Tag Archives: emissions

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

Record CO2 levels fuel urgent calls for emissions cuts

New York traffic congestion is a stark illustration of the CO2 emissions danger Image: ILMRT via Wikimedia Commons
New York traffic congestion provides a stark reminder of the CO2 emissions danger
Image: ILMRT via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The alarming message from international scientists to political leaders meeting at tomorrow’s UN climate summit in New York is that record global CO2 emissions this year mean “delaying action is not an option”.

LONDON, 22 September, 2014 − Global carbon dioxide emissions will this year reach a new record as power stations, cars, buses, trains, aircraft, tractors, factories, farms and cement works continue to burn fossil fuels − releasing an estimated 40 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

And the world’s chances of limiting global average surface warming to 2°C – an ambition agreed by the world’s political leaders in Copenhagen in 2009 − are dwindling, according to new studies published just ahead of the United Nations summit on climate change opening in New York tomorrow.

Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair in Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems at Exeter University, UK, and  a consortium of colleagues from the UK, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia report in Nature Geoscience that despite attempts to reduce fossil fuel dependence, greenhouse gas emissions have on average continued to grow by 2.5% per year for the last decade.

Ration exhausted

This means that, if there is a ration or quota of emitted carbon dioxide consistent with a 2°C increase, then the world has already used up two-thirds of it. And if it goes on burning fuel at the 2014 rate, then this ration will be exhausted within 30 years.

The study, part of a package of papers and reflections in Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change calculated to inform debate and crystallise opinion, has been widely endorsed by other climate scientists.

David Reay, professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, UK, said: “If this were a bank statement, it would say our credit is running out.”

The scientists, partners in a research consortium called the Global Carbon Project, list the top four emitters of carbon dioxide: China – emissions grew by 4.2%; US – emissions increased by 2.9%, thanks to a rebound in coal consumption; India – emissions grew by 5.1%, as a result of robust economic performance; European Union – emissions actually fell by 1.8%, due to weak economic growth.

“China now emits more than the US and EU combined and has CO2 emissions per person 45% higher than the global average, exceeding even the EU average,” said one of the report’s authors, Robbie Andrew, a senior research fellow at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (Cicero), in Norway.

And co-author Glen Peters, also a senior research fellow at Cicero, said: “Globally, emissions would need sustained and unprecedented reductions of around 7% per year for a likely chance to stay within the quota.”

Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, UK, said: “The human influence on climate change is clear. We need substantial and sustained reductions in CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels if we are to limit climate change.

“Politicians . . . need to think very carefully about their
diminishing choices exposed by climate science”

“We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below 2°C of climate change − a level that will already be challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations. Politicians meeting in New York need to think very carefully about their diminishing choices exposed by climate science.”

Professor Friedlingstein stressed: “Delaying action is not an option. We need to act together, and act quickly if we are to stand a chance of avoiding climate change not long into the future, but within many of our own lifetimes.”

Most of the message in the Nature Geoscience paper is already familiar as scientists in Europe, Asia and the US have repeatedly stressed that even a 2°C increase in average global temperatures could have alarming consequences for hundreds of millions of people.

The timing of the publication is a reminder of the problem’s urgency, and many of the Nature Geoscience report’s authors also offer a prescription for action in the journal Nature Climate Change.

In this they try to outline ways in which the burden of reduction might be shared among the world’s nations. This is essentially a political problem that will require sustained international negotiation and argument.

Prof Myles Allen, who heads the Climate Dynamics Group at Oxford University, UK, said: “It is depressing that the immediate reaction to the news we have a limited carbon pie is discussion of how countries can slice it up. We didn’t save the ozone layer by rationing deodorant.”

Abstract goals

But David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California San Diego, in an accompanying essay in Nature Climate Change, warns that researchers and campaigners “have focused too much scientific talent on abstract goals and not enough on understanding the practical actions that individual governments, firms and individuals would take to meet global goals”.

The New York summit is one of a series that will lead up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in 2015, and Prof Victor foresees a need for climate scientists to work with social scientists to understand better how attitudes change, and policies are decided.

He concludes: “It is highly unlikely that the Paris summit will deliver an accord that limits warming to 2°C, and hopes for that outcome in the scientific community are built on a naïve vision that science sets goals and that politicians, once they shed the scales from their eyes, will follow in lockstep.

