Saturday, November 03, 2007


Ministers were accused of downgrading the drive to cut carbon emissions from Britain's transport network after revealing a long-term strategy for increased road, rail and air travel. Environmentalists said the strategy did too little to combat climate change, attacking the decision to allow further airport expansion and road building and widening.

A strategy document published yesterday by Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Transport, proposed backing London-style congestion charge schemes in major cities, but said plans for wider road pricing schemes remained "a decision for the future". It said that schemes to smooth the flow of traffic, including using hard shoulders, could cut emissions but said Britain needed a "targeted increase" in road capacity. Earlier this year, about 1.8 million people put their signatures to a Downing Street website petition opposing road charging.

The document called for aviation to be included in European emissions-trading schemes, but the document said there would still need to be "some growth in capacity" of airports. It said action was needed to reduce demand for short local journeys and said new technology could ultimately cut the majority of carbon emissions from cars.

It also attracted criticism for describing "goal one" as economic growth, while listing the fight against climate change as "goal two". Officials insisted that they attached "equal weight" to all five of their key goals for the transport system.

Tony Bosworth, the transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said in response: "Our view would be that climate change is the biggest problem the world faces and it must be the top aim for the Department for Transport."

He warned that the Government's policy was contradictory. "Urgent action on transport must be at the heart of UK efforts to tackle climate change. Some of today's proposals, such as more investment in small-scale local measures, are welcome, but continuing support for motorway-widening and airport expansion will increase emissions. If the Government is serious about tackling transport and climate change, its policy must be coherent, not contradictory."

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said: "When it comes to aviation and climate change this government becomes detached from reality.



Initiatives aimed at saving energy and reducing CO2 emissions could end up damaging the Government's climate policy instead, a new study claims. Scientists have found that new technologies designed to cut energy use could actually result in an increase. As an example they say a more fuel-efficient car which is cheaper to run can lead to the driver using it more often or on longer journeys. Or a householder looking for a new fridge might buy a bigger model because it is more energy efficient. In both cases some of the energy being saved is lost as a direct consequence of what is known as a 'rebound effect'.

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) says in a new report that the resulting shortfall in energy savings could damage the Government's target of cutting energy use by 20 per cent by 2010. Scientists are divided over whether the rebound effect is significant but some believe that it can actually result in a net increase in energy use, which is known as 'backfire'. But the UKERC concludes the rebound effect is significant and cannot be ignored and it warns the Government that it must be factored into its climate strategy.

The report's chief author, Steve Sorrell, a Senior Fellow at UKERC, said the rebound effect had been ignored by experts and policymakers and had not even been mentioned in either the Stern and IPCC climate change reports or in the Government's energy white paper. "This is a mistake. If we do not make sufficient allowance for rebound effects we will overestimate the contribution that energy efficiency can make to reducing carbon emissions," he said. "This is especially important given that the climate change bill proposes legally binding commitments to meet CO2 emission targets. We need to get the sums right."

The report says that the rebound effect is hard to quantify because the evidence is diverse and hard to interpret but it was likely to have a bigger impact in heavier industries - such as steel making - than in domestic households where it was unlikely to exceed 30 per cent and was more likely to be closer to 10 per cent. But some modelling studies had predicted rebound effects of 50 per cent or more across the economy and half had also predicted the backfire effect where measures would actually lead to an increase in energy use. "We disagree with those who say the backfire effect is inevitable and we believe energy savings can be made without an overwhelming rebound," said Mr Sorrell. "Even if you lose 25 per cent you are still gaining 75 per cent and you can mitigate against rebound."

The report concludes that 'headroom' had to be built into policy targets to allow for the rebound effects, that energy prices should be raised in line with energy efficiency improvements and that absolute caps on emissions should be imposed.


Good old British hypocrisy alive and well in Canada

To understand Prime Minister Stephen Harper's policy on global warming, you have to appreciate the concept of doublethink from George Orwell's great political satire, 1984. Doublethink, as described by Orwell, is the ability to simultaneously "know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them ..."

It's only through doublethink that one can integrate the following two statements, which I thank Sun Media reader Chad Swan for bringing to my attention. First, this from Harper's Oct. 16 throne speech: "It is now widely understood that, because of inaction on greenhouse gases over the last decade, Canada's emissions cannot be brought to the level required under the Kyoto Protocol within the compliance period, which begins on Jan. 1, 2008 ..." Second, this from federal Environment Minister John Baird three days later as reported in the Globe: "We've been very clear. We have no intention of withdrawing from the UN framework, the Kyoto Protocol."

