Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Start building new atomic stations now, urges British Energy chief

• Claims that nuclear power can recharge the economy• Plant repairs contribute to 50% cut in firm's profits
Terry Macalister

The Guardian, Wednesday November 19 2008

The country should press ahead with building a new generation of atomic power stations to suck in investment and create jobs, British Energy said yesterday.
The company, which runs most of Britain's fleet of reactors and which reported a 50% slump in profits yesterday, has held talks with local communities around four possible sites.
Bill Coley, the chief executive, said it was important to halt the discussions at some stage and start the serious planning and building phase. "I think it's really important that the country gets on with this. We have a very old generating fleet and the UK needs new capacity.
"We can't meet our climate-change obligations without nuclear. It's just got to be done," he said.
British Energy expects to be at the forefront of a new-build programme with EDF of France, which has tabled a takeover offer for the British firm that has been agreed by its board. Coley said he was waiting for the green light from his shareholders and the European competition authorities.
The British Energy chief defended the £12.4bn deal, which came under renewed attack from some in the City, with the brokerage Evolution Securities saying that it significantly undervalued the power company. "We continue to consider the action by the British government in forcing the bid through as wrongheaded - but as we say, the offer is a done deal," said Lakis Athanasiou, an analyst at Evolution.
The United Nations environment programme called recently for a green new deal that would kickstart a faltering global economy by switching public money from carbon-intensive generation to clean-energy projects.
Coley said nuclear new-build would offer similar benefits. "It would bring a tremendous amount of investment into the country, create hundreds of jobs and would be great business for the domestic supply chain in this country," he said.
British Energy, which operates 15 reactors at eight nuclear power stations, posted a 49.7% fall in first-half earnings yesterday, but said it hoped for a better second half.
The group's pre-tax earnings before interest, depreciation and amortisation in the six months to September 28 fell to £257m from £511m a year ago, owing to power station shutdowns and lower electricity output. It said it had put aside £2m to meet possible liabilities from using the failed investment bank Lehman Brothers as a counter party.
The company has seven reactors out of action due to unexpected or routine repairs but Coley said five would return before the end of December.
The group said there was potential to improve its output and performance in the remainder of the year. "We're looking forward to a good second half," he said.

Could nuclear sell-off be another taxpayer bail-out?

David Lowry

The Guardian, Wednesday November 19 2008

Late in September, the leading UK nuclear generator, British Energy (BE), said it had concluded a deal to be bought by France's sole nuclear generator, Electricit√© de France (EDF). The buyout creates a new company - technically, called Lake Acquisitions Ltd - to run most existing UK nuclear plants, as well as being keen to build new ones. It was immediately indicated that the Treasury, which would receive £4.4bn for the government's 36% shareholding in BE, would use the money raised to top up the fund set aside to decommission the existing nuclear plants.
So who will now be responsible for the clean-up of existing BE sites. If land is transferred from BE to other atomic aspirant owners, who will hold the liabilities for radioactive remediation? Who will be responsible for the insurance cover of existing reactors, especially any accident that involves off-site radioactive contamination. And who becomes responsible for other assets or liabilities of around 15,000kg (15 tonnes) of plutonium from BE's advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) and the spent nuclear fuel discharged from the reactors?
EDF would not answer questions on the ownership or transfer of liabilities under the proposed deal, saying that a 100-page document on the offer released to the stock exchange in September was the "appropriate public reference". BE also refused to answer questions, as did Financial Dynamics, the London-based PR firm contracted by BE.
When the government agreed to foreign company-led consortiums taking over the management contracts for Sellafield in July and Drigg low-level radioactive waste site in March, it was forced to agree to become the insurer of last resort. And Dick Raaz, who heads URS Washington group's UK operations at Drigg, told a Nuclear Industry Association fringe meeting at Labour's conference in Manchester that unless his company's risk was capped at Drigg, it would not have taken over the contract.
On the Sellafield insurance deal, former energy minister Malcolm Wicks said, in a written answer to Labour backbencher Paul Flynn on July 14: "The department . . . expects to have to grant an indemnity against uninsurable claims arising from a nuclear incident that fall outside the protections offered by the Nuclear Installations Act and the Paris/Brussels Convention to whichever of the four bidders for the Sellafield contract is successful."
In September, Wicks denied this amounted to a subsidy. But last month, the Guardian reported how Wicks had apparently broken Trasury guidelines by failing to inform MPs properly, denying them the right to comment critically on the insurance bail-out. The question remains: is EDF to enjoy a similar bail-out by the government, lumbering the taxpayer with the multi-billion-pound tab?
And with Centrica, parent company of British Gas, keen to take a £3.1bn stake in the new nuclear company, will it become the proud owner of several dozen bombs-worth of plutonium, too?
The most the government will say came in a written parliamentary answer on October 30 from new energy minister Mike O'Brien: "British Energy owns a relatively small quantity of plutonium that has arisen from reprocessing at Thorp [the reprocessing plant at Sellafield]. British Energy treats the plutonium as a zero-value asset, and records a liability of £4.8m (discounted) in its accounts relating to the management of the plutonium."
Ed Miliband, the new secretary of state for energy and climate change, should clarify these unanswered complexities now.
• David Lowry works as an independent research consultant.

