Saturday, September 29, 2007

“I believe that the world will yield to biofuels”

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Luiz Lula da Silva, leader of Brazil (pictured above) are big supporters of biofuels. Both envision an international biofuels industry that their countries will play a major role in and benefit from.

Interestingly enough, this puts them at odds with their friend Fidel Castro. On a number of occasions, the recuperating Cuban leader has vociferously condemned the development of biofuels for environmental and socioeconomic reasons.

It remains to be seen if the world really will actually yield to biofuels as Mr. da Silva predicts, but I'd be willing to bet that Fidel Castro never will. (GW)

A Resilient Leader Trumpets Brazil’s Potential in Agriculture and Biofuels

The second deadly airplane crash in 10 months set off a crisis in Brazil’s aviation industry in July, with many critics saying government inaction was at the root of the problem.

Last month, the country’s Supreme Court ordered 40 members of the president’s political party to stand trial on corruption charges in a scandal that has netted some of his closest advisers, including his former chief of staff.

But as Mr. da Silva, now in his second term, sat down for a 75-minute interview here in the presidential palace, those worries hardly seemed to faze him. He was nothing but upbeat, and with good reason.

Despite the controversies, Mr. da Silva’s approval rating hovers above 60 percent. Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, has grown by 3.5 percent a year, slower than China and India but a marked improvement over the 1990s. Debt levels and unemployment are down. Reserves are up. Inflation is one-third what it was five years ago.

“We are experiencing an auspicious moment in Brazil right now,” Mr. da Silva, 61, said in his first extended discussion with an American journalist since 2004. “Brazil is experiencing its best economic period.”

That boom combined with his broad popularity among Brazil’s working class has provided Mr. da Silva, a former metal worker with a sixth-grade education who worked in an auto plant, with remarkable political resilience.

“He is the Teflon president,” said David Fleischer, a political analyst here and an emeritus professor at the University of Brasília. “Nothing sticks to Lula.”

That includes the scandals that by now could have debilitated another presidency. But Mr. da Silva continued to deny knowing anything about the most recent one, in which members of the governing party are accused of paying congressional deputies more than $10,000 a month to vote for favored legislation.

He refused to say if anyone in particular had betrayed him. “There are hundreds of employees around me that I don’t have any idea what they are doing,” Mr. da Silva said.

One of them, apparently, was his former chief of staff, José Dirceu, whom many consider the architect of Mr. da Silva’s rise to power, and who has been charged with being the mastermind of the vote-buying scheme.

“I don’t believe that there is any evidence that Mr. Dirceu committed the crime that he is being charged with,” the president said. “He will be judged.”

Fresh from a trip to Europe, where he stirred interest in Brazil’s sugar-based ethanol fuel and won billions of dollars in investment pledges, Mr. da Silva was instead focused on the economy.

Exports of Brazil’s raw commodities like soybeans and iron ore are booming as a result of high global prices and insatiable demand from Asia. In one sign of Brazil’s economic health, as the subprime credit crisis was roiling the United States a few weeks ago, Brazil’s bonds were raised to just below investment grade.

He said that Latin America as a whole was at a critical moment, when it needed to seize the opportunity to shore up its economies, notorious for mismanagement and corruption.

At the same time, he shrugged off suggestions that he should seek to be a hemispheric force and a stronger counterweight to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has aggressively seized the spotlight in the region with his energy deal-making and political maneuvering in favor of left-wing candidates.

"We in Latin America are not trying to look for a leader,” Mr. da Silva said. “We don’t need a leader. What we need to do is build political harmony because South America and Latin America need to learn the lesson of the 20th century. We had the opportunity to grow, we had the opportunity to develop ourselves, and we lost that opportunity. So we still continue to be poor countries.

“What I want is to govern my country well.”

As Mr. da Silva heads to New York on Sunday for a United Nations meeting, he is relentlessly pitching Brazil’s agricultural potential and energy experience, especially in ethanol, which Brazil makes from sugar cane, a source more efficient than corn.

With ample arable land that is the envy of the world, and a 20-year head start on developing a biofuels industry, Brazil is the only country exporting ethanol in any significant quantities.

Mr. da Silva predicted that within 15 years a global biofuels industry would be developed, with the commodity being shipped around the world on tankers for a global price.

“I believe that the world will yield to biofuels,” he said.

He found a receptive audience recently in Sweden, where he rode in an all-ethanol-powered bus in Stockholm, one of 600 buses, he said, that the Swedish government had retrofitted for use with biofuels. Sweden wants every new car on the road to run on renewable fuels by 2020. The European Union has recommended its countries add 5.7 percent ethanol to the gasoline supply by 2010.

“We will democratize energy access,” he said. “Instead of 10 countries producing oil, we could have 120 countries producing biofuels.”

So far, however, a biofuels accord Mr. da Silva signed with President Bush this year has yet to yield concrete results. The two countries agreed to share technology and experience to develop technical standards.

An import tariff in the United States, supported by the powerful farm lobby, has prevented Brazil from competing for a share of the American market with corn-based ethanol.

Relations are generally warm with the United States. But Brazil’s relations with Venezuela have been strained at times with Mr. Chávez as Brazil has appeared to shy away from some of Mr. Chávez’s proposals for greater regional integration.

In the interview, however, Mr. da Silva offered tacit support for the creation of a “Bank of the South,” which could provide more money for development.

He also said that more than 50 experts from Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company, and officials from Petróleos de Venezuela were still discussing a $15 billion natural gas pipeline project that would stretch 5,000 miles from Venezuela to Argentina.

A crucial question is whether enough gas exists to make it viable, Mr. da Silva said. Mr. Chávez on Thursday again blamed Petrobras for delays in approving the project, Reuters reported.

The economic focus was consistent with Mr. da Silva’s move to the center since he took office in January 2003.

Since then he extended many of the economic policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while putting in place programs like Family Allowance, a welfare program devised to help the poor. Last year, the program offered monthly subsidies of about $50 to some 11 million families, representing 40 million to 50 million voters.

Mr. da Silva’s personal story has inspired millions of Brazilians: he grew up dirt poor in a small town and later worked as a lathe operator at an auto plant. He found his calling as a labor leader and politician.

Despite his modest education and sometimes questionable grammar, his personal warmth and colorful references to Brazilian soccer have captivated many.

When he steps down in 2010, Mr. da Silva said, he plans to head back home to São Bernardo do Campo, the hardscrabble industrial town near São Paulo where he got his start in politics with the metal workers’ union.

“I am not going to go on a graduate study program at Harvard University,” he said, in a dig at his predecessor, Mr. Cardoso, who regularly teaches at Brown.

“When I leave the presidency,” he said, “the one thing I want in life is to be treated as a friend by all of those who were my friends before I took office.”

Friday, September 28, 2007

Out of sight, out of mine

The ethical and moral implications of some Massachusetts residents' efforts to block wind energy projects because they don't like the way that they look are made startling clear in Aviva Chomsky's eyeopening article on the Commonwealth's dependence on foreign coal.

That's right. Foreign coal. (GW)

The dirty story behind local energy

By Aviva Chomsky
The Boston Phoenix
September , 2007

Eastern Massachusetts hums comfortably on Colombian coal. But the mines are devastating land and lives in the Guajira peninsula.

