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March 29 2012

21:03

Closing in on Climate Tipping Points: Irreversible Climate Change, Managing the Risk and Learning to Adapt


Could the warnings be any clearer? Climate tipping points are upon us and adaptation as will as mitigation are key to grappling with global warmingIn the past days and weeks several scientific reports indicate that, even while advocating a 1.5 to 2 C degree rise in average global temperatures over the next century, we may now be at or even passed critical tipping points and heading into a world of irreversible global warming.

Earlier this month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report warning that without more ambitious climate policies to counter the rising dominance of global fossil fuel in the energy mix, greenhouse gas emissions could rise 50 percent by 2050. By mid-century energy demand will increase by 80 percent from what it is today. But without aggressive action to adopt to more sustainable energy sources, the energy mix will look much as it does today.

“Unless the global energy mix changes, fossil fuels will supply about 85 percent of energy demand in 2050, implying a 50 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions and worsening urban air pollution,” the OECD said in its environment outlook to 2050.

The OECD report states that international climate action needs to begin in earnest by 2013. The cost of inaction far outweigh the cost of climate action, says the report, and a business-as-usual approach could lead to a reduction of global economic output of 14 percent by mid-century. Also at risk is political stability in climate and resources-stressed areas of the world as well as an increase in human suffering, much of it in the developing world.

Climate scientists this week reinforced the OECD findings, warning that we are now in a “critical decade” beyond which tipping points will likely be crossed, making irreversible dramatic climate shifts such as melting ice caps and loss of rainforest.

Indeed some of  tipping points may have already been crossed, especially for the world’s glaciers and ice caps. Oceans are now so saturated with carbon that they are now more acidic than at any time in the past 60 millions years and can’t absorb much more carbon.

“This is the critical decade,” said Will Steffen, one of the 2800 climate scientists attending the Planet Under Pressure Conference this week in London. “If we don’t get the curves turned around this decade we will cross those lines. The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in history,” says Professor Steffen.

“Many human activities reached take-off points sometime in the 20th Century and sharply accelerated towards the end of the century. It is the scale and speed of the Great Acceleration that is truly remarkable. This has largely happened within one human lifetime.” Steffen is executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University.

Despite the mounting evidence and urgency of the message, the international community remain mostly stalled on climate action. The latest round of international negotiations at the COP17 conference late last year in South Africa leaves nations until 2015 to sign any binding agreement that won’t take effect until 2020 – that’s the best case scenario and clearly not enough if the world is to heed scientists’ warning.

 IPCC report on managing climate risk, learning to adapt

Where mitigation fails, adaptation must become a core strategy. Once seen by some climate activists as a “cop-out” in lieu real action, adaptation is now an inevitability, says the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX), released yesterday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Evidence suggests that climate change has led to changes in climate extremes such as heat waves, record high temperatures and, in many regions, heavy precipitation in the past half century,” the IPCC said in a press release.

“Climate extremes, or even a series of non-extreme events, in combination with social vulnerabilities and exposure to risks can produce climate-related disasters,” says the SREX report.

“While some extreme weather and climate events lead to disasters, others do not. Policies to avoid, prepare for, respond to and recover from the risks of disaster can reduce the impact of these events and increase the resilience of people exposed to extreme events.”

Building resilient communities able to withstand and recover from severe storms, floods, drought, and heat waves are now a critical component in dealing with long-term climate change. Mitigation is needed to offset the most disastrous consequences of global warming, but to a large extent, the “horse has already left the barn.” Without effective adaptation policies, there is a much higher risk of catastrophic economic loss and social collapse.

“The main message from the report is that we know enough to make good decisions about managing the risks of climate-related disasters. Sometimes we take advantage of this knowledge, but many times we do not,” said Chris Field, Co-Chair of IPCC’s Working Group II, which together with Working Group I produced the report. “The challenge for the future has one dimension focused on improving the knowledge base and one on empowering good decisions, even for those situations where there is lots of uncertainty.”

We guard against many risks in our daily lives. The convergence of messages just in the past few weeks of climate scientists from across the globe serve as a clear warning that now is the time to meet the challenge of an unsustainable energy economy and climate change through cooperation and action, to both mitigate and adapt to a warming world.

Image credit: Celsias.com

March 27 2012

19:12

Breaking News: EPA Issues First Limits on Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Power Plants


The EPA proposes its first rule limiting GHG emissions from power plants. The rule could effectively end new construction of coal-fired plants in the USIn a move that could effectively end construction of any new conventional coal-fired power generation in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today has proposed the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

“Today we’re taking a common sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies–in the health and economic threats of a changing climate continued to grow.”

The average US coal plant today emits about 2249 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of power produced. The new EPA rules will limit those emissions to 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour or at about the level of a modern natural gas plant.

“This is an important common sense step towards tackling the ongoing threat of climate change,” said Jackson. “We build on where the industry is going and lock that trend in, which we believe is an important signal for investors.”

The initial impact of the emissions rule on utilities is expected to initially be negligible; with natural gas prices at 10 year lows most utilities are shutting down coal plants, not building new ones. By the end of 2011 the share of electrical power generation from coal-fired plants dropped below 40 percent, the lowest share since 1978 according to the Energy Information Administration.

Jackson said that the EPA has no plans to set rules on existing plants, and the new limit will apply only to the construction of new power plants. Fifteen plants with pending instruction permits are exempt from the proposed rule.

Joe Mendelson, climate policy director for the National Wildlife Federation characterized the new EPA rule as a “milestone in the fight to rein in climate change. The EPA is taking a big step toward protecting the world our children will inherit.”

Additional sources and reading:
Washington Post
Bloomberg

March 06 2012

20:18

New Method for Measuring N2O Emissions Can Help Address Food Security, Emissions Challenges


Researchers at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have found a much more accurate means of measuring agricultural emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) that’s a significant contributor to total GHG emissions. Based on “groundbreaking data” on N2O emissions from a QUT colleague, QUT Institute for Future Environments Smart Futures Fellow Professor Richard Conant’s new statistical approach improves global N2O emissions estimates by as much as 65%, according to a PhysOrg article.

It’s estimated that agriculture is responsible for some 20% of global GHG emissions, primarily due to methane emissions associated with livestock. Though less than carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, N20 emissions are a big part of that, primarily the result of N2O emissions from fertilizers.

Three-quarters of estimated global agricultural N20 emissions came from fertilizer, according to Conant, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore as a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We’re providing a tool that has significantly improved the accuracy of measuring N2O,” Conant was quotes as saying. “Our hope is that this information will enable developing countries that lack detailed measurements to keep better track of N2O emissions.”

Prof. Conant’s new statistical method and estimates are based on a new N2O emissions data set compiled by fellow QUT Professor Peter Grace. Conant’s statistical approach then analyzes the proportion of fertilizer lost as N2O.

Accounting for 50% of global N2O emissions, Conant, Grace and PhD. student Aaron Beranier found that N2O emissions are greatest in the US, Europe, East Asia and Japan. Africa and the former USSR accounted for another 13%.

Efficient Fertilizer Use

Though the quantity of fertilizer used in agriculture is important, efficient use of nitrogen in fertilizer is even more important, according to Conant. Nitrogen and fertilizer use is more efficient in the US, Europe and Japan as compared to that in Africa and the former USSR, he noted, producing more food per unit.

Conant said the new statistical method can help developing countries become more efficient in producing food and enhance food security at a time when population growth, climate change and resource scarcity are placing increasing strains on both. “This latter group of countries is not using very much nitrogen on their crops, which is affecting their ability to produce food,” he said.

Developed and developing countries need to take account of externalities, such as nitrogen pollution and GHGs even as they strive to increase agricultural output, he cautioned. Simply increasing fertilizer use to meet growing food demand could accelerate N2O emissions faster than previously estimated, he warned.

