Climate explained: why Mars is cold despite an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide



The atmosphere of Mars is thin and very dry.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, CC BY-ND

Paulo de Souza, Griffith University


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

If tiny concentrations of carbon dioxide can hold enough heat to create a global warming impact on Earth, why is Mars cold? Its atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide.

The recipe for the temperature of a planet’s surface has four major ingredients: atmospheric composition, atmospheric density, water content (from oceans, rivers and air humidity) and distance from the Sun. There are other ingredients, including seasonal effects or the presence of a magnetosphere, but these work more like adding flavour to a cake.

When we look at Earth, the balance of these ingredients makes our planet habitable. Changes in this balance can result in effects that can be felt on a planetary scale. This is exactly what is happening with the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of our planet.

Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur hexafluoride and other gases in the atmosphere have been raising the temperature of our planet’s surface gradually and will continue to do so for many years to come.




Read more:
Climate explained: why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate


As a consequence, places covered in ice start melting and extreme weather events become more frequent. This poses a growing challenge for us to adapt to this new reality.

Small concentration, big effect

It is surprising to realise how little the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other greenhouse gases has to change to cause such a shift in our climate. Since the 1950s, we have raised CO₂ levels in the atmosphere by a fraction of a percent, but this is already causing several changes in our climate.

This is because CO₂ represents a tiny part of Earth’s atmosphere. It is measured in parts per million (ppm) which means that for every carbon dioxide molecule there are a million others. Its concentration is just 0.041%, but even a small percentage change represents a big change in concentration.

We can tell what Earth’s atmosphere and climate were like in the distant past by analysing bubbles of ancient air trapped in ice. During Earth’s ice ages, the concentration of carbon dioxide was around 200ppm. During the warmer interglacial periods, it hovered around 280ppm, but since the 1950s, it has continued to rise relentlessly. By 2013, CO₂ levels surpassed 400ppm for the first time in recorded history.

This graph, based on samples of air bubbles fro ice cores and direct measurements of carbon dioxide, shows the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.
NASA, CC BY-ND

This rise represents almost a doubling in concentration, and it clear that, in the recipe for Earth’s surface temperature, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are to be used in moderation.

The role of water

Like flour for a cake, water is an important ingredient of the Earth’s surface. Water makes temperature move slowly. That’s why the temperatures in tropical rainforests does not change much, but the Sahara desert is cold at night. Earth is rich in water.

Let’s have a look at our solid planets. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, but it has a very thin atmosphere and is not the warmest planet. Venus is very, very hot. Its atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide (over 96%) and it is very dense.

The atmosphere of Mars is also rich in carbon dioxide (above 96%), but it is extremely thin (1% of Earth’s atmosphere), very dry and located further away from the Sun. This combination makes the planet an incredibly cold place.

The absence of water makes the temperature on Mars change a lot. The Mars exploration rovers (Spirit at Gusev Crater and Opportunity at Meridiani Planun) experienced temperatures ranging from a few degrees Celsius above zero to minus 80℃ at night: every single Martian day, known as sol.




Read more:
Curious Kids: What are some of the challenges to Mars travel?


Terraforming or terra fixing

One of the interesting challenges we face while building space payloads, like we do at Griffith University, is to build instruments that can withstand such a wide temperature range.

I love conversations about terraforming. This is the idea that we could fly to a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere and fix it by using some sort of machine to filter nasty gases and release good ones we need to survive, at the correct amount. That is a recurrent theme in many science fiction films, including Aliens, Total Recall and Red Planet.

I hope we can fix our own atmosphere on Earth and reduce our planet’s fever.The Conversation

Paulo de Souza, Professor, Griffith University

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

Hot as shell: birds in cooler climates lay darker eggs to keep their embryos warm


The colour and brightness of birds’ eggs plays a key role in keeping them at the right temperature.
Anne Kitzman / Shutterstock

Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide and Daniel Hanley, Long Island University Post

Birds lay eggs with a huge variety of colours and patterns, from immaculate white to a range of blue-greens and reddish browns.

The need to conceal eggs from predators is one factor that gives rise to all kinds of camouflaged and hard-to-spot appearances.

Yet our research, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, shows that climate is even more important.

Dark colours play a crucial role in regulating temperatures in many biological systems. This is particularly common for animals like reptiles, which rely on environmental sources of heat to keep themselves warm.




