Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Hedegaard says now is not the time for carbon tax

But carbon levy 'could come later' says candidate for future EU climate commissioner role.
Tom Young for BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 January 2010 10.42 GMT

The debate surrounding the relative merits of carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes heated up today after Connie Hedegaard, leading nominee for EU climate commissioner and the chair of last year's Copenhagen Summit, rejected calls for the introduction of a carbon levy.
However, she did not rule out the idea of a carbon tax completely, raising the possibility that an EU charge on carbon emissions could be introduced at a later date.
"It would be wrong timing at this stage to turn to the tax tool," Hedegaard told the European Parliament, before adding that "it could come later".
The EU already has a cap-and-trade scheme in the form of its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), but green groups have consistently criticised the scheme, arguing that the cap on emissions is too high and as a result the price of carbon has not risen to a level where it will spur investment in renewable energy.
The US, Japan, and Australia are all proposing to emulate the EU and introduce their own cap-and-trade scheme. However, the model is facing growing opposition with a number of economists and businesses arguing that a carbon tax would prove both simpler and more effective at curbing carbon emissions.
The UK's independent Committee on Climate Change last year advised the government to intervene in the ETS and introduce a hybrid model that would effectively impose a floor price on carbon, while a number of energy firms have also argued that they need a set carbon price in order to justify future clean tech investments.
Meanwhile, one of the most vocal advocates of a carbon tax, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen, this week stepped up his campaign against US proposals for a cap-and-trade scheme, issuing an open letter to the head of a carbon trading summit in New York, arguing that cap-and-trade schemes represent a "path focused on corporate greed".
Instead, Hansen advocates a form of carbon tax known as a fee-and-dividend approach. Under this model, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at source for each fossil fuel. The money raised from the fee would then be passed on to consumers to help them cope with rising energy and fuel prices. It is envisaged that those who chose less carbon-intensive goods and services would make money from the scheme by receiving more through the dividend than they would have to pay in increased energy and fuel bills.
Hansen says in his letter that fee-and-dividend represents a "transparent, honest approach that benefits the public", arguing that in contrast cap-and-trade imposes "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".
Meanwhile, Hedegaard told today's hearing of MEPs that she could support calls for tougher vehicle emission standards.
The EU already has standards in place that require manufacturers to cut emissions from new cars by around 15 per cent by 2015, but Hedegaard said there could be a case for more demanding targets.
"It can be important to try and review - did we go far enough at the time? Because this is a field where technology is really moving very fast," she said. "Often we've seen industry will protest and say it's going to be extremely difficult, in fact it's almost impossible. But then it turns out that when we do these things, we can often do it quicker than assessed before, and claimed before, and they can do it even more ambitiously."
She added that if as expected her nomination is approved she would aim to introduce measures to cut emissions from road freight.
"We still have not done what the EU should do on lorries," she said. "There will come an initiative on lorries, that will be one of the first things."

Has the cold weather caused the nation's carbon emissions to go up?

