Archives for June 2009

Bikes: a zero-carbon ticket to infertility?

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Shanta Barley | 13:35 UK time, Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Freaking out about the Telegraph's claim that 'male cyclists could be risking their fertility and should consider freezing their sperm if they want to have a family later'?

Feeling betrayed by all of those cycling campaigners who convinced you that bikes are a zero-carbon ticket to back-of-the-cereal-packet healthiness?


If you are, you're probably worrying needlessly, coos the BBC. Saddling up won't rob fair-weather, short-distance cyclists (the type that secretly resents green lights, preferring instead to pant gently at junctions) of their fertility.

'There is no evidence that men who ride a bike are less fertile than other males', says the University of Sheffield's Dr Allan Pacey.

'Indeed, if you look back in our history, only 40 years ago cycling was much more common and there is no evidence from that time that men were less fertile. In fact, quite the contrary - the post-war baby boom proves that', he concludes.

That said, athletes who cycle more than 25 miles a day might have cause for concern: researchers have found that just 4% of their sperm look 'normal'.

Do Farrah Fawcett hairdos give climate change a boost?

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Shanta Barley | 15:37 UK time, Monday, 29 June 2009


Yet another reason not to waste time trying to copy the late Farrah Fawcett's inimitable trademark tousled tresses: hair sprays have hair-raising emissions to match, according to new research by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.


In fact, hair sprays, air cons and fridges contain a greenhouse gas that can be 14,800 times more effective at warming the climate than carbon dioxide, says Guus Velders, the lead author of the study.

If that's not enough to make you start pulling your hair out (a novel form of negative feedback, surely?), listen to this.

By 2050, hydrofluorocarbons (or HFCs, as they're known to their friends) could account for up to a fifth of global warming.

The irony is that it's all the green movement's fault, writes Jonathon Leake over at the Times. They're the ones who convinced the world to get rid of ozone-destroying CFC gases in the 1980s and replace them with the 'greener' option, HFCs. Listen out for the collective "d'oh", right about... now.

Follow up: Ozone hole has unforeseen effect on ocean carbon sink

I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got ... fossil fuels

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Shanta Barley | 11:34 UK time, Friday, 26 June 2009


Stratospheric swashbuckler Bertrand Piccard reveals today the prototype of a sun-powered plane that he hopes will allow humans to fly 'forever', long after the sun has set and fossil fuels have run out, according to BBC News.

More petrel than petrol, Piccard's plane runs on zero-carbon sunlight. (Conventional aircraft burn 2-3% of the world's fossil fuel, according to the Encyclopedia of Energy and Engineering, and represent a growing source of emissions.)

The HB-SIA is not the first of its kind (take MacCready's Gossamer Penguin), but if Piccard's dream takes off, he may become the first human to fly a sun-powered plane at night.

Weighing no more than a car, the plane is peppered with enough solar cells (11, 628 to be precise), batteries, motors and propellors to keep it aloft after darkness falls.

No point trying to book a seat yet, however: right now, the HB-SIA can only seat one person, and even then it needs a wingspan of 60-80m, according to the project's website.

Can hemp really stop Mother Nature from going to pot?

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Shanta Barley | 15:32 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009


If you're the sort of person who scours the 'Birthdays' section in the Guardian (it's a big ask, I know) you may have noticed that John Hanson, 'hemp ecologist', turned 75 today.


Mr Hanson doesn't want to take Britain back to the Stone Age - just to the 1st Century BC, when paper was made from fine old (low-carbon) English crops like hemp rather than imported wood pulp.

Why? Because hemp farms don't abuse Mo' Nature as much as tree plantations, says Mr Hanson. 'In both the growing and processing of the crop', he notes, 'substantially less land, machinery, energy inputs and capital are required than ... wood-pulp processes.'

Naturally, not everyone agrees. Hemp's nowhere near as green as eucalyptus, according to research by the Instituto Superior Técnico in Portugal. Why? Because it's an 'annual' plant that needs to be grown from scratch, year in, year out, requiring fertilisers and tractors galore.

Follow up: Hemp homes to be built in government drive
Follow up: Grow your own ... fruit

Climate change no thorn in blackberries' side

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Shanta Barley | 12:44 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009


Britain's blackberries burst upon the scene in 2007 more than a week before they did in 2003, according to the Guardian's undergrowth expert (handily named Stephen Moss).


