Wild World Weather and the UK Monsoon Season

It’s not just the UK that has experienced extreme weather in recent months. Now the southern Japanese island of Kyushu has joined the club of locations experiencing wild weather this year. Over the weekend, parts of the island received 100mm of rain per hour, experiencing a whole year’s rain in one weekend, flooding from which killed at least 28 people. Rescue teams are searching for six people reported missing. Add to this, the record breaking spell of hot weather and drought that has hit the US over recent weeks and the some of the wettest weather in recorded British history and you have yet more evidence of our changing climate. And it’s not just a question of miserable or uncomfortable weather. The US Department of Agriculture has forecast a spike in food prices as farmers struggle to maintain typical yields from their parched fields. The warnings have already led to a 30% increase in the price of corn, that staple of Midwest farms and whose cost impacts on the price of meat, bread and breakfast cereals. Farmers in the UK are increasingly reporting that they are losing the battle against the persistent and heavy rains that have fallen on the UK for four straight months. Whole crops have been lost through flooding and waterlogging with entire crops of potatoes, spinach and chard ploughed back into fields. Those crops that haven’t been ruined are mostly late and patchy with imports making up the shortfall in produce that would normally be supplied domestically. Fruit hasn’t fared much better with many of the UK’s traditional growing areas experiencing the feared late cold snap that inhibits the setting of the blossom required for the fruit to form. The heavy rains are already causing cherries to split, lowering their value. On top of the double-dip recession, UK businesses and households have had to contend with the wettest April ever together with the wettest April-June quarter ever. Now it seems certain that food inflation will soar through the second half of 2012. So now we can add farmers to the tourism industry on the list of business badly affected by the UK’s rains.

So what is causing this? Traditionally, climate scientists have been reluctant to pin the blame for individual events or runs of extreme weather on climate change but some are now coming out and saying that this year’s record-breaking weather is likely to be the result of climate change. A neat analogy that I heard recently though helps to explain the influence of climate change. It goes like this “Imagine that a top baseball player begins taking steroids. He hits many more home runs than usual but it’s impossible to say whether any individual home run was hit because of his use of steroids.” So it is with our climate. The increasing emission of greenhouse gases is leading to more frequent and more severe extreme weather but it’s still very difficult to say that any individual event was caused solely by climate change.

At Original Carbon, we have been saying for several years now that the UK has developed a summer Monsoon season. Each July for the past 6 years (including this one already) has produced more rain than the long-term monthly average, some by more than 100%, so a pattern is beginning to be set. Why is this? It is fairly well-known that the succession of wet summers the UK has experienced over the last 6 years is likely to be caused by a shift in the course of the Atlantic Jet Stream, a ribbon of high-speed, high altitude winds. These winds demarcate regions of warm and cold air. In the case of the Atlantic Jet Stream, regions to the south of the Jet Steam tend to have more settled, dry, anticyclonic weather than the cooler, wetter areas to the north. More typically, the Jet Stream runs to the north of the UK but in recent years, it has moved much further south, this year stationing itself over central France. One possible explanation for this comes from Dr Peter Stott, Head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. He postulates that major reductions in the quantity of Arctic sea ice may be causing the Jet Stream southerly move. Whatever the cause, the medium-term forecasts don’t show any relief from the rain in the UK.

Treasury Ministers Refuse to Give Energy Evidence to MPs

Treasury ministers are refusing to give evidence to MPs about the Energy Bill.

The House of Commons energy committee says the Treasury should explain its influence on energy policy.

Treasury ministers have given evidence in the past, but now they say it would be improper to comment on another department’s legislation.

The MPs believe this is disingenuous because the Treasury’s cap on the environmental levy on energy bills will effectively determine policy.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Energy Bill is currently out to pre-legislative scrutiny.

