Friday, June 13, 2008

Calif. gov declares water emergency in farm area


Following his declaration last week of a drought in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed on Thursday a state of emergency in nine counties in the state's farm-rich Central Valley.

"Just last week, I said we would announce regional emergencies wherever the state's drought situation warrants them, and in the Central Valley an emergency proclamation is necessary to protect our economy and way of life," the Republican governor said in a statement.

"Central Valley agriculture is a $20 billion a year industry. If we don't get them water immediately the results will be devastating," he added. "Food prices, which are already stretching many family budgets, will continue to climb and workers will lose their jobs -- everyone's livelihood will be impacted in some way."

His declaration covers Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties and directs California's Department of Water Resources to work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to deliver more water through the State Water Project to where it is most needed.

The Department of Water Resources also is directed to transfer groundwater, tested for public safety, through the California Aqueduct to farmers and for the State Water Resources Control Board to review transfers as quickly as possible.

California has had two years of below-average rainfall and its water woes are being compounded by a federal court order to limit water pumping from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, the state's fresh-water hub, to protect a fish species.

Even before Schwarzenegger's drought declaration, many California water districts had imposed restrictions on water use and many farmers had prepared fields and orchards for reduced water allocations.

The city of Long Beach in Southern California, the city of Roseville in Northern California and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million people in the San Francisco Bay area, have ordered water rationing.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water for 26 cities and water agencies serving 18 million people in six southern counties, has declared a water supply alert to sustain their reserves.

State officials are aiming for reduced water use locally and regionally through this year in anticipation of lower water supplies next year.

Schwarzenegger, as he did last week, called for lawmakers to back a "comprehensive solution" to the state's water woes by expanding water infrastructure, specifically public works to capture excess water in wet years to store for dry years.

Schwarzenegger has urged an $11.9 billion bond to finance water projects. Lawmakers are negotiating plans for $9.5 billion to $12 billion in debt for new water infrastructure, but Democrats who control the legislature and its Republican minority are at odds over the need for new dams.

(Reporting by Jim Christie; Editing by Leslie Adler)

The cost of cleaning up fossil fuels - and the price of doing nothing

· World's experts focus on trial in West Virginia
· Britain slow in developing projects, say critics

The 500ft cooling tower at the Mountaineer power station in New Haven, West Virginia, does not look much different from the scores that dot the British countryside. It might need a second look to notice that, in its shadow, there is a hole in the ground that goes two miles deep into the rock next to the Ohio river.

Next spring, the attention of scientists, engineers and policymakers from around the world will be focused on this power plant as engineers there try to crack one of the most urgent technological questions facing humans today: how to remove the carbon dioxide from the fossil fuels we burn and safely bury it where it cannot warm the planet.

Mountaineer is a modest project, aiming to trap just 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, the equivalent of a 20MW power station which could power 20,000 homes. But if it works, the plant's place in the history books, as the first successful trial of a complete carbon capture and storage (CCS) unit attached to a power station, will be assured.

CCS has the potential to make a big impact in reducing global carbon emissions - and the components of the technology all exist. At its best, CCS could prevent 90% of the CO2 emitted by power stations from getting into the atmosphere. Better still, it could be a vital tool for developing countries, such as China, where the government's economic growth and poverty reduction targets depend on building huge numbers of coal-fired power stations.The EU commissioner for energy, Andris Piebalgs, is unequivocal about the need for technology to bridge the gap until large-scale and more climate-friendly sources of energy become viable.

"CCS is absolutely necessary to reach climate change goals: there is no other way we could do it," he told a meeting of experts organised by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona.

The case for action on climate is compelling. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the world has burned the equivalent of 500bn tonnes of carbon, raising the atmospheric concentration of the gas from 280 parts per million to 387ppm today.

Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that global emissions of greenhouse gases must peak by 2015 for the world to avoid dangerous climate change and have any chance of limiting the expected temperature rise to 2C. But the International Energy Agency predicts the world's use of power will increase by 50% by 2030, with 77% of that coming from fossil fuels.

Despite the urgency, governments and power companies are locked in a wrangle over who will pay. Individually, the technologies needed to capture, transport and bury CO2 have been developed and are used in oilfields and chemical plants. But no one has built an entire system attached to a power station. No one wants to be the first to pay the bills for the expensive set of demonstrations needed. Estimates of the average cost of retro-fitting Britain's aged power stations are around £1bn each, with pipes to transport the CO2 to suitable burial sites costing around £1m per mile.

"From an engineering point of view, we can do it," said John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre. "We know how to do it but the cost frightens us. It comes down to how seriously the government takes reducing CO2 emissions." There are three broad approaches to CCS:

· removing the CO2 before combustion by treating the coal;

· scrubbing it from exhaust gases after combustion;

· or burning the fuel with extra oxygen to produce an almost pure CO2 exhaust.

The CCS process itself uses energy and it is estimated that between 10% and 40% of a power station's energy output could end up being used to run the scrubbing and transport systems.

Projects to demonstrate parts of the CCS chain are already under way. Norway's state oil company has been stripping CO2 out of the natural gas extracted from the Sleipner oil field in the North Sea for over 10 years. About 1m tonnes of CO2 is now injected into the sandstone aquifer under the seabed every year. BP runs a similar scheme at In Salah in Algeria while at Weyburn, Saskatchewan, 1m tonnes of CO2 a year is buried, piped in from a chemical plant 400 miles away in North Dakota.

The project in West Virginia, due to begin next year, will be the first of the pilot plants to put all the pieces of the CCS technology together, a testbed for a more ambitious plan to capture and store emissions from a coal-fired power station in Oklahoma which should begin operations early next decade, trapping and burying 1.5m tonnes of CO2 a year in a nearby oilfield.

