Category Archives: Science

Top takeaways from the latest IPCC report

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

Yesterday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its last report in a three-part series that makes up the fifth assessment report (AR5) on the latest data and research on climate change. The reports have been issued approximately every five years since 1990.

This latest round of reports began in September 2013 with anupdate on the latest science behind climate change (known as Working Group I). Last month, the second report was released and discussed climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability already observed and projected in the future (known as Working Group II).

The new report released yesterday (known as Working Group III) discusses actions to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change, termed mitigation. Over 400 experts from over 50 countries were involved in the development of the report, which was accepted by representatives from 195 nations.

Here are 5 key findings from the new lPCC report:

1. Global emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have continued to rise. Emissions are dominated by carbon dioxide (mainly from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes), which account for 78% of total greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 to 2010 (when other gas emissions are weighted to incorporate warming capability relative to CO2). Greenhouse gas emissions have grown more rapidly between 2000 and 2010 than in previous decades despite a recent push to limit emissions; economic and population growth are driving these increases and continue to outgrow emission savings from energy improvements.

2. Action to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change is needed immediately. Climate conditions are changing rapidly as shown in Working Group I, and the impacts to society and ecosystems are unequivocal, consequential, and increasing as shown in Working Group II. Scenarios to limit warming to 2ºC (3.6ºF) relative to preindustrial levels require drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century through large-scale changes in energy systems and land-use practices. The longer we delay action, the more expensive it will be.

3. It is key to reduce energy demand, deploy low-carbon technologies, and better conserve and manage forestry and agriculture. There is a range of technological and behavioral options for sustainable climate actions; nearly one thousand scenarios were analyzed in the report.

  • Near-term reductions in energy demand through efficiency enhancements in transport, buildings, and industry sectors are cost-effective, provide flexibility for decarbonizing in the energy supply sector, reduce risks in energy supply, and prevent future lock-in to carbon-intensive infrastructures.
  • Behavioral and lifestyle changes—such as lower energy use in households, buying longer-lasting products, changing dietary habits, and reducing food waste—can considerably lower greenhouse gas emissions alongside technological and structural changes. Further development and implementation of low-carbon energy and/or carbon removal technologies is important.
  • Renewable energy technologies—such as wind, hydro, and solar power—have finally achieved a level of maturity to enable large-scale deployment. However, steep challenges exist, including varying costs, regional circumstances, and the existing background energy system.
  • The best climate actions for forestry include afforestation, sustainable forest management, and reducing deforestation. For agriculture, best practices include cropland and grazing land management, and restoration of organic soil. Sustainable agriculture practices can also promote resilience to climate change impacts.

4. Effective actions will only be achieved by international cooperation. Climate change is a global problem because most heat-trapping gases accumulate over time and mix globally. Therefore, emissions by an individual, community, company, or country, affect the globe. The number of institutions for international cooperation is increasing, and sharing knowledge and technologies with other nations speeds up finding solutions. The issue is complicated by the fact that different countries’ past and future contributions to atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are different, as is their capacities to implement actions to limit climate change and build resilience.

5. Co-benefits strengthen the basis for undertaking climate action. Measures to limit energy demand (efficiency, conservation, and behavioral changes) and renewable alternatives can reduce the risk of energy supply, improve public health and the environment by limiting pollution, induce local and sectoral employment gains, support good business practices, improve security of energy supply at the national level, and eradicate poverty. Adverse side effects, such as reduced revenue from coal and oil exporters, can be to a certain extent avoided by the development of carbon capture and storage technologies.

The IPCC will conclude the AR5 in October 2014 with a final report that summarizes the three-part series, recapping the major findings of the physical science of climate change, its effects on society and ecosystems, and actions to avert catastrophic climate change.

There are many ways YOU can help promote climate actions, such as supporting the U.S. to continue its emission-reducing efforts like the EPA’s power plant standards.

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, International, News, Policy | 1 Response

IPCC: Cutting pollution isn't enough – we need smart adaptation, too

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

Rebecca Shaw is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a lead author on Chapter 16, “Adaptation, Opportunities, Constraints and Limits,” of Working Group 2, Fifth Assessment Report. She is also a contributing author for the chapter, “Terrestrial Ecosystems and Inland Waters Systems,” and an author on the technical summary.

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2014 report on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation.

There are three top take-a-ways from the report:

  1. The documented impacts of climate change are widespread, unequivocal and consequential across the planet for both people and nature
  2. Confronting climate change is now an issue of managing risks, and those risks are greater if we continue to pollute the atmosphere.
  3. To protect ourselves from the impacts of climate change that can’t be avoided, we must make smart adaptation investments in our cities, working lands and ecosystems now. These investments will increase resilience in the face of climate change and lead to a more vibrant and secure world.

The report contains extensive documentation on the impacts the warming atmosphere is already having on agriculture, coastal communities, terrestrial and marine plants and animals, and fresh water availability. Impacts from recent extreme climatic events such as heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires demonstrate the significant vulnerability of some ecosystems and humans systems. Poor and impoverished communities will be most vulnerable, as will species lacking the robust ability to adapt to climate change.

