Friday, February 11, 2022

It’s Not Just Climate: Are We Ignoring Other Causes of Disasters?

One balmy summer evening in mid-July last year, the tiny river Kyll flowing out of the Eifel Mountains in Germany turned from its normal placid flow into a raging torrent that engulfed several riverside towns in its path. By the morning, more than 220 people had died here and along several other German and Belgian mountain rivers. It was the worst flood disaster in Western Europe in several decades.

Politicians rushed to blame climate change for the intense rains that flooded the rivers that night. The world had to be “faster in the battle against climate change,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she toured devastated communities. Climate scientists later concluded that a warmer atmosphere had made such downpours up to nine times more likely.

But there was another factor behind the floods that few politicians or media have mentioned, then or since. Hydrologists monitoring the river flows say that the spread of farms in the once-boggy hills where the rainfall was most intense had destroyed the sponge-like ability of the land to absorb heavy rains. Field drains, roadways, and the removal of natural vegetation channeled the water into the rivers within seconds, rather than days.

That suggested a way to prevent future floods here and elsewhere that would be much faster than fixing climate change. Unpublished analysis of the Kyll by Els Otterman and colleagues at Dutch consultantcy Stroming, reviewed by Yale Environment 360, had found that blocking drains and removing dykes to restore half of the former sponges could reduce peak river flows during floods by more than a third.

Focusing only on climate can end up absolving policymakers of their failures to climate-proof their citizens.
Of course both climate change and land drainage were important in causing the floods. But while one will take decades of international action to fix, the other could be healed locally.

This is not just about what happened in Germany. There is a growing debate among environmental scientists about whether it is counterproductive to always focus on climate change as a cause of such disasters. Some say it sidelines local ways of reducing vulnerability to extreme weather and that it can end up absolving policymakers of their own failures to climate-proof their citizens.

“Stop blaming the climate for disasters,” says Friederike Otto of Imperial College London, a climatologist who is co-founder of World Weather Attribution, an international collaboration of scientists dedicated to identifying the underlying causes of weather-related disasters.

She is determined to call out climate change where it contributes to disaster but cautions that “disasters occur when hazards [such as climate change] meet vulnerability.” And vulnerability has many causes, including bad water or forest management, unplanned urbanization, and social injustices that leave the poor and marginalized at risk.

The danger too, she concluded in a paper in January with Emmanuel Raju, a disaster researcher at the University of Copenhagen, and Emily Boyd of Lund University in Sweden, is that knee-jerk attribution of disasters to climate change creates “a politically convenient crisis narrative … [that] paves a subtle exit path for those responsible for creating vulnerability.”

Digging for water in Madagascar in 2020. Researchers say poor water infrastructure, not drought, was the prime culprit of the country's food crisis.
Digging for water in Madagascar in 2020. Researchers say poor water infrastructure, not drought, was the prime culprit of the country's food crisis. AP PHOTO / LAETITIA BEZAIN

Jesse Ribot, of American University, and Myanna Lahsen, of Linkoping University in Sweden, agree. “While politicians may want to blame crises on climate change, members of the public may prefer to hold government accountable for inadequate investments in flood or drought prevention and precarious living conditions,” they write in a paper published in December.

“A really striking example is the current food crisis in Madagascar, which has been blamed on climate change quite prominently,” Otto told e360. Last October, the UN’s World Food Programme said more than a million people in the south of the African country were starving after successive years of drought. Its warning that the disaster “could become the first famine caused by climate change” was widely reported. Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina said: “My countrymen are paying the price for a climate crisis that they did not create.”

But in December, Luke Harrington of the New Zealand Climate Research Institute concluded that climate change played at most a minor role in the drought, which was a reflection of past natural variability in rainfall, as evidenced by records dating back to the late 19th century. He instead pinned the blame for the crisis on poverty and poor infrastructure, such as inadequate water supplies to irrigate crops — issues that had gone unaddressed by Rajoelina’s government.

An even more glaring example may be how climate change is blamed for the continuing dry state of Lake Chad in West Africa and its huge security and humanitarian consequences.