ALBANIA, COLOMBIA — It’s hard to imagine that a town as poor as this one could have a slum. But on the rutted dirt roads leading off the town’s central plaza, many newcomers have constructed makeshift dwellings in the shadows of “overburden” — mountains of waste soil and rock — removed by the coal mine only a few kilometers away. The shacks have dirt floors and, when the wind blows in the wrong direction, the air is thick with dust.

Six years ago, Albania’s newest arrivals led a different sort of life in a town that has since been wiped off the map. They were farmers, largely self-sustaining, who supplemented their living with cash from surplus crops of lemons, plantains, and grapefruit. Their lives were not idyllic, but neither were they wretched. The town they then called home was Tabaco.

Today Tabaco is a memory, obliterated as it was on August 9, 2001, to allow for expansion of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. On that day, employees of the Cerrejón Zona Norte mine — supported by armed security guards, the national police, and the army, which dragged some residents from their homes by force — leveled the town with bulldozers, evicting Tabaco’s 700 residents and razing its every structure. The coal from that mine now fires power plants in the Bay State. Anytime anyone in Eastern Massachusetts flips on a light switch, there’s a better than 25 percent chance the illumination they enjoy comes as a result of the misery inflicted on the displaced residents of the now non-existent town.

One of the people displaced by the massive, 30-by-five-mile Cerrejón mine was Aura Pérez, then age 70. “[Tabaco] was very beautiful,” she mourned in a videotaped testimonial, as she stood before the ruins of her house on that fateful August day. “There was plenty of food — the people here hardly ever got sick because everything was clean. There was a beautiful pond, unpolluted — this was what life used to be like here. It was very safe; you could go wherever you wanted, at any hour of the day or night. . . . Look how it’s all destroyed. They destroyed everything.”

Some 100 of the people displaced on August 9 took refuge in Tabaco’s school, which had been left standing. When it was razed in January of 2002, they moved to a plot of land they had formerly farmed that had since been purchased by the mine. They slept in hammocks. In April, the mine company evicted them from there, as well. By November, Aura Pérez was dead.

“She died of impotence,” says her brother José Julio Pérez, who also was displaced when Tabaco was destroyed. Aura Pérez was one of 14 people who died in the months after the village was evacuated. “When she became sick,” her brother explained, “there was no way to get the medicine she needed. We lost our homes, we lost our land, we lost our community, we lost our livelihoods — we lost everything.”

Another one bites the dust

Tabaco was an Afro-Colombian community founded, according to its elders, by enslaved Africans who rebelled aboard a slave ship at the end of the 1700s, overcame their captors, and reached land on the northern Colombian coast as free men and women. They traveled inland and established several free villages near the Ranchería River. In this remote, windswept region, they farmed and traded with local indigenous Wayuu for 200 years — until the coal mine came and everything changed.

Under Colombian law, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities can claim collective legal title to lands that they identify as ancestral lands. Although Tabaco’s residents have farmed the land around their former village for generations, they can’t pursue a legal claim because the land no longer exists — it has been swallowed up by the mine since Tabaco was displaced in 2001.

That’s because Tabaco, in northern Colombia’s resource-rich Guajira peninsula near the Venezuelan border, sat on top of some of the hemisphere’s largest remaining coal deposits. In the 1980s — spurred on by both the high cost of mining and new environmental regulations that required lower emissions in the United States — the Exxon corporation opened Cerrejón Zona Norte. The country’s second-biggest mine, La Loma — owned by the Birmingham, Alabama–based Drummond Company — soon followed in neighboring Cesar Province. Today, Tabaco lies buried in the huge, gaping gash of Cerrejón. Its residents have scattered, and about 60 families have crowded into inadequate provisional dwellings in the town of Albania.

The central plaza of Albania seems a cheerful place. It’s ringed with stores, restaurants, and bars, and bustles with activity, conversation, and strains of music. The air, though, is filled with a fine-grained dust that permeates everything, especially when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. Tourists rarely go to Albania, and if they did, there would be no reason for them to spend much time there. If you do stay for more than a day or two, however, you begin to wonder: why aren’t the children in school? Why aren’t the adults working?

Driving into town, you pass a large billboard advertising ALBANIA: THE BLACK PRINCESS OF LA GUAJIRA. Behind the words, you see two possible interpretations for the appellation. One is the smiling faces of people, obviously of African origin, who seem to be representing the province or the town. The other is the coal mine. Under the land of Albania, and the whole region surrounding it, is coal. Lots and lots of coal.

Coal mining is dirty business. Underground coal mines pose huge risks to the people who work in them: explosions, accidents, cave-ins, and poisoned air have killed thousands of coal miners over the years. Just this past month, six miners died trapped underground at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Carbonville, Utah, while three members of the rescue team were also crushed to death. As the rescue attempts continued at Crandall, three more were killed in a coal-mine accident in Indiana.

Surface, or open-pit, mines pose different risks. Whole ecosystems are destroyed when miles of land are dug up to access the coal underneath it. In the Guajira, rivers and streams have been diverted, desertification has spread, and whole species — such as the iguana and the howling monkey — have disappeared or been supplanted. Too often, these ecosystems include people who are simply deemed dispensable by the mining companies, the power companies that buy the coal, and the consumers of electricity produced by the power companies. In Colombia, these are indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian people who have inhabited the desert of La Guajira for hundreds or even thousands of years.

And among those who benefit from their displacement might well be you.

The Cerrejón coal mine has been operating in the region since the 1980s, extracting more than two million tons of coal a month. All of the coal is exported, 20 percent to the United States — most of it to fire East Coast power plants.

Massachusetts is the only New England state to rely heavily on coal for producing electricity. One-fourth of its electricity comes from burning coal, in three separate plants: the Mount Tom plant in Holyoke, the Salem Harbor plant in Salem, and the Brayton Point plant in Somerset. (Although Rhode Island itself uses no coal, the Brayton Point plant, on the Massachusetts–Rhode Island border, is the largest source of pollution in that state.)

East Coast industries and power plants used to rely on coal brought in by rail from Appalachia and the southeastern US. But beginning in the 1970s, environmental regulations started requiring power plants to lower their emissions. The idea behind the legislation was for plants to upgrade their equipment and install scrubbers that would catch toxic particles (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide) during the burning process. But many plants found that they could reduce their emissions by simply switching to higher-quality, cleaner-burning coal, such as could be found in the open-pit coal mines of the western United States.

By the 1980s, two major US energy companies, Exxon and Drummond, were exploring another source: Colombia’s vast, untapped, and clean-burning coal deposits. Soon these two companies were shutting down their US mines to shift production to Colombia. Not only was its coal clean, it was inexpensive: government subsidies and cheap labor provided an important incentive. And Massachusetts plants soon had another reason to make the switch: it’s actually cheaper to ship the coal by sea from Colombia to the ports of Massachusetts than it is to move it by rail from mines in Illinois and Wyoming.

