Archive for October, 2007

Today seems to be the right day for publication of another synthesis of what has been available online in the newspapers this week.

For those interested in an even better review, covering the recent times and looking at different issues, I would recommend this post from Trinifar. Impressive but true.

I was astonished to discover three significant articles on the homepage of the Guardian Environment and Le Monde (in French): first, that a new report has acknowledged that the world oil production peaked recently, and that increasing gap between offer and demand will inevitably lead to catastrophic social and economical consequences (English version available there); then, that the UK was trying to withdraw from its commitment to reach 20% renewables by 2020 (an information confirmed the day after); finally, (see also here for a French version) that scientists have observed an increased rate of CO2 emissions since 2000, leading to faster and tougher environmental consequences. And today a new report reveals that our civilization and the world it lives in are in danger of disappearance. In a couple of number, it gives this (quoting from the Guardian)

· 45 thousand square miles of forest are lost across the world each year

· 60% of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted

· 34%: the amount by which the world’s population has grown in the last 20 years

· 75 thousand people a year are killed by natural disasters

· 50%: The percentage by which populations of fresh fish have declined in 20 years

· 20%: How much the energy requirements of developed countries such as the United States have increased in the period

And in the meantime, when companies study new technologies, people are expressing their refusal to see large wind turbines developed and sold, on the excuse that it is visually disturbing. Well, one has to choose: whether we try to shift from fossil to renewable power, thus attempting to limit our greenhouse gases emissions (and accept a visual “insult”, which is to me acceptable given the other option), or we go on burning coal and gas and go to hell within a century. Fortunately, politics are beginning to address the question and locally things are changing. In France, this week after the “Grenelle of environment” talks, the government has agreed in partnership with environmental organizations to vote new laws aiming at setting the path to a more environmental-friendly society; although there is a lot left to do in order to actually achieve sustainability. It is too early to judge how these new measures will be implemented, but the example of UK is not a good one to be inspired.

Well, time for some synthesis: the news are accumulating, as they have always done, although at a higher rate now, and show that it is no longer merely our climate which is at stake. It is our whole civilization, and the majority of the biosphere on this planet (see here and there for examples) that are now threatened. And even though we thougt we would have 1-15 years to react and change the slope we have taken, it appears that all the scenarios imagined before have systematically been wrong, even the most pessimistic ones (here, concerning the Stern report), and see the above mentioned articles for the rising GHG emissions.

Unfortunately, as I often witness, people have two behaviors when confronted to the problem:

  • They do not know and prefer not to know about it. After all, we live in developed countries and it is far better to shift the problems to the other side of the globe rather than questioning our lifestyles
  • They deeply reckon that technology can solve everything. “Put your faith in humanity and in science”. Being a scientist, I totally disagree with this claim. It is not like switching off the light: finding new solutions or establishing new theories takes a lot of time. Implementing them worldwide takes even longer time. We are running out of time. Everything goes exponentially and we cannot afford to wait a couple of years more, because we will already have reached the tipping point. Or have we already?
  • As discussed previously on GIM, solving the carbon-rich energy might not be enough. Our problems lie much deeper in our society and our culture. Those who put their faith on science rather than considering the wider problem are only accepting to solve one factor, that might be overwhelmed by the others (like absolute consumption growth, population growth, and the associated resource depletion issues).

On Wednesday I attended a conference on the investments in renewable energies worldwide. A striking figure was the increase in investments the last 3 years: here is a graph of the amounts:

Investments in renewable technologies

The leading countries, depending on the origin of the fundings, are USA, Germany, Japan, and… China. Despite the gloomy award of being the largest GHG emitter worldwide, catching up the US at an incredible pace, they invest a lot in renewable technologies. The backside is that in spite of huge amounts invested, they still represent 10% of the total investments in energy. Meaning the rest goes to fossil energies. It is like buying tons of cigarettes although one would be in the final stage of a lung cancer… No hope to survive with it but still money flows. And as the following graph shows, it seems like too much faith is put on biofuels, while these are in their current version not adequate to solve both energy and food supply problems. Interestingly, the US and Brazil are among the largest investors in biofuels, seen from the Venture Capital/Private Funds source of investments (34 %).

