Category Archives: Science

New report: How climate change is impacting where you live

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is essentially the U.S. equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Using the best available science, over 300 experts synthesized current understanding of observed and future climate changes and impacts, particularly in the U.S. The third ever NCA was released today, and concludes beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that Americans are being affected by climate change.

Among the findings:

  • U.S. average temperatures have increased by 1.3 to 1.9ºF since record-keeping began in 1895, and most of this warming has occurred since 1970
  • Heavy precipitation has increased in many parts of the country
  • Extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and North Atlantic hurricanes are more frequent and/or intense
  • Summer sea ice in the Arctic has halved since record-keeping began in 1979
  • Sea level rise has increased coastal erosion and storm surge damage

These changing conditions produce a variety of tangible stresses on society by affecting human health, water resources, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and natural ecosystems. The particular impacts vary by region, but no corner of the country is immune to the change.

So what’s happening where you live?

Source: National Climate Assessment

Unless we take immediate action to curb our emissions of heat-trapping gases, the foreseeable future will be plagued by further warming and worsening impacts. The good news is that because we know what the cause is, we also know what is needed in order to stabilize our planet. We must come together now—locally, nationally, and internationally—and work towards a better future.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices blog

Also posted in Arctic & Antarctic, Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Oceans| Comments closed

'Feeding 9 billion' requires facing up to climate change

This post was co-authored by Kritee, Senior Scientist, International Climate; Richie Ahuja, Regional Director, Asia; and Tal Lee Anderman, Tom Graff Fellow – India Low-Carbon Rural Development

National Geographic's May cover story, “Feeding 9 billion,” offers valuable insights into how to feed a growing global population while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. But it omits some key connections with a critical issue: climate change.

Drought in the U.S. causes withering of corn. (Photo credit: Ben Fertig, IAN, UMCES)

As the Food and Agriculture Organization recently documented in great detail, climate change is likely to fundamentally alter the structure of food systems around the globe. With about 43% of the world’s population employed in agriculture, it’s vital that farmers have the knowledge and tools they need both to adapt to climate change and to help mitigate it.

Author Jonathan Foley, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, lays out several steps for “Feeding 9 billion.” Though he starts by acknowledging that agriculture emits “more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined,” he doesn’t explicitly mention how his plan relates to a changing climate.

The first of his steps – halting conversion of additional forests and grasslands to agriculture – is crucial to stopping climate change, given the vast quantities of greenhouse gases released in these conversions. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation noted, protecting forests and increasing carbon content of the soils can decrease global emissions by as much as 13 gigatons CO2eq/year by 2030 – more than a quarter of current annual global emissions.

Foley also highlights the need to reduce meat consumption, because only a very limited portion of calories consumed by animals yield edible food for humans, and to reduce food waste. According to the IPCC, these consumer-level steps have the potential to decease agricultural emissions by 60% below the current trajectory. While Foley didn’t acknowledge these mitigation potentials, we agree that these are important steps to feeding the world’s population and protecting our environment.

But it’s his steps calling for improving productivity – both by growing more food on existing farms, and by using fertilizer, water and energy more efficiently – where the interactions with climate are more complex and need special attention.

Climate adaptation and resilience in agriculture

Foley rightly points out that to feed the world’s future population, more food needs to grow on existing farms. However, he doesn’t note that some of the effects of climate change – droughts, floods and heat waves in many parts of the world – are already reducing crop yields, and these effects and their consequences are expected to worsen.

The IPCC’s recently published 5th Assessment Report on adaptation concludes that:

  • Climate change is already negatively affecting yields of crops and abundance of fish, and shifting the regions where crops grow and fish live
  • Future changes in climate will increase competitiveness of weeds, making it difficult and more expensive to control them
  • By 2050, changes in temperature and precipitation alone will raise global food prices by as much as 84% above food prices projected without these two climatic factors
  • Major grains like wheat, corn, and rice could see as much as a 40% decrease in yield from a 20C increase in local temperatures. That’s because of the changing rainfall frequency and intensity, unpredictability and irregularity of growing seasons, and higher ozone levels that often accompany high CO­2 levels

To deal with these consequences and ensure food security and livelihoods, adaptation to climate change is essential. Indeed, adopting carefully chosen adaptation and resilience measures could improve crop yields as much as 15-20%. The IPCC recommendations include:

  • Altering planting/harvesting dates to match the shifting growing seasons
  • Using seed varieties that might be more tolerant of changing climatic patterns
  • Better managing water and fertilizer use

A farmer training session, led by EDF’s partner NGO in India (Photo credit: Accion Fraterna)

Achieving high yields requires enabling farmers all over the world to adapt, build and restore the resilience of agricultural ecosystems in the face of continued climate change. Given that many farmers in developed countries have already reached what are currently maximum possible yields, it’s particularly urgent to work with farmers in the developing world.A vast majority of these farmers in developing countries own small-scale farms (less than two acres in size) and have limited resources, and as a result are on the frontline of experiencing the unfolding impacts of climate change. These farmers are already growing the majority of the world’s food – more than 90% of the world’s rice, over 65% of its wheat and 55% of its corn. Notably, as opposed to our recommendations for farmers in the developed countries, some of them might need to increase their fertilizer use to achieve better yields as opposed to decreasing it. Feeding a world of 9 billion thus requires facing the disproportionate effect that climate change has on the 2 billion people who depend on small-scale farms for their livelihood.

Barriers to climate adaptation & mitigation in agriculture

The latest IPCC report also noted that the “nature” of the agriculture sector means:

“There are many barriers to implementation of available mitigation options, including accessibility to … financing, … institutional, ecological, technological development, diffusion and transfer barriers.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Many farmers, especially small scale land-owners in developing parts of the world, lack access to reliable scientific information and technology. In some cases, relevant information has not even been generated.

An Indian peanut farm where EDF is monitoring yield and greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo credit: Richie Ahuja)

For example, small-scale rice farmers in Asia lack access to information enabling them to determine what amounts of water, organic and synthetic fertilizer will optimize yields while also minimizing release of the greenhouse gases methane (which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released), and nitrous oxide (which is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide). EDF is working with the Fair Climate Network in India and with Can Tho University and other partners in Vietnam to help generate that information and facilitate its use by farmers.

More generally, agricultural institutions at all levels – international, regional, national and local – need to work closely with farmers to learn and promote evidence-based, locally appropriate agricultural adaptation and mitigation technologies and practices. Farmer access to finance can further help improve the adoption rate of these technologies. Larger investments in farming infrastructure and science from government and private sector also need to be channeled to promote food security through low-carbon farming.

Our food system cannot achieve high yields without building and restoring the resilience of agricultural ecosystems, and the system won’t be sustainable if agriculture doesn’t do its part to mitigate climate change.

To feed 9 billion people, we must overcome barriers to reducing climate change’s effects on agriculture, and agriculture’s effect on climate.

This post first appeared on EDF Talks Global Climate blog

Also posted in International, Plants & Animals, Policy| 2 Responses, comments now closed

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, comments now closed

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| 2 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
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    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
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