Beavers damned for increasing threat from methane

Beavers damned for increasing threat from methane

The growth of the world’s beaver population to more than 10 million has led to a big increase in one of the main greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

LONDON, 21 December, 2014 − For a picture of industrious innocence, beavers are hard to beat. Yet they now find themselves facing a grave charge: they are, it seems, responsible for increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem, Canadian scientists say, lies in the shallow ponds that form behind the dams the beavers build. The ponds are essential to the animals’ way of life. Unfortunately, they’re also good places for generating methane.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and in the short term it does much more damage than the far more abundant carbon dioxide. There is now international agreement that methane is 34 times more potent than CO2 over a century, but 84 times more over a much shorter timespan – just 20 years. And two decades can be crucial in trying to slow the rate of climate change.

Trapping limited

Colin J. Whitfield, of the University of Saskatchewan, led a study − published in the journal AMBIO − from which he estimated that beaver numbers in Eurasia and the Americas have grown so much that the methane emissions the ponds produce are now 200 times higher than in 1900.

Between the 16th and the 19th centuries, the fur trade nearly led to the beavers’ extinction worldwide. After trapping was limited and they were re-introduced to their natural ranges, the number of North American (Castor canadensis) and Eurasian (Castor fiber) beavers began to grow. The North American beaver has also been introduced to parts of Eurasia and South America.

“This suggests that the contribution of beaver activity to global methane emissions may continue to grow”

Beavers build dams in rivers to create standing open-water ponds and wetlands. The ponds are usually shallow, with dams seldom more than 1.5 metres high. The study found that carbon builds up in the oxygen-poor pond bottoms, and methane is then generated. Unable to dissolve adequately in the shallow water, it is released into the atmosphere.

The team estimated the size of the current global beaver population and determined the area covered by beaver ponds. They found that global beaver numbers have grown to over 10 million, damming more than 42,000 sq kms of aquatic pond areas, bordered by over 200,000 kms of shoreline habitat.

At the end of the 20th century, they say, beavers contributed up to 0.80 teragrams (or 800 million kilograms) of methane to the atmosphere annually. This is about 15% of the input from wild cud-chewing animals such as deer or antelopes.

“Continued range expansion, coupled with changes in population and pond densities, may dramatically increase the amount of water impounded by the beaver,” Whitfield says.

“This, in combination with anticipated increases in surface water temperatures, and likely effects on rates of methanogenesis, suggests that the contribution of beaver activity to global methane emissions may continue to grow.”

Copious amounts

Beavers are not alone in unwittingly worsening climate change. Ruminants − animals that chew the cud − emit copious amounts of methane, prompting concerns about the impacts on the atmosphere of an increasingly meat-based human diet.

Now comes news that another species may have to step up and accept some of the blame for a warming world.

Scientists from Woods Hole Research Center, in the US, told the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco that Arctic ground squirrels may be playing a greater role in climate change than previously thought.

They say the animals are hastening the release of greenhouse gases from the permafrost, accelerating an existing positive feedback that means the warming temperatures help the frozen soil to thaw and emit still more greenhouse gas. − Climate News Network

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Australia heading in wrong direction on emissions targets

Australia heading in wrong direction on emissions targets

The current government in Australia has made no secret of its doubts about the scientific evidence of climate change – but new research confirms that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising fast.

LONDON, 16 December, 2014 − Australia’s emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases are going up and up – and are set to rise by more than 50% over 1990 levels by 2020, according to new research.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent science-based programme that analyses the emission commitments and actions of countries around the world, says Australia’s present emission levels are about 31% higher than in 1990 and continue to rise.

“In terms of emission effort, Australia will be going in the opposite direction to China and the US, who are putting effort into reducing emissions,” says the CAT analysis.

Emissions calculations

The research says Australia has exerted considerable efforts over the years in order to alter the way its emissions are calculated under the terms of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Australia has insisted on including reductions in emissions from land use and forestry in its emissions calculations. As a consequence, it has sought more allowances for emissions from its industrial − mainly mining − sector.

