Not long to wait till released CO2 turns up temperature

Not long to wait till released CO2 turns up temperature

Scientists have determined the precise time lag before warming from newly-released greenhouse gases starts to show up on the planet’s thermometer – and it’s much shorter than previously suspected.

LONDON, 7 December, 2014 − Start the car, turn on the gas under the kettle, shovel some coal on the fire. Each time that happens, another pulse of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere − and in just 10 years, that newly-released gasp of greenhouse gas turns into global warming.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US have calculated for the first time a precision figure for the average lag between a carbon emission and its effect on the planetary thermometer.

That there is a lag, no one ever doubted: thermal inertia is something everybody observes every time they put the kettle on. The heat goes up, but the water stays cold, for a while.

But the presumption has always been that – given that the world is a huge cauldron and every unit of fossil fuel burned represents a tiny increment – the time lag between cause and effect might be decades.That is, the warming experienced now was triggered by fossil fuel burning in the 1980s or 1990s.

But the two Carnegie scientists, Katharine Ricke and Ken Caldeira, report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they have done the sums and arrived at a conclusion. People who light a gas cooker today are quite likely to feel the atmospheric heat from that blue flame in a decade.

Benefits here and now

Figures such as these come with a wide range of uncertainty. The calculations of the Carnegie team find a 90% probability that the effect is felt between 6.6 years and 30.7 years, with a median time of 10.1 years. The effects of that one pulse might arrive in a decade, but would last for more than a century.

“Amazingly, despite many decades of climate science, there has never been a study focused on how long it takes to feel the warming from a particular emission of carbon dioxide, taking carbon-climate uncertainties into account,” Dr Ricke said.

“A lot of climate scientists may have an intuition about how long it takes to feel the warming from a particular emission of CO2, but that intuition might be a little out of sync with our best estimates from today’s climate and carbon cycle models.” The effect measured by the two scientists is limited strictly to temperature, rather than longer-term consequences such as sea level rise or melting glaciers.

Research of this kind – as usual, based on climate models – has two ends: one is to arrive at a more precise understanding of the climate machinery. The other is to remind people that the consequences of any human action may be more immediate than anyone expected, which would be an encouragement to personal restraint and political concern.

“Our results show that people who are alive today are very likely to benefit from emissions avoided today and that these will not accrue solely to impact future generations,” Dr Ricke said.

“Our analysis highlights the nearly irreversible nature of carbon
emissions for global warming”

Co-incidentally a team from three British universities report in Nature Geoscience that they have confirmed another basic link between carbon emissions and warning: the levels of greenhouse gases emitted are proportional to the levels of subsequent warming.

Given that the whole debate about climate change and fossil fuel emissions is predicated on such an outcome, this seems a bit tardy. But what Philip Goodwin, researcher at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre, and colleagues have done is based on computer simulations: they have derived a theoretical equation that makes a precision link between emissions and subsequent temperature, and then put a value on it.

Every trillion tonnes of carbon emitted will raise the planetary temperature by one degree Celsius. The same calculations confirm that, even if fossil fuel emissions are phased out altogether, the build-up of carbon over the last 200 years will keep the planet warmer for many centuries, or even millennia.

Research like this isn’t simple: it effectively explores the complex relationship between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the behaviour of the oceans. Like the Carnegie finding, it enriches scientific understanding of the climate machine. And it, too, makes a political point.

“Our analysis highlights the nearly irreversible nature of carbon emissions for global warming,” Dr Goodwin said. “Once carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, the warming effect will last many centuries, even after much of the carbon has been absorbed by the oceans.” – Climate News Network

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Tribal lands are vital for Amazon forest carbon sink

Tribal lands are vital for Amazon forest carbon sink

As land rights of indigenous peoples are increasingly being violated, new research shows that destruction of Amazon rainforest is a major threat not only to cultural identity but also to the global climate. 

LONDON, 5 December, 2014 − Scientists in the US and Latin America have once again confirmed the importance of the Amazon rainforest as a planetary resource and as a carbon sink to store carbon drawn down from the atmosphere. Sadly, they have also confirmed, once again, that it is at risk.

New research, released in time for the UN climate change conference being held in Lima, Peru, shows that 55% of the Amazon’s carbon is in the indigenous territories that are home to the regions’s 385 tribal peoples, or in formally-designated protected natural areas.