“Awareness of what the behavioural sciences can bring suggests, as well, that the era of really important science is perhaps just beginning.” – Climate News Network

Political will is only barrier to 100% renewables

Wind turbines in Germany's Rhein-Hunsrück district, a world leader in renewables Image: Markus Braun via Wikimedia Commons
Germany’s Rhein-Hunsrück district already exceeds100% electricity from renewables
Image: Markus Braun via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

A report published ahead of next week’s UN Climate Summit illustrates that poor and prosperous nations, tiny islands and great cities, can achieve all their energy needs from renewables.

LONDON, 20 September, 2014 − A new handbook shows how forward-looking communities around the world are already moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and generating their own power with 100% renewables − while also becoming more prosperous and creating jobs.

The report, How to Achieve 100% Renewable Energy, is being released today, ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York next Tuesday (September 23), when the UN Secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, will call on world leaders to make new commitments to cut fossil fuel use.

The World Future Council, based in Hamburg, Germany, has issued the report to show that it is only lack of political will that is preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels. It believes that the leaders at the UN summit need to set ambitious targets and timetables to achieve the switch to renewables.

Technologies exist

Using case histories − from small islands in the Canaries to great commercial cities such as Frankfurt in Germany and Sydney in Australia − the report makes clear that the technologies to go 100% renewable exist already.

In many cases, the switch has the combined effect of saving money for the community concerned and creating jobs, making everyone more prosperous. In all cases, improvements in energy efficiency are essential to meeting targets.

Where the100% renewable target is adopted, it gives the clearest signal to business that investments in clean technologies will be secure. The report says: “The benefits range from savings on fossil fuel imports, improved energy, and economic security, as well as reduced energy and electricity costs for governments, local residents and businesses.”

There is no case made for nuclear power. Indeed, the report says that the uranium needed for nuclear fuel is − like coal, oil and gas − a finite resource that will soon be running out.

One of the case histories in the report is the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. In March 2011,  it sustained the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and has now opted to go for 100% electricity from renewables by 2040.

Some of the 100% renewable targets detailed in the report are just for electricity production. The authors − Toby Couture, founder of the Berlin-based energy consultancy E3 Analytics, and Anna Leidreiter, climate and energy policy officer at the World Future Council − point out that heating and cooling, and particularly transport, without fossil fuels is far more challenging, but still equally possible. Some countries are already committed to it.

Denmark, a pioneer in the field, has a target of achieving all its electricity and heating needs from renewables by 2035, and all energy sectors − including transport − by 2050. This includes an expansion of wind and solar power, biogas, ground source heat pumps, and wood-based biomass. Because of its investments, the country expects to have saved €920 million on energy costs by 2020.

At the opposite end of the scale, El Hierro, a small island in the Canaries, has a 100% energy strategy, using a wind farm and a volcanic crater. When excess electricity is produced by the wind farm, water is pumped into the volcanic crater, which acts as a storage lake for a hydroelectric plant. This supplements the island’s electricity supply when the wind drops or when demand is very high.

A future component of El Hierro’s strategy is to replace the island’s entire stock of 4,500 cars with electric vehicles, so cutting the need to import fuel.

Surplus electricity

Some places have already exceeded 100% electricity from renewables. The Rhein-Hunsruck district west of Frankfurt, Germany, managed this in 2012, and expects by the end of this year to be producing 230% of its needs, exporting the surplus to neighbouring areas through the national grid. It hopes to use the surplus in future for local transportation, hydrogen or methane production.

There are many other examples in the report, including from San Francisco in the US, Cape Verde island in West Africa, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, and Tuvalu island in the Pacific. These show that both rich and poor communities can share the benefits of the renewable revolution – and, in the case of the 3 billion people still without electric power in the world, bypass the need for fossil fuels altogether.

Jeremy Leggett, a pioneer of solar power and author of a foreword to the report, says: “We are on the verge of a profound and urgently necessary shift in the way we produce and use energy.

“This shift will move the world away from the consumption of fossil resources towards cleaner, renewable forms of power. Renewable energy technologies are blowing the whistle on oil dependency and will spark an economic and social renaissance.

“The question is: Do we make this transition from fossil resources to renewables on our own terms, in ways that maximise the benefits to us today and to future generations, or do we turn our heads away and suffer the economic and social shocks that rising prices and market volatility will create?” – Climate News Network

Climate action and economies can grow together

Investing in renewables such as solar energy can spur economic activity Image: Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest via Wikimedia Commons
Working together: investing in renewables such as solar energy can spur economic activity
Image: Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A new global commission report by major political and business figures refutes the claim that economic expansion and tackling climate change can’t both be achieved at the same time.