A 2004 IPCC report estimated that 36 gigatons of CO2 was emitted into the atmosphere every year as compared to 3 gigatons of N2O and 4.5 gigatons of methane, the latter two being more potent than CO2.

Prof. Conant’s research paper, Regionally-differentiated estimates of cropland N2O emissions reduce uncertainty in global calculations, has been published in Global Change Biology.

February 29 2012

19:39

The Green Economy is the Right Solution for our Troubled Times


A Green Economy can lead us out of the troubles we now face both socially, environmentally, and economically The green economy offers a powerful solution to both a warming planet and economic volatility. There are a host of political and economic crises in the world today. The Eurozone crisis is expected to be followed by a European recession. In China we are seeing strong evidence of a slowdown and many are calling for major economic reforms. Finally, the hope and promise of the “Arab Spring’ has given way to a winter of discontent, as the Arab world suffers due to a weak economy and high unemployment.

Amidst all this economic uncertainty, global warming continues unabated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said all 11 years of the 21st century rank among the 13 warmest. NASA noted 9 of the top 10 warmest years in its record have occurred since 2000. The La Nina effect was the warmest on record in 2011, according to data from NOAA and NASA. The increasing probability of massive flooding caused by melting Greenland and Antarctic icecaps are creating real concerns about the future of the planet.

The string of warm years in the last decade is linked to rapidly increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. In a press release, NASA wrote “Higher temperatures today are largely sustained by increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide.” As the world’s economies get stronger, energy demands will keep increasing and carbon emissions will keep rising.

As reported in a Green Energy Intelligence Report, it is predicted that by 2030, U.S. energy related CO2 emissions will amount to 6.9 billion metric tons (“MT”) under a “business-as-usual” scenario. Worldwide, energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to increase from 28.1 billion MT in 2005 to 42.3 billion MT in 2030. Together with non-energy related CO2 eq emissions (deforestation, industrial production processes, etc.), total CO2 eq emissions are projected to reach 62 giga (billion) tons (“Gt”) by 2030 (McKinsey June 2008).

The IEA’s chief economist has said that governments only have five years to avoid more than 2°C of global mean temperature rise. Extreme weather events add to the data and send an easy to read message that the time has arrived for a new economic framework. According to NOAA, there were 10 massive weather disasters in the U.S. last year, each exceeding a billion dollars. The unprecedented weather extremes include the following estimates of death and damage:

  • Hurricane Irene: 50 deaths and $7 billion
  • Upper Midwest flooding along the Missouri River: $2 billion
  • Mississippi River flooding in spring and summer: $4 billion
  • Drought and heat waves in Texas and Oklahoma: $5 billion
  • Tornadoes in the Midwest and Southeast in May: 177 deaths and $7 billion
  • Tornadoes in the Ohio Valley and Southeast in April: 32 deaths and $9 billion
  • Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania in April: $2 billion
  • Tornadoes in the Northeast and Midwest April 8-11: $2.2 billion
  • Tornadoes in central and southern states April 4-5: $2.3 billion
  • Blizzard in January from Chicago to the Northeast: 36 deaths and $2 billion

The costs of extreme weather are astronomical, and it is predicted they will get much worse if we do not address the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that cause climate change. We need a framework to address both the economic and environmental ills that the world is facing. We also need a means of increasing our energy supply without increasing our greenhouse gas emissions. The Green Economy offers the solutions we so desperately need.

According to a July, 2011 report from the Brookings Institution, 2.7 million Americans work at green jobs – more than work in the fossil fuel industry. The US Conference of Mayors estimates that number will almost triple by 2040.

The green jobs study by the Brookings Institute suggests the U.S. should put primary emphasis on new, technology-intensive, energy-related sectors. The study by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program is called “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment”  The chief conclusion they came to is that the driving force behind jobs and the growth of the U.S. clean economy over the last decade has been emerging energy technologies.  This is a conclusion echoed in Google’s energy innovation report.

Green jobs are also quality jobs with median wages 13 percent higher than the average. Investment in clean energy projects yields more than three times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuels. Although the green economy is producing results now, the growth potential is staggering.

The failure of the US Congress to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation has slowed the growth of the green economy, but it is not too late. A good example of what can be done even in the absence of federal government legislation comes from a Los Angeles cleantech business incubator (LACI). The LACI approach identifies local talent, nurtures it, and helps it get to market, resulting in more jobs and a bigger green economy in Los Angeles and beyond.

A UNEP study reveals that investing in the green economy will spur growth. Contrary to conservative belief, the greening of economies is not generally a drag on growth but rather a new engine of growth and a net generator of decent jobs. The Green Economy Report is compiled by UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative. The report, called Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, recommends spending $1.3 trillion a year on the green economy.

Pavan Sukhdev, head of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative said, “Governments have a central role in changing laws and policies, and in investing public money in public wealth to make the transition possible. By doing so, they can also unleash the trillions of dollars of private capital in favour of a green economy,”

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Everything’s Cool

February 10 2012

22:30

January 18 2012

18:33

Energy Subsidies: Oil versus Renewables


The lopsided story of energy subsidies in the United StatesIn a world that must reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, replacing oil subsidies with renewable energy subsidies makes sense. Although this is undeniably difficult, it would produce both environmental and economic benefits. Putting an end to oil subsidies would free public money that could be used to promote clean energy and make renewables more competitive.

Although renewable energy is destined to increase it will not grow fast enough to stabilize GHG concentrations below 450ppm which will result in a temperature increase of more than 2°C. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global demand for renewables currently account for approximately 4 percent of total energy. Demand for renewables is expected to rise to 14 percent by 2035, while fossil fuels, which now have 75 percent of global energy demand, will decline to 62 percent over the same period.

The case against fossil fuel subsidies

The case against the fossil-fuel subsidies is overwhelming. They encourage inefficient energy use and they represent a huge amount of lost revenue. Sheltering consumers from oil’s price volatility also shields them from incentives to pursue renewables.

Fossil fuel subsidies are “creating market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption,” the IEA said. “The costs of subsidies to fossil fuels generally outweigh the benefits.”

Oil subsidies are actually increasing the consumption of fossil fuels. Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the IEA, points out that 95 percent of current growth in oil demand is coming from countries where the oil price is subject to subsidies. The IEA estimates that removing fossil-fuel consumption subsidies would reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions by 1.5 to 2 billion tons by 2020.

The IEA’s World Energy Outlook report indicates that eliminating subsidies by 2020 would cut global energy demand by 3.9 percent or the equivalent of 600 million tons of oil. The abolition of these subsidies would reduce demand by almost 5 percent by 2035.

Although many have agreed on the need to eliminate oil subsidies in principle, nothing has actually been done. The Obama Administration has proposed ending fossil fuel subsidies, as did U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Sir Nicholas Stern, Al Gore, and Sir John Browne (the former Chief Executive of BP). In September 2009, G20 Leaders also committed to “rationalize and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption.”

An analysis made by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the IEA illustrates that removing fossil fuel subsidies in a number of non-OECD countries could reduce world Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 10 percent in 2050. Removing these subsidies would amount to roughly a seventh of the effort needed to keep temperature increases below 2°C.

In the U.S., the fossil fuel industry and their allies claim eliminating oil subsidies would cause domestic production to fall, the loss of jobs, and a rise in gas prices. But the advocacy group Oil Change International says removing fossil fuel subsidies will have “little to no impact on domestic production, jobs, or prices at the pump.”

Calculating Fossil Fuel Subsidies 

Fossil fuel subsidies are difficult to estimate because they are complex and take many forms. In its simplest essence, these subsidies refer to any government action that lowers the cost of fossil fuels. This includes everything from tax breaks, to preferred rate loans, price controls and purchase requirements.

A report from the OECD estimates that between $45 billion and $75 billion in budgetary support and tax expenditures have been provided to the coal, oil and gas industries by the 24 richest OECD countries.  According to the IEA, consumption subsidies in 37 developing countries were worth $557 billion annually.