Another project nearing the pilot phase is Swedish energy company Vattenfall's plan to build a €1bn (£800m) CCS demonstration plant in Brandenburg, Germany, testing the post-combustion and high oxygen burning methods. Further CCS projects have also been announced in Norway, Australia, the United States and Canada. The EU aims to have 12 demonstration plants running by 2015.

In the UK, however, critics argue that plans are too small-scale and too slow, despite government claims that the country is in a perfect place for CCS due to the easy access to suitable burial sites for CO2 in the North Sea.

Last year, the government announced a competition to fund the construction of a 400MW CCS demonstration project that would go on line in 2014. Officials will announce a shortlist of potential sites for the demonstration plant later this month, with a leading candidate for the award a proposed 1.6GW coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent.

There are no official details of cost but a spokesman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform indicated that funding could be hundreds of millions of pounds over 15 years.

Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist and CCS specialist at the University of Edinburgh, has said the government's "incoherence and timidity" in policy had caused a dramatic slowdown of CCS development in the UK. In 2007, there were 10 test projects in the pipeline, covering a range of CCS technologies, which together could have cut the UK's emissions by 20%. Half have been abandoned, mainly because they did not fit the criteria for the UK's competition.

A senior energy industry source said the government's decision to allow only post-combustion CCS technology to enter the competition had been a mistake. "The problem with CCS is that it's often seen as a sticking plaster that allows the coal industry to carry on as normal."

Even for those environmentalists who support CCS, the post-combustion approach reinforces all that is wrong with coal. Keith Allott, head of climate change at WWF, is concerned that it legitimises a "build now, retrofit later" mindset in the power industry. "We have up to eight new coal-fired power stations being considered in the UK - if those power stations are built without carbon capture and storage, then it will blow our chances of meeting reduction targets out of the water."

The energy minister, Malcom Wicks, said the choice of technology was intended to take into account the future energy generation plans of countries such as India and China. The UK government is part-funding a project with China that will use a pre-combustion method to trap CO2 in a plant near Tianjin, to help in addressing China's emissions, which will be more than 5bn tonnes a year by 2030.

Whichever technology wins out, the largest obstacle to implementation remains money. Commercial operators point out that electricity from power stations with expensive CCS kit attached could never compete on the open market. It is therefore unsurprising that companies are biding their time.

Gardiner Hill, CCS technology director at BP, said that the cost of building CCS into power plants should eventually be borne by a higher price for carbon in markets such as Europe's emissions trading scheme, meaning that it would be too expensive to build power stations without CCS. One potential source of money is to use cash raised by governments across Europe from the auction of permits to emit CO2 from the third phase of the ETS scheme in 2013.

In their CCS policy, released today, the Conservatives have promised to do exactly that to fund up to three full-scale demonstration plants. The Labour government has rejected any hypothecation of cash raised by the ETS auction.

The cost of inaction could also be high. Paal Frisvold, chair of environmental group Bellona Europa, pointed to an impact assessment report by the European commission. "It points out that, if we don't use CCS for reaching our climate goals, the price tag is going to be €40bn more expensive. Here are some good reasons to deal with the finances of it now."

Some environmentalists remain opposed to CCS. Gavin Edwards, of Greenpeace International, wants to see governments take a second look at renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency.

Jon Gibbins, an energy technologist at Imperial College London, sees CCS as an insurance policy.

Generating power from zero-carbon renewable sources is good, he said, but to genuinely protect the climate, you have to ensure that no one releases CO2 by burning coal or other fossil fuels for centuries ahead.

Gibbins said the UK had a moral leadership role on the global stage: "With CCS you're asking people to stuff money down a hole in the ground for the sake of the climate. If we're not prepared to do it, we can't ask anyone else to do it."

· This article was amended on Friday June 13 2008. An editing error meant that we said that fossil fuel burning has released 500m tonnes of CO2 since the dawn of the industrial revolution; in fact we had meant that the world had burned 500bn tonnes of carbon. This has been corrected.

China's carbon emissions soaring past the US

China's carbon emissions are soaring past those of the US, new figures reveal, making it the dominant country in the global warming debate.

Chinese carbon dioxide pollution rose by 8% in 2007 and was responsible for two-thirds of the year's total increase in global CO2 emissions, according to experts at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Cement production to meet China's demand for infrastructure to support its booming economy was a large factor: half of all global cement production now takes place in China, and the industry is responsible for a fifth of Chinese CO2. Rebuilding roads and homes after the Sichuan province earthquake is expected to increase demand further.

According to the figures, China is now responsible for 24% of global carbon dioxide emissions, followed by the US with 22%. The EU produces 12%, India 8% and the Russian Federation 6%.

Per head of population, China is still far behind the US, which remains the biggest polluter per person by a large margin. US citizens produce an average of 19.4 tonnes of CO2 each year, while those in China produce just 5.1 tonnes each. Russians produce 11.8 tonnes each, the agency says, with the figure for the EU at 8.6 tonnes, and India just 1.8 tonnes per person.

The Netherlands researchers used new data on worldwide energy consumption and cement production in 2007 prepared by the oil giant BP. Last year, the same team surprised analysts when it said that China had already overtaken the US as chief producer of CO2.

Des Moines being evacuated

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Officials on Friday issued a voluntary evacuation order for much of downtown Des Moines, Iowa, and other areas bordering the Des Moines River.

Floodwater laps at the doors of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday.

Officials recommended that downtown residents and businesses evacuate parts of downtown on both sides of the river by 6 p.m. Friday. Included are all areas in Des Moines' 500-year floodplain.

The alert was prompted by rising river levels expected to peak at 8 p.m. Friday.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said officials chose "to err on the side of citizens and residents."

The evacuation should begin immediately and be completed by 6 p.m., the mayor said.

In Cedar Rapids, a downtown hospital was evacuated as the Cedar River flooded 400 city blocks.

Residents of more than 3,000 homes fled for higher ground and a railroad bridge collapsed.

The hospital's 176 patients, including about 30 in a nursing home facility, were being transferred to other hospitals in the region.

