Category Archives: Climate

Record CO2 levels fuel urgent calls for emissions cuts

New York traffic congestion is a stark illustration of the CO2 emissions danger Image: ILMRT via Wikimedia Commons
New York traffic congestion provides a stark reminder of the CO2 emissions danger
Image: ILMRT via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The alarming message from international scientists to political leaders meeting at tomorrow’s UN climate summit in New York is that record global CO2 emissions this year mean “delaying action is not an option”.

LONDON, 22 September, 2014 − Global carbon dioxide emissions will this year reach a new record as power stations, cars, buses, trains, aircraft, tractors, factories, farms and cement works continue to burn fossil fuels − releasing an estimated 40 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

And the world’s chances of limiting global average surface warming to 2°C – an ambition agreed by the world’s political leaders in Copenhagen in 2009 − are dwindling, according to new studies published just ahead of the United Nations summit on climate change opening in New York tomorrow.

Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair in Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems at Exeter University, UK, and  a consortium of colleagues from the UK, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia report in Nature Geoscience that despite attempts to reduce fossil fuel dependence, greenhouse gas emissions have on average continued to grow by 2.5% per year for the last decade.

Ration exhausted

This means that, if there is a ration or quota of emitted carbon dioxide consistent with a 2°C increase, then the world has already used up two-thirds of it. And if it goes on burning fuel at the 2014 rate, then this ration will be exhausted within 30 years.

The study, part of a package of papers and reflections in Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change calculated to inform debate and crystallise opinion, has been widely endorsed by other climate scientists.

David Reay, professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, UK, said: “If this were a bank statement, it would say our credit is running out.”

The scientists, partners in a research consortium called the Global Carbon Project, list the top four emitters of carbon dioxide: China – emissions grew by 4.2%; US – emissions increased by 2.9%, thanks to a rebound in coal consumption; India – emissions grew by 5.1%, as a result of robust economic performance; European Union – emissions actually fell by 1.8%, due to weak economic growth.

“China now emits more than the US and EU combined and has CO2 emissions per person 45% higher than the global average, exceeding even the EU average,” said one of the report’s authors, Robbie Andrew, a senior research fellow at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (Cicero), in Norway.

And co-author Glen Peters, also a senior research fellow at Cicero, said: “Globally, emissions would need sustained and unprecedented reductions of around 7% per year for a likely chance to stay within the quota.”

Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, UK, said: “The human influence on climate change is clear. We need substantial and sustained reductions in CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels if we are to limit climate change.

“Politicians . . . need to think very carefully about their
diminishing choices exposed by climate science”

“We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below 2°C of climate change − a level that will already be challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations. Politicians meeting in New York need to think very carefully about their diminishing choices exposed by climate science.”

Professor Friedlingstein stressed: “Delaying action is not an option. We need to act together, and act quickly if we are to stand a chance of avoiding climate change not long into the future, but within many of our own lifetimes.”

Most of the message in the Nature Geoscience paper is already familiar as scientists in Europe, Asia and the US have repeatedly stressed that even a 2°C increase in average global temperatures could have alarming consequences for hundreds of millions of people.

The timing of the publication is a reminder of the problem’s urgency, and many of the Nature Geoscience report’s authors also offer a prescription for action in the journal Nature Climate Change.

In this they try to outline ways in which the burden of reduction might be shared among the world’s nations. This is essentially a political problem that will require sustained international negotiation and argument.

Prof Myles Allen, who heads the Climate Dynamics Group at Oxford University, UK, said: “It is depressing that the immediate reaction to the news we have a limited carbon pie is discussion of how countries can slice it up. We didn’t save the ozone layer by rationing deodorant.”

Abstract goals

But David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California San Diego, in an accompanying essay in Nature Climate Change, warns that researchers and campaigners “have focused too much scientific talent on abstract goals and not enough on understanding the practical actions that individual governments, firms and individuals would take to meet global goals”.

The New York summit is one of a series that will lead up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in 2015, and Prof Victor foresees a need for climate scientists to work with social scientists to understand better how attitudes change, and policies are decided.

He concludes: “It is highly unlikely that the Paris summit will deliver an accord that limits warming to 2°C, and hopes for that outcome in the scientific community are built on a naïve vision that science sets goals and that politicians, once they shed the scales from their eyes, will follow in lockstep.