The IEA data indicates the worldwide cost of fuel subsidies for oil amounted to about $190 billion in 2010, up from around $120 billion in 2009. According to the agency, expenditure on all fossil fuel (oil, coal and gas) subsidies could rise to $660 billion in 2020, up from $409 billion in 2010.

U.S. federal subsidies to the domestic oil and gas industry, excluding coal, may be as high as $41 billion annually. When all forms of subsidies are tallied, including production subsidies and consumption subsidies, that total may be closer to $600 billion annually.

Comparing Renewable Energy Subsidies

A November 11, 2011 Bloomberg article reports that while governments are increasingly subsidizing oil and gas they are not making similar investments in renewable energy. According to the chief adviser to oil-importing, fossil-fuel consumers worldwide received about six times more government subsidies than were given to the renewable-energy industry.

In its World Energy Outlook, the IEA said State spending to cut retail prices of gasoline, coal and natural gas rose 36 percent to $409 billion as global energy costs increased, while aid for biofuels, wind power and solar energy, rose only 10 percent to $66 billion.

At the current rate, the IEA predicted that onshore wind generators will not be be competitive until 2020 in Europe and 2030 in China. In the U.S., wind turbines will not be competitive until at least 2035.

The IEA data supports the idea that for renewable energy to be competitive with fossil fuels, they need more short-term subsidies.

Promising Signs for Renewable Energy

Despite disproportionate support for fossil fuels, a November 25, 2011 Bloomberg article reveals that in terms of new power-plant investments, renewable energy is surpassing fossil fuels for the first time. Electricity generated by wind, sun, waves and biomass drew $187 billion last year, compared with $157 billion for natural gas, oil and coal.

Last year was also the first time expenditure in developing countries exceeded that of the industrialized world.

The growth of renewable energy prompted United Nations Environment Program Executive Secretary Achim Steiner to say:

“The progress of renewables has been nothing short of remarkable. You have record investment in the midst of an economic and financial crisis.”

We are witnessing a promising trend in wind and solar power. According to GWEC estimates, there were 36 gigawatts of installed wind capacity in 2010, 43 gigawatts of generating capacity in 2011, and 48 gigawatts are anticipated in 2012.

New Energy Finance said there were 18.2 gigawatts of solar installations in 2010, 26.4 gigawatts in 2011, and 27.8 gigawatts are forecast for 2012. They estimate that investment in renewable energy may double to $395 billion a year by 2020.

Obstacles to Growing Renewable Energy and Eliminating Oil Subsidies

Despite their growth, renewable energy companies are struggling with oversupply issues and the austerity of the current business environment. The surge in production to meet growing demand has driven down prices and created an overcapacity. This has forced renewable energy companies to cut their margins and reduce their sales forecasts in 2012.

The ongoing financial crisis has also hit renewable energy companies hard, making it even more difficult to develop new projects. Austerity measures are cutting spending on climate protection measures, including renewable energy subsidies, tax credits, and pollution abatement programs.

In the U.S., the Department of the Treasury’s Section 1603 cash grants program for clean energy projects expired in 2011, while tens of billions of dollars continues to go to the American oil industry in annual subsidies.

The sheer number of oil subsidies makes eradicating them a very complex problem. The IEA and the OECD indicate that there are at least 250 different kinds of subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

Perhaps the most difficult problem concerns the fact that ending subsidies for oil and gas is a political minefield.

Despite these difficulties, the world is moving towards renewables driven by the inescapable logic of clean energy. However, this shift could be significantly expedited if we eliminated fossil fuel subsidies and increased subsidies for renewable energy.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: CleanTechnica.com

December 21 2011

23:01

NCC: Not Much Blood on Canada's Hands!

It's Christmastime in Canada - when all self-satisfied ideologues take a moment to lift the finger of blame and point it at somebody else.

"Credit" for outstanding performance in this regard must go to National Citizens Coalition President andf CEO Peter Coleman. In ringing defence of the former NCC president (and now Canadian Prime Minister) Stephen Harper, Coleman offers a cheery Christmas message that celebrates Canada's reneging on its legal commitment to the Kyoto Accord and dodges Canadian responsibility for contributing to the climate crisis.

Specifically, Coleman talks about appearing before a group of University of Windsor law students, who asked him about Kyoto:

When I responded that Canada emits 2% of the world's greenhouse gases they were surprised to hear that it is that low. When I told them that Alberta's oil sands contribute just 5% of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions they were again surprised as they expected it would be a lot more.

Coleman is actually wrong on the numbers. The latest tally (2008) puts Canada's GHG emissions at "only" 1.8 per cent, which is swell as long as you don't think about Canada's population amounting to just 0.004 per cent of the world's total. That makes Canada the fourth worst polluter per capita. It also makes our 34 million inhabitants the seventh largest source of CO2 among all the countries in the world - that's seventh from a list of 216 countries and jurisdictions.

And what of the tar sands supposedly tiny contribution? If it was a country, the tar sands 0.09 per cent share of global GHG emissions would put it in a tie with Ecuador in 76th place. The tar sands alone emit more CO2 than the bottom 60 countries and jurisdictions COMBINED. Canada as a country produces more than the bottom 135 countries - combined.

This somehow makes Coleman proud. It gives him courage to deride China, which "gets a free pass even though they contribute over 20 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases." Yes, and that at a rate of less than half of Canada's on a per capita basis - and despite the amount of CO2 that is derived from the production of goods that are, in fact, consumed in Canada.

Coleman makes one point worth acknowledging: he criticizes the Liberal government of Jean Chretien for having signed the Kyoto Accord without making any attempt to comply with it. Too right. Canada's humiliation began under the Chretien Liberals, but it took the self-righteous determination of the Harper Conservatives to make it complete.

It remains a mystery, however, as to why this should leave Peter Coleman feeling smug.

18:28

Melting Arctic Ice is Releasing Massive Amounts of Methane


Researches ignite escaping methane gas from the melting iceThe melting Arctic ice is causing huge quantities of methane gas to be released into the atmosphere. Concerns about climate change-inducing greenhouse gases are often centered on carbon dioxide (CO2), but methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20-30 times more potent than CO2. Each methane molecule is actually about 70 times more potent in terms of trapping heat than a molecule of carbon dioxide, however, methane breaks down more quickly in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

The sub-sea layer of permafrost traps methane, preventing it from escaping, but as it melts it allows the methane to rise from underground deposits. According to scientists, large releases of methane gas can cause rapid climate changes.

There are historical precedents to back-up this assertion. Scientists believe that long ago, sudden releases of methane were responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species.

The Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum (55.5 Million years ago) is a period with drastic climate change due to massive releases of methane. It has also been suggested that large temperature swings during the last glacial period have been caused by abrupt releases of methane.

Hundreds of millions of tons of methane gas are locked beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed of the relatively shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the University of Alaska and Stockholm University have been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years. Early in December, they reported dramatic and unprecedented volumes of methane being released from the Arctic seabed. They estimate that eight million tons of methane is currently leaking into the atmosphere every year.

Vast amounts of methane have been seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. There are fields in the Arctic where the release is so intense that the methane does not have time to dissolve into the seawater but rises to the surface as large bubbles.

In an exclusive interview with the Independent, lead scientist Igor Semiletov said that he has never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released from beneath the Arctic seabed. Dr Semiletov made his findings public early in December at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing,” Dr. Semiletov said. “I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.”

Recent observations suggest that previous surveys may have significantly underestimated the amount of methane being released into the atmosphere from the Arctic seabed.

This new information was recorded in late summer 2011 by Dr. Semiletov and his team of researchers. The scientists onboard the vessel Academician Lavrentiev conducted an extensive survey of 10,000 square miles of sea off the East Siberian coast. The scientists made their observations with the help of four highly sensitive seismic and acoustic instruments that monitor the methane seeping from the ocean floor.