“This is just the most recent example of Australia lobbying for rules that undermine
the integrity of the emissions accounting system”

According to CAT, the data supplied by the Australian government on supposed land and forestry emission reductions lacks transparency. And lobbying for such calculation methods – which continued during the recent global climate negotiations in Lima, Peru − goes against the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.

“This is just the most recent example,” CAT says, “of Australia lobbying for rules that undermine the integrity of the emissions accounting system as a whole and the rules that carve out special exceptions to the detriment of all, but to the benefit of a few.”

At the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, Australia pledged that it would cut its emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

CAT − a project run by a number of international organisations, including the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Ecofys, a sustainable energy consultancy − says its assessment of Australia’s emissions’ performance is a reasonable, independent and scientifically-based estimate based on available data and the application of the Kyoto rules as they are generally understood.

Worst performing

Australia was recently named as the worst performing industrial country on the issue of climate change in a report by the Germanwatch thinktank and the Climate Action Network, a group that links more than 900 non-governmental organisations around the world.

Since coming to power in federal elections late last year, the conservative coalition government led by Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, has done away with a clean energy bill and championed the country’s iron ore and coal mining sectors.

In recent years, Australia has been hit by a series of severe droughts and record-breaking high temperatures, with 2013 the hottest year since records began more than a century ago.

This year’s spring weather in Australia has also been unusually hot, with temperatures of more than 40˚C being recorded over several days in parts of the country. – Climate News Network

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Climate talks take a rocky road to Paris

Climate talks take a rocky road to Paris

The UN climate talks in Lima have ended with the setting of deadlines for the world to come up with plans to curb emissions and adapt to climate change.

LONDON, 14 December, 2014 − A deal struck in Lima between 196 nations today leaves open the possibility of saving the planet from dangerous overheating. But its critics say the prospects of success are now slim.

The talks − which ran two days longer than scheduled − set a series of deadlines which mean that every nation is charged with producing its plans to cap and reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

These commitments will then be assessed to see if they are enough to prevent the world heating up more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold political leaders say must not be crossed in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

The Lima agreement invites all countries to set out their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31 March. The next step will be to draft a legally binding international agreement on how to get below the 2°C threshold. This text is to be made available to all countries for comment by May 2015.

All eyes on Paris

By 1 November the secretariat of the UN Climate Change Convention is supposed to have assessed whether the commitment of these 196 nations is enough to stop the world overheating – and, if it is not, to point out by how far they will miss the target.

All this is to set the stage for a dramatic final negotiation in Paris in a year’s time, when a blueprint for a legally enforceable deal is supposed to be on the table. This is a tall order, however, because each time the parties meet the rich and poor countries wage the same arguments over again.

The developing countries say the rich developed countries that caused the problem in the first place must make deep cuts in their emissions and pay huge sums for the poorer countries to adapt to climate change.

The rich countries say that the fast industrialisation of many developing countries means that these countries must cut emissions too, otherwise the world will overheat anyway.

The poorest countries of all, and the small island states, who everyone agrees have no responsibility for the problem, want much more dramatic curbs on emissions, and more money for adaptation to sea level rise and climate extremes than is likely to be forthcoming.

New reality

The talks take place amid their own jargon, with phrases like the “principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances” seen as essential to point up the difference between rich and poor nations and what they are expected to do.

The talks have dragged on for 15 years since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, in which the rich nations agreed to the first cuts in emissions while allowing the poorer nations to continue developing.

Now that China has overtaken the US as the world’s biggest polluter, and countries like Brazil and India are fast catching up, the scientific case is that every country has to curb its emissions, or else everyone faces disaster.

But whether the talks have gone far enough to allow a deal to be reached in Paris next year is a matter of many opinions.

“As a text it’s not perfect, but it includes the positions of the parties,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the Peruvian environment minister, who presided over the talks and must have been relieved he got a text on which every country was prepared to agree.

