Call for an end to ‘business as usual’ option on climate

Call for an end to ‘business as usual’ option on climate

UN special envoy urges a unified approach to global action on tackling the interlinked issues of climate change, sustainable development and human rights.

LONDON, 23 April, 2015 − Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy on climate change, has warned that the whole issue of climate is much too important to be left to governments and their leaders.

Robinson, who was the first woman president of Ireland and is now head of the MRFCJ foundation promoting climate justice, said it is a battle for all of us − and that now is the time for action, not for the continuation of business as usual.

Speaking at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, Robinson said that the UN conference on climate change in Paris at the end of this year must achieve concrete, ambitious results.

Transformation

“Now is not the moment to manage expectations or get cold feet – 2015 is the moment to catalyse a transformation,” she said.

She also called for a more unified approach to global action on the interlinked issues of development, climate change and human rights.

“Till very recently,” she said, “climate change was thought of in terms of the science and the environment – not as a human rights and sustainable development issue. Now governments and the UN are changing their approach.”

“This is a serious moment – we must have funds to build a new kind of economy”

Many countries struggling to develop are having to spend enormous amounts on adaptation measures in relation to climate change, she said. It means that countries such as the Philippines − hit by typhoons and other disasters − are spending millions just to stand still.

“We have to change course,” Robinson argued. “This is a serious moment – we must have funds to build a new kind of economy.”

Robinson said that what she termed the “business as usual” model of development “has resulted in dangerous levels of pollution, caused climate change and biodiversity loss, and has failed to eradicate poverty and inequality”.

All countries, she said, should make a transition towards a zero-carbon economy − which is ultimately the key to long-term prosperity, but is a tremendous challenge, particularly for developing countries.

Alternative way

“No country has developed without fossil fuels to date, so co-operation is key to providing the technology, finance, skills and systems to create an alternative way of developing,” she said.

Robinson also expressed concern that the International Monetary Fund is still focusing on economic growth and not on climate change. It must alter its outlook, she said.

In her UN role, Robinson will be at the centre of a series of big international meetings on climate change and development issues this year.

A conference in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will urge countries to commit more funds to climate finance, and to institutions such as the Green Climate Fund.

In September, the UN General Assembly is due to adopt a post-2015 strategy for achieving various development goals around the world.

And in December, in Paris, a new global climate change agreement is due to be worked out, under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. − Climate News Network

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Scientists zero in on only solution to climate crisis

Scientists zero in on only solution to climate crisis

Panel of international climate scientists says the world has only until 2050 to become a zero-carbon society − but the rewards for doing so would be immense.

LONDON, 22 April, 2015 – If you want to know what we have to do to avoid catastrophic climate change, 17 of the world’s leading climate scientists have worked out a simple but challenging solution: the world, they say, must turn by mid-century into a zero-carbon society.

The signatories to today’s “Earth Statement” say: “This trajectory is not one of economic pain, but of economic opportunity, progress and inclusiveness. It is a chance too good to be missed.

“The latest science indicates that there are critical thresholds in the Earth system. Transgressing them may lead to dramatic and irreversible environmental changes.

“We are probably edging very close to such thresholds, and may already have crossed one with regard to melting of parts of Antarctica. Sea-level rise of more than one metre due to this event alone may be inevitable.”

Window of opportunity

They are convinced that time is short. “The window of opportunity is closing fast,” says Johan Rockström, chair of the Earth League, an international group of scientists from leading research institutions working on issues caused by climate change, natural resource depletion, land degradation and water scarcity.

“We are on a trajectory that will leave our world irrevocably changed, far exceeding the 2°C mark. This gamble risks disaster for humanity, with unmanageable sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts and floods.

“We would never consider this level of risk in any other walk of life, yet we seem prepared to take this risk with our planet. Conversely, the scientific evidence shows that we can create a positive future, but only with bold action now.”

The 2°C threshold is the limit beyond which world leaders have agreed to prevent global temperatures rising as climate change intensifies.

