Tag Archives: emissions

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

A long strand of sugar kelp on a beach in Heligoland off northern Germany Image: Grabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons
A long strand of sugar kelp on a beach in the Heligoland archipelago off north Germany
Image: Grabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown 

Biofuels are controversial because they are often produced from food crops or grown on farmland, but a common algae found in abundance around coastlines and clogging up beaches may be the answer.

LONDON, 19 October, 2014 – It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy − about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors” – which look like tiny sealed straws – Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79%. That means that 79 % of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19%. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2 as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79%, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research. – Climate News Network

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Fuelling controversy: Coal being loaded onto a train in Queensland, Australia Image Ellis678 via Wikimedia Commons
Fuelling the controversy: coal being loaded onto a train in Queensland, Australia
Image Ellis678 via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Warnings within the world of high finance are coming thick and fast that the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change means investors could lose heavily by sinking funds into coal, oil and gas.

LONDON, 18 October, 2014 − Like most central bank governors, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, chooses his words carefully.

So the financial community – and government policy makers − sat up and took notice earlier this month when Carney, addressing a World Bank seminar on corporate reporting standards, said he was concerned about investments in fossil fuels.

“The vast majority of reserves are unburnable,” Carney said.

‘Tragedy of horizons’

He warned companies, investors and policy makers that they need to avoid what he described as the “tragedy of horizons”, and to look further ahead to meet challenges such as climate change.

Investors are being repeatedly told that money sunk into fossil fuels is not only bad for the climate, but is also potentially seriously dangerous to financial health.

The fundamental idea espoused by a wide spread of influential voices – ranging from the International Energy Association (IEA) to finance funds that have many billions of dollars worth of investments under their control − is that, in order to combat climate change, a large portion of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

“Not more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal,” the IEA says.

Limiting a rise in average global temperatures to 2˚C by mid-century is considered to be the minimum necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As action is taken and regulations are tightened, investments in fossil fuels, whether in a coal mine or in oil or gas exploration and production, will become frozen – or, in the parlance of the finance industry, “stranded”.

In the lead up to a major UN conference on climate change in New York last month, a group of high-roller investment funds − which, together, control more than $24 trillion worth of assets – called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for urgent action on climate change.

“We’re not going to be able to burn
it all. Science is science”

Barack Obama, the US president, has joined in the chorus, calling for fossil fuels to stay in the ground. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said earlier this year. “Science is science. And there is no doubt that if we burned all fossil fuels that are in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot, and the consequences could be dire.”

Major campaigns calling for divestment from fossil fuels have been launched. Groups such as 350.org, which campaigns for more awareness on climate issues, have had considerable success in persuading various bodies – from universities to the UK’s leading medical association − to stop investing in fossil fuels.

A number of pension funds, with billions of dollars worth of investments under their control, have said they will either cut back or stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry.

Public pressure

Meanwhile, giant coal, oil and gas corporations have been told they could face a public backlash if they seek to avoid or deny public pressure on climate change issues.

But for those who want to see an end to the fossil fuel industry, the battle is by no means won. It is only just starting.

A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment says the world’s 200 largest publicly-quoted fossil fuel companies spent an estimated total of $674bn on exploring and developing new reserves in 2012. And that figure does not include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on exploiting existing fossil fuel sites.

Coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, is still king in many regions of the world, particularly in the fast-growing economies of China and India. Coal companies, urged on by politicians, are still investing billions in new facilities.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, opening a huge new mine in Queensland that will produce about 5.5 million tonnes of coal each year, said last week: “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.” – Climate News Network

Veteran green says emissions aren’t the only danger

Pete Wilkinson in the bow of a dinghy on a 1983 mission to block the pipeline discharging radioactive waste into the Irish from Sellafield nuclear plant, UK.  Image: Greenpeace
Pete Wilkinson in the bow of a dinghy on a 1983 mission to block the pipeline discharging radioactive waste into the Irish Sea from Sellafield nuclear plant, UK.    Image: Greenpeace

By Paul Brown

Forty years ago, climate change was not even on the agenda of green campaigners − but now a veteran of those pioneering days speaks out about the danger of neglecting other issues that threaten the planet.

