Friday, 2 January 2009

Green revolution stalls on cheap oil

Terry Macalister, Thursday 1 January 2009 14.40 GMT

Low oil prices and the credit crunch are threatening to stall the green revolution. The value of crude has dropped from a summer high of nearly $150 a barrel to below $40, taking the wind out of the sails of turbine manufacturers and others ­trying to build low-carbon alternatives.
Jeremy Leggett, founder and executive chairman of Solarcentury, says: "Talk of the death of renewables is premature but clearly big solar farms and wind projects are being cancelled. Everything is suf­fering in the current climate but its my contention that the low oil price is a temporary thing and the growth of renew­ables will resume."
Michael Liebreich, chief executive of information provider New Energy Finance, says his leading index of clean-technology companies has fallen from a high of 450 points 12 months ago to 175 points, hit by a triple whammy of lower oil prices, higher costs of capital and fear of more speculative start-up businesses.
But he too is confident that the sector can bounce back. "There was no doubt that there was a certain amount of irrational exuberance over the low-carbon economy. No industry in history has kept up the kind of 40% compound growth rates being ascribed to clean tech so share prices had run up too far and it was time for a correction."
Clean-tech and renewables stocks have been struggling with more than just sentiment. Indian-based wind turbine manufacturer Suzlon Energy, which has seen its share price plunge by 90% this year, has also been hit by malfunctions and the kind of teething problems it says is are inevit­able with new types of technology.
Wind developers in the US have been cutting back in the face of tough new conditions. FPL Group, the US's largest wind-power operator, is cutting its ­spending this year by nearly a quarter to $5.3bn (£3.7bn) and new wind-power generation from 1,500 to 1,100 megawatts.
Confidence in the sector has also been rattled by T Boone Pickens, a veteran oil man who delighted environmentalists with a very public conversion when he promised to build the world's largest wind farm in Texas. He slammed on the brakes in November on the basis that lower oil prices had changed the economics of a scheme that would have powered 1.3m homes.
However the US wind sector has generally been faring better than the British one, thanks to tax breaks. Shell and BP have made it clear they are no longer interested in pursuing UK farms when the investment numbers stack up much better across the Atlantic.
The decision by Shell to pull out of the London Array wind farm was a particular blow to British confidence. The project has been billed as the biggest offshore scheme of its kind in the world but the oil company said the margins were too thin, leaving E.ON of Germany and Dong Energy of Denmark to go it alone.
Anton Milner, the chief executive of Q-Cells, the world's largest manufacturer of solar cells, cut earnings forecasts recently after being hit by what he described as a "flood" of cancellations from developers of solar-power projects struggling to raise finance. The US manufacturer Evergreen Solar has since delayed an $800m new factory in Asia that would have manufactured enough solar cells to power a city of 500,000 people.
But most industry figures are convinced that though the threat of global recession is slowing down the industry, the future remains bright enough, especially with a new figure taking over the White House. Liebreich says his clean-tech index has seen an "Obama bounce", rising from a low of 130 to 175 on the back of optimism about the incoming president's policies.
A raft of radical political appointments – such as Nobel physics laureate Steven Chu as energy secretary – has convinced environmentalists that Barack Obama is serious about his stated aim of hastening progress towards a low-carbon economy with a green New Deal that will reduce his country's dependence on imported oil.
A quarterly review of climate change-related business opportunities just published by analysts at HSBC says governments are increasingly active. "The engagement of governments has grown globally," they say. "Across the political spectrum there is now more recognition that climate change is a genuine long-term global issue with real growth potential."
Martin Wright, managing director of Marine Current Turbines, says no one should expect oil and gas prices to stay low. "Vladimir Putin has already said the era of cheap gas is over and no one knows when peak oil really will come about. So we can expect enormous price volatility, which all points to the need for Britain to develop an independent low-carbon alternative."

UK faces court case over air pollution breaches

• EU angered by diesel engine infringements • Government wants more time to meet targets
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, Friday 2 January 2009

