05/07/2013 05:59 PM
Leading or Following?: Merkel Speaks with Two Tongues on Climate
By Joel Stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded an international climate deal by 2015 on Monday. Yet at home, she has declined to push for badly needed fixes to Europe's ailing carbon cap-and-trade program. She is putting off the toughest decisions until after fall elections.
Angela Merkel would seem to want it both ways. On Monday, she opened a dialogue on climate change issues in Berlin with strong words on the timing of a binding international pact to limit emissions that cause global warming.
"Waiting is not an option," she said in demanding a global deal by 2015.
In the same speech, however, the chancellor demonstrated a distinct lack of urgency when it comes to a vital piece of European climate policy, apparently preferring to wait until after German elections in September. Acting now, after all, could slow Germany's already fragile economy and may jeopardize her prospects for re-election.
The Berlin dialogue comes following some very real setbacks on climate change policy in the last month. Most importantly, a plan to prop up Europe's ailing carbon emissions cap-and-trade system failed during a close, contentious vote in the European Parliament in mid-April. The plan, known as backloading, would have taken 900 million carbon allowances out of the system temporarily to help boost the carbon prices and partially relieve a massive glut. Though few expected the plan to boost the price of carbon credits enough to change companies' current investment policies, it was seen by many as a test as to whether European politicians were committed to saving a faltering policy.
Germany in particular showed itself to be uninterested in embracing climate change policies at a time when economies in Europe -- including Germany's own -- are struggling. In the run-up to the April vote, Berlin largely remained on the sidelines, with Merkel choosing not to provide European parliamentarians from her center-right Christian Democratic Union guidelines on how to vote. In the end, most CDU MEPs voted against the backloading plan and Merkel on Monday blamed the economy.
Waiting for Germany
"I believe that we have a good chance by autumn at the latest to get to a better solution for our German problems," Merkel said. "Then Germany will also have a chance to tackle the backloading issue as a whole. That's what I'm hoping for. But at the moment, that's not possible against the entire force of the German economy."
The backloading plan was rejected by the European Parliament in an extremely close vote of 334 to 315, with more than 60 abstentions. The vote was contentious enough that some parliamentarians later indicated they would reconsider their vote if the issue was revisited. And it might be. The plan went back to committee and may be voted on again at the parliamentary level as soon as June. Still, the approval of a backloading plan is by no means certain.
"We might have to wait for October or November for this to move forward, until after the elections, though we would have liked Ms. Merkel to put Germany's weight behind backloading as early as possible" said Rémi Gruet, senior regulatory affairs advisor on climate and environment at the European Wind Energy Association. "Everybody is waiting for Germany."
The price of carbon in the EU reacted to the vote by dropping 43 percent to an all-time low of €2.63 per ton of emissions while electricity prices in Germany also sank to eight-year lows. Prices continued a two-week rebound on Monday to €3.78 per ton based on Merkel's tentative optimism about passing a backloading plan this fall. But that is still far below the €20 or €30 per ton that analysts say is needed to spur industry to cut carbon emissions and to fund many of Germany's clean energy plans.
With the current carbon price, utility companies that have invested in low-carbon electricity generation such as wind and nuclear are losing market share to companies that produce energy using coal. Some companies are already acting on the low price of carbon in Europe. E.ON, for example, one of Germany's largest utilities, announced recently that clean-energy investments will be cut to less than €1 billion in 2015 from €1.79 billion last year.
Going It Alone
All of this is good news for the coal industry. Though Germany's supply of renewables has been on a steady upward trend, coal remains an important part of the country's energy mix and investments in highly polluting coal-fired power plants have not slowed. Two coal-fired plants opened in 2012 and six more will open this year, adding up to 7 percent of Germany's capacity. A dozen more are on track to open before 2020.
The need for the plants is certainly there. With Germany backing away from nuclear power and renewables not yet providing the capacity needed to meet demand, coal is not going to go away soon, even if carbon credits become more expensive. Indeed, that realization, combined with international foot-dragging on a global agreement, could very well be informing Merkel's approach.
"Things are a mess," said Brian Ricketts, secretary general of the European Coal Association. "If you want to solve the climate problem, you have to begin at the international level. It's going to be very hard to convince Europe to go it alone and impose costs on itself that the rest of the world isn't accepting."
'Europe Does A Lot'
Coal and energy-heavy industries have taken a strong stance against the backloading plan. And BusinessEurope, an industry group that represents 41 major organizations in 35 countries, has been using the momentum from the April vote to push the idea that Europe should change focus from stopping climate change to cost issues and energy security.
Despite her party's skepticism of backloading, Merkel on Monday wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel. Still, she hinted strongly that Europe is growing weary of trying to lead an unwilling world on efforts to limit global warming.
"I think it's completely inappropriate to say Europe doesn't lead on climate protection anymore because the European Parliament decided narrowly against backloading," Merkel said. "Europe does a lot, Europe will continue to do a lot. Our problem, when looking beyond Europe, is more the fact that we are doing everything by ourselves and are facing a difficult economic situation at the same time."
New emissions plan could energise global climate talks, says US envoy
The proposal for a climate deal by 2015 based on national 'contributions' gained traction UN talks in Germany last week
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 May 2013 11.04 BST
The United States' proposal to let countries draft their own emissions reduction plans rather than working toward a common target can unlock languishing UN climate negotiations, the US climate change envoy said on Tuesday.
The proposal that a global climate deal by 2015 should be based on national "contributions" gained traction at last week's round of UN talks in Germany, although China, the world's biggest carbon emitter, said it wanted far more binding commitments by wealthy countries.
In the first public US statements on the plan, Todd Stern, the US State Department's special envoy on climate change, told reporters on Tuesday that the US approach was designed to bring as many countries as possible to the table through a form of peer pressure and break the impasse over a successor to the 1997 Kyoto protocol.
"Countries, knowing that they will be subject to the scrutiny of everybody else, will be urged to put something down they feel they can defend and that they feel is strong," Stern said from Berlin during a summit of environmental ministers focused on ways to advance the UN climate talks.
The approach would mean abandoning the format of the Kyoto protocol, to which the United States was not a signatory, which set central goals for industrialised countries to cut emissions by 2012 and then let each work out national implementation.
Stern said that having each country's plans and targets "in an environment of intense public interest" may encourage countries to step up their existing plans.
Stern said countries could submit their initial plans several months before a ministerial meeting in Paris in 2015 to let other countries and stakeholders review the plans, and give enough time to strengthen or clarify the proposals.
The plan, said Stern, would provide an alternative to a negotiation process that has failed so far to deliver a legally binding agreement for both developing and developed countries to reduce their emissions under a common target.
"It is very hard for us to imagine a negotiation with dozens and dozens and dozens of counties actually negotiating everybody else's targets and timetables," Stern said.
In recent weeks, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has approached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history, according to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, a mostly symbolic threshold but one that shows how rapidly carbon dioxide levels have been rising.
Carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from around 350 ppm in the past 25 years.
"The urgency of the situation is absolutely real but I don't think it has dramatically changed for climate negotiators this week as compared to before the news," Stern said, referring to the Scripps monitoring.