The forests are critical to the stability of the global climate, but also to the cultural identity of the forest dwellers of the region and the extraordinarily diverse ecosystems they inhabit.

Carbon-rich forests

“The territories of the Amazonian indigenous peoples store almost a third of the region’s above-ground carbon on just under a third of the land area,” said Wayne Walker, an ecologist and remote sensing specialist at the Woods Hole Research Centre, US, and lead author of a paper published in the journal Carbon Management.

“This is more forest carbon than is contained in some of the most carbon-rich tropical forests, including Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The authors also found that nearly 20% of tropical forests across the Amazon are threatened by legal and illegal logging, new roads, dams and the growth of agriculture, mining and the petroleum industries, at least in part because governments had failed to either recognise or enforce the land rights of indigenous peoples.

“Indigenous territories and protected areas are increasingly at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences”

The Amazon forest under study is a mosaic of 2,344 indigenous territories and 610 protected areas spread across nine nations. In terms of biological, cultural and linguistic diversity, these areas are exceptional.

They are also the cornerstone of conservation efforts. In this century alone, 253,000 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest – an area bigger than the UK − has been lost for a mix of reasons. And land rights of the indigenous peoples are also under attack, with more than half by area at risk.

But a loss to the Amazon peoples would also be a loss to the planet. The Amazon rainforest is a unique resource in biodiversity and is also a carbon sink of global importance. Every tree is a reservoir of atmospheric carbon. Every felled tree or patch of burned forest is so much carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere, to fuel global warming.

Secure landscapes

The scientists warn that the carbon stored in these supposedly secure landscapes is enough to destabilise the planet’s atmosphere – or contribute to its stability.

“If all the current plans for economic development in the Amazon are actually implemented, the region would become a giant savanna, with islands of forest,” said one of the authors, Beto Ricardo, of Brazil’s SocioEnvironmental Institute (Instituto Socioambiental).

“A vast proportion of indigenous territories and protected areas are increasingly at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences, including 40% of indigenous territories, 30% of protected areas, and 24% of the area that pertains to both.” – Climate News Network

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Green Revolution trebles human burden on planet

Green Revolution trebles human burden on planet

American researchers say seasonal swings in temperatures and CO2 levels are evidence of how agricultural advances and the population explosion have tilted nature’s balance.

LONDON, 22 November, 2014 – Humans are changing not just climate overall, but also the difference between seasons in any given year.

Researchers in the US believe they now know why global warming has begun to announce itself both in annual rises in temperature and in the seasonal records of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere − the same seasonal variation in atmospheric chemistry that also contains within it the signature of the Green Revolution and the 20th-century population explosion.

And it’s all because the natural swing from high carbon dioxide levels to low each year has become more dramatic in the last 50 years.

Each year, in the northern hemisphere growing season, the CO2 levels drop as plants grow and soak up the atmospheric carbon.

Inexorable pattern

Later in the year, as leaves fall, crops are harvested and consumed, and soil is freshly tilled, most of that CO2 gets back into the atmosphere. It’s an inexorable pattern that follows the seasons.

Systematic measurements of CO2 levels began in 1958, and they show that swings within each year from high to low, and back again, have increased in amplitude by 50%, and go on increasing by 0.3% every year.

Two groups of researchers report that they concentrated on the northern hemisphere because that’s the part of the globe where most of the continental landmass, most of the vegetation and the greatest part of the human population is concentrated.

And both groups identified the cause of the widening CO2 swing as being as mix of steadily higher temperatures and the Green Revolution – the dramatic advance in agricultural productivity that fuelled the trebling of the human burden of the planet in less than a human lifetime.

“Changes in the way we manage the land can literally alter the breathing of the biosphere”

Josh Gray, research assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, US, reports with colleagues in Nature journal that they have gone one better by identifying the crop that makes the biggest difference: maize, or corn.

Together, the world harvest of maize, wheat, rice and soybean grew by 240% between 1961 and 2008, increasing the uptake of carbon during that time by 330 million tonnes.

Maize, grown ever-more intensively in the mid-western US and in China, is responsible for two-thirds of this change, the researchers calculate. Dr Gray calls the super-productive croplands “ecosystems on steroids”.

Carbon cycle

Ning Zeng, professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland, US, and lead author of the other Nature paper, reports that he and colleagues devised a new model of the terrestrial carbon cycle to explore the increase in seasonal CO2 swings, and the role of the Green Revolution in these swings.

