Environment Forum

New EPA chief ready to give California new car rules of its own?

Environmental Protection Agency chief-to-be Lisa Jackson said science would be her guide on policy – and that may mean California is in the driver’s seat on setting new global-warming-style regulations on cars. (Not to mention the nearly 20 other states ready to follow in its footsteps.)

Jackson said she would reconsider whether California should get a waiver from the EPA that would allow it to regulate carbon pollution from cars, the San Francisco Chronicle said. The Bush administration has said no to such a waiver – but Jackson said she would focus on the science.

“She said today ‘I’m going to do it’. I mean, she didn’t say that — but I don’t think the auto industry has any doubt,” Sierra Club chief Carl Pope said shortly after a Senate confirmation hearing for Jackson. “She didn’t have to signal that strongly.”

Environmentalists see the waiver as one of the biggest issues facing incoming President Barack Obama.

Pope also interpreted her answers as meaning she would move to regulate carbon pollution from stationary power sources. The U.S. Supreme Court said EPA could treat greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming as pollution — but the agency has not under President Bush.

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.

California takes leap of global warming faith

California is either about to bankrupt all its businesses, or it’s unleashing a green revolution.

Either way, it took a big step toward cutting greenhouse gases on Thursday, when its top air quality regulator, the California Air Resources Board, passed a scoping plan. That sounds deadly dull, we know, but it has excited a lot of people because it means specific targets are being set by the largest U.S. state in the midst of the worst economy almost anyone living has seen.

Some businesses fear they won’t be able to survive the costs. Some feel California will be economically reborn. Check out our story, and don’t be afraid to go to the CARB site and check out the plan itself, along with economic analysis and more.

What hope for U.N. climate talks in Poland?

This week the U.N. leads a new round of global climate talks, in its 14th meeting since the world signed up to the convention on climate change in 1992.

It’s all about replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a more ambitious climate deal from 2013. Kyoto is widely regarded as toothless, but so could be its successor. (For a story, click here)

After all, fighting climate change isn’t easy – it involves limiting emissions of greenhouse gases which are a by-product of everyday essentials from energy to food, from burning fossil fuels and making fertiliser, for example.

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.

Smoke and mirrors to slow global warming?

With worries about recession in many countries, does it make sense to try out some more radical ideas for fighting global warming, like placing mirrors in the sky to block the sun or fertilising the oceans to soak up greenhouse gases?

They sound like great proposals at first sight: simple,  probably cheaper and in some cases reversible. See a story about the technologies here. But there’s a lot of scepticism among scientists in the U.N. Climate Panel – there could be nasty side effects.

If you spew clouds of tiny particles, such as sulphur, into the upper atmosphere to block out some sunlight, for instance, they will eventually fall to earth and add to smog (think Beijing on bad days before the Olympics). Backers say that volcanoes do the same thing naturally — big eruptions can cool the planet. But who wants to breathe it in every day?

Cyclones’ silver lining: they may slow global warming

A Filipino resident wades across a flooded area after Typhoon Mindulle hit Baguio City, north of Manila, July 1, 2004. At least 16 people were killed when Typhoon Mindulle hit the country on Wednesday, packing peak winds of 190 km per hour near the center and gustiness of 230 kph, cut power and telecommunications lines. REUTERS/Tito Zapata RR/FAA cyclone slamming into a tropical island in the Pacific or the Caribbean sounds like unmitigated bad news – flattening homes, destroying crops, flooding towns or washing away coastlines.

But there may be a silver lining even to the worst storm clouds; hurricanes and typhoons may help — at least a bit – to slow global warming by washing huge amounts of leaves, branches, tree trunks, roots and soil into the ocean, according to research in the journal Nature Geoscience. Read a story about the findings here.

Plants soak up carbon dioxide – a non-toxic heat-trapping gas that is building up fast in the atmosphere because of human emissions of greenhouse gases – as they grow and release the stored carbon when they rot or burn.

Antarctic ice expands — global warming at work?

Adelie penguins in Antarctica are photographed in this January 18, 2005 file photo. The pesticide DDT, banned decades ago in much of the world, still shows up in penguins in Antarctica, probably due to the chemical’s accumulation in melting glaciers, a sea bird expert said on May 9, 2008. REUTERS/Heidi Geisz/Virginia Institute of Marine Science/Handout (ANTARCTICA).Ice getting bigger hardly sounds like a sign of global warming but that’s apparently what is happening in the seas around Antarctica.

Leading climate scientists say that a tiny trend towards bigger ice in winter floating on the oceans around the frozen continent since the late 1970s — the maximum extent is around now, in September — is consistent with models of climate change that predict harsher winds and less warmer water at the surface.

It may even be that there’s more snow and rain falling onto the southern oceans because of climate change — that can raise the amount of fresh water on the surface and, hey presto, fresh water freezes at a higher temperature than salt water.

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).