Soybean farming blamed for increased deforestation in Brazilian Amazon
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 13:09 EDT
Fighting deforestation of the Amazon for cattle raising and farming is one of the great rallying cries of the world’s conservationists.
And, while soybean growing’s impact on the vast jungle has eased since a moratorium imposed in 2006, Brazil’s huge soybean industry is still indirectly responsible for the felling of trees.
The mechanism goes like this: soybean growers take over land that has already been deforested, worked and worn out by cattle ranchers. The ranchers then move on to burn down fresh areas of Amazon.
Brazil is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of soybean, after the United States.
Back in 2006, amid pressure from conservationists, the country’s main soybean exporters stopped buying crops grown on deforested land.
This stemmed from a campaign launched by Greenpeace at the request of customers like Carrefour and McDonald’s.
“This drastically reduced our industry’s impact on the Amazon,” said Bernardo Machado Pires, head of environmental affairs at the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (Abiove).
The moratorium is being observed by huge multinationals such as Bunge, Cargill or ADM, and involves 90 percent of Brazil’s reported soybean exports, mainly to Europe and the United States.
“Soybean continues to spread in the Amazon but the moratorium has slowed its frantic expansion,” said Michael Becker, a conservationist at WWF Brasil.
Areas that were deforested after 2006 and used to grow soybean increased 57 percent from 2011 to 2012, compared to more than 350 percent between 2008 and 2009.
Satellite images and pictures taken from aircraft by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) show that such land now covers 18,400 hectares.
Persistent deforestation of the Amazon to grow soybean stems from the fact that some buyers, mainly Chinese, have not signed the moratorium.
Still, Brazil has imposed tough penalties on companies that produce soybeans on illegally cleared land or buy from it.
“This agreement shows that consumers no longer tolerate deforestation of the Amazon, but it does not control the indirect impact of soybeans on the jungle,” said Marcio Astrini, coordinator of Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon protection campaign.
He said growing is often done in places that had been used for cattle raising, which just goes elsewhere and ranchers burn down more trees.
Geographer Mariana Soares Domingues of the University of Sao Paulo, studies the process in the arboricultural state of Mato Grosso.
“Cattle ranchers burn down fresh jungle, plant grass from airplanes and then bring in cattle,” she said.
“After a few years these pastures have been worn out, the cattle raising operations move on to deforest some place else and soybean growing takes over on these abandoned plots of land,” she added.
“The soybean industry has an indirect responsibility,” said Pires, of Abiove. “It buys land that has already been cleared, which is easier to plant, and the cattle raising moves to areas that are less expensive, in other words, the jungle. Thus are the dynamics of agriculture in these regions,” he said.
INPE says that 2008 cattle grazed on 62 percent of deforested Amazon land.
Soybean production in Brazil doubled from 2001 to 2012 and is spreading relentlessly into new areas.
“Direct pressure on the Amazon is easing but the expansion is coming at the expense of ecosystems like the Cerrado,” said Becker of WWF, referring to a sprawling woodland savanna ecosystem in central Brazil.
The Cerrado accounted for more than 60 percent of the record soybean harvest posted in 2012-13. Brasil is now close to overtaking the United States as the world’s top soybean producer this year.
Deforesting the Cerrado, and thus drying it out, would be hugely detrimental because it feeds huge rivers basins like Amazon and the Paraná”, said the geographer, Soares Domingues.
New forestry laws passed last year implicitly encourage the exploitation of the Cerrado: farmers can now grow on 65 percent of their land, compared to 50 percent before.
“Soybeans have a major impact on the Cerrado but our European customers worry about the Amazon and the native peoples. The market is not yet asking us to protect this ecosystem,” said Pires, referring to the Cerrado.
Ecologists say Brazil, the world’s fifth largest farmer producer, can increase production without felling a single tree.
“The country has 60 million hectares of former pasture or abandoned land. They could be turned into productive land and thus double the amount of farm land,” said Astrini, of Greenpeace.
The soybean industry accounts for nearly 2 percent of Brazil’s GDP and wields more and more influence on economic and political decision making.
Scientists harness power of exoelectrogenic bacteria in wastewater to make renewable electricity
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 9:06 EDT
We just finished getting all excited about a new Department of Energy project for teasing renewable hydrogen fuel out of municipal wastewater, when along comes Stanford University with a neat little wastewater trick of its own. The Stanford project involves harnessing a curiously evolved trait of exoelectrogenic microbes. These naturally occurring bacteria generate electricity as they react with oxide minerals in their environment, and if you get enough of them together you can organize them into a microbial battery.
We’ve covered similar microbial battery systems elsewhere, but getting microbes to follow orders has proven to be something of a challenge, kind of like herding cats but with microbes. The Stanford team seems to be on a new track so let’s see what they’ve got cooking.
A New Microbial Battery
The Stanford University team would be the first to admit that their microbial battery so far looks like a science fair project, but it could play a major role in the future energy landscape.
Stanford harvests electricity from municipal wastewater.
Wastewater treatment plants are huge, sprawling affairs that suck up tons of electricity for pumps and other equipment, accounting for about three percent of the electrical load in developed countries. Though wastewater is not very energy dense compared to other forms of renewable energy, on site microbial battery systems could provide enough power to take a significant chunk of that load off the grid.
Microbial battery systems could also be deployed to remediate “dead zones” in coastal and interior waterways that have been overloaded with organic waste from fertilizer runoff among other sources.
With that in mind, here’s how the Stanford microbial battery works.
Exoelectrogenic bacteria live in airless environments. Instead of breathing air, they react with oxide minerals to convert the nutrients in wastewater.
The battery basically consists of a jar of wastewater, including a colony of bacteria, with a positive and a negative electrode.
The negative electrode is engineered with carbon filaments, which serve as electrical conductors. Exoelectrogenic bacteria attach themselves to the filaments by putting out nanowires or “milky tendrils,” which the team observed using a scanning electron microscope.
The nanowires enable the microbes to shed the excess electrons that they produce while digesting food, and the electrons travel through the carbon filaments to the positive electrode.
At the positive electron is a silver oxide node, which gradually reduces to silver as it receives electrons. When the node is removed from the battery, it releases the electrons and converts back to silver oxide.
So far, the team has found that it takes about a day to “charge” the battery. There will be many next steps to a scaled-up prototype, but the simplicity of the system could help accelerate the development process.
Other Routes To Microbial Batteries
Over at the University of Massachusetts, researchers have been taking the genetic engineering route to microbial batteries by tweaking a microbe called Geobacter, which can produce electricity from mud as well as wastewater. When we last checked in, the team had created a strain eight times more efficient than others.
