Archives for April 2009

'Green' replaced as a BP brand value

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Shanta Barley | 16:48 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009


The energy company BP, which famously rebranded itself as 'Beyond Petroleum' in 2000 and pledged that being 'Green' was a core company belief, has replaced its trademark 'Green' brand value with a committment to be 'Responsible', according to the BP website.

bp.jpgIn practice, this means that BP wishes to be seen from now on as 'committed to the safety and development of our people and the communities and societies in which we operate ... no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment.'

The policy change doesn't mean that BP is no longer interested in developing its green credentials, of course. (Indeed, just this week, BP ranked top of a sustainability survey of oil companies.)

BP's press office has also made it clear that they see this as an evolution rather than a replacement of their 'Green' brand value (Beyond Green, perhaps?), but it's clear some reshuffling of priorities has occurred.

Follow-up: New Energy Focus: BP pulls out of UK wind power - and also CCS competition

How far to Armageddon? About half a trillion tonnes apparently...

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Richard Cable | 14:47 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009


Since the start of the 20th century, the Earth's climate is reckoned to have warmed by around 0.74°C, plus or minus 0.18°C. Common consensus suggests that a rise of more than 2°C from the same starting point would be undesirable, resulting in surging sea levels, more extreme weather events, water shortages, extinctions, generalised Armageddon, etc.

miner226x226.jpgThat leaves us roughly 1.26°C to play with (give or take a margin of error) before we get into the rough stuff. Scientists and policymakers are constantly searching for ways to quantify what this means in terms of reducing output of greenhouse gases.

The focus has long been on setting targets for reduction. For example the European Union recently announced a 'binding' commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions by 20% by 2020. But how these targets relate to keeping us below 2°C remains unclear, especially when binding commitments run up against the cold hard reality of things like a massive global recession and the need to maintain a competitive economy.

What we really need is an absolute measure of just how much carbon we can continue to chuck out before we bust the 2°C limit. Happily, a collection of scientists led by Myles R Allen of Oxford University's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department has just calculated exactly that number and published the results in the journal Nature.

By their reckoning, we've already burnt half a trillion (that's half of a million millions) tonnes of carbon and we can probably afford to burn another half trillion before sending temperatures beyond 2°C. (For anyone who thought we were in danger of running out of fossil fuels, we're not. Half a trillion tonnes of carbon represents just a quarter of our known reserves.)

It took roughly 250 years to burn the carbon we have already burnt, but Myles R Allen and friends think we could clear the next half trillion before 2050, based on current projections.

What conclusions can we draw from this report? First is that we probably need to: a) leave most of the coal in the ground; b) find ways to capture the emissions from the coal-fired power stations we have already planned to build; and c) find a way of reconciling this limit with the cold hard reality of things like a massive global recession and the need to maintain a competitive economy. Oh, hang on a second...

Related blogs: 'Since records began': a brief guide to who's taking the temperature

Oh dear god, please don't tell me chocolate is killing the planet?

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Shanta Barley | 10:56 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009


Are you chocolate crazy, but also annoyingly aware that cocoa beans have to be cultivated in the tropics, shipped over to Europe, fermented, dried, roasted, ground and shaped into bars, wrapped in foil and finally driven to the sweet shop?

choc.jpgFret no more. Thanks to a new study, we can now at least make an informed choice about which type of chocolate has the smallest footprint, namely, dark chocolate. (And, no, the report wasn't commissioned by the Campaign to Boost Sales of Dark Chocolate, but by the German Aluminium Association.)

Every kilo of dark chocolate we scoff generates two kilos of greenhouse gas, making it twice as climate-friendly as the worst option, white chocolate, say the report's authors, Sybille Büsser and Niels Jungbluth.

The average Brit puts away a hefty 11kg of chocolate every year which means that (calculators at the ready) satisfying your cravings with dark chocolate rather than white chocolate can save as much CO2 as installing a green roof on a house in Britain. And it's considerably easier.

Dark chocolate apparently wins out because it doesn't contain milk powder, which is a carbon-intensive ingredient of white and milk chocolate. It's also less processed by virtue of not requiring the cocoa butter needed for other chocolates.

But as we recently discovered, obesity is potentially a major contributor to climate change, so go easy.

So who gets rich next? Bolivia, that's who

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Richard Cable | 14:55 UK time, Wednesday, 29 April 2009


bolivia-man226x226.jpgFor much of its modern history, the Arabian Peninsula has been a hot, arid stretch of land notable as home to two of the holiest mosques of Islam, but with little to recommend it economically. That was until truly colossal reserves of oil were discovered in March 1938, propelling Saudi Arabia to a position of massive geopolitical importance.

In pure cash terms, it was like placing a billion dollar bet on yourself as a 1000-1 shot to win several mammoth rollover lotteries on the bounce, while simultaneously discovering that a long lost great-great-great-great-great uncle called Croesus had left you his entire fortune, which had been sitting in a high interest account since the 6th century BC. And then some.

But with fossil fuels finite and alternative energy sources set to be radically exploited, who's hitting the gushers of the future?

As it turns out, another previously economically unpromising part of the world: Bolivia. The poorest South American nation is sitting on around 50% of the world's lithium reserves and lithium is a key component of the batteries that our electrically-powered cars of the future will be requiring in enormous quantities.

