Measures to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions may be pointless without addressing existing pollution.

22 January 2013 — In this provocative article, Michael Mobbs is… provocative… as usual. He says the urgent task now is to remove existing pollution from the Earth’s atmosphere, and that without doing so efforts to minimise future pollution are futile.

The real climate deniers are greenies, “sustainable” designers, companies, engineers, builders and policy-makers.

One may speak for something but by actions deny it – and their actions deny climate change.

They say they accept the science that shows human cultures have increased the temperature of Earth. In response, they promote “green” buildings, codes, projects, electric cars and bikes, and things that, they say, will cut future pollution. But these same folk say or do nothing to take existing pollution out of Earth’s air.

Yet it’s existing pollution that has broken Earth’s climate.

In 2007 the UN’s 2000 scientists agreed unless we get rid of existing pollution our Earth will get hotter by more than two degrees. So far it’s heated the planet by one degree. We’ll get that second degree by 2020 or 2030 (1), (2), (3).

Thus, soon we’ll endure more extreme versions of what the first degree has already cooked up for us – increasingly damaging storms, fires, crop failures, droughts, and premature human, insect and vegetation deaths.

The cut off date for reducing existing pollution is now – it was “now” in 2007, the scientists said.

To get a sense of the mountain range of carbon we have to get back from the air and put into our land masses consider this:

  • A report from carbon advisory firm, RepuTex, commissioned by WWF and published on 20 January 2014 found that carbon farming in Australia could take out 100 million tonnes of carbon pollution by 2020
  • There is two trillion tonnes of carbon pollution in Earth’s air

Last month I took a “helicopter view” of media articles, Twitter, Facebook and internet magazines. All but one of the thousand or so articles spoke of projects or plans to reduce future pollution. They cited trends showing a decline in energy use, carbon trading in China, declining car numbers, trends of increase in public transport, growing numbers of solar panels, reducing costs of renewable energy devices, new sustainable buildings, and so on.

All worthwhile. Clap.

Yes – some new buildings and projects that sustainably use energy, water, sewage and provide transport, food and materials inspire me. We must do them.

But if your goal is to sustain our cultures and Earth, and that’s all you do, then those projects are all beside the point – claptrap.

Let’s be clear. We must do more than slow or stop future pollution. There is so much pollution up there now that stopping future pollution is no longer enough to fix our broken climate. Now, we have to both remove existing pollution and stop future pollution.

Trends, actions or projects to achieve more efficient resource use take not one existing polluting molecule out of Earth’s air.

If all the coal power stations, trucks, cars and bikes in the world were immediately replaced by “clean” ones or all cities were got around in by citizens on public transport they would not take any existing pollution from our air.

They only reduce the rate of new pollution going into the air. Projects to reduce future pollution just defer the end of our cultures by a few decades.

Surely this simple fact has to be confronted honestly by any viable campaign to fix our broken climate?

Is this lack of interest in existing pollution loose thinking of the type we find in people who march in step with the majority? My guess is this thinking is mostly coming from people who have recently discovered that breaking our climate with air pollution will change life as they know it. They have not known weather longer than, say, two or three decades and don’t know what it was like before then. They have “shifting baseline syndrome” (4).

Whatever, let’s be clear. Not one human alive or dead has saved a planet. We’re all on planet-saving training wheels and we’ve fallen off our bike. If we’re to cool Earth we need to kick off our trainers and get out the hot stuff that’s up there now.

Here are projects that can take out existing pollution:

  • Commercially-driven, unsubsidised industrial projects that extract carbon from Earth’s air to make things – for example the carbon in air used to make chairs and packaging, a process developed by US business Newlight Technologies
  • Carbon farming – growing new soil and vegetation to take carbon out of Earth’s atmosphere
  • Vegetation and tree planting – these take out carbon pollution
  • Composting – some systems can take out existing pollution
  • Local food growing and buying – supports farming, which takes out existing pollution
  • Removing or by-passing dam walls and letting rivers run free again – this restores fish populations and vegetation and strengthens the natural recycling of carbon; about 80 per cent of the fish we eat spend key moments of their life in and around estuaries or otherwise depending on them, and, generally, a new dam more than halves some fish populations
  • Sealing and closing up coal mines – stops existing and new pollution
  • Walking, throwing yourself into ocean pools, laughing and music are essential; they suck existing pollution out of the mind and heart (5)

By growing soil a farmer takes carbon out of Earth’s air.

