Greener cities are best at taming urban heat

Greener cities are best at taming urban heat

As humans become an urban species researchers find evidence that cities with more green space are best for human wellbeing. 

LONDON, 2 September, 2015 – For the first time in human history, more than half the world now lives in cities. Later this century, the proportion could rise to two-thirds.

Even without global warming because of a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, itself the consequence of fossil fuel combustion, the cities are feeling the heat.

That is because dark materials and hard surfaces – tarmacadam, brick, cement, tiles, slates, gutters, railway tracks, flyovers, motorways and so on – absorb the heat but not the rainwater that, as it evaporates, could damp down that heat.

As a consequence, cities become “heat islands”: places conspicuously hotter than the surrounding countryside. According to a report in Nature, the annual average temperature in Los Angeles in California has risen by more than 2°C since 1878, and by mid-century the sprawling megalopolis is predicted to face 22 days a year of extreme heat: that is, with temperatures of more than 35°C.

Now British and US scientists are trying to work out the shape of the ideal city. Pack people together with lots of green spaces around, say the British. And keep the people cool with trees, parks, roof gardens to help them withstand the heat, add the Americans.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK and the University of Hokkaido in Japan report in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Environment that they analysed nine case studies of cities worldwide to work out the arrangements with most benefits to humans.

Dense but spacious

The answer – separate from the climate question – is that dense settlements but with big parks and nature reserves deliver the greatest sense of well-being and the healthiest urban ecosystems.

“As populations continue to grow, it’s vital that we expand our cities and build new ones in a way that is most sustainable for ecosystems, and which provides the greatest benefits to urban residents”, said the lead author, Iain Stott, from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute on the Penryn campus in Cornwall.

“Our research finds that compact developments that include large green spaces are essential for the delivery of ecosystem services. For humans to get the most benefit, however, combining this approach with greening of built land using street trees and some small parks and gardens is the best method.”

Rather than focus on selected cities, a team led by scientists from the US space agency NASA report in Environmental Research Letters that they took an overall look at what asphalt and concrete do to the whole United States.

The satellite data told a familiar story: those tracts of America covered by impervious surfaces such as roads, pavements, roofs and car parks were in summer up to 1.9°C warmer than the surrounding rural zones, and in winter 1.5°C.

“Urbanisation is a good thing…but we could probably do it a little bit better”

“This has nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions. It’s in addition to the greenhouse gas effect. This is the land use component only”, said Lahouari Bounoua, of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author. “Anywhere in the US small cities generate less heat than mega-cities.”

Green things cool by evapo-transpiration. Broadleaf trees with big leaf areas can cool cities more than forests of pines with fine needles. The message is that green is good for cities and cities are good for the environment.

Cities in arid places – Phoenix in Arizona is a case in point – can paradoxically be cooler than the surrounding desert because residents bring lawns that must be watered, and trees for shade.

This creates another problem. Water is a scarce resource and rising urban temperatures could make it even scarcer. Researchers from the University of Florida report in the journal Technology and Innovation that a survey of homeowners in Orange County, Florida, found that 64% of drinking water went to irrigate the lawns. In summer this proportion went up to 88%.

Whatever the urban problems, global warming and climate change will make them worse, but cities offer ways to reduce energy use and save carbon dioxide emissions.

“Urbanisation is a good thing”, Dr Bounoua said. “It brings a lot of people together in a small area. Share the road, share the work, share the building. But we could probably do it a little bit better.” – Climate News Network

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Risk of new Katrinas rises as climate warms

Risk of new Katrinas rises as climate warms

Climate change may drastically increase the risk of simultaneous cyclones and storm surges striking populous coastlines around the world.

LONDON, 1 September, 2015 – Perfect storms are by definition improbable. But climate scientists now think that the devastating combination of extreme tropical cyclone and unprecedented storm surge is going to get a whole lot less improbable by the end of the century.

