Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

By adapting a tropical grass to grow in the British climate, scientists hope to be able to replace coal in power stations with biofuel.

LONDON, 29 September, 2015 − The UK government is spending £1.8 million on a scientific project that aims to breed a new seed-producing variety of tropical grass that could provide a viable source of fuel for power stations.

Miscanthus, better known as elephant grass, is already being used in Europe to produce biofuel to replace coal in power stations − but growing enough of it is the main drawback.

So scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales are being given government funding to help develop miscanthus strains that like UK conditions and produce viable seeds, without losing the fast-growing and drying properties that make it ideal for biofuel.

The variety currently used is Miscanthus x Giganteus, which grows fast – up to three metres tall − on poor agricultural land in Europe to produce a cash crop for farmers in the spring, when the dried stalks from the previous year are ideal for burning in power stations.

Hybrid variety

However, the “giganteus” is a hybrid variety that does not produce viable seeds. To grow a new plant, farmers currently have to break off and sow a bit of the root, or rhizome, of another elephant grass.

Even with machines to plant dozens of chopped-up rhizomes, it is very time-consuming to plant enough elephant grass to feed a power station, or to make bio-fuel for cars. If the grass produced seed, areas could be planted 200 times faster.

Currently, the UK demand for biomass for electricity is more than 5 million tonnes a year, of which 75% is imported − which partly defeats the object, since transporting biomass uses fossil fuels.

The theory is that all of these imports could be replaced by elephant grass if UK farmers were given the means to plant enough.

“We need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels”

In addition, smaller local biomass plants could be built near where the elephant grass grows, thus cutting transport costs. And any surplus could be used to produce liquid fuel to power lorries and cars.

According to enthusiasts, if a car engine used a gallon of fuel every 25 miles, one tonne of miscanthus could produce biofuel to drive over 750 miles.

Once the grass has been planted, it lives for 20 years and produces 10-20 tonnes of fuel per hectare. It is also said to be beneficial for birds and wildlife that live protected inside the almost impenetrable foliage and in the leaf litter between the rows.

In some parts of the world, miscanthus varieties that do produce seeds can be a problem as they can block watercourses and are hard to remove once their roots have become established.

However, the scientists at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences are confident that they can produce a plant that reproduces and grows well in European conditions, while avoiding any environmental problems with careful management.

Reduce emissions

Dr John Clifford Brown, leader of the project, believes that the crop will benefit the agricultural industry and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.

He revealed that the university has already spent 10 years working on developing miscanthus into a crop that can supply the UK’s growing biomass demand, and that the seeds of the new hybrids will be planted at four trial sites across the UK to see which performs best.

“Several harvesting approaches will be explored to maximise crop quality and quantity,” he said. “The overall goal is to develop new systems for miscanthus-based agriculture that increase profitability, and so enable transition of today’s niche crop into a large-scale biomass supply system.

“The UK needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and we also need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels.” – Climate News Network

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Forest loss and land degradation fuel climate crisis

Forest loss and land degradation fuel climate crisis

UN studies show that the combined effects of degraded farmland and the felling and burning of trees are costing the planet trillions of dollars in ecosystem losses.

LONDON, 25 September, 2015 – The planet’s forests have dwindled by 3% − equivalent almost to the land area of South Africa − in the last 25 years, according to a new assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

While the planet continues to lose its forests – albeit at a slower rate – through felling, burning or being turned into farmland, another UN study predicts that the economic cost of degraded agricultural land in the form of lost ecosystem services now amounts to up to US$10 trillion a year.

Within 10 years, 50 million people could have been forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods to become migrants. If all those people were assembled in one place, they would constitute the planet’s 28th biggest nation in terms of population.

Increasing levels

Forest loss and farmland degradation are both part of climate change accountancy. The rise in greenhouse gases is in part linked to the loss of forest cover to soak up the carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels.

But increasing levels of heat and drought are likely to accompany climate change, increasing the area of desert or land too arid to support life and industry.

So in losing forest, and in watching farmland become saline because of over-irrigation, or exhausted by intensive cultivation or overgrazing, or simply increasingly too arid to support vegetation, humans are witnessing the loss of all sorts of valuable services not normally recorded by accountants.

