Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mixed Greens: Australian mega coal projects could derail climate

The report, entitled ‘Point of No Return’ from Greenpeace International and consultant Ecofys, said the 14 projects, which also include coal expansion plans in China, the US and Indonesia, oil expansion in the tar sands of Canada, the Arctic and Brazil, and new gas production in the Caspian Sea and the US, will increase carbon dioxide (CO2)emissions by six gigatonnes a year. Ecofys modeling found that the yearly CO2 emissions from these projects will be higher than the total US emissions and will lock in catastrophic global warming.A global study from Greenpeace has named Australia’s export coal proposals as the world’s second largest fossil fuel expansion, one of 14 large carbon intensive projects that threaten to lock in worst-case projections of global warming.
“The same Australian Government warning us that recent deadly heat waves are a sign of things to come is also presiding over a globally significant expansion of coal exports, the resource which is driving climate change,” said Greenpeace CEO David Ritter. “We are willfully sabotaging our own future.” The report noted that “even the World Economic Forum,” in its Global Risks 2013 report for this year’s gathering in Davos, warns that we are on course for the global temperature to increase by 3.6 to 4C, possibly by 6 degrees.
French company buys control of  tidal energy firm
French conglomerate DCNS, once of the biggest players in the defence and energy markets in France, is to take control of Dublin-based tidal energy company OpenHydro – investing around €120 million for a 59.7 per cent stake in the company.
DCNS chairman Patrick Boussier said the company had ben looking to invest in green energy for some time. OpenHydro said the deal would give his company the financial firepower to expand the business in Ireland and internationally.

Deadly air: the smog shrouding China’s future

by Emilie Parkinson

Beijing has been smothered by a dense and dangerous smog this month, which has set new air pollution records over several days.
The World Health Organization advises that the acceptable level of fine particles in the air measuring less than 2.5 microns – known as PM2.5 – should be no more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Above 300, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency warns that outdoor activity becomes “hazardous”, even for healthy adults.
On January 12 this year in Beijing, the PM2.5 pollution hit 886– officially off the charts for dangerous air quality.
But the problem is not limited to Beijing. Many other cities in China have also been suffering from what is described as the worst air pollution in history.
Gasping for breath
I lived in Beijing for 10 years, long enough to give me chronic bronchitis. For years, I was on antibiotics and codeine phosphate solution; occasionally I also suffered from skin problems. It was only after I moved to Australia that my bronchitis gradually began to get better.
One of my friends, now based in Beijing and working for the national television station, also suffers from chronic diseases like rhinitis. She recently told me that her rhinitis has relapsed due to the smoggy air outside – but she has found that her symptoms miraculously vanish when she travels out of Beijing to cities in southern China.
The hazardous smog has created a surge of paediatric and geriatric outpatients in hospitals for respiratory diseases. Beijing Children’s Hospital, for example, had seen 9000 patients per day, a third of them with respiratory problems.
Air pollution is a deadly problem. A study published last month by Peking University and environmental group Greenpeace estimated that there were 8,572 premature deaths in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Beijing in 2010 that could be linked to PM2.5 air pollution.
In the meantime, face masks are selling fast. The bestseller is the N95 mask, which claims to be able to block tiny PM2.5 particles. Not by choice, a mask has become the must-wear fashion item on the streets of many Chinese cities.

The skies over Beijing and northeastern China, on a relatively good day on January 3 this year (above), and on January 14 (below) when the air in Beijing was “hazardous”, but still less than half of the record high pollution of January 12. NASA
Click to enlarge

Tiny pollutants sparking national outrage

Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.
PM2.5 particles are about 1/30th the width of a human hair – making them small enough to invade even the narrowest airways. These are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks.
The PM2.5 level of pollution is held to be a more accurate reflection of air quality than other standards of measurement, but until relatively recently it was not made available to the public in China.
The term PM2.5 in now widely known among ordinary Chinese people, as debate has raged on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. There have been strong calls even from state-controlled media for the government to publish truthful environmental data, and take stronger action to improve air quality and tackle environmental pollution.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wind in the Willows Boosts Biofuel Production: Trees Grown Diagonally Produce Five Times More Biofuel

