Climate & Energy

U.N. climate talks open in Bangkok

United Nations climate talks opened Monday in Bangkok, Thailand, as another step in the process of drafting a successor to the Kyoto Protocol climate-change treaty that expires in 2012. Officials admitted they didn’t expect any breakthroughs at the meeting this week, but there is hope that the countries can manage to agree on an agenda for the new treaty as well as other procedural matters. The meeting might not be particularly riveting for bystanders, but it’s an exciting time to be a U.N. bureaucrat. “With the 2009 deadline, we have just one and half years in which to complete negotiations …

‘Earth Hour’ event switches off lights around the world

This weekend, cities, businesses, and individuals around the world switched off or dimmed their lights for an hour to raise awareness about climate change. The event, called “Earth Hour,” started in Sydney, Australia, last year; organizers say that this year it spread to about 380 cities and towns in 35 countries, temporarily extinguishing non-essential lights and darkening landmarks around the world, including the Sydney Opera House and the Golden Gate Bridge. Internet search engine Google even switched its homepage background from white to black to mark the event. Aside from awareness-raising, the event did save a modest amount of energy …

Peak Oil? Bring it on!

Solving the climate problem will solve the peak oil problem, too

I have a new article in Salon on perhaps the most misunderstood subject in energy: peak oil. Here is the short version: We are at or near the peak of cheap conventional oil production. There is no realistic prospect that the conventional oil supply can keep up with current projected demand for much longer, if the industrialized countries don't take strong action to sharply reduce consumption, and if China and India don't take strong action to sharply reduce consumption growth. Many people are expecting unconventional oil -- such as the tar sands and liquid coal -- to make up the supply shortage. That would be a climate catastrophe, and I (optimistically) believe humanity is wise enough not to let that happen. More supply is not the answer to either our oil or climate problem. Nonetheless, contrary to popular belief, the peak oil problem will not "destroy suburbia" or the American way of life. Only unrestrained emissions of greenhouse gases can do that. We have the two primary solutions to peak oil at hand: fuel efficiency and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles run on zero-carbon electricity. The only question is whether conservatives will let progressives accelerate those solutions into the marketplace before it is too late to prevent a devastating oil shock or, for that matter, devastating climate change.

'The Clean Energy Scam'

Biofuel boom leveling rainforest, Time reports

From an excellent article in Time: Indonesia has bulldozed and burned so much wilderness to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world’s top carbon emitters has surged from 21st to third according to a report by Wetlands International. Malaysia is converting forests into palm oil farms so rapidly that it’s running out of uncultivated land. But most of the damage created by biofuels will be less direct and less obvious. In Brazil, for instance, only a tiny portion of the Amazon is being torn down to grow the sugarcane that fuels most Brazilian cars. More …

When does additionality matter? Part 1

The deceptively simple concept at the heart of carbon markets

Sean recently wrote a provocative post on why "additionality" -- one of the bedrock principles of carbon markets as presently designed -- is an expensive waste of time. This is a rich topic, and my perspective as a carbon offset retailer differs from his as an energy producer. It's worth spending a few posts exploring why.

Survey says ... environment and economy not mutually exclusive!

Americans favor conservation and see economically sound opportunities in protection

Standard survey questions often uphold (or manufacture) false dichotomies. Case in point: the perpetual practice of pitting the environment against the economy. Nonetheless, these questions can reveal interesting trends over time. And every now and then, the numbers show that the public sees right through "either/or" questions that just don't add up -- like recent research that shows Americans link economic opportunity to environmental protection. First, recent trends on that pesky "environment vs. economy" question: According to a new Gallup poll conducted March 6-9, despite fears of a looming recession, Americans continue to favor protecting the environment even at the risk of curbing economic growth: 49 percent to 42 percent. But this seven-point margin is down from the 18-point margin of a year ago, when 55 percent favored the environment. Further, the 49 percent of Americans currently favoring the environment over growth is only two points above the historical low over the past couple of decades.

Small hydro, big potential

‘Run of river’ projects set for a boom?

When I bought my house, I didn't realize that the stream that travels its acres is perennial and spring-fed ... which seemed like the perfect scenario for a microhydro generator. These units make a lot of power all day and night, unlike solar and (usually) wind. It works by siphoning off a portion of water to run through a pipe, then through a generator, and then back into the creek. Voilà! So I did the measurements and found 140 gallons per minute, which is about enough for the purpose, but less than a 20 foot drop in elevation, which is the killer. Microhydro usually requires either high head or high volumes to pencil out, but I have barely the minimum of each. At best, it would account for 20 percent of the house's needs -- not quite good enough for me to think too deeply about the capital expense or the fact that the town's Conservation Commission probably wouldn't allow the use. Other nearby commissions have also been unfriendly to residents employing or proposing it on their properties, even though microhydro is not a consumptive use and requires no dams. I have some small consolation, though, knowing that all the electricity in this portion of my county's grid is already 100 percent hydro, due to its proximity to the Deerfield River (one of the most developed rivers in the country, with small dams working up a good portion of its length from southern Vermont into western Massachusetts). Which is nice, in a way: the next nearest power plant to my community uses coal from a mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia, so this somewhat green power is welcome. So I was interested to see news that small hydro is possibly on the verge of a boom, with new estimates of 30,000 MW of potential small hydro capacity in the U.S. alone. This would build on small hydro's ubiquity in the industry, if the article is right that 80 percent of the existing hydro projects in the U.S. are low power (under 1 MW) or small hydro (1 to 30 MW). The industry is saying it can get more power out of falling water without any more dams:

Déjà nuke

This lede made me laugh out loud: As concerns about greenhouse gases and global warming mount, nuclear energy is getting a second look in California, with supporters ranging from the governor to at least one environmental activist. Oh goodie! Who’s the token "at least one environmental activist" this time? Is it Patrick Moore, 20-year industry shill co-founder of Greenpeace? Is it James Lovelock, fearful and panicked dystopian author of the Gaia hypothesis? Or is it Stewart Brand, future tech true believer founder of the Whole Earth Catalog? Those are pretty much your three choices. Oh, this time it’s door No. …

Breaking the U.S.-China suicide pact

William Chandler’s recommendations on how we can cooperate to lower emissions

William Chandler, director of the Carnegie Energy and Climate Program, has borrowed my phrase for the title of his new study: "Breaking the Suicide Pact: U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change." It begins: Together, China and the United States produce 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Their actions to curb or expand energy consumption will determine whether efforts to stop global climate change succeed or fail. If these two nations act to curb emissions, the rest of the world can more easily coalesce on a global plan. If either fails to act, the mitigation strategies adopted by the rest of the world will fall far short of averting disaster for large parts of the earth. These two nations are now joined in what energy analyst Joe Romm has aptly called "a mutual suicide pact." American leaders point to emissions growth in China and demand that Chinese leaders take responsibility for climate change. Chinese leaders counter that American per capita greenhouse gas emissions are five times theirs and say, "You created this problem, you do something about it."