Author: Paul Brown

About Paul Brown

Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.

Nuclear power ‘cannot rival renewable energy’

Far from tackling climate change, nuclear power is an expensive distraction whose safety is threatened by wildfires and floods, experts say.

LONDON, 14 January, 2020 – Nuclear power is in terminal decline worldwide and will never make a serious contribution to tackling climate change, a group of energy experts argues.

Meeting recently in London at Chatham House, the UK’s Royal Institution of International Affairs, they agreed that despite continued enthusiasm from the industry, and from some politicians, the number of nuclear power stations under construction worldwide would not be enough to replace those closing down.

The industry was disappearing, they concluded, while the wind and solar sectors were powering ahead.

The group met to discuss the updated World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019, which concluded that money spent on building and running nuclear power stations was diverting cash away from much better ways of tackling climate change.

Money used to improve energy efficiency saved four times as much carbon as that spent on nuclear power; wind saved three times as much, and solar double.

“Nuclear is a waste of time and money in the climate fight”

Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, told the meeting: “The fact is that nuclear power is in slow motion commercial collapse around the world. The idea that a new generation of small modular reactors would be built to replace them is not going to happen; it is just a distraction away from a climate solution.”

On nuclear and climate change, the status report says that new nuclear plants take from five to 17 years longer to build than utility-scale solar or on-shore wind power.

“Stabilising the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster,” the report says.

There was considerable concern at the meeting about the possible danger to nuclear plants caused by climate change. Mycle Schneider, the report’s lead author, said the reason why reactors were built near or on coasts or close to large rivers or estuaries was because they needed large quantities of water to operate. This made them very vulnerable to both sea and coastal flooding, and particularly to future sea level rise.

He was also concerned about the integrity of spent fuel storage ponds that needed a constant electricity supply to prevent the fuel overheating. For example, large wildfires posed a risk to electricity supplies to nuclear plants that were often in isolated locations.

Cost pressure

Loss of coolant because of power cuts could also be a serious risk as climate change worsened over the 60-year planned lifetime of a reactor. However, he did not believe that even the reactors currently under construction would ever be operated for that long for commercial reasons.

“The fact is that the electricity from new reactors is going to be at least three times more expensive than that from renewables and this will alarm consumers. Governments will be under pressure to prevent consumers’ bills being far higher than they need to be.

“I cannot see even the newest reactors lasting more than a decade or so in a competitive market at the prices they will have to charge. Nuclear power will become a stranded asset,” Schneider said.

The report shows that only 31 countries out of 193 UN members have nuclear power plants, and of these nine either have plans to phase out nuclear power, or else no new-build plans or extension policies. Eleven countries with operating plants are currently building new ones, while another eleven have no active construction going on.

Only four countries – Bangladesh, Belarus, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – are building reactors for the first time. In the last 12 months only Russia and China have started producing electricity from new reactors – seven in China and two in Russia.

Unable to compete

One of the “mysteries” the meeting discussed was the fact that some governments, notably the UK, continued to back nuclear power despite all the evidence that it was uneconomic and could not compete with renewables.

Allan Jones, chairman of the International Energy Advisory Council, said one of the myths peddled was that nuclear was needed for “baseload” power because renewables were available only intermittently.

Since a number of countries now produced more than 50% of their power from renewables, and others even 100% (or very close) while not experiencing power cuts, this showed the claim was untrue.

In his opinion, having large inflexible nuclear stations that could not be switched off was a serious handicap in a modern grid system where renewables could at times produce all the energy needed at much lower cost.

Amory Lovins said the UK’s approach appeared to be dominated by “nuclear ideology.” It was driven by settled policy and beliefs, and facts had no connection to reality. “Nuclear is a waste of time and money in the climate fight,” he concluded. – Climate News Network

Far from tackling climate change, nuclear power is an expensive distraction whose safety is threatened by wildfires and floods, experts say.

LONDON, 14 January, 2020 – Nuclear power is in terminal decline worldwide and will never make a serious contribution to tackling climate change, a group of energy experts argues.

Meeting recently in London at Chatham House, the UK’s Royal Institution of International Affairs, they agreed that despite continued enthusiasm from the industry, and from some politicians, the number of nuclear power stations under construction worldwide would not be enough to replace those closing down.

The industry was disappearing, they concluded, while the wind and solar sectors were powering ahead.

The group met to discuss the updated World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019, which concluded that money spent on building and running nuclear power stations was diverting cash away from much better ways of tackling climate change.

Money used to improve energy efficiency saved four times as much carbon as that spent on nuclear power; wind saved three times as much, and solar double.

“Nuclear is a waste of time and money in the climate fight”

Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, told the meeting: “The fact is that nuclear power is in slow motion commercial collapse around the world. The idea that a new generation of small modular reactors would be built to replace them is not going to happen; it is just a distraction away from a climate solution.”

On nuclear and climate change, the status report says that new nuclear plants take from five to 17 years longer to build than utility-scale solar or on-shore wind power.

“Stabilising the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster,” the report says.

There was considerable concern at the meeting about the possible danger to nuclear plants caused by climate change. Mycle Schneider, the report’s lead author, said the reason why reactors were built near or on coasts or close to large rivers or estuaries was because they needed large quantities of water to operate. This made them very vulnerable to both sea and coastal flooding, and particularly to future sea level rise.

He was also concerned about the integrity of spent fuel storage ponds that needed a constant electricity supply to prevent the fuel overheating. For example, large wildfires posed a risk to electricity supplies to nuclear plants that were often in isolated locations.

Cost pressure

Loss of coolant because of power cuts could also be a serious risk as climate change worsened over the 60-year planned lifetime of a reactor. However, he did not believe that even the reactors currently under construction would ever be operated for that long for commercial reasons.

“The fact is that the electricity from new reactors is going to be at least three times more expensive than that from renewables and this will alarm consumers. Governments will be under pressure to prevent consumers’ bills being far higher than they need to be.

“I cannot see even the newest reactors lasting more than a decade or so in a competitive market at the prices they will have to charge. Nuclear power will become a stranded asset,” Schneider said.

The report shows that only 31 countries out of 193 UN members have nuclear power plants, and of these nine either have plans to phase out nuclear power, or else no new-build plans or extension policies. Eleven countries with operating plants are currently building new ones, while another eleven have no active construction going on.

Only four countries – Bangladesh, Belarus, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – are building reactors for the first time. In the last 12 months only Russia and China have started producing electricity from new reactors – seven in China and two in Russia.

Unable to compete

One of the “mysteries” the meeting discussed was the fact that some governments, notably the UK, continued to back nuclear power despite all the evidence that it was uneconomic and could not compete with renewables.

Allan Jones, chairman of the International Energy Advisory Council, said one of the myths peddled was that nuclear was needed for “baseload” power because renewables were available only intermittently.

Since a number of countries now produced more than 50% of their power from renewables, and others even 100% (or very close) while not experiencing power cuts, this showed the claim was untrue.

In his opinion, having large inflexible nuclear stations that could not be switched off was a serious handicap in a modern grid system where renewables could at times produce all the energy needed at much lower cost.

Amory Lovins said the UK’s approach appeared to be dominated by “nuclear ideology.” It was driven by settled policy and beliefs, and facts had no connection to reality. “Nuclear is a waste of time and money in the climate fight,” he concluded. – Climate News Network

Russia moves to exploit Arctic riches

As the polar sea ice vanishes faster, Russia unveils plans to exploit Arctic riches: fossil fuel deposits, minerals and new shipping routes.

LONDON, 7 January, 2020 − The Russian government has published ambitious plans to exploit the Arctic riches off its northern coast, opening up the polar region to exploitation with a fleet of 40 ships, new roads and railways and four enlarged airports.

The plans, posted in Russian on the official government website on 30 December and signed off by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have been translated and reported by the independent Barents Observer newspaper, based in Norway.

The scale of the plans will alarm other Arctic nations, particularly Canada, the United States, Norway and Finland, which all have coastlines on the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

None of these has the powerful nuclear-propelled ships required to compete with Russia’s existing fleet, let alone the new ones it intends to build.

Although the Russian plans will not be completed until 2035, because the scale of shipbuilding alone is enormous, work has already begun and many of the preparations are going forward this year with a regional geological survey being conducted to pinpoint the riches to be exploited.

“In the 21st century, there will be a maritime ‘gold rush’ to the upper latitudes once conditions permit”

The Barents Observer reports that the plan builds on decrees issued by President Putin from May 2018, and a request to boost annual shipments on the Northern Sea Route across the top of Siberia to 80 million tons by 2024.

Although Rosatom, the giant state-controlled nuclear company, is leading the push to exploit the Arctic, and has already led the way with a floating nuclear power station to help provide power, there are a host of other leading Russian companies involved.

The fact that they are mostly involved in fossil fuel extraction and mineral mining will send a shiver down the spine of all those who believe that the Arctic should be left alone – and that exploiting its potential riches will ensure the destruction of much of the planet through climate change.

The Russians, on the other hand, see the Arctic as their own backyard and climate change as a way of gaining both economic and financial advantage, because Siberia will become much warmer.