Crown Estate plans tidal power future in Scotland

Developers have a month to apply for licenses to install marine power stations in the area around Pentland Firth
Alok Jha, green technology correspondent, Tuesday November 18 2008 10.38 GMT

The Crown Estate has invited proposals from developers to install the UK's first commercial marine power sites in the area around Pentland Firth in north Scotland.
This first round of development is intended to generate 700MW of clean electricity from wave and tidal sources by 2020.
"In this country we are widely recognised as having both the technological lead and some of the best wave and tidal resources in the world," said Rob Hastings, the Crown Estate's director of the marine estate. "It is essential that this technology is given every opportunity to thrive here, in our waters, to the benefit of the environment, the energy industry, and the wider Scottish economy."
Tidal streams are seen by many as a plentiful and predictable supply of clean energy. The most conservative estimates suggest there is at least five gigawatts of power in tidal flows around the country, but there could be as much as 15GW. The Pentland Firth area contains six of the top 10 sites in the UK for tidal power development and it has been nicknamed the Saudi Arabia of marine energy.
The announcement comes a few months after the UK's first commercial-scale marine turbine, SeaGen, was plugged into the national grid in at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. This device can generate power at 150kW with plans to increase power to 1,200kW, enough for about 1,000 homes, when up to full speed.
SeaGen, designed and built by the Bristol-based tidal energy company Marine Current Turbines (MCT), is a likely candidate for the farms of machines that the Crown Estate wants to commission in Pentland Firth.
Simon Grey, chief executive of the Scottish marine energy company AWS Ocean Energy, welcomed the Crown Estate's plans. "This provides another important spur to the commercial development of marine energy in Scotland and the UK. AWS Ocean is developing a range of technologies for use in the wave and tidal sector, such as affordable anchoring solutions, that will be just as vital as the generation systems in maximising the energy potential of the Pentland Firth."
He added: "From our own experience, the developers of wave and tidal technologies face enormous challenges in rough and inhospitable environments to extract the energy on a year-round, long-term and sustainable basis."
The Crown Estate said that the initial machines it plans to commission will be full-size demonstration devices deployed in small arrays. Large-scale marine devices would require more investment in the national grid to carry the power to where it is needed.
Developers have a month to apply for licenses to install the marine power stations, and the Crown Estate plans to make its final decisions on successful applicants next summer.
Last month, the Crown Estate, helped to trigger a resurgence of interest for wind projects in the deep waters off Britain by promising to invest in projects at a time when many schemes are struggling in the face of planning delays and other problems.
The decision by the Crown Estate to pay up to half of all pre-construction development costs brought a huge surge in applications for the latest round of licensing, with almost 100 companies wanting to build wind farms far into the North Sea.

Wood wins Gulf carbon-capture work

Published Date: 19 November 2008

WOOD Group has secured a "multi-million-dollar" contract in Abu Dhabi, whose government is looking to become a global leader in clean power.

Energy venture Masdar has awarded Houston-based Mustang Engineering, a subsidiary of Aberdeen-based Wood Group, an engineering and design contract for a carbon capture and storage project. The project is the first phase in a series of facilities capturing emissions from the emirate's industrial and power generation plants.The first phase of the project will capture an estimated five million tonnes of by the end of 2013 from three emission sources.Abu Dhabi's multi-billion-dollar Masdar initiative is aimed at developing innovative technologies in renewable, alternative and sustainable energy.Wood Group said the scheme was equivalent to the removal of more than a million cars from the road or the planting of 250 million trees.Mustang Engineering president Steve Knowles said: "This world-class carbon capture and storage development greatly complements our extensive experience with -related projects. We look forward to seeing the impact this project will have on the environment of the region

Financial crisis gives green builders a welcome boost

Government climate change targets and the financial crisis are giving green builders added incentive. Felicity Carus reports
Felicity Carus, Tuesday November 18 2008 16.10 GMT

