Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

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28 Feb 2021

The end of ICE

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When I was young, ice was something to slide on and then to skate on. As I got older it was something that lurked under the snow when skiing, ready to send me sideways. Later still, it was a threat when I walked in winter. Now the world worries about disappearing ice in our polar regions. Huge glaciers are melting and Arctic ice is retreating, opening one of the most dangerous oceans to shipping. ICE is also shorthand for internal combustion engine and this is something else that will be disappearing. As a young man, I watched car engines grow to mammoth sizes, as much as 7 litres. They burned huge amounts of gasoline and spewed out plumes of air pollution. Anti-pollution regulations have drastically cut the stinking fumes but can’t stop the carbon dioxide coming out the tailpipes. With climate change threatening the world’s future, the axe is falling on the fossil fuel engine. Around the world, governments are mandating a shift to emission-free vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The sales of battery electric vehicles is starting to climb. They were the majority of sales in progressive Norway last year. The automotive giants are moving. Companies like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, among others, have announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles. Prepare to say goodbye to the roar of motor and hello to the sound of silence when you pull out of the driveway.

picture of Ford's new electric Mustang Mach-E
An electric Mustang
Credit: Ford Motor Co.

24 Feb 2021

Making Peace with Nature

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Once more the United Nations has sounded the tocsin on the threats environmental decline poses for our well-being. Its latest report, Making Peace With Nature, lays out grim scenarios. We are creating “…a world of extreme weather events, sea level rise, a drastic loss of plants and animals, food and water insecurity and increasing likelihood of future pandemics,” said report lead author Sir Robert Watson. “The emergency is in fact more profound than we thought only a few years ago,” he added. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said humans “have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature,” and “We are close to the point of no return.” The climate is becoming more unstable, millions die from air pollution, land is becoming less fertile, fisheries are in decline and food supplies put at risk. All this is driven by unsustainable forms of production and consumption.

First World War devastation of nature

The report applies a new twist to the war metaphor. Guterres says making peace with nature will be “the defining task of the coming decades.” Drawing parallels with recovery efforts from past military conflicts, the report proposes “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” We have to reach net zero carbon emissions, and transform how we produce food, and manage our land, water and oceans. The UN says governments should look beyond economic growth as an indicator of performance and take account of the value of preserving ecosystems. They need to redirect vast amounts of money now spent to support fossil fuels when we are supposed to be phasing them out. The timing is good. The echoes the calls of many governments for a green recovery from the economic devastation of COVID-19, something that seems to have broad public support.

19 Feb 2021

Are we reaching a tipping point?

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

More than 30 years after the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, called for sustainable development, are we reaching a tipping point for a greener future? The struggle to control climate change is taking off. First, and most important, a lot more people are worried. People have seen enough killer forest fires, floods and giant storms to realize the world is changing for the worse, because of our actions. Fear of climate change is a great driver of action. They are starting to spend serious money on electric cars and are pulling their investments from fossil fuels. They are giving governments permission to roll out one greenhouse gas control after another.

Business is in a historic shakeup, one caused not by new inventions or changes in consumer demand but by a series of environmental crises. Mark Carney, who has headed the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, warned that companies that fail to adapt to climate change will go bankrupt. Major financial groups are turning away from fossil fuels. BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment fund manager, has threatened to sell shares in the worst corporate polluters in a bid to support the goal of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. While fossil fuel generating stations are still being built, the rate of growth is slowing while the growth in renewable energy has grown dramatically. Renewable energy companies are overtaking the big oil companies in market value. Renewables have become the cheapest form of energy in many parts of the world.

Wind energy

Car makers are on the front line of the green shift. While most people still buy gas and diesel vehicles, one government after another has said it will ban fossil fuel vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The switch has started. In Norway, battery electric vehicles made up 54.3 per cent of all new cars sold in the country in 2020, a world record. In December one-quarter of cars sold in Germany were hybrid or pure electric.

Tesla, a pioneer in making electric cars has seen its value rocket above that of traditional automakers, helping to make founder Elon Musk the world’s richest person. Others are racing to catch up. In early 2021, Ford Motor Co. doubled its investment in electric vehicles and General Motors said it plans to make almost all its vehicles electric by 2035. This came a day after U.S. President Joe Biden signed executive orders that include moving to an all-electric federal vehicle fleet. Jaguar the maker of beautiful luxury cars, announced it will go all electric by 2025.

Governments play key roles in setting expectations, passing laws and regulations to control pollution, and in putting their money into green projects. The 2015 Paris Agreement pledged countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent a climate disaster. Globally, emissions are still rising, but many countries have promised to reduce them in coming years. Last year the European Union set a target of 32 per cent of electricity production to come from renewables by 2030. It has often been said that crisis creates opportunity for change. Many countries have promised a “green recovery” from the COVID-19 economic collapse. Last year a number of large governments made pledges to phase out fossil fuels and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Late last year, the world’s publicly-financed development banks pledged to tie together their efforts to rescue the global economy from the Covid-19 crisis and the climate emergency, using their financial muscle to assist a green recovery for poor countries.