Tax-free incentive

Enterprises involved include oil and gas companies Novatek, Gazprom Neft, Rosneft and the Independent Oil Company. In addition there are mineral and ore developers like Nornickel, VostokCoal, Baimskaya, KAZ Minerals, Vostok Engineering and Severnaya Zvezda.

The plans involve around 40 new vessels, several of them huge nuclear ice-breakers, designed to keep shipping lanes open in all circumstances. New railway lines, roads and bridges will be built in northern Siberia, with four airports upgraded to bring in supplies and people. Both companies and people will be encouraged by a special tax-free status for the region.

Exactly what is there to be exploited is not yet known. However, the Maritime Executive website has this to say: “What is generally understood is that there are vast resources to be harnessed. It is estimated that 30% of the world’s untapped hydrocarbons can be found in the Arctic, including a full 25% of proven hydrocarbon reserves.

“Much nickel, platinum, palladium, lead, diamonds, and other rare Earth metals are there as well. In the 21st century, there will be a maritime ‘gold rush’ to the upper latitudes once conditions permit.”

By coincidence the US Congressional Research Service put out an updated research paper on the Arctic on 20 December, discussing the tensions in the region.

American anxiety

Even before the latest Russian announcement there was concern in Washington that an Arctic takeover was planned. The document quotes US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo: “We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road.

“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply with its demands.

“Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness. It need not be the case. And we stand ready to ensure that it does not become so.”

As the ice in the region melts, it is clear that the tensions will continue to grow. − Climate News Network

As the polar sea ice vanishes faster, Russia unveils plans to exploit Arctic riches: fossil fuel deposits, minerals and new shipping routes.

LONDON, 7 January, 2020 − The Russian government has published ambitious plans to exploit the Arctic riches off its northern coast, opening up the polar region to exploitation with a fleet of 40 ships, new roads and railways and four enlarged airports.

The plans, posted in Russian on the official government website on 30 December and signed off by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have been translated and reported by the independent Barents Observer newspaper, based in Norway.

The scale of the plans will alarm other Arctic nations, particularly Canada, the United States, Norway and Finland, which all have coastlines on the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

None of these has the powerful nuclear-propelled ships required to compete with Russia’s existing fleet, let alone the new ones it intends to build.

Although the Russian plans will not be completed until 2035, because the scale of shipbuilding alone is enormous, work has already begun and many of the preparations are going forward this year with a regional geological survey being conducted to pinpoint the riches to be exploited.

“In the 21st century, there will be a maritime ‘gold rush’ to the upper latitudes once conditions permit”

The Barents Observer reports that the plan builds on decrees issued by President Putin from May 2018, and a request to boost annual shipments on the Northern Sea Route across the top of Siberia to 80 million tons by 2024.

Although Rosatom, the giant state-controlled nuclear company, is leading the push to exploit the Arctic, and has already led the way with a floating nuclear power station to help provide power, there are a host of other leading Russian companies involved.

The fact that they are mostly involved in fossil fuel extraction and mineral mining will send a shiver down the spine of all those who believe that the Arctic should be left alone – and that exploiting its potential riches will ensure the destruction of much of the planet through climate change.

The Russians, on the other hand, see the Arctic as their own backyard and climate change as a way of gaining both economic and financial advantage, because Siberia will become much warmer.

Tax-free incentive

Enterprises involved include oil and gas companies Novatek, Gazprom Neft, Rosneft and the Independent Oil Company. In addition there are mineral and ore developers like Nornickel, VostokCoal, Baimskaya, KAZ Minerals, Vostok Engineering and Severnaya Zvezda.

The plans involve around 40 new vessels, several of them huge nuclear ice-breakers, designed to keep shipping lanes open in all circumstances. New railway lines, roads and bridges will be built in northern Siberia, with four airports upgraded to bring in supplies and people. Both companies and people will be encouraged by a special tax-free status for the region.

Exactly what is there to be exploited is not yet known. However, the Maritime Executive website has this to say: “What is generally understood is that there are vast resources to be harnessed. It is estimated that 30% of the world’s untapped hydrocarbons can be found in the Arctic, including a full 25% of proven hydrocarbon reserves.

“Much nickel, platinum, palladium, lead, diamonds, and other rare Earth metals are there as well. In the 21st century, there will be a maritime ‘gold rush’ to the upper latitudes once conditions permit.”

By coincidence the US Congressional Research Service put out an updated research paper on the Arctic on 20 December, discussing the tensions in the region.

American anxiety

Even before the latest Russian announcement there was concern in Washington that an Arctic takeover was planned. The document quotes US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo: “We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road.

“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply with its demands.

“Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness. It need not be the case. And we stand ready to ensure that it does not become so.”

As the ice in the region melts, it is clear that the tensions will continue to grow. − Climate News Network

Flagship reactor launch postponed again

As the French state continues to bail out its debt-ridden nuclear industry a new delay to its flagship reactor casts doubt on the future.

LONDON, 31 December, 2019 − The edifice already heading for the status of the largest and most expensive construction project in the world, the Hinkley C nuclear power station in the UK, is dragging its builder, the French giant EDF, into ever-deeper debt: the company’s flagship reactor is facing still more delay.

Although EDF is a vast company, owning 58 reactors in France alone, and is 85% owned by the French state, it owes around €60 billion ($67bn), a debt expected to increase by €3 billion ($3.35bn) a year.

This has led some city analysts, notably S&P Global, to downgrade the company’s prospects to “negative” − which is essentially a recommendation to shareholders to sell.

Apart from the problem that EDF’s fleet of reactors in France is operating well beyond their original design life and are in constant need of safety and maintenance upgrades, the company’s main problem is its flagship, the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), which is getting into ever-greater difficulties.

In Europe there are four EPRs under construction: the two barely begun at Hinkley Point in Somerset in the west of England; one in northern France at Flamanville in Normandy; and the original prototype in Finland, known as Olkiluoto 3 (OL3).

The extraordinary fact is that, although OL3 was due to start up in 2009, it is still incomplete, and its start date has just been put back again – until 2021.

“Some have wondered how on earth EDF can still go forward with a project that looks like financial insanity for its own accounts”

In the midst of the Christmas festivities news was slipped out of another further substantial delay to this reactor, which is being built on Finland’s southwest coast.

Construction began nearly 15 years ago and was due to be completed within four years. But now the reactor is not expected to produce power until March 2021, instead of by the most recent estimate, September 2020.

Bizarrely, the delay is because some of the equipment in the station requires new spare parts to replace earlier versions that have never been used.

Or, as OL3 project director Jouni Silvennoinen said in a TVO statement: “Because of numerous delays we have to do maintenance to equipment and components already installed to ensure fluent start-up and continuous operation. The manufacturing and deliveries of the spare parts take time.”

The second EPR being built, at Flamanville, is in even deeper trouble. Work began in December 2007 on the 1650 megawatt unit, which was originally expected to start commercial operation in 2013, but that has now been put back to 2022.

The latest problem in this catalogue was the discovery of faulty welds inside the reactor’s containment vessel. These require replacement, an incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive operation. Because of these problems EDF has been forced to adjust both the schedule and the estimated cost of construction, to €12.4 billion ($13.85bn), three times the original estimate.

Delays expected

Because it has learned lessons from building these two prototypes, EDF says, it is confident that the giant Hinkley Point twin reactor project will go much more smoothly. The first Hinkley reactor is due for completion in 2025, although cost overruns and potential delays because of unforeseen “ground conditions” have already been announced.

But it is the delay at Flamanville that is having a knock-on effect at Hinkley Point and is partly causing EDF’s debt problems. The company was granted cheap loans to pay for the UK construction by the British Treasury, considerably reducing the cost to the company by saving it the need to borrow money at commercial rates.

However, the loan was conditional on Flamanville being up and running by the end of 2020, a condition clearly not going to be met. As a result the company is financing the build directly from its balance sheet – a big ask, because the estimated cost is more than $25bn (£19bn).

For comparison, the most expensive building in the world to date is the giant Abraj Al Bait hotel, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at $15bn. The latest EDF prediction is that Hinkley Point’s reactors will cost from £21.5bn to £22.5bn ($26.6bn-$27.9bn), and that is expected to rise.

David Toke, reader in energy politics at the University of Aberdeen, UK, in his regular blog on energy, puts it this way: “EDF faces massive financial losses as they continue to fund the building of Hinkley C.

“This is because they are paying for the power station from their balance sheet rather than use much cheaper UK Treasury loans that were originally agreed with the UK Government.

Shares depressed

“In short, paying for the construction costs out of shareholders’ dividends is very costly, something that depresses share prices and in effect loses tremendous amounts of money for the main shareholder, the French Government.

“In order to complete Hinkley C, EDF can only do so by issuing its own bonds, and thus accumulating debt that rests on its balance sheets. Such mounting debt reduces the possibility for issuing dividends to shareholders and thus depresses share prices.

“Some with expert knowledge have wondered how on earth EDF can still go forward with a project that looks like financial insanity for its own accounts.”

Dr Toke argues that the only reason for continuing with the project is French pride.