But Bolivia's uncompromising president, Evo Morales, isn't just going to pony-up his natural resources to rapacious foreign exploiters. Instead, Evo wants rapacious foreign exploiters to become benign domestic investors by manufacturing the batteries and maybe even the cars in Bolivia itself. (He probably means business. Morales recently went on hunger strike to force through an election reform.)

Other places set to hit the big time include the plateaus of Western China and Tibet, bits of Western Australia and a fair few US states. As acknowledged world expert on Lithium reserves R Keith Evans says: 'Concerns regarding lithium availability for hybrid or electric vehicle batteries or other foreseeable applications are unfounded.' The Lithium rush starts here.

Lovelock's conscience: cleared for lift-off

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Shanta Barley | 10:39 UK time, Wednesday, 29 April 2009


The impending space trip of the 90-year-old godfather of the green movement James Lovelock, interviewed by Oliver Morton of the journal Nature has been criticised widely as 'environmentally reckless'. But just how bad is space flight for planet Earth?

spaceship.jpgVirgin Galactic, the self-appointed 'world's first spaceline', will be making an astronaut of Lovelock, and to look at their website you could be forgiven for thinking that theirs is a truly intergalactic carbon footprint:

'The spaceship hitches a ride up to around 50,000 feet attached to a specially designed carrier aircraft, 'the mothership'. Once at 50,000 feet, the spaceship is released from the mothership and ignites its hybrid rocket. The spaceship then begins a climb from 50,000 feet to over 360,000 feet. This climb takes about 90 seconds and will reach a speed of just over 3 times the speed of sound.'

But according to the Times, while the carbon footprint is 'not good ... it's not as colossal as you might think.' Lovelock will apparently produce fewer greenhouse gases travelling into space than the average person emits on a return business-class flight from London to New York. (Two tonnes of carbon, to be precise.)

In a bid to offset carbon criticism, Virgin Galactic is looking at biofuel alternatives. And thanks to a deal with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the mothership 'will be equipped with sensors and monitoring systems that will measure carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas levels ... at altitudes that are understudied.'

Of course, if we all start doing it (and Virgin Galactic does plan to launch two flights a day at cut-price by 2011) that's another matter. But Lovelock thinks we'll all be too busy 'surviving' by the end of the century to have the time or the energy to take space trips.

Until then, best to limit the moon-walking to Friday night clubbing, maybe?

Oceans absorbing CO2: good thing or bad?

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Richard Cable | 14:07 UK time, Tuesday, 28 April 2009


The British government has announced plans to fund research into ocean 'acidification'. Ideally, the oceans should be slightly alkaline, with a pH of 8.2, but they are apparently becoming gradually more acidic thanks to our old friend carbon dioxide.

Acidity impairs the ability of various sea-dwelling critters to make shells and other calcium-based exoskeletons. Some scientists fear that even minor acidification could trigger major extinctions, so £11m is being pumped into a five-year research programme, co-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc).

BBC News: How ocean acidification works: Source: University of Maryland

Oceans are natural 'carbon sinks' that are reckoned to have absorbed as much as 50% of the fossil-fuel CO2 released by human activity over the last 200 years. This may have raised acidity by as much as 0.1 pH, which doesn't sound much but could constitute the biggest shift in ocean biochemistry for more than 60 million years.

The impact of acidification is improperly understood. We already know that parts of the biosphere - Earth's other great natural carbon sink - may actually be benefitting from increased carbon dioxide levels.

And only two years ago, fears were that the oceans were going to stop absorbing CO2 altogether, thereby depriving us of an invaluable carbon sink. Hopefully this new research boost will provide some valuable answers.

Palm oil company forced to give a monkey's about, well, monkeys

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Shanta Barley | 13:36 UK time, Tuesday, 28 April 2009


It's not every day that a corporation buckles under the pressure of an environmental campaign. But last Friday, a leading palm oil company in the Ivory Coast was forced by green groups to abandon its plan to turn a pocket of pristine swampland forest into a plantation. (Palm oil was once viewed as the ideal carbon-neutral biofuel to replace fossil fuels, but has since experienced massive opposition from conservationists.)


Protecting the Ivory Coast's swamps sits high on most environmentalists' to-do lists because peat bog releases large amounts of carbon dioxide when it is converted to oil palm plantation. Healthy bogs absorb and store CO2. But drained bogs decay rapidly, releasing the carbon they contain into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, tropical swamps are able to absorb and store about 80% more carbon than temperate wetlands.

Environmentalists have also balked at the idea of turning West Africa's 'most threatened hotspot' for primates into farmland because over half of all primates are facing extinction due to deforestation. Many monkeys - like the Roloway, a charcoal-coloured animal that scares other monkeys by raising its eyebrows to expose a 'sweat band' of white fur - are rare or extinct outside this 12,000 hectare zone.

Crude oil, refined art: Andrei Molodkin comes to London

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Shanta Barley | 13:54 UK time, Monday, 27 April 2009


An ex-Soviet soldier who used to smear oil on his toast (when the Marmite ran out, presumably), Andrei Molodkin has just opened an art exhibition, 'Liquid Modernity (Grid and Greed)' at the Orel Art Gallery in London.

You could probably get away with describing Molodkin's art as political: he pumps Chechen and Iraqi oil into political slogans, religious icons and any other symbol that will raise metabolisms.

