Extreme weather puts Africa’s food security at risk

Extreme weather puts Africa's food security at risk

A British government scientific panel says increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather threaten more – and more severe – global food crises.

LONDON, 15 August, 2015 – Developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa which depend heavily on food imports will be worst hit by the increasingly extreme global weather, a report says, with the Middle East and North Africa also threatened, in this case by social unrest.

In contrast, the authors say the impact on the world’s biggest economies is likely to be muted. But they think a serious crisis could occur as soon as 2016, with repercussions in many countries.

They write: We present evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing…preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040.”

The report was jointly commissioned by the UKs Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its Government Science and Innovation Network, with a foreword by the countrys former chief government scientist, Sir David King.

He writes: We know that the climate is changing and weather records are being broken all the time…The food system we increasingly rely on is a global enterprise. Up to now its been pretty robust and extreme weather has had limited impact on a global scale. But…the risks are serious and should be a cause for concern…

Likely scenarios

We should be looking carefully at even very low probability situations, and the likelihood of the scenarios suggested in this report are far too significant to ignore.”

The report says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2050 global food demand will be 60% above todays, with per capita demand also growing, and more meat-eating.

In 2007/8 a small weather-related production shock, coupled with historically low stock levels, led to rapid food price inflation in the main internationally traded grains, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index.

Prices rose by over 100%. A similar price spike occurred in 2010/11, partly driven by the weather in eastern Europe and Russia.

In 2012, the worst drought to hit the American Midwest for half a century triggered comparable spikes in international maize and soya prices. There is good evidence, the report says, that extreme weather events, from intense storms to droughts and heat waves, are increasing significantly.

Food production of the globally most important commodity crops (maize, soya, wheat and rice) comes from a small number of major producing countries.

Multiple failure

Simultaneous extreme weather events in two or more of these regions – creating a multiple bread basket failure – would represent a serious production shock. There is an urgent need to understand the driving dynamics of linked problems such as the El Niño effect – which may be becoming more extreme – the report says.

By examining production shocks in the recent past, the authors devised what they call a plausible worst case scenario” – a simultaneous drought affecting maize and soya production, and another which damages wheat and rice harvests.

More topically, they also describe what they say is a plausible worst case scenario for 2016. This involves a complex sequence, starting with a disappointing 2015 Indian monsoon, the loss of much of 2016s Black Sea winter wheat crop, and then Russian and Ukrainian export bans.

International wheat prices rise fast, prompting similar measures in south and central Asia and Argentina, and repercussions as far afield as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

In late spring a persistent drought starts in North America, affecting soya and maize forecasts and prices. Then a heatwave and drought hit the European wheat crop, leading to further rises across all cereals.

Panicked markets

In early summer a second failure of the Indian monsoon unleashes panic in the rice market, where Asian households have been steadily hoarding. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Nepal impose export restrictions.

Major importers such as Nigeria, Malaysia and the Philippines place orders far above normal levels in a bid to calm domestic markets. The scenario ends with still more countries
– Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia – imposing export bans.

One of the reports recommendations is that agriculture should adapt to a changing climate.

That, it says, means productivity must be increased by reversing declines in yield growth and closing the gap between actual and attainable yields in the developing world, while also reducing agricultures environmental impact, including the depletion of fresh water and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it says, given the increasing risk of extreme weather, this cannot come at the expense of production resilience. – Climate News Network

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Climate change imperils an entire UK ecosystem

Climate change imperils an entire UK ecosystem

In the upland peat bogs of Britain, global warming is killing insects and jeopardising the rare birds that depend on them.

LONDON, 3 August, 2015 – The UK may still be fairly well sheltered from the impacts of climate change, but British scientists now say the increasingly warm trend is threatening an entire eco-system.

They have found that several rare upland bird species are at risk, together with other ecosystem functions, because of the effects of climate change on the UK’s blanket bogs −  the peat bogs found mainly in the wetter western and northern uplands of Britain.

Following their study of uplands from mid-Wales to northern England, they report in Nature Communications that “climate change could drive substantial declines in abundances of keystone invertebrates and their predators, acting through soil moisture”.

