Climate Change News January 31, 2011

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
January 31, 2011



Chief Energy and Environmental Advisor to Leave White House

On January 24, Carol Browner, Obama’s chief energy and environmental policy advisor, announced that she will leave the White House shortly. Browner’s departure comes as somewhat of a surprise, since she had been suggested as a candidate for the White House deputy chief of staff. Browner previously served as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) administrator for eight years under the Clinton administration. No decision has been announced whether Browner’s position will be taken by someone else, or if it would no longer exist. Browner did not offer any specific reasons for her decision, saying, “there is no back story--it was just time to go.”

For additional information see: Washington Post, Politico, New York Times

New Report Shows UN Forest Protection Efforts Ineffective

On January 23, a report issued by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) found that international accords to slow deforestation and protect vulnerable forests were too limited in scope, and have had little success. Worldwide, 10 percent of carbon emissions are from deforestation, and from 2000 to 2009, 32 million acres of forest have been subject to deforestation. The report argued that too much attention was being placed on forests as major stores of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas (GHG) blamed for global warming, and not on underlying causes of deforestation such as heightened demand for crops and biofuels. The report suggested that the United Nations-backed initiative, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), should focus more on supporting regional efforts to save forests, rather than seeking a standard global solution. IUFRO called for greater efforts to aid indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on forests. The assessment is being released as the United Nations launches the International Year of Forests in New York.

For additional information see: Reuters, Science Daily, AFP

Canadian Panel Calls for Climate Change Legislation

On January 25, a Canadian think tank issued a report saying that Canada should progress with a domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions trading system regardless of whether the United States takes similar steps. The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the government-appointed panel that handles environmental issues, said that by taking measures to tackle climate change, Canada gets “ahead of the curve,” and ensures that economic impacts on Canada are manageable and that Canada makes sustained progress toward achieving its 2020 carbon emissions target of 17 percent below 2005 levels. Lawmakers and industry participants have put pressure on the Canadian government to act without U.S. participation in order to reach their goal within the given time frame. The panel urged the government to pass cap-and-trade legislation that would ensure that the price of carbon never exceed C$30 (US$30.13) price per ton of carbon to ensure that Canada remains competitive with the United States. The panel’s proposed approach “would walk a middle line between harmonizing with the United States on carbon price and on emission reduction targets, balancing competitiveness and environmental concerns,” according to the report.

For additional information see: The Star, Power-Gen Worldwide

U.K. Report Warns of Global Food Shortages, Need for Sustainability

On January 24, a major report published by the U.K.-based think tank Foresight warned that the global food supply is not enough to satisfy booming demand, as the population continues to expand and resources are not being replaced as quickly as they are being consumed. The report, titled “Global Food and Farming Futures,” concluded that the entire agricultural system must undergo a massive overhaul to bring sustainability center stage and end world hunger. The report found that water and energy supplies may struggle to keep up with demand due to climate change, and suggested developing a strategy to avoid food shortages that could damage economic growth and lead to international tensions or conflicts. Some of the proposed strategies include minimizing waste, changing personal diet, reducing subsidies and trade barriers, linking food and agricultural policy to climate change mitigation, and exploring genetically modified organisms (GMO).

For additional information see: Bloomberg, Business Green, Report

Chinese Provinces Seek to Establish Regional Carbon Markets

In the fourth week of January, various regions within China lobbied Beijing to approve and establish local emissions trading schemes. The provincial governments of Jiangxi, Guangdong, Sichuan, and Hebei have all sent proposals to Beijing to introduce local carbon trading platforms within the next five years, in an attempt to place themselves ahead of the likely mandatory regional carbon targets expected in the next few years. Beijing, however, is not expected to support the proposed plans, as it already backs the three established trading platforms in the cities of Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai. The central government’s national five-year plan is expected to include a commitment to market mechanisms to reduce its carbon emissions level, as China has committed to reduce its 2005 carbon intensity rates by 40-45 percent by 2020.

