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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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’s 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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Higher social costs bolster case for emissions curbs

Higher social costs bolster case for emissions curbs

Scientists in the US estimate that economic damage caused by CO2 could be six times higher than the value used to guide current energy regulations.

LONDON, 15 January, 2014 − Concerted action on climate change is looking like a bargain after research findings that the notional cost to society of global warming damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions has been seriously underestimated.

The US Environmental Protection Agency calculates the “social cost of carbon” at $37 per tonne – a figure used to guide current energy regulations and possible future mitigation policies. But two US researchers now put the cost for CO2 emitted in 2015 about six times higher − at $220 a tonne.

They report in Nature Climate Change that damage from climate change could directly affect economic growth rates, and will go on doing so, because each “temperature shock” could have a persistent effect that would permanently lower gross domestic product – the wealth indicator used by all economists – from what it would be if the world wasn’t warming.

In which case, nations have a greater incentive to step up efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Mitigation measures

“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” says one of the report’s authors, Delavane Diaz, of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, California. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”

Her co-author, Frances Moore, of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, says: “For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy. But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true.

“If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”

“Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile”

All such studies are based on assumptions and necessary simplifications. They have to take in not just the link between rising temperature and direct impacts on health, agriculture and coastal protection, but also population growth, changes in social patterns and national economic development.

They also make assumptions that the richer countries will better be able to absorb the shock of climate change, which in turn then becomes an argument for delaying action while the poorer countries advance their development.

Economic assessment

But the two Stanford researchers re-examined the climate impact and economic assessment models widely used by North American and European nations to put a measure to the cost of carbon emissions, and made a set of changes.

They allowed climate change to affect economic growth rates, they accounted for adaptation to climate change, and they divided their model to represent both low-income and high-income countries.

The conclusion is that the damage to growth rates is severe enough to justify very rapid and very early steps to limit the rise of average global temperatures to the 2°C above pre-industrial levels that most nations have agreed is necessary to avert the worst effects.

Moore says: “Until now, it’s been very difficult to justify aggressive and potentially expensive mitigation measures because the damages just aren’t large enough.” – Climate News Network

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Climate confounds China’s efforts to ease water stress

Climate confounds China’s efforts to ease water stress

Researchers say attempts to solve China’s water crisis − already worsening through population growth, a rampant economy and climate change – are having the opposite effect.

LONDON, 14 January, 2015 − China, the world’s most populous nation, faces one of the planet’s most intractable water crises. And scientists say Beijing’s strategy for resolving the problem is simply making it worse.

A team of international researchers say that water stress is only partially mitigated by China’s current two-pronged approach: transferring water physically to regions that are short of it − for example, by the huge projects to transfer water from the south to the north of the country − and exporting the “virtual” water embodied in products traded domestically and internationally.

China needs more water for energy, food and industry, for its rising population, and for its attempts to end poverty.

But maintaining even current levels of provision is becoming increasingly difficult as climate change lives up to its dire reputation as a threat multiplier and endangers water and food supplies.

Full inventory

Researchers at the UK universities of East Anglia (UEA) and Leeds and other international institutions have compiled the first full inventory of physical water transfers and virtual water redistribution via trade between China’s provinces. Their findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They say the efforts to supply northern China are exacerbating water stress in its poorer water-exporting regions, with transfers of virtual water − defined as the total volume of water needed to produce and process a commodity or service − accounting for more than a third of the country’s national water supply.

Up to 65% of the supply in some provinces is reserved for virtual water redistribution, to be used for infrastructure and for producing exports.

Until China significantly improves its water-use efficiency and addresses the impact its expanding economy is having on its natural resources, the situation will continue to deteriorate, the team concludes.

“China’s current transfer programme is pouring good water after bad . . . and the provinces sharing their water are suffering greatly”

The research −  led by China’s Beijing Forestry University, UEA and Leeds universities, and the University of Maryland in the US − analyses data from 2007 and looks ahead to China’s water distribution plans in 2030. It finds that water stress is likely to become more severe in the main water-exporting provinces.

Dabo Guan, professor of climate change economics at UEA’s School of International Development, said: “China needs to shift its focus to water demand management instead of a supply-oriented approach if it is going to seriously address the overwhelming pressures on its water supplies.

“China’s current transfer programme is pouring good water after bad. The problems of water-stressed regions aren’t being alleviated, and the provinces sharing their water are suffering greatly.”

Guan and colleague Martin Tillotson, professor of water management at Leeds University, published research in 2014 showing that 75% of China’s lakes and rivers and 50% of its groundwater supplies are contaminated as a result of urban household consumption, infrastructure investment and exports.

Increased demand

Professor Tillotson said: “Even allowing for future efficiency gains in agricultural and industrial water consumption, China’s water transfers are likely to be insufficient to offset increased demand due to the effects of economic and population growth.

“A much greater focus needs to be placed on regulating or incentivising reductions in demand-led consumption.”

China aims to remain about 95% self-sufficient in food, but imports more than 60% of its oil and nearly 50% of its natural gas. Some senior officials argue that it should increase food imports so as to be able to use more of its water for producing energy.