But so far the French Government, which ultimately foots the bill for the nuclear industry’s investments − and its failures − has continued to back all three projects.

The cost to the French taxpayer is already astronomical, and while none of the four reactors produces any power, their costs continue to escalate. How long this can continue, nobody knows. − Climate News Network

As the French state continues to bail out its debt-ridden nuclear industry a new delay to its flagship reactor casts doubt on the future.

LONDON, 31 December, 2019 − The edifice already heading for the status of the largest and most expensive construction project in the world, the Hinkley C nuclear power station in the UK, is dragging its builder, the French giant EDF, into ever-deeper debt: the company’s flagship reactor is facing still more delay.

Although EDF is a vast company, owning 58 reactors in France alone, and is 85% owned by the French state, it owes around €60 billion ($67bn), a debt expected to increase by €3 billion ($3.35bn) a year.

This has led some city analysts, notably S&P Global, to downgrade the company’s prospects to “negative” − which is essentially a recommendation to shareholders to sell.

Apart from the problem that EDF’s fleet of reactors in France is operating well beyond their original design life and are in constant need of safety and maintenance upgrades, the company’s main problem is its flagship, the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), which is getting into ever-greater difficulties.

In Europe there are four EPRs under construction: the two barely begun at Hinkley Point in Somerset in the west of England; one in northern France at Flamanville in Normandy; and the original prototype in Finland, known as Olkiluoto 3 (OL3).

The extraordinary fact is that, although OL3 was due to start up in 2009, it is still incomplete, and its start date has just been put back again – until 2021.

“Some have wondered how on earth EDF can still go forward with a project that looks like financial insanity for its own accounts”

In the midst of the Christmas festivities news was slipped out of another further substantial delay to this reactor, which is being built on Finland’s southwest coast.

Construction began nearly 15 years ago and was due to be completed within four years. But now the reactor is not expected to produce power until March 2021, instead of by the most recent estimate, September 2020.

Bizarrely, the delay is because some of the equipment in the station requires new spare parts to replace earlier versions that have never been used.

Or, as OL3 project director Jouni Silvennoinen said in a TVO statement: “Because of numerous delays we have to do maintenance to equipment and components already installed to ensure fluent start-up and continuous operation. The manufacturing and deliveries of the spare parts take time.”

The second EPR being built, at Flamanville, is in even deeper trouble. Work began in December 2007 on the 1650 megawatt unit, which was originally expected to start commercial operation in 2013, but that has now been put back to 2022.

The latest problem in this catalogue was the discovery of faulty welds inside the reactor’s containment vessel. These require replacement, an incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive operation. Because of these problems EDF has been forced to adjust both the schedule and the estimated cost of construction, to €12.4 billion ($13.85bn), three times the original estimate.

Delays expected

Because it has learned lessons from building these two prototypes, EDF says, it is confident that the giant Hinkley Point twin reactor project will go much more smoothly. The first Hinkley reactor is due for completion in 2025, although cost overruns and potential delays because of unforeseen “ground conditions” have already been announced.

But it is the delay at Flamanville that is having a knock-on effect at Hinkley Point and is partly causing EDF’s debt problems. The company was granted cheap loans to pay for the UK construction by the British Treasury, considerably reducing the cost to the company by saving it the need to borrow money at commercial rates.

However, the loan was conditional on Flamanville being up and running by the end of 2020, a condition clearly not going to be met. As a result the company is financing the build directly from its balance sheet – a big ask, because the estimated cost is more than $25bn (£19bn).

For comparison, the most expensive building in the world to date is the giant Abraj Al Bait hotel, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at $15bn. The latest EDF prediction is that Hinkley Point’s reactors will cost from £21.5bn to £22.5bn ($26.6bn-$27.9bn), and that is expected to rise.

David Toke, reader in energy politics at the University of Aberdeen, UK, in his regular blog on energy, puts it this way: “EDF faces massive financial losses as they continue to fund the building of Hinkley C.

“This is because they are paying for the power station from their balance sheet rather than use much cheaper UK Treasury loans that were originally agreed with the UK Government.

Shares depressed

“In short, paying for the construction costs out of shareholders’ dividends is very costly, something that depresses share prices and in effect loses tremendous amounts of money for the main shareholder, the French Government.

“In order to complete Hinkley C, EDF can only do so by issuing its own bonds, and thus accumulating debt that rests on its balance sheets. Such mounting debt reduces the possibility for issuing dividends to shareholders and thus depresses share prices.

“Some with expert knowledge have wondered how on earth EDF can still go forward with a project that looks like financial insanity for its own accounts.”

Dr Toke argues that the only reason for continuing with the project is French pride.

But so far the French Government, which ultimately foots the bill for the nuclear industry’s investments − and its failures − has continued to back all three projects.

The cost to the French taxpayer is already astronomical, and while none of the four reactors produces any power, their costs continue to escalate. How long this can continue, nobody knows. − Climate News Network

Heat the Arctic to cool the Earth, scientists say

If we seriously want to tackle the climate crisis, here’s a drastic idea: we could heat the Arctic to cool the planet.

LONDON, 19 December, 2019 − With politicians failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions far and fast enough, the only hope may be to find a different way to cool the planet. One group of researchers has put forward an idea so different that critics may regard it as outlandish: heat the Arctic.

To heat the Arctic so much that the sea ice disappears even in the winter sounds like a weird idea. But the researchers believe it would have the beneficial effect of cooling the planet down.

They argue that with the Arctic ice already expected to disappear during the summer months within the next 30 years, and large increases in temperature and changes in the polar climate already certain, we should turn this radical shift to our advantage.

Their point is that since, at the current rate of progress, politicians seem unlikely to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent drastic temperature rise, humankind must find other ways to cool the Earth if it is to survive.

“Climate change is a major issue and all options should be considered when dealing with it”

Heating the planet in order to cool it is certainly counter-intuitive. But, whether or not the scheme could ever work, it shows the ingenuity and enterprise now being poured into stabilising global temperatures close to their historic level.

It also, of course, shows how horribly late we have left it to rein in the climate crisis, when wise and determined action 30 years ago could have achieved so much.

The idea proposed is, in principle, simple enough: to ensure that the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, known by science as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) continue northwards across the Arctic Circle the whole year round. This would release massive amounts of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere and beyond that into space, so cooling the sea and ultimately the Earth.

“The Arctic Ocean ice cover works as a strong insulator, impeding the heat from the ocean below to warm up the atmosphere above. If this ice layer were however removed, the atmosphere would increase in temperature by around 20°C during the winter.

More heat escapes

“This increase in temperature would in turn increase the heat irradiated into space, thus cooling down the oceans,” explains the lead author of the study which details the proposal, published in the journal SN Applied Sciences. He is Julian Hunt, a postdoctoral research scholar at IIASA, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The problem that needs to be overcome is that very cold and only mildly salty water currently floats on the surface of the Arctic Ocean, freezing in the winter and capturing the warmth of the water in the ocean depths.

The authors say the main factor helping to maintain the Arctic sea ice cover is the fact that the top 100 metres of the ocean is less saline than the Atlantic, preventing the Atlantic from flowing above the cold Arctic waters. Increasing the salinity of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, they say, would let the warmer and less salty North Atlantic current flow over it, warming the atmosphere considerably and releasing the ocean heat trapped under the ice.

They suggest three ways to keep fresh water out of the Arctic. The first would divert the big rivers of North America and Siberia southwards to prevent them draining into the polar ocean. The second would place submerged obstructions in front of the rapidly melting Greenland glaciers, to slow the speed of the ice sheets’ melting, while the third would use a solar- and wind-powered icebreaker to pump cold, near-fresh water deeper into the ocean to mix with the saltier water below, allowing the warmer currents to sweep in from the south.

Unknown consequences

Dr Hunt and his colleagues say there could be terrific benefits. Shipping could navigate the ice-free Arctic Ocean all year round, cutting journey times between Asia, Europe and North America. The need for heating homes in the northern hemisphere during the winter would be drastically reduced, because their plan would raise air temperatures by as much as 20°C.

But the massive interference with natural systems in the Arctic would also have its downside. The rapid year-round rise in temperature would dramatically increase the melting of Greenland and therefore of sea level rise the world over. The effect on the northern hemisphere climate, particularly much increased rainfall with a warmer sea and atmosphere, is impossible to predict.

But Dr Hunt says that while there are clearly huge risks, the world is already heading for uncharted waters, so humans must do something drastic. “Although it is important to mitigate the impacts from climate change with the reduction in CO2 emissions, we should also think of ways to adapt the world to the new climate conditions to avoid uncontrollable, unpredictable and destructive climate change resulting in socio-economic and environmental collapse.

“Climate change is a major issue and all options should be considered when dealing with it.” − Climate News Network

If we seriously want to tackle the climate crisis, here’s a drastic idea: we could heat the Arctic to cool the planet.

LONDON, 19 December, 2019 − With politicians failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions far and fast enough, the only hope may be to find a different way to cool the planet. One group of researchers has put forward an idea so different that critics may regard it as outlandish: heat the Arctic.

