Friday, 12 March 2010

Solar PV has failed in Germany and it will fail in the UK

Our tariff plan is near-identical to Germany's – that's the one that produced woeful amounts of energy, jobs and innovation

Let me begin with a plea to tone down this debate on feed-in tariffs. Jeremy Leggett and I have addressed each other politely and stuck to the facts. I have no ill feelings towards him; I simply believe that he is wrong about solar power. But the level of viciousness displayed on the comment threads, by email and on other sites has to be seen to be believed.
Where does fury of this kind come from? In my experience it's often associated with denial. People who don't like the outcomes dismiss the facts and lash out at the bearers of bad news. Could we, just for once, please try to get past this reaction, and judge the case on its merits?
My own instincts press me to support solar power. Like most environmentalists I believe that small is beautiful. I hate pylon lines and I don't care for the sight of big power plants of any description, wind farms included. I detest the big energy firms which provide our electricity. I am deeply attracted to the idea of being able to produce my own power, just as I love producing my own fruit and vegetables. But my attempts to find the best means of tackling climate change, which I explain at greater length in my book, Heat, have forced me to put my gut feelings to one side. Our choices must be based on the best possible information. Otherwise we waste our lives chasing chimeras.
Against my instincts I have come to oppose solar photovoltaic power (PV) in the UK, and the feed-in tariffs designed to encourage it, because the facts show unequivocally that this is a terrible investment. There are much better ways of spending the rare and precious revenue that the tariffs will extract from our pockets. If we are to prevent runaway climate change, we have to ensure that we get the biggest available bang for our buck: in other words the greatest cut in greenhouse gas production from the money we spend. Money spent on ineffective solutions is not just a waste: it's also a lost opportunity.
Environmentalists have no trouble understanding this argument when lobbying against nuclear power. Those who maintain that it's more expensive than renewable electricity argue that we shouldn't waste our money investing in it. But now I hear the same people telling us that we should support every form of renewable generation, regardless of the cost.
I'm delighted that Jeremy has accepted my bet that solar PV won't reach grid parity in 2013. I am also happy for the winnings to go to SolarAid. I agree with Jeremy that solar PV is an appropriate technology in Africa, where most people are off-grid and there's much more sunlight. It's in this country that it makes no sense.
And I accept Jeremy's challenge to write a column admitting I'm wrong if he wins the bet (but I won't accept his subtle slippage, substituting "near" for "at"). If I am wrong, it won't be the first time. In 2005, before I had crunched the numbers, I called on green NGOs to switch from supporting windfarms to promoting "decentralised microgeneration projects", which I considered a more attractive option. After I discovered just how badly this would set back efforts to decarbonise our power supplies, I changed my views. What would it take to change his?
Jeremy and I can speculate about how useful solar electricity will be in the UK until we've worn our keyboards out. Until our bet closes in 2013, by which time billions of pounds will have been committed, no one will know which of us is right.
But you don't have to rely on speculation to see how this is likely to pan out. As the old cookery programes used to say: "Here's one we prepared earlier." The German experiment, almost identical to the UK's, has now been running for ten years. An analysis published in November by the Ruhr University (pdf) shows just what it has achieved.
When the German programme began in 2000, it offered index-linked payments of 51 euro cents for every KWh of electricity produced by solar PV. These were guaranteed for 20 years. This is similar to the UK's initial subsidy, of 41p. As in the UK, the solar subsidy was, and remains, massively greater than the payments for other forms of renewable technology.
