Why a 17% emissions drop does not mean we are addressing climate change

A chimney in an industrial area of Sydney emits vapour June 22, 2009. Australia's government, facing Senate defeat of key emission trading laws, vowed on Friday to bring its climate-fighting regime to the upper house a second time, opening the door for a possible snap election.        REUTERS/Tim Wimborne    (AUSTRALIA ENERGY POLITICS ENVIRONMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR24WOS
‘The COVID-19 pandemic is only a wake-up call.’
Image: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
  • Restrictions imposed as a result of coronavirus have seen emissions fall.
  • They offer an insight into the significant changes that will be needed to bring emissions down to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
  • Long-term action and thinking is needed.

The global COVID-19 quarantine has meant less air pollution in cities and clearer skies. Animals are strolling through public spaces, and sound pollution has diminished, allowing us to hear the birds sing.

But these relatively small and temporary changes should not be mistaken for the COVID-19 pandemic actually helping to fix climate change. Quite the contrary: the pandemic that made the world stop offers a glimpse of the deep changes in lifestyles and economic structures that we need to implement if we are to effectively mitigate the worst of climate change.

The short-term effects are not in doubt. A new study in Nature Climate Change led by scientists from the University of East Anglia and Stanford has found that daily global CO₂ emissions in early April 2020 were down 17% compared to the mean level of emissions in 2019.

This finding backs up an earlier report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which found that CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel combustion – globally, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions – in the first three months of 2020 were 5% lower compared to the same period last year.

But the short-term and long-term effects of pollution are different things, and a few months without driving or flying will do little in the long run. Climate change is caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Quarantine measures have affected emissions of these gases in the short term, and many places have seen a drop in air pollution. But these measures were not enough to curb the overall concentration in the atmosphere, which is still increasing. Why? Because molecules of these gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time: methane for around 12 years, for instance, and carbon dioxide for up to 200 years.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Emissions declined, but it won’t last

The new Nature climate change study predicts that if some restrictions are kept throughout the whole of 2020 annual emissions reductions would reach 7.5%.

emissions carbon dioxide environment climate change coronavirus
Daily CO2 emissions fell sharply.
Image: Carbon Brief

This would, in theory, be great news for the environment, especially if we could maintain it for years to come. After all, in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030.

But this level of emissions reduction will not last unless economic activity remains depressed. And as lockdowns end and people return to work, emissions will inevitably rise once again – this happens as activity resumes after every economic downturn, including the financial crisis of 2008.

Keeping economic activity depressed to April 2020 levels is not a feasible long-term strategy. But we could use this opportunity productively to steer our societies towards a new paradigm that truly addresses the core issue of the climate conundrum.

We need to restructure our economies

Fossil fuels are the basis of our economies. Our energy systems are built around them and surprisingly little has changed since the first oil shocks in 1973. Back then, coal, oil and gas accounted for 87% of the world’s total primary energy supply, while in 2017 these fossil fuels still accounted for 81%. Over that same period, the total amount of energy supplied more than doubled.

Yes, there is lots of new renewable energy, but this has been deployed alongside fossil fuels, rather than replacing them. All over the globe, there are still plans to build new coal-fired power plants and oil & gas infrastructure. Even countries like Norway, where fossil fuels count for only about 30% of the total energy supply and almost all electricity comes from hydropower, still often rely heavily on fossil fuel profits to fund welfare systems and pension schemes.

If we are to truly progress towards a low carbon economy, we must address the roots of the problem. For instance, how can we encourage further divestment from fossil fuels if the sector is still among the most secure and profitable investments? Or how can we build clean energy systems if we keep subsidising fossil fuels? Despite promises to phase out these tax breaks and other incentives, the richer G20 countries still provided US$127 billion in subsidies to coal, oil and gas in 2017 (remarkably, that figure excludes Saudi Arabia).

And how can we resume activity without “going back to normal”? We need long-term recovery strategies that value nature as the overarching framework within which we all exist, not a mere economic resource. To date, several post-pandemic recovery plans include generous help to the fossil fuel sector with no strings attached.

The pandemic is no climate change panacea. We now know that we can act collectively and adopt measures that significantly curb emissions – in the short term at least. But long-term change does not come about directly as a result of a crisis, but from consistent action changing what caused the crisis in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic is only a wake-up call: we still have a lot of work to do.

Scientists understand cattle not climate villains, but media still missing message

FOR a long time emissions from cattle have been lumped in with emissions from other sources as the same destructive forces for the planet in the global climate change narrative.

However, through research overseen by scientists including Dr Frank Mitloehner (right) from the University of California Davis and Dr Myles Allen from Oxford University, scientific consensus is starting to build around the point that livestock-related greenhouse gases are distinctively different from greenhouse gases associated with other sectors of society (more on this below).

Dr Mitloehner, an internationally recognised air quality expert, explained to the Alltech One virtual conference on Friday night (Australian time) that the concept of accounting for methane according to its Global Warming Potential, as opposed to just its volume of CO2 equivalent, which showed that not all greenhouse gases are created equal, has now made it all the way to the International Panel on Climate Change.

However, despite increasing awareness and understanding at a scientific level, the message has still not been taken up by the mainstream media.

