Tag Archives: climate change

Nobel-winning market theory could help us better protect coral reefs

A group of researchers from Australia’s University of Queensland used a revolutionary stock market theory to identify 50 coral reefs around the world that will likely be less affected by the climate crisis and use them as ‘arks’ to help repopulate other reefs. The researchers suggest focusing future conservation efforts in specifically protecting these reefs. 

Image credit: Flickr / WorldFish.

Coral reefs are threatened by local and global stressors, including declining water quality, overfishing, and ocean warming. They are likely to disappear entirely or almost entirely by mid-century if the target of the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius isn’t met. And even if it is, an estimated 70% to 90% of the world’s corals would still vanish.

However, the remaining coral populations are still very important to replenish coral reefs once ocean surface temperatures hopefully stabilize in the future. The challenge is to identify these reefs and direct resources focused on achieving long-term coral conservation amid the climate crisis, according to the Australian researchers behind the new study. 

Seeking to address this, the team applied the Modern Portfolio Theory or MPT (a mathematical framework from the 1950s to help investors maximize returns) to identify coral reefs sanctuaries that could survive the climate crisis and repopulate other reefs when things stabilize. They identified 50 reefs from around the world.

“By applying MPT to conservation planning, the expected variance in those conservation outcomes can be reduced by investing in areas that tend to behave in different ways. This is of particular interest when decisions about where to act are informed by uncertain projections about future states of the world,” the researchers wrote.

Better protecting corals

For the study, the researchers classified the world’s coral reefs into bioclimatic units (BCU) of 500 square kilometers (190 squared miles). They used over 170 metrics in five categories to classify each coral reef’s odds of surviving (including risks from invasive species, temperature and ocean acidification). Then, they produced estimates for the future of each BCU, capturing different possibilities. 

The team then applied MPT to identify the corals with the best chances for conservation. The market theory is based on the idea that you have stocks that are high risk and high reward, and stocks that are low risk and low reward — and you want to balance your portfolio to include both in different proportions, based on your tolerance to risk.

Researchers applied this idea to coral reefs as well, finding the 50 coral reefs most likely to survive climate change, and recommend using them as arks to repopulate the other corals. For this list, they identified reefs all over the world, including Pacific Islands, South America, northern and eastern Africa, Australia and south-east and south Asia. The list includes parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the “coral triangle” in the Pacific but also excluded ecologically relevant areas, such as Central America’s Barrier Reef. 

For the researchers, while widespread loss and degradation of corals are soon expected because of climate change — it’s not a matter of ‘if’, it’s a matter of ‘when’. But there are still things we can do. Strategic management of threats and the use of emerging technologies provide opportunities to improve conservation of corals. Nevertheless, success in saving them ultimately depends on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. 

The study was published in the journal Conservation Letters. 

Healthier, more nutritious diets have a lower environmental impact — at least in the UK

More nutritious and healthy diet options can also help the climate, says a new analysis from the University of Leeds.

Image via Pixabay.

Our combined dietary habits can be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, food production accounts for roughly one-third of all emissions. This isn’t very surprising, since everybody needs to eat; but there are little tweaks we can apply to our lives which, added up, can lead to significant benefits for the climate.

New research at the University of Leeds reports that more nutritious, less processed, and less energy-dense diets can be much more sustainable from an environmental point of view than more common alternatives. While “less energy-dense” might sound like a bad thing, calorie content doesn’t translate into nutrient content. In other words, many energy-rich foods may actually just leave us fatter and malnourished.

Clean dining

“We all want to do our bit to help save the planet. Working out how to modify our diets is one way we can do that,” the authors explain. “There are broad-brush concepts like reducing our meat intake, particularly red meat, but our work also shows that big gains can be made from small changes, like cutting out sweets, or potentially just by switching brands.”

Similar analyses of the impacts of dietary options on the environment have been performed in the past. While their findings align well with the conclusions of the study we’re discussing today, they focused on broad categories of food instead of specific items. The team wanted to improve the accuracy of our data on this topic.

For the study, they pooled together published research on greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production to estimate the environmental impact of 3,233 specific food items. These items were selected from the UK Composition Of Foods Integrated Dataset (COFID). This dataset contains nutritional data regarding every item on the list and is commonly used to gauge the nutritional qualities of individuals’ diets.

The team used this data to evaluate the diets of 212 participants, who were asked to report what foods they ate during three 24-hour periods. In the end, this provided a snapshot of each participant’s usual nutritional intake and the greenhouse emissions generated during the production phase of all the items they consumed.

What the results show, in broad strokes, is the environmental burden of different types of diets, broken down by their constituent elements.

According to the findings, non-vegetarian diets had an overall 59% higher level of greenhouse gas emissions compared to vegetarian diets. This finding isn’t particularly surprising; industrial livestock farming is a big consumer of resources such as food and water and produces quite a sizeable amount of emissions from the animals themselves, the production of fodder, and through the processing and storage of meat and other goods.

Overall men’s diets tended to be associated with higher emissions — 41% more on average than women’s diets — mainly due to higher meat consumption.

People who exceeded the recommended sodium (salt), saturated fat, and carbohydrate intake as set out by World Health Organization guidelines generated more emissions through their diets than those who did not.

Based on these findings, the authors offer their support for policies aimed at encouraging sustainable diets, especially those that are heavily plant-based. One other measure they are in support of is policy that promotes the replacement of coffee, tea, and alcohol with more sustainable alternatives.

The current study offers a much higher-resolution view of the environmental impact of different food items, but it is not as in-depth as it could be. In the future, the authors hope to be able to expand their research to include elements such as brand or country of origin to help customers better understand what choices they’re making. They also plan to include broader measures of environmental impact in their analyses, not just greenhouse gas emissions.

For now, the findings are based only on data from the UK, so they may not translate perfectly to other areas of the globe.

The paper “Variations in greenhouse gas emissions of individual diets: Associations between the greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient intake in the United Kingdom” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

The world is set to 2.4ºC global warming despite new climate pledges

Despite the flurry of pledges made by governments so far at the COP26 climate summit, we are still on track for a disastrous level of global warming. According to a new analysis by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), COP26 “has a massive credibility, action and commitment gap”. In other words, there’s just not enough progress.

Image credit: UN / Flickr.

In 2015, almost every country agreed to limit global warming to 2ºC, ideally aiming for 1.5ºC, as part of the Paris Agreement. This would prevent even worse consequences from the climate crisis than the ones we are already experiencing all around the world, including species extinction, melting glaciers, and sea-level rise. 

Governments have come to the UN climate change climate summit in Glasgow with a whole set of pledges and commitments to act on the climate crisis. Nevertheless, this is just not enough. As things stand right now, temperatures will increase 2.4º by the end of the century, according to the analysis by CAT based on the short-term goals by countries. 

The researchers also found a big gap between what countries have said they will do on greenhouse gas emissions and what they’re actually doing. If current policies from governments are taken into account instead of just goals, global warming would reach 2.7ºC and not 2.4ºC, according to the analysis. A truly bleak scenario if this happens, as it would lead to more extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and plenty of other environmental problems.

“All countries have to go back and rethink what they can do. The only way to do that is to go on emergency mode. If we take baby steps every time it doesn’t work,” Niklas Höhne, one of the authors of the report and a climate researcher, said in a press conference at COP26, “Governments have to do something substantially different.”

