Wednesday, 13 January 2010

BYD Showcases Electric Car for U.S.

BYD Auto Co. showcased an all-electric car Monday that the Chinese company intends to sell in the U.S. by the second half of the year, joining a raft of new entrants seeking to grab a piece of the emerging market for emissions-free vehicles.
The details, however, remain unclear. In an interview, BYD Chairman Wang Chuan-fu said the auto maker was still studying the market to determine how many e6 electric cars could be imported and sold in the U.S., at what price and through what kind of distribution network.

"It's very hard for us to estimate," Mr. Wang said. "There are lot of things in the market that are pending, and there are lot of things that are unsure. In the beginning, we don't think it will be a huge quantity."
In China, where the e6 will first go on sale, BYD—which stands for Build Your Dreams—expects to sell vehicles for city use by the government, utility companies or fleets of taxis, according to Mr. Wang. BYD expects it could be used similarly in the U.S., while a later, plug-in hybrid vehicle may be more appropriate for individual American consumers.
Previously, Mr. Wang had said the company planned to pick a specific region within the U.S. and initially market "a few hundred" e6s, priced at slightly more than $40,000, through a small number of dealers. He wouldn't say on Monday if the pricing plans remained the same.
BYD's effort is backed by MidAmerican Energy Holding Co., the unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that paid about $230 million for a 9.9% stake in BYD.

Mr. Wang on Monday said "it is possible" that BYD may seek partners in the U.S. to help sell its car, but he said those options are still being studied. He said the cost of the battery used in BYD's electric vehicles remains too high but anticipates that U.S. consumers will seek out these cars as the economy improves and gasoline prices rise.
The e6 will be marketed as a five-passenger crossover-style vehicle that can travel more than 200 miles on a single charge.
Unlike some of its Chinese competitors, BYD doesn't plan to buy brands from global auto makers, Mr. Wang said. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Company Ltd., for example, is in the midst of buying Ford Motor Co.'s Sweden-based Volvo brand.
"For us, we have a focus on the fast growing Chinese market," he said, adding that BYD's 2009 sales of 450,000 in China was an increase of 160% over 2008 figures.
Write to Matthew Dolan at

Incentives Add Players to Wind

The list of wind-tower and wind-blade manufacturers selected recently for the U.S. Department of Energy's manufacturing tax credit program revealed that the field of suppliers to the wind business is opening fast and wide in the U.S.
Among the winners of the approximately $150 million in tax incentives were companies beyond the usual group of wind turbine makers. The list included Carl Icahn's American Railcar Industries Inc., a maker of railcars adapting its steelworks technology to make tower structures to hold wind turbines; venture-backed TPI Composites Inc., which makes wind blades; and Merrill Technologies Group, which will set up production of nacelles (cases that hold the gearbox, generator and other parts of the wind turbine) for the new 2.2-megawatt turbine being developed by venture-backed Northern Power Systems.
Matt Kaplan, senior analyst at Emerging Energy Research, said that the fact that some companies are shifting their business focus to participate in the booming U.S. wind industry was a sign of confidence in the industry.
"If we just had the same old names, and not many newcomers, it wouldn't quite reinforce that [bullishness] as much," he said.
The wind power industry has been one of the main beneficiaries under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The federal government incentives, which include production tax credits, investment tax credits, cash grants and the manufacturing tax credits, were behind a strong level of new installed wind power capacity in 2009, Mr. Kaplan said. Emerging Energy Research is revising its 2009 wind power installation that is around 8,900 megawatts, a number that the consulting firm expects will be at least repeated in 2010, he said.
Much of the incentives are in place until 2012, a window open long enough to keep investors interested in the wind power sector, Mr. Kaplan said.
The DOE manufacturing tax credits provide a 30% tax credit for qualifying investments over a three-year period. The DOE announced awards of $2.3 billion for 183 manufacturing facilities for clean energy products across 43 states, and said the demand for the program was so high that the White House has called on Congress to expand the program by another $5 billion.
The newcomers adding to U.S. wind tower manufacturing capacity will compete with leading suppliers Trinity Industries Inc. and Otter Tail Corp.'s DMI Industries.
American Railcar was selected for two separate awards: $3.65 million to re-equip a manufacturing plant in Marmaduke, Ark., which will have annual capacity of 500 towers; and $5.3 million to convert a railcar plant to make 500 wind towers annually in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Icahn is the chairman of American Railcar.
Another facility will be built in San Angelo, Texas, by Martifer-Hirschfeld Energy Systems LLC, a joint venture between Martifer Energy, which is part of Portugal-based Martifer Group, and structured steel company Hirschfeld Industries LP, set up earlier this year to manufacture new steel towers for wind turbines. The joint venture was selected for a $3.5 million tax credit. Richard Phillips, president of Hirschfeld, has said that the JV would spend $40 million on the facility.
One of the largest tax credit awards for wind power components, of $22 million, went to Merrill Technologies Group, Saginaw, Mich., which will invest $73 million in advanced manufacturing equipment to make nacelles for the new 2.2 megawatt utility-scale turbines being developed by Northern Power.
Northern Power, a subsidiary of Wind Power Holdings LLC, got a $37 million capital infusion in the summer of 2008 from Allen & Co., Rockport Capital, and other private investors. Among wind-blade manufacturers, TPI was selected for two separate awards, totaling $9 million.

