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Issue No. 103 - May 1, 2017

1. Energy Transition Commission report calls for urgent action to halve emissions by 2040

Ireland's 2017 Climate Plan Gets an F rating
Showing somewhat more urgency about climate change than the Irish government’s Draft National Climate Mitigation Plan, which has been criticised by Irish NGOs such as Trocaire and Friends of the Earth, as well as the national Climate Change Advisory Council for its lack of clarity and ambition, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) has in its flagship report called for accelerated investment in renewable energy to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

The ETC, established in 2015 by Royal Dutch Shell, aims to "accelerate change towards low-carbon energy systems that enable robust economic development and limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2°C." Commission members include representatives of the fossil fuel industry, power and industrial companies, environmental NGOs and researchers. Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics and former US vice-president Albert Gore, Jr. are members.

The report calls on governments, investors and businesses to act now to accelerate clean electrification and decarbonisation beyond power and energy productivity improvement to halve global carbon emissions by 2040. The ETC concludes that it is technically and economically feasible to grow economies and provide affordable, reliable, and clean energy for all while meeting the Paris objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

The key conclusions of the report include the following:
  • The almost total decarbonization of power generation and the electrification of a wider set of activities could deliver half the necessary emission cuts by 2040. The collapsing cost of renewables and batteries makes this more achievable and faster than assumed. Governments must reinforce the progress already underway.
  • Stronger public policy and large-scale investment is now required in the decarbonization of activities, such as aviation and heavy industry, that cannot be electrified.
  • A revolution in energy productivity improvements is technically feasible but needs more forceful policies, in order to reach an annual growth rate of 3.0%. (compared to 1.8% today).
According to ETC Chair Adair Turner, "We are ambitious but realistic. Despite the scale of the challenges facing use, we firmly believe the required transition is technically and economically achievable if immediate action is taken."

The ETC calls for the decarbonisation of power generation and extended electrification of the transport and building sectors. Clean electrification, it finds, could alone deliver half of the carbon emissions reductions required to reach 20 gigatonnes (Gt) of emissions by 2040. The ETC also calls for decarbonisation of sectors that cannot be cost-effectively electrified, such as aviation, shipping, and heavy industries. It considers that in these areas progress has been too slow, and stronger public policies and private investment are required.

2. Methane from gas and oil wells found to travel farther than expected underground

Methane from gas and oil wells found to travel farther than expected underground

Canadian researchers from the University of Guelph have published a study in Nature Geoscience which reveals that even small quantities of methane gas can travel greater than expected distances underground, posing safety risks, contaminate water, and contribute to climate change.

The research findings, discussed in The Tyee, also found that current monitoring of methane impacts from oil and gas wells, which is usually at ground level or adjacent to wells, is not sufficient to detect the contamination that may be caused.

According to the researchers, theirs is the first study to investigate where methane that leaked from a well would go, and what the effects on the groundwater would be.

The researchers injected about a cubic metre of methane per day (far less than has been recorded at leaking oil and gas wells in Alberta and British Columbia) over a 72-day period into a shallow sand aquifer, and tracked the injected methane for more than eight months, using monitoring wells to see how the explosive methane gas travelled through the ground, escaped to the atmosphere or dissolved in the groundwater.

The study found that, while bacteria can metabolize methane, creating undesirable byproducts such as hydrogen sulphide, the methane was observed to degrade at low rates. This means that in the event of a leak, the methane could remain in the area of an aquifer for a long time. However, as study author Aaron Cahill noted, the study only covered a short period of time and a small amount of methane. "For larger leaks over longer times and greater areas," he explained, "these findings would indicate that the groundwater would likely become unusable."

The lingering presence of methane underground also poses the danger of explosions, if the methane were to migrate to a pump house or a basement or other confined space. There have been a number of incidents of explosions in the US and Canada in which explosions have occurred due to the accumulation of leaked gases from fracking operations.

3. Melting Greenland ice could cause metres of sea level rise

As the Guardian explains, there are three main causes of sea level rise: expansion due to warming ocean waters, melting ice in Antarctica, and melting ice in Greenland.

New research published by the American Geophysical Union in the journal Geophysical Letters Review examined the topography of land underneath a fast-moving mass of Greenland ice called the Jacobshavn Isbrae, in order to better predict ice collapse and sea level rise.

The researchers found that the trough underneath the ice was deeper than previously thought, by 300 – 400 metres. They also found that the trough shape favours a fast retreat of the glacier in the coming years and decades. This ice melt, once it starts, will be nearly impossible to stop, implying enormous social and economic consequences due to the sea level rise that the melting will cause: globally, 150 million people live within one metre of today's sea level. According to the Arctic Institute, the melting of the entire Greenland inland ice sheet would raise the global water level by approximately 6 metres.

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