2017 will go down as yet another year in history with landmark changes in global warming and climate change. As estimated by the 2017 Global Carbon Budget, global carbon emissions this year are on course to touch a record high level of 37 billion tonnes. Also, 2017 is set to be among three of the hottest years ever recorded, the United Nations revealed earlier this month. Further, 2017 is also slated to be the hottest year ever on record which has seen no intrusion from the El Nino effect that results in heat being released from the Pacific Ocean about once in every five years.
“These findings underline the rising risks to people, economies and the very fabric of life on Earth if we fail to get on track with the aims and ambitions of the Paris agreement,” Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Patricia Espinosa said of the situation ahead of the Bonn Climate Conference that took place earlier this month in Germany. Her sentiment is widely accepted and shared by the representatives of almost every country in the world, by environmental experts across the globe, by the media, by me and probably by you as well. However, in the blitz of repeated warnings and fresh facts nearly every week of every month, the only aspect that seems to be a regular is the lack of action on the issue especially on national and international levels, and that is concerning, considering the vigour with which promises are made by the leaders of some of the largest countries on the international stage. Thus, in the wake of fresh warnings by scientists on climate change, the developments in the recently concluded Bonn Conference do not seem as satisfactory when billed against these same warnings. Let’s have a look at each of the two.
A second warning: are you aware?
Starting July this year, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have issued a global warning to humanity in a letter calling for a change in both attitude and action to save our planet and ourselves from our own recklessness. Titled ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice’, the letter puts light on key issues that threaten our survival: shrinking freshwater resources and marine fisheries, an increase in the number of dead zones, declining proportion of forests, a decline in many vertebrate species, increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions across the world, and an increase in the human population towards unsustainable levels. The letter claims that with the current trends unchanged, many life forms will be extinct or headed towards extinction before the end of the century. However, it also credits humanity with one achievement of a decline in the presence of ozone depleting substances. The letter also lists the measures that are absolutely necessary to bring about the desired change. Some of these include restoration of forest areas, repopulating native species, reducing food waste and making dietary shifts towards plant based foods, and promoting education for women to reduce fertility rates. By the beginning of this month, the letter had received optimum attention from the media.
The movement, started by William Ripple of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, marks the 25th anniversary of the first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’ that was issued by nearly 1,700 scientists. “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it, is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated,” reads the original letter from 1992 under the sub-heading “warning”. It is a sad reminder of how little we have progressed in 25 years in our duty to make our home planet remain the home planet for the generations to come.
Bonn Climate Change Conference: Does slow and steady win the race?
In the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, world leaders pledged to ensure that their countries would do their best to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in this century. Since then, a Donald Trump led United States has backed out of the agreement, and climate experts worldwide have sounded alarms claiming that the goal is extremely difficult to achieve going by the current trajectory of the countries that are major contributors of carbon emissions.
The Bonn Conference on climate change or the COP23 in Bonn, Germany was held from November 6 to November 17 to further the negotiations between the involved parties on how the agreement is supposed to pan out 2020 onwards. Some minor yet positive developments at the conference included continued participation from the US delegation signaling their involvement despite Trump’s decisions to take a different course, the launch of the Powering Past Coal Alliance led by the UK and Canada the members of which seek to phase out existing traditional coal power in their jurisdictions, and a long awaited agreement between the parties to work on issues linking climate change and agriculture. That’s about it.
Many of the difficult decisions and issues to be tackled have been relegated to the following year. Negotiations took place on establishing a “rulebook” to govern the processes required to be able to move in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The deadline for this task is the COP next year in Poland, and a draft of the implementation guidelines was to be ready by the end of the Bonn conference. However, a lot of disagreements between countries on issues such as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) have resulted in the requirements of additional sessions to finish the draft in time.
The tussle between the developed and developing countries over the issue of climate finance arose throughout the talks and remains largely unsettled, again requiring additional sessions for a consensus to be reached among the parties. Further, leaders of island nations were left frustrated due to delays by wealthy nations in compensating these countries which are most threatened by the effects of climate change. “This means life or death for us”, said Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, saying that the issue “is a moral question, and it requires a moral answer.” The pace with which developments are taking place make it quite evident that we are still far away from the goals set during the Paris Accord. With the current trends, we are more likely to end up with a rise in global temperatures of 3 degrees Celsius this century, the results of which may be catastrophic. In the meantime, the warnings will keep increasing. They will keep increasing till the point at which they become regrets, a transition which it’s possible that many may not even live to see. “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home”, wrote Ripple in his letter in his bid to make anyone who comes across his piece aware of where we’re headed. Perhaps change will come only when we are made aware, albeit painfully, of what it is that we are losing, or that which we may have already lost.
