Monday, 14 September 2009

The Green Revolution wasn’t green enough

Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives from starvation. But decades on, his farming methods threaten the health of the planet
Graham Harvey
For someone of my generation, growing up under postwar food rationing, the idea that food would always be plentiful and cheap seemed about as likely as a portable phone that you could carry around with you.
For many of us the dire predictions of Thomas Malthus were all too credible. Malthus had advanced the dismal theory that human populations would always grow faster than their food supply. It meant you could forget all your grand ideas about progress. Every social advance was destined to be brought to nothing by famine.
The singular achievement of the agronomist Norman Borlaug, who died at the weekend, was to take away this age-old fear, at least for those of us in the rich West.
In a crop-breeding programme that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, he developed a clutch of wheat varieties with remarkably short stems. As a young farming journalist I remember writing about one of the first to appear in Britain, a diminutive variety called Hobbit.
Compared with the taller traditional wheats, the short-strawed types shifted a higher proportion of plant sugars into the seedhead or ear of the plant, where the grains were formed. In this way they were capable of producing dramatically higher yields. But to achieve them they needed huge amounts of chemical fertiliser. Borlaug once remarked that “if the high-yielding wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that ignited the revolution, chemical fertiliser is the fuel that powered its forward thrust”.
His Green Revolution led to a near-doubling of wheat yields in India and Pakistan during the late 1960s. Altogether more than a billion people are believed to have been saved from starvation as a result of the new varieties.
Over the past 30 years Western governments have poured subsidies into the development of so-called high-yield grain production. One early result was the notorious grain mountains of the 1970s and 1980s which, far from alleviating hunger, did much to undermine the development of food production in poor countries. Borlaug intended his methods to be used for the benefit of people across the planet. Instead they were seized on by industrial countries with the wealth to pay for expensive seeds and fertilisers. Where they were used in developing countries, this often came at the cost of a crippling debt burden.
Today Borlaug’s ideas underpin the global food system. Three quarters of the world’s cultivated land is sown to grain crops and oilseeds. Most are dependent on massive amounts of oil energy in the form of nitrate fertilisers, pesticides, diesel fuel and heavy machinery.
Though the Green Revolution has undoubtedly given the world more food, it has brought with it worrying consequences. An investigation into agriculture funded by the World Bank concluded that the benefits have been unevenly distributed. Equally disturbing, the revolution has led to widespread environmental damage that may reduce the planet’s capacity to feed future generations.
No less than 1.9 billion hectares of farmland has been degraded by modern grain-growing techniques. Growing annual grain crops such as wheat over lengthy periods inevitably leads to soil damage. The land must be ploughed and cultivated each year, and for long periods is left bare, a condition that seldom arises in nature. Stripped of vegetation cover, the soil’s organic matter starts to burn up or oxidise, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse gas burden. The process is hastened by heavy inputs of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. With the loss of organic matter the soil’s structure is weakened so it becomes unstable and subject to erosion, either by wind or rainfall.
Around the world soils are eroding at a faster rate than at any time in history. Each year the weight of soil washing downstream in rivers is estimated at four tonnes for every man, woman and child on the planet. For all our technology, civilisation continues to depend on a few centimetres of topsoil. At this rate of loss the future for humanity is grim.
For all the high hopes of the 1960s, it is hard to see Borlaug’s system as more than a partial success. Its weakness is its reliance on a handful of annual crops that cannot be grown without massive inputs of fossil fuel. The sustainable methods called for in the World Bank report will almost certainly make greater use of perennial crops — principally grassland — to feed livestock.
One of the consequences of the grain surpluses produced by the Green Revolution is that more than half the world’s cereal crops are now fed to animals. Cattle, which as ruminants are adapted to grazing pastures, are now routinely confined to yards, or “feedlots”, and fed on grains. There is mounting evidence that beef and dairy foods produced this way are less healthy than those same foods produced from grazing animals. One unfortunate consequence of Borlaug’s breakthrough is that we are now degrading croplands on a global scale to produce meat and dairy products that are inferior to those we used to get from pasture.
While Borlaug’s revolutionary wheats run mainly on oil, the world’s grasslands — which are mostly made up of perennial species — are truly solar-powered. Once established perennial plants maintain their root systems from year to year. So they do not need the fertilisers and chemicals required for plants grown from seed each time. Unlike grains, grasslands will give us a secure and sustainable source of meat and milk. And as part of a mixed farming system, clover-rich pastures provide a non-chemical way of building up fertility on crop land.
But there is another more pressing reason for turning away from Borlaug’s grains and making more use of the world’s neglected grasslands. The shift to industrial grain production has added hugely to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Properly managed grassland could reverse the process.
Grasslands that are grazed rotationally are able to capture large amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide and lock it up safely in soil organic matter. Australian researchers estimate that if the world’s pasture farmers managed their grazing in this way, the amount of carbon captured could easily exceed total annual emissions. This will be the real Green Revolution. It could restore, not just our food supply, but the health of the planet.
Graham Harvey is author of The Carbon Fields: How Our Countryside Can Save Britain

