Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Adaptation: Science, pessimism and planning

I went to a Castle Debate on climate change yesterday morning. It wasn't - fortunately - a debate but a briefing. It was realistic, and therefore depressing.

The consensus, based on the latest IPCC report and work by PWC, was that though it's still POSSIBLE to keep the temperature rise below two degrees it's likely to be four degrees. That's not really 'four degrees'. We're on track for four degrees by 2100 with substantial increases thereafter. And, given the uncertainties, a likelihood of four degrees means means the possibility of five, maybe more, even by 2100.

The first speaker, Dr Celine Herweijer of PWC, presented these facts and the IPCC view on impacts - falling food production, dying coral reefs, loss of summer sea ice from the Arctic. In fact the usual stuff. She also drew attention to the UK's vulnerabilities - we import 40% of our food and our 350 largest public companies own overseas assets worth £10T (that's £10,000,000,000,000) many of which are vulnerable to climate change. The most vulnerable sectors include energy, mining, utilities and manufacturing.

Next up was Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker. Hobley acknowledged the science and mentioned that whole civilisations can fail. It's happened repeatedly in the past though never globally. Of course, ours is the first global civilisation so that qualification is not entirely encouraging. These failures often followed environmental changes and the ruling elites failed to respond because their wealth shielded them from the impacts of those changes until it was too late to act. Hobley did not make the obvious connections but I will:
  • Climate change has increased in parallel with increasing inequality.
  • The super-rich are increasingly powerful and increasingly isolated from the problems that beset the rest of us.
  • London's economy is increasingly dependent on the richest 1%.
  • Some of them use their wealth to stop governments addressing the problems.
  • Therefore, a sharp reduction in economic inequality is an essential step in addressing climate change.
But back to the meeting! Hobley tried hard to be encouraging about the prospects for the 2015 UN Climate Change conference in Paris which he clearly regarded as our last hope. However he struggled to be optimistic and implied that the most plausible success scenario was a global crash programme that he called the Lastminute scenario. This is similar to my Emergency Braking scenario.

The final speaker was Lord Krebs of Wytham. As Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the  Committee on Climate Change he was very well qualified to explain his committee's thinking and recommendations. In short, last year's National Adaptation Programme was based on climate projections made in 2012. These projections included rising temperatures and sea levels, drier summers, wetter winters and more extreme weather events. Specifically they expect 1 in 100 year events to occur every ten years.

So a science-based plan?

Actually no. In answer to a question from me Krebs explained that the projections were based on two degrees of warming "because that is the government's target". He accepted that this approach is inadequate and would need to be revised (though I didn't get much sense of urgency from his remarks).

I will go further. The current National Adaptation Programme is essentially dishonest because it implies that it is appropriate to the actual threats. Only a programme based on the most likely projection - four degrees by 2100 - can be honest. And, given the uncertainties, an honest programme must at least consider the possibility that things will be worse.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Blowing Away The Warming Pause Mystery

Let's be honest. The 14 year pause in global warming has been been an embarrassment to climate modelers and a joy to climate change deniers. Until now. But now modellers at several research centres in Australia and the US have explained the pause as the effect of strong winds.

No-one who's been watching the UK news this year will be unaware of the persistent extreme weather - winds, rain, storms and floods - that has afflicted the UK. These extremes were predicted by climate models and will become more severe for decades to come whatever we now do.

Now these researchers noticed that the Pacific Trade Winds have been much stronger than forecast by the climate models. When they fed the actual wind speeds into a suitable model it showed that the winds made ocean currents stronger and that these currents drove more mixing between warm surface and cool deep waters. Result - lower surface temperatures and thus lower air temperatures. Thus the pause.

The study does not tell us whether the pause will continue since that depends on the degree to which future wind speeds exceed those in the climate change models.

There are lessons in humility here for all concerned!

Summary: New Scientist, 15/2/14, p 14.

