Saturday, 15 August 2009

Obama's science adviser urges leadership on climate

John Holdren, the president's top science adviser, is playing a key role in shaping the Obama administration's strategy to combat global warming. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Holdren discusses the prospects for achieving breakthroughs on climate change, both in Congress and at upcoming talks in Copenhagen.
From Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network
Six weeks after he was elected, President Obama nominated John Holdren to be his chief science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Many scientists hailed the timing of the nomination — George W. Bush waited almost a year before naming Holdren's predecessor — and the choice of Holdren, too, was seen as encouraging: He was trained in plasma physics, is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard, is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, served as director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and is a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award.
The New York Times called Holdren's nomination an affirmation of "Mr. Obama's commitment to aggressively address the challenges of energy independence and global warming." Now, Holdren is one of several high-ranking Obama administration officials moving aggressively to combat global warming and to wean the country off fossil fuels. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, conducted by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, Holdren talked about the cap-and-trade bill that recently passed the House, the crucial role America and China will play in the upcoming climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and how the administration plans to convert the U.S. "from the laggard that it has been in this domain" into "the leader that the world needs" on global warming.
Yale Environment 360: The issues that are on your plate right now — energy consumption, the environmental consequences of energy consumption — you've been thinking about them your whole career. I'm wondering if you could just talk about what you think is the most important thing that the administration could do — on its own — about energy use.
John Holdren: Clearly in the energy domain, both the use side and the supply side are very important. They're important from the standpoint of environment, from the standpoint of economy, from the standpoint of national/international security. Clearly we have to provide the energy goods and services that people need and that the economy needs.
We need to do that while reducing our dependence on imported oil, which is both expensive and potentially disruptive. We need to do it while sharply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and that's from a starting point in which — in the United States — about 88 percent of our primary energy is coming from fossil fuels, whose combustion is putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the biggest driver of global climate change.
And so we've got all these criteria that we have to meet at once. When you look at the options for doing that, the cleanest, fastest, cheapest, safest, surest energy supply option continues to be increasing the efficiency of energy end use — more efficient cars, more efficient buildings, more efficient industrial processes, more efficient airplanes. We have gotten more new energy out of energy efficiency improvements in the last 35 years than we've gotten out of all supply side expansion put together in the United States. That's even without trying all that hard. For most of that period, we haven't had anything that you could call a really coherent set of energy policies supporting increasing energy efficiency. We need... a more coherent set of policies.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, sometimes just called the [economic] stimulus, got huge amounts of investment, not only in R&D,but in actual on-the-ground activities to insulate people's homes and other aspects of improving end use efficiency. We've already had the biggest boost in federal support for innovation in energy supply-and-demand in the history of the country. We have also made permanent research and experimentation tax credits, which adds to the incentive in the private sector to invest in innovation in these domains.
In the comprehensive energy and climate legislation that's now working its way through the Congress, we have the potential there to get a lot more done, including all the incentives that would come from having a cap-and-trade approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
e360: You've said many times that we have basically three options with regard to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering, and that what's at issue is what the mix among those three things is going to be. Now we do have finally a piece of legislation that has passed the House at least. I'm wondering if you can just talk about how it does, in terms of that mix.
Holdren: Well, first of all, I want to emphasize that it has long been my position, and it's the President's position, that we're going to have to do a lot of both mitigation and adaptation in order to reduce the amount of suffering that results from climate change in the United States and around the world. I just testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about the work that we're doing to increase research and application in the domain of adaptation, because adaptation has been, I think, understudied and underinvested in comparison to mitigation.
e360: One of the concerns has always been that too much emphasis on adaptation is going to give people the impression that we can just adapt to climate change. Is that something that concerns you?
Holdren: I don't really think that's a danger anymore. People were quite worried about that five years ago, 10 years ago. It's plausible that one of the reasons that there wasn't more discussion about adaptation was some people's worry that that would lead to complacency about the need to mitigate. I think the current view of the vast majority of people who've looked carefully at this is that we need a lot of mitigation and a lot of adaptation. The point being that adaptation gets more difficult, more costly, and less effective the larger the changes in climate to which you're trying to adapt.
Therefore, we need a lot of mitigation in order to hold the changes in climate to the level that adaptation will be able to cope reasonably effectively with. At the same time, we can't rely on mitigation alone without adaptation because nothing that we could manage in the mitigation domain can stop and reverse climate change overnight. The timeline in the system — both the climate system itself and the energy system — means that there simply isn't any possibility of stopping it overnight. So you need both.
e360: One of things that you mentioned in your testimony [before Congress] is that we are in fact seeing a lot of climate impacts that are running ahead of projections. Do you think that that message is getting out?
Holdren: We all talk about the acceleration of climate change in its impacts that we're observing. One sees the incidence of wildfires going up more rapidly than people expected, the incidence of heat waves and droughts going up more rapidly, sea level is rising more rapidly.
