Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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  1. Huge Methane Leaks Add Doubt on Gas as ‘Bridge’ Fuel

    Natural gas as a means to produce electricity is being hailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the fuel that can act as a "bridge" between carbon-heavy coal and zero-carbon renewables, helping to reduce humans' impact on the climate. 

    The idea is that burning natural gas involves fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal. The IPCC in its Working Group III report says natural gas as a bridge fuel will only be effective if few gases escape into the atmosphere during natural gas production and distribution. 

    Flares burn off excess methane at an oil and gas field.
    Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

    But a study published Monday adds to the growing evidence those escaping gases, called "fugitive" emissions, are numerous, especially methane emissions while a well is being drilled, a phase of well development previously thought to emit little if any methane. Over a 100-year timeframe, methane is about 35 times as potent as a climate change-driving greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and over 20 years, it's 84 times more potent.

    Natural gas drilling could emit up to 1,000 times the methane previously thought, possibly significantly increasing the greenhouse gas footprint of the production of natural gas, the study shows.

    The study, conducted by researchers at Purdue and Cornell universities and other institutions, is one of numerous studies conducted over the past several years that have discovered methane leaking from oil and natural gas wells, pipelines and hydraulic fracturing operations. The studies generally agree that methane leakage is significant in many areas, but some question the overall impact to the climate

    A University of Texas study found last year that natural gas wells leak methane at about the rate reported in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency methane emission inventories, and the leaks can be contained with emissions control technology. The author of that study, University of Texas-Austin chemical engineering professor David T. Allen, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

    EPA inventories are compiled using the industry’s own measurements of emissions at well sites. Using those numbers, the EPA extrapolates to estimate total methane emissions for an entire region without actually measuring emissions throughout the area. 

    The EPA estimated in 2011 that natural gas drilling accounts for about 1,200 gigagrams, or 2.6 billion pounds, of methane emissions each year from well completions, equipment leaks and pneumatic controllers. “Flowback,” one of the final stages in well development after fracking, is estimated to emit an average of 81 megagrams of methane per operation. The EPA's most recent geenhouse gas inventories show that natural gas production and distribution is the second largest source of methane emissions nationwide, just behind methane emissions from livestock. 

    But the new Purdue study suggests the EPA’s inventories may not be quantifying all the methane emissions from wells being drilled because few people have measured methane leaking from wells in the earliest stage of well development — the actual drilling itself.

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    "Some inventories leave emissions from drilling out entirely because it is assumed to be negligible," study co-author Dana Caulton, a Purdue Ph.D. candidate, said Tuesday. 

    The study shows that during drilling, as much as 34 grams of methane per second were spewing into the air from seven natural gas well pads in southwest Pennsylvania — up to 1,000 times the EPA estimate for methane emissions during drilling, Purdue atmospheric chemistry professor and study lead author Paul Shepson said in a statement.

    “This indicates that there are processes occurring — e.g. emissions from coal seams during the drilling process — that are not captured in the inventory development process,” he said.

    To determine emissions rates at natural gas fields in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale gas fields, the researchers used emissions data gathered from an airplane that flew over natural gas wells in southwest Pennsylvania in June 2012, some of which were in the process of being drilled.

    None of the wells in the area were being fracked at the time, and none were in the “flowback” stage, according to the study.

    “There were a large number of wells being drilled,” study co-author and Cornell University civil and environmental engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea told Climate Central on Tuesday. “No one goes out and measures methane emissions while they’re drilling.”

    He said regulators have always thought that there are few emissions during the drilling process, but when drilling rigs drill through shale layers containing a lot of natural gas, a pressure pulse will send gas out of the well and into the atmosphere.

    A typical natural gas drilling rig.
    Credit: EPA

    “We need to develop a way to objectively measure emissions from shale gas development that includes the full range of operator types, equipment states and engineering approaches,” Shepson said. “A whole-systems approach to measurement is needed to understand exactly what is occuring.”

    The methane leak rates found in Pennsylvania were similar to those found in the atmosphere near natural gas fields in Utah’s Uintah Basin and Colorado’s Denver-Julesberg Basin, showing that methane leaks are widespread in natural gas fields across the country, the study says.

    “From a climate point of view, when you’ve got thousands of wells all emitting (methane) during drilling, it’s not inconsequential anymore,”  Ingraffea said. "To say we get a pass on natural gas is not faring up to current science. It is not a bridge fuel, there's too much leakage."

    The study says there is an urgent need to identify and plug methane leaks in shale gas production nationwide.

    But identifying and shutting off all the leaks in the natural gas production and distribution system in the U.S. could be costly.

