Monday, 8 March 2010

The Long Road: Carbon Capture and Storage

THE TECHNOLOGY: Carbon-capture technology pulls carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of coal and other fossil-fuel plants, pressurizes the gas and pumps it underground for permanent storage.

CURRENT STATUS: A handful of small-scale carbon-capture and storage pilot and demonstration projects are under way in the U.S. and elsewhere. In a test to capture CO2 from an operating power plant, American Electric Power Co. is running a pilot at its Mountaineer plant in West Virginia, collecting about 1.5% of the plant's CO2 emissions and storing them under the site. Other sites in Europe, Africa and Australia are investigating underground storage, but the Mountaineer project is the first to integrate capture and storage.

WHY IT'S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: Technically, carbon capture has been shown effective in small, less expensive pilot projects. In capturing larger emissions streams, operators have to fine-tune the equipment and see how it works in different weather conditions and using different grades of coal. In the most-advanced test, at AEP's Mountaineer plant, this stage is expected to take at least a year.
Once that is done, the next stage is building and operating a commercial-scale demonstration plant. AEP recently received $334 million in federal stimulus funds for its planned 235-megawatt demonstration plant. Designing the facility can overlap with the current pilot, but construction of the plant is expected to take several years; the goal is to have it online by fall of 2015. It would then have to be operated for several years to test its reliability and efficiency. AEP expects that power-plant builders could begin offering commercial versions of the technology by 2020.
Ultimately, commercial adoption also will depend on whether Congress decides to impose a price on carbon and what that price is. Carbon capture is expensive—it could double the price of electricity from some existing coal plants, and cuts plant efficiency by about 30%. Most experts agree that it is going to take a carbon price of at least $50 a ton to make carbon capture economically feasible. — Michael Totty

Creating Environmental Capital


One thing is certain in the race for a cleaner energy system: Nothing is going to be certain for quite a long time.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu explains to WSJ's Robert Thomson why it takes so long to approve loans and take other steps needed to move policy toward next-generation energy.
In Washington last week, the Obama administration abandoned the long-running plan to bury nuclear waste below Nevada's Yucca Mountain, another potential barrier to new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Big questions loom about the viability of electric cars and of futuristic power plants that would shoot their greenhouse-gas emissions underground instead of skyward. And concerns about unintended environmental consequences are thwarting plans for wind and solar farms from Wyoming to the Mojave Desert.
Don't expect clarity from the government, the financial world or even the scientific lab, said the chief executives and entrepreneurs who gathered last week at ECO:nomics, The Wall Street Journal's third annual conference on the business of the environment. But, they advised each other, don't dally in trying to dominate the new energy market, because the spoils will go to those who exploit the uncertainty the best.

When the Journal held the first ECO:nomics conference, in March 2008, things seemed clearer. Oil prices were high, investors were showering money on renewable-energy developers, and federal lawmakers were pushing to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently had won the Nobel Peace Prize for a report concluding that global warming was "unequivocal" and was "very likely" caused by human activity, so the debate over climate science appeared largely done.
All that has changed. Oil prices, though rising again, are just above half their mid-2008 highs. Tough economic times are pinching clean-energy investment and prompting new opposition to a mandatory carbon cap. And the IPCC has said it will appoint an independent committee to investigate questions raised recently about its widely watched climate-science reports
"It's frustrating, but scientists are human beings," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the conference. Society has produced "a greenhouse-gas layer that is absolutely, positively due to humans," he said, but the precise impacts remain unclear. "The uncertainties are quite large."

John Woolard, CEO of BrightSource Energy, and Gabriel Alonso, CEO of Horizon Wind Energy, speak with Jeffrey Ball at the 2010 ECO:nomics conference about their companies' projects to develop renewable energy and the opposition they're facing.
The uncertainties about what technologies might slash greenhouse-gas emissions remain just as big.
Consider just the race for an alternative to the petroleum-powered car. Peter Voser, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, predicted that by 2050 electric cars might account for 40% of autos worldwide. T. Boone Pickens, oilman-turned-energy reformer, said the government should subsidize big trucks that burn natural gas. And Craig Venter, a self-described "life designer," is trying to make fuel from newly created organisms that consume CO2.
Each of these options could become a disruptive technology—something that really rocks the world. It will take years to know. The action playing out amid this uncertainty is today's real energy shift.
Write to Jeffrey Ball at

A Climate-Change Chameleon

It's hard to tell whether New Delhi really understands the economic cost of fighting 'global warming.'

