Monday, November 30, 2009

"...buying diplomatic support by giving away land’’

No matter how you slice this one, it doesn't seem like a very good idea. Ethiopian government officials are leasing some of their prime farmland to rich foreign nations so those nations may use it to ensure their food security. Large agribusiness concerns are scooping up the long-term leases (some for as long as 99 years).

Experience teaches that absentee farmers -- especially those practicing industrialized agriculture generally show little interest in nurturing the land. Despite the reassurances offered by UN representatives, I'm willing to bet that these foreign agribusinessmen will extract as much as they can from the land in as short a time period as possible and then move to secure new leases when the land is exhausted. (GW)

Wealthy nations outsource crops to Ethiopia’s farmland

Trend is driven in part by last year’s global food crisis

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post
November 29, 2009

BAKO, Ethiopia - In recent months, the Ethiopian government began marketing abroad one of the hottest commodities in an increasingly crowded and hungry world: farmland.

“Why Attractive?’’ reads one glossy poster with photos of green fields and a map outlining swaths of the country available at bargain-basement prices. “Vast, fertile, irrigable land at low rent. Abundant water resources. Cheap labor. Warmest hospitality.’’

This impoverished and chronically food-insecure Horn of Africa nation is rapidly becoming one of the world’s leading destinations for the booming business of land leasing, by which relatively rich countries and investment firms are securing 40- to 99-year contracts to farm vast tracts of land.

Governments across Southeast Asia, Latin America, and especially Africa are seizing the chance to attract this new breed of investors, wining and dining executives, creating land-leasing agencies and land catalogs to showcase their offerings of earth. In Africa alone, experts estimate that about 50 million acres - roughly the size of Nebraska - have been leased in the past two years.

The trend is driven in part by last year’s global food crisis. Relatively wealthy countries are shoring up their food supplies by growing staple crops abroad. The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for instance, is shifting wheat production to Africa. The government of India, where land is crowded and overfarmed, is offering incentives to companies to carve out mega farms across the continent.

Increasingly, though, purely profit-seeking companies are snatching up land, making a simple, if somewhat grim, calculation. As one Saudi-backed businessman here put it, “The population of the world is increasing dramatically, so land and food supplies will be short, demand will be higher, and prices will rise.’’

The scale and pace of the land scramble has alarmed policymakers and others concerned about the implications for food security in countries such as Ethiopia, where officials recently appealed for food aid for about 6 million people as drought devastates parts of East Africa. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is in the midst of a food security summit in Rome where some of the 62 heads of state attending are to discuss a code of conduct to govern land deals, which are being struck with little public input.

“These contracts are pretty thin,’’ said David Hallam, a deputy director at the UN organization. “You see statements from ministers where they’re basically promising everything with no controls, no conditions.’’

The harshest critics of the practice conjure bleak images of poor Africans starving as food is hauled off to rich countries. Some express concern that decades of industrial farming will leave good land spoiled even as local populations surge. And skeptics also say the political contexts cannot be ignored.

“We don’t trust this government,’’ said Merera Gudina, a leading opposition figure here who accuses Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia of using the land policy to hold on to power. “We are afraid this government is buying diplomatic support by giving away land.’’

But many experts are cautiously hopeful, saying that big agribusiness could feed millions by industrializing agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, where about 80 percent of its 75 million people are farmers who plow their fields with oxen.

“If these deals are negotiated well, I tell you, it will change the dynamics of the food economy in this country,’’ said Mafa Chipeta, the UN group’s representative in Ethiopia, dismissing the worst-case scenarios. “I can’t believe Ethiopia or any other government would allow their country to be used like an empty womb. The human spirit would not allow it.’’

Few countries have embraced the trend as zealously as Ethiopia, where hard-baked eastern deserts fade into spectacularly lush and green western valleys fed by the Blue Nile. Only a quarter of the country’s estimated 175 million fertile acres is being farmed.

Desperate for foreign currency, the government of former Marxist rebels who once proclaimed “land to the tiller!’’ has set aside more than 6 million acres for agribusiness. Lured with 40-year leases and tax holidays, investors are going on farm shopping sprees, crisscrossing the country on chartered flights to pick out their swaths of Ethiopian soil.

Indian companies have committed $4.2 billion. Anand Seth, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations, described Africa as “the next big thing’’ in investment opportunities and markets.

As he stood on a little hill overlooking 30,000 acres of rich, black soil, Hanumantha Rao, chief general manager of the Indian company Karuturi Agro Products, agreed. He said the Ethiopian government has imposed few requirements on his company.

“From here,’’ Rao said, “you can see the past and the future of Ethiopian agriculture.’’

From there it was possible to see a river designated for irrigating cornfields and rice paddies; it is no longer open for locals to water their cows. Several shiny green tractors bounced across the 6-mile-long field where teff, the local grain, once grew.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Is sustainable development transforming America into regional soviets?

I'll never forget the look of disbelief (bordering on disgust) when I admitted to my friend that on occasion I tune in Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio talk shows while driving. He asked why would I do such a thing? My response was (and is) because, among other things, I want to know how they are influencing public opinion on important issues like global climate change and how they are characterizing those of us who do not share their views.

Today's post is a case in point. Did you know that if you believe in ideas like sustainable development, consensus decision making, collaborations, smart growth, land trusts, community supported agriculture, global warming or community visioning that you are a "Marxist Utopian" working to undermine private property rights and impose a Global Governance system on society? (GW)

Sen. Dodd: U.N. facilitator of 'Marxist utopia'

By Henry Lamb
November 28, 2009

When the term “Sustainable Development” first entered the world, it was defined to be:

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The term and the definition are the creation of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, then vice-chair of the International Socialist Party.

To give meaning to this grandiose definition, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development adopted Agenda 21, signed by 179 nations, including the United States. This document is a 40-chapter laundry list of recommendations to create "Sustainable Communities."

Sen. Christopher Dodd is facilitating these U.N. recommendations through his "Livable Communities Act" (S. 1619), which further defines the term this way:

"The term 'sustainable development' means a pattern of resource use designed to create livable communities by:
(A) providing a variety of safe and reliable transportation choices;
(B) providing affordable, energy-efficient, and location-efficient housing choices for people of all income levels, ages, races, and ethnicities;
(C) supporting, revitalizing, and encouraging the growth of communities and maximizing the cost effectiveness of existing infrastructure;
(D) promoting economic development and economic competitiveness;
(E) preserving the environment and natural resources;
(F) protecting agricultural land, rural land, and green spaces; and
(G) supporting public health and improving the quality of life for residents of and workers in a community."

Dodd's bill will authorize the appropriation of billions of dollars to bribe states and local communities to transform the nation into soviet-styled communities where freedom is sacrificed for the utopian vision of sustainable development.

Dodd's bill will create two new grant programs, and two new bureaucracies, with $100 million authorized for "Comprehensive Planning Grants." These grants are available only to multijurisdictional organizations that are defined in the bill, which will assure comprehensive planning on a regional basis. "Sustainability Challenge Grants" are offered on the same multijurisdictional basis. Nearly $4 billion is authorized over three years for grants to implement the projects set forth in the comprehensive plans.

The "Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities" is created within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This new agency is charged with issuing and overseeing the grants program and providing guidance and technical assistance in the transformation to "sustainable," or as Dodd describes them, "livable" communities. The other new bureaucracy is the "Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities." This is a new council consisting of cabinet secretaries – or their designees. The council is authorized to hire a staff to "ensure interagency coordination of federal policy on sustainable development."

The United Nations has a similar agency. It's called the DOEM: Designated Officials on Environmental Matters.

As a basis for his legislation, Dodd lists 20 "findings" which may or may not be true, but certainly do not provide an accurate picture. For example, he says that between 1980 and 2000, population growth in 99 urban centers "consumed" 16 million acres of rural land. What he did not say is that all urban land in all the cities occupies only 60 million acres, or 2.6 percent of the 2.3 billion acres in this country. Land designated as "wilderness," however, occupies more than 107 million acres. Wilderness is land on which no human activity – other than walking carefully – is allowed.

Dodd's bill, like all sustainable development propaganda, paints a warm and fuzzy picture of what "livable" or "sustainable" communities should be. The propaganda fails to point out that in order to achieve this Marxist utopia, government has to enforce the vision. This means that people must live where government says they must live; in homes that meet the government's design criteria; and travel to work in vehicles approved by the government.