Morning light pours into the study of the completed Tree House Photograph: Will Anderson/Will Anderson
Will Anderson's home radiates warmth on a cold, clear November day. It's 10C outdoors, and a toasty 20.5C inside – but not a single degree of that warmth is generated by energy from the national grid.
When Anderson completed his house in 2006, zero carbon homes were few and far between. But since a government target announced in the same year by Gordon Brown to build all new homes with zero-energy demands as standard by 2016, dwellings like Anderson's will not be such a rarity.
Even the current financial crisis has given the zero-carbon initiative added impetus. As the conventional construction industry suffers, the sustainable building industry has seen an opportunity to grow. Early findings from a survey this week from the UK Green Building Council (UK GBC) indicate that sustainable building is a growth sector.
Asked whether the financial crisis has impacted on their organisation in tackling sustainability, 56% of its members said sustainability had become a bigger focus. Only 18% said the credit crunch has had an adverse effect on efforts to address sustainability.
Paul King, the chief executive of UK GBC, says: "I think we've seen an end to 'boom and bust' for sustainability. This time it's going to remain high on the political and corporate agenda because the climate change imperative is now so strong. This is reflected in what the building industries are facing in terms of government policy and regulation – not just in the UK but around the world. Failure to adapt and innovate will lead to obsolete buildings and obsolete companies. Those that grasp the opportunity will prosper, those that don't will fail. UK-GBC members recognise this and want to be among the winners not the losers."
Zero-carbon building focuses on renewable sources of power and reducing demand for heating, which accounts for around half of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions.
Electricity at Anderson's Tree House is produced on the roof by 30 square metres of solar photovoltaic panels supplied by Solar Century. Their output peaks at about 4.3kW and even on a late autumn day, his PV panels had produced more than 5KWh by mid morning.
The panels generate around 4,470kWh of electricity a year and is used to power the lights, appliances and a heat pump which provides underfloor heating throughout the house. The excess – 118KWh last year – is sold back to the grid.
As the energy bill nears the statute books, Anderson believes that feed-in tariffs, where the price of electricity exported to the grid is at a fixed rate, will stimulate greater interest in zero carbon homes.
"I can't wait for feed-in tariffs. It's an obvious way to stimulate the market and it's worked well in Germany. It just depends on what tariffs are agreed," he says.
Anderson's house is so successful at producing its own energy that over the year it is a net exporter of electricity, making it a carbon negative house.
But energy production is only part of the story, says Anderson. Tackling energy demand in the home is instrumental in achieving the government's target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. Anderson calculates that he consumes around 4,400Kwh of power a year whereas the UK average is around 26,000Kwh.
"There is a lot of fretting in the building industry about how to achieve a zero spec, but it's all to do with demand. People get obsessed by the supply side. And the supply side, with all the technology is more visual, so fair enough. But the key thing is to get the demand down. Insulation and airtightness are key.
"Airtightness is a very big thing and that's what we're not very good at in this country. That was one of the biggest challenges because builders had never done it before. We actually used Canadian details for air tightness. So we have a draught-free house."
The house was pressure tested by experts who sealed the doors and windows and installed a huge fan to see how many air changes there were in an hour. They found there were around 2.3 air changes an hour - most buildings have more than 10 changes an hour.
Optimism in the green building trade is also supported by the government's apparent determination not to let its plans to tackle climate change become derailed by economic conditions.
A spokesman for the Communities and Local Government ministry says: "Our long-term priorities must not be forgotten. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing not only this country but the entire world. With buildings contributing more than a quarter of our carbon emissions, we must take our responsibilities in this area seriously."
While making new build zero-carbon is realistic, the challenge for the government is reducing emissions from its existing housing stock.
"We have already tightened house-building standards to deliver a 40% reduction in the level of carbon emissions from an average new build home since 2002, alongside a £1bn programme to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes. We will continue to increase the sustainable standards for new homes, and from 2016 they must be zero-carbon — the most demanding timetable in the world."

Geoengineering 'no substitute' for climate targets, UK minister warns

UK climate minister Joan Ruddock wary of reliance on radical technology that could be used by some as an excuse to avoid meeting targets to reduce carbon emissions
James Randerson, Tuesday November 18 2008 15.37 GMT

