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Fish on acid lose fear of predators

April 15, 2014 in Adaptation, Carbon Dioxide, Marine ecology, Ocean acidification

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Reef species like this clown fish are at higher risk of succumbing to predators in more acid seas Image: Ritiks via Wikimedia Commons

Reef species like this clown fish are at higher risk of succumbing to predators in more acid seas
Image: Ritiks via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As carbon dioxide makes the seas more acidic and poses physical problems for some species of fish, it can also rob them of their inhibitions, which helps their predators.

LONDON, 15 April – Coral reef fishes exposed to acid oceans lose their sense of smell – and their sense of caution – and are more likely to fall prey to natural enemies, according to new research in Nature Climate Change.

The finding is based on observations of the behaviour of four species at a reef off the coasts of Papua New Guinea where natural carbon dioxide seeps out of the rock, and confirms a series of other such studies in the last year.

A cool volcanic discharge in the reef has served as a natural laboratory for years: water in the region reaches an average pH of 7.8. This standard measure of acidity is co-incidentally the level predicted for all the world’s oceans by 2100, as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. www.ipcc.ch/

Australian and US scientists observed the fishy behaviour from a boat moored above the reef, and also tested the fish on board the vessel. What they observed was that, away from the volcanic bubbles of carbon dioxide, in conditions of more normal ocean chemistry, damsel fish and cardinal fish seemed able to smell predators and stayed in sheltered places in the reef to avoid becoming prey.

Fish from the waters richer in carbonic acid seemed not to sense the presence of predators, and were more likely to venture into dangerous waters.

Survival threat

After a sudden scare that sent all the fish racing for cover, the fish from the bubble reef ventured forth much sooner. In normal circumstances, such fish spend 80% of their time under cover.

The bubble reef fish spent at most only 12% of their time in hiding. Mortality accordingly was five times higher.
“Their sense of smell was acutely affected in CO2-rich waters in ways that gravely threaten their survival,” said Alistair Cheal of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“We were able to test long-term realistic effects in this environment,” said another author, Danielle Dixson of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US. “One problem with ocean acidification research is that it’s all laboratory-based, or you’re testing something that’s going to happen in 100 years’ time with fish that are from the present day, which is not actually accurate.”

The reasoning is that the change in pH levels disrupts a neuroreceptor in the fishes’ brains and affects faculties or alters behaviour. Similar experiments with Californian rockfish have demonstrated much the same effect.

Acid spreading

But increased acidification of the oceans is also likely to affect shellfish and corals in other ways, and research in the Great Barrier Reef region of Australia has documented a dramatic behaviour change in a jumping snail that suggested impaired decision-making capability as pH levels alter.

Sea water is already 30% more acidic that it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. The rate of change is at least 100 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years.

The bubbling waters of the reef under test are not unique – such localized carbonic acid seeps occur in many places all over the world – and the fact that predators might find easy pickings in such places makes no real difference to population levels in the vastness of the rest of the ocean. But such experiments raise the question: can ecosystems adapt to changing water chemistry?

“Continuous exposure does not reduce the effect of high CO2 on behaviour in natural reef habitat and this could be a serious problem for fish communities in the future when ocean acidification becomes widespread as a result of continued uptake of anthropogenic CO2 emissions,” the authors conclude. - Climate News Network

IPCC tries a gamble with shale gas

April 14, 2014 in Adaptation, Coal, Energy, Fracking, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Methane, Nuclear power, Renewables, Shale Gas, Solar energy, Wind power

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Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas
Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The latest IPCC report urges a dash for gas to allow us to reduce the burning of coal. And it accepts the use of shale gas, which threatens to be far more polluting than originally thought.

LONDON, 14 April – If you support fracking, you should be pleased with the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). It’s given the green light to the use of shale gas as a short-term way to slow climate change.

