The world we are shaping is feeling the strain

The world we are shaping is feeling the strain

The world risks being destabilised by human activity, scientists report, most of it the work of a rich minority of us.

LONDON, 16 January, 2015 – Humans are now the chief drivers of change in the planet’s physical, chemical, biological and economic systems according to new research in a series of journals. And the humans most implicated in this change so far are the 18% of mankind that accounts for 74% of gross domestic productivity.

And the indicators of this change – dubbed the “planetary dashboard” – are 24 sets of measurements that record the acceleration of the carbon cycle, land use, fisheries, telecommunications, energy consumption, population, economic growth, transport, water use and many other interlinked aspects of what scientists think of as the Earth System.

Although these indicators chart change since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the most dramatic acceleration – the scientists call it the Great Acceleration – seems to have begun in 1950. Some researchers would like to set that decade as the start of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, from Anthropos, the ancient Greek word for mankind.

On the eve of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a team of scientists led by Will Steffen of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and the Australian National University report in the journal Science that the world has now crossed four of nine planetary boundaries within which humans could have hoped for a safe operating space.

The four boundaries are climate change, land system change, alterations to the biogeochemical cycle that follow phosphorus and nitrogen fertiliser use, and the loss of a condition called “biosphere integrity”.

Past their peak

The scientists judge that these boundary-crossing advances mean that both present and future human society are in danger of destabilising the Earth System, a complex interaction of land, sea, atmosphere, the icecaps, natural living things and humans themselves.

“Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries”, said Professor Steffen. “In this new analysis we have improved the quantification of where these risks lie.”

The Science article is supported by separate studies of global change. These were backed by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, also headquartered in Stockholm, which publishes an analysis in the journal the Anthropocene Review.

Meanwhile a team of European scientists warn in the journal Ecology and Society that out of 20 renewable resources (among them the maize, wheat, rice, soya, fish, meat, milk and eggs that feed the world) 18 have already passed their peak production.

And a separate team led by scientists from Leicester University in Britain has even tried to pinpoint the day on which the Anthropocene era may be said to have commenced. In yet another journal, the Quaternary International, they nominate 16 July, 1945: the day of the world’s first nuclear test.

Unequal world

This flurry of research and review is of course timed to help world leaders at Davos concentrate on the longer-term problems of climate change, environmental degradation, and food security, in addition to immediate problems of economic stagnation, poverty, conflict and so on. But these immediate challenges may not be separable from the longer-term ones. To ram the message home, the authors will present their findings at seven seminars in Davos.

In the Anthropocene Review, Professor Steffen and his co-authors consider not just the strains on the planet’s resources that threaten stability, but also that section of humanity that is responsible for most of the strain.

Although the human burden of population has soared from 2.5bn to more than 7bn in one lifetime, in 2010, the scientists say, the OECD countries that are home to 18% of the world’s population accounted for 74% of global gross domestic product, so most of the human imprint on the Earth System comes from the world represented by the OECD.

This, they say, points to the profound scale of global inequality, which means that the benefits of the so-called Great Acceleration in consumption of resources are unevenly distributed, and this in turn confounds efforts to deal with the impact of this assault on the planetary machinery. Humans have always altered their environment, they concede, but now the scale of the alteration is, in its rate and magnitude, without precedent.

“Furthermore, by treating ‘humans’ as a single, monolithic whole, it ignores the fact that the Great Acceleration has, until very recently, been almost entirely driven by a small fraction of the human population, those in developed countries”, they say.

“…What surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern. The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950”

The IGBP-Stockholm Resilience Centre co-operation first identified their 24 “indicators” of planetary change in 2004, and the latest research is a revisitation. In 2009, researchers identified nine global priorities linked to human impacts on the environment, and identified two, ­ climate change and the integrity of the biosphere, ­ that were vital to the human condition. Any alteration to either could drive the Earth System into a new state, they said.

In fact, since then, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, and accordingly global average temperatures have steadily increased, along with sea levels. At the same time, habitat destruction, pollution and hunting and fishing have begun to drive species to extinction at an accelerating rate.

Almost all the charts that make up the planetary dashboard now show steep acceleration: fisheries, one of the indicators that seems to have levelled off, has probably done so only because humans may have already exhausted some of the ocean’s resources.

