Footprints Footprints Newsletter

 Newsletter #6 - January 2007 for the Crisis Coalition at 


In this

. Global warming seriously underestimated
. Consequence if we do not
. What you can do politically

Comparison of US and Australian ecological footprints with African. Every American puts 23.6 tons of CO2e into the atmosphere every year, every Australian 26.5 tons and most Africans a lot less than 1 ton each.
       The Australian foot is now the top foot!

This is our sixth FOOTPRINT Newsletter
... the most important so far ... see archive.

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Let's add the sources of greenhouse gas and see how much we get!

"One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be the bearer of seriously bad news . I now have to bring the worst of news . that civilisation is in grave danger."
James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia.

A number of simply gigantic reserves of greenhouse gasses that nature has stored for our benefit are now beginning to flood back into the atmosphere.

In addition to what nature gives back to us, our own greenhouse pollution has almost doubled since 2001. There are a number of major sources, besides our own. We are beginning to have some idea of the total sequested material on the planet, but the speed at which these ancient stores will be released is still completely uncertain.

Scientists have made estimates, and we will list them here. However, in the end, only one thing is absolutely certain - much of this material will be released during this century.

The sums and totals are given at the end of this article, but first we need to "warm you up" a little. We need to discuss Siberia and Alaska, the Amazon, Indonesia and the deep oceans before we get to the totals.

The numbers given in journals can be very confusing. People use many units in describing these things: we shall use billion metric tonnes for mass [Bts] and CO2-e for the carbon dioxide equivalent of all greenhouse gasses combined, including methane, nitrous oxide and half a dozen others with minimal impact. Water vapour in the stratosphere is not included, though the amount has been gradually increasing.

The frozen bogs of Siberia are melting

There are two gigantic stores of carbon held in organic matter in arctic soil, in the permafrost and in largely organic material called Yedoma. Together they have held 950 Bts of carbon and methane for tens of thousands of years. If converted into gas these would equal 3,500 Bts of CO2 equivalent [CO2-e]. Humans at this moment emit 1% of that in a year. [Katey Walter et al, Nature 443, 71-75, 7 September 2006]

Because southern Siberia is heating faster than any other part of the planet - some 4 degrees C last year - the arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems have turned into a source of greenhouse gasses instead of continuing to be a store. This is happening now.

As every increase in greenhouse gas leads to further burping, the summer of 2006 saw an area larger than France and Germany combined beginning to "boil" furiously [Freeman, Nature, 2006, 430, 195].

The year before, Walter found that the amount being released was 3.8 million tons, or five times the previous estimate. As a tonne of methane warms the planet's atmosphere 21 times as much as the same amount of CO2, this is equivalent to 80 million tons of CO2-e emitted in 2005. And this was for a part of Siberia only.

We would expect that last year's boiling would have increased that figure, and the promised "super-summer" this year will extract even more. We should therefore expect that the higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost will melt, the more it will become a vicious heating cycle.

Before the Walter report Lord Stern estimated that quite soon methane emissions could be 10 Bts of CO2-e a year. That is a tremendous amount of global warming when it is believed that even a couple of billion tons of methane a year would be catastrophic. [Strern, The Economics of Climate Change, 2006]

Some 55 million years ago 1,000 Bts of methane were suddenly and mysteriously released from frozen stores on the seabed. This caused global temperatures to soar 10 degrees C, and an immediate mass extinction of species.

"The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end."
James Lovelock

The Amazon rainforest and El Nino

Though last year's El Nino was not as strong as in 1997 and 1998, its combination with the steady increase of temperatures is likely to make 2007 the world's hottest year ever recorded [Britain's Meteorological Office]. Last year the average temperature in Britain was higher than at any time since records began in 1659.

It is significant that even a moderate warming event today is enough to push the global temperatures over the top.

