Mark Cochrane on the Indonesian fires catastrophe…..

11 11 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

I have finally escaped the endless haze of Indonesia for the moment. The last of my non-Indonesian team should have flown out this morning, but that still leaves the Indonesian people who have endured much more of this than anyone to continue to stew in the smoke. The rains have begun to return so the air is much clearer but worsens each afternoon and becomes serous if a day or two without rain passes.

This isn’t some ancient process started in the mists of time, this disaster began in 1996 with a misguided attempt to drain 1 million hectares of peat lands to grow rice of all things (Mega-Rice Project, overview). This calamity was made ever worse when the El Nino-spawned droughts of 1997-98 set the land aflame, initiating the now annual haze events that plague Southeast Asia. What most people do not appreciate is that once the land was drained the carbon loss process was set in place, regardless of whether the fires happen. Once drained the peat begins to be broken down by microbes and the peat subsides as CO2 is released to the atmosphere. When the fires occur they simply speed up the ongoing process, shifting the emissions to be more heavily weighted on carbon monoxide and methane. They also produce the toxic haze of particulates that blanket the region. For months no one ever saw the sun and shadows ceased to exist. The world was a luminescent ball of smoke during the daylight hours with no idea of the time of day. Usually it was white but on truly horrific days when the smoke layer was particularly thick the world was a sickly yellow in color.

The Mega Rice Project (MRP) is now long abandoned but the oil palm plantations have since taken over much of the peat lands across Indonesia furthering the country’s desire to supplant Malaysia as the leading global producer of palm oil. They’ve succeeded but now everyone is paying the price. The ex-MRP put in >4,000km of drainage canals in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) but over in Riau Province on Sumatra where I was in August the palm plantations have installed more than 22,000 km of canals to drain the peat. Out in Papua the oil palm developments are proceeding rapidly as well. Given the internal and international upheaval caused by this year’s fires, there is a desire to somehow ‘fix’ the situation with cloud seeding, air tankers dropping water, and thousands of troops in the field to fight the fires but the reality is that such measures have little effect. Now…

respiratory diseases rise

• Indonesia’s ministry of higher education is attempting to create a research consortium on disaster management.
• Data from Indonesia’s disaster management agency showed the number of people diagnosed with acute respiratory infection increased to 556,945 by November 6.
• After a limited cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss peat management, Jokowi said he wanted the research department of Yogyakarta’s University of Gadjah Mada to play a central role in proposing Indonesia’s new peat strategy.

Air quality in Singapore threatened to seep into unhealthy levels again on Friday as Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed ministers to form a specialist haze task force to stave off another wildfire disaster next year.

“Do not let the dry season come around next year with us not having done anything,” Jokowi said.

No one wants to face the real issues of what must be done to truly stop this dynamic. If they want the fires to stop then the people will have to leave the peatlands (unlikely) or learn to live without fire as a major land use tool (doubtful). If there is truly a desire to stop carbon loss from these ancient peat forest lands then the drainage canals must be blocked (not easy or cheap) and the hydrology of the region restored, flooding the lands and the newly established palm oil plantations (economically disastrous). In short, the actions necessary to try to mitigate this disaster will be politically untenable unless there is some offsetting gain that can support relocating growing populations and replace the oil palm economy.

The worst part of this sad tale, which is also unappreciated is that the oil palm boom is going to be a short one before the bust comes on these peat soils. The peat must be drained and in many cases burned to create the conditions to allow the oil palm to grow, however once this is done the land continues to sink and erode. Every year the surface of the land will be lower and more susceptible to flooding. At best they will get one or two 20 year crop cycles in before the lands need to be abandoned. The combination of falling land levels and rising sea levels will destroy the peatlands and land uses they currently support. It is another short term strip mining operation that will yield nothing but profits for a few and another ecological disaster for the world.

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Abundant Clean Renewables? Think Again!

7 12 2014

Although “renewable” energy is growing faster than ever before, it is neither carbon neutral, “clean” nor sustainable. We need to transform into low-energy societies that meet human – not corporate – needs.

Found at generation Alpha

Renewable energy is growing faster than ever before. Sure, some countries are lagging behind, but others are setting widely praised records.

Germany has installed over 24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels, and renewables generate 31 percent of the country’s electricity on average – and as much as 74 percent on particularly windy or sunny days. According to the German government, 371,400 jobs have been created by renewable energy. Norway generates 99 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. Denmark already generates 43 percent of electricity from renewables and aims to phase out fossil fuel burning by 2050.

Many view such news as rays of hope in a rapidly destabilizing climate. We all need some good news – but is renewables expansion really the good news people like to think? Can we really put our hopes for stabilizing the climate into trying to simply replace the energy sources in a growth-focused economic and social model that was built on fossil fuels? Or do we need a far more fundamental transition towards a low-energy economy and society?

Here’s the first problem with celebratory headlines over renewables: Record renewable energy hasn’t stopped record fossil fuel burning, including record levels of coal burning. Coal use is growing so fast that the International Energy Authority expects it to surpass oil as the world’s top energy source by 2017.

