Often when groups talk about climate action or lack of it, a sort of despair sets in and people go quiet. It’s as though society demands a compulsory optimism. How dare you be pessimistic about the prospects of having a liveable climate?
“It has become a paradox”, write Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens in their book How Everything Can Collapse, “we have to face this deluge of disasters in the media, but we’re unable to talk explicitly about the really big catastrophes without being called alarmists or catastrophists.” The book was originally published in French in 2015 and in English in 2020. These two young Frenchmen were part of a trio who met at a Joanna Macy workshop.
Maybe we thought that our optimism of the 1960s to 1980s of continual progress would just continue. But by the 1990s we wondered. In early 2000s we learnt more of climate change, biodiversity loss and ocean acidification and began to panic a little inside. Things didn’t seem to be getting any better. They were getting worse.
The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.
Deep Adaptation by Jem Bendell 2018, revised 2020
He note the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change. Then he reviewed the scientific evidence on abrupt climate change and noted, “Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections.”
After a long summary of the possible tipping points, he concludes that his experience is that “a lot of people are resistant to the conclusions I have just shared” Then he considers some of the emotional and psychological responses to the information he just summarised.
I have just been on a webinar from https://climateinteractive.org describing their climate change simulator. Called Climate Interactive I was greeted with a happy faced man who asked all global participants what there was to be optimistic about the climate issue. So I imagine we are here to be optimistic and positive.
The simulator looks at the various actions that can be taken on a global scale and models the temperature rise from each action. It is complex. They want their En-roads model to be taught all round the world so that people can see that there is no silver bullet, but that many actions, taken together, will result not in a 4.8 degrees of warming by 2050 but something less. Ah, progress!
With various actions and using the model, he got it down to 3.4 degrees and then enthused that if you did x, it would reduce it to 3.3 degrees. Whoah! Then he added together all the pledges from COP26 and found the five changes would result in only 2.8 degrees of warming. Lovely.
First let me summarise those COP26 pledges:
On coal there was a promise – well except US, India, China and South Africa.
On deforestation the pledges amounted to a 1% drop from that.
Electrification of transport. China said no and VW and Toyota and others said no.
For methane emissions 105 countries pledged (between them I understand, so New Zealand has no obligation said our Minister of Climate Change) a drop of 30%
Carbon price. The global average now is $8 a tonne.
He gave us a nice graph of the various agencies’ calculations for temperature rise. The International Energy Association’s calculations are in yellow. Now we are 1.8 degrees of warming.
So I looked at the list of possible actions. They include energy supply, transport, land and industry emissions, oil, nuclear, buildings and industry, carbon removal, bioenergy, carbon price, natural gas, new zero-carbon, population growth, economic growth.
Here they are with one scenario set up. Coal is taxed, deforestation reduced by a certain amount, methane slightly reduced and electrification highly incentivised.
Now of course the list above didn’t include a reduction in meat eating or managed de-growth. I asked a question on the latter and the staff member replied they were thinking about it. I asked why they omitted thinking about the availability of minerals for electrification and she answered they were contemplating that too. I didn’t ask if they were thinking about rationing energy. That would at least have a huge effect on those who want to skip over to Sydney for a weekend shopping.
Where does the funding come from?
Okay so here is the time I go to their website and look at their funders. Their sponsors and partners include the Hewlett Foundation, HSCB, Rockefeller Bros Fund, Morgan Family Foundation and a whole lot of others. All no doubt keen on “sustainability” and concerned about climate change. It takes a bit to imagine the HSCB, a multinational bank, being keen on managed de-growth. No way!
Then I looked down the questions and found three others asking similar questions about the limits to growth. There were three – Laura Lindberg, Heathcliff Demaine, Christine Muller. They will be similarly disappointed.
Another thing was omitted. Abrupt climate change – where there are positive feedback loops after reaching a tipping point. That is the point at which small changes become significant enough to cause a larger, more critical change that can be abrupt, irreversible, and lead to cascading effects. This website describes five possible tipping points including the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Amazon forest going from carbon sink to carbon source etc.
This En-roads model from Climate Interactive will certainly teach people not to think that action A or action B will be the only way to get the global temperature from rising beyond a liveable level. But since it is assuming economic growth as usual and business as usual on a finite planet it will not get us much further.
Often during the last twenty years, climate activists have had high hopes that humanity will avert a climate catastrophe.
Thousands of scientists warned us not once, not twice but four times – in 1992,2017, 2019 and 2021. On each occasion it was that humanity was on a collision course with nature.
A search on “climate action” yields 26 million results. There are climate action groups all over the world. Even in New Zealand with a population of 5 million, there is a Climate Action Network comprising major groups like 350.0rg, Gen Zero etc. In 2017, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons got 3000 people to sign Our Climate Declaration. Now we have Extinction Rebellion and a myriad of local groups to add to this list.
Various IPCC reports have warned us how urgent this all is.
Political interference again
COP26 is now just days away. The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC was compiled by thousands of scientists. But BBC revealed a leak that “Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.” The leak also revealed Argentina, Norway and Opec talking up the possibility of CCS (carbon capture storage). They want to emit in the hopes that new technologies will capture their carbon from the atmosphere. IPCC scientists doubt that technology is good enough.