Original paper: Nature Climate Change, 9 FEBRUARY 2014 | DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2106

Friday, 14 February 2014

Peak mining

Mining is facing a crisis which will transform it and us. That’s the claim made by Simon Michaux  of the University of Queensland to a meeting in Adelaide.
Michaux bases his analysis on hard data. Since 1850 Population, per capita energy consumption and total energy consumption have all increased exponentially. We now use 8 times as much energy per person than in 1850. We are better off in many ways – almost all of which require energy and metals. And it is mining that produces coal and metals as well as diamonds and other gemstones.
So the demand has increased and this requires miners to dig and process more rock. And that just the start.
Mining is getting harder. Since 2002 the multifactor productivity index has decreased by 40% - it’s now at its lowest level for 35 years. That means that it takes 40% more resources – energy, water, labour – to produce one ton of useful material. That’s because everything is getting more difficult:
o   Discovery rates are falling; most new mining projects are expansions of existing mines.
o   We have to use poorer ores. For instance, copper ores used to contain 4% copper but now it’s no more than 0.6%. And it’s not just Copper. Michaux shows data for seven other metals and diamonds that tell the same story. This is no surprise. When it comes to minerals “no one is making them any more”.
o   The ores we do use are harder, which means the grinding process takes more energy. We have to process harder ores, demanding more energy.
o   The size to which the ore must be ground has also fallen, from 150 microns to typically 4 microns. So that also needs more energy – the energy needed increases exponentially as target size declines.
So the volume of rock to be processed and the required energy grow exponentially. This has been achieved through economies of scale. For the future the industry proposes to scale up and dig deeper.
Unfortunately there are a few problems with this. Energy production from all sources is expected to peak in 2017. The required water may not be available. Communities may recognise the harm caused by polluted air and water and prevent or restrict major developments.
And, says Michaux, there’s a further problem. The global crude oil market changed in about 1975. Prior to that production increased each year and the price rose slowly, reaching $50/barrel. After that production stagnated and the price rose sharply, reaching $147/barrel in 2008 – the start of the financial crisis.
The oil price needed to make exploration economic is now $100/barrel. But that’s also the price at which economic growth is difficult. Without growth there’ll be less demand for minerals.
And that will produce peak mining.
What will follow is less clear. Michaux foresees a big switch from extracting new material to “mining our rubbish tips”. He believes we will get there following a major geopolitical transformation somewhat as follows:
o   Mineral-rich countries demand an increased share of the minerals.
o   The money system become unstable.
o   Money-based international trade is replaced by large-scale barter with key decisions taken by the mineral-rich countries on the basis of utility not profit.
This is probably optimistic!
There’s a lot of good stuff here and it’s not stuff that environmentalists and climate change activists often talk about. But it should be.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Can we stop climate change in time?

The science is clear. ‘Business as usual’ will increase global temperatures by at least four degrees – possibly much more. This will have catastrophic impacts on many parts of the world – and especially on the poorest people.
That’s why one of our leading climate scientists, Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, convened a Radical Emissions Reduction conference at the Royal Society. This was not a climate science conference, the speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, politicians, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman! The conference brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the technical, social and political feasibility of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe. 

The conference passed no motions and made no declarations but I took away three main messages:
  •  It is technically feasible, though it will be very hard, to reduce emissions fast enough. 
  • To do so will require the citizens of developed countries to make significant sacrifices.
  •  Neither the people nor the leaders of these countries have the will to make the changes needed. 
The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Green MP Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly, ‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution but that’s already happened six times!’ Many speakers stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and emphasised the political and ideological roadblocks.
The Good News
The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station.  In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!
Some speakers discussed technologies. Brenda Boardman, for instance, told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (much more than I’d have guessed). Wed may already have reached ‘peak light bulb’. Other speakers discussed low energy technologies for homes and shipping.
Other speakers presented scenarios for the transition to a low-emissions energy system and Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.
The necessary changes are technically possible, economically affordable and offer many benefits.
The Bad News
Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done. Global emissions continue to rise. “Global recession”, John Barrett told us “is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly”. The impacts are serious and increasing precisely known. According to Tyndall Director Corrine Le Quere “Of the one meter Hurricane Sandy storm surge twenty cm was due to global warming”.
The oft-cited 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10% in the developed world. Yet almost everyone, and not just mainstream politicians, is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:
  1. Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies and automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie almost all of them.
  2. The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments, thus strengthening their enemies. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
  3. The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.
What is to be done?
The general shape of the needed policies is clear. We need more R&D funding for renewables, energy storage, insulation, energy efficiency and low-carbon farming. We also need much tougher standards for energy efficiency, carbon taxes and selective subsidies, eg for house insulation.
But how, politically, can we get them when government is doing the opposite? The necessary actions follow from the reasons for inaction: We need political reform to reduce corporate power, and we need, as Naomi Klein said, “to shred the neoliberal ideology”. Everyone agreed that the necessary action would not happen without strong public pressure so we need a political movement.
All this is hard but our future requires no less.