Central Asia’s glaciers may lose half their ice by mid-century

Central Asia’s glaciers may lose half their ice by mid-century

The speed at which the warming climate is melting glaciers in Central Asia may ruin the water supply of millions of people within 50 years.

LONDON, 22 August, 2015 – Glaciers in the largest mountain range in Central Asia, the Tien Shan, have lost over a quarter of their mass in the last 50 years, and nearly a fifth of their area.

An international team of researchers estimates that since the 1960s the glaciers have shrunk by almost 3,000 square kilometres, losing an average of 60 sq km of ice annually.

The Tien Shan reach almost 7,500 metres (24,500 feet) in height, and are a vital reservoir for the countries through which they pass – China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The team, from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), report in the current online issue of Nature Geoscience that about half of the mountains’ glacier volume could be depleted by the 2050s.

The researchers say the Tien Shan (which in Chinese means “the celestial mountains”) have lost 27% of their mass and 18% of their area since 1960.

Glaciers worldwide are melting at unprecedented rates, which is serious because they are often irreplaceable sources of drinking water, hydropower and irrigation. The Tien Shan are no different.

Long-term storage

The mountains form a vital part of Central Asia’s water cycle. Snow and glacier melt from the Tien Shan is essential for the water supply of the four countries they traverse.

“Despite this importance, only a little was known about how glaciers in this region changed over the last century,” says the principal investigator, Daniel Farinotti. Most of the direct monitoring programmes, which were closed with the end of the Soviet Union, have been resumed only recently.

Farinotti, from GFZ, and his colleagues have completed a reconstruction of the glaciers’ evolution in the Tien Shan. “We combined various methods based on satellite gravimetry, laser altimetry and glaciological modelling”, he says.

This let them plot the evolution of every single glacier. They came up with some surprising findings: currently, the range is losing ice at a pace that equals roughly double the annual water consumption of the whole of Germany.

Glaciers can store water as ice for decades, transferring winter snow and rainfall to the summer months by releasing it as meltwater. This is particularly important in seasonally arid regions which have months with virtually no precipitation. Their local water supply depends on meltwater availability, as Central Asia knows from experience.

Increased temperature contributes to both increased melt and reduced glacier nourishment”

Many people in Central Asia depend on water seasonally impounded by the glaciers of the Tien Shan, not only for water itself but for hydro-electricity and for food.

The pace of glacier retreat in the Tien Shan accelerated noticeably in the decade from the 1970s. Daniel Farinotti says: “The long-term signal is clearly related to the overall rise in temperature”. The study shows that the rise in temperature, and summer temperature in particular, is a primary influence on the region’s glaciers.

“Since the winter months in Central Asia are very dry and the mountains are that high, glaciers receive most of their snowfall during the summer”, Farinotti explains. “This means that an increased temperature contributes to both increased melt and reduced glacier nourishment – and obviously, both contribute to glacier wastage.”

Using the latest climate projections, which expect an additional 2°C of warming in summer temperatures between 2021 and 2050, the authors suggest what the mountains’ future evolution may look like. Half of the total glacier ice volume of the Tien Shan today could be lost by the 2050s, they believe. – Climate News Network

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Clouds over China’s solar power industry

Clouds over China’s solar power industry

China is by far the world’s biggest producer of solar panels, but the industry could become a victim of its own success.

LONDON, 10 August, 2015 – The recent turmoil in China’s stock market has sent shockwaves through the country’s corporate sector, including its mighty solar power industry which in recent years has grown to dominate the world market.

Harnessing solar energy is considered a key way of cutting back on fossil fuel use and of meeting the challenge posed by climate change.

Seven out of the world’s top ten manufacturers of solar panels are China-based companies, together providing about 40% of global solar supplies.

But now the industry’s future expansion is under threat as companies try to cope with too much production capacity, very low profit margins and crushing amounts of debt.

In 2013 Suntech, a Chinese company which was at one time the world’s biggest manufacturer, went bust. International creditors are still trying to recoup millions lent to the company.

Earlier this year the Hanergy Thin Film Power Group, a Chinese company which is a world leader in the manufacture of solar products, lost half its share value amid concerns about its corporate structure and worries of over-capacity and falling profit margins in the solar market. 

