Friday, 29 May 2009

America's On-Again, Off-Again Light Bulb Affair

When Electricity Is Cheap, Consumers Spurn Fluorescent and LED Models That Can Save Money Over Time
By JEFFREY BALL

How long does it take to change a light bulb? Nearly a century and a half, it seems, though a replacement has been around for decades.
In the push for energy efficiency, changing old habits is proving more difficult than developing new technology. In the case of the light bulb, consumers see little reason to switch from energy-draining conventional models to more-efficient alternatives as long as electricity remains cheap.

Thomas Edison unveiled his incandescent bulb in 1879, and since then it has illuminated the world. But it is highly inefficient, generating 90% heat and 10% light. "The only thing worse is a candle flame," says Terry McGowan, of the American Lighting Association, a trade group.
There is a better bulb. In fact, there are several. The spiral-shaped "compact fluorescent," around for years, produces the same amount of light as its incandescent ancestor with one-quarter the energy. It lasts for years, provides light in an array of hues, and, by lowering electricity bills, pays for itself in about seven months. And the latest bright idea, the light-emitting diode, costs even more but lasts far longer than compact fluorescents. LED bulbs have been used mostly for consumer electronics and in commercial applications such as traffic lights.
Studies say improving the efficiency of the light bulb is among the easiest ways to start meaningfully curbing fossil-fuel consumption. Lighting accounts for some 20% of residential electricity use in the U.S. -- a lot to fritter away as wasted heat. Yet about 80% of all bulbs sold to U.S. consumers are incandescents, which often cost less than 25 cents apiece, about one-tenth the price of a compact fluorescent.
"I buy the cheap ones," Dallas resident Betty Ferrell said the other day as she reached for a pack of incandescents at a local Wal-Mart store. "They may not be cheap in the long run," she said, "but they're cheap for what I have in my purse now."
In fact, Americans have been so reluctant to buy the new bulbs that the federal government is about to force their hand. A recent law will, in effect, ban incandescent bulbs for most uses by 2014.
But the switch to fluorescents won't settle consumers' dilemma about whether to pay now, for a more expensive bulb, or pay later, for more electricity. Consumers still will have the option of buying halogen bulbs, which fall in between incandescents and fluorescents in efficiency and price. And LEDs for household use are starting to show up in stores.
Never before has there been such a flowering of practical energy-saving products, from double-pane windows to front-loading washing machines to hybrid gasoline-and-electric cars. Yet they cost far more to buy than the less-efficient technologies they seek to replace -- a big hurdle in places like the U.S., where electricity is such a small component of most household budgets that it rarely plays a role in shopping decisions.
"If energy is dirt cheap, it gets treated like dirt," says Arthur Rosenfeld, a physicist who headed a team of scientists at the federal government's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California, that did some of the early development work on compact-fluorescent bulbs. "That's been the problem."
Mr. Edison's incandescent light bulb, introduced the same year as Ivory soap, is relatively simple. Inside the glass bulb sits a wire, or filament. When a switch is flipped, an electric current hits the filament, which heats up and glows.
The fluorescent bulb, launched commercially in the late 1930s, is more refined. It consists of a glass tube containing mercury and coated on the inside with phosphor. Electrified, the mercury vapor causes the phosphor molecules to vibrate, producing light.
The combination of the mercury and the phosphor produces less heat and more light than an incandescent, making it more efficient. Because the bulb has no filament that can break, it lasts longer. Typically, fluorescent light has a blue tinge, compared with incandescent light's reddish hue.
Fluorescents became popular in offices and factories in the 1940s. But they didn't catch on in homes. They required specialized fixtures. And Americans, raised on the warm glow of incandescents, found the fluorescent's sharper light harsh.
"Compact" versions that could be screwed into conventional incandescent sockets arrived after the oil shocks of the 1970s. But they were still too big to fit under many lampshades. The bulbs flickered and hummed. And their price -- about $20 apiece -- deterred most consumers, especially because oil prices slumped in the 1980s, damping the appeal of energy-saving devices.
By the start of this decade, the fluorescent bulb had progressed to its current squiggly shape. Costs fell as technology improved and production shifted to China. Based on average U.S. electricity prices, by 2005 the bulb paid for itself in less than a year, according to the Department of Energy. Just then, energy prices soared, sparking a big rise in sales.
But sales of compact fluorescents have dropped in the current recession, to 21% of total U.S. consumer light-bulb sales in 2008 from 23% in 2007, according to the DOE.
In Europe and Japan, where electricity costs more, fluorescent lights are more popular. To improve the bulbs' appeal to Americans, manufacturers are adjusting their phosphor blends to mimic redder incandescents. Fluorescent light "doesn't make you look as good," says Timothy Lesch, a vice president at Osram Sylvania, a big bulb manufacturer. He has compact fluorescent bulbs throughout his house, but not in those rooms where he spends a lot of time. "They're not in my den," he says.
As manufacturers continue tweaking, buying a light bulb has become a complicated venture. A Wal-Mart in Plano, Texas, outside Dallas, has nine varieties of bulbs claiming to fulfill the role of a traditional 60-watt incandescent. Some advertise "cool" light; others "soft." Promised lifetimes range from five years to eight. As for electricity savings, manufacturers claim anywhere from $36 to $56 a bulb.
Stacy Parks, financial manager for a Dallas information-technology company, bought the brightest compact fluorescents she could find to light her front walkway: 42-watt models, akin to blazing 150-watt incandescents. But when she tried out the bulbs, she says, the path "looked like a landing strip." She eventually replaced the bright lights with dimmer fluorescents.
Most industrial countries, including the U.S., are largely phasing out the incandescent over the next several years. Yet even if that pushes down the bulb's price further, as industry officials predict, consumers still will have to pay much more for a compact fluorescent than they are accustomed to paying for an incandescent.
And technology marches on. The LED is eclipsing the compact fluorescent as the cutting-edge bulb. Wal-Mart Stores has started selling a consumer LED bulb that uses just seven watts of electricity and claims to last for more than 13 years. It costs around $35 -- a daunting price tag for a light bulb. "We're kind of testing the waters," says Rand Waddoups, Wal-Mart's senior director of strategy and sustainability. "This is a behavior change, and that requires some work."
Write to Jeffrey Ball at jeffrey.ball@wsj.com

E-waste trade is the unacceptable face of recycling

Computer manufacturers must take responsibility for dealing with electronic waste to ensure toxic trash doesn't fall into the wrong hands

Fred Pearce
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 May 2009 13.03 BST

