Tag Archives: fossil fuels

Climate data shows clear signs of warming

Wreckage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year Image: Eoghan Rice, Trócaire/Caritas via Wikimedia Commons
Wreckage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year
Image: Eoghan Rice, Trócaire/Caritas via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Hundreds of scientists from 57 countries have fed evidence into a new report that provides a clear picture of how patterns, changes, and trends of the global climate system show that our planet is becoming a warmer place.

LONDON, 24 July, 2014 − However you view the evidence, whatever set of measurements you examine, the picture that emerges is consistent: the Earth is heating up.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports: “In 2013, the vast majority of worldwide climate indicators − greenhouse gases, sea levels, global temperatures, etc − continued to reflect trends of a warmer planet.”

This, NOAA says, is the picture painted by the indicators assessed in a report, State of the Climate in 2013, published online by the American Meteorological Society.

Scientists from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center were the lead editors of the report, compiled by 425 scientists from 57 countries. It provides a detailed update on data collected by monitoring stations and instruments on air, land, sea and ice.

“These findings reinforce what scientists for decades have observed: that our planet is becoming a warmer place,” said the NOAA‘s administrator, Dr Kathryn Sullivan.

Changes tracked

The report tracks patterns, changes, and trends of the global climate system, including: greenhouse gases; temperatures throughout the atmosphere, ocean, and land; cloud cover; sea level; ocean salinity; sea ice extent; and snow cover.

It says greenhouse gases continued to climb, with concentrations of major gases − including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide − once again reaching historically high levels. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose by 2.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2013 and reached a global average of 395.3 ppm for the year.

Many scientists argue that once CO2 concentrations reach 450 ppm it will be difficult to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their level for most of human history. The present rate of increase suggests that, without drastic emission cuts, that threshold will be reached before mid-century.

Four major independent datasets show that 2013 was among the warmest years on record, ranking between second and sixth, depending upon the dataset used. Sea surface temperatures increased to place 2013 among the 10 warmest on record.

Sea level also continued to rise, in step with a trend of 3.2 ± 0.4 mm per year over the past two decades.

The Arctic went on warming , marking its seventh warmest year since records began in the early 20th century. Record high temperatures were measured at a depth of 20 metres at permafrost stations in Alaska.

The Arctic sea ice extent was the sixth lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. All seven lowest sea ice extents on record have occurred in the past seven years.

Contradictory trends

The Antarctic, too, was consistent, even if only in the apparently contradictory trends it showed. The extent of the sea ice reached a record high for the second year in a row, of 7.56 million square miles on October 1 −  0.7% higher than the previous record high of 7.51 million sq miles in 2012 and 8.6% higher than the record low maximum of 6.96 million sq miles in 1986. But the South Pole station experienced its highest temperature since records began in 1957.

The number of tropical cyclones during 2013 was slightly above average, but the North Atlantic Basin had its quietest season since 1994. However, in the Western North Pacific Basin, Super Typhoon Haiyan had the highest wind speed ever known for a tropical cyclone, with one-minute sustained winds estimated at 196 miles per hour. − Climate News Network

  • State of the Climate in 2013 is the 24th edition in a peer-reviewed series published annually as a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Emissions are fuelling Australian droughts

Water depth marker in Lake Albert, South Australia Image: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons
Water depth marker in the dried out bed of Lake Albert, South Australia
Image: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The Australian prime minister may be scathing about climate science, but new research shows that burning fossil fuels is a significant factor in the long-term rainfall decline that is leaving southern regions of the country parched and sweltering.

LONDON, 17 July, 2014 − American scientists have just confirmed that parts of Australia are being slowly parched because of greenhouse gas emissions – which means that the long-term decline in rainfall over south and south-west Australia is a consequence of fossil fuel burning and depletion of the ozone layer by human activity.

Such a finding is significant for two reasons. One remains contentious: it is one thing to make generalised predictions about the consequences overall of greenhouse gas levels, but it is quite another to pin a measured regional climatic shift directly on human causes, rather than some possible as-yet-unidentified natural cycle of climatic change.

The other is contentiously political. Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has in the past dismissed climate science as “crap”, and more recently has cut back on Australian research spending.

