy by temporal disconnection and dissociated contemplation of what it might now extend to us.

Imminently, there will be actions to perform, decisions to be made; the suspension of the real and the mundane is over, and normal responsibilities no longer in abeyance. Probably, the best I can say is that I feel as though I have been in a state of “suspended animation”; how otherwise could the past sixteen months have moved four-dimensionally past my three dimensional awareness, with time as an absent component? What we normally call time gives a sense of directedness – without it, all appears in randomness. Thoughts of future, making plans, being fretted by past errors – if they were really that – and other directionalities of the ego, have become isotropic.

The normal signposts spin and average out to zero, as though time were effectively nonexistent or irrelevant. This is probably a defence mechanism: a local anaesthetic that is beginning to wear off, and I oscillate between a detached numbness, and a wish for something more, or just else. I have been trying to find a word for how exactly I do feel, but it is hard to be specific, hence describing the whole condition in terms of suspension. The emotions themselves are not singular – there is no one feeling – more a roiling of alternatively not quite happy, near fretful, and weirdly almost contented contrasts. Then the mood morphs again.

The word ennui gives some sense of definition for this cacophony of mental sensations, but doesn’t entirely fill the void. Perhaps I don’t understand the root of it properly, and there is a mismatch between how I feel viscerally and an analytical urge which is merely cerebral (or disembodied, at least)? Definitely, a kind of incongruity is present somewhere, almost absurdist in its disharmony; that the realm of existence is out of kilter with my perception of reality, or how it ought to be.

If we need entropy as a measure that time does exist and what its direction is, the state of enlarging chaos around the world – both natural and political – suggests impermanency, which is also isotropic in its unfolding drama. Disintegration is all around – the changing climate – which I look out upon as from a storm’s eye: a node of great forces, whose calmness is deceptive indeed. Yet I have the sense that its impetus is shifting my way too, drawing in elements, albeit more slowly, that are all markers of change.

[Indeed, such is the scale and exquisite interlocking of our use of energy and resources, to drive a mechanism seemingly hell bent on degrading the biosphere, that I am beginning to wonder if, in some deep psychology, we have already decided that the present vehicle is on an unsustainable journey, and are increasingly loading it for the axle to break, and the wheels to come off.].

The prospect that a more apt word than ennui is acedia, both uplifts me and weights me further down into the depths of definition. Here, the striving is not only for a word per se, but for certainty of the feeling it needs to describe. Thus, it is not the mood that shifts, but the shadowing periodicity of my response to it. Nor is it languor precisely, either, which implies a sense of pleasure, the dreaminess of a balmy afternoon – of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” – a deliberately chosen oasis to rest beside, while well aware of the constancy and normality that exists beyond it and waits for the bubble to burst. Indeed, it is this two way mirror that actually makes the day or the moment what it is: unblemished and ephemeral. However, the current situation is not one of choice, nor does it provide respite; more a restless apathy, and dissatisfaction with an inertial reality. Thus, we see that the word sought must capture the essential duality of opposing forces, whose jarring mismatch drives a sense of great anxiety.

The meaning of acedia itself is open to interpretation, but I am inclined toward the word by Kathleen Norris, who, in her book "Acedia and Me", posits that terms such as torpor and sloth do not capture its mood; rather, that a state of restlessness, of “not living in the present and seeing the future as overwhelming” expresses it more closely. Thus, the enforced isolation that exists in monasteries (a sort of lockdown from the life that to most of us is normal), may give rise to it. In line with this, Evagrius of Pontius (Evagrius Ponticus) averred that acedia seeds dissatisfaction in the monk for both his cell and existence, hence urging him to take flight; however, by becoming absorbed in prayer and the work of their community, these feelings can be suppressed.

Evagrius’ protégé, John Cassian, took the view that acedia comprised two opposing symptoms - sleep, inactivity, and surrender on the one hand, and instability, fecklessness, and agitated activity for activity’s sake on the other. Cassian believed that the source of the problem was a lack of manual labour, based upon his interpretation of Thessalonians 3:6-15, in which the Apostle Paul castigated those who were beset by acedia, lest they become idle and disruptive busybodies.

