Thursday, June 19, 2008

Forests in the Mountains

There's an interesting website which details where all the forests on the planet are in relation to the mountains on Earth.

I had a question for some research I'm working on - how much of the world's forest are located above 1000 m? Why did I want to know this? Well ... humans on the planet like to burn fossil fuels and we often look to the natural environment to clean up after ourselves... we create lots of CO2 ... plants take up CO2 and turn it into energy, leaves, stems and wood - in effect sequestering Carbon. So there's a lot of interest in how much CO2 plants are taking up and how much they will take up in future. If we can understand what the Earth is doing we can plan accordingly ... that's the logic anyway.

So lots of people study how much CO2 plants (particularly forests) take up. But they tend to measure the forests they can get to easily and measure most effectively ... usually this means studying forests at low elevations on simple flat terrain. So I wondered ... how much of the world's forests are located in other places? i.e. in mountain regions?

Happily Valerie Kapos of Cambridge University and some colleague of hers have compiled a lot of this information for us.

Kapos, V., Rhind, J., Edwards, M., Ravilious C. and Price, M.F. (2002) Developing a map of the world's mountain forests. In: Price, M.F., Butt, N. (Eds)Forests in Sustainable Mountain Development (IUFRO Research) (IUFRO Research) CAB International, Wallingford, UK. ISBN-10: 0851994466ld K M Bugmann, Mel A Reasoner - Science - 2005 - 650 pages

So I spent the morning listening to the radio and compiling a big table from their work so I could estimate what fraction of the worlds forest was above 1000 m in elevation.

It turns out that nearly 12% of all forests of Earth are above 1000 m. One quarter of all these are in Antartica, nearly 20% are in the Far East and about 10% are in the US and Canada.

What does this mean? Well pretty simply ... we are trying very hard to work out how much CO2 forests are taking up ... but we are focusing nearly all of our effort on the easy to reach forests and all but ignoring the tough ones.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Video content: Talks on Climate Change

"....The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - co-Laureates, with Al Gore, of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize - presented a public lecture series on its work entitled: "Inside the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Politics". UChannel is devoting the coming week to this important climate change lecture series, with the publication of one IPCC lecture each day from June 15-20...."

Coming up this week are talks from Isaac Held, V. "Ram" Ramaswamy, Ron Stouffer, Michael Oppenheimer, Jae Edmonds & Gary Yohe all speaking on IPCC activities from the evolution of the science to macroeconomics.

From TheCattleFish

China and US battle for top spot in carbon emissions

According to a study released by the The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency China has overtaken the US as the top emitter of CO2 into the atmosphere (the greenhouse gas most linked to rising global average temperatures). However, because there are so many more people in China than in the US ... the average citizen of the US wins the title of most CO2 emitted per person. Europeans are among the top five in both lists... so there's lots of work to do throughout the world.

"China tops the list of CO2 emitting countries, having about a quarter share in global CO2 emissions (24%), followed by the USA (21%), the EU-15 (12%), India (8%) and the Russian Federation (6%)"

"Top 5 CO2 emissions in metric tons of CO2 per person are: USA (19.4), Russia (11.8), EU-15 (8.6), China (5.1 ) and India (1.8)"


Pundits and politicians have been using the rising CO2 emissions from China and India as reasons prevent the US from spending money to curb emissions on the grounds that lowering US emissions will be meaningless if China and India do not also reduce their emissions.

I think the US should act and show some moral leadership - reducing the US Carbon footprint by 10 or 20% would significantly reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere... BUT the punditry is correct on some points... the Chinese and Indian share of the global emissions pie IS growing... the world community must find a way to reduce CO2 emissions all over the world... it's not just science, fancy engineering and people recycling locally ... we need some geopolitical heavy hitters to resolve USA's and China's 'you first' attitude to reducing emissions.

From TheCattleFish

Friday, May 9, 2008

Off topic: Bees are blinded by pollution

This is pretty interesting - remember all those disappearing Bees!

Jose D. Fuentes, Quinn S. McFrederick and James C. Kathilankal at the University of Virginia have come up with a potential explanation.

Links to Virginia press release - from there you can find some audio of Jose Fuentes talking about his group's findings.

Air Pollution Impedes Bees' Ability to Find Flowers
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008; Page A03

When the spread of flowers' scents are impeded, bees may be less likely to find and pollinate the flowers. A drop in pollination is reducing crops worldwide.
When the spread of flowers' scents are impeded, bees may be less likely to find and pollinate the flowers. A drop in pollination is reducing crops worldwide.