“In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed,” Dr. Semiletov said. “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere.”

Expeditions in the Laptev Sea in 1994 did not detect elevated methane levels. However, since 2003 a rising number of methane “hotspots” have been detected.

Research prepared for publication by the American Geophysical Union in 2008 by Dr. Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden indicated that anomalies were recorded in the East Siberian Sea and the Laptev Sea. These preliminary findings were uncovered by scientists aboard the research vessel Jacob Smirnitskyi. At the time, Gustafsson was quoted as saying:

“The conventional thought has been that the permafrost ‘lid’ on the sub-sea sediments on the Siberian shelf should cap and hold the massive reservoirs of shallow methane deposits in place. The growing evidence for release of methane in this inaccessible region may suggest that the permafrost lid is starting to get perforated and thus leak methane… The permafrost now has small holes. We have found elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed.”

In 2011, the scientists aboard the vessel Academician Lavrentiev revealed much higher concentrations of methane covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf. These researchers found Arctic seabed methane up to 100 times background levels.

According to Natalia Shakhova, of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “The concentration of atmospheric methane increased three times in the past two centuries from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7ppm, and in the Arctic to 1.9ppm. That’s a huge increase, between two and three times, and this has never happened in the history of the planet.”

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on earth. As a whole, the Arctic has experienced an average temperature increase of 4C over recent decades. The World Meteorological Organization said that northern areas like the Russian Arctic experienced the greatest increases in temperature in 2011. They also report that since 1970, the Arctic has warmed at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

Scientists predict that over the next thirty years 45 billion metric tons of carbon from methane and carbon dioxide will seep into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws. By the end of the century it is expected that about 300 billion metric tons of carbon will be released from the thawing Earth.

Adding in that gas means that warming would happen “20 to 30 percent faster than from fossil fuel emissions alone,” said Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. “You are significantly speeding things up by releasing this carbon.”

The release of trapped methane will cause higher temperatures, leading to even more melting of the permafrost and the release of yet more methane. This troubling trend of melting permafrost on the floor of the Arctic Ocean is accompanied by a dramatic decline in summer sea ice covering the surface. The loss of sea ice will further accelerate the warming trend because open ocean absorbs more heat from the sun than a reflective ice surface. This represents a strong positive feedback that amplifies anthropogenic warming.

Scientists have estimated the amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves. Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap and models suggest that if even only one percent of the methane were released from the ocean floor, it would radically accelerate global warming.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: WorldCulturePictorial.com 

December 06 2011

18:32

News from Durban: Humans Primarily Responsible for Global Warming; Good News on Forest Conservation


Activity at the UNFCCC COP 17 climate talks in Durban is heating up this week as high-level government delegations, including government leaders, are scheduled to arrive in the South African coastal Indian Ocean city. Sustaining agriculture, fisheries, forests and the world’s oceans in the face of global warming and climate change, along with how to finance conservation efforts, figure prominently in discussions, in parallel with the headline issue of negotiating an extension of or successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

On the scientific research front, at least 74% of the observed rise in global temperature over the past 60 years is almost certainly due to human activity, according to a research paper published online on December 4 by two Swiss climate scientists in Nature Geoscience. Natural climate variability “is extremely unlikely to have contributed more than about one-quarter of the temperature rise observed in the past 60 years,” Scientific American quotes the research paper.

The Swiss research team employed an alternative to the method usually employed by climate modelers. Rather than detecting evidence distinguishing the origins of climate warming through differences in temperature/heat distribution over time, they based their approach on the more fundamental thermodynamic law of conservation of energy, which states that in a closed or isolated system, matter and energy can neither be created or destroyed, it can just change form. This enabled them to avoid making assumptions about changing temperature and heat distributions over time.

The climate research duo of Markus Huber and Reto Knutti with 95% statistical certainty found that given known changes in radiative forcing – the net amount of energy coming into and out of the earth’s atmosphere – greenhouse gases contributed 0.61-1.1 degrees Celsius of global warming. About half of that was offset by the cooling effects of aerosols, accounting for the observed global temperature increase of 0.56 degrees C. There’s less than a 5% chance that these trends were not caused by human activity, they found.

Good News for World’s Forests

Good news came out of Durban on the forest conservation front December 4, as Sierra Leone announced that it is establishing a 10-year forest conservation program that will protect and conserve one of the world’s largest remaining, but shrinking, tropical rain forests. With the help of international conservation organizations, Sierra Leone – the world’s seventh poorest country – will establish the Gola Rainforest National Park.

Providing habitat and ecosystem services essential to life, the Gola Rainforest is home to a rich and diverse range of increasingly threatened plant and animal species, including rare tropical birds, chimpanzees and the world’s largest population of pygmy hippos. It’s also one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing an estimated 13.6 million metric tons of carbon.

Increasingly threatened by deforestation, a 10-year Gola Rainforest research program with an initial, three-year budget of $233 million is also being established. The Consultative Group on international Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has set aside $90 million for the program.

In addition to protecting forest carbon stocks, the research program aims to focus on agroforestry, an effort that if successful could reduce risks for millions of farmers and others whose livelihoods depend on the health of the rainforest.

Adding to the good news on forest conservation, the UK’s environment secretary, Caroline Spelman announced that Great Britain will spend 10 million pounds (~$16 million) to help stop illegal logging in central Brazil’s Cerrado scrub forest, which is rapidly being cleared to make way for agriculture, the Telegraph’s Louise Gray reports. The money is part of a 2.9 billion pound (~$4.6 billion) climate change fund the UK has established to assist poorer countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to global warming.

November 30 2011

19:47

Polluters Dominate the Agenda at COP 17 in Durban


Will the forces of "business at usual" prevail at COP17, or will the voices of people from around the world be able to effect real change?At the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17), 20,000 negotiators and stakeholders from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Durban, South Africa. Although many countries are taking steps to curb GHG emissions as part of the global fight against climate change, there is little hope of a binding international agreement this year. After COP 15 in Copenhagen, there was considerable well warranted pessimism, and after COP16 in Cancun, heightened expectations appear to have vanished.

Review of Last Year’s Conference of the Parties

Although there were serious difficulties and disagreements at COP16, there were some minor achievements. The COP16 Conference adopted the Cancun Agreements which offered a glimmer of hope that we could move towards a low-emissions future and support enhanced action on climate change in the developing world.

The text on emission cuts called for “urgent action” to cap temperature rises at no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, although it did not establish a clear mechanism for achieving the pledges made by the parties.

The parties also agreed to curb emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Perhaps the most significant achievement of COP16 concerns pledges of financial assistance for the developing world, especially those in Africa. The parties agreed to set up the Green Climate Fund, which was intended to raise and disburse $100bn a year by 2020 to protect developing countries against climate impacts and assist them with low-carbon development. Sadly, the fate of the fund is in jeopardy as the U.S. is now rejecting the current concept of the Green Climate Fund.

Killing the Kyoto Protocol

Most disturbingly, COP 17 will likely see the end of the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol contains key rules to quantify and monitor efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and important market-based mechanisms that enable cost-effective mitigation. The Protocol is set to expire in 2012 and the U.S., Canada, Russia and Japan have indicated that they will not support an extension of the international agreement.

The U.S. team participating in UN climate change talks in Durban is resisting a proposed legally binding GHG emissions reduction treaty that would come into effect in 2020 and succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Issues Impeding Progress

Despite the overarching dangers associated with climate change, the head of the U.N. climate panel, Rajendra Pachauri, warned the latest round of talks risk being bogged down by “short-term and narrow political considerations.”

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said the “rather large elephant in the room” at the COP-17 was the ever-widening gap between the action needed to stem global warming and what is on the table this year.