The European Union is planning to take Britain to court for consistently breaching air pollution laws, which could result in unlimited daily fines.
Air pollution near many roads averages well over twice the UN's World Health Organisation maximum recommended level, which has led to constant infringements of EU air quality laws.
In particular, diesel engines emit large quantities of minute, sooty particles known as PM10s which are linked to asthma and heart disease. The government's own figures estimate they result in 12,000 to 24,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.
The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said that PM10 pollution was particularly bad in London. "There are PM10 exceedances in London along more than 200km of roads," he wrote to Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman,
In his letter Dimas revealed that legal proceedings were being prepared. "The commission services are now preparing the launch of infringement proceedings against the UK. In view of the serious consequences of high concentrations of PM10, the commission expects the UK to ensure a speedy reduction."
Britain had been given six years by Europe to reduce its PM10 levels after air legislation was introduced in 1999. This passed into British law in 2005 but documents obtained by the Campaign for Clean Air in London (CCAL) show that limits have been widely breached since then.
The documents show that more than 20 UK cities and conurbations broke the pollution law in 2006, and Belfast, Coventry, London, Birmingham, Tyneside and Bristol also broke it in 2005. These infringements are expected to be the basis of the EU's legal case against Britain.
The case could take two years to come to court, and could prove embarrassing in the run up to the Olympic games.
The government is also expected to approve plans shortly for a third runway at Heathrow in possible further defiance of air quality laws, and is certain to miss other EU deadlines. A directive, which came into force last June, demands that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution be reduced on some busy streets by more than a third by the end of this year.
Unlike PM10 pollution, which mostly affects people living close to traffic, NO2 is much more widespread. High levels can cause lung damage and increased respiratory infections. Nearly half of nitrogen dioxide emissions come from cars and 25% from power stations.
The only feasible way that Britain can meet its new NO2 target is by tackling traffic congestion with schemes such as low emission zones, which bar the most polluting vehicles from entering areas, or congestion charging as in London.
Aviation is also a significant contributor of NO2, making the Heathrow decision highly relevant.
The government plans to hold a three month consultation and then apply for a time extension to come up with ways to meet its NO2 target. Nine other EU countries are also applying for extensions.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "We are unlikely to meet the 2010 deadline in respect of nitrogen dioxide. The problem is mainly about existing pollution from traffic."
Simon Birkett of CCAL said: "Legal action to enforce health-based air quality laws is long overdue. We urge the government to say urgently how it will comply fully with these laws. It can try to delay introducing measures to reduce air pollution but eventually it will have to meet these directives."

A giant chemistry set on the Firth of Forth

Mark Milner Industrial editor, Thursday 1 January 2009 14.22 GMT

On the banks of the Firth of Forth, the Longannet power station dominates the wintry horizon, a massive box in the shadow of its skyscraper chimney stack.
Conceived more than 40 years ago and completed at the beginning of the 1970s, long before climate change became a central tenet of the energy debate, Longannet was designed with stunning industrial simplicity and symmetry.
Britain's second-largest coal-fired power station was a product of a time when electricity generation was based on a technology now dismissed by modern engineers, not entirely without affection, as "burn and boil". You burned the fossil fuel, and used the heat to boil water, which drove the turbines to generate electricity.
Today, Longannet is at the centre of its owner ScottishPower's plans to demonstrate there is more to coal than burn and boil; that despite opposition from environmentalists, it has a future in providing Britain and other countries with a key component in the pursuit of energy security, affordability and sustainability, and is not, as some critics argue, a 19th-century nightmare haunting the 21st century.
In trying to make Longannet a centre for technological excellence, ScottishPower is turning it into a giant chemistry set. More than 1,000 contractors are putting the finishing touches to flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) equipment in three of the plant's four turbines.
Fitting FGD brings Longannet into line with the European Union's large combustion plant directive on reducing sulphur dioxide emissions. Without FGD, it would run for only limited hours, and would have to close in 2015.
Life extension does not come cheap. According to John Campbell, director of energy wholesale at ScottishPower, the company is investing about £170m in FGD, while associated investments to extend the plant's life have lifted the bill to £250m.
The scheme does have local benefits. Last year ScottishPower signed a five-year deal, worth up to £700m, with Scottish Coal to provide coal for Longannet and its smaller coal plant at Cockenzie.
At the time the deal was signed, Ignacio Galán, the chairman and chief executive of ScottishPower's Spanish parent, Iberdrola, made clear his ambitions for coal and Longannet: "Coal generation has a significant contribution to the security of electricity supply in the UK today."
The next stage is to fit Longannet with equipment to reduce emissions of nitrous oxides (NOX) to conform with impending legislation. The process uses ammonia and a vanadium pentoxide catalyst to turn the NOX into water and nitrogen. Fitting the equipment will cost "several hundred million pounds" and require greater political clarity, according to ScottishPower executives. Work is also under way on a 25-mega­watt biomass plant, using wood chip, peanut husks and dried waste.
The big issue, however, is carbon capture and storage (CCS). For fossil fuel burners, this is a kind of holy grail, though one not yet available on a commercial scale. The theory is simply: carbon dioxide is collected, transported and buried in holes in the ground.
The government is keen, and is running a competition to encourage the development of CCS. It could help the UK cut emission levels and be sold to power generators around the world.
But as Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, said in a speech last month, CCS is vital to reconciling the continuing use of coal with Britain's emission targets.
He told a conference at Imperial College London: "Clean fossil fuels are a less sure prospect because of uncertainties around carbon capture and storage, the great prize of clean coal and gas.
"What is clear is that we cannot say that in 20 years' time we will be building unabated coal-fired power stations and that we will meet our carbon budgets. It's not credible," he said.
It is a view that ScottishPower and Iberdrola appear to accept. As Galán said last year: "Iberdrola is committed to developing the best technologies that will deliver low-carbon generation in this country.
"Through our existing co-firing capability of biomass with potential advances in carbon capture and storage technologies, we are ready to provide the flexible generation needed to support the UK's growth goals in renewable energy and at the same time ensure security of supply."
If he gets his way, and if CCS does prove commercially viable, Longannet will brood over the Firth of Forth for some years to come. Some might say that is a big if; it will certainly be an expensive one.

