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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Emissions are putting species in lethal danger

Emissions are putting species in lethal danger

Scientists warn that lizards, coral reefs and forests are all seriously under threat unless agreement is reached to reduce drastically fossil fuel emissions.

LONDON, 27 August, 2015 – Global warming is going to be very bad for the boreal forests of Siberia and Canada, calamitous for the coral reefs of the tropics and the cold deep waters – and lethal for the lizards of North America.

New research warns that the double assault of warmer and increasingly acidic oceans will affect coral reefs everywhere, growing conditions will move north faster than trees can migrate, and increasing extremes of heat will roast vulnerable reptile embryos to death.

As humankind pours more and more carbon dioxide into the planetary atmosphere as a consequence of fossil fuel combustion, these are among the impacts scientists say we should prepare for by 2100 and perhaps even earlier.

About one-third of the planet’s woodlands are strewn across Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska and Canada. These forests are a “sink” for atmospheric carbon, and at the same time they provide shelter for rich ecosystems and a source of income for tens of millions of people around the world.

Climate zone shifting

But the climate is changing. The region of the northern forests is warming at 0.5°C per decade, and by 2100 it could be on average between 6°C and 11°C higher that it is now. The climate zone is shifting at least 10 times faster than trees can migrate, according to a new study in Science journal.

The likelihood is that the species to the south will be at greater risk of wildfire, drought, infection and insect assault, but the species at the northern fringe will not be able to colonise new ground to keep up. The loss of forest could accelerate global warming even further, although researchers cannot yet be sure.

“These forests evolved under cold conditions, and we do not know enough about the impacts of warming on their resilience and buffering capacity,” says one of the report’s co-authors, Anatoly Shvidenko, a senior researcher in the forestry programme at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

The consequences for the coral reefs of the world have been well reported, but geochemists at a global conference in Prague thought it worthwhile spelling out the dangers yet again.

“I find it very unlikely that coral reefs as I knew them in the mid-1960s will still be found
anywhere on this planet by mid-century”

Peter Sale, a marine biologist at the University of Windsor, Canada, used the hazard to the coral ecosystems to underscore the urgency of an international agreement at the UN’s forthcoming Paris conference on climate change to take steps to control emissions and limit average temperature increase to 2°C this century. But that may not be enough.

“Even if Paris is wildly successful, and a treaty is struck, ocean warming and ocean acidification are going to continue beyond the end of this century,” Sale says.

“This is now serious. I find it very unlikely that coral reefs as I knew them in the mid-1960s will still be found anywhere on this planet by mid-century. Instead, we will have algal-dominated, rubble-strewn, slowly eroding limestone benches.

“I see little hope for reefs unless we embark on a more aggressive emissions reduction plan.”

Lizards lay their eggs in the ground in spring and summer and leave them to gestate for up to two months. They are cold-blooded creatures that respond to the heat to become more active, and seek shade when it becomes too hot. − but infant lizards have no such freedom.

A team of scientists from Arizona State University (ASU) report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that, in experiments, they found that while adult animals might benefit from a warmer world, their embryos could be seriously at risk.

Pessimistic forecasts

They found that the lizard embryos die when subjected to temperatures greater than 43°C (110°F). Right now, only about 3% of the US gets to this temperature in the shade. By 2100, under the more pessimistic climate forecasts, this could have grown to 48%.

This could be bleak news for whole ecosystems, because lizards consume insects, and are in turn prey for snakes and birds and mammals.

“Lizards put all of their eggs in one basket, so a single heat wave can kill an entire group of eggs,” says Ofir Levy, postdoctoral fellow at the ASU School of Life Sciences, who led the study.

“If mothers don’t dig deeper nests to lay their eggs, we expect this species to decline throughout the United States.” – Climate News Network

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Solar power takes giant strides as prices fall

Solar power takes giant strides as prices fall

Massive solar power stations are being built in the world’s “sun belts” − with the US and India competing to have the largest in the world.

LONDON, 26 August, 2015 – The US Navy is investing in what will be the largest solar farm in the world in order to provide power for 14 of its bases.

The climate of Arizona, where the two earlier phases of the Mesquite solar farm are already up and running, provides 300 days of sunshine a year. And the Navy’s deal to extend the farm is the largest purchase of renewable energy ever made by a US federal government agency.

The solar farm project is one of a growing number being installed across what is known as the American Sun Belt − the southern states of America, which have expanding populations, plenty of sunshine, but also large areas of arid and unproductive land.

