Clouds over China’s solar power industry

Clouds over China’s solar power industry

China is by far the world’s biggest producer of solar panels, but the industry could become a victim of its own success.

LONDON, 10 August, 2015 – The recent turmoil in China’s stock market has sent shockwaves through the country’s corporate sector, including its mighty solar power industry which in recent years has grown to dominate the world market.

Harnessing solar energy is considered a key way of cutting back on fossil fuel use and of meeting the challenge posed by climate change.

Seven out of the world’s top ten manufacturers of solar panels are China-based companies, together providing about 40% of global solar supplies.

But now the industry’s future expansion is under threat as companies try to cope with too much production capacity, very low profit margins and crushing amounts of debt.

In 2013 Suntech, a Chinese company which was at one time the world’s biggest manufacturer, went bust. International creditors are still trying to recoup millions lent to the company.

Earlier this year the Hanergy Thin Film Power Group, a Chinese company which is a world leader in the manufacture of solar products, lost half its share value amid concerns about its corporate structure and worries of over-capacity and falling profit margins in the solar market. 

Export boom

Meanwhile the China-based conglomerate Yingli Green Energy Holding, another world leader in solar production, has been beset with rumours of a slowdown in demand leading to a halt in production at some of its plants. 

Like many other industries in China, the solar sector has grown fast: in recent years companies rushed to join in a solar export boom, bolstered by generous loans from government banks. Exports of solar products surged.

But then US solar manufacturers complained of heavily subsidised China-made solar goods threatening to destroy their industry. 

Tariffs were imposed on a number of Chinese solar products. A slowdown in Europe’s economy also hit export sales.

China cut the price of its products: according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group, China now sells solar panels for just over 60 US cents per watt of electricity generating capacity, down from US$4.50 per watt in 2008.

While that’s good news for those installing solar – and of considerable benefit in the fight against climate change – the price drop has put considerable pressure on China’s solar manufacturers. It has also meant many solar companies elsewhere in the world have gone to the wall.

Ailing industry

Varun Sivaram is a researcher at the US Council on Foreign Relationsspecialising in renewable energy.  He says that while China’s dominance of the solar market has led to low global prices, the industry is not in a healthy state.

“Solar is heading down a path of profitless prosperity”, says Sivaram. In effect, he says, China is subsidising the global solar industry.

Sivaram says one of the damaging side effects of China’s dominance of the solar market is that production has tended to stick to old technologies and innovation in the industry has been stifled.

“As panel manufacturers scrape by on razor-thin margins, kept afloat by government credit, investing in fundamentally new technologies is far from a priority.” 

Some relief for the China industry might be provided by a government-backed campaign to boost sales in the domestic market.  About a third of panels manufactured in China in 2014 were installed within the country. 

It’s estimated that China will install 14 GWs (gigawatts) of solar panels this year, mainly involving giant solar farms in the Gobi desert and elsewhere. In central Europe an installed capacity of one GW of photovoltaics alone would be expected to produce almost 900 GWh of electricity annually, supplying around 225,000 households.

In the first three months of 2015 China added the equivalent of the entire installed solar power of France to its electricity network. Climate News Network

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Key role urged on central banks in climate fight

Key role urged on central banks in climate fight

In the aftermath of the 2008/9 global financial crisis central banks around the world pumped billions of dollars into the monetary system to safeguard the world economy. Now they are being asked to do so again – to tackle climate change.

LONDON, 21 April, 2015 – The Green Climate Fund (GCF) – set up in 2010 under UN auspices with the aim of channelling funds to developing countries to fight climate change – is having a hard time of it.

The aim was for the GCF to raise US$100 billion per year by 2020: so far total pledges of just over $10 bn have been received by the Fund.

Now a new way of funnelling money to the GCF is being proposed, with central banks playing a central role.

The idea is for the GCF to issue “Green Climate Bonds” which would be purchased by central banks around the world: the money raised – billions and billions of dollars – would then be used to help fund renewable energy projects and other climate-related projects in developing countries.

