Tag Archives: global warming

The Northern Frontier: Who’s Taking Advantage of Climate Change?

Owing to climate change…the share of boreal land that can support farming could increase from 8% to 41% in Sweden. It could increase from 51% to 83% in Finland. Efforts to farm these areas will alarm people who value boreal forests for their own sake. And cutting down such forests and ploughing up the soils that lie beneath them will release carbon. But the climatic effects are not as simple as they might seem. Northern forests absorb more heat from the sun than open farmland does, because snow-covered farmland reflects light back into space…

The fact that felling boreal forests may not worsen climate change, though, says nothing about the degree to which it could affect biodiversity, ecosystem services or the lives of forest dwellers, particularly indigenous ones.

Some governments are already keen to capitalize on climate change. Russia’s has long talked of higher temperatures as a boon. President Vladimir Putin once boasted that they would enable Russians to spend less money on fur coats and grow more grain. In 2020 a “national action plan” on climate change outlined ways in which the country could “use the advantages” of it, including expanding farming. Since 2015 Russia has become the world’s largest producer of wheat, chiefly because of higher temperatures.

Russia’s government has started leasing thousands of square kilometers of land in the country’s far east to Chinese, South Korean and Japanese investors. Much of the land, which was once unproductive, is now used to grow soybeans. Most are imported by China, helping the country reduce its reliance on imports from America. Sergey Levin, Russia’s deputy minister of agriculture, has predicted that soya exports from its far-eastern farmlands may reach $600m by 2024. That would be nearly five times what they were in 2017. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province on the north-eastern tip of Canada, is also trying to promote the expansion of agriculture into lands covered by forests…

All told, the northern expansion of farmland will only go some way towards mitigating the damage climate change may do to agriculture. The societies that will benefit from it are mostly already wealthy. Poor places, which rely much more heavily on income from exporting agricultural produce, will suffer.

Excerpts from Farming’s New Frontiers: Agriculture, Economist, August 28, 2021

Planting Trees Can be Bad for the Planet

Some scientists argue that deforestation is not always harmful for the planet. Christopher A. Williams, a professor at Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography (Worcester, Massachusetts), says that instead of warming up the Earth, deforestation can actually cool it down. (See Climate impacts of U.S. forest loss span net warming to net cooling, Feb. 2021) But some experts are concerned that Williams’ work is likely to be misconstrued as permission to continue deforesting, which is not his intention.

It’s widely accepted that our existing forests are vital carbon sinks, and the best course of action is to stop deforestation, while rewilding and reforesting areas already lost. Deforestation contributes to climate change, can cause wildfires, desertification, soil erosion and most of all – releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide which causes global warming.

While the above may be true, Williams’ new research argues that there are two factors we are not acknowledging: the significance of location and something known as ‘the albedo effect’. Put simply, ‘the albedo effect’ is the process in which forests retain heat. Forests tend to be darker than other surfaces, which means they absorb more sunlight and hold onto heat, explains Williams. As a result, some scientists believe that deforestation gets rid of unwanted heat which is contributing to global warming.

“We found that in some parts of the country like the Intermountain West, more forest actually leads to a hotter planet when we consider the full climate impacts from both carbon and albedo effects,” says Professor Williams. He adds that it is important to consider the albedo effect of forests alongside their well-known carbon storage when aiming to cool the planet.

The team discovered that for approximately one quarter of the US, forest loss causes a persistent net cooling because the albedo effect outweighs the carbon effect.  “It is all about putting the right trees in the right place,” explains Williams, “and studies like ours can help identify where the potential for cooling is greatest.”

For instance, loss of forests east of the Mississippi River caused planetary warming, while forest loss in the Intermountain and Rocky Mountain West led to a net cooling. “If we fail to consider both the carbon and the albedo effects, large-scale tree-planting initiatives, such as Canada’s 2Billion Trees Initiative and The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees campaign, could end up placing trees in locations that are counterproductive for cooling the climate system,” he says.

