Message at Doha Climate Talks: CO2 Rising

There is a message that United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is delivering during the Doha Climate Change Conference taking place through December 7, 2012 in Qatar – despite efforts, carbon emissions are up 20 percent and greenhouse emission targets will not be met. The organization says if the world does not scale up and accelerate action on climate change immediately, emissions could rise to 58 gigatonnes (Gt) by 2020. This is far above the level some climate researchers say is safe to keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius this century.

UNEP has released its third Emissions Gap Report 2012 to coincide with the Climate Conference. The report concludes that if the world stays on a business-as-usual trajectory, more drastic and expensive cuts will be needed after 2020.  Climate scientists have set a 2 degree target – meaning that if global temperature rising higher than 2 degrees, Earth as we know it will considerably change. Previous assessment report have underlined scenarios that provide options with costs as low as possible but early action was needed in these situations.

Emissions of warming gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are actually increasing, according to the report. Total greenhouse gas emissions have risen from around 40 Gt in 2000 to an estimated 50.1 Gt in 2010. The report states that even if the most ambitious level of pledges and commitments were implemented by all countries, and under the strictest set of rules, there would be a gap of 8 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2020, 2 Gt higher than last year’s assessment.

With continued delayed action, the economic costs will skyrocket and the options narrow and become more severe. The report states that in this scenario, a heavier long-term dependence on mitigation technologies such as bioenergy and carbon capture and storage would occur.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “There are two realities encapsulated in this report-that bridging the gap remains do-able with existing technologies and policies; that there are many inspiring actions taking place at the national level on energy efficiency in buildings, investing in forests to avoid emissions linked with deforestation and new vehicle emissions standards alongside a remarkable growth in investment in new renewable energies worldwide, which in 2011 totaled close to US$260 billion.”

“Yet the sobering fact remains that a transition to a low carbon, inclusive Green Economy is happening far too slowly and the opportunity for meeting the 44 Gt target is narrowing annually,” he added.

Sweet Biodiesel!

University of California, Berkeley scientists may have found that using a fermentation process once used to covert starch into explosives, developed by the first president of Israel, chemist Chaim Weizmann, can be used to covert starch to biodiesel. The refined process produces a mix of products that contain more energy per gallon than ethanol, and scientists believe it could be commercialized within 5-10 years.

Although today the process is more expensive per gallon than traditional transportation fuel, it would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions that many researchers believe is one of the major contributors to climate change. This was a driver of the research.

“What I am really excited about is that this is a fundamentally different way of taking feedstocks – sugar or starch – and making all sorts of renewable things, from fuels to commodity chemicals like plastics,” said Dean Toste, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and co-author of a report on the new development that will appear in the Nov. 8 issue of the journal Nature.

Weizmann’s process employs the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum to ferment sugars into acetone, butanol and ethanol. Dubbed ABE for the three chemicals produced, it was used by Britain to produce acetone, needed to manufacture cordite, a material used to replace gunpowder during World War I.

The research team refined the process and developed a way of extracting the acetone and butanol from the fermentation mixture while leaving most of the ethanol behind, and also developed a catalyst that converted this ideally-proportioned brew into a mix of long-chain hydrocarbons that resembles the combination of hydrocarbons in diesel fuel. Tests showed that it burned about as well as normal petroleum-based diesel fuel. Researchers believe it could be a “sweet biodiesel”.

The process is versatile enough to use a broad range of renewable starting materials, from corn sugar (glucose) and cane sugar (sucrose) to starch, and would work with non-food feedstocks such as grass, trees or field waste in cellulosic processes. Toste explained that you can tune the size of the hydrocarbons based on the reaction conditions to produce hydrocarbons typical of gasoline or longer-chain hydrocarbons in diesel and even branched chain hydrocarbons in jet fuel.

Researchers said the diesel produced via this process could initially supply niche markets, such as the military, but that renewable fuel standards in states such as California will eventually make biologically produced diesel financially viable, especially for trucks, trains and other vehicles that need more power than battery alternatives can provide. And since this diesel significantly lowers GHG emissions, the research team believes it could help reduce global warming.

Obama Wins. Did Renewable Energy Win?

