Wednesday, 12 August 2009

US climate bill: Implications for Copenhagen

Kyoto & climate politics
Wednesday, 5 August 2009
Backgrounder: US climate bill on uncertain Senate roadThe reality of US political processes probably puts the final shape of US climate policy beyond the global climate treaty deadline set for Copenhagen in December, to which the US action is key to a successful outcome. This complicates global negotiations and places further question marks over the chances of a new post-Kyoto accord by the agreed deadline. But perhaps not as much as some commentators are saying. By December much of the shape and approach of US climate laws should be apparent. Of all those outstanding areas of contention in the current bill, there are three of critical importance to a global deal. And it may well be that the writing is on the wall by December in regard to at least two and maybe all three of them.First, is the overall emissions reduction target set for 2020; second, provisions for trade penalties against countries exporting to the US that don’t have emissions limits in place; and third, the extent and nature of international offsets that will be allowed under the scheme from developing countries, already at significant levels in the House bill. Direct financing commitments by the US and other developed nations to developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change are also crucial to a global deal but, as far as the US is concerned, lie outside the scope of the proposed cap-and-trade bill.As UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer said last week, once a country’s overarching emission reduction commitments are apparent, that’s what’s important for global negotiations - the detail of measures to reach that target are more a domestic issue. It is already fairly certain that a US 2020 emissions target will be no less than 14 per cent below 2005 levels, and no more than 20 per cent. By December this range will have probably narrowed further to between the House bill’s 17 per cent target and whatever emerges in a Senate bill. Even if a final bill is not passed, the world will have a solid idea of the crucial US mid-term target within a few percentage points. (Whether that ballpark is then enough to satisfy China, India and others at the UN negotiating table is another question, of course.) Remember that on the longer term target, the US is already on course to meet international expectations. The House bill’s 83 per cent reduction by 2050 appears not in great contention.Trade penalties, or carbon tariffs, are proposed in the House bill to apply from 2020 on emissions-intensive products imported to the US from countries with no emission curbs. This has sent the alarm bells ringing in both international trade and climate negotiating circles. Included to appease US industry, which believes its trade competitiveness would be undermined by the cost of carbon caps, these penalties have already seen China and India take offence. There are warnings of the potential for a “green trade war” and the further undermining of chances for a new climate treaty. This is an issue the US will have to see dealt with by Copenhagen and there are enough indications already of strong domestic opposition against these provisions, from President Obama down, that it is hard to see the “border adjustment” or "international reserve allowance" provisions surviving in their current form in a Senate bill. But it is also hard to see currently how getting the required 60 Senators to support a cap and trade bill is possible without industrial-state Democrats who are likely to stand firm on protection for their constituents.The generous allocations for foreign-sourced carbon offsets in the House bill don’t look to be under any great challenge in the Senate. The detail may well change but the numbers are unlikely to change much. The ability to buy up to one billion tonnes every year of cheaper emissions reductions secured in developing countries to lower the cost of cap-and-trade compliance has broad Congressional support, if not all environment groups. It’s intended most of these offsets would come from rainforest preservation in tropical countries, a welcome financial stimulus to those countries now trying to position themselves to reap the benefits of the emerging international ‘REDD’ avoided deforestation payment mechanism.Assuming some compromise on international competitiveness safeguards can be found to avoid carbon tariffs, it may just be that a not-quite-final US climate bill come December – representing as it does enormous US climate policy progress since the end of 2008 – is enough to swing a deal with China and the rest of world. Ian HamiltonCarbon PositiveSources: Reuters, Politico, Van Ness Feldman

US climate bill: An uncertain Senate path

Kyoto & climate politics
Thursday, 6 August 2009
US climate policy has come along way in 2009 under an Obama White House and a Democrat-controlled Congress. But there is still a way to go before proactive, nationwide climate laws are in place in America and the US offers a substantive positive lead on efforts to secure a new international climate accord required in a few short months.A US cap-and-trade bill has passed the House of Representatives and is now being considered in the Senate. As such, its biggest obstacle still lies in front of it along with some big question marks with global implications. Can the Democrats muster enough numbers in the Senate to pass the bill? If so, what inevitable changes will be required to gain the majority support needed? And how long will it take to achieve, given the bill’s importance to global climate talks scheduled to settle a new post-Kyoto treaty by December?To pass a bill in the Senate effectively requires 60 per cent support; a ‘yea’ vote from 60 out of the 100 Senators is the hurdle required to avoid filibuster tactics from opponents to indefinitely delay passage and effectively kill the bill. US legal and policy firm Van Ness Feldman says 50 to 54 votes for cap-and-trade are fairly sure leaving 6 to 10 further to be won from wavering Democrats or moderate Republicans. But it is hard to see where the votes are going to come from, if they come at all, at this as yet early stage. It’s impossible to see how the vote is going to fall given the complexities of the wide-ranging bill that will be the subject of heavy debate among Senators and the various interest groups knocking on their doors.The doubts are reflected in the US carbon market – represented in the voluntary and the regional state-based RGGI markets – where early optimism over the House bill’s progress saw prices and volumes on the rise only to wilt by July when the reality of the Senate challenge hit home. That challenge is illustrated by the number of contentious aspects of the House bill which include:
free allocation vs auctioning of emissions permits – the House bill provides 85 per cent free while Obama’s original position was 100 per cent auctioned
how the free permit component gets distributed among states, industry and consumers – high emitting sectors are battling to maximise their share; the House bill has wide discrepancies in allocations between states for bankrolling low-carbon investment
regulatory control of the carbon trading - in post-financial-crisis America the idea of speculators profiting from emissions trade is unpalatable; Senator John Kerry is leading a push to ban complex derivatives trading in carbon
carbon tariff trade penalties to be levied on other countries – a minimum requirement in the manufacturing states, yet already attracting stiff opposition over the risks such action poses of a new trade war and undermining a global treaty
the role of domestic and foreign carbon offsets – the House bill would allows a large proportion of US energy and industry emissions to be offset by farm and forestry activity at home and abroad
the impact on the farm sector – the powerful farm lobby has won big concessions in the House bill with opportunities for lucrative carbon offset incomeThe Democrats’ hoped-for timetable would see an prototype Senate bill drafted by the Environment and Public Works Committee in early September. It would then have to be considered, and likely amended, by five others; the Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Finance and Foreign Relations committees. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has called for that process to be completed by the end of September to enable a vote in October. This looks optimistic at the moment with the Senate currently consumed with an equally contentious health care bill that takes precedence. Most members are yet to come to terms with the House’s 1400-page American Clean Energy and Security Act and are some way from taking a firm position. Even if it were to pass in October or November, inevitable differences between it and House version mean that a new round of horse-trading would have to ensue to reconcile the two to an agreed form in both houses. It could be early 2010 before a final Congress bill arrives on the President’s desk for cap and trade laws to be signed into law, political observers say.