“Awareness of what the behavioural sciences can bring suggests, as well, that the era of really important science is perhaps just beginning.” – Climate News Network

Early warning for US states in Tornado Alley

Dark destroyer: a tornado tears through Kansas, one of the US states in ‘Tornado Alley’ Image: Goodland/US National Weather Service via Wikimedia Commons
Dark destroyer: a tornado tears through Kansas, one of the US states in ‘Tornado Alley’
Image: Goodland/US National Weather Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Research showing that tornadoes are gradually forming earlier in the US could help states in the frontline to prepare better to withstand the storms’ devastating effects.

LONDON, 21 September, 2014 − The terrifying whirlwinds that punctuate the mid-Western summer in the US so frequently as to earn the nickname “Tornado Alley” for the southern plains region states such as Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and northern Texas are forming up to two weeks earlier than they did 60 years ago.

John Long and Paul Stoy, research scientists at Montana State University, report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that, on average, the tornado season advanced by one week between 1954 and 2009. For many states, the shift is almost 14 days. Peak activity on average used to occur on 26 May, but this century the peak has shifted to 19 May.

On the plus side, the tornado season is also ending earlier than it did in the 1950s.

Tornadoes happen in every continent except Antarctica, but particularly in America. There are on average around 1,300 in the US every year, and on average they kill about 60 people.

They are graded according to the punch they pack: the Fujita scale of tornado rating ranges from F1, with winds at 117 kilometres per hour to 180 kph, to F5, at between 420 kph and 511 kph.

Increase in ferocity

Long and Stoy are not the first to note a change in the pattern of storms. Recently, researchers calculated that, overall, the number of tornadoes each year may be dwindling, but their ferocity seems to be on the increase.

Some researchers think climate change is a factor, but the two Montana scientists are more cautious. They say it takes a mix of topography, temperature, wind patterns and other factors to set in motion the swarms of storms that can slam into a town and wreck tens of thousands of homes in a matter of minutes.

“Observed climate trends cannot fully account for observations,” they say in the formal language demanded by science journals.

But they also point out that if the tornado season is occurring earlier in the year, then it might help individuals, local authorities, emergency services and state governments to know this, and to be prepared. – Climate News Network

Political will is only barrier to 100% renewables

Wind turbines in Germany's Rhein-Hunsrück district, a world leader in renewables Image: Markus Braun via Wikimedia Commons
Germany’s Rhein-Hunsrück district already exceeds100% electricity from renewables
Image: Markus Braun via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

A report published ahead of next week’s UN Climate Summit illustrates that poor and prosperous nations, tiny islands and great cities, can achieve all their energy needs from renewables.

LONDON, 20 September, 2014 − A new handbook shows how forward-looking communities around the world are already moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and generating their own power with 100% renewables − while also becoming more prosperous and creating jobs.

The report, How to Achieve 100% Renewable Energy, is being released today, ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York next Tuesday (September 23), when the UN Secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, will call on world leaders to make new commitments to cut fossil fuel use.

The World Future Council, based in Hamburg, Germany, has issued the report to show that it is only lack of political will that is preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels. It believes that the leaders at the UN summit need to set ambitious targets and timetables to achieve the switch to renewables.

Technologies exist

Using case histories − from small islands in the Canaries to great commercial cities such as Frankfurt in Germany and Sydney in Australia − the report makes clear that the technologies to go 100% renewable exist already.

In many cases, the switch has the combined effect of saving money for the community concerned and creating jobs, making everyone more prosperous. In all cases, improvements in energy efficiency are essential to meeting targets.

Where the100% renewable target is adopted, it gives the clearest signal to business that investments in clean technologies will be secure. The report says: “The benefits range from savings on fossil fuel imports, improved energy, and economic security, as well as reduced energy and electricity costs for governments, local residents and businesses.”

There is no case made for nuclear power. Indeed, the report says that the uranium needed for nuclear fuel is − like coal, oil and gas − a finite resource that will soon be running out.

One of the case histories in the report is the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. In March 2011,  it sustained the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and has now opted to go for 100% electricity from renewables by 2040.

