Reduce, reuse, recycle, relieve and reverse. #BAD2009

This is a re-print of my entry to Blog Action Day 2009 as it gives a backdrop to the topic for this year… if you want to enter, and I’d love it if you did, there’s a link at the end.  Climate change is a reality – to get that out of the way that’s my opinion.  I also believe it’s mostly anthropogenic – caused by humans.  There is a very direct correlation between our CO2 – check out these graph http://rainforests.mongabay.com/09-carbon_emissions.htm and you can clearly see the start of the Industrial Revolution.  If you argue it’s a coincidence I think you’re clutching at straws.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle… The simplistic tagline for the whole movement but there are some bits missing here, it seems to me.  I think this should be changed to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Relieve and Reverse…

Reduce

By far the most popular strategy as it sounds so simple… turn off that light, buy a Class A fridge and ride to the shops on a bike made from coconut husks… let’s take a look a some figures.

  • Power         25.9%
  • Industry      19.4%
  • Forestry      17.4%
  • Agriculture   13.5%
  • Transport     13.1%
  • Waste & Water  2.8%

Source: http://bit.ly/rrtce

With Power at the top of the list renewable are our salvation surely?  Well not exactly… for a start renewable does not always equal sustainable.  I’d love to know the percentage of readers are nodding sagely or scratching their heads at this point.  But it is, I assure you, true.  Renewable energy falls into two categories that I like to call “replaceable” and “effectively inexhaustible”.

Effectively inexhaustible is the easy one – as long as the moon orbits close enough to affect sea levels we have tidal energy.  As long as the sun warms the earth we have hydro, solar and wind.  As long as earth is hot in the middle we’ll have geothermal. By the time any of those things cease to be true we’ll either have migrated off planet or ceased to exist.  However, the slowness of governments to invest has left them all woefully underfunded until recently.  They can’t escape the blame for that misjudgement now the fossil fuels are both dwindling and causing a problem when consumed.

Replaceable is rather subtler.  Growing plants for biodiesel or bioethanol seems like a win, win – it’s replaceable and you get the benefits of “biosequestration” – the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by the plant.  But there are two slight snags here – one is that the removal of these plants from the food chain in large quantities is causing concern in third world and developing countries where they form part of the staple diet of the people who live there.  The second snag is deforestation – the economic benefits of growing agrofuels are a direct stimulus to the destruction of forests in many poor countries.

There is some hope here though as the 2nd generation non-food crop fuels using cellulose to produce bioethanol addresses the first snag – though not the deforestation issue as wood is a potential source of cellulose.  The 3rd generation biofuels using algae to produce a diesel like substance seem the most promising.  One has to wonder though, when we start using those in industrial quantities whether we will cause another distortion in the Earth’s biosphere and simply trade one set of problems for another.

Power consumption then is going to take time and money to reduce.

Tackle industry then, the next biggest contributor.  The biggest producers and the fastest growing, China and North America aren’t keen to contract their industrial or economic growth – particularly during recovery from the recession.

The constant growth in population means agriculture is set to grow rather than shrink, as is the need for waste processing and fresh water production (more on that later).

Why, you may ask, are politicians so obsessed with the item that’s fourth on this list?  They are all offsetting their flights, cycling and driving hybrids while they tax us with substantial fuel duties and airport taxes… the simple answer is in the short term they are tackling what they can with the tools they have.  Transport is the only thing left where a quick short-term to medium term gain can be made… or is it?

Our democratic systems let us remove (eventually) people who say things we don’t like. This is problematic when the news is as bad as this because they almost literally can’t tell us without losing their job… what should they be saying? Three suggestions:

  • Stop shopping
  • Eat less meat
  • Stop breeding

However, you will notice that my first point would have a direct effect on the first two items.  If we aren’t making things and moving them around we immediately cause greenhouse gas output to drop.  So there’s the first thing they should be saying but won’t: The recession has caused the biggest drop in CO2 for 40 years – more than 2%. Stop Shopping.

The conversion of crops into animal proteins has several down sides.  First it is inherently inefficient and uses a lot of water – another increasingly scarce resource in some areas.  There’s a huge range of figures for water use from 100,000 litres per kilo of beef, to 60 litres but even the lower figure would be a cause for concern bearing in mind that water purification has a carbon footprint.  Second it removes viable foodstuffs from the human food chain – why feed it to an animal when you could just eat it?  Third it generates waste in the form of methane and solid waste.  Modern industrial farming is fairly well geared up to deal with the solid waste by re-using it but methane capture is still a comparative rarity.

