“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet” — Economist

mar 28 2015 mona loa C02 png

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

Hopefully, on Earth Day today, high-level ministers from all countries are thinking about what they can bring to the table at a key set of meetings on climate change in early May.

This will be the first opportunity for governments to discuss their proposed climate action plans in light of the final Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” — Professor Ottmar Edenhofer

That report warned that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels are still rising far too fast, even with more than 650 billion dollars invested in renewable energy in the last three years. However, over the same time period even more money was invested in getting more fossil fuels out of the ground.

The latter investment is keeping humanity and the planet locked onto a devastating path of a global temperature increase of four to five degrees C, the IPCC’s Working Group III report warned.

Scientists and economists say that unlocking ourselves from disaster will require a massive reduction in emissions – between 40 percent and 70 percent – by midcentury. This is can be readily accomplished without inventing any new technology and at a reasonably low cost, reducing global economic growth by a comparatively tiny 0.06 percent.

“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the IPCC team, said at a press conference.

It does mean an end to investments in expanding fossil fuel infrastructure as the annual growth in CO2 emissions from burning oil, coal and gas must peak and decline in the next few years. The atmosphere already has 42 percent more CO2 than it did prior to 1800.

This extra CO2 is trapping more heat from the sun, which is heating up the oceans and land, creating the conditions that spawn super storms and extreme weather. And it will do so for the next 1,000 years since CO2 is a very durable molecule.

Current emissions are adding two percent more heat-trapping CO2 each year. That will push humanity’s ‘CO2 contribution’ to 50 percent four years from now.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” Edenhofer said.

The IPCC’s first report released last September as part of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) clearly stated once again that the climate is changing rapidly as a result of human activity and urgent action is needed.

This was followed last month with a strong confirmation that climate impacts are already occurring on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. This second report warned that one of the major impacts will be declines in food production unless emissions begin to decline.

The fossil fuel sector, the richest in human history, appears to be ignoring the IPCC warnings.tar sands flag copenhagen sml0000

Earlier this month, oil giant ExxonMobil issued a report to its shareholders saying it does not believe the world will curb CO2 emissions and plans to extract and sell all of its 25.2 billion barrels worth of oil and gas in its current reserves. And it will continue investments hunting down more barrels.

“All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs,” said William Colton, ExxonMobil’s vice president in a statement.

The IPCC agrees oil, gas and coal will still be used in future but there is a CO2 maximum to have a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees C. That fossil energy cap won’t be enough to meet global energy needs so Working Group III recommends shifting to large-scale bioenergy and biofuels, waste incineration, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

These energy sources are controversial and risky. Large-scale bioenergy and biofuels needs huge areas of land and vast quantities of water and will compete with food production.

Studies show ethanol results in more emissions than burning gasoline. Even making ethanol from the leftovers of harvested corn plants released seven percent more CO2 than gasoline while depleting the soil, a new study revealed in Nature Climate Change this week.

The IPCC acknowledges bioenergy and biofuels can increase emissions, destroy livelihoods and damage the environment, says Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch, an environmental NGO.

“It is a shame they put so much stock in something that would make things worse rather than better,” Smolker told IPS.

Given all this, what climate action plans are governments going to propose when they meet in Abu Dhabi on May 4 and 5th? This is an informal ‘put your cards on the table’ regarding a new set of commitments on emission reduction targets and action plans to be made public at the U.N. Climate Summit in September.

Current reduction targets will not avoid four degrees C, most experts agree.

In hopes of getting countries to increase their reduction targets, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked governments to bring new proposals to New York City in September. With the current U.N. Climate Change Convention meetings deadlocked on key issues, the New York Summit is intended to kick-start political momentum for an ambitious, global, legal climate treaty in 2015.

The May get-together titled the “Abu Dhabi Ascent” is the only meeting before the Summit where governments, and invited members of the private sector and civil society will come together to explore how to get ambitious action to reduce emissions.

The Abu Dhabi meeting will be a window into the future of humanity: ascent or descent?

first published as Charting a Course for Survival, or Oblivion?

We Have Five Years to Stop Building Coal Plants and Gas-Powered Cars

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 se, it’s safer than going even higher and running the risk that global warming will spiral out of our control completely.

Last year, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report established a global carbon budget for the first time. It essentially stated that starting in 2014, the carbon we can afford is up to around 1,000 billion tons of CO2. In other words, our cars, factories, and power plants can only emit 1,000 billion tons (1,000 Gt, or gigatons) of CO2 into the atmosphere if we want to have a greater than 50/50 chance of keeping our climate below 2˚C of warming.

