Sunday, November 30, 2008

Modest, sustainable approach to biofuels development

It's difficult to envision an end to the biofuels controversy in the foreseeable future. Advocates see biofuels in its various incarnations (biodiesel, corn/soy-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, etc.) as an important, here-and-now response to foreign oil dependence and climate change. Opponents still see this alternative as an unacceptable fuel-for-food trade off with potentially devastating impacts for many developing countries.

It is possible that a sustainable strategy for biofuels development exisits. It appears to be a niche role that will be complemented with other alternatives -- particularly plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). However, exactly how this could eventually work given the very different infrastructure needs remains unclear. (GW)

Biofuels Conference Looks Toward Global Market Development

International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development

November 21, 2008

Issues such as trade, standards and technical requirements were tackled at a recent biofuels development conference held in Brazil - one of the leading biofuels producers in Latin America.

The conference - entitled Biofuels as a Driving Force of Sustainable Development - hosted by the Brazilian government from 17-21 November in São Paulo - focused primarily on the challenges and opportunities of biofuels. Specific issues discussed include energy security, sustainability of biofuel production and use, agricultural and industrial processing, technical specifications and standards, international trade, and its sometimes controversial relationship to climate change.

Representatives from 92 countries, as well as non-governmental and private sector organisations, attended the conference. While no formal declaration was adopted, the summaries of the plenary sessions suggest that participants agree on several statements. For example, participants felt a 10 percent share of biofuels in transport worldwide is feasible and that the use of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels is a desirable goal. As such, biofuels can contribute significantly to combating climate change. Regarding production, however, not all countries are in a position to produce them in a sustainable manner, and a successful model to produce biofuels cannot be identically replicated in different locations without taking into account local realities.

On the controversial issue of sustainability criteria, conference participants felt that these must be “scientifically and transparently” set. In their view, the current food, energy and financial crisis provide an opportunity to revise standards of production and consumption and boost the development of renewable and sustainable energy sources. Looking at developing countries specifically, meeting participants agreed that they can benefit greatly from the modernisation of agriculture, especially in the area of biofuels. Significant opportunities for the production of biofuels in arid and degraded land, especially in Africa, were identified.

Regarding trade, participants felt a number of measures were required to create a global market for biofuels, including their classification as environmental goods under the WTO and the reduction of tariffs, agricultural subsidies and other trade barriers. A global market for biofuels could contribute positively to combat climate change and ensure energy security, they said.

According to the UN Centre for Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Acting Deputy Secretary General, Lakshmi Puri, Brazil’s biofuels development strategy should be seen as a model.

“We analysed the Brazilian model so as to see in which countries it might be reproduced,” Puri said. “The use of biofuels as we imagine it is a win, win, win strategy. The environment wins, the commerce wins, and development wins too.”

Puri insisted that that the biofuels sector represents a new and dynamic opportunity - particularly for poorer nations. “What we are doing is try and help developing countries. We help nations to choose the correct model, and all of that needs to go hand in hand with food security.”

During the closing of the Conference, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called on industrialised countries to support biofuels production in land rich but cash poor countries - particularly in Africa. However, he was careful not to overstate its importance.

“Biofuels are far from being a panacea, the solution to all social, environmental and economic problems,” Lula cautioned. “Nevertheless, they may help us reconcile development and respect to the environment.”

Additional information

The International Conference on Biofuels website is available at

ICTSD Reporting; “Brazil’s President Lula Closes International Biofuels Conference, Calls for Investments in New Energy Sources,” CLIMATE-L.ORG, 25 November 2008; “Brazil is a model in biofuels strategy”, ANBA, 20 November 2008.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Grassroots community wind associations

Many years ago I worked with Massachusetts dairy farmers on a strategy to help them break away from the federal system that regulated the price of milk. The goal was ensure that the price they received for the milk they produced took into account their actual costs 0f production. One of the most difficult tasks associated with that effort was organizing the state's very independent dairy farmers so they could do battle against the dairy processors who were almost unanimously opposed to paying farmers one penny more for their milk.

Today the explosive growth of wind energy in the United States has attracted developers of all stripes. Many that I have dealt with are honest and reputable. However, the ranks are definitely being populated by less-than-scrupulous characters out to make the fastest buck possible by exploiting unsuspecting ranchers and farmers.

Landowners interested in benefiting from wind energy development are discovering that one of the best strategies to protect themselves is to organize and use their collective strength to prevent exploitation and provide themselves with greater negotiating leverage. (GW)

A Land Rush in Wyoming Spurred by Wind Power

WHEATLAND, Wyo. — The man who came to Elsie Bacon’s ranch house door in July asked the 71-year-old widow to grant access to a right of way across the dry hills and short grasses of her land here. Ms. Bacon remembered his insistence on a quick, secret deal.

The man, a representative of the Little Rose Wind Farm of Boulder, Colo., sought an easement for a transmission line to carry his company’s wind-generated electricity to market. His offer: a fraction of the value of similar deals in the area. As Ms. Bacon, 71, recalled it: “He said, ‘You sure I can’t write you out a check?’ He was really pushy.”

A quiet land rush is under way among the buttes of southeastern Wyoming, and it is changing the local rancher culture. The whipping winds cursed by descendants of the original homesteaders now have real value for out-of-state developers who dream of wind farms or of selling the rights to bigger companies.

But as developers descend upon the area, drawing comparisons to the oil patch “land men” in the movie “There Will Be Blood,” the ranchers of Albany, Converse and Platte Counties are rewriting the old script.

Ms. Bacon did not agree to the deal from the Little Rose representative, Ed Ahlstrand Jr. Instead, she joined her neighbors in forming the Bordeaux Wind Energy Association — among the new cooperative associations whose members, in a departure from the local culture of privacy and self-reliance, are pooling their wind-rich land.

This allows them to bargain collectively for a better price and ensures that as few as possible succumb to high-pressure tactics or accept low offers. Ranchers share information about the potential value of their wind.

The development of eight Wyoming wind associations (with three more waiting in the wings) and similar groups in Colorado, Montana and New Mexico has not always been a simple matter. While ranchers have always been ready to help their neighbors, they have been less willing to discuss their financial affairs.

That has made it easier for wind developers to make individual deals and insist that the terms be kept secret. The developers’ cause has not been hurt by a 10-year drought’s impact on agricultural families’ finances.

Gregor Goertz heads the Slater Wind Energy Association, one of the oldest although less than two years old, formed by dozens of independent-minded men and women. “Maybe they wouldn’t talk to each other often about other issues,” he said, “but here they could see a common goal.”

Mr. Goertz added that, of the 45 or more landowners who came to his first meeting, just one declined to join. The group’s land holdings, which total about 30,000 acres, are centered on a row of buttes where the wind routinely blows at 25 miles per hour.

Mr. Goertz said that because of the changes a forest of turbines would make in the serrated, far-flung vistas here, “everybody in the community is going to be affected.” The association, he said, would “assure that everybody will have some income whether they have a turbine placed on their property or not.”

The developers hope to supply Wyoming wind power to markets like California, which intends to have one-third of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

“This is the best wind in North America, we think,” said Ronald Lehr, a representative of the American Wind Energy Association, the developers’ trade group.

Of course, the decline in oil prices and the constraints on the capital markets are most likely to slow the development of wind energy. But for ranchers, the calculations remain the same about whether to deal with developers individually or as a group.

Bob Grant, 82, a rancher who sleeps in the bed his Scottish grandfather brought across the ocean and the prairie a century ago, has never liked the wind here. Mr. Grant has seen it hurl gravel off ridges and into a friend’s face like shrapnel.

