India gives nothing away in climate talks with US

India gives nothing away in climate talks with US

There is no sign from President Obama’s visit that India will be pressured into making any immediate plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

NEW DELHI, 27 January, 2015 − Hopes that India and the US might announce ambitious plans to co-operate in tackling climate change have proved wide of the mark.

A meeting here between the visiting US president, Barack Obama, and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, showed India determined to follow an independent line − although Modi said it does intend to increase its use of renewable energy.

Mod did not offer any hint of a reduction in coal use. And on possible targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, he said nothing beyond agreeing to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, while insisting that India demands equal treatment in cutting GHGs.

India is the third largest GHG emitter, after China and the US, but generates only two tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita, compared with 20 tonnes in the US and eight in China.

Limited liability

The two leaders smoothed the way for further Indian use of nuclear power, outlining a deal to limit the legal liability of US suppliers in the event of a nuclear power plant catastrophe.

Referring to the recent agreement between the US and China to work together on CO2 cuts, Modi said: “The agreement that has been concluded between the US and China does not impose pressure on us; India is an independent country. But climate change and global warning itself is huge pressure.”

Analysts here point out that there has been little time yet for Modi and Obama to develop a strong working relationship, and that it could be premature to dismiss the outcome of this meeting as disappointing.

“The agreement . . . between the US and China
does not impose pressure on us;
India is an independent country.”

Before last month’s UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, India said it had put in place several action plans for achieving Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which are key elements of the bold climate agreement that many governments hope will be signed at the next round of talks in Paris in December.

India continues to maintain that its INDCs will be announced “at an appropriate time with specific contributions”.

Last week, Modi called for a paradigm shift in global attitudes towards climate change – from “carbon credits” towards “green credits”. He urged nations with the greatest solar energy potential to join India in innovation and research to reduce the cost of the technology and make it more accessible.

“Instead of focusing on emissions and cuts alone, the focus should shift to what we have done for clean energy generation, energy conservation and energy efficiency, and what more can be done in these areas,” he said.

Modi and Obama announced action to advance India’s transition to a low-carbon economy, and India reiterated its goal of increasing its solar target to 100 gigawatts by 2022, which the US said it would support.

Ambitious agreement

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said they had “stressed the importance of working together and with other countries to conclude an ambitious climate agreement in Paris in 2015”.

Anu Jogesh, a senior research associate with the Centre for Policy Research’s Climate Initiative, said: “There was a lot of buzz in policy circles and the media that there might be some kind of announcement, not on emission cuts per se but on renewable energy. However, apart from the nuclear agreement, little else has emerged.”

Answering fears that India might become a ready market for US companies, Dr Pradipto Ghosh, Distinguished Fellow at the Energy and Resource Institute, said: “The large scale will inevitably bring down costs and companies will offer competitive prices, and also bring in more reliability, efficiency and product quality.” − Climate News Network

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

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Climate pushes Doomsday Clock close to midnight

Climate pushes Doomsday Clock close to midnight

Scientists warn that the deadly combination of unchecked climate change and nuclear weapons endangers everyone on Earth unless urgent action is taken.

LONDON, 26 January, 2015 − The two main “extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity” are more acute than at any time in the last 30 years, according to scientists in the US.

One is the possibility of nuclear war − even a limited one. The other is climate change, which the scientists say “looms over all of humanity”. Either means that “the probability of global catastrophe is very high” without urgent action.

The warning comes from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ science and security board, which has moved the hands of the historic Doomsday Clock forward two minutes. They now stand at three minutes to midnight.

Undeniable threats

The board says in a statement: “In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required. . .

“These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”

The statement says: “The board feels compelled to add, with a sense of great urgency: ‘The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.’”

The Doomsday Clock symbolises how close humanity has come to the apocalyptic danger of mass destruction by nuclear weapons, climate change, and emergent technologies.

