The science, the risks, limiting the damage and adapting to a hotter planet earth
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children” –Native American Proverb
Over 100 fires were burning in Australia, covering an area as large as Great Britain. The Australian bushfire season in 2019 started in July; middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Blazes tore through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks. Fires destroyed homes in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. Thick plumes of smoke blanketed the urban centres for weeks. Many blazes burned for months, beyond limits of human endeavours to put them out.
Australian firefighters with assistance from the USA, Canada, New Zealand and the Australian defence forces struggled nine months to contain the blazes. Over 34 people died, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. An estimated billion animals burnt to death. Horrific images dominated our television screens.
The gigantic scale of the fires caught Australian leaders by surprise. Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised for holidaying in Hawaii in the midst of it. Budget requests for fire fighting equipment ignored in the previous year. Most experts opined that Climate Change was a significant factor in the massive scale of the fires. The political leaders were still reluctant to admit this.
A slow-burning but an existential global crisis, Climate Change is struggling to attract attention, support and funding required to tackle the problem. Many countries ignore scientists and science. Most countries are responding far slower than necessary to prevent serious damage to lives and livelihood, farms and forests, the seven seas and five continents. Three decades since the announcement of the likely scale of climate change, progress is painfully slow and uneven.
Like the old fable about the crab in the boiling pot, enjoying the feeling of warmth realises it’s plight far too late.
My first brush with climate change was when the coral reefs died. The beach resort fifty km from Colombo was one of my favourite places on the planet. The water was shallow and teeming with fish. Calm as a pond; the coral reef acted as a water break. You snorkelled, taking in the beauty of the fish in a rainbow of colours and the stunning corals.
Then a heatwave. The corals died (corals are a living organism), what nature had grown for decades or centuries, the corals that coastguards fought hard to save from vandals and tourists, dead in a few days. It happened around the world, even the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the largest reef in the world was damaged. I didn’t realise this was due to climate change, putting this down to a freak act of nature until years later. It’s only grown worse since then. Coral bleaching has damaged the Great Barrier Reef three times in the last five years.
I didn’t quite know how an increase of 2 degrees could cause havoc, most of us would hardly notice the change? I could understand that many people would be sceptical. On the other hand, could 97% of climate scientists get this wrong? We watched the movie by Al Gore,’ An Inconvenient Truth’, which made quite an impact, bringing home the reality of Climate Change to an enthralled audience of children and non-scientists.
I watched as Climate Change moved from a fringe movement to a mainstream issue. The hotel chain I was working for set targets for energy efficiency, saving electricity and water, reducing waste, recycling plastics and cans. We made good progress and saved money. Hotels on the luxury end had to be cautious about how we went about it; not seen as penny-pinching, when we were charging $200 per night. However, we could give our customers the option to make a choice themselves. Would they mind if their towels were not changed every day? Not change their bedsheets every day?
I was curious, to know more, what causes climate change. The science behind it. How has it impacted the planet earth so far? What are the likely future impacts on the world? How can we minimise changes to the climate and how can we best adapt to a warmer planet. Try to create some awareness, convince a few more people to do their bit. Convey in a few words, the urgency of the situation, in marketing jargon – awareness, conviction, action.
Our agrarian societies started to change in the late 18th century. The invention of the steam engine in the 1760s by James Watt sparked the Industrial Revolution, beginning in Great Britain. Machines now mass-produced goods previously crafted painstakingly by hand. We migrated from rural farmland to cities to work in factories. Ironworks, flour mills, cotton and paper mills, distilleries, waterworks and ships used coal-powered steam engines. The demand for coal, one of the dirtiest fuels skyrocketed. Petroleum use began in the 1850s. Natural gas started large scale production post World War2.
The road and canal networks expanded in the early 1800s, steam-powered boats and ships became commonplace. Trains started plying by 1830. The early 1900s saw the transportation industry upended again with the advent of the motorcar and flying. The industrial revolution continued with more industries starting up and spreading across the world. Industrialisation is associated with prosperity, a pathway to economic growth.
Worldwide population growth is closely associated with the industrial revolution. The Industrial Revolution changed the way humans work. The standard of living increased in ways never before seen. Improvements in diets, advances in public health, medicine etc. led to population growth. The global population estimated at 1Billion at the start of the 19th century reached 2 billion in 1927. It grew exponentially during the 20th century, reaching 7.4Bn today.
The Climate Science
How does Global warming happen? Solar radiation hits the earth and gets reflected skywards. These rays get trapped when they hit the layer of greenhouse gases (GHGs), consisting mainly of Carbon Dioxide (CO2, 76%), Methane (16%) and Nitrous Oxide (6%). The GHG layer acts like a thermal blanket enveloping the planet, trapping the radiation and warming the earth. Industries burn fossil fuels emitting CO2. Farm animals belch out Methane and fertilisers emit Nitrous Oxide. Forests and trees suck some CO2 out of the atmosphere.
