Europe’s nuclear giants are close to collapse

Europe's nuclear giants are close to collapse

Doubts that the biggest construction project in Europe will get the final go-ahead from the UK government leave the European nuclear industry facing a struggle for survival.

LONDON, 24 November, 2014 − Plans to build two giant nuclear reactors in south-west England are being reviewed as French energy companies now seek financial backing from China and Saudi Arabia − while the British government considers whether it has offered vast subsidies for a white elephant.

A long-delayed final decision on whether the French electricity utily company EDF will build two 1.6 gigawatt European Pressurised water Reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset − in what would be the biggest construction project in Europe − was due in the new year, but is likely to drift again.

Construction estimates have already escalated to £25 billion, which is £9 billion more than a year ago, and four times the cost of putting on the London Olympics last year.

Costs escalate

Two prototypes being built in Olikuoto, Finland, and Flamanville, France, were long ago expected to be finished and operational, but are years late and costs continue to escalate. Until at least one of these is shown to work as designed, it would seem a gamble to start building more, but neither of them is expected to produce power until 2017.

With Germany phasing nuclear power out altogether and France reducing its dependence on the technology, all the industry’s European hopes are on Britain’s plans to build 10 new reactors. But British experts, politicians and businessmen have begun to doubt that the new nuclear stations are a viable proposition.

Steve Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, London, said: “The project is at very serious risk of collapse at the moment. Only four of those reactors have ever been ordered. Two of them are in Europe, and both of those are about three times over budget. One is about five or six years late and the other is nine years late. Two more are in China and are doing a bit better, but are also running late.”

Tom Greatrex, the British Labour party opposition’s energy spokesman, called on the National Audit Office to investigate whether the nuclear reactors were value for money for British consumers.

Peter Atherton, of financial experts Liberum Capital, believes the enormous cost and appalling track record in the nuclear industry of doing things on time mean that ministers should scrap the Hinkley plans.

Billionaire businessman Jim Ratcliffe, who wants to invest £640 million in shale gas extraction in the UK, said that the subsidy that the British government would pay for nuclear electricity is “outrageous”.

Leaks from civil servants suggest that the government may be getting cold feet about its guarantees

Finding the vast sums of capital needed to finance the project is proving a problem. Both EDF and its French partner company, Areva, which designed the European Pressurised water Reactor (EPR), have money troubles. Last week, Areva suspended future profit predictions and shares fell by 20%.

Chinese power companies have offered to back the project, but want many of the jobs to go to supply companies back home − something the French are alarmed about because they need to support their own ailing nuclear industry. Saudi Arabia is offering to help too, but this may not go down well in Britain.

On the surface, all is well. Preparation of the site is already under way on the south-west coast of England, with millions being spent on earthworks and new roads. The new reactors would be built next to two existing much smaller nuclear stations − one already closed and the second nearing the end of its life. The new ones would produce 7% of Britain’s electricity.

But leaks from civil servants in Whitehall suggest that the government may be getting cold feet about its open-ended guarantees. The industry has a long history of cost overruns and cancellations of projects when millions have already been spent – including an ill-fated plan to build a new nuclear station on the same site 20 years ago.

The Treasury is having a review because of fears that, once this project begins, so much money will have been invested that the government will have to bail it out with billions more of taxpayers’ money to finish it − or write off huge sums.

The whole project is based on British concern about its ageing nuclear reactors, which produce close on 20% of the country’s electricity. The government wanted a new generation of plants to replace them and eventually produce most of the country’s power.

Guaranteed prices

In order to induce EDF to build them, it offered subsidies of £37 billion in guaranteed electricity prices over the 60-year life of the reactors. This would double the existing cost of electricity in the UK.

The European Commission gave permission for this to happen, despite the distortion to the competitive electricity market. But this decision is set to be challenged in the European Court by the Austrian government and renewable energy companies, which will further delay the project.

Since the decision was made to build nuclear power stations, renewable energy has expanded dramatically across Europe and costs have dropped. Nuclear is now more costly than wind and solar power. In Britain alone, small-scale solar output has increased by 26% in the last year.

In theory, there are a number of other nuclear companies − from the US, China, Japan and Russia − keen to build stations of their own design in Britain, but they would want the same price guarantees as EDF for Hinkley Point.

