Friday, January 17, 2014

Backsliding on climate change

The climate change "debate" is essentially absurd.  On one hand, you have the real climate which is obviously changing and for well-documented reasons.  On the other hand, you have C- hacks who have figured out how to make a living pretending that none of this is so.  This should be the greatest intellectual rim-rocking, slam-dunk of all time.

Yet it is not.  While it is damn difficult to deny that the Australian Open is currently being played in dangerous 108°F (42°C) heat (and a million other fine examples), it is much easier for everyone to deny that they are the problem.  Some of the biggest carbon footprints belong to people like Al Gore who professes a deep and abiding concern for the climate.  And so the deniers win—not because they have any good science on their sides but because everyone is willing to believe any remotely plausible explanation for why they don't need to change how they live.

Of course, the vast majority of humans don't have a lot of options for change because the only way we will ever have better options for reducing carbon emissions is through collective action.  Unfortunately, that well has been thoroughly poisoned by the ninnies who believe collective action is best defined by using police power to enforce drug and sex laws.  Start talking collective action and most folks need only a few nanoseconds to come up with a good example for why such talk usually leads to very bad outcomes.  Denial wins because after a couple of centuries of crackpot collectivism, denial is institutionally embedded in most societies.  I mean, how can mere science and obvious reality combat THAT.

And so the beat goes on.  The USA cranks out more CO2.  The EU makes it extra difficult for even countries with programs to reduce CO2 to make a difference.  The investment community has little interest in long-term projects and CO2 reduction is the ultimate long-term project.  International trade agreements are crafted with strong enforcement mechanisms for everything BUT the environment.  And we aren't even talking about the economic forces that have huge vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

Unfortunately, all this institutional denial doesn't change reality and the Antarctic glaciers really ARE melting right now.  But those events are a long ways away.  And so denial grows in the breasts of most humans until it is their house that is destroyed.  Because in the end, most people find science deeply annoying—as annoying as Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory."

US carbon emissions rise 2%

Boost in coal consumption saw US energy sector emissions rise in 2013 after years of declining, Tuesday 14 January 2014

Energy-related carbon dioxide pollution grew by 2% last year after declining several years in a row, a government report said Monday. The increase was largely due to a small boost in coal consumption by the electric power industry, according to the study by the US Energy Information Administration.

American cars and factories spewed 5.38 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, up from 5.27 billion in 2012, the report said. Carbon dioxide is the chief man-made global warming gas.

Coal, long the dominant source for US electricity, has regained some market share in recent months as natural gas prices have increased following historic lows in 2012. Coal generated about 39% of the nation's electricity in October, compared with 28% for natural gas, the EIA said. Coal supplied about 37% of US electricity in 2012, with natural gas at 30%.

Even with the uptick, overall US carbon emissions remained 10% below 2005 levels, more than half the reduction needed to achieve President Barack Obama's goal of reducing carbon emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.

Obama has launched a major second-term drive to combat climate change, bypassing Congress as he imposes first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.

40% of US carbon emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the EIA.

Under Obama's plan, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose guidance for states to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants, as well as those already in existence, to reshape where Americans get electricity. The plan is intended to help move the United States from a coal-dependent past into a future fired by cleaner sources of energy such as wind and solar power, nuclear energy and natural gas.

The EPA says the plan would not raise the price of electricity or cause major disruptions to the US economy, a claim the coal industry and its allies in Congress dispute.

Obama's plan also would boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures that many scientists say are being caused by human activity. The 12 hottest years on record all have occurred in the past 15 years. more

Green Fade-Out: Europe to Ditch Climate Protection Goals

By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Brussels

Europe may be backing away from its ambitious climate protection goals.

The EU's reputation as a model of environmental responsibility may soon be history. The European Commission wants to forgo ambitious climate protection goals and pave the way for fracking -- jeopardizing Germany's touted energy revolution in the process.