By Mary Kissel
New Delhi
"The climate world is divided into three: the climate atheists, the climate agnostics, and the climate evangelicals. I'm a climate agnostic."
A direct—some would say brash—man with a penetrating stare, it's hard to believe India's Environment and Forests Minister, Jairam Ramesh, is agnostic about anything. This is the man who dressed down Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year when she pushed for India to adopt binding emissions targets. He was the first politician of a major nation to question the United Nations' claim that the Himalayan glaciers were melting at a rapid pace. And he's spearheaded his country's very own climate-change research institute—a direct challenge to the U.N.'s now-discredited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Zina Saunders
That record makes Mr. Ramesh one of the few policy makers in the world in a position to push a new, more economically rational approach to climate change—and debate the politics of it, too. It helps that he isn't media-shy. And like many Indian men, Mr. Ramesh has a penchant for the dramatic: "You have unlimited time!" he tells me, hands outstretched, as we settle down to a chat in his darkened office, with a single spotlight shining on the minister himself.
India is a "high-growth, low-emission" economy, Mr. Ramesh explains. "We contribute only about 5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and even if we grow at 8% per year, by 2020, we would still be contributing only about 8% of world greenhouse gas emissions." He jabs at the air above his head to make his point, lowering it with each phrase: "So here is China at 23%, here is America at about 22%, and you have Russia at about 9% and India at 5%. So clearly about 45% of the emissions are coming from two countries. . . who don't want to do anything about it."
International negotiations on climate change are "a complete quagmire," Mr. Ramesh says. "We have a Kyoto Protocol in which the U.S. has not ratified. The Europeans are not going to be taking on commitments unless the Americans take it [on]. The Americans are saying we won't take something on until the Chinese take something on. So we are frankly, headed nowhere." If the major negotiating nations take the "same approach" during the U.N. confab in Mexico later this year, "we will meet the same fate as Copenhagen, although the cuisine in Mexico will be far superior to that in Copenhagen."
For New Delhi, that outcome would be a significant victory. A nation of 1.2 billion people, India has long understood that climate-change "intervention" pushed by the U.N., green activists and Al Gore (an "evangelical," snorts Mr. Ramesh)—namely, binding emissions targets—was code for giving up cheap energy sources in exchange for economically unproven technologies. The result would be higher energy costs for India's vast legions of poor, many of whom don't even yet have access to electricity or gas—effectively consigning hundreds of millions of people to continue living in slums.
Given that, Mr. Ramesh is still oddly eager to burnish his climate-change credentials to me, saying with fervor, at the start, that he thinks global warming is a "real" phenomenon. His conflicting instincts have lead to heated debate within India. Mr. Ramesh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last October and suggested that India reconsider its stance on emissions targets. The letter was conveniently leaked to the press, uproar in parliament and in the business community ensued. Mr. Ramesh backed down. So thanks to India's democratic pressures—no politician here would be caught dead shortchanging the poor, who vote—he's singing a different tune.
Climate change is "one of the main issues" India faces, Mr. Ramesh says. But is it more important than all the other environmental problems India faces? I ask, thinking of stinking gutters I vaulted over, in high heels, to reach his office. "To say that it is the defining issue, no, there are bread-and-butter environmental issues. There are pollution control issues which are affecting the public health. You know, in many parts of India people are dying of cancer because of excess of pesticides in water, or arsenic in water. That's more important and more urgent than climate change."
Other poor countries agree. China, South Africa, Brazil and India "bonded very well together at Copenhagen," Mr. Ramesh reports, neglecting to mention the group's approach—to use the meeting to pressure developed-world nations to squeeze billions of dollars out of developing-world nations' taxpayers. The minister, a self-confessed "China realist," is no political naïf: "We are united in our desire not to have a binding agreement thrust upon us which will constrict our developmental options." He's been to China three times in the last four months, with reciprocal visits from his Chinese counterpart. "Had India and China not been together, I think the complexion of Copenhagen would've been different."
Mr. Ramesh sees "glaring deficiencies in the architecture of climate-change agreements," starting with the "lack of any graduation." As countries move up the "per-capita income ladder," he explains, they should "take on progressively higher levels of legally binding commitments." This makes sense: India is a populous country, but poor. Randomly chosen emission targets become "a game of competitive one-upmanship." "10%, we will cut?," he asks, getting worked up, his voice rising. "15%? It's not a lottery, you know."
The question is, what comes next? The author of the Copenhagen Consensus (not to be confused with December's Copenhagen summit), Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, has talked about a "third way" forward: acknowledging that climate change is real, but pursuing a cost-benefit approach that would commit countries to projects that yield the greatest benefits for the greatest number of people. "I've read Lomborg," Mr. Ramesh says with a smile. "I don't think you should dismiss Lomborg the way climate evangelicals have dismissed him. He makes reasonable points. The spirit of science is the spirit of enquiry, of questioning."
His solution? "We need an international agreement in which all countries participate," Mr. Ramesh says "Common, but differentiated responsibility remains the anchor of that agreement. But every country must commit itself to certain actions."
What kind of actions, though? At home in India, Mr. Ramesh emphasizes one measure he's proud of that hasn't hurt the poor: "We are one of the few countries in the world that is adding to our forest cover," he says, with energy. "Our forest cover in India is equal to the size of Texas. . . And every year, about 10% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions [are] being sequestered by our forests." He hands me a shiny brochure on the topic.
But when I ask him about how his ministry will prioritize his investments—India has a huge fiscal deficit, and can't afford to spray money around willy-nilly—he shifts in his chair. "I think the key is going to be the energy sector. . . What choices we make on fuel mix, on efficiency targets, on transportation, fuel efficiency standards, public-private mix. Railroad mix, very important. Industry." Then he reverts to the worst reflex of Indian policy makers: the government solution. "The Planning Commission has announced an expert group that will prepare the roadmap for a low-carbon road strategy for India," he says confidently.
Of course the most important question is what Mr. Ramesh and his bosses in government are willing to sacrifice to achieve these nebulous goals. Does he think that it's possible to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions without sacrificing economic growth? "It's possible for us to grow at 8%," he says, getting a little testy. "The choice is between 8% and 10%. The choice is not between 8% and 5%, ok?" But even choosing 8% before 10% means hundreds of millions of people won't be lifted out of poverty, right? "Yeah, if it's going to be 10% growth and an unacceptable cost to the environment, and an 8% growth and it's sustainable, I would say an 8% sustainable rate of growth is better for me," Mr. Ramesh says.
We circle back to the original point: Maybe climate change just isn't the international disaster that evangelicals like Mr. Gore said it was. Mr. Ramesh leans back in his chair and a twinkle enters his eye: "When AIDs hit the international agenda, it just meant that malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, dysentery all got [pushed] into the background. Climate change has become the AIDs of the environment!" It's a bit dramatic, but not too far off the mark. The question is, does Mr. Ramesh believe it himself?
Ms. Kissel is the editor of The Wall Street Journal Asia editorial page.

Businesses failing to recycle

Millions of tonnes of recycling is still being sent to landfill by businesses despite a multimillion pound Government campaign, according to spending watchdogs.

By Louise Gray, Environment CorrespondentPublished: 7:00AM GMT 05 Mar 2010
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spent £240 million between 2005 and 2008 on encouraging businesses to cut waste. The money was spent on raising awareness, training managers and developing easier ways to recycled.
But a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found the 200 million tonnes of waste from construction and industry only fell by 11 per cent during the period.

Amyas More, head of the NAO, said at this rate the Government was unlikely to meet a target to cut the amount of waste from business going to landfill by 20 per cent by 2010.
"The low awareness of the Programme among businesses and the absence of clear targets and reliable information to measure progress mean we cannot say whether the Department achieved value for money from the £240 million spent on the Programme," he said.
Taxpayers face huge fines from Europe unless landfill is cut.
Edward Leigh, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, pointed out that business generates three-fifths of all waste.
"It is easy to see why it has not been a very successful programme: lack of detailed information means that the Department cannot measure its progress or target the initiative effectively and with no evaluation of the programme to date it is not possible to say if value for money has been achieved or not," he said. "But the pièce de résistance must be the fact that the strategy underpinning the Department’s programme was not fully implemented until April 2008, just after the programme had officially ended. Talk about shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted."

It's time we talked rubbish

Rubbish collection is a public service not a private sacrament, says Jemima Lewis.

By Jemima LewisPublished: 5:33PM GMT 06 Mar 2010

Utter rubbish: resistance to recycling seems curiously at odds with small-c conservatism
Although my friends assure me that I am a natural-born reactionary, somewhat to the Right of Silvio Berlusconi, there are certain populist issues that entirely fail to stir my blood.
I cannot, for instance, summon up one ounce of sympathy when self-righteous citizens complain of having been fined thousands of pounds and clapped in irons for dropping a cigarette butt or strewing bread on the ground while feeding the ducks. Littering is littering, and if I had my way they’d be breaking rocks.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I feel much the same way about rubbish collection – an issue that makes my fellow libertarians exceedingly hot under the collar. Every attempt to make householders recycle more and throw away less is greeted with ululations of outrage, as if it were an Englishman’s right to keep slinging his empty beer cans into landfill until there is no green and pleasant land left – only a vast, steaming rubbish dump.
Even if you have your doubts about the broader environmental benefits of, say, transporting our plastic bottles halfway around the world to be processed by Chinese peasants, this empurpled resistance to recycling seems curiously at odds with small-c conservatism.
At the very least, recycling makes us think about what we are throwing away, and why. A natural Tory – nostalgic for the good old days of home cooking, thrifty housekeeping and local produce wrapped in greaseproof paper from an independent butcher or baker – should approve of anything that encourages a return to such Arcadian practices. And if that means having a microchip implanted in my wheelie bin, so be it.
Privacy campaigners warned this week that 68 local councils now have microchip technology at their disposal – up from 42 last year – and 2.6 million bins across the nation already have the chips in place. According to the campaign group Big Brother Watch, this amounts to a “surreptitious” attempt to monitor our “waste habits” and intrude into our “private lives”. It will also lead to the possible introduction of “punitive taxes” for people who throw away large volumes of rubbish.
Now, even allowing for the hyperbole of the single-issue campaigner, this seems a little strong. A microchip in a wheelie bin can weigh or measure the rubbish contained within, and identify the household it belongs to: that is all. It cannot read your bank statements, count up how many ready meals you’ve been eating, or raise a disapproving eyebrow at your consumption of Tennent’s Extra.
In any case, why shouldn’t the council know something of our individual “waste habits”? Rubbish collection is a public service – an increasingly burdensome one – not a private sacrament. True, we pay for it through council tax, but that does not automatically confer the rights of a consumer. We all pay for the emergency services, too, but we accept our responsibility to use them sparingly.
The more rubbish there is to collect, the more expensive it is for councils – and ultimately, therefore, for us. Again, you might expect the natural Tory to welcome a technology that could help pare the cost of public services and tilt the tax system in favour of responsible householders.
Granted, it isn’t always easy to have faith in the practices of local councils, staffed as they so often are by jobsworths, misanthropes and outright dunderheads. Every time I am forced into even the most glancing contact with Hackney council, I stagger away like a defeated boxer, stars circling around my head.
It’s not just that the officials are so often obtuse, but that their policies are too. Many councils, for instance, are draconian about domestic recycling, yet offer no recycling services at all to local businesses, which create far more mess.
A public that had more reason to trust the wisdom and integrity of local government might be less easily spooked by words such as “microchip”. Until then, it seems, the British people will fight for the right to live in a quagmire of rubbish – and call it freedom.

