Saturday, 24 October 2009

Carbon dioxide: we're already over the safe limit

Concentrations passed the limit in 1987, says Geoffrey Lean.

By Geoffrey LeanPublished: 6:58PM BST 23 Oct 2009
Something else unprecedented is happening today, and again it has to do with climate change. It marks the first worldwide campaign for a data point, one that has spread randomly and virally – particularly among the young – through internet and mobile phone networks.
More than 4,200 events and rallies are to take place in 170 countries, including 1,500 across the US, 300 in China and 240 in Britain. It's named after a number, 350 – for the 350 parts per million increasingly being seen as the safe limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Last month, a batch of the world's leading climate scientists, writing in Nature, concluded that it should not be exceeded.

There's rather a big snag, however. We are already well over that limit, at 387 ppm. Concentrations passed the 350 point in 1987, and international negotiations are bogged down over plans that would eventually stabilise them at 450ppm. So the world would not only have to cut emissions back far faster than anyone has thought possible, but would actually have to develop ways of taking the gas out of the atmosphere – the biggest ask in history.
The campaign is undaunted. "We know better than anybody exactly how difficult this is and how politically unrealistic it is at the moment," says author Bill McKibben, its founder." Our job is to change the political reality, because the physical and chemical reality is not going to change."

Power Plants Face Potentially Costly New Air-Pollution Rules

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to issue new air-pollution rules for coal- and oil-fired power plants by November 2011, according to court documents.
While the new regulations will likely reduce emissions of cancer-causing pollutants by millions of tons annually, they could mean costly technology upgrades for the industry.
A consent decree released late Thursday follows a lawsuit filed by medical associations and environmental organizations against the EPA in December, alleging the agency wasn't drafting new power-plant emission rules fast enough as required by the Clean Air Act.
At issue were final "maximum achievable control technology" emission standards for hazardous air pollutants such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, other heavy metals, acid gases and dioxins. The agreement marks a major victory for the medical and environmental groups after years of legal battles against the industry and the Bush administration EPA.
"This is big," said Ann Weeks, legal director at the Clean Air Task Force, who has been fighting for new standards for nearly a decade. "We are very pleased with the outcome of this case, and look forward to working with the EPA to develop emissions standards for this industry that mandate the deep cuts in this pollution that the law requires."
The EPA said addressing hazardous pollutants emitted by utilities is a high priority. "the agency is committed to developing a strategy to reduce harmful emissions from these facilities, which threaten the air we all breathe," the agency said. it plans to propose standards for oil and coal-fired generation by march 2011.
At American Electric Power Co., one of the nation's largest operators of coal-fired power plants, spokesman Pat Hemlepp said the company was concerned the EPA won't have time to fully review emissions and develop a sound technical basis for its rule. Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp., also major operators of coal-fired power plants, didn't have immediate comment.
Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's trade association, called the schedule "a pretty aggressive timeline for a new rule," and expressed concern that the agency "may not be able to get the quality data it wants and needs" before it must act. The EPA earlier this year sought public comment on how to collect pollution data that would provide the basis for new emission regulations.
Mr. Riedinger said it is too early to estimate potential costs to the industry.
Ms. Weeks at the Clean Air Task Force dismissed concerns about costs, saying the health and societal benefits far outweigh the industry's costs, which ultimately will be borne by electricity customers.
Write to Ian Talley at

Hope of cleaner skies as Beijing residents switch from coal to electricity

Jane Macartney in Beijing

The brick walls are grey, the sky is leaden, the alley is choked with dust and rubble as workmen fill in a long channel running along Tanggong Hutong, in the heart of old Beijing (Jane Macartney writes). The men have just finished laying an electricity cable as part of the sweeping campaign by China to clean up its act.
Residents of this alley will no longer have to rely on filling their squat iron stoves with coal briquettes. Now their homes are equipped with electric heaters.
Li Yunjie is 74 and has lived in this lane all his life. He is delighted. “I chose to go for the Government scheme because they pay for two thirds — and without that I could never afford this. It’s much safer because I don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning, and it’s cleaner.”
Another neighbour rails at a worker to move the rubble out of the alley — but Mr Li says that he is satisfied, after hearing accounts from families who have already made the switch. “They say it may be a little more expensive overall than coal but it’s a price I don’t mind paying to get our blue skies back.”

