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Posts Tagged ‘fossil fuel

India’s giant megawatt trap

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A panel of charts that show India’s energy consumption, imports, and dependence on fossil fuel.

A panel of charts that show India’s energy consumption, imports, and dependence on fossil fuel.

Electricity as fundamental right and energy convenience as the basis of ‘development’ in Bharat and in India. If this is what Piyush Goyal means when he says his government is “is committed to ensure affordable 24×7 power” then it will come as yet another commitment that supports energy provision and consumption as the basis for determining the well-being of Bharat-vaasis and Indians (the UPA’s Bharat Nirman was the predecessor). But the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy cannot, using such a promise, ignore the very serious questions about the kind of ‘development’ being pursued by the NDA-BJP government and its environmental and social ramifications. [This article is also posted at the India Climate Portal.]

Goyal has said, via press conferences and meetings with the media, that the NDA government is committed to ensuring affordable power at all times (’24 x 7′ is the expression he used, which must be banished from use as being a violent idea – like nature our lives follow cycles of work and rest and ’24 x 7′ violently destroys that cycle). Goyal has promised, pending the taking of a series of steps his ministry has outlined, that such a round the clock provision of electric power will be extended to “all homes, industrial and commercial establishments” and that there will be “adequate power for farms within five years”.

The summary of India’s power generation capacity, by type and by region. Source for data: Central Electricity Authority

The summary of India’s power generation capacity, by type and by region. Source for data: Central Electricity Authority

Some of the very serious questions we raise immediately pertain to what Goyal – with the help of senior ministry officials and advisers – has said. The NDA-BJP government will spend Rs 75,600 crore to (1) supply electricity through separate feeders for agricultural and rural domestic consumption, said Goyal, which will be used to provide round the clock power to rural households; and (2) on an “integrated power development initiative” which involves strengthening sub-transmission and distribution systems in urban areas. This is part of the “transformative change” the ministry has assured us is for the better. Goyal and his officials see as a sign of positive transformation that coal-based electricity generation from June to August 2014 grew by nearly 21 per cent (compared with the same months in 2013), that coal production is 9% higher in August 2014 compared with August 2013, and that Coal India (the largest coal producer company in the world which digs out 8 of every 10 tons of coal mined in India) is going to buy 250 more goods rakes (they will cost Rs 5,000 crore) so that more coal can be moved to our coal-burning power plants.

UN_Climate_Summit_2014_smWe must question the profligacy that the Goyal team is advancing in the name of round the clock, reliable and affordable electricity to all. To do so is akin to electoral promises that are populist in nature – and which appeal to the desire in rural and urban residents alike for better living conditions – and which are entirely blind to the environmental, health, financial and behavioural aspects attached to going ahead with such actions. In less than a fortnight, prime minister Narendra Modi (accompanied by a few others) will attend the United Nations Climate Summit 2014. Whether or not this summit, like many before it, forces governments to stop talking and instead act at home on tackling anthropogenic climate change is not the point. What is of concern to us is what India’s representatives will say about their commitment to reduce the cumulative impact of India’s ‘development’, with climate change being a part of that commitment. [Please see the full article on this page.]

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Written by makanaka

September 13, 2014 at 18:33

Human influence on climate system is clear, says IPCC summary

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IPCC_AR5_blue_strip_smallMajor update: On 30 September 2013 the IPCC released the Final Draft Report of the Working Group I contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013. This is commonly called ‘The Physical Science Basis’. It consists of the full scientific and technical assessment undertaken by Working Group I.

The Final Draft consists of 19 documents – 14 chapters, three annexes, a technical summary and a changes summary. These you will find via this list:

01 Technical Summary (6.05 MB)
02 Ch01 Introduction (2.66 MB)
03 Ch02 Observations: Atmosphere and Surface (10.40 MB)
04 Ch03 Observations: Ocean (18.10 MB)
05 Ch04 Observations: Cryosphere (5.18 MB)
06 Ch05 Information from Paleoclimate Archives (4.78 MB)
07 Ch06 Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles (8.90 MB)
08 Ch07 Clouds and Aerosols (3.48 MB)
09 Ch08 Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing (2.83 MB)
10 Ch09 Evaluation of Climate Models (6.81 MB)
11 Ch10 Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional (4.39 MB)
12 Ch11 Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability (5.45 MB)
13 Ch12 Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility (25.50 MB)
14 Ch13 Sea Level Change (6.17 MB)
15 Ch14 Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change (7.74 MB)
16 Annex I: Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections (36.50 MB)
17 Annex II: Glossary (0.80 MB)
18 Annex III: Acronyms and Regional Abbreviations (0.50 MB)
19 Changes to the Underlying Scientific/Technical Assessment (0.20 MB)