“What I find interesting is that the one missing entity in this whole discussion so far has been the media,” he told Alltech president and CEO Dr Mark Lyons in a live streamed video interview.

“I have not seen any major reporting on this even though it’s such a hot topic.

“I mean, the world talks about what the impact of our food systems are on our environmental footprint.

“Now, this is a major new narrative. And to me, it’s very unusual and it’s very confusing as to why the same outlets that have touted this topic as being so paramount are not talking about these new findings whatsoever.

“So to me that’s problematic. And we have to think about why that is. Have we not explained it right? Is it too early for them to report about it? I don’t know, but this narrative is not going away.

“You will see it will gain momentum, and it will become the new reality.”

Why all greenhouse gases are not created equal

Dr Mitloehner said to date the global climate change debate has tended to focus only on how much greenhouse gases are emitted by different sources.

Most discussion fails to recognise that certain sectors of society, such as forestry and agriculture, also serve as a sink for greenhouse gases.

Climate debate focuses on the 560 tera-grams of methane emitted each year but tends to ignore the 550 tera-grams sequested by sinks like agriculture and forestry (right).

After the Kyoto protocol, the climate change debate centred on the 560 tera-grams of methane emitted into the atmosphere each year from all sources, including fossil fuel production and use, agriculture and waste, biomass burning, wetlands and other natural emissions.

“That is where most people stop the discussion, even though they shouldn’t,” he explained.

“Because in addition to emissions putting methane into the atmosphere, we also have sinks on the right side of this graph (above).

“And these sinks amount to a very respectable total number of 550 teragrams.

“So in other words, we have 560 teragrams of methane emitted, meaning put into the atmosphere, but then we have 550 teragrams of methane taken out of the atmosphere.

So in other words, the net emissions per year that we are dealing with is not 560, but it’s actually 10.

“Yet everybody talks about 560.”

In a biogenic carbon cycle, constant livestock herds or decreasing livestock herds over time did not add additional carbon to the atmosphere, he explained.

The carbon emitted by animals is recycled carbon. It came from atmospheric CO2, captured by plants, eaten by animals and then belched back out into the atmosphere, after a while becoming CO2 again.

Methane is a heat-trapping, potent greenhouse gas, and he stressed he was not suggesting that “it didn’t matter”.

But the key question for livestock is do ruminant herds add to additional methane, meaning additional carbon in the atmosphere which leads to additional warming?

The answer he said was clearly “no”.

Oxford University authors including Professor Myles Allen have shown that biogenic methane is not the same as fossil methane.

It is the same chemically, but the origin and fate “are totally, drastically different”.

“As long as we have constant herds or even decreasing herds, we are not adding additional methane, and hence not additional warming.

“This is a total change in the narrative around livestock. And I think this will be the narrative in the years to come.”

A chart documenting the size of the US cattle herd since 1867 shows it has decreased to around 90 million beef cattle and 9 million dairy cattle, down from peaks of 140 million beef cattle in the 1950s and 25 million dairy cattle in the 1970s.

The Australian cattle herd has similarly decreased from a peak of over 33 million cattle in 1976 to around 24 million today.

“We’re clearly see a decreasing number of livestock over the last few decades meaning with respect to livestock numbers, we have not cost an increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but indeed we have decreased the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere,” he said.

By contrast emissions from fossil fuel extractions were not part of a cycle, but “a one-way street”, because the amount of CO2 sent into the atmosphere in this process by far overpowered the potential sinks that could take up CO2, such as oceans, soils or plants.

“So here we have a one-way street. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the main culprit of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the resulting warming.

“I have yet to see a climate scientist who would say that it’s the cows that are a primary culprit of warming. Most of them will agree that the primary culprit is the use of fossil fuels.”

“However, people critical of animal agriculture always point at cows, and cattle, and other livestock species. And they feel that this is a very powerful tool to ostracize animal agriculture as we know it.”

Not only were cattle not the primary culprit of global warming, they were also potentially part of the solution, as an explanation of stock gases versus flow gases demonstrated.

Long-lived climate pollutants such as Co2 were referred to as ‘stock’ gases because they last in the atmosphere for 1000 years. “Every time you put it into the atmosphere, you add to the existing stock of that gas,” he explained.

Methane (CH4) was a ‘flow’. Provided it was coming from a constant source, what was being put into the atmosphere was also being taken out.

“The only time that you really add new additional methane to the atmosphere with the livestock herd is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or if you increase your herd sizes.

“Only then do you actually add new additional methane and thus new additional warming.

“So please remember there are big differences between long-lived stock gases such as CO2 or nitrous oxide versus short-lived flow gases such as methane.”

He invited the audience to imagine a scenario where methane emissions from cattle were decreased by 35 percent.

If this could be achieved, it would have the effect of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and create a net cooling effect.

“If we find ways to reduce methane, then we counteract other sectors of societies that do contribute – and significantly so – to global warming, such as flying, driving, running air conditioners, and so on.

“So if we were to reduce methane, we could induce global cooling. And I think that our livestock sector has the potential to do it. And we are already seeing examples where that happens.”

He offered several examples of how the agricultural sector has already had success in reducing methane.

A few years ago the California legislature wrote a law called SB 1383 mandating a 40 percent reduction of methane to be achieved by the year 2030.