“For the sake of fairness, rich countries and progressive industries can and should take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century”

The Earth League’s first Earth Statement is issued as a warning ahead of the UN climate conference in Paris in December − referred to by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as COP21, the 21st conference of the parties to the original climate treaty.

The League is supported in its statement − published today to mark Earth Day, an annual reinvigoration of the global environmental movement − by the Global Challenges Foundation.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, US, and one of the authors of the statement, says: “COP21 is the moment of truth − the last chance to stay within the 2°C upper limit.

Quality of life

“The key to success is deep decarbonisation by mid-century. Our studies show that this can be accomplished, at modest cost, and with a significant improvement in the quality of life.”

The Earth Statement lists what it calls “eight essential elements of climate action”, which it says any agreement achieved in Paris in December should achieve in order to provide the world with a good chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

They include the need for the process of deep decarbonisation to start immediately. One of the eight points, which may prove contentious, reads: “Equity is critical. Every country must formulate an emissions pathway consistent with deep decarbonisation.

“For the sake of fairness, rich countries and progressive industries can and should take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century.”

Prof Rockström and Prof John Schellnhuber, a fellow Earth League member and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, will present the Earth Statement tomorrow at the fourth Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability in Hong Kong. – Climate News Network

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Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon

Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon

The frozen soil of the northern polar regions holds billions of tonnes of organic carbon – and global warming could speed its escape into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 14 April, 2015 − Three sets of scientists in the same week have helped narrow the uncertainties about how the natural world will respond to extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Carbon locked in the frozen earth will escape gradually as the Arctic permafrost melts – but the scientists say the process could accelerate.

As greenhouse gas levels soar, and soils warm, and plant roots tap down into the carbon stored there by centuries of ancient growth, they will release potent chemicals that will accelerate microbial attack – and speed up the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The soil carbon cycle is one of the great headaches of climate science. And the Arctic is the first place to look for answers about it, and about how the Earth and oceans that store atmospheric carbon will respond to global warming.

Locked away

Around half of the world’s buried organic carbon is locked away in the soils of the northern circumpolar permafrost, and this huge vault of deep-frozen peat and leaf litter – more than 1,000 billion metric tonnes in the top three metres, at the latest estimate − contains twice as much carbon as is held in the atmosphere.

But the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, so what will happen as the permafrost thaws and plants begin to move north? Would it all be surrendered to the atmosphere in one devastating exhalation, triggering an explosion in global warming and causing trillions of dollars in economic damage?

An international team within the Permafrost Carbon Network thinks not. Their verdict, published in Nature journal, is that the current evidence suggests “a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions in a warming climate”. That is, humankind would have time to adapt.

“The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view,” says one of the team members, David McGuire, professor of landscape ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

Since the tropical forests are already under pressure, this is hardly good news. And the picture is not a simple one.

“Even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate”

As the permafrost thaws, the soil microbes will get to work on the buried carbon, which will inevitably add to the soil warming, and provide an instance of what engineers call positive feedback, according to a team led by Jøgen Hollesen, senior researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Permafrost.

He and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that when they measured heat production in 21 contrasting organic permafrost soils, they found it to be between 10 and 130 times higher than in mineral soils measured in Greenland − and this would have “crucial implications for the amounts of carbon being decomposed”.

And in the same issue of Nature Climate Change, a team led by researchers from Oregon State University have confirmed that any kind of warming or plant growth is likely to get the soil microbes working as hard as they can – partly because the plants use chemistry to free the soil carbon so the bacteria can start to turn it back into carbon dioxide.

Neither of the two Nature Climate Change studies was directly concerned with climate change. The Danish scientists’ findings sprang from concern about what warming might do to the ancient middens that hold as-yet-unexamined evidence of early human settlement in the Arctic. The Oregon team were more concerned about the interactions that go on in the soil, and how they could be measured.

