Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Obama will move to veto Bush laws

President-elect to use special powers on stem cell and oil drilling policies
Ed Pilkington in New York

The Guardian, Monday November 10 2008

Barack Obama will move swiftly to unpick many of what he sees as the most egregious acts of the Bush administration when he enters the White House in January, including restrictions on stem cell research and moves to allow oil drilling in wilderness areas, a leading member of his transition team said yesterday.
John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton whom Obama has put in joint charge of his transition process, indicated the incoming president would use extraordinary powers to force through rapid change. "There's a lot the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we'll see the president do that," Podesta said.
Podesta singled out restrictions applied by George Bush, in 2001, on federal funding of stem cell research, as well as recent moves by the White House to dilute environmental protections against oil drilling, as two areas in which quick action may be taken. "You see the Bush administration, even today, moving aggressively to do things that are probably not in the interest of the country," he said.

Podesta's comments could be interpreted as a warning to the Bush administration not to forge ahead with controversial decisions in the weeks of transition, a ploy used by many outgoing presidents.
According to the Washington Post, a team of about 50 Obama advisers have worked for months identifying some 200 Bush policies that are possible targets. Other areas of action may include reproductive rights, food and drug regulation and immigration enforcement.
Podesta's signal that the new administration would act quickly to negate several key provisions left by the outgoing one came as the president and president-elect prepared to meet today. Bush will show Obama around the White House, followed by private talks likely to focus on national security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis.
Since last Tuesday's election, Obama and his team have focused on the economy, which they have underlined as their number one priority. But by flagging up stem cells and drilling, the team has also indicated it means to move on several fronts, meeting the expectation of change unleashed by Obama's campaign. A volley of executive orders reversing key Bush policies would have the benefits of being relatively quick to implement, as they would not involve congressional approval, and of costing little money.
Stem cell research has been a rallying cause for American liberals since Bush blocked federal funding for all but a few sources of old cells in August 2001. Scientists have complained the restrictions, inspired by the Christian right, have held back US dynamism in a research field seen as a possible route to cures for conditions such as Alzheimer's.
Podesta pointed to attempts by the Bush administration in its dying days to expose tracts of public land in the west to oil and gas drilling. In recent weeks the US Bureau of Land Management has offered up about 360,000 acres in Utah to oil and gas companies, with auctions of the leases likely before Obama takes over. "They want to have oil and gas drilling in some of the most sensitive, fragile lands in Utah. I think that's a mistake," Podesta said.
The Sierra Club, the country's largest grassroots environmental organisation, said it was concerned about last-minute changes from the Bush administration. "They have consistently weakened protections over the last eight years, and we are encouraged that the Obama team plans to act to clean up the mess when they get into office," the club said.
Tony Blair, reacting to Obama's victory yesterday, said: "There is this huge weight of expectation, but it is at least possible to meet a reasonable part of those expectations."

Olive stones could be made into biofuel

By Richard Alleyne
Last Updated: 4:53PM GMT 10 Nov 2008

Olive stones can be turned into bioethanol, a renewable fuel that can be produced from plant matter and used as an alternative to petrol or diesel, scientists have discovered.
The development gives the olive processing industry an opportunity to make valuable use of the four million tons of waste in olive stones it generates every year and sets a precedent for the recycling of waste products as fuels.
Researchers from the Universities of Jaén and Granada in Spain developed the process which they published in the Society of Chemical Industry's (SCI) Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology.
"The low cost of transporting and transforming olives stones make them attractive for biofuels," said researcher Sebastián Sánchez.
Bioethanol is increasingly used in cars, but its production from food crops such as corn is controversial because it uses valuable land resources and threatens food security.
The olive stone, produced in processing of olive oil and table olives, makes up around a quarter of the total fruit. It is rich in polysaccharides that can be broken down into sugar and then fermented to produce ethanol.
"This research raises the possibility of using of olive stones, which would otherwise be wasted, in producing energy. In this way we can make use of the whole food crop," said Mr Sánchez.

Rainforest fungus could be new source of biofuel

By Richard Alleyne
Last Updated: 4:48PM GMT 10 Nov 2008
A fungus found living in the rainforests of South America could be a new source of biofuel, scientists claim.