Willows cultivated for green energy can yield five times more biofuel if they grow diagonally, compared with those that grow naturally straight up. (Credit: Image courtesy of Imperial College London)
Jan. 18, 2013 — Willow trees cultivated for 'green energy' can yield up to five times more biofuel if they grow diagonally, compared with those that are allowed to grow naturally up towards the sky.

This effect had been observed in the wild and in plantations around the UK, but scientists were previously unable to explain why some willows produced more biofuel than others.

Now British researchers have identified a genetic trait that causes this effect and is activated in some trees when they sense they are at an angle, such as where they are blown sideways in windy conditions.

The effect creates an excess of strengthening sugar molecules in the willows' stems, which attempt to straighten the plant upwards. These high-energy sugars are fermented into biofuels when the trees are harvested in a process that currently needs to be more efficient before it can rival the production of fossil fuels.

Willow is cultivated widely across the UK, destined to become biofuels for motor vehicles, heating systems and industry. The researchers say that in the future all willow crops could be bred for this genetic trait, making them a more productive and greener energy source.

The study was led by Dr Nicholas Brereton and Dr Michael Ray, both from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, who worked with researchers at Rothamsted Research, and the University of the Highlands and Islands' Agronomy Institute (at Orkney College UHI). The study is published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels.

Dr Brereton said: "We've known for some time that environmental stresses can cause trees to naturally develop a slightly modified 'reaction wood’ and that it can be easier to release sugars from this wood. This is an important breakthrough, our study now shows that natural genetic variations are responsible for these differences and this could well be the key to unlocking the future for sustainable bioenergy from willow.”

The researchers conducted a trial in controlled laboratory conditions on a rooftop in central London at the Gro-dome facility at Imperial's South Kensington Campus. They cultivated some willows at an angle of 45 degrees, and looked for any genetic differences between these plants and those allowed to grow naturally straight upwards.

The team then looked for the same effect with willows growing in natural conditions on Orkney Island, off the northern-most coast of Scotland, where winds are regularly so strong that the trees are constantly bent over at severe angles. Their measurements confirmed that the willows here could release five times more sugar than identical trees grown in more sheltered conditions at Rothamsted Research in the south of the UK.

Dr Angela Karp at Rothamsted Research who leads the BBSRC-funded BSBEC-BioMASS project said “We are very excited about these results because they show that some willows respond more to environmental stresses, such as strong winds, by changing the composition of their wood in ways that are useful to us. As breeders this is good news because it means we could improve willow by selecting these types from the huge diversity in our collections”.

This work forms part of the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) where it is linked with other programmes aimed at improving the conversion of biomass to fuels. Coupled with work at Rothamsted Research, where the National Willow Collection is held, the new results will help scientists to grow biofuel crops in climatically challenging conditions where the options for growing food crops are limited, therefore minimising conflicts of food versus fuel.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Climate assessment warns of devastating warming

