The Great Decline: Global Fisheries

The world’s oceans, which encompass more than two-thirds of the global, are continuing a rapid decline that began just a few decades ago. Fisheries are dwindling and the world’s largest ecosystems are falling apart as global fish fleets remove far more oceanic wildlife that the seas can provide. Existing conservation laws and restrictions exists, but are too easily ignored or only selectively enforced. The cause of this destruction is as simple as it could possibly be: nearly one billion people rely on the ocean as their primary protein source and tens of millions more derive all their income from fishing. It is a futile struggle to tell these populations to look elsewhere for food when the resources of the oceans seem so plentiful, but overfishing will only end badly. Since the 1980s, global seafood catches have continually declined in the face of technological advancement and larger fishing fleets. Relentless overfishing will only aggravate the existing scarcity, preventing any chance the oceanic ecosystems have of recovering. Every year, these fisheries will provide fewer resources to the people that rely on them.

Foreign governments that ought to be seriously addressing the sustainability of their food sources are often prone to contribute to the problem. Enormous subsidies are given to fishing fleets with the intent of increasing their ability to fish despite declining returns. Agencies such as Oceana contend that the elimination of these subsidies would be the single greatest action in the effort to prevent overfishing and restore the world’s fisheries for future generations.

The following figures are as presented by the Oceana report, Oceans in Trouble
Key Findings of Recent Fisheries Related Research:

  • Scientists project the collapse of all species of wild seafood that are currently fished by mid-century.  (B. Worm et al., 2006)
  • 90 percent of all the “big fish” – tuna, marlin, and sharks – are gone. (R. Myers et al., 2003)
  • It is estimated that 85 percent of the world commercial fish populations are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. (SOFIA 2010)
  • Of the top ten species that account for about 30 percent of the world capture fisheries production in terms of quantity, six correspond to stocks that are considered to be fully exploited or over-exploited (anchoveta, Chilean jack mackerel, Alaska pollock, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting and Atlantic
    herring). (SOFIA 2011)
  • Globally, fish provides more than 1.5 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein, and 3.0 billion people with at least 15 percent of such protein. (SOFIA 2010)
  • Fisheries subsidies also have been found to support illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. A recent study estimates the cost of illegal and unreported fishing alone at US$10–23.5 billion per year. (D. Agnew et al. 2009)

EU Specific Findings:

  • According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), European Union countries comprise the third largest global fishing “nation” behind China and Peru. In 2009, EU countries caught more than five million tons of fish and employed more than 140,000 people as fishers.
  • Spain accounts for 25 percent of fisheries employment in the EU. Spain, Greece and Italy combined account for 60 percent of fisheries employment. (European Commission 2010)
  • The EU is responsible for 4.6 percent of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture production, making it the fourth largest producer worldwide. The EU’s top three most fished species are Atlantic herring, sprat and blue whiting, which comprise 30 percent of all EU catch. (European Commission 2010)
  • In Europe, 63 percent of the fish stocks in the Atlantic and 82 percent in the Mediterranean are over-fished. A recent impact assessment by the European Commission concluded that if the status quo is maintained and fishing continues at the current rate, only nine percent of European fish stocks would be managed at sustainable levels by 2022, despite the commitment by countries to manage all fisheries sustainably by 2015. (European Commission 2011)

Source: Oceana

Progress and the Yangtze River

National Geographic’s Rivers and Life is a four part program focusing on the changing character of four of the world’s most important water ways; the Rhine, Amazon, Nile, and Yangtze Rivers. Each of these waters is being changed by human development and changing environmental conditions. They also provide a case study of the effects on local ecological systems as well as the populations that rely on them for food and water. Communities cannot survive long if the waters on which they rely fail them and environmental change may cause such failures to come faster than we can possibly prepare for.

(Source ChinaHighlights)

The Yangtze runs through the heart of China, 6000km from the plateaus of Tibet to the shores of Shanghai, and is the key to the country’s survival and prosperity. The powerful waterway has a love-hate relationship with the Chinese; the river is the most trafficked river in the world but its annual flood have killed over 300,000 people in the last century alone. Mega-engineering projects have been put underway to control the massive water flows and to protect the populations downstream. Projects like the Three Gorges Dam generate enormous quantities of hydroelectricity and control the river, but the impacts on river environments are catastrophic. Rising water levels upstream of the dam have forced more than 2 million Chinese citizens to flee their homes and the lives they have known. Downstream, the rivers banks are being eroded at alarming rates and the sediment that once restored then is trapped behind the still waters of the dam. In particular, the river delta in Shanghai is receding due to the millions of tons of silt that fails to pass through the Three Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam ( Source Fotopedia/Flickr )

The mentality of changing the land and controlling rivers through engineering projects owes its roots to Europe and much of its recent history to the United States, but the work of engineers in China is a revolution. Rapid economic growth and the focused resources created by the communist regime have allowed China to build at a rate that surpasses any in human history. To China’s government, progress knows no limit and will stop for nothing and no one, not even the Earth itself, but it would be foolish to believe the Yangtze is willing to cooperate.

The river provides the water and natural nutrients that sustain the world’s largest population. Like many rivers around the world, the Yangtze keeps its flood land fertile by depositing sediment, making for rich farmland and ideal for rice production. But just as the river gives, it takes away with a brutal vitality. The energy driving sudden floods is great enough to destroy one town after another. The damage of a 1997 flood left thousands homeless and cost an estimated $30 billion. In this light, it is not unreasonable for the government to respond by damming the river to control its flow to prevent such catastrophe from destroying so many lives again.

Headwaters (Source Imgur)

The damming of the Yangtze began in 1994 with the approval of the Three Gorges Dam. Few argue that the dam will fail to control the flow, but many opponents to the project have raised the alarm regarding the dam’s location along a seismic fault line. Dams on fault lines pose two major risks: firstly, that if the dams fails as a result of an earthquake, populations downstream will be simply wiped out without warning, and second, that the weight of water trapped behind the dam will exert such force on the earth that many geologists argue an earthquake is exponentially more likely to occur. Engineers assert that the dam will withstand a 7.0 earthquake, but we cannot fully understand how the soil will behave under these conditions. Also, it is already estimated that so much water is trapped behind the world’s dams that the earth is more asymmetrical (and thus changing its inertia), causing the rotation to slow (slightly) much like an ice-skater coming out of a tight spin. As the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam will certainly add to this effect.

Ultimatly, the dam has achieved its goal of taming the wild Yangtze River, preventing major flooding and providing a boom to commercial traffic. Also, small upstream towns have been turned into bustling metropolises; places that were once isolated are now connected to the modern world and powered by the dam’s generators. But to praise such progress as triumph is to ignore the loss. To date, 13 cities, 140 town, and 1,300 villages have been washed away by rising waters. The communist government has to do little more than reclaim the land from the Chinese citizens that are renting it; there is no private land ownership in China. Though the government has put millions of dollars into efforts so save important building, many historic, architectural, and cultural lands now reside on the river floor.

Dafosi Yangtze River Bridge in Chongqing City (Source Wikipedia)

The Chinese are quickly learning another lesson from their rapid progress; that industrialization is synonymous with pollution. Water and air pollution from transportation and factories is unprecedented in these newly formed cites. The populations producing the pollution are threatening themselves as well as smaller communities that still rely on the Yangtze’s waters to drink, cook, and fish. Most residential sewage, shipping waste, and manufacturing waste is dumped into the river untreated. More than 40% of all China’s waste ends up in the Yangtze. The presence of the Three Gorges Dams only exasperates the problem by preventing waste from readily flowing to the sea. The conditions look grim as polluted water accumulates with no hope of being washed away as it once was. In other words, the problem will continue to worsen as long as the dam exists.

The Yangtze is a dying river. Aggressive industrialization and the Three Gorges Dam have enabled unprecedented growth and unstoppable pollution. The fish are dying off; previously staple food sources are dwindling and many species are on the verge of extinction. The river’s future is in question and only time will tell its fate. Of course this isn’t an isolated incident. Rivers around the world are being dammed and the energy they produce is being praised as green and clean. In reality, this is an oversimplification. The only way large rivers have ever been able to cope with human pollution is by flushing themselves. Dams remove that one natural mechanism.