And the science clearly shows that rates of annual crop yield increases are slowing. Climate change acts as an anchor on production – a heavy weight that will grow heavier each year climate change proceeds unchecked and unmitigated.

As climate change impacts increase, so does the need for getting smart about cutting carbon pollution. It is equally urgent that we super charge efforts to manage the risks associated with the impacts we cannot avoid. It’s not a choice between mitigation and adaptation anymore – we need both, fast. Without action, the magnitude and rates of climate change will lead to high risk of abrupt and irreversible change in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. And it will pose major challenges to cities, farms and infrastructure.

Yet, there is some hope. And this is where the new report departs from the 2007 IPCC report. We found that individuals, communities, businesses and governments around the world are innovating adaptation actions, plans and policies.

Here at EDF, we’re investing in transformational adaptation projects that will ensure that people and nature will be more resilient in the face of climate change:

  • In the Mississippi River Delta we are harnessing the river’s natural processes to rebuild coastal wetlands to protect coastal communities from sea level rise and extreme weather.
  • In the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin, we’ve helped to develop water-sharing agreements that can be replicated in other water-stressed regions.
  • Across the Western U.S., we are implementing habitat-exchange programs that will dynamically protect threatened wildlife populations for the long-term, even as their ranges shift.
  • And in the Midwest, we’re working with farmers to decrease greenhouse gas pollution caused by overuse of fertilizer on crops.

These examples are demonstrating that as long as smart investments in adaptation measures are taken in concert with substantial cuts in carbon pollution, we have an opportunity to decrease our vulnerability to climate change and to build a more vibrant and secure world for all.

Also posted in News | 3 Responses, comments now closed

6 key insights from the latest IPCC climate report

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

Since 1990, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a series of reports that assess the latest data and research on climate change.

The reports are issued approximately every five years. In September 2013, the IPCC issued its newest round of reports by sharing the latest science, concluding with more confidence than ever that humans are responsible and that weather will likely get even more extreme, along with many other key findings.

The newest report, released today, looks at impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Next month comes the thirdreport in the 3-part series that makes up the IPCC’s 5thAssessment Report (IPCC AR5); it focuses on mitigation—that is, actions to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change.

Over 600 scientists and experts from at least 70 countries were involved in writing this latest installment of the IPCC AR5, which is referred to as Working Group II. Representatives from 195 nations had to approve of the Summary for Policymakers document line-by-line.

The report’s content focuses on three topics:

  • Impacts: effects of climate change on people, society, and ecosystems
  • Adaptation: actions to limit our risks to climate change
  • Vulnerability: the susceptibility of the human and natural worlds to climate change

Here are six key findings from the new IPCC report:

1.       Climate change is now everywhere. Impacts have been found on every continent and across all oceans. Both human and natural systems are experiencing the far-reaching and ever-growing effects: water resources are shrinking; terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have changed their ways of life; major crop yields have decreased; and heat-related deaths have risen.

2.       Humans and ecosystems are both vulnerable. Climate events such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires alter ecosystems; disrupt food production and water supply; damage infrastructure and settlements; cause sickness and mortality; and adversely affect mental health and human livelihood. However, people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable.

3.       Food security, water resources, human health, ecosystems, and the economy are all at stake. While the degree of risks varies based on climatic and non-climatic factors, scientists are confident that human and natural systems are threatened with continued warming. ‘Runaway’ warming (a global temperature increase of 4˚C (7.2˚F) above preindustrial levels—we are currently at 0.86˚C (1.5˚F)) could make normal activities like growing food or working outdoors impossible in many regions.

4.       Many global risks of climate change are concentrated in urban areas. Heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, and water scarcity pose risks in urban areas for people, assets, economies, and ecosystems.

5.       Building resilience is critical to limiting risks… Even the most rigorous mitigation tactics still won’t eliminate some additional warming. The upshot: there are countless opportunities for local, state, and national governments to plan and implement adaptation efforts, and also opportunities for public and private engagements. The down side: several barriers to adaptation still exist (such as legal and financial constraints), and if heat-trapping gas emissions remain unabated and the Earth warms by 4˚C (7.2˚F), the impacts may grow larger than our capacity to adapt.

6.       …but cutting heat-trapping gas emissions is essential. Delaying mitigation actions will likely reduce options for climate-resilient pathways, and make them much less affordable. Fortunately, we can solve two problems at once; examples of actions that build resilience and cut gas emissions include: improved energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources; reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; sustainable agriculture and forestry; and protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services.

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Arctic Melting – a Business Opportunity, but Also a Dangerous Climate Risk

The Obama Administration recently released a plan to cope with a warming Arctic.

Climate change has increased warming in that region at a striking rate, and it has extended the ice melting season by about two weeks per decade.

As a result, the Arctic–which was inaccessible to commercial shipping as recently as 2008–saw 71 vessels cross last year.

Speedy Arctic development, however, is an indisputably risky business.

The Threat

Over the past three decades, warmer temperatures have caused Arctic sea ice to lose half of its area and three quarters of its volume.

