Friday, October 19, 2007

Drought stricken Georgia to sue over water

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The state of Georgia, stricken by months of drought, confirmed Friday that it will sue the Army Corps of Engineers.


A view of the East Point Reservoir in Lithia Springs, Georgia, in 2006 ...

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue had said Wednesday the state would seek an injunction forcing the Corps to stem the flow of water from Lake Lanier, Atlanta's primary water source.

The Corps administers the lake, which supplies most of the water to Georgia's capital and feeds the Chattahoochee River, which winds through three states.

Rainfall in the area is about 15 inches below normal for the year.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said, "This is dire, severe, extreme drought."

In the city of Atlanta and surrounding counties, outdoor watering is banned except for a few commercial uses. The state is looking into which businesses would be forced to cut back water use if the drought worsens.

The Army Corps of Engineers says there is about a three-month supply of water left in Lake Lanier, which is 15 feet below its capacity. The corps -- under an agreement reached in the 1980s with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state and downstream users -- releases 5,000 feet of water per second from the dam between the man-made lake and the river.

The figure was based on a Florida hydroelectric power plant's needs, as well as concern for endangered species in the river, including mussels and sturgeon.

But officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials told CNN that no one knows exactly what flow is needed to keep the mussels or the sturgeon alive.

Perdue calls the current water flow policy a "nonsensical action."

"We shouldn't have to fight this out in court," Franklin said Thursday. "We don't want to hurt [the cities and businesses] downstream but we'd like to see some middle ground and hope people would join with us."

But even if an agreement is reached soon, the mayor said her city, which has doubled in population since 1980, needs to do a better job of conserving water.

Franklin also admitted that the Atlanta area did little to add to storage facilities during years of recent explosive growth, but says the city has now purchased a stone quarry to be developed into a new reservoir.

Atlanta is spending $4 billion to fix the city's water infrastructure. According to Franklin, 14 percent of the city's pipes, many of which date back to the 1890s, leak. Though the mayor says the percentage of leaky pipes has dropped each of the last six years.

But the remaining repairs will take four to five years and won't address the current crisis. Atlanta may soon have to resort to drastic action like some other Southeastern towns have already taken.

In Siler City, North Carolina, residents and businesses have been ordered to cut water use by 50 percent or face penalties. Many restaurants and schools are serving meals on paper plates so they don't have to wash dishes. Two poultry plants have cut production by one day a week to curtail water use and are also trucking water in for other uses.

The town of Orme, Tennessee, also trucks in water, three times a week -- for everybody.

"We are high and dry," Mayor Tony Ream said.

Meanwhile, Franklin has enacted her own personal measures.

"I've cut the time in the shower," she said. "I don't wait for the water to get hot. I kinda shiver for a few minutes.

"I put a bucket in it and I use that collected water to water the two flowers I would like to save."

Solar power edges towards boom time

From: Gerard Wynn -Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - Solar power could be the world's number one electricity source by the end of the century, but until now its role has been negligible as producers wait for price parity with fossil fuels, industry leaders say.

Once the choice only of idealists who put the environment before economics, production of solar panels will double both next year and in 2009, according to U.S. investment bank Jefferies Group Inc, driven by government support especially in Germany and Japan.

Similar support in Spain, Italy and Greece is now driving growth in southern Europe as governments turn to the sun as a weapon both against climate change and energy dependence.

Subsidies are needed because solar is still more expensive than conventional power sources like coal, but costs are dropping by around 5 percent a year and "grid parity," without subsidies, is already a reality in parts of California.

Very sunny countries could reach that breakeven in five years or so, and even cloudy Britain by 2020.

"At that point you can expect pretty much unbounded growth," General Electric Co's Chief Engineer Jim Lyons told the Jefferies conference in London on Thursday, referring to price parity in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015.

"The solar industry will eventually be bigger than wind."

The United States' second largest company, GE is a big manufacturer of wind turbines and wants to catch up in solar, said Lyons.


Grid parity is considered vital for freedom from potentially fickle governments for support. Established solar power companies are more optimistic than GE about the timing.

The crux is how fast the industry cuts costs and how fast power prices rise. European power prices neared all-time highs this week, driven by record oil prices.

The industry could halve costs and achieve parity in significant markets including the United States, Japan and parts of southern Europe by 2012, said Erik Thorsen, chief executive of the world's biggest solar power company Renewable Energy Corp


"If grid prices go up at the present rate if could happen before," he told Reuters.

REC expects to halve costs on new production by 2010. German solar power company Q-Cells AG, the world's second biggest maker of solar cells, expects similar cuts by making more components itself, thinner than before, and by using cheaper techniques for processing the silicon raw material.

The solar sector has grown at 40 percent per year despite a shortage of silicon, but that bottleneck should ease over the next two to three years, said executives.

But all the growth is from a tiny base. The sun supplies just 0.3 percent of electricity even in market leader Germany, says Jefferies.

"It doesn't even register statistically outside Germany," said Jefferies analyst Michael McNa

Quarter of China's carbon emissions due to exports

From: Jeremy Lovell -Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - One quarter of China's booming emissions of climate warming gases are from its export trade to Europe and the United States, a report said on Friday, calling for a new way of calculating national carbon emissions.

The report for the widely-respected government-funded Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research by Tao Wang and Jim Watson said the current method of assessing national emissions was unfair to rapidly developing countries.