Methane is, of course, a significant greenhouse gas.  Methane is around 8 times more potent per molecule as a greenhouse gas but is present in smaller concentrations.  The relative effects of the greenhouse gasses can be seen here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas Note water vapour at number one, CO2 a distant second and methane third.  Though the action of sunlight on methane causes it to degrade into, oh dear, CO2 and water, the top two.

Thus you can see that simply eating the crop would lead to a decrease in the number of cattle kept domestically, a drop in methane production, a drop in the greenhouse gasses inherent in the feeding, slaughter, processing, storage and transport of meat plus an abundance of spare crops and water.  Also you have more flexibility to leave a plant growing in the ground instead of killing and refrigerating it and uneaten plants are 100% recyclable.  Eat Less Meat.  Why politicians fight shy of this I’m not entirely sure… maybe those of you in the know could leave a comment on my blog?

Breed Less. Referred to in the BBC’s “Costing the Earth” series as “The Elephant in the room” this is, far and away, the topic politicians are most wary of.  Cancel the voter-breeding program?  Decrease the number of future taxpayers? Are you mad?  But the fact remains that each human life equates to an average of 4 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year (but skewed towards richer countries where birth rates are high and the figure between 10 and 20 tonnes CO2-eq per year).  With the population nearly quadrupling from the year 1900 (1.65 billion) to 1999 (5.9 billion) and due to reach 9 billion by 2050 it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see we have a problem.  Remember these mouths all need food, shelter and fresh water… and will all make climate change worse by their very existence.

And so to the second R…

Reuse

This is another good one.  Everybody gets it.  No one likes waste and taxpayers can easily equate savings to lower taxes.  The politicians are barging down an open door here – except for the fact they’re greedy.  Using chip oil biodiesel is nowhere near as cheap as it should be in some countries (notably the UK) because they simply couldn’t resist taxing it.

And this is the chief problem with using tax as an incentive to change behaviour – as soon as they succeed in changing your behaviour they lose tax revenue that they need to suck up from somewhere else.  If that somewhere else is an area where you pay tax then you gain absolutely nothing.

Landfill off gassing, methane capture from agriculture all an absolute doddle to understand, but actually quite hard to do and requiring significant investment in storage and transport infrastructure.

Recycle

Another easy to sell and easy to understand measure – I’ve nothing to add here except to observe that recycling must itself have a carbon footprint and I’ve made a mental note to blog at some future point on whether the gains from recycling compare favourably with the carbon footprint of producing a new item from scratch.  My gut tells me there may be some surprises there.

Relieve

The two principal effects here are direct effects like the rise in sea level or desertification and indirect effects like the impact on a country’s economy from a change in dominant weather conditions and average temperatures.

This is a seldom-discussed point in the mainstream media or politics because it is generally accepted that all problems must be “solved” and that it is government’s job to solve them.  The idea of accepting and mitigating a problem is not considered a valid solution.  However, while curing street crime by giving us all stab vests might well be considered dereliction of duty, I don’t think acting directly to avoid the impact of things we can no longer entirely prevent is a bad idea.

We should immediately start moving vulnerable populations from coastal areas to avoid the problems caused by rising sea levels.  This would also reduce the death toll in future tsunamis.  At the other extreme we should also use climate models to either evacuate or irrigate areas that will be affected by desertification.

Various European countries whose economies are based around winter sports are already adding non-snow based activities to their resorts to avoid the economic consequences of not having snow.  Countries whose temperatures will drop will wish to pursue an opposite strategy moving away from activities that assume a large amount of sunny weather.

Reverse

The recent Discovery Channel series “Ways to Save the Planet” showed a number of geoengineering techniques aimed at slowing, stopping or even reversing the current trends in climate change.  Governments worldwide really need to get behind these efforts, as their current strategies all seem to be piled into the first three Rs… let’s not repeat the error we made with renewable energy, let’s all get behind the research NOW and find something that works.

To enter BAD2010, please go here: Blog Action Day 2010

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