GM claims electric car will achieve 230mpg

Chevrolet Volt vital to change image of carmaking group as it emerges from bankruptcy
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Tuesday 11 August 2009 17.42 BST

General Motors said today its new electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, would receive a fuel economy rating of 230 miles per gallon in city driving, and would transform the market for plug-in vehicles.
The 230mpg fuel rating (or 370km per 3.8 litres) would offer greater fuel efficiency than any mass market vehicle currently on the road, including the Toyota Prius.
Fritz Henderson, GM's chief executive, told reporters the Volt would be vital for the company, which emerged from bankruptcy last month and is trying to rebrand itself. "Our Chevrolet Volt extended range electric vehicle will achieve unprecedented fuel economy," he said. "I'm confident we will be in the triple digits."
GM did not release the draft highway fuel economy rating for the Volt – although it is expected to be lower than the city figure. The carmaker sees the Volt as an important symbol of its switch from old gas guzzlers to new greener and smaller cars, and is using a logo with the figure 230 printed on a green background to build interest in the brand.
The company has a fleet of 30 test vehicles that it is developing in Arizona. It based its mileage rating on a draft environmental protection agency methodology for plug-in electric cars.
Nissan announced last week that its electric vehicle, the Leaf, would get 367mpg using the same standards.
The Volt, which will start production late next year, could be capable of travelling up to 40 miles (64km) on a single charge before its small petrol engine kicks in to power the car and recharge the battery.
That range would make the Volt an ideal commuter car for Americans: about 80% have a commute of less than 40 miles, according to the department of transport.
The battery could be recharged in about eight hours at a cost of about 40 cents during off-peak hours.

Entrepreneurs Wade Into the 'Dead Zone'

Ambitious Bid to Turn Algae Into Biofuel Taps Mother Nature
Every spring, fertilizer runoff from the U.S. Mississippi River floods into the Gulf of Mexico, causing a massive algae bloom that leads to a giant oxygen-deprived "dead zone" where fish can't survive.
Now, this annual problem is getting new attention, not from marine scientists but from entrepreneurs looking for a new domestic source of fuel. And one start-up sees fish themselves being part of the process.
The algae blooms are spawned each year as the farmland runoff from as far away as Montana flows into rivers, eventually reaching the Mississippi and flowing into Louisiana bayous and out into the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients are a buffet for the floating algae, or phytoplankton, which are simple sea organisms that eat and reproduce quickly. This algae bloom eventually sinks and feeds an array for bacteria, which suck up so much oxygen that fish and plants either move away or perish.
These so-called hypoxic areas exist around the world, and there were as many as 200 in North America in the spring, says Robert J. Diaz, a professor of marine science at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second largest in the world, after one in the Baltic Sea.
Scientists have been studying dead zones for decades, and the concern about their effect on ocean life has grown. The Louisiana seafood industry worries that dead zones threaten the ecosystems that support the state's $1 billion shrimp industry as well as other fisheries. Environmental groups are concerned that the runoff from agricultural fertilizer is threatening a natural ecosystem and pushing it toward collapse.
Turning algae into a bio-based oil to run in conventional refineries alongside crude has been a long-held dream of biofuels entrepreneurs. Exxon Mobil Corp. last month announced a partnership with Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held biotech firm owned by genomics scientist J. Craig Venter, to spend as much as $600 million working on developing algae biofuels. Greener Dawn Research estimates that privately held start-ups Sapphire Energy and Solazyme Inc. have raised more than $75 million for their own algae-to-fuel effort.
Thus far, both of those projects plan to raise their algae stocks in controlled facilities onshore.
LiveFuels Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up, has a different idea. Rather than growing algae in onshore facilities, where the cost of circulating the water can be high, LiveFuels wants to use the algae in the dead zones. But instead of harvesting it directly, it wants to go a step up the food chain, using algae to feed fish that could be processed for oil.
"It is too expensive for humans to grow algae, harvest it and get the water out and then convert it into a petroleum-like substitute," said LiveFuels Chief Executive Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones. It is easier and cheaper to harvest algae's oil the way Mother Nature does it -- "which is to use fish," she said.
The fish would gobble up the algae and then be harvested, cooked and pressed to extract fish oil -- a method already used to produce omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplements.
LiveFuels, of San Carlos, Calif., is testing out carp, tilapia and members of the sardine family at a fish farm in Rio Hondo, Texas, near the Mexican border. "We want the couch potato of fish, the kind that just eat and eat," Ms. Morgenthaler-Jones says.
Once it figures out a good fish mix, LiveFuels wants to release them in Louisiana bays -- more than 11,340 kilograms of fish per acre -- to feast on the algae blooms. "This is the sea equivalent of traveling goats: you have algae, we'll bring the fish," she says, referring to companies that rent out goats to eat up grasses on California hillsides to reduce the danger from wildfires.
The company envisions building caged fish farms in parts of the algae blooms in Louisiana bayous and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The algae would provide a free source of food to raise the fish, and natural tidal flows would churn the algae to keep fresh nutrient-rich water flowing through.
The idea isn't meeting universal praise. "Our preference is not to wait until the Gulf of Mexico is a giant dead zone and then have someone go out and collect the algae," says Ed Hopkins, director of the environmental-quality program at the Sierra Club. He favors reducing fertilizer runoff upstream to cut off the nutrients that feed the algae blooms.
LiveFuels also faces a more practical concern. Algae blooms are seasonal and move around from year to year, so Livefuels might have to design mobile fish farms to capture the moveable feasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week that the dead zone this summer was the fourth smallest in the 25 years they have been measured, though it was still about 4,800 square kilometers.
Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, is doubtful of the plan. "There are several groups looking at phytoplankton as a biomass. But my sense is there is not enough on a continual basis to make it economically feasible," she said.
In addition to LiveFuels, she says, academics from Illinois and New Zealand and a biodiesel maker from Alabama have contacted her about harvesting the algae that bloom in the Gulf of Mexico. A Clemson University professor is looking into turning algae-fed brine shrimp into oil.
David T. Kingsbury, chairman of LiveFuels' scientific advisory board and a former assistant director of the National Science Foundation, said he was skeptical at first, too, "but I've come around. It hasn't really been fully tested yet, but it seems like a reasonable idea," he said.
Write to Russell Gold at

