Monday, 16 November 2009

World leaders deal major blow to Copenhagen climate change deal

Ben Webster, Environment Editor, and Leo Lewis in Singapore

A key element of the international plan to address climate change is in jeopardy after several of the most powerful nations failed to confirm a previous commitment to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum, which includes the US, China, Japan and Russia, deleted the commitment from the final version of the official communiqué issued after a two-day meeting in Singapore. The commitment had been made by G8 leaders at L’Aquila in Italy in July and the decision to remove it is a retrograde step.
The resolve of world leaders to take firm action on climate change appears to be weakening, with President Obama confirming that there would be no legally binding deal at the UN summit in Copenhagen next month.
Officials at the Apec meeting said the view of Mr Obama, President Hu Jintao of China and other leaders was that Copenhagen was merely a “staging post” towards a global deal on climate change. They said a legally binding deal was very unlikely to be agreed until late next year.

The Apec communiqué talked only vaguely of working “towards an ambitious outcome in Copenhagen”. It failed to mention any targets, including those previously agreed.
A draft version of the Apec communiqué said that “global emissions will need . . . to be reduced to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050”. But the subsequent version was non-committal.
Most climate scientists believe that a 50 per cent reduction in global emissions by 2050 is the minimum needed to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic change. Chinese officials made it clear that they regarded the original draft as controversial. “If we put it in this [final] statement, I think it would disrupt the negotiation process,” Yi Xianliang, a Chinese foreign ministry official, said.
Michael Froman, a senior climate change negotiator for the United States, said: “I don’t think the negotiations have proceeded in such a way that many of the leaders thought it was likely that we were going to achieve a final agreement in Copenhagen.”
Ed Miliband, the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary, tried to talk up the prospects of eventually agreeing a deal. He said: “It’s a bit like when you buy a house. Exchange may happen at Copenhagen and completion some months afterwards. What is most important, as far as I am concerned, is to get a really ambitious set of commitments from all world leaders.” He urged Mr Obama to commit to attending the Copenhagen conference.
Mr Obama has said that he would go to Copenhagen if he was confident that his presence would secure a meaningful agreement.
Joss Garman, Greenpeace climate campaigner, said: “It’s been twelve years since Kyoto and two years since negotiations began on Copenhagen, but now Obama says we need another year of talks about talks. The world can’t afford more prevarication and procrastination.”

Copenhagen: a non-negotiable deadline

Time is not on our side. We need our leaders to take on to the big challenges of climate change with a sense of urgency

Tony Juniper, Sunday 15 November 2009 15.30 GMT
Barack Obama and other leaders have confirmed what has been likely for some time – that there won't be a legally binding deal coming from next month's Copenhagen climate change summit. Instead, and as many insiders have been saying for months, the talks will need to continue into 2010, with a deal hopefully thrashed out during the course of next year. More time might help politicians come up with a workable solution, but time is not on our side.
While politics is sometimes about compromise and being flexible, unfortunately it is not possible to negotiate with nature. The longer the world delays in putting in place the aggressive emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the more risk we are placing before our children and grandchildren. The science tells us that to have a reasonable chance of keeping global average temperature increase below 2C (compared with the pre-industrial average), humankind will need to begin a global cut in emissions within the next five years or so. That will require planning and clear strategies to change energy and land use patterns.
The reasons the world has thus far been unable to do this are familiar enough. Present patterns of economic growth rely on vast quantities of cheap fossil energy, and while countries are not prepared to look at different economic strategies, solving the global climate challenge is virtually impossible. In the west we have become accustomed to ever-increasing levels of material consumption – and developing countries wish to have that too. The result is massive and increasing pressure on natural resources, land and water. And then there is the matter of global inequality and how it will be possible to cut poverty while reducing emissions and to put in place strategies that will enable countries to adapt to what are now already inevitable climate change impacts. Who will pay for that, and how, remains unresolved.
These are really big issues, but leaders need to face them and others with a renewed sense of urgency. Perhaps a wartime analogy is apposite. At the start of the second world war, the US and Britain demonstrated a remarkable ability to rise to a grave challenge. Public support for action was galvanised, and new technologies were deployed on a vast scale in a short time. Both of these things happened, in part through clear and inspirational political leadership. And perhaps this is what the world needs now – some leaders who are prepared to speak of the threat as it really is, and to inspire societies to rise to it with an appropriate response. If we don't get that in 2009, we will certainly need it during 2010.
Each day that goes by the threat grows, each day we delay means more pain and cost in the future. We must urge countries to use the Copenhagen summit to raise humankind's collective ambition, and to see 2010 as the time when that is converted into an action plan that will work.