Welcome news indeed for those of us who still blitz our warts with the first blackberries of the season, but is this a sinister (albeit tasty) symptom of climate change, as some assert?

No, admits Mr Moss (with a touch of regret?) We can explain the alarming punctuality of 2007's harvest in light of blackberries' penchant for balmy Aprils and damp late springs.

In short, 'we must be careful in ascribing seasonal changes from year to year to a long-term pattern', he concludes.

Do big brains stem from cooler climates?

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Shanta Barley | 10:11 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009


Big brains need cool climates to evolve and do their job well, according to new research published in the journal Climatic Change.


If you've been wondering who to thank for your extraordinarily large brain thank the Earth's last 50 million years of chilly weather, says David Schwartzman, a biology professor at Howard University and chief author of the report.

Without it, our savannah-savvy, tool-wielding ancestors Homo habilis and Homo erectus might not have emerged, the study claims. Why? Because big brains generate a lot of heat, and we get rid of heat much more easily when the climate's cool.

It's not hard to see where this is going. Burning fossil fuels and warming up the planet will make it harder for our struggling brains to cool down, says Dr Axel Kleidon at the University of Maryland.

'An important implication', Dr Kleidon concludes, 'is that global warming is likely to lead to environmental conditions less suitable for human metabolic activity in their natural environment ... due to a lower ability to loose heat.'

(Confused? The Kinks' song, 'Apeman', sums up Kleidon's concerns admirably.)

Might as well face it, you're addicted to phosphorus

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Shanta Barley | 16:43 UK time, Tuesday, 23 June 2009


According to new research published in the journal Global Environmental Change, we're running out of phosphate rock, a crucial ingredient of the fertilisers that farmers currently lavish on their crops to keep them bursting with food.


Phosphate rock can only be mined in a handful of countries such as the US, China and Morocco - and we may run out of it 50-100 years from now, according to a joint study by Linkoping University and the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

Great news for the climate, some would say. (Fertiliser production pumps 410m tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere every year, according to Greenpeace's 2008 report, 'Cool Farming', out-emitting farm machinery by a factor of two.)

Not such good news, however, for the two billion peckish new mouths that will need feeding by 2050, warns the study's chief author, Dana Cordell. 'Acquiring enough phosphorus to grow food will be a significant challenge for humanity in the future', she concludes.

British Columbia's forests to be 'marched' north?

Shanta Barley | 17:17 UK time, Monday, 22 June 2009


Unless they're starring in the closing scenes of Macbeth, groves aren't famous for moving. But entire forests may be 'marched' to cooler climes to protect them from climate change if the government of British Columbia gets its way, writes Emma Marris in the journal Nature.


Scientists worry that British Columbia's rapidly warming climate (the region has already warmed 0.7C in the decade leading up to 2006 - nearly as much as the world has warmed in the last century) will trigger outbreaks of heat-loving pests and drought, wiping out the province's lucrative forests.

With so much at stake (stuff made of wood accounts for about half of the province's exports), it's no surprise that the British Columbia Ministry of Forests has already launched a project to see how seedlings fare after they've been dug up and transplanted to cooler environments in the north.

The 'Assisted Migration Adaptation Trial,' is uprooting seedlings from 40 spots in British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon and Idaho and replanting them in new environments to see if they flourish or fail.

It's an audacious, aggressive experiment yet it has been derided as 'a waste of time' by Daniel Simberloff, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee. Why?

Firstly, because trees don't adapt well to new environments. ('Douglas fir grows from Mexico City to central British Columbia, but move it 700-metres elevation downhill at any location, and you will be growing toothpicks,' says Greg O' Neill, a research scientist working on the transplantation project.)

And what's more, some conservationists worry that the transplanted trees will make themselves too at home: 'there is just too great a chance that the translocated trees, or the diseases they host, will become invasive', warns Dr Simberloff.

And then there's the possibility that Greg O' Neill is worrying needlessly about the fate of British Columbia's forests: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could create bigger trees and boost the forestry industry in some regions.

Clean up your act, professor tells the climate science community

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Shanta Barley | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 19 June 2009

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Cracks have opened up in the credibility of a new US government report on climate change. The study has been criticized by a respected environmental scientist, who says that it 'repeatedly misrepresented the science of disasters and climate change' and twisted his research to back up tenuous claims.

Hailed as 'up-to-date, authoritative, and comprehensive' by the White House, the report claimed that droughts are increasing and heat waves are becoming more intense due to climate change. (Read the United States Global Change Research Program's report here.)

