Kairoscanada call to action on climate

Kairoscanada call to action on climate

Among other things, the report points out that current tarsands projects will double Canada’s GHG, that since then speculators, banks and govt have pushed projects far beyond that to the point that (with help from other worldwide fossil fuel follies) we now face catastrophic +4-5C (graphic attached). It cites an impressive array of authorities. It clearly lays out the alternatives for a sustainable future: leave tarsands in the ground, renewables, retrofits, sustainable agriculture (see also ETCgroup & USC seed map).

Remember the Kabarak call.

See also Suzuki Foundation Sustainability within a Generation pdf.

UNEP Releases Video on Climate Change

UNEP Releases Video on Climate Change as Part of its Two Minutes on Oceans with Jim Toomey series

Washington, D.C. 20 March, 2013 – The United Nations Environment Programme’s Regional Office for North America (UNEP RONA) and syndicated cartoonist Jim Toomey are pleased to announce the release of their new video on climate change and its connections to our oceans and coastal communities. The video is part of an innovative awareness-raising project called Two Minutes on Oceans with Jim Toomey.

In response to all the queries on climate change and whether it is really happening, UNEP has released this video to help distill the science and make clear the connections between human activities and climate change.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined with high confidence that human activities play a key role in the substantial warming trends taking place around the globe IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.. The video presents hard facts about climate change in a creative way that encourages individuals, organizations and decision-makers to take action.

“It is important that people understand the truth about climate change. The fact is, it is real, it is happening, and, most importantly, we can do something about it. The video is aimed at providing the facts about climate change in a way that is fun and accessible to a broad audience,” says Amy Fraenkel, Director of UNEP RONA.

The first video dealt with Blue Carbon and the ability of healthy oceans and coastal ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide. It was launched last year on World Oceans Day in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The video on Marine Litter, the second in the series, was launched in September 2012, and coincided with the 26thInternational Coastal Cleanup Day. The three subsequent ocean-related videos will focus on the True Value of Oceans, Nutrient Runoff and Ocean Acidification and will be released throughout 2013.

Using animation and humor, the videos provide, in clear and simple language, information about cutting-edge science and policy issues regarding our oceans, the importance of oceans to human well-being, and the challenges facing our oceans. Each ends with a call to action for individuals, decision-makers, and organizations all across North America.

“Climate Change is a tricky topic to address in just two minutes, much less with a humorous spin. There’s nothing funny about the expected consequences of climate change on the planet, and I hope that this video will help enlighten audiences and inspire us to take action.” says Jim Toomey.

You can watch the latest video online at: http://www.rona.unep.org/toomey, or find us on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/RONA.UNEP.

For more information about this video and others in the series, or to help UNEP promote this ocean-awareness initiative, please contact:

· Elisabeth Guilbaud-Cox, Head of Communications, UNEP RONA at elisabeth.guilbaud-cox@unep.org, Tel.: (202) 974-1307 or (202) 812-2100

· Monika Thiele, Programme Officer, UNEP RONA at monika.thiele@unep.org, Tel.: (202) 974-1309

About UNEP’s Regional Office for North America

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the leading authority on the environment within the United Nations system. RONA’s mission is to build support in the region for UNEP’s work, to promote effective responses to international environmental challenges and to foster cooperation on environmental issues between North America and the broader international community. To achieve this mission, RONA’s strategy is to promote collaboration between UNEP and all sectors of North American society, including U.S. and Canadian governmental institutions, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and other civil society groups.

Transformational Change Needed to Address Climate Change Threat

GEF CEO: Transformational Change Needed to Address Climate Change Threat

GEF STAP report warns that incremental strategies aren’t working; planet headed for 6 degree temperature increase; GEF to step up its multi-sectoral approach

WASHINGTON, DC, March 20, 2013 – Incremental approaches are failing to prevent global climate change, and a systemic approach is required to reverse worrisome trends, the head of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) said today.

Dr. Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the GEF, cited a report by the GEF Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) as the latest indicator that global efforts are failing to address climate change. The report cites research indicating that a warming of 2 degrees Celsius could be reached by 2030 and that if current emission patterns continue, the planet could experience a warming of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

“The GEF has supported developing countries to take action on climate change,” Dr. Ishii said at a joint event hosted by the GEF, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics & the Environment. “But I will be the first to admit that we have more work to do if we and the international community are to catalyze the transformational change needed to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the STAP Chairman and Biodiversity Chair at the Heinz Center, said, “Against the backdrop of relentlessly rising global temperatures, the STAP report points to many opportunities for reducing climate change emissions. The global change challenge will require transformative change in present systems and policies linked to global food supply, urbanization, building designs, and sustainable development. It is a formidable task, but we now have before us a clear roadmap.”

Both the STAP report and the discussion, held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), focused on engineering a transformational shift to low-carbon economies in the developing world. The STAP report, Climate Change: A Scientific Assessment for the GEF, calls for the GEF to move away from single-sector approaches to climate change and to support more comprehensive strategies encompassing policy development, innovation, reduction in energy demand, deployment of low-carbon options, and enhancement of developing country preparations for a new global climate regime.