There was still some hope in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. In 2018 the IPCC warned there was just a decade to get climate change under control. They warned “emissions would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures.” But emissions kept rising.
In the US, Democrat Senator Joe Manchin is blocking effective action on climate. Not surprisingly he is a recipient of fossil fuel money. The Guardian reports, “In the current electoral cycle, Manchin has received more in political donations from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, more than double the second largest recipient.”
In Brazil Bolsonaro has presided over the destruction of about 10,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet. The destruction started around 2002 but was slowing down at the time Bolsonaro became president in 2019. By July 2021 the Amazon, instead of being a carbon sink, has become a carbon source.
So when COP26 fails are we to blame Mohammed bin Salman, Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison and Joe Manchin?
Five years ago a Pakistani delegate on his way to COP21 in Paris, Adil Najam wrote in the Guardian, “I am not a cynic – just old. Old enough to remember the dashed hopes of Kyoto (COP 3, 1997), the purposeful energy of Berlin (COP 1, 1995), the naïve optimism of Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was first adopted, and even the calls for urgency when the negotiation process was first launched by the United Nations in 1990.”
The big emitting countries
China, India, the EU, and the US contributed around 60% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2017. Add Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Australia and the percentage rises. Few of these apart from some EU countries have reduced emissions since COP25 in 2019.
The UN warned that more than 70 countries are expected to submit revised (stronger) plans to curb emissions before Glasgow. This summit COP26 was originally scheduled for 2020 but because of Covid it is 2021. We are not holding our breath.
Only 113 countries have come up with improved plans so far for COP26. BBC News said, “Analysis of the climate plans submitted so far shows that emissions are actually set to rise by 16% by 2030, which could lead to a temperature rise of 2.7C (4.9F) above pre-industrial levels.”
Hope is fading
Ever since 1992 when UN climate summits started, global emissions have steadily risen. Despite flashes of hope throughout those many years, the relentless upward trend continues. And now that big emitters have signalled their desire to water down ambitions, our hope is fading fast again.
We could spend a great deal of time assigning blame for this succession of failures. We could blame Bolsanaro or Trump, no trouble. After 2015 the Bolivian president was one of many low emitting nations to blame capitalism.
Political tensions add to the roadblocks for COP26, with President Joe Biden stepping up the rhetoric on Taiwan, angering China. Russia hasn’t had its natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 approved by all the European nations yet. So Putin may be punishing them by sending them less gas. Or else Russia simply needs the gas now for their own domestic purposes.
Then there is the problem of not transitioning to renewables early enough. After shutting its nuclear plants and setting up wind farms Germany has had to return to gas fired electricity generation when the wind died down. So it is experiencing high natural gas prices (they are now six times higher than at the beginning of the year). This in turn is leading to high power prices.
Britain is also coping with Brexit, a truck driver shortage and a natural gas shortage. There are going to be many Europeans and English people shivering this coming winter.
The outlook in northern China is bleak. They are paying the price for not transitioning to renewables in time. Their coal prices have soared and their coal mines have been flooded more than once. And this is at the time that Xi Jinping has decreed that coal usage must reduce in order to meet their climate goals.
While there is a tiny chance significant progress could be made, given the difficulty of transitioning to renewables together with the interference by nations dependent on fossil fuels, it is more likely that COP26 will fail.
When New Zealand hydroelectric power stations ran low last summer, we beefed up electricity generation with another coal fired unit in Huntly. Environmentalists were shocked. How was New Zealand going to meet its climate targets now?
Genesis Energy had planned to close Huntly station in 2018 but is still using it. Greenpeace has wanted it shut for years. The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel. RNZ reported that more coal was burned in the 2021 March quarter than each of the years 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Aotearoa/ New Zealand is hooked on coal, importing more than one million tonnes of low-grade coal from Indonesia last year. The fuel was burnt at the Huntly to keep the lights on, as hydro and gas failed to meet demand.
Due to rising greenhouse gas emissions we are experiencing warmer winters and drier summers.
So will we painlessly transition to renewables as we had hoped? As we face our climate predicament, we have to realise that over 80% of the world’s energy use still comes from fossil fuels. Let that sink in. It’s big. So it’s going to be really hard to wean ourselves off them.
Of course, the low rainfall for our hydropower dams was not new. But climate change is going to make matters worse decade by decade.
Perhaps many thought then we were the only country having to revert back to fossil fuels.
Far from it. And it is often happening because an extreme weather event cut hydropower generation.
It is happening elsewhere but sometimes it is accompanied by geopolitical tensions as well. Southern China for instance, when its hydropower capacity ran low after droughts, reverted to coal. And this happened at the same time as China, angry at Australia’s support for an enquiry in the Wuhan Covid origins, stopped importing Australian coal.
In Europe there has been a big move towards renewables, with wind and solar beefing up. But solar and wind are intermittent and less reliable. Wind comprised 27% of Germany’s generation mix in 2020. But this all changed in 2021 when the winds died down and the percentage of the total generation dropped to 22%. So they had to revert to natural gas. A great deal of their gas came from Russia. Over the last decade the EU has imported more and more gas from Russia as their own gas ran out. Gas prices have skyrocketed along with electricity prices.
