For an Ailing Planet, the Cure Already Exists

Measure of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by year
Measure of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by year

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 1, 2012 (IPS)

The planet’s climate recently reached a new milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the Arctic.

The last time Earth saw similar levels of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) was three million years ago during the Pliocene era, where Arctic temperatures were 10 to 14 degrees C higher and global temperatures four degrees C hotter.

Research stations in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia all broke the 400 ppm barrier for the first time this spring, scientists reported in a release Thursday. A global average of 400 ppm up from the present 392 ppm is still some years off.

If today’s CO2 levels don’t decline – or worse, increase – the planet will inevitably reach those warmer temperatures, but it won’t take a thousand years. Without major cuts in fossil fuel emissions, a child born today could live in a plus-four-degree C superheated world by their late middle age, IPS previously reported. Such temperatures will make much of the planet unliveable.

In a four-degree warmer world, climate adaptation means “put your feet up and die” for many people in the world, said Chris West of the University of Oxford’s UK Climate Impacts Programme in 2009.

This week the International Energy Agency reported that the nations of the world’s CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. This is precisely the wrong direction: emissions need to decline three percent per year to have any hope of a stable climate.

By 2050, in a world with more people, carbon emissions must be half of today’s levels.

Impossible? No. A number of different energy analyses show how it can be done. Continue reading

Water is far more valuable and useful than oil

Average water footprint of bottle of cola
Average water footprint of bottle of cola

The water footprint of a half-litre bottle of water is 5.5 litres – yet well over a billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity

By Stephen Leahy

I have a confession: I knocked back 320 pints at the pub last night. I actually only had two shots of a decent single malt but it took 320 pints of water to grow and process the grain used to make the whisky. That’s a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub holds 60 to 80 litres.

Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint: the shocking facts about how much water we use to make everyday products, I’m still amazed that the t-shirt I’m wearing needed 3,000 litres to grow and process the cotton; or that 140 litres went into my morning cup of coffee. The rest of my breakfast swallowed 1,012 litres: small orange juice (200 litres); two slices of toast (112 litres); two strips of bacon (300 litres); and two eggs (400 litres).

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Researching all this I soon realised that we’re surrounded by a hidden world of water. Litres and litres of it are consumed by everything we eat, and everything we use and buy. Cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity would not exist without water. It’s no exaggeration to say that water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

front cover resized1A water footprint adds up the amount of water consumed to make, grow or produce something. I use the term consumed to make it clear that this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Often water can be cleaned or reused so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book. The water footprint of 500ml of bottled water is 5.5 litres: 0.5 for the water in the bottle and another five contaminated in the process of making the plastic bottle from oil. The five litres consumed in making the bottle are as real water as the 500ml you might drink but hardly anyone in business or government accounts for it.

The incredible amounts of water documented in Your Water Footprint are based primarily on research done at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where Arjen Hoekstra originated the concept of water footprints. The amount consumed to make something varies enormously depending on where the raw materials come from and how they are processed. Wheat grown in dry desert air of Morocco needs a lot more water than wheat grown in soggy Britain. For simplicity, the amounts in the book are global averages.

One of the biggest surprises was learning how small direct use of water for drinking, cooking and showering is by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) 400 litres is not a trivial amount; however, the virtual water that’s in the things we eat, wear and use each day averages 7,500 litres in North America, resulting in a daily water footprint of almost 8,000 litres. That’s more than twice the size of the global average. Think of running shoes side by side: the global shoe is a size 8; the North American a size 18. By contrast, the average water footprint of an individual living in China or India is size 6.

Peak water is here

Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is an increasing reality for the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. For example green fuels may not be so green from a water consumption perspective. Biodiesel made from soybeans has an enormous water footprint, averaging more than 11,000 litres per litre of biodiesel. And this doesn’t include the large amounts of water needed for processing. Why so much water? Green plants aren’t “energy-dense,” so it takes a lot of soy to make the fuel.