Risk for people

Several bird species − including the dunlin, golden plover and red grouse − depend on these wetlands for nesting and feeding, and there is a risk for people as well, because most drinking water comes from the upland peats.

Ecologists at the University of York and colleagues found that climate change threatens the bogs, not only through rising temperatures from increasing peat decomposition but also because of altered rainfall patterns, with summer droughts drastically affecting the bogs’ hydrology.

The study showed that an insect called the crane fly − often known as the daddy longlegs − is crucial to determining the impact of climate change on peatland bird species.

The birds depend on the protein-rich crane flies as food for chicks, but the scientists found that summer droughts, which are predicted to increase, could cause significant declines in the flies, by 56%-81%, and therefore in the birds that depend on them.

“Everything works together like a jigsaw puzzle − if you change a piece, you will change
others around it”

Based on a peatland model developed at the University of York, and on the latest climate change predictions, they say the decline of crane flies could by 2051-80 mean a 50% fall in dunlin numbers, 30% in golden plovers and 15% in red grouse.

Another concern is the role of blanket bogs as a carbon store – or source. Globally, peatlands are an important carbon store, representing about 60% of the world’s terrestrial carbon, although they cover less than 3% of the Earth’s surface, and even the UK’s bogs play a significant part.

While they are forming, peatlands can absorb carbon, but in degraded peatlands carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can be released. So peatlands have a massive potential influence on climate change.

Bug-to-bird link

The peatland model was developed by Dr Andreas Heinemeyer, a Stockholm Environment Institute ecologist based at the University of York. He says: “This is one of the first studies to follow this bug-to-bird link, down the food chain, between climate change and something happening to an entire eco-system, with relevance to people.

“There is a very strong relationship between the moisture of the peat and the survival of the larvae of the crane fly during summer. July and August are peak times: if it is too dry, the larvae just desiccate and die, and are then not available for the bird chicks the following year.”

And it isn’t only rare birds that were at risk from climate change. Dr Heinemeyer says “We might be in for big change, not just in connection with our birds, but with our drinking water as well.

“If you end up being very dry as a blanket bog, you store less water and your water quality seems to deteriorate . . . everything works together like a jigsaw puzzle. If you change a piece, you will change others around it.” – Climate News Network

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Wildfire threat spreads across warming world

Wildfire threat spreads across warming world

As climate change warms the world vegetation dries, rainfall patterns waver and the threat of wildfire spreads.

LONDON, 1 August, 2015 – Wildfire – nature’s way of turning fallen vegetation into the next season’s nutrients – is a growing hazard. In the last 35 years, the wildfire season has grown longer by a fifth, and wildfire is now a threat to one fourth of all the plant-covered land on the planet.

US researchers report in Nature Communications that since 1970 the number of days without rain has increased by well over one day every decade.

William Jolly of the US Forest Service in Missoula, Montana and colleagues say they examined the fire season worldwide for the study period, taking into consideration all the factors that are used to calculate fire hazard: wind, humidity and temperature, as well as rainfall levels.

They found that the combined changes in the surface weather have meant that the fire season has increased so far by 18.7%

Worldwide, wildfires sear, scorch or incinerate about 350 million hectares of ground cover every year. Changes in the rainfall patterns were a factor, with the number of rain-free days increasing by 1.31 days per decade. The season of smoke and cinders and smouldering stumps had been extended almost everywhere.

Lower humidity

The average temperature on land that could support vegetation – for obvious reasons, the researchers did not include Antarctica or Greenland or the most arid desert zones – had increased by 0.185°C per decade and relative humidity, a measure of moisture in the air, had dropped 0.217% per decade.

Throughout Africa, the season of weather that carried a risk of fire was extended, and in Europe there were longer summers of greater risk in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and Latvia.

In 2010 Russia had its worst fire season in recorded history, and in eastern Canada in the same year drier seasons and greater temperatures led to huge fires. Between 1979 and 2013, the Mediterranean forest fire season grew 29 days longer.

The largest increase was in South America, where the season was extended by 33 days in 35 years. Peat fires in Indonesia in 1997-98, following a drought induced by that cyclic weather phenomenon El Niño, released carbon dioxide emissions that added up to somewhere between 13% and 40% of global fossil fuel emissions – but from just 1.4% of the planet’s total vegetated land area.