Caustic reaction

Environmental groups were scathing about the outcome. Sam Smith, chief of climate policy for WWF, said: “The text went from weak to weaker to weakest and it’s very weak indeed.

“Governments crucially failed to agree on specific plans to cut emissions before 2020…The science is clear that delaying action until 2020 will make it near-impossible to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, yet political expediency won over scientific urgency.”

“It’s definitely watered down from what we expected,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But those not keen on limiting their own development were happy. “We got what we wanted,” Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister, said.

Despite the different views the talks did not break down, and so there is still hope. This assessment from Mohammed Adow, Christian Aid’s senior climate change adviser, probably accurately sums up the Lima result: “The countdown clock to Paris is now ticking. Countries had the chance to give themselves a head start on the road to Paris but instead have missed the gun and now need to play catch-up.” − Climate News Network

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New climate plans would cut projected warming levels

New climate plans would cut projected warming levels

Climate change analysts say latest commitments by China, the US and Europe on emissions cuts could mean significant progress towards ensuring that global average temperatures this century will rise less than predicted.

LIMA, 11 December 2014 − This really does appear to be a good news story about climate change − and even the not-so-good qualification that accompanies it still leaves something to celebrate.

Researchers say the post-2020 plans announced recently by China and the US and the European Union mean projected warming during this century is likely to be less than expected. The downside is that, even then, the world will still not be doing enough to limit the increase in average temperatures to below 2˚C.

The research, released at the UN climate change conference currently being held in Lima, comes from the Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment that tracks countries’ emission commitments and actions. It comes in the form of an assessment by four organisations: Climate Analytics, Ecofys, NewClimate Institute and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

International goal

Together, the four groups measured government pledges and actions against what will be needed to limit warming below the agreed international goal of a maximum 2°C increase above pre-industrial temperature levels, and against the goal of bringing warming below 1.5°C by 2100.

China − which recently announced a cap on coal consumption from 2020 − and the US and EU together contribute around 53% of global emissions. If they fully implement their new, post-2020 plans, they would limit global temperature rise to around 3˚C by 2100, which is between 0.2˚C and 0.4˚C lower than it would have been.

Their plans are more ambitious than earlier commitments, and represent what the researchers call “significant progress“. But they won’t limit warming to below 2˚C.

“In the context of increasing momentum towards a global agreement to be adopted in Paris in 2015, this represents a very important first step towards what is needed,” said Bill Hare, executive director of Climate Analytics.

“Levelling emissions off after 2030 has a major positive effect on global warming in the 21st century”

“Tempering this optimism is the large gap that remains between the policies that governments have put in place that will lead to warming of 3.9°C by 2100, compared to the improvements they’ve made in their promises. These new developments indicate an increasing political will to meet the long-term goals.”

Niklas Höhne, founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, said: “We estimate that China will likely achieve its 2020 pledge and the objectives stated for 2030, reaching 20% share of non-fossil fuels in a manner that is consistent with peaking COemissions by 2030. Levelling emissions off after 2030 has a major positive effect on global warming in the 21st century.

“China’s post-2020 emissions levels remain unclear and difficult to quantify. Its peak by 2030 falls somewhat short of a 2°C pathway. However, if emissions peak just five years earlier, this could make a very big difference and move them very close to a 2°C pathway.”

Höhne said that the US, with full implementation of its proposed policies, appears likely to meet its 2020 goal of 17%. But further measures would be needed to meet its newly-proposed 2025 goals.

Ambitious target

The researchers say the EU’s current policies put it on a good trajectory towards meeting its 2020 target. But, with current policies, it is not on track to meet its more ambitious conditional target of a 30% emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2020, and the 40% reduction target by 2030.

They say that governments in countries such as India could do more. Recent discussions indicate that India could be considering putting forward next month a peak year for emissions between 2035 and 2050, which − depending on the level at which this peak occurred − could be consistent with a 2°C pathway.

