Stalagmite links rain reduction to industrial revolution

Stalagmite links rain reduction to industrial revolution

Research shows the explosion of fossil fuel use to power the 19th-century industrial boom began the pattern of lower rainfall affecting the northern tropics. 

LONDON, 17 February, 2015 − Scientists have identified a human-induced cause of climate change. But this time it’s not carbon dioxide that’s the problem − it’s the factory and power station chimney pollutants that began to darken the skies during the industrial revolution.

Analysis of stalagmite samples taken from a cave in Belize, Central America, has revealed that aerosol emissions have led to a reduction of rainfall in the northern tropics during the 20th century.

In effect, the report in Nature Geoscience by lead author Harriet Ridley, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Durham, UK, and international research colleagues invokes the first atmospheric crisis.

Acid rain

Before global warming because of greenhouse gases, and before ozone destruction caused by uncontrolled releases of chlorofluorocarbons, governments and environmentalists alike were concerned about a phenomenon known as acid rain.

So much sulphur and other industrial pollutants entered the atmosphere that raindrops became deliveries of very dilute sulphuric and nitric acid.

The damage to limestone buildings was visible everywhere, and there were concerns – much more difficult to establish – that acid rain was harming the northern European forests.

But even if the massive sulphate discharges of an industrialising world did not seriously damage vegetation, they certainly took a toll on urban human life in terms of respiratory diseases.

Clean-air legislation has reduced the hazard in Europe and North America, but it seems that sulphate aerosols have left their mark.

Researchers in a cave in Belize. Credit: Dr James Baldini/Durham University

Researchers in a cave in Belize.
Image: Dr James Baldini/Durham University

The Durham scientists reconstructed tropic rainfall patterns for the last 450 years from the analysis of stalagmite samples taken from a cave in Belize.

The pattern of precipitation revealed a substantial drying trend from 1850 onwards, and this coincided with a steady rise in sulphate aerosol pollution following the explosion of fossil fuel use that powered the Industrial Revolution.

They also identified nine short-lived drying spells in the northern tropics that followed a series of violent volcanic eruptions in the northern hemisphere. Volcanoes are a natural source of atmospheric sulphur.

Atmospheric pollution

The research confirms earlier suggestions that human atmospheric pollution sufficient to mask the sunlight and cool the upper atmosphere had begun to affect the summer monsoons of Asia, and at the same time stepped up river flow in northern Europe.

The change in radiation strength shifted the tropical rainfall belt, known as the intertropical convergence zone, towards the warmer southern hemisphere, which meant lower levels of precipitation in the northern tropics.

“The research presents strong evidence that industrial sulphate emissions have shifted this important rainfall belt, particularly over the last 100 years,” Dr Ridley says.

“Although warming due to man-made carbon dioxide emissions has been of global importance, the shifting of rain belts due to aerosol emissions is locally critical, as many regions of the world depend on this seasonal rainfall for agriculture.” – Climate News Network

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Arctic melting opens sea route to more pollution

Arctic melting opens sea route to more pollution

Increasing loss of Arctic sea ice is likely soon to mean more ships being able to use the polar passage affecting climate, health and air quality.

LONDON, 14 February, 2015 − As Arctic sea ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, maritime traffic is set to increase − and with it the pollution emitted by ships’ engines.

A paper published by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) says emissions of pollutants from vessels in the US area of the high Arctic could increase by between 150% and 600% by 2025.

Ships typically burn bunker fuel with a high sulphur content. As well as various greenhouse gases (GHGs), the engines also emit soot, or black carbon. And when this covers snow and ice, it reduces their ability to reflect sunlight away from the Earth, and so raises temperatures.

Human health

The ICCT paper says ship-borne pollutants − which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide (NOX), oxides of sulphur, particulate matter (PM) and soot − affect local air quality and human health, as well as the global climate.

Without new pollution controls, it is estimated that global soot emissions from shipping may more than quintuple from 2004 to 2050, to a total of more than 744,000 tonnes, because of increased shipping demand.

A growing share of those emissions will occur in the Arctic, because of vessels being diverted to the much shorter Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage to cut the length of voyages.

Earlier studies of increased shipping in the Arctic concentrated on infrastructure needs and estimates of shipping growth, based on potential oil and gas exploration and other development, but did not address air pollution or its effects.

The paper says: “The potential increases in vessel activity associated with oil and gas exploration . . . would increase emissions from vessels beyond those estimated in this paper.”

It also says that a change to higher quality low-sulphur fuel would cut pollution significantly.

“The lack of regional restrictions in the Arctic leaves the area vulnerable to increasing emissions from international traffic . . .”

Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, US, advised as long ago as 2011 that controlling soot could reduce warming in the Arctic by about 2°C within 15 years.