The end result of the comprehensive land-use plan is to draw lines on a map, which deprives individuals of private property rights whose land is outside the urban boundary zones. The value of land inside urban boundary zones skyrockets, as does the cost of living for all who reside there.

There is a free, detailed, 3-part video presentation available here, that explains sustainable development quite thoroughly.

Dodd's bill goes a long way to transforming America into what looks a lot like regional soviets where unelected agency appointees draft a plan by which all must live, and then enforce the plan with the power of law.

Such a place cannot be described as "the land of the free." Nor can it be called "the home of the brave," if voters allow this transformation to continue.

Henry Lamb is the author of "The Rise of Global Governance," chairman of Sovereignty International and founder of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO) and Freedom21 Inc..

Friday, November 27, 2009

Aquaculture and food security

I remember a conversation I had with Ron Zweig a few decades ago who, at the time was the director of aquaculture research at the New Alchemy Institute. He said that it was just a matter of time before the majority of fish that people consume would be raised on fish farms. Even then he could see that the hunter/gathering era of fishing was coming to an end. (GW)

Fish farming seen driving food security

27 November 2009

As global fish stocks continue to plunge, fish farming is seen as a way of contributing to food security. The EU has pledged to increase the competitiveness of European aquafarming to meet a growing appetite for seafood, but policymakers stress that this must go hand-in-hand with farming to restore fish stocks.


According to the European Commission, more than 150 million of the world's poor depend on fishing and related activities such as processing and trade for their livelihoods.

The UN stresses that the catches of subsistence fishermen provide essential nourishment for poor communities across Africa, Asia, much of Latin America and islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As for food security and health, fish are estimated to provide over 25% of animal protein intake in many developing countries, and serve as valuable supplements in diets lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

Meanwhile, international trade in fish is booming. Up to 60% of the total value of the world catch comes from developing-country waters, meaning products of a high commercial value, such as frozen shrimps and tuna, are exported to developed countries.

When global fish prices quadrupled in the 1990s, many producers sold their traditional fisheries on the global market. While developing countries are taking a growing share of international trade, with exports providing valuable foreign exchange, the UN fears that diverting fish and fish products away from local communities and developing regions may be depriving needy people of a "traditionally cheap but highly nutritious food".

The Commission acknowledges that while EU support for the fisheries sector in developing countries has contributed to the industry's development, this aid has not had a significant impact on fighting poverty and achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty and hunger.

The EU executive is thus planning to review the external dimension of its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to take better account of third countries' food security strategies.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over 70% of the world's fish species are already either fully exploited or depleted. And while the impact of global overfishing is typically measured in environmental and economic terms, depleted fish stocks also threaten the food security of millions of people who are dependent on fish for food.

While global consumption of fish and seafood will continue to rise, the UN stresses that limited stocks and overfishing mean rising demand cannot be met by catching wild fish alone.

Aquaculture is seen as one way to help satisfy growing demand for seafood and contribute to food security. Many agree that such techniques can pave the way for sustainable fish stocks.

EU fisheries policy under review

Although Europeans have been plundering their seas for decades, the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) continues to subsidise the fisheries industry, and therefore contributes further to the problem of over-fishing. Indeed, EU support for fleet modernisation has led to overcapacity in the bloc's fishing fleet in relation to the resources available. A recent NGO report showed that Spain tops the Union's overcapacity ranking (EurActiv 25/06/09).

While CFP reform has been long recognised as essential, it is equally clear that changing the policy will require genuine political leadership. EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg says the CFP in its current form "does not encourage responsible behaviour by either fishermen or politicians".

The European Commission is now seeking stakeholders' views on reforms outlined in an April 2009 Green Paper, and will present legislative proposals on resource conservation and fleet policy to member states and MEPs by 2012, with a view to the new CFP's entry into force in 2013.

Spectacular growth in aquaculture

Modern aquaculture - fish and aquatic food farming - is currently the world's fastest-growing food production sector, with an average worldwide growth rate of 6-8% per year. Global aquaculture has increased by a third since 2000, and currently provides around half of the world's seafood for human consumption. According to the Commission, the significant further growth potential of aquafarming makes it "a key part of the solution to meet future demand for fish".

While aquafarming is already a major economic activity in the EU, production by the EU-27 has stagnated since 2000 and the global boom in the sector is mainly driven by spectacular growth in Asia and South America. Amid growing consumer demand in Europe, imports of fish and shellfish now represent more than 60% of EU seafood consumption.

Meanwhile, the Commission believes that aquaculture represents a "golden opportunity" for Europe. "The global developments and the strategic importance of aquaculture in terms of food security contribute to give this sector a promising future," states an April 2009 communication from the EU executive on devloping a sustainable European aquaculture strategy.

However, the EU executive underlines that EU aquaculture development should not be allowed to undermine "the necessity to reduce and eventually eliminate the overfishing of wild stocks" and achieve sustainable exploitation of the ocean.

As for the world's poor, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) suggests that the outlook for fish and food security among the poor "is not especially good," because aquafarming is not likely to provide new employment on a significant scale and "competition for crowded resources is likely to intensify".

Climate change

Climate change is expected to affect food security, and fisheries and aquaculture are no exception. Those facing the most uncertainty are once again poor people who depend on fish for food.

While the impact of climate change on aquatic ecosystems, fisheries and aquaculture is still not fully understood, floods and droughts are expected to affect harvests from lakes and rivers. By impacting on aquatic ecosystems, climate change may also alter the distribution and production of fish, and change fish migration routes, spawning and feeding grounds and fishing seasons.

The Commission notes that climate change is already having an impact on Europe's seas by affecting the abundance and distribution of fish stocks. It stresses that "fisheries depend on healthy marine ecosystems" and says the new CFP can help to facilitate climate change adaptation efforts in the marine environment.

"Growing concerns about food security in the EU and worldwide make it ever more important to manage and exploit natural resources responsibly without jeopardising their future," according to the EU executive.

Next steps:

Eliminating the black-white gap for infant mortality

Children are our most precious renewable resource. Buckminster Fuller believed that every child born is the Universe's answer to a particular problem. That potential goes unrealized if poor prenatal care results in death or inadequate nutrition early in life prevents the healthy physical and mental development of the child.

In many parts of the country there is an alarming disparity in infant mortality rates between blacks and whites. That gap has been dramatically closed in Madison, Wisconsin. (GW)

Trying to Explain a Drop in Infant Mortality

MADISON, Wis. — Seven and a half months into Ta-Shai Pendleton’s first pregnancy, her child was stillborn. Then in early 2008, she bore a daughter prematurely.

Soon after, Ms. Pendleton moved from a community in Racine that was thick with poverty to a better neighborhood in Madison. Here, for the first time, she had a full-term pregnancy.

As she cradled her 2-month-old daughter recently, she described the fear and isolation she had experienced during her first two pregnancies, and the more embracing help she found 100 miles away with her third. In Madison, county nurses made frequent home visits, and she got more help from her new church.

The lives and pregnancies of black mothers like Ms. Pendleton, 21, are now the subject of intense study as researchers confront one of the country’s most intractable health problems: the large racial gap in infant deaths, primarily due to a higher incidence among blacks of very premature births.

Here in Dane County, Wis., which includes Madison, the implausible has happened: the rate of infant deaths among blacks plummeted between the 1990s and the current decade, from an average of 19 deaths per thousand births to, in recent years, fewer than 5.

The steep decline, reaching parity with whites, is particularly intriguing, experts say, because obstetrical services for low-income women in the county have not changed that much.

Finding out what went right in Dane County has become an urgent quest — one that might guide similar progress in other cities. In other parts of the state, including Milwaukee, Racine and two other counties, black infant death rates remain among the nation’s highest, surpassing 20 deaths per thousand in some areas.

Nationwide for 2007, according to the latest federal data, infant mortality was 6 per 1,000 for whites and 13 for blacks.

“This kind of dramatic elimination of the black-white gap in a short period has never been seen,” Dr. Philip M. Farrell, professor of pediatrics and former dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said of the progress in Dane County.