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Curious Kids: why do eggs have a yolk?


Darker colours absorb more heat from sunlight, and animals with these colours are more commonly found in colder climates with less sunlight. This broad pattern is known as Bogert’s rule.

Birds’ eggs are useful for studying this pattern because the developing embryo can only survive in a narrow range of temperatures. But eggs cannot regulate their own temperature and, in most cases, the parent does it by sitting atop the clutch of eggs.

In colder environments, where the risk of predators is lower and the risk of chilling in cold temperatures is greater, parents spend less time away from the nest.

We predicted that if eggshell colour does play an important role in regulating the temperature of the embryo, birds living in colder environments should have darker eggs.

The average colour of eggshells in different areas around the world.
Wisocki et al. 2019 ‘The global distribution of avian eggshell colours suggests a thermoregulatory benefit of darker pigmentation’, Nature Ecology & Evolution, Author provided

To test the prediction, we measured eggshell brightness and colour for 634 species of birds. That’s more than 5% of all bird species, representing 36 of the 40 large groups of species called orders.

We mapped these within each species’ breeding range and found that eggs in the coldest environments (those with the least sunlight) were significantly darker. This was true for all nest types.

We also conducted experiments using domestic chicken eggs to confirm that darker eggshells heated up more rapidly and maintained their incubation temperatures for longer than white eggshells.




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It isn’t easy being blue – the cost of colour in fairy wrens


Our results show that darker eggshells are found in places with less sunlight and lower temperatures, and that these darker colours may help keep the developing embryo warm.

How future climate change will affect eggshell appearance, as well as the timing of reproduction and incubation behaviour, will be an important and fruitful avenue for future research.The Conversation

Phill Cassey, Assoc Prof in Invasion Biogeography and Biosecurity, University of Adelaide and Daniel Hanley, Assistant Professor, Long Island University Post

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

Climate explained: how volcanoes influence climate and how their emissions compare to what we produce



Rapid and voluminous volcanic eruptions around 252 million years ago can be linked with a mass extinction event.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Michael Petterson, Auckland University of Technology


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

Everyone is going on about reducing our carbon footprint, zero emissions, planting sustainable crops for biodiesel etc. Is it true what the internet posts say that a volcano eruption for a few weeks will make all our efforts null and void?

The pretext to this question is understandable. The forces of nature are so powerful and operate at such a magnitude that human efforts to influence our planet may seem pointless.

If one volcanic eruption could alter our climate to such a degree that our world rapidly becomes an “icehouse” or a “hothouse”, then perhaps our efforts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change are a waste of time?

To answer this question we need to examine how our atmosphere formed and what geological evidence there is for volcanically induced climate change. We also need to look at recent data comparing volcanic and human greenhouse gas emissions.

There is evidence for catastrophic climate change from very large, protracted volcanic eruptions in the geological record. But in more recent times we have learned that volcanic emissions can lead to shorter-term cooling and longer-term warming. And the killer-punch evidence is that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions far exceed those of volcanic activity, particularly since 1950.

Forging Earth’s atmosphere

Let’s go back to first principles and look at where our atmosphere came from. Earth is 4.56 billion years old. The common consensus is that Earth’s atmosphere results from three main processes:

1. remnants of primordial solar nebula gases from the time of earliest planet formation

2. outgassing of the Earth’s interior from volcanic and related events

3. the production of oxygen from photosynthesis.

There have also been contributions over time from comets and asteroid collisions. Of these processes, internal planetary degassing is the most important atmosphere-generating process, particularly during the first of four aeons of Earth’s history, the hot Hadean.

Volcanic eruptions have contributed to this process ever since and provided the bulk of our atmosphere and, therefore, the climate within our atmosphere.

Next is the question of volcanic eruptions and their influence on climate. Earth’s climate has changed over geological time. There have been periods of an ice-free “hothouse Earth”. Some argue that sea levels were 200 to 400 metres higher than today and a significant proportion of Earth’s continents were submerged beneath sea level.

At other times, during a “snowball Earth”, our planet was covered in ice even at the equator.




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Climate explained: why we won’t be heading into an ice age any time soon


What contribution have volcanic eruptions made to this variation in climate? As an example of a major influence, some scientists link mass extinctions to major volcanic eruption events.

