Friday, March 30, 2007

What the record corn crop actually means

U.S. farmers are expected to plant 37 million hectares of corn this spring, the largest area of corn since “the Allies invaded Normandy”. It is a 15% increase from last year, all thanks to the demand for ethanol. At the same time, the planted area of soybeans is expected to be 11% lower than last year.

That’s 90.5 million acres of corn, in American English (sick of getting sent data in pounds, cubic feet per second and acres, I'm a on one-person quest to convert to USDA and the USGS to metric).

The media has been all over this today. The coverage I've seen is largely missing the point.

Corn and soybeans are the two prominent crops in the central U.S. For the past 10-15 years, the “Corn Belt” has really been the “Corn and Soybean Belt”. In 2006, the planted area of corn was 31.9 million ha; of soybeans, 30.6 million hectares. The crops are often grown in rotation – corn on a field one year, soy the next – since the nitrogen-fixing soy helps reduce fertilizer needs on corn (and residual nitrogen from corn helps the soy the next year). Both crops are largely used to generate animal feed, a sizeable chunk of which is exported to Europe and Asia.

We’re not about to discover more fertile farmland in the US. The additional corn to produce ethanol is largely coming two ways:

1. Replacing other crops. Since soybeans and corn are usually grown together, the surge in corn means less soy being grown. That means fewer soy available as feed, both here and overseas.

2. Reducing other uses of corn. The major uses of corn are animal feed, exports (mostly feed), food and now fuel. The domestic animal feed isn’t changing substantially lest we change our diets; the domestic food is a small fraction; the surplus here is coming from exports.

Those headlines about the impending choice between food and fuel? That’s not happening here, at least not yet. Ethanol is being generated in the US via planting more corn (at the expense of soy) and exporting less corn. The result is not less food in the store. It is less grain being sold for feed overseas.

That has market implications and environmental implications overseas(more on the environmental side later). As has been widely reported – the “tortilla effect” in Mexico – the price of corn has been high because the supply is being diverted (from exports for feed) to ethanol. It is important to remember that plenty of other factors affect food and crop prices. People seem to be getting carried away blaming ethanol for everything, like the price of wheat, which is rarely used for feed or to generate ethanol.

As for the US, with a 15% increase in planting of heavily fertilized corn, at the expensive of largely unfertilized soybeans, there may also be a record amount of nitrogen in central US soils this summer. A wet spring means a large hypoxic zone is likely to appear in the northern Gulf of Mexico next summer.


The new, new, new Clean Air and Climate Change Act

Canada’s proposed Clean Air Act emerged yesterday from a special Parliamentary Committee barely recognizable. The opposition parties did not so much retool the bill, as is widely reported, they rewrote it. Even the name changed. Originally, the Made in Canada plan, then the Clean Air Act, it is now the Clean Air and Climate Change Act. The new edition looks a lot like Liberal Leader Stephane Dion’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan: a commitment to reaching the Kyoto targets by 2012, emissions caps and fines for large emitters, no vague use of the word emissions and no use of the much-reviled, at least in these parts, term “intensity-based”.

Under normal circumstances, the bill would go to a vote, and with the support of all three opposition parties in the minority Parliament, pass. These circumstances are anything but normal. The sitting Conservative could use a vote on the new Act to trigger an election or could agree to pass the act with some further revisions.

The decision, by all parties, is bound to have more to do with politics than anything else.

For those keeping score at home, Canada is now averaging one new greenhouse gas emissions policy proposal every two months. Perhaps if this proposal forces an election, the rate will increase to one every three weeks or so, surely some sort of record.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More on purchasing carbon offsets

The people at Clean Air - Cool Planet have put compiled a nice guide (pdf) to the many companies selling carbon offsets.

If you are thinking about donating money to go carbon neutral - which was named 2006 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, quite an accomplishment given the tough competition (surge anyone?) and the small matter of being, er, two words - spend five or ten minutes reading through the guide first.

There's a lot of money in carbon guilt these days. Companies have rushed into the game with bold promises to gobble up your carbon emissions but without any oversight.

The Retail Offsets Guide has kind words for three North American based companies -- Climate Trust, NativeEnergy and Sustainable Travel (a subsidiary of the Swiss company Myclimate).