The climate between Brussels and Berlin is polluted, something European Commission officials attribute, among other things, to the "reckless" way German Chancellor Angela Merkel blocked stricter exhaust emissions during her re-election campaign to placate domestic automotive manufacturers like Daimler and BMW. This kind of blatant self-interest, officials complained at the time, is poisoning the climate.

But now it seems that the climate is no longer of much importance to the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, either. Commission sources have long been hinting that the body intends to move away from ambitious climate protection goals. On Tuesday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported as much.

At the request of Commission President José Manuel Barroso, EU member states are no longer to receive specific guidelines for the development of renewable energy. The stated aim of increasing the share of green energy across the EU to up to 27 percent will hold. But how seriously countries tackle this project will no longer be regulated within the plan. As of 2020 at the latest -- when the current commitment to further increase the share of green energy expires -- climate protection in the EU will apparently be pursued on a voluntary basis.

Climate Leaders No More?

With such a policy, the European Union is seriously jeopardizing its global climate leadership role. Back in 2007, when Germany held the European Council presidency, the body decided on a climate and energy legislation package known as the "20-20-20" targets, to be fulfilled by the year 2020. They included:

  • a 20 percent reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions;
  • raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20 percent;
  • and a 20 percent improvement in the EU's energy efficiency.
  • All of the goals were formulated relative to 1990 levels. And the targets could very well be met. But in the future, European climate and energy policy may be limited to just a single project: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Commission plans also set no new binding rules for energy efficiency.

Welcome, Frackers

In addition, the authority wants to pave the way in the EU for the controversial practice of fracking, according to the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The report says the Commission does not intend to establish strict rules for the extraction of shale gas, but only minimum health and environmental standards.

The plans will be officially presented next Wednesday ahead of an EU summit meeting in March. Observers, however, believe that a decision is unlikely to come until the summer at the earliest. But action must be taken this year: At the beginning of 2015, a climate conference will take place in Paris at which a global climate agreement is to be hashed out.

The European Parliament is unlikely to be pleased with the Commission's plans. Just at the beginning of January, a strong parliamentary majority voted to reduce carbon emissions EU-wide by 40 percent by 2030 and to raise the portion of renewables to at least 30 percent of energy consumption.

Germany's Energy Goals at Risk

The Commission's move further isolates Germany. Merkel's government, a "grand coalition" of her conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), seeks to increase the share of renewables in the country's energy mix to 60 percent by 2036. As reported in the latest issue of SPIEGEL, Sigmar Gabriel, SPD chair and minister of energy and economics, recently urged Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger to put forth mandatory expansion targets for renewable energy in the EU by 2030. Europe "can't afford to pass up this opportunity," Gabriel wrote.

But within the Commission, the ambitious project has long been controversial. The same goes for EU member states, as Gabriel recently discovered. Prior to Christmas the minister, together with eight colleagues from throughout the EU, called for a "renewables target" in a letter to the Commission. But some countries, such as France, joined the appeal only hesitantly at the time. Paris might prefer instead to rely more heavily on nuclear power in order to meet stringent carbon emission requirements.

Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a German from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has also shown reluctance. Rather than setting clear goals for the share of renewables, he wants fixed targets only for the reduction of carbon emissions -- and he is skeptical even of the 40 percent target proposed by Climate Commissioner Hedegaard.

The Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) writes in a recent study that more moderate EU climate goals and less support for renewable energies could have a real impact on Germany's so-called Energiewende, or energy revolution. "In such a context," writes the nonpartisan think tank, "it will be increasingly difficult for Germany to successfully carry out pioneering policies." more 

Global investment in clean energy falls for second year running

New figures show investment fell to $254bn in 2013, with a drop in Europe of 41%

Suzanne Goldenberg in New York, Wednesday 15 January 2014

Global investment in clean energy fell for the second year in a row to $254bn last year, with green investment in Europe crashing by 41%, new figures showed on Wednesday.

The drop casts a pall over a high-profile investor summit at the United Nations on Wednesday.