UNEP says developed countries are “stuck on weaker, conditional pledges” and that the greenhouse gas emissions targets they have set themselves are “riddled with loopholes”. UNEP said in a newsletter distributed at the Durban talks that developed countries needed to “raise their game dramatically”.

To make matters worse, there is a profound lack of trust between the parties in Durban. As with previous meetings, the COP negotiations are breaking down over disagreements between rich and poor nations on GHG reductions. Developed countries want developing countries to restrict GHG emissions, but developing nations want the opportunity to grow and adapt with increased funding from developed countries.

African countries are already suffering from the effects of rising temperatures, even though their combined share of carbon emissions is negligible. However, the concerns of developing nations are being ignored by rich nations. Speaking at COP 17, South African President Jacob Zuma said, “For most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death.” He indicated that the failure to address climate change will decrease agricultural output in many African countries by about 50 percent by the year 2050, leading to food insecurity and a loss of livelihoods.

Rich Countries are Bullying the Developing World

According to a new report published by the World Development Movement, rich nations are employing divide-and-rule tactics and threatening to withhold much needed funds if developed nations dare to disagree. EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard apparently suggested island states could be coerced because they were desperate for money and other leading figures in western governments have been accused of using bullying tactics with developing countries.

Wealthy nations hold secret meetings, and then push poorer countries to accept their decisions. Countries like the U.S. are using unfair, undemocratic and even deceitful means to skew the climate change negotiations in their favor.

Devious tactics are also being employed to marginalize developing nations, which lack the resources of rich countries. One diplomat told the report’s authors:

“At one point in Copenhagen there were 26 meetings taking place simultaneously. How can a developing country delegation of two people possibly hope to cope? Developed countries sit down and delay, and just repeat inanities, and then they go out and tell the media that the developing countries are blocking the negotiations, and all the world believes it, even developing countries!”

A diplomat from the tiny Polynesian island of Tuvalu said: “Can I suggest that it looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future?”

Debunking the Economic Arguments

The most common reason cited for resistance to a binding climate change treaty is the economic costs. However, the success of many environmentally sustainable businesses refutes the cost argument and makes the case for the transition to a low carbon economy. In addition to being profitable, sustainable businesses create jobs and minimize their impact on the environment.

Although some try to make the case that environmental sustainability is bad for business, the truth is a strong business case can be made for sustainability. There are sustainable solutions to the economic crisis we are facing that can both provide jobs and hasten the adoption of a low-carbon economy.

In an interview with the Financial Times, former US President, Bill Clinton, made the point this way:

“For $ 1 billion invested in a new coal plant, you get fewer than 900 jobs; for solar you got 1,900 jobs, for wind turbines 3,300 jobs and (for) retrofitting buildings 7,000 – 8,000 jobs… Here are the jobs, here is the investment. Are you really against it?’”

The success of low carbon enterprises offers compelling evidence for the belief that market forces can help auger the transition towards a low carbon economy.

It may be hard to push climate change to the top of the global agenda with the economic difficulties in Europe and elsewhere, but as stated by China’s top climate official, economic problems should not get in the way of a new pact to fight global warming.

Focus on Science

Global climate talks need to focus on the growing threat from climate change. ”It is absolutely essential that the negotiators get a continuous and repeated exposure to the science of climate change,” Pachauri told Reuters.

A report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that an increase in extreme weather can be expected this century. Extreme weather events in 2011 included recent floods in Thailand and multi-billion dollar disasters in the U.S. and the previous year saw similar climate catastrophes.

The UN World Meteorological Organization’s latest report showed that the warming effect of greenhouse gases on climate, known as radiative forcing, has increased 29% from 1990 to 2010. 2011 has been a year of extreme weather, the WMO reported. Drought in East Africa has left tens of thousands dead; lethal floods submerged large areas of Asia; the US suffered 14 separate weather catastrophes with damage topping $1bn each, including severe drought in Texas and the southwest, heavy floods in the northeast and the Mississippi Valley, and the most active tornado season ever known.

“The science is solid and proves unequivocally that the world is warming,” said RDJ Lengoasa, the WMO’s deputy director, and human activity is a significant contributor.

It is Possible to Reduce GHGs to Manageable Levels

Despite serious obstacles, it is not impossible to bridge the gap between where GHG emissions are headed and where they need to be. According to a new U.N. report titled Bridging the Emissions Gap, if sectors such as energy, farming, forestry and transport all cut emissions by feasible amounts, global warming can be kept below 2ºC.

The report also says that countries will need to pledge bigger cuts to meet the 2ºC target. The United Nations Environment Programme says that nothing revolutionary is needed, if every sector makes its appropriate cuts, the cost would be small.

More Waiting

Some wealthy nations have indicated that a legally-binding climate pact can wait until the end of this decade. Joseph Gilbert, Grenada’s environment minister, called such proposals, “both environmentally reckless and politically irresponsible.”

As GHG levels continue to rise, it becomes ever more obvious that we cannot wait for 2020 to get an international agreement to stabilize GHG levels. With island states facing extinction in the coming decades, action on climate change cannot be delayed any further.

Conclusion

The fact that COP 17 is taking place in Durban is an opportunity to emphasize African issues. At best, COP 17 will produce modest steps toward a deal to lower emissions from factories, power stations and transport.

While the private sector can play a significant role in helping to resolve the problem of climate change, we cannot adequately address the problem without the involvement of governments.

Given the absence of government leadership, the meeting in Durban is likely to produce little more than a lot of hot air.
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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: TckTckTck.org

November 22 2011

18:18

Climate Negotiators Stake Out Initial Positions in Run-Up to COP17 UN Treaty Talks in Durban, South Africa


The US team participating in UN climate change talks in Durban, South Africa is resisting calls from its European counterpart and others to begin discussing a legally binding climate change-greenhouse gas emissions reduction treaty that would come into effect in 2020 and succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which has been in effect since February 16, 2005.

The US negotiating team, which is led by US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, said that participants need a “better sense what the content would be” before deciding what the legal form of an agreement might be. The US team also wants assurances in advance that China, India and other major developing countries would be bound by the same commitments as industrialized countries, according to a ClimateWire report.

Negotiating a legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is only one topic on the agenda at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17), which will take place between November 28 and December 9, but it’s the central issue and no doubt the highest profile one.

High Stakes and a High Bar

Making legally binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases – including carbon dioxide, methane, hydro-fluorocarbons (HFC), nitrous and sulfur oxides – is seen as the critical first step and linchpin for global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Reaching an agreement on reducing man-made greenhouse gas emissions would set the broad, overarching objective and commitment for negotiations regarding financial mechanisms, international trade, technology and accelerated access to critical mitigation and adaptation technologies and intellectual property rights that are on the provisional agenda in Durban.

Analysts say the US team “is setting a high bar for even starting to talk about such a deal,” according to ClimateWire’s report. That’s dampening already low expectations that the terms of a legally binding agreement will be reached in Durban, especially given the differences and difficulties experienced at COP meetings in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun last year.

The Kyoto Protocol’s survival “hangs by a thread,” the ClimateWire report notes. Japan, Russia and Canada have come out and publicly stated that they will not submit new carbon reduction targets when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends next year unless the US and major emerging economies sign on.

The EU is proposing a compromise that entails its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol’s second phase as long “as countries build a clear road map for a legally binding treaty that covers all major emitters.” Some see that being a “legal mandate signed in Durban to negotiate a deal by 2015 that could take effect by or before 2020.” Others say that a less formal agreement on a “road map” would suffice.

COP 17 will open with reports on greenhouse gas emissions in the 37 industrialized countries and the European Union that agreed to binding target emission reductions an average 5% against 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012 as laid out in the Kyoto Protocol. Participants will review these results, as well as those to do with carrying out commitments on financial mechanisms, those of the Global Environment Facility, development and transfer of technologies, capacity building and other provisions of the Kyoto Protocol.