The challenges ahead

The estimate by CAT is in sharp contrast with optimistic forecasts published last week, suggesting that global warming could be limited to 1.8ºC thanks to the commitments announced at COP26. Those initial estimates were based on long-term goals by countries for 2050, while CAT’s study looked at short-term ones for the next decade. 

Governments attending the climate summit in Glasgow were asked to come here with two deliverables: an updated short-term climate plan, known as NDCs, and a long-term plan to reach net-zero emissions around mid-century. Emissions have to fall by about 45% this decade for global temperatures to remain within 1.5ºC, studies have shown

While a large number of countries have recently signed to net-zero by 2050, the NDCs for actions in the next decade don’t match up to reality. If countries don’t act to lower their emissions in the coming two decades, the world could easily surpass the 1.5ºC limit even if carbon neutrality is reached later, according to the new analysis by CAT. 

The key drivers for this bleak outlook are coal and gas, CAT argued. Meeting the Paris Agreement targets requires coal to be phased out by 2030 in developed countries and globally by 2040. The increase of natural gas is also not compatible with Paris, but this fossil fuel is expanding, with countries using it as a transition to renewable sources.

“Glasgow is meant to keep the Paris Agreement 1.5ºC target in sight. But the gap is still so big that we can’t see that being possible at the moment,” Bill Hare, one of the authors of the report, said in a press conference. “It’s all very well for leaders and governments to claim they have a net zero target but they don’t plan to get there. Glasgow has a big credibility gap”

The full analysis can be accessed here.

European Space Agency launches new mission to measure climate change in unprecedented detail

Artist’s impression of TRUTHS. (Image: ESA and Airbus)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has new plans to study the Earth’s energy balance, in an effort to better understand and combat climate change. The Earth energy balance is the point between incoming energy from the Sun and outgoing energy from the Earth. As we emit more greenhouse gases, our planet’s atmosphere traps more heat, which is triggering global warming.

Named TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies), the project is currently in the planning stages by the European Space Agency and its nations and will measure the amount of heat that gets trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The plan for the small satellite mission was introduced at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland by the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA). Conceived by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), it will enable a space-based climate observing system which will “set a benchmark to detect changes in Earth’s climate system.”

“The mission will play a vital role in improving how we monitor climate change using satellite data and support the decisive climate action that global nations are negotiating at COP26,” said Beth Greenaway, head of Earth observation and climate at the UK Space Agency.

As well as establishing a new benchmark, the mission will create a climate and calibration observatory that will reduce some of the uncertainty in the Earth-observing data, creating a sort of space-based calibration lab. The benchmark is important because the more heat that the Earth keeps in, the warmer it gets, so it’s probably a good thing if scientists knew that point. TRUTHS will build additional confidence in climate studies by providing an element of a space-based climate observing system tied unequivocally to international standards. It will also enable researchers to better calibrate existing climate satellites.

“TRUTHS is an important mission as it will provide the gold standard of calibration for space-based Earth observation – a kind of ‘standards laboratory in space’,” said Justin Byrne, Head of Earth Observation and Science at Airbus Defence and Space UK. “With TRUTHS we also have the opportunity to further develop important areas of industrial capabilities across the UK space sector.”

Two main instruments would piggyback aboard the satellite: the Cryogenic Solar Absolute Radiometer and the Hyperspectral Imaging Spectrometer. These two pieces of equipment will gauge the incoming and reflected solar radiation to help detect alterations in Earth’s climate more quickly as well as generate the super-accurate reference system employing the benchmark level for other measurements and climate models.

“TRUTHS meets calls from the world’s satellite and climate community for robust high accuracy SI traceability (SI is an internationally recognized reference system that supports comparability of chemical measurements across a broad range of industries and sectors),” said Nigel Fox, United Kingdom TRUTHS Mission Scientist, at NPL. “A recent publication from the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites has highlighted the urgency for improved accuracy of observations from space, to help ensure our actions are having the desired impact.”

If everything goes as planned, the satellite could launch in 2029.

COP26 experts weigh in: Climate disasters are getting worse – but we can get ahead of them

Weather-related disasters aren’t necessarily inevitable. We can use scientific data to act early and trigger action before extreme weather events strike. At the climate summit COP26, climate experts shared their insights on programs already in place while asking for further money for vulnerable nations to adapt to the climate crisis.

Image credit: Cristoff / Flickr

Extreme weather events are becoming the new norm, the World Meteorological Agency forecasts. The past seven years, including this one, have been the warmest on record as greenhouse gases reached record concentrations in the atmosphere and this has triggered all sorts of extreme phenomena, from floods to drought. 

This is resulting in continued rises in the number and costs of disasters. In particular, the poor and marginalized groups have the most to lose in a disaster, as they lack resources, information, capacities and social safety nets to protect their livelihoods. Martin Griffiths, Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN, said things will only get worse. 

Since 1990, 92% of mortality attributed to internationally reported disasters associated with natural hazards has occurred in low- and middle-income countries, mainly concentrated in the Asia–Pacific region and Africa, according to a UN report. Geophysical hazard events have taken the highest toll on human lives, the UN found.

Mami Mizoutori from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said the world has to invest more in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, deploying early warning systems in vulnerable countries. The UN has metrics and data that it regularly shares with countries so this can be used to prevent extreme disasters, she told participants at an event at COP26.

“Countries that are suffering the most need to get support to address climate-related loss and damage. We have to accelerate predictable and risk informed investment that looks at future climate impacts,” Mizoutori said. “This means moving from response focus of disaster to a greater investment in prevention. The results are much better.”

Acting ahead of shocks

For María Elena Semedo from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), acting ahead of shocks is a key to increasing resilience across all economic sectors. Every dollar spent in anticipatory action is a good investment, she said, as the costs after a climate disaster is always much larger. But we need much more money invested around the world to truly be prepared.

“In 2020 we had a locust that affected horn of Africa. We mobilized $230 million and we protected livelihoods of 40 million people. We save crops and pasture valued in $1.7 billion,” Semedo added. “It’s important to have anticipatory action and this pays back. We need rapid funding to enable all actors to support those most vulnerable.”

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. It’s exposed to regular typhoons and droughts and it has an extensive coastline, home to the country’s main cities and most of the population. The country has been hit by more than 75 disasters since 2006, causing over $4 billion in losses in the agriculture sector. 

To address these challenges, the government has implemented a set of disaster risk management and adaptation measures, Paola Alvarez from the country’s Department of Finance said at COP26. All government departments work together in this, from energy to agriculture, Alvarez added, with early warning systems set in several provinces.

In its most recent assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a leading group of climate experts, said the world can still meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and avoid a temperature increase of over 1.5ºC. Doing so would be essential for island nations and vulnerable countries, who are already feeling the worst effects of the climate crisis. In the meantime, we’d be wise to be prepared for what’s to come.

These poignant cartoons sum up exactly how we feel about COP26

The first week of the climate change conference COP26 in the UK is almost over. Governments have made dozens of ambitious pledges to tackle the climate crisis, but how they will actually deliver on these promises remains very unclear. The hypocrisy, denial, and slow place of progress has frustrated many — including cartoonists who are featuring their work for participants at COP26.

The summit is being held in downtown Glasgow. Almost 40,000 people have registered to participate at COP26, which was regarded as a watershed moment and probably the most relevant climate summit after COP21 in 2015 in Paris, when the Paris Agreement on climate was signed.

