Colombian farmers sue oil giant BP for $28.6 million over environmental damage
15 Oct 2014 at 19:31 ET
A case in which 100 Colombian farmers are suing British oil giant BP for environmental damage opened in the High Court in London on Wednesday.
The farmers are demanding £18 million ($28.6 million, 22.4 million euros) in damages from British company Equion Energia, formerly called BP Exploration (Colombia) Limited (BPXC).
They argue the company caused massive damage to their land when it constructed the Ocensa oil pipeline in the mid-1990s, saying it was constructed negligently and damaged their crops.
The group’s lawyer, Alex Layton, told the hearing that BP had promised fair compensation for any damage it caused.
“BP broke that promise. We ask the court to make them keep it,” Layton said.
He accused the company of cutting corners when it built the pipeline, which cuts across Colombia from the Cusiana and Cupiagua oilfields to the coast.
“BP knew the risks, and knew how to avoid them, but chose to run these risks. It signally failed to meet its own standards,” Layton said.
BP, which has since sold its assets in Colombia, denies that substandard construction caused damage and said it had paid compensation where appropriate.
“The Ocensa pipeline project in Colombia involved significant steps being taken at the time of construction to… ensure that the land that the pipeline traversed suffered no material damage,” the company said in a statement.
“BP believes that these measures were effective and that the construction of the pipeline was carried out to a high standard.”
The 109 farmers from 73 farms, many of whom are subsistence farmers known as “campesinos”, say that the construction caused soil erosion, damaged plant coverage and affected water sources.
Witnesses have travelled from remote parts of Colombia for the trial.
DoD Report Warns Of Massive Effects Of Climate Change
By Susie Madrak
October 16, 2014 8:00 am -
Weather extremes will lead to food and water shortages, an explosion of pandemic diseases, waves of destitute refugees, and violent conflagrations over dwindling natural resources.
DoD Report Warns Of Massive Effects Of Climate Change
And what are we arguing about instead? This is the biggest and most immediate threat to our existence, and politicians beholden to fossil-fuel billionaires pretend it doesn't exist:
Rising sea levels, hotter global temperatures, wildly fluctuating precipitation patterns, and more frequent extreme weather systems will likely intensify global instability, hunger, and poverty. These events could very well lead to acute food and water shortages, an explosion of pandemic diseases, waves of destitute refugees, and violent conflagrations over dwindling natural resources — a likelihood that should be viewed as an immediate threat to America's national security.
Those are the sobering themes of a new report on climate change, authored not by scientists or environmentalists, but by uniformed personnel at the US Department of Defense.
"The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere," US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday during a visit to Arequipa, Peru for the Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas. "Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline and trigger waves of mass migration."
The report — the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which was released during Secretary Hagel's visit to Peru — proposes steps America's armed forces should take to identify and plan for the impacts of global climate change. It comes as NASA announced on Monday that September 2014 was the hottest September on record, making it increasingly likely that 2014 will become the warmest year ever documented.
Click here to read this entire document... it is a true wake up call for humanity: http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf
The key to defeating superbugs? Designer viruses could be the new antibiotics
17 Oct 2014 at 11:04 ET
Bacterial infections remain a major threat to human and animal health. Worse still, the catalogue of useful antibiotics is shrinking as pathogens build up resistance to these drugs. There are few promising new drugs in the pipeline, but they may not prove to be enough. Multi-resistant organisms – also called “superbugs” – are on the rise and many predict a gloomy future if nothing is done to fight back.
The answer, some believe, may lie in using engineered bacteriophages – a type of viruses that infects bacteria. Two recent studies, both published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, show a promising alternative to small-molecule drugs that are the mainstay of antibiotics today.
From basic to synthetic biology
Every living organism has evolved simple mechanisms to protect itself from harmful pathogens. This innate immune system can be a passive barrier, blocking anything above a certain size, or an active response that recognises foreign molecules – such as proteins and DNA – then kills them.
In bacteria, an important component of the immune system is composed of a family of proteins, which is tased specifically with breaking down foreign DNA. Each bug produces a set of these proteins that chew the genetic material of viruses and other micro-organism into pieces while leaving its own genome intact.
In vertebrates, a more advanced mechanism – called the adaptive immune system – creates a molecular memory of previous attacks and prepares the organism for the next wave of infection. This is the principle on which vaccines are built. Upon introduction of harmless pathogen fragments, the adaptive immunity will train specialist killer cells that later allow a faster and more specific response upon contact with the virulent agent.
Until recently, people thought bacteria were too simple to possess any sort of adaptive immunity. But in 2007 a group of scientists from the dairy industry showed that bacteria commonly used for the production of cheese and yogurts could be “vaccinated” by exposure to a virus. Two years earlier, others had noticed similarities between repetitive sections in bacterial genomes and the DNA of viruses. These repetitive sequences – called CRISPR for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” – had been known for 20 years but no one could ever explain their function.
With both these observations it quickly became clear that bacteria were introducing viral DNA fragments into their own genome to protect themselves from later attacks. But it took another five years to get the whole picture.
In 2012, a German team identified all the pieces and showed how exactly bacteria transcribe viral DNA into a short RNA – usually the messenger molecule – which guides the DNA-cutting protein called Cas9 and tells it where to chop off viral DNA.
This could have been just one more interesting scientific observation, but in an era of synthetic biology, natural functions can quickly become designers tools. Within two years, many laboratories demonstrated that, by tailoring the short RNA guide, any gene could be cut out from a chromosome using the CRISPR-Cas9 system.
Since that breakthrough, hundreds of scientists have used it to manipulate the genome of bacteria, yeast, worms, crops, fruit flies, zebrafish, mice, rats, or even human cells. Although there are limitations, a procedure that used to take months using previous technologies – such as breeding or genome editing – can now be done in a few weeks.
Bacterial immunity, rewired
Now two teams of scientists, one led by Timothy Lu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the other by Luciano Marriffini of Rockefeller University, each used the CRISPR-Cas9 system to generate their own version of a prototype technology that turns a bacteria’s defence mechanism into a self-destructing weapon. The main idea behind their work was to use genetic engineering to rewire the bacteria’s immunity to produce “boomerang” antibiotic targets only bugs carrying specific genes.