“We don’t have a medical model to explain it,” Dr. Farrell added, explaining that no significant changes had occurred in the extent of prenatal care or in medical technology.

Without a simple medical explanation, health officials say, the decline appears to support the theory that links infant mortality to the well-being of mothers from the time they were in the womb themselves, including physical and mental health; personal behaviors; exposure to stresses, like racism; and their social ties.

Those factors could in turn affect how well young women take care of themselves and their pregnancies.

Karen Timberlake, the Wisconsin secretary of health services, said that in Dane County, the likely explanation lay in “the interaction among a variety of interrelated factors.”

“Our challenge is,” Ms. Timberlake said, “how can we distill this and take it to other counties?”

Only about 5 percent of Dane County’s population is black, and the sharp drop in the mortality rate also tracked larger declines in the numbers of very premature and underweight births for blacks, said Dr. Thomas L. Schlenker, the county director of public health.

A three-year study, led by Dr. Gloria E. Sarto of the University of Wisconsin, is using tools including focus groups and research on pollution to compare the experiences of black mothers here with those in Racine County, which has the highest black infant mortality in the state.

It is not hard to imagine why death rates would be lower in Dane County than in Racine, which is more segregated and violent, or in Milwaukee, a larger city. Dane County has a greater array of public and private services, but pinpointing how they may have changed over the decade in ways that made a difference is the challenge.

Dr. Schlenker, the county health director, credits heightened outreach to young women by health workers and private groups. “I think it’s a community effect,” he said. “Pregnant women need to feel safe, cared for and valued. I believe that when they don’t, that contributes to premature birth and fetal loss in the sixth or seventh month.”

He pointed to services that started in the mid-90s and have gathered steam. For instance, a law center, ABC for Health, has increasingly connected poor women with insurance and medical services. He said local health maintenance organizations were now acting far more assertively to promote the health of prospective mothers.

And a federally supported clinic, Access Community Health Center, which serves the uninsured and others, has cared for a growing number of women using nurse-midwives, who tend to bond with pregnant women, spending more time on appointments and staying with them through childbirth.

County nurses visit low-income women at high risk of premature birth, providing transportation to appointments and referrals to antismoking programs or antidepression therapies. Another program sends social workers into some homes. The programs exist statewide, but in Milwaukee, Racine and other areas they do not appear to have achieved the same broad coverage, said Ms. Timberlake, the state health leader.

And community leaders in Dane County, shocked by high mortality rates, started keeping closer watch on young pregnant women.

“The African-American community in Madison is close-knit,” said Carola Gaines, a black leader and coordinator of Medicaid services for a private insurance plan.

Similar community efforts are now being promoted in other struggling cities.

Brandice Hatcher, 26, who recently moved into a new, subsidized apartment in Madison, spent her first 18 years in foster care in Chicago before moving two years ago.

When she learned last June that she was pregnant, Ms. Hatcher said, “I didn’t know how to be a parent and I didn’t know what services could help me.”

Over the summer she started receiving monthly visits from Laura Berger, a county nurse, who put her in touch with a dentist. That was not just a matter of comfort; periodontal disease elevates the risk of premature birth, increasing the levels of a labor-inducing chemical.

Ms. Hatcher had been living in a rooming house, but she was able to get help from a program that provided a security deposit for her apartment. She attained certification as a nursing assistant while awaiting childbirth.

Under a state program, a social worker visits weekly and helps her look for jobs. And she receives her prenatal care from the community center’s nurse-midwives. A church gave her baby clothes and a changing table.

Ms. Hatcher said she would not do anything to jeopardize her unborn baby’s prospects. She has named her Zaria and is collecting coins and bills in a glass jar, the start, she said, of Zaria’s personal savings account.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"On a good day the meter runs backwards"

It's difficult for me to understand why renewable energy technologies like wind turbines are held to higher standards than fossil fuel and nuclear power plants when it comes to finding a place to build and operate them.

Some people consider them eyesores that threaten to ruin bucolic and coastal vistas. Others, myself included. see them as iconic symbols of optimism that signal humanity is finally committed to living sustainably on this planet.

There's no question that siting large wind turbines becomes somewhat easier when the energy generated from them directly benefits hosting and abutting communities.

The little island and its big, green victory

The Independent

November 26, 2009

The Danish haven of Samso is one of the world's first industrialised places to become energy self-sufficient - a great boost for a country about to host a summit on climate change. Tony Paterson visits the windy isle

A ferocious force-nine gale whipped across the low grass and pine-dotted hummocks. The sky was all deep grey scudding cloud, the rain horizontal and hard. But in a sodden field, three so-called "harmonious" wind turbines were working flat out and pouring cash into the islanders' bank accounts. The huge blades of the 70ft windmills sliced through the rain like giant revolving scythes, their whooshing sound audible as you stood beneath, even through the howling gale. That the island of Samso is an ideal place to harness the power of the wind seemed blindingly obvious in the midst of this wild storm.

The inhabitants of this Danish isle seized upon wind's potential as a source of energy and money more than a decade ago. Since then the Baltic island has become one of the first industrialised places on the planet to qualify as being totally energy self-sufficient.

It is a major propaganda victory for a country that will shortly be hosting the world summit on climate change - in fact, Copenhagen delegates will be flown or ferried out here next month to see Samso for themselves. The island's inhabitants are proud of what they have achieved. "Being part of a project like this gives you a wonderful feeling of being in harmony with nature," resident Erik Andersen explained.

The 64-year-old cattle farmer has shares in a wind turbine, solar panels on his roof and runs his tractor on home-grown rape-seed oil. He feeds the mush that's left over to his cows. When all of his alternative energy sources are working, he delights in looking at the electricity meter that offsets his own power against what he has to import. "On a good day the meter runs backwards," he said.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Samso's inhabitants are all dyed-in-the-wool muesli-munching Green Party voters, willing to make big personal sacrifices to further the environmental cause. Yet most of the islanders are ordinary Danish farmers, who started out with a sceptical attitude to green power.

It took one of their own kind to convince them otherwise. Soren Hermansen, a one-time vegetable farmer is the man behind the island's energy revolution. Nowadays he flits between places as diverse as the United States, the Scilly Isles and Tasmania in his new role as global green-energy guru. The lavatory walls at Samso's Energy Academy, where Mr Hermansen has his office, are covered with cartoons portraying him as a green superman. One has him mouthing the slogan: "Wife, make me a cape".

But back in 1997, Mr Hermansen was a frustrated small farmer trying to earn a few kroner in a market that was becoming dominated by large farming concerns. Samso was in crisis at the time because one of the island's main businesses - a slaughterhouse employing 100 workers - had been forced to close down. "With hindsight, it was the ideal time to start a new project," Mr Hermansen, 50, recalled. "A crisis makes people much more open to new ideas."

That year, the energy ministry, run by Denmark's then green-minded socialist government, announced a competition to find out how much renewable energy could be produced in a single district. The aim was to create an area that was energy self-sufficient. Boroughs and municipalities were invited to put forward proposals and compete against each other.

An engineer called Ole Johnsson from the mainland town of Aarhus became fascinated by the competition. He saw Samso as the ideal place to realise the energy self-sufficiency dream. After studying the island's annual wind-speed and sunshine-hour records, he calculated how much energy the island could produce from wind turbines and other alternative sources and concluded it was possible to beat conventional sources. He sent the plan to Copenhagen and it won.

Mr Johnsson persuaded the Samso islanders to form an energy association to start implementing the plan. Fifty people came to the first meeting, including Mr Hermansen who saw the potential and grabbed it. Within days, he was out and about on the island, canvassing for people's support. "I'd do things like rent a fruit press and announce plans to press apples in a particular village," he said. "We'd get all the fruit done and then start talking about the project and I had to convince them that it was our future."

But there were three elements without which the project would probably never have got off the ground. Firstly, Danish laws oblige the country's energy suppliers to buy wind energy at prices that are higher than it costs to produce. Secondly, back in the late 1990s, Samso just happened to be in the parliamentary constituency of Svend Auken, Denmark's late and hugely popular green-minded Social Democrat energy minister, who made sure that the island got the project.

Thirdly, his government pledged to underwrite bank loans to any Samso resident who opted to take a share in a wind turbine. "Effectively the banks were giving the islanders loans that were completely watertight," Mr Hermansen said. "They knew they couldn't lose."

