Monday, 29 December 2008

Third of Britain's mammals 'at risk'

Climate change and habitat loss blamed as eight more species join the seriously endangered list
Jo Adetunji
The Observer, Sunday 28 December 2008

The hedgehog, water vole and hazel dormouse are among a number of British mammals that face becoming seriously endangered, research published today reveals.
Climate change and habitat loss have led to a dramatic increase in the number of mammals whose future survival is a cause for concern among conservationists, the study commissioned by the People's Trust for Endangered Species concludes. The Bechstein's bat, one of the country's rarest mammals, has shown a marked decline while the number of soprano pipistrelle bats has fallen by 46% in six years.
The report, the seventh annual assessment of the state of land mammals in Britain, says that more effort is needed to help the endangered species, which now number 18 - more than 30% of Britain's mammal species - up from 10 last year. Only two species on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan list, the otter and the lesser horseshoe bat, have increased their numbers.
Professor David Macdonald, conservation biologist in the wildlife conservation unit at Oxford University and co-author of the report, said: "Next year, the focus of biodiversity conservation in England will shift from individual species to a more integrated eco-system approach, incorporating climate change adaptation principles and establishing complementary species and habitat conservation."
Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions, combined with hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, were causing changes in the distribution and behaviour of some species, such as the hazel dormouse, the study finds.
Although modern agricultural practices and the disappearance of hedgerows have had a significant impact on mammals such as the hedgehog, "conflict" between mammal species, particularly involving the invasive American mink, is also posing problems for conservationists, it adds. Mink-free zones on a large scale need to be established to stop the "catastrophic decline" of water voles that has been seen over the last 20 years.
Pine martens, one of the species on the list of conservation concern and extremely rare in England and Wales, are preying on capercaillie in Scotland, one of the fastest-declining gamebirds.
Wild deer, whose distribution has been increasing over the last 30 years, are the major cause of damage to Woodland Sites of Special Scientific Interest and are also destroying vegetation cover for smaller mammals. The damage caused is likely to worsen unless more work is done to fence in deer and manage their populations, the report concludes.
"The interaction between people and nature has positive and negative parts. If people are looking for a single, simple answer then they're going to be frustrated," Macdonald said.
"Conservation is as much about control and management as it is about preservation. Sometimes you've too many and in other places too few, which involves fostering where necessary and controlling elsewhere."
The report also tackles the controversial issue of reintroducing species into the wild where they have become extinct, including the beaver, which will be put back into Scotland next spring for the first time in 400 years. The report said the introduction would bring more benefits than costs to biodiversity. Other species being considered for release are up to 450 Eurasian lynx, which would give Scotland the fourth largest lynx population in Europe. Nida al-Fulaij, development manager for the People's Trust for Endangered Species, said mammals had often been neglected in people's imagination.
"We've been funding more and more mammal conservation work in the UK and are concerned about the number of mammals on the conservation priority list. There's no overall organisation for mammals, in the way that there is the RSPB for birds, and mammal conservation has been very fragmented. Mammals are not as easy to see as birds - many are nocturnal," al-Fulaij said.
"Lots are considered vermin and it's not until numbers drop, as with the hedgehog, that people notice. Sometimes there's a misconception that they're very numerous when in fact numbers are falling. Urban areas, hedgerows and gardens are great habitats and we would encourage people to go out and enjoy them."

Thomas L. Friedman: Win, win, win, win, win ...

By Thomas L. Friedman
Published: December 28, 2008

How many times do we have to see this play before we admit that it always ends the same way?
Which play? The one where gasoline prices go up, pressure rises for more fuel-efficient cars, then gasoline prices fall and the pressure for low-mileage vehicles vanishes, consumers stop buying those cars, the oil producers celebrate, we remain addicted to oil and prices gradually go up again, petro-dictators get rich, we lose. I've already seen this play three times in my life. Trust me: It always ends the same way - badly.
So I could only cringe when reading this article from on Dec. 22: "After nearly a year of flagging sales, low gas prices and fat incentives are re-igniting America's taste for big vehicles. Trucks and SUVs will outsell cars in December ... something that hasn't happened since February. Meanwhile, the forecast finds that sales of hybrid vehicles are expected to be way down."
Have a nice day. It's morning again - in Saudi Arabia.
Of course, it's a blessing that people who have been hammered by the economy are getting a break at the pump. But for America's long-term health, getting re-addicted to oil and gas guzzlers is one of the dumbest things we could do.

