Category Archives: Climate

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

A long strand of sugar kelp on a beach in Heligoland off northern Germany Image: Grabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons
A long strand of sugar kelp on a beach in the Heligoland archipelago off north Germany
Image: Grabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown 

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

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Fuelling controversy: Coal being loaded onto a train in Queensland, Australia Image Ellis678 via Wikimedia Commons
Fuelling the controversy: coal being loaded onto a train in Queensland, Australia
Image Ellis678 via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

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

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

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

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

‘Tragedy of horizons’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public pressure

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

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

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

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

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

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Scientists studying Arctic sea ice and melt ponds on the Chuckchi Sea Image: NASA/Kathryn Hansen
Melting point: researchers study Arctic sea ice and melt ponds on the Chuckchi Sea
Image: NASA/Kathryn Hansen via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Scientists analysing more than three decades of weather data for the northern Alaska outpost of Barrow have linked an astonishing 7°C temperature rise to the decline in Arctic sea ice.

LONDON, 17 October, 2014 − If you doubt that parts of the planet really are warming, talk to residents of Barrow, the Alaskan town that is the most northerly settlement in the US.

In the last 34 years, the average October temperature in Barrow has risen by more than 7°C − an increase that, on its own, makes a mockery of international efforts to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level.

A study by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks analysed several decades of weather information. These show that temperature trends are closely linked to sea ice concentrations, which have been recorded since 1979, when accurate satellite measurements began.

The study, published in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal, traces what has happened to average annual and monthly temperatures in Barrow from 1979 to 2012.

Most striking

In that period, the average annual temperature rose by 2.7°C. But the November increase was far higher − more than six degrees. And October was the most striking of all, with the month’s average temperature 7.2°C higher in 2012 than in 1979.

Gerd Wendler, the lead author of the study and a professor emeritus at the university’s International Arctic Research Center, said he was “astonished”. He told the Alaska Dispatch News: “I think I have never, anywhere, seen such a large increase in temperature over such a short period.”

The study shows that October is the month when sea ice loss in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which border northern Alaska, has been highest. The authors say these falling ice levels over the Arctic Ocean after the maximum annual melt are the reason for the temperature rise. “You cannot explain it by anything else,” Wendler said.

They have ruled out the effects of sunlight because, by October, the sun is low in the sky over Barrow and, by late November, does not appear above the horizon.

Instead, they say, the north wind picks up stored heat from water that is no longer ice-covered in late autumn and releases it into the atmosphere.

At first sight, the team’s findings are remarkable, as Barrow’s 7.2°C rise in 34 years compares with a global average temperature increase over the past century of up to about 0.8°C. But what’s happening may be a little more complex.

Warming faster

The fact that temperatures in and around Barrow are rising fast is no surprise, as the Arctic itself is known to be warming faster than most of the rest of the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says observed warming in parts of northern Alaska was up to 3°C from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. It also concludes that about two-thirds of the last century’s global temperature increase has occurred since 1980.

But Barrow’s long-term temperature rise has not been uniform, the Fairbanks study says. Its analysis of weather records between 1921 and 2012 shows a much more modest average annual rise, of 1.51°C. In 2014, the city experienced the coolest summer day recorded − 14.5°C.

So one conclusion is to remember just how complex a system the climate is − and how even 34 years may be too short a time to allow for any certainty. − Climate News Network

Veteran green says emissions aren’t the only danger

Pete Wilkinson in the bow of a dinghy on a 1983 mission to block the pipeline discharging radioactive waste into the Irish from Sellafield nuclear plant, UK.  Image: Greenpeace
Pete Wilkinson in the bow of a dinghy on a 1983 mission to block the pipeline discharging radioactive waste into the Irish Sea from Sellafield nuclear plant, UK.    Image: Greenpeace

By Paul Brown

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

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

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

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

Pressing issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

Pipe dream: a fracking operation in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico Image: Rhod08 via Wikimedia
Pipe dream: a fracking operation in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico
Image: Rhod08 via Wikimedia

By Alex Kirby

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

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

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

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

Advantage nullified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article of faith

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

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

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

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

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

Australia gets early blast of more extreme heat

A bushfire rages in the hills near Lithgow, New South Wales, last year Image: Lithgowlights via Wikimedia Commons
Hot spot: a bushfire rages in the hills close to Lithgow, New South Wales, last year
Image: Lithgowlights via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Summer has come early across much of Australia – and as temperatures soar to record seasonal levels in many areas, the bushfire season has started well ahead of schedule.

LONDON, 14 October, 2014 − It’s the time of year when many Australians start to think about eating outdoors or heading for the beach after work. Early spring, and the temperatures are rising – particularly this year.

