Whales Store Some Carbon, Oceans Store Loads of It

The is quite a bit of buzz today about recent research that quantifies how much whaling has – and is – contributing to atmospheric carbon. It appears that whales store significant amounts of carbon. I doubt, however, we will ever have a global breeding program to increase our whale populations, thereby offsetting our own carbon emissions. It’s just not feasible. (Besides, encouraging more people-whale interactions isn’t a popular idea at the moment.)

The focus needs to be broadened beyond whales. Ocean habitats are continually overlooked by the global community as viable sites of carbon sequestration. Blue carbon – as some call it – is a new concept being researched by the NGO community and receiving blog hits. The New York Times has even taken notice. Three months ago, Dan Laffoley of IUCN wrote a wonderful NYT op-ed entitled, To Save the Planet, Save the Seas. Read it.

In short, blue carbon emphasizes the key role of marine and coastal ecosystems. It places value on carbon-rich marine vegetation such as mangrove forests, seagrass, brackish marshes and salt marshes. Coastal and marine ecosystems are believed to be able to complement the role of forests  in taking up carbon emissions through sequestration.

See our related posts on this here, here and here.

This is a management area that was greatly overlooked in Copenhagen. It’s a concept to which the UN and coastal nations ought to give more attention. Island nations rich in blue carbon, like Indonesia, could benefit similarly to the way Brazil is predicted to benefit from “green carbon” sequestration programs, like REDD.

In my opinion, blue carbon sequestration programs will need new research, the right political advocates, and better governance. The question I pose to you marine scientists/environmental managers/policy makers: Where to start?

Climate Change Accounting Goes Public in a Big Way

2_image002Solve Climate reports on a massive electronic billboard displaying the real-time stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, unveiled on 18 June outside New York City’s Penn Station.

The world’s first “Carbon Counter”, launched by Deutsche Bank, will be seen daily by half a million people and millions more can do so online at know-the-number.com.

The basis for the number displayed on the Carbon Counter – over 3.6 trillion tons and rising by 800 tons per second – is not immediately clear. Deutsche Bank explains the calculation of the figure on its website:

Greenhouse gas concentrations are frequently expressed as an equivalent amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). This CO2-equivalent concentration in parts per million (ppm) can then be expressed in terms of metric ton of CO2, a standard of measurement, which as a stock of gases in the atmosphere is readily understood.

According to the IPCC AR4 Synthesis Report, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were 379 ppm in 2005. The estimate of total CO2-eq concentration in 2005 for all long-lived GHGs is about 455ppm.

On June 18th as the counter started, long-lived GHGs in the atmosphere were estimated to be 3.64 trillion metric tons, growing at 2 billion metric tons per month, or 467 ppm, of which CO2 was 385 ppm.

The Carbon Counter, therefore, displays in metric tons the absolute amount of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (as opposed to the concentration) but excludes the cooling effect of aerosols.

The use of the absolute amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere yields a big number that is rapidly increasing, but it is questionable whether this muddies the already confusing array of units used to explain the rising pressure of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere.

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide is a simpler and much more widely used unit used to explain the rising pressure of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere, though less dramatic for a real-time billboard aiming to capture the attention of passing commuters.

CO2 Now suggests that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 390.18 ppm in May 2009, up nearly 2ppm from 388.50 ppm in May 2008, the highest level in at least the past 800,000 years.

Related posts:

·         Avoiding confusion for stabilisation targets for climate change and ocean acidification.

US ‘global warming bill’ one step closer?

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“House Panel Passes Limit on Greenhouse-Gas Emissions” – Washington Post, 22nd May 2009
A bill to create the first national limit on greenhouse-gas emissions was approved by a House committee yesterday after a week of late-night debates that cemented the shift of climate change from rhetorical jousting to a subject of serious, if messy, Washington policymaking.

The legislation would create a cap-and-trade system: Over the next decades, power plants, oil refineries and manufacturers would be required to obtain allowances for the pollution they emit. Those who need more or less could turn to a Wall-Street-like market in the allowances. The 33 to 25 vote was a major victory for House Democrats, who had softened and jury-rigged the bill to reassure manufacturers and utilities — and members of their own party from the South and Midwest — that they would not suffer greatly.

The vote gives this bill more momentum than any previous legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, but it faces hurdles. In the House, Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) has said he wants to take up the bill in his Agriculture Committee, seeking to change rules for those who raise corn for ethanol. The Senate has shot down previous cap-and-trade plans.

President Obama supports the bill, an aide said yesterday, though some provisions are weaker than what he advocated during the presidential campaign. In particular, Obama called for all pollution credits to be auctioned off by the government, but the House bill would give away about 85 percent of them.
(Read more at Washington Post)

Poseidon Controls the Iron Hypothesis

picture-389An article in press at Global Biogeochemical Cycles has shown that iron fertilisation can actually decrease the amount of carbon sinking to the ocean floor due to complex ecosystem processes.The iron fertilisation hypothesis was originally proposed as a rapid solution to climate change by increasing the photosynthetic uptake of CO2 by phytoplankton otherwise limited by their source of iron. Unfortunately, one of these climate change experiments was eaten by hungry crustaceans (see “Hungry Crustaceans Eat Climate Change Experiment”).