Perhaps it’s this chart they don’t want folks talking about, from the “Newer Simulations for Projected Temperature” in Chapter 2:The rule in Washington, DC is if you want to bury news, release it late on a Friday afternoon. So one can only assume the climate silence crowd prevailed in the release this afternoon of the draft U.S. Climate Assessment.
Projected rise in average U.S. surface air temperature 2071-2099 relative to 1971-2000. This is RCP 8.5, “a scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions,” with CO2 levels hitting about 940 parts per million. It is close to theemissions path we are currently on — but not the worst-case scenario and notwhere still-rising temperatures would end up post-2100.
The Assessment, put together by dozens of the country’s top climate experts, makes clear that if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are headed towards a devastating 9°F to 15°F warming over most of the United States (this century), with ever-worsening extreme weather, heat waves, deluges and droughts. As the report notes “generally, wet [areas] get wetter and dry get drier.” Future generations will be wishing for the boring “moist” and “cool” days of 2012 (when they aren’t cursing our names).
But if the administration were to give this news the attention it is due, then it would have to prioritize climate action above gun-control and immigration and deficit reduction (or, in the latter case, insist upon a carbon tax as part of any comprehensive deficit bill). For the Administration, climate action appears to always be the lowest of top priorities — and when the priorities above it (like health care, economic stimulus) are dealt with, new priorities take their place at the top of the list.
In a statement (bel0w), Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow Carol M. Browner, former EPA administrator and former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, said that the Assessment makes clear “The time to act is now” with “significantly steeper reductions in industrial carbon pollution” than we’ve seen to date — if we are to avoid the worst impacts. She notes the report makes clear, “no part of the nation is safe” from manmande climate change.
Here are the key points from the Assessment’s Executive Summary:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Morning Briefing: Carbon emissions

By  | November 15, 2012
“The Morning Briefing” is SmartPlanet’s daily roundup of must-reads from the web. This morning we’re reading about carbon emissions.
1.) Global carbon emissions climbed to a record last year, IWR says. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose 2.5 percent to a record last year on surging pollution in China, Germany’s IWR research institude said.
2.) The energy policy conflict at the heart of governmentDecarbonisation of electricity must be delivered at any cost, but the U.K. Treasury and Decc are exploring fundamentally different questions.
3.) California to hold first carbon emission permit saleCalifornia is set to hold its first sale of carbon emissions permits — an experiment that it hopes will serve as a model for other US states and the federal government.
4.) EU carbon market needs quick fix and deep reformThe European Union must agree by the end of this year on a stop-gap measure to tackle the virtual collapse of its main instrument for cutting carbon emissions, the bloc’s climate boss said on Wednesday.
5.) Carbon emissions make satellites move fasterIt’s a non-intuitive consequence of CO2 emissions and climate change.

Coming soon: 100% renewable power

By  | December 12, 2012

One day in the not-too-distant future — probably sooner than many expect — some parts of the world will have power grids that are completely powered by renewables. Eventually, the entire world could be powered by renewables.
These are not green pie-in-the-sky fantasies, but the conclusions of recent research.
There is no doubt that renewable resources are positively vast. Solar alone could power the world: The solar energy that falls on the Earth every minute is more than the amount of fossil fuel the world uses every year. Wind alone could provide about 15 times the world’s energy demand. The recoverable geothermal heat under the U.S. is about 140,000 times its annual energy consumption. Wave power alone could supply twice as much electricity as the world consumes.
Capturing that energy, and being able to use it to power everything, is the hard part.
Probably the most ambitious attempt to quantify that challenge to date has been done by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi of Stanford University, who have published a series of papers over the past several years outlining how it could be done. In 2010, they published two papers (Part Iand Part II) estimating how the world’s energy demand for all purposes — including electric power, transportation, heating and cooling — could be met with renewables by 2030, and replace the existing energy generation mix by 2050:
  • 3,800,000 5-MW wind turbines
  • 49,000 300-MW concentrated solar plants
  • 40,000 300-MW solar PV power plants
  • 1.7 billion 3-kW rooftop PV systems
  • 5,350 100-MW geothermal power plants
  • 270 new 1300-MW hydroelectric power plants
  • 720,000 0.75-MW wave devices
  • 490,000 1-MW tidal turbines
  • Storage in grid-connected electric and hybrid-electric vehicles
  • Increased grid transmission capability
(A quick word on units: A kilowatt, or kW, is 1000 watts. A megawatt, or MW, is 1000 kW. A gigawatt, or GW, is 1000 MW.)