Protecting climate change refugees

Communities hardest hit by climate change are also the poorest. Their right to compensation and protection needs to be made law

Steve Trent, Sunday 13 September 2009 14.00 BST

The phrase "environmental refugee" has been around since the 1970s, with the term "climate refugee" appearing more recently. Although the concept is simple to grasp, these terms have no meaning in international law.
The need to mitigate the effects of climate change has rightly held a high place on the international agenda, but it is only now that the reality of human suffering on a colossal scale, as a consequence of a changing climate, is being given the attention it deserves. I believe environmental security is a human right and, as climate change creates millions of environmental refugees, that this right must henceforth be enshrined in international law.
As early as 1990, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) suggested that the "gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration." Similar predictions today suggest that 200 million people could be forced from their homes by 2050 due to environmental factors arising from climate change.
Crucially, it is evident that environmental stresses affect communities and regions least able to adapt to change, typically hitting the poorest people on our planet. At the same time, many of the regions and populations that will be most affected, such as Bangladesh or small island developing states such as the Maldives and Seychelles, also have some of the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Historically, they have been responsible for a tiny fraction of the warming gases released, compared with those released by western industrialised nations. For many in the west, the effects of a changing climate remain largely an abstract concept, yet among poorer nations the climate is already devastating the lives of millions.
Meanwhile, there is a complete absence of any formal, enforceable, legal multilateral mechanism designed to address the needs of these people and assist in creating some greater equality and proportionality between those causing climate change and those most affected.
The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the second world war; its focus on those who are forced from their country of origin through fear of persecution, "for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". In today's world, the 1951 convention cannot meet the needs of climate refugees, as its narrow legal definitions will not apply to most of those affected by climate change. Also, the specific desire and best option for many will be to stay within their national boundaries if the financial and technical assistance to do so were forthcoming.
Just as the overarching threat of climate change is one of global responsibility, so is the fate of climate refugees. In this context, there is a clear and compelling imperative to create a new multilateral legal mechanism – and with it a new legal definition for climate refugees – that enshrines the right to life, food, health, water, housing and other essentials. This should apply to all those who are now affected and the millions more who will be affected by the changes in our climate created largely by a distant, and still largely unresponsive, wealthy west.
Every year, climate change leaves more than 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, and economic losses of $125bn. If anyone should be in any doubt as to the comparative costs of propping up failing economies, and of protecting millions of people from climate change, the UN has estimated that annual global spending to mitigate the worst effects of climate change amounts to about $0.5bn. Compare that with the $150bn spent by the US federal government to bail out just one failing insurance company, or the top nine US banks which gave over $32bn in bonuses alone that same year.
The recent financial crisis has shown that both political will and financial muscle can be mobilised when the wealth and way of life for the developed world is threatened. Now, in the knowledge that not just the way of life, but the actual existence of many is threatened by climate change, we must mount a similarly forceful response and create a new legal framework for climate refugees alongside the essential action to curb our carbon emissions.

RSPB accused of damaging British environment in bid to save birds

Charity accused of damaging the environment as it takes the axe to hundreds of acres of conifer woodland to restore traditional open heaths. Opponents say the scheme threatens UK's fight against global warming
David Adam, environment correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 13 September 2009