Sustainability checklists, sustainable buildings, public transport, electric cars and bikes, water and energy efficient appliances, government policies, environmental laws and engineering and design practices were relevant when Earth could cope with more air pollution, but she can’t cope now.

If we’re to sustain her, Earth needs us to reduce existing pollution each day from today ’til we’ve got the two degrees worth of pollution out of her air.

The days of it being okay only to do projects that cut future pollution were gone when 2000 UN scientists told us so some six years ago.

Gone.

Footnotes:

(1) “To constrain global warming to within 2°C, developed countries would need to cut their emissions to 25–40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and to 50–80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050…” : https://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0907/full/climate.2009.57.html

Nature Reports Climate Change. Published online: 11 June 2009 | doi:10.1038/climate.2009.57

(2) “The average global warming is now 0.8°C over the past century, with recent warming growing at 0.2•C per decade. If continued such a trend will lead to a temperature rise of approximately 3°C by the end of this century (relative to pre-industrial temperatures). Climate models also suggest that this ‘business as usual’ trend will produce global warming of around 3°C by the end of this century. This would be the highest global temperature rise recorded in recent palaeoclimate history.

Greenhouse Gas Concentration

“Carbon dioxide emissions growth is accelerating. The growth rate is increasing from 1.1 per cent per year for 1990-1999 to over three per cent per year for 2000-2004. This recent high growth rate exceeds that in the most fossil fuel intensive emissions scenarios used by the IPCC… A major concern with this increasing concentration of greenhouse gases is how it translates into ‘dangerous climate change’. The IPCC (2007) assessment suggests that this must be at or below 450 parts per million CO2-equivalent, since this will lead to a 2°C (median value) increase in global average surface temperatures above pre-industrial times. This level of change is accepted by the European Union as the limit beyond which there will be sufficient adverse impacts on the Earth’s biogeophysical systems, animals and plants to constitute ‘dangerous’ change.

“We are already at this 450 ppm CO2-eq level. The IPCC reports that the total carbon dioxide equivalent concentration (CO2-eq) of all long-lived greenhouse gases is now about 455 ppm CO2-eq (range: 433-477 ppm CO2-eq). However, the immediate warming effect is reduced by atmospheric aerosols and other air pollutants, which result in an effective 311-435 ppm CO2-eq concentration. But as the cooling effect of the aerosols declines, due to measures to avoid urban air pollution and acid rain, the warming effect remains. And there are no signs so far of any reduction in the growth of emissions in the long-lived greenhouse gases.”

Evidence Of Accelerated Climate Change. Prepared by the Climate Adaptation Science and Policy Initiative, The University of Melbourne for the Climate Institute, November 2007. https://www.climateinstitute.org.au/verve/_resources/CI056_EACC_Report_v1.pdf

(3) “National targets give virtually no chance of constraining warming to 2°C and no chance of protecting coral reefs.” Halfway to Copenhagen, no way to 2°C by Joeri Rogelj, Bill Hare, Julia Nabel, Kirsten Macey, Michiel Schaeffer, Kathleen Markmann and Malte Meinshausen. https://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0907/full/climate.2009.57.html

(4) Landscape, memory and what we see and don’t see: A colleague, Stefanie Pillora, has observed in her working notes for her PhD about natural resources: “British journalist George Monbiot in his book Feral writes about the way generations perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal. He gives the example of the treeless hills of England and Wales being promoted as wilderness as the memory of the forests that covered that land, and the animals that lived there, had been forgotten. Monbiot calls this forgetting ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, which was first identified by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly.” https://www.acelg.org.au/shifting-baseline-syndrome

(5) A technical, and almost unreadable, list of options from the UN for reducing or extracting carbon from the air is here: https://www.gcrio.org/ipcc/techrepI/

“Based on material in the IPCC Second Assessment Report (IPCC WGI, WGII and WGIII, 19964), this Technical Paper expands and clarifies the scientific and technical issues relevant to interpreting the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN/FCCC) as stated in Article 2 (United Nations, 1992):

“The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

“Article 2 requires stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations. Here we emphasise CO2, but we also consider several other gases to illustrate the uncertainties associated with a more general multi-gas stabilisation objective and to highlight what can be said with some confidence.

