Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Spain's cherished beach bars face axe in environmental crackdown

Giles Tremlett in Madrid
The Guardian, Tuesday 14 April 2009

For decades they have provided paella, sangria and shade to tourists visiting Spain's beaches, but the traditional beach bar restaurants face eviction from the sand. Campaigners have denounced moves by the environment ministry to close down the thousands of chiringuito restaurants that spring up on beaches at the beginning of summer.
Some 30,000 summer jobs and a cherished tradition of eating with sand between your toes are under threat, according to the campaigners, who want the chiringuitos to be treated as part of Spain's cultural heritage.
The crackdown comes as part of the environment ministry's response to criticism that Spain's beaches are over-developed and under-protected. It has dusted off its "law of coasts", which bans building on the sand, and told the chiringuitos to move inland - on to concrete seafront walks or past the first line of asphalt.
"We have been here on the sand ever since tourism reached Malaga in the 1950s," Servando Cidoncha, who runs a bar on the Costa del Sol beach at Guadalmar, told the ABC newspaper. "If they take us inland we will stop being a chiringuito and become just another restaurant. The English and Germans come to us attracted by a sense of tradition. Moving us would destroy that."
Politicians from all parties have thrown their support behind moves to save the chiringuitos, which jointly turn over some €900m (£810m) a year.
"They are not in any way an aggression against the environment," Javier Arenas, leader of the opposition People's party in Andalucia, said. "And this is not a moment to be throwing away income and jobs."
"We socialists are not going to stop until the future of the chiringuitos is assured," said Miguel Ángel Heredia, an MP for Spain's ruling party, representing the southern Costa del Sol.
The beach bars are to ask customers to sign a petition this summer urging the ministry to rethink. "Chiringuitos have existed for centuries, far longer than we have had ministries," Norberto del Castillo, of Andalucia's association of beach businesses, said.

Helsinki has all its hot water on tap

The Times
April 15, 2009
Robin Pagnamenta, Energy and Environment Editor

A driver leans out of his car and swipes a card to open an unmarked steel door. Blasted from the bedrock, a road descends steeply into a long cavern, bristling with machinery, banks of lights and high-tech equipment.
This is not the lair of a criminal mastermind in a James Bond story, but the nerve centre of the world's most sophisticated coal-fired central heating system.
From here, a 1,350km network of tunnels, pipes and pumping stations supplies hot water to more than half a million people in Helsinki, one of the world's coldest capital cities.
“It's a fantastic system,” says the newly arrived driver, Marko Riipinen, director of district heating for Helsingi Energia, the municipal utility that operates the system.

“It's highly efficient, environmentally friendly and the price of heat is comparatively low.”
In Helsinki, where winter temperatures often plunge to -30C (-22F), hardly anyone owns a domestic heating boiler. Instead, water is heated centrally at combined heat and power (CHP) plants to 115C and piped directly to tens of thousands of homes and public buildings.
“We can handle the whole system from a single control room,” Mr Riipinen says, placing his hand on a metre-thick pipe. More than 90 per cent of the total heating needs of Helsinki, including hot tap water and heat for homes, offices and factories, comes from the same shared network.
It is a vastly more efficient use of energy than in Britain, where 50 per cent of the energy produced in power stations burning coal and gas is routinely lost as heat, usually emitted directly into the air via chimney flues. In contrast, at Helsingi Energia's gleaming CHP plant in the suburb of Vuosaari, up to 93percent of the energy produced is converted into either electricity or hot water for district heating. That makes it the most efficient power station in the world, says Mr Riipinen.
“To us [the British system] seems very wasteful,” he says. “Finland doesn't have any of its own coal, gas or oil so we have to import everything from Russia or Poland. So we have really learnt that we have to use it in the best way possible.”
It is a model system that Britain, which aims to slash emissions of carbon dioxide by 80per cent by 2050, would do well to emulate. But Mr Riipinen says the problem for countries trying to copy Finland's system is the need to build the pipeline infrastructure, an effort that in Helsinki began in the 1950s and is continuing.
“You need that distribution network,” says Mr Riipinen, who adds that the system can switch between being powered by coal, gas or oil.
The system is supplemented by the world's largest underground coal storage facility, where 250,000cu m of the fuel can be stored in caverns lying 124m below sea-level.
Britain has been trying to encourage the development of CHP and district heating for years, but progress is slow, in part because of the high cost and complexity of fitting the country's ageing housing stock with the necessary equipment.
The big six energy companies, which operate lucrative domestic boiler servicing businesses, also appear lukewarm on the development of such a scheme. Nevertheless, the Government is keen to do more and a new subsidy arrangement is due to come into effect in 2011. It is also conducting a consultation on the subject, which is scheduled to end next month.

