Unfinished nuclear plants raise safety doubts

Unfinished nuclear plants raise safety doubts

A new generation of giant reactors, meant to provide fresh hope for nuclear power in Europe, has been found to have a serious safety problem.

LONDON, 13 April, 2015 − The future of the world’s biggest nuclear reactor, under construction at Flamanville in northern France, is now in doubt after a serious flaw was found in its steel pressure vessel.

Examination has shown that the steel contains too much carbon, which can weaken the vessel’s structure and breaches safety rules. The Chinese, who have two similar 1,600 megawatt European Pressurised Reactors under construction, have been warned that they too may share the potentially catastrophic problem.

Investigations are continuing to check whether the problem can be rectified, but whatever happens it will add more delays and greater costs to the already troubled projects.

The problem also casts doubt on the much-heralded nuclear renaissance in Europe, where EPR reactors are being built not only in France but also in Finland.

Four more are planned for Britain, where they form a cornerstone of the UK government’s policy to fight climate change. A decision on whether to go ahead with the first two in the UK has already been postponed twice, and this revelation will cause further delays.

The French nuclear engineering firm Areva, involved in the EPR’s design and development, found the flawed steel and reported the problem to the country’s nuclear regulator, ASN, which has ordered an investigation.  The French energy minister, Ségolène Royal, says the results of tests to check the extent of the problem will be released in October.

Serious blow

It is understood that the maximum allowable carbon content of steel in the pressure vessel is 0.22%, but tests have shown 0.30% in parts of the Flamanville vessel. This could render it subject to cracking in operation and shorten its intended lifespan.

The discovery is another serious blow to the French nuclear industry, which already faces severe financial problems, partly because of existing delays to the reactors at Flamanville and at Finland’s Olkiluoto site. The Finnish reactor, which is not affected by this problem because its pressure vessel steel comes from Japan, not France,, is already nine years behind schedule for other reasons and has more than doubled in cost.

Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan any compromise on minimum safety standards would be hard to sell to the public, especially since nuclear power has fallen out of favour with the French government, which wants to invest heavily in renewables.

France is already considering merging Areva and Électricité de France (EDF), the two nuclear companies in which it owns the majority of shares. Areva is building the Flamanville reactor on behalf of EDF, Europe’s largest electricity producer.

EDF recently estimated the construction costs of Flamanville at €8 billion (US$8.7bn) compared with an original estimate of €3.3bn, and that was before this setback. The plant was due to have been working by now, but its start date had already been put back to 2017 – which is now looking optimistic.

It is understood that the parts of the pressure vessel found with excess carbon were manufactured in France at the Creusot Forge, in Burgundy, owned by Areva. It was this same company that made parts for the two Chinese reactors, hence the fears that they too will contain carbon above safety limits.

Large subsidies

One problem is the pressure vessel’s sheer size and the fact that it was already in place when the fault was detected. The vessel weighs 410 tonnes and cannot now be removed, and it is hard to see how it could be repaired or modified.

The problem was discovered in December but made public in a low-key website announcement only on 7 April.

One knock-on effect might be to seriously damage the British government’s own energy policy, which relies on building four similar reactors in England. Work has already been completed on preparatory works for two at Hinkley Point, in the west of England, using the Flamanville design.

The UK government has agreed large subsidies to support the projects, but EDF has repeatedly delayed signing a final deal to build them, because of a lack of investors. Two Chinese utilities were negotiating to back the project financially, but the discovery of a flaw at Flamanville may complicate matters.

In any event, the decision on whether to go ahead with the two reactors at Hinkley Point had already been postponed until the summer and now seems certain to be postponed yet again until the issue of the safety of the French and Chinese pressure vessels has been resolved.

The UK government has repeatedly said that the expansion of nuclear power is vital to its energy security and its ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets. The country is currently in the middle of a general election campaign. Whichever government gets into power may have to rapidly rethink its energy policy. − Climate News Network

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Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Climate-friendly boost for global energy mix as scientists say solar power alone could now meet the needs of California five times over.

LONDON, 12 April, 2015 − Carbon dioxide levels might be soaring, and governments might be slow to reduce fossil fuel emissions and contain climate change − but the smart money could nevertheless be going into renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says green energy investments rose by 17% in 2014 to reach a total of $270bn − the first annual increase in three years, and just 3% behind the all-time record set in 2011 of $279bn.