The real net cost of the solar PV installed in Germany between 2000 and 2008 was €35bn. The paper estimates a further real cost of €18bn in 2009 and 2010: a total of €53bn in ten years. These investments make wonderful sense for the lucky householders who could afford to install the panels, as lucrative returns are guaranteed by taxing the rest of Germany's electricity users. But what has this astonishing spending achieved? By 2008 solar PV was producing a grand total of 0.6% of Germany's electricity. 0.6% for €35bn. Hands up all those who think this is a good investment.
After years of these incredible payments, and the innovation and cost reductions they were supposed to stimulate, the paper estimates that saving one tonne of carbon dioxide through solar PV in Germany still costs €716. The International Energy Agency has produced an even higher estimate: €1000 per tonne. There are dozens of ways in which you can save carbon for 100th of the cost of solar PV at high latitudes.
The Ruhr University paper comes out against using feed-in tariffs to stimulate wind power as well, but in this case it shows that large-scale wind power in Germany is likely to become cheaper than conventional power by 2022, at which point subsidies will become redundant. It makes no such prediction for solar PV. It reinforces the point I made in my first sally: while Germany, like the UK, belongs to the European emissions trading scheme, any carbon savings made by feed-in tariffs merely allow polluting industries to raise their emissions. The net saving is zero. The paper suggests that a far more cost-effective mechanism would be to crank down the emissions cap under the trading scheme – then let renewable technologies fight it out to offer the biggest carbon saving per euro.
As for stimulating innovation, which is the main argument Jeremy makes in their favour, the report shows that Germany's feed-in tariffs have done just the opposite. Like the UK's scheme, Germany's is degressive – it goes down in steps over time. What this means is that the earlier you adopt the technology, the higher the tariff you receive. If you waited until 2009 to install your solar panel, you'll be paid 43c/kWh (or its inflation-proofed equivalent) for 20 years, rather than the 51c you get if you installed in 2000.
This encourages people to buy existing technology and deploy it right away, rather than to hold out for something better. In fact, the paper shows the scheme has stimulated massive demand for old, clunky solar cells at the expense of better models beginning to come onto the market. It argues that a far swifter means of stimulating innovation is for governments to invest in research and development. But the money has gone in the wrong direction: while Germany has spent some €53bn on deploying old technologies over ten years, in 2007 the government spent only €211m on renewables R&D.
In principle, tens of thousands of jobs have been created in the German PV industry, but this is gross jobs, not net jobs: had the money been used for other purposes, it could have employed far more people. The paper estimates that the subsidy for every solar PV job in Germany is €175,000: in other words the subsidy is far higher than the money the workers are likely to earn. This is a wildly perverse outcome. Moreover, most of these people are medium or highly skilled workers, who are in short supply there. They have simply been drawn out of other industries. The researchers say that:
"Any result other than a negative net employment balance of the German PV promotion would be surprising. In contrast, we would expect massive employment effects in export countries such as China."
Germany's solar exports (€0.2bn in 2006) have been greatly outweighed by its imports (€1.44bn in the same year). And it's not getting any better:
"Recent newspaper articles report that the situation remains dire, with the German solar industry facing unprecedented competition from cheaper Asian imports."
The UK's prospects of building the major export industry Jeremy dreams of are even slighter, as it will now have to take on Germany as well as China and Japan. We've missed the boat by years.
While I've been taking plenty of flak for arguing this case, I've also received a lot of support from green energy experts. Chris Goodall and David Thorpe, for example, have both come to similar conclusions, by working the case out from first principles. If you doubt what I say, I urge you to read their analyses, and the astonishing figures they have produced.
I have no horses in this race: I have no products to sell. I hope that some of you might be able to see that this is an honest attempt to get to the truth of the matter, and to find the most effective means of preventing runaway climate change.