Oh no they aren't, retorts Dr Roger Pielke Jr, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado.

If the report's authors had bothered to look at more up-to-date research, Professor Pielke says in his blog, they would have seen that there's no long-term trend in the US towards worse droughts or more intense heat waves. (Take the US Climate Change Science Program's 2008 report, 'Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate', for example.)

How tempting it is to dismiss Professor Pielke's opinions as the foam-flecked ravings of a fringe sceptic? But it turns out that he's no sceptic of climate change ('anthropogenic climate change is real, and deserving of significant attention to both adaptation and mitigation', he says). Only of bad science and political agendas, it seems.

'Sleeping beauty' bug could one day allow scientists to 'cook' Mars

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Shanta Barley | 15:42 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009


Scientists have brought back to life a tiny purple bug that has been lurking two miles beneath Greenland's ice sheet for at least 120,000 years, according to the Daily Mail.


It doesn't flirt outrageously with footballers or wow judges with heartbreaking renditions of the song 'Memory', so why does a tabloid give a toss about a bacterium that can survive horrendously hostile conditions and breathes out greenhouse gases?

One reason is because some scientists like David Thomas at the University of Idaho would like to make Mars a new home for humans by pelting it with greenhouse gas-belching, climate-warming bacteria. (Currently, the average temperature on Mars stands at a bone-chilling -63C.)

Of course, making Mars fit for human life will take more than just a liberal sprinkling of bugs. Radical scientists like James Lovelock suggest that we will also need to build factories on Mars that are dedicated to pumping out vast quantities of climate-warming chlorofluorocarbons.

What's more, it's not just Mars' atmosphere that is a problem: much of the planet is currently coated in seed-destroying pernitric acid, ruling out any grow-your-own allotments. ('Mars is no place for gardening', James Lovelock notes wryly in his book, 'The ages of Gaia'.)

Melting glaciers flood the Silk Road

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Shanta Barley | 21:40 UK time, Tuesday, 16 June 2009


The Silk Road, an ancient trade route dating to the second century BC that used to deliver silk, gold, ivory and exotic animals to the world, is being flooded by melting glaciers, according to the New Scientist. The culprit? You guessed it. Climate change.

Temperatures in the Qilian mountains, which tower above the Silk Road, are rising by 0.04C a year, the article notes, and some glaciers are retreating by as much as seven metres a single year.

As the glaciers melt, the water they contain seeps into the water table and bubbles up at springs, flooding cities and forcing as many as 1000 families to evacuate.

Given that the region is notoriously arid (it receives little more than 125 mm of rainfall a year) surely the floods are a blessing?

Not really, says the article: at some point in the future (perhaps as soon as 2050), the glaciers will 'dry up completely', leaving 26 million people rather thirsty.

Climate change? Wouldn't hurt a (butter) fly

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Shanta Barley | 16:53 UK time, Tuesday, 16 June 2009


commonbluebutterfly.jpgThe large blue butterfly, which went extinct in Britain in 1979, is not only back but it's blooming, reports BBC News.

This is not your run-of-the-mill, namby-pamby butterfly that needs pristine wilderness to survive. In fact, it actually seeks out heavily-grazed, lifestock-trampled grassland. Why? Because its survival depends on red ants that thrive in short, sun-baked grass.

(Born on buds of thyme, the large blue's tubby larvae flag down red ants and are carried, like majestic Roman peers, to the ants' nest. Wedged underground, they snack on the ants' grubs until they take wing as butterflies ten months later.)

So, what does climate change have in store for this bizarre, human-loving butterfly? It's far from clear. Blessed with wings, you'd think that the large blue would have no difficulty sweeping north on the wings of climate change, thriving thanks to warmer summers.

But Dr Hill at York University warns that simply having a pair of wings won't save Britain's butterflies from climate creep. The large blue butterfly is picky about where it lives (nothing short of a heavily-grazed, south-facing slope sporting grass no taller than 2 cm, thank you very much). And what's more, butterflies aren't keen on flying far to look for a spot that ticks all the right boxes.

No more Mr Rice Guy: British farmers sell up to make a 'green' profit

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Shanta Barley | 14:07 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009


rice_guy.jpgBritish farmers, crippled by the credit crunch and the high price of grain, fertilizer and diesel, will be glad to hear that the RSPB has chirped up with a fix: why not transform your farm into a nature reserve? The birds and the bees will thank you, and what's more, you'll get thirty quid for every hectare you claw back from dreaded crop. Who knows, you might even make a profit, the RSPB concludes.