Slowdown of coral growth extremely worrying, say scientists

James Randerson, science correspondent, Thursday 1 January 2009 19.18 GMT

Coral growth across the Great Barrier Reef has suffered a "severe and sudden" slowdown since 1990 that is unprecedented in the last four centuries, according to scientists.
The researchers analysed the growth rates of 328 coral colonies on 69 individual reefs that make up the 1,250 mile-long Great Barrier Reef, off north-east Australia. They found that the rate at which the corals were laying down calcium in their skeletons dropped by 14.2% between 1990 and 2005.
Corals around the world are severely threatened by coastal pollution, warming seas and over-exploitation, but the most probable explanation for the drop in the growth rate of the corals' calcium carbonate skeletons is acidification of the water due to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. More acid water makes it more difficult for the coral polyps to grab the minerals they need to build their skeletons from the sea water.
"Our data shows that growth and calcification of massive Porites in the GBR [Great Barrier Reef] are already declining and are doing so at a rate unprecedented in coral records reaching back 400 years," wrote Dr Glenn De'ath from the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, Queensland, and his colleagues in the journal Science. "Verification of the causes of this decline should be made a high priority."
Porites corals can be centuries old and grow into 6m tall mounds. Rather like a tree ring, each year's growth is visible as a band, so by drilling into the corals the scientists could examine the extent of growth in specific years. The team used x-rays and a technique called gamma densitometry to measure annual growth and skeletal density, which then allowed them to calculate the amount of calcification annually. They found that the calcification rate rose 5.4% between 1900 and 1970, but this dropped by 14.2% between 1990 and 2005. The drop was mainly due to a growth slowdown from 1.43cm a year to 1.24cm. The researchers measured the same effect in both nearshore and offshore reefs, suggesting it is not due to pollution from the land.
"This study has provided the first really rigorous snapshot of how calcification might be changing," marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland in Australia told Science. "The results are extremely worrying."

Oil-eating plants could clear up spills

Oil spills could be cleaned up with the help of organisms that grow at the bottom of the world's deepest lake, scientists hope.

Last Updated: 5:12PM GMT 01 Jan 2009

They are investigating how microbes 'eat' naturally occurring crude oil that seeps into the bottom of Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Dr Mikhail Grachyov, an expert on the flora and fauna of the 5,400ft-deep lake, said: "Baikal has microbes that absorb this oil so it does not spread through the lake. This could have huge implications for environmental disasters."
The scientists believe that the microbes convert the crude oil into methane and other by-products, but they do not yet understand how.
Dr Grachyov said: "It is important that we study these processes more thoroughly."
Samples that were gathered in two mini-submarines will be analysed over the coming years.
In 1996, hundreds of sea birds were killed along with fish and other marine wildlife when the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground off the Pembrokeshire coast, spilling 72,000 tonnes of crude.
Dr David Santillo, senior scientist with the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter, said: "Further investigation of these unusual microbial communities in Lake Baikal will be valuable.
"However, while microbial action might help deal with some oil spills, we need to place far more emphasis on preventing such spills from happening in the first place."

'Pay as you throw' household waste trial shunned by councils

Rachel Williams
The Guardian, Friday 2 January 2009

Councils are intending to shun a "pay-as-you-throw" trial for household waste that would see residents rewarded for recycling or charged for producing too much rubbish, according to research released yesterday.
None of more than 100 councils in England that responded to a survey said they were planning to apply to take part in a pilot of incentive schemes, which forms part of the Climate Change Act. Many were worried about the impact of bin charges while others believed it would undermine efforts to encourage recycling or would not suit the demographics of their area.
The survey, conducted by the Press Association, found that many councils were embracing fortnightly rubbish collections, and that the system was helping to boost recycling levels. Councils with alternate week collections had, on average, an almost 10% higher recycling rate than those without such schemes.
The pay-as-you-throw trial allows up to five councils in England to test out such initiatives. But Terry Neville, cabinet member for the environment at Enfield council, north London, said: "We will not be going down this route. Waste collection is a major part of our service and we will not be asking our residents to fork out more money for something they are already paying for in council tax."
Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council, Cheshire, said the initiative would "damage the goodwill that has been built up over the years" with residents who were already participating in their successful recycling scheme.
Huw Irranca-Davies, the junior minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "We are currently accepting expressions of interest from local authorities to take part in these pilots, which a recent BBC survey suggested the majority of people would support, though it remains the case that it is up to local authorities to do what they think is best for their area.
"Alternate weekly collections increase the amount that we recycle, but they are just one of the ways local authorities can cut the amount sent to landfill."

Toyota developing solar powered green car

The Associated Press
Published: January 1, 2009

TOKYO: Toyota Motor Corp. is secretly developing a vehicle that will be powered solely by solar energy in an effort to turn around its struggling business with a futuristic ecological car, a top business daily reported Thursday.
The Nikkei newspaper, however, said it will be years before the planned vehicle will be available on the market. Toyota's offices were closed Thursday and officials were not immediately available for comment.
According to The Nikkei, Toyota is working on an electric vehicle that will get some of its power from solar cells equipped on the vehicle, and that can be recharged with electricity generated from solar panels on the roofs of homes. The automaker later hopes to develop a model totally powered by solar cells on the vehicle, the newspaper said without citing sources.
The solar car is part of efforts by Japan's top automaker to grow during hard times, The Nikkei said.
In December, Toyota stunned the nation by announcing it will slip into its first operating loss in 70 years, as it gets battered by a global slump, especially in the key U.S. market. The surging yen has also hurt the earnings of Japanese automakers.

