Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Third runway would 'drive coach and horses' through mayor's green plans

Boris Johnson urges London assembly to join him in opposing controversial expansion of airport
Hélène Mulholland, Tuesday 16 December 2008 14.27 GMT

Boris Johnson warned today that a third runway at Heathrow airport would "drive a coach and horses" through his plans to reduce London's carbon emissions by 60% by 2025.
The mayor used a question-and-answer session with the London assembly on his draft budget to urge assembly members to join him in opposing the controversial airport expansion.
"I hope you will all join me in deprecating this government's plans to build a third runway, which would drive a coach and horses through our attempts to reduce C02 emissions," he told John Biggs, the deputy leader of the Labour assembly group.
Johnson made his comments after being grilled on the lack of targets for reducing C02 emissions for each of the functional bodies under his control – Transport for London, the London Development Agency, the fire and emergency planning authority, and the Metropolitan police authority.
Johnson has kept the target of reducing carbon emissions by 2025 set by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone.
Asked how Londoners would be able to judge his success if targets were not set for the four functional bodies, Johnson told the cross-party budget committee: "I think they will judge our success by our ability to persuade this government not to go ahead this crazy plan and they will judge you by your bravery in opposing this hysterical government plan."
Johnson used his Daily Telegraph column today to laud Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, for comments made over the weekend in which he raised concerns about breaching EU pollution limits if the expansion goes ahead.
The third runway proposal has divided Gordon Brown's cabinet. Benn's warnings on breaching EU pollution laws were followed by Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, arguing for a bigger Heathrow.
A decision on the third runway has been delayed until early next year, with rumours circulating that Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, may opt for relaxing regulations on the two existing Heathrow runways rather than give the go-ahead to a third.
Johnson used his article to cast doubt on Conservative plans to push for high-speed rail links into Heathrow to curb the need for domestic flights, as he defended the popularity of air travel.
Johnson wrote: "High-speed rail should certainly be part of the mix, but it is not enough on its own. The reality is that the recession will end, and when that ends we need to be able to compete in the long term with other capitals whose main airports have four, five or six runways."
He pressed the case for an airport site in the Thames estuary, which he said would present a minimal threat to bird life, "or north Kent marginal seats", which could be connected to London by high speed rail.
Johnson's deputy, Sir Simon Milton, told the assembly earlier today that the GLA could not deliver the 60% reduction target alone. "It is a target which both the previous mayor and this mayor recognises by joint action with government policies, business and individuals and therefore you will not see targets in functional bodies' business plans."
The GLA was monitoring the carbon usage of all parts of the organisation that fall under Johnson's watch, he added.

Sea level could rise by 150cm, US scientists warn

James Randerson, Tuesday 16 December 2008 23.05 GMT

A breaking ice shelf in Antarctica ... many scientists fear the world is close to a tipping point. Jim Elliott/British Antarctic Survey/AP
Sea level rise due to global warming will "substantially exceed" official UN projections and could top 150cm by the end of the century, according to a report from the US Geological Survey on the risks of abrupt climate change. Such a rise would be catastrophic, seeing hundreds of millions of people affected by flooding.
Many scientists now fear the warming world is on the verge of "tipping points", in which climate change and its effects accelerate rapidly. The science is evolving quickly and the new report updates the most recent findings of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was released in 2007.
Some observers have called for an update of the science before the UN talks on a global deal on greenhouse gases emissions reach their finale in December 2009. The US report considers four scenarios for abrupt change, and delivers bad news on two.
On sea level, the report found models used by the IPCC in 2007 do not take into account recent information on how fast glaciers slide into the oceans, particularly from Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets. The report says the south western states of the US will enter a "permanent drought state".
But the risk of the ocean circulation in the Altantic shutting down – freezing the coasts of America and Europe, as in the film The Day After Tomorrow – is rated as low by the report. It predicts a slowdown of around 25% to 30%. The chance of a catastrophic release of methane from frozen sub-sea stores at high latitudes is also rated low. The report is part of a series by the US Climate Change Science Program, which collates all US federal research on the subject. It was presented tonight at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
The IPCC predicted that sea level would rise by 28cm to 42cm by the end of the century. ,The authors cite a 2007 study by Prof Stephan Rahmstof at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research which predicted a sea level rise of between 40cm-150cm by 2100. But even this much higher estimate will "likely need to be revised upwards" because it does not fully capture the ice flow processes.