The report is the third and final part of the latest IPCC assessment on climate change (known as AR5). While it puts considerable emphasis on the need for more renewable energy – including solar, wind and hydropower – it says emissions of greenhouse gases can be cut in the medium term by replacing coal with less-polluting gas, though the gas will itself ultimately have to be phased out.

On shale gas, obtained by the controversial fracking process, Ottmar Edenhofer - co-chair of the working group that produced the report – said it was quite clear that the fuel “can be very consistent with low carbon development and decarbonisation”.

Among the objections to fracking is the fact the process releases quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas often reckoned to be at least 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. That is the comparison we have often used in the Network’s reporting. It’s right, so far as it goes. But by some calculations it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Own goal

Recently an observant reader pointed out that methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 when its impact is measured over a century. But in the short term it is a far greater problem. Over the space of two decades it is estimated to be at least 84 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

Robert Howarth is professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. He and his colleague Drew Shindell of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have predicted that unless emissions of methane (and black carbon) are reduced immediately, the Earth will warm by 1.5°C by 2030 and by 2.0°C by between 2045 and 2050, whether or not carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.

Professor Howarth puts the global warming potential of methane higher still. He has written: “At the time scale of 20 years following emission, methane’s global warming potential is more than 100-fold greater than for carbon dioxide (Shindell et al. 2009).”

Some critics will conclude that the IPCC’s search for a bridging strategy to move us rapidly to a world of clean energy has scored an own goal by failing to rule out a fuel which entails a large and avoidable increase in greenhouse emissions. The cost of the infrastructure needed to exploit shale gas on a large scale may also work to prolong its use.

Affordable transformation

Ironically, the clean energy world the IPCC seeks need be no more than 15 years away, according to one US expert. Mark Z Jacobson is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, California, and director of its atmosphere and energy program. He believes that wind, water and solar power can be scaled up cost-effectively to meet the world’s energy demands, ending dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Professor Jacobson described in Energy Policy in 2010 how he and a colleague had analysed “the feasibility of providing worldwide energy for all purposes (electric power, transportation, heating/cooling, etc.) from wind, water, and sunlight (WWS)”.

He continued: “We suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.”

It sounds like a less risky path to a world of clean energy than the IPCC is urging. Fifteen years to build a different way of fuelling society, or 20 years of watching spiralling methane emissions, seems a no-brainer. – Climate News Network

Early springs surprise many species

April 7, 2014 in Adaptation, Arctic, Climate, Polar ice, Species loss, Warming, Wildlife

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Roe deer numbers have been particularly hard hit by seasonal disruption.  Image: Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons

Roe deer numbers have been particularly hard hit by seasonal disruption.
Image: Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As seasonal change suffers ever more disruption, many species are struggling to adapt quickly enough.

LONDON, 7 April – Spring is arriving earlier. This is not necessarily welcome news for Arctic creatures or the roe deer of France. It could be awkward for flower festival organisers as well.

Julienne Stroeve of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre and colleagues will report in Geophysical Research Letters that the length of the Arctic melt season is growing by several days each decade. When the melt starts earlier, the Arctic Ocean absorbs more radiation: enough in some places to melt four feet in thickness from the Arctic ice cap.

“The lengthening of the melt season is allowing for more of the sun’s energy to get stored in the oceans and increase ice melt during the summer, overall weakening the sea ice cover,” says Stroeve. The Arctic sea ice has now been in decline for four decades.

The seven lowest September sea ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the last seven years. A new examination of satellite imagery and data from 1979 to the present shows that the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are freezing up between six and 11 days later per decade. But the earlier melt is more ominous than the later freeze: the sun is higher and brighter, and delivers more warmth to the seas.

Festival disruption

The earlier spring presents no problems for many plants but it may not be much fun for the organisers of flower festivals who like to announce their events well in advance. Tim Sparks of Coventry University reports in the journal Climate Research that over its 46-year history, the Thriplow Daffodil Weekend in Cambridgeshire in eastern England has been forced to bring its dates forward by 26 days.