David Attenborough to be patron of Optimum Population Trust

The Times
April 14, 2009

Parminder Bahra, Poverty and Development Correspondent

Sir David Attenborough said yesterday that the growth in global population was frightening, as he became a patron of an organisation that campaigns to limit the number of people in the world.
The television presenter and naturalist said that the increase in population was having devastating effects on ecology, pollution and food production.
“There are three times as many people in the world as when I started making television programmes only a mere 56 years ago,” he said, after becoming a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) think-tank.
“It is frightening. We can’t go on as we have been. We are seeing the consequences in terms of ecology, atmospheric pollution and in terms of the space and food production.

“I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more. Population is reaching its optimum and the world cannot hold an infinite number of people,” Sir David, who has two children, said.
The OPT counts among its patrons the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt and the academic Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. However, Sir David’s appointment has already been criticised. Austin Williams, author of The Enemies of Progress, said: “Experts can still be stupid when they speak on subjects of which they know little. Sir David may know a sight more than I do about remote species but that does not give him the intelligence to speak on global politics.
“I have a problem with the line that people are a problem. More people are a good thing. People are the source of creativity, intelligence, analysis and problem-solving. If we see people as just simple things that consume and excrete carbon, then the OPT may have a point, but people are more than this and they will be the ones to find the solutions.” Sir David said that the OPT was drawing attention to the issue of population and being a patron seemed a worthwhile thing to do.
Roger Martin, the chairman of the trust, said that the appointment would put pressure on organisations to face up to the issue of population: “The environmental movement will not confront the fact that there is not a single problem that they deal with which would not be easier with fewer people.”
The trust campaigns for global access to family planning and for couples to be encouraged to stop having more than two children. In Britain it wants to stabilise the population by bringing immigration into balance with emigration and making greater efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies.
Mr Martin said that the UK population must be reduced to a sustainable level because Britain was already the most overcrowded country in Europe.He said the world could not increase production to meet the needs of a growing population: “We can’t feed ourselves with some of the most intensive agriculture in the world — we’re only 70 per cent self-sufficient.”
Mr Martin said that Britain could not rely on the world food market because, when food runs short, exporters do not export it: “Last year, we saw India and China banning exports of rice when there was a shortage.”
The first scholar to bring overpopulation to the fore was the Rev Thomas Malthus. His academic work in the late 18th and early 19th centuries outraged and inspired succeeding generations (Tim Glanfield writes).
Malthus grew up in Guildford, Surrey, the youngest of eight siblings, and during his childhood encountered some of the great minds of his age. His father was a friend of the philosophers David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the young Malthus needed little encouragement to study mathematics at Cambridge.
He made his name with a landmark text, An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in six editions between 1798 and 1826 and underlined by strong scepticism for future human generations.
Malthus believed that all previous generations had included a “poor” underclass created by an inherent lack of resources in the world that would continue if population growth were not addressed. His theory is summarised by his assertion that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in Earth to produce sustenance for Man”.
He saw two significant variables in the world, those that are positive and raise the death rate — famine, disease and war — and those that are preventive and lower the birthrate — birth control, abortion, celibacy and postponement of marriage.
In practising the preventive measures and gradually reducing poor laws, Malthus argued, society would no longer “create the poor which they maintain”.
The expectations of population growth outlined in his essay had a significant influence on Darwin’s evolutionary theories and many modern political theses, but Malthus remains a controversial and much vilified scholar. Shelley branded him “a eunuch and a tyrant”, Marx as “the principal enemy of the people” and Lenin called his work a “reactionary doctrine”.

