Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vive la evolution

Researchers have determined that human evolution is still underway. Natural selection continues to pass along advantageous traits to our offspring. Given humanity's current status and the relationships we have devloped with one another, our fellow living creatures and the planet as a whole, it's hard to know if this should be viewed as a blessing or a curse. (GW)

People are still evolving, heart study numbers say

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Boston Globe
October 26, 2009

Charles Darwin famously studied evolution in the Galapagos Islands. Now a team of scientists has chosen a decidedly less exotic locale to study the subject - Framingham.

Residents of the Boston suburb have long participated in a landmark study of their cardiovascular health, which has shown that smoking and high cholesterol increase risk of heart disease. Now data compiled for the heart study are providing evidence of human evolution in action - and have led researchers from Yale University, Boston University School of Medicine, and the University of Pennsylvania to predict that the community’s next generation of women will be slightly chubbier and shorter and have lower cholesterol.

Evolution occurs because organisms with advantageous traits are more likely to survive and pass on those traits to their offspring - a process called natural selection. It is widely believed that modern medicine and technology have brought human evolution to a screeching halt, since most people - and not only the “fittest’’ - can now survive and pass on their genes. But the authors of the new research say their work shows natural selection is still occurring.

“As an evolutionary biologist, I’ve been aware for some time that people in the medical community have the misapprehension that evolution is not occurring in humans,’’ said Stephen C. Stearns, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and the senior author of the paper published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers found that a number of traits were associated with having more children - being shorter and chubbier, having a first child at a younger age, experiencing menopause later, and having lower blood pressure or cholesterol - meaning that those traits would likely become more prevalent in the next generation.

“The way we went at it is to use methods in evolutionary genetics that have been applied to plant and animal populations for about 30 years and simply then treat humans as though they were just another population of organisms,’’ Stearns said.

The researchers took data from the Framingham Heart Study, the long-running research study that started in 1948 and has now followed over 14,000 subjects. They looked at two generations of women and chose a handful of traits to analyze: cholesterol level, blood pressure, height, weight, age at first childbearing, and age at menopause.

They controlled for the baby boom and bust and factors such as smoking and used a statistical method to account for the fact that some of the traits they were measuring varied over a person’s lifetime, such as cholesterol and weight. Then, they used the Framingham study’s extensive family history data to calculate the extent to which any particular trait is inherited. They also looked at those traits’ influence on the number of children women had.

They found that a number of partly inherited traits were correlated with women having more children, and that enabled the scientists to make predictions about the future. The next generation of women would have slightly lower cholesterol, be nearly half a pound heavier, and less than a 10th of an inch shorter. They also predicted that a woman’s age at first childbearing would decrease by half a month and that age at menopause would be pushed back a month.

The bottom line, they said, was that evolution is occurring in people.

David Haig, a biology professor at Harvard University, said that he frequently hears people say that evolution has ceased in people.

“I think that’s clearly wrong - I hear that all the time, and it’s clearly the case that we’re not having the same number of children, so there’s some ongoing selection,’’ Haig said.

But he pointed out it was possible that some external environmental factor was affecting both a trait and a woman’s propensity to have more children.

“Weight has changed dramatically over that time span, so there are clearly environmental effects on weight. But the question is what is responsible for the correlation between weight and the number of children [a woman gives birth to], and it could be that being slightly heavier is increasing your fertility or it could be that some unknown factor is both affecting weight and affecting fertility,’’ Haig said.

The study corroborates a 2001 study in the journal Evolution, in which an analysis of 2,710 pairs of twins found that women who bear children at a younger age have more children, and that the trait is passed from one generation to the next. That suggested natural selection was having an effect.

Even though researchers found evidence that humans are evolving, it is occurring at a slow pace - slower than evolution in Galapagos finches and Trinidadian guppies, and more on par with evolution measured in New Zealand chinook salmon and Hawaiian mosquitofish.

What the researchers cannot definitively say is what is causing certain traits to be advantageous, or what set of genetic variations is causing any of the traits - which are also influenced by environmental factors. The traits they studied seem to account for only about 5 percent of the variation in reproductive success.

“The other 95 percent gives all the people who worry about their free will and decisions plenty of room to play in,’’ Stearns said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

Friday, October 30, 2009

A super smart grid on the horizon?

Bucky Fuller's vision of a world-around electric grid continues to organically unfold in the European Union with wind playing a dominant role (again, much as Bucky predicted decades ago).

This is a very important undertaking. I've posted numerous stories on the EU "Supergrid" in the past and will continue to provide periodic updates when they become available. (GW)

Europeans dream of a 'supergrid,' but many wires need connecting

By Jeremy Lovell
Environment and Energy Daily
October 27, 2009

This is the fifth and last part of a series on the electric grid.

LONDON -- European energy planners have a dream: an electricity grid spanning the continent and farther, one that seamlessly blends in the sharply rising but wildly fluctuating power coming from renewable sources and, at the same time, cuts transmission losses.

From the wind and wave-rich north to the sun-soaked south, the goal is to make sure not only that the electricity is low-carbon as part of the battle against climate change but also that it gets to where it is needed, when it is needed. The ideal would be to make the connections without consumers' being the least bit aware that one moment they are watching television powered from Scottish winds and the next from the Sahara sun.

If built in time, the so-called "supergrid" could play an important part in the 27-nation European Union's ambitious bid to get 20 percent of its primary energy from renewable sources by 2020. But there is a thicket of obstacles in front of this scheme, the larger ones being cost, bureaucracy and history.

Unlike in the United States, where most states' utilities are tied into one of two large grid interconnections east and west of the Rocky Mountains, supergrid will require links between nations and regions that haven't been connected before. "There are many technical as well as financial barriers to the development of the supergrid, but there are many institutional barriers, too," explained Keith Allott, head of WWF-UK's climate change program.

"For far too long, national grid operators and regulators have focused down to the micro level. They need to raise their sights. They have started to do it with the various interconnectors, but it has so far been slow and patchy," he added.

Cost estimates vary wildly from €45 billion ($66 billion) to a massive €1.5 trillion ($2.2 trillion) over the next 40 years -- the latter figure including all lines and equipment as well as the renewable energy generators that will be needed to produce the clean power.

The trouble with a renewable electricity source like wind -- the most widespread source of clean power in Europe -- is that it doesn't always blow, leading to accusations from critics of intermittency, unreliability and the requirement of maintaining expensive and sometimes redundant conventional backup power generating systems.

Supergrid proponents note that while the wind may not always blow in one place or at the same strength, it is always blowing somewhere. They argue there would be a need for fewer conventional backups with a technically sophisticated system that connects all the scattered wind farms from Scandinavia to Spain and feeds their power where it is needed via supergrid.

"An efficient European electricity transmission grid is a prerequisite for the large scale introduction of renewable power sources," said Britain's leading scientific think tank, the Royal Society, in a report earlier this summer.

Spain, for example, already uses renewables on a large scale. On particularly windy days, wind power has surpassed the output from all other power sources in the country. On average days, 11 percent of Spain's power comes from wind, ranking it just behind the United States and Germany in overall production.

Wind is also an important force in Italy's power sector. But no one comes close to the 20 percent of wind-generated electricity that is regularly produced in Denmark.

While wind may be the most mature sector, it is by no means the only one in Europe. Solar thermal and photovoltaic are expanding rapidly. Meanwhile, wave and tide-generated power is starting somewhat belatedly to add to the mix, along with biomass and hydro.

The more these clean power sources grow and start to produce serious quantities of electricity, the greater will be the need to make sure that none of the power, which is valuable but notoriously hard to store, is wasted. That is one of the prime arguments for supergrid.

4 key barriers

Allott's colleague Andrea Kaszewski listed four key barriers she said had been instrumental in holding back the supergrid's progress.

