Category Archives: Pollution

China may be ready to kick coal habit

A coal-fired power station at Yangzhou in China's central Jiangsu province Image: Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons
A coal-fired power station at Yangzhou in China’s central Jiangsu province
Image: Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Signs are hopeful that China, the world’s No.1 emitter of greenhouse gases, aims to become less reliant on the polluting coal that powered its rapid economic rise.

LONDON, 5 September, 2014 − There are still doubts. The statistics might be proved wrong. But it looks as if China might be starting to wean itself off its coal consumption habit.

China produces and consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Coal, the most polluting of all energy sources, has powered the growth of China’s flyaway economy. But as incomes have risen, so has pollution. The country is now the world’s No.1 emitter of greenhouse gases.

Latest figures indicate that change is on the way, spurred on by a much-vaunted government “war on pollution” campaign. The state-run National Development and Reform Commission reports that domestic coal output shrank over the first five months of 2014 – the first such decline since the start of China’s rapid economic expansion back in the late 1980s.

Virtual halt

Greenpeace, the environmental NGO, said in a recent analysis of China’s coal sector that growth in coal imports, which had been going up at an annual rate of between 13% and 20% in recent years, has come to a virtual halt.

Meanwhile, the official Xinhua news agency says Beijing – a city of nearly 12 million people – will ban the sale and use of coal in its six main districts by 2020.

Coal-fired factories and power plants around the Chinese capital are being shut down and replaced by natural gas facilities. Coal generated 25% of Beijing’s energy in 2012, and the aim is to bring that figure down to less than 10% by 2017. Other cities and regions are following Beijing’s lead.

Just how meaningful these cutbacks in coal use are is difficult to gauge. Air pollution – much of it caused by the burning of low-grade thermal coal − is not only a big environmental issue in China but also a political one as well.

China’s leaders have promised a population increasingly angry about the low quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink that the government is determined to tackle pollution.

Yet coal-fired power plants are still being built at a considerable pace, and many more are planned.

Some analysts argue that the present slowdown in China’s coal consumption is only temporary, the result of a dip in industrial output that will be reversed as soon as the economy roars ahead again.

Less reliant

Others say the decline in coal consumption is part of a long-term trend. As China’s economy matures, becoming less dependent on heavy industrial goods and embarking on more hi-tech and service-oriented projects, the country will become ever more energy efficient – and less reliant on coal.

China might be the world’s biggest emitter of fossil fuel emissions, but it also has fast become a global leader in hydro, wind and solar power.

No one is suggesting that coal is going to be absent from China’s energy mix anytime soon. The lung-jarring pollution of many of China’s cities is likely still to be evident for some years yet. But coal is no longer king.

That’s bad news for big coal exporters to China, particularly Australia and Indonesia. But it’s potentially good news for millions in China who crave clean air. And it’s very good news for the planet. – Climate News Network

‘Free riders’ undermine climate treaty hopes

Pollution haze over Beijing's Forbidden City Image: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia Commons
Sins of emission: pollution haze over Beijing’s Forbidden City
Image: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Norwegian researchers warn that hopes of getting an effective agreement on climate control will slip further away unless key polluting countries get serious about emissions reductions – and face sanctions if they don’t comply.

LONDON, 23 August, 2014 − An effective treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will probably remain elusive, according to a new research study, because the steps likely to win political agreement would be ineffective, while those that could produce results would be politically unfeasible..

In fact, the Norwegian researchers conclude, the world is actually further away from an effective climate agreement today than it was 15 years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.

The research is the work of a team from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (Cicero) and Statistics Norway, the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Slow progress

The key question the researchers asked was what conditions could achieve an international agreement that would substantially reduce global climate emissions, in view of the extremely slow progress in the UN negotiations. They concluded that there is little basis for optimism.

Professor Jon Hovi, of the University of Oslo and Cicero, headed the project. He says there are three essentials for a robust agreement:

  • It must include all key countries − in other words, all the major emitters.
  • It must require each member country to make substantial emissions cuts.
  • Member countries must actually comply with their commitments.

While emissions cuts benefit all countries, he says, each country must bear the full costs of cutting its own emissions. So each is sorely tempted to act as a “free rider” − to enjoy the gains from other countries’ cuts while ignoring its own obligations.