For additional information see: Reuters

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Increasingly Affect Stock Value

On January 25, a study published by professors at Haas School of Business at University of California-Davis and the University of Otago in New Zealand found that potential investors have taken a greater interest in companies’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions disclosures, which indicates the amount of emissions is an important factor in the valuation of their stocks. The researchers analyzed data on firms listed in Standard & Poor’s 500 from 2006-2009, and on Canada’s top 200 publicly-traded firms from 2005-2009, and found that companies with high carbon emissions had lower valued stocks, especially with regard to firms in the energy industry. The research tracked 1400 instances of firms that filed formal notices and press releases around events that would impact climate change, and found that markets responded almost immediately, with stock values adjusting on the same day as the formal disclosures. The researchers presumed that this was due to investors feeling that a company’s environmental footprint will have an impact on its long-term costs dealing with mitigation, regulation, and taxes, and thus its profitability. Currently, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) does not require that all companies report their GHG emissions, but this may change if the SEC validates this study’s findings.

For additional information see: International Business Times

Scientists Hope for Reliable Climate Data

On January 25, the Washington Post published a story highlighting the need for reliable satellite monitoring of climate change in order to produce accurate calculations that inform the Earth’s scientists and political leaders. The story included the recent failure of NASA’s $250 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which forced climate scientists to rely on aging satellites to gather climate data. According to scientists, satellite models are crucial in supplementing and even sometimes replacing on-the-ground mathematical models created by researchers. In 2005, the National Research Council issued a warning that the climate satellite system was “at risk of collapse,” largely due to insufficient financial support from the United States. According to the article, the earth science satellite system has lacked coordination and adequate supervision since President Clinton’s administration, and NASA’s earth science budget was cut from $2 billion to $1.4 billion under President George W. Bush. Satellite surveillance of the environment still faces financial constraints, even as the Obama administration proposed increasing NASA’s Earth Science budget to $1.8 billion--near where it was in 2000.

For additional information see: Washington Post

Most Himalayan Glaciers in Retreat or Stable, Few Advance

On January 23, a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience showed that some portions of the Himalayan glacier cover are currently stable, and possibly advancing, while most of the Himalayan glaciers are in retreat. Previous assessments found that debris--which is darker than ice--tended to soak up more solar energy and hasten the ice melting; however, scientists found that a thick layer of debris actually acts as insulation. From 2000 to 2008, the report found that 58 percent of the glaciers studied in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas were stable or slowly advancing, but elsewhere in the Himalayas roughly 65 percent of the examined ice cover was retreating. The scientists included 286 glaciers in the study, and concluded that “there is no uniform response of Himalayan glaciers to climate change.” The satellite data could not establish how much the glaciers are thinning, or make estimates of water losses during seasonal melts, since calculating these numbers would require ground measurements. The findings corroborated that experts in the 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) overestimated the rate of Himalayan glacial retreat. The IPCC retracted the calculation in 2010 due to insufficient evidence.

For additional information see: Reuters, Science News

Methane Gas Emissions from Rivers and Lakes Underestimated

On January 22, a study published in the journal Science found that the amount of methane gas, a greenhouse gas (GHG) that contributes to climate change, naturally released from freshwater areas is much higher than scientists previously estimated. The international team of scientists discovered that methane released from rivers and lakes changes the net absorption of GHGs by natural land environments by at least 25 percent, since earlier calculations of GHG absorption did not account for natural emissions of methane from inland water sources. According to John Downing, a professor at Iowa State University and co-author of the study, the team’s findings show scientists that the GHG-absorbing properties of forests and agricultural lands may not “get us as far ahead as we thought” considering methane’s additional contribution to the GHG budget.

For additional information see: Ames Tribune, Study

Plants Moved Downhill in Response to Warmer Temperatures

On January 20, a study published in the journal Science challenged the assumption that plants moved uphill in response to warmer temperatures, and suggested that plants migrate downhill on account of changes in habitat moisture. The research demonstrated that between 1930 and 2000, several California plant species migrated downhill an average of 260 feet. “While the climate warmed significantly in this period, there was also more precipitation. These wetter conditions are allowing plants to exist in warmer locations than they were previously capable of,” said co-author Greenberg. The study reveals other factors like precipitation may be more influential than temperature in dictating the habitable range of these plant species. The authors said that this study could be of relevance since global climate models predict a continuation in that precipitation trend. The researchers’ findings could have significant impacts for policy makers and land managers “to make more informed decisions on, for instance, conservation efforts for threatened and endangered species," Greenberg said.

