Climate change threatens global financial crash

Climate change threatens global financial crash

The world’s most influential banker says an orderly switch from fossil fuels to renewables is needed to avoid turmoil on world stock markets.

LONDON, 2 October, 2015 − A warning that climate change might make the world’s stock markets and banks unstable and lead to a financial crash has come from Mark Carney, chairman of the G20 countries’ Financial Stability Board.

Carney, who is also Governor of the Bank of England, particularly warns about the effects on the market if panic selling occurs and there is a plunge in value of shares in fossil fuel companies and industries that produce a lot of carbon dioxide.

These companies, some of the world’s largest, control one-third of stock market assets. If investors realise these stocks are overvalued and try to sell them all at once, it will cause chaos, Carney said.

The stark warning is a “remarkable intervention” from one of the world’s most conservative and influential bankers, who says he will be advising the world’s richest nations at the G20 summit in November to put policies in place to prevent climate change causing future severe turmoil in the markets.

Unpaid loans

He warned that banks might become unstable because the billions of dollars in loans they have made to fossil fuel companies might not be repaid.

Carney suggests that there will be a switch of investments from carbon-intensive industries to renewables. He says investments in fossil fuel companies might be seen as overvalued because, to avoid dangerous climate change, between one-fifth and one-third of all fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground.

Carney’s warning is in stark contrast to the policies of George Osborne, the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, who appointed him to his role as Bank of England governor in 2012.

Osborne has this year been demolishing the UK’s on-shore wind and solar subsidy programme, while providing tax breaks to North Sea oil companies to find more reserves and giving the go-ahead for fracking gas over large areas of England.

Carney did not comment on this policy rift, saying it was up to governments not bankers to make decisions about how to move to a low-carbon economy, but he said they must manage the transition in a way that did not cause market shocks.

The weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that . . . climate change will threaten financial resilience
and longer-term prosperity”

Speaking to Lloyd’s of London, one of the biggest insurance markets in the world, he said giving investors maximum information would allow them to make sensible decisions about when to disinvest in fossil fuels.

Politicians had to manage this without suddenly revealing that some stocks were overvalued because company assets would be “stranded” because oil coal and gas would always have to remain in the ground.

He said he was going to recommend to G20 countries in November, ahead of the UN climate change conference in Paris the following month, that they start setting a carbon price so that investors could see how large companies emitting carbon dioxide would be affected.

Carney told the BBC: “The point is the risks build with time, and they build more rapidly with inaction, so climate change is a function of cumulative emissions, so the slower the action is today, the bigger the action has to be in the future.

“That would mean more abrupt change, that would mean bigger shocks to the value of financial assets, bigger strains on banks and insurance companies that are exposed to those assets, so what we’re trying to do is to promote as smooth an adjustment as possible. We think it can be done, and we think it can be done by providing better information.”

Zero emissions

He called for the setting up of a Climate Disclosure Task Force so that all companies would have to declare how much carbon they emitted or produced, and how they were going to proceed to zero emissions in the future. Since the G20 countries are responsible for 85% of emissions, they would be a good starting point.

“Our societies face a series of profound environmental and social challenges,” he said. “The combination of the weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that, in the fullness of time, climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity.

“While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking.”

Jeremy Leggett,  founder of Solarcentury, the largest UK solar electricity company, and chairman of the CarbonTracker thinktank, described it as “a momentous announcement when such an eminent banker tells the world that climate change is the biggest issue of the future”.

He said: “Carney’s remarkable statement of position also raises the remarkable corollary that George Osborne might well now be party to the sabotage of the capital markets.” – Climate News Network

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Safer battery could spark investment in renewables

Safer battery could spark investment in renewables

Researchers have developed a battery that uses a common food additive to enable abundant solar and wind power to be stored cheaply and safely in homes and offices.

LONDON, 30 September, 2015 − The dream of a home battery – cheap, durable, safe, and as big as you like – that could store solar or wind power is a step nearer reality.