“Cutting emissions is expensive, and powerful interests in every country proffer arguments as to why that particular country should be exempted,” Professor Hovi explains. “This inclines the authorities of all countries to take decisions that make them free riders.”

The researchers identified five types of free rider. Some countries − the US, for example − never ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Others, such as Canada, ratified it but later withdrew.

Developing countries ratified the Protocol, but it did not require them to make any cuts. The countries of Eastern Europe also ratified Kyoto, but it cost them nothing as their transition from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy meant their economies could not afford to cause significant emissions anyway.

Finally, the team says, some of the countries that accepted relatively deep commitments under Kyoto may have failed to live up to it. The final compliance figures are not yet available.

“Each and every country must be certain
that the other countries are also doing their part.”

“We must eliminate free riding,” Professor Hovi says. “Each and every country must be certain that the other countries are also doing their part. It’s the only viable option.”

He thinks any country avoiding its treaty commitments must face consequences: “Free riding must be met with concrete sanctions. The question is what type of enforcement could conceivably work and, if such a system exists, would it be politically possible to implement it.”

He and his colleagues recommend financial deposits, administered by an international secretariat. At ratification, each country would deposit a significant amount of money, and continue to do so annually until the agreed emissions reductions start. The total amount deposited by each country should match the cost of its commitments.

At the end of the reduction period, those countries that had met their cuts targets would receive a full refund of their deposit, plus interest. Those that had failed to do so would forfeit part or all of it.

Practical problems

But Professor Hovi concedes that not only would there be several practical problems with such a scheme, but there is little chance that it would be adopted anyway, because strict enforcement of an agreement is not politically feasible.

The researchers say that some countries – such as the US – support international systems of enforcement that can safeguard compliance with an agreement. “At the same time, other key countries have stated a clear opposition to potent enforcement measures – either as a matter of principle or because they know that they will risk punishment,” Professor Hovi says.

“For example, China opposes mechanisms that entail international intervention in domestic affairs as a matter of principle. China is not even prepared to accept international monitoring of its own emissions.

“The UN principle of full consensus allows countries opposed to enforcement measures to prevail by using their veto right during negotiations.”

Governments will try to revive hopes that agreement can be reached on an effective climate treaty when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets in Paris late in 2015. − Climate News Network

Health alert over fracking’s chemical cocktails

Gas wells at a fracking site in the US state of Pennsylvania Image: Gerry Dincher via Wikimedia Commons
Deep concerns: gas wells at a fracking site in the US state of Pennsylvania
Image: Gerry Dincher via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have established that some chemicals used in the controversial process of fracking to extract gas and oil could represent health and environmental hazards.

LONDON, 19 August, 2014 − Fracking is once again in trouble. Scientists have found that what gets pumped into hydrocarbon-rich rock as part of the hydraulic fracture technique to release gas and oil trapped in underground reservoirs may not be entirely healthy.

Environmental engineer William Stringfellow and colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of the Pacific told the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco that they scoured databases and reports to compile a list of the chemicals commonly used in fracking.

Such additives, which are necessary for the extraction process, include: acids to dissolve minerals and open up cracks in the rock; biocides to kill bacteria and prevent corrosion; gels and other agents to keep the fluid at the right level of viscosity at different temperatures; substances to prevent clays from swelling or shifting; distillates to reduce friction; acids to limit the precipitation of metal oxides.

Household use

Some of these compounds – for example, common salt, acetic acid and sodium carbonate – are routinely used in households worldwide.

But the researchers assembled a list of 190 of them, and considered their properties. For around one-third of them, there was very little data about health risks, and eight of them were toxic to mammals.

Fracking is a highly controversial technique, and has not been handed a clean bill of health by the scientific societies.

Seismologists have warned that such operations could possibly trigger earthquakes, and endocrinologists have warned that some of the chemicals used are known hormone-disruptors, and likely therefore to represent a health hazard if they get into well water.

Industry operators have countered that their techniques are safe, and involve innocent compounds frequently used, for instance, in making processed food and even ice-cream.

But the precise cocktail of chemicals used by each operator is often an industrial secret, and the North Carolina legislature even considered a bill that would make it a felony to disclose details of the fracking fluid mixtures.