Prince Charles criticizes ‘corporate lobbyists’ and climate change skeptics for turning Earth into a ‘dying patient’
By Felicity Lawrence, The Guardian
Thursday, May 9, 2013 5:44 EDT
The Prince of Wales has criticised “corporate lobbyists” and climate change sceptics for turning the earth into a “dying patient”, in his most outspoken attack yet on the world’s failure to tackle global warming.
He attacked businesses who failed to care for the environment, and compared the current generation to a doctor taking care of a critically ill patient.
“If you think about the impact of climate change, [it should be how] a doctor would deal with the problem,” he told an audience of government ministers, from the UK and abroad, as well as businesspeople and scientists. “A scientific hypothesis is tested to absolute destruction, but medicine can’t wait. If a doctor sees a child with a fever, he can’t wait for [endless] tests. He has to act on what is there.”
He added: “The risk of delay is so enormous that we can’t wait until we are absolutely sure the patient is dying.”
Hosting a two-day conference for forest scientists at St James’s Palace in London, the heir to the throne – who is taking over from the Queen at this year’s meeting of the Commonwealth in Sri Lanka – savagely satirised those who stand in the way of swift action on the climate.
He characterised them as “the confirmed sceptics” and “the international association of corporate lobbyists”. Faced with these forces of opposition, “science finds itself up the proverbial double blind gum tree”, he said.
His audience included Owen Paterson, the Tory secretary of state for the environment, said by some who know him to be sceptical of the scientific consensus on climate change, and who pointedly left climate change out of his speech and focused on other environmental issues such as biodiversity.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem secretary of state for energy and climate, pointedly used his speech to the conference to draw a deep dividing line between his own party and the increasingly vocal section of the Tory right wing that is attacking policies that require tougher emissions targets and more money for the low-carbon economy.
Other speakers included Lord Stern, author of the 2006 review of the economics of climate change, which found that cutting emissions sooner would be cheaper than waiting for global warming to accelerate. He explicitly echoed the Prince’s attack on corporate interests, but said the “constellation of policy” around the world, including in the US and China, was in favour of concerted international action.
Ian Cheshire, the chief executive of the retail group Kingfisher, said some businesses were committed to strong action on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and could see the benefits of dealing with the issues.
Prince Charles is no stranger to controversy, having spoken out on issues from organic farming and alternative medicine to architecture. But his words – warmly welcomed by the conference – were his strongest yet on climate change, an issue he has taken a deep interest in. He founded his working group on forests, whose conference he was addressing on Wednesday, in 2007, and also lends his name to a group of businesses, the Corporate Leaders’ Group, which supports corporate action on cutting greenhouse emissions.
He praised countries such as Brazil, which has taken a lead on reducing deforestation, and Norway, which is offering billions of dollars to developing nations to protect their forests.
The scientists at the Prince’s forum endorsed a call for much greater investment on “big science, which supports the integration and expansion of global tropical forest monitoring networks” and “enhanced research” into the resilience of forests. About a billion people all over the world depend on forests for their livelihoods, and although the rate of deforestation has slowed in countries such as Brazil, it is accelerating over swathes of south-east Asia and Africa.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
Shell presses ahead with world’s deepest offshore oil well
By Simon Goodley, The Guardian
Wednesday, May 8, 2013 22:01 EDT
Royal Dutch Shell is pressing ahead with the world’s deepest offshore oil and gas production facility by drilling almost two miles underwater in the politically sensitive Gulf of Mexico.
The move is being viewed in the oil industry as a demonstration of Shell’s confidence that its technology can deliver returns on expensive and risky offshore projects, despite a recent downturn in oil prices.
It comes a day after ExxonMobil said it would start work on a $4bn (£2.6bn) project to develop the Julia oilfield, also in the North American ocean basin, and weeks after BP delayed development of its biggest Gulf of Mexico project – Mad Dog Phase 2 – citing rising costs.
John Hollowell, a Shell executive vice-president, said: “This important investment demonstrates our ongoing commitment to usher in the next generation of deepwater developments, which will deliver more production growth in the Americas. We will continue our leadership in safe, innovative deepwater operations to help meet the growing demand for energy in the US.”
The move comes despite ongoing controversy over offshore exploration – especially in the Gulf of Mexico, where in April 2010 a fire and explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and started a leak that took three months to cap. Last month BP said it had paid $25bn (£16bn) of the $42bn it has set aside to cover the damage caused by the spill.
Shell’s Gulf of Mexico field, called Stones, was discovered eight years ago 200 miles south-west of New Orleans and is 2,900 metres (9,500ft) below the sea. Perdido, another Shell site in the region, is currently the world’s deepest offshore well at 2,880 metres below the surface. Meanwhile the company has several other projects nearby, including its 900 metre-deep Mars field, where it is adding new infrastructure, plus its Appomattox and Vito discoveries.
This first phase of the latest project is expected to have annual peak production of 50,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, from more than 250m barrels of recoverable resources.
Shell added that the whole field has “significant upside potential” and is estimated to contain more than 2bn barrels.
Royal Dutch Shell shares added 20.5p to close at 2242.5p. Last week the company’s chief executive, Peter Voser, unexpectedly announced plans to stand down less than four years into the job as Shell unveiled a 4% increase in first-quarter profits.
Scientists slam Canada’s tar sands production: Doesn’t address climate change in ‘meaningful way’
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Wednesday, May 8, 2013 17:03 EDT
Letter urges natural resources minister Joe Oliver to consider consequences of his support for controversial policy
The Canadian government’s promotion of the tar sands industry is setting the world on a course of catastrophic climate change, a group of climate scientists and economists have warned.
In a letter made available to the Guardian, the academics urged Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, to consider the consequences of his support for expanding Alberta’s tar sands production.
Oliver has in recent months emerged as the main proponent for the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington and other capitals. He is due in London this week.
The project would pump crude from the tar sands directly to refineries on the Texas Gulf coast, and so provide a much-needed outlet for Canada’s crude.
But the academics warned that unlocking Alberta’s tar sands, which are thought to hold some 170bn barrels of recoverable oil, would put a dangerous amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
Production from the tar sands causes higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oils.
The academics said that expanding the tar sands ran in the face of recommendations from the International Energy Agency and others that two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuel reserves should not be commercialised – in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.
“The implication is clear: the responsibility for preventing dangerous climate change rests with today’s policymakers,” the letter said.
“We are not convinced that your advocacy in support of new pipelines and expanded fossil fuel production takes climate change into account in a meaningful way,” the academics went on.
Oliver, along with other Canadian officials, has made repeated visits to Washington and other US cities in recent months in an effort to ensure the Obama administration signs off the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would provide an important outlet for crude from Alberta’s tar sands.
The minister has also made a reputation for his combative approach to opponents of tar sands development.
He has publicly scolded the Nasa scientist, James Hansen, for his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and dismissed Canadian critics of the tar sands as “radicals”.
At the same time, however, Oliver has publicly claimed to be concerned about climate change. He told an audience in Washington last month that developing the tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline would increase greenhouse gas emissions by only a negligible amount.