Chemical bonds

They found that plant roots released an exudate that acted to release the chemical bonds that keep a carbon bound to non-organic minerals in the soil. Warming could only speed the process, so more carbon dioxide will get into the atmosphere from the soil because of global warming.

This, again, is positive feedback at work. And it suggests climate scientists might be underestimating carbon loss from the soil by as much as 1% a year.

“Our main concern is that this is an important mechanism, and we are not presently considering it in global models of carbon cycling,” says soil and environmental geochemist Markus Kleber, one of the authors of the Oregon report.

“There is more carbon stored in the soil, on a global scale, than in vegetation, or even in the atmosphere. Since this reservoir is so large, even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate.” – Climate News Network

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Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Climate-friendly boost for global energy mix as scientists say solar power alone could now meet the needs of California five times over.

LONDON, 12 April, 2015 − Carbon dioxide levels might be soaring, and governments might be slow to reduce fossil fuel emissions and contain climate change − but the smart money could nevertheless be going into renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says green energy investments rose by 17% in 2014 to reach a total of $270bn − the first annual increase in three years, and just 3% behind the all-time record set in 2011 of $279bn.

In 2014, renewable energies added 103 gigawatts to global capacity. This is roughly equal to the output of all 158 nuclear power reactors in the US.

Wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed an estimated 9.1% of world electricity generation in 2014. This also represents a notional saving in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.3 gigatonnes, which is about twice what pours from the exhausts of the world airlines.

Markets mature

“Once again in 2014, renewable made up nearly half the power capacity added worldwide,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.

“These climate-friendly energy technologies are now an indispensable component of the global energy mix and their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent.”

But, according to scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution, there is much more that could be done. A team led by Earth system scientists Rebecca Hernandez, now of the University of California Berkeley, reported in Nature Climate Change that solar energy alone could meet the demands of the state of California in the US up to five times over.

Solar power systems based on photovoltaics could generate up to 15,000 terawatts of energy a year. And mirror-driven concentrating systems could add another 6,000 terawatt hours.

California – now in the grip of a calamitous drought that has been tentatively linked to climate change triggered by human investment in fossil fuels – is the most populous state in the US. The researchers calculated that more than 27,000 square kilometres of land would be fit for photovoltaic solar construction, and more than 6,000 square kilometres for concentrating solar power.

“Their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall
and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent”

But there is a darker side to the story of renewable energy. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, scientists have been working on the much more complex carbon budget of biofuels, which deliver energy in liquid form.

They count as renewable energy because, although they emit carbon dioxide when burned, they do not, overall, add to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is because biofuel crops take carbon dioxide from the air to grow their tissues for conversion to fuel, and return the gas through engine exhausts.

But there have been persistent worries. One is that the conversion of food to fuel may not be the most efficient use of cropland.

Destroy ecosystems

The approach remains carbon neutral, as long as farmers exploit existing cropland. But the danger is that farmers might plough up existing grassland, destroy ecosystems, and release ancient stored soil carbon to the atmosphere, to make global warming worse.

Environmental scientist Tyler Lark and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in Environmental Research Letters that, between 2008 and 2012, US farmers ploughed seven million acres of new land for corn and soy for conversion to biofuels intended as renewable energy for motor transport.

In the course of doing so, they could have emitted as much carbon to the atmosphere as 34 coal-burning power stations in one year – or 28 million new cars on the road.

Nearly a quarter of the land converted came from long-standing prairies and ranges, much of it within the Central Plains, from North Dakota to Texas. And much of this was planted with corn intended for conversion to biofuels.

“It mimics the extreme land-use change that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” Lark says. “We could be, in a sense, ploughing up prairies with each mile we drive.” – Climate News Network

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Canada will lose many glaciers as climate warms

Canada will lose many glaciers as climate warms

Climate change could cause many glaciers in western Canada to start to disappear by 2040, affecting people and places that depend on their water.

