Saturday, April 26, 2014

Next 15 years is 'crunch time' for climate change

Time is running out to avert severe global damage from climate change, says Don Fullerton, a finance professor and co-author of a chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fifth assessment report.

Time is running out to employ a mitigation strategy that would avert severe global damage from climate change, a University of Illinois energy policy expert says.

Although we still have time to stabilize future temperature levels and neutralize other potential negative outcomes created by climate change, that time is rapidly dwindling, says Don Fullerton, a finance professor and former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department.

"We really have to get serious over the next decade. Otherwise, it's going to be unstoppable," said Fullerton, the associate director of the U. of I. Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a faculty associate in the Center for Business and Public Policy in the College of Business.

"People may not realize that observed increases in temperature and are nothing compared to what will happen with the existing increases in already in the atmosphere," he said.

One of the biggest risks is that we don't know exactly what will happen, and when it will happen, Fullerton says.

"We can look all we want at expected sea levels, expected temperature changes, and expected storm severity. Yes, those are all going to be costly. But the real problem is just the great unknowable nature of it all – and the possibility that something much more drastic could occur," he said.

According to Fullerton, who co-wrote a chapter on the social, ethical and economic concepts of climate change for the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fifth assessment report, the next 15 years are "crunch time," but the global community really has to get moving within the next 10 years.

"International negotiations are continuing, but the problem is that they are especially difficult," he said. "Imagine trying to get more than 200 nations with differing views to signoff on anything."

The main sticking point in international negotiations is the divide between rich, industrialized nations such as the U.S. and rapidly growing and industrializing nations such as China and India.

"Even if most of the current emissions are coming from the rapidly growing nations, the major source of greenhouse gases for the past 200 years has been the rich, industrialized nations," Fullerton said. "So where does the responsibility lie? China and India have high emissions, but they cry foul because they haven't shared in the wealth that the U.S. and other industrialized nations achieved over the past 200 years."

An isolationist position for the U.S. wouldn't work very well, either.

"If the polar ice caps melt faster and sea levels submerge half of Bangladesh – a populous, low-lying country that is very poor – then that would create tens of millions of refugees," Fullerton said. "So it's just not accurate for people to think that's not going to affect us. Sure, we have a rich country and if we wanted to, we could put up higher levees around New Orleans. But it's not true that flooding in poor countries such as Bangladesh wouldn't affect us. When we see 100 million refugees with nowhere to go and nobody to help them, the U.S. is not going to sit idly by and watch all of those displaced people starve to death. It's going to be a lot cheaper if we do something now than if our hand is forced in the future."

From an ethical standpoint, another question is what our responsibility is to future generations, Fullerton said.

"On the one hand, we don't want to leave future generations with all of our pollution," he said. "On the other, economic welfare around the world is improving. So you could argue that they're going to be better off already."

But if the current projections hold, and it's thought that future generations are going to better off, then a different moral calculus might say they could bear the cost more easily than we could, Fullerton said.

"But that doesn't suggest waiting," he said. "It suggests doing something now but maybe going partially into debt to do it. We can't wait and have future generations do it all later, because it could be too late. If starting now is necessary, that doesn't mean we need to bear all of the costs now, especially if most of the benefits are going to . But there is an ethical argument for taking on some debt to do it now, in order to do it more effectively than what could be done years from now."

Even if the U.S. government does nothing, new technology is moving in the right direction, Fullerton said.

"The biggest initial step is moving from coal-fired power plants to power plants," he said. "Ironically, that's happening already, because of all the advances in fracking technology – it's a major improvement for , but we could be endangering our water supply. That is a good argument against doing things too fast. It's possible that we get better at fracking. We just don't want to build any new coal-fired plants. The new power plants we build should be natural gas plants. But at the same time, we need to continue to work on the technology for wind and solar power."

If we were to have an energy efficiency crash-program – the equivalent of this generation's Apollo program, as some critics have advocated – that could be very costly in its own right, Fullerton says.

