Sea urchins refine survival instincts as oceans change

Sea urchins refine survival instincts as oceans change

As climate change adds to the threat of extinction faced by many species, new research shows how sea urchins can adapt to the increasing temperature and levels of acidity in Antarctic waters.

LONDON, 17 December, 2014 − The sea urchins of the Southern Ocean could be safe from the threat of extinction. They may not enjoy global warming and the increasingly acid oceans, but new research indicates that they can adapt to climate change.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and Bangor University in Wales − in what they describe as the largest study of its kind − collected 288 urchins of the species Sterechinus neumayeri from waters off the Antarctic Peninsula, carried them to Cambridge in the UK, and tested them in aquarium tanks over a two-year span, covering two full reproductive cycles.

During this time, they report in the Journal of Animal Ecology, they changed the water chemistry and turned up the temperature. The environment was made less alkaline and the thermometer notched up another 2°C − which are the conditions sea creatures could expect by 2100 if the world goes on burning fossil fuels and pumping greenhouse gases under the notorious business-as-usual scenario.

Intricate network

Research like this matters because it helps scientists to better understand the intricate network of environmental conditions that underwrite life on the planet, and because it provides answers to one of the big questions of climate change: how will it affect the estimated seven million species with whom humans share the planet?

According to the journal Nature, the lowest estimate is that 10 species become extinct every week, and the number could be as high as 690 a week. The uncertainty is an indicator of how little is known about the diversity of life on the planet.

The oceans, in particular, have been hard hit by human action. Other marine survival studies have not been encouraging: ocean acidification promises to be very bad news for corals, and therefore for the rich and diverse communities that depend on coral reefs. It also offers a survival threat to bivalves that exploit ocean chemistry to build protective shells.

Other experiments have shown that it can affect the survival behaviour of fish, and can even affect the lugworms that anglers favour as bait for fish.

But the news from the laboratory aquarium in Cambridge is encouraging. It took the sea urchins six to eight months to acclimatise and adjust to the new acidity levels and temperature − but they survived.

Artificial insemination experiments suggested that the urchins could spawn successfully under the new conditions, but to be sure of this, the researchers need more time. Antarctic invertebrates mature very slowly and sea urchins could live for 40 years or more.

“With predictions of warmer, more acidic waters in the future, this work shows how resilient these animals are to climate change,” said Melody Clark, project leader for the Adaptations and Physiology Group at the British Antarctic Survey.

“It also emphasises the importance of conducting long-term experiments in making accurate predictions. These animals live a long time, and so they do everything really slowly. They take around eight months to get used to new conditions, and two years to produce gonads (sexual organs). If we had stopped this experiment at three or even six months, we would have got very different results.”

Change habitat

Sea urchins cannot easily change their habitat: they must adapt or perish. But four-legged, warm-blooded terrestrial creatures have another option. In another instance of long-term research, scientists have established that small mountain mammals are prepared to move uphill as the climate warms.

Karen Rowe, biodiversity research fellow at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues report in Proceedings of the Royal Society that they looked at records of observations of small mammals, made between 1911 and 1934 at 166 sites in the Californian mountains. Then, between 2003 and 2010, they surveyed the same species in the same locations.

Warmer winters are bad for hibernating mammals such as the chipmunk. Image: Vlad Lazarenko via Wikimedia Commons

Warmer winters are bad for hibernating mammals such as the chipmunk.
Image: Vlad Lazarenko via Wikimedia Commons

Altogether, they looked at 30,000 observations that recorded the foraging and breeding ranges of 34 species of chipmunk, gopher, pika, shrew, deer mouse, woodrat and squirrel at altitudes that varied from sea level to about 4,000 metres.

Moving uphill

Since the first, historic set of systematic measurements, the average temperatures in the region have climbed by 0.6°C, and many mammals have shifted their range accordingly – by moving uphill.