"A focus on emissions within national borders may miss the point," the report said. "Whilst the nation state is at the heart of most international negotiations and treaties, global trade means that a country's carbon footprint is international."

It said that not only were industrialized countries responsible for most carbon emissions to date, but they also had significant responsibility for driving the rapid growth in emissions from industrializing countries like China.

"Without this demand, China would not have developed so rapidly and its emissions would not have risen so sharply," the report said, proposing that so-called imported carbon be included in national emission calculations.


The issue is likely to feature heavily when environment ministers meet in December on the Indonesian island of Bali to try to kickstart negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on curbing carbon emissions which only runs to 2012.

The findings echo those of the New Economics Foundation which earlier this month in its "Chinadependence" report accused the developed nations of "carbon laundering" their economies.

It said Britain among others was understating its carbon emissions because it in effect exported its smokestack industries to China in the 1990s and was now importing products it would have been making itself.

"Because of the way that data on carbon emissions gets collected at the international level, this has the effect of 'carbon laundering' economies like those of Britain and the U.S.," said NEF director Andrew Simms.

China has plentiful supplies of coal but precious little other fuel for electricity generation, and is building on average a coal-fired power station every five days to feed its booming economy.

China is poised to overtake the United States as the world's biggest carbon emitter, and Washington insists that Beijing take urgent steps to curb its rising carbon emissions. The United States has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

The Tyndall report noted that the United States is the top destination for Chinese made goods.

It said net Chinese exports -- that is exports minus imports -- accounted for 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide or 23 percent of Chinese emissions in 2004.

That was equal to Japan's total CO2 emissions as currently calculated and more than double Britain's, and the figure was surging annually.

Continent-size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean

At the start of the Academy Award-winning movie "American Beauty," a character videotapes a plastic grocery bag as it drifts into the air, an event he casts as a symbol of life's unpredictable currents, and declares the romantic moment as a "most beautiful thing."

To the eyes of an oceanographer, the image is pure catastrophe.

In reality, the rogue bag would float into a sewer, follow the storm drain to the ocean, then make its way to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch - a heap of debris floating in the Pacific that's twice the size of Texas, according to marine biologists.

The enormous stew of trash - which consists of 80 percent plastics and weighs some 3.5 million tons, say oceanographers - floats where few people ever travel, in a no-man's land between San Francisco and Hawaii.

Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, said his group has been monitoring the Garbage Patch for 10 years.

"With the winds blowing in and the currents in the gyre going circular, it's the perfect environment for trapping," Eriksen said. "There's nothing we can do about it now, except do no more harm."

The patch has been growing, along with ocean debris worldwide, tenfold every decade since the 1950s, said Chris Parry, public education program manager with the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco.

Ocean current patterns may keep the flotsam stashed in a part of the world few will ever see, but the majority of its content is generated onshore, according to a report from Greenpeace last year titled "Plastic Debris in the World's Oceans."

The report found that 80 percent of the oceans' litter originated on land. While ships drop the occasional load of shoes or hockey gloves into the waters (sometimes on purpose and illegally), the vast majority of sea garbage begins its journey as onshore trash.

That's what makes a potentially toxic swamp like the Garbage Patch entirely preventable, Parry said.

"At this point, cleaning it up isn't an option," Parry said. "It's just going to get bigger as our reliance on plastics continues. ... The long-term solution is to stop producing as much plastic products at home and change our consumption habits."

Parry said using canvas bags to cart groceries instead of using plastic bags is a good first step; buying foods that aren't wrapped in plastics is another.

After the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned the use of plastic grocery bags earlier this year with the problem of ocean debris in mind, a slew of state bills were written to limit bag production, said Sarah Christie, a legislative director with the California Coastal Commission.

But many of the bills failed after meeting strong opposition from plastics industry lobbyists, she said.

Meanwhile, the stew in the ocean continues to grow.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is particularly dangerous for birds and marine life, said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group.

Sea turtles mistake clear plastic bags for jellyfish. Birds swoop down and swallow indigestible shards of plastic. The petroleum-based plastics take decades to break down, and as long as they float on the ocean's surface, they can appear as feeding grounds.

"These animals die because the plastic eventually fills their stomachs," Chabot said. "It doesn't pass, and they literally starve to death."

The Greenpeace report found that at least 267 marine species had suffered from some kind of ingestion or entanglement with marine debris.

Chabot said if environmentalists wanted to remove the ocean dump site, it would take a massive international effort that would cost billions.

But that is unlikely, he added, because no one country is likely to step forward and claim the issue as its own responsibility.

Instead, cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is left to the landlubbers.

"What we can do is ban plastic fast food packaging," Chabot said, "or require the substitution of biodegradable materials, increase recycling programs and improve enforcement of litter laws.

"Otherwise, this ever-growing floating continent of trash will be with us for the foreseeable future."

How to help

You can help to limit the ever-growing patch of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean. Here are some ways to help:

Limit your use of plastics when possible. Plastic doesn't easily degrade and can kill sea life.

Use a reusable bag when shopping. Throwaway bags can easily blow into the ocean.

Take your trash with you when you leave the beach.

Make sure your trash bins are securely closed. Keep all trash in closed bags.