The impacts on the ecological side with pest outbreaks, particularly the forest pests, the loss of huge acreages of spruce and pine across the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, Colorado, definitely linked to climate change because the longer warm season has enabled the pest to get in more generations in a single season than they could before. That, combined with drought and heat stress on the trees, is having effects that no one would have predicted a decade ago.
All of these indicators are moving more rapidly. I think that message is getting through. I don't hear very much in Washington these days any serious people saying we don't believe this is a problem. The argument is really about exactly what we should be doing about it, how much we should be investing, what kinds of measures we should put in place.
e360: There's been a lot of talk that the bill in its current form cannot pass the Senate, that there is going to have to be watering down of the provisions. Does that concern you?
Holdren: Obviously I would like to see, and the President would like to see, a strong bill get through the Senate. I think it's understood that the Senate is bound to make some modifications, and then those will have to be worked out in conference between the Senate and the House. I'm not sure all the modifications that will get made in the Senate will be in the direction of making it weaker. Some folks in the Senate would like to see it made stronger.
So I think we have to watch how this process unfolds before we judge what the bill is going to look like. I'm very hopeful that we will get a bill, and that it will be, at the very least, a strong start on getting the United States converted from the laggard that it has been in this domain into being the leader that the world needs.
e360: You were recently in China with Todd Stern [Special Envoy for the Secretary of State on Climate Change], and other administration officials. Can you speak a bit about what you heard from the Chinese, and what you think the U.S. can do to persuade countries like China and India to agree to some action that will be politically palatable [at the climate talks] in Copenhagen this fall?
Holdren: In these conversations, a couple of things came through very clearly. One is that the Chinese understand that climate changes is real, they understand it's already harming China, and they understand that it cannot be solved without China's participation. There's absolutely no disagreement on that from the Chinese leadership.
I think it's particularly significant that the Chinese have understood that climate change is already harming them, that this not a problem just for the future. The monsoons have been changing in China in a pattern that the Chinese climate models themselves attribute to global climate change. That change in monsoon has been accentuating flooding in the south, and drought in the north to the detriment of Chinese food production, with considerable property losses.
So the Chinese are starting from a place now which is quite different than they were, say, five years ago. Which is, that this is a problem that China has to participate in solving, for reasons of China's own self interest. This isn't a matter of being an altruist, or being a good citizen globally. Their self interest is in solving this problem. That's a big change.
The second thing is that I would say the Chinese are already doing far more to try to contribute to the solution than they generally get credit for in the West. The Chinese have made enormous advances in energy end use efficiency in recent years. They are the world leaders, both in the pace of improvement in energy efficiency and the pace of deployment of renewable energy technologies.
In their five-year plan that will end in 2010, they had a target of reducing the energy intensity of the Chinese economy by 20 percent. They're going to make it, which is an extraordinary rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
The real question is whether the Chinese will agree in Copenhagen to commitments that are seen as sufficiently rigorous and that the U.S. Senate will then agree to consent to ratification of whatever global agreement gets reached in Copenhagen. If the Chinese are not willing to make a formal commitment to continuation of the sort of progress that they've been making, then the Senate is likely to say, "Look, the United States is not going to take on these binding commitments if the Chinese are not going to follow."
e360: Right.
Holdren: And there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem there, because the Chinese position, I think quite understandably, is that the United States and the other industrialized nations — having contributed the most to this problem up until now — need to lead. The developing countries then can be expected to follow. The Chinese and other developing countries are also saying, "And by the way, you shouldn't just lead, but you need to help us follow, because you have more technological resources, more capability, a much higher per capita income. So we want both your leadership, and we want your help."
I think that it's going to be very important that the United States make clear, between now and Copenhagen, that we are, in fact, willing to lead and to help.
[Department of Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu, on his more recent visit to China, reached agreement with the Chinese on joint energy research centers between the two countries, which will be a start on ramping up the cooperation on the ground on improving energy efficiency, and deploying clean energy technologies that I think have the potential to persuade the Chinese that we're serious about helping, as well as serious about leading.
I think to persuade them we're serious about leading, the best thing that could happen between now and Copenhagen is that the Senate votes out the energy and climate legislation. The most important thing in terms of showing our willingness to help would be getting some substantial clean energy projects going on the ground that are jointly supported by the two countries. I think both of those things are possible, and then we could have the outcome that I think everybody sensible is hoping for out of Copenhagen.
e360: You said that the U.S. has to move from being a laggard to being a leader, and sooner rather than later, if we're going to act in time. Where would you put us on that curve right now?
Holdren: I think it's the classic case, where the glass is simultaneously half full and half empty. We've got a bill that's a good start out of the House. It's not perfect, but no legislation ever is, from any one party's point of view. If we can get something similar, or maybe even stronger, out of the Senate, that would be fabulous.
We also have a very good start on boosting our investments in energy innovation in the United States. This is demonstrating leadership already, and is being widely applauded around the world. What we need in the next step is more on-the-ground successes in joint projects, particularly with developing countries, starting with China. Again, I think the prospects of getting that are quite good.
e360: How important is it that something come out of Copenhagen in December that can get through the U.S. Senate?
Holdren: Well, I think it's important that the world move ahead with an agreed approach to addressing this problem. Because I think what the science is telling us is that if we want a good chance of avoiding the worst possible outcomes from climate change, we need the global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants to level off by about 2020 and be declining sharply after that.
