Insurance industry sleeps through climate alarm calls

Insurance industry sleeps through climate alarm calls

Disasters linked to climate change could cost insurance companies billions of dollars, but a new survey finds that many of them − particularly in the US − are paying scant attention to the threat.

LONDON, 30 October, 2014 − Insurance is all about assessing risk, so you might expect companies in the sector to be intimately involved with one of the most potent risks facing the world – the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

Yet a survey by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental awareness in the business sector, has found a startling lack of action by most insurers on the issue.

In total, more than 300 insurers − a large proportion of them based in the US − were canvassed and then given various ratings associated with their response to climate change –ranging from “leading” to “minimal”.

“Most of the companies responding to the survey reported a profound lack of preparedness in addressing climate-related risks and opportunities,” the Ceres report says. “Only nine insurers, or three per cent of the 330 companies overall, earned a ‘leading’ rating.”

Forecasting techniques

The Ceres survey examined the structures and management that companies have in place to deal with climate change, their forecasting techniques, how they communicate on the issue with policyholders and investors, and how the companies were dealing with their own carbon emissions.

On all counts, the majority of companies were found wanting, with the relatively smaller companies performing less well than the bigger concerns.

The insurance industry is considerably bigger in the US than elsewhere, but only two of the nine companies that earned leading ratings in the survey are based in the US. Non-US companies that gained a leading rating include the re-insurers Swiss Re and Munich Re, and the XL Group.

Property and Casualty insurers are on the frontline of climate change risks, and “there is compelling evidence those risks are growing”

The survey looked in detail at two key segments of the insurance industry: Property and Casualty (P&C), and Life and Annuity (L&A).

Ceres says P&C insurers are on the frontline of climate change risks, “and there is compelling evidence those risks are growing”.

Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of the US in late 2012, resulted in $29 billion of insured losses in the US.

“A tremendous amount of property (both insured and uninsured) is increasingly threatened by sea level rise,” Ceres says.

A report earlier this year by CoreLogic, a financial analysis and advisory company, identified more than 6.5 million homes in the US at risk of storm surge damage, with a total reconstruction value amounting to $1.5 trillion.

“Extreme weather is also exacerbating supply chain risks and causing business interruption losses,” Ceres says.

In 2011, there was serious flooding in Thailand, and international companies with manufacturing plants there suffered between $15 billion and $20 billion in losses.

Profit margins

Most P&C insurers pay inadequate attention to climate risks, but the L&A segment of the industry is even more lax, Ceres says. L&A insurers have trillions of dollars worth of investments that may be affected by climate change. If those investments are not managed with climate change in mind, then profit margins will suffer and companies might struggle to meet their liabilities in the long term.

The insurance industry also isn’t paying nearly enough attention to how global warming will affect human health and mortality, Ceres warns. The survey shows that most health insurers are not preparing for climate change-related temperature extremes, decreasing air quality, and the increased spread of diseases.

“As risk carriers, risk managers and major investors, every insurer should develop and issue a public climate risk management policy for the benefit of their shareholders, policy holders and employees,” Ceres recommends.

Separately, the Bank of England, the UK’s central bank, has written to 30 leading insurance companies asking for information on how they assess the impact of climate change-related events on their operations. – Climate News Network

China-US links can spark emissions breakthrough

China-US links can spark emissions breakthrough

New research suggests that global emission reduction targets are achievable if China and the US – the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases − work together to reduce pollution levels.

LONDON, 29 October, 2014 – Tentative steps have been taken by China and the US towards co-operating on climate change − mainly focusing on relatively modest technological schemes connected with more efficient and less polluting power generation.

But a new report calls on the two countries to be far more ambitious, and says that if the two adopt global best practice on climate change policy, total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) would be radically reduced, and the goal of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2˚C by 2050 could be achieved.

Limiting the temperature rise to 2˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2050 is considered to be essential if catastrophic climate change is to be averted, although some in the scientific community have questioned the relevance of having such a target.

