Sunday, 16 November 2008

Fruit and veg boom needed to feed Britain

In the face of climate change, food experts call for more home-grown fruit and less grain for cattle
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008

It is an image worthy of a Keats poem or a Constable landscape: great orchards bursting with fruit, fields crammed with ripening vegetables and hillsides covered with sheep and cattle.
But this is no dream of long-gone rural glories. It is a vision of the kind of countryside that Britain may need if it is to survive the impact of climate change and higher oil prices, according to leading agricultural experts.
They have warned that only a total revolution in the nation's food industry can save Britain from serious shortages of staples as world oil production peaks, the climate continues to heat up, the population grows and our dietary needs continue to evolve.
In turn that means a complete shake-up in the way we farm the countryside. At present Britain imports more than 90 per cent of the fruit it consumes.
'We face some awesome changes in the way we deal with food production,' said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London. 'For the past century we have relied on oil to produce more and more food for ourselves - mainly through the use of petroleum products to make cheap fertilisers.'
The problem is that oil is becoming more and more expensive and is also linked to dangerous emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
As a result, food experts such as Lang have been pressing the government to develop a proper strategy for ensuring that Britain is able to supply itself with food for the rest of the century, but in a way that fits in with the nation's goals on climate change.
It is simply not acceptable for Britain to continue to import foodstuffs such as beans from countries like Kenya, they say. The nation needs to be self-sustaining and to do this in an environmentally friendly manner.
One key approach relies on a return to past methods of food production. The nation needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables, said Lang. 'This country produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats. That has to change. We need to consider orchard planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables.'
Nor is it acceptable that 40 per cent of the grain produced in Britain is used to feed the cattle and sheep that provide us with meat and dairy products. Growing grain which is then fed to animals is an inefficient way to deliver protein to the populace.
Instead cattle and pigs should be confined to hillsides where they can graze and not use up grain that has required oil-based fertilisers for its growth. Prime land should be used to feed people directly, Lang insisted.
This point was backed by Dr David Barling of City University's Centre for Food Policy.
'The debates around what and how much food the UK should produce and import should be based upon the priorities of providing a vibrant food economy that is socially just, environmentally benign and provides for a healthy population. This is not the case currently,' he said.
Such changes in the use of the countryside have other implications, however. More people will be required to work this altered landscape while productive land will have to be protected from development. 'We are going to have to revolutionise the way we use the countryside,' said Lang.
That transformation will require a return to old ways that might be welcome but equally there could be changes that might cause upset, such as the building of more rural homes to house those needed to work there.
'We will have to face up to these challenges as well,' Lang concluded.

Have a break, have a Kit Kat – and wreck rainforests

The Sunday Times

November 16, 2008
Demand for palm oil for Nature chocolate and other goods is posing a threat to vital habitats
Jonathan Leake

