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

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).

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

As advanced technology triggers the boom in extraction of natural gas, a new study warns that market forces mean the cheaper fossil fuel could replace not just coal, but also low-emission renewable and nuclear energy.

LONDON, 15 October 2014 − The argument that fracking can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is misguided, according to an international scientific study, because the amount of extra fossil fuel it will produce will cancel out the benefits of its lower pollution content.

The study, published today in the journal Nature, recognises that technologies such as fracking have triggered a boom in natural gas. But the authors say this will not lead to a reduction of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Although natural gas produces only half the CO2 emissions of coal for each unit of energy, its growing availability will make it cheaper, they say, so it will add to total energy supply and only partly replace coal.

Advantage nullified

Their study, based on what they say is “an unprecedented international comparison of computer simulations”, shows that this market effect nullifies the advantage offered by the lower pollution content of the gas.

The lead author, Haewon McJeon, staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the University of Maryland, said: “The upshot is that abundant natural gas alone will not rescue us from climate change.”

Fracking, horizontal drilling and other techniques have led to surging gas production, especially in the US. “Global deployment of advanced technology could double or triple global natural gas production by 2050,” McJeon said.

This might eventually mean not lower CO2 emissions, but emissions by the middle of the century up to 10% higher than they would otherwise be.

The report, which is the work of five research groups from Germany, the US, Austria, Italy and Australia, said the replacement of coal by natural gas was fairly limited. And it might replace not just coal, the study had found, but low-emission renewable energy and nuclear power as well.

One of the co-authors, Nico Bauer, a sustainable solutions expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, said : “The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating.

“The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply.”

Not only could this lead to an overall increase in energy consumption and in emissions, but increased gas production would mean higher emissions of methane from drilling leakages and pipelines.

The research groups projected what the world might be like in 2050, both with and without a natural gas boom. They used five different computer models, which included not just energy use and production, but also the broader economy and the climate system.

“When we saw all five teams reporting little difference
in climate change, we knew we were on to something”

“When we first saw little change in greenhouse gas emissions in our model, we thought we had made a mistake, because we were fully expecting to see a significant reduction in emissions,” said James Edmonds, chief scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. “But when we saw all five teams reporting little difference in climate change, we knew we were on to something.”

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of PIK and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group on mitigation, said: “The findings show that effective climate stabilisation can be achieved only through emissions pricing.

”This requires international political co-operation and binding agreements. Technological advances can reduce the costs of climate policies, but they cannot replace policies.”

Article of faith

The widespread use of shale gas continues to attract policymakers, and for some it is almost an article of faith. It recently received the IPCC‘s endorsement, with Professor Edenhofer himself apparently backing it.

In the UK, a senior Conservative politician, Owen Paterson, is urging more fracking to increase Britain‘s shale gas supplies.

Paterson, who lost his job as Environment Secretary in July, today gave the annual lecture to the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation, arguing against wind power and for “investment in four possible common sense policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors, and demand management”.

Paterson also said that the UK should suspend or scrap its Climate Change Act, which commits it to cutting CO2 emissions by more than 80% on 1990 levels by 2050, unless other countries follow suit.

His former Cabinet colleague, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, said that scrapping the legislation would be “one of the most stupid economic decisions imaginable”. − Climate News Network

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

Reduced monsoon rainfall and increased river flow are two extremes that new research has linked to man-made impacts on climate caused by air pollution.

LONDON, 13 October, 2014 − Two separate studies have confirmed the extent of human influence on climate change – and, for once, carbon dioxide is not the usual suspect.

One team has just found that air pollution dimmed the skies of northern Europe, reflected sunlight back into space, reduced evaporation, and increased river flow.

The second group reports that similar aerosol pollution had a quite different effect on the Asian monsoons: in the second half of the 20th century, the darkening skies reduced temperatures and cut the summer monsoon rainfall by 10%.

The two seemingly contradictory findings underscore two clear conclusions. One is that climate science is complex. The other is that human activity clearly influences the climate in different ways.