Daning River  (Source Heiberg)

Perhaps China has stumbled upon a new form of population control: destroying the homes, killing the food, and polluting the water supply of its central vein. The Yangtze River cannot take much more before it will cease to provide life to the Chinese altogether.

Respect the waters of life.

Source: National Geographic – Rivers and Life, Yangtze River

Kenyan Elephant Orphanage

Many of nature’s most amazing creations have been devastated by poaching and the expansion of human populations. Africa’s elephant population is certainly a case and point; adults are targeted and killed for their ivory and meat, leaving their young vulnerable and unprotected in the unforgiving sub-Saharan landscape. I recently read an article from National Geographic about how keepers at the Nairobi nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust have taken it upon themselves to care for these infants as they grow into the planet’s largest land animal.

Photograph by Michael Nichols

The Nairobi nursery is celebrated as the world’s most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. The nursery rescues orphaned elephants from across the country and hand-raises them until they have developed past milk dependence. According to NatGeo writer Charles Siebert, “once healed and stabilized at the nursery, they are moved more than a hundred miles southeast to two holding centers in Tsavo National Park. There, at their own pace, which can be up to eight to ten years, they gradually make the transition back into the wild. The program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated.”

Photograph by Michael Nichols

The orphaned elephants that are fortunate enough to end up at the nursery are looked after by keepers clad in bright green coasts and white safari hats. They spend their days in the Nairobi National Park, playing like a gaggle of school children. Despite the tragedy of their pasts, the elephants are able to recover thanks to the care provided by the nursery and the instinctive community support that characterizes the species. It is sad to consider how human development has decimated one of the planet’s most advanced species. The African elephant once roamed the continent in great herds, tracing out prehistoric migratory routes. I wonder if these routes are still ingrained in the specie’s subconscious or if they have been lost forever as the land they once traveled is striped for farming and development. It appears that despite ever dwindling populations, the elephant cannot escape its greatest threat, humanity.

Photograph by Michael Nichols

The work of the Nairobi nursery plays a vital role in counteracting the otherwise negative role humanity has played in the young elephants’ lives. The nursery is run by a dedicated staff that has worked to learn what is best for the individual animals. Every night, a keeper will sleep in each elephant’s pin, feeding them when they demand to be fed. During their days in the bush, the keepers and orphans are sometimes visited by a group of wild elephants. The keepers keep the milk-dependent orphans close for they would not survive without the nursery’s care, but those elephants over 5 or 7 are free to go off with the wild herd. Some will return to the nursery in a few days while some will leave for good. I imagine the keepers feel like parents watching their children head out into the wild world.

Source: National Geographic

Photographs: Nichols Photography at NatGeo

The Decline of the Amazon River Dolphin

It is a story retold all around the world; humanity competing with nature’s greatest species for now dwindling resources. Not surprising, people tend to dominate the competition. The same is true along the waters of the Amazon river basin where pink dolphins compete with local fishermen for the day’s catch. Despite legal protections on the freshwater dolphins, the Amazon is far too expansive to protect and convincing fishermen to respect their rivals is a difficult prospect.


There are 40 species of dolphin around the world, and while the U.S. tends to view the species as a playful aquatic neighbor, the same cannot be said elsewhere. Many Japanese fishermen view schools of dolphin that pass through their fishing grounds as genuine pests. Fisherman in Taiji, Japan and the Faroe Islands still hunt and eat dolphins, despite the high mercury levels known to be found in dolphin meat. The Chinese more or less disregarded the Yangtze river dolphin as they dammed, polluted, and over-fished the waterway, driving the dolphin into extinction in the wild. The Ganges river dolphin is not far behind. The pink dolphins of the Amazon river find themselves in an similar predicament: they are competing with locals for food and the locals are not particularly inclined to share.

To make matters worse, the dolphins are harpooned and used as bait to catch catfish. Supposedly, in just on day of fishing, two dead dolphins can provide enough bait to yield $2,400 in catfish sales. The prospect of such substantial returns coupled with the always pressuring need to catch enough to feed and provide for their families makes the fishermen of the Amazon anything but allies of the pink dolphins.

The illegal dolphin hunting is on the rise in the Amazon and clearly demonstrates the great challenges of policing environmental law in a protected land. The wild and untouched character of the Amazon basin reflects the immeasurable ecological value as well as the near impossible task of patrolling the territory. Researchers believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of the estimated 30,000 remaining pink dolphins are killed each year by people. When you realize that 1,300 Brazilian environmental protection agents are responsible for looking after a territory larger than India, it is no surprise that the future of the Amazonian river dolphin is in the hands of the local fishermen that travel the waters each day.

The root cause of the dolphin’s decline in the Brazilian Amazon is the indifference of the people living along side them toward their killing. Jars of oil from dolphin fat can regularly be found in open-air markets. Dolphin genitals are sold as good luck charms for sex and love. There is no need to hide these illegally acquired products when the vendors know that no one from the environmental protection agency is coming to arrest them. People know they are not allowed to kill the dolphins, but protecting them is simply not a priority.

The pink Amazonian river dolphin, an iconic character in local lore, is in a state of decline. The species may very well find itself on the verge of extinction faster than anyone can predict. As has been the story time and time again, human indifference proves to be one of the most destructive forces the planet has ever seen.

Source: NYTimes

One-Third of Global Food Supply Is Never Eaten

While global populations may be edging closer to a food crisis, it is not due to a lack of food. According to a study conducted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of all the food produced around the world, approximately 1.3 billion tons a year, is never eaten. That is, one-third of the global food supply is lost or thrown away. The report indicated that the food waste is roughly split between developed and developing countries, though it is important to recognize that rich countries account for a small portion of the world’s population yet an equal share of the waste.

In developed countries, food waste is disproportionately the result of retailers and consumers who throw away “perfectly edible food.” This behavior can be described as nothing but wasteful. In developing countries, food waste is, for the most part, the unavoidable outcome of “poor infrastructure and low levels of technology in harvesting, processing and distribution.” The impacts of food scarcity on the developing world could be substantially reduced if the essential infrastructure were put into place to prevent this unnecessary waste.

In many ways, heightened food prices are more to blame for the prevalence of starvation than a scarcity of food. But even as food riots ignite throughout Africa, consumers in the world’s wealthiest countries continue to throw away a comparable quantity of food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).


Food waste represents not only the squandering of produce but the meaningless loss of valuable natural resources. Food production relies heavily on water resources, land, labor, and capital. Not to mention the enormous quantity of fossil fuels burned during planting, harvesting, and post-harvest transportation, adding unnecessary tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

It is sad to consider how different these stats would be if Americans were willing to eat a bruised apple. I believe our migration away from the farm has distorted our understanding of the environment and disconnected us from where our food comes from. Changing consumer attitudes will be an uphill struggle in a culture so preoccupied with convenience. Our disposable society, begun by the consumer boom of the 1950s and 60s, will inevitably be the force that destabilizes the natural world.

Source: FAO via NYTimes

The Rising Cost of Settling the American Desert

In 1968, when Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall replaced two dams in the Grand Canyon with an agreement to build a huge coal-fired power plant on the Arizona-Utah border near Page, he viewed the pact as one of the last steps in what he called “water statesmanship,” to resolve “the overwhelming political issue in Arizona.” When it was completed in 1974, the new 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station (NGS) provided the power to draw 1.42 billion gallons of water a day out of Lake Havasu, along the border with California, and pump it 336 miles and nearly 3,000 feet uphill in the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal all the way to Tucson.

Photo © Central Arizona Project: The Central Arizona Project canal system runs 336 miles from Lake Havasu, on the California border, to Tucson, providing water to nearly 80 percent of the state’s residents.

In almost every way conceivable, the power plant and the canal reflected the hubris of a rich nation at the height of its wealth, and determined to build in one of the driest regions on the continent energy-hungry and water-wasting cities that defied the laws of nature. Nearly four decades later, in an era marked by the warming climate, the increasing financial and environmental costs of generating power with coal, and declining reserves of fresh water in the West, the historically tenuous cords of legal agreement and civic support that have always defined the CAP are threatening to come unraveled.

At the core of the problem is the price of water, which is closely tied to the cost of operating the plant. Both could rise substantially if the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issue new rules to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other haze-producing gases. There is also a drought that has persisted for more than a decade on the Colorado Plateau, raising a serious question about how much Colorado River water will be available to both cool the giant power plant, and also supply the CAP’s farm and business customers, and 80 percent of Arizona’s residents.