Even considering that humanity pumped 36 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere last year alone, 1,000 Gt still seems like a big budget. It might even seem like we have room to spare.

Maybe not.

WORLDWIDE, WE’VE BUILT MORE COAL-BURNING POWER PLANTS IN THE PAST DECADE THAN IN ANY PREVIOUS DECADE

New research shows that we may not have been paying attention to the entire CO2 emissions picture. We’ve only been counting annual emissions, and not the fact that building a new coal or gas power plant is in reality a commitment to pumping out CO2 for the lifespan of a given plant—which usually ranges from 40 to 60 years. These future emissions are known as a carbon commitment.

A new study has tallied the carbon commitments from all existing coal and gas power plants by looking at their annual CO2 emissions and current age. The study assumes an operating life of 40 years. A 38-year old coal plant will have far smaller future CO2 emissions, and thus smaller carbon commitment than one built today. The study, “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions,” determined that most new power plants that went online in 2012 have a very large carbon commitment—19 Gt of CO2.

Building new power plants means more carbon commitments to eat into our 2˚C carbon budget. Build enough giant coal plants today, and their future emissions would tie up the entire budget, leaving no room for any other source of CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the rate at which new plants are built far outpaces the closure of old plants. Many US coal plants operate for longer than 40 years; the oldest is currently around 70 years.

“Worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion,” said study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine.

Image: Flickr

Fossil Fuels Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 300 Gt

In the study, Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University calculated that the existing coal and gas power plant carbon commitment turns out to be very large—more than 300 Gt.

Non-Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 400 Gt 

The reality of carbon commitment applies to any new fossil-fuel burning infrastructure, including office buildings and homes using gas heating or automobiles and planes burning jet fuel. All of these have an operating life of several or many years during which they will emit CO2 from now until they are ‘retired.’ These future emissions also count as a carbon commitment. In another upcoming study, Davis calculated the carbon commitments from other CO2 sources, including from the transport, industry, commercial and residential sectors. He estimates that as of 2013 this carbon commitment exceeded 400 Gt.

Together with the power plant commitment of 300 Gt laid out in the current study, that’s more than 700 Gt in carbon commitments on a global carbon budget of 1000 Gt. That leaves less than 300 Gt for future power plants, steel mills, cement plants, buildings, and other stuff that burns fossil fuels.

At current rates we’ll have accounted for the remainder of the budget in only five years.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Estimated Annual Emissions 2014-2018: 200 Gt

Global CO2 emissions from all sources amounted to 36 Gt in 2013. Annual emissions have been growing at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. Without major efforts to reduce emissions, another 200 gigatons of CO2 will be emitted between 2014 and 2018.

Estimated New Carbon Commitments 2014-2018: 100 Gt

Davis and Socolow determined that carbon commitments from new fossil fuel burning infrastructure will average at least 20 Gt per year, totaling 100 Gt over five years.

300 + 400 +200 +100 = 1,000 Gigatons of Carbon, Locked in by 2018

Unless coal and gas power plants or other major sources of CO2 are shut down before the end of their life span, the 1,000 Gt global carbon budget will be fully allocated sometime in 2018. No one will notice, because things won’t look or feel too much different than today. CO2 is akin to a slow, trans-generational poison. The climate impacts of blowing the carbon budget won’t be felt until 2030 or 2040 —and for a long time after.

WE’VE BEEN HIDING WHAT’S GOING ON FROM OURSELVES: A HIGH-CARBON FUTURE IS BEING LOCKED IN BY THE WORLD’S CAPITAL INVESTMENTS

Even the climate experts won’t notice much, because annual CO2 emissions have been the sole focus of countries and the United Nations process to address climate change said Davis.

“That’s like driving down the highway and only looking out of the side window,” Davis told me.

Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats and whole lot of other people should be looking out the front window and paying attention to the hard reality of carbon commitments. If Davis and Socolow’s calculations are correct, it means no new coal or gas power plants can go online after 2018 unless they’re replacing retired plants. It means freezing the size of the global automobile fleet, and the industrial and commercial sectors, unless their energy efficiency increases. And so on.

The fact that much of our current and future infrastructure carries huge carbon commitments is blindingly obvious, but receives little attention.

Can’t solve a problem by making it worse

“If you build it, there will be emissions year after year. This should be a fundamental part of the decision to build most things,”” Davis said.