The new report − a collaboration between the Ecofys energy consultancy, the Climate Analytics research group and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) – says that, together, China and the US are responsible for about 35% of global GHG emissions.

Right pathway

“If they scale up action to adopt the most ambitious policies from across the world, they would both be on the right pathway to keep warming below 2˚C,” says Bill Hare, senior scientist at PIK.

“This needs to include dramatically reducing their use of coal, in order to achieve the deep decarbonisation needed in getting CO2 emissions from coal back to 1990 levels by 2030.”

The report compares the actions of both countries in their most energy intensive sectors – electricity production, buildings and transport.

  • Electricity usage per head in the US is four times that in China. In both countries, emissions from the electricity sector have been reduced, but more coal plants are planned. If both increased the share of renewables in the sector by 1.3% per year – a rate achieved by Germany and the UK since 2005 – it would make a considerable difference to overall emissions levels.
  • China’s cement plants are more energy efficient than those in the US, but the situation is reversed with iron and steel plants. Lower emissions could be achieved if both countries adopted the best available technology.
  • Car ownership is 10 times higher in the US than in China, though the difference is narrowing. China implements stronger emissions standards. If both countries moved to global best practice in the sector − such as adopting EU emissions standards, or working towards a greater take-up of electric cars, such as in Norway − then lower overall emissions levels could be achieved.
  • “Massive reductions” in emissions could be achieved if China and the US adopted EU building standards governing heat and energy. The use of energy in residential buildings in the US is three times as high as in China.

The report concludes that if both countries agree to adopt global best practice across all these sectors, then China could reduce its overall emissions by 1.2% by 2020 and by 20% by 2030, while the US would reduce its emissions by 3.2% by 2020 and 16% by 2030. – Climate News Network

Threat to rivers as hydropower gets set for global boom

Threat to rivers as hydropower gets set for global boom

Scientists predict a doubling in production of renewable energy from hydropower over the next 20 years, but building new dams will have a damaging effect on some of the world’s major rivers.

LONDON, 28 October, 2014 − Hydropower, the renewable technology that sets gravity to work and harnesses the energy of rivers, is about to double its output.

The growth will be mostly in the developing world − but the construction of new dams on rivers in South America, South-east Asia and Africa comes at a cost. Around a fifth of the world’s largest remaining free-flowing rivers will be dammed, which presents yet another threat to the wild things that live in or depend on wild water.

Christiane Zarfl − now assistant professor for Environmental System Analysis at the University of Tübingen, Germany − and former colleagues at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin presented their findings at the International Alliance of Research Universities congress on global challenges, hosted by the University of Copenhagen. The research is also published in the journal Aquatic Sciences.

Renewables, such as solar energy and wind power, now provide about a fifth of the world’s electricity production, and hydroelectric power makes up four-fifths of that. The researchers believe that, within the next two decades, another 3,700 dams may more than double hydropower’s total electricity capacity to 1,700 GW.

Surge of activity

China will remain the global leader, but because of the surge of activity in other countries, its share will fall from 31% to about 25%. The largest number of new dams in South America will be in the Amazon and La Plata basins of Brazil. In Asia, the biggest effort will be in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin and along the Yangtze.

But while some national economies look for a brighter electric future from hydropower, others have to confront and come to terms with the capriciousness of freshwater delivery.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, and colleagues argue in Science magazine  that too much water − as well as too little – can seriously damage a nation’s economic health. And climate change means that this unpredictability is likely to present even greater difficulties in the decades ahead.

But challenges exist already. In Ethiopia, a sustained drought has reduced economic growth by 38%. In Thailand, floods in 2011 cost the country $16 billion in insured losses and $43 billion in overall economic losses. In parts of India, half the annual rainfall splashes onto the dusty soils in just 15 days, and 90% of the annual river flows are concentrated into about four months of the year.

Rainfall can vary according to season and from year to year. Climate scientists have also repeatedly warned of a possible increase in extremes of heat and flood. So there are at least three dimensions to the delivery of water on tap.

