Spreading deserts threaten world food supply

By Robert Evans

GENEVA (Reuters) – Spreading deserts and degradation of farm land due to climate change will pose a serious threat to food supplies for the world’s surging population in coming years, a senior United Nations scientist warned on Friday.

M.V.K. Sivakumar of the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said the crunch could come in just over a decade as all continents see more weather-related disasters like heat waves, floods, landslides and wildfires.

“Should we worry about land being degraded? Yes,” Sivakumar, who leads the WMO’s agricultural meteorology division, told a news conference in Geneva.

“Today we feed the present world population of 6.3 billion from the 11 per cent of the land surface that can be used for serious food production. The question is: Will we be able to feed the 8.2 billion that we expect to populate the globe in 2020 if even less land is available for farming?,” he said.

Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia — where the climate is already more extreme and arid regions are common — will be most affected as rainfall declines and its timing becomes less predictable, making water more scarce, he said.

But Europe, particularly around the Mediterranean, would also suffer from heat waves like those that this summer have led to devastating fires in Greece.

Declining rainfall and evaporation of water supplies could also mean less was available for irrigation and for generating electricity for farm machinery, causing lower crop productivity.

Sivakumar said that in some regions the spread of deserts and the salination of once arable land was already well under way. In the future it would be most widespread in drier areas of Latin America, including in farming giant Brazil.

In Africa, increasing climate variability would create major problems for farmers, who are likely to see their growing seasons getting shorter and crop yields cut, especially in areas near already arid and semi-arid regions.

Sivakumar, speaking on the eve of a U.N. conference on desertification in Madrid from September 3-14, said it was vital for the international community to help put innovative and adaptive land-management practices into action.

These should be targeted at preserving land and water resources. But a return to mixing crops, rather than focusing on single-crop production based on intensive use of fertilizers, could also help face the challenge, he said.

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Ireland Getting Hotter, Wetter

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press Writer

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) — Ireland’s average temperature has been rising at twice the global rate since the early 1980s and parts of the country are becoming wetter and more prone to flooding due to climate change, a government-funded report said Wednesday.

The report found that Ireland’s average temperature has been rising at the rate of 0.76 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1980. It said six of Ireland’s 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, and forecast that heatwaves would increase in severity, frequency and length.

The study, compiled by National University of Ireland climatologists for the Environmental Protection Agency, also found that rainfall was increasing in both volume and intensity along Ireland’s Atlantic coastline, but was relatively unchanged in the more heavily populated east.

A co-author of the report, John Sweeney, said Ireland’s temperatures began rising in the early 1980s, unlike the global norm, which experienced rises from the mid-1970s. The fact that Ireland is surrounded by water may have been a reason for the delay, he said.

Since then, however, Ireland has been “making up for lost time … and warming at roughly twice the rate of the global average,” Sweeney said. The country’s minimum daily temperatures have been rising more quickly than maximum afternoon temperatures, in part because of increased cloud cover at night from moister air, he said.

A series of EPA-sanctioned studies have forecast that Ireland will face water-supply shortfalls within the coming two decades, particularly in Dublin, home to a third of the country’s 4.2 million people, and Ireland’s sunniest corner in the southeast. Dublin has only a single source of drinking water that is currently running to within 1 percent of capacity.

“We’re putting the people where we have the least water availability, and also where climate change will further squeeze them in terms of less rainfall in the future,” Sweeney said.

Dublin City Council planners have already rejected the idea of diverting water from Ireland’s largest river, the Shannon in the west – a proposal with unknown ecological implications.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic-exposed west will be increasingly prone to floods and soil erosion due to heavy rains, the EPA said.

Ireland, a car-dependent society with a rapidly expanding economy, has been unable to cut its production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, a leading cause of global warming. Under its commitments to the Kyoto treaty, Ireland is supposed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 60 million tons annually by next year, but currently emits close to 70 million tons.

To achieve an artificial cut, the government has set aside $370 million to buy carbon credits from foreign companies and other countries that are emitting less than their Kyoto-specified limits. But the actual level of pollution in Ireland is expected to keep rising.