The apparent reluctance of Russia to release gas at the onset of winter has been attributed by many commentators to its desire to put pressure on the remaining EU countries to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is a twin pipeline under the Baltic Sea. It had already cost US$11 billion and was ready to go. Eastern European Countries like Ukraine and Poland and the Baltic States withheld approval for two reasons. 1) Because Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 leaving 14,000 dead over seven bitter years and 2)because they feared it would give Russia too much leverage over EU and Putin too much power.
As the price of natural gas rises, so does electricity. The TV agency WION reports (28 Sept 2021) that electricity prices are spiralling out of control in France (up 149%), Spain (up 250%, UK 298%, Germany (up 119%) and the situation will get worse as winter closes in. Governments are already warning of blackouts and factories will be forced to shut down. Inflation has already arrived.
They finish by saying, “European countries are going to learn just how much their economies are reliant on natural gas.”
Brazil has also had to ramp up its gas fired generation after a bad drought.
Energy and Climate Clash in China
There is also the move from high energy coals to lower energy coals. In Northern China where coal mines were flooded in an extreme weather event in May 2021, they had to move quickly to find other coal sources for electricity. In early October 2021 a heavy downpour in China shut down 27 coal mines. So Chinese officials have ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to ramp up coal production.
At the other extreme there is growing demand for air conditioning. CNBC said Japan, China and South Korea had extremely hot weather so the demand for power rose.
As if all this weren’t enough as the global mega-economy gets more and more complex, we just need more and more electricity. Despite a slight drop during Covid, by July 2021 a headline reported the International Energy Agency saying, “Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables, driving strong increase in generation from fossil fuels.”
Oh yes that’s because we have to have economic growth at all costs. More, more, more as comedian John Clarke says. Everything flows from growth as he says.
Smooth transitioning to renewables is looking a great deal more difficult than we ever imagined.
At a time when climate induced droughts, extreme precipitation and heat waves are disrupting hydropower generation and storage all over the world, governments are reverting to some form of fossil fuel to generate their electricity. And this all comes at a time when electricity from air conditioning and gas or power to heat homes is under pressure. Even if Europe and UK insist they want to meet their climate targets at COP26, politicians will be faced with the alternative of leaving their families in the dark without cooking facilities – or effective climate action.
Politicians want to get re-elected. That’s why my bet is that they will choose to care for their citizens and to try to ensure its factories don’t close down through lack of electricity. China has already stated its power rationing is in order to keep its climate targets and doesn’t seem to have a renewable alternative.
And all this is without ever discussing the physics or the geology of it all. For a start fossil fuels are used in the production of solar and wind power. Secondly the energy return on energy invested for solar and wind is much less than with oil, coal, diesel or gas leaving less for the economy. Thirdly there is matter of the metals required.
Are there enough metals to transition to renewables?
Professor Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland has done a remarkable study of the probable metals required for all the batteries for all the vehicles involved worldwide and his answer in the case of cobalt, nickel, graphite and lithium is a loud NO. He says,
“The current system was built with the support of the highest calorifically dense source of energy the world has ever known (oil), in cheap abundant quantities, with easily available credit, and seemingly unlimited mineral resources. The replacement needs to be done at a time when there is comparatively very expensive energy, a fragile finance system saturated in debt, not enough minerals, and an unprecedented world population, embedded in a deteriorating natural environment. Most challenging of all, this has to be done within a few decades. “
The zen riddle for our Government is will they recognise the predicament we are in or will they opt for Business As Usual, thereby disappointing millions of climate activists once again? In my view COP26, like 25 other COPs before it, will fail once again and to a few it will be no surprise. But they might just entertain a fleeting thought…”If only….”
For a long time our ultra-connected global system supply chains have worked smoothly for just-in-time delivery. But now things are looking grim. There were double the number of container ships off the ports off the California Coast in September as there were in August, and congestion is worse in China. As someone said, it seemed to work well until it didn’t. Something happened. Toys won’t be arriving for Christmas in USA, New Zealand is short of chia seeds and turmeric and Irish builders won’t get their timber. To add to our woes, small and remote New Zealand has been victim of the post-pandemic business model reviews by global shipping and building supply companies. So New Zealand was dropped off their supply routes, with supplies getting only as far as Australia.
So was it already fragile to begin with, or did the upheavals of Covid make it so? When will it improve?
Three predictions are worth examining.
“Global shipping mess to last until 2023”, says Jackson Meyer, CE of an Australian freight forwarding company.
Secondly an overdramatic “City Prepping” guy (apparently called Kris, but it takes a hunt to find it) concludes in his YouTube story of 3 October 2021 that, “Barring new Covid developments, natural disasters, strikes at major ports, fuel supplies and panic buying things could begin to a sort of normal in 2022.”
Thirdly – and probably the most realistic forecast – Forbes produced a comprehensive summary of the problem September 3, 2021 and concluded there is no end in sight.
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the saying goes. When it comes to the current state of the global supply chain, weakness is everywhere. Massive dislocations are present in the container market, shipping routes, ports, air cargo, trucking lines, railways and even warehouses. The result has created shortages of key manufacturing components, order backlogs, delivery delays and a spike in transportation costs and consumer prices. Unless the situation is resolved soon, the consequences for the global economy may be dire.”
Forbes notes that various natural disasters already affecting the supply chain. “The ports of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Gramercy, and Morgan City in Louisiana and the Port of Pascagoula in Mississippi remain closed following the recent arrival of Hurricane Ida.”
