Saturday, September 29, 2012

The meek shall inherit the earth

Maryanne is the wife of a friend of mine. A few years ago, she and her sister were deeply affected by the death of their mother. Although they had children of their own, they seemed to mourn their mother for years. I wondered what kind of woman she was and began to picture a person with special qualities, a paragon of virtue - love, charity, generosity? Or maybe she was eloquent, or gifted, or a passionate activist?

Some time later I had the chance to ask my friend about his mother-in-law. He said she was a rather meek woman who was bullied by her husband.

Suddenly I saw that this was a case where enduring love and commitment were aroused by frailty not by strength.

This got me thinking. We look for leaders who are strong and confident, and we forget that the most powerful moral force is exerted by the frail and the weak. They arouse our protective love.

Right now, the world looks to rich and powerful countries to lead the way on climate change. We have applauded European countries for their clean energy initiatives and we desperately want the U.S. to step forward and lead us to the new clean energy future.

Our disappointment in their recalcitrance feels like ashes in the mouth.

But how uplifting to see that the poorest countries are speaking out. Listen to this bold promise from Bangladesh. It promises unilateral action with no caveats, no ifs or buts. 
Let me affirm that Bangladesh, as a responsible member of the international community, will never exceed the average per capita emission of the developing countries. This is our commitment to a low carbon development path.
We expect such commitments and responsible behavior from those who have contributed most to climate change crisis over decades. It is time for them to act positively in the interest of present and future generations. 

More than most countries, Bangladesh knows the impact of climate change. They have 100 million people who will be homeless when sea levels rise by one metre in the next 1-2 generations. They're not standing back helpless, they are demonstrating the kind of action that is needed from all of us.

They are offering their widow's mite. If we count the value of a gift not by how much is given, but by how much is kept back we see the generosity of Bangladesh in promising to limit their per capita carbon emissions to the average of developing countries.

We open our hearts to the fragility of life in Bangladesh. Their honest promise calls us to action so that 100 million peaceful Bangladeshis can have some land to inherit. 


News from the Transformation tab.   

Australia will join the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a U.N.-led initiative to cut short-lived climate pollutants such as soot and methane. Other countries that have joined the initiative include major emitters such as Germany, Japan, the UK and the U.S, and developing nations such as Bangladesh, Ghana and Nigeria. Source: Reuters.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Shell pisses in the swimming pool

Public swimming pools are used by everybody. Bad behaviour by even one person spoils the pool for everyone.

It's the same with the atmosphere. It is used by everyone and bad behaviour by a few are spoiling it for all.

We are travelling to our apres-carbon future and many of our good citizens are working to clean up the atmosphere at considerable personal expense and inconvenience. We are learning new habits, installing insulation, solar PV, putting on an extra jumper in winter, using the car less, trying Meatless Monday, and doing a thousand other things.

So it's not surprising that good citizens shake their fists at dirty corporates who piss in the pool. We won't be sedated with their platitudes because we are looking at actions not listening to lies.

And what do we see? We see oil companies rushing to drill for oil in the Arctic Sea now that global warming has cleared the summer sea ice. We see ExxonMobil spending $100million a day looking for new oil and gas reserves in hard-to-reach places.

They are looking for even more oil and gas that will pump heat trapping gases into the atmosphere. They're pissing in the pool.

One day, this will be illegal. Right now, perpetrators can piss in the pool with no cost other than occasional outbursts of scathing fury or a small levy in those jurisdictions with carbon pricing.

The pool is getting skanky and becoming a health hazard.When it gets to be a festering swamp of disease, perhaps legislators will declare it illegal to piss in the pool, and we'll be willing to pay any price to purify the water so it is safe again.


News from the Transformation tab.  

Netherlands. Researchers at Utrecht University have developed a catalyst that enables the production of plastics from wood-based biomass using waste such as branches, plant stalks and prunings. They have produced bioplastics with the same characteristics as petroleum-derived plastics. No special facilities or technology are needed to produce biomass plastic as it uses current technology. The new catalyst sets the stage for plastics manufacturers to produce no-carbon plastics. Source: PackagingProfessional.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stockholm - are we there yet?