Beijing has already swapped about 94,000 coal stoves for electric heaters, but that does not even scratch the surface of China's coal pollution — and the Government knows it.
Since 2007 China has been listed as the largest carbon emitter in the world, overtaking the United States. While officials insist that its emissions remain tiny compared with the United States on a per capita basis — at 5.8 tonnes compared with 25 tonnes for the average American — they are nevertheless accelerating projects to reduce that reliance.
It is a task that will take decades. About 70 per cent of all China’s energy needs are fuelled by coal and experts say that that figure will decline very slowly. However, leaders of the country’s Communist Party appear determined to show the world that they are aware of the cost of climate change to their nation.
President Hu and President Obama spoke by telephone this week about the issues that will dominate their summit in Beijing next month. Climate change was near the top. Neither leader gave any public hint of a significant shift in position but both made the right noises and voiced hopes for some kind of a deal being struck in Copenhagen.
Beijing continues to stress that it remains a developing country and should not be asked to make promises that will hinder its efforts to lift millions of its people out of poverty. It wants developed nations to give it more hi-tech, clean technologies, but there are many in Washington who are wary of making commitments, fearing that this could give China an economic edge.
China and the United States together account for about 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2008, fast-growing China’s emissions of carbon dioxide reached 6.8 billion tonnes, an increase of 178 per cent over 1990 levels, according to the IWR, a German energy institute. US emissions rose 17 per cent, to 6.4 billion tonnes. Midweek China and India signed a deal agreeing to stand together on climate change.
Both are among developing countries that argue they should not be required to set binding targets to reduce greenhouse gases because richer nations shoulder the greater responsibility for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are already several steps ahead in terms of economic growth. They want the developed nations to lead the way with much bigger cuts.
China’s efforts, however, are not limited to the ancient, centuries-old alleys of Beijing. On the steppes of Inner Mongolia, the deserts of its far west and along its coast, China is racing to build wind farms. Capacity has doubled in each of the past four years and with 12.2 gigawatts of generating capacity it now ranks fourth in the world. Wind energy accounts for only 0.4 per cent of total electricity supply.
There are still plenty of coal-fired electricity plants coming online, although the pace has slowed slightly from the jaw-dropping one a week notched up in the past two to three years. Experts say that the increase has slowed from adding 100 gigawatts of coal power a year to about 80 gigawatts this year.
Yang Fuqiang, a climate change campaigner for the WWF, said: “This is better. But we have to change this trend and push the share of coal down. We must increase renewables.”
Global warming
In 2001 Beijing launched the Great Green Wall of China — a row of trees 2,800 miles (4,500km) long. The 35 billion trees are intended to stem the flow of sand from the Gobi Desert. Increasing droughts mean the deserts could reach the outskirts of the city by 2040, putting it at risk of becoming the world’s first capital to be swamped by sand
Source: Times database

US coal stands in way of Copenhagen

It's not India and China that threaten the success of a new climate change treaty, but senators of coal-producing US states
Jeffrey Sachs, Friday 23 October 2009 08.30 BST

The UN climate change treaty, signed in 1992, committed the world to avoiding "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". Yet, since that time, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to soar.
The US has proved to be the biggest laggard in the world, refusing to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol or to adopt any effective domestic emissions controls. As we head into the global summit in Copenhagen in December to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto protocol, the US is once again the focus of concern. Even now, American politics remains strongly divided over climate change – though President Barack Obama has new opportunities to break the logjam.
A year after the 1992 treaty, President Bill Clinton tried to pass an energy tax that would have helped the US to begin reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. The proposal not only failed, but also triggered a political backlash. When the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997, Clinton did not even send it to the US Senate for ratification, knowing that it would be rejected. President George Bush repudiated the Kyoto protocol in 2001 and did essentially nothing on climate change during his presidency.
There are several reasons for US inaction – including ideology and scientific ignorance – but a lot comes down to one word: coal. No fewer than 25 states produce coal, which not only generates income, jobs and tax revenue, but also provides a disproportionately large share of their energy.
Per capita carbon emissions in US coal states tend to be much higher than the national average. Since addressing climate change is first and foremost directed at reduced emissions from coal – the most carbon-intensive of all fuels – America's coal states are especially fearful about the economic implications of any controls (though the oil and automobile industries are not far behind).
The US political system poses special problems as well. To ratify a treaty requires the support of 67 of the Senate's 100 members, a nearly impossible hurdle. The Republican party, with its 40 Senate seats, is simply filled with too many ideologues – and, indeed, too many senators intent on derailing any Obama initiative – to offer enough votes to reach the 67-vote threshold. Moreover, the Democratic party includes senators from coal and oil states who are unlikely to support decisive action.
The idea this time around is to avoid the need for 67 votes, at least at the start, by focusing on domestic legislation rather than a treaty. Under the US constitution, domestic legislation (as opposed to international treaties) requires a simple majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to be sent to the president for signature. Getting 50 votes for a climate change bill (with a tie vote broken by the vice president) is almost certain.
But opponents of legislation can threaten to filibuster (speak for an indefinite period and thereby paralyse Senate business), which can be ended only if 60 senators support bringing the legislation to a vote. Otherwise, proposed legislation can be killed, even if it has the support of a simple majority. That will certainly be true of domestic climate change legislation. Securing 60 votes is a steep hill to climb.
Political analysts know that the votes will depend on individual senators' ideologies, states' voting patterns, and states' dependence on coal relative to other energy sources. Based on these factors, one analysis counts 50 likely Democratic yes votes and 34 Republican no votes, leaving 16 votes still in play. Ten of the swing votes are Democrats, mainly from coal states; the other six are Republicans who conceivably could vote with the president and the Democratic majority.
Until recently, many believed that China and India would be the real holdouts in the global climate change negotiations. Yet China has announced a set of major initiatives – in solar, wind, nuclear, and carbon-capture technologies – to reduce its economy's greenhouse gas intensity.
India, long feared to be a spoiler, has said that it is ready to adopt a significant national action plan to move towards a trajectory of sustainable energy. The two nations have agreed to co-ordinate efforts on renewable energy and research, and the US is under growing pressure to act. With developing countries displaying their readiness to reach a global deal, could the US Senate really prove to be the world's last great holdout?
Obama has tools at his command to bring the US into the global mainstream on climate change. First, he is negotiating side deals with holdout senators to cushion the economic impact on coal states and to increase US investments in the research and development, and eventually adoption, of clean coal technologies.
Second, he can command the Environmental Protection Agency to impose administrative controls on coal plants and automobile producers even if the Congress does not pass new legislation. The administrative route might turn out to be even more important than the legislative route.
The politics of the US Senate should not obscure the larger point: America has acted irresponsibly since signing the climate treaty in 1992. It is the world's largest and most powerful country, and the one most responsible for the climate change to this point, it has behaved without any sense of duty – to its own citizens, to the world, and to future generations.
Even coal state senators should be ashamed. Sure, their states need some extra help, but narrow interests should not be permitted to endanger our planet's future. It is time for the US to rejoin the global family.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009

