Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing

Rio Branco, Brazil — The state of Acre, on the western edge of Brazil, is so remote, there’s a national joke that it doesn’t exist. But for geochemist Foster Brown, it’s the center of the universe, a place that could help save the world.

“This is an example of hope,” he said, as we stood behind his office at the Federal University of Acre, a tropical campus carved into the Amazon rainforest. Brown placed his hand on a spindly trunk, ordering me to follow his lead. “There is a flow of water going up that stem, and there is a flow of sap coming down, and when it comes down it has carbon compounds,” he said. “Do you feel that?”

I couldn’t feel a thing. But that invisible process holds the key to a massive flow of cash into Brazil and an equally pivotal opportunity for countries trying to head off climate change without throwing their economies into turmoil. If the carbon in these trees could be quantified, then Acre could sell credits to polluters emitting clouds of CO₂. Whatever they release theoretically would be offset, or canceled out, by the rainforest.

Five thousand miles away in California, politicians, scientists, oil tycoons and tree huggers are bursting with excitement over the idea. The state is the second-largest carbon polluter in America, and its oil and gas industry emits about 50 million metric tons of CO₂ a year. What if Chevron or Shell or Phillips 66 could offset some of their damage by paying Brazil not to cut down trees?

The appetite is global. For the airline industry and industrialized nations in the Paris climate accord, offsets could be a cheap alternative to actually reducing fossil fuel use.

But the desperate hunger for these carbon credit plans appears to have blinded many of their advocates to the mounting pile of evidence that they haven’t — and won’t — deliver the climate benefit they promise.

I looked at projects going back two decades and spanning the globe and pulled together findings from academic researchers in far-flung forest villages, studies published in obscure journals, foreign government reports and dense technical documents. I enlisted a satellite imagery analysis firm to see how much of the forest remained in a preservation project that started selling credits in 2013. Four years later, only half the project areas were forested.

In case after case, I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.

“Offsets themselves are doing damage,” said Larry Lohmann, who has spent 20 years studying carbon credits. While we’re sitting here counting carbon and moving it around, more CO₂ keeps accumulating in the atmosphere, he said.

It’s “the worst possible idea — except for everything else,” said Timothy Searchinger, a Princeton researcher who studies land use and climate change. “If we had enough money, it could probably help a lot.”

He echoed an idea I heard again and again from proponents of this concept: Even hundreds of attempts across the world had not given forest preservation offsets a meaningful chance to work. Many projects sold credits on a voluntary market, to corporations seeking green public relations or well-meaning consumers. That didn’t allow them to generate enough money to succeed. If California and other giants joined the market, that could finally inject real resources into the effort.

California’s cap-and-trade program allows companies to offset a small percentage of their carbon output with forest preservation projects in North America. But this year, the state’s Air Resources Board could approve its proposed Tropical Forest Standard — a blueprint for how carbon offsets could be awarded for intercontinental programs. Experts say the standard could and likely will be adopted by other countries.

Everyone is looking to Acre as the prime testing ground. “Acre’s program is the most advanced,” a board spokesman said in an email. Supporters kept sending me brochures that used words like “pioneer,” “innovative” and “new business models” and showed smiling residents harvesting Brazil nuts instead of cutting down the rainforest.

So I traveled to Acre to see how its program was working. I found swaths of cow pasture where locals once tapped rubber from trees; there’s no way to make a living from sustainable alternatives, they told me, so the trees have to go. Government workers spoke of conservation, but political leaders have cut funding for it and plan to expand agribusiness. Several Acre officials readily acknowledged that their priority is getting foreign aid to protect forests; the validity of the offsets is an afterthought.

Those eager to see the Acre program succeed told me it was OK if the offsets didn’t really cancel out all of the carbon emissions they were supposed to, as long as some trees were saved and smaller gains were made.

“Perfection can be the enemy of delivery,” Brown said. “There are a whole bunch of problems with it. … What is the alternative?”

A History of Failure

If the world were graded on the historic reliability of carbon offsets, the result would be a solid F.

The largest program, the Clean Development Mechanism, came out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when dozens of nations made a pact to cut greenhouse gases. European leaders wanted to force industry to emit less. Americans wanted flexibility. Developing nations like Brazil wanted money to deal with climate change. One approach they could agree to was carbon offsets.

The idea worked marvelously on paper. If a power plant in Canada needed to shave 10% off of its emissions but didn’t want to pay for technology upgrades, it could buy offsets from projects in the developing world. Investors planning to build a coal plant in India could instead decide to build a solar plant, using the money from the anticipated sale of carbon credits to cover the higher costs of developing solar power. The gap in emissions between the hypothetical coal plant and the actual solar farm would be converted to offsets. (Each credit is equal to the global warming caused by a metric ton of CO₂.)

The program subsidized thousands of projects, including hydropower, wind and, infamously, coal plants that claimed credits for being more efficient than they would have been. CDM became mired in technical andhuman rights scandals, and the European Union stopped accepting most credits. A 2016 report found that 85% of offsets had a “low likelihood” of creating real impacts.

Another global program, Joint Implementation, has a similar track record. A 2015 paper found that 75% of the credits issued were unlikely to represent real reductions, and that if countries had cut pollution on-site instead of relying on offsets, global CO₂ emissions would have been 600 million tons lower.

Almost all of the projects failed to meet a standard required for any true carbon offset called additionality. What it means is that the environmental gains are only real if the solar farms or windmills would never have been built without the credits.

The programs largely avoided credits for forest preservation, in which a polluter pays a landowner to reduce deforestation. The science was too complicated. How are we to know which trees were saved because of such projects, and which would have survived without them?

The uncertainty didn’t stop delegates at the United Nations from entertaining the idea during climate talks starting in 2007.

The UN formalized the concept as REDD, or Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Proponents expected the carbon incentives would create billions of dollars to transform conservation as countries or corporations used it to meet mandated climate goals. But the world didn’t get a deal strong enough to create demand, so the anticipated funding never emerged.

Instead, the UN supported pilot programs, as did the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Nongovernmental organizations and private companies funded hundreds of small-scale offset projects, and a few countries launched “results-based” programs, which reward preservation without generating offsets.

There is no central authority to deal with the varieties of REDD that now exist. No one has done a comprehensive assessment of how effective these programs actually are.

I found a few that came close. In 2015, a French research center examined 120 projects and found that 37% overlapped with existing protected lands like national parks. Though offsets require an added benefit, the authors concluded REDD was simply layered onto existing conservation plans, reducing it to a “logo to attract financing.”

Then, there are the findings out of Norway, a major exporter of oil and natural gas and the world’s largest supporter of REDD, representing about half of all funding.

Tucked into a little-noticed report published last year by Norway’s Office of the Auditor General was the revelation that the country’s efforts had failed virtually every test:

Despite a decade’s work and $3 billion, results were “delayed and uncertain,” the science of measuring carbon was only “partially in place” and there was “considerable” risk of what’s called “leakage” — when protecting one patch of land leads to deforestation somewhere else. That problem alone creates “considerable uncertainty over the climatic impact,” the report concluded.

The Carbon Credit Card

I landed in Acre at midnight on March 11, and even then, the humidity felt unbelievable. The Amazon rainforest spans the entire state, an area slightly larger than Illinois with a population more the size of North Dakota’s. My first morning there, I met Brown at Capybara Kiosk, a gazebo on campus next to a lake where the world’s largest rodents munch on grass. The geochemist drove me to his office, which required a short journey through the Amazon’s famed red mud that could best be described as whitewater rafting in a pickup truck. The dirt roads are so precarious, Brown keeps a tow rope handy; I watched him use it later that day to help another driver.

It was a fitting metaphor for what I knew coming into Acre: Trying to preserve trees in any developing country is a slog, a tumultuous push against political volatility, lacking infrastructure and poverty, which drives people to violate whatever protections are in place to plant crops or mine for gold or just have enough lumber to build their homes.

Layer on top of that the most pressing requirement of making carbon offsets work, and the challenge can seem insurmountable.

When trees take in CO₂, the gas doesn’t magically disappear: The trees simply store the carbon, incorporating it into in their living tissue as they grow. When trees are destroyed, the accumulated carbon goes back into the atmosphere as CO₂.

Think of trees as “hiding the carbon for awhile,” said Abigail Swann, an ecology professor at the University of Washington. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for about 100 years. So forest offsets only work if the trees remain intact for a century.

In that sense, offsets are like the world’s most forgiving credit card: The buyer gets all the benefit upfront, while it takes a century for the full debt to be repaid.

Proponents told me that even a half-century or a few decades could make a big difference. To them, forest offsets are about buying time for society to figure out how to power the world without fossil fuels.

But I’d read about projects that sold credits, only to have trees cut down soon after.

In 2014, FIFA bought a batch of credits to help fulfill a sustainability pledge it made before the World Cup in Brazil. The offsets came from a project launched in 2009, after Almir Narayamoga Suruí, a leader among the Paiter-Suruí tribe in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, struck up conversations with Google and carbon market consultants.

The project aimed to cut deforestation in highly logged areas along the territory’s borders, and it received funding from USAID. But some members of the tribe, disillusioned by the amount of money going to international groups for logistics management, colluded with loggers and anti-REDD activists to sabotage the project.