Extreme weather from climate change add to the problem of supply chain disruption
And extreme weather events hit other sectors too. Hurricane Ida forced the Kansas City Southern KSU rail network to shut its main line in Louisiana.
And the trucker shortage isn’t going away either, despite a recent increase in wages. Even Walmart was offering twice the median salary of a trucker. As one truckie related in a YouTube video, “Because of Covid, we are stuck in our trucks all night and we ain’t got no food.” Forbes says, “According to driver recruiting firms, there is one qualified driver for every 9 job postings”.
And of course, all this is leading to inflation. Or more likely stagflation which is a rise in prices accompanied but no growth of jobs.
Now looking back at the prepper’s four provisos, it seems:
There isn’t a guarantee that we will have no new Covid variants. It seems there are seven already and Delta looks the worst so far. But Mu and Lambda and C.1.2 also exist. Mu, discovered in January 2021 is in 45 countries already.
Given climate change, there will be no end to the weather disruptions of supply chains so forget that. Just read your IPCC reports. They will get worse not better.
Fuel supplies won’t stay the same. They will just get worse. The peak year for production of conventional oil was 2006 and for non-conventional oil over a decade later. Discoveries of big oil reserves are a thing of the past. Most oil producing countries have past their peak oil production. Although there are many factors to be added including political tensions as oil, gas and coal producing countries now tend to keep their fuel for themselves. Add to that the serious trade tensions with others, the general trend now is for prices to rise. Brent crude oil is hovering between $75 and $82 a barrel.
Already the natural gas supplies from Russia are closing down fertiliser companies in UK, and this has spread to Belgium, Germany, Austria and Norway. Since carbon dioxide is a by-product, it is affecting meat and soft drink industries. Natural gas is used in Britain and Europe for electricity generation and electricity prices are skyrocketing. This is affecting food supply from Netherlands’s greenhouses.
When it comes to coal, China’s coal sources changed after a spat with Australia. So while China searches for new suppliers, the price has risen, affecting power generation and closing down Tesla and General Motors and Apple factories and causing traffic light failures there. (Not to mention leaving households in the dark with no way to cook or heat their homes.)
It takes energy to get energy
Our over-dependence on fossil fuels is now slowing global GDP growth because, as we use up the easy to find fossil fuels, and progress to poorer quality oil, coal and gas it is taking more energy to get energy. It is more and more expensive to mine them. So there is less energy for the general economy. This happened well before Covid but few economists noted the energy issue.
4) Will panic buying stop? Maybe. In 2020 Covid caused a change in consumer buying habits but we don’t know if this will continue. During their enforced lockdowns of early 2020, many ordered online and there was a big surge in orders while manufacturers and docks had laid off workers, at the very time truckies were departing in their droves. As lockdowns appear to come in waves, who knows when or if this panic buying will cease.
Given these three scenarios, it is more likely the troubles will spread.
Deregulation and lax anti-trust laws didn’t help
But did all this happen just because of Covid? No. Guardian Journalist Matt Stoller in an article outlines the scenario before Covid. He explains the consolidation of power into the hands of monopolists over the last four decades has left us unprepared to manage a supply shock. “The lax anti-trust, deregulation of basic infrastructure industries like shipping railroads, and trucking, disinvestment in domestic production and trade policy emphasising finance over manufacturing.”
Four firms bought out the biopharmaceutical equipment industry over the last 15 years. Wall St consolidated 33 firms into just seven after 1980. Wall St-owned rail-yards cut their workforce and closed a giant Chicago sorting facility. Deregulation of ocean shipping brought consolidation into three giant alliances.
The truck driver shortage is also a story of deregulation leading to lower wages, worse working conditions. In semiconductors there is but one firm controlling the industry, Taiwan Semiconductor. And so on.
As you can see, before Covid, the ultra-efficient system of global manufacturing, transport and retail was already vulnerable in the extreme due to consolidation of power, lower net energy return on investment and extreme climate events.
And all it needed was the black swan of Covid. The interruptions have already lasted a very long time. It may be a tipping point from which the global economy cannot really recover. And it may be a strong sign that local communities and countries will have to manufacture essential items like shoes and cooking equipment themselves.
The problem with reading too much world news is that you notice so many freak weather events. As I write this, for instance, there are landslides in China, and the drought in Syria is getting desperate. The recent floods in Germany, says the Guardian, were nine times more likely to be caused by climate change than just by chance. The fires in California continue and there has been rain instead of snow at the top of a two-mile-high mountain in Greenland for the first time ever. Floods in Tennessee have caused deaths of twins lost from their mother’s arms and the death toll was rising. There is a flash flood warning in New Mexico. There are fires in Greece again. And in Siberia, Algeria, Lebanon, France, Turkey, Paraguay. The 14,000 foot Mount Shasta of Northern California was just photographed without snow for the first time ever.
Of course that’s when you only have one crisis. Afghanistan is facing three – conflict, drought and pandemic. Haiti has an earthquake, an assassination and a pandemic let alone dire poverty. The Danish Refugee Council says, “Water crisis and drought threaten more than 12 million in Syria and Iraq”. The crop failure in Zimbabwe from the drought in 2017/18 is still affecting food supply and the Red Cross there says, “There are an estimated 5.5 million rural Zimbabweans to be food insecure as a consequence, with 3.8 million people in need of food assistance.”