And if that is going to happen, and if you allow for the inevitability that the developing countries are not going to be able to level off and start to decline as quickly as the industrialized countries, you really need the industrialized countries to peak and begin to decline no later than about 2015. That would allow the possibility that the developing countries, as a group, could peak as late as 2025 before they have to start to decline.
And if that is so — and I believe that's what the science is telling us — then we really have to have in place across the industrialized world the agreements and the measures that are going to enable us to peak no later than 2015 and start to decline. We need those things in place no later than about 2012. And if you want those things to be in place no later than 2012, we really should get it done in Copenhagen. That's the schedule.
I'm not saying it's the end of the world if we don't get it done in Copenhagen, but it becomes harder and harder to get on the sort of trajectory we need to be on to reduce the chance of the worst happening in climate change the longer we delay.
e360: The American Meteorological Society recently called for more research into what's become known as geoengineering. I know that you felt that some comments you made about this at the beginning of your tenure were misconstrued. Is that a reasonable position that we need to do more research on this?
Holdren: The way that I feel I was misrepresented in an interview I gave early in the administration was the proposition that I was saying the White House is considering geoengineering as a part of our national strategy for dealing with climate change. This was made the centerpiece of an article based on a statement I made in which I said as I scientist, I think we need to look at everything. We need to understand what geoengineering might be — what its costs would be, what its effectiveness would be, what its side effects would be, what its shortcomings would be — because as a scientist, we need to know what the options are.
And I said it is certainly possible that if mitigation measures are not sufficiently successful, that increasingly people will become interested in whether there's anything we can do to compensate for that by trying to intervene in the earth's system in a way that offsets the buildup of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping pollutants.
And as a scientific position, I think that remains true, and that is the position that the American Meteorological Society has taken. We've got to study this. The National Academy of Sciences has had some symposia on this subject in which people say we have to study it.
The other thing is one needs to understand that, in a sense, we've been practicing geoengineering for centuries, inadvertently. I mean that's why we have this problem. We have engineered the composition of the atmosphere into a state that is overheating the planet.
And the other thing people need to understand is that there's a very wide variety of approaches. You know the approach called "white roofs" is a geoengineering approach. Make everybody's roof white instead of black, and then all of our urban areas will reflect a lot of sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed.
And you know we ought to be doing more of that. Some of the other kinds of approaches that were mentioned in some of the articles that appeared following my interview are clearly nuts — you know — putting giant mirrors in space at the point where the sun's and the earth's gravity balance in order to deflect sunlight away from the earth. You look at the numbers on that one and it's nuts.
e360: It's nuts because it's impossible, or because it's inadvisable?
Holdren: Well, I would say number one, it is impossibly expensive. There was an estimate a few years ago presented at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences that said that offsetting a doubling of atmospheric CO2 in this way would cost $1,400 trillion. I think after that number you don't even have to ask anymore whether it would have unintended side effects, which it well might. Because nobody's going to do it.
But again, to say that we need to understand what might be proposed in the way of geoengineering is not to say that we're going to embrace any of these schemes. And indeed, the administration's position is that our policies on mitigation through reducing emissions and increasing [CO2] uptake by better management of forests and agricultural soil and the measures that we will be taking in terms of adaptation are going to do the job.
But, that doesn't say on the research side you shouldn't look at the options that likely will be considered if the things you expect to do the job fall short.
e360: There was a lot of discussion about how the last administration misrepresented and even suppressed a lot of government scientists in the service of a political agenda. And now, we have a new administration and a new science advisor, i.e. you, and we also have a new political agenda. And it seems that the public can take the impression from this, if they want to, that science is inevitably a politicized activity. How do you avoid that sense that the science can be used by whoever wants to?
Holdren: I am charged by the President in my role as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy with coming up with guidelines for scientific integrity in government. And the intent of having those guidelines — which we're quite far along on and will be releasing soon — is to provide both the reality and the perception that science is not being misused in pursuit of political agendas in this government. Presumably, if such guidelines can be made a fixture over time, this would carry over to the next administration and other administrations thereafter.
There are a variety of ways to do that, having to do with the freedom that scientists have to discuss their findings without interference from the public relations office. It has to do with the extensive use of peer review to assure that the science that is being put at the service of policy makers is the best science available. And it has to do with the public perception that they are being dealt with honestly by the scientists in this administration, that people are prepared to tell it like it is even when it might be inconvenient.
One of the things that is both important and subtle about this particular matter is that no one should expect that science will determine policy outcomes by itself. Science is often germane and we would not want our policy makers to be making decisions about issues based on faulty science. But at the same time having the best science still doesn't necessarily specify a particular outcome because economics is going to matter, values are going to matter, preferences are going to matter.
What one wants from science advice to policy makers is that the science is right, that policy makers aren't making choices on the basis of misconception about science. But people shouldn't imagine that good science advice is going to take the politics out of policy. It can't. And that's a good thing.
• This article was shared by our content partner Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network