“It is difficult to over-estimate the scale and speed of change. In a single human lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force”, said Prof Steffen. “When we first aggregated these datasets we expected to see major changes, but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern.

“The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say that 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration. After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet.” ­­­­–­ Climate News Network

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Higher social costs bolster case for emissions curbs

Higher social costs bolster case for emissions curbs

Scientists in the US estimate that economic damage caused by CO2 could be six times higher than the value used to guide current energy regulations.

LONDON, 15 January, 2014 − Concerted action on climate change is looking like a bargain after research findings that the notional cost to society of global warming damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions has been seriously underestimated.

The US Environmental Protection Agency calculates the “social cost of carbon” at $37 per tonne – a figure used to guide current energy regulations and possible future mitigation policies. But two US researchers now put the cost for CO2 emitted in 2015 about six times higher − at $220 a tonne.

They report in Nature Climate Change that damage from climate change could directly affect economic growth rates, and will go on doing so, because each “temperature shock” could have a persistent effect that would permanently lower gross domestic product – the wealth indicator used by all economists – from what it would be if the world wasn’t warming.

In which case, nations have a greater incentive to step up efforts to curb carbon emissions.

Mitigation measures

“If the social cost of carbon is higher, many more mitigation measures will pass a cost-benefit analysis,” says one of the report’s authors, Delavane Diaz, of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, California. “Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile.”

Her co-author, Frances Moore, of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, says: “For 20 years now, the models have assumed that climate change can’t affect the basic growth rate of the economy. But a number of new studies suggest this may not be true.

“If climate change affects not only a country’s economic output but also its growth, then that has a permanent effect that accumulates over time, leading to a much higher social cost of carbon.”

“Because carbon emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile”

All such studies are based on assumptions and necessary simplifications. They have to take in not just the link between rising temperature and direct impacts on health, agriculture and coastal protection, but also population growth, changes in social patterns and national economic development.

They also make assumptions that the richer countries will better be able to absorb the shock of climate change, which in turn then becomes an argument for delaying action while the poorer countries advance their development.

Economic assessment

But the two Stanford researchers re-examined the climate impact and economic assessment models widely used by North American and European nations to put a measure to the cost of carbon emissions, and made a set of changes.

They allowed climate change to affect economic growth rates, they accounted for adaptation to climate change, and they divided their model to represent both low-income and high-income countries.

The conclusion is that the damage to growth rates is severe enough to justify very rapid and very early steps to limit the rise of average global temperatures to the 2°C above pre-industrial levels that most nations have agreed is necessary to avert the worst effects.

Moore says: “Until now, it’s been very difficult to justify aggressive and potentially expensive mitigation measures because the damages just aren’t large enough.” – Climate News Network

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Aviation industry faces pressure to stop GHG threat

Aviation industry faces pressure to stop GHG threat

Emissions from planes are a major clause of climate change, yet they remain unregulated. Can they be curbed in time to protect the planet?

OREGON, 1 January, 2015 − If commercial aviation were a country, it would rank seventh in global greenhouse gas emissions according to a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

The aviation industry is growing so quickly that its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are expected on present trends to triple globally by 2050. The industry itself is committed to reducing its emissions, but technological and political constraints are hindering rapid progress.

Technologically, the fate of aviation GHGs depends on how much more fuel-efficient airplanes can become, and how soon lower-carbon fuels can be made available at a palatable cost.

Politically, it depends on whether the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) can establish agreement among member states on a regulatory mechanism, which in turn may depend largely on whether – and when – the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chooses to regulate aviation emissions.

A final unknown is whether the sector’s efforts can produce results in time to  avoid climate catastrophe.

By 2050, the aviation industry aims to halve its CO2 emissions compared with 2005 levels, says Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a US public-private partnership.

Falling behind

The group is exploring “biomass-derived synthetic jet fuel”, which includes oils from plants and algae, crop and forest product residues, fermented sugars and municipal solid waste.

While this type of fuel can, in principle, be used in jet engines today, Csonka says the most important goal in the near term is to develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuel “at a reasonable price point”. A few airlines are buying alternative fuels at a higher price to encourage the market, Csonka adds, but widespread adoption awaits competitive pricing.