Beef also has a big footprint, over 11,000 litres for a kilo. If a family of four served chicken instead of beef they’d reduce their water use by an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic size pool to a depth of two feet. If this same family of opted for Meatless Mondays, they’d save another 400,000 litres. Now they could fill that pool halfway.

We can do nearly everything using less water. It’s all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial, but we can’t make the right choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

First published at The Guardian

We Have Five Years to Stop Building Coal Plants and Gas-Powered Cars

Measurement of CO2 levels in atmosphere

By Stephen Leahy

[Authors note: One of the most difficult and important articles I’ve written in 20 years of journalism. Originally published Sept 6 2014 @Vice Motherboard]

 

Here’s the frightening implication of a landmark study on carbon emissions:

By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again, unless they’re either replacements for old ones or carbon neutral. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions will push global warming past 2˚C of temperature rise worldwide, threatening the survival of many people currently living on the planet.

Every climate expert will tell you we’re on a tight carbon budget as it is—that only so many tons of carbon dioxide can be pumped into the atmosphere before the global climate will overheat. We’ve already warmed temperatures 0.85˚C from pre-industrial levels, and the number rises every year. While no one thinks 2˚ C is safe, per se, it’s safer than going even higher and running the risk that global warming will spiral out of our control completely.

Last year, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report established a global carbon budget for the first time. It essentially stated that starting in 2014, the carbon we can afford is up to around 1,000 billion tons of CO2. In other words, our cars, factories, and power plants can only emit 1,000 billion tons (1,000 Gt, or gigatons) of CO2 into the atmosphere if we want to have a greater than 50/50 chance of keeping our climate below 2˚C of warming.

Even considering that humanity pumped 36 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere last year alone, 1,000 Gt still seems like a big budget. It might even seem like we have room to spare.

Maybe not.

WORLDWIDE, WE’VE BUILT MORE COAL-BURNING POWER PLANTS IN THE PAST DECADE THAN IN ANY PREVIOUS DECADE

New research shows that we may not have been paying attention to the entire CO2 emissions picture. We’ve only been counting annual emissions, and not the fact that building a new coal or gas power plant is in reality a commitment to pumping out CO2 for the lifespan of a given plant—which usually ranges from 40 to 60 years. These future emissions are known as a carbon commitment.

A new study has tallied the carbon commitments from all existing coal and gas power plants by looking at their annual CO2 emissions and current age. The study assumes an operating life of 40 years. A 38-year old coal plant will have far smaller future CO2 emissions, and thus smaller carbon commitment than one built today. The study, “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions,” determined that most new power plants that went online in 2012 have a very large carbon commitment—19 Gt of CO2.

Building new power plants means more carbon commitments to eat into our 2˚C carbon budget. Build enough giant coal plants today, and their future emissions would tie up the entire budget, leaving no room for any other source of CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the rate at which new plants are built far outpaces the closure of old plants. Many US coal plants operate for longer than 40 years; the oldest is currentlyaround 70 years.

“Worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion,” said study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine.

Image: Flickr

Fossil Fuels Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 300 Gt

In the study, Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University calculated that the existing coal and gas power plant carbon commitment turns out to be very large—more than 300 Gt.

Non-Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 400 Gt 

The reality of carbon commitment applies to any new fossil-fuel burning infrastructure, including office buildings and homes using gas heating or automobiles and planes burning jet fuel. All of these have an operating life of several or many years during which they will emit CO2 from now until they are ‘retired.’ These future emissions also count as a carbon commitment. In another upcoming study, Davis calculated the carbon commitments from other CO2 sources, including from the transport, industry, commercial and residential sectors. He estimates that as of 2013 this carbon commitment exceeded 400 Gt.

Together with the power plant commitment of 300 Gt laid out in the current study, that’s more than 700 Gt in carbon commitments on a global carbon budget of 1000 Gt. That leaves less than 300 Gt for future power plants, steel mills, cement plants, buildings, and other stuff that burns fossil fuels.

