Sponge offers way to clean up ships’ emissions

Sponge offers way to clean up ships’ emissions

As countries worldwide increasingly ban polluting ships from their ports, a spinning steel sponge may provide a solution for the owners of cargo and cruise vessels.

LONDON, 6 September, 2015 – The cargo vessels that carry 80% of the world’s trade and the cruise ships that take thousands of passengers to pristine tourist attractions use the world’s dirtiest fuel.

With 60% of the world’s ports already voluntarily excluding the worst-polluting ships, owners are in a desperate hunt to find ways to clean up their act – and a giant steel sponge could be the answer.

Technology used in a pilot project developed by Carlos Dorao and Maria Fernandino, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), was originally designed for the gas industry, where gas being pumped out of a well has to be separated from the liquid.

Separators are expensive and bulky, but the two researchers’ invention – a large spinning steel sponge that is half the size of a typical separator – does an effective job.

Left-over sludge

Around 60,000 large ships use bunker fuel, which is the sludge left over from crude oil after it is refined for petrol, diesel and other petroleum products. The fuel is 50 times more polluting than fuel permitted in diesel cars.

These ships’ giant engines also produce nearly 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions − more than the total from all of the world’s aircraft.

The International Maritime Organisation has introduced new rules to force the introduction of cleaner engines by 2020. But both the European Union and the US have produced tighter rules that will take effect before then − in effect banning the worst ships from their shores.

The levels of emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and heavy metals will all have to be cut, and engines will need to be more energy-efficient to reduce greenhouse gases.

The next step is to take the pilot project results
to the shipping industry and work out
the fastest and cheapest ways to integrate the technology into ships’ engines

The new clean-up technology was originally designed for the gas industry, where the gas being pumped out of a well has to be separated from the liquid.

Separators are expensive and bulky, but the two researchers’ invention – a large spinning steel sponge that is half the size of a typical separator – does an effective job.

The NTNU’s sponge catches the water as it flows through the gas well, and the spinning effect throws the water out sideways and downwards, while allowing the gas to flow upwards through the sponge.

Statoil, the Norway-based energy multinational, has now taken on the technology and is developing it to replace traditional separators in the natural gas industry.

This novel solution is the Lynx Separator, and  a company called InnSep was created in 2011 to develop and market the idea.

Removing pollutants

Now the Research Council of Norway’s Innovation Programme for Maritime Activities and Offshore Operations (MAROFF) is funding a pilot project that examined the possibility of applying the technology to cleaning the exhaust emissions from ships.

The project mixed seawater with exhaust fumes to see whether the spinning sponge had the same effect on removing pollutants, including sulphur particles. It worked.

The next step is for InnSep to take the pilot project results to the shipping industry and work out the fastest and cheapest ways to integrate the technology into ships’ engines.

Sondre Jacobsen, InnSep’s chief executive, says that with the shipbuilding industry now facing such stringent emission standards, this field appears a very promising business opportunity for the new separation technique. – Climate News Network

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Shell swims against oil price tide

Shell swims against oil price tide

As the giant Shell oil company begins highly controversial exploration drilling in the Arctic, the price of crude continues to slide.

LONDON, 30 August, 2015 – It’s a gamble – some would say a giant gamble. Before even one litre of oil has been found, the Anglo-Dutch Shell group is believed to have spent more than US$7 billion – just making preparations for its latest Arctic venture.

Shell is betting on finding the oil industry’s Holy Grail: according to 2008 estimates by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic contains more than 20% of the world’s remaining hydrocarbon resources – including at least 90 billion barrels of oil.

If Shell does strike oil in big quantities maybe its gamble will pay off – and its anxious shareholders can look forward to handsome payouts.

But the whole venture is a high-risk business. The decision by the US administration to allow Shell to start drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, is highly controversial.

Environmentalists and scientists say any further exploitation of fossil fuels must be halted in order to limit the rise in average global temperatures to within 2°C of pre-industrial levels and avert serious climate change.