    “The same IPCC report that says (natural gas) is a bridge fuel says we only have 15 to 20 years to do something,” Ingraffea said, referring to the IPCC’s call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. “How long would it take to go and fix thousands of leaks throughout the pipeline system?”

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  2. Move Over Kimye, El Niño Bound 2 Take Over Headlines

    The signs are there that an El Niño event may be on the way, arriving as early as this summer, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said Tuesday.

    If you’re already as tired of hearing about El Niño as you are about the latest Kimye news you’ve got a long few months ahead of you, as meteorologists keep a paparazzi-like watch out for the climate phenomenon. El Nino’s are are characterized by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific and are so thoroughly monitored because they can influence weather patterns around the world.

    Typical effects seen when an El Nino is in effect during the summer months.
    Credit: NOAA

    The full development of an El Nino can, for example, dampen the development of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean basin, spike global temperatures and shift precipitation patterns.

    Drought-weary Californians have pinned their hopes for water to the development of a strong El Niño, which in the past has brought copious rainfall to the state — though the link is tenuous and rain isn’t guaranteed.

    “El Niño and La Niña are major drivers of the natural variability of our climate. If an El Niño event develops — and it is still too early to be certain — it will influence temperatures and precipitation and contribute to droughts or heavy rainfall in different regions of the world,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement. (La Niña is the opposite phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, phenomenon, when waters in the same part of the tropical Pacific are colder-than-average. The last La Niña lasted from June 2010 to May 2012; it has been more than 48 months since the last El Niño.)

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    El Niño is also linked to warmer average global temperatures, which could push 2014 or 2015 to be a record warm year, experts have said.

    “The combination of natural warming from any El Niño event and human-induced warming from greenhouse gases has the potential to cause dramatic rise in global mean temperature,” Jarraud said.

    The main clue scientists have observed that suggest an El Niño is on the way are unusually warm waters below the ocean’s surface, which are similar to those typically seen at the onset of an El Niño event, the WMO said.

    Typical effects seen when an El Nino is in effect during the winter months.
    Credit: NOAA

    The warm sub-surface temperatures are the result of what is called a Kelvin wave. In ENSO-neutral conditions, when neither an El Niño nor a La Niña is in effect, easterly trade winds blow across the ocean, “literally pushing water toward the western Pacific,” said Michelle L’Heureux, a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    That push keeps sea level heights higher in the western Pacific, but when the winds weaken, that warm water, like a ball on a slope, runs back toward the eastern Pacific — that is what is known as a Kelvin wave.

    Researchers saw a particularly warm Kelvin wave develop last month.

    Animation of subsurface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
    Credit: NOAA.

    “This Kelvin wave is quite warm for the March average,” L’Heureux told Climate Central, adding that it was the warmest subsurface temperature observed in March in the eastern tropical Pacific since 1979.

    Of course, the subsurface temperatures don’t necessarily translate to warmer surface temperatures, but “it does sort of imply that there’s sort of this built up heat that the system can tap into,” L’Heureux said.

    Another caution is that warmth this early in the spring has a much smaller correlation to El Niño conditions developing in the fall than conditions in later seasons. “March is not what I would call a terrific indicator to exactly what ENSO will do,” L’Heureux said.

    There is also, though, “strong model support” for the development of an El Niño, she said.

    NOAA’s own forecasters issued an El Niño Watch on March 6 and have said there is a greater than 50 percent chance of an El Niño developing by summer and a 2-in-3 chance of one by the November-January timeframe. How intense any El Niño will be is also something forecasters can’t gauge this early on.

    It was just 2 years ago that ENSO forecasts were undercut when a developing El Niño fizzled out. L’Heureux said such events teach forecasters the importance of stating probabilities in their outlooks. “We will never come out and say it’s 100 percent,” she said.

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  3. March Was Coldest in U.S. Since 2002

    The East vs. West weather divide that was in place across the contiguous U.S. throughout the winter lingered into March, with the eastern portion of the country trending colder than normal and the western portion still warmer than normal.

    The temperature trends and rankings for each of the 48 contiguous states for March 2014. Colder-than-average temperatures in the East and warmer-than-average temperatures in the West persisted.
    Credit: NOAA

    For the lower 48 as a whole, this March was the coldest on record since 2002 (though it ranks as only the 43rd coldest in the longer-term records), according to the latest State of the Climate update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), released Tuesday. The average national temperature for the month was 40.5°F, 1°F below the 20th century average for the month. The Great Lakes and Northeast saw the coolest conditions, and Vermont actually saw its coldest March on record, with temperature 8.9°F below average.

