Can we have sustainability?

Sydney at four million inhabitants is a moderate sized city by modern standards. It is a similar size to Phoenix, half the size of Chennai, and a suburb compared to the 34 million inhabitants of Tokyo.

But Sydney is plenty big enough to have transport problems. The arterial roads that feed into the harborside CBD are mostly modern freeways, with tunnels and six lane bridges, but they just cannot handle peak flow. Smart commuters travel on the train.

One bonus of train travel is that on the days when you forget your ipod you get to hear people chat. A young couple sat ahead of me on one such day and discussed water.

“No we can’t.”

“Why not” said the husband.

“Those things just spray you with drips that don’t even get your hair wet. I need to get my hair wet.”

“What about the water crisis?”

“What about it?”

“Here, the dams at 39.2%”

It was true; there in the black and white of the morning paper ‘Dam levels at a record low’.

Sydney relies on water storage in a major dam, Warragamba, and the rain sometimes forgets to fall in its catchment in the Blue Mountains some 80km inland from the coast. The significant drought that began in 2006 and broke three years later forced water restrictions on all domestic use. To augment supply and reassure consumers there was drawdown of groundwater together with pumping from catchments further afield. And then, just to be absolutely sure, a desalination plant was commissioned and constructed.

The husband pressed his point.

“If only half the residents of Sydney took a shower this morning that’s two million showers,” he said.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

“No, if they all showered for a minute less than usual they would save ten litres a minute, that’s 20 million litres saved.”

He said 20 million as though it was a large number and it certainly sounds impressive. The water from a minute of 2 million showers is 20 megalitres, enough to fill 30 Olympic sized swimming pools, provide 2 million toilet flushes or irrigate several hectares of winter wheat.

“I don’t care if it saves the planet I need a real shower.”

“It would help,” the young man said with hope in his voice.

It is easy to imagine a similar discussion over all sorts of conservation actions that can be done around the home. Recycling kitchen waste for example. All it requires is a sealable tub on the kitchen bench.

“But it smells and clutters up the place, get rid of it. And I hate those ants.”

Yet even in an average household it is easy to generate 10 litres of apple cores, vegetable peels and melon skins every week. Then if everyone in the street did it, say thirty homes, then we might see many tons of green stuff that the garbage men would not have to truck, saving fuel and space in the landfill for the garbage we cannot recycle.

There is a 60 litre black plastic bin in my garden that receives all the kitchen scraps. Every now and then there is a layer of brown leaves added and a bucket of water from the washing machine rinse cycle. All those apple cores and potato peelings decompose readily so that the bin is never full, even in winter. The magic of entropy facilitated by the military style operation conducted by decomposer organisms keeps the breakdown ahead of the household ability to generate waste. In spring the material under the bin is carbon rich compost ready to start off the vegetable patch.

If every second household in Sydney did this then, over a few years, millions of tons in greenhouse gas emissions would be avoided just by not having to shift the waste into landfill. There would be issues around nitrogen runoff into remnant vegetation patches from gardens now replete with green manure, but it is food for thought.

These sustainability actions are all good but surely we can do better. It would be great to do more than change the light bulbs, install a low-flow shower head, manage the compost to help build up the carbon in the stony garden soil, recycle the gray water, install solar panels, grow vegetables and any number of household behaviours for sustainability. Perhaps we could become self-sufficient.

The reality is that there is little prospect of genuine self-sufficiency for most of us. Even with half a hectare of yard and the compost going great guns, most of the vegetables I grow end up feeding the wildlife. There is greenery but not enough to provide for the family. The household members are also used to vigorous hot showers, power on demand, perfect fruit and veggies, the air conditioner in summer and the fireplace lit when it gets chilly.

No longer do we sit in front of smoky coal grates in high backed chairs with wings to keep the draft off our necks. We are acclimated to an even twenty something degrees wherever and whenever we happen to be. This level of comfort has sensitized us to the point where we really feel deviations from our comfort level, not that a few degrees colder or hotter would have any affect at all on our chance of survival.

We have climbed the hierarchy of needs yet, in our minds, we sit as though we are still at the basal level where deviations from what feels safe have the power to upset us.

Does this mean that westerners are desensitized to the problems we have in the environment? Not totally. The media runs stories of environmental challenges and energy saving bulbs are sold in supermarkets. There are energy use ratings on white goods and grants to install water saving devices or solar heating systems.

