Climate Change News August 29, 2011

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
August 29, 2011


Tar Sands Pipeline Poised to Clear State Department Hurdle Amid Large Protest at White House

Amid a two-week long protest in front of the White House, the State Department was due to publish its final environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline on August 26, which would make it easier for the pipeline to be built. The proposed pipeline would traverse several Western and Midwestern states to bring oil from tar sands in Western Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Canada’s environment ministry estimated that production of the tar sands would double in the next decade and increase the greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s oil and gas sector by one-third. Meanwhile, the protest has resulted in the arrest of more than 275 demonstrators, including co-founder Bill McKibben. “This is the primary test for Obama and the environment in the period between now and the election. [Denial of the pipeline permit] is his chance to do something on his own, without interference from Congress,” said McKibben. Release of the final environmental assessment triggers a 90-day public comment period before the decision goes to President Obama for approval or denial. While TransCanada, developer of the pipeline, stated the United States would become more dependent on Nigeria, Venezuela, and Libya if the pipeline is not built, analysts note that the oil coming from Canada to be refined in Texas may very well end up in Latin America or Europe because the companies Shell, Total, and Valero, who have signed agreements to take oil from Keystone XL, run refineries in Texas’ free trade zone which makes it easier to ship oil overseas.

For additional information see: Washington Post, Guardian, Politico

Australian States Could Lose ‘Inefficient’ Climate Programs to Make Way for Carbon Tax

Australian Climate Change Minister Greg Combet requested states to end “inefficient” climate change policies ahead of the rollout of the country’s nation-wide carbon tax in 2012. Included in the state-level policies are solar feed-in tariffs, which the New South Wales and federal government intend to scale back. In June, the Productivity Commission found that the 230 climate change policies in Australia were costing an average of $44 per ton of carbon dioxide, but that the 12.5 million tons saved could have cost $9 per ton on average. "I will be having discussions with my state counterparts in coming months about this issue, and I think as the dust settles and the carbon price legislation is passed, and we start to do the implementation, we intend advancing the argument that it (the market mechanism) is the most efficient, least-cost way of reducing pollution in our economy," Mr Combet said.

In related news, the Australian Senate passed a law establishing the trade of carbon credits for farm and forestry projects on August 22. Known as the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI), the scheme will allow such projects like tree plantations, methane reduction from livestock, and better fire management of grasslands to trade the credits earned for sequestering carbon with carbon emitting facilities domestically and internationally. The House is expected to pass the legislation with little change.

For additional information see: The Australian, Reuters

Proposed Australian Coal Mine Taken to Court Over Climate Impact

Landowners and the environmental organization Friends of the Earth have filed a lawsuit against a proposed coal mine in Australia on the basis of climate change, on August 22. The case seeks to ban development of the $6.2 billion Wandoan mine, which would export approximately 30 million tons of coal per year. Litigants in the case said the project will cause irreversible damage to Australia’s natural icons like the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical rain forests in the northeast from climate change. The mining company Xstrata will call witnesses who will testify to the local economic benefits of the mining project, while local landowners claim the project will destroy much of the region’s grazing and crop land as well as affect the air, soil and water quality, local wildlife and the health of livestock.

For additional information see: AFP, AUDIO: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

EU Seeks to Preserve Kyoto Protocol if No New Climate Pact Emerges from Durban

Sources involved in European Union (EU) negotiations on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol indicated that the powerful voting bloc could offer language that would salvage the mechanisms of the landmark international climate treaty after it expires in 2012. Speaking to Point Carbon, a senior EU official said that diplomats were working on language that would preserve the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol even if no binding international targets were set at the next round of international climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa in December. The proposal, which has not been agreed to with the EU, would also let the Kyoto Protocol lapse in 2018 to allow a new global pact to replace it. "We see there are a lot of parties that want to maintain the Kyoto Protocol and its rules-based system,” said an EU negotiator. “Maybe it's possible to preserve the rules, but not ratify (a second period)."

For additional information see: Reuters, Business Green

Bhutan PM: Climate Change Impact on Our Hydrology is Severe

The prime minister of Bhutan, a country situated in the Himalayan mountains of Asia, issued a dire warning of the impending negative impacts of climate change on the productivity of his country. Speaking to Agence France Presse, Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said that his country is already facing challenges from dryer winters and wetter summers. "The glaciers are retreating very rapidly, some are even disappearing. The flow of water in our river system is fluctuating in ways that are very worrying," he said. Bhutan gets the majority of its power from hydroelectric dams that are fed by glaciers in the Himalayan mountains. In the summer months, river systems are overflowing, threatening people who live in the valleys below. During the winter months, the rivers dry up much more than before, creating a shortage of hydroelectric power that the country relies upon. Bhutan has plans to build more hydroelectric capacity to foster its growth and export power to neighboring India. However, climate change threatens that plan. Bhutan will host a conference with India, Nepal, and Bangladesh in November to discuss ways to reduce climate change impacts on the Himalayas, which are a source of water for 1.9 billion people.