The chances that the city of Tampa, in Florida, will be hit by a devastating hurricane and an 11-metre wall of ocean water by 2100 could have increased by up to fourteen-fold, they report in Nature Climate Change.

All climate modelling involves a calculation of probabilities. Ning Lin, a civil engineer at Princeton University in New Jersey in the US, and Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started exploring the idea of events that are highly improbable, but worth trying to predict anyway because their consequences could be so calamitous.

If storms that could not be expected are “black swan” events, then they have identified a second category: “grey swan” events that are worse than any in recorded history, but are nevertheless foreseeable, using knowledge of atmospheric physics, topography and the climate record.

So – on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans, the most costly disaster in American history – they decided to see how bad things could really get.

Advance warnings

The horror of Katrina was that although it was a storm surge without precedent, engineers and meteorologists had repeatedly warned that New Orleans could be vulnerable. And when it arrived, New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the Washington Administration were all taken by surprise.

For their study, the two scientists selected three vulnerable bits of coastline and set about modelling the worst that could happen, and the probabilities that it might happen. They chose Dubai in the Persian Gulf – an area never before hit by a tropical cyclone – Cairns on the coast of Australia, and Tampa in Florida.

They found that a “grey swan” cyclone right now could cause a storm surge of six metres in Tampa, Cairns 5.7 metres and Dubai four metres. The chances of such a thing happening in any one year, however, were as low as one in 10,000. That is, not very likely.

And then they factored in continuing climate change, driven by global warming as a consequence of prodigal fossil fuel combustion by humankind, and started to consider the long-term consequences.

By the end of the century, the hazard to Dubai had increased to seven metres, and to Tampa to 11 metres. And the probabilities had increased too: the likelihood of a devastating storm and an overwhelming wall of water in the Persian Gulf had become “non-negligible”: the extreme in Tampa’s case was one in 700.

“The ocean conditions that led to a severe hurricane season in 2005 also reduced atmospheric moisture flow to South America, contributing to a once-in-a-century dry spell in the Amazon”

But such research is based only on known hazards now and projections for the future. In fact, hurricane conditions in one region can be matched by awful hazards in places far away according to a team from the University of California, Irvine, and the US space agency Nasa.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that they have identified a link between catastrophic wildfires in the Amazon and hurricanes such as Katrina that devastate the northern hemisphere coasts.

Yang Chen, an earth system scientist from UC Irvine, and colleagues looked at years of sea surface temperature and other climate data to find the connection. In years of high numbers of hurricanes and high fire risk, warm waters in the North Atlantic help hurricanes develop and gather strength and speed on their way to North American shores.

These same warm waters drag rainfall away from the southern Amazon, leaving the rainforests increasingly vulnerable to fire. Since the Amazon forests are a vital repository of stored carbon, any fires there can only fuel global warming still further, increasing sea surface temperatures and stepping up yet more the probability of tropical cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes.

“Hurricane Katrina is, indeed, part of this story”, said UCI earth system scientist James Randerson, senior author of the paper. “The ocean conditions that led to a severe hurricane season in 2005 also reduced atmospheric moisture flow to South America, contributing to a once-in-a-century dry spell in the Amazon. The timing of these events is perfectly consistent with our research findings.” – Climate News Network

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Shell swims against oil price tide

Shell swims against oil price tide

As the giant Shell oil company begins highly controversial exploration drilling in the Arctic, the price of crude continues to slide.

LONDON, 30 August, 2015 – It’s a gamble – some would say a giant gamble. Before even one litre of oil has been found, the Anglo-Dutch Shell group is believed to have spent more than US$7 billion – just making preparations for its latest Arctic venture.

Shell is betting on finding the oil industry’s Holy Grail: according to 2008 estimates by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic contains more than 20% of the world’s remaining hydrocarbon resources – including at least 90 billion barrels of oil.

If Shell does strike oil in big quantities maybe its gamble will pay off – and its anxious shareholders can look forward to handsome payouts.