Map of the observed surface temperature change from 1901 to 2012 derived from temperature trends. The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, over the period 1880–2012. For the longest period when calculation of regional trends is sufficiently complete (1901–2012), almost the entire globe has experienced surface warming. Source: IPCC

Map of the observed surface temperature change from 1901 to 2012 derived from temperature trends. The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, over the period 1880–2012. For the longest period when calculation of regional trends is sufficiently complete (1901–2012), almost the entire globe has experienced surface warming. Source: IPCC

Early statements and releases from the Twelfth Session of Working Group I which was held from 2013 September 23-26 in Stockholm, Sweden. The press release about the human influence on the climate system is here, which has said “this is evident in most regions of the globe”.

The IPCC has also provided headline statements from the Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group contribution to AR5. At the Session, the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Working Group I contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (WGI AR5) was approved and the underlying scientific and technical assessment accepted. (See the earlier post on the AR5 process.)

IPCC_AR5_WG!_strips1For the Fifth Assessment Report, the scientific community has defined a set of four new scenarios. These are called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). These four RCPs include one ‘mitigation scenario’ leading to a very low radiative forcing level (RCP2.6). (Radiative forcing is the change in net irradiance; it is used to assess and compare the anthropogenic and natural drivers of climate change). There are two ‘stabilisation scenarios’ (RCP4.5 and RCP6), and one scenario with very high greenhouse gas emissions (RCP8.5). The RCPs can thus represent a range of 21st century climate policies.

IPCC_AR5_WG!_strips2

Convenience inertia, 400 ppm and continental warming

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CO2_399ppm_201304The bad news first. The Guardian has reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 399.72 parts per million (ppm) and is likely to pass the symbolically important 400 ppm level for the first time in the next few days. Every additional single ppm is that much closer to the many tipping points earth scientists and climatologists have warned governments and policymakers about.

There are three strands of information tied together here. One of these helps us understand what 400 ppm is, relative to a history that we can measure. Another shows us why, despite repeated warnings about the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and evidence piled upon new evidence with every passing year, policymakers and the consuming public have simply not reacted. And then there is the ppm counter itself, remorseless in its upward march.

The paper, ‘Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia’ (in Nature Geoscience (Vol 6, May 2013)), analysed a number of records (called ‘proxy records’, which indicate temperature change. The researchers found that “of the 323 individual proxy records that extend to ad 1500, more sites seem warmest during 1971-2000 than during any other 30-year period, both in terms of the total number of sites and their proportion in each region”. Moreover, “of the 52 individual records that extend to ad 500, more sites (and a higher proportion) seem warmest during the twentieth century than during any other century”.

Next, the human response. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has released an excellent publication which is a collection of interviews concerning climate, but also what humans have done to climate (and is also about science). The book, ‘Air & Climate: Conversations About Molecules And Planets, With Humans In Between’, contains an interview (there are several) with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the founder and Director of the immensely influential Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Schellnhuber has been a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change since its inception in 1992, and its chairman since 2008.

Schellnhuber in the interview has talked about a moral and a time issue involved, with creating “tremendous inertia in the behaviour of people and the making of politics”. He has said:

“The moral issue goes as follows: if you brought your child to the school bus, and the driver said there was a 50% chance of an accident because something was wrong with the engine, nothing on Earth would make you put your child onto that bus. Climate change undoubtedly creates, with more than 50% probability, the risk of destroying the life of some child in some region that is heavily hit by anthropogenic warming at the other side of the planet – the life of a child who is not even born yet and who you will never get to know. Acting to save that anonymous life is a really tough test for our moral standards, even if you believe every word of what science says about climate disruption.”

“Even when your own survival is at stake it seems far too inconvenient to change your habits now and to reap the benefits later. So it is not that people are wicked or dumb or not perceptive of scientific insights, there is simply this inertia related to the demi-god ‘convenience’.”

[The book ‘Air & Climate’ (by Frank Raes, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2012) can be found here.]

How powerful can the satisfaction of the ‘convenience’ idea be to modern humans? Is it possible that the satisfaction of this idea overrides personal, community, species and ecosystem survival? Although I agree with Schellnhuber’s comment, especially given the speed at which industrial agriculture and food systems are overrunning our landscape, it seems almost inconceivable that the motor of convenience insulates consuming humans from all evidence, even evidence as weighty as the Nature Geosciences paper.