Postcards from the edge

If you follow the road out from Albania, you come to more tiny settlements with picturesque names: Chancleta, Patilla, Roche, Tamaquito. But the villages are anything but picturesque. If Albania offers at least a veneer of activity and life, these villages, according to one union leader from the mine, belong to the “living dead.” Barefoot children with distended bellies cough or lie listlessly. While an American visitor watches, a toddler coughs up a parasitic roundworm. Gaunt adults sit in scarce patches of shade among wattle-and-daub huts. Oil barrels with MOBIL stamped on the side collect sparse rain water, left over from the days when Exxon-Mobil owned the mine. (In 2002 Exxon sold its operation to the current owners, a consortium of multinationals, three of the largest mining companies in the world: BHP Billiton, based in Australia; Anglo-American, a British-South African company; and Glencore/Xstrata, in Switzerland.)

Although the coal from this region powers electricity here in Massachusetts, as well as much of the rest of the US and Canadian Eastern Seaboard, Europe, Israel, and Japan, Colombians see the coal only in the displacements, the contaminated air, and the scars on their land. The indigenous Wayuu village of Tamaquito has no electricity, nor health services, running water, or schools. It is surrounded by fertile farmland, where community members used to plant their own crops and find work on surrounding ranches. Tamaquito’s children used to attend primary school in Tabaco. Now the company has bought all of the farmland, leaving the village an isolated island.

“Tamaquito is a very, very poor indigenous community,” explains Jairo Dionisio Fuentes Epiayu, the native governor. (Tamaquito is governed by traditionally elected authorities.) “We are suffering a lot here because the mine has completely surrounded us. We don’t have access to the roads to move or leave our village. We have to walk on trails, and it takes four or five hours to get to Patilla [the nearest village]. This means we don’t have access to anything. Cerrejón won’t even let us on its property to hunt. We used to support ourselves by hunting, by planting, but now that Cerrejón has bought up everything around it, we have no way of surviving.”

Cerrejón’s slogan is “Coal for the world, progress for Colombia.” It’s repeated on the company’s Web site, in its advertisements, and on billboards ubiquitous in the province. Eder Arregocés, a community leader from Chancleta, takes an ironic view of these oft-repeated words. “If that is so, I’d like to know, to what country do the towns of Chancleta, Roche, and Tabaco belong? There are droves of young people just wandering around because there is no school, there is no work. It may be one of the largest coal mines in Latin America, but most families here eat one meal a day.”

“At first we believed what they said, that the mine would bring progress for Colombia,” adds Inés Arregocés, another villager displaced from Tabaco. “But now we see that it’s sadness and destruction for Colombia, because we were displaced from our homes, from our lands. . . . They are dumping huge piles of earth where our houses, our streets, our schools used to be. And now it’s just giant mountains of dirt, contamination, and suffering for us.”

“We’ve gone from being a productive community,” adds Wilman Palmezano of Chancleta, “to a community of paupers.”

Silver and coal

Although the mine’s impact on local communities has been devastating, some people inside Colombia and outside are reaping benefits from the operation. The most obvious beneficiaries are the management-level employees of the mine itself. Many of them live in the town of Mushaisa, inside the gated compound of the mine. There they enjoy a quiet suburban lifestyle that seems light-years removed from the villages outside. Paved, well-lit streets are flanked by green lawns and brightly painted houses. Tennis courts, swimming pools, movie theaters, and shops provide entertainment and supplies. Electricity flows everywhere, and water runs sparkly clean from the taps. Children attend one of the country’s best bilingual schools, where they follow a US curriculum. Outside, the illiteracy rate is 65 percent and most children don’t make it past the fifth grade — if they attend school at all.

Most of the mine’s 5000 direct employees and 5000 subcontracted workers also benefit from the mine’s presence. The majority of the direct employees have a significant level of technical training, and work operating heavy machinery or in the machine repair shops. They don’t live in Mushaisa — that’s reserved for high-level management. But neither do they live in the impoverished villages around the mine. Most of them come from cities like Barranquilla and Valledupar, where they had access to higher education.

A job at Cerrejón is a good job by Colombian standards. Although the pay is far less than a comparable job would pay in the United States, but workers enjoy a strong union, health and education benefits, and pensions. Subcontracted workers are generally not so well-off. They aren’t covered by the union contract, and their jobs are lower-paid and often temporary. Still, a job is a job, and, in a country with a poverty rate of 50 percent and unemployment ranging from 10 to 20 percent in recent years, a job is not to be sneezed at.

The company’s profits flow around the world. Coal is now Colombia’s second largest legal export, following oil, and Cerrejón’s exports represent an important source of foreign exchange for Colombia. The company pays royalties of more than $100 million US dollars a year to the Colombian government, much of which is returned to local municipalities.

The profits also flow into the coffers of the three multinationals that own the mine, benefiting their employees and executives. And Cerrejón pays out more than half a billion dollars to its shareholders every year. In 2005 it reported close to $450 million in retained profits. The communities affected by the mine got a much smaller compensation from the company’s operation: Cerrejón spent just $2 million in its “communities division.”

Even that relatively paltry sum never seems to make it to the people for whom it is earmarked, complain the residents. Most of the money, they say, ends up in the hands of corrupt officials. Cerrejón admits that its royalty payments often fail to reach their prescribed destinations, and in July 2006 implemented an oversight commission to monitor its distribution. The commission has not issued any public report.

The company has also, obliquely, admitted that its comportment in the displacement of Tabaco was unacceptable. “We realize that mistakes were made in the case of Tabaco,” said Cerrejón president León Teicher. In Cerrejón’s 2006 Sustainability Report, the company explained that one of its corporate goals is to “prevent the displacement of individuals, groups and communities.” These words ring a bit hollow to Tabaco’s former residents.

Safety hazards

In a country notorious for having the highest levels of both government and paramilitary violence, in which trade unionists, journalists, and human-rights activists are often targeted, Estivenson Ávila is a man with a particularly dangerous job. He is the president of the union of workers at the Drummond Company’s La Loma mine, Colombia’s other giant multinational coal pit, which supplies a sizable proportion of the fuel burned in Massachusetts power plants. His two predecessors, Valmore Locarno and Gustavo Soler, were both assassinated by paramilitary forces, pulled off a company bus on their way out of the mine at the end of their shifts. Their families have accused Drummond officials of being behind the murders. Several former paramilitary leaders, now in prison, have testified that they saw the president of the La Loma mine meet with and give money to paramilitary commanders in the region. Drummond categorically denies the charge, though it acknowledges that the right-wing paramilitaries operate openly in the area and that they were responsible for the murders.

The victim’s families have brought their case before a US court, with the help of the United Steelworkers and the International Labor Rights Fund. An Alabama jury voted in July that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Drummond was behind the killings. The plaintiffs plan to appeal, arguing that the judge disallowed two of their most important witnesses. Upon hearing the verdict, Ávila commented: “The value of my life has just dropped dramatically. If the company gets away with killing Locarno and Soler, why not just get rid of me, too?”

Working conditions at Drummond’s La Loma mine are significantly worse than at Cerrejón. Wages are lower, and health and safety conditions poorer. Workers complain that Drummond’s vaunted “efficiency” tactics severely compromise their health. At a meeting with an international delegation this past summer, union workers explained that Drummond’s system of extracting huge boulders uses a conveyor belt–apron feeder system to drop them into trucks, where the drivers are repeatedly jolted and shaken by the impact. Severe spinal-cord injuries are common. According to the union, more than 150 truck drivers have been injured in this manner, 15 of whom have been permanently disabled.

“The company won’t let us see a doctor until our seven-day shift is over,” one worker complains. “Then the company doctor always says there is nothing wrong and makes us go back to work.” In addition, workers say they’re afraid to report injuries, because the company will simply fire them.