Trash is also a problem in parts of San Francisco Bay. For an interactive map showing some of the worst locations, go to

- Justin Berton

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Climate Change: Arctic Sea Ice Heading for Rapid Disintegration

by Takver - Sydney Indymedia
Thursday Oct 11th, 2007 8:29 AM
Arctic summer sea ice is headed towards rapid disintegration as early as 2013, a century ahead of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections, according to 'the Big Melt' (PDF), a new review of recent scientific literature on climate change produced by We have gone past the tipping point for Arctic sea ice and now we watch the disintegration of the Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets which will result in catastrophic changes in sea level of 5 metres or more in the next 100 years.

These changes are happening at much lower average temperature rises than predicted. The rapid loss of Arctic sea ice will speed up the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet. Scientists are still arguing over the impact on the thermo-haline circulation or the Great Ocean Conveyor belt that transports heat in the oceans around the world from the Pacific to the North Atlantic and back. This great current has already slowed by a third by some measurements. The release of vast amounts of fresh water from the Greenland Ice cap may cause the current to stop for a period or produce another climate tipping point that will heavily impact the climate of east coast North America and Northern Europe.

"Every now and then enough fresh water goes into the North Atlantic that it actually stops its circulation," Dr Timothy Burrows said "And when that happens Europe cools dramatically," he said. Dr Burrows, a paleoclimatologist at the Australian National University, made these remarks in an article just published in Science journal detailing that Australia may not be affected as much as northern hemisphere countries if and when the next Ice Age hits. "The way our world works, we actually transport heat from the southern hemisphere into the north, because of this ocean conveyer belt," he said. "And when you stop that, the heat doesn't have anywhere to go and it accumulates in the southern hemisphere." he was reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

The disintegration of the Arctic Sea Ice will also curtail polar bear populations, presently numbering about 22,000. Polar bears rely on sea ice to live and hunt for their prey. Reports prepared for the US Geological Survey and released in September 2007 say that two-thirds the world's polar bears could be threatened with extinction by 2050. If Summer sea ice vanishes on a quicker timetable, so will the polar bear, the largest of the carnivorous mammals.

With the reduction in the sea ice extent, there is increasing activity to explore and later exploit the oil and mineral resources under the arctic sea. One study has estimated that a quarter of the world’s oil and gas reserves might be found in the region, as well as significant deposits of other mineral riches. So the rush is on for claims by the five countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle – Russia, the US, Norway, Denmark and Canada. Use of the Northwest passage for a short route for shipping from the Atlantic to Asia is also in dispute with Canada asserting it has a right to control, regulate and tax shipping. America and the European Union say the passage is an international strait and that all foreign ships have the right of "transit passage." But it will probably be sometime before commercial shipping lines judge the cost benefit is greater than the increased risk.

Carbon Dioxide Growing more Rapidly than Business As Usual Projections

Carbon dioxide emissions are now growing more rapidly than "business as usual", and at a much greater rate than the more pessimistic forecasts in IPCC scenarios. The US and Australia are still refraining from signing the Kyoto protocol and setting minimal progressive targets for greenhouse gas reduction. At the recent APEC meeting in Sydney a Climate Declaration was signed which only had non-binding aspirational targets.

Sea level rise already affects people such as the Carteret Islanders forced to evacuate their homes. (Listen to them on this video by Pip Starr). On the impact of sea level rise the report states that

"one-quarter of Bangladesh’s population (~35 million people) lives within the coastal floodplain. Many of the world’s major cities (22 of the top 50) are at risk of flooding from coastal surges, including Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Calcutta, Karachi, Buenos Aires, St Petersburg, New York, Miami and London. In almost every case, the city relies on costly flood defences for protection. Even if protected, these cities would lie below sea level with a residual risk of flooding like New Orleans today. The homes of tens of millions more people are likely to be affected by flooding from coastal storm surges with rising sea levels. People in South and East Asia will be most vulnerable, along with those living on the coast of Africa and on small islands" (Stern, 2006b). A rise of 5 metres would affect 669 million people and 2 million square kilometres of land of land would be lost (Kahn, 2007)."

Rising sea levels will also impact underground freshwater acquirfers which more than 2 billion people depend on. These acquifers will become contaminated by the salt water producing a crisis in drinking water in cities such as Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Lima. "The water supplies of dozens of major cities around the world are at risk from a previously ignored aspect of global warming. Within the next few decades rising sea levels will pollute underground water reserves with salt... Long before the rising tides flood coastal cities, salt water will invade the porous rocks that hold fresh water... The problem will be compounded by sinking water tables due to low rainfall, also caused by climate change, and rising water usage by the world's growing and increasingly urbanised population" (Pearce, 2006a).

If you want to see the impact of sea level rise on coastal geography visit for a Google earth mashup showing what a 1m to 14 m rise in sea level might do.

Scientific reticence and Diplomatic and political conservatism

The IPCC reports, have suffered from a scientific and diplomatic reticence and conservatism which has under-estimated the extent, impact and speed of climate change. The report quotes Barry Pittock, an Australian CSIRO scientist on the limitations of the IPCC process:

"Vested interests harboured by countries heavily reliant on fossil fuels for industry and development, or for export, lead to pressure to remove worst case estimates; scientists... tend to focus on “best estimates”, which they consider most likely, rather than worst cases that may be serious but which have only a small probability of occurrence; many scientists prefer to focus on numerical results from models, and are uncomfortable with estimates based on known but presently unquantified mechanisms; and due to the long (four-year) process of several rounds of drafting and peer and government review, an early cut-off date is set for cited publications" (often a year before the reports appear)."

