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Staying within the 1.5C temperature limit

Global carbon dioxide emissions will have to fall quickly to limit the increase in average global temperature as modelling suggests that only a further 300 Gigatonnes of CO2 can be allowed to enter the atmosphere. In 2020, global CO2 emissions totalled 32 Gigatonnes of CO2, a decrease of 6% compared with 2019 due to the impact of the corona virus but emissions are expected to increase again this year. So immediate actions are required to reduce CO2 emissions to stay within this limit.

Carbon emission reduction targets

The new US President, Joe Biden, has set a new US target of 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 compared with 2005. He believes that this new goal would enable the USA to reduce its emissions to zero by 2050 (Paris COP 21 target) and that such a shift would create millions of sustainable new jobs. Other countries which have increased their targets include the EU, UK, Canada, Japan and Argentina while China, the world’s largest emitter, is still considering what target to adopt.
All these targets are preliminary to the COP (Conference of the Parties) 26 talks to be held in Glasgow, UK in late November. It is hoped that all 196 signatories will pledge NDCs (national declared contributions) that will put the world on a path to net zero by 2050.

UK wind farms set clean energy record

On May 3 this year there was sufficient wind which enabled UK wind farms to generate 48% of the UK’s electricity with a further 8% coming from solar and biomass. On August 16, 2019, UK wind energy peaked at 60% of the power mix.

In 2020, UK renewable energy output was 120 TWh whereas nuclear was down to 50 TWh. The average carbon intensity was 180 grams CO2 per unit of electricity generated, a reduction of 70% in the preceding 7 years and the UK’s National Grid is aiming for a carbon free electricity mix by 2025.

Corona Virus

The Corona Virus has affected many communities and the subsequent lockdowns has resulted in many more people working from home rather than commuting to work and travelling/visiting other countries. Consequently much less transport has been used resulting in decreases in both local and global air pollution. So one positive outcome of the pandemic has been to show that it is possible to reduce travel and its associated pollution through use of virtual meetings using skype or zoom.

For many students, on line learning has become the norm at least some of the time and we hope that these resources will encourage you to undertake some actions to limit climate change.

Record ocean heat levels

Reliable instrumental measurements only go back 80 years, but scientists believe that the oceans are now at their hottest for 1000 years and heating faster than at any time in the past 2000 years. This warming can affect the rate at which nutrients can be transferred by oceanic currents from the floor to the upper layers of the ocean.

Hotter oceans can also disrupt rainfall patterns which can lead in some areas to flooding and in other areas to droughts while warmer water is less able to dissolve carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas responsible for global warming.
[Guardian newspaper 14 January]

Planet now hotter than at any time in the past 12,000 years

New research based on the chemical composition of sea shells suggests that the average global temperature has been rising over the past 12,000 years.

Ice melting at record rates

The melting of ice across the planet is accelerating at a record rate with the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets being the most affected. About two thirds of the ice loss is being caused by atmospheric warming and one third by warming of the oceans. Over a 23 year period, the ice loss rate has increased by almost 60%.

The most recent modelling by Danish scientists suggest that sea level rises could be as high on average as 1.35 metres by 2100 which has serious consequences for many coastal cities.
[Guardian newspaper 3 February]

Increasing use of renewable energy sources

The good news arising from 2020 has been the continuing increase in the use of solar and wind power and the decline of the use of coal in generating electricity. This shift needs to continue if the world is going to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 C (2015 Paris agreement).

Decarbonising the electricity grid by switching to renewable energy sources has other significant advantages as wind and solar are everywhere so local generation of electricity at point of use is not only possible but also it is more efficient and less costly as the associated transmission and distribution losses are minimal.

The other major demand for energy is for heating in the winter months particular in the northern parts of Europe, North America and Asia. In these countries there is an increasing uptake of heat pumps which concentrate the low grade heat contained within the ground or air. Energy is only required to concentrate the heat to produce space and water heating but not to produce it . As heat pumps use electricity as the energy source and electricity itself can be produced locally there is the possibility of zero emissions from such homes.

The UK’s Committee for Climate Change has recommended that heat pumps should be installed in 80% of UK homes by 2050 at an annual rate of 600,000 by 2028 to replace gas as the heating source.

Insects: you will miss them once they gone

80% of all different kinds of animals are insects. They maintain the world as we know it for without their ability to pollinate plants, our environment and our food supplies will collapse. It is therefore alarming that wherever scientists have looked, insect numbers and species are declining.

Yet insects were the first animals to colonise the land some 400 million years ago. Their decline is almost certainly due to loss of habitat in cutting down forests , converting grass lands to growing crops and above all, a changing climate.

