Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Palm oil plantations bad for climate: Nature

The Age, January 31, 2013  
Growing palm oil trees to make biofuels could be accelerating the effects of climate change, new research showed, adding further weight to claims the crop is not environmentally sustainable.
In a paper published in the journal Nature, an international team of scientists examined how the deforestation of peat swamps in Malaysia to make way for palm oil trees is releasing carbon which has been locked away for thousands of years.
Microbes then penetrate the carbon and the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is released, which is thought to be the biggest contributor to global warming.
Unsustainable methods of growing crop-based biofuels have come under fire as environmentalists question the emissions savings they make, the agricultural land they occupy and whether the growth of certain crops contribute to deforestation.
More than 80 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. According to some estimates, an area the size of Greece is cleared every year for palm oil plantations.
As governments and companies look to biofuels to provide a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in transport, the industry has expanded rapidly.
Palm oil is especially attractive because it is cheaper than rapeseed oil and soybean oil for biodiesel.
However, leaked European Union data has shown palm oil biodiesel to be more polluting than conventional gasoline when the effects of deforestation and peatlands degradation is taken into account.
In their study, the research team measured water channels in palm oil plantations in the Malaysian peninsular which were originally peatland swamp forest.
They found ancient carbon came from deep in the soil, then broke down and dissolved into nearby streams and rivers as deforestation occurred.
"We have known for some time that in South East Asia oil palm plantations were a major threat to biodiversity (..) and that the drainage could release huge amounts of carbon dioxide during the fires seen there in recent years," said Chris Freeman, one of the authors of the report and an environmental scientist at the University of Bangor in Wales.
"But this discovery of a 'hidden' new source of problems in the waters draining these peatlands is a reminder that these fragile ecosystems really are in need of conservation," he added.
There are approximately 28,000 sq km of industrial plantations in Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo and there are even more planned, making them a major contributor to peat swamp deforestation in the region, the paper said.
"Our results are yet another reminder that when we disturb intact peat swamps and convert them to industrial biofuel plantations, we risk adding to the very problem that we are trying to solve," said Freeman.
The research team included scientists from the British universities of Leicester and Bangor, the Met Office Hadley Centre, the Natural Environment Research Council Radiocarbon Facility in Scotland, the University of Palangka Raya in Indonesia and water research institute Deltares in the Netherlands.

Monday, January 28, 2013

When will we stop wasting fossil fuels by burning them?

Coal, gas and oil are used to make all sorts of everyday objects, but how we will make those things when fossil fuels run out?

Paul Brown for The Climate News Network
Monday 28 January 2013The

The penny had to drop eventually – fossil fuels like coal might be more valuable if they were used to make medicines, chemicals and fertilisers rather than wasted by being burned.

While we know that fossil fuels are used to make all sorts of everyday objects such as plastics, carbon fibre, soap, aspirins, solvents and dyes, it has never occurred to most of us how we will make these things when the coal, gas and oil run out.

To help concentrate minds on the potential waste of resources, the World Futures Council based in Munich, has attempted for the first timeto put an economic price on burning fossil fuels rather than saving them for more "useful" applications.

The WFC's Matthias Kroll claims the loss of this important natural resource runs into trillions of dollars a year but does not appear in economic calculations of the costs of generating energy. It should particularly be factored into the cost comparisons between renewables and fossil fuels otherwise a false impression is created, he argues.

Kroll's report and his calculations in the rarified field of economics may seem difficult to grasp but he backs them up with figures about the volume of fossil fuels used for industry in a sophisticated economy – in this case, Germany.

Surprisingly, 13.5% of the crude oil in the country is not burned for energy but used to manufacture other products like chemicals. For natural gas it is 4.1% and hard coal 0.7%. Even that small percentage for coal is still 10,318 tonnes.

Although Kroll concedes that Germany, because it is an advanced country, uses a higher proportion of fossil fuels in manufacturing than most, he argues that developing countries will need these resources later for their own industries.