California’s farms and ranches have reduced greenhouse gases by 25pc since the laws were enacted.

This was achieved by using “a carrot rather than cane approach”, by rewarding farmers and ranchers who wanted to reduce emissions by giving them financial incentives to invest in anaerobic digesters or alternative manure management practices.

“I know if we can do it here, it can be done in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world.

“And if we indeed achieve such reductions of greenhouse gas, particularly of short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, then that means that our livestock sector will be on a path for climate neutrality– on a path to climate neutrality. And that, to me, is a lifetime objective.”

Agriculture needs to work harder to tell its story

Dr Mitloehner said it was important the industry work harder to ensure the public understands the science around cattle production and greenhouse gas emissions.

“I feel that it is actually critical to get what we find in our research environment translated and communicated with the public sector.

“Because only if what we find makes its way to the light of the day, only then it matters”

It was also important that the public discussion used accurate and not misleading numbers around livestock emissions.

It is often stated that livestock emissions represent 14 percent to even as high as 50 percent of total emissions, but Dr Mitloehner said this did not reflect actual livestock emissions in developed countries such as the US were the number was closer to just 3 percent of all US emissions.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *

Comment

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.

Scientists understand cattle not climate villains, but media still missing message

COMMENTS

Why Are We Subsidizing Fossil Fuels? Seriously

May 24th, 2020 by 


Originally published on the website of The Climate Reality Project.

Supporting renewables can cut emissions and boost the economy, all while providing cost-competitive energy. Yet the Trump Administration continues propping up the fossil fuel industry — despite the sector facing real financial problems that began long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disney World solar installation, by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica

Just over a decade ago the Obama Administration and Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: a stimulus package response to the Great Recession. Notably, it included unprecedented support for renewable energy and other green initiatives.

Since then, installed solar capacity in the US has grown from about 2 gigawatts to 78 gigawatts: enough to power 14.5 million homes. Similarly, wind capacity around the country grew from 35 gigawatts in 2009 to over 107 gigawatts in 2020. These clean energy sources haven’t just prevented millions of tons of planet-warming, air-polluting emissions — they’ve created millions of high-quality jobs, helping boost the economy when it mattered most. The stimulus push wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one.

Now, 10 years later, you might say the opposite is happening.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump Administration is largely shunning clean energy, a sector that has demonstrated outstanding economic promise, while propping up the oil, gas, and coal industries, which faced real financial challenges long before this pandemic started.

So, why are we prioritizing fossil fuels over clean energy? It didn’t make sense 10 years ago and it certainly doesn’t make sense now.

Integrated gas station with EVgo fast chargers in South Carolina, by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica

Fossil Fuels: An Industry In Decline

First things first, how exactly has the Trump Administration been propping up fossil fuels? To name a few highlights, since the pandemic started, the administration has:

The threat of our changing climate aside, these actions just don’t make economic sense. Why? Because these industries were in decline before this pandemic even started. Let’s take a look at each one.

First off, coal.

In 2019 alone, US coal-fired electricity output dropped by 18 percent, reaching its lowest level since 1975. This consistent, years-long decline is largely the result of increasingly cost-competitive solar and wind energy.

So cost competitive, in fact, that it’s now more expensive to operate 74 percent of US coal plants than to build and use renewables. Those facts, combined with rising public concern over coal’s health-damaging, planet-warming pollution, make it clear that a US coal phase-out should be only a matter of time.

Next up, oil and gas.

Despite a boom over the past decade thanks to shale fracking, oil and gas face an increasingly pressing problem — they’re largely unprofitable for US drillers. Many companies in the space today continue to operate exclusively thanks to billions of dollars of investment that might never be paid back.

As news site oilprice.com reported in 2019 (note, before the pandemic):

“Despite the hype of lower breakeven prices, and despite the hype around longer laterals, energy digitalization, and other technological breakthroughs, most shale companies are still not profitable. In fact, roughly 9 out of every 10 U.S. shale companies are burning cash, according to Rystad Energy. The Oslo-based consultancy studied 40 U.S. shale companies and found that only 4 of them had positive cash flow in the first quarter of 2019.”

Similarly, a 2020 report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) describes how oil, gas, and petrochemical companies showed “clear signs of systemic weakness” long before the COVID-19 economic crisis as a result of:

  • Long-term underperformance on stock markets
  • Massive accumulations of corporate debt
  • Legal opposition in countries critical to the industry’s future
  • The increasing cost-competitiveness of renewable energy
  • Growing investor skepticism about the long-term prospects for fossil fuels during an escalating climate crisis.

Clearly, just like coal the oil and gas industries were already in trouble. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis is just amplifying their preexisting woes.

Renewables: Good For The Planet And For The Economy

Now, like just about any other sector, renewable energy currently faces significant losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 600,000 clean energy workers around the country have lost their jobs and projects are being put on hold. However, this crisis is also demonstrating this industry’s remarkable durability.

