Monthly Archives: October 2009

Methane a major worry in climate change

the red mist descends ....Bearing in mind that many scientists are wary about making long term predictions about climate change, and with a spate of exaggerated headlines trumpeting dangerous climate change science, the need to for accurate scientific evidence into climate change has never been more important. But it now seems that the effect of methane on climate change has been seriously underestimated as scientists have failed to take into account the gas’s reaction with airborne particles called aerosols according to new research from NASA. The ever nearing Copenhagen 15 conference on climate change conference will be looking primarily at carbon dioxide emissions but other greenhouse gases which include methane, nitrous oxide and halocarbons are also important in climate change –  and some are far more dangerous than CO2 and even more worrying is the fact that they may have more negative impacts than had been previously thought.  Drew Shindell, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York explained that molecules of methane gas, the second most important greenhouse gas “undergo chemical changes and once they do, looking at them after they’ve mixed and changed in the atmosphere doesn’t give an accurate picture of their effect”. Dr Shindell said “For example, the amount of methane in the atmosphere is affected by pollutants that change methane’s chemistry, and it doesn’t reflect the effects of methane on other greenhouse gases,” said Shindell, “so it’s not directly related to emissions, which are what we set policies for.”  Molecule for molecule, methane was thought to be 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but focus has remained on CO2 as it is s much more abundant than methane and the predicted growth rate is far greater. However the research shows that Methane has 33 times as much effect on climate change compared to CO2, up from 25 times used in standard estimates, although methane breaks down much more quickly than CO2 (which is also largely unreactive). Dr Shindell told the Times newspaper (October 30th 2009) “for long term climate change there is no way round dealing with CO2 – it’s the biggest thing and lasts hundreds of years – but if we were to have a concerted effort to deal with non CO2 we would have a very large impact on the near term”.  And whilst Dr Shindell agreed that current efforts should focus on CO2, the new research also casts doubt on current predictions on rises in global temperature. Current IPCC predictions are that the world will warm between 1.1C and 6C by 2100.  2C is seen as the global tipping point after which irreversible damage will be done to the planet. The research also casts doubts on whether carbon trading schemes will be effective if they focus only on CO2.  Sources of methane include agriculture, gases escaping from landfill and fossil fuels. According to Professor Mark Maslin of UCL, one source is likely to be the release of the planet’s methane hydrate deposits. These ice-like deposits are found on the seabed and in the permafrost regions of Siberia and the far north. “These permafrost deposits are now melting and releasing their methane,” said Maslin. “You can see the methane bubbling out of lakes in Siberia. And that is a concern, for the impact of methane in the atmosphere is considerable. It is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.” A build-up of permafrost methane in the atmosphere would produce a further jump in global warming and accelerate the process of climate change. Even more worrying, however, is the impact of rising sea temperatures on the far greater reserves of methane hydrates that are found on the sea floor. It was not just the warming of the sea that was the problem, added Maslin. As the ice around Greenland and Antarctica melted, sediments would pour off land masses and cliffs would crumble, triggering underwater landslides that would break open more hydrate reserves on the sea-bed. Again there would be a jump in global warming. “These are key issues that we will have to investigate over the next few years,” he said.  “If we control methane, which the U.S. is already starting to do, then we are likely to mitigate global warming more than one would have thought, so that’s a very positive outcome,” Dr Shindell said. “Control of methane emissions turns out to be a more powerful lever to control global warming than would be anticipated.”