LONDON, 10 April, 2015 − As the world warms, many of the great frozen rivers of Canada will not just retreat, but could vanish altogether.

New research suggests that maritime glaciers in the far northwest might survive, but more than two-thirds of Canada’s existing glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta could be lost altogether by 2100.

Garry Clarke, a glaciologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says: “Soon our mountains could look like those in Colorado or California, and you don’t see much ice in those landscapes.”

The consequences for the forests, grasslands, animals and communities that depend on glacial meltwater could be serious. The disappearance of the glaciers will also create problems for Canada’s hydroelectric industry, for agriculture and grazing, for the mining industry, for the salmon fishery, and for tourism.

Professor Clarke and his colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that they devised a model – a high-resolution computer simulation – of the glaciers of western Canada that explicitly mimicked glacial flow. Then they tested it with a range of scenarios for climate change, driven by human combustion of fossil fuels and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the last two centuries.

“Once the glaciers are gone, the streams will be a lot warmer and this will hugely change freshwater habitat”

There are more than 17,000 glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta, covering more than 26,000 square kilometres of the two provinces, and holding an estimated 2,980 cubic kilometres of ice. This puts western Canada as more glaciated than the Himalayas (which have less than 23,000 sq kms of glacier): the entire continent of South America has only 31,000 sq kms of glacier.

The researchers found that maritime glaciers in the northwest would endure, in a diminished state. But overall, the volume of the glaciers in western Canada would shrink by 70%, give or take 10%.

Right now glaciers, most of them between 100 and 200 metres thick, are thinning at a rate of about a metre a year. The peak flow of meltwater would most likely occur between 2020 and 2040. Thereafter, the rivers would be in decline.

Potential sea level rise as a consequence of this, the scientists say, would be “modest” at around 6mm, but the consequences for that part of Canada would be substantial.

The Columbia River, which flows from the interior to the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon, yields the largest hydroelectric production of any river in North America. And the impact on freshwater ecosystems could be considerable.

“These glaciers act as a thermostat for freshwater systems,” said Professor Clarke. “Once the glaciers are gone, the streams will be a lot warmer and this will hugely change freshwater habitat. We could see some unpleasant surprises in terms of salmon productivity.” – Climate News Network

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Woodlands revival adds new piece to carbon cycle puzzle

Woodlands revival adds new piece to carbon cycle puzzle

Growing number of trees on the world’s savanna grasslands helps offset carbon storage concerns caused by depletion of the great rainforests.

LONDON, 9 April, 2015 − Despite continuing concern about the fate of iconic rainforests, new research shows that the world’s forests have stored away an extra 4 billion tonnes of carbon in the last dozen years and the total amount of woodland has increased worldwide since 2003.

The encouraging news comes from Australian scientists, who report in Nature Climate Change that they used a new technique to analyse 20 years of satellite data, to estimate the overall pattern of growth in global vegetation.

The fate of the forests could hardly be more important. The world’s greenery is part of the natural atmospheric cycle, and the notorious greenhouse effect – the steady rise in carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the use of fossil fuels to power economic growth – is in part also a response to land-use change and forest loss. Growth requires atmospheric carbon dioxide, and burning and land clearance releases it.

Biggest headache

So the study by remote sensing scientist Yi Liu, of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and colleagues becomes an important contribution to solving the climate scientist’s biggest headache: making sense of the carbon budget.

Accurate climate models depend on accurate assessment of the carbon cycle, and the forests play a critical role. Timber in the forests is essentially carbon in the bank.

And, for once, the news is encouraging. The great rainforests of the Congo and the Amazon may not be doing so well, but grasslands in other parts of the world have become increasingly more wooded, and there has been a massive expansion of forested land in China.

“The increase in vegetation primarily came from a lucky combination of environmental and economic factors, and massive tree-planting projects in China,” Dr Yi Liu says.

