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The energy revolution is in reverse

April 18, 2014 in Climate, Emissions reductions, Energy, Fossil fuels, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Mitigation, Nuclear power, Policy, Shale Gas, Subsidies, Warming

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Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual
Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

By Henner Weithöner

The UN climate panel’s prescription for tackling climate change is admirably clear. The problem is that the world is heading in precisely the opposite direction.

BERLIN, 18 April – Keeping the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels will not be prohibitively expensive, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, though it won’t be easy.

There’s just one problem: the atmospheric facts show that the world is not simply ignoring the IPCC. It’s moving smartly away from the clean energy future that the Panel says is attainable towards an inexorably hotter and more risky future.

Reaching the target will mean cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% over 2010 levels by mid-century, the IPCC report says. Yet what is happening at the moment is the exact opposite: average global emissions rose by a billion tonnes a year between 2000 and 2010, faster than ever before.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change as cheaply as possible, the report urges an energy revolution to end the dominance of fossil fuels. The IPCC says  investments in renewable energy need to triple, with subsidies to fossil fuels declining and a switch to natural gas to help countries to get rid of coal.

The path to lower emissions may cost the energy giants dear, the IPCC acknowledges. “Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters,” Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, which produced the report, told a public meeting here. “To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”

‘Negligible’ cost

Another controversial point is the report’s inclusion of nuclear power as a low-carbon option (it acknowledges that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns). The report also advocates carbon capture and storage (CCS), noting that it remains untested on a large scale.

But the IPCC insists that diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. “Statistically you won’t notice,” said Dr Ryer Gerlagh, a co-ordinating lead author on the economics chapter of the report.

Li Shuo of Greenpeace China said: “Science has spoken: climate action is no burden, it’s an opportunity. As renewable energies are growing bigger, better and cheaper every day, the age of dangerous and polluting coal, oil and gas is over. The only rational response to this report is to start the phase-out of fossil fuels immediately.”

Wrong direction

Global temperatures have risen about 0.8°C since record-keeping started in 1850. Current pledges by governments to reduce emissions by 2020 have set the world on a path to between 3 and 5°C of warming by 2100, the IPCC says.

The Working Group III contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of the options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions. It may have shown that those options exist and are affordable. But that is very far from showing that governments can be persuaded to use them. – Climate News Network

Henner Weithöner is a freelance journalist in Berlin specialising in renewable energy and climate change.

‘Forget the cost – tackle climate anyway’

April 3, 2014 in Climate finance, Integrated Assessment Models, IPCC, Mitigation, Policy

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Devastation surrounds Table Mountain: "Act on climate change at any cost to keep a habitable world" Image: Dewet via Wikimedia Commons

Devastation surrounds Table Mountain: “Act on climate change at any cost to keep a habitable world”
Image: Dewet via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Forget the cost of mitigating climate change, say two researchers. It’s impossible to work out how much it will be – and whatever it is, we should do it anyway.

LONDON, 3 April – Two researchers who tried to work out the economics of  reducing global climate change to a tolerable level have come up with a perhaps surprising answer: essentially, we do not and cannot know what it would cost.

Even more surprising, probably, is their conclusion: not knowing is no excuse for not acting. “Mitigating climate change must proceed regardless of long-run economic analyses”, they conclude, “or risk making the world uninhabitable.”

Their report, entitled The economics of mitigating climate change: What can we know?,is published online in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

The pair are Dr Rich Rosen, who specialises in energy system planning and is a senior fellow of the Tellus Institute, based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Edeltraud Guenther, professor of environmental management and accounting at Dresden University of Technology in Germany.

In a densely-argued analysis of the long-term economics of mitigating climate change they say various kinds of uncertainties raise serious questions about whether or not the net costs and benefits of mitigation over periods as long as 50 years or a century can be known accurately enough to be useful to policymakers and citizens.

Crisis ‘trumps uncertainty’

Technological change, especially for energy efficiency technologies, is a key factor in making the net economic results of mitigation unknowable over the long term, they argue. So policymakers should not base mitigation policy on the estimated net economic impacts computed by integrated assessment models (IAM – models which combine scientific and economic insights).

Instead, “mitigation policies must be forcefully implemented anyway given the actual physical climate change crisis, in spite of the many uncertainties involved in trying to predict the net economics of doing so”.

This argument directly challenges the many politicians and others who insist that governments should adopt policies designed to limit climate change only if they can make a strong economic case for doing so. Essentially, it shifts the ground of the debate from “what is affordable?” to “what is survivable?”