“That would virtually erase all of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last 100 years,” he said. “No other measure could have such an immediate effect.”

He said soot emissions were second only to carbon dioxide in promoting global warming, accounting for about 17% of the extra heat. But its contribution could be cut by 90% in five to 10 years with aggressive national and international policies.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO], a UN body, said in the final report of its GHG Study 2014 that, by 2050, emissions of NOX could increase globally by as much as 300%, and PM by 280%.

The IMO has two sets of emission and fuel quality requirements, one for global shipping and the other a more stringent set of rules for ships in Emission Control Areas.

The global requirements include a limit on marine bunker fuel sulphur content, which is currently 3.5%, compared with an actual global average of 2.7%. This limit is due to be cut to 0.5% in 2020, although parts of the shipping industry are urging the IMO to delay the reduction until at least 2025.

International regulations do not directly restrict the emission of soot from vessels, although it is generally understood that improving fuel quality also controls soot.

Increasing impact

The ICCT paper says that, combined with the potential increases in marine emissions, “the current lack of regional environmental requirements for vessels transiting and operating in the US Arctic may lead to an increasing impact on human health for Arctic communities and for the global climate.

“Additional emissions of climate-forcing pollutants such as black carbon and carbon dioxide, combined with emissions of PM and NOX, which can be linked with respiratory health issues, may place additional stress on the Arctic environment and Arctic communities.

“The lack of regional restrictions in the Arctic leaves the area vulnerable to increasing emissions from international traffic that is less tightly regulated than under US law.”

There have also been calls to find alternatives to the many diesel generators currently in use throughout Arctic communities, and which are known to produce large amounts of greenhouse gases and soot. − Climate News Network

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Solar lamps offer brighter future for African families

Solar lamps offer brighter future for African families

A major milestone on the road to ridding Africa of polluting and dangerous kerosene lamps has been passed with the sale of solar lights reaching 1.5 million.

LONDON, 9 February, 2015 − Many of the 600 million people who are still without electricity in Africa rely on home-made kerosene lamps for lighting − putting themselves in danger from fire, toxic black smoke, and eye damage.

But cheaper solar technology is being offered that can provide long-lasting light and additional power to charge telephones and other electric devices, without the need for an electricity grid connection.

The campaign to eliminate the kerosene lamp was begun by SolarAid, an international charity that seeks to combat poverty and climate change.

It set up an African network to sell these devices in 2006, with the aim that every kerosene lamp will be replaced with solar power by the end of the decade. So far, with 1.5 million solar lights sold, about 9 million people have benefited from its scheme.

Saves money

The charity says that a solar lamp saves money because buying the kerosene uses about 15% of family income, whereas a solar kit − bought the for as little as $10 dollars − produces light for more than five years.

The risk of a kerosene fire is also removed, along with the indoor air pollution, and the lamps allow children to study at night. One kerosene light produces 200 grammes of carbon dioxide a year − an unnecessary contribution to climate change.

SolarAid set up SunnyMoney, a social enterprise that sells the lights via school networks and local businesses. Selling the lights, rather than donating them, keeps money in local communities, provides employment, and allows the profits to be ploughed back into extending the scheme.

“Most companies would not miss 5% of their profits, and the gains are enormous”

Currently, the organisation has East Africa networks in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda, and is expanding to adjoining countries.

There are a range of lights and chargers offered from a variety of manufacturers, each with a two-year replacement warranty and up to five years battery life.

The cheapest, at $10 dollars, is a study light that gives four hours of bright light after a day’s charge, while the more expensive models offer light for up to 100 hours, charging for up to two phones at a time, and radio charging. The most expensive, which cost around $140, are ideal for small businesses.

SolarAid began life in 2006 when the British company SolarCentury, one of Europe’s leading solar companies, began donating 5% of its profits to the charity.

SolarCentury’s founder, Jeremy Leggett, says that the charity benefited by £28,000 in 2006, but the company’s increased profits mean that the figure will be nearly £500,000 this year.

Solar’s reputation

“We were the first in the field back then, but now there are many solar lights of all kinds on the market,” Leggett says. “Most of them very good, although there are some ghastly cheap products that do not last, which can harm solar’s reputation.”

He says the company donations had been matched with other corporate and government aid. Ironically, even Total, the oil company, is now selling solar lights at its petrol stations.

Leggett believes that the market is growing so fast that there is a good chance of SolarAid reaching its goal of getting rid of all kerosene lighting in Africa by 2020.

He is hoping to build on his idea of donating 5% of corporate profits to climate change and poverty alleviation charities, and is launching a “5% club” of enlightened businesses prepared to do the same.