Elm tree reintroduction project starts

The first step to re-establishing elm trees in Britain is being taken this month with 250 schools receiving saplings to plant.

By Stephen AdamsPublished: 12:37PM GMT 07 Mar 2010
From the 1960s onwards about 25 million English elms were wiped out by Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungus that had been imported in a batch of infected timber.
It had been thought that none survived but a survey started by the Natural History Museum in 2003 discovered a couple of hundred mature examples still living.

Saplings were taken by the Conservation Foundation, a charity founded by David Bellamy and David Shreeve, to start a programme of reintroduction across the country.
The first batch is being sent out to schools this month.
Mr Shreeve said: "We want to interest a new generation in the elm, so much a feature of the British life and landscape for centuries and also to try and find out why some trees survived Dutch elm disease.
"So many have disappeared over recent years that we can only hope to replace some. But rather than just give up and forget the elm, we think it’s worth a try."
The initiative is called the Great British Elm Experiment, and aims to find out why a few trees did survive the fungus.
The English elm was actually introduced by the Romans. Tree experts believe all examples are descended from a single type of tree, brought over to help support vines.
As such the descendants are essentially clones. The resultant lack of genetic diversity may well have made them exceptionally susceptible to infection.

There is no 'green treachery' in questioning this solar panel rip-off

We do not have a moral obligation to blindly support inefficient, expensive renewable technologies • George Monbiot: Are we really going to let ourselves be duped into this solar panel rip-off?Jeremy Leggett: Solar panels are not fashion accessories
Once again I am a traitor to the cause, a corporate sell-out, a dangerous maverick who has gone over to the dark side. My column this week on feed-in tariffs provoked the same sort of charges that were levelled against me when I first came out against biofuels in 2004. We've now seen how that's panned out. When other greens wake up to the amazing waste of money and opportunities this scheme represents, I think the feed-in tariff scandal will go the same way.
One of the more sophisticated responses came from my old sparring partner Jeremy Leggett, chairman of the installation company Solar Century. He managed to ignore most of my arguments, but never mind. Here is the fork he is impaled on. Either solar photovoltaic (PV) power in the United Kingdom is, as he claims, a cheap, efficient technology, or it isn't. If it is, why should we be subsidising it to the tune of 41p per kilowatt hour? If it needs this subsidy, it is neither cheap nor efficient. If it doesn't need it, the feed-in tariffs are even more of a swindle than I thought.
A recent paper Leggett helped to write (pdf) claims that solar PV will achieve "grid parity" for homeowners in 2013. This means that the electricity produced, when all costs are taken into account, will be no more expensive than the electricity we buy from the grid. Assuming we can agree on terms and measurement, I have £100 that says his prediction won't come true. Will Leggett accept my bet?
But here again he runs into the same contradiction. If Jeremy really believed his sales pitch, he would be calling for the feed-in tariff for new installations to be scrapped in 2013, as it would then be redundant. But the government does not share his view. Its table of tariffs shows that in 2013 it will pay 38p/kWh for new retrofitted PV: a decline of just 8% from this year's figure, rather than the 56% Leggett anticipates.
If he has the courage of his convictions, Leggett should demand that the tariff is either abandoned that year or brought down to 18p, which is what his paper claims (though without attribution) grid-based electricity will cost then. He can't have it both ways: defending the tariff while suggesting that the tariff won't be necessary.
Leggett maintains that:
The companies who manufacture solar PV in the UK have shown that putting solar panels on all available building surfaces would generate more electricity in a year, under typical cloudy British skies, than the entire electricity consumption of our energy-profligate nation.
We could argue about that, but even if it were true it would be a ridiculous thing to do if, as the government's tariffs suggest, solar PV costs nine times as much as other renewables. Every pound spent on PV is a pound not spent on a more effective technology. You need to spend £9 on solar to have the same impact as £1 spent on largescale wind or hydro. Does Leggett dispute these figures? If so he should, again, be campaigning against the feed-in tariffs.
He argues that:
Monbiot gets the precedent for the British government's solar 'cash-back' scheme – the German feed-in tariff – upside down … all feed-in tariffs are supposed to decline
Indeed they are. But the German reduction was not a planned, gradual drawdown of the subsidy, but a sudden, additional cut. In fact the government had originally pressed for a 40% cut, but was beaten down to 16% by industry lobbying. The realisation in Germany, after 10 years of minimal returns, that they have been getting shockingly bad value for money from their scheme coincides with the launching of the same fiasco in the UK. Are we incapable of learning from other people's mistakes?
Leggett goes on to claim, again without attribution, that the Germans have "created over 50,000 jobs in solar PV alone." Of course you could justify any scheme with the creation of jobs: even employing people to throw bundles of banknotes into power station furnaces. But Leggett is confusing gross jobs created with net jobs. Given that tax money like this is necessarily scarce, you have to consider the opportunity costs of using the tariff for solar PV. As solar is capital intensive (the units are expensive) it is likely to employ fewer people than a labour-intensive, capital-light programme such as insulating and draft-proofing people's homes. In this respect it could well be the case, as the paper in Energy Policy suggests, that Germany's solar programme has destroyed more jobs than it has created.
The other question this raises is jobs where? Many of the panels Germany installed were manufactured in China and Japan. I have nothing against stimulating employment in those countries, but I think the electricity users who have to pay for the tariff would be rather put out to discover that the jobs the government says it will create are actually on the other side of the world.
Which brings us to his final point: who pays? Leggett suggests that it's untrue that the poor will carry the costs of this scheme, as all electricity users must contribute. Yes, but all electricity users include the poor who a) often pay more for their power than better-off people and b) being less likely to own their homes or to afford the £10-12K needed to install solar panels are the least likely to benefit from the scheme. Their bills will rise just like everyone else's to pay for a scheme which will mostly benefit the middle classes. This is why it is deeply regressive.
I won't list all the points Leggett fails to address – his space was limited - but the killer fact he ignores is this: feed-in tariffs cannot reduce our carbon emissions by 1g while the UK remains within the European emissions trading scheme. This is because any savings they make will be offset by the extra emissions that other industries will be allowed to release. Either we are in the trading scheme and must make it work, in which case measures like the tariff are redundant, or we accept that it doesn't work and get out of it. But at the moment all the feed-in tariff can do is to subsidise polluting industries to produce more greenhouse gases.
To the greens who accuse me of treachery I say this: we do not have a moral obligation to support all forms of renewable energy, however inefficient and expensive they may be. We do have a moral obligation not to be blinded by sentiment. We owe it to the public, and to our credibility, to support the schemes which work, fairly and cheaply, and reject the schemes which cost a fortune and make no difference.