Researchers from Harvard University in the US report that they have tested a “flow battery” that uses cheap and abundant chemical elements, can be operated with plastic components, will not catch fire, and can operate at 99% efficiency.

Such batteries could be used to save and store surplus wind and solar power, which could then be used at times when neither form of renewable energy can deliver.

The latest advances are based on technology already tested by the same engineers, but made more attractive with a switch to chemical components that are non-toxic, non-flammable, and safe for use in homes and offices.

Electrical action

Typically, flow batteries have exploited a metal, such as vanadium, dissolved in acid to deliver electrical action.

Kaixiang Lin, a chemistry student at Harvard, Michael Marshak, now assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues report in Science journal that, instead of costly and difficult-to-handle metals, they have tested naturally-occurring, carbon-based molecules called quinines for the negative electrolyte component of the battery.

They had started their experiments with bromine-based electrolyte for the positive ions, but bromine is toxic and volatile. So they replaced it with a non-toxic, non-corrosive ion called ferrocyanide.

“It sounds bad because it has the word cyanide in it,” Dr Marshak says. “Cyanide kills you because it binds very tightly to iron in your body. In ferrocyanide, it’s already bound to iron, so it’s safe. In fact, ferrocyanide is commonly used as a food additive, and also as a fertilizer.”

“It can’t catch fire – and that’s huge when you
are storing large amounts of electrical energy anywhere near people”

The combination of a common organic dye and a cheap food additive in alkaline, rather than acidic solutions, meant that the researchers could increase their battery voltage by 50%.

It also means − at least in principle − that a domestic residence could store its own surplus solar or wind power and keep the refrigerator or the central heating running after sunset or on windless days. How much a house could store would depend only on the size of the tanks that held the two electrolytes.

“This is chemistry I’d be happy to put in my basement,” says Michael Aziz, a professor of materials and energy technologies at Harvard, who has led the research. “The non-toxicity and the cheap, abundant materials placed in water solution mean that it’s safe. It can’t catch fire – and that’s huge when you are storing large amounts of electrical energy anywhere near people.”

The improved flow battery stores energy in liquids contained in external tanks. Image: Kaixiang Lin/Harvard University

The improved flow battery stores energy in liquids contained in external tanks (here in red and green). Image: Kaixiang Lin/Harvard University

The storage problem has consistently been held against investment in solar and wind energy, but a safe, cheap and capacious technology could change the economics of renewable power generation.

Paradoxically, another group of researchers from the same university have, in the same week, argued that the storage shortfall might be a non-problem.

Hossein Safaei and David Keith, of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, report in the Energy & Environmental Science journal that the supply of wind and solar power could be increased tenfold without any additional storage.

Energy shortfall

Even though wind and solar power deliver energy intermittently, relatively-low carbon gas turbines and zero-carbon sources − such as nuclear, hydropower and biomass − could be used to make up the shortfall.

The researchers do not argue that better batteries would be of no advantage. Their case is that the absence of better batteries need not, and should not, stop investment in renewables.

They are not the first to argue this. At least one group has calculated that the US could get 99% of its energy from zero-carbon sources.

“We’re trying to knock out a salient policy meme that says you can’t grow variable renewables without a proportionate increase in storage,” Professor Keith says.

“We could cut electric sector carbon emissions to less than a third of their current levels using variable renewable, with natural gas to manage the intermittency. But this will require us to keep growing the electricity transmission infrastructure.” – Climate News Network

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Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

By adapting a tropical grass to grow in the British climate, scientists hope to be able to replace coal in power stations with biofuel.

LONDON, 29 September, 2015 − The UK government is spending £1.8 million on a scientific project that aims to breed a new seed-producing variety of tropical grass that could provide a viable source of fuel for power stations.

Miscanthus, better known as elephant grass, is already being used in Europe to produce biofuel to replace coal in power stations − but growing enough of it is the main drawback.

So scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales are being given government funding to help develop miscanthus strains that like UK conditions and produce viable seeds, without losing the fast-growing and drying properties that make it ideal for biofuel.