The most famous such association is that of the eruption of volcanoes that produced the Siberian Traps. This is a large region of thick volcanic rock sequences, some 2.5 to 4 million square kilometres, in an area in Russia’s eastern provinces. Rapid and voluminous volcanic eruptions around 252 million years ago released sufficient quantities of sulphate aerosols and carbon dioxide to trigger short-duration volcanic winters, and long-duration climate warming, over a period of 10s of thousands of years.

The Siberian Trap eruptions were a causal factor in Earth’s largest mass extinction event (at the end of the Permian period), when 96% of Earth’s marine species and 70% of terrestrial life ceased to exist.

Natural climate change over past 100 million years

Geological evidence indicates that natural processes can indeed radically change Earth’s climate. Most recently (in geological terms), over the past 100 million years ocean bottom waters have cooled, sea levels fallen and ice has advanced. Within this period there have also been spells of a hotter Earth, most likely caused by (natural) rapid releases in greenhouse gases.

Homo sapiens has evolved during the past few million years largely during an ice age when up to two-kilometre-thick ice sheets covered large areas of the northern continents and sea levels were over 100 metres lower than today. This period ended 10,000 years ago when our modern interglacial warmer period began.

Astronomical cycles that lead to climate variations are well understood – for example, the Milankovitch cycles, which explain variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun, and the periodic nodding/swaying of our Earth’s axis. All of the geological and tectonic causes for this general longer-term Earth cooling are less well understood. Hypotheses include contributions from volcanoes and processes linked to the rise of the Himalayas and Tibet (from 55 million years ago).




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Climate explained: why we need to cut emissions as well as prepare for impacts


Specific volcanic eruptions and climate impacts

Researchers have studied specific volcanic eruptions and climate change. Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) produced one of the larger eruptions of recent times in 1991, releasing 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide and ash particles into the stratosphere.

These larger eruptions reduce solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, lower temperatures in the lower troposphere, and change atmospheric circulation patterns. In the case of Pinatubo, global tropospheric temperatures fell by up to 4°C, but northern hemisphere winters warmed.

Volcanoes erupt a mix of gases, including greenhouse gases, aerosols and gases that can react with other atmospheric constituents. Atmospheric reactions with volcanic gases can rapidly produce substances such as sulphuric acid (and related sulphates) that act as aerosols, cooling the atmosphere.

Longer-term additions of carbon dioxide have warming impacts. Larger-scale volcanic eruptions, whose ash clouds reach stratospheric levels, have the biggest climatic impacts: the larger and more prolonged the eruption period, the larger the impacts.

These types of eruptions are thought to have been a partial cause for the Little Ice Age period, a global cooling event of about 0.5°C that lasted from the 15th to the late 19th century. Super volcanoes such as Yellowstone (USA), Toba (Indonesia) and Taupo (New Zealand) can, theoretically, produce very large-volume eruptions that have significant climate impacts, but there is uncertainty over how long these eruptions influence climate.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for answering whether our (human) emissions or volcanoes have a stronger influence on climate lies in the scale of greenhouse gas production. Since 2015, global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been around 35 to 37 billion tonnes per year. Annual volcanic CO₂ emissions are around 200 million tonnes.

In 2018, anthropogenic CO₂ emissions were 185 times higher than volcanic emissions. This is an astounding statistic and one of the factors persuading some geologists and natural scientists to propose a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene in recognition that humans are exceeding the impacts of many natural global processes, particularly since the 1950s.

There is evidence that volcanoes have strongly influenced climate on geological time scales, but, since 1950 in particular, it is Homo sapiens who has had by far the largest impact on climate. Let us not give up our CO₂ emission-reduction aspirations. Volcanoes may not save the day.The Conversation

Michael Petterson, Professor of Geology, Auckland University of Technology

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

Penny Whetton: A pioneering climate scientist skilled in the art of life



Penny Whetton, right, addressing a March for Science rally. Her death last month shocked and saddened colleagues.
Supplied by family

John M Clarke, CSIRO

Last month we lost Dr Penny Whetton – one of the world’s most respected climate scientists and a brilliant mentor to the next generation of researchers. Penny will also be remembered as a passionate environmentalist, artist, photographer and champion of the transgender community.

Penny was at the forefront of climate change projection science for more than three decades. She played a key role in putting CSIRO, and Australia, on the map as a world-leading centre for climate change research. Her groundbreaking scientific work was among the first to raise awareness of the challenges of a warming world, laying the groundwork for possible solutions.