This has said, as clearly as possible, that (1) the best estimate of past temperature from seven continent-sized regions indicates that 1971–2000 was warmer than any other time in nearly 1,400 years, (2) the global warming that has occurred since the end of the nineteenth century reversed a persistent long-term global cooling trend, and (3) the increase in average temperature between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exceeded the temperature difference between all other consecutive centuries in each region, except Antarctica and South America.

And finally, the deadly ppm counter. Readings at the US government’s Earth Systems Research laboratory in Hawaii, are not expected to reach their 2013 peak until mid-May this year, but were recorded at a daily average of 399.72 ppm on 25 April – that is, last week. CO2 atmospheric levels have been steadily rising for 200 years, registering around 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution and 316 ppm in 1958 when the Mauna Loa observatory started measurements. “The increase in the global burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the increase,” said the Guardian article. Profiting from convenience as a way towards extinction?

Countries awash with carbon

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Even though countries are burning unprecedented amounts of oil and gas, the estimates of how much is left continue to grow, thanks to high prices and new technologies that have enabled companies to find and extract new resources. Graphic: Nature

Even though countries are burning unprecedented amounts of oil and gas, the estimates of how much is left continue to grow, thanks to high prices and new technologies that have enabled companies to find and extract new resources. Graphic: Nature

More than ever, these charts by Nature, the science magazine, show, countries are providing themselves with energy from (what they continue to believe are abundant supplies of) fossil fuels.

“Renewables such as solar and wind power are growing faster than any other source of energy, but are barely making a dent in fossil-fuel consumption,” said the Nature text accompanying these graphics. “The scale of the challenge will only grow as the expanding global population requires more energy. This tour of global and regional energy trends makes clear that even with aggressive action to reduce energy consumption and curb emissions, fossil fuels will be around for a very long time.”

A decade ago, it was the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela. More recently, hydraulic-fracturing technologies have opened up oil and gas resources in the United States. Across the globe, proven oil and gas reserves are 60% higher today than they were in 1991. Graphic: Nature

A decade ago, it was the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela. More recently, hydraulic-fracturing technologies have opened up oil and gas resources in the United States. Across the globe, proven oil and gas reserves are 60% higher today than they were in 1991. Graphic: Nature

Nature also has a clickable guide to the world’s energy use which you can use to find out which countries were using up Earth’s resources fastest in 2011 (they’ve charted the numbers from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2012) and which ones were taking a lead on renewable energy.

At current consumption rates, fossil fuel reserves would last for about 60 years — and that could be extended by new discoveries and unconventional deposits. Coal reserves have not increased in size, but the supply will last for at least a century at current rates of consumption. Graphic: Nature

At current consumption rates, fossil fuel reserves would last for about 60 years — and that could be extended by new discoveries and unconventional deposits. Coal reserves have not increased in size, but the supply will last for at least a century at current rates of consumption. Graphic: Nature

Written by makanaka

December 10, 2012 at 12:59

We are stifled by growth greed, our air reeks of carbon dioxide

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An image from the Atlas of Health and Climate, a joint publication by the World Meteorological Organization and the World Health Organization: “Human health is profoundly affected by weather and climate. Extreme weather events kill tens of thousands of people every year and undermine the physical and psychological health of millions. Droughts directly affect nutrition and the incidence of diseases associated with malnutrition. Floods and cyclones can trigger outbreaks of infectious diseases and damage hospitals and other health infrastructure, overwhelming health services just when they are needed most.”

The World Meteorological Organization has said that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30% increase in what the climate scientists call “radiative forcing” – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.

Since the start of the industrial era in 1750, according to the WMO’s 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, about 375 billion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere as CO2, most of this from fossil fuel combustion.

Our stifling (and that of the flora and fauna with which we share our Earth, and who are victims as much as we are) is taking place because about half of this CO2 remains in the atmosphere (the rest gets absorbed by the oceans and biospheres, usually forests – which are being cut down at a fearsome rate – around the world).

Do they learn and listen? Not at all, as this report in The Guardian has just explained. More than 1,000 coal-fired power plants are being planned worldwide, new research by the World Resources Institute has revealed. The huge planned expansion comes despite warnings – such as this one from the WMO – that the planet’s fast-rising carbon emissions must peak within a few years if runaway climate change is to be avoided. Coal plants are the most polluting of all power stations and the World Resources Institute identified 1,200 coal plants in planning across 59 countries, with about three-quarters in China and India. The capacity of the new plants add up to 1,400GW to global greenhouse gas emissions. India is planning 455 new plants compared to 363 in China.