The variety currently used is Miscanthus x Giganteus, which grows fast – up to three metres tall − on poor agricultural land in Europe to produce a cash crop for farmers in the spring, when the dried stalks from the previous year are ideal for burning in power stations.

Hybrid variety

However, the “giganteus” is a hybrid variety that does not produce viable seeds. To grow a new plant, farmers currently have to break off and sow a bit of the root, or rhizome, of another elephant grass.

Even with machines to plant dozens of chopped-up rhizomes, it is very time-consuming to plant enough elephant grass to feed a power station, or to make bio-fuel for cars. If the grass produced seed, areas could be planted 200 times faster.

Currently, the UK demand for biomass for electricity is more than 5 million tonnes a year, of which 75% is imported − which partly defeats the object, since transporting biomass uses fossil fuels.

The theory is that all of these imports could be replaced by elephant grass if UK farmers were given the means to plant enough.

“We need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels”

In addition, smaller local biomass plants could be built near where the elephant grass grows, thus cutting transport costs. And any surplus could be used to produce liquid fuel to power lorries and cars.

According to enthusiasts, if a car engine used a gallon of fuel every 25 miles, one tonne of miscanthus could produce biofuel to drive over 750 miles.

Once the grass has been planted, it lives for 20 years and produces 10-20 tonnes of fuel per hectare. It is also said to be beneficial for birds and wildlife that live protected inside the almost impenetrable foliage and in the leaf litter between the rows.

In some parts of the world, miscanthus varieties that do produce seeds can be a problem as they can block watercourses and are hard to remove once their roots have become established.

However, the scientists at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences are confident that they can produce a plant that reproduces and grows well in European conditions, while avoiding any environmental problems with careful management.

Reduce emissions

Dr John Clifford Brown, leader of the project, believes that the crop will benefit the agricultural industry and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.

He revealed that the university has already spent 10 years working on developing miscanthus into a crop that can supply the UK’s growing biomass demand, and that the seeds of the new hybrids will be planted at four trial sites across the UK to see which performs best.

“Several harvesting approaches will be explored to maximise crop quality and quantity,” he said. “The overall goal is to develop new systems for miscanthus-based agriculture that increase profitability, and so enable transition of today’s niche crop into a large-scale biomass supply system.

“The UK needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and we also need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels.” – Climate News Network

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Climate threatens Pacific with seesaw sea levels

Climate threatens Pacific with seesaw sea levels

Scientists say coasts and communities in the Pacific region face more extreme weather hazards as climate change magnifies the devastating El Niño effect.

LONDON, 28 September, 2015 − El Niño, that periodic bubble of heat that hits the tropical Pacific every few years, has nothing to do with climate change – but the phenomenon could be made much more devastating by climate change, according to two new studies.

And that is bad news for a region where vulnerable coastlines are already at risk from serious storms, floods and rising sea levels.

One set of researchers reports in Science Advances that, in response to El Niño, Western Pacific sea levels will fall and rise more frequently by 2100. When they fall, they threaten the corals with a foul-smelling tide; when they rise, they threaten to flood the atolls.

And another group reports in Nature Geoscience that the alternating impact of a blistering El Niño and its chillier sister, La Niña, could bring more extreme flooding and more damaging erosion to the entire Pacific region.

Scientists have already warned once this year that a periodic cycle of warming and cooling in the Pacific could increase in frequency.

Bubble of heat

El Niño is a cyclic phenomenon that tends to manifest itself at Christmas time, which is why, long ago, Peruvian fishermen started giving it the name that means “The Child” in Spanish.

A great bubble of ocean heat moves eastward across the Pacific, causing sea levels in one place to rise, in another to fall, bringing floods and storms to the normally dry west coasts of the Americas, and bringing drought and even forest fires to the rainforests of Indonesia.

A notorious El Niño in 1998 helped make that year one of the hottest ever recorded, and since then meteorologists and climate scientists have been puzzling about what will happen to this natural cycle as carbon dioxide levels rise − in response to human combustion of fossil fuels − and in turn raise average global temperatures.