Big Chinese firms take to skyline

Seeing profits, companies jump into commercial real-estate sector; hopping onto environmental bandwagon
GUANGZHOU, China—What is being billed as the world's most energy-efficient skyscraper is being built here in the center of one of China's smoggiest cities, with four big wind turbines, solar panels and a dual-layer glass skin that traps sunlight and pipes it into the building's heating system.
The unlikely champion behind this green urban project: state-owned China National Tobacco Co.
"We are a tobacco company, but the management is also thinking about the future and reducing emissions. This building can really serve as a model for future development," the project's chief engineer, Hu Baiju, said during a recent interview between puffs of a cigarette.
This unusual marriage of interests reflects two trends. China hopes to leapfrog the U.S. by taking the lead in developing new green technologies that have long-term growth potential. At the same time, state-owned businesses in industries as disparate as insurance and tobacco have become a force in China's commercial real-estate sector, putting up the cash to develop some of the most eye-catching skyscrapers in the world.
These large corporations are drawn to the projects by potentially lucrative returns and are helped by strong connections and easy access to state bank lending. While these companies typically occupy some of the space they build, they often put much of it on the market to lease to others. China National Tobacco plans to lease most of the 71 floors in its new project.
Ping An Insurance (Group) Co. of China already has committed to investing about 25 billion yuan ($3.66 billion) in Chinese property over the next three years through a trust. It now is working on what will be one of China's tallest buildings, in the city of Shenzhen, financing the multibillion-yuan skyscraper entirely with its own capital.
China's state-owned enterprises also have been shaking up property prices, both at record-breaking government-land auctions and on the secondary office market. Last autumn, Agricultural Bank of China paid about US$550 million for a top-grade Shanghai office tower, according to brokers.
"Before 2009, there were relatively few state-owned enterprises involved in land sales and property markets; most concentrated on their own businesses," said Hing-yin Lee, a Shanghai property broker for Colliers International. Now, he said, "they see that easy profits can be made."
Mark Latham, Shanghai-based head of office services for CB Richard Ellis in China, said state-owned enterprises are big employers that are expanding quickly in China, and see constructing and buying landmark buildings as a way to put their "badge" on a high-profile skyline.
"[State-owned enterprises] have the opportunity to acquire sites in prime locations and have the cash or access to cash to be able to develop buildings tailored and customized according to their specific requirements," Mr. Latham said.
Office-vacancy levels are around 20% in Beijing and 16% in Shanghai. Those are high rates by U.S. and European standards, but the new space is expected to be absorbed quickly thanks to the strong growth of the Chinese economy.
Also, much of the vacant space is second rate, so demand for the newly built prime space may be strong.
State-owned enterprises also are keen to show that they are in step with the priorities of national and regional officials, who have made it clear that green companies and those constructing sustainable buildings are going to enjoy more official support.
In the case of the Pearl River Tower, as China National Tobacco's tower is known, the company's management decided to make the green plunge at the encouragement of Guangzhou's municipal leaders, who set aside a large swath of prime farmland for a new business district and encouraged state-owned corporations to participate.
China National Tobacco decided it would build a landmark environmental building, and four years ago, through a subsidiary company, hired Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP to fashion the world's first "zero-energy" skyscraper, generating all the energy it needed to operate itself.
Skidmore Owings embedded the tower with triple-glazed facades and solar panels, and chilled radiant ceilings. Its showpiece: four power-generating vertical-axis wind turbines.
"A lot of clients say they want to build something very energy-efficient, but in this case, they really followed through with that goal," said Ame Engelhart, a Hong Kong-based Skidmore associate involved with the project.
The project is expected to be completed in about a year.
Ms. Engelhart said China National Tobacco is one of the few companies willing to put its money where its mouth is on environmental issues. While the building won't be smoke-free, it will restrict smoking to designated areas, a far cry from China's typically hazy workplaces.
Ms. Engelhart said a building like the Pearl River Tower costs about 10% to 15% more than without the energy-efficient features, but said the projected cost savings could mean the building breaks even within five years.
Some of Skidmore's ideas, including "microturbines" that would sell extra capacity back into Guangzhou's power grid, were barred by municipal regulations. But Skidmore still maintains that the 2.2-million-square-foot tower will consume about 8.76 billion pounds of carbon dioxide over its life cycle, 58% less than a nonenhanced building of the same scale.
The municipal government of Guangzhou's construction arm, Guangzhou City Construction & Development Co., also is getting in the act, having hired Wilkinson Eyre Architects of London to design a 103-story skyscraper not far from China National Tobacco's tower.
The 750 million-yuan building, set to open in October as the Guangzhou International Finance Center, features high-efficiency chilled water systems and heat recovery design, an air-conditioning system that recycles condensed water, built-in carbon dioxide sensors and double-glazed windows.