Alongside the official negotiations by government representatives, COP26 showcases initiatives from civil society organizations, innovators and artists, which is where the cartoons enter. The “Cartoon Gallery” shows 60 cartoons by artists from all around the world, using humor to express everyone’s frustration with the lack of climate ambition.

A lot of negotiations is “same old, same old” — the same promises we’ve been hearing for years, with little concrete action.

The gallery was created by the Climate Centre, an organization that helps the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement to reduce the impacts of climate change on vulnerable people. In recent decades, there has been an increase in extreme weather events, particularly targeting poor countries that can’t afford to do much about it. 

Many regard the ongoing climate crisis as a health crisis as well.

Our house is on fire, as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has said.

The Climate Centre explained the important role that humor can play — especially at a meeting such as COP26, when the politics lingo is typically in the front, whereas real action is somewhere in the background.

“Humor, like humanitarian work, is about the gap between what is and what should be. It flourishes in the midst of our absurdities, contradictions, tensions, and denial. Cartoonists can help us notice, then confront, what is unacceptable yet accepted. “

For anyone looking to make sense of what’s going on at this mammoth event, it can be daunting to even follow all the announcements — let alone get a sense of whether there’s any substance to them as well. Perhaps this is why these cartoons hit the nerve so well: they make a direct and clear point, contrasting the ambiguity at the summit.

Heatwaves are coming in harder and harder — and you can’t hide from them in your own home.

Ultimately, many politicians seem determined to simply cover their eyes and pretend like climate change will go away. Unfortunately, it won’t. It will affect all of us, regardless of whether we believe in it or not. Unlike the dinosaurs who were wiped out by a meteorite, we have a choice, and we can protect ourselves. Whether we’ll actually choose to do so is a different thing, though.

More countries agree to quit coal at COP26 – but not China and the US

A group of 28 countries joined an international alliance to phase out coal, the dirtiest energy source (it accounts for a third of the energy consumed worldwide). While the announcement made at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is encouraging, China, India, and the US, the main burners of coal, have decided not to sign up yet.

Image credit: UN climate change.

With the new pledges, the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) has now been signed by a total of 48 governments. Among the new members, Poland is one of the main consumers of coal in Europe, while Singapore is the first Asian country to join the alliance. Other signatory countries include Chile, Estonia, South Korea, and Canada.

The PPCA works to “advance the transition from unabated coal power generation to clean energy” and phase out coal by 2030, according to its website. It not only includes national governments among its members but also local ones and financial institutions such as HSBC, Vancity, and Fidelity International, which also became new members. 

For the UK, the COP26 President, the expansion of the alliance was seen as a sign that the end of coal could soon be achieved. Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s business secretary, said that the announcement “marks a milestone moment” as countries tackle climate change. “The commitments demonstrate that the end of coal is in sight,” he said in a statement. 

But climate campaigners weren’t that much excited. Jamie Peters, director of campaigns at Friends of the Earth, questioned the fact that countries are allowed to continue using coal energy as normal until 2030. He said there’s a big gap between what the UK government is saying and what’s actually being done by countries at COP.

Furthermore, it’s doubtful that all countries will actually try to phase out coal within the decade and keep their pledge. Poland, for instance, gets around 80% of its energy from coal and recently decided to keep a coal mine open despite a €500,000-a-day fine.

China, the world’s largest coal consumer, is also not present at the table. Coal accounted for 56% of energy generation last year in China and the government is still building new coal plants. Still, some positive signals recently emerged, as China decided to stop funding coal plants abroad and agreed to decarbonize its economy. The US and India have also declined to join this initiative.

While progress might be slow, there have been some positive signs. A report earlier this year found that a total of 1,175GW of planned coal-fired power projects were canceled since 2015 — mainly due to pressure from civil society, government policies, and market trends. This essentially halved the expansion of coal.

Energy day at COP26

While the announcements on coal took most headlines, it wasn’t the only big thing at COP26. Four major economies also agreed to stop supporting fossil fuel projects internationally. Canada, the US, Italy, and the UK promised not to finance any new coal, oil, and natural gas projects in other countries by the end of next year. 

The pledge was seen by campaigners as a historic breakthrough that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. Laure van der Burg, campaigner at Oil Change International, said that the countries are doing what’s most logical in a climate emergency, “stop adding fuel to the fire and shift dirty finance to climate action.”

Developed countries support fossil fuel projects abroad that they expect to benefit their economies. A study by Oil Change International showed that in the 2018-2020 period Canada was the main financer of foreign fossil fuels in the G20 group. Canada also joined today’s pledge, but big countries were missing as China and Australia.

Begone, methane: Over 100 countries pledge to cut methane emissions

While CO2 is usually branded as the main villain in the climate crisis, there are other greenhouse gases out there that also have their fair share of responsibility. Methane, especially, is 80 times more potent than CO2 (although it’s much more short-lived). Now, a group of countries at the climate summit COP26 in the UK have drawn up a plan of action to reduce methane emissions as quickly as possible.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden. Image credit: UN.

Over 100 countries have signed a commitment to reduce their methane emissions by 30% between 2020 and 2030. The initiative is spearheaded by the United States and the European Union and it covers two-thirds of the global economy and half of the main 30 methane emitters countries. China, Russia and India haven’t joined it, however. 

The plan had been announced in September, but the US government and the EU had been working hard since then to raise the number of signatories and the momentum behind the pledge. Alongside commitments on deforestation and financing renewable energy, this could probably be one of the big things coming out of COP26, which started this week.

“We have to act now. We cannot wait for 2050; we have to cut emissions fast,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the pledge launch event at COP26 in Glasgow. “Cutting back on methane emissions is one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming … it is the lowest-hanging fruit.”

While non-binding, if the pledge is actually met it will prevent 0.2ºC of global warming by the middle of the century. It may seem it’s not a lot, but every 10th of a degree makes a big difference in terms of climate change. Some of the worst effects of the climate crisis can still be prevented if the global temperatures don’t keep rising. 

Campaigners largely welcomed the announcement, and reactions were positive. Ani Dasgupta, CEO of the World Resources Institute (a global research non-profit organization), said the next step for countries is to put the pledge in motion, with policies to address methane emissions in sectors such as agriculture and energy. “Solutions to tackle methane are readily available and are cost-effective,” she added. 

Still, there are plenty of questions about how this pact will actually be enforced. The signatory countries committed to “work together in order to collectively reduce methane emissions” and to taking “comprehensive domestic actions.” This means they don’t have to draw a list of policies to sign the pledge, which gives it limited transparency.

The role of methane

Methane is released into the atmosphere through different human activities, including the production of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), landfills, and agriculture. Livestock breeding is largely to blame, as manure from cows, sheep and pigs adds methane to the atmosphere. It’s a very powerful gas responsible for about 30% of global warming.

Methane emissions have risen significantly and are now higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which groups leading climate scientists, said in its most recent assessment. The good news is that methane emissions are more short-lived than CO2 and tend to break down within a decade. 

A report earlier this year by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) found that human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by 45% this decade. This would avoid 0.3% of global warming by 2045 and would put us a step closer to meeting the key goal of the Paris Agreement of climate change of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC.

G20 leaders promise big climate efforts but make few tangible commitments

There’s a distinct irony to Boris Johnson calling out world leaders for their hollow promises on climate change.

