Why some hydropower plants are worse for the climate than coal

Patrick Civello / Getty Images
HELL AND HIGH WATER

According to a new study published in Environmental Science Technology, hundreds of active hydropower plants are making a worse impact on the climate than fossil fuels.

Yup, you read that right: Hydropower, popularly seen as a green energy source — and a major clean energy source in a lot of emission-reduction plans — can release more greenhouse gases than coal- or oil-burning power plants, under certain conditions.

Scientists have known for a while now that hydropower facilities release greenhouse gases — mostly methane, but also CO2 and nitrous oxide. But the way they’ve historically calculated a facility’s climate impact has obscured methane’s heat-trapping potency. The new study, which looks at data from thousands of hydropower plants to compare their long- and short-term climate impacts, found that hundreds of active facilities around the world are worse for the climate than coal.

“It’s pretty alarming,” Ilissa Ocko, the study’s lead author, told Grist.

Setting up a hydropower facility means building a dam and creating a reservoir, often submerging plants and other organic matter in the process. Traditional calculations of hydropower’s environmental impact take this destruction into account. But as the drowned plants decompose, they release methane, which bubbles out of the reservoir and into the atmosphere. Ocko’s study was the first to take into account how these methane emissions change over time.

Exactly how much methane is released varies widely depending on a wide range of factors, from temperature to precipitation to the depth of the pool — methane production can vary from year to year and even season to season. Ocko’s team was able to identify a few indicators that a hydropower facility plant would likely produce more greenhouse gases than others, such as a large surface-area-to-depth ratio of the reservoir and warmer temperatures. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and each facility’s exact emissions profile — and the causes of that emissions profile — all vary, widely.

None of this means that hydropower is “bad”: Some facilities have negative emissions, and some are more warming than fossil fuels in the short term but better in the long term (even as the opposite is also sometimes true).

Since hydropower still has the potential to be a low-emissions power source, the most important thing is for planners to choose locations and design facilities with emissions in mind, so that the plants either minimize greenhouse gas emissions or divert them before they enter the atmosphere.

This is going to be crucial for industry and policymakers alike in coming years as governments turn to hydropower to meet their sustainability goals. Hydropower electricity production is expected to grow by up to 70 percent by 2040, with 3,700 new facilities currently planned or under construction. New York City is a prime example — Mayor Bill de Blasio recently recommitted to a pipeline to bring hydroelectricity to the city from Canada. With this and similar plans, the devil is in the details.

“We need to be really careful that new facilities we develop don’t fall into the category that have emissions that lead to climate impacts that are worse than fossil fuels,” said Ocko.

Tree-planting campaigns are gaining momentum, but climate researchers warn they’re not a silver bullet

“Reforestation needs to be part of the solution if we’re going to succeed, but we need to understand that trees everywhere isn’t always a good thing,” one researcher said.
Orange County's secluded redwood forest

Visitors make their way through the three-acre grove of coastal redwoods, the largest grove of these trees in Southern California, in Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea early on Aug. 30, 2019.Mark Rightmire / Orange County Register via Getty Images file

By Denise Chow

A recent tree-planting campaign started by a YouTube personality set an ambitious goal: raise $20 million to plant 20 million trees by Jan. 1, 2020.

The project, known as #TeamTrees, offered the kind of internet-savvy effort that tends to achieve some virality. Silicon Valley heavyweights including YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have already pushed the fundraiser past $14 million.

But while reforestation efforts have long been held up as a key way to help mitigate the effects of climate change, new research is showing that the scientific benefits of widespread tree-planting campaigns may be murkier than scientists originally thought.

“This notion challenges conventional wisdom and can be a difficult truth, because many of us — myself included — have an affinity for forests and think of forests as healthy landscapes,” said Christopher Williams, a professor of geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The fundraiser is also a mixed blessing to environmentalists. It’s heartening to see the general public and notable figures get behind climate efforts, but broader changes and policies need to be enacted in order to stop climate change, said Peter Ellis, a forest ecologist at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia.

“Reforestation needs to be part of the solution if we’re going to succeed, but we need to understand that trees everywhere isn’t always a good thing,” said Ellis, who co-authored a key 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the benefits of reforestation and other natural climate solutions.

Nature’s filter

Forests have been likened to the planet’s lungs, because similar to how the vital organs absorb oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and breathe out oxygen. As such, forests play a crucial role in removing carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas that drives global warming, from the air.

This natural process is also why tree-planting and other reforestation efforts have long been heralded as important — and natural — ways to offset rising carbon emissions and fight climate change. And these campaigns have proven to be a popular way to motivate the public to take action.

But emerging research suggests that the effectiveness of tree-planting campaigns can vary, and that the impacts of forests on the climate system are complex, ranging from how changing landscapes can alter the delicate balances that exist in many ecosystems to greenhouse gases, such as methane, that can be emitted from trees themselves. In many cases, the long-term implications of these effects are still unknown.

“The key word is uncertainty,” said Kristofer Covey, an ecologist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, who has conducted extensive research on methane emissions from forests in the northeastern United States. “It’s hard to tease out what we should be doing right now, and I would be very hesitant to upset the apple cart based on what we have. That said, we need to start accounting for these things if we’re going to lead successful campaigns with land management.”

In 2013, a British ecologist named Sunitha Pangala journeyed to the Amazon armed with sensors that she attached to more than 2,000 trees to measure emissions of methane. She found that these trees — particularly in parts of the forest that seasonally flood and become waterlogged — were to blame for approximately half of the Amazon’s total methane emissions, with every 100,000 square feet of tropical wetland releasing several pounds of methane each day.

“The methane was moving from soil through trees, and the trees were acting like straws,” Covey said. “That’s a huge effect, and it’s not accounted for.”

Pangala’s findings were published in 2017, and though much more research is needed, Covey said there is evidence that in some areas, the warming effects from methane emissions could offset a forest’s ability to store carbon dioxide. This is especially true, he added, for tropical wetlands.

Potential drawbacks

In addition to methane, trees can emit what are known as volatile organic compounds, which are themselves not greenhouse gases, but can interact with other gases in the atmosphere to cause ozone and photochemical smog.

These compounds, which evolved as a stress response in plants and trees, are still being actively studied, but some research has suggested that they are more common with certain species — namely, pine trees. Though the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, the impact of volatile organic compounds on global climate change is still being actively debated in the scientific community.

“There’s still a lot that we don’t know, which is why there’s a certain level of inherent risk with reforestation,” said Benjamin Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Poulter co-authored a commentary published Oct. 18 in the journal Science about a recent study on the potential of global tree restoration as a solution for climate change. That study claimed that new forests could remove 205 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it “our most effective climate change solution to date.”

Poulter and his colleagues argued that the study overestimated that potential and overlooked some negative consequences that reforestation efforts can have. For one, adding trees in certain regions can change how that land absorbs or reflects energy from the sun. At high latitudes, such as in parts of Canada and Siberia, snow-covered ground is more reflective than darker, tree-covered areas.

“The concern is if you start planting trees where you have snow, you’re changing the color of the land surface and making it darker,” Poulter said. “Dark surfaces absorb more energy than lighter surfaces, so you’re actually going to warm the environment.”

An arsenal of climate solutions

Still, scientists say there is no question that trees harbor enormous potential for storing carbon, and that preventing deforestation has demonstrated benefits for the environment. Protecting and restoring forests could reduce global emissions by 18 percent by 2030, according to a 2018 report released by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But Chris Field, director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, said reforestation efforts can be complicated, and sometimes areas with the greatest potential for such natural climate solutions are also places where there are weak institutions or governments in place to enact such policies.

“You can’t just go into an area where they are having a civil war and plant a bunch of trees,” Field said. “When you see these really optimistic numbers about what natural climate solutions can contribute, it’s important to recognize that that’s a theoretical potential. A lot of complicated, hard-to-change things would need to occur before we get close to realizing that potential.”