It is an all-too familiar scene of environmental destruction. Deep in a forest, heavy machinery has felled a giant swath of trees to leave bare scrubland and a handful of stumps as forlorn memorials. The timber has long gone and cattle now pick their way across the clearing.
But the scene of this environmental vandalism is not Indonesia or the Amazon; it is affluent Surrey. And those responsible are not illegal loggers, but one of Britain's largest and most influential conservation groups. If it has its way, a forest near you could be next for the chop.
"Scots pine, Corsican pine, Japanese larch. There are clues in the names. These trees are not native to southern England," says Mike Coates, a project manager with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
In a controversial move, the RSPB has set its sights on England's non-native woodlands, which it wants to demolish to find space to restore a different type of English habitat, the open and rugged heathland immortalised in the novels of Thomas Hardy. Dominated by heather and scrubby plants, such heathland is an increasingly rare sight in England, and so is the wildlife that relies upon it.
Coates says: "Woodland is very common compared with heathland. But re-creating heathland is so much better for wildlife than a conifer plantation. Lots of the birds that live in the conifer forests are common and can survive elsewhere. Heathland stuff needs heathland, and much of it is very rare."
Restoring heathland will help birds such as the nightjar and woodlark, he said, as well as rare insects, plants and reptiles, including the elusive adder, Britain's only venomous snake. The RSPB has made a start on its Farnham Heath reserve in Surrey, where it has cleared some 60 hectares (150 acres) of conifer forest to make way for heathland, but it has bigger plans. Ministers are poised to decide whether the Farnham Heath experiment should be repeated nationwide, across tens of thousands of hectares of government land run by the Forestry Commission.
The RSPB is lobbying hard that it should be. It wants the government to double the 55,000 hectares (135,000 acres) of lowland heathland in England by chopping down the non-native conifers that stand in the way.
Nick Phillips, RSPB's biodiversity policy officer, says it is a "once in a generation" opportunity to revive heathland on a large scale. Many of the trees in question were planted after the second world war, on cleared heathland, and are due to be harvested soon. The old heather seeds are still in the ground, he says, but will not survive much longer.
"All you've got to do is get the trees off to expose the buried heather seeds, get some sunlight and water and, bingo, in five years you've got a heathland. If you replant [conifers] after the trees are harvested, you've blown it. You can't restore heathland without it being much more difficult and time consuming."
At a time of increased awareness of climate change and the merits of protecting forests to reduce emissions, it strikes some, including the Green party, as a strange move to chop down trees in the name of protecting the natural world. The government's own figures suggest such a large-scale clearance could increase Britain's carbon emissions by up to 0.1%.
Stuart Goodall, chief executive of the Confederation of Forest Industries, calls the idea "absolutely crazy". He adds: "The government is highlighting the importance of combating climate change and planting trees to lock up carbon, and here we have a proposal to chop trees down, release carbon and lose jobs, all for an environmental benefit that you can get from better management of existing heathland. It just doesn't add up."
British companies have come to rely on the regular supply of softwood from the conifer forests, he says, which is used for construction, furniture and wood products such as fencing and pallets. "The forestry sector is small and we can struggle to get our voice heard. We are an easy target for the RSPB to pick on."
He adds: "It is a fallacy to think that certain types of trees have no biodiversity benefit. It's just that conservation bodies don't like them. But plenty of local people like walking in these woods."
Coates is unrepentant. "It should be the right tree in the right place. A field of barley is a field of grass, but it's not a meadow; it's a crop. In the same way, these are areas of land dominated by trees, but they are not woods, they are crops."
Heathland restoration will help Britain to adapt to global warming, he says, by providing habitats for species such as the Dartford warbler to spread north with rising temperatures.
At the centre of the debate is the Forestry Commission, which is drawing up several policy options for ministers to choose from this autumn on the back of a summer consultation exercise.
Dominic Driver, of the commission, says that between 6,000 and 30,000 hectares (15,000 and 75,000 acres) of conifer forest are likely to be removed over the next 10 to 15 years. Privately-owned forests could also be converted, with the help of government grants. Driver says lost trees will be replaced somehow. "We can't have deforestation in the UK."

Renault to unveil new all-electric runabouts

Thirty countries and cities have signed up to provide recharge points
By John Lichfield in Paris
Monday, 14 September 2009

