Will more floods change the debate about climate change?

  • 20 Nov 2014, 12:15
  • Leo Barasi

Road flood | Shutterstock

It's nearly a year since the storms that led to flooding across much of the UK.

Over the last decade, the UK has experienced a range of extreme weather events: heatwaves, droughts, big freezes, as well as storms and floods. Scientists have  linked some of these with climate change, and the  IPCC concludes places like the UK will experience some extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods more often as a result of climate change.

Some, like former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, have suggested that extreme weather events will be the only thing that prompts meaningful action on climate.

But when the UK next suffers more flooding, will it make any difference to the public debate about climate change?

To test the idea, I undertook a research project looking at published opinion polls, newspaper archives and records of parliamentary debates, from 2006 to early 2014, to see the impact UK extreme weather events have on how climate change gets talked about in public, the media, and parliament.

High-water mark of public concern

In terms of public opinion, last year's floods coincided with a leap in concern about the environment, according to regular YouGov polls measuring which issues people consider the most important.

Following months of sustained flooding, in February 2014 the proportion of people naming the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from around 7 per cent to 23 per cent. That put it at about the same level as health and welfare. It's hard to see any explanation for this other than the floods.

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Daily Briefing | Green Climate Fund looks set to hit $10 billion goal

  • 20 Nov 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

Credit: UNFCCC

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Rich countries to discuss Green Climate Fund in Berlin 
Wealthy nations are set to meet in Berlin today to pledge donations to the Green Climate Fund, designed to help poor nations to adapt to climate change and finance shifts towards renewable energy. The UK is expected to pledge around $1 billion from the existing aid budget, alongside sizeable donations from the US, Japan, France and Germany. Climate change minister Ed Davey says the UK should be proud of its pledge. If the world's poorest countries are to develop in a way that creates a sustainable climate, richer countries have to help them, he writes. The Green Climate Fund should be thought of not a charity but as an investment in our shared future, says The Guardian
BBC News 

Climate and energy news

Shale gas: Ineos to invest £640m in UK exploration 
Chemicals giant Ineos is expected to outline plans today to invest up to £640 million in shale gas exploration and production in the UK. The company already owns the biggest shale gas import facility at Grangemouth and has been busy buying up government licences to expand domestic shale gas production across 329 square kilometres of Midland Valley countryside. The move will be seen as a vote of confidence in the UK shale gas industry but will attract criticism from environmental groups concerned about adverse impacts of shale gas and fracking on the environment, the BBC reports. The Guardian has more details on today's expected announcement. 
BBC News 

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Tackle air pollution to kickstart climate action, says new study

  • 19 Nov 2014, 18:00
  • Roz Pidcock

Air pollution is a huge problem worldwide, killing millions of people each year. Further warming will only increase the size of the problem, according to a Nature article today.

It's time efforts to curb soot, ozone and other pollutants in the atmosphere got more attention at an international level, the researchers argue.

Getting serious about air pollution could provide the impetus needed to tackle climate change more effectively.

Airborne killers

Methane, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and soot (or black carbon) all contribute to poor air quality.

Air pollution is already the  leading environmental cause of ill-health, leading to about seven million premature deaths each year from respiratory and circulatory illnesses.

Earlier today, the European Council  ruled the UK must take urgent action to address dangerous levels of air pollution. A number of major cities, including London, are lagging behind targets to reduce nitrogen dioxide to legal limits by the January 2015 deadline.

The burden of ill-health is  likely to increase in cities by mid century, as air pollution interacts with further greenhouse gas warming, research shows.

Compounds Of Concern _Schmale

Impacts of common air pollutants for human health, the climate and agriculture. Source: Schmale et al. (2014)

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How small volcanic eruptions may have slowed surface temperature rise

  • 19 Nov 2014, 17:20
  • Robert McSweeney

Tungurahua eruption | Shutterstock

Scientists have been underestimating the influence of small volcanic eruptions on the climate system, a new study argues.

The findings could help explain why recent warming at the Earth's surface has been slower than in previous decades, the researchers say.