Results so far regarding greenhouse gas emissions are discouraging. The warming effect of greenhouse gases on climate, known as radiative forcing, increased 29% from 1990 to 2010, according to the UN World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) latest report. Last week, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report written by more than 100 of the world’s top scientists stated that we can expect more frequent floods, droughts, heat waves, snow storms and extreme weather.

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October 20 2011

16:14

EarthTalk: Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S. – Can Obama Get Anything Done?


Can the U.S. federal government ever meet its "aspirational" emissions targets?EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in regard to putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.? Is there any hope that Obama can get something done?            – Bradley Johnson, Helena, MT

Our best hope to date was 2009’s American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a bill that called for the implementation of a “cap-and-trade” system to limit carbon dioxide emissions by capping overall emissions and allowing polluters to buy or sell greenhouse gas pollution credits—similar to what the European Union has been doing since 2005 to successfully reduce its own emissions—depending upon whether they were exceeding established limits or had succeeded in coming in below them.

According to the bill, U.S. businesses needing to pollute more could buy emissions credits on the open market; those able to reduce emissions could sell their pollution credits on the same trading floor. Thus there is a built-in incentive to reduce emissions: If you exceed pollution limits you have to keep buying costly credits; and if you can get below limits you can profit from the sale of credits for the difference.Among the bill’s key provisions was a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020, with a mid-century goal of an 80 percent reduction. Also, billions of dollars would have gone to initiatives bolstering green transportation, energy efficiency and related research and development. The bill was approved by the House in June 2009 by a narrow 219-212 vote. But Senate Democrats decided they didn’t have enough votes to get a version of the bill passed, and tabled the discussion.

While ACES may not have made it into the law books, its passage by the House was significant as it represented the first time the legislative branch called for sweeping climate legislation. Also, the bill’s provisions served as a guideline for U.S. negotiators heading to Denmark later in 2009 for the COP15 international climate talks (although in the end nothing binding was agreed upon there).

Then, in May 2010 Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveiled their own cap-and-trade climate bill for the Senate. Dubbed the American Power Act, it aimed to reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by similar amounts as ACES. But with the nation still reeling from the effects of BP’s Gulf oil spill—the American Power Act include provisions for offshore drilling—and Senate Republicans leery of any climate legislation, the bill failed to make it to a floor vote. Some point the finger at a handful of Democratic Senators from coal-producing states for not supporting their party colleagues. Others say Obama wasn’t advocating strongly enough despite his campaign rhetoric on the topic.

“The best one could plausibly hope for in the next Congress, assuming only modest Republican gains, is some sort of weak cap on utility emissions, possibly with some weak oil saving measures, though that would still require Obama to do what he refused to do under more favorable political circumstances—push hard for a bill,” writes commentator Joe Romm of Think Progress, a liberal political blog. Romm adds that it’s inconceivable to think the next Congress would even contemplate strong climate or clean energy legislation “without Obama undergoing a major strategy change and taking a very strong leadership role in crafting the bill and lobbying for the bill and selling it to the public.”

CONTACTS:
ACES
Think Progress

 

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine . Send questions to: earthtalk[at]emagazine.com.
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September 22 2011

19:13

CO2 is Just a Trace Gas, It Could Never Impact Climate – Right?


How can a trace element comprising barely 0.04 percent of the atmosphere make any difference in our climate? It has become something of a prime “scientific” point from certain political leaders and denier pundits, but most of us know, if we were paying any attention in high school, that without that trace gas, earth would be lifeless and covered in ice. The following video with Dan Miller offers a visual demonstration of how trace elements can have very large impacts, and how we are moving past our “sweet spot” of greenhouse gas concentrations. More information from Miller is found on his website climateplace.org.


 

September 18 2011

19:18

As The World Warms, Environmental Protections Put On The Back Burner

After a year that has so far produced record-breaking snowstorms, droughts, floods, and violent hurricanes and tornadoes, environmental protections are once again being scaled back. Against the best advice of experts, the U.S. EPA has decided to delay issuing new rules for greenhouse gas emissions, the deadline for which is September 30th. This marks the second time in three months that the EPA has missed a deadline for issuing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards.

In their announcement, the EPA said that they are aware that it is their responsibility to move forward with new GHG standards, but they want to consider all of the available information before issuing a final ruling. According to an EPA spokesperson, one factor that the agency is still trying to figure out is the cost of the new measures.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is legally required to put restrictions on any air pollutant that is deemed unsafe for the American public. Thanks to a recent decision that GHGs are a threat to the public, this means they are required to put new standards in place. In addition to legally being required to regulate, the EPA is also not allowed to consider costs when making their decisions, meaning that their current “evaluation” period should not be extended to examine costs.


This new announcement comes on the heels of President Obama’s recent decision to roll back smog standards that the EPA had already put in place. The White House succumbed to a tremendous amount of pressure that the Republican Party had placed on the administration to curb the power of the EPA. The smog standards in place would have reduced ground level ozone levels, which have been shown to cause asthma and other respiratory problems.

Experts are not just concerned about the health problems that delays in EPA action will cause, but also the environmental impact we could face as a result. NOAA has warned that delays in regulating pollutants could lead to even more extreme weather events, which is especially devastating considering the cadre of natural disasters that have swept across America in 2011 so far.

While scientists and environmentalists are upset over the recent anti-environment decisions, the Republican Party couldn’t be happier. Climate change denier James Inhofe celebrated the recent announcements saying, “This announcement, as well as President Obama's recent request that E.P.A. withdraw the ozone standard, makes one thing clear: not only will E.P.A.'s barrage of regulations cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs, they may cost President Obama his own job, and he knows it all too well.”

Republican House Speaker John Boehner said that removing the smog regulation was a good first step toward removing obstacles that are blocking business growth.

Tom Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also had praise for the decisions: (This is) “an enormous victory for America's job creators, the right decision by the president and one that will help reduce the uncertainty facing businesses.”

These comments reflect a growing trend among the Republican Party, which is to ruthlessly and baselessly attack the EPA and environmental protections. Their talking point du jour is “job killing regulations,” a talking point that has been debunked by numerous scholars and studies (the best available research shows that regulations actually help create jobs, rather than destroying them.)

This crusade against the EPA has included attacks on the agency as “inefficient,” as well as calls from elected officials and GOP presidential hopefuls to completely abolish the agency.

Both the White House and the EPA want us to be reassured that they are “very committed” to protecting the environment and issuing new standards. But as we’ve seen so far this year, both the president and the EPA are at the mercy of a political party that is doing everything in their power to completely abolish the EPA and destroy any and all regulations that have been put in place over the years.

June 30 2011

22:28

New Climate “Normals” Begin on July 1st – Warmer is the New Norm : NOAA Releases 2010 State of the Climate Report


New weather normal baseline data is adopted on July 1st

Tomorrow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will incorporate new baseline data reflecting new climate “normals” for 1981-2010. For the past decade baseline normals spanned the period from 1971-2000.

These normals “serve as a 30 year baseline average of important climate variables that are used to understand average climate conditions at any location and serve as a consistent point of reference,” said the NOAA in a press release this week. Based on updated data encompassing the past decade (and leaving the 70′s behind), temperatures in the US are, on average, 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the new baseline normal than the previous.

That’s to be expected given the warming of the past decade, says National Climatic Data Center director Thomas Karl: “The climate of the 2000s is about 1.5 degree F warmer than the 1970s, so we would expect the updated 30-year normals to be warmer.”

In every state the annual average maximum and minimum temperature has increased within the contiguous US, according to NOAA data. Warming has increased in all seasons, but winter months have seen much more rapid increase in temperatures than summer months (see image below).