Possible catastrophe

Drilling conditions in the Arctic can be treacherous: in 2012 a Shell rig which had been drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska ran aground in a storm and had to scrapped. Any oil spill in the ecologically rich waters of the Arctic could be catastrophic.

Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s former secretary of state and now a presidential contender, criticises Washington for allowing Shell to drill.

“The Arctic is a unique treasure”, she says. “Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

Shell says its operations meet the highest standards. “We owe it to the Arctic, its inhabitants, and the world to work with great care as we search for oil and gas resources and develop those at the request of governments across the region”, the company says.

The financial rationale of Shell’s move is also being questioned. Drilling in the Arctic is an expensive business and involves complex logistical challenges.

Stubbornly low

Analysts say so-called unconventional oil – crude recovered from difficult environments such as the Arctic – needs to command a price of between US$70 and US$100 a barrel to make its recovery economical.

At present, though oil demand is strong, there are deep uncertainties about future economic growth, particularly in China. Oil is staying stubbornly below US$50 per barrel. The big oil producers such as Saudi Arabia have not, as in the past, lowered output in order to shore up prices.

A tentative agreement between western nations and Iran on nuclear issues is likely to mean new supplies of Iranian crude hitting the international market, putting further downward pressure on prices. Despite continue bombing and communal strife, Iraq is gearing up its oil production.

One of the major factors influencing the downward movement of oil prices over recent years has been the development of the US fracking industry, with vast amounts of oil and gas recovered from shale deposits deep underground.

Perhaps Shell – and big producer countries like Saudi Arabia – foresee an end to the fracking boom.

Fracking slows

As recovery from shale deposits becomes more difficult and prices remain low, fracking is not enjoying the explosive growth it saw a few years ago.

Some drilling sites in the US states of Texas and North Dakota are being abandoned. Several of the smaller fracking companies – which borrowed large amounts during the good times to finance their operations – have gone bust.

But there is still a global glut of oil: the International Energy Agency says there is unlikely to be a rebound in oil prices any time soon.

The drilling season in the Arctic is brief: the days shorten quickly and the ice begins to form. Shell – and its shareholders – will be hoping for quick returns.

International negotiators preparing for the climate summit in Paris later this year are calling for urgent action to head off global warming. There are many who hope Shell’s exploration activities will not succeed – and that the Arctic hydrocarbons stay where they are, thousands of feet below the seabed. – Climate News Network

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Too warm, too few fish: Health warning for world’s oceans

Too warm, too few fish: Health warning for world’s oceans

Rampant overfishing combined with the impact of climate change is seriously endangering the wellbeing of the oceans, environmental analysts say.

LONDON, 23 August, 2015 – The world’s oceans – covering nearly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, and on which much of human life depends – are under severe pressure, a report says.

Over-fishing has dramatically reduced fish stocks. The thousands of tonnes of rubbish dumped in the oceans wreak havoc on marine life, while climate change is warming and acidifying them, putting them under further stress.

These are the sobering conclusions of a wide-ranging study of the Earth’s ecosystems by the Worldwatch Institute, a US-based organisation widely rated as one of the world’s foremost environmental think-tanks.

“Our sense of the ocean’s power and omnipotence – combined with scientific ignorance – contributed to an assumption that nothing we did could ever possibly impact it”, says Katie Auth, a researcher at Worldwatch and one of the authors of the report.

“Over the years, scientists and environmental leaders have worked tirelessly to demonstrate and communicate the fallacy of such arrogance.”

Decadal doubling

More than 50% of commercial fish stocks are now fully exploited with another 20% classified as over-exploited, the report says, while the number of dead zones – areas of the ocean depleted of oxygen and incapable of supporting marine life – has doubled in each decade since the 1960s.

The oceans play a key role in absorbing vast amounts of greenhouse gases and slowing the warming of the atmosphere.