Perhaps the 1,500 gigawatts of electricity produced from renewables worldwide have prevented a further 1,500 gigawatts of fossil fuel power stations? Nobody can tell. It’s just as possible that renewables have simply added 1,500 gigawatts of electricity to the global economy, fueled economic growth and ever-greater industrial resource use. In which case, far from limiting carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, renewables may simply have increased them because, as discussed below, no form of large-scale energy is carbon neutral.

Germany’s Energy Transition illustrates the problem: Wind turbines and solar panels have certainly become a widespread feature of Germany’s landscape. Yet if we look at Germany’s total energy use (including heating and transport), rather than just at electricity, energy classed as renewable accounts for just 11.5 percent. The majority, 87.8 percent, of Germany’s energy continues to come from fossil fuels and nuclear power (with waste incineration accounting for the difference of 0.7 percent). Coal consumption, which had been falling until 2008, has been rising again since then. Germany remains the European Union’s (EU) top coal consumerNet electricity exports are being blamed for the rise in coal burning and carbon dioxide emissions, yet they account for just 5 percent of Germany’s electricity – and electricity accounts for less than half of the country’s energy use.

The picture looks even worse when one examines the mix of energy classed as renewable in Germany: Solar photovoltaic (PV) makes up 11.5 percent of renewables, wind, 16.8 percent. The bulk of it – 62 percent – comes from bioenergy, much of which is far from low carbon or sustainable. It includes biofuels, many of them made from imported soya and palm oil that are being expanded at the expense of tropical forests and peatlands and that destroy the livelihoods of small farmers, indigenous and other forest dependent peoples worldwide. It includes biogas made from 820,000 hectares of corn monocultures in Germany – a key driver for biodiversity loss in the country. And it includes wood pellets linked to forest degradation across Central Europe. On closer examination, therefore, 24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels have scarcely made a dent in Germany’s fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions.

Norway’s situation is unique in that virtually all of the country’s electricity is generated from hydro dams, which were gradually expanded over the course of more than a century. Fossil fuels (mostly oil) still surpass renewable energy in Norway’s overall energy mix (with electricity accounting for less than half of the total), though only marginally so, and Norway’s economy remains heavily dependent on oil and gas exports.

Norway’s own hydro dams – many of them small-scale – have raised little controversy but the same cannot be said for Norway’s efforts to export this model to other countries. The Norwegian government and the state-owned energy company Statkraft have been at the forefront of financing controversial dams and associated infrastructure in Laos, India, Malaysian Borneo and elsewhere. One example is Statkraft’s joint venture investment in a new dam in Laos that has displaced 4,800 people and is causing flooding, erosion, and loss of fisheries and land on which people relied for growing rice.

Another example is Norwegian aid for transmission lines for mega-dams in Sarawak, a Malaysian province in Borneo which has seen vast areas of tropical rainforest – and the livelihoods of millions of indigenous peoples – sacrificed for palm oil, logging and also hydro power. One dam alone displaced 10,000 people and at least 10 more dams are planned, despite ongoing resistance from indigenous peoples. Far from being climate-friendly, hydro dams worldwide are associated with large methane emissions – with one study suggesting they are responsible for 25 percent of all human-caused methane emissions and over 4 percent of global warming. The disastrous consequences of Norway’s global hydro power investment illustrates the dangers of the simplistic view that anything classed as renewable energy must be climate-friendly and merits support.

What about the much-heralded renewable transition of Denmark? There coal use is falling and around 21 percent of total energy is sourced from renewables. Denmark holds the world record for wind energy capacity compared to population size. Unlike many other countries where wind energy is firmly controlled by large energy companies, Denmark has seen strong support for locally owned wind energy cooperatives, widely considered an inspiring example of clean, community-controlled energy. Nonetheless, wind energy in Denmark accounted for just 3.8 percent of Denmark’s total energy use in 2010.

Bioenergy accounts for a far greater percentage of Denmark’s “renewable energy” than does wind – and indeed for a greater share in the country’s overall energy mix than is the case in any other European country. As in Germany, Denmark’s bioenergy includes biofuels for transport, which studies show tend to be worse for the climate than equivalent quantities of oil once all the direct and indirect emissions from deforestation, peatland destruction and other land use change associated with them are accounted for. And it includes wood pellets, with Denmark being the EU’s, and likely the world’s, second biggest pellet importer after the United Kingdom. Most of those pellets come from the Baltic states and Russia, from countries where clear-cutting of highly biodiverse forests is rampant. Studies show that burning wood from whole trees can be worse for the climate than burning coal over a period of decades or even centuries.

Thus, on closer inspection, many of the “great renewable energy successes” don’t look so great after all.

Clearly, the current catch-all definition of “renewables” is a key problem: Defining methane-spewing mega-dams, biofuels, which are accelerating deforestation and other ecosystem destruction, or logging forests for bioenergy as “renewable” helps policy makers boost renewables statistics, while helping to further destabilize planetary support systems. As long as energy sources that are as carbon-intensive and destructive as fossil fuels are classed as “renewable,” boosting renewable energy around the world risks doing more harm than good.