The signs are all around us: Little winter snow in the Alps, continuing droughts in Africa and Australia, glaciers melting faster than at any time in the past 5,000 years, disappearing Arctic sea ice while Greenland slides into the sea.

In the Amazon the higher temperatures are forcing the trees to get bigger, and they are being fertilised by excess atmospheric CO2. The whole forest could be absorbing 2 billion tons of carbon per year, which is added on to the 430 Bts of CO2-e that is already stored there. This is not entirely a good thing.

The greatest danger to the Amazon during the coming northern summer is that a strong El Nino denies rain to the forest. It is already suffering from a two-year drought when rivers dried up and wildfires burned large areas. Experiments showed that the Amazon cannot withstand more than two consecutive years of drought without breaking down, because the trees can no longer put water vapour into the air. It has just experienced its second year, and if that continues this year an unstoppable cycle will have begun.

The crucial factor determining the development of a rain forest is the length of the wet season. In the Amazon it lasts 8 months, and during the rest of the year remains wet enough to prevent fire. But the nearby savannah has a shorter wet season and catches fire every five years or so, destroying most of the vegetation and preventing the savannah recreating itself as a rainforest.

If this year's dry season becomes longer then the forest would start to dry out, collapse and burn. It would not then be able to re-establish itself and would turn into savannah. It has been estimated that burning could release up to 30 Bts of CO2-e in a matter of weeks. [Woods Hole Research Center, Frank Merry et al, Science 21 March 2003, 299, 1843]

The Amazon is already in a vulnerable state. Seventeen percent has already been cleared for soya bean production. Models show that when more than 30 percent is lost, its rain-making system could destabilise and the land will irreversibly turn into savannah.

To this must be added logging and other deforestation everywhere. This contributes about 7.5 Bts per year - a figure that would be readily doubled when the Amazon forest falls over. And these higher emissions would then continue to heat us up every year.

"The saddest thing is that Gaia will lose more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but the planet will lose a precious resource: human civilisation.: We are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet." James Lovelock.

Increasing emissions from South-East Asia

Monsoon rains will diminish as global temperatures continue to rise. Not only was 2006 one of Indonesia's driest on record, a climate model indicates there will be prolonged and severe droughts in the future. [Nerilie Abram et al, Nature 445, 299-302, 18 January 2007]

That would devastate the country's tropical agriculture and spark more haze-producing wildfires each year. Fires in South-east Asia peat lands were some of the worst in the late 90s and 2002. In each year over 1.5 to 2.2 million hectares of peatland burned in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The emissions were between 3 and 9.4 Bts of CO2-e each year.

This shows what a huge impact comes from fires of all sorts.

In addition land clearing causes the oxidation of peatland top soil. This then emits about 65 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. Currently, millions of hectares of peatlands are drained and are decomposing in Indonesia and Malaysia. Together these have produced annual emissions of 2 Bts tonnes CO2-e, most of it from fires [Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics].

This is more than all the emissions from India or Russia, and almost three times the German emissions. If peatland emissions are included in the national audit, Indonesia is the third-largest greenhouse polluter in the world.

"Unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions." James Lovelock.

Carbon held in the oceans

Most studies suggest that oceanic gas hydrates hold about 10,000 Bts. Considering that our atmosphere contains about 700 Bts of carbon, even relatively small emissions from the seas would have a major impact on temperatures. [Nisbet, Nature,  347 23, September 1990].  

This carbon pool is extremely sensitive to small changes in deep-ocean temperature and sea levels. Thus, in the past, gas hydrates may have destabilized, releasing methane into the atmosphere through gas bubbles rising rapidly through the water column or gas hydrates floating to the surface. A fraction of those hydrates are located in shallow water, where the heat from global warming will be felt soonest.

In 2005, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found clear evidence the top half-mile of the ocean has warmed dramatically in the past forty years. A more recent study by the National
Centre for Atmospheric Research found ocean temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic more than one degrees C above normal; this turned out to be the predominant catalyst for the monstrous 2005 hurricane season - Katerina was the most violent ever recorded.

