Europe faces crunch decision on climate policy

Europe faces crunch decision on climate policy

As European leaders meet to take a final decision on a new climate and energy policy up to 2030, there is intense interest worldwide to see if Europe opts to take a bold lead in tackling climate change.

LONDON, 23 October, 2014 − It has not been easy. Negotiations on the new climate and energy policy involving all 28 European Union member states have been going on for months – and, in some instances, for years.

The European Council meets today and tomorrow in Brussels with a heavy agenda – including the ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The European Commission’s 2030 policy framework on climate and energy that is up for discussion has two key elements:

  • A binding agreement to cut overall EU CO2 emissions by 40% over 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Achieving savings of at least 30% in energy efficiency across the EU, also by 2030.

The long-term goal is an ambitious one – nothing short of the transformation of Europe’s energy system and its economy. The EU will be decarbonised: the plan is to cut EU greenhouse gas emissions by between 80% and 90% by 2050.

There are other ingredients in the package, which is designed to replace the existing policy, focused on 2020 targets. These include commitments to renewables and to the reform of the EU’s ailing Emissions Trading System, moves towards a more integrated cross-border energy system, plus the phasing out of subsidies for Europe’s coal industry.

The devil, as always, is in the detail. Achieving agreement among EU member countries – each with its own distinctive political set-up and economic ambitions – is difficult, some would say impossible. Many compromises have had to be made.

Binding targets

Some countries still have reservations about the whole idea of setting binding emission reduction targets, saying this will increase energy costs and result in Europe losing its economic competitiveness − particularly with the US, where the price of energy has dropped significantly due to the widespread take-up of shale oil and gas.

Poland is one of the countries that will be hard to convince. It is heavily dependent on coal for its energy, and is fighting against any move to phase out subsidies for the coal industry.

A group of countries, led by Germany, wants EU energy efficiency targets to be binding, while others, led by an increasingly Euro-sceptic UK government, say each country should be allowed to set its own energy efficiency goals – and that there should be less interference by Brussels.

Meanwhile, scientists and economists say the new package – even if it is approved − is not nearly ambitious enough.

Professor Jim Skea, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says countries are doing only what is politically achievable, rather than what is necessary to transform the EU’s energy sector.

“I don’t think many people have grasped just how huge this task is,” Skea told BBC news. “It is absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented. My guess is that 40% for 2030 is too little too late if we are really serious about our long-term targets.”

Some business interests remain firmly opposed to the EU’s new energy regime, but many of Europe’s biggest corporations − frustrated by frequent changes in policy and by political interference − are backing a call for more robust action on climate change.

Risks and impacts

“We remain increasingly concerned at the costs, risks and impacts associated with delayed action on climate change on our markets, supply chains, resources costs, and upon society as a whole,” says an open letter to the European Council from the Climate Group and 56 other leading EU businesses and organisations.

With relations between the EU and Russia increasingly strained due to events in Ukraine and elsewhere, European countries are concerned about their energy security and dependence on gas imports from Russia.

A report by the ECOFYS consultancy and the Open Climate Network group says gas imports into Europe could be cut in half by ramping up investment in renewable energy and achieving greater energy efficiency. Emissions targets would also be met much sooner.

A separate report by Ernst & Young, the professional services company, says the EU is in danger of missing out on the financial benefits of developing renewable technologies.

Stable long-term targets and smart industrial policy, Ernst & Young says, can help Europe secure its slice of “a cake that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars by the turn of the century”. – Climate News Network

Oil boom prompts US to push for crude exports

Oil boom prompts US to push for crude exports

America’s expanding oil production threatens the pristine Pacific Northwest region of the country with a rash of new oil terminals along the coast.

OREGON, 21 October, 2014 − Oil and coal producers in the US are planning to use mile-long tanker trains to transport vast quantities of fossil fuels to the coast through areas that environmental groups believe should be protected.

The change in world fossil fuel production, consumption and costs caused by tar sands exploitation in Canada and the fracking boom in the US is causing what Bill McKibben − author, environmental activist and co-founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org − calls a “chokepoint” in the unspoiled Northwest of the country.

