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Questions on the future of fracking

April 23, 2014 in Economy, Energy, Fossil fuels, Fracking, Methane, Shale Gas, USA, Water

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Fracking the Bakken of North Dakota: To ensure US energy self-sufficiency - or to fetch the highest price? Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Fracking the Bakken of North Dakota: To ensure US energy self-sufficiency – or to fetch the highest price?
Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The fracking industry is the new star on the US energy scene, credited by its backers with bringing down domestic fuel prices and revitalising the US economy. But amid the talk of an energy revolution, there are questions about just how long the fracking boom can last.

LONDON, 23 April – There’s no doubt that fracking – the complex process through which oil and gas is extracted from deposits of shale rock deep underground – has revolutionised the US energy sector. Fracking, says the oil and gas industry, will bring an end to the country’s dependence on fuel imports: self-sufficiency is the stated goal.

Governments in other countries, including the UK, are jealously watching developments in the US: many are seeking to promote their own shale energy boom.

Though the oil and gas produced from fracking are fossil fuels, some green groups see the industry as potentially helpful in fighting climate change: the idea is that these fuels – particularly supposedly cleaner fracked gas – will act as transition energies till renewables like solar and wind power are properly developed. When that happens, the theory goes, we can all embrace a fossil fuel-free future.

Earlier this month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tentatively endorsed the use of shale gas, despite concerns that the fracking process releases considerable quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere.

Depleting aquifers

There are other questions about the future of fracking. The process uses vast amounts of water: the Ground Water Protection Council, made up of various US state water regulatory agencies, estimates that each fracking operation requires between two and four million gallons of water.

With parts of the US like a pincushion, punctured by thousands of wells, that’s an awful lot of water. The US Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the more than 35,000 oil and gas wells engaged in fracking use up to 140 billion gallons of water each year, roughly equivalent, it says, to the annual consumption of a city of five million. A cocktail of chemicals is added to water in the fracking process, and most water used is not recycled.

Moreover, many regions where fracking is most intensive are also areas prone to serious water shortages. A 2013 report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a network of community groups across four states in the US west including North Dakota, one of the main fracking areas, said water used in the extraction process threatened supplies for agriculture and for rural communities.

Bursting point?

“There is mounting evidence that the current level of water use for oil and gas production simply cannot be sustained and that projected increases in use may lead to a crisis”, says the WORC. “Something has to give.”

Then there are questions about the whole financial basis of fracking, with critics warning that the industry is a bubble that will soon burst – “the new subprime” threatening not only the energy sector but also the US financial system.

Billions of dollars have been sunk into the fracking industry. Fracking is a far more expensive process than most conventional oil and gas exploration, involving both vertical and horizontal drilling techniques.

At first shale wells produce large volumes of oil and gas but production tends to taper off fast. New wells then have to be sunk in order to maintain production. Typically, shale companies operate on substantial levels of debt, continually faced with having to service their vast borrowings.

While up-to-date, detailed information on the overall state of the fracking industry is hard to come by, some analysts say production is already showing signs of peaking, causing nervousness among investors.

Export potential

Many operators focus on the extraction of shale oil, which commands higher prices in the market: infrastructure for shale gas – which involves the construction of compressor stations, storage facilities and thousands of miles of pipelines – is still relatively undeveloped.

That’s why, say some analysts, rather than spend billions of dollars developing domestic infrastructure, the US gas industry is urging the authorities to build terminals to export shale gas in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe and Asia, where it will fetch prices up to five times higher. Already two bills have been introduced into Congress aimed at fast-tracking LNG exports.

The fracking industry has repeatedly said that all the drilling and disruption is worthwhile in order to achieve US energy self-sufficiency. But with production becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, and with the frackers anxious to recoup their expenditure by exporting to Europe and China, achieving that self-sufficiency looks more and more like a distant dream. – Climate News Network

Climate costs ‘may prove much higher’

April 16, 2014 in Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, Economy, Greenhouse Gases, Methane, Permafrost, Warming slowdown

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A meat store built in the melting  permafrost of Herschel Island in the Arctic Ocean Image: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

A meat store built in the melting permafrost of Herschel Island in the Arctic Ocean
Image: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

There may be a higher price for our descendants to pay for the greenhouse gas build-up, researchers say, as the real costs are updated.

LONDON, 16 April – Economists and scientists may have seriously underestimated the “social cost” of carbon emissions to future generations, according to a warning in Nature.