    California, on the other hand, saw its ninth-warmest March on record, with temperatures 4.7°F above average. The entire January-March period was warmer-than-average for the West, with Nevada, Oregon, and Utah each having one of their top 10 warmest winters and Arizona and California both seeing record warmth, with temperatures 5.2°F and 5.6°F above average, respectively.

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    The driving force behind this East-West divide were warm sea surface temperatures in the northern Pacific Ocean, which pushed the jet stream further north in western North America and further south in the East, said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

    “It’s just sort of been a persistent pattern,” Crouch told Climate Central.

    The heavy snowpack on the ground across much of the northern U.S. at the end of winter, as well as the record levels of ice covering the Great Lakes into spring, also likely influenced March temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast, as NOAA projected in its official spring outlook issued March 20.

    The chilly March, of course, came against a backdrop of ever rising temperatures caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. That background warming pattern doesn’t rule out the odd unusually cold month.

    “Even though we do see a long-term warming trend in the U.S., any month can be colder or warmer than average,” Crouch said.

    In fact, globally, this March was the fourth warmest on record, according to NASA data. And just 2 years ago, the U.S. saw its warmest March on record, with those records going back to 1895. Only three times since 2000 has March been colder than average, Crouch said.

    No major precipitations trends were seen for the contiguous states in March, as the drought in California persisted.

    “It’s kind of been the same story it’s been the past couple of months,” Crouch said. Despite some late-season storms, reservoir levels in California are well below what they typically are this time of year, and the water woes are only likely to worsen as he state exits its rainy season this month.

    Drought is an issue the scientists behind the State of the Climate report will be paying close attention to in the coming months, Crouch said, as it creeps across more territory in the Southwest and Southern Plains, potentially affecting agriculture and wildfire seasons.

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  4. March Was 4th Warmest on Record Globally

    March 2014 was the fourth-warmest March on record globally, according to recently released NASA data, making it the 349th month — more than 29 years — in which global temperatures were above the historic average.

    The amounts that temperatures around the world differed from the historic average.
    Credit: NOAA

    The planet’s average March temperature was 57.9°F — 0.7°C (or 1.2°F) above the average temperature from 1951-1980 — behind only the March of 2002, 2010 and 1990, in that order. Data is still coming in that could change the temperature deviation from this March, but likely only a few hundredths of a degree in either direction, said climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which compiles the temperature data.

    This warm March follows on the heels of the announcements that this winter was the eighth warmest globally and that 2013 was anywhere from the fourth- to the seventh-warmest year on record, depending on which data set is used.

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    The warm winter period may surprise those in the U.S. who suffered through the effects of a wobbling polar vortex, but the months of December through February were 1.57°F above the 20th century average, according to the National Climatic Data Center.  Scandinavia and the Russian Far East saw extremely warm winters, and the period is actually summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia saw another summer of intense heat waves, though they didn’t reach the extents seen in 2013, Australia’s warmest year on record.

    NASA ranked 2013 as the seventh-warmest year on record, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ranked it fourth, though the differences between the ranking amount to less than a couple tenths of a degree. The exact rankings matter less than the clear picture of a warming world the temperature records paint, Michael Mann, a climate scientists at Penn State, previously told Climate Central.

    Temperature records show that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have been in the 21st century.

    How 2014 plays out in terms of warmest year rankings is uncertain, though projections of an El Nino developing this summer or fall could bump up the average temperature, and could likely do the same for 2015, experts, including Mann, have said.

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  5. Huge Hole in Earth’s ‘Detergent’ Layer Found Over Pacific

    It turns out the hole in the now famous ozone layer above the South Pole isn’t the only hole in the atmosphere. Researchers recently discovered, to their considerable surprise, that the atmosphere above part of the western tropical Pacific Ocean is nearly devoid of one of the key chemicals that scrubs pollutants from the air.

    In tropical thunderstorms over the West Pacific, air masses and the chemical substances they contain are quickly hurled upward to the edge of the stratosphere. On the way, hydroxyl (OH) molecules "scrub" these substances from the air before it reaches the stratosphere, where they would be able to spread around the globe and would last for longer than in the lower reaches of the atmosphere. Except in a region of the tropical Pacific a hole in this OH "shield" has been discovered.
    Credit: Markus Rex, Alfred Wegener Institute

    This newfound hole occurs naturally over thousands of kilometers in one of the most remote places on the planet (which accounts for its having gone unnoticed until now) and one of the main spots where air is sent up to the stratosphere. The stratosphere is the layer of Earth's atmosphere above the troposphere, the layer where humans live and in which most weather occurs. Having air shooting up to this layer without first being “washed” of all the junk that humans and nature put into the atmosphere has uncertain implications for the health of the planet’s protective ozone layer and its overall climate.