Electronic waste in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Guardian
Dell, the world's second largest PC manufacturer, announced earlier this month that it is imposing a ban on the export of used equipment bearing its name to developing countries – unless the equipment is in full working order and intended for legitimate use.
The idea is to undermine the huge trade in e-waste, too much of which ends up in giant trash piles in Africa, India and China, from where it is dismantled, burned, treated with corrosive chemicals and otherwise persuaded to give up tiny amounts of chemicals that can be sold on. The big question is why all the other manufacturers don't have a similar policy.
I've seen these toxic waste operations in action. They call it recycling, but it's extremely damaging. In an industrial wasteland outside New Delhi in India, I watched as children as young as eight dunked bare circuit boards in acid to create a residue of copper for sale to a local works. Child labour? You bet. Health and safety? You have to be joking.
A family of migrant boys from Bihar, India's poorest state, told me they got used to the acrid fumes that had them coughing and giddy within minutes of coming on the job. "At the end of the day we have a strong drink and we are OK," one laughed. It's an evil trade. But how do you stop it?
Dell admits that it cannot wave a magic wand and ban its used products from export. But it has a worldwide policy of accepting back without charge all used Dell equipment. It requires all its contractors to accept the used equipment, to follow the new rules – and to act as whistleblowers on rivals who do not.
"This is a very significant announcement," Barbara Kyle of the Electronics Takeback Coalition in the US told Associated Press earlier this month.
The e-waste trade is the unacceptable face of recycling. Greenpeace reckons that as much as 80% of the electronic waste sent for recycling in the US ends up being "recycled" using dangerous low-tech methods in foreign countries. And, despite Europe's tougher laws, a lot gets through the net there, too.
Just a few months ago, Computer Aid International, a charity that gives old computers a new life in schools and other places in developing countries, criticised Britain's Environment Agency for failing to conduct an investigation after British e-waste turned up in the hands of child dismantlers in west Africa.
"What are the other manufacturers doing to ensure a responsible outcome for the equipment?" asked Tony Roberts, of Computer Aid International. "All manufacturers should be held accountable for the disposal of any product manufacturer by them."
Many other companies offer take-back services. But that is very different from imposing rules on their supply chains. And on closer examination, the take-back services often seem half-hearted at best.
The printer maker Lexmark is currently covering Britain with posters advertising its environmental credentials and encouraging users of its printers to print less. Good for them. But what about the e-waste?
In the US, if you want to safely recycle an old Lexmark printer, you have to pay the bill for shipping your printer back to its offices in Tennessee.
A study by Greenpeace this month of the environmental record of electronics companies did not give Dell a great record because it had been slow to eliminate some toxic ingredients from its products. But at least it is now taking a strong stand about making sure those toxins don't get into the wrong hands and it should rise up the Greenpeace chart.
Its rivals will have to do a lot better to keep up. Greenpeace singled out the largest computer manufacturer Hewlett Packard on its handling of e-waste. HP claims to have been "an industry leader in reducing its impact on the environment ... for 50 years", but Greenpeace didn't agree. It criticised HPs weak scheme for voluntary take-back of its equipment amongst other things.
Also criticised for failing to handle e-waste were Acer and Lenovo, whose "commitment to social responsibility" does not highlight e-waste.
These companies need to quit the greenwash and get real about ending this bogus recycling business.
• Do you know of any green claims that deserve closer examination? Email your examples to greenwash@guardian.co.uk or add your comments below

California fires up laser fusion machine


Success at National Ignition Facility could pave the way for commercial laser fusion power stations and provide a solution to world energy crisis
Ian Sample, science correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 May 2009 18.15 BST


National Ignition Facility will harness the power of lasers to turn hydrogen pellets into energy. Photograph: National Ignition Facility
A tentative first step towards an era of clean, almost limitless energy will take place today with the opening of a giant facility designed to recreate the power of the stars in an oversized warehouse in California.
The $3.5bn National Ignition Facility (NIF) sits in a 10-storey building covering three football fields and will harness the power of lasers to turn tiny pellets of hydrogen into thermonuclear energy.
If the machine works as planned, it will become the first to generate more energy than it consumes, a feat that could pave the way for commercial laser fusion power stations and an end to the world's energy security problems.
The building, which has taken almost 15 years to build and commission, is due to be opened in a ceremony attended by the US energy secretary, Steven Chu, and the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has said the facility could "revolutionise our energy future".
"If they're successful, it will be a very big deal. No one has achieved a net gain in energy before," said Derek Stork, assistant technical director at the UK United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA)'s centre for fusion research in Culham, Oxfordshire.
Inside the building, scientists will use the world's most powerful laser to create 192 separate beams of light that will be directed at a bead of frozen hydrogen in a violent burst lasting five billionths of a second. Each fuel pellet measures just two millimetres across but costs around $40,000, because they must be perfectly spherical to ensure they collapse properly when the laser light strikes.
The intense beams produce a powerful shockwave that crunches the fuel pellet at a million miles an hour, generating temperatures of around 100,000,000C. Under such extreme conditions, which are found only in the core of stars, the hydrogen atoms will fuse, producing helium and vast amounts of energy.
The facility will gradually work up to full power over the next 12 months or so, but experiments are scheduled to run until around 2040.
If the NIF succeeds, politicians will be under pressure to invest in the technology to develop a first generation of demonstration plants to feed fusion energy into electricity grids.
Plans for a laser fusion plant have been drawn up at UKAEA in Culham. The Hiper project would use two lasers to produce power from seawater and lithium, an abundant element.
"When this works, it will immediately change the future energy map for the world. One cubic kilometre of sea water has the fusion energy equivalent of whole world's oil reserves," said John Parris at the Hiper project. That would overturn concerns over energy security caused by vast amounts of the globe's oil been locked up beneath a small number of nations.
The NIF facility must overcome major technical hurdles before scientists can start celebrating. The laser at the heart of the facility can only fire a handful of times a day. In between each shot, the hydrogen fuel pellet needs to be replaced. Over the coming years, scientists want to see improvements that allow the facility to run continuously. That could mean firing the laser 10 times a second, at fuel pellets that are shot mid air as they are dropped into the fusion chamber.

Harnessing India's Technological Potential

By RAJEEV MANTRI
Over the last decade, clean technology and nanotechnology have emerged as prominent investment themes in venture capital.

