23 December 2009

Shaping Australia’s Resilience: Policy Development for Uncertain Futures

Conference to be held at Australian National University, 18-19 February 2010

From Australia21 conference announcement:

'Resilience is rapidly gaining attention in government, industry and academia all over the world. What does it mean and why is it important? How will it impact on the decisions made in the private, public and community sectors in coming decades?

Briefly stated, resilience is the capacity of complex systems to respond to external shocks and insults without losing their essential functions and identity. This capacity is not a fixed entity, and resilience can be lost or enhanced in various ways, including changes in the composition of the system. The concept is increasingly being applied to man-made and social systems, having grown from new understandings about complex adaptive systems, many of which have come from the natural world.

Resilience is not always a good thing. Sometimes a complex system needs to adapt and transform in response to external shock. Better understanding of complex systems, feedback loops and resilience thinking is urgently needed as the human world confronts the interwoven challenges of overpopulation, climate change, peak oil, and the fragility of man-made economic systems.

Australia 21 has in recent year’s undertaken exploratory work on the application of resilience thinking to Australian society. Several Australia 21 publications have laid the groundwork for this first national conference, which will bring thinkers, researchers and policy makers together to determine how a resilience lens can help to build a brighter future in deeply uncertain times.
For this first meeting we have invited experts and thinkers from many domains of Australian life and from overseas to assist policymakers at all levels of Australian society to develop their ideas on the application of resilience thinking. We expect that one outcome of the meeting will be the development of a set of principles that are widely understood and shared as a policy basis for our future as a nation.

The four parallel workshops on Day 2 of the conference will be an opportunity for policy makers who are relatively new to the resilience concept, to explore with others the application of resilience thinking to their own field of expertise.'

Economic Degrowth Today - International Conference, 25-28 March 2010, Barcelona

Excerpt from Growth in Transition, 11 September 2009

'This is a preliminary call for a second conference on socially sustainable economic degrowth, linking economic, environmental and social perspectives, with emphasis on practical policies & concrete proposals...

The economic crisis of 2008-09 has actually implied unplanned economic degrowth in Europe, United States, Japan, Latin America. A positive side effect has been a small decrease in CO2 emissions, breaking the totally unsustainable trend until 2007. Material flows mobilized by the economy have also decreased in 2008-09. This brings a new perspective. Economic degrowth can be good for the environment but it must be socially sustainable.

The 2nd international conference on economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity follows the first international conference (Paris, April 2008, http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/), that took place with the support of the European Society for Ecological Economics, Club of Rome (Brussels/Europe), Telecom Sud-Paris and SERI (Sustainable Europe Research Institute) and was attended by 150 participants, involving presentations by some 90 scientists.

The first conference was a breakthrough and opened the way to a change of paradigm (see the declaration of the conference). The second international conference on degrowth will focus on the new conditions posed by the economic crisis and work to develop clear policy proposals and strategies for action on degrowth and define the key open questions and research agenda. The conference will foster interaction between participants and put emphasis on the development of cooperative research.

This second conference builds on the success of the first conference and the momentum of a community of scholars and scholar-activists developing research on degrowth. The proceedings of the first conference was downloaded by thousands of people and a special issue is under preparation for the Journal of Cleaner Production. The need for research on degrowth is even higher than two years ago. Managed well, the current slowing down of the economy may be a good opportunity to avert climate and environmental catastrophe and at the same time improve human well-being and social equity, if the right actions are undertaken...'

Greens Should Revel in Christmas, Not Shun It

Reposted in full from The Ecologist 21 December 2009, from deep green economist Molly Scott Cato

'Most of the time I find it is not only easy being Green, but a positive pleasure. Christmas, however, is a different matter. Christmas is a time when it is difficult to be green without seeming rather like a curmudgeonly Ebenezer. Greens tell each other not to send cards, not to buy gifts, not to over-indulge. The annual Christmas stuffing is a waste of energy, while the marketing campaigns distort and commodify our childhood memories, as though comfort and joy could be summoned merely by donning Victorian clothing and a liberal sprinkling of glitter. So can we find a way of celebrating that is not offensive to our new consumption ethic?

