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Displaying items by tag: climate emergency

At our AGM on 4 November, Ian provided a clear message about the future of the Earth and humankind. He summed up with a quotation from a statement made in 2021 by Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientist:

What we do over the next three to five years will determine the future of humanity.

The talk was about global warming. It was also about the urgent need to change the paradigm of growth and capitalism that underpins our economic systems.

Firstly, here is some background to his arguments.

Club of Rome – limits to growth

Fifty years ago, the Club of Rome created a computer model that projected trends in the variables that define human society: population, food production, industrial output, pollution and use of non-renewable resources.

At the time all these variables were increasing and were assumed to continue to grow exponentially while the ability of technology to increase the efficiency of use of finite natural resources grew only linearly.

The model predicted that the continuation of these trends would lead to a limit in the second half of this century. The most probable result will be a sudden and uncontrolled decline in population and ecosystems with flow on effects on industrial capacity and the supply of our basic needs.

Many studies have shown that the trends predicted are proving to be realistic. The limit of available non-renewable resources is being reached which will affect our capacity to continue our current lifestyle. Our civilisation only works if it grows, but that growth is now destroying the resources that maintain the civilisation.

The most obvious limit – our climate

The recent extreme weather experience in many locations around the world and the reports from the scientific experts highlight that we are getting close to a situation where temperature increases will exceed the ideal set in the Paris Agreement of 1.5°C and the fall-back position of 2°C is becoming harder to achieve.

We are already reaching tipping points, namely changes in the Earth’s systems that will be impossible to reverse, such as melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and boreal permafrost. Once these changes are set in train the trend of temperature increases and sea level rise will be even harder to reverse.

The climate system has a strong level of inertia so any response to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will take several years to have any effect on temperature levels.

If emission levels are not reduced urgently to zero, not just net zero, we are on a path to temperature increases of 3°C or even 5°C that will make human life on our planet unliveable for most people. Zero emissions is required to reduce the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that is the driving force behind climate change.

How can we turn around these frightening prospects?

There is a lot of optimism expressed about the ability of technology to slow down emissions. But implementation of these technologies is too slow. Forget about the conflict that we are experiencing. These security threats and the need to build up military capacity are less urgent. What we need is radical change in the economic system. Is this possible?

Ian Dunlop is a member of the think tank called Earth4All that focuses on systemic change for global well-being. They are presenting two scenarios:

  • Too little too late – what if we continue on our current destructive path?
  • Giant leap – what if we achieve the fastest transformation in history?

Earth4All has gathered leading thinkers to advice on the economic ideas that show the most promise to unite societies and bring long-term prosperity to the majority. The current trend of an increasing gap between rich and poor has to change. Instability will be the outcome if the poor have to bear the brunt of impacts from climate change.

There are five core changes that are needed:

  • poverty – more government planning and less market influence in economic development
  • inequality – transfers from the few rich to the many poor
  • empowerment – education, health, contraception, and opportunity to all women
  • food – regenerative agriculture, higher efficiency, fairer distribution
  • energy – shift from fossil fuels to renewables, higher efficiency, carbon capture and storage

Forces working against change

The free market will not solve the problems. However, what the world needs is not profitable from the investor perspective using conventional criteria.

Existing jobs are threatened – we need to move from jobs creating emissions and using natural resources to jobs restoring nature and re-using materials

Government measures will not be popular. These will entail such measures as higher taxes and more regulation.

Ian Dunlop suggests that the disparity in wealth means that the richest 10% could pay to make these changes happen.

Change remains possible and solutions exist if we choose to take them. Cooperation, not conflict, is the essential ingredient.

Communities must speak out loudly, bluntly and frequently about the urgency for change.

Ian Dunlop has been a writer and activist on climate change for about 50 years and he is chair of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group.

Published in STEP Matters 223

Those of you who attended Ian Dunlop's STEP AGM talk on 4 November may have ended up distressed by the implications for the future from human-induced climate change, and frustrated by the slow progress of political action. As such you may not want to read any more bad news having also had more than enough from the current global scene. But I’m still strongly recommending this book, for quite a variety of reasons.

We’ve all heard of the IPCC, and maybe also read or heard the climate-sceptic’s nonsense: that it’s just a bunch of academics in ivory towers massaging dodgy data on screens to predict disasters that will probably never happen. Well Joëlle Gergis is a fully fledged climate scientist, an academic currently linked to ANU, who's a true insider on IPCC reporting, and her story is telling, compelling and very personal. In various contexts she highlights the intense scrutiny and work, often at night and into the early hours and mostly unpaid, by the thousands of scientists from all over our besieged planet. If there is any better evaluation of this ground-breaking global organisation I’ve yet to come across it.

But there’s much more to this book because it’s a personal journey by somebody who’s professional, dedicated and almost obsessive in her devotion to her science and its message. The implications of hers and the IPCC’s work have left her depressed and almost suicidal at times but she soldiers on under a worsening climate and its disasters. In this respect, the content of the book may seem repetitive at times but I never wanted to put it down. I can think of many public figures for whom it should be compulsory reading. But it does end on a hopeful note, that the means of fixing things are widely available, and work is in progress on many fronts.

