Thursday, April 30, 2015

Climate Change Could Wipe Out 16 Percent of World's Species

Climate change is expected to drive one in six species to extinction. The American pika, a small mouse-like mammal intolerant of heat, has already disappeared from more than one-third of its known mountain habitats. (Credit: Jim Kravitz/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
If countries' greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, one in every six species on the planet could go extinct [by 2050].

That is the finding of new research published this week in the journal Science.  Climate change is a big factor in what has been tagged "The Sixth Extinction," potentially the worst die-off in Earth's history since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago.  Ecologists warn it could threaten our economy, food security and human health.

"Imagine if we lose an important predator for an agricultural pest," said Mark Urban, an expert in ecology and evolution at the University of Connecticut and author of the new study. "Suddenly we have a major pest problem that threatens our ability to grow food."

Plants, animals, birds and insects on land and in oceans are already struggling to adapt.  Their habitats are shifting in response to warming temperatures, as rainfall patterns change, and as the other species they rely on for nourishment or protection shift as well.  The American pika, a small mouse-like mammal intolerant of heat, for example, has already disappeared from more than one-third of its known mountain habitats.

Read more at Climate Change Could Wipe Out 16 Percent of World's Species

Millennials Seem No More Concerned About Warming than Their Elder Americans

 Millennials led a protest in New York's Central Park last September demanding "system change, not climate change," but a new poll suggests they're not likely to change much. (Photo Credit: Thomas Altfather Good / Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Young adults are no more likely to believe in man-made climate change than older Americans, according to a poll released yesterday that challenges assumptions about the strength of the millennial generation's views on warming.

The Harvard University survey found that 55 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 say that climate change is mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial activity.  That's similar to the findings of other polls that ask Americans of all ages about their belief in rising temperatures.

The results seem to test the idea held by some climate advocates, including President Obama, that warming should be viewed more urgently among young Americans, who will have to endure predicted large changes coming in their lifetimes.

"They are not outliers," John Della Volpe, polling director for Harvard's Institute of Politics, said of millennials.  "They are more in line with the public on this issue than I think they have been in the recent past."

They also echo older Americans with their skepticism.  The poll found that 20 percent of young adults say climate change is "a proven fact" but that it's caused by natural forces, not human-induced emissions.  An additional 23 percent say it's "a theory that has not yet been proven."

"I was personally very surprised to see that the young people ... were very similar to the national survey," said Ellen Robo, a Harvard student who helped with the poll.  She said that 50 percent of Americans of all ages say humans are responsible for climate change.

The findings do point to one small uptick.  This year, 32 percent of millennials say the government should do more to curb climate change, even if it hurts economic growth.  Last year, that number was 27 percent, Della Volpe said.

Read more at Millennials Seem No More Concerned About Warming than Their Elder Americans

U.S. Emissions, Economic Growth Headed Toward Divorce

Historic and projected U.S. energy consumption by sector through 2040. (Credit: EIA) Click to Enlarge.
New data from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that overall U.S. energy consumption is slowing and is not expected to grow much at all over the next 25 years despite both a growing economy and population. Overall, U.S. energy consumption is expected to grow 0.3 percent annually between now and 2040.  That’s half the expected U.S. population growth rate and dramatically less than the projections for U.S. economic growth through 2040 — 2.4 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning energy are expected to grow 0.1 percent in that time.

U.S. energy consumption declined when the recession hit, but with big advancements in energy efficiency and growth in renewables, Americans just aren’t burning quite as much energy as they used to even in a growing economy.

“Within a recession, people ask, won’t we resume a growth path?  We’re saying we don’t think so — not a decline path, but basically a plateau,” U.S. Energy Information Administration analyst Jim Turnure said.

The details look like this:  thanks to an embrace of energy efficiency, residential energy consumption won’t likely grow at all over the next 25 years.  With more Americans driving electric cars and more energy efficient vehicles, energy use in the transportation sector will decline just slightly as gasoline consumption dives more than 20 percent by 2040.  Industrial energy use will grow about 0.7 percent.

That’s good news for the climate because the energy intensity of the economy is declining, which means greenhouse gas emissions are likely to grow at only a fraction of the rate that the economy is expected to grow in the coming years.

Michael Mann, climate researcher and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, said in March that the U.S. still needs to create a larger gap between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth.

“I’m hopeful this is the beginning of a trend,” he said, referring to emissions in the U.S.  “The fact that countries like Germany have so dramatically lowered their carbon emissions with mechanisms like feed-in tariffs that incentivize non-fossil-fuel energy, and the fact that the West Coast and Northeast states here in the U.S. are investing more in renewable energy, means that we ought to be seeing a decrease in emissions.  Now it appears that we are seeing this in the numbers.”

Read more at U.S. Emissions, Economic Growth Headed Toward Divorce

Drought-Parched Lake Mead Could Leave Seven States High and Dry

Historic-low water levels in the Colorado River Basin's biggest lake spells trouble, and potential water restrictions, throughout the West.

Lake Mead: Symbol of Persistent Drought (Credit: Raquel Baranow / Flickr Creative Commons) Click to Enlarge.
Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, reached historic low levels over the weekend, another indication of the persistent drought that grips the American West.

Saturday night, even after a prolonged rainstorm, the gauges at Lake Mead settled out at 1,080.13 feet.  It's the lowest recorded lake elevation since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that oversees water resources.

