Thursday, October 29, 2009

Canada sets aside its boreal forest as giant carbon vault

By banning logging, mining and oil drilling in an area twice the size of California, Canada is ensuring its boreal forests continue to soak up carbon

Suzanne Goldenberg,  US environment correspondent, Thursday 29 October 2009

In the far north latitudes, buried within a seemingly endless expanse of evergreen forests, the authorities in Canada are building up one of the world's best natural defences against global warming.

In a series of initiatives, Canadian provincial governments and aboriginal leaders have set aside vast tracts of coniferous woods, wetlands, and peat. The conservation drive bans logging, mining, and oil drilling on some 250m acres – an area more than twice the size of California.

The sheer scale of the forest conservation drive is somewhat of an anomaly for Canada, whose government has been accused of sabotaging the global climate change talks by its development of theAlberta tar sands and its refusal to make deep cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, a former adviser to Barack Obama urged Canada to do more to keep up with America's moves towards a cleaner energy economy.

In the latest addition to the carbon storehouse, the provincial premier of Manitoba, Gary Doer, this month announced a $10m (£5.6m) Canadian fund to protect a 10.8m acre expanse of boreal or evergreen forest. It was one of Doer's last acts as premier; he took over as Canada's ambassador to Washington this month.

The $10m will go towards efforts by indigenous leaders to designate boreal forest lands in eastern Manitoba as a Unesco world heritage site. The Pimachiowin Aki world heritage project, which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, extends efforts by Canadian provincial leaders to protect the wide swaths of pristine forests in the north. It also ensures the survival of one of the best natural defences against global warming after the world's oceans, environmentalists say.

A report by the International Boreal Conservation Campaign said the forests, with their rich mix of trees, wetlands, peat and tundra, were a far bigger carbon store than scientists had realised, soaking up 22% of the total carbon stored on the earth's land surface.

"If you look across Canada one of [the boreal forest's] great values to us globally is its carbon storage value," said Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Environment Group's International Boreal Conservation Campaign. "There is so much carbon sequestered in it already that if it escaped it would pose a whole new, very grave threat."

Canada's cold temperatures slow decomposition, allowing the build-up of organic soil and peat. The forest floors beneath its evergreens hold twice as much carbon per acre as tropical forests, such as the Amazon.

It is unclear how long Canada's forests can continue to serve as carbon vaults. "As the climate warms, the place is going to dry up. There will be a problem with insect infestation. There is going to be increased natural carbon release due to fire or wetlands drying up," said Sue Libenson, a spokeswoman for the International Boreal Conservation Campaign.

But she added: "The general premise is that there is still a hell of a lot of carbon in there." Its release would be a climate catastrophe.

Canada's 1.3bn acres of boreal forest store the equivalent of 27 years' worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions, a Greenpeace studyfound. The destruction of those forests, scientists warn, would be like setting off a massive "carbon bomb" because of the sudden release of emissions.

That threat appears to have concentrated the official mindset in Canada, which otherwise has a poor record on action on climate change. On a per capita basis, the country is one of the worst polluters on the planet, producing about 2% of the world's emissions even though it has just 33m people. It holds one of the worst track records among industrialised states for living up to its commitment under the Kyoto accords. By 2007, greenhouse gas emissions were 34% above the target Canada agreed at Kyoto.

Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, is resisting doing much more, committing to just a 6% cut over 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. "I see Harper's policy as a continuation of the Bush agenda," said David Martin, climate director for Greenpeace Canada.

A key advisor to Obama made a similar point last week, comparing Canada's current climate change policy to the inaction in America under George Bush. "The Canadians would be well served by keeping up with what's going on in the United States with respect to this push towards clean technology," John Podesta, who oversaw Obama's transition team, told a conference in Ottawa.

Environmentalists also fear that Harper intends to exclude the Alberta tar sands – the heavy crude deposits that have fuelled the rise in emissions – from any future greenhouse gas emissions regime.

But the Harper government did relent on forest protection, working with the Sahtu and Deh Cho First Nations to set aside 40m acres in the Northwest Territories.

