Recent sustainable business & environment reports

Here are some reports and opinion pieces that have appeared in recent weeks on important developments in the world environment:

1.  An important, perhaps critical, study published in Nature has estimated that the world will exceed total amount of greenhouse gas emissions beyond which dangerous climate change occurs by 2020.  This contracts still further projections that have put this threshold at 2040 or 2050.

This study is significant in that it focuses on the total amount of emissions, rather than annual rate.  Placed against the total sink capacity of the atmosphere, the picture couldn’t be clear or the choices more stark.

2.  An interesting essay has appeared in Guernica magazine on the competing visions of wilderness of anthropologists and wildlife conservation biologists.  It argues that the vision of wilderness as a pristine environment, free of human influence, is largely a European artefact, and that the reality of these places must include the indigenous peoples who often inhabit them.  The essay further argues that the best strategy for maintaining these increasingly rare environments in a sustainable form may well be to support their occupation and use by the peoples who have acted as stewards for them over millenia.

3.  A new survey has drawn attention to the critical state of the ancient forests of Central Asia.  These forests, in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are the historical source of more than 300 wild fruit and nut species, including, plum, cherry, and many other important food trees from which domesticated varieties are thought to descend. In the last 50 years 90 per cent of these forests have been destroyed and 44 trees species are threatened with extinction. Work is now under way with local communities and government forest to encourage sustainable use and more effective protection for forest resources, including providing training for community groups and grants for eco-friendly small businesses to assist local livelihoods.

4.  I have noted in previous posts the reluctance of the business community in Australia to come to terms with both the risks and the opportunities of climate change, in the inevitable transition to a lower carbon economy. A recent report from an investment group emphasises that this trend continues, even as the country approaches an emissions trading scheme. With respect to carbon strategies, the investment sector in Australia is seen as falling into three groups:

Clean-tech funds are keen for legislation to be enacted to stimulate growth and support the profitability of renewable energy, forest sinks and associated businesses.

Some large superannuation funds that consider themselves “universal investors” are pushing for action to reduce emissions since they see physical climate change as a long-term risk to Australian and international economies.

The third group includes the many mainstream equity funds that seek to outperform the sharemarket average from a few months to a few years, through careful stock selection. These funds are watching the impact of more expensive fossil fuels, and waiting until the economic impacts become clear before adjusting their portfolios. Volatility in exchange rates and the global financial crisis are seen as more important drivers of fund returns in the short to medium term, and investment policies are unlikely to be driven by emissions policies or trading until the trends are well established.

5.  A remarkable piece of laboratory research has recently been reported in the journal Nature. It’s focus is the mechanisms by which life might have emerged in the primitive states of the global environment. Attention has been focused for some decades on the possible role of RNA in forming the chemical base on which life arose. Until now it is not proved possible to synthesise RNA. The UK scientists have achieved a major step by showing how, in the presence the chemicals which are known to have been present in the primitive earth, at least two of the components of RNA can be assembled. This advance was made by combining the chemicals in a different order. There are important implications for a range of puzzles about the prebiotic conditions of life on earth.

Australian government defence & climate confusions

I’ve spoken before about what appears to be an outbreak of split brain among the leaders of the world; that is, their apparently effortless ability to carry on with business as usual, while expressing concern about climate change effects that make business as usual untenable.

The defence White Paper released this week by the Australian Government is more evidence for this. It proposes to spend $100 billion on defence hardware, with submarines the most expensive item, to counter a perceived military threat from China, resulting from that country’s military buildup.

Apart from the questionable assumptions about China’s foreign policy intentions–just possibly China’s build up may have more to do with defensive, rather than aggressive, policy positions–and the rather ludicrous image of a handful of Australian submarines preventing any kind of determined aggression, and the evidence in Australian history of the enormous national damage that is caused by the practice of constructing enemies, one is compelled to ask  just what is this massive defence expenditure intended to secure? Because if the latest scientific evidence on climate change, also released this week in a study published in the Nature journal, is any indication, there may not be much left to defend.

The study looked at the total amount of CO2 emitted since the onset of the industrial revolution, and compared these to the total capacity of the atmospheric system to carry these emissions before triggering dangerous climate change of beyond 2 degrees C rise in temperature. This is a different approach from that usually taken, in that it focuses not on annual emissions but on the total load the atmosphere can sustain. The study’s conclusions are reported bluntly:

“The world will overshoot its long-term target on greenhouse gas emissions within two decades. A study has found that the average global temperature will rise above the threshold that could cause dangerous climate change during that time.

“Scientists have calculated that the world has already produced about a third of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that could be emitted between 2000 and 2050 and still keep within a 2C rise in global average temperatures.

“At the current rate at which CO2 is emitted globally – which is increasing by 3 per cent a year – countries will have exceeded their total limit of 1,000 billion tons within 20 years, which would be about 20 years earlier than planned under international obligations.”

The authors of the study note that even with currently known fossil fuel reserves the world’s has more than sufficient capacity to exceed these limits:

“The scientists found the total amount of greenhouse gases that could be released over this time would be equivalent to 1,000 billion tons of CO2. This is equivalent to using up about 25 per cent of known reserves of oil, gas and coal.”

Even the most stringent of targets now being discussed by the international community offers only a 25% chance of containment within the required limits:

“The study concluded that the world must agree on a cut in carbon dioxide emissions of more than 50 per cent by 2050 if the probability of exceeding a 2C rise in average temperatures is to be limited to a risk of 1 in 4.”

A one in four chance for the collapse of the planet’s biophysical supports. To bring this into perspective, you might ask yourself if you would you get on a plane, or into a car, if you knew it had a one in four chance of crashing.

I am interested to know how the Australian Government would define a national emergency if this does not constitute one–and an emergency that is here now, because every day of delay reduces the likelihood that these targets will be met. It is a genuine national emergency because it will impact–is already impacting, as the plight of the Murray-Darling shows–every aspect of our national life, and far more profoundly than any war we can contemplate.

Just as in a war the work of the whole population has to be (and has been in the past) directed to the war effort, so in facing climate change there is no other national priority that remotely approaches it. The proposed Australian CPRS (emissions trading scheme), with its absurdly weak targets and abundant free permits to heavy polluters, is fundamentally flawed, as every expert in the country, and most of the general population, knows. It doesn’t begin to do what has to be done.

If the $100 billion now proposed in this White Paper to be spent on military hardware to meet a speculative threat were to be directed to a comprehensive restructuring of the economy to a low carbon economy, and national life to low carbon national living, there may be some chance of doing what we can to achieve these climate targets.  It might be possible to promote the sorts of international initiatives that must be undertaken now to avoid climate change that is beyond dangerous (it’s already dangerous enough, as the people of sub-Saharan Africa in decades long droughts can tell you).

It doesn’t seem to me that this is difficult or complicated to grasp. I think the Australian community in general has a fairly clear view of it. Again I wonder about the split brain syndrome that seem to be plaguing our leaders, in government and in opposition, particularly in Canberra.