The climate challenges that my morning toast poses

Britain's wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms - but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Britain’s wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms – but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

It may seem that nothing could be simpler than toast, but next time I see a slice pop up I’ll also see an emblem of the world’s future. That’s thanks to a UK study exploring the problems surrounding growing enough wheat for flour and other foods as the world warms and has ever more people in it. The issue is especially tangled, Mirjam Röder and her University of Manchester teammates show, as adapting farming for the future will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, driving further warming. “Climate change and food security are two issues which can’t be decoupled,” Mirjam told me. “The same applies for mitigation and adaptation.”

Mirjam is part of the “Climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UK food system” project, led by Alice Bows-Larkin and backed by Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. One concern the project reflects is that without adaptation farming will probably be the industry worst hit by climate change, with worldwide productivity falling as temperatures rise. Meanwhile, farming also releases about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases we humans emit overall. “These are largely emissions other than CO2, such as nitrous oxide and methane, mainly occurring from natural processes,” Mirjam said. “They are much harder to reduce and control. Then of course global society is challenged by increasing global food demand. So we face a triad of challenges in the food system: we need to reduce emissions, while food demand is increasing and the sector is impacted by climate change.”

Alice and Mirjam’s team looked at wheat because it makes up almost a third of all cereals grown in the world. “Global wheat demand is projected to increase by about 30% by 2050,” Mirjam. “If we don’t find methods to reduce them, total emissions from producing more wheat will rise.” As well as gases released directly by bacteria and other soil microorganisms, emissions from wheat farming arise from the energy needed to produce nitrogen fertiliser. Whether growing more wheat or dealing with rising temperatures, farmers will need more fertiliser, driving more emissions and therefore further warming. Read the rest of this entry »

Does lower home energy use mean England and Wales are keen to be green?

Change in average England and Wales household energy consumption in local areas 2005-11. Darker areas are where household energy consumption has fallen most.

Change in average England and Wales household energy consumption in local areas 2005-11. Darker areas are where household energy consumption has fallen most.

Thanks to William Blake, an important part of England’s national identity revolves around the idea of the country being ‘a green and pleasant land’. And now, data released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) last month hints green outlooks could be helping people in Wales and England cut greenhouse gas emissions. The ONS found that average household energy consumption in the two countries fell by a quarter between 2005 and 2011. And while the possible reasons it suggests for this include people acting to cut their energy bills, it also stresses they could be doing it out of environmental awareness. In full, the ONS puts forward the following five factors as explanations:

• Household improvements such as better loft and cavity wall insulation have improved energy efficiency

• Introduction of energy rating scales for properties and household appliances, allowing consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases

• Improved efficiency of gas boilers and condensing boilers to supply properties with both hot water and central heating

• Generally increasing public awareness of energy consumption and environmental issues

• The price of gas and electricity in the UK overall increased in all years apart from 2010, between 2005 and 2011

As I live in England, the world ‘household’ brought to mind other changes the news often tells me are going on that might also play a role. They are: The number of households in the UK is increasing, and the number of people in each household is decreasing. It could be that the lower energy consumption per household is just because there are fewer people per household to consume the energy. But households are shrinking much more slowly than energy consumption, with average size reducing by just 4% from 2.4 to 2.3 between 2001 and 2011. Or there could be many more households consuming, which would result in an overall increase in emissions. But in 2011 there were 26.3 million households in the UK, a 7% increase since 2001.

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Speeding poor countries’ progress could halve farming emission growth

Improving agricultural productivity - particularly without increasing fertiliser use - could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

Improving agricultural productivity – particularly without increasing fertiliser use – could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Credit: IIASA

If the world’s poorer countries progress faster towards farming like richer ones the improved food availability could help fight climate change. That’s according to Austrian and Australian scientists who say that they have looked at climate change’s links to both animal and crop farming in the most depth yet.

Hugo Valin from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, and his colleagues studied cutting the gaps between farming output in rich and poor countries. They say halving this ‘yield gap’ for crops, and reducing it by a quarter for animals, could halve the increase in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions from farming between 2000 and 2050. But they have also found that improved farming methods could raise how much food people eat, meaning that emission reductions aren’t as much as they would be otherwise.

“The widespread idea is that intensifying crop farming is beneficial to the environment because it spares land,” Hugo told me. “We show that it is more complex than this. Intensification also stimulates consumption because it allows farmers to supply more food at affordable prices.”