“We only have a very limited amount of carbon that can be burned by 2050, and we calculate that current policies would exceed this budget by over 60% by that time,” Hare said. “We clearly have a lot of work to do.” − Climate News Network

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India claims plan for new energy mix is a game-changer

India claims plan for new energy mix is a game-changer

While the political spotlight focused on the  world’s two biggest polluters − China and the US − in the run-up to the Lima climate talks, pressure is mounting on India to set emissions targets to help prevent the planet overheating.

NEW DELHI, 10 December, 2014 − India’s contribution to global carbon emissions was only 7% last year, yet there are fears being expressed in the western world that rapid population growth and development will mean this vast country will soon be a major polluter − like its neighbour, China.

For the world, it is a continued worry that if the country soon to have the largest population in the world develops − as China has − by burning coal, climate change will surely get out of control.

No commitments on climate change have so far been made by India, as it waits to see what the developed countries offer to prove they are serious about aid, technology transfer, and targets to reduce their own emissions.

Carbon tax

But while priority in India has been given to development − particularly providing electricity for the millions who live without it − and tackling poverty, the newly-elected government has made a promising start on recognising the importance of climate change.

It has a new energy policy centred on an ambitious increase in solar power capacity − from the current 20,000 megawatts to 100,000 MW in five years. There is a Rupees 5 billion ($80 million) budget this year alone for “ultra mega” solar projects. And a carbon tax on coal has also been doubled for the purpose of subsidising solar and other renewables.

Prakash Javadekar, India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change minister, said before heading for the UN climate change conference being held in Lima, Peru: “This game-changer energy mix will give us enhanced energy efficiency and save 50 million tonnes of coal. That’s a huge contribution to the world, and will affect our emissions. We will walk the clean water, clean air, clean power path.”

“Both solar and coal power will increase,
but that is our energy mix”

There have been reports about a possible announcement next month – when US president Barack Obama visits New Delhi − of the year in which India intends its greenhouse gas emissions to peak.

However, Javadekar refused to set a timeline, despite the apparent pressure after the US-China joint declaration that the US will reduce emissions by 2025 and China’s will peak by 2030. All countries are supposed to inform the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by March 2015 of their action plans for emission reductions.

Javadekar said India is putting in place several action plans for achieving the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions as part of the 2015 agreement. But he made clear that the “peaking year” will not be the benchmark set at Lima; it will be “India’s contribution” − and will be much more than expected.

India, which is expected to surpass China’s current 1.3 billion population by 2030, has always defended its position, as its emissions are less than 2 tonnes per capita, compared with about 7.2 tonnes in China and 16.4 tonnes in the US.

“Our growth cannot be compromised,” Javadekar said. “We have the right to develop, and our priority is to eliminate poverty and meet the aspirations.”

Objections raised

Asked how India will address objections raised by developed countries to it digging more dirty coal, despite its ambitious solar programme, Javadekar insisted: “We are not going on the ‘business as usual’ path − although we are entitled to it. Both solar and coal power will increase, but that is our energy mix. We are doing our own actions under domestic legislations.”

There is a rift at the Lima talks between the developed and the developing countries on the issue of capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund under the 2015 Paris agreement, and this has already seen the G77 group of nations banding together.

Sunita Narain, director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment thinktank, referred to this in talking about the “politics of climate change”, and how the global south is being short-changed by the global north.

She said climate change talks are about achieving clean economic growth, but, 25 years after talks began, the world is “still procrastinating and finding excuses not to act”. – Climate News Network

  • Nivedita Khandekar is a Delhi-based independent journalist who writes on environmental, developmental and climate change issues. Email: nivedita_him@rediffmail.com; Twitter: @nivedita_Him

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Debate heats up on risk of frozen fossil fuel assets

Debate heats up on risk of frozen fossil fuel assets

Investors are wondering whether putting money into fossil fuels makes sense – and the same question is now being asked by heavy hitters in the banking industry.

