Environment: melodrama and tragedy worthy of the great storytellers

Dec 18, 2022
Red tailed black cockatoos in flight.

Hard times lie ahead. Are the Great Expectations of renewable energy, ocean-based removal of CO2 and protein from microbes justified?

Monbiot’s recipe for the future: ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’

I’ve regaled you with several articles and reports recently about the problems of industrial farming and the challenge of feeding ten billion people. In this 40 minute interview, George Monbiot argues very forcefully for a completely different approach – one that dramatically reduces the amount of land given over to agriculture. The crucial environmental commodity which we should be paying more attention to than any other environmental metric is land because every hectare of land we use for an extractive industry is a hectare not being used for wild ecosystems,’ is Monbiot’s starting point.

Invited to describe the problems besetting the world’s food system, Monbiot begins by asserting that the biggest crisis in the world food system is the world food system. Specifically, he highlights the highly industrialised processes for growing, processing, transporting and retailing crops and livestock that are concentrated in the hands of a few multinational companies, and the destruction of forests, grasslands and wetlands that this has caused. This has, of course, resulted in the loss all around the globe of vast swathes of wild ecosystems and degradation of the essential processes embedded within them that stabilise our environments.

In addition, there have been two consequences for climate change. First, the food system itself now produces about a third of all greenhouse gases annually. Second, the land converted from ‘wild’ to agriculture is no longer available to draw CO2 down from the atmosphere. The necessary response, says Monbiot, is a mass restoration of wild ecosystems … but how will we then produce the food the world needs?

In the second half of the interview, Monbiot describes what he sees as the answers. I won’t go into them in depth, you can listen to the man himself, but briefly he talks about complex systems needing complex ‘solutions’, the production of proteins by microbes using precision fermentation, regenerative agriculture, the development of crops that are perennials rather than annuals, distributed food production systems that are owned and run by the ‘the commons’ (local communities and governments), and greater regulation of capitalism.

Monbiot has a rather starry-eyed view of the post-WWII ‘green revolution’ and his thoughts lack any meaningful political economy analysis, but if you’re looking for a bit of cerebral stimulation over the holiday period, I thoroughly recommend listening to him. Or you could buy his book on the topic for your Christmas stocking.

At the very end, Monbiot is asked, ‘If there was a billboard outside your house, what message would you put on it?’. His response is ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’.

Environmental and land defenders need protection

Environmental and land defenders, mostly Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of local communities, play a vital role in protecting the natural environment and combating climate change. Yet they are often the victims of harassment, violence and murder for speaking out against land theft and abuses of the environment. Since 2012, one land and environmental defender has been killed every two days and recent years have seen increases in the criminalisation and vindictive punishment of environmental activists by governments, including in Australia (remember Violet Coco in NSW).

Even at the COP meetings there has been little recognition of the important role played by environmental and human rights defenders in the global response to the climate crisis. ‘We cannot achieve climate justice without protecting those at the frontlines of the crisis’, said Natalia Gomez. Ms Gomez is the Climate Change Policy Advisor at EarthRights, one member of a coalition of human rights and environmental organisations that made recommendations to countries for tackling the problems at the 2022 COP meeting:

  • Recognise the violence and repression suffered by land and environmental defenders and take steps to protect them.
  • Enable land and environmental defenders to exercise their rights to participate in and contribute to decision making, including at COP meetings.
  • Consult with Indigenous people and frontline communities to identify gaps that are preventing environmental defenders accessing information and participating in climate action.
  • Governments wishing to host COP meetings should guarantee freedom of association, peaceful assembly and safe participation by civil society during the meetings (at all times, I’d say).

Ocean-based carbon dioxide removal

It’s generally accepted that for the world to keep global warming under 1.5oC, we need not only to reduce emissions rapidly and drastically but also to remove a substantial proportion of the CO2 that we’ve already put into the atmosphere. So far, most of the attention for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) has focused on machines (Direct Air Capture – DAC) and land-based nature (more trees and peatbogs, for instance). But there’s also potential for the oceans to remove lots of CO2 from the atmosphere … with a bit of support from the ever-helpful human race of course.

If the oceans hadn’t already absorbed about a third of the CO2 that humans have pumped into the air over the last 200 years and about 90% of the surface heat that the greenhouse gases have produced, global temperatures would be higher and rising even more quickly than they currently are. Mind you, the excess CO2 and heat in the oceans are already damaging marine ecosystems and destabilising the ocean currents that help to regulate our climate and weather pattern. So there are swings and roundabouts for humans playing in this watery playground.