So the Lawrence Berkeley team began their research in the hope of settling some aspects of the dispute.

Real story

Dr Stringfellow explained: “The industrial side was saying, ‘We’re just using food additives, basically making ice-cream here.’ On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?’”.

The story that unfolded was that there could be some substance to claims from both the industry and the environmentalists. But there were also caveats. Eight substances were identified as toxins. And even innocent chemicals could represent a real hazard to the water supply.

“You can’t take a truckload of ice-cream and dump it down a storm drain,” Dr Stringfellow said. “Even ice-cream manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down, rather than releasing them directly into the environment.

“There are a number of chemicals, like corrosion inhibitors and biocides in particular, that are being used in reasonably high concentrations that could potentially have adverse effects. Biocides, for example, are designed to kill bacteria – it’s not a benign material.” – Climate News Network

Tar oil pipeline’s hidden pollution danger

Keystone pipeline protest in Olympia, capital of Washington state, US Image: Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons
Keystone XL pipeline protest in Olympia, capital of Washington state, US
Image: Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

European researchers say a 2,000-mile pipeline designed to carry controversial tar sands oil from Canada to the southern US may lead to much more pollution than previously calculated.

LONDON, 14 August, 2014 − The oil industry has high hopes of the US$5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which on completion is planned to carry crude oil from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to refineries more than 2,000 miles away in Texas.

With President Barack Obama saying he will approve Keystone only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution”, the pipeline’s future is seen by many inside and outside the US as an acid test of his resolve to tackle climate change.

But in a report that questions US State Department calculations of Keystone’s impact, researchers in Europe say it could increase carbon emissions by much more than anyone has so far calculated.

Emissions increase

The research team, from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), says the pipeline could increase world greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 121 million tons of carbon dioxide a year − more than four times higher than the State Department’s estimated total of 30 million tons at most.

The official figure, the SEI says, ignores the fact that the extra oil refined once the pipeline is working will cause prices to fall by about $3 a barrel, increasing consumption and, with it, carbon emissions. The SEI report is published by the journal Nature Climate Change.

To put the possible 121 million ton figure in perspective, the total amount of CO2 emitted globally in 2013 was 36 billion tons.

The American Petroleum Institute said the study was irrelevant because the tar sands would be developed anyway and oil would be transported to the southern refineries by rail if not by pipeline.

But Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology in Washington, while agreeing that the total emissions increase is small, said the concern was more about the idea of boosting emissions than the degree of change.

Tar sands arouse vehement opposition from environment groups and from many communities in Alberta.

Concerns about exploiting the sands include the impact on health and safety, water resources, air pollution and soil damage. Beyond that, some analysts are increasingly arguing that the world cannot afford to burn most of its fossil fuel reserves (including unconventional oil, such as that from tar sands) if it is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Oil prices

The authors of the SEI study, Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus, found that, for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption would increase by 0.6 barrels because of the resulting fall in world oil prices.

Taking other variables into account, they calculated that the net annual impact of Keystone XL could range from virtually nothing to 121 million tons of CO2 equivalent − a spread much wider than that found by the State Department, which did not account for global oil market effects.

“The key message is that the oil market impacts of Keystone XL could be significant – and have an emissions impact four times greater than the US State Department found,” Erickson told Responding to Climate Change, a London-based news and analysis website.

“That also suggests that more of this type of analysis − analysing the possible market effects of other fossil fuel infrastructure projects − could be warranted, as they could have similar effects”. − Climate News Network

Rise in flights will outweigh carbon cuts

Low-cost airlines have led to more travel for leisure Image: Kurush Pawar via Wikimedia Commons
The proliferation of low-cost airlines has driven up demand in leisure travel
Image: Kurush Pawar via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Researchers warn that the cost of airline tickets will need to rise steadily to decrease demand and counteract the effects of aviation’s growing carbon emissions.

LONDON, 8 August, 2014 − The aviation industry insists that it is making only a tiny contribution to global warming, with just 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions coming from its aircraft.

The problem is the speed at which aviation itself is growing. One aircraft builder believes the number of planes in service in 2011 will have doubled by 2031.

Whatever the industry’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, they will be outweighed by the growth in air traffic, even if the most contentious mitigation measures come into force, according to researchers in the UK.

