Analysis

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". 
Guardian 

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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Daily Briefing | US Senate set for Keystone XL pipeline vote

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

US Congress | Shutterstock

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US Senate heads for vote on Keystone XL pipeline 
Later today the US Senate will vote to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would send Canadian oil to the US Gulf for refining. Supporters of the pipeline scrambled to gather enough votes to pass the bill, a task that became harder after President Barack Obama made his toughest comments yet on the topic. Obama criticised the project during a trip to Asia late last week, reports Reuters, saying it would not lower fuel prices for drivers, but would allow Canada to "pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else." All 45 Senate Republicans support the pipeline, so 15 Democrats are needed to reach the 60 votes to pass the bill. The Guardian reports on the public relations campaign to support the pipeline that calls to "mobilise 35,000 supporters". WhileInside Climate News brings you "Everything you need to know in 23 stories". 
Reuters 

Climate and energy news

Oilmen threaten catastrophe in Kenya wildlife haven 
Plans to cut through one of the largest coastal forests in Africa so that oil and gas prospectors can lay hundreds of explosive charges would be an "environmental catastrophe" that could drive at least nine endangered species to extinction, conservationists have warned. An American-Chinese joint-venture will carry out seismic testing inside the Arabuko Sokoke forest on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, despite claims that it will cause irreparable damage to its fragile ecosystem. 
The Times 

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Germany debates programme to save 2020 climate target

  • 17 Nov 2014, 16:55
  • Mat Hope

Germany solar | Shutterstock

Germany plans to its cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. But three years of increasing emissions have raised questions about whether Germany can stick to its target.

The country's  environment minister is adamant that Germany will not relax decarbonisation targets. Today the energy and economics minister dismissed reports the target would be weakened.

The government is set to agree a new Climate Action Programme next month, designed to get the country's emissions back on track. But  a leaked draft shows a number of key issues are yet to be resolved.

The Energiewende's emissions gap

In 2010, Germany embarked on an ambitious programme to decarbonise its energy sector, known as  the Energiewende or 'energy transition'. The Energiewende set a  series of 2050 targets to guide Germany's climate and energy policy for the next 40 years.

To assess the Energiewende's progress, the government also set shorter-term targets. A goal to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels is just one of these.

But Germany's greenhouse gas emissions have been rising for the last three years, bringing this interim goal into question.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 16.36.51.png
Source:  Clean Energy Wir e

 

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Imported meat comes with a climate cost, new study warns

  • 17 Nov 2014, 15:03
  • Robert McSweeney

Cow and wind turbines | Shutterstock

A lot of the meat we eat is produced in a different country from the one we live in. A new study finds that greenhouse gas emissions from the beef, pork and chicken traded across borders have risen by 19 per cent in the past 20 years.

Not only might this affect diets of the climate-conscious, but a trend towards eating meat produced in a different country could make monitoring countries' individual emissions a far trickier task, say the researchers.

Livestock emissions

Carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor to climate change, but other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide play a role too. The methane and nitrous oxide produced by livestock, such as cows, pigs and chickens, account for around nine per cent of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide.

When you include methane and nitrous oxide emissions from transporting the animals and producing their feed, this proportion rises to 18 per cent.

A new study, published in Environmental Research Letters, finds that although the majority of meat is eaten in the country where it's produced, more and more meat is being exported.

So which country should be held responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions? The one where the meat is produced or the one where it's consumed?

The researchers say the growing demand for internationally-traded meat makes it harder to regulate emissions from farming.

Emissions from trade slipping through the cracks

All existing national or international policies to limit greenhouse gases take account of emissions from within specific countries only. So if the UK imports a tonne of beef, for example, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing it are not counted in our inventory.

You might think the emissions would be counted by the country producing the beef, but that might not be the case. The researchers say it's increasingly likely that meat is being imported from developing and emerging nations, which often have less stringent accounting of greenhouse emissions.

So the emissions from that tonne of beef may not be counted by either country, and instead may just 'leak' between the gaps in the system, say the researchers.

Beef the worst emitter, but others are catching up

Of the meat traded from one country to another, the study finds beef makes the biggest contribution to emissions, responsible for around three-quarters of the GHGs produced.

The research takes account of methane produced as livestock digest food (yes, farting) and the methane and nitrous oxide released as manure decomposes.

Emissions from traded pork (20 per cent) and chicken (six per cent) production are much lower by comparison, but are growing much more quickly. Between 1990 to 2010, the emissions from traded beef grew by around four per cent, while those from pork and chicken grew by 81 per cent and 360 per cent, respectively. You can see this in the charts below.

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