Most of the ocean-based technologies being developed rely on enhancement of existing biological (photosynthesis basically) and geochemical processes that grab carbon out of the water and lock it up in marine organisms that sink to the sea floor where it remains for very long periods. Except for coastal ecosystem restoration, the candidates for stimulating ocean-based CO2 removal are all still in the early stages of development but the World Resources Institute (WRI) believes that seven are worth watching because they are sufficiently promising and developed to attract investors and/or have potential for deployment at scale. The seven utilise quite diverse technologies. For instance:

  • Coastal blue carbon restoration involves the use of mangroves and seagrasses to absorb and store carbon and deposit it in coastal sediments;
  • Seaweed, cultivated near to shores or in the open ocean, can absorb and store CO2 just like trees. The seaweed can then be used for food or fuel or sunk into the deep ocean where it can be stored for very long periods in ocean floor sediments;
  • Ocean fertilisation involves nutrients such as iron, nitrogen and phosphorous being added to the ocean to promote the growth of phytoplankton, some of which is sequestered in the deep ocean;
  • Surface water, which is rich in carbon, can be cooled to accelerate natural currents that take cold water to the ocean depths (artificial downwelling). As the water sinks and gets even colder, it absorbs more CO2 which is then stored in the deep ocean.

Each approach has its own co-benefits and risks to marine, coastal and terrestrial environments, to weather patterns and to human communities. And while the health of our oceans most notably affects the economies, food supplies and weather patterns of islands and coastal areas, nowhere on the planet is spared the ocean’s influence. Ensuring that any wide-scale deployment of one or more of these technologies is effective and safe is in everyone’s interests.

None of the proposed technologies is cheap. The likely cost varies from tens to thousands of dollars per ton of CO2 removed. With all of them there are problems of who will initially approve trials and later any large-scale application? Who will monitor the consequences (intended or otherwise)? And who will be responsible for any harms suffered? The last thing we want is for the research, development and roll-out of high risk marine programs to be driven by megalomaniacal politicians or billionaires.

The WRI favours ‘informed and responsible development and deployment’ of ocean-based CO2 removal and has identified three priority areas for action:

  1. Increase understanding of which approaches are viable for large-scale deployment with minimal negative impacts;
  2. Improve governance frameworks to ensure research and pilot projects are undertaken responsibly and all stakeholders are included;
  3. Begin development of robust international governance frameworks for future large-scale deployment.

All is not well and it’s unlikely to end well

Chapter 1: It was the epoch of belief

As much renewable energy will be installed in the six years from 2022-2027 as was installed in the 21 years from 2001-2021.

Chapter 2: It was the spring of hope

By 2027 solar pv will be the main source of the world’s electricity (22%). Wind, hydro and solar combined will supply 50%.

Chapter 3: It was the age of foolishness

As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, percentages are irrelevant and it doesn’t even matter how much renewable electricity we install. What matters is the absolute amount of fossil fuel that we consume. While the amount of electricity generated by the sun and wind will increase rapidly between 2021 and 2027, the amount generated by coal and gas will also increase, not by much but enough to keep increasing the amount of greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere. And while we continue to do that, global warming will continue to increase, the integrity of the environment will be further destroyed and the survival of the human race will be increasingly threatened.

Chapter 4: It was the winter of despair

And it looks like being a long time before the winter of our discontent is made glorious summer. Only when we stop burning coal, gas and oil will the worst of times become the best.

With thanks to Bill, Charlie and IEA.

Happy Christmas-present to you …

Whatever your material or non-material philosophical inclinations, I wish you all a happy and safe holiday period. Many thanks for reading my jeremiads over the last year. I’m taking a break now and will be back on January 22nd.

… and Happy Christmas-future to black cockatoos

The picture below is a hillside at Scottsdale, a Bush Heritage conservation property on the banks of the Murrumbidgee (just visible in the centre) near Bredbo, NSW. The guards are protecting a range of trees, plants and grasses – drooping she-oak, black cypress pine, broad-leaved peppermint, hickory wattle, blue tussock grass and more – planted last weekend to restore habitat and food sources for Glossy Black and Gang-Gang cockatoos.

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