We need new energy governance

Globally, our systems are flawed. Better internationally agreed rules are essential for our economies and environment

Ann Florini, Tuesday 12 January 2010 19.00 GMT
Energy lies at the heart of the world's most pressing global challenges. Yet at both global and national levels, energy is poorly governed. The fiasco of the Copenhagen climate summit is just one illustration of how far the world is from being able to bring about the desperately needed transition to a system of sustainable and secure provision of energy services.
The key role of energy in global problems is clear. Some two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change trace back to fossil fuel use. A renewed scramble for oil is raising fears of a new generation of geopolitical conflicts. Global economic instability correlates strongly with energy-price volatility. Economic development is in significant part defined by the process of overcoming energy poverty, yet 1.6 billion people still lack access to even the most basic energy services.
Only recently has it become clear that these seemingly disparate issues are a collective manifestation of a dysfunctional energy system. Globally and at the national level, energy is still conceptualised and managed in terms of energy sources, not in terms of the energy services these sources provide. Yet consumers have no particular interest in what sources of energy fuel their production, transportation, lighting, heating, air conditioning, or appliances. The existing paradigm serves to rigidify decision-making at a time when extraordinary flexibility and rapid change are essential.
At the global level, a host of intergovernmental organisations is tasked with addressing various pieces of the energy puzzle. Among these, the most conspicuous is the International Energy Agency (IEA). Created by oil consumers in the 1970s in response to the Opec price shocks and embargoes by Arab oil exporters, the IEA has succeeded in establishing and supervising a system of national oil stockpiles, which has helped to prevent a recurrence. With a small but highly competent professional staff, the IEA has also become the primary source for the world's energy statistics and is playing a key role in the climate debate.
But it is nowhere near the truly international organisation that its name implies. The IEA was established by and for a small number of wealthy oil-importing countries, under the aegis of the OECD. Its membership remains restricted to OECD countries, even though surging demand from non-member countries like China and India is rapidly undermining the IEA's ability to speak for, and co-ordinate responses among, oil importers as a group. Although the IEA's mandate has expanded beyond oil since the early 1990s to include broader energy policy, several of its own member governments, led by Germany, found its record on renewables so unsatisfactory that they recently established the International Renewable Energy Agency, whose membership is open to all.
Other key intergovernmental organisations face their own limits. The International Energy Forum, which grew out of a series of meetings of energy ministers, is intended to provide a common forum for fossil-fuel producers and consumers. It has taken some useful steps that may help to stabilise markets, such as the Joint Oil Data Initiative, but it plays a relatively minor role. The Energy Charter treaty has failed to bring Russia into a rule-based framework for international transit via oil and gas pipelines. The World Bank's energy financing remains overwhelmingly dedicated to fossil fuels, despite limited efforts to establish funding for low-carbon energy.
Numerous networks and partnerships have emerged in response to the gaps in global energy governance. For example, the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, founded in the UK, has grown into a multi-stakeholder body supporting renewables and efficiency in numerous countries. So far, however, such initiatives remain quite small. They will not, in the foreseeable future, operate on a scale that can foster a rapid transition away from fossil fuels or provide energy services to billions of new consumers.
As is true of other global problems, a lot depends on the capacity and willingness of the most powerful national governments to act collectively. Yet these countries' deeply flawed systems of national energy governance will make such action all the more challenging.
