For the eco-minded individual, March is a good month. There are events of all shapes and sizes that you can take part in. Here are a few of them.
The biggest event this month will undoubtedly be Earth Hour. It takes place at 8:30 pm local-time on Saturday 27th, wherever you are in the world. Participating is simple, sign up on the website (so they can know how many people take part) and then, when the time comes, just turn off your lights for an hour. The idea is not to save electricity, one hour of lighting won’t make that much difference to anything. No, the idea is to show your support for solid action in favour of tackling climate change. There’s more information on the Earth Hour FAQ, if you’re interested.
Last year, hundreds of millions of people worldwide took part. Towns, cities, and major landmarks across the globe darkened to show their support for action to tackle climate-change. The fact that world leaders let us down in Copenhagen in December only makes it all the more important that we send the message loud and clear once more. So go on, sign up, switch off, and do something different in the dark for an hour!
If you’re in Canada, there’s another event that might interest you. March 11th has been declared Bottled Water Free Day.
Why? Because bottled water represents a great deal of plastic and fuel used to transport water that is no better than tap water – and often is tap water – so that people can pay 1000 times as much as it would cost them to take it from the tap. The bottles leach chemicals into the water, which is not good, and then they often end up in landfill instead of being recycled, which is also not good.
If you’d like to know more, take a look at the video, or click on the logo above to go to the Bottled Water Free Day site.
preparing pesticide - courtesy of MGDRF.org
Week without pesticides
On this side of the pond, there’s the next edition of Semaine sans pesticides (Week without pesticides) coming up, March 20-30. Pesticides are used so heavily these days that people in developed countries are contaminated from birth, which can’t be good. Take a look at the protective gear this guy is wearing in order to spray that stuff on your food!
There are ever-growing numbers of organic farmers out there, so healthier food is becoming more and more available, which is a good thing. For that matter, you can grow your own vegetables organically with little effort, so it’s quite possible to get off the pesticides. It would be great if more farmers took the organic route!
Semaine sans pesticides is a growing event, with participation from all over the world, though most of the events are in France. Why not check out their map and see if there’s something of interest near you. You can turn up and show your support, or simply find out more about the pesticides on your plate.
The Copenhagen meeting finished some time ago now, and didn’t succeed in delivering anything useful. I’ve resisted the temptation to write about it earlier, rather I wanted to see what others said first, before making up my own mind about it. There’s been an awful lot of analysis published in the blogosphere since the meeting ended, I’m sure I’ve not encountered every view, but here are my own conclusions.
One thing is obvious, we did not get the fair, ambitious, and legally binding document we were all hoping for. Not even close. All we got was the ‘Copenhagen accord’, a piece of paper with no legal weight written by a few of the participants. That accord has no numbers in it that we can use to actually set policies. It does not state when emissions should peak, what reduction in emissions is required, in what timescale, or anything like that. There is no way to turn it into a plan of action, to decide how to tackle climate change based on what it says. It is worthless in itself, and is quite possibly worse than having no agreement at all.
On the other hand, it is not at all clear that anything else was on the table. I have not seen anything mentioned anywhere that the formal process of the UNFCC had created a document that was ready to be signed at the end of the meeting. If you know otherwise, please let me know via the comments. And, worthless as it is in practise, it is nonetheless significant that America and China have both signed even so weak a document as they did.
In the aftermath, the inevitable finger-pointing has taken place, with most people blaming someone half the world away for the failure. It’s difficult for an observer like myself to know what really happened, who is at fault, and why the process broke down. There was clearly a lot of good intention from many places, I doubt so many world leaders have ever been assembled in one place before. They wouldn’t all go there to look bad, I’m sure many of them wanted to come away with something real. Many countries went to Copenhagen having made pledges which, while inadequate, were much stronger than anything they have comitted to in the past. So what happened?
President Obama was clearly a key player, and he went there empty-handed. He didn’t offer anything new, much to the disappointment of many. The offer of ‘mobilising a fund of $100 billion annually for mitigation’ by 2020 is not worth much. Americans spend that much each year on bottled water, so it’s not exactly digging deep into their pockets. Besides, the International Energy Agency estimates that, for each year we delay action, the cost of tackling climate change will increase by $500 billion. So having $100 billion per year by 2020 really isn’t impressive.