The price of solar panels has now fallen so far worldwide that, in sunny climes, they can compete on cost with any other form of energy generation. This new generation of huge solar farms produces as much power as a large coal-fired plant.

China and India are also building similarly massive installations, taking advantage of their own sun belts and desert regions. It is doubtful that Mesquite 3, huge as it is, will manage to remain the world’s largest for long.

Barren land

In the same week that the US Navy disclosed its plans, the central Indian state of Madya Pradesh announced it was to construct a 750 MW plant (one megawatt is roughly enough to supply 1,000 typical British homes) on barren, government-owned land in the country’s Rewa district.

It is claimed that it would be the world’s largest solar plant, and the state’s energy minister, Rajendra Shukla, says the plan is to have the plant up and running by March 2017.

A number of other giant projects are also in the pipeline in India, as part of government plans for a dramatic expansion of the industry, although they have yet to be constructed.

The Navy boasts that Mesquite 3 will require
no water, so saving “this precious resource
for other needs”

Mesquite 3, which will be sited 60 miles west of Phoenix, Arizona, will provide the Navy with 210 MW of direct power. This means the installation of more than 650,000 extra solar panels, which will move to track the sun as it crosses the sky, to get the maximum value from the intense desert sunshine. The Navy says it will save $90 million in power costs over the 25-year lifetime of the contract.

Some solar power plants in India have caused controversy because they need teams of people to wash off the layer of dust and particles from air pollution to keep the panels efficient. This uses a lot of scarce water.

Illustration: US Navy/Austin Rooney

Illustration: US Navy/Austin Rooney

However, in the cleaner desert air of Arizona, this is not a problem. The Navy boasts that Mesquite 3 will require no water, so saving “this precious resource for other needs”.

The building of the plant will require 300 construction workers, but it will create only 12 long-term jobs. The plant also avoids controversy because it is sited on “previously disturbed land”, and so is not damaging a pristine environment. It is also near existing power plants and transmission lines, so will not need additional infrastructure.

Reduced emissions

The Navy estimates that the station will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 190,000 tonnes annually − the equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the road.

Ray Mabus, the Secretary of State for the Navy, who opened the project, has been pushing hard for renewables to be used for military power generation.

In 2009, the US Department of Defense was instructed by Congress to get 25% of its energy from renewable resources by 2025, but Mabus accelerated that goal and directed that one gigawatt (1,000 MW) should be procured by the end of 2015.

The new contract adds to a 17 MW installation at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and another of 42 MW at Kings Bay, Georgia. The Navy says that, in total, its renewable energy procurement will be 1.2 GW by the end of 2015, which is well ahead of target.

It will use the power for Navy and Marine Corps shore installations in California and surrounding states.

Opening the project at one of the installations, the Naval Air Station North Island, in California, Mabus said the project was “a triumph of problem solving” and would help increase the Department of the Navy’s energy security by diversifying the supply. – Climate News Network

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Hi-tech analysis pinpoints Antarctic ice sheet dangers

Hi-tech analysis pinpoints Antarctic ice sheet dangers

Precision mapping of West Antarctica’s melting glaciers could help climate scientists to predict potentially calamitous effects on sea levels.

LONDON, 25 August, 2015 – Scientists have used high-resolution computing techniques to calculate the future of the West Antarctic ice sheet over the next two or three centuries.

The West Antarctic peninsula right now is about the fastest-warming place on Earth. And, in the worst case scenario, glaciers will retreat by hundreds of kilometres, and seas will rise everywhere.

An estimated 80,000 cubic kilometres of ice could flow into the sea by 2100, and by 2200 this could rise to 200,000 cubic kilometres. By the end of this century, sea levels could have risen by 20cms, and 50cms by 2200.

This is an extreme case, but the forecasts for West Antarctica’s glaciers have been consistently alarming. In the last two years, scientists have confirmed that the rates of melt and retreat have accelerated, and that, under the combined effects of warmer air and sea, this melting may be irreversible.

Vulnerable mass

Stephen Cornford, a researcher at the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol in the UK, and colleagues report in the European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere that their chief concern was to help climate science by fixing with greater precision the things that might happen to the most vulnerable mass of ice on the frozen continent.

The new study tests a range of climate predictions in greater detail than before, over a greater area, and a longer period of time. But the uncertainties remain. Will human-induced greenhouse gas levels continue to rise? How will the oceans respond? What will be the consequences for snowfall south of the Antarctic Circle?