To do this, their teams built an artificial CRISPR-Cas9 system – that could cut out specific genes – by assembling pieces in the lab before reintroducing it back into bacteria using viruses. Once injected into the bug, the guide RNA recruits the Cas9 protein to target genes that endow the bug antibiotic resistance or other harmful properties by embedding viral DNA. After those genes are removed, the superbug either dies or turns into an harmless one.
Although the method still needs improving to become useful for treatment, its ability to specifically kill pathogens has significant potential because it can limit their spread to other bacteria.
Fighting antibiotic resistance would not be the only application for these engineered viruses. Current small-molecule antibiotics also end up killing other healthy bacteria in our body. The new method would the harmless bugs intact, and thus minimise side-effects of antibiotics use.
In the past few years, the role of friendly microbes living in the human gut has become clearer. Imbalance in the diversity of species and their relative abundance may influence the development of certain conditions – including depression, diabetes and obesity. In this context, engineered viruses that would restore or shape the microbiota (or flora) could greatly improve health.
By Luc Henry, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne
Luc Henry does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Humble spud poised to launch a world food revolution
Dutch team is pioneering development of crops fed by sea water
The Observer, Saturday 18 October 2014 13.50 BST
In a small army field-hut Dr Arjen de Vos shows off his irrigation machine with pride. Pipes lead out to several acres of muddy field, where only a few stragglers from the autumn harvest of potatoes, salads, carrots and onions are left. The tubes are lined with copper to stop corrosion because – in a move that defies everything we think we know about farming – de Vos is watering his plants with diluted sea water.
Last week the project beat 560 competitors from 90 countries to win the prestigious USAid grand challenge award for its salt-tolerant potato. “It’s a game changer,” said de Vos. “We don’t see salination as a problem, we see it as an opportunity.”
Here, on one of the Netherlands’ northernmost islands, windswept Texel (pronounced Tessel) surrounded by encroaching ocean and salt marshes that seep sea water under its dykes and into ditches and canals, an enterprising farmer has taken the radical step of embracing salt water instead of fighting to keep it out. And now he thinks he might just help feed the world.
Inspired by sea cabbage, 59-year-old Marc van Rijsselberghe set up Salt Farm Texel and teamed up with the Free University in Amsterdam, which sent him de Vos to look at the possibility of growing food using non-fresh water. Their non-GM, non-laboratory-based experiments had help from an elderly Dutch farmer who has a geekish knowledge of thousands of different potato varieties.
“The world’s water is 89% salinated, 50% of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and there are millions of people living in salt-contaminated areas. So it’s not hard to see we have a slight problem,” said van Rijsselberghe. “Up until now everyone has been concentrating on how to turn the salt water into fresh water; we are looking at what nature has already provided us with.”
The scarcity of fresh water has been labelled as the planet’s most drastic problem by the World Bank, NGOs, governments and environmentalists. A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas of drought, and climate change is only going to exacerbate the problem. Poor farming practices, along with road and pavement building, is raising water tables and increasing the salination of rivers and lakes – in the Western Australian wheat-belt alone, salinity has caused a 50% fall in the numbers of wetland bird species, and threatened 450 plant species with extinction.
Attempts to desalinate sea water are going on around the globe – the UK has a £270m plant on the river Thames and Saudi Arabia produces 70% of its drinking water through desalination. But removing the dissolved minerals is expensive, requires much energy and the leftover concentrated brine has to be disposed of. The process is far too expensive to be used for irrigation in poorer countries. But thanks to a partnership with Dutch development consultants MetaMeta, several tonnes of the Texel seed potatoes are now on their way to Pakistan where thousands of hectares of what until now had been unproductive land because of sea water encroachment have been set aside for them.
If the experiment works and the potatoes adapt to the Asian climate, it could transform the lives of not only small farmers in Pakistan and Bangladesh,, where floods and sea water intrusion wipe out crops with increasing regularity, but also worldwide the 250 million people who live on salt-afflicted soil.
Van Rijsselberghe is happy to be seen as an entrepreneur whose interest was to grow a “value added” food crop that would tolerate Holland’s problems with water. He says he used a trial and error approach in development. “We’re not a scientific institution, we’re a bunch of lunatics with an idea that we can change things and we are interested in getting partnerships together with normal farmers, not people who want to write doctorates.” As a pioneer of organic farming in the 1990s, he faced heavy opposition, while a project to grow sea aster – a salt marsh-grown salad popular in high-end restaurants – ended in disaster when 3,000 migrating ducks made an unexpected stop and ate the entire crop in three hours. ”
He says the Netherlands needs to rethink its approach to food: “A third of the country is sensitive to salination. We put up dykes and pump away the water; we feel safe. We believe that outside the dykes is for the fishermen and inside the dikes is for the farmers. I think we have to stop that and talk to each other. What can be grown on the salt marshes and in the sea? Can we grow prawns in the lakes? We need to have these conversations and rethink the way we produce food.”
But where does all that salt go? Aren’t we in danger of overdosing on salt if we eat the Salt Farm Texel crops? “What we find is that, if you tease a plant with salt, it compensates with more sugar,” said de Vos. “The strawberries we grow, for example, are very sweet. So nine times out of ten the salt is retained in the leaves of the plant, so you’d have to eat many many kilos of potatoes before you’d exceed your recommended salt intake. But some of the salads are heavy with salt, you wouldn’t eat them by the bucketful.
“And there are other potentials, too – if we could find a grass that was salt tolerant, then it would make a big difference to all those golf courses built in developing countries that are using up all the locals’ fresh water. Nature has already laid out some helping hands for us. Mankind just hasn’t realised it.”
Where Mud Is Archaeological Gold, Russian History Grew on Trees
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
OCT. 18, 2014
VELIKY NOVGOROD, Russia — The note, from father to son, was the sort of routine shopping list that today would be dashed off on a smartphone. In 14th century Russia, it was etched into the bark of a birch tree and curled into a scroll.