There's a teeny-weeny not-so-greeny catch, of course.

If the British farmer stops growing wheat and other food crops, other countries will have to farm even more land and cut down even more forest to keep us fed. Sure, there's plenty of arable land out there dying to be farmed (take the Black Belt of Ukraine, for instance), but as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations points out here, most of it is currently stashed underneath species-brimming, carbon-storing tropical rainforests in South America and Africa:

'By 2030, crop production in the developing countries is projected to be 70 percent higher than in 1995/97. About 80 per cent of this increase will continue to come from intensified crop production ... the rest will come from further expansion of arable land. Arable land in the developing countries is projected to increase by 12 per cent (an additional 120 million hectares), most of it in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, with an unknown but probably considerable part coming from deforestation'. So, farming out Britain's farms may not be such a boon for biodiversity after all.

Nick Griffin flexes his climate change talons

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Shanta Barley | 14:25 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009


He dismissed the Holocaust as a 'holohoax', denounced homosexuals as 'repulsive' and has just announced that 'global warming is a hoax' on BBC Radio 5 Live's Breakfast programme. Please give a warm welcome to Nick Griffin, newly-elected member of the European Parliament and chairman of the British National Party.

So, Mr Griffin is no environmental trailblazer. But he agrees (rather surprisingly) with arch-greenies such as Jeremy Leggett over at the Guardian that we're running out of cheap oil and if we don't find a new source of energy, a devastating energy famine will sweep the world:

'I believe ... that global warming is essentially a hoax', Mr Griffin told 5 Live's Nicky Campbell. 'It is being exploited by the liberal elite as a means of taxing and controlling us and the real crisis is peak oil. We're running out of proper, real energy. And it is something with an immediate and catastrophic effect in a few years' time potentially - not worrying about floating polar bears in 150 years.'

Of course, whether or not Griffin wants that new source of energy to be Good ol' British coal or something a bit greener remains to be seen.

'Killer' moth: murder machine or butterfly in the ointment?

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Shanta Barley | 11:18 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009


'Killer moth begins English invasion' was the disturbing title of a story in the Daily Telegraph's recent Nature Notes linking the spread of the oak processionary moth to climate change.

This revelation about our imminent demise due to a furry Lepidoptera may have troubled you slightly. So just how deadly is this moth?

caterpillar226x226.jpgAccording to the Forestry Commission: 'The caterpillars have urticating (irritating) hairs that carry a toxin. These ... are considered a significant human health problem when populations reach outbreak proportions.'

The bad news is that you don't have to actually touch a caterpillar in order to turn into a wheezing, scratchy wreck. Why? Because the caterpillars' bristles do a 'take-away' toxin service: they can break off and deliver the poisonous cocktail direct to your unsuspecting nostrils. And although the caterpillars are only around from May to July, their bristles can survive for over a year.

But research published in the journal Pediatric Dermatology, 2006 plays down the risk: '...few instances of life-threatening anaphylactic reactions have been reported.' Indeed, say authors Sven Gottschling and Sascha Meyer, the vast majority of cases can be treated within the hour by popping a few anti-histamines or smearing on some steroid cream.

So while you can develop conjunctivitis, bronchial constriction, coughing, wheezing, weals and 'persistent itchy papules', the oak processionary moth is probably less of a 'killler' and more in the 'hayfever' bracket.

Unpredictable weather: why the climate is not a model citizen

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Richard Cable | 15:13 UK time, Tuesday, 9 June 2009

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One of the awkward things about global warming is that there are no absolutes. No one can say definitively what the climate will do next. Anyone who thinks they can will probably end up looking like one of those TV scientists from the 1950s who said we'd all be holidaying in space and flying around in hover cars by now.

But why is it so very difficult to state anything with complete confidence about the behaviour of our climate? Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which periodically publishes 'the largest and most detailed summary of the climate change situation ever undertaken' is only prepared to say that human beings are 'very likely' to be the source of the problem. They are hedging for a reason.

Admittedly, it's a little firmer about the temperature itself, stating: 'Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.' But then that's a bit like saying that, today, it is hot. It doesn't tell you very much about tomorrow.

The weather is chaotic. Chaotic systems are infinitely complex and inherently unpredictable, (although not, as some suppose, random). The climate is simply 'big, long weather' - the atmospheric conditions of a region charted over a period of time - and is therefore also infinitely complex and inherently unpredictable.