Indeed, in many ways, the situation has been getting worse. Over the past two decades, advocates of privatisation have promised greater efficiencies and lower energy prices, but the failure to accompany privatisation with appropriate regulation and enforcement has left many countries with poorly governed and often deeply corrupt energy sectors.
Moreover, given the vast profits available under the current system, the struggle to bring about a significant energy transition faces stiff resistance from deeply entrenched vested interests. Market forces alone are unable to cope with major externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, with overwhelming government control over major energy sources such as oil, and with huge numbers of people too poor to constitute a market.
Our fractured landscape for energy governance was not planned. It has evolved piecemeal, with little co-ordination among its various parts. If we are to avoid paying a high economic, strategic, and environmental price for its shortcomings, a better system of developing and enforcing internationally agreed energy rules is essential.
• Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

James Hansen rails against cap-and-trade plan in open letter

Nasa scientist advocates using fee-and-dividend approach to reducing carbon emissions

Bibi van der Zee, Tuesday 12 January 2010 17.49 GMT

"You are choosing the path focused on corporate greed," climate scientist James Hansen has told carbon traders in a open letter which he and climate activists attempted to deliver to a carbon trading conference in New York today.
In below-freezing temperatures, climate change campaigners gathered at midday at the Irish Hunger Memorial in Vesey Park, near the Embassy Suites Hotel where the conference is being held, to hear Hansen read parts of his open letter. Tomorrow there will be another demonstration at the same spot, at which an unconfirmed number of activists have pledged to commit acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Hansen's letter advocates using the fee-and-dividend approach to reducing carbon emissions, rather than cap-and-trade. Fee-and-dividend is a "transparent, honest approach that benefits the public", he says, in contrast to cap-and-trade, which "is a hidden tax … because cap-and-trade increases the cost of energy for the public, as utilities and other industries purchase the right to pollute with one hand, adding it to fuel prices, while with the other hand they take back most of the permit revenues from the government. Costs and profits of the trading infrastructure are also added to the public's energy bill."
"The public must understand the difference between cap-and-trade and fee-and-dividend," states Hansen, head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Otherwise, "the present administration may jam down the public's throat just such an approach, which, it can be shown, is not a solution at all."
The other speakers present, who included the Harlem community organiser Cecil Corbin-Mark of We Act for Environmental Justice, Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Centre, and Father Paul Mayer of the Climate Crisis Coalition, spoke about the inequity of a cap-and-trade system. One of the organisers, Brian Tokar, said: "Carbon trading is unfair, it's unethical, and it just doesn't work."
A carbon trading system depends on allocating a market price to carbon emissions, and either hands out, auctions or sells carbon permits to industry sectors. A fee-and-dividend system imposes a fee on the initial sale of a fossil fuel which is then redistributed to the public; the rising cost of carbon-intensive products would, it is hoped, encourage families to keep their carbon footprints low.
The civil disobedience planned for tomorrow outside the conference is part of the growing climate change activist movement in the US. Tokar told the Guardian: "In the last few months there's been a real rising of awareness about climate change issues in the US. For a long time they were seen as kind of abstract, something that the scientists were talking about, but now, in the months leading up to Copenhagen, people fully realised that these were issues that are affecting vulnerable people around the world in the shape of floods and droughts.
"Back in November we had the day of Climate Justice Action on 30 November on the 10th anniversary of the Seattle day of action. People blockaded the Chicago Climate Exchange, and blockaded a shipment of components for a new coal burning power plant, and protested outside the Bank of America in San Francisco. Activists are definitely beginning to focus on climate change in a way that they weren't a couple of years ago."