“Most companies would not miss 5% of their profits, and the gains are enormous,” he says. “In my company, the programme is a great favourite with staff and gives everyone a feelgood factor. Compared with other similar companies, we retain staff longer because they feel their work is more worthwhile.” – Climate News Network

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Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eco-friendly resource

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

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

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

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

Grow rapidly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carbon-neutral

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

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

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

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

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

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Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

Reduced monsoon rainfall and increased river flow are two extremes that new research has linked to man-made impacts on climate caused by air pollution.

LONDON, 13 October, 2014 − Two separate studies have confirmed the extent of human influence on climate change – and, for once, carbon dioxide is not the usual suspect.

One team has just found that air pollution dimmed the skies of northern Europe, reflected sunlight back into space, reduced evaporation, and increased river flow.

The second group reports that similar aerosol pollution had a quite different effect on the Asian monsoons: in the second half of the 20th century, the darkening skies reduced temperatures and cut the summer monsoon rainfall by 10%.

The two seemingly contradictory findings underscore two clear conclusions. One is that climate science is complex. The other is that human activity clearly influences the climate in different ways.

Worldwide concern

Both studies are concerned with an era when there was, worldwide, more concern about choking smog, sulphuric aerosol discharges and acid rain than about man-made global warming. They also both match complex computer simulation with observed changes in climate during the second half of the 20th century

Nicola Gedney, a senior scientist at the UK’s Meteorological Office, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that she and colleagues looked at the growth in aerosol pollution, especially in the Oder river catchment area of central-eastern Europe, that followed the increased burning of sulphurous coal in Europe right up till the late 1970s.

The consequence of that burning was a reduction in sunlight over the hemisphere. But this began to reverse with clean air legislation and a widespread switch to cleaner fuels. River flows, which had been on the increase, were reduced.

“We estimate that, in the most polluted central Europe river basin, this effect led to an increase in river flow of up to 25% when the aerosol levels were at their peak, around 1980,” Dr Gedney said. “With water shortages likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the future, these findings are important in making projections.”

Aerosol pollution

Meanwhile, a group led by Debbie Polson, a researcher in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, Scotland, focused on aerosol pollution and the Asian summer monsoons, which provide four-fifths of the annual rainfall of the Indian subcontinent.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that they calculated annual summer rainfall between 1951 and 2005, used computer simulations to quantify the impact of increasing aerosol emissions and greenhouse gases during that time, and factored in natural variations, such as volcanic discharges.

They found that, overall, levels of rain during the monsoon fell by 10%, and this change could only be explained by the influence of aerosols from car and factory exhausts.

“This study has shown for the first time that the drying of the monsoon over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural climate variability, and that human activity has played a significant role in altering the seasonal monsoon rainfall on which billions of people depend,” Dr Polson said. – Climate News Network

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World of clean energy ‘feasible’ by mid-century

World of clean energy 'feasible' by mid-century

International researchers, in what they believe is the most comprehensive global assessment of clean energy’s potential, report that a low-carbon system could supply the world’s electricity needs by 2050.

LONDON, 10 October, 2014 − A global low-carbon energy economy is not only feasible, it could double electricity supply by 2050 while actually reducing air and water pollution, according to new research.

Even though photovoltaic power requires up to 40 times more copper than conventional power plants, and wind power uses up to 14 times more iron, the world wins on a switch to low-carbon energy.

These positive findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Edgar Hertwich and Thomas Gibon, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Energy and Process Engineering.

Life-cycle assessment

They and international research colleagues report that they have made – as far as they know – the first global life-cycle assessment of the economic and environmental costs of renewable and other clean sources of energy in a world that responds to the threat of climate change.

Other studies have looked at the costs in terms of health, pollutant emissions, land use change or the consumption of metals. The Norwegian team set out to consider the lot.

There were some things they had to leave out: for instance, bioenergy, the conversion of corn, sugar cane or other crops to ethanol for fuel, because that would also require a comprehensive assessment of the food system; and nuclear energy, because they could not reconcile what they called “conflicting results of competing assessment approaches”.

But they tried to consider the whole-life costs of solar power, wind power, hydropower and gas and coal generators that used carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They took into account the demand for aluminium, copper, nickel and steel, metallurgical grade silicon, flat glass, zinc and clinker. They thought about the comparative costs of “clean” and “dirty” power generation, and they considered the impact of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, toxicity in ecosystems, and the eutrophication– the overwhelming blooms of plankton − of the rivers and lakes.

They also assessed the impact of such future power plants on the use of land, and they made allowances for the economic benefits of increasing amounts of renewable power in the extraction and refinement of minerals needed to make yet more renewable power.

More efficient

Then they contemplated two scenarios: one in which global electricity production rose by 134% by 2050, with fossil fuels accounting for two-thirds of the total; and one in which electricity demand in 2050 rises by 13% less because energy use becomes more efficient.