The project sold 250,000 credits as the tribal leader documented destruction. “Every day, 300 trucks leave our territory filled with wood,” he wrote in a public letter in 2016. The project was suspended last year, after the loggers destroyed more trees than all the credits sold.

Then, there was the project launched in 2008 to help Cambodian monks protect the forest where they lived. The project attracted powerful allies, including funding from the Clinton Foundation and support from the Cambodian government.

Meanwhile, the forest was being overrun — by violent border disputesbetween the Cambodian and Thai militaries, by logging sanctioned by the same government that supported the project, and by an influx of refugees and former Khmer Rouge soldiers who settled in the forest to farm. The project’s hurdles should have been obvious; the area was riddled with land mines.

The project was designed to protect 13 forested sites covering a total of 246 square miles. It’s sold 48,000 credits and remains on the market, even though military bases and villages were built within the protected areas, according to Timothy Frewer, an Australian researcher who spent months on the ground. After an environmental group cited Frewer’s findings in a 2017 report, the airline Virgin Atlantic said it would stopbuying offsets from the project.

ProPublica enlisted Descartes Labs, a satellite imagery analysis firm, to review radar data for the 13 sites to determine how much forest remained. Project documents said these areas were 88% covered in forest, on average, in 2008. Our commissioned analysis found that as of 2017, they were only 46% forest. One of the protected areas, Angdoung Bor, started out as 90% forest; it is now 0%.

ProPublica contacted Verra, a nonprofit that set the quality assurance standards for the credits generated. A spokeswoman said the organization couldn’t comment until it had done its own research. The consultants who are supposed to provide regular on-the-ground updates to Verra haven’t issued a report in more than five years. Verra said the credits sold have already been used to offset pollution.

Leslie Durschinger, CEO of project developer Terra Global Capital, said in an email that the lack of carbon market buyers and donors have left the project “without the financial support it needs to succeed.”

Brown moved to Acre 26 years ago as a visiting professor and never left. He said the Amazon makes him feel “useful.” He tracks the impact of droughts and wildfires, estimates the carbon contained in the forest and has represented the Acre government in international climate talks. Everyone knows him here. He bikes around campus in a fluorescent reflective vest and tries to reach people however he can, including climate change workshops with rural workers and a regular column for the local paper; he wrote one about why he became a vegetarian (to save trees, of course).

He argues that concerns about the science behind initiatives like REDD are outweighed by the catastrophic potential of not moving to block deforestation.

“Trying to guarantee something for 100 years is impossible at this moment,” he told me. “If we don’t move quickly, now, this [science] discussion will tend to be theoretical.”

The scientists and forest experts I spoke with put it this way: If the Amazon loses enough trees, it will reach a tipping point, transforming from lush ecosystem into a semiarid savanna. The implications would be global. And rich nations aren’t generous enough to fund the preservation of tropical forests without getting something in return.

Doing The Math

Everyone agrees forests are a vital buffer against climate change. The question is whether their preservation should be linked to offsets that allow others to keep polluting. For this to work, ecologists told me “rock solid” accounting is necessary.

The math starts with an estimated baseline, a guess at what deforestation would look like without offsets. The more deforestation you anticipate, the more credits you generate, the more money you stand to make. It’s easy to game the system by nudging the numbers toward the bleakest alternative reality.

French researchers raised questions about two sites in Africa, which calculated their baselines using other, supposedly comparable areas. In Congo, the chosen reference area had many more roads and was next to shipping ports, so the logging potential was higher than in the project area. In Madagascar, deforestation in the reference area was already twice as high as in the project forest, so the project could claim to cut deforestation in half without doing a thing.

Brazil, which has a third of the world’s rainforests, has received more REDD funding than any other nation, and it’s used different baselines to justify vastly different results.

For the Amazon Fund, a Norwegian-supported program that doesn’t create offsets, Brazil claimed credit for 4 billion tons of avoided CO₂ over a decade starting in 2006 and said its progress was worth $22 billion. Brazil came up with a higher estimate for separate funding from the United Nations: $36 billion, by relying more on older deforestation numbers that added an extra 3 billion tons of avoided CO₂ to its tab. Since Norway and the UN have limited budgets, Brazil has gotten less than $2 billion.

Deforestation in Brazil is actually up; it was rising even under a forest-friendly government and reached a decade high last year. Then, last fall, the country elected far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who declared support for agribusiness over what he called fanatical environmental activism. He dismantled two climate change divisions and cut 24% of the budget for the country’s top environmental enforcement agency.

Acre’s new state government is aligned with him and says it wants to increase soy and cattle production. “Acre’s economic salvation is agribusiness,” Gov. Gladson Cameli declared during a meeting with the governor of Rondônia, one of the most heavily deforested states in the Amazon.

Keeping track of trees is essential. For the REDD programs, Brazil has relied on a satellite program that tracks large-scale tree loss, starting at chunks the size of about 10 city blocks. But there’s emerging evidence that landowners are clear-cutting smaller areas to escape detection. It doesn’t account for degradation, the thinning of trees from wildfires and logging; a major study found this cut the Amazon’s carbon content by an average of 55%. Luiz Aragão, who heads the remote sensing division at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, said wildfires alone can change the numbers by 30%, and scientists are just beginning to understand how they create lasting damage.

I spoke to government workers in Acre about how they could guarantee that their credits were scientifically valid.

Vera Reis, executive director of Acre’s state environmental agency (and Brown’s wife), said the credibility is “paramount.” Brazil’s satellite programs can detect smaller areas of deforestation, she said; the lower resolution is used for bureaucratic purposes, to keep data consistent with historical records. Brazil uses much more detailed data for federal climate change reports.

She said it’s too early to tell what kind of data Acre will use if it links with California. The details will be ironed out, she said, and we “want confidence” in the numbers.

In the same meeting, Acre’s politically appointed secretary of the environment, Israel Milani, steered the conversation to agribusiness opportunities that wouldn’t damage the environment. “We are a relatively poor state,” he said. “Everyone who lives in the forest, who lives from the forest, needs a livelihood.”

Later, I met with Fluvio Mascarenhas, an analyst at a Brazilian federal agency that oversees the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, a conservation area with more than 11,000 residents. He warned against looking too closely at the quality of the credits being sold. “You are going to create a non-incentive to preserve,” he said.

Like Brown, Mascarenhas will take any help he can get to save trees. His team has dwindled by half in the past decade, leaving 15 staffers to oversee 11 protected areas in Acre that cover up to 12,000 square miles — in addition to handling basic government functions on the reserve, including education, public health and infrastructure.

From his office in the state capital of Rio Branco, Mascarenhas tracks cleared land through Google Earth. He showed me how he uses a yellow pushpin icon to tag landowners who’ve cut more than they’re allowed to; the map was covered with yellow, far more offenders than they can reasonably process.

To collect fines, there’s no mail service, no credit card invoice. Mascarenhas’ team spends weeks trekking through the forest, sleeping in hammocks and confronting loggers in person. Some can pay the fine, which amounts to about $2,400. Many are too poor.

Mascarenhas told me about an attempt to create a cacao industry in the reserve so that locals could live sustainably. His agency spent two years researching how to do it. But they didn’t get the funding for the second half of the project, to create a market. Those who cultivated the beans have nowhere to sell them, he said. “The animals are the only ones eating the cacao.” They’re applying for additional funding to implement it.

The government is trying to get people to value forest products like Brazil nuts and rubber, but the market isn’t following. “The world is telling us we have to conserve,” he said, “but nobody’s showing us how.”

A few weeks after I visited, the president of Mascarenhas’ agency resigned. It happened after Bolsonaro’s federal environment minister threatened to investigate employees who didn’t attend an agribusiness conference, in which farmers fought to strip protections from land important to wildlife. Three additional directors at his agency resigned, and the government replaced them with members of the military.

Unsustainable

The day after meeting with Acre officials, I woke up early to start the drive to the Chico Mendes reserve, a few hours outside Rio Branco. It is a place of legend in Acre, central to its reputation far outside of Brazil.

Chico Mendes was one of the first activists to get global attention for defending the Amazon when deforestation threatened the livelihood of residents who tapped rubber from trees. In the 1980s, he organized nonviolent protests that involved confrontations with logging trucks. He was gunned down in 1988, but his legacy lives on in conservation areas that cover 18% of Brazil. One of them, the reserve named after him in Acre, is home to the descendants of rubber tappers who protested alongside him.

I expected to see rainforest. But on the way there, all I saw were cow pastures. They usually had a few trees — Brazil nut, which are a protected species, and palm trees, which are hard to cut with chainsaw blades.

Dercy Teles, a former president of the rubber tappers’ union, lives just outside the reserve. She told me she had defended the forest with Chico Mendes because her livelihood depended on it; now, only those deep in the conservation area, without access to markets, roads or better options, still tapped trees. Corporations and developed nations created most of the damage leading to climate change, she said, yet “people want us to starve to reduce carbon emissions.”

In 2010, while Acre was run by a progressive party that dubbed itself the “government of the forest,” the state launched a set of sustainability policies, to steer residents toward activities like harvesting Brazil nuts and digging fish ponds, which do not require cutting down trees. The initiative gained Acre funding from Germany, which has given $33 million so far for deforestation cuts. It is a results-based program that isn’t claiming to offset German pollution.

