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Energy and Global Warming News for October 2nd: Experts see Arctic warming decades faster than models predict; A plan to save rainforests gains momentum

Experts see Arctic warming decades faster than models predict

When it comes to climate change, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

The latest science suggests that warming in the far northern region will affect ocean currents and weather patterns around the world, said Nal¢n Ko§, director of the Centre for Ice, Climate and Ecosystems at the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Ko§ is in Washington this week for a Capitol Hill briefing on the state of polar ice. But much of her attention right now is focused on upcoming U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. She’s leading an international group of scientists writing a report on the state of Arctic ice. Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr St¸re, and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore will officially release the scientific update at the U.N. negotiations.

The scientists, many of whom participated in an April conference organized by St¸re and Gore, are still writing their report, which draws on science released since a 2007 U.N. Environment Programme report on the state of the world’s ice and snow.

But Ko§ said that some themes are emerging from recent observations of Arctic ecosystems and scientific studies.

“We’ve observing changes that are happening much faster than the climate models have predicted,” Ko§ said.

During the last four years, she said, the extent of Arctic summer sea ice has fallen below the average level recorded since 1979, when satellite measurements began. In fact, in 2007, sea ice hit a record low.

Climate models predicted a similar drop below the average, along with abrupt decreases like that seen in 2007 — but they projected that pattern wouldn’t emerge for decades.

“These events have happened 30 years ahead of time,” Ko§ said….

She cited a recent study by scientists at Rutgers University and the University of Delaware, which concluded that Arctic thaw has the potential to alter weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Much of North America, including Alaska, and northern Europe would become drier than normal. The western and central Mediterranean and Japan would become wetter than normal.

“It’s all connected,” Ko§ said. “There are no walls on the Arctic.”

A plan to save rainforests gains international momentum

… negotiators have made steady progress on the plan, known by its acronym REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

The underlying concept seems simple at first glance. Industrialized countries pay to lock carbon into developing nations’ forests. The money, if directed as intended, would provide a long-absent motive for local landowners and indigenous populations to abstain from clear-cutting their trees to create ranches, plantations and farms. Conservationists hope it will save the rainforests where decades of other efforts have fallen short.

“We have to value forests when they are alive and standing. Presently, we only value them when they’re dead,” Conrad told reporters yesterday. He spoke after a high-level meeting at the United Nations yesterday, attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and key world leaders.

A deal with appeal to rich and poor nations

… REDD is powerful because it is one of the quickest and cheapest available options for slowing the trajectory of rising temperatures in the atmosphere. Deforestation causes nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of the world’s entire transport sector. Indonesia and Brazil are, respectively, the world’s third- and fourth-largest emitting nations. In Brazil, deforestation is responsible for 70 percent of emissions.

“Protecting tropical forests is one of the most affordable ways to reduce climate pollution,” Glenn Hurowitz, Washington director of the nonprofit Avoided Deforestation Partners.

According to figures cited at the U.N. meeting, a ballpark of $22 billion to 36 billion dollars of global investment in REDD by 2015 — a relatively small amount in the grand climate financing scheme — could cut global deforestation rates by a quarter.

That low cost is a big carrot for the United States. At a bargain price of about $5 a ton, REDD credits could either slash expenses in meeting emissions targets or afford lawmakers the flexibility to propose more lofty aims. For example, the cost of the climate legislation passed by the House, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), would rise by 89 percent without its international offset options, most of which would come from tropical forest projects, U.S. EPA estimated…..

Brazil and the United States are the two countries with perhaps the most at stake in the answers. High-level leaders of the former were notably absent from yesterday’s meeting and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the program to attend, did not come due to a scheduling conflict.

Brazil has sovereignty worries

For years, Brazil’s leaders, fearful of ceding sovereignty over its own lands, opposed any discussion of tropical deforestation in climate negotiations. But since 2003, the country has reversed that attitude and has also promised to slash its forestry emissions by an impressive 80 percent by 2020, with the help of a $1 billion investment from Norway.

The Amazon nation, however, has big reservations about sharing the fruits of its efforts by offering credits on a market, which could ultimately give the United States a free pass to make fewer of its own sacrifices. Instead, it wants to receive most of its funds outright to meet its own goals, although even that stance is slipping as powerful state leaders push Brazil’s leadership for access to open markets, said Hurowitz of Avoided Deforestation Partners.

Less powerful countries are also pushing back. The Coalition for Rainforest Nations, a bloc of 32 countries, including Indonesia and Guyana, wants developed nations to fund two successive REDD start-up phases. These would help individual countries build the capacity to create, measure and verify legitimate forest carbon projects, according to Federica Bietta, deputy director of the coalition, which Conrad heads.

Ultimately, the coalition envisions a third phase, one that is key to the United States: credits sold to the market to offset buyers’ emissions. This market approach, the coalition believes, would make it harder for a few countries to monopolize the wealth.