As for the renewable hydrogen from wastewater thing, the project we just covered is the Department of Energy’s teaming of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with a company called Chemergy.
That one involves producing hydrogen from wastewater through a chemical process, but you can do something similar with bacteria. One example is Arizona State University, which has figured out a way to make the process more efficient by neutralizing inefficient bacteria. Another is the University of Colorado, where researchers are working on an integrated system for treating wastewater and producing renewable hydrogen.
And let’s not forget the US Navy, which has been tinkering with microbial fuel cells that can scavenge fuel on the go in marine environments.
The Christian Science Monitor
How one group of plants help regrow an entire forest
By Elizabeth Barber, Contributor / September 16, 2013 at 2:10 pm EDT
Legumes rise to meet the challenge of deforestation, scientists have found.
A team of researchers report in Nature that legumes, which fix atmospheric nitrogen into a useable form for other plants, grow faster than other trees in the earliest phase of a forest’s re-growth. The find highlights the pivotal role that just one group of plants – in collaboration with some useful bacteria – plays in growing up an entire forest that, as a carbon dioxide absorber, ultimately becomes the entire planet’s ally against global warming.
“This is a group of species that are helpers to the rest of the forest,” says Lars Hedin, a professor at Princeton University and a co-author on the paper.
“It’s super cool,” he adds.
For decades, the Americas’ forests, once unfurling like rumpled blankets across the continent, have been cut into to make room for booming cities and sprawling commercial farms and ranches. Those cuts, scientists note, have brought about the extinction of an unknown amount of species, as well as troubling losses in the ranks of an efficient carbon dioxide reducer: the tree.
Forests, as it is now well known, are prodigious sappers of the atmospheric carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming. And as countries now work to replace the forests, bean or seed producing plants called legumes have been increasingly fingered as critical to the success of those efforts.
It has long been known that legumes are nitrogen fixers, converting atmospheric nitrogen into a soil-based version that plants depend on for growth, since tropical soil is, on its own, nitrogen-poor. The process begins with bacteria called rhizobia that take up residence in the plant’s root nodules (pods inside the tree's roots) to feed on the carbohydrates the plant manufactures. At the same time, the bacteria sequester nitrogen from the air and fix it into a form palatable to plants. Excess nitrogen in that process is churned into the soil, to the benefit of non-nitrogen-fixing plants.
But scientists have not been sure if that biological fixing process was enough to get forests going again, after the ecosystem had been culled for farmland and the soil degraded. The lack of nitrogen in the soil was thought to be a prohibitive factor in the chances of those forests – called second-growth forests – growing back.
The researchers studied 16 second-growth forests in Panama that had been turned back to the wild between five to 300 years ago. In the first 12 years of forest regrowth, legume plants were found to grow at nine times the rate of non-fixing plants. As a result, young forests that had been swaths of pasture just a dozen years earlier were found to have accumulated up to 50 percent of the carbon found in mature forests – about 50 metric tons of carbon per hectare, or some 185 tons of carbon dioxide. Legumes contributed about half of the nitrogen needed to grow the forest, the researchers found.
“We knew that legumes were important, but what surprised us was their ability to respond to nitrogen deficiency during the early phase of the regrowth,” says Sarah A. Batterman, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton.
As the forests aged, the legumes gradually fixed less and less nitrogen, likely because fixing is an energy consuming process that puts the plants at a competitive disadvantage against other undergrowth, says Dr. Hedin.
“It’s in their best interest to turn off the fixing,” he says, noting that, at the point the process slows or shuts down, the soil has welled up enough nitrogen to sustain a nitrogen cycle and functional forest growth.
“These are really smart trees,” he adds.
The nine different species of legumes studied also began and stopped fixing nitrogen at staggered times, as if choreographed to keep the forest nitrogen-fed, the scientists found, noting that the research once again underscores the importance of biodiversity in the health of tropical forests.
Though the results are encouraging in suggesting that tropical forests are primed with the knowhow to make comebacks, that does not mean that all is well for the Americas’ rainforests, the researchers said.
“Tropical forests are still very much threatened,” says Hedin.
1,000 tonnes of polluted Fukushima water dumped in sea after Typhoon Man-yi
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 8:14 EDT
The operator of the leaking Fukushima nuclear plant said Tuesday that it dumped more than 1,000 tons of polluted water into the sea after a typhoon raked the facility.
Typhoon Man-yi smashed into Japan on Monday, bringing with it heavy rain that caused flooding in some parts of the country, including the ancient city of Kyoto.
The rain also lashed near the broken plant run by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), swamping enclosure walls around clusters of water tanks containing toxic water that was used to cool broken reactors.
Some of the tanks were earlier found to be leaking contaminated water.
“Workers measured the radioactive levels of the water collected in the enclosure walls, pumping it back into tanks when the levels were high,” said a TEPCO official.
“Once finding it was mostly rain water they released it from the enclosure, because there is a limit on how much water we can store.”
The utility said about 1,130 tonnes of water with low levels of radiation — below the 30 becquerels of strontium per litre safety limit imposed by Japanese authorities — were released into the ground.
But the company also said at one site where water was found contaminated beyond the safety limit workers could not start the water pump quick enough in the torrential rain, and toxic water had leaked from the enclosure for several minutes.
Strontium is a potentially cancer-causing substance that accumulates in bones if consumed.
Thousands of tonnes of water that was poured on the reactors to tame meltdowns is being stored in temporary tanks at the plant, and TEPCO has so far revealed no clear plan for it.
The problem has been worsened by leaks in some of those tanks that are believed to have seeped into groundwater and run out to sea.
Separately, around 300 tonnes of mildly contaminated groundwater is entering the ocean every day having passed under the reactors, TEPCO says.
September 18, 2013
Germany’s Effort at Clean Energy Proves Complex
By MELISSA EDDY and STANLEY REED
BERLIN — It is an audacious undertaking with wide and deep support in Germany: shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants, wean the country from coal and promote a wholesale shift to renewable energy sources.
But the plan, backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and opposition parties alike, is running into problems in execution that are forcing Germans to come face to face with the costs and complexities of sticking to their principles.
German families are being hit by rapidly increasing electricity rates, to the point where growing numbers of them can no longer afford to pay the bill. Businesses are more and more worried that their energy costs will put them at a disadvantage to competitors in nations with lower energy costs, and some energy-intensive industries have begun to shun the country because they fear steeper costs ahead.
Newly constructed offshore wind farms churn unconnected to an energy grid still in need of expansion. And despite all the costs, carbon emissions actually rose last year as reserve coal-burning plants were fired up to close gaps in energy supplies.
