Tilting Temperatures and Tipping Points: Preparing for El Niño

13th November 2023

Erin LynchErin Lynch

After declaring earlier this summer that El Niño had developed over the tropical pacific for the first time in seven years, new predictions from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) indicate a 90 percent probability of ‘El Niño’ during the second half of 2023. This could have severe weather and supply-chain impacts over the next 9-12 months. WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas said “The onset of El Niño will greatly increase the likelihood of breaking temperature records and triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and in the ocean”

What is El Niño?

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and its cousin, La Niña are complex naturally-occurring large-scale climatic phenomena involving variations (usually warming in the case of El Niño) in ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, and related changes in the overlying atmosphere. They typically last from 9-12 months and occur every 2-7 years, though climate change appears to have shortened this window — of the 26 El Niño events occurring since 1900, 7 have happened in the last 23 years.

The effects of El Niño are so widespread there is scarcely a corner of the globe it doesn’t touch — either directly or indirectly. El Niño is known for bringing unusual and extreme weather events, and unfortunately, disaster. 2016 was the last year we saw a ’full-blown’ El Niño, and it was also the hottest year on record. The current El Niño follows a rare “triple dip” La Niña period which lasted nearly three years and ended in March. While La Niña sees cooler sea surface temperatures, both have the ability to cause extreme weather events. Severe droughts seen around the world in recent years are linked to the unusually long La Niña.

The potential impacts of this year’s El Niño event are harrowing reminders of how interconnected and fragile our ecosystems - both manmade and natural really are:

Global Warming

A strong El Niño event can add up to 0.2°C to the average temperature of the Earth. As a consequence of this, the WMO’s report from earlier in May (led by the UK’s Met Office), said there is a 66% likelihood that the annual average near-surface global temperature between 2023 and 2027 will temporarily be more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels for at least one year.  There is a 98% likelihood that at least one of the next five years, and the five-year period as a whole, will be the warmest on record. We will, therefore, very likely temporarily exceed the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C. While hopefully short-lived, such an extreme temperature rise will likely cause devastating extreme weather events across the globe such as droughts, wildfires, coral bleaching, and kelp forest die offs.

Public Health

Across the world, the extremes in precipitation and fluctuations in temperature associated with El Niño have been known to be triggers for disease outbreaks. In Colombia, decreased rain-fall and increased temperatures has been linked with vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. In places where there is less precipitation, other public health impacts include respiratory illnesses from drought-induced wildfire smoke. In places with flooding, epidemics of water-borne illnesses and nutritional deficiencies due to crop failures have all been widely reported.

Supply Chain

While the UK is relatively insulated from the most extreme effects of El Niño events, it is likely to result in a colder and drier winter due to shifts in the jet stream. Still, the effects of global events can already be seen through shop shelves. In September, India imposed an export ban on non-basmati white rice following destructive rains which destroyed crop. Prices in key rice-producing countries have soared by 20% following spells of hotter, drier weather over the summer.

The unusually warm September weather in the UK meant that sales volumes fell 0.9% versus its predicted 0.2%, as shoppers refrained from purchasing any new autumnal clothing. Non-food stores had an overall 1.9% fall in trade. In the United States, Halloween chocolate has been reported to be much pricier this year as cocoa futures surged to a 44-year high, reaching $3,786 per metric tonne. Hotter, drier weather has stunted the growth of the cacao bean crop across West Africa.

Climate Opportunities + Resilience

Although most of the time El Nino has been associated with destruction and disaster, it can in certain areas present climate ‘opportunities’. El Niño events are typically associated with increased rainfall in parts of southern South America, the southern United States, the Horn of Africa and central Asia. In areas, such as in the Sechura desert of northern Peru, subsistence farmers and fisherman have for centuries used extreme rainfall events to fertilise land for agriculture and livestock farming, as well as to create temporary lakes which fill up with fish.

In parts of Africa with increased rainfall, potential opportunities include large-scale afforestation, water-harvesting, landscape regeneration through pasture reseeding, and increased agricultural production. However Meshack Sikuku, Regional Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator at Ripple Effect also cautioned that “whether these benefits will be maximised depends on one main factor – preparation. This requires partnerships, collaborations and coordination between communities, other actors and government.”

Charity news

Carbon Reduction

Carbon Reduction

EU's Gas-tight Regulations Pave the Way for a Cooler Future

Conversations on methane are heating up in anticipation of COP28, which will take place in Dubai later this year.