But the academics in their letter said the policies promoted by Oliver, and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, did not appear aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and so avoiding the worst effects of climate change. “It is this very dangerous pathway – not the ’450 scenario [parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere]‘ linked to avoiding 2C of global warming – that you seem to be advocating when promoting Canadian fossil fuel development at home and abroad,” the scientists said.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
Scientists: Plants communicate with one another through microscopic sound waves
By Stephen C. Webster
Wednesday, May 8, 2013 15:35 EDT
A study published Tuesday in the scientific journal BMC Ecology reveals that plants are able to communicate with each other even when light, scent and touch have been removed from the equation, leading scientists to speculate that there’s a wholly different mechanism they use to encourage each other’s growth.
Specifically, scientists suggested that plants might be communicating with microscopic sound waves that travel underground as a “signaling mechanism,” letting other plants know their presence and to plan accordingly.
It’s long been known that planting basil near other species can tend to encourage its neighbor’s growth, and it’s not new that plants communicate with each other through shade, chemical smells, root structures and other forms of touch.
What scientists at the University of Western Australia were looking at specifically is if there’s any other ways that plants communicate, and what they found is astonishing. By planting chili pepper next to basil, then separating them from all known methods of plant interaction, the chili plant still grew as if it knew the basil was there.
“We have previously suggested that acoustic signals may offer such a mechanism for mediating plant-plant relationships,” they explained in their conclusion (PDF), “and proposed that such signals may be generated in plants by biochemical processes within the cell, where nanomechanical oscillations of various components in the cytoskeleton can produce a spectrum of vibrations.”
Their latest findings bolster that theory, they wrote, and could lead to a better understanding of how to encourage record food crop yields by studying these oscillations and how they are received and processed by other plants.
Nearly a third of honey bee colonies died in U.S. last winter
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 16:36 EDT
Nearly a third of the honey bee colonies in the United States died this past winter, sharply higher proportion than a year ago, according to an official report released Tuesday.
The US population of managed honey bee colonies fell by 31.1 percent in the October 2012-April 2013 period, said the preliminary report by the US Department of Agriculture in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and The Bee Informed Partnership.
Bees are vital pollinators in fruit and vegetable production and have been dying in significant numbers in recent years, some stricken by Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden loss of all bees in a colony. The cause remains unknown.
The just-ended winter’s losses were 42 percent higher than in the prior winter, when 21.9 percent of the bee colonies died, but were in line with the average loss of 30.5 percent over the past six years.
The latest findings were based on responses of more than 6,000 US beekeepers which represent almost 23 percent of the nation’s total estimated 2.62 million colonies.
The beekeepers said that a loss rate of 15 percent was “acceptable” but 70 percent of them had heavier losses than that, the report said.
There were more colonies that dwindled away, rather than suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder, which was not reported as a major cause of colony loss for the second straight year.
One key difference stood out in this year’s survey, the researchers said. Beekeepers who took honey bees to California to pollinate almonds reported higher losses than beekeepers who did not take their bees to pollinate almonds.
Almost 20 percent of the beekeepers who pollinated almonds lost at least 50 percent of their colonies, the report said.
The US Department of Agriculture, in a report last week, said an investigation into the decline in honey bee health has found multiple factors, “including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.”
The USDA called for further research to determine risks from pesticides.
“Acute and sublethal effects of pesticides on honey bees have been increasingly documented, and are a concern but it is not clear, based on current research, whether a pesticide exposure is a major factor associated with US honey bee health declines,” it said.
In a lawsuit in March several beekeepers and environmental groups accused the US Environmental Protection Agency of failing to protect pollinators and challenging practices that speed to market about two-thirds of all pesticides.
The suit seeks to suspend the EPA registrations of pesticides that have been identified as toxic to bees.
Last week the European Commission said it would impose the world’s first continent-wide ban on three pesticides which environmentalists say are killing the bees that pollinate Europe’s crops.
The insecticides — imidacloprid and clothianidin produced by Bayer, and thiamethoxam by Syngenta — are used to treat seeds, and are applied to the soil or sprayed on bee-attractive plants and cereals.
05/10/2013 12:16 PM
Nuclear Headache: Task of Decommissioning Plants Is Herculean
By Gerald Traufetter
The dismantling of Germany's nuclear power plants will be one of the greatest tasks of the century as the country moves to phase out atomic energy. It will take at least until 2080 to complete the job. But what happens if energy utility companies who own the facilities go bust before the work is done?
When politicians put far too much pathos into their speeches, people should be on their guard -- with a notable exception. There is one issue where no comparison is overinflated and no superlative appears exaggerated: Winfried Kretschmann, for instance -- the governor of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of Germany's Green Party -- spoke of "theological timeframes" that now need to be decided upon.
His counterpart from Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), refers to a different time horizon for his actions: the Schöningen Spears, a number of 300,000-year-old Paleolithic hunting weapons that archaeologists found in his home state. And the co-floor leader of the Green Party in the German parliament, Jürgen Trittin, reminded his fellow politicians that this was about "finding a site for the most dangerous waste that mankind has ever produced."
The 'Last Contentious Issue in Peaceful Nuclear Energy'
The issue is nuclear waste and its safe disposal. Germany will have to build a storage facility deep underground that can survive the ravages of wars, revolutions and even another ice age. Indeed, the remains of the nuclear age will have to be kept in a final repository for 1 million years -- longer than the human race has existed.
That is, at least, the aim of the draft legislation that prompted such reverential rhetoric from politicians in the opposition and the government when it was presented last month in Berlin. Under the direction of German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the bill lays out a plan for determining the location of a final repository for the highly radioactive waste from Germany's nuclear power plants. Currently, politicians are still haggling over the details of the proposed law, which Altmaier says will remove "the last contentious issue surrounding the peaceful use of nuclear energy."
What the representatives of the people would rather not talk about, though, is the decommissioning of Germany's nuclear power plants. They were once the cathedrals of industrial progress. But now their cooling towers and domes have become widely visible symbols of human folly.
According to the latest calculations by the German Environment Ministry, the operation and decommissioning of the country's reactors will produce 173,442 cubic meters (over 6.1 million cubic feet) of low to medium-level radioactive waste that has to be stored underground. On top of that, there are 107,430 cubic meters of radioactive detritus from government institutions.
It's a monumental task that the Germans won't complete until 2080 "at the earliest," says nuclear expert Michael Sailer from the Öko-Institut, a non-profit research and consulting association for sustainable technology in Berlin. "After all, these are conservative estimates without any leeway for setbacks."
No Smooth Sailing
But it doesn't look as if things will go smoothly. On the contrary, the phasing out of nuclear power is accompanied by the agonizing challenge of decommissioning existing reactors: Eight nuclear power plants that were rapidly taken offline at the behest of the German government in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster have to be dismantled concurrently, followed by an additional nine facilities by the end of 2022.
There is still no roadmap for the decommissioning. To make matters worse, critics say that they see initial indications of eroding safety standards for decommissioning licenses as authorities struggle to cope with the mountains of nuclear waste.
Two locations are planned for the final storage. Environment Minister Altmaier's proposed legislation calls for a deep geological repository for highly radioactive waste to be located by the year 2031. For a long time, the salt dome in Gorleben in the western state of Lower Saxony was designated for this purpose, but that controversial plan has been scrapped and the search must now begin anew.