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Al Gore's testimony

Al Gore delivered impassioned addresses about climate change before a US Congress subcommittee and a US Senate subcommittee today. I recommend watching some video before his testimony is spun out of control by the pundits.

While I could have done without the bit about America being the natural leader of the world (is that the result of evolution or intelligent design?), and the exaggerated language of crisis is always hard on a scientist's ears, there is no denying that Gore's testimony was powerful.


Friday, March 16, 2007

A long overdue clean-up in the Pacific

The LA Times ran this nice story about WWII veteran Leon Cooper who has been lobbying the US government to clean up the polluted beaches of the Tarawa, the site of bloody battle in 1943, and now the capital of Kiribati.

I spoke with the Times reporter about the causes of pollution on the crowded atoll and offered some graphic descriptions of beaches ("civilization after the apocalypse", the most extreme statement always makes it in the story, c'est la vie).

The beaches in the southern half of Tarawa, where the battle was fought, and where nearly half of all the i-Kiribati live, are not a pretty sight. For a detailed description an photos of Tarawa, check the dispatches on my home page.

Now, before condemning the i-Kiribati for polluting their backyard, and the site of a bloody WWII battle, it's worth asking how the problem evolved.

The i-Kiribati's traditional waste management system, like that of all indigenous groups in the Pacific, was simple but effective. All the waste, human and otherwise, was organic. It was swept under the coconut trees, where it regenerated the soil, or it was, ahem, deposited on the beach below the high tide line. Go there today , and you will still see people sweeping the ground in front of their huts like in the old days.

But two things changed. First, the influx of packaged goods meant that not all the garbage would biodegrade (in our lifetime). Second, the shift from subsistence living to a cash economy caused migration of people from the outer islands to Tarawa, the capital, and the only place with paying jobs. And more people means more human waste, all concentrated on a narrow atoll. The nutrient pollution from all the waste has degraded the already small supply of groundwater. This then caused a serious human health crisis.

This story is not unique to Tarawa. It is happening all over the Pacific, all over the tropics, all over the world, really, as communities switch from their indigenous lifestyle to a part, albeit a small one in this case, of the global economy.

The good news here is that the new recycling program has dramatically cut plastic and glass waste. And just maybe, the US government will respond to Mr. Cooper's earnest pleas to clean up Red Beach 1 and 2?


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Going carbon neutral

It’s hip, it’s trendy… and it’s wildly unregulated.

Everyone is going "carbon neutral". The latest to join the craze is US Presidential candidate John Edwards. He has pledged to run a carbon-neutral campaign by “conserving” energy and purchasing carbon offsets. The other candidates are bound to ante up.

Is this even possible? Offsetting the emissions from the campaigns of every US Presidential candidate may require reforesting the entire country. A truly efficient solution would be shortening the campaign by, say, a year or so.

It raises an important question. Which carbon offset-ers can you trust? The proliferation of companies offering to sell carbon offsets is a more than a bit suspicious. Many cannot, and are not required to, confirm that your money will result in a reduction in GHG emissions. The same problem is happening at the macro-scale, with EU countries investing in many questionable offset schemes in China through the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism.

I can recommend a few relatively trustworthy operations (check here, bottom of page). In many cases, the exact reductions cannot be confirmed, but an effort is at least being made.

If you know of more, let me know. And maybe John Edwards, Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton and whomever else declares in the next few months.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The NY Times attack on An Inconvenient Truth

Yesterday's NY Times had an inevitable article about the scientific community's discomfort with the alarmism of Al Gore's Oscar-winning power point presentation (a new category?), An Inconvenient Truth.

There are some legitimate problems with An Inconvenient Truth. It overplays the evidence for a link between climate change and hurricane intensity and for a link between climate change and infectious disease like malaria and West Nile Virus; it muffed a bunch of smaller details that I covered last year.

These issues are important. The whole question of Gore's alarmism, the politics of fear, is worth serious discussion. But the Times article? It is just plain bad.