Even with a slight increase in ice this winter, the Arctic’s sea ice last December was still the fourth lowest on record.

In the summer of 2012 alone, sea ice shrunk by 350,000 square miles compared to the previous summer. That’s an area the size of Venezuela.

Permafrost, defined as frozen soil, sediment, or rock that has remained at or below zero degrees Celsius for at least two years, comprises about 25 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere.Along with record ice melt, all of the permafrost-monitoring sites in northern Alaska have experienced record high temperatures in the past few years.

According to estimates, the carbon dioxide and methane stored in the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost is equivalent to more than double the carbon concentration currently in the atmosphere.

The Northern Hemisphere’s shallow (zero to three meters deep) permafrost is the part most susceptible to melting, and that part alone contains carbon dioxide and methane equivalent to more than 400 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide – or, the amount currently in the entire atmosphere. (That’s according to “Report from International Permafrost Association: Carbon Pools in Permafrost Regions” by Kuhry, Peter, Chien-Lu Ping, Edward A. G. Schuur, Charles Tarnocai, and Sergey Zimov.)

Permafrost in the Arctic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)–the world’s foremost authority on climate change–expects the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost to melt 20 to 35 percent by 2050.

Quick math with very conservative assumptions tells us this: if not curtailed, carbon emissions from the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost melting will bring the atmospheric carbon concentration beyond 450 ppm, the number the IPCC deems the threshold beyond which the world can expect extreme shifts in weather patterns, ecology, and geology.

While the lasting effect of permafrost thaw on atmospheric carbon concentrations is uncertain, it is safe to say that the scale of the risk is potentially enormous and expensive into the trillions of dollars.

According to Maplecroft’s 2013 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, 67 countries with an “estimated combined GDP of $44 trillion will come under increasing threat from the physical impacts of more frequent and extreme climate-related events.”

The World Bank (2010) estimates annual climate change adaptation costs for the years 2010 to 2050 to be $70 to $100 billion for the developing world alone.

Unmitigated permafrost melting promises to hasten temperature increases and greatly exacerbate these costs.

The Business Interest

While methane from permafrost melt rises like a thick, invisible smoke stack, some members of the business world are focused on the economic potential of an increasingly iceless–and thus accessible–Arctic frontier.

The foremost reason for the Arctic’s economic promise is its massive oil and gas deposits.

According to Foreign Affairs:

The Arctic’s oil and gas fields account for 10.5 percent of global oil production and 25.5 percent of global gas production. And those numbers could jump soon. Initial estimates suggest that the Arctic may be home to an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and gas deposits, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Recent investments of many billions of dollars from oil giants–including Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Gazprom, and Rosneft–shows the excitement in the industry regarding the future revenues from these formerly ice-restricted resources.

An ice-free Arctic also creates shorter shipping routes.

For the first time ever, the Northern Sea Route, which passes through the Arctic to connect Europe to Eurasia, is open to commercial shipping, with over 70 vessels sailing through in 2013.

The Arctic also harbors valuable deposits of zinc, nickel, palladium, diamonds, platinum, cobalt, tungsten, uranium, and other minerals. And above ground, forestry, fishing, and many other industries promise to benefit from Arctic development.

 A Dangerous Cycle

As melting ice unlocks the Arctic, it threatens to push temperatures to tipping points. It also unleashes economic activity that may spark positive feedback loops, bringing more and more Arctic melting – and thus more carbon dioxide and methane released from permafrost.

Additionally, as a warming climate allows snow and ice to thaw, tundra species are being replaced with evergreen trees, which absorb more sunlight. (Snow is white, so it absords less of the sun's heat than the darker evergreens.) That means that more tree cover will, counter-intuitively, further increase warming and thawing trends in the Arctic.

Other factors such as direct carbon loss through combustion and increasing fires could also further increase this cycle.

While the science regarding permafrost melt’s climate implications remains uncertain, the risk is so enormous that turning a blind eye while developing the Arctic frontier is tremendously irresponsible.

The ensuing hastening of permafrost’s melt could lead to global economic costs that drastically exceed the benefits from Arctic development.

Also posted in Arctic & Antarctic, News | 3 Responses, comments now closed

Reality check: Society pays for carbon pollution and that's no benefit

This open letter, co-authored by Jeremy Proville and first published on EDF Voices, was written in response to a New York Times article citing Dr. Roger Bezdek’s report on “The Social Costs of Carbon? No, The Social Benefits of Carbon.”

Dear Dr. Bezdek,

After seeing so many peer-reviewed studies documenting the costs of carbon pollution, it’s refreshing to encounter some out-of-the-box thinking to the contrary. You had us with your assertion that: “Even the most conservative estimates peg the social benefit of carbon-based fuels as 50 times greater than its supposed social cost.” We almost quit our jobs and joined the coal lobby. Who wouldn’t want to work so selflessly for the greater good?

Then we looked at the rest of your report. Your central argument seems to be: Cheap fuels emit carbon; cheap fuels are good; so, by the transitive property of Huh?!, carbon is good. Pithy arguments are fine, but circular ones aren’t.