There are several reasons for the increasing swings: average temperatures have started to rise; there is the natural “fertilization” effect of carbon dioxide, as some plants respond well to higher levels; and as the Arctic regions have thawed, more growing land is available − and vegetation has been marching north.

But a fourth reason is that farmers are now producing more yield from the same land, and the same crops. Between 1961 and 2010, the area of land planted with the world’s great crops grew by 20%, but – with improved strains, better fertilizers, and more irrigation − yield grew threefold. So more CO2 was taken up each year, and more released.

“What we are seeing is the effect of the Green Revolution on Earth’s metabolism,” said Professor Zeng. “Changes in the way we manage the land can literally alter the breathing of the biosphere.” – Climate News Network

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Iron’s mixed blessing for health of oceans

Iron’s mixed blessing for health of oceans

New research shows that iron fertilisation stimulates growth of the plankton that help transport carbon dioxide to the deep ocean – but swells the number of small creatures who feed on plankton and whose shells put CO2 back into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 16 November, 2014 − Technology’s answer to climate change in a world in which humans go on releasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has just had another setback. The idea of fertilising the planet’s oceans with iron filings to stimulate green growth and turn the oceans into a carbon sink isn’t so simple as hoped.

Two studies – both involving experiments at sea – have confirmed that trace elements such as iron affect plankton growth, and that more iron can mean more carbon dioxide exported to the sea bed in the form of dead and buried life forms. But new research in Nature Geoscience shows that the story is more complex.

Ian Salter, bioscience researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Germany, and colleagues report that they took a closer look at what happens around the Crozet Islands in the Southern Ocean − basaltic islands that deliver a steady natural supply of iron to the surrounding waters.

Carbon pumped

More iron meant more phytoplankton, which meant that more carbon was pumped into deeper waters. But more phytoplankton also meant more little creatures such as foraminifera, which graze on phytoplankton, and then make shells of calcium carbonate − a process that puts carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Dr Salter and his colleagues estimate that the carbonate manufacture in waters naturally fertilised by iron reduced the overall amount of carbon transferred to the deep ocean by between 6% and 32%, whereas in waters not fertilised by iron, the reduction was 1% to 4%. So added iron might make the phytoplankton grow, but it also soups up the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The finding is not conclusive. It doesn’t settle the question of whether the presence of trace iron ultimately assists the removal of more carbon from the atmosphere in the long term.

It also doesn’t answer questions about how things might work in warmer waters, and doesn’t offer a guide to the overall effect of iron deliberately added to waters where the phytoplankton don’t bloom in profusion.

“We are in the middle of an experiment we cannot reverse, but which we still don’t understand . . .”

But it does provide a snapshot of science in action, and is yet another reminder that the climate system – and especially the traffic in carbon between rock, water, air and living tissue – is immensely complex, and still puzzling.

And if that wasn’t already clear, new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that there is a lot more to be learned about the role of oceans in climate science.

Researchers report that ocean temperatures have been far more variable over the last 7,000 years than anyone had realised.

Thomas Laepple, a climate scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, and Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, US, combed the climate archives, examined indirect evidence from sediment cores and corals and other sources, and reconstructed sea surface temperatures in a range of different locations over a period of thousands of years.

Then they picked 20 climate models and conducted more than 100 test runs to see if they could simulate the same pronounced fluctuations in ocean temperatures in the same places over the same timescale

Greater discrepancies

They could − but only for short periods. The longer the time sequence, the greater the discrepancies. Over timescales of a thousand years, the models underestimated the variations by a factor of 50.

“Fundamentally, there are only two explanations,” Dr Laepple says. “Either the climate archives do not provide reliable temperature data, or the climate models underestimate the variability of the climate. Or both may be true to some extent.”

Neither finding suggests that climate scientists don’t know what they are doing. In fact, quite the reverse: researchers are establishing just what they can be sure about, and what remains uncertain.

Nor does either finding suggest that long-term alarm over the consequences of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is based on uncertain science.

Dr Laepple says: “We are in the middle of an experiment we cannot reverse, but which we still don’t understand well enough to make clear statements at the regional level on longer timescales. Unfortunately, we will just have to continue with this uncertainty for some time.” – Climate News Network

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China and US deliver radical climate surprise

China and US deliver radical climate surprise

It’s been called an historic agreement − a game changer in the battle to combat climate change. But can China and the US fulfil the promises in their announcement of plans to cut carbon emissions?

