Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Safe, affordable nukes?

It was not that long ago when the United States introduced the "Green Revolution" to the poorer nations around the globe as a highly productive and relatively inexpensive solution to their serious problems of failed crops, hunger and famine. Over time, this approach to farming based on intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has proven to be unsustainable. In fact, some villages in countries such as Africa, have abandoned these high-tech techniques for more organically-based farming practices.

Now as energy security and climate change have emerged as primary global concerns, Economic Simplified Boiling Water [Nuclear] Reactors are
touted as offering safe, inexpensive, reliable power. Some see them as a timely solution to the energy needs of poor countries around the world. The Technology Review article that follows attempts to make the case for this "new generation" of nuclear reactors. But many unanswered (and unasked) questions remain. (GW)

Nuclear Energy for the Developing World
Technology Review
February 27, 2007

New reactor technologies offer poorer nations cheap, safe, efficient power. Sanctions designed to prevent the proliferation of weapons impede their use. What would a better policy look like?

By Mark Williams

Atambir Rao, a nuclear engineer who spent nearly two decades as program manager for General Electric's next-generation nuclear-reactor design, believes that the countries that are most in need of nuclear power are developing countries like his birthplace, India. Rao says, "Today, the biggest challenge for nuclear is the stranglehold the developed nations have put on it with sanctions."

The reactor project whose development Rao led was the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR), one of the generation-III nuclear-reactor designs that incorporate the improved fuel technology and passive safety systems--whereby the reactor automatically shuts down safely in any emergency without operator action or electronic feedback--that have been developed over the past quarter century. In 2007, with multitudes in India and China approaching lifestyles comparable to those in the developed nations, and with planetary climate change from carbon-dioxide emissions increasingly manifest, it's worth stressing that nuclear power remains the sole existing energy technology that's both proven and zero carbon. The critical question for the technology's future is whether the forbiddingly high capital costs and lengthy construction times attached to it in the past still apply.

In fact, gen-III reactors like the ESBWR do seem to possess the relative cheapness and ease of construction necessary for nuclear power to potentially establish itself as the primary electrical generation technology for national grids, both in the developed world and in countries like China and India. Per Peterson, UC Berkeley professor of nuclear engineering and part of the team responsible for the ESBWR, says that the design represents a reduction in capital costs of 25 to 40 percent. "In terms of competing with coal-burning plants, that's significant," he says. "If you can displace coal with less expensive options, then it becomes a different future." Peterson adds a couple of qualifiers: "Over the last year, costs have risen for all the energy technologies due to rising commodity costs. So both coal and nuclear cost estimates have been growing. On the other hand, I think we've now reached the tipping point on climate-change legislation. If we get carbon controls, there's no question the equation changes." In other words, carbon controls would go some way toward building into the use of fossil-fuel-burning power plants the externalities, or hidden costs, currently not included in consumers' utility bills or paid for by the power companies.

Today, reactor design has more than a half-century of art behind it, so gen-III reactors resemble their 1970s-era generation-II predecessors, much as a Toyota Prius hybrid resembles a vintage 1972 Pontiac, with the progressive trend being toward radical simplification that eliminates the batteries of complex mechanisms built into the earlier designs. The ESBWR replaces previous reactors' complex systems for residual heat removal with a design that uses no pumps or emergency generators--in fact, it possesses no moving parts at all, except for the neutron-absorbing control rods that are pulled partway out from its core so that nuclear fission can proceed. That fission reaction boils the water in the ESBWR's core, which becomes steam that gets carried away to large tubes in which it rises, releases its energy to turbines, and then condenses so that gravity causes it to flow back down to the core as water again. In short, the ESBWR runs wholly on natural circulatory forces. Rao says, "It could not be simpler. The control rods get pulled out, water comes in, and steam goes out, carrying heat that gets turned into electricity."

This simplicity of design also features in other gen-III reactor designs like the Westinghouse AP1000, which has 60 percent fewer valves, 75 percent less piping, 80 percent less control cabling, 35 percent fewer pumps, and 50 percent less seismic building volume than currently operational reactors. This trend becomes more pronounced in gen-IV designs like the pebble bed reactor. In conjunction with "the modern computer-aided manufacturing technologies currently used most extensively in the ship-building industry," Peterson says, what's now possible is a modular approach to nuclear-plant construction, whereby large segments of the plants will be prefabricated in factories.

This new context of markedly cheaper, more easily constructed reactors clearly has the potential to invalidate some long-cherished assumptions--and not just those of antinuclear Western environmentalists, whose claims were that nuclear power would always remain dependent on government subsidies. It's in this context, for instance, that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy-director general Tomihiro Taniguchi recently reported that six Middle Eastern countries--Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Tunisia--have expressed interest in building nuclear plants. Egypt, in particular, has specific plans for four reactors and has been checking out the options.

Much of the materials and knowledge employed in a civilian nuclear program can be used to develop nuclear weapons. What should an international policy to resist nuclear-weapons proliferation look like in a 21st century in which climate change, depletion of fossil fuels, and radically simpler, cheaper nuclear-reactor designs will be prominent features of the landscape?

The IAEA has proposed a nuclear "fuel bank," whereby the agency would run a backup supply for nuclear reactors throughout the world on a nondiscriminatory, nonpolitical basis that would thereby reduce the need for countries to develop their own uranium. Simultaneously, the Bush administration is pushing its plan for a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which would be an international collaboration to reprocess spent nuclear fuel so as to render the plutonium in it usable for nuclear reactors but not for nuclear weapons. Of these proposals, Jeffrey Lewis, of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, comments, "A forward-looking nonproliferation policy would have elements of the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, in that it'd have a renewed commitment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's inherent bargain--that is, states that refrain from developing nuclear weapons get the benefits of nuclear technology." But Lewis isn't optimistic about the Bush plan's chances. "I don't think that the Bush administration's proposals on restricting access to fuel-cycle technologies will be met with much international enthusiasm, because they're seen as ad hoc, and the Bush administration has so little credibility on proliferation issues. The Bush administration's deal with India, for instance, suggests that rules aren't really part of the equation, that what's more important is a state's current relationship with the U.S. and its relative power in the international system."

Lewis approves of the IAEA fuel-bank proposal and of international nonproliferation agreements in general. "In some ways, the current situation with Iran represents a healthy, successful example of what a nonproliferation regime can do, because the red flags are up," he says. "If, given several years before Iran's capabilities reach fruition, we can't come up with a workable solution, it strikes me as a much broader policy failure than can be pinned on the nonproliferation regime. It's not the nonproliferation regime's fault if the Bush administration can't figure a way out of this. In fact, you'll never create a nonproliferation regime that's idiot proof: they'll just build a better idiot." Lewis concludes, "I'm not so worried by the spread of reactors so much as by the spread of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. I'm particularly concerned about centrifuge enrichment as a proliferation challenge."

Peterson echoes this concern. But he also stresses the need for more clarity in discussions of what the threats are: "In talking about nuclear energy and proliferation resistance, we commonly confuse quite different things: state proliferation and terrorist theft of nuclear materials. If we have clarity about each category of threat, it's much clearer where the largest vulnerabilities are and what our strategy is to counter the risks."

Peterson sees five threat categories, three related to state proliferation and two to subnational actors.

