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Energy and Global Warming News for October 29: Report slams low-carbon tar sands ‘myth’

Report slams low-carbon tar sand “myth”

Capturing and storing some of the carbon that would be released in the processing of Canada’s tar sands may not clean the industry up. To turn the vast but dirty resource into useable oil, Canada will have to spew vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

That’s the conclusion of a new study on the potential of so-called carbon capture and storage technology to reduce carbon emissions from tar sands operations.

The Athabasca tar sands of north-eastern Alberta, Canada, hold more than 170 billion barrels of recoverable oil, second only to Saudi Arabia’s reserves. However, the oil is in the form of tarry bitumen that requires a great deal of energy to extract and turn into usable oil — some three to five times as much as conventional crude. The greenhouse gases released during the processing of tar sands make it an environmentally disastrous proposition.

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No wonder, then, that the government of Alberta is putting much emphasis, and billions of research and development dollars, into carbon-capture technologies that aim to remove carbon dioxide released by the tar sands industry and store it safely underground.

But a new analysis (PDF) published this week by a UK consumer cooperative and the UK branch of environmental group WWF suggests that carbon capture will be too little, too late. Using the oil industry’s own best-case estimate — that 30 per cent of carbon emissions could be captured by 2030 and 50 per cent by 2050 — the analysts note that this falls far short of the reduction needed to make tar sands oil compare favourably with conventional crude.

Kudos to New Scientist for calling the “biggest global warming crime ever seen” by their real name, “tar sands” — see Memo to Obama: CCS won’t make tar sands clean. Memo to all: They ain’t “oil sands”. See also Canadian bishop challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production. For more on the report, see here.

Climate change threatens quarter of Swiss farmland: research

Climate change is already threatening more than a quarter of Switzerland’s farmland with frequent and lengthy water shortages, according to official research published Tuesday. The Swiss federal agricultural research station Agroscope said about 10 times more land would need to be irrigated to avoid lost harvests.

The Swiss federal agricultural research station Agroscope said about 10 times more land would need to be irrigated to avoid lost harvests, some 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) instead of the 38,000 hectares that currently receive regular irrigation.

But researcher Jurg Fuhrer told AFP that such huge irrigation to cope with more frequent drought might not be economically viable or feasible.

Twenty-six percent of usable agricultural land and 41 percent of arable land is at risk due to the drier climate that has been emerging in recent years, the scientific study found.

The conclusions were based on a range of research including detailed observations of local climate, hydrological data and crop patterns between 1980 and 2006.

It showed that the Alpine country’s prime arable land, spread across lower lying northern plains and valleys, had been the hardest hit by a growing frequency of summertime drought, including the Rhine valley.

Melting Kyrgyz glaciers pose threat

“That one — called Adigene — has decreased in size by about 20% over the last 50 years,” he says.

He adds that a neighbouring glacier, Aksai, has disappeared completely.

Mr Ermenbaev, who works for the government’s hydrogeology agency, says global warming is to blame. And he warns that unless action is taken to reduce this warming, all of Kyrgyzstan’s 2,200 glaciers could have melted within a century.

The Kyrgyz glaciers and those in neighbouring Tajikistan are vital to the water supply of Central Asia.

“In normal circumstances the glaciers would melt in the summer season, but regain their size in the winter,” Mr Ermenbaev says.

But he adds that on average the glaciers are now decreasing in size by 15–20m ( 50–65ft) annually. One glacier, Petrova, is retreating by 50m a year

Turmoil from climate change poses security risks

An island in the Indian Ocean, vital to the U.S. military, disappears as the sea level rises. Rivers critical to India and Pakistan shrink, increasing military tensions in South Asia. Drought, famine and disease forces population shifts and political turmoil in the Middle East.

U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, viewing these and other potential impacts of global warming, have concluded if they materialize it would become ever more likely global alliances will shift, the need to respond to massive relief efforts will increase and American forces will become entangled in more regional military conflicts.

It is a bleak picture of national security that backers of a climate bill in Congress hope will draw in reluctant Republicans who have denounced the bill as an energy tax and jobs killer because it would shift the country away from fossil fuels by limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities.

At the current increasing rate of global carbon dioxide pollution, average world temperatures at the end of this century will likely be about 7 degrees higher than at the end of the 20th century, and seas would be expected to rise by as much as 2 feet, according to a consensus of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The security implications of global warming were center stage Wednesday at a Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee hearing, one of a series of sessions in advance of voting on the climate bill, possibly as early as next week.

“Our economic, energy and climate change challenges are all inextricably linked,” retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn told the committee. “If we don’t address these challenges in a bold way and timely way, fragile governments have great potential to become failed states ….a virile breathing ground for extremism.”