Social cost is a calculation in US dollars of the future damage that might be done by the emission of one metric ton of carbon dioxide as greenhouse gas levels soar and climates change, sea levels rise and temperature records are broken in future decades.

How much would society save if it didn’t emit that tonne of CO2? One recent US estimate is $37. Such a measure helps civil servants, businessmen and ministers to calculate the impact of steps that might be taken.

On the other hand, say Richard Revesz of New York University School of Law and US and Swedish colleagues, assumptions of cost per tonne – and these range from $12 to $64 according to various calculations – are based on models that need to be improved and extended. The cost of climate change could be higher, for four reasons.

Flawed assumptions

The impact of historic temperature variation suggests societies and economies may be more vulnerable than the models predict, and in this case weather variability is more important than average weather – because crop yields are vulnerable to extremes of temperature.

Then the models omit the damage to productivity, and to the value of capital stock, because of lower growth rates: as these lower growth rates compound each other, human welfare will begin to decline. And that’s without factoring in climate-induced wars, coups or societal collapse.

Third, the models assume that the value people attach to ecosystems (and water is an ecosystem service) remains constant. But, they point out, as commodities become scarce, value increases, so the costs of ecosystem damage will rise faster than models predict.

Finally, the models assume that a constant discount rate can translate future harms into today’s dollars. But discount rates of the future may not be constant.

More warming

“What now?” they ask. “Modellers, scientists and environmental economists must continue to step outside their silos and work together to identify research gaps and modelling limitations.”

They hint at an even deeper problem: the basis of the social harm costs dates from calculations more than 20 years old, and is predicated on an average global warming of less than 3°C. Yet without mitigation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a warming of 4°C by the end of the century.

“If warming continues unchecked into the twenty-second century, it could render parts of the planet effectively uninhabitable during the hottest days of summer, with consequences that would be challenging to monetize,” they write.

Economic harm may not be the only thing underestimated. Michael Mann, a meteorologist at Penn State University in the US, reports in Geophysical Research Letters that the so-called “slowdown” in global warming during this decade  could be because of an underestimate of the impact of a meteorological monster called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), an oceanographic cycle of warming and cooling that delivers natural change in northern hemisphere weather patterns.

More methane

A misreading of this cycle – probably because scientists have not known about it for long – could account for this apparent slowdown. “Some researchers in the past attributed a portion of Northern Hemispheric warming to a warm phase of the AMO,” said Professor Mann.

“The true AMO signal, instead, appears likely to have been in a cooling phase in recent decades, offsetting some of the anthropogenic warming temporarily.” And when the rate of warming rises again, there’s yet more alarming evidence of possible acceleration, according to new research.

The thawing of the Arctic sea ice is also accompanied by a softening and warming of the Arctic permafrost, and changes in the chemistry of the preserved peat, that could release ever larger amounts of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, present in smaller quantities than carbon dioxide, but 34 times more potent as a warming agent over 100 years.

If the permafrost melts entirely, that would put five times the present levels of carbon into the atmosphere, US researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The world is getting warmer, and the additional release of gas would only add to our problems,” said Jeff Chanton of Florida State University, a co-author. – Climate News Network

Corporates weigh risks, opportunities of changing climate

April 5, 2014 in Adaptation, Banking, Business, Climate risk, Economy, Europe, Resource shortages

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Swings and roundabouts: For many enterprises, climate change can have a silver lining Image: User:klip game via Wikimedia Commons

Swings and roundabouts: For many enterprises, climate change can have a silver lining
Image: User:klip game via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

While politicians dither about what action to take on climate change, it appears that the corporate world – in Europe at least – is taking the issue seriously and adapting its operations.

LONDON, 5 April – Europe’s company board rooms are very much alive to the risks posed by climate change – and are also busy analysing business opportunities it might provide.

That’s among the findings of a survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an EU-based non-profit organisation specialising in corporate environmental information, and Acclimatise, a consultancy group which gives business advice on climate change adaptation and management.

Altogether 270 of Europe’s largest companies from across 20 countries were contacted concerning their attitudes to a changing climate.

The resulting report on the survey, Climate Change Resilience in Europe, indicates that a majority of companies see climate change having a negative impact on their operations: companies identified 780 risks to their finances compared with 379 opportunities that might be available as a result of climate change.

