The staggering economic cost of air pollution

The Washington Post reports: Air pollution caused by energy production in the U.S. caused at least $131 billion in damages in the year 2011 alone, a new analysis concludes — but while the number sounds grim, it’s also a sign of improvement. In 2002, the damages totaled as high as $175 billion, and the decline in the past decade highlights the success of more stringent emissions regulations on the energy sector while also pointing out the need to continue cracking down.

“The bulk of the cost of emissions is the result of health impacts — so morbidity and particularly mortality,” said the paper’s lead author, Paulina Jaramillo, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Using models, researchers can place a monetary value on the health effects caused by air pollution and come up with a “social cost” of the offending emissions — in other words, the monetary damages associated with emitting an additional ton (or other unit) of a given type of pollutant. This social cost can then be used to calculate the total monetary damages produced by a certain amount of emissions in a given time period.

The new analysis, just published in the journal Energy Policy, did just that. Using an up-to-date model and a set of data acquired from the Environmental Protection Agency on emissions from the energy sector, the researchers set about estimating the monetary damages caused by air pollution from energy production between 2002 and 2011. [Continue reading…]

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Oceans may contain more plastic debris than fish by 2050

The Washington Post reports: There is a lot of plastic in the world’s oceans.

It coagulates into great floating “garbage patches” that cover large swaths of the Pacific. It washes up on urban beaches and remote islands, tossed about in the waves and transported across incredible distances before arriving, unwanted, back on land. It has wound up in the stomachs of more than half the world’s sea turtles and nearly all of its marine birds, studies say. And if it was bagged up and arranged across all of the world’s shorelines, we could build a veritable plastic barricade between ourselves and the sea.

But that quantity pales in comparison with the amount that the World Economic Forum expects will be floating into the oceans by the middle of the century.

If we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050, the nonprofit foundation said in a report Tuesday.

According to the report, worldwide use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, and it is expected to double again in the next 20 years. By 2050, we’ll be making more than three times as much plastic stuff as we did in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Overfishing causing global catches to fall three times faster than estimated

The Guardian reports: Global fish catches are falling three times faster than official UN figures suggest, according to a landmark new study, with overfishing to blame.

Seafood is the critical source of protein for more than 2.5 billion people, but over-exploitation is cutting the catch by more than 1m tonnes a year.

The official catch data, provided by nations to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), rarely includes small-scale, sport or illegal fishing and does not count fish discarded at sea. To provide a better estimate, more than 400 researchers around the world spent a decade finding other data to fill in the gaps.

The results, published in the journal Nature Communications, show the annual catches between 1950 and 2010 were much bigger than thought, but that the decline after the peak year of 1996 was much faster than official figures. [Continue reading…]

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This is where 90 percent of global warming is going

The Washington Post reports: Scientists have known for some time that when global warming occurs, the oceans will be the site of the most profound response.

The reason is simply that they are able to retain vastly more heat than the atmosphere. “Ninety, perhaps 95 percent of the accumulated heat is in the oceans,” said Peter Gleckler, an oceanographer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The physical reason is that water has a far greater heat “capacity” than air, requiring more energy to raise its temperature — something that is apparent to anyone who has ever tried to boil it on a stove.

Gleckler is the lead author of a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finding that, in the past two decades, ocean heat content has been rising rapidly and that, much more than before, heat is also mixing into the deeper layers of the ocean, rather than remaining near the surface. [Continue reading…]

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The magic of the Amazon — a river that flows invisibly all around us

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Dan Kedmey writes: On a typical sunny day in the Amazon, 20 billion metric tons of water flow upward through the trees and pour into the air, an invisible river that flows through the sky across a continent.

“This river of vapor that comes up from the forest and goes into the atmosphere is greater than the Amazon River,” says Antonio Donato Nobre (TED Talk: The magic of the Amazon: A river that flows invisibly all around us). Nobre is a senior researcher at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research. And in his opinion, the most remarkable thing about the Amazon — even more than its 4,000 miles of river or its hundreds of billions of trees — is that it’s essentially a massive, solar-powered sprinkler system, spritzing water across a continent. If this were a man-made system, Nobre says, it would be the envy of the world. Here’s why Nature is the most badass engineer of all.