There is scientific consensus, however, that the surest way to fight climate change is by tackling the root of the problem: reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.

“No matter how large our reforestation efforts may be, what’s more important is that we wean ourselves off fossil fuel use,” Williams, of Clark University, said. “We shouldn’t see this, or any other nature-based climate change solution, as a silver bullet.”

Feelings of ‘despair’: Climate change activists testify against EPA plans to roll back methane emissions standards

Environmentalists and Native American leaders from across the U.S. traveled to Dallas for a public hearing on Trump’s proposal, which would reverse rules to curb a potent greenhouse gas.

Myrelis “Mara” Diaz never expected to move to the U.S. mainland. That wasn’t in her plans.

But on Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria raged through Puerto Rico and tore up her San Juan apartment complex, leaving residents without running water. An AmeriCorps worker, Diaz spent the following days lugging heavy jugs of water up the stairs for her neighbors. She’d come home without food for herself. One day on a water delivery, when she tripped on the stairs and bruised a chunk of her leg, she decided she’d had enough.

Diaz, now 28, refers to herself as a climate change refugee. Less than two months after the hurricane hit, the graduate student fled Puerto Rico and relocated to Arizona for a new job, leaving the rest of her family behind.

“I’m in love with my island,” Diaz said. “This is not something that I chose for myself.”

Diaz is a part of Ecomadres, a program for Latinas fighting for clean air, and just one of dozens who traveled to Dallas to testify Thursday against the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to roll back methane emissions standards.

It was the only public hearing on President Donald Trump’s proposed rollback of protections, and it attracted dozens of environmental activists — many of them mothers — from all over the country, several of whom held back tears and trembled as they described the impacts that air pollution had on their lives. Several said they had lived near oilfields and had noticed their children’s health significantly decline.

EPA officials estimated the rule change would save the oil and gas industry $17 million to $19 million a year, and increase methane emissions by 370,000 short tons by the end of 2025. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has 28 to 36 times the impact of carbon dioxide on global warming over a 100-year span, according to the EPA.

Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesman, said in a statement Thursday that the rule would “remove regulatory duplication” and save the oil and gas industry millions in compliance costs every year, “while maintaining health and environmental protection.” The agency has received 963 comments so far on the new standards, he said. Written statements will be accepted until Nov. 25.

“EPA will review and consider all comments in the development of the final rule,” Abboud said.

Sharon Wilson, a Dallas-based senior organizer for the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, said her son fell into a serious state of depression after he graduated from college because of climate change. She held up a photo of him to the three-member panel of EPA officials, and said many millennials felt a sense of “despair” over what’s to come.

“When you go home, see his face,” Wilson said. “See my tears and find the courage to do the right thing.”

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, came to support the rollback and said the oil and gas industry is still committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning into cleaner energy sources.

“The vast majority of production will be covered by this rule,” Sgamma said Thursday.

But even Native American leaders from tribes who have come to rely on the oil and gas industry’s revenues testified in opposition to the EPA proposal.

Carol Davis, a Navajo Nation member and coordinator of environmental nonprofit Diné CARE, said tribal communities have suffered from oil and gas companies’ methane waste on their land and are committed to transitioning to a clean energy economy.

Shaina Oliver, a Navajo Nation tribal member and advocate in Mom’s Clean Air Force in Denver, broke down in tears in her testimony as she told EPA officials they had an obligation to respect indigenous peoples’ voices and rights over their land.

“It’s really hurtful to see the people’s stories and to hear their pain,” Oliver said.

For Diaz, every moment she spends away from her island home is a reminder of the day she lost everything due to climate change, she said.

Some experts attribute the extreme amount of rainfall dumped by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico to climate change, and they worry the intensity of hurricanes will only become greater.

Diaz came to tell her story for her nieces, she said, who still live in Puerto Rico and who are more likely to experience displacement.

“I urge you,” she said fighting back tears,”to keep methane pollution safeguards, to fight climate change and demonstrate your commitment to our communities and our children.”

The climate hunters: Three young women racing to defuse methane time bomb

Three young women are racing to defuse a climate-change bomb, says Matthew Green

The climate hunters: Three young women racing to defuse methane time bomb

BANKING hard over the whitecaps off the west coast of Norway, the jetliner flying Dominika Pasternak and her fellow scientists descends so sharply that it seems for a moment as if the crew is about to ditch them all in the drink.

“Three, two, one,” he advises over the intercom. “Now!” And so begins the work of this giant airborne laboratory — a four-engine, 112-seat passenger plane stripped out and refitted with sensors that suck in air samples for analysis in real time.

Although they squint through the cabin windows as the plane makes its pass, Pasternak, 23, and her colleagues are chasing a quarry they will never actually see: Methane, an invisible gas that poses a growing risk to the Earth’s climate.

When the United Nations held a summit in New York last week to try to shore up the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global warming, calls to cut emissions focused on a more familiar greenhouse gas — the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

But methane, another carbon-based compound, is emerging as a wild card in the climate change equation. If CO2 has a warming effect akin to wrapping the planet in a sheet, the less-understood methane is more like a wool blanket.

Emitted from such diverse sources as thawing permafrost, tropical wetlands, livestock, landfills, and the spidery exoskeleton of oil and gas infrastructure girdling the planet, methane has been responsible for about a quarter of manmade global warming thus far, some models calculate.

For more than a decade, scientists have been documenting a mysterious rise in levels of methane in the atmosphere. And it’s getting worse: Earlier this year, data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that the rate of the increase surged by 50% in the 2013-2018 period compared with the preceding five years.

But the very urgency of the methane threat is also, paradoxically, what gives some scientists hope. Because methane is acting like a foot on the accelerator for climate change, then rapidly reducing the amount leaking from oil and gas facilities could, at least in theory, ease the pressure on the environment. That could buy time to confront the much bigger challenge of cutting emissions of CO2.

In the US, environmental groups have sought to bring methane emissions down by pushing the growing fracking industry to take more stringent measures against leaks of the gas.

But last month, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era regulations to curb methane emissions, saying the move would save companies money and remove red tape.

As the clock ticks, a network of researchers the world over is racing to find out why global methane levels are increasing so fast — and what can be done to stem the flow.

Here in the Arctic Circle, which is warming three times faster than the global average, Reuters accompanied three women in their 20s as they hunted for clues.

Working separately but with the same goal, these researchers have staked their claim on a place where some of the most dramatic climate changes are starkly visible, and the biggest dangers may await.

In their painstaking, sometimes solitary work, the young scientists wrestle with the intellectual challenges posed by the methane riddle. But for all three women, their work in the Arctic connects them to something deeper than science: a return to childhood joys of the natural world, and a powerful sense of purpose.

Pasternak, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Climate: The Fight of Our Lives” and a stylised image of the Earth engulfed in flames, is clear-eyed about the stakes.

“I think it’s terrifying how much we are changing our planet, and how little is really done to counteract it,” she says. “We are guessing, but the more measurements we actually have, the better we can understand what’s going on.”

The hunt begins

Dominika Pasternak checks equipment on an atmospheric research aircraft en route to the Norwegian Sea from northern Sweden.
Dominika Pasternak checks equipment on an atmospheric research aircraft en route to the Norwegian Sea from northern Sweden.

As the jet races over the waves, Pasternak’s gaze flickers between the cabin window and her laptop, which displays a rolling graph of data recorded by the plane’s instruments.

The clipped voice of the pilot, laconic as ever, crackles over her headset, “I can see rigs on the left.”

Pasternak, a Polish PhD student in atmospheric chemistry at Britain’s University of York, focuses on the target: A cluster of oil rigs rising from the sea like fortresses, their squat legs supporting imposing superstructures of derricks, helipads and cranes.