Coal is already being exported in ever-larger amounts from the US because it cannot compete with cheaper gas from fracking. Now campaigners fear that the oil industry also wants to export cheap oil to Asia − although so far the companies deny it, saying it will be sent by sea to other parts of the US.

The largest of the 11 proposals to build new or expand existing crude-by-rail terminals is that of Tesoro-Savage at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland.

The company wants the capacity to transfer crude oil from the North American interior to seagoing tankers and barges. Four “unit trains”, each a mile long and comprising up to 100 tanker cars, would arrive at the terminal daily, delivering 360,000 barrels of oil. This would be the largest such terminal in the region.

Ecosystem lifeblood

The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, and was once home to what were claimed to be the world’s largest salmon runs. It is already stressed by 14 hydroelectric dams and barge traffic hauling grain and other products from the interior, as well as radiation leaking from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington.

The oil and coal trains must pass through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a protected section of the river and its environs where hundreds of waterfalls create micro-habitats for species of plants found nowhere else on Earth.

Rail tracks run along very narrow routes on both sides of the river, sometimes on causeways on the river’s edge. They have already seen traffic increases. According to a report in the Oregonian newspaper, there was a 250% increase in the number of tankers passing through Oregon between 2006 and 2013.

Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion
Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion

Since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, the US government has banned the export of crude oil. This means that, for the time being, crude oil from North Dakota will go to refineries in Washington state and California, replacing the declining supply from Alaska.

In addition, the Vancouver terminal “would have the capacity to displace 30% of the crude oil currently imported to West Coast refineries from foreign countries”, according to an email written by Elizabeth Watters, a spokesperson for Tesoro. She added that this would “increase US energy security in an uncertain world”. Watters also said Tesoro-Savage has no plans to export oil.

Claims that oil interests aren’t planning to export is “all bovine scatology, smoke and mirrors”, says Eric de Place, policy director for the Washington-based Sightline Institute, a not-for-profit sustainability thinktank.

 “it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set
on a robust export market”

“I think it’s likely that in the near term they might transport some of the fuel to west coast refineries in Washington or California, but it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set on a robust export market.”

In addition, De Place says, the terminals “could be receiving Canadian tar sands oil on day one” and exporting it immediately, because tar sands oil from Canada isn’t under US export jurisdiction.

Coal can already be exported. In fact, US coal exports have nearly doubled since 2007, and three coal terminals are currently under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If all were built, about 100 million tonnes of coal would depart from the Pacific Northwest annually.

There is remarkable resistance among disparate political and economic interests to expansion of the fossil fuel industry in the region.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union objects to the Tesoro-Savage terminal on worker safety grounds because Bakken crude is far more flammable than other oil types, and there is opposition from a local real estate developer because he fears that the terminal would make his riverfront office/restaurant project untenable.

Potential spills

The city of Vancouver has passed a resolution against the terminal because of concerns about potential spills or explosions and traffic congestion. The state of Oregon rejected Australian corporation Ambre Energy’s coal terminal proposal at the Port of Morrow, and the Port of Portland has declined to consider adding oil-by-rail and coal terminals for the time being.

Governors of both Columbia River states have expressed concerns about climate impacts from the expansion of fossil fuel transportation in the region.

The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps
The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps

In a recent election debate, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said: “It makes no sense to me to subsidise the burning of fossil fuels in Asia while we adopt state and federal policies that do just the opposite.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee is the sole person who will decide the Tesoro-Savage project’s fate. According to Inslee’s spokesperson, Jaime Smith, the governor believes that if “we are trying to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels and use more clean energy technologies − if that is our intended goal as a state, as a nation − shouldn’t we be taking a look at that?”

But none of the political entities involved in deciding whether Tesoro-Savage can move ahead is obligated to consider climate impacts, leaving objections to the fossil fuels mostly to environmental campaigners. However, the states do have to consider issues of rail safety and the impact of possible spills.

If oil traveling to the Vancouver terminal is not exported, it wouldn’t necessarily add to the CO2 emissions already occurring in the US because it would just “top up” the domestic supply − provided that US consumption doesn’t rise.