But the whole venture is a high-risk business. The decision by the US administration to allow Shell to start drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, is highly controversial.

Environmentalists and scientists say any further exploitation of fossil fuels must be halted in order to limit the rise in average global temperatures to within 2°C of pre-industrial levels and avert serious climate change.

Possible catastrophe

Drilling conditions in the Arctic can be treacherous: in 2012 a Shell rig which had been drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska ran aground in a storm and had to scrapped. Any oil spill in the ecologically rich waters of the Arctic could be catastrophic.

Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s former secretary of state and now a presidential contender, criticises Washington for allowing Shell to drill.

“The Arctic is a unique treasure”, she says. “Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

Shell says its operations meet the highest standards. “We owe it to the Arctic, its inhabitants, and the world to work with great care as we search for oil and gas resources and develop those at the request of governments across the region”, the company says.

The financial rationale of Shell’s move is also being questioned. Drilling in the Arctic is an expensive business and involves complex logistical challenges.

Stubbornly low

Analysts say so-called unconventional oil – crude recovered from difficult environments such as the Arctic – needs to command a price of between US$70 and US$100 a barrel to make its recovery economical.

At present, though oil demand is strong, there are deep uncertainties about future economic growth, particularly in China. Oil is staying stubbornly below US$50 per barrel. The big oil producers such as Saudi Arabia have not, as in the past, lowered output in order to shore up prices.

A tentative agreement between western nations and Iran on nuclear issues is likely to mean new supplies of Iranian crude hitting the international market, putting further downward pressure on prices. Despite continue bombing and communal strife, Iraq is gearing up its oil production.

One of the major factors influencing the downward movement of oil prices over recent years has been the development of the US fracking industry, with vast amounts of oil and gas recovered from shale deposits deep underground.

Perhaps Shell – and big producer countries like Saudi Arabia – foresee an end to the fracking boom.

Fracking slows

As recovery from shale deposits becomes more difficult and prices remain low, fracking is not enjoying the explosive growth it saw a few years ago.

Some drilling sites in the US states of Texas and North Dakota are being abandoned. Several of the smaller fracking companies – which borrowed large amounts during the good times to finance their operations – have gone bust.

But there is still a global glut of oil: the International Energy Agency says there is unlikely to be a rebound in oil prices any time soon.

The drilling season in the Arctic is brief: the days shorten quickly and the ice begins to form. Shell – and its shareholders – will be hoping for quick returns.

International negotiators preparing for the climate summit in Paris later this year are calling for urgent action to head off global warming. There are many who hope Shell’s exploration activities will not succeed – and that the Arctic hydrocarbons stay where they are, thousands of feet below the seabed. – Climate News Network

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Climate models may misjudge soils’ carbon emissions

Climate models may misjudge soils' carbon emissions

How soil organisms cope with decaying vegetation is much less certain than climate models suppose, researchers say, and carbon emission estimates may be wrong. 

LONDON, 29 August, 2015 – Some of the microscopic creatures which live in the soil are able to digest dead plants and trees, turning their contents into gas and minerals.

But researchers say their work show that our understanding of how organic material is decomposed is fundamentally wrong, calling into question some current climate models.

The researchers, from Lund University, Sweden, and the University of New Hampshire, USA, have published their study in the journal Ecological Monographs. They say it means that climate models which include micro-organisms in their estimates of future climate change must be reconsidered.

When plants or trees die, their leaves and branches fall to the ground and the organic matter which is absorbed by the soil is then decomposed, mainly by the activity of fungi and bacteria, which convert the dead materials into the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and mineral nutrients.

Until now, the Lund team says, scientists had thought that high-quality organic materials, such as leaves that are rich in soluble sugars, were mainly decomposed by bacteria, leaving the lower-quality matter, like cellulose and lignin, to be broken down mainly by fungi.

Expectations confounded

Previous research has suggested that organic material decomposed by fungi results in less CO2 and nutrient leakage compared with matter decomposed by bacteria.

