3-31-20 Covid-19 has caused a drop in emissions – but it’s not a climate fix
People in Chinese cities usually plagued by harmful air pollution are breathing far cleaner air. Boat-free canals in Venice, Italy, are clear enough to see fish. And for the quarter of the global population now living under a coronavirus lockdown, a lack of cars and planes has made the world quieter and birdsong more apparent. While there are signs of easing pressure on the environment, no credible environmentalists say the response forced by the pandemic is a solution for the challenges the world faces on climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. “The crucial thing to observe is this is happening in an unplanned, chaotic way that’s hurting people’s lives. You’d never advocate for such a thing in climate policy,” says Sam Fankhauser at the London School of Economics. One clear impact has been on air quality. Satellite observations by Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) found that China saw a 30 per cent drop in February in two key air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2?) and particulate matter. In Italy, they fell by 40 to 50 per cent in March. “There is no precedent to something like this,” says Vincent-Henri Peuch at CAMS. He thinks the closest historical parallels for such dramatic drops are the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, when China took drastic steps to fight pollution, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when industries in the former East Germany installed cleaner technology. It is too early to detect pollution falls linked to the pandemic in other parts of the world, says Peuch. That is because changes in the weather mean pollution levels vary naturally from day to day and year to year. Another complicating factor is that more people may have taken to cars due to limits on public transport ahead of lockdowns, potentially pushing up pollution for a time, says Peuch. There may be negatives for air quality efforts too. London, which has the UK’s worst NO2 pollution, has temporarily suspended its Ultra Low Emission Zone to help key workers move around. The scheme’s revenues are usually reinvested into clean air efforts.
3-30-20 Coronavirus: Oil price collapses to lowest level for 18 years
The price of oil has sunk to levels not seen since 2002 as demand for crude collapses amid the coronavirus pandemic. Brent crude fell to $22.58 a barrel at one point on Monday, its lowest level since November 2002. Meanwhile the price of US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell below $20 a barrel and close to an 18-year low. Oil prices have fallen by more than half during the past month as companies cut back or close production. In addition to the drop in demand, a price war broke out earlier this month between Saudi Arabia and Russia. This began when Saudi Arabia failed to convince Russia to back production cuts that had been agreed with the other members of the Opec oil producers' group. The decision came as refineries around the world are processing less crude oil. Demand for transport has been hammered by grounded airlines and fewer cars on the roads as countries bring in tougher measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak. However, an analyst said a collapse in demand from the measures taken to counter the spread of coronavirus was now the main factor. "Oil prices failed to keep pace, with growing (coronavirus) lock-down measures and reports that this could drive global demand down 20%, potentially pushing the world to run out of storage capacity," said Morgan Stanley analyst Devin McDermott, citing a forecast by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Shale oil producers in the US have been particularly hard hit by the slump in prices since early March. There are growing calls for the US to suspend royalty payment fees from drillers and to buy more oil to fill the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or have states such as Texas restrict production, Mr McDermott said. The US is now the world's top oil producer. "Since the 1930s, states have had the authority to limit oil and gas production in order to support oil prices," Mr McDermott said. "Though this practice is not widely used today, both federal and state regulators still have the ability to place restrictions on production levels."
3-30-20 Greta: We must fight the climate crisis and pandemic simultaneously
The world needs to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and climate change simultaneously, and guard against people who try to use the current crisis to delay action on cutting carbon emissions, Greta Thunberg has urged. The Swedish climate activist, who revealed last week that she and her father are likely to have had covid-19, said the response to the outbreak revealed societal shortcomings, as well as our ability to change in the face of a crisis, but had also proved that we are able to act fast. “If one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies, then that is a proof that our societies are not very resilient. It also shows that once we are in an emergency, we can act and we can change our behaviour quickly,” she said in a conversation on New Scientist‘s Big Interview podcast. Thunberg said: “People will try to use this emergency as an excuse not to act on the climate crisis, and that we have to be very careful for.” She said she understood the emergency the world was facing now, but it wasn’t an excuse to shelve action on emissions. “People don’t want to hear about the climate crisis [now]. I completely understand that, but we have to make sure that it’s not forgotten. We need to treat both of these crises at the same time, because the climate crisis will not go away,” she said. The campaigner and the Fridays for Future movement, which she kick-started with her first school strike in 2018, have made their weekly protests virtual during the pandemic. Students have been good at staying off the streets, said Thunberg, and although young people tend to have milder symptoms of the disease, “we still stand in solidarity with those in risk groups and I think that is a very beautiful thing.” Thunberg has had mild symptoms of covid-19, with some tiredness and a cough, but said that the more intense ones that her father experienced fit with the symptoms of the illness exactly. Neither have been tested, as Sweden is only testing the most severe cases.
3-30-20 These women endured a winter in the high Arctic for citizen science
The two are spending nine months on Svalbard to collect data for climate scientists Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are taking citizen science to the extreme. In August, the two women moved into a tiny hunting cabin on the high-Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The hut, dubbed Bamsebu, is the only shelter for 140 kilometers. Polar bears prowl the area. It’s not unusual for the winter chill to reach around –30° Celsius. The conditions are so harsh that few polar scientists themselves collect field data from the area during winter. That’s where Fålun Strøm and Sorby come in — gathering observations about wildlife and the environment that could help scientists’ understand how rapid warming is changing Arctic ecosystems (SN: 12/11/19). Both Fålun Strøm and Sorby were inspired to support climate research with this nine-month Arctic sojourn after seeing how climate change was affecting polar regions. For example, Fålun Strøm, who has lived for 23 years in Svalbard, has watched the land get greener while glaciers have retreated and average temperatures risen. Both women, who call themselves the Bamsebu team, have experience treading frozen grounds. Sorby, who has worked more than two decades as a historian and guide in Antarctica, has skied the Greenland ice cap and across Antarctica to the South Pole. Meanwhile, Fålun Strøm, who has spent more than a year total in trappers’ huts across the Arctic, is versed in dogsledding and big-game hunting. “It’s as if all of my years in Svalbard have prepared me for this overwintering,” Fålun Strøm says. But even for her, the Bamsebu experience is rough. There is no running water, so the women thaw chunks of ice hacked from a block outside their hut. They chop wood to keep the oven ablaze for cooking and heating the cabin. Venturing outside requires layers of clothing and a gun to guard against polar bears.
3-27-20 Coronavirus: Lockdowns continue to suppress European pollution
New data confirms the improvement in air quality over Europe - a byproduct of the coronavirus crisis. The maps on this page track changes in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - a pollutant that comes principally from the use of fossil fuels. Lockdown policies and the resulting reductions in economic activity have seen emissions take a steep dive. The maps were produced by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). The Dutch met office leads the Tropomi instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, which monitors a number of atmospheric gases, including NO2. The comparisons being made are for concentrations in the air from 14 to 25 March with the monthly average of concentrations for March 2019. You typically have to take a 10-day average to get a good snapshot, says Dr Henk Eskes from KNMI: "You can't just use one day of data," he told BBC News. "There's a lot of variability in NO2 from day to day. And that's real variability; it's not a measurement artefact, but it's just due to changes in the weather. So when the wind direction changes, or the wind speed changes, or the stability of the boundary layer changes - you will get different readings." Combining data for the 10 days irons out much of this variability, enabling us to see the impact of changes due to human activity. Sentinel-5P (S5P) maps have previously been released of China and Italy. The new one of Italy on this page again shows the marked reductions in the north of country where the Covid-19 outbreak has been at its most severe. But there are also new maps here of France, Spain and Portugal. Other countries in northern Europe are being closely monitored, including the Netherlands and the UK - but the KNMI scientists have observed a larger variability owing to changing weather conditions. The time period to see the dip in concentrations in the UK is also quite short. Britain went into lockdown after some of its Western European neighbours. New measurements from this week will help to assess the changes in nitrogen dioxide over the UK.
3-27-20 Plastic: How to predict threats to animals in oceans and rivers
Hosepipes inside a sperm whale, plastic banana bags eaten by green turtles and a shotgun cartridge inside a True's beaked whale. Just some of the examples of plastic found inside wildlife that have been documented in scientific reports. Researchers went through records of plastic eaten by aquatic creatures to find out more about the risks. They say the length of an animal can be used to estimate how big a piece of plastic it might accidentally consume. This amounts to about a 20th of the size of the animal. They hope the data can be used to find out more about the risks. More than 700 species of marine and freshwater animals are known to ingest plastic, but study researcher Dr Ifan Jâms of Cardiff University said it was difficult to figure out how much plastic they could be eating. "This information gives us a way to start measuring the extent of the plastic pollution problem," he said. "We hope this study lays a foundation for including the 'ingestibility' of plastics into global risk assessments." Dr Jâms and colleagues at Cardiff trawled through published data to examine records of plastic found inside more than 2,000 marine and freshwater species, including mammals, reptiles, fish and invertebrates, from tiny fish larvae to 10-metre-long whales. They created an equation to predict the maximum size of plastic item an animal can swallow, based on the length of its body. The new equation could help determine the risk of plastics to any species - and the amount of plastic that may be moving into oceans and rivers, and entering food chains. Project leader Prof Isabelle Durance said: "All of us will have seen distressing, often heart-breaking, images of animals affected by plastic, but a great many more interactions between animals and plastic are never witnessed. This study gives us a new way of visualising those many, many unseen events."
3-27-20 The coronavirus pandemic could make weather forecasts less accurate
Grounding the world’s commercial airliners in an attempt to stop the coronavirus crossing international borders could have an unexpected effect: weather forecasts may get less accurate. That is because commercial planes often carry meteorological instruments and the readings they gather feed into weather forecasting models. With most flights cancelled, this valuable dataset has been temporarily lost. Stan Benjamin at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says a similar situation occurred in 2010. That spring, the ash-laden eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano triggered Europe’s biggest shutdown of airspace since the second world war, giving European weather forecasters a brief headache. But the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, says Daniel Swain at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Right now, we’re talking about an 80 or 90 percent global reduction in traffic, potentially for months,” he says. Modern weather prediction models largely rely on three major sources: weather balloons, remote-sensing satellites, and planes. In 1979, several airlines, companies and national weather services agreed on a scheme to attach meteorological equipment to commercial jets and have them automatically report the weather. Today, these planes can record the temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed and wind direction of a large swath of Earth’s atmosphere. These measurements have much better spatial resolution and accuracy then satellites, providing information on both near-ground conditions during take-off and landing and those in the jet streams, the high-altitude rivers of air that influence the weather on the ground. This stream of high-resolution data lets us fine-tune forecast models, says Jim McQuaid, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds. Both private weather forecasting companies and state-run meteorological agencies use these readings and several studies support the notion that aircraft observations assist forecasts on a range of timescales.
3-26-20 Warming oceans are causing marine life to shift towards the poles
Climate change is dramatically changing the abundance of marine life around the world. As oceans warm, populations of species that can adapt to elevated local temperatures have increased nearer to the poles, while those that live closer to the equator are shrinking in size. Martin Genner at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues examined data from 540 previous studies of marine populations affected by warming. The analysis included 304 marine species, including mammals, birds, fish and plankton, and their change in abundance within their usual habitat range. The researchers found that the warming of oceans by 1°C over the past century has triggered a widespread change in local communities, and those species that were more abundant at the poleward limit of their range seemed to fare better than those nearer the equatorial limit. This is because the poleward populations can tolerate a slight temperature increase in cold waters, whereas warming in an already warm tropical environment can prove too extreme for other species, says Genner. “The most surprising thing is that [this was the case] for not just a handful of species, but many, many species,” says Genner. The trend was strongest for seabirds and bony fish, but applied to all the taxonomic groups that the researchers analysed. In the next 50 years, ocean temperatures are forecast to rise by another 1.5°C, which suggests that this trend could continue. This change in species abundance has consequences for humans too. For example, UK fisheries may need to shift their focus to farming more warm-water species, such as herring, rather than Atlantic cod, as cod survive better in cold temperatures.However, broad analyses like this one oversimplify the effects of climate change, says Nova Mieszkowska at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, UK. “[These analyses] present the big picture, but often gloss over the important details, omitting the often important array of smaller-scale processes and temporal oscillations that also have significant effects on the abundance and distribution of species.”
