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Leave It in the Ground, Climate Activists Demand

Posted on 30 April 2013 by John Hartz

The following article is reprinted by permission of its author, Stephen Leahy, who writes for the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency. To access the article as posted on the IPS website, click here.

Photo of mining of tar sands bitumen in Canada

Mining tar sands bitumen in Canada. Credit: Chris Arsenault/IPS

XBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 28 2013 (IPS) - Nearly 70 percent of known reserves of oil, gas and coal must remain in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change. So why did the energy industry spend 674 billion dollars in 2012 looking for more?

A moratorium on investments new fossil fuel infrastructure is the obvious thing to do about this, said Asad Rehman, head of international climate at Friends of the Earth in the UK.

The United Nations is the place to get countries to begin a serious conversation about imposing such a moratorium starting Monday in Bonn, Germany, Rehman told IPS.

The 195 parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are meeting next week in Bonn on a new climate treaty that would go into force in 2020 and discuss ways reduce emissions from fossil fuels prior to 2020.

The World Bank, International Energy Agency and a new report from economist Lord Nicholas Stern all say that close to 70 percent of known reserves of fossil fuels are “unburnable” to have a chance of global warming staying below two degrees C.

The global average temperature has already risen 0.8C, leading to the loss of most of the sea ice in the Arctic, extreme weather events around the world, rising sea levels and oceans that are 30 percent more acidic.

The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will likely hit 400 parts per million (ppm) this May. That will be the first time in at least three million years.

All nations have agreed under the UNFCCC to keep temperatures below two degrees C, which is by no means a safe level of warming. However, scientists say we are on a path to at least three degrees C, which will trigger irreversible feedbacks leading to much higher temperatures and far worse impacts.

It’s illogical to be making new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure,” Rehmand said.

The Carbon Tracker agrees. It’s a thinktank whose supporters include the big banks, Standard and Poor’s and the International Energy Agency. It co-authored the “Unburnable Carbon 2013″ report with Lord Stern.

The Carbon Tracker says investments in fossil fuel are foolish and continuing them will inevitably crash the global economy because countries will be forced to severely limit how much fossil fuel is burned.

“The scale of ‘listed’ unburnable carbon revealed in this report is astonishing,” said Paul Spedding, an oil and gas analyst at HSBC.

“This report makes it clear that ‘business as usual’ is not a viable option for the fossil fuel industry in the long term,” Speeding said in statement.

While banks and investors are finally waking up to the carbon-climate problem, countries have struggled for two decades under the UNFCCC to construct a global treaty to reduce carbon emissions enough to stay below two degrees C. Perversely, those same countries are pumping 1.9 trillion of their taxpayer’s money each year into subsidising the fossil fuel industry, reported the International Monetary Fund last month. (1.9. trillion seconds is about 60,000 years.)

Countries have promised to reduce these subsidies for the world’s richest industry, but few have acted.

“It’s bipolar…there is a complete lack of leadership,” said Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of strategy and policy.

The result is that global carbon emissions rise ever higher each year when they need to begin to decline. The gap between where we are and where we need to go is getting wider every year, Meyer said at a press conference last week.

The UNFCCC meeting in Bonn Apr. 29 to May 3 is one of several weeks of meetings before the annual Convention of the Parties (COP 19) negotiations in Poland this November. The main issues, as always, will be deciding how big the emissions cuts will be, the timing of those cuts and what the contribution should be for each country.

“There are two things to tackle in Bonn: how developed countries fulfill their promises to cut emissions deep and meet their financial commitments to enable developing countries to address climate change now,” said Meena Raman, negotiation expert at the Third World Network.

Developed countries and blocs like the U.S., Canada and the European Union do not appear ready to increase their promised emission cuts even though they are insufficient to achieve the two-degree C target and are collectively less than those from developing countries, as previously reported by IPS.

China is now the world’s biggest carbon emitter but it will be many years yet before the carbon molecules in the atmosphere with little Chinese flags on them will match those with U.S. flags. Since CO2 resides in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, emissions of 50 years ago have the same impact on the climate as those emitted today.

“It’s not hard to figure out the total amount of CO2 from the U.S. and other developed countries already in the atmosphere,” said Sivan Kartha, Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s US Center.

“Taking responsibility for the mess you made is a widely-accepted principle,” Kartha told IPS.

This politically thorny issue is known as “historical emissions” and it pits the South against the North. More recently, countries in the North have been pushing the concept of “mitigation potential” suggesting that it is harder for the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions because of existing infrastructure than it is for poor countries like India who haven’t built them yet, he said.

