Ocean Mist

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22 Nov 2022

What kind of future?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on What kind of future?

The world that seemed relatively safe and stable even a few decades ago is in deep trouble. It is beset with problems, including climate change, biological extinction, economic instability and inequality, war and a pandemic. It’s been 35 years since publication of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland report which popularized the term sustainable development. A whole generation has been born, grown up and is taking control of the world. Did they even hear the messages of the Brundtland report? Do they understand the need to move from our current free markets to sustainable development? Can they do it?

A thoughtful series of essays called Which Future Are We Living In? tries to look at where we are and where we are headed on the quest for sustainability. It’s from a group of thinkers called the Great Transition Initiative, a project dating back more than two decades. In the words of Paul Raskin, head of this project, we are moving into the “the Planetary Phase of Civilization… a global social-ecological system,” that includes economic globalization, digital technology, ecological destabilization and far-flung cultural influence. He ways we are trying to deal with this new world with, “A political economy rooted in globalized capitalism and a state-centric order … ill-adapted for managing the interdependencies and instabilities it generates, as illustrated by feeble official responses to mounting perils.” Raskin warns that outdated institutions are failing to deal with the great crises and losing public confidence. There is a rise in authoritarianism and a decline in democracy.

The international system is struggling with how control powerful business interests who want a free market where they can make vast sums of money with little or no accountability for the environmental and social side effects. Some are trying to reform the current system, often working through the United Nations with its set of goals for sustainability. The recent global conference on climate change in Egypt gives a sense of how that fails to do enough. Despite ever worsening climate change effects, the latest conference was were unable to get an agreement to actually cut emissions.

Raskin and others in his group fear we are sliding into an authoritarian Fortress World where the rich and powerful grab what they can of shrinking natural resources and leave most people poorer off. It’s the scenario from The Hunger Games movies.

It’s not the world that most people want to live in but it’s the one we’ve built. Can we build a better world? The essays find some hope in the uptick of civil society campaigns across the spectrum of justice, peace, labor, and environmental issues. People are mobilizing against uncontrolled climate change. Young leaders like Greta Thunberg are galvanizing youth to call for real efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People are trying to find a better model of civilization, but there is still no powerful global movement with a coherent plan for the future.  

20 Nov 2022

COPout

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on COPout

The world the faced climate change crisis again. And the world blinked. Again. After two weeks of intense negotiations at the annual global climate conference there was still no agreement to phase out the fossil fuels that are causing increasing destruction in the form of floods, fires, droughts and huge storms. The big coal, oil and gas producing and consuming nations refused and emissions keep rising. The best nations at the 27th Conference of the Parties could do was agree to create a loss and damage fund from high-emissions nations to at least partially compensate poor countries for climate impacts like flooding and drought. For example, Pakistan faces some $30 billion in costs after one-third of the country was flooded this year. The small South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu will likely disappear this century as the seas keep rising. The world’s climate has already warmed by more than 1C since pre-industrial times and is rapidly heading toward 1.5C, a point that climate scientists say will lead to drastic and irreversible climate changes. Despite the threat to the future of human civilization many countries continue to develop even more fossil fuel sources and to cut down forests that now store carbon.

14 Nov 2022

8 billion and counting

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on 8 billion and counting

Tomorrow the world passes another milestone. The United Nations is calling it The Day of 8 billion saying that is when it estimates the world’s population will reach that mark. That’s eight thousand million people to feed, house, clothe and care for. This at a time when the environment is already over-stretched and starting to fall apart. It’s not just the number of people. It’s how much each consumes and discards as waste and pollution. A 2022 study by the London School of Economics and Political Science lays it out. It said high income regions, such as North America and Europe, are responsible for 74 per cent of cumulative excess resource use and resulting ecological damage to the planet. It was based on the use of materials such as metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass between 1970 and 2017. It said China is responsible for 15 per cent of global excess material use while the low-income countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are responsible for only eight per cent. There is a similar pattern for pollution, particularly greenhouse gases emissions. We are already well into overshoot for the ability of the planet to keep supplying natural resources and absorbing our pollution. Increasing the population increases the pressure but the increasing consumption as people become richer is the true driver of damage. According to the 2022 study “High income nations need to achieve a dramatic reduction in resource use to return to sustainable levels…” It went on to say: “It is unlikely that these reductions can be achieved while pursuing economic growth at the same time. The transition to sustainable levels of resource use will probably require transforming our economies. This includes abandoning GDP growth as a goal, reducing inequality and organizing the economy around human needs, while scaling down the production of unnecessary commodities.”

