Environment: Rapidly closing window of opportunity to achieve a safe, sustainable future

Mar 26, 2023
Top view of a forest of trees forming the map of Australia. Top view. Environmental , Ecology, and sustainability concepts.

New IPCC report documents a threatening climate-present and a bleak climate-future. Alcoa failing to rehabilitate the lands it has destroyed once mining stops. Shortage of integrity not gas behind our gas problems.

IPCC’s climate change synthesis report

As a (lapsed) sociologist, I am well accustomed to non-sociologists scornfully saying, ‘I could have told you that for free. You didn’t need to spend three years and lots of money researching it’.

I have a distinctly similar feeling about the widely reported IPCC report published this week – a synthesis of six IPCC reports on climate change published between 2018 and 2022. This is likely to be the last scientific report that the IPCC will produce until around 2030. By then we won’t be interested in knowing that the Test Match was going badly on day 3. Unless we change our game plan, in 2030 it will be half-way through a sunny final day and the opposition will need one run to win with ten wickets in hand. A rout will be inevitable.

Not that I think the IPCC report has been a waste of time or money, simply that it doesn’t tell us anything new. Anyone who has been following climate science with half an eye, or is even simply aware of the catastrophic effects that climate change is already having on human communities and the natural world, has a pretty good idea of what the problem is, what’s causing it, what needs to be done to tackle it before it gets completely out of hand, and, crucially, that the global community isn’t doing a tenth of what’s needed. The latest report, while compiling in one publication quite a bit of useful data and presenting some nice diagrams, doesn’t add any new knowledge or ideas to those four vital issues.

So, assuming that most readers are up to speed, I’m not going to present a synopsis of the report. The Summary for Policymakers, which is all I’ve read and is only 37 pages, is reasonably accessible, and if you’d like a highlights version, in the immortal words of Adam Bandt, ‘Google it, mate’.

The importance of the report is not what it says, but rather who is saying it – thousands of scientists and the governments of the nearly 200 countries that are part of the Paris Agreement – and how strongly some of the messages are expressed. Here are a few bits that I found most interesting:

  • If you are aged around 70-75, compared with 1850-1900, the Earth had warmed less than 0.5oC when you were born. Today it’s about 1.1oC warmer. When children born today (your grandkids or great grandkids) reach our age, unless the world takes drastic action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth is likely to be 2.5-3oC warmer. (Look at Figure SPM.1 in the report for a graphic illustration of this.)
  • ‘Sea level rise is unavoidable for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt, and sea levels will remain elevated for thousands of years.’
  • ‘Actions that focus on sectors and risks in isolation and on short-term gains often lead to maladaptation over the long-term, creating lock-ins of vulnerability, exposure and risks that are difficult to change.’ I’d like Chris Bowen and his cabinet colleagues to pay attention to this one, an example of what systems thinkers called ‘Fixes that Fail’, but I’m not holding my breath.
  • ‘…transitioning to very low- and zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)’ . Note that the report is calling fossil fuels with CCS a ‘very low carbon energy source’. Not difficult to work out which countries lobbied hard for that one to be included.
  • Just to show how stupid and self-serving it is to see CCS as part of the solution, Figure SPM.7 examines 31 mitigation options for greenhouses gases and the one that produces the least benefit and costs the most per ton of greenhouse gas abated is CCS.
  • ‘Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.’
  • ‘Without urgent, effective and equitable mitigation and adaptation actions, climate change increasingly threatens ecosystems, biodiversity, and the livelihoods, health and wellbeing of current and future generations.’
  • ‘Ambitious mitigation pathways imply large and sometimes disruptive changes in existing economic structures …’. Of course they do. Existing economic structures have created the current problems and resisted effective corrective actions. If we are going to tackle the symptoms, we have to tackle the cause.
  • One encouraging aspect is that solar radiation management and carbon offsets don’t get a mention.