He said he warmed to the idea of wind associations after long, individual negotiations with enXco, a French-owned developer.

In early 2007, the centerpiece of the price discussed was a per-acre payment of about $2.50, Mr. Grant and an enXco representative said. Discussions broke off, then resumed a year later; the suggested price per acre has nearly doubled.

The doubling of the offer made Mr. Grant and his sons wonder how they could assess, and trust, any offer, they said.

Greg Probst, a representative of enXco, said the first offer had not been an effort to drive a hard bargain. It was, Mr. Probst said, a realistic appraisal, given the difficulties of transporting wind power to market when there was little transmission capacity to spare.

From early 2007 to late 2008, he said, the potential marketability of wind power in southeastern Wyoming was enhanced as plans for construction of the Wyoming-Colorado Intertie, a privately financed transmission line, became firmer and Xcel Energy showed an interest in buying the renewable energy.

“There’s a better chance that there’s a market for the power, and a way to get the power to market, than there was 18 months or two years ago,” Mr. Probst said. “So we’re definitely willing to pay more at this point.”

But the experience made the Grant family look harder at the possibility of joining their lands with those of their neighbors in a new group, the Bordeaux Wind Energy Association, which sent its incorporation papers to the state just before Thanksgiving.

The godfather of such associations is a federal official, Grant Stumbough, whose work for the Resource Conservation and Development office of the Agriculture Department was focused on ways to keep ranchers on the land. Revenue from wind farms, he believed, could mean the difference between success and failure for some ranchers.

Mr. Stumbough felt the ranchers were at a disadvantage when dealing individually with wind developers. The developers, in most cases, know more than landowners about the value of the wind and the transmission lines that will carry it.

For instance, the deal that Mr. Ahlstrand offered Elsie Bacon was valued, yard for yard, at as little as a quarter of the amount that the largest local electrical cooperative had paid for a large transmission right of way. And it included a nondisclosure clause to prevent her from comparing notes with neighbors.

(Mr. Ahlstrand did not respond to repeated telephone calls and e-mail messages seeking his version of these events.)

Mr. Stumbough said: “I thought we could use collective bargaining strategies to maybe have a little more leverage in negotiating with wind developers. If we could all get together and work together cooperatively and do some cost sharing and maybe share some of the profits, I think it’s going to be a benefit to everybody.”

The idea has quickly spread. Aside from the promise of economic dividends, which may make it easier to stay on the land, ranchers are finding other less tangible benefits to the groups.

Larry Cundall, a rancher in Glendo who heads the Glendo Wind Energy Association, said the organizational meeting in April attracted 126 people, some from 60 miles away. It had, Mr. Cundall said, “the feeling of an old country dance.”

“Afterward,” he went on, “everyone stood around and visited like we did before we had TV.”

The initial reaction, Mr. Cundall said, had been “90 percent positive,” although he admitted there was skepticism. “Everyone takes everything with a grain of salt around here,” he said.

The associations send out requests to wind developers who may be interested in constructing a wind farm; Mr. Goertz’s Slater Association, the first one formed, gave tours of their lands to at least a dozen different developers, Mr. Goertz said, and are in the final stages of making a deal.

Asked if the terms of the impending deal were better than those offered to some of the ranchers originally, Mr. Goertz said simply, “Yes.”

The financial arrangements of each association are unique, but in the case of the Slater Wind Energy Association, 55 percent of the total annual royalties is to be distributed among the landowners who have turbines on their properties. The rest is to be distributed among all association members, both those with turbines and those without.

Jim Anderson, the state senator whose district covers the windy acres of this region, welcomes the rise of these associations as vehicles to market their wind and as bargainers with the leverage to get ranchers a good deal. “I think the word is kind of out,” Mr. Anderson said, “that Wyoming is probably ahead of the curve in regard to those people who might be opportunist and want to come in and take advantage” of local ranchers.

“I think that we’ve positioned ourselves well to be prudent and intelligent negotiators.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

In turkey we trust

Maybe there was more behind Ben Franklin's campaign on behalf of the wild turkey over the eagle as the U.S. national national bird. Among other things, Franklin argued:
"For the truth the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America... he is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."
Franklin was a pretty smart guy. I wonder if he knew about tryptophan. (GW)

Tryptophan, Turkey and Trust

Your holiday turkey won't give you more faith in your family, but research published last year suggests that there is a relationship between tryptophan and trust.

By Emily Singer
Technology Review
November 21, 2008

As you sink into your post-Thanksgiving food coma, the name of an amino acid might pop into your mind: tryptophan, a molecule found in high levels in turkey that's known to induce drowsiness. While scientists say that the tryptophan in turkey is probably not the source of holiday fatigue, a possible new role for tryptophan has recently been uncovered. It appears to affect our sense of trust.

Tryptophan is a chemical precursor to serotonin, one of the brain's most important signaling molecules and the target of the most commonly prescribed classes of antidepressants: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Scientists who study neuroeconomics--the way the brain makes decisions--are beginning to study the role that serotonin plays in normal behavior. Robert Rogers and his colleagues at Oxford University are using game theory to study serotonin's role in social interactions.

In the Oxford study, the researchers asked volunteers to play a two-person game known as the prisoner's dilemma. Players can choose to make a move that wins them money and garners money from the other player, or make a move that wins both players money. The latter move maximizes earnings for each player. Over time, the optimal strategy for both players is to cooperate. Under normal circumstances, players cooperate about 75 percent of the time.

In the new study, presented earlier this month at the Society for Neurosciences meeting in San Diego, half of the volunteers were given a drink that depleted their tryptophan levels prior to the start of the game, thereby decreasing serotonin levels in their brain. Rogers and his team found that dampening serotonin activity significantly decreased the level of cooperation among the players, and that this group also rated fellow players as less trustworthy. "The findings suggest that a serotonin deficit might impair sustained cooperation," says Rogers.

While it's not clear why serotonin has this effect, previous research has shown that mutual cooperation might be rewarding in its own right: it enhances activity in the brain circuits that play a role in positive reinforcement. Rogers hypothesizes that reducing the chemical also reduces the reward value of cooperating.

Given that the use of serotonin reuptake inhibitors has exploded in the past decade, should we be concerned that the nation as a whole has become overly trusting? Probably not, says Rogers. It's not clear precisely how these drugs affect serotonin activity in the brain, he says, especially in clinically depressed patients, who are likely to have abnormal serotonin levels to begin with.

Your holiday turkey probably isn't going to significantly boost your trust levels either. The researchers haven't yet determined how boosting tryptophan affects trust, although they are starting on those experiments. And while turkey is high in tryptophan, it's probably not high enough in the typical holiday dinner to have an impact on the brain.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Our comprehensive, anticipatory president-elect

Thank goodness we have finally elected a president who understands that we live and operate in an interconnected world and who is not afraid to develop and implement comprehensive strategies for addressing the country's and the world's most serious problems. The excitement and hope that President-elect Obama is generating is not the result of just words.

No it is much more than that. Barack Obama is offering a vision -- one that acknowledges the need to begin implementing solutions to a list of very complex economic, environmental, energy and equity challenges in relatively short order. And because he understands that these issues are in fact intertwined he also understands that there are points of leverage (trimtabs) that will enable us to solve many simultaneously.