And it didn't stop there.  By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the lake was at 1,079.76 feet.  If lake levels fall below 1,075 feet––which could happen this summer––it will trigger restrictions on the amount of water than can be drawn from the lake.  Additional restrictions would follow if levels reach below 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet.

The city of Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, is so concerned about falling reservoir levels that it is building a new intake pipeline deeper within the lake, to ensure it will be able withdraw water even if lake levels continue to decline.

Lake Mead is part of the Colorado River Basin, which provides a crucial source of water to seven states and Mexico.  The region is in the midst of a 15-year drought, while the state of California is in its fourth consecutive dry year.

The California drought is one of the worst in the state's history, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to issue unprecedented water use restrictions earlier this month.

Climate change will only exacerbate the impacts, experts say.

Global warming is "more or less a stacking of the deck" that increases the likelihood of dry conditions in the West, said Greg Pederson, a research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

"The way the climate system works out here is it tends to be sticky," Pederson said.  "If it's wet, you get these generally wet conditions for 10 to 20 years at a time, and if it's dry, you typically get dry conditions 10 to 20 years at a time."

While scientists say that climate change may not be the main cause of the drought, it has made it worse.  Global warming has caused the high temperatures that have dried up soils and caused early melting of the snowpack, and many scientists say it has also altered atmospheric circulation patterns that have shifted storms away from the state– meaning much less rain.

Read more at Drought-Parched Lake Mead Could Leave Seven States High and Dry

California’s Brown Seeks Nation-Leading Greenhouse Gas Cuts

California Governor Jerry Brown (Credit: AP Photo) Click to Enlarge.
California Governor Jerry Brown ordered emissions of greenhouse gases reduced to almost half of what they were a quarter century ago, the most ambitious statewide effort to combat climate change in the U.S.

Brown, a 77-year-old Democrat, issued an executive order establishing a target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.  To do so, the state must require utilities to get more electricity from low-pollution sources, compel industries to cut smokestack emissions further and encourage greater numbers of cleaner cars on roads.

California, with the seventh-largest economy on the globe, already has some of the toughest carbon pollution regulations in the U.S. and is on target to meet its self-imposed deadline to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  Now, Brown and other Democratic leaders are looking to advance those climate-change policies further even as business leaders warn they put companies at a competitive disadvantage.
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Brown said California has been compelled to act on its own as Republicans in Washington and other U.S. states remain resistant to scientific evidence that manmade carbon pollution is causing global climate changes.  His proposals have raised concerns from the oil and natural gas industry, manufacturers and Republicans, who warn the policies will raise energy prices and drive business to less-expensive regions.

Pace Setting
His executive order directs agencies to incorporate climate change in their planning and investment decisions and requires the state to consider global warming when drafting infrastructure building plans.
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“We’re demonstrating in California that we can take steps to reduce carbon emissions while advancing the economy at the same time,” Brown said.  “In North America, California is now setting the pace.”

In January, Brown outlined a series of environmental goals aimed at reducing carbon emissions in the next 15 years, including cutting petroleum use in cars and trucks by 50 percent, doubling the efficiency of existing buildings and increasing to half from one-third the electricity delivered from renewable sources.

Read more at California’s Brown Seeks Nation-Leading Greenhouse Gas Cuts

California’s Forests Have Become Climate Polluters

The Zaca Fire sparked to life in Santa Barbara County, Calif., in 2007, eventually burning more than 200,000 acres. (​Credit: U.S. Forest Service/Wikipedia) Click to Enlarge.
A Californian task force has been handed the confounding task of figuring out how forestry and land management practices could be improved to prevent what scientists say are surprisingly high levels of climate pollution escaping from its forests and other wildlands.

A new study has shown that greenhouse gases are billowing out of the state’s forests faster than they are being sucked back in, with unnaturally intense wildfires mostly to blame.
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From 2001 through 2010, the state’s wildlands were responsible for about 8 million tons of carbon pollution annually — more climate pollution than is released every year by the entire economy of Vermont.

That was the conclusion of a sophisticated analysis requested and partly funded by California’s air resources board.  Wildfires affecting a small portion of the state were responsible for two-thirds of the estimated losses of carbon from what had been living plants.

Under more stable natural conditions, the state’s forests would be expected to absorb about as much carbon as they lost every decade.  At a time of unnaturally high carbon dioxide levels, the forests would ideally absorb more of the greenhouse gas than they produce.  But the balancing act has been thrown off kilter.

“There's a long history of discussion of using forests to sequester atmospheric carbon,” said Michael Goulden, a University of California at Irvine associate professor who studies the state’s forests, but who wasn’t involved with Gonzalez’s research.  “This paper points out that any increase in forests’ carbon stock may prove ephemeral.  Eventually, forests are disturbed, and then this extra carbon is released.”
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Decades of fire fighting are the major culprit.  Fire suppression policies have allowed fuel to build up on forest floors, and they have allowed allowed forests to grow thick with young trees that burn hotter and over larger areas than was the case under more natural conditions.

Read more at California’s Forests Have Become Climate Polluters

   Wednesday, April 29

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is 2015 the Year Soil Becomes Climate Change’s Hottest Topic?