The French car-maker Renault will try to jump the lights on its rivals tomorrow by announcing plans for a commercially viable, non-polluting "car of the future".
Renault and its Japanese subsidiary, Nissan, will reveal details of a range of all-electric cars capable of matching the price and performance of internal-combustion vehicles within two years.
At the start of the Frankfurt motor show, the president and chief executive of Renault-Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, will announce a €1bn (£870m) programme to develop four types of all-electric cars capable of travelling for 100 miles without re-charging their batteries. "We plan to be the world leader of the 'zero-emission', 100 per cent electric car," Mr Ghosn said yesterday.
The four models will be a large family car, rather like the Laguna, called the Fluence; a futuristic version of the Clio; an electric version of the Kangoo van; and a two-seater city runabout. All will sell at about the same price as their petrol, diesel or "hybrid" equivalents and be capable of matching the same levels of performance.
Previous attempts to develop fully electric, mass-market cars have ended in economic calamity. Motorists were unwilling to buy the cars until there was a wide network of "electric service stations" where they could recharge or change the batteries. No one wanted to invest in such a network until electric cars were purring along the roads in great numbers.
Renault believes that it has found a way to solve this conundrum. It has completed negotiations for the creation of car re-charging networks with 30 cities or countries, and is continuing talks with 30 others.
There would be three ways to "fill up" after each 100 miles. A motorist could drop into a service station and swap lithium batteries, use a fast-recharge point which would take 30 minutes, or re-charge the car, like a mobile phone, from any electric socket for up to eight hours.
"The battery would be rented for a little less than €100 a month. The cost of electricity, plus the battery rental, would be less than the equivalent cost of petrol," Mr Ghosn said in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday.
Until new generations of lithium batteries are available with a longer life than 100 miles, Renault accepts that electric cars will mostly be attractive to urban drivers and suburban commuters. "If you live in the suburbs and drive into town every day, you can charge up your car in the garage at night," a Renault source said. "The problem is that the motorist might also want to take the same car on his holidays." The French government is in talks with Renault about the possibility of providing subsidies for a nationwide system of recharging and battery-switching points. A number of small European countries and Israel, have already agreed to create such networks in principle.
As part of its drive to become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions, the French government plans to ask for tenders in the next few months for up to 50,000 small electric cars and vehicles for official use.
Questions are already being asked, however, about how "green" an all-electric car would really be. Renault has admitted that a car charged with electricity generated by coal-powered fire stations has a carbon foot-print only marginally smaller than a petrol-driven car. But when nuclear and renewable sources of electricity are taken into account, Renault argues, the all-electric car is significantly cleaner.
Other political and ecological problems arise about the supply of lithium that would be required to make the necessary millions of high-performance car batteries. Two thirds of the world's supplies of lithium come from Bolivia and most of the rest from China.

Green Cars, New Alliances Expected at Frankfurt Show

FRANKFURT -- Battered by the worst industry downturn since World War II, car makers heading to the International Auto Show in Frankfurt on Monday are pinning their hopes on early signs that a slow market recovery might be gaining traction.
How much the industry will be hurt by the end of "cash for clunkers" rebates, which mainly will affect mass-market makers such as Volkswagen AG and Fiat SpA, is expected to be in the spotlight during the show, along with electric cars and plans for new alliances between companies to share costs.
Some analysts say car markets are suffering from distortions created by the government-backed scrapping incentives in many countries. Analysts believe that BMW AG and Daimler AG's core Mercedes-Benz brand, the world's two largest luxury auto makers by sales, will be affected less by a downturn in sales once these scrapping incentives expire.
"BMW is a high-quality way to gain exposure to the potential we see for positive U.S. market surprises," said Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas in a note to clients, when he upgraded the stock to overweight on Tuesday. BMW was hit hard by the downturn in the key U.S. market.
Driven by investments as part of economic stimulus packages around the globe, auto makers have been ramping up efforts in the field of green technologies, such as hydrogen-powered vehicles and plug-in electric cars, despite some persistent technological and financial obstacles.
At the Frankfurt show, Mercedes-Benz will show a fuel-cell version of its compact B-Class, powered by hydrogen. Mercedes says it is the first production car using the technology, which creates electricity through a chemical process. The company says the first 200 or so cars will be offered to customers in the U.S. and Europe at the beginning of next year.
Toyota Motor Corp. is presenting an electric plug-in version of its Prius model. Its Japanese rivals Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. won't be present at the show as they seek to cut costs.
General Motors Co.'s European Opel brand plans to present the new generation of its best-selling Astra compact just days after the sale of the unit to a consortium led by Magna International Inc. was clinched Thursday. The Astra's success is crucial to help Opel and its British sister brand, Vauxhall, through the looming restructuring.
French auto maker Renault SA is showing a new version of its Megane along with several electric concept vehicles. French peer PSA Peugeot Citro├źn SA is focusing on two new small cars, the DS3 and the C3, as well as the sleek Peugeot RCZ sports car.
Italian auto maker Fiat plans to show the revamped Punto model as well as a cabriolet version of its 500 model, while the new-generation C-Max minivan will be in spotlight at Ford Motor Co.
Write to Christoph Rauwald at