The reality is the Conservatives have already withdrawn from Kyoto. Logically, if you don't agree to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, you have abandoned the treaty. To suggest otherwise is nonsense. To be sure, it's a continuation of the nonsense begun by the previous Liberal government that signed Kyoto and then did nothing to reduce actual emissions for almost eight years until they were thrown out of office. But it's nonsense just the same. However, talking nonsense when it comes to global warming -- or, if you prefer, using doublespeak that requires your audience to use doublethink -- is also smart politics, something both the Conservatives and Liberals understand.

In his book Heat, How to Stop the Planet From Burning, journalist George Monbiot, who believes man-made global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is the greatest crisis of our age, says he fears that even as people become convinced of this, and of the enormity of the task that lies ahead in downsizing and simplifying our lives to combat it, they will engage in doublethink. As Monbiot writes: "Our response will be to demand that the government acts, while hoping that it doesn't. We will wish our governments to pretend to act. We get the moral satisfaction of saying what we know to be right, without the discomfort of doing it.

"My fear is that the political parties in most rich nations have already recognized this. They know that we want tough targets, but that we also want those targets to be missed. They know that we will grumble about their failure to curb climate change, but that we will not take to the streets. They know that nobody ever rioted for austerity."

Another example of doublethink was revealed this week when Canada's environment commissioner and auditor-general reported that despite 15 years of federal governments talking up "green" policies, federal government departments have done almost nothing to curb their own greenhouse gas and pollution emissions. Simply put, first the Liberals and now the Conservatives, the only two parties that have a realistic chance of forming a national government, are gambling that Canadians are talking a far tougher game on the environment than they're willing to play. My guess is they're right.



Almost nonstop, gargantuan 145-ton trucks rumble through China's biggest open-pit coal mine, sending up clouds of soot as they dump their loads into mechanized sorters. The black treasure has transformed this once-isolated crossroads nestled in the sand-sculpted ravines of Inner Mongolia into a bleak boomtown of nearly 300,000 people. Day and night, long and dusty trains haul out coal to electric power plants and factories in the east, fueling China's explosive growth.

Coal is big, and getting bigger. As oil and natural gas prices soar, the world is relying ever more on the cheap, black-burning mainstay of the Industrial Revolution. Mining companies are racing into Africa. Workers are laying miles of new railroad track to haul coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. And nowhere is coal bigger than in China.

But the explosion of coal comes amid rising alarm over its dire consequences for workers and the environment. An average of 13 Chinese miners die every day in explosions, floods, fires and cave-ins. Toxic clouds of mercury and other chemicals from mining are poisoning the air and water far beyond China's borders and polluting the food chain. So far, attempts to clean up coal have largely not worked. Technology to reduce or cut out carbon dioxide emissions is expensive and years away from widespread commercial use.

"Not very many people are talking about what do we do to live with the consequences of what's happening," said James Brock, a longtime industry consultant in the Beijing office of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "The polar bears are doomed - they're going to museums. At the end of this century the Arctic ice cap will be gone. That means a lot of water rising, not by inches but meters."

Burned since ancient times, coal dramatically increased in use during the Industrial Revolution, when it became fuel for the new steam engines, gas lamps and electrical generators. Worldwide demand for coal dipped at the end of the 20th century, but is now back up and projected to rise 60 percent by 2030 to 6.9 billion tons a year, according to the International Energy Agency. Today, most coal goes to electrical power plants. In developing nations such as India, China and Africa, coal is the staple - and affordable - source of fuel with which families run their first washing machines and televisions. Worldwide electricity consumption is expected to double by 2030, the World Energy Council says.

In America, about 150 new coal-fired electrical plants are proposed over the next decade. In China, there are plans for a coal-fired power plant to go on line nearly every week. Emissions from these plants alone could nullify the cuts made by Europe, Japan and other rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol treaty, according to a report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

In a developing country like China, coal is the backbone of the energy system. Look at the port city of Shanghai, where the bitter tang in the air is not from salty sea breeze - it's the smoke from coal-burning stoves in the suburbs used for cooking and heating. From the shacks of migrant workers on the edge of town to modern factories and skyscrapers, China's biggest city is powered by coal. Even the ultramodern Maglev railway line runs on electricity from a coal-fueled plant.