With a general election in the UK looming in May next year, no decisions will be reached on any of these projects any time soon. And a new government might think renewables are a better bet. – Climate News Network

Share This:

Obama pledge gets dollars flowing into climate fund

Obama pledge gets dollars flowing into climate fund 

Many developing countries are already suffering the impacts of climate change, but a special fund to help them adapt to a warming world has been bolstered by promises of billions of dollars from wealthier nations.

LONDON, 20 November, 2014 − It’s been quite a week for those waiting for some action on climate change.

After US President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping announced radical plans to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, Obama then called on nations at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, to agree to a new deal on climate.

And when he backed that up by pledging US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), set up in 2010 to promote low emissions and climate-resilient projects in the developing world, other countries quickly reached for their cheque books.

Paying their dues

Japan says it will be giving $1.5 billion to the GCF. Britain indicated it will be pledging a similar amount.  France and Germany have already announced they will be giving the $1 billion each. Sweden is pledging more than $500 million. And other countries in the developed world are lining up to pay their dues.

The GCF, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is holding a special High-Level Pledging Conference in Berlin today.

“This week’s announcements will be a legacy of US President Obama,” said Hela Cheikhrouhou, GCF’s executive director. “It will be seen by generations to come as the game‐changing moment that started a scaling‐up of global action on climate change.”

Obama said money paid into the GCF would help developing countries leapfrog some of the dirty industries that fuelled growth in the industrialised world, and will allow them to build clean-energy economies.

“Along with the other nations that have pledged support, this gives us the opportunity to help vulnerable communities with an early warning system, with stronger defences against storm surge, climate resilient infrastructure, to help farmers plant more durable crops,” Obama said.

In the past, calls for cash to support the Fund’s activities in the developing world have been largely unsuccessful. Now the mood seems to have changed.

“It will be seen by generations to come as the game‐changing moment that started a scaling‐up of global action on climate change”

In the US, the Republicans – who now control both houses of Congress – are for the most part firmly opposed to Obama’s new-found zeal for action on the climate.

The White House feels that public attitudes on climate change issues are changing, both within the US and around the globe, but a brave new, fossil fuel-free world is still a long way off.

There are big questions about how the emissions reductions announced in the US-China agreement are to be achieved.

And the pledges to the GCF look impressive, but leaders of the wealthier nations have a tendency for making grand monetary gestures at international gatherings –then not following through with the cash.

Despite this, climate change has been put firmly among the top items on the international agenda. Momentum has also been built towards achieving a new global deal at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris late next year.

Clear message

The past week’s events have also sent a clear message to the fossil fuel industry, and to investors in the sector: many of the most powerful countries in the world now agree that greenhouse gas emissions have to be cut.

The message has not gone down well with Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, and host of the G20 summit.

Although Australia is considered by scientists to be one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming, the Abbott government has made known its scepticism on the issue and has rolled back various measures aimed at combating changes in climate.

It has also strongly backed the development of several large-scale coal mining operations on the east coast, adjacent to the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. – Climate News Network

Share This:

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

Share This:

Science offers new view of human survival hopes

Science offers new view of human survival hopes

Astrophysicists say questions about the sustainability of civilisation on our high-tech planet may soon be answered scientifically as a result of new data about the Earth and other planets in its galaxy.

LONDON, 15 November, 2014 − Two American scientists have just sought to find a way of answering the ultimate global warming question: how long can any species last once it has discovered how to exploit fossil fuels and change the conditions under which it first evolved?

In doing so, they have sidestepped the great challenge of astrobiology. This is that all thinking about life in the universe is handicapped by a simple problem: because there is only one so-far identified instance of life in the universe, it is impossible to arrive at a generalisation.

But Adam Frank, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Woodruff Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, propose a way round the problem.

Energy intensive

They report in The Anthropocene journal that since they were interested in the potential lifetimes of human, humanoid or other intelligent species with energy intensive technology (SWEIT), they could start by using a famous equation to estimate the number of such species that exist now or have already gone extinct.

