China and US deliver radical climate surprise

China and US deliver radical climate surprise

It’s been called an historic agreement − a game changer in the battle to combat climate change. But can China and the US fulfil the promises in their announcement of plans to cut carbon emissions?

LONDON, 13 November, 2014 − China went to considerable lengths to make sure that this week’s Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing was a successful affair.

Factories were shut down, car traffic and even cremations were restricted, and schools and most government offices were closed. As a result, delegates experienced blue skies over the Chinese capital, rather than the city’s notorious smog.

But the most newsworthy and surprising event came on the summit sidelines, with President Xi Jinping and President Obama warmly shaking hands as they unveiled plans for radical cutbacks in emissions of CO2 − the most potent of the climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Biggest emitters

China and the US are by far the world’s biggest emitters of CO2, with China accounting for more than 20% of total global CO2 emissions and the US 15%.

Under the plans announced in Beijing, the US says it will reduce CO2 emissions by between 26% and 28% from 2005 levels by 2025, and will achieve “economy-wide reductions in the order of 80% by 2050”.

Meanwhile, China for the first time announced a date when it says its CO2 emissions will peak − 2030 − and then taper downwards. It also said it would be ramping up its already ambitious renewables programme, with the potential of cutting back on CO2 emissions at an earlier date.

“These announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading”

In addition, Obama and Xi – despite their considerable differences on territorial, trade and other issues − announced plans to expand co-operation on various research and technology projects related to climate change.

“The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity,” said a White House statement.

“ The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the Beijing announcement was an important step towards a better and more secure future for human kind.

“Together, these announcements send a clear signal to the private sector and the financial markets on where global policy is now heading,” Figueres said.

Resilient world

“These announcements have the potential to unleash and accelerate the kinds of entrepreneurship and innovation needed to propel all economies towards ever greater levels of ambition – if not significantly exceeding their ambitions – en route to a low-carbon, resilient world over coming years and decades.”

However, amid the euphoria, some big questions remain:

  • Global CO2 emissions are still increasing, despite years of climate change negotiations and increased warnings from the scientific community about the dire consequences of a warming world. Experts say cutbacks have to be achieved much sooner than 2030 in order to halt runaway climate change.
  • Doubts persist about how realistic these cutbacks are. Under the plans, China will need to produce an extra 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of power from wind, solar and nuclear sources over the next 15 years − more power than its coal plants produce today. And experts point out that Beijing’s timeline for reducing emissions does not represent a binding target.
  • Obama is going to have a tough time pushing these plans through. Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, have already denounced the measures, saying they will seriously damage the US economy.
  • Negotiations on tackling climate change and limiting emissions of GHGs have been held on a worldwide basis under UN auspices. Such bilateral agreements as the one announced by the US and China could undermine the global consensus and weaken UN processes.

But the news from Beijing has been generally welcomed in the scientific community.

Nicholas Stern, lead author of the 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, says the US/China announcement will give momentum to a new global deal on climate due to be negotiated in Paris late next year.

“President Obama and President Xi should be congratulated for demonstrating real leadership with this historic announcement,” Stern told the Financial Times in London. – Climate News Network

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Science offers new view of human survival hopes

Science offers new view of human survival hopes

Astrophysicists say questions about the sustainability of civilisation on our high-tech planet may soon be answered scientifically as a result of new data about the Earth and other planets in its galaxy.

LONDON, 15 November, 2014 − Two American scientists have just sought to find a way of answering the ultimate global warming question: how long can any species last once it has discovered how to exploit fossil fuels and change the conditions under which it first evolved?

In doing so, they have sidestepped the great challenge of astrobiology. This is that all thinking about life in the universe is handicapped by a simple problem: because there is only one so-far identified instance of life in the universe, it is impossible to arrive at a generalisation.

But Adam Frank, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Woodruff Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, propose a way round the problem.

Energy intensive

They report in The Anthropocene journal that since they were interested in the potential lifetimes of human, humanoid or other intelligent species with energy intensive technology (SWEIT), they could start by using a famous equation to estimate the number of such species that exist now or have already gone extinct.

The Drake Equation is the intellectual basis of the search for extraterrestrial civilisation. It calculates the number of possible planetary systems in all the known galaxies, the proportion of these that might be hospitable to life, and the proportion of habitable planets that might be fit for the emergence of a technically-advanced or SWEIT civilisation.

They reason that, even if the chances of a high-technology species are just one in a thousand trillion, that means that a thousand such SWEIT civilisations exist or have existed in our local region of the universe.

