We found methane-eating bacteria living in a common Australian tree. It could be a game changer for curbing greenhouse gases


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Luke Jeffrey, Southern Cross UniversityTrees are the Earth’s lungs – it’s well understood they drawdown and lock up vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But emerging research is showing trees can also emit methane, and it’s currently unknown just how much.

This could be a major problem, given methane is a greenhouse gas about 45 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming our planet.

However, in a world-first discovery published in Nature Communications, we found unique methane-eating communities of bacteria living within the bark of a common Australian tree species: paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia). These microbial communities were abundant, thriving, and mitigated about one third of the substantial methane emissions from paperbark that would have otherwise ended up in the atmosphere.

Because research on tree methane (“treethane”) is still in its relative infancy, there are many questions that need to be resolved. Our discovery helps fill these critical gaps, and will change the way we view the role of trees within the global methane cycle.

Wait, trees emit methane?

Yes, you read that right! Methane gas within cottonwood trees was first reported in 1907, but has been largely overlooked for almost a century.

Only in 2018 was a tree methane review published and then a research blueprint put forward, labelling this as “a new frontier of the global carbon cycle”. It has since been gaining rapid momentum, with studies now spanning the forests of Japan, UK, Germany, Panama, Finland, China, Australia, US, Canada, France and Borneo just to name a few.

Research on tree methane is still in its relative infancy.

In some cases, treethane emissions are significant. For example, the tropical Amazon basin is the world largest natural source of methane. Trees account for around 50% of its methane emissions.

Likewise, research from 2020 found low-lying subtropical Melaleuca forests in Australia emit methane at similar rates to trees in the Amazon.

Dead trees can emit methane, too. At the site of a catastrophic climate-related mangrove forest dieback in the Gulf of Carpentaria, dead mangrove trees were discovered to emit eight times more methane than living ones. This poses new questions for how climate change may induce positive feedbacks, triggering potent greenhouse gas release from dead and dying trees.

Aerial shot of river through trees in the Amazon
Trees account for around 50% of the total Amazon basin methane emissions.
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Treethane emissions most likely account for some of the large uncertainties within the most recent global methane budget, which tries to determine where all the methane in the atmosphere comes from. But we’re still a long way from refining an answer to this question. Currently, trees are not yet included as a distinct emissions category.

So where exactly is the treethane coming from?

Within wetland forests, scientists assumed most treethane emissions originate from the underlying soils. The methane is transported upwards via the tree roots and stems, then through to the atmosphere via their bark.

We confirmed, in other recent research, that wetland soils were indeed the source of methane emissions in lowland forest trees. But this wasn’t always the case.

Some lowland forest trees such as cottonwood can emit flammable methane directly from their stems, which is likely produced by microbes living within the moist trees themselves. Dry upland forest trees are also emerging as methane emitters too — albeit at much lower rates.

Paperbark trees surround a body of water
Paperbark forest in a wetland, where bark-dwelling methane-eating microbes were discovered.
Luke Jeffrey, Author provided

Discovering methane-eating bacteria

For our latest research, we used microbiological extraction techniques to sample the diverse microbial communities that live within trees.

We discovered the bark of paperbark trees provide a unique home for methane-oxidizing bacteria — bacteria that “consumes” methane and turns it into carbon dioxide, a far less potent greenhouse gas.

Remarkably, these bacteria made up to 25% of total microbial communities living in the bark, and were consuming around 36% of the tree’s methane. It appears these microbes make an easy living in the dark, moist and methane-rich environments.




Read more:
Emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide – are rising dangerously


This discovery will revolutionise the way in which we view methane emitting trees and the novel microbes living within them.

Only through understanding why, how, which, when and where trees emit the most methane, may we more effectively plant forests that effectively draw down carbon dioxide while avoiding unwanted methane emissions.

Author sampling microbes from paperbark tree
Microbe sampling techniques have advanced within the last few decades, allowing us to understand the diverse microbial communities living within trees.
Luke Jeffrey, Author provided

Our discovery that bark-dwelling microbes can mitigate substantial treethane emissions complicates this equation, but provides some reassurance that microbiomes have evolved within trees to consume methane as well.

Future work will undoubtedly look further afield, exploring the microbial communities of other methane-emitting forests.

A trillion trees to combat climate change

We must be clear: trees are in no way shape or form bad for our climate and provide a swath of other priceless ecosystem benefits. And the amount of methane emitted from trees is generally dwarfed by the amount of carbon dioxide they will take in over their lifetime.

However, there are currently 3.04 trillion trees on Earth. With both upland and lowland forests capable of emitting methane, mere trace amounts of methane on a global scale may amount to a substantial methane source.

As we now have a global movement aiming to reforest large swaths of the Earth with 1 trillion trees, knowledge surrounding methane emitting trees is critical.




Read more:
Half of global methane emissions come from aquatic ecosystems – much of this is human-made


The Conversation


Luke Jeffrey, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Southern Cross University

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

Half of global methane emissions come from aquatic ecosystems – much of this is human-made


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Judith Rosentreter, Yale University; Alberto Borges, Université de Liège; Ben Poulter, NASA, and Bradley Eyre, Southern Cross UniversityMethane — a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide — plays a major role in controlling the Earth’s climate. But methane concentrations in the atmosphere today are 150% higher than before the industrial revolution.