A new phrase, “energy poverty,” has entered the lexicon.
“Often, I don’t go into my living room in order to save electricity,” said Olaf Taeuber, 55, who manages a fleet of vehicles for a social services provider in Berlin. “You feel the pain in your pocketbook.”
Mr. Taeuber relies on just a single five-watt bulb that gives off what he calls a “cozy” glow to light his kitchen when he comes home at night. If in real need, he switches on a neon tube, which uses all of 25 watts.
Even so, with his bill growing rapidly, he found himself seeking help last week to fend off a threat from Berlin’s main power company to cut off his electricity. He is one of a growing number of Germans confronting the realities of trying to carry out Ms. Merkel’s most ambitious domestic project and one of the most sweeping energy transformation efforts undertaken by an industrialized country.
Because the program has the support of German political parties across the spectrum, there has been no highly visible backlash during the current election campaign. But continuing to put the program in place and maintaining public support for it will be among Ms. Merkel’s biggest challenges should she win a third term as chancellor in Sunday’s election.
Ms. Merkel, of the traditionally conservative and pro-business Christian Democrats, came up with her plan in 2011, in the emotional aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. It envisions shutting down all of Germany’s nuclear plants by 2022 and shifting almost entirely to wind and solar power by 2050.
The chancellor’s about-face not only seized the energy initiative from her center-left opponents, it also amounted to a gamble that could prove to be her most lasting domestic legacy — or a debacle whose consequences will be felt for generations.
The cost of the plan is expected to be about $735 billion, according to government estimates, and may eventually surpass even that of the euro zone bailouts that have received far more attention during Ms. Merkel’s tenure. Yet as the transition’s unknowns have grown, so have costs for the state, major companies and consumers.
Mr. Taeuber showed up last Friday, one of three “walk-ins” that day at one of two agencies in Berlin offering aid to people struggling to pay their energy bills. He arrived just as employees from the power company Vattenfall were on the way to his apartment.
Sven Gärtner, an agency employee, called Vattenfall with the promise of a payment plan, sparing Mr. Taeuber from being disconnected. “The boys were already in the basement, but they agreed to pull them back,” Mr. Gärtner said triumphantly.
Since January, Mr. Gärtner said, his group has intervened in more than 350 cases to prevent Vattenfall from leaving one family or another in the dark. In the first six months of this year, about 1,800 sought help, 200 more than in all of 2012.
With consumers having to pay about $270 each in surcharges this year to subsidize new operators of renewable power, the hardest hit are low-wage earners, retirees and people on welfare, Mr. Gärtner said. Government subsidies for the plan amounted to $22.7 billion in 2012 and could reach $40.5 billion by 2020, according to John Musk, a power analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
“The energy transformation makes sense, but its implementation has been sloppy and uncoordinated,” Mr. Gärtner said. “People can’t be expected to keep cutting more and more in other areas. They are not receiving enough for the basic costs to cover their energy needs.”
Part of the reason consumer prices have risen so sharply is that, for now, the government has shielded about 700 companies from increased energy costs, to protect their competitive position in the global economy.
Industrial users still pay substantially more for electricity here than do their counterparts in Britain or France, and almost three times as much as those in the United States, according to a study by the German industrial giant Siemens. The Cologne Institute for Economic Research said there had been a marked decline in the willingness of industrial companies to invest in Germany since 2000.
Already there are winners and losers. A third of electronics and automotive companies have increased profits with the plan, and 11 percent of those in the chemical and metal industries have had losses, the German Economic Institute reported.
“We are now coming to a critical stage, and all the politicians are aware of this,” said Udo Niehage, Siemens’s point person for the transition. “The costs are becoming high, maybe too high, and you have to look at the consequences for the competitiveness of our industry in Germany.”
Rivaling the costs are the logistical challenges of eventually shifting 80 percent of energy consumption to renewable sources, something that has never been tried on such a grand scale.
One of the first obstacles encountered involves the vagaries of electrical power generation that is dependent on sources as inconsistent and unpredictable as the wind and the sun.
And no one has invented a means of storing that energy for very long, which means overwhelming gluts on some days and crippling shortages on others that require firing up old oil- and coal-burning power plants. That, in turn, undercuts the goal of reducing fossil-fuel emissions that have been linked to climate change.
Last year, wind, solar and other nonfossil-fuel sources provided 22 percent of the power for Germany, but the country increased its carbon emissions over 2011 as oil- and coal-burning power plants had to close gaps in the evolving system, according to the German electricity association BDEW.
“It is great that we have achieved such a high percentage of renewable energy,” said Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. “But there are negative repercussions that we are now beginning to feel and must be addressed by the next government.”
Large offshore wind farms that have been built in Germany’s less populated north generate energy that must then be transported to industries and sites in the south.
“We worked 24-hour days and weekends,” said Irina Lucke, who spent most of last year on the low sandy island of Borkum in the North Sea, supervising the assembly of 30 soaring turbines for the largest offshore wind farm. It is owned mostly by the utility EWE and was due to open last month.
Those turbines will probably not generate electricity until next year. Workers must still sweep the seafloor for abandoned World War II ordnance before a cable can be run to shore. “It’s really frustrating,” Ms. Lucke said. The delay threatens to add $27 million to the $608 million cost of the wind park.
Even without the energy the offshore turbines could produce, Germany’s power grid has been strained by new wind and solar projects on land, compelling the government to invest up to $27 billion over the next decade to build roughly 1,700 miles of high-capacity power lines and to upgrade lines.
The largely rural northern state of Schleswig-Holstein produces as much as 12,000 megawatts of power with new wind turbines and solar panels, but it can consume only about a sixth of that.
“Schleswig-Holstein is a microcosm for all of Germany,” said Markus Lieberknecht of the grid operator Tennet. “Where energy was previously brought into the state and distributed to small communities, these communities are now producing the power, and we need to find a way to transmit it to the larger urban areas. Everything has been stood on its head.”
France to cut fossil fuels by 30% by 2030: Hollande
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, September 20, 2013 7:27 EDT
France will reduce use of fossil fuels by 30 percent by 2030 as part of a strategy to halve overall energy use by 2050, President Francois Hollande announced on Friday.
“I propose that we set a goal of reducing consumption of fossil energy by 30 percent by 2030,” Hollande said at a national conference on the environment in Paris.
“We can make savings of 20 to 50 billion (euros, or $27 to 67 billion) in our energy bill by 2030,” he said.