“Other regions of West Antarctica could thin to a similar extent if the ocean warms sufficiently”

So the study looks at all the possibilities in more detail, and the pay-off could be more confident predictions of climate change as the circumstances begin to change.

Dr Cornford says: “We expect future change in the West Antarctic ice sheet to be dominated by thinning in the Amundsen Sea Embayment, just as it is today, until at least the 22nd century. But other regions of West Antarctica could thin to a similar extent if the ocean warms sufficiently.”

A computer-generated map of the projected glacial retreat in the Amundsen Sea Embayment by 2154. Image: S.Cornford et al/The Cryosphere

A computer-generated map of the projected glacial retreat in the Amundsen Sea Embayment by 2154.
Image: S.Cornford et al/The Cryosphere

Serious consequences

The worst-case predictions are disconcerting, and could have serious consequences for the hundreds of millions of people who live in cities and on productive land at or near sea level – for instance on the Nile Delta or in Bangladesh – or even below sea level, protected by sea walls, such as in the Netherlands.

But they remain just that: worst case predictions. The scientists were not concerned with establishing probabilities for any scenario, just with employing complex mathematical techniques to extend climate models.

The chief aim of the study has been to find ways of making sense of all possibilities − from no change to calamitous change − in the factors that govern glacier loss.

Co-author Dan Martin, a computational scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, says: “Much like a higher-resolution digital camera transforms a blur into a flock of birds, higher resolution in a computer model often helps to capture details of the physics involved, which may be crucial to the broad picture.” – Climate News Network

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China’s carbon count is not as high as feared

China’s carbon count is not as high as feared

The use of poor-quality coal in Chinese power plants means that the carbon dioxide emissions of the world’s biggest polluter are 10% less than previously thought.

LONDON, 21 August, 2015 – Calculations on how much carbon dioxide China produces have been wrong for more than 10 years because the official bodies that calculate it have assumed the country’s power stations burn high-quality coal.

In fact, the world’s biggest polluter uses coal with a lower carbon content than power stations in Europe and the US, and so produces less carbon dioxide per tonne − around 14% less according to experts from 18 research institutions.

Getting the total quantities of CO2 emitted by each country correct is crucial if the world is going to reach agreement on tackling dangerous climate change at the UN conference in Paris in December. One of the stumbling blocks to agreements in the past has been politicians’ need to have a fair system of sharing the burden of cuts.

Calculating how much pollution each country produces has been largely based on the quantities of fossil fuels burned in electricity and heat production and in motor vehicles.

This has not taken into account the fact that the amount of carbon in coal and oil varies according to its quality, and so an average figure has been used, which turns out to be unfair in the case of China.

Appalling air quality

One of the ironies of the finding is that while the carbon content of the coal may be less, its impurities means it emits more of other kinds of pollution. This is what has made air quality in Chinese cities so appalling, and has started a big debate in China about whether the country should seek to burn better-quality coal to avoid killing its citizens with bad air.

The revised estimates of China’s carbon emissions, published in the journal Nature, were produced by an international team, led by researchers from Harvard University, the University of East Anglia (UEA), in England, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University, in collaboration with 15 other international research institutions.

The team re-evaluated emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production from 1950 to 2013. They used independently-assessed activity data on the amounts of fuels burned, and new measurements of emissions factors – the amount of carbon oxidised per unit of fuel consumed – for Chinese coal.

Because the amount of coal burned in China is so vast, the size of the error is also huge. It means there are 2.9 fewer gigatonnes of carbon in the atmosphere. That is more than the total amount of carbon stored by China’s forests over roughly the same period.

“Evaluating progress towards countries’ commitments to reduce CO2 emissions depends upon improving the accuracy of annual emissions estimates”

It is particularly important because nearly three-quarters of the growth in global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production between 2010 and 2012 occurred in China.

The lead UK researcher, Prof. Dabo Guan, of UEA’s School of International Development, said the key contributor to the new estimates was fuel quality, which for the first time was taken into consideration in establishing emission inventories – something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and most international data sources had not done.

“China is the largest coal consumer in the world, but it burns much lower quality coal, such as brown coal, which has a lower heat value and carbon content compared to the coal burned in the US and Europe,” Prof. Guan says.

“China is one of the first countries to conduct a comprehensive survey for its coal qualities, and a global effort is required to help other major coal users, such as India and Indonesia, understand their physical coal consumptions as well as the quality of their coal types.