LONDON, 16 October, 2014 − In the 1970s, Pete Wilkinson was battling to save seals and whales from slaughter and trying to protect the planet from pollution, especially the dumping of nuclear waste. Today, at the age of 67, he is still campaigning − and sometimes taking on his former colleagues.

This is because Wilkinson believes that some pressing environmental problems have been neglected as more and more resources have been diverted to the campaign to cut carbon emissions. Issues related to climate change – such as habitat loss, water shortages, and over-population − need far more attention, he says.

Today, he is giving the second David Bellamy Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London. It coincides with him launching his autobiography – which includes taking a sideswipe at Greenpeace, the organisation of which he was the co-founder in the UK.

Pressing issue

Wilkinson does believe that climate change is a seriously pressing issue, but he warns that concentration on limiting carbon emissions, to the exclusion of many other inter-related issues, is a mistake.

His book, From Deptford to Antarctica, begins with his early days in Friends of the Earth, and subsequently the founding of Greenpeace in the UK, at a time when climate change wasn’t even on the environmental agenda.

He says he “lived on fags, beer and fish and chips” for the first eight years of Greenpeace, before running a successful campaign to prevent mining in the Antarctic and getting the continent declared a World Park. The campaign involved seven annual four-month voyages to the Antarctic to refurbish the Greenpeace base. The book includes some of his unabridged diaries about the struggles involved.

It is an entertaining read because he is as honest about his own shortcomings as he is forthright about those of his friends and foes.

In the 1980s, before he went to Antarctica, he was instrumental in stopping the UK dumping nuclear waste in the Atlantic. Thirty years later, he is still working on the nuclear issue.

He says: “We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free? After all, how much carbon will be emitted building a repository for all that waste?

“The British government’s claim that nuclear power is carbon free is one of the great myths of the climate change debate. It might be carbon-free at the point that the uranium is being burned in the reactor, but what about when the uranium is mined in some far-off country, transported here, and turned into nuclear fuel?”

He believes that giant nuclear power stations are the wrong energy solution, and that the key to dealing with climate change is to dismantle national grids and go for micro-technology and energy efficiency.

“We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free?” – Pete Wilkinson

“We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free?” – PETE WILKINSON

Wilkinson also believes that carbon dioxide is not the only threat to the atmosphere. As director of the Nuclear Information Service, based in Reading, England, he works on disarmament issues and believes that Britain’s intended investment of £100 billion in a new fleet of Trident submarines is both a waste of money and, if their multiple warheads were ever used, a crime against humanity.

“In fact, if nuclear weapons were used in any war, just of a few of them, the climate change we would be worrying about would be a nuclear winter,” he says. “So the issue of nuclear proliferation and the potential for nuclear war is an issue for environmentalists too.”

Democratic decisions

Wilkinson left Greenpeace in the 1990s and has since served on a number of government bodies consulting on nuclear waste and other environmental issues. He is passionate about the public’s right to know the facts, so that proper democratic decisions can be made.

When he began working for Greenpeace, he was paid the same wage he would have received if he was on unemployment benefit, and the whole budget was run on a shoestring.

The first ship he bought was a £5,000 former trawler that had been used as a fisheries research vessel, and he is critical of the current management of the Greenpeace for spending £14 million on a new ship. “They lack vision and imagination,” he says. “They could have spent that money on campaigning.”

His autobiography is full of insights into the early green movement and how it took on the establishment. Just as in those early days, Wilkinson does not keep his opinions to himself. “I hope my friends are still speaking to me after they’ve read the book,” he says. – Climate News Network

• From Deptford to Antarctica – the Long Way Home, an autobiography by Pete Wilkinson, published 16 October, 2014, by Fledgling Press Ltd (price £14.99).