Speakers at the AAAS event included Heinz Center President Conn Nugent; Paven Sukhdev, visiting fellow at Yale University, former head of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, and author of Corporation 2020; Dr. Ralph Sims, professor at Massey University’s School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a STAP member specializing in climate change mitigation; and Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, professor of natural resources and environmental policy at the University of Michigan and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.


Mr. John Diamond
Senior Communication Officer | Spokesperson
Phone +1 202 458 7953
E-mail: jdiamond@thegef.org

Press Release No: 03202013

Pete McMartin: Global warming’s new frightening deadline

By Pete McMartin,

In April 2009, the science journal Nature published a paper entitled Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2 C.

Its subject was the end of the modern world.

At the time, it attracted little notice. It was a half-dozen pages long. For laymen, its technical content was impenetrable.

The purpose of the paper — researched and written by a team of European scientists headed by Malte Meinshausen, a climatologist with Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact — was to determine just how much time mankind had left before our burning of fossil fuels would cause catastrophic global warming.

The marker for what would be considered “catastrophic” warming was generally agreed to be anything above a rise of two degrees Celsius in global temperature.

“More than 100 countries,” the paper noted, (the actual number was 167 countries) “have adopted a global warming limit of 2°C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts and damages.”

The problem was, no one was exactly sure how much fossil-fuel consumption had already contributed to global warming, or how much fossil fuel mankind could consume without going over the two degrees Celsius marker. Those phenomena needed to be quantified.

Meinshausen’s team did just that. It constructed a rigorous model by incorporating hundreds of factors that had never been grouped together before, and then ran them through a thousand different scenarios.

The team’s conclusion?

Time was perilously short.

It found that if we continued at present levels of fossil fuel consumption (and, in fact, consumption has been rising annually), we have somewhere between an 11- to 15-year window to prevent global temperatures from surpassing the two degree Celsius threshold in this century.

And the longer we waited, the worse the odds got.

To quote from a story on the Meinshausen paper by reporter Katherine Bagley of the non-profit news agency, InsideClimate News:

“To have a 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rise below two degrees, humans would have to stick to a carbon budget that allowed the release of no more than 1,437 gigatons of carbon dioxide from 2000 to 2050.

“To have an 80-per-cent chance of avoiding that threshold, they would have to follow a stricter budget and emit just 886 gigatons.”

To put that in perspective, Meinshausen’s team calculated that the world’s nations had already produced 234 gigatons by 2006.

At our present rate, the paper predicted, the world will surpass that 886-gigaton figure by 2024 — or sooner, if annual consumption rates continue to rise as they have.

Since the Meinshausen paper was published, several other studies have corroborated its findings. The math in them comes to basically the same conclusion.

“Yes, I use Meinshausen’s study,” wrote Prof. Mark Jaccard, environmental economist at Simon Fraser University, in an email. “But I also use about five others that basically say the same thing. The reason they all say the same thing is because the math is trivial — no independent analysts dispute it.

“This is not groupthink,” Jaccard wrote. “Even when we bring in vice-presidents from oil and coal companies to be parts of the study groups, they quietly agree. When you are sitting in a meeting at Stanford (University) with top researchers — and away from your marketing department — it is pretty hard to sustain the myths that ‘business-as-usual’ is OK.”

Prof. Thomas Pederson, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and former dean of science at the University of Victoria, noted in an email that “the study was conducted by one of the best teams of climate scientists in the world.”

“Given continuing acceleration of emissions globally,” Pederson wrote, “we’re on or near the worst-case track that Meinshausen et al. modelled, and that puts us on a probable course for several degrees of planetary warming by the end of this century. In a word, that will be disastrous.”

An even more alarming assessment comes from University of B.C. Prof. William Rees, originator of the “ecological footprint” concept.

“I haven’t read this particular study,” Rees wrote, “but it sounds about right. If I recall, the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre (for Climate Change Research) suggests that a 90-per-cent reduction in carbon emissions from high income countries may be necessary.

“In any event, various authors don’t believe we have any hope of cutting greenhouse gases sufficiently in time to avoid a two Celsius degree increase in mean global temperature since to date, no serious steps have been taken to wean the world off fossil fuels.”

What would serious steps entail?

According to the Meinshausen paper, up to 80 per cent of our known reserve of fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground.

“The carbon budget implied by the 2 C limit,” Jaccard wrote, “means that we cannot be making new investments that expand the carbon polluting infrastructure.

“This means no expansion of oilsands, no new pipelines (like Keystone and Northern Gateway) and no expansion of coal mines and coal ports.

“This does not mean shutting down the oilsands. It does not mean shutting coal mines. These will continue to operate for decades. But you cannot be expanding carbon polluting production and also prevent 2 C or even 4 C temperature increase. The industry knows this, but prefers its ads telling us about the jobs and revenue from expanding the polluting infrastructure.”

But the remedies needed, Rees suggested, might have to be even more draconian than that.

“Even the International Energy Agency and the World Bank have recently conceded that even if present agreed-upon policies were implemented, the world is likely headed to four Celsius degrees warming by the end of the century. This would render much of the most heavily populated parts of the earth uninhabitable …”

Have a nice day.


© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Fighting Climate Change – Why Current Solutions Don’t Work

Gail Tverberg
World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Fighting Climate Change – Why Current Solutions Don’t Work: Gail Tverberg

Are We Kidding Ourselves In Our Attempts To Solve The World’s CO2 Emission Problems?
Photo Credit: Señor Codo – flickr

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries adopt them, and others do not. But even if everyone adopts them, it is not at all clear that they will provide the promised benefits.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18 percent lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

Figure 1. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons:

1. In an oil-supply constrained world, if a few countries reduce their oil consumption, the big impact is to leave more oil for the countries that don’t. Oil price may drop a tiny amount, but on a world-wide basis, pretty much the same amount of oil will be extracted, and nearly all of it will be consumed.

2. Unless there is a high tax on imported products made with fossil fuels, the big impact of a carbon tax is to send manufacturing to countries without a carbon tax, such as China and India. These countries are likely to use a far higher proportion of coal in their manufacturing than OECD countries would, and this change will tend to increase world CO2 emissions. Such a change will also tend to raise the standard of living of citizens in the countries adding manufacturing, further raising emissions. This change will also tend to reduce the number of jobs available in OECD countries.

3. The only time when increasing natural gas usage will actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions is if it replaces coal consumption. Otherwise it adds to carbon emissions, but at a lower rate than other fossil fuels, relative to the energy provided.

4. Substitutes for oil, including renewable fuels, are ways of increasing consumption of coal and natural gas over what they would be in the absence of renewable fuels, because they act as add-ons to world oil supply, rather than as true substitutes for oil. Even in cases where they are theoretically more efficient, they still tend to raise carbon emissions in absolute terms, by raising the production of coal and natural gas needed to produce them.

5. Even using more biomass as fuel does not appear to be a solution. Recent work by noted scientists suggests that ramping up the use of biomass runs the risk of pushing the world past a climate change tipping point.

It is really unfortunate that the standard fixes work the way they do, because many of the proposed fixes do have good points. For example, if oil supply is limited, available oil can be shared far more equitably if people drive small fuel-efficient vehicles. The balance sheet of an oil importing nation looks better if citizens of that nation conserve oil. But we are kidding ourselves if we think these fixes will actually do much to solve the world’s CO2 emissions problem.

If we really want to reduce world CO2 emissions, we need to look at reducing world population, reducing world trade, and making more “essential” goods and services locally. It is doubtful that many countries will volunteer to use these approaches, however. It seems likely that Nature will ultimately provide its own solution, perhaps working through high oil prices and weaknesses in the world financial system.

Elastic Versus Inelastic Supply

It seems to me that many bad decisions have been made because many economists have missed the point that crude oil supply tends to be very inelastic, while other fuels are fairly elastic. Let me explain.

Elastic supply is the usual situation for most goods. Plenty of the product is available, if the price is high enough. If there is a shortage, prices rise, and in not too long a time, the market is well-supplied again. If supply is elastic, if you or I use less of it, ultimately less of the product is produced.

Coal and natural gas usually are considered to be elastic in their supply. To some extent, they are still “extract it as you need it” products. Supply of natural gas liquids (often grouped with crude oil, but acting more like a gas, so it is less suitable as a transportation fuel) is also fairly elastic.

Crude oil is the one product that is in quite short supply, on a world-wide basis. Its supply doesn’t seem to increase by more than a tiny percentage, no matter how high the price rises. This is a situation of inelastic supply.

Figure 2. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

Even though oil prices have been very high since 2005 (shown in Figure 3, below), the amount of crude oil has increased by only 0.1% per year (Figure 2, above).

Figure 3. Historical average annual oil prices, (“Brent” or equivalent) in 2011$, from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In the case of oil, both supply and demand are quite inelastic. No matter how high the price, demand for oil doesn’t drop back by much. No matter how high the price of oil, world supply doesn’t rise very much, either.

In a situation of inelastic supply, the usual actions a person might take appear to work when viewed on a local basis, but backfire on a world basis, if not everyone participates. When one country tries to conserve crude oil (whether through a carbon tax, gasoline tax, or higher automobile mileage requirement), it may reduce its own consumption, but there are still plenty of other buyers in the market for the oil that was saved. So the oil gets used by someone else, perhaps at a slightly lower price. World oil production remains virtually unchanged. Thus, a reduction in oil usage by an OECD country can translate to more oil consumption by China or India, and ultimately more development of all types by those countries.
Adding Substitutes Adds to Carbon Emissions

If we don’t have enough crude oil, one approach is to create substitutes. Because crude oil supply is inelastic, though, these substitutes aren’t really substitutes, though. They are “add ons” to world oil supply, and this is one source of our problem with increasing world emissions.

What do we use to make the substitutes? Basically, natural gas and coal, and to a limited extent oil (because we can’t avoid using oil). The catch is, that to make the substitutes, we need to burn natural gas and coal more quickly than we would, if we didn’t make the oil substitutes. Since the supply of coal and natural gas is elastic, it is possible to pull them out of the ground more quickly. Thus, making the substitutes tends to increase carbon dioxide emissions over what they would have been, if we had never come up with the idea of substitutes.