7 Nov 2022

COP27 Climate conference

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on COP27 Climate conference

Once again world leaders or their delegates are struggling to agree on how to stop climate change from wrecking our health, economies and quality of life. This year the annual pilgrimage to save the planet is at the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. It comes at a time when rising global temperatures are causing increasingly dangerous and costly wildfires, drought, floods and giant storms. But the world is also grappling with the effects of the war in Ukraine, high prices for oil and food, the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and a looming global recession.

This is the 27th Conference of the Parties [COPs] at which governments try to agree on how to limit the steady rise the global temperature. The two-week meeting started Sunday with a stark warning from United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible,” he said. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.” He said, “Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish.”

The world has already warmed by more than 1C because of human actions and is rapidly heading toward 1.5C a point that climate scientists say will lead to drastic climate changes that will cause great harm to the world. Despite the threat to the future of human civilization many countries continue to develop even more fossil fuel sources and to cut down forests that now store carbon.

The main aims of COP27 are reducing emissions and helping the world adapt for the climate changes that are already happening and will inevitably worsen. This year there is a new demand, that of climate reparations, sometimes called loss and damage payments, from the rich to the poor nations. The claim is that many poor countries that released few greenhouse gases are facing worse hurricanes, floods and wildfires and rising sea levels as a result of climate change caused mainly by the industrial nations. It is a hugely controversial issue with rich nations fearing they could be on the hook for billions even trillions of dollars. Only a few, such as Denmark and Scotland have pledge funding for such reparations.

31 Oct 2022

When will we reach the tipping point?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on When will we reach the tipping point?

We in the high consuming and high polluting industrialized nations have to face a hard question. When will we reach a tipping point where we become so afraid of the consequences of our ecological destruction that we stop over consuming and over pollluting? If we don’t stop we will reach ecological tipping points when we trigger irreversible environmental changes, such as species extinctions and a climate crisis for us humans.

The evidence of ecological change, particularly climate change is becoming ever clearer and more frightening. A United Nations Environment Programme report recently said there was still no credible pathway to meeting the 2015 goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C. In fact, with current promises from governments we are headed to 2.5 degrees or more above historic temperatures, which will bring a catastrophic climate breakdown.

Forest fire burns house Credit: Park Insurance

Even with warming only 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels we are already into more severe droughts, floods, storms and wildfires that kill people and destroy their homes and food supplies. The British medical journal, The Lancet said that extreme heat is worsening the effects of heart and lung diseases, pregnancy outcomes, and is disrupting sleep, increasing injury-related death and limiting people’s capacity to work and exercise. Forest fires, which are becoming more extreme, are causing very unhealthy air. This year, Vancouver was one of world’s most polluted cities during forest fire season.

Climate change threatens species from one end of the Earth to the other. Polar bears have long been at risk as the ice they need for hunting continues to disappear. Now we find that climate change threatens Antarctica’s emperor penguin with extinction, again due to the loss of the sea ice it needs to breed, feed and protect itself from predators. Climate change is just one of the reasons the world’s wildlife population keeps shrinking. The Living Planet Report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF] with data from the Zoological Society of London said on average, wildlife populations tracked by scientists shrank by nearly 70 per cent between 1970 and 2018.

Polar bears at risk

When it comes to climate change, most of the greenhouse gases have come industrialized nations but some of the worst impacts have been felt by poor nations with relatively low emissions, especially per person. This summer, severe monsoon rains flooded almost the entire country of Pakistan affecting some 33 million people and killing about 1,700. The UN’s refugee agency said in late October that flooding had displaced more than 3.4 million people in west and central Africa. On the east side of the continent, Somalia was hit by one of the worst droughts in its history, with more than seven million facing starvation. It’s not just emissions. High consumption in rich countries leads to destruction of the remaining tropical forests so we can have luxury woods as well as beef, soy and palm oil from these cleared lands.

There has been some progress but not enough. There is reforestation in some countries, more people buy electric cars and renewable energy projects are increasing, but around 80 per cent of commercial energy still comes from burning fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases emissions are still rising.

