12 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for November 16: Brazil announces ‘historic’ drop in deforestation; Russias President warns of “catastrophic consequences” of inaction on climate; Solar is cheaper than coal today — Jigar Shah
Deforestation of the world’s largest tropical rain forest, in Brazil, fell by the largest amount in more than 20 years, dropping 45 percent from nearly 5,000 square miles to some 2,700 square miles this past year, the Brazilian government announced yesterday.
From August 2008 to July this year, deforestation fell to the lowest it has been since Brazil’s Space Institute began monitoring the destruction with satellite technology, said Gilberto C¢mara, the institute’s head.
“This is a very happy moment — to note that the efforts of Brazilian society to contain the deforestation of the Amazon have reached a very satisfactory level,” he said.
The new figures were reportedly rushed out ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen next month. Earlier this week, Brazil said it would take a proposal to the summit that would see it voluntarily reduce carbon emissions by up to 42 percent by 2020, partly by continued efforts against illegal deforestation.
Environmental groups welcomed the news, but also pointed out that the falling trend coinciding with a worldwide recession, which resulted in a reduced demand for products linked to deforestation.
“We must stay alert so that this falling trend becomes consolidated and allows us to achieve the dream of zero deforestation in the Amazon,” said Paulo Adario, Greenpeace’s Amazon director. “It is an important drop — but a lot of forest is still coming down”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned on Monday that climate change posed a “catastrophic” threat in some of the sharpest comments yet on a subject the Kremlin has often seemed reluctant to confront.
Although the United States said that the consensus amongst the 19 leaders at the weekend Asia Pacific summit in Singapore was that a climate change deal this December was unlikely, Medvedev made clear he felt it was a top priority.
“If we don’t take joint action, the consequences for the planet may be very distressing to the point that the Arctic and Antarctic ice can melt and change ocean levels,” he said shortly before leaving Singapore.
“All of this will have catastrophic consequences.”
Russia signed up the Kyoto protocol after years of haggling about its implementation, but has been criticized by environmental groups for not offering more ambitious emissions cuts ahead of December’s Copenhagen summit.
In the past, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had appeared to shrug off the threat from climate change, joking that Russians would welcome warmer weather and would need to buy fewer fur coats.
Some prominent Russian scientists argue that climate change is a natural phenomenon.
“Solar is cheaper than coal today,” asserts Jigar Shah, the founder of Sun Edison who now heads the Carbon War Room, a new nonprofit group.
This is a provocative statement, given that “” as my colleague Matthew L. Wald reported this year “” studies by the Electric Power Research Institute and elsewhere show that solar thermal technologies are far more expensive than coal, and photovoltaic rooftop solar panels, in turn, generally produce more expensive electricity than solar thermal.
Mr. Shah’s argument in fact relies on combining solar with several other technologies: smart grid, energy efficiency and energy storage.
Together, he argues, those four technologies can substitute for a large, base-load coal plant that provides power around the clock “” at a lower cost.
“All of the four technologies can be employed in small bits and chunks, it can be done on a scalable basis to meet exactly the need but not more than we need,” Mr. Shah said.
Technologies like energy efficiency, solar and wind, Mr. Shah noted, may have high up-front costs but their running costs are low, because (in the case of solar and wind) the fuel “” the air or the sun “” is free.
However, “we insist on continuing to invest in technologies that are exactly the opposite “” high capital costs, subject to volatile fuel prices,” Mr. Shah said.
(Of course, if coal plants are subject to carbon pricing in the coming years as part of the nation’s effort to combat global warming, their costs will go up, too.)
Mark Pinto, the chief technology officer of Applied Materials, a company that makes equipment for solar projects, offered another vision of the price of solar.
“Solar competes against peaking,” Mr. Pinto said. In other words, because the sun shines during the day, when air conditioners and lights are cranked up and demand on the grid is heavy, solar power competes directly against natural gas plants that only get turned on to meet that peak demand.