As the country reaches for the heating controls, have our carbon emissions increased even if fewer of us are driving?
Leo Hickman
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 January 2010 10.04 GMT
Has the UK's cold snap caused the nation's carbon emissions to go up or down?
C Dyer, by email
As ever, many thanks for the responses posted so far. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the general consensus seems to be that the UK's carbon emissions must have gone up over the past month or so due to the cold snap. I think it's a given that emissions created as a result of domestic heating must have gone up significantly, but there still seems to be a question mark over just how much a reduction in road traffic might have acted to ameliorate this impact.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change has told me that it doesn't monitor overall national emissions on a daily or even a monthly timescale. The only figures it has are annual national emissions which aren't much use to us here.
Thanks to the National Grid link provided by jayb, we can see overall gas demand in the UK running well above the seasonal average for this time of year. National Grid has also provided this graph to show gas demand since last October, set against expected demand during both warm and cold spells.Electricity demand also shows an above-seasonal rise over the past month, but not as much as gas. A National Grid spokesman told me:
Between 14 December 2009 and 14 January 2010 inclusive, we would have expected the electricity usage on normal (a 30-year average) weather to be 30.6 TWh (terawatt hours). The outturn was 32.5 TWh which is an increase of 6.3% over normal (1.9 TWh).
The temperature differential on average at 12:00hrs was 4.45C less than our temperature lagged normal of 5.1C.
This averages out over the whole period as an extra five large generation units (assuming each unit is 500MW) running continuously across the 32 days or the equivalent of one very large power station (2.5GWs) running all the time for the period.
Jam0boggins also makes an interesting point about the carbon intensity of electricity generation over this period:
The surge in gas demand has also (I believe) led to more electricity being generated through coal. Our website http://www.realtimecarbon.org/ has shown that the carbon intensity of electricity increased over the period. Also, people will likely have been putting electric heaters on in addition to their normal central heating. People staying at home instead of going to work will probably have meant that both the offices and houses would be heated/lit, so also causing an increase.
Ambodach makes a similar - and very interesting - point about the windless conditions meaning that there is a strong possibility that our becalmed wind turbines would lead to more coal being used to generate electricity.
Attempts to get a figure for transport-related emissions have proved elusive, though. As tomthetortoise implies, there's not that much value trying to make a calculation based on the combined distance travelled by the UK's motorists during the cold snap because driving at slower speeds can sometimes produce more in the way of emissions. A better indicator would seem to be to compare the amount of petroleum consumed over the past month to the seasonal average. Sadly, according to the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA), no figures exist - yet, at least. The best it can offer at present is a monthly breakdown of last year's consumption. But it urges caution about reading too much into the figures because petroleum use has fallen over the past year due to the recession. A spokesman said:
Given the weather conditions over the last weeks, we would expect overall retail fuel demand to have fallen - people not able to drive to work or on business; social trips cancelled/postponed etc. Commercial road transport fuel demand may prove to be affected temporarily due to deferral of deliveries, but likely to be made up as conditions return to normal. In any event, overall road fuel demand in 2009 was down 4-5% against 2008 because of the recession; petrol demand has been in steady decline since the peak of 1990 (about 30% lower in 2008 against 1990).
There is one curious anomaly in the figures from last year, though, that the UKPIA agrees might indicate how much petroleum use can drop off during a cold snap. There is a noticeable drop in the figure for March 2009 which the UKPIA says covers the less severe cold snap experienced last winter during February. It shows a reduction in consumption of about 13% compared to the February and April totals.
Until some harder figures are published in coming months, I think we'll have to settle for an educated guess when it comes to answering this particular query. However, policywonking makes a good point:
Will we have a similar question when we have an unseasonably warm snap? Point of averages is that if we have a period of below average temperatures we are likely over time to have a period of above average temperatures, too.
This reminds me of something I read years ago, which noted that Washington DC was the first city in the US to use more electricity during the summer than in the winter due to the rapid and widespread adoption of air conditioning units once they became affordable for domestic use.
On 11 January Leo originally wrote:
There's a temptation to immediately assume that emissions must have gone up during the freezing conditions as shivering folk around the country reach for the heating controls, or switch on the kettle to fill a hot water bottle. In fact, the National Grid has been reporting record surges in demand. But what about the reduction in road traffic over the same period? Does our reduction in mobility cancel out the heating-related emissions?

You ask, they answer: Sony

Low-power laptops or green-minded games consoles? Can computer hardware be made healthier for the environment?

Sony's VAIO P series laptop. But can the new VAIO "Eco Edition" W series really help reduce our carbon footprint?
Are VAIO laptops a good choice for the eco-conscious consumer? Are you concerned about the carbon footprint of your PS3? This week we give you the chance to quiz Sony on its environmental policies, manufacturing processes and what goes into your hardware. Just post your questions in the comments below.
Sony is particularly proud of its new energy-efficient "Eco Edition" VAIO W Series with a mercury-free LED backlight, launched at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. However, our technology expert Bobbie Johnson was unimpressed by the output from this year's expo, citing contradictory messages about environmental efforts and questioning whether it is time to "end consumption electronics altogether".
On a positive note, Greenpeace praised Sony's improvements last week in the latest update to its Guide to Greener Electronics, which ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles on their green record.
Sony also claims to be finding new ways to reduce its impact on the planet and promises to maintain "strict control" over the potentially hazardous chemical substances it uses in product manufacture. Greenpeace unsurprisingly wants it to go further, and have challenged Sony to lobby for stronger chemicals legislation (pdf).
Sony is the first consumer electronics brand to take part in You ask, they answer, so let's make it a good one – post your environment-related questions below and it'll do its best to answer until Friday this week.

