Monday, 11 August 2008

Farming in Israel, without a drop to spare

By Andrew Martin
Published: August 10, 2008

THE NEGEV, Israel: A souvenir in the corner of Doron Ovits's office attests to the challenges of farming in Israel.
It's a mangled piece of metal, and Ovits says it came from a rocket that landed in a field recently, lobbed from the nearby Gaza Strip.
But Ovits may have a bigger long-term problem than rockets.
Israel is running short of water. A growing population and rising incomes have increased demand for fresh water, while a four-year drought has created what Shalom Simhon, the agriculture minister, calls "a deep water crisis."
The problem isn't only in Israel. Many arid regions of the globe, including the American West, are dealing with growing populations and shrinking water supplies. Global warming could make matters even worse.

In a speech earlier this year, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said the shortage of water could lead to violence.
"Our experiences tell us that environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict and would be greater in poor nations," he said. "Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon."
Some economists suggest that arid countries should focus on growing only those crops that give them a competitive advantage, like water-sipping grapes and vegetables, and buy everything else on the world market.
But the recent volatility and high prices in commodity markets have made many world leaders reluctant to rely on global markets. Some oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia are now shopping for farmland in more fertile countries like Sudan and Pakistan.
Others are now more determined than ever to increase their own food production, Israel among them. The question now becomes, at what cost?
"The greatest challenge we face is to try and reduce the dependence on the import of grains, whether by increasing local production or whether by making more efficient use of raw materials in feeding livestock," Simhon said in an e-mail exchange. "This must be done, despite all limitations, mainly the lack of water."
Israel has always been considered to be at the forefront of water efficiency in agriculture. Modern drip irrigation was invented in Israel, and Israeli companies like Netafim now ship drip-irrigation systems all over the world.
Israel has also aggressively pursued the use of treated sewer water for irrigation. Ovits's tomatoes and peppers, for instance, are irrigated with recycled sewer water that he says is "even cleaner than the drinking water."
For all the country's efforts though, it can't control the weather. But Israeli officials say they believe they have a solution.
Agriculture in Israel now consumes 500 million cubic meters of potable water and an equal amount of other types of water, primarily treated sewer water. The country plans to provide a further 200 million cubic meters of recycled sewer water and build more desalination plants to supply even more water.
"If the desalination and recycling projects are implemented, a lack of water is not expected in 2013," Simhon said.
But is such an investment wise for a sector that contributes just 2 percent to the gross domestic product? Some critics suggest that Israel would be better off focusing on conservation.
Others have predicted a dire future. The chief scientist in the environment ministry, Yeshayahu Bar-Or, was quoted in The Economist in June as predicting that global warming would cause 35 percent less rainfall, contamination of underground water sources and pollution of the Sea of Galilee, this nation's largest source of fresh water.
In the Golan Heights, Roni Kedar, 46, hopes his farm can survive long enough for a solution.
As a farmer for Kibbutz Ein Zivan, which abuts the Syrian border, he has spent the last 30 years trying to conserve water while growing grapes, apples, flowers and berries.
HIS crops are irrigated with treated sewer water and rain runoff that is captured in a nearby reservoir, which is now severely depleted. He grows plants that do not require much water and feeds them with irrigation lines that drip water directly onto a plant's roots, minimizing waste. And he is now experimenting in his apple orchards with mesh nets that may further prevent evaporation.
But because of the drought, Israeli officials have cut the kibbutz's annual quota of water. This year's cuts were particularly harsh, to 1 million cubic meters from 1.8 million, forcing Kedar to tear out some of his orchards and rip the fruit off of some of his apple trees, to keep the trees alive but preserve water.
"I don't even like to go there. It's a disaster," he said, motioning toward an apple orchard where the fruit covers the ground. "We just threw everything to the floor and hope that next year is better."
He estimated that he would not harvest a third of his fields because of the water restrictions. "The decision is really simple. You choose the part of your fields that are hardest to get water to and you destroy them."
"We just don't have enough water," he said later. "It's frustrating because you work hard to make it grow. The point is to be big and efficient enough to survive. But right now it's hard."