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

Pipe dream: a fracking operation in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico Image: Rhod08 via Wikimedia
Pipe dream: a fracking operation in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico
Image: Rhod08 via Wikimedia

By Alex Kirby

As advanced technology triggers the boom in extraction of natural gas, a new study warns that market forces mean the cheaper fossil fuel could replace not just coal, but also low-emission renewable and nuclear energy.

LONDON, 15 October 2014 − The argument that fracking can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is misguided, according to an international scientific study, because the amount of extra fossil fuel it will produce will cancel out the benefits of its lower pollution content.

The study, published today in the journal Nature, recognises that technologies such as fracking have triggered a boom in natural gas. But the authors say this will not lead to a reduction of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Although natural gas produces only half the CO2 emissions of coal for each unit of energy, its growing availability will make it cheaper, they say, so it will add to total energy supply and only partly replace coal.

Advantage nullified

Their study, based on what they say is “an unprecedented international comparison of computer simulations”, shows that this market effect nullifies the advantage offered by the lower pollution content of the gas.

The lead author, Haewon McJeon, staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the University of Maryland, said: “The upshot is that abundant natural gas alone will not rescue us from climate change.”

Fracking, horizontal drilling and other techniques have led to surging gas production, especially in the US. “Global deployment of advanced technology could double or triple global natural gas production by 2050,” McJeon said.

This might eventually mean not lower CO2 emissions, but emissions by the middle of the century up to 10% higher than they would otherwise be.

The report, which is the work of five research groups from Germany, the US, Austria, Italy and Australia, said the replacement of coal by natural gas was fairly limited. And it might replace not just coal, the study had found, but low-emission renewable energy and nuclear power as well.

One of the co-authors, Nico Bauer, a sustainable solutions expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, said : “The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating.

“The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply.”

Not only could this lead to an overall increase in energy consumption and in emissions, but increased gas production would mean higher emissions of methane from drilling leakages and pipelines.

The research groups projected what the world might be like in 2050, both with and without a natural gas boom. They used five different computer models, which included not just energy use and production, but also the broader economy and the climate system.

“When we saw all five teams reporting little difference
in climate change, we knew we were on to something”

“When we first saw little change in greenhouse gas emissions in our model, we thought we had made a mistake, because we were fully expecting to see a significant reduction in emissions,” said James Edmonds, chief scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. “But when we saw all five teams reporting little difference in climate change, we knew we were on to something.”

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of PIK and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group on mitigation, said: “The findings show that effective climate stabilisation can be achieved only through emissions pricing.

”This requires international political co-operation and binding agreements. Technological advances can reduce the costs of climate policies, but they cannot replace policies.”

Article of faith

The widespread use of shale gas continues to attract policymakers, and for some it is almost an article of faith. It recently received the IPCC‘s endorsement, with Professor Edenhofer himself apparently backing it.

In the UK, a senior Conservative politician, Owen Paterson, is urging more fracking to increase Britain‘s shale gas supplies.

Paterson, who lost his job as Environment Secretary in July, today gave the annual lecture to the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation, arguing against wind power and for “investment in four possible common sense policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors, and demand management”.

Paterson also said that the UK should suspend or scrap its Climate Change Act, which commits it to cutting CO2 emissions by more than 80% on 1990 levels by 2050, unless other countries follow suit.

His former Cabinet colleague, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, said that scrapping the legislation would be “one of the most stupid economic decisions imaginable”. − Climate News Network

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

 

Ominous signs: monsoon clouds roll in over Visakhapatnam in south-east India Image: Adityamadhav83 via Wikimedia Commons
Monsoon clouds roll in over Visakhapatnam, south-east India, but rainfall is reducing
Image: Adityamadhav83 via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Reduced monsoon rainfall and increased river flow are two extremes that new research has linked to man-made impacts on climate caused by air pollution.

LONDON, 13 October, 2014 − Two separate studies have confirmed the extent of human influence on climate change – and, for once, carbon dioxide is not the usual suspect.

One team has just found that air pollution dimmed the skies of northern Europe, reflected sunlight back into space, reduced evaporation, and increased river flow.