Brazil takes great pride in a sharp drop in Amazon deforestation since 2004. But it’s impossible to tell how much of an additional benefit its funders have created. The drop coincided with a massive federal conservation program. Once the country loosened restrictions and enforcement in 2012, deforestation began to increase. Recent research on Norway’s contributions to the Amazon Fund noted that “a causal link to decreasing Brazilian deforestation rates is yet to be proven with analytical rigour.”

Officials said the Acre program has benefited 7,000 indigenous people and about 14,000 other families, and they’re working on a report with more detailed results.

The 2.3 million acres of the Chico Mendes reserve have retained 94% of their forest cover, but even so, deforestation rose 60% between 2000 to 2016, according to Mascarenhas’ research. In and around the reserve, I saw evidence of the program at work — an ecolodge for tourists, a warehouse piled with Brazil nuts. But it wasn’t hard to find people frustrated with Acre’s sustainability programs.

Teles took me to visit her brother Pedro Teles de Carvalho, a former rubber tapper who became a teacher. The state sent him hundreds of saplings to plant fruit trees, he said, but didn’t provide machinery to prepare the land — a necessity for farming the poor Amazon soil. The saplings sat untouched in his yard, still wrapped in plastic.

Next, I met Carvalho’s neighbor, Francisco Maurício Rios, a retiree who gets by on a small pension. Thinking he might be able to buy a motorcycle, he tried to participate in a sustainable logging program. It didn’t earn him enough for an electric bike. He said the government also paid to dig two fish ponds. One dries up every summer; the other provides enough fish to eat, but not to sell. The government also sent rubber-tapping trees. He said he can’t afford fertilizer to help them grow.

These kinds of frustrations have undone forest offset projects across the world. They target rural residents who would otherwise cut down trees for fuel or to clear pastures for agriculture, but that only works if carbon sales provide a reliable alternative. They rarely do. Rubber from the reserve sells for about 2 reais per kilogram, barely enough for a cup of coffee, while a single cow is worth 800 reais, about $200.

José Romário Gomes da Silva and Elizete Carneiro de Brito live with their 5-year-old daughter, Thaíssa, in a home filled with things their parents never had: a cellphone, a sofa, a pink shag rug. In part, that’s because of the small herd of cows they keep on land in the reserve that used to be covered with trees.

“Cattle is a secure market. You can get a good income selling a calf, an ox,” Silva said.

“Who is willing to rubber tap nowadays?” Brito said. “Nobody, practically nobody. We want an easier way to live.”

‘Ok, Smartass, What’s Your Solution?’

My visit to Acre suggested that even the best REDD program in the world was running into practical, political and scientific obstacles that couldn’t be fixed with funding alone — another warning sign on top of the reports concluding earlier programs hadn’t worked.

Yet when I explained what I’d found to 20 scientists and carbon credit researchers — including several who have spent much of their careers working to implement, improve or study forest offsets — they sometimes responded angrily.

They agreed with the underlying facts. But when I asked if this indicated REDD was failing, they objected. Vehemently.

Amy Duchelle, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, co-edited a book published last year that said REDD “has not yet delivered the expected overall impact of reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions” and tropical deforestation hasn’t slowed.

She repeated these facts in an interview, emphasizing that these initiatives had been useful in other ways, helping countries improve their ability to monitor deforestation and understand its causes, and secure land rights for indigenous communities. She even found “moderately encouraging” scientific results out of some projects.

When we spoke again after my trip to Acre, however, she became heated. She’d spent years in Brazil, she said. What did I know after one brief trip? “You’re not quoting me,” she said. “I don’t like the direction of this story.”

Searchinger, the Princeton researcher, said people trying to make REDD work know its limitations. He helped me understand the resistance when it is criticized by outsiders, half-joking: “So the question is, ‘OK, smartass, what’s your solution?’”

Several researchers and scientists told me that forest preservation offsets had not gotten a real chance to succeed — that we won’t really know until the world implements programs on a large scale, with billions more in funding. “The truth is, REDD remains a great idea that’s hardly been tried,” said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.

That means staking the future on government-run programs like the one in Acre.

At a contentious, six-hour public hearing last fall, the California Air Resources Board considered whether to adopt the Tropical Forest Standard, which would open the door for California and other governments to link with Acre or similar programs.

Officials from Brazil testified in support of the standard while global human rights groups urged the opposite. Indigenous and environmental activists spoke for both sides, and two competing letters, each signed by more than 100 scientists and researchers, argued for and against the proposal.

Supporters summed up what I’d heard, that it will help solve an urgent deforestation problem with global implications. Critics questioned the science. The uncertainties of carbon accounting, which get magnified by large-scale programs, are so nebulous, scientists don’t even know how much they don’t know.

Stanley Young, a spokesman for the board, told me California’s standard has built-in safeguards to avoid repeating mistakes. “We’re as aware as you are of how it has not worked in the past,” he said.

The standard requires programs to exceed protections in existing policies and to show a drastic reduction in deforestation. It requires that trees stay standing for 100 years. But its guidance on leakage is just four sentences long, and it doesn’t make countries report degradation, potentially leaving out a huge chunk of the emissions.

Jason Gray, chief of the board’s cap-and-trade program, said degradation is hard to measure, but the standard will incentivize better monitoring so countries can add the data later. “If we wait to have the perfect information,” he said, it might be too late.

In April, six members of the European Parliament urged California to reject the Tropical Forest Standard, citing concerns about Brazil’s shifting politics and noting that the European Union hasn’t allowed forestry credits in its cap-and-trade program “due to concerns about their environmental integrity.”

The standard is under review by a climate change committee within the California Legislature, which may give recommendations during this spring’s session. The Air Resources Board will decide whether to approve the standard this year. Any potential purchase of tropical offsets would require additional board action.

Barbara Haya, a University of California, Berkeley, research fellow who studies the carbon market, said we’re deluding ourselves if we think these forestry programs will be able to accurately quantify — and therefore, cancel out — the amount of pollution claimed in an offset, even under the new standard.

The best we can hope for is a program that helps the climate in some unmeasurable way, she said. “That’s what offsets are. And I think that’s the best of what offsets can be.”

None of the 2020 Frontrunners Go Far Enough on Climate

2018 was the fourth warmest year ever recorded, with the only warmer years being 2015, 2016 and 2017. We are currently in the middle of what is on track to be the warmest decade since record-keeping began.

The planet is already in the 6th Mass Extinction Event that we caused. Industrial civilization is injecting CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate 10 times faster than what occurred during the Permian Mass Extinction Event 252 million years ago that annihilated 90 percent of life on Earth. Our current extinction rate is 1,000 times faster than normal, and is higher than that of the Permian Mass Extinctions.

The oceans have absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere. If the oceans had not absorbed that heat, global atmospheric temperatures would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit (97°F) hotter than they are today. Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 412 parts per million (ppm) are already in accordance of what historically brought about a steady-state temperature of 7°C higher. The oceans are now overheating, deoxygenating and acidifying.

Since just 1970, 60 percent of all mammals, birds, fish and reptiles are gone, and nearly 90 percent of all large fish have been eliminated from the oceans.

And things will only worsen, as the International Energy Agency announced that global carbon emissions set a record in 2018, rising 1.7 percent to a record 33.1 billion tons.

Truthout decided to take a look at the leading presidential candidates’ climate disruption policies to see if they went far enough to address this global catastrophe.

Stated Policies

According to Rolling Stone, the current leading presidential candidates were, until recently, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttiggieg. But with Joe Biden now having entered the race, some polls show him as the frontrunner. I have included Jay Inslee here as well, however, despite his not being near the top of the field, given he has made climate disruption as his primary platform issue.

When it comes to rhetoric, the Democratic frontrunners sound pretty good on climate.

In the past Joe Biden has said the right things about the climate crisis, but his actions haven’t come anywhere near his rhetoric. He has called climate change an “existential” threat, along with having called on the Trump administration to take action on the issue. When he was vice president, he helped to orchestrate the Paris climate accord, which he has called the “best way to protect our children and global leadership.” In 1986, when he was a senator, Biden introduced the first ever climate billto establish a task force on the issue.

However, activists now rightly challenge Biden over his climate policy. “Joe Biden has some catching up to do if he wants to show voters he’ll be a champion for confronting the fossil fuel industry. Joe will have to prove it if he wants the climate vote,” Greenpeace climate campaign specialist Charlie Jiang told Newsweek. “It’s easy for politicians to simply acknowledge that climate change exists. What’s harder is a real plan that measures up to the urgency of the crisis, including a detailed vision for ending fossil fuel expansion and protecting workers in a rapid transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy. We hope to see that from Vice President Biden and every serious candidate in the coming weeks.”

In a video posted on February 19 where Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president, he listed climate disruption as one of his reasons for running:

I’m running for president because we need to make policy decisions based on science, not politics. We need a president who understands that climate change is real, is an existential threat to our country and the entire planet, and that we can generate massive job creation by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

On April 16 Sanders released his climate platform with the heading “Combat Climate Change and Pass a Green New Deal.” He promises that when he is elected he will do the following:

Pass a Green New Deal to save American families money and generate millions of jobs by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels to 100% energy efficiency and sustainable energy. A Green New Deal will protect workers and the communities in which they live to ensure a transition to family-sustaining wage, union jobs.

