Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

COP17: Are all the essential things on the agenda?

Reading the daily reports on what has been happening at COP17 in Durban leaves one with a mixture of disappointment and hope — disappointment in Northern, developed countries like the US and Canada, for not showing greater commitment to doing what is necessary to (attempt to) secure the world’s future by lessening greenhouse gas emissions (and prioritising their own short-term economic and political interests instead), and hope in the light of signs of the increasing realisation of just how precarious the global climate situation is becoming. Especially among the young people who are attending the conference the insistence that the older generation is not doing enough, as well as their own commitment to a more truly sustainable future has been hope-inspiring.

Not that the realisation of worsening conditions should be surprising. Just recently, coinciding with the commencement of COP17, a UN meteorological committee announced its findings concerning accumulating greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, namely, that it is approximating the point of irreversibility regarding its effects on global climate conditions. This report alone should spur especially those countries (including the US, Canada, China, India and South Africa — the 11th-greatest producer of greenhouse gas-emissions in the world, given our large dependence on coal) which are the greatest emission-culprits to take the lead in efforts to reach a binding agreement to lessen emissions optimally within the next five years, because the message should be loud and clear: time is running out. In concrete terms this means that, unless the increase in global temperatures can somehow be slowed down, and contained within the 2° Centigrade limit, the world faces an uncertain future, with probable meteorological conditions that we cannot even begin to imagine (considering the increase in weather turbulence that we have already witnessed on the basis of about 1° Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures since the 1970s).

But, from a scientific point of view, are all of the really essential things in relation to runaway climate change on the agenda? Perhaps they are, but there are some that I have not read about in the daily reports. One of them is the tension, highlighted by James Lovelock in his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia — A Final Warning (see my earlier TL blog-post on this book, between food and water security (in a world where climate changes are becoming more and more drastic) and the kinds of alternatives to heavily polluting energy sources such as fossil fuels and coal that are being considered and promoted.

In various contexts throughout the book he is at pains to debunk the common belief that biofuel and wind energy are both viable alternatives to fossil fuels and energy from coal. The small-scale use of biofuels from recycled cooking oil and agricultural waste, he points out on page 12, is not really harmful, but the massive production of maize, beetroot and sugar cane for fuel is, in his judgement, ultimately self-defeating and harmful, considering the amounts of land that will be needed for this. And land, he stresses, is urgently needed for the production of food (these things included), given the threat of climate change to food and water supplies. In fact, according to Lovelock, climate change has progressed so far that the most urgent thing humanity should be attending to, is the securing of water and food supplies for the dry, desert-like conditions that are likely to afflict much of the world some decades from now. In other words, we might as well start learning to ADAPT to a world that is already in the process of changing. At least food and water security is on the agenda at COP17, but whether the right decisions are being made in this regard is a different question.

Wind energy, in turn, is not as innocent as we have been led to believe. Its main drawbacks concern the massive amounts of land required for a significant number of wind turbines, the massive amounts of concrete (which is highly pollutant to produce) needed to anchor them (20 1MW turbines need more than 10 000 tonnes of concrete; see pg 17), and something that is commonly overlooked, namely, that, unless one has a wind-farm that is assured of constant, sufficiently strong wind, for every wind-farm a full-sized coal-fired or nuclear power station would have to be built as back-up (for when wind drops below usable velocities). This is hardly what deserves the name of “green energy”! (The fact that subsidy is needed for wind-energy to be profitable, also explains why there has been such interest in it.)

Interestingly, Of the six different energy sources listed by Lovelock (pg 83) — namely, coal and oil (footprint: two), gas (one), nuclear (two), solar thermal (150), solar voltaic (150) and wind energy (30 000), the “footprint” of wind energy (its relative area cover, given in brackets) is massive, compared to other sources. As far as pollution goes, they compare as follows (with the pollution figure in brackets): coal and oil (10), gas (five), nuclear (one), solar thermal (zero), solar voltaic (two) and wind (four). From this it is clear that solar thermal sources of energy should be the preferred choice, but it is only viable in countries where there is abundant sunshine — in the UK and Ireland, for instance, it is less viable. Lovelock — whose book came out just before the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan — states his preference for what, in retrospect, may not seem to be such a good option any longer, namely nuclear energy, because of its comparatively small footprint and pollution — the latter comprising the disposal of the (according to him relatively small quantity of) nuclear waste generated in the process.

What Lovelock refers to as the most promising way to get rid of excess carbon dioxide has, as far as I could see, been absent from discussions at COP17, namely through the burial of elemental carbon in the form of “char” (pg 99), by converting agricultural waste into this substance on a large scale. Char is similar to coal, but is not a fuel, and by burying agricultural waste in this form reduces the natural release of 99.9% of the waste’s carbon as carbon dioxide and methane to a release of only 10% to 30%. This is a huge improvement compared to agricultural waste’s use as biofuel, according to Lovelock. Apparently research into this is proceeding at present.

