Environment Forum

Bush speech to U.N.: “terror” 32, “climate” 0

U.S. President George W. Bush addresses the 63rd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York September 23, 2008. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES)U.S. President George W. Bush upset some delegates by failing to mention “climate change” or “global warming” in his final speech to the United Nations — in which he referred to terrorism 32 times.

Exactly a year ago, the United Nations held a special summit about climate change – U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls fighting global warming his “signature issue” and many governments see it as the biggest long-term challenge.

Bush clearly has a lot to worry about such as the global financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Yet while he spoke a lot about terrorism in his speech on Tuesday, he did also refer to other problems such as human rights in Burma, violence in Darfur, the Doha trade round and the fight against malaria.

Climate change didn’t get a mention, even though Bush has called it a “serious problem” and signed up at the Group of Eight nations in Japan in July to a vision of halving world greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. China and the United States are the main emitters of greenhouse gases, mainly from burning fossil fuels.

“It was a surprise and a shame that President Bush didn’t once mention climate change,” the Norwegian daily Aftenposten quoted Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as saying, adding that he was pleased that both candidates to succeed Bush in January — Barack Obama and John McCain — were making it a priority.ice melting?

Will the world be a cleaner place by Monday?

A boy salvages plastic materials washed ashore by waves in Manila bay November 26, 2007. Typhoon Mitag swirled out to sea on Monday after killing 8 people, destroying homes and flooding rice paddies in the Philippines. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo (PHILIPPINES)Will the world be a slightly less messy place by Monday?

Organisers of an annual “Clean up the World” campaign say that up to 35 million volunteers in more than 110 countries will be cleaning up trash, planting trees, working out better ways of recycling and taking part in other ways to stop pollution.

 Of course it will take a lot more than just the Sept. 19-21 blitz but beaches from Vanuatu to Brazil, or cities from Buenos Aires to Sydney may benefit a bit.

And it illustrates a wider problem about the environment – nothing much happens unless a lot of people get involved in sorting out problems such as piles of stinking rubbish or global warming.

A Silver Bullet or just ‘Greenwash’?

A truck with a CO2 tank stands in front of the mini plant “Schwarze Pumpe” before the first official run in Spremberg SeptemberCan carbon capture and storage (CCS) save the world?

Is this the silver bullet everyone’s been waiting for? Or just pie in the sky? Is capturing and storing carbon dioxide the technology breakthrough to cut greenhouse gas emissions without getting in the way of economic growth and industry’s “addiction” to fossil fuels? Or is it just a “greenwash” — a token gesture by some of the utilities responsible for so much of the world’s CO2 to try to persuade an increasingly green public that the great emitters are doing something to fight climate change?

Those are the questions that were hurled at Vattenfall executives on Tuesday when the Swedish-based utility opened the world’s first CCS plant in a small town south of Berlin called Schwarze Pumpe. The company believes it will be economically feasible before long to capture carbon, liquify it, and store it permanently on a large scale underground. This is only a small pilot plant producing enough power for a town of 20,000. But if it works, Vattenfall plans to build two conventional power plants 10 times larger in Germany and Denmark by 2015 and from 2020 they hope CCS will be a viable option for large-scale industrial use.

Proud as Vattenfall CEO Lars Josefsson and other executives from one of Europe’s largest utilities were at the inauguration of the 30-megawatt lignite-burning plant on Tuesday that cost 70 million euros and removes 95 percent of the CO2 emissions, they were nevertheless pummeled by journalists from across Europe wanting to know about the economics of it (and were told they’re not bad but could be better), whether they have the permits to store the CO2 underground (not yet but expected soon) and whether it was just more “greenwash” (a definite no).

Vultures circle over U.N. climate talks

vulture.jpgDozens of vultures landed on the grass the other day outside the building where U.N. climate talks are taking place in Ghana – and more were circling overhead.

“They’ve been attracted by all the delegates falling asleep inside,” one official joked.

(I missed those vultures, but when I tried to get a picture of a group on the grass to try to illustrate this blog they flapped off before I was close enough … The picture on the left is of a vulture in Spain).

Does morality need a bigger role in climate talks?

Accra conference hallMorality needs a bigger role as a spur to a talks on a new U.N. treaty to slow global warming, according to a group of Christians I spoke to today in Accra, Ghana.

 They were lobbying delegates at 160-nation talks to do more to combat climate change. For the story, click here

Around a table with me in a crowded conference hall in Ghana, they argued that economic and political arguments for action are simply not enough to solve an issue that is already affecting people’s livelihoods, especially in Africa, the poorest continent.

Long elephant memories may help with climate change-study

It’s true — elephants never forget. And that may mean the difference between life and death for herds coping with climate change.

elephant.jpg

That is one of the findings of a recent study by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London, which suggests that old females may have long memories of distant sources of food and water.

This wisdom or memory can give a herd or family group an edge if confronted with drought or other kind of scarcity.

The Lamborghini: the latest endangered species?

A Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4 is displayed during the first media day of the 78th Geneva Car Show at the Palexpo in Geneva March 4, 2008. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse (SWITZERLAND)Are European sports cars the latest ’endangered species’ because of climate change?

Read my colleague Pete Harrison’s fascinating feature about how automakers fear tougher restrictions intended to slow global warming could mean the end of the road for supercars such as the Aston Martin DB9, Ferrari F430 or Porsche 911.

