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Energy and Global Warming News for September 10th: Bees stung by ‘climate change-linked’ early pollination; Fungus genes help turn grass into ethanol; World Bank hires Kammen as clean-energy lending czar

Bees stung by ‘climate change-linked’ early pollination: Climate change may be causing flowers to open before bees emerge from hibernation leading to declines in pollination, new research suggests

Climate change could be affecting pollination by disrupting the synchronised timing of flower opening and bee emergence from hibernation, suggests new US-based research.

Declining numbers of bees and other pollinators have been causing growing concern in recent years, as scientists fear that decreased pollination could have major impacts on world food supplies.

Previous studies have focused on pollinators and have linked falling populations to the use of pesticides, habitat loss and disease.

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However, a 17-year analysis of the wild lily in Colorado by scientists from the University of Toronto, suggests other factors may be at play. The study revealed a long-term decline in pollination, which was particularly pronounced earlier in the season.

Study author James Thomson said while bee numbers had declined at their research site he suspected that a ‘climate-driven mismatch between the times when flowers open and when bees emerge from hibernation is a more important factor’.

‘Early in the year, when bumble bee queens are still hibernating, the fruiting rates are especially low,’ he said. ‘This is sobering because it suggests that pollination is vulnerable even in a relatively pristine environment that is free of pesticides and human disturbance but still subject to climate change.’

Despite the findings, other experts remained cautious about the influence of climate change on bee pollination. ҬӬFrancis Ratnieks, professor of apiculture at the University of Sussex, said the downward trend of pollination observed in the study was not strong enough to extrapolate to any wider issues.

‘Who knows the degree to which [this] affects the long term viability of the population?’ he said. The study also only looked at one plant species, he added.

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The Bumblebee Conservation Trust said the most significant factors driving the decline in pollinators were still unclear.

‘It is probably a combination of climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use and disease. Unless we act swiftly, these declines threaten both human wellbeing and the survival of natural ecosystems as we know them,’ said director Dave Goulson.

Study author Thomson admitted the evidence from the study was still weak but said the results were a warning that the phenomenon ‘might be widespread and needs more attention’.

‘It certainly suggests that people who have warned about the possible climate-change consequence of dislocated timing between interacting species have made a reasonable argument,’ he added.

Fungus Genes Help Turn Grass into Ethanol: Modified yeast could help make ethanol from hard-to-digest materials.

Genes copied from a common fungus could simplify the production of ethanol from abundant materials such as grass and wood chips, a development that could one day help ethanol compete with gasoline.

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Scientists have taken genes from a fungus that grows on grass and dead plants, and transplanted them into yeast that is already used to turn sugar into ethanol. The genes let the yeast ferment parts of plants that it normally can’t digest, potentially streamlining the production of ethanol.

“It’s just a more efficient process,” says Jamie Cate, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Shaving off every dime that you can could make it compete with oil,” says Cate, who led the work.

Most ethanol is produced using simple sugars, like the glucose derived from corn kernels or sugar cane. Researchers would like to use glucose from more abundant sources, such as corn husks and stalks, switchgrass, wood waste, and other tough plant materials. But those plant parts are made of cellulose, a carbohydrate built from long chains of sugars. For yeast to produce ethanol, the complex carbohydrate has to first be broken down into very simple sugars, a process that takes time and normally requires the addition of expensive enzymes. Though dozens of demonstration plants have been built to produce cellulosic ethanol, none is at a commercial scale.

For Pelosi and Markey, an Oil Sands Mission

Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts are in Canada this week to learn and listen about oil sands development there. The two Democrats are getting an earful from Canadian officials as well as from Canadian environmental groups on the pluses and minuses of importing oil from Alberta.

Later this year the State Department will decide whether to authorize a new pipeline, Keystone XL, that would run from the Alberta to Texas. If built, it would vastly expand the potential for oil imports from Canada.