China mined a record 2.4 billion tons of coal in 2006, up 8.1 percent from a year earlier. But even that can't keep boilers and blast furnaces stoked in an economy growing more than 10 percent a year. So China became a net coal importer for the first time this year. While Chinese authorities are closing down older, heavily polluting plants, they can't keep up with a massive expansion in urban housing and industry and the coal that feeds them.

China is the world's biggest consumer and producer of coal, but it's far from the only one. U.S. coal production hit a record 1.2 billion tons last year, according to the National Mining Association, and is forecast by the government to rise 50 percent by 2030. Yet the United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that the required emissions cuts could slow economic growth. For another measure, look at the ticker on the Web site of St. Louis-based Peabody Coal Co., the world's largest coal mining company, which tracks its growing sales second by second. Last year: 248 million tons sold. For 2007: On track for up to 275 million tons.

China's Shenhua Group is hot on Peabody's heels. On one day in June, a record 111 Shenhua coal trains left its mines in north-central China, the company said. Rising demand can be met because coal is the Earth's most abundant fossil fuel, with reserves expected to last some 250 years - far longer than forecasts for petroleum. And whether in China, India, the United States or Europe, coal is available at home, away from the instability of the Middle East. "The U.S. has under its own soil at least a 200-year supply of coal. China has a very long-term supply of coal," Steve Papermaster, co-chairman of the energy committee of President Bush's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, told a recent conference in Shanghai.

For several years, cleaner burning natural gas appeared a promising substitute. But soaring prices and worries over the reliability of Mideast and Russian supplies have dimmed the promise of that option. Alternatives such as wind and solar power are getting cheaper but still can't compete with coal. Most experts believe that whatever the costs to the environment and public health, coal is with us to stay. "The question is not about putting a line through coal and saying we're not going to use it," said Milton Catelin, chief executive of the London-based World Coal Institute, an industry association. "There's a future for coal. The developing world will have to use coal. They need cheap energy to get ahead."

The solution Catelin and others in the industry are pushing is clean technology, although they admit they are late to the game. "The decade 1997-2007 was a lost decade" for clean coal technology, Catelin conceded. "We should have done much more. Now we're playing catch-up." The need is clear. In the provincial steel town of Baotou, trucks heaped high with coal rumble into Shenhua yards, dumping their loads into huge sieves for sorting into various grades of quality and size. Wind gusts whip black soot into the sky, thickening the layer of smog from the city's smelters.

The U.S. and Chinese governments are subsidizing the development of technology that converts coal to a clean-burning gas before it is burned. But such plants still emit ample amounts of carbon dioxide, notes Qian Jingjing, an expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York and co-author of the report "Coal in a Changing Climate." She and many other experts believe coal can only be made environmentally sustainable through the more experimental technology of capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing them underground.

A joint government-private project in the United States aims to build such a "zero emissions" plant by 2012. Separately, Xcel Corp. of Minneapolis, a major electric and natural gas utility, is studying building a carbon capture and storage power plant in Colorado.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union may require carbon capture and storage systems for all new coal-fired power plants, with a proposal expected by year end. The gas would be buried in aquifers, depleted coal mines or geological faults deep underground.

But the costs are daunting. "It takes a lot of money since you have to go so deep," said Brock of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "There is not one commercial carbon capture and storage project yet. It's yet to be proven." With such high costs, few utilities will embrace these technologies without a strong push or subsidy from government. The U.S. Congress is weighing several proposals, but their fate remains uncertain. The degree of public support for such policies remains unclear. Consumers may balk at having to pay more for electricity from "clean coal" plants, either through higher rates or taxes.

But there is growing awareness of the problem. In both the West and India and China, traditional utilities and new players are investing in wind and solar power. A subsidiary of coal giant Shenhua is building a 200-megawatt wind farm in the waters off China's east coast. "The goal is to raise both efficiency and turn to renewables while backing out of coal in the process," said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington. "The question is, can we move fast enough?"

Meanwhile, in Jungar Qi, the house-sized mine trucks rumble on, rushing their multi-ton loads of coal to railways and coal yards. The biggest landmark in the city - the two huge smokestacks of its coal-fired power plant.


My Nobel Moment


I've had a lot of fun recently with my tiny (and unofficial) slice of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But, though I was one of thousands of IPCC participants, I don't think I will add "0.0001 Nobel Laureate" to my resume. The other half of the prize was awarded to former Vice President Al Gore, whose carbon footprint would stomp my neighborhood flat. But that's another story.