The Drake Equation is the intellectual basis of the search for extraterrestrial civilisation. It calculates the number of possible planetary systems in all the known galaxies, the proportion of these that might be hospitable to life, and the proportion of habitable planets that might be fit for the emergence of a technically-advanced or SWEIT civilisation.

They reason that, even if the chances of a high-technology species are just one in a thousand trillion, that means that a thousand such SWEIT civilisations exist or have existed in our local region of the universe.

Prof Frank says: “That’s enough to start thinking about statistics − like what is the average lifetime of a species that starts harvesting energy efficiently and uses it to develop high technology?”

“We have no idea how long a technological civilisation like our own can last”

But another part of the puzzle is also uncertain. “We have no idea how long a technological civilisation like our own can last,” Frank says. “Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years? Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society.

“Are we the first and the only technologically-intensive civilisation in the entire history of the universe? If not, shouldn’t we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of these other species?”

Human threats

The two authors considered the ways in which human action could threaten human civilisation, including: the partial or complete collapse of 95% of all fish stocks in the last 50 years; the diminishing supplies of fresh water; the loss of rainforest habitat; the acidification of the oceans; and, of course, the change to the climate system. All are a consequence of the use of energy-intensive technology.

They also contemplated the relatively new science of sustainability: how long can such action continue? They note that 20,000 scientific papers that address sustainability have appeared in the last 40 years, and the numbers of these articles has doubled every eight years.

Then they looked at what little could be known from astrobiology − the study of life beyond the solar system. None has been found, but in the last two decades a huge number of extrasolar planets have been identified. The local solar system has been explored in detail, and the Earth’s own history is now well studied.

So astronomers could now be in a position to make judgments about the potential conditions for life on the “exoplanets” identified so far. For the purpose of estimating an average lifetime for an extraterrestrial species, it wouldn’t much matter what form the life took, it would affect entropy, the thermodynamic balance of order and disorder.

“If they use energy to produce work, they’re generating entropy,” says Prof Frank. “There’s no way round that, whether they’re human-looking Star Trek creatures with antennae on their foreheads or they’re nothing more than single-cell organisms with collective mega-intelligence.

Feedback effects

“And that entropy will almost certainly have strong feedback effects on their planet’s habitability, as we’re beginning to see here on Earth.”

With this in mind, the report’s authors started to consider the sustainability lessons of Earth’s own history − marked by five mass extinction events in the past 500 million years – and a set of recent human-driven changes so marked that some geologists have labelled the present era the Anthropocene. Their conclusions are less than optimistic.

“Although such rapid changes are not a new phenomenon, the present instance is the first (we know of) where the primary agent of causation is knowingly watching it all happen and pondering options for its own future,” they conclude.

“One point is clear: both astrobiology and sustainability science tell us that the Earth will be fine in the long run. The prospects are, however, less clear for Homo sapiens.” − Climate News Network

Share This:

UK ignores pledge to end fossil fuel support

UK ignores pledge to end fossil fuel support

Despite promises to phase out subsidies to the coal, oil and gas industries, a new report says the UK and other G20 governments are still providing them with massive financial help.

LONDON, 12 November, 2014 − Leaders of the G20 group of industrialised countries agreed in 2009 to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels “in the medium term”, and repeated that promise in 2013. Yet a new report says that the UK is still giving close to £1.2 billion ($1.9bn) annually to support oil, coal and gas.

The Overseas Development Institute thinktank (ODI) and the Oil Change International (OCI) campaign group say in their joint report, “The Fossil Fuel Bailout”, that G20 governments are estimated to be spending $88bn every year subsidising exploration for fossil fuels.

“Their exploration subsidies marry bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for climate change,” the authors say. “In effect, governments are propping up the development of oil, gas and coal reserves that cannot be exploited if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

Triple-lose scenario

“By providing subsidies for fossil fuel exploration, the G20 countries are creating a ‘triple-lose’ scenario.

“They are directing large volumes of finance into high-carbon assets that cannot be exploited without catastrophic climate effects.

“They are diverting investment from economic low-carbon alternatives, such as solar, wind and hydro-power.

“And they are undermining the prospects for an ambitious climate deal in 2015.”

The report says the UK government is pouring £750m ($1.19bn) a year in national subsidies into the declining North Sea oil and gas industry – and £414m ($65m) into overseas exploration.

