The Week’s Environmental Story Roundup

Seventeen stories in this week’s roundup.

1. Cancún Climate Change Conference expectations: more hot air

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is to be held in Cancún, Mexico, from 29 November to 10 December 2010. What is it supposed to do?

According to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) website, the conference ” encompasses the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) and the sixth Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP), as well as the thirty-third sessions of both the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), and the fifteenth session of the AWG-KP and thirteenth session of the AWG-LCA. To discuss future commitments for industrialized countries under the Kyoto Protocol, the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) established a working group in December 2005 called the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP). In Copenhagen, at its fifth session, the CMP requested the AWG-KP to deliver the results of its work for adoption by CMP 6 in Cancun.”

Got that? Well according to the UNFCC’s fact sheet, “Over a decade ago, most countries joined an international treaty — the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — to begin to consider what can be done to reduce global warming and to cope with whatever temperature increases are inevitable. More recently, a number of nations approved an addition to the treaty: the Kyoto Protocol [the US congress did not ratify it] , which has more powerful (and legally binding) measures. The UNFCCC secretariat supports all institutions involved in the climate change process, particularly the COP, the subsidiary bodies and their Bureau.”

“The negotiating process on climate change revolves around the sessions of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP), which meets every year to review the implementation of the Convention. The COP adopts decisions and resolutions, published in reports of the COP.  Successive decisions taken by the COP make up a detailed set of rules for practical and effective implementation of the Convention.”

“Thousands of participants including government representatives and observer organizations have attended previous climate change conferences.  The sessions in Bali attracted over 10,000 participants, including some 3,500 government officials, over 5,800 representatives of UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and nearly 1,500 accredited members of the media.”

2. World mayors sign climate change pact

Considering the expectation of more than 10,000 people from all over the world to travel to Cancún, “mayors from many of the world’s largest cities met in Mexico City over the weekend,” writes the New York Times, “and declared, ‘What about us?’ Shut out at the Copenhagen conference last year, big-city mayors have been arguing for a place at the table.”

Why do they care? “There are also financial interests at stake, as the host, Mayor Marcelo
Ebrard of Mexico City, made clear. ‘Mayors believe that if financial
resources become available through transfers from developed to
developing countries, a significant portion of these monies should be
passed through to cities and local governments to implement local
climate programs,’ he said.”

3. Global warming expected to lower temperature-related death rate

Finally, a lowering of the rhetoric temperature.

In a peer reviewed study, researchers found that while “during the hottest portion of the year, warming led to increases in death rates…the coldest portion of the year it lead to decreases in death rates…for a lives-saved to life-lost ratio of 29.4 (when no adaptation is used)…And when adaptation was included in the analysis, as was the case in the data they analyzed, they found there were only 0.7 death per million people per year due to warming in the hottest part of the year, but a decrease of fully 85 deaths per million people per year due to warming in the coldest part of the year, for a phenomenal lives-saved to life-lost ratio of 121.4.”

Reference: Christidis, N., Donaldson, G.C. and Stott, P.A. 2010. Causes for the recent changes in cold- and heat-related mortality in England and Wales. Climatic Change 102: 539-553.

4. Gore admits ethanol was good for politics and bad for economy, environment

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for (U.S.) first generation ethanol,” said Gore, speaking at a green energy business conference in Athens sponsored by Marfin Popular Bank. (Source:, U.S. corn ethanol “was not a good policy”-Gore)

Of course, that is not what candidate Gore told the Iowa farmers when he ran for president in 2000. “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid
particular attention to the farmers in my home state of
Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the
state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”

Matt Hartwig, writing at the E-xchange site for the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) says,”I’ll take Gore’s word for his own motivations. But he’s wrong on every
other count. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2008,
ethanol produces about 2.3 BTU of energy for every 1 BTU of inputs.” And he says, ethanol production soes not compete with the food supply. “Using virtually the
same acres as two generations ago, America’s corn farmers produced the
highest corn crop on record in 2009 -– 13.2 billion bushels. About 4.2
billion bushels were used to produce a record 11.75 billion gallons of
ethanol and 33 million metric tons of feed…And while “Gore bemoans ‘the lobbies that keep it [ethanol] going.’

“What about Big Oil lobbying for ever-more costly and risky offshore
drilling? Gore should stop apologizing for having supported ethanol. He had it right the first time.”