Operated by the Natural Environment Research Council, a British government science funding agency, the flight is one of a series of sorties that Pasternak and colleagues from several universities conducted in late July and early August from Kiruna, an iron mining town in the Lapland region of northern Sweden.

The plane moves in a deliberate path, passing back and forth at different altitudes to build up a profile of the atmosphere downwind of the rigs below. Securely strapped in against the G-force at low altitudes, Pasternak and the other researchers confer over headsets and monitor the readings scrolling across their screens for any sign of a spike in methane levels. Their concentration is palpable, chatter kept to a minimum in the rigours of low-level flight.

But after hours of methodically surveying the rigs, there is no sign of the kind of methane cloud they detected billowing from another platform the day before.

Frustratingly for Pasternak, the aircraft also narrowly missed a giant supertanker, its bright red hull bulging with domes used to store liquefied natural gas.

“They unfortunately got out of our range now, which is a shame,” says Pasternak, who had hoped to take a methane reading near the vessel.

“They are hard to catch because they are very specialised ships.”

For Pasternak, the flight is more than a research trip: It’s the realisation of a childhood dream. Growing up on a hillside outside the city of Krakow, she would awake to see a layer of pollution settled over the city like a shroud, then brave the smog to go to school in the valley below.

Escaping to the pristine Bieszczady Mountains for horse- riding summer camps or to the old-growth Bialowieza Forest, Pasternak promised herself she would find a way to protect the environment by pursuing a career in science.

As the plane makes its way back to its temporary base in a hangar in Kiruna, she is sober about the uncertainties.

“Not many people paid attention to methane until quite recently,” she says. “We don’t know enough about it to be able to tell how dangerous it is, but we suspect it’s very dangerous.”

Although the Italian inventor Alessandro Volta is better known for designing an electric battery, he is also credited as the first scientist to identify methane, or CH4.

Collecting gas seeping from the marshes on Lake Maggiore in 1776, he later showed that the gas could be ignited with a spark.

More recently, scientists have quantified methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas. Although it is much less prevalent in the atmosphere than CO2, the scientists found, it can generate more than 80 times more warming — molecule for molecule — than CO2 in the 20 years it takes to dissipate.

Today, there is broad agreement on the trend showing a surge in methane levels, but there is far less consensus on why it’s happening. Although oil and gas facilities are the leading industrial source of methane, scientists believe growing amounts of the gas seeping from tropical wetlands in Africa and South America could be the biggest single driver of the current methane surge.

ABOVE: Kathryn Bennett rows across a lake at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko, Sweden. BELOW: Nina Lindstrom Friggens, a researcher at the University of Stirling, measures the rate of carbon dioxide seeping from the soil at Lake Tornetrask near Abisko. Pictures: Hannah McKay/Reuters
ABOVE: Kathryn Bennett rows across a lake at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko, Sweden. BELOW: Nina Lindstrom Friggens, a researcher at the University of Stirling, measures the rate of carbon dioxide seeping from the soil at Lake Tornetrask near Abisko. Pictures: Hannah McKay/Reuters

As the burning of fossil fuels pushes global temperatures higher, methane-spewing microbes in fast-warming soils near the equator are going into overdrive, causing the wetlands to emit more of the gas.

These emissions in turn feed more warming, in a vicious circle. Climate scientists call such loops ‘positive feedbacks’ — although their effects are anything but.

In the long term, the Arctic could be just as dangerous. As the permafrost thaws, dormant microbes find themselves immersed in the perfect warm, wet conditions to begin producing methane in climate-altering quantities, just like their tropical cousins.

“The methane is then going to mix around the world multiple times,” says Ruth Varner, director of the Earth Systems Research Center at University of New Hampshire, who runs a long-term methane study.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

In winter darkness, metres of snow cover Stordalen Mire, a spongy patch of Swedish peatland about an hour’s drive from Kiruna Airport. The ice on a nearby lake is so thick you can confidently scoot across it on a snowmobile.

But in summer, the snowpack recedes to slithers on distant peaks, wispy heads of cottongrass peek through the soil, and the sun rarely sets. On such a day, Kathryn Bennett, 22, can be found pulling the oars of a rowboat.

On the shore, bogs lie in wait for anyone who strays too casually from a precarious series of walkways made from planks.

“I have fallen in clear to the waist,” says Bennett, a postgraduate student in earth sciences from Medway, Massachusetts, and a member of the methane research program at the University of New Hampshire. Although she laughs, her expression suggests the dunking was amusing only in retrospect.

If Pasternak is serving in the air wing of the methane army, then Bennett is one of the grunts — picking her way across the bogland day after day and kneeling at the water’s muddy edge, where tiny bubbles of methane burp periodically from a surface with a texture like used coffee grounds.

Syringe in hand, she extracts samples of gas accumulating in floating, foam-reinforced funnels, which she will later test to determine how much methane they contain.

A few locals pass by in the distance picking cloudberries, and a dragonfly zips in jagged loops over the brackish water.

Bennett keeps half an eye out for antlers, having been startled and delighted to see a couple of moose cooling off in the marsh two days before.

“It’s so wild out here, you never know what you’re going to run into,” says Bennett, who traces her love for the outdoors to a childhood growing up camping and catching frogs.

Even to a first-time visitor, something about the landscape at Stordalen doesn’t look right. The walkways have subsided in places as the ground has given way, meaning Bennett’s footfalls sometimes splash in the stagnant water — which she says has crept a little higher than during her fieldwork the previous summer.

The slumping is a sign that the underlying layer of permafrost that once kept the ground rock solid has started to thaw.

On drier patches of ground, long, narrow cracks have appeared. In the marshland, new ponds have formed.

Researchers in other parts of the Arctic are witnessing similar changes. A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported earlier this year how amazed they had been to find millennia-old permafrost in Canada thawing 70 years earlier than models had predicted, leaving depressions resembling those at Stordalen.

“If this continues to happen, we can’t turn it off,” Bennett says, her concern audible in her voice as she pauses by one of the bogs.

“You can’t just flip a switch and switch to an electric car or solar panels. You can’t just stop the permafrost from thawing, because it’s already begun, which we see very clearly in places like this.

“Then it becomes: ‘Well, what can we do?’ As scientists, what we can do is just try and understand this system and make better predictions about how it’s going to change in the future.”

Although she draws some comfort from the contribution she’s making to understanding methane’s role in climate change, she’s also keenly aware that even by flying to Sweden from the U, she’s adding to the emissions that cause it.

“Seeing really dramatic changes like this makes me think a lot harder about the individual choices that I make and think about how can we get other people to care,” she says, nearing the end of a nine-week stint in Lapland.

“It hurts me to think that I fly all the way over here to study this, but then it’s so important to tell people this story, to understand, and tell people about what’s happening here.”

A climate ‘lever’

In this aerial view melting ice forms a lake on free-floating ice jammed into the Ilulissat Icefjord during unseasonably warm weather on July 30 near Ilulissat, Greenland.
In this aerial view melting ice forms a lake on free-floating ice jammed into the Ilulissat Icefjord during unseasonably warm weather on July 30 near Ilulissat, Greenland.

Climate scientists say the world must rapidly wean itself off its dependence on fossil fuels to stand a chance of averting the worst effects of rising temperatures. In the US, oil companies argue that they can support a wider transition to renewable energy by providing natural gas from the fracking industry as a “bridging” fuel. Gas has already displaced much of the country’s coal-fired power generation, which produced more CO2.

But studies suggest that about 2-3% of natural gas escapes as methane during production, storage and transport — exerting significant short-term warming.

Alex Turner studies methane as a postdoctoral fellow in atmospheric chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Because methane is such a fast-acting, relatively short-lived warming agent, cutting leaks of the gas would have a quick impact on the climate system, Turner argues.

That might help prevent runaway climate change before the world has managed to control CO2 emissions — by far the biggest driver of long-term global warming.