Export boom

Meanwhile the China-based conglomerate Yingli Green Energy Holding, another world leader in solar production, has been beset with rumours of a slowdown in demand leading to a halt in production at some of its plants. 

Like many other industries in China, the solar sector has grown fast: in recent years companies rushed to join in a solar export boom, bolstered by generous loans from government banks. Exports of solar products surged.

But then US solar manufacturers complained of heavily subsidised China-made solar goods threatening to destroy their industry. 

Tariffs were imposed on a number of Chinese solar products. A slowdown in Europe’s economy also hit export sales.

China cut the price of its products: according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group, China now sells solar panels for just over 60 US cents per watt of electricity generating capacity, down from US$4.50 per watt in 2008.

While that’s good news for those installing solar – and of considerable benefit in the fight against climate change – the price drop has put considerable pressure on China’s solar manufacturers. It has also meant many solar companies elsewhere in the world have gone to the wall.

Ailing industry

Varun Sivaram is a researcher at the US Council on Foreign Relationsspecialising in renewable energy.  He says that while China’s dominance of the solar market has led to low global prices, the industry is not in a healthy state.

“Solar is heading down a path of profitless prosperity”, says Sivaram. In effect, he says, China is subsidising the global solar industry.

Sivaram says one of the damaging side effects of China’s dominance of the solar market is that production has tended to stick to old technologies and innovation in the industry has been stifled.

“As panel manufacturers scrape by on razor-thin margins, kept afloat by government credit, investing in fundamentally new technologies is far from a priority.” 

Some relief for the China industry might be provided by a government-backed campaign to boost sales in the domestic market.  About a third of panels manufactured in China in 2014 were installed within the country. 

It’s estimated that China will install 14 GWs (gigawatts) of solar panels this year, mainly involving giant solar farms in the Gobi desert and elsewhere. In central Europe an installed capacity of one GW of photovoltaics alone would be expected to produce almost 900 GWh of electricity annually, supplying around 225,000 households.

In the first three months of 2015 China added the equivalent of the entire installed solar power of France to its electricity network. Climate News Network

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Alaska’s glaciers melt faster as climate change speeds up

Alaska's glaciers melt faster as climate change speeds up

Climate change rather than natural causes is the main cause of Alaska’s glacier loss, which is set to speed up, US scientists say.

LONDON, 30 June, 2015 – The glaciers of Alaska are melting and retreating: the chief cause is climate change and the loss of ice is unlikely to slow, according to a new study by US scientists.

They calculate that the frozen rivers of the Pacific coast of America’s northernmost state are melting fast enough to cover the whole of Alaska with 30 cms of water every seven years.

Since Alaska is enormous – it covers 1.5 million square kilometres and is the size of California, Texas and Montana put together – this adds up to a significant contribution to sea level rise.

“The Alaska region has long been considered a primary player in the global sea level budget, but the exact details of the drivers and mechanisms of Alaska glacier change have been stubbornly elusive,” said Chris Larsen, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and lead author of a study in Geophysical Research Letters.

Taxonomy of change

Scientists from the University of Alaska and the US Geological Survey analysed studies of 116 glaciers in the Alaska region over a 19-year-period to estimate the rate at which ice melted and icebergs calved.

They used airborne lidar remote sensing technology and other techniques, historical data and a global glacier inventory to establish a kind of taxonomy of glacier change.

The Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound had retreated more than 19 kilometres because of iceberg calving and had thinned by 450 meters in height since 1980. But, unexpectedly, tidewater glaciers – those that end in the ocean – seemed to make comparatively little contribution to sea level rise.

“Instead we show that glaciers ending on land are losing mass exceptionally fast, overshadowing mass changes due to iceberg calving, and making climate-related melting the primary control on mountain glacier mass loss,” Dr Larsen said.

Big contributor

He and his colleagues calculated that Alaska is losing ice at the rate of 75 billion metric tons a year. Such research is just one more piece of careful cross-checking in the great mosaic of climate research: another systematic confirmation that overall, glaciers are not losing ice in response to some natural cycle of change of the kind that occasionally confuses the picture for climate science.

The agency at work is largely global warming as a response to the steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide as a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels.

Mountain glaciers represent only 1% of the total ice on the planet: the other 99% is found in Greenland – which is melting fast – and in the great frozen continent of Antarctica, where ice mass is being lost at an increasing rate.

