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Checking on your drafty window or door from space

Clever tech-climate advances

 

When people consider the possibilities of technological advances to help counteract climate breakdown, they often look at the ”big picture.”  That includes such developments as carbon capture and storage (CCS), seeding clouds, sending sun-blocking particles into the air, and other geoengineering feats.

But sometimes overlooked are smaller, focused actions that affect targeted areas or certain populations or activities, but which also can be adopted for other critical needs of environmental protection.

Recent developments have made it possible to survey small areas, including neighborhoods, using satellites to detect emissions.  A notable use has been detecting methane leaks from gas pipelines, allowing regulators to take enforcement action against the leaks.

An interesting and imaginative variation under development is the use of satellites with thermal imaging to pinpoint heat loss from individual buildings.  A UK company is preparing to launch seven satellite probes that will undertake a worldwide survey measuring heat coming from buildings.  The infrared cameras are capable of measuring heat emission from any building on the planet, and can identify where the buildings are leaking energy and wasting power, whether from doors or windows.

The data can be sold to organisations, companies or governmental authorities for focusing resources on specific buildings that need energy efficiency measures.  Enhancing energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings is an important, and underutilized, measure for reducing GHGs.

Further uses of the satellite probes may include monitoring river pollution from factories, status of solar panels, and monitoring wildfire outbreaks in open land.

If the probes were applied to methane emissions, it would be interesting if methane leaks could be pinpointed for every building.  Or even methane emissions from every cow?

There are other tech advances that provide novel ways of helping us deal with threats to our environment.  Here are a few.

AI to find whales across vast oceans

If we want to preserve whales through marine protected areas, we need to know where they are.  Oceans are vast but one advantage is the distinctive singing of whales can travel hundreds of miles underwater.  The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has used acoustic recorders for 14 years to monitor marine mammals at remote and hard-to-access islands, accumulating 190,000 hours of acoustic recordings.  Sorting through such a massive data set to manually identify whale vocalisations has always been overtaxing.  Working with Google AI for Social Good, NOAA used machine learning (ML) to identify whale vocalisations in the huge dataset and to map the presence of whales in the Hawaiian and Mariana islands.

Using drones to plant trees

Drones have become ubiquitous and here’s an interesting use.  Given the importance of trees to store GHGs, filter air, and nourish soil, the loss of 8.3 million acres of forest each year is not inconsequential.  Planting seeds by hand is possible but hardly able to keep up with the loss.  Now a UK-based company BioCarbon is using drones to spray tree seeds throughout ravaged forests.

Mapping drones first determine the best planting strategy for a region, then planting drones hover six feet above the ground and fire seeds so fast that they get snugly implanted into the soil.  It is claimed that 1 billion trees per year can be planted this way.  That’s a lot of potential carbon capture.

Certain technologies that have been around for a while, including solar panels and wind turbines, are getting increasingly more imaginative applications.  For instance, in drought-stricken California, a water district is building solar electricity-generating canopies over portions of the district’s canal system.  By shading the sun, the structures reduce evaporation, leaving more water for the district’s customers.  The mile-long project also could generate about 5MW of power.

In another instance, a team of researchers has determined that a wind farm the size of Greenland in the Atlantic Ocean could generate enough energy to power all of humanity, essentially eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

So while geoengineering can be daunting, and sometimes unproven as yet, there are few limits to imaginative uses of new technology.

 

Sources

Dan Charles, “A satellite finds massive methane leaks from gas pipelines,” NPR (3 Feb 2022).n.pr/3t3SMyr

Robin McKie, “Draughty window or door? Now it can be seen from space,” The Guardian (20 Feb 2022).   bit.ly/3v3uLdM

Dan Gearino, “Inside Clean Energy: In Parched California, a Project Aims to Save Water and Produce Renewable Energy,” Inside Climate News (24 Feb 2022).  bit.ly/33TbEb4

Joe McCarthy, “8 Clever Innovations That Could Help Fight Climate Change,” Global Citizen (20 April 2018).  bit.ly/3Bxvrct

Graeme Green, “Five ways AI is saving wildlife – from counting chimps to locating whales,” The Guardian (21 Feb 2022).  bit.ly/3h1tTOv

Opposition to environmental regulation

Still going strong with a few new twists, including attacks on eNGOs like An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment

 

In the fall of 1990, the Irish government, under Taoiseach Charles Hughey, was advancing the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  State Papers from that period, recently released, identify the opposition’s arguments and the key opponents of the EPA.