Aviation fuel efficiency has been increasing, but it is not keeping pace with the sector’s growth. The ICCT report finds there was no improvement between 2012 and 2013, and that the gap between the most and least efficient airlines widened − with American Airlines burning 27% more fuel than Alaska Airlines for the same level of service.

This gap suggests the industry could reduce GHG emissions significantly if the least efficient airlines would emulate the most efficient, says Daniel Rutherford, the ICCT’s programme director for aviation and a co-author of its report. Most of the reductions so far have come from carrying more passengers per flight, replacing old engines and buying new, more efficient planes.

Like most businesses, airlines don’t want to replace equipment until it makes economic sense. Nor does the industry want to be pinned to standards like those in the US auto industry, which would force “airplanes to improve to a certain degree every year or x number of years”, Csonka says.

Limited reductions

Such standards “completely overlook the capital ramifications” for the airlines, he adds, and companies’ profitability is a major factor in the pace at which they can replace old equipment. But the ICCT report suggests that airlines that have spent the most on new, efficient planes are also the most profitable.

Airplanes are at a disadvantage compared with vehicles and power stations. At present there are no low-carbon or no-carbon technologies − such as solar, fuel cells, nuclear reactors, electricity, or hydrogen combustion − that will work for aviation. Nor are there market-ready radically different airframe or engine designs.

Fuels derived from plants such as switchgrass, corn and algae can be used in existing engines, but to provide the same energy they need to be “essentially identical” to petroleum-derived kerosene, Csonka says. And if their hydrocarbon structure is the same, burning them will emit the same GHGs.

The advantage of synthetics, Csonka adds, is that “we are pulling recycled carbon out of the biosphere and not out of the ground”, which reduces the net carbon footprint − provided the fuels’ production does not generate too many GHGs itself.

“…the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45% in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development…”

For the foreseeable future, this is the best that can be expected from alternative fuels. This means there is a limit on how much aviation’s net GHG emissions can be reduced, even with alternative fuels, as long as the commercial airline fleet changes only incrementally and no major technological breakthroughs reach the market.

However, there are new engines, materials and aircraft designs now available that can make a big difference, Rutherford says: “We project that the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45% in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development, better engines, improved aerodynamics and lighter materials.”

Campaigners would like to see regulation obliging the industry to increase efficiency by improving faster.

Aviation needs a global policy and enforcement structure; all major airlines’ aircraft emit GHGs globally. This problem brought the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to its knees in 2014.

The ETS, which came into effect in 2012, charges airlines for their emissions in European Economic Area airspace. When non-EU airlines protested, the European Commission temporarily exempted flights to or from non-EU airports but still charged for emissions within EU airspace.

Washington, one of the most energetic lobbyists against the charges, forbade its airlines by law from paying the EU fees. The US also threatened trade sanctions, and China suspended its orders from European airplane manufacturer Airbus. There is now a moratorium on extra-EU carbon charges, pending the results of the next ICAO meeting in 2016.

No hurry

But despite the EU’s surrender to foreign pressure, many observers think the dispute has increased pressure on the ICAO to devise a meaningful emissions reduction programme.

The ICAO’s actions are expected to be closely co-ordinated with those of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Within the US, GHGs are regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, which requires action if an air pollutant is found to endanger the public. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that GHGs are pollutants.

Several US environmental NGOs say the EPA is dragging its feet on deciding “whether emissions cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.

It has refused repeated requests for an interview with an expert source and says it does not see the need for an interview. The agency expects to issue any regulations in 2016 − presumably in time for the ICAO meeting.

But there is no doubt that the EPA will have to produce an endangerment finding and eventually issue a regulation, says Vera Pardee, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who worked on the NGOs’ notice to the EPA.

Politics versus science?

In 2013 the ICAO committed to what the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions calls “an aspirational mid-term goal of zero carbon emissions growth for the aviation industry beginning in 2020”. In addition, Csonka says, the aviation industry has accepted the notion of “a market-based mechanism to offset if we miss that goal in an international environment. Our industry will have carbon monetised from 2020 onward to some degree.”