Given the trends, we are headed toward an ecological cliff. We are creating a world that will have fewer natural resources and a more extreme climate that will hamper food production, destroy more forests and kill more people with air pollution and extreme heat waves. The burning question is when will the public fear of the effects of climate change outweigh the desire to maintain our destructive lifestyles? We need political leadership, but politicians will not move until they think the public is ready. I remember a Canadian environment minister telling me years ago that as politicians ‘we pretend to be leading but are waiting to see where people are going then we run to the front of the crowd.’ The unfortunate reality is that we will likely need more frequent and severe disasters to turn public opinion. By then, the climate will be well on a path to overheating and all we will be able to do is try to limit the damage and adapt to unpleasant changes.

22 Oct 2022

Vanishing wildlife

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Vanishing wildlife

The world is failing to deal with a series of environmental crises that are making our lives poorer and more difficult. Climate change is the one that jumps to mind these days but we should also worry about the destruction of nature that provides us with essential ecological services. The Living Planet Report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature [WWF] with data from the Zoological Society of London said that over the past half-century the abundance of wildlife in our world has dropped by nearly 70 percent. The greatest declines are in species-rich Latin America and Africa where great forests are being levelled for timber and farmland clearing. Climate change is becoming an increasing threat to biodiversity with increased heat already causing mass kills of marine life.

Fifty years of change
Credit: World Wide Fund for Nature
and London Zoological Society

The WWF says the index includes data on almost 32,000 monitored populations across 5,230 species in 195 countries across all continents. “Our research gives us a clear message: we’re chipping away at the very foundations of life on Earth, the foundations of the life that we rely upon,” according to Robin Freeman of the Zoological Society of London, one of the report’s authors. Many scientists say we are creating a mass extinction, the largest since a huge asteroid impact wiped out much of life on this planet and ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

19 Sep 2022

Electric car impacts

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Electric car impacts

We’re entering the era of the electric car, truck, bus, train and even some aircraft. They’re heralded as a panacea for dealing with climate change because they have no tailpipes to spew out carbon dioxide and other pollutants. They are sometimes called zero emission vehicles. But that doesn’t mean they have no environmental impacts. It may surprise a lot of people to see the greenhouse gas emissions from building, running and disposing of electric vehicles are far from zero. This is based on a European energy supply which includes electricity produced by burning fossil fuels. The Lloyds Banking Group in the United Kingdom did an analysis. It found that an electric car would be responsible for 25 tonnes of CO2 over its full life, with a lot coming from construction of the car and its batteries. By comparison a gasoline burning version of the same car would be responsible for 80 tonnes. The impact of electric vehicles will decrease with a continuing shift to renewable energy and improvements in recycling old batteries and vehicles.

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

According to an article, Understanding the sustainability of electric cars, a sustainable vehicle is about more than tailpipe emissions. Car makers need to ensure the entire life cycle of a vehicle has low environmental impact. They need to adopt the principles of a circular economy that focus on the reusing and recycling resources where possible. This can include using renewable energy sources for manufacturing plants and recycling old vehicles and their batteries. The article appears on the United Kingdom website of AutoTrader a classified advertising business for cars. It is written from a UK and European Union perspective but many of the points it makes are global in nature.

18 Sep 2022

Speed & Scale

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Speed & Scale

The world is awash in books on the environment. Many of them give invaluable information about how the environment works and how we humans are destroying its workings as we go about digging stuff up, cutting things down, plowing or paving the land, wiping out other species and pumping out billions of tonnes of pollution. Much has been written about what we need to do to live within our environmental envelope, but one book stands out for its clarity. Speed & Scale zeroes in on the climate crisis and how it might be solved. While many such books are written by scientists this one is authored by John Doerr an engineer and venture capitalist who has supported zero emissions technologies for decades. He wrote this in collaboration with Ryan Panchadsaram an engineer and investor working on systemic societal challenges. The book gets some of its heft from stories by such prominent business and political leaders as Christiana Figueres, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Mary Barra and Jeff Bezos. What makes this book most interesting and important is its pragmatic approach. It shows what can be done now, what new technologies and approaches are needed and the barriers that need to be overcome. It should be a must-read for politicians and business leaders who have to muster the courage and willpower to make big and difficult changes fast before we enter an epoch of climate disaster for humanity.

