17 april 2008

I Breaking news: Latin American Biofuels controversy; Bush converts; Stern reassesses

II Warnings: Hansen, Gore, Sachs, Kennedy Jr. and Klare

III Controversies: Biofuels, coal and EU emissions trading controversies

[unless a different source is given, articles referred to here are from the Truthout environmental page: (link below)

Added April 22: Latin American biofuels controversy, food prices and the poor: In the wake of soaring food prices, shortages and riots in a number of countries, two Latin American leaders have warned about the effects of biofuel production on food supplies. Bolivian president Eco Morales stated that the development of biofuels harmed the most impoverished people. President Alan Garcia of Peru said that using land for biofuels was putting food out of reach for the poor. []

In defense of biofuels, president Lula da Silva of Brazil has rejected the claim that they contribute to the recent rise in food prices, arguing that “food had become more expensive because people in developing countries were gaining greater access to it”. []

Most European environmentalists agree that presidents Morales and Garcia have the better case. Presently biofuels compete with food and animal feed for good arable land and it would be a miracle if this did not push up world food prices when supplies are tight.

Advocates of biofuels argue, according to the BBC, that the biofuel alternative to conventional fuels can help stop global warming. Research done at a number of major European universities, however, suggests that this is incorrect.(1) In the case of current biofuels, greenhouse gas emissions are not less than the corresponding emissions linked to fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel inputs into the production and distribution of biofuels and the potent greenhouse gas dinitrogenoxide - a conversion product of fertilizers, used in the production of biofuels - are in part responsible for this. But as important are land use changes triggered by the expansion of biofuel production and carbon losses from tilled soils. So, in the case of biofuels such biodiesel made from rapeseed or soybeans and ethanol from European wheat or US corn, greenhouse gas emissions tend to be much larger than those linked to the fossil fuels that they replace. And in the case of ethanol produced from Brazilian sugar cane, for which natural vegetation has been cleared, the net greenhouse gas emissions are similar to those of fossil gasoline.

(1) “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt”, Joseph Fargione et al, and “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change”, Timothy Searchinger et al, both articles in Science, vol.319, 29 February 2008, Also: L. Reijnders and M.A.J. Huijbregts, "Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel demand and solar energy conversion efficiency in European bioethanol production for automotive purposes", Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 15, Issue 18, December 2007, Pages 1806-1812; and idem.,"Biogenic greenhouse gas emissions linked to the life cycles of biodiesel
derived from European rapeseed and Brazilian soybeans", Journal of Cleaner Production, forthcoming 2008.

[for earlier news on biofuels, see section III below, Controversies, biofuels: “We drive, they starve”].

Bush converts. CNN’s online news headlined the plan of climate change skeptic George Bush for turning emissions around by 2025, “Bush outlines goals to fight climate change”. Bush’s deadline year is ten years later than the 2015 designated by the European Union and thirteen years later than the 2012 indicated by the International Energy Agency and, according to the Financial Times of 17 April, by the U.S. Senate. The Sierra Club issued a blistering attack on Bush’s plan as “grossly insufficient”. Congressional Democrats augmented the chorus of critical environmentalists: “’If this is President Bush's idea of 20/20 vision he needs to get his eyes checked,’ said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., calling the new White House climate initiative ‘late, insufficient and insincere.’ Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Bush's remarks showed that ‘he has no intention of cooperating’ to get climate legislation passed this year. ‘He's basically saying take two aspirins and call President Obama, Clinton or McCain next January,’ Markey told reporters.” (“New Bush climate change strategy already under attack”,;

Stern reassesses. “The Stern report on climate change underestimated the risks of global warming, its author said yesterday, and should have presented a gloomier view of the future. ‘We underestimated the risks . . . we underestimated the damage associated with temperature increases . . . and we underestimated the probabilities of temperature increases,’ Lord Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, told the Financial Times yesterday. In retrospect, he would have taken a much stronger view in the report on the drastic changes that would occur if greenhouse gas emissions were not abated. In the report, he put the costs of climate change at between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of global gross domestic product. But these would be far higher if the report had taken a more aggressive stance on probable consequences of warming. Lord Stern said data published since his report came out, in October 2006, had led him to change his mind….” (“Stern admits he underestimated global warming” [FT interview], Financial Times, April 17, 2008. Online for subscribers: [])

In our last climate news (7 April) we reported Nasa chief James Hansen’s warning that EU and UN goals of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gasses at 450ppm would be too high to prevent a global meltdown of polar ice, and that long-term stabilization would have to occur at 350ppm, lower than the current level. Today we report four other recent warnings by American scholars and environmental spokespersons, most of them accompanied by proposals that go beyond emissions trading.