The summit, organised by the Ceres investor network, was supposed to build momentum for the shift to a clean energy economy – a transformation requiring global investment of some $1 trillion a year by 2030.

But investment in clean energy headed downwards last year, according to the figures released at the summit by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). It was the second year of declining investment in clean energy from a record $318bn in 2011, the research showed.

BNEF's founder, Michael Liebreich, said there were some bright spots in the decline. "The top‐line figures don't tell the whole story," he said in a statement.

He said the sharp fall in investment in Europe was partly the result of declining costs for solar panels, bringing down the costs of rooftop solar. Even with the lower figures for clean energy investment, global solar installations grew by 20% last year.

Meanwhile, Liebreich said there was new investor interest in electric vehicles and renewable power projects.

But with big economies such as Germany, Italy and France scaling back government support for new projects, clean energy investment fell from $98bn to $58bn in Europe, a drop of 41%.

Germany saw the biggest decline, from $26.2bn in 2012 to $14.1bn last year – the lowest since 2006.

Britain, in contrast, saw a relatively modest decline from $14.3bn to $13.1bn.

Clean energy investment was even down in China – for the first time in decade – with a 3.8% drop. In America, investment in clean energy and technologies fell by 8.4% to $48.4bn, Bloomberg said.

The biggest exception to the downward trend was Japan, where clean energy investment rose 55% to $35.4bn last year, as the country tried to replace its nuclear power plants.

The new BNEF figures look set to add even more urgency to appeals for financial institutions to drastically step up investment in clean energy.

The UN's climate chief, Christiana Figueres, this week urged global financial institutions to triple their investments in clean energy to reach the $1 trillion figure needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Figueres planned to take her case directly to the financial institutions at the investor summit on Wednesday.

She will try to persuade investors that it is in their financial interest to move now to limit their exposure to coal and oil.

"There is study after study coming out saying: 'beware we are invested in assets that are already and will soon be losing value'," she said.

But with the latest figures from Bloomberg, Figueres's task became even more difficult.

It appears that clean energy investment will have to grow four-fold – an even more ambitious target than Figueres had originally estimated. more 

'Toothless!' WikiLeaks reveals secret draft of TPP environment chapter

January 15, 2014 15:29

The environment protection provisions in the draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement will not be enforceable, says whistleblower site WikiLeaks, which released a section of the document.

The Environment Chapter of the TPP describes how the 12 countries negotiating the controversial treaty plan to protect the environment. As of November 2013, when the treaty was discussed at a Salt Lake City summit, the chapter lacked any mechanism to enforce it or any sanctions for violating it. This is in contrast with other chapters dealing with labor, intellectual property or agriculture, which all contain binding language.

With no enforcement clauses, the environment chapter is “a toothless public relations exercise” and“media sugar water,” said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

The work on the TPP has been widely criticized for its secretive nature. Its impact would be global, considering that the prospect member-nations, including the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, account for some 40 percent of world’s GDP, but parties involved have been unwilling to disclose detail of the draft over the three years that negotiations dragged on.

WikiLeaks obtained draft documents from the Salt Lake City summit and has been publishing them since November 2013. There has been one meeting on the TPP after the summit so far.

If the chapter goes into the final document, it would be against a 2007 agreement, which then-President George W. Bush reached with US lawmakers, reports the New York Times. The so-called May 10 Agreement requires that all US free trade deals with foreign nations had legally binding environmental provisions. Apparently the US delegation finds it difficult to convince its 11 partners on the TPP to abide by it.

“Bilateral negotiations are a very different thing,” Jennifer Haverkamp, the former head of the United States trade representative’s environmental office told the newspaper. “Here, if the US is the only one pushing for this, it’s a real uphill battle to get others to agree if they don’t like it.”