Penny was a strong believer in the power of each person to make a difference, at work and elsewhere. Her professional career is a great example. She also encouraged those around her to seek out challenges that could benefit the world. That creative energy continues to flow through everybody who was close to her.

Penny Whetton at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. She was known as a passionate environmentalist.
Supplied by family

A global climate science pioneer

Penny’s work focused on understanding the emergent threat of a changing climate on Australia and the region. She authored papers and reports that have become fundamental to our understanding of how climate change would affect us.

Penny was recruited to the CSIRO’s new climate impacts group in 1990, after completing a doctorate at the University of Melbourne. She rapidly established a reputation for high quality science and innovative thinking.

Penny was a senior leader for much of her career and managed many large collaborative projects with colleagues in CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. After retiring in 2014, Penny became an honorary research fellow at CSIRO and the University of Melbourne, where she continued to be involved in climate research, advisory panels and consulting work.




Read more:
Climate projections show Australia is heading for a much warmer future


Over her 25 years at CSIRO, Penny drove innovation in making climate projections useful to decision makers. Her clear grasp of the science and its impact led to novel ways of communicating many complicated concepts.

One of Penny’s many great ideas was to combine historic climate observations with future projections in a single timeline of data – creating a seamless path from past to future. This visualisation method is now a standard part of the climate projections toolkit.

Penny led the development of national climate change projections for Australia in 1992, 1996, 2001, 2007 and 2015. The 2015 projections remain the most comprehensive ever developed for Australia. They are widely used by the private sector, governments and NGOs and were one of Penny’s proudest achievements.

This style of representing the climate as a seamless path from past to future was one of Penny’s many great ideas.
State of the Climate 2018

Penny’s science was renowned internationally as well as at home. She spoke at dozens of international conferences, and workshops and journalists sought her out regularly for interviews.

She was a lead author for three climate change assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on the subject. Penny’s work was recognised many times, including with a Eureka Prize in 2003 and internationally as part of the IPCC team that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

More recently, Penny provided scientific assurance on the external advisory board for the European Climate Prediction system, a project strongly influenced by methods and thinking developed under her leadership in climate projections for Australia.

Penny Whetton taking part in a panel discussion at a CSIRO open day in Melbourne. Supplied by David Karoly.

Generous collaborator and mentor

Penny was instrumental in forging links between researchers in CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and universities. This led to several collaborative, high-impact reports on climate change projections.

Penny was generous with her time and guidance – committed to developing the next generation of climate change specialists. Always with a smile on her face, she combined a great intellect and strongly held opinions with a receptiveness to the ideas of others.




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Can art put us in touch with our feelings about climate change?


Many of us writing this were mentored by Penny at various stages in our academic careers. Anyone who’s studied for a Masters or PhD knows meetings with academic supervisors can be stressful. But meetings with Penny were quite the opposite – she was friendly, but academically rigorous. Collectively we owe her an immense debt of gratitude.

Penny’s diverse knowledge and skills – including geology, geography, meteorology, climate, history, carpentry, painting and photography – gave her unique perspectives to draw on when tackling the wicked problems posed by climate change.

A painting completed by Penny Whetton in March 2018 titled ‘Liffey River downstream from the falls’. Acrylic on canvas.
Supplied by family

Penny made our lives richer

Penny was a real friend to many. Students became colleagues, colleagues became friends, and all of us were invited to be part of her life in a diverse extended family. We were pleased to support Penny in her own gender affirmation, and for many LGBTIQA+ scientists, Penny was both role model and supportive friend.




Read more:
Getting projections right: predicting future climate


Penny had a wonderful knack for making inclusive conversation, whether at work or over dinner. Her contributions were insightful and grounded in truth, very often tinged with humour, and always kind and understanding.

We all assumed there would always be another dinner, and another opportunity to enjoy her company and be fascinated by her conversation. Sadly, and shockingly, this possibility has been taken from us.

Penny made our lives richer, more interesting and more human. Her absence leaves a massive hole in our community and our lives.

Penny Whetton is survived by her wife Janet and adult children John and Leon.