These are generally poor government regulation and a lack of incentives for developing better and more coordinated networks, as well as investor reluctance, bottlenecks and bureaucracy in the planning processes and protectionism in national electricity markets.

Interconnectors are high-voltage cables -- underwater, buried or carried on pylons -- linking the various national electricity grids with each other. Some have existed for years, such as the line from Norway to the Netherlands that has been supplying power to Germany for two decades.

Others are newer, and still others are under construction, in the pipeline or on hold for various reasons.

Historically, these national networks and their international links have tended to carry alternating current (AC), which generates heat and suffers substantial power loss over any distance.

Technology advances, however, have made direct current (DC) cables much more attractive, not least because they can carry electricity over long distances with less heat generation and much lower power loss. Some estimates put the power saving of DC over AC at between 25 and 30 percent.

However, because electricity consumption systems are based on alternating current, there has to be a converter station at each end of the direct current cable, adding to the construction costs. Still, the supergrid idea has taken hold, with in-depth studies from the European Commission and the Royal Society, among others. Needless to say, there are different points of view.

Some want the supergrid to simply link up national networks as they are modernized and get "smarter" with domestic devices that allow them to more closely monitor and then manipulate demand by, say, timing a refrigerator to switch off for a couple of hours to save power but without damaging the food inside.

There are meters that essentially show consumers how much it costs to switch on each light or electric appliance. In trials, these have been shown to cut household electricity demand by about 10 percent. However, there have not been long-term tests in Europe, and there is a feeling in some quarters that long-term exposure would not lead to a sustained reduction of that order of magnitude.

Further into the future, there are so-called "smart meters" appliances that can communicate with the energy supplier. These raise what is called the "Big Brother" issue, because these meters and their associated intelligent appliances tell electricity suppliers how much power is being used by whom and when.

Italy leads the way

Enel, Italy's largest utility, has installed 32 million advanced meters throughout Italy since 2001 and will begin replacing 13 million older meters in Spain with new advanced ones next year.

"We think we have the developed the largest smart grid network in the world," said Livio Gallo, head of Enel's Infrastructure and Networks Division. The meters and supporting management systems tell consumers how much electricity they are using and how prices are changing during the day, and they can adjust customers' usage automatically to reduce costs and ease strains on the transmission network.

"One of the major objectives of the smart grid concept and solution -- and we are working very hard on it -- is to have the customers actively participate in the energy market," he said. "You have to establish a two-way communication with your customers in order to keep them informed about their consumption profile [and] their generation profile if they have photovoltaic on the roof."

The $3 billion investment in new meters and systems enabled Enel to cut meter reading and operating costs and improve maintenance. "The investment was paid back," Gallo said.

Enel is also working with other large power distributors in Germany, Spain, France and Scandinavia on plans for a multi-nation smart grid pilot project involving 300,000 customers, testing advanced meters, electric car recharging and management of renewable energy.

The three-year project could lead to a rollout of smart grid technology throughout Europe if the European Commission adopts the plan and the financing is available. "The question is, who is going to pay for this? Everyone is asking that question," he said.

At the other end of the supergrid scale, the view is that it should be a completely new entity sitting directly over all the national grids.

This suggestion, which is part of the Royal Society's outline, raises questions among power producers, which could see their least efficient plants being forced to close. It also raises political hackles with many countries looking more to energy self-sufficiency than to interdependence.

Supergrid's super vision

Among the most visionary of the supergrid proposals is that from the Desertec Foundation -- a multinational think tank whose members come from 21 countries, from Algeria to the United Kingdom, and range from academics to lawyers, scientists, diplomats and businessmen.

Its vision is a high-voltage direct-current network linking Europe and Scandinavia to the Sahara, with concentrating solar power array farms across the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East pouring power into the system -- as well as keeping enough for themselves -- while Europe's wind, photovoltaic, biomass, hydro and geothermal sources also cycle in to fill overall power demands.

And it is not restricting its vision to Europe. It also has its sights on latent desert solar power in China, Australia, the United States and India. "Within six hours," says the foundation's Web site, "deserts receive more energy from the sun than humankind consumes in a year."

But for Kevin Anderson, director of Britain's respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, mega-projects like this risk being a diversion from the more urgent bid to stop the world from warming to crisis levels due to burning fossil fuels for power and transport.

"The real concern is that this distant technological utopia is a dangerous distraction from the pressing need to get our emissions down very quickly now," he said.

"Even the most optimistic views do not anticipate anything happening much before 2030 -- and that is far too late," he added. "Our research show that if we are to have any chance of keeping temperature rises this below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, we have to start cutting carbon sharply well before that, or it will simply be too late."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The problem is blowin' in the wind

Pity the poor bovine. Genetically designed over the years to become a virtual milk-machine and the source of billions of Big Macs and Whoppers, cows have been identified as a major contributor to America's obesity crisis.

Now scientists have fingered cows as top barnyard methane emitters and, as a consequence, primary culprits in forcing global climate change. (GW)

The methane makers

By Dan Bell
BBC News
October 28, 2009

The man behind one of the most influential reports on climate change, Lord Stern, has highlighted the impact meat production has on greenhouse gas emissions. Part of it comes through methane made by the animals as they digest food. So which farm animals expel the most methane?

A diet that relies heavily on meat production results in higher emissions than a typical vegetarian diet, says Lord Stern.

The author of the 2006 Stern Review into the cost of climate change attacked the "enormous pressure" meat production puts on the world's resources and said people were becoming increasingly aware about "low carbon consumption".

He told the BBC that cutting greenhouse gas emissions was important across the board, in areas such as electricity, transport and food.

In a 2006 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, it said, all the world's cars, trains, planes and boats accounted for a combined 13% of greenhouse gas emissions.


The greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat consumption has many components, the largest of which is land use change - the clearing of forests for pasture or for the production of soya for animal feed. Other elements that have an impact on emissions include the rearing and slaughter of livestock, and the transport, refrigeration and cooking of meat.

There is also the nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, in the manure of animals reared for meat and the methane, another greenhouse gas, in their flatulence. Molecule for molecule, methane has a much larger warming effect than carbon dioxide.

As the diagram above shows, methane emission is dramatically higher in cows (primarily from belching) than other animals. But cutting back on eating meat is not the simple answer, say scientists.

For a start, many of the cows responsible for producing methane are not reared to be eaten, according to Elaine Matthews, a methane expert at Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The breeds favoured in non-western countries are often bred for other uses, such as work, and these non-western cows are far more numerous than the larger dairy varieties reared in North America and Europe.

The larger western cows actually produce more methane per cow than their smaller non-western breeds, but because there are fewer of them, they only account for about 15% of all the methane produced by cows in general.

Meat output 'doubling'

Ms Matthews also says the quantity of methane they produce depends on the quality of food they are given. Cows that eat grain, she says, produce less methane than cows grazing on wild grass.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Come live in my village"

I spent a day with Naomi Davis (pictured above on the left) in Chicago last week. She introduced me to what seemed like a thousand people (I exaggerate but it seemed like she knew -- and introduced me to -- just about everyone we encountered, either by design or by accident, during my whirlwind visit with her). She has a dream -- vision really -- about transforming Chicago's Riverdale community into a vibrant urban village.

Naomi is an terrific bundle of energy. She is determined to introduce solar panels, wind turbines, organic gardens, cultural pride and other sustainable/empowering tools and concepts to this black community
located on Chicago's south side.

If you spend even a nanosecond with her you cannot escape being infected with her energy and enthusiasm. I came away from my extraordinary visit with her convinced that her dream, her vision will be realized.(GW)

Dreaming in Black and Green

The Chicago Reporter
October 2009

Naomi Davis had a dream.

In it, she drove a bus to a poor neighborhood and said: “Anyone who wants to work and live in a place where culture is enshrined and where you are a vested investor, the economic driver, the government of yourself, walk out [on] your slumlord and come live in my village.”

