Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pathways into the Future - Triggers of Change

The 2013 Earth Dialogues will attract leading figures of international politics, science, business and civil society in the search for solutions to resolve the most pressing and interconnected challenges of insecurity, poverty and environmental degradation.

The event is open to members of the public, who register with Green Cross following the guidelines found here.

The 7th edition of the Earth Dialogues will be held at the United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland, on 3 September, 2013. The day-long event, titled Pathways into the Future - Triggers of Change, comes at a time of deep crisis in multilateralism, hallmarked by a lack of consensus, and coordinated international action, to respond to rampant ecological breakdown, globalization and disparities between rich and poor.

The UN says clean energy funding too low to address climate change. Clean energy is the future solution to our energy needs, and will be a key topic at the upcoming Earth Dialogues conference in Geneva on 3 September:

How can gains in human development be sustained, climate change controlled and sustainability ensured in the absence of a strong multilateral system that all decision-makers are party to?

The conference's objective will be to demonstrate how multilateralism can – and must – be recalibrated to meet these challenges. The event will provide a launching pad for initiatives to bolster effective multilateral action, and Geneva, the cradle for international modern consensus and cooperation, offers a perfect platform.

Five panels will be held during the Earth Dialogues conference on:

  • Lessons learned (from Rio 1992 to Rio+20)
  • Inclusive and Circular economy based Growth (In Search of a New Development Model)
  • Reinventing Multilateralism (Climate, Water/Energy/Food, Security) - two panels
  • Preparedness for the Future – Global and Local Resilience – Ability to Overcome and Reconsolidate Societal Functions after Major Shocks

The event will enable rich, valuable discourse and exchanges on critical issues and agendas facing the world today.

Discussions and decisions will go towards developing the “Geneva Appeal”, which will outline a road map of specific acitons and “tipping points” needed to launch the Future We Want movement, as outlined in the outcoome documentof the United Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

For more information: Please email or click here for registration details

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Millennium Development Goals

It's Equality Monday. The world has made progress in some areas but not in others - did you know that despite the disproportionate impact of conflict on women, fewer than 3% of signatories to peace agreements are women.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Capitalism Is Great, But It Assigns No Value To Your Grandchildren, GRANTHAM

It started [in the mid-1990s] with a visit to the Amazon and to Borneo with the kids. And without thinking about it you start talking about the logs along the side of the river and the lack of mature forests in Borneo.

Jeremy Grantham

We were on family trips and happened to do a couple of tropical forests back to back. I'm sure that played a role, but we didn't treat it as an epiphany. I would argue that one of our children got there first. While we were environmentalists, but low key, one of my sons happened to get a job which saw him end up in a dry tropical forest in Paraguay for five years and then off into the forestry business. Shortly behind that, we [his investment company GMO] began to follow that interest in forestry. We started our own forestry operation 15 years ago [at GMO] because our interest in forestry and of our realisation that land is so important. Forests were mispriced and were an attractive investment. My interest in forestry at that point was entirely commercial and then it began to morph into a decent investment, plus, "look how important these forests are to maintain fresh water, carbon sequestration, etc"…

I picked up none of that [James Hansen's 1988 testimony before Congress on climate change and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit]. No. Absolutely not. I was following along afterwards [once the foundation launched in 1997] asking the big NGOs where was the leverage for the birds flying through Costa Rica and Panama. Let's put our money there. Where were the hotspots? The climate question wasn't there for me at that time. Now it is at least half of the focus for the foundation. And in the other half it brushes up against climate all the time. We are late arrivals to all this and I have nothing but admirations to those who beat me to the punch by a few decades.

On why his environmental interests moved beyond habitat conservation:

I was a moderate environmentalist 10-15 years ago. But then I started to get embroiled in resources and that [the rise in price of] oil was the first paradigm shift that we'd ever come across in an important asset class, and nothing is more important than oil. I realised that the price of oil had changed forever and is not going back to the old $15 a barrel. There had been a majorly important shift. That led us to asking the question, why only oil? Why not every finite resource? And so we ended up about four years ago saying, "watch out, we seem to be running out of things". Two years ago, we did a very detailed paper which took on a life of its own and helped to put these issues onto institutional agenda items, I think. That led me to the realisation, by looking at the data, that between population growth and China gobbling up the world that the world had changed – and dangerously so – and hidden under that that oil and food were the two most dangerous components and within that [the availability of] phosphorous was perhaps the most dangerous long-term issue of all. Digging into the phosphate problem, you realised that it can be handled, but only if the great majority of the world is fed via sustainable farming which means nurturing the soil and having it once again full of micro-organisms. If you kill them every year with herbicides and pesticides then you're dealing basically with sand. You've got to restore and renew the ability to grow by re-applying all the nutrients in very big, expensive doses every year. This is in contrast to well-nurtured soil. There's a 30-year patch in Pennsylvania at the Rodale Institute where they've never put on any phosphorous at all and they are getting productivity equal to regular farming up the road.