“The clear historical relationship between CO2 emissions and changing atmospheric concentrations, as well as our considerable knowledge of the carbon cycle, implies that continued fossil fuel, cement production, and land-use related emissions of CO2 at historical, present or higher rates in the future will increase atmospheric concentrations of this greenhouse gas. Understanding how CO2 concentrations change in the future requires quantification of the relationship between CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentration using models of the carbon cycle.”

Michael Mobbs built Sydney’s Sustainable House in 1996 which provides it’s own water, sewage and energy services in inner Sydney and has written two books, Sustainable House, and Sustainable Food; See his blog here: www.sustainablehouse.com.au.

16 replies on “Bathurst Burr: let’s march out of step”

  1. One big “BUT” in this article is Michael is pointing the accusatory finger at his own kin, who on a pendulum of responsibility and action are way down at his end. Thus he is providing further & continued ammunition for those at the other end of the scale to hold on to their status quo of unsustainability & continued GHG pollution. Additionally, to look at this problem holistically, all solutions are valid – it is true human efforts to reverse current pollution are completely inadequate, but non-human systems (like oceans) are still trying……. This lack of trying to reverse the current GHG pollution is due to the fact that the effects of previously created & current GHG emissions & their effects are not dire enough to elicit sufficient change. So moderating pollution output would not supply enough negative effect to promote greater will to change, . Really, it would take the movement backwards……it must become worse to get better.

  2. One big “BUT” in this article is Michael is pointing the accusatory finger at his own kin, who on a pendulum of responsibility and action are way down at his end. Thus he is providing further & continued ammunition for those at the other end of the scale to hold on to their status quo of unsustainability & continued GHG pollution. Additionally, to look at this problem holistically, all solutions are valid – it is true human efforts to reverse current pollution are completely inadequate, but non-human systems (like oceans) are still trying……. This lack of trying to reverse the current GHG pollution is due to the fact that the effects of previously created & current GHG emissions & their effects are not dire enough to elicit sufficient change. So moderating pollution output would not supply enough negative effect to promote greater will to change, . Really, it would take the movement backwards……it must become worse to get better.

  3. Renewable energy reduces the amount of Carbon Dioxide added to the atmosphere. Biocarbon sinks absorbs current Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. A comprehensive global warming strategy should consist of renewable energy working in tandem with biocarbon sinks.

    For many years I have promoted adding Carbon(Soil Organic Matter) to soils. Now age is creeping up on me and attempts are made to not heavily criticize other people. When Michael Mobbs and I were on the Board of the NSW Nature Conservation Council I was an angry young man and criticized everyone. Must admit I do criticize some Climate Change deniers.

  4. Renewable energy reduces the amount of Carbon Dioxide added to the atmosphere. Biocarbon sinks absorbs current Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. A comprehensive global warming strategy should consist of renewable energy working in tandem with biocarbon sinks.

    For many years I have promoted adding Carbon(Soil Organic Matter) to soils. Now age is creeping up on me and attempts are made to not heavily criticize other people. When Michael Mobbs and I were on the Board of the NSW Nature Conservation Council I was an angry young man and criticized everyone. Must admit I do criticize some Climate Change deniers.

  5. My recall of fixing carbon through photsynthesis is that water is needed. Taking one hundre million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere might take 45 Gigalitres of water out of the cycle. Where is this much water to be found?

    What will removing water from the soil do to soil fauna? If CCS takes most of our research dollars, we ‘ll have a hardt time finding an answer to this question. The research effort also needs to go to improving energy efficiency and substituting fossil fuels for renewables, the sorts of things that ‘greenies’ argue for.