Maeve Campbell, DEFORESTATION COULD BE COOLING THE PLANET DOWN, Euronews, SAY SCIENTISTS, Feb. 17,2021

An Umbrella for the Sun: Geo-Engineering

The idea of cooling the climate with stratospheric sunshades that would shield the planet from the sun’s warming rays moved up the international agenda in March 2019, with mixed results. On the one hand, new research suggested that it is theoretically possible to fine-tune such a shield without some of its potentially damaging consequences. Publication of this work coincided with a proposal at the biennial UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, for an expert review of such geoengineering methods. This was the highest-level discussion of the topic so far. On the other hand, the more than 170 nations involved could not arrive at a consensus. In a fitting illustration of the heat surrounding geoengineering, the proposal was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

Under the Paris Agreement, governments have pledged to keep average global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit maximum warming to 1.5°C. Many see these targets as wishful thinking: the planet is already roughly 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and national pledges to cut them fall short of what is needed to hit the 2°C target, let alone 1.5°C.

Faced with this, some think there is a need to turn down the global thermostat using geoengineering. This encompasses a range of possibilities, including technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and others that block incoming solar energy….  The unea resolution was tabled by Switzerland, and by the start of the week it had received support from most governments. It called for an expert review of the science of geoengineering,…Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.  But there are challenges. Stratospheric particles eventually fall back to Earth in rain, so the effect is short-lived. A sunshade would need to be continually resupplied, which is one reason for an international governance framework. If a sunshade were allowed to dissipate while atmospheric CO2 concentrations remained high, global temperatures would rapidly shoot up, with devastating consequences in some regions of the world.  Another problem is the effect of solar geoengineering on the water cycle. Over the past decade, several studies have suggested that sunshades could disproportionately affect rainfall, bringing drought to some regions. But that argument may be oversimplified, according to the new study published in Nature Climate Change .

Position of Sunshade Relative to Earth, Moon and Sun from
http://mycgenie.seao2.info/pubs/Irvine_and_Ridgwell_2009.pdf

Switzerland’s proposal to study geo-engineering was blocked at the UNEA…Several delegates told the Economist that America and Saudi Arabia opposed the Swiss proposal to review geoengineering, preferring the issue to be assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to include something about the technologies in its next big report, expected in 2021. ..But the Swiss proposal was for a more comprehensive appraisal and one that would be delivered more quickly, by August 2020…. Indeed, there are concerns that some geoengineering methods could be unilaterally deployed by one or more nations, to the possible detriment of others.  The Americans, some said, did not appear to want to make room for conversations, let alone make decisions, about a framework for geoengineering that could restrict their future options.

Excerpts from  Sunny with Overcast Features: Geoengineering, Economist, Mar. 16, 2019

Ozone Layer Recovery Success

The study, “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018”, is the latest in a series of reports, released every four years, which monitor the recovery of ozone in the stratosphere, a layer that protects life on Earth from harmful layers of ultraviolet rays from the sun.  It shows that the concentration of ozone-depleting substances continues to decrease, leading to an improvement in the layer since the previous assessment carried out in 2014.

Ozone in parts of the stratosphere has recovered at a rate of 1-3 percent since 2000 and, at projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone is scheduled to heal completely by the 2030s, followed by the Southern Hemisphere in the 2050s and polar regions by 2060.

This is due to internationally agreed actions carried out under the historic Montreal Protocol, which came into being over 30 years ago in response to the revelation that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances – used in aerosols, cooling and refrigeration systems, and many other items – were tearing a hole in the ozone layer and allowing dangerous ultraviolet radiation to flood through.

Next year, the Protocol is set to be strengthened with the ratification of the Kigali Amendment, which calls for the future use of powerful climate-warming gases in refrigerators, air conditioners and related products to be slashed…The writers of the report found that, if the Kigali Amendment is fully implemented, the world can avoid up to 0.4 percent of global warming this century, meaning that it will play a major role in keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C.