In 2014, renewable energies added 103 gigawatts to global capacity. This is roughly equal to the output of all 158 nuclear power reactors in the US.

Wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed an estimated 9.1% of world electricity generation in 2014. This also represents a notional saving in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.3 gigatonnes, which is about twice what pours from the exhausts of the world airlines.

Markets mature

“Once again in 2014, renewable made up nearly half the power capacity added worldwide,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.

“These climate-friendly energy technologies are now an indispensable component of the global energy mix and their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent.”

But, according to scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution, there is much more that could be done. A team led by Earth system scientists Rebecca Hernandez, now of the University of California Berkeley, reported in Nature Climate Change that solar energy alone could meet the demands of the state of California in the US up to five times over.

Solar power systems based on photovoltaics could generate up to 15,000 terawatts of energy a year. And mirror-driven concentrating systems could add another 6,000 terawatt hours.

California – now in the grip of a calamitous drought that has been tentatively linked to climate change triggered by human investment in fossil fuels – is the most populous state in the US. The researchers calculated that more than 27,000 square kilometres of land would be fit for photovoltaic solar construction, and more than 6,000 square kilometres for concentrating solar power.

“Their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall
and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent”

But there is a darker side to the story of renewable energy. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, scientists have been working on the much more complex carbon budget of biofuels, which deliver energy in liquid form.

They count as renewable energy because, although they emit carbon dioxide when burned, they do not, overall, add to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is because biofuel crops take carbon dioxide from the air to grow their tissues for conversion to fuel, and return the gas through engine exhausts.

But there have been persistent worries. One is that the conversion of food to fuel may not be the most efficient use of cropland.

Destroy ecosystems

The approach remains carbon neutral, as long as farmers exploit existing cropland. But the danger is that farmers might plough up existing grassland, destroy ecosystems, and release ancient stored soil carbon to the atmosphere, to make global warming worse.

Environmental scientist Tyler Lark and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in Environmental Research Letters that, between 2008 and 2012, US farmers ploughed seven million acres of new land for corn and soy for conversion to biofuels intended as renewable energy for motor transport.

In the course of doing so, they could have emitted as much carbon to the atmosphere as 34 coal-burning power stations in one year – or 28 million new cars on the road.

Nearly a quarter of the land converted came from long-standing prairies and ranges, much of it within the Central Plains, from North Dakota to Texas. And much of this was planted with corn intended for conversion to biofuels.

“It mimics the extreme land-use change that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” Lark says. “We could be, in a sense, ploughing up prairies with each mile we drive.” – Climate News Network

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Unhappy birthday for UK’s nuclear white elephants

Unhappy birthday for UK's nuclear white elephants

A state-of-the-art British plant designed to re-use spent nuclear fuel so as to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to close after years of what its critics call “commercial and technical failure.”

LONDON, 8 April, 2015 − Re-using uranium and plutonium as fuel for nuclear reactors over and over again to make unlimited quantities of electricity was the nuclear industry’s ambition 25 years ago, and central to its claim to be the solution to climate change.

Once uranium has been mined, enriched and used as reactor fuel it need not be wasted, the industry has argued. After its removal from the reactor so little of the potential energy it contains has been harnessed that the fuel can be reprocessed and used again. It is dissolved in acid, the impurities are removed, its uranium and plutonium are extracted and it starts the cycle again as new fuel.

In the 1980s the industry insisted that investment in the giant reprocessing plants was vital because by the millennium there would be 4,000 nuclear reactors worldwide, with too little uranium to fuel them all. In fact, by the end of the century there were only 434 reactors globally, and much more uranium had been found.

Some governments, including those of the UK, France, Germany and the US, believed the industry’s sales pitch, even though environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace never accepted it. Critics said the cost of building the reprocessing plants was too high, and feared the consequences of producing vast stockpiles of uranium and plutonium which might never be used in reactors.

Public opposition was so great in Europe that some countries, notably Germany, abandoned the idea, but Britain went ahead. The British plant was at Sellafield in Cumbria, north-west England.

Proved right

Martin Forwood, from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), said: “We never believed there would be a huge expansion in nuclear energy or that there was any need for reprocessing, We said the discharges of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea that it entailed could not be justified, and we have been proved right.”

