Sunday, 5 April 2009

Hopes for climate treaty set back by G20's weasel words

World further from agreement than two years ago
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor.
Sunday, 5 April 2009

It was meant, in Gordon Brown's words, to strike "a global green new deal" to tackle climate change and pull the world out of recession at the same time. In fact, the G20 meeting has sharply put back the chance of an international pact to stop global warming running out of control.
Far from being at the heart of last week's London summit, the looming climate crisis was relegated to a brief, vague and weaselly-worded afterthought at the very end of the communiqué. This has had an immediate dampening effect on negotiations on a new treaty supposed to be agreed at a vital meeting in Copenhagen at the end of the year.
Participants in the negotiations – now under way in Bonn – say that, partly as a result, they are now further from reaching agreement than they were towards the end of George Bush's presidency, despite the new energy and commitment brought to environmental matters by the Obama administration. Rich and poor countries now appear to be further apart than at the end of 2007, when the former president was still trying to obstruct progress.
It was not supposed to be like this. Gordon Brown and the other leaders – with the notable, if eccentric, exception of Silvio Berlusconi – have long been verbally signed up to "low carbon growth" as the best way out of the recession, since it promises more jobs and more opportunities for innovation than business as usual. Indeed, a new study by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst shows that investing in the green economy creates nearly four times as many jobs as traditional investment.
They also now realise the urgency of tackling global warming. "We are at a last opportunity moment," one of Britain's top negotiators told a private meeting last week." Only a few weeks remain, he explained, in which to ensure that the vast sums of money being devoted to the stimulus were spent on a green new deal, rather than ensuring that the world was locked in to more high-carbon growth.
Yet, in the event, climate change and the need for a "green recovery" only made the 27th and 28th paragraphs of the 29-paragraph communiqué. Language, already weak in the final draft, was watered down even further by the leaders on Thursday.
The main reason was that China and other developing countries refused to agree to anything that might pre-empt the negotiations on the new climate treaty. The result was not just a lost opportunity to put some political momentum behind the talks in Bonn – the first of four negotiating sessions leading to the Copenhagen meeting – but it actually set the talks back.
Developing countries have also been disillusioned by how little of the stimulus money has so far been devoted to green investment, despite all the rhetoric: only 7 per cent of Britain's package, for example, is being spent on it. Though many of the biggest – such as China, India and Mexico – are ready to take their own measures, they are reluctant to commit to them when richer nations are doing so little.
The deadlock is made worse because developed countries have also failed to make good on promises made at the end of 2007 to set aside money to help poorer countries tackle climate change and adjust to its effects.
Some participants hope that today's US-EU summit in Prague may yet make up for the failings of the G20 by producing a statement strong enough to regenerate momentum. But no one is holding their breath.

Antarctic ice shelf half the size of Scotland on verge of collapse

Paul Harris in New York
The Observer, Sunday 5 April 2009

A huge ice shelf in the Antarctic is in the last stages of collapse and could break up within days in the latest sign of how global warming is thought to be changing the face of the planet.
The enormous Wilkins ice shelf is now barely attached to land. The latest reports show that a thin sliver of ice attaching it to the Antarctic's Charcot Island is rapidly collapsing and threatening to break.
The Wilkins shelf is about half the size of Scotland, or the same size as the US state of Connecticut. It is the largest slab of ice so far to disintegrate and retreat in the Antarctic. Pictures from the European Space Agency show that fresh rifts have appeared in Wilkins' 'ice bridge' to Charcot Island and that a large chunk of ice has broken away, though the shelf still remains attached to other pieces of land. ESA estimated that the loss of the ice bridge could see the northern half of Wilkins break free, representing up to 1,400 square miles of ice floating off on the ocean in a gigantic ice berg.
Though the collapse of Wilkins shelf will not raise sea levels directly - as ice shelves float on the sea surface - its demise is a warning sign of potentially disastrous changes in the earth's climate. Change at Wilkins has come fast, often taking scientists by surprise with the speed of the break-up. In February last year a 164- square-mile chunk broke off. Then in May another slab of ice, this time measuring 62 square miles, fell away. The ice shelf has lost a total of 694 square miles over the past 12 months, representing some 14 per cent of its size. That shrank the vital ice bridge to just 984 yards at its narrowest location. Now that bridge too is coming under huge strains.
The news comes hot on the heels of the release of a survey by British and American researchers warning of the perilous state of Antarctic ice shelves and fast melting glaciers, and laying the blame firmly on global warming.

