Attributing extreme weather to climate change in real-time

  • 08 Oct 2014, 11:00
  • Dr Friederike Otto

The question of how extreme weather events might be linked to climate change is a key one.

It's particularly important because in many regions, extreme weather like heatwaves, floods and droughts cause more damage than other, more predictable consequences of climate change, such as sea-level rise.  

Scientists know that an increase in average temperature as the climate changes will lead to an increase in the number or magnitude of some extreme events, while others will get less likely.

But the chaotic nature of weather means it's generally impossible to say, for any particular event, that it only happened because of climate change.

European Heatwave

During the 2003 heatwave in Europe, summer temperatures rose several degrees above those in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. Image by Reto Stöckli, Robert Simmon and David Herring, NASA Earth Observatory, based on data from the MODIS land team

Probabilistic event attribution

On this basis, some people have concluded that it's effectively impossible to attribute extreme weather events to greenhouse gas emissions.

But this isn't quite right, and there are ways we can explore the links.

My colleagues and I work on the emerging science of  Probabilistic Event Attribution (PEA), which tries to  assess how much human-induced climate change is  affecting local weather events such as  flooding or  heatwaves.

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Daily Briefing | EU leaders poised to agree tougher climate and energy goals

  • 08 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

EU poised to agree 2030 climate, energy goals-draft 
EU leaders are poised this month to agree three new, tougher climate and energy goals for 2030 and poorer nations will get help to shoulder the cost, according to a draft document prepared for summit talks, says Reuters. The document, dated October 7th, showed the EU is considering a 40 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. It is also seeking a 30 per cent increase in energy savings compared with projected consumption and a goal to get 27 per cent of energy from renewable sources.     Reuters 

Climate and energy news

Friends of the Earth calls for EU rethink on renewables state aid guidance 
A recent change to EU state aid guidance is threatening to create "big problems" for renewables projects, campaigners warned. Friends of the Earth has filed a formal request to the European Commission calling for an urgent review of guidance that requires all renewable energy projects with more than 1MW of capacity to undergo a competitive bidding process in order to secure government support. They warn that it would make it much harder for mid-sized renewable energy projects, such as community-owned solar farms or large rooftop solar arrays, to secure support.     Business Green 

Sea ice surrounding Antarctica reaches record levels as it hits 20 MILLION square kilometers 
Sea ice surrounding Antarctica has reached a new record high. NASA says it now covers more of the southern oceans since the satellite record began in the late 1970s. The upward trend in the Antarctic, however, is only about a third of the magnitude of the rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. The new Antarctic sea ice record reflects the diversity and complexity of Earth's environments, say NASA researchers.     Mail Online 

Without New Policies, Federal Watchdog Says Canada Will Fail To Meet Climate Goals 
Canada's government isn't doing enough to meet its 2020 target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, according to a new report from the country's environmental watchdog. Canada had pledged to reduce its emissions 17 per cent by 2020, but a new report says Canada's emissions look set to be virtually unchanged. According to the report, the lack of regulations on Canada's burgeoning oil and gas industry are contributing heavily to the country's failure to reduce emissions.     Climate Progress 

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Is burning wood for energy worse for the climate than coal?

  • 07 Oct 2014, 16:50
  • Simon Evans

Drax Power

An article in today's Daily Mail says it is "lunacy" to run Drax power station on biomass instead of coal. Converting the plant to burn wood destroys forests and emits more carbon, it says. The paper calls this a "living, humming, forest-destroying symbol of the shameful absurdity of European energy policies".

Drax and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) do not agree. DECC is giving money to conversions at Drax and other power plants because they are helping the UK meet an EU target to get 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

DECC says this will cut carbon too, if the right kind of biomass is used. But what does the right kind of biomass look like? Let's try to unpack things a little.

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Around the world in 22 carbon capture projects

  • 07 Oct 2014, 11:52
  • Simon Evans and Rosamund Pearce

Avoiding dangerous climate change is still possible but will cost more than twice as much if we don't have plenty of  carbon capture and storage (CCS).

That's what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  concluded earlier this year.

If the world is going to avoid dangerous warming then CCS is probably going to play a pretty important role. The executive director of the International Energy Agency Maria van der Hoeven says it is "essential". Former UK chief scientist David King has   called CCS "the only hope for mankind".

So the  opening of the world's first major power station CCS project at Boundary Dam in Canada is being hailed as a historic milestone in efforts to tackle climate change.

Boundary Dam is significant because it's the first commercial scale power station to use the technology, even if CCS is fitted to just one of its generating units.

