Saturday, January 31, 2009

Are secondary forests second-class ecologies?

Are the "secondary forests" that are emerging around the world as a result of rural-to-urban migrations natural? Are they performing the same or similar functions as primeval rain forests? These questions are at the center of a raging debate among environmentalists as they attempt to assess the impacts of the significant demographic shifts underway in Latin American and Asia.

All this reminds brings back into focus the provocative ideas that Charles Mann offers in his book "1491: New R3evel of the Americas Before Columbus" including the notion that Amazonia basically consists of human-created forests. (GW)

New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Rain Forests

CHILIBRE, Panama — The land where Marta Ortega de Wing raised hundreds of pigs until 10 years ago is being overtaken by galloping jungle — palms, lizards and ants.

Instead of farming, she now shops at the supermarket and her grown children and grandchildren live in places like Panama City and New York.

Here, and in other tropical countries around the world, small holdings like Ms. Ortega de Wing’s — and much larger swaths of farmland — are reverting to nature, as people abandon their land and move to the cities in search of better livings.

These new “secondary” forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest — an iconic environmental cause — may be less urgent than once thought. By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster.

“There is far more forest here than there was 30 years ago,” said Ms. Ortega de Wing, 64, who remembers fields of mango trees and banana plants.

The new forests, the scientists argue, could blunt the effects of rain forest destruction by absorbing carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas linked to global warming, one crucial role that rain forests play. They could also, to a lesser extent, provide habitat for endangered species.

The idea has stirred outrage among environmentalists who believe that vigorous efforts to protect native rain forest should remain a top priority. But the notion has gained currency in mainstream organizations like the Smithsonian Institution and the United Nations, which in 2005 concluded that new forests were “increasing dramatically” and “undervalued” for their environmental benefits. The United Nations is undertaking the first global catalog of the new forests, which vary greatly in their stage of growth.

“Biologists were ignoring these huge population trends and acting as if only original forest has conservation value, and that’s just wrong,” said Joe Wright, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute here, who set off a firestorm two years ago by suggesting that the new forests could substantially compensate for rain forest destruction.

“Is this a real rain forest?” Dr. Wright asked, walking the land of a former American cacao plantation that was abandoned about 50 years ago, and pointing to fig trees and vast webs of community spiders and howler monkeys.

“A botanist can look at the trees here and know this is regrowth,” he said. “But the temperature and humidity are right. Look at the number of birds! It works. This is a suitable habitat.”

Dr. Wright and others say the overzealous protection of rain forests not only prevents poor local people from profiting from the rain forests on their land but also robs financing and attention from other approaches to fighting global warming, like eliminating coal plants.

But other scientists, including some of Dr. Wright’s closest colleagues, disagree, saying that forceful protection of rain forests is especially important in the face of threats from industrialized farming and logging.

The issue has also set off a debate over the true definition of a rain forest. How do old forests compare with new ones in their environmental value? Is every rain forest sacred?

“Yes, there are forests growing back, but not all forests are equal,” said Bill Laurance, another senior scientist at the Smithsonian, who has worked extensively in the Amazon.

He scoffed as he viewed Ms. Ortega de Wing’s overgrown land: “This is a caricature of a rain forest!” he said. “There’s no canopy, there’s too much light, there are only a few species. There is a lot of change all around here whittling away at the forest, from highways to development.”

While new forests may absorb carbon emissions, he says, they are unlikely to save most endangered rain-forest species, which have no way to reach them.

Everyone, including Dr. Wright, agrees that large-scale rain-forest destruction in the Amazon or Indonesia should be limited or managed. Rain forests are the world’s great carbon sinks, absorbing the emissions that humans send into the atmosphere, and providing havens for biodiversity.

At issue is how to tally the costs and benefits of forests, at a time when increasing attention is being paid to global climate management and carbon accounting.

Just last month, at climate talks held by the United Nations in Poznan, Poland, the world’s environment ministers agreed to a new program through which developing countries will be rewarded for preventing deforestation. But little is known about the new forests — some of them have never even been mapped — and they were not factored into the equation at the meetings.

Dr. Wright and other scientists say they should be. About 38 million acres of original rain forest are being cut down every year, but in 2005, according to the most recent “State of the World’s Forests Report” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there were an estimated 2.1 billion acres of potential replacement forest growing in the tropics — an area almost as large as the United States. The new forest included secondary forest on former farmland and so-called degraded forest, land that has been partly logged or destroyed by natural disasters like fires and then left to nature. In Panama by the 1990s, the last decade for which data is available, the rain forest is being destroyed at a rate of 1.3 percent each year. The area of secondary forest is increasing by more than 4 percent yearly, Dr. Wright estimates.

With the heat and rainfall in tropical Panama, new growth is remarkably fast. Within 15 years, abandoned land can contain trees more than 100 feet high. Within 20, a thick rain-forest canopy forms again. Here in the lush, misty hills, it is easy to see rain-forest destruction as part of a centuries-old cycle of human civilization and wilderness, in which each in turn is cleared and replaced by the other. The Mayans first cleared lands here that are now dense forest. The area around Gamboa, cleared when the Panama Canal was built, now looks to the untrained eye like the wildest of jungles.

But Dr. Laurance says that is a dangerous lens through which to view the modern world, where the forces that are destroying rain forest operate on a scale previously unknown.

Now the rain forest is being felled by “industrial forestry, agriculture, the oil and gas industry — and it’s globalized, where every stick of timber is being cut in Congo is sent to China and one bulldozer does a lot more damage than 1,000 farmers with machetes,” he said.

Globally, one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions come from the destruction of rain forests, scientists say. It is unknown how much of that is being canceled out by forest that is in the process of regrowth. It is a crucial but scientifically controversial question, the answer to which may depend on where and when the forests are growing.

Although the United Nations’ report noted the enormous increase of secondary forests, it is unclear how to describe or define them. The 2.1 billion acres of secondary forests includes a mishmash of land that has the potential to grow into a vibrant faux rain forest and land that may never become more than a biologically shallow tangle of trees and weeds.

“Our knowledge of these forests is still rather limited,” said Wulf Killmann, director of forestry products and industry at the United Nations agriculture organization. The agency is in the early phases of a global assessment of the scope of secondary forest, which will be ready in 2011.

The Smithsonian, hoping to answer such questions, is just starting to study a large plot of newly abandoned farmland in central Panama to learn about the regeneration of forests there.

Regenerated forests in the tropics appear to be especially good at absorbing emissions of carbon, but that ability is based on location and rate of growth. A field abandoned in New York in 1900 will have trees shorter than those growing on a field here that was abandoned just 20 years ago.

For many biologists, a far bigger concern is whether new forests can support the riot of plant and animal species associated with rain forests. Part of the problem is that abandoned farmland is often distant from native rain forest. How does it help Amazonian species threatened by rain-forest destruction in Brazil if secondary forests grow on the outskirts of Panama City?

