Monday, September 15, 2008

Roll back time to safeguard climate, expert warns

A return to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide urged as the only way to prevent the worst impacts of global warming

Scientists may have to turn back time and clean the atmosphere of all man-made carbon dioxide to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, one of Europe's most senior climate scientists has warned.

Professor John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told the Guardian that only a return to pre-industrial levels of CO2 would be enough to guarantee a safe future for the planet. He said that current political targets to slow the growth in emissions and stabilise carbon levels were insufficient, and that ways may have to be found to actively remove CO2 from the air.

Schellnhuber said: "We have to start pondering that it might not be enough to stabilise carbon levels. We should not rule out that it might be necessary to bring them down again."

Carbon levels have fluctuated over the last few hundred thousand years, but have rarely gone much beyond 280 parts per million (ppm), which is commonly referred to as the pre-industrial concentration. Over the last few centuries, human emissions of greenhouse gases have forced that concentration up as high as 387ppm, and it is rising at more than 2ppm each year.

World governments are currently trying to agree a deal that would restrict emissions and stabilise carbon levels at 450ppm, in an effort to limit global temperatures to 2C warmer than pre-industrial times.

Schellnhuber, who has advised the German government and European Commission on climate, said: "It is a compromise between ambition and feasibility. A rise of 2C could avoid some of the big environmental disasters, but it is still only a compromise."

He said even a small increase in temperature could trigger one of several climatic tipping points, such as methane released from melting permafrost, and bring much more severe global warming.

"It is a very sweeping argument, but nobody can say for sure that 330ppm is safe," he said. "Perhaps it will not matter whether we have 270ppm or 320ppm, but operating well outside the [historic] realm of carbon dioxide concentrations is risky as long as we have not fully understood the relevant feedback mechanisms."

He calls the plan to remove man-made emissions "atmospheric restitution" and has discussed it at recent seminars, but not written it up for a scientific journal. "It's such a bold idea and sounds very desperate," he said.

Schellnhuber said the most severe long-term impact could be sea-level rise. Over several centuries or more, a 1C global rise would correspond to a 15-20m rise in sea level. "Since we have built all our coastal zones for the current sea level we should not change [it] by tens of metres."

If CO2 levels are stabilised over the next decades, he said, then "science fiction" technology could be developed to bring the level down again by 2200. He suggested the large-scale burning of plant material for energy, with the resulting carbon dioxide captured and stored, could reduce CO2 levels by about 50ppm. Other techniques would be needed as well, he said.

Scientists in the US, led by Klaus Lackner at Columbia University, are developing a device that could scrub carbon dioxide from the air using absorbent plastic strips. Richard Branson has promised $25m (£14m) to the inventor of a machine that could take CO2 from the air on a large scale.

Schellnhuber's warning comes as climate experts say current emissions trends show the world is unlikely to stabilise carbon dioxide levels below 650ppm, which could see a 4C rise. Alice Bows and Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, say carbon pollution is rising faster than officially admitted. They say emissions would need to peak by 2015 and then decrease by up to 6.5% each year for atmospheric CO2 levels to stabilise at 450ppm.

Even a goal of 650ppm – way above most government projections – would need world emissions to peak in 2020 and then reduce 3% each year. They say this year's G8 pledge to cut global emissions 50% by 2050, in an effort to limit global warming to 2C, has no scientific basis and could lead to "dangerously misguided" policies.

China mulls green tax to curb pollution: report

From: Reuters


SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China is studying whether to impose an environmental tax on polluters to cut their emissions, the official China Daily reported on Saturday.

The newspaper quoted Pan Yue, a deputy minister for environmental protection, as saying several government agencies had formed a team of experts to research the issue.

Pan gave no details of the proposed tax or when it might be introduced. But he said the team was also studying the issues of compensation for environmental damage, and the creation of a system for companies to trade rights to emit polluting gases.

China has increasingly turned to its tax system to fight severe pollution created by its economic boom. Last year, it cut export tax rebates for energy-intensive products, and this month it raised consumption taxes on large passenger vehicles.

(Reporting by Andrew Torchia, editing by Roger Crabb)

Where have all the Bahamian flamingos gone?

From: Reuters


NASSAU (Reuters) - The southern Bahamian island of Great Inagua is known for two things -- its old salt plant and a 60,000-strong flamingo flock.

Now some Bahamians wonder if they might end up losing both after Hurricane Ike ripped across the island last week causing millions of dollars in damage.

Most of the flamingos, which attract bird-watchers from all over the world, took off before Ike arrived and have not been seen since, according to officials in charge of the islands' national parks.

Left behind were 30 dead birds, thought to have been entangled in trees as they tried to flee, and a few hundred live ones that might have taken shelter in the mangroves.

Glenn Bannister, president of the Bahamas National Trust, said all of the island's birds -- including Bahama parrots and White Crown pigeons -- vanished before the storm hit.

The parrots returned after the storm, desperately seeking food among the storm-blasted trees and plant life. But for now, most of the flamingos have not come back and Bannister has no idea where they've gone.

"Some of the flamingos are now reappearing, but it could be one or two years before they get back to their regular nesting pattern," said Lynn Gape, also of the National Trust. She said wardens had only reported sightings of "several hundred" compared to the thousands there before.

"There's no doubt many left, but it's possible others sought protection in the mangroves," said Gape, adding that flamingos are sensitive to barometric pressure and they fly off or take cover when a major storm approaches.

With leaves and berries blown away by the wind, life is likely to be hard for Great Inagua's bird population until buds begin to appear, said Bannister.

"In a few months, this place is going to look like spring," he said. "But the birds are in trouble for the time being."

Meanwhile, bird watchers in the southern U.S. states have reported unprecedented flamingo sightings, like the one spotted in the beach town of Destin in the Florida Panhandle.

