Everything you need to know about climate tipping points

By Casey Ivanovich

(This post was co-authored by EDF Climate Scientist Ilissa Ocko)

Imagine cutting down a tree. Initially, you chop and chop … but not much seems to change. Then suddenly, one stroke of the hatchet frees the trunk from its base and the once distant leaves come crashing down.

It’s an apt metaphor for one of the most alarming aspects of climate change – the existence of “tipping elements.”

These elements are components of the climate that may pass a critical threshold, or “tipping point,” after which a tiny change can completely alter the state of the system. Moving past tipping points may incite catastrophes ranging from widespread drought to overwhelming sea level rise.

Which elements’ critical thresholds should we worry about passing thanks to human-induced climate change?

You can see the answer on this graphic – and find more information below.

The most immediate and most worrisome threats

  • Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice – As the Arctic warms, sea ice melts and exposes dark ocean waters that reflect sunlight much less efficiently. This decreased reflectivity causes a reinforcement of Arctic warming, meaning that the transition to a sea-ice free state can occur on the rapid scale of a few decades. Some scientists have suggested that we have already passed this tipping point, predicting that Arctic summers will be ice-free before mid-century.
  • Melting of the Greenland Ice SheetThe Arctic warming feedback described above may one day render Greenland ice-free. Research predicts that the tipping point for complete melt can occur at a global temperature rise of less than two degrees Celsius – a threshold that may be surpassed by the end of this century. While the full transition to an ice-free Greenland will take at least a few hundred years, its impacts include global sea level rise of up to 20 feet.
  • Disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – The bottom of this ice sheet lies beneath sea level, allowing warming ocean waters to slowly eat away at the ice. There is evidence that this tipping point has already been surpassed – possibly as early as 2014. Like the Greenland Ice Sheet, full collapse would require multiple centuries, but it could result in sea level rise of up to 16 feet.
  • Collapse of Coral ReefsHealthy corals maintain a symbiotic relationship with the algae that provide their primary food source. As oceans warm and become more acidic, these algae are expelled from the corals in an often fatal process called coral bleaching. Research predicts that most of our remaining coral systems will collapse even before a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius.

Tipping points in the distant future

  • Disruption of Ocean Circulation Patterns – The Thermohaline Circulation is driven by heavy saltwater sinking in the North Atlantic, but this water is becoming fresher and lighter as glaciers melt in a warming climate. The change in water density may prevent sinking and result in a permanent shutdown of the circulation. Research suggests that weakening of the Thermohaline Circulation is already in progress, but that an abrupt shutdown is unlikely to occur in this century. Some models suggest that these changes may prompt a secondary tipping element in which the subpolar gyre currently located in the Labrador Sea shuts off. Such a change would dramatically increase sea level, especially on the eastern coast of the United States.
  • Release of Marine Methane HydratesLarge reservoirs of methane located on the ocean floor are stable thanks to their current high pressure-low temperature environment. Warming ocean temperatures threaten the stability of these greenhouse gas reservoirs, but the necessary heat transfer would require at least a thousand years to reach sufficient depth, and may be further delayed by developing sea level rise.
  • Ocean AnoxiaIf enough phosphorous is released into the oceans – from sources including fertilizers and warming-induced weathering, or the breakdown of rocks –regions of the ocean could become depleted in oxygen. However, this process could require thousands of years to develop.

Potentially disastrous elements, but with considerable uncertainty

  • Dieback of the Amazon Rainforest Deforestation, lengthening of the dry season, and increased summer temperatures each place stress on rainfall in the Amazon. Should predictions that at least half of the Amazon Rainforest convert to savannah and grasslands materialize, a considerable loss in biodiversity could result. However, the dieback of the Amazon Rainforest ultimately depends on regional land-use management, and on how El Niño will influence future precipitation patterns.
  • Dieback of Boreal Forests – Increased water and heat stress could also lead to a decrease in boreal forest cover by up to half of its current size. Dieback of boreal forests would involve a gradual conversion to open woodlands or grasslands, but complex interactions between tree physiology, permafrost melt, and forest fires renders the likelihood of dieback uncertain.
  • Weakening of the Marine Carbon Pump – One mechanism through which oceanic carbon sequestration takes place is the marine carbon pump, which describes organisms’ consumption of carbon dioxide through biological processes such as photosynthesis or shell building. As ocean temperatures rise, acidification progresses, and oxygen continues to be depleted, these natural systems could be threatened and render the carbon sequestration process less efficient. More research is necessary in order to quantify the timescale and magnitude of these effects.