The clock’s minute hand stood at two minutes before midnight in 1953, and at 17 minutes before midnight in 1991, after the end of the Cold War. The last time it was just three minutes to midnight was 1983, when “US-Soviet relations were at their iciest”, according to the Bulletin.

“This threat looms over all of humanity. We all need
to respond now, while there is still time.”

Sivan Kartha, a member of the Bulletin’s science and security board and a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said: “Steps seen as bold in light of today’s extremely daunting political opposition to climate action do not even match the expectations of five years ago, to say nothing of the scientific necessity.

“Global greenhouse gas emission rates are now 50% higher than they were in 1990. Emission rates have risen since 2000 by more than in the previous three decades combined. Investments have continued to pour into fossil fuel infrastructure at a rate that exceeds $1 trillion per year, with additional hundreds of billions of dollars in continued fossil fuel subsidies.”

Sharon Squassoni, another board member and director of the Proliferation Prevention Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Since the end of the Cold War, there has been cautious optimism about the ability of nuclear weapon states to keep the nuclear arms race in check and to walk back slowly from the precipice of nuclear destruction.

“That optimism has essentially evaporated in the face of two trends: sweeping nuclear weapons modernisation programmes and a disarmament machinery that has ground to a halt.

Slowed dramatically

“Although the United States and Russia no longer have the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons they had during the Cold War, the pace of reduction has slowed dramatically in recent years, well before the crisis in Crimea. From 2009 to 2013, the Obama administration cut only 309 warheads from the stockpile.”

Richard Somerville, a board member and research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, said: “Efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption. . .  This threat looms over all of humanity. We all need to respond now, while there is still time.”

The board urges action to be taken to cap greenhouse gas emissions at levels that that would keep average global temperature from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is the internationally-agreed limit, which will form the basis of the global agreement that climate negotiators hope to reach at UN talks in Paris in December.

The board also urges sharply reduced planned spending on nuclear weapons modernisation, a revitalised disarmament process, and immediate action to deal with nuclear waste. − Climate News Network

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Social conscience is key to cutting household energy

Social conscience is key to cutting household energy

Researchers in Los Angeles find that saving money is not the most powerful message in persuading people to reduce the amount of electricity they use.

LONDON, 25 January, 2015 − Altruism is alive and well and living in California. An extended experiment involving more than 100 households suggests that people are more likely to reduce energy use if they believe it is good for the environment rather than good for their pockets.

Those who tuned into the messages about public good saved, on average, 8% on their fuel bills, while households with children reduced their energy use by 19%. But people who were repeatedly reminded that they were using more power than an economy-conscious neighbour altered their consumption hardly at all.

Environmental economist Magali Delmas and research fellow Omar Asensio, of the University of California Los Angeles, report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they were investigating behaviour-altering messages that might encourage energy savings, as Americans could potentially save 20% a year − or 123 million tonnes of carbon.

Real-time use

Smart-metering systems were devised and installed in 118 apartments in a campus village that is home to graduate students and their families.

A website was created so that everybody could track real-time use and see what such things as dish washing machines and heating and cooling systems could cost, and even see the spikes in energy use every time they opened the fridge.

“Electricity is still largely invisible to most people.
We want to help them see it.”

They took six months to measure the baseline use, and then started to send weekly emails to the volunteers.

For four months, one group kept getting messages that said they were using more power than a neighbour, or that their consumption was more costly. The other group was told how much more air pollution they were creating than their neighbour − and, at the same time, reminded that air pollution is linked to childhood asthma, and cancer.

The environmental argument won, conspicuously. And it may have succeeded, the researchers think, because the environmentally-aware households were being presented with two ideas: that if they cut air pollution and reduced the risk of disease they were doing something that would benefit both them and society at large.

Relatively cheap

The pressure to cut household fuel bills may not have worked, said Asensio, because electricity is relatively cheap.