Risk to reputations

The biggest risk foreseen is a reduction or a disruption in production capacity. “Extreme weather, drought and flooding may disrupt the supply of certain produce and products”, says one respondent, a spokesperson for the Maersk shipping and industrial conglomerate.

“This can directly affect the revenue of our supply chain but also can have a negative impact on our reputation and create a demand for more local sourcing.”

There are other expected risks: a large banking group in the Netherlands is concerned that climate change-related flooding could have an adverse impact on  its data centres.

Energy companies worry about higher temperatures disrupting the operation of power plants, while banks are concerned about their investments in companies exposed to rising sea levels.

Boost for business

“Many of the essential conditions on which businesses rely are changing, leading to increasing prices, as well as shortfalls in the quality and supply of goods and services provided to customers”, says Steven Tebbe, managing director of CDP Europe.

Yet not everyone in Europe’s corporate world is pessimistic. The report says more than 40% of companies look forward to a growing demand for their services as a result of climate change.

Construction companies in some regions of Europe might benefit from a warming climate. “Shorter and milder winters with less snow and cold can increase the productivity at some construction sites, as construction activity may experience less potential delays due to snowfall”, says Skanska AB, the Sweden-based building group.

Adaptation is key to maintaining the health of corporate finances. “Through the development of financial instruments such as catastrophe bonds, especially for regions of Africa which are particularly impacted by climate change, the financial risks posed by natural disasters and droughts can be avoided”, says Barclays, the banking group.

Staying healthy

Meanwhile Diageo, the drinks conglomerate, says that by replacing barley in its beer with less thirsty, more climate change-resistant raw materials it can gain a competitive advantage on its rivals.

“To stay competitive, business leaders must account for climate impacts and work to understand if, how and where climate risks are material to their bottom line”, says John Firth, CEO of Acclimatise.

Steven Tebbes of CDP sees a direct link between an awareness of the impact of climate change and the financial well-being of a company.

“Industry environmental transparency and performance is today a prerequisite for attracting new investments and creating new jobs – there’s increasing evidence of the links between how well a company manages environmental and climate issues and its financial performance or access to capital.” – Climate News Network

California goes nuts for water

March 27, 2014 in Agriculture, Drought, Economy, USA, Water

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California's almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

California’s almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources
Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

While recent rainfall has brought welcome relief to California, the amount of precipitation has not been nearly enough to put an end to what is its worst drought on record.  The state’s $45 billion agricultural sector has been particularly hard hit.

LONDON, 27 March – Almonds are good for you. That’s the message California’s enterprising nut growers have been giving to the world – and they have been remarkably successful in their marketing efforts.

The world appetite for almonds is growing by the day – and nut farmers in the west of the US have been cashing in. According to the Almond Board of California the state now produces more than 80% of total world almond output: California’s almond crop has more than doubled since 2006 to 1.88 billion pounds last year.

The trouble is almonds – and other nut crops grown in California – need plenty of water, and right now water is in very short supply. A drought emergency is in force. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range – a key source of the state’s water – was recently recorded as being only 24% of its normal capacity for the time of year.

At the end of January, California’s State Water Project – the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the US, responsible for supplying water to two-thirds of the state’s 38 million people – stopped supplying local agencies in many areas.

Scientists are busy analysing whether the drought is linked to changes in climate: President Obama, announcing a drought federal aid package, said the state provided an example of what might be in store for the rest of the country as climate change intensifies.

Left fallow

“We have to be clear”, said Obama.  “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, are potentially going to be costlier, and they’re going to be harsher.”

Under an unprecedented range of restrictions, no water from state projects is being supplied to the agricultural sector. Instead, farmers have to find their own water sources, whether from rivers or by sinking boreholes. Agricultural experts estimate that up to 800,000 acres of farmland will not be planted this year because of lack of water.

Cattle ranchers are selling off livestock due to lack of grass. The US now has its smallest cattle herd since the mid-1950s – and beef prices are at an all-time high.

But it’s perhaps the nut growers who are suffering most. In recent years California’s farmers have moved away from traditional annual vegetable crops such as tomatoes and lettuce and into the far more profitable market for almonds, pistachios and other nuts. Almonds are now California’s second most valuable crop – only sales of grapes are worth more.

The downside is that the nut trees are mainly in regions of central California classified as being under extreme drought conditions. Nut trees demand long-term investment: they need lots of water and take years to produce a crop.