Despite many objections the nuclear industry got the UK government to accept reprocessing as essential to ensure future expansion. This spring is the 21st anniversary of the official opening of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield, designed to dissolve both British and foreign spent fuel and retrieve the plutonium and uranium.

It cost £2.85 billion (US$4.25 bn) to build and in its first 10 years it planned to reprocess 7,000 tonnes of spent fuel and make £500 million (US$745 m) profit.

Contracts had been signed in advance with Germany, Japan, Switzerland and other countries with nuclear power stations to reprocess their fuel in England.

But technical faults meant THORP failed to meet its targets, and after a decade only 5,045 tonnes had been reprocessed. The plant’s real profits or losses have never been disclosed.

Despite this doubtful beginning the British government sanctioned another enterprise, a brand new factory to turn the plutonium and uranium that had been produced into new fuel. The idea was to sell it back to the countries that originally owned it, closing the recycling loop.

Unworkable theories

New contracts were signed with Switzerland, Germany and Japan to produce 120 tonnes of MOX fuel (mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium) annually. But unfortunately the British nuclear industry could not translate its theories into practice.

The new plant did not work as planned, producing only 13 tonnes of fuel in ten years. Originally it was said to have cost £280m (US$415m). After Japan’s Fukushima accident it was decided to close the plant. The total loss to the British taxpayer for this failure was later admitted to be £2.2bn (US$3.3bn).

Despite the fact there was now no market or use for the plutonium and uranium it was producing from the spent fuel, the original THORP plant has continued to operate. It was periodically closed after a series of accidents and technical failures, and had been reduced to operating at half its original throughput, but was always given permission to restart, arguing that it still had foreign contracts to fulfill.

As a result Britain now has the world’s largest stockpile of used plutonium, about 100 tonnes of it British and 30 tonnes belonging to other governments. If it were all converted into nuclear weapons it would be enough to destroy all life on Earth.

There are also around 7,000 tonnes of uranium, for which there is currently no use and which must remain under armed guard night and day for fear of terrorist attack.

“Two white elephants don’t make for success at Sellafield”

After years of indecision about how to deal with this unwanted surplus it has been announced that THORP should close in 2018 when all the foreign fuel has been reprocessed. Even after closure it will take years to decommission the plant and remove the waste, so not all of the 800 workers will lose their jobs at once and many will be re-deployed on other parts of the Cumbrian site.

Martin Forwood concludes: “That THORP should have failed so badly at so many levels comes as little surprise to those of us who warned − even before the plant opened − that the economics of the highly complex plant simply did not stack up and that worldwide demand for the uranium and plutonium that THORP would recover had already evaporated.

“Attempts to convert THORP’s plutonium into new fuel in an adjoining plant were equally disastrous…Two white elephants don’t make for success at Sellafield.”

The British government and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which runs the plant on behalf of taxpayers, have never revealed the losses it has incurred.  The government has no policy on what to do with the mountain of unwanted plutonium and uranium.

For accounting purposes, Forwood says, it is still counted as an asset, when in reality it is simply nuclear waste. The nuclear industry’s hopes of saving the planet from climate change by recycling reactor fuel have, he says, been “a complete commercial and technical failure.” − Climate News Network

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Water crisis pushes Brazil towards solar power at last

Water crisis pushes Brazil towards solar power at last

Without water to feed its hydroelectric dams, drought-hit Brazil is turning to the solar energy source once dubbed a fantasy by the country’s president.

São Paulo, 5 April, 2015 − Brazil’s devastating drought could have the unexpected consequence of finally prompting one of the sunniest countries in the world to take solar power seriously.

The combination of an imminent energy crisis, as reservoir levels fall too low to generate power, and the appointment of a more open-minded Energy Minister promise a rapid change in the situation.

The drought, which has produced a crisis in the supply of water, has seen a dramatic drop in the levels of the reservoirs that supply dozens of hydroelectric dams in the southeast and centre west − Brazil´s industrial powerhouse and major population centre.

As Brazil now begins the seven-month dry period, when rain is traditionally sparse, the reservoirs in the drought-affected region could fall to as little as 10% of their capacity, which the new Mines and Energy Minister, Eduardo Braga, admits would be “catastrophic” for energy security.