To prevent further loss of species we have to reverse the loss in biodiversity by creating more habitats and limiting further changes in climate as quickly as possible.
[National Geographic Magazine, May 2020]

Loss of biodiversity and likely economic consequences

The loss of biodiversity is due to many factors including increasing population, increasing land use for growing crops, cutting down of forests, over fishing the oceans and changes in climate.

An in depth review led by Partha Dasgupta, University of Cambridge, has for the first time evaluated economically the benefits of biodiversity in its widest sense. In the past 20 years there has been a 40% reduction in the stocks of natural capital which include soil, air, water and all living things.

The reason for this reduction in natural capital is that almost all Governments have encouraged people to exploit nature rather protect it and this could result in collapse of entire eco systems thereby endangering both current and future generations.

Reversing the loss in biodiversity will require a shared understanding of how these systems work and a shared endeavour to reverse these losses

[Economics of Biodiversity – the Dasgupta review]

State of the Planet

On Tuesday 2nd December, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, in a speech at Columbia University, New York, described the ‘The state of our planet as broken’. He continued that ‘humanity is waging war on nature and this is suicidal. Nature always strikes back and is now doing so with increasing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing, ecosystems are disappearing, deserts are spread and oceans are choking with plastic waste. Making peace with nature will be the defining task of the 21st century. The central objective of the UN in 2021 will be to build a truly global coalition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Every country, city, town and company should adopt plans for the transition to net zero emissions. He urged everyone to take decisive action now and to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 which would require a year on year reduction of 6%.

On the same day, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) released reports to which Guterres referred.

State of the global climate (WMO)

In spite of the C virus pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, not only carbon dioxide, but also concentrations of methane and nitrous oxides. Amongst other indicators of the changing climate were –

  • 2020 was one of the 3 hottest years ever recorded
  • The warmest six years have all been since 2014
  • The past decade was the hottest in human history
  • Ocean heat was at record levels inflicting harm on marine ecosystems
  • Parts of the Artic experienced exceptional warmth some 5 C above the long term average
  • Oceans were becoming more acidic

Petteri Taalas, Secretary General, WMO observed that the over riding concern is that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean, even longer. The last time the Earth experienced such carbon dioxide concentrations was 3 – 5 million years ago when the average global temperature was 2 -3 C hotter and sea levels some 10 – 20 metres higher.

State of knowledge on soil biodiversity (FAO)

A quarter of all species live in the ground beneath our feet and provide nutrients for all our food. The FAO authors observe that ‘soil organisms play a crucial role in our everyday life by working to sustain life on Earth. The available evidence indicates that a large proportion of the Earth’s surface has been degraded as the result of human activity. The main causes of damage are intensive agriculture, destruction of natural habitats and changes in climate. There was an ever increasing need to protect existing healthy soils and restore degraded soils.

Release of methane deposits

Methane is a gas which is 80X more powerful than carbon dioxide, in absorbing infra red rays of sunlight which are reflected from the earth’s surface. It is the presence of these greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere which are leading to global warming.

The continent slope sediments in the Artic Ocean in eastern Siberia contain a vast quantity of frozen methane in the form of hydrates. Measurements made by scientists on board a Russian research vessel have found that bubbles of gas emerging from these sediments contain 4 to 8 times the normal methane levels. What seems to be triggering this release is that average temperature in the first 6 months of 2020 was 5 C higher than the long term average.

If such outcomes are confirmed next year then such releases on a much larger scale could accelerate global warming
[Guardian news 28/10/2020]

Possible ecosystem collapse

Biodiversity of species and preservation of their ecosystems form the basis not only of our food chain, but also impact on our climate in numerous ways. Human activities which result in the loss of biodiversity can lead to collapse of ecosystems, loss of wildlife and their habitats

A report commissioned by Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers, has concluded that one fifth of countries globally are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to a decline in biodiversity and their related beneficial services.

Moreover in September at the UN Biodiversity Summit, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guteres observed that ‘none of 2020 biodiversity targets agreed in Aichi in 2010 will be achieved and that “Biodiversity and sustainable ecosystems are central to achieving our Sustainable Development Goals but too often environmental health is down played’.
[Guardian news 13/10/20]

Restoring degraded landscapes

If land that has been degraded by human exploitation can be restored to its previous level of biodiversity then this could be one of the quickest and cheapest ways of limiting climate change and enabling plant species and wildlife to be restored.