“Vegetation increased on the savannas of Australia, Africa and South America as a result of increasing rainfall, while in Russia and former Soviet republics we have seen the re-growth of forests on abandoned farmland. China was the only country to intentionally increase its vegetation with tree-planting projects.”

The Australian scientists are not the only researchers using instruments in high orbit to identify the green shoots of recovery.

“A lot rides on human decisions to slow
climate change. The clock is ticking
for the future of these forests”

Dmitry Shchepashchenko, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and colleagues report in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment that a cocktail of remote sensing data, UN agency statistics and “crowdsourcing” – help from citizen scientists – has provided new high resolution maps of global forest cover.

This will serve as a basis for other studies, and for economic planning and policy-making. The maps are available on the Geo-Wiki website.

But the overall picture of a greener world remains uncertain. On the same day, scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution in Washington reported in Nature Geoscience that drought damage has already led to widespread forest death, and the toll could be much greater by the 2050s.

They based their study on the condition of the trembling aspen forests of the American southwest during the drought of 2000-2003.

Once again, their work is aimed at improving climate models and calculations of the response of forests to climate change, and could throw new light on the processes at work in forests subjected to water stress.

Drought damage

That is because the arboreal vascular system that transports water from the roots to the leaves is itself damaged by drought. But at what level would drought impose permanent damage on a tree’s physiology?

The Carnegie scientists were able to establish a drought threshold for the trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), and the drought at the beginning of the century is known to have killed 17% of the species in Colorado.

The research is fundamental: just one study of one species in one region that provides a starting point for further studies, and thus for surer measures of vegetation response to climate change, and ultimately to a better understanding of the carbon cycle.

“Finding the thresholds in plant physiology, after which climate stress causes tree mortality, will allow us to resolve uncertainty over the fate of forest ecosystems in a changing climate,” says the study leader, William Anderegg, a researcher at Princeton Environmental Institute in the US.

“But, most importantly, a lot rides on human decisions to slow climate change. The clock is ticking for the future of these forests.” – Climate News Network

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Climate poses new threat to survival of Arabian oryx

Climate poses new threat to survival of Arabian oryx

Global warming is the suspected cause of the series of dry years in Arabia that have brought starvation to a desert species saved from extinction.

LONDON, 7 April, 2015 − One of conservation’s triumphs – the reintroduction of the oryx to the deserts of Arabia – could be at risk because of climate change, according to a new book.

The animal already beautifully adapted by thousands of years of evolution to an arid environment met a problem on its return: even deserts have droughts.

The Arabian oryx had been hunted almost to extinction before a handful were captured in 1962 and flown to Phoenix, Arizona, as the nucleus of a captive breeding programme.

By 1972, the last wild oryx had been captured or killed in Oman, but the bloodline survived in captivity.

The first reintroductions to the wild began in 1982, and numbers began to increase. There were incursions by poachers, but there were more releases.

However, there have been so many dry years over the last two decades − according to Malcolm Smith, once chief scientist for the Countryside Commission in Wales, in his new book, Back from the Brink − that many of the newly-wild oryx have not been able to find sufficient grazing.

Closely monitored

The animal is one of the most closely monitored in the world. Of all recorded deaths, 19% have occurred in fights between males, 13% have been due to poaching, and 65% have been due to starvation.

The succession of particularly dry years in the region might be due to global warming as a consequence of human combustion of fossil fuels.

Since climate simulations seem to predict that, in general, moist regions will get more rain and dry regions will experience ever drier regimes as greenhouse gas levels build up in the atmosphere, things don’t look good for the oryx − although captive populations for the time being remain secure.

Other recently-rescued species may face even leaner times − once again, because of climate change.

Spanish and Portuguese authorities have established safe territories for the Iberian lynx and, by 2013, more than 300 lived wild in Spain, while 150 lynx paced the enclosures in the breeding centres awaiting reintroduction.

But the wild rabbit makes up 90% of the lynx’s diet, and rabbit numbers are limited by hunting and by outbreaks of myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease.