First, there's the possibility of clandestine diversion of materials from state facilities operated within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is best prevented, Peterson believes, by more-comprehensive IAEA safeguards on facilities. Second, there's the possible production of materials in clandestine state facilities, which Iran is currently suspected of. The main preventative tool here, Peterson says, is the export controls system, which monitors exports of dual-use equipment and hopefully sends up red flags. Additionally, major changes in the NPT after the discovery of Iraq's secret enrichment program in the 1990s now let the IAEA perform inspections anywhere in a country and use information provided by a wide number of sources, including other nations' intelligence services. Third, there's the risk that a country could abrogate the NPT--as North Korea did--and overtly misuse facilities and materials; this is best countered by limiting the dispersion of the most sensitive technologies, which are enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, and by effective international action to make it highly unattractive for countries to abrogate the NPT. Fourth, there's the possibility of terrorist theft of materials for nuclear explosives or for RDDs (Radioactive Dispersal Devices); in this context, Peterson says, attention should be focused both on ensuring that there's adequate physical protection--particularly for stocks of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium--and on whether all the links in the chain are secure. For example, Peterson says, "it doesn't make sense to call for further upgrades for physical security for nuclear materials at U.S. sites when we haven't yet fixed the security of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union." Fifth, there's the threat of radiological sabotage, which means generating a deliberate release by attacking a nuclear facility. "There, what you want to do is make it so difficult that terrorists give up and go elsewhere," Peterson says. "With the ESBWR, for instance, you could fly a plane into it and it'll shut down safely."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Needed: a sustainable agricultural subsidy system

The system of subsidies that exist supposedly to ensure that basic needs like food, energy and shelter are available and affordable has, over the years, been co-opted and corrupted by large multinational corporations. They have become the primary beneficiaries of the current system at the expense of local small businesses. This unfortunate scenario is most evident in the agricultural sector where the family farm is in serious danger of becoming extinct, not only in the United States, but thanks to the "free-trade" agreements spurred by globalism, just about everywhere in the world. (GW)

Free Trade Doesn't Help Agriculture

By Anurahda Mittal
Foreign Policy In Focus
February 22, 2007
John Feffer, Editor

FPIF asked Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute and Gawain Kripke of Oxfam the following questions:

Is it possible or desirable to construct an agricultural subsidy system in the North that protects small farmers in both the North and South? Is there a role for protective tariffs for agriculture in the global south? Some argue that agriculture should not be included in tariff reduction discussions at the WTO. Is this advisable or even possible?

This is Anuradha Mittal's essay.

The most forceful justification for agricultural subsidies is that they are needed to save small farmers and preserve a way of life. The current agricultural subsidy system in rich countries, however, has only contributed to the decline of the countryside both in the North and the South. There is thus a contradiction between the purpose and consequence of subsidies making it obvious that there is an urgent need to move in a different direction.

The nearly U.S. $1 billion daily that rich countries spend on subsidies don't go to farmers who resemble John Steinbeck's Joad family. Far from benefiting small farmers, subsidies go overwhelmingly to large, capital-intensive agriculture as support is closely linked with production levels and land ownership. Most family farms get nothing but a tax bill.

In the United States, family farmers have been sold out to corporate agribusiness with ever-increasing numbers of farm bankruptcies and foreclosures reaping a grim harvest of suicides, alcoholism, and a loss of community. Subsidizing well-heeled agribusiness interests has ensured the continued exodus of independent family farmers from the land. In the 1930s, 25% of the U.S. population lived on the nation's 6 million farms. Today America's 2 million farms are home to less than 2% of the population. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that the largest job loss among all occupations between 1998-2008 will be in agriculture. This is not surprising when the average farm-operator household earns only 14% of its income from the farm and rest from off-farm employment. A New York Times article in 2002 reported, "The biggest economic collapse is happening in counties most tied to agriculture, in spite of the subsidies." Out of the poorest 50 counties in the United States, 49 are rural counties.

In France, subsidies are skewed toward the rich farmers as well, with 15% of farms receiving in excess of 20,000 euros accounting for 60% of total payments. At the same time, the peasant population has declined by one third, with the number of suicides in the French countryside increasing rapidly.

This agricultural system robs not just the family farmers in rich countries but the world's poor. Today rich countries like the United States are bound under the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations to commit to reducing domestic and export subsidies, increasing market access, and governing agriculture trade with more rigorous disciplines on domestic farm policies. However, the federal government has been doling out an average of $11.3 billion annually between 1995 and 2004. More than 90% goes to producers of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans, with just 10% of farms receiving 74% of these subsidies. These five crops are dramatically overproduced and sell on global markets at below the cost of production, depressing the global commodity prices of crops that developing countries count on while wiping out poor farmers and enriching transnational food-industry giants.

The numbers are alarming. The United States provides 200 times more support in hidden export support than it declares, equivalent to $6.6 billion a year. The U.S. export price of wheat in 1995 was 23% below the U.S. cost of production; by 2001 the export price was 44% below the cost of production. In cotton, despite its higher production costs, the United States increased its world market share even when world prices fell to 38 cents a pound in May 2002. Africa lost about $300 million, with Mali and Benin losing more than their aid receipts from the United States, and Burkina Faso losing more than what it got in Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief. In 2003, around 28,000 U.S. cotton farmers received $2.4 billion, 13 times more than the entire GDP of Burkina Faso, a country where more than two million people depend on cotton production for their living. The result is a reverse Robin Hood effect: robbing the world's poor to enrich American agribusiness.

Agriculture is the source of livelihood for over 40% of people on earth. Most of these producers are small-scale and subsistence farmers who constitute 75% of the world's poor. This fact lends strategic urgency to the need to change an agricultural subsidy system in the North that shores up an unjust and unsustainable corporate controlled industrial food system.

First we need to dismantle one of the great myths that free trade helps farmers and the poor. It does not! Attempts to leave farmers at the mercy of the free market only hasten their demise. The focus on export crops for trade has meant increasing yields, with farmers becoming dependent on chemical inputs. Many have stopped rotating their crops, instead devoting every acre to corn, wheat, or some other commodity crop and creating vast monocultures that require still more chemicals to be sustained. This has destroyed our biodiversity. Vast industrial farms require costly equipment for planting and harvesting, increasing the capital intensity of agriculture. As costs rise, prices fall in markets flush with surplus. As prices fall, farmers need subsidies, which are available to big growers and agribusiness only. Land values and cash rents increase. This encourages heavy borrowing. Rich landowners get richer and young farmers cannot afford to get started. An agricultural bubble economy is created. Inevitably it crashes as subsidies fail to keep pace with falling crop prices. Farms go bankrupt. Free trade in agriculture starves our farmers.

Our right to food has been undermined by dependence on the vagaries of the free market promoted by the international financial institutions. Instead of ensuring the right to food for all, these institutions have created a system that prioritizes export-oriented production and has increased global hunger and poverty while alienating millions from productive resources such as land, water, and seeds. The "world market" of agricultural products simply does not exist. What exists is an international trade of surpluses in grain, cereals, and meat dumped primarily by the EU, the United States, and members of the Cairns Group. Behind the faces of trade negotiators are powerful transnational corporations such as Cargill and Monsanto, which are the real beneficiaries of domestic subsidies and international trade agreements. Fundamental change in this repressive trade regime is essential.

Not surprisingly then, farmers organizations and social movements around the world have denounced the liberalization of farm products promoted by the WTO and other regional and bilateral free trade agreements. Instead of trade, small farmers movements prioritize healthy, good quality, and culturally appropriate subsistence production for the domestic market and for the sub-regional or regional markets. These farmers' priority is to produce for their families and communities, then to seek access to the domestic market before seeking to export.

The Doha Round of the WTO will mean certain death for untold numbers of farmers who will face increased competition from foreign subsidized products when their agricultural tariffs are reduced. If this terrible situation occurs, t he developing countries should be able to defend themselves by not reducing their tariffs on food products and products of their small farmers, and should be provided a Special Safeguard Mechanism , a tool that allows developing countries to work against the practice of dumping that is killing peasants. Under this mechanism, a developing country can raise the tariffs on a product if there is an import surge of the product. And they should be able to choose for themselves the Special Products (SP) that are exempted from obligations of tariffs and domestic subsidies. In essence, designating products as SP means taking them out of the WTO. In addition the developing countries should also be able to revert to the use of quantitative restrictions, which they had given up in false expectation that the Northern countries would stop their protection. In the wake of WTO talks stalled at the mini-ministerial in June 2006, farmers groups worldwide, including the Asian Peasant Coalition, have already declared that all products are special products! This buffer would at least allow countries to protect their most sensitive sectors from tariff reductions, and therefore protect millions of farmers' lives.

Agriculture and food are fundamental to the well-being of all people, both in terms of access to safe and nutritious food and as foundations of healthy communities, cultures, and environment. To ensure this we need agricultural subsidies that support communities instead of supporting commodities. Instead of production- and price-linked subsidies, a fair subsidy system would ensure small farmers access to local markets, fair prices for their products, and, when necessary, credit and technical assistance. Such a system would support the development of cooperatives and promote the consumption and production of local crops raised by small, sustainable farms. It would ensure farmers' rights to land, seeds, and water; support conservation practices; and protect indigenous rights.

