Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Has the USA started getting the message on CO2 emissions?

Fresh from their willingness to at least "talk about talks" on climate change in Bali, the US Congress has also, for the first time since 1975, moved to significantly beef up the requirements on for more energy efficient vehicles. It aims to reduce America’s dependency on imported oil by raising corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) for new cars and trucks to 35 miles per US gallon on average. The 40% increase over the current CAFE standard is intended to cut oil demand by 1.1 million barrels a day by 2020. (The current standards mandate 27.5mpg for cars and 20.7mpg for light trucks. These are equivalent to approximately 33 and 25mpg using the Imperial gallon in the UK, or for cars 8.56l/100km, or 197gCO2/km. The new CAFE standard is equivalent to 42mpg (UK) or 6.73l/100km or 155gCO2/km.)

The proposals were part of a wider Energy Bill passed by the senate at the end of last week (13 December). The Energy Bill did however lose two other key environmental elements, one of which would have required utilities to get 15% of their electricity from renewable sources, and the other which would have eliminated huge tax breaks for oil companies. These were removed in response to a likely veto from President Bush.

The Energy Bill also contains a requirement to increase by nearly fivefold US production of renewable motor fuels like ethanol to 83 billion litres by 2022, although this may, as the EnergyDon has noted before, cause more problems than solutions, leading to rising food prices and a potential shortage of corn and soya beans for food uses. (There is also worrying evidence that the US Midwest may run out of irrigation water from underground aquifers, but that's another story...)

Electricity companies in Southern States lobbied strongly against the 15% renewable electricity provision, arguing there are few renewable energy sources like wind in their part of the USA, in contrast to plentiful (and polluting) supplies of cheap coal. No wind along the Gulf Coast – now does that sound right?

While the cut-down energy bill might not be as environmentally benign as its sponsors had hoped, it still represents progress. It is to be hoped that a greener White House in 2008 will allow the change of reintroducing some of the elements lost this year.

Meanwhile the European Commission has confirmed its plans to table draft legislation on this week to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars, even though the final details of the plan appear to be uncertain. In particular, the Commission may allow car manufacturers to form emissions groups for the purpose of calculating average fleet emissions. This would be similar to a basic form of emissions trading, where producers of larger vehicles could pay the makers of smaller cars to offset their higher emissions.

The European Commission is also expected to try and differentiate between different car classes in meeting the anticipated overall target of 130gCO2/km by 2012. The calculation will probably be based on three variables, including the weight of the car, in an apparent concession to German manufacturers which manufacture significantly large (and so heavier) cars than the EU average.

So does the new action in the USA mean that it is catching up the European Union, and is this something that we should be pleased about? To answer the second question first, any progress in improving the lamentably bad US fuel economy standards has to be welcomed. However, if they reach 35 miles per US gallon by 2020, they will still be no further forward than we are now, and the EU's proposed standards, while watered down from earlier proposals of 120gCO2/km, will still be 16% better and 8 years earlier.

But there is another more serious problem. Historically the USA has defended its large, inefficient vehicles by pointing out that their country is large, with a severe climate and long distances. To some extent this has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. US cities suffer from a vast urban sprawl, linked by traffic-clogged freeways, with in most cases few public transport alternatives. If you are sitting in a jam on the Santa Monica freeway in 90° heat, for example, you expect a bit of space in which to stretch and a nicely air-conditioned vehicle. To overcome America's dependency on oil will require more than smaller or more fuel-efficient cars; it will also need a re-think about how America does business and builds itself.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Australia, China and Climate Change

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change his first official act after his inauguration last week. Mr Rudd is reported as saying "Australia’s official declaration today that we will become a member of the Kyoto protocol is a significant step forward in our country’s efforts to fight climate change domestically – and with the international community". Mr Rudd will also be one of only six heads of government expected to attend the Bali conference on Climate Change. Some commentators have noted that his signature was largely symbolic, as Australia is one of the few developed countries likely to meet its Kyoto targets due to its shift away from coal. Nonetheless, the environment was one of the two main areas of difference between the incoming Labor Party and the conservative coalition under former PM John Howard and assumed its importance in part due to Mr Howard's perceived intransigence in not signing up to Kyoto, as well as due to the prolonged droughts in much of Australia.

Clearly this ratification is to be welcomed, even though it is 10 years (yesterday!) since the Kyoto protocol was first agreed. The US is now the only major country not to have ratified the treaty, which requires developed countries to cut their CO2 emissions but imposes no targets for developing countries.