It seems likely that, had America made a bigger comittment to cutting its own emissions, the conference could have gained a lot of momentum. With one of the highest levels of emissions per person in the entire world, America, like many western countires, has a clear debt to pay for the wealth it has accumulated. People were looking to President Obama to take the leading role he claimed he would when he was sworn into office. He failed to do that. To be fair, when you see the political pressure and tactics wielded by the fossil-fuel industries in America, it’s hardly surprising that President Obama couldn’t offer more. He simply doesn’t have that much power.
it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.
China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.
I think that both George and Mark make good arguments, as do many other writers, but I have to say I give a lot of weight to Mark’s analysis. Mark was in the room for the negotiations, he saw it all first-hand. I’ve read Mark’s book, Six Degrees, and was impressed at how well he took such a large body of research and summarised it in terms we can all understand. He’s also one of the few environmentalists who has come to understand the importance of nuclear power in addressing climate change. That’s why I trust him as an observer and a critical thinker, and take his opinion seriously.
So, given that the UN framework didn’t yield a result, and that those who wanted to do something were prevented from doing so by those that don’t, what does that mean for the future? Here, the blogosphere seems to be more in agreement, people-power still matters, and there are a lot of people who aren’t giving up.
People from all walks of life have been calling for action on climate change. George Monbiot, in that same article above, is quite blunt about blaming people for complacency.
For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic.
I guess he’s right. I know I came late to the party, and wish I had acted sooner.
Young people are getting in on the act too. Take a look at the video below, produced by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Their message to world leaders is load and clear:
Those of you who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of people already doing it. Our future will not be written for us, but by us. You’re not done yet. And neither are we.
It’s great to know so many people from such different levels of society want action, but it won’t be enough to simply tell governments to act. It’s important that people both understand what is needed and agree on how to act, so a clear, unified, and sensible message is sent to political leaders. One of the biggest problems here is that a lot of people think that renewable energy sources can solve our energy needs, and many environmental groups remain opposed to nuclear power.
Advocates of ‘renewable energy’ regularly fail to consider the cost or effort required to satisfy demand. Replacing conventional electricity production with renewable sources is simply not sensible when you look at the amount of raw material (e.g. concrete and steel) that is needed, or at the amount of land that would be needed for the installation. Never mind the fact that solar or wind power are useless in a cold spell of weather like we are having at the moment, so we would still need something reliable to provide power when we need it most. See David Mackay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, for some clear discussion about the theoretical limits of renewable energy and decide for yourself if you think it’s really a viable option.
I’ve written before about green-groups misguided opposition to nuclear power. Few of them seem to understand the realities of modern nuclear power, which is cheaper, cleaner, safer, and more reliable than it was during the cold-war days of the nuclear arms race. By perpetuating this myth, they are supporting the fossil-fuel industry. How? as Steve Kirsch said recently:
If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for base-load electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.
Needless to say, weather-dependant renewable energy cannot provide that base-load, and the only real competition to fossil-fuel is nuclear power. If I were a fossil-fuel CEO, I would certainly want to spread fear of nuclear power, and would happily let the green-groups do my dirty work for me!
If you want a good idea of what it takes to replace fossil-fuel with either renewable or nuclear power, take a look at bravenewclimate.com. They consider the practicalities of cost and build-rate for a range of options, and conclude that anything other than massive deployment of nuclear power simply won’t cut emissions in time.
Until green-groups embrace the need for nuclear power instead of renewable energy, we are not sending a coherent or useful message to world leaders, one that they can use to enact legislation that will genuinely cut emissions. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu surely understands this, so President Obama must know it too. Small wonder that he couldn’t offer much at Copenhagen when the environmental movement don’t want the changes that will work, and the coal and oil industries are spending a fortune to mislead and misinform the American public.
That’s not to say that this problem is specific to America, it’s a drama that is repeated the world over. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can start making the changes that matter. Maybe then we can persuade others to do the same too.
In 2008, my car travelled 10400 km, using 621 litres of petrol. That works out at 47.3 mpg if you’re British, 39.3 mpg if you’re American, and 6.0 litres per 100 km if you’re French. In 2009, the same car travelled 9440 km on 552 litres. I’ll let you do the math, but by my calculation that’s about 2% better on the mileage. More importantly, the total fuel consumption went down by 11%, which is quite a chunk. The difference is worth about $100 (70 euros), enough for another good meal out with Dweezeljazz.
Free pizza for driving less, I can handle that!