Cut substantially

More aircraft, more flights and more passengers mean more fuel will be burnt and more CO2 emitted − so much more that air traffic growth is likely to prevail over emissions cuts, unless demand for flights is cut substantially.

The researchers, from the University of Southampton, have published their report in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

“There is little doubt that increasing demand for air travel will continue for the foreseeable future,” says co-author and travel expert Professor John Preston. “As a result, civil aviation is going to become an increasingly significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”

The authors have calculated that the ticket price increase needed to drive down demand would value CO2 emissions at up to 100 times the amount of current valuations.

“This would translate to a yearly 1.4% increase on ticket prices, breaking the trend of increasing lower airfares,” says co-author Matt Grote. “The price of domestic tickets has dropped by 1.3% a year between 1979 and 2012, and international fares have fallen by 0.5% per annum between 1990 and 2012.”

However, because any move to suppress demand is likely to be resisted by the airline industry and by governments, the researchers say that a global regulator “with teeth” is urgently needed to enforce CO2 emission cuts.

“Some mitigation measures can be left to the aviation sector to resolve,” says Professor Ian Williams, the head of the Centre for Environmental Science at the university, “For example, the industry will continue to seek improvements to fuel efficiency as this will reduce costs.

“However, other essential measures, such as securing international agreements, setting action plans, regulations and carbon standards, will require political leadership at a global level.”

The literature review conducted by the researchers suggests that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) “lacks the legal authority to force compliance, and therefore is heavily reliant on voluntary co-operation and piecemeal agreements”.

Fuel efficiency

Current targets, set at the most recent ICAO Assembly session in October 2013, include a global average fuel-efficiency improvement of 2% a year (up to 2050), and keeping global net CO2 emissions for international aviation at the same level from 2020.

Global market-based measures have yet to be agreed, while the US plane maker Boeing predicts that the number of aircraft in service in 2011 will have doubled by 2031.

And the aircraft are only one part of aviation’s contribution to warming the planet. Airports themselves are huge emitters of greenhouse gases.

Making flying more expensive will have immense economic and social consequences − if it can be achieved.

In May 2013, the website Air Traffic Management reported that the number of seats offered by low-cost carriers in Europe has increased by an average of 14% per year over the last decade, according to OAG, a leading provider of aviation information and analytical services

This compares with an average annual rise of only 1% in capacity among “legacy carriers” – a term derived from the major airlines that existed before the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act in the US.

Thanks largely to the low-cost airlines, flying for leisure is now seen as an unquestioned right, and the national economies of many travellers’ destinations depend, at least in part, on traffic growing, not slackening. − Climate News Network

Climate data shows clear signs of warming

Wreckage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year Image: Eoghan Rice, Trócaire/Caritas via Wikimedia Commons
Wreckage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year
Image: Eoghan Rice, Trócaire/Caritas via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Hundreds of scientists from 57 countries have fed evidence into a new report that provides a clear picture of how patterns, changes, and trends of the global climate system show that our planet is becoming a warmer place.

LONDON, 24 July, 2014 − However you view the evidence, whatever set of measurements you examine, the picture that emerges is consistent: the Earth is heating up.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports: “In 2013, the vast majority of worldwide climate indicators − greenhouse gases, sea levels, global temperatures, etc − continued to reflect trends of a warmer planet.”

This, NOAA says, is the picture painted by the indicators assessed in a report, State of the Climate in 2013, published online by the American Meteorological Society.

Scientists from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center were the lead editors of the report, compiled by 425 scientists from 57 countries. It provides a detailed update on data collected by monitoring stations and instruments on air, land, sea and ice.

“These findings reinforce what scientists for decades have observed: that our planet is becoming a warmer place,” said the NOAA‘s administrator, Dr Kathryn Sullivan.

Changes tracked

The report tracks patterns, changes, and trends of the global climate system, including: greenhouse gases; temperatures throughout the atmosphere, ocean, and land; cloud cover; sea level; ocean salinity; sea ice extent; and snow cover.

It says greenhouse gases continued to climb, with concentrations of major gases − including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide − once again reaching historically high levels. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose by 2.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2013 and reached a global average of 395.3 ppm for the year.