“Of the greenhouse gases, methane is a really big lever on near-term climate change,” Turner says.

“Large fractions of emissions tend to come from a small number of sources, and if you can find those sources that emit a lot of methane, you might be able to make a huge dent in the total emissions.”

In 2012, a network of governments, scientific institutes, businesses and civil society groups founded the Climate & Clean Air Coalition to curb emissions of powerful, short-lived pollutants such as methane.

Since then, the UN-backed network has funded research around the world, including Pasternak’s flight this summer.

Some big oil companies say they’re taking the problem seriously. Under pressure from activists and investors to show it is doing more to tackle emissions, British oil major BP Plc just announced plans to use cameras, drones and robots to try to detect and prevent methane leaks at facilities around the world, for example.

“We are wanting to do continuous measurements and monitoring in all our future big projects,” says Gordon Birrell, a chief operating officer at BP.

But some smaller drilling companies say they lack the resources that the majors can bring to bear on the methane problem.

“There are certainly countries and firms that are very resistant, but the issue has started to gain real momentum, almost from a standing start just a few years ago,” says David McCabe, a senior scientist at the Clean Air Task Force, a US advocacy group.

“It’s a case of trying to speed that up.”

Fight for survival

Kathryn Bennett stands next to an area of dry, cracked land at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko. Picture: Hannah McLay/Reuters
Kathryn Bennett stands next to an area of dry, cracked land at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko. Picture: Hannah McLay/Reuters

Clad in a khaki shirt and shorts like an old-school explorer, Nina Lindstrom Friggens sets off through the dwarf willow shrubs clinging to a lakeside near the northern Swedish village of Abisko. Her mission: To understand how the hidden lives of trees will influence the future of the climate.

Kneeling at the base of a mountain birch, a stunted tree adapted to survive the Arctic’s incessant cold and wind, she flicks open a saw-toothed pocketknife and begins to dig.

Delicately, she lifts a lattice of roots between forefinger and thumb and uses the knife tip to point out minute white sheaths that have formed over the finest filaments: Fungi that live symbiotically with trees under the soil.

The 26-year-old Danish-British ecologist has always been fascinated by Arctic landscapes, in part thanks to her childhood love of Philip Pullman novels set in frozen Norse fantasy worlds.

Unlike Pasternak and Bennett, who are methane hunters to the core, Lindstrom Friggens works on a broader carbon canvas, working to piece together the interplay between soil, ice, and vegetation that will determine how quickly greenhouse gases seep from these northern lands.

The fungi she studies form a biological version of the internet — what scientists have nicknamed a ‘wood-wide-web’ — that allows trees to swap chemical signals and nutrients.

As the Arctic has warmed, it has also increasingly turned from white to green, as saplings gain a foothold in the depressions left as the permafrost thaws.

That’s good news in terms of methane, because tree-covered land is likely to emit less of the gas, says Lindstrom Friggens, a PhD student in plant-soil ecology at Scotland’s University of Stirling.

But there’s a big catch: The expanding root networks help to rapidly decompose ancient subsoil stores of carbon into vast quantities of CO2, setting new feedback loops in train.

How quickly thawing permafrost could push the Arctic’s production of methane into overdrive is still a subject of speculation. But the impact of warming on the region was made clear earlier this month, when scientists jolted Swedes by announcing the south peak of Kebnekaise, the large mountain not far from where Lindstrom Friggens was conducting her research, had been dethroned as the country’s highest peak.

The glacier on the summit, which generations of Swedish schoolchildren have considered a permanent, majestic fixture of Scandinavia’s natural heritage, melted so much that it is now lower than the mountain’s ice-free northern peak.

Reflecting on the prospect of far greater climate impacts, Lindstrom Friggens finds solace in nature’s ability to endure.

“I quite like that it’s bleak and it’s rough; there’s a beauty in that — that struggle to survive in an environment which is throwing everything at you all the time,” she says.

A seagull glides low over the lake, and the immense landscape of water, sky and rock feels almost unfathomably old.

A raw life force seems to hum inaudibly in the Arctic silence as Lindstrom Friggens heads back to the research station that is her temporary home, where she will watch the endless summer days start to shorten.

“There’s so much life, yet it’s so harsh to survive here,” she says. “But it perseveres.”

THE WORST GREENHOUSE GASSES YOU HAVEN’T HEARD OF

Carbon dioxide has long drawn the ire of an environmentally-conscious humanity. Released from combustion of fossil fuels, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher now than at any point in the past 400,000 years. With the warming effects this has on the global environment, bringing these numbers down is a primary goal of scientists and policy makers worldwide.

However, this only tells part of the story. Carbon dioxide is not alone in its role as a greenhouse gas, with many others contributing significantly to global temperature rises. As humanity struggles to keep warming below 2 degrees C over the century, strategies will be needed to tackle the problem on all fronts.

THERE’S A BAD SMELL AROUND METHANE

Ruminant animals are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is probably no surprise to some.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Methane is a remarkably potent greenhouse gas, having 28 times the warming potential of CO2 by weight over a 100-year period. Historically, it’s mostly been released from natural sources, like bacteria processing organic material in stagnant watercourses, or from thawing permafrost. However, scientists now consider around 60% of methane in the atmosphere to be a direct result of human activity.

Agriculture is a major contributor in this area. Ruminant animals raised for human consumption are major methane emitters, as the microbes in their digestive systems release the gas when breaking down plant material. With the demand for meat and dairy showing no signs of slowing down, this could prove difficult to tackle. There are a variety of other diffuse sources of the gas, too. Landfills and sewage plants have significant methane emissions of their own, and it’s also often released from oil and gas drilling operations, too.

Oil and gas operations release significant quantities of methane into the atmosphere, often due to leaks or plant malfunctions.

Levels of methane in the atmosphere have been low compared to carbon dioxide. Methane also tends to have a short life in the atmosphere, of around 9 years. These factors have meant that methane has historically been of lower concern to environmental organisations. However, after levels plateaued from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, they have once again begun to climb precipitouslyScientists have yet to identify the cause of this rise, and it has the potential to undo hard-fought gains in the fight against global warming on the CO2 front. Theories range from a reduced level of chemicals that break down methane in the atmosphere, to increased livestock production or the rise of the hydraulic fracturing industry.

Whatever the cause of the recent rise, stemming the increase will require significant work. The Environmental Defence Fund is launching MethaneSAT in an attempt to better locate and quantify releases to the atmosphere, aiming to stem easily-fixed leaks in fossil fuel operations. Other ideas include using antibiotics to reduce animal’s methane output, or to capture the emissions from landfills and use them as an energy source. It’s likely a rigorous approach to both monitoring and emissions reduction will be required to keep methane levels in check.

NITROUS OXIDE

Fertilizer use is a major contributor to nitrous oxide emissions.

Nitrous oxide isn’t just the favorite gas of the Fast and the Furious. It’s also a potent greenhouse gas, with 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, pound for pound. With plenty of staying power, it sticks around in the atmosphere for 114 years on average. With 40 percent of NOx emissions coming from human activity, it’s a significant player as far as greenhouse gases go.

Fertilizer use in agriculture is the major contributor to nitrous oxide releases into the atmosphere. As farms push for ever-greater yields, there has been a corresponding increase in the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Other lesser sources include fossil fuel combustion and various chemical production processes.

Reducing nitrous oxide emissions to any major degree is a difficult problem. Reducing farm yields is impractical if we wish to continue feeding as many people as possible. Increasing the efficiency of fertiliizer application is instead a more viable way to go. By applying fertilizers in the right way, in the right quantities at the right time, has the benefit of both reducing nitrous oxide emissions as well as cutting costs for farming operations. Other gains in this space can be made by reducing fossil fuel use by switching to renewable energy production, or cleaner burning technologies. The famous catalytic converter, introduced to gasoline-powered vehicles in the 1970s, plays a major role in reducing these emissions, and urea injection does much the same for diesel engineswhich we’ve talked about before.