In our paper published today in Nature Geoscience, we show as much as half of global methane emissions come from aquatic ecosystems. This includes natural, human-created and human-impacted aquatic ecosystems — from flooded rice paddies and aquaculture ponds to wetlands, lakes and salt marshes.

Our findings are significant. Scientists had previously underestimated this global methane contribution due to underaccounting human-created and human-impacted aquatic ecosystems.

It’s critical we use this new information to stop rising methane concentrations derailing our attempts to stabilise the Earth’s temperature.

From underwater sediment to the atmosphere

Most of the methane emitted from aquatic ecosystems is produced by micro-organisms living in deep, oxygen-free sediments. These tiny organisms break down organic matter such as dead algae in a process called “methanogenesis”.

Flooded rice paddies
Rice farming releases more methane per year than the entire open ocean.
Shutterstock

This releases methane to the water, where some is consumed by other types of micro-organisms. Some of it also reaches the atmosphere.

Natural systems have always released methane (known as “background” methane). And freshwater ecosystems, such as lakes and wetlands, naturally release more methane than coastal and ocean environments.

Human-made or human-impacted aquatic ecosystems, on the other hand, increase the amount of organic matter available to produce methane, which causes emissions to rise.




Read more:
Emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide – are rising dangerously


Significant global contribution

Between 2000 and 2006, global methane emissions stabilised, and scientists are still unsure why. Emissions began steadily rising again in 2007.

There’s active debate in the scientific community about how much of the renewed increase is caused by emissions or by a decline of “methane sinks” (when methane is eliminated, such as from bacteria in soil, or from chemical reactions in the atmosphere).

We looked at inland, coastal and oceanic ecosystems around the world. While we cannot resolve the debate about what causes the renewed increase of atmospheric methane, we found the combined emissions of natural, impacted and human-made aquatic ecosystems are highly variable, but may contribute 41% to 53% of total methane emissions globally.




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In fact, these combined emissions are a larger source of methane than direct anthropogenic methane sources, such as cows, landfill and waste, and coal mining. This knowledge is important because it can help inform new monitoring and measurements to distinguish where and how methane emissions are produced.

Water is a big part of much of our landscape, from mountain rivers to the coastal ocean. This aerial image shows Himalaya rivers, wetlands, lakes and ponds, and the world’s largest mangrove forest (the Sundarbans) at the coast of the tropical Bay of Bengal.
George Allen, Author provided

The alarming human impact

There is an increasing pressure from humans on aquatic ecosystems. This includes increased nutrients (like fertilisers) getting dumped into rivers and lakes, and farm dam building as the climate dries in many places.

In general, we found methane emissions from impacted, polluted and human-made aquatic ecosystems are higher than from more natural sites.

For example, fertiliser runoff from agriculture creates nutrient-rich lakes and reservoirs, which releases more methane than nutrient-poor (oligotrophic) lakes and reservoirs. Similarly, rivers polluted with nutrients also have increased methane emissions.

An aquaculture farm
Coastal aquaculture farms emit up to 430 times more methane per area than coastal habitats.
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What’s particularly alarming is the strong methane release from rice cultivation, reservoirs and aquaculture farms.

Globally, rice cultivation releases more methane per year than all coastal wetlands, the continental shelf and open ocean together.

The fluxes in methane emissions per area of coastal aquaculture farms are 7-430 times higher than from coastal habitats such as mangrove forests, salt marshes or seagrasses. And highly disturbed mangroves and salt marsh sites have significantly higher methane fluxes than more natural sites.

So how do we reduce methane emissions?

For aquatic ecosystems, we can effectively reduce methane emissions and help mitigate climate change with the right land use and management choices.

For example, managing aquaculture farms and rice paddies so they alternate between wet and dry conditions can reduce methane emissions.




Read more:
Climate explained: methane is short-lived in the atmosphere but leaves long-term damage


Restoring salt marsh and mangrove habitats and the flow of seawater from tides is another promising strategy to further reduce methane emissions from degraded coastal wetlands.

We should also reduce the amount of nutrients coming from fertilisers washing into freshwater wetlands, lakes, reservoirs and rivers as it leads to organic matter production, such as toxic algal blooms. This will help curtail methane emissions from inland waters.

These actions will be most effective if we apply them in the aquatic ecosystems that have the greatest contribution of aquatic methane: freshwater wetlands, lakes, reservoirs, rice paddies and aquaculture farms.

This will be no small effort, and will require knowledge across many disciplines. But with the right choices we can create conditions that bring methane fluxes down while also preserving ecosystems and biodiversity.The Conversation

Judith Rosentreter, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Yale University; Alberto Borges, Research Director FRS-FNRS, Associate Professor at ULiège, Université de Liège; Ben Poulter, Research scientist, NASA, and Bradley Eyre, Professor of Biogeochemistry, Director of the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry, Southern Cross University

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

Climate explained: rising carbon emissions (probably) won’t make the Earth uninhabitable


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Laura Revell, University of Canterbury


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


Even with all humanity’s carbon emissions to date, there’s a lot less carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere than Venus, and Earth is further away from the Sun. But if carbon emissions continue at the current rate, is there any risk of reaching a tipping point at which a runaway greenhouse effect takes over, making Earth uninhabitable for any form of life?