Still, Toyota is a leader in green technology and executives have stressed they won't cut back on environmental research despite its troubles.
Toyota, the manufacturer of the Lexus luxury car and Camry sedan, has already begun using solar panels at its Tsutsumi plant in central Japan to produce some of its own electricity.
The solar panels on the roofs add up in size to the equivalent of 60 tennis courts and produce enough electricity to power 500 homes, according to Toyota. That reduces 740 tons a year of carbon dioxide emissions and is equal to using 1,500 barrels of crude oil.
Toyota is also likely to indirectly gain expertise in solar energy when its partner in developing and producing hybrid batteries, Panasonic Corp., takes over Japanese rival Sanyo Electric Co., a leader in solar energy, early next year.

Ford hybrid emphasizes high mileage

By Bill Vlasic
Published: January 1, 2009

DETROIT: With gas prices below $2 a gallon, it would seem an inopportune time for Ford Motor to introduce a hybrid sedan.
But at 41 miles per gallon, or 17.4 kilometers per liter, in city driving and 36 miles per gallon on the highway, Ford is confident that its Fusion Hybrid will make an impression in the marketplace.
"The mileage is a real grabber to the customer," said Mark Fields, president of Ford's Americas division.
The midsize Fusion sedan is Ford's strongest effort yet to break the dominance of Japanese automakers in hybrid passenger cars. The Fusion's mileage beats the 33 miles per gallon in the city and 34 miles on highways of the Camry hybrid from Toyota.
And while the Toyota Prius has better mileage, the Fusion is a midsize car rather than a compact like the Prius.

Ford has set a modest sales target of about 25,000 vehicles a year for the Fusion hybrid and the nearly identical Mercury Milan.
Even so, the potential payoff to Ford is not limited to sales in the showroom, said one analyst.
"It's a halo vehicle, but not a halo performance car like a Shelby Mustang or a Corvette," said Erich Merkle of the consulting firm Crowe Horwath in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "This is a green halo vehicle."
Detroit's Big Three came under a barrage of criticism when they went to Washington in November seeking financial help.
The barbs from lawmakers about Detroit's history of poor products were particularly stinging to Ford, which did not ask for immediate government assistance as General Motors and Chrysler did.
Introducing a best-in-class hybrid will help the company prove its competitiveness, said Merkle. "Gas prices are low, but when you look at the political environment, this car couldn't have come at a better time," he said.
Still, the Fusion will face certain challenges.
Consumers have flocked to the Prius partly because it does not share its design with any other Toyota models. The distinctive look of the Prius is a rolling advertisement for the fuel-conscious owner.
Also, hybrid versions of larger cars and sport utility vehicles have yet to catch on in a meaningful way in the market.
Fields said the Fusion's capabilities should more than make up for its mainstream looks.
The Fusion will be adorned with small "road and leaf" badges that establish its green credentials, but in an understated way.
"Our approach is not to make a hybrid vehicle that looks Nascar in terms of the badges on it," he said. "We want it to make a statement with its value to the customer."
The Fusion Hybrid will go on sale in the spring with a price tag of about $27,000, Fields said. That compares favorably with hybrid versions of the Camry and GM's Chevrolet Malibu.
The Fusion, however, beats both on fuel-economy ratings, even though it has a slightly larger gasoline engine.
Ford said the Fusion can travel more than 700 miles on a single tank of gas. It is equipped with a smaller, nickel-metal hydride battery that produces 20 percent more power than the company's previous hybrid system used on the Escape SUV.
"It's a new chemistry that has allowed us to reduce the size of the battery, yet get more power," said Nancy Gioia, director of Ford's hybrid systems program.
The car can reach speeds up to 47 miles per hour strictly in electric-drive mode. "Many people drive on roads with 45 miles-per-hour speed limits, so we think that's the sweet spot for the car," said Gioia.
Ford has also developed a braking system that captures more than 90 percent of the energy normally lost through friction during braking.
Fields said the Fusion hybrid is important to Ford's overall goal of being viewed as a leader in automotive technology, not a follower of foreign competitors. "It's all about bringing innovations to the marketplace, which Ford had done for many years," he said. "For a period of time, we lost that leadership and we want it back."