Some of the 100% renewable targets detailed in the report are just for electricity production. The authors − Toby Couture, founder of the Berlin-based energy consultancy E3 Analytics, and Anna Leidreiter, climate and energy policy officer at the World Future Council − point out that heating and cooling, and particularly transport, without fossil fuels is far more challenging, but still equally possible. Some countries are already committed to it.

Denmark, a pioneer in the field, has a target of achieving all its electricity and heating needs from renewables by 2035, and all energy sectors − including transport − by 2050. This includes an expansion of wind and solar power, biogas, ground source heat pumps, and wood-based biomass. Because of its investments, the country expects to have saved €920 million on energy costs by 2020.

At the opposite end of the scale, El Hierro, a small island in the Canaries, has a 100% energy strategy, using a wind farm and a volcanic crater. When excess electricity is produced by the wind farm, water is pumped into the volcanic crater, which acts as a storage lake for a hydroelectric plant. This supplements the island’s electricity supply when the wind drops or when demand is very high.

A future component of El Hierro’s strategy is to replace the island’s entire stock of 4,500 cars with electric vehicles, so cutting the need to import fuel.

Surplus electricity

Some places have already exceeded 100% electricity from renewables. The Rhein-Hunsruck district west of Frankfurt, Germany, managed this in 2012, and expects by the end of this year to be producing 230% of its needs, exporting the surplus to neighbouring areas through the national grid. It hopes to use the surplus in future for local transportation, hydrogen or methane production.

There are many other examples in the report, including from San Francisco in the US, Cape Verde island in West Africa, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, and Tuvalu island in the Pacific. These show that both rich and poor communities can share the benefits of the renewable revolution – and, in the case of the 3 billion people still without electric power in the world, bypass the need for fossil fuels altogether.

Jeremy Leggett, a pioneer of solar power and author of a foreword to the report, says: “We are on the verge of a profound and urgently necessary shift in the way we produce and use energy.

“This shift will move the world away from the consumption of fossil resources towards cleaner, renewable forms of power. Renewable energy technologies are blowing the whistle on oil dependency and will spark an economic and social renaissance.

“The question is: Do we make this transition from fossil resources to renewables on our own terms, in ways that maximise the benefits to us today and to future generations, or do we turn our heads away and suffer the economic and social shocks that rising prices and market volatility will create?” – Climate News Network

UN population growth data is bad news for climate

A crowded market in Lagos, Nigeria, Africa's most populous country Image: Zouzou Wizman via Wikimedia Commons
Watch this space: a crowded market in Lagos, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country
Image: Zouzou Wizman via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Sophisticated new analysis indicates an 80% probability that the planet’s population will continue to rise this century, with serious implications for food security, political stability − and climate change.

LONDON, 19 September, 2014 − The demographers may have got it wrong. New projections say the population of the planet will not stabilise at 9 billion sometime this century. In fact, there is an 80% likelihood that, by 2100, it will reach at least 9.6 bn − and maybe rise as high as 12.3 bn.

The latest data, published in the US journal Science, has profound and alarming implications for political stability, food security and, of course, climate change, since greater numbers of people mean greater demands on agricultural land, water and fuel.

At the heart of the findings − led by Patrick Gerland, of the United Nations Population Division in New York, and backed by sociologists, statisticians and population scientists from Seattle, Singapore and Santiago in Chile − is both new data and a more sophisticated approach to the mathematical probabilities for fertility and life expectancy, and for international migration.

Larger families

The new evidence is that, contrary to previous expectations, women in Africa are still having larger families − in part, because contraceptives are not available and because mortality linked to HIV infection has been reduced.

So, by the end of the century, Africa – once relatively sparsely populated, but now home to around one billion people – will have to feed between 3.5 bn and 5.1 bn.

The new information is available because the UN Population Division re-examines its calculations every two years − and the new techniques include the adoption of a methodology known to mathematicians as “Bayesian probabilistic”.

In the new scenarios, Africa remains at the heart of the population explosion, and African women on average have 4.6 children. There are 4.4 bn people in Asia now, but this is expected to peak at 5bn in 2050 and then decline. North America, Europe, Latin America are expected to stay below 1bn each.

“Earlier projections were strictly based on scenarios, so there was no uncertainty,” said Dr Gerland. “This work offers a more statistically-driven assessment that allows us to quantify the predictions and offer a confidence interval that could be useful in planning.”