The increased use of coal and natural gas is pretty clear, if a person thinks about coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids. Here, we need to first build the plants used in production, and then with each barrel of substitute made, we need to use more natural gas or coal. So it is very clear that we are extracting a lot of additional coal and natural gas, to make a relatively smaller amount of oil substitute. There is often a substantial need for water to make the process work as well, adding another stress on the system.

But the same issue comes up with biofuels, and with other renewables. These too, are add-ons to the world oil supply, not substitutes. While theoretically they might produce energy with less CO2 per unit than fossil fuel systems, in absolute terms they lead to natural gas and coal being pulled out of the ground more quickly to be used in making fertilizer, electricity, concrete, and other inputs to renewables.

Related: Do Biofuels Still Have A Future In The US? – Interview With Jim Lane

Related: Is Affordable Energy a Myth? – Interview with Ed Dolan
Carbon Taxes and Competitiveness

Each country competes with others in the world market place. Adding a carbon tax makes products made by the local company less competitive in the world marketplace. It also signals to potential coal users that the countries adopting the carbon taxes are willing to a leave a greater proportion of world coal exports to those who are not adopting the tax, thus helping to keep the cost of imported coal down.

Asian countries already have a competitive edge over OECD countries in terms of lower wages and lower fuel costs (because of their heavy coal mix), when it comes to manufacturing. Adding a carbon tax tends to add to the Asian competitive edge. This tends to shift production offshore, and with it, jobs.

Figure 4. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Figure 4 shows clearly that its fuel consumption ramped up rapidly thereafter. It seems likely that the number of Chinese manufacturing jobs and spending on Chinese infrastructure increased at the same time.

Economists seem to have missed the serious worldwide deterioration in CO2 emissions in recent years by looking primarily at individual country indications, including CO2 emissions per unit of GDP. Unfortunately, this narrow view misses the big picture–that total CO2 emissions are rising, and that CO2 emissions relative to world GDP have stopped falling.

(See my posts Is it really possible to decouple GDP growth from energy growth and Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP. See also Figure 1 at the top of the post.)
The Employment Connection

I have shown that in the US there is a close correlation between energy consumption and number of jobs. (For more information, including a look at older periods, see my post, The close tie between energy consumption, employment, and recession.)

Figure 5. Employment is the total number employed at non-farm labor as reported by the US Census Bureau. Energy consumption is the total amount of energy of all types consumed (oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.), in British Thermal Units (Btu), as reported by the US Energy Information Administration.

There are several reasons why a connection between energy consumption and the number of jobs is to be expected:

(1) The job itself in almost every situation requires energy, even if it is only electricity to operate computers, and fuel to heat and light buildings.

(2) Equally importantly, the salaries that employees earn allow them to buy goods that require the use of energy, such as a car or house. (“Energy demand” is what people can afford; jobs allow “demand” to rise.)

(3) The lowest salaried people can be expected to spend the highest proportion of their salaries on energy-related services (such as food and gasoline for commuting). The wealthy spend their money on high priced goods and services, such as financial planning services and designer clothing that require much less energy per dollar of expenditure.

The thing I find concerning is the close timing between the ramp-up of Asian coal use and thus jobs using coal, and the drop-off of US employment as a percentage of US population, as illustrated in Figure 6 below. Arguably, the ramp up in world trade is just as important, but some aspects of programs that are intended to save CO2 emissions also seem to encourage world trade.

Figure 6. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

Of course, the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocol or enact a carbon tax, and it is its jobs that I show falling as a percentage of population. It is more that the CO2 solutions act as yet another way to encourage more international trade, and with it more “growth”, and more CO2.
Using More Biomass is Not a Fix Either

Burning more wood for fuel and creating “second generation” biofuels from biomass seems like a fix, until a person realizes that we are reaching limits there, as well.

In June 2012, twenty noted scientist published a paper in the journal Nature called Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Biosphere. This report indicates that humans have already converted as much as 43 percent of Earth’s land to urban or agricultural uses. In total, 20 percent to 40 percent of Earth’s primary productivity has been taken over by humans. The authors are concerned that we may now be reaching a tipping point leading to a state shift, because of loss of ecosystem services as use of biological products increases. With this state change would come a change in climate. Simulations indicate that this tipping point may occur when as little as 50% of land use is disturbed. This tipping point may be even lower, if world-wide synergies take place.
On Our Current Path – Lacking Good Solutions

While this list of problems relating to current proposed solutions is not complete, it gives a hint of the problems with reducing CO2 emissions using approaches suggested to date. There are many issues I have not covered.

One issue of note is the fact the cost of integrating intermittent renewables (such as wind and solar PV) increases rapidly, as we add increasing amounts to the grid. This occurs because there is more need to transport the electricity long distances and to mitigate its variability through electricity storage or fossil fuel balancing. (See for example, Low Carbon Projects Demand a New Transmission and Distribution Model, Grid Instability Has Industry Scrambling for Solutions, and Hawaii’s Solar Power Flare-Up.)