That dream manifested into a vision for Davis: to develop an affordable, self-contained community with cultural programming, recreation and open spaces. It also would be on the cutting edge of the environmental movement with organic farms, solar panel houses and jobs that support green initiatives.

Davis’ dream sounds like a fantasy, but she sees it as a way to address her concerns about the environment, cultural art and the well-being of the black community. “Most people’s first impression is, ‘Wahoo, it’s so big,’” Davis said. “They think it’s a fabulous idea … but wonder how in the world a project of this size could be achieved.”

In 2002, Davis, who lives in Avalon Park, founded Daughter’s Trust/The Village Builders. The group is organizing a community coalition to develop a sustainable village model. After two aborted plans, Davis is working on her third. It would be located on 1,000 acres on the city’s South Side, in the Riverdale community area.

Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., Davis grew up in an Afrocentric household, attending weekly African-American history classes. The course had been created by her mother in the 1960s after she had unsuccessfully lobbied state legislators to integrate the curriculum in public schools. That would later inspire Davis, who went on to major in English as well as speech and drama at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

She then came to Chicago to attend John Marshall Law School. For a time, Davis worked as a prosecutor at the Illinois Attorney General’s office in downtown Chicago. All the while, she continued to fuel her passion for drama and wrote a three-part musical. It narrates the lives of eight friends raised in a small New England town who drift apart before reconnecting as adults when they get caught up in a series of crimes with life-and-death consequences. “I realized in pretty short order that the practice of law per se was not going to float my boat,” Davis said. “I kept trying to bring [my life] back to something having to do with the creative world.”

Davis became a political consultant before eventually developing her village concept.

In 2006, she launched Blacks in Green, a nonprofit organization promoting environmental awareness in the black community through a weekly TV show on cable Channel 21. In the show’s first season, Davis explored the dimensions of being an environmentally conscious black person with guests such as a vegan chef, an environmental justice scholar, a water management expert and a fair trade organizer. The audience is about 500,000 viewers, according to the broadcast station.

Davis sat down with The Chicago Reporter at her office in Avalon Park to talk about climate change, self-sustaining communities and how the black community can benefit.

Why did you want to build a village in Riverdale?

African-American communities were more often than not colonized communities, meaning we were essentially depending on the kindness of strangers to provide for our daily, regular, ongoing needs and goods. The retailers are headquartered in another state; they are not invested in the communities. You can go there and get a low-wage job, but it’s not a future-builder for you. It is just making you able to be a consumer.

I was whining and moaning about [this] until 2001-2002, when I started specifically researching solutions. I got on the Internet and I started looking at Australia, Canada. All over the world there were models for a self-sustaining community. But as I was doing research, I was noticing that in almost all of them, they were white people. There were also very, very few in urban settings. So I thought, “OK, I’m going to build this village!”

What is a self-sustaining community?

In a self-sustaining local living economy, the stuff that you buy in stores in your neighborhood is essentially produced and distributed locally. Locally produced and bought merchandise cuts all of that craziness out of the loop, but it also refertilizes communities because money circulates within that ecosystem.

How do you think your village would address the larger issues facing black people?

The problem is that we’re not thinking holistically about everyday challenges in the African-American community. A village is a holistic system: You’re looking at the medical, educational, financial, cultural sides—the whole nine yards—and you create a geographically bound zone where this kind of cross-fertilization can occur.

Explain the village model you envision.

Rather than finding a land where we just throw up a bunch of houses and where a developer builds them, makes profit and goes, we have what we call a “jobs-driven process.” You start with an economic epicenter that you either bolster or create, and you build out from this economic epicenter.

For instance, in Riverdale, at the same location of the proposed village, there was the former underground railroad site. It was a main system for moving runaway slaves or captive African Americans out of bondage on the plantations, where they were enslaved, to freedom in Canada. I am the president of C/C.U.R.E. [Chicago Calumet Underground Railroad Effort] and with my partner and Vice President Martha Boyd and the Raising Spirits! Initiative [which is a cluster of organizations Daughter’s Trust is in], we want to create a cultural tourism business as the hub of the village—its economic epicenter. We would recreate the old barn as a state-of-the-art theater that includes a gallery on the history of black theater in America—which I believe would be the first one in the country.

How do you prevent the displacement of lowincome people?

One of the fundamental elements of the Daughter’s Trust model is that you use affordable housing and a conservation land trust. Essentially, a land trust says the community owns the land, and you own the house. This is separated out so that the cost of the building itself could sit in a much more affordable price range. Secondly, the land itself goes into a trust, whereby the real estate taxes and increases that would typically take place in a marketplace don’t end up happening.

In what way would it be a green village?

We could have homes with their own personal energy production system and with negative utility bills because they would use less than they produce and would thus be selling energy back to the grids—[the infrastructure that stores and delivers energy to the neighborhood]. You would get financial credit for it.

Also, if everything could be reinvented so that we were using clean, elegant energy solutions—alternative energy sources, solar, wind, geothermal—that would be enough jobs for hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

The idea is to take the leading edge technologies that are alive and well in various pieces and parts around the world, and put it in a green village. Even in the most blighted, isolated African- American community, even there, amazing things are possible.

Are African Americans underrepresented in the media in the fight against global warming?

At one level, African Americans are more preoccupied with issues of survival. When you are dealing with asthma or diabetes, you can’t really get esoteric about climate change, especially as it may be represented as shrinking ice caps for polar bears or drought in Africa.

We have been shepherds of the land, have rebuked and revolted against abuses of the land. For instance, the Field Museum will open in February a major exhibition on George Washington Carver. Born a slave in 1864, he believed nature produces no waste, and he used science and his understanding of plants to discover ways to avoid degrading the soil and reach self-sufficiency. It was a very modern way to think about environmental preservation and its relation to wealth and justice. … There’s a rich history of environmental activism by people of color that a lot of people don’t know about. We are active in our own race but underrepresented in the media.

When do you expect the village to be completed?

We are at the stage now where we’ve got enough relationships; we’ve got enough resonance. It’s time for us to look at how we begin generating our own community development corporation and revenue streams associated with a going enterprise. That’s the stage we are now. … My fantasy is that Chicago gets the Olympics, and that by 2016 we are ribbon-cutting.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"If you don't know how to fix it, stop breaking it"

It just may be the most compelling speech ever given on why we should feel morally compelled to do everything we can to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change. It certainly tops anything I've heard from any elected official during the current climate bill discussions here in the U.S.

The speech I'm referring to was given over 17 years ago. It was delivered by a 12-year-old schoolgirl and as far as I'm concerned makes the case for why children should also have a voice at the upcoming Copenhagen Summit in December.

Copenhagen Summit: Children get a say on climate change

By Deon Robertze and Paul Clements-Hunt

The Telegraph

October 20, 2009

No one who saw it will ever forget Severn Suzuki's six-minute address to the United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. The 12-year-old Canadian schoolgirl berated the gathering for allowing greed and apathy to devastate the environment and jeopardise the future of our planet. Her audience, who had heard it all before, were captivated by a child's insight and honesty.

"If you don't know how to fix it, stop breaking it," she begged them. It made more sense than any of the rhetoric that preceeded it.

Seventeen years on from that landmark summit, there are millions of children like Suzuki worldwide who care passionately about the environment. From an early age, they have been bombarded with news and images highlighting the threats and perils posed by global warming. They worry about shrinking glaciers and polar bears stranded on ice flows, about disappearing rainforests and wildlife, and the droughts and floods attributed to man-made climate change.

They have grown up with the knowledge that the Earth's resources are finite, and that unsustainable use of them has widespread environmental, social and economic impacts. Indeed, with climate change now firmly embedded in the national curriculum, children are more clued up than their parents. You are more likely to get knowing nods from a class of 14-year-olds when you mention the dangers of going above "450 parts per million" of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, than from your dinner-party guests.