“These billions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will remain there for centuries, causing our planet to warm further and impacting on all aspects of life on earth,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Future emissions will only compound the situation.”

This eighth WMO-Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) Annual Bulletin reports on the atmospheric burdens and rates of change of the most important long-lived greenhouse gases (very unhelpfully acronymed as ‘LLGHGs’, which is rivalled perhaps in unwieldiness by ‘LULUCF’). These are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, CFC-12 and CFC-11.

Radiative forcing, relative to 1750, of all the long-lived greenhouse gases. The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI), which is indexed to 1 for the year 1990, is shown on the right axis. Chart: NOAA ESRL Global Monitoring Division

The three greenhouse gases we are most familiar with – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4)and nitrous oxide (N2O) – are closely linked to anthropogenic activities, and interact strongly with the biosphere and the oceans.

Predicting the evolution of the atmospheric content of greenhouse gases requires an understanding of their many sources, sinks and chemical transformations in the atmosphere. There we are helped by the NOAA’s (the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Annual Greenhouse Gas Indexin 2011 this index was 1.30, representing an increase in total radiative forcing by all long-lived greenhouse gases of 30% since 1990 and of 1.2% from 2010 to 2011. Read that again – more than one per cent from 2010 to 2011! What do the G20 governments and multinationals do not understand by these numbers? Are we to believe that the same people who design complex financial derivatives don’t get climate change math?

Written by makanaka

November 21, 2012 at 21:02

Energy, climate, growth, China, India – the World Energy Outlook 2012

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Inputs to the power sector to generate electricity accounted for 38% of global primary energy use in 2010, the single largest element of primary demand. In the New Policies Scenario, this share rises to 42% in 2035. Demand for electricity is pushed higher by population and economic growth, and by households and industries switching from traditional biomass, coal, oil and natural gas to electricity. The fuel mix within the power sector changes considerably, with low- and zero-carbon technologies becoming increasingly important. Graphic: IEA, WEO-2012

In four parts, 18 chapters, four annexes, illustrated by around 300 figures, the chapters supported by about 100 tables, a separate set of data upon which scenarios rest, the World Energy Outlook 2012 of the International Energy Agency (IEA) is a 690-page behemoth. I can only sketch its merest outline here, and in a fleeting way touch upon the knowledge and information it contains.

Drawing on the latest data and policy developments, the World Energy Outlook 2012 presents projections of energy trends through to 2035 and insights into what they mean for energy security, the environment and economic development. “Over the Outlook period, the interaction of many different factors will drive the evolution of energy markets,” said the WEO-2012. “As outcomes are hard to predict with accuracy, the report presents several different scenarios, which are differentiated primarily by their underlying assumptions about government policies.” We are told that the starting year of the scenarios is 2010, the latest year for which comprehensive historical energy data for all countries were available. What are these four scenarios?

Based on preliminary estimates, energy-related CO2 emissions reached a record 31.2 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011, representing by far the largest source (around 60%) of global greenhouse-gas emissions (measured on a CO2-equivalent basis). Emissions continue to rise in the New Policies Scenario, putting the world on a path that is consistent with a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C above levels that prevailed at the start of the industrial era. Chart: IEA, WEO-2012

1. The New Policies Scenario – the report’s central scenario – takes into account broad policy commitments and plans that have already been implemented to address energy-related challenges as well as those that have been announced, even where the specific measures to implement these commitments have yet to be introduced.

2. To illustrate the outcome of our current course, if unchanged, the Current Policies Scenario embodies the effects of only those government policies and measures that had been enacted or adopted by mid-2012.

3. The basis of the 450 Scenario is different. Rather than being a projection based on past trends, modified by known policy actions, it deliberately selects a plausible energy pathway. The pathway chosen is consistent with actions having around a 50% chance of meeting the goal of limiting the global increase in average temperature to two degrees Celsius (2°C) in the long term, compared with pre-industrial levels.

4. The Efficient World Scenario has been developed especially for the World Energy Outlook 2012 (WEO-2012). It enables us to quantify the implications for the economy, the environment and energy security of a major step change in energy efficiency.

In the New Policies Scenario, global energy intensity (energy demand per unit of GDP) falls by 1.8% per year between 2010 and 2035. Between 2010 and 2035, energy intensity declines by an average of 37% and 49% in OECD and non-OECD countries respectively. Yet average energy intensity in non-OCED countries in 2035 of 0.16 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per thousand dollars of GDP is still more than twice the OECD level. Chart: IEA, WEO-2012

I have extracted five important messages from the summary which are connected to the subjects you find in this blog – food and agriculture, consumer behaviour and its impacts on our lives, the uses that scarce energy is put to, the uses that scarce water is put to, the ways in which governments and societies (very different, these two) view food, energy and water.