Green energy needs to be as common as a mobile phone

Ted Hopcroft
The Government’s low-carbon transition plan comprises five key points, ranging from securing international climate agreements to action on carbon budgets.
All the points are important, but it is the fifth that will make the real difference — “supporting individuals, communities and businesses to play their part”.
This plan will work only if individual consumers embrace it and change their behaviour. This change must be significant and go much further than simply switching the television off standby or installing a few low-energy light bulbs. Its success depends on motivating individual consumers to make energy efficiency a priority.
This is a highly ambitious aim, but recent history has highlighted the consumer’s capacity to embrace change rapidly: the internet has transformed the way in which we get our information; our telephone service has metamorphosed into a mobile world with ubiquitous voice, data and video.
We have a comparable opportunity to transform our energy supply by augmenting large-scale power generation with community and consumer contributions. Can we achieve this? The internet and mobile communications are successful because they have become a core element of 21st century life. The Government’s plans need to create a similar environment for green lifestyles.
To achieve this, the consumer will need the right information, the right incentives and the right attitudes.
It seems that the information will come via smart meters, which will provide details of energy usage. A recent survey by Energy Insights, the research group, found strong demand, with 68 per cent of respondents requesting a device.
But is there an incentive to reduce usage? The initial evidence is promising. Dissatisfaction with energy bills has doubled in the past two years and two thirds of consumers say that they would use energy more efficiently given appropriate information.
Would this be sustainable? The lesson from the oil-price shock of the Seventies is that behaviour changed, but then consumption gradually reverted to earlier levels. We need financial incentives to entice people to move from energy savings to selling to the national grid. Perhaps we need an “energy clubcard” that rewards us for contributing to the national supply.
Financial incentives must be interwoven with attitudinal change. Maintaining momentum will require education. This is a plan for 2020, when today’s children will be buying their first cars and paying their first energy bills.
Green energy supply must become the norm — no one asks why someone has a mobile phone or internet access, but they’re bemused when someone doesn’t have these things. How do we achieve the same for green energy?
The Government should be congratulated on the low-carbon transition plan. It is a bold document that addresses today’s key issues. But the plan will not just be implemented top-down and must not be confined to industries and their bodies. The challenge for the Government is to win the hearts and minds of the British population and build enthusiasm and commitment in a critical mass of people to change behaviour.
• Ted Hopcroft is an energy specialist at PA Consulting Group.

Sustainable cities are the solution

Despite our romantic ideas about nature, it will be well-run, energy-efficient cities that ultimately save us from ourselves