Household brands including Kit Kat, Flora and Dove soaps have been linked to the mass destruction of Asian rainforests for palm oil plantations.
The millions of acres ear marked for clearance include some of the last habitats of orangutans and other endangered species such as clouded leopards and sun bears.
Soaring global demand for palm oil – now at 41m tons a year – has already seen the destruction of about 20m acres of rainforest in Malaysia. Another 25m acres have been destroyed in Indonesia.
It has also made Indonesia the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases, emitted by decaying peat and vegetation exposed by the clearances.
Next month halting rainforest destruction will be top of the agenda at the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland, aimed at agreeing limits on greenhouse gas emissions. A report will warn that 50m acres have been earmarked for clearance in Indonesia alone.
In Britain few consumers are aware of the scale of such destruction. A survey found 75% of consumers knew little about palm oil even though it is found in nearly half of all cosmetics and processed foods.
Palm oil’s popularity is due to its low production costs and versatility. Cosmetics manufacturers use it to meet consumer demand for natural ingredients. There is also a fledgling but potentially huge market for palm oil in biofuels.
Manufacturers, who also include the makers of brands such as Olay, the beauty products group, know that consumer awareness is growing fast – and increasingly fear a backlash. This week they are sponsoring two events to try to “green” their public image.
Both events have been greeted with deep cynicism by environmentalists. In Europe the next few days will see the arrival of a ship carrying the world’s first cargo of “sustainable” palm oil. United Plantations (UP), will bring the 500-ton shipment into Rotterdam, with some to be sent on to Britain.
Customers are thought to include Sainsbury’s, which wants to use it in own-brand foods, and Unilever, the world’s largest buyer of palm oil at about 1.3m tons a year. Its 400 brands include Dove soaps, Flora margarine and Persil detergents, all of which use palm oil.
The shipment coincides with Tuesday’s meeting of the Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Bali, an industry body controlled by Unilever. Other members include Sinar Mas, Indonesia’s largest oil palm plantation company whose customers include NestlĂ©, the maker of Kit-Kats, and Procter & Gamble, which uses palm oil in products including Olay and Pringles.
Unilever said: “The RSPO is not moving as fast as we would like, but it is a step in the right direction. We’re committed to drawing all our palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015.”
The meeting is likely to be overshadowed by a report from Greenpeace alleging that UP is still clearing swathes of forest in contravention of the RSPO’s policies. “British consumers increasingly care about what they buy,” said Belinda Fletcher, senior forest campaigner. “The RSPO must ban its members from destroying rainforests and peatlands and kick out companies that won’t change their ways.”
A furious reply from UP showed how far apart the sides are. A spokesman said it would continue clearing rainforest: “Conservation means development as much as protection. We view the RSPO as a vehicle to achieve this and will remain supportive in promoting the production, use and growth of sustainable palm oil.”
Additional reporting: Claudia Cahalane

Ryan plans green tax breaks to fuel recovery

Sunday Times
November 16, 2008
The energy minister is planning measures to help the environment and boost the economy

Incentives to purchase electric cars and generous tax breaks to businesses producing their own electricity will form part of a Barack Obama-style green economic recovery package to be unveiled by the Irish government.
Eamon Ryan, the energy minister, has discussed plans with the cabinet to reduce Ireland’s €6 billion fuel import bill by 20% in 12 years. Between now and Christmas, Ryan will allow backyard electricity producers to sell surplus power to the national grid at a higher price than that paid to the ESB.
He will also announce tax write-offs for firms buying electric car fleets, and for those generating power on-site through wind or solar power, or through the use of biomass technology.
This week’s Finance Bill will also provide tax breaks to encourage firms to move to greener computer technology and more energy-efficient business equipment. A number of international suppliers of electric cars and associated battery services are understood to be awaiting Ryan’s announcement before moving into the Irish market. The minister introduced guaranteed prices for wind and solar energy earlier this year. “We can invest in renewable energy technologies and in retro-fitting buildings with energy-efficiency measures and enjoy the double benefit of reducing the amount we spend on energy and cutting down the import fuel bill,” said Ryan. “That would keep that money at home in the Irish economy.”
The Green party minister believes electric cars will become a significant component of the national transport fleet, with motorists plugging their car into their own wind turbine to recharge overnight, and perhaps selling surplus power from the generator to the national grid during the day when domestic demand is low.
“We are one of the most oil-dependent and fossil fuel-dependent countries in the world and we need to switch away from that,” the minister said.
“If we can do that in a way that helps our economy to recover and reduce our import spending, then there is a double benefit. Ultimately, I believe we can get that ¤6 billion figure for imported fossil fuels down to zero.” A radical sustainable-energy plan was a central plank in Obama’s successful presidential election platform.
He pledged to create 5m new jobs over 10 years by investing $150 billion (€118 billion) in the green-energy sector.
The proposal was branded “the Green New Deal” by US commentators, a reference to Franklin D Roosevelt’s) of oil a day “from some of the world’s most unstable nations”.
Ryan said a similar policy of import substitution using renewable energy can help Irish economic recovery. His officials have calculated that the bill for imported fuel in the first six months of 2008 was €2.96 billion and the total for the year would be at least €6 billion.
European Commission figures indicate that throughout the EU energy is imported at an average cost of €700 per person. But the fuel import bill per person in Ireland is €1,500, according to government calculations.