Deeper cuts coming

Nut farmers are now scrubbing up portions of their tree plots in order to concentrate water resources on the remainder. They are digging wells and tapping in to already declining aquifers. In the process they are losing millions in revenue.

Meanwhile traders say prices for almonds and other nuts are likely to rise sharply on the world market next year due to drought-induced crop shortages.

Farmers’ organisations have complained that the agricultural sector has been unfairly targeted with water restrictions, while California’s cities and towns have been only partially affected.

That could be changing. In recent days the state supplier to Silicon Valley – the high-tech hub and likely home of the almond milk-flavoured café latte – announced that for the rest of the year it would be supplying only 80% of the normal amount of treated drinking water to inhabitants. – Climate News Network

Bricks on wheels face road closure

March 23, 2014 in Carbon Dioxide, Economy, European Union, Road Transport, Safety, Technology, United Kingdom

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A brick on wheels? The traditional British lorry may before lone give way to a new and perhaps safer design Image: By Adrian S Pye via Wikimedia Commons

A brick on wheels? The traditional British lorry may before long give way to a new and perhaps safer design
Image: By Adrian S Pye via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The European Parliament has voted in favour of changing the design of goods lorries throughout the EU – from their present brick shape to a more streamlined-looking vehicle. The idea is not only to increase fuel efficiency and cut back on CO2 emissions, but also to reduce accidents.

LONDON, 23 March – It’s one of those small steps that could help in the battle against greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Lorry design in the European Union at present is governed by legislation dating back to the mid-1990s, stipulating total maximum lengths for cabs and trailers.

This has resulted in the general adoption by road hauliers of a brick-shaped design for cabs on lorries: by making the cab more upright and shorter, transport companies have more space for goods.

But according to Transport & Environment (T&E), a Brussels-based group which campaigns for more sustainable and environmentally friendly transport policies within the EU, lorries have lagged seriously behind other vehicles in terms of environmental performance over the past 20 years.

“Whilst only three per cent of vehicles (in the EU), lorries account for a quarter of Europe’s road transport emissions. That share is expected to grow as traffic increases further”, it says.

Improving protection

T&E says the brick-shaped design is not only inefficient in terms of fuel consumption – it is also dangerous: “Lorries also have a dreadful safety record: every year 15% of all fatal collisions – around 4,200 deaths – involve lorries.”

About 75% of freight in Europe is delivered by lorry. Studies indicate road freight transport is one of the fastest-growing sources of CO2 emissions in the EU, with emissions from the sector likely to increase by more than 20% over the next 15 years. The EU imports 500 million barrels of oil each year, wortharound €60bn, to power its freight fleet.

European Parliament members say relatively simple changes in design can bring about advances in fuel efficiency and cut back on CO2 emissions. Under the Parliament’s proposals, the brick-shaped cab design would be replaced by a more streamlined, aerodynamic nose. The rear of the vehicle would also have aerodynamic flaps and shaping.

T&E says giving lorries a rounder front and putting in place other improvements could improve fuel economy by between seven and ten per cent. It says a more curved cab front would also give drivers greater visibility, eliminate blind spots and so avoid accidents.

Powerful backing

“Today is a good day for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, hauliers and the environment”, said William Todts of T&E following the EU Parliament vote. “This vote brings the end of the brick-shaped cab closer. It’s a key decision that will reduce road deaths and kickstart progress on lorry CO2 emissions after 20 years of stagnation.”

After a spate of fatal accidents involving lorries and cyclists, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has joined the call for changes in lorry design.

The era of more fuel-efficient, safer lorries in Europe is likely to be delayed for some time. Hauliers and truck manufacturers object to the costs of design changes.  To compensate for the haulage space lost due to any new shapes for lorries, the trucking industry is likely to press for bigger, longer vehicles.

The Parliament’s vote still needs to be confirmed by the full parliamentary body. It then goes forward to be considered by all member states. The brick on wheels could be charging down Europe’s roads for some time yet. – Climate News Network

Climate science ‘is beyond argument’

March 17, 2014 in Arctic, Business, Carbon, Climate deniers, Deep Ocean, Economy, Fish, Food security, Global Ocean Commission, Ice Loss, Marine ecology, Ocean acidification, Ocean Warming, Polar ice, Pollution, Science

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Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them
Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The Global Ocean Commission says climate change is one of the key threats to the health of the world’s marine life, which it says faces multiple pressures in a warming world.