David Lepeska, Sunday 13 September 2009 13.00 BST
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a $25m, energy-efficient office building on the Brooklyn waterfront a few months back. The Perry Avenue Building features solar panels, rainwater-fed toilets and six rooftop windmills, which will produce 10% of its energy supply. "Wind power in this city," said the mayor, "is one of the solutions to our problem."
That problem – devising more sustainable cities – has rightfully drawn a great deal of attention of late. In February, Barack Obama created the White House office of urban affairs and quickly set about staffing it with experienced urban planners, to complement what many have called his "green dream team" on environmental policy.
Earlier this year in Strasburg, Obama acknowledged that the US bears the brunt of the responsibility for climate change. Combined with nearly $50bn in infrastructure spending in the stimulus package, the new administration's emphasis on building better cities is clear.
As for New York, the new Brooklyn building is part of a $250m programme to make Brooklyn's Navy Yard a hub for green industry, just one aspect of the mayor's broader plan to make the city more eco-friendly. When he launched PlanNYC two years ago, Bloomberg pointed out that the world's cities were responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Former US president Bill Clinton and UN officials have quoted the same figure.
This bit of data would mean city dwellers emit nearly four times as much as their rural counterparts. (The UN estimates that humanity became more urban than rural in 2008. Right now, the global populations of urban and rural folk are roughly the same.) Put another way, living in a city is almost four times as polluting as living outside of one.
Thankfully, the figure turns out to be wildly inaccurate.
The carbon footprint of urban dwellers is relatively light, says a report by David Dodman in the April issue of Environment and Urbanisation. Dodman, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, examined emissions reports from cities in the Americas, Asia and Europe.
He found that New Yorkers emit a third less greenhouse gases than the average American and that Barcelonans and Londoners emit about half of their national averages. And urban Brazilians are truly green: the residents of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro are responsible for only one-third the national emissions average. Dodman's paper complements an earlier study by IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite, who argued that cities emit about 40% of all greenhouse gases, as opposed to the oft-cited 80%.
On average, then, people who live in small towns and rural areas emit 50% more greenhouse gases than city folk. That cities may be part of the solution, however, does not mean that efforts like Bloomberg's PlanNYC are misplaced. Precisely the opposite is true.
By 2050, some 70% of us will live in urban settings, and it will ultimately be well-managed urban environments, with smart, energy-efficient buildings, power systems, transport and planning, that will save us from ourselves. Seeking better ways to do precisely that, a constellation of designers, architects and academics gathered at a conference on "ecological urbanism" at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design earlier this year.
Mitchell Joachim, who teaches architecture and design at Columbia University and was selected by Wired magazine as one of 15 people Obama should listen to, presented his vision for a collapsible and stackable electric city car, which would hang at public recharging stations, available for shared use.
He also explained "meat tectonics". Aiming to use meat proteins developed in a lab as building material, Joachim presented a digital rendering of an armadillo-shaped, kidney-coloured home. "It's very ugly, we know that," he said. "We're not sure what a meat house is supposed to look like."
Dorothee Imbert, associate professor in landscape architecture at Harvard, pointed to urban farming, a trend that has taken root in Detroit, New York, Milwaukee and a handful of international cities. Imbert mentioned her own student-assisted organic farms in Boston, yet acknowledged that adequate food supplies for future cities "would require rethinking of landscape in the building process".
Pritzker-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is thinking regionally. The Harvard professor and designer of the MC Escher-esque CCTV building in Beijing talked about his Zeekracht ("sea power" in Dutch), a plan for oceanic wind farms across the North Sea that would provide energy to much of northern Europe. With its constant high winds, shallow waters and advanced renewable industries, Koolhaas believes the North Sea offers energy potential approaching that of Persian Gulf oil.
His plan, which includes production belts in a half-dozen urban centres on or near the sea, energy cooperation and clean-tech research centres, is the type of project that, ideally, will both preserve green spaces and increase urban sustainability.
Another is a recently approved high-speed rail project in California, which will link that state's southern and northern hubs. Obama's stimulus package contains $8bn for high-speed and urban rail projects. That amount is nowhere near enough to install networks on a European scale, but, like windmills on the Brooklyn waterfront, it's a step in the right direction.
Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond "to live deliberately", as he put it. But shortly thereafter the American naturalist and philosopher accidentally burned over a hundred acres of pristine Massachusetts woodlands. We can no longer afford to be like Thoreau. If we want to continue to romanticise our natural world, we, as a civilisation, must also avoid it.

Carbon-trading market hit as UN suspends clean-energy auditor

Danny Fortson, Georgia Warren
The legitimacy of the $100 billion (£60 billion) carbon-trading market has been called into question after the world’s largest auditor of clean-energy projects was suspended by United Nations inspectors.
SGS UK had its accreditation suspended last week after it was unable to prove its staff had properly vetted projects that were then approved for the carbon-trading scheme, or even that they were qualified to do so.
The episode will be embarrassing for European lawmakers in the run-up to the global climate summit in Copenhagen, where they will attempt to lure big polluters such as America and China into a binding agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol. SGS is the second such company to be suspended – Norway’s DNV was penalised last November for similar infractions.
The EU’s carbon-trading system, which puts a price on pollution through carbon permits that can be bought and sold, is the key element in Europe’s fight against climate change.
About a fifth of the $100 billion of credits traded annually come from projects funded under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The heavily criticised programme allows industrialised countries to offset their pollution by buying “certified emission reductions credits” generated by low-car-bon schemes in the developing world. China and India are the biggest generators of the credits: more than 900 projects are now running, producing billions of credits, with thousands more in the pipeline.
Critics say the system is not sufficiently policed and allows western polluters to buy their way out of more costly carbon-cutting measures.
All such schemes must first be approved by organisations such as SGS. DNV was the single biggest auditor until it was suspended last year, when much of its workload was shifted to SGS, which was simply unable to cope.
Simon Shaw, chairman of EEA Fund Management, a backer of emission-reduction projects and an investor in Climate Exchange, the carbon-trading platform, said: “There was obviously a lack of resources. We knew this was coming.”
UN inspectors said they found six irregularities in a recent spot check. The firm has now rectified these, but remains suspended until the UN verifies sufficient changes have been made. SGS could not be reached for comment.
Lawmakers are expected to reform the CDM in Copenhagen in December. A research firm that tracks trends in clean energy and carbon trading has been put up for sale with a £30m-£40m price tag. New Energy Finance was set up in 2004 by Michael Liebre-ich, a former McKinsey consultant who owns a key stake.
Its backers include former Reed Elsevier boss Sir Crispin Davis and Mike Luckwell, a one-time investor in Hit Entertainment. The corporate finance firm Quayle Munro was brought in to advise on options after takeover approaches were received.