It is ironic that a health crisis is opening the door to more sustainable development. The fact that the COVID-19 virus appears to have originated in wild animals sold in markets revealed the dangers of pushing deeper into primaeval areas with their hidden diseases. The pandemic reminds us of how vulnerable we are to natural forces. It drives home the point that climate change can also threaten our health and well-being. The social and economic upheaval caused by lockdowns has made people realize that huge changes can happen rapidly. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis, including a sharp fall in demand for oil, gave a peek at what the future holds. Last year, I wrote that in a post COVID-19 world we will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a serious shift to sustainability. As the world recovers from the pandemic over the next few years, we will see if people, governments and business have the will and ingenuity to give us a safer and more stable future that no longer runs down the environment on which we depend for life itself.

5 Feb 2021

Living within the donut

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

There is the green economy, the circular economy and now the donut economy. It’s one more idea on how to rethink and reshape a global economy that is both overusing the environment and making some super rich while hundreds of million suffer deprivation of essential needs. British economist Kate Raworth came up with the term “donut economics.” She combined the idea of ecological planetary boundaries we cannot safely exceed as an outer ring on an image with the unmet needs of many people forming a gaping hole in the middle. Raworth said that between the extremes of environmental overuse and human privation was a “safe and just space for humanity” which she called the donut.

The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries

Her ideas echo those of the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, often called the Brundtland report after its chair, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. This global group of experts pointed out that economic development by the rich countries was running down the environment, but poor countries needed more economic growth to lift themselves out of misery. The timing seems good for a new way of saying what we have known for a long time. COVID-19, which has caused not only a health but an economic and social crisis, has stimulated interest in sustainability. More people are talking about rebuilding shattered economies as green economies. Raworth runs the Donut Economics Action Lab, to inspire and support people. Her group has attracted attention from a number of cities scattered around the world, ranging from Copenhagen to Nanaimo, BC, to Dunedin, New Zealand.

31 Jan 2021

Bad road ahead

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

As if we don’t have enough bad news these days, a group of international scientists is warning that most people don’t understand how serious biodiversity decline has become. “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.” They go on to say, “Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.” Because the loss of biodiversity takes place over years, people don’t see its gravity and keep putting off action to stop it.

The sober warning comes in an article, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, in Frontiers in Conservation Science, an online journal on conservation management. It documents the huge changes humans have made to life on earth. We have altered about 70 percent of Earth’s land surface; the ocean’s large predatory fish are two-thirds gone; coral reefs have lost half their living mass. Humans and our livestock account for about 95 per cent of land animals on the planet by weight. The world’s wild populations of birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, and amphibians have declined by an average of nearly 70 percent in just the last 50 years. “With such a rapid, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the ecosystem services it provides have also declined. These include reduced carbon sequestration, reduced pollination, soil degradation, poorer water and air quality, more frequent and intense flooding and fires, and compromised human health.” With the steady increase in human population and consumption, the trends are worsening.

Polar bears at risk.
Credit: Dan Bolton

The 17 prominent academics and experts from the United States, Mexico and Australia call their report a “cold shower” to wake people up in time to head off disaster. They admit this will not be easy, given that many people still enjoy the status quo. The authors say we need fundamental changes to global capitalism, including the abolition of perpetual economic growth as it now exists. “These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.”

26 Jan 2021

Global risks

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

According to a global panel of experts we have had, “a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.” What next? First, a struggle to recover. The impacts of COVID-19 “…threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.” What else? The experts list emerging risks to human health, rising unemployment, widening digital divides, youth disillusionment, and geopolitical fragmentation. But the biggest long-threat to our well-being is the steady, seemingly inexorable march of climate change. While the change seems steady, the panel worries that climate change will not be slow and even but will involve sudden and dramatic changes called tipping points, such as the release of frozen methane that could cause a spurt in global warming and a dramatic rise in sea levels. “We are on the path to triggering climate tipping points that could create runaway and irreversible damage that will be an existential threat to future generations.”

The Global Risks Report 2021 is the 16th in a series of reports prepared every year for the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of the world’s rich, powerful, famous, knowledgeable and influential, including leaders from government, business, civil society and the media. This week, instead of gathering in the exclusive Swiss ski resort town of Davos, they, like millions of others, are holding virtual meetings. The economic forum was created in 1971 to introduce the American business management approach to European firms. It has evolved into a meeting to discuss critical global issues, including their impacts on business.

Top Risks
By likelihood
Top Risks
By impact
Extreme weatherInfectious diseases
Climate action failureClimate action failure
Human environmental damageWeapons of mass destruction
Infectious diseasesBiodiversity loss
Biodiversity lossNatural resource crises
Digital power concentrationHuman environmental damage
Digital inequalityLivelihood crises
Interstate relations fractureExtreme weather
Cybersecurity failureDebt crises
Livelihood crisesIT infrastructure breakdown

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021

The report says the pandemic caused by one of the deadliest viruses in history is seen as relatively short term. However, “…the global economy will be threatened by the knock-on effects of the coronavirus crisis, while geopolitical stability will be critically fragile over the next 5 to 10 years.” These effects “…threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.” Problems facing the world are the huge debt crisis caused by countries borrowing to keep people afloat, a deepening digital divide as poor struggle for access to modern technology. In addition, “youth face new barriers to social mobility, strains on mental health, uncertain economic prospects and the continued degradation of the planet.” The crisis has caused terrible unemployment, especially affecting working women. It has put great strain on many fragile health systems. It has slowed down or even stopped education for millions of young.