Recent headlines highlight how, even in the midst of this crisis, the US clean energy transition is still going strong:

  • The Department of Interior just approved plans for a 690-megawatt solar project in Nevada— the largest ever in the US.
  • For the first time ever America’s renewable energy sources have produced more electricity than coal every day for 40 days straight.
  • The city of Houston, Texas, the self-proclaimed “energy capital of the world”, has announced its plan to move to 100 percent renewable energy sources starting in July. This change is expected to save the city $65 million over the next seven years.
  • In California, an electric utility just announced that it will build 770-megawatts worth of battery storage for renewable energy. This single project tops all 2019 US installations by more than 200 megawatts.

Those are a just a few US-focused headlines, but long-term projections tell the same story all around the world: renewables are here to stay. 

According to the International Energy Agency, although growth in renewable electricity generation is smaller than anticipated before the COVID‑19 crisis, it’s still expected to rise by nearly 5 percent in 2020.

Similarly, the Financial Times recently described how, “Renewable energy is one of the few sectors that has managed to weather the devastating effects of coronavirus, with new deals and new records being struck, even while the rest of the world has been grappling with the pandemic”.

Economics are increasingly on the side of renewables, making them the right choice both financially and environmentally. So, why won’t the Trump administration embrace the transition away from fossil fuels that we need? Just like a decade ago, supporting clean energy today could supercharge our economy while tackling the climate crisis.

Why a 17% emissions drop does not mean we are addressing climate change

Why a 17% emissions drop does not mean we are addressing climate change
As well as fossil fuels—not instead of. Credit: science photo / shutterstock

The global COVID-19 quarantine has meant less air pollution in cities and clearer skies. Animals are strolling through public spaces, and sound pollution has diminished, allowing us to hear the birds sing.

But these relatively small and temporary changes should not be mistaken for the COVID-19 pandemic actually helping to fix climate change. Quite the contrary: the pandemic that made the world stop offers a glimpse of the deep changes in lifestyles and economic structures that we need to implement if we are to effectively mitigate the worst of climate change.

The  are not in doubt. A new study in Nature Climate Change led by scientists from the University of East Anglia and Stanford has found that daily global CO₂ emissions in early April 2020 were down 17% compared to the mean level of emissions in 2019.

This finding backs up an earlier report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which found that CO₂ emissions from —globally, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions—in the first three months of 2020 were 5% lower compared to the same period last year.

But the short-term and long-term effects of pollution are different things, and a few months without driving or flying will do little in the long run. Climate change is caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Quarantine measures have affected emissions of these gases in the short term, and many places have seen a drop in air pollution. But these measures were not enough to curb the overall concentration in the atmosphere, which is still increasing. Why? Because molecules of these gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time: methane for around 12 years, for instance, and carbon dioxide for up to 200 years.

Emissions declined, but it won’t last

The new Nature climate change study predicts that if some restrictions are kept throughout the whole of 2020 annual emissions reductions would reach 7.5%.

This would, in theory, be great news for the environment, especially if we could maintain it for years to come. After all, in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030.

But this level of emissions reduction will not last unless  remains depressed. And as lockdowns end and people return to work, emissions will inevitably rise once again—this happens as activity resumes after every economic downturn, including the financial crisis of 2008.

Keeping economic activity depressed to April 2020 levels is not a feasible long-term strategy. But we could use this opportunity productively to steer our societies towards a new paradigm that truly addresses the core issue of the climate conundrum.

We need to restructure our economies

Fossil fuels are the basis of our economies. Our  are built around them and surprisingly little has changed since the first oil shocks in 1973. Back then, coal, oil and gas accounted for 87% of the world’s total primary energy supply, while in 2017 these  still accounted for 81%. Over that same period, the total amount of energy supplied more than doubled.

Yes, there is lots of new renewable energy, but this has been deployed alongside fossil fuels, rather than replacing them. All over the globe, there are still plans to build new coal-fired power plants and oil & gas infrastructure. Even countries like Norway, where fossil fuels count for only about 30% of the total energy supply and almost all electricity comes from hydropower, still often rely heavily on fossil fuel profits to fund welfare systems and pension schemes.

If we are to truly progress towards a low carbon economy, we must address the roots of the problem. For instance, how can we encourage further divestment from fossil fuels if the sector is still among the most secure and profitable investments? Or how can we build clean energy systems if we keep subsidizing fossil fuels? Despite promises to phase out these tax breaks and other incentives, the richer G20 countries still provided US$127 billion in subsidies to coal, oil and gas in 2017 (remarkably, that figure excludes Saudi Arabia).

And how can we resume activity without “going back to normal”? We need long-term recovery strategies that value nature as the overarching framework within which we all exist, not a mere economic resource. To date, several post-pandemic recovery plans include generous help to the fossil  sector with no strings attached.

The pandemic is no  panacea. We now know that we can act collectively and adopt measures that significantly curb emissions—in the short term at least. But long-term change does not come about directly as a result of a crisis, but from consistent action changing what caused the crisis in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic is only a wake-up call: we still have a lot of work to do.

The Arctic Is Unraveling as a Massive Heat Wave Grips the Region

It wouldn’t be spring in the climate change era without a massive heat wave in the Arctic.

Freakishly warm air has billowed up from Siberia over the Arctic Ocean and parts of Greenland, and the heat will only intensify in the coming days. The warmth is helping to spread widespread wildfires and to kickstart ice melt season early, both ominous signs of what summer could hold.