Climate scientists: it's time for 'Plan B'

Poll of international experts by The Independent reveals consensus that CO2 cuts have failed – and their growing support for technological intervention
By Steve Connor, Science Editor and Chris GreenFriday, 2 January 2009

An emergency "Plan B" using the latest technology is needed to save the world from dangerous climate change, according to a poll of leading scientists carried out by The Independent. The collective international failure to curb the growing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has meant that an alternative to merely curbing emissions may become necessary.
The plan would involve highly controversial proposals to lower global temperatures artificially through daringly ambitious schemes that either reduce sunlight levels by man-made means or take CO2 out of the air. This "geoengineering" approach – including schemes such as fertilising the oceans with iron to stimulate algal blooms – would have been dismissed as a distraction a few years ago but is now being seen by the majority of scientists we surveyed as a viable emergency backup plan that could save the planet from the worst effects of climate change, at least until deep cuts are made in CO2 emissions.
What has worried many of the experts, who include recognised authorities from the world's leading universities and research institutes, as well as a Nobel Laureate, is the failure to curb global greenhouse gas emissions through international agreements, namely the Kyoto Treaty, and recent studies indicating that the Earth's natural carbon "sinks" are becoming less efficient at absorbing man-made CO2 from the atmosphere.
Levels of CO2 have continued to increase during the past decade since the treaty was agreed and they are now rising faster than even the worst-case scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body. In the meantime the natural absorption of CO2 by the world's forests and oceans has decreased significantly. Most of the scientists we polled agreed that the failure to curb emissions of CO2, which are increasing at a rate of 1 per cent a year, has created the need for an emergency "plan B" involving research, development and possible implementation of a worldwide geoengineering strategy.
Just over half – 54 per cent – of the 80 international specialists in climate science who took part in our survey agreed that the situation is now so dire that we need a backup plan that involves the artificial manipulation of the global climate to counter the effects of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. About 35 per cent of respondents disagreed with the need for a "plan B", arguing that it would distract from the main objective of cutting CO2 emissions, with the remaining 11 per cent saying that they did not know whether a geoengineering strategy is needed or not.
Almost everyone who thought that geoengineering should be studied as a possible plan B said that it must not be seen as an alternative to international agreements on cutting carbon emissions but something that runs in parallel to binding treaties in case climate change runs out of control and there an urgent need to cool the planet quickly.
Geoengineering was dismissed as a distraction a few years ago but it has recently become a serious topic of research. Next summer, for example, the Royal Society, in London, is due to publish a report on the subject, led by Professor John Shepherd of the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton University. Professor Shepherd was one of the scientists who said that a plan B was needed because he was now less optimistic about the prospects of curbing CO2 levels since Kyoto was agreed, and less optimistic about the ability of the Earth's climate system to cope with the expected CO2 increases. "Geoengineering options... must not be allowed to detract from efforts to reduce CO2 emissions directly," said Professor Shepherd, who studies the interaction between the climate and oceans. In answer to the question of whether scientists were more optimistic or less optimistic about the ability of the climate system to cope with increases in man-made CO2 without dangerous climate change, just one out of the 80 respondents to our survey was more optimistic, 72 per cent were less optimistic, and 23 per cent felt about the same.
Professor James Lovelock, a geo-scientist and author of the Gaia hypothesis, in which the Earth is a quasi-living organism, is one of those who is less optimistic. He believes that a plan B is urgently needed. "I never thought that the Kyoto agreement would lead to any useful cut back in greenhouse gas emissions so I am neither more nor less optimistic now about prospect of curbing CO2 compared to 10 years ago. I am, however, less optimistic now about the ability of the Earth's climate system to cope with expected increases in atmospheric carbon levels compared with 10 years ago," he told The Independent. "I strongly agree that we now need a 'plan B' where a geoengineering strategy is drawn up in parallel with other measures to curb CO2 emissions."
Among those who oppose geoengineering is Professor David Archer, a geophysicist at Chicago University and expert on ocean chemistry. "Carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere will continue to affect climate for many millennia," he said. "Relying on geoengineering schemes such as sulphate aerosols would be analogous to putting the planet on life support. If future humanity failed to pay its 'climate bill' – a bill that we left them, thank you very much – they would bear the full brunt of climate change within a very short time."
Gummer set for green role
The former Tory cabinet member who publicly fed his daughter a beefburger during the outbreak of so-called "mad cow disease" is in line for a leading role in helping the Government fight against global warming, writes Nigel Morris.
John Gummer, who served as Environment Secretary in the previous Conservative government, has been shortlisted for the post of chairman of the Committee on Climate Change. He is one of three candidates being discussed in Whitehall to succeed Baron Turner of Ecchinswell. The others are Rachel Lomax, a former Treasury official who has recently retired as a deputy governor of the Bank of England, and Sir John Harman, former chairman of the Environment Agency.
Mr Gummer, 69, has been a Conservative activist for almost half a century and has spent 34 years as an MP. He represents the safe seat of Suffolk Coastal. A 16-year spell in government culminated with his promotion by John Major to Environment Secretary, when he was regarded as a pioneering minister, introducing the landfill tax and the fuel-price escalator.
Mr Gummer said last night he knew nothing about the vacant post.
Fixing the planet Could technology help save the world?
Injecting the air with particles to reflect sunlight
Volcanic eruptions release huge amounts of sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere, where they reflect sunlight. After Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, sulphates reflected enough sunlight to cool the Earth by 0.5C for a year or two. The Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen suggested in 2006 that it may be possible to inject artificial sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere – the stratosphere. However, the idea does not address ocean acidification caused by rising CO2 levels. There may be side-effects such as acid rain and adverse effects on agriculture.
Creating low clouds over the oceans
Another variation on the theme of increasing the Earth's albedo, or reflectivity to sunlight, is to pump water vapour into the air to stimulate cloud formation over the sea. John Latham of the United States National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado is working with Stephen Salter of Edinburgh University and Mike Smith at Leeds to atomise seawater to produce tiny droplets to form low-level maritime clouds that cover part of the oceanic surface. The only raw material is seawater and the process can be quickly turned off. The cloud cover would only affect the oceans, but still lower global temperatures.
Fertilising the sea with iron filings
This idea arises from the fact that the limiting factor in the multiplication of phytoplankton – tiny marine plants – is the lack of iron salts in the sea. When scientists add iron to "dead" areas of the sea, the result is a phytoplankton bloom which absorbs CO2. The hope is that carbon taken up by the microscopic plants will sink to deep layers of the ocean, and be taken out of circulation. Experiments support the idea, but blooms may be eaten by animals so carbon returns to the atmosphere as CO2.
Mixing the deep water of the ocean
The Earth scientist James Lovelock, working with Chris Rapley of the Science Museum in London, devised a plan to put giant tubes into the seas to take surface water rich in dissolved CO2 to lower depths where it will not surface. The idea is to take CO2 out of the short-term carbon cycle, cutting the gas in the atmosphere. Critics say it may bring carbon locked away in the deep ocean to the surface.
Giant mirrors in space
Some scientists suggest it would be possible to deflect sunlight with a giant mirror or a fleet of small mirrors between the Earth and the Sun. The scheme would be costly and prompt debate over who controls it. Many scientists see it as contrary to the idea of working with the Earth's systems.