But some of China’s neighbours and traditional suppliers are themselves facing growing problems from climate change, with several countries in south-east Asia contemplating a “shocking” future.

Some observers think that China’s growing demand for grain imports may even strain global supplies. − Climate News Network

 

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Peat bog fires are burning issue in climate calculations

Peat bog fires are burning issue in climate calculations

Human exploitation and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands has led to some of the biggest fires on Earth – another factor fanning the flames of global warming.

LONDON, 10 January, 2015 − The greatest concentrations of the world’s soil carbon have been pinpointed by researchers − and much of it is a dangerously flammable addition to climate change concerns.

An international scientific survey of peat bogs has calculated that they contain more carbon than all the world’s forests, heaths and grasslands together − and perhaps as much as the planet’s atmosphere. Since peat can smoulder underground for years, it is another potential factor in global warming calculations.

Peat is simply leaf litter that never completely decayed. Ancient peatlands become distinctive ecosystems and, in some places, an economic resource.

Soil carbon

Merritt Turetsky, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that peatlands cover between only 2% and 3% of the planet’s land surface, but store 25% of the planet’s soil carbon.

In the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, they cover about 4 million sq km and store between 500 and 600 billion tonnes of carbon. In the tropics – and especially in south-east Asia – they cover about 400,000 sq km and store 100 billion tonnes of carbon. The entire pool of atmospheric carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, adds up to about 850 billion tonnes.

In its pristine condition, a peat bog is unlikely to burn: the peat exists because vegetation doesn’t decay normally in water.

“Peat fires . . . lack the drama of flames, but they produce a lot of smoke”

But, over thousands of years, humans have drained the peat bogs, exploited them for fuel, and even used peat as a gardening mulch. Dry peat burns easily, and some of the largest fires on Earth are now in the drained peatlands.

“When people think of a forest fire, they probably think of flames licking up into treetops, and animals trying to escape,” Dr Turetsky says. “But peat fires tend to be creeping ground fires. They can burn for days or weeks, even under relatively wet conditions. They lack the drama of flames, but they produce a lot of smoke.”

The research by Canadian, British, Dutch and US scientists is part of a wider global attempt to understand the carbon cycle.

Global warming happens because more carbon goes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide than plants in the oceans and on land can absorb. So it makes sense to work out in fine detail where the carbon comes from, and how it is soaked up by living things.

Enduring hazard

Peat fires are an enduring hazard, and a local threat to human health. But in a warming world, in which the human population has trebled in one lifetime, the peatlands are drying out, and could fan the flames of climate change.

Once started, peat fires are hard to stop. Fire in the treetops can race across the forest at 10 kilometres an hour, while smouldering peat can take a week to travel half a metre. But both can happen at once, the scientists report.

“The tropical peatlands of South-east Asia are a clear demonstration of how human activity can alter the natural relationships between ecosystems and fire,” said Susan Page, professor of physical geography at the University of Leicester, UK, and a co-author of the latest report.

In a Nature study in 2002, she calculated that a dramatic and sustained forest fire in Indonesia in 1997 may have sent 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere – a figure that could have added up to 40% of all the emissions from all the fossil fuel burning that year.

“Tropical peatlands are highly resistant to natural fires, but in recent decades humans have drained peatlands for plantation agriculture,” she said. “People cause the deep layers of peat to dry out, and also greatly increase the number of fire ignitions. It’s a double threat.” – Climate News Network

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Vast reserves of fossil fuels should be left untapped

Vast reserves of fossil fuels should be left untapped

Researchers have identified the major producers of coal, gas and oil that stand to lose most financially if agreement is reached on radical cuts needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

LONDON, 8 January, 2015 − The sheer scale of the fossil fuel reserves that will need to be left unexploited for decades if world leaders sign up to a radical climate agreement is revealed in a study by a team of British scientists.

It shows that almost all the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the US should remain unused, along with over 260 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Middle East − the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s total oil reserves. The Middle East would also need to leave over 60% of its gas reserves in the ground.

The team from University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources (ISR) says that, in total, a third of global oil reserves, half of the world’s gas and over 80% of its coal reserves should be left untouched for the next 35 years.

Realistic programme

This is the amount of fossil fuel, they estimate, that the world must forego until 2050 if governments agree on a realistic programme to ensure that global warming does not exceed the 2°C increase over pre-industrial levels agreed by policy makers.

The authors of the report, which is published in the journal Nature, say some reserves could be used after 2050, so long as this kept emissions within the CO2 budget, which would be only about half the amount the world can afford to use between now and 2050.

They say a factor that might help in the use of fossil fuels is that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is expected to be much more widely deployable by mid-century, assuming it to be a mature technology by then.

The study, funded by the UK Energy Research Centre, concluded that the development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil – oil of a poor quality that is hard to extract − are also “inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change”.

For the study, the scientists first developed an innovative method for estimating the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources. They then used an integrated assessment model to explore which of these, along with low-carbon energy sources, should be used up to 2050 to meet the world’s energy needs.