"Reducing emissions quickly would mean shutting down coal-fired , which is wasteful because billions of dollars are already invested in those plants," he said. "For better or worse, coal-fired plants produce nearly half of the electricity produced in Illinois. So you can't just shut them down – although that would certainly be the fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or we could undertake extremely expensive carbon capture and sequestration, which is an untested technology. So doing it quickly makes it more expensive than, say, continuing to work on technologies and phasing in changes more slowly.

"It doesn't have to be zero emissions – solar, wind and nuclear, all of which are expensive. We would get way more than halfway there simply by switching from coal to natural gas, on the basis of carbon per kilowatt hour."

Fullerton also notes that substantial efforts are already underway to switch to low-carbon fuels and to embrace high-efficiency technology.

"We see plenty of efforts, both policy- and technology-based, to develop low-carbon fuels, biofuels, make cars more efficient, make houses and appliances more efficient," he said. "Those efforts are all having an impact and should not be discounted."

But it's not enough.

"It's necessary but it's certainly not sufficient, which is why we need a price on carbon, via a tax or cap-and-trade," Fullerton said. "Either option would provide an incentive to firms to make more energy-efficient technologies, to produce energy more efficiently and to use less carbon. And once electricity and gasoline become more expensive, that would also provide incentives for households to use less of it."

Such a price has two different effects: Reduce the carbon per unit of output, and raise the cost of those carbon-intensive products, Fullerton said.

"And both of those effects would reduce carbon emissions," he said. "But the current policymakers in the U.S. and other countries do not want to raise the cost of carbon-intensive output like electricity and gasoline; instead they prefer to hand out subsidies for energy-efficiency incentives. But we need both – to become more efficient, and to use less."

But above all else, we need a wake-up call, Fullerton said.

"Because it's only with a rude wake-up call that we'll change our habits, and that's what the IPCC's report hopes to accomplish," he said. More

Nitrogen pollution, climate and land use: Why what we eat matters

A new report quantifies for the first time how much our food choices affect pollutant nitrogen emissions, climate change and land-use across Europe. The Special report provides an assessment of what would happen if Europe were to decrease its consumption of meat and dairy products.

A new report quantifies for the first time how much our food choices affect pollutant nitrogen emissions, climate change and land-use across Europe.

The executive summary of the European Nitrogen Assessment Special Report on Nitrogen and Food, 'Nitrogen on the Table', was released today (Friday 25 April 2014). The Special report provides an assessment of what would happen if Europe were to decrease its consumption of meat and dairy products. It shows how much cutting down on meat and dairy in our diets would reduce nitrogen air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, while freeing up large areas of farmland for other purposes such as food export or bioenergy. It also considers the health benefits of reduced meat consumption. The full report is published next month.

Report lead author Henk Westhoek, program manager for Agriculture and Food at PBL (the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) said, "The report shows that the nitrogen footprint of meat and dairy is considerably higher than that from plant-based products. If all people within the EU would halve their meat and dairy consumption, this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 25 to 40%, and nitrogen emissions by 40%. The EU could become a major exporter of food products, instead of a major importer of for example soy beans."

The work has been conducted by the 'Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen' of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). In 2011 the Task Force produced the first 'European Nitrogen Assessment' (ENA) which showed that better nitrogen management will help reduce air, water and soil pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, simultaneously reducing threats to human health, biodiversity and food security.

Co-author of the report Prof Mark Sutton, an Environmental Physicist at the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said, "Human's use of nitrogen is a major societal challenge that links environment, food security, and human health. There are many ways in which society could improve the way it uses nitrogen, and this includes actions by farmers and by ourselves. Our new study shows that adopting a demitarian* diet across Europe would reduce nitrogen pollution levels by about 40%, which is similar to what could be achieved by adopting low-emission farming practices."