At the same time, the carbon-intensive lifestyles of many high-flying professional parents have become a target for their green activist offspring. In the home, children are the driving force for change to an environmentally aware way of living, from the choice of car to turning off taps and TV sets to recycling household waste.

So when 192 countries gather in Copenhagen in early December for the latest in a series of UN summits on climate change, the world's youth will have plenty to say – if they are given the chance. Unfortunately, whenever business leaders, environmentalists and heads of state get together to thrash out a framework for meeting the global challenge, the average age hovers somewhere around 55.

Most people involved in the worldwide rescue plan won't be around to see whether it works or not. Their children will, though. As will yours and mine. If anyone should have a say in what the world will look like in 50 years' time, shouldn't it be them?

Enter Consider Us. Originally conceived to highlight this week's Cape Town Green Week and the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) Finance Initiative Roundtable ( on sustainable finance, Consider Us is intended to give children a voice in determining their own future.

Youngsters between the ages of six and 18 were asked to explain, in 20 words, why world leaders should consider them when signing their climate-change treaties. What is precious about our world? Why is it worth saving? These messages are then published on a dedicated website as a voice of the generation with most to lose.

The results, so far, are sobering. Once you step away from jargon and buzzwords, and you hear it in the stripped-down words of a child, it's not hard to sense the urgency of finding a meaningful solution. As one child has written: "If the Earth doesn't survive, who will?"

And this is the essence of Consider Us. It's a reminder to adults of exactly what it is they're committing to. A bound compilation of the messages will be taken to Copenhagen to accompany the more cautious statements of politicians and diplomats. But for Consider Us to register an impact on the climate-change debate, it needs to become a global petition – and this is where British children come in.

A recent survey of 3,000 children in the UK, France, Germany and Spain by the Energy Saving Trust has found that pupils here know and understand more about the science behind climate change than their peers elsewhere in Europe.

They are ideally placed to make a contribution by adding their messages to the website over the coming weeks, and, just as they
have done in their homes and communities, initiate change.

If Copenhagen is to succeed where its predecessor, Kyoto, fell short – to become Hopenhagen, as some have said – then world leaders must walk away on December 18 with a signed plan in their back pockets that does more than tick a few token boxes. Harnessing the passion and commitment of our children, and reminding the powerful exactly whose future they have in their hands, just might a difference.

•For information on how you can get your children involved, visit See also

Monday, October 26, 2009

Funding projects on the fringe

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is looking for disruptive energy technologies and he's willing to back his search with some significant federal funding. There are some interesting (some might even say "wild") ideas out there designed to address the energy crisis that go well beyond conventional thinking.

Although the risks of investing in these kinds of projects is clearly high, some could trigger a quantum leap in energy development somewhere down the line. Even if only one or two come to fruition, they could have a tremendous impact. Secretary Chu is willing to provide support for provocative ideas even as his agency continues to support well-established near term solutions. (GW)

Energy Dept. Aid for Scientists on the Edge

By Matthew L. Wald
New York Times
October 26, 2009

WASHINGTON — The federal Energy Department will make good on a pledge for a bolder technology strategy on Monday, awarding research grants for ideas like bacteria that will make gasoline, enzymes that will capture carbon dioxide to counter global warming and batteries so cheap that they will allow the use of solar power all night long.

A new agency within the department will nurture these and other radical proposals, most of which will probably fail but a few of which could have “a transformative impact,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in an interview on Friday. The money will go for projects at all stages of development, including some that exist simply as a smart idea, Dr. Chu said.

The department will announce 37 grants totaling $151 million, mostly going to small businesses and educational institutions but also to a few corporations. Some of the ideas may be supported until they are picked up by venture capitalists or major companies, he said.

The new effort, directed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or Arpa-e, is modeled on a Defense Department program known as Darpa that helped commercialize microchips and the Internet and helped develop body armor and other high-tech products. Darpa is known for quick decisions and long-shot bets, an approach seldom associated with the Energy Department.

President George W. Bush signed the agency into law in 2007 but did not propose any money for it. It got its first appropriation in the stimulus act, $400 million to be spent over two years. On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Arun Majumdar, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California to lead the agency.

Dr. Majumdar said in a telephone interview that his new agency would identify challenges in the energy industry and would finance “five or ten different approaches.”

“We don’t know which ones are going to work, but we’ll try them,” he said, “and if many of them fail but one works, that’s great, we’ve solved the problem.”

Dr. Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, was a co-author of a 2006 paper for the National Academy of Sciences that called for the creation of the Arpa-e program.

In the initial round, the grants average $4 million. One is going to researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus who are working on developing an organism that uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and another that converts the sugars to gasoline and diesel. The two can live in a “co-culture” in a thin latex film, according to Lawrence P. Wackett, a professor of biochemistry, although much research remains to be done to make the organisms work as a system.

“A venture capital group might say it’s a little early for them,” Dr. Wackett said.

“It’s not all worked out, but that’s the spirit of Arpa-e,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be things that are 90 percent worked out, but more what-if kinds of things.”

A second grant will go to a group led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is trying to develop an all-liquid metal battery. It could smooth out the intermittent flow of power from sources like wind mills and solar cells, displacing sources that emit heat-trapping gases like coal, oil or gas.

A third would finance research by United Technologies to use enzymes, which are essentially the digestive juices of living things, to capture carbon dioxide from the stacks of power plants. Existing systems can do the job but consume 30 percent of the power plant’s energy in the process.

Crucial to the new strategy is using top-notch scientists to evaluate the projects, Dr. Chu said. He said that he had written this year to university presidents around the country and asked them to assign their “best and brightest” to the project, and that that 500 top scientists had responded. They sifted through 3,600 preliminary proposals and selected 300 to be developed into fuller proposals before choosing 37 to finance in the first round.

With only about 1 percent of the proposals receiving money, Dr. Chu said, the Energy Department might decide to arrange a “fair” at which venture capitalists could size up some of the others.

The Arpa-e grants are part of a flurry of energy announcements by the Obama administration. In a speech on Tuesday in Arcadia, Fla., President Obama plans to discuss $3.4 billion in spending from the stimulus package to improve the electricity grid. White House officials said the government money would be matched by as much as $5 billion in private spending.

In Arcadia, the site of one of the nation’s largest solar panel arrays, Mr. Obama will also highlight the administration’s commitment to renewable energy sources like the wind and sun, White House officials said. He will also emphasize the importance of upgrading electric transmission systems to improve reliability and reduce energy losses.

The so-called smart grid will include meters for homes and businesses that allow customers to monitor their energy use.

John M. Broder contributed reporting.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Emphasis is on ecomomics as the nuclear industry remains poised for a resurgence

The nuclear energy industry refuses to go away. Even though economics has apparently replaced safety as the number one concern (and what about radioactive wastes?) a number of utilities are anxious to build nuclear plants if and when the economic context or political climate changes.

Wind energy continues to be the biggest renewable energy obstacle to a nuclear resurgence. The economics of land-based wind farms compete favorably with natural gas and even coal in some instances. It's no contest if externalities like greenhouse gas emissions are taken into account. Offshore wind promises to deliver similar results in the foreseeable future if we quickly start climbing the learning curve by getting Cape Wind up and running.

It is true that the nuclear industry in countries like France (where nuclear energy provides about 80% of the electricity used) have amassed flawless safety records over the years. Nonetheless as Bucky Fuller often reminded us, there's a reason why Nature determined (at least in our case) that the optimal distance between a natural nuclear reactors and our life-supporting planet is 93 million miles.

I will continue to post stories when the nuclear energy rears its head. Just to keep us all on our toes. (GW)

Nuclear Power Renaissance?

Thirty years after Three Mile Island, nuclear is still too risky. But now the risks have shifted from physical to financial.