On the topic of ethanol and subsidies:
Ronald Bailey at Reason magazine noted,
“It’s a very rare occasion when a free marketeer like me agrees with
the green fanatics over at Friends of the Earth, but they are right
about one thing: It’s time to let ethanol subsidies die. In 2004, the
government started offering a tax credit worth 51 cents for each gallon
of gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol. The 2008 farm bill lowered
that credit slightly to 45 cents per gallon, but kept it going for
another two years. Meanwhile, diverting grain to ethanol production
caused corn prices to soar, lining the pockets of corn growers and
refiners while increasing food costs for humans and feed costs for
animals. The good news is that unless Congress acts, the $5 billion in
annual subsidies to corn ethanol will expire at the end of the year. The
bad news is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exacerbated
the situation last month when it decided to raise the amount of ethanol
that can be blended with gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent for
fueling late model cars.”

5. Macedonia plants 7 million trees to revive its forests

Zeenews reports that, “Macedonians took a day off work on Friday to plant seven million trees as part of a project started in 2008 to revive fire-ravaged forests in the landlocked Balkan country…Since [2008] more than 20 million trees have been planted in planting days held twice a year, in March and in November.”

6. Electric Sportscar Completes Alaska-Argentina Trip

“An electric sportscar finished a remarkable road trip Tuesday on the Panamerican Highway,” ABC News reports, “traveling from near the Arctic Circle in Alaska to the world’s southernmost city” without emitting anything through a tailpipe. It was no “clunky science project — all that horsepower [400 horsepower from lithium iron phosphate batteries powering two electric motors] enabled the car to reach 60 mph (96 kph) in just seven seconds and reach top controlled speeds of 124 mph (200 kph), the team said.”

Where they were when they drove at 124 mph was not reported.

For more on the car and crew see:

7. United Nations Human Development Report 2010 released

Most developing countries have made dramatic yet often underestimated progress in health, education and basic living standards in recent decades, with many of the poorest countries posting the greatest gains, reveals a detailed new analysis of long-term Human Development Index (HDI) trends in the 2010 Human Development Report. The patterns of achievement vary greatly, with some countries losing ground since 1970, the 2010 Human Development Report shows. The Report documents wide inequalities within and among countries, deep disparities between women and men on a wide range of development indicators, and the prevalence of extreme multidimensional poverty in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Gregg Easterbook says on, this report is not hot air, “the report is candid, factual and rational, because it’s written at the United Nations Development Programme, which functions independent of the General Assembly and Security Council. United Nations population forecasts and agricultural analysis have high standing among experts. So, too, does the Human Development Report…the 2010 Human Development Report is mainly optimistic about the developing world. It paints, in fact, a far more sanguine picture of most of the human family than is found in the mainstream media. When the United Nations says something depressing, coverage is always assured. Today, the United Nations says something hopeful – will the world pay notice?”

8. A cold wind blows in Cape Cod

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today launched a ‘Smart from the Start’ wind energy initiative for the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to facilitate siting, leasing and construction of new projects, spurring the rapid and responsible development of this abundant renewable resource.

“The Cape Wind lease is an historic milestone in America’s renewable energy future, but to fully harness the economic and energy benefits of our nation’s vast Atlantic wind potential we need to implement a smart permitting process that is efficient, thorough, and unburdened by needless red tape,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

“Our ‘Smart from the Start” Initiative for Atlantic wind will allow us to identify priority Wind Energy Areas for potential development, improve our coordination with local, state, and federal partners, and accelerate the leasing process,” Salazar noted. “If we are wise with our planning, we can help build a robust and environmentally responsible offshore renewable energy program that creates jobs here at home.” The accelerated leasing process is being simplified through a regulatory change, enabling leases to be issued in 2011 and 2012.This offshore wind initiative is the latest in a series of Administration actions to spur renewable energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf. In early 2009, Salazar expedited the long-delayed process for approving the final rules for offshore wind development, establishing a regulatory framework that encourages responsible development. He then established the Atlantic Wind Consortium and announced the creation of an offshore wind coordinating office to expedite Interior’s collaborative efforts with the states.

According to a story in the New York Times, “Massachusetts utility regulators on Monday approved a contract under which a utility will buy half the electricity produced by Cape Wind, the proposed wind farm to be built in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod…It calls for an initial price of 18.7 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity produced by the wind farm, far above the wholesale prices that have prevailed recently.”