Greenhouse gases could have caused an ice age, claim scientists

Filling the atmosphere with Greenhouse gases associated with global warming could push the planet into a new ice age, scientists have warned.

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent Last Updated: 6:51PM GMT 01 Jan 2009

Researchers at the University of Birmingham found that 630 million years ago the earth had a warm atmosphere full of carbon dioxide but was completely covered with ice.
The scientists studied limestone rocks and found evidence that large amounts of greenhouse gas coincided with a prolonged period of freezing temperatures.
Such glaciation could happen again if global warming is not curbed, the university's school of geography, earth and environmental sciences warned.
While pollution in the air is thought to trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up, this new research suggests it could also have the opposite effect reflecting rays back into space.
This effect would be magnified by other forms of pollution in the earth's atmosphere such as particles of sulphate pumped into the air through industrial pollution or volcanic activity and could create ice age conditions once more, the scientists said.
Dr Ian Fairchild, lead investigator, said: "We came up with an independent test of a theory that the earth, like a baked Alaska pudding, was once hot on the outside, surrounding a cold, icy surface.
"It happened naturally in the past, but the wrong use of technology could make it happen again."
The limestones studied were collected in Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, which is covered in ice and snow.

Nasa climate expert makes personal appeal to Obama

James Randerson, science correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 2 January 2009

One of the world's top climate scientists has written a personal new year appeal to Barack and Michelle Obama, warning of the "profound disconnect" between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem.
With less than three weeks to go until Obama's inauguration, Professor James Hansen, who heads Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, asked the recently appointed White House science adviser Professor John Holdren to pass the missive directly to the president-elect.
In it, he praises Obama's campaign rhetoric about "a planet in peril", but says that how the new president acts in office will be crucial. Hansen lambasts the current international approach of setting targets through "cap and trade" schemes as not up to the task. "This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity," the letter from Hansen and his wife, Anniek, reads.
The letter will make uncomfortable reading for officials in 10 US states whose cap and trade mechanism - the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - got under way yesterday. The scheme is the first mandatory, market-based greenhouse gas reduction programme in the US.
Hansen advocates a three-pronged attack on the climate problem. First, he wants a phasing out of coal-fired power stations - which he calls "factories of death" - that do not incorporate carbon capture. "Nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground. Caps will not cause that to happen - caps only slow the rate at which the oil and gas are used. The only solution is to cut off the coal source," the Hansens wrote.
Second, he proposes a "carbon tax and 100% dividend". This is a mechanism for putting a price on carbon without raising money for government coffers. The idea is to tax carbon at source, then redistribute the revenue equally among taxpayers, so that high carbon users are penalised while low carbon users are rewarded.
Finally, he urges a renewed research effort into so-called fourth generation nuclear plants, which can use nuclear waste as fuel.
Hansen argues that the current emphasis on reduction targets combined with carbon trading schemes make it too easy for countries to wriggle out of their commitments. He cites the example of Japan's increasing coal use, which it has offset by buying credits from China through the clean development mechanism - an instrument set up by the Kyoto protocol - yet China's emissions have continued to increase rapidly. China has overtaken the US as the biggest polluter in the world.
Hansen has been one of the most prominent advocates of action to tackle climate change since he first spoke on the issue in the 1980s. His testimony to the Senate featured in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and he has received numerous honours for his work on the issue, including the WWF's top conservation award.
Professor's wish list
• Moratorium on and phasing out of coal power stations without carbon capture, what Hansen calls the "sine qua non for solving the climate problem". Coal CO2 emissions are the same as those of other fossil fuels combined.
• Raising the price of emissions via a "carbon tax and 100% dividend". This is a tax mechanism to "decarbonise" the economy without a net take from taxpayers. Low carbon users are rewarded while high users are punished.
• Urgent research on "fourth generation" nuclear power with international co-operation. This offers one of the best options for nearly carbon-free power, according to Hansen. It would also help to solve the nuclear waste problem by using that material as fuel.

