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Germany is without doubt one of the green role models that the world is looking at, especially with respect to its energiewende. But how green is Germany really?

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  • Jane Goodall – I first learnt about her from The Far Side Gallery years ago and then got to know about her real achievements – suggests HERE that SeaWorld should be closed down. Similar points could be made about closing down most zoos in the world. However, as is noted HERE, most animals that lived for years and years in captivity are unable to adjust to `real’ life. Also, for children (and grown-ups, too) visiting zoos is often a wonderful experience that brings them closer to nature and appreciating it. Of course, the question should be whether this has to be at the costs of those animals that are held captive? Difficult…
  • What bees and voting have in common according to Marginal Revolution. Alex Tabarrok argues that quadratic voting could help to convey the intensity of one’s choices. In my opinion this comes very close to simply saying people have a financial budget that they can allocate to voting. This thus more reasily helps to equalize marginal benefits and costs, which simply gives more information than the traditional `one (wo)man – one vote’ principle.

So folks, this is it. Anyone who ever thought it was impossible, there isn’t enough space, it is too expensive, or whatever other unreasonable argument was ever forwarded: The #energiewende is there, it is not only happening in Germany but worldwide. Take a look at Figure 1 below. Nuclear energy production is stagnating, and that for more or less the past 30 years, while alternative sources of energy, wind and solar, are now nearly producing the same amount of electricity as nuclear is. energiewende

This should be a slap in the face for all doubters, for all naysayers and pessimists alike. We do not need nuclear energy, we have safe alternative sources of energy, they are able to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear is, and if they keep growing just for a little while longer as they have been growing during the past couple of years, then we won’t need nuclear energy in our future energy mix at all. And we might even be able to significantly reduce non-renewable sources of electricity production.

Has anyone seen a significant drag on economic growth from this #energiewende? Has anyone noticed a significant increase in unemployment? Where are the promised recessions, where are the masses of job losses, productivity reductions and losses in international competitiveness that we were promised if we were ever moving to greener sources of electricity production? Anyone? Honestly, the only recessions, the only losses in employment, the only high costs that we know about come from the financial world, from rich people juggling around billions of dollars a day to take advantage of minimal spreads in the name of economic growth; from the banks that try to push up their return on assets and sell us mortgage-backed securities based on worthless mortgages and that do more shadow banking than actual banking; from companies that try to make us believe that we need to buy more and more in order to become happier, better people. Is that really how it should be? Are we really barking up the right tree if we are anti-green? Do we not lose sight of where the real costs are? After all, we should remember that our economic system is part of the natural environment, and not the other way around.

#energiewende here we come!

 

 

Come on, face it, the ice bucket challenge was really only a fad designated towards rich nerds to test their latest ice cube dispensor on their new fridge. My message today goes out to all those hard-core, punk-loving, high altitude and H2O-proximity cravers that search for some time off, to relax, to recover, to re-fill the adrenaline tank before heading off again.

Winter is nearing!

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In the year 1967, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and subsequently one of its most vicious opponents and toughest nuclear power regulators, died of thyroid cancer. That same year also saw one of the most far-sighted, ingenious lectures on the topic of nuclear power in front of the National Society for Clean Air in London. The speaker, none other than Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, subsequently published a slightly re-written version of that lecture in his “book of heart and hope and downright common sense about the future”, entitled small is beautiful. In 1995, The Times Literary Supplement ranked this book among the 100 most influential books since World War II.

So what were the main insights by E.F. Schumacher already in the year 1967? He wrote that “[o]f all the changes introduced by man into the household of nature, large-scale nuclear fission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and profound… The point is that very serious hazards have already been created by the `peaceful use of atomic energy’, affecting not merely the people alive today but all future generations, although so far nuclear energy is being used only on a statistically insignificant scale. The real development is yet to come, on a scale which few people are capable of imagining… A serious accident, whether during transport or production, can cause a major catastrophe; and the radiation levels throughout the world will rise relentlessly from generation to generation. Unless all living geneticists are in error, there will be an equally relentless, though no doubt somewhat delayed, increase in the number of harmful mutations… Yet all these weighty opinions play no part in the debate on whether we should go immediately for a large `second nuclear programme’ or stick a bit longer to the conventional fuels which, whatever may be said for or against them, do not involve us in entirely novel and admittedly incalculable risks.”