HONG KONG, 17 March - South Africa’s former Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, has derided those who deny the scientific argument that climate change is an urgent problem caused largely by human activity.

He told journalists here: “The science is now incontrovertible. There are a few people in the world who deny it, but they are mainly in lunatic asylums.”

Mr Manuel is one of three co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of global leaders who have just ended a meeting here to finalise the proposals they will present to the United Nations in June.

The meeting agreed that another key threat to the world’s oceans is overfishing and the subsidies which help to make it possible. It says this, and the other factors causing ocean degradation, threaten the food security of as many as 500 million people.

It is deeply worried about pollution. With plastic remains now so pervasive that they are found even in deep seafloor sediments, Mr Manuel said, it sometimes seemed that “you might as well not bother to buy seafood at all – just buy the plastic bag it comes in and eat that.”

Shells corroded

The Commission says climate change threatens the oceans in three main ways: by raising the temperature of the water; by reducing its oxygen content; and by increasing its acidity. Antarctic pteropods, small sea snails also known as sea butterflies, are already being found with severely corroded shells because of acidification, and larger creatures, including bigger shellfish and corals, are likely to be seriously affected.

Another of the co-chairs, José María Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica, told the Climate News Network the Commission was concerned at the prospect of exploitation of the high seas in the Arctic as the region’s sea ice continues to melt.

He said: “Beyond Arctic countries’ EEZs (exclusive economic zones stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast), the melting will leave us with a doughnut-shaped hole in the Arctic high seas, which are not under international control.

“Some nations are now looking to explore there for fish, minerals, valuable biodiversity and other resources. I believe we should not go down that route.

We should listen to the science and follow the precautionary principle, keeping this pristine area off-limits for exploitation until we understand the consequences.

Coalition builders

“We’re already pushing the high seas to the limit. We don’t need to push them over the edge by a lack of proper precaution in the Arctic.”

He said: “The jury is still out on whether we have 20 or 30 years ahead as a window of opportunity to act. But why wait? Listen to the science, which is overwhelming, and to the economics, which are sound.”

Describing the Commission as “not just a bunch of treehuggers, but a group that’s grounded itself in good sound economics”, Mr Figueres said the recommendations it planned to present to the UN on 24 June would represent about 20% of its work. The other 80% would involve building coalitions around each recommendation: there are expected to be no more than 10 in total.

The Commission’s third co-chair is the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He told the Network: “Answers that sit on a shelf are a waste of time, and people who are positively inclined to protect the oceans are held back by institutional inertia.

“But the interplay between climate change and ocean damage is rising, and it very much needs to. The science of most of the last half-century shows us how we’ve been playing tricks with nature.” – Climate News Network

Climate scientists 3 Economists 0

March 14, 2014 in Climate deniers, Climate risk, Economy, Energy, Forecasting, IPCC, Journalism, Population

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Climate scientists are much better at the forecasting game than economists says a new study Image: Eileen Sanda via Wikimedia Commons

Climate scientists are much better at the forecasting game than economists says a new study
Image: Eileen Sanda via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Hold up the trophy. Open the champagne. Climate scientists have easily won the game. According to a recent study, when it comes to the accuracy of forecasts and projections, the climate side is much better at the game  than the economists’ team.

London, 14 March – The study, by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK based independent think-tank, examines the accuracy and precision of projections made by both climate scientists and economists over the past 20 years.

First, the economists. The study looked at measures commonly used in long term UK government economic modelling and decision making, using 1995 as a baseline: the population forecast for England and the forecast for the UK Treasury’s  debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio.

In the US, the forecasts on oil prices over the period made by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) were also examined.

Economic inaccuracies

The NEF finds the economists’ projections both inaccurate and imprecise in all three areas.  The economists saw the population of England growing at a fairly modest level from 1995 to the present – from around 49 million 20 years ago to 51.5 million now.

In fact England’s population has risen steeply, particularly over the past 10 years and is now approaching 54 million.  The UK Treasury’s forecasts on the GDP to forecasts on the debt to GDP ratio fared no better, displaying “a bias towards optimism in government economic forecasts” says the study.

Meanwhile the crystal ball gazing of economists at the EIA was a miserable failure: they predicted oil prices rising on a gentle curve in the 15 years 1995 to 2010. In fact prices have been extremely volatile, rising at some points by more than five times the predicted figure.