Al Gore, in his new video []
shows dramatic slides revealing the disappearance of polar ice and calls for a “world-wide global mobilization” for renewable energy. He decries the near-total silence on global warming in the hundreds of media questions addressed to the candidates for the U.S. presidency, and attributes to this media silence the fact that relatively few Americans consider global warming a top priority issue. Gore moreover deplores the “culture of distraction” that dominates media offerings and invokes the sense of mission that must inspire the present generation, if there is to be a future. His specific proposals are for a carbon tax to replace the present earnings tax, and a continental solar energy supergrid based on the recently developed high voltage direct current cables. Finally, he warns investors against putting their money in supposed sources of new oil such as coal shales, referring to them as the subprime investments of tomorrow. [For documentation on melting polar ice, see two Reuters dispatches: “World sea levels to rise 1.5m by 2100: scientists”, April 15 2008 [] and “Thickest, Oldest Ice is Melting”, Reuters 18 March 2007 (]

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is calling for a public investment, comparable to that of the war-time Manhattan project, to develop new low-carbon technologies to stop the warming trend. In a New York Times article of April 6, 2008 by Andrew Revkin, “A Shift in the Debate over Global Warming”, Sachs’s plea is placed in the context of “a growing chorus of economists, scientists and students of energy policy [who] are saying that whatever benefits the cap approach [emissions trading] yields, it will be too little and come too late.…Mr. Sachs pointed to several promising technologies - capturing and burying carbon dioxide, plug-in hybrid cars and solar-thermal electric plants. ‘Each will require a combination of factors to succeed: more applied scientific research, important regulatory changes, appropriate infrastructure, public acceptance and early high-cost investments,’ he said. ‘A failure on one or more of these points could kill the technologies.’ In short, what is needed, he said, is a ‘major overhaul of energy technology’ financed by ‘large-scale public funding of research, development and demonstration projects.’”[]

The critique of emissions trading schemes (ETS) mentioned in Revkin’s article has a grass-roots embodiment in the California-based “Environmental Justice Movement” discussed by Margot Roosevelt in The Los Angeles Times of February 20, 2008 (“Groups Vow to Fight Carbon Emissions Cap-and-Trade Plan”). This movement contends that we are turning a livable atmosphere into a commodity for corporate enterprise to profit from. In a 21-point “Environmental Justice Movement Declaration”, 18 groups representing lower-income communities in California challenge ETS for permitting heavily polluting firms (often situated in poor neighborhoods), to, in the words of the LATimes article, “partly buy their way out of lowering their emissions.” Instead, the participating organizations prefer, the article says, “carbon fees on polluting industries, a strategy endorsed by many economists as simpler and more transparent, although politically tough to enact.”[,1,6234283.story]

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of JFK and environmentalist son of the murdered 1968 peace candidate, has written a “Manifesto” on eliminating the U.S. carbon economy, “The Next President’s First Task”, which appears in the May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair. Appealing to the examples of Sweden and Iceland, where carbon taxes have stimulated thriving carbon-free economies, Kennedy decries the billion dollars a day paid by U.S. consumers for foreign oil and the even more enormous annual subsidies to coal and oil producers: “Carbon dependence”, he writes, “has eroded our economic power, destroyed our moral authority, diminished our international influence and prestige, endangered our national security, and damaged our health and landscapes. It is subverting everything we value.”

Kennedy supports a strong cap-and-trade plan but, pointing to the vast stretches of sun-drenched desert and the wind-blown open spaces of the American mid-west, he says it should be supplemented by a revamping of the nation’s antiquated energy grid “so that it can deliver solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable energy across the country…The nation urgently needs more investment in its backbone transmission grid, including new direct-current (DC) power lines for efficient long-haul transmission. Even more important, we need to build in 'smart' features, including storage points and computerized management overlays, allowing the new grid to intelligently deploy the energy along the way.” To wean the U.S. from carbon, Kennedy goes on to call for the investment of about a trillion dollars over the next fifteen years for “construction of efficient and open-transmission marketplaces and green-power-plant infrastructure”, a price which, he notes, is roughly a third the projected cost of the Iraq war.