We arrived at all this just by looking at the numbers and the more I did the more I became concerned that we were already deep into a food crisis. Arab Spring countries were already getting throttled a bit by rising price of energy and food. They don't spend 8-10% of their budget on these, they spend 40%. So when that starts to double on you, you can see how quickly why people take to the streets. And that's where we are. The rich countries are really not that concerned and their casual behaviour is only serving to push up the price which is not that big a deal to them, certainly not the movers and shakers who make all the money. But it's a terrible deal for the poor half of the world and a disaster for the poorest 10% or so. That's the world we're in and it could lead to country after country being destabilised.
It has forced me to go back and read all the classics. On my iPad I think I have 40 or so books now. I recommend a book by a scholar who summarises all these works back to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's calledImmoderate Greatness: Why Civilisations Fail by William Ophuls. And then there's perhaps my favourite book of a more detailed type which is called Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisation [by David R Montgomery]. That's a really good read. Then there's Collapse by Jared Diamond, which seems to have done quite well and is reasonable. A lot of details are queried by the experts in the field, but I thought it was fine. Then there are books on peak oil and shortages of raw materials. Books on the whole package of long-term growth on a finite planet, going back to the Limits to Growth and a book by one of the co-authors that looks at the next 40 years. That's called 2052 [by Jorgen Randers]. And so on and so forth.

On the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism:

Capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives. It balances supply and demand in an elegant way that central planning has never come close to. However, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, today, they are the issues that are absolutely central to our long-term wellbeing and even survival. It doesn't think long-term very well because of high discount rate structure. If you're a typical corporation anything lying out 30 years literally doesn't matter. Or, as I like to say: QED, your grandchildren have no value. And they usually act as if that was true, even though I'm sure they are actually very kind to their grandchildren. More


Monday, April 15, 2013

There’s Only One Real Option for Averting Economic and Ecological Ruin

The following excerpt is reprinted from the new book Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner, published by Post Carbon Institute and Watershed Media, in collaboration with the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

Energy conservation is our best strategy for pre-adapting to an inevitably energy-constrained future. And it may be our only real option for averting economic, social, and ecological ruin. The world will face limits to energy production in the decades ahead regardless of the energy pathway chosen by policy makers. Consider the two extreme options—carbon minimum and carbon maximum.

If we rebuild our global energy infrastructure to minimize carbon emissions, with the aim of combating climate change, this will mean removing incentives and subsidies from oil, coal, and gas and transferring them to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. Where fossil fuels are still used, we will need to capture and bury the carbon dioxide emissions.

We might look to nuclear power for a bit of help along the way, but it likely wouldn’t provide much. The Fukushima catastrophe in Japan in 2011 highlighted a host of unresolved safety issues, including spent fuel storage and vulnerability to extended grid power outages. Even ignoring those issues, atomic power is expensive, and supplies of high-grade uranium ore are problematic.

The low-carbon path is littered with other obstacles as well. Solar and wind power are plagued by intermittency, a problem that can be solved only with substantial investment in energy storage or long-distance transmission. Renewables currently account for only a tiny portion of global energy, so the low-carbon path requires a high rate of growth in that expensive sector, and therefore high rates of investment. Governments would have to jump-start the transition with regulations and subsidies—a tough order in a world where most governments are financially overstretched and investment capital is scarce.

For transport, the low-carbon option is even thornier. Biofuels suffer from problems of high cost and the diversion of agricultural land, the transition to electric cars will be expensive and take decades, and electric airliners are not feasible.

Carbon capture and storage will also be costly and will likewise take decades to implement on a meaningful scale. Moreover, the energy costs of building and operating an enormous new infrastructure of carbon dioxide pumps, pipelines, and compressors will be substantial, meaning we will be extracting more and more fossil fuels just to produce the same amount of energy useful to society—a big problem if fossil fuels are getting more expensive anyway. So, in the final analysis, a low-carbon future is also very likely to be a lower-energy future.