The authors say economic analyses of mitigating climate change rely on flawed sets of IAM results, which are invalidated by uncertainty over future technologies and their costs. They also believe changes in production and consumption patterns will affect mitigation costs.

‘Meaningless’ results

They write: “Since the Western lifestyle can probably not serve as a role model for the life styles of the nine billion people likely to inhabit our planet by 2050, significant but unpredictable changes to consumption and production patterns not incorporated in existing IAMs are likely to occur, adding another layer of uncertainty to the economic calculations made by these IAMs for the net costs and benefits of mitigating climate change.”

“The IPCC and other scientific bodies should no longer report attempts at calculating the net economic impacts of mitigating climate change…”

The authors do not hide their scorn for the results provided by existing IAM scenarios. These, they write, are “not useful because even the simplest comparison of model results yields meaningless results — the uncertainties are too profound.”

They end by posing a question: “Should these findings and conclusions about the inadequacies of current IAMs really matter to policymakers who are trying to figure out when, and to what extent, to implement effective climate change mitigation policies?

Their response is terse: “Our answer is ‘no’, because humanity would be wise to mitigate climate change as quickly as possible without being constrained by existing economic systems and institutions, or risk making the world uninhabitable.” – Climate News Network

Low-flatulence livestock can cool planet

January 18, 2014 in Agriculture, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Livestock, Methane, Mitigation

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Eating for a cooler world? Animals' diets are one factor that could cut methane emissions Image: Courtesy of Yaron P

Eating for a cooler world? Animals’ diets are one factor that could cut methane emissions
Image: Courtesy of Yaron P

By Tim Radford

Farmers may be able to rear livestock which produce fewer emissions from their stomachs of methane, one of the most important greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 18 January – Stand by for a new breed of farm animal – the low-methane cow. European scientists are collaborating in a bid to find a cow that makes the same milk, but manages to do so while emitting lower levels of natural gas from the ruminant stomach.

Methane is a fact of farm life: cows eat grass, hay and silage, and then proceed to digest it with help from an arsenal of stomach and gut microbes. But methane is also a potent greenhouse gas (GHG): weight for weight it is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century.

About a fifth of all GHG emissions from agriculture are directly released from the stomachs of the world’s cattle herds. And a consortium called RuminOmics has launched research into every aspect of animal husbandry in an attempt to lower the methane productivity while keeping up the dairy output.

Phil Garnsworthy is a dairy scientist at the University of Nottingham, UK, and one of the project partners. He reasons that cattle vary quite dramatically in the levels of methane from their stomachs, so it would be possible to imagine a dairy herd that produced the same volume of milk while reducing their gaseous discharges.

There are other factors: as every human knows too well, gas output is linked to diet. “It is possible to imagine cutting emissions from cattle by a fifth, using a combination approach in which you would breed from lower-emitting cattle as well as changing their diets”, said Professor Garnsworthy.

More profitable

Inheritance, too, may play a role. “There are three issues: diet, genetics and the microbiology of the cow’s rumen”, says Lorenzo Morelli of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza, Italy. “We think that animal genetics may well influence their gut microbiology. However, this link has not been proved and we are still in the data collection phase.”

Most animal husbandry research has concentrated on raising animal productivity and fertility. But lower methane output could join the list of desired characteristics. There could even be a direct pay-off for the herdsmen.

“The methane is lost energy that could go into producing milk”, says Morelli. “So if we can find the right genetic mix, we can find cattle that are less polluting, more productive, and more profitable for the farmer.”

Methane is a short-lived gas: it stays in the atmosphere for about 10 years. Carbon dioxide – always the dominant greenhouse gas – is released in far greater quantities, and a molecule of carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about 100 years.

Multiple gains

But the same volume of methane over a 20-year period will trap 70 times the heat that carbon dioxide retains, so any serious reduction in methane output could make a significant difference to the pace of climate change. Some scientists have argued that it would be better simply to reduce the herds, rather than their digestive output.

In December an international team argued in the journal Nature Climate Change that since methane was the second most abundant GHG, one of the most effective ways to cut output would be to reduce global populations of ruminant livestock – sheep, goats, camels and buffalo as well as cattle are all ruminants.

Globally, they argued, the numbers of ruminant livestock had risen by 50% in the last 50 years, and now about 3.6 billion animals were grazing on about one quarter of the Earth’s land area. Furthermore, a third of all arable land was used to grow feed for these animals.