The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says maximum temperatures in September across much of the country were higher than average, with central and south-western areas experiencing their warmest September on record.

Australia is considered to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of a climate change, and 2013 was the country’s hottest year since records began, with average temperatures 1.2˚C above the long-term average.

In one seven-day period in early January last year, record national average temperatures exceeded 39˚C.

Unprecedented levels

September started off cool in Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, but then heated up to unprecedented levels for this time of year. For the first time, temperatures climbed to more than 32˚C for two consecutive days in the month.

Meanwhile, overall September rainfall was 27% below the monthly average − and the dry conditions mean the bushfire season has come early. The south of the island of Tasmania has fared particularly badly, with fires fuelled by dry conditions and high winds.

Areas round Sydney and throughout New South Wales – the country’s most populous state − have also been hit by bushfires, with fire warnings going out to more than a million homeowners.

Despite growing evidence that human-induced climate change is a major reason for Australia heating up, the Liberal-National coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott has taken little action on the issue.

It has abolished a carbon tax introduced by the previous Labour government, abolished a Climate Commission that gave advice on the impact of warming, and is seeking to downgrade modest renewable energy targets.

Polluting fuel

Australia is one of the world’s leading producers of coal – the most polluting fuel, which is responsible for a significant portion of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The country’s per capita GHG emissions are among the highest in the world.

A recent report on Australia’s climate, produced by BOM and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the national science agency, predicts temperatures rising across the country by between 0.6˚C and 1.5C by 2030, compared with the rise of 0.6˚C between 1910 and 1990.

The report says: “Data and analysis from BOM and CSIRO show further warming of the atmosphere and oceans in the Australian region. . . this warming has seen Australia experiencing warm weather and extreme heat, and fewer cool extremes.

“There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia.” – Climate News Network

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

 

Ominous signs: monsoon clouds roll in over Visakhapatnam in south-east India Image: Adityamadhav83 via Wikimedia Commons
Monsoon clouds roll in over Visakhapatnam, south-east India, but rainfall is reducing
Image: Adityamadhav83 via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

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

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

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

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

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

Worldwide concern

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

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

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

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

Aerosol pollution

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

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

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

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

Wind turbines may lure bats into fatal errors

Mixed messages: wind turbines tower above a forest in New York state Image: Paul Cryan/US Geological Survey
Mixed message: wind turbines among trees in New York state are a deadly hazard for bats
Image: US Geological Survey/Paul Cryan

By Tim Radford

Hi-tech thermal surveillance techniques have enabled US researchers to hone in on the likelihood that mistaking wind turbines for trees may be the cause of many bat deaths.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Scientists in the US might just be about to answer one of the great puzzles of biodiversity and renewable energy: why one of nature’s most agile flyers, a creature with the most sophisticated ultrasonic tracking system, should be so fatally attracted to wind turbines.

Blades on the giant towers of wind turbines can rotate faster than a bird can fly, and are known to cause huge numbers of bird fatalities. The bigger mystery is why they kill so many bats.

These nocturnal flying mammals perform their aerobatics at bewildering speed. They can detect and snap up an insect on the wing, and so collision with a wind turbine blade ought to be about as rare as collision with a building or a tree.

But there is no doubt about bat losses. Researchers have already estimated that US wind farms account for 600,000 or more of the creatures every year. And this is not good news − particularly as some experts think bats may be worth $3bn a year to US farmers as pest controllers.

Curious parallel

Now research biologist Paul Cryan and colleagues from the US Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a curious parallel: the species most likely to die near a wind turbine are those that are most likely to nest in trees.

And the conditions that bring the greatest number of deaths are not the high winds that send the blades racing through the air at a lethal 280 kilometres an hour, but the relatively gentle breezes of the kind that bats might experience as the familiar air currents in woodland when the insects are out in their millions..

In other words, it is just possible that bats – which notoriously cannot see very well – are led by their echolocation system to believe that they are flitting around a tree.

In 2012, at a wind farm in Indiana, Dr Cryan and his fellow researchers monitored the behaviour of bats with thermal surveillance cameras, near-infrared video cameras, acoustic detectors, and radar. Altogether, they detected more than 3 million animals flying through their target zone. A quarter of these were vertebrates, and four-fifths of these vertebrates were clearly identified as bats.

After each night’s surveillance, they also found about a dozen freshly dead bats, but very rarely did their video cameras actually observe a fatal impact.

Behaviour pattern

However, they identified a behaviour pattern. Bats were more likely to approach a turbine during low winds, and they were less likely to approach from downwind as wind speeds increased and turbine blades moved freely.

So the logic works like this: bats orient towards the turbines when the air currents are the sort they might expect to find around tall trees where the insects are gathered, or because they normally roost in tall trees.