The MPs’ protest raises a serious question about whether energy policy can be scrutinised as the government says it intends, if the department pulling some of the policy strings refuses to be questioned. The committee has now written to the Treasury asking for answers to key questions over the future of the levy on energy bills to fund low-carbon power. The Treasury has imposed a cap on the levy to limit the cost to households. The MPs want to know what happens if the UK cannot meet its legally binding target of 15% renewable energy by 2020 without breaching the cap. (The UK may face heavy fines if it misses the target). They want to know if the cap overrides government CO2 targets under the legally binding Climate Change Act, which mandates an 80% CO2 cut by 2050. They are also keen to find out how much research has been done by the Treasury on the impact of the energy levy cap on future investments in the UK’s energy infrastructure, which the government agrees are essential.

The questions are pointed:

“Would you accept that the introduction of the levy cap has created a new risk and undermined certainty for developers (of low carbon energy)?

“Would you accept that the new risks introduced by the presence of the levy cap will increase the cost of capital and may therefore undermine the whole purpose of the electricity market reform package?”

The MPs had hoped for replies before the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, whose department has been in a long tussle with the Treasury over policy, appears before them on Tuesday afternoon. If the Treasury gives frank answers to the questions, the future of the UK’s energy policy will look a lot more clear.

Global Alliance Aims To Tackle Forest Crime

Interpol and the United Nations have joined forces to launch an initiative to tackle global forest crime. Project Leaf will target criminals involved in illegal logging and timber trafficking. The scheme will also provide support to enforcement agencies in countries with the biggest problems, Interpol said.

It is estimated that more than a quarter of the world’s population relies on forests for their livelihoods, fuel, food and medicines. David Higgins, Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme manager, said that illegal logging was no longer a issue that was restricted by national boundaries. “The international legislation to protect forests and curtail illegal logging demonstrates this,” he commented. “Project leaf will ensure these global laws are supported by global enforcement and that the criminals responsible are brought to justice – no matter their location, movements or resources.”

Project leaf (Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests) is a partnership between the UN Environment Programme (Unep) and Interpol, with funding provided by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. Interpol said: “Collusive corruption and fraud in the forestry sector undermines the rule of law and… significantly hampers efforts to tackle poverty among the world’s poorest people.” It added that, in order to be an effective force against criminal activity, it would be necessary for any action to be “coordinated, collaborative and transnational”.

From The BBC

Distrust Could Hamper Green Deal

Public mistrust of the “big six” energy firms may undermine the UK government’s planned Green Deal, according to the International Energy Agency. The energy firms are supposed to deliver a mass programme of home insulation under the Deal. The IEA warns that customers could be deterred by high prices and instances of poor service and mis-selling. It says the government needs to tell people more about the benefits of insulating their homes.

This international attention on the Green Deal may prove uncomfortable for ministers who have already been facing complaints that The Green Deal does not do enough to help the 8.5 million people heading for fuel poverty, and has not been publicised enough. The Prime Minister recently discussed problems with the Green Deal after Cabinet Office officials took evidence from critics. Andrew Warren from the Association for Conservation of Energy told BBC News: “The IEA report echoes what we have been saying. Allowing the energy companies to lead on the Green Deal would be a mistake given the lack of public confidence. “It can only succeed with new policy incentives and potentially trusted firms doing the work.”

The IEA’s special report on UK energy is generally complimentary about the ambition of UK energy policy, though sceptical on some key details. It praises the government for setting long-term targets to combat climate change then imposing policies to achieve them.

The IEA points out that energy experts worldwide will be scrutinising the outcome of the UK’s Draft Energy Bill which attempts to rig the power market to ensure a balance of low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear. But it warns that the proposed reforms are complex and untested, and that policies supporting low-carbon energy may be in conflict with each other. If it goes wrong, the report says, the reform could lead to higher prices for consumers and greater inefficiency as firms try to wreak the biggest concessions from government and regulators instead of competing to drive down costs. It also raises an alert over consumer attitudes in the future: “Currently, it appears that there is support for the need to diversify generation sources so as to provide increased energy security and reduced emissions,” the report said. “Investors are likely to ask themselves how enduring the new policies will be if resistance to rising costs is to increase in the future.” The report also says support for government policies will wane unless there is more international commitment to cut carbon.

Charles Hendry, Minister of State for Energy, said: “We are working to make the UK a leading place to invest in low carbon energy infrastructure. It is welcome news that one of the world’s most authoritative expert bodies has applauded our long-term vision.” Mr Hendry added that the government was working with industry to make sure the benefits of the Green Deal are fully understood.