First off, cheap fuels are good. Or more precisely, cheap and efficient energy services are good. (Energy efficiency, of course, is good, too. Inefficiency clearly isn’t.) Cheap energy services have done wonders for the United States and the world, and they are still doing so. No one here is anti-energy; we are against ruining our planet while we are at it.

The high cost of cheap energy

Yes, the sadly still dominant fuels—by far not all—emit carbon pollution. Coal emits the most. Which is why the cost to society is so staggering. Forget carbon for a moment. Mercury poisoning from U.S. power plants alone causes everything from heart attacks to asthma to inhibiting cognitive development in children. The latter alone is responsible for estimated costs of $1.3 billion per year by knocking off IQ points in kids. All told, coal costs America $330 to 500 billion per year.

Put differently, every ton of coal—like every barrel of oil—causes more in external damages than it adds value to GDP. The costs faced by those deciding how much fossil fuel to burn are much lower than the costs faced by society.

None of that means we shouldn’t burn any coal or oil. It simply means those who profit from producing these fuels shouldn’t get a free ride on the taxpayer. Conservative estimates indicate that carbon pollution costs society about $40 per ton. And yes, that’s a cost.

Socializing the costs is not an option

As someone with a Ph.D. in economics, Dr. Bezdek, you surely understand the difference between private benefits and social costs. No one would be burning any coal if there weren’t benefits to doing so. However, the “social benefits” you ascribe to coal are anything but; in reality they are private, in the best sense of the word.

If you are the one burning coal, you benefit. If you are the one using electricity produced by burning coal, you benefit, too. To be clear, these are benefits. No one disputes that. It’s how markets work.

But markets also fail in a very important way. The bystanders who are breathing the polluted air are paying dearly. The costs, if you will, are socialized. Society—all of us—pays for them. That includes those who seemingly benefit from burning coal in the first place.

Your claim that what you call “social benefits” of coal dwarf the costs is wrong in theory and practice. In theory, because they are private benefits. As a matter of practice because these (private) benefits are very much included in the calculations that give us the social costs of coal. What you call out as the social benefits of coal use are already captured by these calculations. They are part of economic output.

Our indicators for GDP do a pretty good job capturing all these private benefits of economic activity. Where they fail is with the social costs. Hence the need to calculate the social cost of carbon pollution in the first place.

So far so bad. Then there’s this:

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, just not too much of it

In your report, you also discuss what you call the benefits of increases in agricultural yields from the well-known carbon dioxide fertilization effect. It may surprise you to hear that the models used to calculate the cost of carbon include that effect. It turns out, they, too, in part base it on outdated science that ought to be updated.

But their science still isn’t as old as yours. For some reason, you only chose to include papers on the fertilization effect published between 1902 and 1997 (save one that is tangentially related).

For an updated perspective, try one of the most comprehensive economic analysis to date, pointing to large aggregate losses. Or try this Science article, casting serious doubt on any claims that carbon dioxide fertilization could offset the impacts on agricultural yields from climate change.

Farmers and ranchers already have a lot to endure from the effects of climate change. There’s no need to make it worse with false, outdated promises.

Coal lobby speaks, industry no longer listens

It’s for all these reasons that, to borrow the apt title to the otherwise excellent New York Times story that ran your quote: “Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change”. And it’s precisely why the U.S. government calculates the social cost of carbon pollution. Yes, sadly, it’s a cost, not a benefit.

To our readers: Want to get involved? The White House has issued a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open throughFebruary 26. You can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.

Also posted in Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Setting the Facts Straight | 1 Response, comments now closed

Why the cost of carbon pollution is both too high and too low

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

Tell someone you are a “climate economist,” and the first thing you hear after the slightly puzzled looks subside is, “How much?” Show me the money: “How much is climate change really costing us?”

Here it is: at least $40.

That, of course, isn’t the total cost, which is in the trillions of dollars. $40 is the cost per ton of carbon dioxide pollution emitted today, and represents the financial impacts of everything climate change wreaks: higher medical bills, lost productivity at work, rising seas, and more. Every American, all 300 million of us, emit around twenty of these $40-tons per year.

The number comes from none other than the U.S. government in an effort to uncover the true cost of carbon pollution. This exercise was first conducted in 2010. It involved a dozen government agencies and departments, several dozen experts, and a fifty-page, densely crafted “technical support document,” replete with some seventy, peer-reviewed references and an even more technical appendix.

Cass Sunstein, the Harvard legal scholar of Nudge fame, who was co-leading the process for the White House at the time, recently declared himself positively surprised how the usual interest-group politics were all-but absent from the discussions throughout that process. This is how science should be done to help guide public policy.

The cost of carbon pollution is too low

The number originally reached in 2010 wasn’t $40. It was a bit more than half as much. What happened? In short, the scientific understanding of the impacts of rising seas had advanced by so much, and the peer-reviewed, economic models had finally caught up to the scientific understanding circa 2007, that a routine update of the cost of carbon number resulted in the rather dramatic increase to near $40 per ton. (There are twenty pages of additional scientific prose, if you want to know the details.)