At current rates we’ll have accounted for the remainder of the budget in only five years. Here’s how it breaks down:

Estimated Annual Emissions 2014-2018: 200 Gt

Global CO2 emissions from all sources amounted to 36 Gt in 2013. Annual emissions have been growing at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. Without major efforts to reduce emissions, another 200 gigatons of CO2 will be emitted between 2014 and 2018.

Estimated New Carbon Commitments 2014-2018: 100 Gt

Davis and Socolow determined that carbon commitments from new fossil fuel burning infrastructure will average at least 20 Gt per year, totaling 100 Gt over five years.

300 + 400 +200 +100 = 1,000 Gigatons of Carbon, Locked in by 2018

Unless coal and gas power plants or other major sources of CO2 are shut down before the end of their life span, the 1,000 Gt global carbon budget will be fully allocated sometime in 2018. No one will notice, because things won’t look or feel too much different than today. CO2 is akin to a slow, trans-generational poison. The climate impacts of blowing the carbon budget won’t be felt until 2030 or 2040 —and for a long time after.

WE’VE BEEN HIDING WHAT’S GOING ON FROM OURSELVES: A HIGH-CARBON FUTURE IS BEING LOCKED IN BY THE WORLD’S CAPITAL INVESTMENTS

Even the climate experts won’t notice much, because annual CO2 emissions have been the sole focus of countries and the United Nations process to address climate change said Davis.

“That’s like driving down the highway and only looking out of the side window,” Davis told me.

Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats and whole lot of other people should be looking out the front window and paying attention to the hard reality of carbon commitments. If Davis and Socolow’s calculations are correct, it means no new coal or gas power plants can go online after 2018 unless they’re replacing retired plants. It means freezing the size of the global automobile fleet, and the industrial and commercial sectors, unless their energy efficiency increases. And so on.

The fact that much of our current and future infrastructure carries huge carbon commitments is blindingly obvious, but receives little attention.

Can’t solve a problem by making it worse

“If you build it, there will be emissions year after year. This should be a fundamental part of the decision to build most things,”” Davis said.

Ignoring the reality of carbon commitments means we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse, he said.

“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said co-author Robert Socolow. Any plan or strategy to cut CO2 emissions has to give far greater prominence to those investments. Right now the data shows “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow told me.

So what can we do to begin to prepare for a jam-packed carbon budget? First, we need to stop building fossil fuel-reliant power plants.

Surprisingly, it appears the Australia is a pioneer here, despite recently rolling back its pioneering carbon tax. Thanks to wide-spread adoption of solar energy on homes and business the country’s electricity use is in steep decline. For the first time in its history, no new coal or gas power capacity will be needed to maintain supply over the next 10 years, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. Germany too is rapidly adopting clean energy sources like wind and solar, so as to avoid building coal or nuclear power.

Next, we need to think about meeting energy demand by improving efficiency, instead of building more power generation.

Potential energy efficiency gains of 50 percent are possible across many sectors in most countries, Socolow said, and could reduce the number of fossil fuel energy power plants.

The US is the king of energy waste by most estimates. This costs Americans an estimated $130 billion a year, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. But despite the potential for huge cost and emission reductions, governments everywhere put nearly all their energy research efforts into new sources of energy like new power plants rather than helping to develop energy-efficient cars, buildingsm and appliances. Its 2012 international study also found that improving energy efficiency provides by far the best bang-for-the-buck for energy security, improved air quality, reduced environmental and social impacts and carbon emission reductions.

However, efficiency improvements take time, and there is precious little time left to make the CO2 emissions cuts to stay below 2˚C, said Socolow.

While refusing to say a planet that’s 2˚C hotter is inevitable, he did say that all efforts to reduce emissions must be undertaken as soon as possible: “3˚C is a whole lot better than 5˚C, the current path we’re on.”