For all its admiration of UK ambition, the report notes that, so far, CO2 cuts have come at little expense. “Since 1990, CO2 emissions from the energy supply sector have decreased by 15% and business emissions by 41%. However, emissions from households have increased by 8% and from road transport by 4%. “Emissions reductions are primarily explained by switching from coal and oil to natural gas in power generation in the 1990s, reductions in energy-intensive industry output and improvements in energy efficiency.” It outlines other major challenges to the UK energy system – vehicles and heating – and commends the UK for being a leader in renewable heat. But the IEA warns that the 12% renewable heat target is a tough target, especially given the on-going struggle to improve insulation in UK homes.

On vehicles, the report urges the UK to press Europe for tougher standards on trucks and warns that the UK’s 10% target for renewable energy use in the transport sector represents a “major challenge”. It says that up to 2030 the government’s focus appears to be on biofuels, but it expresses concern that cheaper imported biofuels are dodging rules on sustainability. The report urges the UK to make new laws quickly outlining its future policy for the use of fuel from waste, advanced biofuels, hydrogen-fuelled and electric vehicles. The energy agency also recommends a greater role for DECC in promoting these policies.

From The BBC

Science Leaders Urge G8 to “Save The Planet”

Leaders of the global science community have issued joint statements to world leaders meeting at the G8 summit later this month in the US. National science academies from 15 countries have called on the leading industrialised economies to pay greater heed to science and technology. The academies include those from the US, China, India and the UK. The organisations agreed three statements on tackling Earth’s most pressing problems. According to Dr Michael Clegg of the US National Academy of Sciences: “In the long term, the pressing concerns are managing the environment in a way that assures that future generations have a quality of life that’s at least as equivalent to the quality of life we enjoy today.”

As the host G8 nation, the US national academy has taken the lead this year, working with counterparts to draw up a co-ordinated message for the summit. For the past seven years, science academies representing countries that are attending the summit have issued statements to inform delegates of vital science and technology matters. This year, they are targeting leaders attending not just the G8 summit but also the G20, the Rio+20 environmental summit, and other important events. In past G8 summits, the views of the collective academies have been influential. World leaders including Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have previously met with representatives of the global science community and the text from their statements has ended up in the final summit communiques. “I think most governments pay attention to science,” says Dr Clegg. “The fact we have a consensus of a great diversity of countries is an indication of the importance of priorities that we as leaders of the global science community place on these issues”.

The three so-called “G-Science” statements say that priority should be given to finding ways of finding a coherent way of simultaneously meeting water and energy needs, building resilience to natural disasters and developing better ways of measuring greenhouse gas emissions in order to see if individual countries are meeting their international obligations to reduce emissions. The first G-Science statement called on leaders to consider water and energy as closely linked issues. Otherwise, it says, there will be shortages of both. The statement recommends that governments pursue policies that integrate the two, emphasise conservation and encourage regional and global cooperation.

The second statement says more can be done to minimise the impact of major international disasters, such as a tsunami or nuclear accident. In addition to regular risk surveillance, the G-Science statement recommends building “resilience” to catastrophic events by, for example, improving public health systems.

The third statement calls for more accurate and standardised methods to estimate human and natural sources and sinks of greenhouse gases. It recommends that all countries produce annual reports of their greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. The academies also call for greater international cooperation to share new technologies and scientific data.

The statements have been signed by the leaders of the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the US.

From the BBC

Energy Agency in Climate Plea

Leading energy ministers have been told the world is on track for a long-term temperature increase of 6C unless they change their priorities. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said on current trends, emissions would double from 2009 to 2050. The deputy director of the IEA, Richard Jones, urged ministers: “Please take our warning seriously.”
He was speaking at the Clean Energy Ministerial, a forum for 23 major nations. Mr Jones said the world could still possibly hold CO2 under 32Gt – the level equated with a 2C temperature rise – but only if nations co-operated urgently on clean technology.