With half the battle already won by the state, Mr Hermansen then had to persuade people to switch from traditional energy sources. "It only worked because we got people to swap the usual 'Nimby' (not in my back yard) attitude to wind turbines for an 'Imby' attitude," Mr Sorensen said. "People began to realise that they were doing something unique in the very place where they live. It was not something that was imposed from above. It belongs to them."

The island's farmers began to realise that they could make money from the straw that was left over after the harvest because it could be baled up and burned in the island's straw-fired heating plant. Likewise foresters, working in the island's woodlands, began using dead trees to manufacture woodchips for furnaces. "We have just managed to reach our goal of self-sufficiency," said Mr Hermansen. "But it would have been difficult to achieve without generous government funding."

A decade ago, Samso relied heavily on oil imports for heat and power, but now - thanks to its windmills and alternative energy plants - it manages to produce more green-generated power than the amount of "dirty" energy it still has to bring in to run its cars and some of its homes. Three-quarters of the island's heating needs are currently met by alternative energy sources such as wind.

The island - 30 miles long and 15 wide - is reputed to be one of the most successful green-energy projects to have got off the ground since environmentalists started raising the alarm about climate change three decades ago.

Samso has 21 wind turbines - 10 on a sandbank off the island's south coast, half of which are owned by the local council. The other 11 are dotted all over the island and owned by more than 450 residents-cum-shareholders. To make their presence as inoffensive to the eye as possible, the turbines are of the "harmonious" - as opposed to the more offensive "gorilla" - type, which means they are all painted the same colour and have a standard height and blade length.

But wind turbines are just the most visible part of the energy revolution. Samso heats the homes of its 22 villages with power plants that rely on furnaces fired by woodchips and straw. Banks of man-sized solar panels lie in fields, kept trim by herds of bleating sheep. One farmer has even developed a special pump to use the warmth supplied by cow's milk to heat his home.

Another effect of the green-energy boom is that the island's plumbers and carpenters have now all become experts in energy-saving home conversion and insulation techniques. Most of Samso's houses are carefully insulated and equipped with double-glazed windows to minimise heat loss. One of them belongs to Uffe and Else Marie Bach. Their painstakingly restored 150-year-old former school house in the Samso village of Torup is heated by a so-called Maas oven, a white-washed brick construction on the ground floor, which Mr Bach, a retired plumber, fires up for two hours every morning with logs he cuts from the woods with a chainsaw.

The heat generated is so intense that the bricks surrounding the oven stay warm for 24 hours and help to heat most of the house. Hot water is supplied by a pump, powered by electricity from the wind turbine, which sucks in the earth's natural warmth collected from 1,300ft of pipe buried underground in a field next to the house.

A decade ago, the Bachs bought €25,000 worth of shares in one of the island's wind turbines. The upshot has been dramatically reduced electricity bills and a €3,000 dividend payment last year - the profit resulting from the sale of their turbine's electricity. "Finally, we are beginning to make a bit of money," said Mr Bach.

Despite its egalitarian principles, it is the big financial investors in Samso's energy revolution who have come out on top. One of them is Jörgen Tranberg, who owns a 250-acre dairy farm. With help from the bank, the 55-year-old farmer invested €2.5m in wind turbines. He paid €1.2m for the one on his farm he owns outright and he is half-owner of one of the offshore turbines, too. He claims that on a good day the windmills alone can earn him €3,000.

With figures like that, it's not surprising that the project has aroused interest from far beyond Denmark's borders. Mr Hermansen likes to recount the story of the Egyptian ambassador's visit. After taking a tour of the island and examining all its green-energy projects in great detail, his excellency asked how many people lived on Samso. About 4,000 he was told. "That's three city blocks in Cairo!" he exclaimed. "Maybe that's where you should start," came Mr Hermansen's sanguine reply. "Not with the whole of Egypt but by taking one block at a time."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“Sometimes we have to move quickly to get things done"

The federal government is scrambling to distribute billions and billions of "stimulus funds" as part of President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. States are scrambling to attract their share of those funds which are targeted for projects that are "shovel ready", i.e. must be able to be completed within a specified period of time.

Unfortunately community process and thoughtful project design can be short-circuited in this high stakes competition for federal dollars. As a result some important (and needed) projects face stiff opposition from residents. (GW)

No agreement, no $147m upgrade

State scraps effort to seek US funding for bus line

By Meghan E. Irons
Boston Globe
November 20, 2009

Massachusetts has missed an opportunity to tap into as much as $147 million in grant money available under the federal stimulus package because of a deep disagreement between the Patrick administration and residents of Roxbury and Mattapan.

State transportation officials had applied for the grant over the summer to upgrade public transportation from Dudley Square into Mattapan along Blue Hill Avenue, through two of the city’s most impoverished areas, by dedicating a lane of traffic to rapid bus service.

But the proposal immediately met a strong backlash from residents, who were angry that the state did not heed their views on the project’s design, which called for removal of a median on Blue Hill Avenue for the designated bus lane. The median provides a safe respite for pedestrians crossing the wide and busy street and adds an aesthetic appeal, with its trees and planters, to an area otherwise bound by pavement and concrete.

Under intense neighborhood pressure, the state ultimately withdrew the application and lost any chance of competing for a slice of $1.5 billion in grant money made available for transit projects under the stimulus program.

“We just were not able to get the community support within the time allowed to compete effectively,’’ said state Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan.

Mullan acknowledged that the state’s “rocky start’’ with residents handicapped its chances to seek stimulus money for underserved areas, but said the state had to act quickly to get projects off the ground.

Former transportation secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., who helped devise the plan before leaving office last month, called the neighborhood’s rejection of the proposal “a lost opportunity.’’

“I explained this millions of times,’’ Aloisi said this week in a phone interview. “Sometimes we have to move quickly to get things done. But we are used to delay in this state. When you have people like me saying you had to act fast, people don’t know what do with that.’’

Community leaders say they would rather forgo the chance of getting the money than embrace a project they did not want. They said a designated bus lane in the middle of Blue Hill Avenue would divide their community and create a host of navigation problems for commuters and pedestrians.

“You cannot cross Blue Hill Avenue without that median,’’ said Michael Kozu, a community advocate who offered advice to the state. “What they were going to do is divide our community, so that people won’t be able to cross.’’

While the proposal would have made the trip from Dudley Square to Mattapan much quicker, it would have also eliminated certain stops, parking spaces, and left turns, creating inconveniences for drivers, as well as riders.

But along Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan and Roxbury yesterday, riders who had not previously heard of the proposed project were astonished at the missed chance for stimulus cash in their community, where most residents rely on public transit.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,’’ said Mary Hines, a Brockton resident who works in Dudley Square and is a regular bus rider. “Why wouldn’t they go for the money to improve bus services?’’

While there is now no clear source of funding, Mullan said that he is convening a team to work with neighborhood leaders to ensure that the proposed project eventually happens and to address issues that arose during a series of community meetings.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, the state received $757 million to use at its discretion for urban and regional transit projects, as well as for highways and bridges. Another $1.5 billion is available through 2011 under the new Recovery Act program, which allows states to compete for grants for public transit projects.

Governor Deval Patrick, with much fanfare but little public notice, first proposed using the first pool of stimulus money to bring speedy bus service to the corridor by 2012. The rapid bus service would replace Bus Route No. 28. In addition to removal of the median, the money would have paid for changes in traffic signals, improved bus stops and stations, and allowed acquisition of 60-foot articulated buses for the route.

But a previous lack of communication with the community required officials to spend their time defending their actions, instead of moving the plan ahead.

As a result, there was not enought time to woo some residents, neighborhood supporters of the proposal say.

“There were people who dug their feet in, and they couldn’t hear much after that,’’ said Pamela Bush, a local transportation advocate who attended the community meetings. “I think they were resolved to say no, regardless of what the state came up with.’’

Transportation officials said they made a valiant effort to sway the community, but facing continued resistance, ultimately decided in July not to use that pool of money to fund the Mattapan part of the project.

The state then scrambled to apply for $147 million under the grant program, putting itself in a pool of 1,400 communities nationwide competing for a piece of the stimulus funds. But that made many neighborhood leaders angrier, because the state proceeded with the same plan that they had been railing against for several weeks.