A saner definition of “renewable energy” clearly is vital but would it open the door toward 100 percent clean and plentiful energy? Comparing the rate of wind energy expansion in Denmark and wind and solar power expansion in Germany with the tiny contribution they make to both countries’ total energy supply indicates otherwise.

Wind and solar power require far less land per unit of energy than biomass or biofuels, but the area of land needed to replace fossil fuel power stations with, say, wind turbines is vast nonetheless. According to a former scientific advisor to the UK government, for example, 15 offshore wind turbines installed on every kilometer of the UK coastline would supply just 13 percent of the country’s average daily energy use. And offshore turbines are more efficient than onshore ones.

Researchers agree that the life-cycle impacts of wind and solar power on the climate and environment are definitely smaller than those of fossil fuels, as long as turbines and panels are sensibly sited (not, for example, on deep peat). But this doesn’t mean that the impacts are benign. Generating that 13 percent of UK energy from offshore wind would require wind turbines made of 20 million tons of steel and concrete – more than all the steel that went into US shipbuilding during World War II. Steel manufacturing is heavily dependent on coal, not just as a fuel for the furnaces but because it is needed to enrich the raw material, iron ore, with carbon to make it stable. And concrete is hardly “carbon neutral” either – cement (a key component) accounts for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Solar PV panels are up to four times as energy and carbon-intensive to produce as wind turbines: Aluminum – used to mount and construct solar panels – is about as carbon and energy-intensive as steel. Silicon needs to be smelted at 2,000 degrees Celsius and materials used to replace silicon have an even higher environmental footprint. Then there’s an array of highly toxic and corrosive chemicals used during manufacturing. Yet with regards to pollution, building wind and marine turbines is likely worse than making solar panels, because efficient and lasting turbine magnets rely on rare earth mining and refining. One 5-megawatt turbine requires a ton of rare earths, the mining and refining of which will leave behind 75 cubic meters of toxic acidic waste water and one ton of radioactive sludge. Two-thirds of the world’s rare earths are refined in one town in China, where people have become environmental refugees and virtually all who remain suffer from ill health associated with toxic chemicals and radiation. In the quest for “clean energy” rare earths mines are being sought and opened around the globe. The only US rare earths mine, Molycorp’s in California, has been reopened, after having been shut down due to a long history of repeated spills of toxic and radioactive waste. Since reopening, the operators have already been fined for spilling yet more hazardous waste.

Zero-carbon, clean energy? Well, no. And yet, there are no large-scale energy sources with lower carbon emissions and less harmful environmental impacts than wind and solar power. As one scientist argues from the perspective of thermodynamics: “To talk about ‘renewable energy’ or ‘sustainable energy’ is an oxymoron, as is ‘sustainable mining’ or ‘sustainable development.’ The more energy we use, the less sustainable is humanity.”

We certainly need to swiftly end fossil fuel burning and the destruction of ecosystems and that will require us to rely on the least harmful energy sources such as wind and solar power. But the myth of plentiful “clean” energy stops us from focusing on the far deeper changes needed – a transformation toward a low-energy society. A depressing conclusion? Not necessarily. As UK climate change campaigner and author George Marshall has pointed out, we could cut flights (and probably all transport emissions) and slash energy used for home heating by 80 percent overnight by going back to the way people used to live as short a time ago as 1972, provided we used home insulation and efficient boiler technology developed since then. Instead, 40 years of efficiency gains have been wiped out by ever-greater consumption. Yet UK “personal satisfaction” surveys show that people’s sense of satisfaction or happiness peaked in 1970. Once people’s basic needs for energy are met, rising energy use remains vital for corporate profits and economic growth, but not for people’s quality of life.

Most readers will have never lived in a low-energy society. Imagining what such a society might look like and how to move toward the transformation required to get there, and to overcome the corporate interests that depend on profits from ever rising energy use, must be priorities for anyone aware of the seriousness of climate change. Daunting no doubt, but once we’ve abandoned faith in plentiful “clean” energy, we can finally make a start.

Please tell us your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below. Thanks. 

Originally published in Truthout here. Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

 

Almuth Ernsting helped to found Biofuelwatch in 2006. She has researched and published about a wide range of issues related to bioenergy, including the climate, social and biodiversity impacts of biofuels and wood-based biomass, public health impacts of biomass and biofuel power stations and the science and policy debate related to proposed use of biomass for geoengineering, especially biochar and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.

Rachel Smolker is a co director of Biofuelwatch and an organizer with Energy Justice Network. She has researched, written and organized on the impacts of biofuels, bioenergy and biochar on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people and the climate. She works at all levels, from community organizing to international UN Convention negotiation processes. She is a member of the Climate Justice Now network and has worked to oppose market-based solutions to climate change and other “false solutions.” She contributes regularly to Huffington Post and to Global Justice Ecology project’s “New Voices on Climate Change. She is the daughter of one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund and participated in a protest against that organization because of the key role EDF played in advocating market-based solutions to climate change. Rachel has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology from the University of Michigan and worked previously as a field biologist, gaining firsthand experience with the complex balance between the needs of people and the ecological systems they depend upon. She is author of To Touch A Wild Dolphin (Doubleday 2001) and lives in Vermont.