Air pollution interferes with the ability of bees and other insects to follow the scent of flowers to their source, undermining the essential process of pollination, a study by three University of Virginia researchers suggests.

Their findings may help unlock part of the mystery surrounding the current pollination crisis that is affecting a wide variety of crops. Scientists are seeking to determine why honeybees and bumblebees are dying off in the United States and in other countries, and the new study indicates that emissions from power plants and automobiles may play a part in the insects' demise.

Scientists already knew that scent-bearing hydrocarbon molecules released by flowers can be destroyed when they come into contact with ozone and other pollutants. Environmental sciences professor Jose D. Fuentes at the University of Virginia -- working with graduate students Quinn S. McFrederick and James C. Kathilankal -- used a mathematical model to determine how flowers' scents travel with the wind and how quickly they come into contact with pollutants that can destroy them. They described their results in the March issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

EPA Ozone regulations

From the Washington Post....

It's Not a Backroom Deal If the Call Is Made in the Oval Office
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; Page D02

"The conflict between Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Susan E. Dudley, head of regulatory review at the Office of Management and Budget, over how strong to make a standard on ozone, a component of smog, was unusual because President Bush was asked to break the impasse. He decided on a requirement weaker than what the EPA wanted."

The EPA standard for Ozone was announced a few weeks ago. After consultation with it's scientific advisers, the EPA suggested a secondary standard (for the natural environment not human health) which was calculated with an emphasis on plants and ecosystems. At the very last moment the White House after pressure from the Office of Management and Budget changed the EPA's initial recommendation. This decision was based not on science but on budgetary concerns... all the memos are on the web!


The personal generator

This is another very cool device... it allows you to generate your own power as you wander about - whether you walk, bike or just stand in the wind.... check out Hymini to charge your cell phone (sorry Brits ...Mobile) or MP3 Player...

Excellent thing

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Carbon Forum America - attempts to contol carbon offset claims

A couple of weeks ago Carbon Forum America (Feb 26-27, San Fran)held a conference designed to bring businesses together to discuss issues surrounding trading greenhouse gas emission credits.

"Chicago/Geneva/Cologne/Washington/ Ottawa – February, 2008

After two days of conference sessions, exhibitor presentations via “Side Events“ and interaction on the trade show floor, Carbon Forum America came to a close at the Moscone Center in San Francisco where the event took place on February 26-27, 2008. The event was jointly organized between the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and the Chicago-based show organizer Koelnmesse, Inc...."

It seems that lots of companies got together to talk about CO2 trading. The conference was supported by Sen. Feinstein and some heavy hitters involved in UN climate change policy, CA utility companies and the World Bank. The press release is available here but it doesn't say much.

The forum hasn't had a huge impact on the media - the Indian based, Economic Times seems to be one of the very few newspapers that have picked up on a few outcomes from the conference. The article gave a quick list of Non-profit groups who are trying to make market based solutions to greenhouse gas emissions more transparent.

"Four non-profit entities used their presence at Carbon Forum America to present and interactively discuss their contributions to ensuring offset integrity..." ET. Carbon markets for improved offset quality standards 3 Mar, 2008, 1932 hrs IST, TIMES NEWS NETWORK & AGENCIES

Market based solutions like carbon trading rely to some extent on a stable and universally agreed price for carbon. The large number of companies offering carbon offsets might seem encouragingly green to some but the lack of any real regulation means that companies can mis-represent how much carbon they can sequester, which reduces peoples confidence in the overall idea.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the The Climate Group are putting forward a Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) which will verify the claims of carbon offset companies and projects. Similarly the Offset Quality Initiative is a group set up by several NGOs to help smooth the way for market based solutions to curbing climate change. 'Green-e Climate', focused on electricity produced from renewable energy, has been launched by the Center for Resource Solutions.

There are several of these initiatives popping up here and there - but they are in their infancy... they, like carbon offsets themselves, are yet to be proven


Friday, March 7, 2008

McGayan process: a "modern day miracle"

Sometimes you need some good news on the climate change front. Some times you feel lucky to view a historical moment. Biodiesel has been touted as an alternative to fossil fuels. Problem: expensive, difficult to make, and not energy effective (see an earlier post). That potentially (and definitely will) change with the Mcgayan process. Brian Krohn, a undergraduate student at Augsburg College was the "catalyst" to discover a new method to produce biodiesel that doesn't require dangerous chemicals or water in the production. Simply put: it is amazing to imagine how simple the technology is. Even more important: it is cleaner, cheaper, 100 times faster than traditional methods, and opens up the door to making "carbon capture systems" more feasible. Even more amazing is that it was the curiosity of a undergraduate student that started the whole thing. Links to media coverage are here and here. Keep your eye on the news for this discovery.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Carbon offsets