Half a century ago, Lake Chad covered an area the size of Massachusetts. But during the final quarter of the 20th century, its surface shrank by 95 percent, and it remains today less than half the size of Rhode Island. Deprived of water, local fishers, farmers, and herders have lost their livelihoods. Deepening poverty has contributed to a collapse of law and order, growing jihadism, and an exodus of more than 2 million people, many heading for Europe.

Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari says it is clear where the blame lies. “Climate change is largely responsible for the drying up of Lake Chad,” he told an investors summit last year. The African Development Bank has called the shriveled lake “a living example of the devastation climate change is wreaking on Africa”.

But there is another explanation. While the initial decline in the lake was clearly due to long droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, which some have linked to climate change, the lake has remained stubbornly empty over the past two decades, while rainfall has recovered. Why? Hydrologists say the answer is that rivers out of Cameroon, Chad, and Buhari’s Nigeria that once supplied most of its water are being diverted by government agencies to irrigate often extremely inefficient rice farms.

A 2019 analysis headed by Wenbin Zhu, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that water diversions for irrigation explained 73 percent of the reduction in flow into Lake Chad from the largest river, the Chari, since the 1960s — a proportion that rose to 80 percent after 2000. Variability in rainfall explained just 20 percent.

Robert Oakes of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn says that “the climate-change framing has prevented the identification and implementation of appropriate measures to address the challenges.” Those measures include restoring flow to the rivers that once fed the lake.


Britain needs a new dash for gas to save it from the lunacy of net zero

For an industry facing an existential crisis in order to forestall global warming, oil and gas companies are performing remarkably well. BP announced profits of £9.5 billion shortly after Shell posted what it called “momentous” record annual takings. These huge sums are a function of the restart of the world economy after the pandemic shutdowns but are pretty mind-boggling none the less. For the green lobby they indicate that more needs to be done and faster to expedite the move to non-carbon fuel sources.

For the rest of us, however, they demonstrate that the UK’s rush to achieve net zero is not being followed by the rest of the world and cannot be sustained here without a massive public backlash. The baleful consequences of this policy are finally beginning to dawn on the Government.

As we reported yesterday, final approval is to be granted for six new North Sea oil and gas fields, the first sensible decision on meeting the country’s energy needs taken for at least three decades.

It also gives the lie to the claim that investment in new fields was halted for economic considerations when the principal objections were environmental. For the same reason, the Government should lift the ban on fracking.

The prospect of new licences in the North Sea marks a significant political push-back against net zero, with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, seemingly determined to make the policy more rational and voter-friendly. Some of the more unrealistic targets for phasing out petrol cars or banning gas boilers need to be revisited as well.

In any case, the UK is able to claim a fall in CO2 emissions in part because it outsources them elsewhere. Refusing to exploit our own reserves of gas while importing it from countries that have no renewable energy to speak of is mendacious. Continuing to import goods from countries that still burn vast amounts of coal surely does not help the planet in any way.

In these circumstances, it is idiotic to withhold approval to exploit Britain’s own oil and gas supplies in the North Sea, even if it does turn out to be the last hurrah for what was once seen as the nation’s economic salvation.

History repeats itself. The arrival of natural gas in the 1960s required the conversion of around 14 million households previously reliant on so-called town gas produced by burning coal. The newcomer was cleaner, cheaper and less noxious. A similar upheaval is envisaged to remove gas boilers and install energy efficient heat pumps. Some 85 per cent of the UK’s 29 million homes are heated by gas-fired boilers and the Government wants about one million to be replaced every year by 2030 compared to just 60,000 last year.

How can this be brought about? The answer is that it can’t, not least because the engineers are not available and the costs to homeowners already hit by soaring energy bills are too high. It is estimated that 60,000 qualified plumbers will be needed to meet 2028 installation targets – yet just 1,800 have the correct training today. The new pumps will also be expensive, about £8,000-£10,000 for a typical three-bed home.

Even if costs are brought down, this is a sizeable outlay. In another market intervention, the Government is now offering incentives for people to switch and seeking to force boiler-makers to sell a certain proportion of heat pumps to “help create the conditions for rapid innovation”.

Amid all this lunacy comes evidence that the proposed move to greater electrification risks power cuts without significant changes in behaviour (leave aside what might happen if supplies are affected by a war in eastern Europe or the Gulf or both). From this week, households are to be paid to ration their power usage at peak times to relieve pressure on the National Grid as part of a trial to encourage people to charge cars and use appliances at different times during the day and night. That is why we were all being urged to switch to smart meters and move to special tariffs, though these have now been scuppered by the rise in prices.