And of course, the most damning judgement of the financial boffins forecasting skills is the failure of nearly all economic pundits to predict the 2008 recession.

Better projections

Contrast this with predictions made by climate scientists over the past 20 years, in particular those made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Again the NEF looks at three specific areas of projection – carbon concentration in the atmosphere, the temperature anomaly and forecasts since 1995 of sea level rise.  There can be no doubt of the result, says the study.

“Climate models outperform major economic forecasts on accuracy… global temperature, sea level and carbon concentration have all risen within the ranges originally forecast (by the IPCC) in 1995.”

While on one level this can be looked at as a bit of amusing sparring between two academic disciplines, there is serious business going on here.

The NEF makes the point that despite the dubious track record of economic forecasting, many government policy decisions are based on the data offered up.

Devious deniers

Meanwhile the climate deniers have succeeded in highlighting the narrow bands of uncertainty in the work of climate scientists – stalling action on the issue. Sections of the media collude in this process.

“This emphasis on uncertainty has a negative impact on climate progress” says the report. “It slows down environmental policy and corrodes the public will to act.”

The NEF draws attention to the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report and its revised estimate of certainty – up to 95% – that humans have been the main cause of global warming from 1950 to the present.

“This 95% has a precise scientific meaning. It is higher than the certainty that vitamins are good for your health and equivalent to the certainty that cigarettes cause lung cancer.”

Despite this, the climate denial bandwagon continues to roll along.

“We often hear the argument that climate models are too uncertain to bother taking action, but this is not borne out by the facts” says Aniol Esteban, the head of environmental economics at the NEF.

“We can’t go on making huge policy and investment decisions based on financial advice no more reliable than a coin flip, while at the same time discrediting climate models with a 20 year track record of accuracy. The double standard has to end now.” – Climate News Network

Livestock diet ‘can cut GHG emissions’

February 25, 2014 in Adaptation, Agriculture, Economy, Land Use, Livestock, Methane

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Better livestock diets could mean greenhouse gas cuts of 23% by 2030, the researchers say Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

Better livestock diets could mean greenhouse gas cuts of 23% by 2030, the researchers say
Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Limiting changes in the way we use land may be a better way slowing the contribution of livestock to climate change than reducing meat consumption, an international research team says.

LONDON, 25 February – Here’s a way to make cattle emit lower volumes of methane through their digestive tracts: give the beasts a higher-quality diet. That way, you get more stock on less grassland, get improved yields per hectare and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is a lot of discussion about the reduction of meat in the diet as a way to reduce emissions,” says Petr Havlik of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “But our results show that targeting the production side of agriculture is a much more efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

This will provoke some argument, and in any case seems counter-intuitive. Campaigners have been arguing for decades that livestock farming is in many though not all regions an inefficient way to produce nourishment: grain, pulses, fruits and vegetables deliver greater outputs of calories and proteins at much lower overall costs in water, energy and emissions.

Farm animals are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions and, as the poorer nations develop, demand for meat and dairy protein tends to rise, so emissions are expected to increase.

Production economics

Volume for volume, methane or natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and researchers in Europe and the US have begun to consider ways of reducing or at least limiting methane discharges from either or both ends of billions of the planet’s grazing animals.

But Havlink and colleagues from Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and the US think the answer lies in the changing economics of production. Livestock provide a third of the protein in human diets: in the developing world oxen, donkeys and buffalos also deliver haulage, manure and regular income.

Around 30% of the global land area is used to rear livestock. Between 1980 and 2000, 83% of the expansion of agricultural land in the tropics was at the expense of the tropical forests. A lot of this space is devoted to cattle, sheep and goats. Increasing quantities of maize and soya are also being converted to animal feed. So the problem is not likely to go away.

As land prices rise, there is pressure to stock more animals and buy in high-density fodder, to increase yield and to deliver quicker returns. So the new research proposes that both the increase in the cost of land, and the still-rising yields per hectare from croplands, will lead to richer diets for animals: this in turn would pay off in greater returns for the farmers, higher yields for people and – because livestock diets would be lower in cellulose and richer in energy – lower emissions of methane from the flatulent animals.

Better option

The scientists argue that by 2030 the change to more efficient farming could cut emissions by 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That, they suggest, could happen anyway, because it pays farmers to do such things. If political and economic measures were taken to accelerate such changes – and at the same time reduce the conversion of forest to farmland – then the world could save 3,223 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.