“Cutting the number of ruminant livestock could have additional benefits for food security, human health and environmental conservation involving water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity”, said Peter Smith of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, one of the authors. – Climate News Network

OECD states cut emissions too slowly

January 14, 2014 in Economy, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation, OECD, Pollution

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Gridlock in Dakar:  The growth in vehicle numbers has outweighed better engine efficiency Image: Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons

Gridlock in Dakar: The growth in vehicle numbers has outweighed better engine efficiency
Image: Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The club of the world’s richest countries admits that its members are failing to prevent dangerous climate change, despite their eforts to rein in pollution.

LONDON, 14 January – The world’s richest countries have made some progress since the 1990s in limiting environmental damage. But they have not done enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, according to the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Scientists say that carbon dioxide emissions need to start going down in the next decade to prevent global temperatures reaching dangerous levels. But the OECD predicts that levels of carbon dioxide will continue to rise and by 2050 will be 50% higher than today.

The 34 OECD countries in the survey are mainly the older mature economies which in the 1970s produced well over half the world’s CO2 emissions from their factories and transport. Now the OECD share of total world emissions has dropped to 30%, but only because of the vast increase in the energy use of China and other high-growth countries like Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and South Africa.  These now account for 40% of global emissions on their own.

More vehicles

There is some good news in the report. Some OECD countries have both increased production and reduced CO2 emissions by introducing renewables and energy efficiency.

The problem for those that fail to do so appears to be political, with countries like Australia and Canada, which have repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, apparently also abandoning most policies to combat climate change.

The report, Environment at a Glance 2013, says that on average there has been progress. Since 1990 there has been a drop of 25% in the amount of energy required to produce a unit of production in member countries, but this is well short of what is needed to safeguard the planet.

The report, which reviews OECD members’ efforts to combat climate change by reducing fossil fuel use, says that the overall energy mix has barely changed in 20 years. There is still an 80% reliance on fossil fuels, although there has been a lot of switching from coal to gas, which does reduce emissions.

Renewable energy is still only 9% of the total energy supply. Another problem is the increasing demand for transport. Smaller, more efficient engines are failing to offset a 17% increase in vehicle numbers.

Rejecting Kyoto

The major political driver for reducing emissions since 1997 has been the Kyoto Protocol. Countries which made pledges to reduce emissions, principally those in the expanded European Union, have made most progress.

This is partly due to the economic recession and exporting some dirty industries to China and other developing countries, but domestic efficiency measures and switching to renewables has helped.

Among the worst performing countries are those that made pledges under the Kyoto Protocol and subsequently abandoned them for political reasons – the United States, Canada and Australia.

The top four countries in the per capita emissions table (the amount of CO2 emitted for each person in a country) has Australia in the lead and Luxembourg second, followed by the United States and Canada.

Positive note

Luxembourg makes the list only because of its low taxes on fuel, which mean that motorists from neighbouring countries fill up their cars at its petrol pumps and then drive back over the border.

Australia relies heavily on coal burning to power its industry and also exports large quantities of coal to China. The new government turned its back on international efforts to combat climate change last year. Canada had previously done the same, deciding instead to exploit its tar sands for oil production, involving high-energy use.

The United States has high per capita carbon emissions because of the lavish lifestyles of its citizens and a powerful Republican lobby that supports the fossil fuel industry and blocks any attempt to combat climate change.

On what the OECD calls “a positive note”, its members have slashed emissions of sulphur oxides by 69% since 1990 and of nitrogen oxide by 36% in the same period.

Sulphur oxides, in various forms, are a chief cause of acid rain and a potent greenhouse gas. Nitrogen oxides are also a contributor to climate change and low level ozone, which damages plants and buildings and irritates human lungs.

These reductions have been possible because of political action, showing that it is not the lack of technology that prevents the world tackling climate change but the lack of will and legislation. – Climate News Network

2013 ‘will mark continued rise of CO2′

December 30, 2013 in Carbon Budget, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation

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The coal-fired power station at Drax in the North of England: Coal is still the world's biggest source of CO2 Image: Paul Glazzard via Wikimedia Commons

The coal-fired power station at Drax in the North of England: Coal is still the world’s biggest source of CO2
Image: Paul Glazzard via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The world’s emissions of the main greenhouse gas produced by human activities, carbon dioxide, in 2013 are expected to be nearly two-thirds higher than in 1990.