    Garnaut was not wrong when he set out the issue as ‘a diabolical policy problem’ and it will take all of our wit, in a never-before-seen coalition, to respond.

    Cheers

    Greg Hunt
    SECCCA

  6. My recall of fixing carbon through photsynthesis is that water is needed. Taking one hundre million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere might take 45 Gigalitres of water out of the cycle. Where is this much water to be found?

    What will removing water from the soil do to soil fauna? If CCS takes most of our research dollars, we ‘ll have a hardt time finding an answer to this question. The research effort also needs to go to improving energy efficiency and substituting fossil fuels for renewables, the sorts of things that ‘greenies’ argue for.

    Garnaut was not wrong when he set out the issue as ‘a diabolical policy problem’ and it will take all of our wit, in a never-before-seen coalition, to respond.

    Cheers

    Greg Hunt
    SECCCA

  7. The Abbott Government has a mandate to introduce a system of soil carbon credits that will make it financially attractive for landholders to adopt regenerative soil management practices that capture and hold carbon in the landscape. The Abbott Government fought two federal elections with the promise: “Under the Direct Action plan, soil carbons will be the major plank of our strategy.” As long ago as 2008 then Shadow Minister Greg Hunt declared that the Coalition had “a soil carbon vision”. A Coalition Government would commit to a “once in a century” replenishment of our national soils and farmlands. Those of us working for this outcome took Greg Hunt at his word. Now, as Minister, he can deliver on the vision. The Minister has declared 1st July, 2014 the start of the new Carbon Farming Initiative. He will need to deliver on his promise to remove the suffocating green tape that requires each land-based carbon activity to have its own Act of Parliament and its participants to hold an Australian Financial Services Licence. His presentation at the National Carbon Farming Conference in Canberra on 17-20 March, 2014 will be watched closely. Greg Hunt could find himself in the centre of a perfect storm of opportunity: a low cost method of measuring soil carbon has emerged from the CSIRO; Hunt’s own department has a soil carbon ‘methodology’ on the work bench; and a breakthrough in the economics of biochar could make it available at last for broadacre farmers. All three will be subject of presentations at the Conference.
    Michael Mobbs speaks the truth: You cannot prevent extreme weather events by avoiding emissions because you can’t prevent your grandfather’s emissions and it is they doing all the damage. They must be extracted from the atmosphere and there is only one way to do that at the scale we need it: photosynthesis, Nature’s carbon vacuum cleaner. Billions of hectares of agricultural soils can be deployed immediately at critical mass and massive capacity.
    Emissions reduction is the long term solution. But there is no long term without a short term.

  8. The Abbott Government has a mandate to introduce a system of soil carbon credits that will make it financially attractive for landholders to adopt regenerative soil management practices that capture and hold carbon in the landscape. The Abbott Government fought two federal elections with the promise: “Under the Direct Action plan, soil carbons will be the major plank of our strategy.” As long ago as 2008 then Shadow Minister Greg Hunt declared that the Coalition had “a soil carbon vision”. A Coalition Government would commit to a “once in a century” replenishment of our national soils and farmlands. Those of us working for this outcome took Greg Hunt at his word. Now, as Minister, he can deliver on the vision. The Minister has declared 1st July, 2014 the start of the new Carbon Farming Initiative. He will need to deliver on his promise to remove the suffocating green tape that requires each land-based carbon activity to have its own Act of Parliament and its participants to hold an Australian Financial Services Licence. His presentation at the National Carbon Farming Conference in Canberra on 17-20 March, 2014 will be watched closely. Greg Hunt could find himself in the centre of a perfect storm of opportunity: a low cost method of measuring soil carbon has emerged from the CSIRO; Hunt’s own department has a soil carbon ‘methodology’ on the work bench; and a breakthrough in the economics of biochar could make it available at last for broadacre farmers. All three will be subject of presentations at the Conference.
    Michael Mobbs speaks the truth: You cannot prevent extreme weather events by avoiding emissions because you can’t prevent your grandfather’s emissions and it is they doing all the damage. They must be extracted from the atmosphere and there is only one way to do that at the scale we need it: photosynthesis, Nature’s carbon vacuum cleaner. Billions of hectares of agricultural soils can be deployed immediately at critical mass and massive capacity.
    Emissions reduction is the long term solution. But there is no long term without a short term.