The proposal is being made by the World Future Council, (WFC), a Germany-based group which helps governments and organisations with policy formulation.

Money creation

The central banks would, in essence, be enacting similar measures to those undertaken in the aftermath of the 2008/9 financial crisis.  To avert money supply drying up and the whole financial system grinding to a halt, the central banks pushed vast amounts of cash onto the market – using reserves and printing money.

The WFC points out that central banks cannot go bust in their own currency as they have monopolies on issuing legal tender – even if they purchase assets which give no returns.

The Green Climate Bonds would, in effect, be another form of money creation similar in some respects to what’s called quantitative easing – increasing money supply to stimulate the economy. Only in the case of the climate bonds, this new money would be used to combat climate change.

Under the WFC’s proposals, between US$100 bn and $300 bn would be raised through green bond purchases each year. The bonds would be valid for at least 100 years and become more or less enduring assets of the central banks, though they would give only a small or no rate of interest.

Dr Matthias Kroll, a finance researcher at the WFC, told the Climate News Network that the bulk of green bond purchases would have to be made by central banks in the industrialised world, with the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank perhaps each purchasing $20 bn of climate bonds annually.

Modest demands

“But other states with strong currency reserves like China could – and should – take part in the new green finance system”, says Dr Kroll.

How the proposal for green bonds will be received among central bankers and governments round the world is unclear.

Compared to the sums which have been injected into the financial system by central banks in the wake of the global financial crisis, the amount of money at present being sought to tackle the potentially much more serious problem of climate change is relatively small.

The WFC says the Bank of England (BOE) has been among those investigating alternative ways of raising money in order to combat climate change. A recently released research paper by the BOE said that central banks in future may have to respond to the challenges posed by climate change. – Climate News Network

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Big cities head for water crisis as populations explode

Big cities head for water crisis as populations explode

With more than half the world’s population now in cities, scientists warn that inadequate surface water supplies will leave many at increasing risk of drought.

LONDON, 21 February, 2015 − More than 40% of the world’s great cities supplied by surface water could become vulnerable to shortages and drought by 2040, according to new research. And more than three out of 10 were already vulnerable in 2010.

Meanwhile, the vital array of satellites designed to monitor rainfall and to warn of potential flooding is reported to be coming to the end of its shelf life.

For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population is now concentrated in cities, and this proportion is predicted to increase to two-thirds. Cities grow up near plentiful water supplies − and as a population explodes, so does demand. But the flow remains much the same.

Some cities are already under drought stress. Chennai in southern India had to be supplied with tankers in 2004 and 2005, and São Paulo in Brazil is now at crisis point.

Supply analysis

Environmental scientist Julie Padowski and Steven Gorelick, director of the Global Freshwater Initiative at Stanford University in California, report in Environmental Research Letters that they analysed supplies to 70 cities in 39 countries, all of them with more than 750,000 inhabitants, and all of them reliant on surface water.

They defined vulnerability as the failure of an urban supply basin to meet demands from human, environmental and agricultural users, and they set the supply target as 4,600 litres per person per day – which factors in “virtual water”, defined as the total volume of water needed to produce and process a commodity or service.

They proposed three different kinds of measure of supply. If a city failed to meet one or two of these metrics, it was considered threatened. If it failed to meet all three, it was rated as vulnerable.

Importantly, the scientists did not factor in climate change, which is likely to make conditions worse. Instead, they simply considered current demand and supply, and then projected demand in 2040.

Of their 70 cities, they found that 25 (36%) could already be considered vulnerable by 2010. By 2040, this number had grown to 31 (44%).

The six cities that will begin to face water shortages are Dublin in Ireland, Charlotte in the US, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and Guangzhou, Wuhan and Nanjing in China.

Most of the cities that are already vulnerable rely on reservoirs, and the study implies that urban planners will need to think about more reservoirs, deeper wells or desalination plants, or will have to contemplate the diversion of rivers from somewhere else.

Rainfall data

Meanwhile, they cannot rely on rainfall data because – as geological engineer Patrick Reed, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, and colleagues report in Environmental Research Letters − the network of dedicated satellites “fails to meet operational data needs for flood management”.