Copenhagen climate talks: No deal, we're out of time, Obama warns

Brown still hopes to salvage climate talks as US rules out binding targets

David Adam, Jonathan Watts and Patrick Wintour, Sunday 15 November 2009 21.36 GMT
Barack Obama acknowledged todaythat time had run out to secure a legally binding climate deal at the Copenhagen summit in December and threw his support behind plans to delay a formal pact until next year at the earliest.
During a hastily convened meeting in Singapore, the US president supported a Danish plan to salvage something from next month's meeting by aiming to make it a first-stage series of commitments rather than an all-encompassing protocol.
Postponing many contentious decisions on emissions targets, financing and technology transfer until the second-stage, leaders will instead try to reach a political agreement in Copenhagen that sends a strong message of intent.
While this falls short of hopes that the meeting would lock in place a global action plan to replace the Kyoto protocol, it recognises the lack of progress in recent preparatory talks and the hold-ups of climate legislation in the US Senate.
Michael Froman, US deputy national security adviser for economic affairs, said: "There was a realistic assessment ... by the leaders that it was unrealistic to expect a full internationally legally binding agreement to be negotiated between now and when Copenhagen starts in 22 days."
Britain's climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, tried to put a brave face on Obama's move, insisting it is still possible to reach a broad political agreement on carbon emissions targets, but senior Labour MPs admitted they feared the necessary momentum for a detailed agreement would be sucked from the Copenhagen event if politicians know a deal has been postponed to the next scheduled meeting in Mexico City next year.
Gordon Brown had pledged to go to Copenhagen to help broker a deal, insisting there could be no plan B. Miliband again todayurged Obama to attend.
There will now be intense discussions on whether the political agreement at Copenhagen contains any detailed meaningful commitments.
Denmark's prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the host and chairman of the climate talks, flew overnight to Singapore to pitch the deferral plan to 19 leaders, including Obama and China's president, Hu Jintao, at an unscheduled event during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. He insisted that the Copenhagen talks could still set political targets and outline commitments.
"Given the time factor and the situation of individual countries we must, in the coming weeks, focus on what is possible and not let ourselves be distracted by what is not," Rasmussen told the leaders. "The Copenhagen agreement should finally mandate continued legal negotiations and set a deadline for their conclusion."
Obama spoke in support of the proposal, cautioning the group not to let the "perfect be the enemy of the good", Froman said.
The proposal by Denmark would buy time for the US Senate to pass carbon-capping legislation, allowing the Obama administration to bring a 2020 target and financing pledges to the table at a UN climate meeting in mid-2010.
But there are many other divisions between developed and developing nations that could prolong talks. It was unclear if China, the world's biggest emitter, and other developing countries supported the two-stage plan.
The level of international support may be clearer at a meeting on Monday of about 40 environment ministers in Copenhagen. Other governments said there was little choice. "Leaders were clear in their view that the current officials-led process is running into all sorts of difficulties, and therefore it is time for leaders, politically, to step in," Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, told reporters after the meeting with Rasmussen. "It's going to be tough as all hell, but let me tell you I believe everyone is seeking, right now, to put their best foot forward."
The development casts new significance on the summit in Beijing tomorrowbetween Obama and Hu.
According to the UK government's former chief scientist Sir David King, these talks are the best chance for the world to agree a new deal. "Once Hu Jintao and Obama agree, I think the rest of the world could fall into place," he told the Guardian. "It's a head of state issue. Obama, through an agreement with Hu Jintao, could be able to deal with some of the concerns of the American population."
Sources close to the US-China talks are playing down the chances of a public breakthrough, saying only modest progress may be announced, in the area of clean technology cooperation. But signs of collaboration could unblock the logjam in the Senate and in international talks.
"Copenhagen has come a year too early. There was no way Obama could get this together for December this year," said King. Chinese negotiators have been saying much the same thing in private.
US officials are anxious about the timing of a likely announcement from China on its first carbon intensity target, thought to be around 40% to 45%reductions relative to economic growth by 2020. Although not internationally binding, a Chinese move could see the Obama administration blamed for a lack of progress.
The extension is not unexpected given the downbeat statements by world leaders in recent weeks. But the delay has frustrated those who feel time is running out. "Heads of states must go beyond simply discussing the problems. They have to start solving them," said Diane McFadzien of the Worldwide Fund for Nature."