LONDON, 9 December, 2014 − In a move that’s likely to cause consternation in some of the world’s most powerful corporate boardrooms, the Bank of England has disclosed that it is launching an inquiry into the risks fossil fuel companies pose to overall financial stability.

Mark Carney, governor of the UK’s central bank, has written to British Members of Parliament telling them that his officials have been discussing whether or not coal, oil and gas reserves held by the fossil fuel industry are, in fact, unburnable.

“In light of these discussions, we will be deepening and widening our inquiry into the topic,” Carney says.

The burning of fossil fuels releases hundreds of thousands of tonnes of climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Catastrophic change

The idea is that if global warming is to be tackled and catastrophic climate change averted, such energy resources will have to be left where they are − under the ground. They will, in effect, become frozen or stranded financial assets.

Carney’s letter, written at the end of the October this year but only recently made public, is addressed to the British parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee.

Carney tells the Committee – which has been carrying out its own investigation into the frozen assets question – that a special unit within the Bank of England responsible for identifying and reducing risks in the financial system, will also be considering the issue “as part of its regular horizon-scanning work on financial stability risks”.

Joan Walley, the head of the Audit Committee, told London’s Financial Times that investors should consider what effect regulatory action on climate change would have on their fossil fuel investments.

“Reserves will have to remain in the ground unless carbon capture and storage technologies can be developed more rapidly”

“Policy makers and now central banks are waking up to the fact that much of the world’s oil, coal and gas reserves will have to remain in the ground unless carbon capture and storage technologies can be developed more rapidly,” Walley said.

A growing number of senior figures in the financial community – some of them controlling many millions of dollars worth of investment funds – have been pressing fossil fuel companies to disclose how investments would be affected if energy reserves became frozen or stranded by regulatory moves associated with tackling climate change.

Carbon Tracker, a not-for-profit thinktank based in London, has been warning of what it sees as the dangers to investors and to the entire financial system of continued investment in the fossil fuel industry.

Vulnerability of assets

“The Bank of England has set a new standard for all central banks and financial regulators on climate risks by agreeing to examine, for the first time, the vulnerability that fossil fuel assets could pose to the stability of the financial system in a carbon constrained world,” Carbon Tracker says.

The question of stranded or frozen assets has been raised at the latest round of global negotiations on climate change taking place in Lima, Peru.

Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN’s Climate Change Secretariat, told the Reuters news agency that the long-term goal of negotiations must be the elimination of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2100 – a goal that could not be achieved unless most fossil fuels were left in the ground. “We just can’t afford to burn them,” Figueres said. –Climate News Network

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Plea for South Asia to unite in fight against climate risks

Plea for South Asia to unite in fight against climate risks

Saleem Shaikh

South Asia, one of the world’s most populous and disaster-prone regions, faces dire impacts from climate change. So why are its nations not working together to tackle the many shared threats they face?

LIMA, 8 December, 2014 − The countries of South Asia need to stand together in their efforts to push for more finance from the developed world to help them adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change,  a prominent regional expert says.

Saleemul Huq, from Bangladesh, a lead negotiator for the group of Least Developed Countries told a fringe meeting at the UN climate change conference in Lima, Peru, that South Asia countries face a range of climate-related events.

“Countries in the region must co-ordinate climate action to cope with adverse climate impacts, such as flash floods, forest fires, cyclones, migration and sea-level rise.” said Huq, senior fellow in the Climate Change Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

The South Asia region is home to more than one-fifth of the globe’s population, but is also regarded as one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, Huq told delegates.

Substantial rise

Temperature projections for the region for the 21st century indicate a substantial rise in warming, with recent modelling showing that the warming would be particularly significant in the high Himalayas, on the Tibetan Plateau, and across arid regions of Asia.

“Extreme weather events are also forecast across the region” said Huq. “This is likely to include an increase in the interannual variability of precipitation during the Asian summer monsoon period.”