Excerpts from Healing of ozone layer gives hope for climate action: UN report, UN News, Nov. 5, 2018

Climate Change 2015

 

Global carbon emissions were 58% higher in 2012 than they were in 1990. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from just under 340 parts per million in 1980 to 400 in 2015.  To stand a fair chance of keeping warming to just 2°C by the end of the century—the goal of global climate policy—cumulative carbon emissions caused by humans must be kept under 1 trillion tonnes. Estimates vary but, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the total had hit 515 billion tonnes by 2011. Climate Interactive, a research outfit, reckons that if emissions continue on their present course around 140 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases will be released each year and temperatures could rise by 4.5°C by 2100. And even if countries fully honour their recent pledges, temperatures may still increase by 3.5°C by then.

The world is already 0.75°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution….

Melting glacier ice, and the fact that warmer water has a larger volume, mean higher sea levels: they have already risen by roughly 20cm since 1880 and could rise another metre by 2100. That is perilous for low-lying islands and flat countries: the government of Kiribati, a cluster of tropical islands, has bought land in Fiji to move residents to in case of flooding. Giza Gaspar Martins, a diplomat from Angola who leads the world’s poorest countries in the climate talks, points out that they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. Money alone, he argues, will not fix their problems. Without steps to reduce emissions, he predicts, “there will be nothing left to adapt for.”…

For every 0.6°C rise in temperature, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water grows by 4%, meaning storms will pour forth with greater abandon. The rains of the Indian monsoon could therefore intensify, cutting yields of cereals and pulses.

Climate change seems also to be making dry places drier, killing crops and turning forests into kindling. Forest fires in Indonesia, more likely thanks to the current El Niño weather phenomenon, could release 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 5% of annual emissions due to human activity, says Simon Lewis of University College London. In recent months fires have swallowed more than 2.4m hectares of American forests. Alaska suffered 80% of the damage—a particular problem because the soot released in these blazes darkens the ice, making it less able to reflect solar radiation away from the Earth.

Developments in the Arctic are worrying for other reasons, too. The region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, a trend that could start a vicious cycle. Around 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon are held in permafrost soils as frozen organic matter. If they thaw, vast amounts of methane, which is 25 times more powerful as a global-warming gas than carbon dioxide when measured over a century, will be released. One hypothesis suggests that self-reinforcing feedback between permafrost emissions and Arctic warming caused disaster before: 55m years ago temperatures jumped by 5°C in a few thousand years…

And on September 29th Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned that though measures to avoid catastrophic climate change are essential, not least for long-term financial stability, in the shorter term they could cause investors huge losses by making reserves of oil, coal and gas “literally unburnable”.

Excerpts from Climate Change: It’s Getting Hotter, Economst, Oct. 3, 2015, at 63

 

Weather Modification in China

China aims to induce more than 60 billion cubic metres of additional rain each year by 2020, using an “artificial weather” programme to fight chronic water shortages…China’s water resources are among the world’s lowest, standing at 2,100 cubic metres per person, or just 28 per cent of the world average. Shortages are particularly severe in the country’s northeast and northwest.

China has already allocated funds of 6.51 billion yuan (S$1.45 billion) for artificial weather creation since 2008, the State Council, or cabinet, said in a document setting out the programme from 2014 to 2020. “Weather modification has an important role to play in easing water shortages, reducing natural disasters, protecting ecology and even safeguarding important events,” it added.  The figure of 60 billion cu.m is equivalent to more than one-and-a-half times the volume of the Three Gorges reservoir, part of the world’s largest hydropower plant.