Communities in the vicinity of the Drummond mine face the same poverty, displacement, and environmental contamination as those near Cerrejón. In the town of La Loma, where most workers retreat to sleep after their 12-hour shifts, they frequently find that there is no water or electricity.

“We’re not against coal mining,” says José Julio Pérez, the president of the Tabaco displaced villagers’ committee (and the brother of the late Aura Pérez), who now lives with his wife and five children in a two-room shack in Albania. “We just want the mine to compensate us for the damage it has caused. We’re asking the mine to relocate our community. We just want it to respect our human rights.”

Bridging the gap

The impact of Colombian coal on Massachusetts communities is complex. Energy companies, such as Dominion Energy — owner of the Salem Harbor and Brayton Point power plants in Massachusetts, and one of the largest buyers of Colombian coal in the US — tout its environmental benefits: Colombian coal has very low sulfur and ash quantities, so it burns cleaner than most domestic coal. It’s also cheaper than domestic coal, which helps keep down the costs of electricity.

But environmental organizations such as HealthLink, a North Shore group founded in 1997 in response to concerns about contamination from Salem’s coal-fired power plant, take a somewhat different view. They believe that switching to a different kind of coal is a Band-Aid solution, or perhaps even a way of evading environmental laws.

“In Massachusetts, Colombian coal is a way for Dominion to delay having to install costly capital equipment to meet our state’s clean-air regulations,” says HealthLink founder Lynn Nadeau. In addition, as its name suggests, HealthLink takes a holistic approach to the impact of fossil fuels and the true cost of coal to our society. Shifting coal mining to Colombia doesn’t reduce environmental destruction — it just relocates it. “Colombian coal exploits cheap labor and causes vast environmental degradation [there],” adds Nadeau, “making many areas uninhabitable.”

Since 2001, a small group of coal consumers in Massachusetts and elsewhere have pressed Cerrejón — as well as the power companies that buy the coal — to change its treatment of local communities. Some of these Massachusetts residents have lobbied, met with mine and power-plant officials, and visited the Colombian mines to investigate the conditions for themselves. They have also invited union leaders and village representatives from Colombia to Massachusetts on numerous occasions. In Salem, the mayor and the city council have both advocated for the human rights of those affected by coal mining in Colombia.

Salem’s mayor, Kimberly Driscoll, issued a statement after meeting with José Julio Pérez, declaring the city’s support for Tabaco’s relocation struggle. The Salem City Council also condemned the mine’s destruction of Tabaco and called for the town’s relocation to be “carried out promptly and effectively, so that the inhabitants of Tabaco can rebuild their community and lead productive, shared lives.”

Dominion Energy has been a bit more reluctant to speak out publicly on the issue. Representatives from that company met with Pérez in March 2006 and issued a guarded statement the following month.

“Dominion is sympathetic to the problems this village faces. We expect all of our suppliers — domestic and foreign — to adhere to all rules and regulations governing their operations. Dominion would like to see a just resolution to these issues,” it said. The power company formalized its position in a March 2007 letter to all of its coal suppliers, after a visit to the Cerrejón mine that same month. “At Dominion, we think it is important to periodically reinforce to our supply partners our position on ethical conduct and social responsibility,” the letter reads. “This simply means to try to work with regulators, employees, and those directly and indirectly affected by your operations with respect, dignity, and common decency,” including “negotiating in good faith with labor groups and interacting with stakeholders who are impacted by your operations.”

Although the letter is careful not to accuse any supplier of violating these principles, it does warn that “it is Dominion’s intention to seek out like-minded suppliers who share our dedicated commitment to these values to be our supply partners.” The company declined, however, to join a fact-finding delegation, as well as several invitations to arrange independent meetings with the mine’s union or to visit the affected communities while in the region. In September 2007, Dominion reiterated that “we are still purchasing coal from South America.”

Massachusetts residents who did participate in a fact-finding delegation (organized by this author and by the US-based grassroots organization Witness for Peace) to the mining region this past August took a much stronger view. “Now that I have met the people who are harmed by the mining of the coal that we use in New England, I understand that our lives are as closely connected as if we lived next door to one another,” says Boston-area resident Margey Colten. “I have learned that, whether we are consumers of Colombian coal or managers or shareholders of a mining company, we are all responsible for righting the wrongs that have been done to the people of the Guajira.” Adds Salem State College student Quin Gonnell, “We, as the consumers of this coal, should become aware of what is happening and hold our energy providers accountable for these blatant human-rights violations. Unlike those being starved and displaced in Colombia, we have a voice in this matter. We have the power to make a difference. . . . We must not remain apathetic to the thousands of lives being ruined on our behalf.”

Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Salem State College, and the co-editor of The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mines, Multinationals, and Human Rights. She has led three delegations to the Colombian coal region, most recently in August 2007. She can be reached at

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Covering the crises

Energy and climate change are in the news. More than that, these related issues are getting plenty of cover time on national magazines of late. Thus far it's impossible to tell if all this attention will mobilize the masses into action.

National Geographic
must be given credit for being out front on the issue of climate change and energy for some time now. They've done a magnificent job in reaching out to the general public and providing accurate information in (as always) graphically interesting and accessible formats.

The current issue of NG now on the newsstands focuses on the controversies surrounding biofuels. Can they be produced sustainable?
"We can create ethanol in an incredibly dumb way," says Nathanael Greene, a senior researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But there are many pathways that get us a future full of wildlife, soil carbon, and across-the-board benefits." The key, Greene and others say, is to figure out how to make fuel from plant material other than food: cornstalks, prairie grasses, fast-growing trees, or even algae. That approach, combined with more efficient vehicles and communities, says Greene, "could eliminate our demand for gasoline by 2050."
Judging by its cover and feature story for October 2007, Wired Magazine is apparently betting on switchgrass to emerge as the sustainable biofuel plant of choice.

"Cellulosic ethanol, in theory, is a much better bet. Most of the plant species suitable for producing this kind of ethanol — like switchgrass, a fast- growing plant found throughout the Great Plains, and farmed poplar trees — aren't food crops. And according to a joint study by the US Departments of Agriculture and Energy, we can sustainably grow more than 1 billion tons of such biomass on available farmland, using minimal fertilizer. In fact, about two-thirds of what we throw into our landfills today contains cellulose and thus potential fuel. Better still: Cellulosic ethanol yields roughly 80 percent more energy than is required to grow and convert it."
The September 8th edition of The Economist turned its attention to an equally contentious topic: nuclear energy. As reported here a few months ago, the nuclear energy is poised to make a comeback by taking advantage of the concerns over climate change.

"The latest boost to nuclear has come from climate change. Nuclear power offers the possibility of large quantities of baseload electricity that is cleaner than coal, more secure than gas and more reliable than wind. And if cars switch from oil to electricity, the demand for power generated from carbon-free sources will increase still further. The industry's image is thus turning from black to green."
"China has become a world leader in air and water pollution and land degradation and a top contributor to some of the world's most vexing global environmental problems, such as the illegal timber trade, marine pollution, and climate change. As China's pollution woes increase, so, too, do the risks to its economy, public health, social stability, and international reputation. As Pan Yue, a vice minister of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), warned in 2005, "The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace."