Oil lobby to fund campaign against Obama's climate change strategy

Email from American Petroleum Institute outlines plan to create appearance of public opposition to Obama's climate and energy reform
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Friday 14 August 2009 19.35 BST
The US oil and gas lobby are planning to stage public events to give the appearance of a groundswell of public opinion against legislation that is key to Barack Obama's climate change strategy, according to campaigners.
A key lobbying group will bankroll and organise 20 ''energy citizen'' rallies in 20 states. In an email obtained by Greenpeace, Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), outlined what he called a "sensitive" plan to stage events during the August congressional recess to put a "human face" on opposition to climate and energy reform.
After the clamour over healthcare, the memo raises the possibility of a new round of protests against a key Obama issue.
"Our goal is to energise people and show them that they are not alone," said Cathy Landry, for API, who confirmed that the memo was authentic.
The email from Gerard lays out ambitious plans to stage a series of lunchtime rallies to try to shape the climate bill that was passed by the house in June and will come before the Senate in September. "We must move aggressively," it reads.
The API strategy also extends to a PR drive. Gerard cites polls to test the effectiveness of its arguments against climate change legislation. It offers up the "energy citizen" rallies as ready-made events, noting that allies – which include manufacturing and farm alliances as well as 400 oil and gas member organisations – will have to do little more than turn up.
"API will provide the up-front resources," the email said. "This includes contracting with a highly experienced events management company that has produced successful rallies for presidential campaigns."
However, it said member organisations should encourage employees to attend to command the attention of senators. "In the 11 states with an industry core, our member company local leadership – including your facility manager's commitment to provide significant attendance – is essential," said the email.
Greenpeace described the meetings as "astroturfing" – events intended to exert pressure on legislators by giving the impression of a groundswell of public opinion. Kert Davies, its research director, said: "It is the behind the scenes plan to disrupt the debate and weaken political support for climate regulation."
The rally sites were chosen to exert maximum pressure on Democrats in conservative areas. The API also included talking points for the rallies – including figures on the costs of energy reform that were refuted weeks ago by the congressional budget office.
The API drive also points to a possible fracturing of the US Climate Action Partnership (Uscap), a broad coalition of corporations and energy organisations which was instrumental in drafting the Waxman-Markey climate change bill that passed in the House of Representatives in June.
Passage of the legislation is seen as crucial to the prospects of getting the world to sign on to a climate change treaty at Copenhagen next December.
Five members of Uscap are also in API, including BP which said its employees were aware of the rallies. Conoco Phillips, which was also a member of the climate action partnership, has also turned against climate change, warning on its website that the legislation will put jobs at risk, and compromise America's energy security. The company is also advertising the energy rallies on its website, urging readers: "Make your voice heard."
However, Shell, also a member of both groups, said it did not support the rallies. Bill Tenner, a spokesman, said: "We are not participating."

Opencast coalmine surge 'weakens UK's authority at climate change talks'

Britain will be a joke at Copenhagen, warns Nasa scientist James Hansen, as government authorises more mines
Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent, Friday 14 August 2009 15.35 BST
Coal production in Britain has increased sharply after a surge in new opencast coal mines, undermining the government's claim to be a world leader on combating climate change.
Dozens of opencast coal mines have been authorised by ministers and local councils across the UK, reversing a decade-long decline in coal production in Britain and often against intense local opposition.
As a result, mining companies are now sitting on 71m tonnes of coal in licensed opencast mines, compared with 55m tonnes in 2007. And over the next few months, the industry is likely to win permission to mine another 15m tonnes from across the UK.
The rise prompted condemnation from leading Nasa climate scientist Prof James Hansen. He said boosting coal production would undermine the UK's position on climate change.
"[The] UK will be a joke. It is moral turpitude, depravity, to build more coal-fired power plants or open coal mines, knowing what we know now," he said. "It was one thing to dig coal when we didn't know the consequences, but quite another thing today."
"The UK would not be in a position to ask anybody else to do anything," he added.
Figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) – which is leading the UK's efforts to persuade world leaders to agree deep cuts in CO2 emissions at the UN's climate summit in Copenhagen in December – indicate that coal production in the UK grew markedly this year.
In the first three months, coal dug from opencast mines, which excavate from the surface, increased by 15%, while Britain's overall coal production went up by almost 10%. Coal imports also increased, by nearly 13%, compared with the same three months of 2008.
The rises will put the UK's claims to be a world leader on climate change and green energy under severe strain in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks.
Ed Miliband, the UK energy and climate minister, has warned that no new coal-fired power station can be built unless it eventually includes carbon capture and storage technology to trap part of its CO2 emissions.
But this technology will not be proven until 2020, and environment campaigners insist the UK must reduce coal and gas use now if ministers are serious about cutting CO2 emission by 34% over the next decade.
Jim Footner, an energy campaigner with Greenpeace, said: "Our domestic policies simply don't stack up. It's difficult to lecture large industrialising countries like China and India about their energy use while we're happily considering new coal-fired power stations and digging coal out at an ever-faster rate."
Environmental groups also accuse ministers of wrecking the countryside by allowing opencast mines to proliferate across southern Wales, northern England, the Midlands and central Scotland. For the first time, opencast mines now produce more coal than traditional underground mines.
Climate activists are now focusing heavily on the coal industry. Protesters have occupied a planned 1.7m tonne opencast site at Mainshill in South Lanarkshire, sabotaging a coal conveyor belt at another site nearby.
Activists in Wales are staging a "climate camp" this weekend near Ffos-y-fran opencast mine near Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, where 11m tonnes of coal is earmarked for extraction.
Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Green Party, said: "Coal extraction is a dirty business in terms of health impacts, social impacts and environmental impacts – it's not a benign industry in any way. We need to be reducing our reliance on coal now, and looking at alternatives wherever possible."
Ministers in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh are routinely rejecting objections by local residents and in some cases local councils, to push through applications for new opencast mines. Since the 2005 general election, 54 mines have been approved across the UK and only four rejected.
The Scottish government – which boasts it has the world's toughest CO2 reduction targets after pledging to cut emissions by 42% by 2020 – has meanwhile made it easier for the coal industry by relaxing planning regulations on opencast mines.
Alex Salmond, the first minister, is also supporting plans for a new 1600mw coal-fired power station to replace Hunterston nuclear power station on the Clyde. Over the past four years, 25 open cast mines have been approved in Scotland and none refused.
The Decc's figures also show that much of this coal is being stockpiled, with stores now at the highest level for a decade.
By the end of 2008, more than 18m tonnes of coal was being stored – 30% more than in 2007 - suggesting that power companies are building up strategic reserves of coal to prevent electricity blackouts if the UK's energy imports are threatened or prices increase.
Figures from the British Geological Survey, the Decc and the UK Coal Authority, the agency which oversees the industry, show that last year the amount of coal available from existing open cast mines jumped to 54m tonnes, compared with 38m tonnes in 2007.
There was a further 13m tonnes available last year from sites where mining has yet to begin. And this year another 3.7m tonnes of coal has been approved at four new opencast mines. A further 19 opencast mines totalling 14.6m tonnes are now being considered across Britain.
A Decc spokeswoman said: "We don't see this as counter to our climate change message. The UK is at the forefront of global efforts to decarbonise fossil fuels." Ministers are championing carbon-capture technologies by directly funding one scheme and supporting three other projects funded through a new levy on power companies.
"Our policy is that coal will continue to be an important part of the energy mix provided that its potential environmental impact can be managed," she added.
The coal industry argues that it makes economic and strategic sense for the UK to become less reliant on imports from countries such as South Africa, Russia and Columbia. It also claims mining coal in the UK cuts CO2 emissions compared with shipping it from overseas.
Scottish Coal, now the UK's largest opencast mining company, said: "Coal consistently provides up to half of the nation's electricity needs. Therefore it is a resource that is still in demand by power station operators." Its mines supported the UK economy and reduce "the need to import coal from foreign sources which carries a greater environmental cost".