Wind farm threat looms over ancient Lewis stones

Published Date: 05 April 2009
By Fiona Gray

THE most controversial wind farm project in Scotland is set to get the green light from ministers, sparking a massive clash between environmentalists and the government.
In what has been dubbed a rerun of the Trump golf course row, plans for 53 wind turbines on Lewis – within sight of 'Scotland's Stonehenge', the Callanish Stones – seems certain to be approved.The wind farm has been masterminded by city financier Nicholas Oppenheim, who says many locals strongly support the project and the 100 jobs it will create.But opponents, including the influential John Muir Trust, predicted there would be an "enormous backlash" to the decision, which would open the floodgates for development all over Scotland's countryside.Oppenheim wants the windfarm built on his private estate, Eisgein, which is in an official National Scenic Area, meaning the landscape should be conserved as part of the country's natural heritage. The 455ft turbines will also overlook the Callanish Stones, a stone circle dating from around 2900BC.The public inquiry has yet to reveal its verdict, but a source close to the inquiry told Scotland on Sunday the wind farm would get the go-ahead.The source said the farm would get the green light when energy minister Jim Mather visits Lewis later this month to discuss economic issues. The scheme will be given planning permission, the source suggested, even if the public inquiry found against it. He told Scotland on Sunday: "The decision is going to be made shortly and find in favour. Because of the financial downturn everyone is keen to boost the economy. The minister is going across on April 16 to talk about energy and the economy, and it's a fair bet that's when it will be announced."Helen McDade, of conservation organisation the John Muir Trust, which campaigned against the wind farm, said: "We are extremely concerned by this if it is true. I believe that Ministers would have severely misjudged the public mood and there would be enormous backlash."Yet again, we would be seeing business taking precedence over environmental protection instead of lessons being learned. "This is a test case for wild land. It is absolutely clear cut that this major development should not go here as the land is protected and the impact would be disastrous for the beauty of the area."Alice Starmore, who lives near the estate and leads tours in the area, described the wind farm as "an ecological and environmental disaster".She said: "In spite of everything that's happening to the world, politicians are still in thrall to big business and vast developments. This developer is a big hedge funder and they are choosing to take his money rather than protect the wild land."Archeologist Ian McHardy said the site was too significant to be built on."Eisgein is a wild and beautiful place, full of golden eagles and rare wildlife, and the Callanish Stones give it a spectacular theatrical backdrop," he said. "It would be disappointing to have to show visitors this amazing place, and then say, please try to ignore the turbines we have built on top of it. There are other ways of rejuvenating the area economically."Highlands and Islands Enterprise estimated the scheme would create 109 jobs on the island, in the construction of turbines and associated roads and buildings and maintenance of the farm.But Andrew Bain, a retired professor of economics from the Universities of Stirling, Strathclyde and Glasgow, said the figures were misleading."Some see this as a way of getting jobs, but it is greatly exaggerated. The effect on employment adds up to 0.5% of the employment of the Western Isles, and many of the jobs are short-term in building the thing," he said. "The cost of generating energy on wind farms in the Western Isles is also 20% to 30% higher than on the mainland because of the cost of transmitting it to where it is needed."In fact, almost all of the benefit goes to the financial investors of the scheme: Mr Oppenheim. And once he's got planning permission the land will be worth a lot more."But Oppenheim said the farm would be a boost for locals. He told Scotland on Sunday: "This area is one of the 10 poorest communities in Scotland. There are people living in this community who don't have mains electricity."Of 600 people, 350 signed up supporting the wind farm through the Muaitheavhal Community Wind Farm Trust. That is hardly a community dramatically opposed."Iain Maciver, a founding member of the Community Trust, added: "I think it's a groundbreaking deal where the community will own 18 megawatts of the energy, which will bring in £1m annually."The application received 1,448 objections and only two letters of support, which led to a public inquiry on the issue in May last year.Oppenheim scaled back plans to just 53 turbines, and offered locals space to erect six of their own turbines at the farm and sell the energy on through a community group called the Muaitheavhal Wind Farm Trust. It claimed the scheme would also create 109 jobs.The wind farm can only go ahead if economic benefits outweigh the environmental importance of the site.The Callanish Stones are the site of a lunar phenomenon every 18.6 years, when as the moon rises, viewed from the stones, it skims a mountain range known in Gaelic as "old woman of the mountains". The event is thought to celebrate childbirth, and it still attracts hundreds of visitors.A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The detailed report compiled by the Inquiry Reporter is currently with the Scottish Government for consideration. A decision and an announcement will be made in due course."Limitless powerScotland's wind farms have a total capacity of 1,550 megawatts, which is enough to supply 465,000 homes, and wind power is the country's fastest growing renewable energy technology.There are 64 wind farms in Scotland, the largest being Black Law in Lanarkshire, Braes of Doune near Stirling, Farr near Inverness, and Hadyard Hill in South Ayrshire, which was the first UK wind farm able to generate more than 100 megawatts of energy.There are also farms under construction in Whitelee, south of Glasgow, and Clyde in South Lanarkshire.The world's largest wind turbine is currently being developed 15 miles off the east coast of Scotland, and the single turbine will be able to produce enough energy to supply 1,500 homes with energy.The western and northern coasts of Scotland are especially popular for wind farms because there is more wind and more consistent wind, meaning turbines produce maximum energy for up to 40% of the time, well above the average of 25%.Wind farms are often owned by private companies or Scottish and Southern Energy, but Scotland also has several community-owned wind farms to allow locals to benefit financially from the farms, which are frequently built in relatively poor areas.Because of the obvious need for wind, the farms are often sited in rural landscapes of great natural beauty, which causes controversy among environmentalists. For this reason there are currently dozens of wind farm proposals before the Scottish Government, who will decide whether the environmental significance of the site outweighs the benefits brought by the wind farm.It is estimated that 11,500 megawatts of onshore wind potential exists globally, and more than double this amount exists on offshore sites where wind speeds are greater. If a fifth of this energy could be harnessed, it would be enough for the entire world's energy needs.The total global revenue over the next five years is estimated at £35bn and it is continued growth forecast until at least 2025.