Experts believe the organism, Gliocladium roseum, which produces almost pure bio diesel could potentially be a completely new source of green energy.
The fungus, which lives inside the Ulmo tree in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces hydrocarbon fuel similar to the diesel used in cars and trucks.
Scientists were amazed to find that it was able to convert plant cellulose or matter directly into the biofuel, dubbed "myco-diesel".
Crops normally have to converted to sugar and fermented before they can be turned into useful fuel.
Professor Gary Strobel, from Montana State University, said: "G. roseum can make myco-diesel directly from cellulose, the main compound found in plants and paper.
"This means if the fungus was used to make fuel, a step in the production process could be skipped."
Prof Strobel led an investigation into novel fungi in the rainforests of northern Patagonia, which cross the borders of Argentina and Chile.
He found that when the diesel fuel fungus was exposed to potentially toxic antibiotics, it reacted defensively by generating volatile gases.
"Then when we examined the gas composition of G. roseum, we were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives," said Prof Strobel.
"The results were totally unexpected and very exciting and almost every hair on my arms stood on end."
The findings appear in the November issue of the journal Microbiology.
Cellulose provides the fibrous supporting structure of plants. During biofuel production, cellulose from plant waste is first treated with enzymes that turn it into sugar. Microbes then ferment the sugar into inflammable ethanol.
Nearly 430 million tonnes of plant waste is produced from farmland each year around the world.
Prof Strobel said: "We were very excited to discover that G. roseum can digest cellulose. Although the fungus makes less myco-diesel when it feeds on cellulose compared to sugars, new developments in fermentation technology and genetic manipulation could help improve the yield.
"In fact, the genes of the fungus are just as useful as the fungus itself in the development of new biofuels.
"The discovery also questions our knowledge of the way fossil fuels are made. The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years.
"If fungi like this are producing myco-diesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels."

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Are Biofuels To Blame? It's Not Easy Being Green


Biofuels are under siege from critics who say they crowd out food production. Now these fuels made from grass and grain, long touted as green, are being criticized as bad for the planet.
At issue is whether oil alternatives -- such as ethanol distilled from corn and fuels made from inedible stuff like switch grass -- actually make global warming worse through their indirect impact on land use around the world.

For example, if farmers in Brazil burn and clear more rainforest to grow food because farmers in the U.S. are using their land to grow grain for fuel, that could mean a net increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main "greenhouse gas" linked to climate change.
The issue has been heating up for months in scientific, corporate and environmental circles. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has indicated it plans to measure each biofuel's emissions based partly on the ripple effect that its production in the U.S. can have overseas, and is preparing to seek comments on a proposal. Some scientists, as well as General Motors Corp., DuPont Co., Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and other companies with an interest in the outcome, are warning of a muddled calculus.
"If population grows in America and therefore ... we need to build a new Wal-Mart, are we going to debit that pregnant woman with the indirect life-cycle greenhouse-gas footprint of her decision to have that child?" says Michael Parr, a senior government affairs manager at DuPont.
Environmental groups say disclosing the emissions levels associated with land-use change caused by biofuels is critical to determining which fuels will best help the U.S. reduce its dependence on oil.
A study published in February in the journal Science found that U.S. production of corn-based ethanol increases emissions by 93%, compared with using gasoline, when expected world-wide land-use changes are taken into account. Applying the same methodology to biofuels made from switch grass grown on soil diverted from raising corn, the study found that greenhouse-gas emissions would rise by 50%.
Previous studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline reduces greenhouse gases. Those studies generally didn't account for the carbon emissions that occur as farmers world-wide respond to higher food prices and convert forest and grassland to cropland.
But some scientists and many biofuel proponents have challenged the Science study, saying it relied on unrealistic assumptions. And there is disagreement among scientists and economists over how to measure the impact of land-use changes in one country on land-use changes in another. When a Brazilian farmer chops down rainforest to grow a crop, for instance, how can the EPA be sure his decision wasn't influenced by local factors, such as the construction of a new highway that made it easier to bring the crop to market?
DuPont, ADM, GM and representatives of the biotechnology industry have asked that the EPA hold off on quantifying the greenhouse-gas impacts of so-called indirect land-use change, and instead seek comment on the methodology the agency plans to use. The companies, along with some scientists, say that methods for measuring such indirect effects are still new, and that trying to assess emissions levels based on immature methods could lead to unwarranted conclusions that would discourage investment in biofuels.
An EPA spokesman declined to speculate on "what is or isn't" going to be in the administration's proposal. The agency's efforts are driven by a 2007 energy law that says the EPA, in determining each fuel's "lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions," must consider "direct emissions and significant indirect emissions such as significant emissions from land use changes."
Bruce Dale, a chemical-engineering professor at Michigan State University, says he is skeptical that policy makers can establish an accurate system for gauging the indirect effect of biofuel production on overseas land use. "All this stuff is accounting," which in turns depends on data and "assumptions you make about how the world works," he says.
Nathanael Greene, director of renewable-energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, acknowledges the difficulty of quantifying emissions levels associated with indirect land-use change. But he says that isn't a valid reason for not trying to measure them.
If anything, Mr. Greene says, biofuels producers -- particularly those that specialize in making fuels that don't come from corn -- stand to benefit from new regulations, because such standards will "inoculate" the industry against the kinds of criticisms that have buffeted food-based biofuel crops.
"This industry, like many other industries, relies on government subsidies," Mr. Greene says. "If public opinion turns against [advanced biofuel producers] because they're associated with clear-cutting forests and harming endangered species ... those incentives and that public support are going to evaporate."
Write to Stephen Power at stephen.power@wsj.com

