Analysis

US lightning strikes to increase under climate change

  • 13 Nov 2014, 19:25
  • Robert McSweeney

Lightning over field | Shutterstock

Climate change is likely to increase the number of lightning strikes, according to a study that models the effect of a warmer climate on lighting in the US.

Lightning already strikes the US about 25 million times each year, causing dozens of deaths and millions of dollars' worth of damage from fires. The study finds the number of strikes could increase by around 50 per cent through the 21st century.

Static electricity

When static electricity builds up in large storm clouds it can discharge as lightning, either extending into the air, within the cloud itself, or striking the Earth's surface. The electricity is generated as water droplets and ice crystals bump into each other as they rise and fall within the cloud.

There are around 25 million lightning strikes in the US every year, mostly on the eastern side of the country. The map below plots them.Romps Et Al (2014) Fig1

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A detailed look at the US and China’s historic climate deal

  • 13 Nov 2014, 15:00
  • Mat Hope
  • The US and China both make new pledges to cut emissions.
  • The pledges are not enough to prevent temperatures rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
  • Negotiators say the agreement is vital to policymakers' chances of agreeing a new climate deal in 2015.

The US and China yesterday agreed new climate targets. The deal is being hailed as  "historic" and "a  watershed moment for climate politics". Some have questioned whether the targets are ambitious enough to help the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change, however. Here's our guide.

China's emissions to peak in 2030

China has pledged to ensure emissions peak in 2030. It has also promised to aim to produce 20 per cent of its energy from low carbon sources by the same date.

No one knows how high the country's emission peak will be and it's unclear how much carbon dioxide China will be emitting when 2030 comes around.

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Can we use gas as a 'bridging fuel' to a low carbon world?

  • 13 Nov 2014, 11:48
  • Christian Hunt

Credit:  Richard Humphrey

Gas can be a bridge fuel, displacing coal and helping to reduce carbon emissions, a  new report concludes. But only for the next twenty years, and only if the world sorts out carbon capture and storage (CCS) and sees a dramatic cut in coal use.

Limiting climate change means the world is eventually going to need to get energy from power sources that are essentially zero carbon. That means renewables, nuclear power, and perhaps CCS power plants. If CCS can be used in conjunction with burning wood, effectively drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, so much the better.

But in the short term, why not begin with an easier task and replace coal power with gas, saving carbon emissions in the process? Effectively using gas as a 'bridge' to a low carbon energy system.

The problem is it's tricky to know exactly what a 'gas bridge' would look like. For instance, how much gas can the world burn, and for how long? A new report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) crunches some numbers to try and answer those questions, and offers some insight into exactly how gas could help the world bridge to a low carbon future.

Gas as a bridge fuel

It might seem odd that climate policy could lead to increased use of fossil fuels. But, say UKERC, putting a price on carbon would initially push gas use up, not down.

The UKERC report uses economic modelling to look at the effect of introducing a carbon tax on the world's energy mix. As gas produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal, pricing carbon would make gas cheaper than coal, pushing gas use up at coal's expense.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 12.11.20.png
How gas use rises with various carbon prices: the black line is with no carbon tax, the yellow line corresponds with a two degree target, UKERC says.

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Six years worth of current emissions would blow the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees

  • 13 Nov 2014, 11:00
  • Roz Pidcock and Rosamund Pearce

It will take just six years of current emissions to exhaust a carbon budget that would give a good chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, based on figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC's new budget,  revealed earlier this month, calculates the remaining amount of carbon dioxide humans can emit and still hope to cap global warming at less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees has become a political rallying call for some nations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

The IPCC's calculations suggest hopes of preventing temperatures from ever crossing the 1.5 degree threshold are slim to none. But the IPCC highlights that options to temporarily exceed the target and return to lower temperatures later in the century could still be on the table.

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Daily Briefing | China-US pact heartening but short of what's needed says IPCC

  • 13 Nov 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

China-US climate pact heartening but short of what's needed-IPCC 
A deal between China and the United States to combat global warming is "heartening" but it falls short of the action needed to avert the worst impacts, the head of the U.N. panel of climate scientists said on Wednesday. A  Guardian editorial says that while the pact doesn't go far enough, it's a good place to start and unblocks the road to a deal in Paris next year.  Time magazine says the deal shows China is "ready to grow up on climate change".       Reuters 

Climate and energy news

US-China climate deal puts pressure on G20 leaders to step up 
Ministers around the world welcomed an announcement by the US and China to reduce emissions as an important step towards a successful UN climate agreement next year, reports RTCC. A  separate piece looks at whether a "carbon budget" approach could be the basis for global emissions reductions after 2020, designed to keep the world below 2 Celsius, the level deemed safe by scientists.       RTCC 

SNP plan for green power is 'nonsense' says expert 
Alex Salmond's vision of a Scotland powered entirely by renewable energy by 2020 has been dismissed as "nonsense" by one of the UK's leading energy economists. In an interview with The Times Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at the University of Oxford, insisted it did not make economic sense for Scotland to be reliant on renewable energy - and nor would it help in the battle against climate change.       The Times 