16 Sep 2022

The Tocsin is sounding

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The Tocsin is sounding

The alarm bells of climate change are getting louder. Droughts, fires, floods and record storms are creating one disaster after another. And yet the world’s leaders are still dragging their feet when it comes to heading off the climate shift that will kill people and destroy economies. The latest warning comes in a report compiled by the compiled by the World Meteorological Organization in partnership with a number of expert groups. In it UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world is “heading into uncharted territories of destruction” and “no one is safe from disasters such as floods, droughts, heatwaves, extreme storms, wildfires or sea level rise.”

Forest fire burns house Credit: Park Insurance

The list of climate related crises keeps growing:

  • Recently smoke from a huge forest fire in British Columbia brought some of the worst air quality in the world.
  • After suffering through a heat wave Pakistan has floods that inundated one-third of the country.
  • In France one fire after another is eating away at the forests while parts of the country suffer hailstorms that destroy roofs and punch through car windows.
  • The southwestern United States is in a prolonged drought that is causing severe water shortages and crop reductions. Companies are actively searching for other parts of the continent to grow some crops.
  • Drought is causing hardship in China and a food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

In the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, governments pledged to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. This report United in Science 2022 says that instead of going down greenhouse gas emissions are going up. Fossil fuel projects that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere keep getting built.  As a result there is nearly a 50 per cent chance that we will hit the 1.5 degree rise in as little as five years. The report calls for a renewable energy revolution to bring down carbon emissions as well as huge investments to adapt to the changes that are already being felt.

6 Sep 2022

A chilly energy future

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on A chilly energy future

The European energy crisis gives us a sharp reminder of how hard it is to move to a sustainable future and how dangerous to delay the shift. Energy prices are up, economic growth is down, and winter is coming. Western Europe is facing its greatest shortages of fossil fuels since the oil embargo of 1973 and before that the Second World War. Energy prices have skyrocketed because of the Russian war on Ukraine. That caused most European countries to start cutting imports of Russian natural gas and impose a wave of sanctions against Russia. That country has retaliated by cutting deliveries of gas even more as colder weather approaches. European countries are already enacting wartime-like measures to conserve energy as they try to stockpile enough gas to get them through cold weather. France ordered illuminated outdoor advertising turned off at 1am and many of the nation’s swimming pools are closing because it is too expensive to heat them. In Hanover, Germany, hot water has been switched off in showers in some public buildings. Everywhere people are being told to turn up the air conditioning and turn down the heat to 19 or 20 degrees. Industries face much higher energy prices and the risk of supply restrictions in the winter bringing the likelihood of reduced production and layoffs.

Credit: cherwell.org

The European Union had pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, and Russian gas was seen as a transition fuel from coal, which releases 40 per cent more carbon dioxide. This gas crisis gives impetus to a green energy transition. The problem is that it is coming so fast that countries have not had time to get enough renewable sources online. As a result, they are trying to buy gas from other countries and are even extending the life of coal-burning power plants resulting in even more pollution. The lesson is that fossil fuels are an inherently unstable source of energy because of unpredictable crises in one part of the world or another. Locally produced green energy sources will be much more reliable. Our challenge is to push the development of clean energy sources as fast as possible and make a fast transition.

2 Sep 2022

Go green in college

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Go green in college

Around the world tens of millions of young people are heading to college and to schools at all levels. They are at an age when they are forming habits that will often last a lifetime. They are living at a time when we know we have to change many of the habits of previous generations if we are going to have a livable planet. A U.S. based organization has a website, Going Green in College: A Guide for Students, which gives good advice on how to reduce your environmental footprint in daily activities. Many tips are just common sense, such as turning off the lights when you are not in a room. Energy has so cheap that people forget its environmental cost in the form of air pollution. It’s crucial that this generation of young people adopts sustainable lifestyles. In the 1960s and 1970s young people were in the forefront of political and social changes that led to a better world. Now is their time to lead again by showing how to live well within the world’s ecological boundaries.

31 Aug 2022

Indoor air and health

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Indoor air and health

Air pollution is one of the world’s biggest health threats. Nine out of 10 people breath polluted air and it kills 7 million people a year according to the World Health Organization. When we think of air pollution it’s usually about industrial smokestacks or exhaust pipes – outdoor air. But most of us spend up to 90 per cent of our time indoors where we are often exposed to a host of pollutants, some seeping into our homes from outdoors and others coming from things in the house. The health effects of these pollutants range from Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue up to respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer. Consumer Notice, a U.S. based consumer advocacy organization, has published Indoor Air Quality, a web page that explains what is commonly found inside our home and office air and how we can protect ourselves.  