Rather than speak to mainstream climate scientists with legitimate beefs about these details, the article opens with quotes from noted skeptics of the entire notion of human-induced climate change, and then falls into the same old ridiculous "he said, she said" arguments that poisoned public discourse on climate change in the past. The article is like a sad blast from the past. For a very thorough "debunking" of the article, read this by David Roberts at Gristmill.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

New emissions targets for the UK and Canada?

The British government announced it will be putting forth a new climate change plan that calls for a 26-32% reduction in GHG emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2020 (BBC). The UK has had a long-term goal for 2050 for quite some time (60% below) 1990 levels; perhaps with an eye to an eventual election, the government is finally setting the much-needed near-term targets.

The Canadian government just announced that new regulations on GHG emissions will be announced soon. The announcement-that-they-there-will-be-an-announcement was made during the BC, that's British Columbia for those scoring at home, stop on a cross country tour to dole out money from a reinstated environment fund.

There is no word as to whether the US government will announce it is going to announce an annnouncement about a new GHG emissions policy.

If the new Canadian regulations have any teeth, they could be considered either a testament to the power of electoral politics or evidence that public outrage over a government decision (last year's woeful Clean Air Act) can actually make a difference. I'll let the pessimists and optimists fight that one out.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Climate change and Caribbean coral reefs

Our latest research on climate change and coral reefs in the Caribbean was published (online) today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study, my colleagues and I used historical temperature data and climate models developed to examine the probability of the widespread coral bleaching happening in the Caribbean, like in 2005, with and without human influence on the climate. For a short summary of our findings, take a look at the department's press release.

The abstract:

Episodes of mass coral bleaching around the world in recent decades have been attributed to periods of anomalously warm ocean temperatures. In 2005, the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly in the tropical North Atlantic that may have contributed to the strong hurricane season caused widespread coral bleaching in the Eastern Caribbean. Here, we use two global climate models to evaluate the contribution of natural climate variability and anthropogenic forcing to the thermal stress that caused the 2005 coral bleaching event.

Historical temperature data and simulations for the 1870-2000 period show that the observed warming in the region is unlikely to be due to unforced climate variability alone. Simulation of background climate variability suggests that anthropogenic warming may have increased the probability of occurrence of significant thermal stress events for corals in this region by an order of magnitude. Under scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions, mass coral bleaching in the Eastern Caribbean may become a biannual event in 20-30 years. However, if corals and their symbionts can adapt by 1-1.5°C, such mass bleaching events may not begin to recur at potentially harmful intervals until the latter half of the century. The delay could enable more time to alter the path of greenhouse gas emissions, although long-term "committed warming" even after stabilization of atmospheric CO2 levels may still represent an additional long-term threat to corals.


Mapping sea level rise

In a recent issue of EOS, the American Geophysical Union's weekly journal /newsletter, scientists from the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets presented a new geographic analysis of the risk of sea level rise to the population and land area around the planet. You can view and download the high resolution maps and geographic datasets from the project at the CRESIS website.

The maps depict the impact of a 1 - 6 m rise in sea level. This degree of sea level rise, of course, could only happen with a major contribution from ice sheet melt, the rate of which is still being resolved by the scientific community, and even if so, won't be happening this weekend. So take a look at the maps, but use them with caution.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Distribution of greenhouse gas emissions

For an alternative way to view the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions discussed below, the site Worldmapper, which features "a collection of world maps, where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest", recently posted some great new maps.

The map of toy imports is also a rather disturbing comment on the world.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

More on the inequity, climate change and coral reefs

The statistics provided in the Bioscience essay (pdf) were derived from geographic (GIS) analysis of global datasets on population, reef distribution, gross domestic product and greenhouse gas emissions.

The figures on the right give a broader picture of some of the results. The top figure (A) shows the total population living with a given distance from coral reefs. The population has been divided into the developed world, the developing world, and Arab countries + small islands (relatively wealthy countries not technically considered developed by the UN).