There have been fears too, that southern Spain and Portugal may become too hot and dry to sustain the prey, let alone the predator.

Such threats to biodiversity, and to individual animals, are not new. Climate change has in various ways reportedly threatened Arctic marine mammalscreatures of the Borneo forests,  and chimpanzees in isolated woodland in West Africa.

Whole ecosystems that evolved in geographical climate zones may be doomed to sudden and rapid change.

But Malcolm Smith’s book concerns itself only with the choicest last-minute success stories of conservation bodies: with those creatures that were all but gone when the conservationists stepped in.

They were hunted, their habitats had been destroyed, and their ecosystems were always precarious. But climate change was, at the time of rescue, the least of their problems.

Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion). Image: PJC&Co via Wikimedia Commons

Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion).
Image: PJC&Co via Wikimedia Commons

One instance he explores shows just how intricate the living arrangements of charismatic species can be, and illustrates the finely-balanced play of climate and ecological stability in preserving a species.

The Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) exists in respectable numbers worldwide, but became all but extinct in the UK − with changes in farming practices and land use the suspected causes.

Peculiar lifestyle

Until 1972, nobody quite understood the peculiar lifestyle of the Large Blue. It lays its eggs on the flower bud of the wild herb, thyme. A larva hatches and, after an initial vegetarian diet, falls off the plant. Thereafter, its life depends on just one species of red ant, Myrmica sabuleti.

The Large Blue grub secretes a fluid that somehow suggests that of a red ant queen grub, so the ants take it home and nurse it. The Large Blue caterpillar turns carnivore and, for 10 months, feeds on red ant larvae.

In pupate form, it makes queen ant noises and the ants continue to protect it. It hatches, gets out to the open − still protected by the ants − and flies off. It then has about a week in which to find a thyme flower bud, mate, and lay its eggs.

But the complexities multiply. The thyme flower bud that bears the eggs must be within metres of the right kind of red ant nest, or the larva perishes.

Dependent on temperature

The grass above the ant nest must be closely grazed because the ants’ survival is dependent on temperature, and if the grass grows even a centimetre ground is shaded, the nest temperature drops by 2°C to 3°C, and the ant colony is at risk − along with any parasitic caterpillars in the nest.

So the thyme has to flower at the right time, very near a red ant nest, the herbage has to be closely cropped, and the temperatures have to stay near the optimum.

If anything goes wrong, there are no surviving Large Blue larvae to pupate. If things go well, and too many Large Blue grubs are taken into a colony, the ant larvae are all consumed, and both ants and butterflies perish.

And then there’s the climate question − one that affects almost all insects.

“Overall, butterfly populations have moved northward by about 75km in the last 20 years as overall temperatures have risen,” Smith writes. “They are likely to move yet further.” – Climate News Network

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Pollution poses long-range danger to Borneo’s forests

Pollution poses long-range danger to Borneo's forests

Air quality in Borneo’s rainforests is being affected by pollution from human activities far off in East Asia – with possible consequences for the ozone layer.

LONDON, 1 April, 2015 – New evidence has been found of the long distances that airborne pollution can be transported, and of its potential impacts far from its point of origin.

Researchers from the UK and Malaysia have detected a human fingerprint deep in the Borneo rainforest in south-east Asia − and it has implications for air quality in the region, and for the ozone layer.

The research, published in European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, shows that cold winds from the north carry industrial pollutants from East Asia towards the equator. The air quality in Borneo depends very much on which way the wind blows.

“On several occasions during northern-hemisphere winter, pockets of cold air can move quickly southwards across Asia towards south China and onward into the South China Sea,” says Matthew Ashfold, assistant professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, and formerly of the University of Cambridge.

Cold surges

Prof Ashfold and his colleagues show that these “cold surges” can very quickly carry polluted air southwards. “The pollution travels about 1,000 km (620 miles) per day, crossing the South China Sea in just a couple of days,” he says.

