Energy and Global Warming News for September 8: China is the world leader in solar hot water heating; Japan climate pledge conditional on China, India

“Ninety-nine percent of households in Rizhao, China, use solar water heaters like these.”

China, green? In the case of solar water heating, yes

In a nation known more for its belching smokestacks, solar water heaters are on nearly every roof in some cities. Manufacturers are eyeing foreign markets, including Southern California.

Before her family bought a solar water heater, Liu Yan would bathe the way many working-class Chinese have for generations: boil water, dampen a rag and wipe away the dirt.


Today, the 40-year-old mother and her family shower every day and wash their dishes with hot water. The stainless steel heater affixed to her red-tiled roof cost about $220.

The device has become a symbol of China’s rising standard of living and its leap into the era of clean energy.

In the seaside city of 2.8 million where Liu lives in Shandong province, 99% of households use solar water heaters. The mattress-sized contraptions dominate Rizhao’s skyline, resting haphazardly on almost every residential rooftop.

In the global race to develop green technology and stem climate change, China has quickly become a leading producer of solar panels and wind turbines. It also dominates the lesser-known technology of solar water heaters.

Using principles of solar heating more than a century old, the humble, low-cost devices consist of an angled row of cola-colored glass tubes that absorb heat from the sun. The most common models fill the tubes with cold water. As it heats, the water rises into an insulated tank where it can remain hot for days….

The heating of water accounts for a quarter of a typical building’s energy usage. The Chinese solar heaters are estimated to have prevented more than 20 million tons of carbon dioxide that would have been emitted annually using electrical units.

The heaters will be much needed if Beijing is to meet its goal of reducing its reliance on coal, which supplies 80% of the country’s energy. The central government aims to meet 15% of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2020. Beijing hopes to triple its solar heater capacity by the same year, according to Greenpeace China.

The technology’s gains here lie in its affordability, the dearth of residential natural gas service and the modest expectations of consumers, many of whom had never enjoyed hot water at home before. The starting price for one of the clunky devices is around $220, about the same as an electric heater in China. In the United States, where labor costs are higher and systems tend to be larger and more elaborate, solar water heaters can easily cost $1,500 or more.

Oh and now it turns out that Japan’s pledge — to slash CO2 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 — is conditional.

Not So Fast: Japan Climate Pledge Conditional on China, India

If a week is a lifetime in politics, what is five days? Time enough for a reality check, apparently.

Japan’s new ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, now says that its ambitious promise to curb greenhouse-gas emissions “is based on the premise that there will be an international agreement including China and India,” Reuters reports. This from the man who could be Japan’s next finance minister:

“This is not something Japan will do on its own,” party secretary-general Katsuya Okada said in an interview with Reuters. “The premise is an agreement that includes other countries such as China and India.”

That, to say the least, makes a big difference. Trying to get China and India to agree to any sort of global climate deal has become a green industry in its own right. Neither wants to submit to limits on emissions; both want hundreds of billions of dollars in Western clean-tech financing. Both conditions make final agreement at the December Copenhagen summit more difficult.

Maldives to introduce green tax on tourists

The Maldives archipelago, threatened by rising sea levels blamed on climate change, said on Monday it would introduce a new environment tax on all tourists who use its resorts and provide its economic lifeline.

Famed mostly for high-end luxury resorts and white-sand atolls, the Maldives has made a name for itself as an advocate for mitigating climate change because rising sea levels are forecast to submerge most of its islands by 2100.

The Maldives’ $850 million economy gets more than a quarter of its gross domestic product from tourists, but has not yet taxed them to help it fight climate change.

President Mohammed Nasheed, who in March outlined plans to make the Maldives the world’s first carbon-neutral nation within a decade, said an environment tax was soon to be levied on all tourists.

“We have introduced a green tax. It’s in the pipeline. It’s a matter of parliament approving it and I hope parliament will approve it — $3 per each tourist a day,” Nasheed told reporters in Male, the capital of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

The U.S. Climate Change Bill: International Trade Implications & China

Health care will not be the only derisive issue on the Senate’s calendar when it returns to Congress on September 8. This past June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (the “Climate Change Bill”).Far-reaching in its impact on the U.S. economy and particularly detrimental to certain energy-insensitive sectors, debate in the Senate will become increasingly cantankerous as special interests and certain states lobby for protection.

