Sunday, 30 August 2009

Man-made volcanoes may cool Earth

Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor
THE Royal Society is backing research into simulated volcanic eruptions, spraying millions of tons of dust into the air, in an attempt to stave off climate change.
The society will this week call for a global programme of studies into geo-engineering — the manipulation of the Earth’s climate to counteract global warming — as the world struggles to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
It will suggest in a report that pouring sulphur-based particles into the upper atmosphere could be one of the few options available to humanity to keep the world cool.
The intervention by the Royal Society comes amid tension ahead of the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen in December to agree global cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. Preliminary discussions have gone so badly that many scientists believe geo-engineering will be needed as a “plan B”.
Ken Caldeira, an earth scientist at Stanford University, California, and a member of a Royal Society working group on geo-engineering, said dust sprayed into the stratosphere in volcanic eruptions was known to cool the Earth by reflecting light back into space.
“If I had a dollar for geo-engineering research I would put 90 cents of it into stratospheric aerosols and 10 cents into everything else,” said Caldeira.
The interest in so-called aerosols is linked to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. The explosion blasted up to 20m tons of tiny sulphur particles into the air, cooling the planet by about 0.5C before they fell back to earth.
The Royal Society is Britain’s premier science institution and its decision to take geo-engineering seriously is a measure of the desperation felt by scientists about climate change.
Brian Launder, a professor at Manchester University, who is also on the working group, recently said that without CO2 reductions or geo-engineering “civilisation as we know it will end within our grandchildren’s lifetime”. “The only rational scheme is to reduce the sunlight reaching Earth and to reflect back more of it,” he said.
The world’s population generates the equivalent of 50 billion tons of CO2 a year, a figure which is projected to reach 60-70 billion tons by 2030 on current trends.
Scientists warn that the planet could warm by 5C by 2100 and say emissions must fall to 20 billion tons a year by 2050 if a disaster is to be averted.
However, many researchers and policymakers regard this target as impossible.
The Royal Society report is expected to draw partly on research by Tim Lenton, professor of earth sciences at the University of East Anglia, who has just completed the first big comparison of different forms of geo-engineering.
“We estimate that 1.5-5m tons of sulphate particles could be released [artificially] into the stratosphere each year on a recurring basis,” said Lenton.
“This is quite a small amount, which makes it potentially economically viable, but it could reduce global temperature rise by up to 2C.”
The study investigates several other proposals for geo-engineering, dividing them into two broad approaches. One approach involves reducing the sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface — a premise that lies behind both aerosol release and the construction of mirrors in space.
Lenton regards the latter idea as “science fiction”, pointing out that any space sunshade would need a surface area of 1.8m square miles to be effective.
Another suggestion for cutting the light reaching the Earth is cloud-whitening, where salt water is sprayed into the air from thousands of ships, producing brighter clouds.
However, the Met Office has attacked this idea in its submission to the Royal Society, warning that it could cut rainfall in areas such as the Amazon and Africa.
Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office, said: “If humanity starts messing with the world’s cloud systems it is bound to have major side effects, some of which will be dangerous.”
The other main approach to geo-engineering is to try to accelerate the rate at which CO2 is removed from the air by plants and ocean plankton, or through chemicals.
This is the basis of ideas such as ocean fertilisation, where nutrients such as iron are added to water to promote plankton growth. Plankton absorb CO2 as they grow and carry it down to the seabed when they die.
Such techniques would have relatively few adverse side effects but the disadvantage, the report will say, is that they would take far too long to make significant cuts in atmospheric CO2.
The same criticism applies to the idea of using giant artificial filters driven by nuclear power that chemically strip CO2 from the air.
John Shepherd, professor of earth system science at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, who chaired the Royal Society working party, is expected to warn of other problems. Any measures that are taken may have to be kept going for decades or even centuries.
Met Office research has suggested that if techniques such as sulphate aerosols were to be suddenly discontinued the Earth could experience a disastrous warming surge.