19 Aug 2022

How many people can the planet handle?

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on How many people can the planet handle?

Back in 1968 The Population Bomb, written by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, predicted overpopulation would cause worldwide famine, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth. The book, which talked about population, resources and the environment, triggered a heated global debate. Many developing countries with high birth rates pushed back saying it showed an attempt to stifle their development. When the book was published the world population was just over 3.5 billion and growing at a rate of 2.1 per cent per year. Since then, the population has risen to nearly 8 billion, but the rate of increase has dropped to 1.1 per cent.

Over the years, some countries experimented with population control measures, including family planning advice and contraception. Others limited how many children a family could have and even forced sterilizations. Limiting population growth became a taboo subject. However, the population is still increasing. According to the United Nations, it is projected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. This will put increasing pressure on the environment at a time when many vital resources are already in decline. How should we look at population growth in a time when the world is struggling to deal with poverty, growing inequality and environmental decline? The Great Transition Initiative, an online forum on a sustainable future, pulled together more than two dozen scholars to tackle this thorny subject in a project called The Population Debate Revisited. They take a variety of positions on one of the most complex issues facing humanity, including not just the number of people but the per capita consumption, which makes a huge difference in the impact per person. As one author wrote, population growth in affluent countries does much more to accelerate environmental decline than increasing numbers in poorer parts of the world.

25 Jun 2022

A tale of two pathways

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on A tale of two pathways

Our civilization has reached a fork in the road. After a million years of harnessing fire, the pollution from all that burning is destroying the climate that supports us. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – produce about 80 per cent of global primary energy. This is what powers furnaces and stoves and generates much of the world’s electricity. The greenhouse gases released by producing and burning all this fuel is transforming our atmosphere, making it trap more heat. The rising global temperature already has devastating effects. Weather has become more extreme and unpredictable. Recently there have been huge floods and droughts in parts of China with red alert heat waves. The southwest United States is in a historic drought. The Colorado River, the main water source for much of the region, is shrinking and Lake Mead, the giant reservoir, has dropped by 155 feet [about 47 m.] since 2000. In France, one violent storm after another fires hailstones the size of tennis balls or bigger right through roofs and car windshields. In recent years one huge wildfire after another has levelled towns and killed people in North America and Europe. The heat waves are even worse killers. We are already locked into an even warmer and wilder climate.

The only way to slow and eventually reverse global overheating is to throw the off switch on fossil fuels. We need to power virtually everything with clean electricity. There is also a place for geothermal, clean hydrogen and a limited amount of biofuels [because they compete with food crops]. This will be a long, complex and costly transition stretching over decades. The process has barely begun. Despite promises from most of the world to reduce fossil fuel use, global emissions are still rising. Countries are building solar and wind farms at a historic rate, but it will take many years to make the shift from fossil fuels. People are buying more electric cars, but they are still a tiny fraction of sales, and internal combustion engines will continue to spew out pollutants that warm the planet and create choking smog for years.

The fastest way to a greener pathway is through energy conservation, by reducing how much we use every day. For many people, locked in a car commuter cycle or relying on a truck for work, that will be difficult. However, everyone has the option to cut back their energy use to some degree. Just switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles would have an important impact and would not reduce mobility. In the longer term the most important thing individuals can do is to tell businesses and governments they are ready for the difficult and sometimes expensive changes we will need for a global energy transition. Business is very sensitive to consumer demand and will change products quickly when our buying patterns shift. It may take longer to get governments to make a major shift. There is an axiom in government that it may claim to lead but is always setting its course based on what if feels voters will accept. So, it is up to us as individuals to press our leaders for major change and say we will support them at the ballot box.

We have good advice on what climate change is doing from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but we need a guide through the difficult process of change and adaptation. Governments experimented with expert groups of cabinet ministers, business leaders and senior representatives from other parts of society. This was the round table on environment and economy process of the late 1980s, but it often lacked focus and commitment and has generally disappeared. This kind of multistakeholder approach would be well suited to the clear and specific challenges of climate change. Non-partisan groups with experts from many sectors would have the credibility needed to make the difficult calls about how we need to change.