The Arctic has been on one recently. Russia had its hottest winter ever recorded, driven largely by Siberian heat. That heat hasn’t let up as the calendar turns to spring. In fact, it’s intensified and spread across the Arctic. Last month was the hottest April on record for the globe, driven by high Arctic temperatures that averaged an astounding 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9.4 degrees Celsius) above normal, according to NASA data.

Now, a May heat wave has pushed things into overdrive. Martin Stendel, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, told the Washington Post that the mid-May warmth is “quite extraordinary…there is no similar event so early in the season.”

Top ArticlesUber Has Now Laid Off a Quarter ofIts Workforce

Siberia has been one of the blistering hot spots on the globe all year, and heat is pushing out of the region and traversing the Arctic. Plumes of abnormally warm air have snaked over the North Pole. Norway’s weather service is forecasting temperatures there will approach freezing in the coming days. That might not sound hot, but remember, this is the North Pole. The warmth could pose a threat to sea ice, which saw its fourth-lowest extent on record for April.

Heat has also gripped portions of Greenland, where the ice sheet’s annual melt got started two weeks early. According the Polar Portal run by three Danish research institutions, including the Danish Meteorological Institute, the western and southern margins of the ice sheet saw abnormal melt over the weekend, and more warmth could spur more melt this week as well. The season is still early, and the spike in melt is relatively small compared to previous sudden upticks in melting (See: last summers’s record-setting meltdown).

Still, early melt is never a good thing, and doubly so given this year’s lower-than-normal snowfall. That means more crusty, dirty snow on the surface could absorb more warmth in summer, something that helped spur record mass loss last year. And when there’s less mass added to the ice sheet, it can set up more mass loss year over year. The ice sheet is already losing six times more mass than it was in the 1980s, so this setup is not good!

Siberian wildfires within the Arctic Circle
Siberian wildfires within the Arctic Circle
Image: Pierre Markuse (Flickr)

Adding to the not-goodness are the massive wildfires raging in Siberia. The region has quietly been ablaze since last month, and flames have continued to spread across millions of acres. While most have burned below the Arctic Circle—or 66.5 degrees North—the warmth has allowed at least some flames to spread north of it. Satellite monitoring expert Pierre Markuse tweeted an image on Monday showing fires creeping across the tundra in the Republic of Sakha that makes up most of eastern Siberia. There are also signs that some “zombie” fires from last fire season have reignited after smoldering underground in peat-rich soil. Congrats if you had that on your climate crisis bingo card.

The Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, and these types of heat waves have become a seasonal occurrence. But that shouldn’t make them any less shocking or alarming, particularly since the changes happening there could actually cause the rest of the glove to warm up even more quickly. Melting sea ice exposes darker ocean waters that can absorb more heat, while fires cough up more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The zombie fires are even more worrisome, since peat is extremely rich in carbon. The stubborn heat looks to be locked in until at least next week, so we’ll get to see all these horrible feedbacks on display through at least then.

Fish & Wildlife Service focuses on food-related causes for 2018 seabird die-off

  23 HOURS AGO

A group of seabirds — murres, specifically — nesting in the cliffs. (Photo from the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The exact cause of the 2018 seabird die-off that affected more than a thousand birds in the Bering Strait region, is still unknown. However, scientists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believe it is not related to a strain of avian flu that was found in two seabirds, which is at odds with prior theories from a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

According to Kathy Kuletz, the seabird section coordinator for Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska, 26 carcasses from the 2018 die-off were sent to them for sampling. Those seabirds were then transferred to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Some of them were not in real good shape when they (United States Geological Society) got them, but they were able to determine that 14 died of starvation, they were highly emaciated. One died from some kind of trauma and two they couldn’t determine. All of those were tested for avian influenza. Two of those came back positive.”

The two birds that tested positive for avian influenza were a kittiwake from Wales and a thick-billed murre from Savoonga. That thick-billed murre was the exact same bird a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher came across during her studies on St. Lawrence Island in 2018.

“Of course, birds were starving, so that may have been poor foraging ability, that may have been a result. But we’re looking a little bit more at ‘maybe they were sick,’” said Alexis Will, a researcher with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Will recently explained how she and her fellow researchers found no evidence thick-billed murres experienced food shortages in 2018.

She cited the thick-billed murre from Savoonga with avian influenza as an indicator that the cause of the die-off from 2018 could be due to disease and not food-related.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service disagrees.

“Both H10N6 viruses and H16N3 viruses (or avian flu) have previously been detected in apparently healthy birds,” said Andy Ramey, a research geneticist with USGS’ Alaska Science Center.  “And again, none of these previous detections have been associated with die-off events.”

Based on his more than ten years of studying avian influenza, and previous scientific findings, Ramey is skeptical that the bird disease caused the 2018 die-off. Fish & Wildlife Service is doing more tests and studies to confirm that disease like the avian flu did not cause this large-scale event to happen.

Meanwhile, Ramey, Kuletz and fellow Fish & Wildlife Service seabird biologist Robb Kaler, believe there are other factors contributing to hundreds of birds starving and dying in the Bering Strait region. Those include record warm ocean temperatures, lack of sea ice, and the absence of a cold-water barrier in the Bering Sea from 2018.

“So with the warm water and the lack of sea ice, that’s going to affect the metabolism of both the predator, in this case the seabird, and the prey, whether it’s krill, euphasids or forage fish,” Kaler said. “But that warm water could also affect the abundance and distribution of that prey.”

Although the scientists acknowledge there is still food available for seabirds to eat near St. Lawrence Island, and in the Bering Sea, their prey base is changing and may not be as nutritious as normal. Kaler refers to these types of fish as “junk food.”

“Capelin are very rich in nutrients versus pollock or cod, juvenile cod or pollock, being brought to the nests of a thick-billed murre. Capelin are king and there’s a junk food hypothesis about less nutritional…so the parent has to work harder to provision the nest if they’ve got junk food that they’re bringing back to their chick.”

With ecosystem-wide changes underway in the Bering Sea, Fish & Wildlife Service isn’t ruling out food-related causes of death or that there were potential effects of avian influenza or harmful algal blooms (HABs).

The agency is, however, emphasizing that the 2018 seabird die-off in the Bering Strait region was most likely not associated with avian influenza. Ramey also points out that emaciation is not a clinical sign of influenza in birds, and many of the seabirds they sampled were found to be emaciated.

According to Kaler, they anticipate another seabird die-off will be seen in the Bering Sea this summer while Fish & Wildlife Service works to solve the mystery of the 2018 event. If the Bering Strait region experiences another large-scale dieoff this year, that would be the sixth year in a row featuring mass seabird deaths.

Methane’s Rising: What Can We Do to Bring It Down?

ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES  Editors’ Vox


Reducing methane emissions is critical for addressing climate warming, but which are the easiest and most cost-effective ways to do this?

By 

Methane emissions have increased dramatically over the past decade and a half, significantly contributing to climate warming. A recent article in Reviews of Geophysics examines how to measure methane emissions accurately from different sources, and explores various mitigation and emission reduction strategies. Here, one of the authors explains the causes of increased emissions, the imperative to address this problem, and what we might be able to do about it.

What are the main sources and sinks of atmospheric methane?

Methane comes from many sources. Roughly two-fifths of emissions are natural, such as wetlands, and three-fifths are human-caused, such as leaks from fossil fuel industries, ruminant farm animals, landfills, rice growing, and biomass burning.

Landfill site in Kuwait
Landfill site in Kuwait. Credit: D. Lowry, from Nisbet et al. [2020], Figure 3

The main sink for methane is destruction by hydroxyl (OH) in the sunlit air, especially in the tropics in the moist air a few kilometers above the surface. Other smaller sinks are chlorine in the air, and destruction by bacteria in the soil.Why has there been a sharp rise in atmospheric methane over the past few decades?

Methane emissions rose quickly in the 1980s as the natural gas industry was rapidly expanding, especially in the former Soviet Union. Then the growth rate slowed and the methane budget (the balance between emissions and their destruction) seemed to have reached equilibrium in the early years of this century. However, in 2007, unexpectedly, the amount of methane in the air started growing again, with very strong growth since 2014, much of it in tropical regions [Nisbet et al., 2019].Simultaneously, there was a marked change in the isotopic composition of atmospheric methane. For two centuries, the proportion of Carbon-13 in the methane in the air had been growing, reflecting the input from fossil fuels and fires, which is relatively rich in C-13, but from 2007, the proportion of C-12 methane has risen [Nisbet et al., 2016].

There is no clear agreement why this rise in methane began again in 2007, nor why it accelerated from 2014, nor why the carbon isotopes are shifting. One hypothesis is that biological sources of methane have increased; for example, population growth has increased farming in the tropics, and climate warming has made tropical wetlands both warmer and wetter. Another possible hypothesis is that the main sink has declined; if true, this would be profoundly worrying as OH is the ‘policeman of the air’ cleaning up so many polluting chemical species. A third hypothesis is more complex, speculating that fires (which give off methane rich in C-13) have declined while other sources have risen. Of course, these hypotheses are non-exclusive and all these processes could be happening at the same time.

Why is a focus on reducing methane emissions critical for addressing climate warming?

Methane is an extremely important greenhouse gas. In its own right, it is the second-most important human-caused climate warmer after carbon dioxide (CO2), but it also has a lot of spin-off effects in the atmosphere that also cause warming.In the 5th Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013, warming from methane was assessed at about 0.5 watts per square meter (Wm-2) (the measure of solar irradiance) compared to the year 1750. That’s large, and when all its spin off impacts are added, the warming impact of methane was around 1 Wm-2 (IPCC 2013 report Fig. 8.17), which is significant when compared to about 1.7 Wm-2 warming from CO2. Sadly, both numbers of course have now much increased.

Methane’s atmospheric lifetime (the amount in the air divided by the annual destruction) is less than a decade. So, if methane emissions are quickly reduced, we will see a resulting reduction in climate warming from methane within the next few years. Over the longer-term CO2 is the key warming gas but reducing that will take much longer, so cutting methane is an obvious first step while we try to redesign the world’s economy to cut CO2. It’s rather like a dentist giving a quick acting pain reliever while making plans for a root canal procedure.What might be the some of the easiest or most cost-effective ways to cut methane emissions from different sources?

Simple box model to show the potential impact of mitigation on methane emissions
Simple box model to show the potential impact of mitigation. The purple line approximates emission levels that would be compliant with the Paris Agreement. The blue line represents no change in emissions after 2020. The other lines show a 10% (orange line), 20% (green line) and 30% (red line) cut in emissions spread linearly over the period 2020–2055 followed by stable emissions. Credit: Paul Griffiths, in Nisbet et al. [2020], Figure 22 left panel

We need to identify the major human-caused sources that we can realistically change quickly.Some relating to the fossil fuel industry are easily identified and already subject to regulatory control in most producing nations, so it should not be difficult to monitor and achieve better behavior. For example, gas industry leaks represent lost profit, while deliberate methane venting in the oil industry is simply lazy design. Meanwhile, the coal industry is rapidly becoming uncompetitive with renewable electricity.

Tropical fires are a particular problem and cause terrible pollution. Many fires are either unnecessary (such as crop waste fires and stubble burning) or very damaging (such as human-lit savanna grassfires and forest fires) so there is a very strong argument for using both financial incentives and legislation to halt fires across the tropics, although in some places there are strong vested interests.

Landfills are another significant source. Although these are highly regulated in Europe and parts of the Americas, in megacities in the tropics there are many immense landfills, often unregulated and often on fire. Just putting a half-meter of soil on top would greatly cut emissions.

And what are some of the most challenging types methane sources to address?

Changing food habits is perhaps the biggest challenge. Much methane is breathed out from ruminant animals such as cows, water buffalo, sheep, and goats. Across much of tropical Africa and India, cows tend to live in the open and their manure is rapidly oxidized so it is not an especially large methane source. But in Europe, China and the United States, cattle are often housed in barns with large anaerobic methane-producing manure facilities, that do make methane. These manure lagoon emissions should be tackled.

We could, of course, all give up food from ruminants and methane emissions would drop, but it would be countered by an increasing demand for crops. More intensive arable farming, especially in the tropics, would be needed, and likely achieved by plowing up forest and savannas, which would increase CO2 emissions, and also require increasing the use of nitrogen fertilizers.

Reducing meat and dairy consumption to only ‘organic’ grass-reared animals seems like a sensible first step for people in wealthier nations. But this needs to be seen in the context of broader issues in less developed nations. Population growth needs to be slowed if agricultural emissions are to be reduced: better schools, especially for girls, improved healthcare, and better pensions would reduce population growth and thus the burden on human food production. A focus on societal issues would ultimately address climate problems too.

Can we be optimistic that efforts to reduce methane emissions will help to meet the targets of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement?

If I’d been asked this question three months ago, I would have said “no”. Methane is rising much faster than anticipated in the scenarios that underlay the Paris Agreement. As I write we are several months in to the global COVID-19 epidemic and it is almost as if nature itself has so tragically hit the pause button. I am one of many scientists trying to measure the impact of the lockdown on CO2 and methane emissions. As we try to rebuild and find our way through the post-epidemic recovery, there will be great changes, and perhaps in many countries a pause for thought, and a chance to choose a new way forward.

—Euan Nisbet (E.Nisbet@rhul.ac.uk), Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

Citation: Nisbet, E. (2020), Methane’s rising: What can we do to bring it down? , Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO143615. Published on 04 May 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Climate change: Blue skies pushed Greenland ‘into the red’

meltingImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionMelting in Greenland in 2019

While high temperatures were critical to the melting seen in Greenland last year, scientists say that clear blue skies also played a key role.

In a study, they found that a record number of cloud free days saw more sunlight hit the surface while snowfall was also reduced.

These conditions were due to wobbles in the fast moving jet stream air current that also trapped heat over Europe.

As a result, Greenland’s ice sheet lost an estimated 600 billion tonnes.

Current climate models don’t include the impact of the wandering jet stream say the authors, and may be underestimating the impact of warming.

Greenland’s ice sheet is seven times the area of the UK and up to 2-3km thick in places. It stores so much frozen water that if the whole thing melted, it would raise sea levels worldwide by up to 7m.

Last December, researchers reported that the Greenland ice sheet was melting seven times faster than it had been during the 1990s.

graphicImage copyrightTEDESCO & FETTWEIS
Image captionAverage pressure over Greenland in summer 2019, with arrows showing wind direction

In recent weeks, an analysis of last year’s melting said the 600 billion tonnes of ice added 2.2mm to global sea levels in just two months.

This new study says that while rising global temperatures played a role in the events last year, changes in atmospheric circulation patterns were also to blame.

Researchers found that high pressure weather conditions prevailed over Greenland for record amounts of time.

They believe this is connected to what’s termed the “waviness” in the jet stream, the giant current of air that mostly flows from west to east around the globe.

As the current becomes more wobbly, it bends north, and high pressure systems that would normally move through in a few days become “blocked’ over Greenland.

These systems had different impacts depending on the part of Greenland you were in.

In the southern part of the island, the authors say, it caused clearer skies with more sunlight hitting the surface.

The cloud-free days brought less snow, which meant that 50 billion fewer tonnes were added to the ice sheet.

The absence of snow also exposed bare, dark ice in some place which absorbed more heat – contributing to the melt.

meltingImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

In other parts of Greenland, the changing atmospheric patterns had different but equally damaging impacts.

In northern and western region, the swirling but stuck high pressure systems pulled in warm air from southern latitudes.

“You can imagine that a sort of vacuum cleaner that is spinning clockwise and sucking all the warm and moist air from New York City for example,” said lead author Dr Marco Tedesco from Columbia University in New York, US.

“And because of the rotation, it deposits this warm, moist air high in the northern part. It forms clouds, and they behave like a greenhouse, trapping the heat that would normally radiate off the ice.”

Dr Tedesco explained that Greenland in 2019 experienced the largest drop in surface mass balance since records began in 1948.

The term surface mass balance describes the overall state of the ice sheet after accounting for gains from snowfall and losses from surface melt-water run-off.

The authors believe their study explains why, despite the fact that 2019 was not as warm as 2012, last year produced a record drop in surface mass balance.

“This is really pushing Greenland into the red,” said Dr Tedesco.

Other researchers working in this field agreed that the new paper is a good explanation of what happened last year in Greenland.

“The main message of the paper is that the very high melt was mostly driven by clear skies and direct melting rather than necessarily being attributable to unusually high temperatures over the ice sheet – a radiatively-driven, rather than thermally-driven, melt season as they put it,” said Dr Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen.

“In some ways, the weather pattern is rather similar to the great blocking high that lodged over Scandinavia for weeks in 2018, giving us the most extreme drought on record in much of northern Europe.”

scientistsImage copyrightKEVIN KRAJICK/EARTH INSTITUTE
Image captionMarco Tedesco (left) and a colleague measure reflectance on the Greenland ice sheet during a 2018 expedition

The exact mechanism by which climate change affects the jet stream isn’t understood. But the view is that as the Arctic warms, the temperature differences between the region and the mid-latitudes that drive the air current are reduced. This slows down the stream, making it wander further.

“The more CO2 we pump out, the more divergence starts to emerge between the behaviour of the Arctic and the mid-latitudes and this behaviour is accelerating and enhancing some of the differences. It is a crucial part of what is creating this waviness and the consequences,” said Dr Tedesco.

The authors also argue that climate models in general need to take account of this impact of the wavy jet stream. Others in the field say this issue needs addressing.

“These results imply that the climate models we use for future projections of sea level rise from Greenland are underestimating the extreme years at present and therefore likely also the rate at which the ice sheet melts and the oceans will rise in the future,” said Dr Mottram.

“The only ray of light is that as processor power increases and we can do higher resolution simulations with climate models, the representation of these processes does seem to improve and not just in Greenland but in other areas of the world where persistent blocking patterns can have an important influence on the season.”

The study has been published in the journal The Cryosphere.

The Coming Ecosystem Collapse Is Already Here for Coral

Dead coral in the Maldives (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Conservationists are waging an expensive fight of diminishing returns to save reefs and those who depend on them.

UN climate summit postponed until 2021 because of COVID-19


(Photo: UN via MGN Online)

LONDON (AP) — This year’s United Nations global climate summit is being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, host country Britain said Wednesday,

The U.K. government said the meeting, due to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, will now be held next year at a date still to be determined.

The government said in a statement that “in light of the ongoing, worldwide effects of COVID-19, holding an ambitious, inclusive COP26 in November 2020 is no longer possible.” The meeting is formally known as the 26th Conference of the Parties.

The decision was made by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Britain and Italy, which had been due to host some preparatory events.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that it was a “disappointing decision, but absolutely the right one as we all focus on the fight against #coronavirus.”

Glasgow’s SEC Arena, which had been due to host the event, has been named as the site of a temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made tackling climate change a priority, but Britain’s tenure at the helm of the conference got off to a bumpy start even before the coronavirus pandemic. In January, Johnson fired Claire O’Neill, a former British government minister appointed last year to head the event, and replaced her with Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

“We will continue working tirelessly with our partners to deliver the ambition needed to tackle the climate crisis and I look forward to agreeing a new date for the conference,” Sharma said Wednesday.

Patricia Espinosa, who heads the U.N. climate office, said the new coronavirus “is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stresses that safeguarding lives “is our foremost priority” but countries must step up action on climate change especially as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“Countries must work to protect the health of people, and the planet has never been more at risk,” the U.N. chief’s spokesman said. “Solidarity and greater ambition is needed now more than ever to transition to a sustainable, resilient low carbon economy that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).”

The meeting in Glasgow would have been held five years after the 2015 Paris climate accord was agreed. Countries that signed the landmark agreement are still expected to provide an update on their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming.

In the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and do their best to keep it below 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, compared with pre-industrial times.

President Donald Trump has triggered the United States’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, a move that formally comes into force in November. His Democratic rivals have said they would rejoin if elected.

Environmental campaigners said postponing this year’s U.N. talks was the right move.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring people from every country together in the middle of a pandemic,” said Mohamed Adow, a longtime participant at U.N. climate meetings who heads the think tank Power Shift Africa.

Adow said postponing the conference mustn’t stop countries from taking action to curb global warming, though, and suggested plans to revive economies after the pandemic ends should avoid propping up the kinds of industries that contribute to climate change.

“Economies in the rich north must not be kick-started with dirty investment that will lead to climate suffering in the global south,” he said.

Environment officials are planning to hold a lower-level meeting online at the end of April.