Friday, August 8, 2008

Climate change catastrophe by degree

Bob Watson rightly warns us to prepare for 4C global warming. To avoid that, we must make drastic CO2 cuts now

Mark Lynas

Melting ice caps in Greenland

Melting ice caps in Greenland. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Professor Bob Watson is not speaking out of turn in telling the world to prepare for four degrees of global warming. "Mitigate for two degrees; adapt for four" has long been the catchphrase among climate negotiators and campaigners. Translated, that means: try to reduce emissions to stay below two degrees of warming, but also prepare for the worst.

And Bob Watson should know – he is the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but was kicked out at the behest of the Bush administration for being too vocal about the threat presented by global warming. (Any sceptic reading who thinks that the IPCC is a conspiracy of environmentalists take note: it is a creature of government as well as of science.) He has long made clear his own personal passion and commitment to tackling the issue – often without mincing his words. He is also someone with a very wide-ranging perspective: after leaving the IPCC, Watson chaired the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a landmark UN study published in 2005 looking at the totality of human impact on the planet's natural systems. (The news wasn't good.)

The problem with the "mitigate for two degrees; adapt for four" strategy is that it is doomed to fail. Yes, we should certainly prepare for the worst as far as possible – with flood defences, drought-resistant crops and strategies to ameliorate the loss of wildlife, at the very least – but a look at the likely impact of a four-degrees temperature rise suggests that such a dramatic change would probably stretch society's capacity for adaptation to the limit, not to mention having a disastrous effect on the natural ecosystems that support humanity as a whole.

By the time global temperatures reach four degrees, much of humanity will be short of water for drinking and irrigation: glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, which feed river systems on which tens of millions depend, will have melted, and their rivers will be seasonally running dry. Whole weather systems like the Asian monsoon (which supports 2 billion people) may alter irrevocably. Deserts will have spread into Mediterranean Europe, across most of southern Africa and the western half of the United States. Higher northern latitudes will be plagued with regular flooding. Heatwaves of unimaginable ferocity will sear continental landscapes: the UK would face the kind of summer temperatures found in northern Morocco today. The planet would be in the throes of a mass extinction of natural life approaching in magnitude that at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65m years ago, when more than half of global biodiversity was wiped out.

Four degrees of warming would also cross many of the "tipping points" which so concern climate scientists: the Amazon rainforest would likely collapse and burn, as part of a massive further release of carbon from terrestrial ecosystems – the reverse of the current situation, where trees and soils absorb and store a good portion of our annual emissions. Most of the Arctic permafrost will lie in the melt zone, and will be steadily releasing methane, accelerating warming still further. The northern polar ice cap will be a distant memory, and Greenland will be melting so rapidly that sea level rise by the end of the century will be measured in metres rather than centimetres.

Hence the current effort – led by scientists, in the main – to drop the two degrees target and talk instead about getting carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere back down to less dangerous levels. This year's CO2 concentration is 385 parts per million (ppm) – now a campaign is forming to get them back down to 350ppm, about the level they were at in the mid 1980s. This isn't just about reducing emissions, it is about getting emissions quickly down to zero (by 2050 or earlier), and then removing some of the excess carbon that humanity has already dumped into the atmosphere. The planet will still get warmer, but on nothing like the scale currently predicted.

The harsh truth is that the latest science shows that even two degrees is not good enough, never mind four. And since four degrees would be a catastrophe that many of us, or our children, would not survive, it is surely our absolute duty to do everything in our power to avoid it.

Climate protesters arrested after gluing themselves to bank

Two environmental activists who glued themselves to the front doors of a bank in London today have been arrested for a breach of the peace, police said.

A group of four protesters calling themselves Rising Tide held a banner outside the Royal Bank of Scotland reading: "RBS - cashing in on coal" and handed out leaflets.

The protest was part of the week-long camp for climate action, taking place outside Kingsnorth power station in Kent.

Protesters are campaigning against a new generation of coal-fired electricity plants.

The activists staged the demonstration at the entrance to the RBS oil and gas division to highlight the relationship between the financial sector, the fossil fuel industry and climate change.

In another protest, the Eon-sponsored Lego model of Kingsnorth power station at the Legoland Park in Windsor was "occupied" by tiny Lego eco-activists with a banner reading: "Stop climate change."

The actions followed a series of protests yesterday when green campaigners blockaded a biofuel depot in Essex, unfurled banners at Gatwick airport and staged a "die-in" at the RBS headquarters by lying in a pool of oil outside the building.