Finally, I cannot help wondering if the issue of the link between greenhouse gases and the human as well as livestock populations of the world has come up at COP17. Lovelock reminds us (pg 47) that seven billion people, together with their pets and livestock, contribute 23% of all such gas emissions. The drastic reduction of the world’s population is therefore something worth considering — by adopting a one-child-per-family policy worldwide, and not only in China, the end of the 21st century can see a huge drop in population globally. Linked to this, he points out that cattle and sheep are an inefficient way of producing food (to the meat-eaters); “waste-eating poultry and pigs” seem a far better option. This is bound to stick in the gizzard of many people, however, who would rather see us fry than to change their eating customs and habits.

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  • Climate change and the long walk back to ourselves
  • The destructive approach to nature: ‘Geostorm’
  • Our troubled world
  • Is it time to boycott the US?
    • Judith

      ADAPT is about the only solution open to us at this point. We have a rapidly changing planet which we continue to pollute heavily with gay abandon as if there is no tomorrow. We have already gone beyond the tipping point and now must work towards looking at how we mitigate the disaster we have created.

      The big question is whether we are willing to do so. I suspect that the growing movements against exploitation of the many by the few will use real change processes to put in place this mitigation as they mature in outlook. They have identified where the problems are coming from and now they need to firmly replace the tyranny that they are opposing with a new order.

      I hope I live long enough to see them succeed

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      All this faith in “scientists” is rather frightening – considering that scientists are NOT agreed on this topic, but the only ones having their research funded are the ones spinning the popular line.

      In the 1970s the “scientists” were predicting a new Ice Age. One of the signs for that was supposed to have been the Thames freezing over at some stage. When the planet did not obey the predictions of the scientists, they changed their theory to “extremes” caused by “global warming” ! Can we afford to wait decades to find out that they are wrong again?

      Not that I disagree that there is Climate Change – but the climate has always changed. I doubt very much that it is CO2 emmissions that are the main cause, but if it is then it is more likely the increase in people (emmitters of CO2) and the decrease in plants especially forests(CO2 absorbers and emitters of oxygen) that has thrown out the balance of nature.

      More important is that “scientists” say that agricultural production will have to increase by 70 percent to feed the population of the world in 2050, and that the same “scientists” also say that climate change will decrease agricultural output by 20 percent.

    • Rene

      What makes it advisable o take note of what Lovelock is saying, is the fact that he is an independent climate scientist, and not beholden to any looby group or corporation.

    • Maria

      If the scientists are right – and chances are better that they are right than that the developed countries’ emissaries are right, because these countries only care about “THE ECONOMY”, not the future of our children on the planet – then we, the ordinary people, should start showing some solidarity in DEMANDING that our so-called representatives DO something about it, instead of just talking.

    • http://www.windturbinesforthehomex.com Devon

      Hey Bert …I agree on the wind farms not being feasible options. What do you think about wind turbines for the home …for an individual home?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Why are we worrying about “greenhouse gasses”? A Greenhouse is where you grow plants which absorb CO2. So grow more plants, and less people!

      South Africa is the only country in the world which developed an oil from coal industry, with taxpayers money, while the world mocked – Sasol, a parastatal. Mandela forced its sale even before he became president and De Klerk was so upset he made Mandela counter-sign the papers.

      When the USA and the Sauds say “Jump”, the ANC says “How High”

    • The Bobster

      With all the scientific studies that justify that climate change is occurring and also the reality that these studies alarmingly conclude that the climate change processes are visibly occurring within a our own generation, I don’t think it is relevant whether the cause has an anthropological footprint or not. It is a global issue that needs to be adequately addressed and sustainable solutions found. If we do not take positive action future generations will rightly abhore the behaviour of their forefathers.
      However what is critical to the mitigation of GHG emissions is the fact that we are 7 billion people populating a planet that cannot provide sustenance for all these inhabitants. This point is being politely ignored by the United Nations and is considered a no, no.
      We must not forget that earth does not care about the future of the current dominant species Homo sapiens and once we have depleted its resources and destroyed ourselves in the process it will continue its evolution, oblivious of our short term of supremacy as the top predator.

    • Enough Said

      I have several problems with some things Lovelock says:

      1) Wind farms hardly hamper agricultural use of land. 99% of the land a wind farm is placed can still used for other purposes. Secondly, China now produces 40GW from wind, from mostly off-shore wind farms, and that is more than South Africa’s currently electricity requirements.

      2) Nuclear energy is nowwhere near carbon neutral, take the uranium mining process into account. Furthermore it takes 10 years or more to build a nuclear power plant or two years to build a solar or wind plant. If we need power urgently to drive the economy, wind and solar are the realistic option. Nuclear also requires plenty of water, check out the whole nuke cycle. I cannot understand Lovelock obsession with nukes, I think he has lost the plot.

