Tagged ‘Carbon‘

Methane, U.S. Congress & the “well-funded so-called “environmental” groups like EDF and NRDC that have been seduced into the gospel of endless compromise” …

Published on Monday, July 19, 2010 by

Methane Seeps, Tipping Points Feared as Congress Sleepwalks

Dangerous Methane Seeping from Siberian Seabeds

by Gary Houser

“Methane is leaking from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf into the atmosphere at an alarming rate… Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”
National Science Foundation press release (March 4, 2010)

As the U.S. Senate finally prepares to bring climate-related legislation to the floor, it has become painfully obvious that the most crucial ingredient in any such debate – a true sense of urgency – is completely absent. Despite the fact that all future life on the planet hangs in the balance and a point of irreversible runaway warming is being rapidly approached, the Senate is proceeding as if it is sleepwalking in a stupor. It has allowed the fossil fuel industry to sabotage all effort at meaningful carbon emission reductions, and will only be considering legislation that is woefully inadequate to prevent catastrophe.

Those who follow this issue likely have familiarity with the concept of “tipping points”. This innocuous-sounding phrase does not do justice to its vast meaning. It refers to the crossing of a line whereby tremendous natural forces are unleashed and an unstoppable rush of interlocking climate disruptions wreak havoc on the earth and its fragile web of life-supporting ecosystems. Once set in motion, it cannot be predicted how far the devastation would extend. Geological records have linked a severe climate shift with the “Great Extinction” event which wiped out a ghastly 90% of all life forms on the planet.

Serving as a direct counterpoint to this disastrous “disconnect” from reality in the Senate is the stunning news that these tipping points may be much closer than previously imagined. Ignored by mainstream media, recent scientific findings have the potential to turn the world as we know it upside down. Situated off the Siberian coast – in an area containing more carbon than that known to exist in all the world’s oil, coal, and natural gas reserves – is the climate threat of all climate threats. Some call it the “Arctic super carbon pool”. Others call it a “methane time bomb”. The reason for this ominous latter description is the quite real threat of an unstoppable chain reaction which could release much or all of this tremendous stockpile. This is a nightmare scenario feared by many tracking the evolution of the climate emergency.

Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Once the methane – currently in frozen form – begins to thaw and release gas, it either oxidizes in the water or travels to the surface and enters the atmosphere. If the latter occurs, it can act as a strong warming agent and therefore cause even more of the frozen methane to thaw and release gas. The scientific term for this self-perpetuating cycle is “reinforcing feedback”.

The “conventional wisdom” was that this thawing and venting of methane would not manifest for at least 100 years. But as the case has been with much such “wisdom” these days, scientists have encountered great difficulty in accurately predicting the full consequences of the unprecedented alterations being imposed on the planet by greenhouse gases. The reality of climate disruption has continued to outpace the projections. Recent studies of the Siberian methane show that a very serious amount is already venting to the atmosphere.

In their report (summarized in Chapter 6), researchers Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov describe that methane is now being released across a full 50% of a quite sizable study area in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Based on 5100 seawater samples taken from 1080 different locations, they report that 80% of the bottom water and 50% of the surface water is “super-saturated” with methane. Adding to the seriousness is the fact that this methane is not oxidizing in the water. Due to the shallow depths of these seabeds, the methane is traveling directly to the surface and venting into the atmosphere.

Methane is a volatile gas that rapidly expands in volume as it releases. Referring to the giant stockpile in this arctic shelf, Shakhova and Semiletov warn that it is “highly possible for abrupt release at any time. That may cause a 12 time increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming.” As if this information is not unsettling enough, one then encounters the following staggering fact. This entire scenario is being played out in the most rapidly warming geographic location on the planet: “The Arctic is warming more quickly than the rest of the world, and this warming is most pronounced in the arctic shelf.”

Given the potential for such a catastrophic event and with so many factors lining up that could indeed release the trigger, one would expect the collective scientific community to issue a grave warning to the world. If ever there was a time to exercise the precautionary principle, it would be now. Stunningly, the scientific community is failing to do so. Instead, in a classic exhibition of ivory tower disconnectedness – perhaps in combination with a hesitancy brought on by the aggressive attacks of deniers – it is calling for more definitive “proof” that the thawing of methane is directly related to human-generated warming and not being caused by other natural sources.

The stupendously dangerous flaw in this reaction is that by the time such proof is “definitively gathered”, it could well be too late to stop the runaway chain reaction. In a situation where we may already be too late, it is the height of irresponsibility to argue for even more delay. If a blind person appears to be walking toward a cliff and is only three steps away, does a responsible observer guide that person away from the edge or stand back and wait for more proof? In this case, the blind person is all of humanity. The world needs every precious moment it can find to move back from the precipice.