Scientific American’s list of 10 ideas about to change the world

By  | November 18, 2012
Scientific American recently came out with its top 10 list of world-changing ideas.
How does the magazine define world-changing? After all, it would be world-changing if you could eradicate world poverty by chanting, “bippity-boppity-boo,” but not particularly realistic. The editors say:
These are not pie-in-the-sky notions but practical breakthroughs that have been proved or prototyped and are poised to scale up greatly. Each has the potential to make what may now seem impossible possible.
Let’s see what ideas are on the verge of transforming our world:

1. Artificial organisms made from man-made molecules

Forget DNA. We might be able to create life from a set of molecules from XNAs that have the same double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA). XNA stands for xeno nucleic acid, xeno meaning “foreign.” What makes XNA special is that scientists can create enzymes that enable them to evolve, so XNA can become better at a task, such as attaching itself to a protein.
SciAm says that:
“The fact that XNA is complementary to DNA, yet structurally unique, makes it immediately useful for medicine, biotechnology and biology research. Holliger imagines XNAs that could be injected into the human body to detect early, subtle signs of disease that current technologies miss.

The Morning Briefing: Food production, shortages

By  | January 4, 2013
“The Morning Briefing” is SmartPlanet’s daily roundup  of must-reads from the web. This morning we’re reading about the food production industry.
1.) U.K. skills shortage threatens food and drink manufacturing competitiveness. A shortage of talented candidates is threatening the food and drink manufacturing sector.
2.) Future food shortage a major area of concern: Scientist. Emphasising the need to undertake more innovative research work, a senior science academician today said shortage of food could be a major concern in India because of increasing population and declining productivity.
3.) Surging mainland demand milks Aussie stores dry. Australian supermarkets and pharmacies are running out of a popular baby formula amid a sales spike blamed on mainland customers trying to secure supplies.
4.) Food shortages in Syria send prices soaring. “Plenty of food lines the shelves in Abd al-Razzak’s warehouse, but only for those who can afford the sky-high prices needed to cover the bribes it took to transport it there.”
5.) Consumers say food production headed in right direction, widespread misperceptions remain. The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) recently released findings of a survey conducted about Americans’ perceptions on food production.

The Morning Briefing: The biofuel industry

By  | January 8, 2013
Credit: BP
“The Morning Briefing” is SmartPlanet’s daily roundup of must-reads from the web. This morning we’re reading about the biofuel industry.
1.) Biofuel production threatens air quality and crop yields, study finds. Fighting climate change by producing more biofuels could actually worsen a little-known type of air pollution and cause almost 1,400 premature deaths a year in Europe by 2020, according to a new study.
2.) A look at DuPont biofuel’s work on cellulosic ethanol and butanol“During the recent Total Energy USA Conference in Houston, I had a chance to interview Mr. Jan Koninckx. Mr. Koninckx is the global director of biofuels for DuPont Industrial Biosciences – an arm of DuPont that has a strong focus on biofuels.”
3.) Tax credits are a valuable tool in the biofuels policy toolboxThere are a number of policy tools to help the biofuels industry compete with entrenched incumbents and foreign petroleum. The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) is certainly the most important policy tool but others do also provide support for advanced biofuels technology commercialization efforts.
4.) As biofuel demand grows, so do Guatemala’s hunger pangsIn the tiny tortillerias of this city, people complain ceaselessly about the high price of corn. Just three years ago, one quetzal — about 15 cents — bought eight tortillas; today it buys only four. And eggs have tripled in price because chickens eat corn feed.