India shouldn't rely on the west to fund its solar energy plan

The developed world may be at fault for producing more carbon, but India harms the environment by playing the blame game
Gaia Vince, Tuesday 11 August 2009 13.47 BST
India announced its ambitious solar energy plan last week: 20GW of clean, sun-produced power by 2020. The problem is though, India won't be paying for any of it. A planned $20bn (£12.1bn) of government investment, which appeared in the draft documents, has been scratched because it contradicts India's political position that developed nations should bear the costs of clean technologies. There is currently no funding at all for this otherwise laudable plan.
Climate change is already happening and further warming is now inevitable because of the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere. Most of this carbon was released by rich countries over the past 50 years. Nevertheless, it is people in the developing world who are, and will continue to be, disproportionately impacted by climate change. One estimate suggests that climate change is responsible for 300,000 deaths a year.
By removing the only current source of funding for the solar programme, the Indian government is playing a dangerous political experiment with its people's future. If it genuinely wants to meet the challenge of climate change, it cannot afford to hand responsibility for solving the problem to the developed world, it needs to take an active role now.
Yes, it is unfair that people in poor countries are being affected by climate change that they had no part in creating – India has 17.5% of the world's population, yet emits just 4% of the world's carbon – just as it is unfair that much of the poverty there results from centuries of exploitation by the rich world.
It is also unfair that western countries got to develop their economies in a cheap, dirty way, arguably at the expense of India's economy. But to claim, as the Indian government and Indian-born IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri do, that this means that India should therefore be allowed to develop its economy without carbon caps, is a foolhardy act that the country's next generation is unlikely to thank them for.
The rich south of the USA got to develop its economy with the assistance of slaves. Would it be acceptable for India to use slaves now?
India may be planning solar installations, but in the next three years it will also have increased its coal capacity by 79GW, equivalent to the entire UK power sector. Rich countries have a responsibility, indeed a duty, to help poor countries to adapt to the changing conditions, and to help pay for their clean economic development. But the governments of poor countries also have a responsibility to the people that they represent – as well as to the rest of the world's population who rely on our shared aerial ocean.
All countries must accept emissions caps and must help pay for clean technologies. An international opinion poll of 12,000 people in 12 countries last year found that in developing countries well over a half of those surveyed were prepared to make lifestyle changes to reduce climate change. If the world's poorest people are willing to compromise, what right do their leaders have to jeopardise the lives of millions over an argument about justice?
The European industrial development of the 19th and early 20th centuries was dirty, dangerous and socially unbalanced. I am currently travelling around the developing world documenting the impacts of climate change and I see much of the same going on in India. The transition from a nearly 80% agricultural economy to a developed nation is proving hard and taking time. But there is another way: instead of aping the west's worst habits, emerging nations could develop an entirely new, and highly desirable green-technology economy, where innovative clean technologies are installed and manufactured at a fraction of the cost in the west.
We must approach the Copenhagen negotiations in December unified against the joint enemy of irreversible climate change. World leaders all have a responsibility to protect the poorest people from the impacts of climate change, whether they be in the slum housing of New Orleans or the chars of Jharkhand. In this post-Bush world, with India (the world's biggest democracy) and China (the world's biggest single party state) in the ascendancy, the old pattern of bickering, blame and fault-finding must end. It makes no difference to the atmosphere where carbon dioxide is emitted. We must jointly emit less. Our descendents are watching us.
Gaia Vince is travelling around the developing world looking at the impacts of climate change.