In short, this is about ensuring a new system of agricultural trade that would guarantee food sovereignty; the right of people and countries to define their own agricultural and food policies according to the needs and the priorities of local communities, including mechanisms to protect domestic food production; ensure strict control of food imports to stabilize internal market prices; and supply management systems to avoid dumping on the world markets.

Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, is an internationally renowned expert on trade, agriculture, development, and human rights issues.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tiger by the tail pipe: Exxon re-thinks climate change

Herman Scheer has been a member of the German Parliament, since 1980. He is also President of EUROSOLAR - The European Association for Renewable Energy and General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE). Dr. Scheer is on a world wind tour of the United States to promote his latest book "Energy Autonomy: The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy".

A primary force behind Germany's emergence as a global leader in renewable energy development, Dr. Scheer is leery of enlisting the services of the corporate energy giants in restructuring our energy systems. Quoting Albert Einstein he reminds us that you can't solve serious problems with the same thinking that created them.

ExxonMobil's top executives on climate policy

14 February 2007

Ken Cohen, vice-president for public affairs and Sherri Stuewer, vice-president for safety, health and environment explain Exxon's position on climate change and lay down basic principles for a future US policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
ExxonMobil has long been an outspoken critic of global warming science, questioning the scientific foundations behind human influence on climate change. But you recently appeared to soften you stance. Why is that? Has Exxon changed opinion on the issue?

Ken Cohen (KC): For some people our position on climate change does continue to be misunderstood. So let's take a step back and look at ExxonMobil. We are a high-tech product company, we are not viewed by many people in that way probably because they don't see gasoline as high-tech, but in fact we would argue that we are. What people don't see is the high tech nature of the process we go through to produce energy, get it into our refining systems and produce the fuel and other products that we make.

We have about 83,000 employees world-wide. Out of those, about 14,000 are scientists and engineers. And of that group, about 2,000 have a PHD. We are the industry leader in R&D. And for the last few years we have been spending over a billion dollars a year on R&D, that is basic R&D and bench R&D that is done out in our operating unit.

So when we come to an issue like climate change, we approach it as a scientist or engineer approaches it. We saw climate change as an issue over twenty years ago and we formed a group to follow it and to study it. The group is headed by and has been headed by an astrophysicist. He is backed up by another astrophysicist - the company employs paleo-climatologists.

We participate and have participated over the years in the IPCC process. Our scientists have been either lead author or co-author on forty different peer-reviewed papers that are part of the IPCC process. For example, the IPCC has recently issued the first of the three tranches of its fourth assessment report [AR4]. We participated in the preparation of the fourth assessment report we welcome it as an addition to the body of knowledge on climate change. And that is our approach to it.

Then the second part is dealing with risk. We deal with risk every day. For example, running our refining and petro-chemical operations or out in the exploration and development side, operating upstream in deep water - we deal with risk every day.

So when we approach a very complicated issue like climate change, we approach it both from understanding the science of the issue but also recognising that it is a complex issue. We are really talking about an issue of risk management - how do we deal with the risk posed by climate change.

We are not a denier; we understand that the climate is changing. I know a number of people like to label us that way but the fact is we're not. We are aware that the climate is changing that the earth has warmed on average about 0.6 degree Celsius over the last century. We are aware that many global ecosystems, especially in the polar areas, are showing signs of warming; that CO2 emissions have increased during the same time period and that - during the same time period - the emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions.

So that is our understanding of the issue. And we recognise that climate remains an extraordinarily complex area of study.

But the risks to society and ecosystems could prove to be significant so our view is that, despite the areas of uncertainty, we need to be developing and implementing strategies that address the risks, that keep in mind the central importance of energy to the world, that put us on a path to produce the energy the world needs, but that does it in a way that have lower emissions associated with its production.

Are you saying that you now accept that human intervention is the main source of global warming?

Sherri Stuewer (SS): There is no question that we understand the physics of the warming caused by CO2, and we welcome the discussion of what the in-depth link is between rising greenhouse gas emissions and the changes in the climate.

The development in the fourth-assessment report - the attempt to use probabilities to characterise the range of outcomes, which reflects the uncertainties that we have is a real positive step forward. We believe that you cannot make informed decisions about what to do from a policy standpoint unless you understand the risk and the probabilities that go behind it in our understandings.

And so from that standpoint, yes we are involved in this discussion of the link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and warming.

KC: Which brings us to the policy side - you know there are two debates that one can be participating in right now. One is: is climate change real? What is the cause? Call it the blame game or whatever you want. And the other discussion is: what we do about it?

We prefer to be involved in the second discussion, which is what do we do about climate change - what policies make sense to both produce the energy which the world absolutely has to have and do it in a way that starts us on a path to reduce emissions associated with the production and use of energy.

Can you actually separate these two questions? If you want to come up with solutions, you have to understand what the origin is. And if you think global warming is due to the sun's influence as some scientists believe, you will have to go for a different solution than those who believe it is caused by human intervention and the burning of fossil fuels….

KC: I would say this: Should we be on a path to do something about anthropogenic emission? The answer is yes.

SS: That does not mean that we believe everything we need to know about the contributions from anthropogenic emissions to climate change is known and what all the other contributions are.

But we do believe that the risk that rising greenhouse gas emissions are affecting the climate justifies action now. As you approach the policy debate, you cannot approach it without looking at what is cost-effective to do in light of that.

Where we are right now in the debate is looking at what are the policy options and how cost-effectively we can address the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But anything that you do that effectively puts a cost on carbon out in the economy has an impact on economic development. So we cannot approach this policy debate in an isolated manner.

KC: And I would say that science certainly has to inform the policy options that are selected. So selected policy options need to be able to be adjusted as we learn more on the science side. And they also need to be able to be adjusted as we see the economic impacts of those policies.

Some have said for instance that we need to stabilise CO2 emissions at 550 parts per million. But that is more of a political conclusion than a scientific conclusion. It may be that we'll learn that 550 ppm is not an aggressive enough target. It may be that science will tell us that the target needs to be something lower than 550 ppm.

So yes, the policies need to be adjusted. Or conversely, it could be that the anthropogenic contribution can be mitigated somehow by sinks or what have you as we learn more. So, what we are trying to convey is: we know enough now to say that we need to be on a path to start addressing anthropogenic emissions. But we also need to keep the science effort going and we need to keep in mind the economic impacts of the policies.

In a slide-show that you sent us before the interview, there was one referring to basic principles that you would like to see as part of a future climate change policy in the US. The first bullet point says "maximising the use of markets" and the second says "ensuring a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy". That sounds very much like a cap-and-trade system in the way that is currently being implemented in the EU. Is it something that you favour?

KC: You basically have four approaches that are readily available to deal with anthropogenic emissions. One is product standards: tail-pipe emissions from automobiles for example, emissions from refrigerators, heating units, insulation standards for buildings, etc. So that is one area: all-around efficient use and production of energy.

Then you have the cap-and-trade approach and within that, you can have variations. You can have a downstream cap-and-trade system which focuses on large emitters of CO2 or you can have an upstream system where you focus on the providers of fuel - so oil-producers, gas-producers, coal-producers.

And then of course there is a carbon tax approach that applies across the broad range.

With that background on the four options, we are trying to compare those four different approaches to dealing with anthropogenic emissions.

We are believers in the market system as the most efficient allocator of resources. We believe for example that markets do a much better job of picking winners and losers on the technology side than governments. So we believe that when we design policies we need to harness the power of the market system as best as we can within the policy that we are designing.

The recent Stern report in the UK said climate change is the biggest market failure of all time. So you think Mr. Stern is wrong?

SS: We need to be clear about what we mean by "market". We think it is important to get a uniform and predictable cost for carbon across the economy and then let the markets pick the technologies that can deliver reductions at that cost as opposed to having governments trying to dictate particular technologies that may or may not be cost effective. So when we say "use the markets", we mean to use the market to pick the solutions that are cost-effective, not rely on the markets alone to handle this process.

KC: We are not saying, 'laissez-faire', just let the market operate. These points are all inter-related.

For example, the downstream cap-and-trade system of the type that Europe has put in place and that we are operating under (you know we have a big operation in Western Europe) - the designers would say that they are harnessing the power of the market system through the trading of greenhouse gas emissions allowances. That is one way to do that.

Then on the downstream cap-and-trade system, one could ask how efficient the system is in spreading the cost of carbon in a uniform and predictable way across the full spectrum of economic activity.