Chinese villagers dying from chemical factory's illegal pollution

Jane Macartney in Shuangqiao village
The residents of Shuangqiao village say that their homes are now nothing but places in which to wait for death.
In the paddy fields surrounding this small community in Hunan province, southern China, the rice is neglected and strewn with weeds. The vegetable plots stand empty, stripped of the green beans and cabbages that were grown as cash crops.
Underfoot, the earth has been poisoned to a depth of 20cm (8in). The water in the wells is undrinkable.
Tragedies like this — the legacy of China’s rush to get rich — are all too common. Yesterday more than 600 children in Shaanxi province were found to be suffering from lead poisoning caused by a nearby lead and zinc smelter.
The plight of Shuangqiao, however, where three people have died and 509 are sick from poisoning by the heavy metals cadmium and indium, produced by a nearby factory, has drawn widespread attention since residents took to the internet to air their grievances.
“We wouldn’t be here today if the Government had paid attention to us in 2006 when we first told them the factory in our village was spreading pollution,” said one villager, who gave his name only as Li, for fear of official retribution. “Now it’s the responsibility of the factory and the Government that ignored us to help us.”
The Xianghe Chemical factory now stands shuttered and closed. Angry villagers have scratched away its name at the gate and scrawled in white paint the words: “Give us back our green hills, our clean water, our fresh air. Give us justice. We want to live.”
The Government of Hunan province — among the world’s most important producers of heavy metals and one of the most polluted regions of China — has begun to take seriously the threat from rivers so filthy that the drinking water for tens of millions could be toxic.
The mayors of eight cities, including the man responsible for Shuangqiao’s 7,000 people, have signed a pledge to the provincial capital to clean up their act, or assume personal accountability that could cut short their careers.
For some, however, it is too late. Ouyang Guoping had to watch his elder brother waste away after he fell ill while processing toxic ore for the Xianghe factory. He died on July 18. At least two other villagers have died this year of chronic illnesses.
Mr Ouyang’s body is wasted and health checks have found high levels of cadmium in his blood. His wife is in hospital. “I have little hope. I know that her illness is incurable.”
Officials say that pollution reaches a radius of about 500m (1,640ft) around Xianghe factory. But evidence points to a more serious situation.
Waste water and earth from the processing of the heavy metals have been dumped into a narrow valley at the back of the plant. The stream runs into a river 500m away that feeds into the main Xiang River, which provides drinking water for 20 million people.
The factory was supposed to produce the feed additive zinc sulphate. Instead, it illegally processed ore from zinc production to extract cadmium and rare indium, a key material in liquid crystal display screens and solar panels.
The price of indium soared from less than $600 (£360) a kilogram in 2003 to $1,000 by 2006. China now meets 30 per cent of world demand and at its peak the Xianghe factory produced 300kg of indium a month.
Former workers say that everyone knew what was going on but that the Government turned a blind eye. Zhou Haiming, 37, a former factory employee, said that he should probably be in hospital but someone had to support the family. His parents, his wife and his 7-year-old son are all ill.
“We tried to complain but they made us shut up. Now we want them to move us away from this poisoned place but they refuse. My wife will die. And I have no hope for my son.”
Officials had told him that his land would be unusable for 60 years but that he could grow non-edible crops such as cotton or trees to clean the soil.
Farmer Yang has abandoned hope. “It’s the children, the children,” he lamented. “We want our children to have a future. We have to leave.”
Nation in flux
The estimated number of deaths from pollution in China in 2007
£32 billion
The estimated annual cost of air and water pollution to the nation’s coffers
The average rate of growth experienced by the Chinese economy in the past 25 years
Sources: World Bank, Times database