Ideas such as “natural capital” and ecosystem services are attempts to place a practical value on things that nature normally delivers for free.

The percentage of global land area hit
by drought doubled between the 1970s
and the early years of this century

That is because living things – plants and soil fauna in particular – provide food, fibres, medicines and building materials, as well as helping to provide clean water, regulate disease, and recycle nutrients.

The United Nations University report believes that the loss of these services could now be between $6.3 trillion and $10.6 trillion a year in value. This is between 10% and 17% of global gross domestic product.

Alternatively, the “lost services” per square kilometre amount to between $43,000 and $72,000. Or, to put it yet another way, that is between $870 and $1,450 per person per year for everyone on the planet.

And 57% of world agricultural land is now either moderately or severely degraded, the report says. The percentage of global land area hit by drought doubled between the 1970s and the early years of this century.

Ecosystem services

One-third of Africa is threatened by desertification, and land cover changes since 2000 are responsible for half to three-quarters of the value of lost ecosystem services.

Separate from this, but also part of the overall climate change accounting equation, has been the steady loss of forests.

Researchers recently completed the first realistic “census” of the planet’s forests, and arrived at an inventory of more than three trillion trees, but also the conclusion that humans were destroying forests at the rate of 15 billion trees a year.

The latest UN global forest assessment acknowledges that, 25 years ago, around 7.3 million hectares were being lost each year. This slowed to 3.3m hectares a year between 2010 and 2015.

Tropical forests were hardest hit, with a loss rate of 10%. A decline in “natural forest” has been offset by a 66% rise in planted forest, and Australia in particular has actually gained 1.5m hectares of forested land in the last five years. – Climate News Network

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Developing countries set an example on emissions cuts

Developing countries set an example on emissions cuts

Ethiopia and Morocco praised for pledges on reducing greenhouse gases that are far more ambitious than those of China and Canada.

LONDON, 12 September, 2015 – A review of four governments’ plans for cutting their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use praises two developing countries for their ambition.

The review, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says Ethiopia and Morocco have plans that leave the strategies of the other two countries, China and Canada, far behind.

The UCS analysis examines how the four countries intend to limit GHGs in the agriculture, forestry and land-use sector − known collectively as AFOLU.

It finds that despite vast potential to mitigate AFOLU carbon emissions, China and Canada have set their bars low, compared with their poorer counterparts, and fail to be sufficiently specific about the details of their plans.

Reduce warming

The four countries’ plans are spelled out in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are the pledges made by governments − in the run-up to the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in December – on how they plan to reduce their global warming emissions.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia and Morocco were the only two governments, out of 15 countries assessed by Climate Action Tracker, that were judged to have submitted INDCs consistent with holding the global temperature rise below the internationally-agreed safety level of 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Doug Boucher, director of the UCS Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, said of the AFOLU analysis: “With land-use sector emissions responsible for one-fourth of total global emissions, it’s essential that countries strive to realise their full potential to reduce carbon emissions in this area.

“Their INDCs must also explicitly define their goals and establish a clear framework to implement their plan, monitor its progress, and achieve its aims. Otherwise, it won’t be possible to reduce global emissions sufficiently to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 2°C.”

China, one of the eight countries contributing 57% of all land-use sector emissions, has significant potential to reduce those emissions, according to an earlier UCS study.

“It’s essential that countries strive to realise
their full potential to reduce carbon emissions
[in the land-use sector]”

In its INDC, China undertook to increase forested areas and to reduce nitrous oxide emissions through improved rice field management practices to ensure zero growth in fertiliser use by 2020.

But UCS is critical. The report’s lead author, Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, says: “It’s hard to tell from China’s INDC if they’re committing to going above and beyond the status quo to do their part to reduce global warming emissions in the land-use sector, or if they’re simply maintaining their current momentum and putting previously planned actions to paper.”

Canada’s INDC is also problematic, UCS says. It found weaknesses in transparency, specificity and ambition, and says Canada’s plans will omit naturally-occurring emissions − such as the destruction of forests through fire or disease − from its accounting.

“This strategy would be understandable if such natural contributions were truly beyond human control,” Boucher says.

