PICS CLIMATE NEWS SCAN – 29 May 2012
- Trees absorb less carbon than previously thought
- Citizen scientists help in fight against climate change
- New European guide offers climate change adaptation tips
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Research Theme I: The low carbon emissions economy
Shifting away from climate change policy will cost the economy
May 15, 2012. A new report from the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) finds that as long as the federal government continues to delay regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and without a change of policy direction, Canada will continue to develop an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system. Out of eight industrial sectors identified for emissions regulations, Ottawa has created regulations for just one: The automotive industry. As a result, there is a growing consensus that the federal government’s regulatory approach is moving too slowly to meet the its target to reduce GHG emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. As each year passes without federal action to limit emissions and a lack of clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, business continues as usual, with the consequent lock-in of high-carbon infrastructure making it ever harder and more costly to meet Canada’s energy security and carbon reduction requirements.
British Columbia (BC) released a Climate Action Plan in 2008 that identifies strategies and initiatives to meet the province’s goal of reducing GHG emissions by 33 percent by 2020. By law, BC must cut its total GHG emissions by 45 million tonnes by the year 2020. However, in February of this year, BC Premier Christy Clark unveiled a jobs plan that relies on the development of three liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants. Producing LNG is an extremely energy-intensive process, as––depending on the energy source used––a single LNG terminal can produce up to 3.4 million tonnes of GHG emissions annually. Unless only renewable energy is used in the LNG processing operations, or unless produced emissions are offset, BC’s aggressive natural gas export plans will make it costlier to meet the province’s clean energy and climate goals – assuming the province does not weaken the existing GHG targets outlined in the 2007 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act.
Research Theme II: Sustainable communities
New European guide offers climate change adaptation tips
May 19, 2012. BC mayors concerned about the future of their municipalities have a new readiness checklist from the European Union. As climate change increases the probability of heat waves and flash floods, the report entitled Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe suggests less pavement and more greenery is the way to cool cities and absorb heavy rainfall. The report also notes that socio-economic trends – like an aging population – will make the impact of extreme weather events even more potent. Furthermore, cities should seek to become more self-sufficient, capturing rainwater and encouraging urban agriculture, as the regions that currently supply cities with water come under more strain. Finally, the report recommends starting now: Since street, building and sewerage infrastructure often lasts for decades, today’s investments will lock cities into a path that may or may not be sustainable.
Flooding is already a common hazard in BC due to episodes of heavy rainfall (flash floods) and snowmelt (spring freshets) or rain-on-snow events. Existing preventative legislation and regulations, however, may require updating as the probability of occurrence of such extreme events rises. Many BC municipalities are still burdened with wide, expensive, impervious and heat-trapping pavement instead of narrow streets and swale drainage. Municipal codes should ensure streets are narrowed wherever possible and replaced with water-absorbing and heat-dissipating vegetation. For example, there is a movement to expose buried streams in Vancouver that might be replicated on residential streets across the province. As the European report points out, despite the fact that outcomes are uncertain, the trends are clear and many of the adaptations have the side benefit of creating more pleasant communities.
Research Theme III: Resilient ecosystems
Plants play bigger role in carbon cycle
May 21, 2012. An innovative new experiment suggests that we have underestimated the ability of plants to combat climate change. Researchers created a simplified, self-contained replica of the Earth’s land-based carbon cycle by enclosing soil and plants in airtight containers. When temperature and CO2 levels were increased, the plants were found to absorb the excess gas for longer than existing models and earlier experiments had forecast. The plants used in the experiment absorbed 62% of the additional CO2 and stopped the temperature in the containers from increasing by more than 2.3 degrees Celsius. This is the difference between a CO2 concentration of 500 parts per million and 760 parts per million, or an implied warming difference of 4.4 degrees centigrade globally.
Although this appears to be good news, the researchers acknowledge that these results may be misleading. Plants do reach a ‘saturation point’ so their ability to absorb CO2 should not be considered limitless. The experiment did not allow for changes in the availability of nutrients and water expected as a result of climate change, which will inevitably restrict plant growth in a number of regions. A potential benefit to BC though, is that plants may be more capable of adapting to changing conditions than we thought, giving practitioners a more accurate idea of what we can expect from a changing climate. This is particularly relevant to the Ministry of Forestry and Range and others working to better understand the influence of climate and disturbance on carbon cycling.
Research Theme IV: Social mobilization
Citizen scientists help in fight against climate change
May 18, 2012. Scientists are recruiting members of the public to collect data about the natural world. Using online tools, enthusiastic citizens are able to submit their observations into databases managed by scientists. The USA National Phenology Network, for example, has thousands of volunteers who submit data about trees growing in their backyards. The executive director of the network, suggests that the “social media and smartphone apps have a flattening effect on science, making the scientific process relevant once again to the armchair enthusiast.” Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation have taken citizen science to new extremes. Scientists are able to recruit adventurers to explore inaccessible places, like mountaintops, and provide data for research. A smartphone app also exists where cyclists and drivers can report road kill, helping researchers in the United States monitor animal populations. The strength of citizen science comes from numbers. Online tools allow thousands of observers to submit data, and the results are considered “surprisingly accurate”.
In BC, citizen science is already in full swing. At UBC, researchers are using mobile apps to help improve remote sensing in forests. UBC also has a long standing “Big Tree Registry”, where users can submit confirmed sightings of the biggest specimens of trees native to BC. The BC Frogwatch Program is run by the provincial government, and collects information on frogs, toads, salamanders and turtles. The program trains the public in how to identify species, how to find them, and offers guidance on how to submit information that is useful to scientists. Some citizen scientist efforts are international, like BirdsEye, a smartphone app that tracks bird populations across North America. A review of BirdsEye, and other mobile apps for citizen scientists, can be found here. Technology will continue to spread and evolve, and scientists will be sure to enlist the general public as they study complex problems like climate change.
Research Theme V: Carbon management in BC forests
Trees absorb less carbon than previously thought
May 23, 2012. Trees absorb 3.4% less carbon than previously thought, according to recently published research. Scientists working across the globe have found that warmer conditions increase the growing season of trees less than assumed. The IPCC believed that warmer springs and autumns would boost the productivity of trees and help abate climate change. However, available sunlight plays a more important role in tree growth than temperature. By late summer, trees are sequestering only one-fifth of the carbon they take up during their peak growing period. Warmer springs still allow trees to leaf sooner, but by the fall, the basic biomechanical functions of deciduous trees have shut down and they cannot take advantage of the extra warmth. In a follow up interview, the authors suggested, “Trees are not able to capitalize on (added warmth) as much as we thought.”
The findings underlie the biggest challenge in assessing stocks of forest carbon––accurate measurements––and they are particularly relevant to forests in the northern hemisphere where daylight varies greatly. Because the ecology of forests is so complex, demonstrating additionality in forest carbon offsets is harder. It is no surprise that MRV (Monitoring, Reporting, and Validation) of forest carbon is a major issue in ongoing UN climate change negotiations. It is also no surprise that forest carbon credits in BC remain in their infancy, despite progressive climate legislation in the province. The Pacific Carbon Trust has a forest carbon project, but it has proven controversial. Recently, a partnership between First Nations and the municipality of Whistler lobbied for carbon credits for the Cheakamus Community Forest. They want to help preserve land around Whistler by valuing the carbon stored in trees.
While the findings about tree growth are more important to global climate models than local carbon projects, they do underscore the point that assumptions about forest carbon stocks will be influenced by advances in science. Fortunately, most forest carbon projects underestimate total storage and maintain buffers of up to 50% to cover unanticipated changes in loss or absorption of carbon.
Also in the news
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