Environmental groups want to make soil a red hot climate change issue. (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
2015 is shaping up to be a big year for soil — in addition to being Global Soil Week’s third year running, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared it the International Year of Soil.  José Graziano da Silva, director of the FAO, has called soil a “nearly forgotten resource,” and has implemented more than 120 soil-related projects around the world to mark the International Year of Soil.  Farming First, a global agriculture coalition with more than 150 support organizations, has also called for soil health to be a top priority in the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals.

So why is soil so important?

“If you look at the global carbon created in nature under land-based systems, soil and trees are the two dominant reservoirs where carbon is,” Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, told ThinkProgress.

Soils — and the microbes that live within them — store three times as much carbon as is in the atmosphere, and four and a half times as much as in all plants and animals.  “If the soil carbon reserve is not managed properly,” Lal said, “it can easily overwhelm the atmosphere.”

Climate change can stimulate the release of carbon from soil in a few different ways.  Normally, carbon is bonded to minerals in the soil, which helps keep carbon locked in the soil and out of the atmosphere.  A recent report by scientists at Oregon State University, however, found that when chemicals emitted by plant roots interact with minerals in soil, it can cause carbon to break free.  This exposes the carbon to decomposition by microbes in the soil, which pass it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.  As the climate warms, the scientists found, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will stimulate the growth of plants, which will in turn stimulate the production of the root compounds that breakdown carbon and soil minerals.
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The microbes that break down stored carbon are also likely to become more active in a warmer world, according to a 2014 study published in Nature. The study looked at microbes in 22 different kinds of soil from along a climatic gradient, testing samples of soil from the Arctic to the Amazon.  They found that as temperature increased, the respiratory activity of the microbes in the soil also increased, releasing more carbon dioxide — and that effect was most pronounced in northern soils, which tend to store more carbon than soils at other latitudes.

Soil isn’t just useful for storing carbon — it also grows 95 percent of the food we eat, according to the FAO. But even beyond climate change, agriculture is the number one cause of soil disruption.

“What we’re seeing is probably the biggest drivers aren’t going to be those direct effects of climate,” Lajtha said. “Really, the big driver of soil carbon change is what humans are doing to the soil, and a lot of that is agriculture.”

The UN estimates that nearly a third of the world’s soil is degraded — in sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is closer to two-thirds. Degraded soils are less effective for growing crops, threatening food security in places where most of the population lives off of subsistence farming. According to the Montpellier Panel — an international group working to support national and regional agricultural development and food security priorities in sub-Saharan Africa — soil degradation costs sub-Saharan Africa $68 billion per year. If soil degradation continues at its current rate, the UN estimates that all of the world’s topsoil could be gone in 60 years.
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Conservation practices like no-till agriculture can help minimize soil degradation, according to Lal.  Other practices — like planting cover crops in the winter season or continuously applying compost to soil — can also help boost soil’s ability to retain carbon.

“In some ways, it’s as simple as a disrupted soil loses carbon and intact soil with vegetation retains carbon,” Lajtha said.

But conservation practices aren’t widely adopted yet — in Ohio, according to Lal, cover crop use and no-till agriculture is practiced on just one-third of the cropland.  Worldwide, such conservation practices account for only 10 percent of cropland.

Read more at Is 2015 the Year Soil Becomes Climate Change’s Hottest Topic?

Nearly Half of Top Pension Funds Gambling on Climate Change

Many pension funds are ‘betting around 20-1 that either the fossil fuel company influence will last forever or their fund managers will bail them out of a crisis,’ says Julian Poulter. (Photograph Credit: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian) Click to Enlarge.
Almost half the world’s top pension funds are taking an ill-advised gamble on climate change, according to a financial thinktank.

The Asset Owners Disclosure Project’s (AODP) annual index [pdf] of 500 of the largest global asset owners found that 232 of them had done little or nothing to protect their investments from the financial upheavals predicted due to climate change.

Financial experts, including the president of the World Bank and the governor of the Bank of England, have warned that fossil fuel assets are risky investments because their reserves of coal, oil and gas cannot be burned if the world is to avoid the most extreme impacts of climate change.

A landmark report in 2013 showed that if these assets became “stranded” – suffering large-scale loss of value – it could destabilise global financial markets.

Julian Poulter, the CEO of AODP, said around 50% of assets held by the funds were exposed to some kind of climate risk, but many pension funds and other foundations are ignoring that risk and “betting on business as usual”.

He said these asset owners were gambling that nothing would be done to curtail the burning of fossil fuels.

“They’re betting around 20-1 that either the fossil fuel company influence will last forever or that their fund managers will bail them out of a crisis – but that didn’t work too well during the last systemic crisis did it?” he said.

Funds the AODP termed as “laggards” were those that received a D or X rating.  These included the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, both of which are the subject of a Guardian campaign requesting that they divest from fossil fuel companies.  It also included some of the world’s biggest pension and sovereign wealth funds.

Read more at Nearly Half of Top Pension Funds Gambling on Climate Change

World Is Poised for Major Surge in Air Conditioner Use

China Beijing Apartment Building Facade with Air Conditioners (Credit: Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Air conditioners can feel like nothing short of a godsend at the height of summer, but as climate change drives temperatures higher and income growth increases AC adoption, air conditioning could become as much of a problem as it is a solution.  In a new study on AC adoption trends, researchers found that air conditioning adoption is likely to boom over the rest of this century, eventually driving residential electricity usage up 83 percent.  The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Air conditioner adoption is in many ways a good thing — it's no secret that a cooler home will make living there more pleasant — but it also leads to some big issues.  More air conditioners mean more energy needed to run them, and more electricity being made means more greenhouse gases going up into the air.  "I think this is a huge challenge," Lucas Davis, an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business and lead author of the paper, tells The Verge.  "This is just a huge challenge for electricity markets, for electricity systems, for electricity infrastructure.  This means an enormous increase in the need for electricity generation and transmission.  This is gonna cost a lot of money."  And that's money that will need to come from developing countries, which will drive AC growth.