Energy mix

It means that plans to introduce solar energy into the energy mix are at last being considered as Brazil seeks alternatives to hydroelectric dam, on which it relies for up to 80% of its energy.

The contribution of wind power, produced by onshore wind farms in the Northeast and South, has begun to grow.

But solar energy, dubbed “a fantasy” by President Dilma Rousseff just a few years ago, has been ignored. Only 400 homes in Brazil have photovoltaic (PV) panels installed on their roofs, because the cost is so prohibitive.

However, Braga has announced plans to turn dozens of hydroelectric dams in the southeast and centre west − which run the risk of becoming white elephants as the waters diminish − into solar energy farms.

Thousands of solar panels attached to buoys would be floated on the surface of the dwindling reservoirs to provide an alternative source of power.

Ministry officials have calculated they could add up to 15,000 megawatts (MW) of power, which is higher than the maximum capacity of two of Brazil´s latest Amazon megadams − Jirau, on the Madeira river, and the controversial Belo Monte, on the Xingu.

Reduce evaporation

The solar panels would have the added advantage of reducing water evaporation while at the same time being cooled by the water, boosting their conversion efficiency.

Pilot projects are about to begin on two dams owned by state companies − Sobradinho, on the São Francisco river in Bahia, and Balbina, on the Uatumã river in the Amazon.  If they are successful, the solar panels will be introduced into the dams in the southeast and centre west.

Brazil will not be the first country to experiment with floating solar power. Australia is trying it out with PV panels on the surface area of a wastewater treatment facility in Jamestown, South Australia. Their energy will power the plant.

Tax breaks for the production of photovoltaic panels have also been promised by Brazil’s Energy Minister, who also plans to introduce new rules to encourage the use of solar panels on buildings with large roof areas.

Two more auctions for solar power will be held this year. In the first such auction, held at the end of last year, 31 solar plants were chosen to provide a total capacity of 1,048 MW by 2017. The price was just under US$90 per MW − among the lowest in the world.

Solar energy potential, according to some sources, is equivalent to 20 times the total of all the present installed capacity of electrical energy

Factors that contributed to the low cost were the strong solar radiation factor in Brazil, and the fact that many solar parks would be installed in the same areas as wind farms, reducing the need to acquire land or build new transmission lines.

The 20-year contracts for energy supply involve investments of US$1.67 billion, and many foreign companies are already jostling to get a place in the Brazilian sun, in what promises to be a rapidly expanding market in a few years’ time,.

Spanish, Canadian, American, Italian and Chinese companies already have a foot in the door. And as soon as the government and its development bank, the BNDES, come up with the promised tax breaks and incentives, the solar industry could take off.

Vast potential

At the moment, the total solar energy generated in Brazil is a piffling 15MW, much of it from new football stadium roofs installed for the 2014 football World Cup. But its vast solar energy potential, according to some sources, is equivalent to 20 times the total of all the present installed capacity of electrical energy.

While it waits to see if the solar experiment on the dams works, the government is hoping that energy consumption can be reduced by means of publicity campaigns and price increases.

The downturn in the economy, with little or no growth expected this year, will also help. It has also increased the use of thermal electric plants, powered by natural gas, coal and diesel oil to provide 30% − up from 20% − to the national grid.

These are expensive to run, powered by fossil fuels, and contribute to carbon emissions, and they could soon be consigned to history as solar energy becomes a regular part of Brazil´s energy mix. – Climate News Network

Jan Rocha is a freelance journalist living in Brazil and is a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian.

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New ocean energy plan could worsen global warming

New ocean energy plan could worsen global warming

An apparently promising way of producing energy from the world’s oceans in fact risks causing catastrophic harm by warming the Earth far more than it can bear, US scientists say.

LONDON, 4 April, 2015 − One of renewable energy’s more outspoken enthusiasts has delivered bad news for the prospects of developing ocean thermal energy. His prediction is that although the technology could work for a while, after about 50 years it could actually exacerbate long-term global warning.

Of all the renewable energy technologies, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) sounded like the perfect choice. This is a plan to exploit the difference between the warm surface and the cold deeps of the seas, and turn that difference into energy.

The agency that did the work would be a network of vertical pipes floating below the surface: it would not spoil the view from the coast, and it would deliver power day or night, whatever the weather. But there was more.