Stop! It is clear that we are in a pickle. Or as comedian Steve Bhaerman describes our predicament, we worry about “our climate shituation”. Anyway, that might be enough doom-scrolling for now and congratulation to those who have read this far.
Climate and the growth imperative
I guess my new journey started this year when I worked on my submission to the Climate Commission. They were predicting virtually the same GDP in 2050 (27 years away!) while emissions had dropped. I thought about the material throughput and all the “chewing up the beauty and spitting out money” (as Charles Eisenstein would say) and I concluded you couldn’t tackle just one environmental problem at a time because the others persist. I argued their brief should be expanded to the whole future so that we had a Futures Commission again.
The Climate Commission’s assumption of continued GDP growth in rich countries seemed nonsense to me. At the end of her book, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein wrote, “the economy is at war with the climate”. But GDP growth results in species extinction too. What about food insecurity from loss of pollinators? Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury in 2018 commented, “Having heard the new Secretary-General of the United Nations say at the opening of COP that nothing in these reports, of maintaining it at 1.5C, will affect economic growth, I think we are still living in magical thinking.”)
Will green growth solve our climate shituation?
Over the last few months I have been to Extinction Rebellion websites and learnt about Degrowth. I read Jason Hickel’s Less is More and started a Degrowth column on my Tweetdeck. Would I try to start a Degrowth pressure group in New Zealand? Possible. Then during a Zoom meeting of the Living Economies Educational Trust Nicole Foss convinced me it wasn’t going to happen because it was wishful thinking that any politicians will advocate for this and expect to be elected.
Timothée Parrique, a leader in the degrowth movement has wryly tweeted, “The cool thing about working on degrowth is that everyone loves you. It’s overwhelming really. The idea sells like hot cakes, especially among economists who just cannot get enough of it.” Then he attached a list of examples of how they describe degrowthers – dogmatists, religious fanatics, anti-modern, misguided, wrongheaded, immature. Just imagine the derision that would follow from media and big business interests –and politicians of all stripes are very sensitive to the views of big business.
People asked me if I was writing a book and yes I have collected a lot of material. But I haven’t advanced it recently. I keep reading and thinking. I have understood the myth of green growth, about the declining return on energy invested (EROI) and how that makes the mining of oil and minerals more problematic, both environmentally and economically.
After digesting a great article about the limits to mining of metals for renewable energy from a prominent geologist Simon Michaux I can no longer enthuse about electric cars or solar energy or wind energy. Moreover Transitional Engineering Professor Susan Krumdieck has rubbished the idea of hydrogen as a renewable energy.
Will rationing energy do the trick?
On the other hand I have enthused about David Fleming’s great invention Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) and advocated for them on twitter. That would prevent instability as GDP declined. And like many of us I have been on Zoom calls where experts talk about climate change and urge various actions, and they almost always finish with the reassurance that if we do a, b or c or all three we will turn it around. COP26 in Glasgow will do it. Been there, done that.
Many alternatives to GDP have been proposed (OECD etc) but the GDP ‘mindset’ suits the ‘business as usual’ focus on economic expansion of goods and services, i.e. growth, over wellbeing. In fact New Zealand is cited as an example of a country which has wellbeing indicators, but there is no regular reporting of them in the media. In contrast business reporters regularly celebrate the growth of the economy.
Or protesting on climate?
By chance then I watched a talk by the delightful researcher Brenè Brown who had interviewed many courageous people. She asked them if the main thing they had to overcome was fear. No, they said, it was the armour you put round yourself to justify and explain your lack of action that stopped you acting. Fear was with you all the time.
So I reflected on the armour I put on. It goes like this: I say to myself, no I am not going to do this or that because I am a researcher/writer and that doesn’t fit with my self-image. So I decided to abandon the armour and get into protest mode. Having never been a big protestor except during the Springbok Tour and a joining a big climate change protest, at the time I was suddenly incensed that the All Blacks had signed a deal with INEOS, the oil company. I bought materials to make placards and made contact with others. A date was set. I practised my sign-writing.
Then lockdown came.
I was recently at a meeting where, after a conversation about the inaction of local and national government on climate, a person I respect said, “Don’t go down that rabbit hole I would never come out.” It set me thinking.
The Limits to Growth
In 1975 I was a candidate for the Values Party, three years after the landmark report The Limits to Growth which concluded that if global society kept pursuing economic growth it would experience a decline in food production, industrial output and ultimately population within this century. The Values Party had the nerve to question whether GDP was always progress. Twenty years later I was to learn the role of the money system in creating this growth imperative. Forty years later Wise Response, a group of environmental academics based in Dunedin, has been making submissions pointing out the limits to growth to government for years.
Then came Gaya Herrington’s article. She works at the accounting firm KPMG and holds a master’s degree in Sustainability Studies from Harvard University. Her July 2021 report appeared to show that controversial 1972 study predicting the collapse of civilisation was – apparently – right on time. Both of the most closely aligned scenarios with the data (“Business and Usual” and “Comprehensive Technology”) indicate that business as usual, pursuing continuous growth, “is not possible,” even when paired “with unprecedented technological development.” Such scenarios “would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.” In an article for the Club of Rome she says, ” The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from my research therefore, is that humanity is on a path to having limits to growth imposed on itself rather than consciously choosing its own.”