In other words, we had been seriously underestimating the cost of climate change all along. That’s the exact opposite of what you hear from those who want to ignore the problem, and the $40 itself is still woefully conservative. Some large companies, including the likes of Exxon, are voluntarily using a higher price internally for their capital investment decisions.

And everything we know about the science points to the fact that the $40 figure has nowhere to go but up. The more we know, the higher the costs. And even what we don’t knowpushes the costs higher still.

Howard Shelanski, Sunstein’s successor as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced “oh-eye-ruh”), has since presided over a further update of the official number. In fact, this one didn’t incorporate any of the latest science. It was simply a minor technical correction of the prior update, resulting in a $1 revision downward. (The precise number is now $37, though I still say $40 at cocktail parties, to avoid a false sense of precision. Yes, that’s what a climate economist talks about at cocktail parties.)

And once again, it all demonstrated just how science ought to be done: Sometimes it advances because newer and better, peer-reviewed publications become available. Sometimes it advances because someone discovers and fixes a small mathematical error.

Your input is needed

While announcing the correction, Shelanski added another layer of transparency and an opportunity for further refinements of the numbers: a formal call for public comments on the way the cost of carbon figure is calculated, open through January 27 February 26th.

We are taking this opportunity seriously. EDF, together with our partners at the Natural Resource Defense Council, New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, is submitting formal, technical comments in support of the administration’s use of the cost of carbon pollution number as well as recommending further revisions to reflect the latest science.

The bottom line, as economists like to put it, is that carbon pollution costs society a lot of money. So as the technical experts trade scientific papers, you can help by reminding our leaders in Washington that we need strong, science-based climate policies.

Update (on January 24th): The official comment period just was extended for another month, through February 26th. More time to show your support.

Also posted in Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Setting the Facts Straight | 1 Response, comments now closed

Global climate change can make fish consumption more dangerous

Hundreds of thousands of babies are born in the U.S each year with enough mercury in their blood to impair healthy brain development. As they grow, these children’s capacity to see, hear, move, feel, learn and respond can be severely compromised. Why does this happen? Mostly because a portion of mercury emitted from local power plants and other global anthropogenic sources is converted to methylmercury, a neurotoxic and organic form of mercury that accumulates in fish.

In addition to poisoning human diet, mercury continues to poison the Arctic. Despite a lack of major industrial sources of mercury within the Arctic, methylmercury concentrations have reached toxic levels in many arctic species including polar bears, whales, and dolphins because of anthropogenic emissions at lower latitudes.

Relationship between mercury exposure and climate change: In its latest report to policymakers, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that climate change and local high temperatures will worsen air pollution by increasing concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in many regions. However, no scientific body has collectively assessed the potential impact of changing climate on mercury, a dangerous pollutant that contaminates not just our air but our soils and waters (and as a result human and wildlife’s food supply).

After attending this summer’s International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP) in Edinburgh (Scotland), I don’t have good news. In the past few months, I have talked to several leading scientists who do research on different aspects on mercury cycle and they all seemed to agree with many recently presented and published peer-reviewed studies (see a selected list below): Climate change can significantly worsen mercury pollution. Even if global anthropogenic emission rate of mercury was to somehow be made constant, climate change can make fish-eating more dangerous because of the following:

Enhanced inorganic mercury release into waters — A combination of the following climate-related factors can lead to the release of higher amounts of mercury into waters:

  • Climate change (i.e., increased local precipitation under warmer conditions) will cause more local direct deposition of the emitted inorganic mercury on our lakes and ocean as compared to deposition under colder and dryer conditions.
  • Run-off (i.e., flow of mercury over land in a watershed that drains into one water body) an indirect but primary means by which mercury enters our local waters, will also increase under warmer and wetter conditions.
  • Extreme events (storms, hurricanes, forest-fires, tornadoes and alternating wetting-drying cycles) will cause erosive mobilization of inorganic mercury and organic matter in soils and release it into coastal and open waters where it can get methylated.
  • Thawing of the enormous areas of northern frozen peatlands may release globally significant amounts of long-stored mercury and organic matter into lakes (including those in the Arctic), rivers and ocean.

Enhanced Methylmercury production from inorganic mercury: In addition to increased release on inorganic mercury into the waters, the inorganic mercury might also have higher chances of getting converted to methylmercury.

  • In the open ocean, methylmercury is produced in regions known as “oxygen minimum zones”. Increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will cause higher primary productivity  which will widen the existing ocean’s oxygen deficient zones leading to enhanced production of methylmercury.
  • Continued melting of permafrost will release organic matter which naturally contains high concentration of aromatic structures (structures similar to benzene rings). These kinds of organic matter have been shown to enhance the production rate of methylmercury.

Enhanced methylmercury bioaccumulation in the fish:

  • For a given amount of methylmercury in the water, there are various factors that control the concentration and bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the food chain. In a given water body, bigger fishaccumulate more methylmercury than smaller fish. Because of climate change, oceanic temperatures will be higher and higher temperatures have been shown to increase the metabolic growth rate and size of fish. Therefore, for a given amount of inorganic mercury emitted in the atmosphere or water, more methylmercury will accumulate in the fish (consequently, increase human exposure to methylmercury) as climate change becomes more severe.

