CLIMATE NEWS SCAN – 17 April 2012
- Summer changes take their toll on aging populations
- New study discredits skeptic argument, links CO2 to warming
- Forest biomass a problem and opportunity in BC
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RESEARCH THEME I: THE LOW CARBON EMISSIONS ECONOMY
UK report: Climate actions are clear and low cost
April 5, 2012. A new UK government report lays out the steps for an 80% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, comparable to BC’s target for the same date. The 2050 target – achieving an 80% reduction including emissions from international aviation and shipping – was published by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change which, similar to BC’s Climate Action Secretariat, was created to advise on carbon targets, budgets and preparations for climate change. An important conclusion of the report is that the required measures would only cost 1-2% of the 2050 GDP – or 0.05% of GDP per year at most for the next 40 years. This estimate is at the low end of previously accepted costs.
The report’s chapters cover the power sector, buildings, surface transport, industry and non-CO2 greenhouse gases. For buildings, in addition to better insulation to reduce heat demand, roll-out of electric heat pumps and district heating is recommended. Supportive policy measures should include transparent and consistent incentives for insulation and heat pumps, and accreditation of installers. For transportation, the report forecasts that by 2050 the total cost of owning and operating an electric vehicle will be below the cost of a combustion vehicle, so that low emission scenarios can be achieved at no cost to the GDP. In the interim, the market should be supported with financial incentives (i.e. rebates and tax breaks). A modal shift in freight, from road to rail or water, should also be encouraged. Emission reductions from industry may cost 0.3% of the 2050 UK GDP, principally due to the high cost of low-carbon steam production. Policy should therefore be focused on long-term regulation (allowing industry to plan and confidently invest) and on the provision of low-cost financing. Finally, the report recommends that non-CO2 emissions (principally methane) should be reduced through on-farm mitigation measures, a reduction in biodegradable waste sent to landfill, and capturing of fugitive emissions from natural gas pipelines.
Almost all of the sectors and policy advice included here will provide relevant and useful information for BC policymakers. Indeed, many of the recommended measures are already partly implemented in BC, such as the Efficiency Incentive Program and the Clean Energy Vehicle program. Interestingly, the report doesn’t mention land use planning, which is widely recognized in BC as a fundamental determinant of transportation demand. The report also does not recommend road widening or building new freeways, which is one of the more controversial ways BC hopes to reduce vehicle emissions, nor do natural gas vehicles feature in the 2050 scenarios. Policymakers concerned with BC’s emissions targets may wish to check the assumptions behind these public investments.
RESEARCH THEME II: SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES
Summer changes take their toll on aging populations
April 10, 2012. New research from the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard University School of Public Health warns that, independent of heat waves, high day-to-day variability in summer temperatures shortens life expectancy among elderly people each year. This is the first study to examine the longer-term effects of climate change on life expectancy and finds that increased fluctuations in summer temperatures could lead to more than ten thousand additional deaths per year. The researchers used data from 1985 to 2006 to follow the long-term health of 3.7 million chronically ill people over the age of 65 and living in 135 US cities. Even small swings of 1 degree Celsius above the norm raised the death rate for elderly people by between 2.8 per cent and 4 per cent, depending on their condition. The study included people with diabetes, heart failure, chronic lung disease and those who had survived a previous heart attack.
Unseasonably warm conditions broke temperature records in more than 1,054 locations between March 13–19 of this year across the central and eastern United States and much of Canada. During the summer of 2009 there were more than 120 “excess” deaths (i.e. in excess of those anticipated from historical mortality data) recorded in the lower mainland of BC as a result of the hottest 7-day period on record since 1986. Many of the deceased were elderly, but the largest proportionate increase in death rates was among the 45-55 year old demographic. This means that it isn’t only the oldest that are at risk from the warmer and more volatile summers we can expect from our changing climate. As the province looks increasingly towards adaptation to climate change, this is certainly one of the areas where research, policy and planning agendas need to focus as we build more sustainable communities.
RESEARCH THEME III: RESILIENT ECOSYSTEMS
New study discredits skeptic argument, links CO2 to warming
April 4, 2012. A new study published in Nature shows that in most of the world at the end of the last ice age, the thermometer began to shoot up only after atmospheric CO2 had spiked. Skeptics of man-made climate change have long argued that temperatures began to rise at the end of the last ice age before CO2 concentrations increased, and since effects don’t come before causes, the climate change theory falls apart. This new study should put an end to this argument, showing that there was some warming triggered initially by changes in the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. This preceded the rise in atmospheric CO2 by just a little, primarily in the Southern Ocean- Antarctic region. The slight heating drove the release of CO2 from the warmer ocean that in turn led to an enhanced greenhouse effect and kicked the world into the full deglaciation. Thus, the cause – rising CO2levels – did come before the effect, geologically rapid post-glacial warming.