Research into drastic solutions to climate change such as cloud seeding, sun shades in space and ocean fertilisation risks hampering global climate negotiations by giving some countries an excuse for not agreeing to short-term emissions reductions, a UK government minister warned today.
The remarks by Joan Ruddock, a minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, appear to be a thinly veiled dig at the Bush administration, whose delegation attempted to insert a section into last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on developing technology to block sunlight and cool the planet. The proposed text referred to it as an "important insurance" against the impacts of climate change.
Speaking to MPs on the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee, Ruddock was defending the government's unwillingness to fund research into so-called geoengineering – large-scale, untested interventions that either soak up carbon dioxide or prevent sunlight warming the planet
"The concern is that people who don't want to enter into agreements that mean they have to reduce their emissions might see this as a means of doing nothing, of being able to say, 'science will provide, there will be a way out'," she said, "it could be used politically in that way which would be extremely unfortunate."
She added that funding research on such projects would deflect engineers away from more pressing solutions to climate change such as carbon capture and storage – extracting carbon dioxide from the emissions put out by fossil fuel power stations and injecting it underground.
The science minister Lord Drayson added that many of the proposals – such as launching huge mirrors into space, adding particles into the atmosphere to deflect light or seeding algal blooms in the ocean using iron fertiliser – were extremely costly and had risks that were poorly understood. "Some of the projects that are being postulated under geoengineering do strike one as being in the realm of science fiction," he said.
But Steve Rayner, professor of science and civilisation at the Said Business School in Oxford, pointed out that not all options were expensive. Some such as iron fertilisation would be within reach of wealthy individuals - he called them, "a 'Greenfinger' rather than 'Goldfinger'."
Currently, the research councils – which decide how public science funding is spent – do not fund any projects into geoengineering directly, although the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has allocated £3m for an "ideas factory" into potential projects next year.
According to Dr Phil Williamson at the University of East Anglia, who wrote the Natural Environment Research Council's submission to the select committee hearing, around £50m of the government's research spend is peripherally related to geo-engineering.
The select committee's chair, the liberal democrat MP Phil Willis, said he was disappointed with the government's position of adopting only a "watching brief" over the emerging field. "That seems to me a very very negative way of actually facing up to the challenge of the future," he said. "It's a very pessimistic view of emerging science and Britain's place within that emerging science community."
He said government should support many different avenues to tackling climate change. "There have to be plethora of solutions. Some of which we do not know whether they will work, but that is the whole purpose of science."
But the chief scientific advisor to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Prof Bob Watson, said that funding should be focussed on the most immediate solutions. "I think the question is whether [geoengineering] is the highest priority at the moment given scarce resources.
"First [priority] is actually putting investment into current technologies and pre-commercial technologies such as carbon capture and storage," he said, "Clearly I think this is something which has to be move quickly. I would call it an Apollo-type programme... we need to go in parallel and try multiple approaches simultaneously." He advocated that the EU, US and Japan work together on research into CCS.
Some scientists and engineers will also be disappointed with the government's dismissal of the field. In the introduction to a collection of scientific papers published by the Royal Society in September on the topic Prof Brian Launder of the University of Manchester and Prof Michael Thompson of the University of Cambridge wrote: "While such geoscale interventions may be risky, the time may well come when they are accepted as less risky than doing nothing... There is increasingly the sense that governments are failing to come to grips with the urgency of setting in place measures that will assuredly lead to our planet reaching a safe equilibrium."

World on track to meet Kyoto targets, says UN climate chief

Decline of industry in eastern Europe in 1990s cited as reason for 5% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions
David Adam, environment correspondent, Tuesday November 18 2008 11.16 GMT

The world is on track to meet its greenhouse gas targets under the Kyoto protocol, according to UN figures released today.
Emissions by the 40 industrialised nations that agreed binding cuts in pollution are down 5% on 1990 levels — the target set under Kyoto. But the drop has little to do with climate policies: the bulk of the decline is down to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic decline in eastern European countries in the 1990s. Without these nations, with so-called "economies in transition", greenhouse gas emissions have grown by almost 10% since 1990, the figures show.
The UN released the data ahead of a key meeting of environment ministers to discuss climate change in Poznan, Poland, next month.
Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, said the figures showed emissions have risen sharply since the turn of the century.
"The biggest recent increase in emissions of industrialised countries has come from economies in transition, which have seen a rise of 7.4% in greenhouse-gas emissions within the 2000 to 2006 time frame," he said. "The figures clearly underscore the urgency for the UN negotiating process to make good progress in Poznan and move forward quickly in designing a new agreement to respond to the challenge of climate change."
Among industrialised countries, 16 are on target to meet their Kyoto obligations including France, the UK, Greece and Hungary, the UN said. Some 20 countries are lagging, including Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and Spain.
Nations that miss their Kyoto target in 2012 will have a penalty of an extra 33% added to whatever cut they agree under a new treaty, de Boer said.
Emissions reported under Kyoto do not include pollution from aviation and shipping, as these are classed as international activities not attributable to countries.

Energy security 'must not be excuse to expand coal power'

Government must not allow construction of coal power stations without carbon capture storage, say researchers
Alok Jha, green technology correspondent, Wednesday November 19 2008 00.01 GMT