For several years now I have seen my Christmas spending as having a double effect, what a conventional economist might like to think of as a 'multiplier effect'. I make sure to buy gifts locally and, if possible, produced from materials grown in the local environment, such as a hand-made wicker hamper filled with wines and cheeses bought in the farmers’ market. This spending gives pleasure to my friends and family and also reinforces the bioregional economy — a new twist on ‘two for the price of one’.

However, this year I can go one better by doing all my Christmas spending in Stroud pounds. We launched our local currency in September and have over 100 members of the scheme and more than 30 traders. From vintage clothes for my kids and CDs for my parents to the festive drinks, turkey and Christmas tree — all are available in a currency which is designed to serve the local economy rather than the global banksters. The value of the multiplier has now reached three since this spending is supporting local producers, giving pleasures to those who receive the gifts, and reinforcing the Stroud Pound Co-operative.

I think it is a mistake for greens to ignore Christmas; rather we should reclaim it from the tawdry offering of the corporations. Our native British traditions created a joyful and hopeful connection with the natural world, at a time when the flame of life can seem at its most dim. Bringing the yule log and mistletoe into the home reinforced our relationship with nature, while the preserved fruits in the Christmas pudding recalled the sweetness of the summer which had passed, but would return.

Christmas was also an opportunity for a bit of seasonal anarchy, under the temporary reign of the Lord of Misrule. This indulgence and escape from work routines lasted for a full twelve days and has survived into the 21st century, suitably downsized, in the form of the annual Christmas party, when drunkenness is used as an excuse to subvert the hierarchy for an evening. The campaign to displace the X-factor single with a re-release of the Rage Against the Machine classic ‘Killing in the Name Of’ is your chance to turn the world of popular music topsy-turvy this festive season.

Kate Soper writes of what she calls ‘alternative hedonism’, which sounds a lot more appealing than the hair-shirt and sandals of the greenie stereotype. It is a phrase that describes the pleasures we can achieve without vast expense and without a trip to the global supermarket. In Stroud the alternative hedonists congregate in the Prince Albert on the Sundays of December to sing traditional English carols. None of your Once in Royal David City for them, but rather the old Cornish favourite Sound Sound Your Instruments of Joy and other such lusty remnants of pagan Britain. Festive cheer accompanied by a roast lunch and a pint — both for sale in Stroud pounds of course.'

21 December 2009

Mini Ice Age Took Hold of Europe in Months

Excerpt from New Scientist, 14 November 2009

'Just months - that's how long it took for Europe to be engulfed by an ice age. The scenario, which comes straight out of Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, was revealed by the most precise record of the climate from palaeohistory ever generated.

Around 12,800 years ago the northern hemisphere was hit by the Younger Dryas mini ice age, or "Big Freeze". It was triggered by the slowdown of the Gulf Stream, led to the decline of the Clovis culture in North America, and lasted around 1300 years.

Until now, it was thought that the mini ice age took a decade or so to take hold, on the evidence provided by Greenland ice cores. Not so, say William Patterson of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and his colleagues.

The group studied a mud core from an ancient lake, Lough Monreagh, in western Ireland. Using a scalpel they sliced off layers 0.5 to 1 millimetre thick, each representing up to three months of time. No other measurements from the period have approached this level of detail.

Carbon isotopes in each slice revealed how productive the lake was and oxygen isotopes gave a picture of temperature and rainfall. They show that at the start of the Big Freeze, temperatures plummeted and lake productivity stopped within months, or a year at most. "It would be like taking Ireland today and moving it up to Svalbard" in the Arctic, says Patterson, who presented the findings at the BOREAS conference in Rovaniemi, Finland, on 31 October...

The mud slices from the end of the Big Freeze show that it took around two centuries for the lake and climate to recover.