Many scientists argue that once CO2 concentrations reach 450 ppm it will be difficult to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their level for most of human history. The present rate of increase suggests that, without drastic emission cuts, that threshold will be reached before mid-century.

Four major independent datasets show that 2013 was among the warmest years on record, ranking between second and sixth, depending upon the dataset used. Sea surface temperatures increased to place 2013 among the 10 warmest on record.

Sea level also continued to rise, in step with a trend of 3.2 ± 0.4 mm per year over the past two decades.

The Arctic went on warming , marking its seventh warmest year since records began in the early 20th century. Record high temperatures were measured at a depth of 20 metres at permafrost stations in Alaska.

The Arctic sea ice extent was the sixth lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. All seven lowest sea ice extents on record have occurred in the past seven years.

Contradictory trends

The Antarctic, too, was consistent, even if only in the apparently contradictory trends it showed. The extent of the sea ice reached a record high for the second year in a row, of 7.56 million square miles on October 1 −  0.7% higher than the previous record high of 7.51 million sq miles in 2012 and 8.6% higher than the record low maximum of 6.96 million sq miles in 1986. But the South Pole station experienced its highest temperature since records began in 1957.

The number of tropical cyclones during 2013 was slightly above average, but the North Atlantic Basin had its quietest season since 1994. However, in the Western North Pacific Basin, Super Typhoon Haiyan had the highest wind speed ever known for a tropical cyclone, with one-minute sustained winds estimated at 196 miles per hour. − Climate News Network

  • State of the Climate in 2013 is the 24th edition in a peer-reviewed series published annually as a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Win-win way to aid food security and climate

Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of water Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of irrigation water
Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US believe they have identified a way to feed billions more people, while at the same reducing the strains and stresses on the environment.

LONDON, 23 July, 2014 − Imagine being able to contain greenhouse gas emissions, make fertilizer use more efficient, keep water waste to a minimum, and put food on the table for the 10 billion people crowded into the planet’s cities, towns and villages by the end of the century.

An impossible dream? Not according to Paul West, co-director and lead scientists of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

He and research colleagues report in the journal Science that if government, industry, business and agriculture set about choosing the best crops for local conditions and then used resources in the most efficient way, the world could be fed on existing land with the least damage to the global environment.

Fresh thinking

This is thinking big: the global view of immediate and local problems. The researchers selected three key areas with the greatest potential for reducing environmental damage while boosting food supply. They thought about water use, food waste, greenhouse gas emissions and polluting run-off from farmland and where fresh thinking could make the most difference in the most efficient way.

They focused on cotton and the 16 food crops that produce 86% of the world’s calories from 58% of the global cropland area. They identified a series of what they called “global leverage points”, and those countries where application of such thinking could make the biggest difference.

The first challenge is to produce more food on existing land. They see an “agricultural yield gap” − that is, a difference between what soil actually produces and what it could produce− in many parts of the world.

And they point out that, in those places where the gaps are widest, simply to close even half those gaps would produce more than 350 million tonnes of additional grain and supply the energy needs of 850 million people − most of them in Africa, plus some in Asia and eastern Europe.

Half of these gains could be made in just 5% of the total harvested area of these crops. Co-incidentally, 850 million is very roughly the number of people the UN currently estimates to be severely malnourished.

The researchers based all their calculations on existing conditions, while recognising that climate change could force people to think again. But the study identified ways to grow food most efficiently, while at the same limiting the impact on climate.

Forests cleared

Agriculture is responsible for somewhere between 30% and 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but much of this is because tropical forests are being cleared for farmland. Methane from livestock and from rice fields supplies much of the rest.

Brazil and Indonesia, with the planet’s largest reserves of forest, are places where one set of actions could make a big difference. China and India, which produce more than half the world’s rice, are others.

China, India and the US between them emit more than half of all oxides of nitrogen from the world’s cropland, and wheat, maize and rice account for 68% of these emissions.

Rice and wheat are the crops that create most demand for irrigation, which in turn accounts for 90% of global water consumption. More than 70% of irrigation happens in India, China, Pakistan and the US, and just by concentrating of more efficient use, farmers could deliver the same yield and reduce water demand by 15%.

Crops now grown as animal food could supply the energy needs of 4 billion people, and most of this “diet gap” is in the US, China and Western Europe.