His point is that it is possible to protect the use of increasingly valuable fossil raw materials for the future by substituting these materials with renewables and we should take that into account when working out the full cost of energy production.

On his calculations when we burn fossil fuels rather than save them for more useful purposes we are incurring a loss worldwide of between $8.8bn and $9.3bn dollars a day.

It may be possible to argue with some of the report's findings on costs. For example, sulphur is often extracted from oil before refining and would simply be a waste if not used for fertilisers. On the other hand many of the uses of fossil fuels are the primary reason for taking them out of the ground and as a raw material they already are more valuable than as diesel in the back of a lorry.

There will also be those who say fossil fuel reserves, particularly of coal, are so vast we can use them for whatever purpose we like. It is the same sort of argument that says we should not worry about the effect of climate change on future generations.

• Paul Brown is a journalist at The Climate News Network

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2012 joined list of hot years, coming in at number 10, US says

The Age, January 16, 2013 

The world had its 10th-warmest year since 1880 in 2012 and global temperatures exceeded the 20th- century average for the 36th time since 1976, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The world's combined land and ocean temperature was 1.03 degrees Fahrenheit (0.57 Celsius) above the 20th-century average of 57 degrees, according to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

"Including 2012, all 12 years to date in the 21st century rank among the 14 warmest in the 133-year period of record," a NOAA statement said. "Only one year in the 20th century -- 1998 -- was warmer than 2012."

Last week, NOAA announced 2012 was the warmest year in the US in records begun in 1895. The nation's warming trend is seen as a reflection of both natural variation and the impact of climate change, according to the climatic center.

A cold snap in December lowered the annual average temperature and moved 2012 from the eighth-warmest to the 10th- warmest, the center said.

The year posted record low sea ice in the Arctic while having record high amounts in the Antarctic.

Arctic sea ice dropped to 1.32 million square miles on September 16, the least seen in the satellite era, which began in 1979. Ten days later at the South Pole, Antarctic sea ice peaked at 7.51 million square miles, which was the most ever recorded.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Extremes of rain, heat on the way

Tom Arup
The Age, January 15, 2013

As Australia recovers from last week's record-breaking temperatures, the head of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is clear heatwaves are occurring more frequently, and will increase further with global warming.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who arrived in Australia on Monday, stopped short of directly linking last week's heatwave across much of the country to climate change. While it could be part of a trend, he said, conclusions could not be drawn from a single event.

But he told Fairfax Media work by the IPCC had found that some extreme weather events, including heatwaves, had become more frequent in recent decades.

He said the panel's projections found as climate change intensified, heatwaves would occur more often and with more intensity. The projections, in a 2012 IPCC special report, found a one-in-20-year hottest day will instead occur once every two years by the end of the century in most regions of the world, if rising greenhouse-gas emissions are not reduced.

''It [last week's record temperatures] could be [a result of climate change], but I wouldn't draw any conclusions on one single event. I think you have to take the whole aggregation over a period of time and then come up with the conclusion; which is precisely what we have done,'' he said.

''They [the findings] are very very clear. Heatwaves are on the increase, extreme precipitation events are on the increase, and on that there is really no room for doubt any more,'' he said.

Dr Pachauri is in Hobart for a meeting of scientists working on the IPCC's fifth climate assessment, which is prepared for the UN every five or six years. The first of three parts of the assessment - the subject of the Hobart meeting - will be released in September.

Dr Pachauri's visit follows several leaks of the panel's next assessment report in the past month.

Last week Canadian writer Donna Laframboise - author of a book critical of the IPCC's work - posted on her blog a leaked draft of the section tackling the impacts and adaptation to climate change. Ms Laframboise accused the panel of secrecy and said it needed to be upfront about each step in arriving at its conclusion.

Dr Pachauri rejected the claim that the IPCC was too secretive, saying the group processes were very transparent and would take into account more than 30,000 comments from people who had voluntarily signed up to be reviewers, including some climate sceptics.

