The week that's gone: 23 March 2013

This is a summary of the stories we have published in the week ending Saturday 23 March. Yes, you read that right – we’re a whole week behind. Sorry! (All the stories are archived).

‘All will win’ from cleaner vehicles

18 March – Limits on carbon emissions from light-duty vehicles proposed by the European Union, and due to come into force by 2020, will create jobs and save car owners money as well as helping the climate and improving public health, according to academics and economists. Their report, published today, is timed to influence the Industry, Research and Energy Committee of the European Parliament, which is meeting tomorrow, 19 March, to discuss the new proposals. If adopted by the Parliament these new limits will force manufacturers to improve the efficiency of engines, something that they have failed to do voluntarilyThe key proposal by the European Commission is to cut average emissions from new cars from the current target of 130 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometer in 2015 to 95 in 2020.

Africa’s energy ‘can drive its growth’

18 March –  Africa can go a long way towards lifting itself out of poverty and ending its chronic shortage of energy by using its own resources, a report says. The report, entitled Powering Africa through Feed-in Tariffs – advancing renewable energies to meet the continent’s electricity needs, says renewable energy feed-in tariff policies (REFiTs) can unlock renewable energy development in Africa. REFiTs encourage investment in generating renewable energy – by individual home owners and communities as well as institutional investors – by guaranteeing to buy all the electricity produced from renewable sources. The report is based on analysis of existing and planned REFiT policies in 13 African countries (see end for list). It is the work of the World Future Council and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, with the support of Friends of the Earth UK.

Katrina ‘could soon happen every other year’

19 March – Extreme storm events on the scale of Hurricane Katrina which caused widespread damage in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 will occur far more often because of climate change, a new study says. The research says the threat from extremely damaging hurricane-induced storm surges in the Atlantic will increase significantly as global temperatures rise. Hurricanes are very sensitive to temperature changes, and the number of Katrina-magnitude storms may double because of the increase in global temperatures, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Storm surges are localised increases in sea level, brought about by extreme low pressure, which causes the sea to rise in a dome underneath. These surges sometimes run ashore at high tide and devastate local populations.

Warmer wasps may mean fewer figs

20 March – High temperatures could have devastating effects on some of the most important trees in tropical ecosystems. A global average temperature rise of 3°C might not do lasting harm to a tropical fig variety – but if it killed the little creature than pollinates it, there could be problems. There are more than 750 known varieties of the genus Ficus, or fig. Each is home to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of creatures, and figs provide year-round food for a huge range of birds and animals, including orang-utans, fruit bats, capuchin monkeys, at least one species of parrot, pigeons, hornbills and the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly. But each fig is dependent on one species of fig wasp to pollinate it… The message is that, with average temperatures increasing, and with ever higher day time maximums, fig wasps could be in for a hard time.

Volcano ‘did little to lower CO2′

21 March – Plankton, tiny marine organisms, are a good way of cleansing the atmosphere of one of the main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide. To do this they need dissolved iron to help them to grow, and if they lack iron then they cannot do much to reduce CO2 levels. So the eruption in 2010 of an Icelandic volcano gave scientists a perfect opportunity to see how much the cataclysm helped the plankton by showering them with unexpected clouds of iron. Their verdict, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters – the volcano certainly helped, but not for long enough to make much difference. This is a blow to some supporters of geo-engineering, who have suggested that one way to tackle climate change is large-scale seeding of the oceans with iron to stimulate plankton to absorb more carbon dioxide (see our 14 March story, Who will regulate the researchers?).

Bio-cement solves two problems

23 March – Engineers are working on yet another way to deliver more energy and cut carbon dioxide emissions. The latest trick: use the waste from biofuel production to make a stronger, greener concrete. Biofuel is rapidly becoming big business: as demand rises, farmers are gathering up wheat and rice straw and the leaves and stalks of maize as the raw material for bioethanol. Concrete, too, is global big business: the world uses seven billion cubic metres of the stuff every year, and every tonne of cement – an essential part of the mixture –  made by traditional processes means another tonne of CO2 dumped in the atmosphere. The manufacture of Portland cement contributes an estimated 5% of global CO2 emissions. So Feraidon Ataie, a civil engineer from Afghanistan, now studying at the University of Kansas, has been working with colleagues on ways to close the loop. They are using byproducts of biofuel production to take the place of at least some of the cement in a concrete mix. Biofuel made from corn or grain leaves a residue that can be turned into cattle feed. But biofuel from the cellulose waste leaves a residue high in a woody substance, lignin, that usually has to be burned or buried. When the Kansas team added 20% lignin waste to their cement, the subsequent chemical reaction delivered a concrete more than 30% stronger.

About Alex Kirby

Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.

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