Four of the 10 satellites have exceeded their design life − some by more than a decade. There are already weak spots in the network, especially in developing countries, which means that floods could take people by surprise.

Space-based instruments offer a way of monitoring rainfall and ground moisture upstream, in a way that gives authorities time to predict the moment when the rivers will start to rise and flood the cities. When four fail to deliver, the potential for catastrophe will be even worse.

So the scientists call for better international co-ordination of satellite replacement.

“It is important for us to start thinking as a globe about a serious discussion on flood adaptation and aiding affected populations to reduce their risks,” Professor Reed says. “We want to give people time to evacuate, to make better choices, and to understand their conditions.” – Climate News Network

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Arid areas of US face prospect of ‘megadroughts’

Arid areas of US face prospect of ‘megadroughts’

Scientists in the US predict droughts worse than the extreme conditions believed to have played a part in ending a once-flourishing medieval culture.

LONDON, 15 February, 2015The Central Plains and Southwest region of the US face “unprecedented” droughts later this century, according to new research.

While Midwest states have experienced ever more flooding over the last 50 years, the regions already suffering from extremes of aridity are being warned to expect megadroughts worse than any conditions in the last 1,000 years.

Climate scientist Benjamin Cook, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, and colleagues report in a new journal, Science Advances, that they looked at historical evidence, climate projections and ways of calculating soil moisture.

They found that the drought conditions of the future American west will be more severe than the hottest, most arid extended droughts of the 12th and 13th centuries, which are thought to have played a role in ending the once-flourishing Pueblo culture of the American Southwest.

Computer predictions

The growth rings of trees provided the evidence for reconstructions of what climatologists call the warm Medieval period, and the researchers matched the picture from the past with 17 different computer model predictions of the climate later in the 21st century.

The conclusions were ominous: nearly all the models predicted that the Plains and the Southwest would become drier than at any time in the last 1,000 years.

Even though winter rain and snowfall could increase in parts of California – currently in the grip of calamitous drought – in the decades to come, overall there will be lower cold season precipitation and, because of higher temperatures, ever more evaporation and ever more water demand for the surviving vegetation.

The authors conclude: “Ultimately, the consistency of our results suggests an exceptionally high risk of a multidecadal megadrought occurring over the Central Plains and Southwest regions during the late 21st century, a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent megadroughts that characterised the Medieval era.”

“I was honestly surprised at just how dry the future is likely to be”

Co-author Toby Ault, head of the Emergent Climate Risk Lab at Cornell University, warned of future megadroughts only last year. He says: “I was honestly surprised at just how dry the future is likely to be.”

But to the north, in the American Midwest, conditions have begun to change in a different way. Iman Mallakour and Gabriele Villarini, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, collected evidence from 774 stream gauges in 14 states from 1962 to 2011.

Flood events

They report in Nature Climate Change that a third of them had recorded a greater number of flood events, and only one in 10 recorded a decrease.

The pattern of increase extended from North Dakota south to Iowa and Missouri, and east to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

The region was hit by economically-disastrous, billion-dollar floods in 1993, 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2014. The researchers wanted to see whether flooding was really on the increase, or whether perception of greater flooding was what they called “an artefact of our relatively short collective memory”.

The result is a confirmation of perceived increase. It was not an artefact.

“It’s not that big floods are getting bigger, but that we have been experiencing a larger number of big floods,” Dr Villarini says. – Climate News Network

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Climate change triggers threats to marine ecosystems

Climate change triggers threats to marine ecosystems

A two-way migration of fish species between the northern Pacific and Atlantic as oceans warm could have drastic ecological and commercial impacts.

LONDON, 7 February, 2015 − The Atlantic halibut is about to go where no Atlantic halibut has gone before – into the Pacific. And it could meet the Alaska pollock coming in the other direction.

Just as marine commerce could soon exploit the opening of the fabled north-west or north-east passages between the two great oceans, so could at least 80 species of fish.