Take from the dirty and give to the clean to help wind power

Sunday Times
April 5, 2009
Sam Laidlaw

Investors in offshore wind farms in this country are battling against an increasingly strong headwind. A combination of high construction costs, soft electricity prices, higher financing costs and weak sterling are blowing an increasing number of projects off course.
All this has dampened the mood of optimism we saw last summer, when the government unveiled its ambitious renewable-energy blueprint. The target is a tenfold increase in the percentage of all energy coming from renewables, aiming for 15% by 2020.
The issue of climate change has not gone away – it forced its way back on the agenda at last week’s G20 summit. The question for Britain is, can we get back on track?
I believe the answer is yes. But only if the investment conditions can be improved, and rapidly.
We are at a watershed. A new round of offshore wind projects could lead to the creation of a healthy British supply chain with diminishing costs over time. Bain Consulting estimates that 50,000 new jobs would also be created along the way.
Conversely, a downturn in British projects now could be fatal for this fledgling industry. Turbines, control systems, undersea cables and specialist installation barges are in short supply in this country.
If we do not build this capability in Britain, manufacturers and suppliers will flock to those countries that are forging ahead with renewables, such as Germany and the United States, where President Barack Obama has pledged to invest billions of dollars in new wind farms.
Last June, the then business secretary John Hutton said that achieving the 2020 objective would require investment of £100 billion and create a new generation of green-collar jobs. He was right.
However, companies and investors will only commit the funding if they are confident they can achieve adequate returns. At present the returns are insufficient.
That is why we at Centrica, among others, have had to put our offshore wind projects on hold even though we obtained planning consent last October to build the 250MW Lincs wind farm off the Lincolnshire coast. We have another 1,120MW of offshore projects in the pipeline.
The problem is the very high cost of building offshore wind farms. At present they are nearly four times the capital cost of a gas-fired power station. The building cost per mega-watt is even higher than for a nuclear power station.
We are keen to build Lincs, but we need to see the economics improve. Other companies are making similar decisions, reducing the probability of meeting the 2020 target. To achieve this, the proportion of electricity from renewables would need to rise from 4.5% today to about 35% by 2020. These are worrying delays.
So what can be done? To expect direct support from the government, given all the other calls on taxpayers’ funds, would be unrealistic and is unnecessary.
A simple way in which the economics can be improved is to increase the incentive given to developers of offshore wind farms under the government’s Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROC) regime. This scheme rewards the producers of renewable electricity with additional funding paid for by those energy suppliers who emit more carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. It is effectively a Robin Hood-style redistribution mechanism, taking money from the “dirty” to pay the “green”. It is not a government subsidy.
Producers of renewable power receive one ROC, entitling them to additional funding support, for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced. As from this month, offshore wind generators are receiving 1.5 ROCs per megawatt-hour, but to make construction of new projects economic offshore, we believe that this needs to rise further to about two ROCs in the absence of other assistance.
Such assistance would not need to remain in place indefinitely. Once the current logjam of projects has been released, the UK renewables supply chain would grow rapidly and create a momentum of its own as we get into construction of the giant Round 3 offshore projects, involving thousands of turbines, for which the Crown Estates has just taken bids.
If this materialises in the way we might expect, we should then see the supply chain start to grow and become more mature, thus helping to put downward pressure on manufacturing costs. This would, of course, improve the economics of construction and reduce the need for assistance for future projects.
Last October Britain overtook Denmark as the world’s largest operator of offshore wind farms, but it is a fragile crown based on small volumes of power production. Britain now has it in its hands to turn the headwind into a tailwind and give this country a real leadership position. It is an opportunity that must be taken soon. Sam Laidlaw is chief executive of Centrica, the integrated energy company