Around 1,500 people have now converged on the climate camp site amid a heavy police presence to prepare for tomorrow's day of mass action.

Protesters have planned an assault by land, water and air to "shut down" Kingsnorth.

One group of campaigners will lead a procession to the power station's main gates, while another will reach it through undergrowth.

A third aims to make a secret air approach, while a fourth plans to stage a "great rebel raft regatta" despite moves by police to ban the flotilla on health and safety grounds.

Some politicians have expressed concerns over policing at the climate camp, which has been described as "heavyhanded" by protesters.

The Green party MEP for the south-east, Dr Caroline Lucas, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, Norman Baker, and the Morley and Rothwell Labour MP, Colin Challen, have written to Kent police calling for action to resolve the "increasingly threatening confrontation".

They said the escalating situation had been caused, in part, by "a disproportionate police response".

The comments came as Kent police extended stop and search powers for officers policing the protests yesterday.

How coal came back into fashion

Terry Macalister,
Clean coal in Gillette, Wyoming

Coal makes up a quarter of total energy consumption and generates 40% of the world's electricity. Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The protest at Kingsnorth may appear to be a battle over a coal-fired power station in an obscure corner of Kent, but it represents part of the frontline in a global rush for coal.

There are now over 100 similar schemes in various stages of design, planning or construction around the world and foreign governments are watching closely to see what decision is taken in the UK.

In particular, they want to know whether a government that has talked tough at climate summit debates will allow power generator E.ON to build the Kingsnorth station with or without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that could hold a key to "clean coal" and the fight against global warming.

Coal already makes up a quarter of total energy consumption and generates 40% of the world's electricity. The last couple of years has seen a massive swing towards king coal after decades when it looked doomed to be phased out, because of acid rain and then greenhouse gases, of which it is a huge emitter. Its use in US power stations alone is responsible for 1.5bn tonnes of CO2 emissions a year.

Despite mounting fears about carbon pollution, coal has returned to fashion because rival energy sources such as gas are soaring in price and being depleted faster than expected. Coal reserves are also often located in politically stable countries such as the US, South Africa and Australia.
Coal, which has traditionally been a cheap power source, is also prized as a fuel for electricity generation because it does not have the problem of intermittency of supply associated with solar or wind, and plants do not have to be kept running all the time as they do with nuclear power.

A major study published recently by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called The Future of Coal concluded: "We believe that coal use will increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant. Coal can provide usable energy at a cost of between $1 and $2 [£0.52 to 1.04] per million British thermal units (MMBTU) compared to $6 to $12 per MMBTU for oil and natural gas."

Coal reserves worldwide are as high as 909bn tonnes, according the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2007, which at the current rate of production of less than 6bn tonnes per year, would last for over 150 years.

But Energy Watch Group, a German association of independent researchers has questioned the reliability of coal statistics and suggested they are often too high because they are out of date. " Peak production could be reached as soon as 2025," the group argues.

Fast-developing nations such as China have long been dependent on large domestic coal reserves, but China has increasingly looked to foreign suppliers as demand grows. China is traditionally an exporter of coal, but imported 50m tonnes in 2007, 34% up on the previous year, and is now opening the equivalent of two new coal-fired power stations every week.

At least half of the 100 coal-fired power stations being prepared worldwide are in China with at least 10 more in Germany, another 10 in the US, and 12 in South Africa.

In Britain, a host of other power companies have outlined plans for coal-fired stations and are waiting to see what happens to E.ON at Kingsnorth. This list includes RWE which is talking about plants at Tilbury, Essex, and Blyth, Northumberland, plus Scottish Power at Longannet, Fife, and Scottish and Southern Energy at Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire.

The new interest in coal is also pushing up prices of a commodity that comes in a range of different qualities both in terms of its heat capacity and pollution. Lignite, "brown coal" is the least valuable but still an important part of production in Germany, Russia and Romania.

The rising price of coal has seen a dramatic profits upturn at UK Coal, the country's main mining group and successor of the state-owned National Coal Board. Barely 12 months ago, UK Coal had been trying to drum up City investment by presenting itself as a property developer - keen to boast about the value of a land portfolio based around former pits.

But now the company is focusing on coal as well as land, spending £55m extending the life of the Kellingley mine at Knottingley, West Yorkshire, to 2017 plus a similar amount at Thoresby, Nottinghamshire, and even considering whether to reopen a mothballed mine in the county at Harworth.

