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First solar bread oven takes a bow

April 20, 2014 in Adaptation, Africa, Emissions reductions, Energy, Solar energy, Technology

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Makine injera the traditional way in Mekele:  The new oven should eliminate greenhouse emissions Image: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

Making injera the traditional way in Mekele: The new oven should eliminate greenhouse emissions
Image: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Until now solar cookers have always needed fairly constant sunshine, but a new design which can store the Sun’s heat will finally mean fewer greenouse gas emissions..

LONDON, 20 April – Cooking using just the power of the Sun is not a new technology. Dozens of designs of solar cookers using mirrors and other shiny surfaces to concentrate the Sun’s rays are popular across the world, especially where electricity and wood for fires are in short supply.

Many thousands are in use in Africa, and they are very popular for large-scale communal cooking in China. They can be designed for boiling water, cooking stews, frying and baking.

But one problem is how to keep ovens hot enough, long enough, to cook such staples as bread, and how to maintain the temperature when the Sun goes in or at night.

Now an Ethiopian student working with colleagues in Norway thinks he has solved the problem. Instead of cooking the food directly with the Sun’s rays, his design concentrates the heat on a container holding a mixture of salts.

Traditional bread

These store the heat, releasing it gradually over 24 hours and maintaining a steady temperature of 220°C (428°F).  This would make it possible for people in developing countries to cook food efficiently, safely and in an environmentally benign way at any time of day.

Asfafaw Tesfay came from Ethiopia to Norway in 2008 with the clear idea of developing a solar oven able to bake his country’s staple food, a flat bread called injera, which is traditionally served at every meal.

The problem of cooking the bread, which needs a high temperature, is particularly acute because large parts of the country are without access to electric power or wood. Only 3% of Ethiopia is now forested, down from 35% in 2000, and 85% lacks an electricity grid.

Tesfay and other students from the the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) are now looking to sell the cooker commercially, particularly in Ethiopia itself where they believe it is most needed. The oven can reach a temperature of 250⁰C(482⁰F), which makes it well adapted to the country’s food traditions and resources.

Storing heat

Tesfay and his fellow students Mari Hæreid, Sebastian Vendrig and Dag Håkon Haneberg, who work from the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship, say the cooker is the first of its kind. According to Even Sønnik Haug Larsen, who doubles as both a student and a teacher: “This oven has several advantages compared to other solar-powered ovens on the market. The biggest difference is that it can reach a high temperature and store that high temperature over time, which makes it perfect for baking injera.”

The students see a potential market in organisations working in the countryside, schools, universities, hospitals, bakeries, restaurants and hotels. Later they hope to make the oven available to private individuals, but many are poor and would have to be trained how to use it.

Haug Larsen and his fellow student Sebastian Vendrig travelled to Ethiopia around mid-January to contact customers and potential partners. At the same time they wanted to see if it was possible to produce the oven locally in Mekele, the home city of Asfafaw, the man behind the idea.

They want to establish a viable business there and look at possible production workshops as part of a Norwegian scheme for technology transfer.

“It would be fantastic if our product could improve conditions in several developing countries, and if we can be part of creating jobs locally,” said Haug Larsen. – Climate News Network

Drought adds to Syria’s misery

April 19, 2014 in Agriculture, Conflict, Drought, Movies, Warming

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A Roman water cistern in Syria: Many reservoirs today are less than half full Image: James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA via Wikimedia Commons

A Roman water cistern in Syria: Many reservoirs today are less than half full, despite heavy winter snowfall
Image: James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Thousands have died and millions have been displaced by the conflict in Syria. Severe drought in the region – part of what many believe is an ongoing, climate change-related dry period – is heaping added misery on people.

LONDON, 19 April – The conflict in Syria has devastated much of the country’s agricultural sector. But while the fighting has left large tracts of farmland abandoned, irrigation systems smashed and livestock neglected, other forces have also been at work.

Syria – and much of the Eastern Mediterranean region – is in the grip of one of the longest periods of drought on record. The World Food Programme (WFP) says the recent rainfall season in Syria, which usually lasts from October to April, produced less than half the long term average precipitation.

When the harvest of wheat – the staple food – is brought in next month it’s likely to be 30% down on last year – and less than half its pre-conflict level.

“This is part of a wider pattern of drier than average conditions which has dominated across the eastern Mediterranean from southern Turkey to western Syria, Lebanon and Jordan”, says the WFP.