The pattern wasn’t consistent, but the researchers identified a problem for those animals that normally hibernate: warmer winters could be very bad news for creatures adapted to the chillier mountain slopes. And those animals that live at the highest altitudes might soon have nowhere to go.

“While mammals can avoid heat stress by behavioural means (such as shifting daily activity), warming winters lead to increased energy expenditures for hibernators and reduce the snow layer, which acts as insulation for non-hibernators,” they conclude.

“Global climate projections suggest that disappearing climates will be an increasing challenge for predicting future species’ responses.” – Climate News Network

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Australia heading in wrong direction on emissions targets

Australia heading in wrong direction on emissions targets

The current government in Australia has made no secret of its doubts about the scientific evidence of climate change – but new research confirms that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising fast.

LONDON, 16 December, 2014 − Australia’s emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases are going up and up – and are set to rise by more than 50% over 1990 levels by 2020, according to new research.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent science-based programme that analyses the emission commitments and actions of countries around the world, says Australia’s present emission levels are about 31% higher than in 1990 and continue to rise.

“In terms of emission effort, Australia will be going in the opposite direction to China and the US, who are putting effort into reducing emissions,” says the CAT analysis.

Emissions calculations

The research says Australia has exerted considerable efforts over the years in order to alter the way its emissions are calculated under the terms of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Australia has insisted on including reductions in emissions from land use and forestry in its emissions calculations. As a consequence, it has sought more allowances for emissions from its industrial − mainly mining − sector.

“This is just the most recent example of Australia lobbying for rules that undermine
the integrity of the emissions accounting system”

According to CAT, the data supplied by the Australian government on supposed land and forestry emission reductions lacks transparency. And lobbying for such calculation methods – which continued during the recent global climate negotiations in Lima, Peru − goes against the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.

“This is just the most recent example,” CAT says, “of Australia lobbying for rules that undermine the integrity of the emissions accounting system as a whole and the rules that carve out special exceptions to the detriment of all, but to the benefit of a few.”

At the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, Australia pledged that it would cut its emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

CAT − a project run by a number of international organisations, including the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Ecofys, a sustainable energy consultancy − says its assessment of Australia’s emissions’ performance is a reasonable, independent and scientifically-based estimate based on available data and the application of the Kyoto rules as they are generally understood.

Worst performing

Australia was recently named as the worst performing industrial country on the issue of climate change in a report by the Germanwatch thinktank and the Climate Action Network, a group that links more than 900 non-governmental organisations around the world.

Since coming to power in federal elections late last year, the conservative coalition government led by Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, has done away with a clean energy bill and championed the country’s iron ore and coal mining sectors.

In recent years, Australia has been hit by a series of severe droughts and record-breaking high temperatures, with 2013 the hottest year since records began more than a century ago.

This year’s spring weather in Australia has also been unusually hot, with temperatures of more than 40˚C being recorded over several days in parts of the country. – Climate News Network

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Climate change’s threat of space centre invasion

Climate change's threat of space centre invasion

Rising sea levels and repeated storm damage to natural coastal defences pose an increasing threat to the famous Cape Canaveral rocket launch site in Florida.

LONDON, 15 December, 2014 − Climate change has begun to make its mark on one of America’s most iconic sites – the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Within a decade, according to geologists, the combination punch of rising sea levels and increasing wave energy could start to affect operations at the site where, more than five decades ago, astronauts were launched towards a landing on the Moon.

Peter Adams and John Jaeger, of the University of Florida, have since 2009 been studying the dunes and the beach at Cape Canaveral that historically screened the launch site from even the worst tropical storms.

These dunes were levelled in 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay, in 2011 during Hurricane Irene, and again in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.

Washed away

Storm waves repeatedly covered a stretch of railroad track built by the US space agency NASA during the 1960s. The line is no longer used, and part of it has been removed to make room for a protective man-made dune. NASA’s own prediction in 2010 was that the line could be permanently breached by 2016.

Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm  that brought catastrophic flooding to New York and caused damage along almost all the US Atlantic seaboard, washed away a section of Cape Canaveral shoreline so close to a US Air Force launch pad that the surrounding fence was left near collapse.

“When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment, something has to give”

Coastal erosion is an enduring fact of life, but during the 1960s the Cape seemed a secure site for one of the great 20th-century adventures.

The two geologists, working as partners with NASA and the US Geological Survey, began looking at a problem that seemed to have been getting worse since 2004: chronic erosion of a six-mile stretch between the two launch pads used for the Apollo missions and space shuttle launches.

According to Dr Adams, the slow rise in sea levels and the increased energy of the ocean’s storm waves – both symptoms of global warming – are almost certainly to blame. He said: “Is it affecting NASA’s infrastructure? The answer’s yes.”

Although man-made dunes will protect the site for the immediate future, the space agency has already spoken of a “managed retreat”. And Dr Jaeger  said: “When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment, something has to give.”

Evidence of flooding

As a coastal facility, Cape Canaveral is naturally vulnerable to hurricanes, which tend to lose their energy as they hit the coasts. But University of Iowa scientists report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that they have found evidence of flooding by tropical cyclones as far inland as Iowa, in the Midwest.

Gabriele Villarini, a civil and environmental engineer, found the evidence in 30 years’ worth of discharge records from more than 3,000 US Geological Survey stream measurement stations.

Between 1981 and 2011, the US was hit by more than 100 tropical cyclones or hurricanes that did their worst damage at the coast, but could also be linked with major flooding far inland.

“Our results indicate that flooding from tropical cyclones affects large areas of the US and the Midwest, as far inland as Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan,” Villarini said. – Climate News Network

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Deep concern over invisible threat to Antarctic glaciers

Deep concern over invisible threat to Antarctic glaciers

As ocean temperatures rise, warmer currents are attacking the Antarctic ice sheet from below and adding to the threats posed by a melting rate that has trebled in the last two decades.

LONDON, 13 December, 2014 − The Antarctic ice shelf is under threat from a silent, invisible agency – and the rate of melting of glaciers has trebled in the last two decades.

The ocean waters of the deep circumpolar current that swirl around the continent have been getting measurably warmer and nearer the ocean surface over the last 40 years, and now they could be accelerating glacier flow by melting the ice from underneath, according to new research.

And a separate study reports that the melting of the West Antarctic glaciers has accelerated threefold in the last 21 years.

Calamitous consequences

If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt altogether – something that is not likely to happen this century – the world’s sea levels would rise by 4.8 metres, with calamitous consequences for seaboard cities and communities everywhere.

Researchers from Germany, Britain, Japan and the US report in Science journal that they base their research on long-term studies of seawater temperature and salinity sampled from the Antarctic continental shelf.

This continued intrusion of warmer waters has accelerated the melting of glaciers in West Antarctica, and there is no indication that the trend is likely to reverse.

Other parts of the continent so far are stable – but they could start melting for the first time.

“The Antarctic ice sheet is a giant water reservoir,” said Karen Heywood, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK. “The ice cap on the southern continent is on average 2,100 metres thick and contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. If this ice mass were to melt completely, it could raise global sea level by 60 metres. That is not going to happen, but it gives you an idea of how much water is stored there.”

“These waters have warmed . . . and  are significantly shallower than 50 years ago”

Temperatures in the warmest waters in the Bellinghausen Sea in West Antarctica have risen from 0.8°C in the 1970s to about 1.2°C in the last few years.

“This might not sound much, but it is a large amount of extra heat available to melt the ice,” said Sunke Schmidtko, an oceanographer at the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, who led the study. “These waters have warmed in West Antarctica over 50 years. And they are significantly shallower than 50 years ago.”

The apparent rise of warm water, and the observed melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf, could be linked to long-term changes in wind patterns in the southern ocean. Although melting has not yet been observed in other parts of the continent, there could be serious consequences for other ice shelves.