The report Tracking Clean Energy Progress, says: “The current trend of increasing emissions is unbroken with no stabilisation of GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations in sight.” It projects that if this continues, “energy use will almost double in 2050, compared with 2009, and total GHG emissions will rise even more. Long-term temperature rise is likely to be at least 6C.” Mr Jones presented a traffic light scorecard. Of 11 technologies to reduce emissions, only renewable power – particularly from wind and solar – merited a green for being on track. Fuel economy, electric vehicles and industry were given an amber. Most of the chart is red, including biofuels for transport; building efficiency; nuclear power; carbon capture and storage in industry and power generation; and cleaner conventional coal.

Mr Jones said countries were still ignoring easy gains in energy efficiency. It is less “sexy” than some other policies, he admitted – but it is especially good at creating local jobs. Coal is another concern for the IEA. Energy-hungry emerging economies are still building old-style power plants with an efficiency of just 35% whilst modern plants running at very high temperatures like those built in Japan are 50% efficient or more. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – in which CO2 emissions are captured and pumped into underground rocks – is described as “woefully off pace”.

Under their scenario for stabilising global temperature rise at 2C, the IEA envisages CCS providing 19% of global emissions cuts. Mr Jones said that 65 CCS plants are on the drawing board, but not one is operating at scale. Only four small projects carry out sufficient monitoring to demonstrate permanent storage of CO2, he said. “CCS remains trapped in its infancy. Many fear it will remain stillborn,” he explained. This would be grave, he said, as so many countries will rely on coal-fired power stations for the next 40-50 years until they wear out. Mr Jones said the main reason for the CCS failure is lack of government will. But one government source told BBC News it was difficult for politicians to provide the billions needed to kickstart CCS when the investment did not actually provide energy – unlike renewables. Mr Jones said countries needed to be bold with their investments and policies, even during a recession to reap the benefit of plentiful clean power in later years.

This was not just about preventing the potential of dangerous climate change, he said. Investment in clean energy would bring energy security, reduce dependency on oil and save money that would be needed to adapt to climate change.
“Five trillion dollars of investment is needed in a decade. In the long term it will lead to net savings. Delay is false economy,” he said. He said one bright spot had been the emergence of wind and solar photovoltaics. In both technologies, he said, costs are plummeting as firms scale up production prompted by government policy.

Globally, more than $1 trillion had been invested in clean energy, and in Europe investment in renewables now outstrips that for fossil fuels. But the meeting’s chairman, the UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey, warned that renewables investment fell significantly in the first quarter of 2012. He said: “The risk is that recession delays low-carbon investment, leaving us a high-carbon legacy even when the global economy recovers, making meaningful action on climate change more expensive.” Mr Davey also announced today a £35m fund to prompt small entrepreneurs in the UK to devise low carbon. The first wave is in energy efficiency for buildings, including advanced lighting, heat pumps and ventilation technologies.

Mr Davey earlier told BBC Today programme that the government was relying on the Green Deal to provide insulation to millions of homes, to cut emissions. The Green Deal has been under fire from some people sceptical that the climate will change as much or as fast as projected. The government also announced that it would allocate up to 60 million to support CCS in emerging markets. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, published in 2007, gave estimates for warming of between 1.8C and 4C under different scenarios during the 21st Century. The IEA projections are based on work done with the modelling group developing scenarios for the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. The 2C target is designed to offer an 80% likelihood on best estimates of staying within the 2C threshold.

From the BBC.

Carbon capture ‘viable with long-term support’

Capturing and burying the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from power stations is viable – but long-term government support will be needed, a report says. Specialists in technology and economics spent two years researching the issue for the UK Energy Research Council. The government recently announced a £1bn fund to help carbon capture and storage (CCS) develop; but the report says wider support is needed.

CCS is widely seen as an important part of a low-carbon electricity system. “CCS is seen as the key to many scenarios of how to mitigate climate change, whether that’s the UK meeting its targets on cutting emissions or global targets that keep warming below 2C,” said the report’s lead author Dr Jim Watson, director of the energy research group at Sussex University. “But unlike other low-carbon technologies, CCS doesn’t exist at the commercial scale. We don’t know when they will be technically proven at full scale, and whether costs will be competitive with other low-carbon options. “So it is vital that the government’s commitment leads to several full-scale CCS projects as soon as possible; only through such learning by doing will we know whether it is a serious option for the future.” Other countries including Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, the US and China are also exploring the technology.