According to the 538 blog, the average American family of 4 uses about 2000 US gallons of petrol per year. That’s over 7500 litres. Imagine how many free pizzas they could get if they saved 10% of that?
I’ve also been following my electricity consumption for the past year, and have found that we average about 30 kWh per day. According to Wikipedia’s list of electricity consumption per country, we’re a fair bit lower than the average for France, which would be 40 kWh/day for the two of us. Not bad at all.
I only monitor our electricity use by reading the meter once per week, but that’s enough to start getting useful information on where it all goes. For example, our water-heater broke down in summer, allowing me to estimate how much goes into heating water for us. Some people go much further. Tom Harrison uses a TED 5000, a gadget that can show electricity use by the second as it happens. That’s how he found out that his gas oven uses 300W of electricity. How many people would even guess that a gas oven uses electricity, never mind as much as that?
If you’re interested in checking your own use of resources such as petrol and electricity, there are a number of ways of going about it. You can get an idea of your petrol use by looking at the service-records for your car, the total number of miles on the clock is typically recorded there. If you know how often you fill up your petrol tank (credit-card receipts, perhaps?) you can get a fair estimate of your mileage that way. For electricity or gas, you can look at your bills over the last year to get a starting point (make sure they’re actual readings, not estimates).
Once you know how much you’ve been using in the past, you have a good incentive to reduce it in the future. You can compare your petrol consumption with others by recording your results at fuelly.com. My Astra is there.
If you’re serious about wanting to reduce your consumption, why not sign up with the 10:10 campaign (there’s a separate link for people in the UK). The 10:10 campaign wants people, businesses, and other organisations to reduce their carbon footprint by 10% in 2010. That’s a modest but significant goal which is easy to achieve, and is intended to focus on actually doing the things that are needed, rather than just talking about them. Over 50,000 people have signed up so far, including Pete Postlethwaite, star of the Age of Stupid film.
It has to be said, the 10:10 website is not very well laid out. It took me ages to find the 10:10 blog, for example. They’re looking for a web developer if you’re interested in helping them improve it. You can actually get a better idea of what it’s about from the Wikipedia 10:10 page, which also lists some of the people and organisations that have comitted themselves to action. They include the British cabinet, the Science Museum, Microsoft UK, the Guardian, and a whole bunch of celebrities. I’ll be checking there again in a few days to see if they’ve added my name to the list.
The Guardian are throwing a lot of their weight behind the 10:10 campaign. It’s worth reading their articles by Andrew Simms, Chris Goodall and Ian Katz, among others. I’m convinced 10:10 is worth doing, so I signed up. After all, you can look at it differently, and just think of it as free pizza.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference gets under way in Copenhagen this week. There’s a lot at stake. We need a global commitment from all nations to adopt a low-carbon path for the future, and we need to get on that path fast. There’s simply no alternative if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world that we would recognise.
I’m somewhat optimistic about the outcome. I certainly don’t think that the conference will result in an agreement that can prevent catastrophic climate-change in itself. Even if it did, we still have to make sure that it gets implemented, and that’s going to take decades of work. Signing a piece of paper this year will not be enough, even it if says all the right things.
So why am I optimistic? Grab a cup of tea, sit down, and I’ll tell you.
On the one hand, it’s great to see such statements in the leadup to the conference. On the other, of course, those levels of cuts are not enough to make any difference to the changing climate. Compared to 1990 levels, the US figure corresponds to a cut of just 2%, while the Chinese and Indian carbon-intensity targets mean even less.
Carbon intensity is like car mileage, you can drive more efficiently to improve your mileage, but if you drive further as well, you may still burn more petrol. China plans to grow its economy at 8% per year. That would mean that by 2020 Chinas’ emissions will be almost double the 2005 level.
Of course, there will be lots of finger-pointing, with people on all sides calling for others to do more, while claiming that they are doing their share already, or that they do not want to do more until other countries commit themselves to do more. Playing ‘chicken’ with the climate is not what we really want to see in Copenhagen. Some will point out that China emits more CO2 than any other country. Others will point out that the US emits more per person than any other country (sorry, almost any other country.).
You can see the emissions per person for a number of countries in the graph, below, taken from David MacKay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. That graph is for the year 2000, and you can clearly see that the ‘developed world’ is emitting far more CO2 per person than China or India, for example.
Carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions per country for the year 2000
So it seems to me that the developed world has a clear moral obligation to take the lead in cutting emissions. Of course, everyone has to play their part, but there’s no need for anyone to wait, we can and should be cutting deeply, now. Unfortunately, politicians end up discussing the financial cost of action instead, arguing about how much money it will take to change, and what will it do to their countries’ economy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s your money they’re protecting either. No, it’s the money of big corporations that lobby hard to protect their interests.
Big corporations have always worked to protect themselves. The gas companies opposed Thomas Edison when he wanted to light the streets with electricity, for example. The reality is that every year of delay only increases the financial costs down the line. Will we have to change the way we live in order to tackle climate change? Yes, we will. Will it have an effect on our economies? Yes, of course. But will it hurt you, or me? Not necessarily.
Thomas Edison changed our lives for the better. Henry Ford changed our lives when he established the automobile industry. Other changes are more gradual, like from theatre to silent films, to talkies, to television, to videos, and now to satellite and internet TV. The entertainment industry has changed drastically in that time, and people have changed with it.
Changing our way of life is very much part of our way of life, and that’s a good thing. When we realise that fact, tackling climate change will not seem difficult or painful, it will appear as the opportunity it is. Unless you’re the CEO of a fossil-fuel company, of course.
So that’s one reason why I’m optimistic. I believe people can come to terms with the changes needed to tackle climate change, once they realise it is in their personal interest and the interests of their family to do so. For that to happen, we just need to look at who is behind the voices opposed to doing anything.
If you’re among those who think climate change is not a real problem, ask yourself this: where did you get the information that led you to that opinion? What motivates the person who tells you not to worry about climate change? What’s in it for them if you believe them?
Regular readers of this blog will know I’m fond of quoting President Nasheed of the Maldives. Well, I’m going to do it again. In a recent speech, he expressed himself very clearly:
To my mind, countries that have the foresight to green their economies today will be the winners of tomorrow. They will be the winners of this century. These pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil. They will capitalize on the new, green economy of the future. And they will enhance their moral standing, giving them greater political influence on the world stage.
Here in the Maldives we have relinquished our claim to high-carbon growth. After all, it is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport. Low-carbon technologies now exist, to deliver all the goods and services we need. Let us make the goal of using them.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a few other leaders could make a stand with President Nasheed, and offer us development, electricity, and transport, instead of coal and oil?
He’s written a book, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, which you can download for free from the web (in several formats). Unlike many scientists, he’s an excellent communicator, able to put things in terms that are easy to understand with just a bare minimum of maths. As the book title suggests, he explains a lot about the realities of sustainable energy, in plain english, and with numbers to put it all into context and to set the scale of things.
For example, he converts everything to kilowatt-hours, the amount of energy used by leaving a 1 kW heater on for one hour. By converting everything to the same units, he makes it easier to compare things directly, like the energy you use by driving your car, flying off on holiday, or heating your bath. The kilowatt-hour is also the unit you are charged for on your electricity bill, so it’s something we can all relate to.
He doesn’t have a personal agenda to promote, either. Or rather, he does, but his agenda is to ensure that people can make informed decisions on their own, based on the facts. As he says:
I don’t want to feed you my own conclusions. Convictions are stronger if they are self-generated, rather than taught. Understanding is a creative process. When you’ve read this book I hope you’ll have reinforced the confidence that you can figure anything out.
This book is emphatically intended to be about facts, not ethics. I want the facts to be clear, so that people can have a meaningful debate about ethical decisions.
As a scientist, he obviously accepts the concensus view that we need to stop using fossil fuels, and fast. He points out that nine-tenths of the electrical power in Britain comes from fossil fuels, so replacing it means increasing the amount of every other form of energy by a factor of 10, or some equivalent mix.
The British are famous for opposing change. Brits are opposed to having windmills, wave-machines, or nuclear power stations anywhere near them, protest groups will spring up like daisies anywhere you propose to put them. There are currently about 2400 wind turbines in Britain; if we were to attempt to power Britain from wind alone, we would need 600,000 of them. That’s 6 wind turbines per square mile (2.5 per square kilometer). Next time someone tells you that Britain could be powered by wind alone, ask them where they’re going to put all those turbines!
Steel, concrete, and land-use by wind, solar thermal, and nuclear power, from bravenewclimate.com
I’m sure they’re right, but I’m not convinced by some of their proposals for solving the problem, which include carbon capture and storage (as yet unproven) and building ‘artificial trees’ (also unproven technology). I guess engineers would naturally choose an engineering solution! However, they also propose giving much more authority to the DECC, where David MacKay has just started work, and that sounds like a great idea to me.