The Cedar Rapids evacuation started late Thursday night and continued Friday morning in the city of 124,000 residents.

"Some are frail and so it's a very delicate process with them," said Karen Vander Sanden, a hospital spokeswoman. Video Watch how folks are coping in Cedar Rapids »

Water was seeping into the hospital's lower levels, where the emergency generator is located, said Dustin Hinrichs of the Linn County emergency operations center.

"They proactively and preventatively started evacuation basically guessing on the fact they were going to lose power," he said.

Dave Koch, a spokesman for the Cedar Rapids fire department, said the river will crest Friday at about 31.8 feet. It was at 30.9 feet early in the morning. In a 1993 flood, considered the worst in recent history, it was at 19.27 feet. Teen takes pics during sandbagging run

"We are seeing a historic hydrological event taking place with unprecedented river levels occurring," said Brian Pierce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Davenport, Iowa. "We're in uncharted territory -- this is an event beyond what anybody could even imagine." Video Watch how weather is bludgeoning the Midwest »

Flooding also closed Interstate 80 from east of Iowa City to Davenport. The flooded Cedar River crosses the interstate in Cedar County, about 20 miles east of Iowa City.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver declared 83 of the state's 99 counties state disaster areas. Nine rivers are at or above historic flood levels. Amtrak's California Zephyr line was suspended across Iowa because of flooding along the BNSF Railway.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in Iowa, but two men died in their cars in southern Minnesota and western lower Michigan.

In Wisconsin, amphibious vehicles that carry tourists on the Wisconsin River were used to evacuate homes and businesses in Baraboo, north of Madison. Hundreds of people lost power in Avoca, west of Madison, and were "strongly encouraged" to evacuate due to flooding, said Chief Deputy Jon Pepper of the Iowa County Sheriff's Department. Duck boats to the rescue

The rising Fond du Lac River forced hundreds from homes in Fond du Lac.

Violent thunderstorms Thursday and Friday brought widespread flooding to Michigan's Lower Peninsula that authorities say left some roads and bridges unstable or impassable. Authorities in Mason County advised drivers to stay off the roads unless it was an emergency, and the county closed or barricaded more than a dozen roadways.

People in several northern Missouri communities, meanwhile, were piling up sandbags to prepare for flooding in the Missouri River, expected to crest over the weekend, and a more significant rise in the Mississippi River expected Wednesday.

Despite all the water in Cedar Rapids, there was precious little for toilets, cleaning, or drinking.

Koch said the city is at critical levels and only one of the city's six wells was operating.

"If we lost that one we would be in serious trouble. Basically we are using more water than we are producing," he said. "We really need to reduce the amount of water we are using ... even using paper plates, hand sanitizer."

Similarly, the town of Lawrenceville, Illinois, grappled with a broken water system that left businesses with no usable tap water, forcing them to close.

In Cedar Rapids, rescuers had to use boats to reach many stranded residents, and people could be seen dragging suitcases up closed highway exit ramps to escape the water.

"We're just kind of at God's mercy right now, so hopefully people that never prayed before this, it might be a good time to start," Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller said. "We're going to need a lot of prayers and people are going to need a lot of patience and understanding." Video Watch what Iowa has to look forward to »

Prisoners had to be moved from the Linn County jail, including some inmates who had been transferred from the Benton County jail in Vinton because of flooding. The sheriff's office also was underwater, Zeller said.

The surging river caused part of a railroad bridge and about 20 hopper cars loaded with rocks to collapse into the river. The cars had been positioned on the bridge in hopes of weighing it down against the rising water.

In Austin, Minnesota, the Cedar River crested 7.4 feet above flood stage. The river went about 5 feet higher in a 2004 flood that caused major damage in the city.
"It seems like we're having the hundred-year flood every four years. It's absurd," said Mark Dulitz, who had 4 inches of water in his basement and a ring of sandbags around his house.

NorCal wildfires destroy homes, force thousands to flee

Firefighters work along Neal Road to contain the Humboldt... Thick dark smoke rises over the valley floor as firefight... Firefighters work to contain the Humboldt Fire, which has... Butte County firefighter Janet Upton talks on her phone w...

(06-13) 10:38 PDT Paradise, CA (AP) --

Firefighters battled several fast-growing wildfires across Northern California, including a wind-whipped blaze in Butte County that destroyed at least 20 homes and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

Authorities in Butte County on Thursday closed all roads to Paradise, a town of about 30,000 residents some 90 miles north of Sacramento, and ordered 9,000 residents to leave their homes. An evacuation shelter was set up in nearby Chico.

The fire, which started Wednesday, had grown to more than 20,000 acres and threatened 4,600 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Twenty homes were confirmed to be destroyed, but officials said that number likely could double once crews were able to better assess the damage.

More than 1,500 firefighters were trying to contain the blaze, which was only 16 percent contained by Friday morning. Five firefighters have sustained minor injuries.

Fed by strong, erratic winds on Thursday, the fire spread to the hills of the Butte College campus, where officials had set up an incident command center, said Cal Fire spokesman Joshpae White.

"The winds have calmed down significantly," White said Friday morning. "Hopefully we'll be able to make significantly progress today."

Firefighters, however, needed to move quickly. Winds from the southwest were expected to pick up in the afternoon, which could push the flames closer to Paradise, said White, who was one of the firefighters injured a day earlier.

White said he was escorting reporters through the fire area in a pickup truck when the flames quickly began closing in. After safely evacuating the reporters, he helped nearby firefighters escape and was forced to drive through a wall of fire.

"It looked like a million blowtorches across the road," White said. "We were taking significant heat. The heat was so intense, the windshield began cracking."

White and another firefighter were treated for minor burns.

In recent days, hot temperatures, steady winds and tinder-dry vegetation have fueled a series of destructive blazes from Butte County to the San Francisco Bay area to the Los Padres National Forest.