Windfarm consortium to invest billions off UK coast

Mark Milner
The Guardian, Tuesday November 11 2008

Two of the world's leading wind farm operators have teamed up to make joint bids for the next round of offshore licences in Britain.
ScottishPower Renewables, part of Spain's Iberdrola Renovables, is joining forces with Sweden's Vattenfall with the aim of developing 6,000 megawatts of installed capacity.
The partners have not said how much the development will cost, but industry experts believe the investment will run into several billions of pounds. The partnership will take the form of a consortium which will submit its tender to the Crown Estate under the third round of licences for offshore development.
"Round three is a very important part of the UK's renewable aspirations and this consortium has the skills and determination to play a key role in this process," said Xabier Viteri, chief executive of Iberdrola Renovables.
Both Iberdrola and Vattenfall already have significant wind farm operations. Within Iberdrola, ScottishPower operates 550 megawatts of capacity across the UK and Ireland. It is also building what it describes as the world's largest onshore windfarm at Whitelee, south of Glasgow, and has received consent for its first offshore windfarm off the Cumbria coast, west of Duddon Sands.
Vattenfall owns two of the world's largest offshore windfarms, Lillgrund off the south coast of Sweden and Horns Rev in the Danish North Sea. In the UK it owns Kentish Flats in the Thames estuary and recently bought Amec Wind Energy and Eclipse Energy.
Yesterday, as well as the partnership with ScottishPower, the Swedish company said it had bought the Thanet Offshore project. It paid £35m for the scheme, which will have an installed capacity of 300MW. The investment required will be about £780m.
Anders Dahl, the head of Vattenfall's wind power division, said: "Great Britain is ideal for wind power with good wind conditions and a long coastline."
Mike O'Brien, energy and climate change minister, said: "I am pleased Thanet windfarm will be able to proceed under its new owner, Vattenfall. This proves the UK is still a good place to invest in offshore wind despite the current economic difficulties. The UK is a world leader in this technology. Our plans for more windfarms offshore will not only help in the fight against climate change but will increase the amount of home grown energy and create jobs."
Rob Hastings, director of the marine estate at The Crown Estate, said: "We are very pleased that Vattenfall have completed this deal to buy Thanet. The UK is now the world's leading producer of offshore wind power and we will be working closely with Vattenfall to ensure the build schedule is maintained."
Last year the then business and enterprise secretary, John Hutton, indicated Britain could build up to 33 gigawatts of offshore capacity by 2020.

Gore urges US to try for 100% renewable energy within a decade

Bobbie Johnson in San Francisco

The Guardian, Monday November 10 2008

Barack Obama should set drastic targets to force the US to switch to renewable energy in an effort to slow down climate change, according to the former vice president Al Gore. Gore said that one of Obama's first acts as US president should be to demand a move to 100% renewable energy within 10 years.
"We can do that," he said during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco last Friday. "The declaration from President [John F] Kennedy that we would land a man on the moon and bring him back safely was thought by many to be impossible."
During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to invest $150bn (£96bn) in renewables over 10 years as part of the plan to increase US energy security amid fear of oil shortages, while also cutting carbon emissions. Many hope to see those policies enacted with a far-reaching climate-change bill that would bring the US back into the global environment fold.
Gore's call for action, made at the summit, one of the hi-tech industry's leading events, included his view that the internet had a vital role to play in the mission for energy; but he stressed that people needed to start using the web for social good.
Gore has got close links to the industry through his work as a board member at Apple, as an adviser to Google, and as a prominent investor in a number of hi-tech companies.
Making an analogy between the march of the internet and the early development of electricity, Gore suggested the web should find a real purpose beyond making money and sharing information.
He said: "The early uses of electricity were aimed at specialised applications and gimmicks." But the web's real purpose, he suggested, was "to bring about a higher level of consciousness about our planet and the imminent danger ... we face because of the radical transformation in the relationship between human beings and the earth".
Gore's perspective and the similar views of his allies formed the biggest call at the summit for hi-tech development, saying technology should be used to tackle the problem of climate change.
At the summit, delegates heard about how a range of developments, in green technology, hi-tech monitoring systems and alternative energy sources, was now attracting growing interest from investors.