The Konrad mining shaft, an old iron ore mine near the central German town of Salzgitter in the same state, has been selected for storage of low to medium-level radioactive rubble from decommissioned reactors and is currently under development. The startup date recently had to be postponed from 2019 to 2021. In the meantime, the waste is piling up at intermediate storage facilities, for example, in Ahaus in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and in Greifswald in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the radioactive scrap is cut into manageable sizes that are suitable for storage. The mountain of radioactive waste has already grown to an impressive 100,000 cubic meters.
Since the storage situation is becoming more precarious, operators are trying to have their old facilities carted off in increasingly larger sections. For instance, in the southern German town of Obrigheim and the northern German town of Stade, massive steam generators from the reactors have been removed in one piece. Due to a lack of space, some of these huge components have even been shipped to Sweden.
More Waste than Germany Can Store?
As if there weren't already enough outstanding problems, a new type of nuclear waste has emerged for which there is still no final destination: graphite waste and depleted uranium that can't be sent to the Konrad mining shaft.
Instead, these materials that have been thoroughly contaminated with radionuclides will most likely have to be buried in a future final repository for highly radioactive waste. Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) estimates that there are up to 105,500 cubic meters of such waste. Until now, awareness of this problem has been largely limited to nuclear experts.
This could have unpleasant consequences for Germany. "In the worst case scenario, there won't be enough space for this type of highly radioactive waste in the storage facility," warns independent nuclear expert Wolfgang Neumann of Hanover. "Then we'll have to look for a third final repository," he concludes. The German Environment Ministry is also keeping this option open, although officially only two sites are planned.
Germany's four main energy companies apparently see no problem, though, in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, at least that's the conclusion drawn by a reference study that they commissioned from an engineering company called NIS-Ingenieursgesellschaft. Until recently, the results of this study have been kept under wraps by the German Environment Ministry. Following a number of insistent requests by Green Party parliamentarian Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, she finally received a copy of the report in which the experts play down the problem. The "decommissioning of Germany's light-water reactors" is "assured," they wrote, adding that the impact on people and the environment is "negligible."
The engineers see the decommissioning timetable as a simple enough matter, at least in theory. First, the fuel rods have to cool off during what is known as the post-operational phase. Then there are two possibilities: Either decommissioning begins immediately or the reactor is mothballed. "Safe containment" is the name of the process by which the remainder of the reactor is left standing for up to 30 years until the radiation inside the building is further reduced.
A Business Model Erodes
But critics of Germany's nuclear industry are pushing for a quicker solution. They fear that the operating utility companies may be bankrupt before the power plants have been dismantled. Their concerns are not unfounded. After all, Germany's Energiewende -- Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable sources -- is eroding the business model of the former electricity monopolists. At the same time, energy giants such as E.on have billions in debts. Industry insiders estimate that it will cost roughly €1 billion ($1.3 billion) to decommission a single nuclear reactor.
To avoid leaving it up to the state to absorb these costs, the owners of nuclear power plants are bound by law to put aside money in their annual budgets for the decommissioning phase. There is currently roughly €30 billion earmarked for this purpose. But critics note that these provisions only stand on paper. "If the company goes broke, the billions for decommissioning are also gone," warns Green Party parliamentarian Kotting-Uhl.
The likelihood of this happening has increased with the reactors owned by Sweden's Vattenfall company in Krümmel and Brunsbüttel, near Hamburg. The Swedish state-owned company has transferred the risk to its German subsidiary.
Consequently, Kotting-Uhl is calling for a national decommissioning fund for nuclear power plants and legislation requiring companies to pay into it. Models for such an initiative can be found in Switzerland and Sweden. But Environment Minister Altmaier rejects the notion. He fears that the companies could use this to buy their way out of their responsibilities. If the decommissioning turns out to be more expensive than planned, the state could be forced to pick up the tab for the difference. Regulations on insolvency insurance could help, but there's not enough time to introduce them before the German general elections in September 2013.
In addition to financial worries, officials in Germany are very concerned about the issue of which engineers and nuclear physicists will ultimately be responsible for moving the waste to its final underground destination. "Ever since the 1990s, we have observed a rapidly declining number of students" in this area, complains the head of Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection, Wolfram König.
"The German federal government and the states have to turn around this trend," he says, and promptly makes a promise: "Anyone who starts studying can count on having a job until they retire."
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
05/10/2013 12:51 PM
King No More: The Tragic Plight of Lions in Africa
By Renate Nimtz-Koester
Lions are becoming a threatened species. Trophy hunters and the loss of savannah grasslands have drastically reduced the number of prides. Scientists and conservationists are calling for improved protections for lions -- even if that means fenced-in enclosures.
It's a Sunday in South Africa, and on the green lawn of the Weltevrede Lion Farm, arms reach for a white animal that could double for a cuddly stuffed animal. Visitors are being allowed to pet Lisa, an eight-week-old lion cub with unusual coloring.
Lisa was two weeks old when she was taken from her mother. "To make them manageable you have to do this," explains Christiaan, who is leading visitors on a tour of the grounds.
When cubs are born here, on this lion farm in Vrystaat, a province of South Africa, "each employee is assigned to bottle-feed one of them," says Christiaan. "You can buy a cub for 40,000 rand (€3,400, or $4,455)." A delighted visitor asks whether she can take a lion baby into her room at night. It can be arranged, promises the guide.
Lisa's father, a grown specimen with a stately mane who lives in the enclosure, can be had for about €20,000. Roughly 2,000 lions are kept in captivity in Vrystaat alone, where they are bred for a practice called "canned hunting." It's a diversion that executives at major German companies have been known to enjoy.
The king of the animals has fallen on hard times in his own kingdom. "In all of South Africa, there are almost as many lions behind bars as in the wild," says Fiona Miles of the Vrystaat chapter of the international animal rights group Four Paws, which has been unsuccessful in its efforts to protest the hunting of animals that are somewhat tame and are sometimes even drugged to keep them calm. "As a first step to ban canned hunting," Miles is calling for a moratorium on the breeding of lions.
Across the entire continent, the large African predator, a symbol of strength and majesty, is threatened with decline. Outside fenced enclosures, there is hardly any room left for Panthera leo. Scientists and conservationists warn that the king of the steppes has lost much of his habitat in the last 50 years.
The main reason is the gradual disappearance of the savannah. With shrinking African grasslands, lion populations have declined dramatically. Of about 100,000 lions that roamed the continent's dry grassy plains in the 1960s, there are no more than 35,000 left today, says Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "That's a real collapse in populations."
Pimm and an international team of scientists have just published the alarming results of a new study. "Land use and the transformation of land through tremendous population growth have chopped up and destroyed the savannah," Pimm explains. Only a quarter of an ecosystem that was once larger than the United States still exists today, he says, noting that this shrinkage is almost as severe as rainforest loss.
"It's bitterly shocking," says Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist at George Mason University in Virginia and a member of the Big Cats Initiative, whose goal is to preserve the world's big cats.
"First we have to know what needs to be protected," says Pimm. To obtain more precise figures on the population of African lions, he and his team compiled the most comprehensive collection of data on African lion populations to date. Both the local population and hunting organizations assisted in the effort. The results were published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
Whereas older satellite images depicted a largely intact savannah, higher-resolution imaging technology enabled the scientists to pinpoint small fields and settlements scattered throughout the environment. "Lions can't show up there," says co-author Jason Riggio.