This is important for the climate models in use today, as any change in the loss of CO2 and mineral nitrogen would alter the soil’s contribution to greenhouse gases and eutrophication, the process in which the release of excessive chemical pollution causes algal blooms in watercourses.

The researchers have now examined the relative significance of fungal and bacterial decomposition over a 23-year period. “In contrast with expectations, there was no evidence that high-quality organic material was mainly broken down by bacteria. In fact, the data strongly suggested the contrary”, says Johannes Rousk, researcher in microbial ecology at Lund.

“There was also no evidence to suggest that organic material broken down by fungi reduced the leakage of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or the leakage of nutrients. Once again, the results tended to suggest the contrary”, he says.

He and his co-author, Serita D Frey, say the results could have consequences not only for climate models, but also for current policies on land use intended to encourage fungi, which they think may be based on flawed assumptions about the role of fungi in reducing environmental damage.

New models

But they cannot say precisely what the significance of their findings may prove to be for greenhouse gases. Dr Rousk told the Climate News Network: Current models for carbon and nutrient turnover used by the IPCC, for example, and other organisations offering advice to governments do not yet explicitly incorporate microbial communities.

A new generation of models is under development that have begun to do this. These will be affected by our results, which challenge current beliefs held in soil microbial ecology.

So our results will not directly affect current models or their predictions, but the development of next generation models. It is probably not possible to conclude whether the models in use today have led to over-estimates of releases, or the opposite.

By revising the interpretation of fungal and bacterial roles in decomposition, and their potential for carbon and nutrient release from soils, our results will hopefully reduce the ‘noise in the models and increase the precision of predictions.

Decomposition and other soil processes are estimated to account for nearly 30% of all naturally-produced CO2 emissions. – Climate News Network

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Islamic climate experts urge 1.5°C limit on warming

Islamic climate experts urge 1.5°C limit on warming

A far-reaching call to avoid runaway climate change and to build a more just and sustainable global society has been launched by Islamic leaders.

LONDON, 19 August, 2015 – An influential group of Islamic leaders has urged world governments to prevent human-caused climate change forcing global average temperatures more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level.

In a radical advance on the position of most developed countries, the group says it would be better to aim for 1.5°C  ̶  the lower limit that many climate scientists say would offer a stronger chance of preventing climate change reaching dangerous levels, but to which few governments have so far agreed.

The group’s call, a long time in preparation, was issued at the end of the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium, held in the Turkish city of Istanbul, and is published as the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change.

It is addressed primarily to the negotiators who will meet in Paris in December at the UN Climate Change Conference, the main aim of which will be to get agreement on a robust and enforceable global treaty to cut emissions of greenhouse gases in time to stay within the 2°C safety limit.

Rapid phase-out

The authors also address people of all nations and their leaders, urging them to commit themselves to 100% renewable energy and/or a zero emissions strategy as early as possible as part of a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.

But they go much further than that. They write: “We particularly call on the well-off nations and oil-producing states to . . . stay within the 2°C limit, or, preferably, within the 1.5°C limit, bearing in mind that two-thirds of the earth’s proven fossil fuel reserves remain in the ground”.

This is a clear reference to the warnings that a large part of those reserves cannot safely be exploited, and will prove to be stranded assets.

There is growing pressure for corporate and individual investors to withdraw their support from fossil fuel exploiters, and the declaration’s signatories specifically recognise this.

“To chase after unlimited economic growth
in a planet that is finite
and already overloaded is not viable”

They write: “We call upon corporations, finance, and the business sector to . . . assist in the divestment from the fossil fuel-driven economy and the scaling-up of renewable energy and other ecological alternatives.”

The declaration is blunt about what the signatories see as the urgent need for drastically far-reaching change. Wealthy nations and oil-producing states are urged to “lead the way in phasing out their greenhouse gas emissions as early as possible, and no later than the middle of the century”.