And while the Bill, through a series of complicated cap-and trade equations and a plethora of subsidies to renewable energy, has the potential to completely alter the domestic market, debate thus far has been about its global impact. With fear that countries like China will not pass legislation to cap their domestic industries’ carbon output, the House added two provisions to protect U.S. industries from companies in countries that are not similarly restrained. Out of a 1,400 page bill, these two provisions have become the center of the debate, some calling these provisions much needed protection and others calling them tariffs.

But conspicuously absent from these discussions is an analysis of what is really going on here. How exactly do these provisions work? Will they have the intended effect of maintaining the competitiveness of U.S. industries or are they attempts by certain industries to protect their profits? Will these provisions bring countries like China to the table in Copenhagen or will they ultimately produce a tariff war? Can they withstand a challenge under global trade rules?

To answer these questions, I sat down with Jake Caldwell, director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade & Energy at the Center for American Progress. You can listen to the interview here.

EU proposes U.N. war chest for climate funds

The United Nations should set up a war chest to help process the billions of dollars poor countries will be paid to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, the European Union has proposed.

The facility would sit separately from an existing “Adaptation Fund,” which aims to soften the impact of climate change on crops and water sources, the executive European Commission added in a draft report, seen by Reuters on Monday.

The EU hopes to find unity on its financial support for the developing world in coming weeks to boost the chances of success at international climate talks in December in Copenhagen, where countries aim to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

The paper is one of the first attempts to deal with the practicalities of collecting and distributing the billions of dollars poor countries say they will need before signing any such deal.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says $100 billion will be needed annually by poor nations by 2020, but some environmentalists put the figure near $140 billion. Ethiopia says Africa will veto any deal that is not generous enough.

Much of the flow of funds from rich to poor nations will be handled bilaterally, but the EU has suggested this money could be supplemented by taxing fuel for ships and aviation.

“It could be natural to assign this new finance to a new fund set up under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),” the report added.

Global Business Leaders, Policy Makers, and NGOs Convene to Catalyze Partnerships

More than 100 global thought leaders on sustainability convened today in Shanghai to develop an action plan to drive China’s greentech market forward. Greentech: A Call to Action is based on market-defining analysis and unprecedented US-China collaborative programs.The conference provides a roadmap to move from agreements anddiscussions to actionable greentech solutions.

Organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham Shanghai) and the Asia Society Northern California, Greentech: A Call to Action is a platform for executive and government decision makers to collaborate and drive US-China cooperation, which is essential to the development of a greentech market and a sustainable future. The conference has attracted international executives including Mark Norbom, President & CEO of GE China, Dr. Shi Zhengrong, Chairman & CEO of Suntech, and David C. Wang, President of Boeing China and political leaders from China and the U.S. including Fu Zhihuan, Chairman, Finance Committee, 10th National People’s Congress and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Energy.

“As two of the world’s largest economies, as well as the world’s largest importers of oil, consumers of coal and emitters of greenhouse gases, the U.S. and China have the potential to become world leaders in developing and deploying green technologies,” said Brenda Foster, president of AmCham Shanghai. “The private sector, working closely with government, will play a key role in defining this market.”

A primary goal of Greentech: A Call to Action is to overcome impediments that have prevented the U.S. and China from working together in a truly joint partnership. Bruce Pickering, Executive Director of the Asia Society Northern California said, “As in so many other areas, the relationship between the United States and China will be crucial to tackling the problems of sustainability and climate change. If we deal with these issues in a positive and constructive fashion, we can begin to chip away at what will likely be the critical issue of the 21st century. We really don’t want to contemplate any other outcome.”

France Mulls CO2 Taxes on Citizens

The French government plans next year to begin making heavy users of household and transport fuels bear more of the tax burden. President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to say in coming weeks that such a shift is necessary to nudge French citizens toward cleaner alternatives.

The tax would reportedly start at about 14 euros (or $20) for each ton of CO2 emitted, and could rise to levels of around 100 euros ($143) for each ton by 2030. That could mean substantial increases in the price of gasoline and diesel, as well as a sizable jump in the cost of keeping homes warm.