But fossil fuels exported from the Pacific Northwest to Asia would certainly add to those emissions as Asia’s economies grow. Moreover, it would hoist the west coast by its own petard by increasing the hydrocarbon air pollution that already travels eastward across the Pacific from oil and coal burned in Asia.

Watters, asked whether Tesoro is concerned about climate change, wrote: “Tesoro recognises that climate change is an important global issue, and we are committed to reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions from our refineries to below 1990 levels.” She did not comment on the global warming potential of the fossil fuels Tesoro-Savage would be transporting.

Fuel prices

What lifting the crude oil export ban would do to international and domestic crude oil and fuel prices is unclear. Brookings Institution analysts calculate that doing so would lower the price of gasoline by about $0.09 per gallon if the ban were lifted in 2015, and that US exports would not affect the behaviour of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

But De Place says: “The prevailing view among industry analysts is that that would raise the price of oil domestically.” He also warns that “the history of energy analysts predicting what the price of oil will do is the history of people going to the casino”.

The planning and permitting process for all the proposed Columbia River facilities will take several years.

Tesoro-Savage must submit a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Washington Department of Ecology, and a release of the draft EIS is expected in the spring of 2015, at which time public comment will be solicited.

The Washington energy facility siting agency will then make a recommendation to Governor Inslee, after which he will make his decision.

Other Pacific Northwest proposals are also in various stages of the process.

Until the oil and coal proposals are approved or rejected, it is still an open question whether the Pacific Northwest chokepoint will close to fossil fuels or be opened wider. – 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.

Website: www.valeriebrownwriter.com 

Twitter link: @sacagawea

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

Veteran green says emissions aren’t the only danger

Veteran green says emissions aren’t the only danger

Forty years ago, climate change was not even on the agenda of green campaigners − but now a veteran of those pioneering days speaks out about the danger of neglecting other issues that threaten the planet.

LONDON, 16 October, 2014 − In the 1970s, Pete Wilkinson was battling to save seals and whales from slaughter and trying to protect the planet from pollution, especially the dumping of nuclear waste. Today, at the age of 67, he is still campaigning − and sometimes taking on his former colleagues.

This is because Wilkinson believes that some pressing environmental problems have been neglected as more and more resources have been diverted to the campaign to cut carbon emissions. Issues related to climate change – such as habitat loss, water shortages, and over-population − need far more attention, he says.

Today, he is giving the second David Bellamy Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London. It coincides with him launching his autobiography – which includes taking a sideswipe at Greenpeace, the organisation of which he was the co-founder in the UK.

Pressing issue

Wilkinson does believe that climate change is a seriously pressing issue, but he warns that concentration on limiting carbon emissions, to the exclusion of many other inter-related issues, is a mistake.

His book, From Deptford to Antarctica, begins with his early days in Friends of the Earth, and subsequently the founding of Greenpeace in the UK, at a time when climate change wasn’t even on the environmental agenda.

He says he “lived on fags, beer and fish and chips” for the first eight years of Greenpeace, before running a successful campaign to prevent mining in the Antarctic and getting the continent declared a World Park. The campaign involved seven annual four-month voyages to the Antarctic to refurbish the Greenpeace base. The book includes some of his unabridged diaries about the struggles involved.

It is an entertaining read because he is as honest about his own shortcomings as he is forthright about those of his friends and foes.

In the 1980s, before he went to Antarctica, he was instrumental in stopping the UK dumping nuclear waste in the Atlantic. Thirty years later, he is still working on the nuclear issue.

He says: “We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free? After all, how much carbon will be emitted building a repository for all that waste?

“The British government’s claim that nuclear power is carbon free is one of the great myths of the climate change debate. It might be carbon-free at the point that the uranium is being burned in the reactor, but what about when the uranium is mined in some far-off country, transported here, and turned into nuclear fuel?”

He believes that giant nuclear power stations are the wrong energy solution, and that the key to dealing with climate change is to dismantle national grids and go for micro-technology and energy efficiency.

