It’s very appropriate to review where we are on human induced global warming now. We happen to be in the immediate period before the summit at Copenhagen where decisions are going to be made about a successor to the Kyoto Treaty.

I happened to be speaking last week at a conference in Liverpool organized by the British Wind Energy Association. I was privileged to hear a speech by Tony Juniper on the current state of global warming.

It was a pretty frightening message that Tony delivered. The worst case scenario of ten years ago has been exceeded. The world is actually heating up faster than even the pessimists had anticipated. He showed a series of trend lines. I find it amazing to think how chilling a trend line can appear. All it is are numbers on a page, but these numbers spelt out an awesome message for humanity. We have heated up the world to .6oC above where it would otherwise be at. The Larsen B Ice Shelf has disappeared. It was it that held back the flow of many of the great glaciers of Antarctica which are now beginning to thin at an unpredictable rate. The last refuge of those who claimed that global warming was a somewhat distant “22 Century Phenomenon” has been blown away.

I am reminded of the time when I became convinced that global warming presented a serious threat to humanity which was in 1989. I have tried to recall why such considerations would have been meaningful to me. I was employed in managing Bord na Mona, the Irish peat company and part of our sales were to the Dutch Horticulture Industry. When the horticulture industry wished to increase the heating in their glass houses they injected CO2 from the heaters that were used to provide the heat. CO2 changed the frequency for the light entering the glasshouse, turning ultra violet radiation into infra red radiation and thereby providing some “free heating”. So I was familiar with the concept of the greenhouse effect.

We burn 85 million barrels a day of oil; we put it up into the atmosphere as CO2. As far as I can see right now we have all but destroyed the eco system which has allowed human kind to emerge from the primordial soup. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest it’s been for 600,000 years. We know this for certain, what we don’t know is whether this is the highest for 20 million years. There needs to be a deal done in Copenhagen but it may not happen. The forces of reaction are alive and well and still saying that these occurrences would and have happened naturally in the history of the world.

Nevertheless I believe there will be a deal done to try and limit the temperature rise in the atmosphere to 2oC.

Funnily enough one of the reasons that I think this will happen will be because China will demand it. Of all the countries in the world, China could have the biggest problem with global warming.

Its population is huge and it is very heavily reliant on the waters flowing from the three great river systems that emanate from the Himalayas.

Long before human induced global warming 60% of China was a desert. The desertification process must have greatly accelerated there and China must now be threatened with major challenges to its basic food production system.

What is the point of industrial growth and human development if it is at the cost of the great majority of the population dying from starvation?

Is there anybody out there who will still argue that all the CO2 that we are putting up into the atmosphere isn’t affecting our climate in the short term?


2 Responses to Environment

  1. Mark Cox November 3, 2009 at 10:25 am #

    Even if a deal is reached in Copenhagen some recent developments could have a major impact on the shape of any deal especially in the stance taken on emission targets and continued use of fossil fuels.

    Until quite recently we had the scenario where extractable reserves of non-renewable commodities such as oil and gas were dwindling while extraction of other reserves was simply not technically possible and/or far too expensive. This would then naturally force a compulsory shift to renewable, clean sources of energy such as wind, solar, wave energy, etc.

    While the prospect of dwindling oil and gas reserves has accelerated developments in renewable energy, it has also led to nervous oil and gas companies pouring billions of dollars into identifying new fossil reserves and developing the technology to extract them cost effectively and profitably.

    For example, gas companies have known for years about shale gas – natural gas trapped in rock formations thousands of metres below the earth’s surface. Until recently it was too difficult and expensive to extract but now they’ve cracked it (literally) by using a technique that involves pumping thousands of litres of water underground to fracture the rock and release the gas. There are environmental impacts though and the big one is the potential negative impact on ground water quality.

    The US has vast reserves of shale gas and Europe is no slouch either with states such as Poland, Sweden and Germany potentially sitting on huge quantities (I’m not sure if we’re sitting on any reserves in Ireland). Europe depends heavily on Russia for its gas and the prospect of dramatically reducing that dependency could be very attractive to Brussels as it formulates its energy supply policy.

    Some figures suggest that adding shale gas into the mix could increase estimated world reserves nine-fold. That’s a lot of gas. And of course plentiful gas means lower prices, which makes it cheaper for industry to use, which leads to more emissions and…well, you can guess the rest. The one ‘bright spot’ though is that gas fired power plants emit about half of the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. So if burning of shale gas becomes widespread at least we won’t be pumping out as much CO2…

    China’s stance will be an interesting one. It has shale gas reserves and, like Europe, depends greatly on Russian gas. If it has its own reserves we can be sure it will use them and that could drive prices down further.

    I’m wondering how this exploitation of a previously ‘unexploitable’ resource will affect the shape of any new climate change deal?

    Currently it’s still cheaper to produce energy from fossil fuels than from renewables. In the current severe, economic conditions, will the dealmakers in Copenhagen plump for the least painful option, both politically and economically by promoting shale gas as a possible ‘solution’? Will it be justified with reassurances that it is 50% less polluting than oil or coal, meaning that therefore we are still on the right track for reducing emissions and making a gradual, but definite transition to clean energy? Could shale gas be used along with wind and solar energy as a ‘bridge’ to an eventual completely renewable energy world?

  2. peter houlihan November 5, 2009 at 1:17 pm #

    Dear Eddie,

    I always read your blog page with great interest.

    The article above spells out in plain english the likely prospects for the envrionment 20 year hence unless there is a greater realisation of the damage being inflicted.

    I believe that this realisation is starting to dawn [ eg the increase in the sale of energy efficient cars ] but more importantly, children in primary schools will in time focre the environment and it’s protection into the mainstream. My older sister teaches 4th class in Dundrum and energy awareness and the environment is now a hugely relevant topic [ eg green flags / turning off lights etc ] ….. so hopefully these 4th class children will make the environment and all it’s protects the main issue.

    Peter Houlihan

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