Researchers work to turn car's exhaust into power

The Associated Press
Published: August 10, 2008

WARREN, Michigan: The stinky, steaming air that escapes from a car's tailpipe could help us use less gas.
Researchers are competing to meet a challenge from the U.S. Department of Energy: Improve fuel economy 10 percent by converting wasted exhaust heat into energy that can help power the vehicle.
General Motors Corp. is close to reaching the goal, as is a BMW AG supplier working with Ohio State University. Their research into thermoelectrics — the science of using temperature differences to create electricity — couldn't come at a better time as high gas prices accelerate efforts to make vehicles as efficient as possible.
GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon (.43 kilometer per liter) improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.
Reaching the goal of a 10 percent improvement would save more than 100 million gallons (378 million liters) of fuel per year in GM vehicles in the U.S. alone.

"The take-home message here is: It's a big deal," Yang said.
The DOE, which is partially funding the auto industry research, helped develop a thermoelectric generator for a heavy duty diesel truck and tested it for the equivalent of 550,000 miles (885,000 kilometers) about 12 years ago.
John Fairbanks, the department's thermoelectrics technology development manager, said the success of that generator justified the competitive search in 2004 for a device that could augment or replace a vehicle's alternator. Three teams were selected to participate in the program, with GM and thermoelectrics manufacturer BSST separately working on cars and a team from Michigan State University focusing on heavy-duty trucks.
Fairbanks said thermoelectric generators should be on the verge of production in about three years.
"It's probably the biggest impact in the shortest time that I can think of," he said.
The technology is similar to what NASA uses to power deep space probes, a perk being it doesn't seem to be susceptible to wear. Probes have used a thermoelectric setup for about 30 years.
Thermoelectric devices can work in two ways — using electricity to provide heating or cooling, or using temperature differences to create electricity.
The second method is Yang's focus, and for good reason.
In an internal combustion engine, only about a quarter of the total energy from gasoline is used to actually turn the wheels, while 40 percent is lost in exhaust heat and 30 percent is lost through cooling the engine. That means about 70 percent of the available energy is wasted, according to GM.
"If I can use some of that heat energy and convert it to electricity, you can improve the overall efficiency," Yang said.
A Suburban produces 15 kilowatts of exhaust heat energy during city driving, which is enough to power three or four air conditioners simultaneously.
But it's not possible to harness all the exhaust heat a vehicle produces, so when the Suburban is cruising about 55 mph (88.5 kph), the generator can produce about 800 watts of power, Yang said. That electricity could go to accessories such as a GPS device, DVD player, radio and possibly the vehicle's water pumps.
Yang's prototype device is to be tested in a Suburban next year. A similar prototype created by Ohio State scientists and BSST should be tested in a BMW in 2009.
The thermoelectric generator works when one side of its metallic material is heated, and excited electrons move to the cold side. The movement creates a current, which electrodes collect and convert to electricity.
While it's not clear how much the device would add to the price of a vehicle, the whole point of the research is to make it cost-effective, Yang said.
"There are several other steps that are required to commercialize the material, but we're cautiously optimistic that these steps can be carried out successfully," said Lon Bell, president of BSST, a subsidiary of Northville-based thermoelectrics supplier Amerigon Inc.
BSST also is working with Ford Motor Co. to develop climate control systems based on thermoelectrics.
Ford wants a system that would target a person's extremities when it's cold or the back of the neck in summer heat, rather than blow out a lot of air to change the temperature of the entire vehicle.
"We think we can make people feel cooler more quickly, feel comfortable more quickly, and that will translate into less power in the central AC system," said Clay Maranville, a Ford senior research scientist.
Honda Motor Co. also has supported university research into thermoelectrics, but a spokesman said the automaker doesn't have its own research program.

On a planet 4C hotter, all we can prepare for is extinction

There's no 'adaptation' to such steep warming. We must stop pandering to special interests, and try a new, post-Kyoto strategy

