In the shade of the big fig tree in my garden, I often sit and ponder the world. I wonder, for example, why, in my microcosm, more and more storks are losing interest in the flight from Europe to Africa? Or why the swallows are starting their acrobatic flights as early as January and setting off in search of a mate? Why the brown dog tick, well known for tick-borne diseases, clings to my dog’s neck in deepest winter at a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius and sucks its blood despite a tick collar? And, while I’m peeling and eating an orange, I think about last summer and wonder what the next one will be like. Will we once again be hit by those north african heatwaves? For years, the summer Levant storms have increasingly been contributing to the fact that parts of my vegetable plot shrivel up in the space of just one night if I don’t spray on huge amounts of water. These dry storms with a heat of over 30 degrees Celsius, humidity of less than 30 percent and speeds of over 45 kilometres an hour can even dry up the leaves of centuries-old cork oaks within just one night. That didn’t happen until just a few years ago. Such storms are what the fire brigades dread. They nullify any attempt to put out a forest fire. Whether heavy rainfall, heatwaves or hailstorms, more and more people to whom green ideas are foreign and who do not tend towards hysteria about the environment, are concerned about the weather and climate.
The mistake? Consumers make many wrong decisions every day. The fact? Insatiable, resource-consuming humans and their system based on boundless economic growth pump ever more energy into the climate system and thus contribute to global warming of our atmosphere, which in turn leads to increasingly frequent extremes of weather. Right? To contain climate change, we will not make progress with good words alone. Solution one: emissions of carbon must be prohibited or at least strictly limited. Become frugal. Because it is not death warnings on cigarette packets that make people smoke less, but forbidding smoking in restaurants. The same scenario can be observed with driving and flying, with poor nutritional habits, and with every bad kind of behaviour: as a tourist on holiday, as an entrepreneur in free global trade, everywhere where we journalists point our cameras. People are predators with overwhelmingly bad characteristics and habits; a predator that is multiplying uncontrolled and destroying its environment in the process, only because business and egoism are more important. The COP21 Paris agreements will, whether ones likes it or not, lead to the result that carbon emissions must be banned, or have such high taxes imposed worldwide that renewable energies can be supported with the proceeds. That is the only way.
You will perhaps say that it won’t work like that. Why not? How else? Are you in favour of another power: that of morals, ethics? Solution two. It is a duty to fight climate change because it is unjust to burden people in the remotest part of the world or future generations with the consequences. These are the words of our Pope, who is concerned about our common home and is looking for sustainable, integrated development. So, voluntary frugality: let’s get on with it. Things will work out. Really?
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Albert Einstein
Unfortunately, the routine of ignoring and dodging the issue, the ignorance of the overwhelming majority of humanity is just a bad characteristic that fuels climate change even more. We would like to live easy uncomplicated lives, especially in Europe and at others’ expense. This life gives us a glimpse into the abyss. Karl Marx wrote that being determines consciousness, which did not lead to anything, as is well known; because you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. And so, most people prefer to keep their heads down as they travel to work and back, watch television in the evening and usually fly or drive on holiday twice a year. But people like to shop, cheaply and easily. Many thousands of products, from IT equipment to clothing and toys that consumers obtain no matter where – cheaply from the Far East too. These are not produced in a sustainable manner nor are people properly rewarded, and what’s more they are transported worldwide across the oceans with high CO2 emissions. The bill for ecological and social over-exploitation will eventually be delivered. It gets warmer and warmer and more and more glaring. The Arctic ice and the mountain glaciers are melting. The number of hurricanes, tornados and typhoons is expected to increase further. Sea level is also rising, and the Maldives are not the only archipelago whose very existence is under threat. But that is only a gentle foretaste of what the unrestricted emission of greenhouse gases could yet give rise to in this century. And on top of that, there’s the flirting with evil. Those representing the interests of linear economics based on unlimited growth, the political PR lobbyists paid by the fossil fuel industry, will happily continue to claim that there is no human-induced climate change, and anyway what is so wrong with our behaviour as consumers?
