The Science, Revisited
Park Williams, a bioclimatologist from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a California native, weighs in on the California drought and its connection to global warming in this past interview.
Park explains that this drought (like any drought) is primarily caused by climate variability. In this case, global warming has made the situation worse, because when things heat up, it increases the atmosphere’s ability to take water out of the environment. Park also goes into further detail about the nature of his work as a researcher and the importance of resilience when planning for future climate related changes.
“We know that there are many aspects of climate that will be unfamiliar to us, meaning that records will be broken in all kinds of things: rainfall, temperature, lake levels, stream flow, snow packs,” Park said. “None of these changes are going to occur all that gradually.
“Future extremes are going to occur more and more frequently. In planning, we don’t need to plan for the 2 degree warming that we are aiming for as a globe, we need to plan for the 10 degree increase in a day, or the year when there’s no water. We need to plan for worst-case scenarios. These scenarios may only occur once in the next century, but in many cases that’s all it takes.”
As the UN climate summit continues in Paris, we will continue posting past stories to help our readers understand climate science and its consequences. Stay tuned for more climate related stories as the scientists at Lamont continue to keep a pulse on our planet.
It’s been another quiet week at Palmer Station, out here on the edge of Antarctica…
This week was punctuated by a set of intense storms. The one that came in on Wednesday was the most intense storm that we’ve had this season (see Jamie’s blog on the unusual winds this year here). Just before the storm hit we made a quick run out to one of our regular sampling stations. It was eerily quiet and the ice was drifting in. Within an hour of our return to station the wind was up over thirty knots and the ice was coming in fast. By the time the storm ended Arthur Harbor was chock-full of icebergs and large pieces of sea ice. This shut boating operations down for the rest of the week. The ice finally drifted out this morning with another (warm, wet) storm blowing from the east. Chances don’t look good for getting out before the next storm arrives on the tail end of this one.
Cut off from boating for a few days we took the opportunity to complete some side projects. One that I’ve been particularly interested in doing is to take a look at the dense blooms of algae that form on top of the sea ice. I’ve written quite a bit in the past on the ice algae that grow below sea ice (see here). Wherever sea ice floods however, you also get a dense bloom at the ice surface. Although this does happen in the Arctic this is primarily an Antarctic phenomenon. The reason for this is that there is generally much more snow on Antarctic sea ice; the snow both insulates the ice and pushes it downward, making it warmer and more porous, and allowing seawater to infiltrate to the surface. The reason for that is largely geographic. One of the key distinctions between the Arctic and the Antarctic is that the latter is a continent surrounded by water. The ring of ice around the Antarctic continent in winter eventually gives way to open water, and open water means precipitation.
We couldn’t use a boat to get a fresh chunk of ice (on account of there being too much ice), fortunately it was easy enough to get in a drysuit and wrangle one close to shore.
Conducting experiments on ice algae is non-trivial and I’m fortunate to have spent a good portion of my time in graduate school dealing with the peculiarities of sea ice biota. One of the issues that we have to deal with is the semi-solid (emphasis on the semi for this slushy ice) nature of the sea ice matrix. The bacteria and algae that we want to separate out for further study are located in brine channels within the ice, we need to melt the ice to get them out. Simple enough, but consider that even for this very warm sea ice the salinity of the brine channels is roughly 37 ppt, while the bulk salinity of the ice (that is, the final salinity if you just let everything melt) is about 11 ppt (check out this open-access paper for a further explanation). Taking the sea ice microbes from 37 ppt to 11 ppt would have induced quite a shock. To avoid that we need to melt slowly into a sterile, pH controlled, high salinity brine so that the final melt is about equal in salinity to the brine channels. That done we incubated the melt outside in clear bottles for a few hours to get everything acting like it was back on the ice floe.
Once we felt that everything was acclimated we threw our complete analysis suite* at it; in addition to the core LTER measurements this includes measurement of photosynthetic efficiency, the reactive oxygen species superoxide and hydrogen peroxide, samples for RNA and DNA analysis, and lipid analysis. The main thing that I’m interested in learning from these samples is how the ice top algal community differs from that below or within the ice. The light regimes are completely different. Algae growing underneath the ice are generally thought to be low-light specialists. After all only a small fraction of the light that hits the ice surface makes it through into the water below. The light conditions at the ice surface by contrast are intense – too intense for most phytoplankton species to perform well. Given too much light the photosynthetic machinery of phytoplankton runs amok and starts to destroy the cell.