Five key messages:
“Energy efficiency can keep the door to 2°C open for just a bit longer.” Successive editions of the World Energy Outlook have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. The 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.

“Will coal remain a fuel of choice?” Coal has met nearly half of the rise in global energy demand over the last decade, growing faster even than total renewables. Whether coal demand carries on rising strongly or changes course will depend on the strength of policy measures that favour lower-emissions energy sources, the deployment of more efficient coal-burning technologies and, especially important in the longer term, CCS. The policy decisions carrying the most weight for the global coal balance will be taken in Beijing and New Delhi – China and India account for almost three-quarters of projected non-OECD coal demand growth (OECD coal use declines).

China makes a major contribution to the increase in primary demand for all fuels: oil (54%), coal (49%), natural gas (27%), nuclear power (57%) and renewables (14%). Its reliance on coal declines from 66% of the country’s primary energy use in 2010 to 51% in 2035. Energy use in India, which recently overtook Russia to become the world’s third-largest energy consumer, more than doubles over the Outlook period. India makes the second-largest contribution to the increase in global demand after China. Chart: IEA, WEO-2012

“If nuclear falls back, what takes its place?” The anticipated role of nuclear power has been scaled back as countries have reviewed policies in the wake of the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Japan and France have recently joined the countries with intentions to reduce their use of nuclear power, while its competitiveness in the United States and Canada is being challenged by relatively cheap natural gas. The report’s projections for growth in installed nuclear capacity are lower than in last year’s Outlook and, while nuclear output still grows in absolute terms (driven by expanded generation in China, Korea, India and Russia), its share in the global electricity mix falls slightly over time.

“A continuing focus on the goal of universal energy access.” Despite progress in the past year, nearly 1.3 billion people remain without access to electricity and 2.6 billion do not have access to clean cooking facilities. Ten countries – four in developing Asia and six in sub-Saharan Africa – account for two-thirds of those people without electricity and just three countries – India, China and Bangladesh – account for more than half of those without clean cooking facilities. The report presents an Energy Development Index (EDI) for 80 countries, to aid policy makers in tracking progress towards providing modern energy access. The EDI is a composite index that measures a country’s energy development at the household and community level.

“Energy is becoming a thirstier resource.” Water needs for energy production are set to grow at twice the rate of energy demand. The report estimates that water withdrawals for energy production in 2010 were 583 billion cubic metres (bcm). Of that, water consumption – the volume withdrawn but not returned to its source – was 66 bcm. The projected rise in water consumption of 85% over the period to 2035 reflects a move towards more water-intensive power generation and expanding output of biofuels.

Such is the barest glimpse of the WEO-2012. There are a number of aspects of the Outlook which deserve more scrutiny with a view to learning energy use and misuse, and this will be expanded upon in the weeks ahead.

The carefully constructed mirage of the ‘green economy’

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Not a week goes by nowadays without one high-profile institution or high-powered interest group directing us all to be part of the ‘new, green economy’. That’s where the next jobs are, where innovation is, where the next wave of financing is headed, where the best social entrepreneurship lies. There are the big inter-governmental organisations telling us this: United Nations Environment Program, UNCTAD, OECD, International Energy Agency, the big international lending agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. There are big think-tanks telling us the same thing – backed up by hefty new reports that are boring to read but whose plethora of whiz-bang charts are colourful. There are big companies, multinationals and those amongst the Fortune 500, also evangelising the new green economy and patting themselves on the back for being clean and green and so very responsible.

Artisanal blacksmith and his family, Maharashtra, India

What on earth are they all talking about? Does it have to do with us average, salaried, harassed, commuting, tax-paying types who are struggling with food inflation and fuel cost hikes and mortgages and loans that break our backs? Are they talking to our governments and our municipalities, who are worried about their budgets and their projects and their jobs too?

Here are a few answers from working class Asia. Let’s start with restating a couple of trendlines. One, the era of growth in the West is over. Growth is Asia is what is keeping the MNCs and their investors and bankers and consultants interested, and this means China and India (also Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia). Two, the environmental consciousness which began in the 1970s to spread quickly in the West led to many good laws being framed and passed. These were responses to the industrial and services growth in the Western economies. As globalisation took hold, people in less industrialised countries – ordinary citizens – saw what had happened in the West and learnt from their experiences with industrialisation. Green movements took root all over Asia and South America, protests were common, confrontations just as much, and global capital found itself being questioned again, even more fiercely.