Tipping elements complicated by competing factors

  • Greening of the Sahara/Sahel As sea surface temperatures rise in the Northern Hemisphere, rainfall is projected to increase over the Sahara and Sahel. This increased rainfall would serve to expand grassland cover in the region, but is balanced by the cooling effect of human-emitted aerosols in the atmosphere.
  • Chaotic Indian Summer MonsoonThe fate of the Indian Summer Monsoon similarly depends upon a balance of greenhouse gas warming and aerosol cooling, which strengthen and weaken the monsoon, respectively. On the timescale of a year, there is potential for the monsoon to adopt dramatic active and weak phases, the latter resulting in extensive drought.

More research necessary to establish as tipping elements

  • Collapse of Deep Antarctic Ocean CirculationAs in the case of the Thermohaline Circulation, freshening of surface waters in the Southern Ocean due to ice melt may slowly alter deep water convection patterns. However, the gradual warming of the deep ocean encourages this convection to continue.
  • Appearance of Arctic Ozone HoleUnique clouds that form only in extremely cold conditions currently hover over Antarctica, serving as a surface for certain chemical reactions and facilitating the existence of the ozone hole. As climate change continues to cool the stratosphere, these “ice clouds” could begin formation in the Arctic and allow the development of an Arctic ozone hole within a year.
  • Aridification of Southwest North America As global temperatures rise, consequential changes in humidity prompt the expansion of subtropical dry zones and reductions in regional runoff. Models predict that Southwest North America will be particularly affected, as moisture shifts away from the southwest and into the upper Great Plains.
  • Slowdown of the Jet Stream A narrow and fast moving air current called a jet stream flows across the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere. This current separates cold Arctic air from the warmer air of the south and consequentially influences weather in its formation of high and low pressure systems. A slowing of the jet stream has been observed over recent years. Should slowing intensify, weather patterns could persist over several weeks with the potential to develop into extended extreme weather conditions.
  • Melting of the Himalayan Glaciers – Several warming feedbacks render the Himalayan glaciers vulnerable to dramatic melt within this century, though limitations on data availability complicate further study. Dust accumulation on the mountainous glaciers and the continual melt of snow and ice within the region both prompt a decrease in sunlight reflectivity and amplify regional warming.

Gradual, continuous changes

  • More Permanent El Nino State90 percent of the extra heat trapped on Earth’s surface by greenhouse gases is absorbed by the oceans. Though still under debate, the most likely consequence of this oceanic heat uptake is a gradual transition to more intense and permanent El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions, with implications including extensive drought throughout Southeast Asia and beyond.
  • Permafrost MeltingAs global temperatures rise and the high latitudes experience amplified warming, melting permafrost gradually releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and creates a feedback for even more warming.
  • Tundra Transition to Boreal Forest – Much like the conversion of the Amazon Rainforest and boreal forests to other biomes, tundra environments may transition into forests as temperatures increase. However, this process is more long-term and continuous.

With a range of critical thresholds on the horizon, each tipping element demonstrates the potential implications of allowing climate change to progress unchecked.

As tipping points loom ever closer, the urgency for emissions mitigation escalates in hopes of sustaining the Earth as we know it.

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Large gas buyers set environmental performance indicators for how gas is produced

By Mark Brownstein

Co-authored by Beth Trask

Utilities who deliver gas to homes and businesses, and/or generate electricity from gas, are important stakeholders along the natural gas supply chain. They are the face of natural gas to their customers; and, thus, they need to know that the gas they sell is being produced in the most responsible and transparent way possible—one in which the impacts to the air, water, and communities are minimized.