The government opened its first competition for CCS funds in 2007, but abandoned it four years later when the last contender – the Longannet coal-fired power station near Edinburgh – withdrew, saying the economics did not work out. The new government scheme is far more flexible over what types of technology are eligible for funding, which the report says is the right approach. Equally, it says, the single £1bn fund will not be enough to take the industry from its current fledgling state to the government’s target of having 10GW of UK generation capacity equipped with CCS by 2030.

Equipping coal- and gas-fired plant with CCS makes them considerably more expensive to run. The plant itself becomes less efficient, meaning more fuel has to be burned to produce the same amount of electricity. The CO2 must be transported to its resting place – probably in liquid form through a pipeline – and a disposal site must be properly explored beforehand and monitored afterwards to make sure nothing escapes. The report says the economic incentives for this extra investment will have to come from reforms to the electricity market that the government is working out at the moment, designed to supply additional and enduring support through guaranteeing prices for low-carbon electricity. It also says the UK is well placed to lead the global market in skills and technology, and perhaps even sell some of the copious storage capacity that exists below the UK seabed to other countries. “The UK has a huge amount of potential storage, amounting to about 700 years worth of emissions,” said another of the report’s authors, Prof Stuart Haszeldine from Edinburgh University. “But that is as yet unproven; and no commercial company is going to go ahead and build a CCS facility costing maybe £1bn if they don’t know they’ll be able to inject CO2 for 30 years into that site.”

Proving that a site is suitable for CO2 storage needs the same type of exploration needed in oil and gas exploration, he said – and investigating a single site could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and take five to 10 years, meaning that a programme for doing it should be developed soon. The government will also have to work out rules on liability for leakage, he said, that are fair to both companies and the public purse. Matthew Spencer, director of the Green Alliance, which produced its own analysis of CCS recently, agreed that investors needed support and confidence. “Levels of interest from business are phenomenal, despite the years of prevarication,” he told BBC News.
“We’ve lost a lot of time, and investors have to have much more certainty now if we’re not to lose them; but we do have a good story in the UK of a rapidly growing industry. “If the government pulls out the stops, we think 10GW is feasible.”

From the BBC

CO2 ‘Drove End to Last Ice Age’

A new, detailed record of past climate change provides compelling evidence that the last ice age was ended by a rise in temperature driven by an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The finding is based on a very broad range of data, including even the shells of ancient tiny ocean animals. A paper describing the research appears in this week’s edition of Nature.

The team behind the study says its work further strengthens ideas about global warming. “At the end of the last ice age, CO2 rose from about 180 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere to about 260; and today we’re at 392,” explained lead author Dr Jeremy Shakun. “So, in the last 100 years we’ve gone up about 100 ppm – about the same as at the end of the last ice age, which I think puts it into perspective because it’s not a small amount. Rising CO2 at the end of the ice age had a huge effect on global climate.”

The study covers the period in Earth history from roughly 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. This was the time when the planet was emerging from its last deep chill, when the great ice sheets known to cover parts of the Northern Hemisphere were in retreat. The key result from the new study is that it shows the carbon dioxide rise during this major transition ran slightly ahead of increases in global temperature. This runs contrary to the record obtained solely from the analysis of Antarctic ice cores which had indicated the opposite – that temperature elevation in the southern polar region actually preceded (or at least ran concurrent to) the climb in CO2. This observation has frequently been used by some people who are sceptical of global warming to challenge its scientific underpinnings; to claim that the warming link between the atmospheric gas and global temperature is grossly overstated. But Dr Shakun and colleagues argue that the Antarctic temperature record is just that – a record of what was happening only on the White Continent. By contrast, their new climate history encompasses data from all around the world to provide a much fuller picture of what was happening on a global scale. This data incorporates additional information contained in ices drilled from Greenland, and in sediments drilled from the ocean floor and from continental lakes. These provide a range of indicators. Air bubbles trapped in ice, for example, will record the past CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Past temperatures can also be inferred from ancient planktonic marine organisms buried in the sediments. That is because the amount of magnesium they would include in their calcite skeletons and shells was dependent on the warmth of the water in which they swam.

