As they meet in Poland for the next steps, nations are struggling to agree on how the ambitions of the Paris Agreement can be realised



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The Spodek complex in Katowice, Poland, will host this year’s UN climate summit.
Shutterstock.com

Edward Morgan, Griffith University; Brendan Mackey, Griffith University, and Johanna Nalau, Griffith University

International leaders and policymakers gathering in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th annual round of UN climate talks know that they have plenty of work to do.

They are hoping to make progress on the Paris Agreement Work Programme, otherwise known as the Paris Rulebook – the guidelines needed to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement. That agreement was struck three years ago, but it is still not clear how the treaty’s goals to curb global warming will actually be achieved.

The Paris Agreement was a diplomatic landmark, under which nations pledged to hold global temperature rises to “well below 2℃”, and ideally to no more than 1.5℃.

This requires all countries not only to slash global greenhouse emissions, but also to help the world adapt to the impacts of climate change. The agreement requires countries to develop national climate plans, to report back on their progress, and to ramp up their efforts in the coming years.

The ‘what’ and the ‘how’

Whereas the Paris Agreement talks about what needs to be done, the Paris Rulebook to be agreed at Katowice is about how nations can set about achieving it. Unlike the previous, more prescriptive Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement allows countries to choose their own approach to climate change. But it is important that actions taken by countries are done within an agreed, transparent framework of rules.

Rules need to be agreed about nations’ emissions targets, climate finance (including climate aid for developing countries), transparency, capacity building and carbon trading. Bringing all of this together is a huge challenge for negotiators. They need to establish a common set of rules applicable to all countries, while also maintaining the crucial principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” that underpins the UN climate process.

Already lagging behind

As well as being difficult, the task is also urgent. There is already evidence that countries are struggling to live up to their Paris commitments.

Analysis of the current emissions targets (known as Nationally Determined Contributions) shows that countries need to do more to reach the 2℃ goal. Meeting the 1.5℃ goal will be harder still and will need ambitious and swift action, as recently highlighted by a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Although much of the focus has been on the challenge of bringing emissions targets into line with the Paris goals, our research suggests that climate adaptation efforts are also lagging behind.

Climate adaptation involves managing climate-related risks and deciding on how to manage and prepare for unavoidable impacts, such as increases in intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heatwaves and extreme storms, along with slow-onset impacts from sea level rise.

Many countries have developed climate adaptation policies as part of their climate change response. Our recent research analysed 54 of these national adaptation plans to understand how they match up to the intent of the Paris Agreement (as outlined in Article 7 of the Agreement).

We found that most adaptation plans only partially align with the Paris Agreement. Plans were largely focused on the social and economic aspects of adaptation, and were broadly aligned to countries’ existing policy priorities, especially around disaster management and economic development. For developing countries, there was a strong focus on linking adaptation and development.

However, countries are struggling to include environmental considerations into their planning. While the Paris Agreement clearly emphasises the important role that ecosystems play for climate adaptation, most plans are silent on this point.

What’s more, developed countries tended to take a less participatory approach to adaptation planning. Planning in developing countries was hampered by limited access to scientific knowledge but they made more use of local and traditional knowledge. The issue of resourcing and support for developing countries remains a challenge for climate change adaptation.

More work needed

Our results suggest that countries need to build on their existing adaptation plans to meet the ambitions in the Paris Agreement. There are good opportunities to better balance social and economic aspects with environmental and ecological considerations to improve planning.

Many countries, including Australia, have ratified the Paris Agreement, but few are delivering the ambitious action it requires. Besides pursuing deeper cuts to greenhouse emissions, countries need to revisit and update their adaptation strategies. Australia is well positioned to do so, given its economic wealth, its technical abilities, and the extensive climate adaptation research it has already undertaken.

Increasingly, we know what needs to be done to combat climate change. The Katowice summit will hopefully advance an agreement on how countries can do it. But actually doing it on a globally coordinated scale will be the biggest challenge, and there is some way to go to catch up.The Conversation

Edward Morgan, Research Fellow in Environmental Policy and Planning, Griffith University; Brendan Mackey, Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, and Johanna Nalau, Research Fellow, Climate Adaptation, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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What would a fair energy transition look like?


Franziska Mey, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Briggs

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced last week that a federal Labor government would create a Just Transition Authority to overseee Australia’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This echoes community calls for a “fast and fair” energy transition to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.




