Who’d a Thunk it?

Look out for formation-flying pigs! At last, the weight of the evidence and the severity of the crisis is hitting home for Big Business – and the ones with the biggest stakes in the denial game, too!

Some big companies have been active in climate change mitigation and adaptation schemes for some time – Apple, for instance, is a high-profile company which has for some time acknowledged climate change and sought ways to reduce its reliance on  fossil fuels. This week, Bloomberg reports Apple has invested $850 million in ensuring that it will be powering all its offices, machines, stores and data centres from solar sources for at least the next 25 years.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, had acknowledged the urgent necessity of dealing with climate change, reducing the world’s reliance on oil and switching to natural gas as a less polluting alternative, along with more renewables, and even called for governments to set carbon prices to discourage the use of fossil fuels.

Today, in reports from the Guardian and Telegraph, I note that British Petroleum, another massive multinational oil company, has stepped up to the plate. Increasing energy demand is not compatible with fighting climate change, its Energy Report has declared, and carbon emissions are ‘unsustainable’! BP, too, would like carbon prices, please.

Well, woo-hoo!! Finally, the emperors of carbon production are looking in the mirror and noticing a certain draftiness around their nethers! BP and Shell are two of the five biggest oil companies in the world – the others being ConocoPhillips, Chevron and ExxonMobil. When you consider the massive investment these companies have in exploiting any fossil fuel they can lay hands on, even two out of five ain’t bad (apologies to Meatloaf for misquoting!)

This is a long way from fixing any problems, but at least the big players are beginning to admit there are problems. If they withdraw their funding for climate change denial thinktanks and propagandists (and they should!)  then the artificial and false “controversy” over whether climate change exists and will be a major existential challenge for humanity should begin to die down. With their financial clout, these companies also have the ears of politicians and have for many years been stridently arguing that jobs now are more important than TEOTWAWKI for the next generation.

Maybe, just maybe, we can look forwards to getting to grips with the adaptation and mitigation measures our grandchildren need us to put in place.

On The Up: The Keeling Curve

Some time ago I posted a bit about the Keeling Curve. It’s a simple little thing, not hard to understand – every day, someone goes up to the top of Mauna Loa and takes an air sample, then measures the amount of carbon dioxide in it. When Charles Keeling started doing this back in 1958, the average CO2 was about 313ppm (parts per million),with a little seasonal variation.

In May 2013, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere topped 400ppm for the first time. Last year, it exceeded that amount on March 12. This year’s benchmark crossing-400ppm-date?

January 1st.

It’s going to rise all the way from here to May or June before it falls. What’s this year’s record top figure going to be?

Remember that initial starting figure of 313ppm, in 1958? That wasn’t a lowest-figure-of-the-year, that was an annual average. So, what was the lowest figure recorded 2014/15, remembering that the Curve generally hits its low point in about September/October?

396ppm.

In 2013/14 that low point was 393ppm.

It’s well worth having a look at the record of atmospheric CO2 over the last 800,000 years. Most of that record, of course, is derived from ice core samples and not direct measurements, but if that spike at the end doesn’t worry you, all I can say is: you’re not like me. It worries me a lot.

It re-inforces other recent research results indicating that climate change has jammed its foot on the throttle and is heading straight for the edge of the cliff, and we’re still worrying about our economies and whether or not we’re paying enough into our pension pots.

Shouldn’t we be thinking about uncontrollable mass migrations on a scale never before seen, as approximately 23% of the world’s population decides living within 30 feet of sea level isn’t clever in a more hurricane/typhoon prone world? Not to mention the dropping crop yields as heat-stressed rice and wheat fail to grow normally? Does anyone think those hundreds of millions of climate refugees will wait for visas and immigration paperwork?

Don’t forget, the warmer it gets, the more positive feedback loops kick in to ensure it continues getting hotter, faster. Replacing reflective white sea-ice with heat-absorbing dark water, melting perma-frost releasing the frozen bogs of the tundra to rot and produce methane, destabilising methane clathrates to release (yet more) methane…. these all push the foot harder on the climate change pedal.

What about brakes?

Sulfur dioxide from volcanic eruptions can cause short-term climate cooling by preventing sunshine from reaching the ground, reflecting it back into space high in the atmosphere – but do we want lots of volcanic eruptions? Are we willing to bet on nature conveniently tipping off a few thousand extra large volcanos just when we need them? (At any time, about 1,500 volcanoes in the world are active – and they’re not slowing things down any at the moment!) And in any case, lots of sulfur dioxide in the air means lots of acid rain coming back down, sooner or later. Remember the troubles that caused, back in the 70s and early 80s?