From margin to mainstream

Once seen as outsiders, green protest groups now have a big influence on government policy
Jonathan Leake
For Ed Miliband it was a moment of acute embarrassment. What he needed, the environment secretary had told a recent press conference, was a “mass mobilisation”, with green activists taking to the streets to put pressure on the government. This, he said, would give ministers the political space they needed to get tough on climate change.
It sounded exciting: a senior minister encouraging protest as a way of promoting rapid political change. But then came the awkward question.
“Wasn’t that exactly what the climate protesters tried to do in the recent London G20 talks?” Miliband was asked. “And didn’t that end in the police killing a bystander and sending the riot squad into a peaceful demonstration?”
A red-faced Miliband blustered: “Er ... that’s sub judice and we can’t possibly discuss it. Let’s take another question.” And he moved swiftly on.
Miliband’s awkward moment, at the launch of the government’s plans for the United Nations climate talks in December in Copenhagen, was an acute illustration of the difficult relationship between politics and protesters, such as the climate campers on Blackheath this weekend. Politicians might love some action on the streets when it’s in support of one of their pet causes — but they also fear losing power and control.
As the climate camp movement has taken off, some have suggested that Labour is struggling to resolve the dilemma. The hundreds of scruffy protesters camped out at places such as Drax power station, Heathrow, and now Blackheath, may not look like much but they have a cause and a level of sympathy that could prove powerful.
History shows that what may appear marginal protests can bring about significant social change. The campers’ predecessors, such as the suffragettes, or the anti-poll tax movement, succeeded in ways that still resonate through society today. Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth, believes governments and corporations would hardly act at all on environmental issues were it not for protest.
“One of the first environment campaigns was the one led by Greenpeace against whaling,” he said. “Killing great whales seemed normal, but the campaign changed the way people think and led to the ban on hunting that still holds today.
“Recently British environmentalists led campaigns to halt road-building and block GM crops. These were issues people had hardly thought about till we raised them, so those protests had a huge psychological impact.”
For Greenpeace, the idea that protest can bring about change is even more central to its work. It has staged direct actions against oil companies and power generators, notably at Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, which it shut down in October 2008 when protesters scaled a chimney. Although it closed the plant only temporarily, Greenpeace believes its action has made people much more aware of the link between burning coal and global warming.
John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said: “The road protesters who tried to stop the Twyford Down bypass [in the early 1990s] could be seen as failing because it was built in the end, but in the longer term the roads protests forced the government to completely rethink its entire attitude to road-building. That kind of long-term change is what protest is really about.”
Recent policy shifts by all main political parties suggest the greens are beginning to have just such an impact. Four years ago, for example, the general election manifestos of both main parties had turned environmental problems into a non-issue. Labour’s election manifesto made climate change a subsection of foreign policy, while domestic green issues were buried at the end of chapter seven, after London’s Olympic bid. The party had refused to consider a climate change bill, a stance it maintained until 2007.
By contrast, Britain now has a legal commitment to cut emissions and the impact is being felt by all. This week alone sees an end to sales of some types of incandescent lightbulb, which the European Union is intent on phasing out.
It is a measure of how much influence green campaigners are exerting that Greg Clark, Conservative shadow energy and climate secretary and the man most likely to take over from Miliband after the next election, suggests the climate campers are pushing at an already open door. He said: “Britain already has one of the most progressive attitudes on climate of any country. In Copenhagen the pressure should be put on other governments. I am not sure what protest can achieve in Britain.”
Sauven agrees that Copenhagen is crucial — but for a different reason: “Politicians should think about what happens if they fail to deliver an agreement in Copenhagen to cut emissions. If that happens then people will lose all faith in the political process — and protest will be all that is left.”

The Climate Camp is too self-regarding to be effective

Charming though they are, the protesters should spend more time convincing others their arguments are sound