This week, some of the nation’s largest gas buyers joined forces in a new voluntary coalition, the Natural Gas Supply Collaborative (NGSC). Together, they released a set of 14 performance indicators—spanning air, water, chemicals and community/worker safety—that they’d like to see natural gas companies report on publically on an annual basis.

Developed in consultation with environmental NGOs, including EDF, and with input from a handful of gas company representatives, these indicators are positive step toward a more transparent gas supply chain in which buyers and sellers can have informed dialogue about how gas is being produced.

We encourage more large gas buyers to join the coalition and get involved in this conversation.

Customers are watching

There are nine participants in the NGSC, including Austin Energy, NRG Energy, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Combined, these nine companies deliver enough natural gas to meet the needs of more than 36 million households and business customers. They supply enough electricity from natural gas to power over 17 million U.S. homes annually.

Thus these large gas buyers and others like them have influence in the marketplace. And when they enter into contracts with oil and gas companies, they have an obligation to discuss how air and water pollution is being minimized and how the well-being of communities and workers is being protected.

As with all supply chain management work, these conversations begin with transparency—the foundation for the NGSC’s 14 indicators.

Better reporting on methane

About one-quarter of the warming we experience today is caused by methane from human activities, and the oil and gas industry is one of the largest human-caused methane sources on the planet.

Recent data from the International Energy Agency shows that at least 75% of global oil and gas methane emissions can be cut cost-effectively with existing technology.

The NGSC performance indicators prioritize the importance of methane emission reduction to a producer’s social license to operate. They suggest that companies disclose their methane emissions, in total and by intensity. Suggested remediation techniques include developing leak detection and repair (LDAR) practices and schedules; developing methane reduction goals; reducing flaring and venting practices; and participating in the field testing of new technologies designed to detect leaks.

Leading practices on wastewater management

The report also shines a spotlight on aspects of production relating to water, chemical use, community, and safety that would benefit from enhanced transparency and action. Of particular note are a number of performance measures related to water and wastewater management. Wastewater, or “produced water,” in particular can pose serious risks to water and land resources surrounding operations if spills and leaks occur, and even if wastewater is treated onsite and intentionally released to nearby waterways or fields without proper controls. This is due to not only the high salinity of wastewater, but also hundreds of potentially toxic pollutants that may be present.

NGSC calls for gas companies to report on the number and volume of wastewater spills each year and to disclose their strategies for managing and ultimately disposing of wastewater. Significantly, the report notes that the emerging practice of reusing wastewater in novel ways—for example selling wastewater to farmers to irrigate crops—is a concern. Before embarking on wastewater reuse, producers should participate in research to better understand the environmental and public health risks.

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Pruitt takes steps to remove science from decisions affecting the health of American families

By Sarah Vogel

Today EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced additions to the Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Taken in conjunction with the drastic policy shift also announced today, Pruitt is set to fundamentally undercut the role science in driving EPA decisions that directly affect the health and safety of American families and communities.

The new policy would exclude any scientist receiving an EPA grant from serving on any of the agency’s advisory panels. This creates a profound hypocrisy: under the policy scientists who take money from ExxonMobil or even Russia—since funding from other governments wouldn’t be disqualifying—Pruitt would regard as trusted to offer impartial advice. Meanwhile, those who have grants from the US environmental agency – whose research program was praised by the National Academy of Sciences in a report just this past summer – cannot.

In Pruitt’s Alice-in-Wonderland world, the EPA advisory panels intended to ensure the agency is making use of the best and latest science should be populated overwhelmingly by industry-affiliated scientists, at the expense of independent academic scientists.