“Send me a shirt, towel, trousers, reins, and, for my sister, send fabric,” the father, whose name was Onus, wrote to his son, Danilo, the block letters of Old Novgorod language, a precursor to Russian, neatly carved into the wood with a stylus. Onus ended with a bit of humor. “If I am alive,” he wrote, “I will pay for it.”
The scroll and a dozen others like it were among the finds from this year’s digging season, adding to a collection of more than 1,000 birch-bark documents uncovered here after being preserved for hundreds of years in the magical mud that makes this city one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites on earth. “Novgorod for Russia is like Pompeii for Italy,” said Pyotr G. Gaidukov, the deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology. “Only Novgorod is still alive.”
Written in conversational language, on everyday topics, the birch-bark documents provide a remarkable human soundtrack to accompany a vast — and still growing — trove of artifacts including coins, official seals, kitchenware, jewelry and clothing. Each year, thousands of items are found amid buildings and streets, once paved with wooden logs, buried in the soil.
There are records of business transactions, demands for payment of debts, inventories of goods, accusations of crimes, convoluted discussions of legal disputes, personal letters among family and friends, even love letters. “Marry me,” a man named Mikita wrote to a woman named Anna in a birch-bark letter dated to between 1280 and 1300. “I want you, and you me.”
Archaeologists say the documents, once deciphered by linguists, breathe life into all of their other findings. “They open a road for us, a window in the everyday life and relations,” said Sergei Yazikov, who led a dig on Bolshaya Moskovskaya Street where many of this year’s birch writings were found. “The people of ancient Novgorod are talking to us through these scrolls.”
Nestled in a curve of the Volkhov River, with the crenelated brick walls of its Kremlin-fortress and the sparkling gold and silver domes of its churches, Veliky Novgorod looks like the setting of a medieval fairy tale.
In a way, it was.
The city was founded, according to legend, by Rurik, a Varangian chieftain, in 859. It is a place where democracy once flourished, where benevolent princes ruled with the consent of a parliament of local elites called the Veche, where markets hummed and international trade thrived, where women were empowered to participate in business and other aspects of public life.
It was a place where children began attending school around the year 1030. Among the most poignant of the birch documents are writings by a boy named Onfim, believed to be 6 or 7 years old. Dated to around 1260, they included school exercises and doodles. In one drawing, Onfim seems to envision himself as a warrior, writing his own name next to a figure on horseback who has slain an adversary. In another, there is a four-legged creature with a tail, and the words, “I, beast.”
In an interview in his office, the city’s mayor, Yuri I. Bobryshev, glowed with pride as he described its history as a major trading post of the medieval Hanseatic League, with strong ties to the European centers of Lubeck, Bruges, Ghent and London.
“It was a union of merchants and the decisions taken by that union were unconditionally carried out by the rulers of all European states,” Mr. Bobryshev said, adding with a sly smile, “Of course, at that time there was no trace of the United States.”
He then boasted about Novgorod’s role, along with Kiev, as one of the two principal cities of Kievan Rus — the original Russian Federation — adding that Moscow could lay no claim to national prominence until Ivan III made it the capital in the 15th century.
“That’s why we speak of Novgorod as the motherland of Russia,” Mr. Bobryshev said. “In Novgorod, the first customs office appeared. The ruble appeared in Novgorod. The first school was in Novgorod, in 1030 by Yaroslav the Wise, our Novgorod prince. It was founded not only for the children from rich families, but for everyone. So Novgoroders were absolutely literate people in the Middle Ages.”
“It’s not something I made up,” he said. “Here, I move to the subject of archaeology: all of this has been confirmed by findings.”
The city and its outskirts are dotted with excavation sites, including the Troitsky dig, which has been underway since the 1970s. The first birch-bark scrolls were found in 1951. At the huge pit on Bolshaya Moskovskaya Street, which yielded some of the most important finds this summer, Mr. Yazikov bounded down a ramp, descending through hundreds of years of Russian history (with every few steps). Small white pieces of paper marked the layers in the soil corresponding to the different centuries.
Coins, seals and jewelry point to a merchant’s home being on the site for much of its history. There is evidence that in the 10th century the area was mostly used for gardens and an apple orchard. In the 12th century, the city was flourishing, with evidence of large wooden buildings. Experts say the wet, clay soil that lies under Novgorod, and contains little or no oxygen, has the unusual chemical quality that preserves both hard artifacts made of metal and items made of softer material like leather.
Jos Schaeken, the dean of Leiden University College The Hague, who is a professor of Slavic and Baltic languages, said that Novgorod had not received sufficient notice in the West given its importance to archaeologists, linguists and historians.
“It is revolutionary in the sense that it gives you inside knowledge of a medieval city that had international ties with the East and the West, how it was organized and functioned, and how people communicated with each other,” he said. The birch-bark documents date from the 1000s through the 1400s, when paper became more readily available.
In Russia, Novgorod is the place where archaeology students hope to apprentice and professionals seek to make their careers. And the newest birch-bark findings often create a sensation, with hundreds of students and members of the general public attending lectures by Prof. Andrey A. Zaliznyak, a noted linguist, at Moscow State University, summing up the major discoveries.
Dmitri Sitchinava, a linguist who has attended the lectures for the past decade, said they were a theatrical event attracting hordes of fans, professionals and amateurs alike. “We have the voices of people who lived a thousand or so years ago, and they have exactly the same issues to discuss as we do,” he said.
But Mr. Sitchinava said that medieval Novgorod was idealized, and the archaeological findings proved this to be the case. “There is a conception that the early medieval Russia was much more European,” he said, adding that there was an idea that Novgorod then “was kind of like a paradise lost. It is presented as a democratic or republican alternative lost during the Middle Ages.”
But, he said: “We know there were slaves, there were serfs in old Novgorod. There were some political troubles, and the democracy was very, very different from what we understand now. But this myth lives and it’s very vital. It fosters the interest in this place.”
Are we in the Anthropocene? Scientists ask if this is the new epoch of humans
Ian Sample, The Guardian
18 Oct 2014 at 13:45 ET
A disparate group of experts from around the world will meet for the first time on Thursday for talks on what must rank as one of the most momentous decisions in human history.