The UK Prime Minister, who said these promises are “starting to sound hollow” and that the commitments are “drops in a rapidly warming ocean”, is familiar to hollow promises himself. Johnson has often been criticized for his failure to deliver on a number of topics, including climate. The UK recently announced its plan to transition to zero emissions, but many have pointed out that the plan is also short on specifics and rings hollow at different places.

So when, after intense all-night negotiations, world leaders finally agreed to a joint declaration on climate change, we can probably be excused for not getting our hopes up.

Sure, on paper, things look good. Not only did the leaders of G20 (which accounts for 80% of the world’s emissions and includes the European Union plus the world’s 19 richest countries) reiterate their support of the Paris Agreement to limit climate warming within 2°C, but they even made a push for 1.5°C.

“We remain committed to the Paris Agreement goal to hold the global average temperature increase well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, also as a means to enable the achievement of the 2030 Agenda,” the leaders said in a statement. “We recognize that the impacts of climate change at 1.5°C are much lower than at 2°C.”

But ultimately, the agreement made few concrete commitments. US President Joe Biden said there were a “series of very productive meetings”, but he rightly pointed out that China and Russia (among the world’s biggest polluters) “basically didn’t show up” on matters of the climate. In fact, China and Russia, along with India and Australia, made a push against a firm statement about ending the use of coal. European diplomats were pushing on a firm target to end the use of coal, but supporters of fossil fuel could not be budged.

The leaders agreed to end international public financing of new coal power by the end of this year, but domestic financing of coal plants was not addressed — let alone ending the use of coal altogether. This political stalemate does not bode well for COP26 — the global climate summit that starts today.

Five years ago, at the 21th COP in Paris, we got the Paris Agreement — the landmark international climate pact in which all countries agreed to limit their emissions to keep temperature rise to within 2 degrees Celsius — and now it’s time for countries to update their national plans to reduce emissions — hopefully with more ambitious plans.

But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Even if current committments are respected (which is already a big ‘if’) that only puts us on a trajectory for a warming of 3 degrees Celsius.

So if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need more tangible action and we need it now. There seems to be an impending feeling of “now or never” in the air, with Boris Johnson telling G20 leaders that “If Glasgow fails, then the whole thing fails.” Unfortunately, many felt that the G20 didn’t deliver. Oscar Soria, of the activist network Avaaz, told the agency there was “little sense of urgency” coming from the group, adding: “There is no more time for vague wish lists, we need concrete commitments and action.”

Even António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations expressed his disappointment with the result, saying his hopes are “unfulfilled” but at least “not buried.”

Still, not all is lost yet. France’s President Emmanuel Macron told newspaper Journal du Dimanche that “nothing is ever written before a COP”, while a US official told reporters that G20 was about “helping build momentum” before the leaders head to Glasgow for COP. With the conference kicking off today, the message of G20 leaders is expected to set the tone for negotiations and lend a push for the uphill battle of fighting climate change.

We’ve seen in the pandemic that the world can take decisive action quickly with the right drive, and climate change is a challenge equal in scale (or even greater) than the pandemic. Hopefully, world leaders will manage to recreate that same drive and put the world on a path that avoids some of the worst effects of climate change.

The scientific consensus is that if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, the likelihood of climate catastrophes increases substantially. This translates into increased global hunger, water crises, disease, and conflict. Even 1.5 degrees would be problematic, but it is much more manageable than 2 degrees. Meanwhile, the 3 degrees warming we’re currently headed for would be catastrophic, bringing devastating loss of life and economic decline across all of the planet. It’s pretty much our last chance to take action that avoids all these negative effects. If we don’t act, the window of opportunity may soon be closed.

US government: Climate change is a risk to national security

The Biden administration released a set of reports on climate change and national security, describing how global warming is creating serious problems to the United States’ stability. From increased migration as people flee their flooded territories to increased military tension and uncertainty between many countries, climate change has become a national security risk. 

The documents were issued by the National Security Council and the departments of Homeland Security and Defense and they are the government’s most significant assessment so far of these challenges and how to address them. The publication comes just days away of the COP26 climate summit in the UK, where world leaders (including Biden) will be joining to discuss ways to address the climate situation. 

Image credit: Flickr / Prachatai

Climate reports

The reports “reinforce the President’s commitment to evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data,” the White House said in a statement. “The Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized addressing the climate crisis both at home and as a core element of our national security,” the press statement reads. 

The National Intelligence Estimate, a report that collects and refines the views of the US intelligence agencies about particular threats, was among the ones published. It says that climate change will “increasingly exacerbate” risks to US national security interests, from physical impacts to how countries respond to the climate crisis.  No country will be spared from challenges directly related to climate change, the report reads.

The climate risks are classified into three types:

  1. higher geopolitical tension as countries argue over climate action,
  2. cross-border geopolitical tension, and
  3. climate effects altering country-level stability in specific countries and regions. 

The report expresses massive doubt on delivering the goals of the Paris Agreement, the landmark agreement on climate change signed in 2015 by almost every country, to keep warming within 2 degrees Celsius of the preindustrial age. The US government doesn’t believe the goals will be reached because not enough countries are transitioning from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources, it argues. 

Military issues

The Pentagon also published a report of its own, looking at how to incorporate climate change threats into its planning. The military will start spending a significant part of its next budget on climate — especially because military bases are vulnerable to extreme weather events such as fires, drought, and rising sea levels. 

The Pentagon report “describes how DOD will integrate climate considerations into strategic, planning, budget, and other key documents, as well as engagements with allies and partners. Inclusion of climate considerations across these documents will ensure that DOD considers the effects of climate change at every level,” a press statement reads.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the country’s main responder to natural disasters, said in a report to be looking at future technology to tackle the risks of extreme weather events – from investing in more energy-efficient construction to electric vehicles. 

Climate change will be a focus of the department’s preparedness grants for state and local governments, also incorporating climate science into the guidance it provides to the public and private sectors on how to manage risks. The department will also give advice to specific communities, such as people leaving in areas exposed to climate risks. 

The US is already seeing the consequences of climate change on migration, with hurricanes forcing people to leave their homes in Central America and fleeing to the US through Mexico. That was the focus of the National Security Council on its report, looking at how climate change is forcing people to migrate within and between countries.

The report says climate change might lead to 3% of the populations of Latin America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa moving within their countries by 2050. That won’t be just because of climate change but instead because of the interaction between extreme weather events and other global challenges, such as conflicts and war. 

“The scientific community is clear: human activities have directly contributed to climate change. We are already experiencing the devastating impacts that climate has wreaked on almost every aspect of our lives, from food and water insecurity to infrastructure and public health, this crisis is exacerbating inequalities,” the White House press release reads. 

Over 99.9% of the published science agrees: climate change is caused by humans

The reality of anthropogenic climate change is no more in contention among scientists, with over 99.9% of them agreeing that the climate crisis is being driven by human activities, according to a new study. The degree of certainty is similar to the level of agreement on evolution, the authors said, after reviewing almost 90,000 studies.

There’s no doubt among climate scientists that burning fossil fuels (such as coal, natural gas, and oil) and clearing out forests for agriculture is warming up the planet and causing extreme weather phenomena. And that we need to scale up our actions to reduce emissions and avoid even worse consequences of the climate crisis.

“We are virtually certain that the consensus is well over 99% now and that it’s pretty much case closed for any meaningful public conversation about the reality of human-caused climate change,” Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at the Alliance for Science and the paper’s first author, said in a statement. 