In Sydney, the Inconvenient Truth made it onto the most watched movie list for a few weeks despite being shown only in selected cinemas; school kids prepare assignments that help them learn about water, land and wildlife challenges; market surveys put the environment high on the list of issues that decide elections hot on the heels of taxes, education, health and the military. Yet whatever we say people still want their needs met. This is their priority.

What we must accept is that our living environment has changed. For better or worse we are sensitized human beings. Most of us really would struggle to survive in the wild and this puts very different parameters on sustainability. Now we must sustain conditions in narrow comfort bands, supply only certain food types and ensure a high level of creature comforts.

The exchange on the train said it all. Not in the words, but the incredulity in the woman’s voice and the despairing logic of her husband.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

Forest for the trees

There is a consensus among climate scientists that the net greenhouse gas emission reductions we must achieve to keep warming below dangerous levels cannot happen without the agricultural sector. They are right, it can’t.

There are three reasons for this assertion.

The first is that emission reductions from energy efficiency, mitigation and renewable projects will struggle to keep pace with ever-growing emissions from global energy demand. Mitigation projects in energy sectors will slow emission rates but leave legacy emissions in the atmosphere.

The second reason follows from a need to deal with this legacy. Smart agricultural and forestry practices can suck back CO2 and store it in vegetation and soil – so-called biosequestration. In Australia the sequestration potential in agriculture alone is 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (CO2e) per annum, or a quarter of Australian anthropogenic emissions with the bonus that soil with more carbon in it is far better for production that soil with less.

The third reason, and the big one, is land clearing. Globally we are still cutting down forests to grow food at a rate of 35,000 hectares a day, or an area equivalent to the urban footprint of Sydney every five days. On its own, this source accounts for 18 per cent of global emissions.

The problem is how to reduce land clearing.

We have cleared vegetation ever since we invented agriculture some 10,000 years ago and even the Ancient Greeks knew that clearing altered climate. Yet we can’t stop ourselves, because mechanised agriculture has become the engine of prosperity from Persia to Pennsylvania. It is quite something to tell a government minister that his government should forego the economic opportunity and the social security a robust agricultural sector brings. “Why not develop available land,” he will say, “there are mouths to feed.”

It is much easier to sell the idea of keeping the trees to the indigenous land owner, who is pained when forced to fell his trees to fund his children’s education.

And this is the nub of the matter. For what we have cleared are forests – vast stands of carbon locked up in the timber and in the soil that supports the trees (at least 40 per cent of the carbon even in the tallest rainforest is in the soil as plant roots and organic matter). Even where the logs are taken for product, clearing releases the carbon from the tree branches and roots through fire or decomposition and as exposed soil dries out, so the carbon oxidises to the atmosphere.

Enter a hugely contentious solution called REDD, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. The text of the Copenhagen accord describes what it means:

We recognise the crucial role of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals of greenhouse gas emission by forests and agree on the need to provide positive incentives to such actions through the immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus, to enable the mobilisation of financial resources from developed countries.”

In short, the west pays to avoid deforestation and so help reduce that 18 per cent slice of global emissions.

REDD, and its latest manifestation REDD-plus (same idea but with wider scope), are criticised for two reasons.

REDD projects amount to welfare payments to the developing countries where the projects reside. And welfare is disliked by both giver and recipient.

Then there is a vociferous green argument against the market approach to delivery as in this case there will be cowboys and governments who rip off the funds before they reach the resource owners. So despite the accord, REDD has been slow to start.

Lost somewhat in this debate on clearing is another mechanism for reducing degradation of forests, Improved Forest Management (IFM).

This is where emission reduction comes from projects on lands designated for forestry. Mitigation is achieved through combinations of longer harvest rotations, improvements to silviculture, better harvest practices and a specific category of protecting forests that would otherwise have been logged.

Whatever the specifics IFM is more like a commercial transaction, industry to industry, and is more comfortable to buyers. The outcome is better managed forests that continue to sequester carbon while emissions are avoided. In the developing countries where these projects are most likely, the forests also remain to supply traditional use.

It would be unfortunate if arguments over REDD derailed or slowed the “immediate establishment of a mechanism …to enable the mobilisation of financial resources from developed countries,” as stated in Copenhagen, because IFM already exists as a mechanism that can deliver.

It would be cheeky to call IFM green, but it is definitely not REDD.


This piece first appeared in Climate Spectator in 2010.