New year climate reports and views

2009 has brought some important research findings related to climate change, and some important new perspectives. In addition, there are some remarkable new initiatives in renewable energy and technology.

Ian Lowe, the president of the Australian Conservation Society, and a well-established and articulate proponent of strong action on climate change (see my post September 17, 2007), wrote an important opinion piece in The Age on the turnabout by the International Energy Agency (IAC). The Agency has until recently been a staunch denier of climate change. Recently it announced that “Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable — environmentally, economically, socially … What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution.” Lowe contrasts the urgency of this statement with the weak action on climate change currently proposed by the Australian Government, particularly in the light of the recent scientific findings of increased methane in the Arctic. He further notes action by China in closing small coal mines and in expanding solar and wind research, and projected actions in renewable energy by the incoming Obama administration. Australia, he argues, is lagging and must change course if it is to be a responsible member of the international community.

This view was echoed by some of the nation’s leading economists, both business and academic. These economists argued against delaying the introduction of strong emissions targets, despite the financial crisis. Investment in renewables was seen as a way of supporting economic recovery. Price increases in carbon would incentivise such investment. Other economists, however, are arguing for a link between Australian actions and international responses at Copenhagen later this year, and are calling for a cost-benefit analysis of the effect of delaying the introduction of a carbon trading scheme–a line of action which I have argued is illogical and irresponsible (see my post September 30, 2008).

From the UK came an encouraging report of the development of a new kind of cement which could transform it from a major source of carbon dioxide emission s (5% of the world’s total emissions) to a carbon sink. The new cement, developed by Novacem engineers, is based on magnesium silicates, rather than limestone or clay.  It requires less heating than conventional cement, and absorbs large amounts of CO2 as it hardens. In total it is a carbon negative process, absorbing 0.6 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement, compared with emissions of 0.4 tonnes of standard cement. The technology has yet to be fully proved, but is looking promising.

Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry are two iconic names in the history of the American conservation and land movement. Wes Jackson runs The Land Institute in Kansas, a working farm based on ecological agriculture, and with many links to academic research institutions. Wendell Berry is a much-published writer on land ethics, in the tradition of Aldo Leopold. Early in the new year they jointly called for a new farm bill, which would embody urgently needed soil conservation practices. They note that recent intense storm events (a predicted result of global warming) have generated unparalleled soil loss. They advocate the perennialisation of the major grain crops, like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers to reduce greenhouses gases, fossil-fuel use and pollution, and to increase carbon sequestration.

From Abu Dhabi comes a fascinating report of the initiative to build a model city designed to generate no carbon emissions. The city, Masdar, is built on new kinds of solar panels, and includes a major new research park, as part of an investment of $15 billion in renewable energy. It uses about 25% of the energy of a conventional city of its size (50,000 people). Residents travel in driverless electric cars and the air-conditioning is solar powered. There are cooperative research agreements with major universities, including Caltech, Cambridge, Cornell, and Oxford. Qatar also is investing significant amounts of money in low-carbon technology, working with the UK.

A recent report published in the Medical Journal of Australia highlights the human dimension of climate change. It points out that the scientific projections of temperature rise imply that the greatest human impact in Australia will be on indigenous communities living in remote areas. Higher rates of disease are predicted, and psychological and spiritual suffering as these communities see their ancestral lands degraded. The researchers call for active programs to support these communities and mitigate the effects of climate change on them.

An important study carried out at the University of South Australia has disproved a proposed mechanism by which plants have been said to emit methane. The claim was made in a paper published in Nature in 2006. This paper asserted that plants were responsible for up to 45% of the methane in the world’s atmosphere. If true this would have presented a global dilemma of truly catastrophic proportions, since it would have precluded reafforestation as the primary method for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere. The UniSA researchers set up a range of experiments which showed plants only transmit methane present in other places, but that methane is not produced by plants—as is well known, soil bacteria produce methane. The researchers conclude: “Forests are immensely precious and growing plants remove enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each day through photosynthesis – carbon dioxide that would otherwise be causing global warming. . .Plants are a life source fundamental to our ongoing well being.”