Severn tidal barrage in doubt

Has the tide turned?Whilst there are ongoing environmental worries about the Severn Tidal Barrage, plans to build the ten-mile barrage across the River Severn look to be stumbling because of Government cost cutting. The barrage could generate an astonishing 5 per cent of all of Britain’s electricity each year, but at a cost of £23 billion to build, the project is set to be indefinitely postponed early next year when ministers announce whether to commit fresh public funding, according to Westminster insiders. This strikes us here as a bit daft (to say the least). As a nation  we rely on imported coal and gas to fire our polluting power stations and we are still hugely reliant on imported oil as a fuel source – so anything the United Kingdom can do to become more self sufficient in energy is surely an economic and political advantage – and that is without the benefit to the environment and the fight against climate change. Now I was just thinking, this will cost £23 billion and will give us 5% of our country’s electricity (from the tide) for the forseeable future – and by coincidence the Treasury is planning £25 billion in ‘quantitative easing’ in the near future – printing kore money really. So could we nominate a good home for the money ……? Anyway,  the news will be a blow for advocates of the scheme, including the Sustainable Development Commission. They argue that it would help Britain to meet its ambitious EU targets of generating 30 per cent of UK electricity from renewable sources by 2020 but clearly the scheme will require large amounts of public money within the next two or three years. The Guardian reports Matthew Bell, of Frontier Economics, the author of a report on the costs of the Severn project, saying: “Given that the Government has only a limited amount of money and some very ambitious renewable energy targets, it wants to make sure it gets the best value it can — and the Severn Barrage is simply more expensive than any other form of renewable generation.” A conventional barrage would have a capacity of 8,640 megawatts and an estimated output of 17 terawatt hours a year — about 5 per cent of present UK electricity demand. But such a link would involve moving 18 million tonnes of seabed to create a level surface and require 13 million tonnes of concrete and aggregates and in July, the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury, delivered a blow to the plans, hinting strongly that the agency would oppose proposals for the barrage if environmental concerns are not addressed.

Palm oil demand is driving global warming

rainforestThis story can be found at

“The typical image used to represent the process of global warming is a power station, belching out black smoke. But an equally valid image would be an oil palm sitting serenely under a tropical sky. Rainforests are being cleared across south-east Asia, West Africa and South America to make way for palm oil plantations, which produce the world’s cheapest vegetable oil. Yet deforestation is one of the greatest drivers of climate change. The destruction of the planet’s rainforests is responsible for 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, as hardwood trees that have locked up carbon for decades are felled and burned.  Tropical deforestation might feel like something that is remote from our daily lives in Britain. But the reality is that the consumer choices millions of us make every day are contributing to the destruction of these forests. Half of all packaged food products sold by our supermarkets are made with tropical palm oil.”

Palm oil is used in chocolate, biscuits, soap, shampoo and dozens of other products as well as being used as a bio-fuel. The massive increase in the number and size of plantations, particularly in South East Asia, has destroyed thousands and thousands of acres of rain forets and has led to massive deforestation and the destruction of precious habitats – most notably driving many orang utans into homlessness and death. But the cultivation of palm oil does not need to involve such rampant destruction. If planted on marginal land, its environmental impact can be minimal. Many Western companies signed up three years ago to a commitment to use Asian palm oil from sustainable plantations, rather than the variety produced by rainforest clearance. But as the Independent  reveals, a survey from the WWF shows that their record in following through on these commitments has been miserable.

The WWF reports that most British manufacturers and retailers have done little to limit the environmental damage from palm oil and says that only Sainsburys, Marks & Spencer and a handful of other companies such as Cadburys have made substantial progress in sourcing sustainable palm oil.  Others such as Aldi, Boots, Waitrose, Warburtons, Lidl, Birds Eye and Morrisns are at the bottom of the WWF’s league of shame and the WWF disclosed that 40 of the 59 firms surveyed in Europe had not brought any sustainable palm loil (certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil  – RSPO). Even the Co-op is in the bottom half of the WWF’s league table. It is clearly time for caring consumers to take action and  make it clear to food manufacturers and retailers that the threat of environmental disaster that hangs over us comes in many shapes and few loom larger than the shape of the oil palm – and that the market needs to be transformed to rely on sustainable palm oil alone.

Bestival and Lovebox join 10:10 campaign

bestivalloveboxThe Lovebox Festival in London and the Isle of Wight’s Bestival are the latest organisations to sign up to the 10:10 climate change campaign which asks members to cut their carbon emissions by 10%.  The organisation now has more than 38,000 individual members and 1200 companies and organisations including Tottenham Hotspur football club, Adidas, Microsoft UK and 56 local councils. Both festivals say they are looking to reduce their carbon emissions with Lovebox’s Tom Findlay saying “I was very fired up by the whole notion of the 10:10 campaign” adding “a lot of it is just enormous practical common sense” but cautioning that “there is no one fundamentally brilliant idea to solve it”. Lovebox are looking at better transport solutions, using sustainable power and providing water fountains to make a change and reduce emissions. At Bestival, organiser and radio 1 DJ  Rob da Bank said “we will be looking to make cuts in emissions by creating incentives to use public transport” – the festival will also be using more solar power and local biofuels as well as promoting car sharing. Bestival won an ‘oustanding’ Greener Festival Award in 2009.

