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The energy revolution is in reverse

April 18, 2014 in Climate, Emissions reductions, Energy, Fossil fuels, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Mitigation, Nuclear power, Policy, Shale Gas, Subsidies, Warming

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Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual
Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

By Henner Weithöner

The UN climate panel’s prescription for tackling climate change is admirably clear. The problem is that the world is heading in precisely the opposite direction.

BERLIN, 18 April – Keeping the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels will not be prohibitively expensive, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, though it won’t be easy.

There’s just one problem: the atmospheric facts show that the world is not simply ignoring the IPCC. It’s moving smartly away from the clean energy future that the Panel says is attainable towards an inexorably hotter and more risky future.

Reaching the target will mean cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% over 2010 levels by mid-century, the IPCC report says. Yet what is happening at the moment is the exact opposite: average global emissions rose by a billion tonnes a year between 2000 and 2010, faster than ever before.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change as cheaply as possible, the report urges an energy revolution to end the dominance of fossil fuels. The IPCC says  investments in renewable energy need to triple, with subsidies to fossil fuels declining and a switch to natural gas to help countries to get rid of coal.

The path to lower emissions may cost the energy giants dear, the IPCC acknowledges. “Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters,” Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, which produced the report, told a public meeting here. “To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”

‘Negligible’ cost

Another controversial point is the report’s inclusion of nuclear power as a low-carbon option (it acknowledges that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns). The report also advocates carbon capture and storage (CCS), noting that it remains untested on a large scale.

But the IPCC insists that diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. “Statistically you won’t notice,” said Dr Ryer Gerlagh, a co-ordinating lead author on the economics chapter of the report.

Li Shuo of Greenpeace China said: “Science has spoken: climate action is no burden, it’s an opportunity. As renewable energies are growing bigger, better and cheaper every day, the age of dangerous and polluting coal, oil and gas is over. The only rational response to this report is to start the phase-out of fossil fuels immediately.”

Wrong direction

Global temperatures have risen about 0.8°C since record-keeping started in 1850. Current pledges by governments to reduce emissions by 2020 have set the world on a path to between 3 and 5°C of warming by 2100, the IPCC says.

The Working Group III contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of the options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions. It may have shown that those options exist and are affordable. But that is very far from showing that governments can be persuaded to use them. – Climate News Network

Henner Weithöner is a freelance journalist in Berlin specialising in renewable energy and climate change.

IPCC tries a gamble with shale gas

April 14, 2014 in Adaptation, Coal, Energy, Fracking, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Methane, Nuclear power, Renewables, Shale Gas, Solar energy, Wind power

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Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas
Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The latest IPCC report urges a dash for gas to allow us to reduce the burning of coal. And it accepts the use of shale gas, which threatens to be far more polluting than originally thought.

LONDON, 14 April – If you support fracking, you should be pleased with the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). It’s given the green light to the use of shale gas as a short-term way to slow climate change.

The report is the third and final part of the latest IPCC assessment on climate change (known as AR5). While it puts considerable emphasis on the need for more renewable energy – including solar, wind and hydropower – it says emissions of greenhouse gases can be cut in the medium term by replacing coal with less-polluting gas, though the gas will itself ultimately have to be phased out.

On shale gas, obtained by the controversial fracking process, Ottmar Edenhofer - co-chair of the working group that produced the report – said it was quite clear that the fuel “can be very consistent with low carbon development and decarbonisation”.

Among the objections to fracking is the fact the process releases quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas often reckoned to be at least 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. That is the comparison we have often used in the Network’s reporting. It’s right, so far as it goes. But by some calculations it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Own goal

Recently an observant reader pointed out that methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 when its impact is measured over a century. But in the short term it is a far greater problem. Over the space of two decades it is estimated to be at least 84 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

Robert Howarth is professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. He and his colleague Drew Shindell of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have predicted that unless emissions of methane (and black carbon) are reduced immediately, the Earth will warm by 1.5°C by 2030 and by 2.0°C by between 2045 and 2050, whether or not carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.

Professor Howarth puts the global warming potential of methane higher still. He has written: “At the time scale of 20 years following emission, methane’s global warming potential is more than 100-fold greater than for carbon dioxide (Shindell et al. 2009).”

