Hit the road, Nick

targetClimate minister Nick Smith and international negotiator Tim Groser have published the schedule for their recently announced consultation exercise on a 2020 emissions target for New Zealand. The hastily arranged exercise (announced only last month, and a surprise to many) has already drawn calls for an interim target of 40% by 2020 from the recently-formed NZ Climate Action Partnership and Greenpeace. In an interesting development, Carbon News is reporting that Green Party climate change spokeswoman Jeanette Fitzsimons has floated the idea that NZ could adopt a split target — setting separate 2020 targets for carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane:

Fitzsimons says that with the technology not yet available to reduce methane emissions from farmed animals – responsible for half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions – this country should be thinking about setting separate targets for carbon, nitrous oxide and methane for 2020.

“If we set an overall target that is mainly determined by the difficulty of reducing agricultural emissions, it looks to the rest of the world like we are doing nothing,” she said.

It’s an interesting concept, at the very least, though I have to say I’m not keen on giving agriculture a wholly free ride. Federated Farmers like to insist that the “technology is not available”, but there are a range of options farms can use to reduce emissions, from the use of nitrification inhibitors to better handling of manure (not to mention shifting to low-carbon crops or carbon farming).

Full details of the public meetings below the fold. I’ll be making an effort to attend the Christchurch meeting next Wednesday evening.

Continue reading “Hit the road, Nick”

TV3 needs to take stock

Keisha Castle-HughesTV3 news hit one of its lows last night.  Reporter and presenter Samantha Hayes was in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands for the visit of Greenpeace’s ship the Esmeralda on its Pacific climate impact tour, with Sign On ambassador Keisha Castle Hughes on board [Greenpeace release]. I was watching the news item with interest when I thought I heard the reporter saying “while the science is far from settled…”.  Since my hearing is not reliable I checked on the TV3 news website.  I had heard aright.  Here is the full sentence: “While the science is far from settled, Greenpeace is convinced that Aitutaki is on the front line of climate change.”

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Copenhagen 3: targets and timetables

cop_logo_1_r_editedThe third section of the Copenhagen congress synthesis report considers the global targets and timetables that will be necessary to keep warming to no more than 2 degrees.  The report acknowledges that 2 degrees introduces considerable risk to human society and natural ecosystems. However global average temperature has already risen by 0.7 degrees, and inertia in the climate system makes 1.4 degrees inevitable. So 2 degrees may be the best we can hope for.

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Gone too soon

SIOJune2009iceages.jpg The June Sea Ice Outlook forecasts for the Arctic sea ice September minimum extent have been released today by SEARCH. Most groups are picking a minimum close to last year’s 4.7m km2, but the melt season is starting with an unusually small amount of multi-year ice. The report suggests that there is “a small but important probability of a major sea ice loss event this year, given that the ice is thinner and younger than previous years, combined with a possibility of atmospheric conditions that cause significant ice retreat.” The full range of forecasts is shown in this chart:


The range of individual outlook values is from 4.2 to 5.0 million square kilometers. All estimates are well below the 1979–2007 September climatological mean value of 6.7 million square kilometers. Half of the responses are in the range of 4.9–5.0 million square kilometers; the remaining estimates are in the range of 4.2–4.7 (Figure 1, above). The uncertainty / error values, from those groups that provided them, are close to 0.5 million square kilometers, thus many of the values overlap.

Interestingly, the forecasts showing the lowest minima are based on sea ice modelling driven by atmospheric forcings and initialised with current sea ice conditions. The projection by Jinlun Zhang (next to lowest in the chart) suggests that even with conditions like last year — that is, without the Transpolar Express of warm southerlies that set up in 2007 — the 2007 record could fall. On the other hand, a Russian scientist suggest thats Pacific sea surface temps could be priming a cooler pattern than last year.

The full report [PDF] is a very interesting read for all ice watchers (and gamblers). On this guide to the form, it looks as though I’ll lose my bets – but the weather over the next two months will be the deciding factor. Do I feel lucky…?

[Michael Jackson RIP]

The Carbon Age

The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat

Journalist and science writer Eric Roston’s book The Carbon Age, highly praised when it was first published last year, is now available in paperback.  It’s about carbon in the universe and the essential part it plays in life on Earth. It’s also about climate change, as its subtitle suggests: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilisation’s Greatest Threat.