Fractional Grid No 6, 2009. Acrylic tubes filled with crude oil, fluorescent tubes, by Andrei Molodkin

For his latest exhibition he 'bleeds' oil from a Russian courtroom-style cage into a working oil refinery, generating enough electricity to light up a neon sign.

Such is Molodkin's love affair with oil, he even wants to be boiled down into zero-emissions fuel himself when he dies. ('Maybe I can be enough energy to drive a short way in a Porsche,' he explains to the Times, 'Or 50km in a Japanese car. Or an economical light.')

With the world in the throes of a recession and global oil demand falling by 2.4 million barrels a day, what better time to 'confront the role of oil as the source of cultural dominance and global communication'?

Follow up: Volunteer to be made into oil by Andrei Molodkin

We've had some good news about your methane clathrates

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Richard Cable | 11:36 UK time, Friday, 24 April 2009


So there are these things called methane clathrate deposits which everyone has been a bit worried about, because if they break down they will release huge volumes of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. If this happened, we'd all fry for sure.

burning_hydrate226x226.jpgA clathrate, for those of us lacking a chemistry degree, is a molecule that 'imprisons' another molecule. Methane clathrate is methane trapped in the crystalline structure of frozen water (which is why you can set fire to it - see image courtesy of the US Office of Naval Research). It's present in huge volumes beneath both permafrost and the seabed of our oceans.

Clathrates are pretty stable up to 0°C, or about 18°C under deep sea pressure. The worry was that as atmospheric and water temperatures increased, these clathrates would start to pump out methane at a ferocious rate. So scientists turned to atmospheric records trapped in ancient glacial ice for evidence of this happening before.

Happily, it hasn't, according to researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego. They focused on a 'spike in atmospheric methane gas' that occured around 11,600 years ago. By carrying out analysis of tiny air bubbles trapped in glacial ice, it was determined that the surge was 'more chemically consistent with an expansion of wetlands'.

Vasilii Petrenko, the scientist who led the analysis, said: 'This is good news for global warming, because it suggests that methane clathrates do not respond to warming by releasing large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.'

Nice to have a bit of good news occasionally!

Hummers to carry shock troops of the zero carbon revolution

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Richard Cable | 16:37 UK time, Thursday, 23 April 2009


The Hummer is an incredible vehicle. Bear with me.

Developed as the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, from which we somehow get the name 'Humvee') for the US Army, it is a pretty amazing piece of engineering. It's extremely rugged, highly adaptable, can go pretty much anywhere and does cool stuff like reinflate its tires through the axles. In fact, it's been so successful in replacing the Jeep and other light military vehicles that the American military now employs it in 17 different roles.

hummer226x226.jpgBut like many things, it is only desirable when used for the purpose for which it was made. Nobody is going to start asking a soldier in Iraq to try and navigate hostile highways in a G-Wiz. It should be a similar mark of delusional insanity to consider the Hummer a suitable suburban vehicle for a trip down to the shops.

Until now. The Wired blog 'Autopia' tells of a firm in Utah that has taken this symbol of all that is environmentally wrong with the internal combustion engine and turned it into a 100mpg-equivalent electric pussycat that's 'greener than a Prius'.

The rationale is pretty interesting. Most commercially available electric cars are built 'around the battery packs', but with a unit the size of a Hummer there's plenty of space for batteries, engine, generator and motor, plus luggage, people, cattle and other things you conventionally haul around in cars.

As Jim Spellman of Raser Technologies, who built the eco-Hummer, says: 'SUVs [sports utility vehicles] and trucks are the number one selling vehicle in America. Unlike the Prius, which is a mild hybrid vehicle, an eco-friendly SUV will get people's attention.' You can say that again.

Dim and dimmer: could bad air be good for us?

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Shanta Barley | 16:33 UK time, Thursday, 23 April 2009


Does air pollution cool the planet, as BBC News writes today, or does it heat it up? Both, as it turns out, the dirty backstabber.

jeremyclarkson.jpgResearch published today in the journal Nature reports that since the 1960s an extra 10% of carbon dioxide has been stored in the soil due to enhanced plant productivity, and it's all thanks to air pollution. The study's lead scientist, Dr Lina Mercado, says that polluted skies scatter light more effectively than clean skies, 'leaving fewer leaves in the shade' and encouraging plants to soak up more CO2.

Now that pollution's been found to actually be good for the environment - or the plant bits of it at any rate - expect Jeremy Clarkson to be nominated for a Treehugger award. 'Do your bit' - and leave a brick on the accelerator while you pop into the shops.

Not so fast.

While air pollution cools the climate in some ways, it also warms things up by absorbing the Sun's heat. In fact, NASA's Dr Drew Shindell argues that aerosols could be responsible for half if not more of the warming of the Arctic, which is heating up at a rate about twice as fast as the rest of the world. Best to leave that brick at home until the scientists have sorted it out.

Vote for Bloom!

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Richard Cable | 15:40 UK time, Thursday, 23 April 2009


Yes, it's true. We're indulging in outrageous self-promotion. Climate Change: Bloom, of which this blog is its most topical part, has been nominated for a Webby Award in the Living - Lifestyle category.

crowd_cheering226x226.jpgAs ever, this means Bloom is also up for the People's Voice Award, so if you feel like warming our specific microclimate by voting for us, here's how you do it:

1. Register. It's quick and painless.

2. Go to this page: Webby Awards: Website Ballot

3. Scroll down to the 'Living' category and click on the 'Lifestyle' sub-category

4. Vote for Climate Change: Bloom! (ballot closes 30 April.

Thank you!