Forest fire burns house Credit: Park Insurance

The report warns it will take a historic effort to recover and to rebuild economies that keep people safe, healthy and employed but to redirect development to green economies, not just more of the old, polluting and environmentally destructive ways.

7 Jan 2021

A new measure of how we are doing

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Which is really the most developed country in the world? For many years, economic output, measured as gross domestic product, has been used as a key measure of progress. Over the past three decades, the Human Development Index from the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] has ranked the world’s nations based on composite of life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Using this scale, the top performers in the 2020 report are Norway, Ireland and Switzerland. They have long life expectancies [over 80 years], lots of education and high gross national income. But this year, the UNDP introduced a new experimental index on human progress that deducts points for countries’ environmental impacts: their carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint. With the new index, Norway dropped 15 places, Canada, which ranked 16th on the regular scale, dropped 40 places and the United States, which was 17th, dropped 45 places. All three countries are major fossil fuel producers.

This year’s Human Development Report, The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, warns that the success of nations has been tied to high resource use and pollution. Achim Steiner, the UNDP administrator, writes “…no country in the world has yet achieved very high human development without putting immense strain on the planet.” If this development path continues, he warns, humanity’s progress will grind to a halt. The report says human impacts on the planet are so great that they are changing the earth. We have climate change, loss of species, acidification of the ocean, loss of tropical forests and many forms of pollution. As a result, we are “lurching from crisis to crisis.” Mr. Steiner says that to “survive and thrive in this new age, we must redesign a path to progress that respects the intertwined fate of people and planet and recognizes that the carbon and material footprint of the people who have more is choking the opportunities of the people who have less.” The report said many of the problems are rooted in inequalities within and between countries, with roots in colonialism and racism. The rich get more of the benefits of exploiting nature and export the costs to the poor who are less able to deal with the resulting problems.

1 Dec 2020

Cleaner energy is coming

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

As the world starts taking climate change more seriously, business is betting on an electric future. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, 73 countries, 398 cities, 768 businesses and 16 investors are working to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Since fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – account for 84 per cent of primary energy, there is a gigantic shift ahead. Hydroelectricity at 6.4 per cent is still the largest non-fossil source but there are limited places for it to expand. Nuclear power is at 4.3 per cent but its growth is limited by costs and safety concerns. Other renewables are where the action is. An article in Bloomberg Green proclaims “The New Energy Giants are Renewable Companies.” It says a handful of companies that have invested heavily in solar and wind energy are overtaking the big oil companies in terms of their market value. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuel power in many parts of the world, leading to a shift in investments. The cost of solar power has dropped by as much as 90 per cent in a decade and big investments will keep driving down the cost of renewables. The question is can we make the shift fast enough to bring down greenhouse gas emissions before the cause catastrophic climate change. It’s not certain. Many countries are still subsidizing the production and transport of fossil fuels more than they are investing in renewable energy. The United Nations says the world should be cutting production of oil, coal and natural gas by 6 per cent each year by 2030 to keep global temperatures from rising too high. Instead, countries are projecting annual increases of 2 per cent in fossil fuel production.

18 Nov 2020

Citizen voices on tough choices

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Over the past 50 years, I watched and written about governments struggling to deal with environmental problems, often caught between the interests of polluting companies and evidence of serious environmental damage and threats to human health. Over time governments brought in laws and regulations to control pollution and limit the overuse of natural resources. When it comes to the really big issues of our times, such as climate change, governments are facing unprecedented challenges. To deal with climate change they must curtail pollution from virtually every citizen. Many governments have promised to make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases but are hesitating to bring in controls that will be unpopular with many. The use of “citizen assemblies” is an attempt to give permission to politicians to make tough choices. An article in Science, the journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, looks at the U.K. Climate Assembly. It was created by the British House of Commons and made up of 110 people randomly selected to reflect the age, education level, wealth and gender makeup of the general population. The group was given the task of identifying policies to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. They made a series of recommendations, including an early shift to electric vehicles and improvement of public transport, and higher taxes on frequent flyers. The question is how closely will the British government listen to the advice.

17 Nov 2020

Risk of pandemics

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Denmark’s decision to kill its 15 million farmed mink because of COVID-19 infections is just the latest signal of how the way we deal with nature is putting our own health at risk. Earlier this month Denmark said a mutated form of the coronavirus had sickened 11 people. The origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China is believed to be from a wild animal market. Earlier this month, 22 experts with the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned, “Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases.” The group said that pandemics are triggered by the way humans push into wild areas and use wildlife, exposing us to previously unknown viruses. Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report.