Dr. Wright — an internationally respected scientist — said he knew he was stirring up controversy when he suggested to a conference of tropical biologists that rain forests might not be so bad off. Having lived in Panama for 25 years, he is convinced that scientific assessments of the rain forests’ future were not taking into account the effects of population and migration trends that are obvious on the ground.

In Latin America and Asia, birthrates have dropped drastically; most people have two or three children. New jobs tied to global industry, as well as improved transportation, are luring a rural population to fast-growing cities. Better farming techniques and access to seed and fertilizer mean that marginal lands are no longer farmed because it takes fewer farmers to feed a growing population.

Gumercinto Vásquez, a stooped casual laborer who was weeding a field in Chilibre in the blistering sun, said it had become hard for him to find work because so many farms had been abandoned.

“Very few people around here are farming these days,” he said.

Dr. Wright, looking at a new forest, sees possibility. He says new research suggests that 40 to 90 percent of rain-forest species can survive in new forest.

Dr. Laurance focuses on what will be missing, ticking off species like jaguars, tapirs and a variety of birds and invertebrates.

While he concedes that a regrown forest may absorb some carbon, he insists, “This is not the rich ecosystem of a rain forest.”

Still, the fate of secondary forests lies not just in biology. A global recession could erase jobs in cities, driving residents back to the land.

“Those are questions for economists and politicians, not us,” Dr. Wright said.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

UK Auto Makers Challenged to Green

Ailing car firms must go green to get help

Incentives of £3.4bn to help boost flagging industry

By Nigel Morris and Sarah Arnott
Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Lord Mandelson faced charges of producing too little and acting too late as he set out a £2.4bn rescue package for Britain's beleaguered car industry. The Business Secretary linked the cash – which was far less than the £13bn demanded by the unions – to manufacturers developing green technology.

Lord Mandelson insisted he was not offering a "bailout" for the motor industry, which employs nearly one million people from the shopfloor to showroom. He argued that the investment would help car companies become "greener, more innovative and more productive".

Car sales have collapsed by a half since the recession began to bite and several car-makers have been forced to cut workers' hours in an attempt to avoid redundancies.

The unions said the proposals did little to prevent the loss of thousands of jobs and were dismissed by the new shadow Business Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, as "small beer".

The package comprised:

* Government guarantees to unlock up to £1.3bn of loans from the European Investment Bank to develop green technology.

* Loans worth up to £1bn to invest in low-carbon engines.

* A £5m scheme to help the car companies improve their business performance.

* A £35m boost to train workers at component suppliers.

Lord Mandelson also announced that the new trade and investment minister, Mervyn Davies, would draft plans to encourage more car buying. Mr Davies will seek ways of providing cash for car finance firms offering cheap deals, particularly for cars made in Britain. Lord Mandelson said: "Today's measures will provide a specific boost to the industry, providing real help and laying the foundations of its reinvention for a low-carbon future."

But Lord Hunt of Wirral, a Tory business spokesman, protested: "Once again, the Government offers too little, too late." Mr Clarke, in his first Commons speech, suggested the cash available to the motor industry had been pared back by the Treasury.

He told MPs: "I have to say I'm slightly disappointed. I thought the secretary of state who I am shadowing would produce some new ideas, some dynamite." Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said: "This will come as a massive disappointment to the tens of thousands of workers employed in or dependent on this vital industry. This is a fraction of the support being given by almost every other government in Europe. Ministers need to more than double the money available and do so immediately."

The car industry's response to the proposals was muted ahead of a major meeting this morning to discuss the plan. Manufacturers welcomed recognition of the sector's importance to the economy, but raised concerns about the substance of the package.

The sector's problems are caused by falling customer demand and the lack of credit for both potential buyers and the businesses themselves. Neither is much helped by loan guarantee schemes only available to "lower-carbon initiatives", say sceptics.

A source at one large car company said: "We will have to talk to them tomorrow to get a better understanding of the details, but at this stage it looks like measures addressing long-term issues rather than the acute, short-term crisis."

Professor Garel Rhys, of the Centre for Automotive Research at Cardiff Business School, said: "These initiatives are for the long-term, they do not address short-term problems. Companies need working capital to fund their normal activities, buying stock and so on, so they can stay in business."

Car rescue package: How does Britain's compare?

The size of the industry

UK 200,000 people making cars and components.

US 1.4 million jobs, predominantly in and around Detroit.

France 800,000, most at Renault and Peugeot Citroën.

The scale of the problem

UK Some 20 per cent fewer cars were sold last year, compared with 2007. Thousands of jobs have already been axed and all major manufacturers have cut production.

US The "Big Three" – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – are currently experiencing sales down by 40 per cent, 34 per cent and 31 per cent respectively. Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan fared better, but still not well.

France Total car sales were down by 30 per cent in 2008. Peugeot Citroën alone sold 170,000 fewer cars last year than it did in 2007.

The response

UK Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, announced loan guarantees worth £2.3bn yesterday. The package equates to about £115 per job.

US The US government approved $17.4bn (£12.3bn) of loans for GM and Chrysler. The fund is worth £390 per employee.

France The Prime Minister François Fillon announced a €6bn (£5.6bn) bailout, in return for a guarantee that factories stay open and jobs are saved. The plan equates to £70 per job.

Transmission permission

Small and decentralized is beautiful. Sometimes big is necessary. This has become my mantra of late (as some of you may know). This is especially when it comes to infrastructure. Bucky Fuller noted that Nature’s design strategy suggests that Universe is populated with many, many small ubiquitous “events” punctuated with large events which occur with much less frequency in comparison. But exist they do.

Ecologist Paul Colinvaux echoed this theme in a book entitled “Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare”. Although his book is really an excellent overview of ecology, it does touch on the notion of bigness. (Think about the number of beetles and ants compared to the number of bears and whales). He even goes so far as to speculate that perhaps the T-Rex never existed in the form of a ferocious, meat-eating hunter as popularly portrayed.

When it comes to human design, big seems to be OK if it’s “out of sight”. Of course, “somewhere else” eventually becomes somewhere and that somewhere – more often than not – can be seen by someone.

It will be an interesting test to see if President Obama can bring the country together on difficult issues such as this. (GW)

Obama's high-wire electric act

Will he take the people's land to build a national grid when local networks for energy renewables may do?

Christian Science Monitor| Editorial

January 28, 2009

To justify taking homes and farms to build the Interstate highway, President Eisenhower cited a security need: Military vehicles must move fast in case of war. Now President Obama, citing a need to curb global warming, wants new transmission lines across America to carry electricity from carbon-free energy sources. Will he also use federal muscle to take people's land, even wilderness?

The question hangs like a sparking high-tension wire over Mr. Obama's plans to plow $11 billion – part of his economic stimulus – into a "smart grid," which is critical to his ambitious goal to curb fossil fuel use by 2020.