Fires play a role in natural ecosystems, and some landscapes – the maquis (thick evergreen scrub) of southern Europe, the mulga forests of Australia and the chaparral of western North America – are adapted to periodic but not frequent visitations of fire.

But, say the researchers, there has been a recent surge of “extremely destructive fires with corresponding social disruption and substantial economic costs.” The annual bill for fire suppression cost the US $1.7bn over the last decade, and US$1bn in Canada. In just one year, 2005, fire losses in Australia added up to US$9.4bn, or just about 1.3% of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Endangered conifers

Researchers have identified wildfire as an increasing hazard everywhere. But in the US there has been repeated concern about risks in California and other parts of the American west.

But the research team also noted that the danger of fire had spread to the temperate conifer forests of the northern Rockies, while South America’s tropical and subtropical forests and savannahs had all seen “tremendous” fire season changes. And in 2005, a rare drought in the Amazon basin meant that even the rainforests were damaged.

“We have shown that combined surface weather changes over the last three and a half decades have promoted global wildfire weather season lengthening,” the authors conclude.

“If these trends continue, increased wildfire potential may have pronounced global socio-economic, ecological and climate system impacts.” – Climate News Network

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Record torrential rainfall linked to warming climate

Record torrential rainfall linked to warming climate

Scientists show that devastating increases in extreme rainfall over the last 30 years fit in with global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 13 July, 2015 – If you think you’re getting an unusually hard soaking more often when you go out in the rain, you’re probably right.

A team of scientists in Germany says record-breaking heavy rainfall has been increasing strikingly in the last 30 years as global temperatures increase.

Before 1980, they say, the explanation was fluctuations in natural variability. But since then they have detected a clear upward trend in downpours that is consistent with a warming world.

The scientists, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), report in the journal Climatic Change that this increase is to be expected with rising global temperatures, caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

High-impact flooding

Short-term torrential rains can lead to what the team calls “high-impact” flooding. For example, extreme rainfall in Pakistan in 2010 brought devastation that killed hundreds of people and led to a cholera outbreak.

In the same year, rainstorms in Texas caused dozens of flash floods. And no fewer than three “once-in-a-century” floods in Germany all happened in just a couple of years from 1997.

“In all of these places, the amount of rain pouring down in one day broke local records – and while each of these individual events has been caused by a number of different factors, we find a clear overall upward trend for these unprecedented hazards,” says the lead author, Jascha Lehmann, a PIK researcher into climate impacts and vulnerabilities.

Statistical analysis of rainfall data from 1901 to 2010, derived from thousands of weather stations around the globe, shows that from 1980 to 2010 there were 12% more of these intense events than would be expected in a climate without global warming. In the last year of the period the team studied, there were 26% more record-breaking daily rainfall events globally.

“One out of 10 record-breaking rainfall events in the past 30 years can only be explained if
the long-term warming is taken into account”

Not all parts of the world are experiencing a similar pattern of soaking. The PIK scientists found that − possibly not surprisingly − wet regions generally saw a bigger increase in deluges and drier regions a smaller one.

In southeast Asia, the observed increase in record-breaking rainfall events is as high as 56%, in Europe 31%, and in the central US it is a more modest, but still worrying, 24%.

In marked contrast, some regions have experienced significantly fewer record-breaking daily rainfall events. In the Mediterranean, the reduction is 27%, and in the western US it is 21%. Both regions are at risk from severe droughts.

The team says there is a simple scientific explanation for what they report. They compared their findings with existing knowledge about how much more water the atmosphere can store when temperatures rise, described by what they call the well-known Clausius-Clapeyron equation.

Put simply, warmer air holds more moisture, which can be released during short-term heavy rainfall.

The scientists show that the observed increase in unprecedented heavy rainfall generally fits with this thermodynamically expected increase under global warming.

Upward trend

“One out of 10 record-breaking rainfall events observed globally in the past 30 years can only be explained if the long-term warming is taken into account,” says co-author Dim Coumou, a PIK researcher into the links between atmospheric circulation and extreme weather events. “For the last year studied, 2010, it is even one event out of four, as the trend is upward.”