15 Jun 2022

Marking an era

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Marking an era

When I was a little boy in the late 1940s my father gave me a hand sprayer loaded with the pesticide DDT. With this new toy I ran around the house shooting at flies like some anti-aircraft gunner.  Little did I know that I was participating in not just the killing of a few houseflies but the start of civilian chemical warfare.

It was more than another decade before people realized our use of pesticides was out of control and threatening our environment and health. On June 16, 1962, The New Yorker magazine began to serialize chapters from a book by U.S. biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson. It was Silent Spring, the most influential environmental book until then. It was a bombshell. Carson wrote about declines in bird populations linked to pesticides. She took a complex subject—the damaging effects of persistent pesticides—and captured it in one powerful image: a spring in which no birds sang. By this time the bald eagle, an American icon, was heading for extinction because DDT was causing eggshells so thin they broke. The same was true for other birds. Carson did not call for the elimination of pesticides but for minimizing their use to protect other species and to limit the ability of pests to develop resistance to the chemicals.

photo of Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson

Silent Spring is often seen as the launchpad for the environmental movement and for laws and regulations to protect people and nature from pollution. It led to controls and bans on a number of pesticides, notably DDT, the most notorious of the pesticides developed in the middle of the twentieth century. It changed public thinking about industrial claims that such products were safe when in fact a number were not.

Despite the many controls on specific chemicals we are still awash in pollution. The latest crisis is over so called “forever chemicals” as PFAS are widely known. These compounds, found in non-stick cookware, food packaging and water-repellent fabrics, are highly persistent in the environment. They have been found in the bloodstream of virtually every human tested. It shows that our approach to regulating hazardous substances still fails to protect us from new harmful substances. Companies have to run certain safety tests but these are clearly inadequate and we end up with dangerous substances widely dispersed in the environment and in our bodies.

5 Jun 2022

50 years of trying to save the environment

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on 50 years of trying to save the environment

It was 50 years ago, on June 5, 1972, that the world began the first of the great environmental conferences that have tried to chart a course toward a sustainable future. At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 114 governments met to try to come to terms with the environmental problems that were serious even then and with the needs of the less industrialized nations who needed ecological room to expand their economies. Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi put human needs on the agenda, calling poverty a driver of environmental degradation because the poor exploit the environment to meet immediate needs such as for food and fuel. This made a strong link between environment and development issues, helping to set the scene for the sustainable development concept which was fleshed out in the next decade. The Stockholm conference came three months after the publication of the controversial book The Limits to Growth, by The Club of Rome, an international association of scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants. The book warned that with increases in population and demands, the world would face increasing shortages of essential natural resources. It said consumption trends could be changed “…to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.” This presaged the 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, which called for sustainable development. Following the Stockholm conference, Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos published Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, which warned we had to learn to control our demands and environmental impacts.

One of the major results of the Stockholm conference was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], giving the world its first global environmental agency. It was a period when governments around the world started creating their own environmental departments and citizens formed  many environmental non-government organizations.

Following Stockholm, the world has held a series of major meetings such as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1982, which included the Earth Summit, the largest meeting of world leaders ever held. The Rio conference launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and agreed on Agenda 21, a program to achieve sustainable development. After Rio came the UN General Assembly Special Session on Sustainable Development in New York in 1997 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Although there are many great environmental problems most attention has shifted to climate change with its regular meetings to seek a solution to this crisis.

Maurice Strong

The common theme for much of this was the work of Canadian businessman and environmentalist Maurice Strong. He headed the Stockholm conference, was the first head of UNEP, was a member of the Brundtland commission and headed the Rio conference.

22 Apr 2022

The great disconnect

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on The great disconnect

How many people can look at the clouds, feel the wind direction and make an informed guess about the weather? How many kids have never seen a cow, and think milk only comes from plastic bags? For thousands of years humans have been making a great migration. Not the one from Africa to the rest of the world but from rural areas to cities. We are the only species that is becoming disconnected from our roots.

In 2008, the United Nations said that half the world now lived in urban areas and this trend will continue, and more recently estimated that two-thirds of humans will be urban dwellers by mid-century. In high income regions such as North America and Europe more than 80 per cent of people live in cities, towns and villages. It is a huge change. For most of history humans were rural dwellers, harvesting food and natural resources and later farming and fishing with big boats. People understood nature and natural processes because they depended on that knowledge for success, even survival.