A study such as this provides more evidence in support of man-made global warming and directly challenges a pillar of the skeptics’ position. Regrettably, such results from leading scientists do not appear to carry much weight in Ottawa. The recent decision of the federal government to end the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) shows an unfortunate disregard for scientific evidence of man-made global warming. The NRTEE was created to provide high-quality, evidence-based, long-term public policy advice to the federal government. The situation is different at the sub-national level, however. Policies central to BC’s four-year-old Climate Action Plan, for example, are having a positive impact in dealing with the climate change challenge. A series of stories published by TheTyee.ca last fall show that BC is making more progress in this domain than any other jurisdiction in North America. This new study should reinforce for BC policymakers the need to continue efforts to reduce carbon emissions through means such as the carbon tax, carbon offsets and carbon neutrality.
RESEARCH THEME IV: SOCIAL MOBILIZATION
Is climate change a mental health emergency?
March 31, 2012. Natural extreme weather events will create additional psychological stresses for a large number of Americans in the coming decade, according to a recent report by the National Wildlife Federation. Psychologists are sounding the alarm, pointing out that climate change presents not only an environmental and economic challenge, but also a mental and psychological one that is creating an additional burden on mental health services across the country. Chronic stresses will emerge as individuals grapple with the large uncertainties brought about by climate change and disrupted weather patterns. Psychologists predict “a rise in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide, and violence”, with the hardest hit being the elderly, children, and the poor. The report can be seen as a microcosm of the larger global impacts of climatic weather events, as poorer countries around the world will be hardest hit, both psychologically and economically, by climate change. A new report by the IPCC also pointed out that dense, poor areas will disproportionately suffer from extreme weather events.
BC is no exception. Poorer communities will be less able to adapt to the effects of climate change, including the aforementioned extreme weather events and the longer-term environmental and economic impacts. As the world focuses more on adaptation, addressing climate change becomes even more of a moral issue. Poorer communities are disproportionally affected by factors they did little to cause, while simultaneously being less equipped to deal with the consequences. Initiatives to support mitigation and adaptation should therefore pay special attention to low-income regions, and require more of those individuals and communities who can afford to choose new behaviour. In addition, placing the increasing burden of treating climate change driven mental health cases on existing social structures will require a re-thinking of social services that may not have the necessary information or existing expertise to account for climate change impacts.
RESEARCH THEME V: CARBON MANAGEMENT IN BC FORESTS
Forest biomass a problem and opportunity in BC
April 10, 2012. An article published in Canadian Biomass has brought into focus the problem, and promise, of biomass – biological material from living or recently living organisms – in British Columbia. Past management practices and current insect infestations have created forests with an abundance of dead or sick trees. Thus, removal of biomass from forests at higher rates promises to improve forest health and ecosystem resilience while reducing the threat of fire. Research suggests that removing biomass reduces competition for soil moisture, nutrients and sunlight, resulting in healthier trees and forests. The problem is that removing biomass through forest thinning or expanded harvesting does not always make economic sense. Not all trees are suitable for traditional high-value products like lumber and any additional biomass removed is generally used to produce electricity. Electricity is a low value commodity in a highly competitive market in western North America, with hydro, coal and natural gas offering cheap alternatives. Thus, viewing biomass as simply a source of electrical power ensures that the economic case for its utilization remains weak. Alternative high-value products such as biopellets, biochemicals and bioplastics should provide stronger incentives for removal. The article suggests that “it is paramount that the government of BC lead the process of sector transformation [and] determine the highest and best use of the biomass.”
Creating high-value bioproducts would send a signal to the market to remove more biomass and, if done properly, could improve forest health. But if this connection is so obvious, why hasn’t biomass removal increased? The reasons are complex. The technologies and markets for high-value bioproducts are immature and highly competitive. BC has to compete with fibre supplies in the south eastern United States, South America and Asia. These regions have longer growing seasons, weaker regulations, and lower operating costs. Electricity, in contrast, is a mature market and a non-tradable good (i.e. we cannot import electricity in vast quantities from faraway places). Finally, biomass removal is a contentious issue, with civil society suggestingthat bioenergy is not always environmentally friendly. Other research has shown that biomass can play an important role in promoting biodiversity in clear-cuts. If a stronger market for biomass emerges, more wood debris from harvest sites could be removed, with an adverse impact on biodiversity.
ALSO IN THE NEWS
Download pdf version: Week 132 PICS News Scan 17 April 2012
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