SULFUR HEXA-WHAT NOW?

Sulfur hexafluoride is used heavily in high-voltage switchgear, as seen here in this hydroelectric installation. This circuit breaker is rated to run at 115 kV, 1200 A.

Recently, sulfur hexafluoride has come under scrutiny. Also known by its chemical formula, SF6, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas, with a warming potential of over 23,000 times that of CO2. Prized for its performance as a gaseous dielectric medium, it’s used heavily in high-voltage circuit breakers in modern electricity grids. It enables the construction of much more compact switchgear, while remaining safe and reliable in operation.

Concentrations of SFhave begun to tick up in recent times, raising alarm bells. Speculation is that this is down to leaks of the gas from electrical equipment. As the world’s energy mix changes, grids have come to rely on more distributed generation, from sources like wind farms and solar. This mode of generation necessitates many more connections to the grid, which means more switchgear, and thus more SFout in the wild.

This graph shows the lifetime equivalent emissions of AirPlus versus SF6 technology. There are major gains to be had, thanks to the low global warming potential of AirPlus.

Work is afoot to slow this trend before things get out of hand. A replacement has been developed in a collaboration between ABB and 3M, by the name of AirPlus. While the production process releases more CO2, over the lifecycle of an installation, AirPlus-based switchgear should have far lower impact on warming. This is due to the fact that when released into the atmosphere, AirPlus degrades under UV light exposure in just 15 days, versus 3200 years for SF6. Its global warming potential is less than 1, meaning it has less of a warming effect than even CO2, while delivering comparable dielectric performance to SF6. Variants are available for both medium and high voltage applications.

Over time, as goverments work to reduce the prevalance of SFin new installations, its likely that we’ll see AirPlus and other alternatives gain steam. The gas has already been banned in the EU for all non-electrical purposes, since 2014. Industry is typically slow to act unless there’s a strong business case, so government intervention is likely to be the game changer that pushes adoption of newer, cleaner technology in this space.

OTHER FLUORINATED GASES

SF6 is just one of a series of fluorinated gases that have significant global warming potential. Many of these were introduced as replacements for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which tend to eat a hole in the ozone layer. Thankfully, that problem was largely solved when production of CFCs was tailed off in 1996, but their replacements can still cause further troubles.

With lifetimes in the hundreds to thousands of years in the upper atmosphere, gases like hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons have an outsized effect on atmospheric warming, thousands of times that of COon a per-molecule basis. They have applications as aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire retardants, but their primary use is as refrigerants in cooling systems. HFC-134a is the most well-known, used widely in air conditioning systems worldwide, and particularly in motor vehicles. This has led to its position as the most abundant HFC in the atmosphere.

Efforts are in place to limit the impact of these chemicals, through precautionary measures. This involves taking more care during the repair and disposal of HVAC systems, as well as designing systems to be more resilient of leaks in the first place. Recycling methods are also beneficial to ensure that where possible, these gases are captured rather then simply vented to the atmosphere. Enforcement on a broad scale remains a challenge.

Automakers are already planning to switch air conditioning systems to use gases that have less global warming potential.
Source: Mercedes Benz

Sometimes, it’s better to avoid the problem entirely. A transition away from using refrigerants like HFC-134a is in progress. The EPA has legislated that all light vehicles manufactured or sold in the USA by model year 2021 must no longer use HFC-134a. Instead, alternatives like HFO-1234yf, HFC-152a, and R-744 will be legal. The first two are mildly flammable, while the latter is simply another name for good old CO2. These refrigerants will require different technology to existing air conditioners. CO2-based systems in particular needing to operate at up to 10 times the pressure of traditional systems. However, progress in technology should allow these gases to take over, reducing the impact these refrigeration gases have on global warming.

THE FIGHT CONTINUES

CO2 is still the primary greenhouse gas, but it’s not the whole story. We’ve looked at a wide variety of chemicals, each with their own important roles and impact on the Earth’s atmosphere. This highlights the fact that there’s no single panacea to heading off global warming; instead, a broad spectrum approach across all aspects of human endeavour is required.

Halting the impacts of these chemicals is difficult, and will require decisive action by both government bodies, as well as cooperation from relevant industries. In some cases, there are additional gains to be had, while in others, the solution comes with high costs and painful changes. We engineered ourselves into this situation, so we can probably engineer ourselves out. Regardless, if humanity is to flourish in the next century, there remains much work to be done.

The Earth is warming. Here are the top warning signs, according to experts

PHOTO: A layer of smog covers Downtown and the nearby areas in Los Angeles, August 14, 2019.Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/REX via Shutterstock
WATCHHow you can impact climate change

The amount of greenhouse gases being emitted into Earth’s atmosphere has reached such a high level that it will take major changes around the world to mitigate the effects on climate change, experts say.

Interested in Climate Change?

Add Climate Change as an interest to stay up to date on the latest Climate Change news, video, and analysis from ABC News.

Add Interest

Greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, which trap the sun’s heat, are the “most significant driver of observed climate change since the mid-20th century,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To illustrate the pace of change, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s greenhouse gas index, which measures the impact of the gasses on climate, indicates it took approximately 240 years to go from 0 to 1, based on a 1990 benchmark. In the less than three decades since, the index says it has risen another 43% above the baseline.

“Climate change is now affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives, costing people, communities and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow,” the UN says on its sustainable development site. “Weather patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, weather events are becoming more extreme and greenhouse gas emissions are now at their highest levels in history.”

Here are the top issues contributing to climate change, according to the experts:

Contributing factors

Extraction of fossil fuels

The extraction of fossil fuels is one of the top issues affecting climate change, said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a New York-based organization that promotes sustainability, and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, a network supporting the climate justice movement.

“We’re literally going deeper and taking out fossil fuel when the science is telling us that we have to stop,” Yeampierre said.

Fossils fuels can’t continue to be burned at the current rate “if we want to have a stable climate,” said Lindsey Allen, executive director of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network.

“We immediately need to stop expanding our extraction of coal, and oil and gas,” she said.

Burning fossil fuels emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and extraction generates methane, both of which are more abundant in the earth’s atmosphere than they have been in 800,000 years, according to the EPA.

Nitrous oxide, the third principal greenhouse gas, which is also produced by burning fuels, has increased 20 percent since the start off the Industrial Revolution with the fastest rise in 22,000 years over the last century, the EPA said.

PHOTO: In this August 26, 2019, file photo, coal is loaded onto a truck at a mine on near Cumberland, Kentucky.Scott Olson/Getty Images, FILE
In this August 26, 2019, file photo, coal is loaded onto a truck at a mine on near Cumberland, Kentucky.

Transportation

The transportation sector generated the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. at 29% in 2017, according to the EPA.

The emissions primarily come from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes, and more than 90% of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum-based, according to the EPA.

Transportation accounts for nearly 20% of emissions worldwide, said Jason Smerdon, climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.

Electrification of transportation, which would include electric cars, is one of the solutions to transforming the transformation sector, Smerdon said, as well as the development of hydrogen fuel cells and improvement of battery storage.

“We’re in reach of what needs to be done to make all that happen,” he said.

PHOTO: A layer of smog covers Downtown and the nearby areas in Los Angeles, August 14, 2019.Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/REX via Shutterstock
A layer of smog covers Downtown and the nearby areas in Los Angeles, August 14, 2019.

Electricity production

Electricity accounted for more than 27% of greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. in 2017, and emissions from homes and businesses — primarily from fossil fuels burned for heat — accounted for another 11.6%, according to the EPA.

Nearly 63% of electricity in the U.S. comes from burning fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas, according to the EPA.

Globally, more than 40% of emissions come from electricity and heat production, Smerdon said.