This may not be what the country needs. It certainly is not good energy policy according to energy expert, Robert Bryce who wrote in an August 23, 2010  Wall Street Journal editorial, “Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights don’t go dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal- or gas-fired generators (called “cycling”). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don’t, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase. A car analogy helps explain: An automobile that operates at a constant speed—say, 55 miles per hour—will have better fuel efficiency, and emit less pollution per mile traveled, than one that is stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

Case in point: consider Texas “If Texas were an independent country, it would rank 6th in the world in terms of total wind power production capacity,” writes Bryce. “But, wind’s ‘hype exceeds the reality. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the operator of the state’s huge electric grid, has considered the ‘capacity factor’ of wind — the ability of the generators to produce power at 100% of their maximum rated output – and placed wind’s reliability at less than 9%…The punchline for the wind power business in Texas is that despite all the hype, the reality is that the Lone Star State will continue to rely on the same fuels that it has relied upon for decades: natural gas, coal, and nuclear. ”

Wind turbines are expensive writes Ronald Bailey, “[A]ccording to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), if one includes all the capital, operating, and fuel costs, electricity from wind still costs about 50 percent more than conventional coal and 100 percent more than natural gas. Proponents point out that the costs of turbines are coming down, but the costs for the considerable infrastructure needed to manage wind are still daunting.

“The wind, even at as favorable a site as Judith Gap, doesn’t always blow, so the facility produces power at about 38 percent of its actual capacity, or roughly about 51 megawatt-hours of electricity on average. This is actually well above the industry average. Fickle winds make supply management challenging. For example, according to NorthWestern Energy, the Judith Gap facility has ramped up from zero to 131 megawatts in 10 minutes and has ramped down from 121 megawatts to zero in a similar time period.”

The wind turbines could cause health problems. Bryce wrote in a March 2, 2010 Wall Street Journal editorial, “The Obama administration has made the increased use of wind power to generate electricity a top priority. In 2009 alone, U.S. wind generation capacity increased by 39%. But more wind power means more giant turbines closer to more people. And if current trends continue, that spells trouble…Doctors and acoustics experts from the U.S. to Australia report a raft of symptoms that they blame on wind turbine noise, including sleep disturbance, headaches and vertigo.”

Toss in rare earth needs [such as neodymium] for the magnets, “The mining and refining of neodymium is so dirty (involving repeated boiling in acid, with radioactive thorium as a waste product),” writes science author Matt Ridley, that only one country does it: China,” and the policy does not “smart from the start.”

10. Chad’s capital city says no to plastic bags

IRIN, humanitarian and news analysis, reports that “N’djamena is a rarity in the region – the trees lining the Chad capital are not scarred by plastic bags. Buy something in a supermarket and it is left on the counter for the customer to take away, often in reusable bags on offer everywhere in the markets. When Marie Thérèse Mbailemdana became mayor of N’djamena in January 2010, she was determined to apply a 1992 law prohibiting the importation of plastic bags (known by the Arabic word ‘léda’); until then the law had not been strictly enforced.”

Since becoming mayor Ms Mbailemdana has been relentless. “This plastic polluted the city – you saw plastic hanging on walls, on trees. And it destroys our environment. Plastic remains in the ground for centuries. No trees or plants will grow where plastic is in the ground,” she told IRIN. Now, in N’djamena people found with plastic bags are fined 50,000 to 300,000 CFA francs (US$105 to $630). “We will even order a shop closed for a period of time – perhaps it’s harsh, but it’s the price to pay.”

11. Sudan plans for food sufficiency in 5 years

According to the story in, Africa’s largest country wants to diversify its economy away from oil– from which it derives more than 90 percent of its foreign exchange revenues– as the oil-producing south is expected to secede following a January 9 independence referendum.”

12. North African Crops to Be Hit Hardest By Climate Change? reports, according to research carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, “North African agriculture will be the worst affected by climate change, according to an assessment of how 50 key crops will perform around the world under increasing temperatures over the next 40 years. Climate change will raise average crop productivity until 2020, after which it will decline by 5-10 per cent by 2050.

The National Geographic ran a story in July 2009, Sahara Desert Greening Due to Climate Change?, says, “Half the models follow a wetter trend, and half a drier trend. Forecasting how global warming will affect the region is complicated by its vast size and the unpredictable influence of high-altitude winds that disperse monsoon rains.” But, “Emerging evidence is painting a very different scenario, one in which rising temperatures could benefit millions of Africans in the driest parts of the continent. Scientists are now seeing signals that the Sahara desert and surrounding regions are greening due to increasing rainfall.”

