Monday, December 17, 2007

"Where Has All the Water Gone?"

IPS News Agency, December 14

Interview with author and activist Maude Barlow

Imagine a planet where nuclear-powered desalination plants ring the world's oceans; corporate nanotechnology cleans up sewage water so private utilities can sell it back to consumers in plastic bottles at huge profit; and the poor who lack access to clean water die in increased numbers.

This may sound like science fiction dystopia, but according to Maude Barlow, author of the recently released book "Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water", this future is not too far away.

Barlow is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Global Showdown" and "Too Close for Comfort: Canada's Future Inside Fortress North America". She sits on the board of directors of Food and Water Watch and the International Forum on Globalisation and was awarded Sweden's Right Livelihood Award (considered by many to be the "alternative Nobel Prize") in 2005 for her work on water issues.

She recently spoke with IPS contributor Chris Arsenault from her home in Ottawa.

IPS: Water, as everyone knows, moves in a cycle; it is not created or destroyed. So when water is used in a major city, a farm or any other area, doesn't it eventually enter back into the water cycle through evaporation and rain? The picture of water shortages you are painting, isn't it a little over-exaggerated?

MB: We are literally physically running out of water in many parts of the world, it's not a cyclical drought. I think that is most important thing, which I try to establish in the first chapter -- where has all the water gone?

Unbeknownst to all of us, what we learned back in grade five about the hydrologic cycle being a closed cycle, and water just circulating forever without being able to go anywhere, it appears now not to be true. We don't have access to the surface water that people traditionally used for millennia, because is has been polluted. Humanity is now putting great big bore wells into the earth and taking water from underneath the ground faster than it can be replenished by nature.

Combine that with urbanisation, which doesn't allow the rain to come back to green spaces; deforestation, wetland destruction, and the mass movement of water out of water sheds for industrial farming, and you interrupt the hydrological cycle. Sure, the water is still somewhere, but we can't use it: it has either been polluted or we can't get at it or we've destroyed it in some way.

IPS: How many people are affected daily by a lack of clean, accessible water? Where are they living?

MB: About two billon people now live in areas of the world that have been declared water stressed by the U.N. Of those, 1.4 billion people either have no access to clean water or are drinking substandard water; three-fifths of the world's population has no access to sanitation.

They are largely living in the global south, although not entirely anymore. As some of the wealthy countries start to come up against the water wall, the water crisis is going to start going up everyone's political ladder; it's not just going to be poor people anymore.

There is this image of people without water living in Africa, the slums of Brazil or Bolivia or whatever. Water scarcity is coming to a community near you and that's really important to know.

There are 36 states in the U.S. that are facing serious to severe water problems. The U.S. Geological Society says it is the driest it has been in the U.S. Southwest in the last 500 years. It's the end of water in certain parts of the United States.

IPS: Some analysts think technology will solve most of humanity's water woes. Do you think this can happen?

MB: The brains in charge have decided that it's all going to saved by high technology; they are putting billions and billions of dollars into research on desalination, nuclear-powered desalination, toilet to tap recycling, nanotechnology, cloud dehumidifiers and fancy bottling companies. Israel is almost 100 percent dependent on desalinated water, as is Saudi Arabia. There is going to be a tripling of desalination plants around the world in the next 10 years.

They're looking for ways to capture what's left of water or ways to convert dirty water or salt water into something useful, which of course will be controlled by the companies who own this technology and have access to the water.

There are a whole bunch of new companies getting into the market in terms of high technology and water re-use technology; companies like General Electric and Dow Chemical. High technology is the fastest growing sector of the water industry.

IPS: Mark Twain once remarked that: 'Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over." Is water becoming a national security issue?

MB: The United States, and only very recently, is starting to see water as a national security issue. Up until three years ago, we didn't have any evidence that understood the extent of the crisis. They understand it now.

Geopolitically this is a huge issue, leading to international conflicts and water refugees. They [the U.S. intelligence community] also understand that they're running out of water in their own country. They have hired this think-tank called (CSIS) the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, to advise them on something the [George W.] Bush administration put together called Global Water Futures.

They [Global Water Futures] are working with a number of private water companies, including Coca-Cola and some of the high tech companies. They are also working with Sandia laboratories, a Pentagon-related research lab that is currently being run by Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer.

This consortium advising the U.S. government on water is being run by the world's largest weapons maker, which starts to bring the whole notion of security and water together in an unhealthy and distressing way.

I also think the U.S is looking at the Guarani aquifer in Latin America [located under Paraguay, Bolivia and other countries]. The United States has suddenly put up military bases around this aquifer, saying there are terrorists down there, but I don't think there are terrorists, I think there is water.

IPS: How should countries and the global community deal with the crisis of water?

MB: If we just talk about hooking up more people to pipes, you could put all the money in the world to that. Even if we had a world that cared about the two billion people without water, which we don't, there isn't enough water in the ground the way we are over-pumping to just set up more high technology or more bore wells in the ground. What we are doing is not sustainable.

The most important thing is to stop the pollution of surface water around the world. That means strict laws, a different form of farming, and getting rid of chemicals and nitrates which are destroying water tables. We have to be strict and stern -- with jail sentences -- for industries who are polluting our water: the mining industry, pulp and paper, the car industry and so on.

IPS: Can you talk about some of the grassroots struggles taking place around the world dealing with water issues?

MB: There is a wonderful movement; a global water justice movement. It gives me hope. The movement is built on a set of principles and one of them in "solidarity not charity"; it's not about global North groups coming to rescue the global south. It's not charity; it's not building pipes -- although sometimes that's also important -- but it is about justice; building a more equitable world.

The movement is about countries asserting their right to public services, which many can't do right now because they owe such a huge debt to the global North. It's about understanding the deeper issues here and viewing water with a more universal perspective.

We've had many wins. We do everything from local organising, taking on the big companies, taking on governments sometimes, taking on the World Bank and WTO, and showing up in strength at the World Water forums that are held every three years.

We are fighting now for a right to water covenant or convention at the United Nations, but we also want this in municipal bylaws and nation state constitutions. We want to change the thinking: water is not a commodity but a fundamental human right. It belongs to the earth, to other species, to future generations; it must never be denied to anyone because of an inability to pay.

Our Decrepit Food Factories

MICHAEL POLLAN, December 16, NY Times Magazine

The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever “it” means. On a recent visit to a land-grant university’s spanking-new sustainability institute, I asked my host how many of the school’s faculty members were involved. She beamed: When letters went out asking who on campus was doing research that might fit under that rubric, virtually everyone replied in the affirmative. What a nice surprise, she suggested. But really, what soul working in agricultural science today (or for that matter in any other field of endeavor) would stand up and be counted as against sustainability? When pesticide makers and genetic engineers cloak themselves in the term, you have to wonder if we haven’t succeeded in defining sustainability down, to paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, and if it will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like “natural” or “green” or “nice.”

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial agriculture as “unsustainable” in precisely these terms, though what form the “breakdown” might take or when it might happen has never been certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop working? The soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been predicted and they may yet come to pass. But if a system is unsustainable — if its workings offend the rules of nature — the cracks and signs of breakdown may show up in the most unexpected times and places. Two stories in the news this year, stories that on their faces would seem to have nothing to do with each other let alone with agriculture, may point to an imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.

The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace. The methicillin-resistant staph that first emerged in hospitals as early as the 1960s posed a threat mostly to elderly patients. But a new and even more virulent strain — called “community-acquired MRSA” — is now killing young and otherwise healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital. No one is yet sure how or where this strain evolved, but it is sufficiently different from the hospital-bred strains to have some researchers looking elsewhere for its origin, to another environment where the heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a lethal new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals’ growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that “sooner or later” may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing that a strain of “MRSA from an animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the Netherlands.” Is this strictly a European problem? Evidently not. According to a study in Veterinary Microbiology, MRSA was found on 45 percent of the 20 pig farms sampled in Ontario, and in 20 percent of the pig farmers. (People can harbor the bacteria without being infected by it.) Thanks to Nafta, pigs move freely between Canada and the United States. So MRSA may be present on American pig farms; we just haven’t looked yet.

Scientists have not established that any of the strains of MRSA presently killing Americans originated on factory farms. But given the rising public alarm about MRSA and the widespread use on these farms of precisely the class of antibiotics to which these microbes have acquired resistance, you would think our public-health authorities would be all over it. Apparently not. When, in August, the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition asked the Food and Drug Administration what the agency was doing about the problem of MRSA in livestock, the agency had little to say. Earlier this month, though, the F.D.A. indicated that it may begin a pilot screening program with the C.D.C.

As for independent public-health researchers, they say they can’t study the problem without the cooperation of the livestock industry, which, not surprisingly, has not been forthcoming. For what if these researchers should find proof that one of the hidden costs of cheap meat is an epidemic of drug-resistant infection among young people? There would be calls to revolutionize the way we produce meat in this country. This is not something that the meat and the pharmaceutical industries or their respective regulatory “watchdogs” — the Department of Agriculture and F.D.A. — are in any rush to see happen.

The second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 2006, when a Pennsylvanian beekeeper noticed that his bees were disappearing — going out on foraging expeditions in the morning never to return. Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were reporting losses of between 20 percent and 80 percent of their bees, in some cases virtually overnight. Entomologists have yet to identify the culprit, but suspects include a virus, agricultural pesticides and a parasitic mite. (Media reports that genetically modified crops or cellphone towers might be responsible have been discounted.) But whatever turns out to be the immediate cause of colony collapse, many entomologists believe some such disaster was waiting to happen: the lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they’ve become vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along.

You need look no farther than a California almond orchard to understand how these bees, which have become indispensable workers in the vast fields of industrial agriculture, could have gotten into such trouble. Like a great many other food crops, like an estimated one out of every three bites you eat, the almond depends on bees for pollination. No bees, no almonds. The problem is that almonds today are grown in such vast monocultures — 80 percent of the world’s crop comes from a 600,000-acre swath of orchard in California’s Central Valley — that, when the trees come into bloom for three weeks every February, there are simply not enough bees in the valley to pollinate all those flowers. For what bee would hang around an orchard where there’s absolutely nothing to eat for the 49 weeks of the year that the almond trees aren’t in bloom? So every February the almond growers must import an army of migrant honeybees to the Central Valley — more than a million hives housing as many as 40 billion bees in all.

They come on the backs of tractor-trailers from as far away as New England. These days, more than half of all the beehives in America are on the move to California every February, for what has been called the world’s greatest “pollination event.” (Be there!) Bees that have been dormant in the depths of a Minnesota winter are woken up to go to work in the California spring; to get them in shape to travel cross-country and wade into the vast orgy of almond bloom, their keepers ply them with “pollen patties” — which often include ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and flower pollen imported from China. Because the pollination is so critical and the bee population so depleted, almond growers will pay up to $150 to rent a box of bees for three weeks, creating a multimillion-dollar industry of migrant beekeeping that barely existed a few decades ago. Thirty-five years ago you could rent a box of bees for $10. (Pimping bees is the whole of the almond business for these beekeepers since almond honey is so bitter as to be worthless.)

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers — and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle, California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a place where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an epidemic national in scope. In October, the journal Science published a study that implicated a virus (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) in Colony Collapse Disorder — a virus that was found in some of the bees from Australia. (The following month, the U.S.D.A. questioned the study, pointing out that the virus was present in North America as early as 2002.)

“We’re placing so many demands on bees we’re forgetting that they’re a living organism and that they have a seasonal life cycle,” Marla Spivak, a honeybee entomologist at the University of Minnesota, told The Chronicle. “We’re wanting them to function as a machine. . . . We’re expecting them to get off the truck and be fine.”

We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer. His new book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” will be published next month.

The Day After….

Walden Bello, 17 December, Focus on Global South

(Bali, Dec. 16). A day after the dramatic ending of the Bali climate talks, many are wondering if the result was indeed best outcome possible given the circumstances.

The US was brought back to the fold, but at the cost of excising from the final document--the so-called Bali Roadmap--any reference to the need for a 25 to 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 to keep the mean global temperature increase to 2.0 to 2.4 degrees Celsius in the 21st century.

Reference to quantitative figures was reduced to a footnote referring readers to some pages in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 Report which simply enumerates several climate stabilization scenarios. The alternative scenarios ranged from a 2.0 to 2.4 degree rise in temperature to a 4.9 to 6.1 degree increase. This prompted one civil society participant to remark that "The Bali roadmap is a roadmap to anywhere."

Would it have been better to have simply let the US walk out, allowing the rest of the world to forge a strong agreement containing deep mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions on the part of the developed countries? With a new US president with a new policy on climate change expected at the beginning of 2009, the US would have rejoined a process that would already be moving along with strong binding targets. As it is now, having been part of the Bali consensus, Bush administration negotiators, say skeptics, will be able to continue their obstructionist tactics to further water down global action throughout the negotiations in 2008.

One wonders what would have happened had Washington remained true to its ideological propensities and decided to stomp out of the room when the delegate from Papua New Guinea, releasing the conference's pent up collective frustration, issued his now historic challenge: "We ask for your leadership and we seek your leadership. If you are not willing to lead, please get out of the way." As everyone now knows, after last-minute consultations with Washington, the American negotiator backed down from the US's hard-line position on an Indian amendment seeking the conference's understanding for the different capacities of developing countries to deal with climate change and said Washington "will go forward and join the consensus."

The single-minded focus on getting Washington on board resulted in the dearth of hard obligations agreed upon at the meeting except for the deadline for the negotiating body, the "Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention," to have its work ready for adoption at the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15).

Many delegates also felt ambivalent about the institutional arrangements that were agreed upon after over a week of hard North-South negotiations.

*An Adaptation Fund was set up, but it was put under the administration of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) of the US-dominated World Bank. Moreover, the seed funds from the developed countries are expected to come to only between $18.6 million to US$37.2 million--sums which are deemed severely inadequate to support the emergency efforts to address the ongoing ravages of climate change in the small island states and others on the "frontlines" of climate change. Oxfam estimates that a minimum of US$50 billion a year will be needed to assist all developing countries adapt to climate change.

*A "strategic program" for technology development and transfer was also approved, again with troubling compromises. The developing countries had initially held out for the mechanism to be a designated a "facility" but finally had to agree to the watered-down characterization of the initiative as a "program" on account of US intransigence. Moreover, the program was also placed under the GEF with no firm levels of funding stated for an enterprise that is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

*The REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) initiative pushed by host Indonesia and several other developing countries with large forests that are being cut down rapidly was adopted. The idea is to get the developed world to channel money to these countries, via aid or market mechanisms, to maintain these forests as carbon sinks. However, many climate activists fear that indigenous communities will lose be victimized by predatory private interests that will position themselves to become the main recipients of the funds raised.

Still, many felt that the meager and mixed results were better than nothing.

Perhaps the best indication on whether the conference was right to bend over backward almost 180 degrees to accommodate the US will come next month in Honolulu during the Major Economies Meeting, a Washington-initiated conference that was originally designed to subvert the United Nations process. The question on everyone's lips is: Will the Bush adminstration revert to form and use the conference to launch a separate process to derail the Bali Roadmap?

*Walden Bello is senior analyst at Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines. He was an NGO participant at the Bali Conference on Climate Change.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Arctic ice melt worse than predicted: scientists

Barbara Miller, December 13, ABC

A year ago US scientists caused alarm when they predicted the Arctic Ocean could be free of summer ice by 2030, but now researchers say those estimates were too conservative.

A US-based team has told a conference in California that the northern polar waters could be ice-free in summer by 2013.

This year's northern summer melt in the Arctic reduced the ice cover to just over 4 million square kilometres, the smallest ever amount recorded in modern times.

It is this kind of data that has led researchers to say previous estimates of when the Arctic waters will be completely free of ice in summer are far too conservative.

Professor Wieslaw Maslowski from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey in California says scientists are now moving the date closer.

He has been presenting his work to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

"We're just moving this date closer and closer to us simply because I believe what is happening, the system in the Arctic Ocean is very complex and from a mathematical point of view, it's non-linear," Professor Maslowski said.

"So there is a feedback loop that may accelerate this harder in a linear sense ... which is simply where you remove ice, you heat, you warm the ocean, which can melt more ice even further, and those kind of feedbacks are actually in place in Arctic right now, which is possibly causing this accelerated melt."

Two major impacts

Professor Maslowski says there are two major impacts from the climate point of view.

"One impact is that if we remove the sea ice, which is a very reflective ice cover in the high northern latitudes, we'll be observing much more solar radiation into the ocean and the feedback from the warmer ocean," he said.

"The ocean will expand so we may see some associated increase of sea level due to the warmer ocean in the Arctic.

"The second important thing to keep in mind is that if we melt all this ice that is currently out there in the Arctic, every summer we will be exporting a lot of fresh water, much more than currently, into the North Atlantic.

"And this fresh water export from the Arctic may affect the ocean circulation, which in turn can effect regional or global climate."

When he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize earlier this week, former US vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore referred to Professor Maslowski's work.

"Last September 21, as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented alarm that the north polar ice cap is in their words, 'falling off a cliff'," Mr Gore said.

"One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years.

"Another new study to be presented by US Navy researchers later this week warns it could happen in as little as seven years - seven years from now."

As the world meets in Bali, Mr Gore went on to repeat his calls for tough action on climate change.

But the trouble is, it looks increasingly like it may already be too late.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Strong support for climate change action

[Note that this study shows that a whopping 77% think that "the Government should begin phasing out existing coal-fired power stations and replacing them with renewable energy generation by 2010." That is a huge! Particularly given just how much of Australia's mining and energy industries are based on coal. Even if Rudd decided to implement this there would be a massive backlash from the coal companies, and its unlikely it could be won easily. Nonetheless its obvious that the demands of most in the environment movement don't go far enough and the majority of people are even going further. We need to very seriously raise the demand to phase out coal fired power stations to be replaced with renewable energy generation at least by 2020, and make sure that its not nuclear power stations that will replace them!]

December 13,
Herald Sun

AN overwhelming 86 per cent of Australians said the new Rudd Government should move swiftly to cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, a new poll shows.

The Greenpeace-commissioned Newspoll survey, which polled 1202 adults early this month, also found strong support for phasing out and replacing the nation's coal-fired power stations with renewable energy sources by 2010.

"Australians clearly understand the link between burning coal and climate change," Greenpeace spokesman Steve Campbell said today.

"They want to see the nation end its reliance on coal by beginning to phase out coal-fired power and move to renewable energy technologies."

The survey found 86 per cent of Australians supported new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introducing new policies that will ensure Australia's greenhouse gas emissions begin to decrease within the next three years.

Seventy seven per cent also said the Government should begin phasing out existing coal-fired power stations and replacing them with renewable energy generation by 2010.

When asked about Australia's export coal industry, 73 per cent of respondents said coal exports should be capped or reduced.

"Reducing our emissions matters to the Australian public but the results show they also want to see Mr Rudd take global responsibility by adopting policies that will see coal exports stay at current levels or decrease," Mr Campbell said.

He said Labor's existing climate policies would see Australia's total emissions increase to 15 per cent over 1990 levels by 2020, and instead cuts of 25 to 40 per cent were needed to prevent global warming from "topping the danger threshold".

"This week Mr Rudd has the opportunity to show leadership at the Bali climate talks and help gain consensus on the 25-40 per cent range of reductions," Mr Campbell said.

"This poll shows that such a move would be extremely popular with the people of Australia, who delivered Mr Rudd a firm mandate at the last election, and want him to take even stronger action by reducing Australia's emissions within his first term."

Climate Change Debate Fuels Greenwash Boom

Pratap Chatterjee, December 11, CorpWatch

On the Indonesian island of Bali, thousands of senior government officials are negotiating a plan to slow global warming. The meeting, which will focus on how to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, will run for the first two weeks of December and include 192 countries. This year’s conclave is the 13th in a series launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that came into force in 1994.

The coal, gas and oil companies that are major producers of greenhouse gases are finally taking notice of these high-level political discussions, and many have mounted spirited public relations exercises to defend themselves, and even win endorsements of their products.

For example, the weekend before negotiations began, Neste Oil announced plans to build the world's largest bio-diesel facility a few hundred miles northeast of Bali, in the Tuas industrial zone on the island of Singapore. The Finnish company is betting that widespread concern, as well as mandatory limits on greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, will increase demand for vegetable-based fuels.

Neste’s proposed $800 million plant will use palm oil, which is readily available throughout the region. The company has pledged to buy palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and to use proprietary NExBTL technology that produces fuel with lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 60 percent less than those of conventional diesel fuel.

"We have a very clear principle that we are aware of the source of all raw materials used in our biodiesel, including palm oil ... and that it is produced by sustainable methods," Neste CEO Resto Rinne told reporters, explaining that he expected this market to expand substantially. "In Europe alone, [annual] production will be well over 10 million tons by the end of the decade, and our share of this production will be some 800,000 tons."

Some environmental groups charge that Neste's claims are "greenwash": misleading public relations masking unsustainable practices. Greenpeace, for example, explains that the new plant in Singapore is likely to cause more environmental problems, not fewer, by increasing demand for new palm oil plantations that displace environmentally sensitive forests or wetland areas. In addition to destroying endangered habitats, the scheme could exacerbate global warming.

"Certification does not stop the rainforests from disappearing, for there is no doubt that the increase in demand for palm oil will lead to further destruction of rainforest. There is absolutely no way to grow enough sustainable palm oil for all the producers," said Harri Lammi, the program director for Greenpeace Finland. The week before the climate meeting got underway in Bali, his group attempted to highlight Neste's environmental record by blockading its ships in waters off of Finland.

The clash between Neste and Greenpeace highlights one of the key ideological debates over climate change: Business and politicians believe that a "technological" fix such as alternative fuels can solve the problem and also generate profits; many environmental groups believe the real solution to global warming lies in reducing consumption.

Guaranteed Markets, But Are They Guaranteed Green?

The arguments of the alternative fuel lobby are finding significant political backing. Earlier this year the European Union agreed to binding targets: By 2020, ten percent of its transportation industry’s annual 300 million ton fuel consumption must come from alternatives such as biodiesel. China has predicted that it can switch 15 percent of its transport fuel consumption to biofuels, and India has set an ambitious target of 20 percent by 2020.

Even U.S. President George Bush in his January 2007 State of the Union address pledged to “increase the supply of alternative fuels by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- and that is nearly five times the current target."

Palm oil is one of the three key biofuels that governments and corporations are promoting as alternatives to fossil fuels. (The others are soy and rapeseed.) An edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil has been used as a popular cooking oil in West Africa for centuries. In recent years, it has become a key component of processed foods ranging from KitKat candy bars to Pringles potato chips to Oreo cookies.

The biggest producers of palm oil are Indonesia and Malaysia, where the crop has been grown on plantations established by British colonists in 1917. It was first exported for use as an industrial lubricant and as a base for Sunlight and Palmolive soaps.

The new green boom in biofuels has accelerated the demand for plantations, which in turn has led to widespread forest and peatland clearing. Indeed, a 2007 United Nations Environment Program report earlier this year, found that oil palm plantations are now the leading cause of forest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia. And more is to come: The Indonesian government wants to put 10 million hectares of land into oil palm cultivation by 2015, up from the current total of 6 million hectares. In Malaysia, palm oil producers are targeting the island province of Sarawak for major expansion.

Local groups have spoken out strongly against this new trend. Meena Raman, head of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, said "Agrofuels is a disaster in the making. Their production, development and trade largely stem from unsustainable energy demand in industrialized countries. We are strongly urging our government to reconsider its decision of turning Malaysia into a major agrofuel producing country, as it is leading to further destruction of our forests and violations of the customary rights of indigenous peoples."

A new Greenpeace report, "Cooking the Climate," points out that razing of forests to create the oil palm plantations is, in itself, a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental organization calculates that the burning and drying of carbon-rich peatlands on the Indonesian island of Riau releases about 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year. The removal of the forests also eliminates one of the planet's crucial air-filtration systems.

A British government report estimated that clearing land for agro-fuel cultivation creates two to nine times more greenhouse gases than the cleaner-burning fuel saves.

Fossil Fuels in Green Packaging

Another company ratcheting up the green rhetoric on climate change is General Electric (GE). Its television advertisement for "clean coal" technologies portrays scantily-clad models working in a coal mine, while an announcer sums up the message: "Thanks to emissions reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day."

The ad is part of GE's "ecomagination" campaign to promote "green" products such as lower-energy houses, wind turbines, solar power and water-purification systems, as well as a range of new coal technologies.

The company has joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of industry and environmental groups that claim to be concerned about global warming. "The time has come for constructive action that draws strength equally from business, government, and non-governmental stakeholders," said Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of Connecticut-based GE, in a statement timed for the day before George Bush's backing of alternative technologies.

While some of the technologies GE sells -- such as wind and solar power -- are indeed carbon neutral, others -- such as its "clean coal" integrated gasification combined-cycle coal power plants -- are questionable.

The term "clean coal" refers to a variety of new technologies under development: chemically washing the fossil fuel of minerals and impurities, burning it at higher pressure and temperature, and increasing efficiency by trapping and burning waste gases that would otherwise have escaped out the smokestack. Another "clean coal" technology is "carbon capture and sequestration," or CCS, which captures coal plant emissions before they enter the atmosphere, and stores them underground.

Many environmental activists note that these "clean coal" technologies are only marginally more efficient and far more expensive. Others, such as CCS, are still on the drawing board and may never work. (In fact, GE has yet to convince any of its clients to buy these new "clean coal" plants, according to California-based Rainforest Action Network, or RAN.)

"Why waste billions of dollars to research an uncertain technology when safer, cleaner energy solutions already exist?” asks Matt Leonard of RAN. “Even if we could capture coal's dangerous emissions, why create such massive waste streams in the first place? All fossil fuels, including coal, are running out. The longer we keep relying on them, the worse off our environment, climate, and society will be."

Immelt has admitted that the new promotion campaign was based on tapping public opinion and profits. "I can't lay claim to be a big environmentalist or nature lover here,” the GE head told NBC television this May. “I know that when society changes its mind, you'd better be in front of it, and not behind it. And this is an issue on which society has changed its mind. I came to the conclusion that technology that my company makes can help make it [the climate situation] better, and I can make money doing it, and I can do something good."
Do Nothing, Collect Praise

Other companies have managed to win environmental praise for effectively doing nothing. A case in point is the much heralded $45 billion purchase of Texas state utility TXU by private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts and Texas Pacific Corporation. The buyers won backing from Washington DC-based environmental groups Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council in exchange for scrapping plans to build eight of 11 proposed coal plants.

Not everybody is convinced. RAN executive director Michael Brune is skeptical of the scheme, pointing out that TXU could easily shelve its concessions in the future. "The commitments by TXU's new owners should be binding, not voluntary, and the three Texas coal plants TXU still intends to build are three plants too many," he said.

Warning: Greenwash Ahead

The cases of TXU’s non-binding concessions in Texas, GE’s amorphous “clean coal” promises, and Neste’s palm oil strategy in South Asia illustrate a widening trend: As the climate change issue becomes mainstream, more and more companies are jumping on the public relations bandwagon. If these examples serve as models, they will try to win endorsements for agreeing to do nothing, promise things that they cannot guarantee, and take advantage of the debate to profit from environmentally unfriendly technologies.

Activists attending the Bali gathering say that the real answer to climate change will not be generated by profit-motivated corporations, but by the concrete commitments of political leaders backed by the force of law. Raman of Friends of the Earth International, puts it simply: "We need Northern countries to develop stringent policies to reduce their energy consumption and attempt to find solutions to their energy needs locally."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Demonstrators across world call for action to stop 'climate change catastrophe'

December 9, 2007,

LONDON: Skiers, fire-eaters and environmental campaigners have joined in demonstrations worldwide to draw attention to climate change and push leaders to take action.

From costume parades in Manila to protest by London cyclists, marches and events took place in hundreds of cities and towns across the world Saturday to coincide with the two-week U.N. Climate Change Conference, which runs through the end of the coming week in Bali, Indonesia.

Hundreds of people rallied in the Philippines' capital — wearing miniature windmills atop hats, or framing their faces in cardboard cutouts of the sun.

"We are trying to send a message that we are going to have to use renewable energy sometime, because the environment, we need to really preserve it," high school student Samantha Gonzales said in Manila.

In Taipei, Taiwan, around 1,500 people marched through streets holding banners saying "No to carbon dioxide." Hundreds marched outside the conference center in Bali.

At a Climate Rescue Carnival in Auckland, New Zealand, more than 350 people lay in a field to spell out the words "Climate SOS."

In Berlin, ice sculpture artist Christian Funk carved a polar bear out of 15 tons of ice at the Brandenburg Gate.

"Everybody has to do something against climate change and we cannot rely on politicians to take care of this," Corinna Fischer said, marching with the other protesters through the center of Berlin.

Christmas markets throughout Germany were switching off lights for five minutes, and British cyclists pedaled into Parliament Square in London, to protest about the city's level of car traffic and its effect on global warming, organizers said.

In Helsinki, Finland, about 50 demonstrators ground their skis across the asphalt on the main shopping street, bemoaning a lack of snowy winters.

Fire-eaters blew billowing clouds of flames at a rally in Athens, Greece.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who is in Oslo, Norway, to attend the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony Monday, did not plan to take part in a protest there, his spokeswoman Kalee Kreider told The Associated Press.

The London protest singled out one particular target — U.S. President George W. Bush — calling his administration the biggest obstacle to progress at the Bali talks. Marchers ended their protest outside the city's U.S. Embassy.

"We will not just stand by and allow Bush — or anyone else — to wreck the global effort to save billions of lives from climate catastrophe," Britain's Campaign against Climate Change said in a statement.

Washington has found itself increasingly isolated at the climate talks. The U.S. position that technology and private investment — not mandatory emissions cuts — will save the planet has drawn criticism.

But Americans also protested Saturday. In Massachusetts, about 50 demonstrators took a quick "polar bear" plunge into the bracingly cold waters of Walden Pond, made famous by the 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau who wrote about his experience living on its shores.

"We want our elected leaders — the congressmen, senators and the president — to realize that global warming is a serious problem that needs their leadership," organizer Roger Shamel said.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, protesters skied a frigid slope wearing just bathing suits or underwear. It was about 19 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius) during the ski, unusually warm for this time of year.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Marx and the Global Environmental Rift

John Bellamy Foster, November 28, Monthly Review

Ecology is often seen as a recent invention. But the idea that capitalism degrades the environment in a way that disproportionately affects the poor and the colonized was already expressed in the nineteenth century in the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Writing in Capital in 1867 on England's ecological imperialism toward Ireland, Marx stated: "For a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil." Marx was drawing here on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig. In the introduction to the seventh (1862) edition of his Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology Liebig had argued that "Great Britain robs all countries of the conditions of their fertility" and singled out Britain's systematic robbing of Ireland's soil as a prime example. For Liebig a system of production that took more from nature than it put back could be referred to as a "robbery system," a term that he used to describe industrialized capitalist agriculture.1

Following Liebig and other analysts of the nineteenth-century soil crisis, Marx argued that soil nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) were sent in the form of food and fiber sometimes hundreds and thousands of miles to the cities, where, instead of being recycled back to the land, these nutrients ended up polluting the urban centers, with disastrous results for human health. Meanwhile, faced with an increasingly impoverished soil, Britain, as Liebig pointed out, imported bones from Napoleonic battlefields and from Roman catacombs together with guano from Peru in a desperate attempt to restore nutrients to the fields. (Later on the invention of synthetic fertilizers was to help close the nutrient gap, but this was to lead to additional environmental problems, such as nitrogen runoff.)

In addressing these environmental issues Marx took over the concept of Stoffwechsel or metabolism from Liebig,2 describing the ecological contradiction between nature and capitalist society as "an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism." Indeed, "capitalist production," Marx explained, "only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth -- the soil and the worker." This rift in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature could only be overcome, he argued, through the systematic "restoration" of the metabolism between humanity and nature "as a regulative law of social organization." But this required the rational regulation of the labor process (itself defined as the metabolic relation of human beings to nature) by the associated producers in line with the needs of future generations. "Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together," Marx stated, "are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household]."3

Marx's ecological discussions, coupled with those of Engels, therefore went well beyond the general understanding of his time. Today the ecological issues that Marx and Engels addressed (albeit sometimes only in passing) read like a litany of many of our most pressing environmental problems: the division of town and country, the degradation of the soil, rural isolation and desolation, overcrowding in cities, urban wastes, industrial pollution, waste recycling in industry, the decline in nutrition and health, the crippling of workers, the squandering of natural resources (including fossil fuel in the form of coal), deforestation, floods, desertification, water shortages, regional climate change, conservation of energy, the dependence of species on changing environments, historically-conditioned overpopulation tendencies, and famine.

Marx saw the materialist conception of history as related to the materialist conception of nature, the science of history as related to the science of nature. He filled his natural science notebooks with studies of geology, chemistry, agronomy, physics, biology, anthropology, and mathematics. He attended the lectures at the Royal Institution in London of the Irish-born physicist John Tyndall. Marx was fascinated by Tyndall's experiments on radiant heat, including the differentiation of the sun's rays.4 It is even possible that he was in the audience in the early 1860s when Tyndall presented results of his experiments demonstrating for the first time that water vapor and carbon dioxide were associated with a greenhouse effect that helped to retain heat within the planet's atmosphere. (No one at that time of course suspected that the greenhouse effect interacting with carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuels might lead to human-generated global climate change -- a hypothesis not introduced until 1896 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius.)

Today the dialectical understanding with regard to nature-society interactions that Marx and Engels embraced is increasingly forced on us all, as a result of an accelerating global ecological crisis, symbolized above all by global warming. Recent research in environmental sociology has applied Marx's theory of metabolic rift to contemporary ecological problems such as the fertilizer treadmill, the dying oceans, and climate change. Writing on the social causes of the contemporary "carbon rift," stemming from the rapid burning up of fossil fuels, Brett Clark and Richard York have demonstrated that there is no magic cure for this problem outside of changes in fundamental social relations. Technology is unlikely to alleviate the problem substantially since gains in efficiency, according to what is known as the "Jevons Paradox" (named after William Stanley Jevons who wrote The Coal Question in 1865), lead invariably under capitalism to the expansion of production, the accompanying increases in the throughput of natural resources and energy, and more strains on the biosphere. "Technological development," Clark and York therefore conclude, "cannot assist in mending the carbon rift until it is freed from the dictates of capital relations."5

The only genuine, i.e. sustainable, solution to the global environmental rift requires, in Marx's words, a society of "associated producers" who can "govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature."6 The goals of human freedom and ecological sustainability are thus inseparable and necessitate for their advancement the building of a socialism for the 21st century.


1 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1976), 860; John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 164. See also Erland MÃ¥rald, "Everything Circulates: Agricultural Chemistry and Recycling Theories in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century," Environment and History, vol. 8 (2002), 65-84.

2 As indicated in the editor's notes to the Penguin/Vintage edition of Capital, vol. 3: "Liebig is referred to several times in both this volume and Volume 1, and it seems that Marx took from Liebig the concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) that he applied there, suitably transformed, to the analysis of the labour process (Chapter 7)." In Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981), p. 878.

3 Foster, Marx's Ecology, 155-70. See also Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, "Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx's Critique of Political Economy," Theory & Society, vol. 35 (2006), 109-56.

4 Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 3-4; Y. M. Uranovsky, "Marxism and Natural Science," in Nikolai Bukharin, et. al., Marxism and Modern Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1935), p. 140. In 1865 Engels reported that a chemist that he had just met -- probably Carl Schorlemmer, who was to become one Engels and Marx's closest friends, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first individual in England to occupy a chair in organic chemistry -- had explained to him Tyndall's "sunbeam experiment." See W. O. Henderson, The Life of Friedrich Engels (London: Frank Cass, 1976), vol. 1, p. 262.

5 Brett Clark and Richard York, "Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biospheric Rift," Theory & Society, vol. 34 (2005), p. 419. For further work on the metabolic rift and global ecological crisis see Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, "The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology," Organization & Environment, vol. 18, no. 4 (2005), pp. 422-44; Philip Mancus, "Nitrogen Fertilizer Dependency and its Contradictions," Rural Sociology, vol. 72, no. 2 (June 2007).

6 Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 959.

John Bellamy Foster John Bellamy Foster is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, author of Marx’s Ecology and Ecology Against Capitalism, and editor of Monthly Review.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

RWE abandons power plant project after local vote

Vera Eckert and Tom Kaeckenhoff, Nov 25, 2007, Reuters

FRANKFURT, Nov 25 (Reuters) - German utility RWE said on Sunday it would give up a 2 billion-euro ($2.96 billion) plan for a huge coal-fired power generation plant after local residents of the targeted site at Ensdorf on Sunday voted against a change of land utilisation plans.

"We regret that the majority of the population decided against the power plant but honour our pledge not to build it against the wishes of the residents," said a spokeswoman for the company's power production arm, RWE Power.

"We will analyse the reasons and study other options, but there are no concrete alternative plans for the Ensdorf location," she added.

In a vote, in which a qualifying 70.19 percent of residents participated, 70.03 percent said no to the plant and 29.97 percent opted in favour, said a civil servant in the town's administration, who helped facilitate the voting process.

"The town council has said it will follow the citizens' vote so the land utilisation plans will not be altered, which to me means the plant won't be built," he said.

The town council next meets on Dec. 12-13, he said.

Some 5,600 residents of Ensdorf in western Germany's Saarlouis district with voting rights were asked to participate.

RWE executives earlier this month said if there was too much opposition, they would call off the project.

RWE a year ago published its intentions to build two generation units of 800 megawatts each at Ensdorf, which were envisaged to start production in 2012.

The company said at the time that the investment also hinged on planning security under German laws -- where a pending tightening of cartel rules could prohibit such projects -- and on carbon dioxide quotas, which add to power production costs.

BUND, the German arm of Friends of the Earth, has warned of high sulphur dioxide and noxious dust particles emissions emanating from the new plant. Environmental organisations NABU and Greenpeace are also opposed.

But RWE has said the modern plant would be emitting far less CO2 than older installations. (Reporting by Vera Eckert and Tom Kaeckenhoff; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

Monday, November 19, 2007

After Walk Against Warming: where next for the movement?

Kamala Emanuel, November 16, GLW

November 11’s national Walk Against Warming was an important initiative for the climate change movement. It was smaller than the 100,000 people organisers had hoped for, but the fact that tens of thousands joined the biggest political demonstration of the election period confirms the opinion poll findings that climate change is a grave concern for large numbers of people.

When liberal “conventional wisdom” promotes the view that it is enough to vote for parties with the right policies, it can be difficult to convince people to rally in an election period. It can be harder again to convince the social movement peak bodies — often the ones with the resources and weight to pull off big mobilisations — to call such demonstrations. So the timing of the rallies, two weeks before the election, was to the credit of the organisers and an important way for ordinary people concerned about global warming to demand government action.

Nevertheless, the three key limitations revealed by the rallies pose serious questions for the climate change movement.

The capital city rallies weren’t built around clear demands. Posters and fliers carried the slogan “One planet. One climate. Last chance”, or modifications of this. But in the absence of clear, concrete demands, the way is open for the manoeuvring of the ALP and Coalition, which can claim to be “against warming” too. If we’re not explicit about what needs to be done, we dilute the pressure on them to act.

Linked to this was the decision to invite Labor and Coalition speakers to address the rallies, despite their refusal to commit to the measures necessary to prevent climate disaster. In this, the rally-goers were far in advance of the organisers, heckling and turning their backs on Labor’s Peter Garrett in Sydney, and elsewhere giving them a cold reception (compared, for example, to the enthusiastic reception given to Greens speakers such as Bob Brown).

A third shortcoming was the lack of democracy in the organising of the rallies. Conservation councils in each state organised or, in some instances, co-organised the capital city rallies with other environment peak groups (e.g., Greenpeace in Melbourne). With some exceptions (for example Hobart and in regional centres like Wollongong), meetings were not open to all activists or groups, or were only opened up once all the decisions had been made and the conservation groups were looking for people to spread the word. This restricted discussion and collective decision-making about such issues as which demands and speakers would be best, and reduced the sense of ownership of the event that comes through such democratic participation.

The Sydney rally organisers initially invited Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union mining division secretary Tony Maher — who promotes “clean” coal — to speak at the rally. He was pulled after an email campaign initiated by CFMEU member and Anvil Hill Alliance activist Graham Brown — but this wouldn’t have been necessary had the organising taken place in an inclusive way.

Given the urgency of global action to avoid runaway climate change, this is not a campaign we can afford to lose. To be most effective, this movement will need democratic processes and structures, to give participants the benefit of a range of ideas for tactics, demands and priorities, and to ensure the greatest number of people feel empowered to take action together.

It’s clear the movement is diverse and needs to be so. There are numerous specific campaigns that must be waged through a combination of measures — in the streets, in direct actions, in the courts. These include the campaigns to stop the Anvil Hill coalmine in the Hunter Valley, halt the expansion of the Newcastle coal export facilities, stop the Gunns’ pulp mill and associated native forest logging in Tasmania and many others. They are campaigns on their own, but winning each of them will be essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or maintaining and increasing the carbon sink (the Earth’s ability to absorb the greenhouse gases released into the air).

But as well as supporting these discrete campaigns, we also need to strive for unity across the climate change movement around broader demands, such as for the immediate and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required to keep global warming below at most 1.5-2°C and in the longer term to bring the temperature down; for rejecting the non-solutions of nuclear power and “clean coal”; for vast expansion of renewable energy production, alongside efficiency measures; and for an expansion of public transport — which really needs to be free, if it’s to be taken up on the scale necessary to get cars off the roads.

To support such campaigns and demands, the movement will need to be independent of the vested interests of the fossil fuel and other greenhouse polluting industries, and their Coalition and Labor lackeys. It will also need to avoid false friends like the nuclear lobby with their cynical attempts to reinvent nuclear power as the solution to climate change. This is not to advocate refusing to work with members of the ALP, or anyone else, to halt climate change. But we do need to oppose attempts to subordinate the tactics and demands we adopt to the electoral interests of the corporate parties that have shown their inclination to put profits ahead of the planet.

In this light, the plans by Melbourne Friends of the Earth to hold a post-election “Where next?” forum for the movement is a welcome initiative. Within the movement, we sorely need such discussions on how to advance this struggle — the efforts of the “greenhouse mafia” of major greenhouse polluters to stymie action that could cut into their profits means that stopping global warming will take a colossal struggle. The left will need to find ways to construct broad alliances to ensure real measures are taken to halt the warming — and that such measures are not only environmentally, but also socially, sustainable.

[Kamala Emanuel is a NSW Senate candidate for the Socialist Alliance.]

The western appetite for biofuels is causing starvation in the poor world

George Monbiot, November 6, Guardian

It doesn't get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the district of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the sums.

This is one of many examples of a trade that was described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN's special rapporteur, as "a crime against humanity". Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels - made from wood or straw or waste - become commercially available. Otherwise, the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people's mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel, and other people will starve.

Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels "might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further". This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls "a very serious crisis". Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren't entirely to blame - by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand - but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

They turn away because biofuels offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and - as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week - keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500bn kilometre mark for the first time last year. But it doesn't matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.

In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon the crops accumulated when growing. Even when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum products. The law the British government passed a fortnight ago - by 2010, 5% of our road transport fuel must come from crops - will, it claims, save between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It derives this figure by framing the question carefully. If you count only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels, they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts, you find they cause more warming than petroleum.

A recent study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse gas - nitrous oxide - that is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of more than 80% of the world's biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel. This is before you account for the changes in land use.

A paper published in the journal Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels. Last year the research group LMC International estimated that if the British and European target of a 5% contribution from biofuels were to be adopted by the rest of the world, the global acreage of cultivated land would expand by 15%. That means the end of most tropical forests. It might also cause runaway climate change.

The British government says it will strive to ensure that "only the most sustainable biofuels" will be used in the UK. It has no means of enforcing this aim - it admits that if it tried to impose a binding standard it would break world trade rules. But even if "sustainability" could be enforced, what exactly does it mean? You could, for example, ban palm oil from new plantations. This is the most destructive kind of biofuel, driving deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. But the ban would change nothing. As Carl Bek-Nielsen, vice chairman of Malaysia's United Plantations Berhad, remarked: "Even if it is another oil that goes into biodiesel, that other oil then needs to be replaced. Either way, there's going to be a vacuum and palm oil can fill that vacuum." The knock-on effects cause the destruction you are trying to avoid. The only sustainable biofuel is recycled waste oil, but the available volumes are tiny.

At this point, the biofuels industry starts shouting "jatropha". It is not yet a swear word, but it soon will be. Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds that grows in the tropics. This summer Bob Geldof, who never misses an opportunity to promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, arrived in Swaziland in the role of "special adviser" to a biofuels firm. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha, he claimed, is a "life-changing" plant that will offer jobs, cash crops and economic power to African smallholders.

Yes, it can grow on poor land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel, it's that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally traded commodity that travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations. In August, the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being driven off the land to make way for them.

If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because of biofuels, Ruth Kelly and her peers will have killed them. Like all such crimes, it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid confronting the strong.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Aust power stations among world's worst CO2 polluters

Michael Edwards, November 15, ABC News

Australia's energy industry representatives have admitted Australia does have some of the world's dirtiest power stations and is the world's worst per capita greenhouse polluter.

According to the study by the Washington-based Centre for Global Development, Australian power plants produce more carbon dioxide emissions per person each year than the United States, and almost five times as much as China.

But clean coal advocates say the Australian energy industry is working on a cleaner, greener future.

Early on Wednesday morning, 15 Greenpeace activists snuck into the Munmorah Power Station on the New South Wales central coast.

They chained themselves to the plant's coal-feeder belt. All were arrested, but they claim to have reached their objective of disrupting production at the plant.

Greenpeace says the Munmorah Station represents an old style of power production and its carbon emissions are harmful to the environment.

Greenpeace campaign director Steve Campbell says the activity is part of a fight against coal-fired electricity generation, and he has warned other electricity generators to expect similar treatment.

"Greenpeace around the world has been campaigning against coal for some time and in the last couple of years of course we've been very active to stop the opening of a coal mine in the Hunter Valley, which is Anvil Hill," he said.

"But we are also escalating our focus on coal-fired power generation because clearly this is the biggest issue for Australia in terms of our own CO2 emissions."

Bayswater and Eraring

Two other New South Wales power stations could be on their hit list. The Bayswater and Eraring plants in the Hunter Valley have been identified within a list of the top 100 greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

They are named in an international study of the world's 50,000 power stations, which ranks Australia as the world's worst greenhouse gas emitter on a per capita basis.

The study says Australian power plants produce more than 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per person each year.

By comparison, the United States comes in second at more than nine tonnes per person, while China is down the list with two tonnes per person.

Frank van Schagen is the head of the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development. He says the numbers speak for themselves.

"Australia's average efficiency for coal-fired generation is about 36 per cent in energy conversion - internationally, if you took a global average, it's about 30," he said.

"So Australia has some of the best, and it also has some of the oldest, but it doesn't have the worst, shall we say."

Each of these stations produce more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The operators of the two plants declined to comment on the study.

Brown or black coal

Both the Bayswater and Eraring Plants burn black coal.

To Greens Senator Bob Brown, the whole picture of CO2 emissions from electricity production must include the impact of brown coal-fired power stations such as the Hazelwood plant in Victoria.

"It doesn't take into account the fact that some power stations are putting out two, three, four times as much as electricity as others," Senator Brown said.

"When you look at it per unit of electricity, those brown coal-burning stations in Victoria go right to the dirtiest top of the league.

"Coal itself is a huge menace in terms of greenhouse gas production going into the atmosphere and the threat that's now creating for the world's environment and economy.

"But brown coal is 30 to 50 per cent worse in greenhouse gas emissions for the amount of electricity being produced, even than black coal."

But Mr van Schagen says the future of coal-fired electricity generation is not all bleak.

He says the rapid development of clean coal technologies is making it an environmentally sustainable option.

"What we have is a legacy in Australia of a dependence on cheap coal-fired power electricity, and what's been happening over the last number of years is organisations such as mine and others around the world have been working to look at potential ways of reducing emissions from power stations," he said.

"Hence we have activities that are looking at capturing the CO2 and storing some in aquifers, so potentially reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations to, say, 10 per cent or less than they currently emit."

Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor's environment spokesman Peter Garrett were not available for comment.

Munmorah operator Delta Electricity says Greenpeace's actions have not disrupted power generation.