Enthusiasts pointed out that as a bonus, the pipes used in the energy conversion would bring a flow of nutrients from the cold, deep waters to the less-fertile but sunlit surface of the ocean, thus encouraging the growth of marine algae that would soak up more carbon from the atmosphere. And, as a bonus, the same process would accelerate the downward flow of carbon, where it could be sequestered on the sea bed.

Now one of renewable energy’s more vocal supporters has taken a closer look at the long-term consequences of the ocean pipes and come up with some discouraging news: an engineering programme intended to cool the planet would end up making it warmer. It would work for a while, he says, but after about half a century it would reduce the cloud cover and at the same time reduce the sea ice, to accelerate climate change once more.

Warming exacerbated

Ken Caldeira, senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution, California, is one of the more energetic voices in climate research: he and his Carnegie colleagues have already warned that the world is feeling the heat from carbon dioxide released from car exhausts and factory chimneys and he has spoken up loudly for nuclear power, and indeed any “clean” energy sources.

He and Stanford colleagues Lester Kwiatkowski and Katharine Ricke report in Environmental Research Letters that when they began to simulate an ocean dotted with vertical pipes that exchanged deeper and shallower waters, they expected to confirm the value of such an approach. They could not.

“Our simulations indicate the likely sign and character of unintended atmospheric consequences of such ocean technologies,” they conclude, in formal science-speak. “Prolonged application of ocean pipe technologies, rather than avoiding global warming, could exacerbate long-term warming of the climate system.”

Research exercises such as this one cost nothing more than laboratory computing power and research time: their value once again is in reminding governments, campaigners and energy investors that the climate is an intricate piece of global machinery, and that there are no easy answers to the problems presented by renewable energy.

Radical change

They are also a reminder that geo-engineering of any kind to damp climate change could have unintended consequences. In this case – in an ideal, global simulation – it would change the thermal structure of the ocean altogether.

The Carnegie calculations work like this: cold air is denser than warm air. Water funnelled up the pipes on a very large scale from the depths would cool the air above the seas, and increase atmospheric pressure, which would reduce cloud formation over the seas. Since most of the planet is ocean, that means fewer clouds overall, which means more sunlight absorbed by the Earth rather than reflected back into space by the clouds.

And the same mixing of sea waters would bring sea ice into contact with warmer waters, which would mean less sea ice to reflect radiation, with the same result: accelerated global warming.

After 60 years, the simulated network of ocean pipes would cause an increase of global temperature by up to 1.2°C. After a few centuries, the same technology would take temperatures up by a catastrophic 8°5C.

“I cannot envisage any scenario in which a large scale global implementation of ocean pipes would be advisable,” said the report’s lead author, Dr Kwiatkowski. “In fact, our study shows it could exacerbate long-term warning and is therefore highly inadvisable at global scales.” – Climate News Network

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Rich nations urged to cut temperature rise targets

Rich nations urged to cut temperature rise targets

Senior scientist says voices of poorer nations must be heard in the political tussle over reducing the “utterly inadequate” global warming limit.

LONDON, 31 March, 2015 − The official target of limiting global warming to a 2˚C rise has been described by a senior scientist as “utterly inadequate” to protect the people most at risk from climate change.

That’s the conclusion reached by one of the authors of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, in an analysis of the political tussle between rich and poor nations at last December’s UN conference on limiting temperature rise.

Richer countries were happy to limit global average temperature rises to 2˚C, while middle and low-income nations would have preferred to contain warming within 1.5˚ C or lower.

Possibilities of calamity

But Dr Petra Tschakert, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, reports in the journal Climate Change Responses that the agreed limit contains within it the possibilities of calamity for many people.

“The consensus that transpired during this [UN conference] session was that a 2˚C danger level seemed utterly inadequate, given the already observed impacts on ecosystems, food, livelihoods and sustainable development,” Dr Tschakert says.

“A low temperature target is the best bet to prevent severe, pervasive and potentially irreversible impacts, while allowing ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensuring food production and security, and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Her analysis is not of itself new, nor is it much disputed − other leading scientists have also warned that such an international agreed limit could be disastrous.

But her commentary in the journal reveals something of the debate among the government representatives and experts who must meet and prepare for global action.

