UK science policy in a changing Arctic: The Arctic Circle Assembly 2019

Dr Kate Hendry,  Associate Professor in Geochemistry at the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol

The Arctic is one of the most rapidly changing regions on Earth. Its lands and oceans are undergoing unprecedented transitions, from permafrost melting to sea ice thinning, and its people are vulnerable to the knock-on effects of climate change. Continue reading

Peru’s ancient water systems can help protect communities from shortages caused by climate change

Harvesting wheat in the Peruvian Andes.
Shutterstock.

Susan Conlon, University of Bristol and Kevin Lane, Universidad de Buenos Aires

Water is essential for human life, but in many parts of the world water supplies are under threat from more extreme, less predictable weather conditions due to climate change. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Peruvian Andes, where rising temperatures and receding glaciers forewarn of imminent water scarcity for the communities that live there. Continue reading

Climate-driven extreme weather is threatening old bridges with collapse

The damaged bridge near Grinton. July 2019 Picture: Danny Lawson/ PA
Maria Pregnolato, University of Bristol and Elizabeth Lewis, Newcastle University

The recent collapse of a bridge in Grinton, North Yorkshire, raises lots of questions about how prepared we are for these sorts of risks. The bridge, which was due to be on the route of the cycling world championships in September, collapsed after a month’s worth of rain fell in just four hours, causing flash flooding. Continue reading

Extinction Rebellion uses tactics that toppled dictators – but we live in a liberal democracy

XR protesters getting carried away. Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA.

Oscar Berglund, University of Bristol

After occupying parts of central London over two weeks in April, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) summer uprising has now spread to Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds and Bristol. All these protests involve disruption, breaking the law and activists seeking arrest.

Emotions are running high, with many objecting to the disruption. At the same time, the protests have got people and the media talking about climate change. XR clearly represents something new and unusual, which has the power to annoy or enthuse people. But what led it to adopt such disruptive tactics in its efforts to demand action on climate change? Continue reading

Climate change: sea level rise could displace millions of people within two generations

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A small boat in the Illulissat Icefjord is dwarfed by the icebergs that have calved from the floating tongue of Greenland’s largest glacier, Jacobshavn Isbrae.
Michael Bamber, Author provided

Jonathan Bamber, University of Bristol and Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University

Antarctica is further from civilisation than any other place on Earth. The Greenland ice sheet is closer to home but around one tenth the size of its southern sibling. Together, these two ice masses hold enough frozen water to raise global mean sea level by 65 metres if they were to suddenly melt. But how likely is this to happen? Continue reading

Why we’re looking for chemicals in the seabed to help predict climate change

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Alex Fox, Author provided

Katharine Hendry, University of Bristol and Allyson Tessin, University of Leeds

Hidden in even the clearest waters of the ocean are clues to what’s happening to the seas and the climate on a global scale. Trace amounts of various chemical elements are found throughout the seas and can reveal what’s going on with the biological reactions and physical processes that take place in them. Continue reading

Bees and butterflies are under threat from urbanisation – here’s how city-dwellers can help

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All a-flutter.
Shutterstock.

Katherine Baldock, University of Bristol

Pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies, are responsible for the reproduction of many flowering plants and help to produce more than three quarters of the world’s crop species. Globally, the value of the services provided by pollinators is estimated at between US$235 billion and US$577 billion. Continue reading

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil would be a disaster for the Amazon and global climate change

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Antonio Scorza / ShutterstockBlog first published on October 9, 2018  Ed Atkins, University of Bristol

It is perhaps a cruel irony that, on the same day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark call for urgent action, Jair Bolsonaro surged to victory in the first round of Brazil’s presidential elections. Although the leader of the far-right Partido Social Liberal did not achieve the 50% of the popular vote required to win outright, and will now have a run-off against Fernando Haddad of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), his rise has posed some painful and divisive questions both within Brazil and beyond. Continue reading

Courts can play a pivotal role in combating climate change

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Calin Tatu/Shuttestock.com

Alice Venn, University of Bristol

The international community has widely acknowledged the severe threats posed by the impacts of climate change to a series of human rights, including the rights to life, health, and an adequate standard of living. But a stark gap has emerged between this acknowledgement in global climate policy – evidenced by a non-binding clause in the preamble of the Paris Agreement – and their actions to meet promised targets. Continue reading

Belo Monte: there is nothing green or sustainable about these mega-dams

Google Maps

Ed Atkins, University of Bristol

There are few dams in the world that capture the imagination as much as Belo Monte, built on the “Big Bend” of the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. Its construction has involved an army of 25,000 workers working round the clock since 2011 to excavate over 240m cubic metres of soil and rock, pour three million cubic metres of concrete, and divert 80% of the river’s flow through 24 turbines.