    Marcus Rex, a climate scientist for the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany, stumbled onto the discovery of the hole while sending balloons with ozone-detecting probes into the atmosphere from onboard the research vessel Sonne far out in the Pacific. Probe after probe went up every 250 miles and returned the same puzzling result: The levels of ozone in the air column some 9 miles up — all the way to the stratosphere — were below what could be reliably detected by the instruments.

    “I first suspected a series of false measurements and had to convince myself that the measurements were correct,” Rex told Climate Central in an email.

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    But the probes were right: There was barely any ozone throughout this huge chunk of the atmosphere. Without any ozone, there weren’t any hydroxyl radicals, a molecule made up of an oxygen and hydrogen atom (designated as OH) that is highly reactive in the atmosphere. This reactivity makes it an excellent “detergent” for cleaning from the air many of the thousands of other chemical compounds released by humans, other animals, microbes and plants. For this reason, the layer of OH that exists elsewhere in the troposphere is known as the “OH shield.”

    “Only a few, extremely long-lived compounds manage to make their way through the OH shield,” Rex said in a statement.

    But where the hole has been found, the air moving to the stratosphere (driven by warm sea surface temperatures, which help cause the air to rise) isn’t subjected to the OH shield and so can reach the upper layers of the atmosphere. The stuff that reaches the stratosphere can remain up there for years and spread around the globe.

    The location and extent of the OH (or hydroxyl) hole over the western tropical Pacific Ocean.
    Credit: Markus Rex, Alfred Wegener Institute

    Among the things that can reach the stratosphere through this hole are certain ozone-destroying compounds that contain the element bromine that could eat away at the planet's ozone layer, which protects life on the surface from the sun's harmful UV rays. This source of ozone-eating chemicals could account for the discrepancy that has been noted between measured ozone depletion rates in the stratosphere and what models suggested those rates would be, Rex and his colleagues said. However, the bromine compounds don’t pose a huge threat to the recovery Antarctic ozone hole, Rex said, since they need to be in the company of a lot of compounds that contain chlorine in order to destroy ozone efficiently, and such compounds (for example, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) have been mostly phased out by world governments.

    “Since chlorine is expected to recover, there is only a small potential of the additional bromine to affect the recovery of the ozone hole,” Rex said.

    But research still remains to be done to see the exact contribution of the OH hole to the ozone hole, as well as how it influences Earth’s climate. For example, sulfur-containing particles could be swept up to the stratosphere, where they could have a cooling effect by reflecting sunlight back to space. But the issue might not be so straightforward given the complexities of the atmosphere made clear by the discovery of the OH hole, Rex said.

    “Since we just start to understand what is going on, it is not clear yet, how this ‘hole’ interacts with climate change and/or air pollution,” Rex wrote in an email.

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  6. Cast of Stars Put Face on Climate Change in New Series

    By Suzanne GoldenbergThe Guardian

    A star-studded cast of Hollywood actors will for the first time "put a human face on climate change" in an ambitious new U.S. television series, the show's executive producer says.

    Years of Living Dangerously” begins in the U.S. on the Showtime cable network at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday night. The first episode, which features Don Cheadle travelling to Texas to talk about drought with climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and her evangelical preacher husband, can also be watched free online.

    The project is the first big take on climate change in popular culture since Al Gore's film “An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.”

    It has generated a huge amount of attention from environmental groups who have struggled to find a way to connect with ordinary Americans over climate change, and the response has been almost entirely positive.

    Dan Abbasi, the executive producer, says he has come up with a winning formula: dispatch big names from Hollywood and the media to visit ordinary Americans living with heat waves and drought and interview scientists about the human causes of climate change.

    The idea he said was to dispense with experts, and get down to emotions.

    "We've all seen the charts and graphs," Abbasi told a screening and panel discussion organized by the Center for American Progress earlier this month. "But what we realized is that we need to put a human face on this, we needed to make it more personal. We needed to draw new audiences in. We needed new messengers."

    “Years of Living Dangerously” on Showtime Networks features Hollywood’ stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, pictured here among Californian firefighters.
    Credit: Years of Living Dangerously

    In addition to Cheadle, those messengers include Harrison Ford travelling to Indonesia to look at deforestation and journalist Tom Friedman travelling to the Turkish border with Syria to look at how climate change and drought is fuelling war. Matt Damon, Olivia Munn and Arnold Schwarzenegger appear in future episodes. Abbasi has also been working with James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub as executive producers.