In other words, say executives of the CAP, the 36-year union of cheap energy and cheap water is about to end, and water prices for most Arizonans could increase drastically.
“We’re very concerned,” David Modeer, general manager of CAP, told Circle of Blue. “Given the atmosphere right now, we don’t think the owners would make that decision to invest in the plant. We’re looking at possible closure by 2019.”

During the past 10 weeks, in Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue has described in probing detail the collisions occurring in almost every region of the country between rising energy demand and declining reserves of fresh water. Next to agriculture, energy production withdraws and uses more water than any other sector of the American economy. Choke Point: U.S. has raised urgent questions about the capacity of the United States to meet a 40 percent increase in energy demand by mid-century—a projection developed by the Department of Energy—and not exhaust the country’s freshwater reserves. The collision between water and energy is most fierce in the fastest growing and most water-scarce regions of the nation, including California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West and the Southeast.

Choke Point: U.S. identified the Colorado River as a particularly telling example of how energy demand and water scarcity is producing authentic threats to the American way of life. Lake Mead, which dams the Colorado River near Las Vegas and is one of the largest reservoirs in the country, is 59 percent empty and the water level is so low that the giant turbines in Hoover Dam could soon stop turning.

Upriver, where the NGS withdraws eight billion gallons of water annually from Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir, water levels have stabilized after falling to record low levels in 2005. As a hedge against future droughts, a deeper cooling water intake was completed earlier this year, allowing the plant to draw water below Lake Powell’s dead pool — the elevation where water levels are lower than the reservoir’s outlet pipes.

The newest threat to the power plant, say its managers, is the cost of controlling emissions, particularly carbon dioxide and haze-producing nitrogen oxides.

The closure of the NGS, they say, would be a brutal blow to CAP water prices because electricity from NGS is sold at cost. Farmers would be hit especially hard, since they currently pay for water at the cost of the energy to move it — a 60 percent discount as the result of a state compromise designed to end unsustainable groundwater pumping. Using energy price forecasts from Navigant Consulting Inc., and global engineering corporation Black & Veatch, CAP analysts estimate that water prices would rise by 50 to 300 percent if they had to purchase energy at market rates.

Photo © Central Arizona Project: The Picacho Pumping plant is one of 14 stations that lift Colorado River water 2,800 feet for delivery to central Arizona.

New Standards Mean More Green

A lot of the energy produced in the United States is used to move water from its source to the treatment plant and then the end user. Energy also is needed to dispose billions of gallons of water every day. Typically, moving water is the single largest electrical expense of the nation’s cities and towns. Nationally, four percent of electricity is used to get water from one place to another.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, given new vigor under the Obama administration, announced in August 2009 that it was considering regulations to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from NGS in order to improve visibility in the region, especially in Grand Canyon National Park, 12 miles southwest. Depending on what type of technology the EPA mandates, energy costs at NGS will rise between 1 and 34 percent, said engineers.

The nitrogen oxide regulations come at a time when carbon emissions are already under pressure to be priced or regulated in the United States. Though the Senate failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill this year, regional trading schemes are beginning to be floated and a national carbon price, while low on the political radar, is still possible. A carbon price of $20 per ton, which is in the middle of what the House passed in June 2009 and the Senate proposed this year, would increase CAP energy costs 71 percent. The price of an acre-foot of water (326,000 gallons) from the CAP for agricultural users would rise to $88 from $53 in 2011 prices.

The EPA also was granted authority by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 to regulate carbon emissions from big polluters under the Clean Air Act—which it plans to begin doing next year.

This adds up to a lot of uncertainty for CAP managers and Arizona water users. The CAP managers are not sure whether owners of the Navajo station will take on the higher costs from retrofits and the possibility of carbon prices, or shut the plant down. Executives of the consortium of utilities that own the Navajo station have been cautious in their statements. Installing new emissions control technology requires a unanimous vote of the owners. One owner, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has already stated its intention to divest from coal-based energy sources by 2020.

Energy for Water

Water, at 8 pounds per gallon, is a heavy load when billions of gallons need to be lifted. As a result, the largest share of energy to move it goes toward pumping.
The longest, highest pumping systems in the United States are in the West, where water often travels great distances from source to user, nowhere more so than California. The State Water Project sends Sierra Nevada snowmelt 444 miles to the state’s southern half, and the Colorado River Aqueduct traverses 242 miles in its course. Nearly 8 percent of California’s electricity is invested in water movement, according to the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC). If you add the energy used by end users to heat water, 19 percent of the state energy is tied to water use. Meanwhile, the CPUC is looking into how much energy can be shifted away from peak demand hours by reducing water use.
“Energy costs play a big part in water rate increases,” said Jon Lambeck, power resources manager at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Photo © Salt River Project: The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., which supplies 95 percent of the power for the Central Arizona Project, is facing possible emissions regulations from EPA that might cause the plant’s owners to shut it down. The power station is the nation’s fourth highest emitter of nitrogen oxides, gases that produce haze.

Across the West, water managers looking to increase supplies are facing significantly higher energy costs to access that water since all of the easily available sources are spoken for. A report from Western Resource Advocates, a research group, found that the energy intensity (the energy required to move a unit of water) of most proposed new supply projects is higher than current supplies because wells will have to be drilled deeper, canals extended farther and lower quality water treated more thoroughly.

Higher energy requirements for water supplies are coinciding with a national realization that past ways of electrical generation may not be viable in a water-constrained world.
The starkest example of how old water and energy practices are bumping up against new realities is the Central Arizona Project and the Navajo Generating Station.

CAP/NGS History

In 1968, the U.S. Congress authorized the Central Arizona Project, the country’s largest and most expensive aqueduct system, to bring Colorado River water to the state’s dry center. To that point, Arizona had been unable to effectively utilize its share of the river, but reaching the inland area required pumping the water nearly 3,000 vertical feet, an energy-intensive process that would turn CAP into the state’s top energy consumer.

To provide that electricity, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s preferred option was to construct bookend dams at the margins of the Grand Canyon National Park. But those plans were scuttled after a Sierra Club advertising campaign comparing the proposal to flooding the Sistine Chapel for a better view of the ceiling prompted national outcry.
The power source resolution was the Navajo Generating Station—three coal-fired boilers with a total rated capacity of 2,250 megawatts. The coal would come from Kayenta mine on the Navajo reservation 92 miles away, providing the tribe $12 million a year or most of its revenue. The Navajo Nation, moreover, receives $137.5 million annually from employment in the plant and the mine, royalties and other fees, according to the Central Arizona Project.

As the largest stakeholder in the venture, CAP receives 4.3 million megawatt-hours per year, almost a quarter of the plant’s electrical output. That is enough to meet 95 percent of its energy needs and generate an annual surplus of 1.5 million megawatt-hours that are sold on the open market to repay the federal government for construction of the canal, as well as pay for Indian water rights settlements.

In 1999, EPA established a regional haze rule, requiring no manmade visibility impairment by 2064 around national parks and wilderness areas. NGS had already cleaned up its sulfur dioxide emissions with a retrofit in 1991 and is currently voluntarily installing low-nitrogen oxide burners at a cost of $46 million in order to reduce pollutants.

Photo © Central Arizona Project: As part of a deal to stop unsustainable groundwater pumping, farmers buy water from the Central Arizona Project at the cost of the energy to move it, or 40 percent the price other users pay.

While the EPA could rule that this is sufficient action, also on the table are two significantly more expensive technologies: selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and SCRs with polishing baghouses. The former would cost $550 million and increase energy costs 17 percent; the latter would cost $1.1 billion with a 34 percent rise in energy costs, according to Salt River Project, the plant’s operating partner.

The operators of NGS are in favor of the low-cost burners. They argue that the other options are too costly for marginal improvement that will not be humanly perceptible and that much of the haze comes from upstream sources outside the immediate area. The Navajo and Hopi tribes also support the operators’ position because they rely on coal mining and land leases for employment and tribal income. However, there is grassroots opposition within the tribal communities against NGS and Peabody Western Coal Company, which operates the mine, because of the health and environmental consequences of coal-mining, especially depletion of the aquifer system.