These research results combined with the recent reports on higher genetic susceptibility of some people to mercury poisoning suggest that in order to protect human and wildlife health from negative effects of methylmercury exposure it is essential to swiftly enact and implement stringent laws to reduce both global mercury and greenhouse emissions from all major sources including coal power plants.

Governments across the globe now recognize that mercury is an extremely toxic metal that harms health of millions of children and adults every year and have moved forward with an international treaty to address this toxic pollution, called the Minamata convention. The Minamata convention was recently opened for signatures after 4 years of negotiations. The treaty will come into effect as soon as the 50th nation ratifies it. It has already been signed by 93 nation-states. I am happy to note that United States has been the first nation to ratify the treaty. We await , however, ratification from 49 more countries before the treaty can go into effect.

As an organization, EDF has been educating consumers and seafood businesses about mercury in seafood via our EDF Seafood Selector by doing quantitative Synthesis of Mercury in Commercial Seafood for many years. We also have expertise on the scientific, legal, and stakeholder processes that laid the groundwork for implementation of Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in the U.S; the health and economic implications of these emission standards; and the current state of technology available to reduce emissions from power plants in the U.S.

Thanks to your strong support, the U.S. has taken action to reduce mercury from power plants, the largest domestic source of mercury pollution. While many power plant companies are moving forward with investments to reduce mercury pollution, we need you to continue making your voices heard because the mercury standards (MATS) are still being challenged in the court from time to time.

References

  1. Kathryn R. Mahaffey, Robert P. Clickner, and Rebecca A. Jeffries (2009) Adult Women’s Blood Mercury Concentrations Vary Regionally in the United States: Association with Patterns of Fish Consumption (NHANES 1999–2004) Environ Health Perspect. 117(1): 47–53.
  2. Goacher, W. James and Brian Branfireun (2013). Evidence of millennial trends in mercury deposition in pristine peat geochronologies. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  3. Dijkstra JA, Buckman KL, Ward D, Evans DW, Dionne M, et al. (2013) Experimental and Natural Warming Elevates Mercury Concentrations in Estuarine Fish. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58401. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058401
  4. Webster, Jackson P. et al. (2013) The Effect of Historical and Recent Wildfires on Soil-Mercury Distribution and Mobilization at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  5. Blum et al (2013) Methylmercury production below the mixed layer in the North Pacific Ocean Nature Geoscience 6, 879–884
  6. Stramma, Lothar (2010) “Ocean oxygen minima expansions and their biological impacts,” Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers. 57: 587–595
  7. Bjorn, Erik et al. (2013) Impact of Nutrient and Humic Matter Loadings on Methylmercury Formation and Bioaccumulation in Estuarine Ecosystems. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  8. Bedowski, Jacek et al. (2013) Mercury in the coastal zone of Southern Baltic Sea as a function of changing climate: preliminary results. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  9. Grandjean, Philippe, et al. (2013) Genetic vulnerability to MeHg. Presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.
  10. Qureshi et al (2013): Impacts of Ecosystem Change on Mercury Bioaccumulation in a Coastal-Marine Food Web presented at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant; Edinburgh, Scotland.

Also posted in Health, Policy | 2 Responses, comments now closed

Correcting the maths of the "50 to 1 Project"

A nine-minute video, released earlier this fall, argues that climate mitigation is 50 times more expensive than adaptation. The claims are based on calculations done by Christopher Monckton. We analyzed the accompanying “sources and maths” document. In short, the author shows a disconcerting lack of understanding of climate science and economics:

  1. Fundamental misunderstanding of basic climate science: Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) were at around 280 parts per million (ppm).[i] One of the most commonly stated climate policy goals is to keep concentrations below 450 ppm CO2. Monckton, oddly, adds 280 and 450 to get to 730 ppm as the goal of global stabilization efforts, making all the rest of his calculations wildly inaccurate.
  2. Prematurely cutting off analysis after ten years: Monckton calculates the benefits of the carbon tax over a ten-year time horizon. That is much too short to see the full effects of global warming or of the policy itself. Elevated carbon levels persist for hundreds to thousands of years.[ii]
  3. Erroneously applying Australian “cost-effectiveness” calculation to the world: This may be the most troubling aspect from an economist's point of view. Monckton first calculates the effect of the Australia-only tax on global temperatures, which is unsurprisingly low, as Australia accounts for only 1.2% of world emissions. Next, he calculates the tax’s resulting “cost-effectiveness” — defined as the Australian tax influencing global temperatures. No surprise once again, that influence is there, but Australia alone can't solve global warming for the rest of us. Then, Monckton takes the Australia-only number and scales it to mitigate 1ºC globally, resulting in a purported cost of “$3.2 quadrillion,” which he claims is the overall global “mitigation cost-effectiveness.” But this number simply represents the cost of avoiding 1ºC of warming by acting in Australia alone. Monckton has re-discovered the fact that global warming is a global problem! The correct calculation for a globally applied tax would be to calculate cost-effectiveness on a global level first. If Australia’s carbon price were to be applied globally, it would cut much more pollution at a much lower cost. And that, of course, is very much the hope. Australia, California, and the European Union are called “climate leaders” for a reason. Others must follow.