The second group reports that similar aerosol pollution had a quite different effect on the Asian monsoons: in the second half of the 20th century, the darkening skies reduced temperatures and cut the summer monsoon rainfall by 10%.

The two seemingly contradictory findings underscore two clear conclusions. One is that climate science is complex. The other is that human activity clearly influences the climate in different ways.

Worldwide concern

Both studies are concerned with an era when there was, worldwide, more concern about choking smog, sulphuric aerosol discharges and acid rain than about man-made global warming. They also both match complex computer simulation with observed changes in climate during the second half of the 20th century

Nicola Gedney, a senior scientist at the UK’s Meteorological Office, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that she and colleagues looked at the growth in aerosol pollution, especially in the Oder river catchment area of central-eastern Europe, that followed the increased burning of sulphurous coal in Europe right up till the late 1970s.

The consequence of that burning was a reduction in sunlight over the hemisphere. But this began to reverse with clean air legislation and a widespread switch to cleaner fuels. River flows, which had been on the increase, were reduced.

“We estimate that, in the most polluted central Europe river basin, this effect led to an increase in river flow of up to 25% when the aerosol levels were at their peak, around 1980,” Dr Gedney said. “With water shortages likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the future, these findings are important in making projections.”

Aerosol pollution

Meanwhile, a group led by Debbie Polson, a researcher in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, Scotland, focused on aerosol pollution and the Asian summer monsoons, which provide four-fifths of the annual rainfall of the Indian subcontinent.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that they calculated annual summer rainfall between 1951 and 2005, used computer simulations to quantify the impact of increasing aerosol emissions and greenhouse gases during that time, and factored in natural variations, such as volcanic discharges.

They found that, overall, levels of rain during the monsoon fell by 10%, and this change could only be explained by the influence of aerosols from car and factory exhausts.

“This study has shown for the first time that the drying of the monsoon over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural climate variability, and that human activity has played a significant role in altering the seasonal monsoon rainfall on which billions of people depend,” Dr Polson said. – Climate News Network

World of clean energy ‘feasible’ by mid-century

Keeping it clean: a hydropower site at Holbuvatnet in the highlands of eastern Norway Image: Ximonic/Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons
Keeping it clean: a hydropower site at Holbuvatnet in the highlands of eastern Norway
Image: Ximonic/Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

International researchers, in what they believe is the most comprehensive global assessment of clean energy’s potential, report that a low-carbon system could supply the world’s electricity needs by 2050.

LONDON, 10 October, 2014 − A global low-carbon energy economy is not only feasible, it could double electricity supply by 2050 while actually reducing air and water pollution, according to new research.

Even though photovoltaic power requires up to 40 times more copper than conventional power plants, and wind power uses up to 14 times more iron, the world wins on a switch to low-carbon energy.

These positive findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Edgar Hertwich and Thomas Gibon, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Energy and Process Engineering.

Life-cycle assessment

They and international research colleagues report that they have made – as far as they know – the first global life-cycle assessment of the economic and environmental costs of renewable and other clean sources of energy in a world that responds to the threat of climate change.

Other studies have looked at the costs in terms of health, pollutant emissions, land use change or the consumption of metals. The Norwegian team set out to consider the lot.

There were some things they had to leave out: for instance, bioenergy, the conversion of corn, sugar cane or other crops to ethanol for fuel, because that would also require a comprehensive assessment of the food system; and nuclear energy, because they could not reconcile what they called “conflicting results of competing assessment approaches”.

But they tried to consider the whole-life costs of solar power, wind power, hydropower and gas and coal generators that used carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They took into account the demand for aluminium, copper, nickel and steel, metallurgical grade silicon, flat glass, zinc and clinker. They thought about the comparative costs of “clean” and “dirty” power generation, and they considered the impact of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, toxicity in ecosystems, and the eutrophication– the overwhelming blooms of plankton − of the rivers and lakes.

They also assessed the impact of such future power plants on the use of land, and they made allowances for the economic benefits of increasing amounts of renewable power in the extraction and refinement of minerals needed to make yet more renewable power.