Canadian provincial leaders have moved even more aggressively in recent years, with Ontario committed to protecting 55m acres, or about half of its forest, and Quebec committed to protecting 150m acres. "Canada is torn between wanting to promote the tar sands and make money off it now, and wanting to live up to its promises under the Kyoto accord. But as far as protecting carbon rich ecosystems, particularly the boreal forest, Canada is a world leader," said Kallick.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Go veggie to fight global warming, says expert

By Matt Dickinson, Press Association

The Independent, 27 October 2009

One of the world's leading climate change gurus urged people to become vegetarian today, to help beat global warming.

Nicholas Stern, the author of an influential 2006 review of climate change, said methane emissions from cows and pigs were putting "enormous pressure" on the world and people needed to think about what they ate.

He told The Times: "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It put enormous pressure on the world's resources. A vegetarian diet is better."

The former World Bank chief economist was speaking ahead of the climate change conference in Copenhagen this December, which is expected to be attended by thousands of delegates from around the world.

Lord Stern said a successful conference would result in higher costs for meat and other foods that generate large quantities of greenhouse gases.

He also compared his stance on meat to the change in attitudes to drink-driving.

"I think it's important that people think about what they are doing and that includes what they are eating," the London School of Economics professor said.

"I am 61 now and attitudes towards drinking and driving have changed radically since I was a student.

"People change their notion of what is responsible. They will increasingly ask about the carbon content of their food."

Methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it has been estimated that livestock accounts for a fifth of the global warming impact.

In his interview with The Times, Lord Stern said if business continued as usual then temperatures could increase by 5C by early next century.

"These kinds of changes will have huge consequences - southern Europe is likely to be a desert; hundreds of millions of people will have to move. There will be severe global conflict."

His 2006 review warned that if the world did not act on global warming, the cost would be at least 5 per cent of GDP "now and forever".

"Climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent global response," he said.

Historic chance to halt the scourge of deforestation

In the first of a landmark series on issues behind the climate summit, Michael McCarthy explains why a 'Redd' treaty is vital to cut CO2

The Independent, 26 October 2009

At last, the wreck of the rainforests is being tackled. One of the key parts of the Copenhagen climate agreement which the international community will try to construct in December is a comprehensive treaty aiming to reduce deforestation rates in the developing countries by at least 50 per cent by 2020.

Not before time. It has been 20 years since we woke up to the reality of large-scale rainforest loss: in the late 1980s, the terrible scale of destruction in regions such as the Brazilian Amazon, and later, in Indonesia and other areas, dawned on the world, but in the time since then, all we have been able to do, in effect, has been to wring our hands.

Deforestation was clearly terrible for wildlife, for the indigenous peoples of the forests, and for the "ecosystem services", as the modern jargon has it, which forests provide, such as climates which bring rain. But the whole process seemed so vast, the huge socio-economic forces behind deforestation in the developing countries so intractable, that it seemed impossible that anything could be done to stop it or even slow it.

Things have changed, and the change can be summarised in a single word: carbon. For, as the threat of climate change has become more and more clear, there has been an growing perception that the biggest benefit of all that rainforests provide is their function as a carbon store, and the biggest danger from their destruction is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they are cut down and burnt.

This is happening on a tremendous scale. In a band around the tropics, shown in the red in our map, about 13 million hectares of natural forest are being chainsawed and burnt every year – an area about the size of England – and the CO2 emissions released total about 5.8bn tonnes annually.

This is almost as much as the emissions of the US or China, the two biggest carbon emitters; it is nearly 20 per cent of the global total, more than the whole of the transport sector across the world, which has always been considered one of the major difficulties in dealing with climate change.

The deforestation emissions of Indonesia and Brazil, for example, are now so great that they propel those countries to fourth and fifth place respectively in the world emissions table although, if their places are based just on burning fossil fuels, they are much lower.

It has become clear to policymakers that the now generally accepted goal of reducing global emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, in the hope of keeping the rise in temperatures to two degrees above the pre-industrial level – thought of as the danger threshold – will be impossible without tackling forest emissions.

So when the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, a grouping of 40 countries with substantial forest holdings from Costa Rica to Papua New Guinea, proposed in 2005 that there could be an agreement – we preserve our forests, you in the rich world pay us to do so – they were met with a sympathetic response.

The issue is known as Redd, reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries,and you will be increasingly hearing the unfamiliar acronym as the Copenhagen meeting approaches. For Redd is now a key part of the treaty negotiating process under which, it is hoped, the developing countries will agree to tackle their own, mushrooming greenhouse gases, in return for billions of dollars of new aid.

The principal objective of the Redd agreement, put forward by the EU, with Britain leading in the negotiations, is that "all parties should collectively aim at ... reducing gross deforestation in developing countries by at least 50 per cent by 2020 compared to current levels."

That is widely supported by environmentalists. But another phrase in the objective, more supported by tropical nations with big logging industries, is also that "all parties should aim at halting forest cover loss in developing countries by 2030 at the latest". To decode the text, "reducing gross deforestation" means in essence slowing the rate at which you cut down your virgin, natural forests.

But "halting forest cover loss" means you can cut down the forests but replace them with other trees, so that "forest cover", the general area covered in trees, remains the same.

These other trees are likely to be commercial monocultures such as eucalyptus or oil palms, not remotely as valuable ecologically, or as a store of carbon, as virgin forest, and although it might be better to have those trees growing than bare ground, many environmentalists would stress that not cutting the virgin forest down in the first place is the best option of all.

The text is still up for negotiation, but the fact that two potentially conflicting stances can be part of the same first sentence of the proposed treaty shows what a difficult matter it is on which to reach agreement.

Even so, both parts of the objective constitute an ambitious aim, and the use of the phrase "all parties" indicates that we are all in this together; if they are going to stop deforestation in the developing world, we in the rich world have got to help them.

One of the key aspects of Redd is that is conceived of at a national level; before, attempts at preventing deforestation tended to be local projects. Now whole countries are being asked to lower their deforestation rates, if we finance it. How are we to do so?

There are three options. The first is to supply substantial new aid funding; the second is to let countries with high deforestation rates generate "carbon credits" from the forests they preserve, which could then be sold on the growing international carbon market; the third is a mixture of both.

Using the carbon market is the most controversial, because some policymakers feel this will provide a vast pool of emissions credits which western countries can buy and thus escape much of the obligation to cut back on emissions of their own (Brazil's rule of thumb is that a hectare of forest holds a tonne of carbon).

There are further objections, such as the "permanence" of the forest which has generated a carbon credit by being left uncut. What happens if it is subsequently cut down, or burnt, or even dies off because of climate change? But others feel the carbon market will be an essential tool, not least as the total funding needed is likely to be very substantial.

Last year, Johan Eliasch, a Swedish-born, London-based businessman with environmental interests, was asked by Gordon Brown to report on how the preservation of global forests could be financed. Mr Eliasch estimated that, according to one scenario, this could cost between $18bn and $26bn annually, with perhaps $7bn of the funding coming from the carbon market. The rest would have to be found by the developed countries.

It'is an enormous sum, but Eliasch thought it was worth it. "Saving forests is critical for tackling climate change," he said. "Without action on deforestation, avoiding the worst aspects of climate change will be next to impossible."