When sunlight enters the Earth’s atmosphere, some is reflected back to space by clouds, some is reflected by bright surfaces such as ice and snow and some is absorbed by the land surface and ocean.

To maintain a balance, the Earth emits energy back to space in the form of infrared, or longwave, radiation. Some longwave radiation is absorbed in the atmosphere by heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide.

This is the well-known greenhouse effect.




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As is already well established, concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased over the past 250 years, causing the average surface temperature to increase.

One consequence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations is that, as the atmosphere warms, it can contain more water vapour. Since water vapour is itself a greenhouse gas, this can create an amplifying effect.

In general, as surface temperature increases, the Earth emits more longwave radiation to space to maintain the energy balance. But there is a limit to how much longwave radiation can be emitted.

If the atmosphere becomes completely saturated with water vapour, the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere warm up, but further increases in emission of longwave radiation are not possible.

The runaway greenhouse

This is termed a runaway greenhouse and would mean the Earth would become lethally hot and unable to cool itself by emitting heat to space.

Ultimately, this is the fate of the Earth. In billions of years from now the Sun will become brighter and grow into a Red Dwarf. As the Sun’s luminosity increases, the Earth will become hotter and its oceans will evaporate.

We’re doomed … but not for billions of years.

The hot and steamy atmosphere will ensure the Earth is just as uninhabitable to current life-forms as Venus is today.

But could we bring such a situation about on a shorter timeframe through continued carbon dioxide emissions? The good news is, probably not.

We’re safe, for now

Previous research has found that, due to differences in the properties of water vapour and carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases, adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is likely insufficient to trigger a runaway greenhouse.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is currently around 416 parts per million (ppm) – up from approximately 280 ppm since the first industrial revolution began, some 250 years ago.

In geological terms, this is a very large increase to take place over a short period of time. Yet human emissions of carbon dioxide are considered insufficient to trigger a runaway greenhouse, given the fossil fuel reserves available.

The Earth should be safe from a runaway greenhouse developing for at least another 1.5 billion years.

But then …

The caveat to all the above is that the models scientists use to study future climate are built based on past, known conditions. It is therefore difficult to predict how certain parts of the climate system might operate under extremely high greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

Clouds hiding the Sun but with rays of light emerging from behind top.
Clouds can reflect sunlight back to space.
Flickr/scheendijk, CC BY

For example, clouds can reflect sunlight back to space, or they can trap heat emitted by the Earth. In a warming world, scientists are still unclear on the role clouds will play.




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While a runaway greenhouse would make Earth completely uninhabitable to life as we know it, the losses that may accrue from just a few degrees Celsius of global warming are serious and must not be discounted.

Sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, threats to endangered species and unique ecosystems are just a few of the many reasons we have to be concerned.

The silver lining is we (probably) don’t need to worry about becoming like our neighbour Venus any time soon.The Conversation

We’re not heading this way just yet.

Laura Revell, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Physics, University of Canterbury

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

Electricity has become a jigsaw. Coal is unable to provide the missing pieces



Bohbeh/Shutterstock

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

There’s something the energy minister said when they announced the early closure of Victoria’s second-biggest coal-fired power station last week that was less than complete.

Yallourn, in the Latrobe Valley, provides up to 20% of Victoria’s power. It has been operating for 47 years. Since late 2017 at least one of its four units has broken down 50 times. Its workforce doubles for three to four months most years to deal with the breakdowns. It pumps out 3% of Australia’s carbon emissions.

On Wednesday Energy Australia gave seven years notice of its intention to close it in mid-2028, four years earlier than previously announced, a possibility for which regulators had been preparing.

In what might have been a rhetorical flourish, Energy Minister Angus Taylor warned of “price spikes every night when the sun goes down”.

Then he drew attention to what had happened when two other coal-fired power stations closed down — Victoria’s Hazelwood and South Australia’s Northern (South Australia’s last-remaining coal-fired generator).

He said “wholesale prices skyrocketed by 85%”.

And there he finished, without going on to detail what really mattered. South Australia and Victoria now have the lowest wholesale power prices in the National Electricity Market — that’s right, the lowest.

Coal-fired plants close, then prices fall

Before Northern closed, South Australia had Australia’s highest price.

Five years after the closure of Northern in 2016, and four years after the closure of Hazelwood in 2017, South Australia and Victorian have wholesale prices one-third lower than those in NSW and two-fifths lower than those in Queensland.

Something happened after the closure (largely as a result of the closure) that forced prices down.

South Australia became a renewables powerhouse.

South Australian wind projects congregate around power lines.
AEMO

The Australian National University’s Hugh Saddler points out that renewable-sourced power — wind and grid solar — now accounts for 62% of power supplied to the South Australian grid, and at times for all of it.

Much of it is produced near Port Augusta, where the Northern and Playford coal-fired power stations used to be, because that’s where the transmission lines begin.

Being even cheaper than the power produced by the old brown-coal-fired power stations, there is at times so much it that it sends prices negative, meaning generators get paid to turn off in order to avoid putting more power into the system than users can take out.

It’s one of the reasons coal-fired plants are closing: they are hard to turn off. They are just as hard to turn on, and pretty hard to turn up.