'New era for North Sea' with CCS technology

Published Date: 13 January 2010
BRITAIN sits on the cusp of a new chapter for the North Sea as it develops technology to clean up power station emissions, according to the boss of ScottishPower.
The company intends to pump liquefied carbon emissions from Longannet coal-fired station into disused oil and gas wells in the North Sea. It is down to the last two in the UK government's competition to develop and operate the technology.Scottish Power chief executive Nick Horler told an audience in Aberdeen last night: "The challenges, both technical and commercial, are great, the physical risks serious, the commitment needed by governments, industry and individuals just as big – but carbon capture and storage – I think – really offers us the chance to 'go again' in the North Sea."ScottishPower is working with Shell and other consortium partners, Aker Clean Carbon and National Grid.Horler said: "I have been extremely heartened by the level of cross-party support. "The Scottish Government have shown great ambition to make this a reality and the UK government had the foresight to recognise the need for a commercial CCS solution in the first place – to conquer the challenges posed by climate change and for seeing the opportunities and advantages that could be realised from being the first mover in this embryonic industry."When the competition was launched there was a great deal of uncertainty about the scale of economic potential. It's only more recently as we have done the work and come to understand what's required to tackle climate change have we been able to see the size of the rewards on offer."

Can the train take the strain?

Researchers have analysed the environmental impact of the proposed US high-speed rail system. From environmentalresearchweb, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Tuesday 12 January 2010 11.03 GMT
Several regions of the US are planning high-speed electric rail services to cut pressure on congested road and air transport systems. California is one of the areas to have won most public support for the service – a link between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento – as it looks like investment in high-speed rail could provide reduced door-to-door trip times and cheaper journeys than the same amount of investment in transit by auto, air or heavy rail.
Now researchers from the University of California Berkeley, US, have analysed the environmental impact of the proposed high-speed rail system, taking into account not just greenhouse-gas emissions from its operation but also those created during its entire lifecycle, including processes such as manufacturing the train carriages; creating stations; laying track; forming cuttings and bridges; maintaining the system; and generating the electricity required.
"We thought it was important that total energy and emissions accounting be presented for decision and policy makers," Mikhail Chester told environmentalresearchweb. "We think it is important that high-speed rail and the modes it will compete with be evaluated with a comprehensive environmental inventory that includes all vehicle, infrastructure and fuel components that are required to facilitate the vehicles in operation."
The team compared the lifecycle emissions of high-speed electric rail with transport by car, by heavy rail (the Amtrak diesel system) and by air. At the moment around 90% of trips in the California corridor are made by automobile while 9% are made by air and 1% by heavy rail. The equivalent figures for passenger kilometres are 75% by automobile, 24% by air and 1% by heavy rail.
For the high-speed rail system, the team assumed a total of 86 trains based on the German ICE train, consuming 170 kW/h per vehicle and using California's current mix of electricity sources, along with 25 stations and 1100 km of two-way track.
"Energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions increase by 15% to 40% [for high-speed rail] from evaluating the 'tailpipe' (vehicle propulsion) component," said Chester. "Carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter emitted from infrastructure construction are larger than those emitted from vehicle propulsion when normalized per passenger kilometre. Additionally, by looking at low- and high-passenger occupancy scenarios, we show that high-speed rail is not universally better or worse than the other modes."
The trains are likely to have between 650 and 1200 seats; the use of small trains with higher frequency or larger trains operating less frequently could well affect passenger numbers. For the purposes of the study, the team set low occupancy as 120 passengers (10% of the capacity of the longest trains), and the high as 1200 passengers (a full train). When it came to end-use energy consumption, a high-speed rail train with 1011 passengers was equivalent to a car with five passengers.
"It is necessary to consider modes at their best and worst ridership levels to understand the potential of the system," said Chester. "While at the average one mode may be better or worse than another, this may not always be the case and by considering the different utilizations a different set of policies may be drawn to reduce the environmental burdens of a mode, for example, increasing ridership in the off-peak instead of encouraging people to switch to another mode."
The researchers discovered that while high-speed rail may lower energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions per trip, the current electricity mix in California means that it can create more sulphur dioxide emissions, leading to environmental acidification and human health issues.
In a study last year, Chester and colleagues found that including lifecycle factors boosted the emissions of train transport by 155% on average. This paper examined commuter rail including heavy rail electric metro, heavy rail diesel commuter transit, and light rail transit (LRT) but not high-speed electric rail for long distances. For cars and buses the equivalent figure was 63% and for air transport, which has relatively little infrastructure for the distances travelled, it was 31%.
Now the team plans to continue evaluating the high-speed rail system once decisions are made for system design, vehicle choice and clean energy options. "We'd like to identify the steps that policy and decision makers should take in developing high-speed rail systems to minimize their environmental burdens by considering appropriate transit integration to increase ridership, vehicle design selection to operate appropriate-sized trains, and the potential of integrating cleaner sources of energy," said Chester.
The researchers reported their work in ERL.