TheFossilFuelBailout_Infographic_A

 

The report − published just before the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane, Australia, on 15 and 16 November − contains the first detailed breakdown of fossil fuel exploration subsidies by the UK and G20 countries.

The authors say that, despite the 2009 pledge, the UK “has dramatically expanded the scope of its oil and gas exploration subsidies, in particular for shale gas and offshore resources”.

Since 2009, generous tax breaks for exploring in riskier, deep-water fields in the North Sea have benefited some of the largest oil and gas firms in the world. The report estimates that the biggest beneficiary was the French oil giant, Total, which received £524m, while Norway’s Statoil was given £253m and the US’s Chevron £45m between 2009 and 2014.

The government’s expenditure of £414m annually in public finance for fossil fuel exploration outside the UK included Azerbaijan, Brazil, Ghana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Nigeria, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, Uganda, and the US.

Shelagh Whitley, climate and environment research fellow at the ODI, says: “Scrapping fossil fuel exploration subsidies would begin to create a level playing field between renewables and fossil fuel energy.”

Bad economics

The report’s authors say that further exploration for new reserves is not only environmentally unsustainable but is also bad economics. With rising costs for hard-to-reach reserves, and falling coal and oil prices, public subsidies are propping up fossil fuel exploration that would otherwise be deemed uneconomic.

The top 20 private oil and gas companies invest £23bn globally in exploration − less than half the £55bn being ploughed in by G20 governments. The report says this highlights the industry’s dependency on public subsidies to find new reserves.

Yet £55bn is almost double what the International Energy Agency estimates is needed annually to provide electricity and heat for all by 2030.

The report recommends that phasing out exploration subsidies should be the first step towards meeting the G20 governments’ existing commitments to eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and to avoid harmful climate change. − Climate News Network

Share This:

Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

A spellbinding solo performance by veteran climate scientist Chris Rapley puts the climate debate centre stage – and earns the admiration of London theatre critics.

LONDON, 11 November, 2014 − Climate science has just made cultural history – yet again. Following on from the sci-fi blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and the Al Gore documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, research has got personal and turned into a five-star dramatic soliloquy on the London stage.

Chris Rapley is a professor of climate science at University College London, a former director of the British Antarctic Survey, a former director of the Science Museum in London − and now, unexpectedly, an actor on the stage of the historic Royal Court theatre.

He is the star and only member of the dramatis personae of 2071, a play named after the date at which, he says, his eldest grandchild will be the age he is now. He has collaborated with playwright Duncan Macmillan, and with Katie Mitchell, a director with a track record of interest in the hard themes of humanity’s future on Earth.

No physical action

The performance, however, could almost be called anti-theatre. There is no conflict, no violence, and there is − beyond the discreet waving of a hand or the re-positioning of a leg − almost no physical action at all. The actor Rapley sits in one place, with only a glass of water as a prop, and embarks on a monologue.

Furthermore, it is in one sense an anti-dramatic monologue, sounding in many ways remarkably like a procession of extracts from the abstracts of scientific papers, or the executive summary of any number of publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are few concessions to popular language: the diction and choice of terminology is of the kind you tend to hear at science briefings.

The difference is that it is gently and intelligently glossed − so cryosphere and lithosphere are identified as the worlds of ice and rock within a second of utterance.

The story unfolds calmly enough, with a kind of curriculum vitae of the actor, then a history of climate, then a history of climate research, and then the conclusions. It is the slow build-up to an alarming set of possibilities in a swift-changing world, with a time interval for action that is diminishing rapidly.

It ought not to work. But for this Climate News Network reporter, it does work − yet another spellbinding testament to that wonderful mix of space, lighting, darkness, silence, muted music, measured words and eager audience that we call theatre.

Emotive topic

Some critics and theatergoers will, inevitably, have reservations. Time Out magazine found its lack of theatricality “not a bad thing: sobriety feels important when tackling such an emotive topic”. The London Evening Standard took a cooler approach: “He lets the data speak for itself. But the approach feels too dry.”

But first responses were warm. There was a generous welcome from the Daily Telegraph, and Michael Billington – a distinguished dramatic critic who has declared his enthusiasm for theatre as a political instrument − gave it the highest rating of all in The Guardian: five stars.