A debate that doesn’t exist

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, a large number of politicians still seems to not understand — and while climate is not really a scientific debate anymore, it’s still a political debate for some reason.

A survey published earlier this year showed that there’s a deepening of the partisan divide in US politics on whether global warming since the industrial revolution is caused mainly by humans. This divide is similar among elected US politicians, according to a study among officials now sitting in Congress. 

Previously, a study from 2013 quantified the level of scientific consensus on human responsibility behind global warming. Researchers went through peer-reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2012 and found a consensus among 97% of the world’s science over man-made climate change. This had a big impact on global awareness of the level of scientific consensus

Now, a group of researchers from Cornell University wanted to re-examine the literature published since 2012 to establish whether any change in the scientific consensus on climate change is discernible. This was in fact the case, showing the minority of skeptical voices has diminished to almost nothing as evidence of human responsibility behind climate change piles up. 

First, they looked at a random sample of 3,000 climate-related studies from their 88,125 studies database and found only four that expressed doubts over the climate crisis being caused by humans. Then they searched for keywords linked to climate skepticism such as “cosmic rays” in the larger database and found only 28 papers published in minor journals.

This follows the views expressed back in August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a leading group of climate experts. In their Sixth Assessment report, they wrote that it’s “unequivocal” that human actions have warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land, something they have been reiterating over the years across their reports.

“It’s critical to acknowledge the principal role of greenhouse gas emissions so that we can rapidly mobilize new solutions, since we are already witnessing in real time the devastating impacts of climate related disasters on businesses, people and the economy,” Benjamin Houlton, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

In the Paris Agreement, a landmark climate agreement signed in 2015 by almost every government, countries committed to doing everything in their power to limit global warming to 2ºC by the end of the century. As it turns out, we are still very far from that target. Based on the pledges so far presented, the world is heading to a global warming of 2.7ºC.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. 

Airborne microplastics have a growing influence on the climate, but we need more data

Airborne microplastic particles could start having a significant effect on the world’s climate in the future, a new paper reports.

An airborne microplastic sampling station at Kaitorete Spit in Canterbury, New Zealand. Image credits Alex Aves.

New research at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, found that airborne microplastics reflect part of the sunlight incoming to the Earth’s surface, thus cooling down the climate. For now, this effect is extremely slight. However, as the quantity of microplastics in the air is bound to increase in the coming decades, this effect will grow in magnitude.


“Yes, we focussed on airborne microplastics,” Dr. Laura Revell, Senior Lecturer of Environmental Physics at the University of Canterbury and the paper’s corresponding author told ZME Science in an email. “These were first reported in Paris in 2015 and have since been reported in a range of urban and remote regions.”

“However, we believe that microplastics may be co-emitted from the ocean with sea spray, leading to the concept of the ‘plastic cycle’ i.e., microplastics might be carried with the winds over some distance, be deposited to land, get washed into a river, be transported into the ocean, and then re-enter the atmosphere.”

Microplastics are a growing environmental concern. They’re already present in soils, water, air, and their levels are steadily increasing. Some microplastics are produced directly, for items such as cosmetics, while others are the result of plastic items breaking down in landfills.

Due to their small size and weight, such particles can easily be picked up by winds and carried over immense distances. Large cities such as London or Beijing show huge concentrations of such particles, likely due to how much plastic is used within their boundaries.

That being said, we’re just beginning to understand their full impact as airborne contaminants. The present study helps further our understanding in this regard, by uncovering the interaction between these particles and the planet’s climate. According to the authors, this is the first time the direct effects of airborne microplastics on climate has been calculated.

Other airborne solutions (‘aerosols’) are known to have an effect on the Earth’s climate either by scattering or reflecting incoming sunlight back into space, cooling everything down, or by absorbing radiation on certain frequencies, which warms the planet up.

Against that backdrop, the authors set out to determine what effect airborne microplastics have in this regard. They used climate modeling software to determine the radiative effect (i.e., reflective of absorbing) of common airborne microplastic particles. They focused primarily on the lower layers of the atmosphere, where much of the microplastic contamination is located. Overall, they report, these particles scatter solar radiation, which amounts to them having a minor cooling effect on the climate at surface level.

Exactly how much cooling they produce, however, the team can’t say for sure. We simply don’t have enough measurements of the quantity and distribution of microplastics in the atmosphere, nor do we have solid data on their chemical composition and physical properties.

Further muddying the issue is that microplastic particles can also have a warming effect, which may partially or completely counteract the cooling they cause through the scattering of light.

“After we calculated the optical properties of microplastics to understand how they absorb and scatter light, we realised that we would see them absorbing infrared radiation and contributing to the greenhouse effect. That moment was a surprise, as up until then we had been thinking about microplastics as efficient scatterers of solar radiation,” Dr. Revell adds for ZME Science.

This absorption takes place on a frequency interval of infrared light where greenhouse gasses such as CO2 don’t really capture much energy. In other words, these microplastics tap into energy that’s not readily captured by the current drivers of climate warming.

“Microplastics may therefore contribute to greenhouse warming, although in a very small way (since they have such a small abundance in the atmosphere at present),” Dr. Revell adds. “The dominant effect we see in our calculations with respect to interaction with light, [however] is that microplastics scatter solar radiation (leading to a minor cooling influence).”

In closing, she told me that more recent studies on the topic of airborne microplastics are reporting “quite high” concentrations of these particles in certain areas of the world, such as Beijing. Dr. Revell explains that this is likely due to improvements in technology allowing researchers to pick up on particles of much smaller diameters than before — which passed by undetected before. All of this uncertainty in the data obviously does not bode well for our conclusions.

“Our initial estimates of the climate effects of airborne microplastics are just that — estimates — and will no doubt be revised in future as new studies are performed and gaps in our knowledge are filled,” Dr. Revell concluded for ZME Science.

However, one thing we do know for sure is that with plastic pollution on the rise, the effects of microplastics on the climate are only going to become worse. It’s very likely that it already shapes atmospheric heating or cooling on the local level, the authors explain. If steps are not taken to limit the mismanagement of plastic waste, this effect will grow in magnitude and keep influencing the climate for a long period in the future.

The paper “Direct radiative effects of airborne microplastics” has been published in the journal Nature.

Climate researchers from the global south struggle to make their voices heard

Academics from some of the regions most affected by the climate crisis are having a difficult time getting their papers published, as seen in a new study by the website Carbon Brief. Of the 1,000 “most influential” climate scientists, less than 1% were based in Africa, and three-quarters are affiliated institutions in the northern hemisphere. 

Image credit: Flickr / NASA

The researchers looked at the backgrounds of about 1,000 authors ranked by Reuters as most influential based on their publication record and social media engagement. They analyzed the gender and the country of affiliation of the authors to reveal geographic and gender biases — and they found a lot of biases.

Nine out of every 10 authors were found to be affiliated with institutions from North America, Europe, and Oceania, while the entire continent of Africa contains less than 1% of the authors in the analysis (Africa has 15% of the global population). The main countries represented were the English-speaking US, Australia, and the UK, accounting for more than half of the authors in the study. 

Almost half of the researchers from the global south are from China, which accounts for 6% of all researchers. This is explained by the Chinese government spending billions every year on scientific research and paying researchers bonuses for publishing in leading journals, something that’s also happening in South Africa, according to Carbon Brief. 