While the problems noted in these articles are probably solvable, the cost of these solutions has not been built into energy balance analyses. Energy balances (or EROEI estimates) as currently reported do not vary with the proportion of intermittent renewables added to the grid. If energy balance analyses were adjusted to reflect the high cost of adding an increasing proportion of wind or solar PV to the grid, they would likely show a rapidly declining energy balance, above a certain threshold. This would indicate that while adding a little intermittent renewables (as we have done to date) can be a partial solution, adding a lot is likely to have serious cost and energy balance issues.

Another issue that is difficult to deal with is the fact that we are not dealing with a temporary problem with CO2 emissions. The idea is not to slow down the burning of fossil fuels, and burn more later; what we really need to do is to leave unburned fossil fuels in the ground for all time. This is a problem, because there is no way that we can impose our will on people living 10 or 50 years from now. The Maximum Power Principle of H. T. Odum would seem to indicate that any species will make use of whatever energy sources are available to it, to the extent that it can. Even if we temporarily defeat this tendency with respect to humans’ use of fossil fuels, I don’t see any way that we can defeat this tendency for the long term.

Considering all of these issues, it does not appear that most of the “standard” solutions will really work. What other options do we have?

Related: Ensuring Sustainable Development Is A Matter Of Human Decency: Jeffrey Sachs

Related: Bring Sustainable Development Back into Mainstream Economics!
Nature’s Solution

The Earth has been handling the problem of shifting conditions for over 4 billion years. The earth is a finite system. Nature provides that finite systems, such as the Earth, will cycle to new states of equilibrium over time, as conditions change. While we would like to defeat Earth’s tendency in this regard, it is not at all clear that we can. Part of this cycling to a new state is likely to be a change in climate.

A state change is a cause for concern to humans, but not necessarily to the Earth itself. The Earth has moved from state to state many times in its existence, and will continue to do so in the future. The changes will bring the Earth back into a new equilibrium. For example, if CO2 levels are high, species that can make use of higher CO2 levels (such as plants) are likely to become dominant, rather than humans.

Exactly how this state change might occur is subject to different views. One view is that changing CO2 levels will be a primary driver. The Nature article referenced previously suggested that increased disturbance of natural ecosystems (as with greater use of biomass) might force a state change. My personal view is that a financial collapse related to high oil price may be part of Nature’s approach to moving to a new state. It could bring about a reduction in world trade, a scale back in CO2 emissions, and a general contraction of human systems.

However the change takes place, it could be abrupt. It will not be to many people’s liking, since most will not be prepared for it.
Steps That Might Work to Slow CO2 Emissions

It would be convenient if we could slow CO2 emissions by working to produce energy with less CO2. This option does not seem to be working well though, so I would argue that we need to work in a different direction: toward reducing humans’ need for external energy. In order to do this, I would suggest two major steps:

(1) Reduce the world’s population, through one-child policies and universal access to family planning services. This step is necessary because rising population adds to demand. If we are to reduce demand, lower population needs to play a role.

(2) Change our emphasis to producing essential goods locally, rather than outsourcing them to parts of the world that are likely use coal to produce them. I would suggest starting with food, water, and clothing, and the supply chains necessary to produce these items.

Changing our emphasis to producing essential goods locally will have a multiple benefits. It will (a) add local jobs, and (b) lead to less worldwide growth in coal usage, (c) save on transport fuel, and (d) add protection against the adverse impact of declining world oil supply, if this should happen in the not too distant future. It should also help reduce CO2 emissions. The costs of goods will likely be higher using this approach, leading to less “stuff” per person, but this, too, is part of reaching reduced CO2 emissions.

Related: The Dangerous New Era Of Climate Change: Jeffrey Sachs

Related: Will Sustainable Development Become An Impossible Dream?

It is hard to see that the steps outlined above would be acceptable to world leaders or to the majority of world population. Thus, I am afraid we will end up falling back on Nature’s plan, discussed above.


[1] Michael Kumhof and Dirk Muir recently prepared a model of oil supply and demand (IMF working paper: Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures). In it, they assume a long run price-elasticity of oil supply of 0.03, and remark that a paper by Benes and others indicates a range of 0.005 to 0.02 for this variable. The long term price elasticity of oil demand is assumed to be .08 in the Kumhof and Muir analysis.

[2] I would argue that standard EROEI measurements are defined too narrowly to give a true measure of the amount of energy used in making a particular substitute. For example, EROEI measures do not consider the energy costs associated with labor (even though workers spend their salaries on clothing, and commuting costs, and many other good and services that use fossil fuels), or with financing costs, or of indirect impacts like wear and tear on the roads by transporting corn for biofuel.

Other types of analysis have ways of dealing with this known shortfall. For example, when the number of jobs that a new employer can be expected to add to a community is evaluated, the usual approach seems to be to take the number of jobs that can be directly counted and multiply by three, to estimate the full impact. I would argue that with substitutes, some similar adjustment is needed. This adjustment which would act to increase the energy use associated with renewables, and reduce the EROEI. For example, the adjustment might divide directly calculated EROEI by three.