“However, much of Canada’s forest-related emissions result from forest fires and beetle infestations, both of which are affected by human management and should be taken into account.”

The land-use sector accounts for 88% of global warming emissions in Ethiopia, which proposes to cut its emissions primarily through improved forest and agriculture management policies.

But, while calling the country’s carbon emissions reduction goal “impressive”, UCS says Ethiopia does not specify how far it will be able to reduce its emissions if it cannot obtain funding from abroad.

Level of uncertainty

“While Ethiopia’s INDC has outdone China’s ambition and is more forthcoming than Canada’s, their dependence on international financing creates a level of uncertainty,” Boucher says.

Morocco’s INDC is judged the strongest of the four. By modernising its agricultural sector, establishing policies to increase forest areas and rehabilitating existing ecosystems, the country plans to reduce emissions from all sectors of the economy by 13% by 2030 through its own efforts, or 31% with foreign funding.

“China and Canada’s strategies . . . pale in comparison to the priority and specificity Morocco gives it in their INDC,” Ferretti-Gallon says. “Additionally, unlike Ethiopia’s plan, Morocco confirms that action is possible, even without external international financing.

“Morocco has shown a model that other developing nations should emulate in terms of both crafting a strong INDC and taking advantage of the enormous potential to reduce carbon emissions in the land-use sector.” – Climate News Network

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World must avert flood of climate refugees

World must avert flood of climate refugees

A senior British politician says we face a humanitarian crisis on an immense scale if millions of people have to flee the impacts of global warming.

LONDON, 9 September, 2015 – The former leader of one of the UK’s main political parties says the world will undergo more resource wars and huge movements of desperate people unless it tackles climate change effectively.

Lord Ashdown, who was leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats for 11 years, describes the present flight of refugees from Syria and other conflict areas as a “rehearsal” for the vast humanitarian disaster he believes will soon unfold.

In a recent BBC interview on the Syrian refugee crisis, he said: “This is the beginnings of the future. It’s not going to go away.

“The numbers we now have of refugees fleeing battle zones are going to be diminished into almost nothing when we see the mass movement of populations caused by global warming.”

Politicians blind

Lord Ashdown, a former marine and diplomat, known popularly as Paddy, told Climate News Network: “I raised the issue of climate refugees then because I’ve been trying for a very long time to get the international community to take some notice of them.

“I raised it to make the problem more obvious – though I do not know why politicians continue to be so blind to it.”

He said evidence of the impacts of climate change was plain to see: “You need only to fly over some of the areas that are being affected – like the Naga Hills on the border of India and Burma, or vast areas of the Ganges delta – to see clearly what’s happening.”

Tahmima Anam, a Bangladeshi writer and novelist, says that 50,000 people migrate every month to Dhaka, the capital city, because rising sea levels are making their villages uninhabitable and their arable land impossible to cultivate.

“The Syrian crisis is simply a dress rehearsal for an immense climate-fuelled disaster, which I think will begin to be felt within the next decade”

In both the UK and the US, military leaders are aware of the growing threat from climate change and expect to be ordered to react to its effects.

Lord Ashdown said: “If governments do not act, then wars over land and resources − which is what the second Iraq war was − will become more common.”

As long ago as 2003, a report prepared for the US Department of Defense warned that global climate change is more likely to result in sudden, cataclysmic environmental events than a gradual and manageable rise in average temperatures.

Such events, the report said, could include a substantial increase in global sea levels, intense storms and hurricanes, and continent-wide “dustbowl” effects, which could lead to wars for access to food, water, habitable land and energy supplies.

“Violence and disruption stemming from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed to today,” the report said.

Controversial role

Lord Ashdown foresees a direct and controversial role for military forces in the near future − not simply in fighting these wars, but also in controlling refugee flows.

Asked whether he thought the UK’s armed forces would be ordered to defend the country’s borders, or to stop refugees leaving their countries of origin, or simply to play a humanitarian role, he replied: “All of those.”

He went on: “The idea of Open Europe is now under threat. We have to discuss how we can manage the future. Can you imagine what is going to happen?

“The Syrian crisis is simply a dress rehearsal for an immense climate-fuelled disaster, which I think will begin to be felt within the next decade, perhaps within five or six years from now.”

