URSABLOG: Chemical Imbalance

We have been here before, albeit well before human life was even a twinkle in the eye of Mother Nature. Between 251.941 ± 0.037 and 251.880 ± 0.031 million years ago – at the end of the Permian geologic period – 57% of biological families, 83% of genera, 81% of marine species, 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species and almost all insects became extinct. This period, known as the Permian – Triassic mass extinction (PTME) event, was so thorough in its deadliness that it took from three to ten million years for things to start moving again.


The PTME was not the meteorite of popular imagination that wiped out the dinosaurs – that happened much later, around 65 million years ago – but was far more damaging, and it was purely home grown. The main cause of the PTME was the large amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which elevated global atmospheric temperatures as well as warming the oceans causing anoxia – water being depleted of the dissolved oxygen necessary for marine life – and acidification.


The main cause of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was caused by geological activity: massive eruptions from large numbers of volcanoes, which also caused even more carbon dioxide to be released by heating up hydrocarbon deposits, and pumping minerals into the air that swiftly evolving microorganisms ate up, emitting methane in large amounts at the same time.


Geologically speaking this happened very rapidly, in the space of a few thousand years. The boundary between abundant life on earth and near full lockdown was abrupt. The next process – for new life to begin evolving and finally produce such wonderful species as the late lamented dinosaurs as well as us human beings – took some time to get going again. It took six million years for trees to fully recover after PTME. It took ten million for coral to return to the seas.


PTME is not that well known, perhaps because it does not involve telegenic dinosaurs or meteorites, but it was far more deadly for all life on earth, and not just life on land. It was caused by an excess of carbon in the atmosphere that led to a poisoning the sea triggered by massive seismic activity. And we know it happened: it is there, written in the boundary line of strata of rocks laid down almost 252 million years ago.


Of course, seismic activity is impersonal and massive, as the people of Turkey and Syria have tragically experienced this week. There is no one to blame for the causes of an earthquake which is why there is such an outpouring of humanity in response to such events. Deadly as the quake was however, these seismic events are very frequent in this part of the world – in terms of human as well as geological time – but they do not the cause any change to the chemical balance of our atmosphere or our oceans in the same way that we – mini volcanoes that we are – and doing right now.


The publication of the financial results of various oil majors this week have once again illustrated this as companies like Shell have justified their increased investment in oil production – alongside greater investment in more sustainable energy – because of the need for energy security, and of course the huge profits that can be reaped by it for their shareholders. War, and the economic side-effects of taking sides, have made certain sources of energy – coal for example – if not fashionable then at least more socially acceptable as LNG has stopped being pumped in such great quantities from Russia into Europe.


Even without the shifting of trade routes away from Russia (or the forming of fresh ones) oil demand itself is expected to boom this year. Opec expects Chinese oil demand to grow by 510,00 barrels per day (that’s two and a half VLCCs per day for those wanting to know why tanker prices have shot up), and globally will rise 2.2 mill barrels per day. Good news for big crude oil carriers. And now the banning of Russian diesel into EU countries means that tonne mile demand will grow further.


But Russian refiners in the Baltic cannot sell that easily to China, India and elsewhere as they are far away, and product carriers are smaller, and refining capacity in those areas can be switched to produce diesel quicker from crude oil than MR tankers can ship similar amounts. This may lead to Russian refiners having to reduce production. Air travel, with the opening up of China in particular, is also set to boom too, with an increase in the consumption of jet fuel. Good news for oil producers, refiners, tanker owners.


But yet again it is the shipowners – especially the demonised tanker owners – who get a bad press because of the cargo they carry and the fuel that they burn to carry it. I cannot be alone in being frustrated with the hypocrisy of many NGOs and other commentators that continue to label the shipping markets – and in particular shipowners – for endangering the planet and making profits, when not only did the shipping markets keep the world going during COVID but in the face of new geopolitical challenges are making sure that energy can still be provided and delivered to those places that want it and can afford it.


I also hope I do not have to mention that there are currently no viable alternatives for carbon-free propulsion for large ships – even including ammonia – despite breathless articles heralding the return of wind power for ships like this example, from the beginning of an article in the Financial Times called Shipping lines return to proven power of wind:

In 2018, Maersk…installed two 30-metre-high rotor sails on a tanker ship: the Maersk Pelican. These spinning sails, designed to propel the vessel by changing the speed of air flow around it, were hailed as an opportunity to reduce the Pelican’s reliance on fuel and create a “new playing field”.


But then further on in the same article:


…even Maersk has acknowledged that progress must be quicker. In 2021, it sold the Pelican after an analysis found its rotor sails led to only an 8 per cent drop in fuel consumption in a year. “[An 8 per cent reduction in fuel consumption] doesn’t get you [to a 50 per cent overall reduction in emissions],” points out Tristan Smith, a shipping researcher at UCL. “If you consider that the wind doesn’t [always blow] in the right direction, that’s where the [benefit of wind propulsion] reduces.”


Understatement of the week.


And yet I am torn between the cynical rationalism of an impersonal yet profitable market – and a well-functioning one at that – causing damage to the environment because of the demand for fossil fuels, and the despairing rationalism (not to mention fatalism) of being a member of the human race that as a species – not as a political system, not as a market, not as a company, not individually – creating in the space of a couple of hundred years the same conditions that led to a mass extinction event caused by huge and deadly seismic activity 252 million years ago, and cannot seem to do anything about it! This is not about extreme weather or rising sea temperatures, this is about unbalancing the chemistry of our planet.


Various options are open to me. Quit my job and my association with an industry that facilitates the movement of hydrocarbons around the world is one, but this seems fairly premature and pointless when ships will probably still be carrying hydrocarbons around even when they are powered by molten salt reactors or whatever. As a statement it would be powerful if anyone paid any attention to it, which I suspect they would not. I could do what I have always dreamed of and move myself to my dream Greek island and spend by time growing vines, making wine at the same time as reading and writing (I suppose about growing vines and making wines). But that would also – whilst being extremely environmentally friendly, at least until I set out on my first book tour, or started exporting my first wines – be a huge waste of the knowledge and expertise I have accumulated in the last thirty years or so of being in the shipping industry. I find that a less than honourable way of living.


But of course this is all about me, and whatever I decide to do alone will have little effect to anyone except myself. Avoiding climate change, or rather a fresh PTME event, will not happen by blaming other people, pointing fingers, living differently or various other forms of virtue signalling.


It will come from the development of various technologies that already exist to create energy that does not alter the chemical balance of the planet, and also those that take the carbon out of the atmosphere so that the thing that we know could happen does not. That development, like most of what is happening now, is out of our hands, but that does not mean at the same time we can wash our hands of the problem. But we can change our minds, and we can acknowledge that there is a problem that needs resolving. This change of mind, by accepting the scientific reality and no longer denying it, can be seismic too.


Best regards,

Simon Ward