The report heavily criticise the IPCC process saying "The data surveyed suggests strongly that in many key areas the IPCC process has been so deficient as to be an unreliable and indeed a misleading basis for policy-making." and that "The primary assumptions on which climate policy is based need to be re-interrogated."

"Take just one example: the most fundamental and widely supported tenet — that 2°C represents a reasonable maximum target if we are to avoid dangerous climate change — can no longer be defended. Today at less than a 1°C rise the Arctic sea ice is headed for very rapid disintegration, in all likelihood triggering the irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet and catastrophic sea level increases. Many species are on the precipice, climate-change-induced drought or changing monsoon patterns are sweeping every continent, the carbon sinks are losing capacity and the seas are acidifying."

The report urges in the conclusion that "The simple imperative is for us to very rapidly decarbonise the world economy and to put in place the means to draw down the existing excess CO2 levels. We must choose targets and take actions that can actually solve the problem in a timely way. It is too late not to be honest with ourselves and our fellow citizens."

This report does not propose solutions, although elsewhere on you can find discussion and proposals for carbon rationing, carbon taxes, and links to articles on increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy. What it does advocate is that political leaders need to make the hard decisions now to set binding targets on climate emissions and set in place the essential regulatory framework and infrastructure for a carbon neutral society, and establish a system where atmospheric carbon is reduced to stand a reasonable chance of limiting impacts on society.

If you don't believe we are facing a climate disaster, then read the report, and its extensive scientific references.


California Seabird Decline on the Rise

From: the Center for Biological Diversity

Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for California's Ashy Storm-petrel, A Declining Seabird

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The Center for Biological Diversity filed a scientific petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service October 15 to protect the ashy storm-petrel under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The ashy storm-petrel (Oceanodroma homochroa) is a small, smoke-gray seabird that nests and forages almost exclusively on the offshore islands and waters of California near San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. These waters are heavily impacted by development, including offshore energy terminals, shipping traffic, commercial fishing, and pollution, as well as by global warming. Faced with these multiple threats, the seabird has experienced sharp population declines in recent decades. The largest colony of ashy storm-petrels decreased by over 42 percent in 20 years, prompting the World Conservation Union and BirdLife International to list the species as endangered.

"The ashy storm-petrel is a barometer of the health of California's coastal waters," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who has studied the ashy storm-petrel as well as the effects of ocean climate change on California's seabirds. "The declines we've observed in its numbers and breeding success are indicative of troubling changes we're seeing throughout the ocean off the West Coast."

The marine ecosystem off the California coast is changing due to global warming, resulting in warmer, less productive waters with less food available for seabirds like the ashy storm-petrel. Also, ocean acidification caused by the ocean's absorption of excess carbon dioxide may lead to declines in the storm-petrel's prey. Sea-level rise from global warming threatens to drown important breeding habitat for the bird in sea caves and on offshore rocks.

Our fossil-fuel demand is also spurring the proliferation of proposed offshore liquefied natural gas terminals off California's coast, which not only increase pollution but also add artificial lighting at night. "Artificial light attracts nocturnally active seabirds like the ashy storm-petrel like moths to a flame, and the effects can be devastating," said Wolf. Instead of going about their natural foraging and breeding activities, storm-petrels will continuously circle or collide with lighted structures at night, leading to exhaustion, injury, and even death.

The storm-petrel faces a variety of other threats at sea and on its island breeding colonies, including (1) the threat of oil spills near breeding and foraging hotspots that could decimate the population in one fell swoop; (2) ingestion of floating plastic pieces that can lead to starvation of adults and the chicks that are fed these plastics; (3) lower breeding success caused by eggshell thinning from persistent pollutants like DDT and PCBs that continue to affect southern California seabirds; and (4) depredation by introduced predators such as rats on the bird's island breeding sites.

"Protecting the ashy storm-petrel under the Endangered Species Act will not only provide critical protections to this unique seabird," noted Wolf, "but also enhance the health of California's coastal ecosystem as a whole."

The Amazon burns for biofuels

The restraint of the last few years is brought to an end by rising demand for crops the land could bear

Tom Phillips in Alta Floresta
The Guardian, UK

Burning rainforest in Para state, Brazil
Burning rainforest in Para state. Government satellites recorded more than 16,000 fires across Brazil in August, the overwhelming majority in the Amazon. Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Veteran Amazon pilots such as Fernando Galvao Bezerra are hard men to shock. During 20 years in aviation Mr Bezerra, 45, has ferried prostitutes and wildcat miners to remote, lawless goldmines. He has taxied wealthy loggers between ranches, lost countless colleagues to malaria and once survived when his plane plummeted out of the sky.

But as his 10-seater Cessna banked over a vast expanse of burning rainforest in the state of Mato Grosso, the pilot, who now works for the environmental group Greenpeace, was virtually speechless. "Holy shit," he blurted over the plane's PA system, as the plane swung sharply to the right towards an image of destruction which owed more to a scene from Apocalypse Now than the Amazon rainforest. "Just look at the size of what this guy is burning."