LONDON, 30 December  – Global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to hit 36 billion tonnes in 2013, according to new research from the University of East Anglia in the UK. This is a small rise – an estimated 2.1% – on 2012, but it will be 61% above the levels in 1990, which is the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol was agreed by most of the world’s concerned nations, anxious to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and contain warming to a global average of 2°C. So the 2013 carbon budget is not being hailed as a great success.

“Governments meeting in Warsaw this week need to agree on how to reverse this trend,” said Corinne Le Quéré of the university’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, who led the Global Carbon Budget report for 2013, compiled by 49 authors from 10 countries. She was speaking before the start of last month’s UN climate talks in the Polish capital.

“Everyone can explore their own emissions, and compare them with their neighbouring countries…”

“Emissions must fall substantially and rapidly if we are to limit global climate change to below two degrees. Additional emissions every year cause further warming and climate change.”

The Tyndall Centre has also launched the Global Carbon Atlas, an online platform that identifies the biggest carbon emitters. “Everyone can explore their own emissions, and compare them with their neighbouring countries – past, present and future,” said Professor Le Quéré.

China is the biggest contributor, with 23%, followed by the US at 14% and the European Union at 10% and India at 6%. Emissions per person put these figures into another perspective: people in China and in the EU each released seven tonnes per head in 2012. The US remains the highest emitter with 16 tonnes per capita; people in India, by comparison, release only 1.8 tonnes each.

Coal remains the biggest source of carbon dioxide at 43%; oil 33%, gas 18% and cement 6.3%. Since 1870, humans have released 2,105 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – 70% from fossil fuels and 30% by chopping down forests and changing the patterns of land use. – Climate News Network

Historic CO2 emissions require cuts now

November 21, 2013 in Black Carbon, Cumulative Emissions, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Methane, Mitigation, Warming

EMBARGOED until 0800 GMT on Thursday 21 November

Accumulated CO2 emissions are still able to influence future temperatures Image: Photographic Collection from Australia via Wikimedia Commons

Accumulated CO2 emissions are still able to influence future temperatures
Image: Photographic Collection from Australia via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The amount of carbon dioxide that has already built up in the atmosphere is helping to accelerate the pace at which the Earth is warming, two scientists say.

LONDON, 21 November – Two scientists urge the world to start reducing greenhouse emissions right now. There’s no time to be lost, they argue in Nature Climate Change. Future global temperatures depend on how much carbon dioxide has accumulated in the atmosphere, so as emissions increase, so does the rate of warming.

The reasoning by Myles Allen, of the University of Oxford in the UK, and Thomas Stocker, of the University of Bern in Switzerland, is complex. They are concerned with what they call peak-committed warming: how high the temperature can or is likely or is permitted to go.

Governments of the world have subscribed in principle to the proposition that they would like to limit global warming to 2°C above the levels before the Industrial Revolution, but to do this they will have to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, these are increasing.

Allen and Stocker warn that that peak CO2-induced warming is currently increasing at the same rate as cumulative CO2 emissions themselves. “At almost 2% per year, it is much faster than observed warming,” they say.

Their argument involves some fairly complex mathematics but some very-easy-to-understand assumptions. One assumption is that if the world starts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions right now, then peak warming will occur later in the century.

If governments delay action, and carry on for a limited period with what has become known as the “business-as-usual” scenario, then peak warming will arrive all the sooner.

“If we are aiming for peak warming of around 2°C, then as long as emissions are increasing at 1.8-1.9% per year, every year’s delay in reducing emissions increases peak warming by 1.8-1.9% of 2°C, or 0.04°C.

Delay is expensive

“If the same effort required in 2010 to limit CO2-induced warming to 2°C were applied starting in 2015, the resultant peak would be 10% higher, at 2.2°C,” they say. “Given the complexities of the climate issue, simple rules of thumb like this are a valuable way of comparing the impact of climate policies.”

In effect, the longer governments delay action, the more drastic such action must be in years to come, and the higher the average global temperatures will be when the world stops warming, and climates stabilise.

Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas, because it is long-lived, and because it is released in huge quantities from every combustion engine, from every fireplace, and from most of the world’s power-generating plants.

But it is not the only warming gas. Methane and black carbon – both of which are released by human action – also warm the planet. Methane doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere all that long, but weight for weight it is more than 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a century.