Australia has already experienced a pattern of heat waves and drought – punctuated by catastrophic flooding – and even now, in the Australian winter, New South Wales is being hit by bush fires.

Tom Delworth, a research scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reports in Nature Geoscience that he and a colleague conducted a series of long-term climate simulations to study changes in rainfall across the globe.

Pattern of change

One striking pattern of change emerged in Australia, where winter and autumn rainfall patterns are increasingly a cause of distress for farmers and growers in two states.

The simulation showed that the decline in rainfall was primarily a response to man-made increases in greenhouse gases, as well as to a thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer in response to emissions of destructive gases by human sources.

The computer simulations tested a series of possible causes for this decline, such as volcanic eruptions and changes in solar radiation. But the only cause that made sense of the observed data was the greenhouse explanation.

South Australia has never been conspicuously lush and wet, but decline in precipitation set in around 1970, and this decline has increased in the last four decades. The simulations predict that the decline will go on, and that average rainfall will drop by 40% over south-west Australia later this century.

Dr Delworth described his model as “a major step forward in our effort to improve the prediction of regional climate change”.

In May, scientists proposed that greenhouse gas emissions were responsible for a change in Southern Ocean wind patterns, which in turn resets the thermostat for the world’s largest island.

Australian scientists report in Geophysical Research Letters that they, too, have been using climate models to examine Antarctic wind patterns and their possible consequence for the rest of the planet.

Temperature rise

“When we included projected Antarctic wind shifts in a detailed global ocean model, we found water up to 4°C warmer than current temperatures rose up to meet the base of the Antarctic ice shelves,” said Paul Spence, a researcher at Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. This temperature rise is twice previous estimates.

“This relatively warm water provides a huge reservoir of melt potential right near the grounding lines of ice shelves around Antarctica,” Dr Spence said. “It could lead to a massive increase in the rate of ice sheet melt, with direct consequences for global sea level rise.”

Since the West Antarctic ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by 3.3 metres, the consequences would indeed be considerable.

“When we first saw the results it was quite a shock,” Dr Spence said. “It was one of the few cases where I hoped the science was wrong.” – Climate News Network

Bold pathways point to a low-carbon future

Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK Image: David Clare/Climate News Network
Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK
Image: David Clare/Climate News Network

By Alex Kirby

The positive message from a scientific report for the UN Climate Summit is that the tough task of cutting CO2 emissions to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C is definitely achievable by following a set of bold, practical steps.

LONDON, 11 July 2014 − Scientists often hesitate to give a cut-and-dried, yes-or-no answer when asked how serious climate change is going to be, and whether the world can still escape significant damage.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a report prepared for a UN conference in September is unequivocal. Yes, it says − the worst is not bound to happen.

The good news is that the world can keep climate change within what are thought to be acceptable limits. The less good news is that while it is possible, it certainly won’t be easy.

The report shows how the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) can cut their carbon emissions by mid-century to prevent dangerous climate change. Prepared by independent researchers in 15 countries, it is the first global co-operation to identify practical pathways to a low-carbon economy by 2050.

The Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project (DDPP) report is an interim version prepared for the UN Climate Summit to be held in New York on 23 September. The full DDPP report will be ready in the spring of 2015.

Dangerous change

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said the report tried to show how countries could help to achieve the globally-agreed target of limiting temperature rise to below 2°C. “Ambitious national action is critical to averting dangerous climate change,” he said. “This report shows what is possible.”

The report aims to help countries to set bold targets in the run-up to the UN climate talks to be held in Paris in 2015.

The work is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of Columbia University’s Earth Institute for the UN, and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), a policy research institute based in Paris.

Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the SDSN, said the world had committed itself to limit warming to below 2°C, but not to practical ways of achieving that goal.

He said: “This report is all about the practicalities.  Success will be tough – the needed transformation is enormous – but is feasible, and is needed to keep the world safe for us and for future generations.”

“The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present”

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, said: “The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present. Paris 2015 may well be our last hope.”

Despite the global agreement to stay below 2°C, the world is on a path that, without action, will lead to an increase of 4°C or more. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its Fifth Assessment Report, known as AR5, that such a rise might exceed the world’s ability to adapt.

It said that a 4°C rise could endanger harvests and cause drastic sea-level rise, spread of diseases, and the extinction of ecosystems.