“The planners came to the community with a preconceived idea of a busway,’’ said state Representative Byron Rushing, “and they didn’t want to change.’’

State lawmakers who represent the affected communities ultimately told the state to either revise the grant application to reflect the community’s desire for safe, reliable bus service or withdraw it altogether.

When the federal government told the state that revisions were not allowed, the state withdrew the application.

“In the end, the [state] did not succeed in making the case . . . that the benefits would be enough to outweigh the detriments to the neighborhoods,’’ said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz.

Mullan said that, to be fair, it was never guaranteed that the state would get the federal grant, though he regrets that the communities were not fully on board.

Going forward, he said, he aims to mend fences.

“I hope we haven’t blown it,’’ he said. “My real task is to keep the civic engagement, because what we have is the [heaviest] transit ridership in these neighborhoods.’’

For some riders and local residents, however, the breakdown of the process is difficult to swallow.

“This is just terrible,’’ said Grove Hall business owner Tashawn King. “You’re talking about a whole lot of jobs coming here, especially in this economy.’’

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"You don’t have to travel far to change countries"

I do love cities. I realize that no two cities are alike, so maybe what I love is the idea of the city. That doesn't mean that I don't like rural and wild areas. Given the fact that The world population has been growing pretty steadily since the end of the Black Death around 1400 (and is currently around 6.799 billion), rural and wild areas would be under much greater pressures than they currently are without cities.

Even the so-called mega-cities possess a certain other-worldly, village charm if you know where to look. Discovering the heart and soul of a great one can be a uniquely exhilarating experience.

What Makes Cities Live

A couple of blocks and your life changes in this city. New York is worldly but fiercely local. Another borough is as remote as another country. Europe, just across the pond, can seem closer than across town.

Not so long ago, my office was moved a couple of blocks, a little west and a little south, from 43rd Street to Renzo Piano’s handsome light-filled building between 40th and 41st Streets. It proved to be a change of worlds.

The former headquarters was trapped in the neon tentacles of Times Square, a once seedy part of town re-imagined as the tourist-filled set for a movie called “New York,” a place where people from out of town loiter six-abreast gazing at the flashing lights while New Yorkers try to dodge the phalanxes of flesh.

The new premises, as I’ve gradually learned, placed us just within the garment district, an area where zoning laws have protected apparel manufacturing space and so held off the developers who would otherwise have turned clothes factories into condos and created yet another gentrified district bereft of seediness, tawdriness, community and that strange high-low alchemy essential to any great city’s mystery and charge.

I’ve come to love the dull, solid mid-rise brick buildings of the garment district, a universe away from the high-rise glass-and-neon of that other country two blocks away where Planet Hollywood and M&M’s World strut their stuff.

It’s wonderful to wander far from the movie theaters (or so it seems) past emporiums of buttons, palaces of thread, empires of zippers, long pink gowns, canary yellow chiffon skirts (on sale for $10), trimmings, lace, beads, ribbons, fake pearls, glittering belts, shoulder pads and ruffles — not to mention “Spandex World,” and “Leather Impact.” Stores have names like “Joyce Button and Trims.” They look like they’ve been there forever, or at least the American version of forever.

The pleasure, I think, comes from the sense of something still purposeful and authentic, woven by the years — a slither of town between 35th and 40th Streets where designers, manufacturers, small retailers, showroom owners and others interact and create, and where money, big money, has not swept all in its path.

The area still has pungency. It has not surrendered to the great anaesthetizing march of modernity. It has not chased its working class to faraway suburbs. It has not become a hollow movie-set version of an authentic place — a “garment district” cleansed to quaintness, shaped for the well-to-do, complete with guides relating the rich history of immigrants and their sewing machines.

Unlike Paris — where the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants and the hammering of artisans and the garlic-whiff of the morning Métro are long gone — New York preserves, in small enclaves, its shabby splendor. Its center, unlike London, has not become a near-exclusive preserve of the super-rich.

No — miracle of miracles — people here still buy and use sewing machines! A million square feet or so are devoted to garment manufacturing. The jobs have not all vanished to Bangladesh.

It’s funny how we crave the authentic, the unspoiled, the genuine — the un-globalized and un-homogenized and un-gentrified — only to destroy them. And then, as if in remorse, attempt to create unthreatening Disney versions of the authentic, the unspoiled and the genuine. It’s funny how the rich, tired of grilled tuna or Chilean sea bass, weary of New York generic (never simmered, always seared), want to eat like the poor, while the poor just want to be rich.

Speaking of food, the move has also brought deliverance from theme restaurants and chains to a garment-district diversity as wondrous as the ostrich feathers and sequined robes in store windows. Let’s face it: Dives are the last redoubt of genuine fare in New York.

I’ve found a Balkan cellar whose cevapcici (grilled lozenges of minced meat) take me back to Sarajevo days; a deli whose tongue sandwiches remind me of the tongue my mother prepared; a Chinese hole-in-the-wall with heartwarming oxtail on rice; and a Szechuan joint whose duck tongues on a bed of scallion, dressed in a scallion pesto, are a little miracle of many-layered succulence — the reddish-brown Szechuan pepper imparting a numbing-tingling heat, the duck tongues crunchy (about the consistency of frogs’ legs) and gelatinous and looking, in the pesto-green sauce, a little like asparagus tips. If you wish, you may follow that with a fish-head (carp) stew in spiced chili broth that’s hot enough to ease your eyes from their sockets.

Two blocks away they’re eating burgers and Bubba Gump shrimp and never dreaming of this other land just around the corner. You don’t have to travel far to change countries; and you can travel across the world and still find yourself in the globalized mall of bright lights, bland foods and brands.

I’m grateful for my New York journeys and for the zoning laws that make them possible. Wholesale gentrification deadens. There’s an untamed thread that binds button stores and stir-fried intestines with chili: They’re genuine. The fight for the genuine in the world’s great cities is also a fight for jobs, workers and creativity.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reality is grimmer than most climate change model predictions

With all the flak that has been generated over the email messages and documents that were hacked from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit that climate change skeptics claim prove that climate change researchers are fudging data, it's worth pausing to take a look at what we know is actually going on. You know, like sticking your head out of the window to see if it's raining instead of waiting for the weather report on TV.

If global climate change is not behind the disturbing events described in the following article, we should challenge the skeptics to help us find out what is before it's too late.

Business as usual is not an option. (GW)

Effects of warming have worsened since Kyoto

Pace around the world has accelerated

By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press
November 23, 2009

WASHINGTON - Since the 1997 international accord to fight global warming, climate change has worsened and accelerated, beyond some of the grimmest of warnings made then.

As the world has talked for a dozen years about what to do next, new ship passages have opened through the once frozen summer sea ice of the Arctic. In Greenland and Antarctica, ice sheets have lost trillions of tons of ice. Mountain glaciers in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa have been shrinking faster than before.

And it’s not just the frozen parts of the world that have felt the heat in the years leading up to next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen:

■ The world’s oceans have risen by about an inch and a half.

■ Droughts and wildfires have turned more severe worldwide, from the US West to Australia to the Sahel desert of North Africa.

■ Species now in trouble because of changing climate include not just the polar bear, which has become a symbol of global warming, but also fragile butterflies, colorful frogs, and entire stands of North American pine forests.

■ Temperatures over the past 12 years are 0.4 of a degree warmer than in the dozen years leading up to 1997.

The reason is that since an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas pollution was signed in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, the level of carbon dioxide in the air has increased 6.5 percent.

“Even the gloomiest climate models back in the 1990s didn’t forecast results quite this bad so fast,’’ said Janos Pasztor, climate adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Officials from across the world will convene in Copenhagen from Dec. 7 to 18 to seek a follow-up agreement. Sixty-five world leaders so far have said they will attend, including those from Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

When the US Senate balked at the Kyoto Protocol and President George W. Bush withdrew from it, that meant that the top three carbon polluters - the United States, China, and India - were not part of the pact’s emission reductions. Developing countries were not covered by the protocol and that will be a major issue in Copenhagen.

From 1997 to 2008, world carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have increased 31 percent; US emissions of this greenhouse gas rose 3.7 percent. Emissions from China, now the biggest producer of this pollution, have more than doubled in that time period.