The real target in all this is not the livestock, but the change in land use. Stringent climate change policies, were they ever to be enforced or even introduced by the governments of the world, could constrain the food available to a swelling population. The researchers argue that it would be five to 10 times more efficient and effective to reduce the changes in land use – to stop burning and clearing forests to make new grazing land.

All this involves complex economic reasoning, and the use of economic metrics such as “total abatement calorie cost” and “marginal abatement costs”, but a global package of measures that included investment, trade and education could reduce total emissions from the farms and cattle sheds by 25%.

“From the livestock sector perspective, limiting land use change seems the cheapest option both in terms of the economic cost and in terms of impact on food availability,” says Havlik. – Climate News Network

US fracking revolution dilutes EU climate & energy plan

January 23, 2014 in Economy, Emissions reductions, Energy, Europe, Policy, Renewables, UNFCCC, USA

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Spanish protest: Fracking divides opinion in Europe Image: By Zarateman via Wikimedia Commons

Spanish protest: Fracking divides opinion in Europe
Image: By Zarateman via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Tackling climate change comes off second best in the European Union’s latest package of climate and energy targets. Instead, maintaining economic competitiveness – particularly with the US – is the priority.

LONDON, 23 January – On the face of it, this week’s EU climate and energy package, with its targets for cutbacks in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the uptake of renewable energy up to the year 2030, looks impressive.

The central element in the package is a binding EU-wide 40% reduction in GHG emissions over 1990 levels by 2030. Significantly, this has to be achieved “through domestic measures alone” – meaning member states can’t meet emissions reductions obligations by making offsetting GHG cutbacks in other countries.

There’s also a binding target of achieving at least a 27% share of the European energy mix from renewables by the same year and plans for a major overhaul of the EU’s ill-performing Emissions Trading System (ETS), with the aim of lifting the market price for carbon and encouraging emission reductions across the industrial sector.

“If all other regions were equally ambitious about tackling climate change, the world would be in significantly better shape”, says Connie Hedegaard, the EU Climate Commissioner.

Yet while the figures might impress, it’s clear the fracking revolution in the US has the EU’s energy strategists on the run. According to the European Commission, US gas prices fell by 66% between 2005 and 2012 while in Europe they rose by 35% over the same period.

‘No contradiction’

Reflecting intense lobbying by Europe’s industrialists and several governments, the EU package repeatedly emphasises the need to retain economic competitiveness.

“Climate action is central for the future of our planet, while a truly European energy policy is key to our competitiveness” says Jose Manuel Barroso, the EC President.

Barroso insists that tackling the two issues simultaneously is not contradictory, but the EU’s critics say the latest package is designed more to satisfy short-term economic aims than to seriously tackle climate change.

The long-term goal of EU climate and energy policy is to reduce GHG emissions by up to 95% by 2050, limiting the rise in global average temperature to 2°C over pre-industrial levels and so hopefully averting runaway climate change.

Climate scientists and green groups within the EU say the 2030 targets are not nearly ambitious enough and make the 2050 goal very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

“We ask questions as if the science is in any real doubt. It is not.”

“We have to take into account that the 40% target is the death knell of 2°C and probably much more aligned with 4°C once all the trading/CDM/offsetting scams are factored in”, says Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester in the UK and deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

“As a climate community, we continually forget that not acting now has repercussions that in themselves change what the future will be – we ask questions as if the science is in any real doubt. It is not.”

The EU’s target for renewables has also come under fire, with critics saying the Commission has once again given in to powerful EU fossil fuel, nuclear and shale gas lobby groups.

Goal optional

Earlier proposals by a number of countries, including Germany, called for a 2030 renewables target of at least 30%.

At the insistence of countries such as Britain, which has both announced plans for a large-scale expansion of nuclear energy and is giving incentives to encourage the fracking industry, and Poland, which is heavily reliant on coal for its power and is also intent on exploiting shale gas, the target was lowered.

Furthermore the 27% goal for renewables is binding only on an EU-wide basis and not on individual member states: the result is likely to be that some countries will choose to reduce or opt out of meeting the target figure, leaving others to make up the shortfall by dramatically upping renewables use. In such circumstances, arguments could quickly develop.

By contrast, the present EU renewables target – a 20% share in the energy mix by 2020 – is binding on individual states.

Door open for shale

Ultimately, it is the need for Europe to maintain its economic competitiveness that is dominating EU strategy. That has meant scaling back on emissions cutbacks and renewable ambitions – and opening the door to the shale gas industry.