It's Earth Day!

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Richard Cable | 14:11 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009


It has been pointed out that as a blog about climate change, we ought to mention that it's Earth Day.

It's Earth Day. Enjoy.

Major rivers aren't drying up (or how alarmism doesn't help)

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Richard Cable | 12:09 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Faced with the headline 'Major rivers drying up', you could be forgiven for imagining that the Yangtze, the Niger and the Colarado are all in imminent danger of slowing to a trickle, their dry and dusty beds a mass of rusting shopping carts and desiccated fish corpses.

niger226x226.jpgMore than one media outlet led with variations on this theme when reporting research just published in the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate. But nowhere in the research itself or in the comments of its researchers is the phrase 'drying up' used to describe what is happening to our major rivers.

In fact, going back to the source we find that the American Meteorological Society (AMS) press-released it with the rather more dispassionate: 'Water Levels Dropping in Some Major Rivers as Global Climate Changes'. The research itself is even less thrillingly entitled: 'Changes in Continental Freshwater Discharge from 1948-2004'.

The primary focus of the study was measuring 'run off' - the amount of water that actually reaches the sea from a river. The abstract states: 'Only about one-third of the top 200 rivers ... show statistically significant trends during 1948-2004, with the rivers having downward trends (45) out-numbering those with upward trends (19).'

Flow from the Columbia River in the US, for example, has fallen by roughly 15% since 1948, while the Mississippi has actually increased run off by 22%. But notably, 136 major rivers showed no 'significant' trend either way and none appear to be in imminent danger of 'drying up'.

It's an accepted fact that alarmism in communicating issues around climate change simply isn't helpful. It switches people off and fosters feelings of fatalism along the lines of 'what the hell, we're all going to die anyway'. Admittedly, 'Decreasing run off from minority of major rivers gives cause for concern' is a dreadful example of the headline writer's art, but it's a lot closer to the truth.

What speed is green?

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Shanta Barley | 11:48 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009


The government is considering reducing speed limits from 30mph to 20mph in towns and 60mph to 50mph in the countryside. That's good news for the eight people who still die on our roads each day, but will it reduce CO2 emissions, as some campaigns claim?

20speed226x226.jpgSure, driving at lower speeds can burn less fuel and cut your car's carbon emissions on motorways, helping to tackle climate change. (Act on CO2, a government campaign to help people reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, estimates that at 70mph you use roughly 10% more fuel than at 60mph, and about 15% more fuel than at 50mph.)

Why, then, are speed limits considered by some a green no-no? Firstly, some cars are more fuel-efficient at speeds of over 30mph, which is why reducing the speed limit to 20mph can actually boost emissions (by 10%, says the AA).

And secondly, the speed bumps commonly used to enforce speed limits can increase CO2 emissions by forcing drivers to brake and accelerate repeatedly - by as much as 50% on 30mph roads, reports the Times ('Road humps slow the traffic but speed up death of planet', 2008). 'A car that achieves 58.15 miles per gallon travelling at a steady 30mph', transport correspondent Ben Webster writes, 'will deliver only 30.85mpg when going over humps'.

As Dudley Moore said, 'the best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it'.

Follow up: BBC Bloom: Fuel-efficient driving

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the greenest of them all?

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Shanta Barley | 11:12 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Which endangered species is the sexiest? Who's the greenest celebrity of them all (Shrek aside)? And what's the most outrageous green idea ever? You may not have asked yourself these questions yet, but the staff over at TreeHugger will shortly have the answers.

Treehugger's inaugural Best of Green Awards seek to bring together 'the greenest of the green' across a diverse range of categories, from culture and celebrity to science and technology and most points in between.

In the spirit of online democracy, you yourself can vote in each category. You can even have your say on the 'most outrageous green idea' - natural hickey removal, pet hair corsets or onion-based zit cream. Polls close tomorrow.

Global cooling? a.k.a. Where have all the sunspots gone?

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Richard Cable | 10:06 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009


The Sun is late. We're meant to be entering a phase of big activity - flares, sunspots and general heliocentric carryings-on - but instead we're getting sullen, ominous non-participation: fifty-year lows in solar wind pressure and radio emissions, and the quietest patch for sunspots in 100-years.

Quite why remains a mystery. As you might expect, a million-kilometre-wide ball of superheated gas measuring 6000°C on the surface isn't the easiest thing in the universe to study, but it's always been accommodating enough to run to a fairly regular 11 year cycle of activity. Until now.

sun_transit_venus226x226.jpgAcademic speculation is rife. Will normal service resume soon? Or are we entering an unexpected cold patch? If this goes on much longer, expect to hear people talking about something called the Maunder Minimum - a period from the late 17th to early 18th century also known as the 'Little Ice Age' - when sunspot activity and temperatures plummeted.

The jury is still out on whether increased sunspot activity makes temperatures on Earth hotter. But should we get excited about the idea that less sunspot activity might make us cooler and offset man-made global warming?

No, says Professor Mike Lockwood of Southampton University, who knows a thing or two about the subject. He was one of the first scientists to identify that the Sun's activity has actually been decreasing since 1985.