So writes Elizabeth Economy (great name) In "The Great Leap Backward?" featured in the October 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Time Magazine's October 1st issue covered the emerging scuffle in the Arctic over the oil and mineral rights beneath tits thawing ice. ("Warm War I?)
"This summer, however, saw something new: for the first time in recorded history, the Northwest Passage was ice-free all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Arctic ice cap's loss through melting this year was 10 times the recent annual average, amounting to an area greater than that of Texas and New Mexico combined. The Arctic has never been immune from politics; during the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet submarines navigated its frigid waters. But now that global warming has rendered the Arctic more accessible than ever — and yet at the same time more fragile — a new frenzy has broken out for control of the trade routes at the top of the world and the riches that nations hope and believe may lie beneath the ice. Just as 150 years ago, when Russia and Britain fought for control of central Asia, it is tempting to think that — not on the steppe or dusty mountains but in the icy wastes of the frozen north — a new Great Game is afoot."
Finally, if all of the above leaves you confused, overwhelmed or depressed (or maybe "all of the above"), the August edition of Popular Science with its emphasis on"Engineering A Better Earth" may be a source of optimism with its ideas of how society may pull itself out of the hole it's dug for itself.

"Wrap thawing glaciers in football-field-size synthetic blankets that will keep the cold in and the heat out. At least that's what ski resorts in the Swiss Alps are doing. Tired of rising the fate of their industry on the global community's ability to get a grip on rapid climate change, more than a dozen resorts turned to local textile company Fritz Landolt to stop the melting. Called the Ice Protector, Landolt's material is a tough, but lightweight dual-layer composite. On top is polyester to reflect ultraviolet light, and on the bottom is polypropylene, a polymer used in military clothing and auto parts to block heat. When wrapped around a
glacier, it prevents the top snow layer -- and it's hoped, the permanent ice underneath -- from melting in the summer sun.

"Then again, maybe not. (GW)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith in the chaos of urban life

Yogi Berra once said (among other things) "You can observe a lot by looking". That could just as well have been Jane Jacobs' speaking -- well, not literally, but in principle. Jacobs had more insights into the workings of city life than just about anyone. That really irked professional planners because she was not one of them. In fact, she generally disdained the profession often citing their work as resulting in the worse in urban life.

Jabobs' work inspired many grassroots community groups to take charge of their own neighborhoods. That certainly was the case of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative when I worked there back in 1993-1999. The African American, Latino, Cape Verdean and white residents of this low-income Boston neighborhood challenged the city officials' "urban renewal" plans and developed their own vision for a vibrant multicultural urban village. (GW)

Nearly a half century ago, at the dawn of an era renowned for its utopian dreams and dystopian diagnoses, a journalist who loved the American city wrote an attack on all the professional planners and idealists who believed they could design the perfect urban habitat, the city beautiful, a metropolitan Eden.

Forget it, was the message Jane Jacobs elegantly hammered home in that 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” There is no utopia to be found. And every fantasy of such a paradise — the Modernist towers of Le Corbusier, the Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard, the cleared slums and ribboned roadways of Robert Moses — has led to urban desolation and ruin. At the time she wrote her book, cities were beginning to totter like drunken derelicts seeking lampposts for support.

As an exhibition opening today at the Municipal Art Society reminds us, Jane Jacobs did not believe that planners could ever restore life to American cities. Instead she put her faith in the chaos of urban life, in diversity, in people — the grocery store owner, the young mother, the child playing in the street, the watchful busybodies leaning out of windows. Cities were at their best, she wrote, when the “ballet of the sidewalks” was evident, a dance that was intrinsically “spontaneous and untidy.” Her prescription was simply not to get in its way.

With this kind of loose-limbed populism, it is no wonder that in a 1961 letter shown at the exhibition, Robert Moses — with whom Jacobs more than once locked horns — bluntly writes to her publisher: “I am returning the book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libelous.”

Moses, who more than any other figure had given shape to 20th-century New York, with grand institutional construction projects ranging from Lincoln Center to public swimming pools, from the Henry Hudson Parkway to the Belt Parkway, concluded, “Sell this junk to someone else.”

That is, of course, precisely what was done, and with great success. Jacobs’s book, like other landmarks of that era that jousted with established principles and perspectives, including Rachel Carson’s vision of the environment and Paul Goodman’s vision of education, defined a new populism, transforming the institutions of its time and giving birth to those that thrive in our own. Under Jacobs’s influence, there arose new ways of thinking about cities; community groups became active participants in city planning, and new developments started to take street life into account. Jacobs died in 2006, receiving encomiums from both the political right and left.

But as New York seems to be revving up for another generation of urban development — including the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s environmental projects — as new neighborhoods have taken shape, like Battery Park City, and old ones change in function and status, like Dumbo in Brooklyn, the issues that Jacobs and her opponents raised remain as vital as ever.

With that backdrop, the society’s exhibition — created, like Jacobs’s first book, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation — invokes her as an enduring model, citing not just her ideas but also her activism, hailing contemporary community organizations like the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with its emphasis on “social justice and environmental concerns,” as her heirs. In this show the society urges New Yorkers to “observe and recognize the best of their city” and “become citizen activists advocating for positive change.”

The problem, though, is that the issues are more complicated than the exhibition’s advocacy will allow, and more urgent than its modest scope permits visitors to understand. And while last year’s series of major exhibitions about Moses at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University began to show that he was more complex than his caricature — a visionary as well as a ruthless master builder — this show does not seek to illuminate any ambiguities or difficulties latent in Jacobs’s vision. It leaves her intact, as a populist prophet.

This is still a valuable exhibition, though, because like Jacobs’s ideas, it is grounded not in theory, but in experience. “Please look closely,” urges the introductory panel after you enter the modest galleries through an archway of monitors showing the street life of contemporary New York.

“What do you observe?” another panel asks, next to a 24-hour time-lapse video of Madison Avenue street life outside a nearby window. Another display shows the variety of routes taken by residents of Fort Greene in Brooklyn and Midtown West in Manhattan through their neighborhoods.

As a demonstration of some of Jacobs’s most important ideas, such displays are excellent; they focus on “four key qualities of healthy, vibrant cities”: 1) Streets should have mixed use, with retail and residences mingled. 2) Streets should be frequent, without too many long blocks, thus encouraging interaction and exploration. 3) Buildings should be varied in purpose and design and, ideally, date from different eras. And 4) urban concentration is important and encourages diversity.

“Jacobs’s observations,” the exhibition argues, “remain critical to New York today.”

The show also demonstrates those principles using Jacobs’s own examples, contrasting, for example, the mixed-use variety of 57th Street, where Carnegie Hall stands, with the stark uniformity of street life created by Lincoln Center at the time of its opening. The dead streets outside one of New York University’s stone buildings in Greenwich Village are also contrasted with the 24-hour life displayed on the street outside the new home of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Midtown.

The bustle of Flushing, Queens, with its diverse street life, is juxtaposed with the tree-lined, suburban-style neighborhood of Forest Hills, which, while “undeniably pleasant,” “attracts only residents of a single income bracket and thus lacks the diversity of people and conveniences that tends to give cities vitality.”