The report says: “…Evidence suggests that as the ocean becomes saturated with CO2, its rate of uptake will slow, a process that has already begun.”

Sea surface temperatures are rising, putting marine systems under pressure and causing fish and sea bird populations to migrate to colder areas.

Worldwatch says there must be big cutbacks in fossil fuel emissions: “If emissions continue at current levels, ocean acidity in surface waters could increase by almost 150% by 2100, creating a marine environment unlike anything that has existed in the past 20 million years.”

It is time for homo sapiens sapiens to live up to its somewhat presumptuous Latin name, and grow up”

The Worldwatch report, State of the World 2015, examines a range of sustainability issues. It says the goal of continued economic growth – an economic doctrine which has prevailed only since the 1950s – is a threat to the sustainability of multiple ecosystems.

The world’s resources – whether its fossil fuels or water resources – cannot go on being plundered. Changes in climate – in particular the prevalence of drought in some of the world’s main food-producing regions – is threatening the planet’s ability to feed itself.

The report concludes: “There is no question that scholars and scientists who study the human economy, the earth and the interactions between them are drawing profoundly troubling conclusions…

It is time for homo sapiens sapiens to live up to its somewhat presumptuous Latin name, and grow up.” – Climate News Network

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Combating climate dangers is seen as medical emergency

Combating climate dangers is seen as medical emergency

International experts say the last 50 years of health advances worldwide will be jeopardised unless urgent steps are taken to confront climate change.

LONDON, 23 June, 2015 – The threat that climate change poses to human health is so great that it could undermine the last half-century of gains in development and global health, says an international commission of medical experts.

One author, fiercely critical of international efforts to confront the problem, says it is a medical emergency that demands an emergency response.

More hopefully, though, the group’s report says that international efforts to tackle climate change – “the defining challenge of our generation” – represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve health worldwide this century.

The report, published in The Lancet medical journal, is the work of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change.

Unparalleled chance

It says many responses to climate change have direct and indirect health benefits – from reducing air pollution to improving diet – and so efforts to reduce the threat offer an unparalleled chance for far-reaching gains in health.

But the commission is under no illusions about what is at stake. The authors say the potentially catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change has been underestimated

They add – in a familiar refrain – that while the technologies and finance required to address the problem do exist, the global political will to implement them is lacking.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, one of the commission’s co-chairs and director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Human Health and Performance, UK, says: “Climate change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now.

“Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.”

“Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to the human and environmental health of our generation

Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change

Image: The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change

Professor Anthony Costello, another of the commission’s co-chairs and director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, says: “Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability.”

The report says the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms. Indirect impacts result from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.

It says there are many ways in which action on climate change brings immediate health gains. For example, burning fewer fossil fuels reduces respiratory diseases, and what doctors call “active transport” (walking and cycling) cuts pollution and traffic accidents, and reduces rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke. There are also health benefits from changes to diet, such as eating less red meat.

Entrenched interests

The commission is an extensive collaboration between experts from Europe and China. Its other co-chair, Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, says: “The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past.

“It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to the human and environmental health of our generation.”

The report provides a set of recommendations for policy-makers, and the authors propose the formation of a new global independent body on climate change and health − to be called Countdown to 2030: Climate Change and Health Action − to monitor and report every two years on the health impacts of climate change. – Climate News Network

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Polar bears weakened by pollution as well as warmth

Polar bears weakened by pollution as well as warmth

Climate change causing habitat loss and reduced food is the main problem for polar bears, but plastic waste and other pollutants are growing risks.

LONDON, 17 April, 2015 − Greenland’s polar bears have a thyroid problem. Their endocrine systems, too, are being disrupted. In both cases the culprit agency is environmental pollution by a range of long-lived industrial chemicals and pesticides.

Kristin Møller Gabrielsen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research that they examined the liver, muscle and kidney tissues taken from seven polar bears killed by Inuit hunters in East Greenland in 2011 and analysed the effect of more than 50 contaminants in plasma samples from Ursus maritimus, to see what effect organohalogen compounds could have on the bears’ thyroid systems.

All mammals have thyroid systems, and these are physiologically essential for growth, development, reproduction, stress response, tissue repair, metabolism and thermoregulation (an animal’s ability to keep its body temperature within limits): disruption at any stage of life can be damaging, but thyroid regulation is vital in the earlier stages of life.

But the researchers found high concentrations of plastic pollution and pesticide contamination in the creatures’ tissues, many of which could affect the hormonal systems.

Retreating ice

Polar bears face an uncertain future: the Arctic’s most iconic predator depends on sea ice for access to the most nourishing prey – seals − but thanks to global warming driven by greenhouse gases discharged by humankind since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the ice is in retreat. The bears can and do forage on land for small prey, eggs, berries and so on, but new research suggests that this is unlikely to help them much.

“The health of the Arctic polar bear is being attacked from all fronts, but among many other factors is the exposure to environmental contaminants,” said Maria Jesus Obregon, of the Biomedical Research Institute in Madrid, one of the authors.

“A wide variety of organochlorine compounds and pesticides have an effect on the thyroid hormones in plasma, tissues and deiodinase enzymes, which are in charge of stabilising the thyroid hormones in tissues.”

The biggest problem that confronts Ursus maritimus is still climate change, loss of habitat and a more precarious food supply. But as a marine mammal, the bear is exposed to a huge range of pollutants delivered by modern industry, transport and commerce.

Conservation guidelines

Researchers in February calculated that in 2010, around eight million tons of plastic waste
ended up in the world’s oceans.

A second team of researchers has framed guidelines for the conservation of the polar bear, and proposed 15 measures that could determine the factors important in saving the creature from ultimate extinction.

They report in the journal Science of the Total Environment that they questioned 13 specialists from four nations to propose ways of measuring polar bear health. Not surprisingly, climate change topped the list of threats, but the list also included nutritional stress, chronic physiological stress, diseases and parasites, and increasing exposure to competitors. Exposure to contaminants was the third largest threat.

“We still don’t know to what extent environmental changes will affect polar bear health and therefore its conservation,” say the authors. − Climate News Network

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Too much nitrogen reduces Alpine plant diversity

Too much nitrogen reduces Alpine plant diversity

Climate change caused by one of the less abundant greenhouse gases is playing havoc with plant life in Switzerland, posing problems for other forms of life and increasing the risk of erosion.

LONDON, 15 April, 2015 − Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas to change the world. Swiss scientists have just confirmed that nitrous oxide and other forms of atmospheric nitrogen deposition – from agriculture, from factory chimneys and motor exhausts and so on – is altering the grasses and wildflowers of the Alps and the valleys.

Plants cannot live without nitrogen: for most of evolutionary history, it has been available only in limited amounts. With the Industrial Revolution, that began to change. Tobias Roth of the University of Basel and colleagues report in the Royal Society journal Open Science  that the historic rise in the availability of nitrogen has reduced plant diversity everywhere in Switzerland.

The finding is not – of itself – new. Researchers tested the hypothesis that increasing levels of nitrogen presented a threat to “hotspots” of global biodiversity almost a decade ago. But in science, one general study is never enough.

More nitrogen

So Dr Roth and his colleagues did something much more detailed and comprehensive. They used six different measures of plant diversity to test what was happening on 381 study plots at a variety of altitudes and in different kinds of ecosystems across just one country. However the scientists measured plant diversity, it had been reduced.

That human-triggered changes to the atmosphere have affected Switzerland is not in much doubt: one research team recently established that alpine glaciers were in retreat in response to atmospheric pollution, and Dr Roth – now with the Swiss company Hintermann and Weber AG – last year demonstrated that birds, flowers and butterflies in the country were all heading uphill in response to global warming.