The scientists identified 67 individual savannah zones in which human populations are small enough to allow for the survival of the big cats. Only 10 of them, six in South Africa and four in East Africa, proved to be "bastions" that still offer lions a good chance of survival. Most of these habitats are in protected areas like the Kruger and Serengeti National Parks.
The decline of the lion began long ago. In fact, German zoologist Alfred Brehm began observing it more than a century ago. "The days when 600 lions could be brought together to fight in an arena were thousands of years ago," he concluded. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, up to 100 lions died in a single event. Pompey the Great exhibited 600 lions, while up to 400 were sent to the arena under Caesar. "But it wasn't until the invention of guns" that the animal, a dangerous threat to livestock herds, was "pushed back and eventually exterminated" everywhere, Brehm writes in his book "Brehm's Life of Animals." Hunters, like the legendary Jules Gérard, had rid North Africa of the supposed plague of Berber lions, and Morocco's last lion was shot to death in 1920.
South of the Sahara, man also proved to be a relentless foe of the tawny-coated predator. To this day, nomadic tribes like the Massai retaliate against the hated killers of their livestock by shooting the animals or setting out poisoned bait.
But the hunt engaged in by former colonial rulers and their successors also has other dimensions. Over a period of three years, his great-grandfather Harold "shot over 400 lions as well as numerous leopard," boasts Simon Leach, who operates Eagle Safaris in Harrismith, South Africa. On his website, Leach bills himself as a "hunter and conservationist," and notes: "Eagle Safaris continues this proud tradition and draws on the skills and expertise gained over the years." Inexperienced hunters, including those who require multiple shots to kill an animal, are just as welcome as professionals, and a hunting license is not necessary.
International conservation groups are sharply critical of trophy hunting, which they say is partly to blame for the acute plight of the lion. The business, which is booming in South Africa and Tanzania, in particular, is hastening the decline of the big cat, they warn in a petition to the United States Department of the Interior. Commenting on the extensive studies, Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund of Animal Welfare (IFAW) says: "Many people will be shocked to know how quickly the numbers have fallen."
Flocken and his allies want to see the African lion listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a US law designed to protect endangered animals. US citizens make up by far the largest number of trophy hunters. The lion currently has limited protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Americans are especially fond of bringing home stuffed lion heads, paws and tails from Africa. Other important importers include Germany, along with Spain and France. Lion parts are also sent to other countries from the United States. The animal's bones are prized in China to make "tiger wine," which the Chinese believe has healing properties, and are used as a replacement for tiger bones, which have now become rare.
According to the petition, the body parts of at least 5,660 killed lions were traded internationally between 1999 and 2008.
The consequences of hunting tourism are often fatal for the entire pride. Hunters covet the magnificent mane and therefore primarily target older, dominant males, which leads to a rise in deadly attacks within the pride. To sire their own offspring, other male lions kill the cubs of their former rival, and sometimes even the mothers, when they try to defend the cubs.
To avoid this additional killing of lions, trophy hunters must be taught to correctly estimate the age of their prey, says wildlife biologist Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. But his appeals apparently fall on deaf ears. "Mr. Lion," as the renowned lion expert is known, is not against hunting in principle, he says, but notes that quotas need to be drastically reduced.
A Disaster for Africa
If we don't act now, the African lion could become extinct, conservationists warn, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service appears to be taking them seriously. The agency is said to be reviewing the possibility of adding the lion to the ESA list, to the consternation of the African hunting and tourism industry. Such action could result in the loss of 60 percent of the trophy market, Alexander Songorwa, director of wildlife for Tanzania's tourism ministry, wrote in the New York Times. It would be a disaster for his country, he added.
At its convention in April, the organization Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA) characterized efforts to list the lion under the ESA as "sabotage." The country's roughly 10,000 private farmers are proud of the "the tremendous growth in the South African wild animal industry," WRSA notes. The industry produces and offers what its trigger-happy customers covet: Kudu, buffalo, impala and other antelopes, and the more costly lions for well-heeled hunters.
Because they value tourists who prefer to shoot wildlife with their cameras over big-game hunters, lion countries Zambia and Botswana are now trying to save their main attraction. Although it generated $3 million (€2.3 million) in annual revenues, Zambia has now outlawed the hunting of lions and leopards. And in Botswana, the country's final hunting season has just begun.
Experts disagree over the best ways to help the beleaguered animal. Pimm stresses cooperation with local inhabitants, saying that they need to learn how to protect their herds more effectively, and that children should be taught how to behave around the predators while still in school.
"Mr. Lion," on the other hand, has lost patience, after 35 years of field research. He no longer believes in the peaceful coexistence between man and lion. Packer argues that it would be more effective to separate the two species by creating more fenced-in sanctuaries.
Packer fears that populations remaining outside such enclosures will be reduced by half in 20 to 40 years. To conduct their study, he and his 57 co-authors determined that it would be much cheaper to establish protective enclosures in 11 African countries than to create management programs for people. Besides, he adds, this approach is measurably far more beneficial to the threatened animal. Lion populations in enclosures, he says, have proved to be "larger and more dense."
In Vrystaat, Four Paws has erected one such enclosure to create a 1,200-hectare (2,965-acre) sanctuary for big cats. A family has just found refuge there. After being released from their shipping containers, a male lion, his lioness and two cubs are able to feel grass under their paws and the African sun on their pelts for the first time.
The four new arrivals came from a Romanian zoo, which had violated a European Union guideline that would have required it to provide the animals with 500 square meters of space by providing them with only 40. More than 80 lions that had been living a miserable existence in European circus cars and small zoos can now lead a humane life in Lionsrock. But after being raised in captivity, the animals would be lost in their ancestral habitat, says Hildegard Pirker, the attendant in charge of the animals. "Releasing them into the wild isn't an option." Their bleak existence in captivity has made the animals incapable of living in the wild.
Pirker, who is also a veterinarian, performs vasectomies to ensure that the powerful cats don't reproduce. "The surgery makes the lions infertile," says Pirker, "but it preserves their sex drive and growth of the mane."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Meteorite crater reveals future of a globally warmed world
By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
Friday, May 10, 2013 1:24 EDT
Lake sediments recorded the climate of the Arctic during the last period when CO2 levels were as high as today
The future of a globally warmed world has been revealed in a remote meteorite crater in Siberia, where lake sediments recorded the strikingly balmy climate of the Arctic during the last period when greenhouse gas levels were as high as today.
Unchecked burning of fossil fuels has driven carbon dioxide to levels not seen for 3m years when, the sediments show, temperatures were 8C higher than today, lush forests covered the tundra and sea levels were up to 40m higher than today.
“It’s like deja vu,” said Prof Julie Brigham-Grette, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the new research analysing a core of sediment to see what temperatures in the region were between 3.6 and 2.2m years ago. “We have seen these warm periods before. Many people now agree this is where we are heading.”
“It shows a huge warming – unprecedented in human history,” said Prof Scott Elias, at Royal Holloway University of London, and not involved in the work. “It is a frightening experiment we are conducting with our climate.”
