Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bring out your inner tortoise!

Speed is the defining characteristic of our age. Above all we go faster than our ancestors - until the steam train no-one had ever gone faster than a galloping horse. (Unless they fell off a high cliff I suppose.)  And we praise speed in sport, in business and in travel. It's no surprise then that George Osbourne's latest wheeze for reviving the economy is HS3, a high-SPEED rail line across the north of England.

Yet 'speed kills', speed is dangerous. Fast cars cause accidents. Fast decisions overlook inconvenient facts. And friction means that high speeds waste more energy than low speeds.

The Green movement knows this and has lobbied for lower speeds on roads and against high-speed rail on the grounds of energy and safety. But there's more to it than that. There are activities that are better if they're slower. Eating, drinking and lovemaking for just three. In fact most social activities are better if they're not rushed.

And this is one key to creating a better society. When we ask for speed limits we're making the street more accessible to those, children and the elderly, who aren't fast. We're also making the streets a more natural place for social contact. When we oppose high-speed rail we're also asking people and planners to focus on their local economies and suburbs.

And in all we're striving for a society that cares more for the relationships between its people than for the speed of its machines. A society in which people sustain each other and in which our demands are such that the Earth can sustain us; and our children.

For more on this see Carl Honore's TED talk.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Global ConDominion?

In my Emergency Braking scenario I consider the possibility that a major power which I call Maverick (probably the US or China) becomes so concerned about climate change that it acts unilaterally to stop it. There's another, at least equally plausible, scenario in which the USA and China act together. Here's how it might play out.

It's 2020 and GHG emissions have continued to increase. China has invested heavily in renewables and the EPA has regulated carbon emissions. Even so, we're digging and burning more coal each year.

Meanwhile a research team at the University of Sao Paulo in collaboration with scientists in London, Beijing and California has created a fine-grained climate model which links climate to weather. They predict that if, given global warming, certain conditions occur the Atlantic and Pacific weather systems will synchronise and throw tornados and typhoons of extraordinary strength at the coasts of the US and China. The conditions do occur and promised storms arrive on schedule causing unprecedented damage and loss of life.

The US president phones the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, which is still in power but Communist in name alone. They agree that the delays in addressing climate change have been folly and that the world faces a planetary crisis. Both also consult their domestic allies and opponents. The Republican party tries to resist but is cowed by the threat of several major corporations to switch funding to the Democrats.

Within a month the leaders of the US, China and the EU meet in Iceland and after two days announce their shared determination to stop climate change. The two days have in fact been spent finalising a secret treaty whose effect becomes apparent on their return home. Their first actions are to announce that coal production will be phased out within 7 years and to accelerate the development of renewables and nuclear power. Barriers to both, such as requirements of local consultation, are relaxed by executive order. In the US the presidential order is reluctantly confirmed by the both houses of Congress. In the EU the Council of Ministers issues the orders and prepares for lengthy dialogue with the Parliament.

A new Planetary Crisis Mitigation treaty is drafted within 60 days and signed by the major powers in 30 more. It creates a new UN Agency, the UNPCM Agency, with almost unlimited powers to regulate emissions and overrule national and corporate investment decisions that effect emissions (which is essentially all of them). The governance structure is complex (Kafka would be proud of it!) and it takes years for people to realise that many of the functions of national governments have passed to the UNPCMA. A secret court system (with some similarities to the TTIP courts) makes challenges to the UNPCMA slow, expensive and futile. 

In parallel the leaders of the USA and China hold bilateral discussions with their main allies. The usual diplomatic verbiage is produced but the underlying messsage is stark: Every country should join the PCM treaty immediately. Those that stay out will be subject to escalating trade and diplomatic sanctions with combined military action as a back-up.

The UNPCMA acts quickly, converting the national and EU coal closure plans into global plans, making these plans legally binding and creating continental energy agencies that will build continental-scale super-grids to share access to renewable power sources. In Europe these include British wind, Norwegian hydro, German solar and Italian geothermal.

The UNPCMA also starts urgent feasibility studies for geo-engineering plants. Plants that extract atmospheric CO2 by burning biofuels and burying the CO2 are initial favourites.

By the end of 2021 it's clear that the plan is working. Greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations are down - though not by much. Most countries have signed the treaty and most of the exceptions, eg North Korea, are too small to matter. There has been strong popular resistance to the treaty in most countries causing seven countries to suspend their constitutions and twenty more to introduce martial law. 

In 2022 Bahrain announced its intention to renounce the treaty but the parliament reversed this decision following a US-supported invasion by Saudi Arabia. Variations of this scenario, some rather bloody, played out in Venezuela and Indonesia.

In 2023 the G20 announced its determination that the world should return to national sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law "as soon as circumstances permit". It was widely understood that 'circumstances would not permit' for at least twenty years and that the Western model - democracy, corporations, markets and political liberty - would be honoured only in the breach. National planning bureaucracies, supervised by the UNPCMA, were increasingly established and effective in all countries.

So what do you think? You don't like it?

Neither do I. But by 2020 - or 2030 - it may be the ONLY scenario that can work. We know that the window for more orderly mitigation measures is closing. This scenario would show the failure of environmental politics. More, a human failure to read the writing on the wall and act while there was enough time to avoid catastrophe and preserve our liberties.

But even a failure, as with defeat in war, leaves choices to be made. This might look like the least bad

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Coal: It kills you thrice

The recent mine disaster in Turkey has reminded me just how bad coal is.

a) Coal mining is dangerous. The death toll at Soma is now over 300. Some of that is clearly due to neglect of safety measures but those measures are necessary because coal mining is so dangerous. Fresh cut coal absorbs Oxygen and releases Methane (aka firedamp) creating risks of explosion and suffocation. Then there's all that rock overhead.

China has the most coal and has reduced accident deaths by a very creditable 80% since 2000. Still, official figures put the death toll at 1,049 for last year.

b)  Burning coal generates extraordinary levels of air pollution. Researchers (Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse –gas emissions: low carbon electricity generation. Lancet 374, 1917-29) have estimated avoidable deaths from electricity generation at 8,000 in the EU, over 100,000 in China and over 180,000 in India. Most of these deaths are due to coal.

c)  And then there's climate change. Coal is the worst fossil fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The ultimate death toll as temperatures rise is essentially incalculable since it depends on future emissions, the response of the biosphere and the adaptation measures that we take. If, as seems likely, climate change reduces food production and we humans do not reduce inequality the number of deaths will plainly be in the millions.