Worldwide concern

Both studies are concerned with an era when there was, worldwide, more concern about choking smog, sulphuric aerosol discharges and acid rain than about man-made global warming. They also both match complex computer simulation with observed changes in climate during the second half of the 20th century

Nicola Gedney, a senior scientist at the UK’s Meteorological Office, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that she and colleagues looked at the growth in aerosol pollution, especially in the Oder river catchment area of central-eastern Europe, that followed the increased burning of sulphurous coal in Europe right up till the late 1970s.

The consequence of that burning was a reduction in sunlight over the hemisphere. But this began to reverse with clean air legislation and a widespread switch to cleaner fuels. River flows, which had been on the increase, were reduced.

“We estimate that, in the most polluted central Europe river basin, this effect led to an increase in river flow of up to 25% when the aerosol levels were at their peak, around 1980,” Dr Gedney said. “With water shortages likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the future, these findings are important in making projections.”

Aerosol pollution

Meanwhile, a group led by Debbie Polson, a researcher in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, Scotland, focused on aerosol pollution and the Asian summer monsoons, which provide four-fifths of the annual rainfall of the Indian subcontinent.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that they calculated annual summer rainfall between 1951 and 2005, used computer simulations to quantify the impact of increasing aerosol emissions and greenhouse gases during that time, and factored in natural variations, such as volcanic discharges.

They found that, overall, levels of rain during the monsoon fell by 10%, and this change could only be explained by the influence of aerosols from car and factory exhausts.

“This study has shown for the first time that the drying of the monsoon over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural climate variability, and that human activity has played a significant role in altering the seasonal monsoon rainfall on which billions of people depend,” Dr Polson said. – Climate News Network

World of clean energy ‘feasible’ by mid-century

World of clean energy 'feasible' by mid-century

International researchers, in what they believe is the most comprehensive global assessment of clean energy’s potential, report that a low-carbon system could supply the world’s electricity needs by 2050.

LONDON, 10 October, 2014 − A global low-carbon energy economy is not only feasible, it could double electricity supply by 2050 while actually reducing air and water pollution, according to new research.

Even though photovoltaic power requires up to 40 times more copper than conventional power plants, and wind power uses up to 14 times more iron, the world wins on a switch to low-carbon energy.

These positive findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Edgar Hertwich and Thomas Gibon, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Energy and Process Engineering.

Life-cycle assessment

They and international research colleagues report that they have made – as far as they know – the first global life-cycle assessment of the economic and environmental costs of renewable and other clean sources of energy in a world that responds to the threat of climate change.

Other studies have looked at the costs in terms of health, pollutant emissions, land use change or the consumption of metals. The Norwegian team set out to consider the lot.

There were some things they had to leave out: for instance, bioenergy, the conversion of corn, sugar cane or other crops to ethanol for fuel, because that would also require a comprehensive assessment of the food system; and nuclear energy, because they could not reconcile what they called “conflicting results of competing assessment approaches”.

But they tried to consider the whole-life costs of solar power, wind power, hydropower and gas and coal generators that used carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They took into account the demand for aluminium, copper, nickel and steel, metallurgical grade silicon, flat glass, zinc and clinker. They thought about the comparative costs of “clean” and “dirty” power generation, and they considered the impact of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, toxicity in ecosystems, and the eutrophication– the overwhelming blooms of plankton − of the rivers and lakes.

They also assessed the impact of such future power plants on the use of land, and they made allowances for the economic benefits of increasing amounts of renewable power in the extraction and refinement of minerals needed to make yet more renewable power.

More efficient

Then they contemplated two scenarios: one in which global electricity production rose by 134% by 2050, with fossil fuels accounting for two-thirds of the total; and one in which electricity demand in 2050 rises by 13% less because energy use becomes more efficient.

They found that to generate new sources of power, demand for iron and steel might increase by only 10%. Photovoltaic systems would require between 11 and 40 times the amount of copper that is needed for conventional generators, but even so, the demand by 2050 would add up to just two years’ worth of current copper production.

Their conclusion? Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron and cement, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants.