Ignoring the reality of carbon commitments means we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse, he said.

“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said co-author Robert Socolow. Any plan or strategy to cut CO2 emissions has to give far greater prominence to those investments. Right now the data shows “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow told me.

So what can we do to begin to prepare for a jam-packed carbon budget? First, we need to stop building fossil fuel-reliant power plants.

Surprisingly, it appears the Australia is a pioneer here, despite recently rolling back its pioneering carbon tax. Thanks to wide-spread adoption of solar energy on homes and business the country’s electricity use is in steep decline. For the first time in its history, no new coal or gas power capacity will be needed to maintain supply over the next 10 years, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. Germany too is rapidly adopting clean energy sources like wind and solar, so as to avoid building coal or nuclear power.

Next, we need to think about meeting energy demand by improving efficiency, instead of building more power generation.

Potential energy efficiency gains of 50 percent are possible across many sectors in most countries, Socolow said, and could reduce the number of fossil fuel energy power plants.

The US is the king of energy waste by most estimates. This costs Americans an estimated $130 billion a year, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. But despite the potential for huge cost and emission reductions, governments everywhere put nearly all their energy research efforts into new sources of energy like new power plants rather than helping to develop energy-efficient cars, buildingsm and appliances. It’s 2012 international study also found that improving energy efficiency provides by far the best bang-for-the-buck for energy security, improved air quality, reduced environmental and social impacts and carbon emission reductions.

However, efficiency improvements take time, and there is precious little time left to make the CO2 emissions cuts to stay below 2˚C, said Socolow.

While refusing to say a planet that’s 2˚C hotter is inevitable, he did say that all efforts to reduce emissions must be undertaken as soon as possible: “3˚C is a whole lot better than 5˚C, the current path we’re on.”

No Safe Havens in Increasingly Acid Oceans

churning-ocean-smlOil, gas and coal are contaminating the world’s oceans from top to bottom, threatening the lives of more than 800 million people

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 15 2013 (IPS) 

Oil, gas and coal are contaminating the world’s oceans from top to bottom, threatening the lives of more than 800 million people, a new study warns Tuesday.

“It took a year to analyse and synthesise all of the studies on the impacts of climate change on ocean species,” Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author, told IPS.

“We are seeing greater changes, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated.” — Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford

Mora is also lead author of ground-breaking climate study published in Nature last week.

“It was very sad to see all the responses were negative. We were hoping there might be some safe havens,” he said.

The study found that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are overheating the oceans, turning them acidic and reducing the amount of oxygen in seawater. This is happening too fast for most marine species to adapt and ocean ecosystems around the world will collapse.

By 2100, no corner of the oceans that cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface will be untouched.

“The impacts of climate change will be felt from the ocean surface to the seafloor. It is truly scary to consider how vast these impacts will be,” said Andrew Sweetman of the International Research Institute of Stavanger, Norway, co-author of the PLOS Biology study published Oct. 15.

This ambitious study examined all the available research on how current and future carbon emissions are fundamentally altering the oceans. It then looked at how this will impact fish, corals, marine animals, plants and other organisms. Finally the 29 authors from 10 countries analysed how this will affect the 1.4 to 2.0 billion people who live near the oceans or depend on them for their food and income.

“We are making a big mess of the oceans. Climate change is having a major impact illustrating the need for urgent action to reduce emissions,” said Mora. Continue reading

“We’re all scared…But we must tell the truth” — Experts Fear Collapse of Global Civilisation

terrifying co2 graph

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 11 2013 (IPS)

Experts on the health of our planet are terrified of the future. They can clearly see the coming collapse of global civilisation from an array of interconnected environmental problems.

“We’re all scared,” said Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.

“But we must tell the truth about what’s happening and challenge people to do something to prevent it,” Ehrlich told IPS.

Global collapse of human civilisation seems likely, write Ehrlich and his partner Anne Ehrlich in the prestigious science journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society.

This collapse will take the form of a “…gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities”, they write.

Already two billion people are hungry today. Food production is humanity’s biggest industry and is already being affected by climate and other environmental problems. “No civilisation can avoid collapse if it fails to feed its population,” the authors say.

Escalating climate disruption, ocean acidification, oceanic dead zones, depletion of groundwater and extinctions of plants and animals are the main drivers of the coming collapse, they write in their peer-reviewed article “Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?” published this week.

Dozens of earth systems experts were consulted in writing the 10-page paper that contains over 160 references.