China sets 2020 “artificial weather” target to combat water shortages, Reuters, Jan. 13, 2015

Tar Sands from Canada to Europe

Canada and the US have threatened to pull out of TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] trade talks unless the EU ignores the massive emissions of oil from tar sands – and the EU is collapsing under the pressure…For five long years the federal government and the oil industry have lobbied against the European Union labeling oilsands (also called tar sands) bitumen as ‘dirty oil’ in its Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).  A new report [authored by environmental groups] reveals the how recent involvement of the US in the lobby offensive to keep the EU market open for bitumen exports has tipped the scales in favour of oilsands proponents….

The report shows the EU Fuel Quality Directive, a piece of legislation designed to reduce global warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU’s transportation sector, is unlikely to acknowledge fuels from different sources of oil – conventional oil, oilsands, oil shale – have different carbon footprints.  All oil is the same – no matter how great the disparity in emissions  Instead all oils will more than likely be treated as having the same GHG emissions intensity ‘value’ in the Directive. This is exactly what Canada, the oil industry and now the US have been pushing for…

The EU has not fallen for the federal government’s argument that bitumen produces only marginally more GHG emissions than conventional oil in extraction, processing, and use.  A European Commission study found bitumen’s carbon footprint is between 12% – 40% higher than conventional oil as so much of the bitumen produced from the tar sands is burnt to fuel the energy-intensive extraction process.  The report reveals trade, not science, is the cause of the EU backing off from implementing the Fuel Quality Directive as it was originally meant to be implemented.

The US in some ways has been more open [than Canada] about its lobbying against the Fuel Quality Directive.  US Trade Representative Michael Froman confirmed he “raised these issues [of the FQD implementation] with senior Commission officials on several occasions, including in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TTIP).” The TTIP is the highly controversial trade agreement between the US and the EU currently under negotiation.  European Commission documents obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe reveal the US trade missions has “substantive concerns” with the Fuel Quality Directive singling out fuels produced from bitumen as having a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil.    Like Canada and the oil industry, the US wants all oil – regardless of GHG emissions – to be treated the same as conventional oil in the Directive…Recently eleven members of US Congress sent a letter to the US trade mission expressing their concerns “that official US trade negotiations could undercut the EU’s commendable efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”

Excerpts, Derek LeahyIgnore tar sands emissions! EU buckles under US, Canada pressure in TTIP talks, Ecologist, July 23, 2014

Himalayas and Climate Change: the Third Pole

Though the amount of ice on the plateau of Tibet and its surrounding mountains, such as the Himalayas, Karakoram and Pamirs, is a lot smaller than that at the poles, it is still huge. The area’s 46,000 glaciers cover 100,000 square kilometres (40,000 square miles)—about 6% of the area of the Greenland ice cap. Another 1.7m square kilometres is permafrost, which can be up to 130 metres deep. That is equivalent to 7% of the Arctic’s permafrost. Unlike the ice at the poles, the fate of this ice affects a lot of people directly. The area is known by some as Asia’s water tower, because it is the source of ten of the continent’s biggest rivers. About 1.5 billion people, in 12 countries, live in the basins of those rivers. Welcome, then, to the Earth’s “Third Pole”.

Until recently studies of the Third Pole were piecemeal—not surprising, given its remoteness, the altitude, the harsh weather and the fact that little love is lost between the countries among which it is divided. In 2009, however, Yao Tandong of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, in Beijing, Lonnie Thompson of the Ohio State University and Volker Mosbrugger of the Senckenberg World of Biodiversity, in Frankfurt, started an international programme involving these countries, called the Third Pole Environment (TPE). Last month, its fourth workshop met in Dehradun, India.

One question on everyone’s mind is whether the glaciers are retreating, as is happening in parts of the real polar regions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report in 2007 foolishly suggested that the Himalayas’ glaciers could disappear as early as 2035. Given the amount of ice they contain, it would take weather gods armed with blow torches to melt them that quickly, and this suggestion was rapidly discredited…..