''The very fact that we even go out and include those so-called expert reviewers who may not have the same view of climate change as most scientists shows the process is very inclusive,'' he said.

CSIRO's Dr Steve Rintoul, a co-ordinating lead author of the oceans chapter of the report, said the Hobart meeting would review all comments and develop a strategy to respond formally to each one.

The IPCC was first formed in 1988 on the request of UN member countries, and has released four major assessments of the climate, with each report approved by all governments.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Climbing temperatures put health at risk

Anne Tarasov   
The Age, January 13, 2013
The heat kills more Australians than the road toll according to a coalition of health bodies working to increase awareness of the risks of extreme heat.
The Australian Medical Association, the Climate and Health Alliance and the Climate Commission issued a health alert today to urge people to take care of themselves on hot days, to be aware of the dangers of extreme heat and follow health and medical advice on how to stay cool.
Liz Hanna, Climate and Health Alliance President and Convenor of the Climate Change Adaptation Research Network - Human Health at the Australian National University said most people aren't aware of the dangers of the heat.
She said the frequency of heat related illnesses would only increase as the temperatures experienced in last week's heatwave become the norm.
"Temperatures in the high 40s will become the norm as average temperatures continue to grow due to climate change," Dr Hanna.
She said while infants, small children, the elderly and people with existing heart conditions were at most risk during extreme heat, anyone who was exposed to the heat directly, such as people working outside, was vulnerable when temperatures exceeded 40 degrees.
"There's an attitude that Australia is hot, this is summer, just get used to it
"But the heat we're experiencing now is extraordinary, so it's important to remember to keep to shaded areas and stay hydrated on extremely hot days."
Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton said Australia would probably experience more heatwaves in coming years.
"Recent comprehensive analysis has shown that there is a direct correlation between increased death rates in hospitals and high temperatures," Dr Hambleton said.
He said it's vital that people at risk keep hydrated, stay in the shade and make sure they are in an area with moving air.
Dr Hambleton also recommended taking several showers during the day to cool down.
"Average temperatures are rising all over the world we need to include extreme heat into our emergency plans.
"Heat can cause health problems, which people may not anticipate, such as salmonella poisoning, because food spoils more quickly on hot days."
Climate Commissioner, Roger Beale said heatwaves have killed more people than any other natural disasters.
"In the 2009 Melbourne heatwave, 173 people died in the Black Saturday bushfires, but more than 370 people died in the heatwave that week," Mr Beale said.
"The work we have done suggests that the killer heatwaves are the ones which happen suddenly, the heat is sustained for some time and when it doesn't cool down during the night; those are the heatwaves during which deaths most frequently occur."
Mr Beale said people who are socially isolated, mentally confused or work in confined spaces such as roof cavities or radiant heat environments where they are surrounded by concrete or rock are also vulnerable to heat stress.
"The key is to keep hydrated, keep cool and if you think someone in your family or your neighbours may need some help check on them."
Spokeswomen for the Royal Prince Alfred, Westmead and Liverpool Hospitals said the emergency departments at those hospitals did not record spikes in patients with heat related illnesses.
"But it is often hard to pin point which illnesses are heat related and which aren't," the spokeswoman for Westmead hospital said.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Off the Charts: Extreme Australian summer heat

Download full report here -

Key messages

  • The length, extent and severity of the current Australian heatwave is unprecedented in the measurement record.
  • Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bushfires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions.
  • Climate change has contributed to making the current extreme heat conditions and bushfires worse.
  • Good community understanding of climate change risks is critical to ensure we take appropriate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to put measures in place to prepare for, and respond to, extreme weather.

Australia is a land of extremes. As global temperature rises, very hot days are becoming more frequent and heatwaves are becoming more prolonged across many parts of Australia.