Some leading climate scientists − including NASA’s former chief climate scientist, Professor James Hansen, who is now at Columbia University − say that even a 2°C rise would be very dangerous. But many politicians regard it as an essential commitment.

The 15 national pathways examined in the report all show the importance of three factors for achieving radically lower carbon emissions.

The first is greatly increased efficiency and conservation in all energy use.

Renewable sources

The second factor is taking the carbon out of electricity by using renewable sources, “such as wind and solar, as well as nuclear power, and/or the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning”.

Nuclear energy still attracts widespread and determined opposition, and carbon capture and sequestration (trapping CO2 emissions and storing them underground or beneath the sea floor) has not yet proved that it can work on a commercial scale.

The third factor involves replacing fossil fuels in transport, heating and industrial processes with a mix of low-carbon electricity, sustainable biofuels, and hydrogen.

The authors say their interim report shows the critical long-term importance of preparing national deep decarbonisation plans for 2050.

Emmanuel Guerin, the DDPP’s senior project manager, said the pathways were crucial to shaping the expectations of countries, businesses and investors. − Climate News Network

Gene machinery helps plants handle CO2 rise

 

The mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides vital scientific clues Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons
Mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides valuable scientific clues
Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The discovery of how plants respond to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could provide agricultural scientists with new tools to engineer crops that can deal with droughts and high temperatures.

LONDON, 10 July, 2014 − Biologists in the US have identified the genetic machinery that tells a plant how to respond to more carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Four genes from three different gene families together control the density of stomata, or breathing pores, on the foliage of the healthy plant. As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, plants respond and make fewer stomata.

That means they can detect a gradual change in the levels of a vital gas – a change from 280 parts per million 200 years ago to 400 parts per million now – and change their plumbing arrangements.

In theory, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be better for plant fertility, and the reduction in stomata means that they should use water more economically. Water is a big expense for the growing plant.

Lose water

“For each carbon dioxide molecule that is incorporated into plants through photosynthesis, plants lose about 200 molecules of water through their stomata,” says Julian Schroeder, professor of biological sciences at the University of California San Diego, who led the team that reports in Nature  journal.

“Because elevated CO2 reduces the stomatal density in leaves, this is at first sight beneficial for plants, as they would lose less water. However, the reduction in the number of stomatal pores decreases the ability of plants to cool their leaves during a heat wave via water evaporation. Less evaporation adds to heat stress in plants, which ultimately affects crop yield.”

Quite how crops will respond to a greenhouse gas world has been exercising field biologists, agronomists and government planners for decades.

Plants respond to warmth and to plentiful carbon dioxide. But, as researchers found in April this year, that may not make crops more nourishing. It would be possible to have vigorous growth but lower protein yields in, for example, fields of wheat.

There is a second unresolved question: a warmer world will mean more evaporation, more rainfall in some regions, and greater aridity in others − not helpful to productive farming.

A third challenge is that extremes of heat in the growing season can have a catastrophic effect on the harvest later in the year.

But the San Diego research may, in the end, help tomorrow’s farmers. The study shows that when their test species Arabidopsis thaliana – a little mustard plant also known as mouse-ear cress − senses a rise in atmospheric levels of CO2, it increases the levels of a peptide hormone that alters the genetic machinery in the skin of growing leaves, and blocks the formation of stomata.

The challenge was to identify all the proteins involved, and the genes that are at work.

Plant health

“This change causes leaf temperature to rise because of a decrease in the plant’s evapotranspirative cooling ability, while simultaneously increasing the transpiration efficiency of plants,” the report says. “These phenomena, combined with the increasing scarcity of fresh water for agriculture, are predicted to dramatically impact on plant health.”

The more researchers know about the physiological response of a growing thing, the more confidently they can predict how it will react to changing conditions, the better they will be able to advise farmers on the plants to sow, and the more likely it is that they will be able to breed new strains that can adapt to new conditions.