LONDON, 13 November, 2014 − China went to considerable lengths to make sure that this week’s Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing was a successful affair.

Factories were shut down, car traffic and even cremations were restricted, and schools and most government offices were closed. As a result, delegates experienced blue skies over the Chinese capital, rather than the city’s notorious smog.

But the most newsworthy and surprising event came on the summit sidelines, with President Xi Jinping and President Obama warmly shaking hands as they unveiled plans for radical cutbacks in emissions of CO2 − the most potent of the climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Biggest emitters

China and the US are by far the world’s biggest emitters of CO2, with China accounting for more than 20% of total global CO2 emissions and the US 15%.

Under the plans announced in Beijing, the US says it will reduce CO2 emissions by between 26% and 28% from 2005 levels by 2025, and will achieve “economy-wide reductions in the order of 80% by 2050”.

Meanwhile, China for the first time announced a date when it says its CO2 emissions will peak − 2030 − and then taper downwards. It also said it would be ramping up its already ambitious renewables programme, with the potential of cutting back on CO2 emissions at an earlier date.

“These announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading”

In addition, Obama and Xi – despite their considerable differences on territorial, trade and other issues − announced plans to expand co-operation on various research and technology projects related to climate change.

“The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity,” said a White House statement.

“ The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the Beijing announcement was an important step towards a better and more secure future for human kind.

“Together, these announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading,” Figueres said.

Resilient world

“These announcements have the potential to unleash and accelerate the kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation needed to propel all economies towards ever greater levels of ambition – if not significantly exceeding their ambitions – en route to a low-carbon, resilient world over coming years and decades.”

However, amid the euphoria, some big questions remain:

  • Global CO2 emissions are still increasing, despite years of climate change negotiations and increased warnings from the scientific community about the dire consequences of a warming world. Experts say cutbacks have to be achieved much sooner than 2030 in order to halt runaway climate change.
  • Doubts persist about how realistic these cutbacks are. Under the plans, China will need to produce an extra 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of power from wind, solar and nuclear sources over the next 15 years − more power than its coal plants produce today. And experts point out that Beijing’s timeline for reducing emissions does not represent a binding target.
  • Obama is going to have a tough time pushing these plans through. Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, have already denounced the measures, saying they will seriously damage the US economy.
  • Negotiations on tackling climate change and limiting emissions of GHGs have been held on a worldwide basis under UN auspices. Such bilateral agreements as the one announced by the US and China could undermine the global consensus and weaken UN processes.

But the news from Beijing has been generally welcomed in the scientific community.

Nicholas Stern, lead author of the 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, says the US/China announcement will give momentum to a new global deal on climate due to be negotiated in Paris late next year.

“President Obama and President Xi should be congratulated for demonstrating real leadership with this historic announcement,” Stern told the Financial Times in London. – Climate News Network

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Climate change will send pollen count soaring

Climate change will send pollen count soaring

Bad news for hay fever and asthma sufferers as US researchers demonstrate that man-made rises in CO2 emissions could lead to a 200% increase in the levels of pollen from grasses.

LONDON, November 9, 2014 – Scientists have identified a new hazard that will arrive as a result of climate change: a huge increase in hay fever and pollen allergies.

A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US, report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One that as man-made carbon dioxide and low-level ozone levels rise, so will grass pollen production and allergen exposure − by up to 200%.

Many predictions of the problems of global warming are, in effect, simulations: researchers take a climate model, add a few parameters, identify a trend or isolate a possibility, and run it forward to see what happens. Using such techniques, researchers have predicted that heat extremes themselves will present health hazards, and have confirmed that cutting CO2 emissions will certainly save lives.

Notorious irritant

But Jennifer Albertine and her colleagues at Amherst tried the other approach: they grew plants in laboratory conditions, using different atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and of ozone – the O3 version of oxygen (O2) that plays an important protective role in the stratosphere, but is a notorious irritant and health hazard in traffic-choked cities.

A field of Timothy grass (Phleum pratense). Image: Matti Virtala via Wikimedia Commons
Timothy grass (Phleum pratense).
Matti Virtala via Wikimedia Commons

They selected for the experiment the grass Phleum pratense, widely known as Timothy grass and common in lawns, pasture and meadows everywhere. Then, at the appropriate moment, they bagged the flowers, captured and measured the pollen production, and used enzymes to get at an allergen protein called Phl p 5.