Nuclear Power and Other Power Sources: How Do They Stack Up?
Most everyone dreads the idea of nuclear war because of the abject devastation it would inflict on planet Earth. Yet few connect the dots between nuclear weapons and nuclear power — the same energy that makes atomic bombs and nuclear missiles so threatening is also harnessed to power electrical grids and other forms of infrastructure. When properly contained, nuclear power is the cleanest and most abundant energy source available. With all the concern over climate change and environmental degradation, it begs a huge question: why is the United States of America not generating more — much more — nuclear energy?
Capital Investment vs. Production Costs
Looking at it from one angle, a larger nuclear energy capacity is a no-brainer. Making electricity from nuclear sources is cheaper than using coal, gas or petroleum, i.e. fossil fuels. On average, using 2011 cash value, electricity cost 21.56, 3.23 and 4.51 cents per kilowatt-hour from petroleum, coal and natural gas, respectively. Nuclear power came in at 2.10 cents per kW according to data received by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Yet these simple ongoing production costs fail to tell the full story.
To up the power generating capacity of nuclear sources, additional plants are necessary. Some argue that the savings in electricity production means the nuclear utilities pay for themselves. What, though, are they paying for…and how long until the payoff? Engineering and constructing a nuclear power plant is very expensive. In fact, 74 percent of the cost of nuclear-sourced electricity is in the capital costs of creating the physical facility and technology for that purpose. Some estimates range drom six-billion to nine-billion dollars. Others estimate over $5,300 per kW before it begins paying for itself…in 20 to 30 years. These figures make the prospect cost-prohibitive to many decision makers in government and business.
Plentiful Energy at Low Costs without Nuclear Power
Were we living back during the oil shocks and embargoes of the 1970s, the urgency factor would be much higher concerning nuclear power in the US. The abundance of discoveries and advancement of technology have made fossil fuels more available at modest prices. Coal and petroleum are each low compared to their peaks. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” natural gas is ever more accessible and affordable. Though people may worry about the environmental effects of burning these substances, they are likely to continue usage to maintain a decent househild cash flow.
Lack of Knowledge
The absence of urgency mentioned above relates to a third factor about why Americans are not expanding their nuclear production capacity. Generations have passed that are not well-informed about the potential and reality of nuclear power. A dangerous accident at Pennsylvania’s Three-Mile Island facility in the 1970s scared public officials and policy makers into backing off of a pro-nuclear agenda. The improvements and replication found in today’s safety protocols have been ineffective in re-booting a national conversation. Granted, the United States operates 97 nuclear reactors, more than any other country. Yet only four more are under design and/or construction compared to 20 for China.
Furthermore, France relies on nuclear for three-quarters of its electricity; several eastern European nations, half; South Korea, in excess of 30 percent; while the U.S. can claim around 20 percent. Clearly, the public knowledge regarding how clean and abundant atomic energy is meager; awareness of past accidents — including the Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl meltdowns of recent decades were, by contrast, reported widely by media outlets.
Advocates of nuclear power have work to do to bring Americans on board. Otherwise, dirtier, cheaper sources will continue to reign.
Francisco Reynés: “We have to consider gas as the energy source with the most potential in the future”
Francisco Reynés, executive chairman of Naturgy (formerly Gas Natural Fenosa), has talked about the role of gas in the world as the energy source with the greatest potential in the future, at the 6TH IEF-IGU Ministerial Gas Forum celebrated in Barcelona, Spain.
Francisco Reynés has explained that the world “needs to talk about the different uses of natural gas and the gas technologies and innovations towards a sustainable energy future. We have to address the role of gas in the world as a future energy source, not only as a transition source of energy”.
“The uses of gas are, as we all know, well beyond those of power generation. Gas provides sources for non-energy uses, such as petrochemicals or fertilizers, which have no clear substitute”, he added.
About this possibility, Francisco Reynés has explained that “all of this will benefit and service the economic growth and development of the countries and economies around the globe. It is, indeed, a joint effort which we must all face with the utmost priority and the maximum care”.
Reynés has also insisted on the cooperation between governments, producers and even consumers to strengthen the security of gas supply on international markets. “The challenge for the future is how energy systems will evolve to meet greenhouse gas emission goals, and more stringent fuel quality standards while at the same time they respond to growing demand for affordable access to reliable energy services”, he concluded.
The 6th IEF-IGU Ministerial Gas Forum aims to sharpen a collective focus on energy policies, market trends, and technology options that enable the gas industry to deliver inclusive growth and successful transformations for a secure, inclusive and sustainable energy future. Energy and climate policies, gas technologies and innovations as well as market fundamentals are ever more co-dependent but also vary across geographies.