    • Enough Said

      How much land would South Africa require to go 100% renewable?

      To generate half our current capacity from wind alone, at an availability factor of only 25%, we would need maximum 40 000 turbines, on about 4000 sq kilometres (of which 99% of this land can still be used for other activities).

      Similarly, to generate all our electricity from solar (at 13% conversion efficiency), would require about 730 sq. kilometres, remembering that our country is a massive 1,219,912 sq. kilometres, less than 0.06% of our land area.

      Neither solar nor wind farms need to be placed on prime agricultural or industrial land, in fact the solar power stations could be placed in some God-forsaken corner no-one inhabits.

    • Enough Said

      We can take the carbon dioxide levels back to pre-industrial levels very quickly by converting to smart food production:

      “Terrestrial carbon sequestration is the best way to buy time in a warming world. Cutting emissions will help, but not as immediately as sequestration. Making sequestration a priority matters, given critical policy choices that must be made as evidence of current, specific climate-change impacts to agriculture and wildlife mounts.” – Answering the Climate Question with Smart Food Production
      http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_19229.cfm

      >>>

    • Enough Said

      Population growth:

      I have read up a fair amount on population. The best form of reducing birth rates is education and womans rights. Contrary to what reads in the popular media, China’s one child per family policy failed, their population growth rates slowed before the policy was implemeted, and while it was being implemented had horrendous side effects, infanticide, killing female babies etc.

      Wikipedia have (had) some useful information on sub-replacement fertility and declining populations in several countries, but I found them less reliable on China, they quote CIA figures which appear to be incorrect when one goes to other more reliable sources.

    • Enough Said

      China is currently increaseing the worlds polulation by 12 mil to 14 mil extra people each year, more than any other country in the world. The one child per family policy was a farse.

      James Lovelock was born in 1919 (92 years ago), and with all due respect, I think we must thank him for what he has contributed in the past and look to more modern environmentalists, scientists, and futurists.

    • Paul Greenwood

      the point always overlooked is the demands side of resources
      to reduce pollution perhaps we need to reduce demand
      & the main problem is the excessive number of people !
      we need to stop breeding like rabbits & be more responsible

    • MLH

      Message to COP17: do something, do anything but sit on your butts doing nothing but talk!
      What is most offensive is that governments are not listening to their people, who will ultimately pay with their taxes, live and children’s lives. I have been wondering for years how Eskom can justify Medupi and Kusile, but here they are, already half built. What does Eskom care? What does government care? What does the ANC care?
      The chaps with bunkers under their homes will be perfectly happy knowing that all above them are expiring. Disturbing, to say the least!

    • The Creator

      You don’t need fossil-fuel plants for backup for wind turbines. Pumped-storage reservoirs are excellent for storing wind or solar energy, and South Africa is mountainous enough that such reservoirs can be constructed almost anywhere.

      But instead we’re building coal plants, nukes and moving to Fantasy Island. Which will soon be overwhelmed by the rising waves.

    • HD

      What most of the Greenies and environmentalist don’t get is that you cannot seperate economics from this debate. It is central to everything and is partly why the politicians are so involved in this…this unfortunately also means that this whole process is driven by politicians that are open to any special interest that they think might bolster their career paths.

      Economic growth is also key to the population growth solution. You are only going to see smaller families and more educated woman when you see peoples living standards improve and material circumstances. There is a reason people two generations ago had such large families. Pity then many Greenies want to go back to these peasant economies.

      I also find the suggestions of a 1-child policy shocking and extremely unlibertarian (read anti-freedom not the political ideology).

      Lovelock at least brings to the agenda many of the issues simply ignored by Green propoganda and activist. Point out for instance that wind farms and solar panels will look equally disgusting than “fracking wells” and see what happens…

    • Richard

      Again, this is all down to economics. Capitalism requires new markets to be created constantly, in order to maintain demand. New markets can be acquired through export, or the expansion of population. For this reason, population control is essentially anathema to capitalism, since it depresses demand. Modern capitalism had its roots in Victorian England, when the population was growing, and then through colonialism created new markets. However, that model could only work for a certain period: now that the whole world is part of that same market, growth cannot be sustained through constant creation of new markets. The machine of capitalism can become more efficient, and create cheaper goods, but that will eventually also lead nowhere. In other words, market capitalism is running out of steam, and its puported endless growth is being transmuted into one of a zero-sum game. We cannot make our own fortunes anymore, we must perforce become part of the existing system. That makes the holders of capital far more powerful than in Victorian times, because there are no virgin territories to conquer, and to which to escape. Does anybody else see in all this a return to mediaeval times, with peasants (and peasant revolts) and patronage? Alas, because people remain the same as they were in mediaeval times (greedy and fearful) we constrain ourselves into this model that is ultimately killing us. That is why all alternative models always fail. Our greed is our doom.