And that would be a good question to ask. Just take a look for example in the variations in the price of carbon over the lifetime of the EU trading system. Now, if you are in a business like ours, where you make long-term, very capital-intensive investments, you live with the economics of that investment, so the uniformity and predictability of the cost of carbon becomes an important criteria.

So you say that you are concerned about the European system and the current low price of carbon?

SS: The thing that makes it very difficult for us when we make investments under the European system is that the cost on a forward basis is far from predictable and the cost even on a near-term basis is volatile.

Setting a rationing scheme with caps is a very indirect way of trying to control the cost of the ration coupons that you have created in that system. And when you have that indirect link it inevitably results in volatility and uncertainty in the price.

So I have the situation where our businesses in Europe are coming and asking us what is the outlook in the long-term for the price of carbon to justify investment projects. And we really do not have a basis on which to give them an answer.

So, a system which has a clear, consistent, stable cost of carbon that is predictable over the long-term is much better at drawing in the investment necessary.

But would there not be more predictability if the US also had a cap-and-trade system, perhaps a better one than the one we have here in Europe?

SS: If you are setting a cap or a rationed amount of carbon, you are always in the process of guessing what demand will be because you're always looking at the size of the gap between demand and the rationed cap that determines the cost. And it is difficult to do that. We know in our own business that forecasting supply and demand is nearly impossible.

And so we are sympathetic with the fact that for governments to be attempting to guess what the demand is and set a rationed cap against that in order to influence the cost of carbon - that's a very indirect way of getting a stable cost out there. There are by contrast other policy options, which can be much more effective, at getting a uniform, stable costs across the economy.

Now clearly, the one that gives you the clearest number is the carbon tax. But there are other options though - if you look at the option of an upstream cap-and-trade system where there was a safety valve or a ceiling price on the carbon allowances. What that allows businesses to do with confidence is that they know at least what the upside would be on the cost of allowances over time.

So there are policy details that can make a tremendous difference to the principle of delivering a uniform and predictable cost of carbon.

So an upstream cap-and-trade system is something that you could eventually support if it was fitted with a price ceiling?

SS: The upstream system with a safety valve certainly comes closer to meeting our first principles than a downstream system. And one reason is that it applies to all fuels so it very efficiently goes across the whole economy. You don't have to fuss with how to bring in the airline industry for example because the costs are on the fuel.

And also, if you have a safety valve price it means that this price over time establishes a level of certainty. But I will tell you that the devil is always in the details on these things. Because I have looked at some of the details for the upstream proposals and that are knocking around Washington…

Yes, are there any of those that you prefer?

SS: There's a new one every day so it's hard to keep up! But I think that the devil is clearly in the details because you can take a policy which is conceptually effective and undermine that effectiveness by, for example, allocation processes that...

…We know that in Europe!

SS: Absolutely. Anything with an allocation process has a high risk of being gained in a political environment.

KC: A bill or legislation which is first introduced, we have had the situation many times where we came out opposing a bill initially and by the time it was changed we ended up supporting it. But more importantly, we would actually be in favour of a bill initially and by the time it got the vote it did not look anything like what we had originally supported and we ended up campaigning to defeat it.

Can you briefly describe how the upstream cap-and-trade system works?

SS: Let me contrast it to a downstream system. A downstream system cap-and-trade system, the limit on carbon is at the point of emission. So that the entities that are required to track their carbon and submit emissions allowances year-in are the people who actually are emitting - so it is the power plants, the large furnaces and that sort of thing.

An upstream system puts a limit on the carbon at the point that the fuel enters commerce. So it would be at the coal mine, at the output of natural gas processing plant or at a refinery where fuels are entering commercial trade.

And it is essentially a way of reducing dramatically the number of people that have to participate in the regulatory process because there are a whole lot fewer people who are making and selling fuels than are consuming them. So from an efficiency standpoint it is a big step forward. The second thing is that it helps meeting the principles that we have laid out here - it is a very easy way to get a price signal on carbon across the whole economy in a uniform way, as opposed to trying to say 'what am I going to do with the power industry? What am I going to do to the chemical industry?'.

But that would be targeting your kind of business more than anybody else's is that right?

KC: Yes it would.

So you are basically saying: "hit us!"

KC: Well, it depends on how you put it. Based on our principles, if we want to be as consistent across the board in sending a signal to the broadest sections of the economy that we are establishing a uniform cost of carbon then yes, that would be a more predictable way of doing it.

SS: If you ask me whether I am excited about ourselves being right in the middle of a process that puts a price on carbon, I might say that it might not be my first preference.

But we recognise that it is a more efficient way to get the cost out into the economy. And I'm going to put a big 'but' at the end of that sentence: If there is volatility in that cost, putting us in the middle is very difficult because our customers do not like volatility in the price of fuel, it makes it difficult for them to plan their monthly budgets if they don't know how much they are going to pay at the pump, and that is particularly ture in the United States where people tend to drive longer distances than in Europe and where there is less public transportation.

So volatility in carbon price is uncomfortable. That is why we talk about uniform and predictable, stable carbon costs. And you can get that with the safety valve, with a carbon tax that has a clear number that is stable over time. So putting us in the middle is something that we accept as a potential responsibility to make the system efficient in the economy. But putting us in the middle of a volatile system is a nightmare for us.

KC: Politicians now this very well, one of the elements on our first principles is not political attractiveness. You don't hear much discussion for example about a carbon tax. Yet most economists who look at this issue say that the most effective way to address carbon emissions would be with a carbon tax. But a carbon tax would have I think low political attractiveness because it is apparent to everyone who put the cost on and it is spread throughout the economy.

So you are not against the idea of a carbon tax?

KC: No, not at all. In fact, from an efficiency standpoint, from spreading the cost of carbon across the economy in an efficient and uniform and predictable way, as a way to maximise the use of markets, as someone who studied economics, yes I think that a carbon tax ought to be looked at with equal force as the other options.

Now, as we said before, the devil is in the details and there are a number of questions. Whether it is going to be a regressive tax? What would the rate of the tax be and making sure you don't exclude people from it; what is the revenue going to be used for; are we going to take out another regressive tax? Or are we going to take that money and use it for some other purpose? So there are major issues that would need to be address, but from an economist's standpoint and in fact, this is the favoured option.

Going back to Washington politics, how do you see developments in the next few years? Do you think that the US will have a cap-and-trade system or will there be something else?

KC: The first answer is easy- there is going to be a lot of legislative activity. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has said that a climate change bill will be passed by July 4th of this year - she has gone on record saying that.

Now, what will the bill be? In our system, the House of Representatives passes a bill, the Senate then examines it and then, if there are differences, the two bodies need to get together in what we call a conference committee and develop what will actually be the bill that will be passed to the President for his or her signature.

And are there any senators with whom you've discussed your upstream cap-and trade-idea?

KC: Actually, we have been meeting people both in the House and the Senate, democrats and republicans, and had the same kind of conversation that we are having now.

SS: The thing that encourages me about the debate right now in Washington is that people are opening their minds to a broader array of policy options. We talked about the upstream system, Senator Liberman has a draft proposal out now which is in fact an upstream cap-and-trade system.

Again, there is devil in the detail there, but I think it is indicative of the fact that there is a broader discussion of options right now. And while there is no-one talking about a carbon tax, it seems kike every day there are editorials in the Washington papers saying that a carbon tax is the most effective and clear way to put a signal out into the economy.

KC: You know, we have to have some sort of humour as well. Given the view that many people have of ExxonMobil and our position on climate change, if we were to come out in favour of any one of these approaches and say that ExxonMobil favours option 'x', some people would immediately say that there's something wrong with that approach.

What we are doing is trying to be part of a broad discussion, that is a multi-industry, multi-sector discussion of policy options.

SS: We have been directly talking to legislators and their staff as an education process to make sure that they don't rush to select a policy but to encourage them to start an internal debate on this broader set of policies.

And one of the important things that is beginning to be discussed in Washington is that anything you do that effectively puts a cost on carbon increases the cost of energy to the average voter.

That average voter sees that cost increase in electric bills, he sees it at the pump, and it trickles through into all sorts of manufactured goods. And so there is a dawning recognition that policies that address the risks of climate change are regressive in that they fall most heavily on the poor and the middle class. And one of the struggles that I think is beginning to be embraced in Washington now is how do you deal with that? How do you deal with the regressive cost, or tax or cap that creates a regressive cost?