Mary Wisz, an ecologist now with the Danish DHI group, but formerly at the Arctic Research Centre of Aarhus University in Denmark, reports with colleagues in Nature Climate Change that as sea temperatures increase, and food sources begin to flourish at the highest latitudes, shoals of fish from the Atlantic could reach the Pacific along once almost impassable seaways north of Arctic Canada and Siberia.

Northerly species

The last such large-scale transfer was nearly three million years ago, with the opening of the Bering Strait. But climate conditions that were once harsh have begun to open migration opportunities for the northerly species in both oceans, the researchers say.

Such changes have happened before. Since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Mediterranean has been invaded by 55 Red Sea species, with a “drastic impact” on commercial fisheries.

Fish are already moving north in response to climate change, and Dr Wisz and her colleagues modelled what would happen to 515 species of fish under predicted conditions of global warming later this century.

By 2050, the scientists believe, trans-Arctic traffic will accelerate, and by 2100, 41 Atlantic species − among them cod and herring − could reach the Pacific, while 44 species could get into the Atlantic.

They warn: “This exchange of fish species may trigger changes in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, with ecological and economic consequences to ecosystems that at present contribute 39% to global marine fish landings.”

Changes to marine chemistry also threaten the balance of power in the oceans

The Danish-led team was essentially modelling temperature, currents and spawning strategies to see which species were most likely to find new grounds. But changes to marine chemistry also threaten the balance of power in the oceans.

The seas are predicted to become more acidic as more carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere, and this change in water chemistry is likely to affect not just fish and shellfish but also entire communities of creatures.

Scientists have tested the fauna that foul ships’ hulls. These are the tiny barnacles and squirts that attach themselves to hard surfaces wherever they can in the oceans.

Lloyd Peck, a biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, and colleagues report in Global Change Biology that they tested creatures from a lagoon off the Algarve in Portugal, in aquarium tanks.

One set of tanks was filled with normal sea water; in the other set, the sea water was set at levels of acidity predicted to be normal within the next 50 years. Within 100 days, in the more acid tanks, the make-up of the community that colonised the hard surfaces had begun to change.

Worms with hard shells in the more acidic tanks were reduced to a fifth of their normal levels, but sponges and sea squirts multiplied twofold and even fourfold.

“Our experiment shows the response of one biofouling community to a very rapid change in acidity,” said Professor Peck. “What’s interesting is that the increased acidity at the levels we studied destroys not only the building blocks in the outer shell of the worms itself, but the binding that holds it together.

“Many individuals perish, but we also showed their larvae and juveniles are also unable to establish and create their hard exoskeletons.”

Altered behaviour

Climate change could also alter the behaviour of the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, according to an international team led by Professor Kyle Van Houtan, of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, US.

The researchers studied six years of turtle observations off Oahu, Hawaii, and 24 years of satellite data for sea surface temperatures in regions that are home to 11 populations of the turtle.

They report in Biology Letters that they know why the turtles crawl up onto the beach to bask. Not all populations bask, but the ones that do tend to sprawl in the sand do so to regulate body temperatures, and were least likely to bask when local winter sea temperatures stayed above 23°C. When the seas stayed warm, the turtles stayed in the water.

Given the predicted ocean temperature rises over the next century, the scientists calculate that green turtles may stop basking altogether by 2100. – Climate News Network

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California is left high and dry by cannabis growers

California is left high and dry by cannabis growers

As California endures its worst drought since records began, illegal marijuana plantations are being blamed for further depleting precious water resources.

MENDOCINO, 4 February, 2015 − Take a flight over the densely forested area in California’s northern coastal region and it’s not hard to spot the marijuana plantations, their bright green plants standing out in clearings in the surrounding vegetation.

But now the big-money cannabis industry is being blamed for adding to water shortage problems caused by a three-year drought that has seriously affected California’s huge agricultural sector.

Although cultivating and using marijuana is illegal under US Federal law, California state law allows marijuana growing – as long as it is for medicinal purposes.

Rules flouted

However, the rules governing who can and cannot grow pot are complex – and openly flouted by thousands of growers, both big and small-time operators.