When I watched an hour long talk by ecological economist William Rees called “Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?” I was struck by the graph of steadily rising emissions in the atmosphere with several landmark climate conferences placed in it. He said there were 34 international climate conferences held over 50 years and half a dozen major agreements.. “and they don’t produce a dimple on this rising curve of carbon dioxide emissions.” I couldn’t help wondering what makes us so optimistic and that the trend will suddenly stop. What on earth is this conclusion? Are we an intelligent species or not? That version of optimism is more like wishful thinking, which decides what works and tried to force that idea to work, even if it doesn’t.
The Paradox of Post Doom
Recently I have been reading the book edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read Deep Adaptation:Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos and then my YouTube threw up a talk by a fellow I had never heard of. At first I thought he was a fraud. He was talking about writers I had never heard of. Then as we went further into his extraordinary presentation, I paid more attention. He said the decline was already happening and eco-anxiety was normal and healthy. He is Rev Michael Dowd and has a website http://postdoom.com. In his podcast section he lists his interviews with people like Shaun Chamberlin, Jem Bendell, Rupert Read, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Steve Keen, Joanna Macy, Matt Slater, Steve Bhaerman, Paul Ehrlich and many, many others, asking them the same set of questions about the future.
I have now listened to several of these interviews. Rupert Read, who often uses the sentence, “This civilisation is over” gave a very thoughtful interview. He related the story of how in 2018 he wrote a piece and sent it on email to several colleagues, asking them not to send it on. They replied saying it was worth publishing but he was too apprehensive so published it under a pseudonym. Once again a good response. He said he had a huge surge of energy to live a good life of service to others after he went through the door of gloom and grieving. Michael Dowd and he agreed on this. It’s a huge paradox. You don’t have to get stuck in a state of despair or cynicism, you don’t need to get paralysed. Once you stop fighting the denial, once you resist falling into the trap of compulsory optimism and hope, relief sets in and you emerge energised. The unnamed unease is gone. It’s a relief to face reality and the energy you spent in denial or false optimism is now available to use.
Similarly Jem Bendell was reluctant to put his thoughts out there in public for a start and got a fair bit of flak from his 2018 article Deep Adaptation.
So what is the alternative now? Face the coming decline of our civilisation and live a good life on this wonderful planet.
Politicians will chose economic growth not climate action
My observation is that the demand for economic growth will always trump meaningful action to halt the decline of the ecosystem on which we depend. It happens within Council’s departments and in Government departments and in Cabinet. It happens when global fossil fuel corporations, fixated on quarterly reports and profits, rationalise their way to ever greater extraction of oil and gas and coal. It happens because of our systems of government seem powerless to stop them. It happens after every international climate conference.
Why? Many years ago I did some quick research on the interlocking directorships of the major companies in New Zealand – banks, utilities, energy, transport, alcohol companies and so on and I came reluctantly to the conclusion that these few men were more powerful in many ways than the government.
The societal demand for compulsory optimism
Insisting on optimism in the face of so much evidence is maladaptive.
I am not sure where this will all take me. All I know is that during lockdown I am standing in awe at the miracle of spring, of emerging life. Just because I have somewhat given up hope that all my work and the work of countless others over the last decade or two on climate change will come to anything it doesn’t mean I will stop working. There is life on the other side of contraction and collapse. There are plenty of victories that can be won. There is community to build, there is my garden to tend to, there are people to care for and who care for me. There are things in our culture to save. All civilisations eventually die and homo colossus will not be spared. But what will rise from our mistakes? What lessons will be learned? How many groups will emerge and where? Will they be more humble, ecologically sustainable and equitable?
I am no more pessimistic today than I was last year. I smile as much. I cook just as many tasty meals. I laugh and sing still. It’s just that I believe it is time to face the fact that we are spoiling our home and it is probably irretrievable. Our civilisation is dying and the die-off will not be equal or fair. It’s time to grieve and emerge from the grief stronger and more loving.
As Ronald Wright observed in The Short History of Progress, civilisations like Easter Island and the Maya civilisation often fail because of some combination of overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, shifting trade routes and long drought. He argues that all successful cultures eventually fall victim to “progress traps” – technological adaptations which all allow excessive collection of resource wealth leading first to luxury, and then inevitable collapse. These cultures, before they collapsed, showed evidence of the development of social elites who contributed to the environmental abuses – another example of how our human species is so fragile. But whereas in all of these cases the collapse was local this time it involves the whole planet.
Now if you will excuse me there is new growth on my tamarillo tree to marvel at.
OK here is my mea culpa on climate action. I am guilty.
Yes, even though I have read a lot about climate change and the urgency of effective action and have been duly alarmed, even though I am active in climate groups, even though I submitted to the Climate Commission, I still lapse.
This week I caught myself driving to the next town to do shopping I couldn’t do in my town. When I found myself driving the second day my thinking was, “Well I should have planned my week better, written my shopping list more carefully, but really I enjoy the outing. And I couldn’t have caught the train because my hip is too sore for all the walking.”
Then yesterday in preparation for an upcoming trip to the South Island I drove for the third time to buy new trousers although I know it is better to buy second hand ones and pick up something I ordered the previous day.