Indeed, I have found great diversion and consolation in keeping physically active during this pandemic period: in my case, walking up to about 20 kilometres most days, allowing my senses to become absorbed in communing with Nature, photographing and identifying trees, and feeling something like a higher intelligence at work in the complex, interlaced mechanisms that underpin a woodland ecosystem... especially an ancient one.

The practical dealing with this condition is the proverbial “one day at a time”, and it is not so much coping with an addiction, but avoiding the uncharted. Planning ahead is part of the normal, but not exactly possible against a backdrop of uncertainty. As Winston Churchill observed, “it is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” This was, of course, during World War II, and parallels have been drawn between dealing with that and then, and this and now. [The common features are an enemy (i.e. a military foe or the virus), and not knowing if we will win; the great difference is that we are currently detached by a state of social distancing, rather than the mutual digging for victory and community support that prevailed during the war itself].

It is a lack of purpose, of looking ahead to achieving identified worthwhile goals, a temporal cage in which normal conduits of action-to-outcome are truncated or deactivated. A switching off of normal motivation. But it is not a calm place, rather one of restless agitation; a disconnected rattling around within an imprisoning vessel, outside of which nothing seems important enough to engage with. There is a pervasive sense of, “why bother?” Yet, oddly, in writing this, I feel suddenly better; like I’m beginning to sort my head out. It is disorder, but some visceral set of bones seems to be assembling, not just the wispy outlines of a detached apparition.

I also feel a sense of “what’s the point?”, which is something different from “why bother?” It is a feeling of normal goals being futile that also forms a barrier to action. The latter is driven by a profound fear of the future, and an almost superstitious sense that by not acting, the latter can be held in abeyance, or avoided altogether; almost as though the flow of time itself can be suspended by passivity.

There is also a perception that I really should be "doing something"; that time is running out, but the spur for action is not present, and this emotional dichotomy is overwhelming. Like the proverbial one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake, there is an energy-consuming revving and rattling, but the vehicle does not advance, merely grinds and flexes in its own captive disquietude.

Intolerance is a strong feature of this condition. Thus, I find my reserve capacity is more limited, so that some things I normally would take in my stride, become magnified and I have to regain my sense of perspective. I find that writing lists, as I tend to when I have a lot of different things to do, helps to keep me on track. Better still, is when I have actual deadlines to do things by, and there is a definite set of dates by when particular tasks, and exchanges with my co-workers must be completed.

A strong desire also prevails, to slough off the wearying layers of the “old normal” – emotionally vampiric and unnurturing associations, both with individuals and more amorphous bodies, that drain finite resources of time and emotional strength, while giving nothing worthwhile back. It is a stripping down of mind and spirit – and body too, as I have lost about a stone in weight, mainly through walking miles, finding succour in the natural world – to a basic core that tries to fathom its own substance, and where and with whom that might belong. In an oddly enervated way, I have never yearned more thoroughly for significance and a sense of purpose.

The jab has proved particularly jarring, piercing the bubble of disconnection: immediately, it links us both with the promise of a “back to normal”, and an uncertainty that such a thing will prevail. Before the massive numbers of vaccinations had actually happened – especially in the UK – the actual and real could still be kept at a safe distance. Now that the first jab has been delivered to almost 70% of the UK population (but with a bare half having had the “double jab”), our reconnection to future realities has begun, and we are being swept forward, inescapably, into a new momentum.

Within the change that is all invasive – the disintegration of the familiar, the old; covid, climate change, resource misuse and depletion, elections that show a lack of identity both of the individual nation citizens and their governance, Brexit and the impending break-up of the UK union - we may find motivation and heart in looking to embrace the new age that is being born while old definitions amorphize.

Perhaps, once we accept our reality, we will know both the way and the word, but for now, I offer gestation to describe this peculiar place and its concomitant discomfort, viewing it as an active process, en route to our re-emergence into a more open space; but one that is somehow both structurally, and functionally a recalibration of the one we left, when we entered that first lockdown.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Not Just Energy, but Everything.

The criticality of the global energy situation is emphasised by the release, on schedule (18-5-21), of the eagerly awaited “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap (NZE) from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Not only does this document delineate the gargantuan quantities of energy currently used by humans on Earth, mainly from the fossil fuels, but the enormity of change necessary to bring their emissions to net zero by 2050. [It is thought this would give a 50:50 chance of limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100].