Read more at World Is Poised for Major Surge in Air Conditioner Use

Developing World Is Key Driver of Global Spike in Heat-Trapping HFCs, Study Finds

Recent Trends in Global Emissions of Hydrochlorofluorocarbons and Hydrofluorocarbons: Reflecting on the 2007 Adjustments to the Montreal Protocol (Credit: fluorocarbons.org) Click to Enlarge.
A significant portion of the world's emissions of heat-trapping gases emitted by air conditioners, refrigeration and other applications comes from the developing world, finds a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition, developed nations are making mistakes when reporting emissions of the gases, called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the study finds.

The study follows international negotiations last week in Bangkok, Thailand, where nations discussed the phaseout of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty meant to protect the planet's ozone layer.  Since the protocol was set up in 1987, emissions of ozone-damaging chemicals like HCFCs have fallen drastically.

But, unexpectedly, the chemicals have been replaced with HFCs, which are potent, short-lived greenhouse gases with global warming potentials hundreds to thousands of times that of carbon dioxide.  Nations are scrambling to curb HFC emissions under the Montreal Protocol, which would equal the climate benefits of removing 30 billion cars by 2050.

In recent years, global air monitoring networks have shown rising levels of HFCs in the atmosphere, but developed nations claim responsibility for 60 percent of those emissions.

This means one of two things:  developed nations are underreporting their emissions, or developing nations -- which do not report their HFC emissions to the United Nations -- are making up the gap.

The PNAS study finds that the latter is the case.

"The bottom line of the new paper is that the very large gap in reported HFC emissions is from developing countries," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), who was unaffiliated with the study.

Read more at Developing World Is Key Driver of Global Spike in Heat-Trapping HFCs, Study Finds

Kerry, on Eve of Arctic Summit, Calls for Citizen Pressure on Climate Change

John Kerry (Credit: World Economic Forum) Click to Enlarge.
Acknowledging that governments may not be moving fast enough to avert a climate disaster, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is pushing for a bigger role for cities, universities and other institutions in achieving rapid cuts in ­greenhouse-gas emissions.

Kerry said in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday that he wants this year’s international climate talks in Paris to include a forum in which non-state actors can commit to reducing carbon pollution blamed for the planet’s warming.  Kerry said that a groundswell of citizen support is needed to prod world leaders into making the difficult choices necessary to protect Earth’s climate.

“A lot of mayors around the world are ahead of their national governments, and a lot of local citizens are well ahead of their elected leaders,” Kerry said.  “I think we need to find a way to highlight that.”

Kerry made the comment as diplomats from eight nations prepared to gather in far-northern Canada for a meeting of the Arctic Council.  Leaders of the eight-nation council are grappling with how to manage collectively the environmentally fragile region at a time when rapid warming is creating new problems and new economic opportunities.

Read more at Kerry, on Eve of Arctic Summit, Calls for Citizen Pressure on Climate Change

‘Fueled By Bullsh*t':  Toyota’s Video Defending Hydrogen Cars Is Funny But Misleading - by Joe Romm

Toyota has launched a new video series, Fueled By Everything, attacking critics of its hydrogen fuel cell cars, which include Tesla CEO Elon Musk and myself.  Episode 1 is actually titled “Fueled By Bullsh*t” (and directed by Morgan Spurlock!) and is about how you can literally run Toyota’s new hydrogen car, the Mirai, on cow manure.

Well, as Toyota admits online, you could run your car on hydrogen from cow manure, except “it’s not commonly used in the US to create a biogas needed for this process.”  D’oh!

Actually the whole ad, while amusing, is so misleading as to qualify as BS itself.  Hydrogen is one of the worst possible energy carriers imaginable to run a car on for several reasons,  as I and others have explained repeatedly — today, 95 percent of hydrogen comes from natural gas (in a process that emits carbon dioxide); carbon-free hydrogen is quite costly; carbon-free hydrogen fueling stations are even more incredibly expensive than regular hydrogen fueling stations (which is why so few have been built); hydrogen has unique safety issues that necessitate specialized handling; hydrogen is incredibly difficult to store; and making hydrogen from renewable electricity is wildly inefficient.
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On its website, Toyota acknowledges that its critics are saying “Hydrogen is inefficient.”  But the company doesn’t respond to the charge here.  Instead, it “responds” here to the charge Elon Musk, CEO of the electric-car company Tesla, made back in 2013 that hydrogen fuel cell cars “are so bullsh*t.”  Except Toyota doesn’t respond to a single one of his specific arguments.

The fact that Toyota can run its Mirai on hydrogen from cow manure doesn’t mean that the whole system makes any sense whatsoever from the perspective of delivering an affordable and practical mass-market car, let alone one that could provide cost-effective CO2 reductions.