Prof Frank says: “That’s enough to start thinking about statistics − like what is the average lifetime of a species that starts harvesting energy efficiently and uses it to develop high technology?”

“We have no idea how long a technological civilisation like our own can last”

But another part of the puzzle is also uncertain. “We have no idea how long a technological civilisation like our own can last,” Frank says. “Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years? Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society.

“Are we the first and the only technologically-intensive civilisation in the entire history of the universe? If not, shouldn’t we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of these other species?”

Human threats

The two authors considered the ways in which human action could threaten human civilisation, including: the partial or complete collapse of 95% of all fish stocks in the last 50 years; the diminishing supplies of fresh water; the loss of rainforest habitat; the acidification of the oceans; and, of course, the change to the climate system. All are a consequence of the use of energy-intensive technology.

They also contemplated the relatively new science of sustainability: how long can such action continue? They note that 20,000 scientific papers that address sustainability have appeared in the last 40 years, and the numbers of these articles has doubled every eight years.

Then they looked at what little could be known from astrobiology − the study of life beyond the solar system. None has been found, but in the last two decades a huge number of extrasolar planets have been identified. The local solar system has been explored in detail, and the Earth’s own history is now well studied.

So astronomers could now be in a position to make judgments about the potential conditions for life on the “exoplanets” identified so far. For the purpose of estimating an average lifetime for an extraterrestrial species, it wouldn’t much matter what form the life took, it would affect entropy, the thermodynamic balance of order and disorder.

“If they use energy to produce work, they’re generating entropy,” says Prof Frank. “There’s no way round that, whether they’re human-looking Star Trek creatures with antennae on their foreheads or they’re nothing more than single-cell organisms with collective mega-intelligence.

Feedback effects

“And that entropy will almost certainly have strong feedback effects on their planet’s habitability, as we’re beginning to see here on Earth.”

With this in mind, the report’s authors started to consider the sustainability lessons of Earth’s own history − marked by five mass extinction events in the past 500 million years – and a set of recent human-driven changes so marked that some geologists have labelled the present era the Anthropocene. Their conclusions are less than optimistic.

“Although such rapid changes are not a new phenomenon, the present instance is the first (we know of) where the primary agent of causation is knowingly watching it all happen and pondering options for its own future,” they conclude.

“One point is clear: both astrobiology and sustainability science tell us that the Earth will be fine in the long run. The prospects are, however, less clear for Homo sapiens.” − Climate News Network

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UK ignores pledge to end fossil fuel support

UK ignores pledge to end fossil fuel support

Despite promises to phase out subsidies to the coal, oil and gas industries, a new report says the UK and other G20 governments are still providing them with massive financial help.

LONDON, 12 November, 2014 − Leaders of the G20 group of industrialised countries agreed in 2009 to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels “in the medium term”, and repeated that promise in 2013. Yet a new report says that the UK is still giving close to £1.2 billion ($1.9bn) annually to support oil, coal and gas.

The Overseas Development Institute thinktank (ODI) and the Oil Change International (OCI) campaign group say in their joint report, “The Fossil Fuel Bailout”, that G20 governments are estimated to be spending $88bn every year subsidising exploration for fossil fuels.

“Their exploration subsidies marry bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for climate change,” the authors say. “In effect, governments are propping up the development of oil, gas and coal reserves that cannot be exploited if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

Triple-lose scenario

“By providing subsidies for fossil fuel exploration, the G20 countries are creating a ‘triple-lose’ scenario.

“They are directing large volumes of finance into high-carbon assets that cannot be exploited without catastrophic climate effects.

“They are diverting investment from economic low-carbon alternatives, such as solar, wind and hydro-power.

“And they are undermining the prospects for an ambitious climate deal in 2015.”

The report says the UK government is pouring £750m ($1.19bn) a year in national subsidies into the declining North Sea oil and gas industry – and £414m ($65m) into overseas exploration.

TheFossilFuelBailout_Infographic_A

 

The report − published just before the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane, Australia, on 15 and 16 November − contains the first detailed breakdown of fossil fuel exploration subsidies by the UK and G20 countries.

The authors say that, despite the 2009 pledge, the UK “has dramatically expanded the scope of its oil and gas exploration subsidies, in particular for shale gas and offshore resources”.

Since 2009, generous tax breaks for exploring in riskier, deep-water fields in the North Sea have benefited some of the largest oil and gas firms in the world. The report estimates that the biggest beneficiary was the French oil giant, Total, which received £524m, while Norway’s Statoil was given £253m and the US’s Chevron £45m between 2009 and 2014.