But skeptics say the idea may have less to do with clean energy, and more to do with a desire on the part of Mr. Sarkozy’s government to find new ways to keep the national debt in check.Creating Renewable-Energy Employment

There was no shortage of suggestions when the National Clean Energy Summit convened in Las Vegas last month to contemplate how to build a new clean-energy economy and create millions of so-called green jobs along the way.

Among the most popular proposals, despite skepticism in some quarters, was a call to create construction, manufacturing and administrative jobs through a building-retrofit program.

“The low-hanging fruit is the simplest but least sexy thing, fixing what we are doing now and becoming more efficient,” former President Bill Clinton told conference participants Aug. 10.

Retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient lighting, windows, insulation or climate-control systems, for instance, could put Americans back to work in the industries hardest hit by the economic downturn, according to a report released recently by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, a public-research group headed by Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta.

About 1.6 million U.S. construction workers are without jobs, or 17 percent of the total construction workforce. The number reaches 25 percent in some of the hardest-hit areas of the country, such as California and Arizona. Additionally, 2 million U.S. manufacturing workers are unemployed, 12 percent of that workforce.

Tokyo Electric to use carbon market

Tokyo Electric Power Co expects to keep buying carbon credits overseas beyond 2012, when the first phase of the Kyoto climate pact ends, the company’s climate section chief said, underscoring the firm’s continued reliance on the global emissions trading market.

TEPCO, Asia’s biggest utility, is already one of the top buyers of globally traded carbon credits under the protocol’s market schemes to help Japan, the world’s No.5 greenhouse gas emitter, to meet its Kyoto commitments.

TEPCO redeemed 24.8 million tons of such credits to offset 20 percent of its CO2 emissions in the past year.

It is now considering how to meet a tough CO2 intensity goal that a 10-company industry lobby, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, has voluntarily committed itself to achieving in the year starting in April 2020.

“We see a rocky road ahead as the industry-wide 2020 target will need to be met mainly by our own efforts,” Yoshihiro Kageyama, general manager of TEPCO’s environment department, said at the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.

But he did not say when the company’s 2020 target would be announced.

Renewable energy plan creates rift

The morning heat hits triple digits as a whiptail lizard darts below a creosote bush near Route 66. Gazing across the desert valley, power company executives, environmentalists and federal land managers stand beneath a cloudless sky and argue over the landscape.

PG&E project manager Alice Harron says she is “comfortable” with the solar power plant her utility wants to build on government land here along 4 miles of the Mother Road that connected Chicago and Los Angeles long before the interstate system.

David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy is not. Renewable energy projects such as this one “” which could power 224,000 homes “” sound good in theory, he says, but if they tear up pristine vistas, they’re not “green.”

President Obama wants a “clean-energy economy” that relies on renewable sources such as solar and wind power instead of coal and oil. He wants to put these new utilities on federally owned lands like this stretch of the Mojave Desert, one of the sunniest places on Earth.

The administration wants to lead the way by taking advantage of its vast holdings, which account for 20% of all land in the USA, mostly in the West. That idea is creating a rift among environmentalists, who favor renewable energy but are at odds over where to produce it. Some are willing to compromise with utility companies to build large power plants on remote federal lands to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

Climate change: melting ice will trigger wave of natural disasters

Scientists are to outline dramatic evidence that global warming threatens the planet in a new and unexpected way — by triggering earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches and volcanic eruptions.

Reports by international groups of researchers — to be presented at a London conference next week — will show that climate change, caused by rising outputs of carbon dioxide from vehicles, factories and power stations, will not only affect the atmosphere and the sea but will alter the geology of the Earth.

Melting glaciers will set off avalanches, floods and mud flows in the Alps and other mountain ranges; torrential rainfall in the UK is likely to cause widespread erosion; while disappearing Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets threaten to let loose underwater landslides, triggering tsunamis that could even strike the seas around Britain.

At the same time the disappearance of ice caps will change the pressures acting on the Earth’s crust and set off volcanic eruptions across the globe. Life on Earth faces a warm future — and a fiery one.