More efficient

Then they contemplated two scenarios: one in which global electricity production rose by 134% by 2050, with fossil fuels accounting for two-thirds of the total; and one in which electricity demand in 2050 rises by 13% less because energy use becomes more efficient.

They found that to generate new sources of power, demand for iron and steel might increase by only 10%. Photovoltaic systems would require between 11 and 40 times the amount of copper that is needed for conventional generators, but even so, the demand by 2050 would add up to just two years’ worth of current copper production.

Their conclusion? Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron and cement, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants.

“Only two years of current global copper and one year of iron will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs by 2050,” the authors say. – Climate News Network

Human handprint marks Australia’s hottest year

Australian weather stations recording temperatures of 45°C or above in January 2013 Image: Squidman18559 via Wikimedia Commons
Australian weather stations recording temperatures of 45°C or above in January 2013
Image: Squidman18559 via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Despite the Australian prime minister’s climate science scepticism, research funded by taxpayers has unanimously found man-made climate change guilty of causing the country’s record-breaking temperatures last year.

LONDON, 4 October, 2014 − Scientists are fond of saying that it is difficult to pin the blame for any one climate event onto climate change. But they have just made an exception by reporting that many things that happened in Australia in 2013 bore the signature of man-made climate change.

In that one year, Australia recorded its hottest day ever, its hottest month in the history books, its hottest summer, its hottest spring, and its hottest year overall.

Extreme events

And in a special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, examining extreme events around the world during 2013, a series of papers home in on the Australian heat waves, and identify a human influence.

“We often talk about the fingerprint of human-caused climate change when we look at extreme weather patterns,” said David Karoly, professor of meteorology at the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences. “This research across four different papers goes well beyond that.

“If we were climate detectives, then Australia’s hottest year on records in 2013 wasn’t just a smudged fingerprint at the scene of the crime, it was a clear and unequivocal handprint showing the impact of human-caused global warming.”

In general, the world’s meteorologists have found nothing unequivocal to suggest that global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion caused, for example, the Californian drought, extreme snow in the Spanish Pyrenees or an October blizzard in South Dakota in the US.

But they did find that global warming doubled the chance of severe heat waves in Australia − making extreme summer temperatures five times more likely, increasing the chance of drought conditions sevenfold, and making hot temperatures in spring 30 times more probable.

And they reckoned that the record hot year of 2013 would have been virtually impossible without global warming. At a conservative calculation, the science showed that the heat of 2013 was made 2,000 times more likely by global warming.

Different picture

Paradoxically, Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, was one of the world leaders who pointedly stayed away from the recent United Nations climate change summit in New York, and in the past has taken a sceptical stance on climate science. Yet research funded by Australian taxpayers has consistently painted a different picture.

“When it comes to what helped cause our hottest year on record, human-caused climate change is no longer a prime suspect − it is the guilty party,” said Dr Sophie Lewis, a paleoecologist at the Australian National University.

And her colleague, Sarah Perkins, a climate scientist at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, warned that 2013 was only the beginning.

She said: “If we continue to put carbon into our atmosphere at the currently accelerating rate, years like 2013 will quickly be considered normal, and the impacts of future extremes will be well beyond anything modern society has experienced.” – Climate News Network

Ignorance hinders UK’s lofty aims on energy saving

Energy inefficiency is a problem in much of the UK’s older housing stock Image: Martin Addison via Wikimedia Commons
Performance gap: energy inefficiency is a problem in much of the UK’s older housing stock
Image: Martin Addison via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Housing in the UK is among the least energy efficient in Europe – and a new survey reveals that part of the problem is that many people are ill-informed about how to save energy in their own homes.

LONDON, 2 October, 2014 − We all know the easiest and most effective way to make the typical house more energy efficient in colder climates. Or do we?

A survey commissioned by the National Energy Foundation (NEF), an independent organisation that works to improve the use of energy in the UK’s buildings, recently assessed how well informed people are on energy issues.

Loft insulation is the answer to the above question on improving energy efficiency – yet of the more than 2,000 people questioned in the survey, less than 40% answered correctly.