The Morning Briefing: About that overpopulation problem

By  | January 11, 2013
“The Morning Briefing” is SmartPlanet’s daily roundup of must-reads from the web. This morning we’re reading about global population growth.
1.) About that overpopulation problemThe world’s seemingly relentless march toward overpopulation achieved a notable milestone in 2012: Somewhere on the planet, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the 7 billionth living person came into existence.
2.) U.S. on pace for slowest decade of population growth since 1930sThe U.S. population is on track for its slowest decade of growth since the Great Depression.
3.) Has humanity’s explosion become a population bombThe world’s population has exploded over the past century, growing from less than 2 billion to 7 billion people.
4.) Government ‘not prepared’ for ageing population. Jeremy Hunt and U.K. ministers giving evidence to a House of Lords committee are warned that proposed NHS and social care reforms are not enough to accommodate the demands of an ageing population.
5.) EU court fines Italy for overcrowded prisons. Italy has been fined by the European court for violating basic rights of prison inmates due to massive overcrowding at the country’s incarceration facilities.

Half of all food wasted

By  | January 10, 2013
Dare to eat 'em. Crooked carrots are good, and good for you.
The world throws away up to half of its food according to an alarming report that blames consumers’ fussy preference for cosmetically appealing produce, supermarket promotions that encourage overbuying, and deficient storage, transportation and agricultural practices.
Between 1.2 billion and 2 billion metric tons of food - out of the 4 billion produced annually - never reaches a human stomach, the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers says in Waste Not Want Not - Global Food Waste: Feeding the 9 billion.
“The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering,” says Tim Fox, IME’s head of energy and environment. “This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population - as well as those in hunger today. It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food.
“The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one-free offers.”
The annual water wastage from growing discarded crops totals about 550 billion cubic meters, IME reports.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sea levels rising 60% faster than projected: study

by Joe Romm

A new study, “Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011,” confirms that climate change is happening as fast — and in some cases faster — than climate models had projected. The news release explains:
The rate of sea-level rise in the past decades is greater than projected by the latest assessments of the IPCC, while global temperature increases in good agreement with its best estimates. This is shown by a study now published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and his colleagues compare climate projections to actual observations from 1990 up to 2011. That sea level is rising faster than expected could mean that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sea-level rise projections for the future may be biased low as well, their results suggest.
As Dr Rahmstorf notes, “the new findings highlight that the IPCC is far from being alarmist and in fact in some cases rather underestimates possible risks.”
The oceans are rising 60 per cent faster than the IPCC’s latest best estimates, according to the new research. The researchers compared those estimates to satellite data of observed sea-level rise. ” Satellites have a much better coverage of the globe than tide gauges and are able to measure much more accurately by using radar waves and their reflection from the sea surface,” explains Anny Cazenave from LEGOS. While the IPCC projected sea-level rise to be at a rate of 2 mm per year, satellite data recorded a rate of 3.2 mm per year.
Figure: Sea level measured by satellite altimeter (red with linear trend line) … and reconstructed from tide gauges (orange, monthly data from Church and White (2011))…. The scenarios of the IPCC are shown in blue (third assessment) and green (fourth assessment); the former have been published starting in the year 1990 and the latter from 2000.
The release notes, “The increased rate of sea-level rise is unlikely to be caused by a temporary episode of ice discharge from the ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica or other internal variabilities in the climate system, according to the study, because it correlates very well with the increase in global temperature.”
As sea level rises, storm surges worsen, coastal populations are put at risk, and salt water infiltrates rich deltas. For more on likely future sea level rise, see “New Studies on Sea Level Rise Make Clear We Must Act Now” and “JPL bombshell: Polar ice sheet mass loss is speeding up, on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050.”
On the subject of global warming, the release explains:

Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space

By Peter Suciu
Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space
Current modes of space travel can conceivably power a manned mission no farther than to Mars -- and that would likely be a one-way trip. Some old-fangled tech can be cobbled together in a new way to surmount today's limitations, though. So what's holding us back? For one thing, it's the nuclear option. Without the risk, though, there can be no reward.

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A team of researchers, including engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this week reported their successful demonstration of a new concept that could provide reliable nuclear power for space exploration. The technology is still years away from the warp drive ofStar Trek, but it could provide a means of propulsion for space travel beyond the moon.

