Thursday, May 17, 2007


Germany is at the forefront of growth of European coal power, with plans to build 15 new coal-fired plants that run counter to the EU's battle against dirty fuel. The European Union aspires to be the world's first low carbon economy and its emissions trading scheme is designed to limit production of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted in large quantities by burning coal.

But Germany, the world's sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter, is planning 15 new coal plants by 2012 because it is cheaper to burn coal than more environmentally-friendly gas, even with the added cost of offsetting emissions of CO2, a gas that contributes to global warming. "Only if the price of CO2 emission allowances went up to 45 euros ($60.64) a tonne would coal generation become so unattractive as to tip the balance in favour of gas," said Walter Wintersteller of consultancy Booz Allen. The carbon cost of coal burning is now just over 20 euros a tonne.

"Our figures clearly support decisions in favour of coal-based generation," said Stephan Wulf, analyst at private German bank Sal Oppenheim. Gas-fired power plants produce only about half of the CO2 emitted by coal units and are cheaper and quicker to build. But in Germany, gas feedstock is currently 45 percent more expensive than coal, Oppenheim bank said.

Power companies and European policy makers are also wary of being overly dependent on imported Russian gas and of the rising cost of gas, which is linked to high oil prices. "It would not make sense to put in gas turbines when this increases the dependence on Russian gas," Wulf said.

Whereas the European Union imports a quarter of its gas from Russia, coal is available from a variety of sources across the globe, meaning supplies are less vulnerable to disruption. Germany's preference for coal also stems from strong political opposition to nuclear power, which provides a third of all electricity but under current laws must be phased out by the early 2020s. As Germany can draw on domestic brown coal and also better-quality, cleaner-burning imported hard coal to fire its plants, coal is a logical alternative.



Mainstream climatologists who have feared that global warming could have the paradoxical effect of cooling northwestern Europe or even plunging it into a small ice age have stopped worrying about that particular disaster, although it retains a vivid hold on the public imagination. The idea, which held climate theorists in its icy grip for years, was that the North Atlantic Current, an extension of the Gulf Stream that cuts northeast across the Atlantic Ocean to bathe the high latitudes of Europe with warmish equatorial water, could shut down in a greenhouse world. Without that warm-water current, Americans on the Eastern Seaboard would most likely feel a chill, but the suffering would be greater in Europe, where major cities lie far to the north. Britain, northern France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway could in theory take on Arctic aspects that only a Greenlander could love, even as the rest of the world sweltered.

All that has now been removed from the forecast. Not only is northern Europe warming, but every major climate model produced by scientists worldwide in recent years has also shown that the warming will almost certainly continue. "The concern had previously been that we were close to a threshold where the Atlantic circulation system would stop," said Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We now believe we are much farther from that threshold, thanks to improved modeling and ocean measurements. The Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Current are more stable than previously thought."

After consulting 23 climate models, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in February it was "very unlikely" that the crucial flow of warm water to Europe would stall in this century. The panel did say that the gradual melting of the Greenland ice sheet along with increased precipitation in the far north were likely to weaken the North Atlantic Current by 25 percent through 2100. But the panel added that any cooling effect in Europe would be overwhelmed by a general warming of the atmosphere, a warming that the panel said was under way as a result of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. "The bottom line is that the atmosphere is warming up so much that a slowdown of the North Atlantic Current will never be able to cool Europe," said Helge Drange, a professor at the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Bergen, Norway.

Temperate Europe is vulnerable because of its northern perch. The latitude of Britain equals that of frigid Newfoundland. Norway corresponds to the southern half of Greenland. The annual mean temperature difference of 10 to 20 degrees across the North Atlantic (all temperature units shown here are in Fahrenheit) is often entirely attributed to the North Atlantic Current. But in recent years, climatologists have said prevailing winds and other factors independent of the current are responsible for at least half of the temperature anomaly.

For the European warm-water current to stop altogether, the Greenland ice sheet would have to melt fast enough to create a vast freshwater pool in the North Atlantic. Freshwater dilution on that scale would make the current less dense, preventing its two main strands from sinking south of Iceland and west of Norway as they must before they can double back toward the Equator on the underside of what is often called the Atlantic conveyor belt. "The ocean circulation is a robust feature, and you really need to hit it hard to make it stop," said Eystein Jansen, a paleoclimatologist who directs the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research, also in Bergen. "The Greenland ice sheet would not only have to melt, but to dynamically disintegrate on a huge scale across the entire sheet." The worst imaginable collapse would likely take centuries to play out, he said.

Any disruption to the North Atlantic Current - whose volume is 30 times greater than all the rivers in the world combined - would thus occur beyond the time horizon of the United Nations climate panel. The last big freshwater dilution is thought to have occurred 8,200 years ago, when a huge lake atop the retreating North American ice sheet burst through to the Atlantic. For about 160 years, Dr. Jansen said, Europe experienced a severe chill that today would "stress society quite a lot."