In turn, Huq said, this will negatively impact on crop yields throughout the region, as already crops in many areas are already being grown at close to their temperature tolerance threshold.

In its latest assessment, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified the South Asia region as one of the areas most vulnerable to warming.

“Developing states have to have technical support in order to hammer out their climate adaptation plans”

In the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau, rates of glacial melting are increasing. The incidence of flooding is likely to grow, although there is the possibility, over the long term, of drought affecting billions of people in one of the most densely-populated areas on Earth.

Co-operation between the region’s countries on climate change is minimal. Pakistan and India, for example, remain deeply suspicious of each other, and data on such key issues as river flows and erosion rates are classified as state secrets.

China and India are competing for water resources, and large-scale dam building programmes in both countries are creating environmental tensions in the region.

Competing interests

Less powerful countries in the area – such as Bangladesh and Nepal – are squeezed between the competing interests of their powerful neighbours.

Harjeet Singh, a New Delhi-based representative of the Action Aid  charity, told delegates that South Asian countries must use their combined influence to pressure world leaders to reach a legally-binding climate agreement in 2015.

Singh told the Climate News Network that a new agreement was a matter of urgency, and  that developed countries must also fulfill their commitments to help developing countries with adaptation measures.

Manjeet Dhakal, a director of the Clean Energy Nepal research organisation, said a new agreement must address the needs of the vulnerable. “The regional countries and other developing states,” he said, “have to have technical support in order to hammer out their climate adaptation plans. They also need the financial support to put those plans into action.” – Climate News Network

  • Saleem Shaikh is a freelance climate change and science journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Not long to wait till released CO2 turns up temperature

Not long to wait till released CO2 turns up temperature

Scientists have determined the precise time lag before warming from newly-released greenhouse gases starts to show up on the planet’s thermometer – and it’s much shorter than previously suspected.

LONDON, 7 December, 2014 − Start the car, turn on the gas under the kettle, shovel some coal on the fire. Each time that happens, another pulse of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere − and in just 10 years, that newly-released gasp of greenhouse gas turns into global warming.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science in the US have calculated for the first time a precision figure for the average lag between a carbon emission and its effect on the planetary thermometer.

That there is a lag, no one ever doubted: thermal inertia is something everybody observes every time they put the kettle on. The heat goes up, but the water stays cold, for a while.

But the presumption has always been that – given that the world is a huge cauldron and every unit of fossil fuel burned represents a tiny increment – the time lag between cause and effect might be decades.That is, the warming experienced now was triggered by fossil fuel burning in the 1980s or 1990s.

But the two Carnegie scientists, Katharine Ricke and Ken Caldeira, report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they have done the sums and arrived at a conclusion. People who light a gas cooker today are quite likely to feel the atmospheric heat from that blue flame in a decade.

Benefits here and now

Figures such as these come with a wide range of uncertainty. The calculations of the Carnegie team find a 90% probability that the effect is felt between 6.6 years and 30.7 years, with a median time of 10.1 years. The effects of that one pulse might arrive in a decade, but would last for more than a century.

“Amazingly, despite many decades of climate science, there has never been a study focused on how long it takes to feel the warming from a particular emission of carbon dioxide, taking carbon-climate uncertainties into account,” Dr Ricke said.

“A lot of climate scientists may have an intuition about how long it takes to feel the warming from a particular emission of CO2, but that intuition might be a little out of sync with our best estimates from today’s climate and carbon cycle models.” The effect measured by the two scientists is limited strictly to temperature, rather than longer-term consequences such as sea level rise or melting glaciers.

Research of this kind – as usual, based on climate models – has two ends: one is to arrive at a more precise understanding of the climate machinery. The other is to remind people that the consequences of any human action may be more immediate than anyone expected, which would be an encouragement to personal restraint and political concern.

“Our results show that people who are alive today are very likely to benefit from emissions avoided today and that these will not accrue solely to impact future generations,” Dr Ricke said.

