Category Archives: Pollution

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

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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

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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

Ozone rise will choke US cities

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Smog shrouds the skyline of Los Angeles Image: Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

Blurred vision: smog shrouds the skyline of Los Angeles
Image: Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Poor air quality and health problems will become the summertime norm throughout the US as scientists predict a 70% rise in ground-level ozone − unless action is taken to cut emissions

LONDON, 18 May − Stand by for long, hot North American summers of smarting eyes, tickling throats, asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. And crops could also suffer, because ground-level ozone pollution is likely to increase in the US.

Gabriele Pfister, an atmospheric scientist at the US National Center for Atmosphere Research in Colorado, and research colleagues report in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres that Americans face a rise of 70% in summertime ozone levels by 2050.

Ozone is a form of oxygen that, in the stratosphere, protects life by absorbing dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but at ground level it is a serious component of air pollution and urban smog.

Rising temperatures, and the attendant growth of short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane and oxides of nitrogen, could turn local atmospheres into a photochemical crucible that will spur a cascade of chemical reactions and lead to higher incidence of ground-level ozone.

Unhealthy air

Almost all of the US is likely to suffer at least a few days each year of unhealthy air. The big conurbations of the East, the Midwest and the West Coast could be choking and gasping for most of the summer.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the United States – climate change has the potential to make your air worse,” says Dr Pfister. “A warming planet doesn’t just mean rising temperatures. It means risking more summertime pollution, and the health impacts that come with it.”

She and her research colleagues looked at two possibilities. One is the notorious “business as usual” scenario, in which nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from human industry go on as they have in the past. In the other, they assumed that humans would take action and cut emissions of these compounds.

Significant warming

In both scenarios, they allowed for more carbon dioxide emissions, and more significant warming. They used a new supercomputer to simulate pollution levels hour by hour for 39 hypothetical summers, under a range of meteorological conditions.

In the first option, they found that the number of eight-hour periods in which ozone would exceed 75 parts per billion –  the threshold considered unhealthy by the US Environmental Protection Agency  – would increase on average by 70% across the US by 2050.

In the second scenario, even with continued climate change, cases of ozone pollution would drop dramatically − to less than one per cent of the current experience.

“Reducing emissions of ozone precursors would have an enormous effect on the air we all breathe,” Pfister said. – Climate News Network

Be a demitarian and cool the climate

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Tempted? Many people consume more meat and other animal products than is good for them - and for the atmosphere Image: Donar Reiskoffer via Wikimedia Commons

Tempted? Many people consume more meat and other animal products than is good for them – and for the climate
Image: Donar Reiskoffer via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

If the people of Europe could halve their consumption of animal products, researchers say, they would be much healthier and so would the atmosphere.

LONDON, 27 April – We are what we eat? Probably – and what’s true for us is, for better or worse, true for the atmosphere too. New evidence suggests that halving the amount of animal products people eat in Europe would not only make them much healthier: it would also cut climate emissions by at least a quarter.

The executive summary of the European Nitrogen Assessment Special Report on Nitrogen and Food assesses the consequences if Europe decreased its meat and dairy consumption. It says this would cut greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air and water pollution from nitrogen, while freeing large areas of farmland for other uses, including food exports or bio-energy. Individually, Europeans would lead healthier lives. The full report is to be published in May.

The report’s lead author, Henk Westhoek, of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, said it showed that the nitrogen footprint of meat and dairy products was much higher than that from plant-based food.

If everyone in the European Union halved their meat and dairy consumption, this would cut GHGs from agriculture by 25 to 40%, he said: “The EU could become a major exporter of food products, instead of a major importer of, for example, soy beans.”

The co-author of the report, Professor Mark Sutton, of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “There are many ways in which society could improve the way it uses nitrogen, and this includes actions by farmers and by ourselves.

“Our new study shows that adopting a demitarian diet [halving meat and animal products consumption] across Europe would reduce nitrogen pollution levels by about 40%.

Global benefits

“One of the major barriers to action is the international trade in food commodities. The result is that countries fear that tackling nitrogen pollution will reduce their international competitiveness. The present study shows that there is huge power for pollution control in simply reducing our meat and dairy consumption.”

A scientific paper in the journal Global Environment Change gives details of the full report appearing next month. The authors expect widespread environmental gains from a switch towards a more plant-based diet. They write: “As agriculture is the major source of nitrogen pollution, this is expected to result in a significant improvement in both air and water quality in the EU.”

Nor would the gains be confined to Europe, they say. They expect the reductions in nitrogen emissions will benefit not only the EU but the entire European continent and the world.

Both atmospheric ammonia and water-borne nitrates cross national frontiers, so altering European diets could help significantly to reduce international pollution, while cutting emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (all GHGs) is globally important.

In addition, the authors say, the changes in diet would also lower health risks, reducing saturated fat intake to the maximum recommended level (in Europe the average intake is presently 42% higher) and reducing deaths from cardio-vascular disease.  Animal products account for 80% of saturated fats.

Greater efficiency

Professor Sutton told the Climate News Network: “My sense is that the health drivers are more important than the environmental ones on this issue. But health is very hotly contested, and it is difficult for people to decide what constitutes the perfect diet.”