In the arid regions – and these include most of Australia, the southwestern US, the Middle East and North Africa – conditions are marked by what hydrologists call “strong interannual variability”, which is a delicate way of saying that droughts can last for years and then end suddenly with catastrophic flash floods.

“When these dimensions are combined,” the report’s authors say, “the situation is most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people.” – Climate News Network

Lugworm’s turn to feel effects of ocean acidity

Lugworm’s turn to feel effects of ocean acidity

Researchers in the UK have found evidence that a marine worm is being damaged by the increasing ocean acidification that was widely thought to imperil mainly shellfish and coral.

LONDON, 27 October, 2014 − A common marine worm has alerted scientists to the likelihood that the effects of ocean acidification may be more widespread and severe than they had realised.

The lugworm (Arenicola marina) − common on the coasts of Europe and North America, where it can grow to 30 cms in length and is a bait popular with anglers − is being affected by rising levels of acid in the coastal seas. The acid is reported also to be affecting sea urchins.

This is further confirmation that ocean acidification is affecting species other than those that scientists call calcifying organisms − creatures that rely on calcium carbonate to form shells and similar structures.

The pH (a measure of acidity – the lower the pH, the more acidic the water) of the planet’s oceans is dropping rapidly, largely because the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. Since carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid, the seas are responding to global change.

Highest rate

Scientists say the oceans are now 30% more acidic than they were at the beginning of the industrial revolution about 250 years ago. The current rate of acidification is thought to be the highest for 65 million years.

Among the sea species most vulnerable to acidification are shellfish, coral and other creatures − including some species of plankton − which suffer because the build-up of acid prevents them from developing their calcium shells. Animals further up the marine food chain are also at risk when their prey feels the acidity’s effects.

Researchers at the University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences in the UK have now found that other creatures are also being affected because the growing acidity is increasing their vulnerability to coastal pollutants such as copper.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, they explain how they found that the extra copper harms lugworms’ sperm, meaning that their young fail to develop properly. They say: “Larval survival was reduced by 24% when exposed to both OA [ocean acidification] and copper combined, compared to single OA or copper exposures.”

Toxic effects

Sperm motility − the ability of the sperm to swim strongly − was damaged by both OA and copper alone, but with added toxic effects when both factors were combined. Individually, both OA and copper also reduced the lugworms’ fertilisation success.

One of the report’s authors, Dr Ceri Lewis, a marine biologist at Exeter, told BBC News: “It’s a bit of a shock, frankly. It means the effects of ocean acidification may be even more serious than we previously thought. We need to look with new eyes at things that we thought were not vulnerable.

“Our work means we are underestimating effects of acidification for coastal invertebrates. We are now realising there are many indirect impacts of ocean acidification on other processes. It could be that we are facing a lot more surprises ahead.”

Dr Lewis told the Climate News Network: “Lugworms do as important a job as gardeners of our beaches as earthworms do on land, and they bring oxygen down to the underwater sediments. The discovery that they too are affected means there’s a whole new area of concern now, looking at the indirect effect of pollutants and at other species that may be harmed as the acidification increases.”

She has also found more evidence that copper pollution is damaging another marine species − sea urchins. They are already affected by the seawater’s increasing acidity, which means they have to spend more energy on making their shells and spines. − Climate News Network

Climate linked to shrink in size of Alpine chamois

Climate linked to shrink in size of Alpine chamois

Scientists have found strong evidence that declining body size in herds of the chamois mountain goats that are hunted in the Italian Alps is linked to warmer spring and summer temperatures.

LONDON, 26 October, 2014 − The Alpine chamois is getting smaller. Researchers have found that climate change and a gradual rise in average temperatures over the last 35 years mean that young chamois now weigh about 25% less than animals of the same age did in the 1980s.

The latest find, reported in Frontiers in Zoology, is yet more evidence that bodymass and climatic conditions are linked, and that mammals have a tendency to respond to rising temperatures by dwindling in size.

“Body size declines attributed to climate change are widespread in the animal kingdom, with many fish, bird and animal species getting smaller,” said Tom Mason, a biologist at Durham University in the UK. “However, the decreases we observe here are astonishing. The impact on chamois weight could pose real problems for the survival of these populations.”

