Business/Finance

The Weekly Carboholic: carbon offsets hurt tropical forests

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When you put a price on the “services” that forests provide, deforestation costs the world economy between $5 and $7 trillion every year. But when you put a price on those services, and use that financial incentive to provide so-called carbon offsets, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme. A new study reported in the Guardian shows that those unintended consequences may themselves be hazardous to the environment in other ways than just carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or deforestation.

As the article says, the idea is to make trees more valuable standing and growing than chopped down and reduced to firewood or timber. The problem is that the supposedly win-win market systems haven’t worked. The article points out that monoculture (single species) tree plantations destroy local biodiversity in the quest for finding fast growing species that, theoretically, soak up more CO2 from the atmosphere. Indigenous people who have been engaged in reforestation projects are finding themselves unable to plant crops or native plants because the local government, more interested in foreign carbon offset investment than in biodiversity, reclassifies the forest in a way that permits it to be logged and then replanted with a tree farm.

If this is what carbon offsets reaps, then it’s hardly any wonder that a growing number of environmental activists oppose the practice.

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Salt water marsh restoration may efficiently sequester carbon
Deforestation. Biodiversity. Clean water. Carbon sequestration. Wetlands protection. Shoreline restoration. Most major environmental problems facing the world are connected in some way to other. For that reason, most of the connected environmental problems must be solved more or less simultaneously. Take clean water, shoreline restoration, wetlands protection, and climate change – wetlands are known to efficiently clean both freshwater and salt water, they help restore the shoreline and protect it from storm damage, and, if the preliminary results from a recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) hold, they grow fast enough to sequester significant amounts of carbon too.

Two months after starting a wetlands restoration research project in California’s Sacramento−San Joaquin River delta, the USGS researchers reported that their project was capturing 30 times the amount of carbon per square meter than Kyoto Protocol-compliant reforested agricultural land. This is because wetlands grow so fast and convert that growth into low-oxygen, slowly decomposing peat bogs and, ultimately, into new land over hundreds or thousands of years. However, freshwater wetlands have enough oxygen in the water to produce large amounts of methane. And since the USGS study hasn’t yet measured the amount of released methane, the total carbon sequestered may in fact be largely or even entirely negated by methane releases.

According to the ACS article, though, salt water marshes don’t suffer from the same problem, or at least not to the same degree. Because the salt water marshes grow as fast as their freshwater counterparts, they sequester as much carbon. But because there’s a lot more sulfate in salt water, bacteria don’t produce methane in significant amounts, and so methane emissions are unlikely to offset the CO2 absorption in the marsh. And as the marshes pull CO2 out of the air, they’ll also clean the water, reduce shoreline erosion, slowly build new land, and provide food and shelter for wildlife.

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Shallow ground water modeling shows effects on climate
In an interesting development, a new study reported in Environmental Science & Technology shows that the amount of ground water in a area has an effect on that area’s climate. According to the ES&T article, new modeling based on a watershed in Oklahoma suggests that not only does climate affect the water table, but the water table also affects climate. This feedback effect is produced due to changes in how much water plants suck out of the ground and release into the atmosphere (a process known as transpiration), how river flow changes as a result of water table changes, etc.

Reed Maxwell of the Colorado School of Mines is quoted by ES&T as saying that this new hydrologic modeling will improve climate modeling in general by integrating hydrology and climatology together. However, as there are significant issues with data and modeling of both on similar scales, so it’ll be quite some time before integrated global models are available to climate researchers.

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Electronics manufacturing compound a strong greenhouse gas
The Carboholic mentioned an unregulated industrial compound called NF3 used in the manufacturing of liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) back in July. NF3 is nitrogen triflouride, and it’s a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). A new report last week found that the amount of NF3 in the atmosphere is 4.5 times what atmospheric scientists had previously thought, and concentrations are increasing at 11% per year. While the gas is currently unregulated, because of its potency as a GHG and how much of it is entering the atmosphere (16% of the entire global production of NF3, not 2% as researchers had previously thought), scientists are already recommending that it be included in the next climate disruption treaty to be hashed out in Copenhagen in 2009.