The EU would become a net exporter of cereals, the researchers say, and the use of soymeal would be reduced by 75%. The nitrogen use efficiency of the food system would increase from its current 18% to between 41% and 47%, depending on choices over land use.

But there is a warning of the profound consequences of such a radical move on both the economy and individuals: “These diet-led changes in food production patterns would have a large economic impact on livestock farmers and associated supply-chain actors, such as the feed industry and meat-processing sector.”

Across the developing world there is evidence that increasing wealth is associated with higher levels of meat consumption. Professor Sutton said: “Twenty years ago no-one expected that today we’d be seeing such a big reduction in smoking.

“Europe can’t tell countries like China and India what to do. But I think if it can start cutting its consumption of animal-based protein, there could be a ripple effect which might affect their trajectory.” – Climate News Network

Climate science ‘is beyond argument’

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Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them
Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The Global Ocean Commission says climate change is one of the key threats to the health of the world’s marine life, which it says faces multiple pressures in a warming world.

HONG KONG, 17 March - South Africa’s former Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, has derided those who deny the scientific argument that climate change is an urgent problem caused largely by human activity.

He told journalists here: “The science is now incontrovertible. There are a few people in the world who deny it, but they are mainly in lunatic asylums.”

Mr Manuel is one of three co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of global leaders who have just ended a meeting here to finalise the proposals they will present to the United Nations in June.

The meeting agreed that another key threat to the world’s oceans is overfishing and the subsidies which help to make it possible. It says this, and the other factors causing ocean degradation, threaten the food security of as many as 500 million people.

It is deeply worried about pollution. With plastic remains now so pervasive that they are found even in deep seafloor sediments, Mr Manuel said, it sometimes seemed that “you might as well not bother to buy seafood at all – just buy the plastic bag it comes in and eat that.”

Shells corroded

The Commission says climate change threatens the oceans in three main ways: by raising the temperature of the water; by reducing its oxygen content; and by increasing its acidity. Antarctic pteropods, small sea snails also known as sea butterflies, are already being found with severely corroded shells because of acidification, and larger creatures, including bigger shellfish and corals, are likely to be seriously affected.

Another of the co-chairs, José María Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica, told the Climate News Network the Commission was concerned at the prospect of exploitation of the high seas in the Arctic as the region’s sea ice continues to melt.

He said: “Beyond Arctic countries’ EEZs (exclusive economic zones stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast), the melting will leave us with a doughnut-shaped hole in the Arctic high seas, which are not under international control.

“Some nations are now looking to explore there for fish, minerals, valuable biodiversity and other resources. I believe we should not go down that route.

We should listen to the science and follow the precautionary principle, keeping this pristine area off-limits for exploitation until we understand the consequences.

Coalition builders

“We’re already pushing the high seas to the limit. We don’t need to push them over the edge by a lack of proper precaution in the Arctic.”

He said: “The jury is still out on whether we have 20 or 30 years ahead as a window of opportunity to act. But why wait? Listen to the science, which is overwhelming, and to the economics, which are sound.”

Describing the Commission as “not just a bunch of treehuggers, but a group that’s grounded itself in good sound economics”, Mr Figueres said the recommendations it planned to present to the UN on 24 June would represent about 20% of its work. The other 80% would involve building coalitions around each recommendation: there are expected to be no more than 10 in total.

The Commission’s third co-chair is the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He told the Network: “Answers that sit on a shelf are a waste of time, and people who are positively inclined to protect the oceans are held back by institutional inertia.

“But the interplay between climate change and ocean damage is rising, and it very much needs to. The science of most of the last half-century shows us how we’ve been playing tricks with nature.” – Climate News Network

India’s diesel fumes fuel glacier melt

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Nanda Devi, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas: Air pollution from the cities is affecting the mountain glaciers Image: Anirban c* via Wikimedia Commons

Nanda Devi, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas: Air pollution from the cities is affecting the mountain glaciers
Image: Anirban c8 via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

As India’s economy expands, so does pollution, particularly in the country’s major cities. Kieran Cooke, one of our editors, has recently been in Kolkata, one of the country’s biggest and most polluted population centres: he says increasing pollution is not only harming Kolkata’s citizens – it’s also a likely contributor to climate change taking place in the Himalayan region.

KOLKATA, 6 March – Being a traffic policeman in Kolkata is a life-threatening business. Not only are you at risk of being run over on the traffic-clogged roads and streets of this chaotic city of 14 million – you’re also more than likely to suffer from serious health problems due to some of the worst air pollution not just in India, but in the world.

According to a 2012 report by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment on air quality in Kolkata, seven out of every ten people in the city suffer from some form of respiratory ailment: not surprisingly, traffic policemen and the city’s thousands of street dwellers are among the high risk groups.

Air pollution, particularly related to diesel-fuelled vehicles that jam Kolkata’s roads, is also linked to the city’s unusually high levels of lung cancer.

Meanwhile the government’s own Central Pollution Control Board gives Kolkata and New Delhi the unenviable status of being joint winners of India’s most polluted city prize.