Russia urges UN climate report to include geoengineering
The Russian government is asking for 'planet hacking' to be included in the climate science report, leaked documents show
Martin Lukacs, Suzanne Goldenberg and Adam Vaughan
The Guardian, Thursday 19 September 2013 17.00 BST
Russia is pushing for next week's landmark UN climate science report to include support for controversial technologies to geoengineer the planet's climate, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.
As climate scientists prepare to gather for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Stockholm to present the most authoritative state of climate science to date, it has emerged the Russian government is asking for "planet hacking" to be included in the report. The IPCC has not included geoengineering in its major assessments before.
The documents seen by the Guardian show Russia is asking for a conclusion of the report to say that a "possible solution of this [climate change] problem can be found in using of [sic] geoengineering methods to stabilise current climate." Russia also highlighted that its scientists are developing geoengineering technologies.
Geoengineering aims to cool the Earth by methods including spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, or fertilising the oceans with iron to create carbon-capturing algal blooms.
Such ideas are increasingly being discussed by western scientists and governments as a plan B for addressing climate change, with the new astronomer royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees, calling last week for such methods to buy time to develop sources of clean energy. But the techniques have been criticised as a way for powerful, industrialised nations to dodge their commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
Some modelling has shown geoengineering could be effective at reducing the Earth's temperature, but manipulation of sensitive planetary systems in one area of the world could also result in drastic unintended consequences globally, such as radically disrupted rainfall.
Responding to efforts to discredit the climate science with a spoiler campaign in advance of the report, the chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra K Pachauri, said he was confident the high standards of the science in the report would make the case for climate action. He said: "There will be enough information provided so that rational people across the globe will see that action is needed on climate change."
The Russian scientist Yuri Izrael, who has participated in IPCC geoengineering expert groups and was an adviser to the former Russian president Vladimir Putin, conducted an experiment in 2009 that sprayed particles from a helicopter to assess how much sunlight was blocked by the aerosol plume. A planned test in Britain that would have used a balloon attached to a 1km hose to develop equipment for spraying was prevented after a public outcry.
Observers have suggested that Russia's admission that it is developing geoengineering may put it in violation of the UN moratorium on geoengineering projects established at the Biodiversity Convention in 2010 and should be discussed on an emergency basis when the convention's scientific subcommittee meets in Montreal in October.
Civil society organisations have previously raised concerns that expert groups writing geoengineering sections of the IPCC report were dominated by US, UK and Canadian geoengineering advocates who have called for public funding of large-scale experiments or who have taken out commercial patents on geoenginering technologies. One scientist who served as a group co-chair, David Keith of Harvard University, runs a private geoengineering company, has planned tests in New Mexico, and is publicising a new book called The Case for Climate Engineering.
Nearly 160 civil society, indigenous and environmental organisations signed a letter in 2011 urging caution and calling on the IPCC not to legitimise geoengineering.
Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America director of the technology watchdog ETC Group, said: "We have been warning that a few geoengineering advocates have been trying to hijack the IPCC for their agenda. We are now seeing a deliberate attempt to exploit the high profile and credibility of this body in order to create more mainstream support for extreme climate engineering. The public and policymakers need to be on guard against being steamrollered into accepting dangerous and immoral interventions with our planet, which are a false solution to climate change. Geoengineering should be banned by the UN general assembly."
Matthew Watson, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol's Earth sciences department and one of the team behind the cancelled balloon project, said: "In general ought the IPCC to be thinking about geoengineering? Yes. But do I want to see unilateralism or regionalism affect the debate? Certainly not. The people who don't like geoengineering will suggest the IPCC is a method for normalising it."
He added: "The IPCC has to be very careful about how it handles this [geoengineering] because it is clearly a very significant output that people are very mindful of."
While the IPCC is intended to be a scientific advisory panel, government delegates have been reviewing the summary report and make final decisions about it in Stockholm at the end of the month.
Sweden, Norway and Germany expressed more scepticism about geoengineering and asked that the report underline its potential dangers.
"The information on geoengineering options is too optimistic as it does not appropriately reflect the current lack of knowledge or the high risks associated with such methods," noted the German government.
Geoengineering is expected to play a much larger role in the next IPCC reports coming out in 2014. Observers were surprised that it had turned up in this first major report – meant to assess physical science rather than mitigation strategies.
Russia's climate negotiators did not respond to a request for comment.
September 19, 2013
Administration Presses Ahead With Limits on Emissions From Power Plants
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON — A year after a plan by President Obama to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants set off angry opposition, the administration will announce on Friday that it is not backing down from a confrontation with the coal industry and will press ahead with enacting the first federal carbon limits on the nation’s power companies.
The proposed regulations, to be announced at the National Press Club by Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, are an aggressive move by Mr. Obama to bypass Congress on climate change with executive actions he promised in his inaugural address this year. The regulations are certain to be denounced by House Republicans and the industry as part of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”
In her speech, Ms. McCarthy will unveil the agency’s proposal to limit new gas-fired power plants to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour and new coal plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to administration officials who were briefed on the agency’s plans. Industry officials say the average advanced coal plant currently emits about 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour.
“New power plants, both natural gas and coal-fired, can minimize their carbon emissions by taking advantage of modern technologies,” Ms. McCarthy will say Friday, according to her prepared remarks. “Simply put, these standards represent the cleanest standards we’ve put forth for new natural gas plants and new coal plants.”
Aides said Ms. McCarthy would also announce a yearlong schedule for an environmental listening tour — a series of meetings across the country with the public, the industry and environmental groups as the agency works to establish emissions limits on existing power plants — a far more costly and controversial step. Mr. Obama has told officials he wants to see greenhouse gas limits on both existing and new power plants by the time he leaves office in 2017.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said in January. But he acknowledged that “the path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”
The limits to be unveiled Friday are a slightly more relaxed standard for coal plants than the administration first proposed in April 2012. Officials said the new plan, which came after the E.P.A. received more than 2.5 million comments from the public and industry, will give coal plant operators more flexibility to meet the limits over several years.
Still, environmental groups are likely to hail the announcement as an important step in targeting the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Forty percent of all energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases in 2012 came from power plants, and most of that came from coal-burning power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“We are thrilled that the E.P.A. is taking this major step forward in implementing President Obama’s climate action plan,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, in anticipation of Ms. McCarthy’s announcement. “It’s a great day for public heath and a clean energy future.”
But Republican lawmakers and industry officials have already attacked the expected proposal. Opponents of the new rules argue that the technology to affordably reduce carbon emissions at power plants is not yet available and will drastically increase the cost of electricity.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader and a fierce advocate for coal in a coal-dependent state, said in an interview Thursday that he expected “the worst.” Although he had not seen the administration’s latest proposal, Mr. McConnell said it was likely to alarm people in his state.