Met Office analysis reveals 'clear fingerprints' of man-made climate change

Climate scientists say the 100 studies of sea ice, rainfall and temperature should help the public to make up their own minds on global warming
Alok Jha
The Guardian, Friday 5 March 2010
It is an "increasingly remote possibility" that human activity is not the main cause of climate change, according to a major Met Office review of more than 100 scientific studies that track the observed changes in the Earth's climate system.
The research will strengthen the case for human-induced climate change against sceptics who argue that the observed changes in the Earth's climate can largely be explained by natural variability.
Climate scientists and the UN's climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have come under intense pressure in recent months after the IPCC was forced to admit it had made two errors in its fourth assessment report published in 2007. Emails hacked from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in November have also sparked a series of inquiries into allegations of a lack of transparency by researchers and manipulation of the peer review process.
Asked whether his study was specifically scheduled as a fightback, Peter Stott, who led the review, said that the paper was originally drafted a year ago. But he added: "I hope people will look at that evidence and make up their minds informed by the scientific evidence."
Scientists matched computer models of different possible causes of climate change - both human and natural - to measured changes in factors such as air and sea temperature, Arctic sea ice cover and global rainfall patterns. This technique, called "optimal detection", showed clear fingerprints of human-induced global warming, according to Stott. "This wealth of evidence shows that there is an increasingly remote possibility that climate change is being dominated by natural factors rather than human factors." The paper reviewed numerous studies that were published since the last IPCC report.
Optimal detection considers to what extent an observation can be explained by natural variability, such as changing output from the sun, volcanic eruptions or El Niño, and how much can be explained by the well-established increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
According to Nasa, the last decade was the warmest on record and 2009 the second warmest year. Temperatures have risen by 0.2C per decade, over the past 30 years and average global temperatures have increased by 0.8C since 1880.
The evidence that the climate system is changing goes beyond measured air temperatures, with much of the newest evidence coming from the oceans. "Over 80% of the heat that's trapped in the climate system as a result of the greenhouse gases is exported into the ocean and we can see that happening," said Stott. "Another feature is that salinity is changing - as the atmosphere is warming up, there is more evaporation from the surface of the ocean [so making it more salty], which is most noticeable in the sub-tropical Atlantic."
This also links into changes in the global water cycle and rainfall patterns. As the atmosphere warms, it has been getting more humid, exactly as climate modellers had predicted. "This clear fingerprint has been seen in two independent datasets. One developed in the Met Office Hadley Centre, corroborated with data from satellites."
Arctic sea ice is also retreating - the summer minimum of sea ice is declining at a rate of 600,000 km² per decade, an area approximately the size of Madagascar. Again, decreasing sea ice is predicted by climate models.
Rainfall is also on the rise in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere and large swaths of the southern hemisphere, while in the tropics and sub-tropics, there are decreases. "The already-wet regions are getting wetter and the dry regions are getting drier," said Stott. "We now have studies that can identify this fingerprint in the observational data."
The review, published in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, found that the natural causes of climate variation, including changing energy output from the sun and volcanic eruptions, could not explain the observed changes by themselves. "There hasn't been an increase in solar output for the last 50 years and solar output would not have caused cooling of the higher atmosphere and the warming of the lower atmosphere that we have seen," said Stott.
If the observed climate change was entirely due to solar activity, the Earth's atmosphere would have warmed more evenly - both the troposphere and stratosphere would have been affected. Warming due to the Sun would also have meant temperatures should have increases more quickly early than late in the 20th century, which is the reverse of what was actually measured.
The review is published as scientists also report a rise in methane emissions from a section of the Arctic Ocean sea floor. That study, published today in the journal Science, shows that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic shelf, once considered an safe store of methane, is leaking large amounts of the gas into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming as this is a greenhouse gase around 30 times more potent than CO2.
"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans. Sub-sea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap," said Natalia Shakhova, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks's International Arctic Research Centre. "The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to three to four times. The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict."

Rise in UK carbon emissions disputed by report

Soil deposits of CO2 'not fuelling global warming yet – but will in future'
The Observer, Sunday 7 March 2010

A major study for the UK government has cast doubt over claims that rising temperatures are causing soil to pump greater amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further fuelling global warming.
In 2005 it was reported in the science journal Nature that over the past 25 years 100m tonnes of carbon dioxide had been released by the soil of England and Wales. The figure cancelled out all emissions cuts in the UK since 1990.
However, a national survey of the soils of Great Britain, funded by the department for environment food and rural affairs, claims to have found no net loss of carbon over approximately the same period.
Scientists have now proposed that a special study group, with an independent statistical expert, should examine why the reports differ and which result is more likely to be correct.
The latest questions follow weeks of claims that predictions about the impacts of climate change have been overstated or miscalculated, including the melting of Himalayan glaciers, and separate allegations of bias based on leaked emails from scientists at the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia.
The author of the latest report, Professor Bridget Emmett of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), warned that finding there had been no loss of carbon so far should not be taken to mean the absence of a threat. In the long term, scientists predict a "tipping point" when the faster activity of microbes in warmer soils starts to generate more CO2 than can be absorbed by plants.
"That's when you start losing carbon as a whole," said Emmett. "Most of the models say that will be later this century."
The 2005 report in Nature was based on the National Soil Inventory, carried out initially between 1978 and 1983, and again from 1994 to 2003, by the National Soil Resources Institute at Cranfield University. That study said that from 1978 to 2003 there had been an estimated loss of 4m tonnes of carbon a year from the soils of England and Wales, and the researchers estimated that, because of the higher carbon content of Scotland's peaty soils, the annual loss from the UK as a whole was 13m tonnes a year. The fact that the losses occurred across all types of land use suggested a link to climate change, said the team.
At that time, one of the research team, Professor Guy Kirk of Cranfield University, told a conference: "It had been reckoned that the CO2 fertilisation effect was offsetting about 25% of the direct human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. It was reckoned that the soil temperature emission effect would catch up in maybe 10 to 50 years' time. We are showing that it seems to be happening rather faster than that."
The latest report by the CEH, just released as part of the ongoing analysis of the 2007 Countryside Survey of Great Britain, compared studies between 1978 and 2007. It found carbon concentration in the top 15cm of soil increased over the first two decades, and decreased between 1998 and 2007. The only exception was arable land, where there was a net loss of carbon, probably because of disruption by ploughing.
"Overall there was no change in carbon concentration ... and [we] cannot confirm the loss reported by the National Soil Inventory," states the report.
Kirk told the Guardian that the Cranfield team were still "confident in our results [that] there was a net loss of carbon". But he said subsequent studies had suggested that "at best" 10% of the loss of carbon was due to climate change, and the rest was due to changes in land use and management, such as conversion of grassland to crops.
Reasons being examined for the difference in results include where and how samples were chosen and analysed and how the data was compiled.
"The amount of carbon in topsoils across England and Wales is about 2bn tonnes, so detecting a change of even 4m tonnes per year is very challenging," said Emmett. "Small differences in methods between the two surveys can therefore have a large effect."