Although NZE is a guide, not a mandate, it fully identifies the steepness of the terrain that must be negotiated, with no new oil or gas fields to be approved, as of 2021. Instead, oil and gas producers would concentrate on output from existing fields, and in reducing any associated emissions. New coal mines and additional unabated coal fired power plants are also ruled out.

Given that various governments, including that of the UK, who commissioned the report, are set to endorse various new fossil fuel projects, and oil companies continue to invest in new production, this particular criterion may prove difficult to meet.

The publication of the roadmap is timed in anticipation of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November, whose high-level discussions it aims to inform. Even if the climate pledges made to date by the world’s governments were entirely fulfilled, the resulting reduction in global energy-related CO2 emissions would be insufficient to bring them to net zero by 2050; hence, more drastic and urgent action is essential.

Broadly, the NZE emissions reductions are comparable with those scenarios set out in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C, published in 2018, that yield net-zero CO2 energy sector and industrial process emissions in 2050, although there are important structural differences, including avoiding “overshoot”. In particular, NZE depends less on bioenergy and carbon capture (CCUS/BECCS) technologies, but more on direct emissions reductions, with a greater share of wind and solar energy being introduced. Thus, the NZE vs (IPCC) figures for 2050 are: fossil energy use = 120 EJ (184); overall energy use = 344 EJ (404); wind/solar share = 70% (53%); CCS = 7.6 Gt (8.4); BECCS = 1.9 Gt (4.5); bioenergy = 102 EJ (152)

A doubling of current nuclear power (and also of hydroelectric capacity) is anticipated, which might raise some eyebrows. However, without it, much more solar PV and wind energy is necessary. Thus, in the NZE “low nuclear and CCUS” case (with nuclear 60% lower in 2050 than for NZE and only the existing planned CCUS projects completed) an additional 2,400GW of solar and wind capacity would be needed to compensate for the shortfall. In addition, around 480GW of battery capacity would be necessary, on top of the 3,100GW planned in NZE, and an extra 300GW of other dispatchable capacity to cope with seasonal energy demand.

Profound changes must already have been made by 2030, to garner sufficient momentum that the NZE target can be reached “by 2050”. Such intense transformation is also necessary given the very tight remaining global carbon budget, and to minimise locking-in high emissions infrastructure. Thus, an immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies must be undertaken, with respective annual additions of solar PV and of wind power to reach 630 GW and 390 GW by 2030. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park [1,000 MW] roughly every day.

Energy efficiency (i.e. MJ of energy used per $ GDP generated) is also a significant feature of the roadmap, and which must increase by 4% per year, up to 2030, i.e. a trebling of the average over the past two decades. In 2030, 60% of new cars sold globally would be electric vehicles.

The NZE scenario has critical implications for global oil demand, which would need to fall from 88 million barrels a day (mbd) in 2020, to 72 mbd in 2030; reaching 24 mbd in 2050 (an overall annual decline of -4.2%). If all further investment in those fields now producing were to cease, the global oil supply would decline by -8%/year, but the IEA estimate that this can be braked at -4.5% by allowing continued investment in existing fields, including those already approved for development. However, a delicate balancing act is required, since if the resulting loss of oil is not adequately matched in step by alternatives such as EVs, discontinuities may appear in the energy supply chain, with impacts on critical functions, e.g. transportation.

Thus, governments need proactively to anticipate energy security risks surrounding market concentration, critical minerals and an increased reliance on electricity systems, including their vulnerability to cyber attack: in 2050, almost 50% of global energy would be used in the form of electricity, up from 20% in 2020. This will necessitate a huge increase in the production of lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, rare earths and copper, whose supplies must be secured by individual nations. As the mining or processing of these resources is concentrated in only a few countries, potential geopolitical problems seem almost inevitable.

If entirely implemented, the global energy landscape would be almost unrecognisable, as NZE summarises:

“By 2050, the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.”

NZE is an attempt at “business as usual”: of trying to maintain the mechanics of current civilization, but with energy largely provided from renewable sources, instead of fossil fuels. In a practical sense, “renewable” is a misnomer, since although the power of the sun, and of the wind which it also drives, is effectively endless, acquiring useful energy, still depends on minerals mined from the Earth, and which are subject to the inevitability of depletion, the same as the fossil fuels are now. To some extent, this can be mitigated by recycling, but there are energy costs and the need to create new infrastructure on a very large scale to do this.

