Environment: It’s a wonderful world …

Jan 29, 2023
Earth Thermometer, Global warming Image:iStock

… as Louis Armstrong famously croaked. Well, perhaps: The temperature’s going up. The rich are getting richer. Wetlands are disappearing. Gas is officially green.

2022 sixth hottest on record

It’s hard not to keep telling the same old stories but keeping an eye on the global temperature is rather like keeping an eye on your blood pressure. When something crucial to your welfare is going out of control, it’s important to measure it regularly to see what’s happening. And managing global warming is just like managing high blood pressure: if you don’t take corrective measures, it’ll keep going up and up.

The 2022 average across the globe was 0.86oC higher than the 20th century average – that’s the 20th century note, not the pre-industrial period. And remember that La Niña was dominant in 2021 and 2022. If, as predicted, we’re moving into an El Niño phase we can expect there to be a marked increase in the global average temperature in the next couple of years. The graph below very clearly demonstrates that over the last 70 years during El Niños (red) the temperature goes up, and during La Niñas (blue) it goes down.

Never in the field of human conflict, er, conservation …

The enormous greenhouse gas emissions generated by billionaires’ personal consumption habits (particularly their private yachts and jets) has attracted attention in recent years. For instance, the total emissions of twenty prominent billionaires was estimated to be 164,000 tons of CO2e in 2018, ranging from a massive 1,800 tons (Michael Bloomberg) to an absolutely ginormous 31,000 tons (Roman Abramovich), with no correlation between the billionaires’ wealth and their emissions. For comparison, the poorest 90% of people are responsible for about 2.8 tons per person per year. For the poorest 10% it’s more like 0.1-0.2 tons per person per year.

But the emissions associated with the daily habits of the super-rich pale into insignificance (well, not really but you know what I mean) if you examine the emissions associated with their investments. Then you find that the investments of 125 of the richest billionaires are associated with over 3 million tons of CO2e per person per year – many millions of times higher than the poorest 10%. Collectively, the annual investment-related emissions of those 125 billionaires’ are about the same as the annual emissions of the whole of France (around 390 million tons).

Even more alarmingly, that 3 million tons per billionaire per year is no doubt an underestimate as the calculations (1) are reliant on the voluntary and self-confessed emissions data of the companies receiving the billionaires’ investments, and (2) consider only scope 1 and 2 emissions. Scope 3 emissions, which are generally about four times higher, are not included.

Of course, not yet being a member of the billionaire club, it’s amusing for me to toss a few stones into their glasshouses but the actual point of Oxfam’s analysis is that it highlights both the potential of billionaires (and even small investors) to influence the environmental practices of the companies they invest in (à la Mike Cannon-Brookes) and the responsibility of governments to act on the egregious, increasing, persistent and extremely harmful inequalities in wealth and power.

Bloomberg’s six climate breakthroughs of 2022

Talking of the ex-Mayor of New York, despite last year’s climate induced catastrophes, the never-ending climate policy shilly-shallying of governments, the greenwashing by the private sector, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions even after 30 years of international climate negotiations, Bloomberg has identified six ‘encouraging developments’ during the year:

  1. Biden’s US$374 billion climate action package (the incongruously named Inflation Reduction Act) was passed by Congress despite looking dead in the water;
  2. The European Union’s 27 members agreed to establish a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism that will tax imports to the EU from countries that have not put a price on carbon;
  3. Agreement by 195 nations at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Canada (COP15) to protect and restore at least 30% of the Earth’s land and water area by 2030. Rich nations also agreed to pay US$30 billion per year by 2030 to poorer nations to help them with the task;
  4. At the better-known climate COP meeting in Egypt (COP27), the world’s wealthy countries finally agreed to establish a loss and damage fund (details still to be negotiated) to help poorer nations deal with the human, social, financial and infrastructure damages already being caused to them by climate change;
  5. The election of more climate-friendly governments in Australia and Brazil and reestablishment of cooperation on climate action by the USA and China;
  6. Increasing international support for reducing methane emissions.