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Labor’s policy can smooth the energy transition, but much more will be needed to tackle emissions


But disruptive change is already here for Australia’s energy sector. 2018 has been a record year for large-scale solar and wind developments and rooftop solar. Renewable energy is now cheaper than new-build coal power generation – and some are saying renewables are now or soon will be cheaper than existing coal-fired power.

Based purely on the technical lifetime of existing power stations, the Australian market operator predicts that 70% of coal-fired generation capacity will be retired in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria by 2040. If renewables continue to fall in price, it could be much sooner.

We must now urgently decide what a “just” and “fair” transition looks like. There are many Australians currently working in the energy sector – particularly in coal mining – who risk being left behind by the clean energy revolution.

Coal communities face real challenges

The history of coal and industrial transitions shows that abrupt change brings a heavy price for workers and communities. Typically, responses only occur after major retrenchments, when it is already too late for regional economies and labour markets to cope.

Coal communities often have little economic diversity and the flow-on effects to local economies and businesses are substantial. It is easy to find past cases where as many as one third of workers do not find alternative employment.




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We often hear about power stations, but there are almost 10 times as many workers in coal mining, where there is a much higher concentration of low and semi-skilled workers. The 2016 Census found almost half of coal workers are machinery operators and drivers.

The demographics of coal mining workers in Australia suggest natural attrition through early retirements will not be sufficient: 60% are younger than 45.

Mining jobs are well paid and jobs in other sectors are very unlikely to provide a similar income, so even under the best scenarios many will take a large pay cut.

Another factor is the long tradition of coal mining that shapes the local culture and identity for these communities. Communities are particularly opposed to change when they experience it as a loss of history and character without a vision for the future.

Lastly, the local environmental impacts of coal mining can’t be neglected. The pollution of land, water and air due to mining operations and mining waste have created brownfields and degraded land that needs remediation.

What is a ‘just’ transition?

A just transition to a clean energy economy has many facets. Unions first used the term in the 1980s to describe a program to support workers who lost their jobs. Just transition was recognised in the Paris Agreement as “a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”.

However, using the concept of energy justice, there are three main aspects which have to be considered for workers, communities and disadvantaged groups:

  • distributing benefits and costs equally,

  • a participatory process that engages all stakeholders in the decision making, and

  • recognising multiple perspectives rooted in social, cultural, ethical and gender differences.

A framework developed at the Institute for Sustainable Futures maps these dimensions.


Institute for Sustainable Futures

A just transition requires a holistic approach that encompasses economic diversification, support for workers to transition to new jobs, environmental remediation and inclusive processes that also address equity impacts for marginalised groups.

The politics of mining regions

If there is not significant investment in transition plans ahead of coal closures, there will be wider ramifications for energy transition and Australian politics.

In Australia, electricity prices have been at the centre of the “climate wars” over the past decade. Even with the steep price rises in recent years, the average household still only pays around A$35 a week. But with the closure of coal power plants at Hazelwood and Liddell, Australia is really only just getting to the sharp end of the energy transition where workers lose jobs.

There are some grounds for optimism. In the La Trobe Valley, an industry wide worker redeployment scheme, investment in community projects and economic incentives appears to be paying dividends with a new electric vehicle facility setting up.

AGL is taking a proactive approach to the closure of Liddelland networks are forming to diversify the local economy. But a wider transition plan and investment coordinated by different levels of government will be needed.




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We know what is coming: just transition investment is a precondition for the rapid energy transition we need to make, and to minimise the economic and social impacts on these communities.The Conversation

Franziska Mey, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Heatwaves threaten Australians’ health, and our politicians aren’t doing enough about it


Paul Beggs, Macquarie University; Helen Louise Berry, University of Sydney; Martina Linnenluecke, Macquarie University, and Ying Zhang, University of Sydney

Extreme heat affects the mental health of Australians to the same degree as unemployment, yet Australia’s policy action on climate change lags behind other high-income countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.

As Australia approaches another summer, we face the inevitability of deadly heatwaves. Our report published today in the Medical Journal of Australia concludes that policy inaction, particularly at the federal level, is putting Australian lives at risk.

The report, The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australian policy inaction threatens lives, builds on an earlier publication in The Lancet medical journal, which concluded climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.