Every tree is a silent geyser. Through a process called transpiration, a large tree in the Amazon can release 1,000 liters of water into the atmosphere in a single day. “There is a frantic evaporation taking place here,” Nobre says. He likens the force to a geyser spouting water into the air, but “with much more elegance.” After all, geysers draw their power from the scalding heat of magma, while trees only need to bask in the sunlight to release their invisible steam. Plus, they have the sheer force of numbers; hundreds of billions of trees in the jungle release as many as 20 billion metric tons of water into the atmosphere every day. That means that while the Amazon, which pours 17 billion tons of water into the Atlantic Ocean a day, may be the largest river on earth — it’s still exceeded by the airborne river drifting above the canopy of the trees. [Continue reading…]

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Dawn of the Anthropocene: Five ways we know humans have triggered a new geological epoch

By Jan A. Zalasiewicz, University of Leicester and Mark Williams, University of Leicester

Is the Anthropocene real? That is, the vigorously debated concept of a new geological epoch driven by humans.

Our environmental impact is indeed profound – there is little debate about that – but is it significant on a geological timescale, measured over millions of years? And will humans leave a distinctive mark upon the layers of rocks that geologists of 100,000,000AD might use to investigate the present day?

Together with other members of the Anthropocene Working Group we’ve just published a study in Science that pulls much of the evidence together.

The case for the Anthropocene might be distilled into five strands:

1. Carbon in the atmosphere

Carbon is important, both due to its growing impact on global warming and because it leaves long-lived geological traces. The increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – now higher than at any time in at least the past few million years – can be found as fossil bubbles in the geologically short-lived “rock” that is polar ice.

But there are wider and more long-lived traces too, in the form of changed patterns of carbon isotopes (absorbed by every living thing) and in tiny, virtually indestructible particles of fly ash released from furnaces and chimneys. These are leaving an indelible signal in rock and soil strata now accumulating.

[Read more…]

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China to increase wind, solar power capacity by 21% in 2016

Bloomberg reported on December 30: China, the world’s biggest clean energy investor, plans to increase wind and solar power capacity by more than 21 percent next year as it works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting its reliance on coal.

The nation is targeting at least 20 gigawatts of new wind power installations and 15 gigawatts of additional photovoltaic capacity next year, the National Energy Administration said in a statement on Tuesday.

China has pledged to peak carbon emissions around 2030, by which time it aims to derive 20 percent of the energy it uses from clean sources. China will also stop approving new coal mines in the next three years, the Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday, citing National Energy Administration head Nur Bekri.

The world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions is expected at the end of this year to have a total of 120 gigawatts of wind power, 43 gigawatts of solar, and 320 gigawatts of hydro power, the NEA said. To accommodate the clean energy additions, China will promote the construction of electricity networks, the agency said.[Continue reading…]

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Marshes can rise to meet flood risks if we don’t disrupt mud flows

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Climate Central reports: In the race to keep their verdure heads above rising seas, marshes that protect coastal regions from floods, storms and erosion harbor the botanical equivalents of nitro boosters: rapid growth fueled by climate-changing pollution.

The same greenhouse gas that’s doing most to warm the planet and uplift its seas can also work as a fertilizer. New research suggests that rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could help communities of marsh plants grow quickly enough to keep up with changes that would otherwise inundate them.

“The fertilization effect from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere definitely enhances marsh-plant biomass functioning,” said Katherine Ratliff, a PhD candidate at Duke University who led modeling-based research published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings suggest that mud shortages — not growth rates — could be the greatest challenges for marshes as they strive to grow quickly enough to keep up with rising seas. Sea levels have risen 8 inches since the late 1800s, with several more feet expected this century. The fostering of coastal ecosystems is considered a key defense strategy against future flooding. [Continue reading…]

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Electrifying India, with solar power and small loans

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The New York Times reports: A few years ago, the hundred or so residents of Paradeshappanamatha, a secluded hamlet in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, gathered along the central pathway between their 22 densely clustered homes, and watched as government workers hoisted a solar-powered streetlamp. As the first display of electricity in the town, it was an object of mild interest, but, being outside, the light didn’t help anyone cook or study, and only attracted moths.