New analysis from the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) highlights the immense potential of the EU Methane Regulation. CATF’s new report suggests that the inclusion of a methane import standard within the regulation could lead to more than a 30% reduction in global methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, which currently represents 7% of all man-made methane emissions worldwide. Achieving these reductions by 2030 would constitute 20% of the necessary progress towards fulfilling the Global Methane Pledge’s ambitious goal.

This follows news of France’s proposal that the European Union gradually impose methane emissions limits on gas imported into the 27-country bloc. France proposes that from 2026, importers must prove that 70% of their fossil fuel imports comply with the EU methane rules, with the share increasing each year until 100% are covered in 2029. It is unclear how much support this proposal will garner — previously Germany and Poland have indicated continued willingness to extend the EU’s rules to cover fossil fuels imports, whereas Hungary and Romania have previously sought weaker rules.

ExxonMobil have also publicly expressed their potential willingness to join a U.N. led initiative that would require disclosing more details of its global methane output, a decision supposedly inspired by its deal for U.S. shale giant Pioneer Natural Resources.

The topic of ‘biochar’ has been cropping up more frequently following Microsoft’s announcement of its new partnership with Carbon Streaming and the Wavely Biochar Project. In late September, the tech-giant shared details of its multi million dollar investment in approximately 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide removal credits which will be realised through the production of burnt organic material, or biochar.

Biochar is created when organic matter undergoes pyrolysis, a procedure that can turn about half of the matter’s original carbon content into a stable form. This stable form can then stay in the ground for centuries and enhance soil — recent studies suggest using biochar can help keep nutrients like nitrogen in the ground. The energy generated during pyrolysis can be captured and used as a form of clean energy, and it is, essentially, a much cleaner form of charcoal.

Carbon180 has been actively working on better understanding and spreading awareness of the potential impact of biochar. One place where this might work is with the corn stubble that gets left in the field. The United States produces approximately 14 billion bushels of corn every year, generating a not-insignificant amount of byproduct. Charlotte Levy, a science advisor at Carbon180 said “Our objective is to try to use biomass that would otherwise be rapidly decomposing [and] doesn’t have other utility”. Indeed, biochar is not a silver bullet, nor is it without its own complications. Levy acknowledged that while biochar would need to be produced on a much larger scale in order to become a ‘legitimate climate solution’, that itself brings up ‘more complicated questions’.

Risks & Knowledge Gaps

While The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has cited biochar as one of the core methods of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), it simultaneously expressed its own reservations concerning the “potential risks [and] knowledge gaps due to the relative immaturity of use of biochar as a soil amendment and [the] unknown impacts of widespread application”. Carbon180’s research into this area has made it clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution with regard to biochar — it’s important that a lot more research be done into sustainable production and appropriate application methods.

Marine Conservation

Marine Conservation

Accelerating Marine Restoration by Addressing the Marine Finance Gap

Blue Marine Foundation just published a joint report with The Crown Estate, Finance Earth, and Pollination on the key barriers and potential solutions to the development of ‘high integrity natural capital markets’ for the UK marine environment.

Rising temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, deep-sea mining and overfishing present existential risks to marine environments. The gap between what’s required to adequately address these problems and what’s actually been or is likely to be committed (the ‘finance gap’) was estimated by the Green Finance Institute to be £56 billion in 2021. High integrity capital markets can help provide much needed new sources of financing for the restoration, conservation and sustainable management of UK coastal ecosystems.

The researchers compiled 20 key recommendations, which were published in the report and which will now be reviewed after factoring in feedback from a wider pool of stakeholders. These recommendations sit across three key buckets — financial, science, and policy — and offer a comprehensive review of how these markets might come about. ‘High integrity’ refers to outcomes that are tangible, impactful, achievable, and for the benefit of both nature and society, so the recommendations are grouped around these goals and industry leading best-practice.

Dan Crockett, Director of Ocean and Climate at Blue Marine Foundation said:

The publication of the first stage of this roadmap hopes to identify opportunities for long term and practical investment for nature and ensure collaboration across the sector. This will provide the UK with an opportunity to position itself as a leader in developing a high integrity marine natural capital market.

On October 19th, RiverActionUK, a key ally of Surfers Against Sewage, was granted permission by the High Court to bring a judicial review of the Environmental Agency over its alleged failure to enforce key regulations and protect the Wye from agricultural pollution.