“At a time when the pressing issues of climate change and inherent agronomic consequences which are mediated by the continuing atmospheric rise of CO2 are palpable, these advances could become of interest to crop biologists and climate change modellers,” said molecular biologist Cawas Engineer, lead author of the paper. – Climate News Network 

Critics refute assets claim by ‘Orwellian’ Shell

 

Clouded view? A Shell oil refinery in the UK Image: S Parish/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clouded view? Sunset over a flare stack at a Shell oil refinery in the UK
Image: S Parish/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The world’s biggest oil company has been accused of ‘doublethink’ in claiming that its fossil fuel assets will continue to be highly profitable and in demand, while recognising the need for decisive action on climate change.

London, 9 July 2014 − Is investment in fossil fuels a prudent bet? For some time, critics have been warning major oil and gas companies that their reserves could soon be worthless if the world acts decisively on climate change.

The world’s biggest oil company, Shell, recently insisted that its reserves would remain in demand and would continue to sell at a profit, and that no global climate agreement would damage its profits.

But now two groups − the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) and Energy Transition Advisors (ETA) − have today published a response to Shell’s “stranded assets” statement.

The debate itself is warming up, with one critic dismissing Shell’s statement as “Orwellian doublethink”.

The thinktanks’ reply is based on a detailed technical analysis of Shell’s argument. They say they welcome the company’s engagement with the issue, but accuse it in effect of cherrypicking the arguments to suit its case.

Weaker demand

Shell’s approach, they say, is based on dismissing potentially weaker demand for its oil as a result of tougher climate policies, technological advances and slower economic growth.

They also say the company selectively applies different timelines to fit its business strategy, highlighting conventional projects with short lead times and lower capital costs, rather than its growing unconventional and deepwater resources portfolio. This will be more capital-intensive, have longer lead times, and extended payback periods.

Shell, they say, considers only its proven oil and gas reserves, equalling 11.5 years of production at current rates. Adding existing discoveries would extend that period to 25 years, and possibly longer.

The analysis by CTI and ETA points out that while Shell recognises the need for urgent action, it argues that the world will fail to meet the internationally-agreed global warming target of no more than a 2°C rise in temperature.

“. . .as classic a case of Orwellian doublethink
as you are likely to find.”

Anthony Hobley, CEO of CTI, said: “Acknowledging the seriousness of the climate challenge whilst at the same time asserting no effective action will be taken until the end of the century is as classic a case of Orwellian doublethink as you are likely to find.”

The groups also say the company relies on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a panacea to combat climate change, although it has yet to prove itself at a commercial scale. CTI’s 2013 research showed that CCS could provide only a limited extension (14%) of the carbon budget − the amount the world can afford to emit − to 2050.

Shell’s response, the report’s authors say, selectively focuses on producing oil fields and projects nearest to completion. They point out: “Our analysis examines a broader range of its assets. . . Over the next 10 years, we estimate that Shell could invest some $77 billion in high-risk, high-cost projects (needing a market price over US$95 per barrel).

“If Shell invests the proceeds from its producing assets into resources such as these, it will be at a progressively greater risk to changes in demand caused by measures to cut pollution.”

Unlike Shell, they say, they believe that climate regulation and related environmental policy is gathering pace, while other economic forces such as efficiency are also affecting demand.

Mothballed projects

They believe there is a real risk that global oil demand will decline within the next 10-15years − even without a global climate deal. They say that the lead times of 15-20 years required to bring many newly-discovered resources to market will only compound the possibility that scarce pension fund money and other investments will be lost in mothballed projects.

Oil companies, they recommend, should examine and disclose risks to all potential future production, rather than restricting focus to proven reserves alone.

Shell should also provide more detail on the role its internal carbon price of $40 per tonne plays in hitting demand for its oil, and its $77 billion of potential capital expenditure (2014-25) on new high-cost oil production (above a market price of $95 per barrel) ought to be a focal point for engagement with investors.

To help shareholders to assess risk, oil companies should disclose estimated break-even oil prices (BEOPs) of all new projects, CTI and ETA argue. − Climate News Network

Quick fixes won’t solve CO2 danger

 

Bleak outlook: smoke billows an oil-fired power station in Sweden Image: Mikeinc via Wikimedia Commons
Bleak outlook: smoke billows from an oil-fired power station in Sweden
Image: Mikeinc via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

New research backs up the growing body of evidence that the only way to limit global warming in the long term is a serious cut in carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

LONDON, 6 July, 2014 − Once again, US scientists have come to the same conclusion: there really is no alternative. The only way to contain climate change and limit global warming, they say, is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

It won’t really help to concentrate on limiting methane emissions, or even potent greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorcarbons, or nitrous oxide, or the soot and black carbon that also contribute to global warming. Containing all or any of them would make a temporary difference, but the only thing that can work in the long run is a serious cut in carbon dioxide emissions.

Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climatologist at the University of Chicago, combined new research and analysis and a review of the scientific literature. He reports in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences that although livestock emissions such as methane are – molecule for molecule – potentially more potent as global warming agents than carbon dioxide, there remains no substitute for reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

“Until we do something about CO2, nothing we do about methane or these other things is going to matter much for climate,” he said.

Same solution

The conclusion is not a new one. The same solution was recommended by a Californian-led team in June, and university researchers in Oxford, UK, and Bern, Switzerland also said much the same in November last year.

Other greenhouse gases certainly contribute to global warming, and researchers have urged new ways to to be adopted to contain global temperature rises by reducing grazing herds, or by introducing better livestock management, or by making a concerted effort to limit all the other short-lived pollutants.

But, Prof Pierrehumbert argues, that is the point: methane, hydrofluorocarbons and nitrous oxides are all short-lived gases. Remove them, and there is a benefit. But carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere, and goes on being a greenhouse gas. Any extra CO2 in the atmosphere will go on warming the planet.

Global thermostat

A one-ton–a-year reduction in methane brings a single lowering of the global thermostat, but a reduction in carbon dioxide of one ton a year yields a climate benefit that stays. That is because, had it been emitted, it would have gone on and on raising global temperatures.

Right now, according to the Earth Policy Institute, coal still accounts for 44% of fossil fuel emissions, oil accounts for 36%, and natural gas accounts for the remaining 20%.

Subsidies for fossil fuels in 2011 added up to more than $620 billion, while renewable energy that year received just $88bn in subsidies.

In the last 200 years, the planet has warmed by 1°C, and 2013 marked the 37th consecutive year of above-average temperatures. The institute calculates that 4 billion people alive today have never experienced a year that was cooler than last century’s average. – Climate News Network

Whalers tale sheds new light on Arctic ice

Oil painting by John Wood (1798-49) of British whalers circa 1840 Image: Lee and Juliet Fulger Fund via Wikimedia Commons
Oil painting by John Wood (1798-1849) of British whalers circa 1840
Image: Lee and Juliet Fulger Fund via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Vital data on the Arctic ice sheet before extensive fossil fuel use began to impact on climate has been gleaned from a new study analysing the log books of British whaling ships’ journeys more than 200 years ago.

LONDON, 5 July, 2014 − British whaling ships from Tyneside in the north-east of England made 458 trips to the edge of the Arctic ice between 1750 and 1850. Their log books contained detailed records of perilous journeys, whales caught, and the tons of blubber and barrels of oil they brought home.

For Matthew Ayre, a PhD student at the University of Sunderland, UK, and Dennis Wheeler, the university’s Emeritus Professor of Climatology, these log books and other records by merchant ships and Arctic explorers such as Sir John Franklin − who tried in 1845 to navigate the icy North-West Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific − represent an extraordinary resource.

They give an account of the southern edge of the ice sheet, the prevailing weather, the spring and summer extremes, the storms, and the condition of the Arctic ice shelf.

Planetary climate

And the log books offer a snapshot of conditions in the century before the first systematic use of fossil fuels began subtly to alter the planetary climate.

The catch, of course, is that the log books were composed in the technical language used by the masters of sailing ships more than 200 years ago, augmented by the jargon appropriate to a trade abandoned by the British more than a century ago.

For Ayre, the first great challenge was to compile a systematic sea ice dictionary and translate it into the language used by scientists today. He then validated his data with five weeks on the US Coastguard ice breaker and research vessel, USCGC Healy, exploring the edge of the polar ice at first hand. His study, which is part of the collaborative ARCdoc project, concentrates on the Davis Straits between north America and Greenland, and the north-west Atlantic.

The evidence confirms satellite observations made in the last three decades that the extent of the polar ice was once far greater, and that the Arctic ice is in historic retreat.