Yet time is vital, and there is a risk that action taken by governments and industry may be politically feasible but scientifically ineffectual. There is no guarantee that the 2016 ICAO meeting will result in binding obligations.

In the meantime, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently aims at a 40%-70% drop in total global GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid a greater than 2˚C rise in global temperature. In January 2013, climate scientist Thomas Stocker warned in the journal Science that delayed action results in the “fast and irreversible shrinking, and eventual disappearance, of the mitigation options with every year of increasing greenhouse gas emissions”.

But the next two years are likely to see a firming up of the aviation industry’s commitment to GHG reductions and some sort of international mechanism to charge for emissions.

There are signs that industry experts and green advocates are cautiously optimistic. “I see the EPA’s domestic regulation of the airlines as a real catalyst for global action,” says Pardee. “If the EPA acts, the rest of the world will have to follow”. And Csonka adds: “The future is somewhat bright.” – Climate News Network

•Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists.

http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html; Twitter link: @sacagawea

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Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

Biofuels are controversial because they are often produced from food crops or grown on farmland, but a common algae found in abundance around coastlines and clogging up beaches may be the answer.

LONDON, 19 October, 2014 – It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy − about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors” – which look like tiny sealed straws – Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79%. That means that 79 % of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19%. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2 as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79%, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research. – Climate News Network

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Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Warnings within the world of high finance are coming thick and fast that the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change means investors could lose heavily by sinking funds into coal, oil and gas.

LONDON, 18 October, 2014 − Like most central bank governors, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, chooses his words carefully.

So the financial community – and government policy makers − sat up and took notice earlier this month when Carney, addressing a World Bank seminar on corporate reporting standards, said he was concerned about investments in fossil fuels.

“The vast majority of reserves are unburnable,” Carney said.

‘Tragedy of horizons’

He warned companies, investors and policy makers that they need to avoid what he described as the “tragedy of horizons”, and to look further ahead to meet challenges such as climate change.

Investors are being repeatedly told that money sunk into fossil fuels is not only bad for the climate, but is also potentially seriously dangerous to financial health.

The fundamental idea espoused by a wide spread of influential voices – ranging from the International Energy Association (IEA) to finance funds that have many billions of dollars worth of investments under their control − is that, in order to combat climate change, a large portion of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

“Not more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal,” the IEA says.

Limiting a rise in average global temperatures to 2˚C by mid-century is considered to be the minimum necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As action is taken and regulations are tightened, investments in fossil fuels, whether in a coal mine or in oil or gas exploration and production, will become frozen – or, in the parlance of the finance industry, “stranded”.

In the lead up to a major UN conference on climate change in New York last month, a group of high-roller investment funds − which, together, control more than $24 trillion worth of assets – called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for urgent action on climate change.

“We’re not going to be able to burn
it all. Science is science”

Barack Obama, the US president, has joined in the chorus, calling for fossil fuels to stay in the ground. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said earlier this year. “Science is science. And there is no doubt that if we burned all fossil fuels that are in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot, and the consequences could be dire.”

Major campaigns calling for divestment from fossil fuels have been launched. Groups such as 350.org, which campaigns for more awareness on climate issues, have had considerable success in persuading various bodies – from universities to the UK’s leading medical association − to stop investing in fossil fuels.

A number of pension funds, with billions of dollars worth of investments under their control, have said they will either cut back or stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry.

Public pressure

Meanwhile, giant coal, oil and gas corporations have been told they could face a public backlash if they seek to avoid or deny public pressure on climate change issues.

But for those who want to see an end to the fossil fuel industry, the battle is by no means won. It is only just starting.

A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment says the world’s 200 largest publicly-quoted fossil fuel companies spent an estimated total of $674bn on exploring and developing new reserves in 2012. And that figure does not include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on exploiting existing fossil fuel sites.

Coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, is still king in many regions of the world, particularly in the fast-growing economies of China and India. Coal companies, urged on by politicians, are still investing billions in new facilities.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, opening a huge new mine in Queensland that will produce about 5.5 million tonnes of coal each year, said last week: “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.” – Climate News Network

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Europe throws nuclear power a state aid lifeline 

Europe throws nuclear power a state aid lifeline

The controversial decision that Europe will allow state subsidies for nuclear power is likely to face a legal challenge by opponents who believe it will kill off the market for renewable energy.