Vital statistics

Chamois, a mountain goat-antelope species native to Europe, are hunted every autumn in the Italian Alps − under strict regulation, which has allowed populations to increase. So the researchers had access to the vital statistics of more than 10,000 yearling chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) shot between 1979 and 2010 in three hunting districts in the mountains of Trento province in northern Italy.

The researchers found “clear negative temporal body mass trends in all sexes and sites” in all three populations.

In cold conditions, higher body mass confers advantage. Bigger animals will have a lower ratio of skin to volume, and therefore conserve warmth more easily. Conversely, in the tropics, smaller creatures have a greater ratio of surface through which they can radiate heat, and more easily maintain thermal equilibrium.

Biologists have confirmed this effect in fossil records: skeletal evidence shows that ancestral horses, deer and primates all got smaller as temperatures soared during a dramatic hot spell 55 million years ago. And they have found tentative evidence in a long study of the weights of America’s wild bison across a range of prairie temperatures.

Scientists have also warned that to survive dramatic global warming, humans could shrink to almost Hobbit-like dimensions.

The Alpine studies establish that the lower bodyweights of the chamois native to the region are linked to temperature, rather than to the availability of food.

Levels of nourishment

The same long-term data records reveal that the Alpine meadows that feed these mountain goats are just as productive, and deliver the same levels of nourishment, as they did four decades ago. But Alpine temperatures on average became between 3°C and 4°C warmer over the same period.

“We know that chamois cope with hot periods by resting more and spending less time searching for food, and this may be restricting their size more than the quality of the vegetation they eat,” said Stephen Willis, a co-author. “If climate change results in similar behavioural and body mass changes in domestic livestock, this could have impacts on agricultural productivity in coming decades.”

Wild animals are anyway under pressure from human population growth and loss of habitat, but the latest findings present new puzzles.

Body mass is valuable: it gets a grazing animal through the harshest winters. So chamois numbers are likely to fall, or may have to be kept low.

Dr Mason said: “This study shows the striking, unforeseen impacts that climate change can have on animal populations.” – Climate News Network

Universities trash football in waste reduction league

Universities trash football in waste reduction league

Shouts of “what a load of rubbish” are heard at hundreds of football matches around England every weekend – but researchers say fans should direct them at overflowing waste bins rather than at players and referees.

LONDON, 25 September, 2014 − Most English football clubs, and the millions of fans who watch them, don’t think beyond what is going to happen on the pitch in the next 90 minutes. Saving the planet is the last thing on their minds, according to research into the Football League.

At the other end of the scale, universities are seriously concerned about their effect on the environment. The world’s top teaching universities are combining to lower their impact, and believe that their students − the leaders of tomorrow − will continue these efforts when they begin their careers.

Football, which has a major influence on the behaviour of millions of young people, is a major industry in the UK.

Eleven tiers make up English football’s pyramid. The Premier League is at the apex, followed by the Championship and Football Leagues One and Two, and then a national league structure – with 59 leagues across the country providing a feeder system through to the Football League.

This means that hundreds of matches take place each week, attracting crowds of spectators in varying numbers. While the numbers decrease in the lower leagues, the huge amount of games played means the aggregate number of spectators is on a par with the Premier League.

Extra revenue

Of course, the big money is made by Premier League clubs, which get millions in revenue from sponsorship and worldwide TV. But one thing all the clubs have in common is that food and drink generates extra revenue and plenty of waste.

Football does sometimes manage to notch up an environmental goal. Like many large businesses, some of the top clubs take seriously the amount of waste that fans produce during matches − mainly because it costs clubs a lot of money to dispose of it.

For example, Arsenal FC now has its own waste recycling centre, and Manchester City and Manchester United have made such improvements in waste generation and disposal that none of their waste now goes to landfill.

In the lower leagues, however, the problem is still largely ignored.