Experiments have demonstrated that low-light adapted ice algae are quickly destroyed by ice-top conditions. Given enough time however, the range of conditions that algae can adapt to is quite phenomenal. So are the ice algae at the surface the same as those underneath, but physiologically adapted to high light conditions? Or are they a different species (or assemblage of species) specially adapted to this ecological niche? So far all we know from yesterday’s effort is that they’re making quite a lot of the reactive oxygen species hydrogen peroxide and superoxide! We’ll learn more over the next few days as we complete more of our analyses. The real data however, RNA and DNA sequence abundances and the lipid profiles that Jamie is working on will take months to develop…
Not all side projects undertaken while we wait out the weather and the sea ice conditions have been research related, however. Ashley and Chelsea, Rutgers undergraduates with the Schofield Palmer LTER group, found some time to get us all in the holiday spirit.
Well, that’s the news from Palmer Station, where all the seals are fat, all the penguins are curious, and all the science is above average.
The Science, Revisited:
The impacts of climate change are being felt around the world, but the changes in the polar regions have been more pronounced. The world began to take notice to these changes when an ice shelf roughly the size of Rhode Island collapsed into the ocean in 2002. At 10,000 years old, the Larson B Ice Shelf only took 35 days to fall completely into the sea. The event was a wake-up call to the world.
This article by Christine Evans, a graduate student in the Sustainability Management program, and Margie Turrin of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, gives a comprehensive view of the state of Antarctic ice.
The article also helps contextualize the current research being conducted over the Ross Ice Shelf by the IcePod team. Be sure to check out the ongoing posts from the field here. And you can watch a video of scientist Robin Bell explaining the impact of the Larsen B collapse, and what’s going on with ice at the poles, here.
This is one in an ongoing series looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. We hope to help readers better understand the science and just what is at stake at the UN climate conferences in Paris. Stay tuned for more.
As we closed out November the project team had completed 18 survey lines and 4 tie lines from a total of 9 flights, producing over 16,000 line km of data. The IcePod and team have been a working hard! The closing email for the month of November included these beautiful LiDAR images.
What is LiDAR?
LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing technique that uses light to develop an image of the surface of the Earth, and is an important part of our geophysical suite of measurements in ROSETTA. In the IcePod the instrument is located on the pod bottom behind a protected window. In flight, when the pod is lowered to collect data, the window cover slides open and a series of light pulses are sent to illuminate the area below. The time is then measured for the reflected light to return. Because we know the speed of light. and that speed is a constant (0.3 meters per nanosecond…or a very fast 186,000 miles per second!), we can use light to calculate distance with a high degree of accuracy. The equation is simple:
Distance = (speed of light X time of flight)/2 in order to account for the distance down and back from the aircraft. The result is the ability to create these 3 dimensional images of the land surface.
Enjoy these wonderful LiDAR images collected by the project team!
The first image is from a standard pass over McMurdo Base in order to calibrate and confirm that the LiDAR system is working accurately. You can clearly see every building, fuel tank, road/pathway and the very systematic way that the base is laid out. The scale bar showing meters of elevation (or height) listed with elevation noted by ‘Ellipsoidal Height’ in meters, not a unit we see every day.
What is ellipsoid height?
We describe the Earth’s shape as an ellipsoid, rather than round or spherical, as the radius at the polar regions is slightly shorter than the radius at the equator. In reality the Earth’s surface is not smooth like an ellipsoid, instead we have mountains, deep valleys, ocean trenches and other surface features with elevation. However, GPS receivers used to locate placement follow a map of sea level using a reference ellipsoid to calculate elevation. To view these images the best approach might be to look at them as relative measures, for example the image of McMurdo shows a 185 m elevation difference between the the surface at 166°42’E and the surface at 166°39’E.
Located close to McMurdo on the Ross Ice Shelf is a small island ~28 km or 15 miles long called White Island. Protruding up through the ice shelf it is named for its covering of snow, and is a sister to Black Island, named, not surprisingly for its lack of snow cover. Both were discovered on the same expedition in the early 1900s. Using the scale for this image you will see the elevation contours for the island peaking out at 40 m Ellipsoid Elevation, approximately 80 m higher than the ice at the ice shelf.
The third image is of crevassing near Crary Ice Rise.
What is an ice rise?
An ice rise is a region of increase in elevation in the relatively flat expanse of the ice shelf caused by floating ice in the shelf physically ‘grounding’ or touching the seafloor below. It differs from an island as the land in an island sits above sea levels. Here the ice is touching land that is still below sea level; it is a section of sea floor raised so that it causes the flowing ice in the deep ice shelf to hit it and drag. This tension of the ice dragging over the contact area, combined with the faster flowing ice around the edges, causes the ice to crevasse as seen in the image.
Our fourth image is of seals laying out on the ice. The Weddell seal is well represented in the area of McMurdo, although they are also found distributed around the circumpolar Antarctica. Weddells are well studied by the science community, as they are very accessible, abundant in numbers, and are easily approached by humans. Perhaps they have been imaged in LiDAR previously, but we are happy to have captured them resting on the ice! To provide some context we have included a video of a Weddell seal collected by our project GPS specialist, Sarah Starke.