Michael Klare on the energy crunch and global warming. Writing in Tom Engelhardt’s “Tomdispatch,” of April 15, 2008[], Klare describes the fateful growth in global energy needs over the next few decades, the exhaustion of oil supplies, particularly in the United States, and the feeble increases predicted for renewables as, even without the climate change aspect, a recipe for wars, impoverishment and painful geopolitical shifts. Looked at in terms of global warming, and given the U.S. Department of Energy’s bland assumptions of business-as-usual, he writes, “the implications are nothing short of catastrophic: Rising reliance on coal (especially in China, India, and the United States) means that global emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to rise by 59% over the next quarter-century, from 26.9 billion metric tons to 42.9 billion tons. The meaning of this is simple. If these figures hold, there is no hope of averting the worst effects of climate change.”

Biofuels: “We drive, they starve”. Biofuels, intended to make the West independent of CO2-emitting fossil fuels in an age of oil depletion and global warming, have required the use of huge tracts of acreage that otherwise might have produced food. Together with unusual droughts and floods in Asia, perhaps the result of a new la niña, the result has been that prices of basic foods have gone through the ceiling in recent months, creating hunger and food riots on several continents where the less fortunate citizens of the earth live. At the site of the European Environment Agency, [], read the April 10 2008 recommendation to the EU of their Scientific Committee to suspend the EU’s 10% goal for biofuels, pending a new scientific study of their risks and benefits. Apart from the withdrawal of arable land for necessary food production, the EEA Scientific Committee notes the inefficiency of biofuel production, since it “does not optimally use biomass resources with regard to fossil energy saving and to greenhouse gas reduction.” Moreover, “The 10 % target will require large amounts of additional imports of biofuels. The accelerated destruction of rain forests due to increasing biofuel production can already be witnessed in some developing countries. Sustainable production outside Europe is difficult to achieve and to monitor.”

An excellent, long article in Time Magazine of 27 March 2008, “The Clean Energy Scam” by Michael Grunwald, focusses on the “destructive biofuel dynamic…in Brazil” Before Grunwald reaches his more detailed argument, however, he vividly presents, in a nutshell, the case against biofuels in general:

Propelled by mounting anxieties over soaring oil costs and climate change, biofuels have become the vanguard of the green-tech revolution, the trendy way for politicians and corporations to show they're serious about finding alternative sources of energy and in the process slowing global warming….; Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group. Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class.

“But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous… Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. [our emphasis...4C Climate Change] Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. The U.N.'s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency. Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City, and skyrocketing flour prices have destabilized Pakistan, which wasn't exactly tranquil when flour was affordable.

“Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon

In the last two days, both the UK Telegraph and The New York Times have published shorter articles that echo Grunwald’s concerns: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s “Global Warming Rage Lets Global Hunger Grow” begins with the words quoted above: “We drive, they starve”(1) Andrew Martin’s article in The New York Times of April 15, “Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing” makes the same point more discursively and with an accent on policy decisions: “…a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people. Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices.”(2)
See also on the Truthout “Environment” page: “Corn Can't Save Us” by David Pimentel, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 18, 2008.

Clean Coal, an oxymoron on four continents. In our news summary of April 4, 2008, we cited James Hansen’s letter to the new Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, in which the Nasa chief warned against continuing coal-fuelled power stations that did not have the capacity to capture and sequester CO2 emissions (none of them do, since the technique is still in the experimental phase). We also reported Greenpeace’s campaign against the construction of new coal-powered energy stations in The Netherlands.
In the past month, Truthout’s Environment page has carried three other stories on actions against new coal power stations: a fine article of March 21st by Kelpie Wilson, Truthout’s Environment Editor, “The Rising Price of Coal”; a Reuters report of April 8th by Lesley Wroughton, “Green Groups Oppose World Bank's India Coal Plant”, and an article by Judy Pasternak on resistance to new U.S. coal plants by the Sierra Club and other environmental NGOs in The Los Angeles Times of April 14: “Global Warming Has a New Battleground: Coal Plants”

Resistance to coal in the U.S. Kelpie Wilson’s article informs us that coal-powered power plants emit about a third of all U.S. CO2 emissions, and that the doubling of the nearly 6% increase in total U.S. emissions from 2002 to 2007 has been largely due to coal. Kelpie acknowledges that actions by public interest groups concerned with global warming and toxic pollutions have stopped the construction of many new coal power stations.

But,” she writes, “as demand for electricity rises and cleaner fuels like natural gas get scarcer and more expensive, the relentless pressure to burn coal fuels delusions such as ‘clean coal.’