According to New York-based research firm Lux Research, venture capital investment in cleantech and nanotech has grown at about 40% annually since 1997. Rapid advances in the physical sciences and materials engineering have ushered in everything from hybrid-electric cars and lighter airplanes with substantially enhanced fuel efficiency to eco-friendly specialty chemicals and stain-resistant apparel.
As China and India industrialize, there is a glaring need for such innovation to ensure that limited natural resources are consumed with high efficiency. Venture capitalists have a key role to play in fostering that innovation.
VCs typically consider India to be just a technology deployment market. That view is too narrow: India has not just the entrepreneurial competence but also the scientific talent to invent and lead in science-driven innovation.
“Profit is still a dirty word in India's academic circles.”
The American model for technology commercialization has proven to be highly successful. Corporate giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Genentech and Google took root at universities.
More recently, President Barack Obama unveiled the government's biggest infrastructure investment plan since the creation of the U.S. highway system with energy efficiency as its cornerstone.
Prof. C. N. R. Rao, chairman of the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council and one of India's most distinguished scientists, has worked tirelessly for the cause of science education and research, recently obtaining a grant of over $200 million from the central government for fundamental research in materials science and nanotechnology. When I met him in July last year, he lamented the lack of enthusiasm for science and technology in India, and commended China's nationalist zeal for building prowess in high-technology.
There is no dearth of scientific ability in India, but Indians prefer to work in laboratories abroad thanks to the lack of cutting-edge infrastructure in their home country. What's missing here are incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Indian government has promoted investment in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, and these sectors are beginning to see some traction. However, India is still way behind both the U.S. and China.
Economist Joseph Schumpeter feted the entrepreneur as the growth-driver of an economy, the "wild spirit" who would cause creative destruction by innovation and disruption. A market-based mechanism must be adopted, but the government has a vital role to play in setting effective policies. The government should invest in basic scientific research and introduce reforms in higher education, allowing for the creation of more world-class universities.
Culturally, Indian scientists are hesitant to partner with entrepreneurs and external investors. For some Indians, the traditional concept of education clashes with the notion of commerce. Profit is still a dirty word in India's academic circles. This malaise is partly caused by the red tape stifling Indian educational institutions.
Basic mechanisms for technology transfer are absent or deficient at leading Indian universities. When the appropriate systems are in place and research institutions are forthcoming, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs can license and commercialize technology, moving it from the lab to the market. Taxpayers get a return on their investment in the form of better products and increased productivity if investors and entrepreneurs are able to beat the odds and succeed.
Otherwise, research remains research. IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay have taken the lead by establishing sophisticated infrastructure for technology transfer and venture incubation. I've seen technology transfer offices at some of the world's leading universities, and the offices at these two Indian institutions are comparable to the best. Others would do well to follow their example.
The next step should be the establishment of a national group to represent the voice of science-driven innovation, on the lines of the Indian information technology industry's Nasscom. With prudent government policy and a thriving ecosystem, private capital can kick-start the transformation of laboratory inventions into marketable products.
India missed the information technology and electronics manufacturing wave. If India is to transform itself from an economy driven by agriculture and services to one with high-technology industry and manufacturing as its bedrock, it should put in place effective policies to ride the new Schumpeterian wave of creative destruction driven by physical sciences-based technology.—Rajeev Mantri is executive director of Navam Capital, a Kolkata-based venture capital firm

Helius burns bright on the slope of enlightenment

By Philip Stafford
Published: May 29 2009 03:00

It should be boom time for the UK's emerging renewables and clean energy technology companies.
The opening of Britain's largest onshore wind park this week highlighted that projects to replace ageing fossil fuel-based power stations are under way.
With President Obama's plan to invest $150bn (£94bn) over the next 10 years in renewable energy and UK plans to harness the tidal power of the River Avon, government support has never been higher.
Even so, the danger is that investors will get carried away with the hype of projects that will take years to bear fruit.
Ernst & Young estimates the UK's energy companies would have to find another £234bn by 2025 to secure energy supplies and meet European Union targets.
Yet the short-term prospects for many projects are tough, with many dependent on improved bank lending to finance projects.
Bucking the trend is Helius Energy, which floated on Aim in 2007 to develop a UK portfolio of biomass plants that generate electricity. Proponents say biomass, which converts organic matter into power, could supply as much as 50 per cent of the world's primary energy needs by 2050.
Results this week showed a pre-tax profit of £18,875 against a loss of £1.17m a year ago. The company had net cash of £16.8m, largely derived from the sale of the rights to an unbuilt biomass power plant to RWE Innogy, the German utility group, for £28m last September.
RWE will invest a further €260m (£206m) to complete the plant at Stallingborough in Lincolnshire, which will run on waste wood, usually offcuts and tree wastage typically sent to landfill sites. Helius will also receive 13 per cent of the yearly earnings from the plant for the first 24 years of its operation.
Just as it promised in its Aim admission prospectus, Helius is using the sale of the project to fund similar developments such as a 7MW plant at Rothes in Scotland. The company has also applied for planning permission for a 100MW site at Avonmouth, near Bristol, which would use woodchip.
The main costs for a biomass plant are centred around gathering and transportation of feedstuff for the project. John Seed, group's managing director, disputes press reports doubting whether there is sufficient global quantity of feedstuffs.
In Helius's case, the Rothes plant will use waste from Speyside whisky distilleries as its feedstock. The Avonmouth plant is adjacent to the port to transport biomass from overseas.
The optimism has seen Helius's shares rise 85 per cent in six months yet it must be noted that we have been here before.
Two years ago London's listed renewable companies saw spikes in their share prices as investors became attuned to the energy issue and a steadily rising crude oil price.
The trajectory of companies such as Ceres Power, Ocean Power Technologies, Clipper WindPower and Novera Energy has often followed that of the Hype Cycle as envisaged by Gartner, the research group, in which early executive and investor enthusiasm is brought crashing down before a sense of realism pervades the sector.
Helius's business has all the hallmarks of the "slope of enlightenment" part of the cycle, where it sees innovation being used to good effect.
In Helius's case, it plans to use an industrial process not too far removed from current techniques to help energy companies meet renewable energy targets. That part of the cycle is also characterised by steadier growth but far less spectacular than the hype suggests.
Aim bounces back
For all the questions about Aim's corporate governance standards, the past month has been a reminder of the junior market's greatest strength; its ability to raise money.
The £200m flotation of Max Property and fundraisings by Vertu Motors and Platmin have boosted the statistics.
According to the London Stock Exchange, £470m had been raised in the first three weeks of May, which means it is likely to be the best month for fundraising since the £1bn achieved in June last year.
Perhaps the most interesting comment came from Advanced Computer Software, which raised £43m for its plans to consolidate the software market in the primary care market of the NHS.
ACS could have turned to private investors. After all, it was created by Vin Murria, chief executive, from a series of venture capital firms including Elderstreet Investments. Elderstreet's backer Michael Jackson built Sage, the healthcare software group, into an FTSE 100 company.
Yet Ms Murria said public markets gave money faster, on less onerous terms, and didn't impose the controls or the due diligence of private equity.
It's a clear statement from a highly experienced executive of why Aim remains an attractive option for budding companies.
philip.stafford@ft.com David Blackwell is away
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