LONDON, 9 October, 2014 − The European Commission has now agreed that Britain can subsidise the building of the world’s most expensive nuclear power station − despite previously believing that the deal breaks the European Union’s rules on state aid.

The £16 billion plant planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset, south-west England, was approved by just one vote at a meeting yesterday of the EC. And the decision was made even more controversial by the fact that the current members of the Commission end their term of office this month.

The new commissioners, who were not consulted over the issue, are now expected to face a series of challenges in the European Court of Justice over the legality of the deal.

The two European Pressurised reactors of 1.650 megawatts each that are planned for Hinkley Point by the French state-owned energy giant EDF are supposed to be constructed by 2023, but the track record of the nuclear industry is so poor that this is unlikely.

Over budget

A similar single reactor being built by the same company at Flamanville in France was scheduled to be completed by 2012, but is already four years late and €5 billion over budget.

The British government subsidy comes in the form of a guaranteed price for the electricity of £92.50 per megawatt hour for all the energy that the power station generates. This is double the current price of electricity, and the government has to buy it whether or not the electricity is needed.

Announcing yesterday’s decision, the EC Vice-President, Joaquin Almunia, said these subsidies had been modified so that if EDF made excess profits some money would be returned to the British taxpayer.

For the nuclear industry, the decision is a shot in the arm as it has never been possible to finance a nuclear power station without state aid. This is because private enterprise is not prepared to put up the massive capital and have it tied up in the power stations for a decade or more before there is any financial return.

The UK wants to build a whole series of new reactors on similar subsidies, and both Poland and the Czech Republic have expressed a wish to do the same because they fear that they are too reliant on Russian gas for their energy needs.

Lord Hutton of Furness, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, described the EC’s approval as “an important step”.

Ageing generation

He said: “This will set in train an important time for the nuclear sector in the UK as new-build projects get under way to replace the current ageing generation. It also gives certainty to other European countries looking at the UK system of contracts for difference as a mechanism to secure their own supply.”

Garry Graham, Deputy General Secretary of the Prospect trade union, said: “This is fantastic for jobs, consumers and the UK economy. Nuclear new-build is a key component in providing the UK with low-carbon energy generation.

“When operational, Hinkley Point C will provide seven per cent of our energy needs for generations to come. Its construction and operation will provide thousands of high-quality skilled jobs, while the £16bn investment will give a real boost to businesses on both a local and national level.”

However, even before the decision was announced, Austria, which strongly supports renewable energy sources, had already threatened to take the EC to the European Court of Justice to challenge the decision.

The Austrians are unlikely to be alone. A group of energy companies, scientists and associations have also been looking at a legal challenge.

Profoundly disappointed

One of those involved is Paul Dorfman, from the Nuclear Consulting Group. He said: “We are profoundly disappointed that the outgoing European Commission administration has decided to rush through this decision to approve state aid to Hinkley Point C without giving the new Commission the opportunity to review and reflect on a decision that will set a significant precedent on energy and competition policy.

“That this decision has been taken in undue haste only strengthens the grounds for, and likely success of, a legal challenge.

“The decision document refers to a significant body of new evidence from the UK and EDF, yet there is no adequate access to this information − which means that it is impossible to check the validity of this information.

“Since this evidence has persuaded the Commission to change its mind, it is important that this is properly scrutinised and validated before any final conclusion was made.

“We will be unable to make any further detailed comment until the material is released. However, we are convinced that this state aid will distort the UK and pan-EU energy market. Subsidies should not be provided to a mature technology like nuclear. We will be working with those directly and indirectly impacted by its distortive impacts over the coming weeks to put together our case.”

Andrea Carta, EU legal adviser for Greenpeace, said: “There is absolutely no legal, moral or environmental justification for turning taxes into guaranteed profits for a nuclear power company whose only legacy will be a pile of radioactive waste.” – Climate News Network

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Investor heavyweights call for clear action on climate

Investor heavyweights call for clear action on climate

As a major UN climate summit gets under way in New York today, some of the world’s leading institutional investors demand clearer policies on climate change and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

LONDON, 23 September, 2014 − Many of the biggest hitters in the global financial community, together managing an eye-watering $24 trillion of investment funds, have issued a powerful warning to political leaders about the risks of failing to establish clear policy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 340 investment concerns − ranging from Scandinavian pensions funds to institutional investors in Asia, Australia, South Africa and the US − have put their signatures to what they describe as global investors’ most comprehensive statement yet on climate change.