US drive to close electric car gap

By Bernard Simon in Toronto
Published: April 14 2009 22:29

A US-French joint venture plans to build North America’s first lithium-ion battery cell plant as part of a belated drive by the US public and private sectors to close the competitive gap with Asian electric-car technology.
Johnson Controls, based in Wisconsin, and France’s Saft, which opened a similar facility in France last year, said on Tuesday that the cells would be produced at a converted Johnson car parts plant in Michigan.

The state of Michigan would cover two-thirds of the plant’s $220m cost through tax credits and other incentives.
The plant is the latest in a flurry of moves to enhance North American battery technology amid predictions that electric vehicles of various types are set to play an increasingly important role in mass transportation.
Japanese companies currently dominate the market for hybrid-vehicle batteries. Panasonic supplies the nickel-metal-hydride battery used in Toyota’s popular Prius hatchback.
Alex Molinaroli, head of Johnson Controls’ power solutions division, said that battery demand in the US was being pulled higher by government support for General Motors and Chrysler, as well as provisions in the Obama administration’s $787bn stimulus package passed this year.
The bill sets aside $2bn in financial support for battery manufacturers and provides a $7,500 credit for the purchase of a plug-in hybrid vehicle.
In addition, the US Department of Energy is expected to earmark a sizeable portion of its $25bn Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program for battery development.
Meanwhile, A123 Systems, a Massachusetts-based lithium-ion battery maker, said this week that it had raised $69m from, among others, General Electric, ConocoPhillips, and Detroit Edison, a power utility.
A123 signed a contract last week to supply batteries for hybrid-electric vehicles being developed by Chrysler. GM this year chose South Korea’s LG Chem to provide batteries for its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
Separately, an alliance of battery manufacturers set up late last year is joining forces with the US Department of Energy to set up a research and development centre in Kentucky.
According to SupplierBusiness, a trade publication, the alliance is seeking $1bn-$2bn in government aid to build a foundry for lithium-ion batteries.
The Johnson-Saft plant, will initially supply batteries for, among others, Ford Motor’s first plug-in hybrid vehicle.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

UK risks missing out on thousands of green jobs, report warns

Chance to create up to 70,000 jobs in offshore wind industry may be squandered without government action, says IPPR study

Press Association, Tuesday 14 April 2009 12.34 BST

The UK risks missing out on tens of thousands of jobs in the offshore wind industry unless the government gives greater support to the sector, a report warned today.
The study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the UK must rapidly expand its offshore wind capacity or it would fail to meet the legally binding target of sourcing 15% of energy from renewables by 2020.
With wind expected to meet the lion's share of that target, there is an opportunity to create up to 70,000 long-term jobs in the industry in parts of the country where they are most needed, the report said.
But unless the government acts to remove barriers to investment, provide additional focused support to the industry and build up the skills base, the UK will miss out on green jobs.
While the UK already has the biggest offshore wind capacity in the world, just 700 people are currently employed in the sector and most of the parts for the wind farms are manufactured overseas.
The IPPR report said the government needed to be more proactive in establishing certainty in the domestic offshore wind market to encourage investment.
Measures that should be considered include updating the grid infrastructure, with the government underwriting investment if needed, and targeting support to companies that manufacture parts such as cabling, turbines, installation vessels and foundations to unblock bottlenecks in the supply chain.
Financial support schemes such as the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs must be monitored to make sure they help deliver expansion of the sector, the report urged.
The government must also embark on an offshore wind investment programme which would include focused packages of grants and research and development incentives, a near-shore testing facility for technology and underwriting of borrowing to ensure short-term guarantees for lending.
In addition, a strategic approach to improving skills in the sector is needed, by encouraging more youngsters to study subjects such as science, engineering and maths, helping to forge links between universities and industry and providing incentives for people going into low-carbon jobs.
Matthew Lockwood, senior research fellow for IPPR, said: "Offshore wind has great potential for UK jobs but we risk being blown off course.
"The government's pledge to achieve ambitious renewable targets by 2020 shows it is serious about its potential but we need to follow through with concrete policies to create greater certainty for industry, maximise the potential for the UK economy and realise our environmental goals."
The TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: "The offshore wind industry could create tens of thousands of good, green jobs in the UK but the recession has shaken the industry's confidence and exposed the need for government support for green infrastructure investment."
He said an offshore wind investment programme had to be matched by developing appropriate skills in the workforce.
And Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: "Gordon Brown personally pledged that the UK would meet its legally binding EU renewable energy target for 2020 but we're already going to miss the targets for 2010.
"If these targets are going to mean anything then offshore wind needs an urgent boost in the budget.
"Mr Brown must remove the barriers preventing renewable energy development such as planning delays, and a lack of skills, grid connections and UK supply chain."
Energy minister Mike O'Brien told a recent meeting at the Renewable Energy Association that the government had changed planning laws and increased support for renewables, and was working with National Grid and Ofgem to ensure sufficient access to the grid.
"However, we are fully aware of the investment challenges facing some parts of the industry," he said.
"As part of the work we are doing across government on the low carbon industrial strategy, we are looking at the impact of the downturn and what we can do to alleviate it."