Jeff commented on a previous post ... "My favorite quote is..""Carbon offsetting? I wouldn't dream of it. It's just a joke. To pay money to plant trees, to think you're offsetting the carbon? You're probably making matters worse. You're far better off giving to the charity Cool Earth, which gives the money to the native peoples to not take down their forests.".. I must say I agree.. Carbon offsets just make people feel better and someone else takes makes money.. We need to stop burning stuff.. we're not very good at that.. I don't want to conceded that we lost all hope though either.. I just think we're wasting alot of time with "feel-good" easy fixes that make corporations money. When we need serious people to sit down and plan out serious solutions.. Those serious solutions need to be implemented..."

These are quotes from the interview with Dr Lovelock ... and I guess I kind of agree - we've got to think very carefully about how this carbon offsetting thing works... it's hard enough to measure the amount of C taken up by an intensively measured forest - I'm afraid I don't believe that Carbon Offset companies have any clue how much CO2 is being taken up by any of their projects and what's more ... there is nothing to stop them from inflating their claims or even lying outright about the amount of C offset. I've always thought of them as ecological indulgences .... I'm not an economist but carbon offset ventures strikes me as a way to exploit people who care about the environment but don't think too critically about it. So why does Al Gore do it?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Great gadget - low energy mouse

Your laptop (TGW) – DORmino has developed an efficient laptop mouse that gets its energy from laptop heat waste.....continued over at Thoughts on Global Warming

Gaia author giving up on the planet?

I must confess that this morning I didn't know much about James Lovelock. He is most famous as the author of the Gaia hypothesis - the idea that the entire Earth is a complex super-organism. Since I've always viewed this idea as woolly this did not endear Dr. Lovelock to me. What I've learned today is that he was the first to detect increased levels of CFCs in the atmosphere. Other scientists had to work out the implications of this finding but props to him for developing the technique.

Decca Aitkenhead interviewed Dr Lovelock about his views about human responses to climate change (The Guardian, Saturday March 1 2008).
Dr. Lovelock believes that:
1. Climate change is real
2. Humans have caused much of it
3. It's far too late to do anything about it

He believes that renewable energy is inadequate, recycling is a waste of time and that we had better get used to the idea of synthetic foods and nuclear powered air conditioning.

It's tough to be very confident that world leaders will step up to the plate and switch our planet's climatic course, but I cannot accept that it's all over.

No single solution exists to the climate change problem that we are facing - I think there are a million solutions. I recycle because it's a wasteful not to, I favor adopting different renewable energy strategies for different locations because wind wont work in the doldrums and solar might not be the best option in Seattle. I lobby people to make small changes in their lives not because the carbon saved by recycling a packet of smarties will prevent the world warming by a fraction of one millionth of a degree, but because it focuses people's attention on the problem and allows them to think bigger and support large scale policies to combat climate change.

Perhaps I'm just not quite as fatalistic as an aging, independent scientist. We changed the world before... now we need to change it again.

For the Guardian article with Dr Lovelock's interview by click here

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Last Straw

This is some food for thought...

The Last Straw by John Monbiot

We'll stop using fossil fuels... when every last lump of coal is burned

I was listening to the Nature Podcast this week and I heard a commentary by George Monbiot.
He argued all climate mitigation strategies every where will fail because we only focus on reducing demand for carbon based fuels and not the supply; we have policies which favor low carbon fuels, hybrid cars, greater efficiency but none that dissuade us from finding new carbon based fuels.
(see transcript here Nature Podcast transcript)

I've been thinking about biofuels this week and so I tried to put his thoughts into the context of low carbon fuels.
All bio-fuels result in a net input of CO2 into the atmosphere - the CO2 released per unit of energy produced is lower than when we produce energy from fossil fuels. So if we stop burning fossil fuels and start relying on sensibly located, truly low carbon bio-fuels (marginal cropland, zero input sustainable ecosystems and waste burning) we will slow the increase of atmospheric CO2 and perhaps ameliorate the magnitude of climate change. But there is no suggestion that we will stop using fossil fuels.

Low carbon fuels will be used not instead of but in addition to high carbon fuels. This is a truth that needs to be changed.


Throwing bio-fuel on the fire

Two reports about Biofuels are available in this week's Science Magazine. The reports were released to the press in early February and mass media outlets released headline after headline indicating that biofuels will release more carbon to the atmosphere than they would offset when compared to fossil fuels. Bio-fuels have been touted as the answer to our climate change energy dilemmas and now they are being slated as potentially a bigger threat than fossil fuel power plants. We need a clean, renewable high yielding source of energy - each time a solution is suggested early hopes are dashed as we realize that there is no single energy solution.