There are, of course, qualifications to the broad picture. For instance, the scientists allowed for the fact that the quality of historic weather data differs from one place to another. Unsurprisingly, rainfall measurements from the Sahara desert are scarce, so the team avoids drawing conclusions for the region.

But rainfall in regions such as Europe and the US has been carefully monitored for over a century, allowing the authors to draw conclusions with high levels of confidence

“The pronounced recent increase in record-breaking rainfall events is, of course, worrying,” Coumou says. “Yet since it is consistent with human-caused global warming, it can also be curbed if greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are substantially reduced.” – Climate News Network

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Deaths mount as Pakistan heatwave is linked to climate

Deaths mount as Pakistan heatwave is linked to climate

More than 1,200 people have died as the result of an intense heatwave in southern Pakistan, and experts warn of more hot weather to come.

ISLAMABAD, 6 July, 2015 − Pakistan’s lack of preparedness in the face of increasingly intense weather events is being blamed for a growing death toll following what has been one of the most sustained heatwaves in the country since records began.

And weather experts say that the extreme heat – which lasted for much of the second half of June, and was felt most in the southern province of Sindh – is linked to climate change.

Ghulam Rasul, director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), told Climate News Network that the intense heat was caused by an unusually persistent area of low pressure over the Arabian Sea off Pakistan’s coast.

“Usually, in summer, cool winds blow from the sea to land, and in winter the situation is the opposite,” he said. “This moderates temperatures in the port city of Karachi, but this summer, this didn’t happen.”

Climate taskforce

Pervaiz Amir, formerly a member of a special taskforce on climate change set up by Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, said: “The mortality from heatstroke could have been avoided had the Sindh provincial government responded to a heatwave forecast issued by the Pakistan Meteorological Department.”

Karachi, a city of nearly 20 million, was worst hit, with bodies piling up in the city’s morgues, and hospitals crammed with people suffering from severe heatstroke as daytime temperatures climbed to well over 40°C for extended periods.

About 65,000 heatstroke patients were treated at the city’s hospitals, and the death toll in southern Pakistan climbed above 1,200.

“This is leading to more extreme weather events, with floods and heatwaves becoming more intense and frequent in recent years”

Chronic energy shortages – a common occurrence in Pakistan – added to the problem, and the heatwave came during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting period when people do not eat or drink during daylight hours.

Experts say Karachi has also suffered from what’s known as the urban heat island effect, with poor urban planning and a lack of green spaces making conditions even hotter.

Social workers say the majority of those who have died have been the poor and homeless. At one stage, Karachi’s cemeteries ran out of space for burying the dead.

Mohsin Iqbal, a climate scientist at the state-owned Global Change Impact Study Centre in Islamabad, says temperature increases in Pakistan are above the rise in average global temperatures.

Extreme events

“This is leading to more extreme weather events, with floods and heatwaves becoming more intense and frequent in recent years,” he says.

Climate experts say weather patterns throughout the Asian sub-continent are changing, with more intense periods of heat, delays in the monsoon season and a greater incidence of drought conditions.

In April and May this year, many parts of India were hit by an intense heatwave, causing the death of more than 2,000 people.

AccuWeather, a global forecasting service, says delays in the arrival of monsoon rains and further hot periods are likely to exacerbate drought conditions in Pakistan and northwest India in July and August, threatening crop production across a wide swathe of land. – Climate News Network

  • Saleem Shaikh is a freelance climate change and science journalist, based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Climate change offers rare respite for African farmers

Climate change offers rare respite for African farmers

A surprise effect of greenhouse gases is that changes in air temperature and wind patterns are increasing rainfall and crop yields in the drought-prone Sahel region.

LONDON, 18 June, 2015 − A wide belt of tropical Africa is enjoying higher rainfall than for decades past, boosting harvests and keeping the threat of drought at bay. And the main factor, according to new research, is climate change.

Drought killed at least 100,000 people in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert over a period of about 15 years from the late 1960s, but scientists in the UK report that summer rainfall was 0.3 mm (0.01 inches) a day higher from 1996-2011 than from 1964 to 1993.

