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March 2012

Be afraid. Be very afraid

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Earlier this week, I read an article in Scientific American that had an ominous warning ‘global warming is close to becoming irreversible’. In typical cautionary climate-speak there’s a hope stated that “we can cap temperature rise to two degrees”. This is followed by a more subtle message, “we are on the cusp of some big changes”.

‘On the cusp of changes’ is an understatement. There are a half-dozen possible tipping points, crossing any of which gets us into scary unchartered territory. Ocean acidity and coral die-off; drying the Amazon rainforest; run away growing fossil fuel use; loss of ice sheets; large scale melting of permafrost: and the biggest tipping point of all – our amazing inability to come anywhere near an agreement limiting global GHG emissions and warming.

The article argues that unless we seriously curb the rate of growth of GHG emissions within the next 10 years, we will cross tipping points that lead to significant and irreversible global warming. And yet, all that was agreed at COP17 in Durban last year is for countries to reach an agreement by 2015 for action that will not start until 2020. Too little too late, according to the science.

The world will likely only see 450 ppm CO2 concentrations from our rear-view mirror as we hurtle down the express lane to at least 550 ppm CO2 and a 5 degree warming. What the article doesn’t say is that we will need to figure out how to geo-engineer some sort of amelioration. Good luck with that. We can’t agree on the much easier aspects of limiting GHG emissions; how will we ever agree on something as complicated as managing the planet’s climate?

Giving oceans a fighting chance

Mary Barton-Dock's picture

Last week I went swimming with manta rays, sharks and dolphins along some of the world’s most spectacular reefs. Well at least, it felt like I was swimming among them. With my special 3D glasses on, it was as if I was flying across coral atolls, plunging through clouds of jellyfish and darting in and out of brightly colored corals alongside hundreds of thousands of tropical fish.

In a new film by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas – The Last Reef 3D: Cities Beneath the Sea – viewers embark on a worldwide journey to explore coral reef habitats from Palau and French Polynesia in the Pacific to the Bahamas in the Caribbean.

As visually stunning as the film is, it carries a very sobering message: human activity is having a significant negative impact on the world’s oceans.

Many of us who work on climate change and oceans have known about the threat from ocean acidification and warming for a long time. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions have resulted in rising surface and air temperatures. Moreover, ocean acidity is rising owing to an increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Increasing acidity levels in turn make it harder for corals to grow and for shell-forming animals like mussels to build their protective housing, leading to knock-on effects of biodiversity loss in ocean called “dead zones”.

The movie’s message is reinforced by a recent report published in Science Magazine which says the oceans are acidifying at a pace not seen in 300 million years. Historically, ocean acidification has led to mass extinctions. What makes today’s situation particularly alarming is that the rise in CO2 is not due to volcanic eruptions or other natural occurrences but is the direct consequence of human behavior over the course of the last century or so.

Tar sands: The story behind the headlines

Alan Miller's picture

The complexity of climate change issue is a challenge for most mainstream media, which increasingly seek the shortest possible sound bite to interest an audience with a very limited attention span. Yet a recent example illustrates the importance of looking past the headlines to understand the importance and true meaning of scientific announcements.  The article featured the optimistic headline: “New study finds oil sands fuels would cause imperceptible temperature rise.” 

This declaration understandably attracted considerable attention from climate policy-watchers because Canadian oil sands (also commonly referred to as “tar sands” reflecting the heavy, molasses like quality of the substance) are the resource proposed for transmission via the controversial Keystone XL pipeline recently denied a permit by the Obama Administration. (Oil sands deposits have also been found in Russia, Venezuela and Kazakhstan, but a majority of identified reserves and virtually all commercial production are in Canada.)  

Some advocates for developing the oil sands see their use as essentially a national energy security issue, maintaining the pipeline is an important step forward toward fulfilling the long cherished dream of US energy independence, not to mention the potential to reduce or at least stabilize gasoline prices: ``Is US Energy Independence Finally Within Reach”, National Public Radio, March 7, 2012.

To be sure, the promise of lower gasoline prices and energy security are strong considerations. But an ongoing debate continues as to whether or not this economically attractive resource can be extracted, refined, and distributed without unacceptable environmental harm. This is why an otherwise academic analysis by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver at the University of Victoria in British Columbia proved newsworthy. They calculated the global temperature rise that would result from the carbon dioxide released by burning currently proven reserves of Canadian oil sands: Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver, “The Alberta oil sand and climate,” Nature Climate Change, Feb. 19, 2012.

Disruptive Innovation needed, submit your ideas now

Jean-Louis Racine's picture

Henry Ford once famously said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted they would have asked him for a faster horse. If he had listened to his customers, the Ford Motor Company may never have existed, or would be called the Ford Faster Horse Company. The automobile became what is called a “disruptive innovation” meaning that it radically displaced the incumbent technology (the horse and carriage) by not listening to the demands of mainstream consumers, but trying to uncover their real needs.

This is the approach the World Bank is now prototyping in Indonesia: Trying to uncover the real clean energy needs of rural communities by understanding their underlying energy-related problems rather than simply asking them what technologies they want. The Indonesia Green Innovation Pilot Program is prototyping a new approach to fostering green disruptive innovation. The first stage of the program is being launched this week, and consists of identifying possible challenges – or problems – linked to energy in rural communities. In keeping with the logic of disruptive innovation, the program does not start with a market demand study, or a survey of clean energy solutions in the market, but with uncovering stated and unstated needs that affect the population of a rural community in their everyday lives. This is being done in three ways: One is through field research by a team of designers from Inotek and Catapult Design, a second way is through consultative workshops in Jakarta and in the rural communities,  and a third is through a “call for challenge” where the program is using a crowdsourcing approach to collect problems linked to energy in rural Indonesian communities. If you are in any way familiar with rural Indonesia and its energy challenges, the program invites you to submit a challenge through this website.