Be sure to check our GIS flight tracker for the most up to date flights!
For more about this NSF and Moore Foundation funded project, check our project website: ROSSETTA.
Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.
Millions of people living in cities around the world already feel the impacts of climate change: heat waves, flooded streets, landslides and storms. All of these affect important infrastructure such as transportation and water supplies, ports and commerce, public health and people’s daily lives. And it is cities that are at the forefront of the response.
Experts from the Earth Institute attending the Paris climate summit are presenting a fresh report today on what’s at stake for the world’s growing urban population, and what many cities are doing to adapt. “Climate Change and Cities” is the Second Assessment Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network, a consortium of 600 researchers from around the world based at the Center for Climate Systems Research, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia.
“Cities and their citizens already have begun to experience the effects of climate change. Understanding and anticipating these changes will help cities prepare for a more sustainable future,” the report says. “This means making cities more resilient to climate-related disasters and managing long-term climate risks in ways that protect people and encourage prosperity. It also means improving cities’ abilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The task is daunting: Each city has its own resources, needs and political dynamics. And the challenges are different for rich and poor nations. For instance, the report notes, “Urban transport emissions are growing at 2 to 3 percent annually. The majority of emissions from urban transport is from higher-income countries. In contrast, 90 percent of the growth in emissions is from transport systems in lower-income countries.”
Tackling the problems involves work on many fronts, from urban planning to infrastructure, housing and hospitals to transit and waste removal. The problems are especially acute for coastal cities: The report projects that more than half of the global urban population will live in coastal zones by the middle of this century. Storm surges, erosion and salt water intrusion are already a problem in many places. “[S]ea level rise and climate change will likely exacerbate these hazards,” the report says. It estimates annual losses from flooding along coastlines could amount to $71 billion by 2100.
But while national leaders debate what to do about climate change, city officials around the world cannot afford to wait, and are already taking action. The report includes more than 100 case studies of what cities are doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The online “Case Study Docking Station” is meant to spread information about how cities are coping and offer models other cities can emulate. The report emphasizes the importance of integrating mitigation and adaptation strategies.
For instance, New York is well on the way to reaching a goal of planting a million trees by 2017 (900,000 as of August 2014, the report says). The project serves to both mitigate and adapt to climate changes. Among other benefits, the trees absorb CO2, helping to curb greenhouse gases; and by helping to lower air temperature in summer, they reduce the amount of energy used for cooling. They also improve air quality and reduce stormwater runoff.
The tree planting is one of more than 100 initiatives that are part of PlaNYC 2030, a broad strategy to support the long-term sustainability of the city. Following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, New York also has adopted an aggressive strategy to build a more resilient shoreline, by upgrading building codes, protecting important infrastructure such as subways and power systems, raising bulkheads and building seawalls, and restoring wetlands and beach dunes.
A more dramatic case study comes from South Korea, where a whole new city is being built with sustainability in mind. New Songdo City, a $35 billion development eventually projected to have 65,000 residents and a workforce of 300,000, incorporates the highest concentration of LEED-certified buildings in the world. Forty percent of the city will be green space. It will incorporate extensive public transit, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design and a cutting-edge waste collection that sends garbage out through a pneumatic system (in other words: no garbage trucks).
The city “aims to generate efficient energy use through ‘ubiquitous’ technology that uses the internet to link hardware and software to monitoring systems to generate efficient resource consumption. Consequently, Songdo consumes 40 percent less energy per capita than cities of similar scale,” says the Songdo case study.
The “Climate Change and Cities” report being released Friday is an executive summary: The full report is still being prepared. But it offers some key findings regarding disaster preparation; urban planning and design; public health, water and waste systems; transportation and energy systems; financing solutions and urban governance; protecting urban ecology; and insuring equitable approaches that encompass the needs of poor and low-income residents and neighborhoods.
The report outlines five “pathways to urban transformation”:
- Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation are the cornerstones of resilient cities.
- Actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing resilience are a win-win.
- Risk assessments and climate action plans co-generated with the full range of stakeholders and scientists are most effective.
- Needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens should be addressed in climate change planning and action.
- Advancing city creditworthiness, developing robust city institutions, and participating in city networks enable climate action.
Cynthia Rosenzweig, an adjunct senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research and the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is the report’s lead author. To see the report and find out more, visit the Urban Climate Change Research Network.
Scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute will present important findings at the American Geophysical Union fall 2015 meeting, Dec. 14-18 in San Francisco–the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. Unless otherwise noted, presenters are at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Abstracts are in the AGU meeting program. Reporters may contact scientists directly. More info: Senior science editor Kevin Krajick, email@example.com 917-361-7766.
