Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Do or die for threatened species

Marian Wilk, Environment Editor

Sydney Morning Herald print edition.

AUSTRALIA needs to urgently identify land that can act as refuges for native wildlife and plants threatened by climate change and decide how to minimise the number of species that will face extinction, a disturbing report by the CSIRO has warned.

While saving species should be a priority, the report finds, "it is almost certain that some species will become extinct in the wild".

The sweeping report highlights signs of climate change likely to impact on Australia's wildlife, such as the threat in the alps to the pygmy possum as reduced snow cover exposes it to predators while feral horses, pigs and rabbits prosper in the warmer temperatures.

In a major challenge to state and federal governments, the sweeping report by Michael Dunlop and Peter Brown calls for a re-examination of Australia's "core" conservation principles in the light of climate change. Instead of trying to prevent environmental change, the report says, governments and park managers will need to, "embrace the task of managing the change to minimise the loss".

The federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, said yesterday that the Government would begin acting on the report immediately to identify the refuges in the network of Australia's 9000 national parks, public and private reserves, including Aboriginal lands. Refuges will include the most resilient land where animals can retreat to and plants can survive.

"The refuges project will look at the existing refuges for threatened species and whether we need to extend their boundaries and identify what new protected areas are needed to reduce extinction risk for our native plants and animals," Mr Garrett said.

An initial $250,000 will be spent to identify the refuges but a significant increase in funds to protect wildlife and plants from climate change is expected to be announced soon.

Last year, scientific advice to the Government suggested $250 million over five years would be needed, shared between the states, Aboriginal groups and private landowners.

Leading conservation groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have been urging the policy shake-up since last year.

"Climate change has been perceived as principally stopping greenhouse gas emissions," said Penny Figgis, of the IUCN. "What we have been screaming from the rooftops is that, in the meantime, every scientist on Earth is saying that we are basically facing a global extinction crisis.

"As one of the epicentres of biodiversity on Earth, and as a developed country, we need to do all the things we can do to head off that outcome."

The CSIRO report examines the crucial role Australia's national reserve system will play in helping plants and wildlife cope with climate change. Preserving and expanding these reserves will be the best way to conserve threatened species, the report says.

The authors identify four threats that "will be particularly hard to manage", including an increase in pests and exotic species, changes in bushfire behaviour, changing land use - particularly grazing lands in wetter regions turning into crop land - and changing rainfall patterns.

The report warns that "mass mortality events" from bushfire and drought will have lasting effects on the landscape, like the 2003 bushfires in the Alps where in parts of Victoria almost no trees survived.

While the report says the trees will regenerate, the new growth faces increased threats from both fire and drought.

In other unusual patterns, the report cites studies showing how some bird species are already adapting to climate change as they shift their migration and breeding patterns, potentially having cascading impacts on insect species and plant seeds.

The forest kingfisher, for example, is now breeding twice a year rather than once. Some migratory birds are arriving earlier and leaving later. In Western Australia, tropical seabirds are pushing further south. This initial rich increase in some species as they adapt could result in pressure on others as competition for food increases.

While Australian plants and wildlife have adapted to change before and suffered extinction, the report finds the scale of changes from global warming are "unprecedented in their nature and rate [and] they may be outside any evolutionary coping range of many species".

Gore to recruit 10m-strong green army

· Huge drive for Congress action on global warming
· $300m TV campaign will focus on job opportunities

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday April 01 2008 on p19 of the International section.
Al Gore at the UN climate change conference in Bali in 2007

Al Gore at the UN climate change conference in Bali in 2007. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty images

Al Gore yesterday launched a drive to mobilise 10 million volunteers to force politicians to act on climate change - twice as many as the number who marched against the Vietnam war or in support of civil rights during the heyday of US activism in the 1960s.

During the next three years, his Alliance for Climate Protection plans to spend $300m (about £150m) on television advertising and online organising to make global warming among the most urgent issues for elected American leaders.

The initiative aims to build up pressure on the next US president to support stringent mandatory emissions controls when they come before Congress, and take a leadership role at the renegotiation of the Kyoto treaty.

Environmental activists yesterday described the plan as the most ambitious public campaign launched in the US.

"The resources are completely unprecedented in American politics," said Philip Clapp, of the Pew Environment Group. It is equally ambitious in targets. The Alliance has already reached out to organisations as diverse as the Girl Scouts and the steelworkers union to try to broaden its appeal.

Gore told the Washington Post that he launched the initiative because of his concerns that US politicians had balked at supporting strong legislation on climate change.