Some critics will conclude that the IPCC’s search for a bridging strategy to move us rapidly to a world of clean energy has scored an own goal by failing to rule out a fuel which entails a large and avoidable increase in greenhouse emissions. The cost of the infrastructure needed to exploit shale gas on a large scale may also work to prolong its use.

Affordable transformation

Ironically, the clean energy world the IPCC seeks need be no more than 15 years away, according to one US expert. Mark Z Jacobson is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, California, and director of its atmosphere and energy program. He believes that wind, water and solar power can be scaled up cost-effectively to meet the world’s energy demands, ending dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Professor Jacobson described in Energy Policy in 2010 how he and a colleague had analysed “the feasibility of providing worldwide energy for all purposes (electric power, transportation, heating/cooling, etc.) from wind, water, and sunlight (WWS)”.

He continued: “We suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.”

It sounds like a less risky path to a world of clean energy than the IPCC is urging. Fifteen years to build a different way of fuelling society, or 20 years of watching spiralling methane emissions, seems a no-brainer. – Climate News Network

‘Forget the cost – tackle climate anyway’

April 3, 2014 in Climate finance, Integrated Assessment Models, IPCC, Mitigation, Policy

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Devastation surrounds Table Mountain: "Act on climate change at any cost to keep a habitable world" Image: Dewet via Wikimedia Commons

Devastation surrounds Table Mountain: “Act on climate change at any cost to keep a habitable world”
Image: Dewet via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Forget the cost of mitigating climate change, say two researchers. It’s impossible to work out how much it will be – and whatever it is, we should do it anyway.

LONDON, 3 April – Two researchers who tried to work out the economics of  reducing global climate change to a tolerable level have come up with a perhaps surprising answer: essentially, we do not and cannot know what it would cost.

Even more surprising, probably, is their conclusion: not knowing is no excuse for not acting. “Mitigating climate change must proceed regardless of long-run economic analyses”, they conclude, “or risk making the world uninhabitable.”

Their report, entitled The economics of mitigating climate change: What can we know?,is published online in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

The pair are Dr Rich Rosen, who specialises in energy system planning and is a senior fellow of the Tellus Institute, based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Edeltraud Guenther, professor of environmental management and accounting at Dresden University of Technology in Germany.

In a densely-argued analysis of the long-term economics of mitigating climate change they say various kinds of uncertainties raise serious questions about whether or not the net costs and benefits of mitigation over periods as long as 50 years or a century can be known accurately enough to be useful to policymakers and citizens.

Crisis ‘trumps uncertainty’

Technological change, especially for energy efficiency technologies, is a key factor in making the net economic results of mitigation unknowable over the long term, they argue. So policymakers should not base mitigation policy on the estimated net economic impacts computed by integrated assessment models (IAM – models which combine scientific and economic insights).

Instead, “mitigation policies must be forcefully implemented anyway given the actual physical climate change crisis, in spite of the many uncertainties involved in trying to predict the net economics of doing so”.

This argument directly challenges the many politicians and others who insist that governments should adopt policies designed to limit climate change only if they can make a strong economic case for doing so. Essentially, it shifts the ground of the debate from “what is affordable?” to “what is survivable?”

The authors say economic analyses of mitigating climate change rely on flawed sets of IAM results, which are invalidated by uncertainty over future technologies and their costs. They also believe changes in production and consumption patterns will affect mitigation costs.

‘Meaningless’ results

They write: “Since the Western lifestyle can probably not serve as a role model for the life styles of the nine billion people likely to inhabit our planet by 2050, significant but unpredictable changes to consumption and production patterns not incorporated in existing IAMs are likely to occur, adding another layer of uncertainty to the economic calculations made by these IAMs for the net costs and benefits of mitigating climate change.”

“The IPCC and other scientific bodies should no longer report attempts at calculating the net economic impacts of mitigating climate change…”

The authors do not hide their scorn for the results provided by existing IAM scenarios. These, they write, are “not useful because even the simplest comparison of model results yields meaningless results — the uncertainties are too profound.”