The National Park Service supports SCR technology and argues that Salt River Project overestimated the cost and underestimated the visibility improvements.
The EPA has not finished its analysis of control technologies and is still assessing submissions made during the open comment period, public affairs officer Margot Perez-Sullivan wrote in an email to Circle of Blue. There is no firm date yet on when a ruling will be made.

Modeer, CAP’s general manager, said that they are looking at alternative energy sources, but it would take 12 to 15 years to develop a base load source to replace the Navajo plant.
“The immediate concern of the Navajo Generating Station is a huge issue for Arizona,” Modeer added. “It’s a confluence of a lot of things that’s putting the station at risk. It’s not just the EPA. It’s carbon legislation, ozone issues, mercury issues. All operators are looking at the future.”

This article was originally posted on the Circle of Blue website.

Brett Walton is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. Reach Walton at brett[at]circleofblue.org.

Unregulated Toxins in US Tap Water

California is the first state to consider a limit on the “Erin Brockovich” chemical, which has been found in 31 of 35 U.S. cities recently surveyed.

The tap water in many U.S. metropolitan areas was found to have higher-than-recommended levels of chromium-6, a known carcinogenic compound that is not regulated by any state or national agency, according to a study released this week by a public health research and lobbying organization.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), who performed the study, estimated that 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of which is likely the cancer-causing chromium-6 form.

Chromium-6 comes from industrial processes used to manufacture pigments, dyes and chrome plating, in addition to commonly being discharged from steel and pulp mills. It is also used to tan leather and prevent corrosion.

The compound, also known as hexavalent chromium, is best known from the 2000 biographical film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts.

Brockovich helped to wage a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for contaminating groundwater in Hinkley, California. The company had hired consultants to produce sham research to obscure the link between the chromium-6 and elevated cancer rates, but, in the end, the residents of Hinkley—where chromium-6 concentrations reached as high as 580 parts per billion (ppb), with natural background levels of 1.19 to 3.09 ppb—were awarded a $333 million settlement in 1996.

Image courtesy EWG
EWG commissioned testing for chromium-6 in tap water from 35 U.S. cities. Red dots indicate EWG’s test sites and measured hexavalent chromium concentrations in parts per billion (ppb). Size of dot reflects the level found. Brown-shaded areas represent population-adjusted average concentrations of total chromium by county, calculated from EWG’s national tap water database.

More recently, EWG commissioned laboratory tests of tap water from 35 U.S. cities, where previous testing by local utilities had shown high levels of “total chromium,” a measure that includes chromium-3, an essential nutrient for human glucose metabolism.

The average chromium-6 level of all 35 cities was 0.18 ppb, with samples from the city of Norman, Oklahoma registering the highest at 12.9 ppb. One part per billion is the equivalent of one faucet drip of pollutant in 66,000 gallons. Tests detected chromium-6 in samples from 31 cities, and 25 cities showed the toxic metal at concentrations above a 0.06 ppb limit being considered by regulators in California — the only state to require chromium testing.

The compound was undetected in:

  • Indianapolis, Indiana
  • San Antonio, Texas
  • Plano, Texas
  • Reno, Nevada

Image courtesy EWG
EWG commissioned testing for chromium-6 in tap water from 35 U.S. cities. Tests detected chromium-6 in samples from 31 cities, and 25 cities showed the toxic metal at concentrations above the safe maximum limit, shown in red, that has been proposed by California regulators.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate chromium-6 specifically, although it has set a total chromium threshold of 100 ppb to protect against skin irritation. EWG argues that it does not make sense to consider a toxic compound together with a beneficial nutrient, specifically chromium-3.

As a step toward a national chromium-6 standard, the EPA released a draft assessment of the compound in September of this year, presenting evidence linking over-exposure to higher cancer rates in humans. The EPA will determine if a new level needs to be set after a final review sometime next year.

In a 2008 study, the National Toxicology Program found that chromium-6 increased the risk of cancer in laboratory animals, including gastrointestinal tumors.

The debate now centers on whether chromium-6 is as toxic in water as it is in the air. There isn’t a lot of data on swallowing the compound, although it is known to cause cancer if it is inhaled.

The American Chemistry Council and the American Water Works Association are urging the EPA to hold off on setting rules until an industry-funded study is published next year, according to the New York Times.

Source: Environmental Working Group, New York Times

This story was originally posted on the Circle of Blue website.

World’s Rivers In A Crisis

International study finds serious threats to the world’s freshwater.

The report, published in the Sept. 30 issue of the journal Nature, is the first to assess threats to both human water security and freshwater biodiversity in river systems around the globe. It shows that nearly 80 percent of the planet’s population — 4.8 billion people in 2000 — lives in areas where either the water supply is vulnerable, or aquatic life is under threat.

The international research team behind the report examined the effects on water security and biodiversity of 23 different human influences – ranging from hydro schemes to pollution. According to the Guardian, previous studies have usually looked at just one influence at a time.

The study says that engineering projects, such as dams and reservoirs, can be effective at protecting water supplies for people but often cause harmful effects to the environment and do not solve the underlying causes of water scarcity.

It also suggests that the use of more natural options like safeguarding watersheds and floodplains can protect water supplies while preserving biological diversity.

“If you analyze water-security issues from both a human and biodiversity perspective, you find that the threats are shared and pandemic,” University of New York civil engineer Charles Vörösmarty told Nature. Vörösmarty, an expert on global water resources, was a lead investigator on the study.

“Even rich countries, which you would expect to be good stewards of water, have some of the most stressed and threatened areas,” he added.

Both human water security and biodiversity are at high risk in developed countries in North America and Europe, particularly in regions with heavy agriculture and high population densities. Local problems are often carried downstream, with more than 30 of the world’s 47 largest rivers recording moderate threat levels or worse at the river mouth.

“Reliance of wealthy nations on costly technological remedies to overcome their water problems and deliver water services does little to abate the underlying threats, producing a false sense of security in industrialized nations and perilous water insecurity in the developing world,” the study says. “In addition, lack of comparable investments to conserve biodiversity, regardless of national wealth, help to explain accelerating declines in freshwater species.”

Even in different parts of the world, rivers face similar threats from stressors like agricultural and industrial development, which often have indirect effects. According to U.S. News & World Report, for example, mercury pollution — which results from electricity generation at coal-fired power plants – tends to pollute surface water via the atmosphere.

“We find a real stew of chemicals flowing through our waterways,” Vörösmarty told the news magazine.

He added that the study did not account for threats from factors such as mining operations and increasing numbers of pharmaceuticals that make their way into surface water.

Sources: BBC, Nature, U.S. News & World Report, the Guardian

This story was originally posted on the Circle of Blue website.

Making Forests Pay in a Warming World

Rainforests cover 60 percent of Indonesia, and yet the country is one of the world’s leading emitters of the greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. The reason is that Indonesia also has one of the planet’s fastest rates of deforestation.

SEMPIT, Indonesia (Reuters) – Deep in the flooded jungles of southern Borneo, muddy peat oozes underfoot like jello, threatening to consume anyone who tries to walk even a few yards into the thick, steaming forest

Hard to imagine this brown, gooey stuff could become a new global currency worth billions a year, much less an important tool in the fight against climate change.  Yet this is a new frontier for business, says Bali-based consultant Rezal Kusumaatmadja, and a new way to pay for conservation efforts in a world facing ever more pressure on the land to grow food and extract timber, coal and other resources.

He and his fellow Indonesian business partner Dharsono Hartono are trying to preserve and replant a peat swamp forest three times the size of Singapore in Central Kalimantan province in Indonesia’s part of Borneo. And in the process, draw in local communities by boosting livelihoods and curb encroachment

They are at the vanguard of a global effort to slow climate change by trying to create a new market that puts a value on preserving forests, or avoiding deforestation.

The effort brings together a diverse cast of characters: environmental entrepreneurs such as Kusumaatmadja and Hartono; investment bankers trying to create a carbon market; companies seeking to buy carbon credits in that market; activists trying to ensure some of that money flows to rainforest communities; and bureaucrats whose task will be to somehow monitor and enforce the ambitious scheme, and not divert the proceeds into their pockets.

Rainforest preservation has become central to U.N. talks on a tougher climate pact and is a focus of a major climate conference in Cancun, Mexico  , that began on
November 29.