The second figure (B) is a frequency distribution of population and GDP for people living within 50 or 100 km of coral reefs (the distribution looks similar with a distance of 10-20 km). This is only a rough measure of wealth and of dependence on reef, but it helps demonstrate the basic thesis, that the majority of people living in close proximity of coral reefs are in developing countries. As we elaborate in the paper, people who are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the world's greenhouse gas emissions stand to suffer the most if climate change results in long-term degradation of coral reef ecosystems.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The inequity of the global threat to coral reefs

In the March issue of the journal Bioscience, my colleague David Potere and I discuss the inequity of the threat climate change poses to the world’s coral reefs (the pdf is now available through my home page). A snippet:

“Coral reefs have been adopted as an iconic “flagship” ecosystem in the effort to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s simply good marketing. Coral reefs are charismatic: Colorful underwater images of corals, sponges, and reef fish are bound to draw a strong emotional response from even the most hardened audience. Who among us would want to be blamed for killing Nemo?

With all this focus on the aesthetics of coral reefs, the potential human inequity of the threat posed by climate change is often ignored. The majority of the people who depend on coral reef ecosystems for shoreline protection, fisheries, and tourism revenue live in poor, developing countries that are responsible for only a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

The commentary is based on GIS analysis of population data, coral reef maps, greenhouse gas emissions data and economic data, and my experience doing research on climate change and coral bleaching. I’ll be posting some auxiliary data on Maribo in a few days.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Climate and the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone"

My colleague Don Scavia and I have an article in the latest issue of Limnology and Oceanography about the effect of climate on the development of the seasonal “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve written a bit about this issue before on Maribo. The intensification of agriculture in the central US since the 1950s – huge increases in nitrogen fertilizer use, planting of more nitrogen-fixing soybeans, drainage of wetlands, installation of artificial drains under fields – caused a 2-3 fold increase in the amount of nitrogen the Mississippi River delivers to the Gulf of Mexico. The large influx of nitrogen now promotes the growth of a seasonal low oxygen or hypoxic zone each summer on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

From the 1980s until quite recently, however, agricultural land use and land cover were relatively stable in contrast to the more dramatic changes in the previous three decades (the surge in interest for ethanol may end the relative stability). The one factor that changed the most, year to year, is the weather. Our study examines how this year-to-year variability in rainfall influences the amount of nitrogen flooding down the Mississippi in the spring and the extent of hypoxia in the Gulf.

The study finds that, absent any major changes in land use and land cover, the year-to-year variability in precipitation across the “Corn Belt” (in the previous November and December and in March, April and May) is the primary driver of the year-to-year variability in amount of nitrogen delivered by the Mississippi during the late spring (in May and June). Using this relationship, the study then examines how climate variability affects the potential size of the hypoxic zone and the implications for reducing nitrogen losses and the size of the hypoxic zone. During very wet years, a nitrogen reduction of 50-60% – close to twice the original recommended target – is necessary to reach the goal of minimizing the size of the hypoxic zone (< 5000 km2).

The results are a reminder of the importance of factoring climate variability into water quality or aquatic ecosystem policy, particularly given the changes in climate expected to occur in the coming decades.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Organic Inc.

Last week, the grocery store chain Whole Foods has bought out its primary rival Wild Oats. The response, expressed with a palpable taste of “I told you so”, seems to be that the buyout represents the final proof of Whole Food’s transformation from idyllic, local organic food store to corporate behemoth high on money, power, and high fructose corn syrup is now officially complete.

The talk of this transformation as some archetypal, to use a word from 11th grade English class, fall from grace, the way people response when a hometown sports hero signs a free agent contract with another team, is amusing. Wild Oats was not your local health food store. The food is as expensive, and is shipped as insanely (Chilean orange anyone?), as that at Whole Foods. As the article Is Whole Foods Straying From Its Roots? in yesterday’s NY Times points out – if you can get past the self-righteous undertone – Whole Foods is in essence trying to stop the larger, traditional grocery stores from taking some of its market. There’s always a bigger fish in the sea.

It brings us to a question that has divided environmental movement for years. Which is better? Getting the big fish to change or having lots of little fish take over? In other words, do you work with Walmart to become more environmental friendly? Or do you boycott their stores?

There’s no easy answer, not in today's world. I will say this. I’m sad to hear the Wild Oats on Nassau St. in Princeton will be closing. That’s not to say I like shopping there. I simply like the idea that people in town can walk and bike to the grocery store, whatever that store is. The only Whole Foods in the area is on Rte 1 and has no pedestrian or bicycle access. Now that is a crime.