Shift to solar and wind power could threaten U.S. electrical grid

By Matthew L. Wald
Published: November 10, 2008

WASHINGTON: Adding electricity from the wind and the sun could increase the frequency of blackouts and reduce the reliability of the U.S. electrical grid, an industry report says.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. says in a report scheduled for release Monday that unless appropriate measures are taken to improve transmission of electricity, rules reducing carbon dioxide emissions by utilities could impair the reliability of the power grid. The corporation is the industry body authorized by the U.S. government to enforce reliability rules for the interlocking system of electrical power generation and transmission.
Such carbon-reduction rules are already in place in 27 American states and four Canadian provinces, and new ones could be mandated nationally in both countries. They may force changes in the utility industry, the group said, including the shutting down of coal plants that are located near load centers, and substituting power from wind turbines or solar plants in remote areas.
These actions would impose new demands on a transmission system that was never designed for large power transfers over extremely long distances.
The group also said that the carbon emission rules could increase reliance on natural gas, making power generation vulnerable to supply interruptions.

Carbon emission initiatives are the "No. 1 emerging issue" for the grid, according to Rick Sergel, president and chief executive of the group, which is based in Princeton, New Jersey. Renewable energy can form a larger portion of electricity supplies without reducing reliability, Sergel said, but not without investments in transmission.
The overhauled electric system that has emerged in the last two decades already has inadequate transmission capacity, he said. Independent power producers have built generating stations that compete in a geographically vast marketplace to serve distant consumers. "The transmission system is being used closer to its limits more of the time than at any time in the past," Sergel said.
The report was based on information from 50 utilities, power generators and other electric system participants. It quotes Kenneth Farmer, executive director of the Beauregard Electric Cooperative, of DeRidder, Louisiana, saying, "It appears that greenhouse gas issues and electric utility reliability are on a collision course."
The report calls for construction of new power lines, which has become more difficult in some regions because of the diminished clout of utilities and the growing strength of preservationists trying to protect rural areas. Building new lines to reach distant areas with great potential for power generation will take a new approach to planning, the report said.
One solution, it said, might be greater use of "demand-side resources," or deals with customers to cut consumption in periods of high energy use. In these arrangements, some retail customers agree to have equipment like central air-conditioners or swimming pool pumps controlled by utilities, which can limit their use at peak times. Some big customers, like factories, may voluntarily shut down on peak use days. Both groups get a discount or a regular payment in exchange for becoming "interruptible."
Such measures can relieve pressure on generating stations and transmission lines, but require reliable integration with the transmission system, the report said.
Some experts say they think that imposing hard limits on carbon dioxide emissions could threaten the reliability of the power supply.
Peter Carney, an environmental engineer at the New York Independent System Operator, which runs the bulk power transmission system in New York, said that such problems could result from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, of which New York is a member. Under that agreement, utilities get allowances for carbon emissions. But under some conditions — a spike in demand because of severe weather, or the lengthy shutdown of a nuclear plant — the only way to obtain more power could be to burn more coal, increasing carbon emissions. It is not clear how such conflicts would be resolved.

ScottishPower plans wind farms with Swedes

Robin Pagnamenta, Energy and Environment Editor

ScottishPower plans to develop a string of wind farms around the UK capable of generating 6,000 megawatts in a joint venture with Vattenfall, Sweden's state-owned power company.
The move will involve building up to 2,400 offshore wind turbines. In theory, that many turbines operating at full capacity could produce enough electricity to power four million homes, or 8 per cent of existing UK power-generating capacity, although offshore wind farms tend to operate at only 35 per cent of capacity.
The companies will bid together for a third round of licences to operate offshore projects around the UK that are being issued by the Crown Estate, which owns the nation's seabed.
“Great Britain is an important growth market for us and has excellent conditions for wind power,” Lars Josefsson, the president and chief executive of Vattenfall, said.

The Swedish company, Europe's fifth-largest utility, also said that it had bought the rights to develop Britain's biggest offshore wind farm, off the coast of Thanet, Kent. It said that the facility would have a capacity of 300MW and would cost about £780 million to complete, although it had paid only about £35 million to acquire the project rights from CRC Energy Jersey 1.
As well as wind-power projects, Vattenfall operates nuclear, coal and hydro stations in Sweden, Germany and Poland. Last year it had 4.7 million customers and a turnover of €15 billion (£12.2 billion).
Neither ScottishPower nor Vattenfall would estimate the cost of building 6,000MW of offshore generating capacity. Analysts said that it would be about £3million per megawatt, indicating a total of £18 billion.
Applications for the third round of tenders for offshore wind farms are due by early March.
Wind turbines are becoming more powerful, but present technology allows only 2.5MW of generating capacity per turbine, so 2,400 would be needed to produce 6,000MW of electricity.
Vattenfall's announcement was welcomed by the Government, which has ambitious plans for offshore wind energy. It wants to build 33,000MW of capacity by 2020, a figure that experts have said would be impossible without big changes to Britain's planning system and the National Grid. The credit crunch and the falling price of oil have also undermined the ability of many developers to finance wind projects.
The Government is smarting from the withdrawal of a number of key players from the industry in Britain, including Shell and BP.
Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, urged the Government to follow the call of Barack Obama, the US President-elect, for a green energy revolution that would create five million jobs.
Mr Barber said: “Our European competitors have already shown that there are jobs and money in green technology. Germany's renewable energy sector employs half a million people and has a turnover of €24 billion. In contrast, the UK employs just 7,000 in renewable energy, generating €360 million.”