Patterson says that sudden climate switches like the Big Freeze are far from unusual in the geological record. The Younger Dryas was brought about when a glacial lake covering most of north-west Canada burst its banks and poured into the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The huge flood diluted the salinity-driven North Atlantic Ocean mega-currents, including the Gulf Stream, and stalled it. Two studies published in 2006 show that the same thing happened again 8200 years ago, when the Northern hemisphere went through another cold spell...

Patterson's team have now set their sights on even more precise records of historical climate. They have built a robot able to shave 0.05 micrometre slivers along the growth lines of fossilised clam shells, giving a resolution of less than a day. "We can get you mid-July temperatures from 400 million years ago," he says.'

Clearing Oasis Trees Felled Ancient Peru Civilisation

Reposted in full from New Scientist, 7 November 2009

'The ancient Peruvian Nazca people, famous for creating giant, elaborate lined images on a desert plateau that are visible from space, may have brought about their own destruction by cutting down trees that protected the land they lived on.

That's the verdict of new research into pollen remains in the Ica river valley in southern Peru, where the civilisation thrived for 500 years until the people started to disappear at the start of the 6th century AD.

The prevailing explanation for the Nazca people's demise is that a huge flood wiped out not only their settlements but also their delicate irrigation systems, leaving a desert where no one has lived since.

The new findings agree that the flood was what finished off the Nazca, but suggest the people would probably have survived it if they hadn't already cleared native huarango trees to make way for maize, cotton and beans.

With roots reaching as deep as 60 metres underground to seek out water, lifespans beyond 1000 years and leaves that trap airborne moisture, huarango trees (Prosopis pallida) were a "keystone" species that turned otherwise arid river banks in Peru into oases flanked by fertile flood plains. They also fertilised the otherwise poor soil by dropping leaves and fixing nitrogen.

Their extensive root systems physically anchored the oases in place, and protected them from periodic floods; their huge branches deflected the wind, which can be fiercer than 100 kilometres per hour. Once this protection was gone, the huge flood in around 500 AD destroyed the agricultural systems with which the Nazca people had replaced the huarango, turning the terrain into desert.

The civilisation is best known for the Nazca lines, a series of hundreds of enormous images including human figures, hummingbirds, fish, llamas, lizards, monkeys and spiders. They were created by scraping away red surface pebbles to reveal white rock beneath, and some are more than 200 metres across.

David Beresford-Jones of the University of Cambridge and Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the French Institute for Andean Studies in Lima, Peru, analysed 1.5-metre-deep profiles of pollen distribution in soil from Nazca oasis sites.

In the oldest, deepest layers, about 70 per cent of the pollen is from huarango trees. Around 1.2 metres down, pollen from crops such as maize and cotton joins that of the huarango, showing the beginnings of agricultural expansion.

And around a depth of 80 centimetres, corresponding to around 200 AD to 400 AD, the crop pollen starts to dominate, and huarango pollen rapidly diminishes, showing that most trees had been felled.

Suddenly, about 50 centimetres down – corresponding to about 500 AD – the only pollen is from plants of the Chenopodiaceae and Amaranthaceae families, which thrive in salty water, marking the flood that doomed the Nazca. Thereafter, the salty soil could no longer support crops.

The researchers also found hundreds of huarango stumps, confirming the trees had been chopped down.

They warn that protecting trees like the huarango that thrive in arid regions might be crucial as a fifth of the world's poorest people live on arid land, much of which has suffered degradation induced by humans. Planting trees, on the other hand, has helped reclaim desert in Niger.

What happened to the Nazca carries lessons for us, says William Laurance, an authority on deforestation at James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. "As they say, those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."'

Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel

...why do we persist in investing our energy into developing finite [and ever more polluting] fuel resources instead of working out how make renewable energy more widespread and robust?

Excerpt from New Scientist, 5 December 2009

'Eighty-five million barrels. That's how much oil we consume every day. It's a staggering amount - enough to fill over 5400 Olympic swimming pools - and demand is expected to keep on rising, despite the impending supply crunch.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2030 it will rise to about 105 million barrels per day with a commensurate increase in production (see graph), although whistle-blowers recently told The Guardian newspaper in London that insiders at the IEA believe the agency vastly over-estimates our chances of plugging that gap. The agency officially denies this.