This increase in biodiversity would result in storing substantial amounts of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis , the most abundant of the greenhouse gases.
[Guardian news 15/10/2020]

Carbon capture and storage

BP, a major oil company which has exploited the oil deposits under the North Sea for 40 years, is now leading two multi-national partnerships to transport million tonnes of carbon dioxide yearly from carbon capture projects in the Teesside and Humber regions of the UK and to store this gas in salt caverns under North Sea. This should result in storing almost half of the UK’s industrial emissions from 2026 onwards.

Carbon capture and storage is considered a vital measure in attaining the UK’s legally binding target of zero carbon emissions by 2050.
[Guardian news 27/10/2020]

Is nuclear power needed to meet future demand?

On 16 September, Hitachi abandoned its plan to build a new nuclear power station in North Wales. Because of the high cost and length of time of building such a station, it raises the question as to whether any other nuclear power plants will be built in the UK other than Hinckley Point C in Somerset which has been under construction since 2014.

The advantage of renewable electricity sources that they are now much cheaper and much quicker to bring on line so installation can occur if demand increases.

As renewables can vary in intensity, there is an increased need for storage and the intriguing suggestion is whether the increase in electric vehicles with their batteries could be used to reinforce the grid.

Impact of climate crisis on UK weather is increasing

More extreme heat, less frost and snow with trees losing their leaves later in the autumn and coming into leaf earlier in the spring were amongst the signs last year of the climate crisis having an increased impact on the UK according to the Metrological Office’s annual report. New records were set for both the highest summer and winter temperatures

The Central England Temperature Series is the longest instrumental record in the world dating back to 1659. It reveals that the average temperature so far this century is 10.3C that is 1.6C higher than for 1659-1700.
[Guardian newspaper 31/07/2020]

Active travel England

On 27 July, this new Government Department was created to oversee the expenditure of £2 billion over the next 5 years, which local councils will be able to use to construct pavements and dedicated cycle paths. Painting a line on the road way to identify a lane for cyclists will no longer be allowed.

The rationale is not only to reduce motorised traffic, but also to reduce pollution and increase physical fitness and safety of cyclist and pedestrians.

Similar initiatives are being undertaken in other European countries as part of their green Covid 19 recovery package.

Carbon capture and storage

The International Energy Agency (IEA) believes that carbon capture, utilisation and storage should be one of the key technologies in reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The technology works by injecting emissions from power stations or factories into an absorber containing a solvent which captures the CO2. The solvent can subsequently be heated to release the carbon which can then be safely stored while the solvent can be reused.

The technology has been slow to emerge and to date there are only 20 carbon capture projects in commercial use world wide at an average cost of ca $1 billion each.
[Guardian newspaper 24/09/2020]

May was the greenest month ever in UK

May 2020 was the greenest ever for the UK electricity supply as 28% of the UK’s electricity was supplied by renewables and for 54 consecutive days no coal fired plants were used at all. The result was that the average carbon intensity per unit of electricity decreased to 143 grams carbon dioxide from the 2019 average of 250 grams. On 24 May, the lowest carbon intensity ever was recorded of 46 grams. Decarbonising the electricity grid will significantly reduce the average carbon footprint per person. [Guardian 3 June]

However the UK’s Committee for Climate Change in its annual report to Parliament observed that the UK was falling behind in its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions and that the recovery from Covid 19 pandemic created an opportunity for creating green jobs like insulating buildings, switching to electric vehicles and improving broad band coverage so more people could work from home. [Guardian 26 June]

New record temperatures in Siberia

While the average global temperature rise since 1750 (start of Industrial Revolution) was just above 1.0 C, a prolonged heat wave in Siberia has seen a temperature rise by up to 30 C. This increase is primarily due to ocean currents carrying heat towards the polar regions and melting of ice and snow which reflects radiation rather than absorbs it. Apart from other impacts, thawing of the permafrost could release pockets of methane gas which is a strong greenhouse gas.

World has only six months to reduce its carbon emissions

In the annual report of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, its executive director, warned that the world has only six months in which to begin reducing its carbon emissions permanently to prevent irreversible changes in climate. He stated that ‘This year is the last time we have if we are not to see a carbon rebound (after the Covid 19 pandemic)’.

In its first global blueprint for a green recovery, the Agency suggested focussing on wind and solar power together with energy efficiency improvements to buildings and industries and modernisation of electricity grids to better manage distributed renewable power sources. The Agency observed that targeting green jobs was more effective than pouring money into a high carbon economy [Guardian 18 June]

Air pollution below normal despite increase in traffic

Analysis of recent air pollution data in the UK has shown that air pollution has decreased even though traffic flows are near normal. One possible reason in that even a small decrease in traffic results in a significant decrease in air pollution because of the reduction in congestion in urban areas. As air pollution can result in respiratory illnesses, reducing pollution may also decrease the impact of Covid 19 virus as it is also affects the respiratory system. [Guardian 14 July]

Coronavirus, environmental impact and climate change

One unexpected impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been the improvement in the quality of the environment. Due to lockdown, the amount of industrial activity and vehicular traffic, particularly road and air, has decreased very significantly and the benefits have included reductions in -

  • Air pollution
  • Noise pollution
  • Greenhouse gas emissions

The reduction in road traffic has encouraged more people to reclaim the road space for walking and cycling in many towns and cities thereby improving air quality.