If the North Atlantic Current weakened 25 percent this century, fractionally offsetting the effect of global warming, Britain in 2100 would still be about 4 degrees warmer than today, the United Nations panel estimated. In France, the net warming would be 5 degrees and here in Norway a bit more, depending on latitude. When climate modelers simulate a 50 percent slackening of the North Atlantic Current, they still see a net warming in those countries. It is when they completely switch off the current, as they say nature is disinclined to do, that the European climate cools to a level below that of today.

Scientists at the Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research near London found that a shutdown of the North Atlantic Current in 2049 would cause temperatures in most of Britain and Norway to fall from a level several degrees warmer than today to a level 4 or 5 degrees chillier than today. That would be enough to curtail agriculture sharply. France, though, would still be slightly warmer than it is now.

In a 1998 cover article for The Atlantic Monthly titled "The Great Climate Flip-flop," William H. Calvin spelled out a worst-case scenario for Atlantic Ocean dynamics and concluded, "I hope never to see a failure of the northernmost loop of the North Atlantic Current, because the result would be a population crash that would take much of civilization with it, all within a decade."

In 2004, the makers of the Hollywood blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow" imagined the sudden icing over of Manhattan after a disruption in North Atlantic currents. Europe's fate was alluded to by the implied flash-freezing of the British royal family in Balmoral Castle.

Preparing for a cold future has never been high on the political agenda. Perhaps understandably, European leaders have been more preoccupied with responding to the 2003 summer heat wave that killed 15,000 people across France and the need for new dike technology to keep the Netherlands from being inundated by rising seas associated with melting ice caps.

Richard Seager, a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, N.Y., said that Europeans should trust what they feel in the air. "Britain and western Europe have had one heat wave after another so far this century," Dr. Seager said. "It's phenomenal. The idea that anyone is worried about a new ice age I find rather odd."



We will continue this column's look at the unintended consequences and knee-slapping irony of our society's mindless lurch toward becoming "green" by considering two new studies on alternative fuels.

From hybrid cars costing far more than they save in the way of fuel economy to Northern latitude forests causing global warming, to mercury-containing compact fluorescent light bulbs potentially turning homes into toxic waste sites, it's becoming more apparent every day that green-ness is not necessarily what it's cracked up to be.

Perhaps you have fallen (as did President Bush and the Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005) for the ethanol lobby's line that ethanol is a "cleaner-burning fuel." You may then be quite chagrinned to learn about a new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (April 18) from Stanford University atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson concluding that ethanol poses substantial health risks. "If every vehicle in the United States ran on fuel made primarily from ethanol instead of pure gasoline, the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations would likely increase," states the media release for Jacobson's study. "Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution," said Jacobson, "but our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage."

Jacobson's results are based on computer modeling of future air quality based on two scenarios -- a vehicle fleet fueled by gasoline and a vehicle fleet powered by E85, a popular blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Jacobson's modeling found that while E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens -- benzene and butadiene -- they increase the levels of two other carcinogens -- formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. "As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline," Jacobson said.

The study also projected a 4 percent increase in ozone-related deaths nationwide (9 percent for Los Angeles) and increases in asthma-related emergency room visits and respiratory-related hospitalizations. Jacobson concluded by asking, "If we're not getting any health benefits, then why continue to promote ethanol and other biofuels?"

The ethanol lobby's effort to parry to this study amounts to changing the subject. On its Web site, the American Coalition for Ethanol directs the media to another analysis that "shows that ethanol use reduced carbon monoxide and particulate matter emissions by at least one-third." Carbon monoxide and particulate matter, however, are entirely different substances than formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

Less than a week later, a study published in Chemistry and Industry, a journal of the Society of the Chemical Industry, reported that biodiesel, another alternative motor vehicle fuel, "could increase rather than reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional diesel." According to the media release, researchers compared the emission of greenhouse gases by the two fuels across their overall life cycles from production to combustion in cars.

Though the results showed that biodiesel (derived from rapeseed grown on dedicated farmland) emits nearly the same amount of carbon dioxide as conventional diesel when burned in an engine, growing rapeseed emits significant levels of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which is 200 to 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately for the greenhouse gas-crazed European Union, rapeseed-derived biodiesel is the major biofuel used across Europe and was expected to play an important role in helping the EU to meet its greenhouse gas reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Under a 2003 EU directive, biofuel use is supposed to increase from 2 percent of all transport fuels to 10 percent by 2010. Oops.

But we ought not be too surprised. It's part-and-parcel of the folly of eco-panic -- like the ongoing problem with the fuel additive known as MTBE. In the 1980s, environmentalists pressured Congress to require that so-called oxygenates be added to gasoline to reduce tailpipe emissions. Of the two oxygenates available at the time, MTBE and ethanol, the Environmental Protection Agency blessed MTBE because it was cheaper and easier for refiners to use than ethanol.

What no one counted on was the 1980s-era problem of leaking underground storage tanks (known as LUSTs) at gasoline stations and other storage facilities. The combination of MTBE's high water solubility -- meaning it moves faster than other fuel components in soil -- and the widespread problems of LUSTs turned MTBE into a national groundwater nightmare, which, according to a 2005 American Water Works Association study, could cost $25 billion to $33 billion to clean up.