UN's climate chief warns of real risk of failure at climate change talks

Yvo de Boer says process too slow to reach deal at close of meeting in Bonn aimed at trimming 200-page draft treaty
David Adam, environment correspondent, Friday 14 August 2009 18.16 BST
A new global treaty on climate change is unlikely unless negotiations accelerate, the UN's top climate change official warned today. Speaking at the close of another meeting intended to lay the ground for a new deal, Yvo de Boer, head of the UN climate secretariat said there was a real risk of failure.
According to Reuters, he said: "If we continue at this rate we're not going to make it." De Boer said the week-long meeting in Bonn had made only "selective progress" towards trimming a huge 200-page draft treaty text.
He warned that just 15 days of negotiations remain before key UN talks begin in December in Copenhagen at meetings in Bangkok in September and October and Barcelona in November.
The Bonn talks were not expected to make a significant breakthrough. Observers said there was little movement on the key issues of new curbs on greenhouse gas pollution and funds to help poorer nations cope with global warming.
"It is clear that there is quite a significant uphill battle if we are going to get there," said Jonathan Pershing, head of the US delegation, according to Reuters. But he said there were some signs of movement. "You absolutely can get there," he said.
"Delegates spent too much time arguing over procedures and technicalities. This is not the way to overcome mistrust between rich and poor nations," said Kim Carstensen, head of WWF Global Climate Initiative. "Delegates are kept back by political gridlock. The political leaders must now unblock the process."
Mike Childs, head of climate change at Friends of the Earth, said: "Rich countries are once again pushing the con of carbon offsetting at UN climate change talks, which means avoiding real action through dodgy accounting and putting pitifully inadequate targets on the table. Not only does this do nothing to protect people from the threat of runaway climate change, it means the UK will miss out on the new green jobs and industries that would be created by moving to a safe, clean, low-carbon future."
The talks closed as India said the new global climate change agreement should ban trade barriers erected by rich countries against those that refuse to accept limits on their carbon emissions.
India suggested a clause to bar any country from taking action against another country's goods and services based on its climate policy. The clause is largely directed against efforts by US Congress to impose trade penalties on countries that do not commit to specific action against greenhouse gases. India's chief delegate Shyam Saran said such measures looked like "protectionism under a green label," and were complicating the latest round of climate negotiations in Bonn.
Trade issues are "extraneous to what we are trying to construct here, which is a collaborative response to an extraordinary global challenge," Saran told the Associated Press.

Where do Britain's carbon emissions come from?

The energy white paper promises to transform the way we live. This data shows how we consume energy now
Roll over lines to reveal data. If you ever wanted evidence of Britain's decline as a coal burning, manufacturing nation and transformation into a car-based consumer society which depends on others for our goods, this is it.
The data shows that overall carbon dioxide emissions, which are linked clearly to industrial output, have declined from 684 to 542m tonnes in the last 40 years (nearly 30%). But in that time transport emissions have nearly doubled, emissions in homes have risen significantly and agriculture and industry have reduced by nearly 30%. Some of that is because engines have become more eficient, but mostly it's because we dont make thinks and we have switched from coal to gas to heat our homes and offices.
But come back in 40 years time, and you should see far more dramatic changes. In today's energy white paper, Britain sets out sector by sector exactly how it plans to reduce its carbon emissions by 34% in just 11 years, and by 80% by 2050. No other country has tried to do so much in so short a time. In that time, industry will have to decarbonise by more than 50%, transport by even more and all homes by at least 30%. It will be a revolution that is certain to affect every home, action and industrial process, and will proundly change the way we work and travel.

Climate sceptics and believers unite

Australia's Green and Coalition parties have voted down an emissions plan. It's bad news for the environment
Toni O'Loughlin, Friday 14 August 2009 14.00 BST
It was a rare moment in the Australian environment this week when two hostile political species, the climate change sceptics and the believers, united to defeat the Labor government's plan to help abate global warming. Normally sworn enemies, the Greens, the conservative Liberal-National coalition and minor parties set aside their environmental differences to vote against the government's carbon emissions trading scheme.
Australians, individually, are the worst polluters on the planet but polling consistently shows the vast majority view climate change as a big problem. Having tapped into Australia's anxiety about the enormity of its carbon footprint, Kevin Rudd's Labor party won a thumping victory in 2007 arguing that climate change was the "great moral challenge of our generation". Yet when Rudd put his plan to a vote in the Senate, where the government is outnumbered, it was howled down as a national disaster.
Depending on which senators you were listening to in the red-carpeted and red-upholstered upper chamber, the Greens or the climate change sceptics and downright disbelievers in the coalition, it was going to wipe industry or the environment off the map.
The Rudd government, like the UK and EU, wants to set a price for greenhouse gas pollution to create a market that rewards clean producers while punishing big polluters with higher production costs. It wants to cut Australia's greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years, using the year 2000 as the benchmark. Rudd wants to cut emissions by at least 5%. He says he will go further, up to 25%, depending on what the rest of the world signs up to at the UN's climate change conference in Copenhagen later this year.
Rudd's plan would force about 1,000 of the nation's biggest polluters, who pump out 70% to 75% Australia's greenhouse emission, to participate in the market by buying carbon permits. Indeed, without the government's $A16bn assistance package, many of the dirtiest producers, like the coal-fired power stations which generate 80% of Australia's electricity, would most likely collapse.
Some claim Rudd's scheme is among the most ambitious in the world because unlike Europe, Australia would eventually include big industrial emitters like agriculture and transport. Yet it does not include the cost of emissions from land clearing, a practice that accounts for 13% of Australia's greenhouse gas pollution. And it equates the carbon storage capacity of old-growth forests, which are hundreds of years old, with new forestry plantations.
Compared to the UN's draft targets for rich nations, Rudd's scheme is hardly trail blazing. Based on the best science available, the UN has suggested that nations like Australia must cut greenhouse pollution by 25% to 40% by 2020, using 1990 as the benchmark year, if the world is to contain the rise in the earth's temperature to two degrees.
Still, Rudd is likely to put his legislation to another vote later in the year. As the Greens can't deliver enough votes in the Senate, and want much higher targets for cutting emissions and much smaller industry assistance, Rudd's best hope is the Coalition, which has the numbers to help the government out.
But many within the Coalition's conservative ranks are backing the power generators, the coal industry, the aluminium and steel industries who are demanding much greater financial support and talking up the prospects of job losses. The climate change minister, Senator Penny Wong, has already made a point of meeting all the big polluters, especially the coal miners.
Negotiating with the Coalition will only intensify the pressure to skew the government's scheme in favour of the polluters. As the Coalition is embroiled in leadership turmoil and hopelessly divided on the issue, Rudd may fail yet again. Yet that may be Australia's best hope for cleaning up its act, as the Copenhagen outcomes will become the new minimum benchmark.