But although the mountains of the temperate and tropic zones bear only a tiny percentage of the planet’s ice, their melting accounts for almost a third of the sea level rise currently measured by oceanographers, and this melting will go on to become a big contributor to the sea levels later this century.

“Alaska will continue to be a major driver of sea level change in the upcoming decades”

Across the border in Canada, glaciologists have warned that the country will lose a huge volume of flowing ice, and while one team has confirmed that air pollution rather than global warming long ago began to strip Europe’s Alps of their glaciers, in general mountain peaks are warming faster than the valleys and plains below them.

Geophysicists and glaciologists have established that the glaciers of the tropical Andes are at risk, and in the Himalayan mountain chain glaciers seem to be in inexorable retreat with consequences that could be devastating for the many millions in the Indian subcontinent and in China who rely on seasonal meltwater for agriculture.

Glaciers are by definition hard to study – they are high, cold and in dangerous terrain – and such research is inevitably incomplete: the scientists for instance excluded glaciers smaller than three square kilometres. But together these small patches of flowing ice account for 16% of Alaska’s glaciated landscape. The 116 glaciers in the survey together added up to only 41% of the state’s glaciated area.

But the pattern established by the Fairbanks team suggests that melting will accelerate with climate change. “Rates of loss from Alaska are unlikely to decline, since surface melt is the predominant driver, and summer temperatures are expected to increase,” said Dr Larsen.

“There is a lot of momentum in the system, and Alaska will continue to be a major driver of sea level change in the upcoming decades.” – Climate News Network

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Carbon storage hopes rise again

Carbon storage hopes rise again

Carbon capture and storage, if it proved possible, would help to make the main greenhouse gas harmless. American scientists say they are making progress.

LONDON, 20 April, 2015 – Two groups of US scientists are exploring new ways of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One technology mimics the tree by using artificial photosynthesis. The other exploits a membrane that is a thousand times more efficient than any tree.

Although the nations of the world agreed in 2009 to attempt to limit the global warming temperature rise this century to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, colossal quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are still being emitted into the atmosphere.

So some researchers have been exploring the technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS): ways of trapping CO2 as it leaves the power station chimney or machinery exhaust and storing it for burial or reuse. Others have proposed “artificial trees” that could remove the gas from the atmosphere.

Now a team from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of California at Berkeley report in the journal Nano Letters that their “potentially game-changing” technology could capture CO2 emissions before they get into the atmosphere and then use solar energy and water to turn the captured gas into the chemical substance acetate.

Once in acetate form, the substance could be the basis of pharmaceutical drug manufacture, biodegradable plastic feedstock, or even liquid fuel.

Renewable resources

Nanotechnology – engineering at precisions of a millionth of a millimetre – exploits a “forest” of light-capturing “nanowire arrays” dosed with selected populations of a bacterium called Sporomusa ovala to filter the flue gases for carbon dioxide. This inventive double act of silicon and a carbon-based life form then performs a conjuring trick called photo-electrochemistry: from the captured gas it delivers acetic acid, and it can go on doing so for about 200 hours.

A second bacterium – genetically engineered Escherichia coli – can then get to work on the product and turn it into acetyl coenzyme A as the starting point for a range of valuable chemical products. These could range from a precursor to the anti-malarial drug artemisinin to the fuel butanol.

“We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis,” said one of the authors, Peidong Yang of the Berkeley Lab. “Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting from deep below the ground.”

The research continues. Right now, this sample of solar-powered green chemistry is about as efficient as nature’s original chemical plant: the leaf. But another team, according to Physics World, have a prototype that is a thousand times better than a tree as a “sink” for the carbon in carbon dioxide.

Storage problem

Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University’s Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions and colleagues are testing a synthetic membrane that can capture carbon dioxide from the air that passes through it.

The technology is based on a resin that works in dry atmospheres (in humid environments it actually releases the carbon dioxide, so it wouldn’t work everywhere). Prototype collectors trap between 10% and 50% of all the carbon dioxide that blows through the membrane.

The trapped CO2 could then be stored in a container, and either shipped off for deep, long-term burial or exploited in some way, perhaps as the raw material for liquid fuel. How the technology could be exploited demands a little further investigation. There are plans to test the membranes on the laboratory’s roof in Arizona.