Invest in infrastructure and programs to protect the frontline communities most vulnerable to extreme climate impacts like wildfires, sea level rise, drought, floods, and extreme weather like hurricanes.

Reduce carbon pollution emissions from our transportation system by building out high-speed passenger rail, electric vehicles, and public transit.

Ban fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep oil, gas, and coal in the ground by banning fossil fuel leases on public lands.

End exports of coal, natural gas, and crude oil.

Meanwhile, Kamala Harris, ranked number three at the time of this writing, has Tweeted: “Climate change is an imminent threat to our planet unless we correct course. It’s within our power to do so. Now is the time.”

In the Senate, Harris introduced the “Living Shorelines Act of 2018,”which, had it passed, would have directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make grants to communities in order to mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and stronger storms. When she was California’s attorney general, she launched an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil lied to the public and its shareholders about the risks posed by climate change.

Harris also co-sponsored Senator Markey’s Green New Deal resolution, saying: “Climate change is an existential threat, and we must deal with the reality of it. We must radically shift the conversation on how to address the climate crisis we are facing because we are running out of time to act.”

Currently at number four, Elizabeth Warren, during her Town Hall on CNN, issued a dire warning of what could happen if the U.S. does not take immediate action to address the crisis: “I have an 8-year-old grandson, and I think about what the world is going to be like when he’s 38. Will it be a place where our cities are underwater part of the time? Will it be a place where the oceans — large parts of the oceans — are dead? Will it be place where people around the world are just fighting for clean water?”

Warren has called for a moratorium on oil drilling on federal lands, and also backs the Green New Deal, saying it is a pragmatic response to the consequences that come with living on a warmer planet. She said she would re-establish the U.S. as a worldwide leader on climate issues.

As for Beto O’Rourke, during a march in El Paso in February he told reporters that Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Resolution “is the best proposal that I’ve seen to ensure that this planet does not warm another two degrees Celsius, after which we may lose the ability to live in places like El Paso…. It is on all of us — not just Congress and the president, but everyone in this country — so that we all do everything we can to get the specific laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels to match that commitment, as well as harnessing the ingenuity and innovation that comes from this great country to match that challenge.”

When Pete Buttigieg rolled out his candidacy, he told The Atlantic, “If you’re my age or younger … you’re going to be dealing with climate change for most of your adult life in specific, noticeable ways.” Buttigieg is 37. In February, Buttigieg told Jake Tapper on CNN that he endorsed the Ocasio-Cortez/Markey Green New Deal resolution. “I think it’s the right beginning. The idea that we need to race toward that goal and that we should do it in a way that enhances the economic justice and level of opportunity in our country, I believe that is exactly the right direction to be going in.”

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, ranked 12 in Rolling Stone‘s candidate list as far as his chances of winning at the time of this writing, nevertheless has a strong climate crisis platform when compared to the other candidates.

Inslee has made combating the impacts of climate disruption his signature policy, and he has a track record of doing so, even though it still does not go nearly far enough given the depth and progression of the crisis. He has created a $120 million clean-energy fund, and is now directing his state government to set new caps on emissions (although this is being challenged in court) and has launched the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of 22 governors implementing the Paris climate accord.

During his formal announcement of his candidacy at a solar installation in Seattle, he gave his four primary goals:

Number one, we will power our economy with 100 percent clean, renewable, and carbon-free energy and achieve net zero greenhouse gas pollution in the United States.

Number two, we are going to create millions of good paying jobs in every community investing in clean energy. We are going to build electric cars in Michigan. We are going to build and install wind turbines in Iowa. And we are going to install solar right here in Washington State. That’s what we’re going to do.

And while we do this, we will focus on justice and inclusion as a centerpiece of this economic transformation, to ensure no group is left to bear the cost of transition and everyone benefits from new jobs and investment.

And finally we need to end the giveaways and billions in subsidies to fossil fuel industries.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on January 17, Inslee wrote, “Confronting this change has been the driving force of my time in public life. About a decade ago [in 2007], I co-wrote a book about the need to transform our economy to one run on clean energy and the need for a national Apollo mission-style project to take on this herculean task.”

Reality Check

If you read the 2020 Democratic candidates’ platforms in a vacuum, and they may sound compelling. However, if we keep in mind the true magnitude of this crisis, they are nowhere near adequate. What is necessary is nothing short of a plan that coordinates global governments to work together to get completely off fossil fuels immediately. This must be coupled with mandated and funded programs to have farmers begin wide-scale mitigation efforts like soil regeneration and planting trees on a vast scale for natural carbon sequestration. Plus, half of the land on the planet should be designated as wilderness areas. And that’s for starters.

The best policy platforms are not to be found on the websites of political candidates of any stripe. Instead, we must look to grassroots efforts for guidance. Consider the group Climate Mobilization, which is advocating for a massive shift in climate policy. Their platform is as follows:

Reverse global warming and restore a safe and stable climate that supports the continued existence of organized human society.

Ensure a Just Transition for all disadvantaged and climate vulnerable communities and workers.

Reverse Ecological Overshoot by shrinking the ecological footprint of the global economy to approximately half a planet per year.

Halt the Sixth Mass Extinction by returning species (both vertebrate and invertebrate) extinction rates from the current highly elevated levels of 10-100 extinctions per million species per year to the previously normal baseline background rates of approximately 1 extinction per million species per year.

De-acidify the Oceans by eliminating net carbon dioxide emissions and drawing down (or removing) excess carbon dioxide.

Their mission is “to initiate a WWII-scale mobilization to protect humanity and the natural world from climate catastrophe.”

“Emergency economic mobilization is a mode of existential risk response usually adopted to fight a world war, in which defeating the opponent — and producing the munitions required to do so — becomes the overwhelming priority of the entire economy and society,” Climate Mobilization co-founder Ezra Silk told Truthout.

Some of the group’s climate mobilization strategies include: driving the economy to near-zero greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible, slashing global greenhouse gas emissions immediately, and transforming the agricultural and food system to a net greenhouse gas-sequestering and more plant-based model while phasing out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.

While these lofty goals may sound unattainable, given the global capitalist system in which we are so deeply embedded, the group believes these must be the goals if species, including our own, are to have any possibility of continuing.

Truthout asked Silk, who is now the group’s Strategy and Policy Director, if any of the aforementioned presidential candidates were on a track that is in alignment with the aims of The Climate Mobilization. The answer was no, but surprisingly, he pointed to the climate platform of a long-shot candidate.

“Right now we are most excited about Marianne Williamson’s climate platform,” Silk said. “Her groundbreaking platform correctly identifies climate change as an ‘existential emergency,’ criticizes the dangerously high temperature targets in the Paris Accords … identifies and proposes aggressive solutions to address emissions from the agricultural sector and factory farms, promotes a more plant-rich diet and the need for family planning … and calls for a large-scale effort to sequester carbon over the next ten years.”

As unachievable as those goals might sound given the current situation, Silk points out that even these don’t “quite go all the way yet.”

Given how unlikely it is that anyone with a radical enough climate platform to generate serious climate crisis mitigation results could actually be elected in a corrupt, neo-fascist corporate electoral system, we must not see the 2020 election as the endgame in taking action on climate change. Instead, it is one small component of what needs to be a much broader approach. We each must decide what lengths we are willing to go to in order to work for the planet and live with integrity in these times.

Protecting Sea Creatures Could Help Slow Climate Change

As the prospect of catastrophic effects from climate change becomes increasingly likely, a search is on for innovative ways to reduce the risks. One potentially powerful and low-cost strategy is to recognize and protect natural carbon sinks – places and processes that store carbon, keeping it out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Forests and wetlands can capture and store large quantities of carbon. These ecosystems are included in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that 28 countries have pledged to adopt to fulfill the Paris Climate Agreement. So far, however, no such policy has been created to protect carbon storage in the ocean, which is Earth’s largest carbon sink and a central element of our planet’s climate cycle.

As a marine biologist, my research focuses on marine mammal behavior, ecology and conservation. Now I also am studying how climate change is affecting marine mammals – and how marine life could become part of the solution.

What is Marine Vertebrate Carbon?

Marine animals can sequester carbon through a range of natural processes that include storing carbon in their bodies, excreting carbon-rich waste products that sink into the deep sea, and fertilizing or protecting marine plants. In particular, scientists are beginning to recognize that vertebrates, such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals, have the potential to help lock away carbon from the atmosphere.

I am currently working with colleagues at UN Environment/GRID-Arendal, a United Nations Environment Programme center in Norway, to identify mechanisms through which marine vertebrates’ natural biological processes may be able to help mitigate climate change. So far we have found at least nine examples.

One of my favorites is Trophic Cascade Carbon. Trophic cascades occur when change at the top of a food chain causes downstream changes to the rest of the chain. As an example, sea otters are top predators in the North Pacific, feeding on sea urchins. In turn, sea urchins eat kelp, a brown seaweed that grows on rocky reefs near shore. Importantly, kelp stores carbon. Increasing the number of sea otters reduces sea urchin populations, which allows kelp forests to grow and trap more carbon.