“We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free?” – Pete Wilkinson

“We have still not solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, so how can the industry claim that it is carbon free?” – PETE WILKINSON

Wilkinson also believes that carbon dioxide is not the only threat to the atmosphere. As director of the Nuclear Information Service, based in Reading, England, he works on disarmament issues and believes that Britain’s intended investment of £100 billion in a new fleet of Trident submarines is both a waste of money and, if their multiple warheads were ever used, a crime against humanity.

“In fact, if nuclear weapons were used in any war, just of a few of them, the climate change we would be worrying about would be a nuclear winter,” he says. “So the issue of nuclear proliferation and the potential for nuclear war is an issue for environmentalists too.”

Democratic decisions

Wilkinson left Greenpeace in the 1990s and has since served on a number of government bodies consulting on nuclear waste and other environmental issues. He is passionate about the public’s right to know the facts, so that proper democratic decisions can be made.

When he began working for Greenpeace, he was paid the same wage he would have received if he was on unemployment benefit, and the whole budget was run on a shoestring.

The first ship he bought was a £5,000 former trawler that had been used as a fisheries research vessel, and he is critical of the current management of the Greenpeace for spending £14 million on a new ship. “They lack vision and imagination,” he says. “They could have spent that money on campaigning.”

His autobiography is full of insights into the early green movement and how it took on the establishment. Just as in those early days, Wilkinson does not keep his opinions to himself. “I hope my friends are still speaking to me after they’ve read the book,” he says. – Climate News Network

• From Deptford to Antarctica – the Long Way Home, an autobiography by Pete Wilkinson, published 16 October, 2014, by Fledgling Press Ltd (price £14.99).

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

As advanced technology triggers the boom in extraction of natural gas, a new study warns that market forces mean the cheaper fossil fuel could replace not just coal, but also low-emission renewable and nuclear energy.

LONDON, 15 October 2014 − The argument that fracking can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is misguided, according to an international scientific study, because the amount of extra fossil fuel it will produce will cancel out the benefits of its lower pollution content.

The study, published today in the journal Nature, recognises that technologies such as fracking have triggered a boom in natural gas. But the authors say this will not lead to a reduction of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Although natural gas produces only half the CO2 emissions of coal for each unit of energy, its growing availability will make it cheaper, they say, so it will add to total energy supply and only partly replace coal.

Advantage nullified

Their study, based on what they say is “an unprecedented international comparison of computer simulations”, shows that this market effect nullifies the advantage offered by the lower pollution content of the gas.

The lead author, Haewon McJeon, staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the University of Maryland, said: “The upshot is that abundant natural gas alone will not rescue us from climate change.”

Fracking, horizontal drilling and other techniques have led to surging gas production, especially in the US. “Global deployment of advanced technology could double or triple global natural gas production by 2050,” McJeon said.

This might eventually mean not lower CO2 emissions, but emissions by the middle of the century up to 10% higher than they would otherwise be.

The report, which is the work of five research groups from Germany, the US, Austria, Italy and Australia, said the replacement of coal by natural gas was fairly limited. And it might replace not just coal, the study had found, but low-emission renewable energy and nuclear power as well.

One of the co-authors, Nico Bauer, a sustainable solutions expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, said : “The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating.

“The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply.”

Not only could this lead to an overall increase in energy consumption and in emissions, but increased gas production would mean higher emissions of methane from drilling leakages and pipelines.

The research groups projected what the world might be like in 2050, both with and without a natural gas boom. They used five different computer models, which included not just energy use and production, but also the broader economy and the climate system.

“When we saw all five teams reporting little difference
in climate change, we knew we were on to something”

“When we first saw little change in greenhouse gas emissions in our model, we thought we had made a mistake, because we were fully expecting to see a significant reduction in emissions,” said James Edmonds, chief scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. “But when we saw all five teams reporting little difference in climate change, we knew we were on to something.”

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of PIK and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group on mitigation, said: “The findings show that effective climate stabilisation can be achieved only through emissions pricing.

”This requires international political co-operation and binding agreements. Technological advances can reduce the costs of climate policies, but they cannot replace policies.”

Article of faith

The widespread use of shale gas continues to attract policymakers, and for some it is almost an article of faith. It recently received the IPCC‘s endorsement, with Professor Edenhofer himself apparently backing it.