The sediments have been slowly settling in Lake El’gygytgyn since it was formed 3.6m years ago, when a kilometre-wide meteorite blasted a crater 100km north of the Arctic circle. Unlike most places so far north, the region was never eroded by glaciers so a continuous record of the climate has lain undisturbed ever since. “It’s a phenomenal record,” said Prof Peter Sammonds, at University College London. “It is also an incredible achievement [the study's work], given the remoteness of the lake.” Sixteen shipping containers of equipment had to be hauled 90km over snow by bulldozers from the nearest ice road, used by gold miners.
Previous research on land had revealed glimpses of the Arctic climate and ocean sediments had recorded the marine climate, but the disparate data are not consistent with one another. “Lake El’gygytgyn may be the only place in the world that has this incredible unbroken record of sediments going back millions of years,” said Elias. “When you have a very long record it is very different to argue with.”
The new research, published in the journal Science, also sheds light on a crucial question for climate scientists: how sensitive is the Earth’s climate to increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The relative slowing of global temperature rises over the past 15 years has led some researchers to suggest the climate is less sensitive to CO2 rises than current climate models suggest. But the record from Lake El’gygytgyn of a very warm Arctic when atmospheric CO2 levels were last at about 400 parts per million (ppm) indicates the opposite, according to Brigham-Grette. “My feeling is we have underestimated the sensitivity, unless there are some feedbacks we don’t yet understand or we don’t get right in the models.”
Prof Robert Spicer, at the Open University and not part of the new study, agreed: “This is another piece of evidence showing that climate models have a systematic problem with polar amplification,” ie the fact that global warming has its greatest effects at the poles. “This has enormous implications and suggests model are likely to underestimate the degree of future change.”
Brigham-Grette said it would take time for today’s CO2 levels to translate into the warming seen in the lake records: “The Earth’s climate system is a sluggish beast.” Most scientists predict it will take centuries to melt the great ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica to the shrunken levels seen 3m years ago, and so push up sea level far above the world’s coastal cities. But CO2 is increasing with unprecedented speed and the Arctic plays a key role in the global climate.
“I think we will feel the effects of climate change quickly – in years or decades – because changes in the Arctic sea ice bring changes in the circulation of the atmosphere and the oceans,” says Elias. ” Arctic sea ice keeps that entire region cool and when it melts, the dark ocean revealed absorbs even more heat.”
Recent wet and cold summer weather in Europe, for example, has been linked to changes in the high level jet stream winds, which in turn have been linked to melting Arctic ice, which shrank to its lowest recorded level in September. Climate change has also already increased the likelihood of extreme heatwaves and flooding .
“Clearly the Arctic is warming very, very rapidly at the moment,” said Sammonds. “And if all the sea ice goes, there is no good reason why it might come back again.”
© Guardian News and Media 2013
May 10, 2013
Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears
By JUSTIN GILLIS
The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.
Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.
The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.
“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.
Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.
Virtually every automobile ride, every plane trip and, in most places, every flip of a light switch adds carbon dioxide to the air, and relatively little money is being spent to find and deploy alternative technologies.
China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.
The new measurement came from analyzers atop Mauna Loa, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii that has long been ground zero for monitoring the worldwide trend on carbon dioxide, or CO2. Devices there sample clean, crisp air that has blown thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, producing a record of rising carbon dioxide levels that has been closely tracked for half a century.
Carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million was first seen in the Arctic last year, and had also spiked above that level in hourly readings at Mauna Loa.
But the average reading for an entire day surpassed that level at Mauna Loa for the first time in the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday. The two monitoring programs use slightly different protocols; NOAA reported an average for the period of 400.03 parts per million, while Scripps reported 400.08.
Carbon dioxide rises and falls on a seasonal cycle, and the level will dip below 400 this summer as leaf growth in the Northern Hemisphere pulls about 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air. But experts say that will be a brief reprieve — the moment is approaching when no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.
“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.
From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between. The evidence shows that global temperatures and CO2 levels are tightly linked.
For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near that upper bound. But the burning of fossil fuels has caused a 41 percent increase in the heat-trapping gas since the Industrial Revolution, a mere geological instant, and scientists say the climate is beginning to react, though they expect far larger changes in the future.
Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.
Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.
“It takes a long time to melt ice, but we’re doing it,” Dr. Keeling said. “It’s scary.”
Dr. Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, began carbon dioxide measurements on Mauna Loa and at other locations in the late 1950s. The elder Dr. Keeling found a level in the air then of about 315 parts per million — meaning that if a person had filled a million quart jars with air, about 315 quart jars of carbon dioxide would have been mixed in.
His analysis revealed a relentless, long-term increase superimposed on the seasonal cycle, a trend that was dubbed the Keeling Curve.
Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” Ralph Keeling said.
Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets. Scientists say that unless far greater efforts are made soon, the goal of limiting the warming will become impossible without severe economic disruption.
“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”
Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.
But climate scientists reject that argument, saying it is like claiming that a tiny bit of arsenic or cobra venom cannot have much effect. Research shows that even at such low levels, carbon dioxide is potent at trapping heat near the surface of the earth.
“If you’re looking to stave off climate perturbations that I don’t believe our culture is ready to adapt to, then significant reductions in CO2 emissions have to occur right away,” said Mark Pagani, a Yale geochemist who studies climates of the past. “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 10, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of carbon dioxide in the air as of Thursday’s reading from monitors. It is .04 percent, not .0004 percent.
Indonesia's tropical forests set to benefit from further clearing ban
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expected to sign extended deal to help restore habitat of tigers and orangutans
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 10 May 2013 21.11 BST
A ban on the clearing of tropical forests in Indonesia is on the verge of being extended in a historic deal that could protect some of the world's most threatened habitats.
Indonesia is home to about a third of the world's remaining tropical forests, which provide a habitat for endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.
For the past two years the government has imposed a moratorium on felling forests in an effort to halt the deforestation that has laid waste to much of the country's virgin habitat and cleared the way for plantations of palm oil and pulp, paper and timber businesses.
But that moratorium is about to expire, and the termination would leave loggers and plantations free to expand into fresh areas.
Reports from agencies and local press on Friday night suggested the country's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was about to sign up to an extension of the deal.
Reuters quoted an unnamed government official who said the fresh agreement would be signed within a few days.
The extension would be a big victory for green campaigners.
Greenpeace last year helped broker a key deal with Sinar Mas, owner of vast pulp and paper and palm oil interests in the region. That deal will help prevent further deforestation, and restore swathes of forest now degraded by the encroachment of loggers and plantations.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: "Extending the moratorium for another two years in Indonesia is good news for the climate and for increasingly endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.
"Indonesia's rainforests need protection from relentless exploitation by palm oil, and pulp and paper companies."
He said the decision would hopefully be welcomed by all the corporations in Indonesia and around the world that claimed to want zero deforestation.
But many palm oil planters have opposed the moratorium. The Jakarta Globe quoted a spokesman for the Association of Indonesian Palm Oil Producers who said the ban caused Indonesia to be overtaken by Malaysia as the world's biggest producer of palm oil.
"We firmly reject any proposal to extend this moratorium because we stand to lose more than we gain from it," the spokesman said.
Deforestation is one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, which this week were found to have reached the highest atmospheric concentration in recorded human history. Scientist predict that if emissions continue to rise the world will experience devastating degrees of warming within several decades.