North American Diamonds: What Is Their Origin? Yaakov Weiss
In the 1990s, rich diamond mines were discovered in the tundra of Canada’s Northwest Territories. A continent-wide search continues for more. Weiss has studied tiny fluid inclusions within some of the Canadian diamonds, which shed light on the conditions under which they formed. The results could apply to other parts of North America, and the world.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. V11C-3072
Story/photo essay on North American diamonds and Weiss’s work
Humidity May Magnify Killer Heat
Ethan Coffel & Radley Horton, Center for Climate Systems Research
Heat is the world’s leading weather-related killer, but most future projections leave out a huge magnifier: the added effects of humidity. Using new global projections of “wet bulb” temperature–combined heat/humidity—the scientists suggest that by mid-century, regions populated by hundreds of millions could see potentially fatal conditions never encountered by modern people. The heat would affect not just health, but infrastructure, power generation and economies. Large areas could become essentially uninhabitable. The team looks specifically at the U.S. East Coast, India, West Africa and eastern China.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. GC11A-1016
PRESS CONFERENCE: Monday, Dec. 14, 5pm: Impacts of Heat Stress on Densely Populated Areas in the 21st Century. With Coffel, Horton and Noah Diffenbaugh (Stanford University).
Restoring Arctic Sea Ice Stephanie Pfirman
The ongoing loss of Arctic sea ice is a well-known story—but that is not the end of the story, say Pfirman and colleagues. They do a thought experiment asking what it would take to bring the ice back. The next few generations will inevitably see ice-free summers, but aggressive action against climate change could start restoration by maybe 2100, with reductions in greenhouse gases, large-scale carbon sequestration and geoengineering to cool the atmosphere. Sea ice provides worldwide benefits—reflecting heat back into space, buttressing the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly stabilizing weather patterns–so, the political constituency for restoring the ice may extend to cities and nations across the globe.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. GC11G-1087
Article on ‘The Last Sea Ice Refuge’
Possible Extraterrestrial Impact off East Africa Dallas Abbott
Geologist Dallas Abbott and her colleagues are investigating whether an asteroid or comet struck the Indian Ocean in human time, producing a megatsunami that struck Africa. Up to now, the main evidence has been the presence of unusual gigantic dunes on Madagascar; but skeptics say these could have been formed in other ways. Abbott presents new geochemical evidence that the dunes indeed were formed by a tsunami origin; she expects to report a date for the event.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. NH11A-1883
2006 New York Times article on Abbott’s work
Battling Vector-Borne Diseases from Space
Pietro Ceccato, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI)
Ceccato explores a new NASA initiative to develop remote-sensing tools to help predict outbreaks of climate-sensitive African diseases including malaria, trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis. Increasingly sophisticated monitoring and analyses of temperature, vegetation, water bodies and flooding are now making it practical to make areas suffering from these diseases more resilient. Examples from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Malawi.
Monday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. GC11H-1116
Ceccato explains in a 1-minute podcast
Why Are Scientists Holding Back on Sea Level Projections?
James Hansen, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions
Hansen coauthored a widely discussed paper this year that projects sea levels could surge up to 10 feet this century. He will discuss what he sees as the dangers of scientists’ reluctance to seriously consider such bold assertions. (He has based his estimates in part on accumulating evidence that the great ice sheets are undergoing the start of an accelerating collapse—the elephant in the room left out of many other projections.)
Monday, Dec. 14, 1:40-2:00pm, 102 Moscone South. U13A-01
Hansen’s warning on rapid sea-level rise
New Evidence of Caribbean Tsunami Potential Belle Philibosian
Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, researchers considered whether other Caribbean areas might generate earthquakes that could threaten the coasts of the Americas with tsunamis. Contrary to previous findings, Philibosian presents new evidence that the outermost islands might present such a threat. Studies of corals in the lesser Antilles show the islands have subsided during the 20th century–motion that suggests strain building on the seabed that could lift a tsunami when released. By contrast, recent GPS measurements suggest little motion—but GPS data present only part of the picture, and go back only about 10 years.
Monday, Dec. 14, 2:55-3:10pm, 104 Moscone South. T13F-06
Did Greenland Melt to Bedrock? Joerg Schaefer
Despite evidence of big climate swings in the last 2.5 million years, many scientists think the Greenland ice sheet has never completely melted. Schaefer and his colleagues say there is new evidence, in the bedrock below the deepest ice, that the sheet disappeared for at least 10,000 years. Using state-of the art techniques to analyze samples drilled out in the 1990s, they have found cosmogenic isotopes indicating exposure to open air. This suggests the ice sheet may be more unstable than many think.
Monday, Dec. 14, 5:00-5:15pm, 3005 Moscone West. GC14C-05
Undersea Volcanoes, Ice Sheets and Sea Level Wallace Broecker
This year, two controversial papers looked at how undersea volcanoes, sea levels, and volcanoes and ice sheets on land may interact to produce cyclic seesaw shifts in earth’s climate. Even within Lamont, the hypothesis is debated by separate groups. Broecker—one of the founders of modern climate science–synthesizes the evidence and discusses his own ideas. Part of a larger session on the issue.
