Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Perfect storm of environmental and economic collapse closer than you think

Green measures have to be at the heart of any financial rescue packages if we are to avoid catastrophe

Jonathon Porritt
guardian.co.uk, Monday 23 March 2009 15.30 GMT

A "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water and high-cost energy will hit the global economy before 2030, said the government's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, last week. Factor in accelerating climate change and this lethal cocktail leads to public unrest, cross-border conflict and mass migration – in other words, an economic and political collapse that will make today's economic recession seem very tame indeed. But though I totally agree with John Beddington's analysis, I think he's got the timing wrong. This "perfect storm" will hit much closer to 2020 than 2030.
It may seem inappropriate – callous even, with unemployment at the two million mark in the UK – to be inviting people to get worked up about some possible economic collapse in the future. But if we are to avoid that ultimate recession, from which there will be no conventional recovery in a normal boom-and-bust cycle, then we have to start thinking about today's recession in a completely different way. Both in terms of our analysis of underlying causes and appropriate remedies.
On the analysis front, people seem blind to the fact that the causes of the economic collapse are exactly the same as those behind today's ecological crisis – and behind accelerating climate change in particular. As Adair Turner's first report as chair of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) demonstrates, the neo-liberal obsession with deregulation has done untold damage to capital markets. But people should understand that the same deregulatory fervour has caused untold damage to the natural environment, all around the world, for the past 20 years or more.
It's exactly the same when one looks at the unholy trinity that has made today's capital markets so spuriously dynamic: mispricing of risk, misallocation of capital, and misalignment of incentives. Catastrophic impacts on markets; catastrophic impacts on the environment.
And then there's the debt issue. Governments have systematically stoked up levels of personal and national debt (including insane asset bubbles in housing, land and property) explicitly to force-feed high levels of economic growth. We will all be paying off those financial debts for decades to come.
On the environment front, as our financial debts have built up, so have our debts to nature – in terms of the unsustainable depletion of natural resources, measured by the loss of topsoil, forests, fresh water and biodiversity. Everybody knows that liquidating capital assets to fuel consumption is crazy but nobody seems to know how to stop it.
There is a simple conclusion here: the self-same abuses of debt-driven "casino capitalism" that have caused the global economy to collapse are what lie behind the impending collapse of the life-support systems on which we all ultimately depend.
As regards appropriate remedies, the link between today's recession and the perfect storm that awaits us in 2020/30 couldn't be clearer: sort out today's calamity by investing in infrastructure and technologies to help avoid tomorrow's infinitely worse calamity. In other words, a massive "green recovery package" along the lines we are now seeing in the US, South Korea and other European countries, focusing on energy efficiency, renewables, smart energy grids, new transportation solutions and so on.
The government is sort of interested in this, with lots of very eloquent words about a new low-carbon industrial strategy. But as the Sustainable Development Commission has pointed out, the percentage of the total recovery-based expenditure devoted in the UK to this kind of "sustainable new deal" to date is derisory. It's about 7% as opposed to 80% in South Korea, for instance. We simply have to ensure that the unsustainable elements in today's recovery package (such as the useless VAT giveaway) do not overwhelm the low-carbon, sustainable elements.
But the commission has gone even further than this by raising the whole issue of economic growth. Is it possible to avoid the "ultimate recession" if all we are doing is trying to get back as fast as possible to the same old "economic growth at all costs"? In a report to be published next week (provocatively entitled Prosperity without growth?), the SDC urges politicians of all parties to get serious about the very real limits to growth we're running up against today – both social and environmental.
Politicians serve us ill by disconnecting their policies for economic recovery from what has to happen very urgently indeed if we are to avoid the horrors of accelerating climate change and the kind of "perfect storm" that the chief scientific adviser is flagging up as inevitable – unless we fundamentally change the rules of the growth game.
• Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and author of Living Within Our Means: Avoiding the Ultimate Recession. He is also chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

Nano: Green claims don’t wash with environmentalists

The Times
March 24, 2009
Rhys Blakely: Analysis

Can the environment afford the world’s cheapest car?
Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Motors, extolled the Nano’s green credentials yesterday – in particular its adherence to European emissions standards and that it pumps out less CO2 than many motorcycles.
He also said that nobody knew whether new Nanos coming on to the roads would add to the volume of traffic that gridlocks India’s cities, or whether they would replace older, dirtier vehicles.
The green lobby has little time for such nuances, however, and will be horrified by Mr Tata’s prediction that the Nano could eventually sell a million units a year in the sub-continent. Critics say there is little innovative about the Nano’s tiny, two-cylinder 623cc engine. What the environment needs is a step change in technology, they argue: fuel cell-powered cars and the like.