New ways to make use of any old wood

From The Sunday Times
November 16, 2008
Clare Gascoigne

ABOUT 85% of waste wood in the UK goes into landfill. From building firms to local councils, organisations dump around 8.5m tons of wood into holes in the ground every year.
“It’s been hugely frustrating for us,” says Vicki Hughes, strategic development director of Hadfield Wood Recyclers in Droylsden, Manchester. “We can collect and clean any grade of wood and it always seemed criminal to send it to landfill.” Times are changing. Hadfield has a 10-year contract to supply recycled wood to the Wilton 10 biomass power station, run by private utilities company Sembcorp. Hadfield created a sister company, UK Wood Recycling, and built a wood recycling facility half a mile from the Teesside power plant.
Hadfield, which has for 20 years been turning waste wood into animal bedding and panel board, is looking to build more recycling plants, particularly in southeast England, and is negotiating with other biomass energy producers. It hopes to double its £8m turnover in the next five years, and the key to this new market is the development of large biomass power plants, which can burn the poor-quality wood that would otherwise go to landfill.
“The problem has always been what to do with low-grade waste wood,” says Hughes. “Biomass is one solution. We send less than 0.5% of what comes to our sites to landfill.” Critical to this is the technology for “cleaning” waste wood; much of Hadfield’s machinery has been designed by its engineers to improve the quality of the finished product.
The company, which grew out of a family farming business, diversified into waste management in the 1970s. In the mid1980s Geoff Hadfield, managing director, decided to concentrate on wood recycling. The company employs more than 100 people on its two sites.
Entrepreneurs are increasingly having to balance generating profits against the environmental or social impact of their businesses. Rebecca Harding, managing director of Delta Economics, a consultancy that promotes sustainable development through entrepreneurship, says: “Twenty years ago entrepreneurs would have said it was all about money but there has been a big change.” A recent survey of 1,500 entrepreneurs by Delta found that nearly half claimed they had set up their businesses to “make a difference”, and were pursuing social, environmental or job-creation goals.
Liz Nelson, development manager at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, part of the Said Business School at Oxford University, agrees. “What drives any entrepreneur is the same – a desire to solve a problem. When it comes to social or environmental problems, grants have their limitations.”
Says Hughes: “The challenge for us over the next five years is to support the next wave of biomass plants and set up a sustainable source of wood fuel.” Wilton 10 is one of four large wood-fired biomass plants in the UK, along with Slough Heat and Power in Berkshire, run by Scottish and Southern Energy; Shotton in North Wales, run by Gaz de France; and Steven’s Croft in Lockerbie, run by E.on. Four more plants are proposed or under way in Wales, Devon and Warwickshire. Recycled wood is not the only biomass source – other facilities coming on stream use crops such as willow and miscanthus and food or agricultural waste.
“We have to do a lot of work to educate our suppliers, explaining why you can’t put all grades of wood in one skip,” says Hughes. “The incentive has been created by government recycling targets and increases in landfill tax.” It is not only money that fuels growth in recycling, she adds: “There’s an environmental conscience among small businesses. Even when it’s not the most economic thing to do, it’s ethically right.”

Recycled waste could be stored on MoD bases

Sites are desperately being sought to house the UK's unwanted mountain of recyclable rubbish
Mark Townsend