How about more clouds? Clouds also block sunlight and reduce the temperature at the surface. Unfortunately, to get more clouds, we’d need more water vapour in the air and water vapour (unlike the water droplets in clouds) is a greenhouse gas, so that one may not work so well either.

Eventually, the Earth’s natural cycles will deal with all the carbon we’ve liberated into the air – but it will take hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. Eventually, sea creatures building their shells from carbonates and dying, sinking to the seabed and forming silt will become new chalk and limestone deposits. Eventually, rocks weathering in the mild carbonic acid of rain will chemically react to remove the cardon dioxide from the air.

Any volunteers to wait that long? No?

There’s only one way to slow down the acceleration of climate change, and that’s to stop putting more carbon dioxide (and soot, and methane, and water vapour) into the air to begin with, which means we (humans) need to stop burning fossil fuels. Still no sign of any movement in that direction on the part of humans as a whole, so I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

Which means, logically enough, that we’re still heading towards that cliff, pedal to the metal.

We ain’t seen nothing yet. But we’re going to, and I’ll bet we see it sooner than anyone’s expecting.

Alternative Fuels – Wind

I thought I’d digress a little. Traditionally the UK is a maritime nation and certainly a lot of our food suppliesare imported from overseas, so in a world where emissions count and fuel costs are likely (certain, at some point!) to increase dramatically, I thought I’d say a bit about sailing ships.

Tall Ships, Lerwick

Up until the end of the 18th Century, most trade around the world was carried out by sailing ship. Coal-powered steam-vessels began to oust sail in the second half of the 19th Century, particularly amongst navies where reliable speed really mattered, but the last fleet of windjammers was still in operation, freighting wheat from Australia, guano from the Pacific and lumber from South America, well into the 1950s.

These were not small boats, nor were they traditional wooden-hulled sailing vessels. These were steel or iron-hulled, with steel cable rigging, over an acre of canvas, semi-mechanised sail-handling and enough  capacity for thousands of tonnes of cargo.

There are still a few around, mostly used as sail-training vessels these days.

Tall Ship, Lerwick

As the windjammers were finally put out of commercial operation by the development of cheap, plentiful diesel fuel, they may well become viable once more as the price of diesel increases and its availability decreases. As sailing vessels, the working carbon emissions of a windjammer would be zero (there would be some carbon cost to building the hull, but I don’t know how much. Presumably no more than building a conventional deisel-powered ship).

How long will it be before they catch on again?

I had a little google on the subject and was pleasantly surprised! Not only is the Tres Hombres, a wooden-hulled ship with 35 tonnes cargo capacity, sailing a regular trade route in the Atlantic(Europe, Atlantic Islands, USA, Caribbean), but smaller inshore boats are making a comeback in the States via projects like the Salish Sea Trading Co-operative, the Dragonfly Sail Trading Co, and the Vermont Sail Freight Project. Even on the big freight side of shipping, there are some interesting developments, like SkySails’ kite-powered assist for container vessels, which reduces fuel use, and B9’s ambitious sailing container vessel plans.

I was interested to see, too, that the speeds of these big sailing ships is not unimpressive – the commercial windjammer fleets regularly recorded 15 knots, and one even up to 21 knots, which is better than any modern yacht I’ve sailed on. Modern freighters powered by bunker fuel apparently now often average 12 knots to conserve fuel – so sail now beats steam!

All in all, a very encouraging demonstration of people taking up the climate challenge and putting old technology to a modern purpose.

Adaptation and Mitigation – an explanation

A lot of people seem to get confused by ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’. I thought I’d just make the differences and the need for both clear.

First of all, what are they?

Adaptation is the process of changing how we live, work or do things in order to reduce the risks and challenges we face from climate change, to change ourselves to live in a different set of climatic circumstances. Adaptation could be remembering to put sunglasses and a hat on in hot sunny weather, or putting on waterproofs when it rains. It could also be designing floating houses, as the Dutch have done, to cope with rising sea levels.

Mitigation is the process of changing what we do and how we live in the hope that we can prevent climate change happening, or reduce it if we can’t stop it. Mitigation involves trying to reduce our emissions so we don’t have so high a concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or taking steps to reduce soot emissions.