  9. Peter James – I don’t know if we’ve met and if we have I apologise for my poor memory.
    Thank you for seeing the words as written and for your courteous and thoughtful comment. It means a lot to me.

    Planet conservation is not about personalities – how could it ever be? – but how we get the job done as soon as we can to the best of our shared abilities.

    Michael.

  10. Peter James – I don’t know if we’ve met and if we have I apologise for my poor memory.
    Thank you for seeing the words as written and for your courteous and thoughtful comment. It means a lot to me.

    Planet conservation is not about personalities – how could it ever be? – but how we get the job done as soon as we can to the best of our shared abilities.

    Michael.

  11. My view is that Michael has said something that really needed to be re-stated….”The real climate deniers are greenies, “sustainable” designers, companies, engineers, builders and policy-makers”. It echoes the belief of many others who have grasped the nature of our global predicament from a holistic and systems perspective (think urban permaculture and more recently Transition Networks). Recall also Janis Birkeland’s words, “We need to rethink the sustainability agenda. The paradigm of sustainability is an impediment to sustainability”, remember David Gottfried (founder of the US Green Building Council) sharing that his passion is deeper than green buildings and about his concern for the wider implications of a greener life and our place on this planet and asking “What is a green life? And why are we here? What’s the spirit of green, and what is stewardship?

    If you want an extremely detailed and thorough forensic explanation of why our current planning, design and sustainability assessment tools will never deliver positive or regenerative development then please read Janis Birkeland’s ‘Positive Development’ book (it also explains processes that can help achieve it).

    Michael’s article is a welcome battle cry. Sustainability professionals may value their work, but even if the value of their work is shown to be illusionary they should not despair – their greatest strengths are that that they have acquired and are growing in multidisciplinary skills and in holistic thinking – exactly the skills-set needed for regeneration and positive development.

    Michael is not alone, there are many sane sustainability professionals who have seen that propping up the institutions responsible for the current global ecological disaster is a waste of time – albeit a well intentioned use of time and skills.

    The issue Michael raises can be compared with that of the old type of overseas development – where aid was seen to be causing bankruptcy among local farmers and small business, and causing national inflation. And not least in keeping despot leaders in power. Likewise, in helping businesses become more efficient we are inadvertently accelerating resource use (Jevons Paradox) and greasing the wheels for the transfer of public assets (commons) into private hands – thereby concentrating power and increasing inequality of opportunity. Further, we are not addressing the most pervasive system underpinning modern human society, namely debt money – which demands ever expanding resource use to feed the industrial, retail and business machines.

    Clearly limiting our vision to only making the built environment less polluting or even carbon neutral will not address the accumulated pollution and damage. Projects must aim to sequester carbon and generate oxygen, and enable humans to have fun and healthy lives. To change all our existing built environment stock of assets and all new assets is clearly beyond our individual ability. We need a global movement, what we need at the least is for all who can to stand up and advocate for this. We also need every day witnesses to a happier simpler lifestyle. So I could not agree more with Michael’s ‘to do’ list – make some compost and make a worm’s day!

  12. My view is that Michael has said something that really needed to be re-stated….”The real climate deniers are greenies, “sustainable” designers, companies, engineers, builders and policy-makers”. It echoes the belief of many others who have grasped the nature of our global predicament from a holistic and systems perspective (think urban permaculture and more recently Transition Networks). Recall also Janis Birkeland’s words, “We need to rethink the sustainability agenda. The paradigm of sustainability is an impediment to sustainability”, remember David Gottfried (founder of the US Green Building Council) sharing that his passion is deeper than green buildings and about his concern for the wider implications of a greener life and our place on this planet and asking “What is a green life? And why are we here? What’s the spirit of green, and what is stewardship?

    If you want an extremely detailed and thorough forensic explanation of why our current planning, design and sustainability assessment tools will never deliver positive or regenerative development then please read Janis Birkeland’s ‘Positive Development’ book (it also explains processes that can help achieve it).