So where in the world is CCS being developed, and how much carbon will be captured?

We take you around the world in 22 CCS projects that are operational or under construction according to the Global CCS Institute.

The current state of CCS

North America has the largest number of CCS projects by far. The US boasts 16 of the 22 operational or under construction schemes and the lion's share of capture capacity, as the map below shows.

We've plotted the location and size of the world'c CCS on this map. The full, interactive Carbon Brief map is available over at   CartoDB.

The UK doesn't feature on the map. There are five planned CCS projects in the UK but none has reached the construction phase, let alone started operating. Their progress has been rocky at best, despite a government pledge of £1 billion in funding.

Only three of the 22 active global projects are power stations. The remainder include nine industrial facilities manufacturing iron or processing tar sands, for instance. Then there are ten projects at natural gas processing facilities.

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Daily Briefing | Japan's nuclear restart likely to hit oil usage

  • 07 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Shutterstock: Nuclear power plant

Japan nuclear restart to hit oil usage hardest 
Japanese utility companies have applied to restart twenty nuclear reactors from next year - the country gradually shut down all of its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. This Reuters piece takes a detailed look at the likely effect on oil and gas imports to the country. Oil imports are likely to fall, it says - Japan turned to expensive oil power as a stop-gap to replace nuclear generation.     Reuters 

Is global warming WORSE than we think? Ocean temperatures are rising 'up to 152% faster' than believed, study claims 
Satellite measurements of the Southern Ocean suggest that more heat has been absorbed by the upper layers of the seas than scientists had thought. That means global warming is worse than we thought, the Mail infers, and global ocean warming has been underestimated by between 24 and 58 per cent. Another piece of research,  also reported by the Mail suggests that the deep ocean has not warmed over the past few decades - although the researchers warn that their measurements are not accurate enough to say for sure. The  New York Times also covers the first paper, concluding "the finding that more heat has been taken up by the oceans may lead to revisions in estimates of the rate of sea-level rise [and] may affect assessments of how sensitive the climate is to [greenhouse gases]."      Mail Online 

Could CLIMATE CHANGE determine the sex of your child? Warmer temperatures are linked to a rise in baby girls being born 
Mail Online reports the findings of new research from Japan which suggests that more girls are born compared to boys when temperatures rise in the country. However, the study "makes it clear that climate change may not be responsible for skewing the number of girls and boys that are born". As the world heats, and if temperature does change the ratio of male to female births, "a change to the global sex ratio may happen one day" the article concludes.      Mail Online 

Vince Cable admits green taxes DO harm the British economy 
At the Liberal Democrat conference, Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned about the effect of 'green levies' on business. He is reported to have told a fringe meeting: "we have now introduced compensation schemes to offset some of those costs, but... it doesn't go the whole hog ... There's an issue here about the extent to which we are willing to tolerate the export of pollution because of our own system of taxing and charging industries which have a high energy content."      The Daily Mail 

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How air pollution caused Europe’s rivers to fill

  • 06 Oct 2014, 17:02
  • Robert McSweeney

River Wisla | Shutterstock

Air pollution from Europe resulted in a 25 per cent increase in river flows in Poland and Germany during the late 20th century, a new study finds. The researchers say their findings show how the impact of burning fossil fuels is not just limited to increasing temperatures.

Solar dimming

In the sixties and seventies, air quality across much of Europe was very poor. Coal power stations and inefficient cars belched out tiny particles, known as aerosols, into the atmosphere. These aerosols caused widespread health problems and contributed to the famous 'pea-souper' smogs in London.

This new piece of research, published in Nature Geoscience, finds that these aerosols also caused an increase in the amount of water flowing in rivers across Europe.

Some sources of aerosols are natural, such as volcanoes, plant vapours and chemicals released by tiny sea creatures. However, since the industrial revolution, humans have been emitting more and more aerosols through fossil fuel burning.

One type of aerosols, called sulphate aerosols, are emitted from cars and power stations. Once in the atmosphere, these aerosols affect the climate in two ways. They directly scatter sunlight and reflect it back out to space. They can also react with clouds in complex ways, causing the clouds to reflect more light back out to space. This process, known as 'solar dimming', reduces the amount of the sun's energy that reaches the Earth's surface.

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What the UK’s capacity market could mean for the future of coal, gas and energy sector emissions

  • 06 Oct 2014, 16:00
  • Mat Hope

The government has a new policy to make sure the lights always stay on, even when demand is high and the weather means renewables aren't generating electricity.