“When you compare solar costs to other peaking electricity costs,” in some cases solar is ahead of gas, Mr. Pinto said.
But Mr. Shah argued that the solar-is-good-for-peaking argument “just pigeonholes us” as meeting only a particular need. Solar power, he said, can be positioned as part of a broader solution.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Europe’s largest oil producer, said regional mechanisms to reduce carbon dioxide output should be expanded into a global cap-and-trade system to ensure more companies are forced to curb emissions.
“We need cap-and-trade mechanisms to come up in more parts of the world; we need these mechanisms to be linked to each other,” Ranjit Prasad, global head of CO2 trading at Shell International Transport & Trading, said in a video posted on the company’s Web site. “We need project-based mechanisms for those parts of the world where we don’t have mandatory caps.”
Under cap-and-trade programs, emitters are permitted to release a certain quantity of polluting gases and are allotted permits for that amount, which can be bought and sold as required. The European Trading Scheme, mandatory for heavy industry and power generators, is the world’s largest such system. There are also voluntary cap-and-trade programs such as the one operated by the Chicago Climate Exchange.
Shell and BP Plc are among companies supporting cap-and- trade. Industries that aren’t subject to obligatory emissions limits must commit to curbing their carbon output, Prasad said.
This month, the journal Nature Geoscience published a study calculating that deforestation is responsible for about 15% of global carbon emissions, down from earlier estimates of 20% or more. Most of the world’s deforestation is concentrated in a few tropical nations, like Brazil and Indonesia where trees are disappearing fast “” when these trees die or are burned, they release into the atmosphere all the carbon they’ve sucked up while they were alive. According to the Nature Geoscience study, the problem of deforestation is becoming a lot less dire than previously thought.
Unfortunately, the study’s findings couldn’t be further from the truth. The authors’ recalculation had less to do with a reduction in deforestation than with an unexpected increase in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Indeed trees are still being lost at an alarming rate, at about 13 million hectares per year as of 2005, according to the U.N. Exacerbating the deforestation problem is that there is no global system in place to discourage it. (The global carbon market created by the Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, offers carbon cap and trading as a way to begin reducing carbon emissions from energy or transportation.) “Forests are worth more dead than alive,” says Russell Mittermeier, the president of the green group Conservation International.
There is some hope that valuation will shift, as the world stumbles toward the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen next month. Negotiators are trying to include a system to protect forests “” called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) “” in the international treaty that is meant to be hammered out at the summit. Broadly speaking, REDD would allow countries to trade on the carbon value of their forests. If successful, it could be a relatively inexpensive way to quickly reduce deforestation, cut emissions and preserve the habitats of some of the most endangered species on the planet. “Forests are a part of the climate problem, so they need to be part of the solution,” says Kevin Conrad, the lead climate negotiator for Papua New Guinea and a major advocate of the REDD process.
Here’s how it would work in detail: developing nations would accept some kind of limit on deforestation rates, and in exchange for preserving those forests, they would receive compensation from developed countries, which would then be able to use the carbon they’re saving to meet their own carbon caps. It’s as simple as that, a recognition that rich nations will have to provide developing countries an economic rationale to stop cutting down trees. The benefits would be global (reducing climate change) and local (helping conservation efforts). Loss of habitat is the No. 1 cause of extinction, and the tropical rain forests that hold the most carbon are also home to the most diverse collection of species. “REDD is a new, exciting opportunity in conservation,” says Brett Jenks, the CEO of RARE Conservation.
