Environment: Global climate report and watery thingsJun 11, 2022
The global climate in 2021 was not looking good, nor were dams, rivers, the Reef or seagrass.
State of the Global Climate 2021
Every year the World Meteorological Organization issues ‘State of the Global Climate’, an authoritative report covering the latest global climate indicators, the year’s high impact events (heatwaves, floods, droughts and the like) and assessments of risks and impacts (e.g. food security, population displacement, effects on ecosystems). The 2021 edition confirms current problems and future risks:
- Atmospheric concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) continued to increase with no suggestion of slowing rates. CO2 is now 50 per cent higher and methane is 160 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels;
- The global mean temperature was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the average for 1850-1900. La Niña made the 2021 average a little lower than some recent years but the last seven years are the hottest on record;
- The global mean sea level rose by 4.5mm per year between 2015 and 2021 and is now at a record high. This is caused by the expansion of water as ocean temperatures rise and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets on land;
- Ocean acidification continued to increase. However, the oceans absorb less CO2 from the air as the water temperature increases, which is good, or at least less bad, news for marine life but very bad news for global warming;
- The Antarctic ozone hole was deeper and larger than 70 per cent of holes since 1979;
- North America and the Mediterranean experienced record-breaking heatwaves, while …
- … severe flooding affected Henan province in China and Western Europe, causing loss of life and large economic losses, and …
- … drought affected many parts of the world including North and South America, southern Africa and a belt from Turkey to Pakistan, and …
- … severe weather events caused massive internal displacements in China, Vietnam and the Philippines;
- The combined effects of conflict, extreme weather events, economic shocks and Covid undermined food security globally.
If you don’t fancy reading the 57 page report, the WMO has produced an interactive online ‘storymap’ that summarises the results, and contains lots of pictures, graphs, 1-2 minute explanatory videos of various phenomena and quiz questions.
The WMO’s chilling assessment is that ‘We are on course to a temperature rise by the end of this century far above the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius’.
Hydroelectric: renewable but not green
There are a staggering 60,000 large dams around the world and another 3,700 are planned or under construction, over 500 in protected areas. Hydroelectric power is often presented as an essential part of the transition to clean energy; it currently provides three-quarters of all renewable energy.
But hydro isn’t environmentally green or clean. Dams emit greenhouse gases: 1.3 per cent of global emissions annually. Some hydroelectric plants are responsible for as much greenhouse gas as an equivalent coal-fired power station. It’s not the mechanics themselves that produce the emissions, it’s the rotting vegetation in the dam behind the wall. Dams also change the flow of the river and destroy ecosystems, endanger fish species by interrupting migration and spawning cycles, and disturb human communities’ physical and spiritual attachment to the land.
Improvements are available: make hydro just one part of a suite of renewable energy sources; implement better planning and environmental assessment of proposed dams; retrofit existing dams rather than build new ones; and remove existing dams wherever possible to allow the river to flow freely again.
For a fuller description of the effects of dams, invest 9 minutes in viewing ‘What are the true costs of damming a river?’.
Industrial river pollution in India
The picture above shows chemical waste being pumped directly into the Ajnar river in India but industries also dump waste in fields and pits which drain into rivers and wells, even long after factories have ceased to be operational. Needless to say, this results in polluted water supplies with consequences for agriculture and human health and livelihoods. This corporate behaviour is disgraceful but it’s neither surprising nor isolated and prompts me to make two comments:
- While climate change is the most pressing environmental issue, even were we to reach net zero in the next two or three decades there are many other catastrophic environmental problems that must be tackled simultaneously if we are to achieve a sustainable environment that supports rather than undermines good human health.
- We in rich countries have little to be proud of. We may have cleaned up many of the sources of pollution of our own land, air, rivers and oceans over the last 70 years but the historical record shows us to have been no better than India and 70 years isn’t that long ago. Plus, we are far from perfect now. We still have many sources of pollution that we need to clean up (see next story for one example). Also, problems such as the one depicted in the photograph above may predominantly occur in developing countries these days but the companies responsible are often part of multinational conglomerates with their HQs in London and New York, and the products of the industrial processes leading to such pollution are mostly exported to and consumed in the West. Rich nations are complicit in fouling the environment of developing nations.
Two stories about seagrass.
In 2021, more than 1,100 manatees in waters around Florida died; so far this year 562 deaths have been recorded. Over half the deaths were due to starvation and malnutrition arising from the loss of seagrass, their staple food. Nutrient run-off from the land and leaking septic tanks cause algal blooms which destroy the seagrass meadows and in some cases poison the manatees. Algal blooms are likely to increase as global warming increases. Manatees are particularly sensitive to cold and they have learnt to gather in winter near the warm water outflow pipes of power stations. In an odd quirk, these cosy refuges will disappear as renewable energy takes over. Legal action has been taken to force the US Fish and Wildlife Service to improve the manatees’ habitat over the next two years.
Nutrient overload, algal growth, death of seagrass and loss of vital marine breeding grounds and carbon storage is also a problem in Australia. The salmon farming industry is a major pollutant of the waters around Tasmania. No prizes for guessing which is the healthy seagrass meadow below or for matching one photo with the manatee’s dinner plate above.
Labor and the Great Barrier Reef
If you missed it, I thoroughly recommend the analysis in Wednesday’s P&I by Imogen Zethoven of Labor’s current emissions reduction target, the diminishing chance of global warming staying under 1.5oC, the truly disastrous consequences of even 1.5 degrees on the Great Barrier Reef, and the deliberations of the World Heritage Committee on listing the Reef as In Danger.
Imogen’s article was focused on Australia’s domestic emissions. What she didn’t refer to were the emissions we export when we send our coal and gas overseas. Even if Labor finds a politically acceptable way to bump up and bring forward our domestic emissions target, they still plan to keep developing gas fields and coal mines and maximising the export revenue for as long as possible. As long as this continues, the short-sighted selfishness of the current crop of Australians is storing up misery, illness and premature death for future generations worldwide. And leading to the almost complete loss of the Great Barrier Reef. There’s no point in Australia signing up to phasing out fossil fuels in Glasgow and promoting their expansion in Canberra.
Pete the platypus protector
Even if you don’t read the text, brighten up your day by watching the three 30-second videos of platypuses surviving against all the odds in the Hobart Rivulet, or at least what used to be the Hobart Rivulet running from Mt Wellington to the Derwent but is now little more than a concrete sewer/stormwater drain for much of its course.