EC President Barroso says shale gas is changing the energy landscape in a dramatic way. Many in Europe are fiercely opposed to shale gas, yet the EU has stood back from imposing any EU-wide regulations on the industry, only issuing guidelines in its new package covering health and safety issues.

“It’s a good demonstration of the role the EU should play, setting the cross-border rules for environmental health and safety but not meddling in the energy mix that is chosen by member states”, says Barroso.

The package of EU proposals will now move on to be discussed by Europe’s leaders in March. – Climate News Network

EU’s new energy strategy faces doubts

January 21, 2014 in Business, Carbon Trading, Economy, Emissions reductions, European Union, Renewables

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Tidal electricity generator awaiting installation: Europe is rich in renewable energy potential Image: MyName (Fundy) via Wikimedia Commons

Tidal electricity generator awaiting installation: Europe is rich in renewable energy potential
Image: MyName (Fundy) via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The European Union has been a world leader in establishing binding targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building up renewable energy supplies. But as officials in Brussels unveil a new energy strategy, questions are being asked about Europe’s commitment to combatting climate change.

LONDON, 21 January – Governments have stated their positions. Legions of lobbyists have presented final arguments. On 22 January the European Commission is scheduled to release its latest comprehensive climate and energy package, focused on developments in the energy sector up to the year 2030.

Negotiations on the package have been long and arduous: power utilities and big industrial conglomerates within the EU have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to a further set of emissions reductions or renewables targets which, they say, will seriously undermine the EU’s economic competitiveness.

Key issues to be announced by the Commission are 2030 targets for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the renewables share of the EU’s energy mix and – crucially – whether these targets will be made legally binding on states within the union.  Measures aimed at achieving greater energy efficiency within the EU will also form part of the new package.

Present EU legislation sets binding targets of a 20% reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 levels and achieving a 20% share of renewables in energy consumption by 2020. The legislation also sets an indicative, non-binding, target of making a 20% improvement in energy efficiency.

The big question now is at what level the Commission proposes to set its 2030 targets: while many countries in the EU, including Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, support a binding target of a 40% cut in emissions by 2030, others – including Poland with its large coal industry – say that target is too high.

Meanwhile green groups and non-governmental organisations say the EU must be more ambitious. They say a 2030 emissions reduction target of at least 50% is needed if the internationally agreed goal of limiting the rise in the global average temperature to 2°C over pre-industrial levels by 2050 is to be achieved and runaway climate change prevented.

Resistance to renewables

They also say the EU cannot expect cutbacks on GHG emissions by other nations – particularly by high carbon emitters such as China and India – if the Commission fails to back continuing substantial GHG cutbacks within the EU.

The EU has declared a long-term target of cutting GHG emissions by between 80 and 95% by 2050.

Upping the target on renewables is proving even more contentious. Though most countries within the EU subscribe to the idea of achieving a greater share of renewables in their energy mix, several are opposed to the setting of legally binding targets. Included in this group is the UK, which has recently announced a major expansion in nuclear energy and also plans a large-scale programme for the exploitation of shale gas.

Latest figures indicate global investments in renewables and low carbon energy fell last year for the second year in a row, with investments in Europe falling by more than 40%.

The EU’s power utilities and other large industrial enterprises have been lobbying hard against setting binding renewables targets and have called for the reduction or abolition of subsidies given to the renewables sector.

‘Uncompetitive’

They say the EU, by emphasising renewables, is jeopardizing Europe’s economic future: they say EU industries can no longer compete with those in the US, where energy costs are substantially lower due to the large-scale take-up of shale-based oil and gas in recent years.

Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the EU Commission, is reported to be among those against any insistence on establishing a legally binding target for renewables for 2030.

On the other side of the argument members of the European Parliament’s environment and energy committees earlier this month voted in favour of legally binding targets for both emissions and renewables. They also said there must be more decisive action on reducing overall energy usage within the EU and called for a binding 40% target on energy efficiency by 2030.

The new EU climate and energy package is expected to include measures aimed at reforming the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), once touted as a key element in cutting industrial GHG emissions. The ETS has underperformed due to mismanagement and an oversupply of emissions allowances or so-called “pollution credits”.

In March 2014 leaders of the EU’s 28 member states are due to meet to decide whether or not to endorse the Commission’s new proposals. – Climate News Network