Roston begins by offering two basic observations that are explored through the book. The first is that Earth’s temperature and the carbon content of the atmosphere are correlated on every geological time scale. The usual sequence is temperature rise first, then elevated carbon content. The reverse is the case today. The second observation is that humans have accelerated the geological carbon cycle to at least one hundred times faster than usual. Man-made global warming is a geological aberration, nearly meteoric in speed.

The first half of the book explores the origins of carbon and life. On earth carbon is “the ubiquitous architect, builder, and most basic building material of life.” Roston follows it into many of its functions and manifestations in fascinating detail. He discusses how carbon’s ability to bond, unbond, and rebond with the other atoms of life makes it a central element in many of life’s necessary components. He considers how the course of evolution both influenced and was influenced by the global carbon cycle. Living matter since its inception has helped regulate the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and seas and on land, conditions that in turn influence evolution. Roston uses the story of cyanobacteria to illustrate how evolution hit on an innovation – an organism which exchanged atmospheric carbon dioxide for atmospheric oxygen. It threw the carbon cycle as it was then into catastrophic disarray and forced its re-invention.

In a chapter on the ocean carbon cycle Roston includes attention to coccolithophores, microscopic shelled algae that colonised the open ocean for the first time after the Permian extinction 250 million years ago. As their shells passed to the seafloor they left their mark in the world’s chalk formations which accumulated from about 100 million to 65 million years ago, at the rate of a millimetre a century. Today they form a vital part of both the marine food chain and carbon’s transport from the ocean surface to the seafloor. They have been remarkably resilient to shocks, but the threat of ocean acidification this century is large enough to threaten their continuance.

A further chapter describes the part played by trees in storing carbon as cellulose and lignin and the formation of coal and oil deposits as carbon burial in the Carboniferous period. The gingko tree and its powers of survival features here. The author comments in relation to our discovery and use of fossil fuels that we are burning part of the pre-Carboniferous greenhouse back to the skies, where the Earth  – at least our Earth – no longer needs it. We are rebuilding the greenhouse Earth decimated by trees more than 300 million years ago.

A brief but interesting chapter on the human body’s conversion of fuel energy into motion concludes Part I of the book on the natural processes of the play of carbon in the evolution and functions of life. Roston then moves on to cover the last 150 years and explains how scientists, industrialists and consumers created what amounts to an industrial carbon cycle — something he characterises as the flushing of millions of years of geological sediment back into the atmosphere. Here he explores a selection of activities, ranging from the development of cars, through synthetic chemistry, to bullet-proof clothing, all followed through in satisfying detail. For the purposes of this review I’ll pause on the chapter which centres on the hundredfold acceleration of the carbon cycle through industry. The flow of carbon through living things has entwined evolution with the inanimate forces of nature. But there is no evidence before now to suggest biology has ever accelerated the long-term carbon cycle on to a short-term path. Only meteorite impacts can compare with the speed with which our industry has interacted with geology. Roston quotes a paleobotanist: “We are plate tectonics!”

But it’s possible to slow down our impact on the carbon-cycle without sacrificing our industrial fire, if we move fast. Technological investment in new energy and materials industries could remake the way we make things. At this point Roston discerns an obstacle in politicians and economists. “What scientists describe as well beyond their danger zone, economists and politicians treat as the bottom of the potentially achievable.” Chemistry gives way to a discussion on economics with the conclusion that as long as we are pegged to an economic orthodoxy that equates well-being with per capita income we are unlikely to address the fundamental drivers of climate change: materialism, crass commercialism, and waste made easy by cheap, plentiful fossil fuels. He considers that industrialised nations can transfer civilisation on to an energy system that will not scorch the earth, though finds it a big ask for a narcissistic generation. Hope springs eternal.

Roston’s book is packed full of investigations and explanations of the chemistry of carbon. I have selected parts where he makes the connection with global warming explicit and in so doing have not done justice to the scope of the book. But it was what I understood to be the depth of his concern over global warming that attracted me to the book in the first place as worth reviewing on a climate change website.  The illuminating explorations into the chemistry of carbon were a bonus.