U.N. needs more muscle in environment fight: study

The United Nations needs to beef up and better coordinate efforts to help fight threats such as climate change, deforestation or over-fishing, two experts said on Thursday.

The world’s system of green agencies and treaties is “bewildering” and while the international body’s efforts are considerable they are diffused by having many organizations overseeing one aspect or another, the experts said.

“There is an urgent need for an environmental organization within the U.N. system with the influence to realize change and to stand side by side with strong organizations such as the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization,” Italy’s Stefania Prestigiacomo and Kenya’s John Michuki said.

They are the environment ministers of Italy and Kenya, respectively, and co-chairs of a group considering U.N. environmental reform.

“Global environmental crises, from vanishing biodiversity and degrading forests to collapsing fish stocks and climate change, will not be solved without some tough thinking about international governance,” they wrote in an opinion article.

They did not propose any specific agency for the role, but in the U.N. system, the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Program is now the main authority, although its budget is low by U.N. standards at about $200 million a year.

Efforts to combat global warming, meanwhile, are overseen by the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn. Among others, the secretariat for safeguarding biological diversity is based in Montreal and another for wildlife trade is in Geneva.

Salazar order on climate change riles GOP

Western Republicans fear Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is trying to skirt congressional authority by issuing an administrative order on climate change that the GOP members say could hurt businesses and cost taxpayers millions.

Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Orrin Hatch joined 13 other Western Republicans who charge in a letter Wednesday that the administration is trying an end-run around Congress on climate change legislation. At issue is Salazar’s September “Secretarial Order” that creates a Climate Change Response Council and allows Interior agencies to coordinate efforts to combat the impacts of increased carbon in the atmosphere.

“These regulations will hit the Western United States the hardest,” the Republicans say in the letter to the Interior boss. “Westerners will suffer from higher energy and fuel costs or simply be put out of work.”

Salazar issued the order without much fanfare last month, though he praised the move as a milestone in responding to energy and climate challenges.

His office defended the action Wednesday, saying that anyone who looks at Salazar’s strategy will find that the GOP members’ concerns “have no grounding in reality.”

Sen. Kerry to youth on climate bill: We’re gonna need your help

On a conference call Tuesday night with young climate activists, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) served up several newsy tidbits, starting with his hint that sort-of climate news will come out of President Obama’s upcoming trip to China and that getting a bill through Congress will mean compromising with Republicans who want more nuclear energy.

Kerry’s comments came on a call organized by Green For All focusing on how young people can help up the ante in demanding a clean energy future. Kerry, Green For All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, and Hip Hop Caucus President Rev. Lennox Yearwood took turns speaking, with the conversation acutely attuned to the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (cosponsored by Sen. Kerry), which is the subject of Senate committee hearings this week.

Coming off the climate and energy bill’s first day of Senate hearings, Kerry sounded encouraged by the “very strong showing by the administration” (four cabinet secretaries and the EPA chief testified). He said President Obama is “committed” to getting the bill out of committee before the Copenhagen climate talks in December.

At the same time, he owned up to the utter vulnerability of the bill, ‘fessing up to young people: “We’re gonna need your help.”

Australia boosts international efforts on climate

Australia stepped up lobbying ahead of the global climate talks in Copenhagen on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd accepting a key role as Climate Change Minister Penny Wong heads to Spain for talks.

Rudd has accepted an offer from Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen to become a friend of the Copenhagen summit chair, giving him a key role in helping to forge an international deal to curb Greenhouse emissions ahead of the December meeting.

“The leaders engaged by Prime Minister Rasmussen will conduct regular discussions in the lead up to Copenhagen focused on delivering effective action on climate change,” a spokesman for Rudd told Reuters.

The spokesman said Rudd would go to Copenhagen if the summit became a leaders’ meeting, and if his attendance would help bring about an effective outcome, adding it was critical for leaders to be engaged ahead of the meeting.

Wong, who is negotiating to push laws for a domestic carbon-trade scheme through Australia’s parliament, will attend a Barcelona meeting of environment ministers from Thursday, where she will push for progress ahead of the Copenhagen talks.

“We are just weeks out from Copenhagen and at a critical stage in negotiations. This is an important opportunity for countries to make progress on key issues central to achieving consensus in Copenhagen.”

Australia has proposed a system of national schedules which will allow developed countries to set individual carbon reduction targets, and allow developing nations to record actions tailored to their circumstances.

Australia has promised to cut greenhouse emissions, blamed for global warming, by 5 percent, or up to 25 percent if other countries agree to take strong action to curb emissions.

Australia, the world’s biggest coal exporter, accounts for about 1.5 percent of global emissions but is one of the highest per capital emitters due to a reliance on coal for about 80 percent of electricity generation.