Climate change – what needs to be done: part 1?

In August 19, I posted a blog entitled, “What if Greta is correct?”, see https://www.tsp-uk.co.uk/general-leadership/what-if-greta-is-correct/.  I want to come back to the topic of Climate Change. During my recent holiday I read Bill Gates’ book, “How to avoid a climate disaster”, as well as the Economist’s special report on Climate Change published to coincide with COP26 in Glasgow.

The Holiday – weather or climate change?

I took my holiday in Vancouver and toured around British Columbia, both the mainland and Vancouver Island. The landscapes are stunningly beautiful. We reached the small township of Bella Coola by negotiating the Heckman Pass. If you enjoy an adventurous drive, I commend it to you.  Bella Coola is in The Great Bear Rainforest. It is designated as “wilderness” territory. It is home to a broad range of flora and fauna including the white Kermode bear which, sadly, we did not see, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rare-white-bear-key-saving-canadian-rainforest-180956330/.

Lytton and near Lillooet

We passed near to the town of Lytton. This was razed to the ground in a single day during this year’s summer heatwave when temperatures soared into the high 40C. Just after we left to return home to the UK, the same area was ravaged by torrential storms. These washed away roads and railway lines. A month’s rain fell in a day. NearLillooet, some people were swept away to their deaths by landslides engulfing the road along which they were driving. We had driven along this road – thereby but for the grace of God.

Background reading

I encourage you to invest your time to read Gates’ book, and the Economist’s report.  You can find the first article in the report at https://www.economist.com/special-report/2021/10/27/the-agenda-for-the-cop-26-summit. At the end are links to the rest of the report.  Unfortunately, you may find you encounter a paywall. If you do, let me know.

Both provide a clear narrative about the scale of the challenge we confront if we are to keep temperature increases to below 2C, if not 1.5C.  Gates helpfully sets out five areas of activity that demand attention and investment. These are:

  • How we generate our energy sources
  • How we make things
  • How we grow things
  • How we get around
  • How we cool and stay warm

I like the clarity of the concept of a “carbon budget” we have available to “spend”. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a 50% chance of keeping temperatures below 2°C requires keeping total carbon emissions below 3.7trn tonnes. It reckons that, so far, 2.4trn of those tonnes have already been emitted through industrialisation and deforestation, mostly to the benefit of the 1bn or so people who live in the rich world. This means that only 1.3trn tonnes of emissions are left in the 2°C budget for more than six billion other people. All are likely to want for their children the same standards of living the wealthy world has enjoyed for two centuries.

For the developed world to squash those aspirations would be tantamount to a second round of imperialism and colonisation. The Economist states, “These people have in the past been responsible for very few CO2 emissions. What is more, their poverty can be attributed in part to the lack of development allowed by their forebears compared with that enjoyed by the ancestors of people in economies which grew rapidly through exploiting fossil fuels.”

The developed world needs to aggressively reduce its carbon emissions and strive to support the developing world to repeat the game of leapfrog it played in telephony. Here it bypassed scaling up a vast land-line based network. Instead, it leapt straight into digital networks. (It was in Kenya that a mobile phone first became a means of payment as part of a micro-finance initiative.)  The whole world can’t afford to see the developing world develop using uncreatively destructive “analogue” fossil fuels. Its growth must rely on creatively destructive innovation. 

I find it astonishing the China and India equivocated at COP26 about including the phrase “phasing out coal” in the final declaration. Surely with a combined population of 2.8 billion, there is a deep pool of creativity and innovation that could be more effectively inspired and tapped for potential solutions?  Where is the Xi or Modi led equivalent of Prince Williams’ Earthshot prize?

Xi, Modi and Prince William

Unicorns and Zebras

Unicorn and zebras

Gates considers solutions on both demand and supply sides. I believe he makes a huge omission in being too accepting about investors and their expected returns. He says, “Many of the VC firms that had invested in green tech were pulling out of the industry because the returns were too low.”  Gates talks about losing $50m on one investment he made, which equates to 0.035% of his estimated worth.

In an age of low interest rates – negative in some places – can investors morally and ethically expect to receive double-digit returns in the 2020s? Does our planet’s future hope rest and, potentially, falter on such egregious expectations of unviable ROI?