Staff in carbon footprint trial face £100 fines for high emissions

Ben Webster, Environment Editor
People who emit more than their fair share of carbon emissions are having their pay docked in a trial that could lead to rationing being reintroduced via the workplace after an absence of half a century.
Britain’s first employee carbon rationing scheme is about to be extended, after the trial demonstrated the effectiveness of fining people for exceeding their personal emissions target. Unlike the energy-saving schemes adopted by thousands of companies, the rationing scheme monitors employees’ personal emissions, including home energy bills, petrol purchases and holiday flights.
Workers who take a long-haul flight are likely to be fined for exceeding their annual ration unless they take drastic action in other areas, such as switching off the central heating or cutting out almost all car journeys. Employees are required to submit quarterly reports detailing their consumption. They are also set a target, which reduces each year, for the amount of carbon they can emit.
Those who exceed their ration pay a fine for every kilogram they emit over the limit. The money is deducted from their pay and the level of the fine is printed on payslips. Those who consume less than their ration are rewarded at the same rate per kilogram.
The maximum that an employee can earn or be fined has been capped at £100, but is likely to rise once staff have grown accustomed to the idea.
WSP, the global engineering consultancy, has been conducting the rationing scheme among 80 of its British employees for almost two years. In the first year the overall carbon footprint of participants fell by 10 per cent. The company is discussing its scheme with several FTSE 100 companies.
Three quarters of the employees were rewarded and a quarter, including Stuart McLachlan, the managing director, were fined. Mr McLachlan tried to cut his carbon footprint by buying a bike and cycling 12 miles to work from Richmond, Surrey, to Chancery Lane, in Central London. He also installed energy-saving lightbulbs, but he still exceeded his ration — and was fined £100 — because he flew to his holiday home in South Africa.
The idea of personal quotas for carbon emissions is being advocated by the thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research. Everyone would be given a number of free “credits”, to buy gas and electricity for their homes, fuel for cars and plane tickets for holidays. Those who did not use all their credits could sell the excess to people who used more fossil fuels.
WSP is planning to expand its rationing scheme next year to cover 3,000 employees in offices around the world. However, it will set different targets for each country to reflect national average emissions. In Britain the target this year is 5.5 tonnes, which is one tonne above the national average for home energy and personal transport. The US target is likely to be double the British target, to reflect much greater emissions per person.
David Symons, co-ordinator of the scheme, said that US employees would be unlikely to join a scheme with the same ration as British staff. “The teams in the States would think they would be in debit straightaway.”
Mr Symons stayed within his ration last year by giving up his Mazda RX8 sports car and buying a diesel Peugeot 207. He met this year’s target largely because his partner had a baby and he rarely left home except to go to work.
One employee, Dan Dowling, 29, switched the mode of transport for his honeymoon in Rome from plane to train. His colleague, Emma Bollan, stopped blow-drying her hair and cut down on roast dinners. She said: “The big incentive is not the prospect of earning £100 but in trying to ensure that you don’t have to pay out.”
Several WSP staff added that peer pressure played a part in persuading them to stay within their ration.
Mr McLachlan said: “There have been some interesting competitive dynamics in the company as a result of having this transparency.”