3-26-20 Coronavirus is a fast-forward version of what will happen with climate change
But it's also a model of how it might be tackled. The United States will shortly become the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, if it isn't already. At time of writing some 60,653 American cases have been confirmed, and 784 people have died. It's going to get much, much worse before it gets better — especially if President Trump goes ahead with his evident plan to open the country back up before the virus is controlled. It's very hard to get one's mind around the scale of the developing calamity. But it also provides an important window into a potential future of unchecked climate change. The coronavirus pandemic is a warp-speed tutorial in what will happen if we don't get our act together and slash greenhouse gas emissions. The skyrocketing U.S. number of coronavirus cases and deaths is the direct consequence of President Trump's previous inattention and delay months ago. By late December it was clear there was a major risk the virus was going to get out of China, yet Trump didn't set up pre-emptive containment measures. He didn't set up testing or quarantine facilities, and didn't even shut down commercial travel from China until January 31, which was almost certainly already too late — and in any case his administration bungled the transportation of 14 infected Americans so badly that they may have seeded several outbreaks on their own. As a result, the virus has been spreading in the wild in the U.S. since late January or early February, and the entire time Trump has dragged his feet on setting up an all-out response. He was slow to activate the Army Corps of Engineers, slow to get behind economic rescue plans, and slow to take steps to ramp up the production of tests. To this day he refuses to actually invoke the Defense Production Act to secure needed supplies of ventilators and other medical equipment, leading to chaos as states and foreign countries desperately bid against each other for what remains. Now hospitals are starting to be overwhelmed across the country, and the corpses are piling up. This is what an uncontrolled, exponentially-accelerating crisis looks like on the ground: first slow, then all at once. Past procrastination and dithering means that once the seriousness of what is happening is undeniable, the worst effects can only be mitigated, not avoided. Climate change is going to be exactly like this, only on a much longer time scale. Decades have passed with greenhouse gas emissions rising steadily, yet so far the carnage has been relatively modest. The sea level keeps inching up, biological systems are increasingly stressed, ordinary weather patterns keep getting more and more odd, and extreme weather disasters keep getting worse and worse, but so far most human societies have not been seriously threatened.
3-26-20 Great Barrier Reef suffers third mass bleaching in five years
Australia's Great Barrier Reef has suffered another mass bleaching event - the third in just five years. Warmer sea temperatures - particularly in February - are feared to have caused huge coral loss across the world's largest reef system. Scientists say they have detected widespread bleaching, including extensive patches of severe damage. But they have also found healthy pockets. Two-thirds of the reef was damaged by similar events in 2016 and 2017. The reef system, which covers over 2,300km (1,400 miles), is a World Heritage site recognised for its "enormous scientific and intrinsic importance". Last year, Australia was forced to downgrade its five-year reef outlook from poor to very poor due to the impact of human-induced climate change. On Thursday, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said its latest aerial surveys had shown that the severity of bleaching varied across the reef. But it said more areas had been damaged than in previous events. "The reef had only just begun recovering from impacts in 2016 and 2017 and now we have a third event," chief scientist David Wachenfeld told the BBC. "Climate change is making the extreme events that drive those impacts both more severe and more frequent, so the damage in an event is worse." The earlier events hit two-thirds of the reef system, wiping out coral populations and destroying habitats for other sea life. But Dr Wachenfeld said some key reefs for tourism - in the northern and central regions - had been only "moderately bleached" this year. This meant coral there would probably recover, he added. "The reef is still a vibrant, dynamic system but overall, with every one of these successive events, the reef is more damaged than previously," he said. "We need to take these events as global calls for the strongest possible action in climate change," he said. Global temperatures have already risen about 1C since pre-industrial times. The UN has warned that if temperatures rise by 1.5C, 90% of the world's corals will be wiped out.
3-25-20 The ozone layer is healing and redirecting wind flows around the globe
The hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica is continuing to recover and it is leading to changes in atmospheric circulation – the flow of air over Earth’s surface that causes winds. Using data from satellite observations and climate simulations, Antara Banerjee at the University of Colorado Boulder and her colleagues modelled changing wind patterns related to the layer’s recovery. Its healing is largely thanks to the Montreal Protocol agreed internationally in 1987, which banned the production of ozone-depleting substances. Before 2000, a belt of air currents called the mid-latitude jet stream in the southern hemisphere had been gradually shifting towards the South Pole. Another tropical jet stream called the Hadley cell, responsible for trade winds, tropical rain-belts, hurricanes and subtropical deserts, had been getting wider. Banerjee and her team found that both of these trends stopped and began to reverse slightly in 2000. This change couldn’t be explained by random fluctuations in climate, and Banerjee says they are a direct effect of the recovering ozone layer. Alterations in the path of a jet stream may influence weather through shifts in atmospheric temperature and rainfall, which could lead to changes in ocean temperature and salt concentration. In terms of ozone layer recovery, “we’ve turned the corner”, says Martyn Chipperfield at the University of Leeds in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the study. He says we had already seen signs that the ozone layer is recovering and that this study represents the next step, which is seeing the effect of that recovery on the climate. Chipperfield says it is important to know which aspects of climate change have been caused by carbon dioxide emissions, which are continuing to rise, versus ozone depletion, which is now stopping and reversing.1
3-25-20 Climate change: Green energy plant threat to wilderness areas
Wind, solar and hydro power installations pose a growing threat to key conservation areas, say researchers. Researchers found that over 2,200 green energy plants have been built within the boundaries of the Earth's remaining wilderness. They say that around 17% of renewable facilities globally are located in protected regions. A further 900 plants are now being developed in key areas of biodiversity. Now researchers say that often these solar, wind and hydro schemes have been built in areas of environmental significance and pose a threat to key natural habitats. The team mapped the locations of around 12,500 of these installations. They found that more than 2,200 were built in wilderness, protected regions and key biodiversity areas. Some 169 were found in strictly managed protected areas where no development activity at all should occur. "Energy facilities and the infrastructure around them, such as roads and increased human activity, can be incredibly damaging to the natural environment," said lead author Jose Rehbein, from the University of Queensland, Australia. "These developments are not compatible with biodiversity conservation efforts." The researchers say that energy projects like solar farms often necessitate new roads, and the people who come in to service these installations sometimes build settlements near them. Western European countries are the worst offenders at the moment, with Germany having 258 facilities in key conservation areas. Spain has similar numbers of installations, while China has 142. One big concern from the researchers is the likely expansion of the demand for renewables particularly in Africa and Asia. The researchers say the number of active renewable energy facilities within important conservation lands could increase by 42% over the next eight years. In countries like India and Nepal, for example, hydropower is seeing a real boom. Nepal has over 100 facilities within protected areas, while India has 74 under development in important conservation zones. "In most cases it's just weak planning," said Dr James Allan from the University of Amsterdam, a senior author on the paper.
3-24-20 Greta Thunberg says she may have had covid-19 and has self-isolated
Greta Thunberg says she and her father, Swedish actor Svante Thunberg, appear to have been infected by the coronavirus. In an interview with New Scientist, the climate change campaigner said they had both experienced some symptoms of covid-19 after a recent train tour of Europe together. The pair were travelling before restrictions were imposed in several countries. However, she stressed that neither of them have been tested for the virus, as Sweden is only testing people with the most severe symptoms and those in at-risk groups. “I came home from central Europe and then I isolated myself from the beginning, because I thought I might as well, as I’ve been on trains and so I don’t want to put anyone else at risk,” she said. “But I started feeling some symptoms after a few days. At the same time, my father was feeling much more intense symptoms.” The 17-year-old said she wants to tell people how easy it is to transmit the disease without knowing you have it. Researchers have found that many cases globally have been asymptomatic. “The important thing is, I didn’t basically feel that I was ill. It could be that I was feeling unusually tired, I was coughing a bit,” she said. “That also is very dangerous because you don’t know you have it. If I wouldn’t have been for my father getting it at the same time and much more intense than me, I might not even have noticed it, that I was sick.” She said it is a reminder of why it is important for people to follow the social-distancing measures imposed by governments. “That is something I want to communicate, that many people don’t feel symptoms at all, or very mild symptoms, but it can still be contagious. So you have to really practice social distancing whether you feel ill or not,” she says. While neither she nor her father have been tested because of Sweden’s approach, Thunberg said it would be surprising if it isn’t covid-19. “So of course I’m not 100 per cent sure I have got it. But it would have been very strange if it would have been something else, because it just fits very [well]. Especially my father’s reaction, it’s exactly fitting with the symptoms.”
3-23-20 Electric cars really are a greener option than fossil fuel vehicles
Electric cars are already greener than their fossil fuel counterparts in almost every part of the world today, according to researchers. They say electric vehicles are “a no-regret choice” even in places where power grids haven’t gone fully green. Some previous comparisons have suggested petrol and diesel cars produce lower net carbon emissions over their lifetime than battery-powered vehicles. Yet these analyses have often compared only two models of car. Instead, Florian Knobloch at Radboud University in the Netherlands and his colleagues looked at the average emissions across many classes of car to get a clearer global picture. The researchers looked at the projected carbon emissions generated on average over a car’s lifetime, including during its production, while it is being driven and when it is destroyed, for all the conventional and electric cars sold in 59 regions across the world in 2015. These represent 95 per cent of the world’s current road traffic. They found that electric vehicles already have lower net carbon emissions in 53 of those 59 regions. Only in areas containing countries that use coal heavily, such as India and Poland, were electric vehicle emissions worse than those of conventional petrol and diesel cars. The same was true for heat pumps, greener alternatives to domestic gas boilers that use electricity to generate heat. These are seen as a key way to decarbonise heating. Combined with data on the sources that provided electricity to those regions in 2015, they found that the average electric vehicle is greener than the average new petrol car if the power grid emits less than 1100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. Many countries’ electricity supplies have seen huge growth in renewable energy sources in the past five years, and so Knobloch says electric cars are likely to be even better now. For example, the UK’s average carbon intensity for electricity – the carbon emissions per unit of electricity generated – was 215 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour last year, down from 443g CO2/kWh in 2015.
3-23-20 Electric car emissions myth 'busted'
Fears that electric cars could actually increase carbon emissions are a damaging myth, new research shows. Media reports have questioned if electric cars are really “greener” once emissions from manufacture and electricity generation are counted. The research concludes that in most places electric cars produce fewer emissions overall - even if generation still involves fossil fuels. Other studies warn that driving overall must be reduced to hit climate targets. The new research from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen - in The Netherlands - and Cambridge shows that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a petrol car. The only exceptions are places like Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal. The researchers say average “lifetime“ emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (where most electricity comes from renewables and nuclear), and around 30% lower in the UK. They say the picture for electric cars will become steadily more favourable as nations shift to clean electricity. The study projects that in 2050 every second car on the streets of the world could be electric. This would reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 1.5 gigatonnes per year, which is equivalent to the total current CO2 emissions of Russia. The progress could be much faster if nations adopt stricter targets, as the UK has done by pledging that every new car sold will be zero emissions by 2035 at the latest. The study’s lead author, Dr Florian Knobloch from the University of Nijmegen said: “The idea that electric vehicles could increase emissions is a complete myth. “We've seen a lot of discussion about this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. “We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases..”