All this is not just bad news for people living in Kolkata and India’s other major urban conglomerations. The increasing air pollution in India’s cities – particularly those in the northern parts of the country – also has an impact on the degree of melt taking place in glaciers in the Himalayas.

Soaking up the heat

Diesel fumes, along with smoke from coal burning, cooking fires and the burning of waste, are among the main sources of particulate matter called soot or black carbon. Recent studies suggest that funeral pyres and even the burning of incense at temples are also contributors to the accumulation of soot.

This black carbon rises into the atmosphere and is driven by winds on to the snow or ice in the Himalayas, darkening the surface and in the process reducing reflectivity and causing the surface to absorb more heat.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based In Kathmandu, Nepal, is the only transboundary organisation looking at climate developments across the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region.

According to ICIMOD estimates, black carbon is likely responsible for a large part – around 30% by some calculations – of glacial melt in the region. It says most of the black carbon deposited in the Himalayas and in the southern area of the Tibetan Plateau comes from the plains of India, while black carbon on the eastern and northern parts of the Plateau originates in central China.

Bigger harvests

ICIMOD says that while data is limited, studies suggest black carbon may not only be a factor in hastening the melt of mountain glaciers – it could also substantially alter rainfall patters and affect the behaviour of the monsoon.

While many well-organised environmental NGOs and other groups have formed in India in recent years, the environment – and climate change – does not come high on the political agenda.

A late 2013 study by the World Bank and the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) said that up to a million deaths could be avoided each year in the Himalayan region by cutting back on emissions of black carbon and methane. The study also said that regional yields of crops such as rice and wheat could be significantly improved by reducing black carbon.

“The health of people around the world will improve greatly if we reduce emissions of black carbon and methane”, says Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank president.

“Limiting these emissions will also be an important contributor to the fight against climate change.” – Climate News Network

North Dakota promises to turn down the lights

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By Kieran Cooke

The US state of North Dakota is in the midst of a shale oil and gas boom.  Critics say the industry has been allowed to grow without proper regulation, but oil producers are now promising to be more mindful of the environment.

LONDON, 8 FEbruary – The light from thousands of gas flares in North Dakota is so intense that it can be seen from space. The flares come from oil production units in the Bakken oil fields in the northwest of the state – the site of one of the biggest concentrations of the hydraulic fracturing or fracking industry in the US.

A report last year by Ceres, a US organization which promotes more sustainable business practices, said that gas worth approximately $1bn literally went up in flames and smoke in 2012 from Bakken.

Bakken gas flare: North Dakota waits to see whether industry promises will be more than lip service Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Bakken gas flare: North Dakota waits to see whether industry promises will be more than lip service
Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

The report, Flaring Up, said flaring in 2012 contributed 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of around a million cars.

The World Bank estimates that flaring around the world accounts for the release of 400 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.

While the flaring of gas – a byproduct of oil production – has been cut back in many regions of the US, about half of the more than 10,000 oil wells in North Dakota are still burning off their gas.

But oil producers now say they hope to significantly decrease flaring in future and have pledged to aim to capture 90% of gas produced by the end of the decade.

Weak regulations

The North Dakota Petroleum Council says construction of gas pipelines and gas processing plants will be speeded up. It is lobbying the state to give financial incentives to encourage the establishment of industries using gas to fuel their activities.

Oil commands a significantly higher price than gas: those involved in North Dakota’s fracking industry have concentrated on oil production and have been been reluctant to invest in gas facilities.

State regulations on flaring are weak. Oil producers can flare gas for a year without paying any taxes or royalties on it: even after that period, producers are usually permitted to carry on flaring, with small or no financial penalties.

The Ceres organization says the announcement by North Dakota’s shale oil and gas producers represents a significant breakthrough: in 2012 Ceres lobbied investors managing $500 billion in assets to send a letter to the US’s largest shale oil producers to reduce flaring – or stop it completely.

“Reducing flaring will not only save energy and reduce climate-threatening carbon pollution”, says Andrew Logan, the director of Ceres’ oil and gas programme. “It will set an important precedent for shale energy production across the US.

Rush to develop

“We know that investors wield enormous power to positively affect the way industries and companies operate. We don’t have to choose between protecting our environment and growing our economy. The future of our economy depends on a healthy environment.”

Due to fracking, North Dakota has become the second biggest oil-producing state in the US after Texas, with production rising from 18,500 barrels per day (bpd) in 2007 to nearly one million bpd now.

While the fracking boom has resulted in the economy of North Dakota expanding faster than that of any other state in the US, the rapid expansion of the oil industry has put a big strain on roads, schools and medical services: there has also been a big rise in crime.

Concerns have also been raised about oil spills and accidents and the pollution of land by oil-related products.

Don Morrison, director of the Dakota Resource Council – a group that describes itself as the watchdog of North Dakota’s prairie lands – says the oil producers’ statement on flaring is ”nothing more than lip service.”

“They are still getting a free ride for flaring”, Morrison tells the Charlotte Observer newspaper. “Until the state stops giving away these tax breaks, flaring won’t stop.” – Climate News Network