The UNECE Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen is tasked with providing policy makers in the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution with scientific evidence to support international decision making on environmental policies, especially as these link air pollution with water, soil, climate and biodiversity.

Professor Sutton said, "As the EU now starts to renegotiate the National Emissions Ceilings Directive, it is an open question to what extent countries will emphasize technical measures or such behavioural changes. One of the major barriers to action is the international trade in food commodities. The result is that countries fear that tackling nitrogen pollution will reduce their international competitiveness. The present study shows that there is huge power for pollution control in simply reducing our meat and dairy consumption."

Dr Alessandra Di Marco, a co-author of the study and researcher at the Air Pollution Unit of the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, has been involved in a number of food pilot projects in Italian schools. She said, "The school food pilot projects in Italy have shown added value environmental benefits and health benefits associated with 'smart food'. This is a new concept in Italian schools where children are informed about health principle of nutrition, but it still misses the connection with environmental co-benefits of the healthy choice. Increasing the awareness of dietary choice in children is the starting point for cleaning the environment." More


Friday, April 25, 2014

Doomed Pine Island Glacier Releases Guam-Sized Iceberg into Southern Ocean

Science has confirmed it. Human-caused warming is killing Antarctica’s massive Pine Island Glacier (PIG). And this week’s release of a chunk of ice larger than Guam into the southern ocean is just one of the many major losses that will occur as part of what is now an inevitable demise of one of the world’s greatest glaciers.

The iceberg calved from Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier last November, according to NASA. The crack that produced it was first spotted in 2011. Since November, B31 has drifted out of Pine Island Bay and into the Amundsen Sea off the western side of the continent. 'The iceberg is now well out of Pine Island Bay and will soon join the more general flow in the Southern Ocean, which could be east or west in this region," iceberg researcher Grant Bigg from the University of Sheffield in England said in the NASA statement. Once that happens, the researchers worry it will be difficult track the iceberg during the long weeks of darkness that comprise the Antarctic winter. And don't expect it to melt. An iceberg of that size could hang around for a year or more, Robert Marsh, a scientist at the University of Southampton in England, said last year. The largest iceberg ever recorded was called B15. With an area of 4,250 square miles -- about the size of the state of Connecticut or the island of Jamaica - it calved off Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf in March 2000. B15 has since broken up, but parts of it still exist around the Antarctic today.

Heat-Charged Blow to The Soft Underbelly of Antarctic Ice Shelves

As human greenhouse gas emissions caused the world’s oceans to warm, upwelling currents delivered a portion of that heat to the continental shelf zone surrounding Antarctica. A fortress of ice, numerous glacial ice shelves thrust out from this frozen land and drove deep into the sea floor. Ocean-fronting glaciers featured submerged sections hundreds of feet below the sea surface.

The warming currents encountered these massive ice faces, eroding their undersides and providing pathways for ocean waters to invade many miles beneath the glaciers. These invasions subjected the vulnerable ice shelves not only to the heat forcing of an ever-warming ocean, but also to wave and tidal stresses. The reduction in grounding and the constant variable stresses set the glaciers into a rapid seaward motion.

Antarctica’s most vulnerable glaciers lie along its western out-thrust. Two, Thwaites and the Pine Island Glacier, have recently seen very rapid increases in forward speed. Of these, the Pine Island Glacier, according to a recent study, is undergoing the process of an irreversible collapse. What this means is that the glacier’s speed of forward motion is now too great to be halted. Inevitably, even if the climate were to cool, the entire giant glacier will be launched into the world’s oceans where it will entirely melt out.

Guam-Sized Chunk of Ice to be One of Many

The Pine Island Glacier is massive, covering a total area of 68,000 square miles and, in some locations, rising to over 2,000 feet in height. It represents 10% of all the ice in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, holding enough liquid water to raise sea levels by between 1 and 2.5 feet all on its own. And the now destabilized PIG is bound to put added stresses on the adjacent Thwaites glacier together with almost the entire West Antarctic ice system. Over recent years, PIG’s forward speed has accelerated. Increasing forward velocity by 73 percent from 1974 to 2007. Surveys made since that time show an even more rapid pace. By January of this year, studies were finding that PIG had entered a sate of irreversible collapse. So it is little wonder that enormous chunks of ice are breaking off from this massive glacier and drifting on out into the Southern Ocean.