But 900 firefighters in Santa Cruz County caught a break Friday as cooler temperatures and increased cloud cover helped them battled a wildfire that had destroyed at least 10 homes in the Bonny Doon community, according to Cal Fire. It was 25 percent contained Friday morning and had scorched 600 acres — a revised estimate from 700 acres, after crews were able to map the blaze.

More than 1,500 residents have been told to evacuate their homes in the heavily forested hills about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz since the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon. The fire flared just two weeks after another blaze two miles away scorched 4,200 acres and destroyed at least three dozen homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

James Eason, 28, a full-time caretaker for his quadriplegic dad Jim Eason, 63, said they spent Thursday hanging out with other evacuees in a supermarket parking lot after spending the night in a Red Cross shelter in Felton, several miles from the blaze.

On Wednesday, they evacuated their $1,300-a-month yurt, a nearly uninsulated wooden-framed structure covered in canvas where they have lived for the past three months. They weren't able to check on their home Thursday and planned to spend another night at the shelter, which was moved to a middle school in nearby Scotts Valley.

"It's stressful and frustrating. It makes you anxious not knowing if you're going to have a place to go back to," James Eason said. "All of a sudden, with the fire, the yurt doesn't seem so bad. We've started to like it a whole lot."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Santa Cruz County early Thursday to free up additional firefighting resources. He declared one in Butte County late Wednesday.

Farther south, another wildfire had charred more than 18,600 acres in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. It was nearly 40 percent contained Friday.

That fire had spread east to a remote part of the Army's Fort Hunter Liggett base Thursday, but winds were driving the flames away from inhabited areas of the military base, said Manny Madrigal, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Four families with homes near the base were evacuated, but the 5,000 military personnel who live there were not in immediate danger, said Fort Hunter Liggett spokeswoman Helen Elrod.

Several firefighters have suffered injuries while fighting the wind-stoked fires over the past few days.

Three firefighters were burned near Lincoln, about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, when they were caught in a 65-acre grass fire burning in a dry rice field.

All three were taken to the University of California, Davis Medical Center regional burn center. Two of them had moderate to severe burns to their faces and arms.

"They are both stable and able to communicate. They have significant swelling," said Battalion Chief Greg Guyan. "They'll probably be in the burn unit another week."

The third was released from a hospital after treatment for minor facial burns.

The burn center was also treating a firefighter who was severely burned Tuesday while trying to protect a mobile home near a wind-blown grass fire southeast of Sacramento. Capt. Steven J. Eggiman, a 21-year veteran of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, was in good condition Thursday after undergoing surgery burns to his hands, arms and nose.


Associated Press Writers Terence Chea and Jason Dearen in San Francisco and Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The end of abundance: Food panic brings calls for a second 'green revolution'

From: , Organic Consumers Association, More from this Affiliate


By 1968 the jump in farm productivity was so clear - India, for example, harvested a record wheat crop, as did the Philippines for rice - that William Gaud, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said the world was witnessing the "makings of a new revolution".

"It is not a violent red revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a white revolution like that of the Shah of Iran," Gaud said in a speech 40 years ago. "I call it the green revolution," he added, coining a term that has long survived him.

Yet, like its counterparts elsewhere on the spectrum, the green revolution eventually lost momentum. Today, the world stands on the brink again as agricultural commodity prices surge, triggering food riots in countries from Haiti to Bangladesh. This time, however, efforts to increase supply - and the political backing in Washington and other capitals - appear far weaker. The task of raising productivity is meanwhile rendered more difficult by record oil prices, which make fertiliser more expensive.

In dozens of interviews with agriculture officials and experts, a consensus emerges: even if the current food crisis is the result of multiple factors, such as biofuel demand or extreme weather, its roots are in the waning green revolution. "The foundation of the current crisis is the slowdown in farm productivity," says Lennart BÃ¥ge, president of the United Nations' International Fund for Agriculture Development in Rome.

The green revolution was in many respects a victim of its own success. The increase in food production from the early 1960s was so great that it not only staved off global hunger but also opened the way to almost 40 years of cheap and abundant food supplies. Wheat yields per hectare, for example, jumped from less than 500kg to nearly 3,000kg today. Indeed, for most of the 1990s the problem was too much food, with much talk in Europe of grain "mountains" and "lakes" of milk and wine.

Akinwumi Adesina, vice-president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, says this cornucopia of inexpensive food generated a profound sense of complacency. "People started thinking that support into agriculture research was no longer necessary to boost productivity further, as there was already more than enough food and prices were falling."

As a result, investment in agricultural research and infrastructure declined sharply. Multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and individual rich donor countries cut the share of agricultural spending in their development assistance to less than 3 per cent in 2004, down from a peak of 18 per cent in 1979, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In money terms, even adjusted for inflation, farm aid more than halved to about $3bn in 2004 from $8bn in 1979.

Although private sector funding for agricultural research grew, low food prices on world markets meant this work generally focused on innovations that reduced costs rather than enhanced yields. It was always publicly funded research that was more likely to concentrate on innovations that would increase yields and production, particularly in parts of the world where farmers are unable to pay royalties for new varieties of seeds, says Ronald Trostle of the US Department of Agriculture's economic research service.

Less investment translated into slowing productivity growth. According to the USDA, crop yields increased at an annual rate of 1.1 per cent on average between 1990 and 2007, compared with the 2 per cent rate achieved in 1970-90. The impact on yield growth in important staples such as wheat and rice was even more acute, slowing to about 1 per cent per year from annual rates of as high as 10 per cent in the early 1960s.

The decline in productivity growth could scarcely have come at a worse time. Food demand has been rising this decade as the world's population expands and a swelling middle class in countries such as China consumes more proteins such as meat and milk. The development of the biofuels industry further increased demand, accounting this year for one-third of the US corn crop.