And while about 60% of adults in the survey felt they were well informed on energy issues, half of them could not identify the most energy efficient lighting for their homes − LED bulbs, which are said to use 90% less energy than traditional incandescent ones.

Action aimed at cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions tends to focus on the power generation sector and transport. Yet buildings – both residential and commercial – account for 46% of the UK’s CO2 emissions, says NEF.

Energy saving

Relatively low-cost improvements to buildings, such as more insulation and LED lighting, can result in considerable energy saving.

The UK has one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe, with more than half of homes constructed before 1960 and only 10% built in the last 25 years.

A lack of comprehensive, effectively implemented building regulations means even newly-constructed dwellings are often sub-standard in terms of energy efficiency.

“Newly-constructed buildings typically use between 2.5 and 4.5 times as much energy as predicted – a phenomenon now being called the performance gap,” says Kerry Mashford, NEF’s chief executive.

“Changes to the way we design, deliver and operate buildings can close this gap dramatically. The trouble is that many don’t know where to start, what to do, or even that such a problem exists.”

It is estimated that the average UK household is responsible for emitting about 10 tonnes of CO2 a year, although there are wide disparities between high and low income earners, with the richest 10% emitting three times more than the poorest 10%, according to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

More than five million households in the UK – about a fifth of the total − suffer fuel poverty, which is defined as homes where more than 10% of total income is spent on keeping warm.

Fuel poverty

The Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE), a group of companies involved in energy conservation issues, ranks the UK as “the cold man of Europe” – the worst for fuel poverty out of 13 western European countries, and near the bottom of the league on a number of other household energy indicators.

“The UK ranks so low despite the fact that it has among the lowest gas and electricity prices in Europe and relatively high household incomes compared to the other countries,” ACE says.

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, said early last year he wanted to make Britain the most energy efficient country in Europe.

“Far from being a drag on growth, making our energy sources more sustainable, our energy consumption more efficient and our economy more resilient to energy price shocks – those things are a vital part of the growth and wealth that we need,” he said.

The European Union has said that the greatest energy saving potential in Europe – and one of the easiest ways to cut back on CO2 emissions – is through the construction of more energy-efficient buildings. – Climate News Network

Clean urban transport can drive emissions cuts

Making public transport cleaner and more accessible can reap major benefits Image: Ilya Plekhenov via Wikimedia Commons
Making public transport cleaner and more accessible will lead to major social benefits
Image: Ilya Plekhenov via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers’ urgent message to world leaders at the UN climate summit: save 1.4 million lives and trillions of dollars by controlling vehicle pollution, improving public transport and shifting away from the car culture.

LONDON, 24 September, 2014 − Here’s a way to save $100 trillion and stop 1,700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from getting into the atmosphere every year by 2050: cycle, walk or take public transport.

A new report by the University of California Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) estimates that such a policy would also prevent 1.4 million premature deaths a year from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary diseases.

The report, aimed to coincide with the current UN climate change summit in New York, sees sustainable public transport as a key factor in economic development.

Pollution  controls

However, according to parallel analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation, the planet’s governments must also demand the strongest vehicle pollution controls and push for ultra-low sulphur fuels.

The ITDP message is, of course, one that city planners, health chiefs, traffic analysts, atmospheric scientists and environmental campaigners have been urging for decades. The difference is that the new report, called A Global High Shift Scenario, attempts to estimate the money saved, the greenhouse gases not emitted, and the lives saved by a switch from the “business-as-usual” approach to transport.

This would require governments everywhere to invest in clean, safe and swift public transport by bus and rail, and at the same time make the streets safe for cyclists and pedestrians.

If authorities also moved investment away from road construction, garages and parking lots, then enormous savings would follow over the next 35 years.

“Transportation, driven by rapid growth in car use, has been the fastest-growing source of CO2 in the world,” says Michael Replogle, ITDP’s founder and managing director for policy.

His co-author, Lew Fulton, co-director of the NextSTEPS (Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways) programme within the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, adds: “The analysis shows that car-centric development will cut urban CO2 dramatically and also reduce costs, especially in rapidly expanding economies.”