They found that to generate new sources of power, demand for iron and steel might increase by only 10%. Photovoltaic systems would require between 11 and 40 times the amount of copper that is needed for conventional generators, but even so, the demand by 2050 would add up to just two years’ worth of current copper production.

Their conclusion? Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron and cement, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants.

“Only two years of current global copper and one year of iron will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs by 2050,” the authors say. – Climate News Network

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‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

Managing moorlands so that more birds can be reared for lucrative shooting parties is adding to climate change by destroying layers of peat and releasing large quantities of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 6 October, 2014 − Burning large tracts of heather on the peat-covered hills of Britain so that more red grouse can be reared for the rich to shoot has always been controversial.

The revenue from overseas visitors flying in from such places as the Middle East and Japan to shoot birds has long been used by the country estate owners to justify the practice.

But the first definitive scientific report into the effects that burning heather has on wildlife and climate change shows the damage to the environment is far worse than previously thought. The water run-off from the damaged peat also adversely affects the aquatic life in the rivers that drain the moorlands of Britain.

The report was released to coincide with start of the moorland burning season in Britain, when gamekeepers set fire to large areas of old heather in order to encourage new growth next year to feed chicks that will be shot in the autumn.

Britain contains 75% of the world’s remaining heather moorland, and its owners say that without the revenue from grouse shooting it would disappear.

Significant findings

The EMBER report (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins)  is the result of five years work by a team from Leeds University in the north of England, which is a popular area for shooting grouse.

Among the significant findings was that burning heather dried out and warmed the peat it grows in, causing the peat to disintegrate and release large quantities of stored carbon dioxide − so adding to the perils of climate change.

Professor Joseph Holden, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and co-author of the study, said: “Altering the hydrology of peatlands so they become drier is known to cause significant losses of carbon from storage in the soil.

“This is of great concern, as peatlands are the largest natural store for carbon on the land surface of the UK and play a crucial role in climate change. They are the ‘Amazon of the UK’.”

The EMBER project − funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, with additional support from the Yorkshire Water treatment and supply utility − assessed the impacts of heather burning on moorland consisting mainly of peat on higher land.

It compared 120 patches of peat in 10 river catchment areas across the English Pennines, with an equal split between burned and unburned areas. The area studied spanned from near Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire to Moor House National Reserve, which straddles the border between Cumbria and County Durham.

The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season. Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons
The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season
Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons

Among the numerous important findings of the EMBER project, the researchers discovered that the water table depth – the level below which the ground is saturated with water – is significantly deeper in areas where burning has taken place, compared to unburned areas.

A deeper water table means that the peat near the surface will dry out and degrade, releasing stored pollutants, such as heavy metals into rivers, and carbon into the atmosphere.

Other important findings from EMBER include a decrease in the diversity and population sizes of invertebrates, such as insect larvae, in rivers draining from burned areas, and up to a 20˚C increase in soil temperature in the immediate years after burning, compared to unburned sites.

Dr Brown said: “Even small changes in soil temperature can affect the decomposition of organic matter and the uptake of nutrients by plants. But we found increases as high as 20˚C, with maximum temperatures reaching over 50˚C in some cases.

“Such changes in thermal regime have not previously been considered in the debate over moorland management with fire, but could explain a lot of the changes we see in terms of soil chemistry and hydrology following burning.”

Dr Sheila Palmer, also from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, and a co-author of the report, concludes: “Our hope is that the EMBER project findings will help all parties involved in assessing the range of benefits and impacts of moorland burning to work together in developing policies for the future management of our uplands.”

However, the Moorland Association, which represents the shooting estates, defended the practice of heather burning to promote greater numbers of grouse.

In a statement, the Association said: “Heather is kept young and vigorous by controlled burning. If left unburned, it eventually grows long and lank, reducing its nutritional value.

Burning cycle

“The burning cycle creates a pattern of different-aged heather. The oldest provides cover for the grouse and other birds; the new shoots, succulent food for birds and sheep. A skilfully burnt moor will have a mosaic of heather and other moor plants of differing ages and the rich variety of wildlife they attract.”

The association says that mowing heather is an alternative to burning, but not always possible because of rough terrain. It is also more expensive.

André Farrar, planning and strategy manager at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long campaigned for the end of burning heather and the destruction of wildlife to promote grouse shooting said: “Managed burning has a profound impact on the life support systems of the peatlands in our hills.

“This supports the need to phase out and stop burning on deep peat soils in the uplands. It should also trigger a concerted effort to agree how to bring these special places back into better condition, involving Government, its agencies, and landowners.” – Climate News Network

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China may be ready to kick coal habit

China may be ready to kick coal habit

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

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‘Free riders’ undermine climate treaty hopes

‘Free riders’ undermine climate treaty hopes

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

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Health alert over fracking’s chemical cocktails

Health alert over fracking’s chemical cocktails

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

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