“For most people at our field site, the savings for cutting back to using the same as their most efficient neighbour would only be $4 to $6 a month,” he said. “That’s a fast-food combo meal or a couple of gallons of milk.”

Professor Delmas, the study’s principal investigator, said: “Electricity is still largely invisible to most people. We want to help them see it.” – Climate News Network

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No prospect of relief from constant nuclear headache

No prospect of relief from constant nuclear headache

Keeping nuclear waste safe costs billions of dollars a year, but what to do with it in the long-term is still no nearer being resolved.

LONDON, 24 January, 2015 − A private consortium formed to deal with Europe’s most difficult nuclear waste at a site in Britain’s beautiful Lake District has been sacked by the British government because not sufficient progress has been made in making it safe.

It is the latest setback for an industry that claims nuclear power is the low-carbon answer to climate change, but has not yet found a safe resting place for radioactive rubbish it creates when nuclear fuel and machinery reaches the end of its life.

Dealing with the waste stored at this one site at Sellafield − the largest of a dozen nuclear sites in Britain − already costs the UK taxpayer £2 billion a year, and it is expected to be at least as much as this every year for half a century.

Hundreds of people are employed to prevent the radioactivity leaking or overheating to cause a nuclear disaster, and the cost of dealing with the waste at this site alone has already risen to £70 billion.

Dangerous to humans

This extraordinary legacy of dangerous radioactive waste is present in every country that has adopted nuclear power as a form of electricity production, as well as those with nuclear weapons. No country has yet solved the problem of how to deal with waste that remains dangerous to humans for thousands of years.

Among the many other countries that have a serious unresolved nuclear waste problem are the US, Russia, China, India, Japan, France, Germany and Canada, as well as a number of eastern European countries that have ageing Russian reactors. Only Sweden seems to have practical plans to deal with its nuclear waste, and these are years away from completion.

Many countries, including Germany and Italy, have rejected nuclear power, partly because they cannot find a solution to the waste problem. But many others − including the UK, India and China − intend to go on building them even though it stores up a dangerous radioactive legacy for future generations.

The problem began after the Second World War when, in the rush to build atomic weapons, the governments of the US, Russia and the UK gave no heed to the high dangerous nuclear waste it was creating in the process. This problem continued, even in non-weapon states such as Germany and Japan, when nuclear power was seen as a new, cheap form of electricity production.

Ill-founded hope

The belief was always that science would find some way of neutralising the dangerous radioactivity, and then it could be buried as simply as any other rubbish. This hope has proved to be ill-founded.

Highly radioactive waste, dangerous for as long as 200,000 years, has to be isolated and guarded in every country that has dabbled in nuclear energy. At Sellafield, huge water tanks filled with unknown quantities of radioactive rubbish have yet to be emptied.

The only bright spot is Sweden, which has a deep depository to dispose of short-lived waste in stable granite formations. Other similar depositories are planned along the same lines for more dangerous spent fuel, but these are still at the planning stage.

Long-term problem

Constructing these is likely to take another 30 years, so even in Sweden storing the waste is still a long-term problem. The argument is that once the depositories have been built and sealed, the granite will be stable for millions of years − long enough for the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

Unfortunately for most countries, they do not have these stable granite formations. Britain has granite in the Lake District, but the rock is fractured and water filters through it, raising the possibility of radioactivity leaching out.

The British government promised four years ago it would not build any more nuclear power stations until it had found a solution to this 50-year-old problem. But it has abandoned the promise because it is no nearer building a Swedish-style depository, even though it is now offering financial bribes to communities to host an underground cavern.

The official position is that Britain is still on course for finding a Swedish-style deep depository for nuclear waste, but no one can say where or when it could be built. – Climate News Network

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Energy poured in to cutting-edge conservation ideas

Energy poured in to cutting-edge conservation ideas

A battery that could treble electric car mileage and cut costs is among the innovations moving closer to reality on the frontiers of science.