While this is certainly important news, it is not, as The Hindu’s headline claims,”NF3 contributes more to global warming than CO2″. This headline goes beyond misleading – it’s flat out wrong. Unfortunately, The Hindu article is the featured article on Google News for this news topic as I’m writing this week’s Carboholic and it has been been for at least two days. This means that there are certainly deniers who have, or will, latch onto this headline and claim that it debunks the whole body of anthropogenic climate disruption science when it does nothing of the sort. In fact, anyone who reads the article in The Hindu will find that the article actually contradicts the headline.

[C]urrent nitrogen trifluoride emissions contribute only about 0.04 per cent of the total global warming effect caused by current human-produced Carbon dioxide emissions, [the scientists] added.

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Deutsche Asset Management: climate and financial crises may work together
According to Fortune Magazine’s Investor Daily, the confluence of two crises, one of global finance and one of climate, presents a unique opportunity. Specifically, a recently release report by Deutsche Asset Management (DAM) suggests that companies and governments that are willing to invest in new technology and upgrades will position themselves for a very profitable future.

According to the Investor Daily article, the International Energy Agency estimates that the clean energy market is $45 trillion between now and 2008. This market is regulated and nearly guaranteed as interstate, national, and international agreements are made that will force people to make dramatic changes to how they consume energy in all its forms. And because of all the government support, companies that provide energy efficiency technologies, renewable energy, an so forth have what Mark Fulton, global head of climate change investment research for DAM and primary author of the report, calls “a significant safety net.”

Of course, the article points out that falling prices for fossil fuels may turn the market for renewable energy and energy efficiency on its head even with government support. Unfortunately, as NYTimes commentator Thomas Friedman pointed out last week, the U.S. has been here before – in the 1980s, following the oil embargo. But this time we don’t have the luxury of time, if we ever really did.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons
USGS
Westinghouse Digital

9 replies »

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  2. It is almost like you are living on another planet. It stopped warming after the peak of 1998 and started cooling in 2002 even though CO2 continues to rise.
    “Thirty years of warmer temperatures go poof”
    http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/10/20/lorne-gunter-thirty-years-of-warmer-temperatures-go-poof

    There is also this interesting closer look at Gore and his interpretation of the data.
    http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4of0q_NtI

    Also, there is the fact that the PDO has shifted to it’s 20-30 year cool phase.

    “The PDO continues to be strongly negative and the ENSO measures are trending back towards La Nina. Should that surprise us? No, because most La Ninas have a tendency to persist more than one year and the negative PDO states favors more and stronger and longer lasting La Ninas. ”

    Pacific Decadal Oscillations Closely Tied to ENSO
    http://www.intellicast.com/Community/Content.aspx?ref=rss&a=151

  3. Ahhh, the common “cooling since 1998” myth. As if I (and many, many, many others) haven’t dealt with this one before.

    But no matter, there’s a peer reviewed paper that debunks it rather effectively (and in case that’s not enough, here’s another peer reviewed source debunking it, and an excellent description of why 10 years isn’t enough to draw these conclusions):

    The two American data sets (red and green in Figure 1) have 2005 as their warmest year. While 2006 and 2007 were cooler than 2005 in all three data sets, two such cooler years is much too short a time to conclude that the clear warming trend over the second half of the 20th Century has stopped or reversed. Figure 1 shows many sets of three consecutive years with a short-lived cooling trend that is reversed soon afterwards.

    The British data set has 1998 as its warmest year (blue in Figure 1). Is the ten years from 1998 to 2007 long enough to establish a cooling trend? We have noted that ten years is about the minimum averaging time to remove the year-to-year variations in these global temperature data sets, so ten years might be just enough to reveal any downturn in the underlying trend. However, there hasn’t actually been a cooling over the decade 1998-2007 (see Figure 2). In all three data sets, the linear trend over 1998-2007 is upward (i.e., one of warming), even if the warming is weaker in the British data set than in the American data sets.

    and, in case that’s not enough (from the same paper):

    In all three data sets, the strong warming of 1998 can be seen to have arisen in large part from the very strong El Niño of 1997/98 and, when ENSO-adjusted, 1998 looks much less remarkable than it does in the original data. In other words, the reason that 1998 was so exceptionally warm is that a very strong El Niño interacted with the global warming trend to give an exceptional year.