Doubts cast on biofuel benefits

By Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent
Published: April 15 2009 01:55

The push to use biofuels in place of petrol has done little to aid the development of the UK’s biofuel industry and may have produced more greenhouse gas than it has saved, according to a report published on Wednesday.
British biofuels are generally regarded as more environmentally sound than imports. According to the Renewable Energy Association, they produce a greenhouse gas saving of 71 per cent, against 46 per cent for imports. Yet only 8 per cent of the biofuel – fuel derived from plants – used in the UK comes from British sources, according to the REA.

The government’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation came into force exactly a year ago and was meant to spur the development of a British biofuels industry by ensuring 2.5 per cent of transport fuels this year came from plants or waste products.
But heavy use of imports has overtaken the UK’s fledgling biofuels sector, with several domestic companies running into trouble.
The point is reinforced by Wednesday’s report from Friends of the Earth, which also finds the UK’s use of biofuels may have increased emissions from road transport because growing crops for fuel means extra land must be pressed into service to grow food. Often in tropical countries this land is forest and cutting it down results in a loss of the planet’s ability to absorb carbon.
According to Friends of the Earth, the RTFO has probably caused about 1.3m tonnes of extra carbon dioxide emissions.
Andy Atkins, executive director, said: “Trying to cut emissions by adding biofuels to petrol is like trying to cut down on beer by lacing your pints with vodka.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Birds face longer migration due to climate change, experts warn

Journey could increase by 250 miles, posing serious threat to many species

Stephen Moss, Wednesday 15 April 2009 00.05 BST

Migrating birds such as the garden warbler and whitethroat will face longer journeys because of climate change, experts warned today.
A team of scientists led by Durham University has demonstrated that while the birds' breeding ranges are likely to shift northwards, their wintering areas will not, thus increasing the length of their journeys by up to 250 miles. The study, published in the Journal of Biogeography, has serious implications for many of the birds returning this month to Britain to breed.
The research team used computer simulation models similar to those used by weather forecasters to analyse how climate change might affect the migration patterns of European Sylvia warblers.
Every year these tiny birds – some weighing as little as 12g – travel thousands of miles northwards from their African winter-quarters to breed in Europe and Asia. Up to 500 million birds undertake this epic journey to take advantage of the long summer days and glut of insect food in temperate latitudes.
But as climate change leads to rises in spring and summer temperatures, some of these long-distance migrants are responding by shifting their breeding ranges further north, making their return journey each spring even longer than before. In future, when they return to Africa in autumn, the predicted southward extension of the Sahara Desert may also eventually increase their travel distance.
Dr Stephen Willis of Durham University, who co-ordinated the study, stressed the problems this additional mileage will pose. "From 2071 to 2100, nine out of the 17 species we looked at are projected to face longer migrations, particularly birds that cross the Sahara desert. The added distance is a considerable threat," he said.
Different birds follow different migration strategies, with some species covering the distance in short hops. Others, such as the sedge warbler, fatten up and almost double their body weight before making the journey across the Sahara and Mediterranean Sea in a single leap. But whichever way they travel, longer journeys will make enormous demands on their energy resources, which they may not be able to meet.
Professor Rhys Green of the RSPB, who co-authored the research paper, believes that this increase in distance – though relatively small compared with the total journey the birds undertake – is likely to cause major problems. "Anything that makes those journeys longer or more dependent on vulnerable pit-stop habitats used for refuelling on migration could mean the difference between life and death," he warned.
There is evidence that short-term climatic effects have caused problems in the past. For example, the prolonged drought in the Sahel Zone of western Africa during the late 1960s led to a massive 90% fall in the British population of whitethroats in a single year, from 1968 to 1969. Although numbers later recovered, the species remains highly vulnerable to sudden environmental change.
Some species, however, may already be beginning to adapt their migration patterns as a result of climate change. The chiffchaff, which normally migrates to Iberia and North Africa rather than crossing the Sahara, now regularly overwinters in Britain, especially in the milder areas of the south and west. Meanwhile the German and Austrian populations of the blackcap, one of the species followed in the study, now migrate west instead of south to spend the winter here in the UK.
If other species can follow suit by changing their migration patterns they may be able to survive. "Some species may be able to adapt and change, for example by adopting shorter migration routes, if they can find enough food at the right time," said Willis.
"Bird migrations are incredible feats of stamina and endurance but, as temperatures rise and habitats change, birds will face their biggest challenge since the Pleistocene era."