That's something the world should truly be thankful for. (GW)

Save the Economy, and the Planet

New York Times
November 27, 2008

Environment ministers preparing for next week’s talks on global warming in Poznan, Poland, have been sounding decidedly downbeat. From Paris to Beijing, the refrain is the same: This is no time to pursue ambitious plans to stop global warming. We can’t deal with a financial crisis and reduce emissions at the same time.

There is a very different message coming from this country. President-elect Barack Obama is arguing that there is no better time than the present to invest heavily in clean energy technologies. Such investment, he says, would confront the threat of unchecked warming, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil and help revive the American economy.

Call it what you will: a climate policy wrapped inside an energy policy wrapped inside an economic policy. By any name, it is a radical shift from the defeatism and denial that marked President Bush’s eight years in office. If Mr. Obama follows through on his commitments, this country will at last provide the global leadership that is essential for addressing the dangers of climate change.

In his first six months in office, Mr. Bush reneged on a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide and walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, a modest first effort to control global greenhouse gas emissions.

Still two months from the White House, Mr. Obama has convincingly reaffirmed his main climate related promises.

One is to impose (Congress willing) a mandatory cap on emissions aimed at reducing America’s output of greenhouses gas by 80 percent by midcentury. According to mainstream scientists, that is the minimum necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and avoid the worst consequences of global warming. Mr. Obama’s second pledge is to invest $15 billion a year to build a clean economy that cuts fuel costs and creates thousands of green jobs. That includes investments in solar power, wind power, clean coal (plants capable of capturing and storing carbon emissions) and, as part of any bailout, helping Detroit retool assembly lines to build a new generation of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with like-minded people who have spent years immersed in the complexities of energy policy.

His transition chief, John Podesta, was an early advocate of assisting the automakers and of finding low-carbon alternatives to gasoline. Peter Orszag, his choice to run the Office of Management and Budget (where environmental initiatives went to die during the Bush years) is an expert on cap-and-trade programs to limit industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

Success is not guaranteed. Last year, a far more modest climate-change bill fell well short of a simple majority in the Senate. At least on the surface, it seems counterintuitive to impose new regulations (and, in the short term anyway, higher energy costs) on a struggling economy. Mr. Obama will need all his oratorical power to make the opposite case.

The historical landscape from Richard Nixon onward is littered with bold and unfulfilled promises to wean the nation from fossil fuels, especially imported oil. What is different now is the need to deal with the clear and present threat of global warming. What is also different is that the country has elected a president who believes that meeting the challenge of climate change is essential to the health of the planet and to America’s economic future.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Humanity's final exam?

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine

Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape
Bob Dylan, "Mississippi"
President-elect Barack Obama has inherited an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. However, the problems plaguing the global economy pale in comparison to climate change. In fact, everything does.

That reaity has yet to really sink in. As a result we have come ever so very, very close to the point of no return. The ultimate tipping point.

Bucky Fuller realized that humanity was carving
a dangerous path of environmental degradation some time ago. He said that we are in a final exam as to whether we qualify to stay here.

Now we understand that the exam is pass/fail. (GW)

One Shot Left

The latest science suggests that preventing runaway climate change means total decarbonisation.

by George Monbiot

The Guardian

November 25, 2008

George Bush is behaving like a furious defaulter whose home is about to be repossessed. Smashing the porcelain, ripping the doors off their hinges, he is determined that there will be nothing worth owning by the time the bastards kick him out. His midnight regulations, opening America's wilderness to logging and mining, trashing pollution controls, tearing up conservation laws, will do almost as much damage in the last 60 days of his presidency as he achieved in the foregoing 3000(1).

His backers – among them the nastiest pollutocrats in America – are calling in their favours. But this last binge of vandalism is also the Bush presidency reduced to its essentials. Destruction is not an accidental product of its ideology. Destruction is the ideology. Neoconservatism is power expressed by showing that you can reduce any part of the world to rubble.

If it is now too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Bush team must carry much of the blame. His wilful trashing of the Middle Climate – the interlude of benign temperatures which allowed human civilisation to flourish – makes the mass murder he engineered in Iraq only the second of his crimes against humanity. Bush has waged his war on science with the same obtuse determination with which he has waged his war on terror.

Is it too late? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year's Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that - almost a century ahead of schedule - the critical climate processes might have begun(2).

Just a year ago the Intergovernmental Panel warned that the Arctic's "late-summer sea ice is projected to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century … in some models."(3) But, as the new report by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) shows, climate scientists are now predicting the end of late-summer sea ice within three to seven years. The trajectory of current melting plummets through the graphs like a meteorite falling to earth.

Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us. As the ice disappears, the region becomes darker, which means that it absorbs more heat. A recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the extra warming caused by disappearing sea ice penetrates 1500km inland, covering almost the entire region of continuous permafrost(4). Arctic permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the entire global atmosphere(5). It remains safe for as long as the ground stays frozen. But the melting has begun. Methane gushers are now gassing out of some places with such force that they keep the water open in Arctic lakes, through the winter(6).

The effects of melting permafrost are not incorporated into any global climate models. Runaway warming in the Arctic alone could flip the entire planet into a new climatic state. The Middle Climate could collapse faster and sooner than the grimmest forecasts proposed.

Barack Obama's speech to the US climate summit last week was an astonishing development(7). It shows that, in this respect at least, there really is a prospect of profound political change in America. But while he described a workable plan for dealing with the problem perceived by the Earth Summit of 1992, the measures he proposes are now hopelessly out of date. The science has moved on. The events the Earth Summit and the Kyoto process were supposed to have prevented are already beginning. Thanks to the wrecking tactics of Bush the elder, Clinton (and Gore) and Bush the younger, steady, sensible programmes of the kind that Obama proposes are now irrelevant. As the PIRC report suggests, the years of sabotage and procrastination have left us with only one remaining shot: a crash programme of total energy replacement.

A paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that if we are to give ourselves a roughly even chance(8,9) of preventing more than two degrees of warming, global emissions from energy must peak by 2015 and decline by between six and eight per cent per year from 2020 to 2040, leading to a complete decarbonisation of the global economy soon after 2050(10). Even this programme would work only if some optimistic assumptions about the response of the biosphere hold true. Delivering a high chance of preventing two degrees of warming would mean cutting global emissions by over 8% a year.

Is this possible? Is this acceptable? The Tyndall paper points out that annual emission reductions greater than one per cent have "been associated only with economic recession or upheaval." When the Soviet Union collapsed, they fell by some 5% a year. But you can answer these questions only by considering the alternatives. The trajectory both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed - an 80% cut by 2050 - means reducing emissions by an average of 2% a year. This programme, the figures in the Tyndall paper suggest, is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming(11), which means the likely collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet. Is this acceptable?

The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US federal government has now spent $4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending on World War Two when adjusted for inflation(12). Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?

This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world's energy infrastructure involves "an enormous front-load of fossil fuels", which are required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections, insulation and all the rest(13). This could push us past the climate tipping point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people "to make short term, radical sacrifices", cutting our energy consumption by 50%, with little technological assistance, in five years. There are two problems: the first is that all previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The second is that a 10% annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure remains mostly unchanged means a 10% annual cut in total consumption: a deeper depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system - even an absolute monarchy - could survive an economic collapse on this scale.

She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are risks we have to take. Astyk's proposals travel far into the realm of wishful thinking. Even the technological solution I favour inhabits the distant margins of possibility.

Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more easily. Can we afford not to try? No we can't.


1. Suzanne Goldenberg, 20th November 2008. President for 60 more days, Bush tearing apart protection for America's wilderness. The Guardian.