They end by posing a question: “Should these findings and conclusions about the inadequacies of current IAMs really matter to policymakers who are trying to figure out when, and to what extent, to implement effective climate change mitigation policies?

Their response is terse: “Our answer is ‘no’, because humanity would be wise to mitigate climate change as quickly as possible without being constrained by existing economic systems and institutions, or risk making the world uninhabitable.” – Climate News Network

US cools on states’ climate action

April 1, 2014 in Emissions reductions, Fossil fuels, Policy, Public Awareness, USA

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The federal government is now more active on climate change, the individual states less so Image: Wikimedia Commons

The federal government is now more active on climate change, the individual states less so
Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

While Washington is doing more to address climate change, individual American states are scaling back their policies – apparently to public approval.

LONDON, 1 April – In the last five years – five years marked by heat waves that broke all temperature records, an unprecedented superstorm that devastated New York, catastrophic blizzards in the north-eastern states and sustained drought in the south-west – American citizens have become more divided in their views on climate change.

In 2008 seven out of 10 believed it was their state’s job to address global warming if the federal government failed to do so. The proportion is now down to one in two. The degree of commitment to an opinion has also changed. In 2008, 41% agreed strongly with that position. Now only 19% do so, according to a report from the University of Michigan.

The report, by the University’s Centre for Local, State and Urban Policy, also reveals that a greater number of people are opposed to increases in fossil fuel taxes as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: in all, 71% are against, and of these, 55% are strongly against. Overall, only 5% strongly support increases in such taxes.

Gasoline taxes as an instrument to reduce greenhouse emissions were supported by only 23% of respondents in 2008; this proportion fell to 17% in 2013.

Paradoxically, a large majority of Americans continue to support the argument that a proportion of electricity in any state should come from renewable sources. However, only 29 states so far have agreed such a mandate, and all of them before 2008.

The research is not directly concerned with public recognition of the reality of climate change, although other pollsters and analysts report that opinion tends to shift according to argument and direct experience of climate extremes.

“This less engaged era of state activity has come as American public support for state-level actions regarding global warming has declined”

Instead it is concerned with the more complex question of democratic responsibility for response, and the authors observe that voter attitudes and state policies seem to be broadly in step.

So the question is about whether people think federal or state government should take the initiative.

“Since the turn of the 21st century it has been the states, and not the federal government, that have been the leaders in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the authors conclude.

“But just as the federal government under the Obama Administration has emerged as a more aggressive player in climate change policy, the states have entered into a period of more limited effort and even modest decline in terms of policies targeting global warming.

“This less engaged era of state activity has come as American public support for state-level actions regarding global warming has declined from where it was five years ago.” – Climate News Network

Carbon output ‘will climb 29% by 2035′

February 7, 2014 in Carbon Dioxide, Coal, Energy, Forecasting, Greenhouse Gases, Renewables, Shale Gas

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Spelling it out: A French "non" to the prospect of shale oil and gas Image: Eva Joly 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

Spelling it out: A French “non” to the prospect of shale oil and gas
Image: Eva Joly 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Climate scientists agree that global carbon dioxide emissions need to be sharply cut. A prominent player in the energy industry predicts they will go in the opposite direction.

LONDON, 7 February – The good news, from the climate’s standpoint, is that while global demand for energy is continuing to grow, the growth is slowing. The bad news is that one energy giant predicts global carbon dioxide emissions will probably rise by almost a third in the next 20 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2020 and then decline if the world is to hope to avoid global average temperatures rising by more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels. Beyond 2°C, it says, climate change could become dangerously unmanageable.

But BP’s Energy Outlook 2035 says CO2 emissions are likely to increase by 29% in the next two decades because of growing energy demand from the developing world.

It says “energy use in the advanced economies of North America, Europe and Asia as a group is expected to grow only very slowly – and begin to decline in the later years of the forecast period”.

But by 2035 energy use in the non-OECD economies is expected to be 69% higher than in 2012. In comparison use in the OECD will have grown by only 5%, and actually to have fallen after 2030, even with continued economic growth. The Outlook predicts that global energy consumption will rise by 41% from 2012 to 2035, compared with 30% over the last ten.