“Significantly, this is the first time we have ever had direct observational information on the ice fronts in the north Atlantic and the Davis Straits area before 1900,” Dr Wheeler said. “Until the introduction of satellite information from the 1970s, we didn’t know what the ice was doing.

“These log books contain absolutely vital
climatological information”

“Well, now we know it was more advanced − therefore, the retreat of the ice in the last 30 years is part of a more recent and new pattern of climate change. So these log books contain absolutely vital climatological information.”

All systematic weather records are relatively recent. The oldest continuous temperature series dates from England in 1659, but records from most of the world, until the last century, were random or simply sparse.

So climate researchers go for what they call proxy data – such as ice cores, lake sediments and tree rings – that provides overall clues to changing patterns of climate during the millennia.

There are other secondary sources – such as monastery and historic estate archives recording farm yields − that offer clues to bygone summers.

Life or death

But the richest resource is probably the log books of the naval ships and merchantmen, the whalers and adventurers who took to the seas in the great age of exploration that began in the 16th century. For such men, the state of the ice and the weather at its edge was a matter of life or death.

The challenge was to match what 18th-century observers recorded with the scientific observations to be made now.

Ayre got his chance aboard the US research vessel, using as a guide an epic account of the Arctic regions, written in 1820 by the Whitby whaler and pioneer scientist, William Scoresby.

“I was making observations every four hours aboard Healy, using Scoresby’s definitions and the Healy researchers’ own daily records, testing how accurate our data is to validate what is in the sea ice dictionary,” Ayre said.

“Apart from modern day research vessels, these are the only books in history from ships that seek out the ice edge in great detail and follow it.” – Climate News Network

Nepal wins hearts and minds with biogas boom

 Sunita Bote operates a small biogas plant in her Nepalese village Image: Om Rastha Rai

Sunita Bote tends her own biogas plant in Nepal’s first model biogas village
Image: Om Astha Rai

By Om Astha Rai

Villagers in Nepal are increasingly being persuaded that small biogas installations using human waste to provide fuel are not only desirable but are also helping to reduce deforestation of the Himalayas and carbon emissions. 

KATHMANDU, 2 July, 2014 − Sunita Bote, a 30-year-old housewife from the small village of Kumroj in eastern Nepal, was far from convinced when energy specialists from the capital city, Kathmandu, talked about the benefits of constructing a small biogas plant near her house.

“At first, I shuddered at the thought of connecting my cooking stove with a toilet’s septic tank,” Sunita recalls.

But she was eventually persuaded – and now realises the multiple benefits of the biogas system. The plant not only produces enough energy for cooking for her family of seven, it also gets rid of both human and animal waste.

“It is no longer seems disgusting to me,” Sunita says. “Instead, it has eased my household chores.”

Most of Sunita’s neighbours feel the same way, and Kumroj has now been named by the government as Nepal’s first model biogas village, with more than 80% of households having their own biogas installations.

Frequent blackouts

Nepal, a landlocked country of just over 26 million people, has big energy problems. Its cities and towns, reliant on imported fossil fuels for energy, suffer frequent electricity blackouts due to ageing infrastructure and shortages of funds.

With its mountain ranges and many rivers, there is great potential for hydropower, but tight budgets mean there has as yet been little investment in these big, capital-intensive projects.

However, the energy outlook is slowly changing. Instead of building big hydropower plants, local groups − helped by NGOs and outside funders − are constructing micro hydro projects all over the country. So far, more than 1,000 such plants have been built. There has also been investment in developing solar power.

Meanwhile, thousands of biogas projects are being put in place in backyards and fields throughout the country.

Fuel needs

According to the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), a government agency responsible for promoting renewable energy, there are now more than 300,000 biogas plants providing for the fuel needs of nearly 6% of Nepal’s households.

“At first, people were wary about getting energy from their toilet septic tanks,” says Professor Govinda Pokharel, vice-chairman of the government’s National Planning Commission and, until recently, a director of AEPC.

“In some cases, those who installed biogas plants
were even ostracised by their neighbours”

“It was human faeces that caused the trouble. People, especially those who were not educated and were living in remote villages, were against the idea of using their faeces for cooking food. In some cases, those who installed biogas plants were even ostracised by their neighbours. But attitudes have changed. When animal dung is mixed with human faeces, greater power is generated.”