Meanwhile, a recent report suggested that the Nano could increase the Indian car market by 60 per cent. India’s efforts to expand its dilapidated highway system may be adding about 100km (60 miles) of new road a day, but it is hard to believe that such an increase in vehicle numbers will not equate to chronic congestion.
The situation is already desperate: the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment claims that more than half of India’s cities are fogged by “critical levels” of pollution. The centre is particularly critical of the generous state aid that the Nano project has won. It points out that personal vehicles – cars and two-wheelers – use up more than 75 per cent of the road space in Delhi, but meet only 20 per cent of the city’s commuting demand. “Our cities don’t need more cars,” the environmentalists said. “They need better public transport.”

Greener appeal helps clean up

By Jonathan Birchall
Published: March 24 2009 02:00

US households are continuing to pay more for "green", environmentally friendly household products, defying a broad trend of shoppers "trading down" to lower priced goods and retailers' own-label brands.
Seventh Generation, a small Vermont-based household products company, said it was expecting sales growth of about 25 per cent this year, while Method, a California-based rival, said it was also seeing continued strong growth.
"What you are seeing is that the only growth in the category is coming from the green segment," said Adam Lowry, who co-founded Method in 2000.
Clorox, the first large consumer company to start a "green" cleaning product, said that its Green Works brand had been a significant contributor to its homecare sales growth since its launch in January last year.
"We have not seen a meaningful slowdown in consumption growth of our green cleaning products despite the challenging economy," said Deb Witmer, a Clorox spokeswoman.
Green Works sells for 10 per cent more than lowest-cost conventional cleaners. Seventh Generation's equivalent bottle is about 15 per cent more expensive, while Method's Pink Grapefruit cleaner is about 25 per cent more expensive.
SC Johnson also entered the market last year with "natural" versions of its Windex cleaners. Hain Celestial, known for its organic and natural food brands, is also planning to launch a new line of green cleaners later this year.
The previously dramatic growth rates in the category as a whole have slowed, with IRI, the consumer products data company, reporting 30.8 per cent growth in the green cleaning category over the past 12 weeks, against the rates of 80 per cent reported last year.
US organic food sales are also still rising, but growth rates have slowed sharply, with Nielsen reporting annualised sales growth of just 5.6 per cent in December, down from about 25 per cent a year earlier.
The continued growth in green products is being supported by expansion into mainstream grocers and discounters, rather than in the traditional natural and organic retailers, as consumers shift shopping to lower-cost stores. Whole Foods Market, the grocer that has driven the expansion of several green product categories, reported its first ever decline in comparable sales in its most recent quarter.
Mr Lowry says Method is supported by "consumer advocates that subscribe not just to the fact that the products work great and smell great, but that they do a little bit of good along the way".
Jeffrey Hollender, chief executive of Seventh Generation, says recent economic turmoil may have reinforced the appeal of his company's commitment to environmental and social standards.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Siemens expects boost to green sales

By Daniel Schäfer in Frankfurt
Published: March 23 2009 18:50

Siemens, on Monday, said it expected a boost to its plans to increase the share of “green product” sales, thanks to worldwide government programmes which are designed to mitigate the global recession.
Peter Löscher, chief executive, told the Financial Times that Europe’s largest engineering group expected to get a stimulus for such products from various state-sponsored schemes.

“One thing is crystal clear: even during the crisis we will substantially increase the share of our sales which are attributable to green technologies,” Mr Löscher said.
Siemens’ “green products” – which have often been criticised by climate experts for not always being environmentally friendly – comprise a slew of diverse goods ranging from energy-efficient lights to trains and gas turbines.
Governments around the world are using large chunks of their stimulus programmes to invest in a “green” modernisation of their infrastructure.
Barack Obama, US president, has made this one of his major political aims, and China is dedicating one-fourth of its sizable stimulus plan to scale up renewable fuels, environmental protection and energy conservation.
Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, recently called for a “green new deal” to counter the worldwide recession and global warming at the same time.
Mr Löscher will meet Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German economics minister, on Tuesday in Berlin to discuss ways to tackle climate change amid the recession.
He said Siemens would stick to its target to increase sales in its green product portfolio from €19bn ($23bn) in the past year to €25bn in 2011, even in the light of the drastic worldwide recession that has started to hit the group’s order inflow in the last quarter.
“On the one hand, our target is more ambitious in the current economic environment,” Mr Löscher said.
“But on the other, Siemens will get a stimulus from the infrastructure programmes being launched.”
Last week, Siemens announced that it would build another 100 high-speed trains for China in a contract worth €750m.
In January, the group said it would adhere to its full-year forecast of an operating profit of €8bn-€8.5bn, thanks largely to infrastructure programmes.
Analysts and investors have nervously looked for signs that Siemens’ energy sector could be hit by order cancellations in the wake of the credit crisis.
Wolfgang Dehen, head of the energy sector, dismissed this recently when he said there had been no such cancellations or postponements.
Siemens first spelled out its green product portfolio in 2008, after years during which US rival General Electric had successfully marketed its “Ecomagination” programme.
Last year, GE made €13bn in green sales, compared with Siemens’ €19bn and Philips’ €6bn.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Drought Turns Water Into a Cash Crop