One outcome of the workshop, then, has been to establish that the overall ice cover of the Third Pole, like that of the two real poles, is shrinking. Another is to show how precarious and piecemeal data about the area are. Its role as the source of so many rivers means that absence of data matters. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, of which both Dr Yao’s and Dr Wu’s institutes are part, has therefore set up a fund of 400m yuan ($65m) for research on the Third Pole and, crucially, a quarter of this is earmarked for work outside China.

The TPE’s researchers will now monitor a set of bellwether glaciers every six months. They will set up observatories to measure solar radiation, snowfall, meltwater and changes in the soil, as well as air temperature, pressure, humidity and wind. And they plan to take cores from the ice on the Tibetan plateau. These will let them reconstruct the area’s climate over the past few hundred thousand years. Together, these data will give them a better grip on how much—and why—the Third Pole is changing.

The climate of Tibet: Pole-land, Economist,, May 11, 2013,  at 84

The Risk of Unburnable Carbon

Several  reports suggest that markets are overlooking the risk of “unburnable carbon”. The share prices of oil, gas and coal companies depend in part on their reserves. The more fossil fuels a firm has underground, the more valuable its shares. But what if some of those reserves can never be dug up and burned?

If governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of that carbon would have to be left in the ground, says Carbon Tracker, a non-profit organisation, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, part of the London School of Economics. Their analysis starts by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide that could be put into the atmosphere if global temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C, the most that climate scientists deem prudent. The maximum, says the report, is about 1,000 gigatons (GTCO2) between now and 2050. The report calls this the world’s “carbon budget”.

Existing fossil-fuel reserves already contain far more carbon than that. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its “World Energy Outlook”, total proven international reserves contain 2,860GTCO2—almost three times the carbon budget. The report refers to the excess as “unburnable carbon”.

Most of the reserves are owned by governments or state energy firms; they could be left in the ground by public-policy choice (ie, if governments took the 2°C target seriously). But the reserves of listed oil companies are different. These are assets developed using money raised from investors who expect a return. Proven reserves of listed firms contain 762GTCO2—most of what can prudently be burned before 2050. Listed potential reserves have 1,541GTCO2 embedded in them.

So companies and governments already have far more oil, gas and coal than they need (again, assuming temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C). Logically, the response to this would be for governments to leave their reserves untouched and for companies to run theirs slowly down, returning more of what they earn to shareholders. Neither of these things is happening. State-owned companies are taking an increasing share of total energy output. And in 2012, says Carbon Tracker, the 200 largest listed oil, gas and coal companies spent five times as much—$674 billion—on developing new reserves as they did returning money to shareholders ($126 billion). ExxonMobil alone plans to spend $37 billion a year on exploration in each of the next three years.

Such behaviour, on the face of it, makes no sense. One possible explanation is that companies are betting that government climate policies will fail; they will be able to burn all their reserves, including new ones, after all. This implies that global temperatures would either soar past the 2°C mark, or be restrained by a technological fix, such as carbon capture and storage, or geo-engineering.Recent events make such a bet seem rational. On April 16th the European Parliament voted against attempts to shore up Europe’s emissions trading system against collapse. The system is the EU’s flagship environmental policy and the world’s largest carbon market.  Putting it at risk suggests that Europeans have lost their will to endure short-term pain for long-term environmental gain. Nor is this the only such sign. Several cash-strapped EU countries are cutting subsidies for renewable energy. And governments around the world have failed to make progress towards a new global climate-change treaty. Betting against tough climate policies seems almost prudent.

The markets are [also] mispricing risk by valuing companies as if all their reserves will be burned. Investors treat reserves as an indicator of future revenues. They therefore require companies to replace reserves depleted by production, even though this runs foul of emission-reduction policies. Fossil-fuel firms live and die by a measure called the reserve replacement ratio, which must remain above 100%. Companies see their shares marked down if the ratio falls, even when they pull the plug on dodgy, expensive projects. This happened to Shell, for example, when it suspended drilling in the Arctic in February….