"This climate crisis is so interwoven with habits and patterns that are so entrenched, the elected officials in both parties are going to be timid about enacting the bold changes that are needed until there is a change in the public's sense of urgency in addressing this crisis," Gore said. "I've tried everything else I know to try. The way to solve this crisis is to change the way the public thinks about it."

Environmental activists said it was crucial that the campaign focus attention on green jobs and other positive consequences of going green - rather than the potential costs.

"What I am particularly hopeful about is that their advertising campaign will emphasise the economic opportunities," said Reid Detchon, executive director for energy and climate change at the United Nations Fund. "That is where the political leverage is, particularly at a time when the economy is faltering. The opportunities for business and job creation are very large in this transition."

The initiative was widely seen as the logical extension of campaigns such as, which supports liberal causes and Democratic candidates and has more than 3 million supporters, and, which has more than a million supporters.

Chris Miller, director of US Greenpeace's global warming campaign, said: "The movie An Inconvenient Truth and Gore's work were incredibly strong in raising awareness. The step that it didn't take is telling people how to solve the problem. This [campaign] is going to reinforce that there are steps we can take in our personal lives, but that ultimately it will take political leaders to solve the problem."

But channelling growing public awareness and concern into a political force has proved difficult. Gore wants a 90% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 - a more ambitious target than those of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, who favour an 80% cut, or John McCain, who supports only a 60% reduction.

Last January, the League of Conservative Voters analysed transcripts of television interviews and debates with all the Democratic and Republican contenders for the White House. By January 25, the candidates had been asked 2,975 questions on a range of issues.

Only six of those mentioned the words "climate change" or "global warming". That is not much greater than the level of media interest in the candidates' positions on UFOs. They were asked three questions on UFOs in the same study.

But as Gore told CBS on Sunday night: "I'm not finished yet."

The campaign

The campaign is getting a hefty kick-start from Gore. The former vice-president has donated earnings from his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, his Nobel peace prize, and his job at a venture capital firm. In the first ad, a voiceover by the actor William H Macy says: "We didn't wait for someone else to storm the beaches of Normandy. We didn't wait for someone else to guarantee civil rights." Future ads will feature political adversaries such as Newt Gingrich, a conservative Republican, in an attempt to elevate the cause above political divisions.

Viruses, oxygen and our green oceans

From: Society for General Microbiology


Some of the oxygen we breathe today is being produced because of viruses infecting micro-organisms in the world’s oceans, scientists heard today (Wednesday 2 April 2008) at the Society for General Microbiology’s 162nd meeting being held this week at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

About half the world’s oxygen is being produced by tiny photosynthesising creatures called phytoplankton in the major oceans. These organisms are also responsible for removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and locking it away in their bodies, which sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die, removing it forever and limiting global warming.

“In major parts of the oceans, the micro-organisms responsible for providing oxygen and locking away carbon dioxide are actually single celled bacteria called cyanobacteria,” says Professor Nicholas Mann of the University of Warwick. “These organisms, which are so important for making our planet inhabitable, are attacked and infected by a range of different types of viruses.”

The researchers have identified the genetic codes of these viruses using molecular techniques and discovered that some of them are responsible for providing the genetic material that codes for key components of photosynthesis machinery.

“It is beginning to become to clear to us that at least a proportion of the oxygen we breathe is a by-product of the bacteria suffering from a virus infection,” says Professor Mann. “Instead of being viewed solely as evolutionary bad guys, causing diseases, viruses appear to be of central importance in the planetary process. In fact they may be essential to our survival.”

Viruses may also help to spread useful genes for photosynthesis from one strain of bacteria to another.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Undercut and under fire: UK biofuel feels heat from all sides

Sector faces hostility from competitors and campaigners

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday April 01 2008 on p28 of the Financial section.

It was barely 18 months ago that the British biofuels industry was surfing on a wave of euphoria. There were almost weekly announcements from companies big and small that they were going to invest heavily in a sector that promised to play an important role in the battle against global warming.

On April 15, the sector is to be given an even bigger boost when the government introduces its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) that requires the station forecourt to supply at least 2.5% a first, later 5%, of its petrol and diesel from plant-based materials at a time when oil prices have soared.

But instead of widespread glee, the domestic green fuels sector is in gloom, amid a flood of cheap imports from America. Subsidised US biofuels are threatening to wipe out UK capacity. Meanwhile, opposition grows from environmentalists and independent scientists who fear that biofuels could make climate change worse, not better.