The news is not good for those who dread the start of the hay fever season in spring. As atmospheric CO2 doubled to 800 parts per million, there was a 53% increase in pollen production per grass flower.

But that was only part of the effect. A greater number of plants flowered as a result of the stimulus of the extra carbon dioxide, which has an effect on plant fertility. And that brought the increase in pollen levels to a startling 200%.

Allergen levels

The increases in low-level ozone – already widely predicted as a consequence of global warming – had no effect on the quantities of pollen produced, although it did tend to suppress the allergen levels in the pollen.

But since the effect of low-level ozone is to irritate the mucous membranes of gasping city-dwellers and actually make the allergic airway response even worse, this is not good. The researchers warn that ozone increases would bring on negative respiratory health effects quite independently on any rise in pollen counts.

“The implications of increasing CO2 production for human health are clear,” warned Dr Albertine.

Her co-author, Christine Rogers, an environmental health scientist, added: “This is the first evidence that pollen production is significantly stimulated by elevated carbon dioxide in a grass species and has worldwide implications, due to the ubiquitous presence of grasses in all biomes and the high prevalence of grass pollen allergy.” – Climate News Network

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IPCC’s urgent warning to tackle climate change

IPCC’s urgent warning to tackle climate change

The UN panel of climate scientists says some consequences of global warming will become irreversible unless greenhouse gas emissions fall to zero by the end of the century − but latest research suggests the reality may be even more urgent than that.

LONDON, 3 November, 2014 − Climate change threatens to become “severe, pervasive and irreversible”, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Without drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the report says, global average temperatures will probably increase by another 2°C by mid-century on their 1986-2005 levels. This implies temperatures nearly 4°C higher by 2100.

The warnings come in the Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, itself a distillation of the three distinct volumes of the Panel’s Fifth Assessment Report (on climate science, impacts and mitigation) published since September 2013.

Will to change

The IPCC chair, Dr R K Pachauri, said at the Summary’s launch in Copenhagen: “We have the means to limit climate change. The solutions are many, and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change. . .”

The Panel insists that adapting to climate change will not be enough, and that the world must make “substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Dr Pachauri said: “To keep a good chance of staying below 2ºC [the international threshold for temperature rise], and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40% to 70% globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100.”

“A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible . . .”

The Summary, spelling out in careful terms what this means, says: “A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial timescale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period.”

Put more simply, this means that without an effective way to clean up the main greenhouse gas, the world will face permanent changes. Unfortunately, the method proposed for cleaning the atmosphere − carbon capture and storage − has not yet proved itself at scale.

So Dr Pachauri’s plea that the world finds “the will to change“ is fine, so far as it goes. The problem is that there are also several technological hurdles still to surmount.

And that’s not the only problem with this report. As with previous major IPCC reports, it unavoidably trails some way behind the facts. The authors of the three volumes on which the Summary is based, published in the last 14 months, were able to consider only climate science published up till 15 March, 2013.

Serious consequences

But among research published since then − and too late to be considered by the IPCC teams − was a NASA report suggesting that the melting glaciers of West Antarctica may have passed the point of no return, with serious consequences for global sea levels.

Yet the IPCC Summary says simply: “Abrupt and irreversible ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet is possible, but current evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment.”

Other recent advances in climate science that were published too late for the Panel to consider relate to the Greenland ice sheet and to the Amazon.

This is not to blame the IPCC for producing a report that has serious gaps. Its assessment reports appear only once every six or seven years, and are written by unpaid volunteers, supported by a permanent staff of around 12 people.

But if you hear the IPCC being accused − as it often is − of alarmism, consider how truly alarming the Summary would have been if the authors had been able to digest all we now know about the effects of climate change. − Climate News Network

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World’s wetlands play key role as carbon sinks

World’s wetlands play key role as carbon sinks

Areas of wetlands drained for human habitation and agriculture have been identified by scientists in California as sources of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 2 November, 2014 − Researchers in the US propose yet another way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time prevent soil subsidence − by preserving and even restoring the world’s wetlands.

Jaclyn Hatala Matthes, a geographer at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, reports in the journal Global Change Biology that she and colleagues from Californian universities measured carbon dioxide and methane from a pasture, a cornfield and a flooded rice paddy, all in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in California, which was drained more than a century ago and was settled for agriculture and human habitation.