It would be nice to think that this report and the chorus of voices responding to it by calling for immediate and drastic climate action, especially by wealthy nations, would be heeded. But realistically, why is this synthesis likely to make any difference when the six reports it is based on haven’t?

Surely not! Alcoa falling short on forest rehabilitation

Well, knock me over with a feather, here’s a headline and opening paragraph one could never have predicted.

And here are the figures to back it up.

Alcoa considers an area to be rehabilitated after completion of ‘landscaping, overburden and topsoil return, contour ripping, fauna habitat return, and seeding’ – a definition apparently supported by experts. Alcoa feels able to describe such areas in its annual sustainability report as ‘returned to natural conditions’.

I’m not an ecologist but what this confirms to me is that the whole idea of rehabilitating an area after it’s been cleared for mining is a complete fiction. Removing (probably far from all) the toxic materials, filling in a hole in the ground, stabilising and contouring a hill of waste, putting some alien top soil on it, planting grasses, shrubs and trees to make it green and then claiming to have rehabilitated the area is complete nonsense. In fact the very idea of returning a mine site to its ‘natural conditions’ is ridiculous. It’s impossible to know, never mind replace, all the species of invertebrate and vertebrate animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms and all the inorganic materials that make up a complex ecosystem. You can rebuild a crashed Ferrari but you can’t rebuild a totally destroyed forest.

This is not to say that companies such as Alcoa should be allowed to despoil the countryside and then just walk away but it is to recognise that the chances of them returning a damaged area to its ‘natural conditions’ are zero. Equally remote is that the majority of mining companies will ever do the job properly – it’s in their financial interests to delay action for as long as possible and then to do a little as possible. Mining companies, and the like, should have to make substantial contributions to a state-managed ‘rehabilitation’ (for want of a better word) fund throughout the life of the mine, the contents of which are used to finance the best rehabilitation possible when the mine closes. It’s far from ideal but it would be better than what we’ve got a present.

There’s no ‘gas shortage’, just a shortage of ethics and integrity from the gas cartel

Tim Buckley, my go-to expert on energy supply, lays out the facts about Australia’s domestic ‘gas shortage’:

  • Gas use in Australia’s National (except WA) Electricity Market (NEM) has declined 20% since 2019 and is expected to decline another 60% by 2025;
  • Over the last decade, east coast gas production had trebled, with the vast majority exported for sale at high prices to make massive, tax-free profits for the producers;
  • Despite the falling local demand, and contrary to the regulatory approvals imposed a decade ago, the gas industry restricts domestic supply to export as much as possible;
  • Santos’s Narrabri gas project, justified by the purported imminent domestic gas ‘shortfall’, will take at least five years to get gas to homes and industry but will lock in an expensive, polluting fossil fuel that’s had its day except for a very small backup role to meet the short, rare periods of exceptional demand;
  • Delays to the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project and the Kurri Kurri gas peaker plant threaten the ordered transition as ageing coal power plants close;
  • The sensible future lies not with gas but with incentives to: modernise the grid; install more rooftop solar; enable more EVs to send power to the grid; implement widespread demand response management; electrify everything; improve energy efficiency; and build more wind and solar farms, pumped hydro storage and big batteries.

According to Buckley, these initiatives can be deployed rapidly and are where investors want to put their money, not into more gas:

‘We know the solution to the energy crisis: decoupling from extortionate, polluting, volatile fossil fuels and accelerating the transition to zero-emissions, low cost firmed renewables.’

Glyphosate rounds up humans

Glyphosate use, principally as an agricultural herbicide, has grown exponentially world-wide over the last 50 years, well demonstrated by the 200-fold increase seen in the graph below for use in the USA from 1975-2014. As we all know, Roundup kills weeds and, despite Monsanto’s and now Bayer’s claims, if it kills one form of life, it’s quite possible that it kills others. So it’s no surprise that there’s an association between early exposure to glyphosate and the appearance of liver problems and metabolic diseases when those children become young adults or that the WHO classified glyphosate as a probable cause of cancer in 2015.

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