2. Public Interest Research Centre, 25th November 2008. Climate Safety.

3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I. Technical Summary, p73.

4. David M. Lawrence et al., 2008. Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradationduring rapid sea ice loss. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 35, 11506.doi:10.1029/2008GL033985.

5. Edward A. G. Schuur et al, September 2008. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: implications for the global carbon cycle. Bioscience, Vol. 58, No. 8, pp. 701-714. doi:10.1641/B580807

6. United Nations Environment Project, 4 June 2007. Melting Ice - a Hot Topic? Press Release.


8. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138

Anderson and Bows state that "The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2 degrees C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e [parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent] offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2 degrees C." This estimate is given in the following paper:

9. Malte Meinshausen, 2006. What Does a 2°C Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? A Brief Analysis Based on Multi-Gas Emission Pathways and Several Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty Estimates. In Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Ed in Chief). Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

10. This is for stabilisation at 450 ppmv CO2e - well above the level that James Hansen and other climate scientists are now calling for.

11. Anderson and Bows note that stabilising atmospheric concentrations even at 650 ppmv CO2e requires that global emissions peak by 2020, followed by global cuts of 3-4% a year. This means that OECD nations will have to cut emissions by even more than this to prevent concentrations from rising above 650. Meinshausen estimates that stabilisation at 650ppmv CO2e gives a 40% chance of exceeding 4 degrees C.

12., 17th November 2008. Financial Crisis Tab Already In The Trillions.

13. Sharon Astyk, 11th November 2008. A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A sustainable society must be compassionate

I am a big believer in and I hope successful practitioner of the Golden Rule. What could be more natural that treating others as you would like to be treated?
Well in today's cutthroat global economy guided by consumption and material wealth, it seems that compassion -- which lies at the heart of the Golden Rule -- has been devalued by those who believe that "those with the gold rule".

Can compassion be rekindled and restored to its rightful place in our lives? Can an initiative like the "Charter for Compassion" (described below) help make that happen? Who knows?. We just elected a president who inspires hope. Perhaps that's a step in the right direction. (GW)

A global online push for compassion

By Jane Lampman
The Christian Science Monitor
November 25, 2008

The world needs more compassion.

That is the premise for, a new website that's inviting people all over the globe to draft an online charter aimed at putting the golden rule at the center of daily life. Participants are encouraged to share their own stories of compassion, define the idea, and propose specific steps that societies can take to engender it.

In the first week since its Nov. 14 launch, more than 100,000 unique visitors from 181 countries participated. Over the next three weeks, the project aims to gather as many ideas as it can and synthesize them in February through a multifaith "council of sages," which will craft a final document.

"Wherever I go, whether in the East or the West, I find people hungry for a more compassionate world and a more compassionate expression of their own faith," says author Karen Armstrong, the guiding force behind the project, in a phone interview from Britain.

The project has attracted influential thinkers. Among Ms. Armstrong's council of sages are Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford; and the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell of the Chautauqua Institution. She herself is the winner of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) prize, which gave her $100,000 and "one wish to change the world" with the collaboration of leading thinkers from TED. Her wish was to create the charter, as a grass-roots manifesto.

"The idea is to empower ordinary members of the communities to demand a more compassionate voice from their leaders, better guidance, and interfaith action," Armstrong says.

But can a manifesto really change the world? Some have: Martin Luther's 95 theses, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, among others. There are also, however, a long line of charters now gathering dust.

The appeal to compassion is "too amorphous" and won't do the job, writes Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, in a Beliefnet column. What's really needed is to teach those in every religious community "about the sacredness of modesty, humility, questioning.... When people experience that posture as rooted in the depths of the tradition they love,... fewer people around the world will die in the names of those traditions."

One difference with this charter is its online, bottom-up approach.

"This is groundbreaking technology because it allows everyone's voice to be heard," says Nicole Greenbaum, a spokeswoman for the Kluster technology team that's supporting Kluster is a decisionmaking platform that lets users contribute ideas and rate the other ideas submitted based on a set of criteria. The best ideas are identified and fine-tuned using the criteria.

"It's not a competition but a collaboration, and it harnesses the power of the whole group in order to reach consensus," Ms. Greenbaum says. This is the first time the technology is being used globally, with contributions translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and English.

The golden rule is at the core of every major religion since Confucius 5,000 years ago, Armstrong says, yet that isn't what predominates today.

In presenting her charter idea to the TED annual conference, Armstrong said religion as a set of beliefs or doctrines is a relatively recent phenomenon; historically it has been about "behaving in a way that changes you." People want to reclaim their faith from divisiveness and violence to become "a force for harmony in the world," she said.

Initially, she proposed that the charter involve just Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who "have developed massive problems with each other that need to get sorted out." But the "TEDsters" urged that it be opened to everyone, including secularists, who also value compassion.

Formerly a nun who left the convent and religion altogether for a while, Armstrong began researching the monotheistic faiths for the BBC. She became a provocative thinker on the role of religion and has penned widely read books such as "The History of God," "The Battle for God" (on fundamentalism), biographies of Buddha and Muhammad, and "The Great Transformation." Since 9/11, she's become a sought-after speaker globally.

Some may view the charter as ignoring the truth claims of some faiths in favor of homogenized religion. But Armstrong, engaged in writing her latest book, sees it as a natural, democratic next step in an increasingly tech-savvy, connected world.

"Unless we manage to create a global community where people can live together in harmony and mutual respect, we have very little chance of having a viable world to hand on to the next generation," she says.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The "Field of Dreams" energy strategy

Whatever strategy we adopt to create a clean energy future for the nation, it cannot succeed if we don't design for and invest in the infrastructure necessary to support the energy system. No matter how successful we may in improving the technical and economical feasibility proposed wind, solar, hydrogen, etc. technologies, their widespread deployment and adoption will depend on the establishment or improvement of appropriate infrastructure.

This is a lesson that the U.S. government -- notwithstanding the best of intentions -- has learned the hard way. (GW)

Problems Plague U.S. Flex-Fuel Fleet

Most Government-Bought Vehicles Still Use Standard Gas

By Kimberly Kindy and Dan Keating
Washington Post
November 23, 2008

The federal government has invested billions of dollars over the past 16 years, building a fleet of 112,000 alternative-fuel vehicles to serve as a model for a national movement away from fossil fuels.

But the costly effort to put more workers into vehicles powered by ethanol and other fuel alternatives has been fraught with problems, many of them caused by buying vehicles before fuel stations were in place to support them, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.

"I call it the 'Field of Dreams' plan. If you buy them, they will come," said Wayne Corey, vehicle operations manager with the U.S. Postal Service. "It hasn't happened."

Under a mandate from Congress, federal agencies have gradually increased their fleets of alternative-fuel vehicles, a majority of them "flex-fuel," capable of running on either gasoline or ethanol-based E85 fuel. But many of the vehicles were sent to locations hundreds of miles from any alternative fueling sites, the analysis shows.

As a result, more than 92 percent of the fuel used in the government's alternative-fuel fleet continues to be standard gasoline. A 2005 law -- meant to align the vehicles with alternative-fuel stations -- now requires agencies to seek waivers when a vehicle is more than five miles or 15 minutes from an ethanol pump.

The latest generations of alternative vehicles have compounded the problem. Often, the vehicles come only with larger engines than the ones they replaced in the fleet. Consequently, the federal program -- known as EPAct -- has sometimes increased gasoline consumption and emission rates, the opposite of what was intended.

The EPAct program offers a cautionary tale as President-elect Barack Obama promises to kill dependence on foreign oil and revive the economy by retooling for the green revolution, experts say.