LONDON, 23 January, 2015 − Here’s a plan for cutting your carbon footprint: fit your electric car with a high-performance lithium sulphur battery that can treble the mileage for a much lower cost.

That’s just one of many examples of innovative energy conservation solutions that scientists are currently on the brink of turning into reality. Others include fitting your clothes with zinc oxide nano-generators that can harvest mechanical energy from the moving fabric to charge your portable devices.

Then you could move into a new suburban development carefully planned to maintain all the trees that store and sequester carbon. You’ll be in a city anyway − and cities are best placed to plan new energy efficiencies.

Linda Nazar, chemistry professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and colleagues believe that a lithium-sulphur battery is one step nearer reality.

Light and cheap

Sulphur is abundant, light and cheap, and a rechargeable sulphur cathode could be so much less costly than the lithium cobalt ion in lithium-ion cells – if only the sulphur could be stopped from dissolving after a few cycles.

She and her team report in report in Nature Communications that ultrathin, nanoscale sheets of manganese oxide could stabilise the sulphides and deliver a cathode that could be recharged more than 2000 times. So far, the Waterloo team claim only to have worked out the mechanism that would stabilise a sulphur battery: there is much more to be done.

Meanwhile, a group at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology report in Applied Physics Letters that piezoelectric zinc oxide nanotechnology could be used to harvest mechanical energy.

Any movement – any sound, any vibration, any exertion of muscle, any step, any movement of fabric – represents energy that could be turned into electrical current, especially with a little help from exquisitely-designed aluminium nitride insulators.

Illustration showing stacked flexible nanaogenerators (left) Image: Giwan Yoon/KAIST

Illustration showing stacked flexible nanaogenerators (left)
Image: Giwan Yoon/KAIST

So someone wearing, for instance, a medical device that monitors heart rate and breathing could actually provide the power for the device just by walking about, or breathing. That’s the possibility: more exploration is needed, say the scientists.

Both pieces of research are reports from the frontiers of energy conservation science. But at the University of Florida, one group zeroed in on the oldest carbon storage and sequestration technology of all: the tree.

Homes needed

There are 19 million people in Florida now. By 2040, the population could be 25 million. That’s a lot of new homes needed − and it would help if they started off in a conservation-friendly way.

Environmental specialist Richard Vaughn and colleagues report in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning that they looked at a plan to build 1,835 homes on a 700 hectare site that is – for the moment – a managed pine forest.

They grouped the trees according to age and calculated that, since older trees hold more carbon than younger ones, it would make sense to reduce the area for subdivision and group the homes closer together so as to preserve the oldest trees.

One of the designs saved 71% of the original stored carbon and 82% of the carbon that would have been sequestered by the forest.

“If you have a compact subdivision, you’ll have fewer roads,” said one of the Florida report authors, Mark Hostetler, professor specialising in biodiversity conservation. “With fewer roads, you have less energy used to produce the roads.

Patches for wildlife

“That impacts how much carbon is released. With more patches of biodiversity, you also have natural patches for wildlife. And there’s water. With compact neighbourhood design you’ve decreased the pavement and you’ve kind of separated the built areas from the natural areas.”

All urban areas offer scope for energy savings, because all cities generate a higher proportion of carbon emissions than rural areas.

Felix Creutzig. head of the land-use, infrastructures and transport group at Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Berlin, and colleagues looked at energy and emissions data from 274 cities in 60 countries – cities home to 21% of the global urban population – and considered the future under a “business-as-usual” scenario.

They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that energy use would triple by 2050. Another two to three billion people would crowd into the cities, and the urban “footprint” would grow by 1.2 million square kilometres – an area the size of South Africa.

Some thoughtful urban planning and energy policies, however, could make a big difference − especially if the planners got to work early.

