Sunday environmental round up.

May 9, 2021

Vast foreign debts hobble the efforts of poor countries to pursue climate action. Ways to reduce the embodied carbon emissions in buildings. Traditional owners fight back against Adani. German court forces government to take stronger climate action.

What unites Belize, Fiji and Mozambique? They are just three of the many developing countries that have two separate but severe and compounding problems: highly exposed to the dangers associated with climate change (e.g. sea level rise, hurricanes, floods, droughts, coastal erosion, bleached corals, loss of tourism) plus faced with paying back vast, unsustainable, overseas debts (over US$8 trillion worldwide before COVID), despite low credit ratings from the likes of Standard & Poor (whatever they really represent and are worth). ‘How do we pursue climate action? We are fiscally constrained at this point. We should be compensated for suffering the excesses of others and supported in mitigating and adapting to climate change effects – certainly in the form of debt relief and concessionary funding’, said Belize’s Minister of Finance. This is a problem not only for the developing countries, however. If they were to default on their debt repayments it would create major financial problems globally for the lenders: the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, rich countries (interestingly, China is largest single creditor), private banks, etc. This will again be a major issue (and point of disagreement, no doubt) at the Glasgow COP meeting in November, particularly as rich countries have failed dismally to deliver the US$100 billion per year they promised poor countries in 2015 for resilience and adaptation. Disgracefully, Australia has even withdrawn from this Green Climate Fund. To avoid a climate and a financial meltdown, rich countries and private creditors must offer debt relief to poor countries so that they can build their economies, transition away from fossil fuels and prepare for the inevitable consequences of climate change.

A couple of months ago I highlighted the carbon emissions associated with the materials needed to keep high-rise buildings standing – turned out that over their entire life-cycle, four-storey courtyard buildings are the most energy efficient and environmentally sustainable form of housing. So claims of ‘carbon neutrality’ for skyscrapers that are covered in green walls, have triple glazed windows and use 100% renewable energy need to be viewed with some scepticism. Being ‘green’ when occupied is poor compensation for construction that involved masses of concrete, steel and glass, all of which contain lots of ‘embodied carbon emissions’ – the emissions associated with the extraction, manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance, demolition and disposal of materials. Over the life-cycles of today’s typical offices, warehouses and homes, the embodied emissions constitute around 70% of total emissions. Most building regulations ignore the embodied carbon and yet significant carbon reductions can be made relatively cheaply by following five simple strategies:

  • Build less: reuse existing buildings
  • Build smart: use low carbon materials
  • Build efficiently: use fewer resources and waste less
  • Build circular: design for reuse and recycle
  • Build durable: design for longevity.

The UK’s Architects Climate Action Network is calling for legislation to regulate embodied emissions including requirements to assess, report and reduce embodied carbon using ‘whole life-cycle assessment’; limits on embodied carbon limits in building materials and building types; and Environmental Product Declarations to be made freely available on a national product database. For nations and companies that are serious about tackling climate change, the time for smoke and mirrors is long past. It’s no use a building being carbon neutral in its daily operations if its construction involved materials containing lots of embodied carbon. Commissioners, designers, builders and occupiers of buildings need to lift their game.

The Wangan and Jagalingou people are the Traditional Owners of land that is being destroyed by Adani’s coal mine in the Galilee Basin and by the infrastructure required to process and export the coal. This 6-minute video briefly describes the vital relationship between land and water and the cultural heritage, dreaming and laws of the Traditional Owners. It also exposes the ludicrous requirement for Indigenous groups to demonstrate ‘continuous connection’ to their land after their ancestors were driven off it (or murdered on it) by the colonisers.

I’ve previously covered the effects of climate change on the heat content, salinity and density of the earth’s oceans and how these changes can affect the layering of heat in seawater, ocean currents, weather patterns, supplies of marine nutrients (particularly phytoplankton) and the distribution of marine life, including birds. If my previous abbreviated and most inexpert explanations of these complex watery dynamics have confused you, I strongly recommend this extremely readable article. However, if you already know what the pycnocline is and understand that a more stable ocean is not necessarily good news, you probably don’t need to read it.

Citizens are putting increasing legal pressure on governments to take meaningful action on climate change. The most recent example is Germany where the Constitutional Court has ruled that the 2019 Federal Climate Change Act, which sets a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 compared with 1990, violates the Basic Law freedoms of the case’s nine young complainants. The logic of this decision is that the emissions allowed until 2030  are insufficient and hence narrow the options for reducing emissions after 2030. Consequently, as almost all aspects of human life currently involve the emission of greenhouse gases, the emissions reductions that will be necessary after 2030  threaten every type of freedom. According to the court: ‘one generation must not be allowed to consume large portions of the CO2 budget while bearing a relatively minor share of the reduction effort if this would involve leaving subsequent generations with a drastic reduction burden and expose their lives to comprehensive losses of freedom’. The judges seem to be saying that today’s generation is selfishly endangering the welfare and lives of future generations – surely that can’t be true!! The court ruled that the government must by the end of 2022 specify in greater detail how the reduction targets will be adjusted after 2030 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Keen not to be caught with their lederhosen down for too long, Merkel’s government has this week increased its emissions reduction target to 65% by 2030, reaching carbon neutrality by 2045 rather than 2050. (Interestingly, most pictures of males wearing lederhosen on the web emphasise German traditional dress and the outdoor life, while pictures of females wearing lederhosen … well, let’s just say they don’t present quite the same image.)

But returning to emissions targets, it’s difficult to compare nations’ greenhouse gas reduction commitments for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement because they don’t all start from the same baseline date. So for instance, Australia’s current commitment is a 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 whereas Britain’s is 68% below 1990 levels by 2030. New Zealand seems to have skipped a 2030 reduction target and gone for net zero by 2050, which means they don’t need a starting date, of course. The bar chart below compares Australia’s commitments with those of Britain, the USA, EU, Canada and Japan on both the 1990 and 2005 starting dates. Australia doesn’t look good using either.

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