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:


• 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.


• 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.

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.

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

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

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


Scientists Warning Europe

All Three World Scientists’ Warnings

Planet in Crisis Pre-COP Video Series

GrowthBusters 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.”

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?