All in all, our energy policy has been an unmitigated mess for decades, with incessant governmental interference in the market and a failure to invest in nuclear power and fracking leaving us dangerously exposed to price hikes and supply crunches. The driving force behind most of our problems is the 2050 net zero target now underpinned by statute law and international treaty commitments.

Every political party is signed up to this, as are most countries in the world, even though few expect it to happen. Here, the politics are potentially toxic as people see bills rise, costs increase, supplies diminish and sanctions applied while the biggest CO2 producers carry on burning oil and coal. Labour may be just as culpable for this but the governing party always gets the blame.

Since natural gas accounts for more than half our primary energy consumption – and yet we import more than half of what we require – reviving North Sea investment is a no-brainer. Even the EU now recognises gas as a sustainable energy source to be used in the transition to a low carbon future.

It will take time to get new rigs running, which is not going to help alleviate the Government’s immediate problems. But international instability shows that we need to secure our energy supplies in the long-term through exploiting (and storing) our own gas reserves, moving to hydrogen, investing in small nuclear reactors, expanding carbon capture and storage, and lifting the moratorium on fracking.

There are signs that, apart from shale, this prudent mix is beginning to come together but it will need the Government to stand up to the green lobby in a way that it has so far been unwilling to do. We can move to a lower carbon future, but to do so by impoverishing the country and risking its energy supplies is madness.

Moreover, it is feeding into the debate around Boris Johnson’s future. Many Tory MPs are less concerned about lockdown parties or injudicious remarks concerning Sir Keir Starmer’s prosecution record than the impact of high energy prices on the incomes of their constituents. The Prime Minister would be wise to back the Chancellor and the Business Secretary in a new dash for gas.


"The Guardian" on conservative foes of Net Zero

A group of Conservative politicians and their allies are on the “frontline” of a new climate war and are attempting to derail the government’s green agenda, according to claims by leading climate scientists.

Tory MPs and peers in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) have gained widespread media coverage in the past month, attempting to link the government’s net zero agenda to the cost-of-living crisis and calling for cuts to green taxes and an increase of fossil fuel production.

Some members claim the government’s plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050 have been dreamed up by out-of-touch elites and would impoverish working people, “making them colder and poorer”. The 19 Conservatives confirmed to be in the group say they do not dispute climate science or the need to decarbonise.

Two leading members have links to an organisation, often described as “climate-sceptic”, that was founded by the long-term climate denier (sic) Nigel Lawson. The group’s chair, the MP Craig Mackinlay, has also been accused by a leading climate institute of using misleading and inaccurate information.

Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading authorities (sic) on the climate and author of The New Climate War, said the group appeared to be attempting to drag climate policies into a culture war, which he described as a “dangerous new tactic being used by those opposed to addressing the ecological emergency”.

“This is where the frontline of the battle is now, and yes, we do have to push back fiercely on this sort of pernicious disinformation,” he told the Guardian.

Tory MPs involved in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group include the Brexit campaigner Steve Baker; the former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey; Robert Halfon, a former schools minister; and Peter Lilley. There are also several “red wall” MPs elected in 2019.

Baker is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), launched by Lord Lawson in 2009. The organisation – which recently rebranded its campaigning arm to Net Zero Watch – is characterised by its opponents as being one of Britain’s biggest sources of climate science denial, a claim it denies.

It and the NZSG of Conservative politicians have recently turned their attention to the costs of the government’s decarbonisation plans.

Lord Lilley and Baker were at the think tank’s annual lecture at the end of November last year where the main speaker, the US scientist Prof Steven Koonin, who admits the climate is changing and humans are responsible, questioned the scientific consensus around the climate crisis.

He told the audience: “The first thing we can do is get authoritative bodies – the royal societies, the US national academies – to stand up and say there is no climate crisis. This is an issue, we can deal with it in due course, but let’s all relax.”

Leading climate scientists, shown a video of the event by the Guardian, suggested it had “cherrypicked data” and “distorted” the facts of climate science. They also questioned whether members of the UK’s ruling party might be getting their evidence about the climate crisis from such events.