Along with the policy, Pruitt’s new appointments to the SAB and CASAC (see below) include longtime fossil fuel and chemical industry advocates, who have consistently played down or outright dismissed concerns about the risks of pollution or toxic chemical exposures based on discredited and outrageous scientific claims. Although the SAB is supposed to “provide independent advice and peer review on the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues to the EPA’s Administrator,” these additions cannot be relied upon to faithfully uphold the Board’s mission.

Meanwhile, Pruitt also took the unprecedented step of not renewing any appointments for members whose terms expire this year. This allows Pruitt to reshape the panel in his own image more quickly.

All told, the goal is as clear as it is concerning: to create a rubber-stamp set of scientific advisers that can distort the science while still lending an aura of credibility to Pruitt’s destructive actions at the Agency.

The real losers are not the researchers, but rather American families who depend on having an agency that actually works to protect their health.

Meet some of Mr. Pruitt’s new science advisers

Texas official with a long record of downplaying health concerns about pollutants and toxic chemicals ranging from ozone to benzene. Honeycutt argued against stronger ozone standards by noting most people spend their days indoors. He also claimed that “some studies even suggest that PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

  • Dr. Tony Cox (Named to chair the CASAC)

Denver-based consultant with long track record of conducting research that disputes the public health benefits of reducing air pollution. Cox has stated that there is “no evidence that reductions in air pollution levels have caused any reductions in mortality rates.”

Record of disputing the benefits of clean air and air pollution limits; said that “Modern air … is a little too clean for optimum health.”

Professor at NC State affiliated with the climate-denying Heartland Institute, who claims that the “evidence is overwhelming” that if temperatures do increase, it will be “better for humans.”

Former Secretary of North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), who questions the well-established scientific consensus of climate change and, had a controversial tenure at the agency, notably over health advisories to well owners whose water might have been contaminated by coal ash.

Smith is a Managing Director of NERA Economic Consulting and co-head of its environmental practice. In work funded by the fossil fuel industry trade group the American Petroleum Institute, Smith argued that EPA data on lung response to ozone is imprecise, roundly debunked by policy experts and independent fact-checkers.

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How will forests be on the “menu” at UN Bonn climate talks?

By Chris Meyer

The 2017 UN climate talks will take place from November 6 to 17 in Bonn, Germany | Photo: Pixabay

This year’s global climate conference (COP23) is upon us and will be an interesting mix of Fijian diplomacy and Kölsch beer. As I do every year, in this year’s pre-COP blog I lay out what will be happening during the COP related to REDD+ in the negotiations and what I hope to hear about in the hallways and many side events.

The COP23 conference is expected to be a working COP as parties make the necessary progress in rule writing to meet the 2018 deadline of a final rulebook. There will also be a lot of news about non-state actors – the private sector, states like California, and other non-federal entities – being discussed as a reaction to Trump’s reckless decision to leave the Paris Agreement.

For a good overview of how we are doing in with respect to the climate change and forest sector, I suggest reading this year’s New York Declaration on Forests report. It includes a good review on progress in the private sector (or lack thereof) and funding for forest conservation – and activities causing deforestation.

But, back to the UNFCCC …

REDD+ in the negotiation agenda

After a year’s hiatus from the COP agenda, REDD+ will make an expected brief appearance in the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) agenda the first week during discussions about the “coordination of REDD+ finance”. This is a leftover item from the Warsaw REDD+ Framework decision, when parties agreed to not create a “REDD+ Committee” to coordinate REDD+ finance as some parties wished, but rather annual informal and voluntary meetings during the mid-year subsidiary body negotiations (SBs) for 4 years to share experiences about REDD+ financing. Many of the attendees from parties to observers would agree that these informal meetings were of little value.

In this COP, negotiators are scheduled to reevaluate whether to continue the SBs or create the REDD+ Committee. I doubt there will be interest in either of them. However, the agenda item could be used as an opening to push a party’s or coalition’s not completely related proposal for financing REDD+, such as a centralized registry for REDD+ transactions.