This legal action follows an important study (’RePoKUs: Re-focusing Phosphorus use in the Wye Catchment’) published in May 2022 by researchers based at Lancaster University that found that 60-70% of the phosphorus in the River Wye now comes from agriculture, and an excess load of 3,000 tonnes of phosphorus enters the river every year. This excess is accumulating at a rate equivalent to 17kg of phosphorus per hectare when the national average is 7kg per hectare.

The Wye was designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in 2005 to protect the river’s extensive Ranunculus river weed beds. However over 90 per cent of the river’s Ranunculus has now been lost, suffocated by the algal blooms. In June 2020, a thick algal bloom extended for over 140 miles, almost the entire length of the river. As a consequence, the river is no longer meeting the SAC conservation status specified by the Habitats Directive.

While just the first stage in what is likely to be a longer legal battle, this is a positive step. River Action’s chairman and founder Charles Watson said:

We are delighted that we have now finally been granted permission to go to court, where we will vigorously make the case that a prime cause for the recent ecological collapse of the River Wye is the EA’s decision to slavishly follow DEFRA’s guidance to not enforce critical provisions of the 2018 Farming Rules for Water. These critically important regulations state that fertilisers and manures must not be spread on soils already over-saturated with excess nutrients.

Forest Conservation

Forest Conservation

Protecting Peruvian Rainforest

The Rainforest Trust and its partnering organisation the Centro para el Desarrollo del Indígena Amazónico (CEDIA) are raising awareness of their renewed strategy to protect the forested area across the Loreto region in Peru. For the past 25 years, the Rainforest Trust has partnered CEDIA to helps Indigenous and local communities achieve land ownership and management rights.

Peru holds the second-largest expanse of Amazon rainforest in the world after Brazil. Over 60% of the country is covered in thick rainforest that stores astonishing amounts of biodiversity. Unfortunately, from 2001 to 2021, Peru lost nearly 9 million acres of tree cover. The Loreto region, which spans over 3,825,000 acres, has lost 1.9 million acres of rainforest, more than anywhere else in the country .The Loreto shelters thousands of species including the endangered Giant Otter, Black-faced Black Spider Monkey and White-bellied Spider Monkey. The Peruvian amazon is also rich in stored carbon. The Indigenous territories included in this project will secure 1.2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents. If released into the atmosphere, the CO2 emissions that would result are comparable to burning over 2.7 billion barrels of oil — more than the 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2 emitted by South America in 2021. Why land-grabbing? What risks does the Loreto face, why? In 2021, the Mongabay Latin American team used geospatial analysis to show how 1,247 Indigenous communities across the Peruvian Amazon have been affected by deforestation, illegal mining and illicit coca crops. Many self-identified Indigenous communities in Peru do not have official recognition from regional authorities to certify their existence and therefore obtain legal title to their land. This affects their ability to challenge incursions. In the Loreto region alone, there are 417 self-identified Indigenous communities that lack regional recognition.

Important new research on Amphibians

Funding from the Rainforest Trust has helped bring about important new research into the world’s amphibians and the threats facing the species.

A Rainforest Trust grant Identifying Priority Sites for the Most Threatened Amphibian Species awarded to researchers based at the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group has helped contribute to ‘Ongoing declines for the world’s amphibians in the face of emerging threats’ a significant new study published in Nature.

The research presented the results of the second Global Amphibian Assessment (GAA2), which evaluated the extinction risk of 8,011 amphibian species for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The findings are stark: amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate class, with 40.7% of species globally threatened, and that while disease and habitat loss drove 91% of status deteriorations between 1980 and 2004, ongoing and projected climate change is now considered to drive 39% of status deteriorations since 2004, followed by habitat loss at 37%.

The article confirms that the global amphibian extinction crisis has not abated and highlights the need to address the emerging threat of climate change, which often exacerbates other threats. It also highlights the importance of research that addresses species-specific effects of climate change.

Climate Resilience

Climate Resilience

New Study on Drinking Water and Sand Dams

A new study published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment provided critical evidence for the idea that sand dams can and do have a positive impact on water security in drylands. The paper, led by researchers at Cranfield University, was the first to analyse sand-dam hand-pump abstraction data (that is, how much water was extracted from a source) over a long-term (from April 2019-October 2021), collected at regular intervals (hourly). The researchers combined this data with interviews to assess the use and reliability of sand dam hand-pumps in rural Kenya. Almost 60% of hand-pumps surveyed were able to meet drinking water needs by the end of the long dry season independently of other sources. The study also highlights how abstraction levels (how much water could be extracted from its source) varied based on salinity levels, dam wall area and livestock use. It is important to remember that despite their incredible potential, ‘not all sand-dams behave the same’ and may not always be the suitable solution to a community’s needs.