    The two American data sets show continued warming over the past 20 years in their ENSOadjusted warming. The British data set has a rather slower rate of warming over the past 20 years when ENSO-adjusted, but its highest ENSO-adjusted value is nevertheless 2006 and the trend in the ENSO-adjusted data over the past 10 years (1998-2007) remains upward.

    As for the PDO, here’s a PDO debunking page on an excellent site I stumbled across that devoted to debunking the inaccurate science of deniers like you, Judy.

    Here’s another little known fact about La Nina – the more La Nina cycles we have, the faster the sea levels will rise. This is because of a basic law of physics, specifically thermodynamics, that requires that energy move from high temperature areas to low temperature areas. In other words a La Nina doesn’t emit cold, it absorbs heat. And more heat stored in the ocean means more thermal expansion of the ocean, which means more sea level rise. Temporarily cooler air temperatures, true enough, but it’s a trade of making one problem (atmospheric climate change due to global heating) better at the expense of making another problem (sea level rise) worse.

    The same is true of the PDO – if it truly does cool the entire planet’s atmosphere for the next several years, then that just means that more of that heat is being stored in the Pacific Ocean. And that both boosts sea level rise and the intensity of any future El Ninos.

  4. In the context of this conversation clean water is addressed as an environmental concern. I wouldn’t argue otherwise, but it’s not only that. I work with the American Chemistry Council so perhaps I come at this from a different angle. What I’m getting at is that in terms of drinking water, generally we’re talking not about the environment but rather water that’s been treated. Cities across the U.S. started treating water supplies with chlorine a hundred years ago– in 1908. Before that point, industry wasn’t what it is now, so we didn’t really have the same pollution issues– but drinking water was unsafe, wherever there were concentrations of people. Outbreaks were common. Typhoid, etc. Treated water was the solution– wiped out those disease outbreaks in a very short period of time. In many respects, chlorinated water made the 20th Cenury possible.

  5. Brian, the real “deniers” are the ones who insist it is not cooling. The most outrageous part of the climate scam is that it has set science on its ear for the forseeable future.

    Do you have a reference for your “little known fact” about La Nina being able to raise ocean levels by “absobing heat” or that lovely bit about “storing” it ? BTW, speaking of ocean heat, did you know about undersea volcanos. Notice it is about the ARCTIC.

    Study finds Arctic seabed afire with lava-spewing volcanoes
    Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2008

    The Arctic seabed is as explosive geologically as it is politically judging by the “fountains” of gas and molten lava that have been blasting out of underwater volcanoes near the North Pole.

    “Explosive volatile discharge has clearly been a widespread, and ongoing, process,” according to an international team that sent unmanned probes to the strange fiery world beneath the Arctic ice.

    They returned with images and data showing that red-hot magma has been rising from deep inside the earth and blown the tops off dozens of submarine volcanoes, four kilometres below the ice. “Jets or fountains of material were probably blasted one, maybe even two, kilometres up into the water,” says geophysicist Robert Sohn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who led the expedition.”
    (more at http://www.canada.com/topics/news/story.html?id=81bb2fd3-63f1-476f-b0be-f48c0dc90304

    It is also very funny that climate modeling trumps observed reality as in that “gang’s all here” paper by Santer and Wunch.
    Did you know that it was Ben Santer who changed the IPCC report in 1995 after it was approved, but before it was printed, to say that there was human “fingerprint” on “global warming” ?

    The fakery has been outrageous and the refusal of the IPCC to consider the evidence of factors capable of changing climate other than CO2, like sunspots or ocean currents is scandalous. The “greenhouse effect” is 90-95% that of water vapor and the IPCC went nowhere near it.

  6. Just so I’m clear, then, Judy, a least squares linear trend line showing slowly increasing temperatures since 1998 for both the raw data and the ENSO-removed data means that the planet is actually cooling down….