Coal can’t respond quickly

There are times (when the wind doesn’t blow and there’s not much sun, such as last Friday in South Australia) when prices can get extraordinarily high.

But coal-fired plants, especially brown-coal-fired plants such as Victoria’s Hazelwood and Yallourn and Victoria’s two remaining big plants, Loy Yang A and B, are unable to quickly ramp up to take advantage of them.

Although “dispatchable” in the technical meaning of the term used by the minister, coal-fired stations can’t fill gaps quickly.




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Batteries can respond instantly to a loss of power from other sources (although not for very long), hydro can respond in 30 to 70 seconds, gas peaking plants can respond within minutes.

But coal can barely move. As with nuclear power, coal-fired power needs to be either on (in which case it can only slowly ramp up) or off, in which case turning it on from a standing start would be way too slow.

What was a feature is now a bug

That’s why coal-fired generators operate 24-7, to provide so-called base-load, because they can’t really do anything else.

Snowy Hydro generators can be turned on and off at will.
Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

Brown coal generators are the least dispatchable. Brown coal is about 60% water. To make it ignite and keep boiling off the water takes sustained ultra-high temperatures. Units at Yallourn have to keep burning coal at high output (however low or negative the prices) or turn off.

In the days when the other sources of power could be turned on and off at will, this wasn’t so much of a problem.

Hydro or gas could be turned on in the morning when we turned on our lights and heaters and factories got down to business, and coal-fired power could be slowly ramped up.

At night, when there was less demand for coal-fired power, some could be created by offering cheap off-peak water heating.

But those days are gone. Nationwide, wind and solar including rooftop solar supplies 20% of our needs. It turns on and off at will.

Wind often blows strongly at night. What was a feature of coal — its ability to provide steady power rather than fill gaps – has become a bug.

Gas and batteries can fill gaps coal can’t

It’s as if our power system has become a jigsaw with the immovable pieces provided by the wind and the sun. It’s our job to fill in the gaps.

To some extent, as the prime minister says, gas will be a transition fuel, able to fill gaps in a way that coal cannot. But gas has become expensive, and batteries are being installed everywhere.

Energy Australia plans to replace its Yallourn power station with Australia’s first four-hour utility-scale battery with a capacity of 350 megawatts, more than any battery operating in the world today. South Australia is planning an even bigger one, up to 900 megawatts.




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Huge ‘battery warehouses’ could be the energy stores of the future


Australia’s Future Fund and AGL Energy are investing $2.7 billion in wind farms in NSW and Queensland which will fill gaps in a different way — their output peaks at different times to wind farms in South Australia and Victoria.

Filling the gaps won’t be easy, and had we not gone down this road there might still have been a role for coal, but the further we go down it the less coal can help.

As cheap as coal-fired power is, it is being forced out of the system by sources of power that are cheaper and more dispatchable. We can’t turn back.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

We’ve made progress to curb global emissions. But it’s a fraction of what’s needed


Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, University of East Anglia; Pierre Friedlingstein, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Stanford University, and Steve Davis, University of California, Irvine

The global pandemic has seen an unprecedented drop in global emissions, with carbon dioxide down about 7% (or 2.6 billion tonnes) in 2020 overall compared to 2019.

But our research, published today in Nature Climate Change, found this may soon be undone, as unchecked economic recovery would see global emissions bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

It comes as data released this week from the International Energy Agency shows global carbon emissions in December 2020 were 2% higher than the year prior.

Our research found between 2016 (right after the Paris Agreement was signed) and 2019, emissions from 64 countries were declining while emissions from 150 other countries were increasing. This meant global emissions were still growing, albeit a bit slower.

In fact, these pre-pandemic emission declines were just one-tenth of what they needed to be to keep global warming well below 2℃. This is why it’s vital to ratchet up climate mitigation commitments to meet global targets and avoid further environmental damage.

Emissions from wealthy countries

Our research looked at fossil fuel-sourced carbon dioxide emissions in more than 200 countries before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and examined what might come next.

Between 2016 and 2019, the combined emissions from 64 countries declined by 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, per year, compared to the period 2011-2015. For perspective, that’s roughly one-third of what Australia emits each year.

Growth rates of global fossil fuel emissions in gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide.

Most reductions were due to structural changes towards a low carbon economy after Paris commitments were made, such as switching from coal power to renewable sources. Other reductions occurred for reasons beyond climate or energy policies, such as fuel price fluctuations or economic downturns.

The biggest emission declines came from high-income economies: the UK (declined by 3.6% per year compared to the previous five years), Denmark (-2.8%), Japan (-2%) and the US (-0.7%).




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For these countries, emissions dropped for both territorial emissions (associated with the use of fossil fuels) and consumption-based emissions (the consumption of goods and services, such as manufacturing, imported from other countries).

But a few high-income economies increased their fossil fuel-sourced carbon dioxide emissions in the same period. This includes Australia (+1.0%), Russian Federation (+0.2%), Canada (+0.1%) and New Zealand (+0.1%). For these nations, increased emissions can largely be attributed to the continued growth in oil and natural gas use.

Middle and lower income countries

There are 99 countries considered upper-middle-income economies. Thirty of which also showed reductions in carbon dioxide emissions during the five-years before the pandemic, including Mexico, Singapore, Israel, Hong Kong and Montenegro. This is a good sign, as it suggests actions to reduce emissions now extend beyond the most advanced economies.

