The end of fire #2

From the great Richard Heinberg via

My recent co-author (and go-to energy guru) David Fridley reminded me the other day that nearly everything we use represents a little fire somewhere—usually several of them. Your smart phone? Little fires drove the machines that extracted the raw minerals. Bigger fires smelted the metals. Little fires fueled the vehicles that transported all the parts, sometimes for thousands of miles. More little fires heated, cooled, and powered the various warehouses and assembly plants involved. Pick any object: unless it’s a tree or other feature of the natural environment, a fire is implicated. The same is typically true for services—keeping us warm, cool, and provisioned with food, health care, and education. We even need fires to make solar panels and wind turbines (for example: 3,000-degree-Fahrenheit furnace fires that run 24/7 are used to make pure silicon wafers for photovoltaic panels). Granted, over its lifetime a PV panel will entail less fire than a coal or natural gas power plant producing the same amount of electricity. But if we wanted to make a hell of a lot of PV panels right away in order to replace all our coal or gas power plants, enormous short-term fires would have to be stoked.

The bind we’re in is this: it is the economy—made up of all those billions of fires—that is causing climate change. Reconfiguring the economy so that it doesn’t cause climate change is currently almost completely a matter of theory, and, even if it is practically possible, represents a job of unprecedented scope and scale that would require nearly unheard-of political solidarity and almost incalculably massive investment and sacrifice (those “affordable energy transition” studies notwithstanding).

Meanwhile, most people are directly dependent on the economy for their survival. Thus, economic contraction or collapse (resulting either from climate change, or from efforts to avert climate change by radically reducing energy use, or from depletion of resources like oil, or even from some entirely foreseeable socioeconomic calamity like a massive debt default or terminal political dysfunction caused by increasing levels of inequality) would itself be traumatic. And for many people (certainly not all!), economic trauma might come sooner and be more direct and devastating than trauma from rising seas, droughts, floods, wildfires, and the other anticipated consequences of global warming.

So, of course, most people are cautious. They hesitate to go along with bold climate “solutions”—which might only somewhat blunt the climate crisis even if they were fully implemented—even though, by not taking climate action, they are further ensuring economic collapse by a different route. Although the house is on fire, very few people are willing to contemplate the kinds of bold programs that would be needed to douse the deadly conflagration. And meanwhile there are so many distractions to amuse, confound, and enrage us!—including political intrigue, seductive new technologies, and entertainment options up the wazoo.

This is the very definition of a wicked problem. I wish I had a nice solution…..

The only sure solution is to start putting out fires—which, in terms of our metaphor, would mean shrinking the economy. That further translates to reducing the number of people on the planet (gradually—no genocide!) as well as the per capita rate of consumption (efforts along these lines would concentrate on the high-consuming countries). Our goal would be a sustainable and equitable level of consumption for all. But the constituency for doing that is tiny. And doing it without unleashing utter economic bedlam would require rethinking everything about how the economy currently works.

Concrete is tipping us into climate catastrophe.

From John Vidal in The Guardian’s Concrete Week:  “The cement industry has transformed the world and enriched both itself and mankind. But it now threatens to tip the environment into uncontrolled warming. It’s now payback time and the industry must respond urgently to the problem it has helped to create.”

Oh but there ARE solutions – yay.

“The UN estimates that there will be 9.8 billion people living on the planet by mid-century. They will need somewhere to live. If concrete is the only answer to the construction of new cities, then carbon emissions will soar, aggravating global warming.

And so scientists and builders have started innovating with other materials, in a scramble for alternatives to a universal commodity that has underpinned our modern life for centuries.” Read about them here.

Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth

From the Guardian’s “concrete week” series:

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

It also magnifies the extreme weather it shelters us from. Taking in all stages of production, concrete is said to be responsible for 4-8% of the world’s CO2. Among materials, only coal, oil and gas are a greater source of greenhouse gases. Half of concrete’s CO2 emissions are created during the manufacture of clinker, the most-energy intensive part of the cement-making process.

But other environmental impacts are far less well understood. Concrete is a thirsty behemoth, sucking up almost a 10th of the world’s industrial water use. This often strains supplies for drinking and irrigation, because 75% of this consumption is in drought and water-stressed regions. In cities, concrete also adds to the heat-island effect by absorbing the warmth of the sun and trapping gases from car exhausts and air-conditioner units – though it is, at least, better than darker asphalt.

It also worsens the problem of silicosis and other respiratory diseases. The dust from wind-blown stocks and mixers contributes as much as 10% of the coarse particulate matter that chokes Delhi, where researchers found in 2015 that the air pollution index at all of the 19 biggest construction sites exceeded safe levels by at least three times. Limestone quarries and cement factories are also often pollution sources, along with the trucks that ferry materials between them and building sites. At this scale, even the acquisition of sand can be catastrophic – destroying so many of the world’s beaches and river courses that this form of mining is now increasingly run by organised crime gangs and associated with murderous violence…….