The prize and the price: environmental fears


Alok Jha
The Guardian, Thursday 28 May 2009

What is at stake in the Arctic?
The biggest prize is the oil, gas and other minerals. These have been trapped under layers of permanent ice until now but, because of global warming, the deposits are becoming more accessible and surrounding countries are readying for a battle over rights. The amounts are relatively small compared with the present production of fossil fuels, but could be important locally. Finding copious oil near Greenland could allow it become more independent of Denmark. Oil reserves near Alaska could reduce the US need for foreign oil.
The retreating ice will also open up shipping routes, including the north-west passage that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for year-round commercial shipping. In the 19th century, sailors dreamed of such a route as it would have halved the time it takes to get between Japan and northern Europe.
Warming seas will also mean greater numbers of fish can be caught for food, and greater opportunities for tourism.
Who owns the Arctic?
Anything in international waters is regulated by the UN law of the sea convention, which has been ratified by all the Arctic countries except the US (though President Barack Obama is likely to support the treaty). The treaty allows countries to extend their control and exploitation of the seabed up to 350 nautical miles from their borders. This can lead to disputes over how different countries define their borders, particularly when the continental slope can extend for many miles underwater.
What are the disputes?
There are several. Russia began the land grab in 2001 and even planted a flat under the north pole in 2007, but none of these acts have much formal acceptance. One disagreement concerns the Lomonosov ridge, a 1,200-mile underwater mountain range connecting Siberia to Ellesmere Island in Canada. Russia claims it is part of the Asian continental shelf, but Canada says it is part of the North American one. UN scientists will make the final decision, but Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the US are all engaged in research projects to make sure their case is heard.
In recent months, Russia has become increasingly twitchy: a Kremlin security strategy views the Barents sea shelf and other Arctic regions as potential battlegrounds in future clashes over energy reserves.
What are the environmental consequences?
If all the oil and gas that is thought to be in the Arctic is drilled out, it will inevitably mean an acceleration in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Opening up new fisheries, unless done sustainably, could wipe out marine and other ecosystems around the pole. This would be exacerbated by the effects of increased merchant and tourist shipping. Whatever happens to the Arctic in the coming decades, it is unlikely to be beneficial.

Carbon trading and cash values on forests cannot curb carbon emissions

Climate change solutions cannot be created by unfettered markets, despite what business leaders think

Oscar Reyes
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 May 2009 16.27 BST

When Sir Crispin Tickell had the temerity to suggest that "the business community needs to re-examine the fundamentals of economics" at the recent World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen, his discordant tone was drowned out by a chorus of more than 800 delegates singing the praises of unfettered markets as a means to tackle climate change.
The commitment to carry on with business as usual took an almost surreal form at times. Indra Nooyi, the chief executive officer of PepsiCo, proudly proclaimed: "The fact that I flew here for 1 1/2 hours to sit on a panel them I'm flying straight back to the US is an example of our commitment to environmental sustainability."
More worryingly, plans for low-carbon technology give the expansion of high-carbon coal power pride of place. The promotional rhetoric is of Carbon Capture and Storage [CCS background guide], yet those from the power sector are blunt about its shortcomings. "One of the plants we are building is CCS ready, although to be quite frank no one really knows what that is at the moment," claimed Steve Lennon, managing director of South Africa's Eskom.
The underlying problem is that business adjusts the problem of climate change to neoliberal economics, which judges value according to financial cost rather than environmental sustainability or social justice. This manifests itself in a promise to massively expand carbon markets [emissions trading background guide]. The idea is that governments give out a limited number of permits to pollute; the scarcity of these permits should encourage their price to rise; and the resulting additional cost to industry and power producers should encourage them to pollute less.
Jos Delbeke, deputy director-general for the environment at the European commission, was in Copenhagen claiming that this is how the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is now working. Yet his department's own data for 2008 shows more international "offset" credits circulating than the level of claimed reductions, while lobbying pressure has resulted in a twin-track system from which every business wins.
On one side, heavy industry like the steel sector has more credits than would be needed to reduce its emissions, so it sells them. Delbeke shared a panel on carbon markets with a representative of ArcelorMittal, which alone gained an estimated subsidy of more than €1bn between 2005 and 2008 by this means.
On the other side, power companies pay less for pollution permits than the cost they pass on to consumers, generating windfall profits that could reach up to around €70bn by 2012. The circulation of these permits does nothing to help new investment in renewables.
Other measures to avoid business obligations displace the problem of tackling climate change on to developing countries. The Summit's final Copenhagen Call talks of a crucial role for forest protection in developing countries, and that such measures should represent around half of the action needed to limit climate change by 2020.
These figures are taken directly from Project Catalyst, an initiative bringing together "climate negotiatiors, senior government officials... and business executives", whose presentation (marked confidential) more straightforwardly emphasises the "the size of the prize for business". It also speaks of the opportunities for "companies in forest management, pulp and paper, or construction" to access a "€20-30bn value chain" in developing countries.
Strikingly similar assumptions have found their way into negotiating texts on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which will be discussed when UN climate negotiations resume in Bonn next week. Yet the whole idea that deforestation can be stopped by simply putting a price on forests is flawed, with forest communities and indigenous peoples warning that it will encourage further land grabs by large companies. They point to evidence that the real drivers of deforestation are the major construction, mining, logging and plantation developments whose owners stand to be rewarded by REDD funds.
These are the voices that the world should be listening to as it seeks to tackle climate change. Even the self-proclaimed "progressives" of big business seem to be putting profit margins above environmental need. Without a more fundamental re-examination, to paraphrase one panellist, they look set to remain on the back end of a horse that is galloping in the wrong direction.
• Oscar Reyes is a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Transnational Institute, and environment editor of Red Pepper magazine.