The shelf areas are where the Antarctic krill – the little shrimp that plays a vital role in the Antarctic ocean food chain – are getting warmer, with unpredictable consequences for spawning cycles, and then for ocean biodiversity.

Meanwhile, according to US scientists writing in Geophysical Research Letters, the glaciers of the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica are shedding ice faster than any other part of the region.

Tyler Sutterley, a climate researcher at the University of California Irvine, and NASA space agency colleagues used four sets of observations to confirm the threefold acceleration.

They took their data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, from a NASA airborne project called Operation IceBridge, from an earlier satellite called ICESat, and from readings by the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite.

Loss calculated

The observations spanned the period 1992 to 2013 and enabled the researchers to calculate the total loss of ice, and also the rate of change of that loss.

In all, during that period the continent lost 83 gigatonnes, or 83 billion metric tonnes, of ice per year on average. Since Mount Everest weighs an estimated 161 billion tonnes, this is as if the ice cap lost an Everest’s worth of ice every two years.

After 1992, the rate of loss accelerated by 6.1 billion tonnes a year, and between 2003 and 2009 the melt rate increased by 16.3 gigatonnes a year on average. So the increasing rate of loss is now nearly three times the original figure.

“The mass loss of these glaciers is increasing at an amazing rate,” said Isabella Velicogna, Earth system scientist at both UC Irvine and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. – Climate News Network

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Disaster looms if loss of Amazon rainforest continues

Disaster looms if loss of Amazon rainforest continues

Brazilian climate expert proposes five-point “battle plan” in a war against the Amazon deforestation that is having increasingly dire impacts on the regional and global climate.

SÃO PAULO, 12 December, 2014 − The relentless destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest will endanger the global climate unless it can be stopped and restored, says a new report by a leading climate scientist.

In an eloquent, hard-hitting scientific assessment report entitled The Future Climate of Amazonia, Dr Antonio Donato Nobre, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), traces the climatic potential of the world’s greatest remaining rainforest.

He looks at its critical functions for human society, its destruction through deforestation and fire, and he discusses what needs to be done “to stop the runaway train that the climate has become since human occupation in forest areas”.

The report talks of the Achilles’ heel of Amazonia − the danger that the invincible hero will fall – and warns that its future climate has already arrived. Approximately 20% of Brazil’s Amazon forest has been clear cut, while forest degradation has disturbed the remaining forest to varying degrees − directly affecting an additional 20% or so of the original area.

Forest degradation

Dr Nobre says there are clear indications that a reduction of approximately 40% of the rainforest may trigger a large-scale transition to a savanna landscape over time. “There is no doubt,” he says, “that deforestation, forest degradation and associated impacts have already affected the climate both near and far from the Amazon.”

He spells out the sheer scale of the devastation: the total deforested area is greater than the size of two Germanys or two Japans. It is equal to 184 million football fields – which means that, over the last 40 years, the equivalent of 12,635 football fields have been deforested per day.

Dr Nobre is critical of the Brazilian government’s recent claims that deforestation is falling. He says: “There is no reason whatsoever to celebrate the relatively lower rates of clear-cutting in recent years, especially since − after the adoption of the new Forest Code (2011), with its wide amnesty for those who deforested − a distinct tendency towards further increases in the annual rates has already been observed.”

“We must regenerate, as widely as possible,
all that has been changed and destroyed”

So concerned is Dr Nobre about what is happening that he believes only a virtual war effort can save the rainforest. His battle plan – with ignorance the first enemy to overcome − has five steps:

1.Popularising forest science: On the basis that knowledge is power, scientific facts about the role of the forest in creating a friendly climate, and the effect of deforestation in leading to an inhospitable climate, must become common knowledge.

2. Zero deforestation: The harm deforestation does to human beings and the economic losses it causes should be compared with that of tobacco, Dr Nobre argues. When Brazil introduced a new Forest code that scaled back protection, the consequences of changed land use on the climate were never discussed by the politicians. While economic growth and market demand create pressures that leads to deforestation, planning weaknesses foster the invasion and occupation of forested areas − and all these loopholes must be sealed urgently.