The researchers found that the drained areas of land were carbon sources − that is, they released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and added to the greenhouse effect. The flooded region, conversely, turned out to be a carbon sink that took more carbon from the atmosphere than it released.

They also found that the region is literally going down in the world, as soil subsidence rates are almost the highest on the planet.

Short-lived

The picture wasn’t quite perfect: the soggy soils also released methane, which is a greenhouse gas that, molecule for molecule, is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It occurs in much lower concentrations, and is short-lived, staying in the atmosphere for years rather than tens of years. But it does add to global warming.

“However, we do expect that the methane emissions will stabilise over time,” Dr Matthes says. “We’ve seen that emissions tend to increase over the first few years, and that this increase is correlated with an increase in wetland plant growth and spread during this time.”

Researchers have already warned that, in any case, methane emissions are likely to increase as the world warms, with methane-emitting microbes inevitably flourishing in warmer waters. But, overall, there remains a case for preserving or restoring wetlands.

According to the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund), the planet’s freshwater marshes, deltas, swamps, bayous and wetlands are home to 40% of all the world’s species and 12% of animal species.

Important buffers

Deltas and mangrove swamps also provide an important buffer to protect coasts – and coastal settlements – from storm surges, cyclones and even tsunamis, and their annual value in ecosystem services and as protective zones has been measured in trillions of dollars.

The World Resources Institute calculates that, ultimately, 90% of the ocean’s fish depend on deltas, estuaries and coastal wetlands as nursery and spawning grounds, as well as sources of nutrient. The loss of coastal wetlands has been linked to an increase in oceanic “dead zones”.

So the case for wetland restoration is a strong one, even on climate grounds. It soaks up carbon dioxide, and skilful plant management might, according to Dr Matthes, reduce the methane problem.

“It’s a little bit tricky in ecosystem engineering,” she says “but we are hoping to learn some things about how people might plan wetland vegetation in order to maximise carbon dioxide uptake, but to minimise methane release.” – Climate News Network

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Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Warnings within the world of high finance are coming thick and fast that the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change means investors could lose heavily by sinking funds into coal, oil and gas.

LONDON, 18 October, 2014 − Like most central bank governors, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, chooses his words carefully.

So the financial community – and government policy makers − sat up and took notice earlier this month when Carney, addressing a World Bank seminar on corporate reporting standards, said he was concerned about investments in fossil fuels.

“The vast majority of reserves are unburnable,” Carney said.

‘Tragedy of horizons’

He warned companies, investors and policy makers that they need to avoid what he described as the “tragedy of horizons”, and to look further ahead to meet challenges such as climate change.

Investors are being repeatedly told that money sunk into fossil fuels is not only bad for the climate, but is also potentially seriously dangerous to financial health.

The fundamental idea espoused by a wide spread of influential voices – ranging from the International Energy Association (IEA) to finance funds that have many billions of dollars worth of investments under their control − is that, in order to combat climate change, a large portion of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

“Not more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal,” the IEA says.

Limiting a rise in average global temperatures to 2˚C by mid-century is considered to be the minimum necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As action is taken and regulations are tightened, investments in fossil fuels, whether in a coal mine or in oil or gas exploration and production, will become frozen – or, in the parlance of the finance industry, “stranded”.

In the lead up to a major UN conference on climate change in New York last month, a group of high-roller investment funds − which, together, control more than $24 trillion worth of assets – called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for urgent action on climate change.

“We’re not going to be able to burn
it all. Science is science”

Barack Obama, the US president, has joined in the chorus, calling for fossil fuels to stay in the ground. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said earlier this year. “Science is science. And there is no doubt that if we burned all fossil fuels that are in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot, and the consequences could be dire.”

Major campaigns calling for divestment from fossil fuels have been launched. Groups such as 350.org, which campaigns for more awareness on climate issues, have had considerable success in persuading various bodies – from universities to the UK’s leading medical association − to stop investing in fossil fuels.

A number of pension funds, with billions of dollars worth of investments under their control, have said they will either cut back or stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry.

Public pressure

Meanwhile, giant coal, oil and gas corporations have been told they could face a public backlash if they seek to avoid or deny public pressure on climate change issues.

But for those who want to see an end to the fossil fuel industry, the battle is by no means won. It is only just starting.