Asked what his priorities would be for a government facing mass migration of this sort, Lord Ashdown replied: “Once the crisis is upon you, it’s too late to start working out your priorities.

“This is about forethought, the need to look ahead. And you can’t approach it on a purely British basis. It has to be an international effort consistent with our principles.” – Climate News Network

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Climate models may misjudge soils’ carbon emissions

Climate models may misjudge soils' carbon emissions

How soil organisms cope with decaying vegetation is much less certain than climate models suppose, researchers say, and carbon emission estimates may be wrong. 

LONDON, 29 August, 2015 – Some of the microscopic creatures which live in the soil are able to digest dead plants and trees, turning their contents into gas and minerals.

But researchers say their work show that our understanding of how organic material is decomposed is fundamentally wrong, calling into question some current climate models.

The researchers, from Lund University, Sweden, and the University of New Hampshire, USA, have published their study in the journal Ecological Monographs. They say it means that climate models which include micro-organisms in their estimates of future climate change must be reconsidered.

When plants or trees die, their leaves and branches fall to the ground and the organic matter which is absorbed by the soil is then decomposed, mainly by the activity of fungi and bacteria, which convert the dead materials into the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and mineral nutrients.

Until now, the Lund team says, scientists had thought that high-quality organic materials, such as leaves that are rich in soluble sugars, were mainly decomposed by bacteria, leaving the lower-quality matter, like cellulose and lignin, to be broken down mainly by fungi.

Expectations confounded

Previous research has suggested that organic material decomposed by fungi results in less CO2 and nutrient leakage compared with matter decomposed by bacteria.

This is important for the climate models in use today, as any change in the loss of CO2 and mineral nitrogen would alter the soil’s contribution to greenhouse gases and eutrophication, the process in which the release of excessive chemical pollution causes algal blooms in watercourses.

The researchers have now examined the relative significance of fungal and bacterial decomposition over a 23-year period. “In contrast with expectations, there was no evidence that high-quality organic material was mainly broken down by bacteria. In fact, the data strongly suggested the contrary”, says Johannes Rousk, researcher in microbial ecology at Lund.

“There was also no evidence to suggest that organic material broken down by fungi reduced the leakage of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or the leakage of nutrients. Once again, the results tended to suggest the contrary”, he says.

He and his co-author, Serita D Frey, say the results could have consequences not only for climate models, but also for current policies on land use intended to encourage fungi, which they think may be based on flawed assumptions about the role of fungi in reducing environmental damage.

New models

But they cannot say precisely what the significance of their findings may prove to be for greenhouse gases. Dr Rousk told the Climate News Network: Current models for carbon and nutrient turnover used by the IPCC, for example, and other organisations offering advice to governments do not yet explicitly incorporate microbial communities.

A new generation of models is under development that have begun to do this. These will be affected by our results, which challenge current beliefs held in soil microbial ecology.

So our results will not directly affect current models or their predictions, but the development of next generation models. It is probably not possible to conclude whether the models in use today have led to over-estimates of releases, or the opposite.

By revising the interpretation of fungal and bacterial roles in decomposition, and their potential for carbon and nutrient release from soils, our results will hopefully reduce the ‘noise in the models and increase the precision of predictions.

Decomposition and other soil processes are estimated to account for nearly 30% of all naturally-produced CO2 emissions. – Climate News Network

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Drought becoming the ‘new normal’ for Californians

Drought becoming the ‘new normal’ for Californians

Human impacts on global warming and water resources are threatening to turn the landscape of the US west into a dustbowl.

LONDON, 28 August, 2015 – One way or another, humans are to blame for the catastrophic drought in California that scientists say may be emerging as a “new normal”.

Either humans have mismanaged the state’s water, or human-triggered global warming has begun to help turn America’s landscape of wine and roses into a dustbowl, according to two new studies.

And the arguments have relevance extending far beyond the US west, as the European Drought Observatory has warned that much of mainland Europe is now caught up in the continent’s worst drought since 2003.

The consequences of any drought could also be more enduring than expected.  A research team in the US reports in the journal Ecological Applications that trees that survived severe drought in the US southeast 10 years ago are now dying – because of the long-ended drought.

