Welcome to a baby born at 416ppm CO2 and overshoot

Welcome to a baby born at 416 ppm CO2 on the day of COP26 in Glasgow. This is the last chance to turn around runaway climate change. Mind you they said that last time and the time before.

Newborn baby

 

You were born on the first day of COP26 –the 1st of November, 2021. I am sorry to say this, but this is what you are likely to see during your lifetime.

If you live in Auckland, New Zealand the number of hot days in summer is increasing. And I guess you will be glad you are not in remote Oodnadatta, South Australia which spends its summers in the late 40s and has a record of 50.7 degrees. It’s impossible to go outside or work outside there. The maximum temperature if you were born in Death Valley, California was 54.4 degrees last July.

Or you might live in Brisbane which got up to 37 and 38 degrees in 2017 and 2018. You have to stay inside and have air conditioning. But don’t try living in a place vulnerable to sea rise. Those marinas house a lot of fancy houses and they will face bigger storms and higher seas. Maybe they will be gone by the time you are an adult. And you will see a lot of bush fires in your life. And your hail stones will be big. This year they had one in the Sunshine Coast that was 16 cm wide.

Overshoot

But life isn’t all about heat waves, bushfires, coastal erosion and extreme storms. Let’s talk about the economy, about buying things and having enough food and shelter and essentials of life.

You have been born in a time when the whole world has had a Covid-19 pandemic for nearly two years. It’s given the global economy a heart attack. Mind you the global economy was very vulnerable even before Covid.

The fact is we have had a just-in-time global supply chain where goods get shipped and trucks all over the world and it’s worked up till two years ago. But now things are different and there is little hope it can be fixed any time soon.

So when you are a child, countries and communities all over the world will be scrambling to manufacture essential goods as near home as possible. I hope they make clothes and grow good food near you. Please don’t waste good land grazing all those animals to feed. They use too much water and pollute it, as well as using too much land. Besides eating animal protein is no good for your health. I only just found that out when I was 80 but you might as well know now.

The other thing, sorry to say, you have been born as the world faces up to the fact that the flammable fossils we found in the ground 250 years ago have been harder to get. Yes, we used to call these fossil fuels –oil, natural gas and coal. In fact your state of Queensland has had a lot of high grade coal mines and up till a year ago you shipped it to China. But human beings have binged big-time on these flammable fossils. Sorry about that.

I don’t suppose you will get to see much of the coral reefs, but hopefully they will be around in some form for a few years.

The global economy

I mentioned before that oil, gas and coal have been used. They have helped your parents, grandparents and great great grandparents live in an age of huge expansion. We have used up the easy to get oil, gas and coal and now we are at the stage where it is taking so much energy to extract them that we don’t get the return we used to get a century ago.

We are digging more wells deeper into the sea and going for the oil sands and hard to extract stuff. Darn!! They were so useful. In fact they still are. When you were born, 84% of the energy used came from this magic stuff. We run our diesel trucks and ships on them and we rely on them.

But they also, when burnt for driving or heating furnaces, sent a huge amount of gases high up into the air and this blanket round the earth is making it warmer. That is causing all the storms, rising seas, melting ice, extra big hail, extra heavy rain, prolonged droughts and bushfires. Yes you will see so much of that and I am sorry I was part of a generation that was complicit in this awful situation.

Several scholars have written now that we have reached the peak of world oil extraction. Nate Hagens and White wrote in their 2021 book Reality Blind that the peak in oil extraction was in October 2018. That means there will be less every year now. Mind you the prices will still fluctuate but it is resulting in high inflation because we have relied on cheap oil for two centuries now.

And natural gas and coal are dearer too, resulting in power cuts in many places like China, Germany, US and UK. You will grow up with power cuts in Australia I am afraid because the solar and wind power won’t be regular and you will be frantically trying to buy enough metals to rebuild them before long.

And if you try using hydrogen you will soon learn you get less out of it than you put in and the plants will be abandoned. In fact if Morrison and his government stay in, they will put their faith in other unproved technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) that are either going to make things worse or will waste money or both.

You see we have an economic system that is reliant on having more energy. It can’t grow without more energy every year and it is set up to grow. That way it works. If it doesn’t grow there are employment problems that have to be solved So you will grow up in an age of contraction of the world economy and because it will be unplanned, it will be fast and steep. You won’t be able to buy everything you want. There will be shortages. It will be the age of resourcefulness.

So make friends with lots of skills. Train as an electrician, a plumber, an organic farmer, a person who mend things, a person who is practical. Surround yourself with people who know things and can help each other and the community around them. Surround yourself with people who don’t drain you of energy. Make friends with kind, compassionate people, people who understand how nature works and that human beings are a vulnerable species with huge potential for compassion, innovation and heroism.

You will see a lot of sadness. Tragedies will be common.

Now suppose you are my great grandchild. Challenges will abound, but you are bred for it. Your grandfather has been skilled with his hands all his life and has made do with little. Your great grandfather John was a doctor and his father was a fabulous gardener. John’s grandfather was a skilled bricklayer. His grandmother and great aunts were humorous and alert, always aware of who is doing what.

On our side you get me, then my mother who cooked, sewed, knitted and gardened to care for her six daughters. . My father was a minister on a small salary who learned things from books and was wise. My grandfather and grandmother came to New Zealand with three little children. When my grandmother was young, she wheeled her pram into town with a toddler in front and bought stuff for her meals every day because they didn’t have a fridge and were poor. 

I am sure your mother will fill you in with her side of the family and then there is all your father’s side to enquire about. Find out about their lives and how they struggled. You will struggle, but in a different economy and a different climate completely.  So remember all these people came before you. Think about them. 

Food

Don’t expect to live in a city all your life. There will be many more going to the country to grow food and live in small communities. Be a leader in a small community.

Eat vegetables, fruit, grains, beans
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Climate catastrophe or inevitable after COP26?

Train in flood

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.

Transitioning to renewables anywhere will not be smooth or easy and anyway renewables are less energy intense than fossil fuels.  In America coal fired power generation is on the rise because of high natural gas prices.

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. 

 

 

 

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Renewables – can we ever get there – when energy and climate clash

Hydrolakes in Aotearoa/New Zealand have had many years of low rainfall, but it is now happening more frequently. In dry years we revert to coal generation, making the transition to renewables harder.

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.

The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run 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.

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.

Due to rising coal prices and power rationing, there are power cuts in China, leaving families in the dark

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….”

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