Still, when B. Prasad arrived two years later to encourage people here to abandon kerosene lighting for solar-powered home systems, people had some idea what he was talking about. What sounded preposterous to the village residents was the price. Mr. Prasad, an agent for Solar Electric Light Company, or Selco, was selling a panel and battery that would power three lights and an attached socket for phone charging for approximately 12,800 rupees, or $192.

“There was no way we could afford that,” P. C. Kalayya remembers thinking. He and his neighbors rise early in the morning to walk miles along a nearly impassable dirt road to work on coffee, pepper and betel nut plantations. Mr. Kalayya earns $3 a day — he’d been earning $2.25 until a raise came through this year — and half his wage is withheld by his employer as repayment for various loans.

And yet, despite what seemed on its face an impossibly high cost, Selco agents succeeded in persuading Mr. Kalayya and 10 other village households to make the switch. Now, his wife can better see how much spice she is putting in as she cooks, and Pratima, their 18-year-old daughter, can study long after dark.

The idea behind Selco, and other companies like it, is to create a business model that will help some of the 1.2 billion people in the world who don’t have electricity to leapfrog the coal-dependent grid straight to renewable energy sources.

About a quarter of the world’s off-the-grid people, or 300 million or so, live in India, mostly in remote, rural communities like Paradeshappanamatha, or in informal urban settlements. Hundreds of millions more get electricity for only a few hours a day. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to achieve universal electrification in India by the end of 2022. His main effort is adding hundreds of new coal plants, which have contributed to near-apocalyptic pollution levels across large swaths of the country. [Continue reading…]

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The volcano that shrouded the Earth and gave birth to Frankenstein

Gillen D’Arcy Wood writes: wo hundred years ago, the greatest eruption in Earth’s recorded history took place. Mount Tambora — located on Sumbawa Island in the East Indies — blew itself up with apocalyptic force in April 1815.

After perhaps 1,000 years’ dormancy, the devastating evacuation and collapse required only a few days. It was the concentrated energy of this event that was to have the greatest human impact. By shooting its contents into the stratosphere with biblical force, Tambora ensured its volcanic gases reached sufficient height to disable the seasonal rhythms of the global climate system, throwing human communities worldwide into chaos. The sun-dimming stratospheric aerosols produced by Tambora’s eruption in 1815 spawned the most devastating, sustained period of extreme weather seen on our planet in perhaps thousands of years.

Within weeks, Tambora’s stratospheric ash cloud circled the planet at the equator, from where it embarked on a slow-moving sabotage of the global climate system at all latitudes. [Continue reading…]

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The invasion of Antarctica

antarctica

Simon Romero writes: On a glacier-filled island with fjords and elephant seals, Russia has built Antarctica’s first Orthodox church on a hill overlooking its research base, transporting the logs all the way from Siberia.

Less than an hour away by snowmobile, Chinese laborers have updated the Great Wall Station, a linchpin in China’s plan to operate five bases on Antarctica, complete with an indoor badminton court, domes to protect satellite stations and sleeping quarters for 150 people.

Not to be outdone, India’s futuristic new Bharathi base, built on stilts using 134 interlocking shipping containers, resembles a spaceship. Turkey and Iran have announced plans to build bases, too.

More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.

But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.

“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics. [Continue reading…]

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Soil loss: An unfolding disaster that will have catastrophic effects on world food production

shadow15

The Guardian reports: The world has lost a third of its arable land due to erosion or pollution in the past 40 years, with potentially disastrous consequences as global demand for food soars, scientists have warned.

New research has calculated that nearly 33% of the world’s adequate or high-quality food-producing land has been lost at a rate that far outstrips the pace of natural processes to replace diminished soil.

The University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, which undertook the study by analysing various pieces of research published over the past decade, said the loss was “catastrophic” and the trend close to being irretrievable without major changes to agricultural practices.