Australian oil spill 'contaminating one of world's richest marine wildernesses'

WWF expedition into Timor Sea finds dolphins, sea birds, turtles and other marine wildlife at risk in oil spill that began in August
Toni O'Loughlin in Sydney, Friday 23 October 2009 17.20 BST
Conservationists warned yesterday that one of Australia's worst off-shore oil spills was killing wildlife and "massively contaminating" one of the world's last great wildnernesses. Amid a fourth attempt to plug the 64-day-old leak at the Montara drilling rig, the slick – which has already spread over an area 10 times the size of London – continued to expand at the rate of 300 barrels of oil a day in an area of the Timor Sea famed for its marine reserves and coral.
A survey by the Worldwide Fund for Nature found dolphins, migratory sea birds, sea snakes and marine turtles were exposed to toxins. The slick has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of animals.
Since August 21 when there was an accident at the Montara offshore drilling rig's well head, around 403,000 litres of oil have been pumped into the Timor Sea. The rig is owned by the Thai oil company PTTEP.
Satellite images show a 25,000 square kilometre slick spreading across the surface of the ocean and spilling into Indonesian waters, threatening the marine reserves of Ashmore and Cartier reefs along the way.
WWF director of conservation Dr Gilly Llewellyn, who conducted a three day expedition through the polluted waters, said if the spill were closer to shore there would be global outrage. "There were times when we were literally in a sea of oil from left to right and as far as we could see ahead of us - it was heavily oiled water and it was sickening because in this we were seeing dolphins surfacing," Llewellyn said.
"We recorded hundreds of dolphins and sea birds in the oil slick area, as well as sea snakes and threatened hawksbill and flatback turtles. Clearly, wildlife is dying and hundreds if not thousands of dolphins, seabirds and sea-snakes are being exposed to toxic oil," Llewellyn said.
The expedition recorded 17 species of seabird, four species of dolphins and five marine reptiles including two species of marine turtle.
However the paucity of research on the marine life in the area has hampered attempts to document the damage.
Still, Llewellyn says experience from previous oil disasters suggests the damage will be long lasting. "We know that oil can be a slow and silent killer. Impacts from the Exxon Valdez disaster are still being seen 20 years later, so we can expect this environmental disaster will continue to unfold for years to come," she said.
When oil, gas and condensate began seeping into the Timor Sea PTTEP estimated it would take 50 days to plug the well which is located about 250 kilometres off the Kimberley region of the West Australian coast line. Three previous attempts by PTTEP Australasia to plug the leak, 2.5 kilometres below the sea bed by pumping it full of heavy mud have failed.
Australia's federal environment minister, Peter Garrett, said he was confident everything possible was being done to stop the oil leak