"His feathers are beat up and he looks like he has been through a hurricane," said Donald Ware, bird count coordinator of the Choctawhatchee Audubon in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Wild flamingos are occasionally sighted in Florida's southern tip but that was the group's first recorded sighting in Okaloosa County in the northern part of the state.

There have also been flamingo sightings in Mississippi in late August, after Tropical Storm Fay swept through parts of the Caribbean and Florida, and in early September.

"This is the first documented record for flamingos for Mississippi. They are subtropical birds and just don't fly this way," said Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. "It has certainly gotten people's attention."

But Bannister did not think those birds were from the Bahamas. "Whenever they seek a safe haven they fly south to Bonaire, Venezuela or Cuba," he said.

Bannister is hoping the flamingos will return when the breeding season begins in January.

Meanwhile, islanders are pondering another possible loss.

Owners of Morton Salt, which employs 60 percent of the workforce on Inagua and is the only industry on the island of 1,000 people, have cast doubt on the salt plant's future.

The company said it "cannot say with 100 percent certainty" that the badly damaged plant will continue operating.

(Additional reporting by Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; editing by Jane Sutton)

Migratory Waterbird Populations in Decline

From: U.N.E.P


New study shows a sharp drop in migratory waterbird populations along main migration routes in Africa and Eurasia.

The report: 'Conservation Status of Migratory Waterbirds in the African-Eurasian Flyways' prepared by Wetlands International for the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), reveals that of 522 studied migratory waterbird populations on routes across Africa and Eurasia, 40 per cent are in decline.

The report is being presented to delegates from over 80 countries at the Fourth Meeting of the Parties to the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) in Antananarivo, Madagascar, today.

Simon Delany, Waterbird Conservation Officer at the Netherlands-based headquarters of Wetlands International and principal author of the report, said: "The main causes of declining waterbird numbers along the African-Eurasian Flyways are the destruction and unsustainable exploitation of wetlands, which are largely driven by poorly-planned economic development."

The main causes of population decrease include, infrastructure development, wetland reclamation, increasing pollution and hunting pressure.

These impacts are in many cases compounded by impacts of climate change and associated phenomena, such as increased frequency of droughts, sea-level rise and changes in Arctic tundra habitats.

"Climate change... is likely to affect all ecosystems, but wetlands are especially vulnerable because of their sensitivity to changes in water level and susceptibility to changes in rainfall and evaporation." said Delany.

Sea-level rise threatens coastal and inland wetland areas. These are crucial habitats for millions of migratory waterbirds. Huge numbers of waterbirds also breed in Arctic tundra habitats which too are threatened by climate change.

Migratory waterbirds, and in particular long-distance migrants, are highly vulnerable to environmental changes. To complete their annual life-cycles, they depend upon separate geographic regions in breeding and non-breeding seasons which may be thousands of kilometres apart, as well as a network of stop-over sites along the route.

"International cooperation is essential in protecting the network of sites required by migratory waterbirds. AEWA was put into place by countries to foster such cooperation for migratory waterbirds along the African-Eurasian Flyways. The evidence presented in this report shows that countries will have to have a clear vision as to how to address these challenges and work together to make sure the objectives of this Agreement can be met." said Bert Lenten, the Executive Secretary of AEWA.

Lowest ever sea ice in Arctic

From: WWF

/ecosystems/article/38183Declining ice thickness and what is looking like the second lowest coverage on record means that Arctic sea ice may well have reached its lowest levels ever in terms of total volume.

Final figures on minimum ice coverage for 2008 are expected in a matter of days, but they are already flirting with last year’s record low of 1.59 million square miles, or 4.13 million square kilometres.

“If you take reduced ice thickness into account, there is probably less ice overall in the Arctic this year than in any other year since monitoring began,”� said Martin Sommerkorn, WWF International Arctic Programme’s Senior Climate Change Advisor. “This is also the first year that the Northwest Passage over the top of North America, and the Northeast Passage over the top of Russia are both free of ice.”�

Dr. Sommerkorn said the continuing loss of older, thicker ice, means that the Arctic ice cover is following a trend of becoming younger and thinner each year. The area of ice that is at least 5 years old has decreased by 56% between 1985 and 2007. The oldest ice types have essentially disappeared. Taken together, the new figures clearly show the Arctic is experiencing the continuation of an accelerated declining trend.

“We are expecting confirmation of 2008 being either the lowest or the second-lowest year in terms of summer ice coverage,”� Dr. Sommerkorn said. “This means two years in a row of record lows since we started recording Arctic sea ice coverage, and a continuing catastrophic downward trend.

“There are already signs that species such as polar bears are experiencing negative effects as climate change erodes the ice platform on which they rely. These changes are also affecting the peoples of the Arctic whose traditional livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems.”�

The trend of melting Arctic ice is also alarming for the rest of the world. “The Arctic is a key factor in stabilising the global climate,”� Dr Sommerkorn said.

“Arctic ice is like a mirror, reflecting the sun’s heat back into space. As that ice goes, Arctic waters absorb more heat, adding to global warming. The local warming of the Arctic will also soon release more greenhouse gases from the Arctic that were previously locked in permanently frozen ground. This means there will be two powerful feedbacks from the Arctic affecting the global environment. This is not just an Arctic problem, it is a global problem, and it demands a global response.”�

The governments of the world are currently negotiating a new climate agreement to come into force from 2013 when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol has ended. Governments must speed up these talks and ensure to agree the new climate deal at the UN Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009, just fifteen months from now, Dr Sommerkorn said.

For further information:Clive Desiré-Tesar, Head of Communications WWF International Arctic Programme
Telephone: +47 9 262 3030, E-mail:


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