For additional information see: Science Daily, NPR, Study

Greenland Ice Sheet Experienced Record Melting in 2010

On January 21, a study published in Environmental Research Letters showed that the Greenland Ice Sheet experienced record melting in 2010, which is expected to contribute to sea level rise in the future. The study found that 2010’s melt season was up to 50 days longer than average in some areas, starting significantly earlier at the end of April and lasting until mid-September. Dr. Marco Tedesco and co-authors studied surface temperature anomalies across the Greenland Ice Sheet and measurements of surface melting from various data sources. Greenland’s capital had the warmest spring and summer temperatures since records began in 1873. Summer temperatures in 2010 were 3° Celsius above average and there was reduced snowfall. According to Tedesco, the exposure of bare ice to lengthy periods of sunlight contributed to the record melting, since bare ice absorbs more solar radiation than snow.

In related news, a U.K.-led study published in the journal Nature found that some Greenland glaciers retreat more slowly in warm summers than in cooler ones, suggesting that the ice may be more resistant to climate change than previously thought. The scientists found that in the warmest summers, the rate of retreat of the glaciers stalled early in the season. They explained that hot weather causes so much meltwater to collect that instead of lubricating the glacier flow, it simply runs off in channels below the ice, causing a pressure drop that leads to reduced ice speeds. The researchers emphasized, however, that the Greenland ice cap is still vulnerable to climate change, and continually loses ice to the sea.

For additional information see: Science Daily, BBC, Science Daily, Study

Changing Climate Threatens Tree Species Survival

On January 24, a study published in Ecology Letters found that many tree species that depend on wind for seed dispersion could become extinct due to climate change. The research focused on the influence of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and changes in wind speed on the production and dispersion of tree seeds. The study found that elevated levels of CO2 causes higher seed production and earlier maturation in trees, which would give rise to faster seed spread in the future. However, according to an author of the study, their research “indicates that the natural wind-driven spread of many species of trees will increase, but will occur at a significantly lower pace than that which will be required to cope with the changes in surface temperature.” As a result, the researchers predict the composition of trees in future forests will change. The research calls for action to ensure the proper dispersal of seeds in order to prevent losing the valuable services these trees offer to humans.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Study

Study Sheds Light on Humans’ Pre-Industrial Influence on Climate

On January 24, a study published in The Holocene found that humans had affected the climate before the Industrial Era, and that assumptions about farming have been inaccurate. The research took into account historical improvements in farming techniques. Previous models simply assumed a proportional increase in land use and deforestation due to population increases. The study showed the first major human-caused increase in carbon emissions to be 2000 years before the modern era. Certain historical events like the fall of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent reforestation of Europe, as well as the plague, which led to a fall in carbon emissions, present themselves strongly in the data. According to the authors, the model does not disprove the massive increase in carbon emissions beginning with the industrial era, but it does prove that humans were already accumulating significant levels of carbon in the atmosphere much earlier than scientists previously acknowledged.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Study

Coral Reefs Moving North at Rapid Pace

On January 21, a study of coral reefs around Japan published in Geophysical Research Letters found that several species of coral have migrated from the subtropics to temperate climate zones in the last 80 years. The study found that four out of nine common coral species had migrated northward, with two traveling to temperate waters. The data confirmed what scientists and fishermen have suspected for years, and it predicted that some coral species will rapidly migrate in response to warmer ocean temperatures. A few of the species examined migrated 8.7 miles per year, while a sample of land-traveling animals migrate an average of only 0.4 miles per year. Over the course of 80 years, some corals will migrate nearly 700 miles.