Despite the proposed increase in output, Britain currently imports 73% of the coal it burns, almost half of it from Russia. Associated British Ports has been spending millions of pounds developing new dockside facilities to handle new supplies at places such as Immingham, Lincolnshire, just miles from where the huge Selby coalfield in North Yorkshire - once the biggest in Europe - was closed by UK Coal.

Kingsnorth climate camp: Police and protesters prepare for action

Kingsnorth climate camp: Police and protesters prepare for action

Climate Camp near Kingsnorth Power Station

A protester wearing a caricature of prime minister, Gordon Brown, is searched by police at the climate camp near Kingsnorth power station in Kent. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Police and demonstrators expect clashes tomorrow as 1,400 officers from 26 forces try to prevent up to 2,000 climate change activists from closing down the Kingsnorth coal power station, run by energy company E.ON in Kent.

Today neither group would say how they were planning to outwit the other. A spokeswoman for Kent police said: "We are expecting the unexpected. Our preparations are constantly changing."

The campaigners have spent the last week encamped near the power station preparing for the direct action protest against plans for a new coal power station at Kingsnorth.

They intend to approach the power station by air, sea and land. One group intends to head up the road directly to the main gate of the power station. Another will approach through the undergrowth in small groups. A third will be making an airborne approach by means that have as yet remained secret. And people on rafts and boats will be sailing up the estuary in an armada to lay aquatic siege.

But the authorities yesterday tightened their squeeze on the protests by formally banning the flotilla. Medway Ports Authority, using bylaws, declared the water-borne protest illegal on safety grounds.

The campaigners argue that because coal produces significantly more carbon dioxide than other means when generating electricity, the station at Kingsnorth coal must not be given the go-ahead. It would be the first new coal station in 30 years and herald a new generation of stations. Supporters of the plans say the UK faces a huge energy gap if coal stations are not allowed and that future carbon capture and storage technology can bury up to 90% of emissions.

Earlier today, 12 protesters stuck themselves with superglue to the offices of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, (DBerr) the government department that has been backing coal expansion in Britain.

Others, saying that the proposed new Kingsnorth power station will produce twice as many climate-harming emissions as the proposed third runway at Heathrow, demonstrated at the Royal Bank of Scotland. A third group went to Windsor where power company E.ON sponsors a Lego model of Kingsnorth power station. Other protests have been held at Gatwick airport and at a biofuel depot at Thurrock.

The climate camp has been marked by angry accusations that the police have used aggressive stop and search powers to disrupt the camp and "smear" the protesters. Yesterday, MEP Caroline Lucas and MPs Norman Baker and Colin Challen wrote to the Kent police pleading with assistant chief constable Gary Beautridge, in charge of the police operation, to resolve "an increasingly threatening confrontation".

"Climate change must be a wholly legitimate subject of protest and demonstration. But if it is met by an arbitrary, destructive and aggressive police response, the consequences will undoubtedly be a continued alienation between police and many decent, law abiding people, particularly the young", said the politicians.

On Thursday, police had stop and search powers extended to the whole of the Hoo peninsula, where Kingsnorth is sited. Kent police said the decision had been taken because officers continued to find people carrying potential weapons, a charge that was angrily denied by the camp.

"What we are doing is part of a long tradition of civil disobedience" said Maria Romero, one of the camp press team. "We're not blasé about breaking the law, but the threat that new coal poses to our future on this planet more than justifies the actions we are taking."

Tensions between police and protesters have been growing throughout the week, with activists angry with what they said were disproportionate searches causing queues of up to two hours to get on site. With helicopters flying low overhead, Paul McLeish, 41, a lawyer and legal observer at the camp, said police had confiscated items including kitchen equipment, children's chalk and crayons, blots for constructing toilets and piping for water on the camp.

"The searches have been absurdly over the top with everything from 26-foot banners to disabled access ramps taken away," said McLeish. " It's a concerted attempt to demonise people and alienate members of the public so they don't think it is safe to come here. It's a depressing a chilling attack on the right to freedom of expression and assembly."

Challen, Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell and chair of the cross-party climate change group, visited the site today. "The climate change debate in the workshop was of a higher calibre than in the House of Commons", he said.

It also emerged that the campers intend to make Kingsnorth a permanent camp. "From the moment the first concrete is poured [to build the proposed new power station] there will be a rolling blockade," said one protester following a large meeting of the camp.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Topping


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