What’s the real cost of cutting carbon? The U.S. government’s estimate of the cost of one ton of CO2 pollution released today is about $40.[iii] That's also the optimal price to make sure that each of us is paying for our own climate damages. Any policy with a lower (implied) carbon price—including the Australian tax—easily passes a benefit-cost test.

With all due respect Lord Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, your maths are way off.


[i] "Summary for Policymakers," IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group I (2013).

[ii] Results differ across scenarios, but a rough rule of thumb suggests that approximately 70% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm perseveres after 100 years of zero emissions, while approximately 40% of the ‘peak enhancement level’ over the preindustrial level of 280 ppm persevered after 1,000 years of zero emissions (Solomon, Susan, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (2009): 1704-1709). Note that this refers to the net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not the exact molecule. Archer, David, Michael Eby, Victor Brovkin, Andy Ridgwell, Long Cao, Uwe Mikolajewicz, Ken Caldeira et al. "Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide." Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 117-134 discusses these two often confused definitions for carbon’s ‘lifetime,’ and concludes that 20-40% of excess carbon levels remain hundreds to thousands of years (“2-20 centuries”) after it is emitted. Each carbon dioxide molecule has a lifetime of anywhere between 50 to 200 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” The precise number is under considerable scientific dispute and surprisingly poorly understood. (Inman, Mason, “Carbon is forever,” Nature Reports Climate Change 20 November 2008)

[iii] The precise value presented in Table 1 of the Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866 for a ton of carbon dioxide emitted in 2015, using a 3% social discount rate increased is $38. For 2020, the number is $43; for 2030, the number increases to $52. All values are in inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars. For a further exploration of this topic, see Nordhaus, William D. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. Yale University Press (2013) as only one of the latest examples summarizing this kind of analysis. Nordhaus concludes that the optimal policy, one that maximizes net benefits to the planet, would spend about 3% of global GDP.

Many thanks to Michelle Ho for excellent research assistance.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Economics, International | Comments closed

IPCC mention of geoengineering, though brief, opens window for discussion

The IPCC's latest report includes a brief mention of geoengineering — a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system. (Photo credit: NASA)

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF’s Climate Talks blog)

Just a few weeks ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first piece of their fifth crucial report on global warming – and it confirms that our climate is changing. Key messages from the report include:

  • Warming of the climate is unequivocal
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear, and the evidence for human influence has only increased since the last IPCC report
  • Further changes in temperature, precipitation, weather extremes, and sea level are imminent

In short, humans are causing dramatic climate change—and we’re already witnessing the effects. Oceans are warming and acidifying. Weather patterns are more extreme and destructive. Land-based ice is declining—and leading to rising sea levels.

None of this should be surprising to those following the science of climate change. What has generated surprise amongst some, however, is the IPCC’s brief mention of the science of geoengineering, tucked into the last paragraph of the IPCC’s 36-page “Summary for Policymakers.”

Understanding the science of geoengineering

As communities and policymakers around the world face the risks presented by a rapidly changing climate, interest in the topic of “geoengineering” is growing.

Geoengineering refers to a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) or by reflecting away a small percentage of inbound sunlight (solar radiation management, or SRM).

Some of these ideas have been proposed by scientists concerned about the lack of political progress in curbing the continued growth in global carbon emissions, and who are looking for other possibilities for addressing climate change if we can’t get emissions under control soon.

With the risks and impacts of rising temperatures already being felt, the fact that SRM would likely be cheap to deploy and fast-acting means that it has attracted particular attention as one possible short-term response to climate change.

The world’s governments tasked the IPCC with investigating these emerging technologies in its new report, and the IPCC summary rightly sounds a cautionary note on their potential utility, warning:

Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system…

Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale.

So what does this mean? Three things are clear from the IPCC’s brief analysis:

  1. CDR and SRM might have benefits for the climate system, but they also carry risks, and at this stage it is unknown what the balance of benefits and risks may be.
  2. The overall effects of SRM for regional and global weather patterns are likely to be uncertain, unpredictable, and broadly distributed across countries. As with climate change itself, there would most likely be winners and losers if SRM technologies were to be used.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, SRM does not provide an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since it does not address the rising emissions that are the root cause of ocean acidification and other non-temperature related climate change impacts.

This last point is particularly important. The most that could be expected from SRM would be to serve as a short-term tool to manage some temperature-related climate risks, if efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions prove too slow to prevent severe disruption of the earth’s climate.

In that case, we need to understand what intervention options exist and the implications of deploying them. In other words, ignorance is our enemy.

Need for inclusive and adaptive governance of solar radiation management research

While much of the limited research on solar radiation management has taken place in the developed world – a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future – the ethical, political, and social implications of SRM research are necessarily global. Discussions about governance of research should be as well.