Australia Pours Funding Into 'Green' Autos


The Australian government unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan for the country's auto industry in an effort to boost its international competitiveness and help auto makers adjust to declining global demand for fuel-guzzling vehicles.
Under the New Car Plan for a Greener Future, the government will provide net new funding for the auto industry of 3.2 billion Australian dollars (US$2.16 billion), taking total assistance to A$6.2 billion over a 13-year period.
The plan will more than double government assistance for environmentally friendly auto manufacturing to A$1.3 billion and bring forward the expanded 10-year program to 2009 from 2011.
The government will match industry investment in green cars on the basis of A$1 for every A$3 invested by industry in a move it expects to generate A$16 billion in auto-industry funding over the plan's life.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the plan "forward-looking," but said "it's not a blank check ... we expect a significant commitment back from the industry as well."
Monday's policy measures were welcomed by industry, although none of the auto makers that manufacture in Australia immediately committed any funding to environmentally friendly vehicles.
Toyota Motor Corp. is already a beneficiary of the Australian government's green initiatives. In June it received A$35 million in federal government funding to build 10,000 hybrid Camry vehicles annually in the state of Victoria by 2010.
Australia's A$7.7 billion auto industry has faltered in recent times as a rising Australian dollar exchange rate made imports more attractive.
Only three auto companies make vehicles in Australia -- Holden, the Australian unit of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota. Mitsubishi Corp. closed its plant in South Australia state in March.
Write to Susan Murdoch at susan.murdoch@dowjones.net and Rachel Pannett at rachel.pannett@dowjones.com

Shipshape, green and Bristol-fashion

• West Country city rated UK's most sustainable • Recycling, composting and cycling earn No 1 spot
Steven Morris
guardian.co.uk, Monday November 10 2008 00.01 GMT
The Guardian, Monday November 10 2008

Bristol is today crowned as the UK's most sustainable city, knocking Brighton and Hove off the top spot. It heads a table of 20 British cities drawn up by experts who looked at indicators such as environmental performance, quality of life and readiness for challenges ahead.
Brighton is second, followed by Plymouth, Newcastle and Cardiff. Hull props up the table while Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and Wolverhampton are also in the bottom five. The table and report are compiled by the sustainable development group Forum for the Future and are designed to help city leaders and citizens assess how they are doing on sustainability issues and how they can do better.
Bristol, which was named the UK's first cycling city earlier this year and was given £11m of government money to encourage more cycling, snatched top place thanks in part to its increase in recycling and composting. But the Forum for the Future's report says everyone it spoke to in Bristol complained about public transport.
Another success story is Newcastle upon Tyne, which rose four places, again thanks to its improvement in recycling. The report says: "Newcastle is a post-industrial city that could be expected to be disadvantaged next to its more prosperous southern counterparts. The city performed well on the future-proofing measures, suggesting that it is developing with sustainability firmly in mind."
Despite Newcastle's success, the data suggests a clear north-south divide. In general, the foot of the table is dominated by cities from the north of England.
The authors admit this does not necessarily mean people are happier in the south than the north. They point out that the people of Liverpool take great pride in their city, even though it is 19th in the table.
Leicester shot six places up the table, from 14 to eight, thanks in part to the council's commitment to tackling climate change. London held its position of 10th.
The index has 13 indicators in three areas: environment, quality of life, and future-proofing. Indicators include air quality and ecological footprint (environment); education and unemployment (quality of life); and authority commitments to climate change (future-proofing).
The report says that not even the UK's best-performing cities can match international leaders such as Stockholm, Portland in the US, and Curitiba in Brazil.
Bristol's top spot is a second boost in a few days. Last week it was the only UK city shortlisted for the European green capital award. Council leader Helen Holland said: "Our vision is to make Bristol a truly green capital with a more sustainable future for everyone."
Top and bottom
1 (3) Bristol2 (1) Brighton3 (4) Plymouth4 (8) Newcastle5 (6) Cardiff6 (2) Edinburgh 7 (7) Sheffield8 (14) Leicester9 (11) Nottingham10 (10) London11 (9) Bradford12 (17) Coventry13 (13) Sunderland14 (5) Leeds15 (12) Manchester16 (16) Wolverhampton17 (15) Glasgow18 (19) Birmingham19 (20 )Liverpool 20 (18) Hull
Last year's rankings in brackets