Traditionally, wood has been the main source of fuel for cooking and heating. But deforestation – with the resulting landslides and floods – has been a big problem.

Trees saved

The Biogas Sector Programme, a Kathmandu-based organisation that promotes the use of biogas, says every biogas plant can save 1.25 trees each year, That means that, due to biogas, nearly 400,000 trees a year throughout the country are saved from being chopped down.

Biogas not only replaces wood for fuel, it can also help reduce carbon emissions. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) calculates that a standard biogas plant saves greenhouse gas emissions of between three and five tons each year, compared with other energy sources such as wood.

The AEPC says that Nepal, through the use of biogas and by not cutting tree cover, is helping to reduce the country’s overall emissions by more than one million tons a year. “It may not be a huge contribution at the global level, but it is not negligible either,” Prof Pokharel says.

There are plans to install at least 26,000 biogas plants around the country each year. “The more we install, the more we save trees,” Prof Pokharel says, “And the saving of each tree is important in combating climate change.” – Climate News Network

• Om Astha Rai is a reporter with Nepalese national newspaper, Republica Daily.

UK doctors vote to end fossil fuels funding

Unhealthy view: fossil fuel industries will not be funded doctors Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clean break: fossil fuel industries will no longer get funding from the UK medical profession
Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The British medical profession’s influential national organisation has sent out a strong message about climate change by deciding to withdraw its funds from the fossil fuel industry and to support renewable energy instead.

LONDON, 1 July, 2014 − The body that represents doctors in the UK has voted to end its investments in fossil fuel companies − making it the first national medical organisation in the world to do so.

A motion passed at the annual representatives’ meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA) − in effect, its annual general meeting − marks its commitment to withdraw financial support for fossil fuels and to pursue instead a corresponding increase in its investments in renewable energy.

This is in keeping with the statement by the recent Lancet Commission that climate change “could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.

The BMA motion is understood to have been passed by a majority of about two-thirds, as part of a broader motion calling for a switch to renewable energy and the creation of a new alliance of health professionals focusing on the health effects of climate change.

Growing support

Tabled by members of the BMA’s Retired Members’ Forum and several of its local committees, the motion is part of growing support for the fossil fuel divestment movement, both internationally and in the UK.

Supporters of disinvestment argue on two main grounds. They say avoiding the worst impacts of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels; and if world leaders agree to do this, they say, most oil and gas will have to be left in the ground as unburnable, becoming “stranded assets”.

There were some dissenting voices during the debate on the BMA motion, but most of those who opposed it questioned how affordable and achievable it was likely to be, rather than expressing misgivings about what it set out to do.

The clause that called for divestment passed as a “reference”, meaning that the spirit and intent are kept but the BMA’s Council is not required to adhere to the exact wording. However, BMA watchers insist that it does represent a clear commitment to divest.

During the debate, the BMA’s Chair of Council and its treasurer said the Association would seek to divest “carefully and properly”, and not “only if [they] feel like it”.

An editorial published in the British Medical Journal in March called for divestment from fossil fuels because of the “scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health and wellbeing” posed by unmitigated climate change.

“The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing
divestment movement . . . around the world”

The health charities Medact, the Climate and Health Council and Healthy Planet UK, which represent health professionals and medical students, have since called on other UK health organisations to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the Climate News Network: “The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing divestment movement, including universities, cities and theological institutions and foundations around the world.

“There is a growing body of evidence that many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can improve health in the near term as well.

Principled position

“Undoubtedly, the principled position of the BMA will encourage other institutions to do the same and increase the likelihood that a strong agreement on climate change can be negotiated by the end of 2015.”

Isobel Braithwaite, a medical student who is the co-ordinator of Healthy Planet UK, told the Network: “In a sense, this vote is symbolic, because unless an organisation has billions to invest it can’t by itself make a huge difference.

“But we think that the leadership the BMA has shown will help to encourage other health organisations, in the UK and elsewhere, to follow suit.”