Scientists have identified nine mechanisms through which marine vertebrates play roles in the oceanic carbon cycle.
Scientists have identified nine mechanisms through which marine vertebrates play roles in the oceanic carbon cycle.
GRID ARENDALCC BY-ND

Carbon stored in living organisms is called Biomass Carbon, and is found in all marine vertebrates. Large animals such as whales, which may weigh up to 50 tons and live for over 200 years, can store large quantities of carbon for long periods of time.

When they die, their carcasses sink to the seafloor, bringing a lifetime of trapped carbon with them. This is called Deadfall Carbon. On the deep seafloor, it can be eventually buried in sediments and potentially locked away from the atmosphere for millions of years.

Whales can also help to trap carbon by stimulating production of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton, which use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make plant tissue just like plants on land. The whales feed at depth, then release buoyant, nutrient-rich fecal plumes while resting at the surface, which can fertilize phytoplankton in a process that marine scientists call the Whale Pump.

And whales redistribute nutrients geographically, in a sequence we refer to as the Great Whale Conveyor Belt. They take in nutrients while feeding at high latitudes then release these nutrients while fasting on low-latitude breeding grounds, which are typically nutrient-poor. Influxes of nutrients from whale waste products such as urea can help to stimulate phytoplankton growth.

Finally, whales can bring nutrients to phytoplankton simply by swimming throughout the water column and mixing nutrients towards the surface, an effect researchers term Biomixing Carbon.

Fish poo also plays a role in trapping carbon. Some fish migrate up and down through the water column each day, swimming toward the surface to feed at night and descending to deeper waters by day. Here they release carbon-rich fecal pellets that can sink rapidly. This is called Twilight Zone Carbon.

These fish may descend to depths of 1,000 feet or more, and their fecal pellets can sink even farther. Twilight Zone Carbon can potentially be locked away for tens to hundreds of years because it takes a long time for water at these depths to recirculate back towards the surface.

Quantifying Marine Vertebrate Carbon

To treat “blue carbon” associated with marine vertebrates as a carbon sink, scientists need to measure it. One of the first studies in this field, published in 2010, described the Whale Pump in the Southern Ocean, estimating that a historic pre-whaling population of 120,000 sperm whales could have trapped 2.2 million tons of carbon yearly through whale poo.

Another 2010 study calculated that the global pre-whaling population of approximately 2.5 million great whales would have exported nearly 210,000 tons of carbon per year to the deep sea through Deadfall Carbon. That’s equivalent to taking roughly 150,000 cars off the road each year.

A 2012 study found that by eating sea urchins, sea otters could potentially help to trap 150,000 to 22 million tons of carbon per year in kelp forests. Even more strikingly, a 2013 study described the potential for lanternfish and other Twilight Zone fish off the western U.S. coast to store over 30 million tons of carbon per year in their fecal pellets.

Scientific understanding of marine vertebrate carbon is still in its infancy. Most of the carbon-trapping mechanisms that we have identified are based on limited studies, and can be refined with further research. So far, researchers have examined the carbon-trapping abilities of less than 1% of all marine vertebrate species.

A New Basis for Marine Conservation

Many governments and organizations around the world are working to rebuild global fish stocks, prevent bycatch and illegal fishing, reduce pollution and establish marine protected areas. If we can recognize the value of marine vertebrate carbon, many of these policies could qualify as climate change mitigation strategies.

In a step in this direction, the International Whaling Commission passed two resolutions in 2018 that recognized whales’ value for carbon storage. As science advances in this field, protecting marine vertebrate carbon stocks ultimately might become part of national pledges to fulfill the Paris Agreement.

Marine vertebrates are valuable for many reasons, from maintaining healthy ecosystems to providing us with a sense of awe and wonder. Protecting them will help ensure that the ocean can continue to provide humans with food, oxygen, recreation and natural beauty, as well as carbon storage.

Steven Lutz, Blue Carbon Programme leader at GRID-Arendal, contributed to this article.

Sea Creatures Store Carbon in the Ocean – Could Protecting Them Help Slow Climate Change?

April 17, 2019
File 20190415 147502 15sm3nq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A sperm whale goes down for a dive off Kaikoura, New Zealand. (Photo by Heidi Pearson, CC BY-ND)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As the prospect of catastrophic effects from climate change becomes increasingly likely, a search is on for innovative ways to reduce the risks. One potentially powerful and low-cost strategy is to recognize and protect natural carbon sinks – places and processes that store carbon, keeping it out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Forests and wetlands can capture and store large quantities of carbon. These ecosystems are included in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that 28 countries have pledged to adopt to fulfill the Paris Climate Agreement. So far, however, no such policy has been created to protect carbon storage in the ocean, which is Earth’s largest carbon sink and a central element of our planet’s climate cycle.

As a marine biologist, my research focuses on marine mammal behavior, ecology and conservation. Now I also am studying how climate change is affecting marine mammals – and how marine life could become part of the solution.

A sea otter rests in a kelp forest off California. By feeding on sea urchins, which eat kelp, otters help kelp forests spread and store carbon. (Photo by Nicole LaRoche, CC BY-ND)

What is marine vertebrate carbon?

Marine animals can sequester carbon through a range of natural processes that include storing carbon in their bodies, excreting carbon-rich waste products that sink into the deep sea, and fertilizing or protecting marine plants. In particular, scientists are beginning to recognize that vertebrates, such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals, have the potential to help lock away carbon from the atmosphere.

I am currently working with colleagues at UN Environment/GRID-Arendal, a United Nations Environment Programme center in Norway, to identify mechanisms through which marine vertebrates’ natural biological processes may be able to help mitigate climate change. So far we have found at least nine examples.

One of my favorites is Trophic Cascade Carbon. Trophic cascades occur when change at the top of a food chain causes downstream changes to the rest of the chain. As an example, sea otters are top predators in the North Pacific, feeding on sea urchins. In turn, sea urchins eat kelp, a brown seaweed that grows on rocky reefs near shore. Importantly, kelp stores carbon. Increasing the number of sea otters reduces sea urchin populations, which allows kelp forests to grow and trap more carbon.

Scientists have identified nine mechanisms through which marine vertebrates play roles in the oceanic carbon cycle. (Image by GRID ArendalCC BY-ND)

Carbon stored in living organisms is called Biomass Carbon, and is found in all marine vertebrates. Large animals such as whales, which may weigh up to 50 tons and live for over 200 years, can store large quantities of carbon for long periods of time.

When they die, their carcasses sink to the seafloor, bringing a lifetime of trapped carbon with them. This is called Deadfall Carbon. On the deep seafloor, it can be eventually buried in sediments and potentially locked away from the atmosphere for millions of years.

Whales can also help to trap carbon by stimulating production of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton, which use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make plant tissue just like plants on land. The whales feed at depth, then release buoyant, nutrient-rich fecal plumes while resting at the surface, which can fertilize phytoplankton in a process that marine scientists call the Whale Pump.

And whales redistribute nutrients geographically, in a sequence we refer to as the Great Whale Conveyor Belt. They take in nutrients while feeding at high latitudes then release these nutrients while fasting on low-latitude breeding grounds, which are typically nutrient-poor. Influxes of nutrients from whale waste products such as urea can help to stimulate phytoplankton growth.

Finally, whales can bring nutrients to phytoplankton simply by swimming throughout the water column and mixing nutrients towards the surface, an effect researchers term Biomixing Carbon.

Fish poo also plays a role in trapping carbon. Some fish migrate up and down through the water column each day, swimming toward the surface to feed at night and descending to deeper waters by day. Here they release carbon-rich fecal pellets that can sink rapidly. This is called Twilight Zone Carbon.

These fish may descend to depths of 1,000 feet or more, and their fecal pellets can sink even farther. Twilight Zone Carbon can potentially be locked away for tens to hundreds of years because it takes a long time for water at these depths to recirculate back towards the surface.

‘Marine snow’ is made up of fecal pellets and other bits of organic material that sink into deep ocean waters, carrying large quantities of carbon into the depths.

Quantifying marine vertebrate carbon

To treat “blue carbon” associated with marine vertebrates as a carbon sink, scientists need to measure it. One of the first studies in this field, published in 2010, described the Whale Pump in the Southern Ocean, estimating that a historic pre-whaling population of 120,000 sperm whales could have trapped 2.2 million tons of carbon yearly through whale poo.

Another 2010 study calculated that the global pre-whaling population of approximately 2.5 million great whales would have exported nearly 210,000 tons of carbon per year to the deep sea through Deadfall Carbon. That’s equivalent to taking roughly 150,000 cars off the road each year.

A 2012 study found that by eating sea urchins, sea otters could potentially help to trap 150,000 to 22 million tons of carbon per year in kelp forests. Even more strikingly, a 2013 study described the potential for lanternfish and other Twilight Zone fish off the western U.S. coast to store over 30 million tons of carbon per year in their fecal pellets.

Scientific understanding of marine vertebrate carbon is still in its infancy. Most of the carbon-trapping mechanisms that we have identified are based on limited studies, and can be refined with further research. So far, researchers have examined the carbon-trapping abilities of less than 1% of all marine vertebrate species.