A calculation of the true net benefit of renewables also needs to recognize that nearly the full energy cost is paid up front, and only over time is recovered in energy production. When renewable production is growing rapidly, society tends to be in a long-term deficit position. Typically, it is only as growth slows that society reaches as net-positive energy position.

[3] I obviously have not covered all potential solutions. Nuclear power is sometimes mentioned, as is space solar power. There are new solutions being proposed regularly. Even if these solutions would work, ramping them up would take time and require use of fossil fuels, so it is wise to consider other options as well.

[4] The way that limited oil supply could interfere with world trade is as follows: High oil prices cause consumers to cut back on discretionary goods. This leads to layoffs in discretionary sectors of the economy, such as vacation travel. It also leads to secondary effects, such as debt defaults and lower housing prices. The financial effects “concentrate up” to governments of oil importing nations, because they receive less tax revenue from laid-off workers at the same time that they pay out more in unemployment benefits, stimulus, and bank bailouts. (We are already at this point.)

Eventually, countries will find that deficit spending is spiraling out of control. If countries raise taxes and cut benefits, this is likely to lead to more lay offs and debt defaults. One possible outcome is that citizens will become increasingly unhappy, and replace governments with new governments that repudiate old debt. The new governments may have difficulty establishing financial relationships with other governments, given that most are major debt defaulters. Such issues could reduce world trade substantially. With the drop of world trade would come much more limited ability to maintain our current systems, such as electricity and long distance transport.

By Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg is a trained casualty actuary who writes about the impact of the limited supply of oil. She speaks internationally about oil issues, and writes frequently about the issue on her blog, Our Finite World and on The Oil Drum (where she is an editor). Tverberg is also a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society and a Member of the American Academy of Actuaries. She has a Masters Degree in Mathematics from the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work is republished with permission from Our Finite World.

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Green growth or de-growth: What is the best way to stop businesses destroying the biosphere?

David Smith
Green growth or de-growth: What is the best way to stop businesses destroying the biosphere?

An English journalist who, when he’s not exploring the social consequences of political actions,

The world’s major 3,000 corporations are responsible for a third of global environmental damage, but economists are divided in their views of how to stop them polluting. Some say government regulation, allied to promoting the business case, is the answer. But other experts say we need a new type of capitalism, which allows our economies to stop growing, or even to shrink.

A study by London-based consultancy Trucost has shown that the world’s top 3,000 public companies are responsible for a third of all global environmental damage.

Related Story: Capitalism’s Pallbearers: The Companies That Run, & Could Destroy, The Global Economy

The figure they came up with was US$2.2 trillion (£1.4 trillion) for 2008, more than the national economies of all but seven countries. Over half of the cost was caused by emissions of greenhouse gases. The other major causes of damage were air pollution, and the over-use and pollution of freshwater.

Richard Mattison, the Trucost Chief Executive Officer, said:

We monetised the damage to give people an idea of the scale of the problem. If we said to business leaders they were emitting million of tonnes of carbon, they wouldn’t know if that was a lot, whereas they understand money and so it communicates the core message.

Trucost produced an even more cataclysmic prognosis for 2050, by which time annual environmental damage from water and air pollution, greenhouse gases, general waste and depleted resources could be US$28.6 trillion.

A significant portion of the US$2.2 trillion figure has been self-inflicted by big corporations who will increasingly have to pay to repair the damage caused by natural disasters. The scale and frequency of these disasters is partly a result of greenhouse gas emissions from those selfsame big corporations.

There are many recent examples of the effects of freak weather on the world economy. Massive floods in Pakistan and China forced the global cotton price to 15-year highs, pushing up the costs of clothes at retailers such as Primark, Next and H&M. Meanwhile, droughts and wildfires in Russia sent wheat prices soaring, which had a sharp knock-on effect on the price of bread, and other foods.

Trucost’s research shows how the profits of the world’s largest companies will come under increasing pressure from resource scarcity and unpredictable price hikes, undermining their share price growth. It is precisely these major companies that pension funds invest in.

Related Infographic: Why Green Products Are Not As Green As They Claim To Be

Although Mattison argues that putting a price on biosphere damage helps to persuade companies to take action, some economists disagree. Peter Victor, at York University in Toronto, and author of Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, says the numbers are meaningless to most people.

We say 20 trillion dollars by 2050, but how many people can understand a trillion? Most shrug their shoulders and say ‘so what?’ Billions, or trillions, what’s the difference? We are still playing the same game of measuring everything in economic terms and once you do that everything is tradeable. If we lose 20 trillion dollars by damaging the environment, well, we’ll become a 100 trillion economy then. It’s no big deal. Of course it’s more than a big deal. It’s the deal, he said.

Professor Victor says we need a new narrative about environmental damage which gets the message across more powerfully than figures.

Putting it in monetary terms is not enough to change minds. It needs the input of artists and communicators as much as scientists, to tell the story in a new way, he said.