What if we forget about the climate? This might seem to be the path of least resistance. After all, fossil fuels have a history of being cheap and abundant, and we already have the infrastructure to burn them. If climate mitigation would be expensive and politically contentious, why not just double down on the high-carbon path we’re already on, in the pursuit of maximized economic growth? Perhaps, with enough growth, we could afford to overcome whatever problems a changing climate throws in our path.

Not a good option. The quandary we face with a high-carbon energy path can be summed up in the metaphor of the low-hanging fruit. We have extracted the highest quality, cheapest-to-produce, most accessible hydrocarbon resources first, and we have left the lower quality, expensive-to-produce, less accessible resources for later. Well, now it’s later. Enormous amounts of coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels still remain underground, but each new increment will cost significantly more to extract (in terms of both money and energy) than was the case only a decade ago.

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and the Middle East–North Africa uprisings of 2011, almost no one still believes that oil will be as cheap and plentiful in the future as it was decades ago. For coal, the wake-up call is coming from China—which now burns almost half the world’s coal and is starting to import enormous quantities, driving up coal prices worldwide. Meanwhile, recent studies suggest that global coal production will max out in the next few years and start to decline.

New extraction techniques for natural gas (horizontal drilling and “fracking”) have temporarily increased supplies of this fuel in the United States, but the companies that specialize in this “unconventional” gas appear to be subsisting on investment capital: Prices are currently too low to enable them to turn much of a profit on production. Costs of production and per-well depletion rates are high, and energy returns on the energy invested in production are low. Recent low prices resulted from a glut of production produced by rampant drilling in 2005–2007, which only made economic sense when gas prices were much higher than they are now. All of this suggests that rosy expectations for what “fracking” can produce over the long term are overblown.

Exotic hydrocarbons like gas hydrates, bitumen (“tar sands”), and kerogen (“oil shale”) will require extraordinary effort and investment for their development and will entail environmental risks even higher than those for conventional fossil fuels. That means more expensive energy. Even though the resource base is large, with current technology the nature of these materials means they can be produced only at relatively slow rates.

But if the hydrocarbon molecules are there and society needs the energy, won’t we just bite the bullet and come up with whatever levels of investment are required to keep energy flows growing at whatever rate we need them? Not necessarily. As we move toward lower-quality resources (conventional or unconventional), we have to use more energy to acquire energy. As net energy yields decline, both energy and investment capital have to be cannibalized from other sectors of society in order to keep extraction processes expanding. After a certain point, even if gross energy production is still climbing, the amount of energy yielded that is actually useful to society starts to decline anyway. From then on, it will be impossible to increase the amount of economically meaningful energy produced annually no matter what sacrifices we make. And the signs suggest we’re not far from that point.

In one sense it matters a great deal whether we choose the low-carbon or the high-carbon path: One way, we lay the groundwork for a sustainable (if modest) energy future; the other, we destabilize Earth’s climate, shackle ourselves ever more tightly to energy sources that can only become dirtier and more expensive as time goes on, and condemn myriad other species to extinction.

However, in another sense, it doesn’t matter which path we choose: With human population numbers growing and energy constraints looming, we will have less energy to burn per capita in the future. Plot any scenario between the low-carbon and high-carbon extremes and that conclusion still holds, which means less energy for transport, for agriculture, and for heating and cooling homes. Less energy for making and using electronic gadgets. Less energy for building and maintaining cities.

Efficiency can help us obtain greater services for each unit of energy expended. Research has been proceeding for decades on how to reduce energy inputs for all sorts of processes and activities. Just one example: The electricity needed for illumination has declined by up to 90 percent due to the introduction first of compact fluorescent light bulbs, and now LED lights. However, efficiency efforts are subject to the law of diminishing returns: We can’t make and transport goods with no energy, and each step toward greater efficiency typically costs more. Achieving 100 percent efficiency would, in theory, require infinite effort. So while we can increase efficiency and reduce total energy consumption, we can’t do those things and produce continual economic growth at the same time.

Humanity is at a crossroads. Since the Industrial Revolution, cheap and abundant energy has fueled constant economic growth. The only real discussion among the managerial elite was how to grow the economy—whether in planned or unplanned ways, whether with sensitivity to the natural world or without.

Now the discussion must center on how to contract. So far, that discussion is radioactive—no one wants to touch it. It’s hard to imagine a more suicidal strategy for a politician than to base his or her election campaign on the promise of economic contraction. Denial runs deep, but sooner or later reality will expose the delusion that endless growth is possible on a finite planet. More