The brownish water at the base of this humpback whale’s fluke is a fecal plume, which can fertilize phytoplankton near the surface. Photo taken under NMFS permit 10018-01. (Photo by Heidi Pearson, CC BY-ND)

A new basis for marine conservation

Many governments and organizations around the world are working to rebuild global fish stocks, prevent bycatch and illegal fishing, reduce pollution and establish marine protected areas. If we can recognize the value of marine vertebrate carbon, many of these policies could qualify as climate change mitigation strategies.

In a step in this direction, the International Whaling Commission passed two resolutions in 2018 that recognized whales’ value for carbon storage. As science advances in this field, protecting marine vertebrate carbon stocks ultimately might become part of national pledges to fulfill the Paris Agreement.

Marine vertebrates are valuable for many reasons, from maintaining healthy ecosystems to providing us with a sense of awe and wonder. Protecting them will help ensure that the ocean can continue to provide humans with food, oxygen, recreation and natural beauty, as well as carbon storage.

Dire future etched in the past: CO2 at 3-million year-old levels

 

https://phys.org/news/2019-04-dire-future-etched-co2-million.html

The last time there was so much CO2 in Earth's atmosphere, ice caps virtually disappeared
The last time there was so much CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, ice caps virtually disappeared

Planet-warming carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere—at its highest level in three million years—is poised to lock in dramatic temperature and sea level rises over a timescale of centuries, scientists warned this week.

The last time that CO2 hit 400 parts per million (ppm) Greenland was ice free and trees grew at the edge of Antarctica.

It was long thought that today’s greenhouse gas levels were no greater than those 800,000 years ago, during a period of cyclical planetary warming and cooling that would have likely continued but for manmade emissions.

But analyses of ice cores and ocean sediments in the coldest place on Earth have now revealed that 400 ppm was last surpassed three million years ago during the Late Pliocene, when temperatures were several degrees Celsius higher, and oceans at least 15 metres deeper.

At the same time, state-of-the-art climate modelling by experts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have correlated directly with the CO2 levels found in these Antarctic samples.

“The Late Pliocene is relatively close to us in terms of CO2 levels,” Matteo Willeit, PIK member and lead study author, told AFP.

“Our models suggest that there were no glacial cycles—there were no big ice sheets in the northern hemisphere. CO2 was too high and the climate was too warm to allow big ice sheets to grow.”

Nations in 2015 struck the landmark Paris deal on climate change, promising to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit temperature rises to “well below” 2 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

Yet 2017 saw emissions levels unsurpassed in human history, and climate experts warn that time has all but run out to drastically slash fossil fuel use and avert runaway global warming.

Seas 15-20 metres higher

Scientists gathered this week in London for a conference on the Pliocene epoch, and highlighted the lessons to be learned today embedded in its ancient ice and sediment samples.

Record levels of greenhouse gases in 2017
Change in levels of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere since 1984

“The headline news is that temperatures were 3-4 degrees higher globally than they are today, and sea levels were 15-20 metres (50-65 feet) higher,” Martin Siegert, professor of geoscience at Imperial College London, told reporters.

With just 1C of warming so far, Earth is already dealing with floods, droughts and superstorms made worse by rising seas.

Siegert said that 400 ppm didn’t mean that the severity of Pliocene sea-level rises was imminent. But unless humans figure a way to suck CO2 out of the air on a massive scale, severe impacts are inevitable, sooner or later.

“There’s a lag,” he explained. “If you turn on the oven at home and set it to 200C, it doesn’t reach that (level) immediately. It’s the same for climate.”

Siegert said glaciologists, based on current CO2 concentrations, expect between 50 centimetres and one metre of sea-level rise this century.

“It would be difficult for it to be much more than that because it takes time to melt,” he added.

“But it doesn’t stop at 2100—it keeps going.”

Rocketing pace of CO2

In October, the UN concluded that greenhouse gas emissions must decline by about half within 12 years to preserve a chance of capping global warming at 1.5C, the level needed to avoid severe climate impacts.

But despite these and earlier warnings, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, construction, aviation and agribusiness continue to rise, and are currently on track to heat up the planet 4C by century’s end.

Even without additional carbon pollution, the outlook remains bleak.

Manmade emissions on the other hand have added some 120 ppm of CO2 in a little over a century and a half
Manmade emissions on the other hand have added some 120 ppm of CO2 in a little over a century and a half

“If we stay at 400 ppm, we stay on the course to a Pliocene-like climate,” said Tina van De Flierdt, a professor of isotope geochemistry at Imperial.

She warned that under similar conditions to the present day, the Pliocene saw the disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet—which today holds enough frozen water to raise sea levels by some seven metres worldwide.

“The West Antarctica ice sheet holds about 5 metres—that was probably gone,” she added.

As is happening today, Earth’s poles warmed far quicker than the rest of the planet during the Pliocene, earlier research has shown, including a study in Nature Climate Change.

During earlier periods, Earth has seen sustained concentrations of carbon dioxide was even higher than 400 ppm, but it took millions of years for those increases to occur.

Manmade greenhouse gas emissions, on the other hand, have boosted CO2 levels by more than 40 percent in a little over 150 years.

‘A crazy experiment’

At 412 ppm and rising, experts said temperature rises of 3-4C are likely now locked in.

So what happened to Earth the last time CO2 was so prevalent?

It was captured in the trees, plants, animals and minerals alive at the time and buried underground when they died.

“And what we’ve been doing for the last 150 years is digging it all up and putting it back into the atmosphere,” said Siegert.

“It’s like a crazy experiment: ‘Let’s take that CO2 that took 100 million years to be sequestrated and put it back—instantly, on a geological timescale—in the atmosphere and see what happens'”.

Climate change: ‘Magic bullet’ carbon solution takes big step

Image captionChalky grains of calcium carbonate are the result of concentrating the CO2 that’s extracted from the air

A technology that removes carbon dioxide from the air has received significant backing from major fossil fuel companies.

British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering has shown that it can extract CO2 in a cost-effective way.

It has now been boosted by $68m in new investment from Chevron, Occidental and coal giant BHP.

But climate campaigners are worried that the technology will be used to extract even more oil.

Media captionThe BBC’s Matt McGrath explains how one company is removing CO2 from our air

The quest for technology for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the air received significant scientific endorsement last year with the publication of the IPCC report on keeping the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C this century.

In their “summary for policymakers”, the scientists stated that: “All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5C with limited or no overshoot project the use of CDR …over the 21st century.”

Around the world, a number of companies are racing to develop the technology that can draw down carbon. Swiss company Climeworks is already capturing CO2 and using it to boost vegetable production.

Carbon Engineering says that its direct air capture (DAC) process is now able to capture the gas for under $100 a tonne.

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With its new funding, the company plans to build its first commercial facilities. These industrial-scale DAC plants could capture up to one million tonnes of CO2 from the air each year.

So how does this system work?

CO2 is a powerful warming gas but there’s not a lot of it in the atmosphere – for every million particles of air, there are 410 of CO2.

While the CO2 is helping to drive temperatures up around the world, the comparatively low concentrations make it difficult to design efficient machines to remove the gas.

Carbon Engineering’s process is all about sucking in air and exposing it to a chemical solution that concentrates the CO2. Further refinements mean the gas can be purified into a form that can be stored or utilised as a liquid fuel.

Does this require some complicated chemistry?

Absolutely.

Carbon Engineering’s barn-sized installation has a large fan in the middle of the roof which draws in air from the atmosphere.

It then comes into contact with a hydroxide-based chemical solution. Certain hydroxides react with carbon dioxide, reversibly binding to the CO2 molecule. When the CO2 in the air reacts with the liquid, it forms a carbonate mixture. That is then treated with a slurry of calcium hydroxide to change it into solid form; the slurry helps form tiny pellets of calcium carbonate.

The chalky calcium carbonate pellets are then treated at a high temperature of about 900C, with the pellets decomposing into a CO2 stream and calcium oxide.

That stream of pure CO2 is cleaned up to remove water impurities.

“The key to this process is about concentrating the CO2,” said Carbon Engineering’s Dr Jenny McCahill.

“We can then put it underground as in sequestration, or we can combine it with hydrogen to form hydrocarbons or methanol. There’s a number of things you can do.”

Can you really make a liquid fuel from CO2?

Yes. It’s complicated but it can be done.

The captured CO2 is mixed with hydrogen that’s made from water and green electricity. It’s then passed over a catalyst at 900C to form carbon monoxide. Adding in more hydrogen to the carbon monoxide turns it into what’s called synthesis gas.

Infographic

Finally a Fischer-Tropsch process turns this gas into a synthetic crude oil. Carbon Engineering says the liquid can be used in a variety of engines without modification.

“The fuel that we make has no sulphur in it, it has these nice linear chains which means it burns cleaner than traditional fuel,” said Dr McCahill.

“It’s nice and clear and ready to be used in a truck, car or jet.”

Direct air captureImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionCarbon Engineering’s direct air capture plant

Why are fossil fuel companies investing in this process?

CO2 can also be used to flush out the last remaining deposits of oil in wells that are past their prime. The oil industry in the US has been using the gas in this way for decades.

It’s estimated that using CO2 can deliver an extra 30% of crude from oilfields with the added benefit that the gas is then sequestered permanently in the ground.

“Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture technology has the unique capability to capture and provide large volumes of atmospheric CO2,” said Occidental Petroleum’s Senior Vice President, Richard Jackson, in a statement.