Noel Kempff project is 'saving the forest' by forcing destruction elsewhere

Forest conservation project in Bolivia proves that unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, individual carbon offset schemes are worthless

Fred Pearce, Thursday 11 March 2010 11.49 GMT

It is the ultimate greenwash nightmare. A tough international deal to curb emissions of greenhouse gases is passed in Mexico later this year. Companies then meet their targets not by cutting their own pollution but by buying into hundreds of forest "conservation" projects round the world. But those projects then fail to deliver real benefits for forests or staunch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere.
Some big-time green groups prosper but the planet burns.
Exhibit A in this doomsday scenario is a 14-year-old forest conservation project in Bolivia called the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project, one of the world's largest schemes to fix carbon in protected forests. It is the brainchild of the US green group The Nature Conservancy and industrial partners, including the oil company BP and America's largest burner of coal, American Electric Power.
The Noel Kempff project is hailed by The Nature Conservancy as a model for the operation of Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) – the international plan to allow countries and companies to offset their carbon emissions by investing in preventing the destruction of forests.
Like much else, negotiations on Redd stalled in Copenhagen last December. But it is still on the agenda for agreement when talks resume in Cancun next December.
Some think such projects could scupper Redd though. Last autumn Greenpeace dubbed the Neol Kempff project a "carbon scam".
The $10m project, launched back in 1996, doubled the size of an existing national park and sought to project more than 800,000 hectares of forest, while testing the idea of running a forest as a verifiable carbon sink. It currently employs 27 rangers. With deforestation thought responsible for an estimate 17% of carbon emissions, the stakes are high.
The problem, however, is summed up in one word: leakage. That is jargon for what happens when the loggers put their chainsaws in the back of a pickup, drive down the road to the next forest, and resume activities. In other words, can protecting one place prevent the forces of forest destruction from simply moving elsewhere?
This is hard to do. Since the start of the Noel Kempff project, deforestation rates in Bolivia have gone up. So the argument is that one-off carbon offsetting projects do not deliver real benefits to the atmosphere unless governments undertake much wider efforts to curb deforestation.
For this reason Greenpeace is not alone in believing that Redd should only compensate at the national level. No awarding of carbon credits for "sub-national" projects like Noel Kempff. In other words: unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, then nobody gets any carbon credits. Only that way can you stop leakage wrecking it.
But groups such as the Nature Conservancy strongly disagree. They have a clear institutional interest. Their main activity is buying or managing land for conservation. It says there are good reasons for backing sub-national projects and has lobbied hard to ensure they stay in the UN's plans.
The Nature Conservancy says "national-scale accounting is the ultimate goal" of Redd. "However, a transition period should be allowed in which sub-national or project-scale activities can generate credits for sale in compliance markets."
It adds that "this type of activity will need to be accomplished at a much larger scale to make a significant difference to greenhouse gas emissions". And that is where the difference arises. The Nature Conservancy thinks sub-national projects will result in "learning by doing"; its critics think they will fatally undermine the whole enterprise.
While hailed as a model, the Noel Kempff project does not augur well for being able to measure carbon in forests. By 2004, the corporate partners in the project had reported offsets of 7.4m tonnes of CO2. But in 2005 a new evaluation cut that figure to just over 1m.
But even this could turn out to be an over-estimate. The 2005 audit shaved 16% off claimed offsets to account for leakage. Greenpeace cites a report from Winrock International, a non-profit consultancy, saying the long-term leakage figure could be much higher.
How would this play out in the carbon markets? Under the Noel Kempff plan, 51% of the emissions reductions achieved by the project can be claimed as offsets by corporate partners like AEP and BP. The remaining 49% goes to the Bolivian government. The original plan was to sell the emissions reductions on the Chicago Climate Exchange, which trades in voluntary carbon offsets.
Both AEP and BP told the Guardian this week that they had not offset any of their emissions as a result of the Noel Kempff project. BP said: "The project has not yet generated any carbon credits and BP has received no credits from it."
AEP, which burns 77m tonnes of coal annually in the US, uses the project to burnish its environmental image. It advertises its support for the Noel Kempff project on its website as part of its corporate citizenship activities.
It says that the company is "committed to combating tropical deforestation and putting in place criteria to ensure that forest offsets can be part of the toolkit for addressing global climate change". Both BP and AEP referred questions about the progress of the project to The Nature Conservancy.
It says Greenpeace's description of the Noel Kempff project as a scam was "an attempt to discredit emissions offsets that businesses might claim by supporting such efforts in the future". Rather, it says, the project was a pioneering activity from which much has been learned. AEP agrees. It says: "The reduction in the offsets from the project should be viewed as a validation, not criticism, of the project as it demonstrates that [The Nature Conservancy] and the project funders were willing to adjust the offset amounts based on improved science."
But have the right lessons been learned? Better carbon accounting is of course a good thing. But if the Noel Kempff project is truly a model for a future world of carbon markets rooting in rainforest conservation projects, it suggests real problems ahead. If companies with environmental reputations to defend can become bogged down in charges of greenwash, what about the bad guys?