At the moment neither public policies nor markets reflect the risks of a warmer world.

Energy Firms and Climate Change: Unburnable Fuel, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 68

Flooding Vietnam: Climate Change

Ho Chi Minh City (known locally as HCMC), Vietnam, a city full of rivers and canals,  has so far been spared a devastating flood, and donors have so far been eager to help. The World Bank, for example, has upgraded stormwater and canal infrastructure in a few central districts, and on April 8th, 2013 officials from the Dutch city of Rotterdam were in town to promote a joint Dutch-Vietnamese project designed to help HCMC adapt to climate change.Yet nearly half the city lies less than one metre above sea level, and scientists say groundwater extraction, which causes land subsidence, may be having a huge unseen effect. Nearly 70% of the city is already vulnerable to extreme flooding, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Flood risks are rising in HCMC’s lower-lying districts, in part because the property boom that accompanied Vietnam’s 2007 entry to the World Trade Organisation led many developers to build wherever they could. One potential victim is an Intel factory inside a high-tech park on HCMC’s eastern outskirts. The threat to such a big firm is troubling because the city accounts for more than half of foreign direct investment in Vietnam, and exports have helped offset weak consumer demand. In Vietnam urban floods also pose public health risks in the form of outbreaks of cholera or dysentery…

The government is promoting a plan to build a 172-km (106-mile), $2.6 billion system of ring dykes to protect urban areas west of the Saigon River. But the financing is not yet secure, and the World Bank has said such large flood-control solutions may be unsustainable.

A better option may be a smaller $1.4 billion dyke proposed by Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch consultancy that has managed similar projects in New Orleans and other flood-prone places. But officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development typically prefer expensive infrastructure projects, which offer opportunities for kickbacks. “They love dykes,” says Ho Long Phi, a professor at Vietnam National University in HCMC.  Mr Phi may be Saigon’s best flood-control asset. Unlike many Vietnamese officials, he understands that bigger flood-protection measures are not necessarily better, and that if the city is to prosper in the long term, it will need to work with, rather than against, nature. Today’s policies will only transfer flooding risks to future generations. In Mr Phi’s view, the only thing that may change the government’s short-sighted approach to flood prevention is a catastrophe,

Up a creek: A low-lying city must take drastic action to prevent flooding, Economist, May 4,  2013, at 41

The Evaporation of Andes Glaciers: a study

The glacier retreat in the tropical Andes over the last three decades is unprecedented since the maximum extension of the Little Ice Age (LIA, mid-17th–early 18th century). In terms of changes in mass balance, although there have been some sporadic gains on several glaciers, we show that the trend has been quite negative over the past 50 yr, with a mean mass balance deficit for glaciers in the tropical Andes that is slightly more negative than the one computed on a global scale. A break point in the trend appeared in the late 1970s with mean annual mass balance per year decreasing from −0.2 m w.e. in the period 1964–1975 to −0.76 m w.e. in the period 1976–2010.

In addition, even if glaciers are currently retreating everywhere in the tropical Andes, it should be noted that this is much more pronounced on small glaciers at low altitudes that do not have a permanent accumulation zone, and which could disappear in the coming years/decades. Monthly mass balance measurements performed in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia show that variability of the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean is the main factor governing variability of the mass balance at the decadal timescale. Precipitation did not display a significant trend in the tropical Andes in the 20th century, and consequently cannot explain the glacier recession. On the other hand, temperature increased at a significant rate of 0.10 °C decade−1 in the last 70 yr. The higher frequency of El Niño events and changes in its spatial and temporal occurrence since the late 1970s together with a warming troposphere over the tropical Andes may thus explain much of the recent dramatic shrinkage of glaciers in this part of the world.

A. Rabatel, et al.,Current state of glaciers in the tropical Andes: a multi-century perspective on glacier evolution and climate change. The Cryosphere: An Interactive Open Access Journal of the European Geosciences Union