“This capability complements Occidental’s enhanced oil recovery business and provides further synergies by enabling large-scale CO2 utilisation and sequestration.”

One of the other investors in Carbon Engineering is BHP, best known for its coal mining interests.

“The reality is that fossil fuels will be around for several decades whether in industrial processes or in transportation,” said Dr Fiona Wild, BHP’s head of sustainability and climate change.

“What we need to do is invest in those low-emission technologies that can significantly reduce the emissions from these processes, and that’s why we are focusing on carbon capture and storage.”

How have environmentalists reacted to Carbon Engineering’s plans?

Some climate campaigners are positive about the development of direct air capture technology, but others are worried that it will be used to prolong the fossil fuel era.

“It’s a huge concern,” Tzeporah Berman, international programme director for Stand dot earth, told BBC News.

“We need to be working together to figure out how we move away completely from fossil fuel – that’s our moral and economic challenge but these technologies provide a false hope that we can continue to depend on fossil fuels and produce and burn them, and technology will fix it – we are way past that point!”

Liquid fuel
Image captionIts liquid fuel burns cleanly, says Carbon Engineering – and can be used in cars, truck or airplanes

Others are concerned that the development of direct air capture devices may just encourage some people to think that they don’t have to personally reduce their carbon footprint.

“I think there’s a real danger that people will see this technology as a magic bullet and not cut back their carbon,” said Shakti Ramkumar, a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who is active in climate change protests.

“We have a moral responsibility to reduce our consumption on a large scale. We need to reflect deeply on how we live our lives and whether everyone can have access to the things we have, and fairness, so we can all live a good life.”

So is this technology a ‘magic bullet’ for climate change?

It’s impossible to say if Carbon Engineering’s idea will emerge as the type of device that makes a major difference in the battle against climate change.

Steve Oldham
Image captionCarbon Engineering’s CEO Steve Oldham

Certainly, the company believes that its machines could become as common as water treatment plants – providing a valuable service, yet hardly noticed by the general public.

Right now, it has secured enough money to build a commercial facility and can draw down carbon for less than $100 a tonne. But there is a big worry that with large investments from the fossil fuel industry, the focus of its efforts could be turned to producing more oil, not just tackling climate change.

Carbon Engineering says that if governments want to invest in its process they are very welcome to do so. If they’re not ready to stump up the cash, the company is happy to take funding from the energy industry as time is so short, and the need for the technology is so great.

“Is it the silver bullet?” asked CEO Steve Oldham.

“I would never say to anybody that you want to put all your eggs in one basket – the future of the planet is very important for us all.

“But having the technology built, available, ready to go, with no harmful chemical side-effects, no land-usage, having those available – that’s a good thing.

“If or when we need them, and if you read the science that’s today – it’s available, it’s ready.”

Carbon Emissions Are Now 10x Higher Than When The Arctic Had Crocodiles And Palm Trees

main article image
(Orla/iStock)

By about the time our great-grandchildren have children of their own, we humans will likely have broken a climate record that has stood unchallenged for 56 million years.

New research has found that humans are pumping nearly 10 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than what was emitted during Earth’s last major warming event, called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

If carbon emissions continue to rise in the future, mathematical models predict that within the next few hundred years, we could be facing another PETM-like event.

In other words, in the near future, Earth could resemble its distant past: a time when the Arctic was free of ice, inhabited by crocodiles and dotted by palm trees.

“You and I won’t be here in 2159, but that’s only about four generations away,” warns palaeoclimate researcher Philip Gingerich from the University of Michigan.

“When you start to think about your children and your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren, you’re about there.”

The PETM is often used as a benchmark for current global warming. During this time, rapid climate changes saw landscapes transformed, oceans acidified, and widespread extinctions triggered.

It took more than 150,000 years for the world to recover, but what happened then has nothing on what is happening now.

Global temperatures during the PETM peaked at about 7 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than today’s average, and we are quickly catching up to those heights.

The new study suggests that if nothing changes, within 140 years, humans could pump out the same amount of greenhouse gases released during the entire PETM.

“The fact that we could reach warming equivalent to the PETM very quickly, within the next few hundred years, is terrifying,” says Larisa DeSantis, a palaeontologist at Vanderbilt University, who was not connected to the new study.

The reason it’s terrifying is because we are headed off the road map. Today, climate scientists use the PETM as a case study for what global warming might do to our planet and when those changes might be expected.

But as useful as this has been, today, we live in a different world. While the PETM is thought to have occurred from a comet or a volcano, our current climate catastrophe is being fuelled primarily by humans, at a rate unseen in Earth’s climate record.

It’s also happening in the middle of what should be a cooling trend, in a time when the world is full of different ecosystems and species.

With all of these variable factors, the new research suggests that using the PETM as a gauge for current warming may not be quite so useful in the future.

“We don’t have much in the way of geologic examples to draw from in understanding how the world responds to that kind of perturbation.”

It looks like our descendants are on their own.

This study has been published in Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE GREENHOUSE GASES, ANYWAY?

Here at Climate Reality, we sometimes need to take a step back.

You know how your good friend Dave can rattle off pre-season stats with the precision of a brain surgeon, always seems to win your fantasy football league, and can’t begin to understand why you’re still rooting for [insert “Your Team” here]? Well, we’re kind of the Dave of climate action.

We’re so in the thick of climate everything that we can forget the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report isn’t exactly flying off the shelves, so to speak, like Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming.

But every so often, a headline will pop up that brings us right back down to the very Earth we’re working so hard to protect.

Citing a survey done by Yale and George Mason universities, Vox declared last year, “Almost 90 percent of Americans don’t know there’s scientific consensus on global warming.” More recently, the Verge proclaimed: “About half of Americans don’t think climate change will affect them — here’s why.”

These headlines are far from an aberration and come as no surprise: amid near-constant partisan squabbles and a lack of uniform learning standards, climate change education is uneven at best – and woefully lacking at worst. It doesn’t help that it can also feel like such an overwhelming worry that many simply tune it out entirely.

So, that’s why we’re getting back to basics to answer one of the most foundational questions a person can have about our warming world: What exactly are greenhouse gases, anyway?

WELL, THEY’RE GASES, SILLY BILLY

That’s right! They’re also largely naturally occurring. But they act a little differently than non-greenhouse gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and argon.

You see, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide (the main GHG driving climate change), include “any gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiating it back to Earth’s surface.”

Did you get all that? Some but not all? Same.

In more straightforward speak, here’s the gist: GHGs like CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone let sunlight in to heat the Earth’s surface but they don’t let all that heat energy back out. Think about it like the global equivalent of wrapping yourself up in a big blanket – or the way the glass walls and roof of an actual greenhouse let sunlight in during daylight hours and retain that warmth at night.

Actually, it’s exactly like that. Hence their name. Get it?

SO THEY “TRAP” HEAT IN THE ATMOSPHERE?

Yes. And under normal circumstance, this is a great, necessary thing – and it’s exactly how the planet is built to work.

“Earth’s surface warms up in the sunlight. At night, Earth’s surface cools, releasing the heat back into the air,” NASA’s Climate Kids explains. “But some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s what keeps our Earth a warm and cozy 59 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.”

This is known as the “greenhouse effect,” and without it the planet would be too cold to support life. NASA estimates that without naturally occurring GHGs, Earth’s average temperature would be near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (a very chilly negative 18 degrees Celsius).

Brrrrrrr.

>> Learn more: What Is the Greenhouse Effect? <<

WELL, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM THEN?

The concern with GHGs isn’t the gases themselves – at least not on their own. Like we mentioned, most are naturally occurring and their action to retain heat is imperative for life on Earth. The problem has to do with the amount of certain GHGs in our modern atmosphere.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our burning of fossil fuels for energy has emitted hundreds of billions of tons of heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere, where it stays for a very long time. More and more CO2 (and other GHGs) means more and more heat.

Unlike the naturally occurring CO2 that acts as part of the normal greenhouse-effect process, this added carbon and the extra heat are more than the Earth’s finely balanced systems can handle. At least without changing our climate and making storms more violent, oceans more acidic, and on and on.

With all the coal, oil, and gas being burned, it’s unsurprising then that CO2 levels as of 2017 (the most-recent complete year) stood at 405.0 parts per million (ppm), higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

If history is any guide here, that’s not good news for the Earth – or for us.

“The last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today,” according to NOAA.

Remember the bottom line here: Burning fossil fuels creates GHGs, polluting the atmosphere. More GHGs equals more heat and more climate change. More dangerous storms. More terrible wildfires. More farms drying out. More diseases spreading further across the Earth. You get the picture.

Watch:

WHAT CAN I DO?

Our movement is at a critical turning point in the fight for common-sense solutions to the climate crisis. The good news is, the power to make meaningful progress on climate is in our hands.

But it all starts with understanding what is happening to our planet.

Sign up today to receive emails from Climate Reality and we’ll deliver the latest on climate science and innovative ways you can get involved in the climate movement right to your inbox.

 

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Carbon emissions spiked in 2018, research firm finds

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
January 08, 2019, 12:48:01 PM EST

Carbon emissions US

In this June 1, 2016, photo, piles of wood chips sit near a paper mill in Tacoma, Wash. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/carbon-emissions-spiked-in-2018-research-firm-finds/70007095

United States carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rose sharply last year. This incline follows three years of decline.

