PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 17 May 2020

In the absence of urgent climate action, rising temperatures over the next 50 years will render much of the globe uninhabitable for humans and trees. But global fossil fuel consumption is still rising and a NSW coal company has repeatedly and grossly underestimated the CO2 emissions when its coal is burnt. A pandemic caused by a coronavirus: what a surprise. NOT! And Madagascar’s remarkable flora and fauna.

Human beings thrive in a very narrow range of mean annual temperatures: roughly 5-25oC (mostly 11-15oC) where conditions are good for human health and food production. New research finds that, without rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, up to three billion people are likely to live in conditions that are hotter than are suitable for human life to flourish in 2070. Los Angeles and Paris will experience desert-like temperatures and cities in Africa and Asia will have deadly heat waves every year. Without migration, an option not available to all, one-third of the global population (about 3.5 billion people in 2070; of which 1.2 billion will live in India) will reside in areas where the mean annual temperature is warmer than 29oC. These hot areas will cover 19% of the world’s land surface in 2070, including most of northern Australia from Exmouth to Cape York. Currently such conditions are experienced over less than 1% of the world’s land, mostly in the Sahara.

Part of the explanation for these high temperatures lies in the fact that the average temperature increase over land is about double the overall global temperature increase because the oceans warm more slowly than the land. And looking at where people actually live, the average is about 2.3 times greater than the global increase – an average global increase of 3.25oC will translate into an average increase of 7.5oC in inhabited areas. Needless to say, it will be those with least resources to cope with these temperatures (e.g. people least able to move, install renewable energy-powered air conditioning and afford expensive imported food) that will suffer the most. Without immediate climate action, the changes over the next 50 years will be greater than any experienced in the previous 6,000.

A real surprise emerging from this research was the comment by Michael Mann, one of the world’s most respected and outspoken climate scientists (not associated with this research): The good news is that it doesn’t appear we’re headed on that trajectory [to a largely uninhabitable planet] now, given the progress already being made world-wide in transitioning away from fossil fuels.’ Really?? That’s not my reading of the situation – see the graph below demonstrating still increasing fossil fuel consumption. It doesn’t matter what promises are made by corporations and governments; it doesn’t matter how much renewable energy we install; until fossil fuel consumption approaches zero, greenhouse gases will keep accumulating in the atmosphere and global temperatures will keep increasing.

It’s not only humans that are going to roast and die as temperatures soar. Ten years of research on tree mortality concludes that ‘most trees alive today won’t be able to survive in the climate expected in 40 years’. Although warmer conditions and more CO2 in the air is causing some ‘greening’ in some locations, this is being outpaced by increased tree mortality due to warmer temperatures, drying of the soil, droughts and insect infestations, compounded by fewer seeds produced and poorer conditions for germination for those that are. At the current pace of warming, much of the world will be inhospitable to forests as we know them within decades and its possible that none of the trees alive today will be able to survive the projected climate. A temperature increase of 2oC may be the threshold beyond which mass arboricide occurs.

Centennial Coal’s mines supply about a third of the coal burnt in NSW power stations. It turns out that when they’ve been estimating the carbon dioxide emissions from burning their coal (scope 3 emissions) – as required by the NSW Department of Planning during the development application process – they have repeatedly grossly underestimated the emissions. And when I say ‘grossly’, I mean by a factor of 10, or on one occasion 30. It’s not as though it’s a difficult calculation to make: basically just multiply the tonnage of coal by 2.4 to get the tonnage of CO2 released. And yet on five occasions over the last decade the error was missed by the consultants who prepared the environmental impact statement for Centennial, Centennial themselves and the Department of Planning. Explain that if you can. A spokesperson for Centennial said they had ‘stuffed up’ and the NSW Department of Planning is apparently investigating. So, who discovered this stuff up? The consultants, Centennial Coal, the Department … when one of them was conducting a best-practice, internal quality assessment exercise? No, the NSW Nature Conservation Council.

