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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.