The Real Global Warming Disaster by Christopher Booker

Considerable effort has gone into Christopher Booker's definitive manual for sceptics. Shame he's talking bunk, says Philip Ball
Philip Ball
The Observer, Sunday 15 November 2009

Christopher Booker, Sunday Telegraph columnist and bete noir of climate campaigners, has here produced the definitive climate sceptics' manual. That's to say, he has rounded up just about every criticism ever made of the majority scientific view that global warming, most probably caused by human activity, is under way, and presented them unchallenged. If you share his convictions, you'll love it, and will dismiss the rest of this review as part of the cover-up.
The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is The Obsession With 'Climate Change' Turning Out To Be The Most Costly Scientific Blunder In History?
by Christopher Booker
Continuum International Publishing Group,
Buy The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is The Obsession With 'Climate Change' Turning Out To Be The Most Costly Scientific Blunder In History? at the Guardian bookshop
Me, I was moved to a queer kind of admiration for the skill and energy with which Booker has assembled his polemic. Unlike other climate-sceptic diatribes such as the Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle or the writings of Nigel Lawson, this one cannot be dismissed with off-the-shelf knowledge. And some of it is true. But much, including the central claim, is bunk.
Some of Booker's stratagems are transparent enough. One is to introduce all climate sceptics with a little eulogy to their credentials, while their opponents receive only a perfunctory, if not disparaging, preamble. This reaches its apotheosis on the back cover with a quote from "the world's leading atmospheric physicist and 'climate scientist''', MIT professor Richard Lindzen. Unusually for sceptics, Lindzen does have significant academic status, but probably only his mother would endorse this description.
Another of Booker's techniques is to latch on to genuine flaws in the science or its dissemination with the tenacity of a bulldog. Predictably, he attacks the infamous "hockey stick" graph, a plot of global mean temperatures over the past 1,000 years produced by two scientists in 1998 which shows little change for the entire period until suddenly soaring in the 20th century.
It is now mostly accepted that the analysis that produced these data was wrong. The question, still unresolved, is "how wrong?" – have we experienced comparable warming in the historical past, in which case the argument that it is a natural fluctuation seems plausible, or is the current trend truly unusual? But Booker's implication that the entire edifice of the global-warming consensus rested on the shaky hockey stick is absurd: it was one strand among many. For a balanced critique of this episode, look instead to Richard Muller's Physics for Future Presidents (Norton).
In the end, the devil is in the detail. And therein lies the problem, for to dismantle Booker's case would require an equally long and citation-encrusted book. You are going to get nothing more (here at least) than my word for it that, say, the first of Booker's accusations about faulty science and procedural misdemeanour that I chose at random to investigate further – the resignation of hurricane specialist Chris Landsea from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2005, and the UK chief scientific adviser David King's trip to a bizarre climate meeting in Moscow the same year – proved to have a rather different complexion from the one presented here.
Yet some of the cracks become evident just from paying attention. When Booker commits the cardinal sin, for which climate scientists have often castigated alarmists, of making a swallow into a summer (or, here, winter) by using the cold snap of 2008 as a reason to doubt the warming trend, it's game over. And by claiming that the slight cooling trend since around 2003 undermines the IPCC's climate models, he fails to understand that different timescales demand different models: the projections for 2100 are hardly meant to predict whether next summer will be a scorcher. Don't even get me started about the graph on page 328 that shows this cooling; just take a look at and then tell me what you feel about it.
Besides, Booker admits that a climate model in which medium-term ocean circulation was included was able in 2009 to rationalise the current cooling (which may last until 2015). We are supposed to regard this result as suspiciously convenient, but even Booker can come up with no scientific reasons to discard it. Indeed, he later criticises the IPCC models for failing to simulate shifts in ocean currents. His aim is simply to sling enough mud and to hell with consistency.
Suppose you are genuinely undecided on climate change and determined not to be guided simply by what you'd like to believe. If unpicking the real story demands so much effort and insider knowledge, how can you possibly make up your mind? Here's an unscientific suggestion. Booker's position would require that you accept something like the following: 1) Most of the world's climate scientists, for reasons unspecified, decided to create a myth about human-induced global warming and have managed to twist endless measurements and computer models to fit their case, without the rest of the scientific community noticing. George W Bush and certain oil companies have, however, seen through the deception. 2) Most of the world's climate scientists are incompetent and have grossly misinterpreted their data and models, yet their faulty conclusions are not, as you might imagine, a random chaos of assertions, but all point in the same direction.
There's a third option: the world's climate system is hugely complex, hard to predict and constantly surprising; yet in the long term the world is getting warmer, for reasons we basically understand, and there is good reason to believe that humans are mostly responsible for it.