Phytoplankton is the basis of the entire marine food chain. It absorbs CO2. But the warming ocean restricts rising nutrients, and this has reduced plankton activity up to 30%. This means that the amount of CO2 being absorbed decreases. Meantime most fish stocks are declining, mainly from acidification caused by carbon. Therefore the overall ability of marine life to sequester carbon is reduced.  Acid is accumulating 100 times faster than at any time for millions of years.

Arctic ice-melt and the now rapid collapse of the Greenland glaciers are all contributing to the heating of the oceans. The July issue of the Journal of Climate reported trials on eleven computer models of the complex climate-carbon cycle. All agreed that as the world heats, the oceans and the land become net carbon producers.

Guy Kirk of the National Soil Resources Institute found that the soil of Britain is releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than a quarter of a century ago because increasing temperatures are speeding up the rate of organic decay. He estimates that Britain's soil has been releasing 13 million tons of CO2 a year.

If we multiply this by the total world agricultural land area less a factor for being conservative, and jump this process forward a few years, we estimate that quite soon the earth's soils will be releasing 13 Bts a year, or one third of all our human emissions.

"Mankind has declared war on Gaia." James Lovelock.

Possible world emissions by 2010 - in only 4 years

Chinese coal power stations are being erected at one per week. China's emissions will increase from 4.9 Bts in 2000 to 7.5 Bts or more in 2010. China will then be the largest greenhouse emitter in the world.

On present rate of global pollution, plus China, world emissions will increase from 42 Bts in 2000 to well over 48 Bts in 2010 - mainly from energy production. [Strern, The Economics of Climate Change, 2006]

This is well known. But in addition we have to include the triggering points that have the potential to release enormous quantities of emissions into the atmosphere.  These include:

         Siberian permafrost methane burping estimate - 10 Bts a year, or greater.

         Soils returning CO2 rather than being a sink - 13 Bts a year.

         Burning the Amazon could release billions of tons of CO2-e in a matter of weeks. Assuming one third of the Amazon forest dries out and begins to burn - 10 Bts.

         Current logging and burning in Indonesian peatlands - 7.5 Bts at least. One large fire could double that.

         Allowing for higher ocean temperatures, 2010 could see a horrendous level of methane hydrates emissions from the depths. 

Together these could easily double human greenhouse emissions over the next few years.

This means that a 5 degree global temperature rise is possible - with all its awesome consequences.

Since current emissions of 42 Bts per year CO2-e have already increased the average world temperature by 0.78 degrees C and the oceans by 0.45 degrees, a doubling of that rate over just a few years would have the most profound impact. [US national Climate Data Center]

Another way of putting it, for every ten Bts of CO2-e released, the number of particles per million [ppm] in the atmosphere increase by 30. Releasing even a conservative 70 Bts extra over the next 3 years would shoot us up from 425 ppm (includes methane etc) to well over 600 ppm.

Whether this happens in three years or twenty, we are headed for over 600 ppm in the atmosphere and straight into an unstoppable 5 degree average global temperature rise. [IPCC report March 2006] Lovelock's Revenge of Gaia will have arrived in earnest.

And this does not take into account the flywheel effect of CO2 emitted but not yet in a position to affect global heating, an delay that would in time add a further 70 ppm. And on top of that the aerosol haze layer that shields the earth would disappear in a few days adding a further degree or two.

This level of warming would literally burn-up whole agricultural regions into dust, causing famine, anarchy, diseases, and war on a colossal global scale. Over 4.5 billion people could die.

 "We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke."
James Lovelock

This entire nightmare is possible. Not necessarily in four years, but certainly during the next few decades we will be in the midst of an unstoppable warming sprint in which all the dire outcomes described on the site will be ours to share with our children.

This is serious - and urgent. Either we act now on the possibility of this happening, or we are cowards to the society and culture that nurtures us and hypocrites to our children whom we hoped to nurture.

"Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate may remain tolerable." James Lovelock.               

This is what you can do personally.

Kindly send this newsletter to your friends and encourage them to join our mailing list and circulate this information.

What is a Footprint?

Notice that the footprint emissions in the heading have been altered. Many gasses create global warming besides carbon: methane, nitrous oxide, hydrocarbons etc. Taken together this is called the CO2 equivalent, written CO2-e. 
According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change the Australian emissions for 2004 were 529 Mts. This figure amounts to 26.5 tonnes CO2e per person.  
The US figures, on the other hand, amount to a total of 7,067 Mts, which is 23.6 tonnes CO2e per person per year. 
Australians now have the largest footprint on the planet.

Total Australian emissions are one third of Indian, with 2% of their population! The African figure remains unchanged. China will pass both Australia and the US within three years.

Relative CO2 emissions, 1980 and 2004 (from US EIA figures given in billion tonnes). 
             1980 2004 increase
America N     5.44   6,89    27%
America S       .62   1,04    67%
Europe         4.66   4,65      0%
Eurasia         3.03   2,55  -16%
Middle East     .50   1,32  167%
Africa             .53   1.00    85%
Asia+Aus etc 3.56   9.60  170%
World Total  18.33 27.044 48%

* In Europe Denmark, France, and Poland all decreased their emissions by 15% or more, and England by 5%. These figures are significant compared to the increase in production and vehicle use over those 25 years. On the other hand Italy and Holland (both over 33%) and Spain (by 83%) ignored the achievements being made elsewhere.
* In North America, Canada (34% increase, though this may change with the new Liberal government) and the US (24%) are beaten only by Mexico that increased its emissions by 67%.
* In South America, Brazil (by 80%) and Chile (by 160%) were the biggest culprits.
* Eurasia, including Russia decreased 16%, but only from lowered economic activity and civil strife.
* In the Middle East, Iran was the major emitter (increased by 236%) and the Saudis who doubled their emissions.
* African countries generally decreased emissions, the major exceptions being Egypt (up 250%) and South Africa (83%).
* Australia virtually doubled its CO2 output over these 25 years, and serious though we believe this to be, it is less than the tigers and wolves of Asia: Thailand and Malaysia (close to 500%), India, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (around 300%) and China (224%). The latter is now increasing at such a rate that by 2009 its emissions will exceed those of the US, representing an increase of eight or nine times over 1980 figures. 
One could argue that Australia's contribution to global warming is so small at 1.4% that we can continue as we are.  However, Australia has the largest personal footprint of any country, and is the biggest coal exporter in the world, holding 30% of the market. Last financial year the one small port of Newcastle exported a record 80 million tonnes of coal - worth about $21 billion in climate change damage, calculated on the basis of figures in Britain's Stern Report on global warming.

US political climate changes: The House of Representatives has just passed the "Clean Energy Act" to close tax loopholes for big oil companies, and shift more than $14 billion from subsidies to investments in clean energy, such as efficient technologies and renewable power.  
A few days later major US companies joined with peak environmental organisations to form the United States Climate Action Partnership. This partnership is unprecedented. 
Their aims are to become more environmentally responsible, develop new technologies and encourage political as well as market solutions. 
This unique cooperation of business and environmental leaders will support legislative action to cut US global warming pollution this year.

Climate change destroyed older civilisations: Historically wealthy and elegant civilisations have cleared the land to sustain food supply for a growing population and rich lifestyle, and this had an impact on global climate.  
The great heat in northern Europe that culminated in drought around 1200, and the later min-ice age following the Black Death, may all have been caused by clearing bush lands for agriculture and their return to bush when a third of the people died. 
Some 300 years earlier there were similar land changes in China under the Tang Dynasty and Central America. 
These too may have led to a massive shift in rainfall patterns in the 8th and 9th centuries causing a worldwide drought.
This led to the collapse of the most splendid imperial dynasty in China's history and to the extinction of the Maya civilisation in Central America - and possibly to the short-lived imperial reign of Charlemagne.
The Tang was a highpoint of Chinese civilisation, and fell midst famine and civil war when the harvests failed. The consequences then, as they will be now, were war and uncertainty. It was during this time that the martial arts were honed and the Maya sacrificed humans to please the gods of rain.  
This should give all of us considerable cause for thought.