    Abbasi's strategy expands on arguments aired by environmental activists and social scientists over the years – that simply barraging the public with more facts about climate change does not amount to a persuasive argument.

    That is where the Hollywood connection and the dramatic staging comes in, Abbasi said. "You are in a much more emotional place. You get out of that statistical side of your brain and you shift over to connecting through the heart," he said. "When you get to emotion you transcend the politics a bit – that's the hope."

    It still stands to be a difficult sale, however, even with those powerful backers. Abbasi tried for nearly a year to find a home for the series on network television – but was forced in the end to go for Showtime with its more niche audience behind a subscription wall.

    And it's not clear how relying on Hollywood talent will overcome conservative suspicions that climate change is solely a preoccupation of the wealthy, liberal elites.

    Abbasi has said his stars were chosen because of their commitment to social issues, and that they tried to find Republican actors to appear, aside from Schwarzenegger.

    And the true test of success, he said, will be whether the project elevates climate change to a core concern for Americans. The producers hope to sell a DVD series of the show from September, and Abbasi is already talking about a second and third season.

    Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.

    Editor's Note: Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, was a chief science advisor for the Years of Living Dangerously.

  7. Major Greenhouse Gas Reductions Needed by 2050: IPCC

    Emissions of greenhouse gases grew at a faster rate over the decade from 2000 to 2010 than they did over the previous three decades, reaching the highest levels in human history, despite efforts to limit them, according to the last installment of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released Sunday.

    Projections of global mean temperature anomalies over the 21st century relative to 1986–2005 from the combination of the computer models with process-based models, for greenhouse gas concentration scenarios. The assessed likely range is shown as a shaded band. The assessed likely ranges for the mean over the period 2081–2100 for all scenarios are given as coloured vertical bars, with the corresponding median value given as a horizontal line.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: IPCC Working Group I

    This final installment, focused on mitigating climate change, says that in order to keep warming under the 2°C (3.6°F) threshold agreed on by the world’s governments at a 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 will have to be 40 to 70 percent lower than what they were in 2010. By the end of the century, they will need to be at zero, or could possibly even require taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, a controversial proposition.

    The scientists who wrote the report examined about 1,000 scenarios for limiting greenhouse gas emissions through combinations of renewable energy development, increased energy efficiency, technologies that would capture and store carbon underground, and reforestation efforts. How to do this while limiting the impact to economic growth and poverty reduction is a key question, and the efforts necessary would likely differ from region to region, country to country, and state to state, the report said.

    But the authors of the report, speaking to reporters in advance of the release, made one thing clear: “The longer we wait, the costlier it will be,” said Charles Kolstad, an environmental economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a lead author of the report.

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    Half of all the greenhouse gas emissions from humans were emitted within the past 40 years, growing 2.2 percent per year over the past decade, compared to 0.4 percent per year over the previous three decades. This boost has come from two primary sources: “Emissions are increasing along with economic growth and population,” said another study lead author, Robert Stavins, a Harvard economics and policy expert.

    Climate change has already caused the planet’s average temperature to rise by 1.6°F since the beginning of the 20th century. That temperature rise could reach 2.7°F above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century (and possibly as high as 8.64°F above 1986-2005 levels) if nothing is done to curb emissions, according to the first part of the IPCC’s fifth assessment on climate change, as the entire report is called.

    “Things are going to have to change if we do want to control climate change,” said Leon Clarke, an IPCC author and research economist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “If we do nothing, temperatures will continue to rise.”

    Rising temperatures are expected to causes major shifts in ecosystems and precipitation patterns — with some areas becoming more prone to droughts and others to flooding, as well as affecting human health, food security, and potentially taxing infrastructure with stronger storms. The second part of the IPCC report detailed changes like these that are already occurring and warned they would become worse if greenhouse gas emissions aren't brought under control.

    Controlling emissions means “de-carbonizing” the global economy, both by reducing the demand for so much energy and by supplying energy that generates far fewer, or no greenhouse gases, the report says. In particular, the use of coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, was a major contributor to the rise in emissions over the past decade with the huge growth of developing countries like China’s and India’s. Trends like this must be reversed, and if steps aren’t taken to remove carbon from the energy equation, greenhouse gas emissions could double or even triple by the middle of the century, the report says.

    One way to de-carbonize energy production is through what IPCC author Benoit Lefevre, of the World Resources Institute, describes as “a fundamental shift in global investment from fossil fuel to renewable energy.”

    The growth of renewables has been stronger than what was anticipated in the last IPCC report, though emissions increases negated any benefit there, said Bill Hare, a climate scientist who is CEO and managing director of Climate Analytics, a non-profit focused on climate research. The IPCC doesn’t make specific recommendations on how the switch to renewables should be achieved, though it discusses the direct investment in such technologies, as well as systems like a carbon tax that could push people away from more conventional energy sources.