'It's pretty clear that the underlying level of the Sun peaked at about 1985 and what we are seeing is a continuation of a downward trend that's been going on for a couple of decades. If the Sun's dimming were to have a cooling effect, we'd have seen it by now.'

Talk of global cooling is considered heresy by many global warming advocates. But then we know that science isn't about orthodoxy, it's about 'observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning'. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(P.S. The image on this entry actually shows the Transit of Venus in 2004, rather than a sunspot.)

Fear of a fat planet

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Shanta Barley | 09:11 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Britain, as you're probably aware, is putting on weight. By 2010, 40% of the UK's population will be obese, compared to just 3% in the scrawny Seventies. Obesity not only affects your health and sex life, but also contributes to climate change in a big way, according to a study published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

two_fat_ladies.jpgSo how does obesity affect the climate? Food production is an energy-intensive affair, accounting for 20% of the world's emissions already, according to the authors of the study, Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts. The average Brit consumes about 20% more food energy today than they did in the Seventies, and with climbing obesity rates it's only likely to get worse.

A second, less obvious side-effect of obesity is transport emissions. Simply put, cars and planes burn more fuel moving heavier objects. And we, on average, are much heavier objects than at any time in our history.

Follow up: The Guardian: Carbon emissions fuelled by high rates of obesity
Follow up: BBC Bloom: Eating less beef and dairy

Overpopulation: Maybe we actually need more people?

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Richard Cable | 14:03 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009


The overpopulation argument is seductively simple on face value:

1) The world has environmental problems.
2) People, by and large, cause these environmental problems.
3) Therefore, fewer people = fewer environmental problems.

stop_children226x226.jpgCampaigns calling for population control - invariably based on projections of human numbers stabilising at around 9 or 10 billion - are becoming increasingly prominent (see Bloom blog 'David Attenborough's born ultimatum').

But when we talk about population control, who are we talking about less of? Many industrialised nations already have negligible or negative population growth, once you've removed immigration and momentum from the equation, so who exactly are we prevailing upon to stop having children?

The main drivers of the projected 'population explosion' are all in the 'developing world' - the Indian subcontinent, China and parts of Africa - with the sole 'developed' exception of the United States. So are we really saying that we've already had all the benefits of industrialisation and a booming population, but you lot shouldn't follow suit. How fair is that?

We are, in any case, terrible at predicting population growth (see Michael Blastland's insightful 'How can a graph be so very wrong?') so can we realistically plan based on our projections? Human populations, like climate, respond to an astonishingly wide range of factors, making them fiendishly difficult to forecast.

We also generally get it wrong when it comes to assessing our ability to feed ourselves sustainably. Take, for example, Paul Ehrlich's highly influential 1968 book 'The Population Bomb', which predicted the deaths of millions due to famine during the 1970s and 1980s. He reckoned without the Green Revolution in agriculture and thus got it spectacularly wrong. He's not the first and probably won't be the last.

Like many seductively simple ideas, the devil of population control is in the detail. It is also arguably the most misanthropic face of the climate change debate, especially when it strays into the morally questionable territory of population reduction.

So not only could our population demands be unfair, they could also be misguided. People are not, by default, bad things to have around. We are much more than lumpen carbon-producing units on the environmental balance sheet. We are creative, intelligent, adaptable and resilient. Who's to say that a couple of billion more people aren't the cure rather than the problem?

Ocean 'dead zones' likely to grow due to climate change

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Shanta Barley | 13:50 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009


Writing in the journal Science, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute say that ocean 'dead zones' are likely to grow with climate change.

As our oceans warm and absorb more carbon dioxide, CO2 overload and oxygen starvation could conspire to create deadly 'super-pockets' of acidic seawater that not only threaten marine life, but also generate nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, according to the research.

shells226x226.JPG'Acid' seawater won't eat through four floors of the spaceship Nostromo with a single drip, but the study predicts that it will 'impose a physiological strain on marine animals, impairing performance' (performance here meaning the ability to feed, reproduce and convert carbon into shells, rather than, say, recite Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor.)

The authors of the research, Peter Brewer and Edward Peltzer, also say that the bacteria inhabiting these burgeoning 'dead zones' could become a significant source of nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. Although happily 'any release of this to the atmosphere would be greatly limited by oceanic processes of mixing and consumption.'

Climate change takes a tern for the worse

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Shanta Barley | 13:26 UK time, Friday, 17 April 2009


The annual migration of Arctic terns began in earnest on Wednesday as a large flock of them swept through Britain on their way up north. The Red Barons of the bird world, these altitude addicts commute 24,000 miles from the Arctic to Antarctica and back every year. (I'll never rant about having to change trains at Tottenham Court Road ever again, honest.)


Given that these 'sea swallows' have to fly so far in the first place, it seems a bit unfair that climate change is now making that journey even harder - and less fruitful.

According to research published in the journal Global Change Biology, today's terns travel further to reproduce and give birth later in the year than they did in the 1930s due to 'changing climate conditions'. In fact, in the last 80 years the breeding date of the tern has advanced by over 18 days.

Did I just hear you say, 'they'll get over it'? Eighteen days may not seem like long to you and I but apparently it makes a big difference to the chicks' chances of growing up into big, healthy birds in the following year.

UK govt subsidises electric cars, but are they backing the wrong horseless carriage?