The energy sector presents the easiest possibility to transition to renewable, non-carbon based energy sources, which are “the cheapest form of energy out there,” according to Smerdon.

While there is currently a “fairly rapid transition” to wind and solar energy, driven by economics, “the question is whether it’s happening fast enough to reduce our overall greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“We need to do a lot to accelerate that,” Smerdon said.

PHOTO: Central Maine Power Co. Cape Substation in South Portland, Maine, is shown in this July 2, 2018, file photo. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Central Maine Power Co. Cape Substation in South Portland, Maine, is shown in this July 2, 2018, file photo.

Industry

All industrial sectors contribute to the emissions of greenhouse gases, Smerdon said. In the U.S., industry accounted for 22% of emissions in 2017, according to the EPA.

Direct emissions in this sector come from burning fuels or chemical reactions, the EPA said, and indirect emissions come from the power needed to run the plants and the fossil fuels burned for that.

The warning signs of climate change

The climate crisis is construed by some as a far-off event (or one that is not happening at all), but it’s crucial to understand that the negative impacts are already happening, according to experts.

The earth is warming

Temperatures on Earth are already happening, Smerdon said.

As the surface temperature rises, the amount of ice and snow is decreasing, and the number and intensity of heat waves are increasing, Smerdon said.

With the increase of storage of energy within the earth’s systems comes the increase in holding capacity of moisture in the atmosphere, he explained, which leads to bigger downpours, stronger hurricanes and unprecedented rain events.

“One-in-thousand-year events are happening every couple of years,” Smerdon said.

“Temperatures are rising, snow and rainfall patterns are shifting, and more extreme climate events – like heavy rainstorms and record high temperatures – are already happening,” the EPA says on its website. “Many of these observed changes are linked to the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, caused by human activities.”

PHOTO: A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, August 27, 2019.Ricardo Moraes/Reuters, FILE
A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, August 27, 2019.

Rainforests are burning at unprecedented levels

Setting fire to rainforests has been a method farmers have been using to clear land in Brazil for decades, but now because of drought conditions that have been affecting Brazil, they are burning hotter, longer and faster, Allen said.

Then, not only is a major source of carbon absorption and fresh water reservoir destroyed, but so is the biological diversity that resides within it, she said.

1 million species are at risk of extinction

Up to one million animal and plant species are being threatened with extinction due to human activity, some within decades, according to a United Nations report on the state of biodiversity and ecosystems published in May.

More than 40% of amphibians, nearly 33% of coral reefs and about a third of marine mammals are threatened, according to the report. An estimated 10% of the insect population is being threatened.

Food supply could dwindle

As droughts and downpours continue to impact agricultural areas, it will severely impact food supply, Smerdon said. Prices may also eventually be impacted, the EPA said.

Consumers will also feel those effects on their pocket books as jobs are lost and supply chains are disrupted, Smerdon said.

Currently, more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are devoted to crop or livestock production, a UN report released Wednesday found.

Oceans are rising

The sea levels continue to rise as ice in the arctic continue to melt at a rapid pace, said Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, environmental policy expert and founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for urban coastal cities.

Oceans could rise by 1-2 feet by 2100, even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced, the UN report said.

Rising levels will then threaten coastal cities and islands with severe flooding. According to the EPA, the rate of flooding is increasing along areas of the East and Gulf Coasts.

Carbon dioxide levels have also risen in the oceans over the past couple of decades, according to the EPA, leading to an increase in acidity. Higher carbon dioxide levels have also led to a lower concentration of aragonite, which makes it more difficult for some marine animals to build their skeletons or shells, the EPA said.

PHOTO: People search for salvageable items as they make their way through an area destroyed by Hurricane Dorian at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP
People search for salvageable items as they make their way through an area destroyed by Hurricane Dorian at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.more +

Climate impacts are creating crises in the developing world

As the effects of climate change hits developing countries, it creates millions of climate refugees and exacerbates political instability, according to the experts.

The climate emergency is also a human rights issue, Allen said, and research shows a connection between higher climate temperatures to more conflict, Smerdon said.

This creates “complicated, cascading effects” of social structures and government structures, he said, and creates refugees as people leave their homes for safer climates, Johnson said.

“It is wrong to create hundreds of millions of climate refugees and then close our borders when they seek shelter on our shores,” Johnson said.

As Beef Comes Under Fire for Climate Impacts, the Industry Fights Back

In at least two states this year, beef and dairy industries have successfully beat back government food initiatives linking livestock to global warming.

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/17102019/climate-change-meat-beef-dairy-methane-emissions-california

BY GEORGINA GUSTIN

 

OCT 21, 2019

A string of high-profile scientific studies has called for less meat-intensive diets to help forestall a climate catastrophe, putting the industry on the defensive. Credit: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

In California, a state legislator introduced a bill called the California Climate-Friendly Food Program, with the goal of promoting plant-based foods in schools and reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to livestock.

Within a few months, references to climate change were stripped out of the text and title. The bill instead became the California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program.

On the other coast, in Maryland, the state’s Green Purchasing Committee launched the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee to study which foods have the largest carbon footprints and to steer the state away from buying those foods. The administration of Gov. Larry Hogan disbanded the committee months later.

In both cases, the states’ farm and beef lobbies got their way.

Over the past year, as landmark reports advised consumers to eat less meat and dairy because of their climate impacts — and as plant-based alternatives gained traction — the American beef and dairy industries have been pushed further into defensive mode.

“It is astounding, the level of fear and pushback from the meat industry on our efforts to address the very real, substantial climate impacts of meat production,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the food and agriculture program at Friends of the Earth, which helped develop the California legislation and is behind other legislation intended to expand state-level spending on plant-based foods.

“They don’t want to cede an inch on climate change,” Hamerschlag added.

Early this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission, in a major scientific report, urged a “comprehensive shift” in the world’s diet. In July, the World Resources Institute, the United Nations and other groups released a massive report finding that the world needs to produce 50 percent more food without expanding the food system’s carbon footprint. And in August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report calling for a major overhaul in the global food system.

All of them recommend lowering consumption of meat, dairy and carbon-intensive foods, especially in developed countries.

Stripping Mention of ‘Climate,’ Disbanding a Committee

California Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian introduced a bill in February that would allocate $3 million to give schools a rebate for increasing the number of plant-based meals they serve. The original bill contained language that said beef and dairy production released more greenhouse gases and had the word “climate” in the title.

But the state’s powerful beef and dairy industries opposed the bill, largely because of the explicit connections it made between livestock production and climate change. Lawmakers removed the language, the lobby withdrew its opposition — and the bill moved forward. It now awaits further movement in a state committee.

“We were opposed early in the process but removed our opposition in the Assembly Education Committee after substantial amendments were taken to the bill removing the involvement of the Air Resources Board [California’s climate regulator] in the school lunch program, among a handful of other issues with the bill,” said Justin Oldfied, vice president for government affairs with the California Cattlemen’s Association, in an email to InsideClimate News

“The changes they wanted weren’t about the substance,” said Kyle Ash, director of government affairs with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates for vegetarian diets. “It’s about whether they look bad or not because the bill adds legitimacy to the fact that animal-based diets are higher in carbon emissions.”

In Maryland, the state’s Green Purchasing Committee, an interagency government group charged with “promoting environmentally preferable purchasing” by state agencies, launched the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee to study which foods released higher amounts of greenhouse gases.

After the group produced a list of carbon-intensive foods, which included beef and dairy, the executive vice president of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Beef Association called it a “hit list of foods,” according to a trade media publication. The association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sent a joint letter to Gov. Hogan, a Republican, asking him to disband the committee because, they said, it was operating with a political agenda.

The following month, in August, state officials said they were disbanding the committee, writing that “it has become very clear that these are complicated issues that require solutions beyond the scope of the subcommittee.”