The event can attract up to 10,000 visitors, and has raised £300,000 (US $500,000) for charity, so it clearly helps the organisers to set up some advance publicity. Since 1969, mean temperatures in March and April in the UK have risen by 1.8°C.

“The study represents one of the first solid pieces of evidence of flower tourism having to adapt to climate change,” said Professor Sparks. “The issues faced by Thriplow are a microcosm of the wider picture.”

Flower festivals may be able to adapt. Sadly, the roe deer of Champagne have yet to get the message about climate change. To flourish, both nectar seekers and herbivores have to time their breeding patterns to the surge in plant growth.

Three French scientists looked at records of a population of roe deer in the Champagne region of France, and found that although spring has been arriving increasingly earlier, the fawns are being born at around the same dates as they were 27 years ago, and their survival rate is falling, they report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Biology. Overall, the roe deer population in the region is also in decline.

Great tits have kept up with climate change, because reproduction is cued by temperature, so they are around at the same time as the explosion in food sources. What sets the biological pace for roe deer is day length, the authors think, and this is not affected by climate change. - Climate News Network

Corporates weigh risks, opportunities of changing climate

April 5, 2014 in Adaptation, Banking, Business, Climate risk, Economy, Europe, Resource shortages

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Swings and roundabouts: For many enterprises, climate change can have a silver lining Image: User:klip game via Wikimedia Commons

Swings and roundabouts: For many enterprises, climate change can have a silver lining
Image: User:klip game via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

While politicians dither about what action to take on climate change, it appears that the corporate world – in Europe at least – is taking the issue seriously and adapting its operations.

LONDON, 5 April – Europe’s company board rooms are very much alive to the risks posed by climate change – and are also busy analysing business opportunities it might provide.

That’s among the findings of a survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an EU-based non-profit organisation specialising in corporate environmental information, and Acclimatise, a consultancy group which gives business advice on climate change adaptation and management.

Altogether 270 of Europe’s largest companies from across 20 countries were contacted concerning their attitudes to a changing climate.

The resulting report on the survey, Climate Change Resilience in Europe, indicates that a majority of companies see climate change having a negative impact on their operations: companies identified 780 risks to their finances compared with 379 opportunities that might be available as a result of climate change.

Risk to reputations

The biggest risk foreseen is a reduction or a disruption in production capacity. “Extreme weather, drought and flooding may disrupt the supply of certain produce and products”, says one respondent, a spokesperson for the Maersk shipping and industrial conglomerate.

“This can directly affect the revenue of our supply chain but also can have a negative impact on our reputation and create a demand for more local sourcing.”

There are other expected risks: a large banking group in the Netherlands is concerned that climate change-related flooding could have an adverse impact on  its data centres.

Energy companies worry about higher temperatures disrupting the operation of power plants, while banks are concerned about their investments in companies exposed to rising sea levels.

Boost for business

“Many of the essential conditions on which businesses rely are changing, leading to increasing prices, as well as shortfalls in the quality and supply of goods and services provided to customers”, says Steven Tebbe, managing director of CDP Europe.

Yet not everyone in Europe’s corporate world is pessimistic. The report says more than 40% of companies look forward to a growing demand for their services as a result of climate change.

Construction companies in some regions of Europe might benefit from a warming climate. “Shorter and milder winters with less snow and cold can increase the productivity at some construction sites, as construction activity may experience less potential delays due to snowfall”, says Skanska AB, the Sweden-based building group.

Adaptation is key to maintaining the health of corporate finances. “Through the development of financial instruments such as catastrophe bonds, especially for regions of Africa which are particularly impacted by climate change, the financial risks posed by natural disasters and droughts can be avoided”, says Barclays, the banking group.

Staying healthy

Meanwhile Diageo, the drinks conglomerate, says that by replacing barley in its beer with less thirsty, more climate change-resistant raw materials it can gain a competitive advantage on its rivals.