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Australia is the first to prepare its own country-level report. Developed in partnership with the Lancet Countdown – which tracks the global connections between health and climate change – it adopts the structure and methods of the global assessment but with an Australian focus.

How Australians’ health suffers

Australians are already facing climate change-related exposures that come from increasing annual average temperatures, heatwaves and weather-related disasters. Australian deaths during the 2014 Adelaide heatwave and Melbourne’s 2016 thunderstorm asthma event are examples of the risk climate poses to our health.




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Our report was produced by a team of 19 experts from 13 universities and research institutes. We aimed to answer what we know about climate change and human health in Australia and how we are responding to this threat, if at all.

To do this, our team examined more than 40 indicators that enable us to track progress on the broad and complex climate change and human health issue. Health impact indicators included the health effects of temperature change and heatwaves, change in labour capacity, trends in climate-sensitive diseases, lethality of weather-related disasters and food insecurity and malnutrition.

We also developed an indicator for the impacts of climate change on mental health. This involved examining the association between mean annual maximum temperatures and suicide rates for all states and territories over the last ten years.

We found that, in most jurisdictions, the suicide rate increased with increasing maximum temperature. In Australia’s changing climate, we urgently need to seek ways to break the link between extreme temperature and suicide.

Across other indicators, we found workers’ compensation claims in Adelaide increased by 6.2% during heatwaves, mainly among outdoor male workers and tradespeople over 55 years.

And we found the length of heatwaves increased in 2016 and 2017 in Australia’s three largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Heatwave length varied from year to year, but between 2000 and 2017, the mean number of heatwave days increased by more than two days across the country.

Policy action we need

Australia’s slow transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation is problematic, and not only from a climate change perspective. Our report shows that pollutants from fossil fuel combustion cause thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. We argue even one premature death is one too many when there is so much that we can do to address this.

Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest countries with the resources and technical expertise to act on climate change and health. Yet Australia’s carbon intensity is the highest among the countries we included in our comparison – Germany, United States, China, India and Brazil.

A carbon-intensive energy system is one of the main drivers behind climate change. Australia was once a leader in the uptake of renewables but other nations have since streaked ahead and are reaping the benefits for their economies, energy security and health.

Despite some progress increasing renewable generation, it’s time we truly pull our weight in the global effort to prevent acceleration towards dangerous climate change.

Policy leaders must take steps to protect human health and lives. These include strong political and financial commitments to accelerate transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation. The government lacks detailed planning for a clean future with a secure energy supply.




Read more:
What would a fair energy transition look like?


Our MJA-Lancet Countdown report will be updated annually. Now that Australia has begun systematically tracking the effects of climate change on health – and given its poor performance compared with comparable economies globally – further inaction would be reckless.The Conversation

Paul Beggs, Associate Professor and Environmental Health Scientist, Macquarie University; Helen Louise Berry, Professor of Climate Change and Mental Health, University of Sydney; Martina Linnenluecke, Professor of Environmental Finance; Director of the Centre for Corporate Sustainability and Environmental Finance, Macquarie University, and Ying Zhang, Associate Director, Teaching and Learning, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor’s policy can smooth the energy transition, but much more will be needed to tackle emissions


Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The Labor party’s energy policy platform, released last week, is politically clever and would likely be effective. It includes plans to underwrite renewable energy and storage, and other elements that would help the energy transition along. Its approach to the transition away from coal-fired power is likely to need more work, and it will need to be accompanied by good policy in other sectors of the economy where greenhouse emissions are still climbing.

The politics is quite simple for Labor: support the transition to renewable electricity which is already underway and which a large majority of Australians support, and minimise the risk that its proposed policy instruments will come under effective attack in the lead-up to the 2019 election.




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By aiming for 50% renewables at 2030, the party has claimed the high ground. That goal and perhaps a lot more is achievable, given that the large investment pipeline in electricity consists almost entirely of wind and solar projects, and that new renewables are now typically the cheapest options to produce energy with new plants.

The question then is what policy instruments Labor would use to facilitate the transition from coal to renewables.

NEG games

The government’s abandoned National Energy Guarantee (NEG) policy is now a political asset for Labor. If the Coalition were to support it under a Labor government, the policy would effectively be immune to political attack. If the Coalition were to block it, Labor could blame many future problems in electricity on the Coalition’s refusal to endorse a policy that it originally devised.