Even without a need to help renewables transmit electrons, the nation's electric grid needs an upgrade. Its structure hasn't changed much from the days of Thomas Edison. Blackouts, such as the big one in 2003 that left 50 million people in the dark, are increasing. Its 164,000 miles of lines and 9,200 generating plants are ill-equipped to accept power from small-scale sources such as wind, geothermal, and biomass.

Yet Obama wants to double renewable energy within three years and bring it "to every corner of our nation." Without smashing through local resistance and environmental concerns to new transmission lines, he's unlikely to reach his goal.

One problem is that the best sites for renewables are generally not near major cities. Sun is plentiful in the Southwest and wind in the Great Plains. Most Americans live near the coasts.

In 2005, a new federal statute authorized the Energy secretary to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors while also allowing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to use eminent domain to build new lines. Both provisions have drawn fierce opposition, especially in New Jersey where the entire state has been designated a corridor. NIMBYism remains a strong force despite Al Gore's climate-change campaign.

The Obama team is slowly trying to make a compelling legal case for stronger federal powers. One think tank aligned with the new president, the Center for American Progress, claims "America's electricity grid is a vulnerable intersection of our national security interests and our energy and economic security." The new Energy secretary, Steven Chu, says new lines must be sited "in a way that takes into consideration the local feelings, but yet also recognizes the national needs."

One problem with this approach is that it is too national and potentially Big Brotherish in its methods, while most of the action so far on renewables is local and needs only local connections to utilities.

What's needed are "microgrids," or small-scale electricity distribution systems with many sources and local storage – much like the Internet – with a centralized long-distance system only as backup. Thousands of buildings now generate much of their electricity from rooftop solar panels, for example. Denmark, which relies on renewables for nearly a third of its electricity, has moved to microgrids.

Before Obama starts forcing people off their land for a worthy global cause, he should first think local. Many people – and states – are already ahead of him.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"We are in danger of falling off the other side"

The Republic of Kiribati may have the distinction (unwanted) of being one of the first dramatic casualties of global climate change. This island nation comprised of 32 atolls and one raised coral island dispersed over 1,351,000 square miles, is in danger of succumbing to sea level rise.

So how does a nation react to the reality that it is losing a battle to the forces of Nature that arr being driven by short-sighted human activity? (GW)

Moving back from the coastline

By H.D.S. Greenway
Boston Globe
January 27, 2009

EVER SINCE Captain Cook, mutiny on the Bounty, and Paul Gauguin, the South Pacific has held a special place in the Western imagination. The islands and atolls, swaying palms, and care-free people seemed to symbolize the great escape, a place where cares might be left behind, the closest thing this mortal world had to paradise. "Bali Ha'i your special island, come to me, come to me," as the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics go.

Future generations may never know those special islands, and today, as sea levels rise with global warming, the population of many a Bali Ha'i is preparing to come to us.

Last fall Anote Tong, the president of the Republic of Kiribati, stopped by Harvard University to give a lecture. Kiribati used to be the Gilbert Islands, formerly British, then Japanese, which the Americans took at great cost in World War II. Kiribati has 33 islands strung out over the Pacific where the International Date Line meets the equator. Its principal island is Tarawa. But the most important statistic is that it lies less than 6 feet above sea level. "Something is happening that didn't happen in the last century," Tong said.

It's too late to reverse this, he said. There is already enough greenhouse gases to ensure the continuing rise of the oceans. Kiribati is trying to adapt, he said. But unlike other lands there is only so far you can move back from the coast before "we are in danger of falling off the other side."

Kiribati's answer: train its people in skills that are needed in other lands and start emigrating. There is a shortage of nurses in Australia, so the women of Kirbati are training to be nurses. New Zealand is willing to take in islanders, and it assigns the numbers by rotation. There is no money for elaborate sea walls, and there is no country willing to give the 100,000 Micronesians of Kiribati a new homeland.

It is ironic, said President Tong, that the people with the smallest carbon foot print should be taking the brunt of global warming's damage.

In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, with three times Kiribati's population and a great deal more money from tourism, is starting a fund to buy a new homeland. At about 9 feet above sea level, with the sea expected to rise about 3 feet this century, the nation of 1,200 islands has a bit more time than Kiribati.

With this in mind, I visited the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where Bob Evans is a resident expert on rising oceans. I learned that oceans don't rise slowly and steadily like water in a bath tub. You have to imagine an energetic 5-year-old splashing as much water as possible to understand how it works. It's the storm surges that do the damage, reaching far above the mean high water mark. If the sea rise is slow, nature can adapt. But if it's too fast, nature hasn't time. And none of the present sea-level projections take into account the melting Greenland ice cap, which, if it disappears in future centuries, would cause the sea to rise 20 feet.

Sand dunes don't just sit there and drown, Evans said, they pick up and move back on shore, invading coastal marshes and eventually burying houses and roads inland. You can see that happening now. He and his colleagues wrote a paper that said there was a lack of will among policy makers to address these problems.

This is changing. Holland, with two thirds of its country below sea level, is making plans to extend its coastline. Concrete dikes have been found less effective than creating dunes and earthworks more reminiscent of the 17th century.

Massachusetts has just started a pilot program to protect 78 coastal towns against rising sea levels and accompanying storm surges. The theory is that it's better to adapt now than to wait decades until rising sea levels start to cause major damage.

It is estimated that by the end of the century, parts of Boston and Cambridge could be flooded during storms. It's unfair, but you can bet that flooding Harvard would focus attention even more than losing Bali Ha'i.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"If this is the future of the automobile, I want it"

This blog has been following the promise and development of electric vehicles and the Tesla Roadster in particular for some time. The latest Tesla update provides two jaw-droppers. The first which deals with the roadster's performance we'll have to take Warren Brown's word for. He was lucky enough to be able to test-drive this baby for a day and clearly found it to be an exhilarating experience. His account of that can be found below.

The other jaw-dropper is the price. It's impressive as well, but that's the problem. (GW)

A Jaw-Dropping Ride, Batteries Included

By Warren Brown

Washington Post

January 25, 2009

Let us begin with definitions.

First, there is the circle. It is round. It has circumference, the edge or outer limits of its roundness. It has a center and a radius, the latter being the straight-line distance from the circle's center to its circumference.

Next, there is the tangent. It is a line that touches exactly one point of a circle's circumference. That line can be an actual line; or, for purposes of this discussion, it can be the force exerted at any one point on the edge of a circle in the exact direction of the circle's rotation multiplied by the circle's radius.

Physicists and engineers call that force torque, which is best understood in automotive terms as engine twisting power and efficiency.

Torque well-delivered makes things go. You can have all the horsepower in the world. But if the energy from all of that muscle gets gobbled up and lost in the generation and transmission of twisting power, you'll have a car that goes much slower and consumes more fuel than it should.

Thus, we come to the genius and excitement of this week's test car, the Tesla Roadster. Tesla's marketers say the car delivers 100 percent torque 100 percent of the time. That's a bit of a stretch. Something always gets lost in the transmission and use of power.