Big chill on global warming

The cold winter has given many climate sceptics the chance to air their views about "global cooling" – the idea that the world has not got any warmer since the warmest year of 1998. In fact, data collected by Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows that 2009 tied as the second-warmest year in the 130 years of instrumental measurements. Indeed, the Nasa data shows that 2005, not 1998, was the warmest on record – the 1998 "record" comes from less compete data set of the Hadley Centre in Britain.
More interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that last year was the warmest ever for the southern hemisphere, which is especially significant given that most of globe south of the equator is covered by water, which warms more slowly and is subject to less variability than land temperatures.
It all goes to show that it is no good trying to look for long-term global trends by concentrating on short-term regional events, such as a colder-than-usual winter for north-western Europe. Apparently, the residents of Bethel in Alaska have experienced what is for them an unusual event – a brown Christmas – but that on its own does not prove global warming, no more so than a white Christmas in Britain proves global cooling.

E.ON chief: Preserve coal plants to keep lights on

Mothballed coal plants are vital back-up, says Paul GolbyEnvironmentalists condemn carbon-intensive power source

Tim Webb
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 January 2010 19.35 GMT
Ageing coal-fired power stations should be exempted from environmental regulations and kept open to stop the lights from going out, the chief executive of E.ON UK has urged the government.
Paul Golby told the Guardian that some of the coal and oil-fired plants due to close this decade because of European pollution regulations should remain operational and ready to come online during periods of peak demand such as those experienced in recent weeks. The Guardian revealed this month that almost 100 large power users had to switch to alternative sources when National Grid triggered clauses in their interruptible supply contracts.
"Given that the issue we are trying to grapple with is climate change, there is a question mark over keeping one or two of these oil or coal fired plants mothballed to secure supplies for a few days per year when we get these conditions," Golby said.
"It might be a small economic and carbon premium worth paying for security of supply and getting us through this transition to a low-carbon energy system. It's something we have talked to the government about."
Golby's view is privately supported by many UK power station operators who fear a looming energy gap in a few years when old coal and nuclear plants have been closed but new reactors, clean coal plants and wind farms have not been built.
The idea puts the energy industry on a collision course with environmentalists, who are vehemently opposed to any continued use of coal in the energy mix. Coal plants emit about twice as much carbon as equivalent gas plants. E.ON became synonymous among environmentalists as a supporter of the fossil fuel after it made the first application in decades to build a new coal plant in the UK, at Kingsnorth in Kent.
A spokesman for Friends of the Earth said: "E.ON has got an agenda trying to keep as much as coal open as possible."
The pressure group said that power supply could be met by more micro-generation, such as solar panels, by energy efficiency, combined heat and power plants and more gas plants.
Jim Footner from Greenpeace added: "This is yet more evidence that E.ON wants to carry on with business as usual whatever the cost to the climate. E.ON needs to stop changing its story and get on with building the clean energy future that Britain needs."
Golby warned that as more wind farms are built, more back-up generation will be needed for when the wind does not blow, particularly during cold weather. E.ON's UK wind farms operated at only 16% capacity on average during this month's cold snap.
The E.ON UK chief said it was not economic to build new plants which would only be used occasionally but admitted that the plan would antagonise some environmentalists. "There is bound to be an environmental emotional response I guess. But if that was the only way that this quantity of wind can be built maybe it's a price that may be worth paying."