Promising results from a SolarAid e-waste repair pilot in Zambia demonstrate both the longevity of solar lights and how similar initiatives can contribute to the proper management of e-waste. The 14th of October was E-Waste Day, and SolarAid marked E-Waste Day (14th October) by sharing its initial findings from its pilot project in Zambia testing different approaches to localised, decentralised repair. Over the past 2 years, SolarAid have trialled their ‘Solar Saver: Second-generation lights’ pilot, funded in partnership with the German development agency (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH,) which aimed to extend the lifetime of small solar lights through better maintenance and access to repair for rural populations in Zambia. The pilot focused on a decentralised approach to repair to take advantage of the dynamic electronics repair economy which already exists in Zambia.

The preliminary results are very promising. Before the trial, SolarAid noted that 90% of customers kept their non-functioning products ‘hibernating’ because of the attachment rural customers have to their products and the hope they have that they could be repaired. This demonstrated the huge opportunity and market for repair in rural communities.

SolarAid’s research showed the proportion of customers who would seek repair services doubled as a result of the services being offered (43% to 85%) and the number of customers who would try and repair their own products went from 25% to just 2%. An incredible 91% of these products were repairable. The most common problem was the batteries. Swapping batteries is a simple procedure which can be easily and effectively solved locally by repair technicians or sales agents as long as they have the training, spare parts and tools to do so safely. Over the project period (2021-2022), SolarAid repaired 1,094 solar products.

The full white-paper, written in collaboration with the University of New South Wales, details the findings and can be found here.

Food & Agriculture

Food & Agriculture

The Sustainable Food Trust, along with its partner, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has just signed up 237 food companies from 38 countries to participate in the Big Food Redesign Challenge. This project will support food manufacturers to find novel and scaleable ways of producing food to help nature thrive by applying the principles of circular design.

The Challenge will gather producers, retailers, start-ups, and suppliers to accelerate the design and creation of food and food systems that will regenerate nature. Challenge participants will be supported by global leaders and experts in the circular economy and regenerative production to design new food products – or redesign existing ones – using circular design principles. By the time the next World Food Day arrives next October, the Big Food Redesign Challenge’s first retail partner, Waitrose, will be planning for the successful products to reach its shelves.

The Circular economy encompasses many different elements. Regenerative methods of production are important, but so too are planning the use of more diverse ingredients so this diversity and resilience can be reflected in the countryside, ‘upcycling’ (maximising human consumption of crops and livestock), and prioritising growing and rearing species and types that have a lower impact on the environment.

Peas and beans are one example of foods that can contribute to the circular economy. Since peas and beans help draw nitrogen, which is an important component of fertilisers, farmers who grow them can rely less on other more damaging pesticides and fertilisers which have been shown to contribute to species and biodiversity loss. However, for farmers to have the confidence to grow pea and bean crops, they need reassurance of consistent demand from food manufacturers. Manufacturers need ideas about how to use peas and beans. Changes may need to be made to traditional planning, financing, sourcing, and marketing cycles to sustain the supply chain. Retailers are the final link in the chain — they bring food systems to life for consumers and by adopting sustainable practices and commitments they can help shepherd system-wide change.

Critical Funding for new Cultivated Meat Start-Ups

Three companies backed by the Good Food Institute Europe have just received an additional €1.2 billion from EIT Food to solve some of the biggest barriers to producing cultivated meat at scale. Financial backing from EIT Food will enable the recipients to conduct additional market evaluations and move towards commercialisation, ensuring that there is a clear pathway for their products to find their way to consumers across Europe. Each company will employ 'food grade' cell culture media, which is notably less expensive and energy-demanding compared to the pharmaceutical-grade media used by biotech entities. Their goal is to create commercial products that can be utilised by cultured meat companies to achieve higher cell yields.

One of the winners is LenioBio, a pharmaceuticals company based in Germany that uses rapidly growing plant cells to produce proteins within 48 hours. The company was founded to address the West African Ebola outbreak in 2015 and its technology is currently used to simplify and accelerate protein discovery, development and production processes. LenioBio believe its technology can now be used by cultivated meat companies to produce any protein within two days at scale, using standard equipment and no advanced cell engineering expertise.