“‘Clean coal’ is a combination of two technologies, one of which is expensive and the other completely unproven. The expensive one is coal gasification, and it is a genuinely cleaner way of burning coal. It involves baking coal to drive off gasses that aren't much dirtier than natural gas, and the gasses then are burned for power production. This technology costs a minimum of 20 percent more than a conventional pulverized coal plant, which is why only two such plants exist in the United States.

“The other part of the "clean coal" scheme involves carbon capture and storage. This technology is not proven and the potential costs are enormous. A US Department of Energy pilot project called FutureGen was recently canceled with the DOE citing soaring cost projections among its reasons for ending the project

The rest of Kelpie Wilson’s article deals with two cases discussed at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon, in early March 2008: one concerned distraught citizens from the Appalachian area, where open strip mining has destroyed 800 square miles of the hill country and badly polluted air and water – 300 million gallons of toxic sludge has killed off virtually all aquatic life for seventy miles downstream from the spill. The other case concerned Alaska, home of one-eighth of the world’s coal reserves and one half of the United States’s. Why were local Alaskans so set against exploiting them?

“On February 26, the tiny village of Kivalina sued two dozen oil, power and coal companies over their greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Melting sea ice is exposing the village to erosion from storm waves and surges.

“Coal burning also threatens Alaska's famed fishing industry. Coal is notorious for its mercury pollution, and older marine fish are showing increasing levels of mercury. Salinas blamed coal burning pollution from Asia and noted that most of the coal mined in Alaska would be shipped to Asia. In this way Alaskans would poison their own fishing industry.”

Judy Pasternak’s article in the LA Times documents the legal resistance of the Sierra Club and other U.S. environmental heavyweights against the construction of new coal power stations, for reasons similar to those advanced by Hansen in his letter to Rudd.

India: Green resistance to World Bank financing of a giant new coal power plant. According to a Reuters dispatch by Lesley Wroughton of April 8 (“Green Groups Oppose World Bank’s India Coal Plant”), a group of American environmental organizations have asked the World Bank to delay a decision on funding a $4.2 billion coal-fired power plant in India until a closer analysis of its costs and environmental impact has been made. They argued that the bank’s funding of such a high carbon-emitting project was inconsistent with its commitment to opposing global warming.
The bank’s private-sector lender, The International Finace Corporation (IFC) claimed the project would provide current to 16 million users in western and northern India. IFC head Rashad Kaldany was quoted as saying: "The key is access to power and there are many poor people who still don't have access to power in India and it is getting them power as inexpensively as possible by using responsible technology," According to Kaldany, IFC looked at wind technology as an alternative but found it would have required an investment of close to $24 billion: "This is by far the least expensive and to try to do something like either wind or solar would cost huge amounts in terms of subsidies. The question is where would these subsidies come from?" he said. As to carbon capture and storage technology, Kaldany said it was not feasible, since, though used commercially by the oil and gas industry, it was “not ready to be deployed for power”.

Countering these arguments, David Wheeler, a senior analyst at the Center for Global Development, last month deconstructed the IFC’s rationale for supporting the Tata coal plant. He pointed out that India has “a scalable, economically feasible alternative to coal… the region near Mundra has huge solar potential and is one of the most sparsely-settled areas in India. Baseload solar power with thermal storage for 24-hour operation is now technically feasible… As for exploiting Indian coal, Mundra will use coal imported from Indonesia and other countries at rapidly-rising cost.” Noting that costs had recently skyrocketed for the kind of “supercritical” (i.e., low-emission) coal plant the IFC wanted to fund, Wheeler argued that the cost of solar power, which had a few years ago been about twice that of electrical current from coal, was now only 7.5% higher. Moreover, according to Wheeler a solar thermal installation would qualify “for European Union offset payments under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).” Such payment, Wheeler said, would largely compensate Tata for the loss of ICF funding, and could be supplemented, when such funding runs out by support from the Clean Technology Fund of the World Bank.

Wheeler’s conclusion is devastating: “In short, IFC's proposed Tata Ultra Mega project is obsolete, unnecessary, ultra-dangerous for the planet, and mega-dangerous for the environmental reputations of the IFC and the World Bank Group. Does anyone really believe that donor-country taxpayers will continue supporting the Bank Group if it takes billions for the Clean Technology Fund with one hand and invests billions in coal-fired monsters with the other? Let's get serious here. The IFC's Board should take Ban Ki-Moon’s Bali declaration of a planetary emergency seriously, vote no on Tata Ultra Mega, leave coal-fired power behind, and commit to renewable power. They will find a willing partner in the Indian Government, which has already begun piloting solar thermal power and would undoubtedly welcome a big push on renewables.” []

In a recent interview, a representative of Greenpeace India also condemns World Bank funding for Tata's projected coal fire plant, pointing out that "This project has the potential to lock India into a high carbon future...for at least the next 30 years", and that because it is "extremely vulnerable to climate change, [India] cannot afford to develop in a high carbon trajectory".