Nuclear power around the world

Environmentalists are divided on the issue of nuclear power. Photograph: George Widman/AP
Nuclear power is back in favour, at least in government circles. The UK has plans for a fleet of new nuclear reactors, Sweden has reversed its decades-old ban on nuclear power and an increasing number of countries are expanding their nuclear generating capacity.
Four new reactors are underway in Europe at the moment: two Russian-designed reactors in Slovakia, plus Finland's Olkiluoto 3 and France's Flamanville 3, which both rely on the French state-owned Areva's involvement and expertise. The Finnish site has been beset by delays, rising costs and criticisms of safety and still has no definite opening date, while the cost of Flamanville 3 has risen from €3.3bn to €4bn.
But it's China that is pursuing nuclear power more enthusiastically and on a bigger scale than anyone else. As the data here shows, it has 14 reactors under construction and 115 either planned or proposed to help it cope with rising energy demands. South Africa is also planning a major expansion in nuclear, joining a countries such as France, Japan and the US, which have historically been some of the most pro-nuclear countries.
Environmentalists are still split on nuclear power. Some see a low carbon energy source that can help slow global warming, while others see unsolved waste problems and a technology that can't be built fast enough to stop dangerous climate change.

Oil giants destroy rainforests to make palm oil diesel for motorists

Ben Webster, Environment Editor
Fuel companies are accelerating the destruction of rainforest by secretly adding palm oil to diesel that is sold to millions of British motorists.
Twelve oil companies supplied a total of 123 million litres of palm oil to filling stations in the year to April, according to official figures obtained by The Times.
Only 15 per cent of the palm oil came from plantations that met any kind of environmental standard. Much of the rest came from land previously occupied by rainforest.
Vast tracts of rainforest are destroyed each year by companies seeking to take advantage of the world’s growing appetite for plant-based alternatives to fossil fuel.
In theory, greenhouse gas emissions from burning biofuel are lower than those from fossil fuel because crops absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.
But clearing rainforest to create biofuel plantations releases vast quantities of carbon stored in trees and soil. It takes up to 840 years for a palm oil plantation to soak up the carbon emitted when rainforest is burnt to plant the crop.
Deforestation, mainly in the tropics, accounts for almost 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has turned the country into the third-largest CO2 emitter, after China and the US. Indonesia has the fastest rate of deforestation, losing an area the size of Wales every year. The expansion of plantations has pushed the orang-utan to the brink of extinction in Sumatra.
Last year British motorists used 27 million litres of palm oil from Indonesia and 64 million litres from Malaysia, according to the Renewable Fuels Agency, the government-funded watchdog that monitors biofuel supplies. Fuel companies also supplied 32 million litres of palm oil from “unknown” countries.
Under a European Union initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, 3.25 per cent of the total amount of fuel sold by each oil company must be biofuel. The proportion is due to rise to 13 per cent by 2020.
In practice most companies meet the obligation by adding biofuel to diesel, creating a blend that contains about 5 per cent biofuel. The companies are not obliged to inform motorists that the petrol or diesel they buy contains biofuel.
Biofuel can be derived from dozens of crops but many fuel companies choose palm oil because it can be cheaper than the more sustainable alternatives such as rapeseed.
The agency knows which companies are using palm oil but is refusing to name them on the ground that the information is commercially sensitive.
Several leading fuel industry figures sit on the agency’s board, including a director of the oil company BP and a senior executive from the coalmining group Anglo American. The agency said that the directors had not been involved in the decision to withhold the names of the companies.
Ian Duff, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace, said: “It cannot be right that the watchdog on biofuels has oil company directors on its board. The agency is preventing the public from discovering which of these companies are selling us palm oil, one of the cheapest and most environmentally damaging biofuels.”
Several major oil companies are exploiting a loophole in the agency’s reporting system to avoid declaring what type of land has been used to grow their biofuel. They are obliged to submit a sustainability report but in the section on the previous use of the land are allowed to say “unknown”.
When calculating the greenhouse gas savings from biofuel the agency ignores the previous use of the land.
Esso said that it did not know the previous use of the land on which 95 per cent of its biofuel was grown. It also refused to say whether it had used any palm oil.
A spokesman said: “Our approach to supplying biofuels must balance sustainability, fuel-product quality and the need to remain competitive in the marketplace.”
BP said that its biofuel included palm oil but claimed that it all came from certified plantations. It failed to declare the previous use of the land for 79 per cent of its biofuel.
Total refused to say whether it used any palm oil. Murco admitted using palm oil but did not respond to questions about its origins. Total, Chevron and Murco all failed to declare the previous use of the land that was the source of more than half their biofuel.
Chevron admitted using palm oil from uncertified sources. A spokesman said: “As sustainable palm oil certification systems become commercially operational, Chevron will progress towards sourcing, supplying and trading only certified palm oil.”
Shell had the best record of the major companies for declaring the sources of its biofuel. It said that it did not use any palm oil last year because it could not find any from a sustainable source. Luis Scoffone, vice-president for biofuels, said that Shell could have met its biofuel obligation more cheaply if it had bought palm oil.
“There is a premium for sustainability that we are incurring,” he said. Shell was likely to use palm oil in the future but only when it could be certain that it was not damaging rainforests.
“It is almost inevitable that we will use palm oil because the amount of biofuel we will need is increasing. Palms deliver one of the highest volumes of oil per hectare of any crop. That means we can use less land to produce the same amount of oil.”