The Department of Finance objected strongly to the proposed staffing of 133 and to an annual budget of £7 million.  No surprise there.  That’s what Finance does.

What is surprising is the vehemence of the opposition by Dermot Nally, “a long-serving secretary general of the Department of An Taoiseach.”  One doesn’t have to know anything about Nally, personally or professionally, to appreciate that such a position usually carried a lot of weight in any government.  And his obituary noted that he “was one of the most influential Irish civil servants of the last century, acting as secretary to the government from 1980 to 1993.”  Moreover, “Dermot Nally’s proudest achievement in the public service was his role in the negotiations with British counterpart Sir Robert Armstrong and the British and Irish teams on the Anglo-Irish Agreement.” That critical agreement was concluded in 1985, so when the government was considering the establishment of an EPA in the late 1980s, Nally was likely at the peak of his influence.

And that influence came crashing down on the notion of an EPA.  “In an unusual intervention by a civil servant, Nally wrote a strongly worded letter to Haughey – only days before the government decision – in which he described the EPA Bill as “objectionable.”  His opposition was more forceful.

In the letter, Nally wrote that EPA would act as a disincentive to industry to locate in Ireland, and that

Environmental protection is a worthy objective. If, however, it is allowed to become obsessional, then development will stop: and we can forget about more employment since the factories and firms and services which give that employment will not set up or expand – for ‘environmental’ reasons’…

The term “obsessional” is revealing, and disturbing.  Literally, it means “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.” Merriam-Webster.  It’s not just a “disturbing preoccupation” but with an “unreasonable idea or feeling.”

For Nally “development is the priority, not the environment, however important that may be.”

Finally, he suggests that “We seem to be trying to create here what Eastern Europe is trying so hard to escape from,” arguably associating the EPA with the spectre of socialism or communism or authoritarianism or something besides capitalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, Haughey as well as Padraig Flynn and Mary Harney, pushed through the legislation and we got the EPA in 1992-93.  But the state papers indicate that Haughey did take on some of Nally’s objections, and the EPA was born without much in the way of enforcement powers.

The Nally memo certainly reflects an antagonism to environmental regulation in the 1980s -1990s, and that undercurrent has remained in effect since then.

Over the past several decades the socio-politico tide has turned in favor of climate action and environmental protection in general, and  over the past 5-10 years EPA has become more proactive in questioning the government’s laggard climate policies and even raising questions about aspects of agriculture policy and practice.  But the anti-regulation sentiments and actions seem to surface and intensify when the environmental movement gets stronger.

It is highly unlikely now that anyone in government would talk openly about environmental regulation as Nanny did, but the opposition remains.  John Vidal reports on current efforts to undermine the UK regulation of pollution.  Last year there were tens of thousands of complaints to the Environment Agency (EA) about rivers polluted with human waste and chemicals, with fish killed, and with factories continuing to spew out dangerous fumes, with dirty, dangerous air and nature trashed.  In response the Agency with the responsibility to protect these natural resources ordered its staff to ignore all but the most obvious, high-profile incidents.  As a result Agency staff investigated only 8,000 of the 116,000 pollution incidents.  Only a handful of polluting companies were taken to court.

The line of attack on regulation is now through budgetting.  Recent leaked documents from the EA reveal how over the past 10 years the EA budget has been slashed and staff subjected to massive reductions.  According to a watchdog group, Unchecked UK, between 2011 and 2016, EA’s protection budget fell by 62% and staff were cut by a quarter; prosecutions fell by 28%; pollution incidents logged dropped by 29%; and water sampling was reduced by 28%.