David has a real knack for putting all these facts and figures into easily understandable forms. But rather than me telling you about him, why not take a look at the video and see for yourself. It’s only six minutes long. (Thanks to Charles Barton of The Nuclear Green Revolution, which is where I found it!)
If you like the video, why not read David’s book, or maybe start with his own 10-page synopsis of it if you’re pressed for time. You’ll get a clear, no-nonsense analysis of what it means to power Britain with sustainable energy, with no politics attached. Though his analysis is specific to the UK, many of the lessons apply elsewhere, of course.
I find it very encouraging that the UK government has decided to listen to David. I hope more people do too, he’s someone we can all understand.
The garden is finished for the year, which is a shame because it’s been a lot of fun. We had the last of our lettuce just a few days ago. It was surviving nicely due to the lack of frost, though it was hardly growing anymore, it’s too cold now. I’m surprised it has lasted so well, I wish I’d planted more towards the end of the summer!
Today I ‘officially’ closed the garden by covering the big plant tubs with their water-trays, to avoid having the winter rains leech out all the nutrients before the next growing season. I’d never really paid much attention to how soil in pots gets depleted of its nutrients before, but that was brought home to me this year. The white tub that I have had for many years grew tiny sunflowers compared to those with new soil, which were three or four times bigger. Shame on me, I should have known better.
I don’t want to use chemical fertilisers, I don’t want to replace the soil in the pots, and I don’t think I can realistically put a compost heap on my terrace, so I’m trying something different. I’m digging small, deep holes in the soil, and burying vegetable peelings in them. Hopefully, over winter, they will rot down enough to feed the soil without also rotting next years plants. Maybe it will work, maybe not, we’ll see!
Our garden has been quite productive, and we’ve enjoyed the produce from it. A recent study claims that organic food is no healthier than normal food, but that study completely ignored the use of pesticides in conventional agriculture. I’ve read enough to convince me that pesticide-free veggies are a good thing. Of course, there are other benefits to growing your own vegetables, such as reducing food-miles.
Food-miles are a measure of the amount of fuel needed to transport food from the farm to your plate. That fuel all contributes to climate-change by emitting greenhouse-gasses, so getting your food locally means less global warming. You can’t get more local than your own garden, so growing your own food is good for the planet too!
So your organic garden may be good for the climate, as well as providing good food. I could have squeezed a few more vegetables out of our garden this year, but I’m glad I left some space for sunflowers instead. Apart from being pretty in their own right, they’ve been feeding the bees all summer, and now feed the birds, long after nearly everything else out there has finished. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see there are 6 goldfinches, quite a sight!
great tit and goldfinch on sunflower
Nor is it just goldfinches, we’ve had great-tits too. As you can see, they’re not timid about getting their share, this one was quite happy to push in while the goldfinches were feeding. He’s more agile than the goldfinches, so manages to get his way.
Other birds have benefited from both the goldfinches and the great tits dropping seeds on the ground. Black Redstarts and sparrows often forage around the pots while the other birds are doing their stuff. Sparrows may be plain compared to other birds, but they’re still fun to watch. Here’s 3 of them looking on while a fourth is dipping into the bowl of water we put out for them. You can’t easily tell, but he was taking a bath at the time.
Finally, although the garden outdoors is finished for the year, we’re still growing something! Dweezeljazz has got the bug now, and is growing fresh shoots of all sorts for our salads. They’re very easy to grow, using a neat little gadget from Satoriz, and make a welcome addition to our meals. Thank you, Dweezeljazz.
Climate Action Day was yesterday, October 24th. It was organised by 350.org, and there were about 5200 events worldwide. One such event was ‘Picnic for the Planet‘, held in Ferney-Voltaire, organised by Paul (thanks Paul!). Ferney-Voltaire is just down the road from me, so Dweezeljazz and I went along. We gathered by the statue of Voltaire himself for a photo after the picnic. I think Voltaire would probably have approved of our actions, he was quite a force for change in his own day.
Picnic for the Planet, in Ferney-Voltaire
Climate Action Day was intended to send a message to politicians ahead of the December Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the message that people want atmospheric carbon dioxide reduced to a maximum of 350 parts per million (ppm).