Wasted food

In addition, between 30% and 50% of all food is wasted, and the waste of animal food is the worst. To discard a kilogram of boneless beef is the same as throwing away 24 kilos of wheat. Waste reduction in the US, China and India alone could provide food for an additional 400 million people.

The paper is not a plan of action, but rather an identification of where the firmest concerted action could make the biggest differences.

“By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good,” Dr West says.

“By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment.” – Climate News Network

Germany and UK top “Dirty 30” pollution league

Neurath coal-fired plant, Germany, is one of Europe's worst polluters Image: Bert Kaufmann via Wikimedia Commons
Neurath coal-fired plant, in Germany, is one of Europe’s worst polluters
Image: Bert Kaufmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A new report naming the 30 energy plants pumping out most greenhouse gases in the European Union shows that coal-fired facilities are undermining Europe’s long-term targets on emissions reduction.

LONDON, 22 July, 2014 − It’s not the sort of league table that anyone is proud of leading, but a new report on the European Union’s power sector lists the EU’s 30 most polluting energy plants – all powered by coal.

Germany and the UK tie for first place overall in “Europe’s Dirty 30” league, each having nine of the most polluting power plants, pumping hundreds of tonnes of climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the individual polluting category, the mighty coal-fired Belchatow power plant in Poland tops the league, followed by two facilities in the north of Germany – one at Neurath, and the other at Niederaussen.

The report, which is based on 2013 statistics, is the work of a number of organisations, including Climate Action Network Europe, the World Wildlife Fund and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Low coal prices

The report says the EU’s coal-fired power plants – there are about 350 of them in total – are running at or near full capacity due to relatively low coal prices in Europe compared to other less polluting fuels, such as gas.

Although the EU’s use of coal for power generation has dropped significantly compared to 1990 levels, coal consumption in Europe’s energy sector has been increasing in recent years.

Much of the coal burned in Europe is lignite or hard coal – the most polluting kind. The EU has also been importing large amounts of coal, particularly from the US, where many power producers have been switching to fracked gas – less polluting and, in the US, a cheaper fuel.

The report says the price paid for electricity generated from coal does not reflect the damage it causes to the climate, air quality and human health.

“Europe’s coal addiction is bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, and has no place in our sustainable energy future,” says Christian Schaible, a senior policy officer at the EEB.

Arguing for exemptions

“Significant amounts of emissions could be prevented and reduced if operators would just use state-of-the-art techniques available, instead of arguing for exemptions.

“Environmental standards for power plants should serve to protect the people and the environment in Europe, and must be implemented swiftly to do so.”

The report’s authors point out that recent increases in emissions from the EU’s coal-fired power sector are not due to more coal-fuelled facilities coming on stream, but rather because existing plants are running at full capacity.

Some of these plants are due to be phased out under EU directives on pollution control. The study says this is vital if the EU is to meet its emission reduction targets, centred on cutting overall emissions of greenhouse gases by 40% on 1990 levels by 2030.

But there are signs that short-term economic interests are taking precedence over long-term goals on controlling climate change.

“Current developments in EU energy and climate policy may allow or even incentivise the prolonged operation of coal plants, and thus conflict with the EU’s own climate targets,” the report says. – Climate News Network

US gets tough at last on CO2

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Dying breed: a coal-fired power plant in Virginia, US Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Passing clouds? Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant in Virginia, US
Image: via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The Obama administration has announced what could be its biggest move to tackle climate change − with major emissions cuts on the way in what is seen by some as a policy game-changer for the US

LONDON, 3 June − The US administration led by Barack Obama has promised much and delivered little so far in the battle against climate change.  But that’s all about to change with this week’s announcement by the heavy hitters at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that existing power plants will, for the first time, have to make substantial cuts in their CO2 emissions.

Under the EPA proposal − termed the Clean Power Plan − the US’s 1,900 power plants will have to reduce their emissions by 25% on 2005 levels by 2025 and make a 30% reduction by 2030.

States and their utility companies have one year to submit plans on how they will go about implementing emissions cuts. If such plans are not forthcoming, the EPA has the power to impose its own emissions reduction schemes.

“Climate change, fuelled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy and our way of life,” said Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, announcing the proposal.

“By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe, while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids. We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment – our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation and create jobs.”