But partly because the exhibition is so clear in this exposition, it also inadvertently draws attention to some of the flaws in Jacobs’s vision. She was open to many aspects of urban life, but the “ballet of the sidewalks” tends to overshadow its other features, and the show amplifies her flaws with its narrow focus.

Despite her argument, for example, there are times when “single-use” blocks have their own value, creating, for example, residential neighborhoods in which children really do play in the street; 1960s-era Hudson Street, where Jacobs lived, is not the only vital urban model. Neighborhoods like Forest Hills, zones of aspiration and private retreat, have always been part of a city’s life, making their own contributions to its appeal.

And while there is much to be said against single-use construction of arts centers (which have created eerie, car-centered oases in many dark downtowns), Lincoln Center’s impact over 40 years has transformed the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, spurring the evolution of many vital neighborhoods in a way that a single concert hall could not.

Moreover, though Jacobs wrote that “there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities,” she has little to say about the impact of beautiful design and public spaces; in the mid-19th century, for example, Haussmann destroyed swaths of medieval Paris, triumphantly reshaping it with his aesthetic ideals. Great ancient cities are unthinkable without ideals of form and beauty that do not interest Jacobs at all.

Even the community activism being heralded here needs a larger context. Despite their achievements, there are times when community groups may have too parochial a vision to be taken as guides to a city’s future.

In fact, despite Jacobs’s own warnings about planners and their doctrines, there is even a whiff of utopianism in the way in which her ideas are being celebrated, with a prescriptive focus on diversity and populism.

One of the virtues of a city is that it allows more diversity than even this exhibition suggests. It allows the creation of neighborhoods that serve single purposes; it allows grand boulevards whose expanses seem to lead the imagination beyond the city walls; it allows figures like Robert Moses to change the geography of the landscape so the city can adapt to technological revolutions.

And finally, it allows a figure like Jane Jacobs to make her own distinctive contributions — warning us against expecting too much from any visionary and expanding our understanding with her meticulous and generous imagination.

“Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” continues through Jan. 5 at the Municipal Art Society, 457 Madison Avenue, at 51st Street; (212) 935-3960 or

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Växjö, Sweden aims to be fossil-free

A virtually unknown (to me at least) Swedish city called Växjö has been deemed the European Union's greenest community in 2007. The city's 80,000 residents dramatically reduced their carbon footprint by developing and implementing a comprehensive, integrated plan that centers on public education, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Purists may take issue with the heavy reliance on biomass and biofuels, but take a look at the detailed plans. It is apparent that city officials and inhabitants have gone to great lengths to explore all their options and take advantage of what Nature giveth. (GW)

A look at Växjö, Europe's greenest city

September 23, 2007

Earlier this year, the city of Växjö in southern Sweden won the Sustainable Energy Europe Award 2007, for being the greenest community in the EU. Växjö and its 80,000 inhabitants set the standard for Sweden, which has vowed to become a 'zero oil' country by 2025, and for the rest of the world.

The city won the prize offered by the European Commission's DG for Energy & Transport for its relentless efforts in slashing carbon dioxide emissions, for its intelligent energy management and for its communal approach to building a more sustainable environment. More than 50% of Växjö's energy's supplies are now covered by renewables. Because of this, the city suceeded in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions by 30% per capita between 1993 and 2006. This means that every citizen currently contributes to climate change with a mere 3,232kg of CO2 emissions per year.

This level is far below the global average. US citizens emit around 20 tonnes per year, the EU's per capita emissions average 10 tonnes, and China's roughly 5 tonnes. Växjö citizens now have a carbon footprint equal to that found in many developing countries, while at the same time enjoying very high living standards. Proof that low carbon living does not compromise a modern lifestyle. In fact, Växjö has received an economic boost because of its collectively organised green efforts.

Back in 1996, Växjö decided that it would become a completely fossil fuel free city (an overview of the strategy *.pdf). The goal is now to reduce per capita emissions further by 50% by 2010 and by 70% in 2025, compared to 1993.

Växjö's success is due to a comprehensive set of efforts that impact all aspects of life in the city: from teaching kids the basics of sustainable living to applying advanced renewable energy technologies. On the technological front, the biggest emission reductions were achieved because of the big share of biomass in the community's energy mix. In the heating sector, nearly 90% of energy comes from renewable biomass, with 14,000 appartments, 1,700 houses, the local hospital and university, the tourist infrastructure (hotels) and companies all connected to the efficient district heating grid. Biomass is also used for the production of electricy and cooling, in integrated 'trigeneration' power plants.

The reliance on biofuels has been beneficial for Växjö's economy, both for the municipality as well as for individual consumers. To help local politicians implement carbon-sensitive decisions and policies, Växjö initiated an 'ecobudget', which carefully screens the lifecycle effects and costs of all the natural resources locally used. The system is stringent but cuts energy waste. The 'ecobudget' is now proving that considerable energy and financial savings can be made with a good analysis of how the city's natural resources interact.

Biomass gasification plant for the production of bio-DME and biohydrogen, Växjö, Sweden.

Most of the remaining emissions in the city come from transportation, but here too a decrease in emissions has been achieved. This reduction is a result of a bigger share of flex-fuel vehicles and more biofuel blended in petrol and diesel. The University of Växjö also leads an international biomass-to-liquids program called Chrisgas to develop large scale bio-hydrogen and dimethyl-ether (DME) production from biomass. Bio-DME, a clean burning synthetic biofuel, can be obtained from the gasification of biomass, with the syngas liquefied via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis; it is an alternative to diesel fuel. Experts from eight EU member states participate in the project, funded by the Swedish Energy Agency and the EU.

The Fossil Fuel Free Växjö programme incorporates a range of other activities and technologies, such as as smaller scale biomass district heating, district cooling, biomass boilers for households, energy efficient street lightning, energy efficient building/construction (ecobuildings that reduce energy consumption by 30%), solar panels, encouraging the use of public transport and bicycles (comfortable and safe bicycle paths have been built) and biogas production for power and transport fuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Fossil Fuel Free program is developed in co-operation between the city administration and a lot of stake holders, local enterprises, Växjö University, etc. All these initaitives together with announced national incentives is estimated to give 50% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2010 which means that the goal will be met.

In the Sustainable Community Category, the selection committee of the Sustainable Energy Europe award chose Fossil Fuel Free Växjö, Sweden, because:
  • Fossil Fuel Free Växjö is an overall community programme that takes an integrated and cooperative approach to achieving its objectives.
  • It involves a wide array of integrated activities aimed at generating more energy and heat from renewable energy sources and technology.
  • It also focuses on improving energy efficiency in all areas, on conservation and on achieving sustainable patterns of mobility.
Växjö is an example to be followed. With its long standing political commitment to making its community fossil free it is demonstrating to all of us that its efforts are paying off and it is already half way to achieving its objective. The Municipality of Växjö has for a long time successfully worked with environmental issues and the political agreement and involvement in this issue has given the Local Agenda 21-work a prominent place.

All municipal departments and companies are responsible for their work to get a sustainable development. The municipality of Växjö is not able to solve the world’s environmental problems on its own, but thinks we can all participate and share the responsibility. What we do locally also has a global impact.

In the Environmental Programme for the City of Växjö you can read about the three areas in which community interventions are being made: 'Living Life', 'Our Nature' and 'Fossil Fuel Free Växjö', all aimed at protecting the environment and at mitigating climate change.

