Environment Forum

Countering the contrarians on global warming

Just how hot is it going to get?

That’s what everyone wants to know, and the focus of a lot of research. But parsing through the science can present some problems, with plenty of opportunity for mischief.

Aaron Huertas has been in this game for a while, so he figured there might be problems as soon as he saw the headline on the release from Rice University: “Global warming: Our best guess is likely wrong.”

The text of the release, which was promoting a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, noted that climate models can’t explain all of the heating indicated in the geologic record of a warm period some 55 million years ago. And one of the scientists who did the research told Reuters that this could mean current forecasts are underestimating how hot Earth’s atmosphere will get in the future.

But Huertas, press secretary at the Union of Concerned Scientists, figured the initial headline from Rice University might be used by those skeptical about climate change — he calls them contrarians because he feels all scientists are skeptical — to argue that the carbon dioxide generated by human activities isn’t to blame for global warming.

Sure enough, USAToday’s headline read “Could we be wrong about global warming?” There was no reference to the notion that this research could indicate a greater global warming trend ahead.

New ‘gold rush’ buzz hits Germany over Sahara solar

A “gold-rush-like” buzz has spread across Germany in the last week over tentative plans to invest the staggering sum of 400 billion euros to harvest solar power in the Sahara for energy users across Europe and northern Africa. Even though European and Mediterranean Union leaders have been exploring and studying for several years the idea of using concentrated solar power (CSP), the Desertec proposition suddenly captivated the public’s attention a week ago when German reinsurer Munich Re announced it had invited blue chip German companies such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens and several major utilities to a July 13 meeting on the project. The 20 companies aim to sign a memorandum of understanding to found the Desertec Industrial Initiative that could be supplying 15 percent of Europe’s electricity in the decades ahead.

Germany’s deputy foreign minister, Guenter Gloser, has been the government’s point man for the project. I had the chance to talk to him about it.

Question: How did this project to turn the sun in the Sahara into electricity for Europe and north African countries get started?
Guenter Gloser: About 15 months ago Germany and France proposed including the solar plan into the list of projects for the Union for the Mediterranean. There were institutions that had already done research and we thought: ‘Why don’t we use this sun belt where there is such an abundance of sunshine as a source of renewable energy?’ Together Germany, France and Egypt put forth this solar plan as one of the six projects for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and underscored the fact that it could benefit both sides. It was not an idea where just countries north of the Mediterranean will benefit but rather those countries south of it as well as across the EU would also benefit.

Home is where the CO2 cost is — or will be

Home electric bills could rise as much as 30 percent under a U.S. cap-and-trade plan to address carbon dioxide emissions, Moody’s estimates.

The tough part for households is that Moody’s expects industrial users to figure out a way to duck the cost with special rates, meaning residential electric customers will carry “the vast majority” of the cost burden. Check out our story here.

If Moody’s is right, and if the cap-and-trade plan slows global warming, is the price right?

Electric cars to help solve riddle of storing power

Since the days of Thomas Edison, finding a way to effectively store electricity has been one of the “Holy Grails” for power companies.

While it won’t be an overnight revolution for electricity, eventually plug-in electric cars and trucks will be a step toward the elusive goal, said Ted Craver, chief executive officer of Edison International.

Edison International is the parent of Southern California Edison (SCE), which is the biggest utilty in the United States in terms of power delivered to customers.

State-by-state rules best for US carbon from cars?

President Barack Obama set in motion a process on Monday that may eventually allow California and other states to set tougher greenhouse gas pollution and efficiency standards on cars than those mandated by the federal government. 

 Obama’s move sends a signal to the world that the United States is beginning to join the rest of the developed countries to act on emissions blamed for warming the planet.

But some say allowing the states to take control of car emissions could lead to complications within the auto industry by forcing them make two sets of cars.  Consumers in California and as many as 18 other states would have to buy one set of cars built according to a set of guidelines and regulations and the other states would have another set of cars that are built differently.

Will Obama see the forest for the trees?

A Chinese campaigner has urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to prove his green credentials, asking him to offset the emissions generated by his inauguration by funding a forest in China.

A carbon fund named “Obama, future” could invest in increased forest coverage in another country and Obama himself could plant a tree there, Lin Hui said in an open letter, published on www.ditan360.com. Lin hopes that country will be China.

Lin’s appeal is based on estimates by conservative U.S. think-tank, the Institute for Liberty, that people travelling to attend Tuesday’s inauguration would generate 220,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

How much electricity do you use in a year?

It was a disarmingly simple question but, embarrassingly, I didn’t have a clue when first asked that 18 months ago. Even though I’d have to describe myself as a genuine tightwad when it comes to expenditures, I simply had no idea, strangely enough, about how much money my four-person household was spending on electricity — nor how much carbon dioxide was being produced.

Now, after a year of carefully tracking the daily use of electricity, I’ve discovered a bit about when and where power is being used and, in theory, saved — without much pain. It seemed like a no-brainer and it honestly was not hard to cut our consumption by 1,000 kilowatt hours in 2008 to 5,000 kWh — saving about 200 euros and 500 kg of CO2 in the process. There were only minor sacrifices: rigidly turning off “standby” switches and unused lights, pulling plugs on little-used appliances, putting in energy-efficient lightbulbs, using the washing machine sparingly and the dryer only rarely, and replacing an inefficient dishwasher with a low-energy model.

In the past year, we used as little as 4 kWh on some days (in the summer) and as much as 30 on others (in the winter) — although most days were in the 10-to-17 range. Annoyingly, the house “wasted” about 3 kWh per day when we were away on holiday — largely due to the refrigerator, which I’ll be emptying and turning off next time. The 2008 total of 5,000 kWh (which amounted to an electricity bill of about 1,000 euros) isn’t bad for four people (one rule of thumb I’ve seen is 1,500 kWh per person/year) but I’m convinced that usage could be even less (the benchmark of 1,000 kWh per person/year is considered “thrifty”).

On Antarctic safaris, remember to bring a microscope

Many people hope to come back from a wildlife safari with close-up pictures of lions or elephants – this picture below is my best attempt from a search for the largest land animals in Antarctica.

If you look hard you can see a reddish blob at the tip of the thumb — it’s Antarctica’s most aggressive land predator, an eight-legged mite known as Rhagidia.

Pete Convey, a biologist at the British Antarctic Survey (that’s his thumb), says that such tiny creatures evolved in Antarctica over tens of millions of years — they can freeze their bodies in winter in an extreme form of hibernation.

Greenhouse gases: saints, villains or future saviours from an Ice Age?

 It’s not often that greenhouse gases spewed out by human activities get praise as potential saviours of the planet in a leading scientific journal — they’re normally viewed as villains for causing global warming.

But a study in Nature today shows that heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide can help avert an even worse problem in thousands of years’ time — a shift to a freeze worse than an Ice Age that could blanket much of the northern hemisphere with ice (see picture on the left and story here).

The scientists say that the Earth is close to a natural tipping point, partly based on shifts in the orbit around the sun, that could abruptly end swings between warm periods, like the present, and Ice Ages like the one that ended 10,000 years ago.

Antarctica warms; scientists say we’re to blame

New research shows that both Antarctica and the Arctic are getting less icy – and the best explanation is mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

But will that convert anyone who doubts that global warming is caused by human activities, led by burning fossil fuels?

The scientists, writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, say that a study of temperature records from Antarctica (there aren’t many of them) shows a slight rising trend over recent decades that can be best explained by a build-up of greenhouse gases led by carbon dioxide.

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