UK faces major obstacles in bid to be a low-carbon leader

The UK risks missing out on its slice of the £4.5 trillion low-carbon industry, the manufacturers' trade body has warned.

By Josephine MouldsPublished: 6:10PM GMT 15 Nov 2009
The EEF said the country faces major obstacles to becoming a leading centre for so-called "cleantech" products and services, "most notably question marks over the long-term supply of core skills".
The manufacturing lobby group criticised the UK's tax system, claiming that it "discourages the capital investment that manufacturing depends on". It said the Government's low-carbon industrial strategy also lacks sufficient focus.
Roger Salomone, the EEF's energy adviser, said: "Whilst the UK now has a low-carbon industrial strategy that has laid the foundations, we cannot ignore the fact the UK is behind the curve and playing catch-up in this area."
On the positive side, the EEF cited the UK's good pool of science, technology, engineering and maths graduates, and clusters of essential skills, such as offshore and automotive engineering.
The EEF estimates that the low-carbon economy will be worth £4.5 trillion globally by 2015, from £3 trillion in 2008.
It recommended that the Government focus on a small number of industries – nuclear, offshore renewables, carbon capture and storage, and low-carbon vehicles – in order to make its green policies more effective.
The Government should make greater use of public procurement to stimulate the development of low-carbon technologies. The EEF also suggested a "green bond" scheme that would allow manufacturers to use future tax benefits to finance low-carbon technologies.

India to Boost Funding for Solar Power

NEW DELHI -- India plans to announce increased subsidies for solar-power generation, a senior government official said, as the country looks to boost production of renewable energy and show it is committed to mitigating climate change.

India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is expected to release details of the latest solar-power policy in the next weeks. In an interview, Dr. B. Bhargava, a director in the agency, said the plans will significantly increase the number of solar projects that can receive government support.
The hope, he said, is that the new policy will encourage manufacturers of solar panels such as Moser Baer India Ltd. and Tata BP Solar India Ltd. to ramp up production, thereby reducing per-unit costs and driving down the high price of solar power.
It is now about five times as expensive to generate solar power than oil-based power. "If the costs aren't reduced, this [subsidy] policy can't be sustained on a long-term basis," Mr. Bhargava said.
Climate change will be among the issues on the agenda when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House next week.
India generates a tiny fraction of its power from solar energy. Coal accounts for more than half of the country's power capacity, and wind makes the biggest contribution among renewable sources, which together provide about 7.5% of India's energy.

Solar power is promising, because sunlight is abundant across the country, unlike wind and hydro power, which are better for only some regions. The government's new policy is aimed at increasing solar-power generation to 20,000 megawatts by 2020 from three megawatts. "The potential is infinite with solar," Mr. Bhargava said.
India's existing policy supports a modest amount of solar-power capacity -- 50 megawatts -- with subsidies of up to 25 cents per kilowatt hour. Mr. Bhargava said that program is already "fully subscribed" and will be expanded substantially, though he declined to offer specifics. He said the new guidelines also will streamline the process for solar-power developers to collect subsidies and payments from state utilities.
Beyond expanding solar power, India has pledged in a "national action plan" on climate change to pursue a range of other measures, from increased fuel-efficiency in automobiles to more-efficient consumer appliances.
Write to Amol Sharma at

Reform of carbon trading 'could pay for UK nuclear stations'

EDF, the French utility giant, has insisted that reform of the carbon trading system would be a cheap way for consumers to help pay for a new generation of UK nuclear power stations.