“Amounts of rainfall have recovered substantially, and it was a surprise that the increase in greenhouse gases appears to have been the dominant factor,” Professor Rowan Sutton, director of climate research at the University of Reading’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, UK, told Reuters news agency.

The scientists report in Nature Climate Change that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accounted for three-quarters of the recovery in rainfall, rather than other possible factors such as changes in sea temperature or air pollution from acid rain. Air warmed by GHGs can hold more moisture − which releases more rain − and can also affect wind patterns.

Welcome sign

Not surprisingly, the report comes with qualifications, and no one is hailing it as anything more than a welcome sign that one part of Africa is gaining more than it is losing from global warming − for the moment, at least.

Prof Sutton, co-author of the study, stressed that the change in Sahelian rainfall was only local, and that warming is still affecting many parts of Africa through desertification, floods and rising sea levels.

“It would be naïve to conclude that this is a good thing for Africa,” he said. “And, in future, there are other effects. The rise in temperatures can be detrimental to crops.”

But whatever climate change may bring, the people of the Sahel are working for a better future.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), based in Washington DC, has researched the role that the region’s farmers are playing, and has produced a report containing practical guidance and examples of how to scale up “regreening”.

This is a restoration technique that hundreds of thousands of farmers in three Sahelian countries − Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Niger − and in Malawi are already using to make their land more productive.

“It would be naïve to conclude that this is a good thing for Africa. In future . . . the rise in temperatures can be detrimental to crops”

Regreening uses a range of agroforestry and sustainable land management practices, and the WRI report focuses on one in particular that it says is “particularly promising”: farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR).

In FMNR systems, farmers protect and manage the growth of trees and shrubs that regenerate naturally in their fields from root stock or from seeds dispersed through animal manure. It can be an easy, low-cost way for farmers to increase the number of trees in the fields – and it is producing results in the Sahel.

In Burkina Faso, farmers are using water-harvesting techniques such as building stone lines and improved planting pits, known locally as zai. These help trap rainfall on crop fields, increasing average cereal yields from 400kg to around 900kg (880-1,984 lbs) per hectare.

Important food crops

One farmer in Burkina Faso said he had not needed to plant a single tree since 1979, because they grew naturally. Others said that FMNR had improved their yield from important food crops, such as millet.

In neighbouring Niger, the increased density of trees on cropland has reduced the time women spend collecting firewood from 2.5 hours each day to an average of half an hour.

Robert Winterbottom, a senior fellow with WRI’s forests programme, made a radical suggestion in a recent blog. He said that regreening the Sahel could enable people to stay at home, instead of joining the current tide of migration by refugees risking their lives to cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean to escape to Europe.

“Farmers have already demonstrated their ability to innovate and adopt practices that restore degraded land and provide a means to secure their futures,” he said.

“Perhaps citizens throughout Africa can prosper in their home countries, eliminating the need to take to the sea to pursue a better quality of life.” − Climate News Network

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Australia faces stormy future as temperatures soar

Australia faces stormy future as temperatures soar

Destructive storms and sudden floods are set to intensify across Australia as global warming plays havoc with rainfall patterns.

LONDON, 13 June, 2015 − New research into storm patterns warns that flash floods are likely to sweep across the Australian landscape with increasing intensity, particularly in urban or residential areas.

Peak rainfall is predicted to soar with rising surface temperatures as the world’s largest island – and also its smallest continent − experiences ever greater extremes of heat.

Civil engineers from the Water Research Centre at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) report in Nature Geoscience that they looked at 40,000 storms across the whole of the continent over the last 30 years and identified a pattern that warmer temperatures are linked to disruptive rainfall events.

“Our results were consistent across all the climate zones in Australia, regardless of season or storm type, without exception,” says Professor Ashish Sharma, one of the study’s authors.

Unexpected finding

“This was an unexpected finding, and it supports our hypothesis that increasing temperatures are changing rainfall patterns. It means that most people in Australia can expect to see intensification in the magnitude of flash flooding in smaller catchments, particularly in urban or residential areas.”