Global average temperatures have been creeping up at fractions of a degree per decade for more than 30 years, and some degree of further global warming is now inevitable.

Scientists at the IPCC have from the start warned that – without steps to dramatically reduce the combustion of fossil fuels – the planet could warm by 4˚C or more, and sea levels could rise by up to a metre by 2100. In 2009, governments met in Copenhagen and settled on a limit of 2˚C.

“This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world”

But this target has always been contested. More than 100 poorer nations and small island states − such as Tuvalu, recently pounded by a tropical cyclone Pam − have repeatedly said that a 2˚C rise is unsafe, and called for a 1.5˚C limit.

The World Health Organisation argued at the December UN meeting that, as far as human health was concerned, there was no safe limit, and people already faced hazards from undernourishment, and from food and water-borne infections.

Heatwaves, such as the one that hit Russia in 2010, may have caused 10,000 additional deaths, while floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent and more severe hazards in a 2˚C world.

Climate impacts

Dr Tschakert’s argument is that a global average limit may be a convenient and compelling instrument for discussing climate change impacts, but nobody in the world actually faces a global average.

Such a notional limit is the average of extremes and variation across regions, all of which are subject to different hazards − ranging from glacial melting to coral bleaching − that could be disastrous for people in those regions, many of whom are among the world’s poorest.

Dr Tschakert says: “These implications emphasise what is truly at stake – not a scientific bickering of what the most appropriate temperature target ought to be, but a commitment to protect the most vulnerable and at-risk populations and ecosystems, as well as the willingness to pay for abatement and compensation..

“This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world.” – Climate News Network

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Changing climate causes weather chaos in Chile

Changing climate causes weather chaos in Chile

What is being described as an environmental catastrophe is hitting Chile as torrential rains batter the north while the south suffers prolonged drought and wildfires.

LONDON, 30 March, 2015 − The Atacama desert region of northern Chile, one of the driest areas on Earth, has been hit in recent days by torrential rains and floods that have caused deaths, swept away homes and left much of the region without power.

Meanwhile, in the usually lush southern parts of the country, wildfires are raging across lands and forests parched by the longest period of drought in living memory, endangering some of the world’s richest flora and fauna.

“We are witnessing a massive environmental catastrophe,” Luis Mariano Rendon, head of the Accion Ecologica environmental group, told the AFP news agency.

Irreparable loss

“There have been whole species lost, such as the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle tree). They are trees that take hundreds of years to reach maturity, so this is a practically irreparable loss for current generations.”

The trees, a distant relative of the pine, are considered sacred by indigenous Mapuche people, and have been declared part of Chile’s unique natural heritage.

Scientists say the drought in the southern region – which is the powerhouse of Chile’s multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, and site of many of its famous vineyards – is a long-term trend, linked to climate change.

“There is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay”

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, says millions of dollars will have to be invested in desalination plants and new reservoirs to cope with the continuing drought. Canals and irrigation systems will also have to be upgraded.

“Faced with this critical situation,” he says, “there is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay, and that puts at risk the development of important regions of the country.”

The Maipo river basin − which includes Santiago, Chile’s capital − contains nearly 40% of the country’s population and is an important area for agriculture, mining, and for power generation, much of which comes from hydroelectric sources.

Researchers, led by the Centre for Global Change at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, have been mapping the impact that climate change is likely to have on the Maipo basin.

Projections so far indicate that rainfall is likely to drop by 10% in the area over the period up to 2040, and by up to 30% by the end of the century. Meanwhile, temperatures will rise by 1˚C above the historical average over the next 25 years, and by between 2.5˚C and 3.5˚C by 2100.

Power source

The researchers have also been investigating glacier mass and melt in the Andes − the source of the bulk of the country’s water supply for millions of people in the region, and a crucial power source.

Scientists say that accelerated melting of Andean glaciers is being caused by atmospheric warming.

Water shortages are hitting not only the agricultural sector, but also mining – one of Chile’s major industries. The country is the world’s biggest producer of copper, and mining companies say they are having to invest in costly desalination plants in order to get water for processing copper concentrate from milled rock.