Pay more to emit

The Sunday Times
April 5, 2009
Green Digest

THE price of permits to emit carbon dioxide should be at least £85, about eight times the present price, if they are to meet their goal of getting big polluters to cut emissions, according to a government-sponsored study.
The findings, which will be published later this year by Chris Hope of Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, will shock industry at a time when pollution permits under Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) are trading at about £11 per ton.
The government commissioned Hope to assess the effectiveness of the ETS, the system under which companies are set limits on the amount of carbon dioxide they can emit. Those that exceed their limits must buy permits from others who have come in below their quota.
Hope is expected to say that the ETS is deeply flawed and that carbon permits should cost at least £85. He will suggest that a “green tax” on top of the carbon price may be necessary.

Green ideas: Burying carbon

The Sunday Times
April 5, 2009

Mention carbon capture and most people think about snaffling carbon dioxide from power stations and storing it underground.
There is another method, however - turning wood or other vegetable matter into charcoal, and burying it.
A New Zealand group (which is also registered in the UK) is working on a way of making charcoal without burning anything. Carbonscape uses microwaves to heat up organic matter, reducing it quickly to a fine charcoal.
More information at

Carbon permits tip investors into generating power from rubbish

The Sunday Times
April 5, 2009

BRITAIN’s path to a low-carbon future may not be found in wind farms, but rather in our rubbish. The pressure on the government to reduce the volume of waste dumped in landfills, along with huge financial incentives for the companies involved, is fuelling a boom in the waste-to-energy sector.
Waste-to-energy is a catch-all term for ways of turning rubbish into power and byproducts such as fertiliser. Investors like the idea. Unlike wind and sun, rubbish is something we produce a lot of, regardless of the time of year or the weather.
“A community waste-to-ener-gy project generating about 30 megawatts (MW) of electricity, would be the equivalent of installing about 25 wind turbines,” said Peter Wright at Cov-anta, which plans to build a 35MW plant near Middlewich, Cheshire, that will process about 370,000 tonnes of rubbish a year.
Energy will be created by burning the waste. This will heat water, sending steam through a turbine that generates electricity.
Waste-to-energy firms say the commercial sector is a growing part of their business, as more companies look to secure their own energy supplies and avoid future shortages and price shocks.
“In the next five to ten years there could be a significant shortage of energy in Britain because many coal-fired and nuclear power stations are coming off line,” said Peter Mills at the waste-to-energy firm New Earth Solutions.
With the fate of Britain’s largest wind projects in the balance, the need to find new, low-carbon solutions to plug that gap is ever more urgent.
New Earth Energy, sister company of New Earth Solutions, is developing a series of projects to treat, and recover energy from, a range of municipal and commercial wastes. Its first project, Mersey Green Solution, includes the development of a 400,000 tonnes a year waste-to-energy facility.
That plant will produce 40MW of electricity through gasification, where waste such as food is processed in an environment starved of oxygen.
Under an update to the Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC) scheme, which came into effect on April 1, the project will be eligible for two ROCs for every megawatt-hour of energy it produces.
ROCs now trade at about £46 each, so New Earth Solutions’ 40MW waste-to-energy plant, operating at about 80% capacity, would earn £25m a year on top of its energy sales.
The idea behind double ROCs is to encourage the development of newer technologies. In the waste-to-energy sector this would include gasification, pyrolysis (similar to gasification) and anaerobic digestion, which breaks downs rubbish using bacteria. The process produces a methane-rich biogas that can be used as a fuel.
In addition to double ROCs, waste-to-energy developers earn a “gate fee” of between £31 and £136 for every tonne of rubbish they take off the hands of local councils.
“Predictability of supply and security of pricing makes waste-to-energy projects very attractive, especially in today’s investment climate,” said Nigel Taunt of Impax, a firm that invests in environmental projects.
Add to this the fact that Britain is struggling to meet targets on waste volumes sent to landfill and is simply running out of landfill space, and there is even more pressure to find other waste-disposal methods.
Businesses send about 60m tonnes of rubbish to landfills each year at a cost of £40 a tonne. Next year the tax will rise to £48 a tonne, but that could more than double over the next few years.
A recent report by the National Audit Office said failure to meet 2013 waste targets could result in fines of £150 a tonne.
While there are obvious financial and environmental grounds to support the development of waste-to-energy projects, the sector has its barriers.
“Waste-to-energy is clearly an effective way of generating power, but problems with planning and characterisation of what actually is ‘waste-to-ene-rgy’ may make it difficult to cap-italise on this,” said Tom Frost at Akur Partners, a corporate-finance firm that raises money for such projects.
Waste-to-energy projects funded under the government’s private-finance initiative have hit several planning and funding hurdles. The Greater Manchester scheme, which would divert 1.4m tonnes of waste from landfills, has run into several delays due to lack of funding – a problem Tricia Holly Davis that has been made worse by the credit crunch.
Even some smaller projects have stalled. A proposed 240,000-tonnes-a-year plant in Cornwall recently had its planning application rejected by the local council, which cited an “unacceptable impact on landscape character”.