Activists from the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior enter the pier outside Kingsnorth power station in Medway, Kent. Photograph: Will Rose/Greenpeace
The government should not use energy security as an excuse to build unabated coal power plants, according to a study by energy and climate experts.
Investment should instead be focused on the country's gas power network to keep energy supplies secure while keeping a check on rapid increases in carbon emissions over the next decade, policy researchers have said.
Jim Watson, a climate and energy researcher at the University of Sussex, said that for the government to stay on a path to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, it must not allow the construction of new coal-fired stations simply with the promise that they might be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) when that has been proven to work.
In a study carried out by colleagues at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit in Sussex, Watson further argues for the introduction of an emissions standard for power stations that would restrict the amount of CO2 produced in the generation of electricity to 500g per kWh.
The team's proposals, which will be presented today at a meeting of the British Institute for Energy Economics, would put projects such as E.ON's proposed 1.6GW power plant at Kingsnorth in Kent in doubt, even through its manufacturers claim it could be built ready to install CCS technology when that has been developed.
"I'm increasingly convinced that anything companies sign up to on capture-ready is rather theoretical — that's by talking to companies as well as governments," said Watson. He added that a strong line from the UK on unabated coal would be important when the government's negotiators meet other countries to agree a new climate deal in the coming years. "It's important to send a signal that we're not just going to build new coal plants without CCS and cross our fingers."
In the past, the government's position on unabated coal power stations has been linked to energy security concerns — without new coal power plants, many have argued the UK will become increasingly reliant on gas supplies from regions that are politically unstable, such as Russia.
But Watson said that this concern was a red herring. "At the moment the UK has a sixth as much gas storage as Germany and with a similar demand. Ours is enough for a week or two, whereas in Germany it's enough to last two months. That's a very exposed system. If you're worried about gas that's one way to square it rather than to say we need new unabated coal because we're worried about gas, which is the wrong way to square the climate change and energy dilemma."
Watson's arguments for an emissions standard for power stations echo the calls of some NGOs on this issue. Earlier this year Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB called for a standard that would cap electricity production at no more than 350g of CO2/kWh. Currently, coal-fired power stations emit around 850g of CO2/kWh; oil-fired stations emit 590g/kWh and gas stations give out 370g/kWh.
A spokesperson for the Department for Energy and Climate Change said: "Building on the UK's diverse sources of gas supply, the government is encouraging new investment in gas storage through reforms to the planning and consents regulatory framework in the planning and energy bills, now before parliament. Reforms will ensure the consents frameworks are fit for purpose, clear and consistent and reflect the national need for new infrastructure."
The spokesperson added: "UK is a global leader in promoting the deployment of CCS and is likely to have the first commercial-scale CCS demonstration project in the world. Our consultation on carbon capture readiness has now closed and we're considering the responses."

Obama opens new green chapter for US on climate

• President-elect declares aims at California summit• Schwarzenegger sets 30% renewables target for 2020

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington, Wednesday November 19 2008 02.30 GMT

Barack Obama yesterday renewed his promise to make a decisive break with George Bush on the environment, using a summit convened by Arnold Schwarzenegger to promise a "new chapter in America's leadership on climate change".
The video appearance by Obama confirmed the Californian governor's role as a global leader on climate change, a position shored up only hours earlier when Schwarzenegger set a bold new target for his state to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
In his address, the president-elect accused Bush of failing to show leadership on the issue of climate change. "That will change when I take office," said Obama.
He went on to lay out an ambitious agenda, beginning with targets aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Obama also reiterated a campaign pledge to invest $15bn (£10bn) a year in clean technology - including clean coal and nuclear power.
"This investment will not only help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, making the United States more secure. And it will not only help us bring about a clean energy future, saving our planet. It will also help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating 5m new green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced."
Obama added: "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences too serious."
Schwarzenegger's targets for electricity generation as well as Obama's appearance at the conference confirmed the governor's leadership in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions at a time when there has been a vacuum at federal level.
In his remarks to the conference yesterday, Schwarzenegger said Obama's election means that he would now be "in synch" with the new administration in taking action to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. "Five years ago when we talked about yes we can protect the environment and we can protect the economy on the same time, there were a lot of doubters," he said. "We have also faced obstacles on the federal level with the federal government."
But he added: "Our revolution now does have soldiers and it is spreading around the globe." He said the conference was intended to advance negotiations on a sequel to the Kyoto protocols in Poland in two weeks, and in Copenhagen next year.
Yesterday's summit comes at a pivotal time amid expectation of a dramatic shift in US environmental policy once Obama is in the White House. As Obama noted in the video address, he will not attend the meeting in Poland but had asked members of Congress who will be there to report back to him.
"Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world towards a new era of global cooperation on climate change," he said.
"When I am president, any governor who's willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that's willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that's willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States."
A New Chapter on Climate Change@Yahoo! Video
Schwarzenegger's meeting brought together European, Indian and Chinese officials, oil firm executives and environmentalists, along with a handful of Schwarzenegger's fellow governors from Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin. Representatives from Michigan, Colorado, Utah and Washington state were also on hand.
The summit was said to be carbon-neutral, with emissions associated with the conference offset by giving money to global environmental causes. And there were other eco-touches, with room keys, name badges, lunch boxes and coffee cups made from recycled material.