The key is carbon. Forests, and particularly deep peat forests in the tropics, soak up and lock away lots of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, acting like giant filters for the atmosphere. Cut down the forests and drain the peat, and they can release even more. Deforestation and burning account for more than half Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it a leading carbon polluter.

How, then, to put a price on that carbon and trade it?
That’s the puzzle and the lure for many investors who want to capture the benefits forests bring, from locking away carbon, to being watersheds for rivers and storehouses of countless species.

“You can’t solve the climate change issue unless you simultaneously tackle deforestation,” said Abyd Karmali, global head of carbon markets for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That means preserving what’s left and driving investment in rainforests in Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, which have the three largest areas of remaining tropical forests.

But the plan pits powerful business interests in the palm oil, logging and mining sectors against public and private sector efforts to support greater forest protection and potential carbon credit payment systems. It also means reforming powerful bureaucracies and weeding out entrenched corruption, strengthening land ownership and land use rules, improving monitoring and law enforcement and enshrining the rights of local forest communities.

The rest of this article can be read on Reuters.

This article was originally posted on the Reuters Website.

Offshore Oil Plan Sacrifices Polar Bear Habitat

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a revised offshore oil plan on Thursday, December 23, 2010. This plan will allow drilling in the center of polar bear habitat in Alaska. Salazar’s plan finalized a revised 2007-2012 nationwide offshore oil leasing plan. The previous plan, which was issued under the Bush administration, had previously been overturned by a federal appeals court for failing to properly analyze impacts of drilling off of the Arctic coast of Alaska.

Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Once again Secretary Salazar has placed political expediency over sound science and the rule of law, and polar bears and other arctic species will suffer for it.”

Salazar’s new plan reaffirms a 2008 lease in the critical habitat of polar bears in the Chukchi Sea. Oil development in the Chukchi Sea is dangerous because no technologies exist to clean up oil spills in icy waters.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental organizations have filed a court challenge to the 2007-2012 offshore oil leasing plan issued by the Bush administration. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set aside that plan for its failure to assess thoroughly the environmental impacts of opening up areas off of Alaska’s coast for drilling. Thursday’s announcement comes in response to that ruling. In a separate ruling this year, a court in Alaska stated that the environmental analysis underlying the lease sale in the Chukchi Sea was unlawful.

Cummings said, “Secretary Salazar has apparently learned nothing from either the Gulf spill or the courts. No matter how many times the courts overturn his decisions to open the arctic to oil, he comes back to the exact same decision.” Cummings cited the damage the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused this past year. With the lack of clean-up technology for an oil spill in the Arctic, Cummings believes that Salazar’s decision to move forward with the Chukchi leases shows that all the promised reforms following the Gulf spill mean nothing for the Arctic.

Furthermore, Salazar has announced that he would uphold a Bush-era decision to list polar bears as merely “threatened,” rather than listing them under the more protective status of “endangered.” By doing this, Salazar will be able to exempt greenhouse gas polluters nationwide, as well as oil companies operating in polar bear habitats from some of the Endangered Species Act’s most protective provisions.

“This week Secretary Salazar has delivered a double-barreled blast to the future of the polar bear,” said Cummings. “At this rate Secretary Salazar will be writing the polar bear’s obituary rather than its recovery plan.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 315,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Source: ENN

Protecting the World’s Forests

For decades, the immense size of the forests has led people to believe that they can cut and burn the area for its rich natural resources.  International attention and increased conservationism has dramatically reduced the rate of deforestation, but the Amazon basin certainly isn’t in the clear.

old-growth-rainforests-amazon-conservation

San Rafael Falls in Amazon Rainforest: Ecuador

Many more of the world’s old-growth forests are coming under the protection of greater conservation efforts. UN records report that most regrowth over the last decade has taken place in wealthier regions such as North American and Europe. Here the rural populations have continued to decline, dramatically lessening the reliance on clear-cutting for farming and for biofuel. New understanding about the importance of environmental protection has led some densely populated, poorer countries to change the way they see their forests. Perhaps most notably, China has undertaken costly and widespread tree-planting programs in an effort to avoid future environmental disaster. Places that were, just a decade ago, eager to chop down and sell off their natural resources are becoming (from a conservationist’s point of view) fortunately more reluctant.

While this progression toward environmental protection shines a positive light on the potential for humanity to let go of our doomed habit of stripping away the world’s natural resources, it isn’t enough to undo the damage that has been done. To secure biodiversity and restore the water system on which these forests rely, large areas of farmland must have their former forests replanted.

Scarlet Macaw

Old Habits Die Hard

Much of human “development”, historic and pre-historic, has been characterized by our ability to transform the environment in which we live and harness the living organism around us to our own benefit. We are talking about millennium after millennium of clear-cutting for agriculture and deforesting for shelter and fuel. Human behavior isn’t going to cease just because regulations change. Decades of public education and a significant shift in how the environment is perceived will be necessary before the world’s forest can be deemed protected. A perceptual separation between the natural world and humanity’s activities continues to exist in modern society.

The pressure on forests has weaned in most wealthy and developed countries, but the third world, home to over half the surviving forests, is too preoccupied with poverty, disease, and increased population to be concerned with environmental protection. To simply tell people (who have no access to alternative forms of energy) that they can no longer turn their forests into charcoal because the developed world has already released too much CO2 into the air is both unjust and doomed to failure. The ever rising demand for food and biofuels will eventually force people to turn to their environment, destroying the natural resources in the process of meeting their needs, regardless of the sustainability of the practice.

Climate change adds an entirely new dimension to the already convoluted equation. Rising temperatures in Canada have already begun to unleash plagues of harmful bark beetles. Cold, very very cold, winters used to act as a natural population control but recent warming has caused this system to break down. Australia was the driest continent on the planet long before man discovered fire or fast-food and climate change has led to more devastating drought and forest fires than ever before.

Forests are the storage tanks in the entire environmental system. Trees capture CO2, holding it for decades before burying it in the ground when the trees eventually die. Scientists estimate that rainforests currently hold twice as much CO2 than the atmosphere, meaning that we cannot live on this planet without these old-growths. Trees also sponge up rainwater runoff when it rains and slowly releases moisture again when the weather turns dry or sends water into underground reservoirs instead of surface streams. The fundamental reason that the Midwestern and Southern U.S. is so devastated by landslides and floods each spring is because so many of its forests have been replaced with fields. Development has disrupted the water-cycle on the local scale and to destroy the world’s rainforests would have repercussions on a global scale. The loss of the Amazon rainforest could diminish rainfall across the Americas.

Let’s Reset

Globalization has introduced the practice of growing cash crops like cotton, coffee, and sugar cane in regions that can barely provide staple foods for their local population and dramatically augmented the demand for agricultural goods from tropical countries. In the process, populations that used to exist in comparative harmony with their environment are taking big steps in two directions. Greater wealth means better education, stronger government, and more organized conservation efforts but the demand for new fertile farmland and biofuel is equally significant.

A massive international effort will be necessary to change the way the natural world is used and protected. There are no easy solutions when it comes to meeting individual needs while considering the best interests of the entire population. For millennia, people have understood their potential to change the world around them but they believed themselves incapable of altering the environmental system as a whole. Well we did affect the system. Are doing it. Need to stop. Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures but an unpredictable redistribution of air and ocean currents. Some countries could turn into swamps while other continents turn into dust bowls. The natural world will survive just fine, but large populations of environmental refugees could be our future if we fail to protect the forests and the environmental systems they support.

[Please Note: I claim no rights to the photos in this article.]

Anyone reading this post, please accept that I am neither a reporter nor a researcher and make no guarantee on the accuracy of this information. If you are really interested in the subject, read  National Geographic or UN Report: GEO Amazonia

Energy Waste in the USA

The graphic below, which first appeared on NYTimes.com, shows the horrible inefficiency of the U.S. power grid. Considering that our primary energy sources and the ways electricity is transported remains largely unchanged over the last century (while energy demand has skyrocketed), it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that such energy waste exists. Much of the American infrastructure is still in operation from energy-unconscious decades past and it will prove challenging to find the funds to rebuild and reinvent these systems to respond to the growing demand. Decades worth of cut funding for public services and a continued dependence on fossil fuels has created an energy system that no one should be too proud of. We are backing ourselves into a corner, and though many have raised the alarm, public policy and state/federal regulations have done little to change the direction we’re going. In the end, pollution, health concerns, environmental change, and higher energy costs will force our hand.