However, in another experiment, the scientists at the University of California at Berkeley continued to monitor the phytoplankton bloom and changes over an annual cycle with “Carbon Explorers”, floats that recorded data down to depths of 800 meters after the iron fertilisation experiment. These floats were placed both near and away from the iron induced phytoplankton blooms. Initially, these researchers discovered evidence in support of the Iron Hypothesis with a phytoplankton bloom leading to movement of carbon particles to at least 100m below the surface and this was reported in Science in April 2004.

Over the longer term the Carbon Explorers observed a different pattern which may be related to complex ecosystem processes that occurred during the following annual cycle. Despite the demise of the phytoplankton bloom the following winter, there was no carbon rain to match. In fact, there was greater particulate carbon falling at the site away from the original iron fertilisation. It turns out that the zooplankton survive the winter at depths below where the phytoplankton live due mixing of the oceans. Storms that cause this mixing create a conveyer belt of phytoplankton to the deeper dwelling zooplankton.

Larvae (zoea) of the spider crab (left) and the mitten crab (right) between 1 and 10 days old.

Larvae (zoea) of the spider crab (left) and the mitten crab (right) between 1 and 10 days old form part of the zooplankton ( 'hungry crustaceans').

If the water is continually mixed to depths with low light, then the phytoplankton do recuperate and the zooplankton eventually starve. At the site away from the iron fertilisation, the ocean mixing was intermittent and the phytoplankton were able to survive at the surface. The following spring, a bloom in phytoplankton fed the hungry zooplankton and led to increased carbon rain.

It seems that creating the right conditions for increasing oceanic carbon capture is in the hands of Poseidon and not something that can be easily predicted.

(Photograph courtesy of Flickr, zoea drawings from New Quay and UCSD)

Did global warming stop after 1998?

Anyone who has an interest in exploring patterns in global temperature should take a look  around WoodForTrees.org. Paul Clark, a British software developer and “practically-oriented environmentalist and conservationist” has developed an online interface that allows anyone to go examine basic longterm trends in climate time series data (including the HADCRUT3 / GISTEMP Global Temperature & HADSST2 Sea Surface Temperature, along with sunspot activity and CO2 datasets).

The interface is incredibly intuitive, and allows a variety of transformations, averaging and trend estimations within graphs. After having spent literally hours playing around on this site, I completely agree with the warnings of ‘cherry picking‘ a dataset (i.e. choosing a certain year to start the trend to exacerbate a trend). To illustrate this ‘technique’, Paul has produced this classic graph:

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Which goes to show that the temperature is either: 1) falling,  2) static, 3) rising, or 4) rising ‘really fast!’ -all depending on where you place the trendline.

As John eloquently explained in this comment a few days ago, “global warming stopped after 1998” is turning into one of the most common memes of the ‘skeptics’ and ‘deniers’. Alot of their argument relies on very heavily cherry-picked data – skeptical Science also have a great in detail discussion and counterpoint to this argument here. Contrast the above graph with the longer term view (consistent across multiple datasets), showing warming between 0.13-0.17°C/decade:

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Obama’s win refreshes key climate talks – Nature Special Report

As all eyes turn to Poland for the start of the United Nations meeting next week, Jeff Tollefson (Nature Special Report) looks at what progress is likely to be made.

Nature News, 27th November 2008

The United Nations Climate Change Conference that begins in Poznań, Poland, on 1 December will in some ways mark the end of an era. The United States’ long-standing opposition to climate regulation is vanishing, offering new opportunities for cooperation with its allies in Europe and beyond.

But to some extent, international climate negotiators will remain in limbo until 20 January 2009, when US President-elect Barack Obama enters the White House. Obama has advocated forceful domestic action on global warming and re-engagement with the international community.

“There is a lot of hope and a lot of optimism,” says Rob Bradley, who heads international climate policy at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington DC. “A lot of countries will be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the new administration — but they are all very aware that in Poznań they will be talking to the old administration.”

The meeting will bring together representatives from some 192 countries in an ongoing effort to craft a global-warming accord to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and expires in 2012. UN officials hope to reach a successor agreement in Copenhagen next year to leave time for implementation and ratification. Yet many think that goal is too ambitious, especially at a time when world leaders are worried about the global economy.

Poland has cited economic reasons in trying to build a coalition to block a European Union rule that, among other things, would require full auctioning of carbon allowances in 2013. But Saleemul Huq, of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, thinks that opposition is now waning. He says the European Council might even move ahead with the rule as early as 12 December, the last day of the Poznań conference. The US re-engagement will only help, he says. “People will have a more rosy outlook in terms of being able to achieve something,” says Huq, “and that will probably bend the European position in a more positive direction.”