But you would say that a regressive cost is unavoidable, is that right?

KC: Yes. And obviously, we are more favourably disposed towards being direct and transparent in imposing that cost as opposed to being indirect and not transparent.

Moving on to future business, Exxon is very much focused today on oil extraction and refining. Are you currently planning to diversify your energy portfolio? We have seen French oil major Total recently saying they are considering getting into nuclear energy for example. Is Exxon also considering a similar diversification?

SS: You may not know this, but ExxonMobil had a solar business and we also had a nuclear business. And in fact we still control a strong patent portfolio in the nuclear area. So you never say never on getting back into those technologies.

Where we think that we can add value now in non-traditional fuels or alternative fuels, is not in implementing today's technologies, there is plenty of venture capital money out there chasing those opportunities right now. Where we think that we can add value is in research on new technologies that get over some of the hurdles that make the existing portfolio on renewables or alternative technologies either more costly or unattractive for some reason.

Let me give you an example. We have a programme at Stanford University. We have been very serious in that programme about trying to be way up the technology pipeline, looking at the high-risk, high-reward breakthrough technologies that could really make a difference in the cost of either alternative energies or in the cost of using fossil fuel energy much more efficiently and with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

And the reason we think that the focus should be way up the pipeline is that private industry can do the commercialisation of technologies that are ready. But for the size of this problem [global warming], we really need creative solutions and we are working that through Stanford.

We recognise that this is a small effort in the context of the whole problem. Governments can also help by doing the research far-up the pipeline to nurture those breakthrough ideas that can lead to viable technologies for the future.

But these breakthrough technologies will probably take decades before they become commercially viable…

SS: We are not saying that there isn't anything that you can do right now. There is tremendous potential right now for better deployment of the existing technology in the world.

If you look at the range of efficiency gains that can be made on various appliances and in buildings across the world, just rising to the best standards has tremendous potential to deliver improvements. Energy efficiency has a lot to offer in the near term but what we are trying to say is that efficiency and today's technology will not solve this problem for the long-term. We need more, we need new technologies.

KC: More specifically, when you talk about biofuels in the US right now, you are really talking about corn-based ethanol. We are the largest blender of ethanol in the United States, we account for about 12% of all ethanol blending. Our basic gasoline is what we call E3 to E10, that is 3% ethanol up to about 10% ethanol.

We could take about 3 times more of the corn ethanol production and blend that into our supply without any government programme. We would have the capacity to do so. But the issue then shifts. There is a mandate in the US right now to get to 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in US gasoline supply by the year 2012. To do that will require 21% of the corn crop in the US. To get to the numbers that have recently been discussed - the 35 billion gallons -, you can't do it - and there is no technology that can get you there. The only way to get there would through technological and commercially feasible breakthroughs in cellulosic technology.

Are you currently investing in those so-called second generation biofuels? Can you tell us how much money you are putting into those technologies?

SS: The Stanford programme is looking at new yeast strains that will be effective on a broader range of sugars. Because when you are trying to turn cellulose into ethanol, you end up in the middle of that process with a bunch of different kinds of sugar and the existing ethanol conversion processes aren't effective on all those sugars.

Another project that is going on in Stanford is looking at a way to genetically modify crops so that they produce more cellulose so essentially trying to increase the yield per acre. Because ultimately it is the number of acres available and even the water available for cultivation that will limit the contribution of biofuels.

But I want to be clear: in our outlook for the next decades, we see biofuels, we see wind, we see solar growing very rapidly. But even with that rapid growth, they represent maybe 2% of the global energy supply by 2030. And it's not that they don't play an important role. It is that in the near term, we don't see them as a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because the energy portfolio still has predominantly fossil fuels in it.

As a result, we're saying that, in addition to this portfolio, let's look at alternatives, let's look at things like C02 sequestration as a way to keep coal in the mix particularly as coal is going to be a large proportion of the energy growth in India and China.

Let's figure out a way to keep coal in the mix and to use it responsibly within a long-term framework for greenhouse gas emissions. That's part of the reason that we've joined the "C02 remove" project that is jointly sponsored by the EU. It is looking at monitoring and verification of C02 that's been injected. And one of the projects that "C02 remove" is going to be studying is the Sleipner project in the North Sea of which we are a part owner.

To translate this into hard cash, how much money do you expect to make from these new technologies?

KC: This is one of the biggest communication challenges that we face and that is conveying the enormous scale, scope and size of the energy business. The money one makes from biofuels right now are subsidised to be in that business. These fuels are going to be growing at very rapid rates but they are growing because they're receiving substantial subsidies.

Something hat has happened with nuclear too, by the way…

KC: Yes, they have. These fuels are being marketed today and there's plenty of cash available for investment in these fuels today but the contribution to the bottom line of a business of our size, scale and scope - you cannot find the contribution. That's why we are focusing on the R&D to make viable businesses that will stand on their own two feet. And we could scale up and be major players. ExxonMobil has the financial wherewithal to get into a business if we see it as viable. We have the technology platform if we see it as a long term winner.

But I think it's strange for some to want ExxonMobil to get into businesses that would require a government subsidy in order for it to appear profitable on the bottom line. I think our better role is to be participating in the R&D side looking for the breakthroughs that would make the technology platform robust enough so that these technologies can be scaled up across not just the developed world but also in the developing world, in India and China and being cost effective in doing so. So I have a hard time measuring one's commitment by looking at what is ExxonMobil's investment for example in a solar business or a nuclear business.

Last question: do you think that we can solve the twin challenge of climate change and energy security just by technology or do we also need changes in consumer behaviour?

SS: Putting a cost of carbon into the economy provides the incentive to change consumer behaviour. And I think that if you look at any of the academic studies that have looked at what it takes to reduce emissions over a century - all of those studies see a combination of energy efficiency, which means largely people changing their decisions about what car they buy or what kind of windows they put in their house - and it also means new technology. I don't think it's an either or I think it's a both.

Are you saying that you need gasoline prices in the US around the same level as in Europe?

KC: Well I can tell you as head of government relations that we learned that there is a price of gasoline that is referred to as being at "an unconstitutional level". When gasoline prices in the US got around 2.46 dollars a gallon here - boy oh boy! Let's just say we couldn't have won an election for much of anything. But as prices have receded back down to the range of 2 dollars a gallon, then all of a sudden, the human outcry that was associated with the price of gasoline calmed.

That's just a long way of saying that we have to do a lot of public education to do in this country around the price of gasoline. We've just gone through an election process where both parties made the price of gasoline an issue and it wasn't along the lines of raising the price of gasoline, the election issue was, we need to bring down the price of gasoline - that's just a fact.

No politician would win on a ticket arguing in favour of higher oil prices of course, not even in Europe…

KC: The other point to remember is that there are close to two billion people in the world who are striving to have what all of us take for granted. And we need them to have what we take for granted which is reliable, affordable energy and a lifestyle that resembles what you and I enjoy. Now how do we help them do that? What kind of technology will the developing world use to develop - we haven't discussed that but it is a really critical issue in the way we approach climate change.

Thank you very much for giving us this interview

KC: It's been an interesting discussion, thank you.

Monday, February 19, 2007

High rise sustainability in Dubai?

I've posted before on the development of Dubai's "sudden city". I raised questions about the sustainability of the project that proposes among other things, to construct a string of artificial islands (most in the shape of a palm tree, and one cluster that forms a map of the world), an indoor ski resort, and the world's tallest skyscrapers.

Dubai master planners say they are sensitive to the needs of building in ways that minimize environmental impacts. They claim that they are seeking to demonstrate how urban high rise development can be sustainable. In fact, they assert that it is a key to urban design in the 21st century and beyond.

One can find some similarities in their approach with those of the "granddaddy of urban dessert projects" Arcosanti -- Paolo Soleri's experimental city in the Arizona desert. Density, multi use structures, and vertical construction are clearly methods that can minimize the physical size of the footprint in a world where growing population and expanding urbanization are the trends. Soleri goes beyond the physical footprint and has developed an approach to urban design called Arcology -- an integration of architecture and ecology that enables radical conservation of land, energy and resources. (GW)


By James Duncan
The Mideast News Service
February 18, 2007

The explosion in development activity in the Arabian Gulf region in general and the UAE in particular in recent years has led to new way of thinking about the approach to sustainable development in high rise communities.