But it’s not an easy opportunity. Tropical forests are vast, so it might be expensive and time-consuming to accurately track which trees are being cut down and which are being saved, although better satellite technology is making that easier. If REDD is implemented on a project-by-project basis, rather than across entire nations, there’s a real risk of leakage; deforestation would be stopped in one area, only to bleed somewhere else, and carbon emissions wouldn’t be reduced. Activists for indigenous groups “” the native people who actually live in tropical forests “” worry that they won’t benefit financially from the REDD process, or even be forced to move off their land. If the preserved trees are burned or cut down later, the carbon would be lost. And it doesn’t help that countries with high rates of deforestation aren’t exactly well governed, which could make the implementation of REDD on the ground a real headache. “The cost is not going to be cheap to do,” says Nigel Sizer, RARE’s vice president for Pacific and Asia operations. “There is legal uncertainty at every level of this.”
The upcoming Copenhagen summit is meant to clear up that uncertainty, and there is real hope that REDD could be a bright spot in a meeting that might otherwise be considered a failure. While the larger negotiations remain deadlocked between developed and developing countries over future carbon-emission cuts, both sides have an interest “” environmentally and financially “” in reducing forest loss. There’s already progress being made: on Nov. 12 provincial governors from Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines agreed to back REDD. In Brazil, new statistics show the country has cut deforestation rates in half, signs that the government is finally taking the problem seriously. The South American nation stands to be a major beneficiary of REDD “” the head of the Brazilian Carbon Markets Association estimated that the country could earn $16 billion a year from REDD.
For that to happen, some version of REDD must become a part of a new global climate deal “” and, of course, there must actually be a new global carbon deal. Although preventing deforestation won’t be the solution to climate change, it’s a necessary start.
The British government has teamed up with a number of green groups to promote the UK’s Climate Change Act across Europe as part of a campaign to get other countries to introduce similar legislation.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is working closely with Friends of the Earth, which masterminded the original campaign for a UK climate change act, to stage a series of workshops at Embassies across Europe to provide civil servants and business execs with an introduction to the legislation.
Events have already taken place in Budapest, Madrid and last week Berlin, while a workshop is also scheduled for Dublin later this week, with further meetings planned for Poland, The Hague and several other European capitals (full disclosure: BusinessGreen.com presented at the Berlin event).
Officials said that the workshops have been well received, and growing numbers of countries are continuing to emulate the UK’s approach and passing carbon emission targets and budgets into law.
The UK Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 and binds successive governments to delivering against the target of cutting emissions 80 per cent by 2050. It also enabled the formation of the independent Committee on Climate Change, and requires governments to set five-year carbon budgets, which they are required to comply with.
Speaking at the Berlin event, Mike Childs, head of climate campaigns at Friends of the Earth, said that versions of the successful Big Ask campaign that preceded the UK Climate Change Act were now up and running in 16 EU countries and Japan. He added that the campaigns were being well received and that support for the wider rollout of climate change bills was building.
“It is very difficult for reasonable people to oppose the introduction of a climate bill,” he said. “We know climate change is happening, the bill is structured in a way so that it is not draconian, and it gives businesses the certainty they need to invest in low carbon.”
Germany in particular is seriously considering developing a climate change bill, with WWF leading a campaign to see the country’s voluntary target of cutting emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 placed on the statute book.
Although the recession has emptied shopping malls and filled jobless centers, the call has only gotten louder for renewable energy, environmentally gentle products and eco-friendly practices — and for people to make all of that happen.
President Obama has said that he hopes to create 5 million green jobs within a decade. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that the “green economy” could account for as much as 10% of job growth over the next 30 years.
The job description casts a wide net. The green ranks can include autoworkers making hybrid cars, building consultants, home energy auditors, environmental studies professors, wind turbine engineers, lawyers for biofuel companies and many more.
Some will be new positions; others will involve workers from traditional industries tweaking their former skills.
So here’s a look at where to find green jobs, how to prepare for them and how to land a spot.
Even before the recession, the green-jobs market was growing at a faster pace than overall employment in most states, with California leading the trend, experts say. The growth rate of green jobs nationwide was 9.1% from 1998 to 2007, compared with a 3.7% increase for all jobs during the same period, according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
A UC Berkeley study concluded that “the renewable energy sector generates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, per unit of energy produced and per dollar of investment, than the fossil fuel-based energy sector.”