Scientists explore how the humble leaf could power the planet

Researchers at Imperial College London embark on 'artificial leaf' project to produce power by mimicking photosynthesis
Alok Jha, Green technology correspondent, Tuesday 11 August 2009 17.10 BST
It is one of evolution's crowning achievements - a mini green power station and organic factory combined and the source of almost all of the energy that fuels every living thing on the planet.
Now scientists developing the next generation of clean power sources are working out how to copy, and ultimately improve upon, the humble leaf. The intricate chemistry involved in photosynthesis, the process where plants use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar, is the most effective solar energy conversion process on Earth. And researchers believe that mimicking parts of it could be the ticket to a limitless supply of clean power.
The untapped potential for using the sun's rays is huge. All human activity for a whole year could be powered by the energy contained in the sunlight hitting the Earth in just one hour. Harnessing even a small amount of this to make electricity or useful fuels could satisfy the world's increasing need for energy, predicted to double by 2050, without further endangering the climate.
Most solar power systems use silicon wafers to generate electricity directly. But although costs are coming down, these are still too expensive in many cases when compared with fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Scientists are keen to develop more efficient and cheaper alternatives sources of energy.
At Imperial College London, researchers have embarked on a £1m project to study, and eventually mimic, photosynthesis. Part of a project called the "artificial leaf", involves working out exactly how leaves use sunlight to make useful molecules. The team then plans to build artificial systems that can do the same to generate clean fuels such as hydrogen and methanol. These would then be used in fuel cells to make electricity or directly to power super-clean vehicles.
Similar projects are gathering pace around the world: the US is poised to approve a federal research budget of around $35m a year for ideas that could create fuels from sunlight and the Dutch government has allocated €40m for similar research.
According to James Barber, a biologist at Imperial College London and leader of the artificial leaf project, if artificial photosynthesis systems could use around 10% of the sunlight falling on them, they would only need to cover 0.16% of the Earth's surface to satisfy a global energy consumption rate of 20 terawatts, the amount it is predicted that the world will need in 2030. And unlike a biological leaf, the artificial equivalent could be placed in the arid desert areas of the world, where it would not compete for space agricultural land.
Ultimately, Barber hopes to improve on nature's own solar cell. "If the leaf can do it, we can do it but even better," he said. "[But] it doesn't mean that you try to build exactly what the leaf has. Leonardo da Vinci tried to design flying machines with feathers that flapped up and down. But in the end we built 747s and Airbus 380s, completely different to a bird and, in fact, even better than a bird."
Photosynthesis starts with a chemical reaction where sunlight is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere while the hydrogen is used to create sugars and other organic molecules for the plant. The aim of Barber's artificial leaf project is to find an efficient way of mimicking that water-splitting reaction to create a clean and limitless source hydrogen. Unlike normal leaves, the new devices would not suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Hydrogen is a clean, energy-rich fuel that could be used in fuel cells to make electricity or else combined with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (or from the exhaust of fossil-fuel power stations) to make methanol, a fuel that could be dropped into vehicles without the need for any engine modifications. "The challenge is to get hydrogen out of water using a ready supply of energy," said Barber.
For domestic purposes, Dan Nocera, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has calculated that using artificial leaf to split a few litres of water a day into hydrogen and oxygen would be enough to supply all a home's energy needs.
Scientists can already produce hydrogen by splitting water but current techniques are expensive, use harsh chemicals and need carefully controlled environments in which to operate. The critical part of the artificial leaf project is developing catalysts made from cheap materials that can be used to split water in everyday conditions.
John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre, described the artificial leaf idea as very promising because "we know that plants have already evolved to do it and we know that, fundamentally, it's a workable process on a large scale."
He added: "Ultimately, the only sustainable form of energy we've got is the sun. From a strategic viewpoint, you have to think this looks really interesting because we know we're starting from a base of feasibility."
Barber's colleagues at Imperial, led by chemist James Durrant, have recently developed a catalyst from rust that carried out part of the water-splitting reaction. So far the process is not very efficient, so Durrant's team is looking at improving this by engineering the surface of the rust. "We're looking at adding small catalytic amounts of cobalt onto the surface of the iron oxide to make it more efficient."
Nocera is also working on a catalyst made from cobalt and phosphorus that can split water at room temperature. Speaking last year, when he published his preliminary results in the journal Science, he said efficient water-splitting technology would be useful as a way of storing solar energy,which is a major problem for anyone who wants to use large amounts of solar power. During the day, an artificial leaf could use sunlight to split water and, at night, the stored hydrogen would be used to make electricity as it was needed. Chemical fuels such as hydrogen can store far more energy per unit mass than even the most advanced batteries.
Both Durrant's and Nocera's catalysts are many years from becoming commercial products.

Artificial leaf energy: how would it work?

Alok Jha, Tuesday 11 August 2009 17.34 BST

An artificial leaf would use a reaction that forms part of the natural process of photosynthesis to turn sunlight and water into a clean fuel source. When light falls on to a leaf, the energy is absorbed and used to carry out specific chemical reactions, helped along by enzymes. The first of these involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, a notoriously difficult thing to do because water molecules are so stable. Plants evolved the ability to do this more than 2.5bn years ago and the reaction is the source of almost all the oxygen in the atmosphere.
The hydrogen created in the water-splitting reaction is then combined in a leaf with CO2 from the atmosphere to make sugars, cell walls and other organic matter. In the artificial version, scientists will use the hydrogen in fuel cells to make electricity or else combine it with CO2 to make fuels such as methanol. This could be used in car engines much as ethanol biofuels are used today and would provide a carbon-neutral source of power.
To make an artificial leaf, scientists are developing artificial analogies of the enzyme, called photosystem 2, used in plants to split water.