As long ago as the 1960s, Professor Victor concluded that the constant quest for economic growth would lead inexorably to environmental catastrophe. He began to produce economic models which are not predicated on growth, but are steady-state, or even shrinking. His influential models have been emulated by environmental economists around the world.

But the idea of no-growth economies is far too radical for the leaders of the major world powers. The official line of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) remains that environmental damage can be contained with a “green growth” strategy, rather than a de-growth strategy.

Related: Climate Change Poses Major Threat to Cambodia’s Rural Poor

Trucost are operating for the most part within the same economic paradigm as the OECD. Their CEO, Mattison, presents the environmental debate as an opportunity for savvy businesses to gain a competitive advantage. As environmental damage worsens, he says, governments will apply more stringently the polluter-pays principle to regulation. As a result, investors and businesses will face higher insurance premiums, higher green taxes, rising resource prices and increases in clean-up costs. The figure equates to 6-7% of the companies’ combined turnover, a third of profits.

So businesses face a stark choice, Mattison says. Either they take the long-term view now and plan for a radically different near future, or the decisions will be forced upon them. Clearly it is better for the environment if they make the changes now.

There is a massive opportunity for innovative businesses. There are a number of ways they can gain an advantage. For many companies, it’s a purely capitalist argument that they can gain business, or reduce costs, or encourage investment, by being greener, he said.

Mattison says there are many major companies who have understood the agenda, such as the sport and leisure group Puma. The German company became the first global corporation to publish details of its impact on the environment.

Puma used Trucost analysis to work out that the combined cost of the carbon it emitted and the water it used in 2010 was €94.4 million. The company set a target of reducing by 25% its carbon, waste, energy and water use by 2015. Puma’s outsourced processes, such as embroidering and printing, are now subject to the same environmental standards as its own manufacturing processes.

Puma chief executive Jochen Zeitz said: “The business implications of failing to address nature in decision-making are clear. Since ecosystem services are vital to the performance of most companies, integrating the true cost for these services in the future could have significant impacts on corporate bottom lines.”

Another company which has pledged to reduce its environmental impact is Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer. The US giant will cut 20 million tons of carbon pollution from its supply chain over the next five years. The sum is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 3.8 million cars.

The knock-on effects of Walmart’s decision are enormous because of the scale if its operations. It has more than 8,400 superstores in 15 countries and employs over two million people. In 2009, it had sales of $405 billion.

The influence of Walmart’s decision on thousands of companies worldwide could be greater than national policy-making, said Mattison. “Walmart, for instance, makes up 10% of Chinese exports to the US. Walmart’s decision will force behaviour change right down the supply chain. Chinese companies which don’t respond to key questions around water, waste, carbon emissions and energy consumption, won’t supply Walmart any more. This shows how business can be a force for change.”

Walmart’s enlightened approach was, of course, influenced by its long-term financial goals. “Walmart has said it’s ‘following the carbon to get to the cash’, which is a very capitalist argument,” said Mattison. “One of the biggest pluses for Walmart is they can attract more investors with greener policies. It was pressure from investors to be greener that actually made them change their policies in the first place. Lots of major pension funds are now considering which companies are the most environmental before investing.”

Walmart is controlling its own destiny, but many major companies have been overtaken by events. They have been forced to take steps to avoid the impending degradation to the biosphere, or avoid damaging their reputation, which could prove costly as public awareness of green issues grows.

Related Infographic: The Walmart Economy

Water is one of the major issues faced by global corporations. The UN predicts water shortages for 1.8 billion people by 2025. Unilever, for example, has taken action to secure the water supply to its tea plantations in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The local population has chopped down large sections of the Mau Forest, which impacts on water gathering. To compensate, the company has spent $475,000 over 10 years planting more than a million indigenous trees. Similarly, the brewing giant SABMiller has made major investments in reforestation in Columbia and South Africa, and set tough targets for reducing water consumption.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest carmaker, is investing $430,000 in re-planting forests and digging rain water pits to secure the water supply to its factory in Puebla, Mexico. And ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer, has invested almost $2.1 million since 2006 on restoring the ecosystems surrounding America’s Great Lakes which supply water to nine of its facilities.

The French energy group GDF Suez has invested in conserving biodiversity on its landfill sites as part of its “reputational risk management”.

Clearly, many major companies have the foresight to take environmental issues into account. But the authors of a second report into biodiversity loss, the UN’s Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, don’t believe the companies will collectively do enough unless forced to do so.

The authors of the report, which estimated the annual global economic impact of biodiversity loss at between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion, said too few firms took green issues seriously enough. In one section, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) calculated that fewer than one in five firms saw biodiversity as an important business issue, while just two of the world’s largest 100 companies managed it as a strategic risk.

Report lead author Pavan Sukhdev argues that governments need to force businesses to address biodiversity loss. He told The Guardian newspaper: “We have created soulless corporations that do not have any innate reason to be ethical about anything. The purpose of a corporation is to be selfish. That is law. So it’s up to society, and its leaders and thinkers, to design the checks and balances that are needed to ensure that the corporation does not simply become cancerous, and that’s something that sometimes we do and sometimes we really don’t.”