UK failing to protect biodiversity at home and overseas, say MPs

Britain must do more than preserve 'islands in landscape' and has 'moral duty' to protect biodiversity in far flung territories
John Vidal and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Monday November 10 2008 14.25 GMT

The government will miss its targets to stop the demise of wildlife in Britain unless it invests money in conservation and looks beyond protecting a few special sites, says a report from the environmental audit committee.
The parliamentary watchdog criticised several government departments which it said paid scant regard to wildlife when planning housing or business developments. The Communities, Local Government, Transport and Business and Enterprise departments were all named for failing to properly consider the environmental impacts of their work.
"It is critically important that all levels of government ensure that all policies are reviewed to align them with an ecosystems approach," it said. "We are concerned that a number of policies indicate the continued failure of departments to consider biodiversity impacts."
The committee called for a new approach to conservation and backed plans announced by the environment secretary, Hilary Benn, to carry out a nationwide "ecosystems assessment" to inform policy decisions.
Tory MP Tim Yeo, who chairs the committee, said: "England is a much poorer place than it was 50 years ago with the widespread decline of many of our most important, and loved, habitats and species. We have lost some 97% of our flower-rich meadows and there are now half the number of farmland birds that there were 50 years ago.
"The continued deterioration of the natural environment has clear economic implications as it directly underpins many things that we take for granted such as pollination, flood protection and clean air. It is no longer enough to rely on protected areas to preserve nature, as increasingly these have become islands in the landscape," he said.
Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, the government official advisers on ecology, said: "All the evidence points to the fact that the quality and extent of our natural environment will continue to decline unless current policies and land management practices are changed. Failure to respond will have enormously damaging implications for our wildlife, our landscapes, our health and our quality of life."
The committee criticised government for not helping protect biodiversity in Britain's far flung overseas territories, which include islands such as Ascension, the Pitcairns, South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha. The MPs said these remote islands were home to 240 globally threatened species, 74 of them critically endangered but there was a "dire lack of funds and information" for conservation in the territories.
Previous calls to action had been ignored by the government, the MPs complained, demanding a survey of the state of habitats and a joined-up approach across Whitehall.
"The government has a clear moral and legal duty to help protect the biodiversity of the UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, where it is the eleventh hour for many species. We are extremely concerned that recommendations that we have made in the past that would have helped to protect the environment of the overseas territories have been ignored," the report concluded.
"With leadership, and a relatively small sum of money, the incredible biodiversity found in our overseas territories can be safeguarded into the future.
James Cooper, head of government affairs at the Woodland Trust urged Defra to look beyond protected sites and do more in the countryside to encourage positive land management for wildlife as well as preventing loss.
"This means a need to champion biodiversity across government — not just within Defra, encouraging green infrastructure as part of any new developments and ensuring that the planning system is up to the job of protecting and enhancing biodiversity, which at the moment it fails to do."
Friends of the Earth biodiversity campaigner Paul De Zylva said: "MPs acknowledge the economic case for protecting our rich and varied wildlife, but ministers are all too ready to let roads and runways trample over our natural heritage. UK government policies are also threatening the amazing natural diversity of countries around the world."

Rising methane levels are cause for concern

Unexplained methane rises raise concerns that our understanding of its role in the global carbon cycle is inadequate, writes Chris Goodall. From Carbon Commentary, part of the Guardian Environment Network