We do not have the luxury of another ten years in which to prevaricate, and squabble among ourselves about which countries should do what. And yet, we see this happening in Bali at the moment, with China and the USA involved in some sort of game of chicken, trying to be the last to cross the road towards making meaningful emissions reductions.

While this brinkmanship is going on, emissions are continuing to rise globally, with China - in particular - continuing to build new power stations. The Financial Times estimates that this year around 90GW of new coal fired capacity will be opened in China (although perhaps 15% of this will replace older smaller and often illegal stations. This comes on the back of 102GW opened in China last year - an all-time record.

It would be wrong of us in the West though, to focus too much on China. Certainly, much of the dirty electricity generated is then used in inefficient manufacturing, compounding the problem. The Chinese admit that this additional coal-fired capacity would not be entirely needed if their burgeoning manufacturing industry was more energy efficient. But part of the reason that it is inefficient is due to an escalating demand for inexpensive products by the very countries in the West, such as the UK, that are complaining about its rising emissions. As we go to the shops this Christmas and load our baskets with cheap Chinese goods, we should remember that there is a high carbon cost as well as the low financial cost that we see.

To bring this full circle, China and Australia are both Pacific nations, joined loosely through APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). The world is shifting away from Europe and the Americas in the 21st century; let's hope that the new realism about climate change in Australia can spread around the Pacific Rim.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Of Bali and Golf Courses...

Many environmentalists are gathering in Bali for the start of the talks intended to lay a groundwork for the successor to the Kyoto treaty. It almost goes without saying that these talks (and the expected successor rounds in Poland and Copenhagen) are vitally important is the worst effects of Climate Change are to be avoided by the end of this century. An expected 12,000 delegates, protestors and general hangers-on are expected to converge on the island over the weekend. If each has flown an average 5,000 miles, the CO2 emissions from the return journey could be just under 3 tonnes (before adding radiative forcing effects from vapour trails and low level ozone), adding a massive 35million tonnes to global emissions. (It's moot point as to how many of these emissions are incremental, or whether delegates will simply be occupying airline seats and hotel rooms that might otherwise have been sold to "normal" tourists.) And among the green initiatives for the Bali delegates, bicycles are being made available for their final journey from the hotels to the conference, or else they can travel on biodiesel fuelled buses (but don't start me off on the dangers of Indonesian biofuels from palm oil...)

The Energydon won't be there. This is not because I am trying to save these CO2 emissions or because I have been put off by Bali's reputation as the being the Ibiza for Australians. It's simply because I wasn't invited: I could have paid my way, but what use can a lone voice be among 12,000 others? That might seem a strange question from a blogger who is trying to make their voice heard in the blogosphere, where there are massively more voices. But in keeping the theme of this particular blog, that lone vice might be better heard back at home.

So for the second part of this blog, I will go not so far from home - just up into Scotland, where Donald Trump is trying to gain permission to build a £1 billion golf resort North of Aberdeen. Seen by some as having parallels with the film "Local Hero", the issues are not wholly straightforward; local business leaders have apparently hailed the scheme as a "once in a generation" chance to shift the economy away from reliance on the oil and gas industries. Anything that move away from fossil fuel exploitation to encouraging healthy exercise (golf???) should be encouraged, perhaps? Well, no, as the number of visitors to this resort (and associated CO2 emissions) are likely to completely dwarf the 12,000 delegates to Bali.

And there is another big question mark about how sustainable this sort of development is. The proposals are to site a luxury hotel, timeshare properties and over 500 homes on unspoilt links 12 miles North of Aberdeen, conveniently close to its airport. The proposed development area includes sites of special scientific interest. Martin Ford, chairman of Aberdeenshire's strategic resources committee used his casting vote to veto the project yesterday, despite it having been approved earlier by the local planning committee. He is quoted1 as saying "The golf course can go somewhere else; species and habitats can't. The risk to the local environment and wildlife was too high a price to pay. At the end of the day, this is not sustainable development because of the destruction of something that cannot be replaced. We are having a pistol held to our heads in the form of moral blackmail. We can only have it if we sell our soul." If this sounds strong stuff, Mr Ford - who has a doctorate in plant ecology, so knows the true value of the links area - concluded that "it was not an anti-golf decision [but] pro-due respect for an important conservation site".

I would like to echo Mr Hall's comments. His was a near-lone voice that could prevent real local environmental loss. We have to get the balance between sustainable and development right, and not to treat the phases "sustainable development" as an indivisible whole. And I hope that some of the delegates in Bali can think about his moral stand while they are enjoying the conference. But if I don't like their decisions, maybe I'll just have to buy a ticket for Poland instead...

1 Financial Times, 1 December 2007, p3.