Matthew Widlansky, a climate researcher at the International Pacific Research Centre in Hawai’i, and colleagues report in that global warming will enhance El Niño-linked sea-level extremes.

This, in turn, will mean very low sea levels in the western Pacific, followed six months later by a seesaw in north-south sea levels, in which the seas drop by as much as 30 centimetres, to expose vulnerable coral ecosystems. And these could double in frequency.

“Utilising many years of data enabled us to definitively identify how the major climate drivers affect coastal hazards across the Pacific”

“The possibility of more frequent flooding in some areas and sea level drops in others would have severe consequences for the vulnerable coastlines of Pacific islands,” Dr Widlansky says.

Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist at the US Geological Survey in Santa Cruz, California, and colleagues report that they took a different line of approach to arrive at a similar conclusion.

Thirteen research institutions looked at data from 48 Pacific beaches in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hawai’i from 1979 to 2012 to see if patterns in coastal change could be linked to climate cycles such as El Niño and La Niña. They too found that climate change was likely to make such events worse.

“Shoreline behaviour can be controlled by so many different factors, both locally and regionally, that it’s been difficult to isolate the signal until now,” Dr Barnard says.

Predict impacts

“However, utilising the many years of data we were able pull together in this study enabled us to definitively identify how the major climate drivers affect coastal hazards across the Pacific. This will greatly enhance our ability to predict the broader impacts of climate change at the coast.”

C o-author Mitchell Harley, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of New South Wales, Australia, says: “Coastlines of the Pacific are particularly dynamic as they are exposed to storm waves generated often thousands of miles away.

“This research is of particular importance as it can help Pacific coastal communities prepare for the effects of changing storm regimes driven by climate oscillations like El Niño and La Niña.

“To help us complete the puzzle, for the next step we would like to look at regions of the Pacific like South America and the Pacific Islands, where very limited shoreline data currently exists.” – Climate News Network

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All nations must share blame or lose climate battle

All nations must share blame or lose climate battle

Brazilian expert says developing countries must also play their part in cutting emissions if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

LONDON, 27 September, 2015 −The developing world’s most polluting nations must abandon the decades-old rhetoric that blames rich countries for climate change and share responsibility for reducing emissions to avoid dangerous overheating, according to Brazil’s best-known scientist.

José Goldemberg, who took office as president of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) this month, named Brazil, India and Indonesia − which account for 14% of global emissions − as the three key developing countries that need to abandon an outdated vision of development and use more energy-efficient technologies.

“Without these countries – which were exempt from reducing their emissions by the Kyoto Protocol – making significant efforts, it will be impossible to avoid a global warming of 2°C by 2100, a value that scientists consider as the maximum tolerable to prevent more dramatic climate change than those already taking place,” he said.

Goldemberg, a nuclear physicist and alternative energy expert, said on taking office that it was time for Brazilian scientists to play a leadership role in society and shake off the “ivory tower” approach that prevents academics engaging with the outside world.

Danger threshold

In an open letter to delegates attending the Paris negotiations in December, which are aimed at reaching a global agreement to keep temperatures below the 2°C danger threshold, he called for a new approach from the developing world.

“The United States, China and the European Union, whose emissions account for about 45% of the [world] total have announced ambitious and quantifiable goals.

“Russia and Japan contribute to 7%. The remaining 48% of emissions originate from more than 150 other countries whose individual contributions are less than 1%, with the exception of India, Brazil and Indonesia, who represent 14%.

“Several developing countries have argued that reducing carbon emissions will seriously affect their development, and that the continued use of fossil fuels at low prices is still the best option available to them.

“This is an outdated vision of development. It was valid during the 19th and 20th centuries, when countries industrialised, but it was precisely the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels that has led to the serious pollution problems we are facing today.”

He held up China as a country that has embraced more energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources as a new avenue for sustainable development. It had enabled China to announce that, from 2030, it will reduce its coal consumption – and, consequently, greenhouse gas emissions.