The NEG has many warts. Some of the compromises in its design were necessary to get it through the Coalition party room. That no longer matters, and so it should be possible to make improvements. One such improvement would be to allow for an explicit carbon price in electricity under the NEG, by creating an emissions intensity obligation for electricity generators with traded certificates. This is better than the opaque model of contract obligations on electricity retailers under the original version.

Underwriting renewables

But the real action under a Labor government might well come from a more direct policy approach to push the deployment of renewables. In his energy policy speech last week, Shorten foreshadowed that Labor would “invest in projects and underwrite contracts for clean power generation, as well as firming technologies like storage and gas”.

As interventionist as this sounds, it has some clear advantages over more indirect support mechanisms. First, it brings the costs of new projects down further by making cheap finance available – a tried and tested method in state-based renewables schemes. Second, it allows for a more targeted approach, supporting renewable energy generation where it makes most sense given demand and transmission lines, and prioritising storage where and when it is needed. Third, it channels government support only to new installations, rather than giving free money to wind farms and solar plants that are already in operation.

Managing coal exit

Where renewables rise, coal will fall. Labor’s approach to this issue centres on the affected workers and communities. A “just transition authority” would be created as a statutory authority, to administer redundancies, worker training, and economic diversification.

This is a good approach if it can work effectively and efficiently. But it may not be enough to manage the large and potentially rapid shifts in Australia’s power sector.

Contract prices for new wind farms and solar plants now are similar to or lower than the operating costs of many existing coal plants. The economics of existing coal plants are deteriorating, and many of Australia’s ageing coal power plants may shut down sooner than anticipated.

All that Labor’s policy says on the issue is that all large power plants would be required to provide three years’ notice of closure, as the Finkel Review recommended. But in practice this is unlikely to work.

Without any guiding framework, coal power plants could close very suddenly. If a major piece of equipment fails and repair is uneconomic, then the plant is out, and operators may find it opportune to run the plant right until that point. It’s like driving an old car – it runs sort of OK until the gearbox goes, and it’s off to the wreckers right then. It is unclear how a three-year rule could be enforced.

This is effectively what happened with the Hazelwood plant in Victoria. That closure caused a temporary rise in wholesale power prices, as new supply capacity gradually fills the gap.

One way to deal with this would be to draw up and implement some form of specific exit timetable for coal power plants. This would give notice to local communities, provide time to prepare investment in alternative economic activities, and allow replacement generation capacity to be brought online. Such a timetable would need a mechanism to implement it, probably a system of carrots and sticks.

Batteries, energy efficiency and the CEFC

Most public attention was given to a relatively small part of Labor’s energy policy platform: the promise to subsidise home batteries. Batteries can help reduce peak demand, and cut electricity bills for those who also have solar panels. But it is not clear whether home batteries are good value for money in the system overall. And the program would tend to benefit mostly upper middle-income earners.




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Labor’s platform also foreshadows a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency, which is economically sensible.

Finally, Labor promises to double the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s endowment with another A$10 billion, to be used for revolving loans. The CEFC is already the world’s biggest “green bank”, co-financing projects that cut emissions and deliver financial returns. Another A$5 billion is promised as a fund for upgrading transmission and distribution infrastructure. These are big numbers, and justifiably so – building our future energy system will need massive investments, and some of these will be best made by government.

Big plans for electricity, but what about the rest?

Overall, Labor’s plan is a solid blueprint to support the electricity transition, with strong ambition made possible by the tremendous technological developments of recent years.

But really it is only the start. Electricity accounts for one-third of national greenhouse emissions. Emissions from the power sector will continue to fall, but emissions from other sectors have been rising. That poses a huge challenge for the economy-wide emissions reductions that are needed not only to achieve the 2030 emissions targets, but the much deeper reductions needed in coming decades.

A national low-carbon strategy will need to look at how to get industry to shift to zero-emission electricity, how to convert road transport to electricity or hydrogen, and how to tackle the difficult question of agricultural emissions. More pre-election announcements are to come. It will be interesting to see how far Labor will be willing to go in the direction of putting a price on carbon, which remains the economically sensible but most politically charged policy option.

As difficult as electricity policy may seem based on the tumultuous politics that have surrounded it, more seismic shifts are waiting in the wings.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Four ways our cities can cut transport emissions in a hurry: avoid, shift, share and improve


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Urgent and radical change in urban transport policies and practices will benefit the planet and future generations.
blurAZ/Shutterstock

Hussein Dia, Swinburne University of Technology

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned that global warming could reach 1.5℃ as early as 2030. The landmark report by leading scientists urged nations to do more to avert an impending crisis.