Even bastions of traditional industries, including the United Steelworkers union, support teaching green skills to preserve manufacturing and combat outsourcing.
Billions of dollars from clean-tech venture capitalists have poured into California — $3.3 billion in 2008, more than double the amount in 2007, according to Palo Alto research group Next 10.
There’s room for workers of all backgrounds and income brackets on that rising tide. In 2007, the nearly 125,500 clean-energy workers in California were pulling in $21,000 to $111,000, Pew found.
Daniel Morabito, 29, who was recently hired as a solar panel installer, said his salary at SolarCity is competitive with and far more stable than his paycheck from his previous commission-based job closing film deals. Now he has full benefits, stock options and more potential for long-term growth, he said.
After spending three years wearing a suit and tie in a downtown Los Angeles office, the Hermosa Beach resident recently toiled with two co-workers on top of a Westwood home.
Since June, the Foster City, Calif., company has hired 120 people, 41 of them in Southern California. An additional 180 hirings are expected in the next three months.
Morabito had no experience working with electrical wiring, but he researched the company and marched into the SolarCity warehouse with his resume, he said.
“Everyone’s talking about solar these days,” he said. “I missed being outside and really wanted to work with my hands. But I didn’t know what to expect.”
Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews may have their religious differences, but climate change is a cause they can all get behind.
Members of a dozen California religious groups congregated at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral last week for a friendly competition. Held to highlight congregations’ efforts in green building, education, energy efficiency and advocacy, it also served to showcase several leaders who are making inroads in the political arena.
Advocating for climate action is a natural arena for the religious movement, said the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, environmental minister at Grace Cathedral and founder of Interfaith Power and Light, an environmental movement that has drawn 10,000 congregations in 28 states since it began in 1998.
“Every major faith tradition calls on its followers to be faithful stewards of creation, the web of life that surrounds us and binds us to each other and to our planet,” she said. “It’s amazing how it brings together religious beliefs that are sometimes at odds.”
Now in its third year, the contest — known as the “Energy Oscars” — drew almost 200 applicants, up from about 60 last year. The finalists this year represented several major faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Unitarian Universalism.
Camp Stevens, an Episcopal camp and retreat center north of San Diego, won in the education category for its sustainable farming and gardening classes, while Congregation Emanu-el in San Francisco won an energy efficiency award for retrofitting its synagogue lighting to save up to 10 tons of emissions and $4,000 per year.
‘Interfaith Power and Light’ connects with 30 states
IPL has chapters in 30 states, but only one — Georgia — has an energy competition similar to California’s.
Sponsors include Pacific Gas & Electric, New Resource Bank, SunPower, and SolarCity, which has installed solar panels on at least two churches in San Francisco.
Bingham said she had just returned from a climate meeting at England’s Windsor Castle, hosted by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Alongside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders from nine major religions, she pledged to spread the message that climate change is a moral issue.
“You can establish green religious buildings, invest ethically in sustainable products, purchase only environmentally friendly goods. You can set an example for the lifestyles of billions of people,” Ban told religious leaders, stressing the need to protect poorer and more vulnerable countries. “Your actions can encourage political leaders to act more boldly in protecting our planet Earth.”
Bingham is a member of a task force that is advising the Obama administration on faith- and neighborhood-based partnerships that can promote awareness of energy and climate change. The group’s recommendations, due to the administration by February, include creating a Web site to show people how to go about retrofitting their buildings, as well as a program to connect low-income people to churches looking to retrofit their facilities.
She also published a book earlier this year, “Love God, Heal Earth,” that is a collection of essays by Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Jewish leaders on protecting the Earth by acknowledging the interconnectedness of all life.
Another spiritual leader at last week’s awards made the case that to get a viable solution to climate change, one must first change one’s own morals — and then change the political system.