In response, Koonin expressed disappointment at the criticisms, adding: “Viewers of my talk will see that my points are specific, relevant, and well-supported by references to the literature and data.”

Analysis by the Guardian also found that more than half of the members of the NZSG were members of the European Research Group (ERG), which successfully pushed for the Brexit referendum inside the Tory party. This has led to fears they could push for a similar culture war over net zero – and even a referendum.

Nigel Farage, another veteran of the Brexit campaign, has said he is agitating for a referendum on net zero, and Baker says the anti-net-zero campaign will be bigger than Brexit.

A Tory MP told the Guardian he considered Baker to be “seeing this like Brexit: he sees net zero and the [global warming target of] 1.5C as an imposition from an unelected remote bureaucracy that must be defeated”.

Dr Benny Peiser, a longtime policy lead for GWPF and director of its net zero watch campaign, said it did not dispute the need to decarbonise, but he was pleased that Tory MPs were now willing to put their name to opposition to net zero.

He told the Guardian: “We are obviously delighted that MPs are beginning to recognise that there’s a problem. Now for the first time we have a proper debate about the pros and the cons of the different options.”

The GWPF did not respond to subsequent written questions from the Guardian.

A number of experts dismiss the NZSG’s claims around the cost of net zero, saying the costs are relatively small and diminishing, at less than 1% of GDP by 2050. They also point out the multiple benefits of moving rapidly away from fossil fuels, from cleaner air and water to well-paid green jobs and lower energy bills.

Mackinlay was accused of misinformation by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics. It suggested he had relied on “inaccurate and misleading claims, particularly about the investments required to achieve the statutory target of net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, in order to promote [the NZSG] cause”.

Some members of the group appear to have mocked climate policies or questioned the need for rapid action on reducing emissions. Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool South, tweeted in November: “It’s Gender Day at #cop26 today. Apparently women and girls are more susceptible to climate change than others so the government’s naturally making £165 million available to address this apparent disparity. You really couldn’t make it up.”

Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington, has lobbied for more coalmines to be opened, calling those who opposed the Cumbria coalmine “climate alarmists” and saying: “Apocalypticism risks becoming the new UK religion.”

Lilley had an initial conversation with the Guardian but he and Baker did not respond to subsequent written questions about the article. Mackinlay confirmed his role as chair but declined to say more.

Three members of the NZSG did respond, stating they did not dispute climate science or the need to decarbonise, although they did object to the government’s current net zero plans. Jenkinson said he was confident it was possible to reach net zero “without making my constituents poorer”.

“I’m delighted that we’re having the adult discussions that so many outside the Conservative party are afraid of having, around the ongoing need for UK oil and gas for transition to net zero by 2050 and beyond it,” he added.

Halfon said: “Millions are now being hit desperately hard by the cost-of-living crisis with heating and fuel bills soaring. We cannot sacrifice any further their ability to cope on the altar of climate change.”

There is opposition to the group within the Conservative party. The MP Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister, has set up a new “net zero support group”, and a current environment minister told the Guardian that the NZSG was of “no concern to the government” and was being widely ignored.

The former Tory environment secretary Theresa Villiers also urged her party not to slip into a “culture war” over the climate crisis: “It should be dealt with in the context of a normal political debate, I hope we don’t start to see a culture war in this area.”

But as Boris Johnson – seen as a Tory standard-bearer for net zero – fights for his political life, attacks on the policy are continuing. After last week’s energy price hike, “senior cabinet ministers” were quoted on the front page of the Daily Telegraph urging the government to “rethink its net zero plans”.

James Murray, the editor of the website BusinessGreen and a leading environmental commentator, said: “Those within government and beyond that accept the net zero transition is the defining economic project of the age would be wise not to underestimate the threat. Opposition to climate action may be on the periphery. But as the past few years have taught us, ideas that were on the periphery can become very influential, very quickly.”


Australia: Getting new power sources to market needs more attention

Transmission links are expensive but indispensible if new power sources are going to be used

The federal government-owned Snowy Hydro has attacked a planned national energy blueprint, warning a failure to push ahead with crucial investment in new electricity transmission could trigger higher power prices, blackouts and dangerous system instability.