John Bounds
John Bounds of Los Alamos National Laboratory's Advanced Nuclear Technology Division makes final adjustments on the DUFF experiment, a demonstration of a simple, robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel. (Credit: NASA)

The research team demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site's Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) was the first use of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965.
"This is really a new old system, as it is a new platform build on an old technology," said Michael Podowski, Ph.D., professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Top 5 weather and climate challenges for the White House

by Andrew Freedman

As President Obama approaches the start of his second term, the country faces a growing list of climate and weather-related challenges. Some of these, like addressing global warming, are long-term and high-profile challenges that have only grown more urgent during the past four years. Others, such as grappling with how to improve weather and climate forecasting despite limited resources, are newcomers to the agenda.
How the Obama administration handles these issues, and more, will help determine how resilient the U.S. will become in the face of weather and climate extremes, two of which – the year-long drought, and Hurricane Sandy – were center stage in 2012. Some of these kinds of events are already becoming more frequent and severe due in part to global warming.
Hurricane Sandy's impacts were exacerbated by climate change-related sea level rise, and the storm was powered in part by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures. Sandy's final price tag may exceed $100 billion.
In addition, the costs of the worst U.S. drought since the 1950s, which has earned comparisons to the infamous 1930s "Dust Bowl" era, also might exceed the $100 billion mark, and its impacts are already being felt worldwide through higher food prices. The drought was most likely triggered by natural climate variability, but global warming-related heat waves exacerbated the drought conditions, making it a more severe event than it otherwise might have been.
With a satellite infrastructure that is set to atrophy over the coming decades -- which may make weather forecasts less accurate -- and a budget crunch that is already squeezing the main federal agency responsible for weather and climate forecasting, it will require strong leadership and a wise investment strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of international weather and climate science.
Here then are the Top 5 weather and climate challenges facing the Obama administration in a second term:
1) Building a More Weather and Climate Resilient Society
Hurricane Sandy, which killed 85 people in the U.S. and caused at least $72 billion in damage in New York and New Jersey alone, highlighted the need to bolster the resilience of coastal cities so that they can withstand the increasing threat posed by the 1-2 punch of global warming-related sea level rise and major storms.
Steps that may need to be taken include installing sea walls or storm surge barriers to better protect populated areas, as well as potentially retreating from some vulnerable locations that are almost certain to flood again, given current sea level rise projections. It could also involve reforming the federal flood insurance program, which currently provides incentives to rebuild in vulnerable areas.
While Hurricane Sandy revealed the work that needs to be done in coastal areas, other recent extreme events, some bearing the fingerprints of climate change, have also shown that the U.S. is not nearly as resilient in the face of extreme weather events as it needs to be.
At the federal level, the Obama administration established a climate change adaptation task force in 2009, which has sought to integrate adaptation planning into the activities of federal agencies. However, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, there is much work yet to be done. Bolstering societal resilience will require extensive coordination between federal, state, and local agencies. It will also necessitate working with the many private sector companies that play a role in weather and climate forecasting and research.
So far, though, there hasn’t been a strong leader at the forefront of climate adaptation efforts. Instead, such work has been routed through interagency committees. It’s possible that more progress could be made in the next few years if a cabinet-level official were assigned to oversee climate adaptation.

How Kansas City is making millions from human waste

By  | December 31, 2012, 2:15 PM PST
After cities have cleaned out waste in water treatment plants, they’re left with clean water and something called sewer sludge that’s packed with human waste, toxins, and other impurities you wouldn’t want in your water. Kansas City treated it like other cities and burned it in incinerators. Until they realized its value.
Now the city uses the sludge as fertilizer on its 1,340 acres of city-owned corn and soybean fields. Don’t worry, the crops aren’t used for human (food) consumption. Instead, the city sells the crops to biofuel makers. It’s an endeavor that’s turned into a money maker for the city, The Kansas City Star reports:
The ingenious part of the equation is that Kansas City has made $2.1 million in net income over the past six years doing something that used to cost it money.