Moreover, while oxygenated gasoline (also known as "reformulated gasoline" or "RFG") added $0.10 to $0.20 to the price of a gallon of gas, it's unclear whether any public health or environmental benefits were derived from its use. As the National Academy of Sciences reported in 1999, "although long-term trends in peak ozone in the United States appear to be downward, it is not certain that any part of these trends can be significantly attributed to the use of RFG."

While further study of ethanol and biodiesel are needed, the current round of alarming results raises lots of pressing questions that ought to be considered before we take another environmentalist-prodded MTBE-like plunge into The Great Green Unknown.



If all the proposed coal-fired power plants in India and China are set up, the additional carbon dioxide emission will be many times the cuts proposed by the Kyoto Protocol, according to a report by Standard & Poor's.

The Kyoto protocol envisages controlling atmospheric carbon dioxide at the level of 500 parts per million. The report by S&P's Aneesh Prabhu from New York and Kim Eng Tan of Singapore says that coal consumption is likely to grow by 3 per cent every year in India and China over the next 30 years, which is far higher than the 0.6 per cent increase likely in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

The report says that the Indian stance on the issue is complicating issues. "India believes that it has not significantly contributed to the global stock of greenhouse gases that reside in the atmosphere." Citing the ethical aspects of climate change's economic impact, it contends that uncompensated mitigation by developing countries would slow economic growth and poverty reduction efforts.

Reacting to the report, Greenpeace's energy expert K Srinivas said, "We have submitted a proposal to reduce coal dependence for our energy sector to 10 per cent by 2050. Right now coal accounts for 67 per cent of our energy needs," he said. "Currently India releases around 1,100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. In the next five years this level can double if India goes ahead with the plan to achieve energy sufficiency based on coal-based power," he added.

India is third at the moment in the carbon intensity sweepstakes, which measures carbon dioxide emissions per $1000 of GDP. The S&P report says that various energy efficiency measures can reduce greenhouse gas intensity in India by a third.

Srinivas of Greenpeace feels that energy efficiency can, in fact, reduce our energy demand by 50 per cent. The S&P report adds that coal-fired power plants remain the cheapest and at the same time the dirtiest power source for India and China. "The extent to which rapidly developing nations will be able to shift away from coal-fired generation and towards low-carbon energy investments is crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide."



Nigel Lawson may be in idyllic semi-retirement in France - but, as he tells William Keegan, he still has the stomach for a battle over climate change that could keep him in the headlines alongside his celebrity offspring


Which brings us back to current preoccupations: Lawson's active membership of the high-powered House of Lords economics committee, which has already reflected his sceptical view on global warming. I got the impression that he would have liked at least half of our interview to be about global warming, but trust that he appreciates that there is still a lot of interest in the Chancellorial history of the father of Nigella.

At any rate, he expatiated enthusiastically on the way he was attracted by the 'multi-dimensional' aspects of global warming - the science, the economics and the politics. Whatever the mounting scientific evidence, he believes the economic implications - the choices, the complications, the alternatives - are not fully understood.

'It has always seemed to me that the economic dimension is very important, but also very neglected. People thought that once the science was straightened out - and it is true that there is not a lot of scope for differences in the science - all would follow. But it doesn't. It is not at all clear what makes economic sense - or what is politically feasible.'

Lawson insists that the conventional view - urgent action now to help future generations - is unfair. 'How big a sacrifice is it reasonable to ask people today to bear, in order to benefit generations 100 years hence who'll be substantially better off than we are today?' he asks.

He is fully in sympathy with the Chinese for resisting the Kyoto-type approach. 'I understand their view entirely. I've no time for the Chinese regime, but they have a huge population, most of whom are extremely poor, and the most important thing is to lift them out of poverty because otherwise they'll die in large numbers. They need the fastest possible rate of growth, and that means the cheapest energy. The point is that the Chinese are not prepared to sacrifice the present generation for the generation 100 years hence, and that is absolutely understandable.'

The old Chancellor with a new cause is insistent: 'The idea that the European Union should take the lead [over global warming] and that the UK should lead within the EU only means we suffer, because we lead and others don't follow.'

He is quite determined, and fully aware of the risks to his reputation in the face of what has become a formidable and fashionable consensus. With that familiar twinkle in his eye, he added: 'As a superannuated has-been, I've got involved because political correctness makes it damaging for anyone in politics to speak out. I don't need to worry.'

Indeed, my host went on to say that he has had a big response from the public. 'My postbag, or should I say my email bag, has been overwhelmingly favourable.' So there you are. Watch out Nigella, dad's back in town, and clearly only semi-retired in Gascony.



Many people would like to be kind to others so Leftists exploit that with their nonsense about equality. Most people want a clean, green environment so Greenies exploit that by inventing all sorts of far-fetched threats to the environment. But for both, the real motive is generally to promote themselves as wiser and better than everyone else, truth regardless.

Global warming has taken the place of Communism as an absurdity that "liberals" will defend to the death regardless of the evidence showing its folly. Evidence never has mattered to real Leftists

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