The mood at Carbon Expo is upbeat as most expect a deal at Copenhagen

Speakers urge market makers to be more involved with influencing policy, while law firms, banks and brokers are confident they will make money whatever the outcome

Bryony Worthington
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 May 2009 12.23 BST

All major carbon-emitting countries should expect to be part of a deal at the Copenhagen climate talks in December or face consequences. That was the message from the UN's special envoy on climate change, Ricardo Lagos, who was speaking at the Carbon Expo conference in Barcelona yesterday.
His keynote lecture gave an insight into the UN's current thinking about the all-important deal. The world, he accepts, has changed significantly since the time that Kyoto was negotiated – a reference to the fact that the old labels of "developed" and "developing" countries, which underpin the existing protocol, are now out of date. And, he warned, a failure to agree to a new plan would likely result in protective trade measures being applied in those countries with domestic policies already in place – currently only the EU but soon to be joined by the US and potentially other countries including South Korea and Australia.
He outlined a mechanism for involvement that could help to encourage new countries in, instead of top-down calculated targets which would apply in the OECD, non-OECD countries could bid on voluntary targets but these would then be entered into a registry and become binding. This sounds a pragmatic solution to the current impasse created by the current scheme. The US will refuse to agree if China remains outside the deal, whereas China refuses to take on targets until the west has shown it is serious about repaying the climate debt it created through rapid and early industrialisation.
Nearly everyone you speak to here expects a deal will be reached. There is still, however, a great deal of nervousness that the policy makers gathering next week in Bonn under the auspices of the UN, may craft a deal that looks superficially attractive, but doesn't provide the clarity of purpose that private sector investors in the carbon market seek. For example, there is talk that the new treaty once agreed will only last for five to eight years, requiring renegotiation almost as soon as it has been agreed. This kind of stop-start policy making is useless for those planning long-term infrastructure investment.
The nature of the targets in the deal are also important – if there is not enough ambition then demand for clean technologies and emissions-reducing projects could dry up. Similarly, what happens if large sources of cheap emissions reductions from avoided deforestation are included? The fear is that without an additional mechanism to incentivise this sort of emissions reduction, there will be a massive influx of permits generated by countries choosing to protect rather than exploit their forest reserves, which would kill the carbon price and delay investment in all other forms of projects.
The solution, it would seem, is more interaction between the policy makers and the market makers. More than one speaker yesterday urged the industry to become more actively involved in lobbying to influence the policy process. One country delegate I spoke to expressed his surprise that more policy people weren't present at this conference, since their decisions would have such a direct effect on the people here.
It seems that even though the carbon market is, as one speaker put it, an entirely "artificial market" exposed to the whims of political will, there is an unwillingness to get too involved in that political process. It may be because private investment is relatively fleet of foot and often focused on achieving a short-term profit – certainly the law firms, banks and brokers here seem relaxed that they can make money whatever the circumstances. A World Bank report, published yesterday, showed that the value of the global carbon market doubled last year – apparently lending support to this view, particularly since over a fifth of the total trade was in the "secondary" market, meaning that it had nothing to do with activities that actually reduce carbon.
But more optimistically it may be that they also, paradoxically, have a longer term strategic view: climate change is not going to go away, so whatever the minutiae of the latest UN protocol says, they are in the right business.
And so the mood in Barcelona is generally upbeat – as you'd expect in a city that has just won the European championship and spent the night celebrating. Whether the reality of a hangover dampens optimism today remains to be seen.
• Bryony Worthington is director of Sandbag.org.

A green deal needs everyone's input

Civil society must work with big business and science to create a global climate change deal – or risk losing its influence

Tan Copsey
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 May 2009 17.30 BST

In Copenhagen this week, the great and not so good of the corporate world gathered to discuss what they wanted from a global deal on climate change. Chief executives of American energy companies spoke in southern drawls to their European counterparts and a few Chinese and Indian executives. Two months ago, the world's top climate scientists held a summit in the same place where they compiled their latest, frightening research and demanded policy-makers pay attention. But in Copenhagen, among the comfortable global elite, I was struck by an obvious absence. Where were the environmentalists? For that matter why is there no global gathering of civil society in Copenhagen which articulates what people, rather than just business, want from a global deal?
The business and scientific communities have had their say. A fair climate treaty needs more input from the environmental groups who helped put climate change on the international political agenda. Ideas they promoted frame the, admittedly imperfect, Kyoto protocol and ensure that concerns of equity and fairness shape efforts to reduce emissions.
Next week negotiators in Bonn, Germany will begin whittling down a draft negotiating text for a new global treaty, to be agreed in December. It may already be too late for a grand global peoples' congress Рso why not a series of inter-connected, rough-and-ready national events, linked using the web? It would probably be easier than trying to get Danish visas for representatives of the Organisation de d̩fense de l'environnement au Burundi on short notice and use considerably less carbon. Noisy, diverse and messy Рmultiple gatherings of environmentalists, religious leaders and representatives of indigenous people would be something to behold and would impart a very different message to world leaders. Of course it is not easy to influence global political elites. But some politicians, at least in this country, have actually asked for more action from environmental groups. At global climate negotiations in Poznan last year Ed Miliband, secretary of state for energy and climate change, suggested that "we need a mass movement Рlike Make Poverty History".
As well as getting their own message out, civil society also needs to get better at engaging with other communities, particularly business. This week, attendance at the lavish world business summit was free for civil society organisations. But only a few showed up and an opportunity to confront and engage with global elites was missed. If you're not there, then people speak for you. In Copenhagen I lost count of the number of jokes made about the silly, immature left and references to stereotypical environmental views.
But engagement doesn't have to mean compromise. When executives discussed how to make money from poorer countries adapting to climate change, there should have been strong green voices challenging the surreal notion that western corporations should profit from a problem they helped create.
Environmental groups also need to campaign smarter. 350, an innovative global campaign for stabilising emissions at 350 parts per million, provides a case in point. They plan to hold a global day of action on 24 October this year. But by then any reference to their desired target will probably be negotiated out of the treaty.
Between now and December the United Nations and the host Danish government must do all they can to allow representatives of civil society as much input as scientific, business and political communities. More than that, members of civil society must demand access. It is worth remembering that an agreement will only succeed in reducing emissions if it is fair, just and equitable, and promotes global participation.