For those who haven’t heard the inefficiency argument before, a 2006 Scientific American article I wrote with advanced-hybrid guru Andy Frank explains that “the entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel-cell conversion would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor.”  But in an electric vehicle (EV), “the process of electricity transmission, charging an onboard battery and discharging the battery would leave 75 to 80 percent of the original electricity to drive the motor.”  So the hydrogen car is more like one-third as efficient as the EV.

Electric Energy Requirements for Electricity-Based Fueling (Credit: Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine) Click to Enlarge.
Put in more basic terms, the plug-in or EV “should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could”!







Read more at ‘Fueled By Bullsh*t':  Toyota’s Video Defending Hydrogen Cars Is Funny But Misleading

   Tuesday, April 28

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

First Offshore Wind Farm in the U.S. Kicks Off Construction

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Deepwater Wind project. (Credit: Drew Grande, senior campaign organizing representative for Beyond Coal in New England) Click to Enlarge.
Construction on what will be the country’s first offshore wind farm started Monday in Rhode Island.  The wind farm, which is being developed by Deepwater Wind, will be located off of the coast of Block Island, a small island about 13 miles south of Rhode Island.  Once completed, the five-turbine, 30-megawatt wind farm will produce enough energy to power all homes and businesses on Block Island, which previously relied on diesel generators, according to the Sierra Club.  The wind farm will also send energy to mainland Rhode Island. It’s expected to come online in fall 2016.

Environmental groups, many of which have pushed for the project since it started going through hearings in 2013, applauded the start of construction.  Bruce Nilles, senior campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, told ThinkProgress that the start of construction was a “landmark” moment for the U.S. wind industry, and that it “really makes real the promise offshore wind has” in the U.S., particularly on the East Coast.

“This is technology that will play a very important part in decarbonizing electric sector,” he said.

Read more at First Offshore Wind Farm in the U.S. Kicks Off Construction

Vatican and U.N. Team Up on Climate Change Against Skeptics

Pope Francis shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) during a meeting at the Vatican April 28, 2015. (Credit: Reuters/Osservatore Romano) Click to Enlarge.
The Vatican and the United Nations teamed up to warn the world of the effects of climate change on Tuesday, coming down firmly against skeptics who deny human activities help change global weather patterns.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon discussed climate change with the pope before opening a one-day conference of scientists and religious leaders called "The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development".

The pope, who is due to make a major address on sustainable development at the United Nations in September, has said he believes man is primarily responsible for climate change and is writing an encyclical on the environment.

Ban, opening the conference of some 60 scientists, religious leaders and diplomats hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, urged industrialized countries to invest in clean energy and reduce their carbon footprints.

"Mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects are necessary to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce inequality and secure equitable, sustainable economic development," he said.

The gathering's final joint declaration said "Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity."

The Paris summit on climate change in December "may be the last effective opportunity to negotiate arrangements that keep human-induced warming below 2 degrees C," adding that the "current trajectory may well reach a devastating 4degrees C or higher," it said.

Ban said he and the pope discussed Francis' keenly awaited encyclical, which will be addressed to all of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and which the pope has said he hopes will influence the Paris conference.

"It (the encyclical) will convey to the world that protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and a sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience," Ban said.

Jeffrey Sachs, Colombia University professor and director of the U.N. Sustainable Solutions Network, told reporters companies that invest in fossil fuels stand to lose money.

"Everybody needs to understand that policies are going to change to make it unprofitable if you wreck the planet," he said.  "Those companies that continue exploring and developing fossil fuel resources for which there is no safe use are going to pay a very heavy cost for that"

Read more at Vatican and U.N. Team Up on Climate Change Against Skeptics

Pacific Northwest’s ‘Wet Drought’ Possible Sign of Future

Unusually low snow levels seen at Oregon's Crater Lake on April 21, 2015. (Credit: NPS) Click to Enlarge.
The drought in California is one of both heat and dryness, as a persistent ridge of high pressure that parked itself over the western U.S. over the past two winters blocked much-needed storms and drove up temperatures to spring and summer levels.

Oregon and Washington, on the other hand, are stuck in a seemingly oxymoronic wet drought.  The storms that were prevented from hitting California did provide rains to the Pacific Northwest, with winter precipitation in Oregon only about 30 percent below average, not even in the bottom 10 years historically, said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Service.

But the sky-high temperatures that marked the warmest winter on record for Washington and the second warmest for Oregon meant that much of the precipitation fell as rain, and not snow. Like California, parts of both these states depend on melting snowfall to fill their reservoirs, leaving them with potential shortages this year.  Elevated temperatures also meant that what snow there was melted much earlier than normal.

Three-fourths of snow survey sites in Oregon had record-low snow measurements as of April 1, and fewer than half of them had any snow on the ground, according to a report by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  The snowpack across much of the Cascades Range in Washington was less than 25 percent, while the Olympic Mountains checked in at only 3 percent on April 1, an “unbelievably low”  amount, Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist in Washington, said.

Water and Wildfires
Those numbers, along with expectations that the drought conditions will persist if not intensify, have officials bracing for impacts this spring and summer.

“The two themes that keep coming up are summertime water supply and wildfires,” Dello said.

The water shortage concerns aren’t as widespread as in California because the western parts of Oregon and Washington tend to depend solely on rain, and so their supplies are fairly healthy.  But in eastern areas that do depend on the snowpack to keep reservoirs topped up, residents and officials “are really concerned about what’s going to happen,” Dello said.