The Sacred-Stamp on Lab-Grown Meat

Certifying lab-grown meat as Halal or Kosher is conceptually challenging, but a vital step towards the widespread uptake of lab-grown meat — Halal consumers are estimated to represent approximately 25% of the world’s population, and 48% of the population in the Middle East and Africa follow a Halal diet. The global Kosher foods market size is projected to be valued at US$42.64 billion. There are estimated to be 12.35m Kosher customers in the United States alone, and many Muslim consumers purchase Kosher certified foods and vice-versa given the similarity of the dietary code.

A big step to the widespread uptake of lab-grown meat came in September, when three prominent Saudi Islamic scholars, Sheikh Abdullah AlManea, Abdullah al-Mutlaq and Saad Al-Shathry gave their stamp of approval to cultivated-meat. It was held that cultivated meat could be Halal so long as it comes from cells of permitted animals that are slaughtered according to Islamic law, the nutrients used to grow the cells do not contain forbidden substances like spilled blood or alcohol, and that the meat is verified as safe for human consumption. Indeed, regulatory conditions vary country-to-country and different religious communities take different approaches. In 2021, Indonesia’s leading Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama ruled that cells taken from living animals and cultivated in a bioreactor were not halal. Mirte Gosker, Managing Director of the Good Food Institute in Asia Pacific, said that ‘while the Eat Just decision does not immediately change the halal status of cultivated meat products on the market, it laid the groundwork for commercialisation.’ Also in September, the world’s largest kosher certification authority Orthodox Union certified the chicken cell line used by Israeli food start-up Supermeat. There was disagreement however earlier in the year over Aleph Farms’ lab-grown steak, with Ashkenazi chief Rabbi David Lau stating that the lab-grown steak was kosher, while Rabbi Menachem Genack, the chief executive of the Orthodox Union, said it was not, as the cell line was harvested from a living animal.

Education & Advocacy

Education & Advocacy

Forrest Hogg, Project Manager at Action for Conservation just published ‘Bringing Back Black Oats’, a new blog discussing how the Penpont estate has been re-integrating ancient black oats into their farming practice, as well as a range of eco-cultural mapping tools first pioneered by indigenous communities on the Amazon basin. In the spring of this year, the Penpont team planted 7 varieties of oats sent to them from the Seed Sovereignty network — locally-adapted varieties of ancient grains.

While black oats were commonly used across Welsh farms for centuries, they are now very rare after having disappeared in the mid 20th century as more specialised farms grew and mixed farms disappeared. This was a loss, both for biodiversity, but also for self sufficiency (for feed and bedding) and for being able to have greater diversity in food sourced locally. The movement was spearheaded by Llafur Ni, a project from The Gaia Foundation that works with Welsh farmers to cultivate and restore the black and grey oats that were a staple feed and food source of farmers.

More can be learned about the movement from this short film https://vimeo.com/489406001

On September 20th, 2023 ClientEarth lawyers appeared a Hague administrative court in a hearing against the Dutch Food and Consumer Safety Authority (NVWA). ClientEarth, and litigation partners, the Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) claim the NVWA failed to properly check the fish landings in their ports.

ClientEarth lawyer Nils Courcy said:

Today in court, the NVWA refused again to investigate concrete violations that we had warned them of. These breaches include failure to properly weigh the fish landed, ships switching off the geopositioning tracker, industrial vessels discarding huge quantities of fish, or lack of compliance with the obligation to land all catches in ports.

We want to make sure these violations stop, but it is the authority’s job to carry out these checks and investigate suspicious activities. This is key to avoid overfishing and prevent huge quantities of illegal fish from entering the market.

ClientEarth has asked Dutch authorities to enforce the law and improve fisheries control activities in the Netherlands, without which they claim there can be ‘no such thing as sustainable fisheries’.

This action follows an initial request for enforcement filed to the NVWA on 15 June 2021, and a complaint filed to the Dutch court on 24 January 2023. As early as October 2020, the European Commission warned the Dutch government against serious breaches of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation, and in May 2021: an investigation published in Dutch media revealed the lack of resources to monitor and control the fish landed in Dutch ports. In September 2022, NVWA published a report highlighting high risks of fraud in the Dutch fisheries sector.

A judgement on the issue is expected in early November.