Environment: Can capitalism deliver the future we want?

Jun 25, 2022
A word cloud featuring
Image: Flickr / EpicTop10.com

We need to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions, not just CO2. Solar and wind slowly replacing coal as Australia’s source of electricity. Sydney and Canberra middle of the pack for sustainability.

Need to tackle all greenhouse gases, not just CO2

Most of the media coverage, national policy commitments, international agreements, IPCC reports, strategies and public debate to reduce global warming concentrate on reducing CO2 emissions – i.e. decarbonising industry, private consumption, the economy and society in general. In part this is because CO2 is viewed as the most significant greenhouse gas; in part it’s because 2100 has been the target date to control global warming.

No one (well, almost no one) wants to diminish efforts to reduce CO2 emissions or control global warming in the longer term (say, more than 25 years). However, there is a danger that by ignoring the other greenhouse gases and the short term (i.e. the next 25 years) we will exacerbate global warming in the near future, trigger some irreversible Earth system tipping points and precipitate runaway global warming. This is for two reasons.

First, most of the other greenhouse gases are commonly referred to as ‘short lived climate pollutants’ (SLCPs) because they don’t remain in the atmosphere for the hundreds and thousands of years that characterises CO2. Methane, black carbon (or soot), fluorocarbons and ozone are the principal SCLPs. They may not hang around for centuries or millennia but they are potent contributors to global warming for the decades they are in the atmosphere and we are producing more and more of them. To date they have contributed almost half of the warming since the start of the industrial revolution. Paying insufficient attention to reducing them now will increase global warming in the short term.

Second, CO2 isn’t the only thing pumped into the air when we burn fossil fuels. Sulphate aerosols are also emitted and sulphates reflect incoming solar energy back into space. They reflect so much solar energy that if the sulphates weren’t there global warming would be about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than the current 1.1C – i.e. warming would already be 1.6C. If, it’s a big ‘if’ I agree, we manage to reduce the amount of fossil fuel we burn, we will reduce not only the CO2 emissions but also the sulphate emissions and as their level in the atmosphere falls to zero the 0.5 degrees of cooling will disappear and there’ll be a relatively rapid one-off increase in warming.

Taking all that into account, a new study shows that focusing only on reducing CO2 over the next 25 years is great for reducing warming, in the longer term but may lead to increased warming in the short term and could lead to warming exceeding 2 degrees by 2050. But if we combine mitigation of CO2 emissions with mitigation of SCLP emissions, especially methane and another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2O), global warming will be slowed more quickly than decarbonisation alone and breaching 2 degrees can be avoided. Indeed, strong attention to the CO2 and non-CO2 gases over the next 20 years could reduce the rate of warming between 2030 and 2050 by 50 per cent. The study authors conclude that comprehensive CO2 and targeted non-CO2 mitigation strategies are needed to tackle both near-term and long-term warming. Each approach is necessary, neither is sufficient on its own.

The study’s lead author sums up the situation neatly: ‘We have to win the sprint to slow warming in the near term by tackling the short-lived climate pollutants, so that we can stay in the race to win the marathon against CO2’.

Power sources during current energy problems

I don’t often cover articles in Renew Economy as I figure that most P&I readers who are interested in the details of Australia’s energy sector already read it. However, a recent article that looked at the current high price of electricity along the east coast contained two very interesting graphs about changes in the source of our electricity in recent years.

The first shows that coal is slowly but surely losing its dominance. Every year since 2017, during each of the first five months of the year coal has generated less electricity than in the same month the previous year (graph below). I have added the red lines to the graph to make it easier to see the yearly trends for each month.

The next graph shows the opposite trends for solar and wind generated electricity. Of course, more electricity is still generated from coal (mostly 10-13,000 GWh per month) than wind and solar (mostly 1.5-4,000 GWh per month) but the ratio is changing. In January 2017 coal generated roughly nine times as much electricity as wind and solar but in 2022 it was just over twice as much.

Sustainable Cities

Corporate Knights, a Canadian company that markets itself as ‘the voice for clean capitalism’, has rated and ranked the environmental sustainability credentials of 50 cities around the world. They used eleven indicators that can be quantified, covering, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, public open space, vehicle dependency, sustainable transport and waste, and one indicator focused on the city’s commitment to sustainable policies. The most sustainable six cities included five in Scandinavia and London. The top eleven cities were all in northern Europe, Canada and Japan. Of the eight cities in the USA, San Francisco at 16th was the highest ranked. China had the three worst cities, mainly due to their terrible air quality.

Only the City of Sydney, not the whole metropolitan area, and Canberra were included from Australia. On the six-point scale, Sydney (25th) did well (A ranking) on air quality and climate change resilience but otherwise scored Bs and Cs. Canberra (37th) scored top marks for access to drinkable water, climate change resilience and sustainability policies but went down badly (Ds) on air quality (surprising), sustainable transport and solid waste generation.

While examining and comparing the environmental sustainability of cities is worthwhile and the methods used here look to be reasonably objective, I can’t help wondering about an index that looks at only one quite small local government area in Greater Sydney and rates Sydney’s air as better than Canberra’s.

Can capitalism deliver the future we need?

Last Tuesday P&I republished an article by Ross Gittins from the previous day’s Sydney Morning Herald. Gittins is a strong supporter of capitalism but a repeated critic of many of its current practices. In this particular article he laments the ousting of free-market competitive capitalism by the currently prevalent predatory monopoly capitalism, and calls on our new PM to be ‘pro-market, not pro-business’. Gittins quotes Rod Sims, the former CEO of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, with great enthusiasm: I am a strong proponent of a market economy. All the alternatives do not work well. Further, our market economy has delivered significant benefits to all Australians. For it to endure, however, it needs improvement. Without this, it and our society will be under threat.’ Heaven forbid that capitalism should ever be under threat! And as for predicting that our society will be under threat, you’ve got the tense wrong, Rod. It is already suffering, right now.

Gittins and Sims follow the well-trodden path for capitalist disciples; those who support ‘green capitalism’, ‘capitalism with a human face’, and ‘well regulated, free-market capitalism’ or claim to be the voice of ‘clean capitalism’. But telling us what capitalism has achieved, that all the alternatives don’t work and that we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater seems to me to completely miss the point. We face many crises, of which climate change is the most serious and most urgent, and the only question that matters is oriented to the future not the past: can capitalism deliver an environmentally sustainable, democratic, socially just and equitable, peaceful world in which all 8-10 billion of us can enjoy a life with dignity? And even more critically, can it deliver net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the next couple of decades to stop the rot, rapidly followed by net below-zero emissions to start repairing the damage. If it can’t, it would be good to know that now so that we can find a different economic system quick smart. Otherwise, we’re simply going to continue to follow a path that leads to catastrophe because we haven’t got an alternative and we aren’t willing to admit that the current path cannot take us where we want to go. Better to put more effort now into finding a path that goes the whole way.

Sydney’s sea eagles incubating two eggs

You won’t get many chances to watch a sea eagle laying an egg but in this recording you can see her laying two, carefully watched by the expectant father. The eggs were laid about 3 days apart two weeks ago. To slow down the development of the first egg, the parents leave it uncovered for much of the time until the second egg is laid. You can follow the progress of the parents and eggs, which won’t hatch for another10 weeks or so, on the live streamed sea-eagle cam.

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