In Ireland, the attack has taken a personal turn.  Instead of attacking the regulations or the budget, the regulated companies and sectors are attacking the messengers – those who are proactive in legal advocacy, particularly An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment.  It has gotten so obvious that at a recent conference in Dublin, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, who oversees governance, enforcement action and compliance on EU environmental legislation, stressed the EU concern for “the increasingly aggressive stance being taken against environmental campaigners in Ireland.”  He noted that, “There is evidence not only of increased use of Slapp [Strategic lawsuit against public participation] suits, but also negative reporting in mainstream media, and even from politicians – like threatening to cut off funding to certain NGOs.”

The attacks seem triggered by the power of the voices behind the rise in climate and environmental actions in Ireland over the past several decades.  Those voices belong to the Irish environmental Non-Government Organisations (eNGOs), the activists in the Environmental Pillar, the people in the Citizens’ Assembly, the Climate Change Advisory Council, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, and the Green Party.

Those who would attempt to stifle these voices need to be watched and identified and opposed.

 

Sources

Obituary, “Most influential of Irish civil servants who had ‘exceptional talents’,” The Irish Times (2 January 2010).  bit.ly/3G8mqHg

The Myth of the Costs of Environmental Regulation on Businesses in ieBLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (February 2015) bit.ly/3AAYFGI

John Vidal, “This is what ‘cutting red tape’ gets you: rivers polluted without consequence,” The Guardian (17 Jan 2022).  bit.ly/3u5Bz9X

Kevin O’Sullivan, “EU official criticises targeting of Irish environmental NGOs,” The Irish Times (22 Jan 2022).

Ireland is Still Lagging on Climate Change in Reports section of irish environment (April 2019). bit.ly/2wqAA5a

 

Natural gas as a “transitional” fuel?

Only in the gas industry’s dreams

If we magically shut off all natural gas the question arises as to whether we could maintain current levels of energy to heat homes, power electricity, and support some industrial processes.  The natural gas industry argues heatedly that we cannot. They say that natural gas is a necessary, even critical, transition fuel to be relied upon until renewable energy sources develop enough capacity and deliverability to supply our needs.  In effect, it serves as a bridge to a full renewable energy world.

Such an argument indicates that fossil fuel industries know that in the long run that their financial viability is quite shaky, as it may be simply a matter of how long it takes for renewables to replace the fossils.  Nevertheless, in the meantime, the gas industry hopes that they can delay the inevitable for decades to squeeze out what profits they can.  Claiming to be a transitional fuel represents that lifeline.

Julian Popov, in Euractiv, points out that this argument about gas being a transitional fuel does not hold water.   As he notes, “if we look at countries that significantly reduced coal in power generation, we will see that coal is not replaced by gas and doesn’t behave as a transitional fuel. Countries reduce coal, but gas consumption does not increase but instead stays the same or even declines.”  For example, in the UK coal generation peaked at 40% in 2012 and today coal generates less than 3% of British electricity.  It is also being phased out entirely.  Yet in the last two decades, gas demand has remained flat and both gas and nuclear are in relative decline over the previous five years.  In Germany, over the last decade coal generation declined by 44% and nuclear by 49% but natural gas increased by only 13%.   Yet lights and heat remained on in German

 

 

 

Moreover, these developments were happening when natural gas prices were low and the costs of renewables were high.  Now we see a dramatic lowering in the cost of renewables and significant rising prices in gas. Under such circumstances the chance of natural gas serving as a transitional fuel is more fantasy than fact.

Popov says that “The reality is that gas does not replace coal. So far, coal has been replaced primarily by renewables and energy efficiency in power generation.”   He also notes how in buildings, another sector where natural gas has been widely relied on, gas is being replaced by heat pumps, efficient insulation and renewables, including hydrogen.  In transport, battery-operated vehicles are steadily winning the race for passenger cars.

While natural gas continues to have some limited value, Popov argues that it is not as a “transitional fuel” but as a “fuel of last resort” that might fill an occasional gap in energy supply.  Yet other technologies are more helpful, and less harmful in filling any occasional gap.  Those options include batteries, market integration, cross-border grid connectivity, digitalisation of the energy system, and others.

Finally, Popov points out that calling gas a transitional fuel is basically a PR slogan of the industry.  But language matters.  That slogan is dangerous as it is being used to push for gas as a “transitional activity,” along with nuclear, under the EU sustainable finance Taxonomy being finalized at the moment.  See Sources on Taxonomy below.