“This window of opportunity exists especially for low-emissions cities in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where urbanisation and associated rises in income could lead to high increases in urban energy use if current trends continue,” they report. – Climate News Network

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Scientists say rise in sea levels is faster than feared

Scientists say rise in sea levels is faster than feared

Harvard researchers find that there has been an almost threefold annual increase in global sea levels over the last quarter of a century.

LONDON, 22 January, 2015 − Sea level rise for most of the 20th century may have been over-estimated by as much as 30%. But the less welcome news is that, if that’s the case, then sea levels since 1990 have started to accelerate more sharply than anyone had ever expected.

Scientists at Harvard University, in the US, report in the journal Nature that they came to the conclusions after deciding that old data needed fresh analysis − using sophisticated mathematical filtering techniques for handling the uncertainties and gaps in such data.

Estimating and accounting for global mean sea level (GMSL) rise is critical to characterising current and future human-induced changes. The catch is that sea level measurement hasn’t been going on for very long, so not all measurement techniques have been the same. In addition, reliable, systematic and sustained sets of data are relatively sparse.

Rise and fall

The term “sea level” sounds pretty basic, but the oceans are hardly ever level. Tides swell and ebb, regions of sea rise and fall according to temperature and salinity, and the shorelines at which researchers take measurements can also go up because of tectonic movement or sink because of the abstraction of groundwater.

Measurements along some of the world’s great estuary systems can be skewed because of human interference over the decades with the flow downstream, and great tracts of ocean cannot be measured directly at all.

The challenge, then, is to arrive at an average sea level rise for the whole planet.

“We know that sea level is changing for a variety of reasons,” said Dr Carling Hay, post-doctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS).

“There are ongoing effects due to the last ice age, heating and expansion of the ocean due to global warming, changes in ocean circulation, and present day melting of land-ice − all of which result in unique patterns of sea level change. These processes combine to produce the observed global mean sea level rise.”

So the Harvard scientists, working with colleagues from Rutgers University in New Jersey, made estimates for the meltwater from glaciers and dwindling ice caps, from ocean thermal expansion and factors. They then “smoothed” the data, using a mathematical modelling algorithm.

Earlier estimates put mean sea level rise in the 20th century at between 1.5 and 1.8 millimetres a year. Dr Hay and her colleagues now think that, between 1901 and 1990, the true figure was probably closer to 1.2mm a year.

But since 1990, global sea level has risen by 3mm a year on average. So, in fact, the acceleration since then has been faster than anybody expected – and this in turn could affect future projections.

Question of accuracy

“Another concern with this is that many efforts to project sea level change into the future use estimates of sea level rise over the time period from 1900 to 1990,” said co-author Eric Morrow, a recent Ph.D graduate of Harvard’s EPS

“If we’ve been over-estimating the sea level change during that period, it means that these models are not calibrated appropriately, and that calls into question the accuracy of projections out to the end of the century.”

Dr Hay added: “We expected that we would estimate the individual contributions, and that their sum would get us back to the 1.5 to 1.8mm a year that other people had predicted. But the math doesn’t work out that way.

“Unfortunately, our new lower rate of sea level rise prior to 1990 means that sea level acceleration that resulted in higher rates over the last 20 years is really much larger than anyone thought.” – Climate News Network

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Warming warning as temperatures hit record high

Warming warning as temperatures hit record high

As statistics confirm that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded, leading scientists say climate change trends are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 21 January, 2014 − Last year was the warmest year on record, according to two separate analyses by two giant US government organisations.

The findings, which confirm a conclusion that meteorologists confidently predicted last November, mean that 14 of the warmest years on record have happened this century, and nine of the 10 warmest years have been since 2000.

Scientists from the space agency NASA and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both examined surface temperature measurements around the planet and decided that 2014 was on average the hottest since 1880 − the earliest year for global records.

Climate cycle

The post-millennial pattern was broken only in 1998 − the year of a super El Niño, when global warming coincided with the peak of a natural climate cycle in the Pacific.