“It’s a devastating blow to our state, and we’re going to fight it in every way we can,” Mr. McConnell said.
Scott Segal, the director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents power companies, said the details he had heard about the rules suggested that the administration would drive investment away from a plentiful source of power.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be illegal, counterproductive from an environmental perspective and contrary to our long-range interest in creating jobs, holding down costs and producing reliable energy,” Mr. Segal said.
The rules on new power plants will soon face a 60-day public comment period, likely to be followed by intensive industry and environmental lobbying and possible court challenges. Officials said the rules could be finalized by the fall of 2014.
Once the rules are in place, coal power plants would be required to limit their emissions, likely by installing technology called “carbon capture and sequestration,” which scrubs carbon dioxide from their emissions before they reach the plant smokestacks. The technology then pumps it into permanent storage underground.
Industry representatives argue that such technology has not been proven on a large scale and would be extraordinarily expensive — and therefore in violation of provisions in the Clean Air Act that require the regulations to be adequately demonstrated and not exorbitant in cost.
“I think the agency has real problems” meeting both of those standards, Mr. Segal said.
But E.P.A. officials argue that the carbon capture technology has been used in several locations and that a review of the industry over the past year proves that owners of new coal-fired power plants can meet the new standards as required by the act.
Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement that the proposed rules would begin a new era in which the United States began real efforts to control “climate-altering pollution” from the nation’s power plants.
“These rules are reasonable,” Mr. Markey said. “They are feasible. And they should soon be expanded to include standards for existing power plants.”
In one concession to the industry, officials said the agency would provide some flexibility. Plants that could install the technology within 12 months would be required to meet the 1,100-pound limit, officials said. Owners of coal plants would also have the option of phasing in the limits over a seven-year period, officials said. But those plants would be required to meet a stricter standard of 1,000 to 1,050 pounds per megawatt hours, averaged over the seven years.
Oil companies lining up to bid on exploration rights for mammoth Brazilian field
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 19, 2013 18:23 EDT
At least 11 oil firms paid more than $900,000 each to join an auction next month for rights to explore Brazil’s huge deepwater Libra field, authorities said Thursday.
The National Petroleum Agency did not identify the companies involved but Britain’s BP and BG Group, as well as American firm ExxonMobil are not on the list, according to ANP director Magda Chambriard.
The oil regulator chief said she expected about 40 companies to bid for Libra. “Now, there is an international context,” the oil regulator’s chief said.
The enormous Libra oil prospect, found in 2010, marked the largest oil discovery in Brazilian history.
It is believed to hold between eight and 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil, and covers an area of 1,500 square kilometers (600 square miles) in ultra deep oil fields.
The auction, scheduled for October 21, will be for a 35-year non-renewable concession to work the field.
In 30 years, the Libra field could bring in returns of $408 million — $135 million in royalties and $273 million in oil participation — according to Chambriard.
Next month’s auction will be the first such sale since the 2007 discovery of huge pre-salt deepwater reserves off southeastern Brazil.
ANP estimates that those reserves, buried beneath several kilometers of ocean, bedrock and hot salt beds, could hold more than 100 billion barrels of high-quality recoverable crude and could turn Brazil into one of the world’s top exporters.
Brazil hopes to boost its oil output from around two million barrels a day currently to nearly five million by 2020, largely thanks to the pre-salt reserves.
State-run energy giant Petrobras will have a mandatory 30 percent participation in the Libra concession.
ANP will auction the remaining 70 percent, in which Petrobras can also participate alone or as part of a consortium with other firms.
Researchers brace for latest corporate push questioning climate change
By Fiona Harvey, The Guardian
Friday, September 20, 2013 20:15 EDT
Climate change summit braced for counterblast from sceptics as report warns greenhouse gas emissions still increasing
Big companies are paying contrarians to undermine the work of climate scientists, according to a top UN official speaking before the release of a landmark review of climate science this weekby international researchers next Friday.
Halldór Thorgeirsson, a director who reports to the head of the UN body that governs the on-going high level international climate negotiations, said that scientists would need to be prepared for a counter-blast from sceptics.
“Vested interests are paying for the discrediting of scientists all the time. We need to be ready for that,” he said.
His outspoken views will set the tone for a fractious meeting of the world’s leading climate scientists, kicking off on Monday in Stockholm, that will set out the evidence that the world’s governments use when formulating policies to deal with global warming for decades to come. More than 800 scientists have contributed to the report, the final details of which will be hammered out in a gruelling four-day session next week.
According to a draft of the “Summary for Policy Makers” dated June, seen by the Guardian — the most important part of the document — the scientists will argue that the evidence points to 95% certainty that climate change is occurring and is caused mainly by greenhouse gases released by humans – up from 90% certainty in the previous 2007 report. The 53 page document, seen by the Guardian which includes a note saying “do not cite, quote or distribute” says that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are now greater than at any time in the last 800,000 years, based on ice cores and other evidence, and the incidences of extreme rainfall are increasing, with rainfall likely to increase in the north but to decrease in the subtropics. The draft outlines evidence of “large-scale warming resulting primarily from anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gas concentrations”. It says that if warming is to be limited to less than 2C in future, more than half of the carbon that can be emitted to hold to that goal has already been poured into the atmosphere.
The real impact of the report – the latest since 2007 and only the fifth such assessment since 1992 – will not be felt until governments meet this year in Poland to discuss a global response to warming, aiming to forge a treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which was rejected by the US and which placed no obligations on big developing countries such as China, now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The IPCC came in for severe criticism after a handful of flaws were found in its 2007 report, chiefly a mistake which suggested that most of the glaciers of the Himalayas could disappear by 2035. he error was seized by detractors, and led to the discovery of several other claims that were insufficiently backed by research. The IPCC said it was unsurprising that a few mistakes had crept into what was than a thousand pages of dense scientific research.
One of the crucial issues in the latest IPCC report is how sensitive the climate is to carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. Early leaked drafts of the summary suggest that the earth’s systems are extremely sensitive to greenhouse gases, and are likely to continue to rise as fossil fuels are burned at ever faster rates, but they also suggest that the lower end of estimates of future temperature rise will be reduced. Formerly, the scientific consensus was that temperatures would rise by at least 2C, but in the new report this is likely to be reduced slightly to a 1.5C projected increase at the lowest end of the range. This slight reduction, which scientists stress does not reduce the known dangers of warming, such as more droughts and floods and fiercer storms, has been seized on by some climate sceptics, who see it as evidence that global warming will be less severe than thought.However, there are no certainties in the report as yet — though drafts have been seen by the Guardian. The final assessment will be subject to the wranglings of climate scientists and government-appointed experts next week.