Why 350 ppm? The 350.org site has a page explaining it. If you want a more detailed scientific explanation, you can take a look at Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? (Open Atmos. Sci. J. (2008), vol. 2, pp. 217-231), by Jim Hansen et.al. The bottom line is that, if atmospheric CO2 levels remain higher than that for any length of time, the earth’s climate will change change out of all recognition. A great many species will go extinct and many vital ecosystems will be destroyed. Our lifestyle, anywhere on the planet, will become a lot more difficult to sustain, as whole countries become uninhabitable.
Of course, this would be a very bad thing!
Reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 ppm is entirely possible, the difficulties are political rather than technical. It’s difficult to get politicians to see past the next election, so they’re reluctant to embark on anything that requires global co-operation for a number of decades. If they go to Copenhagen with that attitude, they’re unlikely to solve the problem. We need a climate-change treaty that is fair, ambitious, and binding, and the sooner we get it, the better.
That’s the message we need ringing in the ears of our politicians as they go to Copenhagen, and that’s what Climate Action Day was all about. Picnic for the Planet was only one of the events yesterday. Take a look at the 350.org homepage, they have a slideshow of the photos people have sent in from all over the world, or visit the 350 blog. It’s impressive to see how many people took part. Anything that gets active participation from people in over 180 countries must surely count for something!
I’ve learned a lot about climate change in recent years, but nothing brings home an academic lesson like a little personal experience. I got that when I visited Chamonix at the beginning of August. I particularly enjoy the view from Brevent, on the opposite side of the valley to Mont Blanc itself. From there, on a clear day, you can enjoy an unsurpassed view of Mont Blanc and its surroundings. The panoramic restaurant at Planpraz does some very good desserts. While you sit there soaking up sunshine and calories, you get the best view possible of the Glacier des Bossons, straight across the valley from you.
I have been to Chamonix many times, summer and winter, since about 20 years ago. That’s not a long time really, I’m not exactly old! Nonetheless, as I looked across the valley in August, I realised I could see for myself that the glacier des Bossons has retreated a lot in that time.
Glaciers around the world have been retreating for a long time, I know, and have even caused the border between Switzerland and Italy to change. I don’t know why I was so surprised to realise that I could see it for myself. Here are two photos to prove it, both taken by me, from Brevent. On the left is a view from July 1993, on the right, August 2009. The views aren’t taken from exactly the same place, but you can see common features in them.
In the 2009 photo, you can see the bottom half of the glacier is almost separated from the top part by a clearly visible band of rock, running across the top of the picture. You can see that there is a thick shelf of ice, above the rock, that breaks away as it crosses the line of rock. In the 1993 photo, that band of rock is nowhere visible. Then, the ice was thick enough to cover the rock completely. That gives a fair idea of how much the glacier has melted since I have been visiting Chamonix. I can only imagine how Fernand Pareau feels about it, he’s been watching the glaciers retreat for much longer than I have. In Fernands own words:
Même les glaciers ne veulent plus nous voir, ils reculent!
Even the glaciers don’t want to know us, they back away!
Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993
Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009
Glaciers are important for many people. Switzerland depends on its glaciers for drinking water and hydro-electric power (which supplies half of their electricity). With predictions that these glaciers may be gone by 2050, if not sooner, that’s not a good situation to be in. Elsewhere in the world, the story is very similar. The glaciers of the Himalayas may well disappear on the same timescale, which could seriously affect the lives of up to 750 million people who depend on them.
With climate change having the potential to harm so many people, in rich and poor countries alike, it’s not surprising that more and more people want something done about it. From individuals doing what they can to big businesses calling for strong policies from world leaders, people are calling for action at all levels of society. Even most world governments realise change is needed, but without a concerted effort from all of them, tackling climate change will be that much harder.
The UNFCC conference in Copenhagen, in December, is our chance to get some common sense from our politicians. World leaders will have the opportunity there to negotiate a truly historic treaty to tackle climate change. There is no excuse for them to fail. From the viewpoints of economy, national security, food security, and health, as well as for reasons like saving polar bears and rainforests, it makes sense to stop the damage we are doing to our climate.
And yes, it is possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but the longer we delay, the harder it will be. Personally, I’ve seen enough of climate change, and would like not to see any more. The 350 organisation has called for people to take part in public activities on October 24th to demonstrate their support for a strong climate treaty. Why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to, add yourself to the numbers, and see if we can’t encourage our leaders to stay cool-headed in Copenhagen. Otherwise, we’ll all be in hot water eventually.
Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.