3. An end to fires, smoke and soot: Using fire as a tool for clearing land is a deeply ingrained habit that must be stopped. The fewer sources there are of smoke and soot, the less damage will be done to the formation of clouds and rain, resulting in less damage to the green-ocean rainforest.

4. Recover and regenerate forest: Stopping deforestation is not enough to reverse threatening climate trends. “We must regenerate, as widely as possible, all that has been changed and destroyed,” Dr Nobre says. Reforestation on such a scale implies a reversal of land use in vast areas that are now occupied − difficult in the current scenario − and land zoning technologies will be needed.

5. Governments and society need to wake up: In 2008, when the global financial bubble burst, governments around the world took just 15 days to decide to use trillions of dollars of public funds to save private banks and avoid what threatened to become a collapse of the financial system. The climate crisis has the potential to be immeasurably worse than any financial crash, yet still there is procrastination − despite the abundance of scientific evidence and of viable, creative and appealing solutions.

Unavoidable reality

In a final warning, Dr Nobre’s report predicts that climate chaos “has the potential to be immeasurably more damaging than World War II. What is unthinkable today may become an unavoidable reality sooner than expected.

“China, with all its serious environmental problems, has already understood this and has become the country with the most ongoing reforestation activities.

“Restoring native forests is the best bet we can make against climate chaos, and is the only true insurance policy we can buy.” – Climate News Network

* The Future Climate of Amazonia: Scientific Assessment Report by Dr Antonio Donato Nobre, CCST Earth System Science Centre, Ministry of Science and Technology/National Institute for Space Research.

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New climate plans would cut projected warming levels

New climate plans would cut projected warming levels

Climate change analysts say latest commitments by China, the US and Europe on emissions cuts could mean significant progress towards ensuring that global average temperatures this century will rise less than predicted.

LIMA, 11 December 2014 − This really does appear to be a good news story about climate change − and even the not-so-good qualification that accompanies it still leaves something to celebrate.

Researchers say the post-2020 plans announced recently by China and the US and the European Union mean projected warming during this century is likely to be less than expected. The downside is that, even then, the world will still not be doing enough to limit the increase in average temperatures to below 2˚C.

The research, released at the UN climate change conference currently being held in Lima, comes from the Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment that tracks countries’ emission commitments and actions. It comes in the form of an assessment by four organisations: Climate Analytics, Ecofys, NewClimate Institute and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

International goal

Together, the four groups measured government pledges and actions against what will be needed to limit warming below the agreed international goal of a maximum 2°C increase above pre-industrial temperature levels, and against the goal of bringing warming below 1.5°C by 2100.

China − which recently announced a cap on coal consumption from 2020 − and the US and EU together contribute around 53% of global emissions. If they fully implement their new, post-2020 plans, they would limit global temperature rise to around 3˚C by 2100, which is between 0.2˚C and 0.4˚C lower than it would have been.

Their plans are more ambitious than earlier commitments, and represent what the researchers call “significant progress“. But they won’t limit warming to below 2˚C.

“In the context of increasing momentum towards a global agreement to be adopted in Paris in 2015, this represents a very important first step towards what is needed,” said Bill Hare, executive director of Climate Analytics.

“Levelling emissions off after 2030 has a major positive effect on global warming in the 21st century”

“Tempering this optimism is the large gap that remains between the policies that governments have put in place that will lead to warming of 3.9°C by 2100, compared to the improvements they’ve made in their promises. These new developments indicate an increasing political will to meet the long-term goals.”

Niklas Höhne, founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, said: “We estimate that China will likely achieve its 2020 pledge and the objectives stated for 2030, reaching 20% share of non-fossil fuels in a manner that is consistent with peaking COemissions by 2030. Levelling emissions off after 2030 has a major positive effect on global warming in the 21st century.