Tuesday, Dec. 15, 5:45-6pm, 102 Moscone South. V24-08
Paper linking climate to seafloor processes
Paper de-linking climate from seafloor processes
RELATED: Broecker presents results of Iceland’s CarbFix project to mineralize CO2 underground. Thurs., Dec. 17, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. H41C-1315
The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Party
Traditionally on Tuesday night, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences gather staff, and alumni now at other institutions worldwide. Journalists covering AGU are welcome—a chance to make friends, hear informally about new work and have fun.
Tuesday Dec 15, 6:30pm-8:30pm (or beyond), San Francisco Marriott Union Square, 480 Sutter Street, Union Square Ballroom
Arctic Pollutants on Thin Ice Robert Newton
Winter ice isn’t disappearing from the Arctic; it’s just getting thinner, and that makes it more mobile than the multiyear ice that used to dominate many regions. Because currents now push ice faster and farther, this is increasing the flow of pollutants, nutrients and microorganisms across national boundaries. Newton examines the political and environmental implications of transnational sea-ice export and import. Materials that might be transported more efficiently include nickel and mercury from smelting plants in Siberia, and seed populations of microbes that could establish themselves in unfamiliar regions.
Wednesday, Dec. 16, 9:45-10am, 103 Moscone South. PA31D-08
Drones over Polar Seas Christopher Zappa *
Unmanned aerial vehicles are being used for a widening range of scientific applications. Zappa covers their first use to study the intricacies of Arctic sea ice and water, starting with a pilot project off Norway’s Svalbard archipelago this past summer. Drone imagery is providing otherwise unavailable close-up views of ice albedo, roughness, air-sea-ice fluxes and other parameters. Drone flights are not only producing spectacular new images, but dropping tiny instruments into the icepack that report back to base. (*Zappa is currently on an Antarctic research vessel, deploying instruments. Another session member will probably give his talk, but he may be contacted by email.)
Thursday, Dec. 17, 9:30-9:45am, 302 Moscone South. NH41E-07
Climate Central story on pilot project
Lava Lakes: Windows into Earth’s Fiery Insides Einat Lev
Persistently open, roiling lakes of lava are rare; only about a half dozen are currently known. Lev and colleagues are studying them in three volcanic craters: Hawaii’s Kilauea, Antarctica’s Mount Erebus, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Nyiragongo. Because they can be observed visually (although at some risk to researchers), they offer direct windows into the magmatic processes that drive volcanic eruptions, rifting and the formation of crust. Lev has been documenting Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater in particular, and will discuss her latest findings, with moving images from the crater.
Friday, Dec. 18, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters. V51D-3060
Story, slideshow & video on Lev’s work
Antarctic Warming: Natural, Not Human-Caused? Karen Smith
West Antarctica, especially the rapidly warming Antarctic Peninsula, has been held up as a poster child for human-driven climate change. Here, Smith makes what may be a controversial case that this warming is actually the result of natural multi-decadal-scale cycles of sea-surface temperatures and sea ice—not human-induced global warming. She bases her conclusions on examinations of 40 climate models going back to the 1970s.
Friday, Dec. 18, 9:28-9:40am, 3008 Moscone West. A51V-07
Discovering Giant Landslides Using Seismology Colin Stark
Stark and colleagues have shown that massive landslides can be detected in real time by the seismic waves they produce. This opens a new field of study, since many slides occur in remote areas where they otherwise might not detected in a timely way, if at all. Stark will discuss his team’s discovery of multi-kilometer slides across the world from Tibet to the Yukon, some of which have previously never been reported. The technique is already yielding insights into the physics of giant landslides, and was applied to rescue operations after the recent Nepal earthquake.
Friday Dec 18, 9:45-10:00am, 2005 Moscone West. EP51D-08
Article on the new method Massive slide detected in Alaska
NASA images of the latest slide
An App That Dives Deep Into Sea Level Margie Turrin
Turrin demos a new app that offers viewers a sophisticated but accessible look at sea-level rise and its causes around the world. The question-driven interactive app offers multilayered maps, text and audio that address the roles of ice, atmosphere and movements of land. Part of a session on “Amazing Games and Superb Simulations for Science Education.”
Friday, Dec. 18, 2:25-2:40pm, 303 Moscone South. ED53F-04
By Abhijit Sharan
“Climate Change has taken on political dimensions…that’s odd because I don’t see people choosing sides over E=mc2 or other fundamental facts of science!” – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist
This December, more than 40,000 delegates from over a 150 countries will meet in Paris for the much awaited 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), the most important United Nations climate change conference since 1997’s famed but ultimately failed Kyoto Protocol was signed. This year, delegates will meet to discuss steps to be taken after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2020, and to consider a possible new agreement.