President Barack Obama has been elected to a second term to lead the United States. While not clairvoyant,  I suspect the defining turn in support for Obama was the convergence of hurricane Sandy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg throwing his support behind Obama with the statement that he is the climate change President. If he is in fact the president for climate change, this should mean positive things for renewable energy. But for this to happen, all of our national and state leaders will need to be climate change leaders.

On the heels of the President Obama’s winning speech, many in the renewable energy industry, such as the National Corn Growers Association, lauded his win and called for the continuation of the path toward change that would lead to energy independence.

“The ethanol industry appreciates the support of President Obama and his administration over the last four years and we look forward to furthering our work with them, continuing to produce a cleaner burning, home-grown renewable fuel,” said Tom Buis, CEO for Growth Energy. He added that his organization is looking forward to working with the president, his administration and Congress in a bipartisan manner to help expand access for biofuels.

POET’s CEO Jeff Lautt said in a statement that his company felt that the role of renewable energy was evident throughout the election and he is optimistic for the future of the biofuels industry.  “As President Obama noted this fall, ‘Biofuels are an important part of reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home.’ I look forward to continued support for the Renewable Fuel Standard to ensure that more and more drivers have access to clean fuel produced here in the United States,” he added.

It’s going to take more than industry associations and alternative energy companies to work for success. It will also take consumer organizations rising up from local communities to spur change and the first step in this is better energy and climate education for all Americans (yes, our country is full of energy and environmental illiterate citizens). There’s a lot to do. Let’s get back to work.

Citizen’s Guide to Energy

The presidential election is less than two weeks away and although the candidates have discussed energy, neither has debated over the right strategy for global climate change. Our legislators also typically fail to consider the consequences of actions they endorse. Therefore, according to Public Agenda, if the country hopes to move the needle on important issues, such as energy, voters need to understand what’s really at stake.

Issue one: according to research, nearly half of all Americans cannot identify a renewable energy source and almost 4 in 10 cannot name a fossil fuel. So for those ready to learn something new, or just want to rethink the issues surrounding energy policy, Public Agenda has released an interesting free guide, “A Citizens Solutions Guide Energy.”

I found the guide interesting. It establishes where the globe is at today and what global energy needs are predicted to be in the future. Then it discusses “things we do know”. This includes: the U.S. population is growing and the country’s energy consumption is growing as well; world energy demand is expected to increase by nearly 40 percent; most of our energy, 83 percent, comes from fossil fuels; and renewable energy has serious fiscal drawbacks – and we’re nowhere near ready to depend on it at a substantial level.

The guide provides energy tradeoffs, but I did note the only category with costs was renewables. Despite the fact that petroleum, natural gas, nuclear and coal have been around for decades, there is still a costs associated with them. Keep this in mind moving forward. The guide presents three possible approaches to consider and include arguments for and against each approach:

  • Approach 1: Move away from fossil fuels as quickly and as safely as we can. This will protect the environment and in the long run will give us cheaper and more reliable energy sources.
  • Approach 2: Make sure we have enough affordable energy now to support our economy and ensure our energy security.
  • Approach 3: Move toward a more energy efficient society.

While I agree with much of the information provided in the area, there are also areas I don’t agree with. But this is good because the guide achieved its goal – made me think more intelligently and in-depth about energy policy. Let’s hope I don’t forget what I’ve learn  before I hit the polls.

A world you like. With a climate you like.

Climate change is still front and center in the European Union (EU) with the European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard launching a new communication campaign called “A world you like. With a climate you like.” Supported by more than 70 organizations across Europe, the goal of the campaign is to put practical solutions at the center of the climate change debate. It also hopes to demonstrate to people how climate action can increase welfare while bringing economic benefits to European citizens.

“We have a choice: We can ACT on our knowledge about climate change. Or we can sit idly by and watch as things get worse. Both options come with a price tag. So why not create a world we like, with a climate we like – while we still have time? With this campaign we want to focus the debate on the solutions and find out what is holding us back from applying them,” said Commissioner Hedegaard about the campaign.

A portion of the campaign focuses on innovative climate solutions that reduce CO2 and also improve people’s lives through giving real-world examples of projects that are currently doing just this. The 70 plus organizations and educational institutes participating in the campaign will be able to upload their success stories to the website and Facebook page.

