June 29, 2010

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies

World leaders gathered at the G20 Summit in Toronto over the weekend reiterated their pledge to phase out "inefficient" fossil fuel subsidies, after attempts to water down the commitment were resisted.
There had been concerns that the G20 could back away from its earlier pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies estimated to be worth $550bn a year after a leaked draft of the communiqué released at the end of the summit showed that efforts to cut back on such subsidies would be "voluntary" and "member-specific ".
However, the final version of the text released yesterday afternoon axed any reference to the measures being voluntary.
"We welcome the work of Finance and Energy Ministers in delivering implementation strategies and timeframes, based on national circumstances, for the rationalization and phase out over the medium term of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption, taking into account vulnerable groups and their development needs," the text stated. "We also encourage continued and full implementation of country specific strategies and will continue to review progress towards this commitment at upcoming summits."
Sources at the summit told news agency Reuters that the language had been strengthened at the last minute at the insistence of the US, which first proposed the phasing out of subsidies at last year's meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh and has made the plan a key component of its climate change strategy.

Great Green Wall

In an effort to combat the desertification and drought of several African countries, the Global Environment Facility is lending a much-needed helping hand. How, exactly? By planting a living wall of trees, 9 miles thick and an amazing 4,400 miles long across Africa. The wall will traverse 11 countries in the Sahel-Saharan region.

The Global Environment Facility, GEF, is a ground-breaking independent financial institution that addresses environmental issues to bring about lasting change. Their announcement to help the “Great Green Wall” project appropriately coincided with the United Nations’ “World Day to Combat Desertification.”

All in all, the GEF pledged $119 million to put the plan, originally adopted by the African Union three years ago, in motion. The amount that each country receives will depend solely on their size. Currently, the wall is slated to go up in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

June 28, 2010

The Dirty Truth about Tar Sands

Debunking the Myths and Confronting the Realities

By John Podesta | June 23, 2010
Text of remarks delivered at the Canada 2020 "Greening the Oil Sands" conference. 