    Another way to pull carbon out of the energy system is to employ carbon capture and storage technology, which to date has been a controversial proposal. CCS, as it is called, has not been implemented on a large scale, and there are questions on whether carbon dioxide sequestered underground, for example, actually stays put over the long term.

    CCS could become a key component of mitigation strategies depending on what level of carbon dioxide the world decides to try and stay below and which of the various mitigation pathways examined in the report it takes to get there. The longer we wait to begin reductions and the bigger the reduction it takes, the more likely it is that CCS comes into the picture.

    “You can’t get to the lower pathways without it,” Hare told Climate Central.

    The breakdown of total greenhouse gas emissions (converted to carbon dioxide equivalents) from 2010 by economic sector, with indirect emissions from electricity and heat production factored in. (AFOLU stands for Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use.)
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: IPCC Working Group III

    On the demand side of the equation, changing behaviors and building infrastructure that uses energy more efficienctly could lower the amount of energy needed. “Lifestyle and behavioral changes could reduce energy demand by up to 20 percent in the short term and by up to 50 percent of present levels by mid‐century,” the report says.

    Infrastructure like buildings and transportation networks will become particularly important in the coming decades as more and more of the world’s population comes to live in cities. As of 2011, 52 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, and that percentage could increase to 70 percent by 2050 and urban land cover could increase by 50 to 300 percent by 2030.

    With so much urban infrastructure to be built in these coming decades we have “a window of opportunity,” Lefevre said, to build infrastructure “in a smart way and in a low-carbon way.”

    Economics and ethics are major considerations in making all of the decisions on how to mitigate global warming. Economics played a bigger role in this report than in previous iterations, in part because much more research has been done and was available for review. “This is really something new and very, very important,” Lefevre said, because it increases the relevance of the report to policymakers who will be the ones deciding how investment in renewables are made, for example, and who bears the burden of implementing such changes.

    Under the auspices of the United Nations, hundreds of scientists contribute to each part of each IPCC report, which have been released every six to seven year and seek to review the latest research on the state of climate science, its impacts, and the possibilities for adapting to and mitigating climate change. The reviews are meant to benefit policymakers in charge of making decisions on dealing with climate change. Those policymakers are working toward a global, binding agreement on climate change at a 2015 meeting in Paris. “Scientists have done their job now,” Lefevre said. “They have outlined the roadmap . . . it’s really about having policymakers pick up those roadmaps and adapt them to their countries and implement them.”

    Not everyone is optimistic that these countries will actually reach agreement.

    “There won’t be any international agreement,” said Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, citing the inherent tensions between the interests of developed and developing countries. Cohen, who was not involved with the IPCC report, is still optimistic that humans can solve the issue of climate change and limit warming, but he thinks that economic incentives are what will get the job done.

    Scientists involved with the report are also optimistic that humans can take action and prevent the worst effects of climate change.

    “You can still do it. We can still hold warming below 2 degrees,” Hare said, but he added: “Time is running out.”

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  8. Cities Remain Indecisive on Incinerator Proposals

    By Nate Seltenrich, The Daily Climate

    When a developer abruptly dropped plans for a waste-incineration plant in North Las Vegas, a few hundred residents fighting the plans saw victory – the end of a contentious, if short-lived, proposal. 

    A landfill in Henrico County, Va. Some cities see waste incineration as a solution for the twin problems of garbage and energy. But sparse health information and vocal protests have stalled or killed every proposal to date.
    Credit: Bill McChesney/flickr.

    But for organizer Christie Linert it was only the beginning. The city's handling of the proposal left her concerned that her community, or others across the county, could be blindsided by similar projects in the future. Indeed, North Las Vegas is far from the first to be caught off-guard by high-tech incinerator proposals in recent years.

    Short on landfill space and keen to find novel ways of generating electricity, cities nationwide have begun considering a new wave of incinerator plants designed to be cleaner and more efficient than their predecessors. Yet the technologies remain largely unproven, and many cities have been unable to navigate both public opinion and the complex issues surrounding their potential emissions and energy production. 

    No Definitive Data

    Due to a lack of definitive data, cities faced with proposals to build plants using these new technologies often take developers' claims at face value, said Monica Wilson of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance. Still, none of the more than 100 such proposals to surface nationwide in the last seven years has succeeded.

    In North Las Vegas, Florida-based EnviroPower Renewable proposed building an incinerator that could generate up to 48 megawatts by burning 1,000 tons of tires and construction waste per day in an industrial area adjacent to a planned school and existing residential neighborhood.