“Virtually everything,” says André Silva, deputy of the new party in parliament, PAN (People, Animals, Nature). The overwhelming majority of the world’s population feeds itself incorrectly, not just here a bit too much and there too little, but just incorrectly. People eat too much meat. Half of all harmful climate gases can be attributed to industrial livestock farming, and hence to the clearing of forests for agricultural use and the cultivation of soya, wheat, palm oil and maize; monocultures. The figures speak for themselves. Industrial beef, pork and chicken production to provide over seven billion people with meat. The misuse of resources such as water, chemicals and fertilisers. The outcome: diseases such as diabetes, cancer, strokes. (Read our interview on this with the deputy André Silva, PAN)
Let us remain with the example of food. Every year, some 160 million tonnes of phosphorous are mined, among other things for the production of toothpaste, but also as a main component of fertiliser for industrial agriculture. Farming that destroys more ecologically than the good it does, and on top of that, agriculture that manages its business badly because it consumes more energy than it gives back.* It should really work the other way around. Eighty percent of the phosphorous, the basis of all life on earth – without it, not a single biological organism functions – is only mined in four countries: in China, in Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco, in South Africa and Jordan. According to serious estimates, the mineral deposits will be exhausted within 50 years. A good example of finiteness, which demonstrates that infinite growth, is economic madness. Even before the deposits are exhausted, growth will be at an end. Even pilot schemes that are attempting to recycle this element will never meet the volume of current demand. Rethinking our behaviour in consumption and production is needed here too. Urban gardening and food from your own garden are possible solutions, organic farming and short transportation routes. But the real problem with phosphorous is quite different: the contamination of our land and waterways. Because almost ten million tonnes of phosphorous end up in sewage plants, streams, rivers, lakes, coastal waters and oceans every year, and do massive damage to our ecosystems. As a result of over-fertilising with phosphates and nitrogen, our civilisation is already on the verge of a catastrophe. Lakes, rivers and seas could reach tipping point.
Don’t throw anything away – there is no away!
Phosphorus is going to vanish before crude oil. And then? But how do things look with another resource, water? As people do business, live and consume, from agriculture to industry, from trade to service industries, and including the provision of credit by the modern finance industry, the thinking everywhere is linear, and focused on fast and maximum profit. No one thinks of tomorrow. Only a few people are beginning to recycle and avoid waste. An unbridled world economy that continuously plunders environmental resources in unimaginable quantities like a super organism, then consumes, digests and discharges them again in largely devalued form, destroys its ecological basis. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, professor of theoretical physics and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, an influential scientist at all world climate conferences since 1990, asks an interesting question. “How much fresh water should be drawn off annually from the global water cycle, how much land should be snatched away for civilisation’s exploitation of nature?” What is clear is that over-exploitation on land and water by civilisation causes the most serious disturbances to the ecological balance and cannot be allowed to continue unrestricted and forever. The debate about water itself has only just begun and hasn’t even reached Portugal yet. It will soon become all the more topical because increasing amounts of natural space are being transformed into areas for industrial production, be it forest for eucalyptus and paper, or nature for tourism, concrete and golf.
Are we a civilisation that destroys the basis of its own existence through stupidity and greed? With this question in the back of my mind, I get into my new electric car and head for Faro. At the beginning of the year, representatives of the National Authority for Fuel Market (ENMC) of the Ministry of the Economy, and of the oil and gas industry gathered for a public hearing to explain the offshore test drilling off the Portuguese coast to an engaged audience of some 300 interested citizens. (Read the comment piece “Business as usual?”) The licences for prospecting for possible deposits of natural gas and oil had been decided on previously by the former Passos-Coelho government, in secret and without planning approval. The ENMC director Paulo Carmona was greeted with derision, and also had to justify himself for the fact that his minister had possibly failed to prevent Portugal from losing out. For every barrel of crude oil extracted at some point, the national budget, which is still in deficit, is to receive just 10 to 25 cents in royalties, according to the contract. The hearing proceeds in a correspondingly controversial and emotional manner. Mayors, tourism managers and environmental activists argue hand in hand against the representatives of the Spanish Repsol, the Italian ENI, the native Galp and Partex, and against the National Authority for the Fuel Market. ECO123 would like to find out more about the economic aspects of gas exploration from Luís Guerreiro, the chief engineer of the New Ventures exploration team at Partex, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation company that operates internationally.
Any investment in the search for gas, coal and crude oil from 2016 onwards can only mean that the oil and gas industry in Portugal and Europe has not yet read the COP21 Paris agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. It must be aware that it is burning up all of the millions of dollars invested in yesterday’s technology. Because as early as tomorrow, in the middle of the search for and the extraction of fossil fuels, the FINAL END could be with us. On 12th December 2015, it was decided by the UN Climate Conference in Paris that global greenhouse gas emissions should be cut back to zero between 2045 and 2060.
So, let us turn to possible scenarios for solving the problem. Whether gas, coal or oil, everything that humans burn by way of fossil fuels in the coming years, will put further extreme strain on the climate of future generations, will change the weather, and further exacerbate people’s living conditions on planet earth. Any forests that are felled will aggravate the effect further. The economic damage triggered by the natural disasters arising from climate change will multiply. Conversely, the more and the quicker people invest in regenerative energies, in low-carbon transport systems, in climate-friendly land use, the less harm will be done. The longer people wait to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the bill will be in the end.