Hefty bill to come from clean coal power

The Age, October 29, 2009
CLEAN coal technology will face extraordinary price hurdles over the next 10 years, a major stocktake of all the world's carbon capture and storage projects has found. The report, prepared by the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, finds the cost increase to coal electricity generation if fully-fledged clean coal technology is installed will be up to 78 per cent.
If the technology is widely introduced, price increases in generating electricity are likely to significantly increase household power bills.
The report, which looked at all global carbon capture and storage projects around the world, found that it will only be competitive with other energy sources if a high carbon price exists.
That would mean a carbon price of between $61-$112 a tonne, and between $80-90 a tonne for the large-scale technology needed for the massive NSW and Victorian coal plants.
Treasury estimates that under the Government's emissions trading scheme of a 15 per cent 2020 emissions reduction target, the carbon price will hit $80 a tonne in real terms in 2038.
The institute's chief executive, Nick Otter, said yesterday it was crucial for a commercial scale clean coal project to be operating by 2014, with fully commercialised plant existing by the early 2020s.
He said as more demonstration projects lead to fully commercial projects the costs for carbon storage should come down as the technology develops and technology blips are ironed out.
''Governments need to provide short-term incentives to investors, but in the long term there will have to be a long-term framework, and that will include things like a carbon price.''
The Government will spend $2.4 billion over nine years developing two to four commercial scale carbon capture projects. A spokesman for the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, said a shortlist of projects will be released by the end of the year.
Professor Richard Hillis, the head of the University of Adelaide's Australian School of Petroleum, said it was natural that carbon capture and storage would take some time to develop and be initially expensive.
''If you think of the oil industry, when it first began it didn't develop in a matter of weeks, it took decades, and carbon capture will go through the same process,'' he said.
The institute was established by the Rudd Government and includes the US, Britain and Japan, along with a number of major resource companies, among its members.
The report released yesterday found there were 213 active or planned carbon capture projects around the world for coal, gas and oil, with 61 planned to capture, transport and store carbon. Just seven projects were operating at present, none of which captures carbon from coal.
Under Treasury modelling, the Rudd Government is largely relying on clean coal technology to reduce emissions for the electricity sector. In 2008 coal-fired electricity accounted for 36 per cent of Australia's total emissions.
Treasury figures obtained by the Australia Institute, under the Freedom of Information Act, show coal-fired emission do not significantly reduce until 2033, when Treasury assumes carbon capture and storage is installed in power plants.
The Australia Institute's executive director, Richard Dennis, said the figures showed the Government's scheme would do nothing to reduce emissions from coal-fired electricity unless clean coal technology is ready in 2033.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Emission cuts 'well short of a safe result'

The Age, October 27, 2009
A COMPREHENSIVE analysis of climate change measures proposed in 109 countries shows that the world is still well short of reducing emissions to a safe level even if all policies achieve their maximum result.
Deutsche Bank's Global Climate Change Policy Tracker, the first quantitative modelling and analysis of global climate policies available, shows that the best-case scenario would still put emissions levels above the desired target by up to seven gigatonnes - equivalent to the annual emissions of the United States.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report found stabilisation at 450 parts per million (ppm) would give a chance of avoiding a 2-degree global temperature rise, the point above which dangerous climate change is predicted.
The Deutsche modelling, prepared by the Columbia Climate Centre, shows that a business-as-usual scenario puts 2020 emissions at 59 gigatonnes.
That compares with 51 gigatonnes that could be reached through current and announced emission reduction policies but still short of the 44-gigatonne level needed to stabilise emissions.
The report finds that if growth does not slow after 2014, as the International Energy Agency and Deutsche's modelling assumes, then an extra seven gigatonnes would be added to the task.
The good news, Deutsche says, is that identified energy-efficiency measures and avoided deforestation creates ''a possibility of getting close to 450 ppm''.
''This represents an opportunity to invest to create jobs and growth, and not just a cost,'' the report says. ''However, it requires a strong deal at Copenhagen, but most importantly, strong follow-through at a sector and industry policy level to create transparency, longevity and certainty.''
Australia scored well in providing the right investment climate for clean energy, ranking among one of the lowest-risk countries alongside Brazil, China, France, Germany and Japan.
''This is because they have strong incentives in place, along with a consistent approach, demonstrated through well-considered plans,'' the report says.
''The United States, United Kingdom and Canada provide moderate risk as they rely on a more volatile market approach and in the case of the US have suffered from a stop-start approach.
However, the $US5.4 billion ($A5.8 billion) directed towards the Australian sector between 2000 and 2008 is dwarfed next to investment in the US ($US52.1 billion), China ($US41.2 billion) and Germany ($36.6 billion).
The report recommends that governments strengthen mandates and incentives immediately so that funds can be targeted to deal with the additional abatement that is required.