John Kerry hails progress of US-China climate talks

Kerry's comments mark a further sweetening of the mood music between the US and China, which together account for almost half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 May 2009 13.25 BST

Climate talks between the United States and China have entered a crucial few weeks that will determine the outcome of landmark negotiations in Copenhagen later this year, according to US senator John Kerry.
Speaking in Beijing, the former presidential candidate and chairman of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee, said he was hopeful that an agreement can be reached after what he described as the "most constructive and productive" talks he has had with China over climate change in 20 years.
"Based on these meetings, I am very optimistic at the possibility of producing a successful outcome in Copenhagen," said Kerry, who has been involved in negotiations since 1988.
The senator's comments mark a further sweetening of the mood music between the two nations that together account for almost half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, but this has yet to translate into concrete progress.
In their formal positions, the two sides remain far apart. China wants developed nations to make a 40% in emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels, far above the goal set by President Obama's administration.
The United States wants China to set voluntary but verifiable goals to reduce its energy use and, in the longer term, to join richer nations in cutting overall emissions.
But Kerry said senior Chinese politicians had shown a willingness to compromise, particularly over the 40% target that he described as politically impossible in the US at present.
By sharing know-how and conducting joint research into renewable and energy-saving technology, he said China would realise that it can go beyond its current target of a 20% cut in energy intensity relative to economic growth.
The Chinese government has already tripled its target for wind power and will soon announce a $200bn investment in clean energy, Kerry said.
He quoted first vice-premier Li Keqiang as saying "Let's do it" with regard to bilateral cooperation in the field.
Major sticking points remain over the question of which nations will pay and how much will be spent on measures to mitigate climate change and its impact. It is also far from certain that China will agree to the stringent verification process sought by the US.
How far each side is willing to compromise will be largely determined in June, when the chief US negotiator Todd Stern visits Beijing, US politicians consider new legislation to cut emissions and the United Nations hosts international talks in Bonn at which the first negotiating texts will be on the table.
US house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said the possibility of a deal on the environment could transform relations between the world's richest and most populous nations.
"I do see this opportunity for climate change to be ... a game-changer," she told students at the elite Tsinghua University. "The impact of climate change is a tremendous risk to the security and wellbeing of our countries."
In a sign of shifting priorities, Pelosi has been noticeably quiet about China's human rights record during this week's visit. She was previously a vociferous critic of Beijing's controls on the media, political activists, lawyers and religious groups.
Many doubt the two nations are being ambitious enough. If China sticks to its current energy efficiency goals and growth rate, the consultancy McKinsey estimates that its emissions will double by 2030.
"That will swamp everything that Europe and the US is willing to do," said Charlie McElwee, a Shanghai-based environmental lawyer.

Stop burning trees and coal

The Times
May 29, 2009
Camilla Cavendish

Many things need urgent attention if we want to protect the biosphere, but two stand out: trees and coal. Both are part of the natural cycle which we all sketched at school: trees use sunlight to take carbon out of the air, and return that carbon to the Earth — partly as coal — as they decay. But the rate at which we are now burning the trees — and the coal — is pushing us towards unnatural disaster.
Forests, particularly tropical ones, are the world’s last, best and cheapest insurance policy against climate change and species extinction. They are ancient, complex ecosystems which store water and regulate rainfall and are home to perhaps half the world’s plant and animal species. We are destroying them at an alarming rate, however: deforestation and new land cultivation accounts for almost 20 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year. That’s more than is produced by every car, ship, lorry and aircraft on the planet. It’s more than is produced by either the US or China. We cannot combat climate change if we keep destroying forests.
If trees are an insurance policy, coal is the fuel which could really burn the house down. Coal is the dirtiest and most plentiful of the fossil fuels. It is also the cheapest — a dirty trick played on us by Nature — which is why it is the fastest growing fuel in the world. It provides almost 30 per cent of the world’s energy and half of America’s electricity-generating capacity. The world is set to use a great deal of coal in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency; about half of it in China and India — but if we burn all the coal in the ground, without trapping the carbon dioxide, we could face runaway climate change.
It is the potential irreversibility of the process that is most alarming. At some level, most of us understand that the complex ecosystems we have taken for granted are fundamental to our survival. In the past 18 months, debates about whether the climate is warming have given way to the realisation that change is happening faster than most scientists had expected. As the white, reflective Arctic sea ice melts, the dark ocean absorbs more sunlight, accelerating the melting. If the permafrost on land thaws it will release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which would in turn cause more warming. Tipping points such as these could turn global warming into mankind’s biggest mistake, with consequences visible from the moon.
We find it hard to contemplate the enormity of these changes, to comprehend our place in the natural cycle, to act on problems that are so much bigger than we are. In our daily lives we continue to make choices that move the dial another fraction in the wrong direction. We write cheques to save cute monkeys from extinction, but buy soap made from palm oil, the production of which has devastated the forests where the monkeys lived. We show off the cloth bags we bought to reduce waste, then fill them with plastic bottles containing water we could have drunk free from the tap, knowing that the bottles will be shipped to China and burnt. This cognitive dissonance — so terribly human — is exacerbated because climate change is an international problem, which must be solved globally. So we are always looking to someone else to solve it.
We’re going to have to stop waiting for someone else to act. The solutions must come from the West; not just because the bulk of the man-made greenhouse gases still in the atmosphere were put there by the British, American and German industrial revolutions, but also because we have the most money and know-how. Indonesia is going to keep clearing forests to make way for agricultural land until it becomes more profitable to preserve the trees. China and India will build more dirty coal plants until cleaner ones become financially viable. The big questions are how the industrialised West is going to find the money to get the industrialising nations to do the right thing, and how to ensure that the money actually achieves the objective.
ENDING DEFORESTATION There is currently no value attached to a live tree, standing on peat-rich soil, in a tropical rainforest. A pile of dead timber is profitable and so is a patch of cultivatable land. So how do we change things so that trees are worth more alive than they are dead?
First, forests need to be part of any new climate change regime. Second, countries need to be paid for them. Various proposals are under discussion, mostly variations on the theme of letting countries claim carbon “credits” for valuable trees, which they could then trade. The Prince of Wales has suggested issuing rainforest bonds that could attract private sector capital, particularly from pension funds. Those bonds would be guaranteed by developed nations. Satellite monitoring means that it is easier than it might seem to check whether a country has fulfilled its promises to preserve trees. The Brazilian space agency already publishes regular, detailed pictures of the Amazon, and it has offered to make its technology available to other rainforest nations.
The biggest problems lie elsewhere. First, it is questionable to what extent many governments actually control their forests. Most will have to build partnerships involving federal, state and municipal authorities, plus local people and business interests. That is a challenge. Second, there is a real danger that issuing vast numbers of cheap credits for forests will kill the global carbon price.
CLEANING UP COAL It is not yet realistic to expect China, India or indeed South Africa (which has vast coal reserves) to stop burning coal — their governments would be committing political suicide.The focus, instead, is on convincing them to capture the emissions from coal plants and pump them underground. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Some carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants are already being built at small scale, and none of the components they use are new. The big unknown is the cost. Current estimates are that CCS will roughly double the cost of a new power plant, so unless the West takes a lead there is scant chance that Asia will take action. And the West is dragging its heels, although Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California, has effectively outlawed the building of any new coal-fired power plants that do not include CCS.
Even if CCS can be successfully built, the question is how to finance the transition. Straight transfers of money from Western taxpayers to Eastern governments were always going to be fraught with difficulty, even if the world had not been in deep recession. Hopes are, instead, being pinned on trying to create a global carbon price. One way to do this is to impose a carbon tax on pollution; a clear and simple mechanism, but it may prove difficult to persuade countries to harmonise levels. The alternative is to create a “cap and trade” scheme, in which companies are given permits to pollute, which they can sell if they are not needed. This puts a price on pollution, which rises as the number of permits is gradually reduced.
Cap and trade can be spectacularly successful. It almost eradicated sulphur dioxide from American factories in the 1990s after Congress became concerned about acid rain. Companies that had to pay to pollute changed their processes faster than anyone had expected. It is also the basis for the EU’s European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which runs until 2012 (which has, admittedly, been less effective, chiefly because protectionist governments have handed out too many permits). Crucially, the process of trading permits creates funds to help companies or countries to clean up their act. Under the ETS, money is already flowing from the West to clean up the East through something called the Clean Development Mechanism. There are flaws in that mechanism but, in principle, it offers the prospect of a global pile of money to reward good behaviour — which could be large enough to bring China and India to the negotiating table. Without them, the Copenhagen negotiation will be pointless.
COPENHAGEN: THE NITTY GRITTY The greatest barriers to meaningful agreement at the summit are probably:
• Differing levels of ambition (too few countries prepared to keep warming below the “safe” consensus of 2C);
• Inability to agree on the necessary funds;
• Legal wrangling. At the moment, it is still not clear whether what will be negotiated is an entirely new treaty, or amendments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or amendments to the Kyoto Protocol (to which the US is not a signatory). This will be discussed at the Bonn Climate Change talks next week.
Four outcomes are possible:
• Breakthrough: big agreements on big things, including a second commitment period for emissions trading after 2012 (without which it will be harder for President Obama to convince senators to back a US cap and trade scheme);
• Breakdown: spectacular failure to agree anything important (though this could at least galvanise a public outcry and sense of urgency);
• Stall, then recovery: an agreement in principle, pending resolution of certain outstanding issues. That is what happened with the Kyoto Protocol;
• Stall, then breakdown: an agreement in principle, pending resolution of certain issues which prove insuperable. This would be the most dangerous outcome, because it will mask the reality of breakdown by enabling participants to pretend that progress has been made.
Copenhagen offers a unique opportunity for the world to act in time. On January 1 this year, the Rio Tinto adviser and environmentalist Tom Burke wrote a new year letter to me and other friends. It contained this striking paragraph: “The punctuation of history is denoted by the names of the places where order was restored after chaos had prevailed — Westphalia, Versailles, San Francisco. It is not an exaggeration to say that the implications of what happens — or does not — in Copenhagen in December will do more to shape human destiny for longer than any of them. For the nature of the climate is such that the future cannot redeem today’s mistakes. In the most literal sense, the sins of the fathers will indeed be visited on the sons and well beyond the third and fourth generation.”
The challenges are immense. But human intelligence, which got us into this mess, is also our passport out of it.

