greenhouse gases

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New Atmospheric Compound Impacts Climate, Human Health

Role in aerosol formation could aid modeling of Central Valley temps, air quality

NASA Earth Observatory

Aerosols—and clouds seeded by them—reflect about a quarter of the Sun’s energy back to space.

For all we know about climate change and the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s amazing how much more there is to learn. Earlier this month, a team of researchers led by University of Colorado’s Roy “Lee” Mauldin III announced the discovery of a brand new atmospheric compound tied to both climate change and human health.

Above certain parts of the earth, they found, the new compound is at least as prevalent as OH, also called the hydroxyl radical, long thought to be the primary oxidant responsible for turning sulfur dioxide, an industrial pollutant, into sulfuric acid. The new compound, it turns out, can play an equally important role. Sulfuric acid contributes to acid rain and results in the formation of aerosols, airborne particulates associated with a variety of respiratory illnesses in humans and known to seed the formation of clouds. Continue reading

Climate Change’s Unusual Suspects

A rice field in the Sacramento Valley. According to NOAA, rice paddies are a source of methane emissions. Photo: Craig Miller

Despite all the focus on regulating CO2 as a way to combat global warming, a new NOAA study finds that to really put the brakes on climate change, the world can’t ignore the other greenhouse gases.

The study takes an inventory of non-carbon greenhouse gases including methane, which emits from landfills and farms, and nitrous oxide, which primarily comes from soil management and combustion. Per molecule, the study notes that these gases have a stronger muscle for trapping heat compared with carbon dioxide, but they don’t last as long in the atmosphere.

“This study looks at what would happen if society decided to go after the short-lived greenhouse gases, as well as CO2.” said Jim Butler, Director of Global Monitoring at NOAA and author of the study.

Short-lived is a relative term in atmospheric science. Butler said it takes decades for methane to fully run its course in the atmosphere, during which its potential to trap heat is much greater, even though its share in the atmosphere is pennies compared to that of CO2.

Carbon dioxide sticks around much longer, some of it for thousands of years, said Butler.

“CO2 is still the big dog in the fight,” he said. Continue reading

Tackling Greenhouse Gases from Cars

Photo: Craig Miller

California’s regional planning authorities need to find new ways to get people to leave their cars at home.

Passenger vehicles are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in California, comprising one third of all the state’s emissions.  Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, is designed to chip away at those emissions by curbing sprawl and encouraging infrastructure that gets Californians to drive less — or at least, not as far.

This week the state Air Resources Board met a milestone (so to speak) in the implementation of the law by sending to California’s 18 regional planning organizations, greenhouse gas reduction targets for cars and light trucks .  Now it will be up to the regions to create their own strategies for linking land use and transportation planning in ways that lure Californians out of their cars. Continue reading

Japan’s Climate Plan: Too Ambitious?

KQED’s Los Angeles Bureau Chief and frequent Climate Watch contributor Rob Schmitz is spending six weeks in Japan, as part of  the Abe Fellowship for Journalists. In the weeks to come he’ll file a series of special reports on Japan’s extraordinary strides in energy efficiency–and what we might learn from them.

Saturday night, on my way home from an interview, I witnessed one of the more interesting orchestrated movements of humanity the world has to offer. I shot this video when I was changing trains at Shibuya station, one of Tokyo’s busiest. The intersection shows how well Japan engineers pedestrian movement–but how well will it engineer its residents’ greenhouse gas emissions?

On Monday, I attended the Asahi World Environment Forum, where all the bigwigs on climate change were in attendance (including Yvo de Boer and Rajendra Pachauri, among others). The surprise visitor was Japan’s Prime Minister-elect Yukio Hatoyama.

Hatoyama makes his climate change pledge.

Hatoyama makes his climate change pledge. Photos: Rob Schmitz

He told a packed house that Japan will aim to reduce its greenhouse gases by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

“In my personal opinion, that’s impossible,” Hidetoshi Nakagami told me last week. Nakagami is President of the Jyukankyo Research Institute and holds a coveted seat on the advisory committee to Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, or METI. “Hatoyama’s pledge is pure politics,” he said. “It’s not practical, it’s not possible, and there’s not enough time.”

Nakagami is not a pessimist. He played a large role in creating Japan’s very successful Top Runner program, a 1997 policy that searches for the most efficient model of any given electrical appliance and then makes that model the industry standard, requiring other companies to adhere to it when making new models of the same appliance. The program was one of Japan’s most ambitious energy efficiency measures, and Nakagami had to fight against Japan’s largest companies in order to help craft the policy into law.

While Nakagami would like to see a one-quarter reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels in the next decade, he says it’ll cost the average Japanese dearly. When former Prime Minister Taro Aso pledged to cut Japan’s greenhouse gases by 15% of 2005 levels, Nakagami’s institute estimated that the effort would cost each Japanese household, on average, 70,000 yen–a little over USD $700–a year. Even that, says Nakagami, would be a tall order in this economy.