Oliver Tickell
The Guardian,
Monday August 11 2008

We need to get prepared for four degrees of global warming, Bob Watson told the Guardian last week. At first sight this looks like wise counsel from the climate science adviser to Defra. But the idea that we could adapt to a 4C rise is absurd and dangerous. Global warming on this scale would be a catastrophe that would mean, in the immortal words that Chief Seattle probably never spoke, "the end of living and the beginning of survival" for humankind. Or perhaps the beginning of our extinction.
The collapse of the polar ice caps would become inevitable, bringing long-term sea level rises of 70-80 metres. All the world's coastal plains would be lost, complete with ports, cities, transport and industrial infrastructure, and much of the world's most productive farmland. The world's geography would be transformed much as it was at the end of the last ice age, when sea levels rose by about 120 metres to create the Channel, the North Sea and Cardigan Bay out of dry land. Weather would become extreme and unpredictable, with more frequent and severe droughts, floods and hurricanes. The Earth's carrying capacity would be hugely reduced. Billions would undoubtedly die.
Watson's call was supported by the government's former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, who warned that "if we get to a four-degree rise it is quite possible that we would begin to see a runaway increase". This is a remarkable understatement. The climate system is already experiencing significant feedbacks, notably the summer melting of the Arctic sea ice. The more the ice melts, the more sunshine is absorbed by the sea, and the more the Arctic warms. And as the Arctic warms, the release of billions of tonnes of methane – a greenhouse gas 70 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years – captured under melting permafrost is already under way.
To see how far this process could go, look 55.5m years to the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when a global temperature increase of 6C coincided with the release of about 5,000 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, both as CO2 and as methane from bogs and seabed sediments. Lush subtropical forests grew in polar regions, and sea levels rose to 100m higher than today. It appears that an initial warming pulse triggered other warming processes. Many scientists warn that this historical event may be analogous to the present: the warming caused by human emissions could propel us towards a similar hothouse Earth.
But what are we to do? All our policies to date to tackle global warming have been miserable failures. The Kyoto protocol has created a vast carbon market but done little to reduce emissions. The main effect of the EU's emissions trading scheme has been to transfer about €30bn or more from consumers to Europe's biggest polluters, the power companies. The EU and US foray into biofuels has, at huge cost, increased greenhouse gas emissions and created a world food crisis, causing starvation in many poor countries.
So are all our efforts doomed to failure? Yes, so long as our governments remain craven to special interests, whether carbon traders or fossil fuel companies. The carbon market is a valuable tool, but must be subordinate to climatic imperatives. The truth is that to prevent runaway greenhouse warming, we will have to leave most of the world's fossil fuels in the ground, especially carbon-heavy coal, oil shales and tar sands. The fossil fuel and power companies must be faced down.
Global problems need global solutions, and we also need an effective replacement for the failed Kyoto protocol. The entire Kyoto system of national allocations is obsolete because of the huge volumes of energy embodied in products traded across national boundaries. It also presents a major obstacle to any new agreement – as demonstrated by the 2008 G8 meeting in Japan that degenerated into a squabble over national emission rights.
The answer? Scrap national allocations and place a single global cap on greenhouse gas emissions, applied "upstream" – for instance, at the oil refinery, coal-washing station and cement factory. Sell permits up to that cap in a global auction, and use the proceeds to finance solutions to climate change – accelerating the use of renewable energy, raising energy efficiency, protecting forests, promoting climate-friendly farming, and researching geoengineering technologies. And commit hundreds of billions of dollars per year to finance adaptation to climate change, especially in poor countries.
Such a package of measures would allow us to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and long-term stabilisation at 350 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. This avoids the economic pain that a cap-and-trade system alone would cause, and targets assistance at the poor, who are least to blame and most need help. The permit auction would raise about $1 trillion per year, enough to finance a spread of solutions. At a quarter of the world's annual oil spending, it is a price well worth paying.
· Oliver Tickell's book Kyoto2 has just been published