As of early this week, the immense ice island dubbed B31 measuring 12×24 miles in size (nearly 290 square miles), slid off its temporary grounding on the sea bottom and began its journey out into the Southern Ocean. There it will remain for years, plaguing the world’s shipping lanes as it slowly disintegrates into a flotilla of icebergs. It is just the most recent event in the now ongoing decline of PIG. And we can expect many, many more major ice releases as this vast Antarctic glacier continues its dive to the sea. More

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Cost of Climate Change in 2010


It's hard to put a price on the effects of climate change, but one group has tried to do just that. Based on 2010, DARA came up with figures of 400,000 human lives, and $1.2 trillion. The human, environmental, and economic costs will only rise as climate change intensifies.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

National Security by Robert Redford



IPCC climate report: a route map for civilisation's greatest journey

The landmark UN report shows the affordable paths to averting a global climate catastrophe: now politicians must decide the route and who pays the fare

Jakarta traffic

If you are embarking on a long and essential journey, it really pays to book early. That is the key message from Sunday's landmark UN report that sets out the route to averting catastrophic climate change.

By starting right now to end the era of dirty fossil fuels and create a new world of clean energy, not only do you ensure you arrive at your destination – a safer world – but you also get the cheapest ticket. The report's message was as clear as a travel agent's advertisement: buy now or pay a premium later.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's chair, Rajendra Pachauri, drew on his early years as a railway engineer to drive the point home: “The high speed [carbon-cutting] train will leave very soon and all of the global community will have to be on board.”

But his IPCC colleague, Youba Sokona, a scientist from Mali and one of the trio who led the new report, was clear about the limits of the new plan: “We are the mapmakers: the [powerful] are the navigators.” He said the report is “telling truth to power”: the question now is whether the powerful want to listen.

The IPCC report sets out multiple possible routes. Some, based on renewable energy and cutting energy waste, are low-risk and comfortable, rather like a fast electric train. Other more circuitous routes, such as delaying action and then beingforced to suck carbon out of the air later, look more like a four-wheeled drive over a mountain range.

The IPCC has put a definitive map on the table and shown that the price of climate action is affordable. But the hardest choices remain in the hands of the powerful: which route to take and, even more difficult, who pays for the ticket.

The statements deleted from the final report summary, which is aimed directly at policymakers, reveal the political battles ahead. All mentions of transferring hundreds of billions of dollars a year from rich to poor nations to pay for going green were excised. Even the simple statement that 70% of all emissions come from just 10 big nations – think China and the US – was deemed too much like naming and shaming.

Nonetheless, many stark messages remain: all dirty fossil fuel use will have to end in the coming decades; huge stocks of coal, oil and gas will have to remain in the ground; countries and companies relying on fossil fuels may suffer big financial losses.

Choosing the route away from civilisation's looming climate car crash now falls to the world's leaders, with a deadline of December 2015 in Paris for a global deal. But they can no longer claim they don't know the way or can't afford the fare. As US secretary of state John Kerry put it on Sunday: “This report makes very clear we face an issue of global willpower, not capacity.” More


Sunday, April 6, 2014

New climate change feedback increasing extreme weather

New climate change feedback increasing extreme weather.

Published on Apr 6, 2014 •

From December, 2013 until early April, 2014 there have been persistent and very large temperature anomalies in the northern hemisphere (+20 C = +36 F in the Arctic, -20 C = -36 F in vast parts of the US and Canada). I claim that this represents a previously unrecognized large positive feedback acting to homogenize the temperature in the northern hemisphere.