As Don Bransford prepares for his spring planting season, he is debating which is worth more: the rice he grows on his 700-acre farm north of Sacramento, or the water he uses to cultivate it.
After three years of drought in California, water is now a potential cash crop. Last fall, the state activated its Drought Water Bank program for the first time since 1994. Under the program, farmers can choose to sell some of the water they would usually use to grow their crops to parched cities, counties and agriculture districts.

Water -- or the lack of it -- has been costing the state dearly. According to Richard Howitt, a professor at the University of California, Davis, the drought and resulting water restrictions could cost as much as $1.4 billion in lost income and about 53,000 lost jobs, mostly in the agriculture sector.
In the water market, demand is already outstripping supply. Water agencies, worried about being left high and dry in the hot summer months, are expected to request at least twice the amount of water as the bank will have to sell.
"The state is offering about $275 per acre-foot of water, which is a reasonable deal," said Mr. Bransford, who has been growing rice for 29 years. An acre-foot, equal to slightly less than 326,000 gallons, is roughly the amount two suburban households consume in a year. He is considering taking 100 acres out of cultivation and selling the water he would have used to irrigate it to the state water bank. It is a move that could bring him roughly $90,000.
As water has grown scarce, cities have tried to spur conservation by increasing the price to consumers. Last Tuesday, the Los Angeles water utility agreed to raise rates on consumers who fail to reduce their water usage by 15%. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suggested earlier this year that Angelenos begin using lawn sprinklers only twice a week.
For farmers such as Mr. Bransford, figuring how much to plant and how much water to sell is a tricky calculation. Last year, with the price of medium-grain rice at record highs, farmers were eager to grow as much as they could. Prices haven't been set this year, but will likely remain high.
In addition, the water bank is still wending its way through a complicated approval process from state and federal agencies. The bank can't formally open for business until those kinks get worked out. If the approvals don't happen soon, farmers like Mr. Bransford will have no choice but to plant their crops instead of selling their water.

A speed buoy is seen in the shallow waters of Folsom Lake in California. Under a state program, farmers can choose to sell some of the water they would usually use to grow their crops to parched cities, counties and agriculture districts.

"We're going to make it happen," said a federal official involved in the process, while declining to specify when.
Though a series of powerful storms in the past few months have brought rain and snow, the statewide snow pack is at 88% of normal and many major state reservoirs remain only about half full. Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought emergency.
"The situation is a lot more favorable now than it was a few weeks ago, but we don't know what the rest of the spring is going to look like," said Debra Man, assistant general manager and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 26 Southern California cities, including Los Angeles. Her agency has been authorized to purchase up to 300,000 acre-feet of water from the state. That was intended as a safeguard so her region would have "water in the bank," she said.
Ms. Man said the drought has forced her agency to secure water earlier than usual, reconfigure various water lines and spread the word about conservation. "Last year we took steps to have a very aggressive outreach plan to educate consumers to get ready, because things are getting serious."
Drawing from the water bank, however, is no mean feat. Moving water from the verdant northern part of the state to the dry south requires navigating myriad state, federal and local regulations, environmental concerns and the availability of pumping stations.
"The state has been working with exporters since last October trying to develop an agreement on how to get this done, but we're still mired in a regulatory morass," said Mr. Bransford, the rice farmer.
State officials said the water bank is a crucial tool to ensure adequate supplies into the dry summer and fall months. "We have to make sure we have the proper coordination for water and health and safety needs, and we want to ensure that communities with those critical needs will have access to water," said Lester Snow, director of the state's Department of Water Resources.
Write to Peter Sanders at peter.sanders@wsj.com