In 1997, global warming was an issue for climate scientists, environmentalists, and policy specialists. Now even psychologists are working on global warming.

“We’ve come from a time in 1997 where this was some abstract problem working its way around scientific circles to now when the problem is in everyone’s face,’’ said Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist.

The changes in the last 12 years that have the scientists most alarmed are happening in the Arctic with melting summer sea ice and around the world with the loss of key land-based ice masses. Back in 1997 “nobody in their wildest expectations,’’ would have forecast the dramatic sudden loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic that started about five years ago, Weaver said. From 1993 to 1997, sea ice would shrink on average in the summer to about 2.7 million square miles. The average for the last five years is less than 2 million square miles. What’s been lost is the size of Alaska.

Antarctica had a slight increase in sea ice, mostly because of the cooling effect of the ozone hole, according to the British Antarctic Survey. At the same time, large chunks of ice shelves - adding up to the size of Delaware - came off the Antarctic peninsula.

While melting Arctic ocean ice doesn’t raise sea levels, the melting of giant land-based ice sheets and glaciers that drain into the seas do. Those are shrinking dramatically at both poles. Measurements show that since 2000, Greenland has lost more than 1.5 trillion tons of ice, while Antarctica has lost about 1 trillion tons since 2002, according to two scientific studies published this fall.

Worldwide glaciers are shrinking three times faster than in the 1970s and the average glacier has lost 25 feet of ice since 1997, said Michael Zemp, a researcher at World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Net Energy Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society

Wind, solar and hydrokinetic (wave, tidal and current) technologies are the most viable means for supporting a sustainable energy future according to a new report issued jointly by two California think-tanks. The report also concludes that it is probably impossible for renewable energy sources to completely replace fossil fuels in the short term and possibly the long term as well.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that our renewable energy options do not provide a politically correct justification for continuing our overly consumptive behavior.

Humanity can certainly sustainably support itself by employing design strategies that do more with less. However, there are clearly limits that we cannot exceed and hope to survive. Sustainable development is potentially unlimited. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. (GW)

Six renewable energy sources judged to be best prospect for future, says report

Renewable Energy Focus
18 November 2009

The best prospects for large-scale renewable energy production and net-energy performance remain wind and certain forms of solar, according to a study released by two California-based think tanks.

“It is reasonable to conclude ... that a full replacement of energy currently derived from fossil fuels with energy from alternative sources is probably impossible over the short term; it may be unrealistic to expect it even over longer time frames,” explains Searching for a Miracle: Net Energy Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society. The report was published by the International Forum on Globalization with content provided by the Post Carbon Institute.

It is the first major analysis to use the new research tools of full lifecycle assessment and net energy ratios to compare future scenarios for how industrial society can face its long term future.

The report analyses 18 power alternatives, from traditional fossil fuels and nuclear, through renewable energies such as wind, solar, wave, geothermal and biomass, to identify their net energy ratios (amount of energy that must be invested in them versus the amount of energy they will be able to produce, as well as their environmental, social and geopolitical impacts).

Certain energy production systems suffer from low or negative net energy gain, including most biofuels and biomass, as well as hydrogen systems, oil shale and tar sands, some of which also present unacceptable environmental problems, the report explains.

The best prospects for large-scale production and net-energy performance remain wind energy and certain forms of solar, although these renewable energies face important limitations due to intermittency, remoteness of good resources, materials needed for large-scale deployment, and scale potential.

The cost to install one kilowatt of new capacity ranges from US$500 to US$1500 for natural gas, US$1900-5800 for coal, and US$4500-7500 for nuclear, to the renewable energies wtih US$1300-2500 for wind, US$2600-3500 for geothermal, US$3000-5000 for solar thermal and US$3900-9000 for solar photovoltaic (PV).

The current cost to generate existing power is US$0.01/kWh for hydropower, US$0.02-0.04 for coal, US$0.029 for nuclear, US$0.04-0.07 for natural gas. For renewable energies, it is US$0.04-0.09 for biomass power, US$0.045-0.10 for wind, US$0.06-0.15 for solar thermal, US$0.10 for geothermal, US$0.10 for tidal, US$0.12 for wave and US$0.21 to US$.83 for solar PV.

“Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100?,” the report asks. “In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another.”

Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal and nuclear, “are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed but, in any case, they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment,” it explains.

“Contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations. To achieve such a transition would require a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, a very long time - too long in practical terms - for build-out, and significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.”

“To say that our current energy regime is unsustainable means that it cannot continue and must therefore be replaced with something else,” it states. “If the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is wrongly managed, the consequences could be severe.”

“While it is possible to point to innumerable successful alternative energy production installations within modern societies (ranging from small homescale photovoltaic systems to large farms of 3 MW wind turbines), it is not possible to point to more than a very few examples of an entire modern industrial nation obtaining the bulk of its energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas,” the report adds. “Thus, for most of the world, a meaningful energy transition is still more theory than reality.”

“The longer the transition to alternative energy sources is delayed, the more difficult that transition will be unless some practical mix of alternative energy systems can be identified that will have superior economic and environmental characteristics,” it concludes. It excludes biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) from future energy supply and downplays the potential for nuclear, hydro, passive solar and biomass.

That leaves 6 renewable energy possibilities: wind, solar PV, concentrating solar thermal, geothermal, wave and tidal, all of which have challenges such as intermittency or limited growth potential.

“There is no single silver-bullet energy source capable of replacing conventional fossil fuels directly (at least until the problem of intermittency can be overcome) though several of the sources discussed already serve, or are capable of serving, as secondary energy sources.”

“This means that as fossil fuels deplete, and as society reduces reliance on them in order to avert catastrophic climate impacts, we will have to use every available alternative energy source strategically,” it concludes. “Instead of a silver bullet, we have in our arsenal only BBs, each with a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses that must be taken into account.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Desert winds

According to the African Wind Energy Association (AfriWEA) "Much of Africa lies within the equatorial belt which, due to the effects of atmospheric heating and the earth's rotation, has a lower wind resource compared to countries in more extreme latitudes."

However, wind energy has begun to take hold of the imaginations and landscapes of a number of African nations. Kenya has become the continent's green energy leader as it now adds a major wind farm to its renewable energy portfolio that previously included significant contributions from hydro and geothermal. (GW)

The wind may carry a solution for Kenya

Desert will be site of major project to help boost energy supplies

By Christopher Vourlias
Washington Post
November 21, 2009

NAIROBI -- Kenya's Chalbi Desert is a bleak, forbidding stretch of coarse sand and ash-gray ridges broken by clusters of tiny huts. It is also one of the windiest places on Earth, experts say, and it soon will be the site of Africa's largest wind farm.

In January, a consortium of Dutch and Kenyan investors will begin construction on the $760 million project, which envisions more than 350 wind turbines towering over desert expanses near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. When completed in 2012, the wind farm is expected to boost the power supply in this nation by almost 30 percent.

Kenya is one of the continent's greenest countries, with nearly three-quarters of its power coming from hydroelectric and geothermal sources. But its efforts to harness the wind have put it at the forefront of a budding movement in Africa, ahead of a global climate change conference in Copenhagen next month.

Ethiopia inked a $300 million deal last year with the French company Vergnet to build a wind farm. Tanzania is constructing two facilities that will boost its power supply by nearly 10 percent. And South Africa, the continent's largest economy, hopes to complete 18 wind farms by 2014.

Kenya's first wind farm, in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, began feeding into the national grid in August. Additional sites are being scouted near Lake Naivasha, a popular tourist retreat northwest of Nairobi, and in the blustery northeast near Ethiopia.

"What you see in Africa is a severe shortage" of power, said Phylip Leferink, sales and marketing manager for Vestas, the world's leading supplier of wind turbines. "They have an urgent need for bringing up the capacity as soon as possible."

Power shortages have forced blackouts from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Johannesburg this year, but the shortages have been especially acute in Kenya. A prolonged drought has dried up riverbeds and crippled the country's hydroelectric plants. Officials have imported fossil fuels as an emergency stopgap, raising concerns among environmentalists. Energy prices have soared.