COVID-19 was not a ‘black swan event’, not a bolt from the blue, not completely unexpected and unpredictable. Coronaviruses and their natural hosts, in southern China particularly, have been studied for decades by scientists from many countries. They knew that the changes that humans were making in the natural world rendered it only a matter of time before one coronavirus jumped across to humans. They warned anyone who would listen; some did listen, but not enough or not consistently. Broadly speaking, there are three ways that environmental changes influence emerging infectious diseases. First, changes in land use – deforestation and the introduction of settlements, agriculture and resource extraction into wild areas – pushes potential pathogens and humans closer together. Second, global warming and rainfall changes are expanding the areas inhabited by insects that carry disease (such as mosquitos and malaria) and exposing more humans to the danger. Third, warming is releasing some viruses that have been locked away in the ice; for instance, anthrax was released from a thawed reindeer carcase in 2016.

Even if you don’t read the text, have a look at more of the fantastic pictures of Madagascar, its country, animals and people. 90% of its fauna and flora are found nowhere else on earth. On the negative side of the ledger, 90% of its forests have been lost since humans arrived.

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Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker with a long interest in social policy, particularly social justice, and now focusing on climate change and environmental sustainability. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic global warming.

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6 Responses to PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 17 May 2020

  1. Andrew Glikson says:

    “until fossil fuel consumption approaches zero, greenhouse gases will keep accumulating in the atmosphere and global temperatures will keep increasing.”
    Unfortunately there is now enough carbon and thereby radiative forcings in the atmospehre (near 500 ppm commbined CO2-CH4_N2O) to have activated amplifying feedbacks from land and oceans as well as melting of the large ice sheets https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/08/why-positive-climate-feedbacks-are-so-bad. As a prime example is the release of methane from permafrost (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187661021830136X).

  2. Gavin O'Brien says:

    Peter,
    I have revisited what Micheal Mann was cited as saying in your article.You missed an important point in his response; “habitability of the planet is a very low bar indeed.” I read an article “Future of the human climate niche” (authors; Chi Xu;Kohler,Lenton,Svenning & Scheffer). They confirm that a substantial proportion of the earth’s population will live outside the historical human climate niche by 2070 if global warming increases at the high end of the scale.That is well within my children and grand children’s life span.I found interestingly that they don’t subscribe to the theory that the current ‘civil war’ in Syria is linked to the most intense drought in the region for the past millennium. Apparently in their conclusions humans are more likely to adapt to climate change than migrate (other factors such as sea level rise ignored).
    Gavin O’Brien FRMetS

    • Peter Farley says:

      I agree that habitability is a low bar and I am not suggesting we don’t have to rapidly reduce emissions, but the case is not hopeless. Two years ago Germany was going to miss its 2020 targets by a mile, now it is on track to beat it. The UK will practically eliminate coal as well as reducing gas use for power by 20% from its peak next year. Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal are or will be coal free in 2022. Coal will be below renewables in the US this year and next year in Australia renewables will beat brown coal and gas combined

  3. Peter Farley says:

    But the world is changing rapidly, coal power has fallen almost 30% across Europe and North America since 2018. China and India’s new coal plants are running at lower and lower capacity factors. Aviation and shipping have significantly declined and the recovery will be both slow and more efficient.
    The crash in vehicle demand has affected ICE vehicles even more than EVs so EV market share has climbed much faster than expected.
    Not only has coal, gas and oil consumption declined but a corresponding jump in the renewable share of power generation has not brought the grid stability problems that were forecast so growth in most countries can grow faster and cheaper than prevously expected.

  4. Jocelyn Pixley says:

    Thank you for relating climate change to infectious diseases – so few do this. I certainly agree with your pessimism. Look at the Hayne Commission into banking with findings from anti-social to illegal behaviour. The government will never agree to Hayne’s proposals for fear of the banks. Climate action has even less hope given the vested interests for the status quo are far larger.

    • Peter Farley says:

      This is far too pessimistic, partly because the market is driving change and partly most of the practical regulation is in the hands of the state governments who are all trying to change the game. To the end of April this year fossil fuel generation on the NEM is around 50 TWh vs 60 TWh for the same period in 2016 while renewables have jumped from 9.3 TWh to 16.4 TWh.
      Wind and solar (including rooftop) each produce more than power than gas in the NEM and renewables combined handily outperform brown coal. In 2020/21 financial year, renewables will outproduce brown coal and gas combined while coal will fall to less than 63% of output from a peak of 85%. In absolute terms coal will fall from a peak of 175 TWh to around 110 TWh in 2020/21.
      Obviously there is still a way to go but Angus Taylor, George Christian et al will be overwhelmed by the forces of history just as Trump’s coal surge has seen coal fall by 40% rather than rise.

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