These are the two major trends. The forces of production want to move much further into what used to be the ‘developing’ world, but want to meet much less resistance. That’s why they appeal to the consumer minds of China, India and the other target countries – you need jobs, homes, nice cars, big TVs, cool vacations, credit, aspirations, and lifestyle is what the messages say, whether they’re from telecom companies or condominium salesmen. But it’s hard to market all this stuff – real stuff, virtual stuff – to people who are still struggling to make ends meet.

This was after all the old 'green economy'. A late 19th century painting in a maritime museum near Mumbai, India

That’s where the ‘new, green economy’ tagline and its earnest-sounding philosophy comes in. “The main challenges to jump-starting the shift to a green economy lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to specific local and sectoral needs, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and provide incentives and mechanisms that will facilitate their diffusion and knowledge-sharing,” said one of these recent reports. Look at the text which contains all the right buzzwords – ‘scale up’, ‘jump-start’, ‘applications’ (that’s a favourite), ‘knowledge-sharing’, ‘local’.

This makes the ‘old economy’ sound good but changes nothing substantial on the ground, or on the factory shopfloor or for the tens of thousands of little manufacturing units that do small piecework jobs for the bigger corporations up the chain. The world’s business philosophy has changed drastically even without the impact of environment and energy. To drive home this point, it has been a long time since we heard anything like ‘industrial relations’, and that alone should tell us how far the dominance of capital has reached, when labour, whose organisation gave the West its stellar growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s, has now become all but ignored. This is because the dominant interests associated with capital have insisted, successfully for investors and for pliant governments, that the manufacturing firms break loose from the industrial relations moorings they had established. The restructuring of firms to emphasise leaner and meaner forms of competition – as the ruthless management gurus and greedy consulting agencies instructed – was in line with market pressures that are viewed by the powers-that-be as crucial to the revitalisation of the economy.

Read their greenwash carefully and the control levers are revealed. “Further innovation and scaling up are also needed to drive down unit costs. Technologies will need to be ‘transferred’ and made accessible, since most innovation takes place in the developed countries and private corporations in those countries are the main owners of the intellectual property rights covering most green technologies.” So says ‘World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation’ (UNESCO, Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Rights and access are built in from the start, as you can see.

And yet it is this very system of production, of the arrangement of capital and of the effort to weaken working regulations that is now talking about the ‘green economy’. Why do they even imagine we should believe them? They are the ones who have remained locked into the fossil fuel economy and who have partnered the enormous influence of the finance markets, who have followed every micro-second of the way the dictates of capital flows and what the market investors want in their endless quest for greater profits in ever-shorter cycles of production. For the major business of the world, ‘green economy’ is yet another route to super-profits and the consolidation of both forces of production and masses of consumers. The difference between now and the 1970s is that today they are able to successfully enlist the apparently authoritative inter-governmental organisations with their armies of economists and social scientists and engineers, to support this new profiteering. Only now, the cost is planetary.

The IPCC speaks, on renewable energy and climate change

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Demand for energy services is increasing. GHG emissions resulting from the provision of energy services contribute significantly to the increase in atmospheric GHG concentrations. Graphic: IPCC-SRREN

The Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN), agreed and released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 09 May 2011, has assessed existing literature on the future potential of renewable energy for the mitigation of climate change. It covers the six most important renewable energy technologies, as well as their integration into present and future energy systems. It also takes into consideration the environmental and social consequences associated with these technologies, the cost and strategies to overcome technical as well as non-technical obstacles to their application and diffusion.

The chapters are dense, but there is a Summary for Policy Makers which provides an overview of the SRREN. It summarises the essential findings concerning the report`s analysis of literature on and experiences with the scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of the contribution of six renewable energy sources to the mitigation of climate change.

The IPCC has said that on a global basis, it is estimated that renewable energy accounted for 12.9% of the total 492 Exajoules (EJ) of primary energy supply in 2008. The largest RE contributor was biomass (10.2%), with the majority (roughly 60%) being traditional biomass used in cooking and heating applications in developing countries but with rapidly increasing use of modern biomass as well.

Hydropower represented 2.3%, whereas other RE sources accounted for 0.4%. In 2008, RE contributed approximately 19% of global electricity supply (16% hydropower, 3% other RE) and biofuels contributed 2% of global road transport fuel supply. Traditional biomass (17%), modern biomass (8%), solar thermal and geothermal energy (2%) together fuelled 27% of the total global demand for heat. The contribution of RE to primary energy supply varies substantially by country and region.