Nor does it offer much hope that the use of novel energy sources will help to cut emissions. It says: “Shale gas is the fastest-growing source of supply (6.5% p.a.), providing nearly half of the growth in global gas.”

Renewables shine

Burning gas produces much lower CO2 emissions than using coal, but the sheer volume of shale production is expected to cancel out any possible emissions reductions. In fact the Outlook says of its predictions:  “…emissions [of CO2] remain well above the path recommended by scientists…Global emissions in 2035 are nearly double the 1990 level.”

An advantage claimed by some supporters of shale gas is that it will increasingly replace a much more polluting fossil fuel, coal. But at the moment many coal-producing countries are finding markets overseas for those they have lost to shale gas at home.

Oil, natural gas and coal are each expected to make up around 27% of the total mix by 2035, with the remaining share coming from nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewables. Among fossil fuels gas, conventional as well as shale, is growing fastest and is increasingly being used as a cleaner alternative to coal.

Bob Dudley, BP Group chief executive, said the Group was “optimistic for the world’s energy future”. Europe, China and India would become more dependent on imports, he said, while the US was on course to become self-sufficient in energy.

The Outlook does provide encouragement to the producers of renewables, which are expected to continue to be the fastest growing class of energy, gaining market share from a small base as they rise at an average of 6.4% a year to 2035. – Climate News Network

OECD states cut emissions too slowly

January 14, 2014 in Economy, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation, OECD, Pollution

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Gridlock in Dakar:  The growth in vehicle numbers has outweighed better engine efficiency Image: Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons

Gridlock in Dakar: The growth in vehicle numbers has outweighed better engine efficiency
Image: Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The club of the world’s richest countries admits that its members are failing to prevent dangerous climate change, despite their eforts to rein in pollution.

LONDON, 14 January – The world’s richest countries have made some progress since the 1990s in limiting environmental damage. But they have not done enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, according to the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Scientists say that carbon dioxide emissions need to start going down in the next decade to prevent global temperatures reaching dangerous levels. But the OECD predicts that levels of carbon dioxide will continue to rise and by 2050 will be 50% higher than today.

The 34 OECD countries in the survey are mainly the older mature economies which in the 1970s produced well over half the world’s CO2 emissions from their factories and transport. Now the OECD share of total world emissions has dropped to 30%, but only because of the vast increase in the energy use of China and other high-growth countries like Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and South Africa.  These now account for 40% of global emissions on their own.

More vehicles

There is some good news in the report. Some OECD countries have both increased production and reduced CO2 emissions by introducing renewables and energy efficiency.

The problem for those that fail to do so appears to be political, with countries like Australia and Canada, which have repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, apparently also abandoning most policies to combat climate change.

The report, Environment at a Glance 2013, says that on average there has been progress. Since 1990 there has been a drop of 25% in the amount of energy required to produce a unit of production in member countries, but this is well short of what is needed to safeguard the planet.

The report, which reviews OECD members’ efforts to combat climate change by reducing fossil fuel use, says that the overall energy mix has barely changed in 20 years. There is still an 80% reliance on fossil fuels, although there has been a lot of switching from coal to gas, which does reduce emissions.

Renewable energy is still only 9% of the total energy supply. Another problem is the increasing demand for transport. Smaller, more efficient engines are failing to offset a 17% increase in vehicle numbers.

Rejecting Kyoto

The major political driver for reducing emissions since 1997 has been the Kyoto Protocol. Countries which made pledges to reduce emissions, principally those in the expanded European Union, have made most progress.

This is partly due to the economic recession and exporting some dirty industries to China and other developing countries, but domestic efficiency measures and switching to renewables has helped.

Among the worst performing countries are those that made pledges under the Kyoto Protocol and subsequently abandoned them for political reasons – the United States, Canada and Australia.

The top four countries in the per capita emissions table (the amount of CO2 emitted for each person in a country) has Australia in the lead and Luxembourg second, followed by the United States and Canada.

Positive note

Luxembourg makes the list only because of its low taxes on fuel, which mean that motorists from neighbouring countries fill up their cars at its petrol pumps and then drive back over the border.