Temperatures have warmed in the US for all seasons, but much more rapidly in winter monthsState of the Climate 2010
Earlier this week NOAA released it’s annual State of the Climate Report for 2010. The report is compiled by nearly 370 scientists from 45 nations and shows 2010 as one of the two warmest years on record. Not all of the extreme weather events of 2010 are indicators of the larger climactic trend, but as a summary report from NOAA explains:

“In the background of many unique events, long-term trends are visible in the data; despite snow and cold in some locations, tens of thousands of observations around the world combine to reveal a 2010 average global surface temperature among the two warmest years on record.”

Among the climate indicators noted in the report:

  • Arctic Oscillation – the Arctic Oscillation is an atmospheric climate pattern the typically confines colder air to northern latitudes. When the pattern flips, frigid air flows out of the Arctic, contributing to more severe winters farther south and warmer conditions in Arctic regions.
  • Snow and ice - decrease in snow cover of the Northern Hemisphere between December 2009 and May 2010 was the largest in more than 40 years. Globally, mountain glaciers lost mass for then 20th consecutive year. Greenland lost more ice than in any previous year on record. Arctic sea ice shrank to its third smallest area on record. In September, ice extent was so small that for the first time in modern history, the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route were both open to navigation. Conversely, due to by air circulation patterns, Antarctic sea ice grew to record levels during the Southern winter.
  • Sea level – Sea levels across the globe continue to rise, on average, due to thermal expansion and melting glaciers and ice sheets.
  • Air temperature – Air temperature above land was the second warmest on record. The Arctic warmed at about twice the rate of lower latitudes.
  • Oceans
    • Sea surface temperature: despite a cooling in the eastern tropics of the Pacific Ocean of 2 degrees F due to transitioning from El Niño to La Niña, global average sea surface temperatures were the third highest on record.
    • Ocean heat content: 2010 was on par with 2009 and was among the “highest values on record,” according to the report. Oceans store much of the heat trapped by increasing greenhouse gases.
  • Greenhouse gases - Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increased at a rate greater than the average over the past 30 years.

 

Additional sources and further reading:
Washington Post

NOAA State of the Climate 2010 Highlights
(pdf)

Image credits: NOAA

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June 15 2011

17:16

American Consumers and Greener Vehicles


There will be more and more cars on the road like the Chevy Volt. But for low carbon transportation to really take hold, Americans must overcome their resistence to changeCutting emissions from US automobiles will be critical to any strategy for slowing global warming. America’s adoption of hybrids, fully electric vehicles and fuel efficient small cars are also crucial to the transition to a low carbon economy. According to an Environmental Defence study, Global Warming on the Road (pdf), US automobiles and light trucks are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles globally.

The Global Warming on the Road study, also found that the Big Three American automakers—General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler—accounted for nearly three-quarters of the carbon dioxide released by cars and pickup trucks on US roads. The authors of the report found that cars in the US account for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions because they are driven farther, have lower fuel economy standards, and burn fuel with higher levels of carbon than many of the cars in other countries.

Although the switch to electric cars will be difficult, it is not without precedent in the US. In 1900, 38 percent of America’s fledgling car market was electric, and only 22 percent ran on gasoline. Then throughout the twentieth century, fossil fuels dominated vehicle production.

Today vehicle demand is starting to shift away from gas power towards hybrid and electric cars. Of the 11.6 million vehicles Americans bought in 2010, 2.4 percent were hybrids and this number is growing in 2011. The US vehicle market is forecasted to grow 11 percent in 2011 lead by hybrids and clean diesels.

Sales of hybrids, diesels, and small cars are the fastest growing sector of the car market. According to an analysis from the firm Baum & Associates, sales of hybrids, small cars and diesels rose at nearly three times the rate of the market as a whole from March 2010 to March 2011. Those three vehicle categories were up 46 percent this March, while the overall market was up 17 percent.

While small and hybrid cars are selling well, gas guzzling SUVs have experienced sluggish demand. In SUV sales, 2008 stands out as a declining year for this type of vehicle. Baum points out that traditional SUVs now amount to less than seven percent of the vehicle market. The increasing demand for smaller cars is also holding true in the used car segment. Earlier this year, Adesa, which is a major wholesaler for used cars, reported a 16-percent rise on prices of used four-cylinder vehicles.

According to a very conservative 2010 UK report, 21 per cent of all vehicles sold by 2020 will be hybrid or fully electric. Anaylsts at Eurotax Glass’s reported that hybrid cars are currently dominating the green market and will continue to do so until 2019, when electric vehicle sales are expected to rise.

PSA has already announced plans to produce more than 10,000 electric cars a year by the end of 2011. Nissan plans to produce 500,000 electric vehicles worldwide by the end of 2015. GM has announced a 2012 production target for the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt of 60,000 cars, 45,000 of which are designated for the US market. However, modest sales are making the American automaker reluctant to commit to significant long term production schedules. Greg Martin, spokesman for GM’s Washington office said, “We haven’t really committed to any production targets beyond 2012.”

While the adoption of electric cars may be crucial to the low carbon economy, in the US, resistance to change makes the adoption of EVs difficult. Lee Schipper, a fellow at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University, has suggested that Americans are “no good at transitions.” It will be the same for electric vehicles, he said, not least because the market is not prepared to make that kind of shift.

Although the future of the planet may depend on electric vehicle sales, Americans will need to learn to embrace change.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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June 14 2011

23:19

Climate Change and the West: A Picture of the Western United States in the Coming Decades


Fire rages in ArizonaOver the last several years, a picture has emerged of the American west in a climate-changed world.

Water
Last week findings of a study by the U.S. Geological Survey show a sharp decline in the snowpack of the northern Rocky Mountains over the past 30 years. Published in the journal Science, the study says the “almost unprecedented” decline, as compared with data analyzed for snowpack conditions over the past 800 years, could have severe consequences for more than 70 million people dependent on water supply from the Columbia, Colorado, and Missouri rivers – all three of which are fed from high-mountain snowpack runoff. But this is only a part of the emerging picture of a changing west.

Wildfire
The mega-fire burning in Arizona, raging for more than two weeks, has now crossed into New Mexico. With over 469,000 acres consumed, the fire is now the largest on record for Arizona.

While no single fire is “caused by global warming” – such an assertion is a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change – projections call for more frequent and intense wildfires as conditions in the west become hotter and drier. Recent years have brought record years for wildfires in California and throughout the west.

The fire in Arizona (and now New Mexico) demonstrates the impact such conflagrations have on air quality. The damage caused by such intense firestorms is more than the fire itself. Beyond the short-term consequence of smoke and ash, wildfires become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in a warmer environment. A new study, published in the journal PLos ONE, shows that wildfires not only release GHG through burning through forests, but also as a result of the aftermath of the fire, where “dentrifier” bacteria can lead to increased nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from plant material. N2O is a greenhouse gas with a potency 300 times that of CO2.

But even without the raging, all-consuming firestorms, trees are dying at record numbers throughout the western United States.

Forest health

GlobalWarmingisReal has reported on several occasions on the growing and pervasive infestation of bark beetles throughout western forests of North America. Millions of acres have been lost to the infestation, impacting entire ecosystems and threatening forest health throughout the west. Warmer winters allow the beetle to survive winter and move to higher ground, where trees are defenseless to the infestation.

A picture emerges

Climate plays out in decades, centuries and patterns develop, sometimes subtly or almost imperceptibly. And sometimes not so subtly. The realization of what could be more to come frames a picture of a parched, dry, tinderbox west, with vast swaths of disease-ridden forest clinging to life.

The fire in Arizona is not global warming, nor is a dead tree or one season of runoff (unusually large this year, and contrary to the larger trend). But there is always a point where the pattern does emerge, and this is the picture of the American west in the 21st century. Ignoring it will only make it worse.