(Source: NYTimes.com)

The Economics of 350

There is a growing consensus that the world can stabilise atmospheric CO2 at 350 parts per million at a cost of less than three percent of global GDP.

2nd November 2010 – Published by Solutions

Worldwide, there is a growing consensus that strong action is needed to reduce carbon emissions. European Union (EU) governments have begun large-scale policy initiatives to do so; the United States lags behind but has finally begun a serious debate about proposals for climate legislation. Yet at their best, both EU and proposed U.S. policies would contain CO2 concentrations at about 450 parts per million (ppm), which until recently was considered a “safe” level but which many scientists now believe would still result in substantial, costly climate changes. Even a target of 450 ppm is viewed by many economists as too ambitious and potentially damaging to the economy.

Economists for Equity and Environment, a group dedicated to applying and developing economic principles to protect human health and the environment, conducted a study last year titled The Economics of 350.1 None of the scenarios from credible research that were examined found that moving toward a goal of 350 ppm would cost, at its peak, more than 5 percent of global GDP, and the long-term average cost of achieving 350 ppm is more likely to be between 1 and 3 percent per year.

Let’s examine, for example, spending the equivalent of 2.5 percent of GDP, roughly the rate at which developed countries’ economies grow each year, on climate protection. That would be equivalent to skipping one year’s growth and then resuming. Average incomes in the United States would take 29 years to double from today’s level, compared to 28 years in the absence of climate protection costs. In an economy experiencing 10 percent annual growth, as China has in many recent years, imposing a cost of 2.5 percent per year is equivalent to skipping three months of growth; if 10 percent growth is sustained, average incomes would reach double the current level in 86 months, compared to 83 months in the absence of climate protection costs.

Or consider this: In 68 countries, military spending is greater than 2.5 percent of GDP. In both the United States and China, military expenditures exceed 4 percent of GDP. Military spending in France and India, among many other countries, is at or above 2.5 percent of GDP. Around the world, people willingly spend very large sums to protect themselves against perceived threats to their way of life. Catastrophic climate change is just such a threat.

Inaction is the most expensive scenario. Scientific research continues to yield evidence that climate change is occurring faster, and its consequences could be more severe, than previously expected. We need a big initiative, a comprehensive global deal on protecting the Earth’s climate by rapidly reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Reaching 350 ppm: Challenges and Possibilities

How do we arrive at 350 ppm? The first step is to decide how soon to get there. James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, has argued that paleoclimatic evidence shows that 450 ppm is the threshold for transition to an ice-free Earth, with catastrophic sea-level rise and extensive flooding. Since the world is already at 390 ppm and rising, Hansen believes aggressive action is needed to get down to 350 ppm by 2100.2

In Hansen’s scenario, coal burning would be phased out by 2030, or else technology would have to be developed to capture and store 100 percent of emissions from it. Oil and gas use would fade out on their own, presuming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimates of reserves are correct; these fuels can be used as their market prices allow (assuming, as economic theory suggests, that prices will increase as reserves shrink, until and unless nonfossil energy sources are developed).

But Hansen doesn’t want to just control emissions; he wants to aim for negative net carbon emissions by midcentury (i.e., removing more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted). To do that, he has proposed large-scale reforestation and biochar initiatives, with land-use emissions hitting zero as soon as 2015 and massive sequestration of carbon in forests and soils outweighing global emissions within a few decades. Because that ambitious approach might be deemed too demanding, we considered an alternative: aiming to reach 350 ppm by 2200. In that scenario, the world would not have to achieve negative net emissions, although it would have to quickly approach zero. The different trajectories could have important, though highly uncertain, implications for peak temperature changes: the peak temperature change from 1990 is 1 °C in 2050 in Hansen’s scenario, compared to a peak change of 1.5 °C in the 350 ppm by 2200 scenario.

Note that both scenarios assume success, within this century, in the vast undertaking of converting the world energy system to carbon-free or low-carbon sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and biomass-fueled power. This is the first and foremost challenge for climate policy, the essential hurdle that must be overcome. But it is not all that is needed, especially if we set out to reach 350 ppm of CO2 by the end of this century.

Both scenarios have very similar emissions through 2020. Then, within a few decades, Hansen’s assumptions of complete carbon capture from coal and large CO2 withdrawals from land-use changes make yearly emissions in that scenario negative, and the stock of atmospheric CO2 begins to decrease over time.

Our scenario, which represents the most ambitious schedule we can imagine without assuming the technical, political, and institutional changes necessary for achieving negative emissions, would reduce emissions to 54 percent of the 1990 level by 2020 and to 3 percent by 2050. The conversion to renewable energy systems would have to be complete and the world economy would have to be virtually free of carbon emissions by midcentury, a more demanding goal than any of the leading policy proposals under discussion today. To achieve 350 ppm before 2200 without net negative emissions in any year, global emissions would have to be reduced even faster.

Carbon Removal

The ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at this point is fairly limited. There are, however, three widely discussed methods of carbon removal, of which the first two (reforestation and biochar) are currently available and the third (biomass burning with carbon capture and storage) is still under development.

Reforestation (and the prevention of deforestation) is a key, low-cost component of any strategy for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle, absorbing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere and storing carbon long term in woody biomass and soil. Hansen’s plan assumes that the world can sequester 5.9 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 annually through reforestation starting in 2030, an amount roughly equivalent to annual U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in 2008. Other estimates of the technical potential for sequestering carbon emissions range from 20 to 110 Gt of CO2 annually.1

Much of the potential for emissions reduction through forestry is found in the developing world, where forest conservation and reforestation initiatives would compete against alternative land uses, including logging and commercial and subsistence agriculture. Bottom-up estimates of forestry mitigation potential in developing countries suggest that much of these reductions are available for less than $15 per ton of CO2.1

The search for low-cost global opportunities for mitigation repeatedly leads to a focus on tropical forest management. Nicholas Stern, the economist who wrote the influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change for the British government, released in 2009 a “blueprint” for a new global deal on climate change, calling for spending $15 billion per year to combat deforestation in tropical countries; he estimates that this would buy 3 Gt per year of reduction at an average cost of $5 per ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2-e). (Concentrations of all gases are typically expressed in CO2-e—the amount of CO2 alone that would have the same warming potential as the full range of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Because of the importance of methane and other gases, 350 ppm of CO2 alone roughly corresponds to 450 ppm of CO2-e, that is, of all greenhouse gases combined.)

Heavily forested developing countries should not bear the financial burden of these reductions. New international agreements, institutional structures, and financing arrangements are necessary to facilitate payment to developing countries and to ensure the legitimacy of these reductions.

A second effort to remove carbon is biochar, a relatively obscure technology that is getting more and more attention. The technology involves slowly burning plant material into a form of charcoal and then burying it in the soil; that process sequesters carbon and may have beneficial effects on soil productivity and water retention. However, while appealing, biochar is unlikely to play a major role in reducing emissions in the coming decades. Hansen estimates that 0.6 Gt of CO2 can be sequestered annually via biochar.

Biomass and Carbon Capture and Storage

A related prospect is using biomass—including sugar cane, switchgrass, corn (maize), palm oil, and carbon-rich waste products from the paper and agricultural industries—as a fuel, burning it to generate electricity or heat. The use of biomass as a fuel is typically described as carbon neutral: the CO2 emissions released in combustion are balanced by the CO2 removed from the atmosphere by the growth of the plant material.

For biomass crops, especially those grown in an industrial agricultural setting, this equation is more complex—emissions removed in plant growth still equal emissions released in combustion, but biomass farming is also responsible for emissions caused by tractors and other farm equipment, by the production of pesticides and fertilizers, and in some cases by land-use changes, as when forest is converted to agricultural land for the purpose of biomass farming.

To use biomass energy as a tool to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, a second step is necessary: biomass power plants must be combined with carbon capture and storage. The full life cycle of biomass energy production with carbon capture and storage would absorb carbon in plant material, burn that material to make energy (thereby avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels), and then capture the resulting CO2 emissions and store them underground.