I’ll begin with a quote from one of America’s most well-known environmentalists—John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club almost 120 years ago. He said, simply but quite rightly: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched up to everything else in the universe.
When we look at energy—and when we look at oil, whether it be produced from deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands, or conventional reserves—that observation couldn’t ring more true. From economics to geopolitics, from climate change to national security, the way we produce and use energy has enormous influence over all aspects of our lives. For some, like those who work on oil rigs—or for those who own them—this influence is manifested directly through the way they earn their livelihoods. But for most of us, it is less direct, although no less fundamental to our families’ well-beings or our collective future.
At this moment, the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world all face an energy challenge unprecedented in its urgency, its stakes, its scope, and its opportunity. In 2010, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will reach their highest concentration in at least a million years. This is because for the past 200 of them, human beings have relied almost exclusively on high-carbon fossil fuels like coal and oil to power economic growth, raise living standards, and increase mobility. But now, a decade into the 21st century, maintaining the status quo is no longer a possibility: How we choose to produce and consume energy today will change the world for either good or for ill for coming generations.
This is a truth I think is important to emphasize. We are at a turning point in our history—we transition to cleaner sources of energy, and our children and grandchildren reap all the benefits that accompany that transition; or we continue to rely on 19th century forms of energy, even if it’s produced with 21st century technology, and create a world with an unpredictably altered climate, dwindling or difficult-to-reach energy resources, and exacerbated geopolitical instability.
As I’ve said, up until now the strength of our economies and the well-being of our citizens have been built upon burning fossil fuels. But as remarkable and important as that progress has been, the use of these fuels to drive it has incurred great costs. Then and now, those costs include environmental degradation, negative public health effects, and, for oil-importing countries, national security risks.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster has incurred all of these costs on Americans—it has devastated the gulf and its coastlines’ delicate ecosystems, shattered the region’s economy, sickened workers that have been exposed to chemicals, and demanded enormous amounts of our government’s attention and resources, which are not, after all, in infinite supply. It is one in a long line of wake-up calls, and we ignore it at our peril.
Today, there is almost unanimous agreement that we can add another cost to dependence on high-carbon fuels. And this one is beyond our ability to calculate. Over the past decade, the world’s leading scientists have proven beyond a doubt that burning fossil fuels are causing changes in the earth’s climate that will be catastrophic if urgent action is not undertaken. The world’s CO2 emissions trajectory—even during global recession—tracks the worst of seven scenarios set out in 2001 by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Continuing on this trajectory will raise global temperatures between 4 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
Failing to curb our dependence on fossil fuels will create a world dramatically different than the one we’re currently accustomed to; one in which sea level rise, extreme weather, and reduced resource supplies will not only cause irreparable harm to ecosystems around the globe, but also tremendous human suffering and conflict. We need to do our best to absorb the weight of that fact and incorporate it into our decisions.
Avoiding these dire outcomes should be reason enough to begin transforming the way energy is produced and consumed, both in the United States and around the world. When I started the Center in 2003, driving this change became one of our founding missions. At the time, conventional wisdom suggested we’d picked a fight impossible to win. We believed then, and we believe now, that it can be won, and that it must. And we continue to work tirelessly to help enact the policy changes we think are crucial to creating a clean energy future.
But finding the right answers, and striking the right balances, as we transition—especially once you get down into the weeds of the issues—is not easy. When everything is hitched up to everything else in the universe, identifying priorities, making trade-offs, understanding both short- and long-term implications, diagnosing risk—all of these things are tremendously complicated. Add in a healthy dose of politics leavened with moneyed interests, and the task is even more daunting.
Energy in particular is laden with these interconnected issues. The role of nuclear power and natural gas are two that are easy to point to; the exploitation of tar sands, as we tend to call them, or oil sands, as you do, is also one. My own perspective on tar sands exploitation takes what I believe is the broader public interest—over the long term, not the short one—as a primary lens.
Now is a good time to have this discussion. Today, tar sands oil accounts for 4 percent of America’s overall oil use, but will become our top source of imported oil this year, ahead of conventional Canadian imports and those from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Expert projections find that U.S. imports from tar sands could rise to as much as 36 percent over just the next two decades.
As we look down this road, there are a few things it’s tough not to agree on at the outset. Oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive. These things are facts. I think suggesting this process can come close to approximating being “greened” is largely misleading, or far too optimistic, or perhaps both. It stands alongside clean coal and error-free deepwater drilling as more PR than reality.
Surface mining decimates an entire landscape, clearing away trees and animals along with the top layer earth. This process literally kills the landscape to recover the oil underneath. Toxic tailing lakes in Alberta now cover an area equivalent in size to Vancouver, or Washington, D.C., if you prefer, and pose a terrible threat to wildlife and, quite possibly, the health of people who live in their vicinity. Reclamation, even under Alberta’s relatively strict standards, remains a distant goal for most of the area disturbed. Surface mining is also extremely water intensive, and the Alberta government has granted permits allowing oil companies to divert enough water to sustain six cities of a million people for an entire year.