Companies team up with Abu Dhabi over green jet fuel

By Sarah Arnott
Monday, 18 January 2010
Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell’s UOP have signed up with an Abu Dhabi government investment vehicle to develop green jet fuel from “pickle weed”.
The plan is for an initial 20-hectare site on the coast of the Emirate where sea water will be used to farm shellfish, which in turn will provide fertiliser to grow Salicornia – or pickle weed - which can be harvested.
The oil from the Salicornia seeds can then be refined to produce biofuel, while the left over seed meal can be used for animal feed, and the straw burned to make electricity. From the pickle weed meadows, the saltwater will flow on to feed mangrove forests to sequester further carbon. The process will also produce fresh water.
The seawater farming concept has been tested in Eritrea and Mexico, but the five-year project led by Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi’s clean technology post-graduate research body will scale it up and look for commercial applications.
“We want to be as aggressive as we can in moving from a pilot scale,” John Perkins, provost at Masdar Institute, said. “We hope that in three to five years we will begin to see commercial exploitation of this technology.”
Biofuels are at a very early stage of development. Hydrocarbon-rich Gulf states like Abu Dhabi hope that sponsoring early-stage development of biofuels will fill the gap when the oil runs out. And the airline industry is pushing hard to shed its image as the enemy of the climate, including an International Air Transport Association target to reach carbon neutral growth by 2020. But the technology is at an early stage and demonstrators exist only on a tiny scale compared with potential global demand.
One of the biggest issues is the amount of land required to grow the feedstocks, and being sure not to steal land away from food cultivation. Abu Dhabi’s pickle weed project will be built on entirely arid land, with little or no biodiversity and no fresh water. “When you look at land use and compare it with petroleum then it can be so scary it becomes a cause of inaction,” said Jennifer Holmgren, a vice president at Honeywell’s OUP, a supplier to the refinery industry. “But we are looking at regional solutions, relevant for the local environment, and we are using land that is not in use today.”
The development agreement between Boeing and Abu Dhabi comes just a week after a similar biofuels research programme was launched between rival Airbus and nearby Qatar.

Cameron is sticking to his green guns despite the risks

Tuesday, 19 January 2010
It's not quite up there with Princess Diana shaking hands with an HIV sufferer, in 1987, when Aids was still a subject of panic.
But the picture of David Cameron surrounded by huskies as the frozen wastes of the Arctic stretch out behind him qualifies, like that haunting Diana picture, as an iconic image: it unforgettably represents the moment when an attitude changed.
You can call it staged, you can call it a stunt, but there is no doubt that this image marks a wholly new psychological departure, and that it would have occurred to none of Mr Cameron's three failed predecessors as Tory leader, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, to mark a shift in emphasis in Conservative policy by going to northern Norway to tickle a dog.
Embracing the issue of climate change – by visiting the Arctic where it is most visible – was an essential part of the first half of the Cameron project, the second half of which, of course, is to be elected to power. The first half was to become electable, and we are starting to forget that for all of the Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard tenures, from 1997 to 2005, that's what the Tory party wasn't. The Tories were seen by much of the electorate as "the nasty party" – Tory frontbencher Theresa May said so herself. And thus the first half of the Cameron project was to "decontaminate the brand".
Showing that Conservatives cared about the environment was right at the heart of this, and it was very successful. Yet it was noticeable that once brand decontamination had been achieved, Mr Cameron's emphasis on matters green, and on climate change in particular, fell away. After all, though it may make a difference in general attitudes, most politicians consider there are very few votes in the environment, not least in a recession, and the new generation of Tory hopefuls reflect this in their priorities.
Changed priorities, however, do not mean that David Cameron himself has changed his view about the importance of global warming as an issue of policy, as opposed to an issue of politics; and it seems highly unlikely that a Cameron government will renege on the climate change commitments of its Labour predecessor. And that may well mean trouble with a new generation of Tory backbenchers.

Will climate change be the Tories' new Europe?