Green jobs in US set for recovery, says labour secretary

At the National Clean Energy Summit, backers for green jobs included Bill Clinton, who encouraged confidence in the industry
Associated Press, Tuesday 11 August 2009 11.01 BST
Special adviser for green jobs Van Jones explains the benefits of renewable energy
Hiring in the alternative energy industry will pick up in the next 12 months, though it will take more time before so-called green jobs will become a bigger part of the US job market, US labour secretary Hilda Solis said yesterday.
"Once you start seeing more investments made in our economy recovering, as we stabilise and we get people back to work, then I think there'll be more interest in expanding," Solis said. "There'll be more, hopefully, credit available for this expansion, because there will be more confidence as that's what we're lacking right now – that investment and confidence in the market."
After a terrible start to the year, there are signs of a rebound for alternative energy, in part because of a push from the Obama administration. Yet there is a split at the state and federal level over whether there are better ways to stimulate the job market.
The second National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, where Solis spoke to The Associated Press, drew a high profile list of alternative energy backers, including former US president Bill Clinton, energy secretary Steven Chu and US senate majority leader Harry Reid.
Clinton said that lawmakers need to convince Americans that advancing on energy makes economic sense, and not stop short with programmes that merely create a few thousand jobs over the next decade.
"It's peanuts – we just lost 7m jobs," Clinton said. "If we want a good bill we have to convince people that it's an economic winner."
Clinton said he thinks the best energy solution right now is to promote efficiency by retrofitting homes and businesses so their owners save on energy bills.
"The least sexy topic is where the most jobs are," he said.
Al Gore, the former vice president, said the economy, climate and national security are all intertwined with the common thread of overdependence on carbon-based fuels.
"If your grab hold of that thread and pull on it all three of these crises will unravel, and we'll hold in our hand the solution to all three of them – that is to make a transition to a low-carbon economy and to put people to work doing it," he said.
Venture capitalists increased investments in alternative energy by 73% over the past three months compared with the first three months of the year, according to a report issued late last month by Ernst & Young LLP. Investors are still shaken, however, and investment remains meagre compared with last year at this time.
Money had already begun to flow into the sector at a record pace last year before new government initiatives were announced, but that was before the full weight of the recession became apparent.
Wind, solar and other alternative energy companies have been forced to cut back on workers. Projects were cancelled as credit markets froze and venture capital evaporated.
John Woolard, president and CEO of BrightSource Energy Inc, said the industry still needs help to create jobs immediately.
"We need transition from visionary leadership to roll-up-your-sleeves leadership," Woolard said.
The Obama administration last week announced $2.4bn (£1.5bn) in federal grants to develop next-generation electric vehicles and batteries.
Michigan, which has been devastated by job losses in the auto industry, would see companies within its borders get $1bn in federal grants with the administration pushing green jobs as part of its economic cure.
Chu said federal officials have yet to award more money to other projects because they are reviewing proposals and want to make sure they pick the wisest possible investments.
"We're moving," he said.
The alternative energy sector could spark a new "industrial revolution", with better prospects for minorities and new training for workers with traditional vocational skills, Solis said.
There has been rapid growth in the industry, but employment in the green business still makes up only about 0.5% of all jobs.
Union leaders said that with traditional commercial projects and new housing nearly non-existent, rank-and-file members are depending on the creation of large public works projects.
Danny Thompson, secretary treasurer of the Nevada chapter of the AFL-CIO, said union work is drying up in Las Vegas and elsewhere. Nevada depends heavily on tourism and casinos, which have struggled to stay afloat as consumers travel less and spend less money.
Thompson said a push for green jobs is less about increasing union membership than about putting people back to work in steady jobs.

Climate change press coverage gets weird

The paleocene-eocene thermal maximum (PETM) was a very weird period around 55 million years ago. However, the press coverage and discussion of a recent paper on the subject was weirder still. From RealClimate, part of the Guardian Environment Network