China-US climate change deal a 'giant leap for mankind', says IEA 
Wednesday's pledges from the US and China to cut emissions takes the world closer to preventing dangerous warming of more than two degrees above preindustrial levels, the International Energy Agency has said. The IEA's central scenario for business-as-usual in world energy would result in temperature rises of 3.6 Celsius, reports  RTCC.  The Guardian calls the deal "a historic milestone in the global fight against climate change", which marks the start of a solution to global warming after 20 years of tortuous negotiations.      The Telegraph

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Warmer temperatures and more acidic oceans put crabs into survival mode

  • 13 Nov 2014, 08:43
  • Robert McSweeney

Porcelain crab | Adam Paganini

The combined effect of rising temperatures and a more acidic ocean will make it harder for seashore crabs to grow and reproduce, a new study finds.

The results suggests that other marine species could be affected too, the researchers say.

Basic functions

The oceans absorbs around 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, carbonic acid is produced, which makes the oceans more acidic. The oceans have become around 26 per cent more acidic since the industrial revolution and this is projected to increase further under all scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

New research, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, studies the impact of ocean acidification and higher air temperatures on the porcelain crab, which lives in rocky shorelines on the coasts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The results show that warmer, more acidic conditions mean the crabs have to put a greater proportion of energy into the basic functions of living and breathing, leaving less for anything else.

This could be an indicator for other species in the 'intertidal zone', or seashore, too. As co-author, Professor Jonathon Stillman, explains: "future intertidal zone animals may experience reduced rates of growth, behavior, or reproduction."

High- and low-tides

While previous studies have tested the impact of constant high temperatures and acidity on sea creatures, this isn't typical of the conditions on the seashore.

Air temperatures in the intertidal zone can change by 20°C within six hours, while acidity levels can vary between day and night and from one season to the next. This study tests temperature and acidity that peak and fall during the day.

In order to test the crabs under these conditions, researchers constructed a specially-designed aquarium, which could simulate high- and low-tide as well as different temperatures and acidity.

They simulated 'low-tide' in the aquarium for seven hours each day, reducing the water and increasing the air temperature. Then for five hours of 'high-tide' they submerged the crabs with water and brought the air temperature back down. They tested three scenarios of higher temperature and higher acidity (no change, moderate change and extreme change).

Combined effects

After two and a half weeks in those conditions, the researchers tested the metabolic rate and thermal tolerance of the crabs.

The findings show the combination of higher temperatures and more acidic water cause the crabs' metabolic rate to fall by as much as 25 per cent. You can see this by the green line in graph A below. The metabolism of the crabs slowed down, leaving them less energy to use in finding food, reproducing, or growth.

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Daily Briefing | China and US strike deal on carbon cuts

  • 12 Nov 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

President Obama | Shutterstock

China and US strike deal on carbon cuts in push for global climate pact 
The big news this morning is that the US and China have unveiled a "secretly negotiated deal" to reduce their greenhouse gas output, with China agreeing to cap emissions for the first time and the US committing to deep reductions by 2025. China, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 or earlier if possible, and has also promised to increase its use of energy from zero-carbon sources to 20 per cent by 2030. The US has pledged to cut its emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.  The New York Times reports Barack Obama's statement that "We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners." The  BBC says that the agreement is a "landmark in the battle against one of the world's most intractable problems." And  The Guardian also reports that the deal will put "extreme pressure" on Australia to announce similar targets. Not everyone is pleased though, as the  Financial Times reports the response from Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader: "This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs." The story is also covered by  Reuters and  Fox News, and you can read the full statement from the White House  here.      The Guardian 

Climate and energy news

IEA: $550bn fossil fuel handout is stalling clean energy progress 
Global fossil fuel subsidies are four times higher than those for clean energy and are "holding back investment" in both renewables and energy efficiency, the International Energy Agency (IEA) will warn today. In its 2014 World Energy Outlook report, the IEA says fossil fuel subsidies totalled $550bn last year, dwarfing the $120bn set aside for renewables.  Business Green also covers the key numbers from the IEA report. This follows news from  Climate Progress on a new report from Oil Change International and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) that finds that G20 nations are spending $88 billion annually on fossil fuel exploration. That's more than double the $37 billion spent on fossil fuel exploration by the world's largest 20 oil and gas companies in 2013.      Business Green 

Fracking won't cut bills and ministers 'oversold' shale gas benefits, experts say 
Fracking won't cut energy bills and ministers have "oversold" the benefits of UK shale gas exploration, Government-funded experts have warned. Academics at the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) said shale gas had been wrongly "heralded as the solution to our security of supply concerns". Instead of "banking on shale" the Government should support investment in more gas storage facilities to prevent prices spiking in the event of supply crises.  The Guardian also has the story.       The Telegraph 

Onshore windfarm opposition risks UK jobs, says Davey 
Energy secretary Ed Davey warns the Conservative party's opposition to onshore wind turbines risks undermining the creation of British jobs as new data showed 15,400 people are now employed in the wind power industry. The data from RenewableUK shows a 70 per cent rise in jobs in the wind power industry since 2010, while wind supplied 9 per cent of all UK electricity. But Davey says that the Conservative party's "ideological" opposition to onshore turbines was undermining new British jobs and driving up customer bills.      The Guardian 

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Flood warnings could come three days earlier, study suggests

  • 11 Nov 2014, 16:26
  • Robert McSweeney

Flooding in Cambs | Shutterstock

This week the Met Office published its   three-month outlook, giving a glimpse of likely weather for this coming winter. The forecast says predictions "favour"  near-or above-average rainfall between now and the end of January.

