PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 28 April 2019

The United Nations, The Lancet, Australia21 and Extinction Rebellion all, in their various ways, reckon that the environment and human health are going to hell in a handbasket while oil and gas companies invest big to ensure that we don’t run out of fossil fuel energy to get us there. Reassuringly, the majority of Australians want strong government action to tackle climate change and other environmental problems. But how many politicians are listening?

In March the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published the sixth Global Environmental Outlook: Healthy Planet, Healthy People. It paints a miserable picture of the state of the environment, the implications for economic prosperity and human health and wellbeing, and the time available for corrective action. The first point of the Key Messages document sums it up well: ‘… the overall environmental situation is deteriorating globally and the window for action is closing.’ You name it – greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, biodiversity loss, marine plastics, land degradation, natural resources, freshwater, oceans, antibiotic resistant infections, harmful chemicals in the land, water and air – the situation is bad and deteriorating, especially for disadvantaged and vulnerable populations.

A follow up paper in The Lancet ranks biodiversity as the most damaged domain of the earth system, followed by the air, oceans, freshwater and finally the land. Emphasis is, however, placed on the possibility of synergistic interactions across the different domains and the likelihood of crossing multiple tipping points such that the earth’s health deteriorates with increasing speed, with devastating consequences for human health. The authors call for policymakers to ‘… fundamentally change the pathway of human economic and social development towards ensuring a healthier planet and healthier people’. What the authors regard as fundamental change is left hanging. (The figure in this paper, reproduced from the UNEP report, is depressing but worth viewing.)

Unconnected with, but very relevant to, the UNEP and Lancet reports, Australia21, an independent think-tank focusing on solutions to ‘wicked problems’, has produced five 15-25 minute podcasts exploring the linkages between ten existential threats to humanity: climate change, human population growth, food insecurity, ecosystem destruction, resource depletion, threat of nuclear war, uncontrolled technology and artificial intelligence, global poisoning, pandemic diseases and the self-delusion that we can somehow escape the consequences of our actions. The developers suggest that listeners organise small groups to discuss the issues and formulate responses to ‘The Five Big Questions’. Pearls & Irritations would be interested to receive articles of up to 1000 words based on any group discussions.

Oil and gas companies, led by ExxonMobil (remember last week’s story about their lobbying in the EU) and Shell, are planning to spend US$4.9 trillion to develop new fields, mostly for oil. Without this investment the supplies of oil and gas will (desirably in my view) plummet as existing wells dry up over the next 30 years; and so will the value of the companies and their shareholders’ stock. But with the investment, production will increase above current levels. Inevitably, the proposed oil and gas field developments are incompatible with keeping global warming under 1.5oC. Interestingly, the natural decline of production levels from existing oil and gas fields just about matches the trajectory required to stand a chance of staying below 1.5oC. Global Witness, who authored the report into oil and gas company plans, recommends that investors should require the companies to explain how each proposed capital expenditure to develop a new field is aligned with the Paris goals – if for no other reason than to protect their own investments. Droll amusement might be obtained from the on line comments in response to a Financial Times article on this report: ‘What about coal? … and cows? Gas has lower emissions than coal. We need to control demand, not supply. Climate action is too costly. Oil has done so much good,’ etc. (You will need to Google ‘Big Oil’s $5tn investment is incompatible with the Paris deal’ to access the FT article.)

In a ray (well, maybe just a single photon) of good news for the environment this week, the Australia Institute has published the results of a survey in February and March of 1,536 Australians about their attitudes to climate change and other environmental issues. And what do you know, people want action:

Stop logging native forests                               75% agree (vs 12% disagree)

Strong govt. action to reduce emissions        69% agree (vs 16%)

Rapid transition to renewable energy            67% agree (vs 19%)

National electric transport system                 62% agree (vs 16%)

No new coal mines                                             53% agree (vs 29%)

No new coal, oil or gas exploration                49% agree (vs 31%)

Extinction Rebellion has been grabbing the public’s attention in the UK – not so much here. The British Rebels are demanding three things of their government: to tell the truth and declare a climate and ecological emergency; to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025; and to create a citizens’ assembly to lead on climate issues. For a funny-angry perspective, have a look at this 4-minute video by Jonathan Pie (language warning BTW).


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3 Responses to PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 28 April 2019

  1. Andrew Glikson says:

    The text should read:
    “1. Just about every country which has acquired or developed nuclear power stations ended up developing nuclear weapons, which pose as great a danger for civilization as does global warming”

  2. Andrew Glikson says:

    Resposne to Dallas Lane:
    1, Just about every country which or developed nuclear power stations evded up developing nuclear weapons, which pose as great a danger for civilization as global warming.
    2. Due to human error combined with natural disasters (which are increasing with climate change) large regions in the Ukraine, Belaruss, Japan and other parts fo the Earth (where nuclear experiments were conducted) are now heavily radiactive, with no prospect of near future human habitation.
    3. Due to the ever present human error factor “safe” nuclear technology can not be achieved.

    A. In the region around Chernobyl, more than 5 million people may have been exposed to excess radiation, mainly through contamination by iodine-131 and cesium isotopes. Although exposure to nuclear-reactor fallout does not cause acute illness, it may elevate long-term cancer risks…1.0..0.279.7730.0j38j5….3..0….1..gws-wiz…..6..35i39j0i131j0j0i3.Tjfn3JIHhcU

    B. Three and a half years after a massive tsunami triggered the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, researchers are beginning to understand the far-reaching extent of the disaster. Increased rates of thyroid cancer in young people, risks of further contamination through clean-up procedures, genetic mutations in flora and fauna, and social issues in nearby cities plague the still-ravaged area. Medical tests show 57 of the 300,000 children who lived near the plant at the time of the meltdown have thyroid cancer, a disease often caused by radiation exposure. Another 47 are suspected of having it, newspaper The Asahi Shimbun reported. Those statistics are frightening considering thyroid cancer usually affects 1.7 per 100,000 Japanese teens annually. Final figures may be much higher because thyroid cancer often develops slowly. After the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, the number of young people diagnosed with thyroid cancer did not rise until four years later.

  3. Dallas Lane says:

    I am frustrated that while many articles continue to warn off the dire consequences of fossil fuel use and their promotion of renewable energy, while they continue to ignore or oppose nuclear power.
    Nuclear power has operated safely in many countries for 50 years with old LWR technology. The two major accidents resulted in little loss of life and the safety radiation standards applied were 1000 time that applied to the medical profession.

    We have now arrived at a situation where we are dependant on fossil fuels, and I blame the green movement for their short sighted and uninformed opposition to nuclear power.
    While I applaud the development in solar and wind power, I suspect it is a trivial contribution in the big picture.
    I fear we will still need to mine for coal, drill for oil and frack for gas to satisfy the growing word demand for energy.

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