Australia relies heavily on coal burning to power its industry and also exports large quantities of coal to China. The new government turned its back on international efforts to combat climate change last year. Canada had previously done the same, deciding instead to exploit its tar sands for oil production, involving high-energy use.

The United States has high per capita carbon emissions because of the lavish lifestyles of its citizens and a powerful Republican lobby that supports the fossil fuel industry and blocks any attempt to combat climate change.

On what the OECD calls “a positive note”, its members have slashed emissions of sulphur oxides by 69% since 1990 and of nitrogen oxide by 36% in the same period.

Sulphur oxides, in various forms, are a chief cause of acid rain and a potent greenhouse gas. Nitrogen oxides are also a contributor to climate change and low level ozone, which damages plants and buildings and irritates human lungs.

These reductions have been possible because of political action, showing that it is not the lack of technology that prevents the world tackling climate change but the lack of will and legislation. – Climate News Network

Battery offers new hope to renewables

January 10, 2014 in Renewables, Solar energy, Technology, Wind power

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Solar-powered street lights in Gwadar, Pakistan: Flow batteries could offer many new uses Image: wetlandsofpakistan via Wikimedia Commons

Solar-powered street lights in Gwadar, Pakistan: Flow batteries could offer many new uses
Image: wetlandsofpakistan via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

It sounds like a seminal step towards unlocking the potential of renewables – a research team has high hopes it has found a cheap and effective way of storing huge amounts of energy.

LONDON, 10 January – Scientists in the US think they may be on the track of a new kind of battery technology that could store huge reserves of energy.

One of the great problems of renewable energy generators such as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines is that they can’t respond to demand.

When the sun is out, nobody needs so much heating and lighting, so the electricity goes to waste. In theory, surplus energy could be saved for hours of darkness or when the winds drop, but at a prohibitive cost. But Michael Aziz of Harvard University in Boston and colleagues report in Nature that they have tested what is, quite literally, a solution to the problem.

A common low-cost organic chemical found in crude oil and in living things could, once dissolved in water, be used to fuel a flow battery, into which surplus energy could flow when the winds are high and the sun is shining and everybody has gone surfing, and then deliver stored power when everybody goes home at night time and switches on the light and the cooking stove.

In a flow battery, two solutions of electro-active compounds are made to flow through electrodes in an electro-chemical cell: they react at the electrodes and generate electricity. A membrane separates the two solutions, but lets through charge-carrying ions.

Promising start

The strength of a flow battery is that the electro-chemical conversion hardware and the tanks in which the solutions are stored are kept separately, so that the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks.

The downside is that, until now, such systems have depended on expensive electrolytes such as vanadium dissolved in sulphuric acid or even more expensive catalysts such as palladium. Professor Aziz and his colleagues did it with a quinone dissolved in water and very dilute acids, and without a catalyst.

A quinone is a simple benzene-based compound that comes in many forms and from many sources. The quinone in the Harvard trial was almost identical to one found in the garden crop rhubarb.

The flow battery under test delivered promising power density and good current efficiency. The test kit, however was only two square centimetres. The whole process is about a thousand times faster than the rival vanadium system, so batteries could be charged and discharged so much more swiftly. The next stage is to scale the system up, and keep it running for many thousands of cycles to demonstrate its capabilities.

Not there yet

There is a long way to go. Safety considerations remain. The chemistry, too, could be improved. The dream is of a flexible system that could be used in large projects and small.

It could sit in the basement of a home and store the energy collected by solar panels on the roof. Or buried tanks could store the surplus energy from a whole wind farm. The authors say that the use of organic molecules rather than metals holds the promise of massive electrical storage at greatly reduced cost.

“You could theoretically put this on any node on the grid. If the market price fluctuates enough, you could put a storage device there and buy electricity to store it when the price is low and sell it back when the price is high”, said Aziz.