REDD+ related negotiation items: transparency, NDCs and market

Much of the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ addressed transparency. After following initial discussions in the broader transparency agenda item that is part of the APA, many parties and negotiators are worried that those negotiations might dilute what was achieved for REDD+. Transparency in REDD+ thus far includes the Lima REDD+ Information Hub where countries submit their National REDD+ Strategies, Reference Emission Level (REL) submissions, Safeguard Information System summaries, and results. The process established for reviewing the RELs, which includes a technical assessment and publication of that assessment, is very important. The fact that the new US negotiator for transparency is the former REDD+ negotiator for the US, however, could be very helpful to ensure no dilution occurs.

Many of the party submissions on producing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) mentioned the land use sector explicitly, and REDD+ implicitly. The more detail related to the inclusion of the land use sector in NDCs the better, but it might be hard for negotiators to come to agreement on the extent or nature of those details.

The market negotiations under the SBSTA will continue; those on Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement and Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs) are particularly relevant. More explicit guidance on no double counting/claiming is needed to ensure environmental integrity for REDD+ and ITMOs that might come from any other sector or project. REDD+ in itself, however, does not need explicit language in Article 6.2.

Other noticeable REDD+ financing developments

The Green Climate Fund recently approved guidance and $500 million for REDD+ results based payments, which I expect to be discussed substantially during the COP. Although the amount is not sufficient, the methodologies the GCF agreed upon will be relevant to other REDD+ finance decisions in the future.

Private finance for advancing deforestation free commodities is another hot topic and I expect to learn more concrete details about the andgreen.fund that was announced earlier in the year. Specifically, I’d like more clarity on how they will be defining jurisdictions advancing in becoming deforestation free, which is a requirement of the fund to determine what private sector actors will be funded.

This year’s report on New York Declaration on Forests provides extensive insight on the current state of forest finance. The report reviews the billions of pledges, commitments, and amounts spent to advance REDD+. More interesting is the amount of “grey” funding available from public subsidies and private sector investment for the land sector. The amount of “grey” funding greatly exceeds direct REDD+ funding and needs to be changed or channeled to activities that support forest conservation.

Indigenous Peoples in the negotiations

Indigenous territories have rates of deforestation eight times less than external forests.

Indigenous Peoples are hoping for a decision on the Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge platform that will support the inclusion of them and their solutions to mitigating and adapting to climate change. A number of parties from Ecuador to Canada are prioritizing and supporting this platform. While interested in all agenda items, Indigenous Peoples will also probably focus on the NDC negotiation to ensure that the need to include them in the development and revision of the NDCs is explicitly mentioned. Many party submissions on the topic included the need for NDCs to discuss how they consulted Indigenous Peoples and other groups in their development.

Indigenous leaders from the Amazon basin will be promoting a new scientific analysis which found, that from a regional level, indigenous territories have rates of deforestation eight times less than external forests. Hopefully, parties will take note of this and include more overt references to the importance of supporting and including Indigenous Peoples in decisions.

Reporting on progress by countries implementing REDD+

While not formally on the negotiation agenda, I expect a number of countries at their pavilions or in other events to present the final versions of their National REDD+ Strategies. Parties have already submitted 25 Reference Emission Levels (REL) and I expect a few more to arrive during the COP or before the end of the year. Discussions around best practices in REL construction and lessons learned will be a popular topic – amongst the technical people at least.

The richest presentations and discussions related to REDD+ will likely happen on November 12th during a set of panels on forests as part of the Action Agenda, now called the Marrakech Partnership for Climate Action. During this event, I hope to hear more about how the private sector is implementing the 700+ deforestation-free related commitments they’ve taken, but largely have yet to implement.

A “working” COP

Many expect no big decisions on forests – like a Warsaw Framework for REDD+ – to be agreed upon at this COP. However, I would like to see a decision on the platform for Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge, which would be helpful for REDD+.

The parties should make progress on advancing the markets, NDC, and transparency negotiations that are indirectly related, but no less important, to REDD+. Decisions on those topics at the COP next year, as mandated in the Paris Agreement, are essential for continuing the implementation of REDD+ and unlocking necessary finance.

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