There are fears that carbon-absorbing rainforest in countries such as Brazil is being cut down to provide land for fuel crops such as soya and palm and that biofuels crops are displacing land use for food and forcing up the price of staples. The price of wheat has doubled in the past 12 months.

Ruth Kelly, the transport minister, recently commissioned the new Renewable Fuels Agency to undertake a review of biofuels. A group of seven campaign groups, including Greenpeace and Oxfam, have called for her to postpone introduction of the RTFO until the benefits had been finally clarified.


The Renewable Energy Association says its members are deeply frustrated by the opposition from green activists. "It does seem to me to be potentially an own goal by the environment movement," a spokeswoman said.

"The UK industry has taken on board real concerns and been leading internationally on sustainability and CO2 standards - which are clearly essential elsewhere.

"There are no easy answers in transport and we don't pretend biofuels can be anything more than part of the answer. But the danger now is we are destabilising a technology at early stages of development with real future potential."

Karl Watkin, the founder and former chairman of D1 Oils, one of the pioneers of the British biofuels sector, resigned his position on the board of the company recently and issued his own broadside at NGOs, governments and the City. He said they were failing to support those who, like him, have been developing sustainable fuels - in D1's case from the jatropha plant.

"Over the past 12 months I have become increasingly frustrated by the inability of the investment community, governments and NGOs to differentiate D1's strategy from that of the suppliers of palm, soya and rapeseed whose biodiesel products have been well documented as being environmentally unsustainable," he said.


Another major British biofuels investor who asked not to be named said postponing the introduction of the RTFO at this stage would be disastrous. "People like us will not invest if there is no constancy of purpose and policy in Britain, while the global trade in biofuels will just go on regardless of what happens here," he said.

"No one believes that it is good to use rainforests or other delicate land to produce biofuels but there is a risk of the good being thrown out with the bad if we put a halt to the RTFO now."

Phil New, BP's global head of biofuels, agrees: "Ditching the RTFO would clearly make the UK a much more challenging place to invest in both biofuels manufacturing and research capacity."

D1 and others are also concerned about US biodiesel with its 11p-a-litre subsidy to undercut British products.

Around 1m tonnes of US B99 fuel, biodiesel with 1% petroleum diesel, is exported to Europe each year. Critics believe that some of the B99 is being made using product grown with subsidies in locations such as Argentina.

It has also become clear that it is not only US firms that are benefiting, but European firms are also using "splash and dash" operations to take biofuels over to America to blend them with small amounts of US biodiesel or even fossil fuels and bring them straight back to Britain and the Continent.

Low shipping costs make it worthwhile for those willing to exploit this trade, which is perfectly legal but environmentally damaging. Around 10% of the 1m tonnes of US imports that came into Europe last year is believed to come from splash and dash operations.

Ian Waller, a biofuels consultant from the FiveBarGate consultancy in the north-east of England, said: "My real concern about all this is that it undermines all the work we have been doing in the UK around sustainability. B99 is of completely unknown provenance. A lot of the 1m tonnes of biodiesel being exported out of America to Europe every year is not even locally produced. It could be palm oil from Indonesia or soya from Argentina."

Waller believes that some of those who were trying to produce sustainable biodiesel in Britain have turned to using B99 or other cheap foreign feedstocks in a bid to stay in business. But other traders are clearly only too happy to feed growing demand with US imports or "splash and dash" operations.

Watkin said he had raised the problems of B99 with the prime minister, Gordon Brown, when they were on a trade delegation to China. Pointing out that biodiesel gets a 20% sales subsidy in Britain compared with fossil fuels, he added: "Everyone agrees that this activity is all wrong but no one seems willing to really do anything about it. The reality is, governments have got themselves into a position where they are now supporting subsidies, not the fight against climate change."

Explainer: Splash and dash

For Europe's biodiesel producers, "splash and dash" is the salt being rubbed into what they see as the already open wound of US subsidies.

The industry reckons that around 1m tonnes a year of biodiesel is being imported from the US on the back of generous US subsidies. According to EU industry sources it would cost a European producer $1,625 in soya and $150 in production costs to make one tonne of biodiesel, a total of $1,775. In contrast, they say subsidised biodiesel imported from the US costs $1,400 a tonne. As a result European biodiesel producers are being forced into mothballing their capacity.

Biodiesel is also being sent to the US to have a tiny amount of mineral (conventional) diesel added, simply to make it qualify for the US subsidies before it is shipped to Europe. By topping up, for example, a 10m gallon tanker of biodiesel with about 10,000 gallons of mineral diesel in a US port, shippers qualify for the blender's tax credit, worth a dollar a gallon for the whole load - or $10m.