RSPB calls for more wind farms in bid to counter global warming

Published Date: 24 March 2009
By Emily Beament

THE RSPB yesterday called for a large increase in the number of onshore wind farms, after a report said far more could be built without damaging wildlife.
The conservation charity said climate change threatened many species with extinction, and there was an urgent need for renewable energy to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.But despite the UK's "abundant" natural wind resources, it is lagging behind other European countries, with wind turbines providing just 2 per cent of the country's energy needs in 2007. The government must step in to provide a clear lead on developing wind farms more quickly without damaging wildlife or alienating communities, the RSPB urged.A report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy said that the UK was far behind countries such as Denmark, where wind meets 29 per cent of demand; Spain, where it accounts for a fifth of power needs; and Germany, where it meets 15 per cent of demand.The report for the RSPB, which compared the UK with those other countries, said an effective planning system could ratchet up the number of wind farms. Ruth Davis, head of climate change policy at the RSPB, said: "This report shows that if we get it right, the UK can produce huge amounts of clean energy without time-consuming conflicts and harm to our wildlife. But get it wrong and people may reject wind power."

Opposing wind farms should be socially taboo, says Ed Miliband

Allegra Stratton, political correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 24 March 2009

Opposition to wind farms should become as socially unacceptable as failing to wear a seatbelt, Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, has said.
Speaking at a screening in London of the climate change documentary The Age of Stupid, Miliband said the government needed to be stronger in facing down local opposition to wind farms.
He said: "The government needs to be saying, 'It is socially unacceptable to be against wind turbines in your area - like not wearing your seatbelt or driving past a zebra crossing'."
Wind power is crucial to government attempts to meet an EU target of producing 20% of all energy through renewables by 2020, but plans to build some 4,000 onshore wind turbines are being opposed by more than 200 anti-wind farm groups. High-profile individuals such as Melvyn Bragg, mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington and David Bellamy have also been involved in stopping the construction of turbines. Residents are concerned about the detrimental effect on their landscape - wind turbines are located on hills for maximum exposure - noise levels and disturbance to TV reception. Campaigners also point out that the irregularity of wind-power generation requires the turbines to be backed up by nuclear power and coal.
The government has also been criticised by the energy regulator, Ofgem, for the "unfair" way in which consumers' energy bills are subsidising renewable technology.
Though the decision rests with the local authority planning process, opponents say that after June 2008, the new Planning Act will give the government powers to intervene via the newly created infrastructure planning commission (IPC).
Bob Barfoot, Devon chair of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said that while his organisation was not opposed to the principle of wind farms, popular opposition in the last three months had seen two of three proposals fail, pending appeal. Barfoot said the new act - which could see the secretary of state able to intervene in unsuccessful attempts - was "undermining democracy".
Miliband faces discomfort over the new Planning Act within the House of Commons. In a recent debate in the Commons, the Tory MP Malcolm Moss questioned whether planning inspectors in the Fens should have been able to overturn local authority planning decisions.
However, Friends of the Earth said fears that the IPC would intervene were unfounded since most proposals were likely to be too small to be reconsidered centrally. Only rejected projects larger than 50 megawatts go to the IPC.

National Grid chief calls for more renewables subsidies

Tim Webb and David Adam
The Guardian, Tuesday 24 March 2009

The government must draw up a masterplan to meet the UK's ambitious targets of providing 15% of the country's power from renewables by 2020, National Grid's chief executive, Steve Holliday, has warned.
As investment in alternative sources of energy dries up because of the credit crunch, Holliday called for more subsidies to make sure enough wind farms and other sources of renewable energy are built in time. He also called for tighter regulation of energy markets, even at the expense of competition.
Analysts estimate that £234bn total investment in energy will be needed by 2025, to be paid for by consumers. Holliday said that reducing energy demand - and bills - was the only way to afford the vast sum. Smart meters installed in homes, for example, can ration electricity supply during peak demand by switching off some appliances for a short period.
But with the cost of capital for developers increasing, National Grid executives are frustrated at what they see as a lack of joined-up thinking and urgency displayed by the government over the 2020 targets. Holliday said: "We should be very worried there is not a masterplan. If you set an aspiration you [should] work out a plan to do this."
This summer the government will publish several policy documents on renewables, how to promote manufacturing of clean energy equipment such as wind turbines, and how to meet the UK's carbon budgets.
But National Grid is concerned that they could prompt another round of consultations, further delaying decisions. The firm is also worried that the election of a Conservative government next summer could lead to a review of any decisions made.
There is a danger, Holliday said, that "we are going to wake up and say we have not got a chance of meeting the target because of the time we have lost".
The government signed up to the EU targets in early 2008, agreeing to source 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020. Over a third of all electricity generated will have to come from renewable sources, up from about 3% today.
A consultation on how to meet this target will be concluded this summer. "Why does it take a whole year?" asked Matthew Lockwood, from the IPPR thinktank. "One of the biggest problems around this area is confusion and people not being clear about what the government is doing. There is a huge vacuum. Announcements are just dribbling out."
He said that the delay over the strategy on how to roll out smart meters was a good example. The government originally intended to announce its decision last May. This was pushed back to November and the industry is still waiting.