Until now, politicians everywhere seem to be claiming to be leaders in cutting emissions, while refusing to do anything until someone else does more. Everyone manages to find someone else to point the finger at. With all that hot air from the politicians it’s no surprise the globe is getting hotter!
There are few now who doubt that the global climate is being changed by mankind. Those who do are regularly debunked in the media as having not read or understood the scientific information they refer to, or they simply make up their own ‘facts’ to suit themselves. Some will tell you the climate is not changing. Some will tell you it is getting cooler. Some will say it’s getting warmer, but that it’s not our fault, or that it is our fault but it’s good for us, and so on. Like a child who hasn’t done his homework, they keep hunting for credible reasons.
Whichever number you pick, the important point is that we are already in a dangerous situation. The world’s climate is changing fast, and in ways that are not good. There will continue to be big changes in climate whatever we do, but it is not too late to do something about it, not too late at all. The faster we reduce emissions, the sooner we reduce the damage to the environment, and the less sufferring there will be for man and beast alike. That is why Copenhagen is so very important.
Reducing emissions fast is possible, we know enough to be able to do it. Cleaner energy, higher efficiency cars and electrical appliances, recycling, reducing waste, and all the other things we keep hearing so much about, these all add up. Sometimes it costs money, for large-scale infrastructure like replacing coal-fired power stations, sometimes it saves money instead. Many big companies are going green, despite the economic recession, so cost can’t really be a big issue.
For individuals, too, reducing your carbon footprint can be as easy as small changes in lifestyle, neither expensive nor difficult. It’s quite possible to reduce your electricity use by half, for example. Solving global warming is more a political problem than a technical one, persuading people at all levels (families through to governments) that it must really be done.
Individual action is very important, of course, but the Copenhagen meeting must succeed if we are to reduce emissions globally and really begin to tackle climate change. That is why we have to make sure that our leaders do the right thing, instead of getting wrapped up in petty arguments and worrying that they will lose the next election. People power is crucial to making Copenhagen a success, and one way in which you can express your personal-power is to get involved in some of the demonstrations that are being coordinated around the world in advance of the meeting. 350.org is organising an International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to? You might be glad you did, one day!
Even the World Wildlife Fund is blatantly fabricating numbers to make nuclear power look bad. You can see that in their ‘G8 Climate Scorecards‘, where they state that they use numbers from fossil-fuels to replace numbers from nuclear power in calculating a nations’ emissions. The WWF scorecards rank France third, for example, despite the fact that it has far lower emissions than England or Germany, which they rank as better! If a company were to use similar methods on their annual reports, we would call it fraud, and expect someone to go to jail.
So why is it that some environmental organisations are willing to go to such extreme measures and risk tarnishing their reputations to criticise nuclear power? The main reason, of course, is fear, but fear of what? Radiation, perhaps?
Nuclear power can, in principle, lead to radiation exposures in a variety of ways:
nuclear accidents, meltdowns, failures of safety systems, leaks large or small
long-lived radioactive waste that will be here until well after the human race has gassed itself to extinction with fossil fuels
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, using radioactive materials produced by nuclear reactors
terrorists, either attacking a nuclear power plant or stealing radioactive material to make bombs
That list can be summed up in two groups: harm caused by the reactor or associated machinery (provoked or accidental), or harm caused by the waste produced during normal operation of the facility.
So what if it were possible to build a reactor that could not malfunction in a harmful manner? That would solve one problem. What if that reactor produced only short-lived nuclear waste which was easy to manage and not useful for making bombs? That would solve the other problem. Surely that would make nuclear power more attractive to everyone?
As it happens, you can produce nuclear power safely, with minimal and manageable waste. Oh and it’s not difficult either, it’s been done already, about 30 years ago. It’s called an ‘Integral Fast Reactor‘ (IFR), and there’s a very good summary of it by Barry Brook in ‘Brave New Power for the World‘, or an easy Q&A summary by George Stanford at The National Center for Public Policy Research.
IFRs are specifically designed to address those two major problems, safety and waste. They also happen to be extremely efficient, cost-effective, and easy to construct. If they’re so good, you might wonder why the world hasn’t heard much about them? The project to develop the Integral Fast Reactor was shut down by the Clinton administration in 1994, and since Bill Clinton’s energy secretary at the time was a former lobbyist for the fossil-fuel industries, that more than likely has something to do with it. In Tom Blees’ book, ‘Prescription For The Planet‘, there’s an account of the history and operation of IFRs. The Department of Energy actually issued a directive that the technology was not to be publicised, which you might interpret as the need to keep it a secret. Odd, then, that the chief engineer for the project, Leonard Koch, was awarded an international prize by Vladimir Putin for the work he had done. No state secrets there!