They are urged to provide generous financial and technical support to the less well-off to achieve that early phase-out of greenhouse gases, and should “recognise the moral obligation to reduce consumption so that the poor may benefit from what is left of the earth’s non-renewable resources . . .”

Carrying capacity

Elsewhere, the signatories say that “to chase after unlimited economic growth in a planet that is finite and already overloaded is not viable”. This is a rare reference to population and the planet’s “carrying capacity”  ̶  the maximum population size that the environment can sustain indefinitely.

They even go so far as to call for “a fresh model of wellbeing, based on an alternative to the current financial model, which depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality”.

These are demands for changes so radical that they are seldom heard. But they are addressed to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, to people of other faiths, and to “all groups” to join in “co-operation and friendly competition . . . as we can all be winners in this race”.

The declaration sets the bar high for the Islamic world, for people of all religions and of none, to treat climate change as a serious and present problem that demands fundamental change across global society. – Climate News Network

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Andes’ migrating trees are moving towards extinction

Andes' migrating trees are moving towards extinction

Highland tree species in the Andes are decreasing as global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions forces lowland varieties to move upwards into cooler climes.

LONDON, 17 August, 2015 – Scientists have known for years that, in a warming world, many living things try to move uphill to seek survival where the air is cooler. But new research provides a dire warning of the risks for those unable to move fast enough.

Unlike animals, trees and other sorts of vegetation cannot move quickly to escape the heat. And for some of them, it seems, there is no survival option available. They simply die.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that the number of highland tree species in the Andes mountains of South America is decreasing as lowland trees move up the slope to avoid the rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

The results suggest that tropical tree species in the region are at risk of extinction because of the intensification of warming, caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities.

Can’t escape

“The effects of climate change are everywhere – you can’t escape it,” says Kenneth J. Feeley, a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences and International Centre for Tropical Botany at Florida International University.

“Some people hold the notion that the Amazon is an isolated and pristine ecosystem, immune to disturbances. We need to change our mindset and open our eyes to the fact that, even in the middle of the Amazon or the remote Andes mountains, species are at risk.

“Tropical forests, and the thousands of rare or endemic species they support, are highly sensitive to changes in climate, and they are perhaps some of the most threatened ecosystems of all. Climate change is pervasive and dangerous.”

“We need to change our mindset and open our eyes to the fact that species are at risk”

Feeley, who has studied the ecology, biogeography and conservation of tropical plant and animal communities for more than 15 years, is the study’s corresponding author.

Most previous studies of the effects of climate change on tropical forests have focused on adult trees. But this latest study ­ – led by Alvaro Duque, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National University of Colombia, Medellin – included shrubs and juvenile trees.

Mapped and measured

The research team mapped and measured more than 32,000 individual plants, representing more than 1,820 species, in the northern Andes and northwestern Colombia.

By looking repeatedly at the composition of species in a series of 16 forest plots, spanning a height range of nearly 3,000 metres, they were able to show that highland species are decreasing in abundance, relative to lowland, heat-tolerant species.

The changes are happening in large and small specimens, which the authors say suggests that the cause is a long-term disruption, such as global warming.

This study adds to the growing body of evidence compiled by Feeley and his colleagues that shows the upward migration of tropical plant species in recent decades in Peru and Costa Rica.

With these new results from Colombia, the scientists now have a more complete understanding of how the highly complex and under-studied ecosystems of tropical montane forests are being affected by changes in climate. – Climate News Network

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Carbon emissions threaten British butterflies

Carbon emissions threaten British butterflies

By mid-century carbon dioxide emissions in the United Kingdom could be causing recurrent droughts severe enough to force several butterfly species into extinction.

LONDON, 16 August, 2015 – If 25 years from now you can’t see a speckled wood near the English woodland, it wont be because of natural camouflage. And if you suddenly miss the large skipper, it wont be because it has led the team off the field.

Both species of British butterfly could be extinct because of global warming. And other flying insects, and even birds, may face similar jeopardy.