You can also find more about Fossil Fuel Free Växjö and how a region in Japan is taking advantage of the Swedish city's experience, here: Bioenergy Småland - Expo Växjö.

City of Växjö: Climate Strategy [*.pdf].

City of Växjö: Fossil Fuel Free [*.pdf]

City of Växjö: Environmental Programme [*.pdf].

University of Växjö: Chrisgas project.

Växjö Energi AB: A Biomass CHP in Växjö, Sweden, with recirculation of residual wood ash [*.pdf].

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Have we passed the point of no return?

Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' And Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But Conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right."

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Some of the world's leading climate scientists serving on the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are now telling us in no uncertain terms that dramatic action is needed RIGHT NOW to address what could very well be the greatest threat civilization has ever faced. Moreover, they tell us that society's collective procrastination on this issue has left us with less than a ten percent chance to avoid severe environmental consequences of climate change within our lifetimes.

Will this dire warning be enough to ignite a voluntary and immediate global transformation to a sustainable society on the part of the world's governments?

If not, what should we do? What is the right thing for citizens to do in light of what we know?

'Too late to avoid global warming,' say scientists

By Cahak Milmo
The Independent
September 19, 2007

A rise of two degrees centigrade in global temperatures – the point considered to be the threshold for catastrophic climate change which will expose millions to drought, hunger and flooding – is now "very unlikely" to be avoided, the world's leading climate scientists said yesterday.

The latest study from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put the inevitability of drastic global warming in the starkest terms yet, stating that major impacts on parts of the world – in particular Africa, Asian river deltas, low-lying islands and the Arctic – are unavoidable and the focus must be on adapting life to survive the most devastating changes.

For more than a decade, EU countries led by Britain have set a rise of two degrees centigrade or less in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels as the benchmark after which the effects of climate become devastating, with crop failures, water shortages, sea-level rises, species extinctions and increased disease.

Two years ago, an authoritative study predicted there could be as little as 10 years before this "tipping point" for global warming was reached, adding a rise of 0.8 degrees had already been reached with further rises already locked in because of the time lag in the way carbon dioxide – the principal greenhouse gas – is absorbed into the atmosphere.

The IPCC said yesterday that the effects of this rise are being felt sooner than anticipated with the poorest countries and the poorest people set to suffer the worst of shifts in rainfall patterns, temperature rises and the viability of agriculture across much of the developing world.

In its latest assessment of the progress of climate change, the body said: "If warming is not kept below two degrees centigrade, which will require the strongest mitigation efforts, and currently looks very unlikely to be achieved, the substantial global impacts will occur, such as species extinctions, and millions of people at risk from drought, hunger, flooding."

Under the scale of risk used by IPCC, the words "very unlikely" mean there is just a one to 10 per cent chance of limiting the global temperature rise to two degrees centigrade or less.

Professor Martin Parry, a senior Met Office scientist and co-chairman of the IPCC committee which produced the report, said he believed it would now be "very difficult" to achieve the target and that governments need to combine efforts to "mitigate" climate change by reducing CO2 emissions with "adaptation" to tackle active consequences such as crop failure and flooding.

Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society, he said: "Ten years ago we were talking about these impacts affecting our children and our grandchildren. Now it is happening to us."

"Even if we achieve a cap at two degrees, there is a stock of major impacts out there already and that means adaptation. You cannot mitigate your way out of this problem... The choice is between a damaged world or a future with a severely damaged world."

The IPCC assessment states that up to two billion people worldwide will face water shortages and up to 30 per cent of plant and animal species would be put at risk of extinction if the average rise in temperature stabilises at 1.5C to 2.5C.

Professor Parry said developed countries needed to help the most affected regions, which include sub-Saharan Africa and major Asian river deltas with improved technology for irrigation, drought-resistant crop strains and building techniques.

Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, said that 2015 was the last year in which the world could afford a net rise in greenhouse gas emissions, after which "very sharp reductions" are required.

Dr Pachauri said the ability of the world's most populous nations to feed themselves was already under pressure, citing a study in India which showed that peak production of wheat had already been reached in one region.

Campaigners said the IPCC findings brought added urgency to the EU's efforts to slash emissions. John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said: "The EU needs to adopt a science-based cap on emissions, ditch plans for dirty new coal plants and nuclear power stations that will give tiny emission cuts at enormous and dangerous cost, end aviation expansion and ban wasteful products like incandescent lightbulbs."

Plus two degrees: the consequences

Arica: Between 350 and 600 million people will suffer water shortages or increased competition for water. Yields from agriculture could fall by half by 2020 while arid areas will rise by up to 8 per cent. The number of sub-Saharan species at risk of extinction will rise by at least 10 per cent.

Asia: Up to a billion people will suffer water shortages as supplies dwindle with the melting of Himalayan glaciers. Maize and wheat yields will fall by up to 5 per cent in India; rice crops in China will drop by up to 12 per cent. Increased risk of coastal flooding.

Australia/New Zealand: Between 3,000 and 5,000 more heat-related deaths a year. Water supplies will no longer be guaranteed in parts of southern and eastern Australia by 2030. Annual bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

Europe: Warmer temperatures will increase wheat yields by up to 25 per cent in the north but water availability will drop in the south by up to a quarter. Heatwaves, forest fires and extreme weather events such as flash floods will be more frequent. New diseases will appear.

Latin America: Up to 77 million people will face water shortages and tropical glaciers will disappear. Tropical forests will become savanna and there will be increased risk of coastal flooding in low-lying areas such as El Salvador and Guyana.

North America: Crop yields will increase by up to 20 per cent due to warmer temperatures but economic damage from extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina will continue increasing.

Polar regions: The seasonal thaw of permafrost will increase by 15 per cent and the overall extent of the permafrost will shrink by about 20 per cent. Indigenous communities such as the Inuit face loss of traditional lifestyle.

Small islands: Low-lying islands are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels with the Maldives already suffering land loss.

Even in Brazil "the remedy may be worse than the sickeness"

There's no such thing as a "no-brainer" when it comes to finding real solutions to the climate change challenge. Solar and wind energy technologies have demonstrated their technical feasibility over and over. Yet solar is still prohibitively expensive for many applications, and wind projects are difficult to site due to their visual impacts. Biomass fuel is certainly renewable, but the the technology still relies on combustion that results in the creation of emissions. The list goes on.

Biofuels continue to generate mixed reviews. They usually fall along the lines of: Good for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions; not so good for the environment closer to the ground.

Brazil has held out as a model for the way in which it has integrated sugarcane-generated ethanol into its infrastructure -- clearly a success when measured in terms of economics and effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, as the following article points out, the news is far from being all good.

By the way, check out the October 2007 issue of National Geographic for more on this topic. The cover story is "Green Dreams: Growing Fuel the Wrong Way, The Right Way". (GW)

Ethanol Seen Good For Climate, Maybe Not Environment

By Kenneth Rapoza, Dow Jones Newsires
September 17, 2007

SERTAOZINHO, Brazil (Dow Jones)--Brazil's Environmental Minister Marina Silva, long seen as unfriendly toward Brazilian agribusiness, told the press at a sugar and ethanol conference Monday that Brazil ethanol production is drastically cutting the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

"Ethanol is an alternative for reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, and is a major contribution to decarbonizing countries that are heavy fossil fuel users," Silva told reporters.

