Dec 212011

The Durban talkfest unexpectedly produced a result of sorts, with all nations agreeing to think about a treaty “with legal force”, although it wont take effect for eight years! That delay means that it will be much more difficult and expensive to keep warming within acceptable limits with the conservative International Energy Agency stating “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions” and suggesting we are on track for a 6 degree warming this century. However this is just the last in a long series of dire warnings, which the politicos seem to be able to ignore effortlessly. This “better than expected” outcome only happened because the EU has lost patience with the US and the emerging economies and sided with the less developed nations to push for some actual action rather than the normal waffle. Shame they didn’t push harder.

George Monbiot, as ever, crystallises the issue, pointing out that governments can and have paid out trillions of dollars to bail out the banks (the US alone provided $7.7 trillion), but can’t bring themselves to provide a lesser amount to save civilisation. Even the business community acknowledges the problems, with a Harvard Business School study involving top executives suggesting Income disparity, resource depletion and potentially cataclysmic climate change represent major risks to capitalism, though they didn’t suggest any solutions. The recent UK refusal to join the EU treaty is yet another case of governments acting in the interests of business rather than their citizens.

Science fiction authors have speculated that the reason we haven’t seen any sign of other intelligent life is that most destroy themselves in exactly the way we are pursuing – failing to find a way to curb our exponential growth before it trashes the planet.

Studies continue to show that we can transition to a low carbon economy at an acceptable cost (here and here) and in some cases we are already doing so – just not quickly enough, while even the current level of research continues to throw up improvements to existing technology. PV especially is improving rapidly with both minor improvements and longer term breakthroughs likely to keep costs reducing for another decade. Given that PV is cost completive with the retail electricity price in most markets (although this is not being well publicized), expect a lot more PV installations. Separately studies looking outside the square show that we can even make agriculture more sustainable as this article on seaweed aquaculture demonstrates.

The media continues to do a poor job, with a recent Australian study showing a significant bias in reporting, especially in the News Ltd papers.

The Arctic continues to be a worry, n at least two fronts. Firstly the methane feedback, where the rapid warming in the Arctic releases methane stored in tundra or under the ocean, which further increases the warming. Studies are suggesting significant releases are already happening, and will add at least 380 billion tons of carbon dioxide this century (the studies don’t calculate the effect on releases of the added warming so clearly underestimate the actual amount).

Secondly this article describes current thinking on how the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic (40% between the start of satellite observations in 1979 and 2007) is affecting the weather in the US and Europe, producing the cold snowy winters seen recently as well as the extreme events such as the Russian heat wave. It also notes that the extent of ice loss is equivalent to 44% of the US or 70% of Europe! As Dr. Jennifer Francis, the author of the study says “The question is not whether sea ice loss is affecting the large-scale atmospheric circulation…. It’s how can it not?”

Lastly an article from a Peak Oil perspective by John Michael Greer which suggests that we have a disconnect between the paper money economy and the ‘real” economy, which is fundamentally built on “producing goods and services by applying energy to an assortment of raw materials”. He suggests that as the price of energy increases, compounded by the “superstructure” of complexity that we have built up during a century or more of cheap energy means that fewer and fewer projects will make a profit, including those which are key to reengineering our energy industry. Highly recommended.

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