That is why I believe the second biggest decision Barack Obama has to make - the first is deciding the size of the stimulus - is whether to increase the federal gasoline tax or impose an economy-wide carbon tax. Best I can tell, the Obama team has no intention of doing either at this time. I understand why. Raising taxes in a recession is a no-no. But I've racked my brain trying to think of ways to retool America around clean-power technologies without a price signal - i.e., a tax - and there are no effective ones. Without a higher gas tax or carbon tax, Obama will lack the leverage to drive critical pieces of his foreign and domestic agendas.
How so? According to AAA, U.S. gasoline prices now average about $1.67 a gallon. Funny, that's almost exactly what gas cost on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush had the political space to impose a gasoline tax, a "Patriot Tax," to weaken the very people who had funded 9/11 and to stimulate a U.S. renewable-energy industry. But Bush wimped out and would not impose a tax when prices were low or a floor price when they got high.
Today's financial crisis is Obama's 9/11. The public is ready to be mobilized. Obama is coming in with enormous popularity. This is his best window of opportunity to impose a gas tax. And he could make it painless: Offset the gas tax by lowering payroll taxes, or phase it in over two years at 10 cents a month. But if Obama, like Bush, wills the ends and not the means - wills a green economy without the price signals needed to change consumer behavior and drive innovation - he will fail.
The two most important rules about energy innovation are: 1.) Price matters - when prices go up people change their habits. 2.) You need a systemic approach. It makes no sense for Congress to pump $13.4 billion into bailing out Detroit - and demand that the auto companies use this cash to make more fuel-efficient cars - and then do nothing to shape consumer behavior with a gas tax so more Americans will want to buy those cars. .
There has to be a system that permanently changes consumer demand, which would permanently change what Detroit makes, which would attract more investment in battery technology to make electric cars, which would hugely help the expansion of the wind and solar industries - where the biggest drawback is the lack of batteries to store electrons when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. A higher gas tax would drive all these systemic benefits.
The same is true in geopolitics. A gas tax reduces gasoline demand and keeps dollars in America, dries up funding for terrorists and reduces the clout of Iran and Russia at a time when Obama will be looking for greater leverage against petro-dictatorships. It reduces our current account deficit, which strengthens the dollar. It reduces U.S. carbon emissions driving climate change. And it increases the incentives for U.S. innovation on clean cars and clean-tech.
Which one of these things wouldn't we want? A gasoline tax "is not just win-win; it's win, win, win, win, win," says the foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum. "A gasoline tax would do more for American prosperity and strength than any other measure Obama could propose."
I know it's hard, but we have got to stop "taking off the table" the tool that would add leverage to everything we want to do at home and abroad. We've done that for three decades, and we know with absolute certainty how the play ends - with an America that is less innovative, less wealthy, less respected and less powerful.

Running dry, running out: we're wasting too much water despite warnings to turn off taps

• Half of England and Wales suffer from 'water stress' • Report used to argue for more water meters
Juliette Jowit
The Guardian, Monday 29 December 2008