    Michael’s article is a welcome battle cry. Sustainability professionals may value their work, but even if the value of their work is shown to be illusionary they should not despair – their greatest strengths are that that they have acquired and are growing in multidisciplinary skills and in holistic thinking – exactly the skills-set needed for regeneration and positive development.

    Michael is not alone, there are many sane sustainability professionals who have seen that propping up the institutions responsible for the current global ecological disaster is a waste of time – albeit a well intentioned use of time and skills.

    The issue Michael raises can be compared with that of the old type of overseas development – where aid was seen to be causing bankruptcy among local farmers and small business, and causing national inflation. And not least in keeping despot leaders in power. Likewise, in helping businesses become more efficient we are inadvertently accelerating resource use (Jevons Paradox) and greasing the wheels for the transfer of public assets (commons) into private hands – thereby concentrating power and increasing inequality of opportunity. Further, we are not addressing the most pervasive system underpinning modern human society, namely debt money – which demands ever expanding resource use to feed the industrial, retail and business machines.

    Clearly limiting our vision to only making the built environment less polluting or even carbon neutral will not address the accumulated pollution and damage. Projects must aim to sequester carbon and generate oxygen, and enable humans to have fun and healthy lives. To change all our existing built environment stock of assets and all new assets is clearly beyond our individual ability. We need a global movement, what we need at the least is for all who can to stand up and advocate for this. We also need every day witnesses to a happier simpler lifestyle. So I could not agree more with Michael’s ‘to do’ list – make some compost and make a worm’s day!

  13. Hi Michael,
    Coal-fired electricity with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is at best at the early demonstration stage of technological maturity. Actually, there isn’t a single full-scale demonstration plant in the whole world and much research and development is still needed. It could be at least two decades, perhaps never, before CCS becomes commercially available on a significant scale.

    Many environmentalists, including myself, have no objection to continuing research, development and demonstration of CCS, so long as that does not take funding away from renewable energy technologies, most of which are much more mature than CCS.

    Our research group at UNSW has compared the economics of CCS with 100% commercially available renewable electricity (RE) in Australia. We have explored wide ranges of CCS costs, transport and storage of CO2 costs and carbon prices. We find that only under uncommon conditions could CCS compete with 100% RE. Further reading: https://www.ies.unsw.edu.au/about-us/news-activities/2013/08/does-coal-have-future/.

  14. Hi Michael,
    Coal-fired electricity with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is at best at the early demonstration stage of technological maturity. Actually, there isn’t a single full-scale demonstration plant in the whole world and much research and development is still needed. It could be at least two decades, perhaps never, before CCS becomes commercially available on a significant scale.

    Many environmentalists, including myself, have no objection to continuing research, development and demonstration of CCS, so long as that does not take funding away from renewable energy technologies, most of which are much more mature than CCS.

    Our research group at UNSW has compared the economics of CCS with 100% commercially available renewable electricity (RE) in Australia. We have explored wide ranges of CCS costs, transport and storage of CO2 costs and carbon prices. We find that only under uncommon conditions could CCS compete with 100% RE. Further reading: https://www.ies.unsw.edu.au/about-us/news-activities/2013/08/does-coal-have-future/.

  15. >The real climate deniers are greenies, “sustainable” designers, companies, engineers, builders and policy-makers

    Are you bored Michael?

    I don’t think that any of the above character types you mention would criticise you for promoting carbon sequestration options but to ignore actions to reduce future emissions/pollution is irrational and goes against beliefs of the organisations that you footnote. The only benefit to your rhetoric is to make the sustainable designers, greenies, et al seem highly rational.

  16. >The real climate deniers are greenies, “sustainable” designers, companies, engineers, builders and policy-makers

    Are you bored Michael?

    I don’t think that any of the above character types you mention would criticise you for promoting carbon sequestration options but to ignore actions to reduce future emissions/pollution is irrational and goes against beliefs of the organisations that you footnote. The only benefit to your rhetoric is to make the sustainable designers, greenies, et al seem highly rational.

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