Environment Forum

Stern, in center of climate pessimism, hopeful about U.S.

Nicholas Stern, the British economist who warned five years ago that global warming could cost the world’s GDP as much as 20 percent a year by 2050, hasn’t given up on the United States  taking action on climate even though he’s down on Washington for not passing a bill that would do just that.

“If you look around the world, of all places to sit and wonder where (climate policy is) going, this is probably the most pessimistic place — this city,” he told a small gathering of reporters at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. late this week.

But all one has to do is travel out of the U.S. capital to see enormous potential for taking action, he said. Stern is optimistic about U.S. companies in Silicon Valley and Boston and other places developing low-carbon technologies such as batteries for electric cars, or new biofuels that aren’t made out of food crops.

“There are so many technological ideas on the table that you don’t need all of them to work, just some,” he said.

 He also takes heart in state level mandates for renewable energy and the reelection of Jerry Brown, the pro-solar governor of California, who wants to set the bar even higher for renewable energy.

Even everyday weather could pack a $485 billion punch

No question about it: this has been a wild weather year so far in the United States, with record rains, droughts, wildfires and tornadoes. But a new study indicates that even routine weather events like rainstorms and cooler-than-normal days could pack a huge annual economic wallop.

Weather’s effect on all sectors of the U.S. economy may total $485 billion a year, as much as 3.4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to research published in the current Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It is the first study to apply qualitative economic analysis to estimate the U.S. economy’s weather sensitivity.

Mining and agriculture are particularly sensitive to weather influences, with routine variations taking a toll of 14 percent on mining each year — possibly because of changing demands for oil, gas and coal — and farming feeling a 12 percent impact, conceivably because temperature and precipitation affect many crops, the study said.

Is this the greenest office on Earth?

Every workstation has a view. Much of the lighting comes from reflected sunshine. It’s so naturally quiet that unobtrusive speakers pipe in “white noise” to preserve a level of privacy. The windows open, and they’re shaded in such a way that there’s no glare. Even with the windows closed, fresh air circulates through vents in the floor. Extreme recycling prevails, not just of bottles, cans and kitchen refuse but beetle-blighted wood.

Welcome to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which contains some of the greenest office space on the planet.

NREL’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado, is also the home to cutting-edge research on biofuels, photo-voltaics for solar power and other renewable energy technology, but the physical plant is a living lab for green building. At $63 million, or $259 per square foot for its construction cost, including interiors and furniture, the Research Support Facility as it is called, was hardly cheap to build. But with 220,000 square feet of space, it is the biggest energy efficient building in the United States.

A flying HIPPO, with ICE-T on the side


A HIPPO took off from a windswept airfield in Colorado today, as  ICE-T waited in a nearby hangar, getting ready for a summer trip to the Caribbean.

OK, OK, enough fun with acronyms. HIPPO and ICE-T are flying climate laboratories, one in a Gulfstream V jet, the other in a refurbished C-130 military cargo plane.

Unlike its animal namesake, HIPPO is actually a rather sleek aircraft, fitted with equipment and a crew of 10, that makes flights of  eight hours or more at a go, sampling the atmosphere around the Pacific Basin, from near the North Pole to just off the coast of Antarctica. HIPPO is actually a combination of two acronyms: HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations. HIAPER itself stands for High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research. Quite a mouthful.

Enviro-word of the moment: Anthropocene

A word has entered the language — at least, the language of environmental concern — that may be ready for prime-time. That word is Anthropocene. It’s the epoch we’re apparently living in, roughly translated as the Age of Man. The theory behind the name is that human beings have made such an impact on Earth’s geology that we should have an era named for us that differentiates this time from the tired old Holocene period.

Holocene means “entirely new,” but it’s been some 10,000 years since it started. Scientists and others meeting in London figure it may be time to move on.

In a note about their meeting at The Geological Society, they ask: “Has humanity’s impact on the Earth been so significant that it defines a new geological epoch? In the blink of a geological eye, through our need for energy, food, water, minerals, for space in which to live and play, we have wrought changes to Earth’s environment and life that are as significant as any known in the geological record.”

from The Great Debate UK:

The safest form of power: Everything in moderation

By Morven McCulloch

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in north-eastern Japan, seriously damaged by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami, has led to anti-nuclear protests in several countries and forced governments to rethink their energy policies.

The UK currently has 10 nuclear power stations, representing 18 percent of the country’s energy supply according to Energy UK. Should British Prime Minister David Cameron, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reverse his position on the safety of nuclear power?

Environment and climate scientist Lord Julian Hunt told Reuters in a video interview that although the situation at the Fukushima plant is an “extremely serious event,” there are risks to consider with every type of power.

Amazon’s drought, seen from space

AMAZON/DROUGHTHow green is the Amazon?

Not as green as it used to be, as shown in an analysis of satellite images made during last year’s record-breaking drought.

Because greenness is an indication of health in the Amazon, a decline in this measurement means this vast area is getting less healthy — bad news for biodiversity and some native peoples in the region.

What does a drop in the greenness index look like? It looks gold, orange and red in a graphic accompanying an article to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters:

How to make communities see green over REDD?

A villager collects rattan among rubber trees near a village in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia's part of Borneo island. Rubber and rattan provide good incomes to villagers and represents a key way to support livelihoods for investors in a large forest preservation project nearby, who are working with local communities to make the project a success. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

A villager collects rattan among rubber trees near a village in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia's part of Borneo island. Rubber and rattan provide good incomes to villagers and represents a key way to support livelihoods for investors in a large forest preservation project nearby, who are working with local communities to make the project a success. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

Forests are the lifeblood for millions of people around the world. Murniah, a 40-year-old mother of one in Mentaya Seberang village in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province, knows this only too well.

Large areas to the west of her village on the Mentaya river have been converted to palm oil. Good for a short-term boost in incomes but not so good for the environment.

Making REDD work for illegal loggers

Hendri, 27, an illegal logger cuts down a tree in a peat swamp forest in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island. Illegal logging remains a project for forest conservation projects because timber represents quick income for villagers needing work or to feed families. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

Hendri, 27, an illegal logger cuts down a tree in a peat swamp forest in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island. Illegal logging remains a problem for forest conservation projects because timber represents quick income for villagers needing work or to feed families. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

It took just 30 seconds to fell the tree. Hendri, 27, a skinny Indonesian from Central Kalimantan on Borneo island, skilfully wielded the chainsaw more than half his height. The result is a thunderous crash and a tree that is quickly cut into planks on the forest floor near by.

And the reward for this effort? About 125,000 rupiah, or roughly $12 per tree measuring 30 cm or more in diameter. Hendri and the three other members of this local gang of illegal loggers make about $45 a day (not including expenses and bribes) cutting down between 4 and 5 trees and slicing them into planks with a chainsaw, using no protective gear. They work for about 10 days at a stretch.

from The Great Debate UK:

Preparing for the next tsunami

-- Lord Hunt is a visiting professor at Delft University and emeritus professor at University College London, and former director-general of the UK Meteorological Office. Dr Simon Day is a researcher at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, University College London. The opinions expressed are their own --

INDONESIA-VOLCANO/The devastating tsunami that struck the Indonesian islands of Mentawai may have caused about 450 deaths, with hundreds more still missing, and compounds the disaster caused in the country by the eruption of Mount Merapi in Java. Following a magnitude 7.7 earthquake, the Mentawai Islands were engulfed with estimated three-metre waves that affected thousands of households.

What has shocked many about this latest disaster is the fact that, more than five years after the cataclysmic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when at least 187,000 people died (with 43,000 still missing), there were no greater preparations against the devastation.

  •