The Rhodium Group, a research firm, released preliminary estimates that showed emissions increased by 3.4 percent in 2018 based on preliminary power generation, natural gas and oil consumption data.

This marks the second largest annual gain in more than two decades, surpassed only by 2010 when the economy bounced back from the Great Recession.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at just over 6 billion tons. Between then and the end of 2015, emissions fell by 12.1 percent, an average rate of 1.6 percent per year.

The Great Recession played a significant role in the decline along with a significant drop in carbon intensity of U.S. energy supply, primarily due to a switch in power generation from coal to cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas, wind and solar.

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Since 2016, the pace of U.S. emissions decline has slowed, from 2.7 percent in 2015 to 1.7 percent in 2016 to 0.8 percent in 2017. This slowdown in progress was noted in the group’s annual Taking Stock report from June 2018.

The group noted at the time that this slowdown and a lack of new climate policy action at the federal level would make U.S. emissions fall short of Paris Agreement targets, which would require a reduction in emissions of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.

President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017, but the Paris Agreement provides emissions goals that policymakers can use as a guideline.

The recent preliminary report by the group states that the U.S. was already off track in meeting Paris Agreement targets, and the gap is even wider headed into 2019.

The group does not expect a repeat of 2018 this coming year. However, the data provides some important insights into the emission reduction challenges facing the U.S.

US climate action 2018

In this Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 photo, wind turbines stand in a field near Northwood, Iowa. With global temperatures rising, superstorms taking their deadly toll and a year-end deadline to firm up the Paris climate deal, leaders at this year’s U.N. General Assembly are feeling a sense of urgency to keep up the momentum on combating climate change. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

While a record number of coal-fired power plants were retired in 2018, natural gas beat out renewables to replace most of this lost generation and also fed most of the growth in electricity demand.

“Natural gas-fired generation increased by 166 million kWh during the first 10 months of the year. That’s three times the decline in coal generation and four times the combined growth of wind and solar,” the preliminary report reads.

As a result, power sector emissions overall rose by 1.9 percent, according to the report.

The transportation sector held its title as the largest source of U.S. emissions for the third year running. A strong growth in demand for diesel and jet fuel offset a modest decline in gasoline consumption.

“This highlights the challenges in decarbonizing the transportation sector beyond light-duty vehicles,” the preliminary report reads.

The buildings and industrial sectors also had significant emissions gains, partially as a result of the unusually cold weather at the start of the year.

Direct emissions from residential and commercial buildings increased by 10 percent in 2018 to their highest level since 2004. This comes from sources including fuel oil, diesel and natural gas combusted on site for heating and cooking.

The increase highlights the limited progress made in developing decarbonization strategies for these sectors.

“While buildings have begun to attract some creative policy thinking, the industrial sector is still almost entirely ignored,” the preliminary report reads.

california stacks climate ap

The stacks from the Valero Benicia Refinery are seen as a pedestrian walks in a nearby neighborhood, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Benicia, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The estimates provided in the preliminary report are for energy-related CO2emissions only, which account for roughly three-quarters of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S.

Official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2018 inventory numbers for all GHGs will not be available until 2020.

To meet the Paris Agreement target, the U.S. would need to reduce energy-related COemissions by 2.6 percent on average over the next seven years, which is more than twice the pace the U.S. achieved between 2005 and 2017 and significantly faster than any seven-year average in U.S. history.

“It is certainly feasible, but will likely require a fairly significant change in policy in the very near future and/or extremely favorable market and technological conditions,” the preliminary report reads.

Arctic permafrost might contain ‘sleeping giant’ of world’s carbon emissions

Muostakh Island is part of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf which is the most vulnerable part of the Arctic coastline when it comes to permafrost thaw. Image credit – Prof. Igor Semiletov.

As temperatures rise in the Arctic, permafrost, or frozen ground, is thawing. As it does, greenhouse gases trapped within it are being released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, leading to previously underestimated problems with ocean acidification and potential mercury poisoning.

About one quarter of the region is covered in permafrost, which is soil, sediment or rock that has been frozen for at least two years. With its retreat, the carbon that is released could contribute significantly to global warming.

‘We call it the sleeping giant of the global carbon cycle,’ said Professor Örjan Gustafsson, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University in Sweden. ‘It’s not really accounted for in climate models.’

Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues are trying to determine exactly what permafrost consists of, how quickly it is warming and what happens when it thaws. To do this, they are drilling into three types of permafrost around the East Siberian Sea as part of a project called CC-Top.

In addition to the most common type found in soil on land, they will also be looking at high-carbon permafrost that formed about 50,000 years ago called Yedoma, and another type found under the seafloor of shallow coastal shelf areas that were flooded as sea levels rose about 11,650 years ago. ‘(This) subsea permafrost is the most vulnerable of the three so that’s the major focus of the project,’ Prof. Gustafsson said.

The researchers have been comparing the temperatures of permafrost on land and underwater. About 10,000 years ago, the temperature of both permafrost types was about -18˚C. They found that permafrost on the ground has now warmed up to about -10˚C but under the sea it has reached 0˚C. ‘That was surprising,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘I had no idea that subsea permafrost was thawing so quickly.’

Ocean acidification

They’ve also examined what happens when thawed permafrost from land reaches the sea. Some of the released carbon reacts with water to form carbonic acid – the same gas present in fizzy water. Although it’s a weak acid, Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues found that it contributes significantly to acidification of the Arctic ocean. This affects marine biodiversity. Acidic water, for example, dissolves the carbonate skeletons of organisms such as plankton.

The team’s findings point to much higher levels of ocean acidification than that predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their report published in 2014, which largely considered the effect of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

‘Acidification could be 100 times more severe,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’

Next, the team plans to investigate the methane that is escaping from subsea permafrost. In many parts of the Arctic, the concentration of the gas in seawater is high but the researchers aren’t exactly sure of its source. It could be the result of thawing permafrost soil or methane hydrates – solid methane buried underwater. Or it might originate from natural gas much deeper down that is reaching the surface through cracks in permafrost as it melts.

‘We really need to understand that to predict how methane releases will develop in the coming decades or centuries,’ said Prof. Gustafsson.

Permafrost thaw is already a growing concern for those living in the region who experience its effects. In coastal areas, where it is particularly prone to thawing, buildings constructed on permafrost are collapsing or becoming damaged due to thaw while roads are cracking. Escaping carbon and organic matter are also likely to have an impact on the wildlife that communities rely on for food.

‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’

 

Prof. Örjan Gustafsson, environmental scientist, Stockholm University, Sweden

Dr Hugues Lantuit, a researcher at Alfred-Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and his colleagues are interested in what happens to carbon and other substances that seep out from permafrost in these coastal areas as part of a project called Nunataryuk. They will be conducting fieldwork in Russia, Svalbard, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.

The project is involving local communities in their work. In Aklavik, a hamlet on the Yukon coast in Canada, for example, the team is consulting Inuit communities to pin down relevant sites for their research, such as areas where fish is plentiful or where erosion is pronounced.

Through meetings, the researchers gain insight into local issues that could be addressed in their research. In Svalbard, for example, where the coastline is rocky, permafrost thaw is mostly affecting infrastructure on land whereas coastal erosion is more of a concern in Russia and North America. At the same time, locals can learn scientific techniques from researchers. ‘It’s truly a learning experience on both sides,’ Dr Lantuit said.

Subsistence

Some communities are worried about the effect of climate change on wildlife, which they depend on for subsistence. One of the project’s goals is therefore to investigate the release of organic matter from thawing permafrost into the Arctic Ocean. ‘This has a direct impact on the fish population but we do not exactly understand how,’ Dr Lantuit said.

The team is trying to figure out whether thawing permafrost will make the sea cloudy by releasing sediment into the water, thus allowing less light to penetrate. This could result in fewer fish as the algae and plants they depend on for food can’t photosynthesise in dark water. Alternatively, it could have a positive effect. ‘More carbon could also mean more nutrients, so big party time for microorganisms, phytoplankton and potentially fish,’ said Dr Lantuit.

Thawing permafrost is also a health concern as it is expected to release contaminants and pathogens. In a study published earlier this year, members of the team found that permafrost contains more mercury than any other source on the planet when it was previously thought to contain an insignificant amount. Since mercury is a poison, it could have serious health implications, ranging from impaired memory to vision problems if it gets out. ‘Now we’re trying to quantify the release of mercury and to see which regions are susceptible,’ said Dr Lantuit.

Eventually, the team hopes to come up with solutions to manage the effects of thawing permafrost. They’re developing models that should help. In one project, they are looking at what would happen if permafrost was the source of an outbreak of Anthrax – a bacteria that can infect the skin, lungs and intestines. They are also creating models to predict damage to infrastructure.

Improvements are already underway. Nunataryuk researchers have been working on developing buildings that can better resist thawing permafrost by getting communities in North America and Russia to exchange strategies. In North America, for example, there was a tendency to build lightweight constructions using wood or metal whereas buildings are made from concrete in Russia.

‘There is a move towards using some of the knowledge on both sides to create new and better infrastructure,’ said Dr Lantuit. ‘We now have 40 to 50 years of warming in some areas so we can really see what works and what doesn’t.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please share it on social media.