Ultra-dry stretch

With other agencies, it is trying to look after the food needs of more than four million people displaced by the fighting in Syria. It says the drought could mean that number increasing to more than six million. A poor harvest will also lead to yet more increases in food prices.

The present period of drought hitting Syria and the wider region – including large parts of Iraq – started in 2008: dry conditions persisted through 2009 and 2010. Despite heavy snowfalls over the recent winter, water supplies in many reservoirs are less than half their normal level.

“Going back to the last 100 years I don’t think you can get a five-year span that’s been as dry “, Mohammad Rafi Hossain, an environmental economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) told Reuters news agency.

Many analysts say the drought – and a lack of action by the Syrian authorities to halt soaring food prices – was one of the factors driving the initial 2011 uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

At special risk

With crops destroyed by lack of water, desperate farmers and their families were forced to move to cities and towns in search of work and food. There they combined with students and other activists in large-scale protests against the Government.

The Syrian drought and the role played by farmers in the protests against the  Damascus regime form one of the episodes in Years of Living Dangerously, a film series on climate change starring several prominent Hollywood actors now being aired on cable TV in the US.

The World Bank says the Middle East region is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others have repeatedly warned that a changing climate – particularly a “drying out” in some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions  – will lead to rapidly increasing food prices and create serious social and political tensions. – Climate News Network

Science finds new routes to energy

April 17, 2014 in Agriculture, Biofuels, Carbon Dioxide, Energy, Technology

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The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water
Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have found new ways to make biofuel, increase crop yields and exploit carbon dioxide through novel applications of familiar materials.

LONDON, 17 April – While politicians posture, and climate scientists sigh sadly, researchers in laboratories continue to devise ingenious new ways to save energy, increase efficiency, and make the most of solar power.

Darren Drewry of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and two colleagues from the University of Illinois have a computer model that could design soybean crops able to produce 8.5% more nourishment, use 13% less water and reflect 34% more sunlight back into space.

They report in the journal Global Change Biology that they can achieve all three goals by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution on the stalk, and for the angle at which the leaf grows, using a technique called numerical optimisation to try a very large number of structural traits to get the best results. “And surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of these goals at the same time,” says Dr Drewry.

In the great evolutionary challenge match, plants fight for the light and try to put each other in the shade. “Our crop plants reflect many millions of years in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said Stephen Long, a plant biologist. “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.”

Once future agricultural scientists have worked out what they most want from a crop – and in arid zones, water economy must rate highly – the programme can decide the best configuration of leaf. From that, future breeders could select traits from the enormous library of existing soybean variations.

Lomg-lasting benefit

They could reduce the canopy to let light through to lower levels to increase yield, or they could heighten the canopy to reflect light back into space and offset climate change.

“We can also model what these plant canopies can do in a future climate, so that it will be valid 40 or 50 years down the line,” says Praveen Kumar, an environmental engineer.

At Stanford University in California, other scientists have thought of a way to make biofuel without benefit of fields, plants or sunlight. They report in Nature that they have devised an oxide-derived copper catalyst that can turn carbon monoxide – the lethal gas in car exhausts and coal-burning power stations – directly into liquid ethanol of the sort now made from corn and other crops.

What’s more, they say, they can do this at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressures. The technique rests on the ability to turn copper oxide into a network of nanocrystals of metallic copper that would serve as a cathode in an electrolysis reaction and reduce carbon monoxide to ethanol.

Biofuel is expensive: it takes time, fields, fertiliser and water. It takes 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields three gallons of ethanol. The new technique could eliminate the crop, the time, and a lot of the water.

Ten-fold efficiency gain

And it opens another way to exploit captured CO2 as a power source. Carbon dioxide can be turned efficiently and easily into carbon monoxide. The new oxide-derived copper catalyst could then turn carbon monoxide into ethanol with ten times the efficiency of any normal copper catalysts.

The team would like to scale up their catalytic cell and see it powered by solar or wind energy. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical,” said Matthew Kanan of Stanford.

Meanwhile, scientists in Oregon report in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal RSC Advances that they have tested a new way to tap the sun’s rays, and to use that power to make solar energy materials at the same time.

Once again, the match of nanoscience and copper has provided unexpected consequences. By focusing light continuously on a continuous flow micro-reactor, the researchers have synthesized copper indium nanoparticle inks that could make thin-film solar cells in minutes. Other processes might take hours to deliver the same materials.