Snowy, currently building a giant expansion of its hydro scheme, has written to the Australian Energy Market Operator saying its 20-year plan for the national electricity market released in December has gone backwards in recognising the urgency of transmission reform, and contains false modelling assumptions.

The major energy player, which owns retail power companies Red Energy and Lumo, has also attacked assumptions AEMO makes in its integrated system plan about the value of Tasmania’s wind farms, and says global energy investors are worried their spending on generation and storage may be put at risk due to the glacial pace of progress pushing on with more than $10bn of ­urgent transmission links.

“Transmission augmentation which takes place later than required not only leads to higher prices and slower decarbonisation, but also blackouts and dangerous system instability,” Snowy chief executive Paul Broad said in the company’s submission to AEMO, obtained by The Australian.

The 2022 integrated system plan “seeks to delay transmission upgrades until the last moment while retaining the flexibility to bring forward or yet further delay projects as needed. That may ­appear to be sensible policy but it is unworkable in practice.

“It is impossible to reconcile AEMO’s forecasts of an increasingly rapid structural shift towards renewables with its recommendations to delay key transmission links.”

READ MORE:Coal snuffed out in power revolution|Snowy boost to ‘beat blackouts’|Snowy wants transmission fast-tracked|Energy players warn of ‘grid gap’
Snowy is worried whether there will be enough transmission in place to transport power from its Snowy 2.0 expansion to market once it is completed in 2026. That includes TransGrid’s proposed Hume Link to southern NSW and the southern transmission link to Melbourne called VNI West.

AEMO, which runs the national electricity network, has plotted a “step-change” scenario after consultation with industry to guide power grid investment over the next decades and ensure Australia hits goals to cut pollution.

Under the plan, coal is set to be extinguished from the electricity system up to a decade earlier than planned, ­exiting three times faster than ­expected, under a radical blueprint for the power grid that ­requires a nine-fold increase in wind and solar capacity by 2050 to meet the nation’s net zero emissions targets.

Snowy also hit out at what it regards as the prioritisation of the Marinus Link, a second power cable connecting Tasmania to Victoria, ahead of transmission needed in NSW and Victoria under the latest draft of the power market scheme.

The plan “prioritises Marinus Link over VNI West, seemingly valuing Tasmanian wind resources (which, in fact, offer little diversity value) over the larger renewables investment in Victoria and access to Snowy 2.0, the single best asset for shoring up system security in the national electricity market. This is dangerous for consumers and industry,’’ Snowy said.

Mr Broad casts doubt on plans for Tasmania’s Battery of the Nation and the Marinus Link ever being built.

“Given that Snowy 2.0 is under construction, what is the probability that Battery of the Nation and Marinus will even exist? Deferring VNI West for four years (compared to ISP2018 and ISP2020) in the hope that a marginally economic and geographically remote undersea cable and remote storage will save the day is playing Russian roulette with ­national electricity market reliability and efficiency,’’ he said.

Snowy has previously warned the lack of transmission could kill the transition to ­renewables – with a string of major players weighing into the debate – and singled out concerns over infrastructure as a major issue that needs to be confronted to ensure supplies can flow to users.

Renewable developers and network operators are worried a pipeline of power generation and clean energy supplies faces delays or gridlock unless major electricity transmission projects are delivered across the national power system.

It cautioned that major global energy investors could be put off by the uncertainty in the transmission sector, an assertion that may raise heckles from other big market players that have previously accused Snowy of distorting the market with its govern­ment ownership.

“It does not help Australia’s case that these participants (many of whom already deliver renewable energy to Snowy via long-term offtakes negotiated across 2019-21) look on in dismay at the fate of VNI West’s role in transmitting their energy to the load centres and to Snowy 2.0,’’ Snowy said in its submission. “These investors are … typically global energy investors who cross-invest in generation and storage, and therefore know that Snowy 2.0 is a key piece to ensuring generation backup and storage for Victoria. The treatment to which Snowy 2.0 has been subjected provides them no comfort that their own investments would be treated ­equitably or transparently.’’

AEMO has said transmission projects will add $29bn in value while allowing ­renewables to be spread across the grid, with the Victoria NSW Interconnector and HumeLink projects both seen as critical to guard consumers against the risk of faster-than-expected coal ­retirements.

Consultation on the draft 2022 plan will be open until Friday




No comments: