Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clean future starts now

Ian Lowe
The Age, December 31, 2008

"CURRENT global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable — environmentally, economically, socially … What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution." I have said similar things myself, but this quote is from a new "World Energy Outlook" by the International Energy Agency.

The change is as amazing as if the Pope were to support contraception or the Business Council to call for stabilising the population. Until last year, the energy agency was still deep in denial about the problems of climate change and peak oil, and was talking about world energy use doubling and an increasing use of coal.

The agency's conversion is only the latest and most dramatic example of a new global attitude. The changes leave the Federal Government suddenly looking out of touch, its recent climate change announcements more like a white flag than a white paper.

The Government's weak emissions trading scheme design is not just a surrender to the big polluters, but appears to give up on saving precious national icons such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and the Murray-Darling river system. It is also bad news for the economy, as Professor Ross Garnaut wrote in these pages recently.

It is dishonest to claim that our per capita pollution reductions are comparable with those of Europe. Increasing population is not being forced on us by Martians, it results from 20th century policies to boost immigration and encourage larger families. The Earth's natural systems don't understand how many Australians there are, only our total impact. As global citizens, we should curb the growth in our numbers and set serious targets to cut pollution.

The UN's 2007 Bali conference noted that countries such as Australia need to reduce greenhouse pollution by 25 to 40 per cent to give the Earth a fighting chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

The latest science is more alarming. Until recently, methane levels in the air had been stable for a decade, but there has been a surge. Unpublished research shows the methane is coming from the Arctic. This is the sign climate scientists have been warning about, a possible tipping point.

Temperatures have increased more at the poles than in the tropics. Warming is releasing methane from tundra, increasing warming and causing further methane releases, possibly setting in train an unstoppable surge in temperature. We need an urgent and concerted approach to cut greenhouse pollution.

Global changes have been striking. The World Economic Forum's Dubai summit on the global agenda concluded that responses to the financial crisis need to be integrated with policies that take into account climate change, energy security, food and water.

Global think tank the Club of Rome has been warning for 35 years about the inevitable consequences of uncontrolled growth. It convened a conference last month that concluded the climate and financial problems interlock and demand an integrated approach. The IEA recognised the science when it called for an energy revolution.

Now US President-elect Barack Obama has named as his energy secretary a scientist who has called for a super-grid to harness solar and wind energy. This move to "green infrastructure" is at the heart of Obama's plan to repair the US economy.

Diplomats are working on talks between Obama and Chinese leaders before the UN's 2009 Copenhagen conference, which must produce a framework to slow climate change. China has shown it is serious by closing 2300 small coalmines, improving energy efficiency by 7 per cent and planning to expand solar and wind energy massively.

What should we be doing? We should join the energy revolution, rather than try to prop up old technologies. Kevin Rudd has set an inadequate target to cut emissions just 5 per cent by 2020, offered billions in subsidies to overseas-owned big polluters and done little to encourage growth of local clean-energy technologies to power our future.

The plan has to go to the Senate, where it faces a rocky road. I expect the Greens to oppose it because it doesn't do enough. The Coalition is hopelessly divided between climate change deniers, Howard-era dinosaurs who don't get it, and a minority who understand the scale of the problem. They may also oppose the scheme. That would force the Government back to the drawing board.

If enough of us make clear to our MPs we want serious action, the Prime Minister could develop a stronger scheme. Next year will be critical. I am not exaggerating in saying the survival of civilisation is at stake.

As a scientifically and technologically literate country, we must recognise that a green economy is vital. That makes economic sense as well as being environmentally responsible. We have to go green if we want to get out of the red.

Professor Ian Lowe is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Monday, December 29, 2008

'Huge year for natural disasters'

BBC News, 29 December 2008

The past year has been one of the most devastating ever in terms of natural disasters, one of the world's biggest re-insurance companies has said.
Munich Re said the impact of the disasters was greater than in 2007 in both human and economic terms.
The company suggested climate change was boosting the destructive power of disasters like hurricanes and flooding.
It has called for stricter curbs on emissions to prevent further uncontrollable weather scenarios.
Although there were fewer "loss-producing events" in 2008 than in the previous year, the impact of natural disasters was higher, said Munich Re in its annual assessment.
More than 220,000 people died in events like cyclones, earthquakes and flooding, the most since 2004, the year of the Asian tsunami.
Meanwhile, overall global losses totalled about $200bn (£137bn), with uninsured losses totalling $45bn, about 50% more than in 2007.

This makes 2008 the third most expensive year on record, after 1995, when the Kobe earthquake struck Japan, and 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina in the US.
Torsten Jeworrek of Munich Re said the pattern continued a long-term trend already observed.
"Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes," he said.

Asia was the continent worst hit by natural disasters in 2008, Munich Re reported.

Cyclone Nargis in Burma killed an estimated 130,000 people and devastated much of the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta region, while the earthquake which struck China's Sichuan province in May left an estimated 70,000 dead and millions homeless.
Munich Re said the losses of $85bn made Sichuan the second most expensive earthquake after Kobe.
Although Nargis and the Sichuan quake brought the biggest cost in terms of human lives, the economic losses were mostly uninsured.
The most expensive single event in 2008 was Hurricane Ike, which brought $30bn in losses. It was one of five major hurricanes in the North Atlantic over the year, which saw a total of 16 tropical storms.
In addition, roughly 1,700 tornadoes across the US caused several billion dollars of damage, as did periods of low pressure weather activity in Europe.

Munich Re quoted World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) figures showing that 2008 was the 10th warmest year since reliable records began, meaning that the 10 warmest years on record all occurred in the past 12 years.
"It is now very probable that the progressive warming of the atmosphere is due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity," said Prof Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re's Geo Risks Research.
"The logic is clear: when temperatures increase there is more evaporation and the atmosphere has a greater capacity to absorb water vapour, with the result that its energy content is higher.
"The weather machine runs into top gear, bringing more intense severe weather events with corresponding effects in terms of losses."
The company said world leaders must put in place "effective and binding rules on CO2 emissions" to curb climate change and ensure that "future generations do not have to live with weather scenarios that are difficult to control".
"If we delay too long, it will be very costly for future generations," said Mr Jeworrek. 

Welcoming Pacific migrants 'in our security interests'

Katharine Murphy 
The Age, December 30, 2008

AUSTRALIA needs to throw open its emissions trading scheme to neighbours in the Pacific — particularly Papua New Guinea and the Solomons — and welcome climate change refugees, a think tank says.

The Lowy Institute has urged the Rudd Government to be more active on a regional solution to climate change given the issue has now been acknowledged as a security threat by Australian and Pacific leaders.

In a paper prepared for a Senate inquiry into economic and security challenges in the Pacific, the institute says the Federal Government must, for national security reasons, acknowledge the vulnerable position of Kiribati and Tuvalu.

To ignore the threat would result in security and aid agencies having to deal with mass migration forced by rising sea levels, it says.

"Australia has to acknowledge that the only viable future for the people of low-lying atoll states, like Kiribati and Tuvalu, lies in migration," policy analysts Jenny Hayward-Jones and Fergus Hanson say.

"Given that Australia will be at the centre of plans to address the forced relocation of the populations of the atoll states, it would be in Australia's interests to develop a plan now to manage their migration."

The institute proposes a two-stage migration plan under which the Government would increase the number of scholarships available to students in Kiribati and Tuvalu for study in Australia. Scholarship students should be allowed to find full-time employment in Australia if they complete their education and then be eligible for permanent residency or fast-tracked family reunion visas.

"This approach would have the advantage of providing incentives for young people to study in Australia, encourage an ordered and voluntary rather than forced migration process from Kiribati and Tuvalu and ultimately lessen pressures on aid and on the welfare system in Australia," the institute says.

The Government's climate change adviser, Ross Garnaut, and environmentalist Tim Flannery are strong advocates of involving PNG in climate change efforts.

Professor Flannery supports a scheme in which Australians would be able to buy online credits to preserve PNG's endangered forests as part of an effort to sequester carbon.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart, Sir Michael Somare, signed the PNG-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership as a first step towards a joint effort on global warming.

The institute endorses this but says the Government should also allow PNG and the Solomon Islands to take part in the emissions trading scheme.

Coalition targets carbon policy gap

Katharine Murphy 
December 30, 2008

THE Coalition will unveil a major policy on deforestation and agriculture in a renewed effort to take on the Rudd Government, which has faced wide-ranging criticism of its greenhouse targets and climate change policies.

With the Government under pressure from environmentalists, business and its hand-picked adviser, Ross Garnaut, the Opposition is regrouping internally on a new package of measures that fill gaps in the Government's emissions trading scheme.

The policy is being developed jointly by Liberal environment spokesman Greg Hunt, and by NSW Nationals Senator John "Wacka" Williams — one of the more militant senate Nationals who split with Liberal senators late this year.

■ Government emissions trading scheme omits deforestation and agriculture.

■ Opposition policy aims to help farmers use their soil to sequester carbon dioxide.

The joint process follows a mid-December crisis meeting of the Coalition leadership and party heavyweights in an effort to restore harmony, which had been strained by a series of damaging policy splits between the Liberal and the National parties.

The new joint process is intended to keep both Coalition partners in the tent, with splits emerging over critical climate change questions including the starting date for emissions trading, and the use of tax breaks for forest planting.

The policy is expected to include a commitment to halve emissions from deforestation within five years, building on a $200 million global forests initiative unveiled by the Howard government.

It will also include tax breaks or other incentives to help Australian farmers use their soil to sequester carbon dioxide.

The Opposition has been considering work by a high-level consortium of farmers, scientists and engineers on the merits of adding "biochar" to the soil.

According to some researchers, biochar makes soil more productive, and also increases its performance as a "sink" for storing carbon, thereby reducing damaging greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Mr Hunt told The Age the Government had "dropped the ball on the global greening project" by leaving out deforestation and by keeping farmers outside the scheme.

"We think that this is wrong — not a minor error but an extraordinary strategic gap," Mr Hunt said.

The Rudd Government — despite protests — decided to leave deforestation and agriculture out of its emissions trading scheme in the first instance, a move that has left room for the Opposition to develop an alternative policy position.

Environmentalists have attacked the Government's carbon reduction targets as too low, while some businesses groups have called for the scheme to be delayed because of the global financial crisis, and Professor Garnaut blasted the Government's recent white paper.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Our planet is in peril: the time for patience is past

PATIENCE is a virtue, they say. And when it comes to climate change, voters are inordinately virtuous. Mums and dads, community groups and environmentalists have waited patiently for our modern political processes and leadership to produce some action.

They waited through Kyoto, Bali, Poznan. They waited at polling booths to elect a prime minister who said he would do something. They waited for Ross Garnaut and his several reports. They wrote submissions, went to public meetings. They waited for Treasury modelling and the federal green paper.

Then, two weeks ago, Kevin Rudd blinked. You could hear the anger at his carbon plan crackling over the airwaves. With its low targets, Australia had decided not to lead the way in the hope China and India may follow. The scheme gave cash instead of energy efficiency help for households, huge compensation to polluters and a get-out clause for Australia to buy overseas permits instead of making its own hard cuts. Then, to top it all off, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said she doubted a strong global agreement would be struck in Copenhagen next year.

In the past fortnight, something has dawned on people who care about climate change: perhaps it is time to acknowledge that too much faith has been put in the political process. If those who fought for the Franklin River acted like such compliant "stakeholders", the river would now be dammed.

Perhaps it is time to realise our democratic system has an entrenched inertia that makes it almost impossible to deal with a long-term crisis like climate change. It is partly a vacuum of leadership: the three-year electoral cycle means leaders have short-term vision. This is not new. But what the white paper process showed was how our system can be so thoroughly corrupted by lobbying — Garnaut described the polluters' efforts as "the most expensive, elaborate and sophisticated lobbying … ever in this country".

In the wake of Rudd's decision, some in the environment movement are talking about a return to people power. They are talking not just about individual action but national campaigns of "direct action": protests, civil disobedience, making life hard for coal-fired power stations. They are talking about moving out of the boardroom and back to front-line action. They know that they will be risking jail. But their patience has run out. "Until now the sentiment was to give Rudd a fair go to deliver. He's now had that time and hasn't delivered," one senior activist said. "I think there will now be a place for radical action, particularly among young people who feel their future is being taken away."

A similar shift is happening globally. As the Crikey website mentioned recently, a man managed to walk into a British coal and oil-fired power station and shut down a whole turbine. "No new coal" was on the note he left.

Much has been written about the groundswell of small, local climate groups. This movement, often led by concerned mothers, shows climate change is moving away from a traditional environmental issue to one that is fundamentally about morality, about not handing a crisis to our children. Rudd ignores this movement at his political peril, although Labor knows the Opposition is unlikely to outgun them on climate. But what should not be underestimated is the anger that will simmer among these groups when they are busting a gut to fight carbon pollution within their communities, only to see this undermined by the Government on the world stage and in cosy deals with industry.

This anger will boil over when the latest science starts to filter down. Garnaut's review, Rudd's decision and the Copenhagen meeting are all based on findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This science is now two years' old. For scientists, the biggest game in town is now the loss of Arctic summer sea ice. The domino effect of this development was described by Britain's Public Interest Research Centre in a report called Climate Safety, endorsed by a former IPCC co-chairman.

Several respected scientists believe the Arctic sea will soon be ice-free in summer. Their guesses range from 2011 to 2015, 80 years ahead of IPCC predictions. This could spark a series of events that end with Greenland's ice melting and many metres of sea level rise.

It is partly because of these "tipping points" that two leading climate thinkers — NASA's James Hansen and Al Gore — say carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere should be stabilised at 350 parts per million. We are now at 385 ppm, so this means not just a zero-emissions economy, but sucking down existing carbon. Right now the world is struggling to agree on 450 ppm. It may be a virtue, but the time for patience has probably run out.

Melissa Fyfe is The Sunday Age's state political reporter.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

How much climate change can a hungry koala bear?

Sunday Age, December 28, 2008

KOALAS are under threat from rising levels of carbon that poison their only food source, eucalyptus leaves.

A scientist has warned that climate change — specifically rising levels of greenhouse gases — is pushing up toxins and lowering nutrients in eucalyptus leaves. Dr Dan Lunney, of the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, said the trend would force koalas on to the ground to search for food, putting them in danger.

"What currently may be good koala habitats will become very marginal habitats," he said. "This means koalas have to change trees more often to get to the leaves they need … If they walk across the ground, they are vulnerable to dogs, and if there are roads in the middle they are vulnerable to cars as well."

Koalas are listed as a vulnerable species. Among the biggest threats to their survival are land clearing, bushfires and drought. They are also notoriously fussy eaters. Of 700 types of gum tree, they will eat the leaves of only 25.


It's power to the people as self-help groups fight climate change

Peter Munro 
Sunday Age, December 28, 2008

THE cracked bed of Ballarat's Lake Wendouree is a sorry place for the birth of one of Victoria's leading climate change groups. Tired boat ramps lead down to dusty dirt, weeds and straggly scrub sprouting through a few stagnant puddles.

Years of drought and water restrictions have reduced this site of the Melbourne Olympics rowing and canoeing to a dried mud pit.

On these dry banks in late 2006, the climate change group Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions, or Breaze, was formed with 40 members.

Two years later, its membership has passed 1100.

It has been given $152,000 by the State Government, to show Victoria's many budding climate change groups how to grow and prosper.

Community action has been crucial to combating climate change along this stretch of central Victoria.

Breaze's strength is in its numbers, which help it buy renewable energy systems in bulk at significant discounts. Members have already received solar hot water systems at no cost, plus $200 for the price of installation. Now, the group has installed more than 100 solar roof panel systems under a bulk discount.

Meredith Alexander had solar roof panels installed on her Ballarat house this month, saving more than $1000 on the estimated cost of about $12,500.

Ms Alexander, who hopes to have solar hot water installed next year, said her one-kilowatt system powered about one-third of her electricity needs. "I want my children to have a world to live in, and they won't if we keep squandering resources at this rate," she said.

"If you do it on your own, it can be difficult to afford, but when you've got this collective buying power, it is possible."

A similar bulk-buy model in Castlemaine, run by the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group, has helped install more than 70 discounted solar roof panel systems. In Bendigo — where the office of Federal Labor MP Steve Gibbons was this month plastered with posters protesting against the size of the Government's 5 per cent carbon emissions reduction target — the Strathfieldsaye & Districts Community Enterprise group has orders for about 200 systems.

Breaze's acting executive officer, Lisa Kendal, said there was a wave of local interest in helping combat global climate change. "People are desperate to do something, and this is a very tangible thing they can do," she said.

The group is already coaching other climate change groups in projects such as installing bulk-buy solar roof panels at local schools. Breaze is also developing a project for buying locally produced food in bulk, to help reduce prices and packaging, as well as carbon emissions created by shipping food long distances.

Ms Kendal criticised the Federal Government's recent decision to scrap the $8000 solar roof panel rebate, saying it penalised low and middle-income earners. Under the new "solar credits" scheme, householders installing solar panels will receive five renewable energy certificates, instead of one, for each megawatt hour of electricity they create. But in Victoria, where solar roof panels produce less energy than in northern Australia, the rebate on a 1.5-kilowatt system could drop to about $5500.

"The Government's sending a message that it's not prepared to make that leap into the future of renewable energy in a big way. It's penalising people who are most committed to making a difference," Ms Kendal said.

"We have quite a big untapped market in Ballarat, but this will hugely slow what we're doing.

"We're going to struggle to promote the benefits financially to people."

Thursday, December 25, 2008

World leaders 'failing to get' climate message

THE French scientist smiled enigmatically. "It doesn't matter what the politicians promise. Even if we stop emissions growing today, the world will still warm by 2 °C, a lot more in some places. It is too late to prevent that." The human race, in other words, has already failed in its task, agreed by 180 nations at the Earth Summit back in 1992, to prevent "dangerous climate change".

Philippe Ciais, the incoming chairmain of the Global Carbon Project, a network of scientists that monitors how humans are influencing the natural carbon cycle, was speaking at the UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland, earlier this month, presenting the project's latest findings. He warned of a growing gap between political rhetoric and scientific reality on climate change: while politicians boast of slashing CO2 emissions and promise further cuts, in the real world things are deteriorating fast. Global emissions have risen 28 per cent already this decade, compared with 9 per cent for the whole of the 1990s, said Ciais (see Soaring emissions).

Why? For several decades until 2000, the world's economy was creating progressively more wealth for every tonne of carbon burned. Since 2000, that improvement in efficiency has abruptly halted and emissions have soared as a result.

Meanwhile nature's ability to absorb CO2 is declining - it is down from 60 per cent of all man-made emissions in 1960 to 55 per cent today. As the world talks about stabilising CO2 levels, it is actually accumulating ever faster.

In Poznan, world leaders spent two weeks trying to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto protocol, aiming for a deal to be signed this time next year in Copenhagen. Progress was slow. Delegates made advances towards setting up an adaptation fund to help poor countries hit by inevitable climate change, and in paying tropical countries to protect their rainforests. But while the European Union agreed measures that could yield 20 per cent cuts by 2020 at a separate meeting in Brussels (see "Polluter pays?"), in Poznan rich nations made no new promises about their future emissions.

As proceedings drew to a close, the UN's chief climate negotiator, Yvo de Boer, said that "serious negotiations must begin now". He said the same thing after last year's talks in Bali.

Meanwhile the small band of scientists at the event complained that politicians still don't get the enormity of the problem. Minister after minister claimed at Poznan that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said we can avoid dangerous climate change if we stop average global temperatures from rising by 2 °C, and that this can be done by halving CO2 emissions by 2050. Neither claim is true, said Ciais.

"We need an 80 per cent cut by 2050, and that would only give a 70 per cent chance of avoiding [a rise of] 2 °C," said Martin Parry, co-chair of the latest IPCC report on climate change. Another scientist put it: "Most of the politicians just don't get it. We have to emit less carbon dioxide than the planet can absorb. The planet does not do political compromises."

One man at least who seemed to get it was UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, whose attendance in Poznan underscored how climate change is now his top priority. He promised to convene at least one meeting with world leaders next year to bang heads together.

In part, the Poznan paralysis arose because, as many leaders admitted, the world is waiting for the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama, in hopes of a change of heart from the US. All agree that no deal is worth having without the US signing up, and a deadline for countries to make firm proposals on emissions cuts was set for April 2009 specifically to fit with Obama's timetable.

Obama's emissary in Poznan, John Kerry, the next chairman of the US senate foreign relations committee, gave little away about Obama's plans, other than to promise the US will be no push-over. He said the US Senate would not ratify any agreement if "big emerging economies failed to make commitments of their own".

This is a familiar sticking point. Numerous developing countries said they would oppose any attempt to extend the list of nations facing formal targets - even though there are a growing number of developing countries whose per-capita emissions have overtaken those of nations subject to Kyoto targets (see "Playing catch-up"). The good news was that a handful of developing countries began to talk about voluntary cuts. Mexico set an "aspiration" to halve emissions by 2050, and South Africa promised to stop its emissions increasing by 2025 and reduce them from 2035.

Behind the scenes, delegates also saw signs that the next US administration is already engaged in a diplomatic dance with China that might allow agreement in Copenhagen. In his formal presentation, head Chinese delegate Xie Zhenhua read out a long and detailed list of Chinese achievements, including a 7 per cent rise in energy efficiency in two years, the closure of 2300 small coal mines and a huge expansion of wind and solar power.

Some delegates believe this list signals the development of targets that China might adopt in Copenhagen. Kerry hinted this might be the kind of commitment he had in mind. "There are plenty of ways to give credit to other countries for what they are already doing. China for instance is engaged in many different, very positive steps to deal with its energy consumption."

What is still lacking is a framework for working out long-term entitlements to emit greenhouse gases. Developing nations are reluctant to accept targets till there is a fair formula.

One suggestion was per-capita entitlements. The European Union said, in documents submitted to the negotiations, that to halve global emissions by 2050, "average emissions per capita should be reduced to around 2 tonnes of CO2, and that in the long term, gradual convergence... of national per capita emissions would be necessary".

Most scientists say 1 tonne would be nearer the mark. But if the EU idea wins favour, some kind of equitable share-out of emissions could form part of the Copenhagen compromise.

Will planet Earth wait? Maybe not. Ciais had one last word of warning. For the past decade, atmospheric concentrations of the second most important greenhouse gas, methane, have been stable - rare good news, while it lasted. Then last year, there was a sudden surge. Ciais said unpublished research traces the gas to the Arctic, which saw unprecedented warming in 2007.

Ciais says melting permafrost released a fraction of its huge stores of frozen methane. "Once this process starts, it could soon become unstoppable," he says. It is one of the "tipping points" most feared by climate scientists. "It is too early to say if we have passed that threshold. But once it is passed, even zero emissions of CO2 won't stop the warming."

Polluter pays?

Heads of EU states meeting in Brussels as the Poznan talks proceeded finally reached an agreement on how to meet their promise of cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. The EU says it will go to 30 per cent if others agree the same in Copenhagen next year.The agreement was hailed by EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, who was in Poznan, as "the most ambitious in the world". However, the agreement contains so many concessions to industry and power companies that critics say it will never deliver the promised cuts.Europe's plan is to make polluters buy emissions permits, which are currently handed out free. The new plan is to auction the permits after 2012, but under pressure from east-European countries such as Poland, which rely on burning coal for their power, and Germany, which is planning new coal power stations, the meeting doled out exemptions that in some countries could excuse 70 per cent of emissions from needing permits.Environmentalists say this will cause the auction price of permits to collapse, cutting incentives to reduce emissions and develop green energy technologies, and ultimately making it much harder for the EU to reach a 30 per cent target.They add that the new rules will allow European companies to meet their targets largely by buying carbon offsets from developing countries. The deal's supporters say that without it the market would collapse anyway.

Playing catch-up

Many countries that don't have Kyoto targets are rapidly increasing their CO2 emissions. To some this seems only fair, since they lag behind the rich world - even China, whose per-capita emissions are only a quarter those of the US.However, a growing number of nations that were excused targets under Kyoto because they qualify as developing nations have now soared past some European countries in the emissions stakes. The trend is revealed in new estimates from the US government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a respected international monitor.For instance, by 2007 Malaysia had increased its emissions fourfold from 1990 levels. It now emits more per capita than the UK, as do Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Those three have virtually doubled their emissions since 1990, and so has South Korea - embarrassingly for its most famous envoy, climate-crusading UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.Some of the most startling figures come from the Gulf oil states. The United Arab Emirates' per-capita emissions are now twice those of the UK, while Kuwait's are four times as high as the UK's, and Qatar's more than six times.

Monday, December 22, 2008

One little word undoes the PM's claims on greenhouse gases

WE ALL think the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme will cut Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent relative to 2000 levels — right? No, we're wrong.

Treasury modelling estimates that even with a cleaner, more effective model than the one now adopted, Australia's emissions in 2020 would rise 5.8 per cent above 2000 levels. We would pump out more emissions in 2020 than we do now.

It's an ugly reality that exemplifies why the Government's model is doomed to fail. It promises change, but tries to shield everyone from all the points that drive change.

As I have argued before, the problem is not the targets themselves. If we were to cut our emissions in 2020 to 5 per cent below 2000 levels, that would be a rapid cut of 25 per cent in emissions per capita from current levels. A cut to 15 per cent below 2000 levels, promised if we get a good international agreement, implies a cut of 33 per cent per capita between 2006 and 2020. If we achieved that, it would be real progress towards the ultimate goal of halving global emissions.

The problem is that with Rudd's decision to shield companies and households from the changes the scheme is meant to drive, it's unlikely that Australia will reduce its emissions. Yet that is what he promised to do.

There's a crucial point we all overlooked. Labor has not committed Australia to cut its emissions by 5 per cent, but to cut its emissions allocation by 5 per cent. And that is very different. In 2000, Australia emitted 553 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. In 2020, the Government will allocate permits for 525 million tonnes of emissions. But even before last week's changes weakened the scheme, Treasury estimated that Australia would emit 585 million tonnes.

The key to it is that the scheme allows companies to use unlimited numbers of permits from other countries instead of our own. And the permits we import will be subtracted from our emissions tally.

They would come from other Western countries or (more likely) from developing countries, under rules such as the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism (CDM), which allows Western companies to buy permits for emissions saved in developing countries by using cleaner technology. A noble idea, unfortunately it has proved easy to rort.

The Garnaut report proposed a tighter test, but the Government refused. Permits from CDM and "joint initiative" projects in countries with emission reduction targets are expected to be plentiful and cheap. That's why Treasury estimates that emissions trading will prove cheap.

On Treasury modelling, even with constraints that will no longer apply, Australia in 2020 would import permits for another 46 million tonnes from other countries. And by 2050, Rudd pledges, Australia will reduce emissions by 60 per cent from 2000 levels, to 221 million tonnes. But Treasury projects that in fact Australia would cut its emissions by only 24 per cent, to 420 million tonnes, and buy 199 million tonnes of permits overseas.

Moreover, its modelling assumed Labor would limit the use of foreign permits, to supply at most half the cut in emissions. But Rudd threw out that constraint, allowing an even larger share of our "emissions cuts" to be bought overseas.

What's wrong with that? Nothing, so long as it really cuts emissions. But we have seen China sell "certified emissions reduction" permits for phasing out hydrochlorofluorocarbons, which it has to do anyway under the Montreal Protocol. The ease of rorting is one reason why economists such as Jeffrey Sachs plead instead for a carbon tax.

The Government's spurned climate change adviser Ross Garnaut spelt out eloquently in Saturday's Age how its scheme would waste the revenue from emissions trading in unjustifiable and/or extravagant compensation payouts to interest groups, rather than using it to drive change. It's a sad picture of a weak Government that crumbles under pressure from big business.

The net effect will be to reduce emission cuts in Australia, so the targets are achieved by buying dubious overseas permits. The scheme won't be a write-off, but it will be rorted, and it will not achieve what it claims to do.

Labor has tried to deflect criticism by focusing on the cuts in per capita emissions. That would be fine if the cuts really happened, and if, like Garnaut, it proposed that contraction and convergence to a global per capita emissions target by 2050 be the framework for an international agreement.

But when Penny Wong addressed other environment ministers at Poznan, she did not mention per capita emissions. Why? Because Australia's per capita emissions are the sixth highest in the world — and under Garnaut's framework we would have to make (or buy) the sixth biggest cuts.

Yet there is no other viable way for the world to cut emissions to levels that would end global warming. The greenhouse gases that threaten environmental catastrophe are not those already up there, but the far greater volume to be emitted in future, mostly from developing countries.

We need real leadership — not this.

Tim Colebatch is economics editor.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama nominates Harvard physicist to lead science team

ABC News Online, Posted 5 hours 0 minutes ago


US president-elect Barack Obama has nominated a Harvard university physicist to lead his science and technology team in the White House.

John Holdren is a leading expert on climate change who has advocated a robust government response to the problem.

Analysts say the appointment signals a change from the policies of the Bush administration, which has been criticised for not taking climate change seriously.

In his weekly video address, Mr Obama said science needed to be placed at the top of the agenda.

"Whether it's the science to slow global warming, the technology to protect our troops and confront bio-terror and weapons of mass destruction, the research to find lifesaving cures or the innovations to remake our industries and create 21st century jobs - today more than ever before science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation," he said.




Geneva, 16 December 2008 (WMO) – The year 2008 is likely to rank as the 10th warmest year on record since the beginning of the instrumental climate records in 1850, according to data sources compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The global combined sea-surface and land-surface air temperature for 2008 is currently estimated at 0.31°C/0.56°F above the 1961-1990 annual average of 14.00°C/57.2°F. The global average temperature in 2008 was slightly lower than that for the previous years of the 21st century due in particular, to the moderate to strong La NiƱa that developed in the latter half of 2007.
The Arctic Sea ice extent dropped to its second-lowest level during the melt season since satellite measurements began in 1979. Climate extremes, including devastating floods, severe and persistent droughts, snow storms, heatwaves and cold waves, were recorded in many parts of the world.
This preliminary information for 2008 is based on climate data from networks of land-based weather stations, ships and buoys, as well as satellites. The data are continuously collected and disseminated by the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) of WMO's 188 Members and several collaborating research institutions. Final updates and figures for 2008 will be published in March 2009 in the annual WMO Statement on the Status of the Global Climate.
WMO's global temperature analysis is based on two complementary sources. One is the combined dataset maintained by both the Hadley Centre of the UK Meteorological Office, and the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, UK. The other dataset is maintained by the US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


Regional temperature anomalies
In March, southern Australia experienced a record heatwave that brought scorching temperatures across the region. Adelaide experienced its longest running heatwave on record, with 15 consecutive days of maximum temperatures above 35°C. Also, several heatwaves occurred in south-eastern Europe and the Middle East during April, associated with a very warm spring observed, not only in this region but also in a large part of the rest of Europe and Asia.


Prolonged drought
Dry conditions in south-eastern Australia reinforced long-term drought over much of that region, with Victoria having its ninth-driest year on record. These conditions exacerbated severe water shortages in the agriculturally important Murray-Darling Basin, resulting in widespread crop failures in the area. September and October, in particular, were exceptionally dry in this region.


Artic sea ice down to second-lowest extent
Arctic sea ice extent during the 2008 melt season dropped to its second-lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979, reaching the lowest point in its annual cycle of melt and growth on 14 September 2008. Average sea ice extent over the month of September, a standard measure in the scientific study of Arctic sea ice, was 4.67 million km2. The record monthly low, set in 2007, was 4.3 million km2.
Because ice was thinner in 2008, overall ice volume was less than that in any other year.
A remarkable occurrence in 2008 was the dramatic disappearance of nearly one-quarter of the massive ancient ice shelves on Ellesmere Island. Ice 70 metres thick, which a century ago covered 9 000 km2, has been chiselled down to just 1 000 km2 today, underscoring the rapidity of changes taking place in the Arctic. The season strongly reinforces the 30-year downward trend in Artic sea ice extent.


WMO is the United Nations' authoritative voice on weather, climate and water

Has the Arctic melt passed the point of no return?

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

The Independent, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Scientists have found the first unequivocal evidence that the Arctic region is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world at least a decade before it was predicted to happen.

Climate-change researchers have found that air temperatures in the region are higher than would be normally expected during the autumn because the increased melting of the summer Arctic sea ice is accumulating heat in the ocean. The phenomenon, known as Arctic amplification, was not expected to be seen for at least another 10 or 15 years and the findings will further raise concerns that the Arctic has already passed the climatic tipping-point towards ice-free summers, beyond which it may not recover.

The Arctic is considered one of the most sensitive regions in terms of climate change and its transition to another climatic state will have a direct impact on other parts of the northern hemisphere, as well more indirect effects around the world.

Although researchers have documented a catastrophic loss of sea ice during the summer months over the past 20 years, they have not until now detected the definitive temperature signal that they could link with greenhouse-gas emissions.

However, in a study to be presented later today to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, scientists will show that Arctic amplification has been under way for the past five years, and it will continue to intensify Arctic warming for the foreseeable future.

Computer models of the global climate have for years suggested the Arctic will warm at a faster rate than the rest of the world due to Arctic amplification but many scientists believed this effect would only become measurable in the coming decades.

However, a study by scientists from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Colorado has found that amplification is already showing up as a marked increase in surface air temperatures within the Arctic region during the autumn period, when the sea ice begins to reform after the summer melting period.

Julienne Stroeve, of the NSIDC, who led the study with her colleague Mark Serreze, said that autumn air temperatures this year and in recent years have been anomalously high. The Arctic Ocean warmed more than usual because heat from the sun was absorbed more easily by the dark areas of open water compared to the highly reflective surface of a frozen sea. "Autumn 2008 saw very strong surface temperature anomalies over the areas where the sea ice was lost," Dr Stroeve told The Independent ahead of her presentation today.

"The observed autumn warming that we've seen over the Arctic Ocean, not just this year but over the past five years or so, represents Arctic amplification, the notion that rises in surface air temperatures in response to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will be larger in the Arctic than elsewhere over the globe," she said. "The warming climate is leading to more open water in the Arctic Ocean. As these open water areas develop through spring and summer, they absorb most of the sun's energy, leading to ocean warming.

"In autumn, as the sun sets in the Arctic, most of the heat that was gained in the ocean during summer is released back to the atmosphere, acting to warm the atmosphere. It is this heat-release back to the atmosphere that gives us Arctic amplification."

Temperature readings for this October were significantly higher than normal across the entire Arctic region – between 3C and 5C above average – but some areas were dramatically higher. In the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, for instance, near-surface air temperatures were more than 7C higher than normal for this time of year. The scientists believe the only reasonable explanation for such high autumn readings is that the ocean heat accumulated during the summer because of the loss of sea ice is being released back into the atmosphere from the sea before winter sea ice has chance to reform.

"One of the reasons we focus on Arctic amplification is that it is a good test of greenhouse warming theory. Even our earliest climate models were telling us that we should see this Arctic amplification emerge as we lose the summer ice cover," Dr Stroeve said. "This is exactly what we are now starting to see in the observations. Simply put, it's a case of we hate to say we told you so, but we did," she added.

Computer models have also predicted totally ice-free summers in the Arctic by 2070, but many scientists now believe that the first ice-free summer could occur far earlier than this, perhaps within the next 20 years.

Interesting? Click here to explore further

NASA: Global warming to increase severe storms, rainfall

USA Today, 20th December 2008

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — The frequency of extremely high clouds in Earth's tropics — the type associated with severe storms and rainfall — is increasing as a result of global warming, according to a study by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

In a presentation today to the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, JPL Senior Research Scientist Hartmut Aumann outlined the results of a study based on five years of data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft.

The AIRS data were used to observe certain types of tropical clouds linked with severe storms, torrential rain and hail. The instrument typically detects about 6,000 of these clouds each day. Aumann and his team found a strong correlation between the frequency of these clouds and seasonal variations in the average sea-surface temperature of the tropical oceans.

For every 1-degree (C) increase in average ocean surface temperature, the team observed a 45-percent increase in the frequency of the very high clouds. At the present rate of global warming of 0.13 degrees per decade, the team inferred the frequency of these storms can be expected to increase by six percent per decade.

Climate modelers have long speculated that the frequency and intensity of severe storms may or may not increase with global warming. Aumann said results of the study will help improve their models.

"Clouds and rain have been the weakest link in climate prediction," said Aumann. "The interaction between the daytime warming of the sea surface under clear-sky conditions and increases in the formation of low clouds, high clouds and, ultimately, rain is very complicated. The high clouds in our observations — typically at altitudes of 20 kilometers and higher — present the greatest difficulties for current climate models, which aren't able to resolve cloud structures smaller than about 250 kilometers in size."

Aumann said the results of his study, published recently in Geophysical Research Letters, are consistent with another NASA-funded study by Frank Wentz and colleagues in 2005. That study found an increase in the global rain rate of 1.5% per decade over 18 years, a value that is about five times higher than the value estimated by climate models that were used in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Government shrugs off climate plan criticism

Josh Gordon 
The Age, December 21, 2008

THE Federal Government has shrugged off criticism from its own climate change expert adviser that its emissions trading scheme is too weak and panders to vested business interests.

High-profile economist Ross Garnaut, who was hired as the Government's climate change adviser, last week warned that there was "no public policy justification" for $3.9 billion in unconditional payments to electricity generators. He also condemned the Government's failure to embrace a more ambitious target to reduce emissions.

Responding to the criticisms, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong yesterday said Professor Garnaut was entitled to his views, but said that the Government "makes no apology" for protecting the economy and jobs.

"In terms of assistance to generators, the judgement the Government made is that it is necessary to secure the investment environment in the electricity sector," Senator Wong said.

The Government last week unveiled an emissions trading plan aimed at cutting emissions to between 5 and 15 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.

"Minus 15 (per cent) off 2000 levels represents a 41 per cent reduction for every man, woman and child in Australia, over the period 1990 to 2020," Senator Wong said.

Opposition climate change spokesman Greg Hunt said Labor had been caught out setting up false expectations that it would take tough action on climate change.

In a reference to Monty Python's Life of Brian, Mr Hunt said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was "not the Messiah when it comes to climate change, he's just a very naughty boy".

"It's about the impression of activity, clothing it with a moral purpose and then the failure to deliver practical action," he said.

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens are arguing that the policy should be reviewed following Professor Garnaut's criticism.

"It is essential that the Government admits that it has got the scheme completely wrong, and immediately review its weak targets and its shocking bias and generosity to the big polluters," Greens senator Christine Milne said.

But the Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes said more onerous targets should not be inflicted on working families and that the subsidies provided to business under the scheme would prevent jobs from leaking overseas.

"The Government is trying to deal with twin crises at one time — climate change and the economy," Mr Howes said.