“Several developing countries have argued
the continued use of fossil fuels at low prices
is still the best option available to them”

Goldemberg then launched into an attack on his own country’s failure to capitalise on its own success in producing ethanol from sugar cane − “an excellent substitute for gasoline”.

He said: “Ethanol is non-polluting, unlike gasoline, and is renewable because cane is a crop that grows every year. It’s like solar energy transformed into a liquid.”

He said Brazil had managed to produce large quantities as a cost that could compete with petrol and had assumed global leadership in the field, but government behaviour – “the result of personal and ideological idiosyncrasies” – had seriously damaged the industry.

Because the price of ethanol had been pegged to the price of petrol in order to try to reduce inflation, the production of ethanol had been hit, and 100 of the existing 450 plants faced serious financial problems and went out of business.

The industry could contribute to the sustainability of the planet and generate millions of jobs, but is now fighting hard to survive. The 25 billion litres of ethanol used in Brazil as a substitute for gasoline reduces carbon emissions by 50 million tonnes − 10% of the country’s emissions, excluding deforestation.

Great potential

He said that in 2008, before the Brazilian government began to interfere, ethanol production was expanding in Brazil and Central America and India.

Africa also had great potential because it was suitable for growing sugar cane, and there was a ready export market to Europe and the US, which could not produce ethanol so cheaply from corn and other crops.

He accepted that there had been criticism of ethanol because some experts claimed that it contributed towards deforestation in the Amazon and damaged food production, and some doubted that it actually reduced the emission of gases that cause global warming.

These issues, he said, had now been fully examined in a study involving 137 experts from 29 countries and 82 scientific institutions, in a report entitled Bioenergy and Sustainability.

Goldemberg hoped that the report would help to inform people and eliminate many of the barriers raised against the use of ethanol, which, in many countries, could significantly contribute to the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. – Climate News Network

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Harder rains set to fall as the world warms

Harder rains set to fall as the world warms

Scientists pinpoint when global warming emerged – and predict increasingly greater climate extremes in hot, cold and wet weather trends.

LONDON, 26 September, 2015 – In not quite the words of the singer Bob Dylan, a hard rain is going to fall. Australian scientists predict that precipitation extremes with large variability will emerge in the Northern Hemisphere in the coming decades as part of a “wettening trend”.

In other words, an even harder rain will fall − and then you’ll really know that the climate has changed.

Andrew King, a climate system scientist at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and at the University of Melbourne, is lead author of a report in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

He and colleagues say they have pinpointed the moment when global warming, as a result of human influences, emerged in the historic record in some parts of the world. They can now also predict when it will become even clearer in places so far untouched.

Story of warming

Although climate change can be predicted, it can only be identified after the event. That is because, while climate is the average of all the extremes of weather, the weather can get pretty extreme, even within a stable climate.

From the late 1980s onwards, global average temperatures began to tell a consistent story of warming.

But if those temperatures are now on the increase because of the continual rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, as a consequence of the human exploitation of fossil fuels, then there must have been some moment in the past when the signs of change could have been detected, and when a new climate trend developed.

Such questions sound academic, but the better humans understand the past, the more likely they are to be prepared for the future.

“It is likely to bring pronounced precipitation events, on top of the already existing trend
towards increasingly wet winters”

So Dr King and his colleagues used state-of-the-art computer models to simulate not just climate change, but the way that extreme events have begun to change. “Both hot and cold extremes have already emerged across many areas,” they say.

The scientists examined average and extreme temperatures because these would, of course, be most sensitive to global warming − and therefore evidence should show in historic records.

“Remarkably, our research shows you could already see clear signs of global warming in the tropics by the 1960s, but in parts of Australia, south-east Asia and Africa it was visible as early as the 1940s,” Dr King says.

Changing pattern

First the scientists saw a rise in average temperatures; then the changing pattern of extremes of climate began to confirm the picture.

There are exceptions: the continental US, especially on the East Coast, has yet to show any obvious warming signals, but these could appear in the next decade.