Prof Nilay Shah, of Imperial College London, who compiled a recent report on how to reduce carbon emissions, compared the world’s lack of action on climate change to the complacency on safety procedures before the devastating fire at King’s Cross underground station in 1987, in which 31 people lost their lives. Before the fire, he pointed out, smoking was allowed on Underground stations, piles of flammable rubbish were allowed to accumulate, and many escalators were made of wood. After the dangers of these became apparent, the design of stations was improved to remove these hazards, but it took the disaster to stimulate change.Sceptics have been lining up to put forward their views that the IPCC’s fifth assessment report is flawed. Many of their arguments focus on the recent slowdown in the upward march of global temperatures, attributed by climate experts to the effects of the oceans in absorbing heat and the natural variability of the world’s climate systems. However, scientists point out that ten of the warmest years in the temperature record have occurred in the past decade and a half. There have also been other strong indicators of climate change, including the shrinking of Arctic sea ice – which reached its lowest recorded extent last year and is also diminishing in volume – and the retreat of glaciers around the world.
To those who are in disagreement with climate science, however – even though recent research has found that more than 90% of scientific studies support the finding that climate change is happening as a result of human actions – the remaining areas of uncertainty, such as the role of the oceans in absorbing heat and the role of clouds and human-made aerosols in deflecting the sun’s rays from the earth’s surface, are a cause to doubt more than a century of climate science. Myron Ebell, director of the centre for energy and environment at the right-leaning US thinktank Competitive Enterprise Institute, and one of the US’s most prominent climate sceptics, told the Guardian: “The science contradicts the modellers’ dire predictions. The divergence between reality and model projections in the last two decades provides strong evidence that global warming, although it may become a problem some decades in the future, is not a crisis and is highly unlikely to become a crisis. We should be worried that the alarmist establishment continues using junk science to promote disastrous policies that will make the world much poorer and will consign poor people in poor countries to perpetual poverty.”
The CEI has in the past received funding from Exxon Mobil, the oil company, and the American Petroleum Institute, Texaco, General Motors and the Koch Family Foundations, controlled by the Koch brothers who made their fortune from fossil fuels.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
Greenpeace activists could be charged with terrorism after ship stormed
Crew of Arctic Sunrise were in custody of armed Russian security forces after being prevented from disrupting oil rig work
Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Friday 20 September 2013 18.49 BST
Jumping from helicopters and slithering down ropes, more than a dozen armed Russian coastguard workers boarded a Greenpeace ship and took custody of the activists on board, to stop them from disrupting the work of a controversial oil rig.
After a scuffle between the activists and the Russian security forces, the 29 activists, including six British nationals, are apparently being held on board at gunpoint, while the ship is forcibly towed to the Arctic port of Murmansk.
The Russian coastguard, which is controlled by the FSB security services, boarded the Arctic Sunrise late on Thursday night near Prirazlomnaya, a drilling platform in the Pechora Sea, close to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.
The activists were protesting against the rig, operated by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which is due to come online soon, and had attempted to climb aboard it and stop work.
The ship's crew remain in the custody of armed Russian security forces and could be charged with terrorism.
The FSB said it had been tracking the vessel since it left the Norwegian port of Kirkenes last Saturday, and turned off its radio signals. Once the ship had changed course and began heading for the Prirazlomnaya platform, the FSB decided to act. Warning shots were fired and two climbers on the rig were arrested earlier in the week.
When the ship's captain refused to turn back or respond to commands on Thursday, the FSB said it took the decision to act. About 15 armed men boarded the boat via helicopter, according to activists on board.
Ben Ayliffe, the head of Greenpeace International's Arctic oil campaign, said he was speaking to one of the activists via satellite phone during the storming, and could hear shouts and banging.
"They used violence against some of us. They were hitting people, kicking people down, pushing people," Faiza Oulahsen, one of the activists aboard the ship, said in a call to Reuters on Thursday evening.
Nothing has been heard from the activists since. The Russian coastguard said that the ship's captain was refusing to operate the ship, so an official boat was towing the Arctic Sunrise west towards Murmansk.
Greenpeace insists the ship was in international waters when it was boarded, and said there had been no formal notification of possible charges, nor offers of access to legal or consular assistance. The ship was 34 nautical miles from the closest Russian shore, according to the activists, which would put it in an area known as the Exclusive Economic Zone of Russia but not in the country's territorial waters.
The FSB said it was co-ordinating actions with the foreign ministry, Gazprom and oil company Rosneft "to protect the safety of the crew on the platform and defend the interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic region".
The regional press office of the FSB in Murmansk told Russian agencies that it had received information from representatives of the Prirazlomnaya platform earlier in the week that they feared a terrorist act was about to be carried out, and said that activists were approaching the rig with an "unidentified object that looks like an explosive device". Greenpeace claimed this was disingenuous, as its "safety pod" is brightly coloured and branded with the organisation's logo.
Greenpeace has long warned that the start of oil drilling at Prirazlomnaya could have disastrous environmental repercussions. "The rig is a rusting hulk in the middle of the Arctic that is about to start pumping oil from the Arctic for the first time," said Ayliffe. "Gazprom has no way to clean up an oil spill if it happened, and it would cause huge damage to one of the most fragile natural environments on the planet."
The Arctic Sunrise ran a similar mission to Prirazlomnaya last year, and several activists again climbed on to the rig, but although they were observed by Russian authorities, there was none of the forceful reaction that occurred this time, Ayliffe said.
Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace Russia's Arctic programmes, says the organisation is trying to arrange meetings with Russian officials to discuss the situation. A Greenpeace team is already in Murmansk awaiting the arrival of the boat, expected at some point on Monday.
Climate change: UN makes high-risk attempt to break deadlock on talks
Secretary general Ban Ki-moon to invite world leaders to first summit of its kind since Copenhagen in 2009
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 20 September 2013 19.38 BST
The United Nations secretary general is to invite world leaders next week to an unprecedented summit on climate change, in the hope of breaking the long deadlock on global warming talks. The high-risk strategy will put heads of state and government together to talk about the issue for the first time since the Copenhagen summit in 2009 ended in scenes of farce and disarray.
Ban Ki-moon has decided he must convene the meeting because of the stalemate in the talks for the past four years, with international action dwindling even as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise strongly, and scientific warnings over the consequences grow more strident.