The researchers worked from data from the 500 largest storms as measured by total rainfall at 79 locations. They looked not so much at the total volume of rainfall during a storm as at the pattern of intensity of rainfall at 12-minute intervals during each storm’s duration.

“It’s very likely these same trends will be observed around the world”

They projected their findings into a hotter world and calculated that a 5°C rise in temperatures could be accompanied by up to 20% more flood peaks in urban catchment areas. Some cities could experience much worse: for Perth, the rise is projected at 10%, for Sydney 12%, and for Darwin a whopping 45%.

Australia is a landscape of extremes of heat and drought and occasional devastating flood. It is also a land of paradox.

Its own scientists have calculated that the island’s most recent and devastating heatwaves are a clear consequence of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, yet the government that finances such research has questioned the validity of its climate science and encouraged the increase of emissions.

Lost productivity

The 2013 extremes of heat cost the nation an estimated US$6bn in lost productivity, and there is evidence that such events could become five times more likely as global average temperatures rise.

The intensification of dangerous flash floods − which, by definition, are sudden and potentially lethal − is a consequence that nobody expected. And if the team’s finding is replicated by further studies, then the impact is not likely to be limited to Australia.

“These more intense patterns are leading to more destructive storms, which can significantly influence the severity of flood flows,” says the reports lead author, Conrad Wasko, from the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“The climate zones we studied in Australia are representative of most global climates, so it’s very likely these same trends will be observed around the world.” – Climate News Network

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Overheating Earth staggers into Last Chance Saloon

Overheating Earth staggers into Last Chance Saloon

Hard bargaining in Bonn this week will probably decide whether the crucial climate talks in Paris in December can save human civilisation from ultimate collapse.

LONDON, 1 June, 2015 − The text of the agreement on how the world will tackle climate change and set targets that will keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels is being negotiated in Bonn this week.

The 2°C limit has been set by politicians to prevent the planet overheating dangerously − but the cuts in carbon emissions required to achieve it have so far not been agreed.

It is this gap between the policy goals agreed  by world leaders and their lack of action to achieve them that the Bonn conference seeks to address.

The meeting, which opened today, will last for 10 days as working groups grapple with action to reduce carbon emissions, how to finance technology transfer, and how to adapt to sea level rise and other unavoidable consequences of present warming − such as the current heatwave affecting India, where temperatures in some southern states have topped 47°C.

Devastating consequences

Scientists and environment groups have said that this year’s negotiations are humanity’s “Last Chance Saloon”. If steep emissions cuts are not agreed and implemented quickly, the global temperature has little chance of staying under 2°C − with devastating consequences for the natural world and human civilisation.

There are signs that momentum towards agreement is increasing. A report by Globe International, which will be given to delegates, reveals that three-quarters of the world’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases are now limited by national targets.

The 2015 Global Climate Legislation Study shows that the number of climate laws and policies aimed at limiting emissions passed by national governments had increased to 804 this year, up from 426 in 2009 when the Copenhagen climate talks collapsed, and from just 54 in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed.

“This growing amount of legislation provides
evidence that the world’s major emitters are
taking serious steps to tackle climate change
in their countries”

The lead author of the study, Michal Nachmany, a researcher at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, says: “With three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions now covered by national targets, we can be more confident about the credibility of the pledges that countries will make ahead of the crucial summit in Paris.

“While collectively these pledges are unlikely to be consistent with the international goal of avoiding global warming of more than 2°C, the existence of national legislation and policies should provide the opportunity for countries to strengthen the ambition of their emissions cuts after the summit.”

Professor Samuel Fankhauser, co-director of the Grantham Institute and co-author of the study, says: “Every five or so years, the number of climate laws and policies across the world has doubled. This growing amount of legislation provides evidence that the world’s major emitters are taking serious steps to tackle climate change in their countries.

“By writing their intentions into law, the world’s leaders have shown that international climate change talks do lead to national action in the vast majority of countries.”

The problem is, as the report points out, that current targets and timetables to achieve them are not enough to limit greenhouse gases sufficiently to get below the agreed 2°C limit.

Under pressure

However,  politicians are coming under pressure to improve their pledges. Ahead of the Bonn meeting, a business summit in Paris showed that many companies are pushing their political leaders for action.