“To stay competitive, business leaders must account for climate impacts and work to understand if, how and where climate risks are material to their bottom line”, says John Firth, CEO of Acclimatise.

Steven Tebbes of CDP sees a direct link between an awareness of the impact of climate change and the financial well-being of a company.

“Industry environmental transparency and performance is today a prerequisite for attracting new investments and creating new jobs – there’s increasing evidence of the links between how well a company manages environmental and climate issues and its financial performance or access to capital.” – Climate News Network

Wooden skyscrapers help cool climate

April 4, 2014 in Adaptation, Built Environment, Energy, Forests, Greenhouse Gases, Technology

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Builders have used wood for millennia: Now the technology is reaching for the skies Image: Chris Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons

Builders have used wood for millennia: Now the technology is reaching for the skies
Image: Chris Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Wooden skyscrapers could tick a number of important boxes, including making a serious contribution to cutting climate impacts. The good news is they’re already helping to do that.

LONDON, 4 April – US scientists have a new green solution to urban construction: chop down trees and use the wood for buildings. Good strong timber buildings – and there are plans for 30-storey skyscrapers built of wood – would save on concrete and steel, save on carbon dioxide emissions and cut the use of fossil fuel.

The argument may seem counter-intuitive: that is because a substantial component of climate change stems from changes in land use and the loss of forests. And some researchers have demonstrated that even the most mature trees, the forest giants, can go on absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But Chadwick Oliver, a forester at the University of Yale and colleagues make the case in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry. They argue that if the world stepped up the harvest of the forests and used the wood efficiently then economies could save on fossil fuel, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and give people a reason to value the forests.

It works like this. Overall, trees add 17 billion cubic metres of new wood to the planet’s biomass each year. Right now, humans take about 20% of this new growth – that’s 3.4 billion cubic metres – and a lot of that is burned, inefficiently as cooking fuel, or just burned.

Savings outweigh emissions

If humans stepped up the wood harvest to 34% and used it for construction, they could reduce the use of steel and concrete, and cut between 14% and 31% of global carbon dioxide emissions (the authors count methane and nitrous oxide emissions as carbon equivalents in this calculation).

And of course, carbon would stay locked up in the wood in permanent structures. This would also save between 12 and 19% of annual global fossil fuel consumption: the wood left over from construction could be turned into energy.

The savings on concrete and steel happen because about 16% of global fossil fuel consumption is accounted for by the manufacture of steel, concrete and brick. Factor in the need to transport building materials and that brings the fossil fuel share to between 20% and 30%. So wood-based construction consumes less energy.

The loss of forests represents the release of carbon dioxide, but as long as the harvesting is efficient, more carbon emissions are saved overall.

Better than agriculture

But, of course, this makes forests valuable. “The study shows still another reason to appreciate forests,” says Professor Oliver, “and another reason not to let them be cleared for agriculture.

“Forest harvest creates a temporary opening that is needed for forest species such as butterflies and some birds and deer before it regrows to large trees. But conversion to agriculture is a permanent loss of all forest biodiversity.”

So suddenly, in every sense, wood is cool. Wooden skyscrapers and apartment buildings are already being designed and tested in Sweden and in Canada. Selective harvesting of forests could help protect stands of timber against the spread of wildfire, benefit wildlife and maintain wealth.

“Forests historically have had a diversity of habitats that different species need,” says Professor Oliver. “This diversity can be maintained by harvesting some of the forest growth. And the harvested wood will save fossil fuel and CO2 and provide jobs — giving local people more reason to keep the forests.” – Climate News Network

Climate change ‘makes violence likelier’

March 31, 2014 in Adaptation, Climate risk, Conflict, El Niño, IPCC, Warming

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A UN peacekeeper chats to local youths in Darfur: Many governments now give high priority to climate change as a security issue Image: © UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

A UN peacekeeper chats to local youths in Darfur: Many governments now regard climate change as a security issue
Image: © UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

By Alex Kirby

Scientists say there is a direct link between changing climate and an increase in violence, reinforcing a key finding of the latest IPCC report.