Massive Australian oil slick threatens sealife

dolphin2A massive oil spill from a ruptured well  125 miles off the North coast of Australia is proving to be a massive threat to wildlife. The Montara rig, operated by PTTEP Australia, ruptured on August 21st and millions of litres of oil are continuing to pour into the Timor Sea at a rate of anything up to 2000 barrels a day in an environmental disaster that threatens birds, mammals, fish stocks and other marine life.  The oil slick already covers 5,800 square miles (15,000 square kilometers) and environmental scientists say that even when the rupture is healed, the effects of the spill will take many years to unfold.

42 days to Cop15

cop15In just 42 days time 20,000 delegates from 192 countries will converge on Copenhagen for the “15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”. The Conference, which runs from December 7th to 18th has been described as the ‘last chance’ for world leaders to seal a deal prevent catastrophic climate change – aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a rise in global temperatures of more than two degrees – which is seen as the ‘tipping point’ above which irreversible damage including rising sea levels, floods, droughts and storms would be the norm. The pre-Conference talks have currently hit an impasse as the world’s biggest emitter, the USA,  and the worlds massive new developing nations, in particular India and China. The USA has put climate change on the ‘back burner’ as it deals with the recession and President Obama’s healthcare reforms whilst China and India are pressing for recognition of their need to develop their economies. The USA has not agreed carbon reduction targets for 2020 as yet and India and China do not want to gtart reducing emissions until 202. Meanwhile scientists warn that urgent action and massive reductions are needed now. A successful Cop15 could define the global industrial, commercial and environmental future of the planet. But it is a last chance saloon and a failure to make sweeping cuts in greenhouse gas emissions could result in a very different world to the one we know today.

Collective living gains ground

collective living 3The Guardian (24.10.09 Love thy neighbourhood, and Grand designs on living in perfect harmony) reports on the growing trend for communal living with a modern twist, where individuals, couples and families live a low carbon, simpler existence with like minded people and neighbourly help always on hand but with their own space. Welcome to the world of co-housing and community living projects which originally dregdges up the vague memory of hippy collectives or religious cults living in (un) blissful (dis) harmony.

The new idea puts people into like minded communities but allows them to retain personal space – in safe, independent and caring communities. The most recent example of the trend can be seen in a new project in Lancaster where an old industrial site is being converted into 30 eco-homes complete with a communal area – it is a community built on “ecological values … at the cutting edge of sustainable design and living”. The Guardian reports that there are about 60 groups in the UK looking to set up co-housing schemes and one example they all look at is the UK’s first major co-housing project, Springhill, in Stroud, Gloucester. Springhill has been operating for six years with 34 homes on a car-free site at the edge of  the town. Shared meals are served three times a day in a three story common house where other community activities take place, the majority of houses have solar panels and the residents can use a car-share scheme. Residents have to cook for the rest of the community once a month and are expected to donate 20 hours a year to upkeep communal areas. One of the other early communal living models highlighted is Old Hall in East Bergholt, Essex, where 50 adults and 15 under 18s share a 70 acre organic farm and live a mostly self sufficient lifestyle, producing almost all of their own food and using a biomass generator and a ground source heat pump for power and heating. Again, meals are shared and members have to donate 15 hours each week to run the farm, cook, clean and maintain buildings. In summer volunteers arrive to work and in return live for free in what sounds like an idyllic sustainable low carbon lifestyle.

Its funny isn’t it – we look at ants, bees and wasps – and call the occupants ‘workers’ who are under a ‘queen’ and in a beehive the males are called ‘drones’ and we look down at the lack of individuality as something that is weak and to be despised. And yet these social insects are undoubtedly successful – all effort are to support the nest or the hive – and that is incredibly important. Surely humans do realize the positive nature of shared living (accepting that we are all to individualistic to ever take it too far) – well certainly science fiction writers do – Doctor Who’s nemesis are the Daleks – a rather scary form of social creatures united with a common purpose (errrm to ‘exterminate’ and take over the Universe) and in Star Trek it is the Borg who have most effectively challenged successive Star Trek captains – with their hive like structure and a shared communal approach (or looking at it another way a suppression of individuality) which means that the group effort is focused on group success – very efficient and very powerful tool – and remember, it works – and  resistance is futile ……