3-23-20 Climate change: Earth's deepest ice canyon vulnerable to melting
East Antarctic's Denman Canyon is the deepest land gorge on Earth, reaching 3,500m below sea-level. It's also filled top to bottom with ice, which US space agency (Nasa) scientists reveal in a new report has a significant vulnerability to melting. Retreating and thinning sections of the glacier suggest it is being eroded by encroaching warm ocean water. Denman is one to watch for the future. If its ice were hollowed out, it would raise the global sea surface by 1.5m. "How fast this can happen? Hard to say, since there are many factors coming into play, for example the narrowness of the channel along which Denman is retreating may slow down the retreat," explained Dr Virginia Brancato, from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a former scholar at the University of California at Irvine (UCI). "At present, it is critical to collect more data, and closely and more frequently monitor the future evolution of the glacier," she told BBC News. Most people recognise the shores around the Dead Sea in the Middle East to have the lowest visible land surface elevation on Earth, at some 430m below sea level. But the base of the gorge occupied by Denman Glacier on the edge of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) actually reaches eight times as deep. This was only recently established, and it has made Denman a location of renewed scientific interest. Dr Brancato and colleagues used satellite radar data from 1996 to 2018 to show there's been a marked retreat in the glacier's grounding line. This is the point where the ice stream lifts up and floats as it flows off the land and enters the ocean. The line has reversed 5-6km in 22 years. What's interesting about this reversal, however, is that it's asymmetric; it's occurring pretty much all on the western side of the glacier. The reason, the scientists can now determine, is a buried ridge under the eastern flank which is pinning and protecting that side of the glacier. In contrast, the western flank features a narrow but sizeable trough that would allow warm ocean water to erode the grounding line and push it backwards. This potentially is an Achilles heel. The further inland the glacier reaches, the deeper its bed - which is a geometry that has been demonstrated to favour more and more melting. If a lot of warm ocean water can find its way to the front of Denman, the opportunity is there to melt out its ice in a significant way.
3-19-20 Just opening a plastic bottle can release thousands of microplastics
Tiny pieces of plastic that pollute the environment can be produced by simply opening a plastic bottle or tearing a food wrapper. Microplastics are between 0.001 and 5 millimetres in size and are usually either produced directly, or form when large plastic debris breaks up. We now know that millions of tonnes of microplastics are abundant in the environment and can harm marine life by entering the food chain. Microplastics are also found in our food, although the effect on human health is still unclear. “Plastic is everywhere and enters our daily lives – and microplastics might be there as well,” says Cheng Fang at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He and his colleagues tested whether everyday activities could release microplastics. They opened common plastic items such as bags, bottles and packaging film by twisting the bottle cap or tearing the bag, for example, or by cutting them with scissors or a knife, which deforms and fractures the plastic. The team used a scale that is sensitive to weights as low as one nanogram to collect and measure the microplastics that landed on its surface. Between about 10 and 30 nanograms of microplastic were released from opening the plastic items, which amounts to between 14,000 and 75,000 individual microplastic particles. But the team says that the true amount released is probably even higher, because many microplastics are statically charged and remain in the air. Studying the microplastics with a microscope revealed that most were in the form of fragments or fibres of varying shape and size. Some could be seen with the naked eye, such as those from cutting bottles. The team also used a technique called spectroscopy to deduce the microplastics’ chemical composition and found the majority were made of polyethylene, one of the most widely used plastics.
3-19-20 Coronavirus: Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads
Levels of air pollutants and warming gases over some cities and regions are showing significant drops as coronavirus impacts work and travel. Researchers in New York told the BBC their early results showed carbon monoxide mainly from cars had been reduced by nearly 50% compared with last year. Emissions of the planet-heating gas CO2 have also fallen sharply. But there are warnings levels could rise rapidly after the pandemic. With global economic activity ramping down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it is hardly surprising that emissions of a variety of gases related to energy and transport would be reduced. Scientists say that by May, when CO2 emissions are at their peak thanks to the decomposition of leaves, the levels recorded might be the lowest since the financial crisis over a decade ago. While it is early days, data collected in New York this week suggests that instructions to curb unnecessary travel are having a significant impact. Traffic levels in the city were estimated to be down 35% compared with a year ago. Emissions of carbon monoxide, mainly due to cars, have fallen by around 50% for a couple of days this week according to researchers at Columbia University. They have also found that there was a 5-10% drop in CO2 over New York and a solid drop in methane as well. Although there are a number of caveats to these findings, they echo the environmental impacts connected to the virus outbreaks in China and in Italy. An analysis carried out for the climate website Carbon Brief suggested there had been a 25% drop in energy use and emissions in China over a two week period. This is likely to lead to an overall fall of about 1% in China's carbon emissions this year, experts believe. Both China and Northern Italy have also recorded significant falls in nitrogen dioxide, which is related to reduced car journeys and industrial activity. The gas is both a serious air pollutant and a powerful warming chemical.
3-19-20 Legos may take hundreds of years to break down in the ocean
Scientists suspect that other types of sturdy plastic may endure for just as long. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping on a Lego, you know the plastic building blocks have absolutely no give. Now, scientists have discovered another unpleasant consequence of the toys’ indestructibility: A single Lego could take hundreds of years to break down in the ocean. Earth’s oceans are littered with plastic of all kinds (SN: 11/13/19). But estimating how long that trash takes to disintegrate in seawater is often a challenge, because it’s difficult to date fragments of debris with unknown origin. But it’s fairly easy to identify a piece of Lego by its distinct shape, says Andrew Turner, an environmental scientist at the University of Plymouth in England. And because the chemical additives used to make Legos have changed over time, the composition of each brick contains clues about when it was made. Turner and colleagues used an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to measure the chemical compositions of washed-up Lego blocks, which had been collected by beach cleanup volunteers in Cornwall, England, since 2010. Using the blocks’ chemical fingerprints, the team identified bricks manufactured around the 1970s. One key chemical indicator was cadmium, used to make bright yellow and red pigments from the early 1970s until the early 1980s, when it was phased out due to toxicity. The researchers assume the beached Legos were lost to sea around the time of their purchase. To gauge how worn down the beached Legos got during 30 to 40 years at sea — due to factors like abrasive sediment and exposure to sunlight — the researchers used their X-ray fluorescence measurements to match weathered Legos with pristine versions of the same bricks kept in collections since the 1970s. Across 14 pairs of matching Legos, the weathered versions had 3 to 40 percent less mass than their mint-condition counterparts. Based on those measurements, it would take an estimated 100 to 1,300 years to completely break down a single Lego brick, researchers report in the July 2020 Environmental Pollution.
3-18-20 Grace gravity mission captures Greenland ice loss
Greenland shed an extraordinary 600 billion tonnes of ice by the end of summer last year. This melt-driven loss would have raised global sea levels by 2.2mm, say scientists who've just published an analysis of satellite gravity measurements taken over the Arctic. Of course, when winter set in, some of that mass would have been recovered as it snowed across the ice sheet. The data comes from the joint US-German space mission known as Grace-FO. It's actually a pair of satellites that circle the globe, sensing the "lumps and bumps" in Earth's gravity field that correspond to variations in mass. Key signals being detected are changes in the amount of water stored on land surfaces and the withering state of the planet's great ice fields. FO stands for "follow on" because the project is a successor to a mission that flew from 2002 to 2017. The analysis appearing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) on Wednesday is essentially a first attempt to match up the new observational tool with the old. It's a task that was made more challenging than it should have been, concede scientists. In part that was because there was a seven-month gap in operations (Grace-FO wasn't launched until 2018), but also because the new mission, once in orbit, was found to be carrying an underperforming accelerometer instrument. The team has had to find a work-around for this disappointment. "But the exciting news is we are working and we are working well. And that's important because Grace gives us a really unique way of looking at the ice sheets and their glaciers," Prof Isabella Velicogna, from the University of California at Irvine and the US space agency's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told BBC News. Other types of satellite measure the ice sheets by capturing changes in velocity or shape. Grace, on the other hand, literally weighs the ice from orbit. It's therefore an independent check on those other satellites' methods. The big take-home from the GRL paper is that the new gravity mission is capturing all major trends. The Greenland melt of last summer would have been hard to miss. It was extreme. On a par with the very warm summer of 2012.
3-18-20 Many plants may soon be illegal in France and no one knows what to do
France's highest court has ruled that many common crops are illegal because they contain genetic mutations, but enforcing the law will be near impossible. CROPS that have been grown and eaten in France for years may soon become illegal. Farmers will no longer be able to plant them and shops won’t be able to sell them. At least, that is what is supposed to happen later this year. But because it will be virtually impossible to know which varieties are forbidden, it is far from clear how things will pan out. “I think it’s going to have a real impact on agriculture and plant breeding in France,” says plant biologist Johnathan Napier at Rothamsted Research, UK. It will affect others, too, as France is the largest seed exporter in the world. This extraordinary state of affairs stems from a 7 February decision by France’s top court, the Council of State. It ruled that plants created by mutagenesis – the process of inducing genetic mutations – should be subject to the same European Union laws that cover genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although these gene tweaks might sound similar, they have conventionally been seen as quite different. Organisms constantly mutate because of mistakes that happen when DNA replicates as new cells are made or when it is damaged. Genetic varieties also develop when species interbreed, producing hybrid offspring. By selecting mutant and hybrid plants with desirable properties, early farmers transformed wild species into the domesticated varieties that we eat today. Modern bananas are a long way removed from their wild relatives genetically, for instance. From the 1950s, breeders began to intervene more. They exposed seeds to radiation or toxic chemicals to induce mutations by chance, hoping to get lucky with desirable traits. This process, called random mutagenesis, has been used to create thousands of plant varieties grown today, including many wheat and rice strains.
3-18-20 How Hurricane Maria’s heavy rains devastated Puerto Rico’s forests
Waterlogged soils, strong winds and intense rainfall together toppled and snapped trees. Wind may be the usual suspect for knocking down trees during hurricanes, but a new survey of forest damage in Puerto Rico after back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 highlights the power of a strong downpour. When Hurricane Irma passed off the coast of Puerto Rico on September 6, 2017, the storm brought heavy rains but minimal forest damage. Hurricane Maria, which struck two weeks later, was a different story. The strongest hurricane to make direct landfall in Puerto Rico in almost a century, Maria brought wind speeds over 200 kilometers per hour and dropped nearly 1.5 meters of rain in two days on some areas. Using satellite images and on-the-ground observations at 25 forest plots across the U.S. territory, researchers mapped the devastation wrought by the two storms. An estimated 10.44 million metric tons, or about 23 percent, of Puerto Rico’s total forest biomass was destroyed — but the degree of damage varied by location, researchers report online March 9 in Scientific Reports. Comparing the fraction of forest lost in different places against other local factors, such as wind and rain exposure during the hurricanes, revealed that severe damage was more closely associated with heavy rainfall than strong winds during Maria. “It wasn’t something that I was expecting. I thought the big driver would be wind,” says María Uriarte, an ecologist at Columbia University. Hurricane Maria’s rainfall could have played a significant role in toppling trees by pressing down on tree canopies while loosening soil, Uriarte and her colleagues say. Badly damaged areas also tended to be places that were hammered with heavy rains from Irma and had soil that could hold a lot of water. That suggests regions waterlogged by Irma were primed to suffer worse damage from Maria.