Mary Kelly, EPA director general, said that even with a cutback in emissions, the country will likely still be affected by higher average temperatures, declining frosty periods and heavier rainfalls in coming years because of the level of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

U.N. hopes for climate deal in 2009

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N.’s top climate official said on Tuesday that agreeing on a global deal by the end of 2009 to combat climate change would be ideal but noted much needs to be done.

“There is this sense of urgency, we do need to get it completed as quickly as possible,” Yvo de Boer told Reuters on the fringe of talks on global warming grouping 158 nations.

Many experts say 2009 is the latest practical date to agree a climate pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012. Any firm building a coal-fired power plant or a wind farm needs to know rules for greenhouse gas emissions years in advance.

“So finalizing things in 2009 would be ideal. But we also have to be realistic about the amount of work that needs to be done,” de Boer, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said.

About 1,000 delegates are meeting in Vienna from August 27-31 to review ways to slow warming.

And 2009 has become a matter of prestige for the United States and other rich nations in the Group of Eight.

They agreed in June that they wanted agreement by the end of 2009 on a long-term U.N. plan to fight global warming, partly in response to warnings of ever more floods, droughts, heat waves and rising sea levels.

“We managed to negotiate Kyoto in two years. This is a lot more complicated,” de Boer said.

The U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol, negotiated from 1995 to 1997, binds 35 industrial nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by five percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12. Most of the emissions are gases released by burning fossil fuels.

“For the time being 2009 is what we should be working towards,” de Boer said when asked if talks might slip to 2010.

Many governments want environment ministers, who will meet in Bali, Indonesia, in December, to launch two-year negotiations to agree a broader international treaty to replace Kyoto.

A new pact would seek to involve the United States, the top emitter of greenhouse gases which is outside Kyoto, and get developing nations such as China and India to do more to brake their sharply rising emissions.

“I think there will be an agreement in 2009,” said Hans Verolme, climate expert at the WWF environmental group, noting a growing sense of urgency.

Warming-fueled hurricanes need new tactics-experts

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Aug 27 (Reuters) – Global warming is expected to cause more severe hurricanes, and that means U.S. communities will need new tactics to minimize storm damage, emergency preparedness experts said on Monday.

These tactics range from restoring wetlands — which may actually slow down approaching storms — to making homes and other structures better able to withstand hurricanes to organizing finances so more can be spent on prevention, the panel of experts said.

Peter Webster, who teaches environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, noted the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

“We have a choice … of being able to take hits like Katrina and pay the cost of $150 to $200 billion and many, many lives, or we have the choice of spending perhaps one-tenth or one-twentieth of that per year in hardening our infrastructure,” Webster said.

Many scientists, including most of those working with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have reported a link between global warming and the severity of hurricanes.

World surface temperatures have risen about 1 degree F (.55C) over the last 100 years, and are forecast to rise further this century. Because hurricanes feed on warm ocean water, some climate scientists foresee more severe hurricanes.

COSTLIEST NATURAL DISASTERS

Hurricanes account for nine of the 10 costliest U.S. natural disasters since 1989, with Hurricane Katrina at the top of the list with $125 billion in damage and 1,833 deaths, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The only non-hurricane on the list was the Northridge, California, earthquake of 1994.

These statistics were cited in a report on how to cope with the stronger hurricanes expected to be associated with increased global warming, issued by the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, which also convened the forum where Webster and others spoke.

Jane Bullock, who was chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and now is based at George Washington University, said local community efforts including government, business, universities and environmental groups can be effective in mitigating the worst hurricanes’ effects.

“We know it works, it worked in the 1990s,” Bullock said. “It saves money. For every one dollar invested in mitigation, there’s four dollars in benefits.”

Bullock said one good mitigation project for coastal communities most vulnerable to hurricanes is to retain or restore wetlands.

Wetlands, which used to be drained as a matter of course in the United States, provide flood control by absorbing excess water during storms, filter pollutants before they enter streams, lakes and oceans and protect coastal areas from erosion, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report.

