Paris, climate and surrealism

27 07 2017

Speaker: Prof. Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change

Title: Paris, climate and surrealism: how numbers reveal an alternate reality

The Paris Agreement’s inclusion of “well below 2°C” and “pursue … 1.5°C” has catalysed fervent activity amongst many within the scientific community keen to understand what this more ambitious objective implies for mitigation. However, this activity has demonstrated little in the way of plurality of responses. Instead there remains an almost exclusive focus on how future ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs) may offer a beguiling and almost free “get out of jail card”.
This presentation argues that such a dominant focus reveals an endemic bias across much of the academic climate change community determined to voice a politically palatable framing of the mitigation landscape – almost regardless of scientific credibility. The inclusion of carbon budgets within the IPCC’s latest report reveals just how few years remain within which to meet even the “well below 2°C” objective.

Making optimistic assumptions on the rapid cessation of deforestation and uptake of carbon capture technologies on cement/steel production, sees a urgent need to accelerate the transformation of the energy system away from fossil fuels by the mid 2030s in the wealthier nations and 2050 globally. To put this in context, the national mitigation pledges submitted to Paris see an ongoing rise in emissions till 2030 and are not scheduled to undergo major review until 2023 – eight years, or 300 billion tonnes of CO2, after the Paris Agreement.

Despite the enormity and urgency of 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” mitigation challenge, the academic community has barely considered delivering deep and early reductions in emissions through the rapid penetration of existing end-use technologies and profound social change. At best it dismisses such options as too expensive compared to the discounted future costs of a technology that does not yet exist. At worst, it has simply been unprepared to countenance approaches that risk destabilising the political hegemony.

Ignoring such sensibilities, the presentation concludes with a draft vision of what an alternative mitigation agenda may comprise.





On Biochar

23 05 2017

Last weekend, as the threat of looming downpours for much of Tasmania was forecast, I went to a biochar workshop organised by the Huon Producers’ Network, and I reckon it was the best thirty five bucks I ever spent……. I’ve read quite a bit on the matter, and have always been fascinated by Terra Preta. Having cut down some fifty trees to make way and building material for our new house, I’m not exactly short of biomass to get rid of…. I had four huge piles of the stuff, and unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans have to yield to reality and two of them have been burned to make way for ‘development’ on the Fanny Farm. Each time I burned the piles, I got the guilts knowing all that resource was going to waste and contributing to climate change, but having inadvertently put several tonnes of wood in the wrong place (designing my patch is an evolutionary process) and having no quick means of moving them, I just put a match to it. At least, the ash went on the current market garden patch……Image result for biochar kiln

I had some expectations of what I was going to be shown, but they were all thrown out the window…. I had been expecting to see kilns such as the one at right which are all enclosed for the purpose of starving the fire of Oxygen so as to pyrolise the wood and make charcoal. My friend Bruce in Queensland has been making charcoal this way for thirty years to satisfy his blacksmithing habit (and those of many others I might add), and he has this down to a fine art. But it appears there’s a revolution underway…..

The presenter on the day was Frank Strie, who thirty years ago emigrated from Germany with his whole family to Tasmania. “We started to plant lots of different fruit trees” Frank says on his website, “such as Cherries, Apricots, Peaches, Plums, Prunes and various apple and pear trees. And of course, we wanted to grow our own vegetables. Also, about 20 years ago we established a Hazelnut Orchard, which covers nearly one third of the property.” It’s all organic of course, and he sounds like he’s pretty good mates with Peter Cundall, Tassie’s gardening guru…… See his Terra Preta website.

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“The baby”

The fact that he brought three kilns on a trailer and the back of a ute all the way from Launceston just shows how versatile and portable his gear is.

The new kilns are open topped, and most interestingly, funnel shaped. They make the process faster – like maybe half the time or better – and allow for activation of the charcoal (which is what turns it into biochar) all in one go. Being able to just tip the finished product onto the ground instead of laboriously shoveling it out of the kiln looks good to this old man with a bad back as well.

Andrew, a local also known as Stretch – and so tall he can’t fit in photos – was also there to ably assist Frank; he’d organised20170520_121304 lots of firewood and stacked it in piles of graded sizes along with cardboard and kindling. We actually got three kilns started; from a smallish one designed for hobby gardeners, to something that will make a cubic metre at a time (and double up as a BBQ!) to the farm sized device I could probably use but can’t afford….. though there is now talk of buying one as a community resource which is a darn good idea!