Vale Dr Penny Whetton, 1958-2019.
Supplied by authors

The following people contributed significantly to this article:

Aurel Moise (Bureau of Meteorology), Barrie Pittock (retired), Chris Gerbing (CSIRO), Craig Heady (CSIRO), David Karoly (CSIRO), Debbie Abbs (retired), Dewi Kirono (CSIRO), Diana Pittock (retired), Helen Cleugh (CSIRO), Ian Macadam (University of New South Wales Sydney), Ian Watterson (CSIRO), Jim Salinger (University of Florence, Italy), Jonas Bhend (MeteoSwiss, Switzerland), Karl Braganza (Bureau of Meteorology), Kathy McInnes (CSIRO), Kevin Hennessy (CSIRO), Leanne Webb (CSIRO), Louise Wilson (Bureau of Meteorology), Mandy Hopkins (CSIRO), Marie Ekström (Cardiff University, UK), Michael Grose (CSIRO), Rob Colman (Bureau of Meteorology) and Scott Power (Bureau of Meteorology).The Conversation

John M Clarke, Team Leader, Regional Projections, CSIRO

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

Climate explained: the environmental footprint of electric versus fossil cars



The best way to compare emissions from electric cars is to assess all phases of a life cycle analysis.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Md Arif Hasan, Victoria University of Wellington and Ralph Brougham Chapman, Victoria University of Wellington


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

There is a lot of discussion on the benefits of electric cars versus fossil fuel cars in the context of lithium mining. Please can you tell me which one weighs in better on the environmental impact in terms of global warming and why?

Electric vehicles (EVs) seem very attractive at first sight. But when we look more closely, it becomes clear that they have a substantial carbon footprint and some downsides in terms of the extraction of lithium, cobalt and other metals. And they don’t relieve congestion in crowded cities.

In this response to the question, we touch briefly on the lithium issue, but focus mainly on the carbon footprint of electric cars.

The increasing use of lithium-ion batteries as a major power source in electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptops and electric cars has contributed to a 58% increase in lithium mining in the past decade worldwide. There seems little near-term risk of lithium being mined out, but there is an environmental downside.

The mining process requires extensive amounts of water, which can cause aquifer depletion and adversely affect ecosystems in the Atacama Salt Flat, in Chile, the world’s largest lithium extraction site. But researchers have developed methods to recover lithium from water.

Turning to climate change, it matters whether electric cars emit less carbon than conventional vehicles, and how much less.




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Climate explained: why don’t we have electric aircraft?


Emissions reduction potential of EVs

The best comparison is based on a life cycle analysis which tries to consider all the emissions of carbon dioxide during vehicle manufacturing, use and recycling. Life cycle estimates are never entirely comprehensive, and emission estimates vary by country, as circumstances differ.

In New Zealand, 82% of energy for electricity generation came from renewable sources in 2017. With these high renewable electricity levels for electric car recharging, compared with say Australia or China, EVs are better suited to New Zealand. But this is only one part of the story. One should not assume that, overall, electric cars in New Zealand have a close-to-zero carbon footprint or are wholly sustainable.

A life cycle analysis of emissions considers three phases: the manufacturing phase (also known as cradle-to-gate), the use phase (well-to-wheel) and the recycling phase (grave-to-cradle).

The manufacturing phase

In this phase, the main processes are ore mining, material transformation, manufacturing of vehicle components and vehicle assembly. A recent study of car emissions in China estimates emissions for cars with internal combustion engines in this phase to be about 10.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO₂) per car, compared to emissions for an electric car of about 13 tonnes (including the electric car battery manufacturing).

Emissions from the manufacturing of a lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide battery alone were estimated to be 3.2 tonnes. If the vehicle life is assumed to be 150,000 kilometres, emissions from the manufacturing phase of an electric car are higher than for fossil-fuelled cars. But for complete life cycle emissions, the study shows that EV emissions are 18% lower than fossil-fuelled cars.




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The use phase

In the use phase, emissions from an electric car are solely due to its upstream emissions, which depend on how much of the electricity comes from fossil or renewable sources. The emissions from a fossil-fuelled car are due to both upstream emissions and tailpipe emissions.

Upstream emissions of EVs essentially depend on the share of zero or low-carbon sources in the country’s electricity generation mix. To understand how the emissions of electric cars vary with a country’s renewable electricity share, consider Australia and New Zealand.