From Carbon Commentary, part of the Guardian Environment Network
guardian.co.uk, Monday November 10 2008 12.37 GMT
Methans concentrations at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. The grey data points are preliminary. Graphic: NOAA.
We seem to know less about methane emissions than we thought. After a decade of stability, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have been rising strongly in the last 18 months.
Early research work suggested that this rise was concentrated in the northern latitudes of the northern hemisphere and was consistent with greater emissions from decaying organic matter in melting permafrost or from the melting of Arctic sea ice.
Now this result has been called into question by the publication of a new study showing the concentrations of methane are rising almost everywhere. Since methane takes some time to diffuse around the globe, the later work suggests that the rise in methane may not be directly due to enhanced emissions from biological sources.
Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas, producing about 20% of the radiative forcing of all the main gases. Its concentration in the atmosphere has risen about two and half times since the industrial revolution to about 1750 parts per billion.
Although it is present in very much smaller concentrations than CO2, each molecule has a more powerful global warming effect. It also lasts much less long in the atmosphere, typically reacting with the hydroxyl radical (*OH) to form carbon dioxide and water. The average life of a molecule of methane in the atmosphere is about 8 years compared to about a century for carbon dioxide.
The growth rate of methane concentrations in the atmosphere slowed in the second half of the last century. The period between 1999 and early 2007 showed virtually no increase, leading to optimism that methane emissions were under control.
Deep coal mines were an important source and much of the industry was closed down in the northern hemisphere in the 1980s and 1990s. Rice farming practices, which floods vegetated areas, allowing plant matter to rot anaerobically and produce methane, were changed in some parts of Asia to reduce emissions. Natural gas is largely methane and pipeline leaks were also reduced.
The recent rise surprised many researchers. In the past, methane concentrations have tended to increase in periods of marked El Niño (high sea temperatures in the eastern Pacific), resulting in greater dieback of vegetation and more methane production from the rotting plant matter.
But the last year or so has been a period of lower than average temperatures in the Pacific (La Niña rather than El Niño). So this isn't a good explanation for the sudden jump of about 10 parts per billion, or about 0.5% increase in the average concentrations.
Dr Rebecca Fisher of Royal Holloway College, University of London, published work with colleagues early this year showing that the rise in methane was particularly great in the Arctic. Some measuring stations saw increases of twice the average global rise. Since methane takes time to diffuse around the world, this suggested a regionally specific source. It could be from the sea or from rotting vegetation exposed by melting.
Dr Fisher's work was, in a sense, comforting. It suggested we might have an explanation for why methane concentrations were rising. In particular, she showed that increased methane concentrations were associated with rises in the percentage of gas containing the lighter carbon isotope, C12, which is associated with emissions from methane-producing bacteria. It looked as though we could be reasonably confident that at least part of the source of increased emissions was rotting plant matter.
More recent work has dented this belief. MIT scientists have just published work with scientists from Australia and elsewhere that shows that the rise in methane levels has been quite uniform across the globe. This shouldn't happen if methane was produced by plant sources, since there is far more organic matter in the northern hemisphere. Concentrations should be temporarily higher in the north in the months and years it takes methane to spread uniformly across the globe.
The MIT team speculate that the rise in methane may be a function of decreasing concentrations of hydroxyl, the scavenger radical that mops up methane, perhaps as well as increasing emissions. But we don't yet have good monitoring of *OH concentrations and it will be some time before we are able to tell if this hypothesis is correct or, indeed, what is causing this change.
The scientific debate about the cause of increased methane is important because it suggests that we do not yet have a good model for what determines changes in concentrations.
One of the primary worries about global warming is that it will eventually trigger the eruption of untold millions of tonnes of methane from deep sea water. (This is usually known as the 'clathrate gun' hypothesis.) The gas is currently locked into a stable bond with the extremely cold waters in the deep oceans.
Continued world temperature increases will eventually cause the methane to burst from its chemical locks within the cold liquid and rise to the surface. This probably happened at times of rapid warming in the far-distant past.
The fact that we cannot immediately know today why the methane rise is occurring, and whether it is likely to continue, raises worries that our understanding of methane's role in the global carbon cycle is simply not very good.
• This article was shared by our content partner Carbon Commentary, a member of the Guardian Environment Network.

Paradise almost lost: Maldives seek to buy a new homeland

Randeep Ramesh in Male
guardian.co.uk, Monday November 10 2008 00.01 GMT
The Guardian, Monday November 10 2008

The Maldives will begin to divert a portion of the country's billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland - as an insurance policy against climate change that threatens to turn the 300,000 islanders into environmental refugees, the country's first democratically elected president has told the Guardian.
Mohamed Nasheed, who takes power officially tomorrow in the island's capital, Male, said the chain of 1,200 island and coral atolls dotted 500 miles from the tip of India is likely to disappear under the waves if the current pace of climate change continues to raise sea levels.
The UN forecasts that the seas are likely to rise by up to 59cm by 2100, due to global warming. Most parts of the Maldives are just 1.5m above water. The president said even a "small rise" in sea levels would inundate large parts of the archipelago.
"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis [began by buying] land in Palestine," said Nasheed, also known as Anni.
The president, a human rights activist who swept to power in elections last month after ousting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who once imprisoned him, said he had already broached the idea with a number of countries and found them to be "receptive".
He said Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.
"We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades," he said.
Environmentalists say the issue raises the question of what rights citizens have if their homeland no longer exists. "It's an unprecedented wake-up call," said Tom Picken, head of international climate change at Friends of the Earth. "The Maldives is left to fend for itself. It is a victim of climate change caused by rich countries."
Nasheed said he intended to create a "sovereign wealth fund" from the dollars generated by "importing tourists", in the way that Arab states have done by "exporting oil". "Kuwait might invest in companies; we will invest in land."
The 41-year-old is a rising star in Asia, where he has been compared to Nelson Mandela. Before taking office the new president asked Maldivians to move forward without rancour or retribution - an astonishing call, given that Nasheed had gone to jail 23 times, been tortured and spent 18 months in solitary confinement.
"We have the latitude to remove anyone from government and prosecute them. But I have forgiven my jailers, the torturers. They were following orders ... I ask people to follow my example and leave Gayoom to grow old here," he said.
The Maldives is one of the few Muslim nations to make a relatively peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. The Gayoom "sultanate" was an iron-fisted regime that ran the police, army and courts, and which banned rival parties.
Public flogging, banishment to island gulags and torture were routinely used to suppress dissent and the fledging pro-democracy movement. Gayoom was "elected" president six times in 30 years - but never faced an opponent. However, public pressure grew and last year he conceded that democracy was inevitable.
Upmarket tourism had become a prop for the dictatorial regime. Gayoom's Maldives became the richest country in South Asia, with average incomes reaching $4,600 a year. But the wealth created was skimmed off by cronies - leaving a yawning gap between rich and poor. Speedboats and yachts of local multimillionaires bob in the lagoon of the capital's harbour, while official figures show almost half of Maldivians earn less than a dollar a day.
Male is the world's most densely populated town: 100,000 people cram into two square kilometres. "We have unemployment at 20%. Heroin has become a serious social issue, with crime rising," Nasheed said, adding that the extra social spending he pledged would cost an immediate $243m. He said that without an emergency bailout from the international community, the future of the Maldives as a democracy would be in doubt.
To raise cash, his government will sell off state assets, reduce the cabinet and turn the presidential palace into the country's first university.
"It's desperate. We are a 100% Islamic country and democracy came from within. Do you want to lose that because we were denied the money to deal with the poverty created by the dictatorship?" he said.
At a glance
• The highest land point in the Maldives is 2.4 metres above sea level, on Wilingili island in the Addu Atoll
• The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels could rise by 25-58cm by 2100
• The country comprises 1,192 islands grouped around 26 Indian Ocean atolls. Only 250 islands are inhabited. The population is 380,000
• The main income is from tourism, with 467,154 people visiting in 2006