Peter Beaumont
The Observer, Sunday 30 August 2009
Through a fence and beyond the hay bales, past the polite inquisitors who call for a "media escort" and towards the lines of tents and hastily installed turbines and solar panels is… well, precisely what? The Climate Camp on London's Blackheath is helpfully labelled in multicoloured letters and signs, but its naming does not answer the question of what it represents. Nor do its temporary inhabitants who on Friday were being buffeted by squalls of rain.
I spot Leila Deen, famous for a minute or so for sliming Peter Mandelson. Behind her, a squad of campers, some wearing balaclavas, is being put through direct action training, charging silently among the marquees.
What bothers me is a question of function and purpose. Is this, presented as one of the models of the "new protest", all that it advertises? What is the Climate Camp in London for? Answers – some vague – are supplied by the camp's handbook in its 10 reasons to be camping here. It talks about the "tall buildings" as a symbol of the "transnational corporation", and streets as home to banks, poverty, activists and politicians. Other answers are supplied by campers: veterans of Greenham Common and Kingsnorth, and the Vesta wind turbine factory occupation on the Isle of Wight. They talk about the camp as a model of an alternative way of sustainable living. Of its organisation, through consensual democracy – everybody has an equal say in the decision-making process – as an exemplar for a new kind of society.
Its critics have levelled many charges whenever it has appeared over the last few years: for sloganeering that combines anti-capitalism with a global-warming message; actions that invite confrontation with the police; for the involvement of a sometimes aggressive anarchist fringe; even for the dilettantism and grandstanding of some of its more middle-class supporters.
And while some criticisms have a kernel of truth, it remains hard to argue that a movement fighting climate change and promoting social equality is a bad thing. But that is not the question. Rather, Climate Camp should be judged on its own ambitions. How effective is the camp in inspiring change?
It is confronting this issue that lies at the heart of one of the key works on grass-roots organising: Rules for Radicals written by Saul Alinsky who inspired US radicals in the 1960s and 1970s. A revolutionary in outlook who began agitating for social change in the Chicago stockyards in the 1930s, Alinsky's methodology has proved to have had a greater relevance and longer shelf-life than perhaps he ever expected. In recent history, it not only informed Barack Obama's early political organising, but its tactics have been adopted by the US Republican right to disrupt Obama's health policies. So how does the Climate Camp fare judged by his rules?
In some respects, Alinsky, who died in 1972, would have admired the Climate Campers' dedication. "Liberals protest; radicals rebel," he wrote. "Liberals become indignant; radicals become fighting mad and go into action." Alinsky, however, is unlikely to have approved of much of the Climate Campers' methodology. The problem with the Climate Campers is not a lack of conviction (as some commentators try to argue); it stems, rather, from an obsession with its own structures and its relationship with media and the police.
More seriously, seen from Alinsky's point of view (he believed in "not rhetoric, but realism"), the Climate Camp suffers from a preoccupation with measuring its achievements in terms of the protests it has undertaken rather than a series of achievable goals that those outside the camp movement can easily identify with.
Alinsky insisted the radical must be able to make a persuasive case for why change is necessary and urgent, a task to which the theatrics of protesting are subsidiary. He taught another crucial lesson, one that has been highly visible in the right's campaign against Obama's health reforms, that campaigners should avoid targeting abstracts such as phenomena and institutions; instead, they should single out individual figures to act as the "personification… of a particular evil". To lever their positions through ridicule and criticism.
I mention Alinsky because he seems to crystallise many of the failings, not just of the Climate Camp, but of significant sectors of the wider anti-war and anti-globalisation movement which have struggled either to articulate precisely what is their message or who have chosen, literally at times, to pitch their tent at the margins of the political debate.
While the campers are articulate in explaining the logic of this positioning and tactics in their rejection of the "hierarchical structures" of both mainstream politics – which they believe to be redundant – as well as many of Europe's green parties, which many believe to have sold out, it does not change the fact of where they have chosen to locate their activism. Outside of the conversation with decision makers.
I sit down with Martin Shaw, a 44-year-year old veteran who had his back broken in an encounter with the police. He admits that Climate Camp has had to confront how to balance living both by its own radical ideals – saying "something must happen now [on climate change]" – with being more inclusive. Shaw believes things are getting better, not least in persuading local communities into which they parachute to engage with them.
"Ten years ago, we were much more closed. But we're not naive. We recognise the media are supported by advertising from firms involved in air travel and cars with which the problem of climate change is intrinsically linked."
Another rationalisation is supplied by Ruth, a Greenham Common veteran, who believes that, as Greenham may not have "changed anything in itself", it became a symbol of an anti-nuclear movement which impacted on the public consciousness and ultimately on policy makers. A symbol. Like Brian Haw, the anti-war protester, on his endless, solitary vigil outside Westminster.
And that is the greatest threat to the campers: that their political relevance is defined not by a meaningful encounter that challenges both the political mainstream and a wider community, effecting change, but is defined, as it increasingly appears to be, by the act of protest itself.
Because the reality of an organisation for successful political change is that it requires a mass movement behind it, drawn not just from those who already passionately believe in it but from those who have been persuaded. And those who may be persuaded.
Climate Camp, with its often hazy message and complex inner negotiations, with its indulgent obsession with its own workings, its insularity and the suggestion of elitism of its direct-action hard core, is in danger of becoming about Climate Camp, the institution, rather than about the wider fight to halt global warming. With all its energy and motivation, that would be a shame.

NHS spends thousands on climate change handbook

The NHS has spent thousands of pounds on a booklet that tells nurses to put pot plants in patients' rooms to counter climate change.