3-16-20 Climate change: The rich are to blame, international study finds
The rich are primarily to blame for the global climate crisis, a study by the University of Leeds of 86 countries claims. The wealthiest tenth of people consume about 20 times more energy overall than the bottom ten, wherever they live. The gulf is greatest in transport, where the top tenth gobble 187 times more fuel than the poorest tenth, the research says. That’s because people on the lowest incomes can rarely afford to drive. The researchers found that the richer people became, the more energy they typically use. And it was replicated across all countries. And they warn that, unless there's a significant policy change, household energy consumption could double from 2011 levels by 2050. That's even if energy efficiency improves. The researchers combined European Union and World Bank data to calculate how different income groups spend their money. They say it’s the first study of its kind. It found that in transport the richest tenth of consumers use more than half the energy. This reflects previous research showing that 15% of UK travellers take 70% of all flights. The ultra-rich fly by far furthest, while 57% of the UK population does not fly abroad at all. The study, published in Nature Energy, showed that energy for cooking and heating is more equitably consumed. But even then, the top 10% of consumers used roughly one third of the total, presumably reflecting the size of their homes. Co-author Professor Julia Steinberger, leader of the project at Leeds, asked: “How can we change the vastly unequal distribution of energy to provide a decent life for everyone while protecting the climate and ecosystems?” The authors say governments could reduce transport demand through better public transport, higher taxes on bigger vehicles and frequent flyer levies for people who take most holidays. They say another alternative is to electrify vehicles more quickly, although previous studies suggest even then demand for driving must be reduced in order to reduce the strain on resource use and electricity production and distribution.
3-16-20 AI pollution monitor could forecast harmful particles in the air
MANY cities in China normally experience dangerous levels of PM2.5, the tiny particulate matter linked to some of the worst health effects from air pollution. Now it seems artificial intelligence could help us avoid the stuff. Most air pollution forecasts are based on models that use maps of annual average air pollution emissions, the application of weather models and assumptions about chemical reactions. These can’t account for unforeseeable events, such as extra pollution from a traffic jam or an accidental chemical release. Baihua Li at Loughborough University, UK, and her colleagues took a different approach to see whether AI could do a better job. They used machine learning to train a model for predicting PM2.5 levels on three years’ worth of data from Beijing, chosen due to the number of Chinese cities with a PM2.5 problem. Around 26,000 data points were used, including average PM2.5 readings from four roadside pollution sensors and historical weather data. Li says the resulting forecasts for the locations near these sensors were highly accurate, based on how closely they matched historical observations. One hour ahead, they were 95 per cent accurate, falling to 85 per cent for 6 hours ahead. Using this approach also helped the researchers tease out which factors were the most important in predicting dirty air. Sunlight, air pressure, the season and wind speed were found to be key. Wind blowing from the north-west often indicated a bad pollution episode was likely, perhaps due to the industrial facilities to the north-west of Beijing. Unlike most air quality forecasts, which usually warn the public of a single likely level of pollution for their area, Li’s system provides a likely range of PM2.5 levels to give an idea of the uncertainty. The model could be adapted for other cities affected by PM2.5, such as Delhi, provided it is trained with local data. The developed system is going to be tested in Shenzhen, China, using live data from pollution sensors.
3-16-20 North Sea oil firm accused of profiting from deadly industry
A North Sea oil company with a base in Scotland has been accused of profiting from a deadly and toxic industry after two of its oil rigs ended up being scrapped on a beach in India. Campaigners say at least 137 people have died over the last decade in the shipbreaking yards in Alang, and that the yards cause "massive" damage to the environment. Diamond Offshore, a leading offshore drilling firm with major bases in the US and Aberdeen, sold five rigs to another company, Global Marketing Systems (GMS), in 2017. It is likely that each rig contains tonnes of toxic waste. A new BBC Disclosure programme due to be broadcast at 20:30 on Monday reveals that GMS sold on two rigs, which had been operating in US waters, to shipbreaking yards in Alang. The other three rigs were detained in the Cromarty Firth by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) because it believed they too were bound for India. UK and international law prevents the movement of waste from the UK to developing countries. Sepa chief executive Terry A'Hearn told the BBC the three rigs will remain in the Cromarty Firth until it is satisfied they are going somewhere that they can be "handled properly". He said companies like Diamond Offshore had a "duty of care" under the law" to make sure that they're giving their material to someone who's going to be doing the right thing with it". Companies seeking to sell their retired ships or rigs often use cash buyers, or "middlemen", like GMS - which has been accused of flouting international laws by selling to shipbreaking yards with poor safety records in south Asia. Shipbreaking yards in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have much lower costs than approved recycling yards in Europe, and pay a much higher premium for ships and rigs which are due to be scrapped. The industry in South Asia has been criticised by campaigners over its safety and environmental record.
3-16-20 Huge knowledge gap over health of soil
A vital knowledge gap about England’s environment has been uncovered by soil campaigners. They have discovered that just 0.41% of the cash invested in environmental monitoring goes on examining the soil. That’s despite the fact that soils round the world – including in the UK – are said to be facing a crisis. The figures are startling: £60.5m goes to monitoring water quality, £7.65m to checking on air – but just £284,000 to auditing soil. The mismatch was revealed in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA). Its director, Ellen Fay, told BBC News: “This figure is staggering – but not surprising. It reflects the widespread under-investment in soil health compared to air and water. “We could be actually saving money – and the environment – by investing in soil monitoring because understanding soil would tell us a great deal about the health of our water and air too.” The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News it was planning to design an indicator for healthy soils, and to establish a new national soil monitoring scheme. It says powers in the Agriculture Bill could be used to support the monitoring. But the SSA says it has seen no evidence that Defra will commit to funding soil monitoring. It comes as concern about the state of soil has been running high. A report by the Commons Environment Audit Committee in 2016 warned that some of the UK’s most fertile fields were losing so much soil they could become unproductive within a generation. That’s because modern farming methods typically don’t protect the soil from losing its carbon content (vital for combating climate change) or from being washed off by heavy rain. Yet the FoI reveals that Natural England’s commitment to soil monitoring stretches to assessing just 20 soil plots across four national nature reserves. The SSA – a group of farmers, academics and environmentalists - says under-investment in soil monitoring is leaving the public in the dark about the state of the countryside and leading to heightened flood risk, threats to food security and loss of biodiversity.
3-14-20 Climate change: Will planting millions of trees really save the planet?
From Greta Thunberg to Donald Trump and airlines to oil companies, everyone is suddenly going crazy for trees. The UK government has pledged to plant millions a year while other countries have schemes running into billions. But are these grand ambitions achievable? How much carbon dioxide do trees really pull in from the atmosphere? And what happens to a forest, planted amid a fanfare, over the following decades? Last year's UK general election became a contest to look green. The Conservatives' pledge of planting 30 million trees a year, confirmed in the Budget this week, is a big step up on current rates. Critics wonder whether it's possible given that earlier targets were far easier and weren't met. If the new planting rate is achieved, it would lead to something like 17% of the UK becoming forested, as opposed to 13% now. Tree planting is a popular idea because forests are not only beautiful but also useful: they support wildlife, help with holding back floodwater and provide timber. And trees absorb carbon dioxide - the main gas heating the planet - so planting more of them is seen by many as a climate change solution. At the moment, the UK's forests pull in about 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year but the hope is to more than double that. It would involve potentially sensitive decisions about where to turn fields into forests: for example, should trees be planted where crops are grown or where cattle or sheep are grazed? And because it can take decades to get a financial return from trees, many farmers and landowners are waiting for the government to announce new incentives. I watched a team of people in their 20s working on a project for the Forestry Commission, in Norfolk, and their speed was phenomenal. When they got going, I timed each of them planting a tree roughly every four seconds. During the course of a day, they could plant between 2,000 and 4,000 trees, piercing the soil with a shovel, stooping down to bury the roots of a tiny Douglas Fir, pressing the sapling in with a boot, and then pacing out the gap to the next one.
3-13-20 Amazon deforestation looks set to hit a record high in 2020
Deforestation of the Amazon has continued at record levels this year, leading observers to warn that the rainforest is disappearing faster than ever before. Under Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has encouraged deforesting parts of the Amazon for development, the area of rainforest cleared last year jumped by 29.5 per cent to its highest level in a decade. With official data from Brazil’s space agency INPE now in for the whole of January and February 2020, it is clear there has been no let-up for the Amazon. A 470-square-kilometre area – around the size of Andorra – was lost in this period, up about 70 per cent on a year ago. As well as being a biodiversity hotspot, the Amazon acts a major brake on climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, although research last week found that its capacity to do so is rapidly diminishing. What is particularly troubling about the new deforestation figures is that this time of year usually sees relatively little loss, as the rainforest is still in the rainy season and so it is harder to set fires. Erika Berengeur at the University of Oxford says: “The data shows a trend and it is likely that in 2020 we will see a continued increase in deforestation as the year progresses, especially as we move towards the dry season, when deforestation peaks.” The area of forest lost is the largest reported in a January to February period since 2015, which is when INPE introduced a more powerful, high-resolution version of its satellite deforestation alert system, DETER. “The trend indicated by the DETER system is very worrying. It has shown a continued rate of increase of deforestation in comparison to one year ago,” says Carlos Nobre at the University of São Paulo. The rate is even higher than it was at the beginning of 2016, when the Amazon was severely affected by a mega-drought driven by the El Niño climate phenomenon. Deforestation rises at times of drought.
3-13-20 Forests won’t stop climate change
The world’s tropical forests are rapidly losing their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a worrying development that could accelerate climate change, reports The Guardian (U.K.). In a new study using data from 565 tropical forests across Africa and the Amazon, an international team of researchers found that the forests’ intake of carbon peaked in the 1990s. In the past decade, they’ve absorbed a third less—a difference of 23 billion tons, or about the same as a decade of fossil fuel emissions from the U.K., Germany, Canada, and France combined. Forests lose their ability to soak up carbon as trees dry out and die from droughts and higher temperatures, but the greatest threats to rain forests are logging, burning, and other forms of human activity. If the Amazon—the world’s largest tropical forest—continues to degrade at its current rate, researchers believe, it will turn from a carbon sink to a source of emissions by 2035. “Humans have been lucky so far, as tropical forests are mopping up lots of our pollution, but they can’t keep doing that indefinitely,” says senior author Simon Lewis, from Leeds University in the U.K.
3-13-20 Oil: Price war wreaks havoc on world markets
An oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia sent more shock waves through “a world economy already reeling from the coronavirus,” said Verity Ratcliffe in Bloomberg.com. Oil prices plunged by almost a third, the biggest drop since 1991, after Russia “refused to yield to a Saudi-led gambit to force Moscow to join OPEC in production cuts” last week. The Russian rebuff led Saudi Arabia to respond with fury, “slashing pricing for its crude by the most in more than 30 years” to roughly $31 a barrel. The gush of Saudi oil “if sustained, would savage national budgets from Venezuela to Iran, threaten the heartland of America’s shale revolution, and upend politics around the world.” The turmoil, on top of the coronavirus crisis, shook financial markets, with U.S. stocks plunging by 7 percent early in the week. The Saudis knew there’d be serious economic consequences, but they were not going to let Vladimir Putin bully them, said Anjli Raval and David Sheppard in the Financial Times. It’s a gamble, but the kingdom had “to punish Russia for abandoning” the allegiance it had forged to “prop up the oil market since 2016.” The U.S. economy could be a big loser in this, said David Fickling in Bloomberg.com. American shale producers, which have helped the U.S. become a net energy exporter, still need roughly $44 per barrel to break even. American investors “have been falling out of love with crude production for a while,” and they’ll be reluctant to put in the capital necessary to withstand “trench warfare with Russia and Saudi Arabia.” Expect shrinking and consolidation of the U.S. shale industry. Our Middle Eastern “ally” has decided to “undermine an important part of the U.S. economy at a critical time,” said Daniel Larison in TheAmericanConservative.com. Maybe now the U.S. will realize it “owes Saudi Arabia nothing and should stop supporting it.”