According to Bloomberg, from these developments emerged ‘a clear pathway of climate hope’, which I suppose is pretty much what I’d say if my business depended on generating widespread optimism so that financial markets keep making lots of money for people who already have lots.

The history of wetlands is the history of their destruction’

Over the break I read Annie Proulx’s paean to the world’s greatly diminished and still disappearing peatlands (or wetlands). Proulx is a nature-lover rather than a naturalist and principally a writer of fiction (The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, for example), so, while ‘Fen, Bog and Swamp. A short history of peatland destruction and its role in the climate crisis’ is jam-packed with facts about peatlands (for instance, despite their enormous losses, peatlands still cover about 3% of global land area), it is not in the style of similar laments for the loss of nature written by scientists, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for instance.

The core of the book consists of three chapters focusing on the English fens, the bogs of northern Europe and the swamps of the USA. Each one discusses the formation, chemical and structural composition, natural history, incredible biodiversity, enormous carbon storing capacity, and destruction by drainage, pollution and now climate change of the area. Wetlands elsewhere (the Amazon, central Africa and SE Asia, for example) are by no means forgotten though and even Yellow Waters in the Kakadu gets a mention.

Blending well-researched science with stories of human physical and spiritual involvement with peatlands over the last 15,000 years, Proulx exercises her wordsmith’s light touch to present an informative and engaging read. The sections on bog bodies (including the ethics of putting human remains on public display), bogs and ill health, and the place of wetlands in the human psyche, ceremony, literature, art and war are particularly interesting. Not surprisingly, Proulx takes time to praise latter-day bogophiles and defenders and restorers of wetlands. (It’s worth noting in passing the Global Peatlands Initiative established by the UNFCCC in 2016.)

Proulx herself has been a wetland-lover since childhood and her outrage at not just the fact of but also the manner of their destruction is evident throughout, perhaps most pithily expressed when describing the loss of the Grand Kankakee March in Indiana, USA, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: ‘This scenario has been repeated the world over: swathes of fen, bog or swamp are deemed too wet for agriculture and the cry goes up that for the public good it must be drained. But new lands then usually became the property of developers and big agriculturists or ranchers – public good neatly sidestepped.’

For the most part, Proulx’s literary style makes Fen, Bog and Swamp an extremely instructive but easy read (especially as it’s fewer than 200 pages). There are, however, occasions when her novelist’s imagination invokes the mystical or the supernatural beyond what I personally appreciate in non-fiction. Even in fiction I’ve never been a fan of dream sequences or the magic realism genre.

Minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed the read and have made a list of wetlands around the world mentioned by Proulx that I’d like to visit whenever I’m in their vicinity.

Clean, green gas

It goes without saying that everything’s better in the USA, even, it seems, natural gas. According to Troy Balderson, US Republican Senator, ‘It’s green. It’s clean. And it’s abundant right under our feet, right here in Ohio. Natural gas is America’s most affordable, and reliable green energy source’. How does the Senator know gas is green? Because the Ohio state legislature has passed a bill to legally define natural gas as a source of ‘green energy’.

Ohio is the first success for The Empowerment Alliance (TEA) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), ‘dark money’ groups with links to the gas industry that are working to roll out similar misleading, ‘Orwellian’, definitions in the laws of other energy-rich US states such as Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. According to a TEA spokesperson, if it’s cleaner than coal, it’s green. Simple.

Price of lithium

I’m sure I don’t need to provide any explanation of the importance of the availability and affordability of lithium for the energy transition. Between early 2021 and November 2022 the Chinese benchmark price of lithium (in RMBs) increased more than ten-fold. It has fallen a little since then but is still very high by historical standards. The supply of lithium is expected to increase by about 30% this year but demand, especially for EVs, will also increase, so it will be interesting to see what happens to the price.

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