Under a range of climate change scenarios, extreme droughts are expected to become more frequent. Tom Oliver of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and colleagues report in the journal Nature Climate Change that they looked at long-term butterfly population records from 129 sites monitored under the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme to work out how 28 species had fared during an extreme drought event in Britain in 1995, and identified six species more than usually sensitive to brilliant sunshine and extended dry seasons.

Besides large skipper and speckled wood, these include the ringlet, large white, small white and green-veined white.

The authors warn that by 2050 the recurring droughts forecast by climate scientists under a “business as usual” scenario, in which humans go on expanding the use of fossil fuels, thus putting more and more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise global average temperatures, could cause population collapses.

Recovery impossible

“Should this occur repeatedly, populations may be unable to recover, resulting in local extinctions,” they warn.

The research was backed by the charity Butterfly Conservation, by the agency Natural England and by the University of Exeter.

Butterflies, transient and brightly coloured, make good tests of local ecological health, and so are well studied. So has been their response to climate change. Some species have responded by extending their range uphill or northwards in response to the overall shift in average temperatures, while other populations have dwindled.

A shift in climate is naturally expected to help some species flourish, others fade, But butterflies, like birds, are popular symbols of the natural world and there is pressure to conserve. The study is designed to examine the big challenges that will face conservation agencies by 2050.

“We consider the average response across Great Britain. Losses are likely to be more severe in drier areas with more intensive land use, whilst wetter areas with less fragmented habitat will provide refugia.

“The study looked at butterflies but the conclusions are potentially valid for other species”

“We assume that butterflies wont have time to evolve to become more drought-tolerant, because their populations are already small, and evolution would need to be very rapid. The study looked at butterflies but the conclusions are potentially valid for other species such as birds, beetles, moths and dragonflies,” said Dr Oliver.

Worryingly, the researchers found that simply devoting more space and habitat to conservation – and in a world in which rising population means greater pressure on farmland, this would not be easy – and especially by creating corridors along which species could migrate, would not be enough.

Even more worryingly, the scientists found that some species would be at risk of widespread extinction even under relatively favourable greenhouse emissions scenarios.

“The results are worrying. Until I started this research, I hadnt quite realised the magnitude and potential impacts from climate change,” said Dr Oliver. “For drought-sensitive butterflies, and potentially other taxa, widespread population extinctions are expected by 2050.

“To limit these losses, both habitat restoration and reducing CO2 emissions have a role. In fact, a combination of both is necessary.” – Climate News Network

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Added gene can make rice more climate-friendly

Added gene can make rice more climate-friendly

Scientists discover a way to boost production of the grain that billions rely on for food – and reduce its damaging emissions of methane.

LONDON, 14 August, 2015 – An international team of scientists has found a way to make rice more productive, more nutritious and less of a greenhouse gas producer – simply by adding just one gene from the cereal, barley.

The single gene SUSIBA 2 – the acronym stands for sugar signalling in barley – makes all the difference. And the importance of the breakthrough is that rice feeds half the world – but, as it grows, is one of the great sources of the greenhouse gas, methane.

The world’s rice paddy fields release up to 100 million tonnes each year of methane − possibly 17% of the global total.

And although methane emissions are small compared with carbon dioxide, each molecule of methane is far more potent a global warmer. The gas is 34 times more potent than CO2 over a century, but 84 times more so over a much shorter timespan – just 20 years.

Ideal conditions

The conditions ideal for rice – warm and waterlogged, and mud, rich with nutrients − are also ideal for the generation of methane.

The scientists from China, Sweden and the US report in Nature journal that they calculated that if they could do something to encourage the conversion of sugars to starches in the rice plant, there would be more productivity in the stalk and ears, and less around the roots, where the methane-generating bacteria flourish.

In their words, this would “generate a high starch, low methane emission variety”.

They used transcription factor technology – a form of genetic modification that could soon also deliver better drought tolerance in some important crop plants – and began tests at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Fuzhou, China, in 2012 and 2013. Transcription factors bind to genes and turn them on or off.