"This is an example of a law that has had a perversely different effect than what was originally intended,'' said Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington.

The Postal Service illustrates the problem. It estimates that its 37,000 newer alternative-fuel delivery vans, which can run on high-grade ethanol, consumed 1.5 million additional gallons of gasoline last fiscal year because of the larger engines.

The vehicles that would allow the agency to meet federal mandates were available in six- and eight-cylinder models -- not the four-cylinder variety it traditionally purchased. Alternative fuel was used less than 1 percent of the time in 2007-2008.

The Department of Energy defended its efforts with the program in a written statement. "The U.S. Government continues to promote diversification of alternative fuels and vehicles in order to reduce our dependence on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions," spokeswoman Jennifer Scoggins wrote. "We work with private industry partners to develop and grow infrastructure of alternative fuels."

Scoggins pointed to a two-year growth spurt of E85 stations, which dispense fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Since 2006, ethanol stations have increased from 481 to 1,689 nationally, but most are in the Midwest. Station owners face a vexing challenge: how to compete with more than 160,000 gasoline stations located on nearly every street corner, especially as gas prices drop.

A New Challenge

In 1992, just after the Persian Gulf War, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, hoping to harness the government's buying power to spark a green vehicle revolution. Agencies were required to buy alternative-fuel vehicles for 75 percent of their light-duty fleet: cars, trucks and vans that weigh less than 8,500 pounds. The ultimate goal was to give automakers incentives to produce more fuel-efficient cars.

But EPAct had a huge loophole: Agencies were required to buy alternative-fuel vehicles but did not have to run them on alternative fuel.

"We started out with a plan to mandate use, but then we pulled back. There wasn't the political support or will to do it," said former representative Philip P. Sharp (D-Ind.), who sponsored EPAct and authored a separate bill that contributed to the expansion of flex-fuel fleets.

Because alternative-fuel use was not mandated, large numbers of vehicles that could run on various fuels -- propane, compressed natural gas and E85 -- have popped up in places where none of those fuels is available.

The Post analysis shows that at least 2,341 flex-fuel vehicles were placed in seven states with no E85 stations, and in Puerto Rico, where the situation is the same.

Hawaii has the greatest share, with more than 1,000 flex-fuel vehicles purchased or leased by various agencies, mostly military. The U.S. Navy tops the list.

The Navy has more than 670 flex-fuel vehicles on three islands. Not one of the sedans, sport-utility vehicles or trucks has ever operated on E85.

"If an alternative-fuel vehicle is available, we are mandated to buy it. We have no choice," said Steve Mortimer, a manager in Hawaii who helps set Navy policy on vehicles and equipment. "The [auto] manufacturers don't have to supply the fuel. In Hawaii, we just have unleaded and diesel and a little bit of propane."

Mortimer and other Navy officials have invited potential fueling suppliers for site visits to encourage interest in building E85 stations. But there are many obstacles.

No ethanol-production facility exists in Hawaii, so the fuel would have to be shipped by tanker, increasing the carbon footprint of E85, a fuel that is already being criticized by some environmentalists because of pollution caused by many ethanol-production plants.

Big Cars

For years, federal agencies ignored EPAct. They fulfilled the 75 percent purchasing requirement only after 1999, when several environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force the buys.

When fleet managers searched for vehicles that would meet EPAct requirements, they found that the most affordable models were big flex-fuel sedans and SUVs. Automakers had bucked efforts to mass-produce alternative-fuel vehicles, believing that the fueling stations, including E85, should be in place before they made assembly-line changes.

To persuade automakers to ramp up production, Congress in 1988 struck a deal. For each flex-fuel vehicle produced, automakers would win lucrative credits to help them achieve fuel-efficiency mandates.

Under the system, a flex-fuel vehicle might achieve 16 miles per gallon, for example, but with the credits an average of 24 mpg could be claimed. The formula assumed the vehicles would run on alternative fuel half the time.

Manufacturers liked flex-fuel models, because they cost only about $50 more per vehicle to produce. To prevent corrosion from the alcohol-based fuel, they used a specially lined tank and stainless-steel fuel lines instead of aluminum.

Manufacturers started producing them in their best-selling models: large sedans and SUVs. For agencies, purchasing the large fuel-guzzling vehicles proved problematic.

"They were bigger, they ran on gas, and they weren't fuel-efficient,'' said Mark Gaffigan, director of natural resources and environment with the Government Accountability Office, which completed a program audit last month. "If they had just bought regular vehicles that were more fuel-efficient, they would be better off."

(Last year, Congress moved to phase out the flex-fuel credits by 2020, because several studies verified that the larger vehicles had led to increased gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.)

Four years after granting the flex-fuel credits, Congress passed EPAct, giving automakers a guaranteed market. In 1992, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) said EPAct would "solve the chicken-and-the-egg proposition with respect to alternative fuels," and President George H.W. Bush said it would "steadily increase U.S. energy security."

Seven years later, a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Bluewater Network and the Sierra Club tried to force more progress by making agencies comply with the law.

"We did not know there was no intent to run them on the alternative fuels or that the vehicles sometimes got lower gas mileage,'' said Jay Tutchton, a lawyer who worked for Earthjustice, a law firm that represented the groups. "They could have done better, in many cases, if they'd stuck with smaller vehicles that ran on regular gasoline."

Waivers Abound

Another shortcoming of EPAct was that it did not require fleet managers to track vehicle locations. The fleet grew, but no one knew how it was taking shape.

This discouraged private investment in fueling stations because industry needed better data.

"I have to be able to justify it economically. I need a business plan that shows it's worth the investment for my costs of getting the fuel there and putting in a station. The best data every time is where the federal fleet is located," said Curtis Donaldson, president of Texas-based CleanFuel USA, which builds propane and E85 stations.

To remedy this, legislation passed in 2005 requires agencies to seek an exemption or waiver from the Energy Department for each flex-fuel vehicle it owns or leases that is more than five miles or 15 minutes from the closest ethanol station. (Agencies also can seek exemptions if E85 costs at least 15 percent more than standard gasoline. No such waivers have been requested this fiscal year.)

Sixty-one percent of the fleet -- more than 67,000 vehicles -- received waivers for 2008-2009, the second year data were reported.

Five percent of the exemptions are in the Washington region. In Maryland and Virginia, nearly 1,000 exemptions were granted, with vehicles from the Postal Service, Army, Navy and Department of Agriculture leading the way. As in many other East Coast areas where E85 stations are rare, most vehicles qualified on the basis of being too far from a pump.

The waivers did offer a valuable tool: Zip code locations for each exempted vehicle that could be fed into an Energy Department database and shared with companies that build fuel stations.

The data, however, do not identify the location of the other 39 percent of the flex-fuel fleet for which it is a struggle to find E85, an important problem to solve because these vehicles use the fuel 8 percent of the time.

It is also unclear whether vehicles granted waivers are truly too far from the E85 stations to use them. The Post analysis, comparing locations of exempted vehicles with E85 fueling stations, shows that 13 percent of the vehicles are within five miles of publicly available ethanol pumps.

In the District, 50 of the 54 exemptions are for vehicles that are less than five miles from an E85 supplier, The Post found.

Some exempted vehicles are in the Midwest, where E85 stations are abundant, ethanol prices are lower than national averages for ethanol, and traffic is comparatively light.