“The intermittent renewable storage problem is the biggest barrier to getting most of our power from the Sun and the wind. A safe and economical flow battery could play a huge role in our transition from fossil fuels to renewable electricity. I’m excited that we have a good shot at it.” – Climate News Network

2013 ‘will mark continued rise of CO2′

December 30, 2013 in Carbon Budget, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation

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The coal-fired power station at Drax in the North of England: Coal is still the world's biggest source of CO2 Image: Paul Glazzard via Wikimedia Commons

The coal-fired power station at Drax in the North of England: Coal is still the world’s biggest source of CO2
Image: Paul Glazzard via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The world’s emissions of the main greenhouse gas produced by human activities, carbon dioxide, in 2013 are expected to be nearly two-thirds higher than in 1990.

LONDON, 30 December  – Global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to hit 36 billion tonnes in 2013, according to new research from the University of East Anglia in the UK. This is a small rise – an estimated 2.1% – on 2012, but it will be 61% above the levels in 1990, which is the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol was agreed by most of the world’s concerned nations, anxious to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and contain warming to a global average of 2°C. So the 2013 carbon budget is not being hailed as a great success.

“Governments meeting in Warsaw this week need to agree on how to reverse this trend,” said Corinne Le Quéré of the university’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, who led the Global Carbon Budget report for 2013, compiled by 49 authors from 10 countries. She was speaking before the start of last month’s UN climate talks in the Polish capital.

“Everyone can explore their own emissions, and compare them with their neighbouring countries…”

“Emissions must fall substantially and rapidly if we are to limit global climate change to below two degrees. Additional emissions every year cause further warming and climate change.”

The Tyndall Centre has also launched the Global Carbon Atlas, an online platform that identifies the biggest carbon emitters. “Everyone can explore their own emissions, and compare them with their neighbouring countries – past, present and future,” said Professor Le Quéré.

China is the biggest contributor, with 23%, followed by the US at 14% and the European Union at 10% and India at 6%. Emissions per person put these figures into another perspective: people in China and in the EU each released seven tonnes per head in 2012. The US remains the highest emitter with 16 tonnes per capita; people in India, by comparison, release only 1.8 tonnes each.

Coal remains the biggest source of carbon dioxide at 43%; oil 33%, gas 18% and cement 6.3%. Since 1870, humans have released 2,105 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – 70% from fossil fuels and 30% by chopping down forests and changing the patterns of land use. – Climate News Network

Historic CO2 emissions require cuts now

November 21, 2013 in Black Carbon, Cumulative Emissions, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Methane, Mitigation, Warming

EMBARGOED until 0800 GMT on Thursday 21 November

Accumulated CO2 emissions are still able to influence future temperatures Image: Photographic Collection from Australia via Wikimedia Commons

Accumulated CO2 emissions are still able to influence future temperatures
Image: Photographic Collection from Australia via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The amount of carbon dioxide that has already built up in the atmosphere is helping to accelerate the pace at which the Earth is warming, two scientists say.

LONDON, 21 November – Two scientists urge the world to start reducing greenhouse emissions right now. There’s no time to be lost, they argue in Nature Climate Change. Future global temperatures depend on how much carbon dioxide has accumulated in the atmosphere, so as emissions increase, so does the rate of warming.

The reasoning by Myles Allen, of the University of Oxford in the UK, and Thomas Stocker, of the University of Bern in Switzerland, is complex. They are concerned with what they call peak-committed warming: how high the temperature can or is likely or is permitted to go.

Governments of the world have subscribed in principle to the proposition that they would like to limit global warming to 2°C above the levels before the Industrial Revolution, but to do this they will have to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, these are increasing.

Allen and Stocker warn that that peak CO2-induced warming is currently increasing at the same rate as cumulative CO2 emissions themselves. “At almost 2% per year, it is much faster than observed warming,” they say.

Their argument involves some fairly complex mathematics but some very-easy-to-understand assumptions. One assumption is that if the world starts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions right now, then peak warming will occur later in the century.

If governments delay action, and carry on for a limited period with what has become known as the “business-as-usual” scenario, then peak warming will arrive all the sooner.

“If we are aiming for peak warming of around 2°C, then as long as emissions are increasing at 1.8-1.9% per year, every year’s delay in reducing emissions increases peak warming by 1.8-1.9% of 2°C, or 0.04°C.

