ESA Policy News: November 23

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Terence Houston.

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Patterns in the climate change mosaic

Finding patterns and trends in the environment is an important natural human tendency. Without trends, for instance, Darwin may never have theorized about evolution. But the somewhat controversial question, especially now in the face of climate change, is “what do trends explain about the world?” Or a more specific example: do studies showing elevated global temperatures and sea level rise prove that one caused the other?

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Methane from plants increased by climate change

The debate about climate change has focused on one polarizing gas: carbon dioxide. CO2 and its portrayal to the general public is controversial because on one hand, it’s essential for all life, since plants need to breathe too.  But on the other hand it’s a greenhouse gas that traps heat in our atmosphere, and in some instances –such as new interpretations of the Clean Air Act–is regulated as a pollutant. But another, less common gas that doesn’t get as much attention is CO2‘s cousin, methane, or CH4. Methane is a major component of natural gas, and recent studies show a considerable amount is also produced (no laughing here) as flatulence from livestock. Thus far, scientists have clashed over whether or not plants produce significant levels of methane. But a study out today in the journal Physiologica Plantarum suggests that under combined climate change conditions (increased temperature, drought and ultraviolet-B radiation), major crops could show an increase in average methane emitted. Mirwais Qaderi and David Reid of the University of Calgary raised faba beans, sunflowers, peas, canola, barley and wheat in the laboratory and found that this climate change scenario enhanced their methane emissions. This finding is important because, according to the researchers, methane is about 23 times as effective at trapping heat as CO2. Said Qaderi in a statement: Our results are of importance in the whole climate warming discussion because methane is such a potent greenhouse warming gas. It points to the possibility of yet another possible feedback phenomena [sic] which could add to global warming. In some cases, plants can produce methane that they take up from the soil, where it’s made by bacteria. Although this has the same outcome for the climate, it’s important to know whether plants can do it themselves without organic backup in the soil, a biochemical mechanism that–correct me if I’m wrong–has yet to be discovered. Because if they do, all those plant metabolism pathways you learned in high school or Botany 101 might have to be rewritten. Qaderi, M., & Reid, D. (2009). Methane emissions from six crop species exposed to three components of global climate change: temperature, ultraviolet-B radiation and water stress Physiologia Plantarum DOI:...

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EPA biofuels rule: calculating the payback

The EPA released a report yesterday that proposes to change the rules of the biofuels game.  The report, titled “Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: Changes to Renewable Fuel Standard Program,” examines the lifecycle of corn-for-ethanol practices and sets the “payback” period of carbon emissions for corn-for-ethanol fuel as 33 years. The payback period means that at first, corn-for-ethanol practices will be a net source of carbon into the atmosphere, as clearing farmland using fire and releasing carbon from soil create initial bursts of carbon release. Over time, however, the system will become self-sustaining and will become a net sink for carbon. Corn ethanol has been ranked as one of the lowest overall viable and sustainable forms of alternative fuels, and ecologists have shown that under our current system, almost all corn-based (both grain and cellulosic) cause environmental harm. Although environmentalists, including the National Resource Defense Council, have spoken up in favor of the EPA’s rule, the biofuels mandate still leaves a lot of wiggle room for revelation of corn ethanol’s true nature, especially under required production. For example, as posed by the Roger Pielke on the Prometheus blog, a question that remains is how long it will take to develop an even better biofuel standard than the current corn practices, which are not efficient. If this development time is less than 33 years, but the law mandates commitment to corn as a fuel source for at least 33 years, then the law will in effect create a net source of carbon.  As he puts it: “Does it make sense to incur very large increases in carbon dioxide emissions in the short-term under a promise of benefits to occur many decades into the future?” Read more about the issue on the Nature blog: The Great Beyond, at Reuters and, for the business side, the UK’s Guardian. EDIT: For a simple breakdown of the EPA’s scenarios and an interview with Tim Searchinger, a scientist who allegedly published the first paper showing that corn ethanol production increases greenhouse gas emissions, check out this Grist...

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Forests might flip from carbon sink to source

Ecologists point to forests as important sinks for atmospheric carbon. But a new report suggests that climate change could induce environmental stresses that would chnge the role of forests into a net carbon source. The report, titled “Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change – A Global Assessment,” was coordinated by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF). The findings came from an analysis of how different forest ecosystems worldwide would be affected under specific climate change scenarios developed by the IPCC report. The report brings together 35 international forest scientists, some of whom contributed to the IPCC. The study reports that higher temperatures would usher in the probability of prolonged droughts, more intense pest invasions, and a host of other environmental stresses, which would lead to forest destruction and degradation. Climate change could thus create a dangerous feedback loop in which damage to forests significantly increases global carbon emissions, which then exacerbates the greenhouse effect. This scenario is likely to occur if the world warms more than 4.5 degrees Farenheit. According to Andreas Fischlin of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a lead author of the study and a coordinating lead author with the IPCC: “Even if adaptation measures are fully implemented, unmitigated climate change would, during the course of the current century, exceed the adaptive capacity of many forests. The fact remains that the only way to ensure that forests do not suffer unprecedented harm is to achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” The report will be formally presented at the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) session taking place April 20-May 9 at the UN Headquarters in New York...

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Obama to weigh Clean Air Act emissions regulation

The EPA sent a finding to the White House on Friday that should surprise no ecologists: that greenhouse gases are pollutants that endanger the public welfare. What might surprise ecologists is that it was sent at all. Until the final days of the Bush administration, the executive branch dragged its feet on a 2007 edict by the Supreme Court that they decide whether to use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions.  Finally they punted, saying last July that they would instead seek extensive public comment on the threat of greenhouse gases to human welfare. Now, with the information it received on Friday, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama has said in the past that he’d prefer to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through legislation, probably within an energy bill that imposes an emissions cap. Bill Kovacs, the vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, thinks that now is the wrong time to bring up the issue again. If the administration decides to move forward with the Clean Air Act, he says, then any infrastructure project, including the ones just beginning under the stimulus bill, will be subject to extensive review for greenhouse gas emissions. A situation like this could be disastrous for the economy, he says. A spokesperson for the EPA said that if accepted, the proposal would still need public hearings and comment before it would become final and “would not impose any new regulatory burdens on any projects,” according to the Washington Post. Whatever the outcome, the EPA’s move highlights a very different attitude at the agency since January 20. Read the Washington Post article...

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