Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Resource focus

In a previous post (Sunday, 18 January 2009) I mentioned that I had put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Ministry of Defence. In this request, I asked for information regarding MOD greenhouse gas emissions and regarding the financial cost of UK operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MOD very courteously replied to my FOI request, sending me an email detailing the financial costs and a link to the MOD Climate Change Strategy 2009 document online (http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/AboutDefence/WhatWeDo/HealthandSafety/SSDCD/ClimateChangeAndEnergy.htm).

The climate change strategy document makes interesting reading regarding the predicted effects of climate change (such as water shortages, food shortages and sea level rise, leading to displacement of people and animals) particularly from a defence viewpoint.

However, back to the issues I asked about.

MOD Carbon Dioxide emissions:
· MOD direct carbon dioxide emissions for the period 2007/2008 were 6.1 million tonnes (source: MOD Climate Change Strategy 2009).

As a point of reference:
· According to DEFRA statistics for 2007, the UK emitted 544 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which accounted for 85% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions (about 2% of the global total).
· 40% of the carbon dioxide in 2007 was emitted by the energy supply sector.

Financial cost of UK operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:
· The total monetary cost of British activities in Iraq up to 2008 is £6,439 million. The predicted cost for 2008/2009 is £1,379 million.
· The financial cost for UK operations in Afghanistan up to 2008 is £3,086 million. The predicted cost for 2008/2009 is £2,318 million.
Presumably as operations in Iraq wind down and Afghanistan becomes the primary focus the costs will reflect that.

As a point of reference:
· A proposed 3 turbine wind farm near Santa Pod, which if built will provide electricity to about 3000 homes, will cost around £7million to develop/build (source: Nuon).
· The RSPB-Atkins study for the Severn "reef" development, projected to generate 20,000GW of energy each year, will cost around £13 billion to build.
· The cost for the 2012 London Olympics seems to keep rising. The China Daily website cites a cost of around £9 billion so far (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/sports/2009-02/09/content_7458079.htm).

In the present financial and environmental crisis we need to invest our limited resources wisely if we are to achieve what is needed to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Exeunt without fanfare

Here’s a scary thought – well, it scares me. There will be no fanfare as we pass a global tipping point. The sky will not turn pink. No articles in the newspapers or announcement on TV will inform us: “Today, we passed a point of no return. From here on, we all swim.”

As we heat our homes in this cold snap; as we drive the kids to school or ourselves to work; as we cook our food and buy those "made in China" goods or fruit from Brazil; as we turn our PCs on, charge our phones – in short, as we lead our daily lives – we are contributing to our own and our descendants' destruction.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is creeping up towards 400ppm. Permafrost is starting to melt, releasing the frozen methane hydrates. The ocean is acidifying, its surface slowly warming, making existence harder for marine life including one of our planet’s control mechanisms: the alga which pumps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Sea level rise is threatening the croplands of the world.

We cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot afford to make exceptions to drastic emissions caps for our national industries, be it coal, steel or cement production.

Our present fixation on consumption is misplaced: we will never consume our way out of this; we can only consume our way deeper into trouble. If everybody on the planet consumed at the level of those of us in the so-called “First World,” it would take the resources of three to five Earths to sustain us all. Despite this, the Western consumerist ideal is marketed across the globe as "the good life," encouraging ever-increasing numbers of people to buy into the concept that possessions are the only real measure of a person’s value: a throw-away lifestyle that will binge away our planet’s resources in no time.

We need to have more equitable distribution of wealth; to separate our "needs" from our "wants;" to rethink what constitutes “value.” Those of us in the developed world need to face up and take the hit: we must reduce our consumption to acceptable levels. Maybe "contraction and convergence" as originated by Aubrey Meyer is the way to do this; it is at least a beginning. We no longer have the luxury of wait-and-see: we must act now or we will be exiting without a fanfare.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Polar warming

Over the last 50 years, Antarctica has warmed at a rate of about 0.1 degree centigrade in the east of the continent and about 0.17 in the west per decade. The results of this research were published in an article by Steig et al in Nature magazine (Nature 457, 459-462 (22 January 2008). Discussing the results on the web (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/01/state-of-antarctica-red-or-blue/) one of the authors says that the trend is difficult to explain without taking into account the effect of global warming linked to atmospheric greenhouse gases.

If this trend continues, it will result in a major melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet. Taken in conjunction with increased flow from the Greenland ice sheet (IPCC Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report – Summary for Policymakers) we may be facing a serious rise in sea levels over this century. Clearly, this would have a huge global impact on people and wildlife, with the human population crowded into ever-decreasing amounts of space, with ever-decreasing amounts of land for growing food.

As the ice retreats, exploitation of the Arctic’s resources becomes easier, and the EU and other nations are lining up to exploit the oil and natural gas which are present. Fishing craft are exploiting the marine life, and tourism is also increasing in the region. As the lands fringing the arctic sea become green, trees, grizzly bears and caribou move northwards, competing with native arctic wildlife. Additionally, migration of polar bears and arctic island caribou may well be disrupted as the sea ice breaks up, and changing ecosystems will affect many arctic-adapted creatures and northern peoples. The darker land has a lower albedo than ice, which means more sunlight is absorbed, further warming the land and being trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The melting of the permafrost has potentially catastrophic consequences, both in terms of erosion and subsidence and, more critically, in the release of methane. There is great deal of methane locked up in the permafrost and, as it melts, the methane (a greenhouse gas 21 times as powerful - if shorter lived - than carbon dioxide) is released into the atmosphere. It is also possible that the warming of the region and thawing of the permafrost will lead to the release of subsea methane hydrate as methane gas. This gas has been linked to previous mass extinctions and climatic changes, such as the Permian-Triassic mass extinction which killed about 96% of all life (http://pangea.stanford.edu/research/Oceans/GES205/methaneGeology.pdf).

Evidence of the release of methane hydrate was reported in the arctic region last year. Shakhova et al (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of Carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and that 5-10% of that area is subject to puncturing by open taliks (a patch of unfrozen ground in an area of permafrost). They conclude that "release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time" (http://www.cosis.net/abstracts/EGU2008/01526/EGU2008-A-01526.pdf).