And although greater warming means more evaporation and more precipitation, in many places this heavier rainfall is still so far within the range of “normal” extreme weather.

“We expect the first heavy precipitation events with a clear global warming signal will appear during winters in Russia, Canada and northern Europe over the next 10 to 30 years,” says Ed Hawkins, a meteorologist at the University of Reading in the UK, and one of the report’s co-authors.

“It is likely to bring pronounced precipitation events, on top of the already existing trend towards increasingly wet winters in these regions.” – Climate News Network

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Investors opt out of fossil fuels as climate summit nears

Investors opt out of fossil fuels as climate summit nears

As momentum builds for a new deal on climate change, investors are becoming increasingly nervous about having their cash in fossil fuels.

LONDON, 24 September, 2015 – A worldwide movement aimed at encouraging institutions and individuals to turn their backs on fossil fuel investment and so head off serious climate change is on a roll.

Altogether more than 430 investment firms and companies, and over 2,000 individuals, have so far pledged to withdraw investments from fossil fuels. That adds up to US$2.6 trillion in assets, says a report by Arabella Advisors, a US group which helps foundations and wealthy individuals make investment decisions.

The report says that a growing realisation of the risks involved in fossil fuel investments has created a surge in divestment activity over the past 12 months. A similar report produced by Arabella in September 2014 estimated that divestments from fossil fuels then stood at around $50 billion. 

The latest report, based on data collected from investment firms and individuals around the world, says growing numbers of pension funds, local governments, religious groups and private companies are pulling their cash out of the fossil fuel sector.

Backing for renewables

Those who have recently pledged to withdraw all or part of their investments in fossil fuels include the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the Norway Pension Fund, the Canadian Medical Association and the World Council of Churches.

At the same time, says the report, investments in renewable energies are increasing – with clean energy investments around the world reaching $310bn last year.

“The Arabella report shows that more and more investors are reducing their carbon risk today and diversifying their portfolios with the goal to harness the upside in the sustainable clean growth industries of the future”, says Thomas Van Dyck of the SRI Wealth Management Group

“That underscores what I see every day as a financial advisor – that demand for fossil-free investment products is increasing.”

Clear choice

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been among those pushing for a shift in investments from fossil fuels to clean energies.

“Investing at scale in clean, efficient power offers one of the clearest no-regret choices ever presented to human progress”, said Figueres via video link at the New York launch of the Arabella report.

Various funds, foundations and individuals have adopted differing approaches to withdrawing their cash from fossil fuels. Some have divested entirely, while others are divesting from the worst polluters – and the greatest threat to the climate – such as coal companies and those involved in oil produced from tar sands.

Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor, who heads an environmental foundation, is among those who announced that they were withdrawing fossil fuel investments.

Message to leaders

“Climate change is severely impacting the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants, and we must transition to a clean energy economy that does not rely on fossil fuels, the main driver of this global problem”, said DiCaprio.

“Now is the time to divest and invest to let our world leaders know that we, as individuals and institutions, are taking action to address climate change, and we expect them to do their part this December in Paris at the UN climate talks.”

Analysts caution that, while there are signs that investors are becoming increasingly wary about putting their cash into fossil fuels, the industry is powerful and is not about to fade away

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development points out that governments around the world are still providing between $160bn and $200bn of support each year for the production and consumption of fossil fuels. – Climate News Network

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OECD urges end to policies which support fossil fuels

OECD urges end to policies which support fossil fuels

World should abandon fossil fuel support policies which belong in a past when healthy economies depended on pollution, say wealthiest nations.

LONDON, 21 September, 2015 – The club of the world’s richest countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the world needs to abandon the harmful and outdated policies which support fossil fuels.

In a report published with its inventory of the support they enjoy, the OECD says this is hampering global efforts to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and combat climate change.

The report describes the burning of fossil fuels as a leading contributor to climate change” and warns against complacency, saying global GHG emissions are still largely above the levels required for limiting average expected temperature increases” to safe levels. It says the fuels also make mitigation more costly than necessary.