In the end, Hatoyama may not fill this order. His historic pledge, which during his campaign, seemed to have no strings attached to it, now has an important caveat. At Monday’s forum, he told the audience that Japan will embark on this journey as long as other major countries also set similar ambitious targets.

Japan's future hanging in the balance.

Japan's future hanging in the balance.

After the forum concluded, I walked outside into Tokyo’s rush hour: pedestrians everywhere, taxis speeding by me. I stopped at a Shinto shrine built among enormous glass skyscrapers. In front stood an Omikuji shrine, where believers tie a paper copy of their fortune, with hopes that it’ll come true. Hundreds of paper fortunes rattled in the hot, summer wind. I wondered if one of them was Hatoyama’s.

Green Response to EPA’s CO2 Finding: “Duh.”

Reactions are coming in to The EPA’s long-awaited finding today that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases pose a threat to “the public health and welfare.” One California environmental group actually used the word “Duh” in its official response.

After two years of study, prodded by a Supreme Court decision, the federal agency finds that CO2, methane, oxides of nitrogen and two other industrial gases should be regulated as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. A sampling of reactions:

Environment California:

“‘Duh’ may not be a scientific term, but it applies here.  Today, common sense prevailed over pressure from Big Oil and other big polluters to deny the obvious in order to maintain the status quo on energy.  EPA has embraced the basic facts on global warming that scientists around the world have acknowledged for years.”

Governor Schwarzenegger:

“While the federal government was asleep at the wheel for years, we in California have known greenhouse gases are a threat to our health and to our environment – that’s why we have taken such aggressive action to reduce harmful emissions and move toward a greener economy. Two years after the Supreme Court declared greenhouse gas emissions a pollutant, it’s promising to see the new administration in Washington showing signs that it will take an aggressive leadership role in fighting climate change that will lead to reduced emissions, thousands of new green jobs and a healthier future for our children and our planet.”

Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma–boldface is his):

“Today’s action by the EPA is the beginning of a regulatory barrage that will destroy jobs, raise energy prices for consumers, and undermine America’s global competitiveness,” Senator Inhofe said. “It now appears EPA’s regulatory reach will find its way into schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and just about any activity that meets minimum thresholds in the Clean Air Act.  Rep. John Dingell was right: the endangerment finding will produce a ‘glorious mess.’

The Wilderness Society:

“This finding was expected, but long overdue because the previous administration respected neither the science nor the law. The consequence of this finding is that EPA will now begin the task of reducing these emissions through the permitting process provided by the Clean Air Act. One way or the other, the clear and present danger of endlessly dumping pollutants into the atmosphere must be confronted.  We will either find a way to build a future for our children based on clean energy and sustainable jobs, or we will face a very unsentimental foe unarmed – a climate that makes life unsustainable. The choice is clear, and the new Administration is following the wisest path forward.”

California moved to regulate carbon emissions three years ago, when state lawmakers passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, also known as AB 32. But many specific regulations required by that law have yet to take effect.

The Cost of Ignoring Climate Change

sunheat_smMuch of the debate over addressing climate change hinges on the cost of proposed mitigation efforts.  Some say we can’t afford the extraordinary measures required to cut greenhouses gases, particularly in the current economic train wreck.  What gets less attention is the cost of doing nothing.

This has been a controversial idea since the Stern Review called attention to the issue in 2006. That report concluded that unless one percent of global GDP was diverted to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, the world could lose up to 5% of  global GDP each year and the total damage could claim as much as 20%.

A set of new reports out of the University of Oregon inserts fresh numbers into the debate. According to researchers, three western states are each likely to lose more than $3 billion a year in climate change-related costs by 2020, if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  By 2080, the projected annual costs range from $9-to-$18 billion for each state.

The reports, which focus on Washington, Oregon, and New Mexico, assume a business-as-usual scenario where both carbon emissions and temperature continue to rise at rates similar to those seen in recent years. Under these conditions, these states (and California, according to the prevalent research) can expect more severe droughts and floods, less snowfall,  more wildfires and habitat loss, and a higher incidence of climate-associated health problems and deaths.

In New Mexico, the study’s authors expect summer temperatures to climb 12.6 degrees above current averages by 2080,  spiking air-conditioning costs, health-care complications, and the state’s death rate.  By 2020, annual climate-related health care costs in New Mexico alone are expected to top $1.3 billion.

California’s temperatures, under business-as-usual scenarios, are widely expected rise between six and ten degrees by the end of century.  Even in a relatively cool state like Washington, health care impacts would make up $421 million, or 32%, of total annual climate-related costs, under this pr0jection.

The study attributed the largest costs (more than $1 billion annually in each state) to inefficient consumption of energy, a projection that might not pan out, given the Obama Adminstration’s focus on green technology and clean energy efforts.

Other costs cited by the study include reduced salmon populations and food production, lost recreational opportunities (sell your snowboard now), and more intense and frequent wildfires and storms.