Published: 8:30AM BST 29 Aug 2009
It also tells staff to consider going vegetarian, walk or cycle to work and discuss climate change with colleagues.
The little green handbook has been distributed to thousands of NHS managers at a cost of £8,000.

However at a time when the NHS is facing criticism for neglecting patients, critics questioned whether the cost was a good use of taxpayers' money.
The 56-page handbook, Sustaining a Healthy Future – Taking Action on Climate Change, was funded and put together by the NHS Confederation and the NHS Sustainable Development Unit and charitable organisation, the Faculty of Publlic Health.
Some 3,500 copies, printed on recycled paper, has been distributed to NHS trusts around the country.
The NHS produces more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 every year, more than some large cities.
The handbook recommends a number of ways to reduce the carbon footprint. For example more flexible working hours, bus timetables in the staff room to encourage more people to use public transport. Teleconferencing, car sharing and cycle racks to reduce the amount of travel by car.
Pot plants on wards are suggested, as is more locally produced and vegetarian food in hospital meals. Patients are also encouraged to lower their carbon footprint and improve health by walking and cycling more and eating more locally produced food.
But Mike Penning, health spokesman for the Tories, questioned the use of taxpayers' money when the NHS is facing criticism for patient care.
A recent report by the Patients Association found that one million NHS patients have been the victims of appalling care in hospitals across Britain.
"At a time when funds are particularly precious, it is absolutely vital that every penny of taxpayers' money gets to the front line in the NHS," he said. "It is appalling that money is being wasted in this way when it could be used for patient care."
However Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, President of the FPH, said the handbook would help to save money by cutting energy costs as well as improving the health of staff and patients.
"The NHS is ideally placed to promote health and wellbeing by leading the battle against climate change. Cutting carbon saves money for health care and also helps save the planet's poorest families from a bleak future of droughts, flooding, food insecurity and conflict," he said.

Bestselling guru David MacKay to lead climate fight

Dominic O’Connell
A CAMBRIDGE academic who has suggested importing solar energy from the Sahara and using Scottish lakes as giant batteries is to be named the government’s scientific adviser on climate change.
David MacKay, a professor at the famous Cavendish Laboratory, has been recruited by Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary. His appointment is due to be announced in a few weeks.
MacKay has this year become an international star of the climate change debate, thanks to his book, Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air. Despite being available as a free download from his website, it has turned into a bestseller.
The book’s main subject is not climate change, but energy. MacKay uses a combination of mathematics and dry wit to puncture common assumptions and in particular skewer corporate greenwash. He sets out the scale of the challenge if we are to replace conventional forms of power generation with alternatives such as wind, tidal or nuclear power.
MacKay debunks the idea that switching off appliances while they are on standby will make a significant difference to energy consumption. Turning off your mobile-phone charger between charges for a year, he points out, saves the same amount of energy required for one hot bath.
He highlights the potential to generate solar power on a massive scale in north African deserts and export it to Europe, and suggests using lochs to store the power generated by renewable sources such as wind power. The lochs would be pumped full at times of low demand, and the water released through hydro-electric turbines when the power was needed.
He has refused to be drawn into political debates about climate change policy, and refrained from backing one form of energy generation over another. “I’m not pro-nuclear, I’m pro-arithmetic,” he told an interviewer earlier in the year.
The Department of Energy, Climate Change and Conservation declined to comment last night, but senior government sources said MacKay would add impetus to the work being done on the government’s low-carbon transition plan, a blueprint for UK commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The pros and cons of investing in solar panels