The world's last chance

After years of living in fear of climate change, we are fast acquiring the weapons to defeat it. But the only one who can unite humanity for this life-or-death struggle is Barack Obama - and he must act now. By Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan
The Guardian, Wednesday November 19 2008

'I refute it thus!" was Samuel Johnson's famous, beefy riposte one morning after church in 1763. As he spoke, according to his friend James Boswell, he kicked "with mighty force" a large stone "till he rebounded from it". The good doctor was contesting Bishop Berkeley's philosophical idealism, the view that the external, physical world does not exist and is the product of the mind. It was never much of a disproof, but we can sympathise with its sturdy common sense and physical display of Anglo-Saxon, if not Anglican, pragmatism.
Still, we may have proved Berkeley partially correct; in an age of electronic media, where rumour, opinion and fact are tightly interleaved, and where politicians must sing to compete for our love, public affairs have the quality of a waking dream, a collective solipsism whose precise connection to the world of kickable stones is obscure, though we are certain that it exists.
The contest for the US presidency, like all elections, had the self-enclosed quality of a squash game, a chess match, a postmodern novel - and this one was far better than most. While the candidates appeared to address an external reality, they were bound by strictly ethereal requirements: to cast spells on large crowds while seeming ordinary, to trample their opponent into oblivion while seeming pleasant, to be inspirational yet sensible, to avoid offending a score of sensitive constituencies, and, an old wizard's touch, to promise the electorate various gifts without further borrowing or raising taxes.
And to win. As Barack Obama steps forward, the smoke machines and mirrors are packed away - or perhaps we can never, or should never, let them go. To those who believe that climate change in the context of global poverty is our most pressing problem, underpinning all others, requiring degrees of cooperation and rationality we might not even be capable of, the elevation of this slender, handsome man becomes the object of unreal expectation. Inevitably, after a long campaign of crowd pleasing, the question hangs in the air: is he merely the expert coiner of a stirring speech, or does he have the steel to turn intentions into results? At the very least, America finally has a president who, whatever his profession of faith, has a high regard for science (look at his sturdy views on intelligent design in Nature magazine of September 25) and has surrounded himself with scientific advisers of impeccable quality, and committed himself to the dreamy target of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels of CO2 emissions by 2050.
The issue of climate change is itself another near-virtual reality. Ever since 1979, when James Hansen's Ad Hoc Group on CO2 reported to President Carter, there have been symposia, denials, summits, documentaries, marches, legislation, trading schemes and, above all, resounding speeches high on ambition - in Europe we rather excel at these.
However, on the all-too-kickable stone we call the Earth, where results from thousands of measurements in oceans and on land masses are mapped against satellite data, the mean temperature has continued to rise. In 2006, and even more in 2007, the shrinking of the summer ice in the Arctic exceeded the gloomiest predictions. Data for the past year, during an economic downturn, show CO2 levels rising as fast as ever. It is doubtful whether there is yet a single recorded instance of a carbon-producing power station taken out of commission to make way for a clean energy installation.
The burning forests, the dissolving coral reefs, the extinction of species - we have numbed ourselves with these familiar litanies. During the past 30 years we have dealt with the issue, if at all, only in our minds. There are, of course, first signs of a new clean energy infrastructure - along certain stretches of the Danish coastline, on some German and Japanese rooftops, in certain deserts - but the effect so far is miniscule. We are still dreaming, still murmuring in our sleep as we grope for the levers that connect thoughts to actions.
Domestically, Obama will have a number of factors on his side, beyond good working majorities in both houses. There is at least agreement that there is a problem - anthropogenic climate change is a fact, an American fact. Doing nothing is simply too expensive. A good part of the Republican party accepts this, as do major corporations, and even oil companies. The deniers are, or should be, folding their tents - and what was to deny? A molecule of CO2 absorbs the longer wave length of light, trapping radiant heat from the earth. More CO2, more trapped warmth. If temperatures drift much beyond 2C above pre-industrial levels, the human and economic consequences could be catastrophic. Americans have already seen what happens when a warmer Atlantic Ocean lends its energy to the hurricane season.
Thus the matter is passing from virtue, from idealism and sombre invitations to self-denial, which government, markets and the electorate distrust, to self-interest and necessity, for which they all have respect. Oil production will soon decline, and alternatives must be found anyway; many oil-producing countries are grisly human constructs on which no one wants to depend; if the US does not invest in green technologies now, it will have to buy them later from its competitors; Germany has created a quarter of a million jobs in renewable energy; it is beginning to be apparent that there is a vast amount of money to be made retooling and supplying a whole civilisation with new energy sources.
The technologies are developing at speed, but the basic ideas have a simple allure. Consider just one form of solar energy. An alien landing on our planet and noticing how it was bathed in light would be amazed to learn that we believe ourselves to have an energy problem, that we ever should have thought of overheating or poisoning ourselves by burning fossil fuels or generating plutonium. Sunlight falls on us in a constant stream, a sweet rain of photons beyond counting. On average, by Nasa's calculation, 200 watts for every square metre of the Earth's surface. A single photon striking a semi-conductor releases an electron, and so electricity is born, right out of sunbeams. These are the photovoltaics that Einstein described and for which he won a Nobel prize. If you believed in God, you might say this free energy was his greatest gift. Let there be light! If you did not, you might wonder at how auspicious the laws of physics are. As is often pointed out, less than an hour's worth of all the sunlight falling on the Earth would satisfy the whole world's needs for a year. A fraction of our hot deserts could power our civilisation.
