Category Archives: EGU 2016

EGU Debate: can we have global economic growth and a habitable climate?

by Liz Kalaugher

At the EGU General Assembly debate on “Is global economic growth compatible with a habitable climate?” there was discussion whether the session was even titled with the right question. Not to mention the pre-debate issue of whether the speakers should stand up or sit down.

To Clive Spash of WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, the title was too tightly focused on climate and should have widened out to a habitable planet. Spash, who believes that the economic view of the world is unrealistic, said he disagrees that economic growth is vital and thinks it’s politically naïve to try and shut down the debate on whether we need growth. In his view a carbon tax won’t work and decoupling of growth and carbon emissions won’t save us.

Narasimha Rao of IIASA, Austria, also wanted the question to be broader. Rao called for consideration of dimensions of wellbeing beyond economic growth, since the economy doesn’t reflect phenomena such as air pollution and oil spills.

Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, UK, reckons the answer depends on whom we’re referring to – rich people, people in poorer nations, or other species. Some in the rich parts of the world believe we can cope with 2, 3 or even 4 degrees of temperature rise, he said, whilst many developing countries believe that the maximum habitable temperature change for them is 1 or 1.5 degrees, given that many are already feeling the effects of climate change. And significant numbers of animal species are already struggling with temperature rise today, particularly as they’re under other environmental stresses too.

Given the rates of emissions reductions we’d need, Anderson said that a 1-1.5 degree threshold is no longer viable and we’re stuck with 2 or 2.5 degrees at best. “Economic growth is not compatible with a habitable climate for people like us,” he said, arguing that since the relatively poor need economic growth to have a habitable climate, it means big emissions cuts for the rich. And for non-human species, economic growth is again not compatible with a habitable climate.

Finally, Jorgen Randers confessed that having worked in sustainable development since 1972, he has failed as the world is less sustainable now. Randers argued that economic growth is compatible with a habitable climate but human society has not been willing to implement the solutions. To him, the question is “is humanity going to be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit GDP fast enough to get greenhouse gas emissions to decrease?” Whilst technically “it’s a piece of cake”, and shifting from dirty to clean production is cheap at a cost of just 1% of GDP, it has not been done and will not be done because people think too short-term. “That’s the sad story,” Randers added.

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EGU audience votes that Anthropocene began with industrial revolution

by Liz Kalaugher

Most audience members at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly session on the Anthropocene thought that we are already in this epoch. Session chair Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden conducted a quick straw poll mimicking a show of hands conducted at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting last December. Around five people reckoned we can’t ever say as we’re too close, and one person voted that we didn’t have enough information to make a call.

As to when the epoch started (if it has), the majority of the audience thought at the time of the industrial revolution, with substantial numbers voting for the 1950s, around 15 for the onset of agriculture and just one for 1610.

It wasn’t a very scientific poll – apart from in terms of the participants’ backgrounds – but as Gaffney detailed in his introduction, the concept of the Anthropocene is politically, economically, culturally and legally loaded, as well as being of scientific significance.

Even the name has been argued over, with suggestions such as the Capitalocene, Misanthropocene, the Obscene or even the Machine Age. Speaker Andrew Revkin of Pace University and the New York Times, US, who is a member of the International Stratigraphy Commission’s Anthropocene working group, detailed how he presciently came up with the term Anthrocene in his 1992 book on Global Warming. When he wrote that sentence, however, he was thinking that the idea was hundreds of years away, rather than just 8.

The Anthropocene working group will meet in Oslo at the end of this week.

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Keeping 60 million Romans fed as climate changed

by Liz Kalaugher

Think of Romans and the first things that come to mind are probably straight roads, gladiators and togas. But the Romans had to deal with climate change too, as Brian Dermody of Utrecht University in the Netherlands detailed to a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

During the time of the Romans, the climate moved from the Roman Warm Period (250 BC-250 AD) to the cooler Late Roman period, accompanied by precipitation changes too. By using a hydrological model and reconstructions of temperature and rainfall change, as well as population distribution and cropland estimates from nearly 15,000 archaeological sites and crop suitability maps, Dermody looked at the effects on the yield of four major crops for the Romans – millet, wheat, olives and grapes.

Overall, crop yields decreased as the climate cooled, Dermody’s models showed, particularly in the west of the Roman Empire. Surprisingly, yields of grapes, wheat and millet around the Mediterranean increased

To keep 60 million people fed, the highly civilised Romans relied on trade and irrigation. Dermody, who believes models give more of a subtle picture, will now look at trading routes and food supply using a network of routes developed by classicists.

Dermody said he responds to people questioning why he’s investigating history by replying that “as environmental scientists, we’re interested in the interactions between humans and the environment and how they played out long term”. The study could even tell us about water resource management and food redistribution today.

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Must vineyard managers choose between bees or worms?

By Liz Kalaugher

Given the option, would you help bees or worms? That’s the choice indicated by initial results presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week by Sophie Kratschmer of the University of Natural Research and Life Sciences in Vienna.

As part of the VineDivers project, Kratschmer found that, contrary to expectations, solitary bees in vineyards in eastern Austria thrived when there was less management of the vegetation between rows of vines. This higher diversity was a surprise as disturbed ground tends to contain more flowers, a food source for bees. Since solitary bees nest underground, however, they may not appreciate tillage. The team did find a link between flower coverage and the number of wild bee species.

Earthworms, in contrast, were more diverse when there was ploughing of the earth between the vines, probably, according to Kratschmer, because it boosts the carbon content and makes the soil less compact. Plant diversity and biomass weren’t affected by the management intensity.

Both bees and worms are useful for viniculture, with bees providing pollination while earthworms help form soil and cycle nutrients.

Fortunately, when it comes to selecting management regimes for vineyards, the findings may not boil down to a difficult choice between bees and worms. Next Kratschmer will investigate a “medium” management intensity, intermediate between the low and high regimes in this study, which may work for both types of animal.

The wider VineDivers project will pool results from France, Romania and Spain and also use GIS analysis to find out the role of landscape diversity.

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