Many in the party do not share Cameron's zeal for environment, survey reveals
By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
The next generation of Conservative MPs do not share David Cameron's enthusiasm for making climate change a priority for a Conservative government, according to a survey to be published tomorrow.
The poll of 141 Tory candidates in winnable seats found that "reducing Britain's carbon footprint" was rated the lowest of 19 possible priorities for a Cameron government. The finding is embarrassing for the Tory leader, whose strong personal commitment to the environment has become a symbol of his drive to modernise the party.

The survey by the ConservativeHome website suggests that if he becomes prime minister, Mr Cameron could face a major rebellion by his own backbenchers if he tries to take a lead on climate change on the domestic or international stage.
Some Tory insiders are describing the issue as "the new Europe" for the party. Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, said: "Europe has divided the Tories since the late 1980s. Could climate change cause similar problems?" He warned that many prominent Tories doubted the science of man-made global warming and many more middle-of-the-road pragmatists worried about the costs of pursuing "mitigation" policies.
They were concerned about rising energy bills in Western countries and feared that economic growth in India and China would not reverse trends in climate that are well under way. "David Cameron needs to proceed cautiously on this issue if he is to keep the Conservative coalition together," he said.
The Independent revealed in December that Mr Cameron was at odds with some Tory MPs, peers and MEPs who are climate change sceptics. Now, it seems, many would-be Tory MPs who hope to join the "class of 2010" candidates share their reservations about the party leader's stance.
ConservativeHome asked Tory candidates to rate 19 policy issues on a scale of one to five, with five being the most important. Only eight of the 141 Tory candidates who responded gave climate change five marks, the lowest number for any issue.
Last night Labour claimed that Mr Cameron's ability to pursue climate change on the world stage if he won power could be wrecked by his own party's scepticism about the issue. But Cameron aides declared that his stance on the environment would prevail if he becomes prime minister. "This is and will remain an important priority," one insisted.
Reducing the deficit in the public finances was regarded as the top priority issue by most Tory candidates (112) followed by cutting red tape (73), reducing welfare bills (59) and winning trust on the NHS (50).
Europe appears to have slipped down the priority list; winning powers back from the European Union was regarded as important by 45 of the 141 candidates. Only 42 thought reducing the level of immigration a priority. With the prospect of tax cuts receding because of the deficit, only 45 regarded them as important.
Tory candidates do not appear to share Mr Cameron's desire to reward marriage in the tax system, with only 33 regarding "marriage and the family" as a priority issue. This policy has become a headache for Mr Cameron. He has promised it would be implemented before the election after next, but bringing in transferable tax allowances to help stay-at-home mothers would cost £4.9bn.
A possible compromise was proposed yesterday by the Centre for Social Justice led by Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, which previously favoured transferable allowances for all married couples. In a Green Paper, the group said its original plan was unrealistic in the current financial climate. Instead, it recommended transferable allowances for married couples who have children up to the age of three. That would cost only £600m and would benefit these families by about £20 a week.

When our economic interests are at stake, the war on nature resumes

All this badger cull will prove is that our relations with the natural world have scarcely altered since the dark ages