I want to find out more about this and ask the world’s biggest reinsurers, MunichRe in Germany, if they are still prepared to insure insurance and other companies with a linear corporate philosophy? Press spokesperson Dr. Stefan Straub told ECO123 that MunichRe takes full account of the ESG criteria – environmental, social and governance, that are relevant for the insurance business: “We promote awareness of these aspects on the part of our clients and business partners and work with other interested parties towards this. In the long term, MunichRe regards climate change as the greatest risk of change for the insurance industry. In our Corporate Climate Centre, we develop and coordinate a unified, strategic approach to this and analyse and assess this risk. We expect climate change, in the long term, to lead to an increase in weather-related natural disasters, but extreme weather events such as floods and seasonal water shortages have different regional impacts in the Mediterranean region.”
Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?
“Temperature is the most important environmental parameter,” stresses the physicist Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in his 700-page book “Selbstverbrennung” (literally “burning ourselves to death”) published by Random House and at present being translated into several languages. In his view, System Earth is every bit as complex as the human body. Both beings draw their identity and stability from an exquisitely constructed interplay of more or less complex processes. And it is not by chance, he continues, that a simple but extraordinarily illuminating comparison with the human body emerges. Thanks to sophisticated processes of distribution and compensation, from sweating to shivering, the body maintains a working temperature when healthy of between 36.5° und 37° Celsius that is remarkably constant at an individual level. Two degrees higher means fever; four or five degrees more means death.
The average temperature of the earth’s surface is also the result of complex processes, he says, including above all thermal radiation from space. From year to year, this temperature mostly varies by only some hundredths of a degree, when our planet is working normally. If you raise it by two degrees, however, the system is profoundly changed; if you add four or five degrees, you can expect the old environment to perish.
The conclusion is that our civilisation cannot afford unchecked warming of four to five degrees if it wishes to continue to exist. For millions of people in the world, even two degrees more will have disastrous consequences, because they live in coastal regions. Even with an increase of two degrees, sea level will rise, there will be forced relocations, mass migration, uncontrollable repercussions. Even today, when it is just one degree warmer than a hundred years ago, we are already seeing drastic consequences. Just look at the Marshall Islands, whose coastline is slowly being consumed by the sea.
The few fortunate people, like us here in Europe, will perhaps be able to adapt. But let’s ask people on the coast of Bangladesh. For rich countries, it is just a matter of certain nuances of their lifestyle, for the rest it is about their very existence. It is worth fighting for every tenth of a degree. Resignation would be wrong. The biggest climate risks will probably be avoided or limited if we remain below two degrees of warming.
In this way, decarbonisation will become the watchword of all coming generations. The divestment movement has already begun. Students at Harvard, Berkeley, Yale and Stanford Universities, and others, do not want their student fees to be invested in fossil fuels. Their example is being followed by more and more universities and other investors: the insurance group Allianz and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, pension funds. For economic reasons, but for moral reasons too. The hope is the fossil economic model will at some point tip over and collapse, so that the transformation to a clean sustainable economy can gather pace. Dr. Stefan Straub: “Through our investment company MEAG, MunichRe plans to invest up to eight billion euros in infrastructure, renewable energies and new technologies (equity and debt capital). The growth in renewable energy capacity that is ongoing globally strengthens our belief that we as an investor focusing on the long term are on the right track. On the subject of divestment, there is an investment group at Munich Re that critically examines our investment criteria.”
Two degrees, or if possible less, 1.5°C, this is the figure given to us by the Paris agreement of the UN Climate Conference. The exact figure of the global emissions planned, and still approved, from 2016 onwards is a carbon budget of 750 billion tonnes of CO2. That is the firewall. Anyone who says two degrees must also commit themselves to the global upper limit of 750 billion tonnes of CO2. If this amount is to be allocated to a world population of 7.5 billion people in an egalitarian manner, you arrive at a budget per head of 100 tonnes of CO2 until it is completely phased out. Portugal’s current emissions amount to 6.9 tonnes per citizen per year, and are still increasing.
I am still sitting under the big fig-tree, pondering the world. It’s is now spring. I wonder what seeds to sow now? I also wonder how António Costa and his ministers aim to find sustainable solutions for an unprepared society. It is about continuing development – yes, quite egoistically – about the survival of human beings and the transformation of their economy. Perhaps Costa is already in the process of drawing up his decarbonisation plan for phasing out fossil fuels? How is Portugal going to implement the conclusions of Paris in concrete terms? Plans for 2020, 2030, 2040?