Delay is expensive

“If the same effort required in 2010 to limit CO2-induced warming to 2°C were applied starting in 2015, the resultant peak would be 10% higher, at 2.2°C,” they say. “Given the complexities of the climate issue, simple rules of thumb like this are a valuable way of comparing the impact of climate policies.”

In effect, the longer governments delay action, the more drastic such action must be in years to come, and the higher the average global temperatures will be when the world stops warming, and climates stabilise.

Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas, because it is long-lived, and because it is released in huge quantities from every combustion engine, from every fireplace, and from most of the world’s power-generating plants.

But it is not the only warming gas. Methane and black carbon – both of which are released by human action – also warm the planet. Methane doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere all that long, but weight for weight it is more than 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a century.

In a second perspective essay in Nature Climate Change Myles Allen and five colleagues argue that there are very good reasons for reducing emissions of short-lived pollutants – both economic reasons and health reasons – but doing so will not buy time for the planet, unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced at the same time.

“Even under the 2°C stabilization scenario, the combined impact of methane and black carbon emissions over the decade 2010 to 2020 is expected to increase the most likely peak warming by less than a few hundredths of a degree,” they say. In contrast, long-lived climate pollutant emissions such as carbon dioxide will contribute around 10 times that.- Climate News Network

Mind the climate gap – it’s got wider

November 5, 2013 in Africa, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Mitigation

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Smoky sunset: Greenhouse gas emissions are not falling - they're climbing steadily Image: US National Archives & Redords Administration via Wikimedia Commons

Smoky sunset: Greenhouse gas emissions are not falling – they’re climbing steadily
Image: US National Archives & Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The shortfall between what governments say they will do to cut greenhouse gases and what actually needs to be done by 2020 is growing steadily bigger, the UN says.

LONDON, 5 November – The United Nations says it is “less and less likely” that global greenhouse gas emissions will be low enough by 2020 to stop the atmosphere warming beyond the internationally-agreed safety threshold – 2°C above its pre-industrial level.

A report by the UN Environment Programme says current undertakings by world governments to cut emissions fall short of that goal, and emissions “continue to rise rather than decline”.

The report, The Emissions Gap Report 2013, is the fourth in an annual series. It defines the gap as the difference between the emission levels in 2020 necessary to meet climate targets, and the levels expected that year if countries fulfil their promises to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs).

After 2020, the report says, “the world will have to rely on more difficult, costlier and riskier means of meeting the target… If the gap is not closed or significantly narrowed by 2020, the door to many options to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C at the end of this century will be closed…” [1.5° is the more stringent limit urged by many governments].

Pledges too low

The report warns that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, GHG emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would give a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway to the 2°C target.

A gigatonne is a thousand million tonnes. “GtCO2e” is an abbreviation for “gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide”. It is a simplified way to put emissions of various GHGs on a common footing by expressing them in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same global warming effect.

Emissions as high as that in seven years’ time would mean a need for much higher rates of emission cuts in the medium term; the building of more carbon-intensive infrastructure, which will not be replaced for decades; and more dependence on unproven technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), whose future remains uncertain. Above all, the risk of failing to meet the 2°C target will be greater.

Total global GHG emissions in 2010, the last year for which data are available, were 50.1 GtCO2e. If the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, 1 GtCO2e higher than estimated in last year’s Gap Report.

High stakes for Africa

Further ahead, to be on track to the 2°C target, emissions should be at most 44 GtCO2e by 2020 and 22 GtCO2e by 2050. The benefits could be huge: a separate UNEP report finds that adaptation costs for Africa could reach $350 billion per year by 2070 if the 2°C target is significantly exceeded, while the cost would be $150 billion lower each year if it was met.

UNEP says ambitious and rapid action could still lead to meeting the 2020 goal of 44 GtCO2e. As well as tightening the rules governing how emissions are measured and implemented, it recommends a drive on energy efficiency, renewable energy and reform of fossil fuel subsidies.

It singles out the potential saving from agriculture, which it says accounts for 11% of global direct GHG emissions  – and more if indirect emissions are included too.

The report says three key practices could cut agricultural emissions significantly; eliminating ploughing, to cut emissions from soil disturbance; improved nutrient and water management in rice production; and wider use of agroforestry, involving growing trees on farms. – Climate News Network