Climate’s threat to wheat is rising by degrees

Climate’s threat to wheat is rising by degrees

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

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

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

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

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

Market shortages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temperature impact

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

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

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

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

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The world we are shaping is feeling the strain

The world we are shaping is feeling the strain

The world risks being destabilised by human activity, scientists report, most of it the work of a rich minority of us.

LONDON, 16 January, 2015 – Humans are now the chief drivers of change in the planet’s physical, chemical, biological and economic systems according to new research in a series of journals. And the humans most implicated in this change so far are the 18% of mankind that accounts for 74% of gross domestic productivity.

And the indicators of this change – dubbed the “planetary dashboard” – are 24 sets of measurements that record the acceleration of the carbon cycle, land use, fisheries, telecommunications, energy consumption, population, economic growth, transport, water use and many other interlinked aspects of what scientists think of as the Earth System.

Although these indicators chart change since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the most dramatic acceleration – the scientists call it the Great Acceleration – seems to have begun in 1950. Some researchers would like to set that decade as the start of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, from Anthropos, the ancient Greek word for mankind.

On the eve of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a team of scientists led by Will Steffen of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and the Australian National University report in the journal Science that the world has now crossed four of nine planetary boundaries within which humans could have hoped for a safe operating space.

The four boundaries are climate change, land system change, alterations to the biogeochemical cycle that follow phosphorus and nitrogen fertiliser use, and the loss of a condition called “biosphere integrity”.

Past their peak

The scientists judge that these boundary-crossing advances mean that both present and future human society are in danger of destabilising the Earth System, a complex interaction of land, sea, atmosphere, the icecaps, natural living things and humans themselves.

“Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries”, said Professor Steffen. “In this new analysis we have improved the quantification of where these risks lie.”

The Science article is supported by separate studies of global change. These were backed by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, also headquartered in Stockholm, which publishes an analysis in the journal the Anthropocene Review.

Meanwhile a team of European scientists warn in the journal Ecology and Society that out of 20 renewable resources (among them the maize, wheat, rice, soya, fish, meat, milk and eggs that feed the world) 18 have already passed their peak production.

And a separate team led by scientists from Leicester University in Britain has even tried to pinpoint the day on which the Anthropocene era may be said to have commenced. In yet another journal, the Quaternary International, they nominate 16 July, 1945: the day of the world’s first nuclear test.

Unequal world

This flurry of research and review is of course timed to help world leaders at Davos concentrate on the longer-term problems of climate change, environmental degradation, and food security, in addition to immediate problems of economic stagnation, poverty, conflict and so on. But these immediate challenges may not be separable from the longer-term ones. To ram the message home, the authors will present their findings at seven seminars in Davos.

In the Anthropocene Review, Professor Steffen and his co-authors consider not just the strains on the planet’s resources that threaten stability, but also that section of humanity that is responsible for most of the strain.

Although the human burden of population has soared from 2.5bn to more than 7bn in one lifetime, in 2010, the scientists say, the OECD countries that are home to 18% of the world’s population accounted for 74% of global gross domestic product, so most of the human imprint on the Earth System comes from the world represented by the OECD.

This, they say, points to the profound scale of global inequality, which means that the benefits of the so-called Great Acceleration in consumption of resources are unevenly distributed, and this in turn confounds efforts to deal with the impact of this assault on the planetary machinery. Humans have always altered their environment, they concede, but now the scale of the alteration is, in its rate and magnitude, without precedent.

“Furthermore, by treating ‘humans’ as a single, monolithic whole, it ignores the fact that the Great Acceleration has, until very recently, been almost entirely driven by a small fraction of the human population, those in developed countries”, they say.

“…What surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern. The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950”

The IGBP-Stockholm Resilience Centre co-operation first identified their 24 “indicators” of planetary change in 2004, and the latest research is a revisitation. In 2009, researchers identified nine global priorities linked to human impacts on the environment, and identified two, ­ climate change and the integrity of the biosphere, ­ that were vital to the human condition. Any alteration to either could drive the Earth System into a new state, they said.

In fact, since then, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, and accordingly global average temperatures have steadily increased, along with sea levels. At the same time, habitat destruction, pollution and hunting and fishing have begun to drive species to extinction at an accelerating rate.

Almost all the charts that make up the planetary dashboard now show steep acceleration: fisheries, one of the indicators that seems to have levelled off, has probably done so only because humans may have already exhausted some of the ocean’s resources.