He will tell world leaders next week that he expects them to attend crucial talks in 2014, ahead of a diplomatic push for a new global treaty on the climate, to culminate the following year. It is understood that he thinks one of the failures of the Copenhagen process was to bring in leaders only in the dying days of those negotiations, when diplomats had already failed to secure a deal.
By convening leaders a year before the crucial stage of the new round of global talks, he hopes to create an atmosphere in which leading nations such as the US, China and EU countries can agree the broad outlines of a new climate agreement, and then return to their officials and instruct them to hammer out the details.
The next crucial international climate meeting is scheduled for 2015 in Paris, which according to current plans is the deadline for a new global pact on emissions to be signed. Ban is understood to view climate change as one of the key defining issues of his tenure as secretary general, and is still smarting from the failure of the Copenhagen summit to produce a unified world view on the problem.
This is a gamble by the UN. The world's leading economies are currently signed up to targets to curb their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, but at present there is no clear agreement on goals beyond that date. But scientific projections, to be revealed next week by the UN-convened body of the world's leading climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are expected to show that time is running out, as emissions are racing ahead of the ability of the world's natural systems to absorb their impact.
Under current emissions trends, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and other respected bodies have warned that global warming could reach 6C, which would lead to widespread floods, droughts, famine and migration.
Ban's gamble was hailed by some diplomats as a potential game-changer. "We need to have the impetus behind this, we need to get over Copenhagen and get to a new level," said an official from one developed country.
But the history of climate talks makes clear that there is no guarantee of success. The first real international discussion of climate issues by heads of state and government came at Rio in 1992, when governments – including the US under George Bush – agreed that action to "avoid dangerous climate change" was urgent and necessary, and signed the first treaty on the subject, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It took five years of tortuous negotiations to translate those hopes into concrete action, in the form of the Kyoto protocol of 1997.
But while the US signed that treaty, it was never ratified by Congress, so other nations did not take it seriously. Under the protocol, developing countries – even major economies such as China and India – were under no obligation to cut their emissions, and this became an increasing problem as their economies rapidly expanded. Kyoto finally came into effect in 2005, after Russia's parliament belatedly ratified it, but by then it was largely irrelevant – though the EU fulfilled its obligations under the treaty, cutting its emissions by about 8% by 2012.
The push for a new agreement to take over from the Kyoto treaty, the main provisions of which expired last year, started in 2007 with a major UN conference in Bali. Delegates there agreed after two weeks of hard bargaining to forge a successor treaty. But the scenes of anguish there - developing country representatives remonstrated with rich countries, the US refused to sign up until the last minute, and the UN's top climate official appeared to break down in tears at one point - were an inkling of what was to come. At Copenhagen in 2009, the conference hailed as the last hope for climate talks disintegrated on the final day, with scenes of chaos and farce as US president Barack Obama convened a meeting to which other leading nations, including the EU, were pointedly not invited. The UN had barely any control over events, and one delegate threatened bloodshed on the conference floor.
All this ensured that world leaders have not met again on the subject in the years since, mindful of being associated with failure. But now they are being invited to forget those torrid scenes and forge a new, historic agreement on the basis that whatever damage fractious governments can do to their own reputations during major international meetings will be as nothing to the damage that climate change is likely to inflict on us all.
09/20/2013 09:58 PM
Romania's Powder Keg: Mine Project Launches Protest Movement
By Luke Dale-Harris
The Rosia Montana mine in Romania is currently one of Europe's most controversial projects. Plans by Bucharest to push through approval for the large-scale mining that would eliminate an entire town have sparked mass protests.
In September 1995, a secret agreement was signed inside the Romanian government giving convicted criminal Frank Timis the rights to mine Europe's largest gold deposit, located under the ancient mountain town of Rosia Montana. Soon after, the deposits were floated on the Canadian Stock Exchange, listed under Timis' firm, Gabriel Resources, a newly created mining company registered in the tax haven of Jersey, with no previous mining experience and a bank balance of close to zero.
Now, 18 years later, a near continuous rise in the price of gold has driven the value of the deposits under Rosia Montana up by 400 percent to over $20 billion, and the constant issuing of shares from Gabriel Resources has drawn in nearly a billion dollars to the project.
Restructured and rebranded as the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), the company has launched the biggest PR campaign Romania has ever seen. It also bought up most of the town of Rosia Montana and the four surrounding mountains, all of which would have to be flattened to make way for the open-cast mine, funded multiple NGO's, museums and a high-profile documentary to support their cause.
Yet the mine remains unopened. The company is unable to get past public opposition that has mobilized tens of thousands across the country, and a legal system that deems the project unlawful on three counts -- under environmental law, international mining laws and the Aarhus convention for transparency in decision-making.
But all of this is set to be overridden. At the end of August, Prime Minister Victor Ponta signed a proposed law that would annul all of the legal barriers standing in the way of the Rosia Montana project and get the mine underway by the beginning of next year. The law, currently waiting on a parliamentary vote, would give the company extraordinary powers. The hundred or so villagers who have refused to sell their homes in Rosia Montana would be forcefully expropriated, escorted by RMGC's private security firm and compensated at a rate set by the company. The government would then be mandated to issue all necessary permits for construction and exploitation on set terms drawn up by the company, allowing the project to begin well before the new law could be challenged in the European Court of Justice. Once passed, the law would also apply to all new mining projects in the country -- which sparks fears that, given the mineral richness of the Transylvania region, extend far beyond Rosia Montana.
A Protest Movement Is Born
Three days after the law was proposed, thousands of people took to the streets in opposition. In the weeks since, the protests have grown and spread, with each successive Sunday bringing activists to the streets of cities increasingly far removed from the hills of Transylvania. The demonstrations are held in cities as far flung as Budapest, Berlin, London, Washington, Singapore. This weekend, protests are set to be larger still and, the organizers believe, they will keep growing "until something gives and our demands are recognized."
The scale of the protests reflects the size of the environmental risks involved. Using outdated techniques, 13,000 tons of cyanide are to be be pumped into the mine each year. This is over 130 times the amount used in the Romanian Baie Mare gold mine at the time of the catastrophic cyanide spill in 2000, Europe's worst environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl. Nevertheless, the extent of the opposition has surprised everyone, from the protest's organizers to government officials and, crucially, Gabriel Resources' shareholders, who have been selling off in droves, causing the company's stock price to crash.
But the significance of the case extends far beyond Rosia Montana. Ramona Duminicioiu, a constant figure in the Save Rosia Montana movement for over a decade, sees it as part of a process that links movements as diverse as the Occupy protests in America to this year's uprisings across Europe, from Bulgaria to Turkey, Greece and other countries. "This is a case of our elected government putting corporate interests over public priorities and then blocking any democratic process of opposition through legal measures," she says. "It resonates far beyond Romania as this is a crisis of global capitalism and impotent governments."