It is burning season in Brazil, and across the Amazon region, where illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and a growing number of soy producers continue their advance into their world's largest tropical forest, similar scenes are taking place. In August government satellites registered 16,592 fires across Brazil, the overwhelming majority in the Amazon.

For environmentalists the fires are one of the first indications that deforestation is once again on the rise. Over the last two years fears for the future of the Amazon have been tempered by news of a reduction in deforestation. In August the Brazilian government heralded a 30% drop in rainforest destruction - the result, it said, of a government deforestation plan launched in March 2004. The plan outlined the creation of conservation units and 19 anti-deforestation units in deforestation hotspots such as Novo Progresso and Apui.

Great achievement

Marina Silva, Brazil's environment minister, claimed the drop was a clear indication that the Action Plan for Amazon Deforestation Prevention and Control was working. "It is a great achievement for Brazilian society," she said.

Many, however, believe the good news is about to run out.

Already there are signs that rainforest destruction is gathering speed. Deforestation in the states of Mato Grosso and Para is reportedly rising, with chainsaws and forest fires levelling thousands of hectares of pristine forest. Figures released last week by Brazil's space agency, INPE, show that between May and July of this year there was a 200% rise in deforestation in Mato Grosso.

Further north, in the Amazon state of Para, local ranchers and environmental activists claim a similar process is under way. Flying over the south-western corner of Para the tell-tale signs that logging continues at a staggering rate are everywhere: in the illegal dirt tracks that trail through the forest and the trucks that are dotted along them; in the charred trees that litter the landscape; and most strikingly in the newly deforested areas, which have turned the landscape into a messy patchwork of dark green and dull brown.

"It [the level of deforestation] is definitely going to rise," said Agamenon da Silva Menezes, the president of the Rural Workers Union in the Amazon town of Novo Progresso and one of the region's most powerful farmers.

"Lula [president of Brazil) says what he says because it is beneficial for him. But this year they have chopped down much more. What I am supposed to say to the guys [to stop them?]" added Mr Menezes.

Mr Menezes compared the illegal actions of the loggers to the American invasion of Iraq. If George Bush could attack a country out of financial interest, why could the loggers not do the same to the rainforest, he wondered.

"If you were stood next to your house and there was a mahogany tree next to you which would be worth R$5,000 (£1,360) if you chopped it down and your son was there crying out with hunger what would you do?"

Activists claim that the spike in deforestation is a sign that the government's action plan has been largely ineffective. They argue that the recent reductions owe more to external economic factors such as the market price of soy and beef.

With ranchers now looking to cash in on rising prices, Marcelo Marquesini, a former inspector for Ibama (Brazilian ministry of the environment's enforcement agency) who now works for Greenpeace, says the outlook for the rainforest is bleak. "Brazilian society has to celebrate the reduction of deforestation over these three years. It genuinely did fall," said Mr Marquesini, whose organisation will next month launch a report criticising the government's failure to control this notoriously lawless region.

But, he added, "everything now leads us to believe that deforestation is going to rise again".

On the frontline of the government's battle against deforestation are men such as Decio Luiz Motta, a fresh-faced 38-year-old environmental inspector from Rio de Janeiro who heads a six-man taskforce in the dusty frontier town of Novo Progresso. Sitting at a rickety wooden table in the unit's improvised HQ, Mr Motta said progress was being made, pointing to the apprehension of 13 lorries carrying illegal wood the previous day. "Just our being here reduces what is happening," he said.

"The infrastructure we have is much better, you have people who know how to use satellite imagery, GPS. It used to be much more about following your nose. The monitoring teams would see smoke coming from a certain area and head there to check it out. Now we are much better equipped for this work."

Yet the challenges facing such inspectors are clear. Mr Motta's team has just three cars to police a huge and remote area of rainforest, for example.

The collusion of local residents with the loggers also made tackling deforestation more difficult. Mr Motta claimed that after a recent seizure of illegal wood in the nearby town of Castelo dos Sonhos the local petrol stations began to boycott the government inspectors, putting their vehicles temporarily out of action.

The region's loggers meanwhile are adamant that as long as the government gives them no economically viable alternative to logging, the deforestation will continue. "It is a farce," said Mr Menezes. "How are you going to take an area that has been mine for 20 years and tell me it is a conservation unit all of a sudden?"

Zero deforestation

He described the idea that a policy of "zero deforestation" could be introduced as "the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard". Mr Menezes asked: "Where is he [President Lula] going to get 30,000 soldiers from to police the insides of this whole forest?"

Three thousand feet over the burning forest Paulo Adario, the Amazon director of Greenpeace, let out a sigh of resignation. "It's like a scene from a world war," he said gazing down at the forest, which now more resembled the aftermath of a napalm bombing.

"It is forbidden to sell cocaine, it's illegal to deal marijuana and it's illegal to molest little children," Mr Adario added with mix of frustration and irony. "And, as you can see, it is also illegal to destroy the Amazon rainforest."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Riches in energy harvesting, farmers told

The Age, Melbourne, Australia

Farmers could be almost $3 billion a year richer if they invested in clean energy measures such as wind and carbon farming, according to a report by the nation's top science agency.

The Agriculture Alliance on Climate Change (AACC) commissioned the CSIRO to examine opportunities to provide fuel, as well as greenhouse-friendly food, to the national economy.

Farmers could earn up to $1.3 billion a year, including wind royalties of up to $263 million, by harvesting clean, renewable energy and farming carbon, the CSIRO report found.