By Matthew L. Wald
Technology Review
November/December 2009

Thirty years ago, in March 1979, a group of badly trained operators in the control room at Three Mile Island's unit 2 confronted a minor malfunction. The problem, a simple pump shutdown, was quickly made worse by an instrument panel that failed to inform the operators about a stuck valve and by an alarm system that overloaded after the first malfunction. The operators botched an attempt to solve the rapidly escalating problem, allowing a small leak to drain most of the cooling water out of the $700 million reactor. In about two hours, they converted America's newest nuclear plant, which had begun commercial operation just three months earlier, into a $1 billion liability.

The event at the reactor, near Harrisburg, PA, provoked near-panic, and although government reports said the maximum possible radiation exposure was too small to have much effect on human health, one major casualty was the outlook for the nuclear industry itself. The meltdown did not end the first round of nuclear construction in this country; 50 reactors already under construction were completed after the accident, and orders for new plants had effectively ceased anyway. (The last order for a nuclear plant that was actually built came in 1973.) But for years to come, it remained unthinkable to plan new reactors as part of the nation's energy portfolio.

Given pressures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel power plants, however, construction of nuclear plants could be poised to begin anew. The technology has grown more reliable and more efficient. Reactors now run 90 percent of the hours in a year, compared with less than 60 percent in 1979, effectively cutting the capital cost of a kilowatt-hour by about a third. Meanwhile, other sources of power have started looking a lot worse. Congress seems likely to put some kind of price tag on carbon dioxide emissions, so the price of coal-produced electricity could rise by 30 to 50 percent. The price of natural gas is low right now but has been more volatile than the price of oil in the past few months as surging supplies and lackluster demand play leapfrog. Such volatility makes electric companies reluctant to rely heavily on gas.

All the same, the nuclear industry faces tremendous risks, though their nature has changed since 1979. As the possibility of an accident that panics or injures the neighbors has diminished, the likelihood has grown that even a properly functioning new reactor will be unable to pay for itself. And changes in the utility industry since 1979 mean that this time, the money a company wastes may be its own.

Whether new nuclear plants are a good bet economically depends on three factors, all now in flux. First is the cost of a new reactor. In 2005, a few would-be reactor builders said they could construct a facility generating 1.2 to 1.6 gigawatts for $2,000 per kilowatt of capacity. Now, they put the cost at $4,000 per kilowatt. Neither price includes interest charges accrued during construction, which could be substantial if the job takes more than the five years or so that the builders predict--or if interest rates rise, as they are expected to. The Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium based in Palo Alto, CA, recently put the capital cost of a new coal plant at under $3,000 per kilowatt and that of a natural-gas plant at $800 per kilowatt.

The second factor is uncertainty about possible future competitors. If 10 years from now wind or solar plants, or coal plants that capture their carbon emissions, are able to deliver vast amounts of cheap power, the market price of electricity will fall, and plant owners may never see enough revenue to meet their costs.

The third factor is uncertainty about the price of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas. In the last year, the fuel cost for a kilowatt-hour generated from natural gas has varied from about 2.3 cents to about 9 cents. If a federal cap-and-trade system or a tax on carbon dioxide emissions is instituted, that is likely to add 0.5 to 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Add in 2 cents or more to recover the cost of building the plant, and the price of gas-fired power could make nuclear power look very attractive--or really overpriced.

A power-producing company that bets on natural gas can choose the size of its wager: a 100-megawatt plant, or a 500-megawatt or 1,500-megawatt one. Conventional nuclear plants come in only one size: jumbo. Some power companies have proposed smaller plants, but costs for factors like labor and security are mostly insensitive to size, so these costs per kilowatt-hour rise as the plant shrinks. Costs for engineering and materials are also greater per kilowatt-hour the smaller the plant is.

All these economic risks matter for nuclear power now, because the electricity marketplace has changed dramatically since the industry was deregulated in the 1990s. Before that, each plant's output was paid for by consumers, no matter what the cost. As a result, millions of consumers got stuck paying more than they should have, because their local utilities unwisely chose nuclear instead of coal or natural gas. The financial rules differed from state to state, but generally, once a plant was in service, a company could collect a specified return on its investment, and if a plant projected to cost $1 billion ended up costing $2 billion, the customers paid.

In today's electricity market, however, producers in many states are paid according to market price. Companies build a plant for whatever price they can manage and sell electricity for whatever price they can get. If a reactor produces power at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour and a natural-gas plant produces it at 12 cents, the reactor builder makes a killing. Reverse the numbers and the reactor builder gets killed.

The electricity industry won't build much of anything these days without government help, in the form of loan guarantees, production tax credits, guaranteed markets, or, preferably, all three. Wind now gets bigger production subsidies than nuclear on every kilowatt-hour generated, proportionally more loan guarantees, and a guaranteed market: many states insist on a certain quota of renewable energy, sometimes regardless of cost. In contrast, nuclear power receives production subsidies on only the first 6,000 megawatts of capacity (four or five reactors' output), and its pool of loan guarantees is shrinking relative to the price of construction.

"Right now, the federal incentives are much more conducive to pushing forward renewables," said Jim Miller, the chief executive of the energy company PPL, in June. His company, based in Allentown, PA, would like to build a reactor but will not do so without federal loan guarantees. It will not get them, at least not under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, in which Congress approved only enough to assist a handful of plants: $18.5 billion. "Nothing is currently in place to move the nuclear industry along at the pace people perceived it would move when the 2005 act was passed," Miller says.

The idea of the legislation was that Congress would spoon-feed financial aid to the first half-dozen or so new nuclear plants, and others would follow on their own once new designs were demonstrated and a reformed licensing process was in place. Now, it looks as if those half-dozen new reactors will be the limit of the "renaissance," unless more help is forthcoming. The industry lacks the votes in Congress to expand the loan-­guarantee program. Subsidies for wind and solar power are popular, in part because they can be justified as aid to emerging technologies. But many legislators feel that nuclear is less deserving of taxpayer support.

Even now, nuclear power has the potential to be economically attractive if costs and competition are favorable--and if overall demand for power remain strong, with high industrial use and limited improvements in efficiency.

All of that is possible. But the odds are probably not good enough for the nuclear industry to place a bet with its own money. Only the government can agree to back up that bet, and it has yet to do so.

Matthew L. Wald is a reporter at The New York Times. His feature "The Best Nuclear Option" appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Technology Review.

Copyright Technology Review 2009.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

'An Intellectual Hootenanny'

Wes Jackson wants to reinvent agriculture. If anyone is up to the task, it's him. Jackson is a visionary. Some consider him a radical. He believes that prairies should be the model for redesigning our agricultural systems.

To really reduce farming's dependence on fossil fuel inputs, we need to establish perennial crops as the foundation of our agricultural system. In fact, he's set about to genetically redesign some crops to create such a system.

Is that radical enough for you? (GW)

Prairie Pioneer Seeks To Reinvent The Way We Farm

By Richard Harris
October 21, 2009

We tend to think Earth can provide us with an endless bounty of food. But farming practices in most parts of the world can't work forever. Soil is constantly washing away, and what's left is gradually losing the nutrients it needs to sustain our crops.

In the prairies of Kansas lives Wes Jackson, a man who has spent his long and rich career trying to invent a new kind of agriculture — one that will last indefinitely.

Jackson seems like a good-ol'-boy farmer from the Plains. His hands are broad and strong, a plaid shirt covers his beefy belly, and he sounds every bit like the native son of Kansas that he is.

'An Intellectual Hootenanny'

On this autumn day, the 73-year-old is surrounded by several hundred neighbors, students and fellow travelers, all here for his annual Prairie Festival. Some came from thousands of miles to gather in Jackson's barn to share ideas about the future of the planet in general, and agriculture in particular.

"We have music, the barn dance. It's sort of an intellectual hootenanny!" he says.