Gabriel Resources Threatens Lawsuit
The actions of the Romanian government over the last fortnight certainly suggest a political powerlessness in the face of the proceedings. After the first protests, President Traian Basescu, always an avid supporter of the mine, came out condemning it on environmental grounds, stating that it should not go ahead given that the majority of Romanians are opposed to it. Soon after, Prime Minister Victor Ponta announced an emergency procedure that would, he claimed, stop the project once and for all.
Then, as Gabriel Resources' shares plummeted, the company threatened to sue. They claim that if members of parliament vote against the project they will "commence litigation for multiple breaches of international investment treaties for up to $4 billion." Ponta's emergency procedure was soon abandoned and a new committee was created that seems to allow the law to bypass both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies and be put directly to vote in parliament. However, with the new committee apparently unburdened by regular transparency regulations and the government unavailable to comment, the situation as it stands is unclear.
Whatever happens, the Romanian government is unlikely to survive the coming months in its present form. Calls for the removal of the Ponta-led Social Liberal Union (USL) coalition, brought into power largely on the back of promises that they would stop the Rosia Montana project, are increasingly dominating the protests in Bucharest. Meanwhile, the coalition is visibly shaky, one minute declaring unity in its approach to the mine and the next publicly threatening to split over the issue.
But the stuttering rhetoric of party politics has always felt more like a comic interlude than the main plot line in the story of Rosia Montana. For over a decade and a half, the Romanian government has swung back and forth on the issue but never been able to make any final decision.
"We still don't know the exact nature of the original contract signed between the government and Gabriel (Resources)," says Duminicioiu, "but as it is clear that the vast majority of Romanians oppose the mine. If the project goes ahead, it must be stronger than democracy."
What happens then? "We keep fighting, until we have a government that can represent its people," she says.
Trail of melting Swiss glacier shows climate change in action
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, September 21, 2013 8:23 EDT
The hour-long walk from the local railway station to the Morteratsch glacier is a winding trek through a valley littered with rocks that the retreating ice left behind.
The walk was not always this long. In the mid-19th century, the Morteratsch glacier stretched all the way to the station in this hamlet in southeastern Switzerland.
By 1900, people had to walk about a kilometre (five-eighths of a mile) to touch its shimmering blue surface.
In the past century, the ice has shrunk around 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles), and signposts marking the glacier’s “tongue” over the past century point to a decline that in recent years has accelerated dramatically.
“Each year we come here, we have to walk further to get to the glacier,” said Joerg Wyss, a 43-year-old tourist from Lucerne, who said he had been visiting Morteratsch for 25 years.
Ursula Reis, a 73-year-old from Zurich, said she had been coming for even longer, visiting almost every year since 1953.
“I have seen the shrinkage. It’s amazing and frightening at the same time,” she said.
As closely studied by scientists as it is loved by the Swiss, the Morteratsch glacier provides one of the clearest examples of climate change in action, experts say.
Like almost all documented Alpine glaciers, it has been steadily shrinking for decades, and only its highest points are expected to see the turn of the next century.
“The glaciers are kind of a direct signal of climate change,” said Samuel Nussbaumer, a scientist with the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich.
Since 1950, the glacier has shrunk by about 1.6 kilometres (a mile). Its tip today is hidden in a forest of high trees, and even the 2010 signpost is separated by a good 200 metres (yards) of rocks from the glacier mouth, which emits gushing meltwater into an icy river.
“This is one part of the Morteratsch glacier where you can really see how fast the ice is melting away,” said glacier guide Gian Luck, standing in a rock-strewn area that only three years ago was still covered with a system of ice caves, before they suddenly collapsed and disappeared.
A 2011 report from the European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation, a consortium of institutes known by its acronym of ETC/ACM, found that more than half of the ice-covered areas and probably two-thirds of the ice volume in the Alps had disappeared since 1850.
From 2000 to 2010, the Alpine glaciers on average lost more than a metre (3.25 feet) of thickness each year, according to the study.
The rate of shrinkage is increasing
“They are shrinking, and the rate of shrinkage is increasing,” Nussbaumer said, adding that while factors like precipitation and wind played a part, rising temperatures were the main explanation.
Glaciers cover some 2,900 square kilometres (1,120 square miles) in the Alps, including 1,342 square kilometres (518 square miles) in Switzerland alone.
Scientists have warned that a summer temperature increase of around four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) from today’s levels would leave Europe’s biggest mountain range almost ice-less by 2100.
The Alps, like the Arctic and the Antarctica Peninsula, are considered a hot-spot where warming can be two or three times greater than the global average.
“These ice giants could disappear literally in the space of a human lifetime, or even less,” said Sergio Savoia, who heads conservation group WWF’s Alpine office in Switzerland, stressing the need to “prepare for the serious consequences.”
Globally, glaciers are one of the main contributors to sea level rise, and their contribution to shrinking shore lines is believed to have doubled in recent decades.
An eagerly-awaited UN report on global warming, set to be released in Stockholm next Friday, will for the first time include detailed estimates for melting ice from glaciers and ice sheets in its calculation of sea level rise.
The issue of rising sea levels is not as relevant to the Alps though. If all of the region’s glaciers melted, this would add only about one millimetre (0.04 of an inch) to ocean levels, scientists say.
Locally, though, the effects would be dramatic.
The thick ice cover functions as a water tower that stores water, releasing it when it is most needed — in the hot and dry summer months.
The Alpine glaciers feed into some of Europe’s biggest river systems, including the Rhone, Po and Danube, and if this source disappeared, the effects would be felt across Europe, said Savoia.
“It’s very hard to predict what will happen when the temperatures rise even more and we no longer have the compensating function of the glaciers,” he said.
Melting glaciers can also cause natural hazards, ripping open crevasses, creating glacier lakes that can burst suddenly and increasing the risk of flash floods, landslides and mudslides.
While the effects of the vanishing Alpine glaciers will mainly be felt locally, only global action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide can truly slow down the trend, Savoia said.
Swiss attempts to cover parts of glaciers with canvas to slow the melting are “a very visual way of declaring our powerlessness,” he said.
Guenther Baldauf, a 45-year-old German visiting Morteratsch for the first time, expressed awe when he finally reached the glacier tongue.
“You walk and you walk, past sign after sign saying ‘Here was the glacier. I was here,’ but everything is green,” he said. “Then suddenly, it is there, and it is really big. It’s ice and water, but it’s alive. It’s like a dinosaur, dying.”
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0c97iU0ndqg