“After much review, we have jointly determined that the goals of this subcommittee are similar to those of other state programs, and have decided that our resources would be better focused on bolstering those efforts,” they added.

Message From Scientists Is Clear

Emissions from livestock account for about 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, globally, and roughly two thirds of those emissions come from cattle — mostly from methane burped by cows, growing feed and clearing land for grazing and feed crops.

In October of last year, the journal Nature published a study, saying that, in order to feed the expected 9.7 billion people on the planet in 2050 — and meet the Paris climate accord goals — the world will need to shift toward plant-based diets, in addition to reducing food waste and adopting new farming technologies.

“We find that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to sufficiently mitigate the projected increase in environmental pressures,” the authors wrote.

But the message to the world’s eaters was simple: Eat less meat and dairy.

At the Five Rivers cattle feeding operation in Kersey Colo., nearly 100,000 cattle are fed to market weight. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef, and Five Rivers is the world’s largest cattle feeding company, with nearly 1 million cattle across six states. Credit: Georgina Gustin/InsideClimate News

The following month, the EAT-Lancet Commission published its study coming to the same conclusion. That was followed by the sweeping report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying that a shift toward less carbon-intensive food presented “major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions.”

“Examples of healthy and sustainable diets are high in coarse grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds; low in energy-intensive animal-sourced and discretionary foods (such as sugary beverages),” the report said.

“Staying within a 2-degree trajectory — it won’t happen if you don’t bring down animal sources of food globally, and in most regions and places where beef is produced, and that includes the U.S.,” said Marco Springmann of Oxford University, the lead author of the Nature study and and one of the authors of the EAT-Lancet Commission report.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef. In 1960 it produced 16 billion pounds of beef and in 2018, 27 billion pounds. This year, the U.S. could produce more than 27.4 billion pounds — a record. The average American consumes nearly three times the global average, at 57 pounds per capita.

Industry Wants Supply-Side Solutions

The American beef industry says that the headlines over the past year that blare recommendations to cut beef consumption oversimplify the issue.

In a recent study published in Agricultural Systems, researchers did a full life-cycle analysis — the gold standard for determining a product’s greenhouse gas emissions — and found that beef cattle produce about 3.7 percent of the United State’s total greenhouse gas emissions, nearly half of total agricultural emissions, which are about 9 percent. That analysis includes emissions from birth to slaughter. Most of that comes from methane from cow belches.

“Methane is our biggest challenge,” said Sara Place, a co-writer of the study and senior director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which funded the research. “This industry is interested in solutions.”

Place says there should be more emphasis on the industry’s potential to cut emissions, rather than just recommending people cut back on their beef consumption for climate-related reasons. “There’s this argument that we can’t improve the supply side — that we have to cut demand,” Place said. “That’s our challenge: How can we as scientists cut emissions and bend that curve back down.”

The American beef industry points to Place’s research, which was done with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as evidence of how the U.S. cattle industry has become more efficient, producing more meat with fewer cattle. In other countries, emissions from cattle are higher, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Some researchers also note that the number of cattle in the U.S. has fallen from 97.8 million in 1960 to 88.5 in 2014, while the number of pounds produced has risen over the same time — a figure that shows how relatively efficient the industry has become.

“Maybe — just maybe — American farmers and ranchers deserve some credit for efficiencies that for decades have decreased greenhouse gases,” wrote Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science at the University of California at Davis, a staunch industry defender, in a recent blog post.

Meat Production Has Skyrocketed

Still, critics say, 3.7 percent of emissions is a relatively high number because overall U.S. emissions are so much higher than most countries. And, they note, that total methane emissions from U.S. livestock have risen by nearly 20 percent from 1990 to 2016.

“People say: Oh, it’s not a big number. But if you divide it by total greenhouse gases in the U.S., which you can argue are very high and should be much lower, it is,” Springmann said. “The U.S. system produces the fourth-largest amount of greenhouse gases in the world. It’s a high number if you put it in a global context.”

Beef’s carbon footprint is well established. For every gram of beef produced, 221 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted, compared to 36 for pork. And for every calorie from beef, 22 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted, compared to 3.5 from pork.

Global meat production has skyrocketed — by more than 370 percent — since 1960, straining resources and consuming land. With demand for beef and dairy expected to soar, feeding the world — and staying within a safe carbon budget — will be impossible without major shifts in consumption patterns.

Tim Searchinger, author of another report this year advocating for lower animal protein consumption, agrees that the emissions intensity of U.S. beef is lower than in other countries. But, he says, the demand for livestock-based foods from consumers in the U.S. and other high-income countries has major climate impacts nonetheless. (Among developed countries, the U.S. consumes more beef, per capita, than any other country, after Argentina.)

Searchinger has pointed out that most life cycle assessments (LCA) of beef production don’t account for land-use change and deforestation — to make way for grazing and growing grains — in other places.

“If your LCA doesn’t take into account land use, then your LCA is leaving something pretty important out,” he said. “The amount of carbon we lose from vegetation and soils to produce a kilo of beef is much higher than the emissions from even methane and nitrous oxide from producing beef.”

He says that any land devoted to food could store more carbon if left as forest or restored to its native vegetation. So every acre of land is critical for carbon storage, given growing global food demands.

“We need to have land available to reforest. We need to avoid clearing land. Every time we consume less beef, that provides — at the very least — the opportunity to use less land,” he said. “Each of us has the power to avoid that land-clearing. So if I don’t eat beef, the next guy can eat more without clearing land.”

Pressure Coming From Consumers, Too

These latest attempts by the industry to beat back initiatives linking livestock to climate impacts are only the most recent. During the development of the influential 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are reviewed and revamped every five years, the meat industry, along with its allies in Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, successfully tamped down nutritionists’ recommendations to eat less red meat for environmental reasons.

Much of the pressure on the industry is also coming from consumers as dietary choices are starting to shift.

The number of vegans and vegetarians, especially among millenials, is small but rising, and many American consumers say they’re choosing to eat less meat.

Lobbyists are working to stop meat alternatives, such as the Impossible Burger, from being labeled “steak” or “burger.” Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Plant-based alternatives — from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — are jockeying for shelf space in the meat sections of grocery stores and landing on the menu at fast food chains. Industry analysts have said the market for these plant-based burger alternatives is enormous, potentially reaching $100 billion in 15 years.

The industry has started fighting off attempts to market plant-based alternatives as “steak” and “burger.”

This year, at least two dozen states considered bills to limit those terms to products that come from animals.

“The issue in the legislative debates is whether or not consumers are being deceived,” said Dan Colegrove, a lobbyist for the Plant Based Foods Association, which fought the bills. “We contend, no, that consumers know exactly what they’re doing.”

Colegrove said he was unaware that any particular lobby was behind these bills, or that any “model” legislation was developed by an interest group.

“You don’t see this kind of growth in retail sectors. Clearly something’s going on,” Colegrove said, noting that the lobbying push was being driven by the significant interest in plant-based alternatives. “I think this issue is not going to go away next year.”

Why Aren’t Youth Climate Leaders Addressing Meat Consumption?

OCTOBER 17, 2019 BY  — LEAVE A COMMENT

On September 21, youth climate leaders from around the world converged at the United Nations in New York to participate in the Youth Climate Summit. During the summit, TheirTurn asked them why the youth climate movement isn’t using its platform to encourage grass roots climate activists and the mainstream public to make lifestyle changes to reduce their own carbon emissions.

One day earlier, tens of thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom were students, took to the streets of downtown Manhattan to participate in a youth climate strike with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Neither their posters nor the information they distributed focused on what individuals can do to reduce their own carbon footprint. Frustrated by the fact that youth climate leaders are not proactively encouraging the public to take steps to reduce their own emissions, a contingent of several dozen adult activists joined the climate strike to promote plant-based diets.