However, the remaining 69 upper-middle-income countries continued to increase their emissions. For example, emissions from Indonesia grew by 4.7%, Chile by 1.2%, and China by 0.4% each year on average. Depending on the country, the increase was due to the continuous growth in the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas.

Finally, emissions from lower-middle-income and low-income economies showed mostly strong emissions growth. However, most started from very low levels of fossil fuel use — this group of 78 countries account for only 14% of the global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions.

Change in fossil carbon dioxide emissions (per cent per year) in the 5 years since the Paris Climate Agreement. Changes are shown for individual countries (dots) separated in three economic groups.
Le Quere et al. 2021. Nature Climate Change, Author provided

Click here to view the above graph as an interactive, where you can explore country emissions since 1990, and compare up to five countries at a time.

What happens if we return to pre-pandemic levels?

Increasing global action on climate change and the major shake up of emissions by the global pandemic has placed the world in a different place — at least for now.

Many countries have a unique opportunity for large infrastructure expenditure as part of economic recovery plans after the pandemic. If spending is focused on, for instance, clean energy, then economic recovery could accelerate the pace of decarbonisation.




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A number of countries — including South Korea and in Western Europe — have taken this route, favouring green investment as part of their recovery plans.

And a recent UN report shows 48 countries intend to reduce emissions beyond their previous commitments. Some countries, such as China and the UK, went beyond their legal obligations and pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or soon after.

These current commitments, however, do not add up to what’s required, globally.

If these new commitments are achieved, global emissions by 2030 would be 0.2% below the 2010 level according to UN numbers released last week.

However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates emissions need to be reduced by 25% to 50% below 2010 levels to keep global heating between 1.5℃ and 2℃.



Current stimulus packages in place are still likely to cause emissions to rebound to pre-pandemic levels within a few years.

Indeed, the new data from the International Energy Agency suggests global emissions already started to rise again over the second half of 2020, potentially offsetting the drops during lockdowns. Although, it’s still too early to infer the size of the rebound for 2021.

Whatever strategies we put in place, one thing is for sure. Globally, we need to do a lot more: to deliver at least ten times more emissions cuts than our pre-pandemic efforts, while supporting economic recovery, human development, improved health, equity and well-being.




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Coronavirus is a ‘sliding doors’ moment. What we do now could change Earth’s trajectory


The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia; Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Professor, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University, and Steve Davis, Professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine

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

No point complaining about it, Australia will face carbon levies unless it changes course


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Reports that Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson is considering calling for carbon border levies at the G7 summit to be held in London in June have produced a predictable reaction from the Australian government.

The levies would impose tariffs on carbon-intensive goods from countries such as Australia that haven’t adopted a carbon price or a 2050 net-zero emissions target.

Appearing to be shocked by the news, Energy Minister Angus Taylor declared that Australia is “dead against” carbon tariffs.

They were a “new form of protectionism designed to shield local industries from free trade”.

In fact they are already the policy of the European Union and the US, where President Joe Biden calls them a “carbon adjustment fee against countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations”. Canada, which has an economy-wide price on carbon, isn’t worried.

Saying you’re dead against something doesn’t stop it, and nor does asserting that it is anti free trade, when it is just as arguable that it is pro fair trade because it denies exporters from countries that aren’t taking action against climate change an unfair advantage.

Australia not the primary target

The mining industry itself made this point during the Gillard government’s introduction of Australia’s short-lived carbon price.

It would leave Australian exporters at a “disadvantage compared with international competitors”.

Australia isn’t the primary target in any event. The main aim of carbon tariffs would be to encourage China’s leader Xi Jinping to shift his country’s zero emissions date from 2060 to 2050, benefiting the rest of the world.




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If Xi Jinping does it, he’ll be on a level playing field with much of the world, although not with Australia, whose fate, like that of Britain’s Admiral Byng in 1757 would be used “to encourage the others”.

Complaining won’t much help. The International Monetary Fund has endorsed the idea, saying

in the absence of an agreement on carbon pricing – which would be by far preferable – applying the same carbon prices on the same products irrespective of where they are produced could help avoid shifting emissions out of the EU to countries with different standards

The World Trade Organisation, which has in the past has pushed back against environmental considerations in trade, is neutered.

World Trade Organisation powerless

In the late 1990s the WTO struck down a range of environmental restrictions imposed by the United States that required imported tuna to be labelled “dolphin safe” and required shrimp catchers to take action to protect turtles.

These decisions proved disastrous for the WTO, producing bitter hostility from the environmental movement and contributing to mass protests at the 1999 WTO meeting, which became known as the Battle of Seattle and ultimately killed the Doha round of trade negotiations.

Right now the WTO is in the organisational equivalent of an induced coma. By refusing to fill vacancies as they arose, the Trump Administration denied its appellate panel a quorum, forcing it to stop hearing cases.

President Donald Trump, neutered the World Trade Organisation.
AP

The result is that any appeal to the WTO against carbon border tariffs would be left in limbo. US President Joe Biden has agreed to the appointment of a new WTO director general, stalled by Trump, but is in no hurry to re-establish the appellate body.