The School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, UK, decided to investigate to see how much rubbish was produced by the highest profile and most popular sport in England, and what effect they had on greenhouse gas emissions.

The amount of waste generated by each one of the nine million fans who watched games in the lower leagues in the 2012/13 season was 3.27 kg each. That amounts to 30,146 tonnes of waste over the season, about a quarter of which went to landfill and produced more than two million kg of carbon dioxide to add to climate change.

In their paper, published in Scientific Research, the researchers say that waste per person at an average lower league match was 10 times that produced on big sporting occasions such as FA Cup finals – less than a quarter of a kilo, compared with 3.27 kg.

The amount produced over a season by the eight lower tiers o f the football league is three times the amount produced at the 2012 London Olympic Games. According to the researchers, this shows that the management of the lower league football clubs need to do more to monitor and reduce their waste.

The incentive, apart from saving the planet, is that taking rubbish to landfill is expensive. The tax each club has to pay per tonne of waste produced has increased from £7 in 1996 to £40 a tonne in 2014.

“Although many corporate organisations have moved to a wider social audit . . . football clubs have not yet moved in this direction”

The paper suggests that football also has a moral responsibility because sport has wider effects than other businesses in providing support and inspiration in such areas as education, health and fitness, environment, art, and culture.

The report concludes: “Although many corporate organisations have moved to a wider social audit of their performance that includes triple bottom line reporting of their economic, environmental and social performance, football clubs have not yet moved in this direction.”

In contrast, some of the world’s top teaching universities − meeting at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark this week – have launched a green guide to reduce their impact on the environment.

The International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) guide focuses on sharing experience about how universities can become more sustainable. This includes reusing materials, eliminating rubbish and recycling as well as extensive programmes of reducing energy use in laboratories, lecture theatres and residential accommodation.

Among the universities taking part are Oxford and Cambridge in England, Yale in the US, Peking in China, Tokyo in Japan, Eth in Switzerland, and the National Universities of Singapore and Australia.

Green guide

Jørgen Honoré, University Director at Copenhagen, said in launching the guide this week: “Universities have the opportunity to create cultures of sustainability for today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders, and to set their expectations for how the world should be. The green guide provides real-world examples to inspire innovation and creative action at universities around the globe.”

The guide includes 23 case histories from these major universities, including installation of solar roofs, and some have already made big strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“At the University of Copenhagen, we have already achieved ambitious targets,” Honoré said. “We have reduced our energy consumption per person by 20%, and we have cut our CO2 emissions per person by nearly 30% since 2006.

“Many of our buildings have been made more energy efficient − for example by replacing ventilation units, installing LED lighting, insulating pipes, and making laboratory work more energy efficient.”

In the war on waste reduction, it seems that the current score stands at something like Football United 1, University Academicals 5. – Climate News Network

Oil boom prompts US to push for crude exports

Oil boom prompts US to push for crude exports

America’s expanding oil production threatens the pristine Pacific Northwest region of the country with a rash of new oil terminals along the coast.

OREGON, 21 October, 2014 − Oil and coal producers in the US are planning to use mile-long tanker trains to transport vast quantities of fossil fuels to the coast through areas that environmental groups believe should be protected.

The change in world fossil fuel production, consumption and costs caused by tar sands exploitation in Canada and the fracking boom in the US is causing what Bill McKibben − author, environmental activist and co-founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org − calls a “chokepoint” in the unspoiled Northwest of the country.

Coal is already being exported in ever-larger amounts from the US because it cannot compete with cheaper gas from fracking. Now campaigners fear that the oil industry also wants to export cheap oil to Asia − although so far the companies deny it, saying it will be sent by sea to other parts of the US.

The largest of the 11 proposals to build new or expand existing crude-by-rail terminals is that of Tesoro-Savage at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland.

The company wants the capacity to transfer crude oil from the North American interior to seagoing tankers and barges. Four “unit trains”, each a mile long and comprising up to 100 tanker cars, would arrive at the terminal daily, delivering 360,000 barrels of oil. This would be the largest such terminal in the region.