The interview continues:
"We believe that the rationale for the World Bank to fund coal fired plants is flawed. If they are concerned about the climate crisis, as they say they are, and are serious about funding sustainable development, funding coal is not the answer. We will campaign to change the direction of energy development away from coal towards energy efficiency and renewables. We will bring pressure on all actors including the World Bank to move away from high carbon sources like coal to efficiency and renewables...The current scientific consensus is that the impacts of a climate change are going to be devastating and economically disastrous [and] fossil fuels are no longer the silver bullet solution for the world's energy needs." [Source: email to us from Joris Thijssen of Greenpeace International]

Emissions trading schemes in Europe. In the European Union, ETS has for years been a fact of life, albeit an ineffective one until now. Because the European Parliament and the European Commission are aware of the need for serious action, there are various programs planned for strengthening ETS after the expiration of the current period in 2012. These, in turn, have produced conflict of a different kind than that between the environmental justice movement and the California ETS system.

On the one hand, there are those within the European Parliament who favor a more drastic limitation on emissions and a bolder, more restrictive, policy toward trade with countries that pollute freely. Such deputies are usually from the Green or the Socialist or Nordic Left blocs, which comprise between 35 and 40% of the Parliament. Such proposals appear in the records of the various parliamentary committees, but are rarely approved by the entire Parliament and therefore are rarely reported on in the media.

On the other hand, there are those within the Parliament and particularly in the European Commission who are more concerned with protecting the interests of European industrial sectors than with environmental questions. While the Commissioners (equivalent to cabinet ministers in a parliamentary democracy) are exposed to barbed questioning from the Parliament and to noisy appeals from citizens’ groups, they are also, less visibly, subject to a great deal of pressure from the army of corporate lobbyists in Brussels.

Thus, at the insistence of the German automotive industry, the carbon emissions allowance for new cars sold after 2012 has been increased and the date of implementation postponed. And the EU’s brave plan for reducing carbon emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and much more by 2030 and 2050 – almost certainly too meager, now that the bad news of the past few months has arrived – is being attacked by the oil industry. In the name of their company’s profitability, the French and Dutch heads of Shell, the second largest oil company in the world have threatened to remove all their oil refineries out of Europe if the future emissions quota system includes the oil industry. Christian Balme, the head of Shell France, was cited in these terms by the Australian Times newspaper of April 11, and on April 15, Jeroen van der Veer, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, said substantially the same thing to the UK Times. []

This campaign against the tightened EU emissions trading scheme was not new. Claude Turmes, rapporteur for the European Parliament’s Temporary Committee on Climate Change had a month earlier written a blistering reply to similar threats by the European steel aluminium and cement lobbies, “Wolf or Sheep? -- myth and reality behind energy intensive industry lobby efforts to dilute the EU climate package

The main lobby argument these days” he wrote, “is that any ambitious climate policy in the EU without a parallel identical effort by other important players like US, China or India would lead to massive de-industrialisation of the EU while raising global CO2 emissions because of so called ‘carbon leakage’.

“The myth which the EU energy intensive industry lobby tries to establish is that, on the one hand, we have a highly responsible and environmentally-friendly EU industry and, on the other hand, all investments made outside the EU in steel, paper, aluminium would be done on the basis of inferior standards, particularly in terms of energy efficiency.

“Reality is, however, quite different, as shown by a set of indicators established in early 2000 in the Netherlands. The Dutch government established energy intensity benchmarks for different industrial processes (cement, steel, fertilizers, refineries,…) to measure the performance of Dutch industry players. These indicators show today that Dutch industry and the EU industry in general is loosing ground in terms of energy efficiency performance compared to players on in other markets.

“For insiders of industry investments this is not a surprise. The world’s best performing steel plant is in Korea, the world’s best cement plant in Brazil, and the world’s best primary aluminium plant is in Dubai. And all new investments in the energy intensive industry - in Brazil, in Kazakhstan or in China - are always more energy efficient than old EU production processes.
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