For those of you not familiar with this period in Earth's history, the PETM is a very singular event in the Cenozoic (last 65 million years). It was the largest and most abrupt perturbation to the carbon cycle over that whole period, defined by an absolutely huge negative isotope spike. Although there are smaller analogs later in the Eocene, the size of the carbon flux that must have been brought into the ocean/atmosphere carbon cycle in that one event, is on a par with the entire reserve of conventional fossil fuels at present. A really big number – but exactly how big?
The story starts off innocently enough with a new paper by Richard Zeebe and colleagues in Nature Geoscience to tackle exactly this question. They use a carbon cycle model, tuned to conditions in the Paleocene, to constrain the amount of carbon that must have come into the system to cause both the sharp isotopic spike and a very clear change in the "carbonate compensation depth" (CCD) – this is the depth at which carbonates dissolve in sea water (a function of the pH, pressure, total carbon amount etc.). There is strong evidence that the the CCD rose hundreds of meters over the PETM – causing clear dissolution events in shallower ocean sediment cores. What Zeebe et al. come up with is that around 3000 Gt carbon must have been added to the system – a significant increase on the original estimates of about half that much made a decade or so ago, though less than some high end speculations.
Temperature changes at the same time as this huge carbon spike were large too. Note that this is happening on a Paleocene background climate that we don't fully understand either – the polar amplification in very warm paleo-climates is much larger than we've been able to explain using standard models. Estimates range from 5 to 9 deg C warming (with some additional uncertainty due to potential problems with the proxy data) – smaller in the tropics than at higher latitudes.
Putting these two bits of evidence together is where it starts to get tricky.
First of all, how much does atmospheric CO2 rise if you add 3000 GtC to the system in a (geologically) short period of time? Zeebe et al. did this calculation and the answer is about 700 ppmv – quite a lot eh? However, that is a perturbation to the Paleocene carbon cycle – which they assume has a base CO2 level of 1000 ppm, and so you only get a 70% increase – i.e. not even a doubling of CO2. And since the forcing that goes along with an increase in CO2 is logarithmic, it is the percent change in CO2 that matters rather than the absolute increase. The radiative forcing associated with that is about 2.6 W/m2. Unfortunately, we don't (yet) have very good estimates of background CO2 levels in Paleocene. The proxies we do have suggest significantly higher values than today, but they aren't precise. Levels could have been less than 1000 ppm, or even significantly more.
If (and this is a key assumption that we'll get to later) this was the only forcing associated with the PETM event, how much warmer would we expect the planet to get? One might be tempted to use the standard 'Charney' climate sensitivity (2-4.5ºC per doubling of CO2) that is discussed so much in the IPCC reports. That would give you a mere 1.5-3ºC warming which appears inadequate. However, this is inappropriate for at least two reasons. First, the Charney sensitivity is a quite carefully defined metric that is used to compare a certain class of atmospheric models. It assumes that there are no other changes in atmospheric composition (aerosols, methane, ozone) and no changes in vegetation, ice sheets or ocean circulation. It is not the warming we expect if we just increase CO2 and let everything else adjust.
In fact, the concept we should be looking at is the Earth System Sensitivity (a usage I am trying to get more widely adopted) as we mentioned last year in our discussion of 'Target CO2'. The point is that all of those factors left out of the Charney sensitivity are going to change, and we are interested in the response of the whole Earth System – not just an idealised little piece of it that happens to fit with what was included in GCMs in 1979.
Now for the Paleocene, it is unlikely that changes in ice sheets were very relevant (there weren't any to speak of). But changes in vegetation, ozone, methane and aerosols (of various sorts) would certainly be expected. Estimates of the ESS taken from the Pliocene, or from the changes over the whole Cenozoic imply that the ESS is likely to be larger than the Charney sensitivity since vegetation, ozone and methane feedbacks are all amplifying. I'm on an upcoming paper that suggests a value about 50% bigger, while Jim Hansen has suggested a value about twice as big as Charney. That would give you an expected range of temperature increases of 2-5ºC (our estimate) or 3-6ºC (Hansen) (note that uncertainty bands are increasing here but the ranges are starting to overlap with the observations). ALl of this assumes that there are no huge non-linearities in climate sensitivity in radically different climates – something we aren't at all sure about either.
But let's go back to the first key assumption – that CO2 forcing is the only direct impact of the PETM event. The source of all this carbon has to satisfy two key constraints – it must be from a very depleted biogenic source and it needs to be relatively accessible. The leading candidate for this is methane hydrate – a kind of methane ice that is found in cold conditions and under pressure on continental margins – often capping large deposits of methane gas itself. Our information about such deposits in the Paleocene is sketchy to say the least, but there are plenty of ideas as to why a large outgassing of these deposits might have occurred (tectonic uplift in the proto-Indian ocean, volcanic activity in the North Atlantic, switches in deep ocean temperature due to the closure of key gateways into the Arctic etc.).
Putting aside the issue of the trigger though, we have the fascinating question of what happens to the methane that would be released in such a scenario. The standard assumption (used in the Zeebe et al paper) is that the methane would oxidise (to CO2) relatively quickly and so you don't need to worry about the details. But work that Drew Shindell and I did a few years ago suggested that this might not quite be true. We found that atmospheric chemistry feedbacks in such a circumstance could increase the impact of methane releases by a factor of 4 or so. While this isn't enough to sustain a high methane concentration for tens of thousands of years following an initial pulse, it might be enough to enhance the peak radiative forcing if the methane was being released continuously over a few thousand years. The increase in the case of a 3000 GtC pulse would be on the order of a couple of W/m2 – for as long as the methane was being released. That would be a significant boost to the CO2-only forcing given above – and enough (at least for relatively short parts of the PETM) to bring the temperature and forcing estimates into line.
Of course, much of this is speculative given the difficulty in working out what actually happened 55 million years ago. The press response to the Zeebe et al paper was, however, very predictable.
The problems probably started with the title of the paper "Carbon dioxide forcing alone insufficient to explain Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum warming" which on it's own might have been unproblematic. However, it was paired with a press release from Rice University that was titled "Global warming: Our best guess is likely wrong", containing the statement from Jerry Dickens that "There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models".
Since the know-nothings agree one hundred per cent with these two last statements, it took no time at all for the press release to get passed along by Marc Morano, posted on Drudge, and declared the final nail in the coffin for 'alarmist' global warming science on WUWT (Andrew Freedman at WaPo has a good discussion of this). The fact that what was really being said was that climate sensitivity is probably larger than produced in standard climate models seemed to pass almost all of these people by (though a few of their more astute commenters did pick up on it). Regardless, the message went out that 'climate models are wrong' with the implicit sub-text that current global warming is nothing to worry about. Almost the exact opposite point that the authors wanted to make (another press release from U. Hawaii was much better in that respect).
What might have been done differently?
First off, headlines and titles that simply confirm someone's prior belief (even if that belief is completely at odds with the substance of the paper) are a really bad idea. Many people do not go beyond the headline – they read it, they agree with it, they move on. Also one should avoid truisms. All 'models' are indeed wrong – they are models, not perfect representations of the real world. The real question is whether they are useful – what do they underestimate? overestimate? and are they sufficiently complete? Thus a much better title for the press release would have been more specific ""Global warming: Our best guess is likely too small" – and much less misinterpretable!
Secondly, a lot of the confusion is related to the use of the word 'model' itself. When people hear 'climate model', they generally think of the big ocean-atmosphere models run by GISS, NCAR or Hadley Centre etc. for the 20th Century climate and for future scenarios. The model used in Zeebe et al was not one of these, instead it was a relatively sophisticated carbon cycle model that tracks the different elements of the carbon cycle, but not the changes in climate. The conclusions of the study related to the sensitivity of the climate used the standard range of sensitivities from IPCC TAR (1.5 to 4.5ºC for a doubling of CO2), which have been constrained – not by climate models – but by observed climate changes. Thus nothing in the paper related to the commonly accepted 'climate models' at all, yet most of the commentary made the incorrect association.
To summarise, there is still a great deal of mystery about the PETM – the trigger, where the carbon came from and what happened to it – and the latest research hasn't tied up all the many loose ends. Whether the solution lies in something 'fundamental' as Dickens surmises (possibly related to our basic inability to explain the latitudinal gradients in any of the very warm climates) , or whether it's a combination of a different forcing function combined with more inclusive ideas about climate sensitivity, is yet to be determined. However, we can all agree that it remains a tantalisingly relevant episode of Earth history.
• This article was shared by our content partner RealClimate, part of the Guardian Environment Network

Australia Climate Bill Poses Test for Premier

CANBERRA, Australia -- Lawmakers are expected to reject legislation aimed at capping greenhouse-gas emissions in Australia this week in a move that could imperil one of the country's most important economic initiatives in recent years.
The debate is shaping up as the biggest test yet of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's nearly two years in office, and could result in a call for early elections if he can't get key conservative lawmakers on his side. It could also provide a case study for similar debates in the U.S., where lawmakers are wrangling over a similar plan to set mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.