It's introducing a new scheme called a capacity market to ensure power stations are always ready to generate enough electricity to meet the UK's needs.

But it's not yet clear which power stations will be included in the scheme. That's important, as it will determine how much coal, gas, or oil gets burned for power generation, and what the impact on the UK's emissions will be.

We explain how the capacity market should work, and how it fits with the government's wider energy and climate change policy goals.

Making a market

Even though  electricity demand is gradually reducing, the UK's peak demand isn't shrinking much, and is set to remain at around 53 gigawatts.

The UK has lots of old coal, gas and nuclear power plants. As they age, they get more prone to breaking, so if the power companies don't want to invest millions in upgrading them they usually shut them down.

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Daily Briefing | Scientists respond to criticisms of their call to ditch the 2-degree target

  • 06 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Getting Beyond the 2-Degree Threshold on Global Warming 
Scientists David Victor and Charles Kennel respond at length to criticisms of their Nature opinion piece last week, in which they called for the longstanding target of limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels to be ditched. Fellow scientist Stefan Rahmstorf posted a stern critique on the RealClimate blog. Scientists tell us what they think of the two degree target and the Nature commentary here.   New York Times 

Climate and energy news

Farmers fear fracking could spell financial ruin 
Ministers pushing for shale gas exploration cannot take the support of rural communities for granted, warns the National Farmers' Union. Farmers fear they could face financial ruin from government plans to allow fracking beneath their land without compensation. Meanwhile, a farmer who lost 800 acres of land in last winter's flooding says more needs to be done to help farmers recover from extreme rainfall and flooding.   The Telegraph 

Tougher energy efficiency target would boost UK economy by £62bn 
EU policymakers could create an additional 30,000 jobs by setting a higher energy efficiency target, according to unpublished EU figures seen by the Guardian. Setting a target to cut energy use by 40 per cent could create 40,000 jobs, it claims. A 30 per cent target could create 13,000 jobs. EU energy and environment ministers are gathering in Milan to discuss energy efficiency targets as part of a broader package of climate and energy goals for 2030.   The Guardian 

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Has DECC signed a dud deal for renewables?

  • 03 Oct 2014, 10:05
  • Simon Evans

Business contract | Shutterstock

Contracts for renewable electricity signed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in May were poor value for taxpayers, according to an influential committee of MPs.

The contracts, worth up to £16.6 billion over their lifetime, were awarded in May to eight projects including five offshore windfarms and three plants that will burn wood to generate power. The National Audit Office published a report on the deals in June that made very similar complaints to the MPs.

So why are the contracts being criticised?

Regime change

The government is introducing a new subsidy scheme for low carbon energy starting in April 2015, called contracts for difference (CfDs). DECC decided to sign early CfDs with these eight large projects because it was worried there would otherwise be a gap in investment as we change over from the previous subsidy regime.

It's these early contracts that the NAO and MPs on the Public Accounts Committee are unhappy about. Both are unconvinced that an investment hiatus would really have materialised.

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Daily Briefing | Government cuts solar subsidy angering industry

  • 03 Oct 2014, 09:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

UK renewable energy subsidy changes anger solar industry 
The solar industry has hit back at the government's new Contracts for Difference scheme, saying it unfairly curtails the burgeoning industry at a critical time. The CfD scheme will provide £300m worth of support to the renewable power industry but will require that more mature technologies, such as onshore wind and solar, compete for subsidies with less established - and more expensive - sectors. Labour has waded into the row over solar subsidies, accusing the government of undermining support for the industry, reports BusinessGreen.  The Guardian 

Climate and energy news

Expensive green energy a 'bad gamble' as ministers slash gas price forecasts
The Department of Energy and Climate Change has released new forecasts slashing its gas price forecasts for this decade by as much as 20 per cent. With nuclear and wind set to remain more costly relative to gas, this undermines the Government's case for backing green energy, says The Times. Cheaper gas could be good news for consumers, shaving close to £100-a-year off a typical dual-fuel bill, reports the Telegraph.  The Telegraph 

Investment in clean energy rising after two years of decline 
Globally, just over $175 billion was poured into solar, wind and other green energy sources in the first nine months of 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China's solar boom made the single biggest contribution, catapulting total investment by 16 per cent on last year. But there's no room for complacency, says Bloomberg chairman Michael Liebreich. More is needed to support the rapid transformation of the power system needed to see carbon dioxide emissions peak in 2020.  The Financial Times 

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