A drop in river levels feeding hydroelectric facilities is also leading to an increase in coal-fired power plants – a major source of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Despite the recent rains in the north of the country, scientists are warning of the dangers of desertification in the region, with the northern desert advancing further south each year. – Climate News Network

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China ramps up the rhetoric on climate change

China ramps up the rhetoric on climate change

Senior Chinese official warns that climate-related temperature rises could seriously affect the country’s harvests and major infrastructure projects.

LONDON, 28 March, 2015 − Zheng Guogang, head of the China Meteorological Administration, says future variations in climate are likely to reduce crop yields and damage the environment.

In one of the strongest official statements to date on the challenges faced, Zheng told China’s official Xinhua news agency that climate change could have a “huge impact” on the country, with a growing risk of climate-related disasters.

“To face the challenges from past and future climate change, we must respect nature and live in harmony with it,” Zheng said. “We must promote the idea of nature, and emphasise climate security.”

Violent rainstorms

Zheng said temperature rises in China over the past century have been higher than the global average. He warned that river flows and harvests are likely to suffer as the incidence of droughts and violent rainstorms across the country increases.

In turn, this could affect major infrastructure projects such as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, the biggest hydroelectric scheme in the world.

Other projects that could be hit by changes in climate are the rail line between the northwestern province of Qinghai and Tibet − the highest railway line in the world, and partly built on permafrost − and a massive project aimed at bringing water from the south of China to the parched towns and cities of the north.

“The safe production and operation of major strategic projects is facing a serious threat,” Zheng said.

Although millions of people in China have benefited from years of double-digit economic growth, damage to the environment has been extensive and has become a major social, health and political issue.

“To face the challenges from past and future climate change, we must respect nature
and live in harmony with it”

China is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases − largely due to its continued reliance on coal for power generation.

There are frequent public protests about the state of the environment, particularly water and air pollution. In Beijing and several other cities, air pollution frequently exceeds internationally-recognised health safety limits.

The authorities are taking various measures to tackle the country’s considerable environmental problems, but they are nervous about public protests on the environment getting out of control.

Earlier this month, “Under the Dome” – a documentary on China’s pollution, made by one of the country’s leading investigative reporters − was taken down from the internet by the authorities after having been viewed by an estimated 100 million people.

Green development

Under China’s present five-year plan, which started in 2011, there is a focus on the need to encourage “green, cyclical and low-carbon development”.

The plan claims: “These actions will increase the strategic position of combating climate change in China’s overall economic and social development.”

In an effort to improve its environment and meet international obligations to cut emissions, China is in the midst of a renewable energy programme costing billions of dollars.

Late last year, Beijing announced for the first time a date when the country’s emissions would peak – 2030 – and then taper off in the years following.

China is also involved with the US and other countries in a wide range of energy-saving research projects aimed at combating climate change. – Climate News Network

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Earth at risk in new epoch ruled by destructive humans

Earth at risk in new epoch ruled by destructive humans

Scientists warn that our fate is in our own hands as humans now control almost every aspect of the planet, on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.

LONDON, 21 March, 2015 − Nature has been replaced by humans as the driving force behind changes on the planet − and we need to take urgent action if we are to avoid our own destruction.

This is the view of two scientists – including a Nobel prize winner − who support the theory that the planet has entered a new Anthropocene epoch that has succeeded the Holocene, the  current geological warm period that began at the end of the ice age 11,500 years ago.

It is not a new concept − the name Anthropocene was coined 15 years ago by American ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer to describe how humans had taken over from nature to decide the planet’s future − but the authors of a new paper believe they have shown that it is now a frightening reality.

Paul Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, in Mainz, Germany, and Stanislaw Waclawek, researcher in the Department of Nanomaterials in Natural Sciences at the Technical University of Liberec, Czech Republic, make their case in the paper published in the new Chemistry-Didactics-Ecology-Metrology.

Human footprint

The article claims that the negative impact of the human footprint ensures a gradual destruction of the Earth, “Our survival fully depends on us,” Crutzen says.

The scientists claim that there is overwhelming evidence that what they term “man, the eroder” now transforms all Earth system processes. They offer this list in support of their argument:

  • Excessively rapid climate change, so that ecosystems cannot adapt.
  • The Arctic ocean ice cover is thinner by approximately 40% than it was 20-40 years ago.
  • Ice loss on land is causing the rising sea levels.
  • Overpopulation (a fourfold increase in the 20th century alone).
  • Increasing demand for freshwater.
  • Releases of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, resulting in high surface ozone layers.
  • Loss of agricultural soil through erosion.
  • Loss of phosphorous (dangerous depletion in agricultural regions).
  • Melting supplies of phosphate reserves (leading to serious reduction in crop yield).