Global warming must stay below 2C or world faces ruin, scientists declare

The Times
May 28, 2009


Mark Henderson, Science Editor

World carbon emissions must start to decline in only six years if humanity is to stand a chance of preventing dangerous global warming, a group of 20 Nobel prize-winning scientists, economists and writers declared today.
The United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in December must agree to halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 to stop temperatures from increasing by more than 2C (3.6F), the St James’s Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium concluded.
While even a 2C temperature rise will have adverse consequences, a bigger increase would create “unmanageable climate risks”, according to the St James’s Palace memorandum, signed today by 20 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, economics, peace and literature.

The temperature target “can only be achieved with a peak of global emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2015”, the document said. If emissions continue to rise after that date, the required cuts would become unachievable. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a convenor of the symposium, likened the urgency for action on climate change to the threat of thermonuclear weapons during the Cold War.
“We are facing a crisis as deep as the arms race of the 1950s and 1960s and the Cold War notion of mutually assured destruction,” he said. “Today we have mutually assured increases in greenhouse gases.”
He said the memorandum echoed a manifesto signed in 1955 when Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and nine other intellectuals called for world leaders to seek peaceful resolutions to international conflict.
“Global climate change represents a threat of similar proportions and should be addressed in a similar manner,” the memorandum said.
The extent of the climate threat is also highlighted today by a report that suggests global warming is already killing an estimated 300,000 people per year — equivalent to the loss of life that resulted from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The report from the World Humanitarian Forum, an independent organisation led by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, claims that 90 per cent of those deaths are related to gradual environmental degradation resulting from the warming climate — principally malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria. The remaining 10 per cent are linked with weather-related disasters.
The study, due to be presented this morning by Mr Annan, was reviewed by distinguished experts in the field, including Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. It projects that by 2030, the number of annual deaths directly resulting from the warming global climate will rise to 500,000.
The St James’s Palace memorandum was agreed after three days of discussions attended by 60 leading scientists, policymakers and intellectuals. Participants included Steven Chu, the US Energy Secretary and Nobel physics laureate, Wole Solinka, the Nigerian literature laureate, and Wangari Maathai, the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
The symposium, for which The Times was media partner, was organised by the Potsdam Institute and the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales.
The memorandum called for an emergency package of financial support for tropical forest nations, as the loss of forests is responsible for about 18 per cent of global carbon emissions.
“The St James’s Palace memorandum calls for a global deal on climate change that matches the scale and urgency of the human, ecological and economic crises facing the world today,” the final document said.
“It urges governments at all levels, as well as the scientific community, to join with business and civil society to seize hold of this historic opportunity to transform our carbon-intensive economies into sustainable and equitable systems. We must recognise the fierce urgency of now.”

Experts call for pact on global warming

The Times
May 29, 2009
Gary Duncan in Munich

A deal this year to tackle global warming is the only way to avoid climate change, experts said on Thursday.
As governments prepare negotiating positions for the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December, pressure on leaders to reach agreement on a global compact was heightened as some economists and climate change experts said that national strategies to cut carbon emissions will fail.
The warnings came at an international debate on climate and energy at the annual Munich Economic Summit, organised by the CESIfo think-tank based in the Bavarian capital and the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, and supported by The Times.
Professor Hans-Werner Sinn, president of Munich's Ifo economics institute, attacked efforts to curb global warning by reining-in demand for energy. These efforts were futile and doomed to fail as they did not take proper account of how oil-producing countries would react, he said.