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Richard Cable | 13:30 UK time, Thursday, 16 April 2009


'Appalling little snot-boxes that take all night to recharge, then take half a minute to reach their maximum speed of 40, and then run out of juice miles from anywhere.' Such is the opinion of Top Gear's James May on the subject of electric cars.

To be fair it's a pretty accurate summary of where we're at. Electric car performance doesn't even begin to approach that of traditional combustion-engine cars, the batteries are generally so massive you don't have room for luggage (or in all probability passengers) and recharging takes hours if the infrastructure is available to allow it. Which it isn't.

But now the government is proposing to help us buy electric snotboxes to call our own, with the announcement today of subsidies of up to £5,000 when you buy an electric or plug-in hybrid car. It's all part of a new £250 million scheme to promote low carbon transport.

To be fair, the focus is on 'next generation' electric cars - predominantly electric-petrol hybrids - which should hit the showrooms in 2011 and perform quite a bit more like you would expect a car to perform. There will also be £20m put aside to address the lack of recharging infrastructure. This may sound a lot, but it isn't if you consider that it costs £95 million a year just to keep the M25 in running order. Infrastructure is a frighteningly expensive beast.

In the same edition of Top Gear in which James May delivered the above devastating critique of our electric future, he also proclaimed the 'future of motoring' in the world's first production hydrogen fuel cell car, the Honda FCX Clarity. He's not the only one to get very excited about the Clarity.

And the reason? Because it conforms to our idea of what a car is now and that's important, because history tells us consumers are more likely to buy the thing that conforms most to their expectations. Has the government just backed Betamax versus hydrogen's VHS? Only time will tell.

David Attenborough's Born Ultimatum

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Shanta Barley | 13:13 UK time, Wednesday, 15 April 2009


The Optimum Population Trust, which campaigns to limit the number of people on the planet in order to tackle climate change and other global ills, has just appointed Sir David Attenborough as a patron.

att226x226.jpgMany would agree with Sir David and the OPT that human overpopulation is the root cause of a lot of environmental problems. Six million humans are born every month, and each will emit anywhere from 0.1 tonnes of CO2 a year in Burkina Faso to 37 tonnes annually in Kuwait. By taking measures to reduce the planet's population now, so the argument goes, we would reduce emissions and make life easier for future generations.

So far so good. But is it true that 'the world's population is ... exploding', as the OPT claims? Depends on your definition of detonation. According to 'Panicology' by Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams, only 'a minority of geographies' are exploding, while many countries are actually dwindling in population:

'The United Nations forecasts that nine countries will account for half of the world's projected population increase in the period up to 2050. These are India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the US, Ethiopia and China ... with the population of the developed world remaining unchanged at around 1.2 billion.'

In fact, we are arguably already over the 'worst'. World population doubled in the 40 years from 1959 to 1999 - 3 billion to 6 billion - but the annual rate of increase has almost halved since its peak in 1963. The UN predicts that world population will ultimately stabilise somewhere in the region of 10 billion (click this link to launch a pdf of the report) with a significant proportion of the population increase due to improved life expectancy.

We've already had the 'Green Revolution' that ensured we didn't all starve in the 1980s. Who's to say we can't have a Carbon Revolution with room enough for everyone too?

Follow up: BBC News: How can a graph be so very wrong?

Titanic's abysmal end: climate change more than a century too late to prevent it

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Shanta Barley | 13:09 UK time, Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Exactly 107 years ago today, the 'unsinkable' Titanic hit (this?) iceberg and sank several hundred miles south-east of Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. So what are the odds of a modern-day Captain Edward Smith ploughing into an iceberg in the same area today? Slim, it seems. Numbers of icebergs in the region are down since 2003, according to recent research.

Why? Greenland still produces plenty of icebergs - volume is up 60% in the last 10 years - but they are melting before they get a chance to reach Newfoundland, according to marine geologist Christopher Woodworth-Lynas:

'There has been an overall trend toward fewer icebergs making it as far south as Newfoundland,' he told Canadian newspaper the Star Phoenix, ' The icebergs seem to be thinning out and disappearing. In fact, there's hardly been an iceberg season to speak of on the Grand Bank for the last four or five years.'

For Woodworth-Lynas there is one clear culprit: 'They get destroyed faster because of the changes in temperature,' he says. This would have been good news in 1912, but in 2009 it's hurting Newfoundland and Labrador's tourism industry while potentially opening up the frozen north to oil and gas exploration. Every cloud, eh?

How we learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power

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Richard Cable | 12:46 UK time, Wednesday, 15 April 2009


Until climate change hit the top of the agenda, the mere thought of nuclear power was enough to bring most environmentalists out in hives. But faced with the need to develop energy sources that are low carbon, reliable and plentiful, many leading greens have experienced 'road to Damascus' moments and come out in favour.

Today the government published a list of potential sites for new nuclear power stations in England and Wales (see map below) prior to a month-long public consultation. The sites themselves are mostly 'old news' - places where nuclear power stations already are or have been before. And for obvious reasons: they are already on the grid and the locals are either a) already used to them, or b) employed by them.

The government is heavily committed to nuclear and has made a 'deployment date' of 2025 at the latest one of the conditions of the nomination process. In fact, the whole thing is proceeding at spectacular pace, because a significant chunk of our existing stock of nuclear and coal-fired power stations are rapidly approaching their sell-by dates.