The paper begins: “Humankind actions are exerting increasing effect on the environment on all scales, in a lot of ways overcoming natural processes.

“During the last 100 years, human population went up from little more than one billion to six billion, and economic activity increased nearly 10 times between 1950 and the present time.”

Industrial activity

In a series of graphics, the two scientists show how the growth of population, industrial activity and, above all, the release of greenhouse gases are causing chaos in nature and threatening our existence.

The paper says: “Taking into account these and many other major and still growing footprints of human activities on Earth and atmosphere, without any doubt we can conclude that we are living in new geological epoch named the Anthropocene.”

Crutzen warns: “This ensures a gradual destruction of the Earth. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must change course.” – Climate News Network

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Powerful wind blows through US energy sector

Powerful wind blows through US energy sector

Wind power in the US now generates enough electricity for more than 11 million homes, but it needs government support for further growth.

LONDON, 20 March, 2015 − The wind turbines are turning across America, and a major report by the US Department of Energy (DOE) says the wind energy sector now supplies 4.5% of the nation’s electricity.

Given the right energy policies and investment in infrastructure, that figure could increase to 10% by 2020 and to 35% by 2050, the DOE predicts.

That will not only benefit tens of thousands of workers who will be employed in one of the US’s fastest-growing industries. It’s also good news for the climate, and will help preserve increasingly precious water supplies.

“Deployment of wind technology for US electricity generation provides a domestic, sustainable and essentially zero carbon, zero pollution and zero water-use US electricity resource,” the DOE says.

Impressive growth

The rate of growth of wind power in the US has been impressive. In 2011 alone, nearly 3,500 turbines went up across the country. And the Natural Resources Defence Council says that a typical 250 megawatt wind farm − around 100 turbines − will create 1,073 jobs over the lifetime of the project.

The DOE says costs of wind power are dropping, while reliability and other issues are being sorted out. “Wind generation variability has a minimal and manageable impact on grid reliability and costs,” the report says.

Texas is the top wind power state, followed by Iowa, California and Oklahoma. At the end of 2013, the US had 61 gigawatts (GW) installed − up from 25 GW in 2009.

The aim is to increase those figures to 113 GW by 2020, to 224 GW by 2030, and to more than 400 GW by 2050.

The DOE says that if these plans are realised, the emission into the atmosphere of more than 12 gigatonnes of climate changing greenhouse gases (GHG) will be avoided.

“Pairing this homegrown resource with continued technology innovation has made the US the home of the most productive wind turbines in the world”

“Wind deployment can provide US jobs, US manufacturing and lease and tax revenues in local communities to strengthen and support a transition towards a low-carbon US economy,” the report says.

The trouble is that there is considerable resistance to wind power in parts of the political establishment. The DOE report – while not directly accusing Washington of standing in the way of progress on wind − does say that “new tools, priorities and emphases” need to be set in place in order to achieve wind energy targets.

These include an urgent need for a large-scale infrastructure programme in order to build wind power transmission lines.

The American Wind Energy Association, (AWEA), body that represents the industry, calculates that about 900 miles of transmission lines need to be put in place each year up to 2050 if the DOE is to achieve its wind power goals.

Tax policies to encourage wind development are also required. A special Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), which effectively gave subsidies to the wind industry of about $13 billion a year, was brought in 1992.

Receive subsidies

But when the tax credit came up for renewal in 2012, it was not retained in the tax code, and finally lapsed at the end of 2013, although the oil, gas, fracking and coal industries – all major GHG emitters − have continued to receive subsidies.

Political analysts say there is little likelihood that the PTC will be renewed by a legislature controlled by the Republican party – which is generally opposed to giving financial incentives to the renewable energy sector.

The elimination of tax breaks initially slowed growth in the construction of wind energy facilities, but the industry remains upbeat and says investors are still putting money into projects.

“The US is blessed with an abundant supply of wind energy,” the AWEA says. “Pairing this homegrown resource with continued technology innovation has made the US the home of the most productive wind turbines in the world.” – Climate News Network

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