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The missing link in the “solutions” to climate change

The recent Garnaut report states that “the solutions to the climate change challenge must be found in removing the links between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions.” In order to successfully mitigate climate change impacts on both the environment and the economy, we need to go a step further and replace those links with avenues for sustainable economic activity. This can effectively begin with innovative designs for improving efficiency in energy production and usage.

Rather than compensating mining companies that are vulnerable to the new emissions trading scheme, the pledged compensation should be used to train employees of these companies with skills that will help them develop innovative designs for efficient energy usage to the commercialisation level. These high emission companies should begin investing in new technologies which could eventually be traded instead of coal to countries like China, in order to spread the improvements in carbon emissions to a global scale. Of course, this is the ten billion ton gorilla in the room that no one quite wants to recognise (at least not publicly!)

Credits to trade-exposed companies and low income households should only be considered to the extent that benefits are not initially received for their investment. Once benefits are realised, this monetary gain must be re-invested into future innovative solutions, thereby replenishing the funding for green solutions. Essentially, we need to amp up the green investment cycle.  For example, in the above situation a mining company burdens the cost of training some employees and using their work hours for sustainable development avenues.

Once the company receives return on their investment, re-investment into development of sustainable technologies should occur to the extent of the original “loan” or government credit. Similarly, households given credits, for example, to install solar panels should be encouraged to re-invest the savings on their electricity bills into new innovative technologies. The establishment of this positive feedback loop should be a condition of receiving the credits in order to prevent the misuse of the credits or the undermining of carbon trading.

The missing links in the solutions to climate change are the real ideas that will drive the economy towards sustainable development. Treading softly on this issue is not an option – time is of essence.  Another weak link in this much needed cycle is the fact that economic gain is our society’s key motivation and the environment is severely undervalued. The Garnaut Review states that environmental and social costs “are not amenable to conventional measurement”.

In other words, any cost-benefit analysis will not be accurate. Society’s real motivation needs to come from desire to maintain and conserve the environment for future generations. There is no adequate or accurate way to quantify this desire. And there is no way to ensure that that this desire is a top priority of world citizens. It seems that the best way to achieve this goal is to steer people’s actions economically. However, it is unlikely that the outcome will exhibit the same strength when motivated by monetary value.

“Carr targets PM on logging”

Sydney Morning Herald, 22nd September, 2008

THE fraught political battle over logging in native forests is set to be re-ignited with the former Labor premier Bob Carr writing to the Prime Minister and senior ministers arguing that protecting the forests is “fundamental” to fighting climate change.

In a letter to Mr Rudd, his Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, and the Forestry Minister, Tony Burke, Mr Carr has joined leading conservationists who want to transform state and federal forest policies in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania to protect older forests and previously logged forests.

Citing research from the Australian National University that says Australia’s eucalypt forests could hold about three times more carbon than previously thought, Mr Carr argues that rethinking forest policy is vital if Australia is going to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Keeping carbon dioxide locked up, or “sequestrated”, in the forests will not only slow Australia’s rising greenhouse gas emissions but prevent the extinction of native plants and animals, the letter argues.

“Protecting our existing native forests and other vegetation is therefore fundamental to meeting any emissions reduction target. In addition, previously logged natural forests, if allowed to continue growing, will realise their carbon sequestration potential,” Mr Carr writes in a letter also signed by Peggy Figgis, the vice- chairwoman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and Rick Humphries, from Greening Australia.

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A changing climate of opinion? The Economist reports on geoscale engineering to avert dangerous climate change

The Economist, September 4th 2008

Some scientists think climate change needs a more radical approach. As well as trying to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, they have plans to re-engineer the Earth. There is a branch of science fiction that looks at the Earth’s neighbours, Mars and Venus, and asks how they might be made habitable. The answer is planetary engineering. The Venusian atmosphere is too thick. It creates a large greenhouse effect and cooks a planet that is, in any case, closer to the sun than the Earth is to even higher temperatures than it would otherwise experience. Mars suffers from the opposite fault. A planet more distant from the sun than Earth is also has an atmosphere too thin to trap what little of the sun’s heat is available. So, fiddle with the atmospheres of these neighbours and you open new frontiers for human settlement and far-fetched story lines.

It is an intriguing idea. It may even come to pass, though probably not in the lifetime of anyone now reading such stories. But what is more worrying—and more real—is the idea that such planetary engineering may be needed to make the Earth itself habitable by humanity, and that it may be needed in the near future. Reality has a way of trumping art, and human-induced climate change is very real indeed. So real that some people are asking whether science fiction should now be converted into science fact.

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Climate Change in Queensland – What the science is telling us.

The Queensland EPA has just released a major report outlining the escalating risks of a changing climate for this great state. Out of the Australian states, Queensland looks like it will particularly hard hit – perhaps with a 5oC increase in temperature by 2070. Maybe we should think twice about exporting so much coal without any real strategy for the associated emissions? The future is in our hands. Read on …

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