The latest research began with a baseline from earlier centuries: data taken from herbarium samples confirmed that available nitrogen had once been much more limited. The scientists then randomly selected 428 study plots – each a kilometre square – as their study samples.

Some had to be rejected, because they were entirely water, or in mountainous regions too rugged and dangerous for field research. But that left 381 sample plots, in the Alps and the Jura mountains, between the altitudes of 260 and 3,200 meters (850 and 10,500 feet).

Bad news

The researchers used qualified botanists who had received special training to conduct the surveys, and asked them to conduct, as closely as they could, a diagonal transect examination across each plot, if possible once in spring and again in summer, and to record all vascular plants. Altogether, the surveys delivered 93,621 observations of 1,768 plant species.

The scientists found that biodiversity had declined by 19% according to one measure and by 11% in another test. In general, the higher the nitrogen available, the lower the diversity.

This is bad news for ecosystems as a whole: diversity means stability. Extra sources of nitrogen fertility benefit some highly competitive groups of plants, at the expense of others.

“High plant diversity is important to us humans for many reasons,” said Valentin Amrhein, another of the authors. “For example, in the mountains a large number of plant species with different root depths will stabilise the soil more effectively and prevent erosion.” − Climate News Network

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Pollution poses long-range danger to Borneo’s forests

Pollution poses long-range danger to Borneo's forests

Air quality in Borneo’s rainforests is being affected by pollution from human activities far off in East Asia – with possible consequences for the ozone layer.

LONDON, 1 April, 2015 – New evidence has been found of the long distances that airborne pollution can be transported, and of its potential impacts far from its point of origin.

Researchers from the UK and Malaysia have detected a human fingerprint deep in the Borneo rainforest in south-east Asia − and it has implications for air quality in the region, and for the ozone layer.

The research, published in European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, shows that cold winds from the north carry industrial pollutants from East Asia towards the equator. The air quality in Borneo depends very much on which way the wind blows.

“On several occasions during northern-hemisphere winter, pockets of cold air can move quickly southwards across Asia towards south China and onward into the South China Sea,” says Matthew Ashfold, assistant professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, and formerly of the University of Cambridge.

Cold surges

Prof Ashfold and his colleagues show that these “cold surges” can very quickly carry polluted air southwards. “The pollution travels about 1,000 km (620 miles) per day, crossing the South China Sea in just a couple of days,” he says.

They were originally looking for natural chemical compounds, to test whether the oceans around Borneo were a source of bromine and chlorine, but they also detected another gas called perchloroethene, or perc, in the air samples they collected from two sites in the Borneo forest.

“This gas is a common ‘marker’ for pollution because it does not have natural sources,” Prof Ashfold explains.

“Our measurements . . . . show that what is happening at the surface in industrialised middle latitudes can have an important impact elsewhere”

The team found evidence suggesting that the high levels of perc in the samples were influenced by East Asian pollution.

Perc is produced in industrial and commercial activities, such as dry cleaning and metal degreasing, and exposure to large amounts (above about 100 parts per million) can affect human health.

Global emissions have declined in the last 20 years or so, but it is not clear whether this applies to East Asia, where air pollution has increased over that period.

The researchers say the levels of perc measured in Borneo are low, at a few parts per trillion. But because the gas does not occur naturally, even small concentrations are a sign that other more common pollutants − such as carbon monoxide and ozone − are present, and levels of all three gases fluctuate at similar rates.

Ozone in high concentrations can damage forests by reducing plant growth, and is also a human health risk.

Poorer air quality in the remote rainforest is not the only consequence of the pollution.  Prof Ashfold says: “The atmosphere over south-east Asia and the western Pacific is home to unusually strong and deep thunderstorms during the northern hemisphere winter. Because of this, the region is an important source of air for the stratosphere.”

There is a potentially two-way interaction between atmospheric composition and the climate.