They were originally looking for natural chemical compounds, to test whether the oceans around Borneo were a source of bromine and chlorine, but they also detected another gas called perchloroethene, or perc, in the air samples they collected from two sites in the Borneo forest.

“This gas is a common ‘marker’ for pollution because it does not have natural sources,” Prof Ashfold explains.

“Our measurements . . . . show that what is happening at the surface in industrialised middle latitudes can have an important impact elsewhere”

The team found evidence suggesting that the high levels of perc in the samples were influenced by East Asian pollution.

Perc is produced in industrial and commercial activities, such as dry cleaning and metal degreasing, and exposure to large amounts (above about 100 parts per million) can affect human health.

Global emissions have declined in the last 20 years or so, but it is not clear whether this applies to East Asia, where air pollution has increased over that period.

The researchers say the levels of perc measured in Borneo are low, at a few parts per trillion. But because the gas does not occur naturally, even small concentrations are a sign that other more common pollutants − such as carbon monoxide and ozone − are present, and levels of all three gases fluctuate at similar rates.

Ozone in high concentrations can damage forests by reducing plant growth, and is also a human health risk.

Poorer air quality in the remote rainforest is not the only consequence of the pollution.  Prof Ashfold says: “The atmosphere over south-east Asia and the western Pacific is home to unusually strong and deep thunderstorms during the northern hemisphere winter. Because of this, the region is an important source of air for the stratosphere.”

There is a potentially two-way interaction between atmospheric composition and the climate.

One of the study’s co-authors, Professor John Pyle, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and director of the UK’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, told the Climate News Network: “This study certainly exemplifies part of that feedback cycle.

Rapid lifting

“The mosaic of islands in Southeast Asia − our measurements are in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo − is a preferred region for very rapid lifting, sometimes within hours, of atmospheric compounds to higher levels.

“Some of these compounds − the industrially-produced halocarbons, and the halocarbons naturally emitted from the ocean, both of which we measure − are ozone-depleting substances.”

Both types of halocarbons and the ozone itself are greenhouse gases.

Professor Pyle says: “We aren’t arguing that our measurements indicate that there is a major climate impact, but they do nicely show that what is happening at the surface in industrialised middle latitudes can have an important impact elsewhere, with potential for important feedbacks to the surface.” – Climate News Network

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Rich nations urged to cut temperature rise targets

Rich nations urged to cut temperature rise targets

Senior scientist says voices of poorer nations must be heard in the political tussle over reducing the “utterly inadequate” global warming limit.

LONDON, 31 March, 2015 − The official target of limiting global warming to a 2˚C rise has been described by a senior scientist as “utterly inadequate” to protect the people most at risk from climate change.

That’s the conclusion reached by one of the authors of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, in an analysis of the political tussle between rich and poor nations at last December’s UN conference on limiting temperature rise.

Richer countries were happy to limit global average temperature rises to 2˚C, while middle and low-income nations would have preferred to contain warming within 1.5˚ C or lower.

Possibilities of calamity

But Dr Petra Tschakert, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, reports in the journal Climate Change Responses that the agreed limit contains within it the possibilities of calamity for many people.

“The consensus that transpired during this [UN conference] session was that a 2˚C danger level seemed utterly inadequate, given the already observed impacts on ecosystems, food, livelihoods and sustainable development,” Dr Tschakert says.

“A low temperature target is the best bet to prevent severe, pervasive and potentially irreversible impacts, while allowing ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensuring food production and security, and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Her analysis is not of itself new, nor is it much disputed − other leading scientists have also warned that such an international agreed limit could be disastrous.

But her commentary in the journal reveals something of the debate among the government representatives and experts who must meet and prepare for global action.

Global average temperatures have been creeping up at fractions of a degree per decade for more than 30 years, and some degree of further global warming is now inevitable.

Scientists at the IPCC have from the start warned that – without steps to dramatically reduce the combustion of fossil fuels – the planet could warm by 4˚C or more, and sea levels could rise by up to a metre by 2100. In 2009, governments met in Copenhagen and settled on a limit of 2˚C.