More CO2 is emitted as countries around the world industrialise and grow their economies. Farm animal population grows to feed a growing, more prosperous society and modern farming practices use fertiliser to boost crop yields. More area is converting to farmland, diminishing forest cover. The GHG layer gets denser, emissions grow, and we take out less, warming the planet.
It’s like leaving your car out in the sun. Sun’s rays beam into the car, heating the interior. The glass windows trap and block the heat from escaping. It gets uncomfortably hot inside.
Global Warming – Are we all in this together?
Why do we need a global effort? The Greenhouse Gas Layer is the same density all around the planet. It grows evenly, whether its China, USA or New Zealand spouting the fumes, making this a global issue, unlike pollution which mostly stays local. When Australian bushfires burn, the smoke and haze mainly stay over their skies, but the CO2 emitted floats all around the world.
The warming, however, will not be distributed evenly everywhere, 2 degrees in California, may mean 4 degrees in Antarctica. The warming effect is more, closer to the poles and at higher altitudes. Impacts will differ according to the risks for the geographic areas. Rising sea levels will affect small island nations and warming will affect Australia and countries in sub-Saharan Africa more than colder climates. Bushfires will impact Australia, California and the Amazon forests far more heavily. Some regions will even benefit from Climate Change; Siberia already has longer crop seasons and sea lanes open more days in a year than before.
We won’t know precisely how Climate Change will affect us. Models can only predict a range of outcomes, and much depends on – our efforts to minimise the impact – perhaps the most crucial variable of them all. What is certain is that the change will be significant, and we will have our work cut out.
Climate Mitigation – Reducing emissions
CO2 Emissions – 76% of Greenhouse Gases
There are three broad pillars of climate action necessary to reduce CO2.
- Decarbonising the electricity system
- “Fuel switching:”
- Energy efficiency
The most important of these is decarbonising the electricity system, stop burning fossil fuels to power our energy needs and changeover to renewables.
BP is one of the few oil majors which has publicly committed itself to changeover to renewables. Below are some excerpts from an article on the website ‘Follow the Money’ by Havan Vatanen headlined ‘BP knew the truth about Climate Crisis 30 years ago’.
A documentary made by BP in 1990 called ‘What makes the weather’ articulates the potentially disastrous consequences of human-made climate change. (Excerpt – https://www.ftm.nl/artikelen/bp-video-climate-change-1990-engels) . The narrator explains: ‘Our whole energy-intensive way of life and its dependence on carbon-based fuels is now a cause for concern. When coal, oil, or gas burn, they release carbon dioxide and other reactive gases. Since the industrial revolution, their use has increased hundredfold. In the last forty years, the mass burning of the tropical forests has freed even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It has taken time to realise what damage this extra carbon dioxide can do’.
In May 1997, then BP CEO John Brown in a speech to the Stanford University became the first head of an oil major to accept the emerging consensus on Climate Change publicly. Browne called it‘unwise and potentially dangerous’ to ignore the possibility of catastrophic climate change. He also said that ‘if we are all to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now’. In 2000, BP launched a $200 million campaign to rebrand its name to‘Beyond Petroleum’.
However, BPs actions didn’t quite follow the script.
BP was a member of a lobby group which influenced George W Bush to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. It was a member of a lobby group who blocked legislation to reduce GHGs in 16 states and promoted numerous anti-environment laws. In 2017, BP lobbied Trump administration to open up the Alaskan Arctic for oil and gas drilling.
Between 2011 and 2013, they sold all their wind and solar assets.
Since 2010 BP has spent only 2.3% of its budget on non-carbon energy. In 2020, BP put out a statement that they will increase investment in low carbon energy from $500 million per year in 2019, just 4% of it’s Capital Budget, to $5 Billion per year by 2030. It will reach net zero by 2050. It is targeting to increase its renewable capacity from 2.5 GWh per year to 50 GWh, a 20 fold increase.
Will they? Move from 4% of their capital spending to 40%, on renewables by 2030. Even if they keep to their plan, they will be spending 60% of their annual capital spend developing fossil fuels.
Norway is a country that prides itself as a leader in renewables. It is generating 98% of its electricity from renewables, mainly hydropower. 30% of its cars are electric.
Norway is also one of the largest oil-exporting countries.
Norway’s first major oilfield came online in 1969. In 1972 the state-owned oil company Statoil was formed, and the government introduced the principle that at least 50% of oil licenses should be state-owned. Norwegian government benefits directly from oil, unlike countries like the UK. Norwegian state still holds 67% of it’s renamed oil and gas giant Equinor.