The question confronting the scientists and other specialists is straightforward enough, even if the solution is far from simple. Is it time to call an end to the epoch we live in and declare the dawn of a new time period: one defined by humanity’s imprint on the planet?
The 30-strong group, made up of geologists, climate scientists, ecologists – and a lawyer for good measure – will start their deliberations in a room at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or House of the Cultures of the World, a contemporary arts centre in Berlin.
Like many things in the world of geology, little moves fast at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the body that decides the time period we live in. But the arrival and informal adoption of the word “anthropocene” to mean a new epoch of humanity has somewhat forced their hand.
The word came into common usage after Paul Crutzen, a Dutch chemist and Nobel prize winner, used the term in 2000. He arguedin an academic newsletter that the current geological epoch should be awarded the new name to reflect the major and ongoing impact of human life on Earth.
The official arrival of the Anthropocene would mark the end of the Holocene, the geological time we live in now. Identified by a geochemical signal in Greenland ice cores that marks the onset of warmer and wetter conditions at the end of the last ice age, the Holocene defined a time when humans colonised new territories and the population swelled.
Though many scientists are happy with the Holocene, the Anthropocene was quickly picked up on. It entered the lexicon of archaeologists, historians, climate scientists and environmentalists. For the ICS, which balks at terms being bandied about without them being properly defined, the rise of the Anthropocene posed a problem.
The ICS responded the way any large and conservative organisation might. Its subcommission on quaternary stratigraphy set up a working group on the Anthropocene, filled it with a diverse range of experts, and handed the problem to them. The working group has given itself until 2016 to bash out a proposal for the ICS to consider.
“Crutzen, who is not a geologist, but one of the modern great scientists, essentially launched a small hand grenade into the world of geological time scales,” Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of the ICS’s anthropocene working group, told the Guardian. “The word began to be used widely, well before geologists ever got involved.”
The secretary of the working group, Colin Waters, a principal mapping geologist at the British Geological Survey, said the term has come to mean different things as it has spread to different groups, a situation that can only end in headaches. “It’s so widely used now that there are at least three journals using the term Anthropocene in their titles, yet no-one knows what is meant by the term. It’s like having a set of publications on the Jurassic without anyone knowing what the word Jurassic means. We need a common understanding,” he said.
The history of the Earth is divided up according to the geological time scale, which is set by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. The longest units of time are periods, such as the Tertiary period, which spans from around 2.5 million years ago to 66 million years ago. Epochs are shorter, such as the Eocene, which ran from 56 million years ago to 34 million years ago. Shorter still are ages, such as the Messinian, which spanned the past 7 to 5 million years.
The working group must first thrash out a definition of the anthropocene and then work out whether it wants the ICS to make the term official and at what level. Crutzen proposed it as a new epoch – as the suffix “cene” suggests – and the working group will use this as a starting point.
In the past, the ICS has looked to rocks to define different time periods in Earth’s history. The Cambrian period, which began more than half a billion years ago, marks the moment when major groups of animals first appeared as fossils in rock strata.
This time, the signals may be less wondrous. One marker for the start of the Anthropocene that the group will consider is the sudden and global arrival of radionuclides left over from atomic bombs in the 1940s and 1950s. One advantage is that plutonium, caesium, strontium and other substances can be linked to a specific date in time as well as a clear line in rock, called a golden spike, in the business. “The boundary might be set at 1945 when that started,” said Zalasiewicz.
Other options are the widespread use of plastic, the release of polyaromatic hydrocarbons from the burning of fossil fuels, and lead contamination from petroleum, which all leave stark traces in the Earth. Crutzen argued for the late 18th century as the start of the industrial revolution.
But some scientists are completely against the idea. Phil Gibbard, a geologist at Cambridge who set up the working group in the first place, is one. “ I’m not in favour of this being defined formally as a division of geological time. I think it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do,” he said. “We are living in an interglacial period and there’s no question we’re still within that period, and it’s called the holocene.”
Mike Ellis, a member of the working group and head of climate change at the British Geological Survey, disagrees: “The principal process of change on the planet is us, so the name of our epoch should reflect that. It’s as simple as that.
“It acknowledges that humans and the human process is as much a natural process as any other natural process that we are used to thinking about, such as volcanoes and earthquakes. The things we do and the things we make; the rules and legislation we come up with to control the way we live, they are a natural process and it emerges out of this thing called the Earth.”
Antarctic conference to vote on huge marine parks amid strained relations
Meeting of 25 nations, including Russia and Ukraine, in Hobart will consider proposals on the future of Antarctic research and marine protection
Australian Associated Press
theguardian.com, Monday 20 October 2014 04.35 BST
Tense international relations could sway the outcome of vital research and protection proposals for the Antarctic, the head of a global meeting of scientists says.
Russia and China are among 25 delegate nations meeting in Hobart for the annual gathering of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Representatives from both countries, and others including Ukraine, have previously opposed the creation of two huge marine protected areas, arguing the zones would have a devastating impact on fishing.
This year the commission will again consider the establishment of the ocean sanctuaries – in an amended form – one of which is proposed by Australia, France and the EU, the other by the US and New Zealand.
But international relations, including Australia’s strained links with Russia, could affect the talks.
“No one hangs their coat and hat up at the door, some of those issues come through,” the commission secretary, Australia’s Andrew Wright, told reporters on Monday’s opening day of the meetings.
“We do expect, and it is not unreasonable in a multilateral setting such as this, that there are other issues going on ... that do impact on a member’s political position.”
All 25 delegate nations were represented at this year’s meeting, Wright confirmed.
Talks had been going on between Australian and Russian delegations, but they had been affected by the MH17 tragedy, he said.
“How that plays out over the next fortnight I can’t forecast.”
The agenda for the 10-day meeting includes setting up protected marine areas, combating illegal fishing, limiting catches of krill and other fish species and improving monitoring of Antarctic waters.
The marine park proposal, which Australia has put its name to, has almost halved in size to one million square kilometres since it was last considered by the commission. It also allows restricted fishing activity in its new guise.
The chairman of the commission’s scientific committee, Christopher Jones from the United States, said the initial response to the proposal has been positive.