A report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) estimates that, in this northern region of the state,  marijuana growing doubled between 2009 and 2012.

Marijuana plants are extremely thirsty, consuming between five and 10 gallons of water per day, depending on the phase of their growing cycle. Officials at the CDFW say that marijuana growers are sucking up precious water resources, exacerbating water shortages and threatening fish in the area’s lakes and streams.

Marijuana growing is particularly prevalent in an area of northern California known as The Emerald Triangle, encompassing Mendocino, Humbolt and Trinity counties. Some estimates say the crop accounts for up to 40% of the region’s economy.

Officials of the CDFW say that the small, well-established marijuana plantations – run by what are described as old time hippies − are not to blame for pumping up excess water.

Illegal marijuana plantations in forest clearings. Image: US Drug Enforcement Agency

Illegal marijuana plantations in forest clearings.
Image: US Drug Enforcement Administration

It is the incomers from outside the area − part of a “green rush” into highly-profitable marijuana growing – that are mainly to blame. These growers are out to make quick profits, and care little about the environment.

Growers of various crops in California are bound by rules stipulating that no more than 10% of the flow of water courses should be diverted for crops, and that such diversions should stop altogether in late summer, when water levels are at their lowest.

The CDFW says the incomers take vast amounts of water in order to harvest their crops as fast as possible. They also use excessive quantities of fertilizer, which leach into water courses, endangering fish stocks and polluting land.

Armed gangs

Fines of up to $8,000 per day are now being imposed for water theft, although monitoring illegal activities is difficult − and, at times, dangerous. Heavily-armed gangs are often involved in the marijuana growing business, and the CDFW has warned that, as the drought continues, conflicts over water resources are likely to increase.

The Emerald Growers Association, a group that represents some of northern California’s marijuana growers, says more regulation is needed to separate the legitimate pot growers from illegal ones.

The drought in California has been going on since 2011 and is described as the worst in the state since records began in the 1850s.

Arguments continue as to whether man-made climate change or natural phenomena are causing the drought.

Although significant amounts of rain last December helped alleviate dry conditions in some parts of the state, experts say more rain is urgently needed to feed watercourses and restock severely depleted aquifers. – Climate News Network

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Asia powers into the forefront of solar revolution

Asia powers into the forefront of solar revolution

China has now overtaken the European Union as the largest new market for solar power as the industry becomes one of the fastest growing in the world.

LONDON, 2 February, 2015 − Solar power is on course to overtake nuclear as a primary source of electricity production as the price of photovoltaic (PV) panels continues to fall.

Mass production in China and Taiwan has helped to increase the extraordinary growth of the solar power across the world and has led to an 80% reduction in the cost of panels since 2008.

Europe, and particularly Germany and Italy, led the way in solar installation, but Asia and the US are now catching up fast.

The African continent, which has the most potential to benefit from solar power, has been slow to adopt the technology, but is now embracing its possibilities. While investment in small domestic installation continues, there has been a big increase in utilities creating large solar farms.

World market

These are the main trends outlined in a detailed PV Status Report for 2014, released by the European Union. The report, which assesses the state of the world market and its growth in individual countries, says that despite the fact that subsidies for fossil fuels still massively exceed those for renewable, it is wind and solar power industries that will continue to grow and the price will come down.

Developments in renewables continue to be encouraging, particularly electricity storage from solar. Using ion-lithium batteries, new technologies are being deployed to store surplus electricity generated during daylight hours, for use during evening peak periods.

On a domestic level, this makes economic sense because the cost of generating electricity at home with solar panels is now cheaper than buying it from the grid in many countries. Being able to store your own power for use at night will save money, as well as reducing peaks in national demand.

Battery storage

On a larger scale, the report gives examples of wind and solar generation power stations combined with battery storage, which are being tried successfully in China.

Solar is now the renewable of choice, overtaking wind. In 2013, solar energy attracted 53.3 % of all new renewable energy investments, a staggering $111.4 billion (€82.5 billion).

While the report gives detailed figures for individual countries only for 2013, it says that the growth of the industry continued in 2014, although it varied depending on the policies of individual governments.