The level of activity in Dubai for example in the last five years is on a scale unprecedented since the building booms of the last century in cities such as New York and Chicago. The desire to live and work in a concentrated area where everybody wants a sea view has meant that high rise development has been seen as the way forward. Available financial resource and a desire to diversify the local economy away from a dependence on Oil and Gas have meant that the drivers for this development boom do not fit many of the recognized parameters for development experienced in mature economies elsewhere in North America and Europe .This combined with the extreme nature of the climate and environment in this erstwhile undeveloped region has created a range of unique issues to be addressed.

Let us explore these in more detail:

Technical Issues

Since the advent of significant Oil and Gas extraction in the early 1960’s there has been a constant process of improvement and acclimatization to the design and engineering standards required in this environment. High temperatures and high concentrations of aggressive natural salts played havoc with early concrete structures. The use of concrete was always preferred due to the presence of local resources and cost implications. Necessity is the mother of invention and over the years sophisticated concrete mix designs and construction techniques mean that the gulf region and the companies that operate here arguably lead the world in reinforced concrete technology.

For example the use of micro silica and sophisticated mix designs combined with a high level of understanding of how to control hydration in high temperatures have enabled the region to push the boundaries of concrete technology. The Burj Dubai currently under construction will not only be the Worlds tallest building when completed at over 700m but is also built of reinforced concrete. In future we can expect to see greater use of pre-cast techniques and steel as the economics of these materials becomes more viable with local production and distribution.

The unique nature of the climate in the region has led to new standards of wind design. The Shamal winds which can blow for 3 to 40 days at a time often have peak intensities at high levels. Where this occurs at say 400m it is loading structure the size of Burj Dubai at half its height so traditional near ground level wind surveys are not adequate and have to be replaced by sophisticated wind tunnel modeling and so forth.

Regulations have been and are constantly being reviewed by regulatory authorities to address many other issues for example fire regulation ,the use of composite cladding materials ,escape strategies and so forth.


Problems associated with the implementation of infrastructure to harmonise with the pace of development which is traditionally the economic driver are not unique to the Gulf region. Many major cities have been through a process of major urban regeneration over the last two decades and there are good and bad examples. The delays to the construction of the Jubilee Line in East London had near disastrous consequences to the success of the Canary Wharf development which now mature is enjoying a high level of occupancy and success. In Yokohama fast rail links were built before the bulk of the major redevelopment was instigated thereby ameliorating many of these problems.

In Dubai time has not been a luxury enjoyed by urban planners and infrastructure has lagged behind the pace of development leading to problems of congestion and so forth. However vast sums are being spent on road and rail infrastructure and it is to be expected that not unlike Canary Wharf these problems will resolve themselves within a fairly short period of the development life cycle.

In Abu Dhabi which in any event enjoys a more open location with fewer constraints on infrastructure longer lead in periods and master planning mean that much of the new infrastructure requirements for large offshore island projects will be in place in advance of development activity. For example on Al Reem Island over $5Bn are being spent on infrastructure provision.

Utilities and Environmental Issues

High on the agenda of new developments are Green Building considerations and these are being fostered and promoted by Government organizations such as the Emirates Green Building Council. A new Awards scheme has been introduced along the lines of the U.S LEED Green Building Awards. Some schemes such as the Wafi City District Cooling Plant have already won Awards in the international forum.

Utilities such as district cooling systems and combined cycle power plants are efficient uses of energy.

New projects are turning to more efficient designs .The Ibis Bay scheme in Dubai Business Bay is a good example where an ergonomic design incorporates many features such as photovoltaic glass panels, natural cross ventilation, green micro climate zones and so forth.

Human Issues

Building an Iconic Skyscraper is not necessarily a recipe for a high quality living and working environment. Lessons have been learnt from the mistakes of the past and the vertical cities of the Gulf are setting new standards of performance and amenity.

Intelligent buildings are commonplace with every possible amenity included in many schemes. Yes your fridge will now also tell you what you need on your shopping list! The inclusion of green zones within tall buildings creates an improved microclimate and the reduction of building densities allows for increased external amenity space. Schools, medical centres, shops and other essential services are increasingly part of the new masterplan.

The sustainable masterplan will be a key to the success of many of the proposed schemes in Abu Dhabi and other Emirates such as Ajman. Here densities and heights of buildings are strictly controlled using restricted Floor Area Ratios (FARs).Great attention has been paid to preserving the delicate local ecosystems and authorities such as TDIC in Abu Dhabi are to be commended for the sensitivity of large schemes such as Saadyat Island and others where natural resources such as Mangrove areas, fauna breeding grounds and marine environments are carefully protected which in turn improves the global environment of the area. Culture and education feature prominently in many schemes with world class facilities such as The Guggenheim Museum planned in new Cultural Quarters that include Opera and the performing arts.


The high rise communities of the Gulf region are not an Orwellian nightmare. The opportunities for developing new sustainable model living conditions for the 22nd Century are being developed in a way that sets the pace for the rest of the world.

Good strategic masterplanning and the use high quality expertise are the keys for the provision of the essential ingredients of good infrastructure, environmentally friendly buildings ,quality services and a living and working environment that embraces not oppresses the human spirit.

James Duncan is Major Projects Director for Northcroft in the UAE. Northcroft is one of the oldest firms of construction consultants in the world established for over 130 years.

Arconsanti's Hyper Building

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The $25 million climate change challenge

British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, with former vice president Al Gore at his side, recently announced that he is offering a $25 million prize to anyone who can come up with a way to dampen the effects of global climate change by removing at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the Earth's atmosphere.

The host of NPR's "Living on Earth" wondered who might respond to such a challenge. The following interview was broadcast on LOE during the week of February 16th. (GW)

Climate Contest

Living On Earth
February 17. 2007

British billionaire Richard Branson (on the left in the photo with Al Gore) is offering a 25 million dollar prize to the scientist with the best plan to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Living on Earth’s Emily Taylor reports on three scientists who are already working on projects to reduce CO2, and about the Branson challenge.

CURWOOD (LOE host): Trees and other plants take carbon dioxide out of the air every day, and thereby slow down the rate of global warming. So what if we could devise a technology to pull carbon out of the atmosphere fast enough to stop climate change in its tracks? Well, if you come up with the answer, billionaire businessman Richard Branson is prepared to hand you up to $25 million in prize money.

All you have to do is develop a proven and reliable technique to get a billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere in the course of a year. As of today, of course, that's considered impossible. But then again for thousands of years we thought people couldn't fly and certainly couldn't go to the moon. So Living on Earth's Emily Taylor asked some leading scientists what approaches might win this so-called Branson challenge.

TAYLOR: The official title is the Virgin Earth Challenge, it's named after the many businesses in Richard Branson's empire including Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways. The challenge is aimed at finding a way to capture the excess carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere. Natural processes already capture billions of tons of atmospheric CO2. But things like gasoline powered cars, coal fired power plants, and Branson's jets are producing far more CO2 than the natural carbon cycle can absorb; three and a half billion tons more every year. Branson is hoping his 25 million dollar prize will motivate scientists to find a way to capture about a third of that excess CO2. Of course some scientists have been thinking about this challenge for years. One of them is J. Craig Venter. He's the geneticist who gained notoriety when he raced the federal government to map the human genome.

VENTER: We're trying to meet the challenge of removing CO2 by designing a new set of microbial cells using our synthetic genomic capabilities to do what we find in deep ocean organisms capture CO2 and convert that CO2 by fixing the carbon into sugars, proteins, ah, various kinds of lipids or biopolymers.

TAYLOR: Venter says that the carbon stored in his synthetic organisms could then be extracted and used in carbon heavy manufacturing processes. That would kill two birds with one stone since most industrial carbon now comes from petroleum.

VENTER: Clothing, carpets, pharmaceuticals, ah, plastics all come from the petrochemical industry so, ah, if all the carbon that goes into plastics comes from CO2 versus oil we don't have to take the carbon out of the ground.

TAYLOR: Other scientists would also use the oceans to help reduce carbon levels. John Latham is at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He proposes increasing the number of droplets in the low-lying clouds that often form over the ocean. Latham says this would make the clouds reflect more sunlight, which would help to cool the planet.