Industry sources say that about 10% of imports from the US are accounted for by such splash and dash operations. According to one, splash and dash could have undermined European prices by 10-15%.
Mark Milner

Time runs out for islanders on global warming's front line

Rising sea levels threaten to flood many of the islands in the fertile Ganges delta, leading to an environmental disaster and a refugee crisis for India and Bangladesh

This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday March 30 2008 on p46 of the World news section.

Dependra Das stretches out his arms to show his flaky skin, covered in raw saltwater sores. His fingers submerged in soft black clay for up to six hours a day, he spends his time frantically shoring up a crude sea dyke surrounding his remote island home in the Sundarbans, the world's largest delta.

Alongside him, across the beach in long lines, the villagers of Ghoramara island, the women dressed in purple, orange and green saris, do the same, trying to hold back the tide.

For the islanders, each day begins and ends the same way. As dusk descends, the people file back to their thatched huts. By morning the dyke will be breached and work will begin again. Here in the vast, low-lying Sundarbans, the largest mangrove wilderness on the planet, Das, 70, is preparing to lose his third home to the sea in as many years; here global warming is a reality, not a prediction.

Over the course of a three-day boat trip through the Sundarbans, The Observer found Das's plight to be far from unique. Across the delta, homes have been swept away, fields ravaged by worsening monsoons, livelihoods destroyed. It confirms what experts are already warning: that the effects of global warming will be most severe on those who did the least to contribute to it but can least afford measures to adapt or save themselves. For these islanders, building clay walls is their only option.

Lying one-third in India and two-thirds in Bangladesh, the Sundarbans are where two of Asia's biggest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, broaden and violently roll into the Bay of Bengal. The source of the problem is 1,500 miles away, at the source of the Ganges, where melting Himalayan glaciers are raising river and sea levels.

Lohachara island, once visible from Ghoramara, a mile to the east, is already gone beneath the waves, succumbing to the ocean two years ago, leaving more than 7,000 people homeless. Ghoramara itself has lost a third of its land mass in the past five years. To the north, Sagar island already houses 20,000 refugees from the tides.

According to the geologist Sugata Hazra, who is the director of the School of Oceanography Studies at Kolkata's Jadavpur University, the people of the Sundarbans are the first global-warming refugees.

He said: 'These people are victims of global warming. The accelerated melt of the Himalayan glacier is producing larger volumes of water in the rivers, water that violently carves its way through the flat delta where they live. The Sundarbans and the four million people who inhabit the Indian side are dreadfully vulnerable. The area has lost 72 square miles of land in the past few decades. This entire region is holding back a disaster and could ultimately serve as a warning of what is to come.'

The hamlet on Ghoramara in which Gita Pandhar, 25, lives is reached by a narrow path along a mud dyke braced against the sea. Each day, to get to the market, she must walk through two miles of deep, slippery mud.

'When I was young, this was all rice-fields and herds of cows. It was beautiful, a wonderful place to grow up, in isolation away from the mainland. The farmland my grandfather first tended is now poisoned with salt. All the arable land has been replaced by swamp. We used to burn dung as fuel, but there is nowhere to graze and now we have to cut the last of the wood here to cook with.'

Flooding is normal in the Sundarbans. Hundreds of waterways flow through it, carrying 92 per cent of the water from Tibet, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Most of this water arrives during the monsoon, flooding on average 33 per cent of the countryside.

According to Gita, the severity of the storms has made the area one of the most dangerous places to live in the world.

'The sea is so violent at night. We know nothing of global warming. The scientists who visit tell us the West and their pollution is to blame. This is a very backward area, so we are the first people to suffer from global warming and the last to find out why we are suffering.

'You can see our houses, they are made of the same mud that props up the dykes. When the water rushes through the dykes it does the same to our homes. When the typhoons come we lose everything.

'Nature used to give us food and crops, now all it gives us is misery, a cruel sea that covers us in sores, destroys our homes and threatens to take our families' lives. We are living in hell.'

As rising sea levels in the Sundarbans continue to destroy lives, critics argue that the Indian government remains consumed with protecting its own interests rather than the vulnerable. Over the past few years, in a construction project that will eventually reach across 2,050 miles, India has been quietly sealing itself off from Bangladesh, its much poorer neighbour. Fence sections totalling about 1,550 miles have been built since 2004, many traversing the fringes of the Sundarbans.

Today the frontier between the countries is defined by two rows of 10ft barbed-wire barriers. In New Delhi the belief is that the fence is being built to 'keep in' an anticipated flood of refugees from Bangladesh, a crowded country more prone to devastating floods than anywhere else on the planet.