You can’t fight nature, but you can be ready for whatever she throws at you
The human race has got used to being in control of its surroundings, and yet we will never be able to truly prevent some of the most devastating catastrophes that our planet can throw our way. Yet we still strive to protect all the things we have built and worked hard for, and technology is helping us to do that on a day to day basis.
Tsunamis are a reality and we need to be prepared for them
Despite all the advances in our technology, we have not yet found ourselves able to avert the most fatal of natural disasters. The fact remains that our planet is far larger than we can possibly control and despite being considerably safer than several million years ago in the early days of the Earth’s life, it still has the capacity to be volatile and terrifying.
Some of the most devastating tsunamis in recent history have taken place in the last 60 years, with catastrophic loss of life and billions needed in humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The effects will last a lifetime for many areas as they try to recover and rebuild.
It is impossible to forget the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011. The consequences were absolutely devastating.
Striking Japan on the 11th March the earthquake reached an eye watering 9.0 magnitude, and generated a 33 feet high wall of water travelling as far as 6 miles inland. Some reports even record waves as high as 133 feet, with a 97-foot wave smashing into the city of Ofunato.
Around 25,000 people were killed or reported missing, and 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. But more worryingly the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was also struck causing a nuclear meltdown. The disaster is recorded at the highest level of International Nuclear Event Scale. The impact of this event is still being fully understood, and radiation from the plant has been detected as much as 200 miles away, with many areas remaining uninhabitable and will be for many years to come.
The loss of human life can be staggering due to a tsunami that hits with no warning. Take for example the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean. An unbelievable death toll of 230,000 was recorded across 14 countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The earthquake under the ocean was recorded at 9.3 magnitude, generating waves up to 93 feet high. Some waves hit land within 15 minutes, but some took as much as 7 hours.
Even those with time to evacuate were hard hit, mostly due to the complete lack of a tsunami warning system which meant very densely populated coastal areas being taken by surprise.
Early warnings save lives
By comparison, although damage to buildings and general destruction was widespread, the 2009 Samoa earthquake and tsunami saw a considerable lower death toll.
With an earthquake of 8.1 magnitude and waves reaching 45 feet high, that travelled up to a mile inland there were 189 casualties recorded. The loss of life would have been far higher if it wasn’t for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre which gave people time to evacuate and reach higher ground.
There are several ways in which a tsunami can be detected. From recognition of symptoms, an earthquake can be quite hard to miss, to technological warnings from tsunami detection and forecasting. These are based on a combination of data collected by environmental sensors and using that data for tsunami modelling.
For example monitoring seismic activity and the magnitude of an earthquake can give an excellent warning of tsunami potential. However, it cannot be taken in isolation. For larger earthquakes it is easier to underestimate the size of the quake, and therefore miscalculate the tsunami potential.
Rapid sea level monitoring will give the best warning
When managing the data collected, those carrying out the analysis have a hard decision. Declare a tsunami imminent, and risk a costly unnecessary evacuation, or make the decision to issue the warning to the public so that emergency plans can be activated.
They also need to be able to indicate clearly from the modelling how large the waves will be and when they will strike. Importantly they need to know when the danger will be over so that people can return safely to the evacuated areas.
The issue is that tsunami detection and forecasting requires near-real-time observations from both coastal sea level instruments and open-ocean sensors. Fundamental gaps in coverage still exist, especially in open-water. This puts at risk the ability to give warning, and the ability to learn more about the behaviour of tsunamis after the fact which will further refine the accuracy of the modelling in the future. More coverage is needed, and the durability of the equipment a key factor.
New technology paramount for the detection of tsunamis
The installation of new tsunami buoys is without doubt the next step for addressing the coverage issue, and these buoys need to be smart with built in Tsunami Early Detection and Warning System. It needs to be able to detect an event and send that information to be centrally analysed.
Pressure sensors deployed in a water depth up to 7,000 meters can detect height variations on the water surface, and in order to resist the effect of the harsh elements and environments must be of the highest quality. It is now possible to obtain floats manufactured with a closed-cell polyethylene foam sheet that prevents water absorption.
In terms of positioning and communication, all can be managed through GPS, and redundancy in place for communications via satellite, with a reaction time of less than one minute and powered by a double solar power system. These buoys are so durable they can provide much better confidence that there will be no failure of service in remote locations.
They are able to transmit a NOAA Tsunami Warning System compatible message and monitor the sea level column changes to within 1mm. This kind of monitoring will be paramount for buying enough time for evacuation and prevent the loss of life seen previously.
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