LONDON, 17 September, 2014 − We can have our cake and eat it. That’s the main message of a new study that says the idea that we have to choose between battling against climate change or promoting growth in the world’s economy is a “false dilemma”.

The report, The New Climate Economy, was produced by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico, and including eminent economist Lord [Nicholas] Stern.

Calderon, addressing what he describes as a “false dilemma”, says: “The message to leaders is clear. We don’t have to choose between economic growth and a safe climate. We can have both.”

Lord Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review, which comprehensively detailed, for the first time, the economic consequences of not taking action on climate change, says decisions being made now will determine the future of both the economy and the climate.

High-quality growth

“If we choose low-carbon investment, we can generate strong, high-quality growth – not just in the future, but now,” he says. “But if we continue down the high-carbon route, climate change will bring severe risks to long-term prosperity.”

The commission’s report, released at the United Nations in New York shortly before a major UN climate summit, says there are now big opportunities for achieving strong economic growth and, at the same time, lowering emissions across three sectors:

  • Building more compact, better connected cities will improve the quality of life of urban dwellers, improve economic performance, and lower emissions.
  • Improved land use can cut emissions resulting from deforestation. Restoring 12% of the world’s degraded land would dramatically raise farmers’ incomes.
  • More and more of the world’s energy is likely to be generated by renewables, cutting dependence on highly-polluting coal. Renewables is now a big growth industry, spurring on various economic activities.

The report says that about US$90 trillion is likely to be invested in infrastructure in the world’s cities, agriculture and energy systems over the next 15 years, and spending should be directed towards low-carbon growth that would not only benefit the climate but also business productivity.

The study calls for the phasing out of huge amounts spent worldwide on subsidies for fossil fuels – currently US$600 billion, compared with US$100bn for renewable, the report says. Competitive energy markets, consistent government policy, a strong price for carbon, and greatly expanded research in low carbon technologies are also needed.

If fully implemented, the report’s authors calculate, a reduction of up to 90% in emissions could be achieved by 2030, and dangerous climate change would be averted.

Meaningful action

Although the report’s findings have been endorsed by a wide range of leading politicians, business figures and economists, there are those who would argue against the idea that economic growth can be achieved alongside meaningful action on climate change.

For example, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK thinktank, contends that indefinite global economic growth is unsustainable.

In a 2010 report, Growth Isn’t Possible, the NEF said economic growth is constrained by the finite nature of the planet’s natural resources. “Growth forever, as conventionally defined, within fixed though flexible limits, is not possible,” it said. “Sooner or later, we will hit the biosphere’s buffers.”

Others would point out that although a carbon market has been in operation for several years, the price of carbon has failed to rise. The introduction of market forces and competition in the energy sector in many countries has done little to lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

In many countries, including India, China, Australia and some states in Europe, a central role in driving economic growth is still played by coal, the most polluting of all energy sources. – Climate News Network

Fracking fuels conflict over water resources

A wind farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a fracking ban favours renewable energy Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons
A wind farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a fracking ban favours renewable energy
Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Limited water supplies near the richest oil and gas reserves accessible through fracking threaten to create tensions that could block future projects using the controversial extraction process.

LONDON, 15 September, 2014 − The vast quantities of water needed to release oil and gas by fracturing rock formations are not available in large areas with the richest deposits – posing major challenges to the future viability of fracking.

According to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), 38% of the areas where shale gas and oil is most abundant is arid or already under severe water stress – and the 386 million people living in these areas need all the spare water they can get.

Among the countries that have areas with potentially large quantities of shale underground, but which have limited water supplies, are China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, the US and the UK.

Andrew Steer, president of the WRI, said: “These factors pose significant social, environmental, and financial challenges to accessing water, and could limit shale development.”

Stumbling block

The report says that estimates of shale gas reserves add 47% to the global, technically-recoverable natural gas reserves and 11% to the oil reserves. But it points out that that “as countries escalate their shale exploration, limited availability of fresh water could become a stumbling block”.

The method of releasing the trapped gas and oil in the process known as fracking is controversial because it involves injecting large quantities of water and chemicals underground to fracture the rock and release the oil and gas.

In some areas of the US, where fracking has been pioneered and has enabled large new supplies of oil and gas to be produced to the benefit of the economy, there has been trouble with the release of methane into the atmosphere and contamination of water supplies.

In many areas that have potential for fracking, this had led to a public backlash − even where there is plenty of potential water for use in the process.