In particular, the investors call on government leaders to provide a “stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon policy”, and to develop plans to phase out subsidies on fossil fuels.

They warn: “Gaps, weaknesses and delays in climate change and clean energy policies will increase the risks to our investments as a result of the physical impacts of climate change, and will increase the likelihood that more radical policy measures will be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ambitious policies

“Stronger political leadership and more ambitious policies are needed in order for us to scale up our investments.”

Attempts to establish carbon pricing systems capable of making an impact on climate change have so far ended in failure, while oil and gas companies continue to battle against stopping fossil fuel subsidies.

The investors’ move has been welcomed by the United Nations.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, said: “Investors are owners of large segments of the global economy, as well as custodians of citizens’ savings around the world. Having such a critical mass of them demand a transition to the low-carbon and green economy is exactly the signal governments need in order to move to ambitious action quickly.

“What is needed is an unprecedented re-channelling of investment from today´s economy into the low-carbon economy of tomorrow.”

The investors’ statement comes amid growing concern in the finance sector about the economic consequences of a warming world.

Last week, a commission composed of leading economists and senior political figures said the transition to a low-carbon economy was vital in order to ensure continued global economic growth.

Stranded assets

Other groups say investors who continue to put their money into fossil fuels are taking considerable risks. As governments and regulators face up to the enormity of climate change and place more restrictions on fossil fuels, such investments could become what are termed “stranded assets”.

There are also signs of a surge in low-carbon technologies, particularly in the renewable energy sector. Last week, Lazard, the asset management firm, reported that a decline in cost and increased efficiency means large wind and solar installations in the US can now, without subsidies, be cost competitive with gas-fired power.

There is also increased activity on the carbon pricing front. China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, recently announced it would establish a countrywide emissions trading system by 2016.

If implemented, the China carbon trading system will be the world’s biggest. The country already runs seven regional carbon trading schemes. – Climate News Network

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Political will is only barrier to 100% renewables

Political will is only barrier to 100% renewables

A report published ahead of next week’s UN Climate Summit illustrates that poor and prosperous nations, tiny islands and great cities, can achieve all their energy needs from renewables.

LONDON, 20 September, 2014 − A new handbook shows how forward-looking communities around the world are already moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and generating their own power with 100% renewables − while also becoming more prosperous and creating jobs.

The report, How to Achieve 100% Renewable Energy, is being released today, ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York next Tuesday (September 23), when the UN Secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, will call on world leaders to make new commitments to cut fossil fuel use.

The World Future Council, based in Hamburg, Germany, has issued the report to show that it is only lack of political will that is preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels. It believes that the leaders at the UN summit need to set ambitious targets and timetables to achieve the switch to renewables.

Technologies exist

Using case histories − from small islands in the Canaries to great commercial cities such as Frankfurt in Germany and Sydney in Australia − the report makes clear that the technologies to go 100% renewable exist already.

In many cases, the switch has the combined effect of saving money for the community concerned and creating jobs, making everyone more prosperous. In all cases, improvements in energy efficiency are essential to meeting targets.

Where the100% renewable target is adopted, it gives the clearest signal to business that investments in clean technologies will be secure. The report says: “The benefits range from savings on fossil fuel imports, improved energy, and economic security, as well as reduced energy and electricity costs for governments, local residents and businesses.”

There is no case made for nuclear power. Indeed, the report says that the uranium needed for nuclear fuel is − like coal, oil and gas − a finite resource that will soon be running out.

One of the case histories in the report is the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. In March 2011,  it sustained the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and has now opted to go for 100% electricity from renewables by 2040.

Some of the 100% renewable targets detailed in the report are just for electricity production. The authors − Toby Couture, founder of the Berlin-based energy consultancy E3 Analytics, and Anna Leidreiter, climate and energy policy officer at the World Future Council − point out that heating and cooling, and particularly transport, without fossil fuels is far more challenging, but still equally possible. Some countries are already committed to it.