Climate change policies failing, Nasa scientist warns Obama

Award-winning researcher James Hansen says new president's rhetoric must be backed by action
James Randerson, science correspondent, Thursday 1 January 2009 15.23 GMT

Current approaches to deal with climate change are ineffectual, one of the world's top climate scientists said today in a personal new year appeal to Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on the urgent need to tackle global warming.
With less than three weeks to go until Obama's inauguration, Prof James Hansen, head of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, asked the recently appointed White House science adviser Prof John Holdren to pass the missive directly to the president-elect.
Obama spoke repeatedly during his campaign about the need to tackle climate change, and environmentalists fervently hope he will live up to his promises to pursue green policies.
The letter, from Hansen and his wife Anniek, is a personal plea to the first couple. It begins: "We write to you as fellow parents concerned about the Earth that will be inherited by our children, grandchildren, and those yet to be born … Jim has advised governments previously through regular channels. But urgency now dictates a personal appeal."
In a covering letter to Holdren, Hansen explains that he wrote the letter a few weeks ago while in London. His wife had suffered a heart attack ("fortunately we were near a very good hospital") and while they waited for doctors to give the go-ahead to fly back to the US he decided to compose his petition to the new first family.
Hansen has been one of the most prominent advocates of action to tackle climate change since he first spoke on the issue at congressional hearings in the 1980s. His testimony to the senate featured in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and he has received numerous honours for his work on the issue, including the WWF's top conservation award.
Hansen wrote that there is a "profound disconnect" between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem as described by the science. He praised Obama's campaign rhetoric about "a planet in peril", but said that how the new president responds in office will be crucial. The letter contains a wish list of three policy measures to tackle global warming.
Hansen lambasts the current international approach of setting targets to be met through "cap and trade" schemes as not up to the task. "This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity," the Hansens wrote.
The letter will make uncomfortable reading for officials in 10 north-eastern and middle–Atlantic states whose carbon cap and trade mechanism – the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – got under way today. The scheme is the first mandatory, market-based greenhouse gas reduction programme in the US and it aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 10% by 2018.
Hansen advocates a three-pronged attack on the climate problem – all measures he has promoted before. First, he wants a moratorium and phase-out of coal-fired power stations – which he calls "factories of death" – that do not incorporate carbon capture and storage.
"Coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as the other fossil fuels combined, and its reserves make coal even more important for the long run," the Hansens wrote.
Second, he proposes a "carbon tax and 100% dividend": a mechanism for putting a price on carbon without raising money for government coffers. The idea is to tax carbon at source, then redistribute the revenue equally among taxpayers, so high carbon users are penalised while low carbon users are rewarded.
Finally, Hansen wants a renewed research effort into so-called fourth generation nuclear plants, which can use nuclear waste as fuel. "In our opinion [fourth generation nuclear power] deserves your strong support, because it has the potential to help solve past problems with nuclear power: nuclear waste, the need to mine for nuclear fuel, and release of radioactive material."
Hansen argues that the current emphasis on reduction targets combined with carbon trading schemes make it too easy for countries to wriggle out of their commitments. He cites the example of Japan's increasing coal use – the dirtiest fuel in terms of carbon emissions. To offset these increases in emissions Japan has bought credits from China through the clean development mechanism – an instrument set up by the Kyoto protocol – yet China's emissions have continued to increase rapidly. China has now overtaken the US as the biggest polluter in the world.
"Nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground. Caps will not cause that to happen – caps only slow the rate at which the oil and gas are used. The only solution is to cut off the coal source," the Hansens wrote.

The Warming Earth Blows Hot, Cold and Chaotic

Subtle Rises in Temperature Make for Wild Weather; 'Exceptionally Unusual' Becomes the New Normal