Now, for the first time since the 1970s, the world is slowly depleting its food stocks, each year consuming more than it produces. Also as a result of climate upsets including droughts, inventories are at record lows and prices are rocketing. "It was an accident waiting to happen," Mr Adesina says.

Policymakers are waking up to the urgency of the situation. Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, recently declared that "there is persistent feeling that the first green revolution has run its course". He went on to say that the world needs a second such transformation if it is to resolve the food crisis: "The global community and global agencies must fashion a collective response that leads to a quantum leap in agricultural productivity and output, so that the spectre of food shortages is banished from the horizon once again."

That will be high on the agenda of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation summit, which begins on Tuesday in Rome and is due to be attended by more than 40 heads of state and government. Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO, says this a rare moment: "For the first time in 25 years, a fundamental incentive - high food commodity prices - is in place for stimulating the agricultural sector. Governments, supported by their international partners, must now undertake the necessary public investment and provide a favourable environment for private investments." Or as Ed Schafer, the US agriculture secretary, recently put it: "If countries do not increase yields...people are going to go hungry. It's that simple."

Yet replicating the first green revolution will be difficult. Each of the three pillars on which it was built - seed technology, irrigation and the ample use of fertilisers and pesticides - now look rather less sturdy. Again, that largely reflects the legacy of how the problem was tackled the first time round.

As millions of lives were at risk from hunger and results were needed fast, scientists and policymakers focused on increasing production at whatever cost. Tom Mew, who worked as the principal scientist at the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos in the Philippines in the 1960s, acknowledged that bias a few years ago in a speech: "It was a tough choice, so we focused on high-input agriculture that would ensure that everyone got fed."

The result is a global agricultural system that today is highly intensive and is predicated on the availability of cheap, readily available energy, for use in every part of the production chain: both directly as fuel and indirectly to manufacture fertilisers and pesticides. But with oil prices rising, the cost of certain fertilisers has surged to more than $1,000 (€643, £505) a tonne from about $300 a tonne two years ago. On top of that, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides faces public opposition.

The original green revolution also required vast amounts of water for irrigation - a resource that is becoming scarcer because of climate change and the rapid growth of cities and industrial operations, particularly in the developing world.

Last, the 1960s improvements in seed technology achieved higher yields as well as an improved resistance to drought and insects. Scientists are approaching the limits of what they can do through natural techniques. The next step - the use of genetically modified organisms - faces strong opposition, particularly in Europe but also, for instance, in some African countries.

In short, the easy gains have already been made, except in Africa. Shivaji Pandey, who was involved in the first green revolution and now heads the plant production division at the FAO in Rome, says the world now needs a "smarter" green revolution. "We will need to increase farm production with less water and a more efficient use of fertilisers," he says. Alexander Evans, a fellow at New York University's Center on International Co-operation, says the key is making the green revolution "greener". He argues: "It needs to be much more input-efficient."

To do that, experts argue, water management should move from the relatively cheap flood irrigation widely used in south-east Asia to much more expensive sprinkler and drip systems. Those would require investments that developing countries could afford only with donor support, officials say. "Water will be a limiting factor," says Mr Adesina.

Fertilisers pose a bigger challenge. The FAO thinks it is possible to economise on their use, particularly in some south-east Asian countries, through programmes that educate farmers on how much they need to drop on their fields and when. But in the long term, experts say, fertiliser use will increase, particularly in Africa, meaning that donor countries would probably need to subsidise chemicals for poor countries.

Some experts, such as Tom Lumpkin, director of the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center in El Batan, Mexico, add that countries will need to reconsider their opposition to genetically modified organisms in the light of the crisis. "We need science to come back to farming," Mr Lumpkin says.

Already 100m hectares, or about 8 per cent of the world's cultivated land, are sown with genetically modified organisms. The technology's supporters, such as the US and Brazil, are likely to press their point ever more firmly that embracing GM crops could help resolve the problem. Gaddi Vasquez, the US ambassador to the FAO in Rome, says that to increase crop yields, "one of the most promising ways is through GM".

The World Bank said this year that agriculture was poised for another technological revolution, this time using the tools of biotechnology. "But there is considerable uncertainty about whether this revolution will become a reality for food production in the developing world because of low public investment in these technologies and controversies over their possible risks," it warned.

On top of the problems with seeds, fertilisers and irrigation, the political climate today is less conducive to massive cash transfers from the rich to the developing world. No one now fears a communist takeover; the investment required would have to come as an simple attempt to improve the lives of millions.

Whatever the course that policymakers chart this week at the FAO summit, officials and experts agree that the world needs to move fast to ease the crisis - and to prevent another in a few years. The OECD and FAO last week said in their joint Agricultural Outlook 2008-2017 that public and private investments in innovation and increasing farm productivity "would greatly improve supply prospects by helping to broaden the production base and lessen the chance of recurring commodity price spikes".

But time is something else in short supply. Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute, says it would take up to a decade to develop the seed varieties and build the infrastructure required for a second green revolution. "In reality, we should have started 10 years ago to avoid today's problems," he says.

Caribbean Monk Seal Gone Extinct From Human Causes, NOAA Confirms

From: National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration


After a five year review, NOAA’s Fisheries Service has determined that the Caribbean monk seal, which has not been seen for more than 50 years, has gone extinct — the first type of seal to go extinct from human causes.

Monk seals became easy targets for hunters while resting, birthing, or nursing their pups on the beach. Overhunting by humans led to these seals’ demise, according to NOAA biologists.

The last confirmed sighting of the seal was in 1952 in the Caribbean Sea at Seranilla Bank, between Jamaica and the Yucatán Peninsula. This was the only subtropical seal native to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

"Humans left the Caribbean monk seal population unsustainable after overhunting them in the wild," said Kyle Baker, biologist for NOAA’s Fisheries Service southeast region. "Unfortunately, this lead to their demise and labels the species as the only seal to go extinct from human causes."