While “moratorium” will only be whispered about, “equity” will be the buzzword in play in Bonn this week, Kartha said.

Positive developments on climate are largely found outside the UNFCCC process. China and the U.S. recently signed a landmark agreement on climate and clean energy. Both countries agreed climate change poses a serious risk and have agreed to take a global leadership position, said Alden Myer.

“I take this a very positive sign,” but it remains to be seen if this translates into action, Meyer said.


 

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Comments

Comments 1 to 14:

  1. All nations have agreed under the UNFCCC to keep temperatures below two degrees C, which is by no means a safe level of warming. However, scientists say we are on a path to at least three degrees C, which will trigger irreversible feedbacks leading to much higher temperatures and far worse impacts.

    There's the rub: the 2° limit is an arbitrary, econopolitical construct, not a scientific one. The changes we are already seeing with 0.8°C are what I would call 'dangerous' and 2°C is, therefore, lunacy.

    Not that I am religious (I'm not), but is this the reason God got cross with Adam and Eve for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Have we learnt just enough to destroy Eden? Homo Stupidus stupidus.

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  2. A moratorium on investments new fossil fuel infrastructure is the obvious thing to do about this, said Asad Rehman, head of international climate at Friends of the Earth in the UK.

    The United Nations is the place to get countries to begin a serious conversation about imposing such a moratorium starting Monday in Bonn, Germany, Rehman told IPS.

    Ho, ho, ho! Good one! But...this is May 1st, not April 1st?

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  3. Doug

    I am going to agree with you 100% about the dangers of even a 2 C rise in temperatures. But the advantage of this number is that it enables governments to do the maths on what they should and shouldn't do.

    Of course, the fact that they are failing to do the maths and do what is appropriate means that they simply cannot be trusted with the future of our civilisation.

     

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  4. they simply cannot be trusted with the future of our civilisation

    Sad, but oh, so true. Sadly, the imperatives of democracy do not include electors voting in a wise government, but a populist one. As long as the populace does not perceive the threat, it is not going to vote in favour of action.

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  5. Doug, it is my belief that the 2 degree limit is chosen because we're reasonably sure the carbon cycle megafeedbacks (amazon desertification, permafrost decay, methane clathrate emissions) won't start in a big way. Stop at 2 degrees and we're reasonably sure the climate stays at 2 degrees. Stop at 3 degrees, and the climate system may go to 5 degrees on its own.

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  6. To base the future of humnaity - of the world as we currently know it on models that suggest 2 degrees would be safe but 3 degrees won't - is quite a gambol. 

    The global recession of 2008-2009 resulted in a 10% drop in CO2 emmisions, a drop that was compensated for by the subsequent 'recovery' in 2010-2011.  There's no likelihood whatsoever of there being massive cuts in CO2 emmisions without a significant and reliable source of energy to replace fossil fuels.  Solar and wind are not only intermittent but have their own environmental costs (toxic chemical waste) or are so land intensive as to be impractical for installations of adequate size.  Hydro is obviously limited geographically and also has massive environmental impact.  Uranium based nuclear power carries with it risks that are unacceptable.  Once can hope for a breakthough in fusion, but that breakthough has been waiting in the wings for well over 40 years now. 

    The only viable solution is a massive global investment in thorium based nuclear power, an energy source that would be reliable; have minimal enironmental impact; have no risk of meltdown associated with uranium based plants; do not produce weapons grade byproducts (Canadiam CANDU reactors burn weapons grade material in plants converted to use thorium as the fuel); and produce a volume of radiactive waste is a mere fraction of that produced by Uranium based plants. 

    Will we ever get there?  I for am am not hopeful!

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  7. @ClimateChangeExtremist

    Make the thorium fuelled reactors the liquid flouride type. and also make them both small and modular so that they can be manufactured on a production line in each country with the modules able to be shipped by road on the final leg of the journey to their designated location for assembly on arrival and you get my full support.

    While they will not replace the liquid energy that oil currently provides, they would certainly motivate the development of techniques to electrify the transport system, especially as oil climbs relentlessly higher in price.

    I suppose what we really need is a Manhattan type project to resolve the final design issues and, seeing as they are so safe, a relaxation of any planning permissions that could hold up their progress. As for NIMBYs, well ...

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  8. As popular article, this text is riddled with over-simplifications, e.g.:

    Since CO2 resides in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, emissions of 50 years ago have the same impact on the climate as those emitted today

    Not quite. Emissions of "50 years ago" have the same impact on the climate today, as "those emitted today" will have in 50y (because of lag in surface warming).