LATHAM: If we can make those clouds reflect about an extra three percent or something like that then there will be a cooling because less sunlight is getting to earth. And because the solubility of carbon dioxide in water increases as the water gets cooler the more CO2 that's in the air will get trapped in the oceans.

TAYLOR: Here's how Latham's plan would work.

LATHAM: We propose to spray from special, unmanned satellite guided vessels, sea water droplets, very small ones about one ten thousandth of a centimeter in size. Um, and they act as centers for production of additional droplets. So we'll in that way increase the reflectivity of these clouds.

TAYLOR: Another big idea would mimic one of nature's most effective means of regulating carbon dioxide. Klaus Lackner teaches at the school of engineering and applied sciences at Columbia University.

LACKNER: The way to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is akin to how a tree does it. It puts surfaces up, the leaves, over which the CO2 flows and as the air flows the CO2 is being absorbed. Once you have absorbed that on a surface which is let's say wetted with a liquid you can collect that liquid and then remove the CO2 from that liquid.

TAYLOR: Lackner says the CO2 could then either be disposed of under ground or used in manufacturing processes like making cement. Lackner envisions putting up thousands of these collectors across the globe to suck up emissions from cars and industry.

LACKNER: I sort of sketched out some time ago a tower which is the size of a water tower for a small town. And such an object by itself could take care of about 15,000 cars, again like the size of that small town. And if you had 250,000 such towers world wide, which is not a terribly large number, you would take out as much carbon dioxide as the world is putting into the atmosphere right now.

TAYLOR: So, new microbes, sea water spraying vessels, or giant fake plastic trees. Whether any of these ideas or any others will do the trick remains to be seen. Richard Branson himself isn't sure if his 25 million dollar prize will ever be awarded and he makes it clear that governments and private industry will have to invest much larger sums still, to find feasible solutions to the problem of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

For Living on Earth I'm Emily Taylor.

One theorectical approach to whitening marine stratocumulous clouds would be
for giant turbines to send microscopic droplets into the air, as demonstrated by
this prototype instrument. (Photo courtesy Stephen Salter, National Center for Atmospheric Research).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Africa's organic "Green Revolution"

In his book "Enriching the Earth" University of Manitoba professor Vaclav Smil writes: "The industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight or even television. The expansion of the world's population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to today's (2001) six billion would not have been possible without the synthesis of ammonia."

Of course it can be argued that what the original "Green Revolution" really did was allow society to compromise critical planetary ecological life support systems and overshoot the planet's carrying capacity. Eschewing this high-tech approach, African scientists have appealed to Niger villagers to employ an organic, labor-intensive strategy for planting trees and crops. It appears as if this is working. (GW)

In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert

GUIDAN BAKOYE, Niger — In this dust-choked region, long seen as an increasingly barren wasteland decaying into desert, millions of trees are flourishing, thanks in part to poor farmers whose simple methods cost little or nothing at all.

Better conservation and improved rainfall have led to at least 7.4 million newly tree-covered acres in Niger, researchers have found, achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility.

Recent studies of vegetation patterns, based on detailed satellite images and on-the-ground inventories of trees, have found that Niger, a place of persistent hunger and deprivation, has recently added millions of new trees and is now far greener than it was 30 years ago.

These gains, moreover, have come at a time when the population of Niger has exploded, confounding the conventional wisdom that population growth leads to the loss of trees and accelerates land degradation, scientists studying Niger say.

The vegetation is densest, researchers have found, in some of the most densely populated regions of the country.

“The general picture of the Sahel is much less bleak than we tend to assume,” said Chris P. Reij, a soil conservationist who has been working in the region for more than 30 years and helped lead a study published last summer on Niger’s vegetation patterns. “Niger was for us an enormous surprise.”

About 20 years ago, farmers like Ibrahim Danjimo realized something terrible was happening to their fields.

“We look around, all the trees were far from the village,” said Mr. Danjimo, a farmer in his 40s who has been working the rocky, sandy soil of this tiny village since he was a child. “Suddenly, the trees were all gone.”

Fierce winds were carrying off the topsoil of their once-productive land. Sand dunes threatened to swallow huts. Wells ran dry. Across the Sahel, a semiarid belt that spans Africa just below the Sahara and is home to some of the poorest people on earth, a cataclysm was unfolding.

Severe drought in the 1970s and ’80s, coupled with a population explosion and destructive farming and livestock practices, was denuding vast swaths of land. The desert seemed determined to swallow everything. So Mr. Danjimo and other farmers in Guidan Bakoye took a small but radical step. No longer would they clear the saplings from their fields before planting, as they had for generations. Instead they would protect and nurture them, carefully plowing around them when sowing millet, sorghum, peanuts and beans.

Today, the success in growing new trees suggests that the harm to much of the Sahel may not have been permanent, but a temporary loss of fertility. The evidence, scientists say, demonstrates how relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology, restoring its biodiversity and productivity.

In Niger’s case, farmers began protecting trees just as rainfall levels began to rise again after the droughts in the 1970s and ’80s.

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

The greening began in the mid-1980s, Dr. Reij said, “and every time we went back to Niger, the scale increased.”

“The density is so spectacular,” he said.

Mahamane Larwanou, a forestry expert at the University of Niamey in Niger’s capital, said the regrowth of trees had transformed rural life in Niger.

“The benefits are so many it is really astonishing,” Dr. Larwanou said. “The farmers can sell the branches for money. They can feed the pods as fodder to their animals. They can sell or eat the leaves. They can sell and eat the fruits. Trees are so valuable to farmers, so they protect them.”

They also have extraordinary ecological benefits. Their roots fix the soil in place, preventing it from being carried off with the fierce Sahelian winds and preserving arable land. The roots also help hold water in the ground, rather than letting it run off across rocky, barren fields into gullies where it floods villages and destroys crops.

One tree in particular, the Faidherbia albida, known locally as the gao tree, is particularly essential. It is a nitrogen-fixing tree, which helps fertilize the soil.

Its leaves fall off during the rainy season, which means it does not compete with crops for water, sun or nutrients during the growing period. The leaves themselves become organic fertilizer when they fall.

“This tree is perfectly adapted for farming in the Sahel,” said Dr. Larwanou. “Yet it had all but disappeared from the region.”

That is because for generations local farmers had simply cleared their fields of all vegetation, including trees, before sowing neat rows of sorghum, millet, peanuts and beans. When a field became less productive, the farmer would move on to another.

Wresting subsistence for 13 million people from Niger’s fragile ecology is something akin to a puzzle. Less than 12 percent of its land can be cultivated, and much of that is densely populated. Yet 90 percent of Niger’s people live off agriculture, cultivating a semiarid strip along the southern edge of the country.

Farmers here practice mostly rain-fed agriculture with few tools and no machinery, making survival precarious even in so-called normal times. But when the rains and harvest fall short, hunger returns with a particular vengeance, as it did in 2005 during the nation’s worst food crisis in a generation.

Making matters worse, Niger’s population has doubled in the last 20 years. Each woman bears about seven children, giving the country one of the highest growth rates in the world.

The regrowth of trees increases the income of rural farmers, cushioning the boom and bust cycle of farming and herding.

Ibrahim Idy, a farmer in Dahirou, a village in the Zinder region, has 20 baobab trees in his fields. Selling the leaves and fruit brings him about $300 a year in additional income. He has used that money to buy a motorized pump to draw water from his well to irrigate his cabbage and lettuce fields. His neighbors, who have fewer baobabs, use their children to draw water and dig and direct the mud channels that send water coursing to the beds. While their children work the fields, Mr. Idy’s children attend school.

In some regions, swaths of land that had fallen out of use are being reclaimed, using labor-intensive but inexpensive techniques.

In the village of Koloma Baba, in the Tahoua region just south of the desert’s edge, a group of widows have reclaimed fields once thought forever barren. The women dig small pits in plots of land as hard as asphalt. They place a shovelful of manure in the pits, then wait for rain. The pits help the water and manure stay in the soil and regenerate its fertility, said Dr. Larwanou. Over time, with careful tending, the land can regain its ability to produce crops. In this manner, more than 600,000 acres of land have been reclaimed, according to researchers.

Still, Koloma Baba also demonstrates the limits of this fragile ecosystem, where disaster is always one missed rainfall away. Most able-bodied young men migrate to Nigeria and beyond in search of work, supporting their families with remittances. The women struggle to eke a modest crop from their fields.