China Expands Markets for Emissions Trading


BEIJING -- After years of small-scale experiments in using so-called emissions trading to reduce pollution, China is taking steps to set up a nationwide system.
In recent months, three cities -- Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin -- have begun creating emissions exchanges modeled after a system pioneered in the U.S. to reduce emissions that caused acid rain.
Known as cap-and-trade, this system sets an overall limit, or cap, on how much an industry can pollute. Individual companies get permits, which can then be traded. A company that invests in cutting its emissions can, for instance, sell its credits to a company that operates less cleanly. Traders can speculate on the future value of the credits. When more production means more pollution, the permits gain value.

A similar approach is being used with the carbon markets in Europe, where national limits on greenhouse gases have been set and companies can trade credits that have been approved through the United Nations's Kyoto Protocol mechanism.
In China, the exchanges are so far little more than offices and ideas. But heavyweight investors are already interested in the fledgling markets. One of China's biggest companies, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, has joined with the Chicago Climate Exchange -- owned by Climate Exchange PLC, which also owns the world's biggest carbon market, the European Climate Exchange -- to set up the Tianjin Climate Exchange.
By many measures, China is among the most polluted countries in the world, and the profits in cleaning up could be huge. It is already the world's leading source of carbon credits traded in Europe and by some estimates has even surpassed the U.S. as the world's top source of greenhouse gases. China also is the world's biggest source of the pollutant sulfur dioxide, a result of the country's reliance on coal for more than 70% of its energy needs.
So far, the country has relied more on administrative measures than on markets to clean up, with mixed success. But its environmental watchdog doesn't have the manpower or the legal muscle to enforce all of the regulations.
China has been experimenting with small-scale local exchanges since the late 1990s for trading in sulfur dioxide. In the experiments, a handful of power plants would agree to an absolute limit on emissions and trade allowances among themselves.
The experiments haven't been nationalized because of fears that setting absolute pollution limits could limit economic growth and because of technical difficulties in measuring and verifying reductions.
Chinese academics and some government officials hope that linking pollution reduction to profits could prove more effective in increasing compliance.
The founders of the exchanges in China say the government is encouraging them to start developing the infrastructure and technical know-how to reduce pollution. They believe the government is intent on setting absolute national limits on some pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, and will back the use of the markets to help reach those goals.
Though government officials declined to comment, state media gave the formation of these exchanges extensive coverage.
Executives at the markets say they plan to start out very broadly offering tradable financial instruments designed to help companies meet pollution and energy-efficiency targets. The exchanges could also offer carbon credits for companies such as airlines seeking to offset emissions by investing in greenhouse-gas-reduction projects in China. These would operate outside the Kyoto Protocol.
China is at least a decade away from accepting carbon caps, many observers believe, though there is a chance that sulfur caps could be rolled out much sooner. And while the country has broad targets for reducing major pollutants by 10% under its five-year plan ending 2010, and has an efficiency target, it doesn't yet have any of the legal framework for actual emissions trading.—Sue Feng in Beijing contributed to this article.
Write to Shai Oster at shai.oster@wsj.com