A number of well known people have observed that once the pandemic is over – “ the outbreak has proven that society in its present form is not sustainable and we need to choose a new way forward”. Greta Thunberg also noted “that the global response demonstrated how quickly change could happen when humanity united and acted on the advice of scientists”.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, observed in a message for Earth Day (22 April) “that the pandemic was the biggest threat that the world had faced since 1945 but that the environmental emergency was deeper. He believed that the post pandemic recovery should include –

  • Creation of green jobs whose activities would have little or no environmental impact
  • Taxpayer support for sustainable growth
  • End to fossil fuel subsidies

Impact of habitat loss
Pope Francis observed that “ the coronavirus has put a spotlight on values. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and learn to understand and contemplate the natural world”. He added “ this is the time to take the decisive step and move from misusing nature to contemplating it”.

The world’s leading biodiversity experts have warned that “the coronavirus is likely to be followed by outbreaks of even more deadly diseases unless their root cause – the rampant destruction of the natural world – is rapidly halted. Some 70% of emerging diseases in humans originate from close contact of people with animals ”.

“Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development as well as exploitation of wild species have created a perfect storm for the spill over of diseases.”

They conclude that “the health of people is intimately connected to the health of wildlife, livestock and the health of the environment” [Preparatory remarks to a new draft by the International Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and and Ecosystems Services]

All texts from articles in the Guardian newspaper.

Environmental impact
Air pollution and C virus

During the lockdown owing to the coronavirus, road traffic in the UK dropped by up to 73%. The deserted streets have resulted in corresponding large decreases in air pollution, which is likely to reduce early deaths from lung and heart conditions.

The reduction in air pollution is also likely to decrease the likelihood of catching the coronavirus if persons have pre-existing respiratory diseases.

Now that many people have learnt to work from home, it is unlikely that traffic volumes will ever increase to their former levels. Towns and cities are helping to initiate this change by decreasing road space in favour of cycle lanes and wider pavements.

Rises in sea levels
Sea levels are rising faster than previously estimated and could reach 1 metre by the year 2100 unless global emissions are reduced rapidly. Based on new knowledge of climate sensitivity and polar ice melt, scientists believe that coastal cities should prepare for an impact sooner than predicted by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Bleaching of coral reefs
Coral reefs are important marine reservoirs of biodiversity being homes to myriads of species. However rising ocean temperatures could push the world’s tropical coral reefs over a tipping point so that they undergo bleaching each year which can kill the coral and the home for many species.

Oceans could be restored to former health
Available evidence suggests that it will be possible to restore the biodiversity of the oceans if we are able to introduce sustainable fishing, protect the oceans from acidification by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate the destruction of habitats such as sea grass meadows and mangrove swamps. But it will require pro-active policies by Governments and global cooperation amongst nations.

2020 hottest ever?

This year is likely to be the hottest ever world wide according to meteorologists as heat records have been broken from the Antarctic to Greenland since January. For example Europe recorded its warmest winter ever with an average rise in long term temperature of 1.4 C only 0.1 C below the limit temperature to avoid irreversible changes in climate.

Though yearly CO2 emissions will decrease this year due to lockdowns, the concentration of greenhouse gases will continue to rise and so will the average global temperature.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is now a window of opportunity for introducing more sustainable means of transport and energy production by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Rise in temperature and humidity
The vast majority of humanity has lived in regions where the average annual temperature lies between 6 C and 28 C which is ideal for human health and food production. Humanity is particularly sensitive to any temperature rise as the land warms faster than the ocean. A study by the University of Exeter suggests that there could be more change in temperature in the next 50 years than in the past 6000 years and that actions are needed now to accelerate cuts in emissions.

If addition, if periods of extreme heat are accompanied by high humidity then the chances of survival are reduced as the human body may not be able to sweat out excess heat through the skin from where it evaporates. Available evidence indicates that incidence of such events is increasing and has doubled over a 40 year time period.

All the available evidence indicates that global warming is increasing and it will be up to each to use less energy and to change energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable sources where ever possible.

All texts from articles in the Guardian newspaper



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