The effects have been felt from the industrial centers to the sprawling shantytowns and the suburbs of the capital. Rationing has brought rolling blackouts to Nairobi, and manufacturers have been forced to scale down production because of power cuts. In the aftermath of last year's post-election violence, the power shortages have been a further burden for a country struggling to regain its footing as East Africa's economic powerhouse.

"We are paying for the sins of our leaders," said Geoffrey Machariah, a taxi driver, who endures frequent power cuts in his Nairobi home. "Since last year, we are all suffering."

The Turkana project is this country's most ambitious energy venture to date. The site encompasses 25,000 acres on the edge of the Chalbi Desert, an area chosen for the "natural, low-level jet stream" blowing south from the Sahara and the Ethiopian highlands, said Nick Taylor, chief operating officer of the Lake Turkana Wind Power consortium. It is part of a broader initiative to introduce nearly 500 megawatts of wind power within five years.

Leferink, the Vestas marketing manager, estimated that the Ngong Hills project took two years to complete, whereas "more traditional generating methods, like coal-fired power plants, need a long lead time to be realized."

However, the technology required to build large-scale wind farms involves substantial investment. In addition to its on-site costs, the Turkana consortium invested in extensive road upgrades to transport equipment from Nairobi to the site, Taylor said.

But Hermann Oelsner, president of the African Wind Energy Association, said the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs. "In the beginning the cost appears high, but if you calculate the electricity costs over the whole lifetime of a project, then it is cheaper than fossil fuels."

Sub-Saharan Africa still lags far behind the developed world as a source of wind power. But the prospects south of the Sahara are improving, in part because of access to better and cheaper technologies, and because of growing uncertainty, in the face of climate change, that traditional energy sources will be sufficient to meet growing demand.

As governments turn to newer technologies to shore up their energy supplies, Oelsner and others say wind will play an increasingly vital role.

"Wind will be a big part of the energy mix . . . as we run out of fossil fuels," he said. "But we must start now."

Vourlias is a freelance journalist based in East Africa.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kilometer tax

The Dutch have introduced a revolutionary idea to pay for road upkeep that will hopefully also reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions at the same time. Automobile owners will be taxed based on the distance they drive.

What a novel idea: creating a tax that's actually designed to encourage behavior that benefits society!

According to the following story, the Dutch parliament should have voted on this legislative proposal last week, but I could not find a recent update. I'll continue to follow this and provide updates. (GW)

Dutch plan to charge car drivers by the kilometre

17 November 2009

Dutch drivers will be first in Europe to start paying according to the kilometres they drive rather than for owning a car, if a legislative proposal submitted to the lower house of the country's parliament on Friday (14 November) goes through.

The kilometre charge would replace road tax and purchase tax in 2012. The idea is to cut CO2 emissions while halving traffic jams in what is one of Europe's most congested road networks.

The transport ministry expects the number of kilometres travelled to drop by 15% as the charge on the distance driven will lead people to opt more readily for public transport. This would reduce carbon and fine particle emissions by over 10%, it estimates.

The amount of the tariff will depend on the CO2 emissions produced by a passenger car, or on weight for other vehicles. Certain vehicles like taxis, buses and motorcycles will be exempt from the charge, while an alternative system will be set up for foreign vehicles.

A driver of a standard car would initially be charged three cents per kilometre, increasing to 6.7 cents in 2018, according to the proposed law. Legislation introducing rush-hour surcharges specific to a location could be introduced later on, the Ministry of Transport said.

The kilometres will be tracked with a GPS device to be installed in every vehicle. This will record each journey and send the information to a billing agency.

Nevertheless, most people will end up paying less, as the charge will not exceed current taxes and the abolition of the purchase tax will slash a quarter off a car's price, the ministry argues. All the revenue collected from the charge would go directly to building roads, railways and other transport infrastructure.

The kilometre charge has been hotly debated for years due to privacy concerns, but the transport ministry offered assurances that information sent via the GPS would be "legally and tecnically protected".

"The authorities will not have access to any journey details and will not be able to track any vehicles. So the privacy of road users will be guaranteed," it said in a statement.

But environmentalists argued that future transport IT to help cut emissions will ultimately not be any more invasive than the ability to send a text via mobile phone.

"People will worry that the system heralds the arrival of Big Brother, but our mobile phone handsets already double as a highly-effective means of tracking our movements," said the UK Environmental Transport Association (ETA).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The incredible edible wall

My last few posts have all fallen under the category of "downers". While problem identification is an important part of Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science, it's equally important that we talk about successful solutions to pressing problems as well -- perhaps even more important. Design science solutions are sources of optimism. Bucky Fuller defined optimism as our awareness that viable options for humanity's success on Spaceship Earth do exist. In fact, an abundance of such options are available to us if we only adopt a way of looking at and working in the world that is more in tune with Nature's way of doing things.

That's a perfect lead-in to today's post on edible walls. Together with community and rooftop gardens, growing food vertically on building walls offers another option for growing food in crowded urban environments.

Cities are where most of the people in the world live today. It only makes sense that they become sources for sustainably grown fruits and vegetables. (GW)

The Rooftop Garden Climbs Down a Wall


IN most ways, the Barthelmes Manufacturing Company is a typical sheet metal fabricator. Five days a week, machines here stamp out thousands of computer cases, electrical patch panels and other items for companies like United Technologies.

Yet a growing part of the company’s business is being devoted to something decidedly unindustrial: edible walls — metal panels filled with soil and seeds and hung vertically.

They may sound like a piece of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. In fact, they are the latest development in green roof technology. Like green roofs, edible walls include a thick layer of vegetation on the outside of buildings to provide insulation and reduce heating and electricity costs.

But unlike green roofs — and their vertical cousins, green walls — edible walls also produce fruit, vegetables and herbs in far less space than typical gardens. That’s why advocates of urban farming have embraced them as a way to lower food costs, increase nutritional quality and cut fuel consumption and carbon emissions by using fewer delivery trucks.

“The traditional metal fabrication industry is shrinking, and green is an emerging area,” said Larry Lehning, the chief executive at Barthelmes, whose sales of green products have doubled this year and make up 15 percent of the company’s revenue. Edible walls — descendants of espalier, or trees grown against walls that were popular during the Middle Ages in Europe — are just one small attempt to grow food in cities. For instance, Valcent Products builds greenhouses filled with hundreds of trays of hydroponic vegetables stacked on conveyor belts. Sky Vegetables hopes to build commercial farms on the flat roofs of hospitals, schools and food banks.

Dickson D. Despommier, the director of the Vertical Farm Project at Columbia University, envisions entire skyscrapers turned into indoor farms capable of growing 100 different crops.

All of these solutions, though, require large investments and considerable technology. Edible walls, by contrast, can be built for a fraction of the cost, do not need computers or greenhouses and require far less maintenance.

The leader in this niche area is Green Living Technologies, another company in Rochester that has built edible walls here, in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere.

“Instead of bringing food to the city, we’re bringing the whole farm,” said George Irwin, the chief executive and founder of the company. “What we’re implementing is back to basics.”

The idea for the edible wall, which is often portable and hung from a structural wall, was inspired by Mr. Irwin’s young son and daughter about five years ago. Mr. Irwin, who was installing green roofs and green walls, was asked by his children if they could plant some lettuce seeds in a wall. Not expecting much, Mr. Irwin plopped the seeds into the soil in a panel that he was using for a sloped green roof. A few days later, they sprouted.

Mr. Irwin saw the potential for these vertical planters in cities where space is tight and food costs high. They can be hung in backyards, parking lots and other spots. He has sold them mostly to homeowners and schools, but he hopes to persuade restaurants and supermarkets to buy them so customers can pick their own food.

Uninterested in being a manufacturer, Mr. Irwin has contracted with Barthelmes and other companies for 2-foot-by-2-foot stainless steel and aluminum panels and other products.

The panels have intersecting slats inside that create 24 cells for seeds to be planted. The slats have long holes in them so roots can migrate between the cells, strengthening the soil and plants.

Mr. Irwin, who has an online column as the Green Wall editor, holds two-day seminars where landscape designers pay $800 to learn how to install products made by Green Living Technologies. One of the nearly 500 resellers is Kari Elwell Katzander, a landscape designer in New York City. She comes up with designs for her customers and then calls Plant Connection, another of Mr. Irwin’s partners, which recommends plants to grow and then cultivates them for two to five months at its nursery on Long Island.