The study makes no mention of climate change, and the demographers are more concerned with the numbers of young workers who will have to support increasingly elderly populations. But population, economic growth and global warming are inexorably linked.

Most climate change predictions, when they incorporate population growth at all, have been based on the long-standing assumption that the planet’s burden of humans will peak around 2050, and then begin a slow decline.

Because of this, some researchers have been able to put forward arguments for optimism and propose that climate change can be contained and food security assured with careful management and new thinking.

But recent research suggests that while climate change will open more land in higher latitudes for potential crop growth, the gains will not be great, because the conditions for multiple harvests in the tropics will be reduced.

There are other factors. For example, land once available for crops is disappearing under tarmac and cement as the world’s cities grow, and even with a projected population peak of 9bn, an estimated additional 1.5 million square kilometers of tilth and pasture would be lost to the cities by 2030.

Losses of farmland

In addition, the encroachment of the world’s deserts and the erosion of once fertile farmland continues to exact its toll. Statisticians say that between 19 hectares and 23 hectares of land is abandoned every minute. With the latest, and more alarming, population projections, these losses of farmland can only increase.

But these are all projections, rather than predictions. Armed with such information, governments could take steps to ensure a more secure future.

The authors of the Science paper argue that fertility decline could be helped by better access to contraception, and by the education of women.

They add, grimly, that things could also get worse: “It should also be noted that the projections do not take into account potential negative feedback from the environmental consequences of rapid population growth.

“The addition of several billion people in Africa could lead to severe resource shortages, which in turn could affect population size through unexpected mortality, migration, or fertility effects.” – Climate News Network

Acidic seas block fishes’ survival mechanism

Sharks such as the smooth dogfish face a new man-made threat Image: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
Climate of concern: sharks such as the smooth dogfish face a new man-made threat
Image: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientific studies show that the sense of smell so vital for the survival of predators such as sharks, as well as for their prey, is being impaired as carbon dioxide increases acidification of oceans.

LONDON, 18 September, 2014 − Global warming could be bad for sharks, too. These ocean-going creatures that have survived 420 million years of natural climate change could be at risk from increasingly acidic seas, according to two entirely different scientific studies.

The sharks are already in trouble everywhere. They are pursued as food or feared as a threat, and the habitat they favour is gradually being degraded or destroyed.

But Danielle Dixson, a marine conservation biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, and colleagues report in Global Change Biology that changes in the pH value of water – in other words, as the seas became more acidic – have interfered with a shark’s ability to smell food.

Behaviour change

Dr Dixson has already shown that increasing acidification, due to greater levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, could change the behaviour of reef fish, seemingly making them less afraid of predators because the acidic waters disrupt a specific receptor in the fish’s nervous system.

This time, she experimented with a shark known as the smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis), which is found in the Atlantic waters off the US coast. She tested 24 sharks in a 10-metre tank with two currents or plumes of water. One was normal sea water, and the other was rich in the odour of squid. As expected, the sharks showed a distinct preference for the smell of food.

Then she and her colleagues enriched the water with carbon dioxide − to levels predicted for mid-century as greenhouse emissions continue to rise, and the seas become more rich in carbonic acid.

When released into the most acidic water, the sharks actually avoided the plume of squid odour. Once again, the change in the water’s pH seemed to have disrupted an all-important receptor, and thus the sharks’ interest in hunting.

“Sharks are like swimming noses, so chemical cues are really important for them in finding food,” Dr Dixson said.

Less aggressive

Overall activity did not change significantly, but shark attack behaviour did. The squid odour was pumped through bricks to give the sharks something to push against, but the sharks in the most acidic waters responded less aggressively.

“They significantly reduced their bumps and bites on the bricks, compared to the control group,” Dr Dixson said. “It’s like they’re uninterested in their food.”

There is always the chance that, as acidity levels slowly rise, sharks will adjust or adapt. But increasing acidification may not even give them the chance to adapt.

In a second paper, this time in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Rui Rosa, senior researcher at the Centre for Oceanography in Cascais, Portugal, and colleagues considered the impact of warmer and more acidic seas on the survival of the newly-hatched tropical bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum), normally found in the intertidal zones of the western Pacific.