In the UK, a senior Conservative politician, Owen Paterson, is urging more fracking to increase Britain‘s shale gas supplies.

Paterson, who lost his job as Environment Secretary in July, today gave the annual lecture to the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation, arguing against wind power and for “investment in four possible common sense policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors, and demand management”.

Paterson also said that the UK should suspend or scrap its Climate Change Act, which commits it to cutting CO2 emissions by more than 80% on 1990 levels by 2050, unless other countries follow suit.

His former Cabinet colleague, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, said that scrapping the legislation would be “one of the most stupid economic decisions imaginable”. − Climate News Network

Australia gets early blast of more extreme heat

Australia gets early blast of more extreme heat

Summer has come early across much of Australia – and as temperatures soar to record seasonal levels in many areas, the bushfire season has started well ahead of schedule.

LONDON, 14 October, 2014 − It’s the time of year when many Australians start to think about eating outdoors or heading for the beach after work. Early spring, and the temperatures are rising – particularly this year.

The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says maximum temperatures in September across much of the country were higher than average, with central and south-western areas experiencing their warmest September on record.

Australia is considered to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of a climate change, and 2013 was the country’s hottest year since records began, with average temperatures 1.2˚C above the long-term average.

In one seven-day period in early January last year, record national average temperatures exceeded 39˚C.

Unprecedented levels

September started off cool in Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, but then heated up to unprecedented levels for this time of year. For the first time, temperatures climbed to more than 32˚C for two consecutive days in the month.

Meanwhile, overall September rainfall was 27% below the monthly average − and the dry conditions mean the bushfire season has come early. The south of the island of Tasmania has fared particularly badly, with fires fuelled by dry conditions and high winds.

Areas round Sydney and throughout New South Wales – the country’s most populous state − have also been hit by bushfires, with fire warnings going out to more than a million homeowners.

Despite growing evidence that human-induced climate change is a major reason for Australia heating up, the Liberal-National coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott has taken little action on the issue.

It has abolished a carbon tax introduced by the previous Labour government, abolished a Climate Commission that gave advice on the impact of warming, and is seeking to downgrade modest renewable energy targets.

Polluting fuel

Australia is one of the world’s leading producers of coal – the most polluting fuel, which is responsible for a significant portion of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The country’s per capita GHG emissions are among the highest in the world.

A recent report on Australia’s climate, produced by BOM and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the national science agency, predicts temperatures rising across the country by between 0.6˚C and 1.5C by 2030, compared with the rise of 0.6˚C between 1910 and 1990.

The report says: “Data and analysis from BOM and CSIRO show further warming of the atmosphere and oceans in the Australian region. . . this warming has seen Australia experiencing warm weather and extreme heat, and fewer cool extremes.

“There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia.” – Climate News Network

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Analysts in the US say parts of the Brazilian Amazon may face new deforestation as ranchers move from raising beef cattle to cultivating crops such as palm oil.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Despite Brazil having made great strides in reducing logging in the Amazon region, a US study says the country faces a renewed threat to its forests.

The report’s authors − who focused on the Amazon states of Mato Grosso and Pará, where they interviewed ranchers and meat processors − say the cost of raising beef cattle is prompting many ranchers to consider switching to crops such as palm oil.

The study by Datu Research, a global economic research firm based in Washington DC. was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund.

After decades of deforestation, it says, efforts to curb the losses have been working. Between 2005 and 2013, the rate of loss fell by nearly 80% − although  the Brazilian government’s figures show that losses rose again by 29% in the year to 31 July 2013.

The beef industry, meanwhile, which had caused nearly 75% of earlier deforestation, has continued to grow rapidly.

Curb on emissions

Researchers have argued that by taxing cattle on conventional pasture and by subsidising semi-intensive cattle rearing, Brazil could curb up to 26% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the loss of forests. This in turn adds up to about one-fifth of all human-caused GHG emissions.

But the forests face problems from another quarter. The authors of the Datu Research study say pressure from Western companies requiring deforestation-free supply chains for beef from the Amazon risks being overwhelmed by big increases in demand from non-Western countries.