In a second perspective essay in Nature Climate Change Myles Allen and five colleagues argue that there are very good reasons for reducing emissions of short-lived pollutants – both economic reasons and health reasons – but doing so will not buy time for the planet, unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced at the same time.

“Even under the 2°C stabilization scenario, the combined impact of methane and black carbon emissions over the decade 2010 to 2020 is expected to increase the most likely peak warming by less than a few hundredths of a degree,” they say. In contrast, long-lived climate pollutant emissions such as carbon dioxide will contribute around 10 times that.- Climate News Network

Warsaw – Day 5: Dismay as Japan abandons greenhouse targets

November 15, 2013 in Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Japan, Mitigation, Nuclear power, UNFCCC

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Fossil of the Day award for the land of the steeply rising emissions Image: Courtesy of Jessly Obando

Fossil of the Day award in Warsaw for the land of the steeply rising emissions
Image: Courtesy of Jessly Obando

By Paul Brown in Warsaw

One of the Climate News Network editors, Paul Brown, is in the Polish capital, host of the UN climate talks – the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He reports on the deep dismay which greeted the news that Japan’s emissions will increase much faster than expected. 

Japan has shocked delegates at the UN Climate Conference here by abandoning its plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 and says instead it will increase them by 3.1%.

The announcement, made in Tokyo in the middle of the night Warsaw time, used the shutdown of the nuclear industry in Japan following the Fukushima accident as a reason for abandoning the 25% target. But environment groups condemned this as a mere excuse.

Japan’s decision came at the end of the first week of negotiations in Warsaw, during which civil servants have been preparing for the arrival of government ministers by shaping the first drafts of agreements to provide new funding to developing countries to help them to adapt to climate change. They have also been working towards a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020.

Some of the delegates here were alarmed by Japan’s announcement. China’s negotiator in Warsaw, Su Wei, said of the revised target: “I have no way of describing my dismay.”

Following the Fukushima accident in March 2011 50 nuclear reactors in Japan were closed amid safety concerns, accounting for 26% per cent of the country’s electricity generation.

As old fossil fuel plants were fired up to replace the nuclear stations, total carbon dioxide emissions began to grow and the Japanese Government announced it would review its 2020 targets.

Trampling corpses

The Government tried to dress up the announcement as a reduction in emissions by saying the new target for 2020 was 3.8% below the 2005 level. Campaigners pointed out that the old target was 25% below 1990 levels, so on that baseline the new target represented a 3.1% increase by 2020.

Following Canada’s repudiation of the Kyoto agreement two years ago and Australia’s decision earlier this week to abandon its renewable energy targets and other efforts to cut fossil fuel consumption, there was dismay in Warsaw at Japan’s news.

Wael Hmaidan, of Climate Action Network International (CAN), said:“It is unbelievable that this is happening. After the suffering in the Philippines the likes of Australia and Japan are trampling on the corpses of the dead.”

Kimiko Hirata, a Japanese representative of CAN, said “Japan is betraying these talks; this is very very disappointing, totally unhelpful, not to say destructive.”

Fossil of the day

She was particularly alarmed that the decision had been announced in the middle of the climate talks after more than two years of deliberations. “The government process has been totally without transparency. OK, 50 plants were shut down, but emissions only rose by 7.5% overall.

“This is just an excuse. Japan could still reduce emissions by 2020, I only hope that there will be such an internal and international reaction that the Government will reconsider.”

Japan was awarded the “fossil of the day” award by non-government organisations, reserved for the nation judged to have done most to obstruct progress at the climate talks.

It was clear that the Japanese representatives at the talks were not wholly comfortable at the decision either. Their chief negotiator, Hiroshi Minami, speaking at a press conference to explain the decision was challenged by a fellow-countryman to tell the young of his country what the decision meant.

He said: “That is up to the Japanese people to judge. This is very difficult personally, this is a serious matter and I have great sympathy, but as a bureaucrat I cannot answer the question.”

As well as announcing its changed target, Japan pledged that it would provide $16 billion by 2015 to help poor nations reduce their emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, such as higher sea levels and more droughts.

Hiroshi Minami said the aid will be a mix of grants and loans, with $13 billion coming from the Government and the rest from the private sector. – Climate News Network

Mind the climate gap – it’s got wider

November 5, 2013 in Africa, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation

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Smoky sunset: Greenhouse gas emissions are not falling - they're climbing steadily Image: US National Archives & Redords Administration via Wikimedia Commons

Smoky sunset: Greenhouse gas emissions are not falling – they’re climbing steadily
Image: US National Archives & Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The shortfall between what governments say they will do to cut greenhouse gases and what actually needs to be done by 2020 is growing steadily bigger, the UN says.