In Omaha, 43 exempted vehicles owned by the Army, Postal Service and Department of Veterans Affairs are within five miles of a Cubby's food store, Fantasy's Food-N-Fuel or Bucky's Express -- all with E85 pumps.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 20 flex-fuel vehicles owned by the Postal Service, the General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security won exemptions, although they are within five miles of an ethanol pump.

And in Manhattan, Kan., the Army and the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have 18 vehicles within five miles of one E85 station at the Farmers Cooperative Association.

"We put the station in thinking that if government employees had the vehicles, they were supposed to use ethanol,'' said Darin Marti, general manager of the Farmers Cooperative. "It's not hard to find us. You can use a GPS unit, and it will take you right to us. And we have big signs along the highway."

Energy Department officials said some agencies may have secured waivers because of other factors, including stations that do not accept a government credit card or that have unreliable E85 supplies. In urban areas such as Washington, exemptions were typically granted because traffic congestion made even a two- or three-mile drive costly and time-consuming.

The GAO said its analysis showed that future improvements will rely on better data. And it is time for government to reassess the original vision for the fleet, the agency said.

"It can be a role model, a leader," said Gaffigan, of the GAO. "And it should."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Hero rats"

As I've saying for some time now: We have more options than we think! (GW)

Mankind's new best friend?

Trained giant rats sniff out land mines, tuberculosis

By Colin Nickerson
The Boston Globe
November 23, 2008

Reviled as vermin through the ages, rats are becoming unlikely soldiers in the struggle against two scourges of the developing world: land mines and tuberculosis.

In Mozambique, special squads of raccoon-size rats are sniffing out lethal explosive devices buried across the countryside, remnants of the country's anticolonial and civil wars of the last century.

In neighboring Tanzania, teams of rats use their twitchy noses to detect TB bacteria in saliva samples from four clinics serving slum neighborhoods. So far this year, the 25 rats trained for the pilot medical project have identified 300 cases of early-stage TB - infections missed by lab technicians with their microscopes. If not for the rodents, many of these victims would have died and others would have spread the disease.

"It's fair, I think, to call these animals 'hero rats,' " said Bart Weetjens, the Belgian conceiver of both programs.

The rat squads, at first derided by some interna tional aid officials as ridiculous, have won support from the World Bank and praise from the UN and land mine eradication groups. Now there are plans to deploy the creatures to Angola, Congo, Zambia, and other land mine-infested lands.

The rats' "noses are far more sensitive than all current mechanical vapor detectors," Havard Bach, a mine-clearing specialist with the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining, wrote in a study.

Although rats make almost everyone's short list of horrors - associated with filth, disease, and destruction of food crops - they "are really nice creatures," according to Weetjens.

"They are organized, sensitive, sociable, and smart," said the former product engineer in a telephone interview from Antwerp, Belgium, home base for Apopo International, the nonprofit organization that trains and deploys the rats.

In the 1990s, he journeyed to Africa to study land mine clearance techniques. He put his engineer's mind to the expensive, clumsy, and often risky methods employed to detect the lethal contraptions of metal and explosive that detonate underfoot.

Land mines claim casualties for decades after the last shot is fired in a conflict; millions are strewn in former and present fighting zones across Africa, Asia, and Europe. The wickedly durable antipersonnel devices kill or maim thousands of people every year, mainly in the poorest of countries. Removal of the weapons is a priority of the United Nations and other groups.

"In Africa, it came to me: Rats can be part of this great effort," Weetjens recalled.

So he started training giant pouched rats - an African species known for its large size, sunny disposition, and ultra-keen nostrils - to detect the faintest whiff of TNT and other explosives. Because the rats are too light to trigger the explosive, they are not harmed in the exercise; they simply signal the location of the explosive to a handler, who has it defused and removed.

The rat land mine-clearing program in Mozambique, although still small in scale, has been operational for two years - with 34 trained rats deployed to the field, each overseen by a pair of armor-clad handlers. Another 250 mine-detecting rats are undergoing schooling at Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture. It takes 8 to 10 months to fully train a rat, said Weetjens.

A single rat can inspect 1,000 square feet in about 30 minutes, according to Apopo; that's at least a full day's labor for a human working with an electronic detector at terrible risk.

Rat teams are credited with clearing 270 square miles of former farm and village land in southern Mozambique, allowing for the return of peasant families dislocated since the 1980s.

Dogs can perform the same task. But rats are less expensive to train ($3,000 to $5,000 per animal, compared with $40,000 for a canine), easier to house and transport, and far less susceptible to tropical disease. Also, dogs can trip land mines.

Also, rats don't form deep emotional attachments to a single handler. A rat will happily work with anyone who gives the right commands and provides the correct payoff - a few peanuts or a nice ripe banana for locating a land mine, said Andrew Sully, Mozambique program manager for Apopo.

The rodents are hitched to a light leash and scamper in tight grid patterns in suspected land mine sites. When they scent explosive, they signal with furious digging motions. They typically work from 5 to 9 a.m., quitting when the ferocious African sun gets too hot.

"People are so surprised to see this" project, said Alberto Jorge Chambe, a Mozambican rat handler for Apopo. "Rats are usually considered pests or enemies of humanity. But rats are helping my country escape the shadow of death."

Meanwhile, in a conceptual leap, Weetjens decided to turn the rats' sharp olfactory sense to disease detection, starting with tuberculosis. "The medical applications, I believe, will eventually prove even more important than the hunt for land mines," he predicted.

In the pilot project in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam and the nearby city of Morogoro, Apopo-trained rats evaluate saliva samples at a rate of 40 every 10 minutes; that's equal to what a skilled lab technician, using a microscope, can effectively complete in a day.

A TB rat signals with unmistakable paw motions when it detects sputum infected by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the infectious bug responsible for 1.7 million deaths and 9.2 million new TB cases each year, mainly in poor countries, according to the World Health Organization. Scientists at Germany's Max Planck Institute are now trying to determine whether the rats are detecting the scent of the actual TB bacteria or some metabolic reaction produced by the infection.

For both TB and land mines, the rats are trained to respond to the sound of a clicker; when the rat makes the scratching motion that means it has detected an explosive or the odor of disease, the handler or trainer responds by snapping the clicker, which means a nut or fruit is on the way.

So why don't the animals just scratch every few minutes to win a treat?

"That would be human behavior," said Weetjens. "Rats are more honest."

Colin Nickerson can be reached at

Saturday, November 22, 2008

How green is my Wal-Mart?

The world’s largest retailer says it won’t do business with suppliers who violate environmental laws. But can Wal-Mart's low-cost mission align with its lofty goals for sustainability? Bruce Gellerman, host of National Public Radio's outstanding program "Living on Earth" talks with green business consultant Andrew Winston about how Wal-Mart can clean up its act while cleaning up the environment.

Wal-Mart has a long list of green promises to live up to

Living on Earth

November 22, 2008

GELLERMAN: Attention shoppers, Wal-mart, the world's biggest retailer, has some big changes in store for it's biggest supplier: China. Next year, Chinese companies that produce about nine billion dollars worth of goods for Wal-mart, will have to come clean, and comply with Wal-mart's new environmental and labor requirements. Among other things it means manufacturers will have to cut energy consumption by 20 percent. The new goals were recently announced at a sustainability summit in Beijing. Andrew Winston helps companies go green - he's founder of Winston Eco Strategies, and he attended the summit where Wal-mart explained the new policy.