The total potential revenue, including biodiversity stewardship payments, was up to $2.94 billion.

Following the CSIRO report, the AACC made several key recommendations, including setting a clean renewable energy target of 25 per cent by 2020.

"The interests of rural businesses and landholders are likely to be best served by scenarios with more ambitious mid-term emissions reduction targets, along with higher carbon prices and policies that support renewable energy deployment in the near-term," the AACC said.

"It is likely that a range of clean energy technologies will be able to meet projected demand for peak and base load power to 2050 and beyond."

Last month, the Federal Government pledged 30,000 gigawatt hours of energy each year would come from low emissions sources by 2020 - about 15 per cent of national energy consumption.

Labor has backed a 60 per cent cut from 2000 levels by 2050.

The AACC called for boosting biodiversity conservation on private land from six to 14 per cent nationally.

"Environmental stewardship payments have the potential to address climate-related pressures on both landholders and ecosystems," it said.

"Implementing an ambitious, voluntary stewardship scheme could more than double the area of actively conserved native vegetation through total outlays of $740 million to $1,360 million per year, some of which might be funded through the carbon value of the native vegetation protected."

The AACC also recommended creating environmentally sound offsets in the rural sector, as part of a national emissions trading scheme (ETS).

"Policy makers should engage the agriculture sector in the design of an emissions trading scheme so that ... agriculture has a say in how and when agriculture is included as an active participant in an ETS and complementary policies so that the sector is rewarded for early action," it said.

Both the government and Labor have embraced a national emissions trading scheme.

Members of the AACC include the Australian Conservation Foundation, WA Farmers Federation and The Climate Institute.

The CSIRO - Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation - is Australia's national science agency

Biofueling water problems

From: Environmental Science and Technology


Iowa farmer Steve Rash has just begun to harvest this year's corn. He planted half corn and half soybeans, just as he has for 30 years. And that makes Rash different. All around him, midwestern farmers are cashing in on golden ears. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently forecast (PDF: 886KB) the largest corn crop ever this year—13.3 billion bushels—to meet the nation's demand for ethanol-based fuel.

That has scientists and environmental advocates worried about the toll that expanding biofuel crops, such as corn, will have on land and water. Farmers planted an extra 14 million acres of corn this year—equal to an area more than half the size of Indiana. And more growth is coming: the U.S. ethanol sector will need 2.6 billion bushels per year (yr) by 2010—nearly 50% more than in 2005, according to USDA. The rush to farm more corn is a result of President Bush's call to produce 35 billion gallons (gal) of renewable and alternative fuel by 2017, or about 15% of all U.S. liquid transportation fuel.

Now, the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC), the top science review board in the U.S., has released a new report that fuels the concerns of environmentalists. The study, Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States, warns that if the U.S. continues to expand corn-based ethanol production without new environmental protection policies, "the increase in harm to water quality could be considerable." The results: more soil erosion, more pesticides and herbicides in waterways, more low-oxygen "dead zones" from fertilizer runoff, and more local shortages in water for drinking and irrigation.

For now, Rash is waiting to see whether corn ethanol will keep its front-runner status or will be replaced by other green fuels. "I'm not anti-ethanol, I'm just really cautious about the boom," he says, citing concerns about both the economic and environmental sustainability of corn ethanol. For one thing, he notes, traditional corn–soy rotation replenishes soil nutrients that could be stripped away by corn in the long run.

The environmental impacts of biofuel sources, such as corn and soy, have not been adequately factored into policy decisions that encourage biofuel production, according to the NRC report. "We wanted to look at the full life cycle of biofuel production and its impact," says Dara Entekhabi, a report coauthor and hydrologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those impacts, he says, could include increases in water, fertilizer, and pesticide use; downstream effects on rivers and estuaries; increased soil erosion; and depletion of aquifers. "These are aspects that have not been carefully considered in assessing whether biofuels are the way to go in the U.S.," he adds.

The NRC Water Science and Technology Board initiated the report after board members brainstormed "the most immediate and high-priority water problems today," says Entekhabi, a board member. Six experts from various disciplines of science, engineering, and agricultural economics, chaired by ES&T's editor in chief, Jerald Schnoor of the University of Iowa, wrote the report after holding a workshop with 130 scientists and stakeholders. The board convened the workshop to speed up the report-writing process, in hopes of providing timely guidance for the U.S. farm and energy bills making their ways through Congress, Schnoor says.

Biofuels could be made "greener" than they are now, experts say. "We already know how to grow corn with less nutrient runoff," adds Nathanael Greene, a senior researcher at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. The key, he says, is making policy choices that set goals not only for more gallons of biofuels but also for reducing water-quality impacts, whether from corn or other biofuel feedstocks. "We have to pursue biofuels because of the climate change imperative," he says. "But we don't want to trade off water pollution, and we don't have to."

Bigger dead zones?

One of the top water-quality concerns about biofuel crops, especially corn, is fertilizer use, the NRC writes. "Corn is such a leaky crop," says environmental scientist Don Scavia of the University of Michigan, referring to the large amounts of nitrogen from fertilizer that runs off cornfields. For one thing, he notes, corn farmers often use drain tiles, a kind of belowground "plumbing", to promote drainage. This drainage also helps flush fertilizer nitrogen from soil into ditches and nearby waters. Plus, corn requires more fertilizer per hectare than other biofuel feedstocks such as grasses, although the report notes that this amount is coming down because of recent advances in biotechnology.