But Professor Victor remains unconvinced that government legislation, allied to company self-regulation, is enough to sufficiently restrain the impact on the biosphere if we continue to operate within the parameters of modern-day capitalism.

We are moving towards more global institutions which control the damage, and that is a necessary thing, but the primary purpose of businesses is still economic growth and expansion, particularly in rich countries. This won’t help the environment at all, he said. “Growth is the common driver of many bad trends in capitalism so we need to re-think what our economic and social policies should be. Thinking along these lines is what led me to model economies based on zero growth, or even de-growth.”

The battle against climate change illustrates the attractiveness of his strategy. According to Professor Victor’s model, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG) by 80% over 50 years, an economy that increases its real gross domestic product (GDP) by 3% a year must reduce its emissions intensity by the huge margin of 6% a year. For an economy that does not grow, the annual cut would be a still challenging 3.2%.

His model looked at what could happen if the Canadian economy were not growing. “I asked if we could have reduced greenhouse gases, no poverty, full employment and fiscal balance without growth. And my computer model showed that you can,” he said.

Related Story: How Did Canada Turn Its Debt Crisis Around In 6 Years, 20 Years Ago?

A key ingredient of the model was a shorter working year, which spreads employment around. The benefits of greater productivity can thus be directed towards more leisure time, rather than increasing GDP. “Then we can have higher employment rather than keeping expanding the capacity of the economy and putting pressure on the biosphere,” he said.

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Professor Victor rejects the belief that tinkering with the current capitalist system is an adequate strategy. “If we remain short-termist we are done for. The world where the environment seems infinite is no longer there. We’re bumping up against the limits. We need to think longer term about how we will accommodate nine billion by middle of the century,” he said.

“We need new ideas, and one thing which makes me hopeful is the changes at grassroots level, such as the spread of Transition Towns. It’s never enough and we do need regulatory framework, but the government frameworks could follow the initiatives of the public. The onus is on older folk to be open to new ideas and not dismiss them as hopeless idealism,” he said.”

What Obama should do now: Tackle climate change

Step up, Mr. President: No more worries about reelection. Now you can tackle those issues that you said had to wait for your second term. Outlook has given you a head start on how to address immigration, climate change, banking reform and racial inequality.

It will be painfully easy to tell if President Obama is going to take a serious stab at doing something about climate change in his second term: The purest, starkest test he faces will be the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Last fall, his stance on the Keystone project exemplified his waffling and contradictory climate policy. Faced with a solid front of the nation’s foremost Earth scientists explaining that tapping Canada’s tar sands for oil was a climate disaster, and confronting the biggest in-the-streets environmental movement in decades, the president delayed for a year a decision on whether to grant the required border-crossing permit. That put the northern portion of the pipeline on hold until after the election, but it allowed construction of the southern half to go forward — accompanied by civil-disobedience protests in East Texas.

And what’s happened in the intervening 12 months? America has gone through the hottest year in its history, with an epic drought that raised world grain prices 40 percent; the Arctic continued to melt at such a shocking rate that NASA scientist James Hansen declared it a “planetary emergency”; and Hurricane Sandy washed ashore with one of the lowest barometric pressures ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras. As the cover of that radical rag Bloomberg Businessweek put it in large letters: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Meanwhile, activists on the Canadian side have robbed the administration of the only real argument for proceeding with Keystone: They’ve rallied to effectively stop construction of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia coast, meaning that the tar sands tycoons can’t simply send their oil off to China by some other route.

Those oil barons, certain they will prevail, have kept pouring money into Washington. Just last month, a New York Times profile of a presidential confidante, Anita Dunn, revealed that her lobbying firm was on the Keystone payroll. In other words, in Washington terms, the pipeline is still wired. One oil executive, the morning after Tuesday’s election, was quoted as saying, “We expect it will be approved.”

If that happens, it will mean the president doesn’t understand that his legacy requires dealing with climate change — and that dealing with climate change requires leaving carbon in the ground. There are lots of other actions that will be necessary, too: A serious tax on carbon, for instance, has long been the sine qua non of real progress. But that requires getting House Majority Leader John Boehner and the House Republicans on board.

The truth is, we’ve got to do it all, and it will be hard, harder than anything else the administration is considering, since it runs straight up against the richest industry on Earth.

Maybe the president was being serious when he promised in his victory speech, to one of the loudest cheers, an “America not threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Maybe he understands that we’re ready for action — exit polling showed that 42percent of Americans said the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was an important factor in their choice. If so — if he really gets that this is the legacy issue of all legacy issues, one that stretches out into geologic time — then he’ll listen to the scientists and not the lobbyists. Keystone is his first best chance to help keep serious quantities of carbon out of the atmosphere.

That pipeline, if built, will carry the same amount of oil saved by his auto mileage standards. If it’s approved, it will mean, for those of us who care about the environment, that his second term canceled out the one best thing done in his first. If he blocks it, he will emerge as a true champion, with an inspired movement behind him ready to take on the next, even harder, battles.


Bill McKibben, an author who has written extensively on environmental issues, is the Schumann distinguished scholar at Middlebury College and the founder of 350.org, a climate-change advocacy campaign.