Such findings are provisional, and there is more work to be done. But the hypothesis does help explain why it should be tree-roosting bats that suffer most losses.

“Behaviours that evolved at tall trees might be the reason why many bats die at wind turbines,” the report concludes. – Climate News Network 

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Palm oil is well placed to grow faster than any other commodity in Brazil Image: Marco Schmidt via Wikimedia Commons
Growing threat: palm oil is well placed to grow faster than any other commodity in Brazil
Image: Marco Schmidt via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Analysts in the US say parts of the Brazilian Amazon may face new deforestation as ranchers move from raising beef cattle to cultivating crops such as palm oil.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Despite Brazil having made great strides in reducing logging in the Amazon region, a US study says the country faces a renewed threat to its forests.

The report’s authors − who focused on the Amazon states of Mato Grosso and Pará, where they interviewed ranchers and meat processors − say the cost of raising beef cattle is prompting many ranchers to consider switching to crops such as palm oil.

The study by Datu Research, a global economic research firm based in Washington DC. was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund.

After decades of deforestation, it says, efforts to curb the losses have been working. Between 2005 and 2013, the rate of loss fell by nearly 80% − although  the Brazilian government’s figures show that losses rose again by 29% in the year to 31 July 2013.

The beef industry, meanwhile, which had caused nearly 75% of earlier deforestation, has continued to grow rapidly.

Curb on emissions

Researchers have argued that by taxing cattle on conventional pasture and by subsidising semi-intensive cattle rearing, Brazil could curb up to 26% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the loss of forests. This in turn adds up to about one-fifth of all human-caused GHG emissions.

But the forests face problems from another quarter. The authors of the Datu Research study say pressure from Western companies requiring deforestation-free supply chains for beef from the Amazon risks being overwhelmed by big increases in demand from non-Western countries.

Russia’s recent embargo of Western beef, for example, means it has increased its demand for Brazilian beef by over 10%, creating alternative markets that do not require deforestation-free operations.

The amalgamation of the meat processors has reduced the ranchers’ bargaining power. The market share of the three largest processors − JBS, Marfrig and Minerva − grew from 24% in 2011 to 37% in 2013.

The study’s authors also say many small and medium-size processors report that, unlike their big competitors, they have restricted access to finance, which reduces their ability to monitor deforestation.

Poor regulation of cattle-raising is another problem − expensive for those ranchers who comply with the rules, yet allowing those who ignore them to escape with impunity. Licensing agencies sometimes lose entire applications, and illicit cattle operations can still enter legitimate supply chains.

Falsified documents showing the origin
and destination of cattle are easily obtained

It is not difficult, the report says, to circumvent a system that is meant to track cattle from ranch to slaughterhouse. Falsified documents showing the origin and destination of cattle are easily obtained, and cost as little as R$200 (about US$85).

A major factor in prompting ranchers to fell the forests is the harsh economic dilemma they face. The study found that the cost of going deforestation-free on 145 hectares is R$412,000 (US$167,000), nearly double the R$217,500 cost of simply clearing forest for beef production.

And while newly-deforested land can sustain cattle for at least five years at no further cost, managing pasture properly is expensive because it needs fertilizers, machinery and other investments, which cost about R$50,000 annually.

Land tenure is another problem. Several ranchers told the authors they had been waiting, sometimes for more than 20 years, to receive legal title to their land. Without a title, banks will not lend ranchers the money they need to change to a deforestation-free operation.

Foreign demand

The study found that deforestation driven by land speculation is increasing rapidly in Brazil. A further concern is the growing foreign demand for a range of crops whose cultivation requires the removal of trees. The Federation of the Industries of the State of São Paulo says production of four crops alone − soya, corn (maize), sugarcane and palm oil − will need more than 10.5 m more hectares of land by 2023.

Palm oil is fairly new in Brazil, but it is well placed to grow faster than any other commodity. The government of Pará estimates that, by 2022, palm oil plantations for biofuel will cover 700,000 ha, which would make Brazil the world’s third largest producer, behind Indonesia and Malaysia.

The study says that that only already-degraded land should be used for palm oil, so that producers do not end up illegally clearing new land.

Deforestation in the Amazon region has a considerable impact on the world’s climate as the forest is a vital carbon “sink”, soaking up greenhouse gases. If it stopped acting as a sink and became instead a source of carbon, the consequences could be profound. − Climate News Network

World of clean energy ‘feasible’ by mid-century

Keeping it clean: a hydropower site at Holbuvatnet in the highlands of eastern Norway Image: Ximonic/Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons
Keeping it clean: a hydropower site at Holbuvatnet in the highlands of eastern Norway
Image: Ximonic/Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

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

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

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

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

Life-cycle assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

More efficient

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

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

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

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