To heat the Arctic so much that the sea ice disappears even in the winter sounds like a weird idea. But the researchers believe it would have the beneficial effect of cooling the planet down.

They argue that with the Arctic ice already expected to disappear during the summer months within the next 30 years, and large increases in temperature and changes in the polar climate already certain, we should turn this radical shift to our advantage.

Their point is that since, at the current rate of progress, politicians seem unlikely to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent drastic temperature rise, humankind must find other ways to cool the Earth if it is to survive.

“Climate change is a major issue and all options should be considered when dealing with it”

Heating the planet in order to cool it is certainly counter-intuitive. But, whether or not the scheme could ever work, it shows the ingenuity and enterprise now being poured into stabilising global temperatures close to their historic level.

It also, of course, shows how horribly late we have left it to rein in the climate crisis, when wise and determined action 30 years ago could have achieved so much.

The idea proposed is, in principle, simple enough: to ensure that the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, known by science as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) continue northwards across the Arctic Circle the whole year round. This would release massive amounts of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere and beyond that into space, so cooling the sea and ultimately the Earth.

“The Arctic Ocean ice cover works as a strong insulator, impeding the heat from the ocean below to warm up the atmosphere above. If this ice layer were however removed, the atmosphere would increase in temperature by around 20°C during the winter.

More heat escapes

“This increase in temperature would in turn increase the heat irradiated into space, thus cooling down the oceans,” explains the lead author of the study which details the proposal, published in the journal SN Applied Sciences. He is Julian Hunt, a postdoctoral research scholar at IIASA, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The problem that needs to be overcome is that very cold and only mildly salty water currently floats on the surface of the Arctic Ocean, freezing in the winter and capturing the warmth of the water in the ocean depths.

The authors say the main factor helping to maintain the Arctic sea ice cover is the fact that the top 100 metres of the ocean is less saline than the Atlantic, preventing the Atlantic from flowing above the cold Arctic waters. Increasing the salinity of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, they say, would let the warmer and less salty North Atlantic current flow over it, warming the atmosphere considerably and releasing the ocean heat trapped under the ice.

They suggest three ways to keep fresh water out of the Arctic. The first would divert the big rivers of North America and Siberia southwards to prevent them draining into the polar ocean. The second would place submerged obstructions in front of the rapidly melting Greenland glaciers, to slow the speed of the ice sheets’ melting, while the third would use a solar- and wind-powered icebreaker to pump cold, near-fresh water deeper into the ocean to mix with the saltier water below, allowing the warmer currents to sweep in from the south.

Unknown consequences

Dr Hunt and his colleagues say there could be terrific benefits. Shipping could navigate the ice-free Arctic Ocean all year round, cutting journey times between Asia, Europe and North America. The need for heating homes in the northern hemisphere during the winter would be drastically reduced, because their plan would raise air temperatures by as much as 20°C.

But the massive interference with natural systems in the Arctic would also have its downside. The rapid year-round rise in temperature would dramatically increase the melting of Greenland and therefore of sea level rise the world over. The effect on the northern hemisphere climate, particularly much increased rainfall with a warmer sea and atmosphere, is impossible to predict.

But Dr Hunt says that while there are clearly huge risks, the world is already heading for uncharted waters, so humans must do something drastic. “Although it is important to mitigate the impacts from climate change with the reduction in CO2 emissions, we should also think of ways to adapt the world to the new climate conditions to avoid uncontrollable, unpredictable and destructive climate change resulting in socio-economic and environmental collapse.

“Climate change is a major issue and all options should be considered when dealing with it.” − Climate News Network

Politicians not markets slow new energy dawn

It is politicians, not economists, who stand in the way of wider adoption of cheap renewable energies across the world.

LONDON, 12 December, 2019 − Often blamed for society’s problems, politicians have now been brought to book for the slow take-up of renewable forms of energy.

These are now so cheap that installation worldwide is happening faster than governments have allowed for in their national plans for action, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

This shows, IRENA says, that it is politicians, many of whose election campaigns are still financed and overly influenced by the fossil fuel lobby, that are the barrier to tackling climate change, rather than any lack of available technology.

A report by IRENA, using calculations made by Carbon Action Tracker, says that as a result the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that each government is supposed to produce to show how they will cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement of 2015 are woefully inadequate.

Even if implemented in full, they would still allow the world to warm by 2.6°C, 70% more than the 1.5°C regarded as desirable by the Agreement,  and well above the agreed danger level of 2°C. As it is, governments are not even reaching their declared NDC targets.

“By adopting targets to transform the global energy system, policymakers could finally begin to turn the tide against global warming”

A “profound transformation” is required, the report says. Higher renewable energy deployment amounting to 7.7 TW, or 3.3 times the current global capacity, could be achieved cost-effectively, and would bring considerable social and economic benefits.

“Given the competitiveness of technologies and the multiple benefits they bring the economy (e.g., job creation) renewables are a readily-available and cost-effective option to raise NDC ambitions today.”

“By adopting targets to transform the global energy system, policymakers could finally begin to turn the tide against global warming.”

The national plans that governments have produced to try to stem climate change currently allow for only a 4% annual growth in wind and solar power between 2015 and 2030 – even though annual renewable power growth averaged 5.8% between 2010 and 2014.

With current growth, the targets governments had set for 2030 would be met by 2022. According to the agency’s calculations, the progress made already means there could be 3.3 times as much global capacity installed by 2030.

Political refusal

The report, released during the current UN climate talks in Spain, is designed to show that combatting the climate emergency by using renewables to electrify the power system is well within the grasp of governments − if only politicians were prepared to endorse the idea.

The issue becomes critical next year at the climate summit due to be held in Glasgow, in the UK, when governments are due to ratchet up their commitments to tackle the climate crisis. The report notes that, despite the lack of government support, many financial institutions are already moving towards investment in renewables and climate-resilient investments.

However, this on its own will not achieve the estimated US$110 trillion dollars that need to be invested in the energy sector by 2050. There have to be positive policies from governments to switch from fossil fuels – what the report calls addressing “economic and social misalignments.”

At the moment the report notes it is not reluctance on the part of wider society that is preventing this change, merely the lack of action by politicians. For example, executives who run companies are driving the renewable energy build-up by buying renewables for their businesses.

In 75 countries, with 2,400 businesses, surveyed for the report, more than half said they actively looked for renewable energies to power their activities. These decisions were driven by the environmental and social benefits that renewables brought. − Climate News Network

It is politicians, not economists, who stand in the way of wider adoption of cheap renewable energies across the world.

LONDON, 12 December, 2019 − Often blamed for society’s problems, politicians have now been brought to book for the slow take-up of renewable forms of energy.

These are now so cheap that installation worldwide is happening faster than governments have allowed for in their national plans for action, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

This shows, IRENA says, that it is politicians, many of whose election campaigns are still financed and overly influenced by the fossil fuel lobby, that are the barrier to tackling climate change, rather than any lack of available technology.

A report by IRENA, using calculations made by Carbon Action Tracker, says that as a result the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that each government is supposed to produce to show how they will cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement of 2015 are woefully inadequate.

Even if implemented in full, they would still allow the world to warm by 2.6°C, 70% more than the 1.5°C regarded as desirable by the Agreement,  and well above the agreed danger level of 2°C. As it is, governments are not even reaching their declared NDC targets.

“By adopting targets to transform the global energy system, policymakers could finally begin to turn the tide against global warming”

A “profound transformation” is required, the report says. Higher renewable energy deployment amounting to 7.7 TW, or 3.3 times the current global capacity, could be achieved cost-effectively, and would bring considerable social and economic benefits.

“Given the competitiveness of technologies and the multiple benefits they bring the economy (e.g., job creation) renewables are a readily-available and cost-effective option to raise NDC ambitions today.”

“By adopting targets to transform the global energy system, policymakers could finally begin to turn the tide against global warming.”

The national plans that governments have produced to try to stem climate change currently allow for only a 4% annual growth in wind and solar power between 2015 and 2030 – even though annual renewable power growth averaged 5.8% between 2010 and 2014.

With current growth, the targets governments had set for 2030 would be met by 2022. According to the agency’s calculations, the progress made already means there could be 3.3 times as much global capacity installed by 2030.

Political refusal

The report, released during the current UN climate talks in Spain, is designed to show that combatting the climate emergency by using renewables to electrify the power system is well within the grasp of governments − if only politicians were prepared to endorse the idea.

The issue becomes critical next year at the climate summit due to be held in Glasgow, in the UK, when governments are due to ratchet up their commitments to tackle the climate crisis. The report notes that, despite the lack of government support, many financial institutions are already moving towards investment in renewables and climate-resilient investments.

However, this on its own will not achieve the estimated US$110 trillion dollars that need to be invested in the energy sector by 2050. There have to be positive policies from governments to switch from fossil fuels – what the report calls addressing “economic and social misalignments.”

At the moment the report notes it is not reluctance on the part of wider society that is preventing this change, merely the lack of action by politicians. For example, executives who run companies are driving the renewable energy build-up by buying renewables for their businesses.