Seas will rise faster than predicted, say scientists

Frank Pope, Ocean Correspondent

Sea levels will rise much faster than previously forecast because of the rate that glaciers and ice sheets are melting, a study has found.
Research commissioned by the US Climate Change Science Program concludes that the rises will substantially exceed forecasts that do not take into account the latest data and observations.
The adjusted outlook, announced at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, suggests that recent predictions of a rise of between 7in and 2ft over the next century are conservative.
The study predicts that sea level rises will be far higher than the levels that were set out last year by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. The research looked at prehistoric periods when the climate changed dramatically over the course of decades, and evaluated the mechanisms behind such rapid transformation. Rising sea levels were one of the major elements involved in past episodes, along with faster glacial melting, droughts and changes to the Atlantic Ocean’s heat-driven circulation.

The report also concludes that some changes will not be as bad as first thought. It says, for example, that rapid releases of methane stored in permafrost and on the seabed may be less likely than feared.Other forecasts include a severe and permanent drought in the American West. The authors state that they are “among the greatest natural hazards facing the United States and the globe today” and call for “committed and sustained” monitoring of the forces that could trigger abrupt climate change.
Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University and a lead author on the report, to be published in the journal Science, said: “If we don’t monitor the vital signs of the patient, then we’ll never be in a position to advise on the best course of action to take to ward off or prepare for the potentially devastating consequences.”

Change, but at what price?

After 2008 started with panic over food prices, the world seemed to be waking up to global warming. But then the recession hit
John Vidal
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 December 2008