After China, the next highest Asian country in authorship in the analysis was Japan. Almost two-thirds of all European countries are included, with the UK having the highest proportion of authors in Europe.  Meanwhile, there were no papers led by a researcher from Africa or South America and only seven led by Asian authors.

As well as a north-south gap, the researchers at Carbon Brief found a gender bias, with only 22% of female authors. They also account for less than half of the total authors in all continents analyzed in the study. This becomes more evident when focusing on lead authors, with women making up for just 12 of the 100 lead authors in the analysis. 

“Biases in authorship make it likely that the existing bank of knowledge around climate change and its impacts is skewed towards the interests of male authors from the global north. This can create blind spots around the needs of some of the most vulnerable people to climate change, particularly women and communities in the global south,” Ayesha Tandon from Carbon Brief wrote. 

Barriers to overcome

The researchers from Carbon Brief argued that there are many barriers in place that explain these numbers. First, there’s funding. Doing research is expensive, which means a lot of the research regarding developing countries is actually done by groups from the global north. Money is also needed for infrastructure, as doing climate models requires computing power. 

Once the research is done, there are other problems ahead. Writing and publishing papers is arduous, highly competitive, and can take years. Academics have to choose a journal and submit a manuscript to the editors, who can reject it or send it to be peer-reviewed. This can mean several rounds of editing before the paper is finally published.  

The language can still act as a big barrier for researchers from the global south. When doing the introduction to a paper, researchers have to do an extensive review of the literature and explain how their research builds on this. A lack of access or understanding of English language papers, which account for most scientific literature, can make things tricky. 

Looking ahead, Carbon Brief mentioned a comment piece published by Dolors Armenteras from Colombia, in which she goes through guidelines for “healthy global scientific collaborations.” Academics from the global north can collaborate with those from the global south in a constructive way by focusing on capacity building and collaborations, she argued. 

The UK says it wants to have a net-zero economy by 2050

Just days away from hosting a massive climate change summit, the UK government presented a roadmap to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This means no longer adding to the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, something the UK claims to achieve through nuclear energy, planting forests, electric vehicles, and sustainable aviation fuel.

The plan represents a test of the UK’s credibility, as the government will seek similar commitments from other countries at the United Nations climate conference COP26. From October 31st to November 14th, delegates will gather in Glasgow, Scotland to discuss ways to raise the bar and avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Image credit: Flickr / Number 10.

The long-awaited plan will bring in $124 billion in private funding and create almost 500,000 new jobs by 2030, according to the UK government. Nevertheless, the government doesn’t actually want to put an end to the country’s use of fossil fuels, with environmental organizations questioning its actual scope and classing the some aspects of the plan as ‘weak’.

A roadmap for the future

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the plan will lead to well-paid jobs, green industries and billions in investment, powering a “green industrial revolution” across the country. The UK will build a “defining competitive edge” in sectors such as offshore wind, EVs and carbon capture, while still supporting people and businesses, he added. 

The UK was the first big economy to commit by law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In fact, the country’s emissions dropped by 44% from 1990 to 2019, especially emissions from the power sector. But the government has been facing pressure for not introducing an actual road map that explains how net-zero would be accomplished. In other words, no credible roadmap has been laid down.

Still, the government insists that it will decarbonize the entire power sector by 2035. This will be largely thanks to renewable energy, with 40 gigawatts of offshore wind expected to be added to the grid, and to nuclear projects, with a $166 investment expected in new plants. Hydrogen will also be expanded as well as carbon capture and storage. 

On transportation, another key sector in terms of emission in the UK, the government plans to invest in electrifying vehicles and their supply chain, as well as allocating money for buses, railways, and cycling lanes. There’s also a goal to produce up to 10% of the aviation fuels from household waste by 2030 and to capture flue gases from the industry. 

“There is a global race to develop new green technology, kick-start new industries and attract private investment. The countries that capture the benefits of this global green industrial revolution will enjoy unrivalled growth and prosperity for decades to come – and it’s our job to ensure the UK is fighting fit,” UK Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said.

Still, climate experts and environmentalists weren’t that much convinced. Rebecca Newson, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, said the government’s plan is “more like a pick and mix than the substantial meal that we need to reach net zero,” while Katie White from WWF said the plan doesn’t close the gap “between climate promises and action.”

Whether or not the promises will be kept still remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the current UK government has a history of overselling or flat-out lying about its plans. We can only hope this isn’t the case here. The full strategy can be accessed here.

Climate change has already affected most of humanity. Here’s the proof

We always hear about climate change distressing different regions of the planet. But what’s the actual extent of the climate crisis? Now we have a more accurate figure. Researchers have calculated that 85% of the world’s population has already been affected by it, according to a review of tens of thousands of scientific reports. 

Image credit: Flickr / Alisdare Hickson

A team of researchers from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) climate think-tank and Climate Analytics used machine learning to go through a massive amount of research published between 1951 and 2018. They identified about 100,000 papers with evidence on temperature changes, using it to create a global picture of how climate change is developing across the globe.

“Our study leaves no doubt that the climate crisis is already being felt almost everywhere in the world. It is also extensively scientifically documented,” Max Callaghan, lead author, said in a statement. “Our world map of climate impacts provides guidance for the global fight against global heating and for regional and local risk assessments.”

Callaghan and the team of researchers taught a computer algorithm to identify studies on climate change, generating a list of relevant papers. But the studies rarely made a direct link to global warming, so they decided to step up their game. They took the globe and divided it into a grid, identifying the places where the climate impacts matched trends on temperature and precipitation. 

On each grid, the researchers asked whether if it’s getting hotter, colder, wetter, or dryer outside the limits of natural variability, and then checked if this type of change matched forecasts from climate models. They found evidence of human-induced climate change impacts 80% of the world’s land area, where 85% of the population currently lives. 

An attribution gap

While observing an overall increase in climate studies, the researchers also identified an “attribution gap” – a lack of papers and data from low-income countries, making it very hard to understand climate impacts there despite observed changes. Evidence of impacts attributable to climate change is twice as common in high-income countries than in low-income ones.

“Developing countries are at the forefront of climate impacts, but we can see in our study there are real blind spots when it comes to climate impact data. Most of the areas where we are not able to connect the dots attribution-wise are in Africa”, Shruti Nath, contributing author, said in a statement. “This has real implications for adaptation planning.”

The findings come as countries are being pushed by civil society to present more ambitious climate goals at the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, next month. A study earlier this year showed that with the current pledges the planet is on track for 2.7ºC global warming (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, triggering severe climate effects. 

The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Climate change is making the Earth dimmer, which, in turn, warms up the climate

In an unexpected turn of events, climate change seems to be making the Earth a little bit dimmer, according to new research.

Image credits Arek Socha.

One of the properties that define planets throughout space is their ‘albedo’. Multiple different elements factor into this property which, in its simplest definition, is the measure of how much incoming light a planetary body reflects. A planet’s albedo can thus have a significant effect on environmental conditions across its surface.

But the opposite is also true, and climate conditions on the surface can influence a planet’s overall albedo. New research explains that climate change is already affecting Earth’s albedo, causing a significant drop in our planet’s ability to reflect light over the last 20 years or so.

No beam-back

“The albedo drop was such a surprise to us when we analyzed the last three years of data after 17 years of nearly flat albedo,” said Philip Goode, a researcher at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the lead author of the new study.