Complex connections

Such statements are simple, but the connections with climate change are complex. That is because drought is a natural cyclic turn of events, even in well-watered countries. It is one of those extremes that, summed up, make the average climate.

Global warming or not, droughts would happen. California in particular has a history of periodic drought that dates back far beyond European settlement and the state’s growth to become the most populous in the US.

But the drought that began in 2012 – and which has cost the agricultural industry more than $2 billion, lost 17,000 jobs, and so far killed 12 million trees – is the worst in at least a century.

“Soaring temperatures will increase demand
for energy just when water for power generation
and cooling is in short supply”

Amir AghaKouchak, a hydrologist at the University of California Irvine, and colleagues say in Nature journal that they want authorities to recognise that human factors are making cyclic water scarcity worse.

They say: “Severe and long-lasting droughts have occurred in reconstructions of the region’s past climate, so it is not clear whether California’s current drought is a temporary weather condition or is the emergence of a ‘new normal’.

“Observations and climate projections indicate that California’s climate is warming, with more winter rainfall instead of snow, earlier snow melt, and decreases in spring and summer stream flows. Future droughts will be compounded by more-intense heatwaves and more wildfires.

“Soaring temperatures will increase demand for energy just when water for power generation and cooling is in short supply. Such changes will increase the tension between human priorities and nature’s share.”

Rising levels

The researchers leave open the question of the role of global warming, fuelled by rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide because of increasing fossil fuel combustion. But US scientists report in Geophysical Research Letters that they think global warming could have contributed up to 27% of the present drought.

Their study, based on analysis of month-by-month meteorological data for more than a century, identifies a trend towards drought that is in step with warming since 1901. And they argue that even through the present drought is natural, it has been modestly intensified by climate change.

More ominously, global warming has amplified the probability of severe drought. The new study suggests that, by the 2060s, California may be in more or less permanent drought. Rainfall might increase, but not enough to make up for greater evaporation because of rising temperatures.

“A lot of people think that the amount of rain that falls out the sky is the only thing that matters,” says the report’s lead author, A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “But warming changes the baseline amount of water that’s available to us, because it sends water back into the sky.” – Climate News Network

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Extreme weather puts Africa’s food security at risk

Extreme weather puts Africa's food security at risk

A British government scientific panel says increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather threaten more – and more severe – global food crises.

LONDON, 15 August, 2015 – Developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa which depend heavily on food imports will be worst hit by the increasingly extreme global weather, a report says, with the Middle East and North Africa also threatened, in this case by social unrest.

In contrast, the authors say the impact on the world’s biggest economies is likely to be muted. But they think a serious crisis could occur as soon as 2016, with repercussions in many countries.

They write: We present evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing…preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040.”

The report was jointly commissioned by the UKs Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its Government Science and Innovation Network, with a foreword by the countrys former chief government scientist, Sir David King.

He writes: We know that the climate is changing and weather records are being broken all the time…The food system we increasingly rely on is a global enterprise. Up to now its been pretty robust and extreme weather has had limited impact on a global scale. But…the risks are serious and should be a cause for concern…

Likely scenarios

We should be looking carefully at even very low probability situations, and the likelihood of the scenarios suggested in this report are far too significant to ignore.”

The report says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2050 global food demand will be 60% above todays, with per capita demand also growing, and more meat-eating.

In 2007/8 a small weather-related production shock, coupled with historically low stock levels, led to rapid food price inflation in the main internationally traded grains, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index.

Prices rose by over 100%. A similar price spike occurred in 2010/11, partly driven by the weather in eastern Europe and Russia.

In 2012, the worst drought to hit the American Midwest for half a century triggered comparable spikes in international maize and soya prices. There is good evidence, the report says, that extreme weather events, from intense storms to droughts and heat waves, are increasing significantly.

Food production of the globally most important commodity crops (maize, soya, wheat and rice) comes from a small number of major producing countries.

Multiple failure

Simultaneous extreme weather events in two or more of these regions – creating a multiple bread basket failure – would represent a serious production shock. There is an urgent need to understand the driving dynamics of linked problems such as the El Niño effect – which may be becoming more extreme – the report says.