Jackson is part scientist, part philosopher, part farmer. More than 30 years ago, he gave up his brief career as a professor to set up this 600-acre farm on the gently rolling uplands of Kansas. He calls it the Land Institute; it includes not only the barn and other out-buildings, but an office in a suburban-style ranch house, a lab building made partly of old telephone poles, and a comfortable, rustic home.

The 10,000-Year-Old Problem

In 1976, when the institute was founded, Jackson says a lot of time was "devoted to a search for sustainable alternatives in agriculture, energy, shelter, waste management."

This grand plan turned out to be too much to bite off all at once. So Jackson quickly tore down his bulky windmills and the old solar panels, and focused on the topic closest to his heart: trying to solve "the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture."

The problem, Jackson explains, is that agriculture in most places is based on practices that use up limited resources. The major grains, like wheat and corn, are planted afresh each year. When the fields are later plowed, they lose soil. The soil that remains in these fields loses nitrogen and carbon.

This worries Jackson because vast quantities of soil are washed out of the fields and down the rivers, and the soil that's left is gradually losing its nutrients.

Trying to figure out how to solve this problem, Jackson realized the answer was right in front of him. It was the patch of native prairie on his own farm — full of grasses from ankle to shoulder height, peppered with white and purple flowers, and surrounded by shrubs and cottonwood trees.

"Here is a steep, sloping bank with a lot of species diversity, featuring perennials," Jackson says. "This is what I call nature's wisdom."

Perennials are plants that put down strong roots 10 feet or more into the ground and hold the soil in place. Perennials live year-round, unlike annual crops that get planted every year. In Kansas, perennials survive the harsh winters and the blazing hot summers.

Native Vegetation Improving Soil

In contrast to fields that get plowed every year, native prairie vegetation actually improves the soil year after year. The amazing variety of plant life in this prairie also makes it resilient against disease.

"So I thought, why can't we solve this 10,000-year-old problem?" Jackson says. "The solution is to build an agriculture based on the way nature's ecosystems work."

This turned out to be both a major plant breeding challenge, and a social one. It's not easy to get farmers and the public at large to rethink what farms should ideally be — not just areas sacrificed to food production, but actually part of nature.

Jackson's been spreading this word through his annual prairie festival for the past 31 years.

Reinventing Crops

To make progress on the biological problem, Jackson recruited a handful of young and ambitious Ph.D. plant breeders. Their mission: nothing less than to reinvent the world's most important crops.

Jackson decided to figure out a way to breed grain crops so they can be planted once, actually replenish the soil, and be harvested year after year. One of the scientists Jackson brought to the Land Institute to work on this is a Minnesota farm boy turned plant breeder, Lee DeHaan.

"At the time I started here, they said, 'Let's put the youngest guy on wheat, because maybe he can see it through,' " DeHaan says. "We're not expecting it to be something that's real easy to do or something that we'll see the results of really soon."

The Perennial Wheat Project

DeHaan joined the institute in 2001, and his job is to crossbreed regular wheat with other grasses that survive year-round.

"We decided to really go at this aggressively and make a huge population of plants that are very diverse. So that first year, we made about 1,500 new plants."

It's taken DeHaan years and years, but as we look around the greenhouse today, we see the result of his work: hundreds of plants, sitting on waist-high benches, that are a cross between wheat and grasses that grow year-round.

DeHaan will soon plant them in the fields. He hopes that maybe — just maybe — up will sprout a wheat plant that produces lots of grain and actually tastes something like wheat, and has the hardiness of a native prairie grass.

Waiting For The Big Breakthrough

"It's like scratching off lottery tickets," DeHaan says. "Maybe there's something amazing in there. We'll see. That's why we love to be plant breeders. Maybe this is the year when you make the big breakthrough. That's kind of the fun of it."

DeHaan has taken a native wheat relative that's already a perennial, and hybridized it to produce grains that are more like the wheat we actually grind into flour. They call this new kind of wheat Kernza.

Other scientists at the Land Institute are working on perennial sunflowers and perennial sorghum. Sorghum is another important staple crop around the world, though it's grown mostly for cattle food here in the United States.

It all takes lots of time, but Wes Jackson is a patient man.

"We don't feel so bad about talking about 50 years any more. Because we're not going to solve the climate problem in 50 years," says Jackson. "We're not going to solve the problem of too many people in 50 years."

The World Living Beyond Its Means

Climate change and increased populations around the world are problems that are all tied together, Jackson says. They all point to a world that's living beyond its means. Jackson's goal is to create a whole new system that will let us live sustainably.

"You start with a resilient food system," he says. "And we don't have one."

Maybe someday we will. As the silver-haired Kansan is fond of saying: If you're working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.

Friday, October 23, 2009

“We have a billion hungry people today"

Hunger still plagues more than a billion poor people around the world today. This despite the fact that there is enough food to feed everyone -- but obviously not enough wealth. In fact, the global agricultural system is being poorly managed -- relying on too many chemical inputs and too much (wasted) water. Pressures from an increasing population and the effects of climate change are making the mismanagement more apparent than ever. The system lacks the kind of robustness and resiliency that can adapt to change.

Look for the advocates of genetically modified foods to make their move. (GW)

Experts Worry as Population and Hunger Grow

By Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times
October 22, 2009

ROME — Scientists and development experts across the globe are racing to increase food production by 50 percent over the next two decades to feed the world’s growing population, yet many doubt their chances despite a broad consensus that enough land, water and expertise exist.

The number of hungry people in the world rose to 1.02 billion this year, or nearly one in seven people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, despite a 12-year concentrated effort to cut the number.

The global financial recession added at least 100 million people by depriving them of the means to buy enough food, but the numbers were inching up even before the crisis, the United Nations noted in a report last week.

“The way we manage the global agriculture and food security system doesn’t work,” said Kostas G. Stamoulis, a senior economist at the organization. “There is this paradox of increasing global food production, even in developing countries, yet there is hunger.”

Agronomists and development experts who gathered in Rome last week generally agreed that the resources and technical knowledge were available to increase food production by 50 percent in 2030 and by 70 percent in 2050 — the amounts needed to feed a population expected to grow to 9.1 billion in 40 years.

But the conundrum is whether the food can be grown in the developing world where the hungry can actually get it, at prices they can afford. Poverty and difficult growing conditions plague the places that need new production most, namely sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

A straw poll of the experts in Rome on whether the world will be able to feed its population in 40 years underscored the uncertainty surrounding that question: 73 said yes, 49 said no and 15 abstained.

The track record of failing to feed the hungry haunts the effort. But other important uncertainties also give pause. The effect climate change will have on weather and crops remains an open question. The so-called green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s ended the specter of mass famines then, but the environmental cost of chemical fertilizers and heavy irrigation has spurred a bitter divide over the right ingredients for a second one.

In addition, the demand for biofuels may use up crop land. And as scores of food riots in 2008 showed, oil prices and other income shocks can quickly drive millions more people into hunger, sending ripples of instability around the world.

A summit meeting of world leaders in Rome on Nov. 16 is expected to address the future food demands. Since July, the richest countries have ostensibly committed more than $22 billion to the effort over the next three years.

The final meeting of Group of 8 leaders that month in L’Aquila, Italy, started with $15 billion already on the table. Then President Obama gave a speech evoking the Kenyan village where his father herded goats as a child. In countless villages like it, millions of people face hunger daily, Mr. Obama said, and after he finished speaking, the pledges jumped by $5 billion, according to several officials present.

Yet those pledges remain murky. Senior diplomats estimate that less than a third to slightly more than half of the money represents new commitments that had not already been made, with the rest being repackaged existing aid.

Washington and its European allies have also jostled over putting the money in a World Bank account, the American preference, or working through United Nations or domestic aid agencies, an approach the Europeans favor. An initial American proposal of one unified fund was largely rejected. How policy and priorities will be established on a worldwide scale is also a central negotiating hurdle.