WINSTON: Well right now, what they laid out in China was a set of goals and standards and very tough statements about what they would expect from their suppliers and they've been working on sustainability at Wal-mart for a couple years. And they've been working hard on supplier issues because they realized that the biggest part of their impact was not really their own operations, as big as they are, it's what happens upstream, as they say, with all the products and where they're made and there was only so long they could work on supply issues without going to China. China supplies, you know, 70, 80 percent of the toys in the world, a huge chunk of the apparel, etc, etc. So they had to go there and what they've set is very tough goals – they said you have to meet certain environmental and social standards, you have to comply with the law in China, which is not something most manufacturers do. And if you don't, this was the big "aha" there, was if you don't, we will drop you as a supplier. And that was what made the meeting, I thought, historic, because I've never seen a company do that – say outright, we will drop you and ban you, as Lee Scott said, ban you from selling products to Wal-mart.

GELLERMAN: And Lee Scott is the CEO of Wal-mart.

WINSTON: That's right. It was an impressive performance.

GELLERMAN: But is Wal-mart willing to pay more for say, you know, a cleaning product?

WINSTON: Well there was, you know, really a sort of fun interesting moment in this event where the CEO of FedEx was there, the CEO of Waste Management and Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-CEO of DreamWorks, the studio was there, moderating a panel on consumerism. And on the panel was the chief merchandiser for Wal-mart. And Katzenberg asked him - hey, you've set all these goals, will you pay an extra nickel for products, if they're more environmentally sustainable? You know, this is a metaphorical nickel, say on a gallon of milk or whatever. And he said, we'd want to know what's in that nickel and then we try to find ways to cut, which is the classic Wal-mart answer. And then Katzenberg wouldn't let him get away, and he said – well, okay, but once you've looked at it and it just costs more to be cleaner, for the time being, are you gonna pay that nickel? And you know, the executive basically said – well, as long as we know transparently what's in it, yes I think we would. There were sort of gasps in the room, you know, from some of the suppliers because they don't hear that. In the past, as this executive said, we've asked for, you know, price cut, and we haven't really cared, you know, how they did it. Well now we want to know what's going into that price.

GELLERMAN: Well is the better question, you know, are Wal-mart customers – am I – willing to pay more for a more sustainable product?

WINSTON: Well, it's certainly the critical question. I think the number of people who will pay more for green or sustainable products is still pretty small, and it's probably going to stay small, especially now in tight times. But there's sort of a different group of consumers, which is what some people call the conflicted consumers or conscious consumers. People who want more from their products. They think about where the product came from or how much energy it uses. And they care about those issues nearly as much as they care about the price and quality. But they want those things, I think, with no tradeoffs and that's the big goal, I think, in sustainable products, finding ways to satisfy customers and satisfy their environmental and social needs without asking them to pay more.

GELLERMAN: You know, Mr. Winston, this isn't the first time Wal-mart has promised to clean up its act. I know a number of years ago it said, "Okay, we're going to be a hundred percent renewable energy."


GELLERMAN: We're gonna have zero waste. Those haven't happened.

WINSTON: No, they haven't yet. They set some, as they call them, aspirational goals. I think that's fair. I think companies should do that. There's lots of companies who say we're gonna be zero waste. Very, very few have found a way to that actual goal, but it is – it's directional. It tells people what they should be shooting for. Now, I think a company the size and recognition level of Wal-mart is only going to be given so much time to keep saying things, they're going to have to hit some of their goals. Now on some, they have. The goals that they've set that are much more specific like we're gonna reduce energy use in stores by 20 percent, or trucks – we're gonna increase the fuel efficiency twenty, twenty-five percent. They are well on their way on some of those goals.

GELLERMAN: But isn't there something inherently unsustainable about the Wal-mart business model. That is, you know, they ship millions of tons of stuff around the world and encourage people to buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume.

WINSTON: Yeah, it's a really fascinating issue of what happens after an initial phase. Right now, what they're asking is, you know, resource conservation fundamentally, and that saves money so that fits their business model. But what – you're asking a pretty important question, which is what happens when you get to the point of – okay, we've made it very lean, but does it make sense to ship from China. Now, I'd say that part of that gets answered if we get the price of energy right. If energy prices are very high, shipping things from all over the world may turn out not to be the most economical, so some of that should work itself out through natural market forces. But there's a fundamental mismatch in asking people to buy a lot of stuff. Wal-mart did something, I think, also more subtle but also historic in this meeting. They talked about quality a lot, which they're not known for, you know, no one would claim they're known for quality products. But Lee Scott said - he said almost word for word, you know, people want socks that don't fall down after they've been washed. They want things that last longer. So they're saying to their suppliers, make better products that last longer. That's actually somewhat of a disconnect with their business model. Their model is to sell you stuff over and over again. So, I think it's pretty profound that they're saying - hey, higher quality products that last longer, that makes them more sustainable, that's where the world's going, and we're gonna get ahead of that curve. That's, you know, true leadership if they follow through on it.

GELLERMAN: They're gonna start phasing in this initiative in China, starting in January '09. And then worldwide by 2011. And I'm thinking, you know, so goes Wal-mart, so goes the world.

WINSTON: That's right. I mean, they are that big. If they can make this happen, one of the goals they've set is that 95 percent of the product that they buy from Chinese suppliers will have to be from firms that are in compliance with all these audits. Now that's a monumental number because as someone else said – one of the other speakers – something like 25 percent of the wastewater from factories in China is treated. So 75% are sort of out of compliance by definition. So getting to 95% that are in compliance is a monumental task in a country like China, and I think if we get to a point where we look back in a few years, five whatever years, and say, "Well, China's actually a lot cleaner, so's the world." This will be one of those turning points.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Winston, I want to thank you very much.

WINSTON: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Andrew Winston is the founder of Winston Eco Strategies and co-author of the book "Green to Gold".

Friday, November 21, 2008

"The first time in 40 years I've seen a decline in sales"

The fact that Americans are using less electricity should come as good news, right? After all energy efficiency and conservation are two sure-fire ways to combat climate change.

If you're a utility executive this is anything but good news. They see this as an alarming signal that the economy (not to mention their business) is taking a turn for the worse. They may, in fact, be right. (GW)

Surprise Drop in Power Use Delivers Jolt to Utilities

By Rebecca Smith

Wall Street Journal

November 21, 2008

An unexpected drop in U.S. electricity consumption has utility companies worried that the trend isn't a byproduct of the economic downturn, and could reflect a permanent shift in consumption that will require sweeping change in their industry.

Numbers are trickling in from several large utilities that show shrinking power use by households and businesses in pockets across the country. Utilities have long counted on sales growth of 1% to 2% annually in the U.S., and they created complex operating and expansion plans to meet the needs of a growing population.

"We're in a period where growth is going to be challenged," says Jim Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy Corp. in Charlotte, N.C.

The data are early and incomplete, but if the trend persists, it could ripple through companies' earnings and compel major changes in the way utilities run their businesses. Utilities are expected to invest $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion by 2030 to modernize their electric systems and meet future needs, according to an industry-funded study by the Brattle Group. However, if electricity demand is flat or even declining, utilities must either make significant adjustments to their investment plans or run the risk of building too much capacity. That could end up burdening customers and shareholders with needless expenses.

To be sure, electricity use fluctuates with the economy and population trends. But what has executives stumped is that recent shifts appear larger than others seen previously, and they can't easily be explained by weather fluctuations. They have also penetrated the most stable group of consumers -- households.

Dick Kelly, chief executive of Xcel Energy Inc., Minneapolis, says his company, which has utilities in Colorado and Minnesota, saw home-energy use drop 3% in the period from August through September, "the first time in 40 years I've seen a decline in sales" to homes. He doesn't think foreclosures are responsible for the trend.