Now, where does the unbelievable twist to world’s fate come in? Remember that E.F. Schumacher gave the lecture when nuclear energy produced only roughly one percent of total electricity. Today, nuclear energy not only accounts for around 10% of world’s energy production, with a share of more than 50% in some countries, like France or Slovakia. However, it also more and more gets viewed as a necessary aid for reducing our man-made climate change problem. So, while in 1967 E.F. Schumacher believed that “[r]adioactive pollution is an evil of an incomparably greater `dimension’ than anything mankind has known before”, we now know that our consumption lifestyles and consequently energy demands have created an evil that is even greater than the “evil of an incomparably greater `dimension’ than anything mankind has known before”. Even more incomprehensible, we now seem to prefer the lesser “evil of an incomparably greater dimension”, and want to make increasing use of it in the future. This is a sentiment that is widely shared across the world. At the end of 2011, the European Parliament has put this most bluntly in its Energy Roadmap 2050: “Nuclear energy will be needed to provide a significant contribution in the energy transformation process… It remains a key source of low carbon electricity generation. As a large scale low-carbon option, nuclear energy will remain in the EU power generation mix.” This, indeed, is something that one should call an unbelievable twist to world’s fate.

So what are our main lessons that we should take away from this venture in the not-so-distant past? Firstly, it seems we way too easily forget about what we should have learnt from past disasters, like Chernobyl or Fukushima. The direct costs of Fukushima run into several hundred billions, while the most serious indirect costs may only arise in the more distant future. For example, recently every single bluefin tuna caught in California was radioactively polluted. How effects like these are accumulating in the food chain is impossible to predict. Similarly, the rate of thyroid cancer in Europeans, Ukrainians and White Russians increased, depending on the region, between threefold to tenfold, believed to be directly linked to the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl around 30 years ago.  If this disaster trend is to continue, with a serious incident every 25 years, we will soon be living in a world where radioactive contamination may be the rule rather than the exception. Nevertheless, directly in the aftermath of Fukushima, a large number of nuclear power plants have been shut down, while they are now, step by step, being re-connected to the electricity grid. Economic, short-term considerations, nuclear lobbies, and the unwillingness to opt for a small yet beautiful option may very well turn out to be the downfall of mankind.

Secondly, with each passing generation, we seem to get hold of more and more evidence that our way of using nature, of living off nature, to our own benefit, involves risks that are extremely difficult to calculate and to predict. All our large-scale solutions have turned out to be problematic in some way, from environmental pollutants like coal, oil or nuclear for our energy needs, to taking the joy out of work by big mechanical aids like assembly lines. And this is not surprising, for our planet needed millions of years to evolve into a well-balanced ecosystem, in which species were able to live in a neat symbiosis. It is the impatience of mankind on which disastrous new scientific `solutions’ that support our insatiable lifestyle thrive. One may only wonder what further concerns may arise with the advent of the wicked wonders brought about nanotechnology or genetic engineering, which meddle with genetic codes that have suited the planet’s needs just perfectly for thousands of years.

Thirdly, we seem to be able to get used to living with risks and trying to trade-off these self-created dangers to an extent that, time and again, requires us to question where exactly we would like to take this planet. If yesterday we bedevilled one source of energy for being mankind’s most dangerous energy solution yet, and today we decide to increasingly rely on this source of energy to reduce another problem that we created ourselves, then this is an unmistakably dangerous journey that we are taking. Yes, it is true that we get used to risks, that our future generations will learn to accept radioactivity or climate tippings as part of their lives, but we have to continuously ask ourselves whether this is what we really want for them.

Let me conclude with E.F. Schumacher’s own words. “Man cannot live without science and technology any more than he can live against nature… What matters… is the direction of research, that the direction should be towards non-violence rather than violence; towards an harmonious co-operation with nature rather than a warfare against nature; towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant, and economical solutions normally applied in nature rather than the noisy, high-energy, brutal, wasteful, and clumsy solutions of our present-day sciences.” These words, although spoken roughly half a century ago, remain today as true as ever.

… next to nothing!

I have recently seen this term “Climate departure” cropping up all over the place, made popular by a paper in Nature, entitled “The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability”. Climate departure in itself is an old concept, and is used “for studying how “normal” or “unusual” a particular year or event is compared to the long-term average for the region under consideration.” (Suckling, 1987)

The authors, already in the abstract, note that “Unprecedented climates blahblahblah, highlighting the vulnerability of global biodiversity and the limited governmental capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. Our findings shed light on the urgency of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions if climates potentially harmful to biodiversity and society are to be prevented.”

And then the lovely Daily Mail caught its eyes on this, and entitled a new article: ‘Apocalypse Now: Unstoppable man-made climate change will become reality by the end of the decade’. One of the sentences that is oh-so-beautifully-written but clearly has nothing to do with climate departure is: “The Earth is racing towards an apocalyptic future in which major cities such as New York and London could become uninhabitable because of irreversible man-made climate change within 45-years.”