Criticism of the environmental guards follows other complaints over the rules, which the TPP would impose on some of world’s biggest economies. Critics complained that the treaty would give overreaching intellectual property protection dealing with drugs and agriculture, restrict internet freedoms and empower multinational corporations to challenge country laws, among other things. more

Antarctic glacier's retreat unstoppable

Irene Quaile DW.DE 16.01.2014

The Pine Island Glacier in the Antarctic hit the headlines last year when a giant iceberg broke off it. Now scientists have found the glacier is melting irreversibly - with dramatic consequences for global sea levels.

For the past 15 years scientists have been observing that glaciers in West Antarctica are out of balance. Ice shelves have been breaking off and the calving fronts of the glaciers have been retreating, draining huge amounts of ice into the ocean.

One of them is Pine Island glacier, which is responsible for some 20 percent of the total ice loss from the region. Gael Durand of the French University of Grenoble is one of a team of scientists who have just published a new study using three different models: "We show that the Pine Island Glacier will continue to retreat and that this retreat is self-sustaining. That means it is no longer dictated by changes in the ocean or the atmosphere, but is an internal, dynamic process", Durand told DW.

This will mean an increasing discharge of ice and a greater contribution to global sea level rise. "It was estimated at around 20 gigatons per year during the last decade, and that will probably increase by a factor of three or five in the coming decade. That means this glacier alone should contribute to the sea level by 3.5 to 10 millimetres a year, accumulating to up to one centimetre sea rise over the next 20 years. For one glacier, that is colossal", the scientist said.

The glacier covers a small area of the total but accounts for 20 percent of the ice loss

Angelika Humbert from Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) told DW that would be an "extremely high" amount. The glaciologist, who is also working on models for the Pine Island Glacier, stresses that all models include a degree of abstraction and uncertainty. However, her work also indicates that the glacier will make an increasing contribution to sea level rise in the coming years.

No going back

Humbert describes the new study as a "considerable advance on the results of research to date." She and colleagues from AWI and the University of Kaiserslautern monitored the breaking of a giant iceberg from the glacier last year. It lost a huge chunk of the floating ice shelf at its seaward end.

"Pine Island Glacier is one of those which have one part that is sitting on land and one part that floats, with the bedrock underneath tilted inwards towards the continent," Humbert explains. This can lead to what scientists call a "marine ice sheet instability." which can result in irreversible decline. This, it seems, is the case with the Pine Island Glacier. She and her colleagues want to find out which processes take place at the "grounding line" where the glacier enters the sea. They use models to describe the mechanics and flow patterns of the glacial ice.

Durand's new study shows that the glacier is now flowing at a rate that makes the process irreversible. This particular glacier is being markedly affected by melting because it is close to a current of warmer water, which melts the ice shelf from below and makes its way into cavities below the ice in places. This reduces its ability to act as a butress to the rest of the glacier, so that more and more ice flows towards the ocean.

Even if the air and ocean temperatures cooled off to what they were a hundred years ago, Durand is convinced the glacier would not recover. And there is no sign of any trend in that direction anyway, he stresses. Humbert is more cautious, saying irreversibility is hard to prove conclusively. But it is hard to imagine any factor which could reverse the trend, she admits.

Humbert estimates that science will need another five to ten years to develop the models, which need a huge amount of computing capacity, to an extent where they can make completely accurate forecasts. Another problem is the collection of basic data to feed into the models, especially relating to what is happening below the ice. Nevertheless, Humbert says the study provides valuable results that could well be applied to other glaciers of the same type in the area.

Beyond the tipping point

Durand says the study should arouse concern because of its significance with regard to the global climate. "These glaciers have already passed the tipping point, and that is irreversible. That means because of our behaviour, our climate is changing and will continue to change a lot. I think it is one of the first times we are passing these tipping points."

The scientist compares the situation to that of a cyclist coming down from the top of a mountain and unable to brake: "We have to fear that the retreat will continue, that other glaciers in the region will start to do the same, and that we will have a collapse of this part of the ice shelf. That would take centuries, but it would mean a rise of several metres in sea level."

The last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on climate Change (IPCC) warned of the implications if the glaciers of West Antarctica were to become unstable. "Here," says Durand, "we have proof that that is already happening with this one." more

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