By Rowena MasonPublished: 6:39PM GMT 15 Nov 2009
The move could cost the average household an estimated extra £20 to £40 per year.
The power company has been lobbying for an overhaul of the European emissions market, arguing that the market mechanism has failed to incentivise enough investment in low-carbon energy such as nuclear power.
Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, would like to see a minimum “floor price” on carbon emissions credits for electricity generators, since the current system has not made the production of clean energy cheaper than by burning fossil fuels.
The Government has resisted such reforms and the TaxPayers’ Alliance has claimed that it could add £227 extra to annual energy bills.
EDF, which has not proposed a specific level for the floor, called such fears “wildly” exaggerated, saying the higher figure disregards industrial usage, overestimates total emissions and assumes that the price of carbon is an entirely new cost.
It believes that an industry estimated floor price of €16.74 (£14.95) to €23.44 for the carbon price would cost each family £20 to £40 extra.
The row over future energy prices comes as a YouGov poll, commissioned by EDF Energy, shows that two-thirds of the population now support nuclear power, up from 55pc three years ago. Speaking in relation to the YouGov poll, Mr de Rivaz said: “Addressing climate change in ways which are most affordable for all energy consumers will be a key focus of the forthcoming Copenhagen Summit.”
However, public support for measures to tackle climate change has waned over the same period, with interest in the global problem down from 80pc to 70pc.
More than a quarter of people now think that the science on climate change is not conclusive.

Britain cuts down forests to keep ‘green’ power stations burning

Robin Pagnamenta

Britain is set to plunder the lungs of the world to feed its growing hunger for wood to burn in power stations.
A series of biomass-fired plants are being built in the UK that will trigger a 150 per cent surge in timber imports from 20 million tonnes today to 50 million tonnes by 2015, according to the Forestry Commission.
British power plants are already shipping wood from Canada, Brazil, Scandinavia and South Korea.
Just one of the new biomass plants at Port Talbot, South Wales, will consume three million tonnes of wood per year — equivalent to 30 per cent of the UK’s domestic annual wood harvest of ten million tonnes.

But the plant, which is due to open in 2012, will generate only 300 megawatt hours of electricity, or about 0.4 per cent of the UK's current power-generating capacity. At least four more 300-megawatt plants are planned, including three in Yorkshire that have been proposed by Drax, operator of Britain’s largest coal-fired power station. Another company, MGT, plans to build one on Teesside.
A spokesman for Prenergy, which is behind the Port Talbot plant, said 90 per cent of its wood supplies would be imported, although he insisted that all of it would be sourced from proven sustainable sources.
Nevertheless, environmental campaigners have raised concerns about the carbon emissions involved in shipping the wood such large distances, while to meet UK pest control laws the timber will need to be baked before it can be shipped to the UK.
Wood industry officials have warned that British families could face soaring prices for a range of wood-based products, including furniture, wood panels and even wallpaper because of its impact on low-grade timber and wood pulp prices.
“It’s going to push timber prices through the roof,” said Gavin Adkins, chairman of the Wood Panel Industry Federation. He is concerned that large parts of the £1 billion industry that rely on wood as its main raw material will be forced offshore.
Although wood prices have moderated during the recession, rapid growth in demand had led to a 25 per cent rise since 2007, Mr Adkins said. “We operate in a low-margin industry and our ability to absorb such increases in raw material costs is limited. Inevitably these costs will have to be passed on to the consumer. Obviously, the timing could not be worse for the construction industry, which has been seriously hit in this recession.”
He said the number of jobs that may be lost was causing concerns for companies in the saw-milling, wood-panel and paper and pulp industries. The federation is lobbying for the biomass industry, which is supported by a government subsidy regime, to be given extra incentives to use waste wood instead of virgin timber for fuel. An estimated 4.5 million tonnes of waste wood are landfilled in the UK each year, according to government estimates.
A recent report from the Environment Agency stated that shipping timber from overseas could halve the potential carbon dioxide savings from biomass power.
Natural fuel
1% The amount of UK energy consumption from biomass
744 sq miles The size of forest needed for UK wood-fuelled power station growth in next three years
50% The rise in carbon discharges caused by long-distance transport and burning of wood over burning coal
30 years The time new trees need to absorb the equivalent amount of carbon released by cutting down and burning wood for fuel
Sources: Times Database; Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance;