But it is reasonable to agree that the Tesla Roadster delivers at least 90 percent of its torque at least 90 percent of the time, which is far better than the torque delivery of cars and trucks powered by internal combustion engines.

The Tesla Roadster is powered by batteries -- a dense pack of lithium-ion cells that feed juice to a 375-volt AC (alternating current) induction, air-cooled electric motor with variable frequency drive.

That motor, which provides the gasoline-engine equivalent of 248 horsepower and 276 foot-pounds of torque, powers the Tesla's rear wheels via a single-speed, direct-drive transmission. Judging from a day behind the wheel of the car, that speed is fast!

There are people who praise the Tesla Roadster for its environmental attributes. It consumes no fossil fuels, spews no tailpipe emissions and leaves a relatively minor carbon footprint. But all of that is missing the point, because those are also attributes of the decidedly non-sexy, campus utilitarian, golf-cart-like cars assembled by Global Electric Motorcars, a Chrysler company.

Tesla, by comparison, is a roadster's roadster. It's a head-turner, jaw-dropper. It is sexy as all get-out. And, at $109,000 a copy, it's pricey.

The Tesla Roadster deliberately eschews utility and what many motorists deem creature comforts -- such as power steering and a power-operated convertible roof. Turning the Tesla's steering wheel at low speeds requires good arm strength.

The car has seats for two people. But whoever is sitting in the passenger's seat had better buckle up and be prepared to hang on to his or her gut.

The Tesla is built for one purpose and one purpose only, which is to go as fast and as far as possible on battery power, which it does. It can run heartily for 200 miles on a single charge, after which a 3.5-hour plug-in in a washer-dryer-like 220-to-240-volt household outlet is required to restore full battery power. Slower speeds can yield a single-charge driving range of up to 240 miles.

But here's betting that no one slipping behind the steering wheel of the Tesla Roadster will be inclined to nurse it along the highway in pursuit of hyper-mileage. That is not at all what the car is about.

Would you like to know what smooth, nearly instant torque feels like? Wheeeeeee! Drive a Tesla, even if you have to fly to Tesla's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, to get your hands on one for a day. You will never again think horsepower is more important than torque.

Nor will you have the same tactile, emotional appreciation of automotive acceleration that marked your enjoyment of high-powered, internal combustion engines.

Wheeeeeee! If this is the future of the automobile, I want it. Let's do whatever we can to get the price down.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The European Union is bullish on wind energy

European Union political leaders understand the realities, complexities and urgency surrounding global climate change. While it is clear that there is no perfect solution to the problem, they do realize that immediate action based on the best available scientific information is critical. Procrastination is no an option.

To that end, wind energy is one of the best available renewable energy options available to the world today that is capable of helping to fuel a vibrant economy without contributing to the atmospheric build-up of greenhouse gases.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) has played a pivotal role in education policy makers on the virtues of wind energy technology. We here in the U.S. should take away as many applicable lessons as possible. (GW)

EWEA chief: EU legislation set to boost wind industry

January 21, 2009

The Renewables Directive agreed in December will provide incentives to develop wind energy by forcing new legislation in all 27 member states, Christian Kjaer, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), told EurActiv in an interview.

Christian Kjaer is chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).

The EU negotiated a new directive on the promotion of renewable energies in December, to increase the share of renewables in the EU energy mix by 20% by 2020. Where do you see the position of the wind industry in comparison to other renewables industries?

We have a breakdown of the contributions of different sources of electricity. The 20% target means that we have targets for heating, cooling, electricity and renewables in transport. What the European Commission expects is that 34% of our electricity will need to come from renewable energy sources in 2020. We currently have 16%.

What needs to be taken into account as well is that of the 16% we have now, ten percentage points are from large hydro, and we can't expand large hydro much more in Europe. So if you look at non-large hydro renewables, you need to increase from currently 6% to 34 minus 10: 24%.

The European Renewable Energy Council, which is an umbrella organisation of renewables industries, has made a breakdown on that, and that shows that wind energy will be the biggest contributor to reaching that target. So that's quite clear. In terms of percentage, the European Commission has made a breakdown – it's not a target, it's just an indication – and they say 12% of our electricity consumption will be covered with wind energy.

Is this an ambitious target?

12% is not very difficult to reach. Basically, we increased wind power capacity by 8.5 GW in 2007. In order to get to the 12%, we need to increase on average in the thirteen-year period 2008 to 2020 by an average increase of 9.5 GW per year. In other words, if we increase by 9.5 GW per year over the next thirteen years, we will have between 12 and 14% of our electricity coming from wind energy. So it's not a huge growth rate that is required to have a significant amount of our electricity coming from wind.

Is this the growth rate you are expecting, or are you going to exceed it?

This was very much in line with our own targets for 2020, which we outlined in our report last year. There we're saying 180 GW, which gets us between 12 and 14%.

These targets were put in place before the passing of the directive. My personal view is that come 2020, wind energy will be above that. And we will revise our targets - probably later in the year - to reflect the passing of the Renewables Directive, because it does provide some investor certainty, which will mean that we will probably increase our targets.

So you are saying that the EU climate package provides incentives for the wind industry?

Absolutely. Basically, what it does is that it forces 27 member states to put in place financial frameworks, frameworks for administrative barriers and frameworks for getting fair access to electricity grids.

These are the three elements on any legislative framework that you need to have in mind. It's like a chair with three legs. If you remove one of those legs, it's not going to happen.

All these elements need to be addressed when you want to have a national framework, and together with the national binding target, they form the core of the national legislation that's going to be implemented now via the directive. So absolutely, the directive is probably the most important piece of legislation in the world for our sector.

Do you thing greater grid access is going to be enough to promote wind energy, or will Europe need to develop its electricity grids further to be able to cope with larger amounts of energy from renewables?

There are three steps in the development of wind energy. The first step is just to get access to the grids. We've seen everywhere where we have developed wind energy to a significant amount, like in Spain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, that just attaching the first wind turbine there was a nightmare because you had to convince the transmission system operator that you were not completely ruining the whole system. So that's the first step in any country's development, just trying to convince people that we are not messing up the power system by connecting a few wind turbines.

Then there's the second step, which is that when you get to a reasonable amount of electricity from wind energy in the system, let's say 10% penetration, depending on each system, you need to change the way you operate your system.

For instance, there are some requirements in some countries saying that if you're a power producer, you have to forecast how much electricity you're going to deliver 48 hours in advance. There's no technical justification for it. It's just historical because if you are a hydro power station, it's very easy to control how much you're going to deliver. If you're a coal or gas-fired power plant, it's also easy because you can adjust. So whatever your prediction is, it's very likely that you're going to deliver.