In early November, Ms. Katzander installed three panels, each four inches deep, for Brad Zizmor, who has a backyard deck at his first-floor apartment in Manhattan.

Ms. Katzander and Plant Connection decided on 10 plants, including strawberries, lettuce, chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme. The panels, which weigh about 50 pounds each when filled, were hung on a wooden wall that surrounds the deck.

To irrigate the plants, a quarter-inch hose with tiny holes was draped across the top of the panels and attached to a larger hose. Ms. Katzander figured out how often to feed the plants to avoid runoff and to ensure that the plants would not be too dry or wet.

“What’s nice is you can be surrounded by the food you’re eating,” Mr. Zizmor said.

Mr. Zizmor is considering whether to keep several panels cultivating on Long Island so he can swap them out each season.

AT about $125 a square foot, or $500 per planted panel, plus more for design, delivery and maintenance, edible walls do not make sense for every home, or even cities where there is open land.

Still, Mr. Irwin has shown that edible walls can work on a larger scale. At four locations in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, there are walls with more than 4,000 plants growing: tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, spinach, leeks, even baby watermelon. At one location, a homeless shelter, residents tend to a six-foot-high, 30-foot-long wall, eating some food they harvest and selling the rest.

The project, urban farming advocates say, is just the start of something larger.

“We have 30 miles of rooftop in New York City and maybe 3,000 miles of walls,” said Paul Mankiewicz, the executive director of the Gaia Institute in New York. “It’s basically about maximizing the productivity per square foot.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is humanity prepared for its final exam?

Scientists report that civilization is headed toward the worst-case climate scenario that has us rapidly headed toward a six-degree centigrade average global temperature increase. They warn that this will certainly lead to an unprecedented mass extinction that could claim us among its victims.

Ready or not it appears that humanity really is about to take its final exam that will determine our fate here on Spaceship Earth. It unfortunately appears to have become a pass/fail affair due to our procrastination.

Will this news have any impact on the U.S. and other nations as officials prepare for next month's UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen?

What are our options now? (GW)

World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists

By Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy
The Independent
November 18, 2009

Fast-rising carbon emissions mean that worst-case predictions for climate change are coming true

The world is now firmly on course for the worst-case scenario in terms of climate change, with average global temperatures rising by up to 6C by the end of the century, leading scientists said yesterday. Such a rise - which would be much higher nearer the poles - would have cataclysmic and irreversible consequences for the Earth, making large parts of the planet uninhabitable and threatening the basis of human civilisation.

We are headed for it, the scientists said, because the carbon dioxide emissions from industry, transport and deforestation which are responsible for warming the atmosphere have increased dramatically since 2002, in a way which no one anticipated, and are now running at treble the annual rate of the 1990s.

This means that the most extreme scenario envisaged in the last report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2007, is now the one for which society is set, according to the 31 researchers from seven countries involved in the Global Carbon Project.

Although the 6C rise and its potential disastrous effects have been speculated upon before, this is the first time that scientists have said that society is now on a path to meet it.

Their chilling and remarkable prediction throws into sharp relief the importance of next month's UN climate conference in Copenhagen, where the world community will come together to try to construct a new agreement to bring the warming under control.

For the past month there has been a lowering of expectations about the conference, not least because the US may not be ready to commit itself to cuts in its emissions. But yesterday President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China issued a joint communiqué after a meeting in Beijing, which reignited hopes that a serious deal might be possible after all.

It cannot come too soon, to judge by the results of the Global Carbon Project study, led by Professor Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey, which found that there has been a 29 per cent increase in global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel between 2000 and 2008, the last year for which figures are available.

On average, the researchers found, there was an annual increase in emissions of just over 3 per cent during the period, compared with an annual increase of 1 per cent between 1990 and 2000. Almost all of the increase this decade occurred after 2000 and resulted from the boom in the Chinese economy. The researchers predict a small decrease this year due to the recession, but further increases from 2010.

In total, CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have increased by 41 per cent between 1990 and 2008, yet global emissions in 1990 are the reference level set by the Kyoto Protocol, which countries are trying to fall below in terms of their own emissions.

The 6C rise now being anticipated is in stark contrast to the C rise at which all international climate policy, including that of Britain and the EU, hopes to stabilise the warming - two degrees being seen as the threshold of climate change which is dangerous for society and the natural world.

The study by Professor Le Quéré and her team, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, envisages a far higher figure. "We're at the top end of the IPCC scenario," she said.

Professor Le Quéré said that Copenhagen was the last chance of coming to a global agreement that would curb carbon-dioxide emissions on a time-course that would hopefully stabilise temperature rises to within the danger threshold. "The Copenhagen conference next month is in my opinion the last chance to stabilise climate at C above pre-industrial levels in a smooth and organised way," she said.

"If the agreement is too weak, or the commitments not respected, it is not 2.5C or 3C we will get: it's 5C or 6C - that is the path we're on. The timescales here are extremely tight for what is needed to stabilise the climate at C," she said.

Meanwhile, the scientists have for the first time detected a failure of the Earth's natural ability to absorb man-made carbon dioxide released into the air.

They found significant evidence that more man-made CO2 is staying in the atmosphere to exacerbate the greenhouse effect because the natural "carbon sinks" that have absorbed it over previous decades on land and sea are beginning to fail, possibly as a result of rising global temperatures.

The amount of CO2 that has remained in the atmosphere as a result has increased from about 40 per cent in 1990 to 45 per cent in 2008. This suggests that the sinks are beginning to fail, they said.

Professor Le Quéré emphasised that there are still many uncertainties over carbon sinks, such as the ability of the oceans to absorb dissolved CO2, but all the evidence suggests that there is now a cycle of "positive feedbacks", whereby rising carbon dioxide emissions are leading to rising temperatures and a corresponding rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"Our understanding at the moment in the computer models we have used - and they are state of the art - suggests that carbon-cycle climate feedback has already kicked in," she said.

"These models, if you project them on into the century, show quite large feedbacks, with climate amplifying global warming by between 5 per cent and 30 per cent. There are still large uncertainties, but this is carbon-cycle climate feedback that has already started," she said.

The study also found that, for the first time since the 1960s, the burning of coal has overtaken the burning of oil as the major source of carbon-dioxide emissions produced by fossil fuels.

Much of this coal was burned by China in producing goods sold to the West - the scientists estimate that 45 per cent of Chinese emissions resulted from making products traded overseas.

It is clear that China, having overtaken the US as the world's biggest carbon emitter, must be central to any new climate deal, and so the communiqué from the Chinese and US leaders issued yesterday was widely seized on as a sign that progress may be possible in the Danish capital next month.

Presidents Hu and Obama specifically said an accord should include emission-reduction targets for rich nations, and a declaration of action plans to ease greenhouse-gas emissions in developing countries - key elements in any deal.

6C rise: The consequences

If two degrees is generally accepted as the threshold of dangerous climate change, it is clear that a rise of six degrees in global average temperatures must be very dangerous indeed, writes Michael McCarthy. Just how dangerous was signalled in 2007 by the science writer Mark Lynas, who combed all the available scientific research to construct a picture of a world with temperatures three times higher than the danger limit.

His verdict was that a rise in temperatures of this magnitude "would catapult the planet into an extreme greenhouse state not seen for nearly 100 million years, when dinosaurs grazed on polar rainforests and deserts reached into the heart of Europe".

He said: "It would cause a mass extinction of almost all life and probably reduce humanity to a few struggling groups of embattled survivors clinging to life near the poles."

Very few species could adapt in time to the abruptness of the transition, he suggested. "With the tropics too hot to grow crops, and the sub-tropics too dry, billions of people would find themselves in areas of the planet which are essentially uninhabitable. This would probably even include southern Europe, as the Sahara desert crosses the Mediterranean.

"As the ice-caps melt, hundreds of millions will also be forced to move inland due to rapidly-rising seas. As world food supplies crash, the higher mid-latitude and sub-polar regions would become fiercely-contested refuges.

"The British Isles, indeed, might become one of the most desirable pieces of real estate on the planet. But, with a couple of billion people knocking on our door, things might quickly turn rather ugly."