SAN FRANCISCO -- Three independent research groups have concluded that 2008 was a comparatively cool year on planet Earth -- a feverish chill on our warming world.
The year's average global temperature was the 9th or 10th warmest since reliable record-keeping began in 1850, and the coldest since the turn of the 21st century, according to separate surveys by the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and the U.S. National Climatic Data Center. Each used slightly different methods to rank 2008 based on world-wide land and sea-surface temperatures through November.
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The U.S. Climate Change Science Program analyzed North America's climate records for the last 56 years in "Reanalysis of Historical Climate Data for Key Atmospheric Features: Implications for Attribution of Causes of Observed Change" and found the yearly average temperature for the continent increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
The program's researchers also assessed the chances of catastrophic climate changes during the next century in "Abrupt Climate Change," released last month.
The past year through was the coolest year since 2000, says the 2008 Meteorological Year Summation by NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies. The U.S. National Climatic Data Center said the year 2008 is on track to be one of the ten warmest years on record for the globe.
The World Meteorological Organization said 2008 is likely to rank as the 10th warmest year on record since the beginning of its instrumental climate records in 1850.
For the time being, no one knows whether this temperature drop heralds a lasting retreat from global warming or a temporary dip. Last summer was relatively cool world-wide, for example, while global land temperatures in October were the warmest for that month in more than a century, government weather records show. Taken together, the result was a year that ran slightly less than one degree warmer than the 20th century mean.
In matters of climate, the unusual is becoming routine, as higher temperatures make weather patterns more unstable. "As a result of climate change," says Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring at the U.K.'s Hadley Center, which helped prepare the U.N. figures, "what would have once been an exceptionally unusual year has now become quite normal."
Despite the ups and downs of annual temperature swings, though, the planet has grown steadily warmer in recent decades, affecting everything from New England winters and the Siberian spring to western droughts and tropical cloud cover. That's according to eight new government and university climate studies presented last month during a meeting in San Francisco of the American Geophysical Union, an international scientific society of 50,000 researchers who study Earth and its environment.
Moreover, almost all of the warming in North America has taken place since 1970, says a team of government and academic experts at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
Looking beyond the variations of any single year, these studies chronicle growing evidence of climate changes and suggest the effects of rising temperatures are accelerating.
"I do believe we are entering a new state," says arctic researcher Julienne Stroeve at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. "Ice loss is happening faster than the climate models are showing."
Since 2003, for instance, more than two trillion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted, adding enough water to oceans to raise global sea level by one-fifth of an inch, NASA geophysicists reported at the conference.
Alaska's low-lying ice fields are disappearing at two to three times the rate of a decade ago, according to aerial surveys by researchers at the University of Alaska. Since 2000, Greenland alone has lost 355.4 square miles of ice -- an area 10 times the size of Manhattan -- Ohio State University researchers reported. Using data from two NASA satellites, they determined that Greenland's 32 largest glaciers lost three times as much ice last year as the year before.
"I wouldn't run for the hills," says glacier analyst Eric Rignot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "But it might be time to start walking."
In another sign of polar thaw, researchers have detected new seeps of methane bubbling up from formerly frozen seafloor lodes along the Siberian coast. Methane, like carbon dioxide, is a potent greenhouse gas that helps trap heat in the atmosphere and could accelerate any warming trend. "We have enough data to worry," says Igor Semiletov at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who reported the methane leaks.
Warming temperatures also are influencing more temperate latitudes, several recent studies show.
By analyzing five years worth of infrared measurements from NASA's Aqua satellite, JPL researchers found that high-altitude tropical storm and rain clouds are increasing. At the present rate of warming, the scientists reported last month, tropical storms can be expected to increase by 6% every 10 years.
Last year, the Atlantic hurricane season was the fourth most active in 64 years and the first to have a major hurricane in each month from July through November, according to federal meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There also were 1,700 tornadoes catalogued in the U.S. from January through November, ranking last year just behind 2004 for the most twisters recorded in a year. The tornado records date back to 1953.
The 2008 storm season across most tropical cyclone regions, however, was slightly below average, NOAA records show.
All in all, solar heat is the energy that drives the world's weather, and rising levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are allowing more of that energy to build up in the atmosphere every year, experts say.
Overall, the world's atmosphere warmed by 0.72 degrees Fahrenheit during the past 30 years, according to a comprehensive analysis of monthly satellite temperature readings by John Christy, head of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, which was released last month.
But on the hot plate of planet Earth, that warming isn't evenly distributed. Changing sea ice, ocean currents and winds mute or accelerate regional temperatures changes by redistributing the heat in the atmosphere.
A quarter of the globe warmed at least one full degree Fahrenheit since the satellite readings started in 1978. The warming was most pronounced in northern latitudes. A few isolated areas in Antarctica actually cooled by at least half of one degree Fahrenheit.
Across North America, such regional variation is the norm, say experts at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. They analyzed the continent's climate records for the last 56 years and, in a report released last month, showed that some regional temperatures rose sharply, and others showed no change at all. The yearly average temperature for the entire continent increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Across the northern reaches of Alaska, the Yukon territories and Alberta and Saskatchewan, average annual temperatures increased up to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, they reported. But there were no significant yearly average temperature changes in the southern U.S. or eastern Canada.
In New England, rising temperatures have taken some of the chill out of winter.
After analyzing 40 years of wintertime data, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that seasonal temperatures in the northeastern U.S. had risen about 0.42 degrees Celsius per decade, from 1965 through 2005.
The warming was most pronounced in the region's coldest months of January and February, they reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres. The number of snow days each winter dropped at a rate of 8.9 days per decade and annual snowfall decreased by about 1.8 inches per decade, the researchers reported.
So many subtle changes in so many different places, building up decade after decade, add up to something more than the weather's natural variation.
To a seasoned eye, day-to-day weather patterns now seem chaotic. Among the Inuit of the eastern Canadian Arctic, University of Colorado researchers reported last month, many elders are no longer willing to trust their forecasting skills, honed by a life in the field, to guide local hunting parties and travelers.

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