LONDON, 31 March – US scientists say there is evidence that a warming climate is closely related to political and social instability and a higher risk of conflict.

Professor Solomon Hsiang and colleagues  described in the journal Nature in 2011 how they had investigated whether anything linked “planetary-scale climate changes with global patterns of civil conflict”.

They examined evidence of a possible link between El Niño, the periodic weather disruption off the Pacific coast of South America, which affects the weather and causes higher temperatures across much of the world, and its partner, the cooler La Niña phenomenon, with outbreaks of unrest.

After analysing data from 1950 to 2004, they found that “the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years.”

They wrote: “This result, which indicates that ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate” (ENSO, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, is the scientific term for the cycle of alternating warmer and cooler years).

“Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence”

The work of Professor Hsiang and his colleagues predates one of the key conclusions of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, entitled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, from the IPCC’s Working Group II.

This details the impacts of climate change so far, the future risks from a changing climate, and the opportunities for effective action to reduce the risks.

The report says: “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence.” It does not however argue that there is a direct link between climate change and conflict.

Professor Hsiang’s study is cited in a report by a London-based group, the Environmental Justice Foundation, which works to protect the environment and to defend human rights. Its report, The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict, says the world’s major military powers increasingly regard climate change as a significant threat.

The EJF says: “In 2012, one person every second was displaced by a climate or weather-related natural disaster.

“With millions of people forced to move each year by rapid-onset climate-related hazards and slow-onset environmental degradation, social wellbeing, human rights, economies and even state stability are at risk…at the highest level, climate change is being assessed as a risk to national security and potentially to global stability.”

It identifies several points of concern, including the shrinking of Arctic ice; competition over water resources in Central Asia; sea-level rises and small island developing states; and climate change-induced migration in the Sahel region of Africa.

“We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict… across all major regions of the world”

The EJF report says that while climate change may not be the sole cause of conflict in future, it will play an increasingly significant role as “a threat multiplier”.

It cites a 2013 study by Professor Hsiang and others published in Science, an analysis of data drawn from archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, and psychology.

The authors write: “We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world.”

They say every 1°C rise in temperature has been estimated to cause a 14% increase of intergroup conflict and a 4% increase of interpersonal violence.

With the possibility of global average temperatures rising by 2-4°C this century, they conclude: “Amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change.”

EJF is campaigning for the recognition of climate change as not simply an environmental problem, but as a human rights issue as well. It wants the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to establish a special rapporteur on human rights and climate change. – Climate News Network

Rockies flora show climate impact

March 19, 2014 in Adaptation, Mountains, Phenology, USA, Vegetation changes

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Sky pilot, alpine buttercup and old-man-of-the-mountain in full bloom in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado Image: John Holm from Leadville, CO, uploaded by Hike395, via Wikimedia Commons

Sky pilot, alpine buttercup and old-man-of-the-mountain in full bloom in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado
Image: John Holm from Leadville, CO, uploaded by Hike395, via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

An intensive study of the flora of one meadow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado over nearly 40 years reveals a widespread and consistent pattern of climate-induced change.

LONDON, 19 March – Two thirds of alpine flowers have changed their pattern of bloom in response to climate change. Half of them have begun to bloom weeks earlier than normal, one third are reaching their peak bloom well ahead of the traditional almanac date, and others are producing their last blooms later in the year.

The season of flowers – that feast for bees and butterflies, and a signal for insectivorous birds to make the most of their moment in the sun – is a month longer than it was four decades ago.

This conclusion comes with two qualifications. The first is that it is limited to one meadow in one location in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the US. But the other is that it is the product of a meticulous, painstaking 39-year-long study by one researcher. So it follows that since there is not much room for mistake or argument about the pattern in one well-studied location, then a similar pattern probably does apply in many upland temperate zone sites.