By examining production shocks in the recent past, the authors devised what they call a plausible worst case scenario” – a simultaneous drought affecting maize and soya production, and another which damages wheat and rice harvests.

More topically, they also describe what they say is a plausible worst case scenario for 2016. This involves a complex sequence, starting with a disappointing 2015 Indian monsoon, the loss of much of 2016s Black Sea winter wheat crop, and then Russian and Ukrainian export bans.

International wheat prices rise fast, prompting similar measures in south and central Asia and Argentina, and repercussions as far afield as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

In late spring a persistent drought starts in North America, affecting soya and maize forecasts and prices. Then a heatwave and drought hit the European wheat crop, leading to further rises across all cereals.

Panicked markets

In early summer a second failure of the Indian monsoon unleashes panic in the rice market, where Asian households have been steadily hoarding. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Nepal impose export restrictions.

Major importers such as Nigeria, Malaysia and the Philippines place orders far above normal levels in a bid to calm domestic markets. The scenario ends with still more countries
– Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia – imposing export bans.

One of the reports recommendations is that agriculture should adapt to a changing climate.

That, it says, means productivity must be increased by reversing declines in yield growth and closing the gap between actual and attainable yields in the developing world, while also reducing agricultures environmental impact, including the depletion of fresh water and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it says, given the increasing risk of extreme weather, this cannot come at the expense of production resilience. – Climate News Network

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Added gene can make rice more climate-friendly

Added gene can make rice more climate-friendly

Scientists discover a way to boost production of the grain that billions rely on for food – and reduce its damaging emissions of methane.

LONDON, 14 August, 2015 – An international team of scientists has found a way to make rice more productive, more nutritious and less of a greenhouse gas producer – simply by adding just one gene from the cereal, barley.

The single gene SUSIBA 2 – the acronym stands for sugar signalling in barley – makes all the difference. And the importance of the breakthrough is that rice feeds half the world – but, as it grows, is one of the great sources of the greenhouse gas, methane.

The world’s rice paddy fields release up to 100 million tonnes each year of methane − possibly 17% of the global total.

And although methane emissions are small compared with carbon dioxide, each molecule of methane is far more potent a global warmer. The gas is 34 times more potent than CO2 over a century, but 84 times more so over a much shorter timespan – just 20 years.

Ideal conditions

The conditions ideal for rice – warm and waterlogged, and mud, rich with nutrients − are also ideal for the generation of methane.

The scientists from China, Sweden and the US report in Nature journal that they calculated that if they could do something to encourage the conversion of sugars to starches in the rice plant, there would be more productivity in the stalk and ears, and less around the roots, where the methane-generating bacteria flourish.

In their words, this would “generate a high starch, low methane emission variety”.

They used transcription factor technology – a form of genetic modification that could soon also deliver better drought tolerance in some important crop plants – and began tests at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Fuzhou, China, in 2012 and 2013. Transcription factors bind to genes and turn them on or off.

“As the world’s population grows, so will rice production. And as the Earth warms, so will rice paddies, resulting in even more methane emissions”

Earlier experiments in Sweden had helped the team understand how to manage the transcription factors so they could just about dictate which parts of the plant absorbed more of the carbon taken from the atmosphere by photosynthesis.

The result was a rice variety that yielded more starch, so that it delivered more energy per spoonful for a hungry household, or that could be converted to more biofuel during times of surplus.

Japanese scientists, too, have been looking for ways to get all the value they can out of one of the world’s most vital crops. But the other important outcome, the researchers say, was a near-elimination of methane production from around the roots.

The next step is to look at what happens in the paddy fields, and try to understand what is going on and what the change could mean for methane-generating bacteria.

Test variety

The scientists also dried the whole plant once it had ripened to examine what had occurred, and to compare it with control varieties in the same fields. They found that grains of the test variety contained almost 87% starch, compared with 77% in the control sample.

The research still has a long way to go, but given that global population could sometime this century hit or even surpass 10 billion, and given that the land available for farming cannot expand, there is pressure to increase yields per field.

Ominously, research so far suggests that global warming – and the accompanying greater extremes of heat in the growing season – could reduce yields. So plant scientists must make the most of any advances in the understanding of the biology of growth.