    You’re request for references on my La Nina and sea level rise comment means that you don’t know, don’t understand, or don’t care about two laws of physics and a physical property of water. The first physical law I’m referring to is Fourier’s law of heat conduction (the link is to Wikipedia, but I found it also on page 545 of my undergraduate physics textbook, “Physics for Scientists and Engineers”, third edition, by Raymond A. Serway, copyright 1990, ISBN 0-03-031353-8), and it basically says that heat moves from hot places to cold places. This occurs because of the second law of thermodynamics (all of Chapter 22 in my textbook), specifically the idea of entropy. Every closed system naturally wants to find it highest average entropy state, and low temperature areas have lower entropy than high temperature areas. The low temperature areas will increase in temperature by the process of heat transfer until the low entropy is increased – and the high entropy areas decreased – to the point that they’re both at the same entropy/temperature.

    Or, put another way, you have to heat your house when the weather gets cold and use the AC or swamp cooler to cool it when the weather gets hot. Your house never cools down by itself when the weather heats up. Since cold water (La Nina) is lower entropy than hot air, it absorbs energy and heat, cooling the air.

    The addition of that heat to the ocean increases sea level rise because of a physical property of water – thermal expansion. Water (and indeed the vast majority of all materials) expand as they absorb energy (ie heat up). Water has a volume coefficient of expansion of 207×10-6 per degree Celsius (at 1 standard atmopshere of pressure), so when you increase the temperature of 1 liter of water by 1 C, its volume increases by 0.0207%. Lets say you put this liter of water into a tube with an open top. Since the bottom and sides are fixed, as you increase the temperature of the water, the volume will increase in the only direction it can – upward (like when you heat water in a coffee cup – if you fill the cup too full, it will overflow even if you don’t boil the water). Now lets apply this basic physics lesson to the oceans.

    Since Fourier’s law of heat conduction and the second law of thermodynamics say that La Ninas will absorb heat, not emit cool, that means that the La Nina will result in more heat contained in the ocean. This subsequently slightly increases the temperature of the ocean, and thus forces the volume of the ocean to increase. Since the ocean bottom is similar to the bottom and walls of a coffee cup, the ocean has only one direction in which expand it’s volume, and that’s upward with sea level rise. According to the Hypertextbook, the volume of the Earth’s oceans is around 1.5 billion cubic kilometers. An increase of 0.0207% would be an increase in volume of just over 310,000 cubic km. That’s about 12% of the volume of all the water stored in the Greenland ice caps, for reference, and so a full degree in temperature rise in the oceans would be expected to raise sea levels by about 31 inches.

    Are you going to deny fundamental physics too, Judy?

    As for the Gakkel (Mid-Arctic) ridge, it’s been spreading for about 63 million years, so I’m not too worried about it. Besides, the very news article you pointed out said the following:

    The scientists say the heat released by the explosions is not contributing to the melting of the Arctic ice, but Sohn says the huge volumes of CO2 gas that belched out of the undersea volcanoes likely contributed to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. How much, he couldn’t say.

    While I’m sure that, if the CO2 comes out of solution, it would impact the global climate, we know that a) the CO2 in the air is of human origin and b) that more CO2 is going into the oceans than coming out of them.

    Observed reality for a scientist is only as good as the tool you’re observing reality with and the way you’re mathematically interpreting those observations. This fundamental fact of science is why RSS and the University of Alabama (Christy et al) can be using the exact same satellites and instruments and come to very different results. Using models is one scientific tool to sort out which set of observations is more likely to be correct.

    And finally, if you’d bothered to read the IPCC AR4 scientific report, you’d know that the IPCC does acknowledge that the solar cycle matters, that ocean currents matter, that cloud formation and the water cycle matter. But the climate scientists say that the errors and unknowns are small enough that natural cycles cannot account for the increasing temperatures the planet has experienced.

  7. Wow. I’ve seen Holocaust deniers and global warming deniers, but this may be my first Physics denier.

    Not to tell you how to spend your time, Brian, but is this person/sock puppet really worth the effort? Maybe we should have her come back once she finishes a basic science course or two?

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