You’d be shocked to see how your jewellery is made

The Sickest Places in the World

Parts of Indonesia, Argentina and Nigeria are among the top 10 most polluted places on the planet, according to a new report by U.S. and European environmental groups.

 

The Agbogbloshie e-Wasteland in Ghana. Fires are set to wires and other electronics to release valuable copper and other materials. The fires blacken the landscape, releasing toxic fumes. Credit: Blacksmith Institute

The Agbogbloshie e-Wasteland in Ghana. Fires are set to wires and other electronics to release valuable copper and other materials. The fires blacken the landscape, releasing toxic fumes. Credit: Blacksmith Institute

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 5 2013 (IPS) Parts of Indonesia, Argentina and Nigeria are among the top 10 most polluted places on the planet, according to a new report by U.S. and European environmental groups.

They are extraordinarily toxic places where lifespans are short and disease runs rampant among millions of people who live and work at these sites, often to provide the products used in richer countries.

“People would be shocked to see the conditions under which their lovely jewelry is sometimes made,” said Jack Caravanos, director of research at the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, an independent environmental group that released the list Monday in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland.

Full story: The Sickest Places in the World

Nano Worry: Big Concern for Very Small Things

Buckyball Molecule C320, Artwork Laguna Design
Buckyball Molecule C320, Artwork Laguna Design

By Stephen Leahy

First published 04.07.04 at WIRED.COM

(I wrote this 10 years ago and was one of the first articles about environmental risks of nano techI have not been able to update it )

Nanoparticles called fullerenes — aka buckyballs — are extremely stable arrangements of carbon atoms that look like soccer balls. Eva Oberdörster, an aquatic scientist at Southern Methodist University, has conducted a study that looks at the potential risks of nanomaterials.

The nascent nanotechnology industry collectively cringed last week after a study showed that fish exposed to nanoparticles suffered brain damage. Critics say the much-hyped multibillion-dollar nano industry has a dark side few want to talk about.

“How many more studies showing toxicity are needed before regulators step in?” asks Kathy Jo Wetter of the Winnipeg-based ETC Group. ETC and other environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on the commercial production of nanoparticles.

Nano products are not subject to any special regulations, in part because little is known about the environmental and health implications of nanotechnology, says Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston.

Nanotechnology is a catchall term for an enormous range of research and technology measured at the scale of one-thousandth the width of a human hair. At this very small scale, ordinary materials have extraordinary properties promising the semi-fantastic — supercomputers that fit on the head of a pin and fleets of cancer-fighting nanobots — and the more mundane — better paint and eye shadow.

Stain-resistant nanopants and sunscreens and cosmetics using nanosized titanium dioxide particles are already on the market. And the Nanodesu bowling ball is one of the first consumer products that uses nanoparticles called fullerenes — aka buckyballs — which are extremely stable arrangements of carbon atoms that look like soccer balls.

To see what might happen if buckyballs got into the environment, Eva Oberdörster, an aquatic scientist at Southern Methodist University, put some into a fish tank at a concentration of 0.5 parts per million, along with nine largemouth bass. The buckyball-breathing fish experienced significant brain damage after 48 hours. Brain-cell membranes were disrupted, an affliction that has been linked to illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

Oberdörster’s unpublished study, which was released last week, is one of the few completed studies looking at the potential risks of nanomaterials. There is some cause for concern. Two recent studies documented lung damage in animals after they inhaled a type of buckyball called a carbon nanotube. Another showed that nanoparticles can get into the brain if inhaled.

They’re also small enough to cross cell walls and leak into the nucleus, the home of an organism’s DNA. And, in the case of titanium dioxide nanoparticles, they can kill bacteria. That’s good news in a hospital, but bad news in the environment, where bacteria are extremely important for maintaining soil fertility, among other things.

Understanding how nanomaterials and the environment interact is a complex, interdisciplinary problem, says Ausman.