No one could have predicted quite how dramatically 2008 would have ended. Even as President Bush was slashing his way through US environmental protection laws, president-elect Obama appointed Nobel prize-winning physicist Steve Chu as the next US energy secretary. Chu is seen as the repudiation of everything that Bush stood for, and predicts temperatures will rise by a staggering 6.1C by the end of the century if nothing is done. Although it does not mean the oil age is over, if you want a sign that 2008 was a tipping point, it could not have been clearer.
But go back to the start of the year. Empty shelves in Caracas, riots in India and Mexico, and rice shortages in Dhaka, Manila, and Kathmandu. Traders in at least 12 sub-Saharan African countries were hoarding food, and soaring maize and rice prices were leading to political instability. Governments were being forced one after the other to step in to protect supplies and control the cost of bread and dairy products.
The problem, said the analysts, was a mix of climate change and extreme weather leading to poor harvests in major grain-growing countries such as Australia. But the blame was also laid on the many millions of acres of maize, wheat and other crops planted in the US and elsewhere in 2007 to provide biofuels for cars rather than food for people. Catastrophe loomed, said the UN.
It happened slowly and out of sight of the cameras, in the burgeoning cities that are becoming the new frontline of deep poverty. Proof came one week ago, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that 2008 had seen the biggest increase in malnourished people in decades. According to its preliminary data, more than 960 million people - one in every six people in the world - now go to bed hungry, and 40 million suffered malnourishment in 2008 because of higher food prices.
This year will go down as the year of interlinked food shortages, climate change and the recession. But it was also the year when it may have dawned on governments that hell-for-leather, western fossil fuel-based, car-centred growth only ends in social and ecological disaster.
There was soaring air pollution, from transporting a record 622 million passengers, and near record loss of Amazon and other tropical forests. But climate change dominated the international agenda.
A flood of scientific papers showed Arctic ice melting faster than ever and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet close to becoming irreversible. Methane, one of the most damaging climate change gases, was found bubbling up from the tundra and the Arctic ocean. There were record temperatures and near-record hurricane seasons, and scientists and environment groups who believed only a year or two ago that it would be possible to just about hold global temperature to a 2C rise accepted privately that this could now be impossible.
But it also became clear in 2008 that climate change was disproportionately impacting on the poor. Subsistence farmers around the world reported a pattern of increasingly unpredictable seasons and social problems linked directly to water and higher temperatures.
In north-east Brazil, which has always been drought-prone but which has seen temperatures rise at least 1C in only 30 years, more than 1.5 million people now cannot access enough water, and must leave home to find work in the biofuel fields in the south of the country each year. In Bangladesh, Uganda, Niger, Malawi, Nepal and elsewhere people also said that temperatures were becoming hotter and rains less and less predictable.
Another trend became apparent. Rich countries, worried about fast rising global populations and dwindling food and fuel supplies, began buying up farmland in poor countries.
In the UK, environment secretary Hilary Benn said that Britain's food supplies, which come increasingly from abroad, were overdependent on oil - a situation, he said, that "must change".
But the most extreme admission of oncoming climate and food problems came from Mohamed Nasheed, the new president of the low-lying Maldives, who said he was looking for a new homeland, possibly in India, for the time when his country was swamped by rising seas.
The big, still unanswered question of 2008 was how far the financial, food and ecological crises were linked. The best evidence may come from a 1972 study. A group of economists and ecologists were commissioned to predict the consequences of a rapidly growing world population, rapid industrialisation in developing countries, and growing pollution. Their famous book, Limits to Growth, predicted widespread and growing hunger, oil shortages, and ecological and economic collapse by the mid-21st century if countries did not rethink economic growth.
Actually, for much of this year, it looked as if the rich world had begun to address sustainable development. Europe committed itself to generating 20% of all its energy from renewables by 2020, and banned incandescent light bulbs; Britain became the first country in the world to set itself a legal target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050; and more than 70 countries now have national goals for accelerating the use of renewable energy. Businesses, UN agencies, UK politicians and many individuals all genuinely tried to reduce emissions.
Led by Britain, pressure mounted for a global trading scheme, and Gordon Brown's forest adviser, financier Johan Eliasch, recommended that a multibillion-pound fund be set up to pay the owners of the world's rainforests not to cut them down. The irony was that a separate study by the Woodland Trust found that ancient woodland in Britain was being felled at a rate even faster than the Amazon rainforest.
Clean energy took off in 2008, and climate change mitigation became an industry, backed by the world's biggest companies. According to HSBC, companies in the climate mitigation business now generate $300bn (£201bn) in revenues each year. Last month, the International Energy Agency predicted that renewable energy would overtake natural gas to become the second largest source of power generation worldwide within two years, and that global wind and solar generating capacity would increase by more than 30%.
The energy revolution that had been predicted to start after 2015 appeared to be well under way. Architect Norman Foster designed Masdar, a car-free, solar- powered ecotopia for 40,000 people in the Arabian desert. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi's ruler, was so impressed he ordered two, at $15bn each.
In mid-summer, with oil at over $130 a barrel and government-level talk of oil supplies "peaking", there was concern that the price could top $200 a barrel. As people rushed to buy smaller cars, fit better boilers and get into wind and solar power, it seemed possible that the constant rise of emissions might genuinely be reversed. Yet by this month, the global economy was crashing its gears, and oil had dropped to under $40 a barrel.
Whether the world weans itself off oil and fossil fuels will probably determine global sustainability over the next 20 years. Low oil prices traditionally push energy efficiency off the policy agenda. Economic recessions have punctured green economic bubbles in the past. When times are tight, the wisdom goes, no one invests in new or risky technologies, and countries stick to cheap and dirty energy.
Plummeting demand
That was happening in part by the end of 2008. Plummeting demand for recycled materials, especially in China, has drastically lowered prices for old paper, plastic and metals. US and European cities were forced to scale back recycling programmes. Meanwhile, South Africa decided this month that it could not afford "clean" nuclear power stations and plans to increase massively its cheaper but dirtier coal-burning stations. Britain, too, went ahead with plans for more opencast mines.
A more optimistic group of people say the recession may not only check unsustainable growth but also provide breathing space for the world to move to more sensible policies. Governments, said leading greens, have a historic opportunity to "climate proof" their economies in response to economic troubles. Obama and Gordon Brown both said that millions of jobs could be created in green building, wind power, solar thermal and other green technologies.
They were backed by energy gurus such as Amory Lovins, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and environmental analyst Lester Brown, who argued that the needs to deal with both climate change and energy security have set renewable energy on a path that cannot be reversed.
The consensus is that 2008 was volatile and dangerously unpredictable. But if governments don't change, it may come to be seen as a calm before the storm.

Coolest year since 2000 but trend still shows global warming

The last 12 months have been cooler, but 2008 is still the tenth hottest year on record