How public trust in climate scientists can be restored

The Met Office's review of latest climate research will strengthen the case for human-induced climate change

Chris Huntingford
The Guardian, Friday 5 March 2010
We know from many long-term records of environmental change (for instance, analysis of bubbles of air trapped in ice cores) that planet Earth is a truly remarkable "living" entity. The climate has had both warm and cold periods in the past. But what is different about the present is the speed at which the planet is warming.
Our computer simulations can only recreate this rapid warming when the addition of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from human sources is included. If this warming continues, we may reach a situation where very unwelcome changes occur to our weather patterns, which for developing nations could cause major difficulties with food and water security.
So what are the potential flaws in this line of argument? First we have to completely trust the temperature measurement records, such as those developed by colleagues at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. Although their temperature numbers are very similar to those produced by other American groups, the revisiting of their analysis is in many ways to be welcomed. I cannot imagine what my colleagues at CRU are going through at the moment, but although we cannot pre-empt any form of inquiry, most climate researchers believe that their analysis will have been shown to be accurate.
Second there is the question of whether major policy decisions should really be made on the basis of simulations of the climate system, as performed on a few specialised computers dotted around the world? There are compelling reasons to trust these computer models, but at the same time, more direct evidence underpinning the claim that climate is changing is needed. That is why the work by Peter Stott and colleagues is important. It looks beyond temperature to other artefacts of a changing environment. Direct measurements show decreasing amounts of Arctic sea ice, changes in rainfall patterns and associated levels of moisture in the atmosphere, rapid variations in ocean levels of saltiness. All of these things can be attributed to impacts of global warming. They are all additional strands of evidence that climate change remains a concern.
The recent furore surrounding the science of climate change is difficult for those working on the subject, yet most of us do think that ultimately something good will come from this. There certainly has to be more openness about the underpinning research. To preserve public confidence, we must "buy out" the copyright from research journals of key papers so that these can be freely available to all for inspection. Datasets must also become more available for general scrutiny. Effort should also be made to avoid statements on climate change that could, inadvertently, be perceived as scare-mongering. Researchers need to calmly present their findings on climate change as an issue, among many others facing the world, on which well-considered collective thought and economic or technical action is likely to be needed.
I sincerely hope we can win back the trust of the public. If we do so, then hopefully society will keep emissions on a pathway that ensures a safe climate for future generations while avoiding any damage to the global economy.
• Dr Chris Huntingford is a climate change researcher working at Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The five-year race to save India's vanishing tigers