The authors worked with earthshine data recorded by the Big Bear Solar Observatory in Southern California from 1998 to 2017. Satellite readings of earthshine over the same timeframe were also used in the study. Earthshine is the light reflected from the Earth into space, and it is what makes the Moon so bright in the night’s sky.

All in all, the team reports, the Earth is beaming back roughly one-half of a watt less per square meter of its surface than it did 20 years ago. For perspective, the typical lightbulb uses around 60 watts. A single LED uses around 0.015 watts. The authors explain that it’s equivalent to a 0.5% decrease in the Earth’s reflectance.

The two main components deciding how much sunlight reaches the Earth are how bright the Sun shines, and how reflective our planet is. But the team reports that the drop in albedo they’ve observed did not correlate with any periodic changes in the Sun’s brightness — meaning that the drop was caused entirely by changes in how reflective the Earth is.

This drop is mostly powered by warming ocean waters. The authors point to a reduction in bright, reflective low-lying clouds over the eastern Pacific Ocean over the last two decades, as shown by measurements taken as part of NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) project. Sea surface temperature increases have been recorded in this area following the reversal of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).

A dimmer Earth means that the planet is absorbing much more of the incoming solar energy into Earth’s climate systems. Here, it’s likely to contribute to global warming. The authors estimate that this extra sunlight is on the same magnitude as the sum of anthropogenic climate forcing over the last two decades.

“It’s actually quite concerning,” said Edward Schwieterman, a planetary scientist at the University of California at Riverside who was not involved in the new study. For some time, many scientists had hoped that a warmer Earth might lead to more clouds and higher albedo, which would then help to moderate warming and balance the climate system, he said. “But this shows the opposite is true.”

The paper “Earth’s Albedo 1998–2017 as Measured From Earthshine” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Plastic and climate crisis are linked — we shouldn’t address one and ignore the other

Despite being frequently described as separate and even competing issues, the climate crisis and plastic pollution are more linked than we used to think, a new study found. Researchers called for governments and policymakers to urgently tackle the two issues together so as to avoid falling short on much-needed solutions.

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic.

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team of scientists collected evidence on how both global problems exacerbate one another, creating a dangerous cycle. The researchers identified three significant ways that the climate change crisis and marine plastic pollution are connected. 

Most plastic production is supported by fossil fuel extraction and the consumption of limited resources, contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s also the case of plastic waste, which is either burned or deposited in landfills. While plastic alternatives are expected to increase in production, their carbon footprint is yet unclear.

Climate change is also an influential factor in the distribution of plastic pollution, something that will increase even further as extreme weather expands. At the same time, global warming has already proven to have catastrophic consequences for the marine environment, which happens simultaneously with the impacts of plastic pollution.  

“Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most critical global threats of our time. Plastic pollution is also having a global impact,” Heather Koldewey, senior author of the paper, said in a statement. “The compounding impact of both crises just exacerbates the problem. It’s not a case of debating which issue is most important.”

The plastic-climate link

Plastic production went from two million metric tons in 1950 to about 380 million in 2015, meaning an annual growth of 8.4%. This has been driven by the need for cheap and lightweight materials in our day-to-day lives. However, the demand for plastics is set to continue as economies expand, which is very bad news for the environment. 

About 56 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gases would be released between 2015 and 2050 because of plastic production. This is 10% of the remaining carbon budget. Only in 2015, plastic production released the equivalent of more than a billion metric tons of CO2, which equals 3% of fossil fuel emissions.

But it’s not all about emissions. Microplastics have gradually become a global problem, as they are transported through the atmosphere and can reach very remote areas. Climate change is expected to further impact plastic pollution fluxes and concentrations in its global distribution, driven mainly by extreme weather events. 

Marine plastic pollution, alongside climate change impacts, affects ecosystems that are vulnerable to climate change. This is especially concerning for vulnerable and remote environments that haven’t been affected much in the past. Let’s take the polar regions as an example, a pristine environment now with plenty of microplastics accumulated. 

A joint solution

For the researchers, the scale of the societal, economic, and commercial shift needed to avoid the worsening impacts of the climate and plastic pollution crises, requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Global and national economies should shift to a circular economy by decoupling growth from the use of finite resources. 

But this will be tricky, as the global society has become less circular over the past two years. That’s why a re-emphasis of the importance of reducing or reusing plastic and plastics is needed to reduce our reliance on single-use products. If growth in single-use plastic continues, it could account for 5 to 10% of global GHG emissions by 2050.

“Action on climate change has been compromised by uncertainty, aspects of human psychology and the need for acts of good global citizenship versus national interest. Plastic pollution is unequivocally due to human actions, decisions and behaviour, with few ‘plastics deniers’ that compare to ‘climate change deniers,’” the researchers wrote. 

The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment

Climate change is choking the oxygen out of deep water, and it’s putting fish in a double bind

Being a fish was never easy, but a new paper reports that it’s been getting harder over the last 15 years or so. According to the findings, oxygen levels are dropping in the depths of the oceans, forcing fish to move ever closer to the surface.

Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of California – Santa Barbara and the University of South Carolina is warning us that fish are slowly drowning. Changes in ecology, as well as the effects of climate change on seasonal patterns, water temperature, and its gradient over different depths, have been causing deeper layers of the ocean to lose their dissolved oxygen content. This, in turn, is forcing fish to either move closer to the surface, or asphyxiate.

It may seem like a trivial matter, but this shift is causing wide-scale changes in marine ecosystems and could have a very real impact on the health of the ocean as a whole. It also raises important questions for fishery management and conservation efforts, with the authors underscoring the importance of accounting for this shift with policy to avoid further damaging marine ecosystems.

Swimming out of breath

“This study finds that oxygen is declining at all the depths we surveyed: from 50 meters to 350 meters,” said lead author Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, “and so fish seem to be moving up to shallower regions to get to an area where the oxygen is relatively higher.”

The findings are based on 15 years’ worth of recordings, surveys, and measurements. These included measurements of dissolved oxygen in samples of water taken at varying depths, of temperature, salinity, and surveys of the average depth at which certain fish species tend to congregate. A total of 60 different species of fish were encountered often enough during these 15 years to be statistically relevant and included in the study.

Data was collected on a yearly basis, every fall, from 1995 through to 2009. The team focused on three reef features between the Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands in Southern California. These were the Anacapa Passage area, with an average depth of 50m, a seamount known as the “Footprint”, at around 150m, and the “Piggy Bank”, with an average depth of around 300m. During the surveys, the team identified all fish species that came within two meters of the submarine or were visible and within two meters of the seafloor. They also estimated the length of each individual fish.

During this time, they saw depth changes in 23 species. Four of these shifted towards deeper waters, while the other 19 moved towards the surface in response to low oxygen conditions (as shown by analysis of water samples).

The team explains that surface waters tend to be better oxygenated (have higher levels of dissolved oxygen) due to surface motions such as waves continuously mixing gases into the top layer of bodies of water. Over time, as waters mix, this oxygen also finds its way lower along the column of water. However, the team explains that warming climates make for warmer surface waters, which increases the buoyancy of these layers compared to those deeper down, reducing their ability to mix. This process is known as ocean stratification.

In addition to this, warmer water has a lower ability to dissolve and hold oxygen compared to colder water, so there’s less of this gas being mixed into the ocean to begin with.