Nearly half of the population in England and Wales now live in areas of "water stress" where supply might not keep up with demand - a problem usually associated with parched regions such as north Africa and the Middle East.
The huge pressure on water supplies from large and wealthy populations in areas with relatively low rainfall is detailed in the most comprehensive report yet on the state of water resources by the Environment Agency.
The report, which will be published in the new year, warns that many rivers, lakes, estuaries and aquifers are already being drained so low that there is a danger to wildlife and a risk to public supplies in dry years, especially as climate change brings drier summers while the population is increasing.
People are also using far too much water. The study says average water use is 148 litres per person per day, and as high as 170 litres in the south-east of England - compared to a government target of 130.
The agency will use the report to argue for aggressive increases in the number of homes with water meters to reduce demand, and will support proposals by water companies to spend billions of pounds on infrastructure projects such as reservoirs and desalination plants to improve supplies and protect the environment. It is also expected to argue for a new system of regulation under which companies would be allowed to earn more profit if they reduced demand, a system pioneered in California and already being considered for UK energy companies.
"We're seeing a shift from how we ran things over the last 100 years," said Trevor Bishop, the agency's head of water resource policy. "The Victorians gave us a legacy of infrastructure ... they predicted what the future needed and provided for it. We can't carry on doing that ad infinitum.
"We [will] have 10-20 million extra people, we have got climate change; all the things we have done in the past will get less and less certain and more vulnerable, so what we're doing is trying to manage demands down."
The report brings together for the first time new and published data about the availability and use of water for 21 water companies, 24.3m households and a population of 54.4m. Scotland is covered by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and Northern Ireland by the devolved administration.
On average, water demand is 10% of "effective rainfall" - what is left over after evaporation to recharge rivers, lakes and aquifers. But because rainfall, population density and water use vary widely, a large area from Kent, north to the Humber estuary and west beyond Oxford is internationally classified as "water stressed" because abstraction is normally more than 20% of effective rainfall.
By this definition, 10.5m households and 24.1m people have less water available per person than Morocco and Egypt, says the report. Though hotter, these drier countries have lower populations.
"We don't look like [Morocco] because we have got a very, very sophisticated public water supply system [and] a different environmental situation," said Bishop. "What [water stress] means for us is the risk of extreme drought and the infrastructure we rely on to supply our water resources would come under stress."
Other statistics show:
• 30% of homes have a water meter, and on average they use 13% less water than unmetered households;
• In a third of the 119 catchment areas into which water bodies are divided, legal limits on abstraction were (or could be if fully used) exceeding safe levels for habitats, including chalk rivers and wetlands;
• Measured against European standards due in 2015, more than 90% of sites were or were probably at risk of failing because of pollution from "point sources" like factories and/or run-off from farms and roads - though many of these by only one of up to 37 measures;
• Under expected climate change, river flows would rise in winter but would fall on average by half in summer and autumn, and some by as much as 80%.
Water resources were "in many respects far better" than in the past, but rising demand, lower supplies and tougher standards meant a raft of policies were needed to keep taps flowing and the environment protected, said Bishop.
Water companies have submitted plans to invest £27bn in maintaining and improving infrastructure for water supplies and sewage treatment in the five years between 2010-15, up from nearly £20bn in the previous five years. The total, and the impact on customer bills, will be decided by the industry regulator, Ofwat, in 2009.
There were "pros and cons" to plans put forward, including desalination and new reservoirs, said Bishop. The agency also wants companies in the south-east to speed up plans to increase water metering to 80% of homes by 2030.

Recycling firms backpedal after price crash

Sarah Butler
The Guardian, Monday 29 December 2008

Recycling companies are beginning to stockpile raw materials as local councils struggle to off-load materials amid falling prices.
Closed Loop, one of Britain's biggest plastics recycling firms, is planning to increase its stocks of unwanted bottles by at least 5,000 tonnes and has stepped up its operation to full capacity of 3,000 tonnes a month to prevent a collapse in the relatively new industry.
The price of mixed plastics has nearly halved in the past year as some far eastern customers have stopped buying. But prices for glass and sorted plastic such as polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene have held up, according to the government-backed Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP).
Falling prices have resulted in some councils having trouble selling their recyclable waste. The Local Government Association (LGA) said that three-quarters of its members had been affected by a fall in prices of recycled materials. A recent survey by the LGA found that 5% of local authorities were having to store recyclable materials for longer than usual.
Closed Loop has leased four acres of land adjacent to its Dagenham factory, where it will store an additional 5,000 tonnes of plastic waste. The company is also considering storing a further 1,000 tonnes on the site of its second factory, which is under construction in Deeside.
Chris Dow, the chief executive, insisted he was not capitalising on the collapse in prices to stockpile cheap raw materials but was just keen to keep the system rolling.
Although the value of the kind of plastic he recycles had more than halved to about £50 a tonne, he insisted he would pay "a fair price".