With some conservationists claiming only 800 tigers still live in the wild, radical steps are needed if the species isn't to disappear from India within five years
Gethin Chamberlain
The Observer, Sunday 7 March 2010
The poachers perch on the rough platforms they have built in the trees about 15 feet above the forest floor, waiting patiently for the tiger to come. They have been searching the forests of India's Ranthambhore reserve for days, following the pug marks and other tell-tale signs. When they found the fresh kill, they knew it would only be a matter of time before the tiger returned to eat. Working quickly, they placed their traps on the path, scattering small stones across the dry sandy soil, knowing that tigers hate to walk on them and will pick their way around if they can.
The tiger pads forward, guided by the stones into the trap, which springs shut with a snap. The poachers have fashioned the device from old car suspension plates; there are no teeth, because a damaged pelt will fetch less money. In pain and desperate to free itself, the tiger thrashes around. Another foot catches in another trap, then a third.
The poachers watch to make sure it cannot free itself, then edge down to the ground, still cautious, because a male Bengal tiger can weigh up to 500lb (227kg) and a female 300lb (136kg) and a single blow from those claws could kill a man. One man carries a bamboo stick into which he has poured molten lead to give it more weight. The other has a spear on the end of a 10ft pole. As the tiger opens its mouth, the poacher with the spear lunges forward, stabbing between its open jaws. As the blood starts to flow, he stabs again and again. His colleague smashes the tiger over the head with the stick.
When it is over, they draw their heavy iron knives and set to work to skin it. They leave the paws intact; they are too fiddly to waste time on out in the open. Half an hour later, they are gone, melting away unchallenged into the jungle, once more eluding the forest guards.
It is always the same, says Dharmendra Khandal, toying with a heavy iron skinning knife as he recounts the story. Khandal is sitting in the offices of Tiger Watch on the edge of the national park, one of the most popular tiger reserves in India. He spreads his palms in frustration. The government's forestry department is always the last to act, he says, though it is its job to protect the tigers.
Tiger Watch was established in Rajasthan 12 years ago as an independent, privately funded organisation trying to stem the decline of the wildlife population in the Ranthambhore reserve. In the last five years, it has helped police arrest 47 alleged poachers from the Moghiya tribe, many in possession of tiger skins and other body parts, guns and traps. By their own admission, the poachers have killed more than 20 tigers. Yet in the same period, the authorities in the park did not record a single incidence of poaching. Something does not add up.
At the turn of the last century, there were an estimated 45,000 tigers living wild in India's forests. By the time hunting was banned in 1972, their numbers were down to 2,000. In January, the World Wildlife Fund placed the animal in its list of 10 key creatures facing extinction, warning that while counting tigers is notoriously difficult, there might only be 3,200 left in the wild worldwide. The WWF has just launched a Year of the Tiger campaign to coincide with the start of the Chinese year of the tiger. The organisation is working with world leaders towards the goal of doubling wild tiger numbers by 2022 and there will be a summit in Vladivostok in September attended by the heads of government from the tiger range countries. Nowhere will the challenge be greater than in India, home to that symbol of the country, the royal Bengal tiger.
The Indian government claims 1,411 tigers are still alive inside its borders. Few experts believe this figure. When a tiger skin can sell for $20,000 in neighbouring China, poaching remains a serious problem. Last year was the worst since 2002 for tiger deaths and even India's Ministry of Environment and Forests concedes that its way of counting tigers is so vague that there may be as few as 1,165. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh now admits the figure of 1,411 was "an exaggeration". Either deliberately, to hide the true scale of the animal's decline, or accidentally, through flawed methodology, it is now clear that the numbers are wrong. Some conservationists believe the true number of tigers left in India may be little more than half the official tally and that at the present rate of decline, the tiger will cease to be a viable wild species in India within as little as five years. If poaching and habitat loss continue unabated, those reserves that still have tigers will be little more than open-air zoos. According to the ministry, there are 16 reserves (just under half the total) where there may be no tigers at all or where the tiger is in danger of becoming extinct. Part of the problem is that the presence of tigers is a matter of pride, both for states and individual reserves. No one wants to admit that their tigers have been poached. And still the forests are vanishing as India's burgeoning population places increasing demands on limited space.
Ranthambhore is one of the better parks, one of the few places visitors have a realistic chance of seeing a tiger in the wild. Even here, the number of tigers left is in dispute.
According to Khandal, Tiger Watch's field biologist, there are two schools of poachers: the professionals who tend to come in from Haryana and use only leg traps and the local Moghiya tribe who fire on the tiger from close range with homemade guns. "The Moghiyas are criminals," says Khandal. "They are one of the most brutal communities in India. A month ago, some of them cut off a woman's feet just to steal her ankle ornaments. She bled to death."
In an attempt to stem the tide, Tiger Watch has started working with the Moghiya, hiring informants for 3,500 rupees (£50) a month, while setting some of the women to work producing handicrafts and providing education for their children.
"It's a risky job," says Khandal. "We have four regular paid informants from this community and we give them money in return for information. The community knows who the informants are. Some of them are resisting but there are cracks in the society now. Some of them are asking why they should live in such a primitive state."
Kesra, 45, is one of the former Moghiya poachers who have been turned. By his own admission, he has killed at least five tigers. He describes roaming the forests looking for pug marks and then taking up position in the trees to wait for the tiger to come, working at night and returning in the morning to skin the tigers. He says they never had any trouble with the forest guards, a common refrain. He was arrested as a result of a Tiger Watch raid and is awaiting trial. He insists he is now reformed. "I never had much education. My forefathers were doing hunting, but now times have changed. We are different people," he says.
His wife, Sanwali, also 45, earns about 3,000 rupees a month from making baskets for Tiger Watch. They have five sons and two daughters to support. She says that, like the tigers, they have become the hunted.
"We are not willing to live in an atmosphere where the police are always coming after us," she says. "We had to move from here to there. Our forefathers were involved in poaching, but we don't want to be involved in this trade any more."
It is a view echoed by 26-year-old Asanti. Her family are notorious tiger poachers and she is married to a former small-time poacher, Deshraj, 30. The couple, who married when Asanti was 10, have an eight-year-old daughter, Puja, and say they don't want her to grow up like they did, shunned by the rest of society. They provide information on what is happening in the tribe and in return receive money and a chance to start afresh.
"We want our children to be educated. We want to learn more. We want a regular source of income," says Asanti. "Hunting is not a regular source of income. Times have changed and our community is scattered. Now we want to live respectably."
Tiger Watch's approach is clearly having an effect, but that has not been enough to save it from the wrath of the authorities whose indolence it has exposed. Not long after the group revealed that poaching had reduced tiger numbers in Ranthambhore to just 18 in 2004, officials turned up at the office of its founder, Fateh Singh Rathore, and demolished it. His daughter's shop and their restaurant were also flattened, ostensibly for operating without the correct permissions, though others in a similar situation were left untouched. It was a warning.
Fateh Singh is now 75. He was the government's field director at Ranthambhore from 1977 to 1996 and is regarded as one of India's foremost tiger experts. Sitting in his rebuilt office, he picks up a newspaper and stares at the large WWF advert on the front page, with its warning that there are only 1,411 tigers left in India. He shakes his head; the true figure is probably closer to 800, he says. "They are always saying that the numbers are on the increase, but there is no proper scientific research. They are lying to save their skins. If they have a problem they should declare it. The authorities like only praise."
He doubts there are more than 20 tigers left in Ranthambhore.
"The field directors are responsible. They are not trying. They are too busy showing VIPs around to spend time on protection. All the popular parks are suffering from the same disease. They know they are posted for two years and then they will go somewhere else. No one is being punished for the tigers that are being lost."
Still, he says, while there are still some tigers, there is a chance. "I am still optimistic because I feel the tiger has a lust for life. It can survive if it gets protection, but you have to be very strict if you want to protect the tiger."
The system, however, is simply not geared up to deter the hunters. There were 72 arrests for tiger poaching in India last year, but the only two convictions were for cases dating back more than 10 years.
It is hardly a deterrent. Tiger poaching is a lucrative business for some – though not necessarily the poachers, who may have to share the 100,000 rupees (£1,450) they will get for one tiger between 10 gang members – and there are plenty of people with an interest in turning a blind eye.
When Tiger Watch and the Rajasthan police went after one of the biggest poachers in the region, Devi Singh, they had to sneak across the state border into Madhya Pradesh to snatch him from his village without alerting the local authorities because, Khandal explains, had they revealed their true intentions, someone would have tipped Singh off. When they got him back to Rajasthan, Singh confessed to killing five tigers in the park, in a period when no poaching was officially recorded.
The last full tiger census in India – which claimed 3,642 tigers – was carried out in 2001, based largely on pug marks, a hopelessly unreliable method of counting. Satya Prakash Yadav, deputy inspector general of the National Tiger Conservation Authority in Delhi, admits it was "seriously flawed" and "not scientifically correct". For the latest study, he says, officials switched methods, using a mixture of camera trap results and a survey of the habitat and prey base to produce an estimate of how many tigers might conceivably have survived. But he admits that problems remain. (Yadav did not have any figures for the number of tigers actually recorded in the camera traps. There are no data for this in the latest report and repeated requests for the vital statistic drew a blank.)
Many of those reserves are already on the brink. The greatest threat to the safety of the park officials comes from the Naxalites, Maoist guerrillas who have been described as the greatest threat to India's internal security. They have seized control of vast swaths of the country, ostensibly in the name of tribal peoples who they claim have been oppressed. They have a particular loathing for forestry officials, who they regard as the stick with which the state beats the tribals, extracting money and goods from them in return for the use of the forests on which they rely for their livelihoods. At least six of the parks are overrun by Naxalites and are inaccessible to the forest department. There is simply no way of knowing how many tigers remain there and certainly no way to install camera traps.
It is hardly surprising that the latest update lists 16 of the 37 reserves as being in a "poor" state. It is possible, Yadav concedes, that there are no tigers there.
"We have classified some reserves as poor where there is no population of tiger or where the tiger may go extinct. Despite our various milestone initiatives, the situation may go out of control in certain tiger reserves."
Simlipal reserve, in Orissa – the fourth largest in India – provides an insight into just how problematic the official figures are. A 2004 report, based on pug marks, claimed that there were 101 tigers in the reserve. Last year, India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, conceded that 40 tigers had been poached from the reserve over the previous five years, but insisted there were still 61 tigers alive and well in Simlipal alone. Yet the government's own figures claim that there are only 45 tigers in the whole of Orissa state, which also includes those in the Satkosia reserve. Again, something does not add up.
Then there is Panna. The latest report claimed that there were approximately 24 tigers in the 974sq km reserve. Last year, it was found that there were none. And this was three years after the government had announced a complete overhaul of the system, after the Sariska reserve was also found to be empty.
Luckily for the tiger, complacency is not endemic. In the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, a small group of women has been mounting their own fightback. Every day, members of the Vasanta Sena (Green Army) venture unpaid and unarmed into the forest, in search of poachers. There are 76 of them, living around the edges of the park, mostly from poor families, each taking one day a week off from jobs and looking after their homes to seek out intruders. One aim is to stop the destruction of the tigers' habitat, the forest itself. The sandalwoods are prized by illegal loggers for their oil, which is used in medicines and cosmetics. One kilogram of the wood can fetch 5,000 rupees.
The forest is lush and green, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the sandalwoods and the swaying stands of giant bamboos arcing overhead. A small stream runs beneath a roughly made wooden bridge. The women pick their way among the trees. At the front is Gracykutty, 39. She is married to a mason and has two daughters. She has been doing this for seven years.
"Here we breathe the best air in the world and we are dedicated to protecting it," she says. "I think if there is only one tiger left in the world in the end, it will be here."
Her colleague Jiji, 35, says they know that if the forest goes, so too will the tiger, destroying the tourist industry on which their economy depends.
"We keep a look out for trees that have been cut or signs that people have been in the forest. It is important because if the forest is cut then there is less space for the animals and if the forest goes and the tigers go then it will be terrible for everyone who lives around here. We understand this and that is why we are doing this. It is not just for ourselves, it is for our children too, so they can enjoy the forest like we do."
How many tigers remain in Periyar is a matter of conjecture. Sanjayan, the range officer, says the park has about 34 tigers, maybe 36. He says camera traps have identified 24 and the rest have been calculated using the unreliable pug mark method. But his boss, Bastian Joseph, the assistant field director, cites the official figure of 46 tigers.
Many conservationists fear that without drastic action, the only place the tiger will soon be found in India is in its zoos.
Inside the royal Bengal tiger pen at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, Nagammal, the woman who looks after the tigers, spins a metal wheel on the wall to slide open the internal cage door. Padma, the zoo's 15-year-old female, has been growing increasingly restless. Now she pads through the open door, lets out a roar and launches herself at the thick metal grille with a shuddering crash. She lands and turns away, pacing around the cage before repeating her assault several times, roaring her displeasure. Eventually, she settles on the floor and sits watching warily, emitting a low growl. Up close, it is easy to understand why the poachers are so keen to make sure their prey is securely trapped before they approach.
The zoo's director, PL Ananthasamy, argues that the answer to the tiger's decline lies in a captive breeding programme. "The basic game is conservation and in due course of time to take these species back to their home and release them," he says.
Tigers breed well in captivity, but releasing them into the wild is another matter entirely and most experts agree that it is fraught with difficulties, which may explain why there do not appear to be any examples of successful reintroduction of tigers.
Ananthasamy disagrees: "It is possible to release captive bred animals. We must do it gradually and ensure that the animal can survive by itself. We have not yet reached the stage where the tiger cannot breed in the wild, but the pressure is such around the sanctuaries that the numbers are coming down. There is enough prey base for the animals to survive, but the problem is the encroachers and poaching."
Aditya Singh, 43, conservationist and tiger expert, worries that time is running out. Singh runs a lodge on the edge of the Ranthambhore reserve park and spends much of his time inside the park. "I think the numbers have gone down. I think there are about 1,000 now," he says.
What will finish off the tiger as a viable species, he says, is the final destruction of the remaining corridors of forest that link the parks together. "There are still connections between the reserves, but in five years they won't be there. I think the tigers have five years. They will stay in isolated pockets, but they will have reached an evolutionary dead end.
"There is a view here that the forest belongs to the foreigners. For an average villager living outside the park they don't see it as an asset. They used to be able to go in for wood, but now they cannot. The problems for the tiger are poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation. The big problems that India has are the problems the tiger has."