“Our results suggest that Chinese CO2 emissions have been substantially over-estimated in recent years. Evaluating progress towards countries’ commitments to reduce CO2 emissions depends upon improving the accuracy of annual emissions estimates and reducing related uncertainties. These findings represent progress towards improving estimates of annual global carbon emissions.”

Total consumption

The discrepancy would have been even greater if China more accurately counted its coal consumption. According to researchers, total energy consumption was 10% higher between 2000 and 2012 than reported in China’s national statistics. However, even taking that into account, emissions were still less than previously believed because emissions per tonne were on average 40% lower than the levels assumed by the IPCC.

This alters substantially the estimates of the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre (CDIAC) in the US and the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) in the EU, which are the official data sources for the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – providing scientific evidence for the climate change policy negotiations in Paris later this year.

The figure is also about 10% less than the estimate given for China in the most recent publication of the Global Carbon Project, which annually updates global carbon emissions and their implications for future trends.

Prof. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA, co-leads the publication of annual updates of emissions for the Global Carbon Project.

She says: “The strong message here is that as we refine our estimates of carbon emissions we get closer to an accurate picture of what is going on, and we can improve our climate projections and better inform policy on climate change.” – Climate News Network

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Warming sends wild boar numbers soaring

Warming sends wild boar numbers soaring

Increasingly mild winters and an abundance of acorns and nuts have caused a population explosion among wild boar in Europe.

LONDON, 20 August, 2015 – Wild boar populations in Europe are getting out of control – and scientists are blaming climate change.

There are now millions of wild boar spreading out from their preferred woodland habitat, moving into city suburbs, and even crossing national boundaries to countries that had thought they were extinct.

In some countries, notably France and Germany, which have always had wild boar populations in their forests, they are a major cause of road accidents.

France has an estimated two million boar, and the German state of Hesse alone has 180,000. Berlin, the German capital, is erecting boar fencing around its borders in an attempt to keep the animals out of the city.

Extra production

The scientists believe that the increasingly frequent mild winters in Europe and the extra production of acorns and beechnuts by trees are aiding boar survival rates. Both factors are the result of climate change, they say.

Scientists from the Research Institute for Wildlife Ecology at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, report in the journal PLOS ONE that they chose the animal to study because “the wild boar has an enormous reproductive capacity, and thus the potential for remarkable population growth when environmental conditions become more favourable”.

Wild boar can have five or more young in a litter, and females can reach sexual maturity within their first year if there is enough food available.

The number of animals has been increasing since the 1980s. Because boars are secretive, nocturnal animals, the scientists had to use hunting records and road accidents to help count the animals in 12 European countries.

The wild boar has the potential for remarkable population growth when environmental conditions become more favourable”

“Doing this, we were able to depict the growth of the wild boar population,” says the report’s lead author, Sebastian Vetter, an evolutionary biologist.  “As mild winters are becoming more frequent, boar populations are also growing exponentially.”

Wild boar can have five or more young in a litter. Image: Sebastian Vetter/Vetmeduni Vienna

Wild boar can have five or more young in a litter. Image: Sebastian Vetter/Vetmeduni Vienna

Climate change is also having a direct effect on food supply, the authors say, with the “mast years” – years when trees produce huge quantities of acorns and nuts – also aiding the animals’ survival.

In severe winters, a large number of young from the previous summer used to die of cold and hunger, but the extra food supply available, even in cold spells, is enabling more to survive.

Survival rate

Wild boars are one of the most widely distributed of animals, with their numbers varying between northern and southern latitudes. However, the survival rate of boar populations in Europe seems to be increasing across all countries.

One of the reasons for the wider spread of boar populations has been the fashion for their meat. Wild boar farms have been established in countries where the species had long ago been hunted to extinction. But farmers, unfamiliar with the animals, were not prepared for their ability to break down or jump fences as high as two metres, and many boars escaped into the wild.

Sweden, for example, had no wild boar 10 years ago, but now has an estimated 150,000 in its forests. The UK also has a boar population for the first time in 500 years.

Italy, well to the south, has always had wild boar, but has also seen a huge growth in their numbers. There are now estimated to be between 600,000 and one million animals. Some are seen on the outskirts of Rome, Genoa and Naples, where they eat from dustbins. – Climate News Network

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Islamic climate experts urge 1.5°C limit on warming

Islamic climate experts urge 1.5°C limit on warming

A far-reaching call to avoid runaway climate change and to build a more just and sustainable global society has been launched by Islamic leaders.