The researchers tested hatchlings in tanks at temperatures and pH values predicted for 2100, and found “significant impairment” in survival rates.

In their experiments at normal temperature conditions, mortality among the hatchlings was zero. In experimental conditions, behaviour changes were apparent from the outset and, within 30 days, more than 40% had died. – Climate News Network

Climate action and economies can grow together

Investing in renewables such as solar energy can spur economic activity Image: Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest via Wikimedia Commons
Working together: investing in renewables such as solar energy can spur economic activity
Image: Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A new global commission report by major political and business figures refutes the claim that economic expansion and tackling climate change can’t both be achieved at the same time.

LONDON, 17 September, 2014 − We can have our cake and eat it. That’s the main message of a new study that says the idea that we have to choose between battling against climate change or promoting growth in the world’s economy is a “false dilemma”.

The report, The New Climate Economy, was produced by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico, and including eminent economist Lord [Nicholas] Stern.

Calderon, addressing what he describes as a “false dilemma”, says: “The message to leaders is clear. We don’t have to choose between economic growth and a safe climate. We can have both.”

Lord Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review, which comprehensively detailed, for the first time, the economic consequences of not taking action on climate change, says decisions being made now will determine the future of both the economy and the climate.

High-quality growth

“If we choose low-carbon investment, we can generate strong, high-quality growth – not just in the future, but now,” he says. “But if we continue down the high-carbon route, climate change will bring severe risks to long-term prosperity.”

The commission’s report, released at the United Nations in New York shortly before a major UN climate summit, says there are now big opportunities for achieving strong economic growth and, at the same time, lowering emissions across three sectors:

  • Building more compact, better connected cities will improve the quality of life of urban dwellers, improve economic performance, and lower emissions.
  • Improved land use can cut emissions resulting from deforestation. Restoring 12% of the world’s degraded land would dramatically raise farmers’ incomes.
  • More and more of the world’s energy is likely to be generated by renewables, cutting dependence on highly-polluting coal. Renewables is now a big growth industry, spurring on various economic activities.

The report says that about US$90 trillion is likely to be invested in infrastructure in the world’s cities, agriculture and energy systems over the next 15 years, and spending should be directed towards low-carbon growth that would not only benefit the climate but also business productivity.

The study calls for the phasing out of huge amounts spent worldwide on subsidies for fossil fuels – currently US$600 billion, compared with US$100bn for renewable, the report says. Competitive energy markets, consistent government policy, a strong price for carbon, and greatly expanded research in low carbon technologies are also needed.

If fully implemented, the report’s authors calculate, a reduction of up to 90% in emissions could be achieved by 2030, and dangerous climate change would be averted.

Meaningful action

Although the report’s findings have been endorsed by a wide range of leading politicians, business figures and economists, there are those who would argue against the idea that economic growth can be achieved alongside meaningful action on climate change.

For example, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK thinktank, contends that indefinite global economic growth is unsustainable.

In a 2010 report, Growth Isn’t Possible, the NEF said economic growth is constrained by the finite nature of the planet’s natural resources. “Growth forever, as conventionally defined, within fixed though flexible limits, is not possible,” it said. “Sooner or later, we will hit the biosphere’s buffers.”

Others would point out that although a carbon market has been in operation for several years, the price of carbon has failed to rise. The introduction of market forces and competition in the energy sector in many countries has done little to lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

In many countries, including India, China, Australia and some states in Europe, a central role in driving economic growth is still played by coal, the most polluting of all energy sources. – Climate News Network

Warming will leave drought-hit California reeling

 

The treeline below Tells Peak in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains Image: Nick Ares via Wikimedia Commons
The treeline below Tells Peak in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains
Image: Nick Ares via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers in the US warn that climate change could worsen California droughts by drastically reducing water flow from the Sierra Nevada mountains − and also threatens the extinction of a rare species of fish.

LONDON, 16 September, 2014 − Things could soon get worse for drought-hit California. New research predicts that, by the close of the century, global warming could have reduced the flow of water from the Sierra Nevada mountains by at least a quarter.

Michael Goulden, associate professor of earth system science at the University of California Irvine, and Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California Merced, publish their alarming findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Plant growth

Their research looked not at the long-term projections for precipitation in the US south-west, but simply at the effect of higher average temperatures on plant growth.

