Friday, October 12, 2012

Don't breathe too deeply, and other stories

Air pollution: 97% of EU citizens are exposed to levels of tropospheric ozone above WHO recommended limits. "On average, air pollution is cutting human lives [in Europe] by roughly eight months and by about two years in the worst affected regions". The situation is considerably worse in many parts of the world. The true cost of the public health burden on respiratory function of burning coal in China, for instance, is perhaps as high as 7% of annual GDP, even before climate costs are considered. A 2011 study of the external costs of coal in the US (excluding climate costs) found an annual price tag between 1/3 and 1/2 a trillion dollars.

Climate change is here: Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP, according to a new study. The impacts are being felt most keenly in developing countries, according to the research, where damage to agricultural production from extreme weather linked to climate change is contributing to deaths from malnutrition, poverty and their associated diseases. Air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels is also separately contributing to the deaths of at least 4.5m people a year, the report found. That means failing to tackle a fossil fuel based economy will contribute to something like 100 million deaths by the end of next decade.

Warming oceans: warming and acidification will cut the productivity of fisheries in many countries. "About 1 billion people depend on seafood as their main source of protein. But some of those countries most dependent on fishing are expected to lose up to 40% of their fish catch by the middle of the century." Hardest hit will be the Persian Gulf, Libya, and Pakistan. Of course, this is just from carbon-related changes and does not take into account patterns of overfishing, invasive species, pollution, eutrophification, stratification, shifting currents or habitat loss from coral reef degradation. And even the size of fish will shrink in warmer oceans.

Dying trees: Who will speak for the trees? Trees are dying by the millions all around the world due to a wide range of factors. Not just deforestation - which, though it has slowed down a little in Brazil, still continues with increasing rapidity elsewhere - but also due to ground level ozone pollution, infectious diseases (a third of all UK trees face wipeout from a new fungal threat that is expected to wipe out over 90% of Danish Ash trees) and a variety of threats associated with climate change, such as heat stress, invasive species (pine bark beetle) and droughts. For instance, last year's drought in Texas killed over three hundred million trees (or about 6% of all its trees). Heat stress has been linked to widespread tree mortality in scores of studies over the last few years.

Ocean acidification: A basic primer with FAQs, including excellent brief answer to common misconceptions.

Killer cats: How much do cats actually kill? The Oatmeal summarises some recent research. There are hundreds of millions of domestic cats around the world, and tens or hundreds of millions of feral cats. They are taking a big toll on small wildlife.

Australian coal: Australia's carbon price, far from signalling the "death of the coal industry" as claimed repeatedly by the Opposition, has apparently done little to dent the explosive growth of coal exploration in the country. Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, fifth largest extractor of fossil hydrocarbons globally and has the highest per capita domestic carbon emissions in the OECD. Despite setting very modest carbon reduction targets in recent legislation, both government and industry are planning on a doubling of coal exports in the coming decade, representing emissions many times greater than Australia's tiny domestic reductions, which will largely come from international offsets in any case.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Scotland: world's greenest nation?

For all kinds of reasons, I love living in Scotland. One of them is the fact that I can pay for 100% renewable electricty for what is now a lower price than most of those who are relying on fossil fuels.

Indeed, Scotland is something of a world leader in its carbon reduction goals. Scotland has the world's most ambitious legally-binding carbon reduction goals (42% from 1990 levels by 2020 - compare Australia's target of a 5% reduction from 2000 levels by 2020). It is also aiming to produce enough renewable electricity to cover 100% of domestic demand by 2020, and is largely on track towards this goal. It is leading the field in research into some promising new varieties of renewable power based on waves and tides.

But the current Scottish Nationalist government also plans to exploit its large (though rapidly declining) North Sea oil and gas reserves, which, when extracted, refined, sold and burned, will add something like 5-10 billion tonnes of CO2. It will take many decades for the emissions saved by the previously mentioned targets to "pay off" this carbon debt. The value of these reserves is critical to the government's economic case for Scottish independence, yet exploiting them seriously undermines the image of an independent and green Scotland that First Minister Salmon wants to sell.

In the end, if we want a habitable planet that bears any resemblance to the one we currently enjoy, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil hydrocarbons safely underground.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In place of a post on nuclear power

Since even before the disaster at Fukushima, I was planning a lengthy post (or series) considering the place of nuclear power amidst our climate and ecological crises. Towards this post, I now have thousands of words and scores of links (as I do on a number of other topics that are too large for me to find the time to address them with anything like the attention they deserve).

As it seems unlikely that I am going to publish these thoughts anytime in the immediate future (given other deadlines), it seemed like a waste if I did not at least point any thoughtful readers towards this discussion between George Monbiot and Theo Simon. Consisting of a somewhat lengthy email interchange over the last few months now published by George on his website, it is is far and away the best exploration that I have found of the some of the key ethical and political issues behind the nuclear debate, which can get often mired in the technical and economic aspects of the question (as important as they each are).

So consider this discussion a primer for the day when I get around to putting forward my own thoughts in public. For those who may be interested to know where I stand, I will simply say that I am deeply sympathetic to both authors. Now go and read the thread.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

First World Problems

For the next time you're stuck with a First World Problem. H/T Matheson.