Remember when car trips seemed endless? Remember when you couldn't tell the difference between two hours and ten hours? Remember when you were the whiney kid in the back asking, "Are we there yet?". Maybe you have also been the adult in the front seat desperately fending off "Are we there yet?" with sing-a-longs, I Spy, and Animal, Vegetable and Mineral.

I remember being that whiney kid as we drove over dirt roads on our annual pilgrimage from Kingaroy to the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast. The four or five hour drive was eternity to me. Now, the dusty country roads have been paved with bitumen, and kids are easily entertained with portable DVD players. Even the 12 hour trip from Sydney to Brisbane doesn't generate quite the same bored queries about  arrival. 

These days, my impatience is about the journey to the new Clean Energy Economy. Our whole nation is on a decades-long journey from the Dinosaur Economy, based on fossil fuels, to the new Clean Energy Economy.  Oh! I'm so impatient to get there. 

We creep, creep, creep along, hampered by billionaires protecting their dinosaur assets. I have to keep reminding myself that we will get there eventually. We have no choice but to make this journey.

The journey seems so fragile when leaders say we don't really need to go, or they make blood promises to dismantle the moderately effective vehicle we're travelling in, to replace it with a cobble-de-fudge of tokenism. 

Then a government minister, Greg Combet, comes out with both guns blazing and stands up for this journey and the vehicle his government has crafted, and my hopes lift again. 

Not that they lift to the point of asking, "Are we there yet?" I'm just pitifully grateful that the rickety vehicle is still lumbering forward.

So, I go and check out the Transformations tab to take heart from the vigorous actions that are underway worldwide. Once again, I see that we're not the only vehicle lurching along the pot-holed road. Instead I see hundreds of other vehicles of all shapes and sizes making the same journey. Countries, provinces, cities, corporations, individuals - it's an exodus, a flood of refugees abandoning the old dinosaur economy. 

Some vehicles are bruised and battered, tied together with string, crammed with occupants arguing with each other. Others are robustly confident, cruising with aplomb towards their goal. Many are inward-looking, taking care of their own, but a few have tow-lines attached to little clusters of vehicles that have wheels but no engines. Not everyone has a tow line. Now and then, you see broken down vehicles on the verges. These poor vessels have no chance of making the journey. Will their passengers transfer, eventually, to other vehicles? Will someone take them in?

One of the most confident vehicles cruising in the vanguard of this cavalcade is Stockholm.  It is awash with advanced green technologies deployed to meet the long term target of carbon neutrality by 2050. It is well on the way to the first milestone in 2015 when it will use 100% renewable electricity and have per capita carbon emissions of 3 tonnes (c.f. USA at 22 tonnes).

Are we there yet? Already 80 per cent of all the buildings in Stockholm are connected to a district heating system largely fueled by burning the city's combustible waste.

It's funny. Stockholm is already so sure of the journey and so far along the track that they hardly need to ask, "Are we there yet?". On the other hand, Australia is so uncertain about the journey and so tentative about the vehicle, that it is not yet ready to ask, "Are we there yet?".

But I'm ready. I'm making the journey. I'm asking, "When will we get there? Are we there yet?". I'm decarbonising. Got the solar panels. Got the greenpower. Replacing gas heater with heat pump. I'm not there yet, but I'm definitely on the road. 

What about you?


News from the Transformation tab. 

Stockholm is a low-carbon leader with strong initiatives across many areas. By 2015 electricity will be 100% renewable and CO2 emissions will be 3 tonnes per capita (c.f. USA at 22 tonnes). Most (80%) buildings  have district heat mostly fueled by the city's combustable waste. Sewage plants provide biogas for 6,000 cars, all municipal waste vehicles and some 300 buses. Stockholm is well on the way to being carbon neutral by 2050.  Source: BusinessGreen.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Self proclaimed climate agnostic

"I'm a climate agnostic", he said smoothly. It sounded so reasonable. Who is this guy, I wondered. Then I looked at his blogroll.  It featured Bishop Hill, Watts Up With That, Jo Nova, Jennifer Marohasy, Climate Audit and a few other stalwarts from the AGW denier echo chamber.

