China – from ecological disaster to ‘ecological civilisation’?

A recent article published in Nature by Australian researchers is summarised here  along with two videos from the academic popular journalist on-line publication The Conversation.

Long-term public investment has brought about huge ecological advances since the misguided hubris of Mao’s campaigns to control nature misfired and led to large-scale environmental degradation and much human suffering in rural areas. President Xi has invented the goal of building an ‘Ecological Civilisation’ by working with nature not against it. Not all has gone well, thusfar, but there have been vast benefits in undoing the errors of past badly conceived unintended impacts of ignoring natural processes that maintain equilibrium between societies and the natural world.

World energy statistics 2017

This article provides and update on the sources of energy  used globally to fuel human activity. It shows record highs as demand for evermore energy continues to rise and action to save energy decreases.

Renewable energy grew by the largest amount ever last year, while coal-fired electricity also reached a record high, according to new global data from oil giant BP. However, set against continued rapid rises in energy demand fuelled by oil and gas, renewables were not enough to prevent global CO2 emissions rising significantly for the first time in four years, the figures show. Still, the goals of the Paris Agreement look as far away as ever in the wake of these latest figures, given emissions must, ultimately, reach net-zero by mid-century to avoid dangerous warming.

Last year saw the strongest energy demand growth since 2013, BP says, with the 2.2% rise being well above the 1.7% average of the past decade. Developing countries accounted for four-fifths of the increase, BP says, though the EU also saw above-average demand growth. Meanwhile, global coal demand returned to growth after three years of declines, rising 25Mtoe (1.0%). However, coal use remains 3.5% below a peak reached in 2013. 

The rise in demand for coal, oil and gas means global CO2 emissions grew by 426MtCO2 (1.6%) in 2017, BP’s figures suggest. This follows three years of flat or falling emissions, when coal use was also falling. BP’s data broadly aligns with a 2% growth estimate published last November by the Global Carbon Project.

All told, the share of global energy use met by fossil fuels fell again in 2017 to the lowest level recorded by BP of 85.0%, down from 85.3% in 2016.


In-Depth: BP’s Global Data for 2017 Shows Record Highs for Coal and Renewables


Free public transport

This Jeremy Williams blog, like so many of his upbeat contributions relating to the ‘public good’, reports on a selection of examples where free public transport has brought benefits to travellers and to the environment.

“it’s worth remembering that car drivers don’t pay the full cost of their transport choices either. The costs of congestion, pollution, accidents and climate change are all externalised. Governments often pay for roads and maintenance, parking and policing. Everybody’s getting a subsidy one way or another. Why not price in more of the full cost of driving, and use it to encourage public transport?”…

“Does it work? Evidence is mixed. Talinn found that the people most likely to use the free bus were not car drivers but pedestrians. The number of bus riders rose, the number of walkers fell – but 10% of drivers did switch to the bus, which made enough of a difference for the scheme to be judged a success. In fact, Estonia is planning to follow Talinn’s lead and make a nationwide free transport network. In other places, bus travel soared and there’s no question that it worked. But since there are many models for funding and operating free travel, and many different goals – from reduced rush hour traffic to social inclusion to air pollution – there’s no one way to assess success.”

Antarctic Ice Loss

This article describes a report based on satellite observations that records the acceleration of ice loss caused in particularly by warming oceans that are thinning the offshore ice shelves by up to 5 metres annually.

Antarctica is shedding ice at an accelerating rate. Satellites monitoring the state of the White Continent indicate some 200 billion tonnes a year are now being lost to the ocean as a result of melting. This is pushing up global sea levels by 0.6 mm annually – a three-fold increase since 2012 when the last such assessment was undertaken.

Glaciologists usually talk of three distinct regions because they behave slightly differently from each other. In West Antarctica, which is dominated by those marine-terminating glaciers, the assessed losses have climbed from 53 billion to 159 billion tonnes per year over the full period from 1992 to 2017.

On the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that points up to South America, the losses have risen from seven billion to 33 billion tonnes annually. This is largely, say scientists, because the floating ice platforms sitting in front of some glaciers have collapsed, allowing the ice behind to flow faster.

East Antarctica, the greater part of the continent, is the only region to have shown some growth. Much of this region essentially sits out of the ocean and collects its snows over time and is not subject to the same melting forces seen elsewhere. But the gains are likely quite small, running at about five billion tonnes per year.

A second article by two of the researchers elaborates with a little more detail about how almost 3 trillion tonnes of ice have been lost from Antarctica since satellite monitoring began 25 years ago:

We have found that since 1992 Antarctica has lost 2,720 billion tonnes of ice, raising global sea levels by 7.6 mm. What is most concerning, is that almost half of this ice loss has occurred in the past five years. Antarctica is now causing sea levels to rise at a rate of 0.6 mm a year – faster now than at any time in the past 25 years.