When David Inouye of the University of Maryland began his research, he was a graduate student who just wanted to know what sources of nectar were available for hummingbirds and bumble bees. So he started counting flowers about 3,000 metres above sea level in Crested Butte, Colorado, at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. And he carried on.

Big picture

He and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they chose 60 common wildflower species – most of them perennial herbs – and they specifically excluded the rarer species because there was not enough data. So they made their judgement on the basis of two million flower counts, during the 39-year interval in which summer air temperatures increased by about 0.4°C per decade and in which the spring snow melt advanced by about 3.5 days per decade.

And they also specifically looked at the entire pattern of spring and summer bloom: the big picture of what biologists call phenology, the timing of biological events, in one place.

“Most studies rely on first dates like flowering or migration, because they use historical data sets that were not intended as scientific studies”, said Professor Inouye. “First flowering is easy to observe. You don’t have to take the time to count the flowers. So that’s often the only information available. It has taken a lot of effort to get the comprehensive insights needed for this analysis which helps us understand how ecological communities are going to change in the future.”

Biologists around the world have begun to use phenological shifts as indicators of climate, and as a basis for future conservation plans, and all of them have observed a pattern of change.

Consistent findings

European researchers confirmed that plants were either moving to higher latitudes, or blooming earlier in response to global warming, and that birds, butterflies and blossoms were actually heading to higher altitudes. Some have used historic observations by one of America’s literary giants as the basis for their research into climate change, and others have looked at the consequences of changes in the plant timetable for the grazers and predators that depend on specific plant communities.

But Inouye and colleagues now think that much of the phenological evidence so far has underestimated the numbers of species that have altered their flowering times, and probably overestimated the magnitude of change: what matters in the field or the meadow is the sum of all the changes, and not just the first dates of flowering.

Inouye and students divided the meadow into 30 plots, and counted flowers every other day for 39 years, for five months every year. So because of the initial basis of the research, continued for so many years, the scientists had sure data on changes for individual species, including the first flowering, the peak flowering and the last blooms, along with a measure of changes in abundance.

The date of first flowering has advanced by six days per decade, the spring peak is on average five days earlier per decade, and the last flower of autumn has been three days later every decade. – Climate News Network

Potential of non fossil fuel foams

March 13, 2014 in Adaptation, foams, Fossil fuels, Insulation

 

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Wood based foam: it might not look interesting but it could help in the battle against climate change Image: Fraunhofer

Wood based foam: it might not look interesting but it could help in the battle against climate change
Image: Fraunhofer

By Paul Brown

Fossil fuel based foams used to insulate buildings and provide safe packaging could be replaced by materials derived from wood

LONDON, 13 March - Every energy expert and scientist would agree that one of the cheapest and quickest ways to cut fossil fuel use and stave off dangerous climate change is better insulation of homes, factories and offices. A big problem is that the production of most insulating materials involves the use of fossil fuels.

As the European Union in general – and Germany in particular – increase regulations on making sure buildings lose less energy through their walls and roofs, the demand for insulating foam is growing steeply. Typically both new and older buildings are having foam lining attached to their walls and ceilings. This is usually held on by hardboard and prevents transfer of heat to the outside.

To solve the problem of the mass production of petrochemical foam a German research organisation, Fraunhofer, has found a method of making insulation from wood. This they say has the same properties as petrochemical plastics and could replace them.

Wood is the way

The Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research, Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut, WKI in Braunschweig, produce the foam by grinding wood very finely and turning it into tiny wood particles, which become a slimy mass. They add gas to expand this mass into a frothy foam which is then hardened. The hardening process is helped by natural substances already present in the wood: as an alternative method, specific chemical processes can also be used to produce the final product.

“It’s a bit like baking, when the dough rises and becomes firm in the oven,” says Professor Volker Thole of WKI. Wood foam is a lightweight base material that can then be made into rigid foam boards and flexible foam mats.