The idea of the funnel shape is that as the air outside is heated, it rises up the sides, and when it reaches the lip, a vortex effect is created causing the air to be sucked into the kiln speeding up the burn. The ‘big one’ even comes with a skirt that acts as a venturi, speeding up the air as it is squeezed between the kiln and skirt at the lip of the kiln. The effect was clearly visible, though nigh impossible to catch in a still photo.

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The ‘smothering’ effect is created by simply adding more and more firewood to the pile. Before combustion is complete, the fire is quenched (with water on this particular day, but normally a liquid fertiliser would be used) from the bottom up. The bottom of the kiln is plumbed to a pipe which can be used for both removing excess liquid, or adding it under pressure from an IBC on, say, the back of a ute. On the day, Frank used a garden hose, because we could not do what he normally does because of where we were….

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On the day, the kiln was not filled to capacity due to location and time constraints, but you can clearly see the results. The big kiln even comes with a winch to tip the biochar out for easy work, and if it wasn’t for the fact I’m far too busy house building and counting my remaining pennies, I would buy one tomorrow,

To learn more about biochar, here is an interesting link supplied by Frank that anyone keen on this process would find enlightening. I think this is definitely the way of the future, a bright light among all the rubbish we see every day about renewable energy and electric cars. This has the potential to sequester huge amounts of Carbon, and even more importantly, prepare farm soil for the post oil era looming on the horizon.





Is eating no meat actually doing more harm than good?

18 05 2017

I spend more time on the internet arguing wih vegetarians/vegans than any other group of people……  I so wish they would get off their high horses and start supporting farmers who do the right thing…. and that goes for all you meat eaters out there who buy meat from supermarkets….  STOP IT!!

This opinion piece was originally published by Farmdrop on 4th May 2017.


The younger generation are positively redefining the way we see ourselves in relation to food and the environment.

I grew up in the late 1960s and so I consider myself a bit of a hippy. That decade marked a fundamental mind-set shift in the way people saw themselves in relation to the world. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint where these ideas came from; many of them simply seemed to come through intuition.

I mention this because, for the first time since the late 1960s, I feel like another shift in consciousness is occurring among the younger generation, particularly amongst so called ‘millennials’.

There is a new field of scientific study called epigenetics which shows that all living organisms constantly interact with their external environment and that these influences can prompt changes in gene expression which can be passed down through the generations. Plants, for example, have epigenetic responses to the environment they grow in, as a result of which a plant may have a subtle difference in its genotype from its parents. Even more interestingly, certain epigenetic traits can stay dormant for several generations, only to find full expression at a later time.

So I suspect that the changing shift in consciousness towards food production and sustainability may actually be partly epigenetic. Perhaps the radical energy of the 1960s is now finding expression among millennials, albeit in a slightly different way.

For these reasons, as an organic farmer of almost 45 years, I have never been more optimistic about the future of farming. However, I am growing increasingly concerned about the large number of people turning to diets that may not necessarily be either healthy or sustainable.

If we are to move to a genuinely sustainable food system, then I think we all need to become much better informed about the sustainability or otherwise of different food systems. Only then we will be better placed to challenge the huge amounts of misinformation on so-called sustainable diets which are encouraging people to avoid all meats and animal products, despite the reality that in many (if not most climates and regions) it is difficult to farm in a truly sustainable way without livestock.

What is the problem with food and farming?

It has become a cliché but it’s true: supermarket food is not cheap and comes at a heavy price. The industrial application of nitrogen fertiliser has contaminated our water systems and atmosphere with dangerous nitrates; the subsidised production of fructose corn syrup has driven an increase in obesity and diabetes; and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals has caused a resistance to these drugs amongst humans.

The real problem is that none of the costs of all this damage is charged to the people who use it and, on the other hand, the positive effects of sustainable farming are not supported.

The current policy framework supports a dishonest economic food pricing system, as a result of which, the best business case is for farmers to grow using industrial methods and for retailers to buy the commodity products from industrial farms, process the hell out of them, package them so the consumer knows nothing about their backstory and then make a profit by turning that around.

So we need new incentives and disincentives, which ensure that the polluter pays and those who farm in a truly sustainable way are better rewarded for the benefits they deliver.

But what are the most sustainable farming methods?

There is no doubt that agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributor towards climate change. Cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is very important but to actually reverse climate change – take CO2 out of the atmosphere – then we need to change the way we farm, particularly in relation to the way we look after the soil.