“As the world’s population grows, so will rice production. And as the Earth warms, so will rice paddies, resulting in even more methane emissions”

Earlier experiments in Sweden had helped the team understand how to manage the transcription factors so they could just about dictate which parts of the plant absorbed more of the carbon taken from the atmosphere by photosynthesis.

The result was a rice variety that yielded more starch, so that it delivered more energy per spoonful for a hungry household, or that could be converted to more biofuel during times of surplus.

Japanese scientists, too, have been looking for ways to get all the value they can out of one of the world’s most vital crops. But the other important outcome, the researchers say, was a near-elimination of methane production from around the roots.

The next step is to look at what happens in the paddy fields, and try to understand what is going on and what the change could mean for methane-generating bacteria.

Test variety

The scientists also dried the whole plant once it had ripened to examine what had occurred, and to compare it with control varieties in the same fields. They found that grains of the test variety contained almost 87% starch, compared with 77% in the control sample.

The research still has a long way to go, but given that global population could sometime this century hit or even surpass 10 billion, and given that the land available for farming cannot expand, there is pressure to increase yields per field.

Ominously, research so far suggests that global warming – and the accompanying greater extremes of heat in the growing season – could reduce yields. So plant scientists must make the most of any advances in the understanding of the biology of growth.

“The need to increase starch content and to lower methane emissions from rice production is widely recognised, but the ability to do both simultaneously has eluded researchers,” says Christer Jansson, a co-author of the report, and director of plant sciences at the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“As the world’s population grows, so will rice production. And as the Earth warms, so will rice paddies, resulting in even more methane emissions. It’s an issue that must be addressed.” – Climate News Network

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Wind and solar surge sends EU emissions tumbling

Wind and solar surge sends EU emissions tumbling

Many countries that promised to cut GHG emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are now exceeding their targets, bringing new hope for success at the Paris climate talks.

LONDON, 12 August, 2015 – Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions are falling fast, mainly because of the rapid spread of the wind turbines and solar panels that are replacing fossil fuels for electricity generation.

European Union data shows that once countries adopt measures to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs), they often exceed their targets − and this finding is backed up by figures released this week in a statement by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Convention’s statistics show that the 37 industrialised countries (plus the EU) that signed up in 1997 to the Kyoto Protocol − the original international treaty on combating global warming – have frequently exceeded their promised GHG cuts by a large margin.

Beacon for governments

The UNFCCC statement says: “This is a powerful demonstration that climate change agreements not only work, but can drive even higher ambition over time.

“The successful completion of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period can serve as a beacon for governments as they work towards a new, universal climate change agreement in Paris, in December this year.”

In the EU, the leading countries for making savings are Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and Spain, which account for two-thirds of the total savings on the continent. But most of the 28 countries in the bloc are also making progress towards the EU’s own target of producing 20% of all its energy needs from renewables by 2020. It has already reached 15%.

Part of the EU plan to prevent any of the 28 member states backsliding on agreed targets to reduce GHGs is to measure every two years the effect of various policies to achieve the reductions.

“This is a powerful demonstration that
climate change agreements not only work,
but can drive even higher ambition over time”

All states have to submit details of savings achieved through the introduction of renewables in electricity production, heating and cooling systems, and transport.

Because of the time taken to compile the figures, the latest report from the EC Joint Research Centre goes up only to 2012. However, it shows that each year in the three years up to the end of 2012 GHGs emitted by the EU fell by 8.8% as a result of replacing fossil fuels with renewables.

Two-thirds of the savings came from the widespread introduction of wind and solar power. Renewables used for heating and cooling achieved 31% of the savings, and transport 5%. Most transport renewables came from the use of bio-fuels instead of petrol and diesel.

Measuring the progress towards targets is vital for mutual trust between nations in the run-up to the Paris climate talks.  It also gives politicians confidence that they can make pledges they can keep.