Instead, he will first try to refashion the WTO into an organisation that supports his own policies, among them stronger environmental measures, carbon tariffs and “Buy American” provisions. When reformed, the appellate body will give complaints from Australia’s government short shrift.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shown some signs of recognising these realities, making baby steps towards announcing a 2050 zero emissions target.

But time is short. Morrison will have to either face down the denialists and do-nothingists on his own side of politics, or set himself, and Australia, up for a series of humiliations on the international stage, with real and damaging consequences.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

View from The Hill: Now Scott Morrison’s ‘preference’ is for net zero emissions by 2050


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has taken another, albeit very small, step towards endorsing a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

He told the National Press Club on Monday: “Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”.

This follows his previous wording of wanting net zero “as quickly as possible”.

It remains unclear whether the baby steps will lead to his embracing the 2050 target later this year. But he’d almost certainly like to do so – it would undoubtedly smooth the way with the Biden administration as well as putting Australia in a better position for the Glasgow climate conference in November.

But there are pesky Nationals (and a few others) ready to make the road rocky.

The next climate test for Morrison is President Biden’s planned leaders’ climate summit on Earth Day, April 22.

Climate is at the centre of the Biden agenda, which makes the April summit particularly important.

The President’s climate envoy John Kerry told a White House press briefing last week: “the convening of … this summit is essential to ensuring that 2021 is going to be the year that really makes up for the lost time of the last four years and that the U.N. Climate Conference — COP26, as it’s called, which the UK is hosting in November — to make sure that it is an unqualified success”.

Kerry spoke to energy minister Angus Taylor last week when, according to the Australia readout of the discussion, Kerry “welcomed Australia’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions as soon as possible”.

As, perhaps, one might welcome an infant’s early progress.

Asked on Monday whether he expected to attend the Biden climate conference, Morrison replied cautiously, on the basis of lack of information.

Perhaps he didn’t want to take any risks. In December he was embarrassed when an expected invitation to a speaking spot at the “climate ambition summit” hosted by Britain, France and the United Nations didn’t eventuate. Australia was judged as not having sufficient “ambition” to warrant a slot.

“ At this stage, we haven’t received the details or nature of the event,” Morrison said of the April gathering.

“As you can appreciate, things are very busy over in the White House at the moment.”

When details were received, “then I’m sure the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne and I, and Angus Taylor, and others, will discuss what is the best way for us to participate in that and how that will work.

“But we welcome it and we look forward to supporting it.”

Maybe there’ll be more to know when Morrison speaks to Biden. As of Monday, the PM was still waiting fot his first post-inauguration call from the President (they spoke after the election). The Prime Minister’s Office could only say the call was expected “within coming days”.

Morrison on Monday repeated strongly his mantra of advancing climate policy by “technology” not “tax”.

If he does move to the 2050 target, the rationale he will give for the shift will be the progress of technology.

“My commitment to Australians that I will not tax our way to net zero by 2050 is a very, very important one and I will hold my faith with the Australian people on those issues. So we will see how the technology develops,” he said.

If he wished, he obviously could use “technology” at any point as his cover for changing his position. The issue will be if and when he thinks he has the political cover.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The Paris Agreement 5 years on: big coal exporters like Australia face a reckoning



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Jeremy Moss, UNSW

On Saturday, more than 70 global leaders came together at the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit, marking the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was denied a speaking slot, in recognition of Australia’s failure to set meaningful climate commitments. Meanwhile, the European Union and the UK committed to reduce domestic emissions by 55% and 68% respectively by 2030.

As welcome as these new commitments are, the Paris Agreement desperately needs to be updated. Since it was passed, the production and supply of fossil fuels for export has continued unabated. And the big exporters — such as Norway, Canada, the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and of course Australia — take no responsibility for the emissions created when those fossil fuels are burned overseas.

It’s time this changed. Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter. And in 2019, emissions from fossil fuels exported by this nation, as well as the US, Norway and Canada, accounted for more than 10% of total world emissions, according to calculations from a research project on Australia’s carbon budget at the University of NSW, which I run. Exporting nations are not legally responsible for these offshore emissions, but their actions are clearly at odds with the climate emergency.

Business as usual

A 2019 UN report notes governments are planning to extract 50% more fossil fuels than is consistent with meeting a 2℃ target and an alarming 120% more than a 1.5℃ target, by 2030. Coal is the main contributor to this supply overshoot.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged all leaders to declare a climate emergency.

But rather than reducing their production of fossil fuels, many countries are doubling down and actually increasing supply. For example, in Australia, government figures show the greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s exported fossil fuels increased by 4.4% between 2018 to 2019.

Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and approved three new fossil fuel projects in recent months: the Vickery coal mine extension, Olive Downs and the Narrabri Gas Project

This is a worldwide trend. Let’s take Norway as another example. Norway gets the bulk of its electricity from hydropower and has partially divested its Government Pension Fund from some fossil fuels. Yet it’s also one of the largest exporters of greenhouse gases through its gas exports, behind Qatar and Russia.




Read more:
3 reasons meeting climate targets and dumping Kyoto credits won’t salvage Australia’s international reputation


The situation is mirrored in the corporate world. Many large fossil fuel companies are trumpeting their emissions reductions targets while continuing to push for new fossil fuel mining projects. BHP, one of the world’s biggest miners, stated it is reducing its emissions, yet in October the company increased its stake in an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico.