“Our analysis highlights the nearly irreversible nature of carbon
emissions for global warming”

Co-incidentally a team from three British universities report in Nature Geoscience that they have confirmed another basic link between carbon emissions and warning: the levels of greenhouse gases emitted are proportional to the levels of subsequent warming.

Given that the whole debate about climate change and fossil fuel emissions is predicated on such an outcome, this seems a bit tardy. But what Philip Goodwin, researcher at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre, and colleagues have done is based on computer simulations: they have derived a theoretical equation that makes a precision link between emissions and subsequent temperature, and then put a value on it.

Every trillion tonnes of carbon emitted will raise the planetary temperature by one degree Celsius. The same calculations confirm that, even if fossil fuel emissions are phased out altogether, the build-up of carbon over the last 200 years will keep the planet warmer for many centuries, or even millennia.

Research like this isn’t simple: it effectively explores the complex relationship between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the behaviour of the oceans. Like the Carnegie finding, it enriches scientific understanding of the climate machine. And it, too, makes a political point.

“Our analysis highlights the nearly irreversible nature of carbon emissions for global warming,” Dr Goodwin said. “Once carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, the warming effect will last many centuries, even after much of the carbon has been absorbed by the oceans.” – Climate News Network

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Outlook is bright for UK’s solar power potential

Outlook is bright for UK’s solar power potential

While critics argue that solar energy has no immediate future in the UK’s famously grey and wet climate, a new report says it could be thriving and commercially competitive there by 2020 without government support.

LONDON, 6 December, 2014 − Solar energy is sometimes dismissed as a fanciful idea with little to offer so far in such a cloudy country as the UK, but a new report says power from the sun could thrive in Britain in barely five years’ time − without the need for any subsidy.

The report – published on the website of Thema1, a Berlin-based group that works to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon society − says solar energy is leading changes in the power market as hardware costs have fallen relentlessly over the last decade, recalling the boom in the semiconductor industry.

Last month, the German utility E.ON announced that it was hiving off all its conventional fossil fuel generation to focus on renewables and energy services.

Dr Johannes Teyssen, E.ON’s chief executive, said on 1 December: “More money is invested in renewables than in any other generation technology. Far from diminishing, this trend will actually increase.”

Large-scale projects

The authors of the new report − energy expert Gerard Reid, founder of the corporate finance company Alexa Capital, and Gerard Wynn, of the GWG Energy climate policy and energy consultancy − say it was written in the context of the UK’s plan to force large-scale solar projects to compete with onshore wind for a smaller pot of support, which they say will seriously undermine that market.

Solar power, they predict, would be competitive without subsidies as soon as 2020 in the British commercial rooftop market, which includes schools and offices. The domestic rooftop and large-scale solar markets would be economic within the next 10 years.

“We are firmly convinced that solar will become the bedrock of the global power system going forward,” said Reid, whose company finances low-carbon energy projects in Germany and the UK.

“That said, the road going forward is uncharted and difficult. Our message to the UK Government is to reduce support for solar, but to do so gradually.”

“As battery costs fall, households will be able to deploy solar panels without government support”

Once all support is withdrawn, domestic solar power will critically depend on households increasing the amount that they consume, rather than exporting it to the grid. In this way, they will avoid selling surpluses at very low wholesale power prices, while buying less mains electricity at much higher domestic power prices.

Batteries could be important, allowing households to consume their own stored power for several hours after sunset − a critical factor in the British domestic market, where peak demand is in the early evening.

“As battery costs continue to fall, households will be able to deploy solar panels without government support,” Wynn predicts.

The report says batteries could reduce payback periods for homeowners to little more than a decade by 2020.

But it adds that these are not the only people who can look forward to a windfall: the three markets in solar power – large-scale “solar farms”, and commercial and residential rooftop users – will become economic in the UK without subsidy within the next decade.