Mountains in many ways mimic hemispheres: just as trees become more stunted at higher latitudes, so they get smaller and less frequent at higher altitudes. Temperature ultimately controls plant growth.

But a projected warming of 4.1°C by 2100 would make a big difference to plant growth in the Arctic tundra and around the present alpine treeline everywhere in the world.

The scientists contemplated snow and rain conditions in the King’s River Basin in the Sierra Nevada range. They looked at how much flows downstream to local communities, and how much goes back into the atmosphere as water vapour. Then they did their sums.

They calculated that the 4.1°C temperature rise in the region would increase the density of vegetation at high elevations, with a 28% increase in evapotranspiration − the process that draws water up through the roots to the leaves, and then releases it as vapour through the pores. And what was true for one river basin, they thought, should be true for the whole area. River run-off could drop by 26%.

“Scientists have recognised for a while that something like this was possible, but no one has been able to quantify whether it could be a big effect,” said Professor Goulden. “It’s clear that this could be a big effect of climate warming and that managers need to recognise and plan for the possibility of increased water losses from forest evaporation.”

Endangered fish

MEANWHILE, climate change threatens to wipe out an endangered species of fish in a remote area of Nevada.

The Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) is not just rare, it is very rare: the population has fallen as low as 35 individuals. It lives in the geothermally-warmed waters of a limestone cavern in the Devils Hole in the Mojave desert, and its existence was probably always precarious. The fish are little more than 2cms long, iridescent blue, and they have made their home in the upper 25 metres of the cavern’s waters for at least 10,000 years.

Devils Hole pupfish are only 2cms long Image: Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office
Devils Hole pupfish are only 2cms long
Image: Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office via Wikimedia Commons

But Mark Hausner, a hydrogeologist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, and colleagues report in the journal Water Resources Research that there is only a 10-week window in which the water temperatures are optimal, and there is enough food available, for new larvae to hatch.

Climate change is bringing the already-warm water to dangerous temperature levels, and this has already shortened by at least one week the brief opportunity to restore the population. When counts began in 1972, there were more than 500 of the fish. A decade ago there were 171, and at the last count there were only 92.

“This is a fish that does live in a fishbowl, an incredibly hostile fishbowl, and you can’t move the fishbowl,” said one of the report’s authors, Scott Tyler, professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. “This is a species that can’t adapt or change or leave to go to a better environment.” − Climate News Network

Fracking fuels conflict over water resources

A wind farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a fracking ban favours renewable energy Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons
A wind farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a fracking ban favours renewable energy
Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Limited water supplies near the richest oil and gas reserves accessible through fracking threaten to create tensions that could block future projects using the controversial extraction process.

LONDON, 15 September, 2014 − The vast quantities of water needed to release oil and gas by fracturing rock formations are not available in large areas with the richest deposits – posing major challenges to the future viability of fracking.

According to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), 38% of the areas where shale gas and oil is most abundant is arid or already under severe water stress – and the 386 million people living in these areas need all the spare water they can get.

Among the countries that have areas with potentially large quantities of shale underground, but which have limited water supplies, are China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, the US and the UK.

Andrew Steer, president of the WRI, said: “These factors pose significant social, environmental, and financial challenges to accessing water, and could limit shale development.”

Stumbling block

The report says that estimates of shale gas reserves add 47% to the global, technically-recoverable natural gas reserves and 11% to the oil reserves. But it points out that that “as countries escalate their shale exploration, limited availability of fresh water could become a stumbling block”.

The method of releasing the trapped gas and oil in the process known as fracking is controversial because it involves injecting large quantities of water and chemicals underground to fracture the rock and release the oil and gas.

In some areas of the US, where fracking has been pioneered and has enabled large new supplies of oil and gas to be produced to the benefit of the economy, there has been trouble with the release of methane into the atmosphere and contamination of water supplies.

In many areas that have potential for fracking, this had led to a public backlash − even where there is plenty of potential water for use in the process.

An example is the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, where the Environment Minister, Andrew Younger, has imposed an indefinite ban on fracking onshore and plans to bring forward legislation to ban the practice.

“Nova Scotians have clearly indicated they are not yet ready for the use of hydraulic fracturing in the development of shale reserves,” Younger said. “We will respect their views.”