The coalface of climate change

The Guardian,
Monday August 11 2008

The banners and the tents were folded away yesterday and the marching drums fell silent. But the dismantling of the foot soldiers' camp did not quite signal the end of the battle of Kingsnorth. Throughout the last week 1,500 protesters have been stationed close to the Kent site where the energy giant E.ON is demanding permission to replace an old power station with a new one - the first new coal-fired station for a quarter of a century. The activists talked about closing down the old station, but their real aim was preventing its replacement.
There were some arrests at the camp, but the event was overwhelmingly peaceful. Some protesters are hanging on today to help pick up the rubbish. Far from making trouble gratuitously, they agitated to warn against greater trouble that could flow from the re-throning of King Coal. Coal had fallen from fashion, being replaced by (somewhat) cleaner gas. But rising energy prices have suddenly lent it a retro appeal. If Kingsnorth goes ahead, several more stations will follow, preparing the UK for decades of solid-fuel dependence. Without new technologies, these few big power stations would pump out so much carbon that Britain would miss essential targets. And where the first world falters, the third world can justifiably argue that it should not be asked to shoulder the burden. Coal-burning in India and China would follow the UK's lead, with the world suffocating in the heat.
That must not be allowed to happen, of course, and yet there are also compelling grounds for thinking that coal must inevitably remain part of the energy mix. Energy-hungry giants such as America and China have huge coal reserves, and it is naive to hope they will not exploit them. Closer to home, the need to keep the lights on cannot be ignored, as a clutch of old power stations are retired over the next few years. In the short term at least, the obvious alternative to coal is increased reliance on gas - which could eventually spell an unhealthy dependence on the likes of Russia.
Charting a way between the hard rocks of climate change and the jagged edges of energy security will depend on carbon capture. It could transform coal into a truly clean energy source, though exactly how is not yet clear. The government grasps its importance, but says making full carbon capture a condition for new coal plants would make them too costly to build. Maybe so, but at a minimum ministers must spell out clear duties on every new station to contribute to making the technology work. That cannot just mean installing a few removable pipes and setting aside space for a possible carbon tank some years down the line. Pending climate catastrophe demands a bolder response.

Climate threat to Brazil’s soya exports

By Jonathan Wheatley in São Paulo
Published: August 10 2008 22:55

Brazil’s soya exports could slump by more than a quarter over the next 12 years as a result of climate change, according to a study to be presented at an agribusiness conference opening in São Paulo on Monday.
The study will add to concern over worsening food shortages around the world. It shows that even moderate rises in temperatures would cause significant damage to a range of agricultural produce in Brazil, which has emerged over the past decade as one of the world’s biggest suppliers of food crops.
By 2020, the study says, the value of six of Brazil’s food crops – rice, coffee, beans, manioc, maize and soya – could fall by between 6.5bn reals ($4bn, €2.7bn, £2bn) and 7.1bn reals if average temperatures rose by between 1ºC and 2ºC.
“The result will be a significant drop in Brazil’s farm exports,” Hilton Silveira Pinto, one of the report’s authors, told the Financial Times.
The study is based on models of climate change developed at the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research and applied at local level to all of Brazil 5,562 municipalities by researchers at Unicamp, a university at Campinas in São Paulo state, and Embrapa, a Brazilian ­government agricultural research institute.
It takes account of different rates of temperature change in different parts of Brazil under best and worst-case scenarios that would result in average temperature rises by 2020 of between 1ºC and 2ºC from a baseline of average temperatures between 1961 and 1990. In parts of Brazil, such as in the rich agricultural hinterland of São Paulo state, temperatures have already risen by about 1ºC since then, said Prof Pinto.
The most serious damage would be to soya, he said. The amount of land suitable for soya cultivation would fall by more than 21 per cent under the best-case scenario, which assumes that action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and by almost 24 per cent if emissions continue at present rates.
This would result in a loss of 11.3m tons of soya from current production of 52.4m tons under the best-case scenario. Brazil last year exported about 38.5m tons of soya beans, meal and oil. Assuming that the Brazilian government maintains its policy of exporting only what is excess to domestic consumption, the study implies a drop in exports by 2020 of at least 29 per cent.
In contrast, the amount of sugar cane could increase dramatically, as it thrives in high temperatures and in atmospheres rich in carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases.
Prof Pinto stressed that the report was based on the most advanced crop varieties planted in Brazil and said damage could be mitigated by the development of new strains resistant to higher temperatures. However, he warned that few crops would withstand average temperature rises of more than 2ºC.
The study considered the impact of climate change up to 2050 and 2070, showing a fall in the value of the six crops of 9.3bn reals and 11bn reals, respectively, under the best-case scenario. However, Prof Pinto said predictions beyond 2050 were unreliable.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

