Monday, June 23, 2008


There's a number -- a new number -- that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A few month's ago, NASA's chief climatologist, James Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several coauthors. The abstract attached to it argued that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

So it's a tough diagnosis. It's like the doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high and, if you don't bring it down right away, you're going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese, and, if you're lucky, you get back into the safety zone before the coronary.

In this case, though, it's worse than that because we're not taking the pill and we are stomping on the gas -- hard. Instead of slowing down, we're pouring on the coal, quite literally.

We're the ones who kicked the warming off; now the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun's heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind.

And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them -- to reverse course. Here's the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil, forced out his predecessor): "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author, most recently, of "The Bill McKibben Reader," is the co-founder of Project 350 (, devoted to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. A longer version of this article appears at

Sunday, June 22, 2008

UK-German Climate Change partnership

They say a week is a long time in politics, and I seem to have been spending a fair bit of time flitting in and out of the House of Commons this last week. Wednesday brought me to a meeting with Matthias Machnig, State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, to mark the launch of the Climate Change Partnership between the German Embassy in the UK and the APPCCG (All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group). The primary aims of the Climate Change Partnership are to strengthen bilateral political engagement between the United Kingdom and Germany on climate change issues, to promote shared learning and to make joint progress on developing policies to combat the threat of climate change. And boy, do we need this! Languishing as we do at the bottom of the EU renewable energy league table, with only Malta producing less renewable energy as a percentage of total energy consumption. Germany meanwhile is light years ahead in it's adoption of renewable energy.

In one particular respect it was a delight to hear this German minister speak - no obfuscation, no fudging, no flummery. Rather, a lot of use of terms such as "it is our strongly held belief (that nuclear is not the answer)", "we do not believe in (renewable energy credits)", "it is our clearly defined policy...", "we will not accept (a system where FIT's are harmed)". All wonderfully exacting, and if he did not like a particular question, he simply did not answer it (of course the omission in itself presented it's own position - bringing to mind Urquhart's delicious line in House of Cards: 'You may very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment'). And all backed up with implemented policies. After having been at the receiving end of a fair bit of frustrating UK politico-speak on energy issues recently, this was all music to my ears. No consultations with the renewable industry (we are onto our 3rd), simply a commitment to addressing energy issues, and a swift implementation of the necessary laws. There is an overriding sense of wir benötigen es, wir tun es - we need it, so we do it.

So, this is what Germany is doing. They are:

  • goal of 40% reduction of GHG emissions in Germany by 2020;
  • package of emissions reduction policies representing a commitment of €3.3 billion;
  • 14 new laws and regulations, each designed to encourage businesses to conserve energy or expand Germany's production of renewable energy;
  • increase of 30% energy from renewables by 2020 (currently 15% - compare with UK 2%);
  • strong supporters of electricity liberalisation in Europe;
  • Germany does not believe in nuclear; committed to phasing out old nuclear plants and no new build;
  • €500 million ($736 million) in subsidies to encourage home- and building-owners to install efficient heating systems;
  • target of 10% renewable energy to be implemented in all existing housing stock, to be increased next year;
  • 2009: one of their core legislation for next year will be on rebuild standards for inefficient housing stock;
  • all newbuild must meet Passive Haus standards by 2020;
  • creation of an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), to build a coalition of countries and finance, bringing together all knowledge of renewable technologies, facilitate in research and policy advice. Germany is seeking UK government support and hope to implement such an agency at the Copenhagen conference in December 2009.
  • currently finalising it's proposals for the second Energy and Climate Package Leaders Declaration for the forthcoming G8 Summit to be held in Japan 7 - 9th July, making it clear what sort of responsibility developed and developing countries must have.

    On answering questions;
  • believes Contraction and Convergence per capita approach is best for the long-term, but not before 2050;
  • supports second generation biomass from EU; will stick to 10% by 2020 as believes it is do-able;
  • supports demonstrator CCS, with expectation of 10-12 CCS plants throughout the EU (2 German companies, RWE CCS build by 2014, and Vattenfall). New coal stations must only be built with CCS, CHP or via CDM.
  • views EU supergrid as essential, pushing for strong investment;
  • believes that Concentrated Solar Power import from MENA into the EU supergrid is compatible for the future once infrastructure has been put in place (but that any CSP importation before 2020 must be additional, not as part of meeting EU Member State targets)

    We have much we can learn from the Germans on energy policy. This looks to be a fruitful union. As my fluent-speaking Nanna used to say to me, "ya mein liebschien, es ist sehr gut."
  • Monday, June 16, 2008

    Message from Perth, Australia

    This is an email I received yesterday. It drove home how our energy requirements can be so easily disrupted, and that such a scenario happening in the UK is not so infeasible. This is what Eric had to say:

    Hello Polly,

    I live in Perth, western Australia, and this Sunday morning on the radio I was listening to the BBC overseas broadcasts, when the topic of Solar power was being highlighted.

    I heard your name, and have since gone to various web sites linking you.

    I am a "Senior Citizen", and although without any technical schooling or background, I have been wondering for many years why Solar Power has not replaced fossil fuel. I now, understand that it has been too expensive in the past, and that mining companies have been only too pleased to dig up coal, drill for oil, and "uncork" the underground and undersea gas reserves.

    Perth has in the last two weeks, been made aware that an off sea gas drilling company..."Apache" rig.... had a recent flame out or explosion, causing the rig to cease operations. This has led to ONE THIRD of Perth's gas supply being closed. Repair to the rig, may take many many months, highlighting the sad reality of what can happen to industry and households.

    Today's newspapers, and some politicians comments have told us that, some factories, mining companies, brewing companies, steel companies, may have to temporarily reduce staff and output. Hospitals and hotels have been advised to reduced their laundry as much as possible, in an attempt to preserve what gas is available from other outlets. Home owners have been encouraged to "turn off" lights and electric equipment when not being used, to reduce the demand on electricity from steam turbines heated from gas.

    This is the Twenty First century, and it really is quite laughable, when all the technology that has evolved in the minds of mankind in the last one hundred years, leads us to cutting down on laundry, and turning the gas heater down.

    This continent is the sunniest continent in the world. Blazing sun and dry open desert, lost in a flat landscape, ideal for solar power; and one off shore gas rig shuts down, leaving us an embarrassment. Even our sea water vaporisation unit, designed to help provide a flow of useable water,(* which due to too many very dry years has cause reservoirs to dry out ) has been told to shut down to lessen the demand on power. ......Thankfully its winter and we are getting rain, and not subject to another drought.

    I notice in one of the web sites liked to you, suggested you have stated that CSP plants have been constructed in Spain, Australia and California.

    Can you give me more information on where in Australia, and those involved in the construction and planning?

    Oh, and as a P.S. one of our smelly black coal fired power stations, previously "mothballed" has been given the green light to start up again. Now is that progress.

    Our State Premier Mr. Alan Carpenter, and his Energy Minister Mr. Fran. Logan, could probably, benefit from a communication from you and your foresight.

    This is a great state in a great country, but its sad that today we are using nineteenth century resources to drive the machinery of the twenty first.

    Hopefully the world will appreciate one day, people who like you, try to open the eyes of those who are not prepared to look.

    Eric Fry

  • TREC - AU
  • Solar Desalination
  • Acquasol
  • Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Climate Forum, London 14th and 15th June

    This year's International Climate Forum has changed venue. No longer LSE, this time the fantastic 2 day event will be held at the South Camden Community School, Charrington Street, NW1 (just 5 mins behind Kings Cross Station).

    Covering all the topical Climate Change issues, it is a wonderful opportunity to attend workshops covering the Science of Climate Change, Energy Solutions, Transport, International Policy, Cuba, Community Based Networks, Geoengineering, Contraction and Convergence, Direct Action - and many more. Plenary sessions will include wise words from the likes of of Michael Meacher, Tony Juniper, and Ichin Cheng.

    And of course TREC-UK shall be there to raise awareness of Concentrating Solar Power. Dr Gerry Wolff will be talking on Saturday 10.30 - 12.00 on Solutions, and I shall be running a workshop on Sunday 11.30 - 13.00, DESERTEC - Clean Power from the Deserts. I will be demonstrating how half the world's energy requirements can be fulfilled by CSP by 2050, what is required to get us there and what exciting developments are in the pipeline.

    Hope to see you there.

    International Climate Forum