They argue that the motoring icons need protection from European Union rules that will limit carbon dioxide emissions from new models from 2012.

Hoping for higher energy prices?

A resident refuels his car at a gas station in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles (120km) northwest of Santiago, July 2, 2008. Chilean state oil firm ENAP said on Tuesday it would sharply raise fuel prices to wholesalers from Thursday, with gasoline prices rising 5.0 percent, kerosene up 9.0 percent and diesel up 6.7 percent. REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez (CHILE) Are gasoline and energy prices too high? What’s high enough? 

It may be a distinct miniority opinion, but if you were to ask me, I’d say I think they’re not high enough — and I sincerely hope they keep rising. It may be the only way the world wakes up to the perils of climate change — hitting people in their pocketbooks where it hurts most.
 
The higher energy costs are truly a blessing in disguise for anyone concerned about climate change and worried about the inability of world leaders to take any tough measures to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the growing scientific evidence that global warming has been happening, there’s no excuse for this generation’s inaction.

And with the WTO talks ending in abject failure, who could possibly be optimistic about the world ever agreeing on taking the costly, pain-inducing steps necessary to at least slow global warming in our time?
 
So it is the soaring energy prices are filling the void the cowardly political leaders have left. Rising prices for petrol, natural gas and electricity are causing pain and leading to conservation — and reduced emissions of carbon dioxide It’s a good thing.

 Former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan speaks at the Per Jacobsson Foundation Lecture on the Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, pointed out in his excellent book “The Age of Turbulence” that as honourable as the fight against climate change was, he didn’t think there would be any significant reductions until economics figured into the equation. “I fear that a more likely response to global warming will be to quibble until the dangers it poses to national economies become more apparent,” Greenspan wrote. He was criticised by some for that but those “dangers” to economies are now now happening faster than anyone could have imagined. And it’s a good thing.
  A woman knits a traditional Faroese wool sweater in Torshavn June 01, 2007. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (FAROE ISLANDS)
Those who don’t see the light need to feel the heat. The finance minister in Berlin, Thilo Sarazzin, has been criticised this week for his suggestion that people turn down their thermostats and put on sweaters in the winter if they feel cold in their apartments. He said room temperatures of 15 or 16 degrees — with a sweater on — would be the best answer to rising energy prices rather than introducing a new government energy subsidy for low-income households as some other political leaders were clamouring for. Sarazzin has been getting bashed in the German media for his suggestion — but he’s right.   
 
In Britain, the announcement this week that natural gas and electricity prices would be raised sharply in the months ahead got a lot of people upset. But what better way to promote conservation and spur the development of renewable energy — which becomes increasingly attractive with every increase in the price of fossil fuels. In the United States, by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, fuel tax revenues are down sharply this year — because people are using less fuel. That’s a good thing.
 
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the prices are high enough yet to really make a difference. A recent German news broadcast found several motorists who said the higher fuel prices would not change their driving habits and they said they hoped the higher prices would nevertheless force other drivers off the road so the streets would be less congested. So I do hope they keep rising — to the point those smug motorists will think twice about their driving patterns.
 
My personal answer to rising prices? I’m driving a lot less (one 60 litre tank now lasts six weeks instead of three weeks about two years ago), I use wood rather than natural gas for heat as much as possible, have taken a number of energy-saving measures on my house, commute by bicycle and have converted my monthly electric bill into a monthly windfall profit with the help of solar panels. I’m unfortunately still far from zero emissions. But that’s the goal — and an increasingly rewarding one.
 
So no, if you ask me, energy prices are not high enough. And I hope they keep rising.

Hot Air From Weathermen

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. ThomsonReuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

A general view of a chemical factory during dawn in Xiangfan, Hubei province, November 28, 2007. Rapidly growing China is emerging as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from factories, farms and vehicles blamed for climate change. REUTERS/StringerOften when seeing anti-environmental commentary about global warming in the media, I feel like the first question I would like to ask these commentators is: “Why do you deny that carbon dioxide (CO2), which is increasing in an unprecedented way in the atmosphere, is a greenhouse gas?”

If they were to start their answer: “I don’t deny it …” I would think “Good, we’ve made some progress.” However, as I think would often be the case, if they start their answer: “Because …” we should be ready to pounce on the ensuing nonsense.

Gore vs. Pickens: who’s got the right plan?

gore.jpgWhen Al Gore challenged the U.S. to produce all of its electricity from renewable sources in 10 years, his aggressive plan to combat climate change was pitted against another recently-unveiled proposal, from Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

 Gore, a former Democratic vice president and Nobel Prize-winning crusader on climate change, announced his plan last week and has since promoted it on U.S. television. Expected to cost between $1.5 trillion and $3 trillion,  Gore advocates investment in wind, solar and geothermal energy, energy efficiency and a national power grid. He also wants to retain energy production from nuclear and hydroelectric power plants, and invest in technology to store and capture carbon dioxide from coal and gas.

Inevitably, though, Gore’s plan has been compared to the so-called “Pickens Plan,” which calls for a massive switch to natural gas as a transportation fuel and a dramatic increase in wind power (Pickens, a legendary oil man, is currently spending $10 billion to build the world’s biggest wind farm — a project he expects will be a big moneymaker). Pickens says his $300 billion plan will reduce the amount of imported oil by more than a third in the next decade.

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