Because of time consumed to document and verify, IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and projections have been lagging at least two or three years behind what is actually happening in real life. With the thawing of sea-based methane already having been miscalculated, this looming threat that a “methane time bomb” is on the verge of being activated (if indeed it has not already occurred) is only beginning to be addressed by climate modelling and IPCC studies.

The scientific community must immediately ramp up its effort and mobilize whatever resources are needed to either confirm or disprove that this activation is occurring. Even as such effort proceeds, however, it has an immediate and transcendent moral responsibility to issue a strong warning to both policy makers and the public about what is at risk. Testimony to Congress by the National Academy of Sciences that climate disruption is real and human-caused is valuable, but in the current context too measured and mild. It does not convey that humanity is truly perched on a precipice overlooking an abyss. It does not begin to do justice to the monumental urgency of the crisis we are in, how humanity is on the verge of unleashing a beast it will not be able to control.

Why are there so few climate scientists willing to stand beside Jim Hansen and truly speak from their consciences about the disaster that is unfolding? Some say that policy must be left to the policy makers. But it is now obvious that legislation being discussed in Congress is completely out of touch with the scientific reality. The two primary bills – Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Lieberman – were already allowing the industry to stonewall (pdf) actual carbon emission reductions for 15 to 20 years. Now the Senate is capitulating even further. Such a delay would all but guarantee the crossing of tipping points.

We have reached physical limits that cannot be “negotiated” away. Those who have lost their way in the “inside-the-beltway world” of political horse-trading must be brought to recognize this reality before it is too late. This indictment applies not only to the politicians but also the large, well-funded so-called “environmental” groups like EDF and NRDC that have been seduced into the gospel of endless compromise. The passage of such weak and inadequate legislation would constitute a massive triple failure of the scientific community, the mainstream environmental groups, and Congress.

If the scientific community was to empower itself at this time of global emergency and somehow find the much stronger and louder voice that is needed, there is a hope that at least a few members of the Senatemight actually become emboldened to regain their own courage and stand up to the monied interests that have hijacked this legislation. Such legislation could yet become transformed into a saving grace for humanity rather than an unspeakably tragic abdication of moral responsibility.

The “motherlode” of earth’s stockpile of carbon exists on the shallow seabeds off the Siberian coast, for all practical purposes a veritable doomsday beast ready to rise in retribution for humanity’s abuse of the earth and its Faustian bargain with the dark gods of oil and coal. Extremely volatile, it is the same gas believed to have entered both the oil rig in the Gulf and coal mine in West Virginia causing destructive explosions. Some might interpret this as a warning to humanity.

Methane has been found to be thawing and releasing to the surface in 50 percent of a large study area. In a location that is “warming more quickly than the rest of the world”, the release of only one half of one percent of this stockpile has been determined to be capable of causing “abrupt climate change”. If this most feared “feedback” of all – the one which humanity would likely be helpless to stop once activated – has not already started, then it certainly appears that all the factors necessary to trigger it are lining up.

One day, the public release of these findings may hold great significance. It might be seen as the time when at least a handful of scientists tried to warn about the coming disaster. This time might be celebrated as the beginning of the great “wake-up” in which the scientific community spoke out in a unified and bold voice, both policy makers and mainstream enviros re-discovered their backbone, and the cataclysm was avoided. But based on current reality, it may well turn into a time for lamentation. Those clinging for survival in a world ravaged by climate catastrophe may look back with anger and an acute sense of betrayal about the passivity and the silence of those who could have made a difference and mourn the indefensible failure to act while there was still time.

Gary Houser is a public interest writer/columnist, anti-coal campaigner, green energy advocate, and activist with Climate SOS ( based in Ohio. He is also seeking support for a broadcast quality documentary on the “methane time bomb”.

Noel Kempff project is ‘saving the forest’ by forcing destruction elsewhere

Forest conservation project in Bolivia proves that unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, individual carbon offset schemes are worthless.

REDD and the rainforest in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park,  in the Amazon Basin, BoliviaThe rainforest in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Bolivia. Photograph: Pablo Corral Vega/Corbis

It is the ultimate greenwash nightmare. A tough international deal to curb emissions of greenhouse gases is passed in Mexico later this year. Companies then meet their targets not by cutting their own pollution but by buying into hundreds of forest “conservation” projects round the world. But those projects then fail to deliver real benefits for forests or staunch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere.

Some big-time green groups prosper but the planet burns.

Exhibit A in this doomsday scenario is a 14-year-old forest conservation project in Bolivia called the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project, one of the world’s largest schemes to fix carbon in protected forests. It is the brainchild of the US green group The Nature Conservancy and industrial partners, including the oil company BP and America’s largest burner of coal, American Electric Power.