India, the second largest country in the world and the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after the United States and China, will be among them, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi joining U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders at the summit.
India is blessed with varied and abundant natural resources, tapped and untapped, upon which a major portion of its economy is based, including agriculture for food and textiles, forestry and logging and mining. From the Himalayan and other mountainous regions, to the major coastline, to the Thar Desert or the many wetlands, islands, and the intricate riverine system running all across the country, India’s economic growth cannot be imagined without its natural resources.
As a nation still in its developing phase, with 1.25 billion citizens and counting, India can’t afford to forego even part of its industrial progress. But we also cannot go on developing without taking into account the emissions produced by industries that are major contributors to global warming.
It has been argued that because current climate concerns are the result of the unabated emissions of developed countries—starting when the Industrial Revolution began more than 200 years ago—that it is those countries who must take the lead in curbing emissions. To put things in perspective, in spite of its large population, only 6-7 percent of global emissions are attributed to India, while India’s historical responsibility for global warming has been calculated to be less than 3 percent. The corresponding numbers for the other two major emitters, China and the U.S., are 3 to 10 times higher.
Nevertheless, given what will happen if the worsening effects of ongoing climate change are not contained, a cooperative arrangement to minimize global emissions from all players is necessary for our own good.
Although previous COP meetings have largely been missed opportunities to reach a consensus and act accordingly to cut global emissions by all countries, the Paris conference is taking an approach that is both more ambitious and more realistic than prior summits, as it has asked all the participating countries to submit their own plans on cutting their emissions.
These nation-determined plans (also called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs), though not legally binding, do give an indication of how serious each country is in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Recognizing the disruptions climate change will cause, India has demonstrated its seriousness on climate change issues by voluntarily announcing its intention to cut the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. The country is already making good progress on these goals, reporting a reduction of 12 percent of its emissions intensity of GDP between 2005 and 2010. The 2014 Emission Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Programme has recognized India as one of the few countries that are achieving their voluntary reduction goals.
This doesn’t mean that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are without problems. One is credibility: Some might ask, and rightly so, how trustworthy emissions reduction reports really are. Recent controversies such as Volkswagen’s alleged software tampering to pass pollution tests in the lab even as its cars emit more on the road are a matter of grave concern, as are reports that China has been emitting 17 percent more than it has been reporting.
More concerning is recent research suggesting that even if nations report their emissions accurately, the current Intended Nationally Determined Contributions goals won’t be enough to cap the average global temperature rise under the scientifically agreed 2 degrees Celsius rise from the pre-industrialized level by the end of this century. An assessment by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre shows that the commitments submitted by 155 countries, which are responsible for around 90 percent of global emissions, would still allow the average global temperature to increase by almost 3 degrees C, even if followed religiously by every single country.
Though these concerns must be addressed at this conference and beyond, India’s commitments do show that the country is serious about emissions, as it is one of the countries most vulnerable to the brutal wrath of climate change.
Almost 50 per cent of the world’s population resides in coastal areas. Sea level rise due to climate change will submerge many of these areas, hitting people in the developing world hardest. India has a coastline of over 7,500 km. A recent report by Climate Central shows that nearly 55 million Indians residing on these coasts are under direct threat from sea level rise. The recent floods in southern India, more frequent weather extremes, delayed seasons—all point to a changing climate. If nothing is done to cap anthropogenic emissions, the worst is yet to come, and in all probability will come sooner than expected.
The plans of action outlined in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions—including the development and promotion of clean and efficient energy systems, making industries more energy efficient, creating climate resilient urban centers and green transportation systems, among others—are ambitious but achievable. They face challenges not only in the realm of governance and execution challenges, but also from lack of proper financing mechanisms for such mega-scale projects.
An efficient Clean Development Mechanism could benefit countries like India in many respects when it comes to emissions reductions. The Clean Development Mechanism, provisioned by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change under the Kyoto Protocol, lets industries incentivize their emissions reductions by generating Certified Emission Reduction units, which can be further traded in various emissions trading schemes such as the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the largest carbon market in the world. This allows the industrialized countries to buy Certified Emission Reduction units and invest in emission reductions in any country where it is the cheapest.
For a developing country like India, where the costs of production are considerably lower than other places, such mechanisms could not only help other countries meet their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, but also generate funds for India to meet its own emission targets.
Many observers raised concerns when Clean Development Mechanisms were first started in 2001, including governments’ reluctance to guarantee its future existence and the low cost of carbon along with many other technical, socio-economic and financial issues. These concerns must be addressed seriously at the upcoming Paris talks in order to not defeat the overall purpose of the mechanism.
In the endeavour to effectively deal with climate change, all nations must actively engage in emissions reductions. At the same time, international cooperation and recognition of challenges and constraints faced by the developing world must also be one of the outcomes of the Paris meetings.