In 2018, Australia’s share of renewables in electricity generation was about 21% (similar to Greece’s at 22%). In contrast, the share of renewables in New Zealand’s electricity generation mix was about 84% (less than France’s at 90%). Using these data and estimates from a 2018 assessment, electric car upstream emissions (for a battery electric vehicle) in Australia can be estimated to be about 170g of CO₂ per km while upstream emissions in New Zealand are estimated at about 25g of CO₂ per km on average. This shows that using an electric car in New Zealand is likely to be about seven times better in terms of upstream carbon emissions than in Australia.

The above studies show that emissions during the use phase from a fossil-fuelled compact sedan car were about 251g of CO₂ per km. Therefore, the use phase emissions from such a car were about 81g of CO₂ per km higher than those from a grid-recharged EV in Australia, and much worse than the emissions from an electric car in New Zealand.

The recycling phase

The key processes in the recycling phase are vehicle dismantling, vehicle recycling, battery recycling and material recovery. The estimated emissions in this phase, based on a study in China, are about 1.8 tonnes for a fossil-fuelled car and 2.4 tonnes for an electric car (including battery recycling). This difference is mostly due to the emissions from battery recycling which is 0.7 tonnes.

This illustrates that electric cars are responsible for more emissions than their petrol counterparts in the recycling phase. But it’s important to note the recycled vehicle components can be used in the manufacturing of future vehicles, and batteries recycled through direct cathode recycling can be used in subsequent batteries. This could have significant emissions reduction benefits in the future.

So on the basis of recent studies, fossil-fuelled cars generally emit more than electric cars in all phases of a life cycle. The total life cycle emissions from a fossil-fuelled car and an electric car in Australia were 333g of CO₂ per km and 273g of CO₂ per km, respectively. That is, using average grid electricity, EVs come out about 18% better in terms of their carbon footprint.

Likewise, electric cars in New Zealand work out a lot better than fossil-fuelled cars in terms of emissions, with life-cycle emissions at about 333 g of CO₂ per km for fossil-fuelled cars and 128g of CO₂ per km for electric cars. In New Zealand, EVs perform about 62% better than fossil cars in carbon footprint terms.The Conversation

Md Arif Hasan, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington and Ralph Brougham Chapman, Associate Professor , Director Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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

Double counting of emissions cuts may undermine Paris climate deal


Ice floe adrift in Vincennes Bay in the Australian Antarctic Territory. There are fears efforts to combat global warming will be undermined by double counting of carbon credits.
AAP/Torsten Blackwood

Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Lambert Schneider, Oeko-Institut, and Maosheng DUAN, Tsinghua University

In the four years since the Paris climate agreement was adopted, countries have debated the fine print of how emissions reduction should be tracked and reported. One critical detail is proving particularly hard to work out – and a weak result would threaten the environmental integrity of the entire deal.

The sticking point is rules for carbon markets: specifically, how to prevent double counting of emissions reductions by both the country selling and buying carbon credits.

These rules are proving a major barrier to reaching consensus. In December, the negotiations move to Chile for this year’s major climate talks, known as COP25. The double counting issue needs to be resolved. It will not be an easy job, and the outcome matters to many countries, including Australia.




Read more:
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The Morrison government says Australia will meet the Paris emissions targets by 2030 without international trading – partly by counting old carbon credits towards its Paris efforts. But in future Australia may adopt a stronger target in line with global climate goals. This may entail government and businesses buying carbon credits from overseas.

In an article just published in the journal Science, we and our co-authors* explain why double counting could undermine the Paris goals, and how a robust outcome could be achieved.

The Port Kembla industrial works in Wollongong. Industrial activity is a major contributor to overall global emissions.
AAP/Deal Lewins

What’s the problem here?

International carbon trading allows two or more countries to achieve their emissions targets more cheaply than if going it alone. Countries where cutting emissions is relatively cheap do more than is required by their targets. They then sell the additional emissions reductions, in the form of credits, to countries that find it harder to achieve their targets.

Carbon credits could be produced through activity such as replacing fossil fuels with zero-emissions energy, greater energy efficiency and electrification in transport and buildings, new technologies in industry and better practices in agriculture and forestry.

Rules for carbon trading are defined under Article 6 of the Paris agreement. Trading under the deal could be big: almost half the parties to the agreement have signalled they want to use carbon markets. Airlines might also become major buyers of emissions credits, under rules requiring them to offset increases in carbon emissions from international flights above 2020 levels.

The cost savings from using carbon markets could make it easier for countries to adopt more ambitious targets – ultimately resulting in greater emissions reductions.