This is a marked change from the last two decades, a time when the fossil fuel industry has lobbied to slow decisions on tackling climate change.

In Paris, 25 worldwide business networks − representing 6.5 million companies from 130 countries − demanded political action to achieve a low-emission, climate-resilient economy.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the organiser of the Bonn conference, says: “With some 200 days to the UN climate convention conference in Paris, the growing momentum for change and for action is rapidly gaining ground across countries, companies, cities and citizens.

“News of yet another group of stakeholders committing to long-term emission reduction targets or ambitious investments in renewable energies is emerging almost daily – building confidence and a sense of ‘can do’ among nations as we enter the final six months of 2015.”

Whether this optimism is justified will be seen in the next week as the working groups refine the technical agreements that heads of governments are expected to sign in Paris in December.

Recurring problems

Among the many recurring problems that have created a stumbling block is the amount of money pledged by rich nations to developing countries to help them avoid fossil fuel use and adapt to climate change. So far, the pledges to provide billions of dollars in technical help and adaptation have not been followed by the cash.

As well as trying to seal an agreement for action after 2020, the Bonn conference is also working  to accelerate action in the five years until then – which  are currently covered by no legally-binding international agreement. The particular focus here will be on  scaling up the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency in urban areas.

The fact that China and the US are now working together to reach an agreement in Paris is also helping move the talks along.

However, some developing countries, notably India, are still saying their priority is lifting their poor out of poverty, rather than reducing their emissions.

To this end, India is exploiting far more of its coal reserves, and jeopardising hopes of global reductions in emissions. – Climate News Network

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Rainforests are left on edge of destruction

Rainforests are left on edge of destruction

Eminent conservationist says climate change’s major threat to the world’s tropical rainforests comes not from heat, but from drought and uncertain rainfall.

LONDON, 23 May, 2015 – Rising temperatures will not themselves spell disaster for the world’s rainforests. It is the droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns, which climate change is already worsening, that will settle the forests’ fate before the century ends, according to a new book.

Claude Martin, who has worked in tropical rainforest conservation since the 1970s, is author of On the Edge, commissioned by the Club of Rome, which published the seminal Limits to Growth report in 1972. Since then, nearly 50% of the world’s forest cover has disappeared.

Martin, a former director-general of WWF International, recognises that there are many drivers of forest damage and destruction − including the pressures of the global economy for animal feed and food for humans, and the worldwide demand for biofuels.

Essential ecosystem

Acknowledging the progress made in science and conservation, he reminds his readers that the forests are not just huge repositories of biodiversity, but an essential ecosystem providing everyone on the planet with fresh water, clean air and climate regulation.

Evaluating the impact of climate change on rainforests means focusing on the length of dry seasons and water stress, rather than temperature, Martin writes.

The likeliest cause of forest collapse and severe risks of reaching a tipping point is not temperature rise, but the change from the dependable rainfall patterns of the past, and the probability of increasing droughts and forest fires.

He sees a likelihood of drought and fires increasing − not least in the Amazon − because of the way in which climate change is fuelling El Niño and La Niña, the twin periodic temperature disruptions that occur every few years in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Known together as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), their impacts spread for thousands of miles.

“Lethargy of governments and the impotence of the intergovernmental system make it very unlikely that average global warming will be kept below 2°C

Martin is one of those scientists who are convinced that climate change will intensify ENSOs. As global warming effects become stronger, ENSO events become more frequent, rainfall drops further because of forest loss and fragmentation, and droughts are likely to become more common and more severe. And so the vicious circle becomes a constant downward spiral.

“When the 20th century’s strongest ENSO occurred in 1997/98,” Martin writes, “it was considered to be an unusual phenomenon. . . . [It] caused severe drought in Amazonia, Southeast Asia and Mexico, and had massive effects on the net primary productivity of forests, thus their capacity of carbon storage as well as forest fires.”

After another severe drought in 2001, following another ENSO event, about a third of the Amazon forests stored significantly less carbon and became vulnerable to fire. Two more droughts followed soon after, in 2005 and 2010. The first was estimated to be a once-in-a-century occurrence.