Deployment of RE has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Various types of government policies, the declining cost of many RE technologies, changes in the prices of fossil fuels, an increase of energy demand and other factors have encouraged the continuing increase in the use of RE.

The current global energy system is dominated by fossil fuels. Shares of energy sources in total global primary energy supply in 2008. Graphic: IPCC-SRREN

Despite global financial challenges, RE capacity continued to grow rapidly in 2009 compared to the cumulative installed capacity from the previous year, including wind power (32% increase, 38 Gigawatts (GW) added), hydropower (3%, 31 GW added), grid-connected photovoltaics (53%, 7.5 GW added), geothermal power (4%, 0.4 GW added), and solar hot water/heating (21%, 31 GWth added). Biofuels accounted for 2% of global road transport fuel demand in 2008 and nearly 3% in 2009. The annual production of ethanol increased to 1.6 EJ (76 billion litres) by the end of 2009 and biodiesel to 0.6 EJ (17 billion litres).

Of the approximate 300 GW of new electricity generating capacity added globally over the two-year period from 2008 to 2009, 140 GW came from RE additions. Collectively, developing countries host 53% of global RE electricity generation capacity. At the end of 2009, the use of RE in hot water/heating markets included modern biomass (270 GWth), solar (180 GWth), and geothermal (60 GWth). The use of decentralized RE (excluding traditional biomass) in meeting rural energy needs at the household or village level has also increased, including hydropower stations, various modern biomass options, PV, wind or hybrid systems that combine multiple technologies.

Climate change will have impacts on the size and geographic distribution of the technical potential for RE sources, but research into the magnitude of these possible effects is nascent. Because RE sources are, in many cases, dependent on the climate, global climate change will affect the RE resource base, though the precise nature and magnitude of these impacts is uncertain. The future technical potential for bioenergy could be influenced by climate change through impacts on biomass production such as altered soil conditions, precipitation, crop productivity and other factors. The overall impact of a global mean temperature change of less than 2°C on the technical potential of bioenergy is expected to be relatively small on a global basis. However, considerable regional differences could be expected and uncertainties are larger and more difficult to assess compared to other RE options due to the large number of feedback mechanisms involved.

For solar energy, though climate change is expected to influence the distribution and variability of cloud cover, the impact of these changes on overall technical potential is expected to be small. For hydropower the overall impacts on the global technical potential is expected to be slightly positive. However, results also indicate the possibility of substantial variations across regions and even within countries. Research to date suggests that climate change is not expected to greatly impact the global technical potential for wind energy development but changes in the regional distribution of the wind energy resource may be expected. Climate change is not anticipated to have significant impacts on the size or geographic distribution of geothermal or ocean energy resources.

The levelized cost of energy for many RE technologies is currently higher than existing energy prices, though in various settings RE is already economically competitive. Ranges of recent levelized costs of energy for selected commercially available RE technologies are wide, depending on a number of factors including, but not limited to, technology characteristics, regional variations in cost and performance, and differing discount rates. Some RE technologies are broadly competitive with existing market energy prices.

Renewable energy costs are still higher than existing energy prices, but in various settings renewable energy is already competitive. Graphic: IPCC-SRREN

Many of the other RE technologies can provide competitive energy services in certain circumstances, for example, in regions with favourable resource conditions or that lack the infrastructure for other low-cost energy supplies. In most regions of the world, policy measures are still required to ensure rapid deployment of many RE sources. Monetising the external costs of energy supply would improve the relative competitiveness of RE. The same applies if market prices increase due to other reasons. The levelized cost of energy for a technology is not the sole determinant of its value or economic competitiveness. The attractiveness of a specific energy supply option depends also on broader economic as well as environmental and social aspects, and the contribution that the technology provides to meeting specific energy services (e.g., peak electricity demands) or imposes in the form of ancillary costs on the energy system (e.g., the costs of integration).

When humans use up the planet – why we need to do less with a lot less

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By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. This is the central recommendation of a major new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth’.

Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.

With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says.

That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.

Humanity is pressing up against the limits of a finite planet to provide resources like water, oil, metals and food, said a news report by IPS on the UNEP study.

[The ‘Decoupling’ report in full, a summary, factsheet and slides can be found here.]

During the 20th century, the rate of resource use has increased twice as fast as the increase in global population. Now, resources are being consumed at an even greater rate and are on pace to triple by 2050, the report calculates. Except there simply aren’t enough resources left on the planet to manage that – the average person in Canada or the United States currently consumes 25 tonnes of key resources every year.