“It is difficult to over-estimate the scale and speed of change. In a single human lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force”, said Prof Steffen. “When we first aggregated these datasets we expected to see major changes, but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern.

“The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say that 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration. After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet.” ­­­­–­ 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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Aid aims to help rice farmers in a warming world

Aid aims to help rice farmers in a warming world

International team provides help to small-scale farmers on the eastern Ganges plains who are struggling to make a living and grow enough rice to feed the population.

KATHMANDU, 12 January, 2015 − Research scientists are coming to the aid of 300 million people along the River Ganges for whom rice is the staple food and who face a hungry future because productivity is poor and the harvest is threatened by climate change.

The team of scientists and development practitioners from Australia, Bangladesh, India and Nepal plan to improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of 7,000 small-scale farmers in the eastern Gangetic plains with a five-year US$ 6.7 million programme.

According to Nepal’s Ministry for Agriculture Development, 66 per cent of Nepal’s total population of almost 27 million is involved in agriculture and contributes 39 per cent in the GDP. Local scientists say that lack of access to climate-resilient technologies and dependency on monsoon rains for irrigation are major problems for farmers in Nepal.

Food security

“Nepal is one of the most vulnerable countries to projected climate change effect, so the project will help small-scale farmers address pressing issues about their livelihood and food security,” Devendra Gauchan, senior scientist at Nepal Agricultural Research Council, told the Climate News Network.

Altogether, the eastern Gangetic plains of Nepal, Bangladesh and India are home to 300 million people. The aid team, funded by the Australian government, aim to help rice farmers systems through efficient use of water and conserving resources to improve adaptation to climate change, and also connect them to new markets.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) will manage the programme, which will be led by the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre in eight districts − two in north-west Bangladesh, two in east Nepal, and two each in the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal.

“Nepal is one of the most vulnerable countries to projected climate change effect”

“Rice-based system productivity [in the eastern Gangetic plains] remains low, and diversification is limited because of poorly-developed markets, sparse agricultural knowledge and service networks, and inadequate development of available water resources,” says Kuhu Chatterjee, South Asia regional manager of ACIAR.

The project was designed in consultation and participation with NARC, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and agricultural universities in India.

New technologies

Local scientists feel that this project will also help build capacity of researchers in Nepal. Devendra Gauchan said: “Agricultural research in Nepal has very limited strength in terms of human resource, infrastructure facility and institutional capacity. Through this project we will get to learn about new technologies and research management from scientists from participating countries.”

According to Kuhu Chatterjee, the project will test and fine-tune the technologies developed in countries such as Australia, Canada and Brazil, and will modify them to suit farmers in the eastern Gangetic plains.

“Community consultations will be conducted to identify different ways to optimise the productive use of rain and irrigation water, increase cropping intensity through timely planting, reduced tillage and enhancing access to, and use of, energy-efficient irrigation technologies,” Chatterjee said. – Climate News Network

  • Bhrikuti Rai, a journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal, writes on climate change, science and development issues. Follow her on Twitter @bbhrikuti

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Climate change increasing stresses on fragile states

Climate change increasing stresses on fragile states

Briefing for UK aid workers says climate-related factors are making the world increasingly unstable and adding to hardships of the poorest people.

LONDON, 2 January, 2015 − A chilling account of how climate change is already adding to the problems of conflict and social breakdown in fragile states is contained in an advice document to the staff of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

“Topic Guides” on a variety of subjects are briefings to staff on key problems and how to deal with them when providing overseas aid. This guide, called “Conflict, Climate Change and Environment”, describes how and where society is already breaking down.

Although the guide – compiled by experts from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and International Alert (IA)− says climate change is only part of the problem, it concludes that it adds to food and water shortages, rapid urbanisation, unemployment, and weak and corrupt governance, which increase the chance of conflict.

Most at risk

The report lists the top 20 countries most at risk: Somalia, followed by Afghanistan, Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Chad, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Burkina Faso, Myanmar/Burma and Rwanda.

It says that the both the British Foreign Office and the defence and security departments in the UK and US are concerned that climate change is making the world increasingly unstable.

The authors − Katie Peters, a climate and environment research fellow at the ODI, and Janani Vivekananda, IA’s environment, climate change and security manager − say that one of the ways to prevent the movement of people and other conflicts over resources is to build up the quality of governments, and so build an administrative structure that will give local people the ability to adapt to climate change and to deal with its consequences.