Breaking the silence about spring

Amy Seidl's new book, Early Spring, describes the impacts of climate change on the world immediately around us.

From RealClimate, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Tuesday 14 April 2009 15.54 BST

Did you know that in 1965 the U.S. Department of Agriculture planted a particular variety of lilac in more than seventy locations around the U.S. Northeast, to detect the onset of spring — in turn to be used to determine the appropriate timing of corn planting and the like? The records the USDA have kept show that those same lilacs are blooming as much as two weeks earlier than they did in 1965. April has, in a very real sense, become May. This is one of the interesting facts that you'll read about in Amy Seidl's book, Early Spring, a hot-off-the-press essay about the impacts of climate change on the world immediately around us – the forest, the birds, the butterflies in our backyards.
The brilliant title of Seidl's book was one of the reasons that it caught my attention. The other was that I have realized I need to better educate myself about the impact of climate change on everyday life. I've been dismissive of the idea that the average person can really detect the impacts of recent warming on, for example, the timing of the apple-blossom season, but I've been taken to task by several of RealClimate's readers for this. If you are paying attention, they have argued, the changes are actually rather obvious.
Of course, Amy Seidl is not the average person. Rather, she's a trained ecologist with a Ph.D. (as well as an avid gardener) and she's clearly paying extremely close attention. Her book is the first one I have read that effectively brings home the tangible impacts that global warming will have – is having – on our everyday lives. "We are increasingly familiar," she writes, of images of melting glaciers, "but how do we give them relevance in our lives? From my window I see no glaciers." She answers her own question with a series of vignettes, some from her own experiences, many more from her extensive research (well referenced throughout the book).
Cardinals, robins and cowbirds are all arriving earlier in Vermont than they did a century ago. Kingfishes, fox sparrows and towhees are not. Why the difference? The answer, as Seidl explains, is that the former group has the ability to respond ecologically to the changes, because these birds cue their arrival to temperature. The latter, it appears, respond more directly to temporal cues, that won't change even as climate does. It's obvious from this example that the make up of bird life in Vermont – the species distribution – will change over time. This may not necessarily be a bad thing of course. On the other hand, it turns out that the robins are the most important host for West Nile virus; the early bird gets the worm, so to speak, and passes it along to humans.
Maple seedlings need about 100 days of below-freezing weather. As this becomes rarer, fewer maples will populate the forests. This, Seidl explains, is why species-range models predict the decline and eventual loss of sugar maple (at least in New England) in the future. But, she notes, the models don't take into account the full complexity of the system, such as the impact of competition among different species. So we don't really know what will happen, or how fast. What we do know is that maple-sugar farmers have noticed – and documented – an earlier maple sugaring season over the last few decades.
There are many other examples in Early Spring both of clear climate-related changes (such as the early arrival of robins), and of less clear-cut changes (the maple sugaring season). Seidl doesn't make the common mistake of assuming that the more ambiguous examples are necessarily due to climate change. For example, she quotes a maple-sugarer who points out that technological changes have allowed them to tap maples earlier, and hence that the timing of sugaring is a weak measure of climate change. The point though, is that even rather minor changes are, after all, being noticed. And if much larger changes do occur, as predicted, they will most certainly have impacts we can't ignore, even if we don't live in the Arctic or in Bangladesh. In other words, Seidl tells us, listen to the farmers and gardeners, and the observations of regular people: they are meaningful.
The soberness of Seidl's approach to the subject of climate change impacts contrasts starkly with that of many books before it. It couldn't be further, for example, from Mark Lynas's book, Six Degrees, which is a truly alarming read. In my comments on Six Degrees, I said that it wasn't an alarmist book. I stand by that characterization, because – and this is what I liked about it – it doesn't go beyond what is in the scientific literature. However, while Lynas's book is a straightforward reading of the scientific literature, it is a somewhat uncritical one, and hence tends to emphasize what might happen in the future over what will happen; this is a point that many readers of my review seem to have missed. Seidl's book, on the other hand, is focused on the more certain – and often less dramatic — things, and on the impacts we are likely to see in our own lifetimes.
The calm demeanor of Seidl's book, and the very personal nature of it, could lead one to think that it is primarily just a philosophical reflection on the climate change story. Indeed, Bill McKibben, in his introduction to Early Spring, says that in the face of changes we may not be able to prevent, "one of our tasks is simply to bear witness". Certainly, the book is partly that. But Seidl's voice, like Rachel Carson's before her, has the authentic and authoritative voice of a scientist, made all the more compelling for being very much rooted in the author's own story and experiences. And she doesn't pull punches when she has something definitive to say: "One thing is clear:" she writes, "we will not be able to manage the climate".
Early Spring has the potential to be immensely influential, a real turning point in the popular appreciation of climate change impacts among laypersons and scientists alike. Read it.