Areas of stress

The WRI has produced a detailed map of shale oil and gas reserves, overlaid with colours indicating of areas high water stress. It illustrates where most conflict over the use of resources is likely to be.

The report comments on the problems facing companies and governments in persuading their citizens to sacrifice limited water supplies so that oil and gas can be extracted.

“The findings indicate that companies developing shale resources internationally are likely to face serious challenges to accessing fresh water in many parts of the world,” the report says.

“These challenges highlight a strong business case for strategic company engagement in sustainable water management at local and regional levels.

“They also point to a need for companies to work with governments and other sectors to minimise environmental impacts and water resources depletion.” – Climate News Network

Drought bites as Amazon’s ‘flying rivers’ dry up

Vapour released by Amazon rainforest trees create vital ‘flying rivers’ Image: Lubasi via Wikimedia Commons
Vapour released from the leaves of trees in the Amazon rainforest create vital ‘flying rivers’
Image: Lubasi via Wikimedia Commons

By Jan Rocha

Scientists in Brazil believe the loss of billions of litres of water released as vapour clouds by Amazon rainforest trees is the result of continuing deforestation and climate change – leading to devastating drought.

SÃO PAULO, 14 September, 2014 − The unprecedented drought now affecting São Paulo, South America’s giant metropolis, is believed to be caused by the absence of the “flying rivers” − the vapour clouds from the Amazon that normally bring rain to the centre and south of Brazil.

Some Brazilian scientists say the absence of rain that has dried up rivers and reservoirs in central and southeast Brazil is not just a quirk of nature, but a change brought about by a combination of the continuing deforestation of the Amazon and global warming.

This combination, they say, is reducing the role of the Amazon rainforest as a giant “water pump”, releasing billions of litres of humidity from the trees into the air in the form of vapour.

Meteorologist Jose Marengo, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, first coined the phrase “flying rivers” to describe these massive volumes of vapour that rise from the rainforest, travel west, and then − blocked by the Andes − turn south.

Satellite images from the Centre for Weather Forecasts and Climate Research of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) clearly show that, during January and February this year, the flying rivers failed to arrive, unlike the previous five years.

Alarming proportions

Deforestation all over Brazil has reached alarming proportions: 22% of the Amazon rainforest (an area larger than Portugal, Italy and Germany combined), 47% of the Cerrado in central Brazil, and 91.5% of the Atlantic forest that used to cover the entire length of the coastal area.

Latest figures from Deter, the Real Time Deforestation Detection System based on high frequency satellite images used by INPE, show that, after falling for two years, Amazon deforestation rose again by 10% between August 2013 and July 2014. The forest is being cleared for logging and farming.

Tocantins, Pará and Mato Grosso, three states in the Greater Amazon region that have suffered massive deforestation, are all registering higher average temperatures.

As long ago as 2009, Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, warned that, without the “flying rivers”, the area that produces 70% of South America’s GNP would be desert.

In an interview with the journal Valor Economica, he said: “Destroying the Amazon to advance the agricultural frontier is like shooting yourself in the foot. The Amazon is a gigantic hydrological pump that brings the humidity of the Atlantic Ocean into the continent and guarantees the irrigation of the region.”

“Of course, we need agriculture,” he said. “But without trees there would be no water, and without water there is no food.

“A tonne of soy takes several tonnes of water to produce. When we export soy we are exporting fresh water to countries that don’t have this rain and can’t produce. It is the same with cotton, with ethanol. Water is the main agricultural input. If it weren’t, the Sahara would be green, because it has extremely fertile soil.”

Underestimated

Like other climate scientists, Nobre thinks the role of the Amazon rainforest in producing rain has been underestimated. In a single day, the Amazon region evaporates 20 billion tonnes of vapour − more than the 17 million tonnes of water that the Amazon river discharges each day into the Atlantic.

“A big tree with a crown 20 metres across evaporates up to 300 litres a day, whereas one square metre of ocean evaporates exactly one square metre,” he said. “One square metre of forest can contain eight or 10 metres of leaves, so it evaporates eight or 10 times more than the ocean. This flying river, which rises into the atmosphere in the form of vapour, is bigger than the biggest river on the Earth.”