Sources and further reading:
NASA Wildfire Model
Daily Kos – Climate Change and Record Winter Wildfires
NOAA – State of the Climate
The Watchers – Wildfires burn across Northern America continent

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June 08 2011

19:37

Media Matters Report Shows Network TV Preference For Anti-Environment Guests

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act, Republicans and other climate-deniers have been given an unprecedented amount of airtime on television to deride the EPA’s new power. The folks over at Media Matters for America released a study showing that between December 2009 and April 2011, 76% of cable news guests were opposed to allowing the EPA to regulate GHGs, while only 18% spoke favorably of the decision.

As their research shows, these views are actually at odds with public opinion, as 71% of the public believes that the EPA should be allowed to regulate global warming pollution, and 76% believe that the government should have a direct role in curbing the emissions from polluters operating inside the United States.

Not only were the elected officials that appeared on most of these shows against regulations, but most also had received money from the energy industry during their careers. <!--break-->

Here are some of the highlights from the Media Matters report:

Media Matters examined TV news coverage that included elected officials, members of advocacy groups, business leaders, pundits, and others discussing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. Of these appearances, 152 out of 199 -- over 76% -- opposed regulation. The three outlets that hosted the greatest number of guests, Fox News (FNC), Fox Business (FBN), and CNBC, all featured opponents of GHG regulation at least four times more often than supporters.

Of the 35 cable news appearances by elected officials who discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, 30 were Republicans and five were Democrats. The only cable network that hosted more Democrats than Republicans was MSNBC. CNBC featured eight elected officials, all of whom were Republicans.

Fox News and Fox Business each hosted one Democrat who discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases during their appearance. However, those Democrats, then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D-WV) both expressed opposition to EPA's GHG rules. By contrast, every Republican who discussed the regulations on cable news opposed the EPA's actions.

According to our analysis, 26 elected officials and candidates for office have discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases in TV appearances since December 2009. Of those 26, 23 opposed the EPA's action on greenhouse gases. These 23 politicians collectively received $3,026,041 from companies that generate, produce, or refine fossil fuels from 2007-2010. The three elected officials who supported the EPA received a total of $202,000. On average, the opponents of EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases received approximately $131,500 from fossil fuel companies, while the supporters received, on average, about $67,300.

Of the TV guests who discussed EPA's GHG regulations over 17 months, only one, Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute, has a background in climate science. Michaels appeared twice on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto and spoke in opposition to EPA GHG rules. Michaels holds a Ph.D. in ecological climatology and was a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. Michaels has estimated that 40% of his funding comes from the petroleum industry.

You can read the full report at Media Matters for America.

June 01 2011

21:14

Key Partnerships Announced at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Summit


Major cities from across the globe meet in Brazil for the C40 Summit meetingMayors of major cities from around the world convened yesterday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at a summit meeting of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The meeting began one day after the IEA released their latest figures showing an alarming spike in carbon emissions in 2010, adding a sense of urgency to the proceedings.

As human population becomes increasingly urbanized, cities have become “ground zero” for dealing with climate change.

“The effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change will be won or lost in cities,” New York mayor and C40 chairman Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “As the primary centers of economic activity globally, cities are significant consumers of energy and emit nearly three quarters of the world’s carbon emissions. They are also innovative and nimble and can often move quickly and boldly in implementing environmentally and financially viable solutions.”

As the work of the summit continues through Thursday, key partnerships have already been announced to assist in facilitating and streamlining how the world’s cities mitigate and adapt to climate change:

  • World Bank and C40
    The C40 and the World Bank have signed a “groundbreaking” agreement aimed at helping cities face climate-related issues in the coming decades. Essential elements of the agreement include will help large cities expand climate mitigation and adaptation plans, while strengthening local economies and protecting vulnerable populations. The partnership will help cities finance climate action plans and establish stronger partnerships between cities. The plan will also establish a consistent method of measuring and reporting emissions, making possible verifiable and consistent emissions monitoring and reporting between cities. 

    “This unique partnership with the World Bank will help solve many of the problems that cities face in obtaining financing for climate-related projects, both from the World Bank and other lenders. It will also make it easier for C40 cities to access the resources of the World Bank,” said Bloomberg.

  • ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and C40
    The C40 and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability will work together to establish community-scale standards for accounting and reporting greenhouse gas emissions. Once established, the standard will make possible reliable, consistent and comparable emissions reporting. The standard will allow for monitoring progress against targets, help inform effective climate action plans, and form the basis for making day-to-day policy decisions and performing community environmental reviews.

“Cities of all sizes play an important role in combating the impact of climate change. Establishing a single global standard for reporting greenhouse gas emissions will empower local governments to accelerate their actions and access funding for mitigation and adaptation projects,” Bloomberg said. “This will enable new efficiencies and create a level playing field for comparing emissions across cities around the world.”

Climate action, sustainability, and cities

It often seems that effective action on climate change and sustainability is largely stalled at the international and federal level. But it is where people live, in cities, that action can and will drive real change. This point was illustrated recently in an interview with Emma Stewart, currently senior manager of AEC Sustainability for Autdesk, and a thought leader in environment trends.

Stewart argues that the greatest strides in grappling with climate and environmental issues can be, and are, made in cities. Human society is now predominantly urbanized, and creating livable, sustainable cities is the best way to address the global issues of climate change and sustainability.

Stewart’s thoughts dovetail well with the work done this week in Brazil, and are highlighted in the article Earth Day Inflection Points; Looking Toward the Built Environment recently published in TriplePundit.

Image credit: cabbit, courtesy Flickr

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May 31 2011

21:57

Carbon Emissions Spike to Historic High


Carbon Emissions Spike to Record Levels in 2010The International Energy Agency (IEA) released estimates on Monday showing that CO2 emissions have soared to record highs after a lull in 2009 due to the global recession. 30.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide where emitted into the atmosphere in 2010, mostly from burning fossil fuels, a rise of 1.6 gigatons over 2009 according to estimates from the IEA, and up 5 percent over 2008 emissions.

Though the drop in 2009 emissions is generally attributed to the economic downturn, but at the drop in emissions was greater than the decline of GDP, at least in the United States, suggesting that gains in efficiency might be “decoupling” energy consumption from economic growth – an essential element for future economic and environmental sustainability.

But that hope appears to be dashed with the IEA most recent emissions estimates.

Climate scientists warn that avoiding “potentially dangerous climate change” requires limiting global temperatures to within a 2 degree Celsius rise this century, something that IEA chief economist Fatih Birol says is now likely just a “nice Utopia.”

“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions,” Birol said. “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

In the IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook (pdf) set a pathway to a 2 degree Celsius rise with its  450 Scenario by limiting carbon emissions to 450 parts per million through century’s end. The scenario is based on emissions targets to which nations pledge to reach only by 2020. Given the current rate of emissions, those targets could be met within as little as two years. For the targets outlined in the 450 Scenario to be met, emissions will have to rise less in the next decade than they did between 2009 and 201o. Without a change to the current trajectory, there is little choice but to shift the burden of signinifcant emissions reduction onto future generations, when it will be even more difficult to achieve under worsening climactic conditions.

“Our latest estimates are another wake-up call,”  saidBirol. “The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained. Given the shrinking room for maneuver in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal agreed in Cancun.”

The situation is make even more difficult because much of the energy sector has already “locked in” 80 percent of its 2020 emissions from plants already in operation or currently under construction. Most of these plants will burn fossil fuels, virtually guaranteeing that 2020 targets will never be met.

Economist Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics, author of the 2006 Stern Report on climate change, warns that the latest numbers from the IEA combined with projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show a 50 percent chance that global temperature could rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 – double what is generally considered “safe.”

“Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict,” Stern said. “That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”

Birol still hangs to some hope that a climate disaster can be avoided, but the door is fast closing.

“If we have bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding,” he said.

That’s exactly what I heard nearly two years ago in Copenhagen.

Sources and further reading:
ARS Technica

Ecologist

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