Carbon Limits, Yes; Energy Subsidies, No

Wind and biofuel could become the next subprime mortgage fiasco.

There isn't much doubt that Congress and incoming President Barack Obama will try to impose some kind of limits on carbon emissions. The Republicans, girding in opposition, are denouncing global warming as a fraud, and claiming that either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system will impose an unacceptable burden on the economy.
Their strategy of stonewalling cedes the game in what will be the most dangerous aspect of carbon legislation -- the effort to use the proceeds of an emissions tax to subsidize a dead-end expedition into "renewable" energy.
Whether global warming is real will probably not be known for another 50 years. There are signs, in the melting of the Arctic ice cap and warming in Alaska, that something unusual is happening to the climate. But skeptics note that world temperatures haven't risen since 1998 and that, if anything, recent weather has been unseasonably cold. Still, that doesn't mean we can dump billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year without eventual consequences.

A $50 per ton carbon tax would raise gasoline prices about 25 cents per gallon -- nothing we haven't experienced in the last two years -- and accelerate a move toward electric hybrids, weaning us away from foreign oil. Nothing catastrophic there. The same levy would raise electric rates about 10%, which would encourage conservation while pushing us away from fossil fuels.
The real danger is that, instead of refunding the tax to consumers, Congress will grab the money to subsidize the current craze for specific forms of energy, particularly wind or biofuels.
Wind generation is the prime example of what can go wrong when the government decides to pick winners. The idea that it can replace significant quantities of coal or natural gas in electrical generation is a fantasy.
Windmills generate power only 25% of the time and can change output minute-to-minute. A contemporary electric grid is a highly tuned instrument that cannot vary in voltage by more than a few percentage points without causing brownouts or damaging electric equipment. Under these circumstances, wind is more of a nuisance than a source of power.
Nonetheless, wind is our fastest growing form of electrical generation, due entirely to federal and state subsidies and "renewable portfolios," in which the government tells utility companies what to build. In a few years we could find ourselves in the position of Denmark -- which has built thousands of windmills without closing a single fossil-fuel plant.

Biofuels have already proven to be an even bigger disaster. They've gobbled up 30% of our corn crop and have leveled tropical forests, while replacing less than 3% of our oil.
Solar energy, on the other hand, has distinct advantages that will emerge from limiting carbon emissions without any additional subsidies. Besides being carbon-free, solar electricity is at a maximum when it's needed most -- on hot summer afternoons. This is when the utilities need "peaking power," usually provided by expensive gas turbines. Rooftop solar collectors could provide ample peaking electricity, particularly in southern climates where air conditioning is a way of life.
The real beneficiary of a carbon-emissions regimen, however, is likely to be nuclear power. Already anticipating this revival, the nuclear industry has submitted 18 proposals for 28 new reactors before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Granted, many of Mr. Obama's environmental allies seem ready to lie down in front of bulldozers before allowing a nuclear revival to take place. But the president-elect's position seems more nuanced. His home state of Illinois, after all, gets 45% of its electricity from nuclear reactors.
A prudent position for Republicans should be: "Carbon limits, yes, subsidies, no." If a carbon tax or cap-and-trade auction is imposed, use the revenues to reduce other taxes so it won't cripple the economy. The thing to avoid is a wild, congressionally driven speculative boom in alternative energy. As Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, puts it: "Renewable energy could be the next subprime mortgage meltdown."
Mr. Tucker is author of "Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey," published in October by Bartleby Press.