3-12-20 Coal power developers 'risk wasting billions'
Coal power developers risk wasting hundreds of billions of pounds as new renewable sources are now cheaper than new coal plants, a report has said. The shift is mainly due to cheaper wind and solar power, Carbon Tracker said. It added that in 10 years it will be cheaper to close down coal plants and build wind and solar plants instead. But the International Energy Agency says coal will remain the largest global power source for years unless governments radically change policies. The report's authors say they looked at the economics of 95% of the world's coal-fired power stations. In most countries, including the UK, it's already cheaper to build renewable energy generation than new coal-burning plants. At 60% of coal plants in the world, the generating costs are higher than they would be from new renewables, the report said. But the study goes a step further, forecasting that within 10 years the cheapest option in all countries would be to close down existing coal-fired power stations and build wind and solar power plants instead. The issue is crucial to global plans to tackle climate change. Carbon Tracker says that to combat climate change effectively one coal plant has to retire every day until 2040. The report urges governments and investors to cancel coal projects in the pipeline - or risk almost £500bn in wasted investment. It says in deregulated economies, market forces will drive coal out of existence. That's already started to happen in the US, where President Trump promised to revive the coal industry, but found that investors weren't willing to back him. However, many developing countries with tight bonds between power suppliers and governments still allow coal plants to operate even if the higher costs are passed to consumers. Matt Gray, of Carbon Tracker and a co-author of the report, said: "Renewables are out-competing coal around the world and proposed coal investments risk becoming stranded assets which could lock in high-cost coal power for decades.
3-12-20 Greenland and Antarctica ice loss accelerating
Earth's great ice sheets, Greenland and Antarctica, are now losing mass six times faster than they were in the 1990s thanks to warming conditions. A comprehensive review of satellite data acquired at both poles is unequivocal in its assessment of accelerating trends, say scientists. Between them, Greenland and Antarctica lost 6.4 trillion tonnes of ice in the period from 1992 to 2017. This was sufficient to push up global sea-levels by 17.8mm. "That's not a good news story," said Prof Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds in the UK. "Today, the ice sheets contribute about a third of all sea-level rise, whereas in the 1990s, their contribution was actually pretty small at about 5%. This has important implications for the future, for coastal flooding and erosion," he told BBC News. The researcher co-leads a project called the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise, or Imbie. It's a team of experts who have reviewed polar measurements acquired by observational spacecraft over nearly three decades. These are satellites that have tracked the changing volume, flow and gravity of the ice sheets. Imbie's Antarctica assessment was lodged with the journal Nature in 2018; its Greenland summary was published in the print edition of the periodical this week. The team has used the latest milestone to offer some general remarks. The key one is the recognition that ice losses are now running at the upper end of expectations when compared with the computer models used by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the panel's 2014 assessment, its mid-range simulations (RCP4.5) suggested global sea-levels might rise by 53cm by 2100. But the Imbie team's studies show that ice losses from Antarctica and Greenland are actually heading to much more pessimistic outcomes, and will likely add another 17cm to those end-of-century forecasts.
3-11-20 Optimism can avert climate disaster, say duo who brokered Paris deal
Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac led the 2015 Paris climate negotiations. They tell us why they’re hopeful for the future, and explain how fighting climate change is “the most exciting experiment in history” THE 2015 Paris Agreement marked a turning point in the fight to protect our planet against climate catastrophe. For the first time in more than 20 years of UN climate negotiations, all member states made a binding and universal pledge to reduce their carbon emissions as soon as possible, and to do their best to keep global warming well below 2°C while pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. As executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres led these negotiations, supported by her political advisor and strategist at the UN, Tom Rivett-Carnac. They later left the UN and set up Global Optimism, an organisation focused on bringing about environmental and social change by working with key campaigners, including Greta Thunberg, Al Gore and David Attenborough. In their new book, The Future We Choose: Surviving the climate crisis, they present two scenarios for how Earth will look in 2050: one where we have failed to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, the other where we have succeeded and now inhabit a carbon-neutral planet. They also outline how individuals can best encourage positive environmental change. Tom Rivett-Carnac: We are facing probably the most consequential decade in human history. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set out 196 scenarios through which we can limit warming to 1.5°C, and none of them shows us peaking emissions later than this year. We can’t prevaricate any longer. We need to start now, and by 2030 we need to be at half our current emissions. We need to bring all of ourselves to this moment and realise that this is a crisis moment, it’s an emergency moment. We need to face it and then we need to act. Christiana Figueres: We want to wake people up to the fact that they are implicitly already making a choice. It’s an unconscious, perhaps an unwilled choice, but it is a choice. Of course, we can go on with business as usual, but that’s going to end up in a world of destruction and suffering. Instead, we can and must make a conscious and intentional choice to change the way we live our daily lives and create a much better world.
3-11-20 Wind-powered turbines could clean pollutants from our air
As well as generating renewable energy, wind turbines might soon remove air pollution too. Zhong Lin Wang at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and his colleagues have developed a wind-powered device that can simultaneously absorb and break down air pollutants. It resembles a horizontal wind turbine with five 25-centimetre diameter transparent hemispheres at the end of arms that act as cup-like blades. These also funnel air to a water-filled chamber where nitrogen oxide gases dissolve to produce nitrate and nitrite ions. These gases, which are found in vehicle emissions and are released by the burning of fossil fuels, can be harmful. They include nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, which contribute to smog and acid rain. The device is powered by multiple generators that convert the mechanical energy of the moving blades into electricity. The turning of the blades causes generators in the turbine to produce electrical current that is used to power electrochemical reactions involving the nitrate and nitrite ions. In the process, these substances are converted to other compounds such as ammonia and nitrogen and stored. Nickel foam – a solid form of the metal that is porous – is used as a catalyst. The researchers found that the device could effectively degrade nitrogen oxides when turned by a fan that creates a wind speed of 6 metres per second. They tested it for 24 hours and found a significant reduction in the concentration of nitrite ions in the water-filled chamber, and an increase in ammonia gas, which is captured in a chamber. The team suggests that the turbines could be useful in cities – for example, by fitting them to the top of street lights to remove air pollution.
3-11-20 Benin company harvesting plants that could soak up oil spills
A company in Benin is harvesting water hyacinths which can be used to soak up oil in an easy, cost-effective way. If left unattended the plant reproduces incredibly fast, so the harvesting also helps maintain a balanced ecosystem. However it has not yet been possible to scale up the process so that it can be used to deal with major off-shore oil spills. The BBC's Questions d'Argent programme went to meet the founder to see how it all works.
3-11-20 Climate change: New rules could spell end of 'throwaway culture'
New rules could spell the death of a "throwaway" culture in which products are bought, used briefly, then binned. The regulations will apply to a range of everyday items such as mobile phones, textiles, electronics, batteries, construction and packaging. They will ensure products are designed and manufactured so they last - and so they're repairable if they go wrong. It should mean that your phone lasts longer and proves easier to fix. That may be especially true if the display or the battery needs changing. It's part of a worldwide movement called the Right to Repair, which has spawned citizens' repair workshops in several UK cities. The plan is being presented by the European Commission. It's likely to create standards for the UK, too - even after Brexit. That's because it probably won't be worthwhile for manufacturers to make lower-grade models that can only be sold in Britain. It's all part of what one green group is calling the most ambitious and comprehensive proposal ever put forward to reduce the environmental and climate impact of the things we use and wear. Proposals aim at making environmentally-friendly products the norm. It could mean manufacturers using screws to hold parts in place, rather than glue. The rules will also fight what is known as "premature obsolescence", the syndrome in which manufacturers make goods with deliberately low lifespan to force consumers into buying a newer model. One green group, the European Environment Bureau (EEB), said: "The strategy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we manufacture, use and dispose of our products in a way that benefits people and the planet." It urges Europe's politicians to turn the plans into reality. The idea is to encourage manufacturers to make sure things don't break - because they'll have to pick up the bill for repair or replacement.
3-10-20 Climate change: Carbon-reducing seagrass planted off Welsh coast
A million seagrass seeds are being planted as part of Britain's largest project to save the "wonder plant". Experts say seagrass helps tackle the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide faster than trees. But up to 92% of the plant may have disappeared from the UK's coast over the last century, research has found. Work has now started on lowering the seeds onto the seabed off Pembrokeshire to create a new 20,000 sq m (215,280 sq ft) meadow. Scientists hope it will also help boost fish numbers and support marine wildlife. Seagrass, which is found in shallow waters of coastal regions, has been declining globally at a rate of about 7% a year since 1990. That is a result of long-term development of our coastlines and pollution of the sea, according to project leader Dr Richard Unsworth, of Swansea University. "It is not that we can blame one person, industry or organisation, it's the growth of a population around the coast," he said. "Planting seagrass is an opportunity to reverse that loss and start to kick into action a recovery for our seas around the UK." World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Sky Ocean Rescue and Swansea University say the underwater plant is key to reducing carbon dioxide - a gas which contributes to global warming. They hope the 4.9-acre (2 hectare) project at Dale Bay will also provide a nursery for young fish and a habitat for invertebrates. "It's incredibly productive and just sucks carbon into the sediments, traps particles that are locked there for millennia," said Dr Unsworth. "That means that carbon dioxide is not in the atmosphere." Last summer, 750,000 seeds were gathered from sites around the British coast and stored at the laboratories in Swansea University. The seeds have been transferred into small hessian sandbags and lowered onto the seabed. Another 250,000 seeds will be gathered later this year and added to the meadow in November. "We see seagrass as this wonder plant because of its ability to fight climate change, to help fish stocks, coastal communities and livelihoods," said Alec Taylor of WWF.
3-10-20 Can Finland's Saimaa seals survive climate change?
The winter of 2019/2020 has been the warmest ever recorded in Europe. That's a problem for a species of seal which is facing extinction. The Saimaa ringed seal needs snow and ice to survive because it gives birth to its pups in lairs dug into snow drifts. But temperatures around their Finnish lake have been up to 10°C above the winter average, and there isn't enough snow for their lairs. Now conservationists from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Finland's parks and wildlife service are trying to save the species from the effects of a warming planet.
3-10-20 Climate change: UK 'can't go climate neutral before 2050'
The UK cannot go climate neutral much before 2050 unless people stop flying and eating red meat almost completely, a report says. But it warns that the British public do not look ready to take such steps and substantially change their lifestyle. The report challenges the views of campaign group Extinction Rebellion. It believes the UK target of climate neutrality by 2050 will result in harm to the climate. The claim comes from the government-funded research group Energy Systems Catapult, whose computer models are used by the Committee on Climate Change, which advises government. Its report says: "A number of groups have called for net zero to be accelerated to 2025, 2030 or 2040. "Achieving net zero significantly earlier than 2050 in our modelling exceeds even our most speculative measures, with rates of change for power, heat and road transport that push against the bounds of plausibility." But the authors offer some optimism too. They calculate that the UK can cut emissions fast enough to be climate neutral by 2050 – but only if ministers act much more quickly. They say the government urgently needs to invest in three key technologies: carbon capture and storage with bioenergy crops; hydrogen for a wide variety of uses; and advanced nuclear power. The report modelled options for society to 2050. It concluded that if decisions are made early, the cost of climate neutrality can be held down to 1-2% of national wealth - GDP. Scenarios rely on some technologies still in their infancy, which will be controversial. For instance, it draws heavily on burning energy crops, capturing the carbon emissions and burying them underground. It says hydrogen use will need to grow to supply industry, heat and heavy transport. Electricity generation will need to double with heavy reliance on solar power and offshore wind.
3-10-20 Hundreds of billions of locusts swarm in East Africa
Hundreds of billions of locusts are swarming through parts of East Africa and South Asia in the worst infestation for a quarter of a century, threatening crops and livelihoods. The insects, which eat their own body weight in food every day, are breeding so fast numbers could grow four hundredfold by June. In January, the UN appealed for $76m (£59m) to tackle the crisis. That figure has now risen to $138m. But so far, only $52m has been received, $10m of which has come this week from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The main threats are in East Africa and Yemen, as well the Gulf states, Iran, Pakistan and India. Most recently, locusts have been seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo and swarms have arrived in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and along the coast of Iran. Aerial and ground spraying combined with constant tracking of the swarms are viewed as the most effective strategies. But Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa head Stephen Njoka told BBC News aircraft were in short supply. Currently, Ethiopia was using five and Kenya six for spraying and four for surveying, he said. But the Kenyan government says it needs 20 planes for spraying - and a continuous supply of the pesticide Fenitrothion. Kenya has trained more than 240 personnel from affected counties in monitoring of locust swarms. The Chinese government announced in February it was sending a team of experts to neighbouring Pakistan to develop "targeted programmes" against the locusts. According to reports, they could deploy 100,000 ducks. Lu Lizhi, a senior researcher with the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told Bloomberg the ducks were "biological weapons". And while chickens could eat about 70 locusts in one day, a duck could devour more than three times that number. "Ducks like to stay in a group, so they are easier to manage than chickens," he told Chinese media.