Under the ITDP scenario, access to public transport would more than triple for the lowest income groups, and double for the next lowest income group. Overall, mobility tends to provide the poorest people with better access to employment and to services that will improve livelihoods.

Fulton says: “Today, and out to 2050, lower income groups will have limited access to cars in most countries under almost any scenario, so improving access to modern, clean, high-capacity public transport is crucial.”

Growing inequality

And Replogle warns: “Unmanaged growth in motor vehicle use threatens to exacerbate growing income inequality and environmental ills, while more sustainable transport delivers access for all, reducing these ills.”

Motor traffic in urban areas accounted for 2,300 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2010 –about a quarter of emissions from all parts of the transport sector. Rapid urbanisation in China, India and other fast-developing countries threatens to double these emissions.

Right now, the US is the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions from urban passenger transport, with 670 megatonnes a year. But the report calculates that this could be reduced to 280 megatonnes.

In China, the emissions from city transport are expected to rise from 190 megatonnes a year now to 1,100 megatonnes as the nation’s economy booms. Under the high shift scenario, this could be slashed to 650 megatonnes, with help from extensive investment in public transport.

Currently, Indian cities emit 70 megatonnes. This could rise to 540 megatonnes by 2050, but the report says that these could be contained at 350 megatonnes by addressing crucial deficiencies in India’s public transport. – Climate News Network

Investor heavyweights call for clear action on climate

Falling costs make renewables such as solar energy competitive in the US without subsidies Image: US Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons
Falling costs make renewables such as solar energy competitive in the US without subsidy
Image: US Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

As a major UN climate summit gets under way in New York today, some of the world’s leading institutional investors demand clearer policies on climate change and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

LONDON, 23 September, 2014 − Many of the biggest hitters in the global financial community, together managing an eye-watering $24 trillion of investment funds, have issued a powerful warning to political leaders about the risks of failing to establish clear policy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 340 investment concerns − ranging from Scandinavian pensions funds to institutional investors in Asia, Australia, South Africa and the US − have put their signatures to what they describe as global investors’ most comprehensive statement yet on climate change.

In particular, the investors call on government leaders to provide a “stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon policy”, and to develop plans to phase out subsidies on fossil fuels.

They warn: “Gaps, weaknesses and delays in climate change and clean energy policies will increase the risks to our investments as a result of the physical impacts of climate change, and will increase the likelihood that more radical policy measures will be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ambitious policies

“Stronger political leadership and more ambitious policies are needed in order for us to scale up our investments.”

Attempts to establish carbon pricing systems capable of making an impact on climate change have so far ended in failure, while oil and gas companies continue to battle against stopping fossil fuel subsidies.

The investors’ move has been welcomed by the United Nations.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, said: “Investors are owners of large segments of the global economy, as well as custodians of citizens’ savings around the world. Having such a critical mass of them demand a transition to the low-carbon and green economy is exactly the signal governments need in order to move to ambitious action quickly.

“What is needed is an unprecedented re-channelling of investment from today´s economy into the low-carbon economy of tomorrow.”

The investors’ statement comes amid growing concern in the finance sector about the economic consequences of a warming world.

Last week, a commission composed of leading economists and senior political figures said the transition to a low-carbon economy was vital in order to ensure continued global economic growth.

Stranded assets

Other groups say investors who continue to put their money into fossil fuels are taking considerable risks. As governments and regulators face up to the enormity of climate change and place more restrictions on fossil fuels, such investments could become what are termed “stranded assets”.

There are also signs of a surge in low-carbon technologies, particularly in the renewable energy sector. Last week, Lazard, the asset management firm, reported that a decline in cost and increased efficiency means large wind and solar installations in the US can now, without subsidies, be cost competitive with gas-fired power.

There is also increased activity on the carbon pricing front. China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, recently announced it would establish a countrywide emissions trading system by 2016.

If implemented, the China carbon trading system will be the world’s biggest. The country already runs seven regional carbon trading schemes. – Climate News Network