Not surprisingly, 2014 was also recently confirmed as the hottest year ever for the UK, where there have been sustained temperature measurements since 1659.

And World Meteorological Organisation scientists warned last month that 2014 could be a record-breaking year for the continent of Europe as well.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has crept up by 0.8 degrees Celsius, and most of that warming has occurred in the last three decades.

“This is yet another flag to the politicians,
and to all of us”

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The results are an average: some parts of the US − including the Midwest and the East Coast − were unusually cool, while Alaska, California and Nevada all experienced their highest ever temperatures.

The Goddard Institute analyses were based on measurements from 6,300 weather stations, ship and buoy-based sea surface temperature measurements, and data from Antarctic research stations.

Rowan Sutton, who directs climate research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, UK, said: “By itself, a single year doesn’t tell us too much, but the fact that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century shows just how clear global warming has become. This is yet another flag to the politicians, and to all of us.”

Likely to accelerate

And Bob Ward, policy director at the UK’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said the figures exposed the myth that global warming had stopped. The rate of increase in global average surface temperatures had slowed over the last 15 years to about 0.05°C a decade, but was likely to accelerate again.

“Measured over a period since 1951, global mean surface temperature has been rising about 0.12°C per decade,” Ward said. “There is mounting evidence all round the world that the Earth is warming and the climate is changing in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Carbon dioxide levels are close to 400 parts per million − 40% higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution, and probably higher than they have been for millions of years.”

No politician, he said, could afford to ignore this overwhelming scientific evidence, or claim that global warming was a hoax. – Climate News Network

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Coal casts a cloud over Germany’s energy revolution

Coal casts cloud over Germany’s energy revolution

Germany cut emissions and boosted renewables last year, but critics say CO2 reduction targets can’t be met unless it closes coal-burning power stations.

BERLIN, 20 January 2015 − The energy market in Germany saw a spectacular change last year as renewable energy became the major source of its electricity supply − leaving lignite, coal and nuclear behind.

But researchers calculate that, allowing for the mild winter of 2014, the cut in fossil fuel use in energy production meant CO2 emissions fell by only 1%.

Wind, solar, hydropower and biomass reached a new record, producing 27.3% (157bn kilowatt hours) of Germany’s total electricity and overtaking lignite (156bn kWh), according to AGEB, a joint association of energy companies and research institutes.

This was an achievement that many energy experts could not have imagined just a few years ago.

Lowest level

Beyond that, Germany’s primary energy consumption – which includes the energy used in power generation, heating and transport − fell to its lowest level since reunification with East Germany in 1990, AGEB report. It shrank by 4.8% compared with 2013.

Estimates by AGEB indicate that Germany’s CO2 emissions will have fallen in 2014 by around 5% compared with 2013, as consumption of all fossil fuels fell and the contribution from renewables rose. Half the CO2 savings came from power generation.

Germany’s use of hard coal − sometimes called black coal, which emits much less CO2 than brown coal, as lignite is known − in electricity generation was 7.9% lower than in 2013, and lignite 2.3%. The share of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix fell from 81.9% in 2013 to 80.8%.

“My most urgent wish for the energy future is that Germany must stop using coal”

At first sight, that looks like a big success story. But it comes after several years of rising emissions that have cast doubt on the “Energiewende” − the ambitious German energy transition plan for a simultaneous phase-out of nuclear power and a move to a carbon-free economy.

While all of Germany’s remaining nine nuclear power plants must by law be shut down no later than the end of 2022, there is no such legally-binding phase-out for the coal industry. So no one can tell how long Germany will go on burning the worst climate change contributors, lignite and hard coal.

Dirty 30

In July 2014, a group of NGOs published a study on the EU’s 30 worst CO2-emitting thermal power plants. German power stations featured six times among the 10 dirtiest.