“Some of the ways we normally measure environmental toxicity aren’t applicable to nanotechnology. And there aren’t many researchers who really understand these novel materials.”

One who does is John Bucher, director of federal toxicology research at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. His group will soon begin a series of studies on the environmental health effects of three types of nanoparticles.

“There are so many different types of nanomaterials, some are likely toxic,” says Bucher.

Sorting out the impacts of nanotech won’t be easy, since the properties of nanomaterials are not well-defined yet. Something such as gold — which is normally biologically inert — is highly reactive and likely to disrupt biological processes when it’s nanosized.

And then there’s the problem of trying to detect particles of such a tiny size, says Bucher. Microscopes powerful enough to identify nanoparticles are just being developed.

It will be several years before the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences toxicology studies are completed.

Ausman thinks regulations will be needed to guide future applications, but not enough is known to establish these yet. In the meantime, the nano industry and the benefits it can bring society shouldn’t be held back over toxicity fears, he says.

“I’m not concerned at this point.”

Canada Uses Foreign Aid to Promote Its Mining/Energy Sector

mining gaia

The absorption of Canada’s aid agency into the foreign affairs and international trade ministry has been widely condemned

By Stephen Leahy

Monday 25 March 2013 17.37 GMT theguardian.com

Following the unexpected announcement that the Canadian International Development Agency (Cida) will be folded into the ministry of foreign affairs and international trade, the Canadian government has made it clear there must be a direct return on its aid “investment”, primarily access to resources in other countries.

“It is a fundamental change. Canada is tying aid to its commercial interests. This is going to leave a bitter taste out there,” says Samantha Nutt, executive director of War Child Canada, which has received CIDA funding for more than a decade.

As Nutt acknowledges, all aid is politicised to some extent. But Canada has taken this to a new level. Civil society aid organisations working with CIDA are no longer aid delivery partners but sub-contractors, bidding on aid programmes and increasingly forced to work with the private sector, says Nutt.

“This puts Canadian aid organisations in ethical conflict. How can they criticise the actions of the mining companies they have to work with to get funding to help the poor?”

Cida’s fate has startled not only Canada’s foreign aid community but, by all accounts, Cida staff, who learned of the agency’s fate through the media.

The new department of foreign affairs, trade and development will continue to tackle poverty in developing countries with its $4.8 billion aid budget intact, the government said.

“This is Canadian money … Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit,” said international co-operation minister Julian Fantino last December, adding that Cida is working with the private sector to help Canada “maintain a global advantage”.

Full story

Pollution as big a health problem as malaria or TB, finds report

Haina, Dominican Republic - Children are developmentally impaired as a result of lead poisoning
Haina, Dominican Republic – Children are developmentally impaired as a result of lead poisoning

Industrial pollutants harm the health of 125 million people,

many of whom live in the developing world and work in mining

Stephen Leahy

guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 October 2012 12.30 BST

Waste from mining, lead smelters, industrial dumps and other toxic sites affects the health of an estimated 125 million people in 49 low- and middle-income countries. This unrecognised health burden is on the scale of malaria or tuberculosis (TB), a new report has found.

This year’s World’s worst pollution problems (pdf) report was published on Tuesday by the Blacksmith Institute in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland. It documents, for the first time, the public health impact of industrial pollutants – lead, mercury, chromium, radionuclides and pesticides – in the air, water and soil of developing countries.

“This is an extremely conservative estimate,” said Bret Ericson of the Blacksmith Institute, a small international NGO based in New York City. “We’ve investigated 2,600 toxic sites in the last four years, [but] we know there are far more.”

The US has an estimated 100,000-300,000 toxic sites, mainly factories or industrial areas, but toxic sites in the low- and middle-income countries assessed in the report are often in residential areas. “We see a lot of disease when we go into these communities,” said Ericson. “But we were surprised the health burden was so high – as much as malaria.”

Click to read full story:  Pollution as big a health problem as malaria or TB, finds report | Global development | guardian.co.uk.