Scientists find key to creating clean fuel from coal and waste

'Gasification' process enhanced to save millions of tonnes of carbon and provide energy
Alok Jha, green technology correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 15 November 2009
Millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide could be prevented from entering the atmosphere following the discovery of a way to turn coal, grass or municipal waste more efficiently into clean fuels.
Scientists have adapted a process called "gasification" which is already used to clean up dirty materials before they are used to generate electricity or to make renewable fuels. The technique involves heating organic matter to produce a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called syngas.
However gasification is very energy-intensive, requiring high-temperature air, steam or oxygen to react with the organic material. Heating this up leads to the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide. In addition, gasification is often inefficient, leaving behind significant amounts of solid waste at the end of the process.
To find out how to make the process more efficient, researchers led by Marco Castaldi, at the department of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University, tried varying the atmosphere in the gasifier. They found that, by adding CO2 into the steam atmosphere of a gasifier, significantly more of the biomass or coal was turned into useful syngas.
The technique has a double benefit for the environment: it provides a use for CO2 that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere and, after the hydrogen is siphoned off from the syngas, the remaining carbon monoxide can be buried safely underground.
Castaldi's results will be published this week in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology. His team calculated that using CO2 during gasification of a biomass fuel such as beechgrass, in order to make enough biofuel for a fifth of the world's transport demands, would use up 437m tonnes of the greenhouse gas. Preventing that from entering the atmosphere would be equivalent to removing 308m vehicles from the road.
Replacing 30% of the steam atmosphere of a gasifier with CO2 ensured that all the solid fuel was turned into syngas. Castaldi's process reduces the amount of water that needs to be heated in the gasifier, thereby saving energy, and is 10 to 30% more efficient than standard gasification.
"You take a solid fuel like a biomass or a coal or even municipal waste and typically what you do is gasify it using steam, air or oxygen," said Castaldi. "In that typical oxidation process, the air reacts very quickly and forms a very recalcitrant carbon char that takes very high temperatures to get converted into gases.
"When you use steam, the problem is that it's not as reactive as oxygen but it's a little too slow." He added: "CO2 is a little more reactive than steam but not as reactive as oxygen. The CO2, as it's converting a solid fuel to a gas, also has the ability to react with the carbon char that is forming."
Working at the same temperature as a normal gasifier, using CO2 means a better conversion of solid fuel into syngas.
"If I operate at 1,000C and don't use CO2 I'll have some residual carbon left over, which could be a fuel – that's an efficiency penalty," said Castaldi. "Using about 30% CO2, for that same 1,000C you get the complete gasification of the carbon into the syngas."
Applied to a modern IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) power station, which gasifies coal, this can lead to an efficiency gain of up to 4%.
"While that may not sound like much, for a power plant producing 500 megawatts of energy, it is significant," said Castaldi. He added that energy researchers were already investigating the use of CO2 in producing fuel.

Tories reveal plans for 'conservation banks'

The Conservative party plans, which would fund nature protection through the sale of conservation credits to developers, have been met with caution by wildlife groups