Joëlle Gergis, Black Inc (2022) 325 pp (reviewed by John Martyn)

Published in STEP Matters 223

Under the Paris climate change agreement the majority of countries have made pledges to get their greenhouse gas emissions down to ‘net zero’ by 2050 with the hope of keeping the global average temperature increase below 2°C and, preferably, no more than 1.5°C.

Australia is still an appalling laggard with no commitment by the Morrison government or any plan to achieve a goal of any sort. The commitment for 2030 of a reduction of 26 to 28% below 2005 levels is also being eclipsed by stronger commitments being made by many developed countries.

The world still has a long way to go to get to net zero. Many scientists are calling for a much faster reduction. The average global temperature has already increased by 1.1°C since pre-industrial levels and Australia’s increase is 1.44°C since 1910 when reliable data is available. It seems that reaching 1.5°C is inevitable so the Glasgow meeting is crucial to put in place actual policies, not just pledges, that will have provide a high probability that we won’t get beyond 2°C. Every fraction of a degree counts.

Definition of net zero

Net zero emissions describes the point in time when humans stop adding to the burden of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere. It refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere. The level of balance was approximately at the time before the world started burning coal during the 18th century. The level of CO2 then was about 280 ppm. It is now about 417 ppm. Actual worldwide CO2 emissions are currently about 35 billion tonnes pa. The net effect of the natural land and ocean absorption processes leaves the situation where the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still increasing, by 2.4 ppm pa over the past decade.

This data does not include emissions of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous dioxides that have strong effects of atmospheric warming but are dissipated by chemical reaction relatively quickly. The following information focusses on CO2 emissions because they remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Getting to net zero means we can still produce some emissions, as long as they are offset by processes that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. For example, these could be things like planting new forests, or drawdown technologies like direct air capture.

However, to meet the goal of net zero, new emissions of greenhouse gas must be as low as possible. This means that we need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and transition to renewable energy.

Climate change isn’t a tap we can turn off once we stop using fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide, the main contributor to climate change, will stay in the atmosphere and keep heating the planet for years and years. As the data above shows there is already an excess quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are having an impact on our climate so that we actually need to remove the excess in order to stop further increases in temperature and other effects of climate change.

Carbon offsetting options

Currently the main method of reducing emissions, called carbon offsetting, is planting trees. A massive area of land would be needed to make a big difference to total emissions. As a forest ages, it reaches what ecologists call a ‘steady state’ – this is when the amount of carbon absorbed by the trees each year is perfectly balanced by the CO₂ released through the breathing of the plants themselves and the trillions of decomposer microbes underground. So new areas will need to be planted out every year as emissions remain positive.

The calculation of the carbon content of a tree cannot be accurate unless the tree is pulled out of the ground so approximations are needed. Also the growth of each tree is non-linear, starting slowly and then the greatest sequestration rate is in the younger stages of tree growth, depending on rates and peaks of individual species, with the sequestration of CO2 per year dropping thereafter. The usual method is to choose the appropriate time scale and average the amount of carbon stored over that period.

Multiple factors such as growth conditions are at play so there is still much research needed into more accurate calculations. Of course the basic assumption is that the trees will remain standing. They won’t be burned down or degrade through drought of insect attack.

Once trees reach maturity they need to be locked away and then new areas need to be planted if more emissions need to be offset.

There are lots of other schemes for reducing emissions. The federal government is supporting ideas like carbon farming, avoided reforestation and land restoration.

A large market has developed for carbon credits that are calculated under schemes developed by under the UNFCCC. Some of these are available to governments and are popular with companies and individuals wanting to offset their emissions. The credits are sold by organisations that are running projects that reduce emissions, for example by supporting renewable energy in developing countries.

Have any countries or Australian states reached net zero emissions already?

Five countries have a net-zero target in place by law: Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and New Zealand.

Closer to home, some of the states and territories are doing well. Australia’s states and territories all have net zero targets, but most governments have not outlined how these targets will be met. Tasmania has been net zero in some individual years. In 2014 and 2018, Tasmania’s emissions dropped below net zero thanks to Tasmania’s massive hydroelectric dams, and massive carbon-dense forests. With the state’s electricity supply already nearing 100% renewable, the remaining emissions from the state – across transport, manufacturing, agriculture and forestry – were offset by the greenhouse gases sucked out of the atmosphere by the state’s forests.

A target is only as good as the policies underpinning it. Several governments with a net zero goal, such as Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, are still increasing their emissions each year. Even governments that are leading the pack when it comes to climate action – like South Australia and the ACT – still have more work to do to outline how they will meet their net zero goals.

The big concern is there are still new coal mining and gas projects being developed. It all seems very hypocritical for NSW to be supporting the Santos Pilliga gas project and mine expansion.

Published in STEP Matters 212
Monday, 12 August 2019 20:52

Let’s Declare a Climate Emergency in Hornsby

Hornsby Shire Climate Action has set up an online petition calling on Hornsby Council to declare a climate emergency. Declaring a climate emergency is a vital step in building support for the very large changes required to restore a safe climate.

Once declared, the council must enforce policies that will reduce emissions as much as possible. They must also educate the public about the state of emergency. Click here to sign the petition.

Published in STEP Matters 202