3-10-20 Sea turtles may confuse the smell of ocean plastic with food
The reptiles respond to both scents by sniffing more, a key foraging behavior. To a sea turtle, plastic debris might smell like dinner. As the plastic detritus of modern human life washes into oceans, marine creatures of all kinds interact with and sometimes eat it (SN: 11/13/19). Recent research suggests that this is no accident. Plastic that’s been stewing in the ocean emits a chemical that, to some seabirds and fish, smells a lot like food (SN: 11/9/16). That chemical gas, dimethyl sulfide, is also produced by phytoplankton, a key food source for many marine animals. Now, scientists have determined that loggerhead sea turtles may also confuse the smell of plastic with food, according to a study published March 9 in Current Biology. Over two weeks in January 2019, 15 captive loggerheads in tanks were exposed at the water surface to a slew of scents, including the largely neutral scent of water as a control, of food such as shrimp and of new and ocean-soaked plastic. The turtles (Caretta caretta) largely ignored smells of water and clean plastic. But when the scientists puffed air containing scents of either food or ocean-stewed plastic, the reptiles increased their sniffing above water — a typical foraging behavior. In fact, those responses to food and ocean-soaked plastic were indistinguishable to the researchers, suggesting that the plastic can induce foraging behavior in sea turtles, the team says. That might explain why sea turtles get entangled in or eat plastic, which can be harmful. Along with previous research, this study expands the breadth of marine life that may confuse plastic with food.
3-9-20 Why plastic is a deadly attraction for sea turtles
Scientists have new evidence to explain why plastic is dangerous to sea turtles: the animals mistake the scent of plastic for food. Thus, a plastic bag floating in the sea not only looks like a jellyfish snack, but it gives off a similar odour. This "olfactory trap" might help explain why sea turtles are prone to eating and getting entangled in plastic, say US researchers. Plastic debris is rapidly accumulating in the oceans. The likes of plastics bags, netting and bottles pose a threat to hundreds of marine species, including endangered turtles, birds and whales. Odours given off by floating or submerged plastics were an "olfactory trap" for sea turtles, said Dr Joseph Pfaller of the University of Florida, Gainesville. "Plastics that have spent time in the ocean develop smells that turtles are attracted to and this is an evolutionary adaptation for finding food, but it has now become a problem for turtles because they're attracted to the smells from the plastics," he said. Once plastic has been released into the ocean, microbes, algae, plants and tiny animals start to colonise it and make it their home. This creates food-like odours, which have been shown to be a magnet for fish and possibly sea birds. The new research suggests sea turtles are attracted to plastic for the same reason. Marine predators like sea turtles, whales and sea birds forage over a vast area to find food and it makes sense that they would use chemicals in the air or water to do so, said Dr Pfaller. "It's not just a visual thing - they're being attracted from probably long distances away to these garbage patches out in the open ocean." The danger of items like straws and plastic bags to sea turtles is well known. A video of a plastic straw stuck up a turtle's nose went viral on social media in 2015. Dr Pfaller said all types of plastic were a threat.
3-9-20 How the oil crash could turn into a much bigger economic shock
This could be a huge problem for the entire economy. "Good for the consumer, gasoline prices coming down!" President Trump blared this morning on Twitter. "Coming down" is a pretty wild understatement: Major oil indexes crashed anywhere from one-fifth to one-third as trading opened Monday morning and the economic shocks from the coronavirus set off a full-blown oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Unfortunately for the president, this could also turn into a very concrete lesson in how, given the world's interlinking financial markets and economic webs, a price drop like this can never be written off as simply "good for the consumer." In fact, the economic impact from the coronavirus leading to an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia is exactly the sort of out-of-left-field chain of events that could cause the unexploded bomb of U.S. corporate debt to finally go off. These days, the global oil market is probably best understood as a three-way standoff between Saudi Arabian, Russian, and American producers. The first two are state-run oil industries, in which central planners decide how much oil to produce based on political and geostrategic considerations. American oil producers, by contrast, are a scattered and decentralized bunch of market-based actors, who primarily make their decisions based on profits and shareholder payouts. That means there's no one on the U.S. side that Saudi Arabia and Russia can "talk to" and cooperate with on production plans. The other thing to understand is the colossal amount of debt U.S. producers had to take on to become big global players. The boom in American oil production over the last decade was astounding, but it came along with tons of borrowing to finance the capital-intensive task of shale drilling. U.S. oil and gas producers owe roughly $86 billion, all of which is coming due over the next four years, and plenty of which is due in 2020. A lot of that debt is also very low-quality: American corporations have a significant overleverage problem — companies that already owe a lot of debt taking on even more, making their overall financial position even more precarious — and American oil producers are among the worst offenders. At this point, energy sector debt accounts for 11 percent of America's most popular junk bond trading.
3-7-20 The revival of traditional fire knowledge in Australia
When 22-year-old Christopher "Burra" McHughes asked his grandfather about traditional fire management known as "cultural burning" — setting small fires on purpose — he said he doesn't like to talk about it. "When the elders were kids, they used to get punished," McHughes said. "A lot of them still got the knowledge, but they don't really speak about it." McHughes is referring to his grandfather's time on a church mission — a forced assimilation program by the Australian government and Catholic missionaries who took tens of thousands of Indigenous children away from their families from the mid-1800s to the 1970s and penalized them for practicing their culture — including cultural burning. McHughes' grandfather was no exception. Cultural burning has been lost in much of Australia, due to colonization and violently-enforced assimilation. After the devastation of this year's fire season and climate change threatening humanity's future on the continent, McHughes and others want to bring it back. McHughes identifies as "a proud Aboriginal man," part of the Murrawarri and Ngemba tribes. He is the captain of a new Indigenous Mitigation Crew, an all-Aboriginal team of firefighters that was formed this season and is based in Brewarrina, his hometown in New South Wales, a state in southeast Australia. McHughes has been a volunteer firefighter since he was 16. He said this year was the worst season he's ever seen. His crew was part of the team fighting the infamous mega-fires in New South Wales. The blazes contributed to the deaths of dozens of people and more than 1 billion animals — turning flourishing ecosystems to ash. As part of their training, McHughes' crew members are learning about cultural burning to burn away dry plants and leaves that can fuel big runaway fires in the dry season. McHughes, through conversations with elders, knows the best time of year to burn and where in a patch of forest to start the fires. "We always start in the middle and work our way out," McHughes said. "That way, the animals smell the smoke, they can hear the fire cracking, and they'll run away from the fire."
3-6-20 Edinburgh University researchers use drones to map retreating Andes glaciers
An Edinburgh university researcher has used drones to capture a bird's-eye view of some of the highest glaciers in South America. Rosie Bisset is part of a project to map the Andes glaciers which are retreating in the face of global heating, despite their high altitude. Experts say these glaciers are a vital resource which are under threat. The glaciers in Peru have shrunk by about 30% in the last couple of decades. Peter Nienow, professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, said it could have a devastating effect on local people. "In the Andes in Peru, which have about 70% of the world's glacier area in the tropics, those glacial areas are retreating," he said. "As they retreat that impacts downstream communities because they rely on the water resources for agriculture, for industry, for hydroelectric power." Doctoral student Rosie Bisset knew this before she trekked high into the Andes with her drones. She wanted to know more about both the extent of the retreat and exactly how glaciers melt. The altitude of 4,600m (15,000 ft) presented a major obstacle. "At that altitude the air is really thin, making it difficult to operate many drones," she said. "So we collaborated with a local company called Skytech Aerial to help us build a drone that would cope with the high altitude but also have the sensors we needed." Skytech Aerial's owner David Redpath customised two commercially available drones and taught Rosie to fly them in a matter of weeks. He says propellers need to spin faster in thinner air to create lift, running down the battery faster. On the plus side cold air is denser, making it easier to create lift. "We were able to merge ideas and customise one of the drones," David says. "What Rosie specifically was looking for was a drone with a thermal camera underneath that would be able to do the thermal imaging of the glacier."
3-6-20 Leaked report says UK net zero climate goal may increase air pollution
A widespread switch to burning hydrogen to heat UK homes has been suggested to meet the country’s new climate targets – but a leaked report has warned the government that such a move risks inadvertently releasing harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution in densely populated towns and cities. An unpublished report by air quality experts for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) lays out the pros and cons for air pollution stemming from the UK’s new legal target of cutting carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. The document obtained by New Scientist lists the unintended ways new carbon-cutting policies could make the air dirtier. Hydrogen, which is backed by industry and government advisers as a key fuel to decarbonise heating, could lead to NOx emissions if burned in boilers in homes and businesses, it says. “The use of hydrogen as a significant energy source for domestic and commercial space heating would potentially lead to NOx emissions being concentrated in higher density population areas,” the report says. The construction of large, clean energy projects wouldn’t harm air quality nationally but could temporarily increase air pollution at a local level. The report cites nuclear plants as a concern due to long build times. For example, the number of trucks near Hinkley Point C, a nuclear power station being built in Somerset that isn’t expected to be online until 2025, is up 20 per cent since work started in 2016. The report says the continued shift to electric cars will bring “unambiguous benefits” by eliminating the release of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is mostly pumped out by diesel cars. But it cautions that particulate matter, which can lead to serious illness or death, will remain unless there is a switch away from cars to more walking and cycling. This is because a lot of particulates come not from exhausts on modern cars but from dust released by tyres, brakes and road surfaces. “These could plausibly increase if overall vehicle-miles driven were to increase,” the air quality experts say.
3-5-20 Europe experiences exceptionally warm winter
The 2019/2020 winter has been the warmest on record for Europe, with average temperatures 1.4C above the previous high of 2015/2016. Winter is defined as the months of December, January, and February. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) says the warmth was very evident in the north and east of the continent where a number of local temperature records were being broken. Last month was also the second hottest February on record globally. It was cooler by only 0.1C compared with the previous high of 2016. The C3S reports the numbers in its latest climate bulletins. It said the mild conditions this winter led to a number of impacts across Europe, including "difficulties for reindeer herding in northern Sweden, failure of the ice-wine harvest in Germany, and having to import snow for sporting events in Sweden and Russia". The December-February average was 3.4C above the 1981-2010 norm. This made 2019/20 by far the warmest European winter in the data records from 1979 on which the service's climate bulletins are based.
3-5-20 Australia’s wildfires have now been linked to climate change
Climate-influenced temperatures raised the wildfire risk by 30 percent. Human-caused climate change made southeastern Australia’s devastating wildfires during 2019–2020 at least 30 percent more likely to occur, researchers report in a new study published online March 4. A prolonged heat wave that baked the country in 2019-2020 was the primary factor raising the fire risk, said climate scientist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute in De Bilt. The study also linked the extremity of that heat wave to climate change, van Oldenborgh said March 3 during a news conference to explain the findings. Such an intense heat wave in the region is about 10 times more likely now than it was in 1900, the study found. Van Oldenborgh also noted that climate simulations tend to underestimate the severity of such heat waves, suggesting that climate change may be responsible for even more of the region’s high fire risk. “We put the lower boundary at 30 percent, but it could well be much, much more,” he said. This week, the southeastern Australia region was declared free of wildfires for the first time in over 240 days, according to a statement March 2 by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service on Twitter. The fires have burned through an estimated 11 million hectares, killing at least 34 people and destroying about 6,000 buildings since early July. About 1.5 billion animals also died in the blazes. Researchers are still tallying the damage and assessing the potential for recovery for many native plant and animal species (SN: 2/11/20). The climate attribution study was conducted by the World Weather Attribution group, an international consortium of researchers who investigate how much of a role climate change might be playing in natural disasters. Given the quick turnaround time, the study has not yet been peer reviewed. “We wanted to bring the scientific evidence [forward] at a time when the public is talking about the event,” said climate modeler Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford. Then the group examined how climate change altered the Fire Weather Index, an estimation of the risk of wildfires.