And African nations in the Congo Basin, which have so far maintained more of their forests, don’t want to be left out of the pool. That may eventually require a different payment plan to reward landowners despite their low historic deforestation rates. “The Copenhagen process must not leave precious forests like the Congo Basin unprotected just because it is not so-called ‘high risk,’” wrote Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo, in an op-ed in the Boston Globe this week.

Such insurance will also prevent loggers and ranchers from getting visas and moving to new nations where they can still slash and burn. This is a prospect several small island nations, slated to disappear off the map as sea level rises, fear the most.

… Depending on its structure, a forest payment plan could allow major emitters, such as Brazil, to adopt binding emissions targets financed in part by international funds. Smaller nations, such as Papua New Guinea and many African countries, meanwhile, could use the aid to prove they are contributing what they can to global goals.

And because U.S. businesses so desperately want the cost savings of offset credits, the scheme gives tropical nations leverage to push the United States to adopt more stringent emissions targets. Brazil, for example, has signaled that it plans to do exactly this, said Hurowitz. That dynamic tension could even nudge along a U.S. deal with China, said Environmental Defense Fund counsel Petsonk…..

The pending U.S. legislation does look promising. The Waxman-Markey bill would offer 5 percent of annual emissions revenues to fund extra emissions reductions through tropical forest projects, and would also permit up to 2 billion tons a year of offsets. And yesterday, dozens of prominent U.S. ecologists wrote to President Obama, urging him to definitively link tropical forest conservation with his global climate mission.

But as with the broader negotiations, progress is slow. “So far, it’s all talk. There is no REDD,” said the Environmental Defense Fund’s tropical forest policy director, Steve Schwartzman. But he said efforts to change that over the next few months look promising. “You can really see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

India takes a climate pledge, finds Senate’s climate target ‘measly’

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh slammed the U.S. Senate’s newly proposed greenhouse gas emission targets as “measly” yesterday even as he outlined broad plans for India to reduce its own levels of carbon dioxide.Calling his proposal “per capita-plus” to build on a promise Indian leaders have made that the country’s per-person emissions would never exceed those of industrialized nations, Ramesh said India may be ready to impose domestic legislation mandating that energy intensity declines at least 5 percent by 2020; building efficiency standards by 2012; and mandatory fuel economy standards by 2011.

“India, unfortunately, for some strange reason is portrayed as a stumbling block to Copenhagen,” where nations hope to hammer out a global emissions deal in December, Ramesh said. “We are not going to be a deal breaker at Copenhagen.”

Speaking at a forum sponsored by Yale University, Ramesh also noted that the cap-and-trade legislation introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Wednesday calls for reducing emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels in the coming decade. That’s a more ambitious plan than one the House approved in June.

But when calculated from 1990 emission levels — the benchmark that India, Europe and many other countries prefer to use — Ramesh said America’s plan calls for only a “mealy 5 percent reduction” in levels of CO2 output. Meanwhile, he added, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended that wealthy nations cut emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels over the next 10 years.

“Compared to the IPCC recommendations, both the House bill and the Senate bill fall short,” Ramesh said.

The comments come as delegates from hundreds of nations gather in Bangkok to work out the details of a new global emissions treaty. That agreement, which many had hoped would be sealed at the December U.N. summit in Copenhagen, is now looking unlikely. Leaders, meanwhile, are looking for a fallback — or, as some are calling it, a “Plan B.”

That might wind up being a proposal in which nations put their domestic actions onto a type of registry or schedule that would somehow be held to international standards. U.S. officials have been floating the idea this week in Bangkok, to the consternation of several environmental activists who say they worry the plan will not be the binding treaty many feel is critical to averting catastrophic global warming.

But U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern, speaking at the same forum, yesterday said that nations “need to move that way” and called a national schedule a “viable” option.

Stern indicated that India’s proposal — which he called “a huge big step and a great start” — could fit into that type of framework.

An Indian emits 1.7 tons of carbon; an American, 23.5 tons

India has long argued that because it did not cause global warming — having only just begun to industrialize about 20 years ago — it should bear no responsibility for fighting it. Leaders routinely note that each Indian causes about 1.2 tons of CO2 emissions annually (the independent World Resources Institute think tank puts it slightly higher, at 1.7 tons), while the average American emits 23.5 tons.

Yet the country, with one of the fastest-growing economic engines in the world, also is seeing its bulk emissions skyrocket. A report prepared recently by several independent Indian groups found that the country’s CO2 outpout will triple by 2030. The United States has called on fast-developing nations like India to avert what Stern calls the “unforgiving math of accumulated emissions.”

India’s leaders have steadfastly refused to accept any binding international targets as part of a global deal, and Ramesh emphasized that again yesterday.

“There is absolutely no change in India’s international negotiating position,” he said. “We are not in a position to take an internationally, legally binding cut.”