“The need to increase starch content and to lower methane emissions from rice production is widely recognised, but the ability to do both simultaneously has eluded researchers,” says Christer Jansson, a co-author of the report, and director of plant sciences at the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“As the world’s population grows, so will rice production. And as the Earth warms, so will rice paddies, resulting in even more methane emissions. It’s an issue that must be addressed.” – Climate News Network

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Mangroves hold key to Indonesia’s emissions cuts

Mangroves hold key to Indonesia’s emissions cuts

New study says Indonesia could go a quarter of the way to reaching its 2020 target for carbon emissions reduction by ending the destruction of its vital mangrove forests.

LONDON, 27 July, 2015 – Indonesia, one of the world’s largest carbon emitters, would take a major step towards losing that tag by protecting its massive mangrove forests, according to new research.

The mangroves, which store prodigious quantities of carbon, are currently disappearing fast − often destroyed to make room for aquaculture to satisfy the wants of lucrative foreign markets.

But a team from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and colleagues report in the journal Nature Climate Change that protecting the mangroves could take Indonesia a quarter of the way to achieving the whole of the greenhouse gas emissions cuts it plans for 2020.

Indonesia, with the longest coastline in the tropics, has more mangroves than any other country − more than 2.9 million hectares. But it also has one of the world’s fastest rates of mangrove loss.

The main threats to the forests include conversion to shrimp ponds, logging, conversion of land to agriculture or salt pans, and degradation by oil spills and pollution.

In 2013, Indonesia’s revenue from shrimp exports was close to US$1.5bn, almost 40% of the total revenue from the country’s fishery sector.

Grave threat

The researchers say the Indonesian mangroves, some of which grow to 50 metres in height, store 3.14 billion tonnes of carbon, which amounts to one-third of the carbon stored in Earth’s coastal ecosystems.

But they are under grave threat. In the last 30 years, 40% of these coastal forests have gone, and the annual rate of loss now is about 52,000 hectares, causing substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

The current rate of destruction means that 190 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) are emitted annually. That is 42% of the world’s annual emissions from the destruction of coastal ecosystem services − marshes, mangroves and sea grasses.

Put more graphically, Indonesia’s destruction of its mangroves emits as much greenhouse gas as if every car in the country was driven around the world twice.

“We hope that these numbers help policymakers see mangroves as a huge opportunity for climate change mitigation,” says Daniel Murdiyarso, principal scientist at CIFOR and lead author of the paper.

“It is time to acknowledge that mangroves must be part of the solution to climate change”

“But to make progress, it is crucial that mangroves are protected and managed sustainably. It is time to acknowledge that mangroves must be part of the solution to climate change.”

Dr Murdiyarso is also co-author of a CIFOR guide on climate change adaptation and mitigation in Indonesia’s wetlands.

In a separate study, published in the Royal Society Proceedings A, further light is shed on the crucial role mangroves play in protecting coastal areas from sea level rise caused by climate change.

The study, by researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, and colleagues from the universities of Auckland and Waikato in New Zealand, used mathematical simulations to discover how mangrove forests respond to elevated sea levels.

Mesh-like roots

When sea levels rise, they found, areas in estuaries and river deltas without mangroves are likely to widen from erosion, and more water will encroach inwards. But mangrove regions prevent this effect, probably because of soil building up around the trees’ mesh-like roots and acting to reduce energy from waves and tidal currents.

Dr Barend van Maanen, a coastal systems researcher in the department of engineering and environment at the University of Southampton, explains: “As a mangrove forest begins to develop, the creation of a network of channels is relatively fast. Tidal currents, sediment transport and mangroves significantly modify the estuarine environment, creating a dense channel network.

“Within the mangrove forest, these channels become shallower through organic matter from the trees . . . and sediment trapping (caused by the mangroves), and the sea bed begins to rise, with bed elevation increasing a few millimetres per year until the area is no longer inundated by the tide.”

In modelling of sea level rise in the study, the ability of mangrove forest to gradually create a buffer between sea and land occurs even when the area is subjected to potential sea level rises of up to 0.5mm per year.

“These findings show that mangrove forests play a central role in estuarine and salt marsh environments,” says Giovanni Coco, associate professor in the school of environment at the University of Auckland.