“We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused”

The model, which uses an internationally-recognised modelling framework, provides what the authors describe as “a world-leading representation of the long-term production dynamics and resource potential of fossil fuels”.

The lead author, Dr Christophe McGlade, research associate at the ISR, said: “We’ve now got tangible figures of the quantities and locations of fossil fuels that should remain unused in trying to keep within the 2°C temperature limit.

“Policy makers must realise that their instincts to completely use the fossil fuels within their countries are wholly incompatible with their commitments to the 2°C goal. If they go ahead with developing their own resources, they must be asked which reserves elsewhere should remain unburnt in order for the carbon budget not to be exceeded.”

The prospects for an amicable discussion between China, Russia, the US and the Middle East on how to share the pain of leaving these reserves unexploited will demand exceptional diplomacy from all parties.

The report’s co-author, Paul Ekins, the ISR’s director and professor of resources and environmental policy,  said: “Companies spent over $670 billion (£430 billion) last year searching for and developing new fossil fuel resources.

Aggregate production

“They will need to rethink such substantial budgets if policies are implemented to support the 2°C limit, especially as new discoveries cannot lead to increased aggregate production.

“Investors in these companies should also question spending such budgets. The greater global attention to climate policy means that fossil fuel companies are becoming increasingly risky for investors in terms of the delivery of long-term returns. I would expect prudent investors in energy to shift increasingly towards low-carbon energy sources.”

After years of halting progress towards an effective international agreement to limit fossil fuel emissions so as to stay within the 2°C temperature threshold, hopes are cautiously rising that the UN climate talks to be held in Paris at the end of 2015 may finally succeed where so many have failed.

But reaching agreement will be only the first step: effective enforcement may prove an even bigger problem. − Climate News Network

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Fracking’s future is in doubt as oil price plummets

Fracking’s future is in doubt as oil price plummets

Increased production from US fracking operations is a major reason for the drop in oil prices, but there are warnings that the industry now faces a crisis.

LONDON, 6 January, 2015 − There’s no doubt that US-based fracking – the process through which oil and gas deposits are blasted from shale deposits deep underground – has caused a revolution in worldwide energy supplies.

Yet now the alarm bells are ringing about the financial health of the fracking industry, with talk of a mighty monetary bubble bursting − leading to turmoil on the international markets similar to that in 2008.

In many ways, it’s a straightforward case of supply and demand. Due to the US fracking boom, world oil supply has increased.

Glut in supplies

But with global economic growth now slowing – the drop in growth in China is particularly significant – there’s a lack of demand and a glut in supplies, leading to a fall in price of nearly 50% over the last six months.

Fracking has become a victim of its own success. The industry in the US has grown very fast. In 2008, US oil production was running at five million barrels a day. Thanks to fracking, that figure has nearly doubled, with talk of US energy self-sufficiency and the country becoming the world’s biggest oil producer – “the new Saudi Arabia” – in the near future.

The giant Bakken oil and gas field in North Dakota – a landscape punctured by thousands of fracking sites, with gas flares visible from space – was producing 200,000 barrels of oil a day in 2007. Production is now running at more than one million barrels a day.

The theory is that OPEC is trying to drive the fracking industry from boom to bust

Fuelled by talk of the financial rewards to be gained from fracking, investors have piled into the business. The US fracking industry now accounts for about 20% of the world’s total crude oil investment.

But analysts say this whole investment edifice could come crashing down.

More vulnerable

Fracking is an expensive business. Depending on site structure, companies need prices of between $60 and $100 per barrel of oil to break even. As prices drop to around $55 per barrel, investments in the sector look ever more vulnerable.

Analysts say that while bigger fracking companies might be able to sustain losses in the short term, the outlook appears bleak for the thousands of smaller, less well-financed companies who rushed into the industry, tempted by big returns.

The fracking industry’s troubles have been added to by the actions of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which, despite the oversupply on the world market, has refused to lower production.

The theory is that OPEC, led by powerful oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, is playing the long game – seeking to drive the fracking industry from boom to bust, stabilise prices well above their present level, and regain its place as the world’s pre-eminent source of oil.

There are now fears that many fracking operations may default on an estimated $200 billion of borrowings, raised mainly through bonds issued on Wall Street and in the City of London.

In turn, this could lead to a collapse in global financial markets similar to the 2008 crash.

Existing reserves

There are also questions about just how big existing shale oil and gas reserves are, and how long they will last. A recent report by the Post Carbon Institute, a not-for-profit thinktank based in the US, says reserves are likely to peak and fall off rapidly, far sooner than the industry’s backers predict.

The cost of drilling is also going up as deposits become more inaccessible.

Besides ongoing questions about the impact of fracking on the environment − in terms of carbon emissions and pollution of water sources − another challenge facing the industry is the growth and rapidly falling costs of renewable energy.

Fracking operations could also be curtailed by more stringent regulations designed to counter fossil fuel emissions and combat climate change.

Its backers have hyped fracking as the future of energy − not just in the US, but around the world. Now the outlook for the industry is far from certain. – Climate News Network

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