“It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact,” said Chih-Hung Chang of Oregon State University. – Climate News Network

More CO2 limits plants’ protein output

April 12, 2014 in Agriculture, Carbon Dioxide, Soil, Uncategorized, Vegetation changes, Warming

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The Mojave desert: As CO2levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amountsofthe gas Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

The Mojave desert: As CO2 levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas
Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

With increasing warmth drying more of the Earth, arid soils may absorb more carbon dioxide – but that in turn is likely to limit protein production.

LONDON, 12 April – As global temperatures rise, more than one third of the land surface may become more arid. Although there will be changes in rainfall patterns, heat – and the attendant evaporation of the soil – could extend ever drier conditions to more and more farmland and cities, according to research in the journal Climate Dynamics.

The new study – which excludes Antarctica – is led by Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist both with the University of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the US space agency Nasa. It is based on climate simulation, and forecasts that 12% of the land surface will be subjected to drought by 2100 just through changes in rainfall. Throw in the increased heat, though, and the drying effect will be spread to 30% of the land.

Even those regions that might be expected to get more rain will be at greater risk of drought. This would be very bad news for the wheat, corn and rice belts of the south-western US and south-eastern China.

“For agriculture, moisture in the soil is what really matters,” said Cook’s co-author, Jason Smerdon. The research confirms previous studies, and the more recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other studies, have predicted that extremes of temperature will be bad news for farmers anyway, with yields  likely to be affected.

But nothing in climate research is simple. The extra warming will be a direct consequence of ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A study in Nature Climate Change has just revealed that arid zones offer an unexpected source of what engineers call negative feedback.

Carbon sink

A 10-year experiment in the Mojave desert in the US has shown that as carbon dioxide levels increase, arid areas take up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas.

“They are a major sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, so as CO2 levels go up, they’ll increase their uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. They’ll help take up some of that excess CO2 going into the atmosphere. They can’t take it all up, but they’ll help,” says Dave Evans, a biologist at Washington State University.

All land surfaces absorb some carbon. Until now, most attention has been paid to the role of forests as major “sinks” of carbon. But the US experimenters marked out nine octagonal plots of the desert and blew air with current levels of CO2 over three of them, and air with 550 parts per million of CO2, the expected level by 2050, over another three. Three received no extra air at all.

Then the researchers excavated the soils to a depth of a metre to measure the absorbed carbon and were surprised by the gain in carbon during a relatively short exposure in the plots exposed to the extra carbon dioxide.

Arid and semi-arid soils account for a large proportion of the planet’s land surface: overall, they could increase carbon uptake to account for between 15% and 28% of the amount currently being absorbed by land surfaces.

Less protein

This sounds like good news, on balance. It may not be, as far as food supplies are concerned. In the same issue of Nature Climate Change a second study reports on experiments into the effects of elevated levels of carbon dioxide on wheat.

Carbon dioxide is seen as a fertiliser of plants and indeed, without it, there would be no plants. But Arnold Bloom, a plant scientist at the University of California Davis reports that, according to his experiments, elevated levels of carbon dioxide also inhibit the conversion of nitrate into protein in crops.

Wheat provides nearly one fourth of all protein in the global human diet. Other studies have shown the same effect with wheat – and also with rice, barley and potato tubers.

“When this decline is factored into the respective portion of dietary protein that humans derive from these various crops, it becomes clear that the overall protein available for human consumption may drop by about three per cent as atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the levels anticipated to occur during the next few decades,” Bloom said. – Climate News Network

California goes nuts for water

March 27, 2014 in Agriculture, Drought, Economy, USA, Water

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California's almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

California’s almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources
Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

While recent rainfall has brought welcome relief to California, the amount of precipitation has not been nearly enough to put an end to what is its worst drought on record.  The state’s $45 billion agricultural sector has been particularly hard hit.

LONDON, 27 March – Almonds are good for you. That’s the message California’s enterprising nut growers have been giving to the world – and they have been remarkably successful in their marketing efforts.

The world appetite for almonds is growing by the day – and nut farmers in the west of the US have been cashing in. According to the Almond Board of California the state now produces more than 80% of total world almond output: California’s almond crop has more than doubled since 2006 to 1.88 billion pounds last year.