Read more at Pacific Northwest’s ‘Wet Drought’ Possible Sign of Future

Well Drilling Has Deep Impact on Great Plains' Health

Loss of vegetation on North America’s vast rangelands as a result of a huge increase in oil and gas wells invokes memories of the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster.

Oil wells and natural gas may have made individual Americans rich, but they have impoverished the great plains of North America, according to new research.

Fossil fuel prospectors have sunk 50,000 new wells a year since 2000 in three Canadian provinces and 11 US states, and have damaged the foundation of all economic growth: net primary production − otherwise known as biomass, or vegetation.

The number of oil and gas wells drilled within central provinces of Canada and central U.S. states 1900–2012. Canadian provinces: Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. U.S. states: Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. (Credit: sciencemag.org) Click to Enlarge.Brady Allred, assistant professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation, and colleagues write in the journal Science that they combined years of high-resolution satellite data with information from industry and public records to track the impact of oil drilling on natural and crop growth.

They conclude that the vegetation lost or removed by the expansion of the oil and gas business between 2000 and 2012 added up to 10 million tonnes of dry vegetation, or 4.5 million tonnes of carbon that otherwise would have been removed from the atmosphere.

Read more at Well Drilling Has Deep Impact on Great Plains' Health

The Promise of Precision Agriculture in Drought-Ridden California

Farmer views precision farming (Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Some Central Valley Project water contractors will face a second year of receiving no water and some San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts are delivering no more than 25 percent of normal supplies, according to the University of California Davis.  As more farmers face dwindling supplies, there are variety of high tech tools, including GPS, sensors and big data analytics, to help them manage water supply; if they can get them at the right price. 

“It’s not as though they’re getting off Scot free,” says Ed Osann, senior water policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

As water allocations dwindle, more farmers are drilling down to tap groundwater supplies, which should be regulated more strictly, says Osann.  If the drought continues, however, tapping more groundwater is not a sustainable approach.  So increased conservation will have to come to California’s farms and the irrigation districts that serve them.

California’s farmers have made strides in water efficiency, but there is still considerable headroom.  NRDC  found that economic productivity of water [pdf] in California rose from US $420 per acre-foot in the 1960s to more than $700 per acre-foot in 2009. From 1990 to 2010, micro sprinkler and drip irrigation use increased from 15 percent to nearly 40 percent in California.

Many California water districts deliver water through a series of open canals and pipelines that use gravity to deliver water.  Far more farmers would use precision irrigation methods if they could get pressurized water on demand, says Osann. “It makes it hard to irrigate with any precision if you’re on a fixed schedule that’s determined on the physical capability of the delivery system,” he says. “If we want a more sustainable future for California agriculture, this is a direction to go.”

Demonstration projects funded by the federal government found that on-demand pressurized systems improve water use efficiency by an average of 25 percent. In South San Joaquin Irrigation District, the combination of pressurized irrigation system with controls and measurement technology for individual farms allowed farmers to grow 30 percent more food using 30 percent less water.

Read more at The Promise of Precision Agriculture in Drought-Ridden California

China Reduces Coal Use and CO2 Emissions, Boosting Global Climate Talks

Energy adjustments by world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter propels international negotiations

China invested over $90 billion in renewable energy such as wind and solar in 2014, diversifying its energy portfolio. (Credit: Shen ZC/Featurechina/Newscom) Click to Enlarge.
China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is claiming it significantly slowed both carbon dioxide releases and coal consumption in 2014.  If confirmed and sustained, that trend could galvanize other countries’ climate change mitigation efforts as they prepare for upcoming treaty talks in Paris.

China’s CO2 emissions remained roughly flat between 2013 and 2014, according to Chinese government statistics and other sources, says Glen Peters with the Global Carbon Project, an international environmental research consortium that tracks CO2 emissions.  The findings have surprised experts who watched China’s CO2 emissions nearly double over the past decade.

The Chinese government recently announced that 2014 saw a 2.9% reduction in coal consumption in absolute terms.  The news follows years of double-digit annual growth.  The 2002–12 period saw a 142% increase in coal burned in China, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  Moreover, China’s largest coal producer, Shenhua Energy Co., projects a 10% drop in domestic coal sales from 2014 to 2015.  These shifts could result in a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions given that China alone consumed a whopping 3.8 billion tons of coal compared with 4.3 billion in the rest of the world as recently as 2011, according to DOE.

Although it remains to be seen whether they can be sustained, these early indications of an absolute slowdown in China’s greenhouse gas emissions—combined with the country’s unparalleled investment of $90 billion in renewable energy last year—are encouraging to climate activists preparing for international climate talks set to conclude this December in Paris.

Read more at China Reduces Coal Use and CO2 Emissions, Boosting Global Climate Talks

   Monday, April 27

Monday, April 27, 2015

Extreme Heat and Heavy Rain Events Expected to Double

A heavy downpour in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. (Credit: Chris Downer) Click to Enlarge.
Extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves and torrential rainfalls are the most powerful and obvious reminders that the climate is changing.  These disasters were happening long before humans started pumping heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but global warming has tipped the odds in their favor.  A devastating heat wave like the one that killed 35,000 people in Europe in 2003, for example, is now more than 10 times more likely than it used to be.