Compared to the scorched-earth effects of surface mining, in situ mining is less destructive to the local environment. But that really isn’t saying that much. This technique has its own environmental consequences, including severe fragmentation of fragile habitats, loss of wetlands, decreases in wildlife, and groundwater contamination. And on top of these effects on the direct environment, in situ’s carbon footprint is nearly three times heavier than surface mining’s, which is a big and growing problem in an increasingly carbon constrained world. That results from the use of natural gas in the extraction process. The CO2 premium, if you will, I believe is a bit higher than James Rajotte suggests—perhaps 15 percent to 20 percent relevant to conventional oil.
Let me make a note on what the CO2 goal here seems to be, in light of this morning’s discussions. If developed countries need to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050, setting a goal of lowering oil sands emissions to come into line with conventional oil production is the wrong goal. The arrow is pointing in the wrong direction. Oil sands can’t simply be as good as conventional oil. We need to reduce fossil fuel use and accelerate the transition to cleaner technologies, in the transportation sector and elsewhere.
Canada should make every effort to evaluate and understand the full cost of exploiting these unconventional sources. But Canadians don’t need a lecture from an American about protecting their environment. Some of my progressive counterparts would probably disagree on this point, but thinking about this from the effects on the Alberta environment alone, Canada’s people are empowered through their democracy to decide how to balance environmental priorities against industrial activities. And I respect the fact that the Alberta government has taken steps to try to reduce the environmental degradation that comes from extracting oil in these ways, including $15 per ton carbon levy.
But the global effects of climate change now complicate our ideas about environmental responsibility. The boreal forests represent over a tenth of the world’s terrestrial carbon storehouses. And in the next 10 years alone, tar sands operations are forecast to triple their contribution to Canada’s total CO2 emissions. These atmospheric impacts are no longer a localized affair now that we know CO2 emissions are causing environmental changes around the world—especially in regions that already suffer from extreme poverty and deprivation.
To be fair, tar sands exploitation has distinct strategic advantages, especially in the near term, for both the United States and Canada. These are mostly economic and security related, and they aren’t trivial. The U.S. needs energy from stable sources, and Canada provides that. Reasonable people can disagree when priorities are weighed differently among those with different perspectives or time horizons.
But what I think reasonable people cannot easily disagree on is the choice I laid out at the front of this talk—we either rapidly green the world’s engine of economic growth, or we suffer consequences that are very difficult to even fully comprehend, in addition to those we already tolerate. Unconventional sources of fossil fuels cannot be our energy future. There are no leapfrogging technologies on the horizon that suggest with any plausibility that this could be otherwise. There are no silver bullets waiting to be fired. Notwithstanding the substantial investments our governments are making in RD&D on carbon capture and sequestration, at this point, it is still closer to being on the drawing board than being deployed. For the reasons Dr. Lynch mentioned, investments should not be made on the assumption that CCS is a technology that will make continued production of fossil fuels environmentally and economically viable. Of course, our countries should continue to cooperate on CCS research, as Secretary Chu and Minister Prentice are directing. But for the foreseeable future, “greening” inherently dirty sources of energy does not add up to much more than tinkering at the margins.
Yet industry is plowing capital into unconventional sources of oil, while making only superficial investments in clean technologies that would serve the public good. Research by the Center for American Progress found that the big five oil companies invested only 1.7 percent of profits in clean energy R&D. As two leading academics noted in an article in The Washington Post recently, this is because the corporate culture and core competence of oil companies favor large, centralized investment opportunities, like the unconventional resources in Canada or deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond Petroleum is an ironic slogan, but not a real strategy. But of course, oil companies are structured to make money this way, and that, like all industries, is their purpose. The winner of an OPEC Award from the International Association from Energy Economics estimates that the oil industry of 2100 will be both larger than today’s and up to 90 percent dependent on unconventional oil. That future is flatly incompatible with one in which we achieve a best-case climate scenario.
So where does all this leave us in the largest sense? To borrow a metaphor from Canada’s former environment minister, right now the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world are absurdly trying to ride two horses galloping in opposite directions. We all recognize we have to keep global temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic climate change. Importing countries, the United States in particular, also recognize that their addiction to oil sustains and enriches bad actors around the globe, regardless from whom their own particular imports are purchased. But our reliance on oil continues unchecked.
Soon, though, policies in the United States and elsewhere will almost certainly catch up with the demands of climate science, and technologies will come on-line that will ease the transition to a low-carbon future. At CAP, it is our hope that 2010 will be remembered as the year that the United States began to turn away from oil, no matter what its source. This turning point has many elements: significantly higher fuel economy standards for all classes of vehicles; transitioning our heavy transportation fleets to natural gas; accelerating research and development of the electrification of cars and light trucks; big investments in mass transit; sensible residential development that discourages sprawl and long commutes; and a shrinking cap on carbon from transportation fuels.
The Obama administration has already taken aggressive executive actions in support of clean energy. A few months before the House of Representatives passed its comprehensive climate and energy bill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the administration has the legal right to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions through a regulatory program under the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s decision sent a strong message to opponents of climate legislation in Senate: The alternative to passing strong legislation is not the status quo, but rather an EPA regime to regulate CO2 emissions. If the U.S. Senate fails to act on climate change legislation this summer, perhaps with a carbon-based linked fee on the transportation sector, the EPA will be tasked with doing the job.