“This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world”

But this target has always been contested. More than 100 poorer nations and small island states − such as Tuvalu, recently pounded by a tropical cyclone Pam − have repeatedly said that a 2˚C rise is unsafe, and called for a 1.5˚C limit.

The World Health Organisation argued at the December UN meeting that, as far as human health was concerned, there was no safe limit, and people already faced hazards from undernourishment, and from food and water-borne infections.

Heatwaves, such as the one that hit Russia in 2010, may have caused 10,000 additional deaths, while floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent and more severe hazards in a 2˚C world.

Climate impacts

Dr Tschakert’s argument is that a global average limit may be a convenient and compelling instrument for discussing climate change impacts, but nobody in the world actually faces a global average.

Such a notional limit is the average of extremes and variation across regions, all of which are subject to different hazards − ranging from glacial melting to coral bleaching − that could be disastrous for people in those regions, many of whom are among the world’s poorest.

Dr Tschakert says: “These implications emphasise what is truly at stake – not a scientific bickering of what the most appropriate temperature target ought to be, but a commitment to protect the most vulnerable and at-risk populations and ecosystems, as well as the willingness to pay for abatement and compensation..

“This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world.” – Climate News Network

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Earth at risk in new epoch ruled by destructive humans

Earth at risk in new epoch ruled by destructive humans

Scientists warn that our fate is in our own hands as humans now control almost every aspect of the planet, on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.

LONDON, 21 March, 2015 − Nature has been replaced by humans as the driving force behind changes on the planet − and we need to take urgent action if we are to avoid our own destruction.

This is the view of two scientists – including a Nobel prize winner − who support the theory that the planet has entered a new Anthropocene epoch that has succeeded the Holocene, the  current geological warm period that began at the end of the ice age 11,500 years ago.

It is not a new concept − the name Anthropocene was coined 15 years ago by American ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer to describe how humans had taken over from nature to decide the planet’s future − but the authors of a new paper believe they have shown that it is now a frightening reality.

Paul Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, in Mainz, Germany, and Stanislaw Waclawek, researcher in the Department of Nanomaterials in Natural Sciences at the Technical University of Liberec, Czech Republic, make their case in the paper published in the new Chemistry-Didactics-Ecology-Metrology.

Human footprint

The article claims that the negative impact of the human footprint ensures a gradual destruction of the Earth, “Our survival fully depends on us,” Crutzen says.

The scientists claim that there is overwhelming evidence that what they term “man, the eroder” now transforms all Earth system processes. They offer this list in support of their argument:

  • Excessively rapid climate change, so that ecosystems cannot adapt.
  • The Arctic ocean ice cover is thinner by approximately 40% than it was 20-40 years ago.
  • Ice loss on land is causing the rising sea levels.
  • Overpopulation (a fourfold increase in the 20th century alone).
  • Increasing demand for freshwater.
  • Releases of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, resulting in high surface ozone layers.
  • Loss of agricultural soil through erosion.
  • Loss of phosphorous (dangerous depletion in agricultural regions).
  • Melting supplies of phosphate reserves (leading to serious reduction in crop yield).

The paper begins: “Humankind actions are exerting increasing effect on the environment on all scales, in a lot of ways overcoming natural processes.

“During the last 100 years, human population went up from little more than one billion to six billion, and economic activity increased nearly 10 times between 1950 and the present time.”

Industrial activity

In a series of graphics, the two scientists show how the growth of population, industrial activity and, above all, the release of greenhouse gases are causing chaos in nature and threatening our existence.

The paper says: “Taking into account these and many other major and still growing footprints of human activities on Earth and atmosphere, without any doubt we can conclude that we are living in new geological epoch named the Anthropocene.”

Crutzen warns: “This ensures a gradual destruction of the Earth. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must change course.” – Climate News Network

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