Russia’s recent embargo of Western beef, for example, means it has increased its demand for Brazilian beef by over 10%, creating alternative markets that do not require deforestation-free operations.

The amalgamation of the meat processors has reduced the ranchers’ bargaining power. The market share of the three largest processors − JBS, Marfrig and Minerva − grew from 24% in 2011 to 37% in 2013.

The study’s authors also say many small and medium-size processors report that, unlike their big competitors, they have restricted access to finance, which reduces their ability to monitor deforestation.

Poor regulation of cattle-raising is another problem − expensive for those ranchers who comply with the rules, yet allowing those who ignore them to escape with impunity. Licensing agencies sometimes lose entire applications, and illicit cattle operations can still enter legitimate supply chains.

Falsified documents showing the origin
and destination of cattle are easily obtained

It is not difficult, the report says, to circumvent a system that is meant to track cattle from ranch to slaughterhouse. Falsified documents showing the origin and destination of cattle are easily obtained, and cost as little as R$200 (about US$85).

A major factor in prompting ranchers to fell the forests is the harsh economic dilemma they face. The study found that the cost of going deforestation-free on 145 hectares is R$412,000 (US$167,000), nearly double the R$217,500 cost of simply clearing forest for beef production.

And while newly-deforested land can sustain cattle for at least five years at no further cost, managing pasture properly is expensive because it needs fertilizers, machinery and other investments, which cost about R$50,000 annually.

Land tenure is another problem. Several ranchers told the authors they had been waiting, sometimes for more than 20 years, to receive legal title to their land. Without a title, banks will not lend ranchers the money they need to change to a deforestation-free operation.

Foreign demand

The study found that deforestation driven by land speculation is increasing rapidly in Brazil. A further concern is the growing foreign demand for a range of crops whose cultivation requires the removal of trees. The Federation of the Industries of the State of São Paulo says production of four crops alone − soya, corn (maize), sugarcane and palm oil − will need more than 10.5 m more hectares of land by 2023.

Palm oil is fairly new in Brazil, but it is well placed to grow faster than any other commodity. The government of Pará estimates that, by 2022, palm oil plantations for biofuel will cover 700,000 ha, which would make Brazil the world’s third largest producer, behind Indonesia and Malaysia.

The study says that that only already-degraded land should be used for palm oil, so that producers do not end up illegally clearing new land.

Deforestation in the Amazon region has a considerable impact on the world’s climate as the forest is a vital carbon “sink”, soaking up greenhouse gases. If it stopped acting as a sink and became instead a source of carbon, the consequences could be profound. − Climate News Network

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

Ignorance hinders UK’s lofty aims on energy saving

Ignorance hinders UK’s lofty aims on energy saving

Housing in the UK is among the least energy efficient in Europe – and a new survey reveals that part of the problem is that many people are ill-informed about how to save energy in their own homes.

LONDON, 2 October, 2014 − We all know the easiest and most effective way to make the typical house more energy efficient in colder climates. Or do we?

A survey commissioned by the National Energy Foundation (NEF), an independent organisation that works to improve the use of energy in the UK’s buildings, recently assessed how well informed people are on energy issues.

Loft insulation is the answer to the above question on improving energy efficiency – yet of the more than 2,000 people questioned in the survey, less than 40% answered correctly.

And while about 60% of adults in the survey felt they were well informed on energy issues, half of them could not identify the most energy efficient lighting for their homes − LED bulbs, which are said to use 90% less energy than traditional incandescent ones.

Action aimed at cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions tends to focus on the power generation sector and transport. Yet buildings – both residential and commercial – account for 46% of the UK’s CO2 emissions, says NEF.

Energy saving

Relatively low-cost improvements to buildings, such as more insulation and LED lighting, can result in considerable energy saving.

The UK has one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe, with more than half of homes constructed before 1960 and only 10% built in the last 25 years.

A lack of comprehensive, effectively implemented building regulations means even newly-constructed dwellings are often sub-standard in terms of energy efficiency.

“Newly-constructed buildings typically use between 2.5 and 4.5 times as much energy as predicted – a phenomenon now being called the performance gap,” says Kerry Mashford, NEF’s chief executive.