The Obama administration has been especially active in the area of fuel economy and emissions standards for vehicles. A year ago, the president announced the largest increase in fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks in 30 years, along with the first-ever federal global warming tailpipe pollution standards. Earlier this spring, these standards were finalized, and according to a Union of Concerned Scientists’ analysis, their implementation will save the United States 1.2 million barrels of oil a day by 2020.
President Obama also announced his intent to set the first-ever fuel economy and global warming tailpipe pollution standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, which will save consumers at least $24 billion through reduced fuel costs in 2030. As the ambassador noted, Canada and the United States are working together to align their standards in this area to create a fully integrated market. And just a few weeks ago, the president set the agencies in motion to develop the next round of fuel economy and tailpipe emissions standards for vehicle models beginning in 2017. After years of inaction and neglect, federal standards have now quickly risen to be on par with the state of California’s.
Another California-born energy policy that the federal government is likely to follow is setting a low-carbon fuel standard. California’s three-year old program sets a model both for the nation and for other states; 20 states are now in various stages of setting their own low-carbon fuel standards. They will likely be an increasingly important part of the energy policy landscape, both at the state and the federal level.
The industry should plan for these policy inevitabilities seriously and seek opportunities within them, rather than fight policymakers every step of the way. And that future doesn’t mean that oil-based fuels won’t have a role. We’re not in a zero-sum game, even if we’d like to be. But it is my view that the role of unconventional oil will have to be altered in order to be economically and environmentally viable. One plausible option is blending higher lifecycle carbon content oil with cellulosic or other next generation biofuels to lower its lifecycle carbon content. This would allow oil produced in Canada to meet a federal low-carbon fuel standard. Tar sands companies have a strong incentive to support this industry and throw considerable resources behind it.
It’s important that the United States also does its part to direct investment to the right places as we attempt to make the transition to clean energy. Policymakers should make careful, long-view decisions, and send the right signals at this point in time. That’s why I question the hurry with which the State Department has chosen to decide whether or not to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline slated to reach from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
First, as the gulf spill reminds us every day, rushing to complete oil projects invites disaster. There are enough legitimate questions about this pipeline—how soon it will be needed, its design and safety, and its potential impacts on important ecosystems along its 2,000 mile length—to take a more deliberate approach.
The State Department’s own Environmental Impact Statement noted that the locations of greatest concern for potential oil spills would be in environmentally sensitive areas, especially wetlands, flowing streams and rivers, and water intakes for drinking water or commercial and industrial users. The Keystone XL pipeline would pass over the deep end of the largest underground aquifer in the United States, which supplies water to 2 million people and is critical to the region's agricultural economy. Even a small spill in this part of the country could have disastrous consequences on the economy, the environment, and public health. TransCanada’s pending request to use thinner pipeline for the Keystone XL project through areas it deems “low consequence” seems especially ill timed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Our risk tolerance should be extremely low, and our consideration should be complete.
A hurried approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would also undercut the administration’s larger vision of finally, after decades of promises from our leaders, making the investments and the hard decisions to take advantage of clean, domestic energy sources that are waiting to be tapped.
As progressives, environmentalists, and now even economists and national security experts agree, the benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels towards clean, sustainable sources of energy go far beyond climate change mitigation. We have an opportunity to create millions of new jobs worldwide, deploy new sources of energy that are clean and domestically produced, and free ourselves from chasing resources that distort foreign policy priorities and drain investment away from challenges like global poverty and disease.
The United States and Canada should cooperate to build this future together. The disaster in the gulf reminds us every day—as it will for some time to come—that we can and must do better. The oil industry is extracting oil from sources that are harder and riskier to access, and where a one-in-a-million failure, even if that is an accurate risk assessment, nevertheless has huge, unaffordable consequences.
Instead of pursuing energy sources that will perpetuate this legacy, the United States and Canada should join in partnership to put in place clean energy policies that will help us harness sources of energy that will never run out and can’t risk catastrophe. As President Obama said in Ottawa last year, as two of the wealthiest countries, we can and must be leaders. Energy security is now intertwined with climate and economic security—all of which will be improved by reducing our dependence on oil and accelerating our transformation to clean energy.
President Obama and Prime Minister Harper have already prioritized this by setting up a Clean Energy Dialogue last year, and two months ago Secretary Chu and Minister Prentice signed a Declaration of Intent that will deepen collaboration across a number of research areas. Our two countries should continue to aggressively work together to leverage our unique relationship and devise solutions to the full range of energy challenges our future demands.
I’ll end by thanking you for having me here today and expressing the hope that individuals and groups with differences of opinion will communicate and cooperate to the fullest extent possible. Transitioning to cleaner sources of energy isn’t a zero-sum game. We should aggressively seek new opportunities as we attempt to strike the right balances between the environment, the climate, our security, and our economy.
Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this conversation, and I’m happy to take your questions now.
John D. Podesta is President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