A cataclysmic event

In June 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, sending a cloud of ash, dust and sulphur dioxide 35 kilometers into the atmosphere.

That sulphur dioxide combined with oxygen and water to form sulphuric acid aerosols. These particles reflected sunlight and encouraged clouds to form, cooling parts of the world by up to 0.4°C for two years after the eruption.

Volcanic eruptions are rated from zero to eight on a scale of explosivity, measured by the amount of ash and debris they produce. The Pinatubo eruption was rated as a five, or 'cataclysmic'.

While the world hasn't seen such a huge volcanic eruption since, on average there is one small eruption somewhere in the world every week. A new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, finds that these smaller eruptions may together have a bigger impact on global climate than previously thought.

Pinatubo _ash _plume _910612

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UN report says energy efficiency integral to bridging emissions gap

  • 19 Nov 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope

Houses | Shutterstock

There's a disjoint between the emissions cuts countries say they're going to make and what needs to be done to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, according to the latest annual update to the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP)  Emissions Gap report.

To close the gap and limit climate change, the world is going to have to get a lot better at using energy smartly, it says.

Each year UNEP takes a different aspect of the world's energy economy to examine, in order to show how emissions could be curtailed. This year, it's the turn of energy efficiency. So what's the calculus on how using energy more intelligently could get us closer to two degrees?

Emissions gap

The impetus for this report is simple. Unless global emissions peak and decline in short order, the world will pass a point where global warming can be limited to two degrees.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent report calculated the  remaining amount of carbon dioxide humans can emit and still have a likely chance of limiting global warming to less than two degrees. It comes to about another 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

In 2012, global emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane were around 54 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. To meet that "carbon budget", UNEP calculates global emissions must be no higher than 44 gigatonnes in 2020, and 42 gigatonnes in 2030.

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Tackling climate while maximising oil extraction: UK-Canada meeting glosses the paradox

  • 19 Nov 2014, 14:25
  • Simon Evans

Alberta oil sands | Shutterstock

Ministers from the UK and Canada came together for a roundtable meeting on energy security on Tuesday to discuss issues including exports from the Canadian oil sands, oil sector regulation and carbon capture and storage.

The Canada Europe Energy Summit was held in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's opulent Locarno Suite. It was sponsored by energy firms including the UK's Centrica, owner of British Gas, and was attended by chief executives and chairmen of oil and gas players from Europe and North America, as well as Carbon Brief.

Attendees were met by banner-waving activists protesting against Canadian oil sands production. This prompted some delegates to reflect fondly on the annual event's more exotic 2011 protest, when a pair of underwear-clad protesters stood on the table and smeared each other with oil.

Themes at the meeting included frustration at "disinformation" spread by environmental groups and a push from Canada for its oil sands to be seen as a stable "baseload" source of oil, able to feed growing demand in a world of growing political instability.

Tackling climate change while maximising oil extraction

The importance of tackling climate change was noted by the UK's energy minister Matt Hancock and Canadian deputy minister for natural resources Bob Hamilton. Both also emphasised their intention to maximise the exploitation of domestic fossil fuel resources.

While it is economically rational for individual countries like the UK or Canada to try to maximise the economic benefits of their natural resources, about 80 per cent of known global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we want a good chance of limiting warming to two degrees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Fossil fuels are needed today and they will still be needed for some years to come, but sooner or later we will have to stop extracting them. If everyone takes the UK-Canada approach and attempts to maximise exploitation of fossil reserves, then presumably all the climate targets in the world aren't going to prevent dangerous warming.

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Daily Briefing | India unimpressed with US-China climate deal

  • 19 Nov 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

India flag | Shutterstock

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Indians are not impressed with US-China climate deal 
An Indian thinktank has labelled last week's US-China climate deal as neither historic nor ambitious, reports the Guardian. It says the deal would lead to dangerous temperature rises. India's minister for environment, forests and climate change Prakash Javadekar says the deal is "not so ambitious" but also a "good beginning". 