For wind energy, it's a bit more complicated if we want to forecast our production two days in advance. So what we are trying to say is that since there is no technical justification from the transmission system operators for knowing this 48 hours in advance – this is what is called the gate closure time – if we can announce this let's say two hours in advance, our prediction two hours ahead is much better than our predictions two days ahead, and then it becomes less of a problem.

So this is an example of when you get a larger share of wind energy, you need to change the rules of how you’re operating the system in order to accommodate larger amounts of wind energy, for instance by reducing the gate closure times.

Then there's a third element when you get to larger penetrations like in Denmark that currently gets 20% of its electricity from wind. You have regions in Northern Germany that get 30-40%, and you also have regions like Navarro in Spain that gets up to 30% of its electricity from wind. There you start having to look at expanding the grid area because you need to have flexibility in the power system in case some production units are turned off. There needs to be some reserve capacity in any power system.

An alternative to building balancing power or reserve capacity is to build an interconnector. The larger the power system is, the less of a problem the variability of wind energy is. And that's why we're pushing very hard for creating greater interconnection in the European Union, because it doesn't matter what an individual wind turbine does, what matters is what all the turbines in the system do collectively.

So the intermittent nature of wind energy is not a great problem in terms of reliable electricity supply?

In fact, what matters is what all the production capacity in a power system does in terms of producing compared to what the demand is. In very general terms, the power sector has been dealing with variable demand from consumers. Demand is going up and down all the time and it's been doing that for a hundred years, and the power system has been developed to cope with that variability in demand.

Of course the power system can be developed to cope with the variability in supply as well, but you need to change the way you operate the system. But this is no different from the 60s when we started building an enormous amount of nuclear power up to the point where we're today getting 30% of our energy from nuclear power. In order to do that, we had to completely change the way our infrastructure works. The same thing: if we want to have 30, 40, 50% of our electricity coming from wind energy, we need to adapt the infrastructure.

But the point is that there is already a lot of reserve capacity in the power systems in Europe that you can use for wind energy. And until you reach 15-20%, you actually don't need any additional capacity. An alternative to building additional capacity is to interconnect systems so that you get a larger geographical area so that the variations balance out.

I'll give you an example of why the variability is not a wind energy issue like a lot of people want to make it. The whole idea of reserve capacity is already inherent in the system. In Sweden, where 50% of electricity comes from nuclear, I think it was in 2007, within a minute, five of their 10 nuclear reactors were shut down immediately because there were security risks with one of the generators. So they took off within one minute 25% of the entire electricity production in Sweden and the electricity was not cut off from any consumers.

It's just an example showing that any system needs and is designed to cope with the fact that a certain amount of capacity goes offline. In this case, the Swedish power system actually coped with a situation where 25% of their production capacity was removed within one minute. You'll never see that in wind energy. You will never see a huge amount of electricity going from 2000 MW to zero in one minute. It doesn't happen.

If Sweden can cope with 25% being removed immediately, you could probably replace 25% of productive capacity with wind energy without any problem because there is reserve capacity in the systems and this is what a lot of people don't see. They're saying, "Here's a wind turbine, what happens if the wind stops blowing?" It doesn't matter. What matters is the total production of all the wind turbines in the system.

First of all, the bigger the geographical area is, the less volatility you'll have because the wind will be likely to blow somewhere within that area. And secondly, you can do a lot with interconnectors. That's why the idea of interconnecting the various European systems and creating a European power grid is something we're working very much towards. It's also a condition for having better competition in the European internal electricity market.

A new study from the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) shows that there are big differences between countries. As all the countries have their own targets for renewables, wind energy would logically provide very different shares of electricity production in the various countries.

Absolutely. What we can see is that Denmark gets 20%, but it's a small country so maybe you're not so impressed by that. In a big country like Spain, they have just come out with figures that show they produced 11% of their electricity last year from wind, and Germany is at a similar penetration level at 10-11% from wind energy, and that's Europe's biggest economy.

It just goes to show that you can have significant amounts of wind energy in the system without having to be worried about power being cut. The more you integrate the systems, the easier it is to integrate very large shares of wind energy into the system.

Where do the differences between countries come from?

I would say it's the regulatory framework. Denmark started putting together legislation to promote investments in renewables back in the 80s. In the 90s you had Germany and Spain following up. They were the frontrunners and they still are.

In 2001 we had a renewable energy directive. It didn't have mandatory targets. It was voluntary targets, but it still meant that at least in the EU 15 all the countries started putting in place frameworks, legislation promoting not only wind but also other renewables. We're seeing the effects of that now. Countries like the Netherlands and Austria have developed fast, and right now we're seeing enormous growth in Italy, France and the UK. That is a direct effect of the EU legislation passed in 2001.

So you can say there's a second wave there as these markets are starting to develop, and those markets are replacing some of the market that we are losing as Germany, Denmark and Spain start maturing those markets. So that's a whole second wave, and what we expect with the EU directive that is coming now is firstly to accelerate the development in the second wave, but we're also seeing a third wave of countries that as a result of the conversations about this directive being put in place have also started putting in place frameworks. So you have a third wave of countries waiting out there, like Poland, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.

When do you expect to see the results of the new renewables directive?

It can take some time from the legislation being passed in the country until it actually works because there is a learning curve among the administrative authorities, the planning details, the procedures, etc.

Greece is a good example. At some point you needed a permission from 41 different organisations in Greece in order to be allowed to put up a wind farm, including the national television station, and they each had a veto on it. So that's an example of an administrative barrier that is just impossible to overcome.

It has eased now, and these are the three core elements of the renewables directive: addressing the financial framework, but leaving it up to the member states which mechanism they will choose, addressing fair access to electricity grids, and the streamlining of administrative barriers. Combining those with the mandatory renewables target means that each member state will have to put in place targets and legislation and tell the Commission, "This is how we intend to meet our targets". And if the Commission is not happy with it, they will send it back to the member states and say, "No, this is not good enough".

It will have an enormous effect but not tomorrow. The second wave we're seeing is probably the effect of the 2001 directive. That is starting to work now because it's been in place for three or four years. We'll see that in a third wave as a result of this renewables directive that was passed in December.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

One Can Always Return to the Farm

China's remarkable economic engine is beginning to sputter, proving that even it is not immune to the global economic recession. That's not just bad news for China. Given the intricate interconnectedness of our global economy -- and China's prominent role in it, it's probably not too far from the truth to say that as China's economy goes, so goes the rest of the world. (GW)

Painful Lunar New Year for China's Migrant Workers

By Ian Johnson and Loretta Chao

Wall Street Journal

January 23, 2009

BEIJING -- As some 200 million or more migrant laborers head home this weekend to celebrate the Lunar New Year, they are facing an unprecedented crisis: unemployment and a fraying safety net.

The annual holiday is a time for far-flung families to gather together, look back over the past year and plan for the future. For rural Chinese it is something more: a time to make concrete plans about where they will work next year. In years' past, many have returned home flush with cash from their distant adventures, and set out after the holiday with new migrants in tow.