Disinformation at any cost: In the scientific community there's not been any real uncertainty
on the causes of global warming for more than a decade. An unholy alliance of key fossil fuel corporations and conservative politicians have waged a sophisticated and well-funded misinformation campaign to create doubt and controversy in the face of nearly universal scientific consensus. 
In this, they have been aided by a press which loved controversy more than truth, and by the Bush administration, which has systematically tried to distort the science and silence and intimidate government scientists who sought to speak out.
A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists describes how ExxonMobil has adopted the tobacco industry's disinfor-mation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue. The company has funnelled nearly $20 million over seven years to 43 organizations so that they may confuse the public on global warming science. 
The company has spent a modest but effective amount to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years. 
Exxon sows doubt while spending major sums on advertising itself as being environmentally responsible.
Typical was a 2004 press release fom the Exxon-funded network criticising the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It said it had "intentionally exaggerated its estimates of temperature increases by using highly implausible scenarios of future growth in emissions of greenhouse gases".
This so incensed the scientific comunity that the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy, wrote to Exxon asking that it stop funding these groups. It is now reported that Exxon may do just that.

Megafires, like those which have raged through Australia's south-east for two months and which struck Europe, Canada and the western US in 2003, are a new type never seen before. Megafires are created when separate fires link and create one "super-front" stretching for thousands of kilometres. 
The firestorms are so fierce they create their own weather and winds, sucking in air from all directions.  
They burn like hurricanes from hell with a ferocity that explodes trees and makes them impossible to extinguish short of rain or divine inter-vention. They burn until they run out of fuel or hit the coast.  
These fires can't be controlled by any suppression resources that we have available any-where in the world.
Even in the US, which has quite substantial suppression resources - army, helicopters, fleets of planes - they still cannot control them.

The Chinese environmental watchdog has suspended 163 projects worth US$96 billion that posed risks to the environment, including steel and power plants. It blacklisted four major power plants and in four cities stopped all new projects. The People's Bank of China joined the crackdown, saying that companies with bad environmental records would find it harder to get loans.

The target is to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2010.

There has been one pollution accident every other day, and environmental problems led to economic losses of US$64 billion, 3% of GDP.

Past experience shows that big projects still managed to continue despite environmental curbs and some companies installed facilities to pass inspection but shut them afterwards to save costs.

China has promised a Green Olympics, but only Beijing and five provinces met the target of improving the environment last year. Dusty construction, choking traffic and dirty factories pose a grim test for the pledge for cleaner energy, relocating polluting factories and removing smoke-belching vehicles before the Olympics in 2008.

Lohachara Island in the Bay of Bengal is no more. The total disappearance of land that was once home to 10,000 people is unprecedented. The tragedy marks an historic moment. The predictions are coming true.
So remote is the island that the government learned of its submergence, when they noticed it had vanished from satellite pictures.

There are now a dozen islands in the delta that are disap-pearing, so when the refugees fled to Sagar they found that this island had already lost 7,500 acres to the sea.

As the seas continue to rise, they will swallow whole island nations, from the Maldives to the Marshalls, inundate vast areas of countries from Bangladesh to Egypt, and submerge parts of hundreds of coastal cities.

Eight years ago, the first uninhabited islands in the Pacific atoll nation of Kiribati vanished. The people of low-lying islands in Vanuatu have been evacuated as a pre-caution, but the land is still visible.

We may still be able to do both: reduce emissions and maintain our lifestyles - but ONLY if we start NOW.

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