Government support for the consumption and production of the main fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – in OECD countries and key emerging economies is running at US$160-200 billion annually, the OECD says.

The inventory reviews almost 800 spending programmes and tax breaks which are used by governments in the 34 OECD countries and six key emerging G20 economies (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa) to encourage the consumption or production of fossil fuels.

Dual support

These include measures that cut prices for consumers and those that lower the exploration and exploitation costs for oil and gas companies.

The time is ripe for countries to demonstrate they are serious about combating climate change, and reforming harmful fossil fuel support is a good place to start, says OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría.

Governments are spending almost twice as much money supporting fossil fuels as is needed to meet the climate finance objectives set by the international community, which call for mobilising US$100 bn a year by 2020.

We must change the course. This new OECD inventory offers a roadmap to turn around harmful policies that are a relic of the past, when pollution was still seen as a tolerable side effect of economic growth.”

Around two-thirds of the measures identified in the inventory were introduced before the year 2000, in a different economic and environmental context. The OECD argues that changing policy priorities make it necessary for governments to rethink the relevance and effectiveness of policies that use taxpayers’ money to sustain reliance on fossil fuels.

Support still high

It says the inventory shows that, while slight progress has been made over the past three years, total support for fossil fuels remains high, reinforcing the need for sustained reform efforts.

The OECD believes lower oil prices present a unique opportunity for governments to phase out support for fossil fuel consumption and production.

But some industry leaders insist that, far from needing to phase out fossil fuels, the world is going to rely on them even more. Ben van Beurden, the head of the oil giant Shell, which plans to drill in the Arctic, told the Financial Mail on Sunday:

The amount of energy we consume is going to double in the first half of the century so we will have to supply twice as much as we do today as an industry. Most renewables produce electricity, and electricity is just 20% of the energy mix. Where is the other 80% going to come from?” Climate News Network

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Receding snowpack highlights impacts of California drought

Receding snowpack highlights impacts of California drought

Evidence preserved in tree rings shows that Sierra Nevada snow cover is the lowest for five centuries – and rising temperatures will only make things worse.

LONDON, 16 September, 2015 – The snowpack on the Sierra Nevada range between California and Nevada is lower than at any time in the last 500 years.

Researchers report in Nature Climate Change that the level of snow at the end of March on the high hills was just one-twentieth of the average for the last half century.

Snow is winter rain that doesn’t run off the hills immediately. So in Mediterranean climates − characterised by winter rainfall and warm, dry summers − the snowpack is a vital resource.

It melts steadily through spring and summer to keep reservoir levels high, deliver a steady flow to hydroelectricity generating plants, to irrigate crops through the ripening season, feed the lawn sprinklers in suburban gardens ,and keep the wild woodlands moist enough to damp down the risk of wildfire.

Worst in history

In the past four years, California has been in the grip of the worst drought in recorded history. But systematic rainfall and direct temperature records date only from European settlement.

Now bioscientist Valerie Trouet and colleagues from the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona, Tucson, have looked carefully at proxy evidence preserved in the annual growth rings of more than 1,500 blue oaks (Quercus douglasii) at 33 locations in California’s Central Valley.

Satellite images of the Sierra Nevada, comparing March snow cover in 2010 and 2015. Image: NASA/MODIS

Satellite images comparing Sierra Nevada snow cover in 2010 and 2015. Image: NASA/MODIS

From that and other data, they have reconstructed a timeline and a record of the annual winter precipitation in California from 1405 to 2005.

“Our study really points to the extreme character of the 2014-2015 winter,” Dr Trouet says. “This is not just unprecedented over 80 years – it’s unprecedented over 500 years.”

“We should be prepared for this type of
snow drought to occur much more frequently
because of rising temperatures”

Periodic cycles of drought are, and always have been, a feature of California life. Until the last year or so, researchers have been reluctant to blame the drought on man-made global warming and climate change, driven by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels.

But as the drought has endured, and shown every sign of being hotter and drier than any experienced before, scientists have cautiously begun to invoke climate change as a factor.