The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008

Recyclers are battling against a slump in demand for materials. Huge waste mountains could be sited on military bases under emergency plans to protect Britain's recycling revolution from the economic downturn.
Local authorities have requested government permission to site rubbish dumps on Ministry of Defence land in order to stockpile growing amounts of recyclable waste for which there is no use and no market.
Under the proposals, thousands of tonnes of cars, tin cans, plastic bottles and glass will be temporarily stored on military-owned land because the financial crisis has induced a slump in demand for recycled raw materials from manufacturers. With landfill sites almost full, thousands of tonnes of paper, plastic and steel are piling up because councils can no longer find buyers.
Councils say they will apply for permission to store recycled paper and cardboard inside derelict factories or abandoned airfield hangars.
Paul Bettison, chairman of the Local Government Association's environment board, said: 'We have asked the government to allow us to use a couple of military establishments. They are perfect because they have large areas, nobody can see in and they are secure.
'In the past, the Ministry of Defence has stored mail during postal strikes. If we can start building a mountain of scrap iron, then we can sell it when the recyclable market returns, but we need somewhere to stockpile material.'
Environmentalists warn that, unless new locations are found quickly, government initiatives to promote recycling could be scuppered.'It has taken this long to get this far and we want to avoid people having to stop recycling. A place to store this material is needed until the market comes back,' said Bettison.
Although the amount of household waste sent for recycling or composting has increased by 10 per cent to 8.7million tonnes over the last year, the UK still lags behind the rest of Europe. Of an average of 495kg of household waste produced per person, 171kg is recycled, but green groups fear this will fall unless sites to store recycled waste are found.
However, critics argue that problems could build up if the economic downturn lasts longer than envisaged. A spokesman for the Campaign for Weekly Waste Collections said: 'What happens when the storage space fills up? Are they going to stop compulsory recycling because they have no market for the goods?'
Recycling and waste depots throughout the UK have filled up following the collapse of prices for metals and plastic in recent weeks. The value of paper and plastic bottles is now virtually nothing.
Major companies such as Corus have stopped accepting metals from local authorities because of reduced demand.
Campaigners warn that the UK now faces the prospect of thousands of abandoned cars littering the streets. They warn that the low price of metals means that scrap dealers will start charging motorists rather than offering them money to dispose of their vehicles, a move that would encourage drivers to dump unwanted vehicles.
Britain's landfill capacity would last until 2012 if recycled goods were buried underground. The LGA has lodged its plans with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is considering whether they are workable. A spokesman for the MoD said it 'would consider a request', but it had not yet been formally approached by the LGA. A spokesman for the association said: 'We don't want to go down the route of having to hire warehouses to store waste.'
Recycling is seen as essential to tackling climate change because it reduces the energy required to make products while cutting levels of the most potent greenhouse gas - methane - which landfills leak into the atmosphere.

Energy giant tops guide to ethical firms

Zoe Wood
The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008

A scottish energy company has been named as the most environmental and ethical company on the London Stock Exchange in The Observer Good Companies Guide.
Perth-based Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) topped the list of 350 companies, scoring 93 out of a possible 100. The company, which plans the world's largest offshore windfarm by the Suffolk coast, was praised for work in the renewable energy field as well as its attitude towards customers. In a year that has seen household fuel bills soar, SSE was slower to pass on higher wholesale gas and electricity prices to customers and first to cut tariffs as they fell back.
The credit crunch has forced environmental and social issues down the business agenda as the slowing economy and rising unemployment takes centre stage. But The Observer guide, compiled with the help of Co-operative Asset Management (CAM), aims to inform those who wish to invest, or even just shop, with companies that behave ethically and care for the planet.
'Tremendous challenges like climate change and poverty require ingenuity and investment,' said Ian Jones, CAM's head of responsible investment. 'People want companies to be part of the solution, not forever part of the problem.'
SSE, which trades as Scottish Hydro Electric, is not without controversy, however, as its plans to upgrade the power line from Beauly, near Inverness, to Denny in central Scotland has triggered an inquiry.