The IPCC attempts to predict this unpredictability by using climate models - fiendishly complex computer simulations of the Earth's climate that explore 'emissions scenarios'. Each of these scenarios looks at different levels of emissions, and from them the IPCC draws conclusions about where we might be heading.

The models are not without their critics. In order to accurately model a chaotic system, you arguably have to be able to describe the starting conditions of the system and understand pretty perfectly how each of the elements in that system will act upon every other element in that system.

But we don't yet fully understand key issues, such as to what degree carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere or how clouds form and disperse, and can't yet accurately predict even complex human systems that themselves act on climate, like population growth and economic development.

With this in mind it's hard to see how a computer model with so much potential error in its starting conditions can accurately extrapolate what the climate will be doing in 100 years. That's not to say they never will, although anyone who has ever relied on a British weather forecast for the next 24 hours will instinctively take any predictions with a pinch of salt.

How Afghanistan's grapes will help defeat wrath, in a climate-friendly way

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Shanta Barley | 09:28 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

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Afghanistan is poised to become a major exporter of fruits, ranging from pomegranates to melons to Kunduz strawberries, according to the Spectator.

The more Helmand grapes we can stuff down our throats the more rapidly Afghanistan will wean itself off 'submission to the Taleban and economic dependency on opium,' says Elliot Wilson.

What a shame that we're all supposed to be eating local fruit that doesn't need to be flown to the UK on greenhouse gas-emitting planes to stop climate change.

Well actually, there is a way to eat Helmand grapes without feeling too guilty, scientists say.

Assuming the fruit has been grown using nothing more than the sun's heat, picked by humans and flown to the UK, there's still a good chance that they are responsible for fewer emissions than grapes that have been grown out of season in a heated greenhouse in Britain, heavily fertilised, harvested using fuel-thirsty machinery and stored for months in fridges.

Climate change 101: why is carbon dioxide always the bad guy?

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Richard Cable | 15:00 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009


Occasionally it's worth going back to basics on climate change and having a look at why we're concerned about the things we're concerned about. For example, why does carbon dioxide warm up the atmosphere?

I initially thought this was too basic to blog, but a highly unscientific straw poll of friends and acquaintances revealed that only one of those surveyed actually knew the answer. (He also knew why a slice of toast is more calorific per 100g than the bread it was made from, but that's a different story.)

melt226x226.jpgSo here goes. The reason is down to the molecular structure of CO2. It doesn't absorb the very short wavelength light emitted from the sun, but it does absorb the longer wavelength thermal infrared radiation (heat, basically) released by the surface of the Earth.

Once it has absorbed this thermal infrared radiation, the carbon dioxide molecule becomes agitated and unstable. It can only achieve a stable state again by emitting this stored radiation, again as heat. Some of this heads outwards to space, but some stays here. So the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the greater the warming effect. (Needless to say, this is a massively simplified description that skates over all the tricky stuff like dipole moments and radiative forcing. Apologies to the purists.)

But why focus on carbon dioxide, a trace gas in Earth's atmosphere, rather than, say, methane, which has a much more potent greenhouse effect? (Between 17 and 25 times depending on your source.) Well, basically because there's much less methane and it has a shorter life in the atmosphere - roughly 8.5 years to CO2's roughly 100 years. Carbon dioxide has a much smaller effect, but for a much longer time.

And the biggest greenhouse gas of all, accounting for as much as 85% of the total greenhouse effect? Water vapour, if you count clouds. But before we all stop boiling kettles and breathing out, it's worth bearing in mind that without this effect, Earth would be just another frozen rock floating in space.

As with the climate change debate itself, it's all about balance.

Climate change is something to be sneezed at - lots and lots

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Shanta Barley | 10:48 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009


It's hard to relate to climate change. Even the prospect of a couple of polar bears treading water in a frigid, far-off sea is still a bit, well, irrelevant when you're late for work and the Jubilee line's down yet again.

bee_flower_pollen226x226.jpgBut an article by Jeremy Plester over at the Guardian (sandwiched, rather unfairly, between the cryptic crossword and the weather forecast) has thrown the threat of climate change into sharper, far more terrifying relief: it's going to make your hayfever worse.

By favouring plants that produce hayfever-inducing pollen, climate change is going to make your nose runnier and your eyes itchier (not to mention commuting on the Jubilee line even less jubilant.)