Unicorns are start-ups with a value exceeding £1bn. Should environmental investment have the sole aim of achieving this financial value or can we take an alternative focus required? Should unicorns by left in never-never land and, instead, let’s nurture “zebras”. https://techcrunch.com/2020/12/21/silicon-valley-should-reward-zebras-not-unicorns/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAENHUWoo5N6ikGP7TyP2hU7JbuMcsylhMjtcSTjR2ZYJKSKLC2cwJsTymAY2jnlevJbbi6wqTzqMd7QzZJbqgxd5zG9ciOafal8GYfw_qOcMWDY4tc4mH_8n351vdfMoBqv1YOQKMwOfEvxX-uffEwPUuDG2m0SHHKYdG8GsEo_I

Do the wealthy philanthropists like Gates and others across the top 0.1% need to act more like Sir Tim Berners-Lee who developed and gave away the world-wide-web for free? Who remembers this moment from the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012?

London Olympics 2012

I’ve read that data centres are consuming double-digit percentages of electrical power, although this article from Wired magazine refutes this, https://www.wired.com/story/data-centers-not-devouring-planet-electricity-yet/. Some while ago, Microsoft retrieved a server it had put on the seabed in the Orkneys to assess the viability of immersion providing sufficient cooling to the sensitive hardware. As we wade deeper into the age of big-data and AI, so the need for continued efficiencies will arise.

My late father said, “You can’t take it with you.” While it is admirable that many of the wealthy like Gates and Warren Buffett have committed to give away vast amounts of their wealth, do they and others need to do more, specifically regarding climate change? Contrast Jeff Bezos funding the building of his phallic-shaped rockets and his ex-wife endeavouring to give away her billions of divorce settlement. Another example is Swedish millionaire, Johan Eliasch, buying 400,000 acres of Amazon rainforest from a logging company for $14m for the sole purpose of its preservation.

Suggested solutions

Gates considers a wide range of solutions, too often smothered by the blanket of over-expectant ROIs. A big issue he addresses is the “intermittency” of energy sources like solar and wind. The sun doesn’t shine every day, nor does the wind blow consistently. Consider this BBC New item about the UK refiring its coal fuelled power stations because of renewable intermittency,  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58469238.amp

Tide and wave power

A remarkable omission in Gates’ book is tidal and wave power. The tides rise and fall twice a day, every day. Admittedly there is a different factor of intermittency in the variance of tidal ranges around the world.  The UK has some of the biggest, e.g. the Severn and Mersey estuaries.  In the 1980s, I was involved in an initial consideration to build a barrage across the Mersey. Sadly, the idea did not win financial backing, at the time quantified in millions whereas now it would reach into the billions.  Yet in France, the Rance Tidal Power Station has operated since the 1960s. Concern expressed at the time of development about the ecological impact appears to have been unfounded. 

Rance Tidal Power Station

Wave power has another intermittency that requires solving – their size. Pleasingly, initiatives are in train to solve this, see https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/a-simple-but-ingenious-mechanism-may-give-wave-power-a-boost/21805739 and https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/a-simple-but-ingenious-mechanism-may-give-wave-power-a-boost/21805739.

Nuclear power

Gates also considers nuclear power, which tends to add another layer of emotion to the climate change debate.  Presently, we rely on nuclear fission, i.e., breaking apart atoms. The UK is sinking billions into building a new fission-based power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset and plans are progressing to do likewise at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast not far from where I live.

Rightly, Mark Goyder (https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-goyder-72713827/) argues strenuously against this vast initiative on both financial and environmental cost grounds. Other plans are hatching to redevelop Bradwell in Essex, these with Chinese funding. Geo-political challenge relating to Chinese treatment of Uyghurs in its most westerly region may slow, even stop, this initiative.

There is an ebb and flow debate about redeveloping sites at Wylva and Trawsfynydd in North Wales.  The latter is under consideration as one location for Rolls-Royce’s proposed mini-reactors, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mini-reactors-at-the-core-of-a-local-nuclear-revolution-shfpc2f22.  Like Bradwell with China’s involvement, this venture involves Qatar and, therefore, inviting challenge because of its human-rights record. For anyone like me who grew up in the 1960s, the idea of “mini-reactors” seems to finally bring to reality the imagination Gerry Anderson’s many TV series.  In these, all sorts of machinery from aircraft to cars have nuclear power sources.