Wind farm in doubt after backer quits

Tim Webb, Industrial Editor

The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008

One of the UK's largest wind farm projects is in doubt after the credit crunch has forced a backer to pull out.
Statoil, the Norwegian oil giant, is now looking for a new joint venture partner to help develop the £700m offshore wind project off the Norfolk coast. If built, the 108 turbines would provide enough electricity for the homes of a city the size of Cambridge.
Statoil's original partner, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning company Ecoconcern, pulled out about two months ago. It is understood that the European green energy firm could not raise the £350m finance needed to fund its share of the construction costs.
In August, the then business secretary John Hutton gave planning approval for the Sheringham Shoal project. But since then all forms of debt financing, particularly for large risky projects like offshore wind, have become much harder.
Statoil wants to find a new partner to share the project risk. The firm has not decided whether to press ahead alone if it cannot attract a new partner.
The Sheringham Shoal wind farm is the latest to be hit by the credit crunch, which industry executives say could make it impossible for the government to meet its extremely ambitious European Union renewable energy targets.
The government is looking for renewables like wind to provide about a third of the UK's electricity by 2020. Currently only about 5 per cent comes from such sources.
In August, Shell pulled out of the London Array project, the world's largest offshore wind farm project. Last month Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Masdar stepped in to rescue the scheme, but its completion is likely to be delayed.
Industry sources said other sovereign wealth funds were also looking to take stakes in struggling offshore wind farm projects. James Knight, a director of Augusta & Co investment bank, said: 'While debt markets have become more challenging for offshore wind in recent months, it's encouraging to see sovereign wealth funds seeing clear value opportunities in this space.'
Smaller wind projects are not as affected by the credit crunch.
Juliet Davenport, chief executive of renewable electricity supplier Good Energy, said: 'New financing from banks for larger offshore wind projects is closed until the new year. But there is still some interest in taking equity stakes in projects. Most smaller wind projects are not having problems securing financing.'
This month German energy firm RWE bought a 50 per cent stake in Scottish and Southern Energy's £1.3bn offshore wind farm, at Greater Gabbard, off the Suffolk coast. Last week Swedish firm Vattenfall bought the £800m Thanet wind farm, developed by Warwick Energy, from the Christofferson Robb hedge fund.

Greenwashers beware, only emission cutters will clean up

Published Date: 16 November 2008
John Stocks, manager of the Carbon Trust in Scotland, explains how caring about environmental issues can save firms money

RESEARCH undertaken by the Carbon Trust has revealed that few consumers understand commitments made by businesses to climate change, while many are sceptical about business action and are simply sick of hearing green pledges made for publicity purposes. Until now there hasn't been a standard that defines good practice or clearly distinguishes organisations which are tackling climate change by actually reducing their carbon footprint. The Carbon Trust Standard, which has recently launched in Edinburgh, is the world's first certification scheme and shows that an organisation has taken genuine action on climate change by measuring, managing and reducing its carbon footprint and is actually making real reductions year on year. In order to combat scepticism, the Carbon Trust Standard has been designed to provide a much-needed clear and robust definition of good practice.Unlike those companies that claim to be tackling issues of climate change but are essentially just 'greenwashing', the Carbon Trust Standard gives companies and organisations that are genuinely committed to making a difference a way to prove it. To be awarded the Carbon Trust Standard, organisations must show more than just good intent through a carefully crafted policy document. Businesses must demonstrate from base data, such as energy bills and production returns, that over the previous two years their carbon intensity has been cut.Although many companies taking measures to cut carbon emissions may well be doing so to appease a public demanding change, most recognise that by cutting carbon and becoming more energy efficient, they can make great cost savings.Earlier this month, seven high-profile Scottish organisations were awarded the Carbon Trust Standard, collectively having made savings of over 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, equivalent to the emissions produced by heating 6,421 homes.Those honoured were: Diageo Scotland Supply, Fife Council, FIS Chemicals, Hewlett-Packard, LifeScan Scotland, Scottish Court Services and the University of Edinburgh following in the footsteps of DSM Nutritional Products' site in Dalry, which received the certification earlier in the year. Diageo, the world's biggest drinks company, which produces brands such as Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Gordon's, is investing £65m in a bio-energy facility at its Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife. It is believed to be the biggest single investment in renewable energy by a non-utility company in the UK and the facility is expected to reduce carbon emissions by about 56,000 tonnes a year. There is a strong business case for the Carbon Trust Standard. Research undertaken among senior business decision makers revealed that almost a third (28%) said they were more likely to choose a supplier that was able to demonstrate it was taking action to reduce its emissions through official certification. In addition, research undertaken among UK consumers revealed that more than half would be more likely to buy a product or service over another of similar quality and price if it could show it had reduced its emissions.The Carbon Trust itself is also instrumental in offering advice and guidance to companies in order that they can reduce their emissions and be in a position to get Carbon Trust Standard certification. A number of initiatives have been launched to help businesses do so, and ultimately save themselves money.The Carbon Trust's Carbon Management Programme, designed to help organisations develop a targeted framework to deliver carbon reduction practices, has helped more than 26 organisations across Scotland identify an opportunity to reduce emissions by over a quarter of a million tonnes of CO2, equating to £20m in energy bills. In addition, we offer a wide range of technical support, site surveys and design advice to give organisations the knowledge and understanding to make a difference to their sites' performance, and make improvements that will lead to bottom-line benefits.In Scotland we have helped more than 450 customers to identify and implement record levels of carbon savings, reducing annual emissions of up to 277,000 tonnes of CO2, equating to bottom line savings of around £29m. Today, businesses account for more than 40% of overall UK carbon emissions, and pressure from customers, investors and stakeholders to take action is on the rise.