Wherever the truth lies, it is widely expected that by 2030 we will have passed the peak of conventional oil production - the moment that output from conventional oil reserves goes into terminal decline. A report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) published in August said there was a "significant risk" it would happen before 2020. And that means we will soon be staring down the barrel of the ultimate oil crisis.

Some governments and corporations are waking up to the idea and beginning to develop alternatives to keep the world's transport systems moving when cheap oil runs out. These include biofuels, more energy-efficient - or electric - cars, and hydrogen. But
none of these is likely to make up the global shortfall in time. The pressure is on to keep the black stuff flowing and so the next two decades will see an unprecedented effort to exploit increasingly exotic and unconventional sources of oil. They include tar sands (a mixture of sand or clay and a viscous, black, sticky petroleum deposit called bitumen), oil shale (a sedimentary rock containing kerogen, a precursor to petroleum) and synthetic liquid fuels made from coal or gas.

Purely in terms of geological abundance, these sources look more than sufficient to meet global demand. According to the IEA, taken together, they raise the remaining global oil resource to about 9 trillion barrels (see map) - almost nine times the amount of oil humanity has consumed to date. The trouble is that the name "non-conventional oil" hides several dirty little secrets and a whole host of huge challenges.

Conventional oil refers to liquid hydrocarbons trapped in deep, highly pressurised reservoirs, which means that when the wells are drilled, the oil usually gushes to the surface of its own accord. Non-conventional oils are not so forthcoming, and need large amounts of energy, water and money to coax them from the ground and turn them into anything useful, like diesel or jet fuel.

As a result, non-conventional oil production to date has been slow to expand - with current output of just 1.5 million barrels per day. Not only that, because they take so much energy to produce, they are responsible for higher carbon emissions per barrel than conventional oil.

But, slowly, things are beginning to change. Growing awareness of the impending oil shortage and its ramifications - Deutsche Bank predicts a barrel price of $175 by 2016, for example - has driven a surge of investment in new technologies to recover non-conventional oil more effectively. "Canada could eclipse Saudi Arabia," says Julie Chan, vice-president of finance at E-T Energy, a Canadian company developing a new technique to extract oil from tar sands. So are non-conventionals poised to swoop in and confound the peak-oil doomsayers? Can we expect a new era of expensive, technologically demanding and environmentally damaging oil?

The most famous of the non-conventional resources are the Canadian tar sands, where proven reserves are second only in size to Saudi Arabia's conventional crude. Today, production stands at 1.2 million barrels per day. Tar sands containing bitumen are extracted from huge opencast mines and processed to produce oil. But mining and processing the raw bitumen is expensive and requires huge volumes of water (see diagram). In Canada, the industry is already reaching the legal limits of what can be drawn from the Athabasca river in winter. Worse, mining is only possible for deposits less than about 75 metres deep, and that's just 20 per cent of the total resource. So a whole range of new technologies is now being explored to extract the deeper bitumen...'

Are We Heading for a Uranium Crunch?

Excerpt from New Scientist, 28 November 2009

'As the world prepares for the largest investment in nuclear power in decades, owners of uranium mines last week raised the prospect of fuel shortages. To make things worse, the reliability of estimates of the amount of uranium that can be economically mined has also been questioned.

Volatile oil and gas prices, along with the threat of global warming, have pushed governments to reconsider nuclear energy, partly because it is a low-carbon technology and partly because uranium supplies seem plentiful.

Mined uranium caters for about 60 per cent of the global demand for nuclear fuel. The rest comes from secondary sources, including stockpiles left over from the 1970s and 1980s, reprocessed fuel and the conversion of old Russian nuclear warheads...

But the supply may not be as secure as first thought. The price of uranium has plummeted from a peak of around $130 per pound of uranium oxide ($286 per kilogram) in 2007 to $45 today (see graph). Some of this decline is due to slumping fossil fuel prices and some from the uncertainty surrounding the industry.