(Interesting to note that objections to nuclear power have long focused on mistrust of the technology, concerns about waste disposal and the fear of releasing silent, uncontrollable, deadly pollution into the atmosphere. Coal, by contrast, was dirty, but reliable, familiar, dependable and contained. And to think that for all this time we've had our eye on the wrong ball.)

To find out who nominated the sites and to have your say, visit the Department for Energy and Climate Change website 'Choosing sites for new nuclear power stations'.

BBC News map of nominated sites


Neil Young's kooky electric beast with slightly bonkers soundtrack

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Richard Cable | 15:55 UK time, Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Grizzled alt rock legend Neil Young has recently completed two projects. The first is converting his gas-guzzling monster of a 1959 Lincoln Continental - a 20 foot, two-and-a-half tonne behemoth with a profile like an art deco flying buttress - into the LincVolt, a super-efficient green machine powered entirely by alternative fuel.

The second is his latest album, Fork in the Road, which is mostly about the LincVolt. (Even the video - see below - is spectacularly low-carbon, consisting primarily of Neil bobbing around infront of a handycam on his back porch.)

Neil Young - Fork In The Road

Young created the LincVolt with eco-car mash-up artist Johnathan Goodwin, who is even honoured on the new album with the track 'Johnny Magic'. Their aim was to 'inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology' and to have the car ready in time to take part in the Automotive X Prize, a $10m competition to build practical cars that can achieve 100 miles-per-gallon-equivalent and race them from California to Washington DC.

It's no secret that the 'environmentally concerned' are often perceived as, dare I say, a touch po-faced, which is what makes Neil Young's kooky electric beast and accompanying mildly bonkers soundtrack all the more enjoyable, even if neither is likely to be a defining moment in its particular genre.

The LincVolt, which bears the strapline 'repowering the American dream', is a clear statement that moving to new technologies does not require the donning of a hair shirt, the abandonment of individuality or the absence of style.

British thunder: not lightening up any time soon, says BBC documentary

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Shanta Barley | 13:49 UK time, Tuesday, 14 April 2009


If you're feeling a bit down in the doldrums, BBC Four's new series of films on British weather and how it will change due to climate change probably won't brighten your day - but it's riveting stuff all the same.

wimbledon226x226.jpgThe first episode is all about rain and how torrential it's going to get when climate change kicks in. Indeed, if you've been gleefully earmarking your umbrella and wellies for disposal in anticipation of global warming, listen up:

'With climate change, the one prediction we can make with real confidence is that we expect rainfall to become heavier', narrates one scientist. 'When it rains, we're going to get more large precipitation events because the warmer air will be able to hold more water vapour.'

All in all, it looks like that old British idiom 'it never rains but it pours' is going to take on a whole new, rather more literal meaning in the future.

We're also shown the true shape of a raindrop (don't believe everything you see in cartoons), terrifying footage of the flash floods which swept through Boscastle in 2004, why living in the small farming village of Seathwaite is like a Scottish pop band ('wet, wet, wet', according to one resident) and what it's like to stand inside a 'typical British rain cloud' (yes, that's right, clouds have nationalities too).

Ethical Man: Reborn in the USA

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Richard Cable | 15:08 UK time, Thursday, 9 April 2009


The BBC's 'Ethical Man', Justin Rowlatt, has been given a new lease of life Stateside. In 2006, he spent a year trying to cut his and his family's carbon emissions by as much as possible. Undeterred by the privations and disappointments, he's now taking on America - the highest polluting country per head of population on the planet.

rowlatt_new226x226.jpgThe first of a new series of films went out last night on Newsnight, during which he went ice fishing, frightened people with chocolate and strode around in a suit and tie, apparently completely oblivious to the sub-zero conditions in Muskegon, Michigan.

It can be a pretty thankless task to sell global warming into middle America at the best of times, but in the middle of a blizzard? You have to admire his pluck.

Making sure Easter doesn't cost the oeuf

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Richard Cable | 13:03 UK time, Thursday, 9 April 2009


Over Easter, Britons generally consume about 80 million chocolate eggs, averaging one and a third for each person in the country. Up to 25% of the weight of any boxed Easter egg is pure packaging. Last year we generated somewhere in the region of 3,000 tonnes of waste from Easter eggs alone, and it is now sitting in landfill sites, gentling oozing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

faberge226x226.jpgThis year, the offending industry is set to scythe 700 tonnes of waste from its 2009 total through a series of 'green' measures, including reducing cardboard weight, removing plastic 'clam shells' and making packaging more recyclable.

According to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) an organisation that 'helps individuals, businesses and local authorities to reduce waste and recycle more', its Seasonal Confectionery Industry Working Group (yes, really) has brokered a voluntary agreement with manufacturers to make 'significant reductions' for 2009.

If you want to know who has the greenest eggs on the market, most major names are signed up to the Wrap scheme and many are proudly trumpeting their climate-friendly credentials. Alternatively, you can turn your back on packaged eggs entirely (some of which contain as little as 110g of chocolate, the equivalent of two small bars) and make your own stuff instead.

'Out of the Wild': Join us on the hunt for giant land crabs (etc)

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Richard Cable | 10:28 UK time, Wednesday, 8 April 2009


At any one time, the BBC's Natural History Unit has more than 60 crews out in the field hunting for giant land crabs, filming albatrosses mating or trying to work out if blonde seals have more fun.