Meanwhile, until the new low carbon energy system has attained a sufficient size to feed back energy to build and maintain itself, fossil fuel energy will be required to subsidise its growth. Hence, the questions arise of, how much energy do we really need, and [how] might we manage with [a lot] less of it?

Indeed, while energy is the critical underpinning factor for future society, it is not the only point of issue, and we are presented with an opportunity to reimagine that society. It is noteworthy that the richest 10% of humans on Earth produce 52% of its total emissions (of which 15% are produced by the “top” 1%); hence, this is where the major behavioural changes (a critical feature of NZE) must be made.

In all probability, the NZE projections both in terms of energy saving and changing our behaviour must be transcended considerably, if we are to deal with all aspects of a changing climate. The fundamental concept of “net zero”, has recently been challenged as a “dangerous trap”, in that it might be used to defer action that should be taken immediately, continuing to burn fossil fuels as part of a business plan that assumes carbon emissions will be cleaned up later, using technology as yet to be applied on the massive scale.

Globally, the energy costs of transportation run to 21% of primary energy consumption; hence, a curbing of the unnecessary movement of people or goods (including food and energy) could considerably reduce the amount of low carbon energy that must be produced.

Indeed, relocalisation has been proposed as the best single approach to reducing demand for oil and resources of all kinds, while building resilience into our communities and societies. The process of relocalisation implicitly involves many other re-words, all of which ameliorate demand for energy and other resources, e.g. reduce, reuse, recycle... repair, repurpose, replace, refill, rethink, redesign, reimagine, reinvent, regenerate, restore, respond, refuse!

To tackle the global problem of climate change will require unparalleled coordination and collaboration across societies and between nations. Without the international cooperation assumed in NZE, the transition to net‐zero emissions “would be delayed by decades”, thus greatly increasing the chances of missing the 1.5 oC target. At a time when the peoples of the world are becoming increasingly fragmented and divided, along with potential production and supply issues, this does not appear unlikely.

In any case, to focus primarily on eliminating carbon emissions is too narrow: the problems confronting humanity are actually systemic in nature, and not resolved by changing the source(s) of our energy alone, while degradation of the natural environment and depletion of resources continue.

Indeed, we can list energy and carbon emissions along with many other of the “world’s woes”, such as loss of biodiversity and habitat, pollinator decline, soil erosion, and a consumption of close to 100 billion tonnes of materials every year (even allowing for a substitution of coal, gas and oil by other minerals), which, acting in concert, comprise what has been termed the “changing climate”.

The world food system and (as part of it) deforestation are major contributors to this overall degradative mechanism. Potential biodiversity threats from mining the necessary minerals for renewable energy, are also likely to be exacerbated.

Thus, in our quest for Net Zero carbon emissions, what if we exhaust our resources - of which the most precious is time - in a last ditch attempt to prop up a system that fails us anyway? What then?

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Covid-19, Fracking and the Global Oil Supply.

Talk by me, via Zoom, on 10.00 am, Wednesday November 4th, 2020, as part of the Scientists Warning Europe, Pre-COP26 programme.

Synopsis: "The price of crude oil has crashed in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, and the consequent fall in demand for liquid transportation fuels. Ironically, it is the "success" of the shale industry, through fracking, that has provided much of the growth in overall global oil production during the past decade, and yet the current low oil price has raised questions over the future robustness of this industry.

While it is true that plans to revitalise the global economy "post-covid" must also create substantial and permanent reductions in carbon emissions, the prevailing oversupply of oil will in any case be attenuated by the background fall in production from existing oil fields, which has, so far, only been offset by production from unconventional sources: mainly shale and oil sands.

Since oil is a critical raw material for the running of global civilization, it is essential to anticipate how its supply may play out, against demand, in the coming decades, and this must be considered in the broader context of our use of energy, overall, and of resources in general."

I'm delighted to be hosting a free webinar as part of the Planet in Crisis series of online climate and environmental events running from 1-8 November. As this event is coming up soon, please make sure you book your free ticket now. You can register for a free ticket here - - and please share this link with your network.