US cult of greed is now a global environmental threat

Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday 13 January 2010

The average American consumes more than his or her weight in products each day, fuelling a global culture of excess that is emerging as the biggest threat to the planet, according to a report published today. In its annual report, Worldwatch Institute says the cult of consumption and greed could wipe out any gains from government action on climate change or a shift to a clean energy economy.
Erik Assadourian, the project director who led a team of 35 behind the report, said: "Until we recognise that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crises that threaten to wash over civilisation."
The world's population is burning through the planet's resources at a reckless rate, the US thinktank said. In the last decade, consumption of goods and services rose 28% to $30.5tn (£18.8bn).
The consumer culture is no longer a mostly American habit but is spreading across the planet. Over the last 50 years, excess has been adopted as a symbol of success in developing countries from Brazil to India to China, the report said. China this week overtook the US as the world's top car market. It is already the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.
Such trends were not a natural consequence of economic growth, the report said, but the result of deliberate efforts by businesses to win over consumers. Products such as the hamburger – dismissed as an unwholesome food for the poor at the beginning of the 20th century – and bottled water are now commonplace.
The average western family spends more on their pet than is spent by a human in Bangladesh.
The report did note encouraging signs of a shift away from the high spend culture. It said school meals programmes marked greater efforts to encourage healthier eating habits among children. The younger generation was also more aware of their impact on the environment.
There has to be a wholesale transformation of values and attitudes, the report said. At current rates of consumption, the world needs to erect 24 wind turbines an hour to produce enough energy to replace fossil fuel.
"We've seen some encouraging efforts to combat the world's climate crisis in the past few years," said Assadourian. "But making policy and technology changes while keeping cultures centred on consumerism and growth can only go so far.
"If we don't shift our very culture there will be new crises we have to face. Ultimately, consumerism is not going to be viable as the world population grows by 2bn and as more countries grow in economic power."
In the preface to the report, Worldwatch Institute's president, Christopher Flavin, writes: "As the world struggles to recover from the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression, we have an unprecedented opportunity to turn away from consumerism. In the end, the human instinct for survival must triumph over the urge to consume at any cost."