In 75 countries, with 2,400 businesses, surveyed for the report, more than half said they actively looked for renewable energies to power their activities. These decisions were driven by the environmental and social benefits that renewables brought. − Climate News Network

Investors fight back against climate wreckers

Investors are using their shareholdings to force polluting companies to change their ways and cut carbon emissions.

LONDON, 9 December, 2019 − Two strands of action are being taken by investors against the planet’s biggest and most polluting companies to try to coerce them into complying with climate targets.

One group, known as the divest/invest movement, and including forty of the world’s largest cities, is acting on ethical grounds, simply selling members’ shares in polluters and investing in green alternatives.

Members of the second group are hanging on to their profitable holdings but attempting to use their financial clout to persuade companies to stop killing the planet.

The first group began in 2012, basing themselves on the principles so successful in achieving divestment in South Africa during the apartheid era, which Nelson Mandela acknowledged put great pressure on the regime. DivestInvest says the number of organisations involved has grown to 1,101, which between them promise to withdraw US$8.8 trillion (£6.7tn) from fossil fuel companies.

It is a diverse group of organisations from 48 countries including banks, insurance companies, trade union and other pension funds, universities, cultural organisations and local authorities, which are unloading their shares in oil companies and other heavy polluters that profit while making little effort to curb their contribution to climate change.

Seeking maximum return

The second group, Climate Action 100+, represents more than 370 investors with over $35tn in assets. Many of these “investors” are managed funds held on behalf of thousands of individual shareholders who expect maximum return on their investments.

The managers of these funds say this duty to their investors means it is difficult to sell off shares in profitable companies, so the sensible option is to get the companies to reform.

They think this is also in the best interests of their funds, because climate change is a long-term threat to companies’ financial health and therefore to their investments. So, the argument runs, persuading polluters to change their ways to protect the planet is in everyone’s interest.

Both groups are claiming success. The trump card for the first group is that they believe fossil fuel companies, particularly coal and oil producers, will have to leave most of their “reserves” in the ground if the planet is not to heat by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the internationally agreed limit.

The group argues that when the big oil companies like Shell, BP and Exxon count these reserves as assets they are deluding themselves and their shareholders, and the true worth of their companies is far less than they claim. DivestInvest calls them stranded assets.

“We are now at a tipping point. A significant number of companies have made bold commitments to achieve net zero emissions”

There is already strong evidence that this argument is having an effect on coal companies, with a string of bankruptcies in the US because sales have slumped as the power stations they supply have been unable to compete.

The movement cites some influential backers. “The fossil fuel industry is set to lose $33tn in revenues by 2040, including $27.9tn in oil and gas alone,” says Mark Lewis, global head of sustainability research at BNP Paribas Asset Management.

Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder director of Ashden, which supports sustainable energy enterprises worldwide, says: “Through DivestInvest, you can avoid the risks facing the fossil fuel sector, limit the wider climate risks, and make attractive returns from the clean economy.”

Among the lessons it draws from the experience so far of the campaigners, the Rapid Transition Alliance stresses two. It says:

“Finance is the lifeblood of the global economy. Withdrawing it from the coal, oil and gas sector pulls the plug on the fossil fuels that drive climate change. That leaves a challenge to ensure that divested funds get reinvested into low carbon transition, such as renewable energy.

Controversy continues

“Investors understand the language of risk and increasingly recognise that putting money into a potentially unusable commodity – fossil fuels which cannot be safely burned due to climate targets – runs the risk of their ‘assets’ being stranded, and therefore the loss of their investment.”

There is still controversy, though, because many in the oil industry predict that demand for their product will continue to rise for a decade or more. Others argue that there is already over-production of oil, keeping the price at less than $60 a barrel, and meaning that even setting aside the arguments about climate, extracting a large proportion of the “assets” in the ground is unlikely ever to be economic.

But although BP and Shell are said to be already “cooperating” with Climate Action 100+, fossil fuels are only part of the story. Steel, mining, and all sorts of manufacturing industries are also heavy polluters. The investors are focusing on 161 of the world’s largest polluting companies in which they are shareholders.

Apart from getting them to curb emissions, obviously a core issue, the investors are demanding that companies stop campaigning to cast doubt on the science of climate change, funding climate deniers and attacking campaigners.

The group says it has secured record support for action on climate at company meetings, with many companies committing to reaching net zero emissions. Carbon emissions are already falling, it says, although acknowledging that progress is nowhere near fast enough.

Improving on Paris

Already 70% of the 161 companies have emission reduction targets, and 9% have targets that are in line with or better than the maximum 2°C rise agreed at the Paris climate talks in 2015.

Stephanie Maier, director of responsible investment at HSBC Global Asset Management and a steering committee member at Climate Action 100+, said: “We are now at a tipping point. A significant number of companies have made bold commitments to achieve net zero emissions, with others increasingly following suit.

“Given the urgency of the situation, the role of investor engagement is critical in ensuring we build on this momentum.”

However Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change and also a steering committee member at Climate Action 100+, was more cautious.

“We have much more to do before business is on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”, she said. “We must now build on the momentum achieved to date if we are to succeed in addressing the climate crisis and safeguarding investments on which the futures of millions of pensioners depend.” − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Investors are using their shareholdings to force polluting companies to change their ways and cut carbon emissions.

LONDON, 9 December, 2019 − Two strands of action are being taken by investors against the planet’s biggest and most polluting companies to try to coerce them into complying with climate targets.

One group, known as the divest/invest movement, and including forty of the world’s largest cities, is acting on ethical grounds, simply selling members’ shares in polluters and investing in green alternatives.

Members of the second group are hanging on to their profitable holdings but attempting to use their financial clout to persuade companies to stop killing the planet.

The first group began in 2012, basing themselves on the principles so successful in achieving divestment in South Africa during the apartheid era, which Nelson Mandela acknowledged put great pressure on the regime. DivestInvest says the number of organisations involved has grown to 1,101, which between them promise to withdraw US$8.8 trillion (£6.7tn) from fossil fuel companies.

It is a diverse group of organisations from 48 countries including banks, insurance companies, trade union and other pension funds, universities, cultural organisations and local authorities, which are unloading their shares in oil companies and other heavy polluters that profit while making little effort to curb their contribution to climate change.

Seeking maximum return

The second group, Climate Action 100+, represents more than 370 investors with over $35tn in assets. Many of these “investors” are managed funds held on behalf of thousands of individual shareholders who expect maximum return on their investments.

The managers of these funds say this duty to their investors means it is difficult to sell off shares in profitable companies, so the sensible option is to get the companies to reform.

They think this is also in the best interests of their funds, because climate change is a long-term threat to companies’ financial health and therefore to their investments. So, the argument runs, persuading polluters to change their ways to protect the planet is in everyone’s interest.

Both groups are claiming success. The trump card for the first group is that they believe fossil fuel companies, particularly coal and oil producers, will have to leave most of their “reserves” in the ground if the planet is not to heat by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the internationally agreed limit.

The group argues that when the big oil companies like Shell, BP and Exxon count these reserves as assets they are deluding themselves and their shareholders, and the true worth of their companies is far less than they claim. DivestInvest calls them stranded assets.

“We are now at a tipping point. A significant number of companies have made bold commitments to achieve net zero emissions”

There is already strong evidence that this argument is having an effect on coal companies, with a string of bankruptcies in the US because sales have slumped as the power stations they supply have been unable to compete.

The movement cites some influential backers. “The fossil fuel industry is set to lose $33tn in revenues by 2040, including $27.9tn in oil and gas alone,” says Mark Lewis, global head of sustainability research at BNP Paribas Asset Management.

Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder director of Ashden, which supports sustainable energy enterprises worldwide, says: “Through DivestInvest, you can avoid the risks facing the fossil fuel sector, limit the wider climate risks, and make attractive returns from the clean economy.”

Among the lessons it draws from the experience so far of the campaigners, the Rapid Transition Alliance stresses two. It says:

“Finance is the lifeblood of the global economy. Withdrawing it from the coal, oil and gas sector pulls the plug on the fossil fuels that drive climate change. That leaves a challenge to ensure that divested funds get reinvested into low carbon transition, such as renewable energy.

Controversy continues

“Investors understand the language of risk and increasingly recognise that putting money into a potentially unusable commodity – fossil fuels which cannot be safely burned due to climate targets – runs the risk of their ‘assets’ being stranded, and therefore the loss of their investment.”

There is still controversy, though, because many in the oil industry predict that demand for their product will continue to rise for a decade or more. Others argue that there is already over-production of oil, keeping the price at less than $60 a barrel, and meaning that even setting aside the arguments about climate, extracting a large proportion of the “assets” in the ground is unlikely ever to be economic.

But although BP and Shell are said to be already “cooperating” with Climate Action 100+, fossil fuels are only part of the story. Steel, mining, and all sorts of manufacturing industries are also heavy polluters. The investors are focusing on 161 of the world’s largest polluting companies in which they are shareholders.

Apart from getting them to curb emissions, obviously a core issue, the investors are demanding that companies stop campaigning to cast doubt on the science of climate change, funding climate deniers and attacking campaigners.

The group says it has secured record support for action on climate at company meetings, with many companies committing to reaching net zero emissions. Carbon emissions are already falling, it says, although acknowledging that progress is nowhere near fast enough.