In general, planting more corn should increase the amount of nitrogen that enters groundwater and streams, says Eugene Turner, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University. Others who study hypoxia, the low-oxygen condition resulting from excess nutrients, agree. But this effect is not entirely straightforward, notes Mark David, who is a biogeochemist at the University of Illinois and sits on a U.S. EPA panel studying hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. "Every year it's dependent on whether it rains or not," he says. Warmer, wetter conditions flush more nitrogen into waterways. Future climate change adds another layer of uncertainty, according to the NRC report, because major U.S. agricultural regions are projected to become warmer and wetter, but the climate also could be more variable.

The timing of fertilizer application is important, too. Farmers often apply fertilizer in the fall rather than the spring, because fall is drier (so equipment is less likely to compact the soil), less busy, and often brings lower fertilizer prices. Unfortunately, fall application also can give fertilizer more time to leak from soil before the growing season. Overall, increasing corn production by 18 million acres—foreseeable soon given this year's 14 million acre increase—could result in a 33% increase in annual nitrogen loss from soil, according to the latest draft (PDF: 3.1 MB) of the EPA panel's hypoxia report.

The corn boom is so recent, occurring mostly in the past year, that David says "no one can tell for sure yet" whether corn expansion has added to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which this year was the third-largest on record. But many scientists suspect a link. "The amount of nitrogen in the water in Iowa was at record levels this year," says Matt Rota, water program director for the Gulf Restoration Network, an advocacy group. These levels are so closely tied to hypoxia that Turner says "you almost have to prove it's not the case" that the corn boom contributed to this year's large dead zone.

Scavia, who designs models of nutrients' effect on the dead zone, helped to develop EPA's hypoxia plan in the 1990s. That plan has failed to meet its goal of reducing the size of the dead zone. "Conservation and environmental aspects of the action plan were trampled on the way to $3- and $4-a-bushel corn," he writes in a new commentary for the research organization Resources for the Future.

Scavia and others note that federal soil conservation programs, as well as EPA's hypoxia plan, focus on voluntary best management practices for farmers to reduce environmental impacts, rather than stricter performance standards. In part, this is because it's difficult to monitor runoff from individual farms to demonstrate compliance with standards. Scavia argues that this monitoring is possible if programs require states to conduct watershed-scale monitoring and representative sampling.

Chemicals and water

Fertilizer isn't the only potential problem. According to the NRC report, more pesticides are applied per hectare of corn than with other biofuel plants, such as soy or mixed-species perennial grasses. The report also notes that atrazine, a common herbicide used on corn, can wash into streams.

But an emphasis on atrazine would be misplaced, explains Robert Gilliom, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment program. When USDA released enormous corn acreage projections this spring, Gilliom's team rushed to project increases in atrazine. But looking at the best available pesticide use data from industry, the team was surprised. Atrazine use remained level through 2006, but "glyphosate use has gone up dramatically," he says. One reason, according to Gilliom, is that corn farmers are switching from atrazine to glyphosate, sold under the trade name RoundUp, and are planting "RoundUp Ready" corn engineered to survive the herbicide while weeds die.

Glyphosate use has shot up from about 1–2 million pounds (lb) applied to corn and soy in the early to mid-1990s to 13 million lb in 2005. Gilliom says his team would like to keep a closer eye on glyphosate entering into streams, but "it's kind of a budget buster." Because it costs about $300 to analyze one water sample for glyphosate, the group has little data on where it ends up.

Underlying these issues is another problem—soil erosion, which accounts for up to half of the 1.5 billion metric tons of sediment dumped into U.S. waterways each year, carrying nutrients and farm chemicals. The USDA Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to keep 34 million acres—much of it highly erodible—out of use. But land is in high demand to grow more corn, and USDA is expected to decide this fall whether to allow farmers to cancel contracts early, pulling up to 2.5 million acres out of the program to ease shortages. In addition, corn is considered poor for soil conservation, because it lacks the spreading roots that help perennial grasses hold soil. Tilling adds to that problem by loosening soil, but farmers argue that tilling is needed for seeds to germinate, or sprout, well.

Water use is another concern as corn expands into dry regions, like Texas, that require heavy irrigation. NRC predicts these impacts will be localized but potentially severe in some places. Ethanol production facilities can be water hogs, the report notes, using 3–5 gal of water for every gallon of fuel produced. This means an ethanol facility making 100 million gal/yr uses about 400 million gal of water—equivalent to water use by a small town of 10,000 people.

Again, farming practices could influence how strongly biofuel production exacerbates water supply shortages. For example, Márta Birkás, an agronomist at Szent István University (Hungary), recently presented a study at a farming conference in Budapest that shows that using corn stalks as cogeneration fuel to run biofuel facilities is worsening a drought in Hungary by removing cover and soil organic matter that would hold moisture in soil.

Right ways and wrong ways

The future of biofuels may not lie with corn, and the NRC report suggests that policies should promote the development of cellulosic biofuels from grasses or wood waste. Perennial prairie grasses, like switchgrass, hold great promise if done right, asserts Richard Cruse, an agronomist at Iowa State University and the director of the Iowa Water Center. These plants produce less erosion, because they root well and aren't tilled, and they need no or little fertilizer, he says. But if cropped in monoculture, he cautions, even they could have pest problems that require chemical inputs.