Back to those two big questions, first, why do I say that IFRs are safe? Their safety does not come from redundant backup safety systems, highly trained operators, or anything like that. Their safety comes from the laws of physics. We use the laws of physics every day in all sort of mundane safety systems. The fuse in your television, the emergency-release valve on your pressure cooker, and even the thermostat on your central heating system, these are all things that guarantee your safety by using the laws of physics to stop bad things happening in your home.
IFRs have their own built-in thermostat in the fuel itself. As the reactor heats up, the fuel expands in the heat, which in turn causes the nuclear reaction to slow down. The reactor cannot overheat, so it cannot possibly meltdown. In addition, the reactor core is cooled by a liquid metal (sodium), which does not actually need to be pumped in order to cool the core. Turn off the cooling pumps, the liquid sodium will still circulate by convection, and the core will still be kept under control.
On to the second question, what about the waste from IFRs? Long-lived nuclear waste is produced by reactors that do not burn their fuel efficiently, they only extract a tiny fraction of the energy from it, about 1% or less. IFRs, on the other hand, burn their fuel almost entirely, so that they actually consume the material that other reactors would produce as waste. In fact, you can power an IFR with waste from other types of reactor, burning it completely, and thereby solve the problem of what to do with all the waste we already have! It’s like the difference between a garden fire that smoulders gently and releases a lot of toxic smoke, compared to an incinerator that burns the same stuff to ash in a far cleaner manner.
The waste that does come out of an IFR is radioactive for far less time than the waste that comes out of other types of reactor, precisely because the fuel is burnt so efficiently. Instead of remaining radioactive for tens of thousands of years, the waste from an IFR is radioactive for only about 300-500 years. That’s about one tenth of the age of the pyramid at Giza, so building something to contain it while it decays should be easy enough. The plastic we throw away will take longer to decay than that. IFRs also produce much less waste than other reactor types, so there’s less volume to handle.
What about the bomb-question, can IFRs be used to make weapons-grade plutonium? In principle, yes, since they do produce plutonium inside the core (and then burn it), there is plutonium to be had. In practise, it is far harder to process the fuel from an IFR to extract weapons-grade plutonium than it is to obtain such plutonium by any other means. For more information, see this Q&A by Steve Kirsch (search for “non-proliferation efforts”). Meanwhile, ask yourself this: which government are you trying to prevent from getting their hands on the plutonium?
There are many countries that already have nuclear power. Many of these have signed a non-proliferation treaty, and allow international oversight to verify that they are in compliance. If they were to convert their installations to IFRs, compliance would be easier to verify, and they could even consume the stockpiles of plutonium that they have amassed by using it as fuel in those same IFRs. This ‘nuclear club’ also happens to account for 80% of the worlds emissions of greenhouse gasses, so even if you restricted IFR technology to them alone, you would be able to make the world a safer and more habitable place, on several fronts.
Of the countries that don’t have nuclear power, many want it. The big question is, do they want it for weapons, or for electricity? Not telling them how to build nuclear power stations isn’t going to make them go away. Do we really think nations that want nuclear power for themselves will not get it sooner or later? Maybe it’s better to help them towards proliferation-resistant nuclear power instead of just leaving them to their own devices? Politically, as well as technically, IFRs can be a tool for reducing proliferation.
That leaves terrorism as a consideration. Stealing fuel from an IFR would be extremely difficult, because while it is in the core it is lethally radioactive. The reactor itself can be protected by several layers of containment vessels and concrete bunkers, over-topped with earth if you like, so it would be impervious to a missile attack (or an aircraft crashing into it, for example). Frankly, there are easier targets, and terrorists have shown that they are imaginative enough to find them.
So, at the end of the day, I’m puzzled as to why many environmental groups are ignoring the facts and taking such an anti-nuclear position. IFRs emit no greenhouse gasses. They provide constant power, not relying on variable sources like wind, waves, or sunshine. They can be made cheaply, because they can replace coal-fired power stations in-situ, using the existing generators and distribution infrastructure. They can eliminate our stockpiles of nuclear waste, and solve the nuclear-waste problem. They are inherently safe. And they can power the world for millennia.