David McCoy, a doctor who chairs Medact, said: “In the same way that ethical investors choose not to profit from tobacco and arms sales, the health community worldwide is correctly calling for divestment from another set of harmful activities.” − Climate News Network

Campaigners spy signs of concern among frackers

 

A mother and children walk to join the Balcombe anti-fracking protest Image: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace
A mother and children walk to join the Balcombe anti-fracking protest
Image: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace

By Caroline Lucas

Does the NATO Secretary General really believe that Russia is secretly the puppet master behind efforts to stop shale gas extraction in Europe, or is it – asks UK Green Party MP Caroline Lucas − just an indication of the growing effectiveness of anti-fracking campaigns? 

LONDON, 25 June, 2014 − Arriving at the beautiful village of Balcombe last August, ready to take part in the growing protests against Cuadrilla’s plans to start fracking deep in the Sussex countryside in southern England, my biggest concern – as I weaved my way through families with children and dogs, stepping over people picnicking on rugs on the grass verge − was whether we’d escape without rain.

I have to confess that looking out for Russian spies was not high on my list of preoccupations. Yet if Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, is to be believed, perhaps it should have been.

Stunned audience

Speaking at a Chatham House conference in London last week, Rasmussen stunned his audience by asserting that Vladimir Putin’s Russian government was behind attempts to undermine projects using hydraulic fracturing technology in Europe.

He said: “. . . I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engages actively with so-called non-governmental organisations, environmental organisations working against shale gas – obviously to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas. That’s my interpretation.”

This is a pretty mind-boggling assertion − and it is one for which absolutely no evidence at all was adduced.

“The fact that these are the views of the man in charge of
the biggest nuclear alliance on Earth is positively terrifying”

If this had been the “interpretation” of a fellow Balcombe protester who had turned to their homemade cider a shade early on in the proceedings, it would simply be odd. But the fact that these are the views of the man in charge of the biggest nuclear alliance on Earth is positively terrifying.

The allegation is, quite simply, ludicrous. I’ve met a good many anti-fracking campaigners over the years, and I have never heard anything so absurd. Indeed, Greenpeace gave the proposition admirably short shrift, saying: “The idea that we’re puppets of Putin is so preposterous that you have to wonder what they’re smoking over at NATO HQ.”

Quite. But Rasmussen’s assertion is also deeply worrying.

First, it besmirches the motivations of many thousands of sincere protesters who campaign in good faith against a technology that causes serious pollution to water, soil and air, and which will lock us into ever greater fossil fuel dependence at precisely the time when climate scientists are warning that we urgently need to invest in renewables instead.

It is a technology, moreover, that will not deliver the much-vaunted European energy independence claimed for it, since even under the most optimistic scenarios, shale gas is projected to meet just 10% of European gas demand by 2030. Most commentators agree that 2%-3% is a more realistic estimate (International Energy Agency: World Energy Outlook 2012). Even in the best case scenario, the volumes of EU shale gas will be too small to impact meaningfully on EU security of supply concerns.

Second, it raises serious questions about the judgment of one of the most powerful men in the world. The head of NATO must be dangerously deluded if he genuinely believes his own rhetoric. And if his assessment is in such serious doubt over this, on how many other issues is his judgment falling short?

Growing campaigns

Perhaps one thing this episode does show, however, is how effective the growing anti-fracking campaigns are becoming, and therefore how much of a threat they pose to those shale gas enthusiasts who still believe − flying in the face of the evidence − that it will offer a low-cost, low-carbon energy future. Fracking is already banned in five of the 14 EU Member States with estimated reserves − including in France, which has the second largest resources after Poland.

The reality is that one doesn’t need to fantasise about possible Russian attempts to discredit fracking. The evidence is doing that very effectively on its own. The bigger conundrum is why, in a country with such plentiful renewable resources as the UK, we have a government intent on locking us into yet more fossil fuel dependence.

Judging by the bewildering lack of ministerial commitment in the UK to cheaper, more plentiful renewables − which, alongside a serious investment in efficiency and conservation, really could deliver energy independence − perhaps we should check whether the Russians have infiltrated the Department for Energy and Climate Change as well. If so, they seem to have been remarkably effective. – Climate News Network

  • Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party Member of Parliament, was arrested at a protest against fracking in southern England last year. She was found not guilty of the charges the police brought against her – for wilful obstruction of a public highway and breaching an order under section 14 of the Public Order Act (relating to public assemblies).