Carbon capture and storage stops greenhouse gas emissions by trapping CO2 from power plants and storing it indefinitely. If the process could be developed on a commercial scale, it could be used for more than biomass plants; it could also allow continuing use of coal-fired generation while still reducing emissions. Without carbon capture and storage, it is difficult to fit large-scale use of coal into scenarios for rapid emissions reduction. This potential for “redeeming” coal may account for some of the current interest in the strategy. Full-scale industrial carbon capture and storage, however, may not be commercially viable for some time to come.

In the meantime, experimental programs are testing a few carbon capture and storage technologies: pre-combustion carbon capture and storage removes carbon from fossil fuels before combustion, often through coal gasification. Post-combustion carbon capture and storage removes carbon from power plant smokestacks before it can enter the atmosphere. And oxyfuel carbon capture and storage burns fuels in a pure oxygen atmosphere, which limits smokestack effluent to just water vapor and CO2; cooling the smokestack gas is sufficient to separate the two into liquid water and gaseous CO2.

CO2 storage options are the same for all three capture processes. CO2 must be transported to the site of storage and injected 800 meters or more into the ground. Beneath the soil, CO2 may mix with groundwater to form a fizzy seltzer or may become trapped underneath rock formations. Potential storage sites include former oil and gas fields and deep aquifers.

Carbon capture and storage may not win the race to demonstrate that carbon can be economically removed from the atmosphere; numerous other inventions and proposals are beginning to appear. For example, recent scientific efforts to extract CO2 directly from the air have attracted the attention of investment capital. It is important to keep developing new technology—but at the same time, public policy cannot wait for or count on technologies that are still in the works. It is certainly possible to imagine some other means of mopping up unwanted CO2 emissions—the matter transmitters of Star Trek would no doubt do the job. Yet unless science fiction becomes reality, achieving net negative emissions will remain an enormous challenge.

Costs of Emissions Reduction: Five Examples from across the Globe

At least five research groups—four academic research teams publishing in peer-reviewed journals and one well-known consulting firm—have modeled global scenarios that lead to 350 ppm of CO2. These scenarios impose only moderate reductions in GDP—and one of them found that new climate investments might accelerate economic growth, creating new jobs for the unemployed. (Many research studies model emissions and impacts of all greenhouse gases, not just CO2. We have limited our attention to CO2 to highlight key numbers of current policy interest.)

Scenario 1

The first report we consider is by Detlef van Vuuren, Michel den Elzen, and others at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP).3 Their scenario relies initially on energy efficiency and on reduction of non-CO2 greenhouse gases. These measures are low cost, but their potential is soon reached. By midcentury, the model relies on carbon capture and storage (applied to virtually all remaining coal use), expanded sequestration (especially in large carbon plantations in East Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union), bioenergy production, and some expansion of the roles of both non-hydro renewable and nuclear power (hydropower is assumed to be at or near its maximum potential).

Further reductions in later years depend on changes in energy use. In the second half of this century, the authors project that hydrogen fuel cells will become affordable, reducing emissions in transportation at moderate cost. Carbon prices will rise steeply, but most emissions will be eliminated long before prices reach their peak (electricity is virtually decarbonized at “only” $55–$82 per ton of CO2 equivalents. By the end of this century, they estimate that fossil fuel use will be virtually eliminated (the small continuing uses will be for electricity production associated with carbon capture and storage), and biomass energy production with carbon capture and storage will remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

The cost of the scenario peaks at about 2 percent of world output at midcentury. Analysis of the regional impacts of this scenario finds that costs would be high for the Middle East and North Africa and the former Soviet Union, the regions most dependent on oil and gas production. Member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) would experience medium costs, while other regions would have lower costs or even gains. Nations that rely most heavily on oil and gas revenues would stand to lose under a global climate deal—a pattern of regional impacts that has been confirmed in other research as well.4

Scenario 2

The GET model, developed by Christian Azar and Kristian Lindgren at Chalmers University in Sweden, has also been used to project the costs of reaching 350 ppm of CO2 by 2100.5 It presumes that, by midcentury, nuclear and hydroelectric power are already at their maximum potential, and it limits wind and solar power to 30 percent of electricity demand due to intermittency. Oil as the dominant transportation fuel is eventually replaced by hydrogen, with solar energy used to produce it. Carbon capture and storage is vitally important in this model, shrinking the cumulative cost of mitigation over this century from $26 trillion to $6 trillion when carbon capture and storage is applied to both fossil and biomass energy.

In this model, costs peak at 5 percent of GDP in 2030 without carbon capture and storage—or at 3 percent of GDP in the 2070–2080 period with it. In the 350 ppm with carbon capture and storage scenario, coal use is roughly constant throughout the century, but carbon capture and storage enters around 2020 and applies to virtually all coal use by 2060. Solar hydrogen appears around 2060 and is the largest source of energy in the global system by 2100. Biomass rises in importance until about 2060 and then remains constant; carbon capture and storage is applied to biomass energy starting around 2050 and applies to almost all remaining fossil energy by 2100. Oil declines rapidly after 2040; natural gas remains important until near the end of the century but with increasing use of carbon capture and storage after 2050.

Scenario 3

Another analysis, conducted by Terry Barker and Katie Jenkins at the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research (4CMR), at Cambridge University, projects that in a global economy characterized by slow growth and high unemployment, a program of investment in emissions reduction will increase employment and economic growth at a cost of between 2 to 3 percent of GDP by 2030, achieving 450 ppm of CO2-e by 2100.6

This study, which is less explicit about specific technology choices, suggests that moderate-to-high carbon taxes could shift the electricity system to low-carbon options, including coal and gas with carbon capture and storage, renewable resources, and nuclear power. Taxes could also propel the wholesale adoption of electric cars by 2050.

Scenario 4

Ottmar Edenhofer and his colleagues at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research (PIK) have also engaged in extensive studies of low stabilization targets. In a major EU research project, these researchers compared the projections of four different models for the costs of achieving stabilization targets from 400 to 550 ppm of CO2-e.7 One model projects economic gains from the investments in mitigation; the three others, from different research groups, make relatively consistent projections, showing cumulative GDP losses through 2100 of 1.7 percent or less, even for the 400 ppm of CO2-e target (which is equivalent to about 300 ppm of CO2). Biomass and carbon capture and storage assumptions are crucial to costs everywhere; in contrast, nuclear power plays only a minor role. The lowest stabilization scenarios also require expansion of non-biomass renewables, with the level of biomass use determining the level of mitigation costs.

Scenario 5

McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm, has looked at the cost of greenhouse gas abatement from the bottom up, most recently in a study that examined the potential and the costs of more than 200 abatement opportunities from now through 2030.8 The study found that there is the technical potential to reduce global emissions 35 percent below 1990 levels, or 70 percent below business as usual, by 2030—if all measures with costs below $84 per ton of CO2-e are adopted. The total investment would be $280 billion to $490 billion annually by 2030, or less than 1 percent of global GDP in that year, on a stabilization trajectory that reaches 450 ppm of CO2-e (350 ppm of CO2) by 2200.

The McKinsey study’s projected emissions reductions consist of three roughly equal categories: energy-efficiency opportunities, such as more fuel-efficient cars, better insulated buildings, and more advanced manufacturing controls; low-carbon energy supply, shifting from fossil fuels to wind, nuclear, or hydro power, as well as equipping fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage capability; and forestry and agriculture changes, such as halting deforestation, switching to rapid reforestation, and changing agricultural practices to increase carbon sequestration in soils.

In addition to identifying the substantial opportunities for negative-cost emissions reductions (many of them from energy efficiency), the McKinsey research also points out that the cost estimates are sensitive to the price of oil. As the price of oil rises, the costs of investment in emissions reduction are largely unchanged, but the value of the saved energy increases, implying a lower net cost. The basic forecast assumes an oil price of $60 per barrel; every $10 per barrel increase, if accompanied by proportional increases in other energy prices, cuts average abatement costs by $4 per ton of CO2-e. Although the report does not spell it out in these terms, this formula implies that at an oil price of $90 per barrel, the entire emissions reduction of 38 gigatons of CO2-e would have zero net cost.