That policy is set to be debated by the U.S. Senate next month after it passed the House of Representatives by a slim 219-212 margin in June.
Like the U.S. plan, Australia's climate bill has been criticized by green groups for its relatively weak carbon-emission reduction targets and generous industry allowances, which many argue could make it ineffective.
At the same time, representatives from industry have argued Australia's plan goes too far, threatening jobs and adding new costs for consumers and businesses at a time when the economy is just recovering from a global recession.
Analysts are watching Australia's effort closely. Although Australia accounts for only around 1.5% of global greenhouse emissions, it is the biggest per-capita carbon polluter in the developed world due to its reliance on fossil fuels, mainly coal, for around 80% of its electricity generation. Clean-air advocates say they believe countries such as Australia and the U.S. need to set a better example before other parts of the world agree to curb their worsening pollution problems.
Australia's planned carbon-trading program is similar to a European Union one in place since 2005. It would cap Australia's carbon-dioxide emissions, forcing heavy polluters like power generators and aluminum and cement makers to buy so-called carbon permits to account for their emissions.
To ease criticism from industry, it would allocate 27% of the carbon permits free in the first year to heavy-polluting companies that are highly exposed to international trade. It also sets a relatively low target for overall emission reductions, with a goal of cutting emissions in the country by 5% from 2000 levels by 2020, though it could go higher under certain circumstances.
By comparison, the U.S. plan calls for cuts to U.S. emissions of 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83% by 2050. Japan, a global manufacturing hub for automobiles and electronics, aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to 15% below 2005 levels by 2020. The EU has agreed to reductions of at least 20% on 1990 levels by 2020, and will cut by as much as 30% if other developed countries make comparable efforts.
Conservative senators in Australia have nevertheless vowed to kill the program during a vote in the Senate on Thursday if further changes aren't made. Among their concerns: Because the country has so much cheap coal, any switch to cleaner-burning fuels will likely drive up the cost of electricity and threaten energy-dependent industries, including the country's powerful natural-resources sector.
Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull has offered to deliver enough conservative votes to pass the legislation, but only if the government agrees to certain conditions. Among other things, he and others want emissions from coal mining and agriculture to be excluded from the proposal. They also have called on the government to delay the design of the Australian carbon program until February or March, after the U.S. Senate has debated its climate bill.
Because Australia's center-left Labor government lacks a majority in the Senate, where laws are passed, it needs the support of conservatives -- or other smaller parties that also have concerns about the program -- to pass its plan.
If the vote fails, the government would still be able to revive some form of climate program in future months. But it would likely to have agree to further concessions to win enough support from conservatives.
Write to Rachel Pannett at

Do we really need to ban plastic bags?

They are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture. But, as the Welsh Assembly announces plans to tax plastic bags, some believe they are distracting us from more important environmental issues