'Climate change is making things worse', Mr Plester writes in the Weatherwatch column. 'The pollen season is tending to grow longer as rising temperatures encourage earlier flowering of trees such as birch, alder and hazel, which can all set off hayfever. And the grass season is lengthening - 20 years ago grass pollen would finish by the end of July, but now it can last well into mid-August.'

Could scratchy eyes be a metaphor for our response to climate change? As Helen Kelller put it: 'The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.'

British is best for barbecue charcoal

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Shanta Barley | 11:58 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009


The delectable scent of barbecue has lingered upon many a quivering nostril this week as Britain enjoys a string of hot, sunny days. But did you know that over 90% of the charcoal we burn on our barbecues comes from forests outside Britain that are not replaced after they're cut down?

barbie226x226.jpgThere is another way to keep the home fires burning without encouraging deforestation (which as any Prince Charles fan will know, is one of the leading factors behind climate change): British charcoal.

Switching to charcoal that has been made from British trees that are either coppiced sustainably or replaced when they are cut down can shave up to 95kg of CO2 off your carbon footprint annually.

And according to the Times's top 12 sizzling recipes for a barbecue, British charcoal actually makes your food taste better:

'When buying charcoal, go for quality. British is best - it is almost smoke-free. It gets white hot and ready for grilling in 30 minutes, and burns at a high temperature for a good hour.'

Eden Project hits rock bottom in search for renewable energy

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Shanta Barley | 18:34 UK time, Tuesday, 2 June 2009


The Eden Project has announced plans to generate up to one-tenth of the UK's electricity by harnessing the power of hot granite rocks lying deep in the Earth's surface near St Austell in Cornwall.

eden_project226x226.jpgIt's estimated that the UK's first geothermal plant will generate enough cheap, low-carbon and reliable electricity from Cornwall's hot rocks to power 5,000 British homes (that's a whole megawatt more power than a single wind turbine can generate). It could even scale to service up to a tenth of the UK's energy needs, if everything goes according to plan.

Working with EGS Energy, the Eden Project plans to drill down into 'shallow' granite outcrops (they're still 4km deep, mind) and pump water through them until it hots up to 150°C. On its way back to the surface, the steam will rotate a turbine that generates enough electricity to power the Eden Project site entirely renewably.

Think this sounds a touch futuristic? If anything, it's positively primitive. Geothermal fields have powered Iceland for more than 60 years and currently provide a fifth of the country's electricity (slicing 40% off the nation's carbon dioxide emissions every year, according to the Guardian).

Massive Estimates of Death are in vogue for Copenhagen

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Richard Cable | 13:38 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009


The successor to the Kyoto Protocol will be negotiated in large part at the United Nations Climate Change Conference hosted in Copenhagen this December, and as such the lobbying, horsetrading and politicking has already begun in earnest. Judging by the early entries, the theme seems to be Massive Estimates of Death.

kofi_annan226x226.jpgThe St James's Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium last week compared global warming to all-out nuclear war. Meanwhile, the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, released a 103-page report ('Anatomy of a Silent Crisis') estimating that 'every year climate change leaves over 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, and economic losses of US $125 billion.'

These are genuinely alarming, sit-up-and-pay attention sort of figures. The problem is that once you've sat up and paid attention enough to examine them a bit more closely, you find that the means by which the figures were arrived at isn't very compelling.

Referring to the 300,000 souls, page 1 of the reports states: 'These figures represent averages based on projected trends over many years and carry a significant margin of error. The real numbers could be lower or higher...' before going on to say, 'These already alarming figures may prove too conservative.' Or not, as the case may be.

Later, in the section entitled 'Attribution of weather-related disasters to climate change', it says 'there is not yet any widely accepted global estimate of the share of weather-related disasters that are attributable to climate change' before going on to make one up by the unusual expedient of using earthquake disasters as a proxy for the weather. (See page 86 for the full explanation.)

This is just a snapshot, but it's fairly representative. The report contains so many extrapolations derived from guesswork based on estimates inferred from unsuitable data sets that you have to ask some serious questions about the methodology.

Cryptically, Mr Annan states in the introduction: 'Humanity is facing a rare challenge. But it is a common challenge.' Like the report itself, you know what he's driving at, but have to ask yourself if there wasn't a better way of putting it.

Related blog: Thermonuclear armageddon and climate change: a fair likeness?
Related blog: Major rivers aren't drying up (or how alarmism doesn't help)

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