Arctic Sea Ice

Images of the shrinking area of Arctic sea ice are now familiar, at least to polar connoisseurs. What’s been happening under the surface is much less well known—but illustrated here. Due to warmer air and warmer water, the ice has been getting thinner, generally faster than its area has been decreasing. We know about the thinning from old submarine sonar readings recently declassified by the US Navy.

Kwok, Ron and Rothrock, A., “Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESat records: 1958-2008,” Geophysical Research Letters 36, L15501 (2009)

Oil companies' bid to suspend California law

California headed for a high-stakes battle over global warming Tuesday, as an oil industry-backed measure to suspend the state's aggressive climate-change law qualified for the November ballot.

The fight will pit the state's powerful environmental organizations and clean-tech businesses against the oil and manufacturing industries. It also arrays many conservative political leaders, including the GOP nominee for governor, Meg Whitman, against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican who regards the global warming law as a key part of his legacy.

The measure, launched...  by Texas oil giants Valero Energy Inc. and Tesoro Corp., comes as the industry has fallen under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.

Under California's law, known as AB 32, the state is setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, oil refineries and other industries, and will probably require that a third of the state's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, up from about 15% today. New rules under the law would encourage sales of more fuel-efficient cars.

Supporters of the law say it has spurred a large market for solar, wind and other clean energy sources.

Schwarzenegger lashed back Tuesday, saying, "This initiative sponsored by greedy Texas oil companies would cripple California's fastest-growing economic sector, reverse our renewable energy policy and decimate our environmental progress for the benefit of these oil companies' profit margins."
He added, "I will not allow this to happen on my watch."
Proponents of the measure spent $3 million, more than two thirds of it contributed by the two Texas companies and other energy interests, to...  to place the measure on the ballot. 

Federal judge over turns drilling moratorium

The judge has agreed with the oil-related businesses who filed the injunction that the ban would cause irreparable harm to the economy. 

The federal judge who presided over a challenge to the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling simultaneously owned stock in an oil company affected by the ban, according to a financial disclosure statement released Friday.
U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman sold the stock in Exxon Mobil 14 days after the case was filed in New Orleans by a group of oil service firms — and less than five hours before he struck down the moratorium.

U.S. law requires judges to withdraw from any lawsuit in which they have a direct financial interest, however small. Rules also forbid them from hearing cases in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned or in which their financial interests would likely be substantially affected.

The judicial canons require that judges be aware of their investments. Judicial ethicists said that, had he been aware of his holdings, Feldman should have disclosed the ownership or recused himself at the case’s outset if he thought it posed a conflict or raised questions about his impartiality. The court docket indicates that Feldman signed several orders before the sale.

“I’ve never heard of a situation like this,” said Jeffrey M. Shaman, a judicial ethics specialist and law professor at DePaul University.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar vowed to appeal Judge Feldman's decision. 

The White House is standing by its decision, asserting that it makes perfect sense to halt new drilling until the reasons why the BP well failed (and is still failing to the tune of up to 100,000 barrels per day) and to not do so would, in fact, be a clear and present danger to the environmentally devastated Gulf of Mexico.

Judge Feldman noted that the ban "will clearly ripple throughout the economy in this region."

This decision makes absolutely no sense, even if you only consider the economic devastation caused by the Deepwater disaster. The only way to truly protect the economy of the region is to ensure that this type of disaster will not occur again. 

June 20, 2010

Toxic Assets - Nuclear this time

According to the NY Times, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency is considering "...whether a site in Utah that is licensed to accept only the mildest category of radioactive waste, called Class A, could accept far more potent materials, known as Class B and C wastes, by blending the three together." 

This is eerily reminiscent of the solution Wall Street came up with for disposing of their toxic financial assets. 

The fact is that radiation risk does not go away when you dilute highly radioactive material. The act of diluting highly radioactive material with less radioactive material only increases the radioactivity of a large volume of less radioactive material. 

"Pennsylvania, with nine operating reactors and no place to put the wastes, supports the company's request. Utah opposes it, arguing it violates the premise under which the site was licensed."

It is not surprising that the people trying to get rid of their toxic radioactive assets favor this plan, while those on the receiving end oppose it. 