“China’s post-2020 emissions levels remain unclear and difficult to quantify. Its peak by 2030 falls somewhat short of a 2°C pathway. However, if emissions peak just five years earlier, this could make a very big difference and move them very close to a 2°C pathway.”

Höhne said that the US, with full implementation of its proposed policies, appears likely to meet its 2020 goal of 17%. But further measures would be needed to meet its newly-proposed 2025 goals.

Ambitious target

The researchers say the EU’s current policies put it on a good trajectory towards meeting its 2020 target. But, with current policies, it is not on track to meet its more ambitious conditional target of a 30% emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2020, and the 40% reduction target by 2030.

They say that governments in countries such as India could do more. Recent discussions indicate that India could be considering putting forward next month a peak year for emissions between 2035 and 2050, which − depending on the level at which this peak occurred − could be consistent with a 2°C pathway.

“We only have a very limited amount of carbon that can be burned by 2050, and we calculate that current policies would exceed this budget by over 60% by that time,” Hare said. “We clearly have a lot of work to do.” − Climate News Network

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India claims plan for new energy mix is a game-changer

India claims plan for new energy mix is a game-changer

While the political spotlight focused on the  world’s two biggest polluters − China and the US − in the run-up to the Lima climate talks, pressure is mounting on India to set emissions targets to help prevent the planet overheating.

NEW DELHI, 10 December, 2014 − India’s contribution to global carbon emissions was only 7% last year, yet there are fears being expressed in the western world that rapid population growth and development will mean this vast country will soon be a major polluter − like its neighbour, China.

For the world, it is a continued worry that if the country soon to have the largest population in the world develops − as China has − by burning coal, climate change will surely get out of control.

No commitments on climate change have so far been made by India, as it waits to see what the developed countries offer to prove they are serious about aid, technology transfer, and targets to reduce their own emissions.

Carbon tax

But while priority in India has been given to development − particularly providing electricity for the millions who live without it − and tackling poverty, the newly-elected government has made a promising start on recognising the importance of climate change.

It has a new energy policy centred on an ambitious increase in solar power capacity − from the current 20,000 megawatts to 100,000 MW in five years. There is a Rupees 5 billion ($80 million) budget this year alone for “ultra mega” solar projects. And a carbon tax on coal has also been doubled for the purpose of subsidising solar and other renewables.

Prakash Javadekar, India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change minister, said before heading for the UN climate change conference being held in Lima, Peru: “This game-changer energy mix will give us enhanced energy efficiency and save 50 million tonnes of coal. That’s a huge contribution to the world, and will affect our emissions. We will walk the clean water, clean air, clean power path.”

“Both solar and coal power will increase,
but that is our energy mix”

There have been reports about a possible announcement next month – when US president Barack Obama visits New Delhi − of the year in which India intends its greenhouse gas emissions to peak.

However, Javadekar refused to set a timeline, despite the apparent pressure after the US-China joint declaration that the US will reduce emissions by 2025 and China’s will peak by 2030. All countries are supposed to inform the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by March 2015 of their action plans for emission reductions.

Javadekar said India is putting in place several action plans for achieving the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions as part of the 2015 agreement. But he made clear that the “peaking year” will not be the benchmark set at Lima; it will be “India’s contribution” − and will be much more than expected.

India, which is expected to surpass China’s current 1.3 billion population by 2030, has always defended its position, as its emissions are less than 2 tonnes per capita, compared with about 7.2 tonnes in China and 16.4 tonnes in the US.

“Our growth cannot be compromised,” Javadekar said. “We have the right to develop, and our priority is to eliminate poverty and meet the aspirations.”

Objections raised

Asked how India will address objections raised by developed countries to it digging more dirty coal, despite its ambitious solar programme, Javadekar insisted: “We are not going on the ‘business as usual’ path − although we are entitled to it. Both solar and coal power will increase, but that is our energy mix. We are doing our own actions under domestic legislations.”