“It is very important that we make some progress this year,” Jones said of plans for the marine park, which are being considered for a fourth year.
Denmark's plan to offset transport emissions sparks EU row
Green champion’s push to funnel car emissions into the emissions trading system seen as attempt to bend rules
theguardian.com, Monday 20 October 2014 18.34 BST
A Danish bid to expand carbon offsetting to the transport sector has triggered uproar among NGOs and academics, with one new analysis saying it would devastate efforts to reign in fuel emissions.
Transport is responsible for a quarter of Europe’s CO2 pollution and, unlike most sectors, its contribution is rising fast – up 36% since 1990. About half of Europe’s transport emissions come from cars and the EU has ordered car-makers to slash their fuel emissions by 2021.
But the latest draft of the EU’s 2030 climate and energy package, due to be agreed later this week, suggests counting transport emissions within the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS). The document, seen by the Guardian, calls for concrete proposals allowing states to achieve their climate goals with “a new flexibility”.
“We want that flexibility,” said Martin Lidegaard, the foreign minister of Denmark, which has championed the proposal. “All countries of Europe could benefit from this flexible approach. That’s why we’re pressing for it as a solution.”
Denmark is implementing some of Europe’s most ambitious greenhouse gas-cutting plans and aims to meet the EU’s likely 2030 goal of a 40% emissions cut by the end of this decade. But environmentalists say that Copenhagen has also fallen foul of EU obligations which measure emissions cuts in sectors outside the ETS, such as transport and agriculture.
Greg Archer, the clean vehicles manager for the Transport and Environment thinktank told the Guardian that Denmark was now trying to bend the rules in a way that would hurt the rest of the continents carbon-cutting plans.
“The effect of this proposal would be to undermine progress in improving the efficiency of vehicles and cutting transport emissions,” he said. “It would be more expensive for drivers, and it would mean that transport doesn’t have to substantially reduce its emissions, just buy allowances from other sectors as that will be the cheaper way of offsetting their emissions. The net effect would be to put back the point at which transport has to bring down its emissions and decarbonise.”
A new report by Cambridge Econometrics, which the Guardian has seen, backs these concerns, finding that it would take a carbon price of €271 between 2020-2030 to achieve the same fuel economy standards as with a legally-binding target like the 2021 one. The carbon price is currently around €6 a tonne.
Without the 2021 target for new cars, the ETS alone would deliver a mere 1% efficiency improvement by 2030, it says. “This would be insufficient for the road transport sector to contribute proportionately to the EU’s stated goals for decarbonisation,” it says.
German car-makers such as BMW and Daimler, which lobbied hard against the 2021 target, have long preferred a looser regulatory framework, and a €6 per tonne price on emissions levied against fuel suppliers would offer that.
At a panel meeting in Stuttgart last year, Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler reportedly described the development of CO2 fuel standards as “carpet trading” and suggested moving transport emissions into the ETS instead.
Compared to fuel regulations, a BMW briefing paper describes emissions trading as “the more suitable instrument.” The document says: “Emissions trading enables economically efficient attainment of a given emissions budget,” specifying that any regulations should be aimed at upstream fuel refineries, rather than car manufacturers.
“The beauty of the [emission trading] system is that it is cost-effective for society,” a car manufacturers’ representative told a recent EU stakeholders meeting.
Lidegaard though insists that the counting of transport in the ETS is already permitted under current market rules, and need not give rise to complaints from the car industry that they are being ‘double-taxed’ for their emissions.
“I don’t think we should give up binding targets for the car industry,” Lidegaard told the Guardian. “More flexibility in my book doesn’t amount to no efficiency targets for vehicles. This is a very important point. It doesn’t make sense to have country-based targets for the car industry. It only makes sense to have one binding EU-level target.”
Archer though called the minister’s position “naive”. He said: “There is a reason why certain members of the German car industry are lobbying very hard for this proposal. It is because they see an opportunity to either stop, delay or weaken a future efficiency standards for vehicles.”
Plants can tell when they’re being eaten, and they don’t like it
24 Oct 2014 at 14:30 ET
Plants can sense when a predator is eating their leaves, and they take steps to stop it.
Researchers at the University of Missouri conducted a study using thale cress, which is closely related to broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and cabbage, reported Modern Farmer.
The plant, which is known by the Latin name Arabidopsis, is the most popular plant for experimentation because it was the first to have its genome sequenced.
The scientists made an audio version of the vibrations made by caterpillars when they eat leaves, based on their theory that plants can feel or hear these.
They also created vibrations that resembled other natural phenomena, such as wind or insect songs, that plants might sense.
The study found that when plants felt (or heard) the caterpillar-like vibrations, they sent out mustard oils — which are mildly toxic when ingested — through their leaves to chase away the predators, although the response takes hours or even days.
The plants did not react when they sensed the other vibrations.
“There are maybe 400,000 species of plants, and what are the chances that we just happened to pick the one species that has this ability to detect vibration?” said Rex Cocroft, a Missouri researcher. “The ability for plants to pick up sound is pretty clear, but the advance from this study is unique.”
The researchers haven’t determined exactly how plants distinguish the vibrations, but their cells have proteins called mechanoreceptors embedded in the membranes that send signals when moved in certain ways, which may sense the vibrations.
Additional studies are planned to determine how perception and detection works in plants.
Scientists cautioned that more research must be done to determine what the findings mean, but the study opens some fascinating possibilities – such as using sound waves to encourage crop growth or production of pest-resistant oils.
E.U. Greenhouse Gas Deal Falls Short of Expectations
By JAMES KANTER
OCT. 24, 2014
BRUSSELS — The deal reached early Friday by the European Union to cap its greenhouse gas emissions was meant to increase pressure on the rest of the world to achieve a landmark accord on climate protection next year, the bloc’s leaders said.
The approval of a target to slash emissions by 2030 by at least 40 percent, compared with 1990 levels, makes the European Union the first major global emitter to put its position on the table ahead of an important United Nations climate meeting in Paris at the end of 2015.
That target will send “a strong signal to other big economies and all other countries,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European Union commissioner for climate action. “We have done our homework; now we urge you to follow Europe’s example,” she said.