Government may countermand Boris Johnson over air quality fears

Ministers could challenge London mayor as concern mounts that failure to meet European directives on air quality may lead to £300m of fines
Hélène Mulholland, Tuesday 14 April 2009 12.24 BST

The government could overturn Boris Johnson's decision to suspend the third phase of London's low emission zone amid fears over EU air quality standards, it emerged today.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has instructed lawyers to consult existing legislation that gives the government powers to override the London mayor.
The move follows concerns that UK taxpayers could be fined up to £300m if strict European directives on air quality are not met.
It would be the first time the government has directly challenged the mayor by exercising its powers of direction, enshrined in the Greater London Authority Act 1999. The measure allows ministers to reverse a mayoral decision where policies for the devolved government clash with national decision making.
Defra's yet to be submitted application to the European commission for an extension on meeting EU air quality limits by 2011 was based on the assumption that the western extension of the London congestion charge, and the third phase of the low emission zone, would go ahead.
The low emission zone – first introduced by Johnson's predecessor, Ken Livingstone – was seen as a key measure for lowering harmful emissions in London, which suffers from some of the worst pollution levels in Europe.
However, Johnson last year announced plans to scrap the western extension of the congestion charge, and in February suspended the third phase of the low emission zone because of its "detrimental impact" on small businesses in the economic downturn.
In February, Johnson described the zone as a "totally senseless piece of policy" which he said would have been another tax on hard pressed businesses in the midst of a recession.
"I have absolutely every pride in defending what we did," he told the London assembly at the time. "It was completely right for the London economy."
With the threat of national embarrassment and multimillion pound fines in the longer term if Defra fails to have its air quality extension plans accepted, the department said Johnson would now have to deliver "equal, if not greater, benefits to improve air quality" in his air quality strategy, due this summer.
The European commission began "infraction" proceedings against 10 EU member states, including the UK, earlier this year for failing to comply with levels of particulate matter (PM10) – dangerous airborne particles emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating.
The Rogers review into local authority regulatory services, published in 2007, noted that poor air quality contributes to between 12,000 and 24,000 premature deaths each year.
Defra's own figures show that average life expectancy is reduced by up to eight months due to pollution from particulates.
The Campaign for Clean Air in London claims the third phase of the low emission zone would have protected 107,000 Londoners at risk of high nitrogen dioxide levels.
The scheme currently targets buses, coaches and the most polluting lorries over 3.5 tonnes.
Failure to meet the required emissions standards leads to a £200 daily charge, or a £1,000 daily fine if the charge is not paid.
Phase three of the scheme was scheduled to start in October next year and would have affected 90,000 much smaller vehicles, including vans and minibuses.
A daily £100 charge was due to be imposed on those that did not meet the emissions standards. Failure to pay would have incurred a £500 fine for each day that the vans entered the zone, which covers the Greater London area.
Defra declined to comment on whether lawyers had been instructed to look in detail at the department's powers under the act, but highlighted a specific government power of direction on air quality it could use to force the mayor to ensure measures in place at least compensate for the scrapping of the low emission zone.
A spokesman said: "The secretary of state can give directions under section 363 of the GLA Act, 'about the content of the London air quality strategy'.
"We would expect the mayor to put in place other measures that would deliver equal, if not greater, benefits to improve air quality if, after consultation, the third phase of the low emission zone is not implemented," the spokesman added.
Asked about other powers at its disposal, Defra pointed to the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2007 that would allow the secretary of state "to direct the mayor to implement alternative measures to meet the air quality limits set out in the directive".
Defra said it remained "confident of complying with European commission PM10 air quality limits by 2011" and confirmed that the UK's application would be submitted "shortly".
Simon Birkett, from the Campaign for Clean Air in London, warned that the measures put in place so far by Johnson "fall far short" of what is needed to reduce air pollutions in London.
Birkett said there was a worrying disparity of duty between the government, which is legally bound to reach air quality standards, and the mayor and local authorities, which merely have to show they are "working towards" targets.
He called on the government to work with the mayor to provide necessary funding to introduce one or more additional low emission zones in London and enable him to launch a major campaign to improve public understanding of poor air quality as part of a "win-win" for Londoners' health and the government's application.
Birkett said: "If a 'win-win' outcome is not within easy reach, the government should not hesitate or delay in issuing directions to the mayor to maintain implemented and planned air quality improvement measures and adopt new ones by specific deadlines."
Darren Johnson, a Green party member of the London assembly and the chair of the assembly's environment committee, which is looking at air quality measures for London, has written to Defra, urging it to consider its powers over the mayor in light of decisions he said had "seriously messed up" the government's own strategy.
"Unless the government and the London mayor can implement a big new idea to dramatically slash pollutants within the next twelve months, the government must be prepared to use its powers of direction," he said.
"The mayor's decisions to weaken both congestion charging and the low emission zone have been irresponsible and disastrous for London's environment."
The assembly report into air quality is expected later this month.

To stop a climate catastrophe we must first believe we can make a difference

If most people think we don't have a hope of keeping global warming below 2C, it is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy

James Randerson, Tuesday 14 April 2009 10.43 BST

Climate scientists are hyping the global warming crisis in order to keep themselves in jobs, conferences and research grants to exotic locations. Their snouts are wedged deep in a lucrative trough.
So goes the familiar chant from the climate naysayers – those who are convinced climate change is not caused by people nor that its effects are overblown.
So the results of the Guardian's poll of climate experts showing that most believe we don't have a hope in hell of keeping planetary warming to below 2C – the threshold the EU defines as "dangerous" – are all the more remarkable.
It blows the lid on a very different sort of conspiracy: that climate scientists have actually been toning down their message lest the worst-case scenario becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As one respondent put it, "Great things can only be achieved by everyone believing it can be done. How do you think the second world war was won? Churchill didn't stand around saying most people think we will lose the war. He said we will fight it on the beaches."
Far from over-playing their hand to swell their research coffers, scientists have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction.
Just 7% of the 261 experts surveyed (200 of whom were researchers in climate science or related fields) said they thought governments would succeed in restricting global warming to 2C. Nearly two-fifths thought this target was impossible and 46% thought a 3 to 4C rise by the end of the century was most likely.
A 3 or 4C rise might not sound much but the climatic shifts accompanying it would be massive. At 3C one to four billion extra people would face water shortages and 150 to 550 million more people would be at risk of hunger. With an extra degree of warming on top of that, seven million to 300 million would be put at risk of coastal flooding due to sea level rise.
In the face of such apocalyptic scenarios it is natural for people to feel like giving up. Small personal actions such as turning the TV off standby, turning down your thermostat and lagging the loft have always seemed pitiful in the face of a global catastrophe.
But if the scientists are saying the bad stuff is going to happen anyway then it is tempting to think we might as well stop punishing ourselves, jump on that no-frills flight and be done with it.
Unfortunately, the climate doesn't give us a milestone beyond which we can stop bothering. Warming the planet to 3C beyond pre-industrial levels is a lot worse than a 2C rise, but it is a walk in the park with mum buying you an ice-cream compared with a rise of 4C.
Likewise, stopping us getting near 5C is very much worth the effort. Sea-level rise at that global temperature increase will take out cities including London, New York and Tokyo. The poles will be transformed by warming.
Scientists must stop sanitising their message. World leaders and their people need to hear the warnings loud and clear and follow through with radical action that matches the scale of the crisis. Only if they do will future generations look back on what is looking decreasingly likely to be our "finest hour".

India demands climate change cash pledge

By Fiona Harvey in Bonn
Published: April 14 2009 16:34

India has thrown down the gauntlet to developed nations in the latest round of climate change talks, saying the developing world wants to see pledges of cash before it is prepared to discuss emissions curbs.