Needless to say, other newspapers follow that apocalyptic approach. Here is National Geographic: “To put it simply: The coldest year in New Guinea after 2020 will be warmer than the hottest year anyone there has ever experienced.” argh…

The article from Washington Post is somewhat better. But they also push the bounds of interpretation: “Lagos, Africa’s largest city, with a population 21 million and rising, is already vulnerable to flooding. It’s got only 16 years before it hits climate departure.” Presented as if those two issues have something in common. Or this: “The fact that these cities pass climate departure so soon is a scary reminder of how rapidly they’re going to feel the effects of climate change.” Nope, absolutely not. Climate departure is a specific, rather uninformative, measure of climate change but tells us nothing about the effects of climate change.

So what can the concept “climate departure” actually tell us?

Apart from the fact that it gets hotter in some places, not much! And that it is getting hotter is something that we clearly know from the reports like the IPCC provides. The reason for why climate departure is a problematic concept is clearly that it is an arbitrary measure. As an illustration, take a cup of water. In the morning it is 20 degrees, left in the sun the whole day it might go up to 22 degrees. Assuming variability does not change, then climate departure means that from a certain poin in time onwards your cup of water will be between 22 and 24 degrees.  If you put your finger inside, you will not notice a difference. Noone will notice any difference.

DIfferences arise however, if your water before was just less than 0, or just below 100 degrees. Then a small increase in temperature matters a lot, since then there is an actual change in the state of the water itself. It will become liquid or gaseous. For you this will matter a lot, since you cannot walk on the water anymore once it becomes liquid and you cannot touch it any longer if it becomes gaseous. And here the concept of climate departure is only meaningful since we are dealing with tipping points. Outside of tipping points, the concept of climate departure has not much meaning.

Thus, contrary to what the Daily Mail or the Washington Post try to make us believe, climate departure has nothing to do with apocalyptic, uninhabitable, irreversible, or how rapidly we’re going to feel the effects of climate change.

Also, contrary to what the authors in Nature claim, this has little to do with “highlighting the vulnerability of global biodiversity”. Yes, biodiversity responds to climatic changes, but for that we need a scala that says somethings about an absolute change and how local biodiversity is likely to react.

And it also says nothing about “the limited governmental capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change”, simply because this paper in Nature only gives an idea as to how temperature will change during the next years, but says nothing whatsoever on the impacts of climate change. And especially nothing about the governments ability to react to climate change.

In my opinion, one has to be very careful with this kind of apocalyptic approach. While it seems to sell well – congrats for the authors to get their paper in Nature, a highly accredited journal – it should not become scientific practice to jump to conclusions that are outside of the story that one’s actual study is able to tell.

Some trivia and update: Interesting in itself is, of course, what climate departure should mean for Oymyakon. In Oymyakon, the minimum mean temperature is -46 degrees, and the maximum mean temperature is 15 degrees. If variability does not change, then the new maximum mean temperature in Oymyakon will be 71 degrees. hmmm, not enough for a good Finish sauna, but close… Or imagine we take the 100 year average min/max temperature – it will not be the same as the 1 year min/max temp. And for climate change, we may want to look at the 1000 or 10000 year min/max average temp. So scale matters and gives really different results for climate departure. We may end up with a Finish sauna, or not much change at all. It seems to me that the way the IPCC presents things, in terms of 2°C warming and its effects on biodiversity etc, provides a more qualitative useful approach:

Today, at my favorite environmental economics blog (oh yes it is…), I saw a picture of a robin’s nest. My guess is that the proud photographer didn’t really put the picture there because it is his best wildlife shot ever (sorry, John…), but because he genuinely cares about those birds that are hatching in his garden. However, my guess also is that John, at the same time, is not a vegetarian (right or wrong, John?). How are these two positions reconcilable?

Now, I want to immediate add that I have a hard time not eating sausages at BBQs, or saying no to meat if it is placed on the menu. It is just like saying no to the second beer after having drunk the first… However, when two birds fell out of their nest yesterday in my garden, I was trying to save them, even though I directly knew they were most likely too young to survive and too hurt to live another day. Again – how can this be that we seem to care about some animals, or some humans, and yet not care at all about others?

Again, I refer to the book `Man’s search for meaning‘. The author writes that in the most dangerous moments, one always tried to save oneself and maybe a close friend. But one very well knew that for every person saved another would die. While I do understand this to be the case for extreme situations like concentration camps or life-and-death situations, the same reasoning can clearly not be applied to everyday situations like the one above. Especially since no cow will have to die if noone eats meat…

My guess is that a large part of the reason for which still so many people actually eat meat is that most of the meat is highly processed these days. Imagine you’d have to kill yourself the cow whose meat you’d want eat. Would you do it? Certainly I wouldn’t. I know many who wouldn’t. In fact I even hypothesize that most wouldn’t.

Now, given that meat consumption should be decreased in order to meet the food needs in the future, and given that society may see the need to have a social change towards a more holistic system of moral values, it is important to remind meat consumers of what is going on behind the scenes. I start:

Then: Bon appétit!

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