One of the study’s co-authors, Professor John Pyle, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and director of the UK’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, told the Climate News Network: “This study certainly exemplifies part of that feedback cycle.

Rapid lifting

“The mosaic of islands in Southeast Asia − our measurements are in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo − is a preferred region for very rapid lifting, sometimes within hours, of atmospheric compounds to higher levels.

“Some of these compounds − the industrially-produced halocarbons, and the halocarbons naturally emitted from the ocean, both of which we measure − are ozone-depleting substances.”

Both types of halocarbons and the ozone itself are greenhouse gases.

Professor Pyle says: “We aren’t arguing that our measurements indicate that there is a major climate impact, but they do nicely show that what is happening at the surface in industrialised middle latitudes can have an important impact elsewhere, with potential for important feedbacks to the surface.” – Climate News Network

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Old King Coal is sick – but not yet dying

Old King Coal is sick – but not yet dying

The building of coal-fired power stations across much of the world is declining, but the trend is not enough to avert the risk of climate change reaching dangerous levels.

LONDON, 17 March, 2015 − A global investigation into every coal-fired power plant proposed in the last five years shows that only one in three of them has actually been built.

Researchers say that for each new plant constructed somewhere in the world, two more have been shelved or cancelled. They say this rate is significantly higher in Europe, South Asia, Latin America and Africa. In India, since 2012 six plants have been cancelled for each one built.

Coal use has also shrunk significantly. In China it fell in 2014 for the first time for 14 years, while the economy grew by 7.3%. From 2003 to 2014 the amount of coal-fired generating capacity retired in the US and the EU exceeded new capacity by 22%.

But it is more than simply a question of the number of plants being built (or not). The report says:”The amount of new coal-fired generating capacity in the proposal pipeline worldwide dropped from 1,401 GW in 2012 to 1,080 GW in 2014, a 23% decline” (one GW, or gigawatt, would supply enough electricity for 750,000 to 1m typical US homes).

Against this, concentrations of planned new coal plants can still be found in Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Poland, some Balkan countries and Japan. Germany is one country which continues to burn large quantities of coal, including lignite. And global coal consumption grew by 3% in 2013, well below the 10-year average of 3.9%, but still the fastest-growing fossil fuel.

Contracting market

Ted Nace of CoalSwarm, a network of researchers into coal’s impacts and alternatives to it, said: “What’s striking is how quickly the business climate has turned against coal since 2012. Because these projects require large capital outlays, they’re vulnerable to rising perceptions of risk.”

The report, Boom and Bust: Tracking The Global Coal Plant Pipeline, by the Sierra Club and CoalSwarm, details the findings of research into every proposed coal-fired power plant worldwide since 2010. The data in the report will be continuously updated on the Global Coal Plant Tracker website.

The report’s findings suggest strongly that the market for coal is contracting, but the authors acknowledge that the trend will have to accelerate if the world is to avoid crossing the internationally agreed threshold which is thought able to prevent dangerous climate change.

The International Energy Agency is among those warning that, to keep global warming from rising beyond the agreed maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be burned before 2050.

“Existing global coal-fired power plant capacity will already swallow four-fifths of the 2°C carbon budget over its lifetime”

A recent report from University College London found that, globally, to stay within 2°C, 82% of coal reserves must be left underground, 49% of gas and 33% of oil reserves. Boom and Bust argues that, even if the trend of two coal plant proposals halted for every plant built continues, the remaining one-third will account for nearly all of the greenhouse gases that can be emitted before climate change crosses the 2°C threshold.

Luke Sussams, senior researcher of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, said: “Existing global coal-fired power plant capacity will already swallow four-fifths of the 2°C carbon budget over its lifetime, leaving no room for burning the world’s oil and gas.

“This fundamental contradiction means investors must assess their exposure to coal plants that are most at risk of becoming stranded in a carbon-constrained world, and steer clear of funding any new coal plants altogether.”