Produce your own electricity and receive government grants - but this is a long-term investment
Ali Hussain
PRODUCING your own electricity can offer returns that are almost three times better than the top savings accounts, according to analysts.
From this month, until April 2010, homeowners who invest in equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines will be able to benefit from a £2,500 government grant, as well as a new “feed in tariff”, which pays for the electricity they produce — whether they use it or not.
The new tariffs will come into effect in April but by then the government grants — under the Low Carbon Building Programme — will come to an end. During this eight-month transitional period, therefore, homeowners can benefit from both.
Derry Newman, head of Solarcentury, a solar panels retailer, said: “With these government incentives overlapping, there’s never been a better time to take your energy supply into your own hands and invest in solar.”
Under the plans, which were announced in a consultation document in July, homeowners will be paid up to 36.5p for every kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity produced using solar panels. If electricity is exported back to the grid — when the homeowner is away, for example — an additional 5p per kWh is paid, while savings are still being made on electricity bills.
Analysts at Solarcentury suggest an average return of £825 a year is expected with the panels, which typically cost £11,000 to install. If the £2,500 grant is factored in, their cost could be recouped in just over a decade.
The return on an £8,500 investment is 9.7%. As it is tax free, this is equivalent to 16.1% for a higher-rate taxpayer. The best savings rate now offers just 5.4% gross.
However, critics suggest that the comparison is unfair. Michelle Slade of Moneyfacts, the personal finance site, said: “You cannot withdraw the money used to buy solar panels.”
There are also many hurdles before qualifying for the government grant. The home must be as energy efficient as possible before it will be considered. It has to be fully insulated — both roof and wall cavities — as well as fully double glazed, for example.
The level of funding is also limited. There is about £15m remaining, so 6,000 homes can still potentially receive support.
Today, if you already have solar panels, you will not be paid anything unless you are with a “green energy” supplier such as Good Energy. It pays 15p per kWh of electricity produced. You can apply online for the grant via the Low Carbon Buildings Programme (
The savings work out like this: a typical home will require about 3,300 kWh of electricity a year and a typical solar panel set-up, capable of producing up to 1,700 kWh a year, would cost about £11,000 to install.
Assuming you used half the electricity produced (850 kWh), you would earn £310 a year — 36.5p per kWh from the government. You would also save by reducing the amount of electricity you had to buy from your supplier. As suppliers typically charge about 13p per kWh, that's an additional saving of £110 a year. By exporting the other 850 kWh, you would earn 41.5p, totalling £353. Your total return therefore would be £773 a year.
Assuming electricity bills per unit increase by about 5% a year, you would make larger savings each year. Over the next 25 years, the average annual saving is £825, according to Solarcentury.
This assumes that the government maintains the same level of payment over the period.

Maldives find a new black gold

Jonathan Leake
For Craig Sams, life is sweet. The entrepreneur, who with co-founder Jo Fairley sold the Green & Black’s organic chocolate firm to Cadbury for a reputed £20m, has founded a biochar business, and his firm is about to announce its first deal with the government of the Maldives.
Carbon Gold, Sams’s new company, is to develop biochar projects on three islands in the Maldives, taking waste from agriculture and fishing and turning it into charcoal by roasting it in a low-oxygen atmosphere. The process turns waste into raw carbon, which can then be used to fertilise the soil.
If the trials work out, similar projects could be started on many more of the 200 or so inhabited islands in the archipelago, all part of the Maldives government’s plan to make the islands carbon-neutral by 2020.
A controversial element of the scheme is to use it to generate so-called carbon credits. These are UN-backed certificates that confirm a tonne of carbon dioxide has been prevented from entering the atmosphere, and which can be sold to other countries to offset their emissions. Carbon Gold is working with the Maldives on a plan to sell them to tourists who want to compensate for the carbon dioxide generated by their flights to the holiday destination.
Dan Morrell, who co-founded Carbon Gold with Sams, said the technology had huge promise but needed to be proved in a large-scale trial — and the Maldives deal offered the right opportunity.
“This technology enables us to take invisible carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, transform it into black lumps of pure carbon and then, by ploughing it into the ground, improve soil fertility,” he said.
Under the scheme, small kilns would be installed in villages across the Maldives, controlled by the villagers, who would use them to dispose of waste and generate energy and fertiliser.
The latter alone could lead to huge savings. The soil in the Maldives is so poor that islanders have to fertilise it with cow dung imported from India at about £60 a tonne.
The Maldives, with a population of 370,000, is already among the nations worst affected by climate change — even though its emissions per person, at two tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, are a fifth of the average Briton’s.
None of the islands lies more than a couple of metres above the ocean and rising sea levels plus associated erosion have already forced the evacuation of two islands. Many more are expected to follow.
If the rise in sea level by 2100 were to reach the one metre or so predicted by scientists, then only two islands would remain inhabitable. One of these is Malé, the capital, which has been protected by a giant wall built by the government of Japan. The other, ironically, is the artificial island of Thilafushi, which has been built entirely of rubbish that was dumped into what was a shallow lagoon and then topped with sand and cement.
Such environmental nightmares are the legacy of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was president of the Maldives for 30 years until he was voted out last November in the country’s first democratic elections for three decades.
Mohamed Nasheed, who replaced him, has announced that the Maldives can no longer consider such approaches. Biochar is one of a raft of technologies he wants to test as a way of disposing of waste and generating energy.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Nasheed said: “For us climate change is a disaster in the making and we have to set an example if we want the world to change. Biochar could be part of the solution so we want to try it out on three islands.
“Potentially it solves several problems. First, we can use it to get rid of waste from coconut and water-melon plantations. At the moment this is often burnt. We can also use fish waste, which is currently dumped on a reef.
“If it works we can also get heat energy from the process. And then at the end we will have biochar, which can help to improve our soil, which is generally very infertile.”
Biochar is just one of the ideas that Nasheed is backing — he also hopes to end the islands’ dependence on imported diesel for power generation by setting up wind and wave farms.
The news comes amid growing global interest, and controversy, over biochar. At its heart is a process known as pyrolysis in which organic material is roasted in an oxygen-starved environment. This breaks down the complex organic molecules, producing syngas, which can be used as fuel, and leaving behind virtually pure carbon. This can then be ground up and mixed into the soil, where the grains help to retain water and minerals and promote the growth of micro-organisms.
Many environmentalists are suspicious, however, pointing out that the response to climate change so far has been dominated by a search for similar technical solutions — all of which have later turned out to be inadequate.
In the 1990s, for example, the first generation of carbon entrepreneurs promoted the mass planting of trees. The idea withered when people realised the carbon stored in timber would be re-released when the trees died.
More recently, it was biofuels that were hyped — until it became clear that growing and processing them generated more carbon dioxide than using fossil fuels directly. What’s more, the land needed to produce such fuels was taken out of crop production, driving up food prices.
Sams and Morrell stress, however, that they do not see biochar as a global panacea but as just one technology among the many that will be needed.
Sams said: “Biochar can be an important weapon in the battle against climate change and can give mankind much needed time to develop cleaner forms of energy. It cannot be expected to compensate for increasing emission levels so it is vital that everybody plays their part in reducing energy consumption.”