Consistent supply

Critics of solar power say it cannot provide the consistent supply of power modern society needs − a charge that has proved mistaken − and that it can do nothing at this stage of its development for a famously grey and wet country like the UK.

The  UK Government’s former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who lost his job last July, told a London audience in October: “Solar power may one day be a real contributor to global energy in low latitudes and at high altitudes, and in certain niches. But it is a non-starter as a significant supplier to the UK grid today and will remain so for as long as our skies are cloudy and our winter nights long.”

He added: “It’s an expensive red herring for this country, and today’s solar farms are a futile eye-sore, and a waste of land that could be better used for other activities.”

Germany’s experience, and the prospects for the UK, may give him cause to think again. − Climate News Network

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Scientists hammer out warning on climate change risks

Scientists hammer out warning on climate change risks

A group of international experts says time is rapidly running out to take serious steps to avert the impacts of global warming by prioritising a switch to clean energy systems.

LONDON, 4 December, 2014 − The all-too-familiar story of ice loss in the world’s polar regions, repeated over and over by researchers in the last two years, is being told yet again – this time for the benefit of delegates at the UN climate change conference currently being held in Lima, Peru.

A report in Earth’s Future journal by distinguished scientists from an international group called Earth League aims to remind the delegates that time is running out to avert the serious impacts of climate change.

Each summer, most of the surface of Greenland now starts to melt – and to darken, which means it absorbs more light, and becomes increasingly more likely to go on melting.

The same thing is happening in the Arctic Ocean, where open sea is now absorbing radiation that would once have been reflected by sea ice.

Irreversible melting

In West Antarctica, a warming ocean has begun to advance, and the glacial ice to retreat, which means more loss of ice, and more warming, and more retreat. With this retreat comes the first sign of irreversible melting in some parts of the ice sheet.

The snows of the Greenland ice sheet alone hold enough water to raise sea levels by seven metres or more. But the retreat of the ice in the Arctic quite literally opens up new territory for another feedback: as permafrost thaws it will release tens of thousands of years of stored carbon, to stoke up greenhouse gas levels and trigger yet more warming.

There is still a chance that humanity can take steps and limit global average temperature rise to 2°C, but the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions could push temperatures to an average of 4°C or more above the averages at the start of the Industrial Revolution by the end of the century.

“Our climate would be as different from pre-industrial conditions as it was when the Earth began to emerge from the last ice age”

“If this occurs,” the Earth League scientists warn, “our climate would be as different from pre-industrial conditions as it was when the Earth began to emerge from the last ice age some 18,000 to 20,000 years ago.”

They add:  “Considerable risks, with potentially serious impacts, are already expected at 1°C to 2°C warming, which will require large investments in adaptation.”

If the temperatures rise beyond the 2°C target, societies will experience increasing risks from extreme events, along with other changes that could make several parts of the world “susceptible to extremely high social and economic costs.

This includes risks to global food production, freshwater supply and quality, significant sea level rise, changes in disease patterns and possibly higher risk of pandemics.”

All this, too, has been said before. But the fact that a group of scholars, economists, geographers and meteorologists from distinguished universities, institutes, academies and laboratories in Europe, the US, Mexico, Brazil and India felt the need to say it once more, with feeling, is an indicator of the urgency of the problem.

Greater risk

As things stand, they say, there is a 30% probability that global average temperatures will exceed 2°C by the end of the century. This is a risk “much greater than we normally accept for other potentially dangerous societal risks, such as nuclear power generation, terrorism, and human health epidemics”.

The report’s authors point out that change is possible, and that a global energy revolution has already begun. Energy demand is many developed countries is falling, and renewable energy use increasing.

“The world may be approaching a point,” they say, “where the technological feasibility and economic benefits clearly tip in favour of a large-scale transition to an economy powered by clean and efficient energy.”

However, they warn that these changes can only happen “by prioritising access to cheap modern energy systems and higher mitigation requirements on richer nations who have caused the bulk of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels so far”. – Climate News Network

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