This is yet another attempt by corporations to avoid compliance with safety regulations intended to protect the American public. We shouldn't allow corporations to put our health at risk by burying their toxic radioactive assets in shallow trenches. 

Trials reveal drivers adapt seamlessly to electric vehicles

Initial results from a long-term study of electric vehicle use has revealed that drivers use the cars in a similar way to their petrol equivalents and have shown little evidence of falling victim to much-feared "range anxiety".
In fact, the study revealed the majority of journeys taken by electric vehicle owners were less than five miles and also confirmed that when they do take longer journeys usage patterns allow plenty of time for recharging.
The research, which was released yesterday, details the first results from a £25m project backed by the UK's Technology Strategy Board and designed to assess the real world viability of electric cars.
"The i-MiEV is certainly proving itself in real-world tests," said Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi Motors' managing director. "It is interesting that the British motorists involved in this trial don't seem to be showing any significant signs of 'range anxiety' and are using their cars just as they would a normal vehicle."
The first wave of data was provided by the Coventry and Birmingham Low Emission Vehicle Demonstrators (CABLED) consortium, which is testing around 110 vehicles as part of the research project. Led by engineering consultants Arup, CABLED is the largest of eight consortia participating in the competition and the first to begin practical trials.
The results made public this week relate to 25 Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicles (i-MiEVs), which were given to members of the project last December as part of the year-long trial. The cars have been fitted with tracking devices that allow them to automatically send usage information every minute while the ignition is on and every 15 minutes while parked.
The inititial results suggest that motorists do not need to adapt their driving habits when using the car.
For example, the trials show that electric vehicle drivers are happy to take the iMiev on the motorway, and find it easy to recharge the vehicle when necessary. "Vehicles are parked for 97 per cent of the time, typically overnight and during school hours, allowing lengthy battery charging periods at home and work," the report stated.
It also addressed technical concerns that electric vehicles could see their performance compromised in cold temperatures, revealing that the cars worked well in temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees over the winter.
Researchers working on the trial said that the use of the vehicle primarily for short journeys would enhance its environmental benefits as petrol engines and catalytic converters both take time to warn up and are at their mopst inefficient on short journeys.

UN says food prices to rise up to 40%

Growing demand from emerging markets and for biofuel production will send prices soaring, according to the OECD and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

Farm commodity prices have fallen from their record peaks of two years ago but are set to pick up again and are unlikely to drop back to their average levels of the past decade, according to the annual joint report from Paris-based thinktank the OECD and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The forecasts are for wheat and coarse grain prices over the next 10 years to be between 15% and 40% higher in real terms, once adjusted for inflation, than their average levels during the 1997-2006 period, the decade before the price spike of 2007-08. Real prices for vegetable oils are expected to be more than 40% higher and dairy prices are projected to be between 16-45% higher. But rises in livestock prices are expected to be less marked, although world demand for meat is climbing faster than for other farm commodities on the back of rising wealth for some sections of the population in emerging economies.
Another factor driving up food prices is the controversial biofuelsindustry. The report predicts that continued expansion of biofuel output – often to meet government targets – will create additional demand for wheat, coarse grains, vegetable oils and sugar.

Changing that light bulb - no big deal?

Lester Brown reports that shifting to CFLs in homes, to the most advanced linear fluorescents in office buildings, commercial outlets, and factories, and to LEDs in traffic lights would cut the world share of electricity used for lighting from 19 percent to 7 percent. This would save enough electricity to close 705 of the world's 2,670 coal-fired plants. (See data.)

That's more than 1/4 of all the coal plants in the world. 

That's a pretty big deal!

Smoke on the Water

Click here to see the complete photo essay from the TEDxOilSpill Expedition.

June 16, 2010

Somewhere over the rainbow

Peak Minerals

Europe Sounds Alarm on Minerals Shortage

The European Union is facing shortages of 14 “critical” raw materials needed for mobile phones and emerging technologies like solar panels and synthetic fuels, according to a study by the European Commission to be released on Thursday.

The commission is ringing the alarm bell on raw materials as China again plans to tighten its control over its rare earth minerals by allowing just a handful of state companies to oversee the mining of the scarce elements that are vital to some of the world’s greenest technologies.

Of 41 minerals and metals it analyzed, the commission identified these 14 as short in supply: antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, indium, germanium, graphite, magnesium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten.