His only complaint is that there is no printed text, as there is a lot of information delivered in a performance that lasts hardly more than 70 minutes.

But Billington writes: “If we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition, the production succeeds on all counts.” And he ends unequivocally: “It is better than good. It is necessary.” − Climate News Network

Share This:

Research spanner thrown into coal’s publicity machine

Research spanner thrown into coal’s publicity machine

Australian thinktank’s data challenges coal industry claims that it drives economic growth, is a key element of alleviating ‘energy poverty’ worldwide, and improves quality of life.

LONDON, 10 November, 2014 − The coal industry has many friends in high places, and none more so than Tony Abbott, prime minister of Australia − one of the world’s major producers of a fuel that earns the country billions from exports.

“Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world,” Abbott said recently. “So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.”

But a new report by researchers in Australia seeks to debunk what it considers to be myths promulgated by the powerful worldwide coal industry and its allies.

The report by the Australia Institute, an independent public policy thinktank, says claims by lobbyists that coal is a main driver of economic growth are false.

Slower growth

Data shows that coal use has grown much slower than global economic growth, says the report, “All Talk and No action: The Coal Industry and Energy Poverty”.

It points out that “developed countries have reduced coal use while economic growth has been unaffected. Developing countries are now the major users, but with alternatives becoming cheaper, they are likely to reduce coal use much earlier in their development.”

“Coal use is often associated with lower life expectancy due to health impacts”

The report also attacks industry claims that coal use increases life expectancy and quality of life. “On the contrary,” it says, “coal use is often associated with lower life expectancy due to health impacts of indoor and outdoor air pollution and the global health impacts of climate change.”

The study says that although access to electricity might initially improve quality of life, once basic electricity facilities are in place there is little correlation between increased electricity uptake and improved living conditions.

Talk in the coal industry about tackling energy poverty is just public relations spin, says the report, and it questions whether the coal industry itself believes its own claims.

It is significant, the study says, that coal concerns that choose to become involved in electricity and poverty alleviation schemes in poorer parts of the world support projects connected with solar technology or small hydro and gas-fired facilities, rather than with far more expensive coal-fired power installations.

Polluting gases

The report also takes issue with claims by the coal industry that coal is becoming cleaner. What is meant by clean coal varies widely: although many power plants and other enterprises have reduced coal-related emissions of sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide, coal still releases into the atmosphere enormous amounts of CO2 − by far the most polluting of greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, progress on carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the process through which emissions from coal-powered plants and other industrial concerns are captured and stored deep below the Earth’s surface – has been slow.

There are only 13 such projects in operation, and together they are capable of sequestering only 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – less than one percent of the world’s total annual emissions.

To put this in perspective, the report says, 33,376 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted worldwide in 2011, with the US emitting 5,420 million tonnes, and Australia – which has a much smaller population − emitting 400 million tonnes.

It concludes: “Addressing the challenges of energy poverty will become even more difficult if public relations campaigns are able to influence government policies away from genuine solutions towards spending that benefits the coal industry. The real solutions to energy poverty do not focus on coal.” – Climate News Network

Share This:

Climate change will send pollen count soaring

Climate change will send pollen count soaring

Bad news for hay fever and asthma sufferers as US researchers demonstrate that man-made rises in CO2 emissions could lead to a 200% increase in the levels of pollen from grasses.

LONDON, November 9, 2014 – Scientists have identified a new hazard that will arrive as a result of climate change: a huge increase in hay fever and pollen allergies.

A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US, report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One that as man-made carbon dioxide and low-level ozone levels rise, so will grass pollen production and allergen exposure − by up to 200%.

Many predictions of the problems of global warming are, in effect, simulations: researchers take a climate model, add a few parameters, identify a trend or isolate a possibility, and run it forward to see what happens. Using such techniques, researchers have predicted that heat extremes themselves will present health hazards, and have confirmed that cutting CO2 emissions will certainly save lives.

Notorious irritant

But Jennifer Albertine and her colleagues at Amherst tried the other approach: they grew plants in laboratory conditions, using different atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and of ozone – the O3 version of oxygen (O2) that plays an important protective role in the stratosphere, but is a notorious irritant and health hazard in traffic-choked cities.