    • Enough Said

      Oops, I forgot, the one essentail thing not on the COP 17 agenda is capitalism has caused this crises and is incapable of solving it.

    • Enough Said

      Overconsumption is more of a problem than overpopulation. Educate and uplift, and birth rates decrease to the level of where populations decline. There are several countries with sub fertility replacement rates, i.e. declining populations. Overpopulation is the rallying call of old right wing farts too stupid to think for themselves.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      CAPITALISM is the use of CAPITAL(money) to build factories to employ WORKERS to PRODUCE goods for PROFITS.

      We have few capitalists left, which is one of the reasons for the high unemployment everywhere. Why risk capital and the dramas of labour laws when all the rich have to do with money is SPECULATE with existing shares and property?

      Speculation is NOT capitalism!

    • Enough Said

      “What is clear from … Magdoff and Foster, is that ‘what every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism’ is that: 1) it is the root cause of the environmental crisis, 2) capitalism is incapable of solving it, either by going green or by becoming non-growth.’

      From “What Every Environmentalist Needs To Know about Capitalism
      A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment”

      by Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster

      >>>

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Work out what percentage 12 million is of 1.5 billion, and you will see that China’s one child policy is working.

      Chad and Niger have a polygamous society with over 7 children per woman and about 7 percent population growth a year. One man can have 20-40 children, depending on how many wives he has!

      Imagine if China had 7 percent population growth a year!

    • Bert

      Thank you for that reference, Enough Said, and for the observation regarding China’s 1-child policy, Lyndall.

    • Richard

      @Lyndall, there are two issues here. One is that China is already wondering how it is going to manage when its population starts falling. The elderly population will need looking after, but with a declining population, by whom? Secondly, the taxes to keep the whole thing afloat will have to be paid for by somebody. So, again, it boils down to the means of production. The capitalist system within which China now operates means that it will need to relax those one-child rules in order for its internal markets to expand, and to have enough human resources to function. Europe is a salient example. Populations have remained static or are falling, so Europeans are importing people to keep their societies running. Those people come from places where populations are exploding, like India and Africa. If those areas had zero population growth, where would the workforce come from? Also, Europe needs taxpayers, since zero population growth means insufficient working-age people to pay taxes. This problems is occurring in Japan too, and will occur in China in time. While it is ecologically imperative to reduce human population size, it is economically impossible to do so within a capitalist system. In a strange way, capitalism mirrors the biological imperative to procreate as much as possible to ensure preservation of species. Biological greed mirrors cultural (economic) greed. As Bert has said, a new paradigm is needed. Any ideas?

    • Bert

      That is an excellent analysis, Richard, and underscores, yet again, that (in a very fundamental sense) capitalism is the biggest problem facing us today. It is a cancer that requires growth lest it should die, but which growth – as you so clearly argue – at the same time threatens the planet’s eco-systems. What a dilemma we’re in! I am becoming increasingly aware of the growing number of people who are turning to alternative modes of living – have you seen the article on the Mail and Guardian’s website about the little community in the Karoo (Ladismith, I think) who ‘live the dream’ through their cultivation of permaculture? Close to the earth, mutually interdependent, away from the rat race…somewhere in the article someone is quoted as saying that it sure beats doing power-point presentations…

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      There is a tacit assumption that economic growth is not possible without population growth. I guess nobody here replaced their old desktop computer with a flashy new pad? Or their old fuel guzzler with a zippy more green friendly car? There is no need to expand populations in order to maintain economic growth. The population dip in the 1st world versus the population growth that still occurs in the 3rd world testifies of this. Want smaller populations? Focus on woman’s rights and education.

      Living close to the earth is actually more detrimental to the environment than bringing in technology and this can be confirmed time and again by spending a bit of time on google. There is no ism that is the root cause or fundamental problem of our planet, and likewise there won’t be a solution forthcoming by changing the ism.

      China may be adding plenty of people to the population, but her growth rate is still too little to replace the current souls with a new generation. This is rather why they would have to relax the one child policy: They are going to need more labour, not less.

      For comparision, these are current estimated population growth rates. Note that a rate of 2,10 is assumed to replace the current population and China is at 0,49.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      That the elderly can’t work is an American, worship the creativity of the young and dump the elderly, myth. They would be dependent on no-one if it was not for old fashioned, out of date, retirement laws.

      My father, editor of the law reports, was brought back from retirement and worked till the day of his death, in his 80th year.

      The best and most competant secretary/PA that I ever had died at home in her sleep in her late 70s, while still working and still streets ahead of her juniors (most of whom she had trained including those who had moved to the opposition firms) for accumulated institutional knowledge.

      Because of the retirement laws however, sensible people prepare, and start a second career in retirement – often much more successful than the first!