“Only two years of current global copper and one year of iron will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs by 2050,” the authors say. – Climate News Network

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

Managing moorlands so that more birds can be reared for lucrative shooting parties is adding to climate change by destroying layers of peat and releasing large quantities of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 6 October, 2014 − Burning large tracts of heather on the peat-covered hills of Britain so that more red grouse can be reared for the rich to shoot has always been controversial.

The revenue from overseas visitors flying in from such places as the Middle East and Japan to shoot birds has long been used by the country estate owners to justify the practice.

But the first definitive scientific report into the effects that burning heather has on wildlife and climate change shows the damage to the environment is far worse than previously thought. The water run-off from the damaged peat also adversely affects the aquatic life in the rivers that drain the moorlands of Britain.

The report was released to coincide with start of the moorland burning season in Britain, when gamekeepers set fire to large areas of old heather in order to encourage new growth next year to feed chicks that will be shot in the autumn.

Britain contains 75% of the world’s remaining heather moorland, and its owners say that without the revenue from grouse shooting it would disappear.

Significant findings

The EMBER report (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins)  is the result of five years work by a team from Leeds University in the north of England, which is a popular area for shooting grouse.

Among the significant findings was that burning heather dried out and warmed the peat it grows in, causing the peat to disintegrate and release large quantities of stored carbon dioxide − so adding to the perils of climate change.

Professor Joseph Holden, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and co-author of the study, said: “Altering the hydrology of peatlands so they become drier is known to cause significant losses of carbon from storage in the soil.

“This is of great concern, as peatlands are the largest natural store for carbon on the land surface of the UK and play a crucial role in climate change. They are the ‘Amazon of the UK’.”

The EMBER project − funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, with additional support from the Yorkshire Water treatment and supply utility − assessed the impacts of heather burning on moorland consisting mainly of peat on higher land.

It compared 120 patches of peat in 10 river catchment areas across the English Pennines, with an equal split between burned and unburned areas. The area studied spanned from near Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire to Moor House National Reserve, which straddles the border between Cumbria and County Durham.

The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season. Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons
The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season
Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons

Among the numerous important findings of the EMBER project, the researchers discovered that the water table depth – the level below which the ground is saturated with water – is significantly deeper in areas where burning has taken place, compared to unburned areas.

A deeper water table means that the peat near the surface will dry out and degrade, releasing stored pollutants, such as heavy metals into rivers, and carbon into the atmosphere.

Other important findings from EMBER include a decrease in the diversity and population sizes of invertebrates, such as insect larvae, in rivers draining from burned areas, and up to a 20˚C increase in soil temperature in the immediate years after burning, compared to unburned sites.

Dr Brown said: “Even small changes in soil temperature can affect the decomposition of organic matter and the uptake of nutrients by plants. But we found increases as high as 20˚C, with maximum temperatures reaching over 50˚C in some cases.

“Such changes in thermal regime have not previously been considered in the debate over moorland management with fire, but could explain a lot of the changes we see in terms of soil chemistry and hydrology following burning.”

Dr Sheila Palmer, also from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, and a co-author of the report, concludes: “Our hope is that the EMBER project findings will help all parties involved in assessing the range of benefits and impacts of moorland burning to work together in developing policies for the future management of our uplands.”

However, the Moorland Association, which represents the shooting estates, defended the practice of heather burning to promote greater numbers of grouse.

In a statement, the Association said: “Heather is kept young and vigorous by controlled burning. If left unburned, it eventually grows long and lank, reducing its nutritional value.

Burning cycle

“The burning cycle creates a pattern of different-aged heather. The oldest provides cover for the grouse and other birds; the new shoots, succulent food for birds and sheep. A skilfully burnt moor will have a mosaic of heather and other moor plants of differing ages and the rich variety of wildlife they attract.”

The association says that mowing heather is an alternative to burning, but not always possible because of rough terrain. It is also more expensive.

André Farrar, planning and strategy manager at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long campaigned for the end of burning heather and the destruction of wildlife to promote grouse shooting said: “Managed burning has a profound impact on the life support systems of the peatlands in our hills.