“The good news is that the political class considers this important and wants to do something about it,” said one financial official involved in the talks who was not authorized to speak publicly. “But nobody has 20 billion and spare change in their sock drawer.”

The United States, with the largest pledge, $3.5 billion, organized a conference in Washington along with Italy last month in an unsuccessful attempt to nail down the pledges so that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton could announce the results during the United Nations General Assembly.

“It is a little bit difficult — I cannot give you a precise figure per country,” said Renzo Rosso, a senior Italian aid official. “But the most difficult part will be to make them all work together.”

Mrs. Clinton often calls agriculture aid a critical issue, saying the administration supports domestic efforts in developing nations and improvements in production by small farmers, particularly women. Philip J. Crowley, a department spokesman, said, “We are trying to shift away from emergency aid toward agricultural development.”

Agriculture was once a pillar of international aid programs, with World Bank figures showing that it constituted 17 percent of all foreign assistance in 1980, said Christopher Delgado, the bank’s agriculture adviser. But the emphasis declined as the number of hungry people dropped to its lowest recent level, 825 million people, around 1996. By 2000, agriculture aid had shrunk to 4 percent, he said, although it has since ticked up slowly.

World leaders often evoke the green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s as an inspiration for future progress. The original revolution employed new seeds, fertilizers and irrigation in Asia and Latin America to stave off famines affecting millions.

But the green revolution’s concentration on wheat and rice would be impossible to copy in parts of Asia and in Africa, experts say, noting that Africa has seven or eight staple crops, wildly varied growing conditions and only an estimated 7 percent of farmland irrigated.

Then there is the question of genetically modified crops. No issue provokes such an emotional division among agronomists, who debate whether they constitute the building blocks of a second green revolution or a health menace.

“Who is steering this fear and global paranoia about the G.M. cotton and all these G.M. crops?” said Hans P. Binswanger-Mkhize, a South African agriculture consultant. “Show us where the corpses are — the corpses of earthworms, the corpses of bees, the corpses of antelopes and the corpses of humans. Nobody has yet ever shown us a corpse.”

Opponents respond that organic farming is critical to producing healthy food and reducing global warming. Widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers has contributed heavily to greenhouse gases, and the vast water resources required for irrigation are not sustainable, they contend.

“We have a billion hungry people today, so we can’t say the green revolution solved the problem,” said Markus Arbenz, the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. “We can’t just cut and paste the solution from the 1960s with G.M. crops.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Restoring the taste for science and mathematics

"There is no energy crisis," Bucky Fuller often reminded us. "We only have a crisis of ignorance." Fuller was talking about something more than what is generally referred to as science illiteracy. For him, science as taught in our schools does not really convey the truth about how the Universe works. Most importantly Bucky understood that "Universe is not conforming to a three-dimensional perpendicular-parallel frame of reference."

Nonetheless getting kids excited about and competent in science and math is an important step toward establishing a citizenry capable of understanding the most pressing issues and promising opportunities facing society. (GW)

"Training Citizens Who Are Well-Informed About Scientific Choices"

By Brigitte Perucca
Le Monde
October 2009

Educator Florence Robine notes that countries all around the world are waking up to the importance of a high-quality scientific education for everyone in order to have a knowledgeable citizenry capable of making informed choices on issues of public policy.

An astonishing convergence: A great number of countries, from China to India by way of Europe, worried by the decrease in scientific vocations, have undertaken an overhaul of their teaching of the sciences. With a change in perspective, however. The primary reason invoked to justify these reforms is no longer economic competitiveness, but the necessity of recreating a sort of democratic contract between citizens and scientific development.

Initiating children from the earliest ages in order that - when they have become adults - they may make "well-informed choices" as General Inspector for Physics Florence Robine puts it. She coordinated an issue of the Revue internationale d'éducation (International Review of Education) devoted to "a revival in the teaching of the sciences."

Le Monde: Many countries deem it necessary to reform their science curriculum ...

Florence RobineThe litany of the decline in scientific vocations has, in fact, done much to feed the public discourse on education the last few years. Even though it's about a problem with respect to economic development capacities in the context of international competition, the debate has recently shifted. Now, countries are realizing the importance of a high-quality scientific education for everyone, not only for training future scientists. A reform has been underway in England since 2004; China launched a pilot program based on "learning by doing"; France continues to actively promote "getting our hands dirty"; India is in the process of giving up rigid apprenticeship norms in favor of experimental activities ...

Training well-informed citizens, capable of debating the critical choices before us with respect to energy sources, biotechnologies, health, access to food and water, and go beyond fears and beliefs: that's the challenge. And to meet it, it's necessary to expose young people as soon as possible to the scientific approach. Yes, I said approach, that is to say, the modes of scientific thought, the way scientific results we use to understand the world that surrounds us a little better are constructed and validated - not memorization of formulae and principles designed to solve homework problems or to determine academic selection.

These reforms are designed to end elitist systems. Should we see them as a form of scientist self-criticism?

I don't believe scientists are guilty in this question of elitism, or else they're guilty of allowing it to happen, of not having adequately broken with the superb isolation of science and extended a hand to the public on the grounds that the issue is one of domains that obviously require a decryption key. Yet, there are many scientists who, alongside educators, have been sounding the alarm. The official report is in: neglecting the training of the citizen, forgetting in the first place to develop a taste for the share of culture science transmits, teaching too quickly imposed an abstraction beyond reach with problems the meaning of which eludes students.

For China, reform in the teaching of the sciences even prepares "sustainable social development" ...

It's an idea rich with promise. That scientific education should convey those values linked to democracy and freedom, to the personal development of individuals, is a promise for a future and for better understanding among peoples. That China and India should proclaim these objectives is not the least cause for satisfaction.

Sweden has undertaken "to restore the taste for mathematics." A central question?

Sweden has, in fact, undertaken a wide-scale reform in the teaching of mathematics, with support from the highest political levels. One of the first axes has been to work on a clearer representation of the role of mathematics in daily and professional life. There again, it's a matter of changing traditional depictions. The Swedes want to show their children that math nestles everywhere. The production of abstract reasoning is an important aspect of mathematical activity, but it must come in its time.


Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"The situation is still not optimistic"

What follows is an sobering counterpoint to yesterday's post on China's commitment to greening its energy infrastructure in an effort to reduce its carbon emissions. While the Chinese government's aggressive development of clean energy technologies is certainly commendable, there efforts must be viewed from within the context of the greatest rural-urban migration in the history of the world.

Having said this, I think there is still room for optimism despite the title of today's post. Bucky Fuller reminded us that optimism stems from knowing that options exist. However, success is never guaranteed. We still have to work hard to exercise our options. (GW)

China's urbanisation to hinder "low carbon" development, says study

Experts predict that rapidly expanding cities mean CO2 emissions will peak no sooner than 2035
Yvonne Chan
October 20, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Will China leave America in the low-carbon dust?

The good news is that China and the United States are in a race for clean energy technology supremacy. It would seem to bode well that the world's two biggest carbon emitters are committed to leading the world in the development and deployment of solar and wind energy.

However, this is a race in which there may not be a clear winner. In fact, it seems clear that each country and the rest of the world would be better off if U.S. and Chinese leaders could reach an agreement to collaborate in developing this important emerging global industry. (GW)

A race to win the clean-tech market, or an opportunity to cooperate?

By Lisa Friedman
Environment & Energy Daily
October 19, 2009

The third in an occasional series on China.

BAODING, China -- Water once ruled this teeming urban center, back when its most famous commodity was vegetables, when the farms outnumbered the apartments, and before the town's landmark 11-story building was surpassed by hundreds twice that size.

Equipment manufacturing was a major part of the economy in this one-time agricultural center about 85 miles southwest of Beijing, but the region's water quality also made film production one of the city's top industries. Digital cameras put a swift end to that, city leaders said. And so began the hunt for something new.