Countries like India do need their carbon space for development and poverty alleviation. Even so, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions India has put forward are without doubt aggressive given India’s per capita energy consumption, which already is well below the global average. India, by all means, is ready to play an important role in these multilateral deliberations and future actions to save humankind.
This commentary was also published on the Project Syndicate website.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub and Jim Williams
In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, more than 150 governments submitted plans to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Many observers are asking whether these reductions are deep enough. But there is an even more important question: Will the chosen path to 2030 provide the basis for ending greenhouse-gas emissions later in the century?
According to the scientific consensus, climate stabilization requires full decarbonization of our energy systems and zero net greenhouse-gas emissions by around 2070. The G-7 has recognized that decarbonization—the only safe haven from disastrous climate change—is the ultimate goal this century. And many heads of state from the G-20 and other countries have publicly declared their intention to pursue this path.
Yet the countries at COP21 are not yet negotiating decarbonization. They are negotiating much more modest steps, to 2025 or 2030, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The United States’ contribution, for example, commits the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions by 26-28 percent, relative to a 2005 baseline, by 2025.
Though the fact that more than 150 intended contributions have been submitted represents an important achievement of the international climate negotiations, most pundits are asking whether the sum of these commitments is enough to keep global warming below the agreed limit of 2º Celsius (3.6º Fahrenheit). They are debating, for example, whether the contributions add up to a 25 percent or 30 percent reduction by 2030, and whether we need a 25 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent reduction by then to be on track.
But the most important issue is whether countries will achieve their 2030 targets in a way that helps them to get to zero emissions by 2070 (full decarbonization). If they merely pursue measures aimed at reducing emissions in the short term, they risk locking their economies into high levels of emissions after 2030. The critical issue, in short, is not 2030, but what happens afterward.
There are reasons to worry. There are two paths to 2030. We might call the first path “deep decarbonization,” meaning steps to 2030 that prepare the way for much deeper steps after that. The second path could be called the way of “low-hanging fruit”—easy ways to reduce emissions modestly, quickly and at relatively low cost. The first path might offer little low-hanging fruit; indeed, the low-hanging fruit can become a distraction or worse.
Here is the reason for worry. The simplest way to reduce emissions to 2030 is by converting coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants. The former emit about 1,000 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour; the latter emit around half of that. During the coming 15 years, it would not be hard to build new gas-fired plants to replace today’s coal plants. Another low-hanging fruit is great gains in the fuel efficiency of internal combustion engines, taking automobile mileage from, say, 35 miles per gallon in the U.S. to 55 miles per gallon by 2025.
The problem is that gas-fired power plants and more efficient internal-combustion vehicles are not nearly enough to get to zero net emissions by 2070. We need to get to around 50 grams per kilowatt-hour by 2050, not 500 grams per kilowatt-hour. We need to get to zero-emission vehicles, not more efficient gas-burning vehicles, especially given that the number of vehicles worldwide could easily double by mid-century.
Deep decarbonization requires not natural gas and fuel-efficient vehicles, but zero-carbon electricity and electric vehicles charged on the zero-carbon electricity grid. This more profound transformation, unlike the low-hanging fruit eyed today by many politicians, offers the only path to climate safety (that is, staying below the 2º C limit). By pursuing coal to gas, or more efficient gas-burning vehicles, we risk putting ourselves into a high-carbon trap.
The figure above illustrates the conundrum. The low-hanging-fruit pathway (red) achieves a steep reduction by 2030. It probably does so at lower cost than the deep-decarbonization pathway (green), because the conversion to zero-carbon electricity (for example, wind and solar power) and to electric vehicles might be more costly than a simple patch-up of our current technologies. The problem is that the low-hanging-fruit pathway will achieve fewer reductions after 2030. It will lead into a dead end. Only the deep-decarbonization pathway gets the economy to the necessary stage of decarbonization by 2050 and to zero net emissions by 2070.
The allure of the short-term fix is very powerful, especially to politicians watching the election cycle. Yet it is a mirage. In order for policymakers to understand what’s really at stake in decarbonization, and therefore what they should do today to avoid dead-end gimmicks and facile solutions, all governments should prepare commitments and plans not only to 2030 but also at least to 2050. This is the main message of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which has mobilized research teams in 16 of the largest greenhouse-gas emitting countries to prepare national Deep Decarbonization Pathways to mid-century.
The project shows that deep decarbonization is technically feasible and affordable, and it has identified pathways to 2050 that avoid the traps and temptations of low-hanging fruit and put the major economies on track to full decarbonization by around 2070. The pathways all rely on three pillars: major advances in energy efficiency, using smart materials and smart (information-based) systems; zero-carbon electricity, drawing upon each country’s best options, such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage; and fuel-switching from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles and other shifts to electrification or advanced biofuels.