As people move into cities, some of which hold more than 30 million people, they lose connection with nature, the basis of life. Many millions have never been outside urban areas and millions more have only seen bits of nature from the windows of a car, bus, train or aircraft. This lack of connection to our natural roots becomes more and more of a handicap when experts try to explain why we need to protect biodiversity and preserve natural spaces where nature can operate on its own cycles.

16 Apr 2022

Approaching overshoot

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Approaching overshoot

Each statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] ratchets up the pressure to fight climate change. The planet has already warmed by more than 1 Celsius since the start of the industrial revolution because of massive burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Under the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change the world agreed we need to hold the temperature increase to well below 2C with a goal of 1.5C to prevent even more severe damage from wildfires, floods, droughts and huge storms that already are hitting us hard.

An early April report by 278 climate experts from 65 countries said we have to make historically fast and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or we will overshoot the targets. The report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of climate change, said that to meet the 1.5C target, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 and be reduced by 43 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. We’re nowhere near on track. With current policies, the world will warm by more than 3 degrees. Even if nations meet their promises for future cuts, we will get just under 3 degrees of warming. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres did not sound optimistic as he accused the governments of high-emitting countries, of making “empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”

Two days after the IPCC report came out, Canada approved the Bay du nord oil project in the Atlantic Ocean off the country’s east coast. It is to produce some 300 million barrels of oil which when burned would release about 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide or twice as much as Canada’s electricity sector releases in a year. The deep-sea oil project is to start pumping oil in 2028. The Canadian climate plan aims for emissions to be cut by 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The IPCC scientists said we need deep and immediate emissions reductions across all sectors. “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. However, the report’s authors write, it “cannot be achieved through incremental change.”

More than 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels, a power system developed over several centuries. A titanic shift must take place. We must electrify almost everything to literally repower the world. It will cost trillions of dollars but is necessary to save the planet from climate disaster.

Electric cars recharging

It’s not just electric cars. We have to change the heating systems for almost every building in the world and the power for most industrial processes. There are signs of hope. A number of countries have cut emissions over the past decade, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and Ukraine. They used less energy, transitioned away from fossil fuels to renewables, and increased the energy efficiency of their products.

The need for dramatic change is running up against a fight from huge fossil fuel industries trying to stay in business, people reluctant or uncertain how to make the necessary changes and many politicians afraid to provide the historic leadership needed. Given current trends it is virtually certain we will overshoot the 1.5C goal. The question is can we correct by rapidly reducing emissions later and how much damage will we suffer in the interim.

19 Mar 2022

War and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on War and sustainability

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the biggest blow to sustainability since the term became popular more than 30 years ago. The invasion is not only a humanitarian catastrophe for Ukrainians but it will harm people around the world. The war has already driven the price of oil to sky high levels. That makes it more expensive for everyone who needs fossil fuels for heating, food production, transportation and production of virtually everything we use. For low-income countries this means an increase in the cost of their food and that has long been a trigger for social instability. In addition, Ukraine has been one of the world’s major grain producers and there are questions about how much it can produce this year let alone ship with the Russian navy controlling its Black Sea export routes. Russia is being blacklisted from a wide array of international activities at a time when we need global cooperation on critical issues such as COVID-19 and climate change. We risk slipping back into a Cold War period of isolation at a time when countries need to be pulling together.

7 Mar 2022

Running out of time

Posted by Michael Keating. Comments Off on Running out of time

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]  makes for chilling reading even at a time when we have war in Ukraine and a continuing COVID-19 crisis. It says the window to prevent huge and irreversible changes to our climate is rapidly closing. The effects of melting glaciers and thawing permafrost in some areas are “approaching irreversibility.” Mass die-off of fauna and flora are happening now. We already live in a world of history making floods, fires and drought and this with a temperature rise of only 1.1C from pre-industrial times. At current rates of emissions we are headed for between 2 and 3 C which will likely trigger a scenario where burning trees and melting permafrost release even more greenhouse gases accelerating the warming trend. The results will be dramatic and deadly. Tens of millions will have to flee as their homelands become unlivable because of flooding or heat waves. The only way to stave off the worst is to start making gigantic cuts to emissions, at least 45 per cent in this decade alone.