The trouble is almonds – and other nut crops grown in California – need plenty of water, and right now water is in very short supply. A drought emergency is in force. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range – a key source of the state’s water – was recently recorded as being only 24% of its normal capacity for the time of year.

At the end of January, California’s State Water Project – the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the US, responsible for supplying water to two-thirds of the state’s 38 million people – stopped supplying local agencies in many areas.

Scientists are busy analysing whether the drought is linked to changes in climate: President Obama, announcing a drought federal aid package, said the state provided an example of what might be in store for the rest of the country as climate change intensifies.

Left fallow

“We have to be clear”, said Obama.  “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, are potentially going to be costlier, and they’re going to be harsher.”

Under an unprecedented range of restrictions, no water from state projects is being supplied to the agricultural sector. Instead, farmers have to find their own water sources, whether from rivers or by sinking boreholes. Agricultural experts estimate that up to 800,000 acres of farmland will not be planted this year because of lack of water.

Cattle ranchers are selling off livestock due to lack of grass. The US now has its smallest cattle herd since the mid-1950s – and beef prices are at an all-time high.

But it’s perhaps the nut growers who are suffering most. In recent years California’s farmers have moved away from traditional annual vegetable crops such as tomatoes and lettuce and into the far more profitable market for almonds, pistachios and other nuts. Almonds are now California’s second most valuable crop – only sales of grapes are worth more.

The downside is that the nut trees are mainly in regions of central California classified as being under extreme drought conditions. Nut trees demand long-term investment: they need lots of water and take years to produce a crop.

Deeper cuts coming

Nut farmers are now scrubbing up portions of their tree plots in order to concentrate water resources on the remainder. They are digging wells and tapping in to already declining aquifers. In the process they are losing millions in revenue.

Meanwhile traders say prices for almonds and other nuts are likely to rise sharply on the world market next year due to drought-induced crop shortages.

Farmers’ organisations have complained that the agricultural sector has been unfairly targeted with water restrictions, while California’s cities and towns have been only partially affected.

That could be changing. In recent days the state supplier to Silicon Valley – the high-tech hub and likely home of the almond milk-flavoured café latte – announced that for the rest of the year it would be supplying only 80% of the normal amount of treated drinking water to inhabitants. – Climate News Network

Heat extremes threaten crop yields

March 21, 2014 in Agriculture, Climate risk, Drought, Extreme weather, Food security, Temperature Increase, Vegetation changes

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An undersized cob from a failed maize crop in Ghana's Upper West Region, which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures Image: By CIAT (NP Ghana23_lo  Uploaded by mrjohncummings), via Wikimedia Commons

An undersized cob from a failed maize crop in Ghana which has suffered failed rains and rising temperatures
Image: By CIAT (NP Ghana23_lo Uploaded by mrjohncummings), via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Yields of several major crops are likely to be seriously affected by rising temperatures, scientists say, with spells of extreme heat posing the greatest risk.

LONDON, 21 March – Rampant climate change driven by ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere poses a serious threat to world food supply, according to a new study in Environmental Research Letters.

The hazard comes not from high average temperatures, but the likelihood of heat extremes at times when crops are most sensitive to stress. And the message is: those communities that rely on maize as a staple are more at risk than most.

Delphine Derying of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the UK and colleagues looked at one of the big puzzles of the coming decades: what will global warming do for crop yields?

It is not a simple question: climate change must mean more evaporation, more precipitation, longer growing seasons, more warmth, and higher levels of the carbon dioxide that plants exploit by photosynthesis (the process they use to convert light into chemical energy), so the consequence ought to be greater yields. But as every farmer knows, what matters most is the timing of all that warmth, rain, and those dry spells in which the harvest can ripen.

Danger in extremes

There is a second consideration. Climate is the sum of all events. Rather than a steady overall rise in daily temperatures, an increasing number of ever-larger regions are predicted to experience ever more intense extremes of heat, and sometimes cold. Plants can be very sensitive to extremes of heat at flowering time: if the thermometer goes up, the pollen becomes increasingly sterile and less seed is likely to be set. So an extended heat wave in the wrong season could be calamitous.

The Tyndall team included the assumption that nothing would be done about climate change – that is, that governments, industry and people would continue with a business-as-usual scenario. They then chose three well-studied and vital crops – spring wheat, maize and soybean – and tested predictions under 72 different climate change scenarios for the rest of this century.