Ecosystem lifeblood

The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, and was once home to what were claimed to be the world’s largest salmon runs. It is already stressed by 14 hydroelectric dams and barge traffic hauling grain and other products from the interior, as well as radiation leaking from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington.

The oil and coal trains must pass through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a protected section of the river and its environs where hundreds of waterfalls create micro-habitats for species of plants found nowhere else on Earth.

Rail tracks run along very narrow routes on both sides of the river, sometimes on causeways on the river’s edge. They have already seen traffic increases. According to a report in the Oregonian newspaper, there was a 250% increase in the number of tankers passing through Oregon between 2006 and 2013.

Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion
Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion

Since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, the US government has banned the export of crude oil. This means that, for the time being, crude oil from North Dakota will go to refineries in Washington state and California, replacing the declining supply from Alaska.

In addition, the Vancouver terminal “would have the capacity to displace 30% of the crude oil currently imported to West Coast refineries from foreign countries”, according to an email written by Elizabeth Watters, a spokesperson for Tesoro. She added that this would “increase US energy security in an uncertain world”. Watters also said Tesoro-Savage has no plans to export oil.

Claims that oil interests aren’t planning to export is “all bovine scatology, smoke and mirrors”, says Eric de Place, policy director for the Washington-based Sightline Institute, a not-for-profit sustainability thinktank.

 “it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set
on a robust export market”

“I think it’s likely that in the near term they might transport some of the fuel to west coast refineries in Washington or California, but it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set on a robust export market.”

In addition, De Place says, the terminals “could be receiving Canadian tar sands oil on day one” and exporting it immediately, because tar sands oil from Canada isn’t under US export jurisdiction.

Coal can already be exported. In fact, US coal exports have nearly doubled since 2007, and three coal terminals are currently under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If all were built, about 100 million tonnes of coal would depart from the Pacific Northwest annually.

There is remarkable resistance among disparate political and economic interests to expansion of the fossil fuel industry in the region.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union objects to the Tesoro-Savage terminal on worker safety grounds because Bakken crude is far more flammable than other oil types, and there is opposition from a local real estate developer because he fears that the terminal would make his riverfront office/restaurant project untenable.

Potential spills

The city of Vancouver has passed a resolution against the terminal because of concerns about potential spills or explosions and traffic congestion. The state of Oregon rejected Australian corporation Ambre Energy’s coal terminal proposal at the Port of Morrow, and the Port of Portland has declined to consider adding oil-by-rail and coal terminals for the time being.

Governors of both Columbia River states have expressed concerns about climate impacts from the expansion of fossil fuel transportation in the region.

The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps
The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps

In a recent election debate, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said: “It makes no sense to me to subsidise the burning of fossil fuels in Asia while we adopt state and federal policies that do just the opposite.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee is the sole person who will decide the Tesoro-Savage project’s fate. According to Inslee’s spokesperson, Jaime Smith, the governor believes that if “we are trying to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels and use more clean energy technologies − if that is our intended goal as a state, as a nation − shouldn’t we be taking a look at that?”

But none of the political entities involved in deciding whether Tesoro-Savage can move ahead is obligated to consider climate impacts, leaving objections to the fossil fuels mostly to environmental campaigners. However, the states do have to consider issues of rail safety and the impact of possible spills.

If oil traveling to the Vancouver terminal is not exported, it wouldn’t necessarily add to the CO2 emissions already occurring in the US because it would just “top up” the domestic supply − provided that US consumption doesn’t rise.

But fossil fuels exported from the Pacific Northwest to Asia would certainly add to those emissions as Asia’s economies grow. Moreover, it would hoist the west coast by its own petard by increasing the hydrocarbon air pollution that already travels eastward across the Pacific from oil and coal burned in Asia.

Watters, asked whether Tesoro is concerned about climate change, wrote: “Tesoro recognises that climate change is an important global issue, and we are committed to reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions from our refineries to below 1990 levels.” She did not comment on the global warming potential of the fossil fuels Tesoro-Savage would be transporting.