We have 12 years, the report said, to contain greenhouse gas emissions. This includes serious efforts to reduce transport emissions.




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In Australia, transport is the third-largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for around 17% of emissions.
Passenger cars account for around half of our transport emissions.

The transport sector is also one of the strongest factors in emissions growth in Australia. Emissions from transport have increased nearly 60% since 1990more than any other sector. Australia is ranked 20th out of 25 of the largest energy-using countries for transport energy efficiency.

Cities around the world have many opportunities to reduce emissions. But this requires renewed thinking and real commitment to change.

Our planet can’t survive our old transport habits

Past (and still current) practices in urban and transport planning are fundamental causes of the transport problems we face today.

Over the past half-century, cities worldwide have grown rapidly, leading to urban sprawl. The result was high demand for motorised transport and, in turn, increased emissions.

The traffic gridlock on roads and motorways was the catalyst for most transport policy responses during that period. The solution prescribed for most cities was to build out of congestion by providing more infrastructure for private vehicles. Limited attention was given to managing travel demand or improving other modes of transport.




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Equating mobility with building more roads nurtured a tendency towards increased motorisation, reinforcing an ever-increasing inclination to expand the road network. The result was a range of unintended adverse environmental, social and economic consequences. Most of these are rooted in the high priority given to private vehicles.

What are the opportunities to change?

The various strategies to move our cities in the right direction can be grouped into four broad categories: avoid, shift, share, and improve. Major policy, behaviour and technology changes are required to make these strategies work.

Avoid strategies aim to slow the growth of travel. They include initiatives to reduce trip lengths, such as high-density and mixed land use developments. Other options decrease private vehicle travel – for example, through car/ride sharing and congestion pricing. And teleworking and e-commerce help people avoid private car trips altogether.




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Shanghai’s Hongqiao transport hub is a unique example of an integrated air, rail and mixed land use development. It combines Hongqiao’s airport, metro subway lines, and regional high-speed rail. A low-carbon residential and commercial precinct surrounds the hub.

Layout of Shanghai Hongqiao integrated transport hub.
Peng & Shen (2016)/Researchgate, CC BY

Shift strategies encourage travellers to switch from private vehicles to public transport, walking and cycling. This includes improving bus routes and service frequency.

Pricing strategies that discourage private vehicles and encourage other modes of transport can also be effective. Policies that include incentives that make electric vehicles more affordable have been shown to encourage the shift.

Norway is an undisputed world leader in electric vehicle uptake. Nearly a third of all new cars sold in 2017 were a plug-in model. The electric vehicle market share was expected to be as much as 40% within a year.

An electric vehicle charging station in the Norwegian capital Oslo.
Softulka/Shutterstock



Read more:
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Share strategies affect car ownership. New sharing economy businesses are already moving people, goods and services. Shared mobility, rather than car ownership, is providing city dwellers with a real alternative.

This trend is likely to continue and will pose significant challenges to car ownership models.

Uber claims that its carpooling service in Mumbai saved 936,000 litres of fuel and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2,662 metric tonnes within one year. It also reports that UberPool in London achieved a reduction of more than 1.1 million driving kilometres in just six months.

UberPool is available in inner Melbourne suburbs. Trip must begin and end in this area.
Uber

Improve strategies promote the use of technologies to optimise performance of transport modes and intelligent infrastructure. These include intelligent transport systems, urban information technologies and emerging solutions such as autonomous mobility.

Our research shows that sharing 80% of autonomous vehicles will reduce net emissions by up to 20%. The benefits increase with wider adoption of autonomous shared electric vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles can offer first- and last-kilometre solutions, especially in outer suburbs with limited public transport services.
Monopoly919/Shutterstock



Read more:
Utopia or nightmare? The answer lies in how we embrace self-driving, electric and shared vehicles


The urgency and benefits of steering our cities towards a path of low-carbon mobility are unmistakable. This was recognised in the past but progress has been slow. Today, the changing context for how we build future cities – smart, healthy and low-carbon – presents new opportunities.