Obama pledges billions for renewable energy projects

President says $129bn that has been allocated for environmental plans is off limits to Congress
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Monday 23 March 2009 18.54 GMT

Barack Obama today declared the billions of dollars he is planning to spend on renewable energy projects off-limits to the usual bartering over the next few weeks with Congress.
The president, on the first day of a week-long blitz aimed at selling his ambitious $3tn (£2tn) spending budget, said the $129bn allocated for encouraging the use of solar power, hybrid cars and renewable energy projects would not be subject to any of the usual wheeling and dealing between the White House and Congress.
His pledge on clean energy came as the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) made a potentially historic shift, telling the White House that global warming was endangering public health. It comes after years of resistance by George Bush.
The move by the EPA could lead to nationwide measures to limit carbon emissions in the US.
Defending his planned spending on renewable energy, Obama said: "We can remain the world's leader of exporting foreign oil or become the leading exporter of renewable energy ... we have known the right choice for a generation."
He was speaking after meeting clean energy entrepreneurs at the White House today. Obama told them he hoped they could help the US out of recession by creating 300,000 jobs, end dependency on oil from the Middle East and elsewhere and combat climate change. "At this moment of necessity, we need you," he said.
Republican and Democratic congressional members are growing increasingly sceptical about the scale of Obama's budget and he faces a fight preventing Congress cutting it back, with his energy plans among the most vulnerable measures.
The White House, in a factsheet issued today, said his budget would provide $75bn over the next 10 years to make permanent existing tax cuts for clean energy and that his $787bn economic stimulus package aimed at helping the US out of recession included $39bn for clean energy projects and $20bn in tax incentives.
Jared Bernstein, a White House economics adviser, said Obama was prepared to negotiate details with clean energy entrepreneurs but not with Congress. Bernstein added that the administration was going to stand very firm on clean energy.
Obama is facing opposition to his budget from conservatively fiscal Democrats worried about the size of his spending plans and from Republicans opposed to plans to penalise high pollution companies.
As part of his big sell, Obama is holding a primetime television press conference tomorrow night and is to meet members of Congress on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Today, he pointed to projects involving energy storage, super-efficient engines, cheap solar cells, advanced batteries needed for hybrid cars and microchips that maximise energy savings.
Among projects on show at the White House were a light pipe that brings natural light indoors without consuming electricity and a window company that helps with energy savings. Obama said the latter had re-opened a disused factory in Pennsylvania and was taking on 100 workers.
But the White House could face problems in spending the money put aside to encourage clean energy as many firms in the sector have been laying people off.

Carbon footprint labels should be displayed on new products say MPs

Labels showing a product's carbon footprint should be displayed on goods and services to help consumers tackle climate change, according to an influential committee of MPs

By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent Last Updated: 12:00PM GMT 23 Mar 2009

Some foods are already displaying "carbon reduction labels" alongside the ingredients to show how much of the greenhouse gas was produced in the manufacture of a product.
However a report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said a proliferation of different environmental labels are confusing for consumers and allow companies to appear more eco-friendly than they actually are in a method known as "greenwash"

The committee wants a robustly monitored system of environmental labels to show the impact of each product, including labels showing the carbon emissions produced, so that consumers can make a more informed choice.
Colin Challen, a member of the committee, said it was essential goods display carbon content if consumers are to help the UK meet its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
"Given the challenge we face in decarbonising the economy, the committee believes carbon labelling may prove the single most important environmental measure in promoting behavioural change at home, at work and in business," he said.
Euan Murray, general manager of the Carbon Trust, the Government-backed body in charge of helping business cut greenhouse gases, has been piloting a Carbon Reduction Label with Tesco, Walkers Crisps and Pepsi among other businesses.
"The Carbon Reduction Label means that a company has measured the carbon emissions from every stage of the lifecycle of its product," he said.
"Consumers can then make choices about a product or service, and understand the impact that their decisions will have on climate change. And the UK will make bigger steps towards Government's carbon emission reduction targets as a result."