But it is one thing to efficiently collect carbon dioxide: another to deal with it. Dr Lackner estimates that it would demand about 100 million receptacles the size of shipping containers to hold the carbon dioxide now emitted from the planet’s factories, vehicles and power stations.

“I believe we have reached a point where it is really paramount for substantive public research and development of direct air capture,” he told the American Physical Society meeting in Maryland. “The Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions cannot do it alone.” – Climate News Network

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Unfinished nuclear plants raise safety doubts

Unfinished nuclear plants raise safety doubts

A new generation of giant reactors, meant to provide fresh hope for nuclear power in Europe, has been found to have a serious safety problem.

LONDON, 13 April, 2015 − The future of the world’s biggest nuclear reactor, under construction at Flamanville in northern France, is now in doubt after a serious flaw was found in its steel pressure vessel.

Examination has shown that the steel contains too much carbon, which can weaken the vessel’s structure and breaches safety rules. The Chinese, who have two similar 1,600 megawatt European Pressurised Reactors under construction, have been warned that they too may share the potentially catastrophic problem.

Investigations are continuing to check whether the problem can be rectified, but whatever happens it will add more delays and greater costs to the already troubled projects.

The problem also casts doubt on the much-heralded nuclear renaissance in Europe, where EPR reactors are being built not only in France but also in Finland.

Four more are planned for Britain, where they form a cornerstone of the UK government’s policy to fight climate change. A decision on whether to go ahead with the first two in the UK has already been postponed twice, and this revelation will cause further delays.

The French nuclear engineering firm Areva, involved in the EPR’s design and development, found the flawed steel and reported the problem to the country’s nuclear regulator, ASN, which has ordered an investigation.  The French energy minister, Ségolène Royal, says the results of tests to check the extent of the problem will be released in October.

Serious blow

It is understood that the maximum allowable carbon content of steel in the pressure vessel is 0.22%, but tests have shown 0.30% in parts of the Flamanville vessel. This could render it subject to cracking in operation and shorten its intended lifespan.

The discovery is another serious blow to the French nuclear industry, which already faces severe financial problems, partly because of existing delays to the reactors at Flamanville and at Finland’s Olkiluoto site. The Finnish reactor, which is not affected by this problem because its pressure vessel steel comes from Japan, not France,, is already nine years behind schedule for other reasons and has more than doubled in cost.

Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan any compromise on minimum safety standards would be hard to sell to the public, especially since nuclear power has fallen out of favour with the French government, which wants to invest heavily in renewables.

France is already considering merging Areva and Électricité de France (EDF), the two nuclear companies in which it owns the majority of shares. Areva is building the Flamanville reactor on behalf of EDF, Europe’s largest electricity producer.

EDF recently estimated the construction costs of Flamanville at €8 billion (US$8.7bn) compared with an original estimate of €3.3bn, and that was before this setback. The plant was due to have been working by now, but its start date had already been put back to 2017 – which is now looking optimistic.

It is understood that the parts of the pressure vessel found with excess carbon were manufactured in France at the Creusot Forge, in Burgundy, owned by Areva. It was this same company that made parts for the two Chinese reactors, hence the fears that they too will contain carbon above safety limits.

Large subsidies

One problem is the pressure vessel’s sheer size and the fact that it was already in place when the fault was detected. The vessel weighs 410 tonnes and cannot now be removed, and it is hard to see how it could be repaired or modified.

The problem was discovered in December but made public in a low-key website announcement only on 7 April.

One knock-on effect might be to seriously damage the British government’s own energy policy, which relies on building four similar reactors in England. Work has already been completed on preparatory works for two at Hinkley Point, in the west of England, using the Flamanville design.

The UK government has agreed large subsidies to support the projects, but EDF has repeatedly delayed signing a final deal to build them, because of a lack of investors. Two Chinese utilities were negotiating to back the project financially, but the discovery of a flaw at Flamanville may complicate matters.

In any event, the decision on whether to go ahead with the two reactors at Hinkley Point had already been postponed until the summer and now seems certain to be postponed yet again until the issue of the safety of the French and Chinese pressure vessels has been resolved.

