Climate Change News April 16, 2012

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
April 16, 2012


California Carbon Credit Auctions to Bring Cash, Legal Questions

California is ready to begin auctioning off carbon credits under the state’s global warming law, AB 32. The state expects to bring in $1 billion in 2012 and as much as $14 billion annually by 2015. Spending of the auction proceeds is restricted by multiple court rulings and ballot measures, most likely only to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some businesses and taxpayer groups say California should give out permits for free because the auctions are not specifically in the law and to be able to charge for them, the Legislature must approve it by a two-thirds vote. Attorney Cara Horowitz at the University Of California Los Angeles School of Law thinks the auction can go forward and said, "I think the most fair reading of AB 32 is that it did allow the Air Resources Board to create market mechanisms that do include an auction. The Legislature gave the Air Resources Board very broad authority." Much of the money may go towards funding California’s high speed rail project; the first phase connecting Merced to Los Angeles is expected to cost $32 billion.

For additional information see: Mercury News

UK Pushes for Tougher EU Carbon Targets

The United Kingdom is on track to “comfortably exceed” 20 percent reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, and, along with France and Germany, continues advocate to increase emissions targets up to 30 percent by 2020. Greg Barker, UK Climate Change Minister, said that stricter targets would strengthen prices in the EU carbon market, which have fallen more than 60 percent in a year, while signaling commitment to a low-carbon future.  "There is plenty of scope for us to increase the level of ambition and push up the carbon price, but still do it in a way that's good for business,” said Barker.  He continued, “We're working patiently and quietly behind the scenes, making not just the environmental case, but the economic case as well, looking at the huge opportunity in low-carbon and clean tech markets." Barker plans to press for the stronger target at informal talks in Denmark on April 19.

For additional information see: Financial Times, Business Green

Greener Rickshaws Can Reduce Emissions

India and other Asian countries rely on motorized rickshaws for a transit in crowded cities, especially “last mile” trips that take public transit passengers from bus or rail stations to their destinations. With smaller engines and chassis, rickshaws are maneuverable, affordable, and emit about one-third less CO2 than cars, which emit up to 90 percent of India’s total urban road passenger emissions. "Since [rickshaws] wear out the road much less and use less materials in construction and operation, their contribution to global warming will be much less than that of a heavier car," explains Dinesh Mohan, a transportation expert at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. Many older rickshaws use inefficient two-stroke engines but newer models can emit as little as 60 grams of CO2 per kilometer.

For additional information see: Scientific American

Elgin Natural Gas Spill, Production Leaks Increase Natural Gas Climate Change Impact

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that natural gas has less climate impact than conventional fuels only when methane leakage during production and distribution is low.  Leakage at gas power plants must be less than 3.2 percent to be less than the impact of coal and no more than 1.6 percent for natural gas powered cars to have less impact than gasoline cars. Estimates of leakage rates vary; in 2009, EPA estimated a rate of 2.4 percent, while a 2011 Cornell study suggested 2.2-3.8 percent. A third 2012 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research estimated leakage rates at a Colorado field of close to 4%, making natural gas worse than coal. Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a lead author on the PNAS study said, "We can't say, and I don't think anyone can say, 'Here is the absolute truth about natural gas compared to other fuels,' because the emissions data is highly uncertain. At this point, we just have to go with the best information we have." Natural gas consists primarily of methane, which has 25 times the global warming effect of CO2 over a 100-year period.

In related news, on March 25, a natural gas leak was detected at a gas platform owned by French energy company Total SA at the Elgin gas field in the North Sea off of the coast of Scotland.  The leak is releasing seven million cubic feet of natural gas per day, although Total says the rate of gas release has slowed.  Total engineers have estimated that it could take six months to close the well and the methane released during that time could have the global warming impact of 300,000 new cars on the road.  Philippe Guy, Total's U.K. Managing Director said, "We are working hard and if all goes as planned we envisage by the end of this month we should be having control of the well."

For additional information see: The Washington Post, Time, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Environmental Leader, PNAS (full paper)

FedEx, BP Team Up for Carbon-Neutral Shipping

FedEx has signed a deal to purchase carbon credits to offset for the delivery of over 200 million packages through BP Carbon Neutral, BP’s non-profit carbon management program. The first global logistics company to offset emissions from shipping, FedEx will buy carbon allowances from BP to cover the deliveries under its envelope shipping option. Global Director for BP Target Neutral Andrea Abrahams said, "It is one of many examples in which businesses throughout the world can play their part in reducing the impact of carbon emissions on the planet." The offsets fund low carbon development projects include a biogas farm facility in the Netherlands, reforestation of degraded grassland to commercial forest in the Tanzanian Southern Highlands, and a landfill gas collection system in Thailand.

For additional information see: Business Green, BP Carbon Neutral

Development Threatens Northeast Forest Carbon Sink

Research based on data from the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network published in the journals Ecological Applications and BioScience found that development threatens carbon capture by U.S. northeastern forests. Each year, Massachusetts forests capture the carbon dioxide equivalent to powering one million American homes, but carbon storage could decline 18 percent in the next 50 years under current development trends. “The rebounding forests of New England provide a tremendous public benefit by storing carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change,” said Jonathan Thompson, research ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Study author David Foster said, "Our research makes a compelling case for expanding support for forestland protection and for the efforts of private landowners to keep their land forested. It reminds us that forests provide important infrastructure that we should invest in, just as we do major civil works projects.”