Of course, this mode of nuclear power produces the problem of dealing with its highly radioactive waste. In the last episode of his BBC2 TV series about the UK’s Lake District National Park, Simon Reeve went behind the scenes of the Windscale Nuclear Re-processing plant. What he saw was scary. What he wasn’t able to show is probably even scarier.

Nuclear fusion wears a less severe set of waste shackles . Is the 20 year-old joke about fusion being a solution that is 20 years away about to end? Consider this article, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/e717dae2-4bd7-11ec-a89c-4bee41baeb9c?shareToken=57220eea12fb406876556c7ff9a74159. Bill Gates is backing the venture featured in the article. Of all the energy generating technologies under consideration, this is the most challenging, complex, and expensive, and does it hold greatest potential?

E-vehicles

Gates’ fourth theme concerns moving around. He gives considerable attention to electric vehicles and raises many questions about their practicalities. This article sees Volvo exploring whether e-cars emit more carbon in their manufacture than fossil fuel powered ones, https://flip.it/IgHYSh. Of course, the Chinese now own Volvo, so is there some political gamesmanship at play, here?

In an advert for the Economist’s rEV Index, produced in collaboration with BP, it states that electric vehicles are 50% more expensive to buy and 30% more costly to run over three years.  These are ludicrous premiums that probably reflect an over-high expectancy of return.  On a practical front, I wonder how people living in houses that require them to park their cars on the road will re-charge them.  Who is liable for the tripping hazard of the wire running across the pavement from your house to your car assuming you can park outside your property? 

Or will this disappear with advent of driverless cars summoned to your front-door on an app on a need must basis? However, is that an urban solution impractical in remote, rural communities.

Carbon capture

The other side of the technological coin of energy generation is cleaning the air of existing carbon emissions through “direct carbon capture”, where initiatives in Iceland and Canada are in train. The Economist’s special report includes an article about these.

To my unscientific mind, this strikes me as an important avenue to explore because if we can recoup some of the historic carbon “spend”, it provides headroom in time for the developing world to chase their economic and social growth ambitions.

This article talks about “green cement”, the production of which is one of the most significant generators of carbon emissions, https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/how-cement-may-yet-help-slow-global-warming/21806083.

An advert by Saudi Arabia’s Aramco subsidiary Sabic set out how it is experimenting to capture trucks’ diesel emissions. Laudable, yet perhaps a case of “greenwashing” to perpetuate sale of the dirty fuel?

Deforestation and plant-based diets

Deforestation contributes significantly to carbon emissions. There is considerable encouragement for reforesting although, as ever, there are exploitative loopholes to take advantage of, see https://www.economist.com/international/the-world-should-prove-its-love-for-forests-by-putting-carbon-prices-on-them/21806086.

If deforestation occurs due to making space to grow more crops for direct human consumption, how valuable will a plant-based diet prove to be in reducing carbon emissions? Some deforesting, e.g., in the Amazon, has made room to grow crops for livestock feed.  Is that a double whammy? Likewise, palm-oil plantations in Indonesia.

I grew up in the age of “meat and two veg” meals. Everything my parents bought was farmed locally – potatoes and carrots still had the soil on them in which they grew (which you paid for in the weight), they weren’t scrubbed clean and enveloped in cling film. The meat we consumed meat had few food miles under its hooves or trotters. Do cattle that feed on what they evolved to eat, i.e., grass, fart more of less than intensively reared animals fed a diet of chemically based “food”? (And, as we approach Christmas, does Santa need to consider how to capture the emissions of his flatulent reindeer?)

I remain unsure how healthy is a meat-free diet. I read that it lacks certain critical nutrients, e.g., vitamin B. Of course, taking supplements can replace these, but what is the carbon footprint of manufacturing a large tub of vitamin capsules?

There is a huge need for easily understandable fact and evidence about our foods’ “field to plate” carbon footprint and their nutritional value as part of a healthy lifestyle – an “and/and” aim rather than an “either/or”. 

What is done is done, or is it?

To close this first part of my blog, I am indebted to Professor Grant Campbell, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Huddersfield University. He shared the following quote with me. Dr Subra Suresh, Dean of MIT School of Engineering says, “Most of the great challenges engineers face in the twenty-first century involve fixing the successes of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century.”

I don’t consider for one moment that the anthropogenic era’s successes encompass only engineering.  Most other sectors will need to unravel past successes.  Therefore, in the second part of this blog, I will consider the leadership issues relating to climate change. 

Who is best placed to inspire change, and how best should this be done?

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