John Vidal, environment editor, Monday 16 November 2009 00.05 GMT
Developers would be forced to buy credits from "conservation banks" as a condition of building permission under new Conservative party plans to revolutionise nature protection revealed exclusively to the Guardian.
The hundreds of millions of pounds which could be generated each year will lead to the creation of major new woodlands, wetlands and wildlife corridors, and would also earn money for farmers and charities, they say.
The plans, which have been sent for comment to Britain's major conservation groups by the shadow environment secretary, Nick Herbert, and seen by the Guardian, received a mixed welcome from green groups such as RSPB and Wildlife Trusts.
Many conservationists like the idea in principle if it leads to new funds, but fear that the entry of the free market into nature protection could be a licence to destroy habitats on the promise of compensatory ecological benefits elsewhere. In addition, there are fears that a market-based scheme, if successful, could encourage the government to withdraw public money from nature protection and rely on developers to protect Britain's most valuable wildlife sites.
"We do need a change in attitude to conservation. But there is a danger that it could be used to destroy something on a vague promise that it would be compensated for elsewhere. The devil is in the detail," said Tony Whitbread, chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust.
The "banks", which could be run by local communities, voluntary groups or companies, would issue credits to create or manage wildlife reserves or other conservation initiatives. An open market would be set up by the government, and developers would have to buy credits at the going market rate.
"The existing bureaucratic, regulatory approach has failed to halt biodiversity loss. We need radical new thinking to reverse the decline. Our natural ecosystems and the services they provide like carbon storage, water storage, habitat for wildlife are worth billions of pounds. We have to find a way to unlock this value", said Herbert, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian. "With a market approach we can look forward to new ways of supporting wildlife, habitats and landscape."
He denied that the money raised would be a new tax on developers or would lead to companies owning nature reserves. "This is not the privatisation of nature. This will not affect the value of land. It's about opening up a new revenue stream. The market system is a new, additional way to achieve protection of wildlife, not a substitute. I believe there will be a flourishing of schemes across the country," Herbert said.
"We will rule out any proposals that would weaken the existing protection of endangered sites or species and ensure that any measures are in addition to existing safeguards regarding development on green spaces", said Herbert. "My goal is that the schemes would be managed by minimal bureaucracy. Protected land must remain off-limits to development. It is also essential that any new mechanism does not impose additional costs on businesses," he said.
But he declined to say whether the new banks would be run to make a profit or what it could cost to set up and maintain them.
"It's a new idea, and it needs more thinking through, but its definitely an idea worth thinking about," said Mark Avery, conservation director at the RSPB. "But we are perplexed how it would work in practice. The conundrum yet to be worked out is how does it produce lots of money without it being an unpopular tax on development? Also, how do you give local people a big say in how the money is spent whilst making sure that it delivers the greatest conservation benefit?"
"Government could generate a significant market mechanism for getting greater funding into the natural environment by implementing a policy for habitat banking in the UK. In the US wetland mitigation banking alone was worth $3bn in 2008 and there is no reason why we could not stimulate a similar system in the UK", said David Hill, a board member of Natural England and co-founder of the Environment Bank.
The idea was first floated in a speech in February by the Conservative leader, David Cameron. "Conservation credits are about placing a value on biodiversity for the first time, because only if you place a value on something can you truly compensate for loss. This is potentially an incredibly exciting idea to enhance biodiversity, but the practicalities need careful consideration," he said.

Chinese officials waste half their environmental budget

Close to half the money budgeted for protecting the environment is being wasted by Chinese officials on vanity projects, according to a senior government official.

By Malcolm Moore in Shanghai Published: 11:54AM GMT 15 Nov 2009
China has poured billions into cleaning up its often toxic landscape and is set to invest 1.4 trillion yuan (£140 billion) next year on environmental protection. However, Wang Jinnan, the deputy director of the Academy For Environmental Planning, said that "more than 40 per cent" of the money will end up being wasted by Communist party cadres on extravagant follies to boost their personal prestige.
"How much of the money is used to clean up the pollution and improve the environment?" asked Mr Wang in the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist party.
Some of the projects approved by officials in recent years include large recreational squares and lawns, and even golf courses alongside polluted rivers that were supposed to be cleaned up.
The latest report from China's National Audit Office revealed that China's six most polluted lakes and rivers remain heavily contaminated, in spite of the fact that 91 billion yuan was allegedly spent on cleaning them up between 2001 and 2007. The report said that 11 of the 13 provinces involved in the programme either misused the funds or faked spending.
Along the Pearl River, which flows through the southern province of Guangdong, more than 40 per cent of people have felt sick this year because of heavy pollution, according to a government survey.
Guangdong, which has a population the size of Germany's, is the centre of China's manufacturing industry, and has been heavily polluted for years. The Guangdong provincial social research and study centre, which conducted the survey, said the number of lung cancer patients in the past decade has doubled, and is seven times the number at the end of the 1970s.
The government said on Saturday that it had rejected requests to build new industrial projects worth almost 200 billion yuan, and will close some heavily-polluting factories.