The heatwave affecting Australia in late December and early January brought extreme heat to most of the Australian continent over a sustained period. Temperatures above 40°C and 45°C were unprecedented in their extent across the continent, breaking new records for Australian averaged maximum temperatures.  The heat was also unprecedented in its duration.

The Climate Commission has received questions from the community and media seeking to understand the link between climate change and the very unusual weather. This document provides a summary of the influence of climate change on Australia's temperature and extreme heat events.

Understanding the link between heat extremes and climate change is important because efforts today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will influence the severity of these types of events in the future. Having a good understanding of climate change risks can ensure that we take appropriate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to put measures in place to prepare for, and respond to, more extreme weather.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Get used to record-breaking heat: bureau

Ben Cubby Environment Editor   
The Age, January 9, 2013 

The heatwave that has scorched the nation since Christmas is a taste of things to come, with this week's records set to tumble again and again in the coming years, climate scientists said.

Those of us who spend our days trawling – and contributing to – the scientific literature on climate change are becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of human civilisation. 

The hottest average maximum temperature ever recorded across Australia – 40.33 degrees, set on Monday – may only stand for 24 hours and be eclipsed when all of Tuesday's readings come in. Previously, that record had stood since December 21, 1972.

''The current heatwave – in terms of its duration, its intensity and its extent – is now unprecedented in our records,''  the Bureau of Meteorology's manager of climate monitoring and prediction, David Jones, said.

''Clearly, the climate system is responding to the background warming trend. Everything that happens in the climate system now is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be.''

As the warming trend increases over coming years, record-breaking heat will become more and more common, Dr Jones said.

''We know that global climate doesn't respond monotonically – it does go up and down with natural variation. That's why some years are hotter than others because of a range of factors. But we're getting many more hot records than we're getting cold records. That's not an issue that is explained away by natural variation.''

Australia's climate is based on an interplay of many factors including regional and local weather patterns, El Nino and La Nina climate cycles and the Indian Ocean dipole, all superimposed on the greenhouse gas-driven warming trend.

While temperatures vary on a local and regional scale, globally it has now been 27 years since the world experienced a month that was colder than average.

The impacts of the rising heat on farming, food, water and human health have been studied closely for years, and the trends being played out now mirror those laid out years ago in projections by the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and the Garnaut climate change review.

They include heightened bushfire risk, rising sea levels affecting infrastructure and houses all along the coast and, by the end of the century, massive cuts in food production in the Murray-Darling Basin.

According to a peer-reviewed study by the Australian-based Global Carbon Project, global average temperatures are on a trajectory to rise a further four to six degrees by the end of this century, with that rise felt most strongly over land areas. It would be enough to tip Tuesday's over-40 temperatures over much of mainland Australia very close to 50 degrees in some parts.

"Those of us who spend our days trawling – and contributing to – the scientific literature on climate change are becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of human civilisation,'' said Liz Hanna, convener of the human health division at the Australian National University's Climate Change Adaptation Network.

 ''We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public. The unparalleled setting of new heat extremes is forcing the continual upwards trending of warming predictions for the future, and the timescale is contracting.''

Around the world, 2013 could be the hottest ever recorded by modern instrumentation, according to a recent study by Britain's Met Office.

It said that, based on the rising background warming trend, 2013 will be 0.43 degrees to 0.71 degrees hotter globally than the average temperature between 1961 and 1990, with a ''best fit'' of 0.57 degrees warmer.

If that turns out to be accurate, 2013 would surpass the previous record, held jointly by 2005 and 2010.

The Met Office findings are considered telling in the climate science community, because 2013 is set to be a relatively ''neutral'' year, without a strong El Nino warming cycle to push temperatures up.

The Australian heatwave, which is exceptional, is a continuation of the record-breaking temperatures seen across much of Australia since September, according to the special climate statement issued by the bureau on Tuesday.

The last four months of 2012 were the hottest on record, albeit by just 0.01 of a degree. ''This event is ongoing with further significant records likely to be set,'' the statement said.