Farming produces about a third of all ‘man-made’ greenhouse gas emissions, though a lot of them are actually from farm animals’ belches and farts and manure. The rest come from chemical reactions of fertiliser used on crops in soil, and also gases released from soil, plants and trees when forests are converted into farmland. Four-fifths of these emissions happen in developing countries. The world’s population is set to grow from around 7 billion people today to between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050. We need more food for those extra people, which will add to the greenhouse gases farming puts into the air each year. Read the rest of this entry »

Rich versus poor obstructs climate progress

One of the more bizarre scenes at Rio+20 was reigning 2011 Miss Universe Leila Lopes and Executive Board Member of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Dr. Dennis Garrity meeting to call for a goal to halt land degradation and to scale up successful community projects to combat desertification. Credit: UNCCD

One of the more bizarre scenes at Rio+20 was reigning 2011 Miss Universe Leila Lopes and Executive Board Member of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Dr. Dennis Garrity meeting to call for a goal to halt land degradation and to scale up successful community projects to combat desertification. Credit: UNCCD

Every morning the news is full of fighting – between individuals and groups, within and between countries. When people seem to disagree over nearly everything, it’s strange to expect our leaders to come together for the good of us all, and the whole planet. But that’s exactly what they tried to do last month in Brazil at the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development that I recently covered hopefully here on Simple Climate. Will this meeting be remembered as fondly in 20 years’ time as the original “Earth Summit” meeting in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago that its name refers to? If most reactions to the new agreement reached by political leaders are anything to go by, then no. While rich and poor countries’ competing priorities are largely responsible for the apparently weak wording, some hope of removing key stumbling blocks did emerge from the 45,000-person meeting.

On 22 June, world leaders signed a 49-page document called The Future We Want. As well as renewing the original Earth Summit deal, it charts a road to bringing through sustainable development goals when the UN Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. It encourages a greener world economy, reducing consumption and improving energy systems. It calls for an international system to conserve high seas biodiversity, action to stop land being degraded and becoming desert, and support for small island developing countries. But the deal’s language lacks power, typically using “should” rather than “must”. And overall there was little about protecting the environment, and much about supporting fair economic growth – a fact that has been strongly attacked by some.

If these goals weren’t already seen as weak in the developed world, that outlook was clinched by how they were formed. The document had been agreed by civil servants even before world leaders began arriving in Rio, meaning that they instead spent their time announcing national initiatives. But the funding for these seems tiny, when the amount needed to meet the goals is estimated to be thousands of billions of dollars. The Sustainable Energy For All initiative – one of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s highlights of the meeting – saw Brazil commit $4.3 billion to promote universal energy access for its citizens. The US promised $2 billion in grants and loans to support public-private energy partnerships, while businesses and investors committed more than $50 billion to the same scheme. Japan pledged $3 billion in international aid for the green economy – even though the final treaty is vague on what the green economy actually is.

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Economy-CO2 link reveals GDP weakness

The key US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site where CO2 concentrations in the air are monitored, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Unlike CO2 emissions, these CO2 concentrations can be readily measured directly, so Edward Ionides, José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero used them to study their link with global GDP. Credit NOAA

The key US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site where CO2 concentrations in the air are monitored, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Unlike CO2 emissions, these CO2 concentrations can be readily measured directly, so Edward Ionides, José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero used them to study their link with global GDP. Credit NOAA

Researchers have confirmed a relationship that is making climate change tough to fight: economic growth and atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been tightly linked for the past 50 years. That’s what the University of Michigan‘s Edward Ionides and co-workers found by looking at levels of the greenhouse gas and gross domestic product (GDP), an important measure of countries’ financial performance, at a worldwide level. “GDP growth is like a proxy for CO2 concentration growth,” Edward told Simple Climate. “Under business-as-usual conditions, these two quantities are measuring essentially the same thing. This highlights a problem with using GDP as a measure of progress.”

Until now, much research on the link between CO2 and economic growth has looked at figures for each country. Some think using each country’s CO2 emissions separately “should be more informative”, Edward said. But there are problems with recording emissions accurately, plus goods or services used in one country often result in CO2 emissions in another. So, with Michigan colleague José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero from the University of Valladolid, Spain, Ionides went to the worldwide level for “a new and simpler perspective”.