But that’s just a single event in a single place, which doesn’t say much about the world as a whole.  A new analysis in Nature Climate Change, however, takes a much broader view.  About 18 percent of heavy precipitation events worldwide and 75 percent of hot temperature extremes — defined as events that come only once in every thousand days, on average — can already be attributed to human activity, says the study.  And as the world continues to warm, the frequency of those events is expected to double.

The new research differs from other so-called extreme event attribution studies, not just in its broad-brush approach, but also in how the term “extreme” is defined. 

The 2003 heatwave that killed so many people in Europe, for example, was so off the charts that it would ordinarily be expected to come along only once in a thousand years without global warming.  By contrast, the hot temperatures and heavy precipitation events described in the new paper would normally come along once in every three years, with both "hot" and "heavy" varying depending on what's normal for a given location. “We think of these as ‘moderate extremes,’ ” lead author Erich Fischer, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zürich), said.

Because these moderate extremes are by definition more common, and because the authors looked at global statistics rather than those for highly localized, rare events, the conclusions are extremely robust, said Peter Stott, leader of the Climate Monitoring and Attribution Team at the Met Office Hadley Centre, in the U.K.  “I think this paper is very convincing,” said Stott, who was not involved in the research.

It’s also valuable, he said, because even moderate extremes of hot temperatures and precipitation, can have significant local impacts.  “Policymakers need to know what’s happening overall in terms of exposure.”

Fischer and his co-author, Reto Knutti, also at ETH Zürich, ... also projected forward in time to see how the frequency of extremes is likely to change.  Not surprisingly, they’ll increase as the planet continues to warm.  But as Fischer said, “the increase is nonlinear.  An amount of warming that doesn’t seem so dramatic — say, from 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures to 2°C — will double the number of extreme events.”  It won’t be the same everywhere, Fischer said.  “But on average, that’s what we see.”

Read more at Extreme Heat and Heavy Rain Events Expected to Double

Look What’s Cooking in the World of Renewable Energy

“There is a tenth of a percent of an efficiency gain here and cost reductions there that have added up to make solar very competitive.”

The hope is that silicon wafers will cut the cost of solar power by more than 20 percent in the next few years. (Credit: 1366 Technologies) Click to Enlarge.
Technological advances, including photovoltaics that can convert higher percentages of sunlight into energy, have made solar panels more efficient.  At the same time economies of scale have driven down their costs.

For much of the early 2000s, the price of a solar panel or module hovered around $4 per watt.  At the time Martin Green, one of the world’s leading photovoltaic researchers, calculated the cost of every component, including the polycrystalline silicon ingots used in making silicon wafers, the protective glass on the outside of the module, and the silver used in the module’s wiring.  Green famously declared that so long as we rely on crystalline silicon for solar power, the price would likely never drop below $1/watt.

The future, Green and nearly everyone else in the field believed, was with thin films, solar modules that relied on materials other than silicon that required a fraction of the raw materials.

Then, from 2007 to 2014, the price of crystalline silicon modules dropped from $4 per watt to $0.50 per watt, all but ending the development of thin films.

The dramatic reduction in cost came from a wide number of incremental gains, says Mark Barineau, a solar analyst with Lux Research.  Factors include a new, low-cost process for making polycrystalline silicon; thinner silicon wafers; thinner wires on the front of the module that block less sunlight and use less silver; less-expensive plastics instead of glass; and greater automation in manufacturing.
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“Getting below $1 [per watt] has exceeded my expectations,” Green says.  “But now, I think it can get even lower.”
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A Matter of Size
While solar power is just starting to reach grid parity, wind energy is already there.  In 2014, the average worldwide price of onshore wind energy was the same as electricity from natural gas, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

As with solar, the credit goes to technological advances and volume increases.  For wind, however, innovation has mainly been a matter of size.  From 1981 to 2015 the average length of a wind turbine rotor blade has increased more than sixfold, from 9 meters to 60 meters, as the cost of wind energy has dropped by a factor of 10.

Read more at Look What’s Cooking in the World of Renewable Energy

‘Explosive’ Wildfires Are Already Out of Control Months Before Fire Season

California’s firefighters are bracing for a long summer. (Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Click to Enlarge.
“Wildfire season” seems to be a thing of the past for drought-stricken California, with fires now raging throughout the year.

There have already been nearly 850 wildfires this year — 70 percent above the average, according to CAL FIRE data.  High temperatures and low precipitation, both related to climate change, have dried out forests and scrublands across the western United States, allowing fires to spread faster and farther than usual, any time during the year.

“Since 2000 we’ve been seeing larger and more damaging fires,” Daniel Berlant, chief of public information for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), told NBC News.  “What we’re seeing now is that the rain is starting later and stopping much earlier.  The fires are burning at explosive speed because the vegetation is so dry and that allows them to get much larger.”
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Snowpack is a key source of water for California, and it is now at a historic low.  In fact, even the ponds where firefighters fill up their helicopters have run dry.

“Because of the drought we are having to locate other water sources for our aerial program.  Some of the holding ponds in central California are just not there anymore.  So we have to plan prior to the fires where the helicopters can go to fill up,” Mike Mohler, a fire captain with CAL FIRE, told NBC News.
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Firefighters are seeing the climate change effects firsthand.  The drought and higher temperatures are not only increasing the likelihood of fires, they are making fires worse, experts say.

“Five years ago without a drought in California you would still get wildland fires.  But the vegetation wouldn’t burn as quickly.  Now there’s zero moisture and you get explosive fire growth,” Mohler said.

