What Really Kickstarted China’s Green Energy Revolution?

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I wrote this in 2004 for WIRED when China first announced it was moving away from coal as its primary energy source to green energy. Fascinating to look back and see that China had just 400 Mw of wind energy then. Today it’s world leader with 145 Gw  or 145,000 Mw  (a Gigawatt is 1,000 Megawatts). Interesting to see climate concerns were not the main reason for this build out. Enjoy.

STEPHEN LEAHY SCIENCE 10.04.04 12:00 PM

CHANGE IN THE CHINESE WIND

THE WORLD’S LARGEST wind power project will begin construction this month near Beijing, bringing green energy and cleaner air to the 2008 Summer Olympics and city residents coping with some of the worst air pollution in the world.
The new wind power plant, located 60 miles outside Beijing in Guangting, will generate 400 megawatts when at full capacity, nearly doubling the electrical energy China currently obtains from wind. But that’s just the beginning. Last summer at a climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, China surprised many by announcing it will generate 12 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind by 2020.

windmill winter ponies

Pollution is part of the driving force behind China’s newfound passion for green energy, said Yu Jie of Greenpeace China‘s office in Beijing. “Acid rain blankets 70 percent of the country,” Jie said, cutting crop yields, damaging trees and making rivers and lakes too acidic to support fish.

The country’s galloping economic growth over the past 20 years has meant enormous increases in electrical power demands, 75 percent of which come from coal. China is the world’s largest coal-consuming country and home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities on the planet, according to the World Bank. At least 400,000 people in China die each year from air-pollution-related illnesses, the World Bank reports.

Pollution is not China’s only energy problem. It is also plagued by frequent and widespread power failures because its generating capacity cannot keep pace with industrial and consumer demands. The country leads the world in purchases of TV sets and other appliances.

While China has low-quality coal in abundance, its transportation infrastructure cannot ship enough coal from the mines in the west to the cities in the east, said Jie. Electrical energy self-sufficiency is a crucial goal for the Chinese leadership, especially as oil imports soar to provide gasoline for the 14,000 new motor vehicles being added to its streets every day.

linfen coalminer

These factors have pushed China to invite Western energy experts, including environmental groups like Greenpeace and the National Resources Defense Council, to help China become more energy-efficient and figure out how to produce 20,000 megawatts from wind by 2020.

A megawatt is a million watts, sufficient power to light 10,000 100-watt bulbs, or enough daily electricity for 600 to 1,000 households, depending on energy use. Germany currently leads the world, generating 12,000 megawatts from wind, with the United States well behind at 5,000 megawatts.

China is looking to Germany and Denmark to supply the technology and the policy models upon which to base a new renewable-energy law, said Jie. “This is the first time China has asked outsiders to comment on a proposed law.”

“China’s wind power potential is huge — 500,000, perhaps 600,000 megawatts — but it needs the proper legal framework,” said Corin Millais, executive director of the Brussels-based European Wind Energy Association. The association has contributed input on the Chinese renewable-energy law.

China has a complex mix of state, local and private energy generators, with multiple levels of subsidies and often conflicting regulations. “Changes in state and federal laws are needed, along with clear rules about who sets the price and who owns the wind power farms; otherwise the wind-energy boom won’t happen,” said Millais.

The Chinese want to pursue private-public partnerships with European companies, but because up to 80 percent of the total cost of a wind farm is building it, companies need a reliable price structure for the power they sell, he said.

The new law is expected to be in place by next summer, and if it has the right ingredients, the Chinese landscape will soon blossom with fields of 2- and 3-megawatt wind turbines.

Another reason China is looking to wind is because it is now as cheap as coal, said Kyle Datta, managing director at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading independent energy research center. And if the health costs associated with coal burning are considered, wind is actually a lot cheaper, said Datta, who researched the Chinese energy market while co-authoring a book, Winning the Oil Endgame: American Innovation for Profits, Jobs and Security.

“People in Chinese cities would also prefer it (wind energy) to all those diesel generators they needed last summer just to keep the lights on some of the time,” Datta said. Solving China’s pollution problems while meeting its energy needs will be difficult and will require a mix of power-generation technologies, including biomass, solar and hydro, he added.

Although China has little interest in nuclear power because of its high cost and security concerns, a few more nuclear plants will also be built, Datta said.

We now have less than 2 years to stop building any new stuff that uses fossil fuels

The original headline of the article said we had 5 years but now it’s less than 2  years to stop building any new stuff that uses fossil fuels.  Here’s lightly updated repost.

Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

Measurement of CO2 levels in atmosphere

By Stephen Leahy

[Authors note: One of the most difficult and important articles I’ve written in 20 years of environmental journalism. Originally published Sept 6 2014 @Vice Motherboard]

 

Here’s the frightening implication of a landmark study on CO2 emissions:

By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again, unless they’re either replacements for old ones or carbon neutral. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions will push global warming past 2˚C of temperature rise worldwide, threatening the survival of many people currently living on the planet.