Fuel prices

What lifting the crude oil export ban would do to international and domestic crude oil and fuel prices is unclear. Brookings Institution analysts calculate that doing so would lower the price of gasoline by about $0.09 per gallon if the ban were lifted in 2015, and that US exports would not affect the behaviour of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

But De Place says: “The prevailing view among industry analysts is that that would raise the price of oil domestically.” He also warns that “the history of energy analysts predicting what the price of oil will do is the history of people going to the casino”.

The planning and permitting process for all the proposed Columbia River facilities will take several years.

Tesoro-Savage must submit a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Washington Department of Ecology, and a release of the draft EIS is expected in the spring of 2015, at which time public comment will be solicited.

The Washington energy facility siting agency will then make a recommendation to Governor Inslee, after which he will make his decision.

Other Pacific Northwest proposals are also in various stages of the process.

Until the oil and coal proposals are approved or rejected, it is still an open question whether the Pacific Northwest chokepoint will close to fossil fuels or be opened wider. – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists.

Website: www.valeriebrownwriter.com 

Twitter link: @sacagawea

Sea rise may still pose a man-sized threat

Sea rise may still pose a man-sized threat

Although new research discounts the likelihood of a two-metre sea rise this century, the predicted impacts of global warming are still bad news for the many millions of people living at or near sea level.

LONDON, 21 October, 2014 − For those who think climate change means deep trouble, some comfort: there is a limit to how deep. Danish-led researchers have looked at all the projections and satisfied themselves that, at the very worst, sea levels this century will rise by a maximum 1.8 metres − roughly the height of an average man.

They report in Environmental Research Letters that they contemplated rates of melting in Greenland and Antarctica, the retreat of mountain glaciers worldwide, and the impact of groundwater extraction for agriculture and industry.

They also looked at all the projections for thermal expansion of the oceans, because warmer water is less dense than colder water and therefore occupies a greater volume. Then they began to calculate the band of possibilities.

“We have created a picture of probable limits for how much global sea levels will rise this century,” said Aslak Grinsted, assistant professor in the Niels Bohr Institute’s Centre for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. “Our calculations show that seas will likely rise by around 80cm. An increase of more than 180 cm has a likelihood of less than 5%. We find that a rise in sea levels of more than 2 metres is improbable.”

Critical infrastructure

The worst-case scenario, he says, is something that it would be wise to consider for critical infrastructure, such as the Delta Works, a series of construction projects that protect a large area of land in the south-west of the Netherlands, or the Thames Barrier, which aims to prevent London from being inundated by exceptionally high tides and storm surges from the North Sea.

The finding comes with two important provisos: one is that any significant rise remains extremely bad news for people in those regions of the planet that are already more or less at sea level − among them the coral atolls of the tropical oceans, the Netherlands, the Nile Delta, Bangladesh, Venice in Italy, and some of the world’s great maritime cities.

The other is that the man-high limit extends only to 2100, and researchers have repeatedly warned that, once begun, sea level rise will continue for centuries.

The Danish calculations fall into the category of things that could happen: melting in polar waters inevitably means even warmer equatorial waters, and another ominous projection for the near future is that commercially valuable fish could desert the tropics by 2050.

William Cheung, head of the Changing Ocean Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Miranda Jones, an environmental scientist at the same university, considered what would happen if the world warmed by 3°C by 2100.

“The tropics will be the overall losers. This area has
a high dependence on fish for food, diet and nutrition”

They report in ICES Journal of Marine Science that, under such a scenario, tropical fish could move away from their present habitats at a rate of 26 kilometres a decade. Even with a 1°C warming, they would desert their home waters at 15 km a decade.

Altogether, the two scientists considered the possibilities for 802 commercially important species, concluding that such a set of migrations might introduce new potential catches in Arctic waters, but could be very bad news for tropical fishermen, and for the hundreds of millions who depend on fish as a source of protein.

“The tropics will be the overall losers,” Dr Cheung said. “This area has a high dependence on fish for food, diet and nutrition. We’ll see a loss of fish populations that are important to the fisheries and communities in these regions.”