Improving on Paris

Already 70% of the 161 companies have emission reduction targets, and 9% have targets that are in line with or better than the maximum 2°C rise agreed at the Paris climate talks in 2015.

Stephanie Maier, director of responsible investment at HSBC Global Asset Management and a steering committee member at Climate Action 100+, said: “We are now at a tipping point. A significant number of companies have made bold commitments to achieve net zero emissions, with others increasingly following suit.

“Given the urgency of the situation, the role of investor engagement is critical in ensuring we build on this momentum.”

However Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change and also a steering committee member at Climate Action 100+, was more cautious.

“We have much more to do before business is on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”, she said. “We must now build on the momentum achieved to date if we are to succeed in addressing the climate crisis and safeguarding investments on which the futures of millions of pensioners depend.” − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

New water for old as glaciers vanish

Voids left as glaciers vanish could be used to store spring snowmelt and rainfall to save the valleys below from summer droughts.

LONDON, 4 December, 2019 – Building dams in high mountains to store water as glaciers vanish could produce much-needed hydropower as well as saving people in the valleys below from summer droughts.

Following an earlier study of their own crisis of retreating glaciers in the Alps, Swiss glaciologists have carried out a worldwide study of 185,000 retreating rivers of ice to assess whether the empty valleys they leave behind could usefully be turned into holding dams.

The issue is urgent, because even with an average climate change scenario about three-quarters of the storage potential of these valleys could become ice-free by 2050 – and all of them by the end of the century.

The retreating ice – apart from spelling the end for some magnificent natural monuments – will dramatically affect the water cycle, leaving large river systems with seriously low flows, and some perhaps drying up altogether in the summer. This would have serious consequences for hydro-electricity production, agriculture and even drinking water for cities downstream.

Although water shortage is a potential problem in many high mountain regions, it is already affecting cities like Peru’s capital, Lima, which lies below the Andes. It also has the potential to cause serious problems in India, Pakistan and China, all of them reliant on summer run-off from the Himalayas.

“This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But, in reality, only part of it would be realisable”

The idea of the dams would be to capture the water from winter rainfall and spring snowmelt and retain it for gradual release during the summer – so, at least partly, replicating the current summer glacier melt.

ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research report, in a study published in the journal Nature, that the scheme could be viable in many countries.

The team calculated that theoretically the storage potential of these glacier valleys was 875 cubic kilometres of water, providing enormous hydropower potential.

Daniel Farinotti, professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich, who led the team, said: “This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But in reality, only part of it would be realisable.”

Since it was neither realistic nor desirable to build a dam in each of the thousands of the valleys vacated by glaciers, the researchers carried out a suitability assessment for all sites.

Significant addition

They identified around 40% of the theoretical total as “potentially” suitable, equalling a storage volume of 355 cubic km and a hydropower potential of 533 TWh per year. The latter corresponds to around 13% of current global hydropower production, or nine times Switzerland’s annual electricity demand.

“Even this potentially suitable storage volume would be sufficient to store about half of the annual runoff from the studied glacierised basins,” Professor Farinotti said.

The results show that basins which have lost their glaciers could contribute significantly to energy supply and water storage in a number of countries, particularly in the high mountain countries of Asia.

Among those with the largest potentials are Tajikistan, where the calculated hydropower potential could account for up to 80% of current electricity consumption, Chile (40%) and Pakistan (35%).

In Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Norway, the potential equals 10–25% of their current electricity consumption. For Switzerland, the study shows a potential of 10%. – Climate News Network

Voids left as glaciers vanish could be used to store spring snowmelt and rainfall to save the valleys below from summer droughts.

LONDON, 4 December, 2019 – Building dams in high mountains to store water as glaciers vanish could produce much-needed hydropower as well as saving people in the valleys below from summer droughts.

Following an earlier study of their own crisis of retreating glaciers in the Alps, Swiss glaciologists have carried out a worldwide study of 185,000 retreating rivers of ice to assess whether the empty valleys they leave behind could usefully be turned into holding dams.

The issue is urgent, because even with an average climate change scenario about three-quarters of the storage potential of these valleys could become ice-free by 2050 – and all of them by the end of the century.

The retreating ice – apart from spelling the end for some magnificent natural monuments – will dramatically affect the water cycle, leaving large river systems with seriously low flows, and some perhaps drying up altogether in the summer. This would have serious consequences for hydro-electricity production, agriculture and even drinking water for cities downstream.

Although water shortage is a potential problem in many high mountain regions, it is already affecting cities like Peru’s capital, Lima, which lies below the Andes. It also has the potential to cause serious problems in India, Pakistan and China, all of them reliant on summer run-off from the Himalayas.

“This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But, in reality, only part of it would be realisable”

The idea of the dams would be to capture the water from winter rainfall and spring snowmelt and retain it for gradual release during the summer – so, at least partly, replicating the current summer glacier melt.

ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research report, in a study published in the journal Nature, that the scheme could be viable in many countries.

The team calculated that theoretically the storage potential of these glacier valleys was 875 cubic kilometres of water, providing enormous hydropower potential.

Daniel Farinotti, professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich, who led the team, said: “This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But in reality, only part of it would be realisable.”

Since it was neither realistic nor desirable to build a dam in each of the thousands of the valleys vacated by glaciers, the researchers carried out a suitability assessment for all sites.

Significant addition

They identified around 40% of the theoretical total as “potentially” suitable, equalling a storage volume of 355 cubic km and a hydropower potential of 533 TWh per year. The latter corresponds to around 13% of current global hydropower production, or nine times Switzerland’s annual electricity demand.

“Even this potentially suitable storage volume would be sufficient to store about half of the annual runoff from the studied glacierised basins,” Professor Farinotti said.

The results show that basins which have lost their glaciers could contribute significantly to energy supply and water storage in a number of countries, particularly in the high mountain countries of Asia.

Among those with the largest potentials are Tajikistan, where the calculated hydropower potential could account for up to 80% of current electricity consumption, Chile (40%) and Pakistan (35%).

In Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Norway, the potential equals 10–25% of their current electricity consumption. For Switzerland, the study shows a potential of 10%. – Climate News Network

Our children await a radioactive legacy

We are leaving our children a radioactive legacy, the lethal waste that current governments still cannot make safe.

LONDON, 26 November, 2019 − After 70 years of building and operating nuclear power plants across the world, governments are bequeathing to future generations a radioactive legacy.

They remain unable to deal with the huge quantities of highly radioactive spent fuel they produce, says a group of independent experts − and as more reactors are reaching the end of their lives, the situation is worsening fast.

That is the conclusion of the first World Nuclear Waste Report (WNWR), produced by a group which says there are ever-growing challenges in waste management and no sustainable long-term solutions. They include two British academics: the economist Professor Gordon MacKerron, of the University of Sussex, and the independent radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie.

“Despite many plans and declared political intentions, huge uncertainties remain, and much of the costs and the challenges will fall onto future generations,” the report says.

Persistent risk

The waste, which can remain dangerous for more than 100,000 years, constitutes a continuous health hazard because of the routine release of radioactive gas and liquid waste into the environment. Yet it is likely to be another century before the problem is solved, the WNWR report says.

It notes: “The continued practice of storing spent nuclear fuel for long periods in pools at nuclear power plants (wet storage) constitutes a major risk to the public and to the environment.” There are now an estimated 250,000 tons of spent fuel in storage in 14 countries.

Despite its stark findings, the report makes no comment on the ethics of continuing to build nuclear stations when there is no way to get rid of the wastes they create.

The authors do not even quote the sixth report of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution from 1976, only 20 years after the dawn of the nuclear age, chaired by the physicist Sir Brian Flowers.

Beyond reasonable doubt

That said: “There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future.”

Successive British governments, along with the rest of the world, ignored Flowers. 40 years on, there are massive stockpiles of radioactive waste in every nuclear nation across the planet.

However, because the problem is now so vast, this latest report concentrates on describing the issues faced in the democracies of Europe where there is a lot of official information available. Even here, governments have failed to properly estimate the true cost of dealing with the waste, and most are many decades away from finding any solutions.

Finland is the only country in the world currently building a permanent repository for its high-level waste. Many other countries have tried and failed, either because the geology proved unsuitable or because of objections from those affected.

“There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future”

As a result, spent fuel from reactors and other highly dangerous waste is in interim storage that carries severe safety risks, not least from loss of cooling water or terrorist attack. There are 60,000 tons of spent fuel in store in Europe alone.

The bill for dealing with the waste is huge, but no government has yet calculated accurately what it is, nor has any put aside enough funds to deal with it. By mid-2019 there were 181 closed nuclear reactors globally, but only 19 had been fully decommissioned, with just 10 restored as greenfield sites.

The report does not comment on governments’ competence or honesty, but it does make it clear they are not facing up to reality. For example, the UK has more than 100 tons of stored plutonium, for which it has no use − but it refuses to class plutonium as a waste. The report says it will cost at least £3 billion ($3.8bn) “to manage” whatever decision is reached to deal with it.