It is comfortably the world's biggest producer of wildlife documentaries and as such is uniquely plugged into a first-hand perspective of the planet's biodiversity, and the impact human beings and the changing climate have on it.

Wouldn't it be brilliant if there was a website somewhere that pulled together all that amazing wealth of knowledge and experience from the field - much of which never makes it into the documentaries themselves - and made it available to the wider public?

As if by magic, Out of the Wild has just been launched and it does exactly that. Definitely worth a look.

Get ready to map your geoid. But why?

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Richard Cable | 19:29 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009


What shape is planet Earth? It's a sphere, right? Well not exactly. OK, so it's a bit flatter at the poles and bulges in the middle. An oblate spheroid? That's a better approximation, but still not accurate. Ah, so you mean you want to include all the lumps and bumps, like mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, land masses, etc? Not exactly.

The world, as it turns out, is geoid-shaped. The geoid is probably best described as Earth's 'true surface' - what it would be if the oceans were allowed to run free without land, currents or wind getting in the way. A map of the geoid would be irregular but very smooth, with the same gravitational potential at every point.

If you know what your geoid looks like, you can establish a universal system for the height of everything on Earth. And if you know that, you can do things like measure very accurately how much ice we're actually losing from major ice sheets, or figure out how the oceans distribute heat around the globe. And if you know that, you can better understand how our climate works.

What Goce does, from ESA's YouTube channel. Weird soundtrack and no commentary, but the animations might be helpful.

So how do you measure your geoid? Last month, the European Space Agency launched the Goce satellite, the vanguard of an exciting new programme of Earth observation. Goce, which (sort of) stands for 'Gravity Field and Steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer', carries a set of incredibly sensitive instruments that will do exactly that.

Happily, it turns out this week that the incredibly sensitive instruments have all survived the usual rattling and banging involved in rocket launches and are all working well. 'This was a pivotal moment in the mission, for sure,' said mission manager Rune Floberghagen. And probably a pivotal moment in our understanding of global warming as well.

Washing your hands for/of climate change

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Shanta Barley | 18:24 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009


John Lennon returned his MBE in 1969 to make a political statement about Britain's involvement in 'the Nigeria-Biafra thing'. A year earlier, arch-feminist Shulamith Firestone binned her bra for sexism. Now, a piece by the artist David Kennedy-Cutler has resurfaced to draw attention to the (recently-downgraded) plight of Antarctica using, errr, Antarctica-shaped soap.

'Here, soap expresses the washing away of Antarctica,' explains the Artful Green Dot blog. But Kennedy-Cutler, who created the artwork in 2006, is quite clear that 'I don't consider myself an eco artist'.

Could economic apocalypse save the world? Errr, no.

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Richard Cable | 17:33 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

Comments (2)

In terms of reducing carbon emissions, you'd have thought that a particularly vicious recession is just what the doctor ordered. As unpleasant as it is likely to get, could the downturn have a silver lining after all?
Every major carbon-producing industry has taken a big hit. Construction has slumped, consumer demand has stalled and the manufacturing sector is on the ropes. Consequently, we are moving fewer goods around the globe and key polluters like the automotive and airline industries are in dire straits. As the global economy shrinks, demand for power falls and more efficient use of resource increases.

Economist Alex Bowen, one of the authors of the influential 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change uses the rule that a 1% shrinkage in the economy (meaning gross domestic product) equals a fall in carbon emissions of 0.9%.

With major economies forecast to 'contract' somewhere between 3.5% and 7% this year (depending on who's doing the predicting), that's still only an average of 4.7% less carbon emitted, and probably only for a couple of years.

A recession simply retards rather than addresses the underlying causes of carbon emissions, while simultaneously ensuring that expensive 'renewables' projects get shelved on a grand scale and governments start to consider massive building programmes as a means of spending their way out of trouble.

The Kyoto Protocol called for the European Union to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 8% by 2012. If it takes this much pain for a temporary cut of perhaps 5%, you start to get a feel for the scale of the task and its potential economic consequences.

Dramatic sea level rises could take a thousand years, so can we all relax now?

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Shanta Barley | 12:35 UK time, Friday, 3 April 2009


The science journal Nature has published research saying that sea levels will rise by 15 feet if the West Antarctic ice sheet melts due to climate change, but that this could take thousands of years.
The research is yet another nail in the coffin of Al Gore's oft-criticised claim that the melting of either West Antarctica or Greenland's ice sheets will trigger a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet 'in the near future'.

Gore's predictions were under attack yet again this week when arch-climate change debunker Christopher Booker wrote in the Telegraph that there was no evidence that sea levels have risen in the last 50 years, according to the research of geologist and physicist Nils-Axel Morner. Catastrophic sea level rise by 2100 is 'nothing but a colossal scare story', so stop fretting he says.

Phew. What a relief. We can all chill out now about the threat of soggy feet, right? Not so fast, says Dr Philippe Huybrechts, professor of climatology at the Free University of Brussels. If we don't cut carbon immediately, our end-of-century emissions could guarantee the collapse of the West Antarctica ice sheet a millennium from now. Relax about sea level rise, 'probably the most serious long-term threat [to human societies] from unabated climate warming', at your peril, he concludes.

Speaking from the heart, perhaps: the area that is now Belgium is conspicuously absent from a map of the world 100 million years ago, when high sea levels meant that a large fraction of what is now low-lying coastal land was under water.

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