For additional information see: AFP

Rule Could Force New Canadian Coal Plants to Use CCS

On August 19, Canadian government officials announced draft rules that would effectively ban new coal-fired power plants that do not capture and store most of their carbon dioxide emissions. Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent said that the rules would likely take effect in 2015 and include exemptions for demonstration projects and emergency facilities. The draft rule would require new coal-fired facilities to make their emissions comparable to a natural gas-fired power plant. Approximately 33 of the 51 existing coal-fired power plants are expected to be shut down by 2025, according to government officials. It is expected that the rule will spur investment in natural gas and renewable energy. The public has 60 days to submit comments on the draft rule.

For additional information see: Power Engineering, Proposed Rule

Researchers: Huge Discrepancy Between Official GHG Emissions Reporting and Reality

Swiss researchers have discovered a huge discrepancy between what several European countries state in their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reports and what has been observed in the atmosphere. In a study published in Geophyscial Research Letters, researcher Stefan Reimann found that the levels of the potent and long-lived GHG HFC-23, a byproduct of the manufacture of the cooling and foaming agent HCFC-22, is roughly twice what some countries have reported it to be. Using atmospheric and climate models, Reimann also was able to pinpoint the source of the emissions because there are only six sources in Europe that manufacture HCFC-22. Italy, Great Britain, and the Netherlands significantly under-reported their emissions, while Germany and France reported within the values observed by the scientists at research stations in Switzerland and Ireland. HFC-23 emissions were observed over a two-year period from 2008 to 2010. Compliance to the Kyoto Protocol does not require independent control mechanisms such as the Swiss findings. It relies on the reporting from countries subject to the climate treaty.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Abstract

Study: Genetic Diversity within Species Threatened by Climate Change

New research has found that the hidden genetic diversity of some species is threatened by climate change, in addition to the threat of extinction to some individual species. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, analyzed what is known as “cryptic” diversity, such as different lineages, or even species within species, in aquatic insects of Central Europe. By conducting gene sequencing of the insects’ mitochondria, researchers were able to identify evolutionary significant units (ESUs), a term for a genetically distinct population within a species. Using two different climate change models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they found that ESUs suffered a greater rate of extinction with warmer temperatures which would hinder the species’ evolutionary capability. "This genetic diversity is the most fundamental form of biodiversity — essentially, it's the substrate for evolution," said scientist Carsten Nowak. Co-author Steffen Pauls added, "We hope that this approach will be developed further to incorporate different migratory abilities, types of dispersal and thermal adaptability."

For additional information see: Nature, Abstract

Icelandic Current Discovery Changes Climate Disruption of Ocean Currents Estimate

Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have discovered the presence of a deep ocean circulation system off the coast of Iceland that could change the way scientists think the ocean reacts to climate change. The current, called the North Icelandic Jet (NIJ), feeds into a larger system that circulates warm water northward, where it is cooled, sinks, and loops back, or oscillates, southward. Scientists have been concerned that warmer temperatures will slow down the loop as ice melts, freezing the warm northward water and preventing it from sinking. This would, in turn, create colder climates in parts of Europe. While this scenario is far from certain, researchers point out that they need to better understand the overturning process. The research also found that the NIJ carries the majority of the denser, colder water. It had been previously thought that the primary source of the system that feeds the loop was the East Greeland Current. "These results. . . raise new questions about how global ocean circulation will respond to future climate change," said Eric Itsweire of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

For additional information see: Reuters, Science Daily, Abstract

Study Proves that Climate Change is Tipping Point for World Conflict

On August 25, a study published in Nature found that during the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather pattern, civil conflict increased by six percent from non-weather related conflict. The ENSO cycle changes rainfall and temperatures throughout Africa, the Mideast, India, Southeast Asia, the Americas, and Australia, and disrupts weather patterns in over 90 countries worldwide. Researchers used data from 1950 to 2004 to show that the probability of new civil conflicts in the tropics doubles during El Nino years compared to La Nina years. "What [the study shows] and [shows] beyond any doubt is that even in this modern world, climate variations have an impact on the propensity of people to fight," said Mark Cane, a scientist at Columbia University. Some scientists are skeptical of the connection the study drew between climate change and violence. "The study fails to improve on our understanding of the causes of armed conflicts, as it makes no attempt to explain the reported association between ENSO cycles and conflict risk," said Halvard Buhaug, of the Peace Research Institute. Though not all scientists agree on the correlation between El Nino and political instability, they do agree that at-risk governments could use the data to prepare for potential conflicts during times of ENSO-related weather.

For additional information see: AFP, Science Daily, Nature, Abstract

Drought Limits the Positive Effects of CO2 and Heat On Plant Growth in Future Climate

On August 23, a research paper in the journal Global Change Biology found that prolonged exposure to heat limits plant growth, even if there is an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. The study concluded that prolonged exposure to heat dries the soil, effecting nitrogen production and plant growth. "When you've previously seen a significantly higher plant growth at elevated CO2 concentrations, it is typically because it has been controlled studies, where only the CO2 concentration was changed. We fundamentally had the theory that you have to look at the combination of the different climate variables, since the plants in the future will be exposed to multiple changes simultaneously," stated Klaus Steenberg Larsen, lead author on the study.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Abstract

Other Headlines

Writers: Matthew Johnson and Alison Alford

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