“Our global temperature looks a lot like the pattern of rising CO2 at the end of the ice age, but the interesting part in particular is that unlike with these Antarctic ice core records, the temperature lags a bit behind the CO2,” said Dr Shakun, who conducted much of the research at Oregon State University but who is now affiliated to Harvard and Columbia universities. “You put these two points together – the correlation of global temperature and CO2, and the fact that temperature lags behind the CO2 – and it really leaves you thinking that CO2 was the big driver of global warming at the end of the ice age,” he told BBC News.

Dr Shakun’s team has now constructed a narrative to explain both what was happening on Antarctica and what was happening globally:

This starts with a subtle change in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun known as a Milankovitch “wobble”, which increases the amount of light reaching northern latitudes and triggers the collapse of the hemisphere’s great ice sheets;
This in turn produces vast amounts of fresh water that enter the North Atlantic to upset ocean circulation
Heat at the equator that would normally be distributed northwards then backs up, raising temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere
This initiates further changes to atmospheric and ocean circulation, resulting in the Southern Ocean releasing CO2 from its waters
The rise in CO2 sets in train a global rise in temperature that pulls the whole Earth out of its glaciated state

Prof Eric Wolff from the British Antarctic Survey was the chief scientist on the longest Antarctic ice core, which was drilled at Dome Concordia in 2001/2002. This core records eight ice ages, not just the most recent, stretching back some 800,000 years. He was not involved in the Nature study. Prof Wolff told this week’s Science In Action programme on the BBC World Service: “It looks as though whatever kicked off this whole sequence of events to get out of the ice age was something really, in global terms, rather minor and regional, and yet it led to a sequence of events that led to a complete change in the way the surface of the Earth looked, with ice sheets disappearing. “So, that just reminds us that although climate might seem quite steady to us because it’s been relatively steady for the last few thousand years, it is actually capable of undergoing big changes. And as one famous palaeoclimatologist put it: ‘we poke it at our peril’.”

From the BBC

Cassava ‘offers climate change hope’ for Africa

The cassava plant could help African farmers cope with climate change, a scientific report says.

“It’s like the Rambo of the food crops,” report author Andy Jarvis, of the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture, said. He told the BBC: “Whilst other staples can suffer from heat and other problems of climate change, cassava thrives.”

The root crop is already one of the most widely consumed staple foods on the continent. But the report also stresses the need for more research to make cassava more resistant to pests and disease. Last November, UN scientists warned that a virus was attacking the crop, nearing an epidemic in parts of Africa. Viral infections have periodically wiped out the crop in some regions leading to famine.
‘Fallback crop’

Originally from South America, cassava was first introduced to sub-Saharan Africa by Portuguese traders in the 17th Century. It grows in poor soils and with little water. According to the researchers of the report Is Cassava the Answer to African Climate Change Adaptation?, it is now the second most important source of carbohydrate on the continent, where it is consumed by around 500 million people every day.

Cassava outperformed six other staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa – potato, maize, bean, banana, millet, and sorghum – in 24 climate prediction models, the report says. The plant grows well in high temperatures and if drought hits it “shuts down” until the rains come again, the scientists said.

“We have very few good stories where we see crops doing equal or better under climate change and finally we’ve found one with cassava,” Mr Jarvis told the BBC’s Network Africa programme. He said this was good news for Nigeria, Africa’s biggest grower, with “36-37 mega [million] tonnes of production every year”, and the Democratic Republic of Congo the next largest producer. Cassava could be now a “fallback when other crops are failing”, Mr Jarvis said. “In East Africa, maize is preferred by a lot of farmers, cassava can be a back-up plan – a plan B.” The root, rich in starch, is grown less in southern Africa, where there are cold temperatures during the winter months. But this could change, Mr Jarvis said.

In a statement, he added: “Hopefully, these findings will be a clarion call to the scientific community for renewed focus on cassava.”

From the BBC