A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment says the world’s 200 largest publicly-quoted fossil fuel companies spent an estimated total of $674bn on exploring and developing new reserves in 2012. And that figure does not include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on exploiting existing fossil fuel sites.

Coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, is still king in many regions of the world, particularly in the fast-growing economies of China and India. Coal companies, urged on by politicians, are still investing billions in new facilities.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, opening a huge new mine in Queensland that will produce about 5.5 million tonnes of coal each year, said last week: “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.” – Climate News Network

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Veteran green says emissions aren’t the only danger

Veteran green says emissions aren’t the only danger

Forty years ago, climate change was not even on the agenda of green campaigners − but now a veteran of those pioneering days speaks out about the danger of neglecting other issues that threaten the planet.

LONDON, 16 October, 2014 − In the 1970s, Pete Wilkinson was battling to save seals and whales from slaughter and trying to protect the planet from pollution, especially the dumping of nuclear waste. Today, at the age of 67, he is still campaigning − and sometimes taking on his former colleagues.

This is because Wilkinson believes that some pressing environmental problems have been neglected as more and more resources have been diverted to the campaign to cut carbon emissions. Issues related to climate change – such as habitat loss, water shortages, and over-population − need far more attention, he says.

Today, he is giving the second David Bellamy Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London. It coincides with him launching his autobiography – which includes taking a sideswipe at Greenpeace, the organisation of which he was the co-founder in the UK.

Pressing issue

Wilkinson does believe that climate change is a seriously pressing issue, but he warns that concentration on limiting carbon emissions, to the exclusion of many other inter-related issues, is a mistake.

His book, From Deptford to Antarctica, begins with his early days in Friends of the Earth, and subsequently the founding of Greenpeace in the UK, at a time when climate change wasn’t even on the environmental agenda.

He says he “lived on fags, beer and fish and chips” for the first eight years of Greenpeace, before running a successful campaign to prevent mining in the Antarctic and getting the continent declared a World Park. The campaign involved seven annual four-month voyages to the Antarctic to refurbish the Greenpeace base. The book includes some of his unabridged diaries about the struggles involved.

It is an entertaining read because he is as honest about his own shortcomings as he is forthright about those of his friends and foes.

In the 1980s, before he went to Antarctica, he was instrumental in stopping the UK dumping nuclear waste in the Atlantic. Thirty years later, he is still working on the nuclear issue.

He says: “We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free? After all, how much carbon will be emitted building a repository for all that waste?

“The British government’s claim that nuclear power is carbon free is one of the great myths of the climate change debate. It might be carbon-free at the point that the uranium is being burned in the reactor, but what about when the uranium is mined in some far-off country, transported here, and turned into nuclear fuel?”

He believes that giant nuclear power stations are the wrong energy solution, and that the key to dealing with climate change is to dismantle national grids and go for micro-technology and energy efficiency.

“We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free?” – Pete Wilkinson

“We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free?” – PETE WILKINSON

Wilkinson also believes that carbon dioxide is not the only threat to the atmosphere. As director of the Nuclear Information Service, based in Reading, England, he works on disarmament issues and believes that Britain’s intended investment of £100 billion in a new fleet of Trident submarines is both a waste of money and, if their multiple warheads were ever used, a crime against humanity.

“In fact, if nuclear weapons were used in any war, just of a few of them, the climate change we would be worrying about would be a nuclear winter,” he says. “So the issue of nuclear proliferation and the potential for nuclear war is an issue for environmentalists too.”

Democratic decisions

Wilkinson left Greenpeace in the 1990s and has since served on a number of government bodies consulting on nuclear waste and other environmental issues. He is passionate about the public’s right to know the facts, so that proper democratic decisions can be made.

When he began working for Greenpeace, he was paid the same wage he would have received if he was on unemployment benefit, and the whole budget was run on a shoestring.

The first ship he bought was a £5,000 former trawler that had been used as a fisheries research vessel, and he is critical of the current management of the Greenpeace for spending £14 million on a new ship. “They lack vision and imagination,” he says. “They could have spent that money on campaigning.”

His autobiography is full of insights into the early green movement and how it took on the establishment. Just as in those early days, Wilkinson does not keep his opinions to himself. “I hope my friends are still speaking to me after they’ve read the book,” he says. – Climate News Network

• From Deptford to Antarctica – the Long Way Home, an autobiography by Pete Wilkinson, published 16 October, 2014, by Fledgling Press Ltd (price £14.99).

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