They allowed for the already-established benign effects of carbon dioxide-driven warming, one of which is that plants can make more tissue and at the same time use water more efficiently, and therefore respond more effectively to drought conditions. They also looked for the outcomes in places where yields could be most vulnerable: for example, the North American corn belt.

Emissions cuts essential

What they found was that – if carbon dioxide fertilisation effects are not taken into account – then maize, wheat and soya yields are all likely to fall, in all five top-producing countries for each of these crops.

When they factored in the benefits of more CO2 in the atmosphere, the picture changed. There would be positive impacts on soya and wheat, but not on maize.

There is another proviso: so far, the benefits of extra CO2 have been confirmed in experimental plant laboratories. The experience in the fields 60 years in the future may be rather different. And in any case, these positive impacts could be severely offset by extremes of heat at the moment when the crops were most vulnerable, so overall, harvests remain at risk.

The best answer, the scientists argue, is to attempt to limit climate change. “Climate mitigation policy would help reduce risks of serious negative impacts on maize worldwide and reduce risks of extreme heat stress that threaten global crop production,” says Deryng. – Climate News Network

AAAS: Climate risks irreversible change

March 18, 2014 in AAAS, Child Malnutrition, Climate risk, Coastal Threats, Extreme weather, Flooding, Food security, IPCC, Weather

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By Alex Kirby

In a highly unusual intervention in the debate over climate policy, US scientists say the evidence that the world is warming is as conclusive as that which links smoking and lung cancer.

LONDON, 18 March – The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says there is a “small but real” chance that a warming climate will cause sudden and possibly unalterable changes to the planet.

This echoes the words used in its 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said climate change might bring “abrupt and irreversible” impacts.

A child with kwasiorkor, caused by evere protein deficiency: Child malnutrition may rise by about a fifth Image: Dr Lyle Conrad via Wikimedia Commons

A child with kwashiorkor, caused by evere protein deficiency: Child malnutrition may rise by about a fifth
Image: Dr Lyle Conrad, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via Wikimedia Commons

In a report, What We Know, the AAAS makes an infrequent foray into the climate debate. The report’s significance lies not in what it says, which covers familiar ground, but in who is saying it: the world’s largest general scientific body, and one of its most knowledgeable.

The AAAS says: “The evidence is overwhelming: levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.

“The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer.

Few dissenters

“And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.”

The report’s headline messages are unambiguous. It says climate change is occurring here and now: “Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.

“This agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued by virtually every membership organization of experts in this field.

“We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts…Disturbingly, scientists do not know how much warming is required to trigger such changes to the climate system.

Expensive to delay

“The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do…as emissions continue and warming increases, the risk increases”.

The AAAS says there is scarcely any precedent for the speed at which this is happening: “The rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades.”

Historically rare extreme weather like once-in-a-century floods, droughts and heat waves could become almost annual occurrences, it says, and there could be large-scale collapses of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.

The authors acknowledge that what the AAAS is doing is unusual: “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change.

“But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening…”

More child malnutrition

At the end of March the IPCC, the UN’s voice on climate science, is due to release a summary of the report of its Working Group II, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change.

The London daily The Independent, which says it has seen a draft of the report’s final version, says it will spell out a prospect of “enormous strain, forcing mass migration, especially in Asia, and increasing the risk of violent conflict.”

The newspaper says the report predicts that climate change “will reduce median crop yields by 2% per decade for the rest of the century”, against a backdrop of rising demand set to increase by 14% per decade until 2050. “This will in turn push up malnutrition in children by about a fifth”, it adds.

Other predictions in the draft, The Independent says, include possible global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0%; more competition for fresh water; and by 2100 hundreds of millions of people affected by coastal flooding and displaced by land loss, mainly in Asia. – Climate News Network

Climate science ‘is beyond argument’

March 17, 2014 in Arctic, Business, Carbon, Climate deniers, Deep Ocean, Economy, Fish, Food security, Global Ocean Commission, Ice Loss, Marine ecology, Ocean acidification, Ocean Warming, Polar ice, Pollution, Science

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Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them
Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The Global Ocean Commission says climate change is one of the key threats to the health of the world’s marine life, which it says faces multiple pressures in a warming world.

HONG KONG, 17 March - South Africa’s former Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, has derided those who deny the scientific argument that climate change is an urgent problem caused largely by human activity.