Tide turns against 'dirty' oil sands

Tim Webb explains why falling prices may have led to a slowdown in the rush on the oil sands of Alberta, but environmental concerns are rising
Tim Webb
The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008

Alberta oil sands. Photograph: Associated Press
The oil industry, rather like mining, is a mucky business. Its activities - and ours in consuming products such as petrol and plastics - directly contribute to global warming. It would be fair to say then, that ethical investors have hardly been fans of the industry.
But in recent years there has been a grudging acceptance that - like it or not - the world will remain dependent on oil for a long time, even as we try to move towards a low-carbon economy.
All but the most diehard of environmentalists now accept that oil companies serve a necessary, if undesirable, purpose.
But the critique of business-as-usual is gathering force, thanks in large part to the hugely expensive, dirty and carbon-intensive oil sands projects. Most of the world's oil sands are located in Alberta, in northern Canada, giving the country estimated reserves of a staggering 179 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia.
Currently, Canada's oil sands produce just over a million barrels a day but planned projects would triple this by 2020. If companies expand at the rate they say they will, the country could become one of the largest oil producers in the world.
With concerns over energy security rising, the prospect of a stable non-Opec OECD country such as Canada becoming a big oil producer is attractive to many in the West.
There are a dozen or so companies operating oil sands projects in Canada, including Shell, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Total. A year ago BP entered into a joint venture with the US firm Husky Energy which is scheduled to start producing oil in 2012.
Conventional oil production involves drilling into rock to find reservoirs of the black stuff sloshing around. Because the oil is in liquid form, it's relatively easy to force to the surface. However, extraction from oil sands is more difficult, and results in a much larger carbon footprint.
Most existing oil sands projects have more in common with mining than conventional oil production. The forest is cleared, and vast pits are dug out of the clay and sand to get to the oil below. Hot water is pumped into the oily sludge to separate the oil from the sand and clay. Even then, the untreated oil is in the form of thick bitumen, with a consistency of peanut butter.
Huge upgraders are needed to treat it before it can be transported by pipeline and refined conventionally.
Analysts estimate that the resulting carbon emissions are between 2.5 and eight times higher than emissions from conventional oil production.
Canadian environmental organisation the Pembina Institute estimates that by 2030 the emissions produced by Canadian oil sands projects could total more than a quarter of the UK's current emissions.
Environmental impact
But the environmental problems aren't restricted to carbon emissions and deforestation, serious though they are. Oil sands consume vast amounts of water, which in northern Alberta are drawn from the Athabasca river.
The industry insists that flow rates in the river are only affected slightly by the process, but many local leaders disagree.
Oil sands projects also leave behind all the by-products of the mining process: clay, sand, the recycled water used to separate the oil and the toxic chemicals used in the process. These are pumped into vast, toxic 'tailings ponds'.
According to the Pembina Institute, there are about 5.5 billion cubic metres of these tailings ponds in Canada, some as big as 13 square kilometres and visible from space.
There are concerns that these ponds will leak into the water table, polluting rivers and wildlife. More worryingly, there do not seem to be clear plans about how to treat them.
All these issues - carbon emissions, deforestation and pollution - represent serious long-term environmental and reputational liabilities for the companies involved. Ethical investors take note.
Economics of oil sands
As recently as the summer, the frenzy to develop Canada's oil sands was in full swing. Soaring costs for everything from property in Fort McMurray, the nearest town to the projects, to labour, reflected the oil rush. But that was when oil prices were $147 a barrel. Today, they are less than half that peak and companies including Shell are scaling back their expansion plans.
The problem is economics. According to Goldman Sachs, oil sands developers need oil prices to be at least $70 a barrel to make a decent return.
Royal Dutch Shell and BP
Shell currently produces about 150,000 barrels of day - 5 per cent of its total production - from oil sands. This will soon rise by 100,000 and by 2020, it wants to get 15 per cent of its oil from these projects by 2020.
A fortnight ago Shell chief executive Jeroen van der Veer said he was delaying plans to add an extra 100,000 barrels per day from oil sands, but before ethical investors rejoice, no one is expecting prices to stay this low for long. Sooner or later, oil sands will become profitable once again.
And with a third of Shell's potential reserves made up of undeveloped oil sands, the company is unlikely to turn its back on Alberta in a hurry.
In 1999, Lord Browne, who was then running BP, decided to sell off the company's oil sands interests in Alberta, believing that the projects were too expensive.
Despite the recent slump in oil prices, BP's new-found enthusiasm for oil signs shows no signs of abating.
Making oil sands 'greener'
Oil sands projects vary vastly in terms of how much carbon they produce. According to research firm Trucost, Shell's Muskeg River Mine project in Alberta is less carbon intensive than BP's conventional exploration and production projects.
The industry and government are promoting carbon capture and storage technology, which stores emissions from power plants underground, as a way of making the projects greener.
However, the unproven and uneconomic technology, even if it works and attracts the financial support that is required, is at least a decade away from deployment.
Companies have also promised that once their operations have ceased, they will remediate the affected land so that it resembles its original state.
But local leaders say it is impossible to properly repair the land, which includes boreal forests and peat bogs.
What investors should do
The Canadian and Albertan governments have a poor record on reducing their emissions. Environmental regulations governing the oil sands projects do not require absolute cuts in carbon, for example. Ethical investors should not rely on the authorities to force oil companies to clean up their act. Transparency on their environmental performance also needs to be improved.
This year Co-operative Asset Management launched a campaign to try to persuade oil sands companies to delay their investment plans until they have proved that oil sands and ecologically and financially sustainable.
The recent slump in the oil price - for as long as it lasts - has won them a reprieve.