Caribbean monk seals were listed as endangered on March 11, 1967, under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and relisted under the Endangered Species Act on April 10, 1979. Since then, several efforts have been made to investigate unconfirmed reports of the species in or near the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, southern Bahamas, and Greater Antilles. These expeditions only confirmed sightings of other seal types, such as stray arctic seals.

Five-year status reviews are a requirement of the Endangered Species Act to ensure that the status of a species listed as threatened or endangered remains accurate and has not changed, for better or worse. The most recent review began in 2003.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register, seeking public comment to permanently remove Caribbean monk seals from the Endangered Species List. Species are removed from this list when their populations are no longer threatened or endangered, or when they are declared extinct.

“Worldwide, populations of the two remaining monk seal species are declining,” said Baker. “We hope we’ve learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives.”

Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are endangered and at risk of extinction with populations dipping below 1,200 and 500 individuals, respectively.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service is responsible for protecting the Hawaiian monk seal. That population is declining at a rate of about four percent per year, and NOAA biologists predict the population could fall below 1,000 animals in the next three to four years, placing the Hawaiian monk seal among the world’s most endangered marine species. Unlike the Caribbean monk seal, Hawaiian monk seals face different survival challenges, such as lack of food sources for young seals, entanglement in marine debris, predation by sharks, and loss of haul-out and pupping beaches due to erosion.

“The Hawaiian monk seal is a treasure to preserve for future generations,” said Bud Antonelis, biologist for NOAA’s Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “NOAA’s Fisheries Service has developed a monk seal recovery plan, but we need continued support from organizations and the public if we are to have a chance at saving it from extinction. Time is running out.”

Other species of marine mammals that have gone extinct in modern times include the Atlantic gray whale (1700s or 1800s) and stellar sea cow (late 1700s), presumably due to overhunting by whalers. Exploitation of Caribbean monk seals began during the same time period.

Caribbean monk seals were first discovered during Columbus’s second voyage in 1494, when eight seals were killed for meat. Following European colonization from the 1700s to 1900s, the seals were exploited intensively for their blubber, and to a lesser extent for food, scientific study and zoological collection. Blubber was processed into oil and used for lubrication, coating the bottom of boats, and as lamp and cooking oil. Seal skins were sought to make trunk linings, articles of clothing, straps and bags.

Scientists are unsure about exactly when Caribbean monk seals went extinct. Although there have been no confirmed sightings since 1952, it is conceivable that undetected seals persisted for a short period thereafter. The seals lived 20 to 30 years, so experts believe that some adults possibly lived into the 1960s or 1970s.

New Zealand faces power crisis amid drought

New Zealand's prime minister Helen Clark

Helen Clark: 'it's not an emergency.' Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP

New Zealanders are to be urged to wash dishes by hand and turn off lights as the country teeters on the brink of a power crisis caused by drought.

After two years of dry weather, the level of water in lakes that drive New Zealand's hydroelectric power plants is worryingly low.

The energy minister, David Parker, denied claims the country was facing rolling power cuts but said households would be asked to cut electricity consumption by up to 15% during peak early evening periods unless there was "significant" rainfall soon.

Hydroelectric stations usually produce about 75% of New Zealand's electricity but a lack of rain has reduced that output in recent weeks to 50%. Coal, diesel and gas-fired power plants are trying to make up the shortfall, but more strain is expected to be put on the national grid with the arrival of winter in the southern hemisphere.

Backed by the government, the electricity industry is to launch a TV campaign aimed at domestic, commercial and industrial users.

The prime minister, Helen Clark, said: "I think the advice will be that while it's not an emergency, it is time for people to be turning off lights in rooms they are not using, certainly not leaving the computer on all night, the heated towel rail not on for 24 hours a day."

The last time there was a serious power shortage in New Zealand was in 1992 when businesses were forced to use liquid petroleum gas and diesel. Street lighting was rationed and households endured hot water restrictions.

The public was also asked to save power in 2001, 2003 and 2006 but each time rain came soon enough to head off any serious problems.

Phil O'Reilly, the chief executive of Business New Zealand, said poor decisions by successive governments had led to New Zealanders living with the threat of electricity shortages. "You just can't run an economy like this," he said.

"If we get through to the end of winter without blackouts; it was all done by the skin of our teeth. I don't think that's a sensible proposition."

Clark said the commissioning of a new geothermal plant was being brought forward and industrial users of electricity were being targeted to see if they could ease back on demand. "A lot of things are being done to make sure that we move through this dry spell as smoothly as we can," she said.

'Everyone's starving' in Ethiopia, aid worker says

SHASHAMANE, Ethiopia (AP) -- Like so many other victims of Ethiopia's hunger crisis, Usheto Beriso weighs just half what he should. He is always cold and swaddled in a blanket. His limbs are stick-thin.


A 3-year-old Ethiopian child weighing less than 10 pounds is seen at an emergency feeding center May 9.

But Usheto is not the typical face of Ethiopia's chronic food problems, the scrawny baby or the ailing toddler. At 55 years old, he is among a growing number of adults and older children -- traditionally less vulnerable groups -- who have been stricken by severe hunger because of poor rains and recent crop failure in southern Ethiopia, health workers say.

"To see adults in this condition, it's a very serious situation," nurse Mieke Steenssens, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, told The Associated Press as she registered the 5-foot, 4-inch Usheto's weight at just 73 pounds (33 kilograms).

Aid groups say the older victims suggest an escalation in the crisis in Ethiopia, a country that drew international attention in 1984 when a famine compounded by communist policies killed some 1 million people.

This year's crisis, brought on by a countrywide drought and skyrocketing global food prices, is far less severe. But while figures for how many adults and older children are affected are not available, at least four aid groups interviewed by the AP said they noticed a troubling increase.

"We're overwhelmed," said Margaret Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the International Medical Corps, a California-based aid agency. "There's not enough food and everyone's starving and that's all there is to it."