The government’s expenditure of £414m annually in public finance for fossil fuel exploration outside the UK included Azerbaijan, Brazil, Ghana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Nigeria, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, Uganda, and the US.

Shelagh Whitley, climate and environment research fellow at the ODI, says: “Scrapping fossil fuel exploration subsidies would begin to create a level playing field between renewables and fossil fuel energy.”

Bad economics

The report’s authors say that further exploration for new reserves is not only environmentally unsustainable but is also bad economics. With rising costs for hard-to-reach reserves, and falling coal and oil prices, public subsidies are propping up fossil fuel exploration that would otherwise be deemed uneconomic.

The top 20 private oil and gas companies invest £23bn globally in exploration − less than half the £55bn being ploughed in by G20 governments. The report says this highlights the industry’s dependency on public subsidies to find new reserves.

Yet £55bn is almost double what the International Energy Agency estimates is needed annually to provide electricity and heat for all by 2030.

The report recommends that phasing out exploration subsidies should be the first step towards meeting the G20 governments’ existing commitments to eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and to avoid harmful climate change. − Climate News Network

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Research spanner thrown into coal’s publicity machine

Research spanner thrown into coal’s publicity machine

Australian thinktank’s data challenges coal industry claims that it drives economic growth, is a key element of alleviating ‘energy poverty’ worldwide, and improves quality of life.

LONDON, 10 November, 2014 − The coal industry has many friends in high places, and none more so than Tony Abbott, prime minister of Australia − one of the world’s major producers of a fuel that earns the country billions from exports.

“Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world,” Abbott said recently. “So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.”

But a new report by researchers in Australia seeks to debunk what it considers to be myths promulgated by the powerful worldwide coal industry and its allies.

The report by the Australia Institute, an independent public policy thinktank, says claims by lobbyists that coal is a main driver of economic growth are false.

Slower growth

Data shows that coal use has grown much slower than global economic growth, says the report, “All Talk and No action: The Coal Industry and Energy Poverty”.

It points out that “developed countries have reduced coal use while economic growth has been unaffected. Developing countries are now the major users, but with alternatives becoming cheaper, they are likely to reduce coal use much earlier in their development.”

“Coal use is often associated with lower life expectancy due to health impacts”

The report also attacks industry claims that coal use increases life expectancy and quality of life. “On the contrary,” it says, “coal use is often associated with lower life expectancy due to health impacts of indoor and outdoor air pollution and the global health impacts of climate change.”

The study says that although access to electricity might initially improve quality of life, once basic electricity facilities are in place there is little correlation between increased electricity uptake and improved living conditions.

Talk in the coal industry about tackling energy poverty is just public relations spin, says the report, and it questions whether the coal industry itself believes its own claims.

It is significant, the study says, that coal concerns that choose to become involved in electricity and poverty alleviation schemes in poorer parts of the world support projects connected with solar technology or small hydro and gas-fired facilities, rather than with far more expensive coal-fired power installations.

Polluting gases

The report also takes issue with claims by the coal industry that coal is becoming cleaner. What is meant by clean coal varies widely: although many power plants and other enterprises have reduced coal-related emissions of sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide, coal still releases into the atmosphere enormous amounts of CO2 − by far the most polluting of greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, progress on carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the process through which emissions from coal-powered plants and other industrial concerns are captured and stored deep below the Earth’s surface – has been slow.

There are only 13 such projects in operation, and together they are capable of sequestering only 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – less than one percent of the world’s total annual emissions.

To put this in perspective, the report says, 33,376 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted worldwide in 2011, with the US emitting 5,420 million tonnes, and Australia – which has a much smaller population − emitting 400 million tonnes.

It concludes: “Addressing the challenges of energy poverty will become even more difficult if public relations campaigns are able to influence government policies away from genuine solutions towards spending that benefits the coal industry. The real solutions to energy poverty do not focus on coal.” – Climate News Network

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India set to defy warnings on coal’s climate impact

India set to defy warnings on coal’s climate impact

While even China, the world’s leading coal producer, begins to recognise the fuel’s serious polluting effects, India has announced it aims to double production to meet soaring energy demand.

LONDON, 7 November, 2014 The man responsible for maintaining India’s power supply says he wants the country’s coal production to double within the next five years.

Piyush Goyal, Minister of State for Power, Coal, New and Renewable energy, says India needs to dig twice as much coal as it does today if it is to meet its soaring energy demand. By 2019, it is expected to be consuming two trillion units of electricity annually, with one unit equalling one kilowatt hour.

