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.

Biomarkers

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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Serious doubts over Europe’s GHG reduction target

Serious doubts over Europe’s GHG reduction target

Europe has made substantial progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but its long-term reduction aims look unachievable, says a new report.

LONDON, 9 March, 2015 − The 28 countries of the European Union (EU) have set themselves a collective target of cutting emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs) by between 80% and 95% by 2050, but  a major report just released says there’s little hope of achieving that goal.

Every five years, the European Environment Agency (EEA) produces a comprehensive study, and the latest says projected declines in GHG emissions are not nearly enough to reach the long-term target of decarbonising most of Europe’s economy by mid-century.

The report says there has been considerable progress in recent years on reducing Europe’s GHG emissions to 19.2% below 1990 levels. while, at the same time, gross domestic product across the EU has increased by 45%. EU per capita emissions fell from 11.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 9 tonnes in 2012.

The trouble is that this progress is very unlikely to be maintained over the long term unless the entire EU economy is revamped and there are very substantial investments in renewables.

Hard part ahead

The cut in GHG emissions was largely achieved through economic restructuring in eastern Europe following the collapse of the old Soviet Union and associated states. Polluting energy and industrial plants were closed, and agricultural practices modernised.

The 2008 economic crisis also caused a dip in emissions, while EU policies aimed at achieving greater energy efficiency have also played an important role in reducing emissions.

That, in many ways, was the easy part. Now comes the big challenge: in order to achieve its long-term emissions reduction objective, Europe needs a wholesale reorganisation of its economy, says the EEA, and also needs to become less resource-hungry.

Fossil fuels still dominate energy production, accounting for 75% of energy supply in 2011 − the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available.

Progress achieved

“The EU will need to accelerate its implementation of new policies, while restructuring the ways that Europe meets its demand for energy, food, transport and housing,” the report says.

Short-term goals can be achieved, says the EEA, and the EU is on track to meet its target of producing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Renewables accounted for 11% of EU energy production in 2012 – up from 4% in 1990.

It is a similar story across much of the European environment. Progress has been made over recent years in improving water systems, waste collection and recycling, and in rehabilitating some ecosystems.

“In many parts of Europe, the local environment is arguably in as good a state today as it has been since the start of industrialisation,” the report says. “Reduced pollution, nature protection and better waste management have all contributed.”

Worsening air

At the same time, what the report refers to as Europe’s natural capital is being seriously degraded by the activities of agriculture, fisheries, industries and  tourism. Urban sprawl is also having a negative impact.

In some regions, ecosystems are in a dire state, and the EU is not on track to meet its 2020 target on halting biodiversity loss.

Air quality is a particular concern.  The EEA estimates that more than 400,000 people in Europe died prematurely in 2011 due to breathing in toxic fumes. In some areas, air quality is getting worse, not better. And land is under severe pressure.

The report says that “loss of soil functions, land degradation and climate change remain major concerns, threatening the flows of environmental goods and services that underpin Europe’s economic output and well-being”. −  Climate News Network

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Urgent campaign to curb pollutants’ deadly effects

Urgent campaign to curb pollutants’ deadly effects

Carbon dioxide is public enemy No 1 in the fight against climate change, but other pollution is having a big impact − and causing millions of premature deaths.

LONDON, 6 March, 2015 − They are called short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), but they play a significant role in global warming, as well as leading to serious health problems.

Although they exist for far shorter time spans in the atmosphere than CO2, the SLCPs can cause serious changes in climate in that time, particularly in urban areas or in highly climate-sensitive zones such as the polar regions and major mountain ranges.

The SLCPs − which include methane, black carbon or soot, and hydrofluorocarbons − are particularly prevalent in some of the world’s poorest regions.

Soot and fumes

Firewood, cow dung and other fuels, incompletely combusted on millions of household fires, give rise to high levels of SLCPs − as does the black soot and fumes belching from the exhaust pipes of hundreds of thousands of trucks and buses. The smoke and fumes originating from small industrial concerns, such as brick factories, also contain high levels of black carbon.

This pollution is swept by the winds up onto high mountain ranges, falling on the snow and glaciers and darkening the surface. Losing its ability to reflect the sun’s heat, the surface warms and a process of melting is set in motion.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) − initiated by the governments of Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden and the US, and the United Nations Environment Programme, and also comprising private sector groups and environmental organisations − was formed three years ago with the aim of curtailing SLCP emissions.

At a recent meeting in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, delegates were told that climate change was happening faster and in a dramatically more visible manner in the Earth’s cryosphere – the regions of ice and snow – than anywhere else on earth.

“Our work will contribute to the pathway of limiting global warming to 2˚C”

The consequences of increased melting in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region are particularly serious.

According to the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the area’s mountains store nearly 10% of the world’s freshwater. And many millions of people across one of the planet’s most densely populated regions are dependent on mountain waters for agriculture and other purposes.

The CCAC is launching a series of schemes to combat SLCPs, including giving funds to city authorities for soot-free bus fleets and programmes to encourage less polluting agricultural practices.

“Our work will contribute to the pathway of limiting global warming to 2˚C, harness health, food and energy benefits, and spur sustainable development,” says Hanne Bjurstroem, Norway’s special envoy for climate change, and a co-chair of CCAC.

The SLCPs are also a serious health hazard. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than four million people die prematurely each year as a result of household air pollution.

The WHO estimates that 2.8 billion people cook and heat their homes by burning coal and biomass – wood, dung, crop wastes and other solid fuels – on open fires or basic stoves.

Cancer-causing

Fumes from these fires contain minute levels of toxic substances, such as carbon monoxide, nitrous and sulphur dioxides and formaldehyde. They often also contain particles of cancer-causing substances that can penetrate deep into the lungs.

Women and children, who spend most time in the home, are particularly vulnerable. More than 50% of premature deaths among children under five around the world, the WHO says, are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.

Solving the problem of SLCPs caused by household fires and other sources is not easy, but progress is being made in some areas.

In Nepal, the government says it is aiming for big cuts in SLCPs through various programmes, including the mass introduction of improved cooking stoves. The goal, it says, is to make Nepal free of indoor pollution by 2017. – Climate News Network

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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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