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The week that's gone: 20 April 2013

This is a summary of the stories we have published in the week ending Saturday 20 April.

Antarctic Peninsula’s thaw speeds up

14 April – Summer ice melt in the Antarctic Peninsula has increased almost 10-fold in the last 600 years,  weakening the area’s large ice shelves and reducing glacier size, scientists have discovered. The findings explain a series of sudden collapses of ice shelves in the last 20 years, which scientists studying them had not expected. The researchers say the melting that is now occurring could lead to further dramatic events, making the loss of large quantities of ice on the Peninsula more likely, and adding to sea level rise. The results are significant because in the last two decades scientists have been divided on whether the Antarctic would gain mass through extra snow falling and so reduce sea level rise, or would lose ice because of higher sea and air temperatures and so multiply the effect. The new data come from a 1,000-year Antarctic Peninsula climate reconstruction published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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Biofuels cost both rich and poor

15 April – Biofuels, widely seen as the green way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, may in some cases be worse for the climate than fossil fuels, a report says. Not only will they cost motorists more than ordinary petrol and diesel and increase fuel consumption: they will also make food more expensive. From 15 April, to meet European Union targets, suppliers in the UK are required to blend 5% of biofuel into the petrol and diesel they sell for transport. Rob Bailey, the author of the report, entitled The Trouble with Biofuels, says: “Current biofuels are at best an expensive way of reducing emissions. “At worst they produce more emissions than the fossil fuels they replace and contribute to high and unstable food prices. Policymaking needs to catch up with the evidence base.”

Solar link will bridge Mediterranean

16 April – The world’s largest concentrated solar power plant opened in March in the middle of Abu Dhabi’s western region, amid the country’s giant oil fields. The $600m plant’s hundreds of mirrors direct sunlight towards pipes full of oil to drive steam turbines that in turn provide enough electricity for thousands of homes. In a country whose vast wealth is generated by oil, adopting a new technology that produces only 100 megawatts of power – about a tenth the amount of a large coal-fired plant – may seem a mere token, but it is part of a much larger industrial strategy for the region. Serious money and political clout in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa is aimed at building hundreds of similar plants. The potential is so great that all the electricity requirements of these desert countries – and a good slice of Europe’s – could be met by 2050. European companies are now putting serious investment into a scheme to bring electricity from North Africa across the Mediterranean to their shores.

Climate alters global vegetation

17 April – The amount of vegetation in the world, and the way it is spread across the planet, has changed significantly in the last three decades, researchers say. They attribute more than half the changes they detected to the effects of the warming climate, with people responsible for only around a third. Surprisingly, perhaps, they are at a loss to attribute about 10% of the changes unequivocally to either the climate or us. They say their work marks a scientific advance, because it has only recently become possible to quantify how far climate variability, human activity or a combination of the two are responsible for what is happening. While the researchers, geographers from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and colleagues from the Netherlands, say the last 30 years have seen substantial changes, satellites have during that time been recording how vegetation has altered. In a striking and perhaps unexpected development, the team found that while vegetation has declined south of the Equator, it has increased in the northern hemisphere.

EU carbon plan is refused reprieve

17 April – The rejection by the European Parliament on 16 April of a rescue plan for the European Union’s flagship carbon-trading scheme, the EU ETS, has caused widespread dismay among environmental groups and green industries. The winners were the coal-mining and heavy industries, backed by Eastern European governments, particularly Poland (see our story of 20 February), which believed that paying for carbon credits would damage their competitiveness when the EU is already struggling for growth. The decision, by a narrow margin of 19, with more than 650 MEPs voting, is a severe setback for the EU’s attempts to cut carbon emissions. The pioneer carbon-trading scheme, launched in 2008, was seen as a way of using market forces to both clean up the environment and encourage green industries by forcing factories to modernize. Immediately after the vote the EU’s Council of Environment Ministers vowed it would think of another way of reviving carbon trading to help green technologies.

Fossil fuels ‘risk being wasted assets’

19 April – The first problem is this: most climate scientists agree that we cannot afford to burn the huge reserves of fossil fuel we have if we want any chance of preventing global average temperatures rising by more than 2°C. The second problem: last year the world spent $674 billion finding and developing more fossil fuel. If this continues unabated for ten more years, a report by an influential group of economists and scientists says, there will be a third problem: economies will have wasted more than $6 trillion of capital in pursuit of assets which are literally unburnable (and legally so too, if there are internationally agreed limits on fossil fuel emissions by 2023). The research is published in a report, Unburnable Carbon: Avoiding wasted capital and stranded assets, produced by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. The report says 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies could be classified as unburnable if the world is to cut emissions with an 80% probability of not exceeding global warming of 2°C.

Heat may defeat marathon records

20 April – Tragic events in Boston have cast a shadow over the London Marathon on 21 April and for the moment eclipsed a much longer-term and lower-urgency concern: will marathon records go on being broken? Or will rising global temperatures slowly begin to take the spring out of each competitor’s step? The question is a difficult one, because international marathon events are hard to compare: they are run at different altitudes, in different climates and at different times of the year, and each attracts an exceptional mix of competitors with varying race strategies. But the question gets new focus from the Boston tragedy, because the Boston marathon is unique. It is the oldest continuous annual marathon, and it has been run on the same course on approximately the same day each year since 1924. So last year four scientists from Boston University in Massachusetts reasoned in PLOS ONE, the journal of the Public Library of Science, that the Boston event’s annual records could help answer the question, largely because Boston could also provide the longest and most complete series of daily weather data recorded between midday and 2pm on the day of the race.