Accelerated rates

Paradoxically, as researchers consistently forecast accelerated rates of melting in polar waters, the Antarctic sea ice in September occupied a greater area than ever before, with the five-day average on September 19 reaching 20 million sq km, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

That means that while most of the planet continued to warm, the Antarctic continent and the seas around it were icier, for one season at least.

Such measurements ultimately depend on satellite and aerial surveillance, and according to Claire Parkinson, climate change senior scientist at  the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, the anomaly simply reflects the complexity of climate dynamics and the diversity of the Earth’s environments.

“The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming,” she says. “Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent.”

But, overall, the planet is still saying goodbye to ice. The Antarctic’s gain is roughly a third in area of the loss of ice in the Arctic. – Climate News Network

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

With population increasing and food demand far outstripping supply, the Sahel is vulnerable to a new humanitarian crisis − and researchers warn that rising temperatures will only make matters worse.

LONDON, 20 October, 2014 − The Sahel, the arid belt of land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna, is no stranger to drought and famine.

Now scientists in Sweden say the Sahel faces another humanitarian crisis even than in the recent past − with the changing climate partly responsible.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers from Lund University say people in the Sahel need more food, animal feed and fuel every year. But demand, which has more than doubled over a recent 10-year period, is growing much faster than supply.

Fewer resources

Data from 22 countries shows the result: fewer resources per capita and a continued risk of famine in areas with low primary production – that is, the availability of carbon in the form of plant material for consumption as food, fuel and feed.

Human numbers are part of the reason. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the Sahel grew from 367 million to 471 million people − an annual rise of 2.2% over the decade.

But crop production remained essentially unchanged, so the margin between supply and demand for primary production is shrinking every year, while the Sahel’s population is forecast to total nearly a billion people by 2050.

Children's graves at a refugee camp in Kenya during the famine in 2011 Image: Andy Hll/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons
Children’s graves at a Kenyan refugee camp during the 2011 famine
Image: Andy Hall/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons

Some studies suggest that modern plant strains can withstand the effects of drought better than traditional cultivars, although this was not a focus of the Lund team.

They were mainly concerned with the staple crops grown regionally − such as sorghum and millet, which are used as food for people, with the residues used as fodder for livestock − and with the dry woodlands that provide fuel.

They used remote analysis and satellite images to calculate annual crop production in the 22 countries they studied, and compared the figures with data on population growth and consumption of food, animal feed and fuel. This relationship helps to measure a region’s vulnerability.

The study shows that 19% of the Sahel’s total primary production in 2000 was consumed. Ten years later, consumption had increased to 41%.

Reduced harvest

It says several forecasts suggest that harvests will be reduced as a result of the higher air temperatures the region is now experiencing, even though climate change is predicted to result in the Sahel receiving more rain in future.

So, the researchers say, climate change can only increase the vulnerability of the Sahel.

Asked by the Climate News Network whether higher air temperatures alone were likely to cancel the gains from increased rainfall, one of the study’s authors, Hakim Abdi, a doctoral student in physical geography and ecosystem science at Lund, said: “The short answer is yes. Studies indicate that higher temperatures offset both increased rainfall and CO2 fertilisation.

“Additionally, a recent study found that increase in future rainfall in the Sahel, a region where the soil generally receives little nutrient input and is over-exploited, causes nutrient leaching, and hence induces nitrogen stress.

“When we were in our study site in North Kordofan in Sudan, the most common complaint we received from the villages we visited was the lack of water.

“I think that if a drought occurs with an impact that matches or exceeds the ones in 1972/73 or 1982/83, we will see serious consequences − worse impacts than past ones.” − Climate News Network

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Biofuels are controversial because they are often produced from food crops or grown on farmland, but a common algae found in abundance around coastlines and clogging up beaches may be the answer.

LONDON, 19 October, 2014 – It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy − about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors” – which look like tiny sealed straws – Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79%. That means that 79 % of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19%. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2 as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79%, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research. – Climate News Network