Power shift

Russia's warning about gas shortages in the EU comes right Opec-style cartel with other major producers

Yuri Fedotov, Sunday 28 December 2008 15.00 GMT

Britain was given a sharp reminder of the dangers to its energy supplies yesterday when Gazprom warned that western Europe could be hit by gas shortages. The Russian gas provider said a long-running row with Ukraine could disrupt supplies this winter.
The fears were raised 24 hours before Russia hosts a meeting of the world's major gas suppliers to set up an Opec-style production cartel that could push up the price of energy in Britain and elsewhere. Energy experts warned that the two events demonstrated that Russia was using energy as a political weapon, and argued Britain should accelerate its switch to renewable power in order to reduce its dependence on unpredictable carbon fuel suppliers.
Russia triggered fears of an energy "cold war" two years ago and again last year when it threatened to cut off gas first to the Ukraine and then to Belarus. This time Russia is threatening Ukraine over an alleged $2bn of arrears. Although Russia exports a relatively small amount of gas to Britain, such difficulties could push up prices for alternative supplies from Norway or elsewhere. Viktor Zubkov, who is Russia's first deputy minister as well as chairman of Gazprom, said: "We cannot rule out that the position of the Ukrainian side and certain steps, which are linked to gas transit through Ukrainian territory, could lead to a disruption of supply stability to Europe."
The Moscow company said it offered to let Kiev redeem its debt by allowing Gazprom to offset it against transit fees for next year. "So far no solution has been found because of the non-constructive position of the Ukrainian side," Zubkov said. About 80% of Russian gas exports to Europe flow through Ukraine, which insisted it would ensure the transit of supplies to European Union countries next year. "Ukraine is ready to give guarantees of uninterrupted gas supplies in 2009 to European gas consumers," said Oleksander Shlapak, chief economic aide to the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko.
The promise did little to reduce tensions. Andris Piebalgs, the EU energy commissioner, indicated he was ready to travel to Moscow early in the new year for emergency talks with the Russians and said he was "very worried". Meanwhile, a loose grouping of gas producers, known as the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, is to meet in Moscow tomorrow to sign a charter to formalise the organisation, officials at the Russian energy ministry said.
More than a dozen gas-exporting nations from around the world have been meeting since 2001, but the body has no formal membership or management. Experts from member states met last month to discuss the draft charter, and ministerial representatives are expected to sign it at the meeting, which has been driven by Russia in cooperation with Iran and Qatar. The three countries, which together account for nearly a third of the world's natural gas exports, agreed this year to form a "gas troika" for joint exploration and production, in a move that sent shock waves through importing nations.
Russian deputy prime minister Igor Sechin said last week the forum would work along similar lines to Opec, but that it would be wrong to see it as an attempt to corner the market and to force up prices. "The work that it does will be similar to that of Opec, but I want to stress that there is no talk now about any specific deals. It is simply a question of protecting the interests of producers and coordinating their work," Sechin said at the Opec ministerial meeting in Oran, Algeria, last week. David Clark, a former UK government adviser and chairman of the Russia Foundation thinktank, said he was concerned Russia and its energy allies were trying to carve up the market and further develop the use of energy as a political weapon.
"Despite the downward trend of oil and gas currently, the long-term supply-demand picture suggests that prices are going to rise and this is going to be a continuing problem," he said. "Britain and the European Union need to collectively pressure Russia to stand by its existing commitments to act as a responsible energy partner. But it also points up the need for countries such as Britain and North America to work together to find the kind of scientific fixes that will enable them to build a post-carbon future."
• Yuri Fedotov is the Russian ambassador to the UK

Windfarm revolution tangled in red tape

• 262 UK projects await planning permission • Renewable energy target looks increasingly remote
Terry Macalister
The Guardian, Monday 29 December 2008