"Older children are starting to show the signs of malnutrition when normally they might be able to withstand shocks to the system," Aguirre added. "What's particularly concerning is that the moderately malnourished are soaring. It's increasing so much that it means those children are going to slide into severe malnutrition."

Ethiopia is not alone in suffering through the worldwide food crisis, which is threatening to push up to a billion people across the globe into hunger. Last week, a U.N. summit of 181 countries pledged to reduce trade barriers and boost agricultural production to combat rising food prices.

Drought is especially disastrous in Ethiopia because more than 80 percent of people live off the land. Agriculture drives the economy, accounting for half of all domestic production and 85 percent of exports.

The U.N. children's agency has characterized this year's food shortage -- in which an estimated 4.5 million people are in need of emergency food aid -- as the worst since 2003, when droughts led 13.2 million people to seek such aid. In 2000, more than 10 million needed emergency food.

Studies by the International Medical Corps in southern Ethiopia -- the epicenter of the crisis -- show that up to one in four young mothers is showing signs of moderate malnutrition.

Ethiopia's top disaster response official, Simon Mechale, insists that the food situation is "under control" and will be resolved within four months. But in the countryside, there are signs that drought has taken a more serious toll.

At a recent food distribution in a village some 250 kilometers (155 miles) southwest of the capital, more than 4,000 people showed up for free wheat and cooking oil, but only 1,300 rations were available.

Harried health workers picked through the impatient crowd, sorting out the sickest children. Frantic mothers proffered their withered infants, hoping the children's poor state would earn some food for the family.

Ayelech Daka said her 6-year-old son, Tariken Lakamu, has been living on one meal a day for the past three months.

"He was very fat three months ago," said his mother, Ayelech said. "He was normal."

Now, he's a pile of bones and skin; he vomits just seconds after taking a bite of a biscuit offered by an aid worker.

"I'm weak," the child said. "I feel sick. I don't get any food."

Another mother, Ukume Dubancho, rocked a listless infant, trying to squeeze out drops of breast milk for her children, ages 4 months and 4 years, both of whom show signs of severe malnutrition.

"I am not able to walk, even," Ukume said. "I walk for one kilometer and I have to rest."

Villagers said they can't afford the food on the market. The few mature ears of corn in the market were selling for about 11 cents per ear. Last year, when the rains were good, that money would buy six or seven ears of corn.

Aid agencies are issuing desperate appeals for donor funding, saying emergency intervention is not enough. Ethiopia receives more food aid than nearly every other country in the world, most of it from the United States, which has provided $300 million in emergency assistance to relief agencies in the past year.

But despite the international help, the country is again facing hunger on a mass scale. Part of the reason, according to John Holmes, the top U.N. humanitarian official, is the country's climate, chronic drought and the large population -- some 78 million people. He said the U.N. was hoping to boost the number of people it helps here.

"The World Food Program feeds some 8 million people already, together with the others in Ethiopia," he said. "But we may need to increase that, because of drought."

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Republicans scupper plans for climate bill

A landmark plan to fight climate change was defeated yesterday in the US Senate, likely postponing action on carbon emissions limits until after this autumn's presidential election.

The bill aimed to cut US global warming emissions by 66% by 2050, but opponents said it would cost jobs and raise fuel prices in an already pinched American economy. The bill was defeated 48-36.

The US green movement expressed dismay at the political wrangling that killed the proposal, although environmental groups cheered the Senate for taking the first step towards addressing the issue that is expected to gain momentum when Bush leaves office.

"Americans are demanding global warming solutions. It's a shame they will have to wait another year," Lexi Shultz, deputy director of the climate programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. "But our country will have another global warming debate in 2009 with a new Congress and president. Putting a cap on global warming pollution is inevitable."

Senator Joe Lieberman, who sponsored the bill, said: "I think people around the world are going to be greatly encouraged by the fact that 54 members of the US Senate are saying they want to support a real response to global warming." The bill was also backed by California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Neither the Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama nor his Republican counterpart, John McCain, cast votes on the bill.

Democrats had hoped this summer would be an opportune time to debate emissions caps. But Republicans seized an opening to claim that the bill would increase fuel prices.

Climate of suspicion

Global warming is a fact whatever its deniers - encouraged by a cool year - have to say

The deniers of global warming are about to latch on to a new argument. The world is cooling. And they are right - well, slightly.

Globally, this year is likely to be the coolest for some time - back to the average of the early 90s, according to some unpublished forecasts. This is no refutation of man-made global warming. It is the inevitable consequence of one of nature's climatic cycles. The La Niña, the cold phase of the El Niño cycle in the Pacific, has sent average global temperatures plunging this year.

And there is more. Longer term climate cycles that play out over a decade or so will also be working to cool us in the coming decade. In particular, changes in the currents of the north Atlantic - which have caused Europe to warm more than anywhere else in the past decade and helped melt all that Arctic ice - are about to go into reverse.

A Germany study published earlier this month predicts the world will cool over the coming decade. British climate modellers at the Met Office don't go so far. They think nature's cooling will be more than counterbalanced by the warming effect of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But nobody is sure. In any case, we can expect the deniers to make the most of this opportunity to pour cold water on the whole climate change narrative. No year has yet been hotter than 1998, they will say. True: it was a huge El Niño year. Now we are on the way back down, they will say. Nonsense. The underlying trend remains upwards; and as every decade passes, natural cycles can do less and less to counter the growing human influence on temperature.

By late next decade, natural warming will once again combine with man-made warming to push temperature rise into overdrive. The surge that we saw through the 1980s and 1990s will resume with a vengeance. That could be the moment that climate change passes a point of no return, when ice sheets start to collapse and parched rainforests and soils dump their carbon into the air, accelerating warming.