This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, thereby mitigating harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Britain’s soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than total annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Moreover, high levels of organic matter are also the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change and ultimately improving our health.

The problem is that industrial farming methods have depleted organic matter in the soils. In the East of England, around 84% of the land’s carbon rich soil has been lost and continues to disappear at a rate of 1 to 2cm per year. That represents an enormous amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Sustainable food systems are therefore about much more than simply avoiding nasty chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices.

It is possible for farmers to reduce the emissions from agriculture by re-introducing rotations in the way they use their land – introducing a grass and clover phase that builds soil organic matter, which is then grazed by ruminant animals on rotation, who fertilise the soil further, and results in an ability to grow healthy crops.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.

How can you have the most healthy and sustainable diet?

Everyone, at least in principle, wants to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, but we are all very confused about how to do it. If you asked 10 people what the most sustainable and healthy way to eat was then you would probably get 10 different answers. A few might say vegetarian or vegan (the numbers eating a vegan diet has increased by 360% in the last decade) but I think that a large scale switch towards vegetarianism may not necessarily be compatible with sustainability.

In my opinion, many people have been led astray by bad science. The tools used by scientific researchers in the past, and whose published papers have prompted changes in people’s diets, were not based on sound science. It was said that red meat and animal fats should be avoided, both because they are unhealthy and because ruminant animals (cows and sheep) are largely responsible for harmful methane emissions.

But it turns out that neither of those positions are necessarily true.

The study that prompted Governments in Britain and the United States to recommend people to reduce their intake of fats was not based on solid evidence. It is this study that encouraged the food industry to replace fats with added sugars, and we are only now understanding the damage these do to our health.

And the studies that recommended a reduction in red meat consumption on grounds of reducing its environmental impact only look at certain factors in isolation rather than the whole food system. Land-use is often considered as bad in all instances, even though raising livestock is sometimes the only productive land use option available. In roughly two thirds of the UK’s agricultural land area is grass and the only way we can turn that into a good soil that stores carbon and grows healthy crops is to have ruminant animals grazing on a rotation system to fertilise the ground.

These flawed assumptions have had significant consequences for the way people eat. Beef production has halved since the 1980s and the consumption of lamb, arguably the most sustainable grass-fed meat for the land, has plummeted. While new evidence is now showing that animals fats are good for our health and cattle grazed in the right way can actually reduce carbon emissions by creating fertile soils.

Where do we go from here?

My message is simple: a healthy diet should work backwards from the most sustainable way to farm, and that ideally means eating the foods produced by mixed farms using crop rotations which include a fertility building phase, usually of grass and clover grazed by cows and sheep, but also pastured pigs and poultry.

Industrial farming has been an extractive industry. We have dined out on the natural capital of the soil that previous generations have laid down for us. We need to fix that because the environment in which a plant or animal is produced goes a long way to determine its nutrient value when consumed by humans.





Beyond the Point of No Return

4 12 2016

Imminent Carbon Feedbacks Just Made the Stakes for Global Warming a Hell of a Lot Higher

Republished from Robert Scribbler’s excellent website……..

If EVER there was a need to start soil farming, this proves it beyond doubt.

“It’s fair to say we have passed the point of no return on global warming and we can’t reverse the effects, but certainly we can dampen them,” said biodiversity expert Dr. Thomas Crowther.

“I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product.” — Prof Ivan Janssens, recognized as a godfather of the global ecology field.

“…we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it… we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.” — Professor Stephen Hawking yesterday in The Guardian.

*****

The pathway for preventing catastrophic climate change just got a whole hell of a lot narrower.

For according to new, conservative estimates in a scientific study led by Dr. Thomas Crowther, increasing soil respiration alone is about to add between 0.45 and 0.71 parts per million of CO2 to the atmosphere every year between now and 2050.

(Thomas Crowther explains why rapidly reducing human greenhouse gas emissions is so important. Namely, you want to do everything you can to avoid a runaway into a hothouse environment that essentially occurs over just one Century. Video source: Netherlands Institute of Ecology.)

What this means is that even if all of human fossil fuel emissions stop, the Earth environment, from this single source, will generate about the same carbon emission as all of the world’s fossil fuel industry did during the middle of the 20th Century. And that, if human emissions do not stop, then the pace of global warming of the oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere is set to accelerate in a runaway warming event over the next 85 years.