    The plan alarmed residents near the site and citywide, who organized to oppose it. But Linert became particularly concerned when city officials told about 50 community members at a March meeting that they assumed no responsibility for evaluating EnviroPower or its technology, despite the fact that the gasification plant would have been the company's first.

    "The only thing our council said, and our mayor, is that it is not their job to look into the background of the company, and it's not their job to find out any information about the technology," said Linert. "It's a little scary."

    'One Part of the Process'

    Councilmember Isaac Barron, in whose district the incinerator was to be built, said in an interview that the city does not perform background checks on proposals or individuals. It evaluates all projects based on adherence to city codes and ordinances. 

    Member of the North Las Vegas City Council  reportedly said it was not their job to look into the incinerator company.
    Credit:  North Las Vegas

    "Just because someone gets an OK to continue, that doesn't mean they'll have the project come to fruition," said Barron. "They still have to meet all the EPA requirements, all the county and state requirements. We're only one part of the process." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates both new and old incineration technologies.

    Barron said that North Las Vegas' passive stance and the project's derailment over residents' opposition are signs of a successful public process. "We always welcome when people get involved in the government, and this is part of it, quite frankly," he said. 

    Trash to Ash

    The new incinerators use technologies known as gasification, plasma arc, and pyrolysis. The plants use heat to convert trash into ash and syngas in an oxygen-controlled environment. Syngas, composed mainly of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, is then burned in gas turbines to produce electricity, or converted to ethanol with the aid of a catalyst. Like older incinerators, they have the potential to release dioxins, particulates, heavy metals, and acid gases. The new plants are touted as cleaner and more energy efficient, but net energy production can be difficult to predict. 

    Existing U.S. test facilities emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that react in sunlight to form smog, as well as carbon monoxide, methane and small amounts of two metals, mercury and lead, that can have neurological effects, according to an EPA report. The amount of emissions depends on the technology used and the trash burned.

    Vetting Projects

    Public outcry against the plants, whether motivated by fear or facts, has been a leading factor in the failure of companies to move proposals past the local permitting stage. Since late 2012 citizen opposition has killed at least 11 proposals, including in Ada County, Idaho, Green Bay, Wisc., New York City, and Rockbridge County, Va. Proposals remain active in many other municipalities, with plants in Logansport, Ind., Baltimore, Reno, and Taunton, Mass., facing organized opposition.

    Fickle and inconstant fairly describe the city's action here - Wisconsin Court of Appeals
     

    But Linert's concern that local leaders lack the expertise to properly vet projects – or tend to look at projects uncritically until residents get involved – has merit.

    In October 2012 in Wisconsin, the Green Bay Common Council revoked a permit it had granted 18 months earlier to developers of a pyrolysis plant. Council members, facing strong public outcry against the plant, said they were misled about the nature of the project – specifically whether it would involve smokestacks or emit hazardous air pollutants.

    Developer Seven Generations Corp. sued, declaring the reversal unjustified. Last month a three-judge panel on a state appeals court agreed.

    "Fickle and inconstant fairly describe the city's action here," the court's decision read. "No reasonable person could believe that a gas-burning engine would not produce exhaust, which must be expelled from the facility." The ruling characterized Green Bay's reversal as "unconsidered" and "irrational."

    $2 Million Loss

    Meanwhile, Ada County, Idaho, found itself in similar straits in 2012 amid public protests and allegations that county commissioners mishandled a local incinerator proposal. The county lost $2 million it loaned to a developer for a gasification plant after canceling the contract. 

    An Idaho county lost $2 million it loaned to a developer for a gasification plant after canceling the contract. 
    Credit: Sara Goodeyon/US Army Corps of Engineers

    "I think they understood the [technological] process well, and I think the real issue was the lack of public involvement," said Larry Maneely, chief of staff for county commissioners. "Public hearings were not required on some of these processes, and county ordinances have been modified so that that's not an option in the future."

    Lack of a track record remains a source of confusion and conflict around the new incineration technologies, said Harvey Gershman, a solid-waste-management consultant since 1978 who advises cities and other municipalities. "The public sector is cautious and waiting for some demonstration projects to get commercially proven."

    'Need Outside Help'

    Gershman and similar consultants – some of whom, according to incinerator opponents, have industry ties or engage in both pitching and evaluating technologies – are increasingly marketing their services to cities considering the new incinerators. "The communities do need outside help," Gershman said. 

    Even North Las Vegas could find itself evaluating a second project. EnviroPower CEO Leonardo Riera said the company is considering for its next proposal more than a dozen other locations within Nevada, including elsewhere in North Las Vegas, and in an undisclosed neighboring state.