But environmentalists said the agreement, approved at a summit meeting here after late-night marathon negotiations, amounted to a weak compromise reflecting the complexity of managing a bloc of 28 member nations with widely varying energy systems. Elements of the deal were watered down to account for countries like Poland that rely on carbon-heavy coal, and for countries like Britain that were unwilling to accept binding targets on such other measures as the percentage of energy that comes from renewable sources and energy efficiency.
“The E.U. deal was probably the best compromise that progressive countries could hope for, given concerns of various nations about coal-burning and competitiveness,” said Richard Black, the director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a nonprofit organization in Britain. “However, it is also a compromise with the climate system and with the needs of future generations.”
The European Union had come to the 2030 target after determining that it was the only way the union could keep its 2009 pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent of 1990 levels by midcentury.
Mr. Black said even so, he doubted that the new target would “allow the E.U. to meet its long-term target of virtually eliminating carbon emissions.”
The deal also included a clause — demanded by nations like Hungary that are concerned about their global competitiveness — to reconsider the carbon reduction target if an ambitious international treaty is not reached next year.
But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and François Hollande, the French president, both suggested that the target would not be adjusted downward no matter the outcome of the United Nations talks next year.
The United Nations has been pressing for a climate deal that will require significant action by major economies like the United States and the European Union, as well as China, India and Brazil.
The global effort poses significant problems for President Obama: While he has pushed for domestic carbon pollution cuts and for a global climate deal, there is almost no chance that the current Senate will vote to ratify a climate change treaty, and there may be even less chance after the midterm elections, should Republicans gain the Senate majority. Instead, Mr. Obama’s climate change negotiators are working with their international counterparts to forge a hybrid deal blending a mix of binding and nonbinding provisions — what the negotiators are calling “politically binding.”
The major polluting nations will most likely set their targets in the first half of next year. It remains unclear what they will look like.
But even as the European Union has tried to pave the way by setting its climate targets early, experts said they may not be as ambitious as they first appear.
The deal requires a 40 percent cut in emissions from levels in 1990, a period when carbon pollution from European coal plants was at high levels. In the United States, President Obama is pushing policies to cut carbon pollution by 17 percent from levels in 2005, a year in which carbon pollution was much lower, according to Robert N. Stavins of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. The European Union deal could still top that, but probably by only a few percentage points using the 2005 benchmark.
“It puts them once again in first place if there is a race to be out first — but the race between first and second place might be quite small, depending on baseline years,” said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s environmental economics program.
Curbing emissions that contribute to a changing climate has long been a popular cause in Europe. Policy makers here frequently highlight how their industries and citizens emit lower levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide than those of the United States and other industrialized countries.
But recently there has been less enthusiasm among Europeans for a green agenda. The reasons include the stagnant economy that has depressed manufacturing, jobs and wages, and an unwillingness to adopt new regulations that could worsen Europe’s declining international competitiveness.
There have also been reductions in funding for green projects, and concerns about nuclear energy as an alternative since the disaster at Fukushima, Japan.
In addition, there has been diminished interest in identifying renewable alternatives, given the advent of technologies to extract cheap shale gas despite its uncertain prospects in Europe.
European leaders have also been a bit more reluctant to take steps against climate change since a climate conference in Copenhagen ended in failure five years ago.
The talks were “not easy, not at all,” said Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, the body that represents European Union leaders.
The result was an overall package that was significantly weaker than what countries like Germany and Sweden had been seeking.
A target of generating at least 27 percent of its energy from renewable sources will be binding at the European Union level, but not at the national level. That raised questions among climate experts about how the target would be enforced.
A separate target for improving energy efficiency by at least 27 percent was “indicative” only, meaning it would not be binding even at the bloc level. The target also was lower than the 30 percent proposed by the European Commission.
But the outcome suited David Cameron, the British prime minister, who had been concerned that binding targets on renewable sources and energy efficiency would give ammunition to his political opponents who contend that he has surrendered too much sovereignty to Brussels. Climate goals could now be accomplished at “the least cost to our industries, at the least cost to our consumers, and the least cost to families up and down Britain who don’t want to pay any more on their energy bill than they otherwise should have to,” Mr. Cameron said.
2030 pact UK's most significant environmental deal ever – Ed Davey
British understanding with Poland key to climate agreement, says energy minister, but devil is in the detail
theguardian.com, Monday 27 October 2014 16.20 GMT
A minimum 40% plunge in Europe’s CO2 emissions by 2030 agreed by EU leaders last week was a “historic moment” on the road to a global climate deal, enabled by a new British relationship with Poland, the energy minister Ed Davey has told the Guardian.
The bloc’s proposed greenhouse gas curb will be studied closely by China, the US and other major emitters ahead of a global climate summit in Paris next year that aims to agree on the first new emissions-cutting treaty since the Kyoto protocol in 1997.
“I really think this package is quite a historic moment on the pathway to that elusive global deal,” Davey said in an exclusive interview. “It is probably the most significant environmental agreement that a British government has ever been involved in.”
Coal-dependent Poland had threatened to veto any agreement that raised its energy prices – adding to the country’s ‘renegade’ image in Brussels. But in lengthy talks, the Polish environment minister, Marcin Korolec, was persuaded by the UK’s agenda of an energy transition that was cost-effective, flexible, technology-neutral and secure.
“We spent more time with Polish ministers, officials and their energy sector than any other country – just to understand where they’re coming from because you have to respect other member states and find a way forward,” Davey said. “It was painstaking and took a protracted amount of time but it was worth it in the end.”
The agreement allows the EU to continue pursuing a roadmap that is intended to arrive at a reduction of carbon output of 80-95% by 2050, in line with IPCC recommendations for keeping within a 2C trajectory of global warming.
Asked whether Poland was committed to that end goal, Davey said: “I think they are. I think they see it as in their interests for energy security reasons.”
Polish government sources though, hedged when asked the same question. “There is no 2050 goal,” one said. “There is only 2030.”