Skykon to treble turbine ouput and staff as Campbeltown plant expansion approved

Published Date: 30 August 2009
By Adam Cash
SKYKON, the Danish wind turbine maker, has revealed that expansion work will begin next month at its Campbeltown factory after the firm received fast-track planning approval.
The purpose-built facility will allow Skykon to treble tower production and boost staff from 100 to 300.Niels Brix, vice-president of Skykon, said work on the new facility was expected to be completed by next summer. He told an energy trade magazine the factory – which would be operated by Welcon Towers, a Skykon subsidiary – was needed to keep up with demand for both onshore and offshore wind turbines in the UK. A research and development facility is also planned for the site.Skykon bought the Campbeltown facility from Vestas in March amid much fanfare from the Scottish Government, with First Minister Alex Salmond flying out to the Machrihanish site.The proposed closure of the Vestas facility had been mooted in August 2008, prompting the Scottish Government, Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Scottish Development International (SDI) to step in and help to find a buyer.SDI awarded a regional selective assistance (RSA) grant of £9.2 million to Welcon Towers and HIE contributed about £500,000 in training support.The Danish firm also secured £35m of private capital investment to fund the expansion.When local suppliers and contractors are taken into account, the Scottish Government estimated that more than 450 jobs would be supported by the wind turbine plant.Brix said: "The market for wind is growing here and the UK is the most exciting market for us. I think the agenda about wind energy is so clear and the government and public are supportive."He said the UK had one of the strongest markets for wind energy, a fact that had influenced Skykon's decision to buy the Scottish plant.Brix also called on wind turbine makers to cooperate to meet demand and to grow the market.Earlier this month, Per Staehr was appointed as chairman of Welcon Towers to oversee the developments at Campbeltown. At the time, Skykon highlighted Staehr's experience in the sector, having previously been chairman of Danish offshore wind farm firm A2SEA.Brix's comments about the health of the UK wind energy sector came after Vestas closed its wind turbine facility on the Isle of Wight earlier this month, with the loss of 450 jobs, with Vestas claiming demand was not high enough to keep the factory open.The Scottish Government's energy target is to meet 50 per cent of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020, with an interim target of 31 per cent by 2011.Scotland has been estimated to have 25 per cent of Europe's wind energy potential, as well as a quarter of Europe's tidal energy resources