“We talked to many of the world’s leading experts to reflect what is really happening,” said Ehrlich, who is an eminent biologist and winner of many scientific awards.

Our reality is that current overconsumption of natural resources and the resulting damage to life-sustaining services nature provides means we need another half of a planet to keeping going. And that’s if all seven billion remain at their current living standards, the Ehrlichs write.

If everyone lived like a U.S. citizen, another four or five planets would be needed. Continue reading

Ocean Acidification Leaves Mollusks Naked and Confused

Chilean intertidal carnivorous crab (Acanthocyclus hassleri)

Climate change is making oceans warmer and more acidic…expect the worst

By Stephen Leahy

When the carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans dissolves in seawater, carbonic acid is formed and calcium carbonate, vital for the formation of the skeletons and shells of many marine organisms, becomes scarcer.

MONTEREY, California, Oct 2 2012 (IPS)

Climate change will ruin Chilean sea snails’ ability to sniff out and avoid their archenemy, a predatory crab, according to Chilean scientists who presented their findings at an international science symposium here.

Researchers from Australia also revealed that as the oceans become more and more acidic, some fish become hyperactive and confused, and move towards their predators instead of trying to escape.

“The conditions in oceans are changing 100 times faster than at any time in the past,” said Jean-Pierre Gattuso, a marine biologist with CNRS-INSU and the Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche in France.

Climate change is making oceans warmer and more acidic. “We are beginning to understand what will happen. I think we can expect the worst,” Gattuso told Tierramérica*.

Gattuso is one of nearly 600 scientists from around the world who presented their research on Sep. 24-27 at the Third International Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World: Ocean Acidification in Monterey, California.

Researchers discovered only 10 years ago that burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas has made the oceans about 30 percent more acidic since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Continue reading

Ocean Acidification Leaves Mollusks Naked and Confused

By Stephen Leahy

When the carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans dissolves in seawater, carbonic acid is formed and calcium carbonate, vital for the formation of the skeletons and shells of many marine organisms, becomes scarcer.

MONTEREY, California, Oct 2 2012 (IPS) –

Climate change will ruin Chilean sea snails’ ability to sniff out and avoid their archenemy, a predatory crab, according to Chilean scientists who presented their findings at an international science symposium here.

Researchers from Australia also revealed that as the oceans become more and more acidic, some fish become hyperactive and confused, and move towards their predators instead of trying to escape.

“The conditions in oceans are changing 100 times faster than at any time in the past,” said Jean-Pierre Gattuso, a marine biologist with CNRS-INSU and the Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche in France.

Climate change is making oceans warmer and more acidic. “We are beginning to understand what will happen. I think we can expect the worst,” Gattuso told Tierramérica*.

via IPS – Ocean Acidification Leaves Mollusks Naked and Confused | Inter Press Service.

Revealed: In Acidic Oceans Sunlight Kills Planet’s Most Important Organism — Marine Algae

A number of marine diatom cells (Pleurosigma), which are an important group of phytoplankton in the oceans.
Credit: Michael Stringer

“There’s a synergistic effect between increased ocean acidity and natural light”

“It’s clear we are conducting a giant experiment on the planet and we don’t know what we are doing.”

 By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 8, 2012 (IPS)

Without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, sunlight will kill an unknown number of ocean phytoplankton, the planet’s most important organism, a new study reports this week.

Not only are phytoplankton, also known as marine algae, a vital component in the ocean’s food chain, they generate at least half of the oxygen we breathe.

In the not so distant future, sunlight, the very source of life for phytoplankton, will likely begin to kill them because of the ocean’s increasing acidity, researchers from China and Germany have learned.

“There’s a synergistic effect between increased ocean acidity and natural light,” says Ulf Riebesell of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Riebesell added that it was also possible “phytoplankton could adapt”.

Researchers were surprised to discover that diatoms, one of the most important and abundant types of phytoplankton, fared very badly during shipboard experiments conducted by co-author Kunshan Gao, from the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science at Xiamen University, Xiamen China.

Previous experiments in labs like Riebesell’s found that diatoms actually did better in high-acid seawater, unlike most other shell- forming plankton. Burning fossil fuels has made the oceans about 30 percent more acidic researchers discovered less than 10 years ago. Oceans absorb one third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from using fossil fuels.

The good news is this has slowed the rate of global warming. The bad news is oceans are now more acidic and it will get worse as more CO2 is emitted. This is basic, well-understood ocean chemistry.  Continue reading