“This supports the need to phase out and stop burning on deep peat soils in the uplands. It should also trigger a concerted effort to agree how to bring these special places back into better condition, involving Government, its agencies, and landowners.” – Climate News Network

Human handprint marks Australia’s hottest year

Human handprint marks Australia’s hottest year

Despite the Australian prime minister’s climate science scepticism, research funded by taxpayers has unanimously found man-made climate change guilty of causing the country’s record-breaking temperatures last year.

LONDON, 4 October, 2014 − Scientists are fond of saying that it is difficult to pin the blame for any one climate event onto climate change. But they have just made an exception by reporting that many things that happened in Australia in 2013 bore the signature of man-made climate change.

In that one year, Australia recorded its hottest day ever, its hottest month in the history books, its hottest summer, its hottest spring, and its hottest year overall.

Extreme events

And in a special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, examining extreme events around the world during 2013, a series of papers home in on the Australian heat waves, and identify a human influence.

“We often talk about the fingerprint of human-caused climate change when we look at extreme weather patterns,” said David Karoly, professor of meteorology at the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences. “This research across four different papers goes well beyond that.

“If we were climate detectives, then Australia’s hottest year on records in 2013 wasn’t just a smudged fingerprint at the scene of the crime, it was a clear and unequivocal handprint showing the impact of human-caused global warming.”

In general, the world’s meteorologists have found nothing unequivocal to suggest that global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion caused, for example, the Californian drought, extreme snow in the Spanish Pyrenees or an October blizzard in South Dakota in the US.

But they did find that global warming doubled the chance of severe heat waves in Australia − making extreme summer temperatures five times more likely, increasing the chance of drought conditions sevenfold, and making hot temperatures in spring 30 times more probable.

And they reckoned that the record hot year of 2013 would have been virtually impossible without global warming. At a conservative calculation, the science showed that the heat of 2013 was made 2,000 times more likely by global warming.

Different picture

Paradoxically, Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, was one of the world leaders who pointedly stayed away from the recent United Nations climate change summit in New York, and in the past has taken a sceptical stance on climate science. Yet research funded by Australian taxpayers has consistently painted a different picture.

“When it comes to what helped cause our hottest year on record, human-caused climate change is no longer a prime suspect − it is the guilty party,” said Dr Sophie Lewis, a paleoecologist at the Australian National University.

And her colleague, Sarah Perkins, a climate scientist at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, warned that 2013 was only the beginning.

She said: “If we continue to put carbon into our atmosphere at the currently accelerating rate, years like 2013 will quickly be considered normal, and the impacts of future extremes will be well beyond anything modern society has experienced.” – Climate News Network

Ignorance hinders UK’s lofty aims on energy saving

Ignorance hinders UK’s lofty aims on energy saving

Housing in the UK is among the least energy efficient in Europe – and a new survey reveals that part of the problem is that many people are ill-informed about how to save energy in their own homes.

LONDON, 2 October, 2014 − We all know the easiest and most effective way to make the typical house more energy efficient in colder climates. Or do we?

A survey commissioned by the National Energy Foundation (NEF), an independent organisation that works to improve the use of energy in the UK’s buildings, recently assessed how well informed people are on energy issues.

Loft insulation is the answer to the above question on improving energy efficiency – yet of the more than 2,000 people questioned in the survey, less than 40% answered correctly.

And while about 60% of adults in the survey felt they were well informed on energy issues, half of them could not identify the most energy efficient lighting for their homes − LED bulbs, which are said to use 90% less energy than traditional incandescent ones.

Action aimed at cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions tends to focus on the power generation sector and transport. Yet buildings – both residential and commercial – account for 46% of the UK’s CO2 emissions, says NEF.

Energy saving

Relatively low-cost improvements to buildings, such as more insulation and LED lighting, can result in considerable energy saving.

The UK has one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe, with more than half of homes constructed before 1960 and only 10% built in the last 25 years.

A lack of comprehensive, effectively implemented building regulations means even newly-constructed dwellings are often sub-standard in terms of energy efficiency.