Ambitious goal

The knowledge that the EU is likely to exceed its target of a 20% reduction of all emissions on 1990 levels by 2020 has led ministers to a more ambitious goal – total reductions of 40% by 2030. A large part of this will come from the installation of more renewables and energy-efficiency measures.

Across Europe, emissions vary widely from country to country, with Germany having the highest and Malta the lowest. Germany also had the greatest absolute reduction of emissions – a total drop of 23% on 1990 levels by 2012.

The highest emissions per capita were in Luxembourg (20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person), followed by Estonia (12.7), the Czech Republic (10.2), Germany (9.8), and the Netherlands (9.7).

Just five member states – Germany, Poland, the UK, Italy and Romania − together produced two-thirds of the EU’s emissions in 1990. The only change by 2012 was that Romania had been overtaken by Spain. – Climate News Network

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Clouds over China’s solar power industry

Clouds over China’s solar power industry

China is by far the world’s biggest producer of solar panels, but the industry could become a victim of its own success.

LONDON, 10 August, 2015 – The recent turmoil in China’s stock market has sent shockwaves through the country’s corporate sector, including its mighty solar power industry which in recent years has grown to dominate the world market.

Harnessing solar energy is considered a key way of cutting back on fossil fuel use and of meeting the challenge posed by climate change.

Seven out of the world’s top ten manufacturers of solar panels are China-based companies, together providing about 40% of global solar supplies.

But now the industry’s future expansion is under threat as companies try to cope with too much production capacity, very low profit margins and crushing amounts of debt.

In 2013 Suntech, a Chinese company which was at one time the world’s biggest manufacturer, went bust. International creditors are still trying to recoup millions lent to the company.

Earlier this year the Hanergy Thin Film Power Group, a Chinese company which is a world leader in the manufacture of solar products, lost half its share value amid concerns about its corporate structure and worries of over-capacity and falling profit margins in the solar market. 

Export boom

Meanwhile the China-based conglomerate Yingli Green Energy Holding, another world leader in solar production, has been beset with rumours of a slowdown in demand leading to a halt in production at some of its plants. 

Like many other industries in China, the solar sector has grown fast: in recent years companies rushed to join in a solar export boom, bolstered by generous loans from government banks. Exports of solar products surged.

But then US solar manufacturers complained of heavily subsidised China-made solar goods threatening to destroy their industry. 

Tariffs were imposed on a number of Chinese solar products. A slowdown in Europe’s economy also hit export sales.

China cut the price of its products: according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group, China now sells solar panels for just over 60 US cents per watt of electricity generating capacity, down from US$4.50 per watt in 2008.

While that’s good news for those installing solar – and of considerable benefit in the fight against climate change – the price drop has put considerable pressure on China’s solar manufacturers. It has also meant many solar companies elsewhere in the world have gone to the wall.

Ailing industry

Varun Sivaram is a researcher at the US Council on Foreign Relationsspecialising in renewable energy.  He says that while China’s dominance of the solar market has led to low global prices, the industry is not in a healthy state.

“Solar is heading down a path of profitless prosperity”, says Sivaram. In effect, he says, China is subsidising the global solar industry.

Sivaram says one of the damaging side effects of China’s dominance of the solar market is that production has tended to stick to old technologies and innovation in the industry has been stifled.

“As panel manufacturers scrape by on razor-thin margins, kept afloat by government credit, investing in fundamentally new technologies is far from a priority.” 

Some relief for the China industry might be provided by a government-backed campaign to boost sales in the domestic market.  About a third of panels manufactured in China in 2014 were installed within the country. 

It’s estimated that China will install 14 GWs (gigawatts) of solar panels this year, mainly involving giant solar farms in the Gobi desert and elsewhere. In central Europe an installed capacity of one GW of photovoltaics alone would be expected to produce almost 900 GWh of electricity annually, supplying around 225,000 households.

In the first three months of 2015 China added the equivalent of the entire installed solar power of France to its electricity network. Climate News Network

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