James Randerson, science correspondent, Tuesday 16 December 2008 16.00 GMT

Warming up? Climate scientists predicted 2008 would be relatively cool because of La Niña. Photograph: John McConnico/AP
The last 12 months have been the coolest since 2000, according to an analysis by Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The meteorological year - which runs from December 2007 to November 2008 - was 0.42C warmer than the global average temperature between 1951 and 1980.
Nasa's calculations agree closely with a similar analysis by the UK Met Office which was released officially this morning, but reported by the Guardian earlier this month. According to Met Office figures for the last 11 months, the global mean temperature for 2008 is 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07. That makes 2008 the tenth hottest year on record.
Climate scientists had predicted that 2008 would be relatively cool compared with recent years because at the beginning of the year there was a strong La Niña event - characterised by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
Professor Phil Jones head of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich said that El Niño and La Niña events have a profound impact on yearly temperature fluctuations. "The most important component of year-to-year variability in global average temperatures is the phase and amplitude of equatorial sea surface temperatures in the Pacific that lead to La Nina and El Nino events."
The influence of La Niña can be clearly seen in Nasa's analysis. Its researchers have produced a world map showing which regions of the planet were above and below their average temperature during 1951 to 1980. While much of the equatorial Pacific was 1C below average, the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of Siberia were over 2.5C above average. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies is led by the US climate scientist Prof James Hansen.
Although 2008 is cool by recent standards, it still fits with a warming trend. The 10 warmest years have occurred since 1997 and world average temperatures for the current decade are nearly 0.2C warmer than the average for the last decade.
"Human influence, particularly emission of greenhouse gases, has greatly increased the chance of having such warm years. Comparing observations with the expected response to manmade and natural drivers of climate change it is shown that global temperature is now over 0.7C warmer than if humans were not altering the climate," said Dr Peter Stott of the Met Office.

Emissions: Where do you draw the line?

How and when are climate changing emissions justified, asks Leo Hickman, Tuesday 16 December 2008 14.35 GMT

Didcot coal-fired power station. Photograph: Charles O'Rear/Corbis
IBM's World Community Grid is currently attracting quite a lot of attention online after it was announced earlier this month that this vast network of public-spirited computer users - 418,972 users to date, offering 1,143,230 machines - would pool their collective computing power for a brand new project called the Clean Energy Project.
Harvard University's department of chemistry and chemical biology has set itself a mission to discover organic materials that might create an efficient, low-cost solar cell. But it needs some help. Left to its own devices, the department estimates it might take 22 years to trawl through all the various combinations of organic materials in its search for a eureka moment.
But with the help of more than a million computers around the world, most of which have already helped to speed up projects researching treatments for various cancers, dengue fever and HIV/Aids, it hopes this can be reduced to just two years.
What's more, none of the users offering up their machines need do anything other than - à la the SETI@Home Project - download some software that sits on their machine harmlessly doing some calculations whilst they get on and play World of Warcraft.
There's a slight catch, though: the computer can't slip into its energy-saving idle mode whilst performing these calculations which means there will be an extra energy burden, albeit pretty small, for the user to consider. Most people would surely agree, though, that this is a worthy use of energy.
It throws up an interesting dilemma: how and when do you draw the line between emissions being justified and unjustified. There's a big difference between using a barrel of oil to heat a hospital compared to, say, using it to ferry rock stars around the world in a jet. But what if those rock stars are being flown to a refugee camp to help divert the global media's attention to the plight of the people in that camp?
There's been lots spoken about the recent climate change talks and emission target pledges and, like it or not, we seem destined to live in a world whereby the richest countries can pay poorer, less developed countries to do their emissions dieting on their behalf.
Supporters of this system say that a cap-and-trade, market-based solution is the only realistic way a reduction in global emissions will ever be achieved. Carrots are always better than sticks, they say. But in such a world, it will be rare for a distinction to be made between why emissions were created in the first place.
There will be a market-determined price to pay for emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but no one will be asking why you emitted it as long as you pay the going rate.
But is it beyond our collective wit to also judge our energy use against a set of criteria that gives extra weighting to our essential and most worthy needs?
Surely, as fossil fuel supplies dwindle, as more and more people are predicting, this question will become ever more pressing? How ever you look at it, it invariably leads you down the path of some form of rationing, otherwise the richest will just buy up the right to burn all the remaining fuel.
At some point, our most essential services will need to be given priority when it comes to dishing out the remaining fossil fuels equitably. In theory, this will start to price out "non-essential" uses of such fuels.
But who is going to draw that line between essential and non-essential use? What, for example, would you place into the "essential" trolley? Two thousand miles' worth of petro-fuelled driving a year? Enough energy to heat your living room to 18C during winter?
Given that we each lead very different lives, should each of us have a "free" minimum allowance for such essentials?