If well planned and implemented, these four interventions will collectively achieve transport emission reduction targets. They will also improve access to the jobs and opportunities that are preconditions for sound economic development in cities around the world.The Conversation

Hussein Dia, Chair, Department of Civil and Construction Engineering, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Greenland: how rapid climate change on world’s largest island will affect us all



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Dan Bach Kristensen / shutterstock

Kathryn Adamson, Manchester Metropolitan University

The largest wildfire ever recorded in Greenland was recently spotted close to the west coast town of Sisimiut, not far from Disko Island where I research retreating glaciers. The fire has captured public and scientific interest not just because its size and location came as a surprise, but also because it is yet another signpost of deep environmental change in the Arctic.

Greenland is an important cog in the global climate system. The ice sheet which covers 80% of the island reflects so much of the sun’s energy back into space that it moderates temperatures through what is known as the “albedo effect”. And since it occupies a strategic position in the North Atlantic, its meltwater tempers ocean circulation patterns.

Most of Greenland is covered by more than a kilometre of ice.
Eric Gaba / NGDC, CC BY-SA

But Greenland is especially vulnerable to climate change, as Arctic air temperatures are currently rising at twice the global average rate. Environmental conditions are frequently setting new records: “the warmest”, “the wettest”, “the driest”.

Despite its size, the fire itself represents only a snapshot of Greenland’s fire history. It alone cannot tell us about wider Arctic climate change.

But when we superimpose these extraordinary events onto longer-term environmental records, we can see important trends emerging.

The ice sheet is melting

Between 2002 and 2016 the ice sheet lost mass at a rate of around 269 gigatonnes per year. One gigatonne is one billion tonnes. One tonne is about the weight of a walrus.

Leave my weight out of this.
BMJ / shutterstock

During the same period, the ice sheet also showed some unusual short-term behaviour. The 2012 melt season was especially intense – 97% of the ice sheet experienced surface melt at some point during the year. Snow even melted at its summit, the highest point in the centre of the island where the ice is piled up more than 3km above sea level.

Change in total mass of the Greenland Ice Sheet (in Gt) from 2002 to 2016. Red crosses indicate the values every April.
NOAA

In April 2016 Greenland saw abnormally high temperatures and its earliest ever “melt event” (a day in which more than 10% of the ice sheet has at least 1mm of surface melt). Early melting doesn’t usher in a period of complete and catastrophic change – the ice won’t vanish overnight. But it does illustrate how profoundly and rapidly the ice sheet can respond to rising temperatures.

Permafrost is thawing

Despite its icy image, the margins of Greenland are actually quite boggy, complete with swarms of mosquitoes. This is the “active layer”, made up of peaty soil and sediment up to two metres thick, which temporarily thaws during the summer. The underlying permafrost, which can reach depths of 100m, remains permanently frozen.

Fighting off the mosquitos in boggy Greenland.
Kathryn Adamson, Author provided

In Greenland, like much of the Arctic, rising temperatures are thawing the permafrost. This means the active layer is growing by up to 1.5cm per year. This trend is expected to continue, seeing as under current IPCC predictions, Arctic air temperatures will rise by between 2.0°C and 7.5°C this century.

Arctic permafrost contains more than 1,500 billion tonnes of dead plants and animals (around 1,500 billion walrus equivalent) which we call “organic matter”. Right now, this stuff has been frozen for thousands of years. But when the permafrost thaws this organic matter will decay, releasing carbon and methane (another greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.

If thawing continues, it’s estimated that by 2100 permafrost will emit 850-1,400 billion tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (for comparison: total global emissions in 2012 was 54 billion tonnes of CO₂ equivalent). All that extra methane and carbon of course has the potential to enhance global warming even further.

With this in mind, it is clear to see why the recent wildfire, which was burning in dried-out peat in the active layer, was especially interesting to researchers. If Greenland’s permafrost becomes increasingly degraded and dry, there is the potential for even bigger wildfires which would release vast stores of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Species are adapting to a changing ecosystem

Major changes in the physical environment are already affecting the species that call Greenland home. Just look at polar bears, the face of Arctic climate change. Unlike other bears, polar bears spend most of their time at sea, which explains their Latin name Ursus maritimus. In particular they rely on sea ice as it gives them a deep-water platform from which to hunt seals.

However, since 1979 the extent of sea ice has decreased by around 7.4% per decade due to climate warming, and bears have had to adjust their habitat use. With continued temperature rise and sea ice disappearance, it’s predicted that populations will decline by up to 30% in the next few decades, taking the total number of polar bears to under 9,000.