LONDON, 19 August, 2015 – An influential group of Islamic leaders has urged world governments to prevent human-caused climate change forcing global average temperatures more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level.

In a radical advance on the position of most developed countries, the group says it would be better to aim for 1.5°C  ̶  the lower limit that many climate scientists say would offer a stronger chance of preventing climate change reaching dangerous levels, but to which few governments have so far agreed.

The group’s call, a long time in preparation, was issued at the end of the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium, held in the Turkish city of Istanbul, and is published as the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change.

It is addressed primarily to the negotiators who will meet in Paris in December at the UN Climate Change Conference, the main aim of which will be to get agreement on a robust and enforceable global treaty to cut emissions of greenhouse gases in time to stay within the 2°C safety limit.

Rapid phase-out

The authors also address people of all nations and their leaders, urging them to commit themselves to 100% renewable energy and/or a zero emissions strategy as early as possible as part of a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.

But they go much further than that. They write: “We particularly call on the well-off nations and oil-producing states to . . . stay within the 2°C limit, or, preferably, within the 1.5°C limit, bearing in mind that two-thirds of the earth’s proven fossil fuel reserves remain in the ground”.

This is a clear reference to the warnings that a large part of those reserves cannot safely be exploited, and will prove to be stranded assets.

There is growing pressure for corporate and individual investors to withdraw their support from fossil fuel exploiters, and the declaration’s signatories specifically recognise this.

“To chase after unlimited economic growth
in a planet that is finite
and already overloaded is not viable”

They write: “We call upon corporations, finance, and the business sector to . . . assist in the divestment from the fossil fuel-driven economy and the scaling-up of renewable energy and other ecological alternatives.”

The declaration is blunt about what the signatories see as the urgent need for drastically far-reaching change. Wealthy nations and oil-producing states are urged to “lead the way in phasing out their greenhouse gas emissions as early as possible, and no later than the middle of the century”.

They are urged to provide generous financial and technical support to the less well-off to achieve that early phase-out of greenhouse gases, and should “recognise the moral obligation to reduce consumption so that the poor may benefit from what is left of the earth’s non-renewable resources . . .”

Carrying capacity

Elsewhere, the signatories say that “to chase after unlimited economic growth in a planet that is finite and already overloaded is not viable”. This is a rare reference to population and the planet’s “carrying capacity”  ̶  the maximum population size that the environment can sustain indefinitely.

They even go so far as to call for “a fresh model of wellbeing, based on an alternative to the current financial model, which depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality”.

These are demands for changes so radical that they are seldom heard. But they are addressed to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, to people of other faiths, and to “all groups” to join in “co-operation and friendly competition . . . as we can all be winners in this race”.

The declaration sets the bar high for the Islamic world, for people of all religions and of none, to treat climate change as a serious and present problem that demands fundamental change across global society. – Climate News Network

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Renewables raise challenge to coal in power league

Renewables raise challenge to coal in power league

Wind, solar and other renewable sources of clean energy are now second only to coal in generating the world’s electricity.

LONDON, 18 August, 2015 – It probably surprises nobody to learn that coal produces more of the world’s electricity than any other fuel. But it may provide food for thought to realise that the second most widely-used fuels for power generation are now renewables.

Electricity generation from renewable sources has overtaken natural gas to become the second largest source of electricity worldwide, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has announced.

In Europe, the main renewables used to generate electricity are wind and solar power. Since 1990, global solar photovoltaic power has been increasing at an average growth rate of 44.6% a year, and wind at 27.1%.

The IEA reports that electricity production last year in the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) fell slightly to 10,712 TWh (terawatt hours)  ̶ a decrease of 0.8% (86 TWh) compared with 2013. To put that in context, 1 TWh is 1 billion kilowatt hours, and each KWh takes about 0.36 kilograms of coal to generate.

Partially offset

This decline, the agency says, was driven by lower fossil fuel and hydro production, which were only partially offset by increases in non-hydro renewables. These grew by 8.5%, and nuclear energy by 0.9%.

In 2014, solar photovoltaic power overtook solid biofuels  ̶ used in power plants that burn biomass  ̶ to become the second-largest source of non-hydro renewable electricity in OECD countries of Europe, with a share of 17.3%.

The IEA says overall growth in electricity generation continues to be driven by non-OECD countries. Its latest statistics, which show world electricity generation increasing by 2.9% between 2012 and 2013, reveal two distinct trends.