LONDON, 5 November – The United Nations says it is “less and less likely” that global greenhouse gas emissions will be low enough by 2020 to stop the atmosphere warming beyond the internationally-agreed safety threshold – 2°C above its pre-industrial level.

A report by the UN Environment Programme says current undertakings by world governments to cut emissions fall short of that goal, and emissions “continue to rise rather than decline”.

The report, The Emissions Gap Report 2013, is the fourth in an annual series. It defines the gap as the difference between the emission levels in 2020 necessary to meet climate targets, and the levels expected that year if countries fulfil their promises to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs).

After 2020, the report says, “the world will have to rely on more difficult, costlier and riskier means of meeting the target… If the gap is not closed or significantly narrowed by 2020, the door to many options to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C at the end of this century will be closed…” [1.5° is the more stringent limit urged by many governments].

Pledges too low

The report warns that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, GHG emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would give a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway to the 2°C target.

A gigatonne is a thousand million tonnes. “GtCO2e” is an abbreviation for “gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide”. It is a simplified way to put emissions of various GHGs on a common footing by expressing them in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same global warming effect.

Emissions as high as that in seven years’ time would mean a need for much higher rates of emission cuts in the medium term; the building of more carbon-intensive infrastructure, which will not be replaced for decades; and more dependence on unproven technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), whose future remains uncertain. Above all, the risk of failing to meet the 2°C target will be greater.

Total global GHG emissions in 2010, the last year for which data are available, were 50.1 GtCO2e. If the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, 1 GtCO2e higher than estimated in last year’s Gap Report.

High stakes for Africa

Further ahead, to be on track to the 2°C target, emissions should be at most 44 GtCO2e by 2020 and 22 GtCO2e by 2050. The benefits could be huge: a separate UNEP report finds that adaptation costs for Africa could reach $350 billion per year by 2070 if the 2°C target is significantly exceeded, while the cost would be $150 billion lower each year if it was met.

UNEP says ambitious and rapid action could still lead to meeting the 2020 goal of 44 GtCO2e. As well as tightening the rules governing how emissions are measured and implemented, it recommends a drive on energy efficiency, renewable energy and reform of fossil fuel subsidies.

It singles out the potential saving from agriculture, which it says accounts for 11% of global direct GHG emissions  – and more if indirect emissions are included too.

The report says three key practices could cut agricultural emissions significantly; eliminating ploughing, to cut emissions from soil disturbance; improved nutrient and water management in rice production; and wider use of agroforestry, involving growing trees on farms. – Climate News Network

Mangrove map pinpoints carbon riches

October 19, 2013 in Climate, Greenhouse Gases, Marine ecology, Mitigation, Science, Vegetation changes, Warming

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A dense mangrove forest at Vashi Creek, near Mumbai,India Rudolph A Furtado via Wikimedia Commons

Packed with potential: a dense mangrove forest at Vashi Creek, near Mumbai, India
Image: Rudolph A Furtado via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Worldwide study of mangrove swamps’ carbon storage capacity will help scientists identify where efforts should be focused to protect these rich resources for climate change mitigation

LONDON, 19 October – Scientists have known for centuries that mangroves are one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth. Now that knowledge has been refined with the development of a map and model that pinpoint just how much carbon is stored in different mangrove areas around the world.

The discovery, published in Conservation Letters, will be of practical use because understanding this variability is critically important in developing policies and setting priorities to safeguard the carbon stores, and possibly expanding them.

The new model used by the researchers enabled them to map the variations among the world’s mangrove forests and pinpoint those areas with the most carbon.

All mangroves are important for storing carbon, but some that ranked particularly high in the study include forests in Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea, on the Pacific coast of Colombia, and in Northern Ecuador.

Mark Spalding, principal investigator on the project and a marine scientist at the US-based worldwide conservation organisation The Nature Conservancy, says: “These results can help guide decisions regarding priority areas for the conservation and rehabilitation of mangroves for climate change mitigation.”

Laying foundations

The model is built on the work of field scientists and draws on studies from 35 countries. “This hard work on the ground by researchers lays the foundation for the task of modelling,” says the report’s lead author, James Hutchison, research assistant with the Department of Zoology’s Conservation Science Group at Cambridge University, UK.