13.World Bank expands ag program

The World Bank has launched Phase II of its West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP) by announcing it will add Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire. According to their media release, “The WAAPP is expected to help achieve significant growth in agricultural output to fight against food insecurity and poverty,” and ultimately reach the UN’s Millenium Development Goals for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) participate in this Program. The project aims to generate and accelerate adoption of improved technologies in the top priority agricultural commodities in the participating countries that are aligned with the sub-regional priorities defined by the ECOWAS Agricultural Policy.”

“Launched in 2007, the first phase of WAAPP has already shown successful results in Ghana, Mali, and Senegal by setting up centers of specialization for agricultural research and increasing cooperation among researchers and institutions within the participating countries.

“The program will eventually cover all countries in West Africa and generate social and economic benefits that will spill across national boundaries. The regional aspect of the program will strengthen the platform for regional policy harmonization. It will provide a regional framework for ECOWAS countries to collaborate in implementing national and regional agricultural strategies for technology generation and dissemination.”

California News

14. Governor declares emergency over water contamination in Barstow

The Los Angeles Times reported that on November 20, “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Saturday for San Bernardino County, where the water supply for the city of Barstow was found to be contaminated with a toxic chemical used to make explosives and rocket fuel.” In a follow-up report the LA Times said, “How long the perchlorate may have been at unacceptable levels is unknown — Golden State [the water company] last tested its wells for perchlorate in December 2009 and was slated to repeat the test in December 2012, an interval that local officials said complied with state regulations.”

On Wednesday the LA times reported, “State water officials launched an investigation Tuesday into how a chemical used in rocket fuel and munitions found its way into Barstow’s residential water supply, as costs to address the crisis mounted.” An official from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said, “We’ve got three teams of investigators sampling private wells in the area as part of an effort to get a sense of the extent of the contamination in the groundwater, and where it originated.”

By Thursday, the LA Times reported, more Barstow residents were allowed to drink tap water again following the ban. “Golden State Water Co., the private utility that supplies water to the Barstow area and neighboring Marine Corps Logistics base, began flushing the water system Saturday night. Company spokesman John Dewey on Monday  said the clean-out effort is making ‘great progress’ and they hope to rid the system of perchlorate within days.”

15. State health officials: No common cause for birth defects near toxic-waste dump

In a story posted by the Sacramento Bee, “California health officials said Monday they found no common cause for birth defects plaguing infants in an impoverished San Joaquin Valley farm town where residents are battling plans to expand the largest toxic waste dump in the West. Eleven cases of cleft palates and other birth abnormalities have been reported since 2007 in Kettleman City, where officials said the rate of birth defects from 2008 to 2009 was higher than what would be expected.” The LA Times reported, “The 160-page report [state Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Public Health investigators] did not satisfy the residents of the community of 1,500 just off Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They and environmentalists wanted an answer to what was responsible for the birth defects in the community that for decades has endured agricultural sewage, diesel exhaust, pesticides and elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water.”

16. Task force wants Jerry Brown to create climate change panel

The LA Times story notes, “A task force of California politicians, business people, academics and environmentalists is calling on incoming Gov. Jerry Brown to [continue in the Governator Arnold’s footsteps by appointing] a climate risk council within his office to focus statewide attention on adapting to the effects of global warming…to prepare for a steep sea level rise, diminishing water supplies and the spread of wildfire, as studies have predicted.” Much of the prediction appears to be based on the Pacific Council Task Force report: Preparing for the Effects of Climate Change – A Strategy for California.

17. Northrop opposes solar energy project

Northrop’s complaint that the planned solar plant might interfere with testing of stealth technology on aircraft and could put a crimp in the Governator’s hopes slow global warming and for green tech jobs in California. The LA Times reports that Schwarzenegger wrote Monday to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, “It is important that this project move forward, not only for Los Angeles County, but in order to achieve the policy objectives of the state of California.”

As noted before here last September, The California Energy Commission (CEC) unanimously approved the construction and operation by Solar Millennium of four solar-thermal power plants with a planned overall capacity of nearly 1,000 megawatts (MW) at the Blythe location in California last Wednesday. If built, it will be the largest solar thermal plant in the world. The Times story reports, “Northrop Grumman Corp. contends that a proposed 230-megawatt plant near Rosamond to be built by First Solar Inc. could impair operations at a sensitive installation for testing radar-evading stealth technology on aircraft.”

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