Coalmine canaries face extinction in fatal trap

The Age, October 28, 2009
AUSTRALIA must create a new, expanded network of protected wetlands around its coastline or see many bird, animal and plant species become extinct as sea levels rise, the House of Representatives report says.
It recommended that the Government should urgently assess the vulnerability of Kakadu National Park to the intrusion of salt water into its fresh water wetlands. Up to 80 per cent of the freshwater wetlands in the park could be lost, and replaced with salty mud flats, as global average temperatures rise between two and three degrees this century.
Many existing wetlands should also have their conservation status upgraded. The report said this had implications for many activities like land clearing, building canal-style housing developments and driving vehicles along beaches.
The unavoidable sea level rises, which are already thought to be locked in by current greenhouse gas emission levels, are expected to devastate water bird populations, according to advice from Birds Australia.
Migratory birds like the black-tailed godwit, the grey plover and Latham's snipe can be regarded as the ''canaries in the coalmine'' for climate change, said Dr Eric Woehler of Birds Australia, who gave evidence to the parliamentary committee.
''Many of these birds breed only a few centimetres above the high-water mark,'' Dr Woehler said. ''They cannot just go somewhere else to breed … the development and construction of coastal infrastructure such as roads and houses will stop that inward migration of the coastline.
''So, as the sea level rises, essentially what you are going to end up with is a sea wall rather than the capacity for the coastline to find its new line inland of where it is now.''
The majority of water birds migrate to Australia each year from places as far afield as Siberia and Alaska, so the demise of local breeding habitats would have global consequences, the report noted.
The definitions for endangered wetlands should be simplified, and many major wetlands upgraded to ''wetlands of international significance'' under the Ramsar Convention, the report said. Ramsar status means a wetland cannot be used for housing.
''The committee was concerned about the continuing construction of canal estates more generally in some states, given the increased vulnerability of such developments to projected sea level rise and their environmental impact,'' the report said.
The Government is reviewing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which many experts said should be strengthened to take sea level rise into account.

Another sting in the tail of mosquito-borne viruses

The Age, October 28, 2009
CLIMATE change will make Australia vulnerable to the spread of foreign diseases, according to the report into coastal temperature change from the standing committee on climate change.
And urgent action is needed to fill the gaps in the ability to deal with disease outbreaks.
The report warned that a mosquito-spread virus similar to Ross River fever, chikungunya fever, could enter Australia and changing climatic conditions could lead to more outbreaks of dengue fever.
''The knowledge gaps identified by the national climate change adaptation research facility research plan … [on] the relationship between climate variation and vector-borne disease should be urgently addressed,'' the report said.
Chikungunya, which has spread from Africa to India and Papua New Guinea, has no known vaccine or specific antiviral treatments. It is not fatal, but can cause lifelong weakness and joint pain.
''The fact chikungunya has spread all of a sudden in India, and so quickly, is due to a number of factors but climate change is definitely one of those,'' said Suresh Mahalingam, who received a $400,000 government grant earlier this year to research the causes of the virus.
''If climate change is defined as our temperatures getting hotter, these are conditions that allow mosquitoes to breed. The chance of the virus spreading also increases.''
Yesterday's report recommended tightening biosecurity, and a national plan to deal with mosquito outbreaks. It also recommended more research to link climate change to vector-borne disease and modelling to predict such outbreaks.
''The committee believes that immediate action should be taken to provide for better early warning of threats from vector-borne disease, as well as long-term modelling for earlier forecasting of threats,'' it said. ''The significant outbreak, in early 2009, of dengue fever in Cairns, Queensland, with over 1000 cases marks a cause for concern.''
The report noted that two mosquito species known to carry dengue fever and chikungunya - Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus - had been identified in the Northern Territory 50 years after they were thought to have been eradicated outside Queensland. More than $1 million was spent managing the infestation at Tennant Creek.
''Vector-borne infectious diseases are likely to increase due to changing conditions for vectors and hosts. Geographic ranges of some diseases are likely to change, putting new populations at risk.''
As well as vector-borne disease, climate change could increase mental illness in drought-affected areas and increase the number of deaths related to thermal stress.