'You've got an increasing population with a violently shrinking land mass,' said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, who worries that the Indian government is not building the fence fast enough.

At night Ghoramara's landscape dramatically comes alive as water pours its way onto the beaches and through the mud dykes protecting the villages. At high tide, the water flows inland as the sea builds up, submerging most of the mangroves. Everywhere you look narrow channels of brackish water burrow into the land, snaking their way through the dense brush. Each evening tens of thousands go to sleep in fear of the sea.

'We have no safety net when the sea comes. So many times the embankment we have built collapses under the weight of the rising tide,' says Malata Bala Das.

'We can't rest our heads at night, we all listen for the water. Many of our young people have already left for Kolkata or the Andaman Islands to find work. It is a struggle here, but we are too old, we know no other life. Soon there will be only old people and grandchildren left, until our island is gone.'

In Rudranadar colony, a refugee camp for the latest exiles from Ghoramara, families huddle around oil lamps in tiny huts. Angurbala recalls the night she lost her home late last year: 'Everything changed when the water burst through our home. My grandson drowned, the water took everything. We left for a government camp, but here is no better. We were promised our own freshwater well, but the land here on Sagar is also bad. Now all the water is salty and you can't use it.

'We worry that the same thing could happen to us here. It feels like we have no escape from the sea.'

Activists slam changes to green grants

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday April 01 2008 on p28 of the Financial section.

The government announced a shake-up of its controversial grant system for renewable energy technologies yesterday but was sharply criticised by green campaigners who said it does not go far enough.

The Department for Business (BERR) said that the system for allocating grants in the Low Carbon Buildings Programme would be speeded up and more generous grants would be available for technologies such as wind turbines or biomass boilers for public buildings or those owned by charities. Grants available to households would be extended until 2010.

However, a BERR spokeswoman said no extra money would be put into the scheme, which was launched two years ago with total funding of about £80m over three years. The scheme has suffered from a series of problems with applications leading to a huge underspend, enabling the department to relaunch the programme with the original funding. The £12m initially allocated for households still has £10m in the pot while the £50m for public buildings has only seen £9m committed.

Britain installed fewer than 300 solar photovoltaic systems on houses last year while Germany, for example, installed 130,000. Britain remains one of the worst countries in Europe for installing renewable energy, which accounts for less than 2% of its total energy supply.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks said: "Many people tell me they want to do their bit to help combat climate change but are put off by the hassle involved. These changes remove those barriers."

But campaign groups were furious. Friends of the Earth's low carbon homes campaigner, Ed Matthew, said: "The government's response continues to be woeful. The LCBP should be 10 times bigger, with funds of £1bn, providing at least 50% grants for renewable technologies for every household."

Andrew Cooper of the Renewable Energy Association said he was "shocked". "Making a failing programme fail over a longer period is not a solution. It is no longer the Low Carbon Buildings Programme it is the Slow Carbon Buildings Programme."

Is Lake Mead Disappearing


* Las Vegas water source could run dry by 2021
* Interior Secretary Turns Down Request to Reduce Release of Colorado River Water
* Seven Colorado River States Submit Plan for Sharing Water in Drought
* Changing Levels at Arizona Lakes Proves Costly for Park Service


The water supply crisis is not just a third world issue. Nevada’s Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake and reservoir in the U.S., could go dry by 2021, according to a pair of scientists at the Scripp’s Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California. If human-induced climate change and water usage continues at the present rate, or even slower, there is a 50% chance the lake will go dry in coming years — and sooner, rather than later. The Colorado River’s water is being consumed far beyond a sustainable level.

Regional climate models show California and areas of the Southwest could soon face a devastating water crisis. Reduced winter run-off — due to global warming, changing weather patterns and over-consumption — are draining the area of vital water. If the region enters a serious drought, matters will worsen quickly.

The loss of a resource like Lake Mead would have a tremendous negative impact on the agriculture industry, electrical power production, and local and regional water supplies. With 1.3 million people depending on electricity from the Lake and 8 million people drinking its water, serious conservation programs and restrictions must be put in place.

Agriculture consumes 60% to 80% of water in the area and any restrictions on agricultural water use would have a serious economic downside. Coastal California desalination plants and other measures will have to be explored and the neighboring, Lake Powell, may eventually have to be drained into Lake Mead.

Read more about the crisis here. For tips on saving water, visit American Water & Energy Savers @

To calculate an estimate of your water footprint, (based on U.S. averages) visit


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