The Noel Kempff project is hailed by The Nature Conservancy as a model for the operation of Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) – the international plan to allow countries and companies to offset their carbon emissions by investing in preventing the destruction of forests.

Like much else, negotiations on Redd stalled in Copenhagen last December. But it is still on the agenda for agreement when talks resume in Cancun next December.

Some think such projects could scupper Redd though. Last autumn Greenpeace dubbed the Neol Kempff project a “carbon scam”.

The $10m project, launched back in 1996, doubled the size of an existing national park and sought to project more than 800,000 hectares of forest, while testing the idea of running a forest as a verifiable carbon sink. It currently employs 27 rangers. With deforestation thought responsible for an estimate 17% of carbon emissions, the stakes are high.

The problem, however, is summed up in one word: leakage. That is jargon for what happens when the loggers put their chainsaws in the back of a pickup, drive down the road to the next forest, and resume activities. In other words, can protecting one place prevent the forces of forest destruction from simply moving elsewhere?

This is hard to do. Since the start of the Noel Kempff project, deforestation rates in Bolivia have gone up. So the argument is that one-off carbon offsetting projects do not deliver real benefits to the atmosphere unless governments undertake much wider efforts to curb deforestation.

For this reason Greenpeace is not alone in believing that Redd should only compensate at the national level. No awarding of carbon credits for “sub-national” projects like Noel Kempff. In other words: unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, then nobody gets any carbon credits. Only that way can you stop leakage wrecking it.

But groups such as the Nature Conservancy strongly disagree. They have a clear institutional interest. Their main activity is buying or managing land for conservation. It says there are good reasons for backing sub-national projects and has lobbied hard to ensure they stay in the UN’s plans.

The Nature Conservancy says “national-scale accounting is the ultimate goal” of Redd. “However, a transition period should be allowed in which sub-national or project-scale activities can generate credits for sale in compliance markets.”

It adds that “this type of activity will need to be accomplished at a much larger scale to make a significant difference to greenhouse gas emissions”. And that is where the difference arises. The Nature Conservancy thinks sub-national projects will result in “learning by doing“; its critics think they will fatally undermine the whole enterprise.

While hailed as a model, the Noel Kempff project does not augur well for being able to measure carbon in forests. By 2004, the corporate partners in the project had reported offsets of 7.4m tonnes of CO2. But in 2005 a new evaluation cut that figure to just over 1m.

But even this could turn out to be an over-estimate. The 2005 audit shaved 16% off claimed offsets to account for leakage. Greenpeace cites a report from Winrock International, a non-profit consultancy, saying the long-term leakage figure could be much higher.

How would this play out in the carbon markets? Under the Noel Kempff plan, 51% of the emissions reductions achieved by the project can be claimed as offsets by corporate partners like AEP and BP. The remaining 49% goes to the Bolivian government. The original plan was to sell the emissions reductions on the Chicago Climate Exchange, which trades in voluntary carbon offsets.

Both AEP and BP told the Guardian this week that they had not offset any of their emissions as a result of the Noel Kempff project. BP said: “The project has not yet generated any carbon credits and BP has received no credits from it.”

AEP, which burns 77m tonnes of coal annually in the US, uses the project to burnish its environmental image. It advertises its support for the Noel Kempff project on its website as part of its corporate citizenship activities.

It says that the company is “committed to combating tropical deforestation and putting in place criteria to ensure that forest offsets can be part of the toolkit for addressing global climate change”. Both BP and AEP referred questions about the progress of the project to The Nature Conservancy.

It says Greenpeace’s description of the Noel Kempff project as a scam was “an attempt to discredit emissions offsets that businesses might claim by supporting such efforts in the future”. Rather, it says, the project was a pioneering activity from which much has been learned. AEP agrees. It says: “The reduction in the offsets from the project should be viewed as a validation, not criticism, of the project as it demonstrates that [The Nature Conservancy] and the project funders were willing to adjust the offset amounts based on improved science.”

But have the right lessons been learned? Better carbon accounting is of course a good thing. But if the Noel Kempff project is truly a model for a future world of carbon markets rooting in rainforest conservation projects, it suggests real problems ahead. If companies with environmental reputations to defend can become bogged down in charges of greenwash, what about the bad guys?

WATCH | Brazil: The Money Tree | NRDC Exploitation

This story is a joint project of FRONTLINE/World and the Center for Investigative Reporting, in association with Mother Jones magazine.
“Brazil: The Money Tree” was produced by Andrés Cediel and co-produced by Daniela Broitman.