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But if trading rules are not watertight then the use of carbon markets could lead to greater emissions, undermining the agreement.

One fundamental risk is double counting: a country selling a carbon credit might claim the underlying emissions reduction for itself, while at the same time the country buying the credit also claims the same emissions reduction.

Obviously any international transfer of emission reductions should not lead to higher total emissions than if participating countries had met their targets individually. This could be ensured through a form of double-entry bookkeeping, wherein the country selling carbon credits adjusts its emissions upwards, and the country acquiring the carbon credits adjusts, by the same amount, downwards.

But the devil lies in the detail – and in the self interest of the parties involved.

Planes lined up at Sydney Airport. The aviation industry will likely buy carbon credits to offset its emissions growth from 2020.
AAP

The bones of contention

Countries are wrangling over what double counting is, how it should be avoided and whether it should sometimes be allowed.

Some countries hoping to sell emissions credits, notably Brazil, propose rules under which emissions reductions sold to another country could effectively also be claimed by the selling country. Such rules existed under the Kyoto Protocol, which came before the Paris agreement. However under Kyoto developing countries did not have emission targets. All major countries have emissions targets under Paris, making the method unsuitable now.




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Another potential pitfall lies in the potential purchase by international airlines of large amounts of credits to offset increases in their emissions. Aviation emissions are not counted in national emissions inventories. So it would be logical to adjust the selling country’s inventory for any emissions reduction sold to airlines.

But some countries, notably Saudi Arabia, argue that this should not be done because the airline industry is governed by a separate international treaty. This approach would allow emissions reductions to be included in both agreements and counted twice.

In a separate point of debate some countries – including Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States – oppose the idea of a single international body overseeing carbon trading under the Paris agreement, arguing for more national sovereignty and flexibility between nations buying and selling.

Making things even more complex, the Paris agreement allows each country to determine how to frame their emissions target. Some countries frame them as absolute emissions, others as a reduction relative to business-as-usual, or as a ratio of emissions to gross domestic product. Some countries’ targets are simply unclear.

A deforested area in the Amazon forest in Brazil. Carbon credits can be earned by nations that retain forest rather than cutting it down.
Marcelo Sayao/EPA

Letting each country determine its own ambitions and approach was key in making the Paris agreement a reality. But it makes accounting for carbon markets more complex.

There are also questions over whether a portion of carbon trading revenue should be allocated to help pay for climate change resilience in developing countries, and whether old credits from a trading scheme under the Kyoto Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism, should be tradable in the new scheme.

The way forward in Chile

The solutions to all these issues will be nuanced, but will require that governments agree on some fundamentals.

The first is that a single set of common international accounting rules should apply, irrespective of which carbon market mechanism is used by countries or groups of countries.

The second is to ensure robust emissions accounting, regardless of how mitigation targets are expressed.

The third is that over time, all countries should move toward economy-wide emissions targets, as the Paris Agreement foresees.

The need to reach a political deal in Chile must not result in loopholes for international carbon markets. The rules must ensure environmental integrity and avoid double counting. If this is achieved, emissions reductions can be made more cheaply and global ambition can be more readily raised. If not, then the accord could be seriously undermined.

The article in the journal Science “Double counting and the Paris Agreement rulebook” is authored by Lambert Schneider, Maosheng Duan, Robert Stavins, Kelley Kizzier, Derik Broekhoff, Frank Jotzo, Harald Winkler, Michael Lazarus, Andrew Howard, Christina Hood. See here for the full manuscript.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Lambert Schneider, Research coordinator for international climate policy, Oeko-Institut, and Maosheng DUAN, professor, Tsinghua University

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

Grattan on Friday: A little more confusion added to the climate policy debate



Australia’s overall emissions are rising, high electricity prices remain a burden, and there is nervousness about the summer power supply.
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Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Joel Fitzgibbon was on his mobile at a cafe at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney on Thursday when he encountered Scott Morrison getting a mid-morning coffee.

“You’re making a lot of sense,” Morrison said to Labor’s resources spokesman, who’d set off a fire storm in his party by suggesting the ALP revise its climate policy to adopt the upper end of the government’s target of reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2030.

“Your love won’t help me, Prime Minister,” Fitzgibbon shot back.

He’s right there. Fitzgibbon’s radical proposal has burst open the conundrum the opposition has in reshaping one of the ALP’s centrepiece election pitches.