A key question for Paris, therefore, is not whether governments achieve 25 percent or 30 percent reductions by 2030, but how they intend to do it. For that, the Paris agreement should stipulate that every government will submit not only an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030, but also a non-binding Deep Decarbonization Pathway to 2050. The U.S. and China have already signaled their interest in this approach. In this way, the world can set a course toward decarbonization—and head off the climate catastrophe that awaits us if we don’t.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management, and director of the Earth Institute. He is also special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals. Guido Schmidt-Traub is executive director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Jim Williams is director of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.
By Isabela Messias and Kathy Zhang
Wondering what’s going on in Paris? And why you should care? A team of young people working on climate issues from many perspectives—policy, science, media, activism—have created Climate Countdown, a video web series that follows the people who are crafting paths toward a meaningful climate agreement at the Paris climate summit. At the heart of it, Climate Countdown is director Kaia Rose’s personal journey to find out what people are actually doing to tackle the climate crisis and how we, as ordinary citizens, can push for solutions.
Over the course of 2015, the Climate Countdown team set out to make the acronym-laden process of climate change negotiations digestible, conversational and shareable. The episodes range from 8-12 minutes long and cover such topics as COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties, as the UN talks are known), the INDCs (the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”—what countries are proposing to do), implementation, carbon pricing, and China.
Kaia Rose and Eric Mann, executive producer and director of photography, are currently in Paris for the UN climate conference. Visit climatecountdown.org to learn more about the web series and connect on @ClimatCountdown for live updates from Paris.
To further understand the challenges and opportunities in climate communications, the Sustainability Media Lab with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Youth Initiative organized the first film screening of Climate Countdown at Columbia on Nov. 15, featuring two panel discussions on the web series and climate media at large.
The event’s first panel focused on the Paris negotiations and the making of the Climate Coutndown series. “It feels like Paris is going to be turning the corner,” said Rose. Panelists discussed reasons for optimism, including the bottom-up approach of countries submitting their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and the recent China-U.S. joint announcement on climate change. The panelists underscored the importance of public awareness and an active civil society in pushing politicians and holding them accountable to the carbon reduction pledges they present in Paris.
The event also featured a panel on “The state of climate change and COP21 media.” Climate communications professionals highlighted the importance of modifying the vocabulary, framing, and messenger to fit the context. Panelists discussed the extreme politicization of climate change in the U.S. and strategies to divorce climate action from political preference. You can listen to that conversation here, on YouTube.
Climate Countdown aims to equip the public with the knowledge, vocabulary, and tools to have a voice in building political will to avoid a global climate crisis. If you would like to join this endeavor, contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isabela Messias is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the NY focal point for SDSN Youth, an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network working to engage youth globally in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Kathy Zhang is the communications associate at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the founder of the Sustainability Media Lab, a Columbia student initiative working to make sustainable development more accessible, relevant, and compelling across all media.
Four students in the Masters in Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo in Canada have traveled to Paris for the climate summit to represent the Republic of Kiribati. The small island nation is one of several threatened by sea level rise, one of the most immediate impacts of climate change.
The four are among students from 28 masters in development practice programs, including the Earth Institute’s Masters in Public Administration-Development Practice at Columbia, who are participating in various ways at the climate talks in Paris.
As official delegates of the island republic, Laura Maxwell, Vidya Nair, Rija Rasul and Kadra Rayale are conscious of what these negotiations could mean to nations like Kiribati.
“This is not only an environmental crisis, but also puts at stake the right to develop sustainably for those most vulnerable to climate change but the least responsible” says Nair.
“The decisions that are made at this summit will shape the future of small island developing states across the globe. To take part in these negotiations will mean that we had a small hand in assuring that nations like Kiribati are viewed as key players in our shared goal of mitigating the effects of climate change” says Rayal.
Maxwell, Nair, Rasul and Rayale have diverse interests in ecology, health, good governance and migration respectively, and are interested on the impacts of climate change in these four realms with respect to small island developing states.
“Fostering youth participation and engagement in the development and sustainability discourse is crucial for the future of the planet,” says Professor Simron Singh, the MDP program director at Waterloo. “The youth are not only important stakeholders of the future, but also a major force of change as they bring in new insights and perspectives.”
The Paris talks—called the 21st Conference of the Parties or COP21—is the first major international summit since the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the UN this past September. The students are concerned how the climate negotiations would advance the discourse concerning the Sustainable Development Goals. Through interactions with state delegates, NGOs and members of industry, they hope to assist in creating a greater international presence for the Republic of Kiribati.
During their time at these negotiations, they will help raise awareness on the impacts of climate change for small island nations by updating a live blog of their daily meetings attended with the Kiribati delegation as well as various side events being held in Paris. They will also be posting on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Upon return from the summit, they will combine experience and knowledge from their respective fields to produce a collaborative report integrating environmental, migration, health and governance systems.