But this year, many are heading home with no prospect of returning to their jobs. Chinese media report that upwards of 10 million former migrant workers have been back on the farm already for weeks, as factories have shuttered and summarily fired their employees. In central China's Zhenyang County, for example, 25,000 migrants returned home in December -- more than 60% of the migrant labor force in the area -- after losing their factory jobs.

The impact is already painful. For Cai Qin, a 35-year-old factory worker from a village in China's impoverished southwestern province of Guizhou, Spring Festival has been a joyous family occasion ever since she set out with her husband for the coast seven years ago. The couple's combined wages have risen to 2,000 yuan, or $292, a month, and they have used their savings to build a house and pay for high school tuition for Ms. Cai's brother-in-law.

But this year, their homecoming has been bittersweet. The toy factory near Hong Kong where Ms. Cai and her husband worked closed in November, sending the couple home early. In previous years, they would return with clothes and other gifts, but this time they arrived empty-handed. "We don't know what to do after the holidays," Ms. Cai said. "Our heads hurt just to think about it."

'Potentially Downward Mobility'

Cases like this are causing serious concerns about social stability in China, where rural residents still make up most of the population. Rural incomes have risen sixfold since 1990, according to official Chinese data. Income from work off the farm has become increasingly important to most rural households. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 1,596 yuan, or 39%, of per capita annual income of the nation's rural households, came from wages in 2007, up from 20% in 1990.

"In past years, regardless of how miserable their situation was, migrants had upward mobility," says Dorothy Solinger, a professor at the University of California in Irvine, who studies China's internal migration. "Now it's potentially downward mobility."

That poses a challenge to the Communist Party, which has staked its legitimacy on delivering three decades of high-speed growth. Already, concerned governments are responding with programs to keep unemployed migrants busy. In southern Guangdong province, China's export engine where thousands of manufacturers have gone out of business, the provincial labor bureau released regulations in December encouraging local government agencies to require local governments to create jobs or provide necessary assistance to laid-off migrant workers. The bureau also started providing free job services and training courses for the unemployed, and financial assistance for those who want to start their own businesses.

One Can Always Return to the Farm

Experts warn, however, against predicting massive unrest. Chinese peasants are resilient and have an informal network of help, ranging from extended families to strong informal obligations in villages for the wealthy to help out the poor. "It will be a very difficult time," says Wang Chunguang, an expert on migration at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "but I don't expect serious problems with social instability."

At the Beijing West Railway Station on Wednesday, migrant workers waiting for trains to go home for the New Year were optimistic, even though they anticipate having much more difficulty finding new jobs when they return next month. "I'm sure I will find something here," said Zhai Yuanhui, a farmer from Peicundian village in Henan province who has spent three years in Beijing doing odd jobs to earn more money for his family. "I can make about 1,000 yuan per month in Beijing just doing small jobs here and there. ... Before coming here I was lucky to earn 2,000 yuan in a whole year."

Sitting atop a folded blanket -- one of the few possessions he carries around -- he said, "I know it will be difficult to find a job when I come back. There are more people looking for work, and fewer openings. But I'll do whatever I have to -- wherever a small thing can be done, I will do it. I have hope." And in the worst-case scenario, Mr. Zhai and his friends say they can always return to their farm, where there is plenty of home-grown food to eat.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"We would very much like to have the right to the land"

Agrarian land reform has been a major issue in Brazil for decades. The vast majority of farmland is owned by a very small percentage of wealthy landowners. While this may appear to be an issue relevant primarily to the "developing world", it's worth noting as you read the following post that, according to "Who Owns America?" a University of Wisconsin Press publication, in 1970 61% of California's farmland was owned by 0.01% of commercial farmers.

Land remains the ultimate source of wealth no matter where you live. (GW)

Changing times for Brazil's landless

By Gary Duffy
BBC News
January 23, 2009

Among fields of sugar cane, 120 landless rural families have taken over an area of state-owned land as part of a campaign for agrarian reform.

Accommodation is basic, consisting of shacks made of plastic, wood and tin, and in the frequent tropical storms, the rain often comes pouring through.

The families try to make what they can of the land, growing vegetables and fruit, and raising small animals.

They say police tried to remove them using force in 2007, and 20 people were injured.

"We are scared, we are afraid, always afraid, because it is an insecure situation for us," says resident Jovanildo Francisco de Moura.

"We would very much like to have the right to the land, so we could work and develop it."

For 25 years, the landless movement in Brazil, spearheaded by a social movement known as the MST, has carried out a wide range of protests, including what it calls land occupations.

It plans to mark that anniversary this weekend with a demonstration in the state of Rio Grande Do Sul.

The strategy has often been controversial, with protests leading to hundreds of prosecutions - not against the organisation, which does not exist as a legal entity, but against its activists.

MST activists have also been accused of violence and damaging property, and there have been frequent clashes with the authorities.

The conflict has been costly in human terms: the MST says dozens of its activists are among hundreds of people who have died in land disputes in recent years.

In the most notorious incident, 19 people were shot dead by police while taking part in a protest at Eldorado dos Carajas, in the state of Para, in April 1996.

Success and failure

Agrarian reform is a divisive issue in Brazil, which is still said to have one of the highest levels of inequality of land distribution in the world.

While new official figures are hard to come by, one leading analyst says that 10% of the largest farmers still hold about 85% of the land.

Given that high level of inequality, has the MST reason to be satisfied with what the movement has achieved over 25 years?

"Yes and no," says Prof Antonio Marcio Buainain, of Campinas state university.

"They brought the issue [of agrarian reform] onto the political agenda. Today, there are roughly one million families settled. That is the largest agrarian reform settlement in peace time," said Prof Buainain.

"But they should be very unhappy, because the results for people are not very good," he says.

"People in settlements are still poor. They still rely on public funds to survive, and they are not autonomous farmers. As farmers, they are not very successful," he adds.

Government respect

There are also tensions between the landless movement and the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been a long-term supporter of the MST.

His government turned down a proposal to settle one million people, and adopted instead a counter-proposal of 450,000, says Jose Batista de Oliveira, of the MST.

"In the first year [of his presidency] he didn't keep to his plan, and in the middle of his first term he gave up. In the second term he hasn't even raised the issue," he tells the BBC News website.

But the government insists it is on the right track.

Agrarian Reform Minister Guilherme Cassel says that in total more than one million families have been settled in Brazil.

"Of these, 520,000 were settled during this government. Therefore 50% of what has been done in agrarian reform in the history of Brazil has been done in the past six years."

Analysts say the motivation for involvement in the MST is usually economic, and the wide availability of the government's family income support has weakened the movement's appeal.

Bolsa Familia, as it is known, now reaches 11 million families.

Mr Cassel says he has enormous respect for the MST, but he also believes changes in Brazilian society are having an impact on the landless movement.

"The country has started to grow again, to create work and social programmes again, inequality has diminished and the minimum wage has been raised," he says.