Where are you, seals?
Mario_Hoppmann / shutterstock

I have considered only a handful of the major environmental shifts in Greenland over the past few decades, but the effects of increasing temperatures are being felt in all parts of the earth system. Sometimes these are manifest as extreme events, at others as slow and insidious changes.

The different parts of the environmental jigsaw interact, so that changes in one part (sea ice decline, say) influence another (polar bear populations). We need to keep a close eye on the system as a whole if we are to make reliable interpretations – and meaningful plans for the future.The Conversation

Kathryn Adamson, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mangrove forests can rebound thanks to climate change – it’s an opportunity we must take



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Mangroves growing strong.
Ali Suliman/Shutterstock

Christian Dunn, Bangor University

Humans have become adept at destroying natural habitats. Indeed, we’re so good at it we’ve changed the very makeup and climate of our planet. But there may be signs the natural world is fighting back by protecting itself against rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, and we face the tantalising prospect of helping this process.

A recent study found that mangrove forests could be adapting to climate change by growing beyond their usual range. The risk of several days of continuous frost, which previously kept these trees in tropical and subtropical areas near the equator, is continuously shifting towards the poles. As average global temperatures rise, mangroves are able to increase their growth and expand their range beyond the equator.

Mangrove forests are coastal wetlands made up of a dense jumble of trees and shrubs capable of living in salt or brackish water. Famous for their tangle of roots sticking up from the ground and dropping down from branches, mangrove forests can grow out into the sea and create almost impenetrable mazes of narrow channels along shorelines.

The roots of mangroves provide shelter and nursery habitat for juvenile fish.
Damsea/Shutterstock

Mangroves protect coastlines, treat polluted waters, provide livelihoods and resources for some of the world’s poorest people and are home to an impressive number of species – many of which are commercially important. It’s been suggested that the majority of the global fish catch relies, either directly or indirectly, on mangroves.

Despite their value, humans have also done an impressive job over the last century of destroying them to make way for coastal developments, aquaculture and by logging them for timber and fuel production. Not to mention destroying their natural water courses and polluting the ground they grow in.

So the possibility that climate change could be benefiting these habitats is promising indeed. In the long run, this could help society adapt to climate change and even reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Adapting to climate change

One feature of mangroves that we’ve long benefited from is the protection they offer to our coastlines. Waves lose their power passing through dense mangrove forests, and they can offer protection from storms, typhoons, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Their mass of roots –- both above and below ground – help to bind and build sediments, meaning mangrove areas can grow vertically, which is a clear asset in the face of rising sea levels. Expanding mangrove forests could therefore help protect us from the devastating effects of extreme weather that become more likely with climate change.

Mangrove forests are also incredibly productive ecosystems, which means that lots of carbon dioxide is taken in and used by the trees and shrubs as they grow. When this organic matter dies, a proportion of it forms the sediment underneath the mangrove forest. As a result, carbon remains trapped as semi-decomposed plant matter, and is unable to re-enter the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. This ensures mangroves can actually act as giant stores – or sinks – of carbon.

Research suggests that mangroves could be better carbon stores than the coastal habitats they are encroaching on – opening the possibility for mangroves to combat the very causes of global warming. In this way, mangroves act as Earth’s natural defences to climate change –- protecting the planet by striking at the very cause of the problem.

Around the world, some mangrove forests are being given legal protection and large-scale restoration works are taking place with varying degrees of success, as one study in Sri Lanka found.

In America and Australia work is being undertaken to restore areas of mangrove dieback following ill-considered developments and the use of herbicides. Conservationists and academics are researching where mangrove restoration would be most beneficial, and developing the best methods for these projects around the world.

The knowledge that mangroves could both benefit from a changing climate and protect us from some of its worst effects demands a renewed vigour in promoting these wetlands. It also raises a question. Should resources be ploughed into maintaining ecosystems where regional changes in the climate are unlikely to help them prosper? Or should we concentrate our efforts on helping expand habitats that are not only resilient to climate change but can help mitigate climate change itself?

Perhaps it is time to move towards the latter and act as ecosystem physicians, giving healing and healable habitats like mangroves every opportunity to do what they do best.The Conversation

Christian Dunn, Lecturer in Wetland Science, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.