Global Warming Activates Soil Respiration Which Produces More CO2

This happens because as the world warms, carbon is baked out of previously inactive soils through a process known as respiration. As a basic explanation, micro-organisms called heterotrophs consume carbon in the soil and produce carbon dioxide as a bi-product. Warmth is required to fuel this process. And large sections of the world that were previously too cold to support large scale respiration and CO2 production by heterotrophs and other organisms are now warming up. The result is that places like Siberian Russia, Northern Europe, Canada, and Alaska are about to contribute a whole hell of a lot more CO2 (and methane) to the atmosphere than they did during the 20th Century.

When initial warming caused by fossil fuel burning pumps more carbon out of the global environment, we call this an amplifying feedback. It’s a critical climate tipping point when the global carbon system in the natural environment starts to run away from us.

Sadly, soil respiration is just one potential feedback mechanism that can produce added greenhouse gasses as the Earth warms. Warming oceans take in less carbon and are capable of producing their own carbon sources as they acidify and as methane seeps proliferate. Forests that burn due to heat and drought produce their own carbon sources. But increasing soil respiration, which has also been called the compost bomb, represents what is probably one of the most immediate and likely large sources of carbon feedback.

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(A new study finds that warming of 1 to 2 C by 2050 will increase soil respiration. The result is that between 30 and 55 billion tons of additional CO2 is likely to hit the Earth’s atmosphere over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)

And it is also worth noting that the study categorizes its own findings as conservative estimates. That the world could, as an outside risk, see as much as four times the amount of carbon feedback (or as much as 2.7 ppm of CO2 per year) coming from soil if respiration is more efficient and wide-ranging than expected. If a larger portion of the surface soil carbon in newly warmed regions becomes a part of the climate system as microbes activate.

Amplifying Feedbacks Starting to Happen Now

The study notes that it is most likely that about 0.45 parts per million of CO2 per year will be leached from mostly northern soils from the period of 2016 to 2050 under 1 C worth of global warming during the period. To this point, it’s worth noting that the world has already warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. So this amount of carbon feedback can already be considered locked in. The study finds that if the world continues to warm to 2 C by 2050 — which is likely to happen — then an average of around 0.71 parts per million of CO2 will be leached out of soils by respiration every year through 2050.

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(When soils lose carbon, it ends up in the atmosphere. According to a new study, soils around the world are starting to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is caused by increased soil respiration as the Earth warms. Over the next 35 years, the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped out by the world’s soils is expected to dramatically increase. How much is determined by how warm the world becomes over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)

The upshot of this study is that amplifying carbon feedbacks from the Earth environment are probably starting to happen on a large scale now. And we may be seeing some evidence for this effect during 2016 as rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation are hitting above 3 parts per million per year for the second year in a row even as global rates of human emissions plateaued.

Beyond the Point of No Return

What this means is that the stakes for cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible just got a whole hell of a lot higher. If we fail to do this, we will easily be on track for 5-7 C or worse warming by the end of this Century. And this level of warming happening so soon and over so short a timeframe is an event that few, if any, current human civilizations are likely to survive. Furthermore, if we are to avoid terribly harmful warming over longer periods, we must not only rapidly transition to renewable energy sources. We must also somehow learn to pull carbon, on net, out of the atmosphere in rather high volumes.

Today, Professor Ivan Janssens of the University of Antwerp noted:

“This study is very important, because the response of soil carbon stocks to the ongoing warming, is one of the largest sources of uncertainty in our climate models. I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product. If this happens by 2050, then we can avoid warming above 2C. If not, we will reach a point of no return and will probably exceed 5C.”

In other words, even the optimists at this time think that we are on the cusp of runaway catastrophic global warming. That the time to urgently act is now.

Links:

Quantifying Soil Carbon Losses in Response to Warming

Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Earth Warming to Climate Tipping Point

This is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet

Climate Change Escalating So Fast it is Beyond the Point of No Return

NOAA ESRL

Soil Respiration





The modern version of ‘Let them eat cake’

19 11 2016

In this spontaneous conversation between two of Britain’s most vocal scientists on climate change and engineering, we see a frank analysis of the details that belie inconvenient truths for each one us……

Our current carbon pollution rate is taking us towards a planet that is on average 4ªC warmer than today with regional variations far exceeding this and changes to the natural world that will be so profound that it is fair to say, this will not be the same planet.