How the G8 summit could help in limiting deforestation
The business case for avoiding deforestation remains unmade. Legislators need to help drive it out of supply chains
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 March 2013 11.30 GMT
As the UK prepares to host a G8 summit at which prime minister David Cameron wants transparency and accountability to take centre stage, there is an opportunity for world leaders to make progress against unsustainable deforestation.
The problem is that deforestation pays. That's the reality that defines a challenge that affects everything from our climate and the cost of our food, to the fate of wildlife and global efforts to eradicate poverty.
Most deforestation occurs because people around the world want wood, food, biofuels and other products that companies can provide from forest-converted land. As a result, any measures to limit deforestation that do not address this demand will struggle to make an impact. And while there have been some efforts to influence demand in ways that limit deforestation – these efforts have been unco-ordinated or have targeted different drivers of deforestation in a patchy way.
Demand-side measures that aim to limit deforestation range from legislation and public sector initiatives to industry-led standards, voluntary certification schemes and consumer-focused campaigns – such as when Greenpeace targeted toymaker Mattel over its use of cardboard made by a company known to destroy Indonesian rainforests.
These measures cover not only timber but also other products from formerly forested land, such as soy and palm oil, beef and biofuels. But a ban – such as the new EU regulations that ban sales of illegally harvested timber products – or a certification scheme that only covers one commodity could lead to what we call "leakage". This means progress in some areas could be more than offset by slippage elsewhere. While forest may be saved in one area, it may be lost in another. And even certified "deforestation-free" products occupy only a small share of the market, because consumers tend to be unwilling to pay a premium.
The International Institute for Environment and Development, forest footprint disclosure project, and the Prince's Rainforests Project wanted to assess whether it is possible to enhance demand-side interventions to reduce deforestation – and, if so, how. We wanted to identify what works best and whether measures associated with one commodity can be applied to others. And we wanted to understand, too, how the aspirations of people in consumer and producer countries factor into the design of such measures.
Last month we convened a meeting of forestry and trade specialists at the Royal Society to identify answers to these questions. Participants included policymakers, product certifiers, NGO staff, financiers and business people, representing a range of commodities and roles in the supply chain.
Speakers noted how the business case for avoiding deforestation remains unmade. Indeed, it is hard to find two people who agree on what sustainability even means. Part of the problem is that it depends on who is "selling" the idea of sustainability – and to whom. Nor is it clear that certification has any impact on deforestation overall, especially when eco-labels proliferate and governments are happy to support the schemes that exist rather than pushing them to improve.
What's clear is that we need a variety of measures that work in concert – legislation that enforces what campaigns call for, certification that has a genuine impact on deforestation rates, and input from the finance sector to address gaps that prevent producers from meeting demand-driven standards or traceability.
We also need ways to bring in the free-riders and non-conformers, whether companies or countries. And we need public sector interventions to focus less exclusively on the timber sector and address other major drivers of deforestation – such as agriculture.
Companies, governments, consumers and campaigners can all influence the supply chains that reach around the world to threaten forest landscapes. The good news is that there is growing awareness of the need for demand-side measures to deliver wider sustainability goals of environmental and social responsibility while securing economic incentives such as competitiveness and resilience. The bad news is that, as the horsemeat scandal affecting meat productions in the UK right now shows, it is all too easy for big brands to know little about their supply chains.
The G8 leaders who meet in the UK in June have a role to play. They can enact steps that can bring standards for consumer markets into convergence. They can act to ensure government subsidies reduce deforestation instead of stimulating it. Given the importance of cost savings to stimulating increased demand for deforestation-free commodities, they can initiate a review of available options under the different demand-side initiatives at all stages of the supply chain, while not compromising social and environmental integrity. And they can agree ways to make natural capital accounting a basic element of the businesses of the future.
Scientists use drones to monitor the orangutan in Asia's rainforests
Unmanned aircraft are the most efficient way for biologists to keep an eye on endangered species
Albelle Di Napoli
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 18 September 2012 14.05 BST
For the past few months, drones have been flying over the tropical forests of south-east Asia to map endangered species. A dozen of these unmanned aircraft, fitted with a video camera and an autopilot, have been deployed and will be joined by several more.
The planes are designed by Lian Pin Koh, a specialist in applied ecology and conservation at the Science and Technology University in Zurich, and Serge Wich, a biologist from Liverpool University. The project started in 2011 during a study of deforestation in Indonesia, on which Wich headed a programme to protect Sumatran orangutans. In this area, oil-palm plantations are spreading at an alarming rate, and the primates' survival is jeopardised by slash-and-burn operations that destroy their natural habitat. The United Nations environment programme estimates that 98% of these forests will have vanished within 10 years.
"Monitoring is difficult in a tropical environment because cloud cover makes it impossible to use satellite imagery. Remote-controlled model planes are affordable and seem to be a good way of speeding up our research," the two scientists explain. Conventional observation missions are expensive: "$250,000 for a two-year study," Koh adds.
A fully configured drone costs $2,000: $320 for a scale model manufactured in China using expanded polyolefin foam, which is sufficiently elastic to withstand shocks; slightly less for the flight control software developed in the United States; and the rest for stabilisers and batteries, imported from Europe, and, of course, the camera.
The drones have a range of 20-25km (about 20 minutes' flight) and are GPS-guided, following a route established on computer. Newer prototypes "will travel twice as far and photograph about 100 hectares on each mission," Wich and Koh explain. Partly funded by the National Geographic Foundation and the Orangutan Conservancy research centre, the project has received almost $19,000 in subsidies.
In February a drone made a successful test flight at Aras Napal in Sumatra. Since then other devices have been deployed to combat poaching in Nepal. A trial was carried out in June in Chitwan national park, where rhinos, tigers and elephants are threatened. A reconnaissance mission is due this month.
In western Tanzania, the German Primate Centre and Ugalla Primate Project have recently received a drone. In a country where chimpanzees are among the most acutely endangered species, high hopes are pinned on the little planes.
"Until now, we used hidden cameras for our observations, spending hours perched in trees, squinting through binoculars," says Alex Piel, a biological anthropologist. The naturalists hope they will soon be able to get some low-altitude pictures, coupled with live observations.
Koh and Wich are now analysing the data they have collected and a Swiss company is keen to take over the marketing of their drones.
This article origanally appeared in Le Monde
Fires threaten to 'extinguish' critical Indonesian orangutan population
Conservationists claim a massive new wave of fires has been set in Tripa peat swamp to make way for palm oil plantations
guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 June 2012 16.36 BST
Numerous illegally lit fires continue to rage the peat swamp forest of Tripa, Sumatra
Fires continue to rage across the peat swamp forest of Tripa, Sumatra. Photograph: SOCP/YEL
The world's densest population of orangutans is set to be "extinguished" by a massive new wave of fires that is clearing large tracts of a peat swamp forest in the Indonesian island of Sumatra, conservationists have warned.
Environmentalists claim that satellite images show a huge surge in forest blazes across the Tripa peat swamp in order to create palm oil plantations, including areas that have not been permitted for clearing.
Tripa is home to a tight-knit enclave of around 200 critically endangered orangutans. However, this number has plummeted from an estimated population of 3,000.
Just 7,000 orangutans remain in Sumatra, with rampant forest clearing for palm oil cultivation blamed for their decline.
Ian Singleton, head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), said that the Tripa orangutans are being "extinguished."