“I produce enough to eat, but nothing more,” said Hadijatou Moussa, a widow in Koloma Baba.

The women have managed to grow trees on their fields as well, but have not seen much profit from them. People come and chop their branches without permission, and a village committee that is supposed to enforce the rights of farmers to their trees does not take action against poachers.

Such problems raise the question of whether the success of some of Niger’s farmers can be replicated on a larger scale, across the Sahel. While Niger’s experience of greening on a vast scale is unique, scientists say, smaller tracts of land have been revived in other countries.

“It really requires the effort of the whole community,” said Dr. Larwanou. “If farmers don’t take action themselves and the community doesn’t support it, farmer-managed regeneration cannot work.”

Moussa Bara, the chief of Dansaga, a village in the Ague region of Niger, where the regeneration has been a huge success, said the village has benefited enormously from the regrowth of trees. He said not a single child died of malnutrition in the hunger crisis that gripped Niger in 2005, largely because of extra income from selling firewood. Still, he said, the village has too many mouths to feed.

“We are many and the land is small,” he explained, bouncing on his lap a little boy named Ibrahim, the youngest of his 17 children by his three wives.

Climate change is another looming threat. Kerry H. Cook, a professor of atmospheric science at Cornell University, said that improved rains in the Sahel are most likely a result of natural climate variability from decade to decade, and that while the trend is positive, the rains have not entirely recovered to what they were in the 1950s.

The Sahel, like other parts of Africa, has experienced big swings in rainfall in recent years. Severe droughts in eastern and southern Africa have led to serious hunger crises in the past five years, and a drop in precipitation in Niger in 2005 contributed to the food crisis here that year.

Dr. Cook’s long-term projections, based on a variety of climate models, point to longer and more frequent dry periods in the Sahel, caused by rising temperatures in the Gulf of Guinea.

“This is the place in the world that just stands out for having vulnerability for drought,” she said.

Still, more trees mean that Niger’s people are in a better position to withstand whatever changes the climate might bring. “This is something the farmers control, and something they do for themselves,” said Dr. Larwanou. “It demonstrates that with a little effort and foresight, you can reduce poverty in the Sahel. It is not impossible or hopeless, and does not have to cost a lot of money. It can be done.”

Monday, February 12, 2007

Growin' in the wind

Wind energy c0ntinues to be the fastest growing source of electricity worldwide. Why? Because when properly sited, they meet or exceed expectations with regard to performance and dispel the myths and misconceptions about inherent problems with noise, birds and bats. Following is a status report on the global wind industry stood at the end of 2006. (GW)

Global Wind Energy Markets Continue to Boom in 2006

Global Wind Energy Council
Press Release
February 2, 2007

Industry delivered 32% of annual market growth despite supply chain difficulties.

The booming wind energy markets around the world exceeded expectations in 2006, with the sector experiencing yet another record year. On the day of the publication of the 4th Assessment Report on Climate Change by the IPCC, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) released its annual figures for 2006. These figures, which include wind energy developments in more than 70 countries around the world, show that the year saw the installation of 15,197 megawatts (MW), taking the total installed wind energy capacity to 74,223 MW, up from 59,091 MW in 2005.

Despite constraints facing supply chains for wind turbines, the annual market for wind continued to increase at the staggering rate of 32% following the 2005 record year, in which the market grew by 41%. This development shows that the global wind energy industry is responding fast to the challenge of manufacturing at the required level, and manages to deliver sustained growth.

In terms of economic value, the wind energy sector has now become firmly installed as one of the important players in the energy markets, with the total value of new generating equipment installed in 2006 reaching €18 billion, or US$23 billion.

The countries with the highest total installed capacity are Germany (20,621 MW), Spain (11,615 MW), the USA (11,603 MW), India (6,270 MW) and Denmark (3,136). Thirteen countries around the world can now be counted among those with over 1000 MW of wind capacity, with France and Canada reaching this threshold in 2006.

In terms of new installed capacity in 2006, the US continued to lead with 2,454 MW, followed by Germany (2,233 MW), India (1,840 MW), Spain (1,587 MW), China (1,347 MW) and France (810 MW). This development shows that new players such as France and China are gaining ground.

"The tremendous growth in 2006 shows that decision makers are starting to take seriously the benefits that wind energy development can bring. However, we must not forget that wind energy is a new technology that needs robust policy frameworks and political commitment to fulfill its full potential," said Arthouros Zervos, Chairman of GWEC.

Europe is still leading the market with 48,545 MW of installed capacity at the end of 2006, representing 65% of the global total. In 2006, the European wind capacity grew by 19%, producing approximately 100 TWh of electricity, equal to 3.3% of total EU electricity consumption in an average wind year.

"While Germany and Spain still represent 50% of the EU market, we are seeing a healthy trend towards less reliance on these two countries. In the EU, 3,755 MW were installed outside of Germany, Spain and Denmark in 2006. In 2002, this figure still stood at only 680 MW," said Christian Kjaer, the European Wind Energy Association's (EWEA) CEO. "The figures clearly confirm that a second wave of European countries is investing in wind power."

Despite the continuing growth in Europe, the general trend shows that the sector is gradually becoming less reliant on a few key markets, and other regions are starting to catch up with Europe. The growth in the European market in 2006 accounted for about half of the total new capacity, down from nearly three quarters in 2004.

Asia has experienced the strongest increase in installed capacity outside of Europe, with an addition of 3,679 MW, taking the continent over 10,600 MW. In 2006, the continent grew by 53% and accounted for 24% of new installations. The strongest market here remains India with over 1,840 MW of new installed capacity, which takes its total figure up to 6,270 MW.

China more than doubled its total installed capacity by installing 1,347 MW of wind energy in 2006, a 70% increase from last year's figure. This brings China up to 2,604 MW of capacity, making it the sixth largest market world wide. The Chinese market was boosted by the country's new Renewable Energy Law, which entered into force on 1 January 2006.

"Thanks to the Renewable Energy law, the Chinese market has grown substantially in 2006, and this growth is expected to continue and speed up. According to the list of approved projects and those under construction, more than 1,500 MW will be installed in 2007. The goal for wind power in China by the end of 2010 is 5,000 MW, which according to our estimations will already be reached well ahead of time," said Li Junfeng of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industry Association (CREIA).

22% of the world's new wind capacity was installed in North America, where the annual market increased by a third in 2005, gaining momentum in both the US and Canada.

For the second year running, the US wind energy industry installed nearly 2,500 MW, making it the country with the most new wind power.

"Strong growth figures in the US prove that wind is now a mainstream option for new power generation," said Randy Swisher, President of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). "Wind's exponential growth reflects the nation's increasing demand for clean, safe and domestic energy, and continues to attract both private and public sources of capital. New generating capacity worth US$4 billion was installed in 2006, billing wind as one of the largest sources of new power generation in the country -- second only to natural gas -- for the second year in a row."

Canada also had a record year, with the installed capacity more than doubling from 683 MW in 2005 to 1459 MW at the end of 2006. "Wind energy is an emerging Canadian success story and 2006 will be remembered as the year that our country first began to seriously capture its economic and environmental benefits," said Robert Hornung, President of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). "Canada is on the cusp of a wind energy boom as provincial governments are now targeting to have a minimum of 10,000 MW of installed wind energy capacity in place by 2015."

Growth in the relatively young African and Middle Eastern market picked up considerably in 2006, with 172 MW of new installed capacity, bringing the total up to 441 MW. This represents a 63% growth, and should be seen as a promising signs for future developments. The main countries experiencing growth are Egypt (230 MW, up from 145 MW), Morocco (124 MW, up from 64 MW) and Iran (48 MW, up from 23 MW).

Compared to previous years, the Australian market only experienced slow growth in 2006. "While 2006 saw only 109 MW installed bring total capacity to 817 MW, the Australian market has been given a new lease of life with the introduction of state based renewable energy targets providing a more positive outlook for 2007," said Dominique La Fontaine, CEO of the Australian Wind Energy Association (Auswind).

"As security of energy supply and climate change are ranging high on the political agendas of the world's governments, wind energy has already become a mainstream energy source in many countries around the world. Wind energy is clean and fuel-free, which makes it the most attractive solution to the world's energy challenges," said Arthouros Zervos, Chairman of GWEC.