Carbon sequestering technologies

Anderson: “Carbon sequestration works at very small levels. Whether you could scale it up to 35 billion tonnes… this is where you suck the CO2 either out of the atmosphere or out of chimneys from power stations and then you store this as liquid CO2 somewhere for the next thousand plus years. To store this quantity of CO2, this is a huge challenge. Yet, this is normalised in almost all of the models that are advising policymakers… every single scenario that has been discussed, at this event in Paris that I have heard, assumes, without actually mentioning it up front, that this technology works. It is highly speculative!”

Carbon Budget

One of the big omissions from the Paris Accord is the mention of the carbon budget. Anderson discusses why this is so important. The remaining 900 billion tonnes that analysts say we can burn before exceeding the carbon budget for safe climate change (a figure that should not be taken as absolute fact, but rather, based on ‘scenarios’ that are themselves dependent on carbon negative technologies, that currently do not exist, and emissions reductions that should have started years ago) is meant to be divided up in a fair and equitable way, placing emphasis on the world’s poor to give them a better quality of life and resilience to climate changes in their region.

By taking out the mention of the carbon budget in the early stages of the Paris negotiations, the implication is that the conversation over who burns what can be sidestepped and the wealthy nations do not have to tackle this central issue straight on.

It is worth adding to this that achieving 1.5ºC as a safe limit of global mean temperature rise to ensure the safety of exposed regions (such as low lying lands and small island states), is only possible with aggressive and immediate decarbonisation over the next ten years. Thus, the number is only being treated as “aspirational” and not realistic.

Anderson: “The problem with carbon, it is in the dyes in my shirt. It is in the ship that brought my shirt here, it’s how we got to this event, it keeps the lights on, it’s keeping your computer running. Carbon is completely pervasive.”

The +2ºC world

Anderson: “It is highly unlikely that we will hold to 2º Centigrade. It is a choice. We know how to do this today but it does require this social and political change in the short-term.”

The reality of the issue is that we are losing the window of opportunity to stay below 2ºC. As we start looking to a 2-4ºC world, we are looking at planet that is likely to be wrought with famine, conflict, overwhelming migration and huge degradation of natural systems.

There are worrying feedbacks to warming the planet that should concern us all. One example is the collapse of global forests. A scientific study has shown that at 2.5ºC increase in temperature many of the worlds forests will collapse. These are huge carbon sinks and sources of oxygen. The world without trees is certain to be challenging.

Of course, we can add in all kinds of other impacts such as the collapse of ice sheets, melting permafrost, dying off of oceans, and they are all severely bad for life on Earth.

Social values and climate justice?

Hunt: “So, why is the mood here quite optimistic? It seems to me we may well have passed some tipping points. Time will tell in the next few decades.”

Anderson: “Part of the optimism comes from rich people in the northern hemisphere who think we can buy our way out of it…. you hear people use this kind of language… what this means is, ‘we’ll muddle through because we are rich enough to buy our way out of it, and the poor will die!’ If you look at the language we use and peel away the layers, and look beneath it, what we are saying is fairly savage!”

Hunt: “This is the modern version of ‘Let them eat cake’. We seem to be accepting that our lifestyles will not change very much. Somehow we have to put in a political framework, a legal framework, a governance framework to solve the problem, without affecting our lifestyles.”

“Geoengineering” the climate

Anderson: “Personally, my view on this is that we should do the research on these techniques and we should do the research on the techniques for sucking the CO2 out of the air, but all of our policy framing should assume they don’t work. So it is an insurance policy that has a very high probability of never paying out. So we should do the research and assume that they will never work. The problem is that we are not doing very much research and we are assuming that they work.”

Hunt: “The research that I have been involved in on the SPICE project (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering), a small test that we want to do, had to be stopped because of the concerns about the perception of what we were doing. It was not because of the concerns about what we were actually doing, but about the perception of what we were doing.”

“I think that this is a bit worry that the perception of what we are doing in pumping 35 billion tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere seems not to be of any great concern, but the perception of research we might do into climate engineering is of great concern. I’m not saying that it is not a great concern but let’s get a balance.”

Anderson: “I take the view that we can actually make a big difference by making social changes now. We can still just make the 2ºC but it needs rapid and deep reductions by this relatively small set of big emitters. Because we are saying we’re not prepared to do that, therefor we have to think about the other sets of issues. I think we do need to reinvigorate the debate about social change in the short to medium term, whilst we put the low carbon energy supply in place.”