But environmental groups as well as United States government entities like the Environmental Protection Agency have expressed concern about increasing the country’s reliance on Canada’s oil sands for imports, both because of the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted through extraction of the oil and the serious environmental consequences in Canada.

Oil sands extraction has already felled large swaths of boreal forest, created toxic ponds and polluted rivers and indigenous villages.

Alaska sues to lift Arctic drilling suspension

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell says the state is suing to overturn the federal suspension of offshore drilling in Arctic Ocean waters.

In May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suspended Shell Oil’s request to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and he canceled four Arctic lease sales.

Parnell says Salazar illegally failed to consult with state officials, consider the economic effects or issue a written decision explaining the basis for a moratorium.

Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff says the Interior Department is taking a cautious approach to offshore petroleum development. She says the Arctic presents unique environmental challenges and the department needs additional information about spill risks and spill response capabilities.

E.P.A. to Study Chemicals Used to Tap Natural Gas

The Environmental Protection Agency sent letters to nine drilling companies on Thursday requesting detailed information about the chemicals contained in fluids used to crack open underground rock formations in the hunt for oil and natural gas.

The move is part of the federal agency’s preparations for a long-term scientific study of the effects of the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” on drinking water and public health.

“Natural gas is an important part of our nation’s energy future, and it’s critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities,” the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said in a statement.

The agency asked the companies to respond to its request within seven days and to voluntarily provide the information within 30 days, according to a copy of the letter provided by the agency.

“To the extent that E.P.A. does not receive sufficient data in response to this letter,” the agency warned, “E.P.A. will be exploring legal alternatives to compel submission of the needed information.”

Climate change law’s suspension slammed by UC Berkeley study

Suspending California’s landmark climate change law would result in the loss of millions of dollars in state revenue and hurt the state’s growing clean-tech industry, a new report says.

The Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley Law School also said the rollback initiative, Proposition 23, would benefit oil and power companies while increasing regulatory burdens to real estate developers and auto makers.

“It adds significant uncertainty at a time when we have a lot of economic uncertainty,” the report’s co-author Dan Farber said.

California’s climate change law, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, attempts to reduce carbon emissions statewide to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

The rollback measure seeks to suspend the law until the statewide unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent or below for four quarters in a row.

Farber said Proposition 23 would force the state to suspend a $63 million fee it plans to charge oil companies, utilities and other energy companies.

Renewables groups warn lawmakers will drain loan guarantee program

Renewable power and fuels trade groups are warning that Capitol Hill cuts to the Energy Department’s clean energy loan guarantee program will continue unless the department speeds up issuance of funding agreements.

Lawmakers siphoned $2 billion from the program “” which is aimed at bolstering various low-emissions technologies “” last year to help fund “cash for clunkers” rebates. And over the summer Congress diverted another $1.5 billion in loan guarantee funding to help pay for state aid legislation.

“There is no question Congress is taking the [loan guarantee program] funds because DOE has been slow in dispersing them [sic],” states a letter Thursday to Energy Secretary Steven Chu from several trade associations representing wind developers, ethanol producers and others. “We are concerned that if delays continue at DOE, there is great risk that more of the funds will be drained from this vital program.”

World Bank hires new green-energy lending czar

The World Bank has hired a Nobel Prize-winning professor from California as the first head of its new alternative-energy lending program.

The bank on Thursday announced the appointment of Daniel Kammen as chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency. In that role, he will lead the bank’s efforts to develop a strategy for lending funds to developing nations.

The new position underscores growing demand by countries receiving World Bank funding for help developing renewable-energy and energy-efficiency programs.

That includes everything from small, localized renewable-energy programs in Africa to major smart-grid initiatives in countries like India and China.

While the World Bank currently employs technical experts at the project level, “this is a guy who is going to be sitting down with energy ministers, senior officials in these countries,” World Bank spokesman Roger Morier said.