Fastest warming

Martin’s concerns are not confined to Amazonia. He cites modelling by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shows that Africa is expected to warm by 3-4°C by the end of the century − the fastest warming since the end of the last ice age around 11,500 years ago. This would expose the great Congo Basin forest to the risk of severe damage.

Globally, Martin is not hopeful. “The current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the lethargy of governments and the impotence of the intergovernmental system make it very unlikely that average global warming will be kept below 2°C,” he says.

Under a mid-range emissions scenario, atmospheric CO2 concentrations are likely to rise by the end of the century to levels not seen in the last 50 million years. But he thinks the forest crisis will be developing uncontrollably some decades before then.

He predicts: “The decisive period for the long-term future of the rainforests . . . will be the second half of the century, when global warming is likely to exceed 2°C above the pre-industrial global average.

“It will be too late then to avoid a dangerous tipping point of self-reinforcing climate change.” – Climate News Network

  • On the Edge − The State and Fate of the World’s Tropical Rainforests. A Report to the Club of Rome, by Claude Martin (Greystone Books, £20/US$32.95).

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Weather events taken to extremes by climate change

Weather events taken to extremes by climate change

Scientists warn that global warming could greatly increase the likelihood of droughts, floods and heatwaves reaching record levels of frequency and intensity.

LONDON, 15 May, 2015 − As temperatures soar to record heights, blame it on global warming − but only about three-quarters of the time. And when the rain comes down by the bucketful, you can attribute one downpour in five to climate change.

Yet another team of research scientists has looked at the probabilities, and has linked extremes of weather with global warming.

Extremes have always happened and are, by definition, rare events. So, for the last 30 years, climate scientists have carefully explained that no particular climate event could be identified as the consequence of a rise in global average temperatures driven by the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels.

But some events that were once improbable have now become statistically more probable because of global warming, according to Erich Fischer and Reno Knutti, climate scientists at ETH Zurich − the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

They report in Nature Climate Change that they looked at simulations of probabilities and climate records for the period 1901 to 2005, and projections for the period 2006 to 2100.

Rise in temperatures

Then they settled down to calculate the likelihood that a proportion of past heatwaves or floods could be linked to a measured average rise in planetary temperatures so far of 0.85°C.

They worked out how these proportions would change if the average planetary temperatures reach 2°C above the “normal” of the pre-industrial world, and they found that human-induced global warming could already be responsible for 18% of extremes of rain or snow, and 75% of heatwaves worldwide.

If the temperatures go up to the 2°C that nations have agreed should be the limit, then the probability of precipitation extremes that could be blamed on global warming rises to 40%. They are less precise about heatwaves, but any rise could be sharp.

“If temperatures rise globally by 2°C, we would expect twice as many extreme heat events worldwide than we would with a 1.5% increase,” Dr Fischer says.

“These global warming targets, which are discussed in climate negotiations and which differ little at first glance, therefore have a great influence on the frequency of extremes.”

The researchers are talking about probabilities: it will still be difficult ever to say that one event was a random happening, and another a result of climate change. In such research, there are definition problems. What counts as extreme heat in northern England would not be extreme in India or Saudi Arabia.

But such distinctions could become increasingly academic for people who live in the path of unusual heat and extended drought, or flash floods and catastrophic hailstorms.

A scientist recently told the European Geosciences Union that some regions of the planet will see unprecedented drought, driven once again by climate change, before 2050.

Ignored warnings

Yusuke Satoh, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, warned that under the notorious business-as-usual scenario −where nations ignore such warnings and just go on burning fossil fuels − 13 of 26 global regions would see “unprecedented hydrological drought levels” by 2050. Some would see this parching much earlier − the Mediterranean by 2027, and the western US as early as 2017.

Such studies are calculated to help provoke governments, states and water authorities into preparing for climate change, but it just may be that the western US is already feeling the heat. California, in particular, has been in the grip of unprecedented drought, and researchers have already linked this to climate change.

Reservoirs and irrigation systems are built on historical data. “But in the next few decades, these historical data may no longer give us accurate information about current conditions,” Dr Satoh says. “The earlier we take this seriously, the better we will be able to adapt.” – Climate News Network

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