3-5-20 Climate change: Workers and poor 'need protection' from policies
Climate change harms people, but policies to stabilise the climate can harm people too. The poorest are most likely to suffer from lost jobs in dirty industries and higher energy bills. Scotland has already abandoned coal and wants to wean itself off oil and gas. It is taking advice from a new Just Transition Commission, which is being watched closely by governments round the world. I toured the country hearing stories from people affected. Rab McKenzie is a retired energy worker who lives near Kincardine in what used to be the Scottish coal belt. His father helped him into the local mine when he left school. He then switched from one pit to another, before ending up at Longannet power station, where he hoped to work until retirement. Some hope. Longannet closed when Rab was 56. “At my age I was struggling to get a job,” he told me. People didn't want you. You were on the scrapheap. It was not great - I’ve not had a job since.” There’s little employment now for the children growing up in Kincardine. And the village itself – like Rab - is growing old. Politicians round the world need to ensure Rab’s experience isn’t replicated thousands of times over as nations shift away from coal, oil and gas. Tom Connell is an accidental poster boy for the principles of the just transition. He joined Cockenzie power station near Edinburgh when he was 16, but it was soon shut down and he was laid off. “It was a shock,” he told me. “A terrible shock.” He shifted to an apparently secure controller job at Longannet, but faced the dole again when that plant closed. Tom was offered another job in energy - but at Whitelee wind farm near Glasgow, one-and-a-half hours from home. His pay would be cut by £2,000 a year. He took it. Now Tom’s new office window surveys an array of slender turbines on tussocky moorland. It’s a relief, he says.
3-4-20 Our fight against climate change could help us rein in coronavirus too
The world's response to the growing covid-19 outbreak has surprising parallels with efforts to limit global warming, including transferable lessons WE ARE facing a global emergency, and politicians who appear to not believe in science are putting us all at risk. That this statement applies equally to coronavirus and climate change says something about the era in which we live. Our response to the ever-widening outbreak has surprising parallels with our efforts to tackle global warming, though at accelerated speed. There are some transferable lessons. First, we must listen to scientists. There have been reports of public health officials in the US being told not to speak to the media without first clearing it with the White House. This is a mistake. As with climate change, open discussion of the risks and uncertainties is the only way forward. Likewise, science alone can’t guide our response. In the coming weeks, politicians will face difficult decisions over whether to restrict people’s movements, perhaps even locking down cities as happened in Wuhan, China, where the covid-19 outbreak began. They will need to weigh the social and financial fallout against the public health risk. Many people can’t afford to self-isolate without pay for two weeks, so should governments pay them to stay at home? A virologist can’t answer that. As climate change rises up the agenda, people increasingly look for advice on how they can help mitigate the crisis, whether it be flying less, recycling or reducing meat intake. The role of individual action in this fight is still being debated, but with the coronavirus, it is clear that handwashing will help protect your own health, and that of others. In fact, as the virus spreads, we may need to take more drastic action, such as preparing food supplies to allow us to self-isolate. Younger, healthier people in particular should see this as a civic duty. Although they may only develop mild symptoms if they become infected, they risk passing the virus to people who are much less likely to be so lucky. This isn’t a call to panic buy or begin prepping a bunker. As with climate change, we must calibrate our caution, neither denying the issue nor giving up in despair. The virus can be beaten – but at what cost will depend on our response.
3-4-20 Net zero emissions target in peril as tropical forests absorb less CO2
Scientists have warned that the world will have to reduce carbon emissions to net zero before 2050, after they discovered that tropical forests are losing their ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Climate change models predict that forests in Africa and the Amazon will act as a sink for carbon emissions well into the second half of this century, but now Simon Lewis at the University of Leeds, UK, and his colleagues have found that the Amazon could flip into a net emitter of carbon in as little as 15 years. “It’s grim, so grim. It’s the most worrying paper I’ve written,” says Lewis. The researchers looked at ground surveys of 300,000 trees over 30 years in the two regions and found that CO2 absorption in the Amazon has already shrunk significantly, with Africa set to follow. Intact forests across these areas removed just 6 per cent of humanity’s CO2 emissions in the 2010s, or around 25 billion tonnes of CO2. In the 1990s, when the carbon sink was at its peak, they removed around 17 per cent. This change was due to forests shrinking, the remaining trees growing less and so absorbing less CO2, and huge growth in human emissions. Using these observations to model the future, the researchers found the Amazon could become a net source of carbon emissions by 2035. The tipping point for Africa was far enough in the future that the researchers didn’t project a date, but by 2030, its sink is expected to be 14 per cent lower than in 2010 to 2015. Globally, the proportion of humanity’s CO2 emissions removed by forests is actually increasing, because higher CO2 concentrations and temperatures have led to more tree growth in temperate regions. For now, this offsets losses in the tropics. In recent years, there have been growing calls to cut global emissions to net zero by 2050 to avoid temperature rises of more than 1.5°C. But this deadline is based on climate models that assume tropical forests will remain a carbon sink in the second half of this century. As that no longer seems likely, Lewis says we will “need faster and greater cuts to get to net zero” sooner than 2050.
3-4-20 Going car-free was painful – but you should do it too
No planet B | My car is draining my finances and harming the planet, so I am finally giving it up. Though it will be difficult to adjust, you should consider doing it as well, writes Graham Lawton. LAST weekend, I said goodbye to another dear old friend. We had 12 fine years together but our relationship was becoming dysfunctional. Unwanted emissions and serious health issues were the final straw, leaving me with no choice but to make a trip to the knacker’s yard. I am now car-free for the first time in 20 years, and it feels strange. When I gave up meat, I did so mainly for environmental reasons, and I didn’t miss it at all. I would like to say the same about my car, but I can’t. It was first and foremost a financial decision: keeping the old banger on the road was getting too expensive. But doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is still doing the right thing. I now have a chance to rethink how I move myself and my family around, and can try to find a more environmentally benign means of transport. However, this has turned out to be less straightforward than I had originally imagined. Going car-free is, I suspect, a lifestyle change that many of us are going to make over the next few years, as car ownership becomes increasingly unnecessary, expensive and socially unacceptable. Earlier this month, the UK government announced that the scheduled 2040 ban on new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars will be brought forward to 2035 or earlier, lest its net-zero target disappears in a puff of exhaust smoke – not to mention the issue of air pollution. I was also chafing at increasingly restrictive parking and congestion charges, low-emission zones, maintenance costs, insurance premiums and vehicle taxes. All of these gradually disincentivised me from owning a car, and I suspect the same is true for others too.
3-4-20 Major science journal retracts study blaming climate change on the sun
A prominent scientific journal has retracted a study claiming that climate change was due to solar cycles rather than human activity. Last year, Scientific Reports came under fire for publishing a paper that researchers said made elementary mistakes about how Earth moves around the sun. Today the journal, published by Nature Research, which also has Nature in its stable of titles, formally retracted the paper by a team at UK universities and an institution in Azerbaijan. The withdrawn study had argued that the average global 1°C temperature rise since the pre-industrial period was due not to humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions but to the distance between Earth and the sun changing over time as the sun orbits the barycentre, the solar system’s centre of mass. In a statement today, Scientific Reports said that was inaccurate. The journal said that calculations show: “The Earth-sun distance varies over a timescale of a few centuries by substantially less than the amount reported in this article. As a result, the editors no longer have confidence in the conclusions presented.” Ken Rice at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who wasn’t involved in the study, says he thinks papers should only be retracted in extreme circumstances, but it was warranted in this case due to fundamental errors. “Solar system orbital dynamics is extremely well understood, and it wouldn’t have taken much for the authors to have checked if their claims about the significance of the motion of the sun around the solar system barycentre were indeed correct,” he says. “This is sensible and a welcome move from the journal,” says Gavin Schmidt at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Valentina Zharkova at the University of Northumbria, one of the paper’s authors, says the retraction was unfair and the corrections made to the paper were minor.
3-4-20 Greener petrol at UK pumps to target emissions
A more eco-friendly petrol could be introduced to garages in the UK from next year. The government is consulting on making E10 - which contains less carbon and more ethanol than fuels currently on sale - the new standard petrol grade. The move could cut CO2 emissions from transport by 750,000 tonnes per year, the Department for Transport said. However, the lower carbon fuel would not be compatible with some older vehicles. Current petrol grades in the UK - known as E5 - contain up to 5% bioethanol. E10 would see this percentage increased up to 10% - a proportion that would bring the UK in line with countries such as Belgium, Finland, France and Germany. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to chair his first cabinet committee on climate change on Wednesday. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the change in petrol could be equivalent to taking up to 350,000 cars off the road each year. "The next 15 years will be absolutely crucial for slashing emissions from our roads, as we all start to feel the benefits of the transition to a zero-emission future," he said. "But before electric cars become the norm, we want to take advantage of reduced CO2 emissions today. This small switch to petrol containing bioethanol at 10% will help drivers across country reduce the environmental impact of every journey." The announcement of the consultation comes after the government announced that a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars would be brought forward from 2040 to 2035 - although Mr Shapps said it could happen as soon as 2032. The UK, which will host the United Nations climate change conference in November, aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Labour maintains the government is not on track to reach such a target. Meanwhile, the chancellor is expected to scrap a subsidy on diesel used by the farming and construction sector in an effort to encourage a switch to greener alternative fuel vehicles and help the UK meet its climate change targets. Rishi Sunak is set to announce in next week's budget that red diesel - so-called because it is marked with a dye - will no longer attract a lower fuel duty. It currently accounts for about 15% of total diesel sales in the UK and costs the Treasury about £2.4bn a year in revenue.
3-3-20 Climate concerns grow amid wettest February on record
Last month was the wettest February in the UK since records began in 1862, according to the Met Office. The UK received an average of 209.1mm of rainfall, 237% above the average for the month between 1981 and 2010. Elsewhere, a survey suggested that almost a quarter of people felt that climate change was the "most pressing issue facing the UK". The representative sample of 1,401 people also suggested that "climate concern" had doubled since 2016. During February, storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge all delivered a vast volume of rainfall over parts of the UK. Storm Dennis also delivered the second highest UK average daily total in a dataset that dates back to 1891. Ciara and Jorge also dropped enough rain to feature in the top 0.5% of days for UK average rainfall. "Having three such widespread extreme rainfall events in the same calendar month is exceptionally rare," said Dr Mark McCarthy, head of the National Climate information Centre. "Met Office ground-breaking research has contributed to a growing body of evidence that [suggests] extreme rainfall is a significant risk factor for the UK, and that climate change has increased the likelihood of extreme rainfall events." A study by Cardiff University's Understanding Risk Group, based on 1,401 nationally representative respondents, suggested that the issue and impacts of climate change was of growing concern among members of the public. Twenty-three percent of those questioned said climate change was the most pressing issue facing the UK in the next two decades, second only to Brexit (25%). Concern about climate change had also soared, with 40% - twice as many as in 2016 - of the respondents saying they were "very or extremely worried" about the issue. It also found in its sample group that climate scepticism was low, with 64% of respondents feeling that Britain was already feeling the effects of change, compared with 41% in the 2010 survey.