Energy Winner: SFC Smart Fuel Cell

FRANKFURT -- When most of us run out of power on our cellphone, Blackberry or laptop, it is rarely more than an annoyance. But when soldiers in the field get a flat battery it is rarely less than life- threatening.
Essential military equipment such as communications devices, global positioning systems and night-vision goggles depend on portable power. Traditional batteries capable of the task are weighty, adding to already heavy loads. Which is where fuel cells come in. They use a catalyst to convert chemicals into electricity, holding the promise of greater reliability in a smaller, lighter form.
SFC Smart Fuel Cell AG, a small company with around 100 employees based just outside Munich, has developed fuel cells so small they can be sewn into soldiers' clothes. Last October, the company, which is the winner of this year's Energy category, garnered the $1 million (€690,000) top prize in the U.S. Department of Defense wearable power prize competition.
And its not just the military which stands to benefit. Refining fuel-cell technology is essential to the development of electric cars and potentially has a host of other applications.
The principle behind fuel cells was discovered in the 1830s. But in the best part of two centuries since, companies have struggled to develop commercial applications for the technology.
Most fuel cells produce electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. But, although hydrogen is abundant, it is hard to capture and store. SFC Smart Fuel Cell, which was founded in 2000, has developed mobile fuel cells that run on methanol. The systems it has developed, including the Jenny fuel cell, work on a hybrid approach with the cell continuously recharging a special lithium ion battery.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with Peter Podesser, who became chief executive of SFC Smart Fuel Cell in 2006 after working in the semiconductor and high temperature ceramics industries. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: What would you say distinguishes your company from your competitors?
MR. PODESSER: Around one- third of our 96 staff is employed in research and development and we're planning to keep that proportion in the future. The principle of fuel cells has been known for about 170 years. But we converted that technology into a sellable and applicable product for the first time in 2003.
We have sold roughly 15,000 units. This doesn't seem like a lot if you compare this with the automobile or consumer-electronics markets. But is a lot in the context of the nascent fuel-cell market: we have sold more products to customers than all our competitors combined.
WSJ: The competition is getting more intensive, isn't it?
MR. PODESSER: There are several players in the fuel-cell market that have products in prototype stage, particularly in the U.S. But that isn't necessarily bad for us. We're the icebreaker but we can only make the shipping channel so wide. Once other players enter the market the channel will get wider. That means demand for and acceptance of the fuel-cell technology will improve. We're happy to see other companies become successful in this market.
WSJ: But doesn't growing competition represent a risk for your innovative lead?
MR. PODESSER: We aim to maintain, and even expand, our technological lead.
WSJ: How?
MR. PODESSER: By cooperating with our users to develop our products. We have gained more than five million hours of operating experience among private, industrial and military users. That amount of experience allows us to develop our products very quickly. While we're seeing a lot of activity among new players in the market, they aren't developing products at the same speed as we are. This is despite the fact that our competitors include large technology companies like General Dynamics, Thales or Lockheed Martin, who all participated in the U.S. Department of Defense's wearable power prize for mobile power supply solutions that we won in 2008.
WSJ: Where do you see further potential for fuel-cell technology?
MR. PODESSER: We're active in the leisure market, supplying fuel cell-based power solutions for camper vans and sailing yachts. We entered the industry sector about two years ago and offer mobile power supply for traffic control and information systems.
We're also active in the security and environment sensor sectors. For instance, we're delivering power supply for weather stations or water level measuring systems along rivers and coast lines for disaster control purposes.
The defense and e-mobility sectors have the biggest potential for development but are also the most challenging regarding user requirements. In terms of business volume the potential of the industrial sector is at least as big as in the defense and e-mobility [electric cars] segments.
WSJ: Can you tell us a bit more about how you think fuel cells can improve in electric cars?
MR. PODESSER: We see potential in the area of additional power supply for onboard equipment as well as range extension. The normal limitation of any battery-driven vehicle is its range. Users have to drive from power socket to power socket and then wait for hours during the recharging process. Our objective is to achieve range extension by combining our fuel-cell technology with the existing e-mobility solutions. This is probably not suitable for long-distance traffic, but has the potential to work for clean urban mobility. We think this area offers gigantic potential for us.
WSJ: Is the climate-change debate a driving force in the development of fuel cells?
MR. PODESSER: For us climate change is clearly a megatrend that helps drive demand. The solar-energy industry had been around for a while, but only really took off when monetary and economic incentives were introduced. Regulatory and legal obligations are driving demand for clean energy products.
In the U.S., for instance, so-called anti-idling laws will take effect from 2010 making it illegal to keep combustion engine running to produce electricity. This will mean the sound of generators rattling in U.S. national parks to power camper vans will become a thing of the past. This is where our products come in.
WSJ: How much do you spend on R&D a year?
MR. PODESSER: Each year we invest between €4 million and €5 million ($5.8 million to $7.3 million) in R&D, which amounts to about 30% of 2008 revenues. And we're planning to keep R&D spending at around that level in the future.
We're also benefiting from a very reasonable state-support program in Germany. This national initiative for fuel cell and hydrogen-based energy research will receive an investment of around €700 million over the next 10 years.
We're fitting perfectly into this research initiative: it goes beyond pure basic research and focuses on developing technology according to end-user requirements. Germany is certainly a pioneer in this area.
Write to Jan Hromadko at