Analysis by Carbon Tracker has also identified major financial risks for investors in coal producers around the world, with $112 billion worth of investments in future coal mine expansion and development that will not be needed under lower demand forecasts.

The Sierra Club and CoalSwarm say that, as attention focuses on the UN climate negotiations in Paris in December, new and existing coal plants must be phased out, with OECD countries giving a lead. Countries should undertake to end subsidies and policies that favour coal and focus instead on clean energy.

The report says that not only is coal the most carbon-intensive way of generating electricity, but the fine-particle pollution it causes kills an estimated 800,000 people prematurely every year, with China thought to account for 670,000 of these deaths and India 80-115,000. − Climate News Network

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Fertilizers help toxic algae thrive in warming world

Fertilizers help toxic algae thrive in warming world

Scientists warn that excessive use of fertilizers, combined with warmer water in lakes, threatens to poison drinking water supplies.

LONDON, 13 March, 2015 − Blue-green algae blooms that can turn toxic in freshwater lakes and can kill bathers, farm animals and domestic pets that drink the water are becoming more widespread across the world, according to new research.

A combination of excess use of fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen, untreated sewage releases, and warmer water caused by climate change is leading to an increasing threat of poisoning to animals and humans that use the lakes for water supplies.

Researchers from France, Italy, Spain, the UK, Malaysia and Canada contributed to the study aimed at discovering whether the algae known as cyanobacteria, which forms a blue-green scum on the surface of lakes, was really increasing or had simply been more widely reported.

The scientists looked closely at 100 lakes in North America and Europe, but their findings would apply to freshwater bodies worldwide. They showed that algae blooms have been increasing over the past two centuries, but the pace has “sharply accelerated since the mid-20th century”.

Acute exposure

Not all blue-green algae growths release poisons into the water, but when they form a scum they frequently release toxins that cause damage to the liver and nervous systems of animals, and can be deadly.

The most common symptoms in humans of acute exposure to harmful algal blooms are skin rash or irritation, gastroenteritis, and respiratory distress.

Chronic, low-dose exposures over a lifetime may result in liver tumors or endocrine disruption, and have also been linked to longer-term degenerative conditions of the nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The study says that lakes subject to excess discharge of industrial fertilizers and sewage had seen the largest increase in blue-green algae blooms, but alpine lakes without these problems has also had an increase, indicating that climate change was also a factor.

In North America, lowland lakes had a 61% increase in blue-green algae blooms, and this rose to 70% in Europe. Both were close to agriculture areas, but alpine lakes further away from farming showed only a 36% increase.

Dr. Zofia Taranu, a biologist at McGill University, Canada, and lead author of the study published in Ecology Letters, says: “Further work as a society will therefore be needed to reduce nutrient discharges to surface waters.”

“Partnerships among freshwater scientists and farmers are starting to happen, and more of this needs to take place”

The study says it is possible to treat water by adding chemicals that bind the toxins together, and to remove them before they reach the tap, but many municipalities do not regularly look for the danger because it has previously not been a problem.

Even so, both the UK and Australia are spending $100 million a year monitoring and eliminating blue-green algae from drinking water. Water catchment control to keep fertilizer and sewage away from drinking water sources, which has been imposed by the EU Water Framework Directive, is essential to prevent the danger to the general population, the report concludes.

Dr Suzanne McGowan, head of the University of Nottingham School of Geography, UK, and PhD researchers Heather Moorhouse and Mark Stevenson, based at the university, took sample cores of sediment from bodies of water in the British Isles, including in the English Lake District, the meres of the West Midlands, lochs in Scotland, and upland lakes in Northern Ireland.


These were then analysed for pigments that are left behind by blue-green algae, and which remain stable over thousands of years − acting as biomarkers that reveal past levels of algae found in the water during the course of decades.

The analysis showed that, during the last 200 years, more than half of the lakes (58%) had seen significant increases in concentrations of blue-green algae pigments, whereas only 3% showed a significant decrease.