No restrictions

Power plants account for about 30% of total US CO2 emissions. Although there are restrictions on the amount of sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other toxic substances the power utilities can emit, there have been no restrictions until now on CO2 emissions.

Other countries − particularly fast-developing China and India − have frequently criticised the US for calling for cutbacks in global CO2 pollution, while doing little to limit its own emissions.

Emissions of CO2 in the US have been falling in recent years – not due to any new regulations, but rather to the switch by many energy companies from coal to the less polluting shale gas.  Only about a third of US power utilities now use coal to fuel their operations.

In Europe, the European Union has set binding targets of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 over 1990 levels, and by 40% by 2030.

The EPA proposal sets various pollution reduction targets for different states, depending on their present levels of CO2 emissions. Some states, such as Illinois and Ohio, are heavily dependent on coal for their electricity supplies. They will be allowed to pollute more than others in the short term, but will have to make big cuts in the years ahead.

As part of a comprehensive package aimed at reducing overall emissions, states and power companies can earn money by trading credits on an ever more active US carbon market.

Fierce opposition

Politically powerful and well-financed groups of climate change sceptics are likely to mount fierce opposition to the EPA proposals. Sections of corporate America have already denounced the plans, saying the proposals will seriously hurt the US economy.

The Obama administration seems ready to counter the critics. Last month, it released its National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming had “moved firmly into the present”.

And President Obama used much of his weekly radio broadcast to the nation last weekend to talk of the dangers of a warming world.

“As President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said.

“The shift to a low carbon economy won’t happen overnight and it will require tough choices along the way. But a low carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come.”  – Climate News Network

Reefs merit protection money

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Waves crash ashore on the Southern Pacific island of Niue Image: Gadfium via Wikimedia Commons

Waves sweep in across coral reefs surrounding the Southern Pacific island of Niue
Image: Gadfium via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The great natural protective barriers that coral reefs provide for millions of people in coastal communities are seriously threatened, but scientists calculate that restoration projects would cost 20 times less than building artificial breakwaters to keep pounding waves at bay

LONDON, 19 May − Coral reefs, under threat around the tropics from the double menace of global warming and ocean acidification, are also natural protection systems for million people. And the importance of that protection is shown in a new scientific study confirming that a coral reef can reduce the energy of a pounding wave by up to 97%.

It is widely known that reef systems offer a natural barrier. But Filippo Ferrario, from the University of Bologna in Italy, and an international team of researchers report in Nature Communications that they decided to try to put a figure on the effectiveness of a living limestone rampart maintained by a tiny animal that is the basis for a rich submarine ecosystem.

They found that the shallowest part of a reef – the crest where the waves break first – dissipates 86% of the wave’s energy, while the whole reef can reduce the sea’s impact by 97%.

And the cost of maintaining a reef − that is, the cost of a reef restoration project − is US$1,290 per metre, compared with an average $19,791 per metre to build an artificial breakwater. That’s almost 20 times cheaper.

First line of defence

“Coral reefs serve as an effective first line of defence to incoming waves, storms and rising seas,” says study co-author Michael Beck, lead marine scientist of the US Nature Conservancy. “Two hundred million people across more than 80 nations are at risk if coral reefs are not protected and restored.”

Dr Ferrario adds “The study illustrates that the restoration of coral reefs is an important and cost-effective solution to reduce risks from coastal hazards and climate change.”

Marine scientists have argued for decades that natural systems such as mangrove forests, sandspits, water meadows and reefs offer protection for coastal cities. A huge proportion of humanity now lives in cities, and many cities have grown up on estuaries, around natural harbours, or on beach fronts − that is, at or near sea level.

Extreme weather

Sea levels will rise inexorably with global warming, and climate change threatens to increase the frequency and the magnitude of extreme weather events. There have been warnings that, by the end of the century, coastal flooding could cost up to a trillion dollars a year.

But the natural reefs that have offered shelter for so many people – for example, an estimated 41 million in Indonesia, 36 million in India, and 23 million in the Philippines – are under stress from pollution and overfishing.

Corals are also sensitive to rising water temperatures. And, although there is some evidence that some corals can adapt, there are serious concerns about the consequences of change in water chemistry as more and more atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolves in the oceans. – Climate News Network