Adult climate strikers promote plant-based diets as a strategy to reduce carbon and methane emissions

“Eating animals is the elephant in the room of the climate change movement,” said Nathan Semmel, an attorney and activist who participated in the climate strike. “How can youth climate leaders expect world leaders to take action on the climate crisis if they aren’t encouraging their own constituents to stop engaging in environmentally destructive activity that can be easily avoided?

Ranchers are deforesting the Amazon in order to graze their cattle and grow cattle feed (photo: National Geographic)

During the interviews with TheirTurn, every youth climate leader mentioned meat reduction or elimination when asked what steps individuals can take.  None of them, however, indicated that they are proactively conveying this message to their constituents. They are instead pressuring global leaders to make systemic change.

“It’s not an either/or,” said journalist and climate advocate Jane Velez-Mitchell of JaneUnChained. “Youth climate leaders can demand accountability from our leaders and ask their constituents to reduce their own carbon footprint by making the switch to a plant-based diet.”

Waste lagoon at a cattle ranch (taken from above)

Unlike youth climate leaders, who understand the impact of animal agriculture on the climate and are reducing or eliminating their own consumption of animal products, grass roots participants in the youth climate strike were largely unaware. When asked what steps they can take to reduce their own carbon emissions, most recommended reducing single-use plastic and recycling.

Youth climate leaders speak about their advocacy at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit


Scientists find highest-ever ‘flares’ of methane in Arctic waters

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas

ARCTIC OCEAN – Russian scientists studying Arctic waters found the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from the seabed to the water’s surface, they said.

Igor Semiletov, the chief scientist aboard a vessel carrying 65 scientists on a 40-day research voyage, told CNN via satellite phone that he found amounts of methane in the air over the East Siberian Sea up to nine times the global average.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a significantly greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide, according to NASA. The methane emissions in the Arctic, fueled by the melting of permafrost on the sea floor, are one driver of climate change, NASA said.

The emissions are presenting a growing risk.

Methane levels Semiletov’s team found in the air above the seawater were “extremely high,” he said. “Nobody has detected these concentrations.”

 

Levels are highest seen in decades of research

 

Semiletov, a professor at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Siberia, said the ship full of scientists reached the East Siberian Sea around the beginning of October.

The water is usually tough to get through due to it being “covered in ice,” but Semiletov said this year was different. The water was “fully open.”

The team studied more than 60 sites known to have had methane emissions at the water’s surface in the past.

ADVERTISING

Each emission site varies in size. Some spread across 100 square meters of sea surface. Others can cover a square kilometer.

When the plumes of methane reach the surface, the water looks like it’s boiling. The researchers take samples of the air above the bubbling columns to determine how much methane is coming out of the sea, and its potential to alter the atmosphere.

In previous trips, Semiletov said he found methane at 3, 4 or 5 parts per million at these sites, well above the average atmospheric methane concentration of 1.7 parts per million. On this trip, some of the measurements were up to 16 parts per million.

Semiletov said he embarked on 30 to 35 expeditions over the past 15 years, but on this one there were some surprises.

He said the methane emissions, which look like torches or flares, are “all increasing.”

 

Building on a legacy of breakthroughs

 

Semiletov and his colleague Natalia Shakhova raised an alarm with their 2010 paper in the journal Science showing that underwater permafrost on the seabed of the Arctic shelf could melt and release methane into the ocean.

Prior to that, scientists thought the sub-sea permafrost was essentially an impermeable barrier keeping methane at bay.

In a 2012 interview published by the European Geophysical Union, Shakhova said the hydrocarbons buried beneath the Arctic shelf have potential to be a major contributor to climate change.

As permafrost on the seabed melts, it could dramatically change Earth’s atmosphere, she said, noting the release of only 1% of the gas could make an impact.

“The very shallow water column and weakening permafrost” could lead to the doubling of methane in the atmosphere in “a matter of decades,” Shakhova suggested.

In past trips, the scientists found the methane seeps growing year by year and summarized decades of results earlier this year in the journal Geosciences.

“It’s crucially important to study the change in size of the seeps,” Semiletov said.

 

The methane releases contribute to global warming

 

Semiletov said so far the increasing methane emissions are a “significant contribution” to global warming, “but not catastrophic.”

However, “The public should know it would affect climate in the near future if there are increases in the rate of permafrost degradation,” he said.

The scientists are expected to return to port by the end of the month and they’ll have plenty of new data to process. Semiletov felt confident they’d have enough to publish “a couple of papers” based on the recent voyage.

One major takeaway, he emphasized, was the need to focus global scientific attention on the methane seeps.

“This goes beyond geo-political considerations,” he said. “We need to think about how to combine our efforts to study this, because it affects everyone.”

Russian scientists say they’ve found the highest-ever ‘flares’ of methane in Arctic waters

(CNN)Russian scientists studying Arctic waters found the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from the seabed to the water’s surface, they said Friday.

Igor Semiletov, the chief scientist aboard a vessel carrying 65 scientists on a 40-day research voyage, told CNN via satellite phone that he found amounts of methane in the air over the East Siberian Sea up to nine times the global average.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a significantly greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide, according to NASA. The methane emissions in the Arctic, fueled by the melting of permafrost on the sea floor, are one driver of climate change, NASA said.
The emissions are presenting a growing risk.
Methane levels Semiletov’s team found in the air above the seawater were “extremely high,” he said. “Nobody has detected these concentrations.”

Levels are highest seen in decades of research

Semiletov, a professor at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Siberia, said the ship full of scientists reached the East Siberian Sea around the beginning of October.
The water is usually tough to get through due to it being “covered in ice,” but Semiletov said this year was different. The water was “fully open.”
The team studied more than 60 sites known to have had methane emissions at the water’s surface in the past.
Each emission site varies in size. Some spread across 100 square meters of sea surface. Others can cover a square kilometer.
When the plumes of methane reach the surface, the water looks like it’s boiling. The researchers take samples of the air above the bubbling columns to determine how much methane is coming out of the sea, and its potential to alter the atmosphere.
In previous trips, Semiletov said he found methane at 3, 4 or 5 parts per million at these sites, well above the average atmospheric methane concentration of 1.7 parts per million. On this trip, some of the measurements were up to 16 parts per million.
Semiletov said he embarked on 30 to 35 expeditions over the past 15 years, but on this one there were some surprises.
He said the methane emissions, which look like torches or flares, are “all increasing.”

Building on a legacy of breakthroughs

Semiletov and his colleague Natalia Shakhova raised an alarm with their 2010 paper in the journal Science showing that underwater permafrost on the seabed of the Arctic shelf could melt and release methane into the ocean.
Prior to that, scientists thought the sub-sea permafrost was essentially an impermeable barrier keeping methane at bay.
In a 2012 interview published by the European Geophysical Union, Shakhova said the hydrocarbons buried beneath the Arctic shelf have potential to be a major contributor to climate change.
As permafrost on the seabed melts, it could dramatically change Earth’s atmosphere, she said, noting the release of only 1% of the gas could make an impact.
“The very shallow water column and weakening permafrost” could lead to the doubling of methane in the atmosphere in “a matter of decades,” Shakhova suggested.
In past trips, the scientists found the methane seeps growing year by year and summarized decades of results earlier this year in the journal Geosciences.
“It’s crucially important to study the change in size of the seeps,” Semiletov said.

The methane releases contribute to global warming

Semiletov said so far the increasing methane emissions are a “significant contribution” to global warming, “but not catastrophic.”
However, “The public should know it would affect climate in the near future if there are increases in the rate of permafrost degradation,” he said.
The scientists are expected to return to port by the end of the month and they’ll have plenty of new data to process. Semiletov felt confident they’d have enough to publish “a couple of papers” based on the recent voyage.
One major takeaway, he emphasized, was the need to focus global scientific attention on the methane seeps.
“This goes beyond geo-political considerations,” he said. “We need to think about how to combine our efforts to study this, because it affects everyone.”