“The consequences of climate change are felt daily and affect all sectors of development, peacebuilding and humanitarian programming”

Although the document is aimed at briefing DFID staff so they can be better able to direct aid to where it will be of most benefit, it is is a strong counter-argument to many politicians in the UK who want to cut the overseas aid budget.

Despite savage cutbacks in domestic services in Britain, the government has preserved the overseas aid budget, arguing that it is in the country’s long-term interest to avoid more migration and conflict abroad. The guide makes the government case.

The authors say that by helping people to be more prosperous in their home countries, promoting resilience to climate change and improving the quality of government, then the threats to the UK are reduced.

“The consequences of climate change are felt daily and affect all sectors of development, peacebuilding and humanitarian programming,the guide says.

It quotes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 report that “affirms that the impact of climate change on human wellbeing, peace and security will worsen, especially for the poorest members of society.

Persistent poverty

“Many of the most affected live in fragile states where under-development is intractable. Such communities are afflicted not only by persistent poverty, poor infrastructure, weak natural resource governance or unsustainable resource management, and lack of access to the world market, but also by the fragility of state institutions, political instability, and the effects of recent armed conflict or threat of looming violence.

“In many countries, as climate change interacts with other features of their social, economic and political landscape, there is a high risk of political instability and violent conflict.”

The guide says that many of the existing problems faced by poor and badly-governed communities are made worse by climate change − and ignoring its consequences might render other aid projects useless.

The authors advise that climate change impacts should not be viewed in isolation, but should be seen as part of a much wider effort to prevent conflict over resources such as food and water.

By promoting collaboration on all mutual problems, groups can be brought together to manage the impacts of climate change and the other causes of deprivation. – Climate News Network

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Professors tell greens to accept nuclear power

Professors tell greens to accept nuclear power

Academics argue that nuclear power is essential to save the planet from climate change, but critics say they seem to have forgotten the danger of a nuclear winter.

LONDON, 26 December, 2014 − Seventy-five professors from the world’s leading universities have signed a letter urging environmentalists to re-think their attitude to nuclear power as a way to save the planet from climate change and preserve its animals, plants and fish.

Ironically, it is two Australian academics who came up with the research. They come from a country whose government has repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, reversed measures to cut climate change, is one of the world’s biggest coal exporters, and has no nuclear power. Australia has just recorded the hottest spring since records began 100 years ago.

The two professors are Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania, and Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. Their backers include many leading experts on ecology, biodiversity, evolution and geography from the US, UK, China and India.

The letter is significant because previous pleas for a role for nuclear power have mostly come from physics professors, who could reasonably be said to love the technology for its own sake.

But this group has no stake in nuclear power, and their argument is based purely on the need to save the planet and its species from overheating and excess use of valuable land for renewables. Professors Brook and Bradshaw have had a paper published in the magazine Conservation Biology, in which they evaluated all possible forms of energy generation. Wind and nuclear power had the highest “benefit-to-cost ratio”.

“…we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources…”

The letter urges environmentalists to read the paper, and says the two professors “provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling − as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency.

“This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

“Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position.

“However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change, we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources, using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

“Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels.

Conflict risk

“Nuclear power − being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources − could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.”

The letter has attracted a wide variety of comments. Some are supportive, but others say that the professors have ignored one of the greatest threats to the planet – a nuclear war.

Dr Jim Green, writing in the Ecologist magazine, makes the point that nuclear power and nuclear proliferation go hand in hand:  “Even a modest exchange of nuclear warheads could profoundly affect biodiversity, and large scale nuclear war certainly would.”

Dr Green also attacks the paper for endorsing fast breeder reactor technology as the solution to climate change. He says that the “fast reactor techno-utopia presented by Brook and Bradshaw is theoretically attractive”, but has already been tried unsuccessfully, and cannot be made to work in the real world. – Climate News Network

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Migration merits place at heart of climate debate

Migration merits place at heart of climate debate

Forecasts indicate that many millions of people may be forced to leave their homes in future due to changes in climate, yet this serious issue remains sidelined.

LONDON, 23 December, 2014 − Among all the statistics about temperature increase, polar melting and sea level rise associated with a warming world, the impact on hundreds of millions of people forced to leave their homes due to climate change is often not fully considered.