    On the longer term (several centuries), the cumulative emissions will have the same warming potential, regaredeless when they were emitted, and regaredeless of emission rates, not because "CO2 resides in the atmosphere for hundreds of years", but because fossil-fuel carbon resides in the atmosphere-ocean circulation for several milenia, which is virtually infinite on human timescale. So, our FF burning activity will have impact on climate not for your 50y but for many Ky, possibly preventing the next glaciation cycle.

    An interesting is this new concept of “mitigation" potential: "it is harder for the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions because of existing infrastructure than it is for poor countries [...] who haven’t built them yet". Well, if they continue quibbling over such details, while not paying attention to what I just said in the paragraph above, how could they be regarded as reasonable, responsible poeple? How can we expect the agreement and responsible action from their discussions?

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  9. Climate Change Extremist:

    In the 12 December, 2012 issue of Nature an article by four British nuclear engineers describes the proliferation hazard of thorium reactors.

    Neutron bombardment of Th232 starts decay chains that produce U233, which is fissile and can be used in reactors and for weapons, and U232 which is an emitter of intense gamma radiation.  In the 1950s the US looked into U233 for a weapon and found that gamma radiation from U232, an impurity which is difficult to separate from U233, triggered premature ignition and reduced yield, so U233 was not followed out in weapons research.  The article mentioned above describes the chemical removal (two separate schemes are laid out) of the precursor to U233, Pa233, which has a half life of about 27 days, from the already-formed U232.  The separated Pa233 can be allowed to decay into very pure U233, which could be used in a properly-working bomb.

    A power reactor or research reactor can be used to irradiate the Th232.  Yes, thorium reactors represent a proliferation hazard, though they are widely declared not to.

      Synapsid

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  10. Correction:

    U232 produces decay products which are intense gamma emitters.

     

      Synapsid

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  11. @ Mark Bahner:

    You have posted 2 comments thus far on this thread that, rather than adding to the signal of participation and dialogue on this thread that the other contributors work hard to maintain, do nothing more than detract from that discussion. As such, they serve no useful purpose, being noise among the signal. To that end, if you do not wish to have your noise filtered out, please attenuate said noise in favor of greater signal.

    Capiche?

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  12. I would postulate most of the carbon cycle carbon that we consume comes to us with the help of fossil fuel carbon, so it is not a zero-sum game.  Tractors, irrigation motors, trucks to transport use fossil fuels and even elements of fertilizers and pesticides come from petroleum.  I don't know of an electric vehicle capable of performing the work necessary to grow & distribute enough food for the masses, regardless of the source of charge.  Is there a solution to nutritional needs on a scale to satisfy 7 Billion people that does not involve petroleum?

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  13. Alex, I have only done the calculations for my own country (NZ) but it is heavily agriculturally based. Couple of points.

    1/ the amount of energy going into agriculture is relatively small (5.2% for NZ). If that was the only thing we used FF for, then it wouldn't be problem.

    2/ Providing for all current diesel use (farm and transport) could be done with biodiesel. Conventional methods would take 21% of agricultural land. However, there is a lot of work going into woody biofuel which could easily cover the requirement from marginal land instead.

    3/ FF (especially petroleum) are limited. You are going to have to get off them eventually anyway. If you really need petroleum to feed 9 million people, then people are going die. It doesnt take much restriction of supply for woody biofuel to be cheaper anyway.

     Remember that dealing with climate change is mostly about getting off coal. Petroleum is an incredibly useful and valuable resource and I think we are just squandering it. (Already have really).

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  14. Alex

    Although use of FFs in farming is a small part of total FF use, it is the truely hard one to deal with. That is another reason why hitting transport and electricity generation hard and fast in a conversion to non-FFs is so important - to leave room in our allowable carbon budget for the far more essential uses in agriculture.

    But not cutting FFs also constitutes a threat to agriculture as well. Yield declines due to warming are something we just can't afford. Even more worrying is what the impact of increases in climate variability. Which is worse, a 5% decline in global food yields that manifests as 6 years all at 95%, or a 5% decline that manifests as 5 years at 100% and one year at 70%? We don't have the food reserves to see us through a year of 70%. In scenario 1 we all tighten our belts. In scenario 2 10's of millions starve to death.

    We are facing a food supply crisis this century due to a multitude of factors. And we are in a double bind. Act hard on FFs to address climate change and food supply comes under pressure because the supports to it are taken away. Don't act on FFs and Climate Change puts food supply under pressure.

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