The UK government has repeatedly said that the expansion of nuclear power is vital to its energy security and its ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets. The country is currently in the middle of a general election campaign. Whichever government gets into power may have to rapidly rethink its energy policy. − Climate News Network

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Old King Coal is sick – but not yet dying

Old King Coal is sick – but not yet dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contracting market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China and US deliver radical climate surprise

China and US deliver radical climate surprise

It’s been called an historic agreement − a game changer in the battle to combat climate change. But can China and the US fulfil the promises in their announcement of plans to cut carbon emissions?

LONDON, 13 November, 2014 − China went to considerable lengths to make sure that this week’s Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing was a successful affair.

Factories were shut down, car traffic and even cremations were restricted, and schools and most government offices were closed. As a result, delegates experienced blue skies over the Chinese capital, rather than the city’s notorious smog.

But the most newsworthy and surprising event came on the summit sidelines, with President Xi Jinping and President Obama warmly shaking hands as they unveiled plans for radical cutbacks in emissions of CO2 − the most potent of the climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Biggest emitters

China and the US are by far the world’s biggest emitters of CO2, with China accounting for more than 20% of total global CO2 emissions and the US 15%.

Under the plans announced in Beijing, the US says it will reduce CO2 emissions by between 26% and 28% from 2005 levels by 2025, and will achieve “economy-wide reductions in the order of 80% by 2050”.

Meanwhile, China for the first time announced a date when it says its CO2 emissions will peak − 2030 − and then taper downwards. It also said it would be ramping up its already ambitious renewables programme, with the potential of cutting back on CO2 emissions at an earlier date.

“These announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading”

In addition, Obama and Xi – despite their considerable differences on territorial, trade and other issues − announced plans to expand co-operation on various research and technology projects related to climate change.

“The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity,” said a White House statement.

“ The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the Beijing announcement was an important step towards a better and more secure future for human kind.

“Together, these announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading,” Figueres said.

Resilient world

“These announcements have the potential to unleash and accelerate the kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation needed to propel all economies towards ever greater levels of ambition – if not significantly exceeding their ambitions – en route to a low-carbon, resilient world over coming years and decades.”

However, amid the euphoria, some big questions remain:

  • Global CO2 emissions are still increasing, despite years of climate change negotiations and increased warnings from the scientific community about the dire consequences of a warming world. Experts say cutbacks have to be achieved much sooner than 2030 in order to halt runaway climate change.
  • Doubts persist about how realistic these cutbacks are. Under the plans, China will need to produce an extra 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of power from wind, solar and nuclear sources over the next 15 years − more power than its coal plants produce today. And experts point out that Beijing’s timeline for reducing emissions does not represent a binding target.
  • Obama is going to have a tough time pushing these plans through. Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, have already denounced the measures, saying they will seriously damage the US economy.
  • Negotiations on tackling climate change and limiting emissions of GHGs have been held on a worldwide basis under UN auspices. Such bilateral agreements as the one announced by the US and China could undermine the global consensus and weaken UN processes.

But the news from Beijing has been generally welcomed in the scientific community.

Nicholas Stern, lead author of the 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, says the US/China announcement will give momentum to a new global deal on climate due to be negotiated in Paris late next year.

“President Obama and President Xi should be congratulated for demonstrating real leadership with this historic announcement,” Stern told the Financial Times in London. – 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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Plan to make renewables cheaper than coal within 10 years

Plan to make renewables cheaper than coal within 10 years

Three weeks before the UN Secretary-General’s extraordinary meeting of world leaders in New York to tackle climate change, a leading British scientist unveils plans for a global low-carbon fund on a par with the Apollo Moon programme.

LONDON, 2 September 2014 – There are prospects of significant progress in the response of world governments to climate change, according to a former UK Government chief scientist, Sir David King.

“There are signs that a leadership role is beginning to emerge”, he told a conference in London held by the Green Economy Coalition.

Sir David also announced that he and a colleague are working with governments to raise funds to help all countries, including developing countries,  to switch to renewable energy. Their scheme hopes to raise nearly as much as the cost of the Apollo programme, NASA’s moon-landing project.

“President Obama is getting ready to commit the US to action, and last week the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Kichiang, announced that his country’s emissions had fallen by 5% in a year”, he said.