Electricity generation is levelling off within the OECD, while it is rising strongly in the rest of the world. In 2011, non-OECD countries for the first time produced more electricity than members of the OECD.

By 2040, the world’s energy supply mix is likely to divide into four almost-equal parts: oil, gas, coal and low-carbon sources

Other milestones were reached in 2013, when global non-hydro renewable electricity exceeded oil-fired generation for the first time, and renewable electricity overtook natural gas to become the world’s second largest source of electricity, producing 22% of the total.

In the same year, electricity generated by coal reached its highest level yet at 9,613 TWh, representing 41.1% of global electricity production. The growth in coal generation was driven by non-OECD countries.

Globally, more renewable energy is consumed in the residential, commercial and public services sectors than elsewhere, but there are two distinct patterns of use.

In non-OECD countries, only 22.3% of renewables are used for electricity and heat production and 60.7% in homes, commercial and public sectors. In OECD countries, more than half of the renewable primary energy supply (58.5%) is used for electricity and heat.

Huge challenge

The IEA’s data will encourage renewable energy’s supporters, but they also show how much the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for its electricity.

In 1971, coal produced about 2 TWh of global electrical power, but that figure is now almost five times higher. Replacing that much generation with clean fuels will be a huge challenge, despite the very rapidly accelerating growth of renewables.

Fatih Birol, the IEA’s director, has said that, without clear direction from the UN climate summit to be held in Paris in December, “the world is set for warming well beyond the 2°C goal”  ̶  the internationally-agreed limit for global temperature rise that is intended to prevent climate change reaching dangerous levels.

The IEA World Energy Outlook 2014 said that, by 2040, the world’s energy supply mix is likely to divide into four almost-equal parts: oil, gas, coal and low-carbon sources.

This scenario, it said, “puts the world on a path consistent with a long-term global average temperature increase of 3.6°C”. – Climate News Network

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Andes’ migrating trees are moving towards extinction

Andes' migrating trees are moving towards extinction

Highland tree species in the Andes are decreasing as global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions forces lowland varieties to move upwards into cooler climes.

LONDON, 17 August, 2015 – Scientists have known for years that, in a warming world, many living things try to move uphill to seek survival where the air is cooler. But new research provides a dire warning of the risks for those unable to move fast enough.

Unlike animals, trees and other sorts of vegetation cannot move quickly to escape the heat. And for some of them, it seems, there is no survival option available. They simply die.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that the number of highland tree species in the Andes mountains of South America is decreasing as lowland trees move up the slope to avoid the rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

The results suggest that tropical tree species in the region are at risk of extinction because of the intensification of warming, caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities.

Can’t escape

“The effects of climate change are everywhere – you can’t escape it,” says Kenneth J. Feeley, a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences and International Centre for Tropical Botany at Florida International University.

“Some people hold the notion that the Amazon is an isolated and pristine ecosystem, immune to disturbances. We need to change our mindset and open our eyes to the fact that, even in the middle of the Amazon or the remote Andes mountains, species are at risk.

“Tropical forests, and the thousands of rare or endemic species they support, are highly sensitive to changes in climate, and they are perhaps some of the most threatened ecosystems of all. Climate change is pervasive and dangerous.”

“We need to change our mindset and open our eyes to the fact that species are at risk”

Feeley, who has studied the ecology, biogeography and conservation of tropical plant and animal communities for more than 15 years, is the study’s corresponding author.

Most previous studies of the effects of climate change on tropical forests have focused on adult trees. But this latest study ­ – led by Alvaro Duque, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National University of Colombia, Medellin – included shrubs and juvenile trees.

Mapped and measured

The research team mapped and measured more than 32,000 individual plants, representing more than 1,820 species, in the northern Andes and northwestern Colombia.

By looking repeatedly at the composition of species in a series of 16 forest plots, spanning a height range of nearly 3,000 metres, they were able to show that highland species are decreasing in abundance, relative to lowland, heat-tolerant species.

The changes are happening in large and small specimens, which the authors say suggests that the cause is a long-term disruption, such as global warming.

This study adds to the growing body of evidence compiled by Feeley and his colleagues that shows the upward migration of tropical plant species in recent decades in Peru and Costa Rica.

With these new results from Colombia, the scientists now have a more complete understanding of how the highly complex and under-studied ecosystems of tropical montane forests are being affected by changes in climate. – Climate News Network

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