Each of the countries in Europe that has nuclear power stations is studied in the report. Spent fuel is the single most dangerous source of highly radioactive waste, and all 16 countries in Europe with highly irradiated fuel have yet to deal with it. France has the highest number of spent fuel rods with 13,990 tons in cooling ponds, Germany 8,485, the UK 7,700.

Information withheld

France has the largest unresolved stockpile of all categories of nuclear waste, plus the legacy of a uranium mining industry. The cost of decommissioning and waste management was put at €43.7 billion ($60.3bn) in 2014, but this is almost certainly an underestimate, the report says.

Looking outside Europe, the US probably has the largest and most complex volumes of nuclear waste in the world, the experts say. Yet it has no plans for dealing with it, and vast quantities of all types of waste are in temporary storage.

The authors admit that, despite their year-long study, the report cannot be comprehensive. This is because information from some countries, for example Russia and China, is not available. But they add that across the world all governments are failing to face up to the size of the task and its costs.

Although some countries had set notional dates for dealing with their wastes as far into the future as 2060, others had no idea at all. The authors promise to produce updated reports in future years. − Climate News Network

We are leaving our children a radioactive legacy, the lethal waste that current governments still cannot make safe.

LONDON, 26 November, 2019 − After 70 years of building and operating nuclear power plants across the world, governments are bequeathing to future generations a radioactive legacy.

They remain unable to deal with the huge quantities of highly radioactive spent fuel they produce, says a group of independent experts − and as more reactors are reaching the end of their lives, the situation is worsening fast.

That is the conclusion of the first World Nuclear Waste Report (WNWR), produced by a group which says there are ever-growing challenges in waste management and no sustainable long-term solutions. They include two British academics: the economist Professor Gordon MacKerron, of the University of Sussex, and the independent radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie.

“Despite many plans and declared political intentions, huge uncertainties remain, and much of the costs and the challenges will fall onto future generations,” the report says.

Persistent risk

The waste, which can remain dangerous for more than 100,000 years, constitutes a continuous health hazard because of the routine release of radioactive gas and liquid waste into the environment. Yet it is likely to be another century before the problem is solved, the WNWR report says.

It notes: “The continued practice of storing spent nuclear fuel for long periods in pools at nuclear power plants (wet storage) constitutes a major risk to the public and to the environment.” There are now an estimated 250,000 tons of spent fuel in storage in 14 countries.

Despite its stark findings, the report makes no comment on the ethics of continuing to build nuclear stations when there is no way to get rid of the wastes they create.

The authors do not even quote the sixth report of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution from 1976, only 20 years after the dawn of the nuclear age, chaired by the physicist Sir Brian Flowers.

Beyond reasonable doubt

That said: “There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future.”

Successive British governments, along with the rest of the world, ignored Flowers. 40 years on, there are massive stockpiles of radioactive waste in every nuclear nation across the planet.

However, because the problem is now so vast, this latest report concentrates on describing the issues faced in the democracies of Europe where there is a lot of official information available. Even here, governments have failed to properly estimate the true cost of dealing with the waste, and most are many decades away from finding any solutions.

Finland is the only country in the world currently building a permanent repository for its high-level waste. Many other countries have tried and failed, either because the geology proved unsuitable or because of objections from those affected.

“There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future”

As a result, spent fuel from reactors and other highly dangerous waste is in interim storage that carries severe safety risks, not least from loss of cooling water or terrorist attack. There are 60,000 tons of spent fuel in store in Europe alone.

The bill for dealing with the waste is huge, but no government has yet calculated accurately what it is, nor has any put aside enough funds to deal with it. By mid-2019 there were 181 closed nuclear reactors globally, but only 19 had been fully decommissioned, with just 10 restored as greenfield sites.

The report does not comment on governments’ competence or honesty, but it does make it clear they are not facing up to reality. For example, the UK has more than 100 tons of stored plutonium, for which it has no use − but it refuses to class plutonium as a waste. The report says it will cost at least £3 billion ($3.8bn) “to manage” whatever decision is reached to deal with it.

Each of the countries in Europe that has nuclear power stations is studied in the report. Spent fuel is the single most dangerous source of highly radioactive waste, and all 16 countries in Europe with highly irradiated fuel have yet to deal with it. France has the highest number of spent fuel rods with 13,990 tons in cooling ponds, Germany 8,485, the UK 7,700.

Information withheld

France has the largest unresolved stockpile of all categories of nuclear waste, plus the legacy of a uranium mining industry. The cost of decommissioning and waste management was put at €43.7 billion ($60.3bn) in 2014, but this is almost certainly an underestimate, the report says.

Looking outside Europe, the US probably has the largest and most complex volumes of nuclear waste in the world, the experts say. Yet it has no plans for dealing with it, and vast quantities of all types of waste are in temporary storage.

The authors admit that, despite their year-long study, the report cannot be comprehensive. This is because information from some countries, for example Russia and China, is not available. But they add that across the world all governments are failing to face up to the size of the task and its costs.

Although some countries had set notional dates for dealing with their wastes as far into the future as 2060, others had no idea at all. The authors promise to produce updated reports in future years. − Climate News Network

Weights show the way to cheap stored power

New ways to generate renewable electricity will offer cheap stored power and a solution to balancing supply and demand.

LONDON, 22 November, 2019 − Finding effective ways to store energy until it’s needed is a major obstacle for the renewable electricity revolution, but two new mechanical systems mean cheap stored power could soon be widely available.

Cheaper than batteries, both have the virtue of being able to produce full power within a second of being switched on. And the energy they generate can also be stored for months without any loss of power.

Although developed by different teams completely independently and with different markets in mind, the two systems have great similarities. They use surplus electricity from renewables (wind or solar power) to winch a weight up a mineshaft or a mountain. When there’s a need to generate more electricity, the weight is released to fall to the bottom again, turning turbines attached to it by cables and so providing instant power to the grid.

One system envisages helping populations on isolated islands or in dry places where conventional hydro-electricity is not available, but where surplus sun and wind power can haul loads of sand or water up thousands of feet of mountainside.

The system, combining a technique known as Mountain Gravity Energy Storage (MGES) with hydropower, has been proposed by IIASA, the Austria-based International Institute for Applied System Analysis, and is described in the journal Energy. It allows the energy to be stored for months.

“Regions with high mountains could become important long-term energy storage hubs”

If a water source is available halfway or further up a mountain the empty containers can be filled nearer the top, making the system even more financially attractive.

Julian Hunt, a researcher at IIASA, said that cranes built on a mountaintop would haul sand or gravel to the summit rather like a ski lift. He said: “One of the benefits of this system is that sand is cheap and, unlike water, it does not evaporate – so you never lose potential energy and it can be re-used innumerable times. This makes it particularly interesting for dry regions.”

Unlike hydro-power systems that were limited to a height differential of 1,200 metres, MGES plants could cope with differences of more than 5,000m.

“Regions with high mountains, for example the Himalayas, Alps, and Rocky Mountains, could therefore become important long-term energy storage hubs. Other interesting locations for MGES are islands such as Hawaii, Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Pacific Islands with steep mountainous terrain,” Dr Hunt said.

50-year life

The mine shaft system, being developed by Gravitricity and based in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, is designed to use weights from 500 to 5,000 tons. The company reckons its system will last at least 50 years without wearing out and will work with 80 to 90% efficiency, offering “some of the best characteristics of lithium batteries” at costs well below them.

It uses the same principle as MGES, but relies on old mines from the coal industry, where it uses surplus power to raise weights from the bottom of the shaft to the top. Many shafts, sometimes thousands of feet deep, remain in heavily industrialised areas of Europe.

Depending on the need, Gravitricity’s installation can be geared to produce between one and 20 megawatts of peak power within seconds, and depending on the output required can run for between 15 minutes and eight hours.

Gravitricity says it has already had a rush of interest from industrial partners and is working on a demonstration project.

There is already a different type of generation and storage system at work in the UK, known as pumped storage, which relies on transferring water from one underground reservoir to another. It is in use at Dinorwig in North Wales, where it is known as Electric Mountain. − Climate News Network

New ways to generate renewable electricity will offer cheap stored power and a solution to balancing supply and demand.

LONDON, 22 November, 2019 − Finding effective ways to store energy until it’s needed is a major obstacle for the renewable electricity revolution, but two new mechanical systems mean cheap stored power could soon be widely available.

Cheaper than batteries, both have the virtue of being able to produce full power within a second of being switched on. And the energy they generate can also be stored for months without any loss of power.

Although developed by different teams completely independently and with different markets in mind, the two systems have great similarities. They use surplus electricity from renewables (wind or solar power) to winch a weight up a mineshaft or a mountain. When there’s a need to generate more electricity, the weight is released to fall to the bottom again, turning turbines attached to it by cables and so providing instant power to the grid.

One system envisages helping populations on isolated islands or in dry places where conventional hydro-electricity is not available, but where surplus sun and wind power can haul loads of sand or water up thousands of feet of mountainside.

The system, combining a technique known as Mountain Gravity Energy Storage (MGES) with hydropower, has been proposed by IIASA, the Austria-based International Institute for Applied System Analysis, and is described in the journal Energy. It allows the energy to be stored for months.