A field of Timothy grass (Phleum pratense). Image: Matti Virtala via Wikimedia Commons
Timothy grass (Phleum pratense).
Matti Virtala via Wikimedia Commons

They selected for the experiment the grass Phleum pratense, widely known as Timothy grass and common in lawns, pasture and meadows everywhere. Then, at the appropriate moment, they bagged the flowers, captured and measured the pollen production, and used enzymes to get at an allergen protein called Phl p 5.

The news is not good for those who dread the start of the hay fever season in spring. As atmospheric CO2 doubled to 800 parts per million, there was a 53% increase in pollen production per grass flower.

But that was only part of the effect. A greater number of plants flowered as a result of the stimulus of the extra carbon dioxide, which has an effect on plant fertility. And that brought the increase in pollen levels to a startling 200%.

Allergen levels

The increases in low-level ozone – already widely predicted as a consequence of global warming – had no effect on the quantities of pollen produced, although it did tend to suppress the allergen levels in the pollen.

But since the effect of low-level ozone is to irritate the mucous membranes of gasping city-dwellers and actually make the allergic airway response even worse, this is not good. The researchers warn that ozone increases would bring on negative respiratory health effects quite independently on any rise in pollen counts.

“The implications of increasing CO2 production for human health are clear,” warned Dr Albertine.

Her co-author, Christine Rogers, an environmental health scientist, added: “This is the first evidence that pollen production is significantly stimulated by elevated carbon dioxide in a grass species and has worldwide implications, due to the ubiquitous presence of grasses in all biomes and the high prevalence of grass pollen allergy.” – Climate News Network

Share This:

Why warnings on climate spark aggressive denials

Why warnings on climate spark aggressive denials

A new book argues that death threats and abuse illustrate how climate change messengers are being demonised in a way that is without parallel in the history of science.

LONDON, 8 November, 2014 − If you don’t like the message on climate change, it seems that the answer is to shoot the messenger.

According to a new book by veteran environmentalist George Marshall, thousands of abusive emails − including demands that he commit suicide or be “shot, quartered and fed to the pigs, along with your family” – were received by climate scientist Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Centre, who drew and published the “hockey stick graph”  that charts a steep rise in global average temperatures.

Glenn Beck, a commentator on Fox TV, called on climate scientists to commit suicide. A climate denial blogger called Marc Morano claimed that one group of climate scientists deserved “to be publicly flogged”. And the late Stephen Schneider found his name and that of other Jewish climate scientists on a “death list” maintained by an American neo-Nazi website.

Very strange

As Marshall points out in his absorbing, all-embracing, immensely readable book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, something very strange is going on.

Louis Pasteur’s revolutionary microbiology work on disease prevention never resulted in him having to think about how to use a gun. Jonas Salk never needed to fortify his house as result of working on the development of a polio vaccine.

Other scientists are trusted and respected. But the way climate scientists are now treated, Marshall argues, is without parallel in the history of science: “They have been set up to play that role in a climate storyline that, it would seem, cannot refute climate change without demonising the people who warn us about it.”

Forget, if you can, the people who seem to be whipping up these furious responses. Climate change can only be met or mitigated by action − and there are plenty of reasons why a very large number of people nod in agreement about what must be done and then fail to insist that it is done.

Dan Gilbert, a psychologist who won the Royal Society’s science book prize in 2007 with an examination of the puzzles of happiness, says that climate change is something unlikely to strike fear in the human heart anyway. It is impersonal, it is gradual, it is amoral, and it isn’t – or doesn’t seem to be – happening now.

“A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion”

Other researchers have pointed out the alarming tendency, shared by all humans, to believe what they want to believe. Furthermore, climate change is not (death threats and public flogging fantasies aside) an immediate or an emotional issue. “A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion,” says the Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman.

There are other difficulties. When, for instance, will the awful things start to happen? How do you mobilise public opinion on an argument with uncertain timescales, imprecise outcomes and real puzzles about the costs and benefits of any actions? No one, Marshall says, is ever going to march under a banner of that says “100 months before the Odds Shift into a Greater Likelihood of Feedbacks”.

Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), based in Oxford, England. He is a veteran of Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, and there isn’t much doubt about what he thinks and knows to be true.

But the appeal of this book is that he lets others talk. He examines the political doublethink that seems to infect some legislatures in the US. He listens to the sceptics, the worriers, the oil giants, the conspiracy theorists, the celebrity environmental campaigners, and the other ones who invoke imagery of death, fever and smoking ruin.

And he refers to the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, which polled academic experts on global risk, and found an estimate of a “19 per cent probability that the human species will go extinct before the end of the century”.

Altruistic behaviour

The title, direction and burden of this book seem to augur almost apocalyptic failure to confront the coming crisis. But, of course, Marshall pulls out an ace near the end.

He concludes that while human brains may be hard-wired to not worry about what may or may not happen in two generations, they also have an immense capacity for pro-social, supportive and altruistic behaviour.

“Climate change is entirely within our capacity for change,” he says, “It is challenging, but far from impossible.”

That is good to know. And the book ends with some serious advice about how to make the case for action – and instead of capital punishment, we get generously shouty advice in capital letters. CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING HERE AND NOW, he reminds us. And he urges campaigners to DROP THE ECO-STUFF, especially the polar bears.

Marshall suggests that we really do try to contain global average warming to 2°C. He quotes John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who told the Australians: “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.” And, yes, do think about it. – Climate News Network

  • Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, price £20).

Share This:

India set to defy warnings on coal’s climate impact

India set to defy warnings on coal’s climate impact

While even China, the world’s leading coal producer, begins to recognise the fuel’s serious polluting effects, India has announced it aims to double production to meet soaring energy demand.

LONDON, 7 November, 2014 The man responsible for maintaining India’s power supply says he wants the country’s coal production to double within the next five years.

Piyush Goyal, Minister of State for Power, Coal, New and Renewable energy, says India needs to dig twice as much coal as it does today if it is to meet its soaring energy demand. By 2019, it is expected to be consuming two trillion units of electricity annually, with one unit equalling one kilowatt hour.

Describing  coal as “an essential input for power”, Goyal said: “I see Coal India production doubling in the next five years. It makes about 500 million tonnes hopefully this year. We [will] do a billion tonnes in 2019.”

He was speaking at the India Economic Summit, held in Delhi from 4 to 6 November, and hosted by the World Economic Forum and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Raised consumption

India was listed as the world’s third largest coal producer in 2011 − after China and the US − with 588.5 million tones, which is 5.6% of the global total. But imports helped to raise consumption to around 715 million tonnes − still in third place globally.

Doubling production would attract opposition for several reasons − and one is the impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

On 2 November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its 2014 Synthesis Report. The IPCC chair, Dr R K Pachauri − himself an Indian citizen − said the report meant emissions would need to drop by between 40% to 70% globally by 2050, and to zero or below by 2100.

Without the use of carbon abatement technologies such as scrubbers to remove pollutants from emissions − or perhaps carbon capture and storage, if it proves to be effective − coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels. For climate change, adding more than 5% to the world’s total coal supplies would be a big step in the wrong direction.

There is also the damaging effect on health − one of the main reasons why China seems to be losing its appetite for coal use. The World Health Organisation said earlier this year that 40% of the seven million people killed by air pollution globally in 2012 lived in the region dominated by China.

Deep concern

Beyond pollution and health, there is also deep concern over the impact of coal-mining on local communities.

Residents of Chilika Daad, a village in the coal-rich Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh state, told The Guardian newspaper in London that they were tired of the blasting and the dust.

The promises they had been given of development, investment and jobs were left unfulfilled, and all they were left with, they said, were homes they couldn’t sell and lives they couldn’t change.

The area is judged to be the third most polluted place in India because of emissions from power plants and dust from coal mines.

There are allegations of corruption in the awarding of mining concessions, and some of the tribal communities in affected areas are wondering whether to invoke the constitutional rights that might allow them to stop mining going ahead.

The new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has promised that the 400 million Indians who lack electricity will soon have it. That commits him to electrifying every village in the country by 2020. But he has promised to achieve this with solar power, and has doubled an existing levy on coal to fund clean energy. − Climate News Network

Share This: