Today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels greater than 23 million-year record

Date:
June 1, 2020
Source:
Geological Society of America
Summary:
A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: ‘Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!’ This new study used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.
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A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: “Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!” This new study by Brian Schubert (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and coauthors Ying Cui and A. Hope Jahren used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.

The team used the fossilized remains of ancient plant tissues to produce a new record of atmospheric CO2 that spans 23 million years of uninterrupted Earth history. They have shown elsewhere that as plants grow, the relative amount of the two stable isotopes of carbon, carbon-12 and carbon-13 changes in response to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This research, published this week in Geology, is a next-level study measuring the relative amount of these carbon isotopes in fossil plant materials and calculating the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere under which the ancient plants grew.

Furthermore, Schubert and colleagues’ new CO2 “timeline” revealed no evidence for any fluctuations in CO2 that might be comparable to the dramatic CO2 increase of the present day, which suggests today’s abrupt greenhouse disruption is unique across recent geologic history.

Another point, important to geological readers, is that because major evolutionary changes over the past 23 million years were not accompanied by large changes in CO2, perhaps ecosystems and temperature might be more sensitive to smaller changes in CO2 than previously thought. As an example: The substantial global warmth of the middle Pliocene (5 to 3 million years ago) and middle Miocene (17 to 15 million years ago), which are sometimes studied as a comparison for current global warming, were associated with only modest increases in CO2.


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Materials provided by Geological Society of AmericaNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change

Reforestation is seen as a way to help cool the climate, sucking excess warming carbon out of the atmosphere. But it’s not always that simple.
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Suddenly we are all being told to plant trees. The hope is that they will save us from the worst effects of climate change.

The idea is everywhere. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made a film arguing for extra protections for the world’s forests, and for the replanting of those that have been cut down. George Monbiot, a columnist in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, has founded a campaign called Natural Climate Solutions, which advocates restoring forests and other ecosystems.

This is not just talk. The UK government has planted millions of trees over the last decade, and has pledged another million between 2020 and 2024. Others have attempted far more dramatic feats: in 2016 one Indian state planted 50 million trees in one day, while in July last year Ethiopia claimed to have planted 350 million in a day. Even the UK’s Daily Mail, a right-wing newspaper not known for its climate activism, has just launched a campaign encouraging all its readers to plant a tree.

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Protecting existing forests and planting new ones are surely good things to do. However, scientists say we must not place too much faith in trees to save us. In particular, last year one research group claimed we can plant a trillion extra trees and remove a quarter of the carbon dioxide currently in the air. These figures have been widely criticised as overhyped and unreliable. Trees will definitely help us slow climate change, but they won’t reverse it on their own.

The underlying problem is that our society is releasing greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), that are warming the Earth’s climate to levels we have never experienced before. As a result the great ice sheets are melting, contributing to rising seas, and extreme weather events like hurricanes and droughts are becoming more severe.

Trees have emerged as one of the most effective methods for drawing existing carbon out of the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

Trees have emerged as one of the most effective methods for drawing existing carbon out of the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

The solution is to stop emitting all greenhouse gases, for instance by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like solar power. Deforestation is actually one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide, because when trees are cut down much of the carbon stored within them escapes into the air – especially if the wood is burned. For instance, in 2017 land use changes – mostly deforestation – contributed four billion tonnes of CO2 emissions to the global total of 41 billion tonnes of CO2. In other words, if we stopped cutting down trees we would cut our annual emissions by about 10%.

However, simply stopping all our emissions is no longer enough. At this point we have emitted so much CO2, and left emissions cuts so late, that we are almost certain to miss our targets of limiting warming to 1.5C or 2C. That means we must also find ways to actively remove CO2 from the air.

So long as a tree lives, that carbon stays within it – and trees can live for decades or centuries

All sorts of technological approaches have been proposed, but trees are an obvious contributor. New trees can either be planted in regions that have been deforested (reforestation) or in places that have never had them before (afforestation). As the trees grow they pull in CO2 through their leaves and convert it into carbohydrates, which they use to grow. So long as a tree lives, that carbon stays within it – and trees can live for decades or centuries. Trees are a natural “carbon sink”. It follows that we should both stop chopping down forests – especially tropical ones like the Amazon, which store huge amounts of carbon – and start planting more.

By some estimates, trees can be an enormous carbon sink. A study published in July 2019, led by Thomas Crowther of ETH-Zurich in Switzerland, estimated the world has room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of forestOnce those trees had matured, they could store 752 billion tonnes of CO2. Planting trees, the team wrote, is “one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions to date”.

This finding has had immediate, fierce pushback from other climate scientists. In October 2019, the journal Science published four highly critical comments. These argued that the researchers had overestimated the carbon trees could store – by a factor of five. They also highlighted multiple mistakes. For instance, much of the land Crowther described as “available” for tree planting already has plants growing on it, all of them storing carbon, many of which would have to be removed, according to Sonia Seneviratne of ETH-Zurich and her colleagues.

Replanting trees nearer the poles is not as effective at drawing back carbon as trees planted in the tropics (Credit: Getty Images)

Replanting trees nearer the poles is not as effective at drawing back carbon as trees planted in the tropics (Credit: Getty Images)

There are also deeper problems, because trees have more than one way to affect the climate.

The first issue is that trees are dark, at least compared to other things that might blanket the land, such as grass or snow. As a result, planting more trees typically makes the land darker. Since dark surfaces absorb more heat, a dark tree-covered surface will trap more of the Sun’s heat – and warm the local climate.

As a result, there is a delicate balance between trees’ ability to take in CO2, reducing warming, and their tendency to trap additional heat and thus create warming. This means planting trees only helps stop climate change in certain places.

Specifically, according to a 2007 study that has been repeatedly confirmed, the best place to plant new trees is the tropics, where trees grow fastest and thus trap the most CO2. In contrast, planting trees in snowy regions near the poles is likely to cause a net warming, while planting them in temperate climates – like that of the UK, much of Europe and parts of the US – may have no net effect on climate.

Trees’ emissions can also lead to warming if they react to form the greenhouse gas methane, or ozone

“You have to be careful where you do reforestation,” says David Beerling of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

Others say this problem is overblown. “They’re assuming that snow cover’s going to stay there with warming,” says Beverly Law of Oregon State University in Corvallis. She points out that the polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, so much of the snow may melt in the coming decades – in which case planting trees will not make the ground that much darker. “That’s been kind of a red herring that’s held out there a lot,” says Law.

The other thing trees do is emit volatile chemicals into the air. “That’s the pine-y smell you get when you walk through a forest,” says Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds in the UK. These chemicals stick together to form tiny floating particles called aerosols, which have complicated effects.

For example, the aerosols create a faint haze. This scatters sunlight back into space, cooling the planet. “Probably the more important effect is those particles act as seeds for cloud droplets,” says Spracklen. This creates more low cloud, or thicker low cloud, which also bounces sunlight back to space.

Planting trees can play a part in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but it cannot reverse global warming on its own (Credit: Getty Images)

Planting trees can play a part in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but it cannot reverse global warming on its own (Credit: Getty Images)

However, the trees’ emissions can also lead to warming if they react to form the greenhouse gas methane, or ozone, which is a greenhouse gas at low altitudes. For Nadine Unger of the University of Exeter in the UK, this is a major problem. “The mutual relationships between forests and climate are actually really rather more complex and not fully understood,” Unger told the James Lovelock Centenary conference at the University of Exeter in July 2019.

In 2014 Unger calculated that, by chopping down forests from 1850 to the 2000s and thus preventing them emitting volatiles, we have created a cooling effect that slightly offset the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly afterwards she wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times headlined “To save the planet, don’t plant trees”.

However, other reforestation experts are critical of Unger’s findings. “The overall effect is quite small,” says Spracklen, who has studied the effects of aerosols. “Then the carbon storage blows all the rest out of the water.” Law agrees, saying the effects of aerosols are also “a red herring”.

Natural climate solutions could lock up the equivalent of 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year

So how much can trees really help us solve our climate problem?

In a 2017 study, researchers led by Bronsom Griscomnow at Conservation International, estimated the full potential of “natural climate solutions”. This includes restoring wetlands and other ecosystems, and minimising emissions from farmland, but the biggest contributors by far were preserving existing forests and reforesting degraded areas.

The team estimated that the natural climate solutions could lock up the equivalent of 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. That is a little over half our annual emissions, but they emphasise that many of the strategies they studied would not be cost-effective: a more plausible figure would be 11-15 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. This implies natural climate solutions could mop up about 30% of the CO2 we need to deal with every year.

For Law, it is one of the best estimates published to date. The researchers “really did a pretty good job”, she says.

When trees are cut down, it is important that the carbon they contain is not released again into the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

When trees are cut down, it is important that the carbon they contain is not released again into the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

The UK’s Royal Society came to similar conclusions in a 2018 report on greenhouse gas removal technologies. They estimated that reforestation could remove three billion to 18 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. These are significant numbers.

Uncertainties do remain, however. For instance, the climate will keep changing for many decades, and this will affect trees’ behaviour and growth – but we don’t really know how yet. “There’s still a question mark,” says Beerling. “Will they be limited by nutrient availability or increased fire or increased drought?” Similarly, planting trees in dry areas can cause water scarcity because they suck up so much – as China has discovered.

However, there are also surprise benefits of planting trees. For instance, a 2018 study suggested that large-scale tree planting in dry tropical regions would cause a shift in weather patterns, leading to more rainfall on land – enabling more plant growth and therefore more carbon storage.

The real uncertainties are not scientific, but socio-political

Also, planting trees is not just about stopping climate change. “As well as the climate emergency, we’re facing a biodiversity crisis,” says Spracklen. Planting trees can help with both, he says, “but only if we do it right”.

At the moment a lot of the trees being planted are monocultures of fast-growing commercial species like acacia or eucalyptus. These have “virtually no biodiversity benefits and may even replace something that was better”. It would be better to restore species-rich forests, he says. In line with this, Law has highlighted that planting rich new forests can boost local biodiversity, as well as improving water availability.

Areas that are now used for farming – such as rearing sheep on hill country – can be difficult to reforest  (Credit: Getty Images)

Areas that are now used for farming – such as rearing sheep on hill country – can be difficult to reforest (Credit: Getty Images)

The real uncertainties are not scientific, but socio-political. Put simply, where will people and nations allow the large-scale planting of trees? “As soon as you get down onto the land, there’s people living there and they have aspirations for how they want to live their lives that maybe don’t involve tree-planting,” says Spracklen. “There’s virtually nowhere where land’s just lying idle and you can just come along and do that.”

He points to the Welsh hills, which are severely deforested and consequently lacking in wildlife – but which are politically difficult to reforest because they are dominated by the sheep-farming industry. Similar conflicts over land use exist in all countries.

The message, then, is that trees can play a significant role in stopping dangerous climate change – provided we plant them in the right places. The challenge will be finding ways to fit huge new forests into our societies in such a way that people accept them.

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.

Study: Climate impact of butter 3.5 times greater than plant-based spreads


https://www.businessgreen.com/news/4012376/study-climate-impact-butter-times-plant-spreads

The climate impact of butter is higher in large part due cow's methane-heavy farts
The climate impact of butter is higher in large part due cow’s methane-heavy farts

Cow’s methane-heavy burps and farts blamed for CO2 associated with butter in study commissioned by margarine maker Upfield

The climate impact of consumer diets has yet again fallen under the spotlight, after research this week concluded butter is 3.5 times more harmful to the environment on average than margarine and plant-based spreads, due in large part to cows’ methane emissions.

The study was commissioned by global margarine maker Upfield – responsible for plant-based brands including Flora, Rama and Blue Band – in another sign of how firms are seeking to promote the climate credentials of their products to increasingly eco-conscious consumers.

It asked scientists to carry out a large-scale life cycle assessment looking at the production, transport, sale, and use of 212 plant-based spreads and margarines sold across 21 European and North American markets, and then compare their greenhouse gas emissions to the impact of 21 dairy butters.

The results found the average CO2 impact for every kilogram of plant-based spread and margarine produced was around 3.3kg, compared to 12.1kg of CO2 equivalent for dairy-based products, making emissions from butter around 3.5 times higher.

The bulk of emissions associated with butter occur during milk production, according to the study, which found enteric emissions from cows – aka methane from burping and farting – made up 39 per cent of greenhouse gases from dairy-based spreads.

It means that just one 250g of butter results in the equivalent of 1kg of cow emissions, the study estimated, with methane a particularly potent greenhouse gas which is around 80 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat, and responsible for around a quarter of global warming.

Every one of the 212 plant-based spreads analysed fared much better in the study in terms of carbon impact, with associated emissions ranging from less than 1kg to almost 7kg, whereas butter products generated between over 8kg to nearly 17kg of CO2 for every kilogram produced.

Beyond emissions too, the life cycle assessment – the largest of its type to date, according to Upfield – concluded that margarines and plant-based spreads consistently had lower impacts than butter in terms of climate, water and land.

Cattle feed production including cow burps, farts, and manure management “contributed significantly to climate change impacts, with a higher impact than most other factors”, the study found. Some farming groups have argued that new diet supplements and other technologies can serve to curb methane emissions from cattle, but the industry is still regarded as a large and growing source of emissions.

Sally Smith, head of sustainability at Upfield, said the study highlighted the need for a “fundamental transformation of our food system” in order to tackle climate change, arguing that people in western countries needed to cut down on their meat and dairy intake.

She also argued it was important for firms to help consumers to understand the impact of their food choices on the planet. “It is our responsibility as a forward-thinking company to understand and act to address the impact of our plant-based products on the environment,” said Smith. “A shift to regenerative agricultural practices will be key for both arable and dairy farmers. Robust lifecycle assessments help ensure that our approach is data driven and grounded on the latest scientific evidence.”

Editorial: No, a trillion more trees and baby-step oil company reforms won’t fix global warming

Antarctica

A major ice sheet in western Antarctica is melting, and its collapse is predicted to raise the global sea level significantly.
(AFP photo / NASA / Handout)

Scientists at an Antarctic research station recently recorded a one-day air temperature of just under 70 degrees, a balmy afternoon in a region of the world unaccustomed to them. In fact, as far as researchers can tell, it has never been that warm in Antarctica before. The record was set against an increasingly scary global backdrop of rising temperatures and seas; more powerful storms, droughts and floods; a reduced Arctic ice cap, and accelerated melting and movement of glaciers around the globe — including Antarctica.

The culprit behind this crisis is the nearly 200 years that humans have spent burning fossil fuels — primarily coal and oil — for energy. So it was mildly heartening to see that BP, the London-based oil and gas giant, has promised to achieve “net-zero emissions” for its operations by 2050. That doesn’t mean BP is getting out of the oil-and-gas business. Rather, the corporation pledged to eliminate some emissions from its drilling, processing and business operations, and to compensate for others through investments in green technologies, reforestation projects and similar offset strategies. The announcement followed earlier pledges by such European-based oil companies as Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Equino to reduce emissions from their operations, though the BP pledge goes further.

None, of course, goes far enough. And new BP CEO Bernard Looney acknowledged the corporation had not settled on a strategy to achieve its net-zero emissions goal. Those details will come in September.

But at least the goal was set, which is far more than has been done by American-based oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, which have acknowledged the role of greenhouse gas emissions in propelling climate change but have done little to address their contribution. Both are part of the corporate-driven Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, whose stated purpose is to reduce “our collective methane emissions by more than one-third” by essentially stopping leaks and moving the captured methane to where it could be burned.

Of course, baby steps by a handful of oil and gas companies aren’t going to do much to combat overall emissions. Similarly, the Trillion Trees Initiative, which President Trump touted in his State of the Union address, won’t do an awful lot, either. In fact, it’s one of those fig-leaf solutions that offers a pretense of significant action against global warming while ignoring the most pressing problem — the burning of fossil fuels in the first place.

Which is not to suggest that reforestation is a bad idea; in fact, continued forest clearing in the Amazon is exacerbating global warming and must stop. Because forests store carbon, restoring them could help capture and slow the accretion of carbon in the atmosphere, where it traps heat. One study found that the Earth’s ecosystems could handle an additional 25% of forests above what it holds now (though increased droughts and desertification related to climate change could whittle away at that), compensating for about 20 years of human-produced carbon. So large-scale reforestation falls in the category of “couldn’t hurt.”

Nevertheless, far, far more needs to be done, beginning with converting our global reliance on energy from fossil fuels to renewables as fast as is humanly possible. The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is to not put it there in the first place.

So in that regard, the danger of the Trillion Trees Initiative is that pro-oil business conservatives will wave it around as a solution to global warming. But that’s like someone hoping to lose a lot of weight by taking daily walks while still eating the same calorie-rich foods.

The nation, and the world, need sober and aggressive policy changes if we are to stand any chance of mitigating the worst effects of global warming. Despite heightened awareness and national pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, global carbon emissions continue to rise. It will be expensive to adapt to the new climate reality and to fundamentally change the way humankind produces and uses energy, but it must be done before the supposedly most intelligent of the animal species manages through greed and willful ignorance to propel the collapse of global ecosystems.

The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it

By Jonathan Franzen

September 8, 2019

Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.

I’m talking, of course, about climate change. The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.

If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.

Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death. Other kinds of apocalypse, whether religious or thermonuclear or asteroidal, at least have the binary neatness of dying: one moment the world is there, the next moment it’s gone forever. Climate apocalypse, by contrast, is messy. It will take the form of increasingly severe crises compounding chaotically until civilization begins to fray. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.

Some of the denial, however, is more willful. The evil of the Republican Party’s position on climate science is well known, but denial is entrenched in progressive politics, too, or at least in its rhetoric. The Green New Deal, the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet, by way of gargantuan renewable-energy projects. Many of the groups that support those proposals deploy the language of “stopping” climate change, or imply that there’s still time to prevent it. Unlike the political right, the left prides itself on listening to climate scientists, who do indeed allow that catastrophe is theoretically avertable. But not everyone seems to be listening carefully. The stress falls on the word theoretically.

Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.

This is, to say the least, a tall order. It also assumes that you trust the I.P.C.C.’s calculations. New research, described last month in Scientific American, demonstrates that climate scientists, far from exaggerating the threat of climate change, have underestimated its pace and severity. To project the rise in the global mean temperature, scientists rely on complicated atmospheric modelling. They take a host of variables and run them through supercomputers to generate, say, ten thousand different simulations for the coming century, in order to make a “best” prediction of the rise in temperature. When a scientist predicts a rise of two degrees Celsius, she’s merely naming a number about which she’s very confident: the rise will be at least two degrees. The rise might, in fact, be far higher.

As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy have been more than offset by consumer demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe. The scenarios, which I draw from the prescriptions of policy-makers and activists, share certain necessary conditions.

The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy. According to a recent paper in Nature, the carbon emissions from existing global infrastructure, if operated through its normal lifetime, will exceed our entire emissions “allowance”—the further gigatons of carbon that can be released without crossing the threshold of catastrophe. (This estimate does not include the thousands of new energy and transportation projects already planned or under construction.) To stay within that allowance, a top-down intervention needs to happen not only in every country but throughout every country. Making New York City a green utopia will not avail if Texans keep pumping oil and driving pickup trucks.

What is climate change? A really simple guide

Media captionOur Planet Matters: Climate change explained

Scientists say global warming could have a catastrophic effect on the planet.

Human activities have increased carbon-dioxide emissions, driving up temperatures. Extreme weather and melting polar ice are among the possible effects.

What is climate change?

The Earth’s average temperature is about 15C but has been much higher and lower in the past.

There are natural fluctuations in the climate but scientists say temperatures are now rising faster than at many other times.

World is getting warmer

This is linked to the greenhouse effect, which describes how the Earth’s atmosphere traps some of the Sun’s energy.

Solar energy radiating back to space from the Earth’s surface is absorbed by greenhouse gases and re-emitted in all directions.

This heats both the lower atmosphere and the surface of the planet. Without this effect, the Earth would be about 30C colder and hostile to life.

Greenhouse effect

Scientists believe we are adding to the natural greenhouse effect, with gases released from industry and agriculture trapping more energy and increasing the temperature.

This is known as climate change or global warming.

What are greenhouse gases?

The greenhouse gas with the greatest impact on warming is water vapour. But it remains in the atmosphere for only a few days.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), however, persists for much longer. It would take hundreds of years for a return to pre-industrial levels and only so much can be soaked up by natural reservoirs such as the oceans.

Most man-made emissions of CO2 come from burning fossil fuels. When carbon-absorbing forests are cut down and left to rot, or burned, that stored carbon is released, contributing to global warming.

Since the industrial revolution began in about 1750, CO2 levels have risen more than 30%. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.

Other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also released through human activities but they are less abundant than carbon dioxide.

What is the evidence for warming?

The world is about one degree Celsius warmer than before widespread industrialisation, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says.

The 20 warmest years on record all occurred in the past 22 years, with 2015-18 making up the top four.

Across the globe, the average sea level increased by 3.6mm per year between 2005 and 2015.

Most of this change was because water increases in volume as it heats up.

Sea level rise infographic

However, melting ice is now thought to be the main reason for rising sea levels. Most glaciers in temperate regions of the world are retreating.

And satellite records show a dramatic decline in Arctic sea-ice since 1979. The Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced record melting in recent years.

Satellite data also shows the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing mass. A recent study indicated East Antarctica may also have started to lose mass.

The effects of a changing climate can also be seen in vegetation and land animals. These include earlier flowering and fruiting times for plants and changes in the territories of animals.

How much will temperatures rise in future?

The change in the global surface temperature between 1850 and the end of the 21st Century is likely to exceed 1.5C, most simulations suggest.

The WMO says that if the current warming trend continues, temperatures could rise 3-5C by the end of this century.

Temperature rises of 2C had long been regarded as the gateway to dangerous warming. More recently, scientists and policymakers have argued that limiting temperature rises to 1.5C is safer.

Media captionClimate change: How 1.5C could change the world

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 suggested that keeping to the 1.5C target would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

The UN is leading a political effort to stabilise greenhouse-gas emissions. China emits more CO2 than any other country. It is followed by the US and the European Union member states, although emissions per person are much greater there.

But even if we now cut greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically, scientists say the effects will continue. Large bodies of water and ice can take hundreds of years to respond to changes in temperature. And it takes CO2 decades to be removed from the atmosphere.

Top emitters chart

How will climate change affect us?

There is uncertainty about how great the impact of a changing climate will be.

It could cause freshwater shortages, dramatically alter our ability to produce food, and increase the number of deaths from floods, storms and heatwaves. This is because climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events – though linking any single event to global warming is complicated.

Media captionMatt McGrath explains why we should care about climate change

As the world warms, more water evaporates, leading to more moisture in the air. This means many areas will experience more intense rainfall – and in some places snowfall. But the risk of drought in inland areas during hot summers will increase. More flooding is expected from storms and rising sea levels. But there are likely to be very strong regional variations in these patterns.

Poorer countries, which are least equipped to deal with rapid change, could suffer the most.

Plant and animal extinctions are predicted as habitats change faster than species can adapt. And the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the health of millions could be threatened by increases in malaria, water-borne disease and malnutrition.

Media captionHow temperatures have risen since 1884

As more CO2 is released into the atmosphere, uptake of the gas by the oceans increases, causing the water to become more acidic. This could pose major problems for coral reefs.

Global warming will cause further changes that are likely to create further heating. This includes the release of large quantities of methane as permafrost – frozen soil found mainly at high latitudes – melts.

Responding to climate change will be one of the biggest challenges we face this century.

Our Planet Matters header

WHAT ARE HUMAN CAUSES OF CLIMATE CHANGE?

DECEMBER 17TH, 2019
by: Murat Suner
https://www.fairplanet.org/story/what-are-human-causes-of-climate-change/

We are experiencing long shifts of climatic conditions that are characterised by a change in temperature, rainfall, winds, and other indicators.

Currently, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is much higher than in the past years, and its ability to trap heat is changing.

Burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the primary causes of climate change. It presents a substantial threat to humans and animals now and in the future. The following are some of the biggest human causes of climate change:

GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSION

These gases accumulate in the atmosphere, blocking heat from escaping, and they don’t respond to the temperature changes (the greenhouse effect). When they remain for an extended period in the atmosphere, they are likely to cause climate change.

Greenhouse gas emission is a major human causes of climate change, and their sources include transportation, electricity production, burning fossil fuel in industries, commercial and residential application, agriculture, and land use. These gases include;

• CARBON IV OXIDE

Carbon dioxide (CO2, or Carbon IV Oxide) is the main greenhouse gas produced through human activities that leads to adverse climate changes. It is a result of burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Fossil fuel generates electricity worldwide, leading to high emissions of CO2. Locomotion is the second-largest source of carbon emission; humans contribute daily to CO2 emissions by use of transport vehicles either for leisure or business purposes.

Carbon stored in the form of fossil fuels is more stable, and when heated, they release the stored carbon in the form of CO2. If humans couldn’t burn these fuels for energy, the carbon is unlikely to reach the atmosphere.

We use fossil fuel to power cars, machines, and generate electricity, and as the human population increases, more fuel is used, leading to higher CO2 emissions.

• METHANE

Methane accounts for about 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The petroleum industry and agriculture emit methane, especially from the digestive systems of grazing animals, manure management, and rice cultivation.

It also accumulates through waste decomposition in landfills. It is a far more active greenhouse gas than CO2.

• NITROUS OXIDE

Cultivation practices like the use of organic and commercial fertilisers lead to the emission of nitrous oxide. It also accumulates in the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production, and biomass burning.

• CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS

Chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons are used in home appliances like the refrigerator and industrial applications. They are associated with severe atmosphere impacts like ozone layer depletion and heat-trapping.

• SULPHUR HEXACHLORIDE

They are primarily used in dielectric materials like the dielectric liquids and for special medical procedures. Also, they act as insulators in high voltage applications like the transformers and grid switching gear.

DEFORESTATION

Deforestation is one of the major human causes of climate change; trees capture greenhouse gases such as CO2, preventing them from accumulating on the atmosphere, which could result in warming our planet. Most forests are getting cleared to create space for agriculture, buildings, and other human activities.

Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen to the atmosphere during photosynthesis; hence, surplus carbon iv oxide is stored in the plants to help in growth and development. When we cut trees, their stored CO2 gets emitted to the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

Trees also help in regulating regional rainfall which prevents floods and drought in the area, cutting down trees influences the rainfall patterns globally. Deforestation also leads to changes in the landscape and the earth’s surface’s reflectivity, which leads to increased absorption of energy from the sun that results in global warming leading to changes in climate patterns.

AGRICULTURE

Food is a basic human need, but before you get it on your table, it goes through production, storage, processing, packaging, transportation, and preparation. Every stage of food production releases substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Agriculture is one of the most common human causes of climate change through emissions of gases and the conversion of forests to agricultural land.

The modern agriculture practices and food production method using synthetic fertilisers are great contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change. The introduction of large scale farming has led to deforestation and machine intensive farming, which contributes to carbon emissions.

In livestock farming, ruminant animals digest their food through enteric fermentation that results in methane production; there are also substantial methane emissions from irrigated rice fields. Generally, agriculture contributes to climate change through deforestation, biodiversity loss, acidification of the oceans through agricultural chemical wastes, and accelerated soil erosion.

INDUSTRIALISATION

Although the industrial revolution, and industrialisation, has led to improved living conditions in various aspects, it is associated with adverse environmental effects that cause climatic changes. With recent innovations, human labour has been replaced with machinery that uses new sources of energy in the industries.

Manufacturing involves the use of large amounts of power and the alteration of natural systems; it is directly responsible for domestic emissions and indirect emissions through electricity and fuel use. The manufacturing operations are linked to direct greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, in the production of chemicals, iron, or steel, which are highly energy-intensive.

People are moving to urban areas in search of employment; urbanisation is another great contributor to climate change. It results in overcrowding, pollution, and poor sanitation; massive urbanisation can also lead to deforestation, emission of more greenhouse gases.

Increased commercialisation and industrialisation increase the use of fossil fuels leading to global warming and climate change.

CONCLUSION

Human emissions and activities have caused the highest percentage of global warming, which has resulted in climate change, in recent years. The global warming indicators are clear from increased temperature, humidity changes, sea level rising, showing that the land is warming up very fast due to fossil emissions, and thus changing the climate.

Any farmer can tell that the weather patterns have been altered, which is likely to affect food security worldwide. The fingerprints that humans have left on the environment through industrial activities and civilisation can be seen in the oceans, atmosphere, and the earth’s surface.

ARTICLE WRITTEN BY:
murat sw portrait
Murat Suner
Co-founder, Editorial Board Member, Author

THE AMAZON HAS REACHED A TIPPING POINT WHERE IT HAS BEGUN TO ‘SELF-DESTRUCT’

—BUT MAJOR REFORESTATION COULD SAVE IT

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The Amazon has reached a “tipping point” where the rainforest has begun to self-destruct—and a “major reforestation project” is required to save it, according to the editors of a leading scientific journal.

In an editorial, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre wrote that deforestation and fires are increasingly threatening the functioning of the rainforest, hampering its ability to act as a crucial carbon sink, a stronghold of biodiversity and critical link in the global water cycle.

“Although 2019 was not the worst year for fire or deforestation in the Amazon, it was the year when the extent of fires and deforestation in the region garnered full global attention,” the authors wrote in the Science Advances editorial. “The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we.”

In many parts of the Amazon, deforestation—which now affects around 17 percent of the basin—is helping to convert the landscape in many areas into tropical savannah, hindering the forest’s ability to sustain itself by producing its own rainfall.

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“Researchers predict that deforestation will lead to developing savannahs mainly in the eastern and southern Amazon, perhaps extending into central and southwestern areas, because these zones are naturally close to the minimum amount of rainfall required for the rain forest to thrive,” the authors wrote.

This process is being exacerbated by human-driven global warming which is leading to reduced rainfall and increased temperatures in the region.

The authors say there are already signs the tipping point is “at hand”: for example, a lengthening and hotter dry season, periodic historically unprecedented droughts and the shifting composition of tree species towards those which favor drier climates.

Studies are showing that the role of the Amazon as a carbon sink is declining over time as deforestation spreads—a process that will have significant implications for global warming.

“The atmospheric carbon dioxide removal rate has declined over percent in comparison to the 1990s,” Nobre—a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences from the University of Sao Paulo—told Newsweek. “The occurrence of a sequence of very severe droughts in 2006, 2010 and 2015-16 also increased tree mortality and emission rates. Considering removals and emissions—including deforestation and fires—the Amazon has moved from being a relevant sink to being a source of about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in the last decade.”

Furthermore, the destruction of the Amazon would also harm its role as a provider of freshwater for every country in South America—except for Chile, which is blocked by the Andes mountains.

“Bluntly put, the Amazon not only cannot withstand further deforestation but also now requires rebuilding as the underpinning base of the hydrological cycle if the Amazon is to continue to serve as a flywheel of continental climate for the planet and an essential part of the global carbon cycle as it has for millennia,” the authors wrote.

Amazon rainforest deforestation
View of a burnt area near Moraes Almeida—a town along a section of the trans-Amazonian highway—in Itaituba, Para state, Brazil, on September 14, 2019. The BR230 and BR163 are major transport routes in Brazil that have played a key role in the development and destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In order to “build back a margin of safety,” Lovejoy and Nobre recommend a “major reforestation project,” particularly in the southern and eastern Amazon.

“Any additional increment of deforestation should be matched by three times as much reforestation, with details tailored at national levels,” they said. “Citizens and leaders across South America and around the world must create and promote a new vision of the Amazon, one that recognizes that the natural and economic assets of the region must be managed to maintain its essential role for South America and in sustaining the health of the planet.”

“This new vision will need to respect and protect its natural infrastructure and include a thoughtful review of all related commercial activities.”

This new vision would require putting a stop to “illogical and short-sighted” agricultural practices such as monocultures of cattle, soybeans and sugarcane. Instead, the authors advocate sensible use of intact forests, the harnessing of power from its massive flowing rivers, or the sustainable harvesting of biological assets.

But how successful could such measures be when it comes to stopping or reversing the destruction being wrought in the Amazon, especially given the apparent lack of concern of the Brazilian government—whose territory hosts the majority of the forest.

“If the matter is taken with the seriousness it deserves—and it is recognized the Amazon must be managed as a system—then it should be possible,” Lovejoy—a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University—told Newsweek. “We don’t believe the current [Brazilian] government is interested in going down in history as the administration which tipped the system into dieback/savannahization.”

Nobre added: “All the Amazonian countries have forest restoration in their commitments towards reaching the Paris agreement targets. For instance, Brazil intends to restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2030. The big open question is still the financing of such activities and progress was not achieved at the 25th U.N. Climate Change Conference on how to fund such urgent mitigation actions.”

The authors conclude the article by arguing that we currently stand in a “moment of destiny.”

“The tipping point is here, it is now,” they wrote. “The peoples and leaders of the Amazon countries together have the power, the science, and the tools to avoid a continental-scale, indeed, a global environmental disaster. Together, we need the will and imagination to tip the direction of change in favor of a sustainable Amazon.”