Plants buy Earth more time as CO2 makes them grow

The Sunday Times
April 5, 2009
Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor

TREES and plants are growing bigger and faster in response to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by humans, scientists have found.
The increased growth has been discovered in a variety of flora, ranging from tropical rainforests to British sugar beet crops.
It means they are soaking up at least some of the CO2 that would otherwise be accelerating the rate of climate change. It also suggests the potential for higher crop yields.
Some researchers believe the phenomenon is strong enough to buy humanity some extra years in which to try to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. However, few dispute that this will provide anything more than a temporary reprieve.
“There is no doubt that the enrichment of the air with CO2 is increasing plant growth rates in many areas,” said Professor Martin Parry, head of plant science at Rothamsted Research, Britain’s leading crop institute. “The problem is that humans are releasing so much that plants can remove only a fraction of it.”CO2 Plants survive by extracting CO2 from the air and using sunlight to convert it into proteins and sugars.
Since 1750 the concentration in the air has risen from of CO2 278 parts per million (ppm) to more than 380ppm, making it easier for plants to acquire the CO2 needed for rapid growth.
One of the most convincing confirmations of this trend, recently published in the science journal Nature, came from a team at Leeds University.
Simon Lewis, a fellow of the Royal Society, led the study that measured the girth of 70,000 trees across 10 African countries and compared them with similar records made four decades ago.
“On average, the trees were getting bigger faster,” Lewis said. He found that each hectare of African forest was trapping an extra 0.6 tons of CO2 a year compared with the 1960s.
If this is replicated across the world’s tropical rainforests they would be removing nearly 5 billion tons of CO2 a year from the atmosphere. Humans, however, generate about 50 billion tons of the gas each year.
Scientists have been looking for a similar impact on crop yields and have carried out experiments where plants growing in the open are exposed to extra CO2 released upwind of the site.
The experiments generally suggest that raised CO2 levels, similar to those predicted for the middle of this century, would boost the yields of main-stream crops, such as maize, rice and soy, by about 13%. Some niche crops, such as lavender, would similarly benefit.
In one study conducted at Rothamsted, Mikhail Semenov, a researcher, found that sugar beet exposed to increased CO2 could boost yields from 11 tons a hectare to 15 tons by 2080.
Researchers in Germany recently discovered that wheat grown in similar conditions would produce up to 16% more grain.
However, scientists have warned against drawing false comfort from such findings. They point out that although levels will boost plant growth, other factors asso-rising CO2 ciated with climate change, such as rising temperatures and drought, are likely to have a negative effect.
Semenov said: “Global warming will increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events which may have a significant impact on crop productivity.”
Steve Long, a British professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois, believes that even in tropical rainforests any increase in tree size would be shortlived.
“There are other factors that , limit plant growth besides CO2 such as shortages of potassium, phosphorus or nitrates,” said Long.
“These forests will grow fast for a while but then run out of nutrients and slow down again.”
What research does confirm, however, is the importance of preserving the world’s remaining tropical forests.
This is because the forests and the soils the trees grow in have accumulated billions of tons of carbon that would be released should they be destroyed.
Lewis said: “Once a forest is cut down, the carbon it contains returns to the atmosphere and it would take hundreds of years to recover the carbon it once stored.”