Paris Agreement on climate change takes effect

For the first time in history, governments around the world have agreed to legally binding limits on global temperature rises as the Paris Agreement (PDF)  on climate change became effective on Nov. 4. All governments that have ratified the accord are now legally obligated to cap global warming levels at 2 C above pre-industrial levels—regarded as a limit of safety by scientists. But environmentalists and other groups have said the agreement may not be enough. According to Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth: "The Paris agreement is a major step in the right direction, but it falls a long way short of the giant leap needed to tackle climate change. Far tougher action is needed to rapidly slash emissions." Greenpeace also agreed that while the agreement is a major step forward, it needs stronger force. Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, further pointed out that governments would need to take measures to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable countries get adequate financing to tackle climate change problems..

As of right now, 97 of the 197 countries of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change—including the US, India, China and the EU nations—have ratified, and are thereby legally bound by, the agreement. Governments are expected to meet in Morocco next week under the auspices of the UN to discuss implementation strategies for the agreement. UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa and Morocco Minister of Foreign Affairs Salaheddine Mezouar issued a joint statement: "Humanity will look back on 4 November 2016 as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster and set off with determination towards a sustainable future"

From Jurist, Nov. 4. Used with permission.

Is the Paris Agreement really binding?

Article 2 of the Paris Agreement calls for: "Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels..." The Agreement was adopted on Dec. 12, 2015, but did not take force until 55 parties, accounting for at least 55% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, joined the Agreement. This goal was reached when the EU nations officially joined the agreement last month.

But an analysis by K&L Gates law firm raises questions about "whether the Agreement itself is even enforceable in the United States given questions regarding its ratification and the pending presidential election." The White House characterizes the Agreement as an executive agreement, not a legally binding treaty that requires Senate ratification.

Robert Watson, a US-British scientist and former head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), admitted to Reuters: "There's no legal enforcement of pledges," but the hope is governments will feel a "moral obligation" and "peer pressure" to act.

Morning Consult rhetorically asks if the Agreement is "Kyoto 2.0." While unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the new Agreement establishes a maximum temperature increase goal, it is similarly called "binding" without having actual enforcement mechanisms—apart from suspending violators from future negotiations and carbon-trading schemes.

The carbon-trading schemes are themselves controversial. Ecologists have protested that Kyoto carbon credits have been granted to environmtnally destructive mega-projects and unsustainbale agribusiness (including so-called "biofuels"), with many rejecting the concept altogether as a free-market pseudo-solution.

Congressional Republicans have also issued a white paper (PDF) criticizing the low the bar set for China, which is required to "peak" its emissions by 2030 rather than achieving any actual reductions. Agreement proponents counter that under the Kyoto Protocol, "developing countries" (including China) were excluded from emmission caps altogether. The new Agreement is seen as a compromise in the North-South divide that has long stalled climate talks.

Beijing's 2030 committment is in line with the bilateral US-China climate pact announced in 2014. Japan dropped out of its committments under the faltering Kyoto Protocol in 2013. The Kyoto Protocol similarly met with a backlash from conservatives and the fossil fuel industry. It was opposed by the Bush administration and never ratified by the US Senate—depriving activists of a legal tool against stateside polluters.

'Geo-engineering' schemes in Paris climate agreement

Researchers who produced a report for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity on "geo-engineering" find it to be a "highly uncertain" prospect, but may be necessary to combat climate change. "Within the Paris agreement there’s an implicit assumption that there will need to be greenhouse gases removed," said Phil Williamson of the UK's University of East Anglia, who worked on the report. "Climate geo-engineering is what countries have agreed to do, although they haven't really realized that they've agreed to do it."

Large-scale geo-engineering may include pouring nutrients into oceans to save coral habitats or spraying tiny particles into the Earth’s atmosphere to reflect sun rays back into space. Geo-engineering proposals have been shunned because of their unpredictable consequences on global ecosystems. (Cantech Letter, Nov. 4; Bloomberg, Oct. 31)

Today's energy system could blow Paris climate goals

A growing body of evidence suggests that the power plants, buildings, cars, trucks, ships and planes in use today are likely to emit enough CO2 over their lifetime for the world to miss the Paris targets. Coal plants alone could blow the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees C of warming, the lower threshold in the agreement, unless they are shut down early.

"For 1.5 degrees we would have to start retiring things like crazy and we wouldn't be able to build anything new," said UC Irvine scientist Steven Davis. "Two degrees is starting to look equally bleak."

In 2010 Davis and others estimated that the world's existing energy infrastructure had locked in 496 billion tons of CO2 emissions if left to operate for their expected lifetime. By 2013, as hundreds of additional power plants had come online in Asia, the number rose to 729 billion tons.

"By my latest calculations, we're close to 800 billion tons now," Davis said. (ABC, Nov. 18)

Earth sets temperature record for third straight year

From the New York Times, Jan. 17:

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016, trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row...