Climate and energy news

Keystone pipeline vote fails in US Senate 
The US senate bill has failed to pass a bill in support of the $7bn Keystone XL oil pipeline. A cross-party attempt to press president Barack Obama into approving it mustered only 59 of the required 60 votes, despite support from all Republican senators. The planned pipeline would carry oil from Canada to the US and has become a proxy for a bigger political fight over the competing imperatives of economic growth and environmental protection, the Financial Times says. The New York Times also has the story. The Guardian has several takes on the news. Reuters reports on White House opposition to the Senate legislation. 
Financial Times 

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Why feeding more people doesn't have to be at the expense of the climate

  • 18 Nov 2014, 16:14
  • Robert McSweeney

Wheat | Prof. Yantai Gan

The world is on course to produce more wheat this year than ever before. Yet as supply rises to meet demand, so do the carbon emissions from growing and harvesting the crop.

Now a 25-year long field experiment in Canada shows that growing wheat can actually take up more carbon than it releases. Meeting demand for food doesn't have to mean more carbon emissions, the study's lead scientist tells us.

Wheat is in demand

Wheat is the third most-grown cereal crop in the world, after maize and rice. Demand for major cereal crops such as wheat is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2050.

In the UK, around two million hectares of land are used to grow wheat, with the harvested crop worth around £1.2 billion. But wheat accounts for 30 per cent of emissions from growing the crops we eat, estimates WWF.

Fuel burned in tractors used to farm land releases carbon dioxide, as does producing and using fertilisers. These emissions typically outweigh the amount of carbon dioxide the crops absorb as they grow.

Now a new study by Canadian researchers, published in Nature Communications, finds that with some changes to farming practices, growing wheat can actually remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces.

Little field on a prairie

The US and Canada are the third and fifth largest producers of wheat in the world. Between them they harvested around 90 million tons of wheat last year. Most of this is grown in the 'wheat belt', a vast area of the North American prairies that stretches across much of central US and Canada.

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How an IPCC graph linked fossil fuel use to climate change, and why it led to a heated debate

  • 18 Nov 2014, 12:45
  • Roz Pidcock

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major new report, summarising scientific knowledge on climate change.

It contained something of a milestone in IPCC history - a chart linking greenhouse gas concentrations to fossil fuel emissions, rising global temperatures and sea level.

That might sound fairly innocuous. But some countries argued against its inclusion. So why was a figure outlining the well-understood link between carbon dioxide and climate change contentious?

Connecting the dots

The new figure charts the growth of atmospheric greenhouse gases over the industrial period, alongside rising emissions from fossil fuels and changes in global temperature and sea levels.

Synthesis Report _1point 1D

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Seven charts showing why we need China's help to stop dangerous warming

  • 18 Nov 2014, 10:04
  • Simon Evans

Last week the US and China agreed a  landmark deal on tackling climate change. It's an important symbolic move by the world's top two emitters, but more importantly it matters because the world is unlikely to avoid dangerous climate change without help from China.

The deal was announced on the same day as the International Energy Agency published its World Energy Outlook 2014 (WEO). This is one of the most respected set of global energy projections and at over 700 pages it's one of the weightiest too.

We've extracted insights from the WEO to show why what China does is so important for the climate and why even its ambitious plans are expected to be insufficient if we want to limit warming to two degrees.

How China became the world's biggest emitter

China overtook the US to become the world's largest emitter in 2006. China's energy-related carbon emissions increased by 261 per cent between 1990 and 2012. This astonishing near-tripling in Chinese emissions is in contrast to the US, where with four per cent growth emissions were basically flat.

While Chinese emissions were tripling, global emissions increased by 51 per cent from 21 gigatonnes (below left) to 32 gigatonnes in 2012 (below right).

This shift means China's share of global energy emissions increased from 11 per cent in 1990 (purple chunk, below left) to 26 per cent in 2012 (below right) while the US share shrank from 23 to 16 per cent (blue chunks).

As of 2012, the world's two largest emitters were responsible for 42 per cent of energy-related emissions. That's why their  climate agreement is such a big deal.

The area of the circles is proportional to global energy-related emissions in gigatonnes. Source: data from the World Energy Outlook 2014, graphic by Carbon Brief.

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