That didn't add up, so I pointed out that a genuine agnostic would have a few reputable science blogs on his blogroll. His response was to round it out with credible blogs like SkepticalScience, Real Climate and Tamino, and write a blog post showing that he has read them.

Of course this window dressing doesn't actually MAKE him agnostic on the topic.

The only people who can honestly claim to be agnostic on the topic of global warming are those who aren't familiar with the subject and don't give it much thought. You know the ones - they're the people who are busy juggling work and study and family, caring for loved ones, or deeply interested in other things. Maybe they can tell you the history of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the breeding line for Crufts champions, but they don't pay much attention to climate change.

Anyone who looks honestly at the evidence will accept the basic facts:
  • The temperature record (land, sea and satellite) shows that the planet is warming - it was up 0.7C in the twentieth century. (What credible scientist claims that this isn't true?)
  • Physics shows the mechanism by which greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. (Is anyone out there denying the fundamental physics?)
  • Evidence that a doubling of greenhouse gases will result in estimated 3C warming (estimated range is 1.5-4.0C). (The range is widely accepted.)
  • The data shows that atmospheric CO2 levels have risen dramatically since the industrial revolution - from 280 ppm to 392 ppm. (Who questions these straightforward measurements?)
  • The predicted consequences of global warming are unfolding as expected: sea levels are rising, oceans are more acidic, glaciers and ice sheets are melting, Arctic sea ice is thawing, summers are longer, biological and physical systems are changing, and weather extremes are more frequent.

An honest agnostic will quickly conclude that human activity is lifting CO2 levels and causing global warming. When they have decided this, they aren't agnostic any more.

When people who are familiar with the wide range of evidence  for AGW call themselves 'agnostic', they are claiming to be flying pigs - a logical impossibility. Perhaps they have an agenda and are wolves in sheep's clothing. Or perhaps their personal vanity simply enjoys the noble and expansive domain of 'agnostic' and they can't allow themselves to make a decision because they don't want to give up being so high-minded.

Agnostics are fence-sitters. They say they can't make up their minds. They tick the DON'T KNOW box on surveys. The words of Churchill before WWII apply to climate change agnostics,
They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. 

Climate change deniers who adopt the agnostic position are often militant agnostics who say that NO ONE knows.

Being genuinely agnostic is an open-minded position, but it is very different from good faith scepticism. Good faith scepticism includes a readiness to engage with the data, whereas agnostics seem to stand back from meaningful engagement - maybe they are simply more interested in the pedigrees of spaniels.

A persistent agnostic or militant agnostic adopts a determinedly static position. It's a do-nothing stance taken by those who don't want to see action.

Some long-time climage change agnostics and sceptics do move on, but, like children who are late for school, they never seem to catch up properly. They seem to become 'luke-warmists' who accept that the globe is warming but claim that it's not happening quickly and we don't need to inconvenience ourselves by reducing carbon emissions.

Late for school

People may like to call themselves agnostic because it gives them a noble respectability, but if they continue to spread misinformation under the heading "I'm a climate agnostic" it is a sly deceit.

Let's call a spade a spade. If it walks like a denier and talks like a denier, it is not an agnostic.


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here is a recent snippet.

Private investors are putting almost $1 trillion annually into green businesses and technologies, bringing the total invested worldwide since 2007 to $3.6 trillion as of July 2012. Germany, Japan and the US lead in private green investments and China, Brazil and India lead among emerging nations. R&D investments are strongest in the automotive, semiconductor, and electrical components and equipment sectors. Source: SustainableBusiness.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

No Succession Plan for ExxonMobil

These are the 12 biggest corporations on the planet according to Forbes. You'll notice that 6 of the 12 are oil companies. There is no clearer picture of the Dinosaur Economy than this list. In 40 years time, none of these oil companies will be in the top 12.  Even if they manage to make the transition to clean energy, I doubt if they'll be in the top 12. In 40 years time, with most coal, oil, and gas phased out, world energy markets will look very different.