The research still has some way to go to mass production. The scientists are still experimenting with wood from a variety of different trees to see which produces the best foam. They also need a method to mass produce the foam on an industrial scale to supply the European building trade.

Polystyrene replacement

So far the tests are all positive. The insulating properties are in accordance with the regulation standards for foam materials.

“Our products scored highly in terms of their thermo-insulating and mechanical properties as well as their hygric, or moisture-related, characteristics,” says Professor Thole.

The Institute is working on other applications for their wood foam. The most obvious is an alternative to expanded polystyrene, an oil based product used extensively for packing thousands of fragile items, from fridges to light bulbs and breakables such as  crockery. -Climate News Network

Climate technofixes ‘will not work’

March 7, 2014 in Adaptation, Deserts, Geoengineering, Marine ecology, Ocean acidification, Technology

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Plant forests in the desert? That would  alter ocean circulation Image: Jamou via Wikimedia Commons

Plant forests in the desert? That would alter ocean circulation
Image: Jamou via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Hopes that we may be able to use geo-engineering to avert dangerous levels of climate change have been dashed by a German research team.

LONDON, 7 March – Global warming will be bad. Geoengineering could make it worse. Once again, a research team has considered all the benefits of climate technofix  – that is, deliberate steps to neutralize the consequences of unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions – and come to a grim conclusion.

At the best, any attempt to geo-engineer the changing climate back to its starting point would be relatively ineffective. At the worst, it would have “severe climatic side effects.”

David Keller and colleagues from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany and colleagues report in Nature Communications that they used an earth system model to simulate five very different strategies to reduce the rate of global warming and keep the climate from dramatic change.

Geo-engineering is a catch-all phrase for some very different approaches. One favoured and much-examined technique is to counter global warming by reducing the levels of sunlight that hit the planet’s surface, a technique called solar radiation management.

This approach has already been comprehensively dismissed by other studies, which have demonstrated that such an approach could change rainfall patterns or make conditions worse in arid zones such as the Sahel or just make things worse once the technology ceased.

But the Helmholtz team decided to look at the bigger picture: although climate scientists have repeatedly warned that the only safe answer is to reduce – and go on reducing – fossil fuel emissions, and although governments have acknowledged the urgency of the problem, very few really effective steps have been taken.

Varied options

So the technofix remains an option. How effective could it be? What could climate engineers do? There are plenty of powerful ideas. One of these is to exploit the appetite of green things for carbon dioxide: for instance, to irrigate the Australian and Sahara deserts and grow forests that will soak up more carbon.

Another is to nourish the ocean surface waters, by pumping deep, nutrient-rich bottom water to the surface to give algae a chance to bloom across the oceans. A third is to add lime to the oceans and chemically increase the uptake of carbon dioxide.

And then – still at sea – ships could spread that vital trace element iron across the ocean surfaces and give plankton a chance to bloom, grow, die and take all that carbon down to the seabed out of harm’s way.

And lastly, there is solar radiation management, either by pumping sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, or putting reflectors in space: anything that reduces the sunlight levels a little could balance the impact of the greenhouse gas build-up.

The researchers simply contemplated the crude consequences of each step. They did not concern themselves with the economic, political and technological feasibility of each, nor the ethical questions. They just wanted to know whether any or all of these options could possibly work.

Limited potential

The answer, spelled out in 11 pages of close argument, is, basically, no. Could any of these limit warming? By about 8% perhaps: not nearly enough. Could all of them together have an effect? Even a combination of approaches could not stop global warming increasing by a lot more than 2°C by 2100 under the notorious “business as usual” scenario.

Would they have side effects? Yes, afforestation of deserts (if it could be done) would increase the local temperatures and increase freshwater flow and thus reduce the salinity of the oceans and change circulation patterns.