In 2015 and 2016, the planetary warming was intensified by the weather pattern known as El Niño, in which the Pacific Ocean released a huge burst of energy and water vapor into the atmosphere. But the bigger factor in setting the records was the long-term trend of rising temperatures, which scientists say is being driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"A single warm year is something of a curiosity," said Deke Arndt, chief of global climate monitoring for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's really the trend, and the fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now, that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes."

As we've noted,  of the 16 warmest years on record since monitoring began in 1880 have occurred since 2001. Which rather precludes the possibility that this is entirely attributable to El Niño.

'Alarmingly' early spring forebodes climate disaster

From Gizmodo, Feb. 24:

Spring is well ahead of schedule across much of the southern United States, in some cases by at least two to three weeks. An early spring may sound nice, but it comes with serious consequences—both to human health and the environment.

A new set of maps produced by the USGS-led US National Phenology Network (US-NPN) demonstrates just how ahead of schedule spring is across much of the continental United States. Temperature-sensitive plants have started to become active earlier than normal, sprouting leaves and flowers in coastal California and southern Nevada through to the southern Great Plains and the Atlantic Coast. In Washington, DC, spring arrived 22 days earlier than historical norms, as indicated by data on leaf-outs and flowering.

Alarmingly, this seems to be a trend. A related study published late last year showed that spring has been arriving earlier than usual in three out of four US National Parks across the US, and that half of all National Parks are experiencing early springs compared to last century. And yes, the US-NPN says this trend is likely the result of climate change...

The warm temperatures means that early-season disease carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks can start to settle in; consequently, this could herald a bad year for the spread of Zika and Dengue. An early spring can also affect allergy sufferers, who have to deal with a prolonged pollen season.

From an environmental perspective, a longer growing season can increase yield for certain crops, but there’s still the risk of frost to consider. Early blooming flowers can also disrupt wildlife, throwing the timing of birds, bees, and butterflies off balance. Plants are now sprouting their flowers, but their pollinators may be nowhere to be found, or in small numbers. That’s bad for plants, which need pollinators to reproduce, and for the pollinators, who are sustained by the flowers. Sadly, global warming is happening faster than these creatures can adapt.

Methane mega-fart may doom humanity

That's the gist of a lurid story on TruthOut, citing a recent study in the journal Palaeoworld. "Global warming triggered by the massive release of carbon dioxide may be catastrophic," reads the study's abstract. "But the release of methane from hydrate may be apocalyptic." The study, titled "Methane Hydrate: Killer Cause of Earth's Greatest Mass Extinction," highlights the fact that the most significant variable in the Permian Mass Extinction event, which occurred 250 million years ago and annihilated 90 percent of all the species on the planet, was methane hydrate. Comfortingly, HuffPo reports that many climate scientists are skeptical about the study's conclusion that global warming could result in a massive methane release from the Arctic Sea floor, sparking a "runaway greenhouse effect."

However, a more sober article in the New York Times exactly a year ago noted a new study led by James Hansen in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics journal warning of "Perilous Climate Shift Within Decades, Not Centuries." The authors found that the Paris agreement that Trump is now tearing up was insufficient to avert a potentially "abrupt climate shift."

Giant methane farts gush forth from the Siberian plain

From The Guardian, July 20:

[A] huge explosion was heard in June in the Yamal Peninsula. Reindeer herders camped nearby saw flames shooting up with pillars of smoke and found a large crater left in the ground. Melting permafrost was again suspected, thawing out dead vegetation and erupting in a blowout of highly flammable methane gas.

Over the past three years, 14 other giant craters have been found in the region, some of them truly massive – the first one discovered was around 50m (160ft) wide and about 70m (230ft) deep, with steep sides and debris spread all around.

There have also been cases of the ground trembling in Siberia as bubbles of methane trapped below the surface set the ground wobbling like an airbed. Even more dramatic, setting fire to methane released from frozen lakes in both Siberia and Alaska causes some impressive flames to erupt.

Greenland's coastal ice has passed a 'tipping point'

Ice caps and glaciers along the coast of Greenland passed a tipping point in 1997, when a layer of snow that once absorbed summer meltwater became fully saturated. Since then, the coastal ice fields—separate from the main Greenland Ice Sheet—have been melting three times faster than they had been, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

"The melting ice caps are an alarm signal for the ice sheet. It means long-term ice mass loss is inevitable. It will increase and accelerate if nothing changes," said lead author Brice Noël, a scientist at the University of Utrecht Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research. "It's very unlikely the ice caps will recover. It's a climate tipping point—the time at which a change or an effect cannot be stopped." (Inside Climate News, March 31)

This follows simialr findings about Arctic sea ice...

Meanwhile, species in every ecosystem are being affected by rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, with marine animals moving poleward at the average pace of 72 kilometres and land-based ones 17 kilometres a decade, according to the paper published in the journal Science.

"Movement of mosquitoes in response to global warming is a threat to health in many countries through predicted increases in the number of known, and potentially new, diseases," the paper found, noting malaria is already a risk for about half of humanity, with more than 200 million cases recorded in 2014 alone. (SMH, March 31)