“Newly-constructed buildings typically use between 2.5 and 4.5 times as much energy as predicted – a phenomenon now being called the performance gap,” says Kerry Mashford, NEF’s chief executive.

“Changes to the way we design, deliver and operate buildings can close this gap dramatically. The trouble is that many don’t know where to start, what to do, or even that such a problem exists.”

It is estimated that the average UK household is responsible for emitting about 10 tonnes of CO2 a year, although there are wide disparities between high and low income earners, with the richest 10% emitting three times more than the poorest 10%, according to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

More than five million households in the UK – about a fifth of the total − suffer fuel poverty, which is defined as homes where more than 10% of total income is spent on keeping warm.

Fuel poverty

The Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE), a group of companies involved in energy conservation issues, ranks the UK as “the cold man of Europe” – the worst for fuel poverty out of 13 western European countries, and near the bottom of the league on a number of other household energy indicators.

“The UK ranks so low despite the fact that it has among the lowest gas and electricity prices in Europe and relatively high household incomes compared to the other countries,” ACE says.

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, said early last year he wanted to make Britain the most energy efficient country in Europe.

“Far from being a drag on growth, making our energy sources more sustainable, our energy consumption more efficient and our economy more resilient to energy price shocks – those things are a vital part of the growth and wealth that we need,” he said.

The European Union has said that the greatest energy saving potential in Europe – and one of the easiest ways to cut back on CO2 emissions – is through the construction of more energy-efficient buildings. – Climate News Network

Climate helps trees to wax as corals wane

Climate helps trees to wax as corals wane

Some tree species in central Europe are growing faster as the climate changes, while the rising levels of acid it causes are endangering coral in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

LONDON, 29 September 2014 – Europe’s spruce trees have started to sprint for growth. Beech trees, too, have begun to accelerate. German scientists report that trees in the European forests have increased their growth speeds by up to 77% since 1960.

The researchers can say this with confidence because in southern Germany they have access to the oldest network of measured experimental forest plots in the world. Since 1870, foresters and scientists have made 600,000 measurements of individual trees in Bavaria.

Hans Pretzsch and colleagues at the Technical University of Munich report in the journal Nature Communications that they selected beech and spruce for their comparisons because these are the dominant species in the forests of Central Europe. The deciduous beech trees were growing 77% faster, and the evergreen spruce by 32% .

The best explanation is that the trees are responding to rising average temperatures and a longer growing season: both consequences of climate change. It is also possible that higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are contributing to faster growth.

The research was carried out in forests that – 40 years ago – were thought to be in danger of dieback from atmospheric pollution: at the time, environmentalists were more worried about acid rain from factory and power station emissions than about global warming, and the German word Waldsterben entered the international vocabulary.

“Interestingly we observed that acid rain only had a temporary slowing effect on the growth of our experimental plots. Indeed, the input of pollutants started to fall off from the 1970s,” said Professor Pretzsch.

“Coral reefs are getting hammered and are likely to become a thing of the past unless we start running our economy as if the sea and sky matters to us, very soon”

Although the trees have both grown and aged faster, the forests as a whole have not greatly changed. The expectation is that foresters will be able to take trees for timber significantly faster. But other denizens of the forests may have to learn to adapt.

“The plant and animal species that will be most affected are those living in habitats which depend on special phases and structures of forest development. These species may have to become more mobile to survive.”

But if global warming is good for tree growth, it still isn’t doing much for the coral reefs. US scientists at work on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef report in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta  that coral growth rates have fallen 40% since the mid-1970s.

Jacob Silverman of the Carnegie Institution and Ken Caldeira and others studied a stretch of reef where measurements were first recorded 30 years ago, and made comparisons. They found that the rates of calcification, important in shell and skeletal growth, were 40% lower in 2008 and 2009 than during the same season in 1975 and 1976.

This time, the change could be put down not to warming, but to the change in water chemistry. As frequently reported by the Climate News Network, as atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the oceans, it changes the pH value of the water, making it gradually more acidic, with sometimes serious consequences for some families of fish and shellfish.