This touches on the most severe, but least understood, impact of concrete, which is that it destroys natural infrastructure without replacing the ecological functions that humanity depends on for fertilisation, pollination, flood control, oxygen production and water purification.

Arguably more important still is a change of mindset away from a developmental model that replaces living landscapes with built environments and nature-based cultures with data-driven economies. That requires tackling power structures that have been built on concrete, and recognising that fertility is a more reliable base for growth than solidity.

(SA: This last point is what we as landscape architects and city planners must come to understand.)

Even Seattle finds it’s just too hard being green

From the Seattle Times:

“In order to achieve our goal of Seattle becoming a carbon neutral city, we need to increase the pace of our emissions reductions by sevenfold,” the city’s report says.

Think about that. The city is only a few years in to a 15-year plan to cut carbon emissions roughly in half, by 2030. And already we’re lagging to such an extent that we need to go seven times faster?

“Our overall emissions reductions are not on pace to meet our climate goals,” the report says.

It’s that our emissions don’t lie. We haven’t even been able to take these actions in Seattle, America’s greenest city.

So what to do instead? The best idea came from our own Gov. Jay Inslee. Not recently, but 17 years ago, when he was a congressman, he proposed what he called a “New Apollo Project.” His idea then was simple: To convene the world’s best scientists and charge them not with taking a shot at the moon, but to design and invent a “a new energy future” to save the Earth.

(SA: A “New Apollo Project” is false hope. That phrase is designed to make people think that there are solutions out there that will enable us to continue to live as we are now.  The only result of this pattern is ecocide.  There is nothing that will enable us to continue our current suicidal way of life.  If Inslee is really serious, he must admit that industrial civilization must end, and that we must learn to live within the limits of the planet. The only “new energy future” that will work is one with very little energy at all. Will being honest make him president?)

The future hasn’t already been decided

By the great Rebecca Solnit – read it all here:

“Part of the work we need to do is to imagine not only the devastation of climate change, and the immense difference between 2 or 3 degrees of warming and 1.5 degrees, but the benefits of making a transition from fossil fuel. The fading away of the malevolent power of the oil companies would be a profound transformation, politically as well as ecologically.”

Climate Ecoforestry

By Albert Bates, originally published by The Great Change

Excerpt from Optimized Potentials for Soil Sequestration of Atmospheric Carbon, Bates, et al.:  …a reversal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is feasible using a socially responsible, economically productive and ecologically restorative agroforestry system we called “Climate Ecoforestry.” This system, if carried to the scale of 300 megahectares (about 1.2 million square miles, or tree-planting an area roughly the size of four Frances or five Spains) every year for the next 25 years, we could achieve the cumulative storage of 667 PgC (gigatons of carbon) required to bring atmospheric CO2 back to pre-industrial 250 ppm (parts per million). Were nations to collectively reduce fossil fuel emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, the reduction to 250 ppm could be achieved by year 37. In all cases, carbon would be stored in the world’s soils and living biomass and could provide many additional benefits beyond sequestration. (END EXCERPT)

Is there enough land for all that conversion to field and forest? Four Frances or five Spains. Per year? Well, it turns out, we do have that much, sitting at the margins, wrecked by bad land use practices, being slowly desertified by climate change, or otherwise neglected and abandoned.

Scientists have estimated that the amount of underused land immediately available for ecological restoration is at least 1.5 Gha (1.5 billion hectares or 30 Spains) worldwide [Smith et al. 2012]. That gives a 5-year start on climate ecoforestry at full scale and gets you to the step-harvest stage, although naturally, the ramp-up would proceed gradually. We are hopeful that once the causes and effects of climate change, and the eco-agroforestry benefits and increased soil productivity, become better known, large numbers of people will mobilize and allow parts of their landholdings to convert, and over a few decades that could reach the required 4.8 Gha needed, by our estimate, to restore pre-industrial equilibrium.

Hans-Peter Schmidt, provided a spectacular webinar for the International Biochar Initiative that reviewed a number of his recent publications and some still in progress. He was able to reduce the land required to be used for climate regeneration by a third to a half. The significance was underscored in a meeting I attended a day later by the advisory and supervisory boards of the Ecosystem Restoration Camp movement. ERC envisions 1 million people engaged in ecosystem regeneration camps within a decade. The first is already running in Spain and another 70 around the world are anticipated to launch. The IBI also has a big number goal — one billion tons of biochar produced per year within 50 years. The two numbers go very well together. And yet, they are not nearly enough. We will all need to raise ambition.

Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’

From The Guardian:

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.