The campaign will run until the end of 2013 and hopes to help the EU achieve its short-term objective of lowering greenhouse gas emission by 20 percent, improve energy efficiency by 20 percent and increase electricity created from renewable energy by 20 percent. The second objective is to achieve the long-term goal of an 80-95 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Today, EU emissions are approximately 17 percent below 1990 levels.

Book Review – Rebuild the Dream

This week I read Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones, which ironically turned out to be a great book to read with the presidential election just three weeks away. Personally, I believe this country is in an economic mess and I wonder at the so called leaders in Washington who threw up their hands and left early without making several key policy decisions that have such an economic impact. But I realize these leaders are in DC because we the people put them there. In an age of instant entertainment TV, Americans seem to no longer go to the polls and vote on import issues like economy and foreign policy and rather vote on social issues. It has been this way, as far as I can tell, since President Regan was in office.

What, I’m sure you are wondering, does my diatribe have to do with Rebuild the Dream? A lot. Van Jones hits the mark in the book about the economic struggles this country is having and offers suggestions on turning things around. And it starts at the grassroots level with people just like you and I.

Jones’s true calling is working with the private sector and policy leaders to spread the benefits of green job opportunities into struggling communities. Many of the green job opportunities he refers to include educating youth and adults about things such as solar panel installation and installing wind turbines. Many will recall that for a short time, Jones worked as part of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy (he did not work directly with President Obama). Quite frankly, I think his work has and will continue, to have greater impact in the private sector because this is where true change evolves and succeeds as his book aptly demonstrates.

But what the book really focuses on are the main insights Jones has gleaned from reviewing the past years of political struggle in the U.S. (2003-2011).  He focuses on three areas in the first part of the book: the political movements around Barack Obama in 2007-2008; the Tea Party movement in 2009-2010; and the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent movements. (I am part of the 99 percent and more than likely you too are part of the 99 percent.) Continue reading

New Study on Water-wise Biofuel Crops

A new study has shown that putting the water-use-efficient and turbo-charged photosynthesis from plants such as agave into woody biomass plants can hedge against high temperatures and low moisture. It can also enable growers to plant dedicated energy crops on marginal land.

A team of researchers including John Cushman, a biochemistry professor at the University of Nevada, Reno; Xiaohan Yang at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); James Hartwell at the University of Liverpool, UK; and Anne Borland at Newcastle University, UK and ORNL are exploring the genetic mechanisms of crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) and drought tolerance in desert-adapted plants as a way to improve drought resistance for biofuel crops.

The study is part of a five-year, multi-institutional $14.3 million U.D. Department of Energy (DOE) grant, “Engineering CAM Photosynthetic Machinery into Bioenergy Crops for Biofuels Production in Marginal Environments.” The funds are through the DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Genomic Science: Biosystems Design to Enable Next-Generation Biofuels.

The team will develop novel technologies to redesign bioenergy crops to grow on economically marginal agricultural lands and produce yields of biomass that can readily be converted to biofuels. The development of water-use efficient, fast-growing trees such as poplar for such sites will also help reduce competition with food crops for usable farmland according to the research team.

“With climate change predictions for a 7 degree Fahrenheit (3.8 degree C) increase in temperature and a decrease in reliable precipitation patterns by 2080 for much of America’s breadbasket, and with a greater need for sources of biofuels for transportation, these biodesign approaches to enhancing biomass production become very important,” Cushman, director of the project, said.

The ultimate goal of the project is to significantly improve an energy crop’s drought resistance by enabling the crop to adapt to hotter, drier climates.  Continue reading

Book Review – Climategate

For those of you who believe in climate change, you will criticize me for not only reading but reviewing “Climategate,” by Brian Sussman as the last book in my 2012 La Nina Reading List. For those of you who don’t buy in to climate change, you’ll applaud me for bringing you this review.

Sussman is best known as a TV science reporter and meteorologist and a person who does not buy into the theory of global warming. In fact, he wrote the book to “sound a vociferous warning: global warming is a scam perpetuated by an elite sect of Marx-lovers who believe they can do communism/socialism more effectively than their predecessors; and now, with the ascension of Barack Obama as president, the scam has reached hyperspeed.”

If you have read enough of my book reviews (and if you haven’t get to reading), you will note that Sussman is in the same camp as all the others who don’t believe in climate change – it is a scam with influential players from politicians, to scientists to environmental organizations, to make money.