Is we can adapt, why do we need to mitigate?

The answer to this one is quite simple. If we don’t mitigate climate change by taking some very drastic action in the very near future (such as reducing our emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2020) then we will face changes too great to adapt to. Imagine, for example, that global average temperature rises by 4 degres celsius. According to most calculations, 4 degrees of temperature rise would see dramatic changes in the Earth’s surface – sea level rise over a metre, the loss of permafrost, wildfires as far north as the Alps, summer rains failing 70% of the time in the Mediterranean, Australia, India, North, Central and South American deserts expanding, summers in the UK reaching 45 degrees Celsius, droughts commonplace across Northern Europe. Can we really ‘adapt’ to a world like that? Where do all the people from the affected countries move to? How do we feed them? Where do we find enough drinking water for that many displaced people?  So, we need to mitigate climate change as much as possible.

But if we can mitigate climate change, why bother adapting?

“Some degree of climate change is inevitable because of past and present carbon emissions. Even with strong international action to curb emissions, global temperatures still have a fifty percent chance of rising above 2 °C by the end of the century.” (from the Committee on Climate Change’s website). In other words, no matter what we do now, there is some change ‘locked in’ to the Earth’s future that can’t be prevented. We must adapt to that, and the less mitigation we do, the more adaptation will be needed.

Adapting to likely changes ahead of time is cheaper and easier than trying to play catch-up after the fact, so the time to consider adaptation strategies is now. LIkewise, the more we can mitigate the future climate change, the less adaptation we will need to do – and the sooner we take steps to mitigate, the easier it will be to achieve.

Food Security in the Warming World

I’m just coming into the final week of an online course on climate change (via Coursera) which discusses the degrees of warming we are currently on course for in the next century. It’s both depressing, in that we’re aiming for 2 degrees of climate warming by 2050 and over 4 degrees by 2100, and inspiring, in that there are still things we can do that will reduce these figures significantly. One of those things is to reduce our emissions on the individual level and this post discusses combining that reduction with another topic close to any survivalist’s heart – food supply.

One of the biggest looming problems that is really going to bite in the coming decades is the global food supply. At the moment there are about 7 billion humans in the world. By 2050 it’s predicted there’ll be 9 billion humans, which will require a 70% increase in agricultural production world-wide if everyone’s going to get enough to eat. We’re already cultivating 40% of the world’s useable land (http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2005/12/1209_051209_crops_map.html) and every year some of that land is degraded beyond useable condition due to our farming – soil degradation, desertification (http://www.worldometers.info/). The scale of the problem is quite well laid out in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s webpage where they list all the various areas of food production that need to be boosted to achieve this aim – basically, all of them. (http://www.rsc.org/ScienceAndTechnology/roadmap/priorityareas/food/agriculture/) Do we really think we can achieve all of this, when we also know that climate change will reduce both available agricultural land and crop yields across large areas of the Earth’s surface?

Whether we do or we don’t, how can we secure our own food supply? Not by importing food from abroad, as the UK does now with over 40% of its food supplies! (http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/issue/uk.html) I’m tackling this aspect of future-proofing my family’s food supplies not just by resorting to the survivalist’s traditional tool, which is to lay in a stock of preserved food for emergencies, but also by working to grow more of our own food. This year I’ve taken on a 20m by 20m plot on a local allotment site to supplement the deep beds in the back garden at home. This way we’ll know that the food we eat is fresh, healthy, local (hasn’t been flown half-way round the world, with associated emissions!) and since I’m hand-cultivating and using home-made compost, we’re also avoiding emissions from tractors and the use of fertilisers derived from hydrocarbons.

This isn’t new to us – my grandmother got her family through WWII on the produce of her garden, my mother brought us up largely from her allotment and I’ve had allotments and smallholdings in the past. We’ve always had rabbits, both as pets and, for three generations, for meat and fur production. The allotment should see us producing most of the food we need for the bunnies we have at the moment, together with a lot of the food that our flock of 6 chickens need to continue laying us a couple of dozen healthy fresh eggs each week.

I’ll be keeping records of what we produce both at home and on the allotment, so watch this space for details of how we’re succeeding in securing our food supply and reducing our emissions simultaneously!

Better yet, by meeting others on the allotment site, I’m engaging with my local community and have the opportunity to assist my neighbours with their own adaptation to future climate change by improving their food security. That will reduce their reliance on others, enable us all to gain friends and skills, and knock-on to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases for the entire community.