The 2030 package has been criticised for granting Poland concessions including an estimated 200 million free carbon allowances (emissions credits) – worth about €4bn (£3bn) at a carbon price of €20 per tonne – and a new modernisation fund for poorer EU countries to upgrade their energy sector, which may be worth €6bn in the decade to 2030. Environmentalists fear that some of the fund could be spent on Polish coal-fired plants.
From the Polish perspective, indigenous coal supplies offer immediate energy security in the face of an often hostile neighbour to the east.
Davey said that the final deal had a “greater environmental integrity” than the 2020 climate package negotiated by Tony Blair, because it would give fewer free allowances to Polish coal plants. “Of course we were never going to get a deal with Poland if they weren’t able to burn more coal than possibly we were comfortable with,” he added.
“We had the UK on our side in many issues,” a Polish official confirmed. “The [Paris 2015] review clause was one of these. That helped. Apart from that, good working relations between Poland and the UK also helped when closing the deal.”
The review clause is an ambiguously worded text, promising to “revert” to the EU’s package after the Paris summit. EU leaders insist that the preceding passage in the text calling for ambitious counter-pledges from other states indicates that the 40% greenhouse gas cut may only get added to.
“The package is clear that it is ‘at least 40%’ – so the review is upwards only,” Davey said. “If we get a really good deal and America and China step forward, it means that we can go further. But the EU is saying that we are going to do 40% regardless of the rest of world.”
Warsaw attaches a different emphasis to the clause, related to the way that increased ambition may be imposed outside the bloc’s carbon market, but touching on the fractious arguments over qualified majority voting and, potentially, the national veto.
“The review clause and embedded ‘consensus’ are there to make sure the spirit of the conclusions is reflected when implementing the package,” a government source said, “so there is no ‘upwards-downwards’ discussion but [rather] how to make sure everyone feels safe with us further moving forward.”
This may set alarm bells ringing for environmental NGOs and clean energy industries, which have already condemned the package for a lack of legally-binding targets.
Friends of the Earth say that even the aspirational 27% improvement in efficiency by 2030 will be based on a projection made in 2007 before the economic crisis, when expected growth rates – and thus energy consumption – were far higher.
Ingrid Holmes, the associate director of the E3G thinktank told the Guardian that 2007 was the “worst possible” starting point for energy use reductions. “It’s before the slowdown so overestimates energy use compared to what we are doing,” she said. “It equals 12% energy savings in today’s economy.”
Australia’s plan inadequate to save Great Barrier Reef, scientists say
28 Oct 2014 at 06:24 ET
Australia’s plans to protect the Great Barrier Reef are inadequate, short-sighted and will not prevent its decline, the country’s pre-eminent grouping of natural scientists said Tuesday.
The draft plan, released for consultation last month, was supposed to allay concerns by the United Nations about the reef’s health after UNESCO threatened to put it on the World Heritage “in danger” list.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt has said the proposal reflects an effort to balance the priorities of protecting the reef, which is teeming with marine life, and long-term sustainable development.
But the Australian Academy of Science warned that the plan ignored the impact of climate change and failed to address problems with poor water quality, coastal development and fishing.
“The science is clear, the reef is degraded and its condition is worsening. This is a plan that won’t restore the reef, it won’t even maintain it in its already diminished state,” academy fellow Terry Hughes said.
“The plan also seems overly focused on the short-term task of addressing UNESCO’s concerns about the reef’s World Heritage Listing, rather than the longer-term challenges of restoring the values of the reef.”
Hughes said while the plan identified targets for reducing harmful agricultural run-off, any improvements would likely be lost in the unprecedented amount of dredging for coal ports and the Queensland state government’s plans to double agricultural production by 2040.
The survival of the reef depended on a reduction in pollution from run-off and dredging, less fishing and a decrease in carbon emissions from fossil fuels, he said.
A vision for the reef
A spokesman for Minister Hunt said the “Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan” states the government’s vision to improve the health of the reef over successive decades.
“We note the Academy is calling for such a vision, and it is front and centre of what we are working to achieve,” he said.
He said the plan acknowledged that climate change was a global problem requiring global action, and was being addressed by the government through other policies.
The draft, prepared by the Australian and Queensland governments, calls for greater coordination between authorities in relation to the reef, a proposal welcomed by environmentalists.
It also urges a 10-year ban on dredging to develop new ports or to expand existing ones both inside and next to the World Heritage site — apart from in priority port development areas.
And it bans future port developments in the Fitzroy Delta, Keppel Bay and North Curtis Island near Rockhampton — areas of the reef described by environmentalists as key incubators of marine life.
But environmentalists have criticized the draft as not setting high enough targets for cutting agricultural pollution or providing the billions of dollars required to restore the health of the reef.
With the government’s final reef plan due in December, WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society called for stronger action to protect the major tourist attraction.
“The reef is one of the world’s great natural wonders and we cannot allow it to be turned into an industrial park and a shipping super-highway,” campaigner Felicity Wishart said.
The colorful coral faces a number of pressures including climate change, poor water quality from land-based runoff, the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eat coral, and the impacts of coastal development and fishing.
The Amazon rainforest is drying out, and that could be a major carbon concern
28 Oct 2014 at 09:39 ET
The lungs of the planet are drying out, threatening to cause Earth to cough up some of its carbon reserves.
The Amazon rainforest inhales massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping keep the globe’s carbon budget in balance (at least until human emissions started throwing that balance off). But as a new study shows, since 2000 drier conditions are causing a decrease in lung capacity. And if the Amazon’s breaths become more shallow, it’s possible a feedback loop could set in, further reducing lung capacity and throwing the carbon balance further out of whack.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, shows that a decline in precipitation has contributed to less healthy vegetation since 2000.
“It’s well-established fact that a large part of Amazon is drying. We’ve been able to link that decline in precipitation to a decline in greenness over the last 10 years,” said Thomas Hilker, lead author of the study and forestry expert at Oregon State University.
Since 2000, rainfall has decreased by up to 25 percent across a vast swath of the southeastern Amazon, according to the new satellite analysis by Hilker. The cause of the decline in rainfall hasn’t been pinpointed, though deforestation and changes in atmospheric circulation are possible culprits.