Responsibility doesn’t stop at the border

What underpins this situation is an outdated “territorial” model of responsibility for climate harms. Governments and companies seem to think responsibility stops at the border, not with the overall livability of the global climate. Once the coal, oil and gas products are loaded onto ships, they are no longer our problem.

Unfortunately, the accounting rules of the United Nations, under the Paris Agreement, currently allow exporters to pass on responsibility for fossil fuel emissions.

We must move from this territorial model of responsibility to one that considers the whole chain of responsibility for climate harms.

So what should Australia, Canada, the US, Norway and other exporting countries do to address the over-supply of fossil fuels?

First, they need to acknowledge their responsibility, at least in part, for the emissions and associated harms caused by their exports. Allowing compensation and funding for mitigation to track the role played in the causal chain better attributes responsibility and places mitigation burdens back on the exporting countries.




Read more:
Global emissions are down by an unprecedented 7% — but don’t start celebrating just yet


Future climate negotiations, such as in Glasgow in 2021 (COP26), need to adjust the scope of their targets to include robust reductions in the supply of fossil fuels in the next round of agreements.

Instead of just focusing on reducing demand, the process needs to function as a kind of “reverse OPEC” (the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), where exporting countries are given ambitious phase-out targets for their fossil fuel exports.

Drastic emissions cuts needed

The 2020 Production Gap report notes global fossil fuel production will have to decrease by 6% a year between 2020-30 to meet a 1.5℃ target.

For Australia, this must mean we include the reduction in “exported emissions” as part of any net-zero target. Australia’s exported emissions are double our domestic emissions – a situation that cannot continue.

Top of the list of what’s needed, is the phasing out of generous subsidies for fossil fuel producers. The billions of dollars currently spent annually in Australia on subsidising and encouraging fossil fuel exports are simply not compatible with the aims and spirit of the Paris Agreement.




Read more:
Matt Canavan says Australia doesn’t subsidise the fossil fuel industry, an expert says it does


Phasing out the supply of fossil fuels also needs to occur in a way that doesn’t just pay the current big suppliers to stop. Governments implementing a transition ought to think very carefully about how to fairly deploy scarce resources to ensure a just transition.

Last but not least, governments need to accept that the strong influence fossil fuel corporations wield over the political process is hindering global efforts to address climate change. The donations , rotation of industry staff to government positions and influence of fossil fuel lobby groups cannot lead to good decisions for the climate.

Placing a ban on such influence, particularly at future climate negotiations, would go a long way towards addressing the undue influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Until the fossil fuel export industry is subject to demanding targets, and made to accept responsibility for the emissions associated with their products, Earth will continue on its highly dangerous global warming trajectory.The Conversation

Jeremy Moss, Professor of Political Philosophy, UNSW

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

Global emissions are down by an unprecedented 7% — but don’t start celebrating just yet



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Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, University of East Anglia; Philippe Ciais, Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA); Pierre Friedlingstein, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

Global emissions are expected to decline by about 7% in 2020 (or 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) compared to 2019 — an unprecedented drop due to the slowdown in economic activity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

To put this into perspective, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 saw a 1.5% drop in global emissions compared to 2007. This year’s emissions decline is more than four times larger.

These are the findings we show in the 15th global carbon budget, an annual report card of the Global Carbon Project on the sources and removals of carbon dioxide, the primary driver of human caused climate change.

It may sound like welcome news, but we can’t celebrate yet. A rapid bounce back of emissions to pre-COVID levels is likely, possibly by as soon as next year. A recent study found emissions in China snapped back to above last year’s levels during late spring when economic activity began to return to normal.

These findings come ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday, where global leaders will demonstrate their commitments to climate action five years since the Paris Agreement. This huge drop in emissions should be taken as a unique opportunity to divert the historical course of emissions growth for good.

Emissions in the pandemic year

The total global fossil carbon dioxide emissions for 2020 are estimated to be 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Estimated emissions at the beginning of December are lower than their levels in December last year, at least in the transport sectors. However, emissions have been edging back up since the peak global daily decline of 17% in early April.




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The decline in emissions in 2020 was particularly steep in the United States (12%) and European Union (11%), where emissions were already declining before the pandemic, mainly from reductions in coal use.

Emissions from India dropped by 9%, while emissions from China, which have returned to close or above 2019 values, saw an estimated drop of only about 1.7%.

Australian greenhouse gas emissions during the peak of the pandemic lockdown (the quarter of March to June 2020) were lower by 6.2% compared to the previous quarter. The largest declines were seen in transport and fugitive emissions (emissions released during the extraction, processing and transport of fossil fuels).

A chart showing the emissions decline for China, US, India, EU, and the rest of the world.
The 2020 emission decline was particularly steep in the United States and European Union. While China’s emissions also dropped steeply, they snapped back later in the year.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

Globally, the transport sector also contributed the most to the 2020 emissions drop, particularly “surface transport” (cars, vans and trucks). At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns, the usual levels of transport emissions were halved in many countries, such as in the US and Europe.

While aviation activity collapsed by 75%, its contribution to the total decline was relatively small given the sector only accounts for about 2.8% of the total emissions on an average year. The number of global flights was still down 45% as of the first week of December.