Boris Johnson ready to sue over third Heathrow runway

Chris Gourlay

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has threatened to take legal action against the government if ministers go ahead with plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.
He and a coalition of local authorities representing 4m people believe expansion, which would increase the number of flights at Heathrow from 480,000 to 700,000 a year, would breach European Union laws on pollution.
Legal action could derail Geoff Hoon’s intention to ensure the new runway is operational by 2030. He is expected to give the go-ahead to the expansion next month.
A spokesman for Johnson said City Hall and the 2M group of local authorities would analyse the government’s decision to determine whether there was a basis for legal action.

Johnson has pledged an initial £15,000 towards the costs of mounting a legal challenge if lawyers give the go-ahead, and may pay more if needed. His spokesman said the business case for the runway expansion did not outweigh “concerns for the local environment in terms of noise and air quality”.
The case for a potential judicial review is likely to rest on whether EU air pollution limits would be breached as a result of the expansion.
The government white paper said approval would be given only if the runway met noise and environmental standards. But critics, including the Environment Agency, say the extra nitrogen dioxide emissions produced by expansion will breach EU limits, which come into force in 2010. Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, has confirmed that the government will seek permission to postpone compliance until 2015.
Stavros Dimas, the European commissioner for the environment, has vowed to take enforcement action if the limits are breached.
The warning came after it emerged that Department for Transport (DfT) officials doubted their own proposed measures for reducing pollution at the airport. The DfT’s consultation paper on the Heathrow expansion hid concerns, revealed under freedom of information laws, that measures to mitigate pollution are likely to be “too costly or impractical . . . or politically unacceptable”.
The DfT’s September 2007 “risk register” for Heathrow expansion also shows that officials assessed as “high” the risk that mitigation measures might not be deliverable.
Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth council and speaking on behalf of the 2M group, said: “We are trying to show that the whole basis on which the government wants to justify expansion is bogus.
“It’s great that Boris is supporting this action and it’s not too late for the government to think again.”
Opponents of Heathrow’s expansion have been emboldened by the impact of the recession, which is reducing demand for air travel. Consultants for WWF UK, the environmental group, predict that higher oil prices mean demand in 2030 will have grown by 38% less than is assumed by the DfT.