Woodchips with everything. It's the Atkins plan of the low-carbon world

The latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up; yet many who should know better have been suckered into it

George Monbiot
The Guardian, Tuesday 24 March 2009

Whenever you hear the word miracle, you know there's trouble just around the corner. But no matter many times they lead to disappointment or disaster, the newspapers never tire of promoting miracle cures, miracle crops, miracle fuels and miracle financial instruments. We have a limitless ability to disregard the laws of economics, biology and thermodynamics when we encounter a simple solution to complex problems. So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the new miracle. It's a low-carbon regime for the planet that makes the Atkins diet look healthy: woodchips with everything.
Biomass is suddenly the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. Its advocates claim that it will become the primary source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport fuel (cellulosic ethanol) and aviation fuel (biokerosene). Few people stop to wonder how the planet can accommodate these demands and still produce food and preserve wild places. Now an even crazier use of woodchips is being promoted everywhere (including in the Guardian). The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet's surface into charcoal.
Sorry, not charcoal. We don't call it that any more. Now we say biochar. The idea is that wood and crop wastes are cooked to release the volatile components (which can be used as fuel), then the residue - the charcoal - is buried in the soil. According to the magical thinkers who promote it, the new miracle stops climate breakdown, replaces gas and petroleum, improves the fertility of the soil, reduces deforestation, cuts labour, creates employment, prevents respiratory disease and ensures that when you drop your toast it always lands butter side up. (I invented the last one, but give them time).
They point out that the indigenous people of the Amazon created terras pretas (black soils) by burying charcoal over hundreds of years. These are more fertile than the surrounding soils, and the carbon has stayed where they put it. All we need to do is to roll this out worldwide and the world's problems - except, for the time being, the toast conundrum - are solved. It takes carbon out of circulation, reducing atmospheric concentrations. It raises crop yields. If some of the carbon is produced in efficient cooking stoves, it reduces the smoke in people's homes and means they have to gather less fuel, curtailing deforestation.
This miracle solution has suckered people who ought to know better, including James Lovelock, Jim Hansen, the author Chris Goodall and the climate campaigner Tim Flannery. At the UN climate talks beginning in Bonn on Sunday, several governments will demand that biochar is made eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial stimulus required to turn this into a global industry. Their proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to save it.
In his otherwise excellent book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, Goodall abandons his usual scepticism and proposes we turn 200m hectares of "forests, savannah and croplands" into biochar plantations. Thus we would increase carbon uptake by grubbing up "wooded areas containing slow-growing trees" (that is, natural forest) and planting "faster growing species". This is environmentalism?
But that's just the start of it. Carbonscape, a company that hopes to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting 930m hectares. The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4bn hectares.
The arable area of the UK is 5.7m hectares, or one 245th of Read's figure. China has 104m hectares of cropland. The US has 174m. The global total is 1.36bn. Were we to follow Read's plan, we would either have to replace all the world's crops with biomass plantations, causing instant global famine, or double the cropped area, trashing most of the remaining natural habitats. Read was one of the promoters of first-generation liquid biofuels, which played a major role in the rise in the price of food last year, throwing millions into malnutrition. Have these people learned nothing?
Of course they claim everything can be reconciled. Peter Read says the new plantations can be created across "land on which the occupants are not engaged in economic activity". This means land used by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers and anyone else who isn't producing commodities for the mass market: poorly defended people whose rights and title can be disregarded. Both Read and Carbonscape speak of these places as "degraded lands". We used to call them unimproved, or marginal. Degraded land is the new code for natural habitat someone wants to destroy.
Goodall is even more naive. He believes we can maintain the profusion of animals and plants in the rainforests he hopes to gut by planting a mixture of fast-growing species, rather than a monoculture. As the Amazon ecologist Philip Fearnside has shown, a mixture does "not substantially change the impact of very large-scale plantations from the standpoint of biodiversity".
In their book Pulping the South, Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann show what has happened in the 100m hectares of industrial plantations established around the world so far. Aside from destroying biodiversity, tree plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when the land is ploughed for planting (meaning loss of soil carbon), exhausted nutrients and required so many pesticides that the run-off has poisoned marine fisheries.
In Brazil and South Africa, tens of thousands of people have been thrown off their land, often by violent means, to create plantations. In Thailand the military government that came to power in 1991 sought to expel five million people. Forty thousand families were dispossessed before the junta was overthrown. In many cases plantations cause a net loss of employment. Working conditions are brutal, often involving debt peonage and repeated exposure to pesticides.
As Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch point out, many of the claims made for biochar don't stand up. In some cases charcoal in the soil improves plant growth, in others it suppresses it. Just burying carbon bears little relation to the farming techniques that created terras pretas. Nor is there any guarantee that most of the buried carbon will stay in the soil. In some cases charcoal stimulates bacterial growth, causing carbon emissions from soils to rise. As for reducing deforestation, a stove that burns only part of the fuel is likely to increase, not decrease, demand for wood. There are plenty of other ways of eliminating household smoke which don't involve turning the world's forests to cinders.
None of this is to suggest that the idea has no virtues, simply that they are outweighed by hazards, which the promoters have overlooked or obscured. Nor does this mean that charcoal can't be made on a small scale, from material that would otherwise go to waste. But the idea that biochar is a universal solution that can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Backwards. We clutch at straws (and other biomass) in our desperation to believe there is an easy way out.