Don't expect recession to mean lower carbon emissions

The economic downturn may not mean a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, writes Adam Vaughan, Tuesday 16 December 2008 12.42 GMT

Fiddlers Ferry coal fired power station near Liverpool, England Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Environmentalists who hope a slowing global economy will mean big falls in greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be disappointed.
Because despite a gloomy economic forecast for 2009, the annual growth in emissions of 3% is only likely to slow modestly, and may even rise over the long term because of the downturn's impact on global climate talks and the funding of renewable energy projects.
Figures from the UK's Committee for Climate Change suggest even a 1.6% fall in UK GDP - a serious dip - would result in a saving of just 200,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2009. That is a tiny fraction of the UK's projected total of 533m tonnes.
Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, explains: "There's a strong lockstep between GDP and emissions ... You wouldn't get more than a 1% change in emissions unless you had something really dramatic happening, like closing a whole industry down."
Developed countries anticipate the largest falls in emmissions, according to analysts. Deutsche Bank this month predicted 2009 emissions covered by the European carbon trading scheme would drop 10% compared with 2007 levels. US emissions arealso expected to slow next year.
But falls in the developed world are expected to be short-lived. Deutsche Bank's report notes European emissions are likely to rise again in 2010. And Bert Metz, a fellow at the European Climate Foundation and former IPCC co-chair has said: "The recession is not of much significance to the climate problem or how we need to deal with it: it's a small blip." .
Healthy developing world economies are also likely to offset any shrinking from developed economies, according to Abyd Karmali, Merrill Lynch's global head of carbon emissions: "I don't think we'll see a reduction in emissions ... We talk about global recession but the truth is economies in places like China and India are still growing."
Most economists and scientists do agree however that fast-changing economic data makes short-term emissions hard to predict. "The economists don't know what's going on, so why would people looking at emissions know?" says Metz.
Predictions are complicated by unexpected increases in emissions. "Because of the recession, perversely, fuel prices have gone down a lot and that might cancel out some of the savings expected in that sector," says Simms.
Alessandro Vitelli, director of IDEAcarbon, has also suggested similar unplanned rises may occur in the developing world. Newly jobless workers in Brazil, for example, may turn to subsistence farming, increasing the slashing and burning of rainforest.
The economic impact on renewable energy projects could also cancel some anticipated CO2 savings in the next five years. The low price of carbon on trading markets and the low price of coal may combine with a lack of credit and debt-averse developers to halt new wind farms and other green-energy developments.
"What you'll find now is that projects already near completion will probably still come onstream as planned, but those in the planning process are not going to get off the ground for the next two years," says Deutsche Bank's Mark Lewis.
Some hope however may still lie in government policy, which may insulate some cleantech projects from the worst ravages of a global downturn according to Samuel Fankhauser, an author for the Climate Change Committee report.
And poor economic growth may mean less adherence to carbon-cutting rules. One of the downturn's biggest long-term effects on emissions may be its influence on internationally-agreed carbon cuts. The poor economic outlook won some European countries concessions on emissions cuts at the EU summit last week, and others may seek the same at ongoing UN talks working to deliver an international deal.
And while those who support a UN-backed green new deal suggest economic and emissions problems could be solved by a silver bullet - a green energy revolution - such a deal is considered politically unlikely by Simms, Vitelli and others.
In short, as the UN's head of the climate secretariat Yvo de Boer said recently: "It would be a pretty depressing way to make progress - to find that recession was helping the world kick an addiction to burning fossil fuels."

Germany seeking US global warming cooperation

The Associated Press
Published: December 17, 2008

WASHINGTON: Germany is looking for ways to nudge the United States, and the incoming Obama administration, to step up efforts to slow global warming.
The German government has launched an initiative to engage American businesses and the government and find ways to cooperate on reducing carbon emissions, which most scientists believe are causing temperatures to rise.
After years of U.S. inaction on global warming, European officials are hoping President-elect Barack Obama will commit to mandatory cuts in emissions.
Germany's ambassador to Washington, Klaus Scharioth, said Tuesday that he is optimistic that Obama will move quickly on the issue.
"I think it is no coincidence that the first video message after his election given by the president-elect was on climate change and energy," Scharioth said in an Associated Press interview ahead of an event promoting the German initiative, called "The Transatlantic Climate Bridge."

The initiative is aimed at developing partnerships between the two countries to find new ways to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency. Germany already has talked to officials of individual U.S. states and local governments and now hopes to engage the new federal administration.
In December 2009, diplomats are to forge a new treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set limits on greenhouse gases and which the United States did not ratify. This time European officials have high expectations for the United States to take the lead.
"We are very much aware of the fact that we can only succeed in convincing the rest of the world that something needs to be done about climate change, if we can convince the United States," Scharioth said. "The Obama administration will work extremely hard."
Obama, a Democrat, is stacking his Cabinet and inner circle with advocates who have pushed for deep mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas pollution and even with government officials who have achieved results at local levels.
The president-elect has said that one of the first things he will do when he gets to Washington is grant California and other states permission to control car tailpipe emissions, which the Bush administration denied.
And although congressional action may take time, the next Congress, with its larger Democratic majorities, will be more inclined to act on global warming.