Environmentalism Sprouts Up On Corporate Boards

More Companies Start Panels on Green Issues Amid Push by Activists

More U.S. corporate boards are going green.
Amid rising investor worries over global warming and shrinking natural resources, directors are keeping a closer watch on environmental issues. Boards at Integrys Energy Group Inc., Quicksilver Resources Inc., Tesoro Corp. and elsewhere recently have created separate environmental panels -- joining long-established ones at DuPont Co., Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Rohm & Haas Co. Other companies cover environmental issues with an existing board committee.
About 25% of Fortune 500 companies now have a board committee overseeing the environment, compared with fewer than 10% five years ago, estimates Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a national coalition of activists, investors and others concerned with the environment. Such panels typically try to make sure that executives effectively handle conservation efforts, new environmentally friendly ventures like wind power, compliance with environmental regulations and related business risks.
Shareholders are more active on environmental issues, too. The number of investor proposals related to the environment nearly doubled between 2004 and 2008, RiskMetrics Group Inc. says. Many proposals urge increased board attention to the issue.
The Earth's sustainability "has become a much more important part of every board's activities," observes Lester A. Hudson, chairman of American Electric Power Co.'s governance committee, which monitors environmental concerns.
AEP's experience illustrates the new dynamic. The electric utility, based in Columbus, Ohio, is among the largest U.S. users of coal -- and emitters of greenhouse gases.
In November 2003, public-employee pension funds offered a shareholder resolution urging independent directors to assess how AEP would deal with potential regulations to reduce carbon dioxide and other power-plant emissions. Mr. Hudson says three fellow directors formed a special panel to do a study, prompting the unions to drop their proposal.
The board members prepared an analysis following interviews with nearly 30 investors, environmentalists, experts, analysts and regulators. Their August 2004 report concluded that pending legislation likely wouldn't impact AEP's plan to invest $3.5 billion in cleaner coal-burning technologies by 2010. But the directors noted that AEP might want to consider scaling back plans for another $1.5 billion beyond that, because laws by that time might limit the use of coal altogether.
The study was a first for U.S. utilities, says Denise Nappier, treasurer for the state of Connecticut, which sponsored the 2003 resolution.
In 2006, Ceres gave AEP the highest U.S. ranking for board involvement in climate change, among 100 global businesses studied. That same year, AEP directors gave their governance committee oversight of its sustainability initiatives.
The panel now receives updates twice a year from Chief Executive Michael G. Morris and critiques drafts of his annual sustainability report. In the 2008 report, Mr. Hudson wrote that the board applauded AEP's progress on offsetting growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, but "expects and requires higher performance in the future."
AEP directors also tightened environmental-performance targets that employees must meet to receive annual bonuses. In 2006, they docked $80,045 from Mr. Morris' targeted $2 million bonus, after AEP received nine notices of possible environmental regulatory violations; the goal had been no more than five. Last year, the target dropped to four, and AEP received only two such notices. Businesses rarely link management rewards to environmental performance, according to Ceres.
Board committees responsible for environmental affairs elsewhere are turning up the heat, too. Steven Kline, chief environmental officer of PG&E Corp., told the board's public-policy panel in June about plans to lower the company's water consumption over several years -- without promising a timetable.
They replied, "That's great. But let's see if we can do it faster," Mr. Kline recalls. He hopes to offer a water-reduction schedule for the energy holding company when the panel convenes again in October.
But focusing board committees on the environment doesn't ensure eco-friendly behavior, activists say, citing Exxon Mobil Corp. The oil giant formed a public issues and contributions panel to monitor safety, health and the environment immediately after its Valdez oil spill in 1989.
The committee's efforts have been "more window dressing than anything else," contends Ms. Lubber. She says the company reduced oil spills, but its climate-change performance "is disappointing" -- partly because it lacks a comprehensive strategy for lowering greenhouse-gas emissions.
Exxon takes climate change seriously and has invested more than $1.5 billion to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions since 2004, says spokesman Tony Cudmore.
Ms. Lubber also faults Exxon directors for rejecting investor requests during the past five years to talk face-to-face about environmental problems. W.V. Shipley, head of a board committee that handles corporate governance, wrote Ceres last year that directors prefer senior executives to hold such sessions. Mr. Shipley declined to comment for this article.
In another sign of investor dissatisfaction, seven environmental resolutions came to a vote at Exxon's annual meeting in May. One proposal asked Exxon to set specific goals for greenhouse-gas emissions; it drew 30.9% of votes cast.