The dominant form of energy will be electricity generated by a combination of rooftop solar PV, utility-scale solar thermal, wind generators and hydro. Ownership of the utility-scale solar and wind generators will be a combination of public and private. I wonder whether a handful of global corporations will come to dominate electricity generation as they have dominated oil and gas? Somehow I think not. In order to dominate they would have to control all the various forms - hydro, wind, solar PV and solar thermal - each of which has very different constraints.

Even if an oil company got big in wind generation by dominating engineering, manufacture, building and running wind farms in dozens of countries, could they be similarly big in PV, solar thermal and hydro? Not a chance.

The other major energy source in 2050 will be biofuel though it is unclear how big this sector will be. I suspect that markets in sunny climes will promote EVs over internal combustion engines running on biofuel, because solar power will be more cost-effective than any of the biofuels. Biofuel will be attractive for specialty uses (aviation, oils, plastics) and will, in effect, be too valuable to be used for transport that can be electrified. There is a chance that oil companies could dominate the biofuel market, but it will be a tiny market compared with the current oil/gas market. Biofuel suppliers are not likely to be among the biggest corporations in the world.

I used to think the oil companies were securing their future by beginning the transition towards post-carbon corporations. Reports like this from Bloomberg (May 2012) support the notion.
BP has invested $7 billion in alternative energy since 2005. ExxonMobil is spending $600 million on a 10-year effort to turn algae into oil. And Royal Dutch Shell has invested billions of dollars in a Brazilian biofuels venture, buying up sugar cane mills, plantations, and refineries to make ethanol. In the U.S., Shell produces small lots of so-called drop-in biofuels—engine-ready products that can replace gasoline—from a pilot plant in Houston that uses sugar beets and crop waste.

BP is the company that has been most explicit about positioning itself for the post-carbon world. Their Beyond Petroleum slogan signalled a clear intent to be a long-term contender. However, they are finding it a rocky road. It's not easy to leap from drilling, pumping, refining and selling liquids and gases, to running factories that make photovoltaics. They had a go at it, but they withdrew in the face of strong competition from China. They still have investments in a couple of wind farms, and they're big in ethanol with a 10% share of the world market. So perhaps you could say they're still in the game and have a chance at being somebody in 2050.

The Royal Dutch Shell investment in Brazillian biofuel looks serious. Maybe that is the core of their succession plan, so perhaps they'll still be somebody too.

But ExxonMobil? I don't think so. Last week, I connected some dots that seemed to show that they have no succession plan.

I discovered that ExxonMobil spends  $100 million every day trying to find more oil and natural gas in increasingly inaccessible places like deep oceans, Siberia and now the Arctic. How does $100 million a day compare with $600 million over 10 years on algae development mentioned by Bloomberg? It looks like this - the $600 million for algae doesn't even register on the graph compared with $365 billion for oil and gas.

Does this look like ExxonMobil is serious about having a post-carbon future? Does this look like a succession plan? If they were serious about having a Plan B, they'd be partnering with the Pentagon to put $100 million a week into biofuel, instead they're spending $100million a day looking for more oil and gas that will end up as stranded assets

No wonder the oil companies are fighting tooth and nail to preserve and extend their current activities. They see that the post-carbon future does not have a big role for biofuel where they have relevant expertise, and they can't find a way to dominate the markets for PV, solar thermal and wind turbines. In those markets, they are bit players.

Without an effective  Succession Plan, ExxonMobil is wringing as much as it can out of current operations. When the carbon party is over, it will join the rest of us on the sidelines watching the new kids strut their stuff on Forbes Biggest Corporations list.


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here is a recent snippet.

India's government has approved a $4.13 billion plan to spur electric and hybrid vehicle production over the next eight years, setting itself an ambitious target of 6 million vehicles by 2020. Source: PlanetArk.