“Changes to the way we design, deliver and operate buildings can close this gap dramatically. The trouble is that many don’t know where to start, what to do, or even that such a problem exists.”

It is estimated that the average UK household is responsible for emitting about 10 tonnes of CO2 a year, although there are wide disparities between high and low income earners, with the richest 10% emitting three times more than the poorest 10%, according to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

More than five million households in the UK – about a fifth of the total − suffer fuel poverty, which is defined as homes where more than 10% of total income is spent on keeping warm.

Fuel poverty

The Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE), a group of companies involved in energy conservation issues, ranks the UK as “the cold man of Europe” – the worst for fuel poverty out of 13 western European countries, and near the bottom of the league on a number of other household energy indicators.

“The UK ranks so low despite the fact that it has among the lowest gas and electricity prices in Europe and relatively high household incomes compared to the other countries,” ACE says.

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, said early last year he wanted to make Britain the most energy efficient country in Europe.

“Far from being a drag on growth, making our energy sources more sustainable, our energy consumption more efficient and our economy more resilient to energy price shocks – those things are a vital part of the growth and wealth that we need,” he said.

The European Union has said that the greatest energy saving potential in Europe – and one of the easiest ways to cut back on CO2 emissions – is through the construction of more energy-efficient buildings. – Climate News Network

Croplands changed by climate’s ups and downs

Croplands changed by climate's ups and downs

New research shows that the complex balance of gains and losses caused by climate change could mean more land being available for agriculture − but fewer harvests.

LONDON, 25 September, 2014 − With climate change, you win some, you lose some. New research shows that suitable new cropland could become available in the high latitudes as the world warms − but tropical regions may become less productive.

Florian Zabel and two fellow-geographers from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, report in the journal Public Library of Science One that they made judgments about the climate, soil and topography to suit the 16 most important food and energy crops. They then compared data for the period 1981-2010 with simulations of a warming world for the period 2071-2100.

The results looked good: in northern Canada, China and Russia, they found that a notional additional land area of 5.6 million sq km became available for crops.

Significant losses

Less happily, in the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa there were significant losses of agricultural productivity – if no additional irrigation was factored in. Also, the chances of multiple harvests in tropical Brazil, Asia and Central Africa would be reduced.

Altogether, the land suitable for agriculture by 2100 would total 54 million sq km. But of this, 91% is already under cultivation.

“Much of the additional area is, however, at best only moderately suited to agricultural use, so the proportion of highly fertile land suited to agricultural use will decrease,” Dr Zabel says.

“In the context of current projections, which predict that the demand for food will double by the year 2050 as the result of population increase, our results are quite alarming.”

The Munich calculations were essentially mathematical projections based on climate models that are, in turn, based on broad conclusions of change. But what if those broad conclusions are too sweeping?

Climate researcher Peter Greve, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that the rule of thumb for climate change – that wet regions will tend to get wetter, and already dry regions will in general become more arid – may not always hold.

So they looked at the calculations again, and began to search for trends towards increasing humidity or aridity.

In effect, they were trying to see if they could predict what should have happened in the past, so they chose two periods − 1948 to 1968, and 1984 to 2004 − and examined the patterns of change.

Clear trends

They could find no obvious trend towards either a wetter or a drier climate over about three-quarters of the land area under consideration. There were clear trends for the remaining quarter, but, once again, the answers were not simple. In about half of this land area, the dry-gets-drier, wet-gets-wetter rule seemed to hold. In the other half, the trends seemed to be contradictory.

In the past, parts of the Amazon, Central America, tropical Africa and Asia should have got wetter, but instead became less moist. Patagonia, central Australia and the US Midwest were all dry areas that became wetter.

The wet-gets-wetter rule held good for the eastern US, northern Australia and northern Eurasia, and the already dry Sahel, Arabian Peninsula and parts of central Asia and Australia became more parched.

The lesson is not that climate projections are wrong, but that climate systems are very complex. “Our results emphasise how we should not overly rely on simplifying principles to assess past developments in dryness and humidity,” Greve says. – Climate News Network