The book takes a look at the “foundation of fraud” that has led us to where we are today. It dates back to the late sixty’s, early seventies, writes Sussman, with the advent of Earth Day and has gained warp speed with the creation of climate conferences, global treaties and legislation. One of the worst hoaxes of climate change—the Environmental Protection Agency determining that carbon dioxide is a pollutant.

Why are people buying into this theory? Sussman says when citizens lack a frame of reference they are primed to be sucked into believing what “experts” say. In other words, peoples’ lack of education around basic energy and environmental knowledge has left them open to corruption.

So what are the solutions to this problem? The country needs an energy plan that does not involve restrictions and limitations. An effective energy policy will be one that provides Americans with inexpensive and abundant power that includes harvesting fossil fuel resources argues Sussman.

Who is this book for? Not those mired deep in the beliefs of climate change who are weak of heart. You just might have a stroke. This book is best read by those who agree that global warming is a farce and will give you additional arguments to back up your theories.  Ultimately, Sussman diverges from others in his linking those who buy-in to climate change as being a Marxist or communist. Has he gone too far or not far enough?

Book Review – Eaarth

What is happening to the “Eaarth”? A question many are asking, including author Bill McKibben, as the summer brought us the worst drought in decades along with extreme heat. Many people would blame this on global climate change while others would argue that “global warming” and “weather” are actually two separate things. Well it is time we delve back into the discussion I began earlier this summer as part of my 2012 La Nina Reading List.

McKibben is a true believer in climate change, holds humans responsible and writes we’re dealing with a “spooky, erratic climate”. He writes that global warming is no longer a philosophical threat or a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It is reality. Because we no longer live on the same planet, argues McKibben, earth needs a new name: Eaarth.

The focus of his book is to turn back time, per se, to safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “safe” level according to climatologist James Hansen, is 350 parts per million – a number we have surpassed and now hover around 390 parts per million. Throughout the book, Hansen explains why lowering levels of CO2 “will be extremely hard” but offers ways “we can try”.

Why do we need to do this? Because, argues McKibben, “…the earth has changed in profound ways, ways have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has- even if we don’t quite know it yet.”

One of the main issues he focuses on in the book is the need to replace the fossil fuel system. Other issues include the need to fix infrastructure and he posits that climate change will cause more resource wars and leave billions of people “climate change refugees”.

The book concludes with a discussion about ways to reduce impact with the main theme being things need to get smaller and less centralized. He also writes that we need to focus on maintenance not growth. In addition, McKibben writes we need global governments to have the courage to take a stand against climate change.

For those who are passionate about the environment, you know that McKibben is one of the best-known writers in the field. His latest book doesn’t disappoint – it is an interesting read. Yet he barely scratched the surface on outlining what needs to be done to live on the new Eaarth. Might that be the topic is his next book that he could call Eaarth 2.0?

Survey Shows Drought Spurs Need for Alt Energy

According to a recent ORC International survey, 81 percent of Americans are concerned about “increased drought” and other extreme weather conditions. Conducted on behalf of the Civil Society Institute (CSI), the poll results showed that concerns about drought, of which the many states have been severely affected, go hand in hand with worries about water shortages.

Three out of four Americans think that, “with all the current concern about severe drought and the risk of water shortages, America needs to start focusing more on alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, that require less water.”

Other key findings include worry over shortages of safe drinking water due to drought and “the diversion of water for energy production” is the No. 1 overall concern in 10 drought-stricken states including, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri  Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Texas. Nationwide, 64 percent of respondents are “very concerned” about the prospect of  “possible shortages of safe drinking water” due to drought and diversion for energy production.

On average, 85 percent of Americans believe availability of ample clean water should be a top national priority for the country. In addition, 89 percent of respondents said that want an energy/water “road map” for the country. People believe that, “U.S. energy planning and decision making must be made with full knowledge and understanding about the availability of water regionally and locally, and the impact this water use from specific energy choices has on their economies, including agricultural production.”

“We now understand all too well the harsh realities of the current drought and its relationship to changes in the climate from global warming. America’s ‘all of the above’ non-solution for electricity generation is a dead-end path – one requiring vast amounts of water for coal-fired power plants, nuclear reactors and the fracking extraction of natural gas,” said Pam Solo, president, Civil Society Institute. Continue reading