However, USDA's latest report on cellulosic ethanol sends a message to farmers that there is little hope for a boom on the horizon. Granting that cellulosic fuel holds "some longer-term promise," the report maintains that "much research is needed to make it commercially economical." And even that target is a drop in the bucket compared with the 140 billion gal of gasoline that Americans burn every year and the 6 billion gal of ethanol already produced every year from corn.

The NRC report suggests policies that could spur cellulosic development, or at least reduce harmful impacts from corn. For one thing, the farm subsidy system has to change, says report coauthor and Purdue University agricultural economist Otto Doering. "What's been driving the boom expansion has been the 53 cent subsidy for ethanol, and cheap corn," he says. Now, the subsidy is critical to allow ethanol producers to turn a profit, because the price of corn is going up with rising demand, and the price of ethanol is dropping as a supply glut overwhelms the specialized trucks, trains, and barges available to distribute it.

The report suggests a variable subsidy for ethanol, a tactic that has been taken up by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). A sliding scale based on profitability would reduce taxpayer burden and discourage overexpansion funded on subsidies. Plus, the subsidy could be tied to performance standards that require environmental stewardship. Although the plan doesn't have strong support in Congress yet, the EU's European Council is working to define biofuel sustainability requirements, such as CO2 savings, as part of its plan to increase biofuels to 10% of transportation use by 2020. Furthermore, Doering says, "There's an elephant standing in the corner of the room that no one's willing to tackle, and that's the potential for conservation—using less fuel in the first place." ERIKA ENGELHAUP

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Five Asian nations to study flood, climate risks

From: Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) - A new U.N. course will help five Asian nations cope with a predicted worsening of floods due to climate change that may threaten cities from Beijing to Hanoi, the U.N. University said on Sunday.

Experts from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Nepal and Sri Lanka would take part from November in a three-month course run by the U.N. University in Thailand to help map risks of downpours, rivers breaking their banks and rising sea levels.

If successful, the course could be expanded to other regions.

"Catastrophic floods may become much more common," Srikantha Herath, senior academic officer at the U.N. University in Tokyo, told Reuters. "Asia suffers most from floods of all the regions and we want to prepare for what may happen."

The courses, gathering two-four experts from each nation, would identify risks of floods, potential economic damage, and help work out everything from better designs for dykes to better weather forecasts and flood warnings.

Flooding linked to monsoon rains killed more than 3,000 people and affected more than 100 million people in south Asia this year with damage to property estimated in the billions of dollars, the U.N. University said.

Many cities such as Beijing could be flooded under certain storm conditions, it said. Global warming, mainly blamed on human burning of fossil fuels that releases greenhouse gases, is likely to be making matters worse.

The course would examine examples such as a 1991 storm in the Philippines that dumped 50 cm (20 inches) of rain in six hours on Ormoc City, the Philippines, killing 5,000 people.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, caused by an earthquake, highlighted other flood risks unrelated to climate change.

"The time to assess the risk to people and property, especially in large urban centres, and to act on that information is now," said Janos Bogardi, the vice rector of the U.N. University which groups academics around the world.

The courses might also be of interest in rich nations, especially after Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in the United States in 2005.

Studies by the U.N.'s climate panel, awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore on Friday, project more floods, more powerful storms and a rise in sea levels of up to 59 cms (two feet) this century.

Among ideas are that cities should have systems that would, for instance, channel flood waters that topped dykes into low-lying parks or other areas where it would do least damage, Herath said.

And a small ramp or a couple of steps up from street level around stairs down to metro stations could help protect subways.

Green New Zealand to get Greener

From: , Green Energy News

Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were headline news Friday, October 12, 2007 for winning, and sharing, the Nobel Peace Prize. But for energy, greenhouse gases and climate change equally significant news came from about as far away from Nobel headquarters in Norway as you can get: New Zealand.

There, in a new energy strategy set by the government, the construction of new fossil fueled powerplants would be banned for a decade.

Though not binding (yet) by law, the New Zealand Energy Strategy is one that lawmakers will follow in the coming months.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said, “The New Zealand Energy Strategy puts our country on an ambitious but achievable pathway towards greater sustainability, and a secure energy future."

"It's important that New Zealand plays its part in tackling climate change. We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from energy use. This strategy, and its companion document, the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, help us do that."

Aside from halting conventional power plant construction, the Strategy sets a bold target of 90 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, from less than 70 percent now. (Of course 70 percent is quite high compared with most nations.)

Together the plans go beyond power plants. New rules would ensure that by 2015 new and used imported cars would be 25 percent more fuel efficient than those imported now. More diesels are expected to be sold there.

Beyond 2015 the target for transport is halving emissions per capita by 2040. The use of renewable energy from biofuels will increase, and New Zealand aims to be a world leader in electrically powered vehicles, according to Energy Minister David Parker

The government would also focus on better cycling and walking facilities as well as more emphasis on public transportation. The goal would be to find ways to reduce car use with a target of cutting single occupant journeys by 10 percent.

On the home front there would be a focus on energy efficiency and conservation. Upgraded insulation and energy efficiency improvements in 180,000 homes, such as the use of more efficient appliances, are part of the plan.


New Zealand Energy Strategy

New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy


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