In the end, this means less oxygen makes it to the bottom layers of water. Although salinity and temperature gradients along the column of water also influence the extent of vertical mixing, the team reports that both remained relatively constant over the study period. In other words, the trend towards lower oxygen levels seen at the study site is primarily driven by climate-associated changes in surface water temperatures. That being said, the other factors can’t be discounted completely either.

“A third of [the 60 fish species’] distributions moved shallower over time,” Meyer-Gutbrod said. “I personally think that’s a remarkable result over such a short time period.”

The team acknowledges that their study only included a relatively small area, but it did include a wide range of depths, which was the ultimate objective of the research. This narrower area actually helps reduce confounding factors, they explain, since it allowed for most conditions (apart from depth) to be constant across all the survey areas.

“Other scientists have used lab experiments to show that fish don’t like low oxygen water,” Meyer-Gutbrod said, “but what nobody’s ever done is just return to the same location year after year to see if there’s actually a change in the distribution of fish stemming from a change in oxygen over time.”

In closing, the authors explain that this trend can have quite severe negative impacts on marine ecosystems, and indirectly, on all life on Earth. Fish are simply forced to move away from their optimal depths, which will eventually result in them being pushed out entirely out of several ecosystems. According to co-author Milton Love, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, we could even see a point in which species are forced into depth ranges that they simply cannot survive in.

They also cite previous research showing that many fish species also cannot tolerate high water temperatures, and are migrating towards lower depths. In the end, these factors can leave many species in an impossible situation — where they cannot breathe if too low, and can’t bear the heat if too close to the surface.

In the end, even if we start working to redress climate change right now, meaningful progress will take quite a lot of time. Until then, policymakers need to recognize and react to the pressures faced by fish species and issue regulation that protects them as best as possible, or risk wide-ranging ecological collapse in the world’s oceans.

“If you throw your net in the water and you get a ton of fish — more than you’re used to getting — you may think, ‘Oh, it’s a good year for the fish. Maybe the population is recovering,'” Meyer-Gutbrod said. “But instead, it could be that all the fish are just squished into a tighter area. So you could have fishery regulations changing to increase fish allowances because of this increase in landings.”

The paper “Moving on up: Vertical distribution shifts in rocky reef fish species during climate‐driven decline in dissolved oxygen from 1995 to 2009” has been published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Climate change to intensify summer droughts in Europe

The extreme summer droughts seen by Europe in 2018 and 2019, with some countries receiving less than half of their usual rainfall, could become the new normal by the end of the century, according to a new study. Researchers found that unless emissions are cut substantially worldwide, several parts of Europe would see a 50% increase in the frequency of droughts. 

Image credit: Flickr / Fingo

Droughts have become a high-impact meteorological phenomenon in recent years as the climate crisis progresses, with Europe as one of the most affected regions. The deficit of precipitation has brought economic, social, and environmental costs, with previous studies estimating $10 billion in economic losses across the EU and UK. 

About 55 million people globally are affected by droughts every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with farmers being the ones most at risk. Projections estimate droughts will get more severe by the end of the century as temperature rises. In Europe, a continent less used to extreme weather, this could be devastating.

“Summer droughts are a highly relevant topic in Europe,” Magdalena Mittermeier, one of the authors of the recent study, said in a statement. “We find a clear trend towards more, longer and more intense summer droughts, in terms of a precipitation deficit, towards the end of the century under a high-emission carbon scenario.”

Further droughts 

The researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Ouranos Consortium in Canada combined archive data on rainfall levels in Europe, UK, and Scandinavia with future climate prediction models. Their findings showed that all the studied areas will see an increase in summer droughts in the long-term future (from 2080 to 2099).

Still, not every area will be equally affected. The Mediterranean will see an up to 80% rise in the frequency of extreme droughts, while in France it will be 60%. The most severe scenario will be in the Iberian Peninsula, with a 96% increase in droughts expected for July and an 88% in August. 

“Our study shows that unabated climate change will worsen the risk of hot-spot droughts drastically. But also, in some regions where droughts currently play a minor role, the future drought risk is expected to get serious. We show that the Alps should be considered an additional future hot-spot,” Mittermeier said in a statement.

For the study, the researchers used a high-emissions climate scenario (RCP8.5) under which global temperature would increase the fastest. It is usually referred to as “business as usual,” which means it’s a likely outcome if society doesn’t make a resolute effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the worst-case scenario and one we can only hope to avoid.

That’s why if we are able to reduce our emissions drastically we could avoid a lot of the consequences highlighted by the researchers. Still, there’s a long way ahead. A study earlier this year showed that we would have to lower our emissions by a further 80% in order to meet the targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Unmitigated climate change will drastically increase the frequency, duration and intensity of summer droughts in many European regions. Such extreme effects can be avoided by climate mitigation. This is why consistent mitigation of climate change as agreed on under the Paris Agreement is highly relevant in terms of droughts in Europe,” said Mittermeier.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers. 

We have gravely underestimated the economic cost of climate change

We know the climate crisis won’t be cheap. Just the thought of having to rebuild entire neighborhoods after a hurricane can give you an idea that it’s bound to be expensive. But according to a new study, we’ve missed the mark, and our expectations of the cost is way too optimistic.

Image credit: Flickr / IMF

Researchers found that economic models of climate change have so far been underestimating the costs of global warming, which in fact would cut about 37% from the global GDP by 2100 – more than twice the drop seen in the Great Depression. The economy would lose $3,000 for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted, they found. Even the most ambitious carbon taxes rarely go over $50.

This is six times higher than previously estimated, the researchers explained. Most models only address the short-term cost of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, and storms. But in fact these also cause long-term economic harm in any society due to their impact on health, labor productivity, and health; this cascading effect would seem to compound more than anticipated previously.

The researchers from University College London, Imperial College London, and Cambridge University, in alliance with international partners, updated an economic model used to set up the price of carbon for policy decisions. Then, they looked at the impact of climate events and the rates of economic recovery after such events. 

“Climate change makes detrimental events like the recent heatwave in North America and the floods in Europe much more likely,” Chris Brierley from University College London said in a statement. “If we stop assuming that economies recover from such events within months, the costs of warming look much higher than usually stated.

The social cost of carbon

One crucial indicator of the level of urgency for taking climate action is the social cost of carbon dioxide (SCCO2), which represents the total welfare lost across the globe due to an extra emitted ton of CO2. It is usually expressed in US dollars per ton of CO2 and estimates currently vary between a minimum of $10 to a maximum of $1,000.

However, such values might be a big understatement. The researchers found that the economic impact of climate change could be $3,000 per ton of CO2, or even higher. This is much far than what most governments currently calculate. The US government uses a cost of carbon of US$51, while the EU recently set the mark at 61 euros ($72).

“The findings confirm that it is cheaper to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than it is to deal with climate change impacts, and the economic damages from continued warming would greatly outweigh most costs that could be involved in preventing emissions now,” study co-author Paul Waidelich from ETH Zurich said in a statement.

Countries committed in the Paris Agreement to significantly reduce their emissions in the coming years, limiting the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ºC. Nevertheless, most pledges from governments haven’t been ambitious enough, putting the world in a 3ºC trajectory, which would bring severe economic costs. Ultimately, it seems that ambitious climate measures could end up saving us money in the long run.

There’s still time to address this challenge, as seen in the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The world can meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and avoid further economic costs of climate change if more comprehensive pledges are made, especially ahead of the climate summit COP26.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.