The study found that a crucial factor behind the shortages was that production of the materials was concentrated in just four countries: China, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil.

The study emphasized that the markets for such materials could be highly volatile because “rapid diffusion of new technologies can drastically change the demand” for critical raw materials.

Demand for gallium for use in emerging technologies could be 603 tons by 2030 compared with total current production of 152 tons, the study said. Demand for neodymium, a rare earth found in China, could be 27,900 tons by 2030 compared with current production of 16,800 tons.

To tackle the problem, the commission proposed that the European Union improve its recycling policies, develop products that require fewer raw materials and encourage research on finding substitutes.

June 15, 2010

Warmest May on Record

The combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for May and the period January-May according to NOAA.

The global land surface temperature for May was 1.87°F (1.04°C) above the 20th century average of 52.0°F — the warmest on record.

The May worldwide ocean temperature was the second warmest on record, behind 1998.


Artist at 11, Campaigns to save Gulf birds

Relying on her artistry, an 11-year-old who loves birds has helped raise more than $70,000 to protect pelicans, manatees, whooping cranes and other birds who are threatened by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 
A budding orinthologist who already knows she wants to study at Cornell University, Olivia Bouler of Islip, N.Y., was shaken by the growing disaster and wanted to do something. So she wrote a letter to the National Audubon Society and told them she had one skill to offer: drawing.
“Eleven years old and willing to help,” she wrote.
Olivia is drawing birds and sending one rendering to every person who donates to oil relief efforts through the society.
Learning of her effort, AOL donated $25,000 in her name to the Audubon Society and offered to host her portfolio at a site it maintains for artists. Aside from that contribution, Olivia’s efforts have helped raise about $50,000, said Christine Goss, an AOL spokeswoman.
The birds are exposed to oil when they float on the water or attempt to dive for fish. Oil-stained birds can lose their ability to fly, and ingesting the oil can be toxic. This month The Times reported on how brown pelicans, once on the brink of extinction, are again at peril because of the oil spill.
Olivia is familiar with gulf wildlife, having spent many summers in the region with relatives in Louisiana and Alabama.
She has sent out more than 150 illustrations so far and plans to stop at 500 original drawings, all of which are now subscribed. Beyond that, new contributors will receive limited edition prints of her work.
Her Facebook page has attracted more than 16,000 fans. 

What happens to the oil that is cleaned up?

Marlin Ladner, a supervisor in Harrison County, Miss., spoke angrily about the prospect of debris from the spill being deposited in the local Pecan Grove landfill in his district.
His worry, he said, is that toxic material could leach into local aquifers from which more than 300 homes draw water.
"BP oil is responsible for polluting our sand beaches and our estuaries," Mr. Ladner said.
Now, he added, "They pick it up, put it on trucks, take it four or five miles north and dump it on us again."
About 35,000 bags — or 250 tons — of oily trash have been carted away from this beach, said Lt. Patrick Hanley of the Coast Guard, who is stationed at Port Fourchon. And as of Monday, more than 175,000 gallons of liquid waste — a combination of oil and water — had been sent to landfills, as had 11,276 cubic yards of solid waste, said Petty Officer Gail Dale, also of the Coast Guard, who works with at the command center in Houma.

Europe's New Wind Power Rivals Gas

The amount of power generated by new wind turbines in the European Union this year will be about the same as the amount from new gas plants, according to the European Wind Energy Association, an industry group.

"It is too early to say whether, for a third year running, there will be more wind energy capacity installed than any other electricity generating technology, but it is clear that wind energy will be competing for the top spot with new gas power plants," Christian Kjaer, the chief executive of the wind association, said on Monday.
Gas installations far outpaced wind installations four years ago in Europe, with nearly 20 gigawatts of new capacity compared with 9 gigawatts of wind, according to figures from the association. But the gap narrowed sharply the following year and, by 2008, wind had overtaken gas for the first time.
Last year there were 10 gigawatts of new wind capacity compared with 7 for new gas.
On Monday, the association forecast that the union would install another 10 gigawatts of new wind power capacity this year. That would take total wind capacity in the European Union to 85 gigawatts from 75 last year.
Roughly 1,000 megawatts of new wind capacity this year will come from offshore sources, compared with about 580 megawatts last year, it predicted. Germany will install the most new wind capacity, followed by Britain, the association said.