Now, a sceptic might say that if the modellers are only just learning about the importance of natural cycles to climate forecasts, why should we believe their predictions at all? Fair point. In their desire to persuade us about the big picture of global warming, scientists have sometimes got cocky about colouring in the detail.

Recently I attended a conference in Reading where some of the world's top experts discussed their failings. How their much-vaunted models of the world's climate system can't reproduce El Niños, or the "blocking highs" that bring heatwaves to Europe - or even the ice ages. How their statistical mimics of tropical climate are "laughable", in the words of the official report.

This sudden humility was not unconnected with their end-of-conference call for the world to spend a billion dollars on a global centre for climate modelling. A "Manhattan project for the 21st century", as someone put it.

Even so, scientists are concerned that many of their predictions about how climate change will play out in different parts of the world are little better than guesses. But whatever the local wrinkles and whatever natural cycles may intervene, man-made global warming is real, current and matters a great deal.

Physicists have known for 200 years about greenhouse gases. They first calculated the likely global effect 100 years ago. They have been measuring the accumulation of these gases for 60 years. The world has been warming strongly for 30 years, and nobody has come up with a half-way plausible explanation other than the most obvious. It's the greenhouse gases, stupid.

· Fred Pearce is the author of The Last Generation

Britain's climate target 'impossible'

Efforts to help keep world temperature rises under 2C will fail, says thinktank, even if UK sticks to policy on carbon emissions

Britain will find it 'impossible' to meet its target as part of the world's battle to ensure temperatures do not rise more than 2C - a key threshold for dangerous climate change, according to a study by a panel of leading experts.

The report 'Carbon Scenarios' by the Stockholm Network thinktank says that if existing policies and hopes of international agreement on reducing emissions were implemented, there would still be a 90 per cent chance the temperature rise would reach about 3C, a level that experts fear would provoke 'feedback' of more carbon by melting permafrost, threatening the world's forests.

If governments let policies 'stall and backslide' - as many appear to be doing - the rise would be 4.8C, says the study, to be published tomorrow. 'The two-degree target is impossible, and [a] three-degree target is implausible,' said Paul Domjan, energy fellow at the London-based European thinktank and an author of the report.

Domjan said the modelling, done by the world-renowned Hadley Centre at the Met Office but using emissions calculated by the Stockholm Network, highlighted three problems: 'Current policy comes in too slowly, it internationalises too slowly and it binds developing countries too late.'

Privately, many climate scientists believe it will be impossible to meet the 2C target, but they are reluctant to say so because they do not want to discourage moves to cut emissions.

The report says dangerous temperature rises could be avoided by a 'step change' in emissions reductions. To do this, the thinktank advocates a global cap on production of fossil fuels which would be auctioned to energy generators to raise money to compensate producers and pay developing nations to help adapt. 'Wealth transfer isn't an addendum, it's the most important part of carbon policy, because without it the developing world won't introduce emissions reductions and without emissions reductions we won't have lower temperatures,' Domjan added.

The report comes as Environment Secretary Hilary Benn prepares to announce tomorrow whether the government will increase its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 60 to 80 per cent when it begins the second reading of the historic Climate Change Bill.

The bill was welcomed as the world's first binding targets for carbon reductions, but criticised as too weak, leading to amendments in the Lords, including a commitment for Britain to pursue policies consistent with an increase of only 2C and to include aviation emissions at a later date. Most experts agree that to hit a rise of 2C, Britain and other developed countries would have to slash emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Benn must respond to those amendments when the second reading is introduced, either by accepting them or explaining why the government has changed or rejected them.

Department for the Environment officials said the bill had been 'strengthened quite significantly' by the amendments, but 'remains largely unchanged', both raising and dashing hopes that they have accepted some or all the changes. Some campaigners fear the government, under pressure over rising oil prices not to introduce what are seen as expensive 'green' policies, are not ready to bow to the demands in full.

Polar bear shot dead after 200-mile swim

The polar lies dead after being shot by police in Iceland

The polar bear lies dead after being shot by police in Iceland. Photograph: Icelandic television

A polar bear that swam more than 200 miles in near-freezing waters to reach Iceland was shot on arrival in case it posed a threat to humans.

The bear, thought to be the first to reach the country in at least 15 years, was killed after local police claimed it was a danger to humans, triggering an outcry from animal lovers. Police claimed it was not possible to sedate the bear.

The operation to kill the animal was captured on film.

The adult male, weighing 250kg, was presumed to have swum some 200 miles from Greenland, or from a distant chunk of Arctic ice, to Skagafjordur in northern Iceland.

"There was fog up in the hills and we took the decision to kill the bear before it could disappear into the fog," said the police spokesman Petur Bjornsson.

Iceland's environment minister, Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, gave the green light for police to shoot the bear because the correct tranquiliser would have taken 24 hours to be flown in, the Icelandic news channel reported.

Sveinbjarnardottir's account was disputed by the chief vet in the town of Blönduó, Egill Steingrímsson, who said he had the drugs necessary to immobilise the bear in the boot of his car. "If the narcotics gun would have been sent by plane, it would have arrived within an hour," he said. "They could keep tabs on the bear for that long."

Steingrímsson also criticised police for not closing a mountain road where people congregated after hearing news of the bear. "There were around 50 to 60 people there watching. The police did not have many options when the bear ran down the hill, approaching the crowd," Steingrimsson said. "I'm very unsatisfied that the police did not try to catch it alive and did not close the road."

The oldest record of polar bears being sighted in Iceland is from 890, 16 years after the first settlers arrived. The last visit was in 1993, when sailors saw a bear swimming off the coast of Strandir. It was also killed.

Polar bears were frequently tamed during the middle ages, but since then no bear has been captured alive in Iceland. Receding North Pole ice is diminishing their hunting and mating grounds and jeopardising their survival.

A spokesman for PolarWorld, a German group dedicated to the preservation of the polar regions and the creatures which inhabit it, called the bear's death "an avoidable tragedy ... another great day for mankind".


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