But a transparent and transnationally agreed system of governance of SRM research (including norms, best practices, regulations and laws) does not currently exist. With knowledge of the complex technical, ethical, and political implications of SRM currently limited, an effective research governance framework will be difficult to achieve until we undertake a broad conversation among a diversity of stakeholders.

Recognizing these needs, The Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) launched in 2010 an international NGO-driven initiative to explore how SRM research could be governed. SRMGI is neither for nor against SRM. Instead, it aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary, and international discussion on SRM research and governance.

SRMGI’s activities are founded on a simple idea: that early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, will increase the chances of SRM research being handled responsibly, equitably, and cooperatively.

Connecting dialogues across borders

A key goal is to include people in developing countries vulnerable to climate change and typically marginalized in discussions about emerging science and technology issues, to explore their views on SRM, and connect them in a transnational conversation about possible research governance regimes.

This month, for example, saw the launch of a report by the African Academy of Sciences and SRMGI describing the results from a series of three SRM research governance workshops held in Africa in 2012 and 2013. Convened in Senegal, South Africa, and Ethiopia, the workshops attracted more than 100 participants – including scientists, policymakers, journalists and academics – from 21 African nations to explore African perspectives on SRM governance.

To build the capacity for an informed global dialogue on geoengineering governance, a critical mass of well-informed individuals in communities throughout the world must be developed, and they must talk to each other, as well as to their own networks. An expanding spiral of distinct, but linked outreach processes could help build the cooperative bridges needed to manage potential international conflicts, and will help ensure that if SRM technologies develop, they do so cooperatively and transparently, not unilaterally.

The way forward

No one can predict how SRM research will develop or whether these strategies for managing the short-term implications of climate risk will be helpful or harmful, but early cooperation and transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on geoengineering research governance will help the global community make informed decisions.

With SRM research in its infancy, but interest in the topic growing, the IPCC report reminds us that now is the time to establish the norms and governance mechanisms that ensure that where research does proceed, it is safe, ethical, and subject to appropriate public oversight and independent evaluation.

It’s worth remembering that the IPCC devoted only one paragraph of its 36-page summary report to geoengineering. So while discussion about geoengineering technologies and governance is necessary, the key message from the IPCC must not be lost: it’s time to recognize that the billions of tons of carbon pollution we put in our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate, and work together to find the best ways to reduce that pollution.

Also posted in Geoengineering, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News | Comments closed

Today’s IPCC Report is A Grim Reminder that We Must Find Solutions to Climate Change

People who are fond of conspiracy theories or enjoy rejecting mainstream science might want to stop reading now. What follows is solid, well-researched science based on mountains of peer-reviewed evidence. You have been warned.

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their latest report, and the picture they paint is grim.

Hundreds of scientists from countries all over the world assessed the most recent research. The result – they are more certain than ever that climate change is caused by human activity. The report says it is extremely likely that humans are the main cause for our increase in global temperatures since the mid-twentieth century.

More greenhouse gas emissions will lead to more warming, and the consequences will be felt all over the globe.

And the worst part is IPCC’s predictions may have been conservative.

The international organization, which is one of the world’s foremost authorities on climate change, reports:

  • They are 95 percent certain human activity is responsible for the rise in global temperatures from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present.
  • The chances of an extreme heat wave have more than doubled, and heavy rainfall events are expected to intensify and occur more often.
  • Ocean levels may rise by three feet by the end of this century if emissions are not curbed.

That last prediction may sound like a worst-case scenario, but other experts warn sea-level rise could actually be much worse.

As reported in the Washington Post, the Climate Change Commission predicts the oceans may rise as much as six feet by the year 2100, depending on factors such as glacial ice melting. Sea level rise at that level would be catastrophic, especially when considering its impact on storm surges.

As scary as these predictions are, there are reasons for hope. As communities across the United States and the world increasingly face extreme weather events and other consequences of climate change, we are beginning to see our leaders take more action.

Just last week the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first nationwide limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. That’s the latest development in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a bold mission to take meaningful steps toward a climate change solution.

The release of the IPCC report will no doubt lead climate deniers to spread the usual disinformation. You can find almost anything on the Internet if you Google long enough, but that doesn’t make it true.

Legitimate scientific debate is a good thing — when we stick to facts that are backed by evidence and reviewed by independent experts in the field.  It’s understandable when citizens with busy lives don’t know all the facts on a complex issue like climate change, but there’s no excuse for politicians and talking heads to spread false information. Solving this problem will require a discussion grounded in science, which is why the IPCC report is so valuable.

It’s time to recognize that the billions of tons of carbon pollution we put in our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate — and then work together to find the best solutions.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News | Comments closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change.

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Meet The Bloggers

    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
    Attorney

    Nat KeohaneNat Keohane
    Vice President for International Climate

    Ilissa Ocko
    High Meadows Fellow, Office of Chief Scientist

    Peter Zalzal
    Staff Attorney

    Gernot Wagner
    Senior Economist

    Graham McCahan
    Attorney

    Mandy Warner
    Climate & Air Policy Specialist

    Pamela Campos
    Attorney

    Kritee
    High Meadows Scientist

  • Posts by topic

  • Archives