“The US and China are positioning themselves for an agreement. And that’s not all. The first speech by the new leader of India, Narendra Modi, spoke of his determination ‘to solarise’ the economy.

Ice in retreat

“Brazil’s emissions, including from deforestation, have fallen from 16.5 tonnes per person to 6.5 tonnes since 2005. Across the Andes in Peru, where the UN climate convention negotiations will take place in December, they know well enough about climate change.

“From Lima they can see the ice retreating up the mountains. At its lowest point it is now 1,000 metres above where it reached to 30 years ago..”

Sir David praised the UK’s commitment to cut greenhouse emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with their 1990 levels. He said the target – matched by Mexico – was likely to be met. The biggest climate challenge confronting the UK, he said, was from rising sea levels.

Some critics say, despite this, that the UK Government is dragging its feet, especially on supporting renewable energy. With a colleague, the economist Professor Lord Richard Layard, Sir David is working on a scheme to raise money to address this.

“It’s called the Global Apollo Programme”, he explained. “We are urging all governments to form a Commission to spend 0.02% of their GDP, which should raise US$10-20 bn p a over 10 years,  to fund RD&D for low-carbon technology.

“We are encouraging governments to launch the Programme at the UN during Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit on 23 September. The objective is that by 2020 renewable power should be cheaper than coal in all sunny parts of the world, and by 2025 in all parts of the world.”

Sir David, who for seven years was the UK Government’s chief scientist, is now its Foreign Secretary’s special representative for climate change. Asked if he were hopeful about progress to tackle climate change, he replied: “I’m in this job because I’m an optimist.”

Global reach

His hopes were echoed by another speaker, Hunter Lovins, president of the Colorado-based Natural Capitalism Solutions.  She told the Climate News Network: “We can do it. But it’s going to be tough. So will we do it?

“I don’t agree with the exponents of the idea of near-term human extinction (NTHE), who say we face total collapse by around 2030 or 2035.

‘”What we need is to find incentives for business, to get big countries behind solar+, the idea David King is working on – combining renewables and efficiency, with back-up where it’s needed.”

Professor Lovins told the conference: “Business-as-usual is going to get really ugly. What’s the narrative we can produce to compete with neo-liberalism?” – Climate News Network

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Committed carbon emissions are rising fast

Committed carbon emissions are rising fast

As countries build ever more fossil fuel power plants, they commit the atmosphere to rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide – the opposite of what governments say they intend.

LONDON, 28 August 2014 – Challenging news for those climate campaigners who believe that renewable sources of energy are on the increase: they may be, but so are carbon dioxide emissions.

Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine and Robert Socolow of Princeton University in the US report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that existing power plants will emit 300 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during their lifetimes. In this century alone, emissions have grown by 4% per year.

The two scientists have already reported on the increasing costs of delay in phasing out fossil fuel sources of energy. This time they have looked at the steady future accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from power stations.

“We show that, despite international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, total remaining commitments in the global power sector have not declined in a single year since 1950 and are in fact growing rapidly,” their paper says.

Massive commitment

“We are flying a plane that is missing a crucial dial on the instrument panel,” said Professor Socolow. “The needed dial would report committed emissions.

“Right now, as far as emissions are concerned, the only dial on our panel tells us about current emissions, not the emissions that capital investment will bring about in future years.”

Governments worldwide have in principle accepted that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced and average global warming limited to a rise of 2°C.

The scientists asked: once a power station is built, how much carbon dioxide will it emit, and for how long? They assumed a functioning lifetime of 40 years for a fossil fuel plant and then did the sums.

The fossil fuel-burning stations built worldwide in 2012 alone will produce 19 bn tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. The entire world production of the greenhouse gas from all the world’s working fossil fuel power stations in 2012 was 14 billion tons.

“Far from solving the problem of climate change, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse”

The US and Europe between them account for 20% of committed emissions, but these commitments have been declining in recent years. Facilities in China and India account for 42% and 8% respectively of all committed future emissions, and these are rapidly growing in number. Two-thirds of emissions are from coal-burning stations. The share from gas-fired stations had risen to 27% by 2012.

“Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” Dr Davis said. “But worldwide we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion.

“Far from solving the problem of climate change, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse.” And Professor Socolow said: “We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves. A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.

“Current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments.” – Climate News Network

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