Percentage of investments per energy source

So things are moving. We do not see it often because it happens locally; the US is the typical example. Things are moving but it might appear not to be enough, or maybe it’s already too late. But let’s hope and believe we can all wake up and gather.

One last comment about the articles above mentioned, dealing with the energy crisis bound to rise up in the coming decades. The one I read on Le Monde did not last very long on the web; after less than 24 hours published online it was moved into the archives, accessible only to paying customers; normally articles stay a couple of days or more online… I find it a pity that important articles like this one are not left at the forefront longer than that. In the meanwhile, I receive “last minute” exclusive mail to let me know that… Brazil will organize the soccer world cup.

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We are just another animal species, unfortunately given the ability to master fire and technique. I write unfortunately, because it is this gift that is going to cost us our disappearance. And not satisfied enough to put an end to our short period of existence on this world, we will also bring with us to the abyss some thousands of species which never hurt us, never asked anything from us, never attempted to steal us our “territory”. Maybe we will destroy so much this planet that no life as we know it today will be left after our era.

Deforestation by fire (Wikipedia)

We are burning our lungs. Today the Guardian environment publishes an article about the Amazon rainforest being once again burned and chopped down. After reading, a feeling between hate, despair and revolt fills up my mind, and these feelings for my fellow humans is bound to leak here. We are destroying our world, for the sake of growing soy, for the sake of making money. And this soy will, ironically, not feed us humans, but the chicken farms of Europe. What is the effect of eating meat? Here you have the answer: in each piece of chicken you buy, you could see some tropical trees. And if we could hear them, I guess they would cry of hate, despair and revolt. I am myself a criminal: I eat meat.

Why are we burning and chopping this forest? Because, as the article relates, we need to feed ourselves, we need to earn money to survive. And because we are endlessly more on this planet, we will have to feed even more impoverished people. And because rainforest is located in developing countries, where the governments do not have enough will or strength to enforce laws, it is easy for locals to break or violate these laws, set fire to the forest, and plant crops instead. Our thirst for development will lead us to the point where no turning back will be allowed, when we will be left witnessing, powerless, nature taking its rights again, destroying what our civilization has built. Indeed, when there will be no plants left on this planet to produce the oxygen we breathe, nobody will be left claiming “put your faith in the market, it will solve our problems by itself”.

When I read such articles, I realize that my generation will experience something none has lived before. We will witness climate change, resource depletion, while the world population will reach its higher levels ever, thereby requiring even more resources. Get me right: my generation will live what we could call an environmental nightmare. And I am not speaking about the wars that will inevitably follow. Do our children have some hope? I would really like to say so. I would like to believe in Humanity, in our ability to gather and act as one. But I know this is a dream, an utopia. Because there is too much selfishness in human beings. In order to save us all, we would need more than worldwide unity; we would have to sacrifice something. Give up our comfort and grasp on nature. Who would accept this? A couple of individuals who realize what the reality is? Would we accept to give our lives to the reconstruction of a world? No. Would we accept to forget any concept of “the one who works the harder earns the most”? No. Because this concept is based solely on monetary rewards. This is the American Dream: through hard work, sweat and personal involvement, anyone can succeed in life. Unfortunately, to make it brief, the American Dream has two flaws: first, we are no longer in the early industrial age, when corporations were left to create. Second, this dream is based on a materialist and monetary description of what a successful life is. Both points are outdated. The American Dream is virtually dead, but still alive in many people’s mind. We live in a dream.

Human kind has no altruism. That is what makes us different from the other species: our egoism leads us to our self-destruction.

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In the context of a series of conferences organized by the department of Industrial Ecology at NTNU, Norway, we had the honor and pleasure to welcome Mr. Leo Meyer on the 2nd of October, for a speech on the work of the working group III of the IPCC in its 4th assessment report. Mr. Meyer is the head of the technical support unit of this working group. In this article, I will comment on the functioning principles of the IPCC and address critically the different solutions proposed by the group, with respect to the IPAT equation.