“Regions with high mountains could become important long-term energy storage hubs”

If a water source is available halfway or further up a mountain the empty containers can be filled nearer the top, making the system even more financially attractive.

Julian Hunt, a researcher at IIASA, said that cranes built on a mountaintop would haul sand or gravel to the summit rather like a ski lift. He said: “One of the benefits of this system is that sand is cheap and, unlike water, it does not evaporate – so you never lose potential energy and it can be re-used innumerable times. This makes it particularly interesting for dry regions.”

Unlike hydro-power systems that were limited to a height differential of 1,200 metres, MGES plants could cope with differences of more than 5,000m.

“Regions with high mountains, for example the Himalayas, Alps, and Rocky Mountains, could therefore become important long-term energy storage hubs. Other interesting locations for MGES are islands such as Hawaii, Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Pacific Islands with steep mountainous terrain,” Dr Hunt said.

50-year life

The mine shaft system, being developed by Gravitricity and based in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, is designed to use weights from 500 to 5,000 tons. The company reckons its system will last at least 50 years without wearing out and will work with 80 to 90% efficiency, offering “some of the best characteristics of lithium batteries” at costs well below them.

It uses the same principle as MGES, but relies on old mines from the coal industry, where it uses surplus power to raise weights from the bottom of the shaft to the top. Many shafts, sometimes thousands of feet deep, remain in heavily industrialised areas of Europe.

Depending on the need, Gravitricity’s installation can be geared to produce between one and 20 megawatts of peak power within seconds, and depending on the output required can run for between 15 minutes and eight hours.

Gravitricity says it has already had a rush of interest from industrial partners and is working on a demonstration project.

There is already a different type of generation and storage system at work in the UK, known as pumped storage, which relies on transferring water from one underground reservoir to another. It is in use at Dinorwig in North Wales, where it is known as Electric Mountain. − Climate News Network

Cuba’s urban farming shows way to avoid hunger

Urban farming, Cuban-style, is being hailed as an example of how to feed ourselves when climate change threatens serious food shortages.

LONDON, 11 November, 2019 − When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

That was the remedy Cuba seized with both hands 30 years ago when it was confronted with the dilemma of an end to its vital food imports. And what worked then for Cuba could have lessons today for the wider world, as it faces growing hunger in the face of the climate crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, most of Cuba’s food supplies went with it. To stave off severe malnutrition the people of the capital, Havana, found an imaginative answer: urban gardening. That’s now seen as a possible blueprint for the survival of city populations in a warming world.

The Rapid Transition Alliance has published a longer account of Cuba’s very fast move towards self-sufficiency as part of its series Stories of Change, which describes cases of large-scale, rapid transformation that can seem difficult to achieve but which have often worked before.

The problem of hunger for the Cubans arose because during the Cold War they had stopped producing food of their own and turned over most of their farmland to sugarcane plantations to supply the Soviet Union. In return for these mountains of sugar Moscow provided Cuba with food, chemical fertilisers and fuel oil for its cars and tractors.

US sanctions

The Soviet collapse brought the breakdown of this trade, and food rationing for city dwellers. And Cuba lost its main food supply while it was still coping with strict US sanctions. Reverting to conventional farming would have taken time and was in any case difficult because the Soviet fertilisers, fuel and pesticides had also dried up.

So the highly-educated urban citizens, faced with rationing which reduced the average Cuban’s daily calorie intake from 2,600 in 1986 to 1,000-1,500 in 1993, organised themselves to grow their own food in improvised urban allotments.

At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilisers, their yields were low, but by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements.

Short of chemicals, the gardeners resorted to biological controls like marigolds (where opinions today are mixed)  to deter harmful insects.

By 1995 Havana alone had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives. The government, realising the potential benefits, encouraged the movement.

“Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine”

Soil quality was improved with a mixture of crop residues, household wastes and animal manure to create more compost and soil conditioners. The extra fresh vegetables and fruit this provided quickly improved urban dwellers’ calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition.

In the Cuban climate, with irrigation changes and soils undergoing constant improvement from added organic matter, the allotments could produce vegetables all year round. Lettuce, chard, radish, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers were grown and traded.

There is evidence as well that the extra exercise which these urban gardeners got from tending their allotments, plus the time they spent outdoors in the open air, benefited their health.

Eventually, realising that self-sufficiency was the only way to feed the population, the government banned sugarcane growing altogether. Lacking fertiliser, many former plantations were turned over to organic agriculture. The shortage of oil for tractors meant oxen were used for ploughing.

Partial solution

Cuba’s experience of urban agriculture inspired many environmentalists to believe that this is at least part of the solution to the food shortages threatened by climate change. By 2008 food gardens, despite their small scale, made up 8% of the land in Havana, and 3.4% of all urban land in Cuba, producing 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.

As a result the calorie intake of the average Cuban quickly rose to match that of Europeans, relying on a diet composed mainly of rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables – a low-fat diet making obesity rare.

Because of the climate, though, wheat does not grow well in Cuba, and the island still has to import large quantities of grain for bread. Meat is in short supply and also has to be mainly imported.

Despite this, Cuba’s experience since the Cold War ended in the 1990s shows that large quantities of fresh food can be grown in cities and that urban agriculture is sustainable over decades.

For other countries vulnerable to sudden loss of food supplies, Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine when imports are restricted, expensive or simply unobtainable. − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Urban farming, Cuban-style, is being hailed as an example of how to feed ourselves when climate change threatens serious food shortages.

LONDON, 11 November, 2019 − When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

That was the remedy Cuba seized with both hands 30 years ago when it was confronted with the dilemma of an end to its vital food imports. And what worked then for Cuba could have lessons today for the wider world, as it faces growing hunger in the face of the climate crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, most of Cuba’s food supplies went with it. To stave off severe malnutrition the people of the capital, Havana, found an imaginative answer: urban gardening. That’s now seen as a possible blueprint for the survival of city populations in a warming world.

The Rapid Transition Alliance has published a longer account of Cuba’s very fast move towards self-sufficiency as part of its series Stories of Change, which describes cases of large-scale, rapid transformation that can seem difficult to achieve but which have often worked before.

The problem of hunger for the Cubans arose because during the Cold War they had stopped producing food of their own and turned over most of their farmland to sugarcane plantations to supply the Soviet Union. In return for these mountains of sugar Moscow provided Cuba with food, chemical fertilisers and fuel oil for its cars and tractors.

US sanctions

The Soviet collapse brought the breakdown of this trade, and food rationing for city dwellers. And Cuba lost its main food supply while it was still coping with strict US sanctions. Reverting to conventional farming would have taken time and was in any case difficult because the Soviet fertilisers, fuel and pesticides had also dried up.

So the highly-educated urban citizens, faced with rationing which reduced the average Cuban’s daily calorie intake from 2,600 in 1986 to 1,000-1,500 in 1993, organised themselves to grow their own food in improvised urban allotments.

At first, struggling with little know-how and without fertilisers, their yields were low, but by producing compost and other organic growing mediums, plus introducing drip-fed irrigation, they began to see improvements.

Short of chemicals, the gardeners resorted to biological controls like marigolds (where opinions today are mixed)  to deter harmful insects.

By 1995 Havana alone had 25,000 allotments tended by families and urban cooperatives. The government, realising the potential benefits, encouraged the movement.

“Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine”

Soil quality was improved with a mixture of crop residues, household wastes and animal manure to create more compost and soil conditioners. The extra fresh vegetables and fruit this provided quickly improved urban dwellers’ calorie intake and saved many from malnutrition.

In the Cuban climate, with irrigation changes and soils undergoing constant improvement from added organic matter, the allotments could produce vegetables all year round. Lettuce, chard, radish, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and peppers were grown and traded.

There is evidence as well that the extra exercise which these urban gardeners got from tending their allotments, plus the time they spent outdoors in the open air, benefited their health.

Eventually, realising that self-sufficiency was the only way to feed the population, the government banned sugarcane growing altogether. Lacking fertiliser, many former plantations were turned over to organic agriculture. The shortage of oil for tractors meant oxen were used for ploughing.

Partial solution

Cuba’s experience of urban agriculture inspired many environmentalists to believe that this is at least part of the solution to the food shortages threatened by climate change. By 2008 food gardens, despite their small scale, made up 8% of the land in Havana, and 3.4% of all urban land in Cuba, producing 90% of all the fruit and vegetables consumed.

As a result the calorie intake of the average Cuban quickly rose to match that of Europeans, relying on a diet composed mainly of rice, beans, potatoes and other vegetables – a low-fat diet making obesity rare.

Because of the climate, though, wheat does not grow well in Cuba, and the island still has to import large quantities of grain for bread. Meat is in short supply and also has to be mainly imported.

Despite this, Cuba’s experience since the Cold War ended in the 1990s shows that large quantities of fresh food can be grown in cities and that urban agriculture is sustainable over decades.

For other countries vulnerable to sudden loss of food supplies, Cuba’s experience suggests that urban farming can be one way of staving off potential famine when imports are restricted, expensive or simply unobtainable. − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.