Massing in their millions, crucified and shredded on barbed wire fences, plastic bags have come to be dubbed "roadside daisies" in South Africa. Some now even mournfully refer to them as the country's national flower. Thousands of miles away in the metaphorical plughole at the heart of the Pacific Ocean, a spinning mass of plastic detritus, which includes countless carrier bags hanging limp in the water like jellyfish, revolves in perpetuity. And in China, which last year saw the closure of one of the world's largest plastic-bag factories, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, due to the government's concern about "white pollution", an estimated 300m carrier bags are still handed out to shoppers every day.
Plastic bags are one of the most recognisable symbols of our modern throwaway culture. In the decades since their introduction – the first plastic "baggies" for bread, sandwiches and fruit were introduced in the US in 1957 – their use has become ubiquitous across the planet. One million are handed out every minute, according to We Are What We Do, the not-for-profit group that was the driving force behind the Anya Hindmarch-designed "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" reusable carrier that briefly – and somewhat ironically – became a must-have accessory in 2007. It has long been the instinctive reflex of the shop assistant to place the items we buy into a plastic bag – and, equally, it has been our instinctive reflex to accept them. Very few of us ever questioned the logic or implications of such a mundane exchange. But in recent years, the unsightly and growing presence of these bags across our collective environment has led to a global movement to restrict their use – and, in some cases, calls for their outright ban.
According to reports yesterday, the Welsh Assembly is the latest government to consider outlawing the free distribution of plastic bags in shops. Jane Davidson, the Welsh environment minister, said that many shoppers were still failing "to embrace the environmental message" despite a raft of measures by supermarkets and other retailers to encourage us to use fewer of them. One solution now being given serious consideration by the Welsh authorities is the introduction of a 15p levy on every plastic or paper bag handed out to shoppers in the principality. Any revenue raised would be ring-fenced for local environmental projects, the minister said. (She also admitted that a small number of shoppers might be tempted to shop across the border in England to escape the tax.)
Evidence from across the world suggests that such a politically bold move would produce a dramatic drop in the number of bags being used each year in Wales. In 2002, Ireland introduced a 15 euro cents tax on each plastic bag – the so-called "plastax" – and within a few months a 90% reduction in the number of bags being used had been recorded. In total, the tax is thought to have led to a billion fewer bags being used each year in Ireland. The tax persuaded shoppers to bring their own reusable bags with them on shopping trips, or to request far fewer bags at the checkout.
But the scheme has had its critics. While it was true that the tax led to a dramatic drop in the number of bags being handed out in shops, it also triggered a 400% increase in the number of bin liners and black refuse bags being purchased. The tax also encouraged an increased reliance on paper bags which, according to a number of life-cycle analysis studies that have compared the environmental performance of various types of bags, require more energy to manufacture and release more greenhouse gases when degrading following their disposal. And while it is commonly accepted that plastic bags are a genuine blot on the landscape (and seascape), they only represent a tiny fraction of the waste stream by weight or by volume. For example, in the US they account for less than half a percent of domestic refuse.
The implication – expressed or otherwise – of such criticism is that we are either largely wasting our time pursuing such tactics in attempting to eradicate plastic bags, or that we are allowing ourselves to be distracted by what is, relatively speaking, a fairly minor environmental woe. James Lovelock, the climate scientist, has referred to the current obsession with plastic bags as "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic". Patting ourselves on the back about how few plastic bags we each now use allows us to ignore far more pressing environmental issues such as, say, climate change, overpopulation, rapid species extinction and the depletion of resources such as fresh water. Today's war on plastic bags is certainly worth fighting, but not if it is at the expense of these other concerns.
"It's the carbon content of what goes into your plastic bags, not the plastic bags themselves, that we should be worrying about," says Chris Goodall, the author of How to Live a Low Carbon Life, and Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. "This is 100% more important than, say, the amount of oil used to make one plastic bag. Plastic bags are a litter issue – yes, they certainly cause great damage to marine life – but they are frequently seen as a carbon issue. They are not. They are an easy target because they are one of the most visible environmental problems. But this doesn't make them the most important environmental issue. Many assume that recycling is the answer to the waste problem, rather than simply consuming less. It's not an easy message for many people to accept. Worrying about plastic bags also gives the illusion that small steps make a difference. This kind of radical change in thinking will take a generation."
Goodall says that the various efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags – be it through government legislation or the voluntary efforts (spurred on by high-profile campaigns by the likes of the Daily Mail) by supermarkets to reduce their customers' reliance on such bags – are invariably littered with unintended consequences. As has been seen in Ireland, plastic bag taxes often lead to a rise in the number of bin liners being purchased. "This plastic is much thicker and will prove to be a greater environmental hazard than thin plastic bags," he says.
The widespread belief that biodegradable "plastic" bags made from, say vegetable starch, are the panacea is also misguided, says Goodall. "I've still got a load of these bags sitting at the bottom of my allotment two years later."
And introducing a plastic bag ban or tax doesn't necessarily produce lasting results. In 2007, the Irish authorities were forced to increase their bag tax to 22 euro cents after the number of bags being used each year by every citizen rose from 21 to 31. (However, before the tax was introduced, the Irish were, on average, each using 328 bags a year.)
There are also growing rumbles of concern in San Francisco, which, in 2007, became the first city in the US to introduce a plastic bag ban. An investigation by the San Francisco Weekly earlier this year found that in the period since the ban was introduced there had actually been a slight rise in the number of plastic bags picked up off the city's streets.
All eyes are now on Seattle. In a week's time [18 August], its citizens will get to vote on whether to introduce a 20-cent levy on plastic bags. It represents one of the first occasions when an electorate has been asked if it wants such a levy rather than having it imposed on them by elected politicians. It's currently too close to call, but the lobbying for both sides of the argument has been intense. One local paper reported this week that the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of the plastic industry that includes members such as Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and some of the leading plastic-bag producers, had already spent almost $1.4m trying to defeat the bag tax, whereas environmental groups had raised about $80,000. As a result, some of the "yes" camp are now trying to dress up the battle as a vote against the influence of big oil.
But while Seattle's levy might not quite be in the bag just yet, there is already talk in some quarters about how an outright ban on all plastic bags is the ultimate goal. Haf Elgar, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Cymru, welcomes the moves by the Welsh Assembly to consider a plastic bag levy, but believes the next logical step would be a complete ban. "Yes, we would support such a step," she says. "Charging, say, 15p for a bag is a great disincentive and a first step, but, ultimately, we all need to be bringing reusable bags with us to the shops."
Perhaps we need a dose of even more radical thinking: how about a tax on leaving home without a reusable bag? Think this is going too far? Earlier this year, a Beijing-based ecologist provoked a torrent of online abuse and ridicule when he seriously proposed the ultimate environmental levy – a tax on breathing •

More Cap-and-Trade War

Ten Senators insist on a carbon tariff to avoid job losses.
President Obama says his cap-and-trade energy tax won't hurt the economy, but at least 10 Senate Democrats disagree. Last week they sent Mr. Obama a letter demanding that any bill taxing U.S. CO2 emissions must include a carbon tariff "to ensure that manufacturers do not bear the brunt of our climate change policy."
Hmmm. This sure sounds like an explicit admission that cap and tax would add so much to the cost of doing business in the U.S. that it would drive factories and jobs overseas. The 10 mostly liberal Senators come from states like Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia whose economies rely heavily on manufacturing and coal. "We must not engage in a self-defeating effort that displaces greenhouse gas emissions rather than reducing them and displaces U.S. jobs rather than bolstering them," wrote the Senators.
Thus their demand that "a longer-term border adjustment mechanism"—a euphemism for tariffs—"is a vital part of this package to prevent the relocation of carbon emissions and industries" to countries that aren't as foolish as to impose a similar tax. Those countries include China and India, which have told Obama officials that they have no intention of signing on to the rich world's growth-killing obsessions.
All of which puts the President in an economic policy bind. When the House passed its cap-and-tax bill in June, he warned against a carbon tariff by saying "I think we need to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals." But these 10 Senate Democrats are saying explicitly that protectionism is the price of their support. So Mr. Obama can opt to impose a huge carbon tax and drive jobs overseas, or he can impose the tax along with a tariff, and kick off a trade war. Better to call the whole thing off.