Ocean upwelling would increase the regions of the ocean with low oxygen – bad for living things – and precipitate rapid climate change if the upwelling stopped. Iron fertilization would increase ocean acidification and solar radiation management would do exactly what previous researchers have already said: change the weather patterns with alarming consequences and make things worse when the programme halts.

The message is: the most effective way to prevent further climate change is to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

“We find that even when applied continuously at scales as large as currently deemed possible, all methods are, individually, either relatively ineffective with limited warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change,” the authors write.

“Our simulations suggest that the potential for these types of climate engineering to make up for failed mitigation may be very limited.” – Climate News Network

Biofuels from waste ‘need EU backing’

March 3, 2014 in Adaptation, Agriculture, Biofuels, Business, Carbon Dioxide, Energy, European Union, Forests

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The bales head  for the farm: Straw is an agricultural waste suitable for making biofuel Image: Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK via Wikimedia Commons

The bales head for the farm: Straw is an agricultural waste suitable for making biofuel
Image: Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The countries of the European Union could slash their greenhouse gas emissions and save significant amounts of oil by making fuel from waste, researchers say. But they think policymakers should give a lead.

LONDON, 3 March – Europe has the technology and the raw material to make a big cut in the amount of oil its transport uses, researchers say. But it will fail to reap the benefits on offer unless the European Union comes up with more radical policies.

A report, Wasted: Europe’s Untapped Resource, says the continent has significant unexploited potential to convert waste from farming, forestry, industry and households into advanced low-carbon biofuels, saving more than a sixth of the EU’s expected total fuel consumption for road transport 16 years from now.

But it says the conversion will not happen unless EU policymakers give greater priority to sustainability and to the need to lower the dependence of transport on high-carbon fuels by 2030.

The research which produced the report was carried out by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) and NNFCC, a UK research consultancy. The project was supported by a group of companies interested in introducing new technology, including two airlines, British Airways and Virgin, and by WWF, BirdLife Europe and several other environment NGOs.

The report says that if all sustainable waste from farms, forests, households and industry is used for transport fuels, that could make enough to replace about 37 million tonnes of oil annually by 2030 – the equivalent of 16% of the EU’s road transport fuel demand by then.

Safeguards needed

It also says that so long as the new fuels came from sustainable sources, they would produce less than 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Using them would inject up to €15 billion (US$21 bn) of extra revenue into the rural economy every year and create up to 300,000 new jobs by 2030.

The sorts of wastes that could be used include straw and other crop left-overs, forestry residues, municipal solid waste and used cooking oil.

But the report carries a warning too: safeguards would be needed to ensure the waste was obtained sustainably, including land management methods to protect biodiversity, water and soil.

And the benefits of biofuel from waste would have to be paid for. The report says some combinations of feedstock and technology would need short-term financial incentives, although others are already close to being competitive and would need little more than certainty about policy.

Easier challenge

The authors say cautiously that the research shows it is possible to develop a biofuel industry based on farm and forest wastes “which in the case of the cheapest feedstocks could become cost-competitive with only modest incentives…” Biofuel from other wastes might need different levels of subsidy.

Chris Malins led the analysis for the ICCT. He said: “Even when taking account of possible indirect emissions, alternative fuels from wastes and residues offer real and substantial carbon savings. The resource is available, and the technology exists – the challenge now is for Europe to put a policy framework in place that allows rapid investment.”

David Turley of the NNFCC, who led the economic analysis, said advanced biofuels from agricultural and forest wastes would require “little or only a modest additional incentive” to stimulate production at prices comparable to those of current fuels made from specially-grown crops.

The report concludes that while trying to use all the available waste might be thought optimistic, achieving just 2% of current EU road transport fuel use in 2020, as suggested by the European Parliament, would be less challenging.

Even that more modest aim, the report says, would still add about €163 million (US$224 m) in net revenues to the agricultural sector and €432 m (US$594 m) to the forestry sector. It would also generate an extra 37,000 permanent jobs in the rural economy, and 3,500 more in biofuel refineries. – Climate News Network