How food and water are driving a 21st-century African land grab

An Observer investigation reveals how rich countries faced by a global food shortage now farm an area double the size of the UK to guarantee supplies for their citizens• Read the expert's view

John Vidal, Juba, Sudan
The Observer, Sunday 7 March 2010
We turned off the main road to Awassa, talked our way past security guards and drove a mile across empty land before we found what will soon be Ethiopia's largest greenhouse. Nestling below an escarpment of the Rift Valley, the development is far from finished, but the plastic and steel structure already stretches over 20 hectares – the size of 20 football pitches.
The farm manager shows us millions of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables being grown in 500m rows in computer controlled conditions. Spanish engineers are building the steel structure, Dutch technology minimises water use from two bore-holes and 1,000 women pick and pack 50 tonnes of food a day. Within 24 hours, it has been driven 200 miles to Addis Ababa and flown 1,000 miles to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries in the world with more than 13 million people needing food aid, but paradoxically the government is offering at least 3m hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world's most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations.
The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.
But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.
An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies. The data used was collected by Grain, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Land Coalition, ActionAid and other non-governmental groups.
The land rush, which is still accelerating, has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union's insistence that 10% of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.
In many areas the deals have led to evictions, civil unrest and complaints of "land grabbing".
The experience of Nyikaw Ochalla, an indigenous Anuak from the Gambella region of Ethiopia now living in Britain but who is in regular contact with farmers in his region, is typical. He said: "All of the land in the Gambella region is utilised. Each community has and looks after its own territory and the rivers and farmlands within it. It is a myth propagated by the government and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is not utilised in Gambella.
"The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.
"All the land round my family village of Illia has been taken over and is being cleared. People now have to work for an Indian company. Their land has been compulsorily taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot believe what is happening. Thousands of people will be affected and people will go hungry."
It is not known if the acquisitions will improve or worsen food security in Africa, or if they will stimulate separatist conflicts, but a major World Bank report due to be published this month is expected to warn of both the potential benefits and the immense dangers they represent to people and nature.
Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals attracted by some of the world's cheapest land.
Together they are scouring Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007. Any land there, which investors have not been able to buy, is being leased for approximately $1 per year per hectare.
Saudi Arabia, along with other Middle Eastern emirate states such as Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, is thought to be the biggest buyer. In 2008 the Saudi government, which was one of the Middle East's largest wheat-growers, announced it was to reduce its domestic cereal production by 12% a year to conserve its water. It earmarked $5bn to provide loans at preferential rates to Saudi companies which wanted to invest in countries with strong agricultural potential .
Meanwhile, the Saudi investment company Foras, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and wealthy Saudi investors, plans to spend $1bn buying land and growing 7m tonnes of rice for the Saudi market within seven years. The company says it is investigating buying land in Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda. By turning to Africa to grow its staple crops, Saudi Arabia is not just acquiring Africa's land but is securing itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce water a year. Water, says the UN, will be the defining resource of the next 100 years.
Since 2008 Saudi investors have bought heavily in Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya. Last year the first sacks of wheat grown in Ethiopia for the Saudi market were presented by al-Amoudi to King Abdullah.
Some of the African deals lined up are eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1.2m hectares deal between Madagascar and the South Korean company Daewoo would have included nearly half of the country's arable land.
Land to grow biofuel crops is also in demand. "European biofuel companies have acquired or requested about 3.9m hectares in Africa. This has led to displacement of people, lack of consultation and compensation, broken promises about wages and job opportunities," said Tim Rice, author of an ActionAid report which estimates that the EU needs to grow crops on 17.5m hectares, well over half the size of Italy, if it is to meet its 10% biofuel target by 2015.
"The biofuel land grab in Africa is already displacing farmers and food production. The number of people going hungry will increase," he said. British firms have secured tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania to grow flowers and vegetables.
Indian companies, backed by government loans, have bought or leased hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique, where they are growing rice, sugar cane, maize and lentils to feed their domestic market.
Nowhere is now out of bounds. Sudan, emerging from civil war and mostly bereft of development for a generation, is one of the new hot spots. South Korean companies last year bought 700,000 hectares of northern Sudan for wheat cultivation; the United Arab Emirates have acquired 750,000 hectares and Saudi Arabia last month concluded a 42,000-hectare deal in Nile province.
The government of southern Sudan says many companies are now trying to acquire land. "We have had many requests from many developers. Negotiations are going on," said Peter Chooli, director of water resources and irrigation, in Juba last week. "A Danish group is in discussions with the state and another wants to use land near the Nile."
In one of the most extraordinary deals, buccaneering New York investment firm Jarch Capital, run by a former commodities trader, Philip Heilberg, has leased 800,000 hectares in southern Sudan near Darfur. Heilberg has promised not only to create jobs but also to put 10% or more of his profits back into the local community. But he has been accused by Sudanese of "grabbing" communal land and leading an American attempt to fragment Sudan and exploit its resources.
Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher with Grain, said investing in Africa was now seen as a new food supply strategy by many governments. "Rich countries are eyeing Africa not just for a healthy return on capital, but also as an insurance policy. Food shortages and riots in 28 countries in 2008, declining water supplies, climate change and huge population growth have together made land attractive. Africa has the most land and, compared with other continents, is cheap," he said.
"Farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is giving 25% returns a year and new technology can treble crop yields in short time frames," said Susan Payne, chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, a UK investment fund seeking to spend $50m on African land, which, she said, was attracting governments, corporations, multinationals and other investors. "Agricultural development is not only sustainable, it is our future. If we do not pay great care and attention now to increase food production by over 50% before 2050, we will face serious food shortages globally," she said.
But many of the deals are widely condemned by both western non-government groups and nationals as "new colonialism", driving people off the land and taking scarce resources away from people.
We met Tegenu Morku, a land agent, in a roadside cafe on his way to the region of Oromia in Ethiopia to find 500 hectares of land for a group of Egyptian investors. They planned to fatten cattle, grow cereals and spices and export as much as possible to Egypt. There had to be water available and he expected the price to be about 15 birr (75p) per hectare per year – less than a quarter of the cost of land in Egypt and a tenth of the price of land in Asia.
"The land and labour is cheap and the climate is good here. Everyone – Saudis, Turks, Chinese, Egyptians – is looking. The farmers do not like it because they get displaced, but they can find land elsewhere and, besides, they get compensation, equivalent to about 10 years' crop yield," he said.
Oromia is one of the centres of the African land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies' association, said last week in a letter of protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired 1m hectares, Djibouti 10,000 hectares, Saudi Arabia 100,000 hectares, and that Egyptian, South Korean, Chinese, Nigerian and other Arab investors were all active in the state.
"This is the new, 21st-century colonisation. The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are dying from man-made famine as we speak," he said.
The Ethiopian government denied the deals were causing hunger and said that the land deals were attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign investments and tens of thousands of jobs. A spokesman said: "Ethiopia has 74m hectares of fertile land, of which only 15% is currently in use – mainly by subsistence farmers. Of the remaining land, only a small percentage – 3 to 4% – is offered to foreign investors. Investors are never given land that belongs to Ethiopian farmers. The government also encourages Ethiopians in the diaspora to invest in their homeland. They bring badly needed technology, they offer jobs and training to Ethiopians, they operate in areas where there is suitable land and access to water."
The reality on the ground is different, according to Michael Taylor, a policy specialist at the International Land Coalition. "If land in Africa hasn't been planted, it's probably for a reason. Maybe it's used to graze livestock or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users."
Development experts are divided on the benefits of large-scale, intensive farming. Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva said in London last week that large-scale industrial agriculture not only threw people off the land but also required chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, intensive water use, and large-scale transport, storage and distribution which together turned landscapes into enormous mono-cultural plantations.
"We are seeing dispossession on a massive scale. It means less food is available and local people will have less. There will be more conflict and political instability and cultures will be uprooted. The small farmers of Africa are the basis of food security. The food availability of the planet will decline," she says. But Rodney Cooke, director at the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, sees potential benefits. "I would avoid the blanket term 'land-grabbing'. Done the right way, these deals can bring benefits for all parties and be a tool for development."
Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development, who co-authored a report on African land exchanges with the UN fund last year, found that well-structured deals could guarantee employment, better infrastructures and better crop yields. But badly handled they could cause great harm, especially if local people were excluded from decisions about allocating land and if their land rights were not protected.
Water is also controversial. Local government officers in Ethiopia told the Observer that foreign companies that set up flower farms and other large intensive farms were not being charged for water. "We would like to, but the deal is made by central government," said one. In Awassa, the al-Amouni farm uses as much water a year as 100,000 Ethiopians.