London’s burning carbon - but not if the capital’s fire brigade has anything to do with it

The Times
March 24, 2009
By involving all employees, companies like First Direct can make big reductions and motivate staff at the same time
David Robertson

Surviving the recession may have become the top priority for business this year, but many companies still see carbon reduction as their principal long-term goal.
There remain good economic reasons for chief executives to promote carbon reduction, since lower energy bills are an obvious way to make savings at a time when everybody is looking to cut costs. For example, the 65 companies that have attained the Carbon Trust Standard, an award for carbon reduction, have saved £73 million a year through lower energy bills.
The London Fire Brigade estimates that it saved £250,000 last year by cutting emissions, which it has done by introducing a number of ideas, such as sensors that switch off lights when a room is not in use.
“That means when firefighters get called out to a job they don’t have to worry about stopping to turn off a light,” a spokesman said. “This has drastically reduced our carbon footprint.”
The Brigade has also found a company that will recycle its old water hoses, turning them into handbags and belts.
First Direct, the bank, has used technology to cut emissions. It has installed a software program that shuts down any computer not logged on after 7pm and, with more than 3,000 terminals in its Leeds call centre, this is expected to translate into significant energy savings.
The bank, which is owned by HSBC, has also installed solar panels on its roof to provide energy for its onsite crèche – Europe’s largest, with 350 children. This and other measures have saved the bank £200,000 a year on its energy bill. Matt Colebrook, chief executive of First Direct, said: “We believe that if a company behaves ethically and responsibly, it is better able to deliver profits growth. It also gives our people a sense of belonging and keeps them within our family.”
However, companies cannot merely rely on technology to cut emissions. Employee interaction remains vital to changing work habits and introducing new ideas that can cut a company’s carbon footprint.
Both First Direct and the London Fire Brigade have “carbon champions” among their staff who recommend ideas to management and promote change at a local level. These champions are the front line in ensuring that schemes to cut emissions are actually adopted on the shop floor.
At First Direct, this includes promoting the use of an innovative car-sharing database on the company’s intranet. This site allows employees who may have different shift patterns to find a ride from someone else in their neighbourhood.
Mr Colebrook said that it had not been difficult to engage staff in helping to reduce the company’s carbon emissions. “We have brought a different set of values to running this business,” he said. “People always respond here, it is a blessing for me.”
Harry Morrison, general manager of the Carbon Trust Standard, said: “By involving all employees, companies can make major reductions – and this can be highly motivating for staff as well. Communicating these successes externally can also have a positive impact on customer perceptions.”
There are technological solutions to cutting carbon emissions but, ultimately, habits have to change in the workplace for real progress to be made and that means encouraging employees to take responsibility for carbon reduction themselves.

EPA Raises Heat on Emissions Debate


WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency has sent the White House a proposed finding that carbon dioxide is a danger to public health, a step that could trigger a clampdown on emissions of greenhouse gases across a wide swath of the economy.
If approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the endangerment finding could clear the way for the EPA to use the Clean Air Act to control emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases believed to contribute to climate change. In effect, the government would treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The EPA submitted the proposed rule to the White House on Friday, according to federal records published Monday.
Associated Press
The 99-year-old Capitol Power Plant, which heats and cools Congress, burns coal.
Such a finding would raise pressure on Congress to enact a system that caps greenhouse gases -- which trap the sun's heat in the earth's atmosphere -- and creates a market for businesses to buy and sell the right to emit them, as President Barack Obama has proposed.
A White House representative said Monday that Mr. Obama's "strong preference is for Congress to pass energy security legislation that includes a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must review whether greenhouse-gas emissions pose a threat to public health or welfare, and this is simply the next step in what will be a long process that engages stakeholders and the public."
The administration has proposed a cap-and-trade system that could raise $646 billion by 2019 through government auctions of emission allowances. Environmentalists want the administration to act on climate change before December, ahead of talks aimed at forging a successor to the Koyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that commits many industrialized countries to reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions.

EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn declined to comment on the details of the endangerment proposal, saying it is "still [an] internal and deliberative" document. But in a move that indicated the potential scope of regulation, the agency earlier this month proposed a national system for reporting carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions by major emitters. The EPA has said about 13,000 facilities, accounting for about 85% to 90% of greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S., would be covered under the proposal.
Industry officials say it will still take months, possibly even years, for the administration to finalize rules for regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.
According to an internal document presented by the EPA to White House officials earlier this month, the EPA believes the health effects of elevated greenhouse-gas levels could cause "severe heat waves...with likely increases in mortality and morbidity, especially among the elderly, young and frail." The agency also said climate change caused by higher greenhouse-gas levels could result in more severe storms and more suffering related to "floods, storms, droughts and fires."
Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers warn that if the EPA moves forward on regulation of CO2 under the Clean Air Act -- instead of a measured legislative approach -- it could hobble the already weak economy.
Coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and domestic industries, such as energy-intensive paper, cement, fertilizer, steel, and glass manufacturers, worry that increased cost burdens imposed by climate-change laws will put them at a severe competitive disadvantage to their international peers that aren't bound by similar environmental rules.
Environmentalists have called for the endangerment finding, and say action by Congress or the Obama administration to curb greenhouse gases is necessary to halt the ill effects of climate change.—Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.
Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@dowjones.com

Carbon Caps Are the Best Policy

Why taxing emissions is an inferior approach.

Curbing carbon emissions will spur a new generation of competition for the old ways of generating energy, especially from Big Oil. So when Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson says he favors a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system, it's worth asking why the energy giant would want to put a government levy on its own product.
Perhaps Exxon has concluded what many analysts already know: That the best chance to overhaul our oil-addicted economy is through a cap on fossil-fuel pollution. And that has Big Oil running for cover. A cap is not only a very different policy compared to a carbon tax, but a far superior approach, environmentally and economically.
From an environmental point of view, the difference is stark. A cap is a legal limit on pollution. There is no guessing what will happen -- the level of emissions is set in law, and enforcement of that limit proceeds accordingly. No air pollution problem has ever been solved except by imposing a legal limit on emissions.
Environmental taxes have worked well to raise revenue, but without a cap they inevitably become a license to pollute in unlimited amounts. Moreover, to require that other countries make the reciprocal commitments necessary to lower global pollution, we have to enact our cap -- and have other nations do the same in a transparent, verifiable and enforceable way. A carbon tax doesn't make such a system of commitments possible.
From an economic point of view, the case for a cap is also strong. A well-designed cap will push our economy towards clean, domestic energy in the most flexible way possible, leaving business free to grow and thrive. Investors will be driven by the market's demand for clean energy. Companies that make clean energy products -- from steel for wind turbines to energy-efficient windows, and all the companies that supply them -- will become engines of job creation.
The essential nature of a cap-and-trade system is positive and therefore much more powerful than a tax. Behavior shifts not only to avoid the cost of emissions, but to achieve additional reductions below the required levels, which can be sold to others as carbon credits. The system directly engages the profit motive in pursuit of the environmental goal. In addition, establishing the cap level in law will give companies the certainty necessary to make major, job-creating capital investments now.
On this critical issue of enforcement, some have tried to use the current economic crisis to claim that a tax is superior because they believe the trading system will be overly complex. They suggest that somehow a tax system will emerge from the legislative branch without similar problems. Anyone who has watched a tax bill move through Congress, or leafed through the 17,000 pages of the IRS code, knows that is not true. We can create an effective cap if we establish clear rules to avoid the market manipulation.
As we work our way out of the current recession, it's also important to remember one of the most economically elegant aspects of a cap: It is self-adjusting based on economic conditions. While a carbon tax could only be modified through the cumbersome legislative process, the market price of emissions permits under a cap will fluctuate with the economy. Costs would go down during slow economic periods (because industrial activity, and therefore demand for permits to emit pollution, would be lower) and then, when robust growth returns, incentives would automatically ramp up. Try doing that with a tax.
Finally, rather than debate economic theory, we can look at history. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush and a Democratic Congress joined together to pass the world's first cap-and-trade law to limit the pollution that causes acid rain. It was a simple, straightforward plan to have government set the rules and let the people involved solve the problem. It worked faster and cheaper than anyone predicted.
The almost daily drumbeat of scientific reports underscores the urgency of fast action, and clear limits. A cap is the smart, centrist, environmentally rigorous approach to our energy and climate challenges. It's the best way to truly change our future for the better.
Mr. Krupp is president of Environmental Defense Fund and co-author of "Earth: The Sequel" (W.W. Norton, 2008).