Every climate expert will tell you we’re on a tight carbon budget as it is—that only so many tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) can be pumped into the atmosphere before the global climate will overheat. We’ve already warmed temperatures 0.85˚C from pre-industrial levels, and the number rises every year. While no one thinks 2˚ C is safeper…

View original post 1,386 more words

“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty.”

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May 4, 2016 – NASA

The northern forest a “carbon bomb” –  Global Fire Monitoring Center

By Stephen Leahy  [First published Feb 27 2012 (IPS)]

Rising temperatures are drying out northern forests and peatlands, producing bigger and more intense fires. And this will only get much worse as the planet heats up from the use of ever larger amounts of fossil fuels, scientists warned last week at the end of a major science meeting in Vancouver.

“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty,” said Mike Flannigan, a forest researcher at the University of Alberta, Canada.

“I’d say a doubling or even tripling of fire events is a conservative estimate,” Flannigan told IPS.

While Flannigan’s research reveals forest fire risk may triple in future, a similar increase in peat fires will be far more dangerous. There are millions of square kilometres of tundra and peatlands in the northern hemisphere and they hold more than enough carbon to ramp up global temperatures high enough to render most of the planet uninhabitable if they burn.

A forest fire in Indonesia that ignited peatlands in 1997 smouldered for months, releasing the equivalent of 20 to 40 percent of the worldwide fossil fuel emissions for the entire year, he said.

“There is the potential for significant releases of carbon and other greenhouse gases (from future peat fires),” Flannigan said.

If peat fires release large amounts of carbon, then temperatures will rise faster and higher, leading to further drying of forests and peat, and increasing the likelihood of fires in what is called a positive feedback, he said.

When the increased fire from global warming was first detected in 2006, Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at Germany’s Freiburg University called the northern forest a “carbon bomb”.

“It’s sitting there waiting to be ignited, and there is already ignition going on,” Goldammer said according to media reports in 2006.

Flannigan’s research is based on climate projections for 2070 to 2090. Forests will be drier and there will be more lightning with rising temperatures. Around the world, most fires are caused by humans, except in remote regions like boreal forest and treeless tundra, he said.

Lightning sparked the 1,000-square-kilometre tundra fire fuelled by peat in Alaska’s Anaktuvuk River region in 2007. Lightning, once nearly unknown in the far north, is becoming more common as the region is now two to three degrees C warmer. Until the past decade, fire had largely been absent from the tundra over the past 12,000 years.

The Anaktuvuk River peat fire burned for nearly three months, releasing about two million tonnes of CO2 before it was extinguished by snow. That’s about half of the annual emissions of a country like Nepal or Uganda. Surprisingly, the severely burned tundra continued to release CO2 in the following years.

Peat can grow several metres deep beneath the ground. In fact, some peat fires burn right through winter, beneath the snow, then pick up again in the spring, said Flannigan.

About half the world’s soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at Canada’s University of Guelph. This carbon has been accumulating for thousands of years, but fires can release much of this into the atmosphere rapidly, Turetsky said in a release.

Over the past 10 years, fires are burning far more boreal forest than ever before. Longer snow-free seasons, melting permafrost and rising temperatures are large-scale changes underway in the north, Turetsky and colleagues have found.

Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada’s vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany’s largest research organisation.

This “drastic change” in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist.

Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year. That’s an area larger than the size of India.

The first-ever assessment of forest and bush fires’ impact on human health estimated that 339,000 people die per year from respiratory and other fire-related illness.

“I was surprised the number was this high,” said Fay Johnston, co-author and researcher at University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.

Half of the deaths were in Africa and 100,000 in Southeast Asia. Deforestation fires in the tropics are the worst when it comes to human health impacts, she said. Heavy smoke contains high volumes of tiny particles that are very damaging to the lungs and cardiovascular system and can produce heart attacks.

“It takes humans to burn a rainforest. This would be the easiest to stop compared to other fires,” Johnston told IPS.

Forest and bush fires result in many billions of dollars in material losses every year. Last year, fires in drought-stricken Texas resulted in at least five billion dollars in losses, while the Slave Lake, Alberta fire was Canada’s second worst disaster at 750 million dollars.

Future fires will be bigger and more intense and largely beyond our abilities to control or suppress, said Flannigan.

“Virtually all of Russia, Canada, the U.S.” will be impacted, he said

Oceans on the Brink: Dying Plankton, Dead Zones, Acidification

A number of marine diatom cells

By Stephen Leahy

[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]

The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)

Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said

Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.

“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.

“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.

“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.

A large phytoplankton bloom in the Northeast Atlantic -NASA Earth Observatory Collection.

[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]

Independent environmental journalism now depends on public support, learn more about how this works and how you can help, click here.

Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.

Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading

Climate Change Explained in 165 Words

The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.

Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.

The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

[For story behind this explanation – a Russian journalist and a bar are involved – click here. (only 320 words!)]

terrifying co2 graph
Graphic by Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus/Chief Scientist Pacific Institute

 

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These climate experts publish studies in peer-reviewed journals like Nature or Science. There is a something called the ‘Oregon Petition’ that claims otherwise. However some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.

Global Warming Explained… in 320 words

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Briton’s 1st carbon-neutral pub (Aston-Hayes)

One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says:  “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.

“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.

“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).

“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.

Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:

“The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.

Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm. The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

That’s it.

After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.

I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.

One additional thing to know is that CO2 is forever. Every little CO2 molecule we add to the atmosphere will continue to trap the sun’s heat for hundreds and thousands of years.

First published Aug 2015

terrifying co2 graph

Climate Change Driving Our Weather Crazy

flooding of jersey shore
Flooding of New Jersey shoreline

By Stephen Leahy

Helle Thorning-Schmidt came home at 3:30am one night last August to find her home flooded after heavy rains. Ironically the Danish prime minister had been attending European Commission meetings discussing climate change among other topics. As she cleaned up the soggy mess at home, she recalls thinking that “climate change truly affects us all”.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report, there are now more and longer-lasting heat waves, more heavy rainfall events, bigger storm surges, larger wildfires and other extreme events than prior to 1950. Some of these “have been linked to human influences” and such events are “very likely” to get worse in future than they are today, the IPCC report concludes.

For example, Denmark has experienced extensive flooding in recent years. In 2011, one downpour resulted in 5 billion euros in damages to the city of Copenhagen alone. “We’re having lots of floods now and these are badly damaging our infrastructure,” Thorning-Schmidt told 750 attendees at the IARU Sustainability Science Congress in Copenhagen in October. “Climate change is happening now.”

“All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be,” says Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado and an expert on extreme events.

Conditions in the atmosphere have fundamentally changed, he explains, thanks to hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat and as a result there is far more heat energy in the climate system and warmer temperatures. This also means 4-6% more moisture in the air – “fuel” for storms that makes them more destructive, says Trenberth.

“This is the new normal,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to rebuild in some regions – they’ll just be swept away again.”

Changing odds

This new normal is borne out by a ground-breaking series of studies of 16 extreme weather events in 2013, most of which bear the fingerprints of climate change according to a team of researchers from around the world. For the first time, thanks to new data and better computer models, scientists were able attribute the odds of actual extreme events occurring with or without climate change. They found that climate change increased the odds of nine extremes in 2013: heat waves in Australia, Europe, China, Japan and Korea, intense rain in parts of the United States and India, and severe droughts in California and New Zealand. The studies were published in the special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in September.

California’s devastating drought is ongoing and researchers at Stanford University determined that the warming from carbon emissions was three times more likely to create the conditions for drought than with no emissions. “There was a strong link to climate warming,” says Stanford’s Daniel Swain.

Australia’s record breaking heat wave in 2013, meanwhile, would not have happened without climate change, Swain told chinadialogue. Not all extreme events are so clearly connected to global warming, however, in large part because the complex natural variability of weather systems and a lack of data in some cases, he added.Seaside Heights, New Jersey, on October 31, 2012. (AP Photo:Mike Groll)

Forecasting where and when extreme events will occur is even more challenging. However a new mathematical method based on “big data” may help to predict extreme rainfall in the South American Andes. An international team of scientists led by Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) say they can “correctly predict 90% of extreme rainfall events in the Central Andes”.

“The data was there, but nobody joined the dots like this before,” says co-author Jürgen Kurths of PIK.

Rising costs

The insurance industry is getting increasingly worried by the strengthening evidence that climate change is increasing extreme weather since they face rapidly rising bills. In Canada, for example, property damages from extreme weather averaged US$200 to US$500 million a year over 24 consecutive years. In the last six years it shot up to US$1 billion a year and in 2013 it was US$3.4 billion.

“Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity,” explains Blair Feltmate, professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo and chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project Canada, though not every event is caused by climate change.

“It’s like a baseball player on steroids: you can’t say every home run is because of the drug but it does increase the odds of hitting more home runs.”

He adds: “What people need to understand is this is only going to get much worse. A US$35 billion flood is coming to Canada.”

Many countries have contributed relatively little CO2 to the fossil-fuel blanket heating the planet but are, like the Philippines with Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people, already experiencing significant impacts from extreme events. This reality was officially recognised at a contentious United Nations climate treaty meeting last December in Warsaw, Poland.

After 36 straight hours of intense negotiations industrialised nations finally agreed with developing nations that a new climate treaty will have what’s called a “loss and damage mechanism”, or the “Warsaw mechanism”. This recognises that the impacts of climate change will lead to both economic and non-economic losses, including the growing issue of climate refugees.

TXTornadoesDots
Aftermath of an early tornado in Lancaster, Texas. To join thousands of others connecting the dots between climate change and extreme weather, visit ClimateDots.org.

Nearly a year later there has been little progress on fleshing out how the Warsaw Mechanism will work. A leaked internal US State Department document revealed US fears that poor nations will seek “redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts”.

A new climate treaty that effectively phases out carbon emissions entirely was signed by all nations in Paris in December 2015. However difficult issues including financial assistance for adaptation and a functional Warsaw Mechanism were not resolved in Paris.

“From a science perspective there is a good case that climate change contributed substantially to the damage from Haiyan,” says NOAA’s Trenberth. How much damage is hard to determine. In addition perhaps there were too many people living in too vulnerable a region he said. “Who was responsible for that?”

Updated dec 2015. First published on China Dialogue 17.11.2014