Millions of acres in the American south-western deserts have already been identified for suitable sites. Installations are beginning to appear, some of them funded by European companies taking advantage of state tax-breaks. In private and public labs, new technologies are being invented. How can a solar or wind plant generate power by night? Daniel Nocera at MIT has imitated photosynthesis to crack water efficiently into hydrogen and oxygen; at night these gases are recombined in a fuel cell to drive a turbine. In other labs, the race is on for that industrial golden egg, a cheaper, lighter, more powerful battery for use in electric cars; nanotechnology is being used to derive two electrons from one photon; thin film solar panels are already in production; other labs are working on solar paints. The lines of inquiry are proliferating by the thousands. That resourceful Californian generation that made its fortune refining the internet is beginning to relive its youth in clean energy. The whole sector is like a coiled spring, waiting to unleash its full force into the economy.
In other words, Obama assumes power at a time when renewable energy has ceased to be a marginal pursuit. The hour may have summoned the man, but this happens to be a particularly difficult hour. In Berkeleyan mode, we have entered a global recession because we always thought we would. The fictional head of a snake has begun to devour its actually existing tail - a circularity the great Argentinean fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, would have appreciated. We dreamed of this recession, we saw it coming and we made it so. Meanwhile, in the Johnsonian "real" economy, factories, distribution systems, human inventiveness, the will to work, the need for goods and services are much as they were last year - except, as certainty of the recession tightens, people fear more and spend less, corporations begin to make redundancies, and so the recession is locked in.
Beyond that, the problems are solvable, but they are formidable too. The departing president has been energetically pulling levers in the real world, facilitating coal-fired power plants, opening up federally owned wilderness to oil and gas drilling and encouraging the commercial exploitation of oil shale. This will all have to be reversed by President Obama. Solar- and wind-generating plants are often far from cities; as in Europe, a new direct current grid is needed; the old is chaotically devolved to state level. The costs will be enormous, the benefits will not be immediately obvious to many consumers, and the US government has colossal debts. Coal remains a crucial energy source in the States, but "clean" coal is still a fantasy, and piping CO2 to the appropriate geological sites and pumping it underground is expensive. Oil interests will not be happy with their loss of supremacy and ancient privileges, or with contemplating a cap and trade scheme during a recession. Acceptable electric vehicles are still a good way off.
And beyond the administrative and technological problems, there are the usual obstacles. It is not only Harold Macmillan's "events, dear boy, events" that can blow a thoughtful politician off course. There are half a dozen other pressing domestic and international concerns, then - mistakes, enemies, political process, the fumblings or ambitious scheming of lieutenants, the fading novelty of a new presidential face. And above all, undue caution.
Within the climate science community there is a faction darkly murmuring that it is already too late. The more widely held view is hardly more reassuring: we have less than eight years to start making a significant impact on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, eight years to move from Berkeley's solipsism to Johnson's pragmatism. Thereafter, as tipping points are reached, as feedback loops strengthen, the emissions curve will rise too quickly for us to restrain it. In the words of John Schellnhuber, one of Europe's leading climate scientists and chief scientific adviser to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, "what is required is an industrial revolution for sustainability, starting now".
To be effective, this is only possible at the level of international cooperation - far more difficult to achieve than any technological breakthrough. There is a rendezvous next year in Copenhagen in late November which the entire world of climate expertise is preparing itself for and which is considered by many in the field to be our best and possibly last hope of addressing the problem before it runs away from us. It is the global successor to Kyoto, known in the trade as COP (Conference of Parties) 15. There is a case to be made that it will be one of the most important international meetings ever convened. If it does not result in practical, radical measures, the fight to control our future could well be lost. Every nation on the planet will be represented. The general feeling is that the conference cannot be allowed to fail. And it cannot succeed without the leadership of the United States. There are fears that Obama will move too cautiously on climate change for political reasons, and that would be a tragic error. Schellnhuber says, "If he were prepared to come in person to Copenhagen and make a speech, a bold commitment, similar to what Reagan did in Reykjavik, he would become a hero of the planet, for good."
And so the mechanisms of the unreal, the smoke and mirrors, might have to come to the aid of our actually existing, overheating world. The process that let us believe we were dealing with climate change when we were doing nothing at all, or let us think our way into a recession - these emanations of collective and collusive dreaming can have their positive side. Obama may succeed in tipping the nations toward a low-carbon future simply because people think he can. Scientists, whose stock-in-trade is scepticism, and conference-weary diplomats, along with millions around the world are attributing to him something like unearthly powers. He is invested with more symbolism - of renewal, of rationality - than his slight frame can bear. But having persuaded everybody else, he may be doubly persuaded himself. This aura will be his empowerment, as numinous as good luck, as permanent as spring snow. He has to move decisively.
There were those who said during the campaign that Obama turned a fine speech, empty of intent, that he was, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle. He must confound his detractors and start the detailed, practical preparation for Copenhagen, and refute them thus!
© Ian McEwan