The core investment by the World Bank for energy initiatives is more than $5 billion, and renewable energy and energy efficiency “have been the fastest growing piece of that,” Kammen said in a telephone interview Thursday. That piece currently constitutes more than a third of World Bank energy lending and is expected to grow further, he said.

Warning on target for green energy

Drastic new measures will be needed if the UK is to meet its target of generating 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, the government’s climate change watchdog has warned.

The UK generates only 3 per cent of its energy from such sources, despite more than a decade of policy measures intended to raise that figure substantially.

Lord Turner, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, has written to Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change secretary, to urge him to stick to the target. He said a “step change” was needed in the way the UK approached renewable energy.

A particular problem will be renewable energy for heating, rather than electricity, he said.

Wood-fired boilers and heat pumps are two possible technologies, but are used by only a tiny number of households.

Bring solar power back to the White House

A few of us have spent the past week carefully transporting a relic of American history down the East Coast, trying to return it to the White House, where it belongs.

It’s not a painting spirited from the Lincoln Bedroom or an antique sideboard stolen from the Roosevelt Room by some long-ago servant. No, this relic comes from the somewhat more prosaic Carter roof. It’s a solar panel, one of a large array installed on top of the White House in June 1979.

When he dedicated the panels, President Jimmy Carter made a prophecy that, like many oracles, came true in unexpected fashion — in fact, nothing better illustrates both why the world is heating and why the American economy is falling behind its competitors.

“In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy,” he said. “A generation from now this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

Climate-change study: Today’s power plants aren’t the problem

When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to global warming, the big problem isn’t the power plant on the outskirts of town. Rather, the big factor is the plants that will be built a decade or two from now.

“The sources of the most threatening emissions have yet to be built,” according to a team of scientists trying to see what sort of warming will have been triggered by the end of the century by only today’s greenhouse-gas emitters. The scientists’ study appeared Thursday in the journal Science.

The researchers say their findings reinforce the notion that to meet skyrocketing demand for energy during this century, it will take “truly extraordinary development and deployment of carbon-free sources of energy” to keep global warming in check.

Based on the objectives of global climate talks, that means holding increases in global average temperatures to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F.) above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

In many ways, the conclusions in the study aren’t new. Many climate-policy analysts, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agree that accelerated use and further improvements in carbon-emission-free energy sources will play a pivotal role in efforts to curb global warming.

Climate activists look for ideas

Environmentalists are turning to the grassroots for ideas.

With the energy debate stalled in the Senate, several groups have decided that they need to change course.

Rather than applying pressure on Capitol Hill, they want to hold actions throughout the country that rally the public and rebuild the political momentum for a strong bill.

“In the end, we can’t completely control what the White House, or any other political leader does,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, said in an e-mail. “We can use our own efforts to put more political pressure on our leaders.”

As part of that effort, 350.org signed a joint letter with Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network asking members to e-mail them ideas for direct action.

Union Accuses China of Illegal Clean Energy Subsidies

A broad trade case filed on Thursday by an American labor union, accusing China of unfairly subsidizing its clean energy industry, pressed a hot-button jobs issue in the United States during a Congressional election season.

But even if the Obama administration agrees to pursue the case, it could prove hard to resolve, as both countries consider their industries crucial to energy security and future economic growth.

The filing, by the 850,000-member United Steelworkers union, accuses China of violating the World Trade Organization’s free-trade rules by subsidizing exports of clean energy equipment like solar panels and wind turbines. Through its policies, fair or otherwise, China has helped turn its makers of that equipment into the global leaders, while manufacturers in the United States and Europe have struggled financially, cut jobs and in some cases moved operations to China.

President Obama has cited clean energy manufacture as a priority on economic and environmental grounds, and in a speech this week, he called for “a homegrown clean energy industry.”

Mr. Obama has shown a willingness to confront China before, imposing steep tariffs a year ago on Chinese tire imports “” a decision that China is itself challenging before a W.T.O. panel in Geneva, which is expected to give an initial ruling this month.