For additional information see: Science Daily

Snowy Winter Ecosystems Most Impacted by Climate Change

Ecosystems that depend upon a snowy winter are going to be impacted the most by rising temperatures. A Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study, a program of the National Science Foundation, has compiled data results from more than thirty years.  The research shows that as average temperatures increase in ecosystems with winter snow and ice, a significant amount of stream water is lost to the atmosphere.  "Streams in dry forested ecosystems seem more resilient to warming. These ecosystems conserve more water as the climate warms, keeping streamflow within expected bounds,” according to Jones.  A range of factors can impact watersheds, from human influence past and present to El Niño climate oscillations. "Long-term records are finally long enough to begin to separate the effects of each," said Jones.

For additional information see: ScienceDaily

Climate Change and Greater Temperature Variability Contribute to Elderly Mortality

Increased summer temperature variability elevates the death rate for elderly and chronically ill people, according to a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health studied Medicare data from between 1985 to 2006 of 3.7 million chronically ill patients over 65.  They found that for each one degree Celsius increase in temperature variability, the death rate increased for elderly with chronic conditions between 2.8 percent and 4.0 percent, depending on the pre-existing health condition. Study author Joel Schwartz explained, "The increasing age of the population, the increasing prevalence of chronic conditions such as diabetes and possible increases in temperature fluctuations due to climate change, means that this public health problem is likely to grow in importance in the future."

For additional information see: Science Daily, MSN News, News-Medical.Net

Record Breaking Warm Start to 2012

This March, over 15,000 warm temperature records were broken or tied in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).   In 21 record-setting cases, low (nighttime) temperatures were as warm as, or warmer than, the previous record daytime high. The average 2012 first-quarter temperature in the contiguous United States was 42 degrees Fahrenheit, 6 degrees Fahrenheit above average, breaking the record by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.  The 12-month period (April 2011-March 2012), which includes the second hottest summer (June-August) and fourth warmest winter (December-February), was the warmest such period for the contiguous United States. Although global warming did not cause the unusual weather, NOAA stated, “Our current estimate of the impact of GHG [greenhouse gas] forcing is that it likely contributed on the order of 5% to 10% of the magnitude of the heat wave during 12-23 March.”  Meteorologists attribute the warmth to a combination weather patterns, including La Nina, a weather pattern that kept cold air in the Arctic during January and February, and a “heat dome” in the jet stream during March.  

For additional information see: Bloomberg, Washington Post, Washington Post

Ocean Acidification Causes Major Declines in Oyster Populations

Since 2006, baby oysters have been dying by the billions at a commercial oyster hatchery in Oregon. A recent study has concluded that increased oceanic acidification as a result of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is the cause. "It's now an incontrovertible fact that ocean chemistry is affecting our larvae," said Alan Barton, one of the study’s authors. The study linked the high oyster mortality rates at the hatchery to the CO2 levels in the water in which the larval oysters were spawned.  Oceans absorb a significant portion of CO2 in the air and become more acidic.  “As the water becomes more acidified, it affects the formation of calcium carbonate, the mineral in shells. As the CO2 goes up, the mineral stability goes down, ultimately leading to reduced growth or to mortality," according to George Waldbusser, a benthic ecologist,  Commercial oyster production on the West Coast of North America is a $273 million industry each year and relies heavily on hatcheries.

For additional information see: National Science Foundation, The Seattle Times, The New York Times

Climate Change First Helps, then Hinders Plant Growth

Scientists at Northern Arizona University interested in long-term effects of global warming on plant growth subjected four grassland ecosystems to climate change-like conditions over a decade.  The team transplanted four grassland ecosystems from higher to lower elevation to simulate a warmer environment, and coupled the warming with more, equal or less precipitation. The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, showed that plants experienced faster growth in the first year, but showed slowing growth in later years. Long-term warming caused loss of native species and encroachment of species typical of warmer environments. Nitrogen, an important plant nutrient, cycled faster but also escaped to the atmosphere or was leached from the soil by rainwater, challenging the expectation that warming will cause a sustained increase in available nitrogen and plant productivity. Study author Bruce Hungate explained, "Faster nitrogen turnover stimulated nitrogen losses, likely reducing the effect of warming on plant growth. More generally, changes in species, changes in element cycles -- these really make a difference. It's classic systems ecology: the initial responses elicit knock-on effects which here came back to bite the plants."

For additional information see: ScienceDaily

Eating Less Meat Can Reduce Climate Change

Decreasing meat consumption by 50 percent per person in developed countries by 2050 is one of the best ways to decrease global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to a report published in Environmental Research Letters by Woods Hole Research Center scientist Eric Davidson. “In the developed world there is considerable room for us to manage our portion sizes and the frequency with which we eat meat. We’re not talking about everybody suddenly needing to become a vegetarian. Rather it’s kind of reversing the supersize trend and being more mindful of the impacts of the amount of meat and the types of meat, both for the environment and our own health,” he said.  Reduced meat consumption decreases fertilizer use, manure production, and the production of GHGs, especially nitrous oxides. Nitrous oxides, which are released from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and manure storage and use, are much more potent GHGs than CO2 and methane and can linger in the atmosphere for over 100 years.

For additional information see: Voice of America, Environmental Research Web, Environmental Research Letters (paper)

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Writers: Justin Jones, Zuzana Culakova and Erin Tulley

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