Climate scientists convene global geo-engineering summit

Meeting in California in March will discuss possible field trials of schemes that would tackle climate change by reflecting sunlight or fertilising the ocean with iron

David Adam, environment correspondent, Tuesday 12 January 2010 16.58 GMT

Geo-engineering techniques, such as filling the sky with shiny dust to reflect sunlight, could curb such temperature rises without the need to restrict greenhouse gas emissions
Scientists are to hold a high-level summit to discuss how the world could take emergency measures such as blocking out the sun to slow dangerous global warming.
Experts from around the world have been invited to attend the meeting in March in California, which will examine possible field trials of so-called geo-engineering schemes, such as pumping chemicals into the air and oceans to combat climate change.
The move follows the failure of the recent Copenhagen climate talks to set meaningful carbon reduction targets, and comes amid mounting concern that such controversial techniques may be the only way to curb rising temperatures.
Mike MacCracken, a global warming expert at the Climate Institute in Washington DC, who is organising the conference's scientific programme, said: "Most of the talk about these geo-engineering techniques say they should be saved until we get to an emergency situation. Well the people of the Arctic might say they are in an emergency situation now."
He added: "It is hard to see how mitigation [carbon cuts] can save the Arctic and losing the Arctic is a tremendous risk, not just for the region but for the rest of the world. So are there other ways to save it?"
Without significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say global average temperatures could rise by 4C within many of our lifetimes, which could devastate wildlife and threaten the water and food supplies of hundreds of millions of people.
Geo-engineering techniques, such as filling the sky with shiny dust to reflect sunlight, could curb such temperature rises without the need to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. The meeting aims to assess risks and benefits, establish ground rules for research and plan experiments that would be needed before a full scale geo-engineering attempt.
Calls for such research have increased as pessimism grows about the likely course of global warming.
In an influential report last year, the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific academy, concluded that geo-engineering methods that block out the sun "may provide a potentially useful short-term back-up to mitigation in case rapid reductions in global temperature are needed". The society stressed that emissions reductions were the primary solution, but recommended international research and development of the "more promising" geo-engineering techniques.
Bob Watson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told the Guardian in November he backed such research. "We should at least be looking at it. I would see what the theoretical models say, and ask ourselves the question: how can we do medium-sized experiments in the field," Watson said. "I think it should be a real international effort, so it isn't just the UK funding it."
MacCracken said: "If there is going to be funding for this kind of research and you are someone in the UK government, then what kind of safeguards do you want to have in place that nothing can go wrong? Because if something does go wrong then you could be up before parliament or worse."
He added: "We also have to be mindful about how we communicate these ideas to the public because some of them can sound a little like Doctor Strangelove."
He said the March meeting was based on a landmark gathering of scientists involved in research with genetically modified (GM) organisms in 1975, which established voluntary guidelines to protect the public, and paved the way for breakthroughs such as the mass production of synthetic insulin in GM bacteria. The geo-engineering conference will take place at the same Asilomar centre, on the Monterey Peninsula.
Some scientists have criticised the upcoming conference because its funding is being arranged by a US group called the Climate Response Fund, which promotes geo-engineering research, and is run by Margaret Leinen, a marine biologist. Leinen's son, Dan Whaley, runs a firm called Climos, a company set up to profit from geo-engineering by selling carbon credits generated by fertilising ocean plankton with iron. Leinen was formerly chief scientific officer with Climos, but told Science magazine she has taken all possible steps to avoid a conflict of interest, and no longer holds a position, shares or intellectual property in the firm.
MacCracken said one aim of the conference was to judge which techniques could work on a global scale, which could count against ocean iron fertilisation. "We don't want to go out and test approaches that could not be scaled up enough to be useful. Would we risk doing anything in the ocean that would only have a small effect? Almost certainly not."
The push towards geo-engineering research has not pleased everyone. A recent report (pdf) for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation by the ETC group called geo-engineering an act of "geo-piracy" and warned that the "the world runs a serious risk of choosing solutions that turn out to be new global problems".
There are also concerns about how to regulate geo-engineering and whether its techniques could be developed and unleashed by a single nation, or even a wealthy individual, without wide international approval.
The House of Commons science and technology committee will tomorrow open an inquiry into the regulation of geo-engineering, with David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, among those due to give evidence.
From artificial trees to giant space mirrors: Possible geo-engineering solutions
Stratospheric aerosols
Spray shiny sulphur compounds into the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight. Relatively cheap and easy to do, though the chemicals gradually fall back to earth. The most likely option, though possible side effects include changes to global rainfall.
Ocean fertilisation
Dump iron into the sea to boost plankton growth and soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hard to do on a significant scale, and doubts about how deep the plankton would sink have raised doubts about how long the carbon would be secured.
Cloud whitening
Fleets of sailing ships strung across the world's oceans could spray seawater into the sky to evaporate and leave behind shiny salt crystals to brighten clouds, which would then reflect sunlight back into space. Could be turned off at any time, but might interfere with wind and rain patterns.
Space mirrors
A giant orbiting sunshade in space to block the sun. More likely to be a collection of millions or even trillions of small mirrors rather than a giant orbiting parasol. Very expensive and impractical with current technology.
Artificial trees
Devices that use a chemical process to soak up carbon dioxide from the air. Technically possible but very expensive on a meaningful scale.