He told journalists here: “The science is now incontrovertible. There are a few people in the world who deny it, but they are mainly in lunatic asylums.”

Mr Manuel is one of three co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of global leaders who have just ended a meeting here to finalise the proposals they will present to the United Nations in June.

The meeting agreed that another key threat to the world’s oceans is overfishing and the subsidies which help to make it possible. It says this, and the other factors causing ocean degradation, threaten the food security of as many as 500 million people.

It is deeply worried about pollution. With plastic remains now so pervasive that they are found even in deep seafloor sediments, Mr Manuel said, it sometimes seemed that “you might as well not bother to buy seafood at all – just buy the plastic bag it comes in and eat that.”

Shells corroded

The Commission says climate change threatens the oceans in three main ways: by raising the temperature of the water; by reducing its oxygen content; and by increasing its acidity. Antarctic pteropods, small sea snails also known as sea butterflies, are already being found with severely corroded shells because of acidification, and larger creatures, including bigger shellfish and corals, are likely to be seriously affected.

Another of the co-chairs, José María Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica, told the Climate News Network the Commission was concerned at the prospect of exploitation of the high seas in the Arctic as the region’s sea ice continues to melt.

He said: “Beyond Arctic countries’ EEZs (exclusive economic zones stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast), the melting will leave us with a doughnut-shaped hole in the Arctic high seas, which are not under international control.

“Some nations are now looking to explore there for fish, minerals, valuable biodiversity and other resources. I believe we should not go down that route.

We should listen to the science and follow the precautionary principle, keeping this pristine area off-limits for exploitation until we understand the consequences.

Coalition builders

“We’re already pushing the high seas to the limit. We don’t need to push them over the edge by a lack of proper precaution in the Arctic.”

He said: “The jury is still out on whether we have 20 or 30 years ahead as a window of opportunity to act. But why wait? Listen to the science, which is overwhelming, and to the economics, which are sound.”

Describing the Commission as “not just a bunch of treehuggers, but a group that’s grounded itself in good sound economics”, Mr Figueres said the recommendations it planned to present to the UN on 24 June would represent about 20% of its work. The other 80% would involve building coalitions around each recommendation: there are expected to be no more than 10 in total.

The Commission’s third co-chair is the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He told the Network: “Answers that sit on a shelf are a waste of time, and people who are positively inclined to protect the oceans are held back by institutional inertia.

“But the interplay between climate change and ocean damage is rising, and it very much needs to. The science of most of the last half-century shows us how we’ve been playing tricks with nature.” – Climate News Network

Call for more efficient livestock management

March 11, 2014 in Agriculture, Emissions reductions, Food security, Greenhouse Gases, Livestock, Methane

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Feed me grass, not wheat Image: Man vyi via Wikepedia Commons

Feed me grass, not wheat
Image: Man vyi via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Many methods of raising livestock are chronically inefficient argue a group of scientists. Changing the way animals are fed would mean more food being available for human consumption: methane emissions would also be reduced.

LONDON, 11 March – British and international scientists have proposed eight strategies to make cattle and sheep-farming more sustainable, to make both the animals and people who depend on them healthier, and to reduce the strain on the planet.

Mark Eisler, a veterinary scientist at the University of Bristol and colleagues argue in the journal Nature  that cattle, sheep and some other livestock eat the grass and crop residues that people cannot digest.

In so doing farm animals can offer both efficient use of resources and high quality protein for those who might need it most.

Dependence on livestock

Almost a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock for their livelihood, but the scientists are not arguing that the world should eat more meat: rather that there should be more careful use of livestock as a resource.

They make their argument at a time when obesity has emerged as a global problem, and at a time when reports once again link a diet high in meat and animal products with cancer and diabetes.

“Annual meat consumption in India is just 3.2 kilograms per head, compared with 125kg per person in the United States in 2007, much of it from heavily processed foods, such as burgers, sausages and ready meals,” they write. “The focus should be on eating less, better quality meat.”

For the world’s poorest, however, there are clear nutritional advantages to high quality animal foods rich in protein. The challenge is to manage livestock in the most effective way.

Changing diet

They argue that farm animals now consume a third or more of the world’s cereal grain, which would be better used to feed people directly. Other scientists have lately argued that a higher quality diet for animals would lead to lower emissions of methane.