Denmark, a pioneer in the field, has a target of achieving all its electricity and heating needs from renewables by 2035, and all energy sectors − including transport − by 2050. This includes an expansion of wind and solar power, biogas, ground source heat pumps, and wood-based biomass. Because of its investments, the country expects to have saved €920 million on energy costs by 2020.

At the opposite end of the scale, El Hierro, a small island in the Canaries, has a 100% energy strategy, using a wind farm and a volcanic crater. When excess electricity is produced by the wind farm, water is pumped into the volcanic crater, which acts as a storage lake for a hydroelectric plant. This supplements the island’s electricity supply when the wind drops or when demand is very high.

A future component of El Hierro’s strategy is to replace the island’s entire stock of 4,500 cars with electric vehicles, so cutting the need to import fuel.

Surplus electricity

Some places have already exceeded 100% electricity from renewables. The Rhein-Hunsruck district west of Frankfurt, Germany, managed this in 2012, and expects by the end of this year to be producing 230% of its needs, exporting the surplus to neighbouring areas through the national grid. It hopes to use the surplus in future for local transportation, hydrogen or methane production.

There are many other examples in the report, including from San Francisco in the US, Cape Verde island in West Africa, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, and Tuvalu island in the Pacific. These show that both rich and poor communities can share the benefits of the renewable revolution – and, in the case of the 3 billion people still without electric power in the world, bypass the need for fossil fuels altogether.

Jeremy Leggett, a pioneer of solar power and author of a foreword to the report, says: “We are on the verge of a profound and urgently necessary shift in the way we produce and use energy.

“This shift will move the world away from the consumption of fossil resources towards cleaner, renewable forms of power. Renewable energy technologies are blowing the whistle on oil dependency and will spark an economic and social renaissance.

“The question is: Do we make this transition from fossil resources to renewables on our own terms, in ways that maximise the benefits to us today and to future generations, or do we turn our heads away and suffer the economic and social shocks that rising prices and market volatility will create?” – Climate News Network

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Climate action and economies can grow together

Climate action and economies can grow together

A new global commission report by major political and business figures refutes the claim that economic expansion and tackling climate change can’t both be achieved at the same time.

LONDON, 17 September, 2014 − We can have our cake and eat it. That’s the main message of a new study that says the idea that we have to choose between battling against climate change or promoting growth in the world’s economy is a “false dilemma”.

The report, The New Climate Economy, was produced by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico, and including eminent economist Lord [Nicholas] Stern.

Calderon, addressing what he describes as a “false dilemma”, says: “The message to leaders is clear. We don’t have to choose between economic growth and a safe climate. We can have both.”

Lord Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review, which comprehensively detailed, for the first time, the economic consequences of not taking action on climate change, says decisions being made now will determine the future of both the economy and the climate.

High-quality growth

“If we choose low-carbon investment, we can generate strong, high-quality growth – not just in the future, but now,” he says. “But if we continue down the high-carbon route, climate change will bring severe risks to long-term prosperity.”

The commission’s report, released at the United Nations in New York shortly before a major UN climate summit, says there are now big opportunities for achieving strong economic growth and, at the same time, lowering emissions across three sectors:

  • Building more compact, better connected cities will improve the quality of life of urban dwellers, improve economic performance, and lower emissions.
  • Improved land use can cut emissions resulting from deforestation. Restoring 12% of the world’s degraded land would dramatically raise farmers’ incomes.
  • More and more of the world’s energy is likely to be generated by renewables, cutting dependence on highly-polluting coal. Renewables is now a big growth industry, spurring on various economic activities.

The report says that about US$90 trillion is likely to be invested in infrastructure in the world’s cities, agriculture and energy systems over the next 15 years, and spending should be directed towards low-carbon growth that would not only benefit the climate but also business productivity.

The study calls for the phasing out of huge amounts spent worldwide on subsidies for fossil fuels – currently US$600 billion, compared with US$100bn for renewable, the report says. Competitive energy markets, consistent government policy, a strong price for carbon, and greatly expanded research in low carbon technologies are also needed.

If fully implemented, the report’s authors calculate, a reduction of up to 90% in emissions could be achieved by 2030, and dangerous climate change would be averted.