The decrease mostly affected an area of tropical forest 12 times the size of California, as well as adjacent grasslands and other forest types. The browning of that area, which is in the southern Amazon, accounted for more than half the loss of greenness observed by satellites. While the decrease in greenness is comparatively small compared with the overall lushness of the rainforest, the impacts could be outsize.
That’s because the amount of carbon the Amazon stores is staggering. An estimated 120 billion tons of carbon are stashed in its plants and soil. Much of that carbon gets there via the forest flora that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Worldwide, “it essentially takes up 25 percent of global carbon cycle that vegetation is responsible for,” Hilker said. “It’s a huge carbon stock.”
Dry years can lead to huge carbon losses. During a severe drought in 2005 — an El Niño year — the Amazon lost an estimated 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon, slightly less than Russia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions.
Hilker and his colleagues identified El Niño years like 2005 as particularly “down” years for vegetation, with the opposite being true for La Niña years.
Some future projections indicate that climate change could make “super” El Niños twice as likely, which could increase the odds of drought. Hilker cautioned that more research is needed to fully understand the connection between El Niño and drought, since his team only analyzed data covering 2000-2012. He also said that while the drought currently affecting Sao Paulo’s water supplies certainly fits with the broader pattern, it wasn’t included in the study itself so it was hard to draw any definitive conclusions.
The study does note that because the poles are warming faster than the tropics, it could pull the band of rain that waters the Amazon and other parts of the tropics further north, increasing the odds of Amazonian drought and, with it, an uptick in carbon emissions.
“An Amazon already responding to drought is big news for climate. Maybe a small part of that signal is actually due to deforestation, but that still implies a loss of forest productivity that influences how the Amazon forest impacts climate globally,” said Abigail Swann, a climate and ecosystems researcher at the University of Washington.
The driving reason for the study is a longstanding disagreement between ground observations and satellite data, Hilker said. Ground observations at specific field stations have shown this drying trend. However, satellite data hasn’t provided as clear a picture, in part because of how cloudy the region is. By taking a new approach to processing that satellite data, Hilker’s analysis provides a clearer view through the clouds.
“The authors are able to retrieve more data than before, which gives them greater statistical power to draw conclusions from,” Swann said, who wasn’t associated with the study
A walled paradise: a history of Iranian gardening
Iran was built on the vision of a garden that held every type of plant and flower and protected its habitants within its walls. Touraj Daryaee takes nostalgic look back at a ‘paradise’ many are now eager to escape
Touraj Daryaee for Tehran Bureau
theguardian.com, Thursday 30 October 2014 11.42 GMT
Parks and gardens are attested in the land of Iran from the sixth century BC, when the Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Persian kings liked gardening. Their gardens held every sort of plant and flower, irrigated by running water, a most precious commodity for the inhabitants of the plateau. The streams crossed at certain point to divide the gardens into four separate green spaces, which if we are to follow the famous archaeologist of Iran, David Stronach, would mean the first chahar bagh in history. This chahar-bagh model of landscape design was later to be exported to the rest of the world, to such places as Agra in India and Andalusia in Spain.
The Persians called these gardens, marked as a walled enclosure, a paradaida. The Greeks borrowed the term and used it in their language as paradisos. By the time the Bible was translated into Greek, the term already meant “a heavenly place,” a paradise, for those who responded to God’s commands. Iran had many of these paradises and the ancient Persians not only cherished them, but also used the concept as part of their ideological empire building. According to Bruce Lincoln, one of the great scholars of the history of religions, the Achaemenid Persians in effect meant to conquer the entire known world in the name of establishing paradise on earth.
By the late ancient period, Iran itself was imagined as a garden, where all of its good people lived. There was plenty of good earth and people, and hence civilization. The Iranians of the Sasanian period built a wall around Iran so as to protect the land and its people from the outsiders who sometimes were depicted as monsters and the unwanted. Huge walls in the north protected the Iranians from the nomads, be it Huns or the Turkic people, and in the south from the Bedouin Arabs. The seas protected the rest and provided defense to Iran which as a whole was imagined as a garden.
One of the greatest rulers that Iran has ever seen in its history, Khusro I, known as Anushirvan, has left a wonderful speech about Iran as a garden and its walls. These wise words are captured in the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (Khaleghi-Motlagh viii: 345:275-82 ):
Iran is like a lush Spring garden
Where Roses ever bloom
The army and weapons are the garden’s walls
And lances its wall of thorns
If the garden’s walls are pulled down
Then there would be no difference between it and the wilderness [beyond]
Take care not to destroy its walls
And not to dishearten or weaken Iranians
If you do, then raiding and pillaging will follow
And also the battle-cries of riders and the din of war
Risk not the safety of the Iranians’ wives, children, and lands
I think every ruler should read the Shahnameh as it was done so until a century ago and take heed of what Khusro Anushirvan has said. However, the walls did come down and Arabs, Turks, Mongols and others came into Iran. Still, Iran remained a garden and all these conquerors may have at first had a hand it its defilement, but then they themselves continued to build the garden. Even the actual walls were kept up to and this tradition went beyond the medieval period.
Iran or Persia, as it was known, remained a wonderful land of gardens, poetry and mystics. The Chahr-Baghs of Isfahan made that city one of the most wondrous in the world; the great poet Hafez is said to have been hardly able to leave his beloved Shiraz with its many garden; the great mystic Jami tell us that every fortunate person who enjoys these blooming trees, the shade, or the fruit he consumes, should act according to the laws of righteousness. So Iran as a garden lived on and Iranians lived in it and rarely left it, unless they had to.
There was a time that people stayed in this garden. Young men and women used to go abroad, but always came back to their home and tended the garden. Some of us now have left that garden. To many for whom the walls once protected the garden from the outsiders, now seem like the walls of a prison. More and more young people want to leave this garden and its walls. Many of them will leave and make their home abroad and become successful, famous or rich.
Still, they will always become nostalgic for that garden which they left. I, like many who are away from Iran, still wish well for that garden. We hope to again go back to that garden and tend its plants. But now I am are far away. Instead, I have built a little garden in my home to remember Iran that was once my garden.