However, another ministry official said that while ethanol might be beneficial for climate change, it remains to be seen whether ethanol is good for the environment.

Over the last three years, reductions in deforestation and increased ethanol use has reduced Brazil's CO2 emissions by 500 million tons, Silva said. That's roughly 30% of all CO2 reductions being required of richer nations.

Silva said that between 2003 and 2004, Brazilian agribusiness and the civilian population cut down 27,000 square kilometers of forest. In 2005 the number declined to 18,000 square kilometers; in 2006, 14,000 square kilometers, and Silva said the number should be around 9,000 square kilometers in 2007.

Silva didn't say whether the increase in ethanol-powered automobiles was a major factor in reducing Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

The number one contributor to deforestation, especially in the Amazon region, home to the world's largest rainforest, is the lumber and cattle industry.

Sugarcane ethanol's impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions is undisputed, said Adriano Santhiago de Oliveira, a top official at the newly created climate change and environment department at the Environmental Ministry.

"Without a doubt, ethanol is good for greenhouse gases, but a lot more work has to be done," stated Oliveira.

Oliveira said that agribusiness is responsible for 25% of Brazil's total carbon emissions. Some of that is due to fertilizer production and burning of sugarcane fields to facilitate the harvest of sugarcane plants.

"The sugar and ethanol industry is actually a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, despite being a force in reducing overall contributions nationwide," Oliveira said, adding that ethanol isn't as green as people might like to think.

Oliveira said his department was studying whether ethanol and biofuels ingeneral, such as the use of vegetable oils to make fuel, are harmful for the environment.

Egon Krakhecke, secretary of sustainable agriculture at the Brazilian environmental ministry, told a gathering of sugarcane and ethanol executives on Monday that he was cautious about biofuels. "The remedy could be worse than the sickness, and we have to look into this further," he said.

Krakhecke was more interested in whether sugarcane was harmful to the environment rather than climate change. He mentioned the impact of sugarcane expansion on Brazil's groundwater.

Experts said that potassium in fertilizer could be harmful to Brazilian aquifers.

Marcos Jenk, president of Brazil's Union of Sugarcane Industries, or Unica, said the government needs to have more uniform policies. As it is, municipalities, state, federal laws and even federal departments such as agriculture and the environment, often have opposing views on sustainable agriculture.

These policies affect the way farmers and large agroindustries plan their crops.

Jenk's comment received a round of applause by the country's largest cane producers.

Krakhecke says the problem is many small and midsize sugarcane industries simply break environmental laws. "Not all do this, but a lot of them do," he said.

Jenk said that Unica's main concern is the environmental sustainability of Brazil's ethanol industry. Brazil's government views ethanol much the way oil-producing nations view petroleum.

Brazil is the world's No. 1 sugarcane ethanol producer and exporter, exporting 3 billion liters to the U.S. and Europe.

Source: Kenneth Rapoza, Dow Jones Newswires; 55-11-8473-5075;

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Iceland's clean energy vision

Iceland is a very active place from a geologic and volcanic perspective. Glaciers, geysers, waterfalls and volcanoes are all prominent parts of this island's beautiful and varied landscape.

Partly out of necessity and partly the result of vision, Iceland is taking advantage of these natural attributes to carve out and implement a diverse fossil fuel-free strategy.

The rest of the world should take notice. (GW)

Iceland phasing out fossil fuels for clean energy

By Peggy Mihelich
September 20, 2007

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (CNN) -- Iceland may be best known for world-famous musical export Bjork but there's a new star quickly gaining this island nation worldwide acclaim -- clean energy.

For more than 50 years Iceland has been decreasing its dependence on fossil fuels by tapping the natural power all around this rainy, windswept rock of fire.

Waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers and hot springs provide Icelanders with abundant electricity and hot water.

Virtually all of the country's electricity and heating comes from domestic renewable energy sources -- hydroelectric power and geothermal springs.

It's pollution-free and cheap.

Yet these energy pioneers are still dependent on imported oil to operate their vehicles and thriving fishing industry.

Iceland's geographic isolation in the North Atlantic makes it expensive to ship in gasoline -- it costs almost $8 a gallon (around $2 a liter).

Iceland ranks 53rd in the world in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, according to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center -- the primary climate-change data and information analysis center of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Retired University of Iceland Professor Bragi Arnason has come up with a solution: Use hydrogen to power transportation. Hydrogen is produced with water and electricity, and Iceland has lots of both.

"Iceland is the ideal country to create the world's first hydrogen economy," Arnason explains. His big idea has earned him the nickname "Professor Hydrogen."

Arnason has caught the attention of General Motors, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler, who are using the island-nation as a test market for their hydrogen fuel cell prototypes.

One car getting put through its paces is the Mercedes Benz A-class F-cell -- an electric car powered by a DaimlerChrysler fuel cell. Fuel cells generate electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen into water. And fuel cell technology is clean -- the only by-product is water.

"It's just like a normal car," says Asdis Kritinsdottir, project manager for Reykjavik Energy. Except the only pollution coming out of the exhaust pipe is water vapor. It can go about 100 miles on a full tank. When it runs out of fuel the electric battery kicks in, giving the driver another 18 miles -- hopefully enough time to get to a refueling station. Filling the tank is similar to today's cars -- attach a hose to the car's fueling port, hit "start" on the pump and stand back. The process takes about five to six minutes.

In 2003, Reykjavik opened a hydrogen fueling station to test three hydrogen fuel cell buses. The station was integrated into an existing gasoline and diesel station. The hydrogen gas is produced by electrolysis -- sending a current through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. The public buses could run all day before needing refueling.

The bus project lasted three years and cost around $10 million.

The city will need five refueling stations in addition to the one the city already has to support its busy ring road, according to Arnason. The entire nation could get by on 15 refueling stations -- a minimum requirement.

Within the year, 30-40 hydrogen fuel-cell cars will hit Reykjavik streets. Local energy company employees will do most of the test-driving but three cars will be made available to The Hertz Corp., giving Icelanders a chance to get behind the wheel.

"I need a car," says Petra Svenisdottir, an intern at Reykjavik Energy. Svenisdottir, 28, commutes to work from her home in Hafnarfjorour to Reykjavik. The journey takes her about 15 minutes if she can beat traffic. "If I didn't have a car I would have to take two or three buses and wait at each bus stop to arrive at work more than an hour later, cold and wet!"

Most Icelanders drive cars, says Arnason. Around 300,000 people live in a place about the size of the U.S. state of Kentucky. Transportation is limited to cars, buses and boats. "Everyone has a car here," Arnason says. And it's very typical for an Icelandic family to own two cars. Arnason drives a small SUV.

Fuel cell cars are expected to go on sale to the public in 2010. Carmakers have promised Arnason they will keep costs down and the government has said it will offer citizens tax breaks.

He figures it will take an additional 4 percent of power to produce the hydrogen Iceland would need to meet its transportation requirements.

Once Iceland's vehicles are converted over to hydrogen, the fishing fleet will follow. It won't be easy because of current technological limits and the high cost of storing large amounts of hydrogen, but Arnason feels confident it can happen. He predicts Iceland will be fossil fuel free by 2050.

"We are a very small country but we have all the same infrastructure of big nations," he said. "We will be the prototype for the rest of the world."