As Obama Reiterates C02 Priority, Indus Calls For 2009 Bill

By Ian Talley

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday recommitted to climate-change legislation as a top priority of his Administration, while a high-powered U.S. industry and environmental group underscored its support by urging lawmakers to pass a climate bill by 2009.
The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an influential coalition of companies and environmental groups, applauded Obama's commitment, but many Capitol Hill pundits and politicians are skeptical about what they call a too-optimistic schedule.
Some lawmakers, including the head of the Senate energy committee, say it's unlikely a climate bill can be passed in the new year given the complexity of a policy that will impact nearly every sector of the economy and the fierce lobbying fight already underway.
Adding to the political challenges is the financial meltdown that makes a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade law a hard sell when it's likely to force energy costs up and create trillion-dollar wealth transfers between industries.
"My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process," Obama said in a prepared video for a climate-change summit in California on Tuesday.
"That will start with a federal cap-and-trade system."
Obama wants to establish one of the strongest cap-and-trade programs, aiming to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and ax an additional 80% by 2050.
"Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all," Obama said in the video. "Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious."
The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP, urged Congress to work quickly on a solution. Members include some of the most energy-intense producers and consumers such as Alcoa (AA), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA), BP Plc (BP), General Electric (GE), Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) and Rio Tinto (RTP), as well as environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Council.
"We believe Congress needs to go to work in a bipartisan way and find a solution and find it '09," said James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy (DUK), a USCAP member. "Delaying this further doesn't make sense."
Last week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he didn't think a bill could be passed in the new year, given the complexity of such a bill and the current economic state.
A cap-and-trade bill failed to gain any traction in the Senate earlier this year as there weren't nearly enough votes supporting the measure that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., brought to the floor, prompting the Majority Leader to pull it off the schedule after only a few days. One of the factors that analysts say helped kill the bill is that it was brought as energy prices neared their record peak.
Now many say the ailing economy will provide a similar negative political environment. And that's one of the reasons why environmentalists and Democrats are pushing climate action as a tool for economic recovery.
David Crane, chief executive of USCAP member NRG Energy (NRG), said Obama as president would make a major difference in galvanizing the support needed to pass the economy-wide bill: "This can be done in 2009."
The question is how quickly the President-elect will move in the new year. Will he want to expend an enormous amount of political capital in the first 100 days to push a bill that will face tough opposition from several flanks in Congress? Many think not and expect that while he will outline his proposals and fuel debate, ultimately he may wait until later in the year to accelerate action.
The clock is already ticking for Capitol Hill lawmakers, however, and the next Administration has held up an hourglass for Congress. Earlier in November, Obama's energy and environment advisor, Jason Grumet - a man tipped as a prime candidate for a special energy/climate czar position the transition team is considering - said that if Congress didn't act within 18 months, the Environmental Protection Agency would act to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. That, say many opponents, would be much less economically efficient.
"It would be a mistake for President-elect Obama or for Congress to punt the climate issue to the EPA," said Duke's Rogers. "That will just lead to years and years of litigation."
While Rogers said getting consensus on the fundamental of how Congress should cut greenhouse gases was easy, "building consensus around detail is difficult."
That's why USCAP and others say the new bill must be streamlined.
"What's clear to me is that we need to keep it simple, straightforward," Rogers said.
Bingaman said Monday that one of the key ways to simplify the legislation would be to only funnel revenue raised from auctions of emission allowances into programs that reduce greenhouse gases. Many of the provisions offered by Boxer and other lawmakers include funds to help low-income households cope with higher energy costs and communities and local governments deal with the consequences of global warming.
"The excessive complexity ... may have hurt the cause of climate change more than it helped," Bingaman said.
In his remarks to the climate summit Tuesday, Obama also said he planned to invest $15 billion annually to spark private-sector development of clean energy technologies.
"We will invest in solar power, wind power, and next generation biofuels," he said. "We will tap nuclear power, while making sure it's safe. And we will develop clean coal technologies."
-By Ian Talley, Dow Jones Newswires, 202-862-9285;