The continual ploughing of fields, combined with heavy use of fertilizers, has degraded soils across the world, the research found, with erosion occurring at a pace of up to 100 times greater than the rate of soil formation. It takes around 500 years for just 2.5cm of topsoil to be created amid unimpeded ecological changes. [Continue reading…]

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‘Critical slowing down’ — nature’s early warning signal of system failure

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Natalie Wolchover writes: Nestled in the northern Wisconsin woods, Peter Lake once brimmed with golden shiners, fatheads, and other minnows, which plucked algae-eating fleas from the murky water. Then, seven years ago, a crew of ecologists began stepping up the lake’s population of predatory largemouth bass. To the 39 bass already present, they added 12, then 15 more a year later, and another 15 a month after that. The bass hunted down the minnows and drove survivors to the rocky shoreline, which gave fleas free rein to multiply and pick the water clean. Meanwhile, bass hatchlings — formerly gobbled up by the minnows — flourished, and in 2010, the bass population exploded to more than 1,000. The original algae-laced, minnow-dominated ecosystem was gone, and the reign of bass in clear water began.

Today, largemouth bass still swim rampant. “Once that top predator is dominant, it’s very hard to dislodge,” said Stephen Carpenter, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who led the experiment. “You could do it, but it’s gonna cost you.”

The Peter Lake experiment demonstrated a well-known problem with complex systems: They are sensitive beasts. Just as when the Earth periodically plunges into an ice age, or when grasslands turn to desert, fisheries suddenly collapse, or a person slumps into a deep depression, systems can drift toward an invisible edge, where only a small change is needed to touch off a dramatic and often disastrous transformation. But systems that exhibit such “critical transitions” tend to be so complicated and riddled with feedback loops that experts cannot hope to calculate in advance where their tipping points lie — or how much additional tampering they can withstand before snapping irrevocably into a new state.

At Peter Lake, though, Carpenter and his team saw the critical transition coming. Rowing from trap to trap counting wriggling minnows and harvesting other data every day for three summers, the researchers captured the first field evidence of an early-warning signal that is theorized to arise in many complex systems as they drift toward their unknown points of no return.

The signal, a phenomenon called “critical slowing down,” is a lengthening of the time that a system takes to recover from small disturbances, such as a disease that reduces the minnow population, in the vicinity of a critical transition. It occurs because a system’s internal stabilizing forces — whatever they might be — become weaker near the point at which they suddenly propel the system toward a different state. [Continue reading…]

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How ConocoPhillips won the fight for oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness

By Alec MacGillis, ProPublica, December 21, 2015

This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.

From his seat in the small plane flying over the largest remaining swath of American wilderness, Bruce Babbitt thought he could envision the legacy of one of his proudest achievements as Interior Secretary in the Clinton administration.

Babbitt was returning in the summer of 2013 from four sunlit nights in Alaska’s western Arctic, where at one point his camp was nearly overrun by a herd of caribou that split around the tents at the last minute. Now, below him, Babbitt saw an oil field 2014 one carefully built and operated to avoid permanent roads and other scars on the vast expanse of tundra and lakes.

Under the deal he’d negotiated just before leaving Interior in 2000, that would be the only kind of drilling he thought would be allowed in the 23 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which, despite its name, is a pristine region home to one of the world’s largest caribou herds and giant flocks of migratory birds. The compromise was fair and, he hoped, enduring — clear-eyed about the need for more domestic oil but resolute in defense of the wilderness.

The deal lasted barely 15 years.

In February, the Obama administration granted the ConocoPhillips oil company the right to drill in the reserve. The Greater Mooses Tooth project, as it is known, upended the protections that Babbitt had engineered, saving the oil company tens of millions and setting what conservationists see as a foreboding precedent.

[Read more…]

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What next after Paris? Time to listen to those most at risk from climate change

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

Pick any day over the past few weeks and the mainstream media would have told you that the COP21 Paris climate change negotiations were crucial and productive, an irrelevant sideshow, doomed to failure, or even humanity’s last ditch attempt to avoid climate catastrophe.

Dig a little deeper into the internet and you will discover that such United Nations events are in fact an attempt to establish a world government, replete with eye-watering taxes.

Conspiracy theories aside, what actually happened in Paris is that humans came up with an agreed plan to put a brake on climate change. We won’t reverse global warming but we should slow it down.

If we don’t come to our collective senses and rapidly reduce carbon emissions, then we will have to revert to drastic geoengineering to rein in further warming. There is no guarantee that such climate brakes will work. If they fail, our civilisation will be on a collision course with a hotter planet.

[Read more…]

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