"All this has clearly had a positive impact on society, with fewer people on the margins and this has had wide implications, including for the MST," he tells the BBC news website.

Critics also say the MST is fighting battles on too many fronts.

"It lost focus and it cannot be said it is a landless movement in the sense that it's fighting for land," says Prof Buainain.

"They are fighting for a social transformation, they are fighting against globalisation, they are fighting against the multi-nationals, and they are fighting against the Doha agreement on trade.

"They lost focus and the movement lost strength, and that is visible," he says.

Reform rethink

The MST says it only adapted to changing times.

"What changed was not the MST, what changed were the enemies of agrarian reform," says Jose Batista de Oliveira.

"What has changed was the posture of the Brazilian government in supporting the enemies of agrarian reform."

Prof Buainain argues that the time is right for the government to rethink its approach to reform - in particular the idea of placing poor settlers on "unproductive land" that farmers are said not to need.

"If it is not good for production for a farmer, it will not be good for production with a poor peasant. On the other hand, the government cannot just take productive land off farmers who lawfully own it and redistribute it to people who are poor or landless," he says.

"Alternatives to punitive expropriation need to be discussed in our society as the public will have to pay for it."

But he says there is still an urgent need to address the issue of unequal land distribution.

"I think agrarian reform is still needed in Brazil. Obviously, this high land concentration is something that will be eased over the generations, but we should try to intervene to speed it up," says Prof Buainain.

It has been a long journey for the landless movement, which over the years has taken its protests to the capital, Brasilia, many times.

The MST says the economic crisis will reinforce the need to promote agrarian reform - and it is clear the road ahead will be difficult and uncertain.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

To change or not to change

There was dancing in streets around the world when Barack Obama was elected President this past November. A collective sigh of relief could almost be heard. Now that he’s officially taken office, some European politicians are beginning to reflect about just what his election might mean for them. Could this be infectious? What if their constituents demand change? (GW)

Obama's American dream makes Europe wonder

20 January 2009

Europeans appear to be dazed and confused about the United States' decision to elect a symbol of change to the White House. Some wish their own societies were capable of similar breakthroughs, but others are sceptical of President-elect Barack Obama's ability to bring about real change, reveals a round-up of contributions from the EurActiv network.


Barack Obama was an early opponent of the Bush administration's foreign policies, calling for "phased redeployment" from Iraq and demanding the opening of diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran.

During his campaign, the Illinois senator stated that he would cut defence budgets and stop investing in "unproven" missile defence systems. Obama also called for more decisive international action against genocide in Darfur.

Obama's international agenda, and the shift from a Republican to a Democratic administration from which neo-conservatives have been expelled, has inspired European politicians to speak of "a new beginning in transatlantic relations". But much over-expectation has accompanied more realistic hopes.

Tolerance and nationalism

"When will Hungary have a Roma prime minister? When will it be mature enough to take a step like this?," asked one Hungarian blogger . Hungary has a Roma community of nearly 600,000 people, and although Budapest has made genuine efforts to put effective policy in place, the Roma community largely remains marginalised, as is the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Indeed, the election of a black American president has raised questions in Europe about the ethnic tolerance of the old continent's societies. One European politician has already been dubbed "the European Obama": Cem Ozdemir, a German MEP of Turkish descent who was recently elected co-chairman of the Green party in Germany (EurActiv 17/11/08).

But some in Europe view that decision as an attempt to copy the Americans rather than a genuine "civilisation choice", commented Slovak MEP Milan Gaľa for EurActiv Slovakia.

"The fact that Barack Obama will be the first Afro-American in history to occupy the most important seat in the White House represents, forty years after the death of Martin Luther King, an important statement about the development of American society and can move our whole civilisation in a positive direction," Gaľa said.

Besides ethnic tolerance, Europeans are also challenging their nationalisms. A Hungarian blogger of Slovak nationality wrote : "Obama materialises a dream. A dream that can give strength to a Hungarian Slovak." He added, with a degree of scepticism: "Imagine a [Slovak] Hungarian doing this […] after 20-30 years!"

Politics online

Many Europeans admire the use of the Internet in US society, and the unprecedented skill of Obama's team in transforming the electoral process into a discussion (EurActiv 04/11/08).

Tellingly, Margot Wallström, EU Commission vice president responsible for communication, wrote on her blog: "The Internet has made the whole electoral process more of an open discussion thanks to the community mentality evident on the web, and there will be lessons for us in Europe to learn, but I will return to that another time."

Indeed, Europe will need to return to this, with the European elections waiting around the corner in June 2009.

To change or not to change

Change in the United States' unilateral approach to world politics appears to be Europe's biggest hope, with issues like the Iraq war and the war on terror sparking a wide transatlantic divide during the Bush years.

But government officials in the Czech Republic, which is currently at the EU's helm, hope there will be no major changes in US foreign policy.

The installation of a missile defence radar base on Czech soil is seen by the conservative-led government as a major priority, with Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek trying to trade its installation against the ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty (EurActiv 18/12/08). In fact, ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was delayed precisely because Prague was waiting for Obama to take a position on the missile defence system.

This is another reason why the Czech opposition Social Democrats led by Jiri Paroubek are hoping that the US military's plans will change. The Czech daily Hospodarke noviny on Monday (19 January) quoted incoming Under-Secretary of Defence Michele Flournoy as saying in Congress that the anti-missile plans could be revalued "in a larger European security context," involving relations between the US and Russia.

Will this make the radar redundant? The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuses to accept that this would mean the end of the radar project, the daily further wrote.

'The bread will not be cheaper' after Obama's inauguration

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the first to host Obama on European soil at the Elysée Palace when he was still campaigning for the White House back in July 2008, called the incoming president his "buddy" ("mon copain").

But now, Sarkozy appears less enthusiastic. The daily Le Parisien quotes one of Sarkozy's closests aides as saying: "Obama is here to defend the interests of the United States, not to make us presents."

Eastern European popular wisdom seems to go in the same direction. Slovak politicians as a whole did not show over-excitement on the occasion of the US elections. The country's Prime Minister Robert Fico responded to repeated requests by journalists to comment by saying: "The bread will not be cheaper [after Obama's inauguration]." He then declined to further comment on America's choice of president.

Stanley Crossick, a policy analyst and founding chairman of the European Policy Centre, writes on Blogactiv that "there are likely to be far less changes in the substance of foreign policy objectives than in style". Given the current difficult economic situation in the US, Crossick predicts that the first priorities of the new president will be domestic, saying that "it will take some considerable time to see a coherent foreign policy emerge".

EU climate lead in peril?

On the environmental front, many analysts have predicted that Obama will "outgreen Europe" by adopting an ambitious agenda on climate change (EurActiv 19/01/09).

Willy de Backer, founder of the website 3EIntelligence, writes on Blogactiv that Europe may lose its self-acclaimed "climate leadership". Moreover, De Backer sees a climate "counter-revolution" in the EU against the Commission's climate and energy package, led by the new EU member states (which he says never had a green revolution or strong environmental movements in the first place).