What the Sami people can teach us about adapting to climate change

As global warming and habitat degradation accelerates, people indigenous to the Arctic circle say they have much to teach the world about how to adapt, survive, and thrive

Simon Tisdall in Rovaniemi, northern Finland, Wednesday 10 March 2010 12.26 GMT

Elina Helander-Renvall comes from Utsjoki, a place so obscure that even many Finns have little idea where it is. Utsjoki, or Ochejohka, Uccjuuha, and Uccjokk, depending on which local language you are speaking, is Finland's northern-most municipality. Straddling the border with Norway, it shivers, unregarded, deep inside the Arctic circle, a few icy miles from the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Utsjoki, population 1,034, is home to Finland's largest concentration of Sami speakers, the indigenous people once loosely known as Lapps who have eked out an itinerant existence herding reindeer across the frozen wastes of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia since the last Ice Age. Nearly 50% of Utsjoki's population are Sami. In Finnish terms, it's the closest this eternal minority has got to being the majority.
Born and raised on the margin though she was, Helander-Renvall's message these days is strictly mainstream. As accelerating climate change and other man-made environmental degradations create growing alarm across the planet, the Sami people have much to teach the world about how to adapt, survive, and thrive, she says.
"There is a lot to learn from the Sami, they have the traditional ecological knowledge, they really know about nature," said Helander-Renvall, head of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples Office at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi. "They have the most precise knowledge about the weather conditions, about the plants, the diet, the resources. The Sami people have an ethical relationship with nature; a respect for nature that also has a spiritual side."
The Arctic region is uniquely vulnerable to global warming, but if it is to weather the storm, it would do well to adopt Sami methods of land and resource management, communal co-operation and communication, local knowledge and best practice, she said.
In order to keep a reindeer herd out of trouble, for example, a knowledge of different types of snow could be decisive, Helander-Renvall said. Muohta (ordinary snow) or oppas (untouched snow) might be safe. But the presence of sievla (wet snow), skarta (thin, ice-like snow layers) or ceavvi (a hard layer that the reindeer cannot penetrate in search of lichen) could dictate a life-saving change of route or decision to move camp.
Local knowledge will also be vital to the large-scale industrial development on the fast-expanding oil and gas fields of western Russia's Yamal peninsula, and for the burdgeoning commercial and tourism industries in the Scandinavian north. Knowing where it is safe to build, how to site the foundations for a new road, airstrip or pipeline, what terrain to avoid, and how to do so responsibly while protecting biological diversity will all be increasingly important. "We need to preserve and transfer indigenous knowledge to future generations," Helander-Renvall said.
Professor Monica Tennberg of the Arctic Research Centre in Rovaniemi said the Sami had shown notable ability to adapt to changing climate conditions. "We've seen how the community adapts, for example finding new ways to deal with floods. We've seen better co-operation, better municipal leadership, better communications, better early warning systems," she said. Adverse effects of climate change on pasture and traditional herding trails had been met with new rotation and migration patterns and also by a tighter communal discipline.
The Arctic as a whole faces enormous challenges. Broadly speaking the region is warming at double the rate of the rest of the world, said Paula Kankaanpaa, director of the Research Centre, with local "hotspots" that fare even worse.
Symptoms include reduced sea ice; the opening of blue-water sea passages both east and west in summer, north of Canada and Russia; increased levels of carbon-carrying organic waste in the Arctic Ocean caused by melting tundra; coastal erosion due to increased wave activity; loss of habitat for large mammals such as seals and polar bears and growing disruption of indigenous human communities.
Governments still resist the idea that Arctic indigenous peoples have something unique to contribute. Canada announced this month that it will convene a foreign ministers' meeting of the five Arctic Ocean states (Canada, Russia, the US, Norway and Denmark/Greenland) in March "to encourage new thinking on responsible development" and "reinforce ongoing collaboration in the region".
To their dismay, Arctic indigenous people's organisations, including the Sami, Inuit and Inuvialuit, were not invited.