Unprecedented heat

One team has warned that the present unprecedented heat and drought could become the “new normal”, and another that the region could become increasingly vulnerable to such drought.

Although householders, farmers, growers and city dwellers are now subject to state-imposed water restrictions, the natural world, too, has begun to respond − and even the mountains themselves.

Geophysicists have reported that because the burden of snow and water is so light, the mountains have risen as much as 15 millimetres.

Dr Trouet and her colleagues warn that what is happening now could happen again, and again.

“We should be prepared for this type of snow drought to occur much more frequently because of rising temperatures,” she says. “Anthropogenic warming is making the drought more severe.” – Climate News Network

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Unlimited emissions would result in ice-free Antarctica

Unlimited emissions would result in ice-free Antarctica

Scientists warn that burning up the planet’s remaining fossil fuel would cause all Antarctic ice to melt and lead to devastating sea level rise.

LONDON, 15 September, 2015 – German and US scientists have worked out how to melt almost all the ice in Antarctica, raise sea levels by up to 60 metres, and flood cities that are now home to more than a billion people.

The answer is simple: just burn all the planet’s remaining fossil fuel resources, which would pump another 10,000 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

The West Antarctic ice sheet would become unstable by the end of the century, although it might take another 10,000 years to melt the much larger East Antarctic sheet.

But the release of carbon on such a scale would mean that sea levels could rise by three metres a century − and once the planet’s average temperatures had risen beyond 2°C, the process might be impossible to stop, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.

Much larger loss

“Our findings show that if we do not want to melt Antarctica, we can’t keep taking fossil fuel carbon out of the ground and just dumping it into the atmosphere as CO2, like we’ve been doing,” says one of the report’s authors, Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science, California .

“Most previous studies have focused on the loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Our study demonstrates that burning coal, oil and gas also risks loss of the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet.”

Chart of how Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios (GTC = gigatons of carbon). Image: Ken Caldeira and Ricarda Winkelmann

How Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios (GTC = gigatons of carbon).     Image: Ken Caldeira and Ricarda Winkelmann

The report’s lead author, Ricarda Winkelmann, climate system analyst at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says such action would cause global sea level rise on a scale unprecedented in human history.

“This would not happen overnight,” she says, “but the mind-boggling point is that our actions today are changing the face of planet Earth as we know it, and will continue to do so for tens of thousands of years to come.”

The study, although led by German scientists, started in Professor Caldeira’s global ecology lab in the US, and in every sense bears his signature. It takes a big, simple idea, strips away all the difficult short-term questions, and follows it to a logical conclusion.

“The mind-boggling point is that our actions today are changing the face of planet Earth
as we know it, and will continue to do so
for tens of thousands of years”

People working with Caldeira in the last two years have settled a number of such big and never-before-asked questions − for instance, whether geo-engineering could save the Arctic ice cap (it would not) or whether treating the ocean as a renewable energy source would actually accelerate global warming (it would).

The same style of thinking has established that it could take just 45 days for the heat from released carbon dioxide to outpace the initial combustion that released it, and that at current fossil fuel emission rates, all the ocean’s coral reefs would be at risk within this century.

The bottom line of the latest research is that unrestrained fossil fuel burning could cause extreme sea level rise over the next thousand years, and put crowded mega-cities such as New York, Tokyo, London, Shanghai and Calcutta at serious risk.

Complex calculation

The timing is no great surprise: the world’s political leaders will gather at the UN climate change conference in Paris in December to decide on an international programme to limit global warming.

But though the question the scientists asked themselves is a simple one, it still involved some complex calculation.

“It is much easier to predict that an ice cube in a warming room is going to melt eventually than it is to say precisely how quickly it will vanish,” Dr Winkelmann says.

“Our results show that the currently attainable carbon resources are sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic ice sheet, and that major coastal cities are threatened at much lower amounts of cumulative emissions.

“In a world beyond two degrees, long-term sea level rise would likely be dominated by ice loss from Antarctica.” – Climate News Network

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