Turkey almost hostile

But if there is a place in Europe where Obama's election has raised no enthusiasm at all, it is Turkey. The main reasons for this are Obama's remarks on what is officially referred to in Ankara as "the 1915 events" – the Ottoman mass killing of Armenians – and the Cyprus issue. Indeed, Obama made few friends in Ankara by calling Turkey an "occupier" of the divided island.

Unlike in Eastern Europe, anti-Americanism seems to be on the rise in Turkey, a sentiment which appears to have gained in strength during the two mandates of George W. Bush.

When Obama announced that Senator Joe Biden was his nominee for vice president, it caused a negative stir in Turkey, EurActiv Turkey reported.

Turkish public opinion considers US Vice President Biden to be too close to Armenian and Greek lobbies, and he has also been reproached for suggesting a partition of Iraq into three parts, including a Kurdish area, something that Turkey sees a threat.


According to Sami Kohen, a well-known journalist and expert of Turkish foreign policy, the possibility for a strategic partnership between Turkey and the Obama administration remains high, especially regarding Iran, Pakistan and the Palestinian issue, where Turkish support is needed.

But Kohen also warns of a possible destructive course in relations between Washington and Ankara. He sees the Armenian problem as a risk factor, saying that if Obama uses the word “genocide”, this would be a disaster for this strategic relation. Another risk is related to a move by Democrats, who are predominant both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, and make the Congress adopt a motion on the Armenian issue. “Then, Turkey will react harshly,” Kohen says.

The second thorny issue is Northern Iraq (the Kurdish issue), Kohen further notes. Despite agreements made during the Bush administration, there might be some problems, he warns.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy and former Ambassador to Washington Şükrü Elekdag sees the new US approach on the Kurdish militant group PKK as determinant for the future of US-Turkish relations. Elekdag deplores that in 2003 the US scrapped off the PKK from its list of terrorist organizations.

“The US, as the country occupying Iraq, has extremely important responsibilities when it comes to the PKK issue. But Americans didn’t move a muscle. Within this period, US overlooked Massoud Barzani’s exploiting the PKK and this is the real factor negatively affecting the Turkish-American relations. If the new president changes its position and permits Turkey to carry operations against the PKK, relations will change for good,” the former Ambassador advises.

The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy ,Suat Kiniklioglu voiced some optimism that Obama will not be lured into an “adventure” on the Armenian issue.

“It is less likely that the Armenian bill comes to the U.S. Congress in the first six months [,,,] The Armenian lobby will put pressure but I don’t think that Obama and his team will get into an adventure, because they cannot take the risk of turning the entire relations with Turkey upside down. They will not harm this strategic partnership,” he comments.

He appears more optimistic with regard to the Kurdish problem too. “In the issue of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the tableau is clearer. Both Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, as they announced, want to meet Turkish and Iraqi leaders and for the solution of the issue.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A compelling new vision for the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Today is President Barack Obama's first full day as president. As he has acknowledged throughout his campaign and right up to his inaugural speech yesterday, the nation-- and indeed the world-- is facing some extremely difficult problems. It is fashionable to characterize our domestic problems as the three "E's": economy, energy and environment.
I suggest that at least one other "e" should be added to that list: eating.

Sustainable agriculture advocates expressed concern over Mr. Obama's nomination of Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture. They feared that the former Iowa governor's interests primarily reflected those of big agribusiness and that the concerns of small farmers and consumers would not be heard.

Based on his comments during his confirmation Tom Vilsack seems to understand the full breadth of agricultural issues and stakeholders. He is certainly able to talk the talk. (GW)

Agriculture Dept. nominee to push for poor

Midwest AGnet

January 16, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of agriculture said Wednesday that if he is confirmed he will work to boost the economies of farm communities, promote nutritious foods and help poor families put meals on the table.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who has won wide support from farm groups and farm-state members of Congress, told the panel that the Agriculture Department faces "historic challenges," mostly brought on by economic woes.

"Farmers and ranchers experience volatile markets while credit tightens," Vilsack said. "Small towns and rural communities continue to lose people and jobs while critical infrastructure crumbles. These towns and communities find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy."

If confirmed, Vilsack would oversee the nation's nutrition programs, including food stamps, which make up a large part of the department's budget. Those programs are facing increased need in recent months as the economy has stumbled.

Vilsack said that in a "powerful, rich country" like the United States that "none of us should be satisfied that there are children going to bed hungry."

Despite problems in rural communities, the agricultural sector has fared better than many industries in recent years as the demand for renewable fuels has helped fuel record crop prices. But those prices have dropped in recent months.

"All of these are serious challenges that require a compelling new vision for the department," Vilsack said.

The farm-friendly panel has voiced few qualms with Vilsack, who was chief executive of one of the country's largest crop-producing states for eight years. The Democratic chairman of the committee is Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, one of Vilsack's biggest supporters.

Harkin said after the hearing that he knew of no objections to Vilsack's nomination. He said he hopes that the full Senate will confirm him next Tuesday afternoon, after Obama's morning inauguration.

Vilsack has been friendly with corporate agriculture and was a mainstream choice for the post. But his nomination disappointed some activists who would like to overhaul the way the government's agricultural programs are run.

One of Vilsack's first priorities as secretary would likely be putting a $290 billion farm bill, enacted last year, into place. President George W. Bush, backed by fiscal conservatives, said the bill was wasteful and too costly. He vetoed the bill but Congress, with Obama's support, overrode the veto.

Vilsack has been a champion of corn-based ethanol, a central part of his short-lived campaign for president in two years ago, and endorsed tax breaks for the ethanol industry. Renewable fuels policy, along with subsidies for that industry, is expected to be a top issue for the incoming secretary.

The former governor also made an overture to a growing number of food groups that have pushed for government support of more locally grown, environmentally friendly and nutritious foods, saying he will seek to work "with those who seek programs and practices that lead to more nutritious food produced in a sustainable way."

Vilsack is expected to push Obama's pledge to trim some wasteful farm subsidies, a position that Harkin and many other Midwestern members have endorsed. Southern lawmakers have long blocked lowering subsidy limits, however, as Southern rice and cotton crops require more investment.

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, has said he hopes that Vilsack will listen to concerns from all parts of the country in his tenure at Agriculture but has otherwise voiced no objections to his nomination, saying at the hearing that he hopes it moves quickly.

In financial disclosure documents released by the Senate Agriculture Committee, Vilsack stated that he receives around $7,500 a year from an Agriculture Department program that pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land.

The former governor told department ethics officials in a Jan. 8 letter that he plans to continue receiving that money but would not participate in matters that would have a direct effect on his interest in the Davis Co., Iowa property or on his payments.

A letter from the Office of Government Ethics to the committee said the agency believes Vilsack is in compliance with laws and regulations governing conflicts of interest.