Firms face Vat shock after carbon credit scam is smashed

Tricia Holly Davis
A suspected scam involving the trading of carbon credits could cost businesses that unwittingly took part millions of pounds in legal fees and penalties.
The scam, first uncovered by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) in January, culminated in the arrest of seven people this month. It allegedly involves an elaborate scheme known as a carousel fraud, where goods are imported into Britain Vat-free and then sold on to a series of companies, each of which is liable to pay the standard rate of Vat on the purchase.
“There is a real risk that innocent businesses have been caught up in a chain that involves the people arrested,” said James Hurst of Grant Thornton, the auditing firm. “Any company may now be subject to investigation.”
Carbon credits allow firms to emit carbon dioxide and are traded between companies and financial institutions. Businesses buy them either as a way to offset the emissions from their operations or to comply with pollution caps set by the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
The ETS was created out of the 1997 Kyoto treaty as a way to curb emissions of climate-warming gases. It specifically limits the emissions of high energy consuming industries such as oil and manufacturing. Companies that emit more than the limit they have been set can avoid penalties by purchasing spare “allowances” from companies that have stayed within their limits.
The EU allowances market represents about 75% of the total carbon trading market. In the first half of the year, €8 billion (£7 billion) worth of allowances were traded, according to Point Carbon, a consultancy. Roughly a quarter of these deals were done in the spot market.
So far, HMRC has valued the scam at £38m. But tax-fraud experts suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg. Previous carousel fraud rings involving mobile phones and computer chips are estimated to have cost the exchequer as much as £8 billion.
The potential liability for businesses is significant because the government has the right to reclaim the Vat on any carbon trade it deems suspicious.
Exactly how much is at stake is difficult to quantify, as millions of carbon trades are made each day through various exchanges. The average value of a single carbon trade is £50,000. The Vat rate was 17.5% until the chancellor reduced it to 15% for this year.
“The law gives HMRC the right to audit any businesses that have purchased carbon credits and block their ability to recover Vat if they cannot prove that they took ‘reasonable care’ in ensuring they made the purchase from a credible company,” said Sandy Nicholson of KPMG, the accountants.
HMRC can also penalise companies retroactively for three years. Penalties can be 100% of the Vat avoided.
“The law means that any business could be treated as guilty until proven innocent,” said Nicholson.
The law also leaves open a big question as to what qualifies as “reasonable care”. As carbon trading is only about five years old, there are no hard and fast rules governing best practice. HMRC’s anti-fraud squad says businesses should follow the common commercial practices of “knowing your customer”, “knowing your supplier” and “knowing your products”.
However, business groups said this was not good enough because at present anyone can register as a carbon trader.
“Even though the government has removed Vat from carbon trades, that doesn’t mean criminals won’t find another way of committing fraud. Businesses need specific guidance on carbon trading to ensure that they are protected and to reduce their exposure to any criminal activity,” said the Engineering Employers’ Federation.
Tessa Laws, a partner at Rosenblatt, the law firm, said that until a carbon trading code of conduct is in place, the best advice to businesses is simply “buyer beware”.

Computer dumping crackdown

Danny Fortson
This summer agents from the Environment Agency raided a farm near Upminster, Essex, and an industrial site at nearby Rainham, where they found more than 50 shipping containers full of old computers, monitors and other electronic paraphernalia.
The authorities impounded the containers and brought in more than 50 people for questioning. The operation, the biggest carried out by the watchdog, was part of a crackdown on the illegal shipping of old equipment for dumping abroad. The trade has exploded since 2007, when Europe’s WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive came into force, requiring manufacturers to provide for recycling old kit.
“Organisations have sprung up to exploit the system by saying they will collect it for recycling and then just dumping it somewhere abroad because it’s cheaper,” said Gerrard Fisher, sustainable products programme manager at Wrap, the government’s recycling adviser. “The challenge is getting hold of the stuff, to make people bring it in and then being able to track it.”
Dell thinks it has the answer. The world’s second-biggest computer maker is the first in the industry to offer free pickup of old computers when customers, businesses or individuals buy a new machine. The programme has been a big success. It has already recycled 125,000 tonnes of IT equipment.
The critical element, said Jean Cox-Kearns, recycling manager at Dell, is that roughly half that material is handled by firms that have signed up to what she called a “very burdensome set of requirements” that calls on them to provide detailed reports at every step.
She admitted that the audit trail on the other half, done through contractors funded under the directive to collect the electronic waste on behalf of the industry, is “not as clean”. She added: “There is a huge amount of informal collection and that’s what leads to these mounds in India and Africa.” The European Commission is in talks to tighten up policing of the directive but legislation is at least 18 months away.
By any measure, recycling is still in its infancy. Even with the convenience of home-pickup, Cox-Kearns said that fewer than 10% of customers take advantage of the offer. Most of the overall tonnage of old electricals recycled is accounted for by heavy items such as refrigerators and washing machines. Computers are more difficult to deal with; they must first have their data wiped and the plastics are often coated with a semi-toxic film of flame retardant.
The initiative is nonetheless indicative of a recognition by the technology industry that, like so many other sectors, it must start dealing with its environmental impact.
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Houses that Labour built put rivers in peril

Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor

SOME of Britain’s most picturesque rivers and tributaries are at risk of running dry because of the government’s house-building programme, a study has found.
Waterways facing the worst depletion include the Kennet, the Itchen and the Lee — all in southern England, where development pressure is greatest.
However, rivers have been affected throughout England and Wales, and the Environment Agency is seeking permission to revoke or reduce 380 licences that allow water companies and other users to extract supplies.
Rose Timlett, a freshwater campaigner at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which commissioned the research, said Labour’s decision in 1998 to approve up to 5m new homes, mostly in southern England, had ignored the impact on rivers.
“About 35 billion litres of water are taken from rivers in England and Wales each day,” she said. “Water levels have fallen, and that will get worse as more homes are built.”
Rivers in trouble include the Kennet, which every day supplies 53,000 homes with 19m litres of water as it flows from the North Wessex Downs through Wiltshire countryside before meeting the Thames at Reading. Some 30,000 of those homes are in Swindon, where a further 30,000 properties are planned by 2026.
Some Kennet tributaries have already vanished because Thames Water also pumps up to 8m litres of water a day from natural underground reservoirs, so lowering the surrounding water table.
Eilidh and Phil Jenkins, who live with their daughters Bethan, 11, and Molly, 10, fear a similar impact on the Itchen, which runs close to their home. Flowing from the chalk hills of the South Downs, east of Winchester, to Southampton, it supplies 400,000 homes with 120m litres of water a day. Another 80,000 new homes are planned for the area.
Eilidh, 39, a psychologist, said: “We walk and cycle alongside the river, which sustains water meadows and wildlife. If the level dropped it would do a lot of damage.”
Similar problems afflict the upper tributaries of the River Lee, which flows from a source near Luton, to the Thames.
The Mimram, Beane, Ash, Rib and Stort flow through 14 nature reserves in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and are a haven for species such as otter, water vole, bittern and brown trout. However, they are also a main water source for the burgeoning towns of Luton, Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City and Hertford, with 409m litres taken daily for 1.2m homes.
Some Lee tributaries, such as the Mimram, already dry out in the summer, while the Beane is just a ditch because its water goes to Stevenage.
The WWF study, called Rivers on the Edge, found the tributaries to be so depleted that, in dry periods, most of the water running in the Lee comes from sewage treatment plants. Despite such problems, however, the region has been earmarked for tens of thousands of new homes, including 16,000 in Stevenage alone.
Dr Tom Tew, chief scientist of the government conservation watchdog Natural England, said: “We are abstracting too much water from our finest rivers, and new homes will make it worse. It is unsustainable and we cannot continue.”
Such warnings are echoed by the Environment Agency, which has named other British rivers affected, including the Avon in Gloucestershire, the headwaters of the Ribble in North Yorkshire, the Dart — which flows across Dartmoor in Devon — and the Wensum in Norfolk.
Both organisations believe a key underlying problem is that water companies have been allowed to retain water-abstraction licences issued before the introduction of national legislation in 1963. As such licences have no expiry date, companies can keep taking water regardless of changed conditions. This is compounded by surging demand for water to irrigate gardens and supply washing machines, dishwashers and power showers. Each person in Britain now uses 146 litres of water a day.
Catherine Wright, head of water resource management at the Environment Agency, which wants to revoke or reduce 380 of the existing 20,000 abstraction licences, said: “We can only change licences with the approval of the environment secretary, which makes it a very lengthy process.”
Although the government is considering changing the law to streamline the system, this has been fiercely resisted by the water industry.
Barrie Clarke, a spokesman for Water UK, which represents Britain’s 23 water companies, said that while the industry accepted there was some damage from existing licences, there was no case for imposing time limits on all licences.
“The growth in the number of homes is going to increase the demand for water,” he said. “What’s crucial is to get the planning right, and that is the responsibility of the government, Environment Agency and local authorities. We do not have the final say, but we do have to supply the water.”