An example is the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, where the Environment Minister, Andrew Younger, has imposed an indefinite ban on fracking onshore and plans to bring forward legislation to ban the practice.

“Nova Scotians have clearly indicated they are not yet ready for the use of hydraulic fracturing in the development of shale reserves,” Younger said. “We will respect their views.”

Areas of stress

The WRI has produced a detailed map of shale oil and gas reserves, overlaid with colours indicating of areas high water stress. It illustrates where most conflict over the use of resources is likely to be.

The report comments on the problems facing companies and governments in persuading their citizens to sacrifice limited water supplies so that oil and gas can be extracted.

“The findings indicate that companies developing shale resources internationally are likely to face serious challenges to accessing fresh water in many parts of the world,” the report says.

“These challenges highlight a strong business case for strategic company engagement in sustainable water management at local and regional levels.

“They also point to a need for companies to work with governments and other sectors to minimise environmental impacts and water resources depletion.” – Climate News Network

Illegal deforestation is growing problem for climate

A vast palm oil plantation sweeps across the foothills of West Java, Indonesia Image: Achmad Rabin Taim via Wikimedia Commons
A vast palm oil plantation sweeps across the foothills in West Java, Indonesia
Image: Achmad Rabin Taim via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Foreign demand for agricultural products worth an estimated $61 billion annually is driving up the devastating rate at which tropical forest is being cleared illegally – and pushing up carbon emissions.

LONDON, 12 September, 2014 – A report by the US non-governmental organisation, Forest Trends, says 49% of all recent tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture.

It says that most was driven by foreign demand for agricultural products, including palm oil, beef, soya and wood products – and  the impact on forest-dependent people and on biodiversity is “devastating”.

The report, funded by the UK Department for International Development, estimates that the illegal conversion of tropical forests for commercial agriculture produces 1.47 gigatonnes (1,470,000,000 tonnes) of carbon a year − equivalent to 25% of the European Union’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions. NASA said in 2012 that tropical deforestation had accounted for about 10% of human carbon emissions from 2000 to 2005.

Household products

“This is the first report to show the outsize role that illegal activities play in the production of hundreds of food and household products consumed worldwide,” said Michael Jenkins, the president of Forest Trends.

The report’s author is Sam Lawson, founding director of the investigative research organisation, Earthsight. He said that the equivalent of “five football fields of tropical forest are being destroyed every minute to supply these export commodities. There is hardly a product on supermarket shelves that is not potentially tainted.”

He said the report’s figures were obtained using conservative estimates based on documented violations of significant impact.

The study says that 90% of Brazil’s deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was illegal, and was caused mainly by a failure to conserve a percentage of natural forests in large-scale cattle and soya plantations, as required by Brazilian law. Much of the deforestation, the study acknowledges, happened before 2004, when the Brazilian government implemented an action plan to reduce deforestation.

Eighty per cent of deforestation in Indonesia was illegal − mostly for large-scale plantations producing palm oil and timber, 75% of which is exported. Brazil and Indonesia produce the highest level of agricultural commodities destined for global markets − many of them winding up in cosmetics or household goods (palm oil), animal feed (soya), and packaging (wood products).

Illegal deforestation is widespread across Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

In Papua-New Guinea, millions of hectares of forest have been illegally licensed for deforestation in recent year, and a recent parliamentary inquiry in the country found that 90% of these licences were issued by corrupt or fraudulent means.

In Tanzania, forests have been illegally razed to make way for jatropha, a plant commonly used to produce biofuels.

Flouting the law

“All over the tropics, companies are bribing officials to obtain permits, trampling the legal or customary rights of indigenous peoples and other forest-dwelling communities, clearing more forest than they are allowed, and causing pollution and environmental devastation by flouting the law,” Lawson said.

The report says the international trade in agricultural commodities produced on land illegally converted from tropical forest is worth an estimated US$61 billion annually. The EU, China, India, Russia and the US are among the largest buyers of these goods.

The problem is spreading. The study says that in the Congo Basin, for example, two of the three largest new oil palm projects have been found to be operating illegally. One of these, in the Republic of Congo, is set to double the country’s deforestation rate.

“The current unfettered access to international markets for commodities from illegally-cleared land is undermining the efforts of tropical countries to enforce their own laws,” Lawson said. “Consumer countries have a responsibility to help halt this trade.” − Climate News Network

Drowned tropical forests add to climate change

Dead trees poke out of the Nam Theun 2 dam reservoir, Laos. Image: Dominique Serça/CNRS
Dead trees poke eerily out of the Nam Theun 2 dam reservoir in Laos
Image: Dominique Serça/CNRS

By Paul Brown

New scientific data supports the belief that methane emissions from big hydroelectric dams in the tropics outweigh the benefits that this form of renewable energy provides.