CROP-WWF-dirty-30-2014

Never heard of Neurath, Niederausssem, Jänschwalde, Boxberg, Weisweiler and Lippendorf? These are the sites of Germany’s lignite-powered stations, which together emit more than 140 megatonnes of CO2 annually − making Germany Europe’s worst coal polluter, followed by Poland and the UK.

And international banks, including Germany’s biggest investment bank, keep on financing coal. A study by BankTrack shows that 92 commercial banks financed the coal industry in 2013 to the tune of at least €66bn – a new record. The top investor was the US bank JP Morgan Chase. Deutsche Bank was tenth.

That level of investment puts into perspective the US $10bn that is now in the UN’s Green Climate Fund to help developing nations fight climate change.

Germany has one of the most ambitious climate targets worldwide: by 2020, its CO2 emissions are due to be 40% below their 1990 level. But how can it achieve this?

Climate goals

The latest Climate Protection Action Plan, adopted by the German Cabinet on 3 December last year, says that 22 million tonnes of CO2 will be saved “by further measures, especially in the power sector”.

Does that mean less power from coal? In any case, it will not put Germany back on track, as nearly 80 million tonnes of CO2 must be saved to reach the country’s 2020 climate goals. The Greens pointed out that a coal-fired power plant such as Jänschwalde alone produces more than 22 million tonnes of CO2 − and Jänschwalde is not even the biggest German polluter.

So, right now, the Energiewende seems a story both of success and of failure.

Mojib Latif, the German meteorologist and oceanographer who co-authored the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, says: “The only way of countering the rise in CO2 is to expand renewables. The technology is there − it just has to be used.

“My most urgent wish for the energy future is that Germany must stop using coal. Otherwise we have no chance of achieving our climate targets.” − Climate News Network

  • Henner Weithöner is a Berlin-based freelance journalist specialising in renewable energy and climate change. He is also a tutor for advanced journalism training, focusing on environmental reporting and online journalism, especially in developing countries.
    LinkedIn: de.linkedin.com/pub/henner-weithöner/48/5/151/; Twitter: @weithoener

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Gold rush leaves tropical forests poorer than ever

Gold rush leaves tropical forests poorer than ever

New research shows that parts of South America’s most biologically valuable tropical forests are being damaged by a resurgent gold mining industry.

LONDON, 19 January, 2015 − The natural wealth of South America’s tropical forests is at growing risk from demand for its minerals − and specifically its gold.

Researchers says that a veritable global gold rush has led to a significant increase of deforestation in the region’s forests, and is having a growing environmental impact on some of the most biologically important areas in the tropics.

The researchers say the increased mining pressure is caused by rising demand and greater financial insecurity. In 2013, world gold production was more than 10% greater than in 2000, and the price of the metal had increased almost fivefold.

The team, from the University of Puerto Rico, have published their findings in the journal Environmental Research Letters. They show that around 90% of the deforestation occurred in just four areas, and that much of it happened close to conservation areas.

Increased mining

Between 2001 and 2013, around 1,680 square kilometres (650 square miles) of tropical moist forest lost in South America as a result of gold mining, the study says. The mining increased from around 377 to 1,303 sq km between 2007’s global economic crisis and 2013.

The study’s lead author, environmental scientist Nora L Álvarez-Berríos, said the loss of forest from mining was less than deforestation caused by other land uses, such as agriculture or ranching, but it was happening in some of the most biologically-diverse regions in the tropics.

She said: “For example, in the Madre de Dios Region in Peru, one hectare of forest can hold up to 300 species of trees.”

The study says a combination of growing personal consumption and uncertainty in global financial markets has driven up global gold production from around 2,445 tonnes in 2000 to about 2,770 in 2013. At the same time, the price of gold rose from US $250 to $1,300 an ounce (28 grammes).

This has stimulated new gold mining activity around the world and has made it possible in previously unprofitable areas, including deposits beneath tropical forests.