“Coral reefs are getting hammered,” says Professor Caldeira. “Ocean acidification, global warming, coastal pollution and overfishing are all damaging coral reefs.

“Coral reefs have been around for millions of years but are likely to become a thing of the past unless we start running our economy as if the sea and sky matters to us, very soon.” – Climate News Network

Ice melt dilutes Arctic sea’s CO2 clean-up role

Ice melt dilutes Arctic sea’s CO2 clean-up role

New scientific research confirms that global warming is melting increasingly larger areas of Arctic sea ice − and reducing its vital function of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

LONDON, 26 September, 2014 − The Arctic ice cap has just passed its summer minimum – and it’s the sixth lowest measure of sea ice recorded since 1978, according to scientists at the US space agency NASA.

For three decades, the shrinking Arctic ice – and the growing area of clear blue water exposed each summer – has been a cause of increasing alarm to climate scientists.

Polar seasonal changes are measured annually by NASA, but reliable satellite data goes back only to 1978, For much of the 20th century, the Arctic was part of the Cold War zone, so only Soviet naval icebreakers and US nuclear submarines took consistent measurements − and neither side published the data.

But studies of 17th and 18th century whaling ships’ logbooks and other records make it clear that the ice once stretched much further south each summer than it does today.

Steady decline

In the last 30 years, the thickness and the area of the ice have both been in steady decline, with predictions that in a few decades the Arctic Ocean could be virtually ice free by September, opening up new sea routes between Asia and Europe.

This year could have been worse, although the area of ice fell to little more than 5 million square kilometres − significantly below the 1981-2010 average of 6.22 million sq km.

“The summer started off relatively cool, and lacked the big storms or persistent winds that can break up ice and increase melting,” said Walter Meier, a research scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. “Even with a relatively cool year, the ice is so much thinner than it used to be. It is more susceptible to melting.”

Warming in the Arctic is likely to affect climate patterns in the temperate zones, and the state of the polar ice has become of such concern that researchers are using ground-based and sea-based monitors to explore the physics of the phenomenon.

But there is another reason for the attention: as polar ice diminishes, so does the planet’s albedo − its ability to reflect sunlight back into space.

So, as the ice shrinks, the seas warm, making it more difficult for new ice to form. And greater exposure to sunlight increases the probability that permafrost will thaw, releasing even more greenhouse gases locked in the frozen soils.

Now researchers have found another and unexpected example of climate feedback that could affect the cycle of warming. Climate scientist Dorte Haubjerg Søgaard, of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the University of Southern Denmark, and research colleagues have discovered that sea ice itself is an agency that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

That the oceans absorb the stuff, and tuck it away as calcium carbonate or other marine minerals, is old news.

“But we also thought that this did not apply to ocean areas covered by ice, because the ice was considered impenetrable,” Søgaard said. “However, new research shows that sea ice in the Arctic draws large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere into the ocean.”

The research is published in four journals, Polar Biology, The Cryosphere, The Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres and Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Two-stage pattern

The Danish research team observed a complex, two-stage pattern of gas exchange as ice floes formed off southern Greenland. They measured the role of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the formation and release of calcium carbonate crystals form in the sea ice, and kept a tally during a 71-day cycle of the carbon dioxide budget.

In the course of this complicated bit of natural cryo-chemistry, they found that some CO2 was carried deep into the ocean with dense, heavy brines, as the ice froze and some was captured by algae in the thawing ice.

They also identified a third factor: the “frost flowers” that formed on the new ice had an unexpectedly high concentration of calcium carbonate.

The profit-and-loss accounting meant that every square metre of ice effectively removed 56 milligrams of carbon from the atmosphere during the 71-day cycle. Over an area of 5 million sq km, this would represent a significant uptake.

But the real importance of the discovery is that scientists have identified yet another way in which the ice – while it is there – helps keep the Arctic cold, and yet another way in which carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans.

“If our results are representative, then the sea ice plays a greater role than expected, and we should take account of this in future global CO2 budgets,” Søgaard said. – Climate News Network