Basic countries to meet ahead of crucial Copenhagen accord deadline

New Delhi meeting to further cement Basic coalition ahead of next round of climate change talks. From James Murray for BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Tuesday 12 January 2010 11.02 GMT
Environment ministers from Brazil, South Africa, India and China are to meet in New Delhi later this month to co-ordinate their position ahead of the January 31 deadline for countries supporting the Copenhagen Accord to submit formal emission targets and climate change action plans.
The so-called Basic bloc of countries, which brokered the controversial draft version of the Copenhagen Accord with the US during the frantic final hours of last month's Copenhagen Summit, is seeking to cement its alliance ahead of the next round of UN-backed negotiations in Bonn in the spring.
Speaking late last week, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that he had invited his counterparts from the Basic countries to attend a meeting in New Delhi from January 25-28.
The countries are expected to agree to put forward their existing plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions to be included in the annex to the Copenhagen Accord that features commitments from developing countries. These include a pledge from China to cut its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, a similar commitment from India to cut its carbon intensity by 20 to 25 per cent by the same date, and promises from Brazil and South Africa to cut emissions by 36 per cent and 34 per cent respectively on business-as-usual levels by 2020.
Significantly, Ramesh told the Economic Times of India that they will also discuss how to convince other countries to sign up to the Copenhagen accord. "The main challenge is that an agreement by 29 countries needs to be converted into one by 194 countries," he said.
During the final hours of the negotiations, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Sudan all opposed the agreement, and Cuba has already told the UN that it will not sign up to the accord. However, China has considerable close relations with each of the countries opposing the Accord and it could yet use its influence to encourage them to accept the agreement.
The Basic countries are also expected to agree their position ahead of the Bonn talks, where the UN organisers are hoping to deliver further progress on many of the details debated at the Copenhagen summit, including how to raise climate funding, enhance forest protection and independently verify emission reductions.
However, any negotiator hoping the Basic negotiators will adopt a more conciliatory tone after being widely criticised for scuppering any chance of a more ambitious deal being agreed in Copenhagen, is likely to be disappointed.
Speaking at an address to the Aspen Institute of India, Ramesh hailed the alliance between the Basic countries as a "watershed" moment that highlighted the growing influence of emerging economies in general and China in particular.
He hailed the commitment from industrialised countries to provide $100bn (£61bn) a year in climate funding without wringing significant concessions out of emerging powers as a significant victory, and signalled that the close links with China were set to continue.
His comments came as China's ambassador for climate change, Yu Qingtai, struck a similarly defiant tone, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that China would not be bullied by rich countries into accepting more-demanding emission targets
"During and before Copenhagen there was a concerted effort by a small group of developed countries who believed that by joining hands [they could] force us to go beyond what we are responsible for or capable of," Yu said. "But Copenhagen proved that those attempts will not be successful. In fact they should have known better. So what the developed countries need to learn from this whole process is to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China."