 

Sources:

Julian Popov, “Natural Gas is not a transitional fuel, so let’s stop saying it is,” Euractiv (6 Dec 2021). bit.ly/3HsRJxP

Akos Losz and Jonathan Elkind, “The Roles of Natural Gas in the Energy Transition,” Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy (24 sept 2019).  bit.ly/3sKGFI2

T&E, “That inedible dish called the EU Taxonomy” in the Commentary section of the January 2022 issue of www.irishenvironment.com

“EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy” in ieBLOG section of the January 2022 issue of www.irishenvironment.com

 

The new climate denialism

Migration and borders

Over the past decade climate denialism has seemed to fade.  Increasingly those who want to belittle climate breakdown can no longer rely on claims that it just does not exist.  The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the breakdown does exist, it is based in large part on humans using fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases, and it is getting worse already.   The explosion of extreme weather events across the globe, tied to climate breakdown, has sealed the fate of traditional climate denialism.

But there are still plenty of people, with lots of money, who oppose doing anything about climate breakdown, often for personal financial reasons, e.g., their economic livelihood requires continuing reliance on fossil fuels and other GHGs.  They may have abandoned old arguments but they have not given up.  Rather they have merely shifted tactics and we need to be alert.

Opponents of climate action have increasingly turned one of our own arguments against us, with disturbing implications.

 

We have often argued that if nothing is done to control and eliminate GHGs, we will see massive waves of environmental refugees fleeing places being destroyed by floods, fires, famine, and droughts.   There may be as many as 1.2 billion such refuges by 2050.  Our conclusion has been that such waves need to be prevented by controlling or eliminating GHG emissions.

With a degree of perversity, those opposed to climate actions conclude that the problem is the wave, not the cause of the wave. They argue that “these people” riding the waves are immigrants who will bring their dirty ways, their pollutants, and carbon dioxide and GHGs with them (reflecting Trump on immigration).  So the solution is to stop these generally poor and disadvantaged people from coming to where we are, with walls and borders and repressive immigration policies, instead of stopping climate breakdown.  Stopping immigration becomes an environmental/green project!

The core of this anti-immigrant argument feeds off the nationalism that runs rampant across the globe at the moment: More walls, more borders, more exclusion (see Milman).

Of course the idea that the people in these waves are a major source of climate breakdown is belied by the reality that the richest 1% of the world are responsible for more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015.

We need to continue to be advocates for those ”fleeing climate-induced disasters” but we need to be sensitive to how our argument is being turned against the vulnerable people sucked up into these waves.

 

Sources

Oliver Milman, “Climate denial is waning on the right. What’s replacing it might be just as scary,” The Guardian (21 Nov 2021).  bit.ly/3cUt2x1

“Eco-Fascism: The dark side of environmentalism” in ieBLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (1 Sept 2019).

 

The Writing on the Climate Wall

Businesses and industries can read it

A recent virtual Open Newsroom discussion, sponsored by thejournal.ie, was held on “The climate crisis and COP26.”  Hosted by Christine Bohan, it featured enviro journalists John Gibbons (think_or_swim) and Niall Sargent (Noteworthy.ie), and Lauren Boland and Orla Dwyer of The Journal.  The focus was on an assessment of the current status of climate and biodiversity actions and the expectations of what may or may not happen at the UN COP26 talks in Glasgow in early November.

Comparisons were made to the results of the Copenhagen (2009) and Paris COPs (2015), the former generally recognized as a failure and the later offering more promise, as yet unmet.   Several were encouraged by the increased  focus on biodiversity, and its critical interplay with climate breakdown.  Positive signs were seen in more actions being taken on climate actions since Paris, including in Ireland; the development of concrete solutions for aspects of climate problems; a more informed public, again notable in Ireland; growing data on the costs of actions and inaction; and the climate youth movement.  There was general agreement on a “cautious optimism” for the COP26 talks.

We suggest there is another force at work that receives little attention, or any credit, but which is becoming more helpful in dealing with climate breakdown.  As surprising as it sounds, the credit goes to the business/industry community.