Baoding found it in "green" energy, specifically the manufacturing of wind turbines and solar photovoltaics (PV).

"We were searching for a new economy," said Lian Shujun, vice director of the administrative committee of Baoding National New and High-tech Industrial Development Zone.

"When we chose this PV industry, we didn't have another choice," he said. "The [film] market was shrinking, and we were looking for new opportunities to develop."

For Baoding, renewable energy production has never been about climate change, or even about helping China meet its goal of generating up to one-fifth of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It was always about the jobs. And now it has them: about 20,000 in Baoding devoted to the production of wind and solar energy technology in a city that now sustains about 180 clean-technology firms.

The city is the kind of success story that environmental activists in the United States love to tout -- and with good reason: In 2007, 12 percent of Baoding's gross domestic product came from clean energy production, and the city is trying to boost that to 40 by midcentury.

Moving from vegetables to renewables

The warnings are everywhere: Unless the United States invests heavily in renewable energy and imposes regulations that force a switch away from fossil fuels, China soon will leave America in the low-carbon dust.

"They can win this one," Andreas Merkl, director of global initiatives for ClimateWorks, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, said recently of China's chances in the green technology race.

Politicians and policymakers have sounded the alarm, as well. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced at a recent hearing that China is "going to lead us on solar," adding, "If we don't get our act together, we're going to be chasing China in three or four years."

Likewise, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern, as he works to prod members of Congress who are nervous about losing manufacturing competitiveness to China to embrace an international emissions pact, has been going around the country telling leaders, "We may spend the next few years pushing China to do more, but will then spend all the years after that chasing them as they hurtle profitably down the road to the low-carbon transformation."

But the full story of China's clean energy development, experts there and in the United States acknowledge, is a lot more complicated. The reality, they say, is a wind and solar industry hindered by production quality problems, heavily subsidized, lacking Ameica's technological innovation, and beset by the economic crisis as well as by a backlash against feed-in tarrifs in Germany and Spain.

"When we talk about China on its way to being a leader in the clean-technology sector, it's useful to parse out what that means," said Julian Wong, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress who writes a blog called "The Green Leap Forward."

A more difficult shift than some people think

"Are we talking about innovation in creating new intellectual property? Are we talking about manufacturing? Deployment and installation? Exports?" Wong asked. "Somehow, the notion that China is going to be a clean-technology leader strikes people as odd. They say, 'Isn't the U.S. leading in that?' Absolutely it is. That's not China's strong suit at the moment."

Added Joanna Lewis, a Georgetown University professor and expert in China's energy outlook, "In many ways, China is a few years ahead of us in promoting renewable energy technologies. Many of the signs we see coming out of China are just amazing growth, but also big challenges."

Where China blows the United States away, Wong and others say, is in manufacturing. Currently, China is one of the largest manufacturers of solar-energy products in the world. Baoding, for example, is home to Yingli Green Energy, one of the world's largest solar firms, which last month was busy with the new construction of a new operations base.

The municipal government of Shanghai recently launched an initiative to install PV systems on 100,000 of the city's 6 million rooftops. Arizona-based First Solar Inc. is planning to build the world's largest solar plant in China's Gobi Desert, a 2-gigawatt project that will generate enough electricity to power 3 million Chinese homes.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government recently announced a "Golden Sun" program for the deployment of 500 megawatts of large-scale solar PV projects throughout the country.

Lewis noted that currently, more than 90 percent of the solar panels manufactured in China are exported to the European Union and other countries where the market is subsidized.

Jump-starting a domestic solar market

"That really had been propping up the Chinese industry," Lewis said. But when the global economy declined just as China started to ramp up solar production, some quick gear-shifting was in order. Without a domestic market, Lewis said, the Chinese government opted to create one.

The current stimulus funding to help support the industry "is something you never had before" in China, Lewis said. "There's some very impressive policies in place, and you could see solar energy really start to take off there."

Still, Wong noted, quantity doesn't necessarily translate into high-tech quality where PV panels in China are concerned. "They're great at manufacturing, but China is not where you get the most efficient panels," he said.

Wind has its own story to tell.

According to the Center for American Progress, China's total wind energy capacity doubled in each of the past four years. Now the nation is expected to blow past the United States to become the largest installer of new capacity in the world. Meanwhile, a recent study by Harvard and Beijing's Tsinghua University found that wind power could supply 15 percent of China's electricity by 2030 with a $900 billion investment.

In Hebei province, the China Energy Conservation Investment Corp. (CECIC)-- a state-owned company specializing in environmental protection -- has launched a 1-gigawatt wind farm among the grazing cows and sweeping Inner Mongolia grasslands.

So far, the subsidiary company, CECIC Wind Power (Zhangbei) Yunwei Co., has installed 200 megawatts of power, and a few years ago, it started producing turbines, as well. The factory has the largest wind capacity in China, employs 45 people, and is planning a model storage base on site.

"There was an explosive change in 2006," the company's general manager, Hui Deng, explains. "Since the government really thinks this is the right thing to do, they invested lots of money into wind." It's transforming the local economy, too, Hui maintains.

Plowing money into wind

This region, which in ancient times connected central China with Mongolia, is one of the most poverty-stricken in the country. Outside of some agricultural processing and a sugar factory, the high altitude and poor soil have made farming a bad gamble on these plains. At the nearby village of Bai Bulou, plastic tarps are sealed over the windows and cows graze among the poles of the windmills.

Local residents say the wind farm provided some temporary jobs but few permanent ones. Still, Hui said, he has seen the industry steadily improve the county's economic prospects.

"When we first moved here in 2002, it was really poor. You could barely see any high buildings," he said. But last year, the wind industry brought in 200 million yuan (about $20 million) in taxes. "Definitely, wind is going to be the top industry contributing to the local economy soon," he said.

Georgetown University's Lewis said that as recently as five years ago, most wind turbines in China were foreign-owned. Now, about three-quarters of the capacity is from Chinese companies. Still, she said, there are gaps even in this success story.

"From the outside, it looks like China is about to dominate on wind. But once you dig down, you see the market has shifted," she said.

But, she added, the data that are coming in through China's involvement in a U.N.-led offset program are starting to indicate that wind capacity is low and the energy technology is not performing well there. The reasons range from poor wind resources in some cities to inadequate mapping and in some cases lower-quality turbine production.

Manufacturing skills, but product quality needs work

Wong noted that the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism, by which European and other regulated companies could offset their emissions by funding clean energy projects in developing countries, helped catalyze the wind industry in China. But the zooming capacity, he pointed out, "doesn't necessarily translate into the amount of energy generated." The full extent of China's wind generation still has to wait for a build-up of the country's electricity grid and a marked improvement in the quality of the country's turbines, he said.

A new study out just last week by Industrial Info Resources found that China's wind power manufacturing is "excessively over-developed," with the Inner Mongolia region alone having an installed wind power capacity of 3,000 megawatts. The area is expected to top 5,000 megawatts by the end of 2010.

Meanwhile, the question remains: How much of an impact is all this renewable energy development having on China's emissions? So far, analysts said, not much.

China's original goal was to develop 15 percent of its energy generation from renewable sources by 2020, a goal it is poised to surpass. But at the moment, wind and solar energy still accounts for only about 1 percent of the coal-dependent country's energy.

Analysts said that while China is starting to subsidize solar use domestically, the subsidies still remain low overall and are not yet able to make the green technology competitive with coal. But even with a greater push, Lewis said, renewable energy is likely only going to be one piece of a climate strategy that ultimately will need to directly address rampant rising coal production.

Meanwhile, policy experts argued, the United States and China need not look at clean energy production as a "race."

"Overall, the entire world stands to benefit from China's ability to manufacture renewable energy technologies," Lewis said. "This will make these technologies more affordable and accessible, particularly in the developing world.

"It doesn't need to be a competition," she said. "We're going to need a lot of them."