    Linert, for her part, also is not done. "I definitely see this as a victory," she said. "But you can't just be idle and you can't just stop. For us, this is not a one-issue thing anymore."

    The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news service covering climate change, and a Climate Central content partner.

  9. 6 Degrees: IPCC Warning, Blackouts, Ita and Drought
  10. Intense Cyclone Ita Bearing Down on Australia

    With winds gusting up to 160-180 mph, Cyclone Ita is barreling toward the northern coast of Queensland, Australia, where its violent winds and high storm surge could cause considerable damage.

    Ita unexpectedly intensified rapidly on Thursday and its winds would make it a Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean.

    Severe Tropical Cyclone Ita bears down on the coast of Queensland, Australia, in this image taken by satellite on April 9, 2014, when the storm was a Category 3.
    Credit: NOAA

    Different wind speed measurements are used to rate storms in different ocean basins around the world; according to the U.S. Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center, Ita’s gusts are reaching 160 mph, while Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology puts them at 180 mph. Matching its winds to the Saffir-Simpson strength scale used in the Atlantic basin, Ita is a Category 4 storm, though it is a Category 5, the most intense level, on the scale used by the BOM. (The name “cyclone” is used around Australia for what is called a hurricane in the Atlantic.)  Ita intensified from a Category 2 ranking in less than 24 hours, fueled by warm ocean waters that drive the convection at the storm’s heart and by low wind shear (the difference in wind speed and direction at different heights in the atmosphere, which can cut off a developing storm).

    No models predicted the storm’s sudden intensification, which hurricane expert Brian McNoldy, of the University of Miami, said “is still quite a challenge to predict.” This is partly because the processes that drive the rapid strengthening happen at a smaller scale than models can typically resolve, said Steve Land, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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    Ita’s ferocious winds are also whipping up a potentially high storm surge in front of the storm, posing a serious threat for coastal flooding.

    “When you get these really strong winds it really pushes a lot of water,” said Hal Needham, a storm surge specialist at Louisiana State University.

    Because cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere spin in the opposite direction of those in the Northern Hemisphere, the main storm surge push will be to the storm’s south. Storm surge is a highly localized event, Needham told Climate Central, with both characteristics of the storm itself and the local coastline affecting its levels. Some of the places particularly at risk are bays along the coastline, which can funnel storm surge waters ashore, Needham said. Current forecasts put the storm making landfall to the north of Cooktown at about 4 p.m. local time Friday (2 a.m. EDT).

    Authorities have issued warnings along the eastern coast of the Cape York Peninsula down to the city of Cairns, a staging ground for tourists headed to the Great Barrier Reef. They are warning residents with houses built before 1985 to seek shelter elsewhere and have told others to ensure they have emergency kits assembled and that cellphones are fully charged before the storm hits.

    NASA's TRMM satellite got this "cut-away" view of Cyclone Ita on April 10, 2014. The heights of the clouds along its eye wall (the red semicircle in the middle of the storm) reached about 8.7 miles up in the atmosphere. Cloud heights help indicate the intensity of a storm.
    Credit: NASA

    The cyclone threat isn’t an unusual one for the region, which typically sees nearly five storms in a season, according to the BOM. Some of Australia’s worst tropical cyclones have hit this region in the past. Most recently was Cyclone Yasi, which struck in 2011 as a Category 5 storm on the Australian scale. It was the costliest cyclone ever to hit Australia, causing an estimated $3.5 billion in damage, according to news reports at the time.

    Cyclone Ita’s impact could help shed light on another notable storm that hit the area, Cyclone Mahina, which struck in 1899 and is thought to be tied with a storm that hit Bangladesh in 1876 for creating the largest storm surge ever recorded. Various lines of evidence suggest Mahina’s surged reached up to 45 feet, Needham said, though there is uncertainty about that number and some scientists don’t think it’s possible to see such a high surge in this area.

    But Ita may help tell whether or not that is the case, depending on what it’s storm surge does.

    “This could help provide a better historical context,” Needham said. And understanding the history of an area’s storm activity helps better predict its future activity, particularly with the open question of how global warming will impact tropical cyclones around the world.

    The research done to date doesn’t suggest that global warming will increase cyclone activity around Australia, according to the BOM, and one study has suggested activity in modern times has been lower, McNoldy said.

    Some studies have suggested, though, that there could be more storms in the most severe categories, the BOM notes, as research has also suggested is the case in the Atlantic Ocean. And sea level rise is expected to exacerbate storm surge from tropical cyclones.

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