Britain's wind power industry is facing a double blow of lengthy planning delays and rapidly rising construction costs in a crisis that threatens to sink the government's climate-change goals.
Dozens of projects are being held up by planning inquiries, with the average length of time taken to win permission being 15 to 20 months in England and far longer in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the bulk of the schemes are being developed.
There are 262 different projects representing seven gigawatts stuck in the planning stages. And the rate of approvals is slowing despite government promises, according to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA).
It said that the start of a third inquiry into one project in Norfolk that has already been delayed for seven years showed that the government has not cured the problem despite introducing the Planning Act to speed up the process.
Meanwhile Centrica, owner of British Gas and one of the most powerful energy utilities, said a 250-megawatt scheme off the Lincolnshire coast was hanging in the balance because turbine manufacturers and other suppliers had raised their prices so high they were jeopardising the economics of the scheme.
With Britain committed to producing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 to meet European Union targets, the government would be blown off course unless it intervened more robustly, said the BWEA.
"The government does not want the political problems of undermining local democracy by taking control out of the hands of local councillors," said Charles Anglin, director of communications at the BWEA. "But if it fails to act it is just storing up more difficult problems further down the road when it gives the go-ahead to coal or expensive gas projects instead."
To meet the 15% target, the BWEA estimates that Britain needs more than 30GW of wind capacity. "We think you can get 20GW offshore, which means you need 10-12GW onshore, and yet so far we have only got 2.5GW," Anglin said.
"We are aware that the planning system does need to be quicker and there are other barriers to projects," said a department of energy and climate change spokesman. "That is why we are going to unveil a renewable energy strategy with the next steps to meeting our goals."
The planning problem is highlighted by the battle waged by Ecotricity at Shipdham in Norfolk over a wind farm application submitted in December 2001. The company has won two planning inquiries only to find the final decision challenged in the high court by two local residents claiming potential noise problems.
The Planning Act applies only to schemes in England - and then only those over 50MW. "Eighty to 90% of the schemes in England are under 50MW anyway so the Planning Act does virtually nothing," Anglin said.
Offshore operators are also struggling because of the mounting costs that have already chased Shell and BP off to the US.
The cost of Centrica's 250MW Lincs wind farm off Skegness has increased from £2bn to £3bn a GW. "We are committed to building wind farms," said a company spokesman, "but we have got to get the costs down to an economic level."

South Korea announces major energy investment

Reuters, Bloomberg News
Published: December 28, 2008

SEOUL: South Korea plans to invest 37 trillion won, or $28.5 billion, from 2009 to 2022 on new power plants, including 12 new nuclear plants, to improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions, the Energy Ministry said Sunday.
South Korea, one of the largest importers of crude oil, will also build seven new coal plants, 11 liquefied natural gas plants and 1 heavy fuel plant by 2022, but it will get rid of 3 existing coal plants, 6 liquefied natural gas plants and 13 heavy fuel units to improve efficiency, the ministry said.
"The plan is to generate more low-carbon power while decreasing the use of high-priced reserves such as LNG and coal," the ministry said, referring to liquefied natural gas. "Under the plan, the fuel cost will be about 56 percent lower than this year."
The total number of nuclear power units will rise to 32, or 32.92 million kilowatts, by 2022 and account for 48 percent of the country's total power generation, from 34 percent this year, the ministry said.
Liquefied natural gas, which is the most expensive fuel, will account for just 6 percent of total power generation in 2022 under the plan, down from the current 22 percent. The overall electricity power capacity will increase to 100.89 million kilowatts by 2022, up from 71.36 million by the end of 2008.

The cost of nuclear power generation is 3 won per kilowatt compared with 22 won at coal-fired plants and 89 won for gas, according to the ministry.
Separately, the ministry said it would lend a combined 289.8 billion won to petroleum developers in 2009 to help the country secure stable energy supplies. Of the finished budget, 60 percent is to go to existing projects, both at home and abroad, and the remainder to new exploration.
The ministry said the government would increase the ratio of lending support to non government companies in 2009, while it would curtail lending to the state-run Korea National Oil Corporation.
South Korea also plans to expand its use of alternative energy. Under the government's long-term plan, renewable energy sources, including solar, wind and water, should account for 11 percent of power consumption by 2030 from the current 2.2 percent.
To achieve its goals, South Korea intends to invest 100 trillion won in alternative energy by 2030. The country seeks a 44-fold increase in the supply of solar power to 3,504 megawatts, a 37- fold gain in wind power to 7,301 megawatts and a 19-fold increase in biofuels supply.