The advantage of bio-fuels over fossil fuels is that in the short term carbon goes into and out of a biofuel, while fossil fuels only release carbon; i.e. some of the carbon cost of energy production using biofuels is offset by recent photosynthesis. However, the a report by Fargione and colleagues (Science, 2008) pointed out that when you change a particular bit of land from one thing into bio-fuel producing facility you use energy and release CO2 from the ecosystem in that location. This increases the carbon cost of the fuel by increasing the CO2 released which makes the bio-fuel less useful as a low carbon fuel. The conclusion is that bio-fuels should not be adopted where the carbon cost of creating the fuel is many times greater than the benefit gained by selecting bio vs fossil fuels. Before any bio-fuel system is adopted, we need a full accounting of the gains and losses.

A second report by Searchinger and others (Science, 2008) points out that when we use cropland for bio-fuel production we need to grow those crops elsewhere. If we think globally lots of changes in land use (e.g. moving natural land into crop production) can be attributed to bio-fuels. This change releases carbon into the atmosphere and makes biofuels less attractive. The authors conclude that farmland should not be used for biofuel production. I doubt that this conclusion can be true for all cropland everywhere. Especially for marginal or excess cropland.
The authors argue that "Truly excess croplands would revert either to forest or grassland and sequester carbon." (Searchinger et al. 2008.). I don't agree. When land is taken out of crop-production, often, it is converted to housing, industrial or commercial property resulting in greater carbon emissions than before. If it were profitable to produce biofuels on marginal cropland they would make a positive contribution to providing low carbon energy.

Neither of these results are surprising - they are however important - there are situations where bio-fuels are not the best option and we should think very carefully about the wider consequences of our actions. Think globally and act locally is a useful but one dimensional slogan but this research indicates that a single local action designed to address a global problem can have unintended consequences in other localities. We need to emphasize the co-ordination of global actions. Blindly adopting bio-fuels or any other low carbon solution is foolhardy, but we shouldn't throw viable solutions away because they do not work everywhere on earth.


Abstracts for the reports in Science

Science 29 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5867, pp. 1235 - 1238 DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747
Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt
Joseph Fargione,1 Jason Hill,2,3 David Tilman,2* Stephen Polasky,2,3 Peter Hawthorne2

Increasing energy use, climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels make switching to low-carbon fuels a high priority. Biofuels are a potential low-carbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a "biofuel carbon debt" by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.

1 The Nature Conservancy, 1101 West River Parkway, Suite 200, Minneapolis, MN 55415, USA.
2 Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA.
3 Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA.

Science 29 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5867, pp. 1238 - 1240 DOI: 10.1126/science.1151861

Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change
Timothy Searchinger,1* Ralph Heimlich,2 R. A. Houghton,3 Fengxia Dong,4 Amani Elobeid,4 Jacinto Fabiosa,4 Simla Tokgoz,4 Dermot Hayes,4 Tun-Hsiang Yu4

Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.

1 Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA. German Marshall Fund of the United States, Washington, DC 20009, USA. Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute, Washington, DC 20001, USA.
2 Agricultural Conservation Economics, Laurel, MD 20723, USA.
3 Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, MA 02540–1644, USA.
4 Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

(de) Carbon Nation

Since the industrial revolution, the ammount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing as we use coal, oil and other fossil fuels from to produce energy to sustain and improve our lives, releasing the carbon stored in these fuels into the air.

The rise in atmospheric carbon has potentially drastic effects on the global climate system. Increases in temperature in some places, decreases in other places, redistribution of rainfall and changes in sea level. In the last few years there's been a steady stream of products, strategies and policies aimed at reducing our reliance on carbon based fuels...a slow shift to the de-carbonation of our economy. Sadly it's not a simple question of recycling waste and investing in wind or solar - there are many complicating factors. Hopefully I'll get to them.

Increasing public interest has focused massive media attention on the issue of climate change and while on balance, this focus has provided some political drive to help combat the causes on climate change it has also led to confusion.

This blog deals with the global carbon cycle, how it works, how we are changing it and the key scientific and social issues surrounding the reliance of society on carbon based fuels and products. My goal is to interpret science and media in the hope that readers will be better equipped to make informed decisions about their own lives and about policies aimed at reducing our carbon footprint and curbing the climate change crisis.

I'm a political junkie of sorts, a rampant consumer of shiny news media and a scientist who has been studying different aspects of the carbon cycle since 2000. Hopefully someone out there will read a post or two. Hopefully some people will comment and contribute.