“Our work shows that we need to work harder as a society to reduce nutrient discharges to surface waters,” says Irene Gregory-Eaves, an associate professor of biology at McGill, and co-author of the study.

“Because diffuse nutrient loading – as opposed to end-of-pipe effluent –  is the main issue, we need to build collaborations to tackle this complex problem.

“For example, partnerships among freshwater scientists and farmers are starting to happen, and more of this needs to take place, so that we can strike a balance between maximising crop yields and minimising excess fertilizer application.” – Climate News Network

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Climate change can skew fish gender ratios

Climate change can skew fish gender ratios

Scientists find that zebrafish exposed to hormone-disrupting chemical pollution produce abnormal numbers of male offspring, especially in increasingly warmer water.

LONDON, 10 March, 2015 – Climate change seems to make everything worse – at least for some wild creatures. British scientists have just confirmed that higher temperatures could amplify the impact of hormone-disrupting chemicals that already pollute the environment.

The world’s waterways are full of industrial pollutants with potentially damaging effects. They include industrial agents, the waste products of birth-control pills, herbicides, pharmaceuticals and even the residues of illegal narcotics. Altogether, more than 800 chemicals have been identified as having some hormone-disrupting capacity.

Ross Brown, then with AstraZeneca Research and now at the University of Exeter, and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they decided to look at the long-term effects of clotrimazole, a chemical commonly used in antifungal treatments and believed to disrupt hormones and interfere with the sex ratios of fish and amphibians.

Conservationists – and others – have worried for decades about the build-up of such chemicals in the environment. They have cited them as possible threats to biodiversity, and have produced evidence that they could be implicated in sexual abnormalities in some species.

Extinction risk

But these have been regarded as a separate problem, and not part of the mix of stresses that could accompany climate change.

The British scientists tested a well-established laboratory and aquarium favourite,  the zebrafish (Danio rerio). This is the first fish to have its entire genome sequenced – which means researchers already know a great deal about its life cycle, physiology and development.

So the scientists observed normal spawning at the temperatures in which the fish evolved, and five degrees higher, at the 33°C projected for its home waters in 2100.

In the tests, the water level of endocrine-disrupting clotrimazole was also at levels found polluting the world’s waterways today.

Temperature plays a powerful role in determining the sex of some as yet unborn members of certain species. Warmer temperatures can make female status more likely for crocodilians, some lizards and turtles and tortoises. Higher temperatures, however, are likely to encourage higher ratios of male lizards, fish and amphibians.

Since, in normal conditions, temperatures vary around an average, the numbers of males and females in a population tend to even out. But in reproduction, it’s the females that matter more. So a sustained tilt towards maleness could threaten a population’s survival.

Double jeopardy

The researchers found that the zebrafish exposed to the chemical pollutant produced an abnormally high percentage of male offspring. This ratio got even higher when the fish were confronted with the double whammy of clotrimazole and warmer waters.

Fish that were inbred were the most likely to respond, while fish from a genetically-diverse heritage were somewhat less affected.

The implication is that endangered species living in small populations in isolated waters could be at greater risk of extinction.

This was a controlled laboratory experiment, conducted under very precisely-measured conditions, on one well-studied species.

The real world is a messier place, and outcomes 80 years on for other freshwater fish and amphibians exposed to an unpredictable suite of stresses are harder to predict.

But the zebrafish, a native of the Indian subcontinent and often a citizen of the flooded rice paddies, is also likely to experience a wide range of chemical pollutants. So conditions in the wild could be even worse.

“Chemicals in the environment are usually looked at in isolation, but in reality animals are exposed to multiple stressful events at the same time,” says the report’s senior author, bioscientist Charles Tyler, of the University of Exeter. “They include changes in temperature, food scarcity, or harmful chemicals.

“It is important that we understand how these pressures interact if we are to understand the real impact of rising global temperatures and increasing levels of pollution.” – Climate News Network

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