It’s a great deal more complicated than, for example, dealing with the franking credits plan, which Labor can’t afford to keep in its present form. That can be restructured, or dumped, without much political angst.

But the climate policy – for a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 and a target of net zero by 2050 – has become an article of faith within Labor, and among many of its supporters. It’s also a policy that in the election split the voters Labor needed, attracting some but driving away others.

Weaken the policy and there will be a reaction from the ALP’s inner city constituents, who tend to look toward the Greens out of the corner of their eye. Keep a very high target and lose people once again – to the Coalition or minor parties on the right – from the traditional base, including in regional areas, especially in Queensland where coal mining is a thing.




Read more:
Labor’s climate and resources spokesmen at odds over future policy


Fitzgibbon maintains that by adopting the 28% target, Labor would not just be more acceptable to blue collar voters but would put more pressure on the government to act – although this latter point seems a stretch.

Getting to 28% without destroying blue collar jobs or harming the economy would also provide “a great foundation” for prosecuting the case for further action, he claims.

Among the multiple problems Labor has in reviewing its policy is that it will be considering a more pragmatic, less ambitious approach just when the climate debate is once again taking off in public consciousness.

It’s hard to assess precisely the extent to which the step up in activism represents the wider public view. Indeed the civil disobedience demonstrations are infuriating some people because of the disruption. Nevertheless, the period ahead could see the issue biting more, as the ALP is considering easing back.

Given how quickly things change and the relevance of what other countries do, in strict policy terms Labor arguably would be best not to settle a policy until, say, early 2021, for a 2022 election. But the government (and the media) will be able to exploit a Labor vacuum, so that holding out does carry political cost.

Fitzgibbon, who represents the NSW coal seat of Hunter and experienced voter wrath in May, won’t get the ambit claim he outlined this week. That would be going too far for the party, and for its climate spokesman Mark Butler who has a lot of reputation at stake. As soon as Fitzgibbon made public his proposal, Butler said it wouldn’t be embraced by Labor, declaring it was “fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris agreement and would lead to global warming of 3℃.”

Fortunately for the government, Fitzgibbon’s intervention reduced the attention on its energy policy, the inadequacy of which was again highlighted this week.




Read more:
Labor’s climate policy: back in the game but missing detail


As the Coalition pushes ahead with seeking to get its “big stick” legislation to deal with recalcitrant power companies through parliament, criticisms of its policy came from, among others, the chair of the Energy Security Board Kerry Schott and the Grattan Institute.

Schott, whose board advises federal and state governments, wrote in the Australian Financial Review, ahead of the paper’s energy summit, that “government interventions to cap prices and to effectively subsidise certain generation projects will not encourage the considerable new investment and innovation that is needed”.

The Grattan Institute, which released a report on Australia’s electricity markets, said the government’s “fight to avoid the impending closure of the Liddell coal power station in NSW makes it harder for Australia to achieve its emissions reduction targets, and is likely to increase electricity prices and reduce the reliability of supplies”.

The AFR summit saw much finger pointing, with energy minister Angus Taylor blaming industry for the lack of investment, and industry blaming the government.

Taylor said dismissively: “Time and again we’ve seen industry participants and commentators swept up in the excitement of complex new programs represented by the latest fashionable acronym that everyone pretends to understand but few ever do.” Origin Energy’s CEO Frank Calabria said “the mere existence of the big stick is acting as a handbrake on investment, right when we need investment the most”.




Read more:
Australia to attend climate summit empty-handed despite UN pleas to ‘come with a plan’


In theory, Morrison could have tried to use the great authority his unexpected election win gave him to pursue more appropriate energy and emissions reduction policies. Admittedly, it would have been extremely difficult, as it would have contradicted much the government had been saying and doing.

But it was never an option. Morrison is either wilfully blind to what needs to be done (although when treasurer he supported the more rational policy of a National Energy Guarantee), or he is afraid to stir those powerful naysayers in his party.

So where are we left?

With a government stubbornly tied to a set of policies that experts insist won’t deliver effective results. And an opposition that’s in a funk about where it should position itself in the future.

Meanwhile Australia’s overall emissions rise (although electricity emissions are down, as some coal fired power goes out of the system); high electricity prices remain a burden on private and business consumers alike; and there is nervousness about the summer power supply.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.