A chart showing the emissions decline for different sectors.
The industry sector, specifically metals production, chemicals and manufacturing, was the second largest contributor in emissions declines.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

Global emissions were already slowing down pre-COVID

Overall, global emissions have increased by 61% since 1990. But the pace of this growth has varied.

In the early 1990s, the growth in emissions slowed down due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but then increased very quickly during the 2000s, by 3% per year on average. This was, in part, due to the rise of China as an economic power.




Read more:
South Korea’s Green New Deal shows the world what a smart economic recovery looks like


Over the last decade, however, the pace of emissions began to slow again, with an increase just below 1% per year. And emissions in 2019 didn’t grow much, if at all, when compared to 2018.

Behind the global slowing trend, there are 24 countries that had carbon dioxide fossil emissions declining for at least one decade while their economy continued to grow. They include many European countries such as the Denmark, the UK and Spain, and the USA, Mexico and Japan. For the rest of the world, emissions continued to grow until 2019.

This chart shows how global fossil carbon dioxide emissions have increased.
This chart shows how global fossil carbon dioxide emissions have increased since the 1990s. Note the drops in the early 1990s, in 2008, and the huge drop in 2020.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

An opportunity to boost ambition

The pandemic, along with other recent trends such as the shift towards clean energy, have placed us at a crossroad: the choices we make today can change the course of global emissions.

In addition to the slow down in global emissions in recent years, and this year’s drop, there are now dozens of countries that have pledged to reach net zero emissions by mid century or soon after.

How the emissions of different countries have changed over time.

Importantly, the first (China), second (USA), third (European Union), sixth (Japan) and ninth (South Korea) top emitters — together responsible for over 60% of the global fossil carbon dioxide emissions — have either legally binding pledges or serious ambitions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or soon after.




Read more:
China just stunned the world with its step-up on climate action – and the implications for Australia may be huge


Coal production, the largest fossil fuel source of carbon dioxide emissions, peaked in 2013. Its decline continues to this date; however, increasing natural gas and oil negate much of this decline in emissions.

How the emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement sectors changed over time.
How the emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement sectors changed over time.
Pep Canadell, Author provided

We are in the midst of extraordinary levels of economic investment in response to the pandemic. If economic investment is appropriately directed, it could enable the rapid expansion of technologies and services to put us on track towards net zero emissions.

Many countries have already committed to green recovery plans, such as South Korea and the EU, although investments continue to be dominated by the support of fossil-based infrastructure.

As global leaders prepare for tomorrow’s summit, they have an opportunity like never before. The choices we make now can have a disproportionate impact on the future trajectory of emissions, and keep temperature rise well and truly below 2℃.




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Coronavirus is a ‘sliding doors’ moment. What we do now could change Earth’s trajectory


The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia; Philippe Ciais, Directeur de recherche au Laboratoire des science du climat et de l’environnement, Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace, Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA); Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo, and Rob Jackson, Professor, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University

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

Emissions projections indicate Australia won’t need carryover credits to meet Paris targets


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia is on track to meet its 2030 Paris climate targets without resorting to carryover credits and could exceed them with the aid of the recently-announced technology roadmap, according to projections to be released on Thursday.

Australia has pledged to reduce emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030.

The annual update of emissions projections shows that to meet the 26% cut, without using carryover credits, a further reduction of 56 million tonnes would be needed over the decade to 2030.

image.
Author provided

To reach the higher target of a 28% cut without the credits, a reduction of 123 million tonnes would be required over the decade.

Neither of these scenarios includes the technology investment roadmap – which is the government’s policy to support new and emerging energy technologies to a price that is comparable with higher emitting alternatives.

The Minister for Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, said if the roadmap was taken into account, “Australia is projected to beat its 2030 target by 145 million tonnes”.

This would be without relying on the credits which have been gained from exceeding earlier targets.

“Under this scenario, Australia’s emissions are projected to be 29% below 2005 levels by 2030,” Taylor said.

Scott Morrison has flagged the government won’t use the carryovers if they are not necessary to meet Australia’s commitments.

He is set to confirm this when he addresses a Pacific Islands Forum virtual climate summit on Friday. This precedes the Climate Ambition Summit hosted by Britain, France and the United Nations at the weekend to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris accord.

The Pacific summit is aimed at putting pressure on the weekend meeting, which is being called “the sprint to Glasgow”, the delayed climate conference to be held in a year’s time.

There has been argy bargy over whether Morrison could get a speaking role at the weekend meeting, where leaders are being asked to make new commitments. As of Wednesday, he was not expected to be a speaker.

The update in the Australia’s emissions projections 2020 report shows Australia’s position against the 2030 target has improved by more than 300 million tonnes since the 2019 projections, and by 639 million tonnes since 2018.

The improvement since 2018 is equivalent to taking all of the country’s passenger vehicles off the road for 15 years.

Emissions are projected to decline to 478 million tonnes in 2030 which is 22% below 2005 levels. Incorporating the technology investment roadmap, emissions are forecast to be 436 million tonnes in 2030 – 29% below 2005 levels.

image.

The update says the downward revision in the 2020 projections reflects:

  • the inclusion of new measures to speed up the development and deployment of low emissions technologies in the recent budget

  • a further reduction in projected emissions from the electricity sector due to continued strong uptake of renewables – especially small and mid-scale solar – by households and businesses; and

  • the temporary effect of COVID-related restrictions on the economy.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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