Solar PV electricity is now the cheapest electricity option for more than one-third of the African population

In 2013, the leading country in renewable energy investment was China at $54.2bn (€40.2bn), followed by the US at $36.7bn (€27.2bn) and Japan at $28.6bn (€21.2bn).

The growth in Japan and other parts of Asia is partly spurred by the nuclear accident at Fukushima in March 2011, which made the safe and reliable option of solar more attractive.

In Europe, the pace of investment fell, with the UK being the only EU country where it increased.

Investments in 2013 were used for installing 87 gigawatts (GW) of new clean energy generation capacity, bringing the total to 735 GW, and thus capable of producing more than 1700 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity − or 70 % of the electricity generated by nuclear power plants worldwide.

Vast resources

The report says: “Despite Africa’s vast solar resources and the fact that in large areas the same photovoltaic panel can produce on average twice as much electricity in Africa than in Central Europe, there has been only limited use of solar photovoltaic electricity generation up until now.”

But according to the latest study, solar PV electricity is now the cheapest electricity option for more than one-third of the African population.

Until recently, the main application of PV systems in Africa was in small solar home systems. Since 2012, however, major policy changes have occurred, and a large number of utility-scale PV projects are now in the planning stage.

Overall, the (documented) capacity of installed PV systems in Africa had risen to more than 600 MW by the end of 2013 − a tenfold increase compared with 2008. In 2014, the installed capacity is expected to more than double.

Currently, the two biggest markets are South Africa and Algeria, but all African countries are either potential or emerging markets. – Climate News Network

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Sister acts of havoc set to intensify the El Niño effect

Sister acts of havoc set to intensify the El Niño effect

International scientists say global warming could double the frequency of the extreme La Niña weather phenomenon that triggers floods and hurricanes.

LONDON, 1 February, 2015 − El Niño, the cyclic Pacific weather phenomenon that periodically brings global devastation in its wake, is not the only thing likely to grow more extreme with global warming.

A team of international scientists now predicts that its cool little sister, La Niña, is liable to turn nasty more often too − every 13 years, which is twice as often as the historic record.

Both are observed fluctuations in mid-ocean temperatures in the Pacific that are the signal for changes in the climate pattern: both are natural, both occur as part of a cycle, and both can be traced back through human history.

Mobile blister

El Niño is a mobile blister of Pacific Ocean heat that then affects winds and currents, and was first dubbed “The Child” by Peruvian fishermen, who noticed that it tended to arrive around Christmas.

A powerful El Niño is accompanied by drought and forest fire on the western side of the Pacific, and torrential rain and floods on the normally dry eastern Pacific coasts.

Meteorologists then amended the name to label opposite phase of what they call the “El Niño southern oscillation”.

With La Niña, unseasonally cold sea surface temperatures in the Pacific create a temperature gradient that can intensify droughts in the American south-west, trigger floods in the western Pacific, and hurricanes in the Atlantic.

The CSIRO team has established “a plausible scenario of changes that may have very serious implications for society”

A year ago, Wenju Cai, a climate researcher for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), warned that the frequency of extreme El Niño events could double with climate change.

Now Dr Cai and colleagues report once again in Nature Climate Change that the same is true for what one might call the oscillation’s downside: global warming is likely to double the frequency of extreme La Niña events, too. And 75% of these are likely to follow immediately after an extreme El Niño.

The paradox is that global warming could also increase the intensity of not just hotter-than-usual seasons but also cool or cold episodes that would trigger unusual or extreme weather responses far from the ocean’s cool centre.

So some parts of the world are likely to experience blazing drought, followed by catastrophic floods, while across the ocean, other nations will have torrential rain and then unseasonal drought, every 13 years or so.

Mild La Niña events are recorded every two to seven years. El Niño, too, can develop gently, with no great consequences.

The CSIRO study was concerned with simulating the probability of extreme events. The planet has already experienced notorious an up-and-down cycle: 1997-1998 marked an extreme El Niño, immediately followed by an extreme La Niña in 1998-1999.