Cars are handy when the weather is inclement and when your walking is compromised. I like the convenience and the comfort. I topped up with petrol so that I am ready for more driving. Just one more trip please….
Well I guess the government is going to have to make me reduce my driving. I already eat climate friendly because I have to for my heart health to keep my ageing body alive, so no guilt there. But I never examine whether the grapes or any other food I buy is flown here out of season.
Given that I regularly fail to keep my carbon footprint low, and there are probably many others like me, I reckon voluntary reduction of our carbon footprint is just too difficult an ask. The tobacco industry always argued it didn’t need any legislation banning advertising because a voluntary agreement was in place. Farmers don’t want legislation, they will do it voluntarily. Pull the other leg!
The simple way government can do it is to ration either our energy use or our emissions. Rationing energy is easier than rationing emissions. A simple scheme has been worked out ten years ago in UK where you are given an energy quota each year, quotas are tradable and your quota reduces each year. Jack Santa Barbara has summarised your own greenhouse gas quota scheme here.
The inventor of Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) Dr David Fleming was an economist and so he knew:-
Economic growth is dependent on energy growth.
Therefore the economy will decline if energy use declines.
If the economy doesn’t keep growing it becomes unstable.
So his TEQS scheme was designed to prevent instability as the economy shrank. Communities with these restrictions would naturally cooperate and the economy would adjust. The “degrowth” movement now gaining momentum. This term is defined to mean degrowth of economies of the overdeveloped nations, actions to prevent financial inequality there, and growth in developing nations.
So don’t ask me to reduce my carbon footprint voluntarily. Make me!
We have now had three online meetings of those wanting to promote TEQs as described by Dr David Fleming and summarised by his colleague Shaun Chamberlin here.
The last discussion was very stimulating and it was hard to sleep that night. Five good brains agonised for an hour over whether to make the unit energy or emissions, but still no conclusion. It isn’t any good launching a campaign until we are clear in our minds of what it would be called, how it is designed and how, if at all, it would work alongside the ETS structure or replace it.
First let’s look at the history. TEQs were designed as applying to energy. Dr David Fleming wrote about managed energy descent and invented this tradable quota system to ensure a smooth descent rather than a chaotic one. But on the website the Parliamentary report of 2011states on P47 that it could be designed for emissions. It’s just that we can’t see the second design and it is far from simple to figure out what it would be.
Fleming, who died in 2010, didn’t include non CO2 emissions in his Tradable Energy Quotas and I would imagine he didn’t envisage that a country like New Zealand would have half its emissions in agriculture in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.
Josh Floyd the Melbourne researcher from the Simplicity Institute had tentatively suggested to us in an email that we use TEQs for fossil fuels and use the ETS for other GHGs. But there would be different prices for the units coming from two different systems. Someone argued that is logical because they are different gases. I don’t know the answer.
We then asked where is the public now in their thinking? Will they want to reduce their fossil fuel energy? We think they will know they have to reduce their emissions yes. Would they be more on board if the unit was emissions? Probably.
Jack brought up the idea of what happens to a society during a big disruption as he had read that research shows altruism dominates the responses during big disruptions. (Think Christchurch earthquake and the 2020 lockdowns). Then someone asked if we could somehow use the pandemic issue to edge into the campaign.
Every time we talk to someone new about whether we want Tradable Energy Quotas or Tradable Emissions Quotas they answer the latter. But let’s think a bit more.
Ideally it seems people would like it to be Tradable Emissions Quotas (TEQs). As yet we not really sure whether the data is there for making this feasible. TEQs were originally designed to be Tradable Energy Quotas, but since in New Zealand half our emissions are from methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture, and we know we need to reduce all the greenhouse gases, we instinctively choose emissions as the unit.
But let’s suppose the technology and the data is now available to make the unit for the quota “emissions” and see what happens.
There are two ways of measuring emissions – production based and consumer based.
The IPCC has asked countries to use the production-based as the way to count our emissions. In the case of Aotearoa New Zealand we import manufactured goods with embedded carbon dioxide and we export food with embedded methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Using the the IPCC method means we must measure all our emissions from agriculture and waste as well as from industry and transport. And that is why, when we try to invent a Tradable Emissions Quotas and plan to do it on consumption data it just doesn’t work.
And the design still has to be worked out. In the case of Tradable Energy Units the TEQ scheme only wants us to surrender units when we buy fossil fuels or energy. The units go up the chain to the producer or importer and then to the registrar. When we buy items of services with embedded emissions we don’t surrender units, as the price is already reflecting the embedded emissions. In the case of emissions being the unit, there is nothing comparable to fossil fuels.
Also you can think of it this way:-
If we bring down energy use, we will bring down emissions too.
But if we bring down emissions there is no guarantee we will bring down energy use and this will lead to ecological disaster. In fact Dr Rodney Carr in answer to a question on a Climate Commission webinar said our energy would be the same in 2050 as it is now. And our GDP would have increased by 73% with all the material throughput that implies.
I have been reading the chapter in Jason Hickel’s book Less is More called Can Technology Save Us? There was lots of data and science reported. He eventually dismisses green growth as a fantasy.