Meaningful action

Although the report’s findings have been endorsed by a wide range of leading politicians, business figures and economists, there are those who would argue against the idea that economic growth can be achieved alongside meaningful action on climate change.

For example, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK thinktank, contends that indefinite global economic growth is unsustainable.

In a 2010 report, Growth Isn’t Possible, the NEF said economic growth is constrained by the finite nature of the planet’s natural resources. “Growth forever, as conventionally defined, within fixed though flexible limits, is not possible,” it said. “Sooner or later, we will hit the biosphere’s buffers.”

Others would point out that although a carbon market has been in operation for several years, the price of carbon has failed to rise. The introduction of market forces and competition in the energy sector in many countries has done little to lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

In many countries, including India, China, Australia and some states in Europe, a central role in driving economic growth is still played by coal, the most polluting of all energy sources. – Climate News Network

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Top 20 oil projects put investors’ billions at risk

Top 20 oil projects put investors’ billions at risk

An oil industry thinktank warns that high-cost extraction projects failing to match oil demand with global emissions reduction targets could waste US$91 billion of investors’ money over the next decade. 

LONDON, 15 August 2014 – If you want a safe bet, don’t invest in some of today’s tempting oil and gas projects. That’s the message from a UK-based financial thinktank that aims to align the global energy market with climate reality.

The report, by the not-for-profit Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), warns that US$ 91 billion of investors’ money risks going to waste over the next decade because of the industry’s plans.

It highlights a top 20 of the world’s most expensive future oil projects being considered for development, and concludes that, to be profitable, some of them will need oil prices to be far higher than today’s levels.

The findings in the report, CTI says, demonstrate the mismatch between continuing oil demand and reducing carbon emissions to limit global warming.

Economic justification

Since an earlier CTI report in May this year, institutional investors have been asking for more details of the economic justification for projects that require high oil prices.

This latest research ranks oil majors according to their capex (capital expenditure) exposure to undeveloped, high-cost projects, and reveals the projects at highest risk.

The companies, CTI says, need to reduce exposure to exploration projects that must earn the highest prices for their oil, and that this is the principle that should determine investment decisions, rather than the simple pursuit of production volume.

“This analysis demonstrates the worsening
cost environment in the oil industry”

All the fields require at least $95 a barrel to be sanctioned, identified by CTI as the key risk level −  the market price required to go ahead with the project, assuming a $15 contingency allowance or “risk premium” on top of the break-even price.

Some projects will need prices above $150 per barrel. The global Brent oil benchmark has ranged between $99 and $114 per barrel over the past 12 months.

Using data from the independent consultants Rystad Energy, CTI finds that BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, Eni and Royal Dutch Shell are considering investing a total of $357 billion over the next decade on new production in costly and often technically-challenging projects − ranging from Canadian oil sands to deep water finds in the Gulf of Mexico and discoveries in the Arctic.

Both BP and Total have particularly high exposure to deep water and ultra-deep water projects, while ConocoPhillips is heavily exposed to Arctic projects. High carbon-emitting oil sands projects account for 27% and 26% respectively of Shell’s and Conoco’s potential high-cost development spend.

“This analysis demonstrates the worsening cost environment in the oil industry, and the extent to which producers are chasing volume over value at the expense of returns,” said Andrew Grant, CTI analyst.

Projects shelved

Some majors have started cutting already. For example, in the Canadian oil sands sector so far this year, Total and Suncor have shelved the $11bn Joslyn mine project, and Royal Dutch Shell has put on hold its Pierre River project.

With deep-water projects, BP has delayed/cancelled its Mad Dog extension in the Gulf of Mexico, and Chevron is reviewing its $10bn Rosebank project in the North Sea.

In the Arctic, Statoil and Eni have deferred a decision on the $15.5bn Johan Castberg project.

The CTI report says projects that depend on sustained high prices for a return are at risk from a future double hit of falling oil prices and growing climate regulation in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

Its study in May this year showed that oil prices have twice fallen as low as $40 per barrel in the last decade.

The US Energy Information Administration recently reported that the oil and gas sector has increased borrowing heavily to cover spending and dividends. − Climate News Network

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