Destructive floods

In 1998, as the La Niña developed, flash floods and landslides killed 25,000 in Venezuela, and floods and storms displaced 200 million people in China. Bangladesh experienced one of the most destructive floods in its history, with more than half of the country under water.

The 1998 Atlantic hurricane season spawned Hurricane Mitch, which claimed 11,000 lives in Honduras and Nicaragua. The South-western US, meanwhile, experienced one of the most severe droughts in its history

Such things used to happen once a generation – on average, every 23 years. But now, according to Dr Cai and an international team of scientists and climate modellers from China, Australia, Hawaii and New Jersey in the US, Peru, Paris and Exeter in the UK, such a double whammy could occur every 13 years.

Antonietta Capotondi, a climate scientists at the University of Colorado in the US, commenting in Nature Climate Change, says that climate models are the only tools scientists have for understanding the intricacies of global warming.

And despite the uncertainties, she says, the CSIRO team has established “a plausible scenario of changes that may have very serious implications for society”. – Climate News Network

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California rains bring little relief from harsh drought

California rains bring little relief from harsh drought

Unless substantial rain falls soon, California’s worst drought on record threatens dire consequences for the state’s massive agricultural industry.

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA, 29 January, 2015 − Doing the right thing in the environs of the University of California, Davis – one of the foremost agricultural institutions in the US – means driving a carbon efficient car. And having a lawn that’s burned dry.

California’s worst drought on record is forcing people to cut back radically on water use – and that means letting lawns die. There was considerable rainfall last month, but it was not nearly enough to replenish the badly-depleted water resources.

“If we don’t have rain in significant amounts by early March, we’ll be in dire straits,” says Professor Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at Davis.

Water restrictions

Higher than average temperatures – particularly during the winter months – have combined with a lack of rainfall to produce severe drought conditions across much of the state. Water restrictions have been brought in following the imposition of a drought emergency in January last year.

“Historically, California’s water has been stored in the snow pack in the mountains, but warmer winter temperatures have meant the pack has been melting.” Sumner says.

“The agricultural sector has made considerable advances in limiting water use, and new, more drought resistant, crops and plant varieties have been introduced, but aquifers have been pumped and they are not being replenished.

“In the past, massive projects were undertaken to distribute water round the state, but now there’s not the money available to do any more big-time plumbing work. Also, the regulations on diverting water for agriculture use are very tight – rivers can’t be pumped if it means endangering fish stocks or other wildlife.”

“California is still growing – and exporting – rice, which is a real water drinker. How crazy is that?”

Whether or not climate change is causing the drought is a matter of considerable debate. A recent report sponsored by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says natural oceanic and atmospheric patterns are the primary drivers behind the drought.

A high pressure ridge that has hovered over the Pacific off California’s coast for the past three years has resulted in higher temperatures and little rainfall falling across the state, the report says.

However, a separate report by climate scientists at Stanford University says the existence of the high pressure ridge, which is preventing rains falling over California, is made much more likely by ever greater accumulations of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Whatever the cause of the drought, the lack of rain is doing considerable environmental and economic damage. The Public Policy Institute of California, a not-for-profit thinktank, estimates that $2.2 billion in agricultural revenues and more than 17,000 jobs have been lost as a result of the drought.

Severely depleted

Thousands of acres of woodland have been lost due to wildfires, while fisheries experts are concerned that severely depleted streams and rivers could lead to the disappearance of fish species in the area, such as coho salmon and steelhead trout.

The drought is not limited to California. Adjacent states are also affected, and over the US border to the south, in Mexico’s Chihuahua state, crops have been devastated and 400,000 cattle have died.

Frank Green, a vineyard owner in the hills of Mendocino County, northern California, says: “The vines are pretty robust and, despite the drought, our wines have been some of the best ever over the past two years.

“But there’s no doubt we need a lot more rain, and plenty more could be done on saving and harvesting water. Farmers have cut back on growing water-hungry crops like cotton, but California is still growing – and exporting – rice, which is a real water drinker. How crazy is that?” – 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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