I asked Professor Robert McLachlan this and he answered, “Cutting down more trees than we planted wasn’t so great but the bigger impact of trees in our climate policy has been to delay getting out of fossil fuels. We put all our eggs in the domestic & international carbon trading basket, which fell apart in the 2010s. Now we’re trying more tools. We didn’t have to get out of generating electricity from coal as UK did.”
In the past its main flaws were:-
political football, e.g. as soon as it was set up National campaigned to weaken it, removing agriculture and giving everyone a 50% discount, only recently phased out.
no cap on emissions.
was designed to work together with international markets, but these failed. NZ was a major party to the biggest carbon trading scandal of all time.
carbon price too low.”
He is merciful.
Not so the late Jeanette Fitzsimons who said in 2016, “Scrap it. It fails on every count. Many suspect the design of the ETS, with no price floor and no emissions cap, was never intended to make a real difference to our climate-changing emissions. It was intended to provide a trading platform for speculators, which it has done. While all this waste of effort has been going on, the existence of the ETS has been used to justify having no other measures to address climate change.”
She said, “The purpose of a price on carbon emissions is to encourage people and firms to make better decisions in how they use energy (avoid that extra trip to town); and more importantly, better investment decisions: a wood-waste boiler instead of coal; a wind rather than gas-fired power station; a more efficient car next time. The ETS has done none of this.”
And after reading a long review of it by Catherine Leining, Suzi Kerr and Bronwyn Bruce-Brand, I can’t help but agree with Jeanette’s conclusion,”Any further public time and expense tweaking a broken system will send good money after bad, and use resources that would be better used on measures that will actually reduce emissions.” In one telling sentence at the end, they admit it failed, but they don’t comment on whether the new version will work.
Leining et al’s review goes into the painfully long history since 1993 , says the system applies to about 52% of our gross emissions, says agriculture was going to be introduced in 2013 once ( it not getting there till 2023), gives a graph showing how the price dropped from just less than $30 a tonne in 2011 to about $5 in 2013 then crept up again, and concludes that ETS was “not designed to achieve specific targets for domestic mitigation.” Then comes the punch line. “As a result, while it constitutes a functional cross-sector market, theNZ ETS has not significantly reduced domestic emissions to date” (They failed to say that net emissions had risen 60%)
They go on to say how it will be tweaked. Units will be auctioned every three months from March 2020 under a cap, which is an improvement. It will also limit participant purchasing of overseas units and improve forestry accounting.
However a major distortion occurs by giving a 90 percent subsidy to businesses who are “emissions intensive and trade exposed”. Stuff journalist Charlie Mitchell produced a comprehensive article on these industries. Australian owned Blue Scope Steel, Canadian owned Methanex, Fletchers Golden Bay Cement, Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter and Fonterra are the biggest recipients. It is argued that some would relocate overseas if they were in the scheme.
It’s no wonder Charlie Mitchell summed up up in Feb 2020 as “Kafkaesque, having nightmarish complexity, riddle with exemptions, impenetrable” and economist Geoff Bertram called it a “dog’s breakfast”.
I can’t believe it. We’ve been discussing Emissions Trading Scheme since 1993 in New Zealand and I still didn’t know how to explain it. Although I consider myself a responsible citizen who keeps up with the news I somehow managed to escape from having to learn.
You see I didn’t need to know. Oh well, unless I was a politician, a government servant, a Parliamentary staff member or a consultant involved with ETS. Although I had been in climate change groups we had never discussed it because we were in the process of persuading government to do something about climate change. In my case it was local government.
Then, because I was interested in Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) as a framework to reduce emissions, I finally thought it necessary to understand ETS. I discovered that only larger land owners and businesses were involved.
Then I read a paper that reviewed the scheme in late 2019 by Catherine Leining, Suzi Kerr and Bronwyn Bruce-Brand.
To my amazement there was a table of climate change policy milestones in New Zealand from 1993 to 2019. 42 lines of actions were listed over those 26 years. Every sector seems to start for a few years with voluntary obligations and then it becomes mandatory. The sectors are forestry, transport, waste, synthetic gas, agriculture. I can’t imagine the number of work hours that everybody has put into this. We know how to measure emissions now for those sectors. Well done.
You can see the political wranglings as the Labour and National Government gain and lose power. But even after all that work, the fourth page says, “As of November 2019 the system applies unit obligations to approximately 52% of New Zealand’s gross emissions.” Agriculture is the biggest political football and so far the industry seems to have persuaded the government to wait and wait.
Then I flip to the end of the article to look at the conclusion. I notice a mild little sentence which says, “While it constitutes a functional cross sector market, the NZ ETS has not significantly reduced emissions to date” Oops! It then goes on to say something quite extraordinary:- “The NZ ETS was not designed to achieve specific targets for domestic mitigation.” Wow.
While things are due to improve with the new Government and the Climate Commission (they finally start auctioning the units in March this year) there is still no reason for you or me to understand the ETS. We aren’t involved. We just see the result – a net increase in emissions. A pity, considering all that work has gone into it…
We are not involved because we aren’t part of the scheme. That is where Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) are different. Units are given to the downstream consumer, not bought by the upstream emissions producer. TEQs are denominated in quantity and, unlike ETS, they involve every citizen. The climate emergency can’t be addressed by upstream systems because it doesn’t guarantee emissions decline and it doesn’t involve energy users like you and me and require us to play an active part.