“All these other techniques are contentious and they may not work. If we could reduce our energy consumption today, that is not everybody on the planet but just a relatively small number of us. Then that definitely would have an impact on our carbon emissions very quickly.”

Optimism?

Hunt: “We are coming into a period of great stress. I think that our young kids at school now are going to be our new generation of inspirational people. I am not just relying on them rather hopefully. I just believe that the world we are going into will be very stressful and that people will rise to the challenge and great things will happen.”

Anderson: “I think we have all the tools we need to resolve this problem, pretty much at our fingertips, but we are not prepared to use them now. And the two I have mentioned are: Very significant social change for the few in the short to medium term, and engineers doing what engineers have been very good at doing for decades, if not centuries, and that is changing our infrastructure towards a very low carbon future going forward.”

“If you put those two together I think that 2ºC is still a viable goal for our society.”





Another silver bullet bites the dust….

10 10 2016

A recent article in the Guardian explains why scientists now believe that soil’s potential to soak up climate changing carbon dioxide has been overestimated by as much as 40%….

Hopes that large amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide could be buried in soils appear to be grossly misplaced, with new research finding that the ground will soak up far less carbon over the coming century than previously thought.

Radiocarbon dating of soils, when combined with previous models of carbon uptake, has shown the widely assumed potential for carbon sequestration to combat climate change has been overestimated by as much as 40%.

Scientists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) found that models used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assume a much faster cycling of carbon through soils than is actually the case. Data taken from 157 soil samples taken from around the world show the average age of soil carbon is more than six times older than previously thought.

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Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane, our resident climate scientist, recently picked up on this at Chris Martenson’s Peak prosperity blog and wrote the following……?

The article points again to the problems with global models of climate change. Those who generally complain about ‘models’ usually do so to try to imply that they are wrong and that this therefore means that they are overstating climate change. The fact of the matter is that although they are ‘wrong’, the errors, in principle, are just as likely to understate as overstate the situation. In reality, the science tends to be conservative, as scientists are usually constrained to using what is statistically defensible for many of the parameters within their models, so the likelihood of understating known issues (e.g. ice sheet collapses) is greater than substantially overstating them, which is why the vast majority of new findings point out that climate change is progressing faster than we have been estimating.

The famous quote by George Box “All models are wrong, but some are useful” nicely sums up the state of things. Much of what we do in this world is based on our internal modeling, some of which is of high accuracy, “the sun comes up every morning”, and other ideas somewhat less so,  “I’m a safe driver so driving is not risky”. Weather models are notoriously inaccurate but we find quite a lot of utility in consulting them anyway. They may not be absolutely ‘right’ but they are usually reasonably close to the ultimate conditions. Climate models have multitudinous components but their ultimate function basically boils down to calculating the balance between sources and sinks of carbon in the atmosphere, then estimating what the ramifications are of the net changes in type and amounts of the so-called greenhouse gases.

Sources are emissions from things like burning fossil fuels, and positive feedbacks like melting permafrost that releases a portion of the carbon stock, that has literally been frozen in place for millennia, to the atmosphere as the climate warms. Sinks are things like ocean uptake of carbon as higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations force the gas into the water, like occurs in your soda bottle or beer can. Negative feedbacks are those that ultimately bring the system back into balance after excessive emissions and include things like plants soaking up carbon and ultimately depositing some of it for long term storage in soils, in addition to transformation of silicate rocks to carbonate rocks as mountains erode and deposit sediments into the sea, soaking up atmospheric carbon in the process.

As I have mentioned before, the existence of a positive or negative feedback is only part of the story, we also need to know the rate at which it proceeds and ultimately how long it might continue. If you put a match to a high concentration of an explosive gas (say hydrogen) the positive feedback of energy release from a few molecules transferring energy to the proximate molecules will proceed very rapidly but not for very long before the process runs its course in the explosion. On the other hand, eroding the Himalayan mountains down to sea level will soak up immense amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but will take millions of years to accomplish.

All of which is providing context for what the He et  al. (2016) paper is saying. Soil carbon is a catch all term for many chemical compounds in soils that have carbon as a component. This makes the ‘organic’ component of soils. If you are modeling the rate at which carbon can get soaked up by soils you need to know the processes involved and calibrate them using parameters that balance the rates at which carbon enters and leaves the soil. What the new research is showing is that the current Earth Systems Models (ESMs – components of Global Climate Models – GCMs) currently underestimate the age of organic materials (carbon) in existing soils which effectively means that they overestimate the rate at which carbon is likely to be sequestered through plant growth/soil formation in the future. The upshot being that the models are currently estimating that soils will soak up potentially twice as much carbon between now and 2100 as seems likely. If the carbon isn’t getting soaked up it means that it could pile up in the atmosphere for longer than presently estimated and act to warm the planet more than currently projected.