How tiny striped molluscs are muscling in on America's water supply

Chris Ayres in Los Angeles
The greatest threat to America’s fragile drinking-water system is not terrorism or climate change, according to scientists, but an invasion of tiny, zebra-striped molluscs, each one barely the size of a thumbnail.
The quagga mussels first came to America in the ballast of ships from Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. It was not until recently, however, when the molluscs turned up in Lake Mead, which supplies drinking water to Las Vegas and other large desert cities, that the catastrophic scale of the invasion became clear.
It is thought that the mussels reached the West by attaching themselves to the hulls of boats transported from the Great Lakes to Nevada.
There are now believed to be at least three trillion of them in Lake Mead, and scientists say it is only a matter of time before they spread throughout the West’s vast network of reservoirs and aqueducts, causing damage estimated at billions of dollars.
At the Hoover Dam there are sometimes 55,000 mussels per square foot in the intake towers, hampering the facility’s electricity-generating equipment.
Things are likely to get worse. “Over time, I would think eventually they’ll be almost around the [entire] country,” predicts Amy Benson, a fishery biologist with the US Geological Survey in Florida.
A study published this week showed that the quagga mussels’s next target could be Lake Tahoe, near several prime skiing resorts on the California-Nevada border. Officials warned that its pristine shoreline could soon be blighted by mounds of reeking shells.
The cost to the local economy could be more than $22 million a year, according to one estimate.
Ric DeLeon, a mussel control coordinator for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, says that the cost of containing and cleaning up the mussels will almost certainly be “in ten figures”.
Mussels have also colonised the lower Colorado River, used by 27 million people for drinking water and crop irrigation.
Apart from their ability to reproduce at an astonishing rate — a female quagga mussel can produce as many as one million eggs a year — the molluscs can attach themselves to almost anything, clogging drains and pipes and ruining boat engines.
They also feast on phytoplankton, which is an important food source for zooplankton, and so can radically change the ecosystem within a lake.
The mucus-wrapped excretion of the mussels can eventually turn a lake more acidic. Emergency measures already in place include the decontamination or quarantine of boats travelling in infested areas, and the use of sniffer dogs that can identify mussels.
At Lake Tahoe, meanwhile, officials insist they are ahead of the problem. All around the shoreline, signposts have been erected to warn of the dangers. “Don’t move a mussel!” they say.

Miley Cyrus the environmentalist? Don't make me weep tears of despair

Jonas Brothers and fellow Disneyites have released a song apparently urging us to do our bit. But where's the message, exactly?
I hope its message resonates with its target audience. I really do. But why do I want to crawl up into a ball and weep tears of despair after listening to the new song for Disney's Project Green (above)?
Admittedly, the "tween pop" genre is not one that I follow closely, but I know enough to recognise that Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers are about as big as it gets at the moment, particularly in the US. So when they come together with their fellow Disneyites, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, to record a song urging us all to do our bit for the environment you could be forgiven for expecting their collective might to produce some much-needed magic (although not, perhaps, the sort that got Mickey Mouse into trouble in Fantasia).
Well, kazaam! Just a few days after its release, Send It On is already troubling the top spot on the iTunes download chart in the US. Therefore, the first hurdle of reaching hundreds of thousands of tweenagers has already been cleared effortlessly. You wouldn't really expect anything else with Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers onboard.
So now let's turn to the song's message. This is where the problems begin. Where is the message, exactly? Here's a (mercifully) quick snip of the lyrics…
Just smile and the world will smile along with you That small acts of love Then the one will become two If we take the chances To change circumstances Imagine all that we could do If we…
Send it on On and on Just one hand can heal another
It's all very "Yes, We Can", and Barack Obama's election more than proves that messages of positive empowerment do work. But I fail to see how anyone listening to this will join the dots and realise that these lyrics about the power of collectivism are meant to inspire us all to get up and tackle the many environmental challenges we now face. In fact, there are no references at all to the environment to be found within the song.
In the name of research, I steeled myself and sat down and watched the video from start to end in search of these elusive environmental references. Alas, all I could find was a sofa made of, what looks like, recycled denim that all the singers sit themselves down on towards the end of the video in what appears to be some kind of subliminal reference to the opening credits of Friends.
But maybe I've invested a little too much hope in the starlets created so skillfully by the house they call "The Mouse". For a little dose of the smelling salts, let's reverse up a year and recall Miley Cyrus's last lyrical expedition into environmentalism.
Here's a sample of "Wake up America", taken from her 2008 album Breakout …
Everything I read Is 'global warming', 'going green' I don't know what all this means But it seems to be saying Wake up America
That's a little bit more like it, but it hardly fills you with confidence that it will be the next generation – all those currently nodding their heads to Miley Cyrus on their iPods – who will be the ones to lift us all out of this giant hole we managed to dig for ourselves.
But let's not give up on the kids quite yet. As part of Project Green, Disney executives have pledged to allow children decide how the company should spend $1m on environmental projects.