LONDON, 11 September, 2014 − Big dams built in the tropics to produce hydroelectricity have long been highly controversial − and data gathered in Laos by a French team studying methane emissions confirms that dams can add to global warming, not reduce it.

In many rocky regions low on vegetation and population, such as in Iceland and other northern mountainous regions, the production of electricity from hydropower is clearly a net gain in the battle against climate change.

In Asia, Africa and South America, however, masses of methane are produced from dams by the drowning of tropical forests in them. As long ago as 2007, researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research calculated that the world’s largest dams emitted 104 million tonnes of methane annually and were responsible for 4% of the human contribution to climate change.

Short-term threat

Since methane has an impact 84 times higher over 20 years than the same quantity of carbon dioxide, this is a serious short-term threat to pushing the planet towards the danger threshold of increasing temperatures by 2˚C .

Despite the warnings that big dams in the tropics might be adding to climate change, governments go on building them − while often claiming that large dams equal clean energy.

The new research shows that the methane discharges are probably even worse than current calculations.

In an attempt to find out exactly what the perils and benefits of big dams in the tropics can be, a French team from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has been studying the Nam Theun 2 reservoir in Laos − the largest in Southeast Asia − prior to its filling, in May 2008, right up to the present to calculate the total methane emissions.

Methane is produced by bacteria feeding on the plant material drowned when the dam is filled. This is added to by more organic matter that is washed into it by rivers and rains.

Measuring the methane produced is the tricky bit as it reaches the atmosphere in three ways. Some is dissolved in the water and reaches the atmosphere by diffusion, some goes through the turbines and is released downstream, and the third way is called ebullition – which means bubbles of methane coming directly to the surface and going straight into the atmosphere.

It is these last gas emissions that have been so hard to measure, but the team has developed automatic measuring devices that work 24 hours a day.

The measurements carried out on the Nam Theun 2 reservoir enabled the scientists to show that ebullition accounted for between 60% and 80% of total emissions from the reservoir in the first years following filling.

Maximum emissions

In addition, ebullition intensity varies at night and seasonally. During the four months of the hot dry season (mid-February to mid-June), emissions reach their maximum because water levels are low. Daily variations are controlled by atmospheric pressure: during the two daily pressure drops (in the middle of the day and the middle of the night), methane (CH4) ebullition increases.

With the help of a statistical model, day-to-day data related to atmospheric pressure and water level was used by the researchers to reconstruct emissions by ebullition over a continuous four-year period (2009-2013).

The results obtained highlight the importance of very frequent measurements of methane fluxes. They also show that the ebullition process − and therefore the amount of methane emitted from tropical reservoirs during their first years of operation − has most certainly been underestimated until now.

For the researchers, the next stage will be to quantify diffusion at the surface of the reservoir and emissions downstream from the dam to the same level of accuracy. This will enable them to complete the assessment of methane emissions from this reservoir, and better assess the contribution they make to the global greenhouse effect. – Climate News Network

Ocean acidification and GHGs hit record levels

Reef grief: corals, fisheries and tourism will all be damaged by  ocean acidification Image: Ritiks via Wikimedia Commons
Reef stricken: corals, fisheries and tourism will all be damaged by ocean acidification
Image: Ritiks via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

New scientific evidence of the highest greenhouse gas concentrations on record is compounded by the revelation that oceans are acidifying faster than at any time in the last 300 million years.

LONDON, 9 September, 2014 – The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reports that the amounts of atmospheric greenhouse gases reached a new high in 2013, driven by rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide.

The news is consistent with trends in fossil fuel consumption. But what comes as more of a surprise is the WMO’s revelation that the current rate of ocean acidification, which greenhouse gases (GHGs) help to cause, appears unprecedented in at least the last 300 million years.

The details of growing GHG levels are in the annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, published by the WMO – the United Nations specialist agency that plays a leading role in international efforts to monitor and protect the environment.

They show that between 1990 and 2013 there was a 34% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide.

Complex interactions

The Bulletin reports on atmospheric concentrations – not emissions − of greenhouse gases. Emissions are what go into the atmosphere, while concentrations are what stay there after the complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, biosphere (the entire global ecological system) and the oceans.