For example, investors do not know how many of the world's older reactors will be decommissioned and when. They are also unsure about the supply of secondary uranium...

This uncertainty is stifling investment in new mines, which could lead to future shortages, says Jean Nortier, chief executive of Uranium One, a mining and exploration company based in Vancouver, Canada. "Current prices are much too low to provide the incentive needed to meet the medium and long-term demand for uranium," he says.

Added to this are concerns that uranium resources may have been overestimated. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) publish biennial estimates of global uranium resources in the so-called Red Book...

The 2007 Red Book estimates that there are 5.5 million tonnes of uranium that can be mined for less than $130 per kilo, up from 4.7 million tonnes in 2005. The uranium resources that make up these estimates are split into two categories: reasonably assured and inferred. In the normal process of geological discovery, Dittmar says, increases should be to both categories. But "almost all the increase comes from this second category", he says.

Other changes also seem odd, Dittmar says. In Niger, for example, resource estimates since 2003 have fluctuated in a way that is hard to explain geologically. The changes may be politically motivated, he says, perhaps to influence investment in the country.

Robert Vance, a nuclear energy analyst at the NEA, says he cannot rule out this kind of activity, but adds that there are strict rules governing resource estimation. "We work very hard to ensure that the data is reliable," he says.

The Red Book shows that there are more than enough resources to meet future demand, Vance says, adding that the industry is aware of the dwindling secondary resources and is prepared to ramp up the supply from mines. For example, Kazakhstan is increasing uranium production at a rate of 30 per cent per year, making it one of the world's largest producers.

However, mining companies in developed nations will be unable to increase production at a similar rate because of strict environmental laws. "Western countries planning to expand their nuclear capacity without their own source of uranium ought to be looking at the figures very carefully," says Dittmar.'

African Conflicts Spurred by Warming

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 28 November 2009

'Africa is poised to experience a surge in civil wars, causing nearly 400,000 additional battle deaths by 2030 – all as a direct result of rising temperatures. This bold prediction is one of the most alarming results yet toemerge from attempts to discover how climate change will affect patterns of human conflict. It is already proving controversial.

Previous attempts to model the effects of climate on patterns of conflict in Africa have mostly concentrated on rainfall. But now researchers led by Marshall Burke at the University of California, Berkeley, and David Lobell of Stanford University have studied both rainfall and temperature. They found that warming was much more
strongly associated with civil strife than precipitation.

Burke and Lobell analysed data on the incidence of African civil wars alongside local temperature and rainfall measurements from 1981 to 2002. They found a strong relationship between spikes in temperature and the likelihood of civil war. Because climate models give fairly consistent predictions for warming across Africa, the researchers were able to forecast a 54 per cent rise in the incidence of civil conflict by 2030, resulting in an extra 393,000 combat deaths. The prediction assumes that global carbon dioxide emissions are not curbed in the short term and that future wars are as deadly as recent ones.

Other researchers agree that temperature changes may affect conflict, but some are sceptical that the effect will be as large as Burke and Lobell claim. "I'm just not convinced," says Peter Brecke of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who has previously found a global link between increased conflict and the Little Ice Age, which lasted from around 1400 to the late 1800s.

One issue is that the two-decade period studied by Burke and Lobell may have been unusually conflict-prone, amplifying the apparent effect of temperature. Cullen Hendrix, a political scientist at the University of North Texas in Denton, points out that some countries were destabilised when the superpowers withdrew aid to African dictators as the Cold War ended. "This is probably going to wind up being the first salvo in a pretty significant debate," he says...

If the link bears further scrutiny, policy-makers will need to know how warming triggers conflict. Burke and Lobell say the most likely explanation is that warmer temperatures reduce crop yields or other aspects of economic productivity, increasing social tension. But some studies have suggested that it's inherent in people to become more violent when the mercury rises.

Rich nations can provide economic aid or share plant-breeding technologies that allow crops to withstand extremes of climate, says Hendrix, "but we can't change human nature".'