3-3-20 Twice as many UK citizens worried about climate change as 3 years ago
The number of people in the UK worried about climate change has doubled in just three years, in the latest sign that extreme weather events, declarations of climate emergencies and street protests are changing public attitudes. The research by Cardiff University and Climate Outreach also found that 23 per cent cited climate change as the top issue facing the UK over the next two decades, up from 2 per cent in 2016. Overall, climate change has climbed above other issues such as the economy to become the UK’s second most important future issue, second only to Brexit. “With everything going on, you would think it would go up the priority list. But to be second after Brexit, is quite remarkable,” says Katharine Steentjes at Cardiff University, referring to last year’s political action, Extinction Rebellion protests and schoolchildren striking. She and her colleagues conducted the survey, which found that the number of people who said they were very worried or extremely worried about climate was at 40 per cent, up from 19 per cent in 2016. The poll of 1401 people was conducted last October, when headlines were dominated by a parliamentary stalemate on Brexit, and it echoes other research. YouGov’s tracker of the three most important issues facing the UK today has an all-time high of 30 per cent of respondents listing environment, making it the third biggest issue after Brexit and health. The new research shows that while floods are still the top impact of climate change people in the UK are concerned about, hotter weather is an increasing worry. Nearly three-quarters thought heatwaves were a fairly or very serious problem, up from just over a fifth in 2013. The UK saw its hottest temperature ever last summer and was hit by a months-long heatwave in 2018 that was found to have been five times more likely because of climate change. Adam Corner at Climate Outreach says heatwaves are significant, because floods hit hard but are often very localised, while heatwaves affect large numbers, meaning many people have a shared experience. Scepticism over climate change was found to be very low, with only 6 per cent of respondents saying they didn’t believe the world’s climate is changing.
3-3-20 Bushfires: Australian satellite would be 'tuned' to eucalypt vegetation
Australian scientists are developing a satellite that can better identify where bushfires might start. The small spacecraft would carry infrared detectors specifically tuned to the country's dominant vegetation - in particular to its widespread eucalypt trees and shrubs. The satellite's data will be used to help assess the "fuel load" and moisture content of forests. Authorities could then take the necessary action to mitigate any risks. The 2019/2020 fire season was a record-breaker. Hot, dry weather and an abundant forest floor "litter layer" made for perfect ignition conditions. Flames ripped through more than 20% of the nation's temperate woodlands. Australian researchers already use satellites to investigate fire potential. The camera on Europe's Sentinel-2 spacecraft, for example, has shortwave infrared channels that are very good at checking on the state of vegetation. But a group led from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra believes a bespoke mission could provide more accurate and more relevant information. At the core of the team's system would be new sensors that were originally developed for astronomy. These high-speed detectors could delineate reflected light into the very fine bands that are most characteristic of the properties of eucalypt species. "We're trying to detect small changes in the spectral signatures of the trees," explained Dr Marta Yebra, an InSpace Mission Specialist from the Fenner School of Environment and Society. "So we might look for structural changes such as changes in the number of leaves in the canopy; changes in the lignin content; changes in the water content. All this is related to the conditions that affect the amount of fuel available to fires." Prof Rob Sharp is an instrument scientist at the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. He said the infrared detectors came out of R&D work for an upcoming super-telescope known as the Giant Magellan Telescope.
3-2-20 Onshore wind 'to make comeback in UK'
The cheapest form of new power in the UK - onshore wind - is set to make a comeback, according to a government decision today. Ministers previously blocked projects after complaints from local campaigners that they were a blot on the landscape. The government responded by denying onshore wind the chance to bid for a price guarantee for the electricity they produce. They also gave local protestors a definitive say in the planning process. This meant it was virtually impossible for wind farms to gain permission. Environmentalists said the decision was irrational, and today the government has opened the way for onshore wind farm developers to bid for price support. In the long term, it should lead to cheaper electricity for consumers. Solar farms will be able to bid for price guarantees too. But the government still wants local people to have a strong say in the decision where they are built. That means relatively few are expected in congested England. In Scotland, though, Scottish Power is delighted. It has 1,000MW in the pipeline for wind and solar. The small pressure group known as Possible has been pushing for a resurgence of onshore wind. It says: "After years of campaigning we can finally celebrate the UK's cheapest new energy source being brought in from the cold." Onshore wind fell out of favour after Conservative activists complained about the visual impact and hum of wind farms in the countryside. In sections of the media, the word "hated" became attached to the term wind farm - and most MPs believed they were deeply unpopular with the public. In fact, the government's own surveys show over-whelming public support for onshore wind - albeit not always in the areas where it's been built. Scottish Power said in future they would build solar, wind farms and batteries on the same site to maximise the output and minimise the disturbance.
3-2-20 Climate change: Australian summers 'twice as long as winters'
Australia's summers have become twice as long as its winters amid increasing temperatures driven by climate change, according to new weather data analysis. The Australia Institute found that summer across most of the country over the past 20 years was about a month longer than in the mid-20th century, while winters had become shorter. Between 2014 and 2018, summers were found to be about 50% longer. The findings followed Australia's warmest and driest year on record. "Our findings are not a projection of what we may see in the future. Its happening right now," the Australia Institute's Richie Merzian said. The country experienced a devastating bushfire season, which killed 33 people and an estimated one billion native animals. While scientists said climate change was not the direct cause of the bushfires, they have long warned that a hotter, drier climate would contribute to Australia's fires becoming more frequent and more intense. In its analysis, the Australia Institute think tank compared official Bureau of Meteorology data from 1999 to 2018 with mid-20th century benchmarks. It found that summer temperatures had lasted 31 days longer than in the 1950s and 1960s, while winter was about 23 days shorter. It noted that some areas, such as the town of Port Macquarie in New South Wales, were experiencing even more drastic changes to the length of seasons, with seven more weeks of traditional summer temperatures than in the 1950s and 1960s. "Summers have grown longer even in recent years, with the last five years facing summers twice as long as their winters," Mr Merzian said. "Temperatures which were considered a regular three-month summer in the 1950s, now span from early to mid-November all the way to mid-March." Mr Merzian said global warming had made Australian summers "a more dangerous ordeal" than they used to be.
3-2-20 Five reasons why Canada's 'shutdown' is a big deal
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure from all sides. At the forefront is a conflict first sparked over indigenous opposition to a natural gas pipeline project, that has now evolved to include broader complex issues like indigenous governance and indigenous rights. It has led to rail blockades and protests that have crippled rail lines and disrupted the flow of the country's economy. Those events have underscored a pressure point for Mr Trudeau - he has struggled to deliver on his promise to chart a path for Canada that balances oil and gas development, environmental stewardship and indigenous reconciliation. Here are five reasons why the current unrest is a big deal.
- It's bad news for Justin Trudeau: The conflict has forced work to be paused on a major natural gas pipeline, the Coastal GasLink project, that Mr Trudeau's Liberal government supports.
- Businesses are hit by crippled rail troubles - and farms are getting cold: Rail blockades have meant that parts of the cross-country rail system have ground to a halt over the past weeks as the current conflict drags on.
- Companies are spooked by the uncertainty: The University of Calgary's Harrie Vredenburg, an expert on the global energy industry, says Canada has traditionally been a low risk political environment for investment. This helped it become the world's fourth largest oil and gas exporter.
- It adds to the sense of 'western alienation': The economic recovery in the province of Alberta, after an overabundance of supply caused the worldwide price of oil to plummet a few years ago, has been slow.
- It highlights the challenges facing indigenous reconciliation and rights: Mr Trudeau came to power promising to transform the country's relationship with indigenous people.
3-1-20 How changes to the climate will impact the spread of infectious diseases
The research is still in its early phase, but previous studies suggest that extreme weather has already played a role in at least one outbreak. Most of the new diseases we humans have faced in the past several decades have come from animals. HIV. Avian flu. Ebola. SARS. And now the new coronavirus, which scientists say likely came from an animal, possibly a bat, at a market where live animals are butchered in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The more we come into contact with wild animals, the more we risk a so-called disease "spillover" from animals to humans. That's true in markets like the one in Wuhan, but also out in the wild, where deforestation and land use changes have been linked to outbreaks of new emerging diseases. "As people move and wildlife move in response to a changing environment, humans and wildlife and animals will come in contact more regularly," said Jeanne Fair from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Fair argues that by shifting animal habitats, climate change will also make the opportunities for disease spillover more frequent. "Everything is sort of shifting and will shift into the future as the environment changes through climate change," Fair said. Scientists, including climatologists and epidemiologists on Fair's team at Los Alamos, are beginning to model how changes to the climate will impact the spread of infectious diseases. It's the early days for this kind of research, but previous studies suggest that extreme weather has already played a role in at least one outbreak. Scientists say drought and deforestation combined to force bats out of rainforests and into orchards in Malaysia to find food. Those bats, a common disease reservoir, then passed the Nipah virus through pigs to humans for the first time in the late 1990s. "We're going by the past data to really predict what's going to happen in the future," Fair said. "And so, anytime you increase that wildlife-human interface, that's sort of an emerging disease hot spot. And so, that's just increasing as we go forward."
3-1-20 Plastic pollution: Snowdon research is a 'wake-up call'
The discovery of microplastic pollution near the top of the highest mountain in Wales is a "scary wake-up call", environmentalists have said. Traces of plastic have been found in samples collected from Llyn Glaslyn - a remote lake near the summit of Snowdon. The tiny particles are "most likely" to have been deposited by rain, wetland science expert Dr Christian Dunn said. A teacher who gathered the samples will now visit all the UK's 15 national parks to learn more. Activist Laura Sanderson swam 16 miles (26km) from the source of River Glaslyn - 2,000ft (610m) above sea level - to the sea, last April, collecting water samples along the way. Results showed an average of three pieces of microplastic per litre from the lake made famous by Arthurian legend. The levels rose to eight per litre at the river's estuary at Porthmadog, Gwynedd. However the full extent of the pollution is expected to be far worse. The analysis, carried out at the School of Natural Sciences at Bangor University, was deliberately basic with scientists keen to find an easy-to-use method that is affordable for schools and colleges. "The results are scary when you think that this is at the top of a mountain and a very remote location," said Dr Dunn, from Bangor University. "However a more detailed analysis would almost certainly find more plastic. "I should be surprised because it is so horrific, but sadly I'm not." Scientists believe the microplastics - anything less than 5mm in size - and nano-plastics that are only visible under a microscope, are present in the air and rainfall. Dr Dunn said this was the most likely cause of microplastic pollution on Snowdon, although particles released from litter breaking down could also be a factor. "We don't know the full situation but this work will help address that," he said. "However we have to wake up to the problem of how much plastic we use on a day-to-day basis. "It's a valuable resource, especially for health care, but there are so many situations where plastic is completely unnecessary."
3-1-20 Climate change: Warm winter ruins German ice wine harvest
Germany's harvest of ice wine - a dessert wine produced from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine - has failed for the first time because the winter has been too warm. None of Germany's 13 wine-growing regions had the necessary temperatures of -7C to produce the wine in 2019. 2019 was the second-warmest year on record globally, according to the US National Oceans and Air Administration. The amount of ice wine produced has been dropping in recent years. "The 2019 vintage will go down in history here in Germany as the first year in which the ice harvest has failed nationwide," the German Wine Institute (DWI) said in a statement. "If the warm winters continue in the next few years, ice wines from German wine regions will soon become even more of a rarity than they already are," said Ernst Büscher from the DWI. Another problem for ice wine production is that, in recent years, the dates for a possible ice harvest have shifted later - to January and February - while the grapes are ripening earlier, the DWI said. As a result, the grapes need to survive for longer. The biggest ice wine markets include Japan and China as well as the Scandinavian countries and the US. Due to their inherently low yields, ice wines have a very small share of the total harvest, often less than 0.1%.