About a quarter of total emissions are taken up by the oceans and another quarter by the biosphere, cutting levels of atmospheric CO2.

In 2013, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 142% higher than before the Industrial Revolution started, in about 1750. Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide had risen by 253% and 121% respectively.

The observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch network showed that CO2 levels increased more from 2012 to 2013 than during any other year since 1984. Scientists think this may be related to reduced CO2 absorption by the Earth’s biosphere, as well as by the steady increase in emissions.

Although the oceans lessen the increase in CO2 that would otherwise happen in the atmosphere, they do so at a price to marine life and to fishing communities − and also to tourism. The Bulletin says the oceans appear to be acidifying faster than at any time in at least the last 300 million years.

“We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels,” said the WMO’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud.

“We are running out of time. The laws
of physics are non-negotiable.”

“The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that, far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years. We are running out of time. The laws of physics are non-negotiable.

“The Bulletin provides a scientific base for decision-making. We have the knowledge and we have the tools for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.”

Wendy Watson-Wright, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, said: “It is high time the ocean, as the primary driver of the planet’s climate and attenuator of climate change, becomes a central part of climate change discussions.

“If global warming is not a strong enough reason to cut CO2 emissions, ocean acidification should be, since its effects are already being felt and will increase for many decades to come.”

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 396.0 parts per million (ppm) in 2013. At the current rate of increase, the global annual average concentration is set to cross the symbolic 400 ppm threshold within the next two years.

More potent

Methane, in the short term, is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 − 34 times more potent over a century, but 84 times more over 20 years.

Atmospheric methane reached a new high of about 1,824 parts per billion (ppb) in 2013, because of increased emissions from human sources. Since 2007, it has started increasing again, after a temporary period of levelling-off.

Nitrous oxide’s atmospheric concentration in 2013 was about 325.9 ppb. Its impact on climate, over a century, is 298 times greater than equal emissions of CO2. It also plays an important role in the destruction of the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet solar radiation.

The oceans currently absorb a quarter of anthropogenic CO2 emissions − about 4kg of CO2 per day per person. Acidification will continue to accelerate at least until mid-century, according to projections from Earth system models. − Climate News Network

Less snow won’t end blizzard hazard

Clearing a station platform in Brookly, New York, during the snowstorms in January this year Image: Patrick Cashin/MTA via Wikimedia Commons
Clearing a train station in New York during snowstorms in January this year
Image: Patrick Cashin/MTA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

New research predicts that while there will be less snow in a warming world, the sort of severe snowstorms that caused chaos in the US this year will remain a serious hazard.

LONDON, 6 September, 2014 − There’s still a chance that some people who dream of a white Christmas will get their wish. While there may be less snow falling overall in a warming world, there will still be blizzards.

Paul O’Gorman, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, reports in Nature that he studied daily snowfall in the northern hemisphere through the prism of 20 different climate models. Each of these projected climate change over a century, according to various emissions of greenhouse gases.

He also looked at seasonal average and extreme snowfall events, both under current conditions and as the planet warms. And the conclusion is that the kind of snowstorms that hit the US in 2014 will remain a hazard, even though there may be fewer of them.

Climate models

“Many studies have looked at average snowfall over a season in climate models, but there’s less known about these very heavy snowfalls,” Dr O’Gorman said. “In some regions, it is possible for average snowfall to decrease but the snowfall extremes actually increase.”

Climate scientists have consistently warned that a rise in average planetary temperatures is likely to be accompanied by a rise in the frequency or intensity of extreme events.

By these, they usually mean windstorms, floods and heat waves. But ice storms remain part of the picture too. That is because even as temperatures on average creep up, there will be places and seasons where the rain could still turn to snow.

The study found that, under high warming scenarios, those low-lying regions with average winter temperatures normally just below freezing would see a 65% reduction in average winter snowfall. But in these places, the heaviest snowstorms on average became only 8% less intense. In the higher latitudes, extreme snowfall became more intense, with 10% more snow, even under scenarios of relatively high average warming.

Heaviest falls

There is a relatively narrow temperature range − just below freezing point − at which the heaviest snowfalls seem to occur.

“People may know the expression, ‘It’s too cold to snow,’” Dr O’Gorman said. “If it’s very cold, there is too little water vapour in the air to support a very heavy snowfall, and if it’s too warm, most of the precipitation will fall as rain.

“Snowfall extremes still occur in the same narrow temperature range with climate change, and so they respond differently to climate change compared to rainfall extremes or average snowfall.” – Climate News Network