George Monbiot
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 January 2010 20.00 GMT
There's a story that almost all of us believe: that beyond a certain state of development, we relearn a respect for nature. It is true that some of the excesses of the early modern age – attempts by gamekeepers to kill all competing species, mass slaughter by white hunters in the colonies, the grubbing up of hedgerows and ancient woodlands – have lessened, though we still eat endangered fish and buy timber from clear-cut rainforest. It is also true that we give more money to conservation projects and spend more time watching wildlife films than we have ever done before. But as soon as we perceive that our economic interests are threatened, our war against nature resumes.
2010 is the International Year of ­Biodiversity. The Welsh assembly is celebrating the occasion by launching a project to exterminate the badger. I won't pretend that this story ranks alongside the catastrophe in Haiti or the meltdown in Afghanistan, but it casts an interesting light on humanity's continuing impulse to conquer nature, and shows how, even when cloaked in the language of science, our relations with the natural world are still governed by irrationality and superstition.
Last week the Welsh rural affairs minister, Elin Jones, announced what her government calls "a proactive non-selective badger cull" in west Wales. What this means is the elimination of the species, beginning when the cubs emerge from their burrows in May. Badgers carry the bacterium which causes bovine tuberculosis. The purpose of the experiment is to discover whether the number of cows with the disease is reduced when the badger is exterminated. It it works, the method might be applied elsewhere. But even before the experiment begins, I can tell you that it's a waste of time and money.
In 2007, after nine years of research, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB sent its final report to the UK government. It discovered that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain". Rather than suppressing the disease, killing badgers appears to spread it.
The researchers had killed badgers across 30 areas, each of 100 square kilometres. They found that when the badgers were culled in response to local outbreaks of TB, the slaughter "increased, rather than reduced" the incidence of the disease in cattle: the level of infection rose by some 20%. When badgers were killed proactively (culled annually, regardless of whether cattle were infected), the incidence of TB inside the killing zone was reduced by 23% – but the incidence outside increased by 25%. The reason is that the killing changes the behaviour of the badgers: they travel more and mix more, either to escape the slaughter or to investigate the ecological space it opens up. The economic costs of proactive culling, the study found, were 40 times greater than the benefits.
But the old reflex dies hard. As the scientific group pointed out, "agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming ­scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control". It noted "considerable reluctance to accept and embrace ­scientific findings". The Welsh government shares this reluctance. In announcing her extermination policy last week, Elin Jones claimed that the cull would be conducted according to "the requirements outlined by the ­Independent Scientific Group". But the ISG couldn't have made itself clearer: badger culling of any kind won't work. Instead, governments should do more to control the way that cattle are kept, tested and moved. This was a message that farmers and the Welsh government didn't want to hear.
The policy Elin Jones announced last week is even worse than this suggests. Her culling experiment is actually testing two variables: exterminating badgers and better management of cattle. Yet there are no experimental controls (study areas in which one or both methods are not being tried), so there is no means of telling which of the two measures is working, or whether changes in the incidence of the disease have anything to do with the experiment. There's a scientific term for a study that simultaneously tests two variables while using no controls: worthless. The Welsh experiment has nothing to do with science and everything to do with appeasing farmers.
The Farmers' Union of Wales has been furiously demanding that time and money should be wasted in this fashion. It has lobbied the assembly government for a scheme that will damage its members' interests and alienate the people who buy their milk and butter and cheese. It appears to be impervious to evidence or reason: last week it announced that "badger culling works. Any talk about farming practices being a significant factor are unfounded."
But even if extermination did work, the effect could be sustained only by killing any badgers that re-entered the area: in other words, rendering the species extinct there. Were the same approach to be rolled out across a wider area (the policy the experiment is designed to test), the badger would have to become extinct not only across that zone, but also in all neighbouring zones. Because badgers will move into areas from which the species has been erased, the only logical outcome of this approach is to exterminate the badger throughout the United Kingdom. As this is politically unacceptable, the Welsh experiment is pointless as well as worthless.
This exercise in wilful stupidity betrays an ­approach to the natural world that has scarcely altered since the dark ages. We still act as if we have been granted dominion over it. Those with an economic interest seem to ­regard any species that might compete or conflict with them as a threat not only to their income but also to their power. They still treat the natural world as ­fungible: nothing is too precious, too great a source of wonder and delight to liquidate. There appears to be no point of regret beyond which we won't ­venture, no lesson in ecological collapse that we are prepared to learn. The ­Christian worldview, which places humankind at the apex of creation, is hard to shake, even in the most secular nation on earth.
All industries strive not only towards monopoly but also towards mono­culture: domination of the natural or cultural landscape. This is what George Orwell meant when he remarked that "the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to ­something resembling a brain in a bottle". Industry, if left unchecked, tolerates no deviance. It seeks to shrink both the range of human experience and the wonders of the natural world until they fit into the container it has made for them.
We could lose badgers and – except for those of us who spend summer evenings watching them as they shuffle out of their setts – suffer few tangible losses. But the urge to destroy them springs from the same pathological instinct for power which would deprive us of almost everything.