As in all scientific matters, these results will be tested by other scientists and either be verified, refuted or refined. So what does it signify if this is correct? The soil component is only one pool among many but the net fluxes are what matters in the climate situation. For example:

With a Net Terrestrial Uptake of 3.0, the findings could indicate that this should be better described as 1.5-2.0. This could conceivably move the net atmospheric increase from 4.0 to 5.0 or so, a 25% increase. Non trivial. That said, what it probably means is that existing errors in other components of the modeling are either partially overstating emissions or global photosynthesis or understating net oceanic uptake. Therefore, instead of a 25% increase in atmospheric carbon there would be a smaller compounding increase between now and 2100, how small is the question. Future studies will be aimed at teasing these interacting components apart.





Why voting is fast becoming a farce……

17 06 2016

Unless you are Australian, dear reader, you may not know we are in the middle of one of the longest and most boring election campaigns this country has ever had to endure…. the party leaders are boring, visionless, ignorant, condescending, liars, dishonest, and I could go on….. and if you’re not Australian, I’ll bet you can recognise your own politicians in that list!

dinataleBut what got me inspired to write this piece, hot on the heels of the Great Leap Sideways, was the Australian Greens’ leader Richard Di Natale’s economic vision for Australia which just landed in my newsfeed…

Don’t get me wrong, he’s the standout nice guy compared to the morons leading the other parties, but this ‘economic vision’ had me rolling my eyes….. and on paper, he’s walking the walk, much as I am. He lives on a farm, in a solar powered off the grid passive solar house, raising animals ethically and growing much of his food. He’s been ‘there’ longer than I’ve been ‘here’, and I’m sure he’s also got loads more money, so he’s actually way ahead of me……. our goals are seemingly the same. However, it appears that as soon as one gets involved in politics, common sense just goes out the window.

He begins with “Let me start with a statement that you won’t hear from any politician during this election campaign. The fortunes and failures of Australia’s economy are largely hitched to the whims of the global marketplace and we politicians have limited control over Australia’s economic future.” He’s right of course….. so why get involved? The big end of town buys the best parliament money can buy, and the Greens don’t get a look in! So how do they combat this?  By appeasing them, even appealing to their greed!

Richard continues with “Governments are no longer in the driver’s seat. Rather their role is to ensure the air bag is able to cushion the impact on passengers when a crash occurs.” From where I sit, the airbags aren’t inflating.  Further down, “Governments have a role in addressing market failure and there is no greater example of market failure than dangerous global warming. The entire point of putting a price on greenhouse pollution is to internalize the externality of carbon pollution and to point us towards our inevitable economic future, with minimal economic disruption.”

Hmm….  methinks he’s never read Limits to Growth… and here’s the proof:  “The Greens plan for a new, clean economy would see GDP rise significantly, but that is not the only marker of progress.”

If ever there was one party that should be calling for an end to ‘jobs and growth’, it’s the Greens…. but instead, they try to appeal to the people who have been conned into believing that’s what we must have to ensure prosperity.

He goes on to ask “Where will our productive future lie?”, seemingly unaware that it’s this very ‘production’ that is the cause of the changing climate he correctly finds alarming.

Then, and this really got me glazing my eyes over, he delivers “Right now the CSIRO is piloting projects to create hydrogen through electrolysis from solar thermal power.[2] Gas and liquid fossil fuels could one day soon be replaced with pollution-free hydrogen in the use of energy, chemical feedstocks and vehicle fuels. We have the competitive advantages of sunlight, space and ingenuity, but we haven’t yet shown the political foresight to prepare.” So, he (and the CSIRO, obviously) have not heard of the energy cliff either……  I am actually appalled that the CSIRO are working on Hydrogen….. so much so, I hope Di Natale is wrong on this one.

Additionally, for a statement on the economy, there is zero mention of our debt predicaments….. it’s like the single biggest economic problem we face just doesn’t exist.

About all you can achieve by voting this year is to stop the most evil of the big parties to fail gaining office, because not one single one of them will avert the looming calamities facing us all.