As well as the total of all countries’ GDP, they used precisely measured atmospheric CO2 levels, rather than the more uncertain emission figures. “In addition, concentration of CO2, rather than the level of emissions, is the variable directly determining the global climate,” Óscar said. “Change in the atmospheric concentration is the result of emissions – mainly from burning fossil fuels, since natural emissions from volcanoes are estimated as a tiny fraction of man-made emissions – minus removals by natural sinks.”

Atmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. The graph is often known as the Keeling curve. Credit: University of Michigan

Atmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. The graph is often known as the Keeling curve. Credit: University of Michigan

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Warming world could send corn price popping

The USA's number one crop - corn - could see its prime growing region shift to the Canadian border or its price volatility increase sharply within 30 years, with Noah Diffenbaugh, Tom Hertel and their colleagues pointing to climate change as the cause. Credit: Doug Wilson, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

The USA's number one crop - corn - could see its prime growing region shift to the Canadian border or its price volatility increase sharply within 30 years, with Noah Diffenbaugh, Tom Hertel and their colleagues pointing to climate change as the cause. Credit: Doug Wilson, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

Climate change is set to cause big swings in the price of corn grown in the US from year to year, researchers have said this week. That’s largely because temperatures above 29°C during certain points in the corn growing season reduce the amount produced, said economist Tom Hertel from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. But it will also be affected by how corn growers react and what the government does, he and his co-workers have found. “Corn prices have been fairly volatile in the last couple of decades,” Tom told Simple Climate. “That is nothing compared to what we would see under future climate, assuming that nothing else changed.”

In 2009, scientists showed that crops like corn were very sensitive to extreme heat, and that in a warmer world today’s plants would suffer. However, those studies didn’t show how smoothly or otherwise heat would change prices and output, or yield, of crops. Governments and farmers might like to know this to help their planning, but predicting warming’s impact on corn requires a very detailed picture of what future temperature might be like. “It’s not whether the temperature on average in a month or year was high, it’s whether you have a few hot days and whether those come at a time when they do significant damage,” Tom said. “If you talk to farmers they’ll certainly tell you, those really hot days coming at critical times can be very damaging.” Read the rest of this entry »

Did climate change make it harder to get your Christmas presents?

A US SH-60F Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 14, flies around the Bangkok area with members of the humanitarian assessment survey team and the Royal Thai Armed Forces to assess the damage caused by flooding. Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos/DVIDS

A US SH-60F Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 14, flies around the Bangkok area with members of the humanitarian assessment survey team and the Royal Thai Armed Forces to assess the damage caused by flooding. Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos/DVIDS

The devastation brought by floods sweeping through Thailand this year is hard for me to visualise, as a man sat in a room in Britain. It’s mind-bogglingly massive, according to the Associated Press:

More than a fifth of the country’s 64 million people have been affected by the flooding, which began in late July, and more than 600 have died. Fifteen provinces remain flooded. The World Bank estimates the damage at $45 billion and recovery and reconstruction needs at $25 billion.

But thanks to the interconnected world we live in, some comparatively trivial but more directly obvious effects of the Thai flood are showing themselves to the rest of us. Thailand produces around 40 per cent of all hard drives made. Those companies have had to stop production, meaning that less PCs will be sold in the last three months of 2012, with that shortage lasting into early 2012, and possibly 2013. Devices that record television straight onto hard drives are also affected, with price rises likely in 2012.

Other popular electronic devices, like smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad, don’t use hard drives, using solid-state flash memory instead. You might think that they wouldn’t be affected, therefore, but Thailand doesn’t only make hard drives. It also produces many other types of electronic component, and high-tech facilities that assemble and test these components have been halted by the flooding. Though the problems are not as severe as they are for PCs, there have been reports of short supplies of technological Christmas gifts like Sony’s e-book reader and Canon cameras. The internet is another area to watch, as a key producer of lasers and other pieces of the equipment that fibre-optic telecoms rely on was also flooded. Read the rest of this entry »

Controls needed to avoid waste in $100B climate fund

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane opening a consultation meeting preparing for next week's climate summit in Durban. Credit: Jacoline Prinsloo/COP17

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane opening a consultation meeting preparing for next week's climate summit in Durban. Credit: Jacoline Prinsloo/COP17

It’s a massive, ambitious, program with a pledged $100 billion budget per year – seven times that of the Apollo program that sent man to the moon – but you’ve probably never heard of it. The program was one result of last November’s worldwide climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, established so developed nations can help developing countries respond to climate change. With so much money potentially at stake Simon Donner, a geographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) wants to make sure it’s used effectively.