This might not sound like good news for those affected by last year's wettest winter on record, which saw the Environment Agency issue 14 severe flood warnings and evacuate 1,000 homes in the Thames catchment alone.

But a crumb of comfort might be that scientists are working on a way to predict the heavy rainfall that can cause flooding further in advance. A new study says that forecasting of heavy rain and storms could be happen as much as three days earlier by tracking water vapour instead of rainfall.

Flood forecasting

The study, published in Nature Communications, suggests that examining water vapour provides a more reliable way of predicting flood events than rainfall. The researchers use the example of the widespread flooding in Europe last winter to test their theory.

The UK has a range of organisations that track flood risk. In England and Wales, responsibility for flood risk information for the government and emergency services falls to the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC). It was established in 2009 following the Pitt Review of the summer floods of 2007, and is jointly managed by the Met Office and the Environment Agency. These bodies are likely to be interested in how this new work could improve their own forecasting methods.

Water vapour

Water vapour can get transported around in the form of giant atmospheric rivers, like the one shown in the figure below.

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Daily Briefing | Rich countries subsidising fossil fuel companies by $88bn a year

  • 11 Nov 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Rich countries subsidising oil, gas and coal companies by $88bn a year 
An assessment of global fossil fuel subsidies from the Overseas Development Institute has found that the "US government provided companies with $5.2bn for fossil fuel exploration in 2013, Australia spent $3.5bn, Russia $2.4bn and the UK $1.2bn. Most of the support was in the form of tax breaks for exploration in deep offshore fields." Four times as much money was spent on fossil fuel exploration as on renewable energy development, the report suggests. The UK government has responded,  telling the BBC that "allowances" to help companies explore for oil and gas "[do] not constitute a subsidy".       The Guardian 

Climate and energy news

China Oct coal output up 2.5 pct on year - industry website 
Reuters reports: "China's coal production rose 2.5 percent from a year ago to 330 million tonnes in October, according to an industry website that cited data from the National Bureau of Statistics."      Reuters 

Global warming 'will require more UK troops sent to fight overseas' 
A senior UK military figure has warned that while climate change is unlikely to start wars on its own, "You can probably secure a 2C world, but it's most unlikely you can secure a 4C world." Climate change will act as a "threat multiplier" in the future, Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti has warned.       The Telegraph 

Peabody sees reprieve from US carbon cuts push 
The US coal industry hopes that a strong performance by the Republican party in last week's US midterm elections means plans to cut emissions from the country's power sector will be rolled back or relaxed. Peabody Coal, the largest US coal producer, said it would be up to the "next administration" to determine how the plans would be introduced. Shares in Peabody rose 13 per cent following the Republican victory, the FT reports. The Republican party has  already vowed to fight the plans, according to the New York Times.       The Financial Times 

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Study links hot weather to violent conflict in Africa

  • 10 Nov 2014, 20:57
  • Robert McSweeney

UN Peacekeepers | Shutterstock

Analysis of violent events in the past 30 years in sub-Saharan Africa reveals a link to high temperatures, a new study finds.

However, the researchers say the impact of climate is less important than many other social and economic factors. 

Heated debate

The relationship between climate change and conflict has prompted much heated debate among academics. A recent review of 50 studies found they consistently supported the theory that changes in climate can cause conflict, but the conclusion was roundly criticised by a group of 26 other researchers.

On the face of it, the connections might seem obvious. Climate change risks exacerbating competition for natural resources, causing displacement through climate extremes and natural disasters, or just making it harder for governments to manage existing problems.

Yet there is limited evidence of a direct link, partly because there are so many political, social and economic factors involved in conflict. In its recent synthesis report, the IPCC says there is "medium confidence" that climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflict by amplifying poverty and economic shocks.

These other factors are considered alongside climate in a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which analyses high temperature extremes and violent events in sub-Saharan Africa.

Violent events

The study uses temperature and rainfall data alongside a dataset of armed conflict events from civil wars and periods of instability, for the period 1980 to 2012. The maps below show this data plotted as 100km grid squares across sub-Saharan Africa.

On Map A, the dark pink areas show where the highest number of violent events have occurred in recent decades. For example, the borders between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and Burundi show a large patch of dark pink, as does much of Zimbabwe, and Somalia on the westernmost point of Africa.

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