Deal could be struck to protect bluefin tuna and African elephant

Ben Webster, Environment Editor

Two of the world’s most iconic endangered species, the bluefin tuna and African elephant, could be protected under a backroom deal being negotiated between Europe and Africa.
New rules restricting international trade in endangered species will be debated at a meeting of 175 countries beginning next week in Doha, Qatar. Europe wants to protect dwindling stocks of bluefin tuna and most African states want to prevent the sale of stockpiles of ivory to Japan and China.
The proposals will need a two-thirds majority to be approved at the conference on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), from March 13 to 25. Delegates will be trying to secure enough votes to overcome opposition from nations that either profit from the trade in the species or import them.
Japan consumes three quarters of the world’s bluefin tuna and a single fish can sell for as much as $110,000 (£72,600) at Tokyo’s fish market. Stocks of bluefin have fallen by 80 per cent in the past 30 years and wildlife groups and many nations, including Britain, believe the remaining populations are close to collapsing.

The African elephant is already protected under trade rules but black market prices of $1,200 (£790) a kilo (2.2lb) are fuelling an increase in poaching. The elephant population in the Zakouma National Park in Chad has fallen from 3,885 in 2006 to 617 in 2009 because of poaching.
A coalition of 23 African states has written to Britain and other EU members asking for their help in blocking a proposal from Tanzania and Zambia to sell 110 tonnes of ivory. Some of the 23 states sold ivory in 2008 but are unable to sell any more. A loophole in international rules could permit Tanzania and Zambia to make a one-off sale.
Britain believes that selling the stockpiled ivory would fuel demand in the Far East and lead to more poaching. Other EU states are considering supporting the sale because it could raise money for conservation in Tanzania and Zambia.
The letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Times, hints that the African nations would support the EU’s proposal for a ban on trade in bluefin tuna in return for the 27 EU members voting against the ivory sale.
The letter requests a meeting on the sidelines of the Doha meeting so that the African countries can “learn of the issues that may be of a high priority for you at the conference”.
It also contains a veiled threat that the 23 African countries would block proposals for protecting other endangered species unless the EU supports their position on the ivory sale.
It says a “successful conservation outcome” for ivory would “allow Cites to address other issues and other species”.
Tigers, polar bears and sharks are the other high-profile species on which the EU and the US are seeking to tighten the trade rules at Doha.
Britain is seeking a ban on so-called “tiger farms”, where the animals are intensively bred in captivity. The concern is that the existence of the farms in China, Vietnam and Thailand is encouraging demand for tiger to be used in medicines. This in turn results in poaching, threatening the dwindling wild tiger population.
The US is calling for polar bears to be listed on appendix I of at the convention, which would ban all international trade in the animals except for conservation purposes. While Britain supports the US proposal, other EU members believe a trade ban would anger indigenous communities in the Arctic that depend on the trade in polar bear skins and trophies. These communities currently co-operate with conservation programmes.
The EU has proposed that porbeagle sharks and the spiny dogfish (rock salmon) are listed on appendix II. Species in this category can still be traded but permits must be obtained.
The EU will vote as a bloc on each of the proposals after using qualified majority voting to agree its position.
Some European countries that profit from the bluefin tuna trade, including Spain, France, Italy and Malta, want small-scale fishing to be exempt from the proposed ban. Britain opposes this because it would allow up to 40 per cent of the trade to continue, only delaying the collapse of tuna stocks.

Energy consultant 'influenced climate evidence'

Ben Webster

A leading scientific institute allowed its evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into climate science to be influenced anonymously by an energy industry consultant who argues that global warming is a religion.
It emerged last night that the Institute of Physics’ (IOP) written submission to the Select Committee on Science and Technology had been influenced by Peter Gill, an IOP official who is head of a company in Surrey called Crestport Services. Crestport provides “consultancy and management support services” to energy companies and has worked with Shell and British Gas.
In an article in the newsletter of the IOP south central branch in April 2008, Mr Gill wrote: “If you do not ‘believe’ in anthropogenic climate change, you risk at best ridicule, but more likely vitriolic comments or even character assassination. For many people the subject has become a religion, so facts and analysis have become largely irrelevant.”
In November, Mr Gill commented on The Times Higher Education website: “Poor old CRU [the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia] have been seriously hacked. The emails and other files are all over the internet and include how to hide atmospheric cooling.”

The Institute initially refused to name any of the members who had contributed to the submission and said only that they had given an honest and independent assessment.
After being asked by The Times if Mr Gill had contributed to the submission, the institute admitted that he had but said he was one of several contributors.
The Institute has published a clarification to its submission in which it says that it does not doubt the basic science that human activities are causing global warming.
Some members of the Institute are understood to be considering resigning in protest over its submission.