Putin seeks to bolster links with New Delhi

By James Lamont in New Delhi
Published: March 11 2010 02:00
Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, is embarking on a bold initiative to resuscitate his country's flagging relationship with India by offering an expansion of nuclear power , military technology transfer and partnership in Russia's global positioning system.
On the eve of Mr Putin's arrival in New Delhi today, Russian officials said Moscow wanted to re-energise deep ties forged in the decades after India's independence that would serve India better than warming relationships with western powers, such as the US.
Mr Putin is expected to sign as many as 15 agreements worth about $10bn (€7.36bn, £6.67bn) during his fifth visit to India in a decade.
One top official said that while Russia had come to India's rescue at the end of British rule, "other influential powers" had taken 50 years "to realise that India is a superpower in the making". He also said that Russia was ready to provide India with military technology that Europe and the US would not.
Russia is offering to accelerate its nuclear plant building programme in India, build a fifth-generation jet fighter and military transport aircraft with India and partner with it in the production of satellite navigation equipment for Russia's Glonass, a rival to the GPS system of the US.
Russia's commercial relationship with India is grounded in military supplies , including jet fighters and submarines, and energy. Bilateral trade is worth about $8bn a year. Russia is the main supplier of weaponry to India's security forces and has built two nuclear reactors in Tamil Nadu and has plans to build four more. Moscow also hopes to diversify commercial ties with investments in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and information technology.
Alexander Kadakin, Moscow's ambassador to New Delhi, said Russia had given India's military the technological edge to defend itself from terror attacks and hostile neighbours, such as nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"No country in the world has offered India the technological deals as my country has done. We have shared the most sensitive and newest [technological] developments," he said.
However, Russia's arms supply has run into difficulties over the price of an aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov . Mr Kadakin said a lesson from the dispute was that New Delhi would have to be prepared to pay the price for advanced weapons systems and closer technological partnership.
"The days when you could get weapons for grain, rice and Ludhiana hosiery are gone forever," he said.
Indian diplomats say that Russia's relationship with India lost its way in the 1980s and 1990s and both sides must now make effort.
"With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the whole edifice of relations . . came crashing down," said Rajiv Sikri, a former secretary in India's foreign ministry.
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Conservation group supports call for bluefin tuna trade ban

The future of the bluefin tuna could be decided within days, along with two other endangered fish, the spiny dogfish and porbeagle, according to a national conservation charity.
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said the northern Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, considered to be one of the most majestic species living in European waters, has been fished for centuries, and the effects have taken their toll.
Northern bluefin, which can reach more than 3m in length, is now classed as endangered in the Eastern Atlantic by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the same rating as orang-utans and tigers.
Members of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites) will meet on Saturday, to discuss which species should be added to their appendices.
The MCS, along with several EU countries, including the UK, is backing a proposal from Monaco to add the bluefin tuna to Appendix I, effectively banning all international trade.
There could, however, be some resistance to the listing, the MCS said, as the market remains strong in Japan where the tuna is used in sushi and sashimi. The trade has driven the species to the brink of extinction, resulting in prices so high that one fish recently sold for around £111,000.
France, which has a big tuna fishery industry, may also be less than happy with a ban, according to the society.
Sam Wilding, MCS fisheries officer, said bluefin tuna was listed as a 'fish to avoid' on the MCS consumer recommendation lists, due to the dramatic decline in stocks over recent years, and the ineffectiveness of the management of this fishery.
He added: "Also on the MCS fish to avoid list are the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) and the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias).
"These species have also been proposed by Germany, for a listing on Cites Appendix II, which will help control trade. Both of these species are characterised by slow growth, late maturity and high longevity - characteristics that make them highly vulnerable to fishing pressure."
Many shark species are targeted for their fins, meat and for other products including cosmetics, animal feed and dietary supplements. When such species become over-fished, MCS said, it can take decades for stocks to recover, if indeed they recover at all.
Mr Wilding believes the Cites meeting is an opportunity for the world to take a stand and stop the overfishing of these endangered species.
He added: "These opportunities do not come around that often, and it is time for the majority to stand up to the minority that gain so much economic benefit from driving species towards the brink of extinction.
"MCS urges consumers to help, by avoiding all fish on our red list and to ask where your tuna comes from to ensure it's sustainable."