Instead, the Bristol-led team wants to see ruminants or cud-chewing animals fed food that humans cannot eat. Rather than try to improve yield in the developing world by exporting cattle that can deliver 30 litres of milk a day – yields that don’t survive a change in climate and environment – farmers and scientists should try to improve local livestock already adapted to local conditions.

They also argue that animal health is important. Sick animals can make people sick too. A total of 13 diseases transferred between animals and humans are linked to 2.2 million deaths a year and 2.4 billion cases of illness.

Professor Eisler and his fellow authors also want to see animal productivity boosted by the right food supplements to encourage better growth, more efficient digestion and lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Less red meat

They believe in a balanced diet with an average of no more than 300 grams of red meat per person per week; they want to see better management of animals and grazing land to conserve biodiversity and increase carbon capture by plants and soil, and they want to see a global network of research farms.

“The quest for intensification in livestock farming has thundered ahead with little regard for sustainability and overall efficiency, the net amount of food produced in relation to inputs such as land and water,” said Prof Eisler.

“With animal protein set to remain part of the food supply, we must pursue sustainable intensifications and figure out how to keep livestock in ways that work best for individuals, communities and the planet.” – Climate News Network

 

Livestock diet ‘can cut GHG emissions’

February 25, 2014 in Adaptation, Agriculture, Economy, Land Use, Livestock, Methane

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Better livestock diets could mean greenhouse gas cuts of 23% by 2030, the researchers say Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

Better livestock diets could mean greenhouse gas cuts of 23% by 2030, the researchers say
Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Limiting changes in the way we use land may be a better way slowing the contribution of livestock to climate change than reducing meat consumption, an international research team says.

LONDON, 25 February – Here’s a way to make cattle emit lower volumes of methane through their digestive tracts: give the beasts a higher-quality diet. That way, you get more stock on less grassland, get improved yields per hectare and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is a lot of discussion about the reduction of meat in the diet as a way to reduce emissions,” says Petr Havlik of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “But our results show that targeting the production side of agriculture is a much more efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

This will provoke some argument, and in any case seems counter-intuitive. Campaigners have been arguing for decades that livestock farming is in many though not all regions an inefficient way to produce nourishment: grain, pulses, fruits and vegetables deliver greater outputs of calories and proteins at much lower overall costs in water, energy and emissions.

Farm animals are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions and, as the poorer nations develop, demand for meat and dairy protein tends to rise, so emissions are expected to increase.

Production economics

Volume for volume, methane or natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and researchers in Europe and the US have begun to consider ways of reducing or at least limiting methane discharges from either or both ends of billions of the planet’s grazing animals.

But Havlink and colleagues from Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and the US think the answer lies in the changing economics of production. Livestock provide a third of the protein in human diets: in the developing world oxen, donkeys and buffalos also deliver haulage, manure and regular income.

Around 30% of the global land area is used to rear livestock. Between 1980 and 2000, 83% of the expansion of agricultural land in the tropics was at the expense of the tropical forests. A lot of this space is devoted to cattle, sheep and goats. Increasing quantities of maize and soya are also being converted to animal feed. So the problem is not likely to go away.

As land prices rise, there is pressure to stock more animals and buy in high-density fodder, to increase yield and to deliver quicker returns. So the new research proposes that both the increase in the cost of land, and the still-rising yields per hectare from croplands, will lead to richer diets for animals: this in turn would pay off in greater returns for the farmers, higher yields for people and – because livestock diets would be lower in cellulose and richer in energy – lower emissions of methane from the flatulent animals.

Better option

The scientists argue that by 2030 the change to more efficient farming could cut emissions by 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That, they suggest, could happen anyway, because it pays farmers to do such things. If political and economic measures were taken to accelerate such changes – and at the same time reduce the conversion of forest to farmland – then the world could save 3,223 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.

The real target in all this is not the livestock, but the change in land use. Stringent climate change policies, were they ever to be enforced or even introduced by the governments of the world, could constrain the food available to a swelling population. The researchers argue that it would be five to 10 times more efficient and effective to reduce the changes in land use – to stop burning and clearing forests to make new grazing land.

All this involves complex economic reasoning, and the use of economic metrics such as “total abatement calorie cost” and “marginal abatement costs”, but a global package of measures that included investment, trade and education could reduce total emissions from the farms and cattle sheds by 25%.

“From the livestock sector perspective, limiting land use change seems the cheapest option both in terms of the economic cost and in terms of impact on food availability,” says Havlik. – Climate News Network