"The situation is indeed extremely dire," he said. "Every time I have visited Tripa in the last 12 months I have found several orangutans hanging on for their very survival, right at the forest edge."
"When you see the scale and speed of the current wave of destruction and the condition of the remaining forests, there can be no doubt whatsoever that many have already died in Tripa due to the fires themselves, or due to starvation as a result of the loss of their habitat and food resources."
Felling trees from Tripa's carbon-rich peat also triggers the release of large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Indonesia has been named as the third highest emitter of CO2 emissions in the world when deforestation is a factor, although the country disputes this.
Environmentalists have lodged a lawsuit against PT Kallista Alam, one of the five palm oil firms operating in Tripa, and Irwandi Yusuf, the former governor of Aceh, over the approval of a permit for the 1,600-hectare (3,950-acre) palm oil plantation.
Irawardi, previously styled as a "green" governor, says he granted the permit due to delays in the UN's Redd+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme, which has seen Norway pledge $US1bn to Indonesia to reduce deforestation.
"The international community think our forest is a free toilet for their carbon," Irawardi said in April. "Every day they are saying they want clean air and to protect forests … but they want to inhale our clean air without paying anything."
SOCP and lawyers representing Tripa's local communities have called upon the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to bypass an ongoing government investigation into the forest clearing and immediately halt the razing of the area.
"This whole thing makes absolutely no sense at all, not environmentally, nor even economically," said Singleton.
Morocco launches first phase of 500-megawatt solar energy project
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 10, 2013 18:30 EDT
Morocco on Friday officially launched the construction of a 160-megawatt solar power plant near the desert city of Ouarzazate, the first in a series of vast solar projects planned in the country.
The largest of its kind in the world, according to Mustapha Bakkoury, the head of Morocco’s solar energy agency MASEN, the thermo-solar plant will cost 7 billion dirhams (630 million euros) and is slated for completion in 2015, the official MAP news agency reported.
The ambitious project “reinforces the will… to optimise the exploitation of Morocco’s natural resources, to preserve its environment… and sustain its development,” Bakkoury said at the ceremony which was attended by King Mohammed VI.
A consortium led by Saudi developer ACWA Power won the contract to build the plant, near Morocco’s desert gateway city, last September.
The World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank are helping to finance the solar complex.
It is the first of a two-phase project, due for completion in 2020, that is expected to cover 3,000 hectares and have a generation capacity of 500 megawatts, enough to met the electricity needs of Ouarzazate’s 1.5 million residents.
MASEN’s Bakkoury said in March that companies bidding for the second phase of the project had to submit their proposals by mid-April, with the contract to be awarded sometime next year.
The North African country is aiming to become a world-class renewable energy producer, and is eyeing the chance to export clean electricity to neighbouring Europe.
Morocco expects to build five new solar plants by the end of the decade with a combined production capacity of 2,000 megawatts and at an estimated cost of nine billion dollars (6.9 billion euros).
The kingdom has no oil and gas reserves to speak of and is hoping, with the solar projects, along with a string of planned wind farms along its Atlantic coast, to raise renewable energy production to 42 percent of its total power supply mix by 2020.
UN governments agree to phase out toxic chemical HBCD
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 10, 2013 15:40 EDT
Governments have agreed to phase out the use of the toxic chemical HBCD, and restrict trade in four other dangerous substances, the head of the UN’s anti-pollution division said Friday.
“Adding these chemicals to the list is a good thing, because they are known to be quite bad chemicals,” Jim Willis, executive secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, told reporters as a two-week international conference wrapped up in Geneva.
The conference agreed to ban the production and use of HBCD from next year, albeit with a five-year grace period for its use as a flame-retardant in polystyrene building insulation.
HBCD, or hexabromocyclododecane, is also used in interior textile fittings for vehicles as well as packaging materials. It is considered a “persistent organic pollutant” — chemicals which linger in the environment, enter the food chain and thereby pose risks to human health and nature.
Health campaigners say that among its ills is that it undermines the ability of children to learn and grow because it can harm thyroid function and brain development.
Such chemicals are overseen by the Stockholm Convention, finalised in the Swedish capital in 2001 and which to date has drawn in 179 nations.
A separate accord, the 1998 Rotterdam Convention, restricts trade in chemicals by obliging exporters to ensure that destination countries have been fully informed about the risks involved and have given an explicit green light for imports.
A total of 152 nations have signed up to that accord, and the parties agreed to add four chemicals to its list: the insecticide azinphos-methyl; perfluorooctanesulfonates, which can be used as water repellents; and two forms of flame-retardant, pentabromodiphenyl ether and octabromodiphenyl ether.
Delegates failed, however, to slap similar trade restrictions on the pesticide paraquat, in the face of resistance piloted by India.
In addition, they were unable to reach a consensus on adding chrysotile asbestos — which health experts say causes cancer — to the list.
Past efforts to do so were long stymied by Canada, a major producer until the government withdrew support to the industry last year.
With Ottawa taking a back seat, the baton was picked up by Zimbabwe and Russia, the globe’s top asbestos producer.
Unlike the 180-nation Basel Convention of 1989, which governs exports of toxic waste notably from rich to poor countries, the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions lack compliance mechanisms and have to rely on countries honouring their pledges.
Climate change 'will make hundreds of millions homeless'
Carbon dioxide levels indicate rise in temperatures that could lead agriculture to fail on entire continents
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 12 May 2013
It is increasingly likely that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from their homelands in the near future as a result of global warming. That is the stark warning of economist and climate change expert Lord Stern following the news last week that concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere had reached a level of 400 parts per million (ppm).
Massive movements of people are likely to occur over the rest of the century because global temperatures are likely to rise to by up to 5C because carbon dioxide levels have risen unabated for 50 years, said Stern, who is head of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.
"When temperatures rise to that level, we will have disrupted weather patterns and spreading deserts," he said. "Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to leave their homelands because their crops and animals will have died. The trouble will come when they try to migrate into new lands, however. That will bring them into armed conflict with people already living there. Nor will it be an occasional occurrence. It could become a permanent feature of life on Earth."
The news that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached 400ppm has been seized on by experts because that level brings the world close to the point where it becomes inevitable that it will experience a catastrophic rise in temperatures. Scientists have warned for decades of the danger of allowing industrial outputs of carbon dioxide to rise unchecked.
Instead, these outputs have accelerated. In the 1960s, carbon dioxide levels rose at a rate of 0.7ppm a year. Today, they rise at 2.1ppm, as more nations become industrialised and increase outputs from their factories and power plants. The last time the Earth's atmosphere had 400ppm carbon dioxide, the Arctic was ice-free and sea levels were 40 metres higher.
The prospect of Earth returning to these climatic conditions is causing major alarm. As temperatures rise, deserts will spread and life-sustaining weather patterns such as the North Indian monsoon could be disrupted. Agriculture could fail on a continent-wide basis and hundreds of millions of people would be rendered homeless, triggering widespread conflict.
There are likely to be severe physical consequences for the planet. Rising temperatures will shrink polar ice caps – the Arctic's is now at its lowest since records began – and so reduce the amount of solar heat they reflect back into space. Similarly, thawing of the permafrost lands of Alaska, Canada and Russia could release even more greenhouse gases, including methane, and further intensify global warming.