There is a rift at the Lima talks between the developed and the developing countries on the issue of capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund under the 2015 Paris agreement, and this has already seen the G77 group of nations banding together.

Sunita Narain, director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment thinktank, referred to this in talking about the “politics of climate change”, and how the global south is being short-changed by the global north.

She said climate change talks are about achieving clean economic growth, but, 25 years after talks began, the world is “still procrastinating and finding excuses not to act”. – Climate News Network

  • Nivedita Khandekar is a Delhi-based independent journalist who writes on environmental, developmental and climate change issues. Email: nivedita_him@rediffmail.com; Twitter: @nivedita_Him

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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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Outlook is bright for UK’s solar power potential

Outlook is bright for UK’s solar power potential

While critics argue that solar energy has no immediate future in the UK’s famously grey and wet climate, a new report says it could be thriving and commercially competitive there by 2020 without government support.

LONDON, 6 December, 2014 − Solar energy is sometimes dismissed as a fanciful idea with little to offer so far in such a cloudy country as the UK, but a new report says power from the sun could thrive in Britain in barely five years’ time − without the need for any subsidy.

The report – published on the website of Thema1, a Berlin-based group that works to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon society − says solar energy is leading changes in the power market as hardware costs have fallen relentlessly over the last decade, recalling the boom in the semiconductor industry.

Last month, the German utility E.ON announced that it was hiving off all its conventional fossil fuel generation to focus on renewables and energy services.

Dr Johannes Teyssen, E.ON’s chief executive, said on 1 December: “More money is invested in renewables than in any other generation technology. Far from diminishing, this trend will actually increase.”

Large-scale projects

The authors of the new report − energy expert Gerard Reid, founder of the corporate finance company Alexa Capital, and Gerard Wynn, of the GWG Energy climate policy and energy consultancy − say it was written in the context of the UK’s plan to force large-scale solar projects to compete with onshore wind for a smaller pot of support, which they say will seriously undermine that market.

Solar power, they predict, would be competitive without subsidies as soon as 2020 in the British commercial rooftop market, which includes schools and offices. The domestic rooftop and large-scale solar markets would be economic within the next 10 years.

“We are firmly convinced that solar will become the bedrock of the global power system going forward,” said Reid, whose company finances low-carbon energy projects in Germany and the UK.

“That said, the road going forward is uncharted and difficult. Our message to the UK Government is to reduce support for solar, but to do so gradually.”

“As battery costs fall, households will be able to deploy solar panels without government support”

Once all support is withdrawn, domestic solar power will critically depend on households increasing the amount that they consume, rather than exporting it to the grid. In this way, they will avoid selling surpluses at very low wholesale power prices, while buying less mains electricity at much higher domestic power prices.

Batteries could be important, allowing households to consume their own stored power for several hours after sunset − a critical factor in the British domestic market, where peak demand is in the early evening.

“As battery costs continue to fall, households will be able to deploy solar panels without government support,” Wynn predicts.

The report says batteries could reduce payback periods for homeowners to little more than a decade by 2020.

But it adds that these are not the only people who can look forward to a windfall: the three markets in solar power – large-scale “solar farms”, and commercial and residential rooftop users – will become economic in the UK without subsidy within the next decade.

Consistent supply

Critics of solar power say it cannot provide the consistent supply of power modern society needs − a charge that has proved mistaken − and that it can do nothing at this stage of its development for a famously grey and wet country like the UK.

The  UK Government’s former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who lost his job last July, told a London audience in October: “Solar power may one day be a real contributor to global energy in low latitudes and at high altitudes, and in certain niches. But it is a non-starter as a significant supplier to the UK grid today and will remain so for as long as our skies are cloudy and our winter nights long.”

He added: “It’s an expensive red herring for this country, and today’s solar farms are a futile eye-sore, and a waste of land that could be better used for other activities.”

Germany’s experience, and the prospects for the UK, may give him cause to think again. − 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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