Recorded interview with one of the researchers.

Additional article with scenarios for the Antarctic in 2070.

Further coverage with graphic illustration of West Antarctic Ice Shelf (base below sea level) loss of ice mass – five-year tripling of the rate of loss.

Possible futures

This article includes a video lecture by Jeremy Leggett that sets out contrasting futures for civilisation based on what eventualises with energy supplies. The title of the article is n the form of a warning:

Global Civilisation to Descend into ‘Hell on Earth’ Unless we Choose a New Paradigm

in the same issue of today’s  “Resilience” website, is another article presenting the case for a no growth economy with a view to avoiding the ‘hell on earth’ seen by Leggett as a strong possibility:

Work in a World without Growth

This article ends as follows: As Robert Kennedy memorably declared in a speech at the University of Kansas in 1968, GDP “measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.” 50 years on, citizens have the right to expect their representatives to realise and admit that our growth is increasingly ‘uneconomic’. The environmental goods it creates do not compensate for the environmental ‘bads’ that it causes. It is just no longer worth it and, in advanced economies at least, most GDP growth actually makes us poorer. With this in mind, it is high time for true progressives in Europe to take up the fight for meaningful and ecologically sustainable full employment in a world without growth.

Future AI technology: nightmare or nirvana?

Jeremy Leggett’s “FUTURE TODAY” new website offers a remarkable compilation of visual and short text slides that raise fundamental questions. This synthesis of ideas and predictions about the exploding power of AI (artificial intelligence) is one entry on the website that is extremely comprehensive and pretty frightening. Many links can be made from this compilation. For example, to the ASILOMAR conference that formulated 23 principles for ‘Benefical AI’ in January 2017. Even Henry Kissinger is deeply concerned about AI running our of control as this Atlantic article shows.

ASILOMAR Research Issues

1) Research Goal: The goal of AI research should be to create not undirected intelligence, but beneficial intelligence.

2) Research Funding: Investments in AI should be accompanied by funding for research on ensuring its beneficial use, including thorny questions in computer science, economics, law, ethics, and social studies, such as:

  • How can we make future AI systems highly robust, so that they do what we want without malfunctioning or getting hacked?
  • How can we grow our prosperity through automation while maintaining people’s resources and purpose?
  • How can we update our legal systems to be more fair and efficient, to keep pace with AI, and to manage the risks associated with AI?
  • What set of values should AI be aligned with, and what legal and ethical status should it have?

3) Science-Policy Link: There should be constructive and healthy exchange between AI researchers and policy-makers.

4) Research Culture: A culture of cooperation, trust, and transparency should be fostered among researchers and developers of AI.

5) Race Avoidance: Teams developing AI systems should actively cooperate to avoid corner-cutting on safety standards.

Ethics and Values

6) Safety: AI systems should be safe and secure throughout their operational lifetime, and verifiably so where applicable and feasible.

7) Failure Transparency: If an AI system causes harm, it should be possible to ascertain why.

8) Judicial Transparency: Any involvement by an autonomous system in judicial decision-making should provide a satisfactory explanation auditable by a competent human authority.

9) Responsibility: Designers and builders of advanced AI systems are stakeholders in the moral implications of their use, misuse, and actions, with a responsibility and opportunity to shape those implications.

10) Value Alignment: Highly autonomous AI systems should be designed so that their goals and behaviors can be assured to align with human values throughout their operation.

11) Human Values: AI systems should be designed and operated so as to be compatible with ideals of human dignity, rights, freedoms, and cultural diversity.

12) Personal Privacy: People should have the right to access, manage and control the data they generate, given AI systems’ power to analyze and utilize that data.

13) Liberty and Privacy: The application of AI to personal data must not unreasonably curtail people’s real or perceived liberty.

14) Shared Benefit: AI technologies should benefit and empower as many people as possible.

15) Shared Prosperity: The economic prosperity created by AI should be shared broadly, to benefit all of humanity.

16) Human Control: Humans should choose how and whether to delegate decisions to AI systems, to accomplish human-chosen objectives.

17) Non-subversion: The power conferred by control of highly advanced AI systems should respect and improve, rather than subvert, the social and civic processes on which the health of society depends.

18) AI Arms Race: An arms race in lethal autonomous weapons should be avoided.

Longer-term Issues

19) Capability Caution: There being no consensus, we should avoid strong assumptions regarding upper limits on future AI capabilities.

20) Importance: Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources.

21) Risks: Risks posed by AI systems, especially catastrophic or existential risks, must be subject to planning and mitigation efforts commensurate with their expected impact.

22) Recursive Self-Improvement: AI systems designed to recursively self-improve or self-replicate in a manner that could lead to rapidly increasing quality or quantity must be subject to strict safety and control measures.

23) Common Good: Superintelligence should only be developed in the service of widely shared ethical ideals, and for the benefit of all humanity rather than one state or organization.