The dam is located about 200km before the 1,640km Xingu meets the Amazon.
kmusser, CC BY-SA

Costing R$30 billion (£5.8 billion), Belo Monte is important not only for the scale of its construction but also the scope of opposition to it. The project was first proposed in the 1970s, and ever since then, local indigenous communities, civil society and even global celebrities have engaged in numerous acts of direct and indirect action against it.

While previous incarnations had been cancelled, Belo Monte is now in the final stages of construction and already provides 11,233 megawatts of energy to 60m Brazilians across the country. When complete, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the Amazon and the fourth largest in the world.

Indigenous protests against Belo Monte at the UN’s sustainable development conference in Rio, 2012. Fernando Bizerra Jr / EPA

A ‘sustainable’ project?

The dam is to be operated by the Norte Energia consortium (formed of a number of state electrical utilities) and is heavily funded by the Brazilian state development bank, BNDES. The project’s supporters, including the governments of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) that held office between 2003 and 2011, have justified its construction on environmental grounds. They describe Belo Monte as a “sustainable” project, linking it to wider policies of climate change mitigation and a transition away from fossil fuels. The assertions of the sustainability of hydropower are not only seen in Brazil but can be found across the globe – with large dams presented as part of wider sustainable development agendas.

With hydropower representing 16.4% of total global installed energy capacity, hydroelectric dams are a significant part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. More than 2,000 such projects are currently funded via the Clean Development Mechanism of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – second only to wind power by number of individual projects.

While this provides mega-dams with an environmental seal of approval, it overlooks their numerous impacts. As a result, dams funded by the CDM are contested across the globe, with popular opposition movements highlighting the impacts of these projects and challenging their asserted sustainability.

Beautiful hill, to beautiful monster

Those standing against Belo Monte have highlighted its social and environmental impacts. An influx of 100,000 construction and service workers has transformed the nearby city of Altamira, for instance.

Hundreds of workers – unable to find employment – took to sleeping on the streets. Drug traffickers also moved in and crime and violence soared in the city. The murder rate in Altamira increased by 147% during the years of Belo Monte construction, with it becoming the deadliest city on earth in 2015.

In 2013, police raided a building near the construction site to find 15 women, held against their will and forced into sex work. Researchers later found that the peak hours of visits to their building – and others – coincided with the payday of those working on Belo Monte. In light of this social trauma, opposition actors gave the project a new moniker: Belo Monstro, meaning “Beautiful Monster”.

The construction of Belo Monte is further linked to increasing patterns of deforestation in the region. In 2011, deforestation in Brazil was highest in the area around Belo Monte, with the dam not only deforesting the immediate area but stimulating further encroachment.

In building roads to carry both people and equipment, the project has opened up the wider area of rainforest to encroachment and illegal deforestation. Greenpeace has linked illegal deforestation in indigenous reserves – more than 200km away – to the construction of the project, with the wood later sold to those building the dam.

Brazil’s past success in reversing deforestation rates became a key part of the country’s environmental movement. Yet recently deforestation has increased once again, leading to widespread international criticism. With increasing awareness of the problem, the links between hydropower and the loss of the Amazon rainforest challenge the continued viability of Belo Monte and similar projects.

Big dams, big problems

While the Clean Development Mechanism focuses on the reduction of carbon emissions, it overlooks other greenhouse gases emitted by hydropower. Large dams effectively emit significant quantities of methane for instance, released by the decomposition of plants and trees below the reservoir’s surface. While methane does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide (only persisting for up to 12 years), its warming potential is far higher.

Belo Monte has been linked to these methane emissions by numerous opposition actors. Further research has found that the vegetation rotting in the reservoirs of dams across the globe may emit a million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. As a result, it is claimed that these projects are – in fact – making a net contribution to climate change.

Far from providing a sustainable, renewable energy solution in a climate-changed world, Belo Monte is instead cast as exacerbating the problem that it is meant to solve.

The ConversationBelo Monte is just one of many dams across the globe that have been justified – and funded – as sustainable pursuits. Yet, this conflates the ends with the means. Hydroelectricity may appear relatively “clean” but the process in which a mega-dam is built is far from it. The environmental credentials of these projects remain contested, with Belo Monte providing just one example of how the sustainability label may finally be slipping.

Ed Atkins, Senior Teaching Associate, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.