“It is important also to encourage more responsible ways of extracting gold . . .  to reduce deeper encroachment into the forests”

The researchers say this spread can not only lead to extensive forest loss but result as well in serious environmental impacts, caused by the removal of vegetation, the building of roads and railways for access, and the creation of informal settlements.

Long-term impacts, they say, can include the failure of vegetation to regrow, changes in rainfall patterns, permanent loss of biodiversity, and the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

They sought to quantify the impacts of gold mines in tropical forests by creating a geographical database that highlighted the location of newly-developed mines between 2000 and 2013. This was then cross-referenced with annual land cover maps showing the change in forest cover over the same period.

Forest loss

The study examined the tropical and subtropical forest biome − one of the world’s major physical communities, classified according to its predominant vegetation − below 1,000 metres in Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

The results showed that, over the 13-year study period, 89% of forest loss occurred in just four ecoregions of South America: the Guianan, southwest Amazon, Tapajós-Xingú, and Magdalena Valley-Urabá.

There was little deforestation inside strict protection areas, but around a third of the total occurred within a 10km buffer zone around them, leaving the zones exposed to the harmful impacts of the chemical pollutants dispersed from mines.

Professor Álvarez-Berríos said consumers’ awareness needs to be raised about the environmental and social impacts of buying or investing in gold.

She said: “It is important also to encourage more responsible ways of extracting gold by helping miners to extract in a more efficient way to reduce deeper encroachment into the forests.” − Climate News Network

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Climate’s threat to wheat is rising by degrees

Climate’s threat to wheat is rising by degrees

Worldwide field trials show that just one degree of warming could slash wheat yields by 42 million tonnes and cause devastating shortages of this vital staple food.

LONDON, 17 January, 2015 − Climate change threatens dramatic price fluctuations in the price of wheat and potential civil unrest because yields of one of the world’s most important staple foods are badly affected by temperature rise.

An international consortium of scientists have been testing wheat crops in laboratory and field trials in many areas of the world in changing climate conditions and discovered that yields drop on average by six percent for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature.

This represents 42 million tonnes of wheat lost − about a quarter of the current global wheat trade − for every degree. This would create serious shortages and cause price hikes of the kind that have previously caused food riots in developing countries after only one bad harvest.

Global production of wheat was 701 million tonnes in 2012, but most of this is consumed locally. Global trade is much smaller, at 147 tonnes in 2013.

Market shortages

If the predicted reduction of 42 million tonnes per 1˚C of temperature increase occurred, market shortages would cause price rises. Many developing countries, and the hungry poor within them, would not be able to afford wheat or bread.

Since temperatures − on current projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change − are expected to rise up to 5˚C this century in many wheat-growing regions, this could be catastrophic for global food supply.

Dr. Reimund Rötter, professor of production ecology and agrosystems modelling at the Natural Resources Institute Finland, said that wheat yield declines were larger than previously thought.

“Increased yield variability is critical economically as it could weaken regional and global stability in wheat grain supply and food security”

He said: “Increased yield variability is critical economically as it could weaken regional and global stability in wheat grain supply and food security, amplifying market and price fluctuations, as experienced during recent years.”

One of the crucial problems is that there will be variability in supply from year to year, so the researchers systematically tested 30 different wheat crop models against field experiments in which growing season mean temperatures ranged from 15°C to 26°C.

Temperature impact

The temperature impact on yield decline varied widely across field test conditions. In addition, year-to-year variability increased at some locations because of greater yield reductions in warmer years and lesser reductions in cooler years.

The scientists say that the way to adapt is to cultivate more heat-tolerant varieties, and so keep the harvest stable.

The results of the study − by scientists from the Finland, Germany, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, India, China, Australia, Canada and the United States − are published in Nature Climate Change.

Professor Martin Parry, who is leading the 20:20 Wheat Institute Strategic Programme at Rothamsted Research to increase wheat yields, commented: “This is an excellent example of collaborative research, which will help ensure that we have the knowledge needed to develop the crops for the future environments.” – Climate News Network

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