He repeated a pledge the government has made in the past that India’s per capita emissions will always remain lower than those of major industrialized nations. And IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, also speaking at the forum, defended India’s position. While the world’s atmosphere may not care about political notions like “per capita” versus bulk emissions, he argued, ethics also play a role….

Meanwhile, others at the panel said they were encouraged by India’s proposed domestic plan of action. Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the U.N. Foundation — while not calling it an CO2 target — called it “a very constructive initiative” that essentially takes the same steps a country would take in order to implement an emissions cap.

And John Podesta, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, called the plan an important first step.

“Somehow we need to take those national commitments and find a formula to bind them internationally,” he said.

Boxer: Climate Bill to Ease Energy Costs

Senate Democrats will initially devote 70 percent of the pollution allowances in their new climate measure to making it easier for people to pay their energy bills, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer said in an interview to be aired Sunday on C-SPAN.

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Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced legislation this week with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) aimed at limiting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. It would force any facility emitting at least 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year to obtain pollution permits. The bill does not indicate how these pollution allowances would be allocated, but Boxer said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program that Democrats are prepared to give away allowances to make carbon-intensive commodities such as electricity more affordable.

“The vast majority of allowances will go to consumers to keep them whole,” Boxer said.

An aide to the senator said the panel was still working on the precise language of the bill, so it was too early to say whether all of those allowances would be given away free. It probably will be modeled on the House-passed bill, which aids consumers by providing free allowances to local electricity distribution companies as well as low income consumer rebates and tax credits and other measures.

Boxer also acknowledged that the climate bill does not have enough votes to pass right now in the Senate, adding that she will work to change that. “We’re gaining ground, but at this point I can’t count to 60,” she said. “But you just do your job and move forward.”

To win votes, Kerry and Boxer have said they are willing to make compromises, and Boxer reiterated that in her interview, suggesting that the current target of reducing U.S. greenhouse gases 20 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels could change.

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“I can’t predict the end game,” she said, adding that she is confident her panel will produce an ambitious bill but that it might change as it moves through the Senate. “This is the environment committee, not the pollution committee. . . . This should be the high-water mark.”

Climate Change Threatens Brazilian Agriculture

A freak tornado and floods last month may be a harbinger of a troubled future for Brazilian farmers, who worry that climate change could severely disrupt production in one of the world’s breadbaskets.

Rising temperatures, a shift in seasons, and extreme weather in coming decades are likely to cut output in some areas and wipe out crops entirely in others, experts say.

“Brazil is vulnerable. If we don’t do anything, food production is at risk,” says Eduardo Assad, an agronomist at the government’s agriculture research institute, Embrapa.

At stake is a $250 billion farm industry, food for millions of poor and supplies to world markets of Brazil’s major export crops such as soybeans and coffee.

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Brazil is seeking a leadership role in global climate talks and says it will adopt targets on greenhouse gas emissions, after agreeing last year to slash Amazon deforestation in half. But it has been slow to research climate change, its impact and how Brazilian agriculture can adapt to the changes.

In the poor northeast region, sparse rains will diminish further and temperatures will rise by 3–4 degrees Celsius (5.4–7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, compared to a 2 degree Celsius national and global average rise, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Studies (INPE).

Higher temperatures threaten to wipe out staple foods, such as cassava, for millions of people in the region.

“The northeast will lose one-third of its economy if we do nothing,” Environment Minister Carlos Minc told Reuters.

Big export crops are also likely to suffer, according to a study by Assad and Hilton Silveira Pinto, an agronomist at the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo state.

The report, completed in May, says by 2020 soy output will fall by 20 percent and coffee by 10 percent.

Brazil is the leading exporter of coffee, beef, soybeans, orange juice, and other farm products. Only one cash crop stands to gain: warmer temperatures will double the area suitable for sugar cane as early as 2020, Pinto and Assad say.

US Solar Industry to Challenge Tariff Ruling

The U.S. solar energy industry hopes to persuade Customs officials to reverse a decision to impose a 2.5 percent tariff on solar panel imports after more than two decades of duty-free trade in the product, an industry official said on Thursday.

“We’re taking it very seriously and we will be responding. … The industry is in the process of preparing a challenge,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, whose members include both U.S. and foreign solar energy companies.

In the worst case scenario, U.S. importers of solar panels could face some $70 million in tariffs and penalties for product already imported this year.

The tariff comes at a time when concern about global climate change has prompted the United States and the European Union to push for deal with other leading developed countries and China to eliminate duties on environmental goods.

As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, the U.S. Custom service ruled in January a panel made by Trina Solar of China was a generator because it contains a diode that allows electric current to pass around shaded areas of the panel.

That ruling was a surprise because “all solar panels contain bypass diodes and have forever. It’s a safety issue not to have them,” one industry official said.

Although the ruling only applies to the Trina panel, it has implications for other manufacturers, he said.

The industry hopes it can persuade officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington to overturn the ruling made by the New York office.