Measures to combat climate change focus on cutting amounts of carbon pumped into the atmosphere by curbing fuel use across the West, and so reducing the amount of fossil fuels extracted from the Earth. But Professor Sinn believes that because of the economics and politics of oil-producing states, they will keep up present levels of production of oil and gas even if lower Western consumption cuts the price they are paid for fuel.
The influential professor, one of Germany's top economists, believes that producing countries will keep up their output despite lower earnings as they will bet that climate change fears will lead to even tougher curbs and still lower prices in the future.
Addressing the Munich Summit, Professor Sinn insisted that only by ensuring that every big energy-using nation signed up to a global deal to curb energy use and emissions could these problems be circumvented.
Professor Sinn's analysis was dismissed by other experts at the conference, although they agreed that a comprehensive global deal was essential.

Professor Chu goes to Washington

Published: May 28 2009 19:42

None of Barack Obama’s officials marks the break with George W. Bush’s disdain for science better than Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Mr Chu’s appointment as US energy secretary gave many people – including, no doubt, Mr Chu himself – hope for serious US leadership on energy and climate change. His interview with the FT this week, however, is sobering.
The ramp-down of ambitions has been faster than the steps forward. Mr Chu has secured government funding for carbon capture and storage research, but has accepted that the US will continue for now to build coal-fired power plants without CCS. More disappointingly, the energy secretary seems resigned to the view that policies that would substantially raise US petrol prices are not politically feasible.

Some in Washington still deny that climate change is a problem. More numerous are those who think they can will the end – lower carbon emissions – without willing the means: making emissions more expensive. Congress gives the absurd impression that it would be happiest if it could pass a cap-and-trade regime that did not raise the price on energy. President Obama – with his congressional majorities and high popularity ratings – must find the courage to say that increasing the price is precisely the point.
It is true that, in the current recession, an overall increase in the tax burden could delay recovery. But the US also faces a fiscal crisis, and a price on carbon is one obvious way to meet the imminent imperative of reducing the deficit.
Moreover, both in the short run and once public finances improve, a tax (or cap-and-trade regime) can be made revenue-neutral or replace inefficient taxes. Some Republicans support a carbon tax if offset by reductions in income, payroll or corporation taxes. Alternatively, it could be paid out as an equal cash “dividend” to all Americans, as Nasa’s James Hansen proposes.
With no consensus on what to do with the revenues, a higher price on carbon – although desirable in its own right – remains hostage to America’s traditional suspicion of wasteful public spending. The administration shows too little willingness to build such a consensus. Cap-and-trade, in effect a tax, has cloaked the necessary distributive choices in complexity, allowing unacceptable giveaways to industry by not auctioning all permits.
Mr Obama and Mr Chu must redouble their efforts to build support for the price mechanism, whether through cap-and-trade or an outright tax. Failure will open the door to a far worse alternative: command and control.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

States, Nonprofits Jockey for 'Weatherizing' Funds

By LESLIE EATON
HOUSTON -- President Barack Obama wants to make a million houses a year more energy efficient as part of his goal to create thousands of "green" jobs and reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
But the administration's push to expand an obscure antipoverty program into a centerpiece of that initiative is stirring debate over the best way to use a flash flood of federal stimulus dollars.
A Flood for Weather-Proofing Programs

City contractors measure windows for screens that block sunlight and prevent it from heating up the room.
Texas is slated to get $327 million over the next two years to help cut poor families' utility bills by "weatherizing" their homes. Nonprofit groups affiliated with the federal Weatherization Assistance Program are set to get a big funding boost and say they are up to the task.
But Texas and some other states don't want simply to supersize existing programs and are also proposing what they say are more efficient ways to use the stimulus money. Indiana and Missouri are asking nonprofit groups to compete for some or all of the funds; Wisconsin plans to use some of its allocation to tackle low-income apartment buildings and is hoping to dedicate $10 million toward replacing appliances.
Texas, for its part, plans to give $94 million directly to cities so they can start their own programs, like a neighborhood-based one the city of Houston now runs. Started in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit energy producers and sent electricity costs soaring, the program picks a low-income neighborhood of old houses and tries to sign up as many homeowners as possible.
Workers then move from house to house, doing a quick evaluation and using measures that can be completed in hours. Issa Dadoush, director of the city's general-services department, said the typical homeowner's energy use drops by as much as 20% in the steamy summer months, helping to save, on average, $335 over six months; with the stimulus money, the city says it can weatherize 10,000 homes a year.
"The assembly-line approach gives us more bang for the buck," Mr. Dadoush said. Houston would get $23.4 million of Texas's stimulus funds for this program, which is now run by money from taxes and a local utility.

By comparison, Sheltering Arms Senior Services, a Houston charity, would get $22.2 million over two years, way above its funding of $350,000 last year. The charity says it could weatherize as many as 3,500 houses a year, 10 times the current number, under new rules that allow it to spend as much as $6,500 on each house, up from about $3,000.
Sheltering Arms typically performs an "energy audit" that figures out which improvements are the most cost-effective ways to cut energy use. But like other traditional weatherizing groups, it often combines such efforts with major home repairs, using money from a variety of sources such as United Way donations.
So it might repair a damaged roof or foundation in addition to caulking windows and replacing a refrigerator, in a process that can take days and require repeated visits. Customers' energy savings after such repairs are difficult to quantify, state officials said; customers save an average estimated $413 a year, nationally, after traditional weatherization.
Watchdog groups are warning the flood of stimulus money into weatherization programs could lead to money being lost, wasted, siphoned off or simply left unused. "It's a prescription for absolute disaster," said Leslie K. Paige, media director for Citizens Against Government Waste, an antitax group in Washington.

Community agencies say the money will be well-spent. "Everything is at stake in this," said David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation in Washington, which advocates for these groups and for the more-comprehensive weatherization approach.
The U.S. Department of Energy says it is willing to consider nontraditional programs; Gil Sperling, who manages the federal weatherization program, plans to visit Houston soon to see how they city's effort stacks up.
The benefits -- and limitations -- of the city's method could be seen one hot May morning at the home of Alex and Carolina Cisneros in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. The little white house leaked about twice as much air as it should have, said Joseph DeLeon, a contractor for the city program. After testing the house, he pinpointed the main source of the problem -- cracks between the walls and ceiling in the bathroom.
In less than two hours, he and a colleague weather-sealed doors, caulked around windows and plumbing fixtures and replaced light bulbs. But they couldn't install insulation; the ceilings weren't strong enough.
Unlike the nonprofit, which might have tackled a costly ceiling repair, the city program moved on to the next house.
That was good enough for Mr. Cisneros. "It's cooler already," he said.
Write to Leslie Eaton at leslie.eaton@wsj.com