Norway has an economic surplus every year since it started oil production. Norway’s oil wealth is held by its sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world with a value of trillion dollars. In 2019 the fund decided to divest its investments from oil exploration companies.
Norway derives 25% of its tax revenue from oil and gas. The giant new oilfield Johan Sverdrup oilfield started production in 2019 and is forecasting to produce oil until 2060 at least.
68% of Saudi Arabia’s revenue in 2019 was from oil and gas. 52% of Russia’s revenue came from oil and gas. Global fossil revenue in 2018 was $3.7 trillion. Renewable energy currently supplies only 25% of worldwide energy production.
Large industries do die or transform substantially when lower-cost alternatives come on stream. Telecommunications is one such trillion dollar industry which was upended by the advent of the internet. Coal revenue has declined by over 95% since peaking in the early 20th century.
Still, the scale of the challenge to transform the energy industry is daunting.
Electricity generation from wind and solar now costs less than fossil fuel energy. Costs are likely to decrease further as we scale up renewables, and the technology keeps improving. What keeps us from moving faster is the 3 I’s – ideology, inertia and ignorance. The short term and adversarial politics. The parties and voting blocks of climate deniers. The lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry. It’s also the trillions of dollars needed to fund renewable infrastructure.
Storage of renewable power is still an issue currently (except for hydropower). Solar generation stops at dusk. The wind could stop blowing anytime (although less likely with the offshore wind). Hydropower can dwindle in a drought. We may require fossil fuel power as a backup in the short term until economical storage options come online. Pumped hydro is a currently available renewable option for short term storage and grid balancing.
We should meet growing energy needs with renewables; however, we continue to expand fossil fuel generation. Adani coalfield in Australia, Keystone pipeline in the USA and Canada, giant new Johan Sverdrup oilfield in Norway are all examples.
The other major area which will make an impact is sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere, by planting trees and growing our forested areas. We face an uphill battle to increase or even maintain forestation in many parts of the world, as we have seen recently with the Amazon forests.
Fuel switching is still at an early stage; we are still manufacturing mainly petrol-powered vehicles and have a massive inventory of them. The market share of electric and hybrid cars is still tiny, 2% of the light vehicle market, and heavy vehicles near zero. Another trillion dollar market to transform. Electrification of rail shows more progress.
Most of our industries use fossil fuels and will take some time to replace, due to the long lifespans of plant and machinery.
We see good progress on energy efficiency as this provides a direct cost-saving and high return on investment in many cases. Energy-efficient cars, buildings, equipment, all have boosted energy efficiency and will continue to improve.
Reducing Methane and Nitrous Oxide – 24% of Greenhouse Gases
These two gases are mainly farm-based. Beef and Lamb, Dairy farming is high in Methane emissions. Chicken is less Methane intensive. With ocean-based fisheries, we only have CO2 emissions from fishing vessels powered by fossil fuels. With farmed seafood, the emissions are low and primarily depend on the feed used. Fruits and Vegetables are the most climate-friendly food.
There are many options currently available to reduce Methane and Nitrous Oxide emissions from improving farm and production efficiencies to using low emission feed for animals and reducing Nitrogen-based fertiliser. There also several options currently being explored and in the pipeline. The website – https://www.agmatters.nz/ is an excellent source on farm-based emissions. Changing our food choices; less red meat, more fish, fruit and vegetables can reduce emissions significantly.
Have we been doing enough to slow down Climate Change? No, the vast majority of countries have done little so far.
Whatever we do, climate effects are likely to hit us in the short and medium-term. Some problems are already visible or highly probable to affect many parts of the world.
Glaciers are already shrinking in the Arctic and some parts of Antarctica. The resulting sea levels will rise and cause coastal flooding in low lying areas. Small island nations will be profoundly affected, and some islands could disappear or made uninhabitable.
Extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, floods, hurricanes will increase and be more severe. Bushfires will be more frequent and affect larger areas.
Lower rainfall and impact on freshwater sources like some of our rivers will impact crop yields and animal husbandry. The hydroelectric generation will reduce as rivers dry up in the summer. Warmer, drier weather will impact forestry. Conflicts over water rights, sometimes violent especially in subtropical countries. Ski seasons will shorten.
Fisheries will thrive in colder regions and suffer in tropical seas. The cooling cost will rise in summer, offset by lower heating cost in winter.
Increase in biosecurity risks. Coral reefs will die, some species of animals will struggle to adapt, some will go extinct.
Heat-related health impacts. Especially on the elderly, outdoor workers and low-income people.
Developing countries and vulnerable people who have fewer resources to adapt will be more severely affected. We will see climate refugees from island nations and some drought-stricken countries.
Sources – Climate Pledge Collective, Climate Action – Solutions for a Changing Planet -SDG, Follow the Money, IPCC Reports 2014, The Guardian,