Duke Energy Corp.'s third-quarter electricity sales were down 5.9% in the Midwest from the year earlier, including a 9% drop among residential customers. At its utilities operating in the Carolinas, sales were down 4.3% for the three-month period ending Sept. 30 from a year earlier.

American Electric Power Co., which owns utilities operating in 11 states, saw total electricity consumption drop 3.3% in the same period from the prior year. Among residential customers, the drop was 7.2%. However, milder weather played a role.

Utility executives question whether the recent declines are primarily a function of the broader economic downturn. If that's the case, says Xcel's Mr. Kelly, then utilities should continue to build power plants, "because when we come out of the recession, demand could pick up sharply" as consumers begin to splurge again on items like big-screen televisions and other gadgets.

Some feel that the drop heralds a broader change for the industry. Mr. Rogers of Duke Energy says that even in places "where prices were flat to declining," his company still saw lower consumption. "Something fundamental is going on," he says.

Michael Morris, the chief executive of AEP, one of the country's largest utilities, says he thinks the industry should to be wary about breaking ground on expensive new projects. "The message is: be cautious about what you build because you may not have the demand" to justify the expense, he says.

Utilities are taking steps to get a better understanding of the cause. Some are asking customers who reduced usage to explain what is influencing them. Xcel and other utilities, for example, have been running environmentally focused campaigns to urge consumers to use less energy recently, a message that might be taking hold.

Power companies are also questioning the reliability of the weather-adjustment models they use to harmonize fluctuating sales from quarter to quarter. "It's more art than science," says Bill Johnson, Chief Executive of Progress Energy Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

If the sector is entering a period of lower demand -- which could accelerate further if the automotive sector collapses -- many utilities will have to change the way they cover their costs.

Utilities are taking a hard look at the way they set rates and generate profits. Many companies are embracing a new rate design based on "decoupling," in which they set prices aimed at covering the basic costs of delivery, with sales above that level being gravy. Regulators have resisted the change in some places, because it typically means that consumers using little energy pay somewhat higher rates.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

“We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas..."

There are always (at least) two sides to every story -- more often not even more than that. The unfolding story about the Somali Pirates hijacking escapades on the high seas is a classic case in point. On the surface it appears to be a clear case of wanton thuggery. That's how many of the newspapers in the western world are characterizing what's going on.

My son called me this evening and asked if I was aware that this might be a form of "green activism" in response to the environmental degradation of the Somali coastline by industrialized nations and organized crime. I was not. So I did a little digging. Following is another take on what's going on. (GW)

'Toxic waste' behind Somali piracy

By Najad Abdullahi

Al Jazeera

October 11, 2008

Somali pirates have accused European firms of dumping toxic waste off the Somali coast and are demanding an $8m ransom for the return of a Ukranian ship they captured, saying the money will go towards cleaning up the waste.

The ransom demand is a means of "reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years", Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for the pirates, based in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, said.

"The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas."

The pirates are holding the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and military hardware, off Somalia's northern coast.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, 61 attacks by pirates have been reported since the start of the year.

While money is the primary objective of the hijackings, claims of the continued environmental destruction off Somalia's coast have been largely ignored by the regions's maritime authorities.

Dumping allegations

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia confirmed to Al Jazeera the world body has "reliable information" that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline.

"I must stress however, that no government has endorsed this act, and that private companies and individuals acting alone are responsible," he said

Allegations of the dumping of toxic waste, as well as illegal fishing, have circulated since the early 1990s.

But evidence of such practices literally appeared on the beaches of northern Somalia when the tsunami of 2004 hit the country.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland.

Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman, told Al Jazeera that when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a "frightening activity" that has been going on for more than decade.

"Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there," he said.

"European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne.

"And the waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes – you name it."

Nuttall also said that since the containers came ashore, hundreds of residents have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments.

"We [the UNEP] had planned to do a proper, in-depth scientific assessment on the magnitude of the problem. But because of the high levels of insecurity onshore and off the Somali coast, we are unable to carry out an accurate assessment of the extent of the problem," he said.

However, Ould-Abdallah claims the practice still continues.

"What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean," he said.

Toxic waste

Ould-Abdallah declined to name which companies are involved in waste dumping, citing legal reasons.

But he did say the practice helps fuel the 18-year-old civil war in Somalia as companies are paying Somali government ministers to dump their waste, or to secure licences and contracts.

"There is no government control ... and there are few people with high moral ground ... [and] yes, people in high positions are being paid off, but because of the fragility of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], some of these companies now no longer ask the authorities – they simply dump their waste and leave."

Ould-Abdallah said there are ethical questions to be considered because the companies are negotiating contracts with a government that is largely divided along tribal lines.

"How can you negotiate these dealings with a country at war and with a government struggling to remain relevant?"

In 1992, a contract to secure the dumping of toxic waste was made by Swiss and Italian shipping firms Achair Partners and Progresso, with Nur Elmi Osman, a former official appointed to the government of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, one of many militia leaders involved in the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia's former president.

At the request of the Swiss and Italian governments, UNEP investigated the matter.

Both firms had denied entering into any agreement with militia leaders at the beginning of the Somali civil war.

Osman also denied signing any contract.

'Mafia involvement'

However, Mustafa Tolba, the former UNEP executive director, told Al Jazeera that he discovered the firms were set up as fictitious companies by larger industrial firms to dispose of hazardous waste.

"At the time, it felt like we were dealing with the Mafia, or some sort of organised crime group, possibly working with these industrial firms," he said.

"It was very shady, and quite underground, and I would agree with Ould-Abdallah’s claims that it is still going on... Unfortunately the war has not allowed environmental groups to investigate this fully."

The Italian mafia controls an estimated 30 per cent of Italy's waste disposal companies, including those that deal with toxic waste.

In 1998, Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian weekly magazine, claimed that although most of the waste-dumping took place after the start of the civil war in 1991, the activity actually began as early as 1989 under the Barre government.

Beyond the ethical question of trying to secure a hazardous waste agreement in an unstable country like Somalia, the alleged attempt by Swiss and Italian firms to dump waste in Somalia would violate international treaties to which both countries are signatories.

Legal ramifications

Switzerland and Italy signed and ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which came into force in 1992.

EU member states, as well as 168 other countries have also signed the agreement.

The convention prohibits waste trade between countries that have signed the convention, as well as countries that have not signed the accord unless a bilateral agreement had been negotiated.

It is also prohibits the shipping of hazardous waste to a war zone.

Abdi Ismail Samatar, professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, told Al Jazeera that because an international coalition of warships has been deployed to the Gulf of Aden, the alleged dumping of waste must have been observed.

Environmental damage

"If these acts are continuing, then surely they must have been seen by someone involved in maritime operations," he said.

"Is the cargo aimed at a certain destination more important than monitoring illegal activities in the region? Piracy is not the only problem for Somalia, and I think it's irresponsible on the part of the authorities to overlook this issue."

Mohammed Gure, chairman of the Somalia Concern Group, said that the social and environmental consequences will be felt for decades.

"The Somali coastline used to sustain hundreds of thousands of people, as a source of food and livelihoods. Now much of it is almost destroyed, primarily at the hands of these so-called ministers that have sold their nation to fill their own pockets."

Ould-Abdallah said piracy will not prevent waste dumping.

"The intentions of these pirates are not concerned with protecting their environment," he said.

"What is ultimately needed is a functioning, effective government that will get its act together and take control of its affairs."