Kyoto gives chemical plants windfall: UNEP

By Gerard Wynn

LONDON (Reuters) – Chemical plants in China can earn substantial windfall profits by destroying powerful greenhouse gases, underlining the need for changes to the rules of a Kyoto Protocol incentives scheme, a U.N. report shows.

Western investors who trade carbon credits may also make windfall profits from the scheme in its present form, Reuters data show.

China, with its fast-growing economy, has become crucial to the global fight against climate change.

It is set to overtake the United States this year as the biggest emitter of the commonest greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

But it has also become a big beneficiary of incentives to destroy more powerful greenhouse gases, through a scheme set up under the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Those incentives now appear very generous, the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) showed.

Factories in China, and others in India, Mexico, Argentina and South Korea, will earn up to 10 times more money than they actually need to destroy the powerful greenhouse gases, the report found.

It suggested that “national levies are applied to limit the financial gain of individual manufacturers,” after the first cycle of project funding ends in seven years.

Kyoto is meant to fight global warming, and allows rich countries to buy carbon offsets, or carbon credits, which help them meet limits on their emissions by paying for emissions cuts in developing nations.

The refrigerant industry in developing countries produces greenhouse gases so powerful that destroying them earns factories and their investors millions of such credits.

The projects, based especially in China, have proved controversial, both because western speculators have profited, and because they may inadvertently drive up output of the greenhouse gas, called HFC 23.

The scheme, called the clean development mechanism (CDM), is the best available for now, the report said.

“The CDM itself is the only reliable mechanism available to prevent HFC 23 emissions in the short term,” the report said.

HOT AIR

The scheme is so generous that chemical plants will earn more money destroying the greenhouse gas, previously an unintended waste product, than producing the refrigerant gas, it said.

They will earn up to $880 million a year from selling carbon credits, compared with up to $510 million from selling the refrigerant gas.

Such distortions may make the resulting carbon credits mere “hot air,” because without the scheme factories would probably be more efficient, adopting widely available technologies that cut production of the greenhouse gas, said Stanford University’s Michael Wara.

HFC projects account for more than half of all emissions cuts achieved under the CDM so far.

Western investors, such as London-based Climate Change Capital and New York-based Natsource, may also earn windfall profits from the scheme.

HFC projects will generate more than 600 million tonnes of carbon credits in their first seven years — the usual crediting period — the UNEP report says.

Investors based in London and New York have bought carbon credits from chemical plants for as little as 6 euros per tonne, and can now sell them at 16 euros per tonne, Reuters data show.

Governments that signed the Kyoto Protocol will discuss changes to the rules of the carbon trading scheme at a meeting in December in Bali, Indonesia.

Smell of floating corpses adds to S.Asia flood woes

PATNA, India, (Reuters) – Residents in eastern India complained on Wednesday about the smell of corpses floating in flood waters as the toll from widespread monsoon flooding in South Asia rose by 68 overnight.

Close to 1,800 people have died from drowning, house collapses, snakebite and waterborne diseases in the densely populated and largely impoverished region since July, as heavy monsoon rains caused numerous rivers to burst their banks.

Millions of people are living in miserable conditions — many of them homeless or stranded on crowded embankments — with relief operations patchy in many areas.

Some parts of eastern India and Bangladesh have remained flooded for weeks, causing a spike in waterborne diseases.

In India’s eastern region, at least 300,000 people were suffering from diarrhoea and other waterborne illnesses, with complaints that authorities were not doing enough to assist them.

In the impoverished Indian state of Bihar, residents and officials said dozens of bodies could be seen floating in flood waters in the worst-hit districts.

“The unbearable stench of rotting corpses floating in the water has made us sick,” Anupiya Devi, a resident of Samastipur district, told reporters.

Authorities said many bodies were yet to be identified.

BRIMMING CUP OF WOES

The widespread flooding has led to nearly 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of cultivable land being submerged in Bihar, resulting in a steep rise in vegetable prices.