“As we anticipate changes caused by climate change, it’s important to know the effect sea level rise might have, particularly around our coasts.” − Climate News Network

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Climate threat as grave a risk as nuclear war

Climate threat as grave a risk as nuclear war

An international scientific report commissioned by the UK government says the risks of climate change are comparable to those posed by nuclear conflict.

LONDON, 18 July, 2015 – The UK government says that climate change poses risks that demand to be treated as seriously as the threat  of nuclear war.

Scientists from the UK, US, India and China say in a report commissioned by the UK that deciding what to do about climate change depends on the value we put on human life, both now and in years to come.

One of the lead authors of the report is Sir David King, formerly the UK government’s chief scientist, who last month co-authored a report on the scale of investment that should be made to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2025. 

In a foreword to the latest report, Baroness Anelay, a minister at the British foreign office, writes that assessing the risks surrounding nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation means understanding inter-dependent elements − including what science says is possible, what other countries may intend, and systemic factors such as regional power dynamics.

“The risk of climate change demands a similarly holistic assessment,” she says.

Value human life

She concludes: “How much do we care about the effects of climate change? How important is it that we act to avoid them? What probability of their occurrence can we tolerate?…The answers to these questions depend in part on how we value human life – both now, and in the future.”

The report is not the first to put climate chaos and nuclear devastation in the same category of risk, but its sponsorship by one of the world’s nuclear powers is eloquent.

It says the most important political decision is how much effort to exert on countering climate change, taking into account what we are doing to the climate, how it may respond, what that could do to us, and what we might then do to each other.

The authors’ best guess, based on current policies and trends, is that greenhouse gas emissions will keep going up for another few decades, and then either level off or slowly decline.

“Uncertainty is not our friend. There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky”

This, they say, is for two reasons: governments are not making maximum use of the technologies already available; and technology is not yet progressing fast enough to give governments the policy options they will need. In the worst case, emissions could keep on rising throughout the century.

They warn that how the climate may change, and what that could do to us, are both highly uncertain. “The important thing to understand is that uncertainty is not our friend,” the report says. “There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky.”

High emissions pathway

The report foresees wide ranges of possible global temperature and sea level increase. On a high emissions pathway, it says, where the most likely temperature rise is estimated at 5°C by 2100, anything from 3°C to 7°C may be possible.

On this pathway, the chances of staying below 3°C will become “vanishingly small”, but the chances of exceeding 7°C will increase and could become more likely than not within the next century.

The authors see very little chance that global sea level rise will slow down, and every chance that it will accelerate. The only question is by how much.

“While an increase of somewhere between 40cm and 1m looks likely this century, the delayed response of huge ice-sheets to warming means we may already be committed to more than 10m over the longer term. We just do not know whether that will take centuries or millennia.”

A temperature increase of 4°C or more could pose very large risks to global food security, and to people.

Humans have limited tolerance for combinations of high temperature and humidity. Their upper limits of tolerance are rarely if ever exceeded by climatic conditions alone, but with temperature increase somewhere between 5°C and 7°C, it starts to become likely that hot places will experience conditions that are fatal even for people lying down in the shade.

Population growth alone is also likely to double the number of people living below a threshold of extreme water shortage by mid-century.

Sea level thresholds

Coastal cities, according to the report, probably have thresholds in terms of the rate and extent of sea level rise that they can deal with, but we have very little idea where those thresholds are.

The authors say that even the 0.8°C of climate change experienced so far is now causing us significant problems, and that “it seems likely that high degrees of climate change would pose enormous risks to national and international security” − for example, through extreme water stress and competition for productive land.

In a highly topical passage, they say migration from some regions may become more a necessity than a choice, and could happen on a historically unprecedented scale.

“The capacity of the international community for humanitarian assistance, already at full stretch, could easily be overwhelmed,” the report warns.

The risks of state failure could rise significantly, affecting many countries simultaneously, and even threatening those currently considered developed and stable.

But the report is not relentlessly downbeat. “An honest assessment of risk is no reason for fatalism,” it says. “Just as small changes in climate can have very large effects, the same can be true for changes in government policy, technological capability, and financial regulation… the goal of preserving a safe climate for the future need not be beyond our reach.” – Climate News Network

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