Describing  coal as “an essential input for power”, Goyal said: “I see Coal India production doubling in the next five years. It makes about 500 million tonnes hopefully this year. We [will] do a billion tonnes in 2019.”

He was speaking at the India Economic Summit, held in Delhi from 4 to 6 November, and hosted by the World Economic Forum and the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Raised consumption

India was listed as the world’s third largest coal producer in 2011 − after China and the US − with 588.5 million tones, which is 5.6% of the global total. But imports helped to raise consumption to around 715 million tonnes − still in third place globally.

Doubling production would attract opposition for several reasons − and one is the impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

On 2 November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its 2014 Synthesis Report. The IPCC chair, Dr R K Pachauri − himself an Indian citizen − said the report meant emissions would need to drop by between 40% to 70% globally by 2050, and to zero or below by 2100.

Without the use of carbon abatement technologies such as scrubbers to remove pollutants from emissions − or perhaps carbon capture and storage, if it proves to be effective − coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels. For climate change, adding more than 5% to the world’s total coal supplies would be a big step in the wrong direction.

There is also the damaging effect on health − one of the main reasons why China seems to be losing its appetite for coal use. The World Health Organisation said earlier this year that 40% of the seven million people killed by air pollution globally in 2012 lived in the region dominated by China.

Deep concern

Beyond pollution and health, there is also deep concern over the impact of coal-mining on local communities.

Residents of Chilika Daad, a village in the coal-rich Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh state, told The Guardian newspaper in London that they were tired of the blasting and the dust.

The promises they had been given of development, investment and jobs were left unfulfilled, and all they were left with, they said, were homes they couldn’t sell and lives they couldn’t change.

The area is judged to be the third most polluted place in India because of emissions from power plants and dust from coal mines.

There are allegations of corruption in the awarding of mining concessions, and some of the tribal communities in affected areas are wondering whether to invoke the constitutional rights that might allow them to stop mining going ahead.

The new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has promised that the 400 million Indians who lack electricity will soon have it. That commits him to electrifying every village in the country by 2020. But he has promised to achieve this with solar power, and has doubled an existing levy on coal to fund clean energy. − Climate News Network

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China-US links can spark emissions breakthrough

China-US links can spark emissions breakthrough

New research suggests that global emission reduction targets are achievable if China and the US – the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases − work together to reduce pollution levels.

LONDON, 29 October, 2014 – Tentative steps have been taken by China and the US towards co-operating on climate change − mainly focusing on relatively modest technological schemes connected with more efficient and less polluting power generation.

But a new report calls on the two countries to be far more ambitious, and says that if the two adopt global best practice on climate change policy, total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) would be radically reduced, and the goal of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2˚C by 2050 could be achieved.

Limiting the temperature rise to 2˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2050 is considered to be essential if catastrophic climate change is to be averted, although some in the scientific community have questioned the relevance of having such a target.

The new report − a collaboration between the Ecofys energy consultancy, the Climate Analytics research group and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) – says that, together, China and the US are responsible for about 35% of global GHG emissions.

Right pathway

“If they scale up action to adopt the most ambitious policies from across the world, they would both be on the right pathway to keep warming below 2˚C,” says Bill Hare, senior scientist at PIK.

“This needs to include dramatically reducing their use of coal, in order to achieve the deep decarbonisation needed in getting CO2 emissions from coal back to 1990 levels by 2030.”

The report compares the actions of both countries in their most energy intensive sectors – electricity production, buildings and transport.

  • Electricity usage per head in the US is four times that in China. In both countries, emissions from the electricity sector have been reduced, but more coal plants are planned. If both increased the share of renewables in the sector by 1.3% per year – a rate achieved by Germany and the UK since 2005 – it would make a considerable difference to overall emissions levels.
  • China’s cement plants are more energy efficient than those in the US, but the situation is reversed with iron and steel plants. Lower emissions could be achieved if both countries adopted the best available technology.
  • Car ownership is 10 times higher in the US than in China, though the difference is narrowing. China implements stronger emissions standards. If both countries moved to global best practice in the sector − such as adopting EU emissions standards, or working towards a greater take-up of electric cars, such as in Norway − then lower overall emissions levels could be achieved.
  • “Massive reductions” in emissions could be achieved if China and the US adopted EU building standards governing heat and energy. The use of energy in residential buildings in the US is three times as high as in China.

The report concludes that if both countries agree to adopt global best practice across all these sectors, then China could reduce its overall emissions by 1.2% by 2020 and by 20% by 2030, while the US would reduce its emissions by 3.2% by 2020 and 16% by 2030. – Climate News Network

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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

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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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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

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