Industrialised countries need to reduce their consumption by making significant reductions in waste and major improvements in the efficiency with which they use resources. At the same time, developing countries need to create new low-carbon, super-efficient resource use pathways for their economic development. Developing countries have to change their idea of what development means in a resource-scarce world. They need to forge a new resource- efficient, low carbon development path, said Mark Swilling of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

There is a pressing need for sanitation in much of Africa, but instead of building expensive Western-style water treatment infrastructure, countries can use their wetlands and natural vegetation to provide the same service, Swilling, a co-author of the report, told IPS. “We will miss out on these kinds of opportunities if we follow Western development patterns,” he said.

Public infrastructure is the biggest determinant of future energy and resource use, said Marina Fischer-Kowalski of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna. North America’s infrastructure, including transportation, sanitation, food production and so on, are all high-energy, high-material-use systems, said report co-author Fischer-Kowalski. They were designed with the assumption of never-ending access to cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Efficiency improvements can be made but it is more expensive and limits to what can be done.

Exposé of false carbon accounting for biofuels

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Cover of a brochure on a 'biorefinery' project in Sweden

Cover of a brochure on a 'biorefinery' project in Sweden

False carbon accounting for biofuels that ignores emissions in landuse change is a major driver of global natural habitat destruction, incurring carbon debts that take decades and centuries to repay; at the same time, the emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer use has been greatly underestimated, says a damning new briefing from the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS), Britain.

A team of thirteen scientists led by Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University, New Jersey, in the United States, pointed to a “far-reaching” flaw in carbon emissions accounting for biofuels in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation. It leaves out CO2 emission from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is used, and most seriously of all, it does not count emissions from land use change when biomass is grown and harvested, says the I-SIS briefing.

“The team maintained that bioenergy reduces greenhouse emission only if the growth and harvesting of the biomass for energy captures carbon above and beyond what would be sequestered anyway, and offsets the emissions from energy use. This additional carbon may result from land management changes that increase plant uptake or from the use of biomass that would otherwise decompose rapidly.”

Graph from World Energy Outlook 2010 titled 'Ranges of well-to-wheels emission savings relative to gasoline and diesel'.

Graph from World Energy Outlook 2010 titled 'Ranges of well-to-wheels emission savings relative to gasoline and diesel'.

“The worst case is when the bioenergy crops displace forest or grassland, the carbon released from soils and vegetation, plus lost future sequestration generate huge carbon debts against the carbon the crops absorb, which could take decades and hundreds of years to repay.”

The work of Searchinger, referred to by I-SIS, has been mentioned in connection with this false accounting as long as a year ago. For instance, the Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change blog had noted in 2009 November:

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to ‘fix’ the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

Cover of the World Energy Outlook 2010 report, International Energy Agency

Cover of the World Energy Outlook 2010 report, International Energy Agency

Also pertinent is a short section on biofuels and emissions in the World Energy Outlook 2010, which has recently been released by the International Energy Agency. “Biofuels are derived from renewable biomass feedstocks, but biofuels are not emission-free on a life-cycle basis,” says WEO2010. There is keen debate about the level of emissions savings that can be attributed to the use of biofuels and, more generally, to biomass. Greenhouse-gas emissions can occur at any step of the biofuels supply chain. Besides emissions at the combustion stage, greenhouse-gas emissions arise from fossil-energy use in the construction and operation of the biofuels conversion plant. In addition, the cultivation of biomass requires fertilisers, the use of machinery and irrigation, all of which also generate emissions.”

The short section is part of Chapter 12 – titled ‘Outlook for Renewable Energy’ – of the massive tome, and the section on Biofuels emissions is found in pages 372-374. As the WEO must perforce sound upbeat about all forms and sources of energy, it ventures, “If appropriate feedstocks and process conditions are chosen, biofuels can offer significant net greenhouse-gas emissions savings over conventional fossil fuels”. That’s a big “if” there.

“This is particularly the case with sugar cane ethanol, as much less energy is required to convert the biomass to ethanol.” In a laboratory perhaps, but as there are as many ways of converting sugarcane as there are types of cane, it would be difficult to say, wouldn’t it?  “But variations are large and calculating average emissions savings is complex.” So they are, so it is.

After such kerfuffle, the WEO2010 does get down to brass tacks: “Using land for biofuels production that was previously covered with carbon-rich forest or where the soil carbon content is high can release considerable amounts of greenhouse gases, and even lead to a ‘carbon debt’. In the worst cases, this debt could take hundreds or even thousands of years to recover via the savings in emissions by substituting biofuels for fossil fuels.”

And there you have it, in black and white, from the venerable International Energy Agency itself.