The fear is that if the Amazon rainforest continues to be depleted at the present rate, events like the unprecedented drought of 2010 will occur more often. The fires set by farmers to clear areas for planting or for cattle-raising make it more vulnerable.

Nobre explained: “The smoke from forest fires introduces too many particles into the atmosphere, dries the clouds, and they don’t rain. During the dry period, of the fires, the forest always maintained a little rain that left it humid and non-flammable, but now two months go by without rain, the forest gets very dry, and the fire gets into it. Amazon trees, unlike those of the Cerrado, have no resistance to fire.”

Nobre’s warning in 2009 was that if deforestation did not stop, there would be a catastrophe in five or six years time. Five years on, his words are now proving to be prophetic as São Paulo and all Brazil’s centre and southeast suffer their worst ever drought, with devastating effects on agriculture, energy and domestic water supplies. – Climate News Network

Dietary effect on GHG emissions is hard to swallow

High-fibre breakfasts such as muesli could be bad for your planet's health Image: Cyclonebill via Wikimedia Commons
Eating more high-fibre cereals such as muesli could be bad for your planet’s health
Image: Cyclonebill via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Controversial new research findings say that US government guidelines on a better diet might be good for Americans’ health, but would be far from healthy for the climate.

LONDON, 13 September, 2014  − The news is enough to make climate campaigners choke on their high-fibre breakfast cereal: if Americans adopted the dietary guidelines suggested by their own Department of Agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) would actually go up by 12%.

And even if Americans did what dietary campaigners urge and restricted themselves to a healthier 2000 calories a day, GHGs would not fall significantly.

Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian, scientists at the University of Michigan’s Centre for Sustainable Systems, publish these findings in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

And their conclusion  is liable to prove controversial, if only because other agriculturalists and economists have already argued that changes in human diet and more intelligent ways of promoting agriculture could simultaneously deliver better nutrition, greater food security, and less damage to global climate.

Contentious conclusions

Cynics will remind each other that all scientific conclusions about diet, health, environment and nutrition tend to become contentious shortly after publication.

Others are likely to agree with Paul Palmer, of the University of Edinburgh, and Matthew Smith, of the University of Cambridge, who argue in Nature journal that it makes no sense to speculate on climate change without considering how people will respond to that change. “Omitting human behaviour is like designing a bridge without accounting for traffic,” they say.

Social commentators will also point out that in a society in which one-third of all Americans are classed as clinically obese and another third are overweight − and in which, paradoxically, 49 million are also “food insecure” or just plain hungry − there might be something irrelevant about the US government’s dietary guidelines.

But the study by Heller and Keoleian, at bottom, simply addresses the problems associated with bureaucratic advice on subjects as personal as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Direct emissions from agriculture make up between 10% and 12% of overall greenhouse gas emissions. If you throw in factors such as fertilizer and chemical production, fuel use and agricultural land-use change, the proportion rises – along with the uncertainty – to between 17% and 32%.

Researchers may enhance yields and farmers may use resources more efficiently, but populations will increase − and so will demand for meat and dairy products.

So the two scientists looked at greenhouse gas emissions associated with 100 foods. They considered the losses and waste in the food business: around a third of all food globally is lost or thrown away, and emissions from wasted food in the US add up to the equivalent of an extra 33 million cars on American roads.

Costs and losses

They added into the mix the potential effects of social change − looking at studies from Germany and Switzerland, at EU targets, and at calculations of the demand for water and fertilizer in Asia and Africa − to get a surer picture of the costs and losses and emissions associated with agriculture.

They then examined the particular case of the US, where, they say, “repeated assessments find that Americans do not meet the federal dietary recommendations”.

Those guidelines recommend that Americans eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood, and also consume less salt, saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugar and refined grains.

Their calculation is that even if US citizens consumed less beef and thus reduced greenhouse gas emissions – beef makes up 4% by weight of available food, but 36% of emissions − the increased use of dairy products would have the opposite effect.

If Americans followed the recommendations and continued to consume the same number of calories on average, greenhouse gas emissions would rise by 12%. If the nation reduced its intake to 2000 calories a day on average, the reduction would be only 1%.

“These findings emphasise the need to consider environmental costs in formulating recommended food patterns,” Heller and Keoleian conclude. – Climate News Network