But the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body set up in the early 1950s to help resettle an estimated 11 million people made homeless in the aftermath of World War Two, is making new efforts to put questions of migration at the centre of the climate change debate.

Forecasts for the number of people who will be forced to move due to climate change vary considerably. At the top end of the scale, there are estimates that up to one billion environmental migrants could be created by mid-century.

The IOM is trying to bring together the various data and research on migration and climate change to better understand the issue, and has recently launched a website dedicated to the topic.

Environmental factors

As part of a new research programme, IOM will initially examine how environmental factors influence migration patterns – and impact on overall policy making – in six countries: Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Mauritius, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

The link between environmental change and migration is complex. Better educational possibilities elsewhere – or the lure of jobs and wages – are often primary reasons for people leaving their homes. Often changes in climate – leading to floods or droughts, and resulting in decreasing crop yields – are just one added factor driving migration.

Migration can be one way people find of adapting to climate change. The IOM says: “Migration in the face of global environmental change may not be just part of the ‘problem’, but can also be part of the solution.”

The six-country study, funded by the European Union, will involve household surveys in places of origin and of destination. The aim is to determine to what degree climate change encourages migration, and also to assess whether migration is a positive or negative factor in the adaptation process.

Remittances to families left at home might be used to build more resilience to climate change – for example, money sent back to villages might be used to buy seeds that are more resistant to drought or flood. On the other hand, migration can mean that farms are left untended, with fewer crops harvested.

The headlines often portray migration in terms of large movements of people across borders, but the bulk of migration takes place within countries – from rural to urban areas. More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities.

“It is evident that gradual and sudden environmental changes are already resulting in substantial population movements”

Environmental migration can be slow to build up as land becomes degraded, soil fertility decreases and water availability shrinks.

But migration can also happen over a relatively short period of time. In China, in a little more than a generation, more than 250 million people have moved from the countryside to cities − mainly in search of work − in what is the biggest mass movement of people in history.

The IOM seeks to integrate climate change factors into migration management and policy making – and wants greater consideration of migration in climate change negotiations.

Legal status

Among the questions it is raising is how environmental migrants should be classified under international law – and whether they should be given the same legal status as, for example, refugees from conflicts and war.

Back in 1990, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made its first detailed assessment of the threat posed by global warming, it said: “The gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.”

Over time, a lack of research and absence of data on issues linking climate change with the movement of people has meant that the topic has become sidelined in successive climate negotiations.

Among the projects the IOM has been working on is an Atlas of Environmental Migration.

“There are no reliable estimates of climate change-induced migration,” the IOM says. “But it is evident that gradual and sudden environmental changes are already resulting in substantial population movements.” – Climate News Network

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Plea for South Asia to unite in fight against climate risks

Plea for South Asia to unite in fight against climate risks

South Asia, one of the world’s most populous and disaster-prone regions, faces dire impacts from climate change. So why are its nations not working together to tackle the many shared threats they face?

LIMA, 8 December, 2014 − The countries of South Asia need to stand together in their efforts to push for more finance from the developed world to help them adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change,  a prominent regional expert says.

Saleemul Huq, from Bangladesh, a lead negotiator for the group of Least Developed Countries told a fringe meeting at the UN climate change conference in Lima, Peru, that South Asia countries face a range of climate-related events.

“Countries in the region must co-ordinate climate action to cope with adverse climate impacts, such as flash floods, forest fires, cyclones, migration and sea-level rise.” said Huq, senior fellow in the Climate Change Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

The South Asia region is home to more than one-fifth of the globe’s population, but is also regarded as one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, Huq told delegates.

Substantial rise

Temperature projections for the region for the 21st century indicate a substantial rise in warming, with recent modelling showing that the warming would be particularly significant in the high Himalayas, on the Tibetan Plateau, and across arid regions of Asia.

“Extreme weather events are also forecast across the region” said Huq. “This is likely to include an increase in the interannual variability of precipitation during the Asian summer monsoon period.”

In turn, Huq said, this will negatively impact on crop yields throughout the region, as already crops in many areas are already being grown at close to their temperature tolerance threshold.

In its latest assessment, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified the South Asia region as one of the areas most vulnerable to warming.

“Developing states have to have technical support in order to hammer out their climate adaptation plans”

In the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau, rates of glacial melting are increasing. The incidence of flooding is likely to grow, although there is the possibility, over the long term, of drought affecting billions of people in one of the most densely-populated areas on Earth.