Many companies, and their reactionary political supporters, continue to resist efforts to switch to renewable energy and other sustainable climate actions.  Much time and effort is spent trying to convince these reactionaries to mend their ways and go green, but there are large economic benefits accruing to the old carbon-rich ways.  The entrenched resistance of the fossil fuel interests is a constant reminder.

But many companies are reading the writing on the climate wall:  almost every credible scientist (now up to 99%) and reliable study demonstrates the reality of climate breakdown, resulting from GHG emissions, especially from the burning of fossil fuels. And all the experts agree that the only way forward must rely on turning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources and sustainable practices.

 

 

 

 

Cambridge University – L.Tan

 

These messages have been burned into the consciousness of all of us by the increasing number and severity of extreme weather events over the past several decades.  And these extreme weather events support the recent IPCC special reports in October 2018 and August 2021(Code Red), and the shifts in public awareness in Ireland as reflected by the Citizens’ Assembly, the growing proactive work of the Climate Advisory Council and EPA, the Oireachtas Joint on Climate Action, and the new Climate Bill that is beginning to unfold.   Recent US studies by military and intelligence agencies warn of increased conflicts within and between nations, increased dislocation and migration of millions, and heightened military tension as a result of climate breakdown.

No wonder businesses and industries increasingly understand what is happening with the climate.  Like it or not the world has changed and will change even more and faster, and there is no going back. If they want to survive and prosper, they have to build and operate for a world run by renewable energy and sustainable practices.  It is in their own best interest.  And ours.

Even the most intransigent fossil fuel interests know their carbon time is limited, though many will still fight like demons, and spend like a profligate to extend their carbon time on earth.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Jane Goodall acknowledges the implications of this quickly forming consensus.  She points out that companies will continue to grow more supportive of climate action because a more sustainable ethic is “creeping in” and younger people (the future consumers) are ”growing up with a different understanding.”  And there is the writing on the wall.  She gives the example of the soft drink manufacturers who contribute to water shortages. As she notes, “If they go on using water the way they are using water, they won’t be able to make their drinks anymore. So they have to find methods which are more saving.”

Hoping that such a development continues, what do we do to make use of it.

First, don’t get bent out of shape when some regressive business or industry fights back.  Look around for those who have joined the consensus, form alliances with them, and work with them.  We have the example of local governments stepping in and assuming the lead for climate actions when national or regional governments fail to do so.

Second, even if the UN COP talks deliver less than we could hope for, trust that as long as the people at large continue to demand more proactive climate actions, businesses will pay attention and plan their own future to survive in a renewable energy world.

But we’re not delusional about any fundamental transformation of how business is conducted across the globe.  While we argue that certain changes are inevitable, that only means they are “certain to happen; unavoidable.”   But it is not clear just when they will happen.  And with climate breakdown things can turn deadly quickly.

So keep highlighting the writing on the climate wall and work with those who can read, and continue to push against the climate illiterate.

 

Sources:

Dominic Rushe, ‘Reading the writing on the wall’: why Wall Street is acting on the climate crisis: The industry has backed polluters for decades. Now, amid growing pressure, Wall Street says it’s going green,” The Guardian (16 March 2021).  bit.ly/3G7ZMA3

Emine Saner, “Jane Goodall on fires, floods, frugality and the good fight: ‘People have to change from within’,” The Guardian (20 Oct 2021).  bit.ly/3aTjIs7

Christopher Flavelle, Julian E. Barnes, Eileen Sullivan and Jenifer Steinhauer, “Reports Lay Out Climate’s Threat to U. S. Security,” The New York Times (22 Oct 2021). www.nytimes.com/2021/10/21/climate/climate-change-national-security.html

Jon Chorley, “Businesses Must Step Up On Climate Change—and Tech Innovations Are Key,” Forbes (18 Oct 2021).  bit.ly/3muK8qZ

Business Strategies to Address Climate Change, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions  bit.ly/3Ct3ulF

See, also, Andrew Phillips and Charles Seaford, “The Climate Consensus. The Public’s Views on How to Cut Emissions: Results from the Climate Calculator,” DEMOS in the Commentary section of the current (November 2021) issue of www.irishenvironment.com