At first was explained the principle of the IPCC; what his missions were and how governments would act in collaboration with the scientists working in this panel. I will stop at this point and pinpoint the fact that governments have an influence on what is finally published, but only when it comes to the Summary for Policymakers (SPM), a 30-pages long document offering a synthesis of the work otherwise published both in the final report and in the technical summary. This report has to be approved by all the 180 participating countries word by word, graph by graph, etc… A direct consequence is that this report might be a light version of the thicker ones, only presenting facts that do not clash against policies or mentalities of various governments. If you do not have time to read the longer reports, then go for the SPM ones, but be aware that they are diluted versions of the truth available elsewhere. Their content is nonetheless accepted by scientists chairing the working group.

It is often heard that the IPCC does not represent all the scientific community; that it does not give space to alternative theories. To understand this fact, one has to keep in mind what the ultimate goal of the panel is, and how it proceeds to achieve it. How are authors selected?

  1. Governments and institutes of the 180 member countries submit CVs
  2. the IPCC Bureau matches CVs against chosen subjects. Here a first “filter” is applied, so as to choose people from different geographical origins, and from different “schools”. This in order to avoid a unique view of the issues.
    1. The concept of different schools might be for example relevant when it comes to economy.
    2. The chosen ones are not only academics, but also experts from the industry, NGOs, etc
  3. 15 lead authors are chosen per chapter
  4. The co chairs, as well as the lead authors, can also invite authors

The IPCC is so to say summarizing the current scientific knowledge on the evolution of the climate and the science therein. Its goal is not to produce new papers, explain new facts. It is an assembly of experts whose task is to read a lot of peer-reviewed papers (meaning read and corrected by other scientists) and write a report on the state-of-the-art. All the results published by the IPCC are therefore already published in the literature; the sole purpose of the IPCC is to gather the data and make it available, and in a certain extent, more comprehensible to a larger public.

The working group III has the task of describing the strategies to adopt to mitigate climate change, based on the impacts published by the working group II. Although the latter are regional, the strategies to adopt are inherently to be applied worldwide. Some differences of strategy might appear, depending on the current state of economic development of the considered country; but in the end one striking pattern comes out from the report: what we have to fix is technology, and change our consumption patterns. These two points, and particularly the former, are recurrent in the report. To summarize, technologies exist, but have to be implemented. The group does not expect any technological breakthrough to happen in the form of the discovery of a new energy source; what can be done is improvement of the existing technologies.

An “economic fix” is required in order to boost the shift from fossil to renewables, through the establishment of a worldwide price on carbon. And in spite of the apparently opposite mentalities of “bottom-up” (techno-economic analysis) and “top-down” (integrated assessment analysis), it appears that each way to address the problem can lead to substantial reductions in CO2 emissions. The following two graphs represent the possible reductions in CO2 emissions achievable through the implementation of a worldwide carbon trading system, using each of the two above-mentioned approaches. Of course the reductions will depend on the price set on eq-CO2. Due to uncertainties, a low- and high end-of-range are shown in each case.

Effects of a tax on CO2 (Top Down case)

Effects of a tax on CO2 (Top Down case)

What is frightening is to realize that the maximum emission reduction that can be achieved through technological shift, helped economically by a price on carbon, is roughly 30 GtCO2-equivalent per year, in the best case envisioned by the projections. Looking a couple of pages further in the report, one realizes that in order to stabilize our atmosphere at CO2-eq concentrations between 450 and 500 ppm, the limit for containing the temperature rise below 2 degrees, we need to peak our emissions by 2015. Let’s say that is impossible. With China and India growing, as well as the other countries still desperately looking for extensive economic growth based on over-exploitation of resources, nobody will accept such a sudden shift in mentalities. Although the solution for mitigation is within reach, we prefer not to take it and go on the same path as before.

I recently commented on Growth is Madness! that the IPCC was not addressing the population growth problem, although it recognizes it as one of the main drivers of increasing GHG emissions:

the effect on global emissions of the decrease in global energy intensity (-33%) during 1970 to 2004 has been smaller than the combined effect of global per capita income growth (77%) and global population growth (69%); both drivers of increasing energy-related CO2 emissions.