The move draws battle lines between rich and poor countries and threatens to halt progress on climate change: rich countries insisted that they cannot name sums before getting commitments that future emissions will be reduced.

Shyam Saran, special envoy to the Indian prime minister, said at a UN meeting in Bonn: “The question [of developing country curbs] should not be divorced from what financial support is available. Rather than ask, are you prepared to deviate from business as usual, the question is what kind of efforts are possible if adequate financial resources and technical resources are made available.”
Developing countries also want to see much bigger cuts in emissions from the developed world than have been proposed.
But the stand-off meant there was little progress at the meeting, the first in a series of UN talks this year that will culminate at a conference in Copenhagen in December to formalise a successor to the Kyoto protocol.
“This is a dangerous game to play,” warned Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the US Natural Resources Defense Council, who said there was little time by December to hammer out the details needed. “It’s chicken-and-egg. Finance is a key issue, and it’s dangerous as you have countries getting further away from each other instead of closer together.”
Connie Hedegaard, Danish minister for climate, who will be one of the hosts at Copenhagen, took the unusual step of chiding fellow ministers.
“The industrialised countries have not yet shown the necessary leadership,” she said. “Not leadership when it comes to reduction commitments. Not leadership when it comes to finance.”
Developed nations said it was crucial for emerging economies – which are overtaking rich countries as the biggest sources of emissions – to curb their greenhouse gases. While recognising that poorer nations might need to increase their emissions as their economies grow, they want emerging countries to ensure CO2 output is substantially lower than under “business as usual”.
Several developing nations demanded sums of between 1 per cent and 5 per cent of industrialised countries’ gross domestic product as the price for their co-operation. South Africa asked for enormous reductions in emissions from industrialised countries, including a 75 per cent cut in the UK by 2020.
Governments will meet again in June to discuss a draft text of the climate change treaty, and three times more before Copenhagen. But the failure to break the deadlock on finance would stall progress further, warned Stephanie Tunmore of Greenpeace: “As things stand, this exact same meeting will be repeated in June,” she said.
Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate change at the US State Department, said it was “improbable” that the US could produce figures on its financing offers by June. The European Union failed to agree on its financing offer last month.
Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official, said the stalemate could be broken. “There is a broad understanding that developed countries need to provide financial support and developing countries need to submit plans for actions. I don’t know which will come first but the right one will,” he said.
The talks were also remarkable for the way the US was fêted, as delegates relished the sight, not seen for eight years, of US officials agreeing with the rest of the world on the urgency of tackling emissions. Todd Stern, special envoy for climate change, was cheered and applauded when he announced: “We’re glad to be back.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009