Read more at ‘Explosive’ Wildfires Are Already Out of Control Months Before Fire Season

Toon of the Week - I'm with Stupid

I'm with Stupid -> Mankind (Credit: www.facebook.com/iheartcomsci) Click to Enlarge.

Read original article at 2015 SkS Weekly Digest #17

Poster of the Week - Renewable Energy Jobs

Renewable Energy Jobs Are GROWING! (Credit: www.facebook.com/iheartcomsci) Click to Enlarge.

Read original article at 2015 SkS Weekly Digest #17

   Sunday, April 26

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Shift to Renewables Seems Inevitable, but Is It Fast Enough?

Canada’s Erie Shores Wind Farm includes 66 turbines with a total capacity of 99 MW. (Credit: Denise Morazé/IPS) Click to Enlarge.
Climate change may be one of the most divisive issues in the U.S. Congress today, but despite the staunch denialism of Republicans, experts say the global transition from fossil fuels to renewables is already well underway.

A new book published by the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute finds that a steep decline in the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels (by three-fourths between 2009 and 2014, to less than 70 cents a watt) has helped the industry grow 50 percent per year.

Wind power capacity grew more than 20 percent a year for the last decade, now totaling 369,000 megawatts, enough to power more than 90 million U.S. homes.

In China, electricity generation from wind farms now exceeds that from nuclear plants, while coal use appears to be peaking.

“Wind farms and solar PV systems will likely continue to anchor the growth of renewables,” Matthew Roney, a co-author of “The Great Transition”, told IPS.  “They’re already well established, with costs continuing to drop, and their ‘fuels’ are widespread and abundant.”

With international initiatives like the U.N. Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All and new development goals in the offing, donors and policy-makers are looking to massively scale up these tried-and-true clean technologies.

“One of solar’s advantages is that not only is it increasingly competitive with the average cost of grid electricity around the world, it can make economic sense for many of the 1.3 billion people who do not yet have access to electricity,” Roney said.

The book also notes that 70 countries now have feed-in tariffs, a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies by offering long-term contracts to renewable energy producers.  Another two dozen have renewable portfolio standards (RPS), 37 countries offer production or investment tax credits for renewables, and 40 countries are implementing or planning carbon pricing.

Read more at Shift to Renewables Seems Inevitable, but Is It Fast Enough?

Like Shale Oil, Solar Power Is Shaking Up Global Energy

Kyushu Electric Power Co., Inc.s Omuta Mega-Solar Power Plant (Fukuoka Pref., Japan) (Credit: solarnovus.com) Click to Enlarge.
One by one, Japan is turning off the lights at the giant oil-fired power plants that propelled it to the ranks of the world's top industrialized nations.  With nuclear power in the doldrums after the Fukushima disaster, it's solar energy that is becoming the alternative.

Solar power is set to become profitable in Japan as early as this quarter, according to the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF), freeing it from the need for government subsidies and making it the last of the G7 economies where the technology has become economically viable.

Japan is now one of the world's four largest markets for solar panels and a large number of power plants are coming onstream, including two giant arrays over water in Kato City and a $1.1 billion solar farm being built on a salt field in Okayama, both west of Osaka.

"Solar has come of age in Japan and from now on will be replacing imported imported uranium and fossil fuels," said Tomas Kåberger, executive board chairman of JREF.
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Japan is retiring nearly 2.4 gigawatts of expensive and polluting oil-fired energy plants by March next year and switching to alternative fuels.  Japan's 43 nuclear reactors have been closed in the wake of the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima power plant after an earthquake and a tsunami - since then, renewable energy capacity has tripled to 25 gigawatts, with solar accounting for more than 80 percent of that.

Once Japan reaches cost-revenue parity in solar energy, it will mean the technology is commercially viable in all G7 countries and 14 of the G20 economies, according to data from governments, industry and consumer groups.
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"Just as shale extraction reconfigured oil and gas, no other technology is closer to transforming power markets than distributed and utility scale solar," said consultancy Wood Mackenzie, which has a focus on the oil and gas industry.

Oil major Exxon Mobil says that "solar capacity is expected to grow by more than 20 times from 2010 to 2040."

Read more at Like Shale Oil, Solar Power Is Shaking Up Global Energy

History Lessons Highlight Climate Threat to Birds

The exotic rhinoceros hornbill is one the species examined for genomic evidence about falls in bird numbers. (Image Credit: AbZahri AbAzizis via Wikimedia Commons) Click to Enlarge.
Climate change can seriously alter the numbers and the prospects for survival of the planet’s living things, according to researchers in Sweden and China.

The scientists’ findings are the result of taking a long, cool look at the big picture – rather than the still-sketchy evidence from climate change now – of what happened to bird populations during the Ice Ages.

Krystyna Nadachowska-Brzyska and Hans Ellegren, of the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, and collaborators at the Beijing Institute of Genomics used a sophisticated new technique to calculate the rise and fall of population sizes of 38 species of bird during the last several million years − a period punctuated by the advance of vast sheets of ice and shorter warm interglacial periods.

Natural change
The results answer questions about how species fared during periods of natural change, in an era when human numbers were tiny and human technology insignificant.

But they also highlight the vulnerability of already-endangered bird populations during a period of change driven by global warming as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions into the planet’s atmosphere from the widespread use of fossil fuels.

Read more at History Lessons Highlight Climate Threat to Birds