Of course, this conference was the ideal occasion to ask the right person the right question. Unfortunately, someone else asked our lecturer about population before I could, and turned it in such a way that it sounded too extreme (one-birht policy was given as an example). Here follows the question that I would have asked:

The IPCC Working group III addresses only the two last terms in the famous equation I=PAT (Environmental Impact = Population*Consumption*Technology), dismissing the first one, namely population growth, although recognizing it as one of the main drivers of increased GHG emissions. The predictions summarized in limits to Growth thirty years ago are even more valid today than when the book was initially written. Indeed, the neo‐Malthusian movement is pushing towards addressing the first term of the equation. Recently, China stated that by controlling population growth, 300 million births had been avoided by 2005, leading to direct savings of 1,3 billion tones of emitted CO2 in 2005 alone. Why is the IPCC WG III not emphasizing more strongly this fact and does not introduce policies required to curb population growth, policies which could include aid to development, access to family planning, and women empowerment in developing countries? And if it is not considered as relevant by the group, then why?

In my question, I nevertheless made one error, which was also the key to the answer provided by Mr. Meyer: I implied that the IPCC was introducing policies. It is not its role. The IPCC has been created in order to give the political leaders some ideas about how to deal with the problem. The IPCC has to be “Policy relevant, not policy prescriptive”. That means that it cannot suggest new, radically different ways of solving the global warming issue rather than by choosing to solve the problem with the political, economical and technological tools that we use or have today. Indeed, population control, through the use of whichever policy, is not accepted by most of the countries member of the panel.

So the answer of our guest lecturer was the following: when it comes to such issues directly touching the population and the human beings, cultural, religious and political problems rise up and block any further discussion of the subject. If the IPCC report does not address the population issue, that is because it is not politically correct, or because it would be too provocative to certain cultures. This concern is thus left to others to address.

By avoiding such sensitive subjects, and despite the full acceptance of their importance, the experts are not even in the position to suggest policies or strategies that could help us to take care of the P factor. By leaving this aspect as an external variable nobody can do anything about, we are actually refusing to fully open our eyes, and make the inevitable crash even harder to support.

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researchers on strike

I have a small dream.

I believe that the scientific community is less interested than the political one, meaning corrupted, taken in a broad sense. I mean, scientists usually work for knowledge in itself; for the purpose of serving science and helping the society as whole to develop. Some objections to this idea can be expressed if scientists are paid by companies to achieve profit-oriented goals, often far from this idealistic conception of what science should be aiming at. In the US for example, where the universities get a lot of funding from companies, I just doubt that some researchers are not corrupted by money and a restless competition for financial support. At least in Europe this trend is less present. When someone decides to do career within research, that’s mainly because of a certain thirst of knowledge. And considering the salaries of researchers in countries like France, we can assume without much risk that researchers are motivated by something else than merely monetary aspects.

What if the whole scientific community was united and acted together? Scientists are nowadays turning on the red lights on environmental disasters and the risks our civilization is running towards. They publish, communicate, but nobody seems to listen to them. Or the processes are too slow to have any significant effect on our behaviors. What if this community decided to mobilize its resources and act as one, for one single day or week, but stopping any research activity and concentrated this time only on communication with the public? What if the scientists showed to the whole world that their work and results are not worthless and meaningless, by going on strike just once, all together? Would we be conscious of what they say and press our political leaders for immediate action? Would we like to hear what scientists have to say?

This is a small dream. That this community I am now part of could take a deep breath and some day walk down the streets worldwide; speak with people not through the media but straight in the eyes; make their observations comprehensible and go directly to the facts, educate people and accelerate this revolution we need to ensure decent lives to the coming generations. Maybe then the link between research and public sphere would be reconstructed, free from the different filters set by governments, media and sometimes corporations.

Picture: researchers go on strike in Paris in 2004. In march this year, more than 18000 researchers made the public aware of their alarming situation: a graduate would earn around 1000€ a month. The text on the streamer says “save research and university”

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