In related news, on January 21, research published in Ecology by Australian scientists found that the key to preserving the world’s coral reefs lies in understanding how newborn coral larvae disperse across oceans, settle, and grow on new reefs as climate change occurs. The scientists studied the dispersal patterns, survival and settlement rates of larvae from various coral species. The authors hope that the study will aid in the management of existing coral reefs threatened by ocean warming, acidification, and pollution. The scientists measured the survival rates of coral larvae, the ability for larvae to settle, and dispersal and settlement rates to include in their revised models, which provide hope that coral species would be able to migrate in order to adapt to climate change. According to the researchers, the models indicate that more larvae than scientists thought should settle close to home, and that a small portion of “stellar performers” can survive for longer and travel further.

For additional information see: Science News, Red Orbit, Study

Tax on Meat and Milk Could Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

On January 25, a study published by Swedish researchers in Climatic Change showed that imposing a carbon tax of 60 euros per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) on meat and milk consumption could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from European agriculture by seven percent, and if the agricultural land made available from more efficient food production methods was used for bioenergy production, the decrease of emissions could be up to six times greater. Researchers noted that, since it is difficult to monitor GHG emissions in the agricultural sector, an output tax based on a GHG weighted consumption tax could be effective in reducing emissions from agriculture. Globally, food production accounts for 25-30 percent of human-caused GHG emissions, and the study said there was a lack of technical solutions to reduce this percentage. According to the researchers’ calculations, a 60 euro per ton tax would reduce beef consumption by about 15 percent. The tax would lead to reduced meat, egg, and milk consumption, which would lead directly to a reduction of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock and nitrogen fertilizer, as well as an increase in the amount of free land that could be used for bioenergy production.

For additional information see: Science Daily, Study

Natural Gas May Harm Environment More than Previously Thought

On January 25, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a new estimate of the pollution from natural gas power plants, and found that natural gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than oil and coal, and perhaps even less. Previous estimates pegged natural gas as having about 50 percent less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than coal. The research updates earlier EPA literature on the subject, which had not included life-cycle methane emissions, and estimated that the amount of methane gas released during the natural gas production process, through leaks from loose pipe fittings and venting from gas wells, is double what the EPA previously reported in April 2010. Methane levels from hydraulic fracturing, a popular new method of extracting natural gas from previously unobtainable sources, of shale gas are 9,000 times higher than previously thought, according to the new analysis. Natural gas still has an environmental advantage over oil and coal, but the margin of benefit is smaller.

For additional information see: ProPublica

Other Headlines

February 2: State Energy Programs and Their Economic Impacts

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) invites you to a briefing on how state governments have implemented energy programs, and the economic development activities associated with those programs. State officials will discuss the State Energy Program (SEP), the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, and how these programs have helped create jobs and reduce energy bills for Americans. Speakers for this event include: Amy Butler, Director, Michigan Office of Energy; John Core, Director, Design and Construction Review, Kentucky Housing Corporation;
Frank Murray, President, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority; Roya Stanley, Deputy Director, Iowa Office of Energy Independence; William E. “Dub” Taylor, Director, Texas State Energy Conservation Office, Office of the State Comptroller. This briefing is free and open to the public. No RSVP required. For more information, contact us at communications [at] or (202) 662-1884.

Writers: Laura Diez and Matthew Johnson

Please distribute Climate Change News to your colleagues. Permission for reproduction of this newsletter is granted provided that the Environmental and Energy Study Institute is properly acknowledged as the source. Past issues are available at Free email subscriptions are available here. We welcome your suggestions, comments, and questions.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) is a non-profit organization founded in 1984 by a bipartisan Congressional caucus dedicated to finding innovative environmental and energy solutions. EESI works to protect the climate and ensure a healthy, secure, and sustainable future for America through policymaker education, coalition building, and policy development in the areas of energy efficiency, renewable energy, agriculture, forestry, transportation, buildings, and urban planning.

EESI's work, including this free newsletter, is made possible by financial support from people like you. Please help us continue to make it available by making a secure, online donation today by clicking here or mailing a check to Environmental and Energy Study Institute; 1112 16th St NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036. Please contact Susan Williams at (202) 662-1887 or see to find out more. Thank you for your support!