Rising Sea Levels Call For Sea Change In Use Of Fossil Fuels
Forecasts of climatic disasters with human consequences of biblical proportions
Sustainability consultant Alan Best warns of dire consequences unless our dependence on fossil fuels is greatly reduced:
THE Scripps Institution of Oceanography has said that the world will reach a scientific milestone when levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere reach 400 parts per million (ppm).
Many scientists believe the consequences of CO2 remaining at this level are frightening. Should flooring manufacturers now redouble efforts to reduce carbon footprints and embark on new initiatives?
Scientific debate about the cause and effects of increased atmospheric CO2 levels is often heated and there are strong differences of opinion. This is partly because the scientific data is often too complex to be comprehended by anyone other than specialists in the advanced study of climate.
The data is clearly open to interpretation and to some fairly visceral political prejudice. Views range from total belief in the culpability of humans for global warming to a complete denial that there is even an issue. It may then be helpful to review some to the facts so that we can at attempt to form a balanced view.
The Keeling Curve in the illustration below shows levels of atmospheric CO2 which have been measured over 50 years at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. The relentlessly upward trend towards 400 ppm is clear.
Changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are caused by a number of factors. Each year the concentration of CO2 rises and drops with changes in the seasons. Most of Earth’s vegetation is found above the equator and during the summer atmospheric CO2 concentrations drop as plants ‘inhale’ the CO2 and photosynthesises the sun’s energy to create glucose for growth and ‘exhale’ the oxygen we need to support life.
In the autumn as the vegetation dies and decomposes some of the sequestered CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. While the majority of plant life is dormant during the winter, processes such as animal and plant decay and volcanic activity then build up atmospheric CO2 levels until springtime when the cycle restarts.
As with most natural cycles the balance in the equation is wondrous but is also precarious and may be thrown into imbalance by external forces some of which are human in origin.
The result of an excess of CO2 and other gases such as methane in the atmosphere is to trap heat which gives rise to the greenhouse effect and to a gradual increase in the planet’s surface temperature. One measurable impact of higher temperatures include increases in sea level caused by expansion of the water as the extra heat is transferred from the atmosphere and also the melting of polar ice which is running into hundreds of billions of tonnes a year.
Some scientists such as those at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, say sea levels are currently rising at a rate of around 3.2mm a year with some predictions that this could rise to over 22.5mm a year during the next century. This is higher than predicted by sophisticated mathematical models used to calculate the complex and constant natural changes in the earth’s crust, mantle and core. Scientists have extrapolated the data to predict an increase in climactic disasters such as floods, super storms and crop failures with human consequences of biblical proportions.
The recent unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is cited as a harbinger of things to come. However this view is not universally accepted.
It does seem to be accepted that the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil to produce energy now results in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels which have tipped the natural balance of annual CO2 flux leading to the observed build up to 400 ppm.
Humans are said to produce 3-6% of all carbon dioxide emissions and this is more than 130 times greater than the amount released by volcanic eruptions.
Major deforestation of areas such as the Amazon is not helpful although it does bring important economic benefits to local communities. Projects to develop new forestation around the world are popular and include one in the oil rich desert of Abu Dhabi!
It seems reasonable to conclude that any excess CO2 in the atmosphere which is created by human activity, and which is likely to cause global catastrophe requires action. If then, as has been said, 400 ppm CO2 represents a dangerous level, what then is a safe level?
One high profile US group appropriately named ‘350.org’ has concluded that we will only be safe if we are able to maintain levels at 350 ppm and has been urging universities to divest themselves of their multimillion investments in fossil fuel companies as a means to put climate change firmly back on the agenda of the US Congress. However there are scholarly organisations such as the Cato Institute who say the figure of 400 ppm CO2 is to be celebrated rather than a cause of consternation.
They accept that the burning of fossil fuels has been responsible for the build up in CO2 levels.
However, they believethat the increase in CO2 levels and higher surface temperatures have increased global foliage and the efficiency of the photosynthesis process. They argue that the fossil fuel age has seen unprecedented improvements in prosperity and health with a doubling of the average life span around the world. They accept that reserves of traditional sources of power are being depleted at an unsustainable rate. However they point to increased availability of recoverable fossil fuel sources such as natural gas from new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) which may be able to meet centuries of energy demand. (This is of particular relevance to me as I am literally sitting above the biggest shale gas reserve in the UK and have just witnessed the first sizeable protest against the activity.)
They believe that the potential negative effects of the rise in surface temperatures have been overstated and are alarmist. It is their belief that the principles of free trade should prevail over government interference which they say will put at risk the world’s best hope of ending poverty.
Our dependence on fossil fuels is therefore unsustainable unless significant new recoverable fossil fuel sources such as shale gas are tapped into. This is happening in the US and Canada so global CO2 is set to carry on rising. By contrast our 2008 Climate Change Act has set the world’s first legally binding climate change target.
The aim is to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. This is an enormous challenge Nuclear energy currently supplies around 6% of our needs and is being expanded with the construction of up to eight new sites.
While nuclear reactors do not produce CO2 the mining and preparation of uranium and building of the power stations and nuclear waste storage facilities are energy intensive operations which are currently powered by fossil fuels and this must be factored in to the calculations.
In addition, nuclear accidents such as the recent Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan remind us of the risks. Government targets for renewable energy sources are ambitious, expensive and controversial. Renewables currently supply about 2% and are planned to supply up to 50% and more. Wind farms are key to this but UKIP, who campaign to oppose them, now command a significant popular voter base in the country.
Solar power remains costly to install and currently needs lots of uninterrupted sunshine to be effective. UK industry has been built on relatively cheap energy and it remains to be seen if the costs of the newer cleaner energy are sustainable and if our industry can continue to compete globally.
n Alan Best, a sustainability consultant, is chair of the Flooring Sustainability Partnership, which he attends on behalf of Shaw Industries Group. He works with a number of construction related industries specialising in environmental certification, substitution of hazardous chemicals and waste reduction. Alan is co-author of the Croner ‘Essential Guide to REACH’. He also sits on a number of international bodies where he represents Shaw Industries Group. www.alanbestsustainability.com
This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at www.contractflooringjournal.co.uk.