“But it is through the combination of their many stories that we can build up a bigger picture and extrapolate to areas where no one has actually worked.”

Mangroves, like all plants, capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves, roots and trunks (their biomass), and in the soil. However, unlike most other forests, mangrove soils do not have a maximum storage capacity, but keep on storing carbon in the soil, for centuries or even millennia.

In this way, mangroves actively contribute to mitigating climate change by continuously removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Carbon traps

Mangroves are also extremely productive ecosystems – more so than most other tropical forests. This means that they can increase their biomass faster and trap more carbon than their counterparts.

The researchers’ model indicates that mangroves contain 1.6% of the total tropical forest biomass, even though they occupy only 0.6% of the total tropical forest area.

When mangrove forests are cut down for timber, or converted to agriculture or to aquaculture ponds, almost all their carbon is released into the atmosphere. Their very high biomass means that clearing even small tracts of mangrove generates high volumes of CO2.

Spalding says: “Mangroves provide timber, fish resources and coastal protection functions worth millions of dollars. Maintaining these ecosystems is an absolute win-win strategy.”

But the mangroves are being lost far faster than most other forest types worldwide. The Nature Conservancy is working with the global not-for-profit organisation Wetlands International to document the ecosystem services provided by mangroves and to find ways to manage them that maximise those services. – Climate News Network

Cutting carbon means better health

September 22, 2013 in Disease, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation, Pollution

EMBARGOED until 1700 GMT on Sunday 22 September

Haze in the Chinese port of Tianjin: Action now can save lives and money Image: Arrorro via Vikimedia Commons

Haze in the Chinese port of Tianjin: Action now can save lives and money
Image: Arrorro via Vikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers in the US say that millions of lives could be saved by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced.

LONDON, 22 September – If the world does take concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then by 2100 between 1.4 million and three million people a year will be conspicuously better off: they won’t be dead.

Jason West of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the US, and colleagues took a long, cool look at the health consequences of climate mitigation, and report that as carbon dioxide emissions fall, so do levels of fine particulate matter and ozone.

These incidental by-products of fossil fuel combustion are notorious health hazards, and can impose huge health costs on society. But some air pollution would be a direct result of climate change, and slowing this, too, would have a global health payoff.

The authors report in Nature Climate Change that in US dollar terms, for every tonne of carbon dioxide emissions saved, the world would be somewhere between $50 and $380 richer.

Calculations like these are bewildering, hard to resolve with plausible accuracy and of course cannot be checked for another eight decades.

Most of the notional sufferers are not yet born, and some would suffer and die from respiratory problems anyway. The potential deaths remain just that: potential but also potentially avoidable deaths of unidentifiable future citizens.

But such calculations are important for government planning – every decision both imposes costs and delivers benefits, and politicians need to have some sense of which are likely to be greater.

There have been arguments that attempts at climate mitigation would be expensive and, ultimately, more trouble than they are worth. So Dr West and colleagues confined their study to just the immediate incidental benefits of reduced emissions.
They thought about the rise in international transport, the effect of methane on global ozone levels, and future population projections.

They did not try to calculate the value of limiting sea level rise, or containing the spread of tropical and subtropical diseases into the temperate zones, or the extra deaths through increased hazards of flood and drought and heat wave in a warmer world.

Prompt action pays

They just looked at the incidental pollutants that accompany fossil fuel combustion, and started doing the sums.

They considered those regions where there were already high pollution levels and low governmental controls; they considered the age groups likely to cough and choke in an atmosphere of low level ozone, aerosols and fine soot particles; and they considered a series of climate projections in which emissions were reduced, or not reduced very much, or not at all; and then arrived at a set of likely deaths per year for the decades to come.

They also took into account political possibilities: the likelihood, for instance, that legislation in both East Asia and South Asia would start to limit air pollution, as governments began to do decades ago in Europe and the US.

And they concluded that there was clear value in action now: a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would save lives and save money around the planet.

By 2030, somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000 premature deaths a year could be avoided: two thirds of them in China alone.

By 2100, real action could prevent 2.2 million premature deaths a year – it could be 800,000 more, it could be 800,000 fewer. But the money saved in the first decades for health services alone by reducing emissions would be greater than the overall economic price of mitigation.

The authors conclude that there is a clear need to coordinate action on air quality and climate change: “By addressing both problems simultaneously, they may be managed more effectively, at less cost, and with greater overall benefits.” – Climate News Network