Many of the model results discussed here express costs as percentages of GDP, a measure that is natural to economists but may seem opaque to other readers. Most scenarios put the cost of mitigation at between 1 and 3 percent of global GDP—in 2008 terms, that’s somewhere between $600 billion and $1.8 trillion. This would be an annual, recurring cost that will have to be paid for many years. Yet as we noted at the beginning, this is far from an impossible burden.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Our most important conclusion is that a 350 ppm stabilization target will not destroy the economy. On the contrary: we found widespread agreement that sound economic analysis supports policies to promote energy conservation, development of new energy technologies, and price incentives and other economic measures to redirect the world economy onto a low-carbon path to sustainability—at entirely affordable costs.

Agreement with this conclusion, of course, is not universal. At one extreme, business groups warn that moderate reductions called for in recent U.S. legislation would cripple the economy—and some economists, quite mistakenly in our view, worry more about the costs of climate policy than about the risks of climate damages.1 At the other extreme, some environmental groups anticipate “win-win” economic outcomes and large net savings from eliminating carbon emissions. But between these extremes is a growing body of research that finds that even very ambitious emissions reductions aimed at reaching 350 ppm might only cost 1–3 percent of world output.

Is the estimated cost of a global climate change strategy of 1–3 percent of world GDP a large or a small number?

The answer depends on how seriously you take the risks of climate change. If we believe that inaction could lead to massive ice sheet melting, flooding in some areas and droughts in others, crop failures, extinctions, and other disasters, then spending a few percent of output to protect ourselves and our descendants against so much harm seems reasonable. In private life, many people spend a few percent of their income on fire and life insurance to protect against unlikely disasters, such as residential fires or the deaths of young parents. In public life, climate protection is insurance for the planet and future generations.

The low price of fossil fuels in the United States skews the discussion by masking the true costs of our energy use. We recommend putting a price on carbon, either as a tax or through a cap on emissions; a cap would likely be adopted as part of an allowance or emissions permit system. There is ongoing debate about the merits of auctioning allowances each year, the approach we prefer, versus freely allocating them to potentially affected business and other interests, the approach that has often been favored in Congress. These approaches have very different effects on the distribution of income but could have the same effect on the price of carbon.

It is preferable for the high fuel price to be imposed by a tax or cap rather than by private markets, even if the effect on consumers is the same. When market forces push up the price of oil, as they did in 2008, the extra revenues go to oil producers, not to the public. When oil prices remain high, incentives are created for environmentally destructive production of energy—from oil shale, oil sands, and increasingly deep, dangerous offshore drilling. In contrast, a high price imposed by policy creates incentives for consumers to conserve, but not for producers to engage in costly production from easily damaged resources. An oil tax transfers revenues to the government, which can use them for environmental investment, other public purposes, or refunds to citizens.

Predicting the future—what will happen next week or next month—is challenging; predicting a century of technological and economic change is inescapably fraught with uncertainty. Nonetheless, the best available estimates imply that we can, indeed, afford the economics of 350. What we cannot afford is too little climate policy, too late.

References:

1. Ackerman, F et al. The Economics of 350: The Benefits and Costs of Climate Stabilization [online] (Stockholm Environment Institute, Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, 2009). www.e3network.org/papers/Economics_of_350.pdf

2. Hansen, J et al. Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim? Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2, 217–231 (2008).

3. van Vuuren, DP et al. Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at low levels: an assessment of reduction strategies and costs. Climatic Change 81, 119–159 (2007).

4. DeCanio, SJ. The political economy of global carbon emissions reductions. Ecological Economics 68, 915–924 (2009).

5. Azar, C, Lindgren, K, Larson, E & Möllersten, K. Carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels and biomass—costs and potential role in stabilizing the atmosphere. Climatic Change 74, 47–79 (2006).

6. Barker, T & Jenkins, K. The Costs of Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: Estimates Derived from a Meta-analysis of the Literature; A Briefing Paper for the Human Development Report 2007 (Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, Cambridge, UK, 2007).

6. Knopf, B et al. Report on First Assessment of Low Stabilization Scenarios [online] (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany, 2008).

7. Nauclér, T& Enkvist, P-A. Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy: Version 2 of the Global Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve [online] (McKinsey & Company, Seattle, 2009). www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/ccsi/pathways_low_carbon_economy.asp.


By Frank Ackerman, Elizabeth Stanton, Steve DeCanio, Eban Goodstein, Richard B. Howarth, Richard B. Norgaard, Catherine S. Norman, Kristen Sheeran

Link to original article source here

Rain Water Harvesting

One of the easiest and most ecofriendly ways of water conservation is by watering your lawn and garden with rain captured in a rain barrel. Water resources are the most valuable natural resource on the plants. Particularly in industrialized countries, water is under-appreciated by the public at large because we believe that there exists an endless supply of water. What we fail the realize is how easily ecosystems are destroyed by the capturing of water for municipal use or irrigation as well as the dumping of effluent and rainwater runoff. In a natural ecosystem, rain is captured by the earth, soaked up by trees, and collected by ponds. Development prevents these things from happening by creating large nonporous surfaces.
By collecting water in rain barrels, you can cut down on your water bill while helping to diminish the effects of runoff erosion and pollution. Hopefully in the coming century, our homes will take more steps towards becoming sustainable systems with diminished effects on the larger ecosystems. Rain water harvesting is a simple step in the right direction.

IUCN Red List: 52 Species Move Toward Extinction Each Year

The IUCN Red List, created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is an ongoing study focusing on the state of animal species all around the world. For conversation efforts in every corner of the planet, the study provides invaluable information regarding the rate of extinction and the loss of biodiversity as ecosystems continue to be threatened by human activities. Without clear and detailed research into the growth and decline of plant and animal species, we can have no hope of understanding the role of conservation, the effectiveness of efforts, or the ecosystems in most dire need.

Using the 26,000 vertebrates on the IUCN Red List, one group of researchers, led by Dr Stuart Butchart, has approximated that 52 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians move closer and closer toward extinction every year. This figure was determined by observing the species on the list and analyzing the trends as the species move between the IUCN Red List’s categories: Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct. So basically, an average of 52 species moves down the Red List despite the efforts of conservationists to raise the alarm.

To put this in broader terms, in spite of the vast amount of research and knowledge that has been accumulated over the last several decades, we are still moving in the wrong direction and the threat to the world’s biodiversity is only getting worse. Of course, for anyone who keeps tabs on environmental news, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Due to human influences and ecosystem destruction, approximation 20 percent of all known animal species are threatened by extinction. Due to water pollution and land reclamation, the habitats of the world’s amphibians are being wiped away, resulting in 41 percent of these animal species population in rapid decline. Finally, of the 52 species that move closer to extinction each year, 9 will actually disappear from existence.

On a more positive note, studies also suggest that conservation efforts around the globe have managed to save some endangered populations. Almost every animal species to climb the list has done so due to direct action on the part of conservationists. There is nothing better than knowing that even beneath the greatest mass extinction in the earth’s history, the effort of passionate and dedicated individuals is working. Raising awarness and education will be fundamental in future.

The entire study can be found in the journal Science.

Bamboo Utensils

The ecofriendly character of products is generally determined by the materials used and the longevity of the tool. A basket made out of reeds instead of plastic is quaint, but if it isn’t done right then the energy cost of the basket and the land used to grow reeds is wasted. As an example: Environmentalism created a new desire for ecofriendly shipping practices. Poor farmers in Madagascar responded by planting low-growing palms in what used to be dense tropical forests. Ironically, the demand for sustainable practices is contributing to the clearing of forests for agriculture.

Fortunately, bamboo is somewhat better. While bamboo is an invasive species, it is also the fastest growing wood plant on earth and so when it comes to simple tools and utensils, there really is nothing better. This rapid growth means a higher yield for much less input, creating products that are natural and sleek.

And bamboo dinnerware is a perfect example of replacing the wood, metal, and plastic utensils that we use today with more environmentally friendly bamboo alternative. Bamboo is a highly durable material that can be grown and harvested sustainably. Of course, bamboo chopsticks would represent the least material use for the highest utility, but I’ve never been able to master eating with chopsticks.

Do your research and understand that alternatives are not always solutions. In some cases, the most sustainable and ecofriendly option is to be less of a consumer and more of a conservationist. Don’t buy new if you don’t need to and don’t buy what you don’t need at all. Yes, consumerism is the fuel of capitalist society, but it is also the cause of climate change, environmental injustice, and the great disparity between the rich and poor of this age, a gap in quality of life that trumps every king or emperor in human history. But oh, yeah, I’m talking about bamboo spoons….