“Naturally, governments want the money to be spent wisely,” Donner told Simple Climate. “The problem is that the standard mechanisms by which the spending decisions are made and evaluated sometimes do a poor job of addressing waste and misappropriation.” And even though the fund won’t start running until 2020, action to put the right mechanisms in place should begin with next week’s international climate talks in Durban, South Africa. “The next few years are critical,” he asserted.

Donner has worked on climate change adaptation in the Pacific Islands, and sought to bring that together with other lessons about international aid that can be applied to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) at the centre of the $100 billion program. He’s also a fellow at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues where two of his colleagues, Hisham Zerriffi and Milind Kandlikar, had similarly helped developing world responses to a changing climate. Together they called upon this experience, as well as previous reviews of the successes and failures of these kinds of programs, to gather advice relevant to theGCF. After two rounds of reviewing by fellow scientists, three main pieces of specific advice were published in top research journal Science last week.

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Fossil fuel exporting countries should adopt green taxes

The danger that someone else might impose taxes that reduce fossil fuel consumption before fuel-exporting countries should motivate them to get there first. That’s according to Steven Davis from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, and his colleagues, who have looked at the links between international trade and CO2 emissions. Their “Supply Chain of CO2 Emissions” shows where goods, services and the fossil fuels the world burned, generating power and emitting CO2, came from and went to in 2004. They found that 10.2 billion tons of CO2, over one-third of global emissions, came from fossil fuels traded internationally. 6.4 billion tons of CO2 were used to make traded goods. “The sheer magnitude of emissions that are traded internationally show an inherent flaw of trying to design an effective national program to manage carbon,” Davis told Simple Climate.

Last year, Davis and his Carnegie institution colleague Ken Caldeira showed that in 2004 on average each US citizen consumed goods imported from other countries whose production emitted 2.5 tons of CO2. For Europeans, the figure sometimes exceeded four tons per person. This CO2 benefits people in the country the goods are consumed in, but is not counted as being emitted there. Instead only CO2 directly produced in a country is considered in international negotiations seeking to fight climate change by limiting emissions.

But as CO2 emissions are also closely tied to economic growth, developing countries – and China in particular – are fighting hard to retain the right to emit and develop themselves further. Developing/developed world conflict is a regularly feature of climate negotiations, including in the Copenhagen summit in 2009 that failed to produce a binding treaty to control CO2 emissions. Yet, many countries did make their own pledges to cut CO2 emissions. One potential tool they can use to reduce CO2 emissions is through tax, for example China’s resource tax, and Australia’s upcoming tax on its biggest emitters. Read the rest of this entry »

Food links climate change and social unrest

The Hanging, by Jacques Callot, depicts a scene from the 30 Years War that occurred in Europe between 1618 and 1648, during which time the continent was going through a cold period. Usually thought of as being triggered by disputes between Protestant and Catholic Christians, David Zhang and his colleagues now point to the climate as an ultimate cause for upheaval during this period.

The Hanging, by Jacques Callot, depicts a scene from the 30 Years War that occurred in Europe between 1618 and 1648, during which time the continent was going through a cold period. Usually thought of as being triggered by disputes between Protestant and Catholic Christians, David Zhang and his colleagues now point to the climate as an ultimate cause for upheaval during this period.

People’s struggle to feed themselves has led to economic chaos and war through history, and the most vicious struggles can be traced directly back to climate change. That’s the conclusion of an ambitious attempt to work out exactly how climate and human social crises are linked by David Zhang from the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues. “Climate change has been scientifically proven to be the ultimate cause of significant human crises in pre-industrial Europe and the Northern Hemisphere,” Zhang stated boldly on Tuesday.

Many studies have shown that civilizations have collapsed in times of climate change, typically in periods when the world cooled. Zhang has been especially active in this area. “Over the last 7 years I have published over 20 papers on climate change and social responses,” he told Simple Climate. But, he noted, other researchers’ work had been criticised for a lack of evidence that definitively showed that climate causes upheaval in human societies. Zhang’s response, in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA on Monday, calls on great volumes of data to show that there are, in fact, strong statistical links.

The researchers from Hong Kong and China brought together measurements on 16 different climate, agricultural, and social factors between 1500 and 1800 AD. “The great challenge is collecting and analysing this huge amount of data,” Zhang said. “The datasets come from different disciplines, and we have read over a thousand pieces of literature. For the same reason, we invited other economists, geographers and anthropologists to join us in the research to make sure there were no mistakes.” Read the rest of this entry »

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