$2bn threat from rising oceans

The Age, October 27, 2009
MORE than 80,000 coastal buildings in Victoria are at risk and large parts of Western Port are likely to be swamped as climate change triggers rising seas, floods and erosion, a report to Federal Parliament has warned.
An 18-month investigation by a House of Representatives committee, backed by members of both major parties, warns the Government that the ''time to act is now'' to prepare thousands of kilometres of Australian coastline for the threat of sea-level rise and extreme weather.
Proposals include improving evacuation routes for coastal communities and introducing early warning systems for coastal areas.
In Victoria, the most consistent threat is at Western Port, with nearly one-fifth of the region south-east of Melbourne likely to be inundated, damaging the environment and infrastructure.
About 18,000 Western Port properties valued at nearly $2 billion are considered vulnerable to flood.
Nationwide, more than 700,000 coastal properties with a combined worth of about $150 billion are potentially at risk, the report finds.
In parts of northern Australia, it warns, coastal communities will also become more vulnerable to insect-borne disease, and the celebrated Kakadu National Park's freshwater wetlands faces being flooded with saltwater.
The report by the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts, calls on Canberra to boost its role in preparing coastal communities for the threats, working with states and local governments. Its recommendations include:
* Increasing biosecurity to protect Australians from dengue fever and chikungunya virus.
*Asking the Productivity Commission to look at the impact of climate change on the insurance industry, including recommending a clear definition of when an insurance claim would be payable after an event triggered by climate change.
*Considering bans on occupation or rebuilding on properties deemed at risk.
*Classifying more coastal wetlands as sites of international significance under the Ramsar convention.
*Expanding research into the impact of climate change on Australian lives, ecosystems and property.
The report calls for the Australian Emergency Management Committee to be charged with improving access and evacuation routes for coastal communities. It compares the potential risks they face to those experienced by people fleeing this year's Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.
''Evacuation routes were a significant contributing factor to the extent of the tragedy,'' the report says. ''A reliable evacuation route is vital in a disaster management strategy.
''It is therefore imperative that evacuation routes and methods be examined when developing community emergency responses.''
On insect-borne disease, the report says immediate action is needed to get better early warning of threats. ''The significant outbreak, in early 2009, of dengue fever in Cairns, Queensland, with over 1000 cases marks a cause for concern,'' it says.
The emergency committee would also be asked to devise improved early warning systems for coastal areas hit by storm surges, erosion and floods.
The climate change committee cites the advice of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that sea levels are likely to rise about 80 centimetres by 2100.
But the increased potential for storm surges under climate change means properties even further above current sea levels are expected to be at risk.
Climate scientists warn that even a 50-centimetre sea-level rise is expected to increase the number of extreme tidal events by a factor of 300.
The area at risk of storm surges is expected to grow by up to 15 per cent by 2030 and up to 63 per cent by 2070, when what would now be called a ''1-in-100 year storm'' is tipped to hit Victoria at least once in four years.
Western Port is considered particularly environmentally sensitive, with its tidal nature creating valuable mangrove and mudflat ecosystems. It has several marine national parks and is internationally recognised under Ramsar as a wetland of significance for migratory birds.
Greg Hunt, an environmental consultant who works with six local councils around Western Port on climate change issues, said coastal villages in the City of Casey, such as Tooradin, were among the most susceptible to rising sea levels.
He said consideration should also be given to industries supported by the bay, including fishing and agriculture.
''It's not a sexy bay like Port Phillip Bay, with sandy beaches, but it's a very productive area and climate change has the potential to alter that productivity,'' he said.
''If we get inundation of coastal lands by salt water, then that changes and we can no longer grow pastures or at least the same pastures.
''We produce a lot of food from that area, so if their data is correct then our food production is going to have impacts.''
Bittern resident Brian Cuming, who has long campaigned to protect Western Port from what he sees as inappropriate development, said the projections further challenged those wishing to develop the region.
''There will be many sociological concerns about planning, but this reinforces and adds to our concerns about the lack of wisdom in planning an expanded port,'' he said.
Climate Change Minister Penny Wong is expected to deliver the first major assessment of the vulnerability of Australia's coast to sea level rise next month.