Both halves of the award honor promoting the message that Earth's temperature is rising due to human-based emissions of greenhouse gases. The Nobel committee praises Mr. Gore and the IPCC for alerting us to a potential catastrophe and for spurring us to a carbonless economy.

I'm sure the majority (but not all) of my IPCC colleagues cringe when I say this, but I see neither the developing catastrophe nor the smoking gun proving that human activity is to blame for most of the warming we see. Rather, I see a reliance on climate models (useful but never "proof") and the coincidence that changes in carbon dioxide and global temperatures have loose similarity over time.

There are some of us who remain so humbled by the task of measuring and understanding the extraordinarily complex climate system that we are skeptical of our ability to know what it is doing and why. As we build climate data sets from scratch and look into the guts of the climate system, however, we don't find the alarmist theory matching observations. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite data we analyze at the University of Alabama in Huntsville does show modest warming -- around 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit per century, if current warming trends of 0.25 degrees per decade continue.)

It is my turn to cringe when I hear overstated-confidence from those who describe the projected evolution of global weather patterns over the next 100 years, especially when I consider how difficult it is to accurately predict that system's behavior over the next five days.

Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us. As my high-school physics teacher admonished us in those we-shall-conquer-the-world-with-a-slide-rule days, "Begin all of your scientific pronouncements with 'At our present level of ignorance, we think we know . . .'"

I haven't seen that type of climate humility lately. Rather I see jump-to-conclusions advocates and, unfortunately, some scientists who see in every weather anomaly the specter of a global-warming apocalypse. Explaining each successive phenomenon as a result of human action gives them comfort and an easy answer.

Others of us scratch our heads and try to understand the real causes behind what we see. We discount the possibility that everything is caused by human actions, because everything we've seen the climate do has happened before. Sea levels rise and fall continually. The Arctic ice cap has shrunk before. One millennium there are hippos swimming in the Thames, and a geological blink later there is an ice bridge linking Asia and North America.

One of the challenges in studying global climate is keeping a global perspective, especially when much of the research focuses on data gathered from spots around the globe. Often observations from one region get more attention than equally valid data from another.

The recent CNN report "Planet in Peril," for instance, spent considerable time discussing shrinking Arctic sea ice cover. CNN did not note that winter sea ice around Antarctica last month set a record maximum (yes, maximum) for coverage since aerial measurements started. Then there is the challenge of translating global trends to local climate. For instance, hasn't global warming led to the five-year drought and fires in the U.S. Southwest?

Not necessarily. There has been a drought, but it would be a stretch to link this drought to carbon dioxide. If you look at the 1,000-year climate record for the western U.S. you will see not five-year but 50-year-long droughts. The 12th and 13th centuries were particularly dry. The inconvenient truth is that the last century has been fairly benign in the American West. A return to the region's long-term "normal" climate would present huge challenges for urban planners.

Without a doubt, atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing due primarily to carbon-based energy production (with its undisputed benefits to humanity) and many people ardently believe we must "do something" about its alleged consequence, global warming. This might seem like a legitimate concern given the potential disasters that are announced almost daily, so I've looked at a couple of ways in which humans might reduce CO2 emissions and their impact on temperatures.

California and some Northeastern states have decided to force their residents to buy cars that average 43 miles-per-gallon within the next decade. Even if you applied this law to the entire world, the net effect would reduce projected warming by about 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, an amount so minuscule as to be undetectable. Global temperatures vary more than that from day to day.

Suppose you are very serious about making a dent in carbon emissions and could replace about 10% of the world's energy sources with non-CO2-emitting nuclear power by 2020 -- roughly equivalent to halving U.S. emissions. Based on IPCC-like projections, the required 1,000 new nuclear power plants would slow the warming by about 0.2 ?176 degrees Fahrenheit per century. It's a dent.

But what is the economic and human price, and what is it worth given the scientific uncertainty?

My experience as a missionary teacher in Africa opened my eyes to this simple fact: Without access to energy, life is brutal and short. The uncertain impacts of global warming far in the future must be weighed against disasters at our doorsteps today. Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus 2004, a cost-benefit analysis of health issues by leading economists (including three Nobelists), calculated that spending on health issues such as micronutrients for children, HIV/AIDS and water purification has benefits 50 to 200 times those of attempting to marginally limit "global warming."

Given the scientific uncertainty and our relative impotence regarding climate change, the moral imperative here seems clear to me.



For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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