In West Bengal state, which neighbours Bihar, authorities asked the Indian army to help relief and rescue operations with over 1.1 million people affected by fresh flooding over the past week across four districts.

In West Midnapore district, people shouting “we want food” protested against the pace of the relief effort.

Further south, in the mineral-rich state of Orissa, which shares a border with West Bengal, flood waters have affected 1.2 million people, and destroyed thousands of homes, officials said.

More than 100,000 people were marooned. Authorities were finding it difficult to reach them due to a shortage of boats.

“Most areas are still not accessible and we are trying to reach flood victims,” said A.C. Parihari, a senior official, speaking from Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, flood waters that had inundated over half the riverine, low-lying nation were receding.

As the water levels fell, more bodies were found.

Overnight, the toll in one of the world’s poorest nations from weeks of monsoon flooding rose by 23 — including two from diarrhoea — pushing the total number of fatalities to 638.

At least 73,000 cases of diarrhoea have been reported since late July. Many people are unable to access safe drinking water in flooded areas.

Monsoon flooding in South Asia is an annual phenomenon but this year’s particularly heavy rainfall in eastern India has led to some experts blaming climate change as one possible cause.

Government ineptitude in preparing and dealing with the floods has made a bad situation even worse, they add.

(Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in Kolkata, a Reuters reporter in Bhubaneswar and Azad Majumdar in Dhaka)

Washington wants to cut greenhouse gas levels to 1990 rate by 2020

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Washington and seven other Western states and Canadian provinces Wednesday staked out a regional goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, partly by creating a trading block for pollution credits and requiring less-polluting vehicles.

The agreement targets a 15 percent reduction in the production of planet-warming gases, compared with 2005 levels, over the next 13 years.

Washington has a more ambitious goal of reducing levels of the gases to 1990 levels by 2020. A wide-ranging panel appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to recommend early next year how to meet that goal and go on to slash emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by midcentury.

The goal announced Wednesday is for Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington and the provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba. Several other states are observing and could join in the future.

The agreement does not require any states or provinces to do anything they were not already committed to, said Janice Adair of the Washington Ecology Department, who is the state’s representative on the Western Climate Initiative.

However, over the next year, the states and provinces will try to work out the details of a “cap and trade” program.

That would systematically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases allowed to be produced in the states that sign on. Businesses or others that are able to reduce their emissions more than required would be rewarded because they could sell their rights to emit to others who have trouble meeting their goals.

The idea is to provide powerful economic incentives to do the right thing — but working out the details promises to be quite difficult.

“How we do all that and come to the table — eight very different (states and provinces) — and try to negotiate the best deal we can, and not have anyone go away feeling they got rolled, is going to be very difficult,” Adair said.

Several environmental groups welcomed the goal, which Sierra Club spokesman Rob Smith said was “a good first step, but it’s a modest one compared to all that needs to be done.”

Added Smith: “Hopefully this will lead to some pressure for Congress to take this step on a national level.”

Grant Nelson of the Association of Washington Business has been monitoring the state’s efforts.

“We need to move forward very cautiously, and make sure we don’t put our state at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.

Already, though, the states are promising different levels of reductions. Arizona and New Mexico are promising reductions over their 2000 emissions, while Washington and California used 1990 as a base year, promising 15 percent reductions. Oregon used 1990 as a base year and promised a 10 percent cut by 2020.

Governors of the states involved, except Utah, created the Western Climate Initiative in February, pledging to work together to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Utah, British Columbia and Manitoba subsequently joined the group, and a joint announcement by the eight states and provinces Wednesday said all agreed to the regional goal.

“Our collective commitment will build a successful regional system to be linked with other regional efforts across the nation and eventually the world,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement released with the announcement.

Each state and province will take steps on its own, but collectively they are committed to design a market-based system such as the cap-and-trade program planned by California.

Steps being taken by individual states include mandating the use of renewable energy sources, imposing performance standards on new power plants and buying alternative-fuel vehicles.