Co-operation between the region’s countries on climate change is minimal. Pakistan and India, for example, remain deeply suspicious of each other, and data on such key issues as river flows and erosion rates are classified as state secrets.

China and India are competing for water resources, and large-scale dam building programmes in both countries are creating environmental tensions in the region.

Competing interests

Less powerful countries in the area – such as Bangladesh and Nepal – are squeezed between the competing interests of their powerful neighbours.

Harjeet Singh, a New Delhi-based representative of the Action Aid  charity, told delegates that South Asian countries must use their combined influence to pressure world leaders to reach a legally-binding climate agreement in 2015.

Singh told the Climate News Network that a new agreement was a matter of urgency, and  that developed countries must also fulfill their commitments to help developing countries with adaptation measures.

Manjeet Dhakal, a director of the Clean Energy Nepal research organisation, said a new agreement must address the needs of the vulnerable. “The regional countries and other developing states,” he said, “have to have technical support in order to hammer out their climate adaptation plans. They also need the financial support to put those plans into action.” – Climate News Network

  • Saleem Shaikh is a freelance climate change and science journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

With population increasing and food demand far outstripping supply, the Sahel is vulnerable to a new humanitarian crisis − and researchers warn that rising temperatures will only make matters worse.

LONDON, 20 October, 2014 − The Sahel, the arid belt of land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna, is no stranger to drought and famine.

Now scientists in Sweden say the Sahel faces another humanitarian crisis even than in the recent past − with the changing climate partly responsible.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers from Lund University say people in the Sahel need more food, animal feed and fuel every year. But demand, which has more than doubled over a recent 10-year period, is growing much faster than supply.

Fewer resources

Data from 22 countries shows the result: fewer resources per capita and a continued risk of famine in areas with low primary production – that is, the availability of carbon in the form of plant material for consumption as food, fuel and feed.

Human numbers are part of the reason. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the Sahel grew from 367 million to 471 million people − an annual rise of 2.2% over the decade.

But crop production remained essentially unchanged, so the margin between supply and demand for primary production is shrinking every year, while the Sahel’s population is forecast to total nearly a billion people by 2050.

Children's graves at a refugee camp in Kenya during the famine in 2011 Image: Andy Hll/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons
Children’s graves at a Kenyan refugee camp during the 2011 famine
Image: Andy Hall/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons

Some studies suggest that modern plant strains can withstand the effects of drought better than traditional cultivars, although this was not a focus of the Lund team.

They were mainly concerned with the staple crops grown regionally − such as sorghum and millet, which are used as food for people, with the residues used as fodder for livestock − and with the dry woodlands that provide fuel.

They used remote analysis and satellite images to calculate annual crop production in the 22 countries they studied, and compared the figures with data on population growth and consumption of food, animal feed and fuel. This relationship helps to measure a region’s vulnerability.

The study shows that 19% of the Sahel’s total primary production in 2000 was consumed. Ten years later, consumption had increased to 41%.

Reduced harvest

It says several forecasts suggest that harvests will be reduced as a result of the higher air temperatures the region is now experiencing, even though climate change is predicted to result in the Sahel receiving more rain in future.

So, the researchers say, climate change can only increase the vulnerability of the Sahel.

Asked by the Climate News Network whether higher air temperatures alone were likely to cancel the gains from increased rainfall, one of the study’s authors, Hakim Abdi, a doctoral student in physical geography and ecosystem science at Lund, said: “The short answer is yes. Studies indicate that higher temperatures offset both increased rainfall and CO2 fertilisation.

“Additionally, a recent study found that increase in future rainfall in the Sahel, a region where the soil generally receives little nutrient input and is over-exploited, causes nutrient leaching, and hence induces nitrogen stress.

“When we were in our study site in North Kordofan in Sudan, the most common complaint we received from the villages we visited was the lack of water.

“I think that if a drought occurs with an impact that matches or exceeds the ones in 1972/73 or 1982/83, we will see serious consequences − worse impacts than past ones.” − Climate News Network

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Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Biofuels are controversial because they are often produced from food crops or grown on farmland, but a common algae found in abundance around coastlines and clogging up beaches may be the answer.

LONDON, 19 October, 2014 – It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy − about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors” – which look like tiny sealed straws – Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79%. That means that 79 % of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19%. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2 as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79%, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research. – Climate News Network

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