U.N. gets plan to stave off worst effects of global warming

By Robert Lee Hotz

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Wrenching worldwide climate changes can no longer be avoided, but there is still time to stave off the worst consequences of global warming, an international research team said Tuesday.

The scientists from 11 countries urged sweeping conservation measures to hold the expected increase in temperatures to no more than an average of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — less than half the expected increase if emissions of greenhouse gas and soot continue unabated.

Based on two years of study, the scientists called for bold actions, including carbon taxes, a ban on conventional coal-fired power plants and an end to beachfront construction worldwide.

The researchers were financed by the nonprofit United Nations Foundation and the 60,000-member research society Sigma Xi.

“Unlike many reports from scientists, this report gives very clear recommendations for what the international community and nations themselves must do to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said biodiversity expert Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who helped prepare a Sigma Xi study.

With its emphasis on policy recommendations, the panel’s effort marks a shift in the international politics of pollution and climate change, analysts said. Researchers are no longer debating whether human-induced global warming is genuine, but have begun the painstaking process of negotiating international agreement on what to do about it.

Their effort comes on the heels of a landmark United Nations report last month that concluded rising temperatures would continue to increase even if greenhouse gas emissions could be held to current levels.

Global temperatures have increased about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels, the researchers said. To meet the scientists’ goal, global CO2 emissions must level off by 2015 and drop by two-thirds of that level by 2100.

They urged stricter fuel efficiency standards, as well as fuel taxes, registration fees and rebates that favor more efficient transportation, which today is responsible for 40% of the world’s carbon emissions.

A 20-fold improvement in car efficiency is well within existing technology, they said. Moving freight by rail instead of truck could also cut emissions substantially.

The researchers also recommended the expanded use of biofuels to reduce dependence on the oil that accounts for one-quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions. They endorsed broader use of nuclear power, if it can be made safer. Energy research budgets worldwide ought to triple, they said.

In addition, the scientists called for improved designs of energy-efficient appliances, office equipment and “greener” commercial and residential buildings. Taken together, the heating, cooling and lighting of buildings accounts for about 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Most tellingly, the panel called for a ban on any new coal-fired power plants that cannot be equipped to capture and store the carbon dioxide they emit.

All told, the U.S., China and India plan to build about 850 coal-fired plants over the next decade, which by environmentalists’ calculations would pump as much as five times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than international control measures aim to eliminate.

No matter what people do to reduce soot or curtail emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the world will continue to warm somewhat, and people will have to adapt, the researchers said.

To minimize the hazards of rising sea levels and more powerful storms, the group called for a worldwide ban on beachfront construction near existing high-tide lines.

To reduce the effects of climate-related disasters, such as floods or prolonged droughts, the panel urged better international emergency response measures, warning that there may be as many as 50 million environmental refugees by 2010.

International effort combines polar research

By Raphael G. Satter
The Associated Press

LONDON — More than 50,000 scientists from 63 nations turned their attention to the world’s poles Monday to measure the effects of climate change, using icebreakers, satellites and submarines to study everything from the effect of solar radiation on the polar atmosphere to the exotic marine life swimming beneath the Antarctic ice.

The International Polar Year unifies 228 research projects under a single umbrella, with the aim of monitoring the health of the Earth’s polar regions and gauging the impact of global warming. The largest international research program in 50 years, the project officially begins Thursday and will end in March 2009.

“Global warming is the most challenging problem that our civilization has faced,” Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, said in a video played before the event’s launch. He called the melting of polar ice “the canary in the coal mine for global warming.”

The polar year is being sponsored by the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science. About $1.5 billion has been earmarked for the year’s projects by various national exploration agencies, but most of the money comes from existing polar-research budgets.

While the increase in resources available to explorers is modest, British scientists said the project had the potential to yield a complete picture of the threat facing the polar world, known to scientists as the cryosphere.

“What’s different this year is not so much the volume of research funding, but more the coordination of research,” said Eric Wolff, a British Antarctic survey scientist.

Besides yielding a more complete picture of the impact of global warming, the cooperation will help tackle polar science’s most vexing problems, such as the challenge of trying to quantify the amount of fresh water leaking out from underneath ice sheets in Antarctica. The melting, which is distinct from the breakup of glaciers, has alarmed climate scientists because it takes
place beneath the ice and is difficult to measure.

Wolff said estimates of the leakage taken from ships off the coast of the continent offered an incomplete picture of the problem because currents could draw the melt to other areas.

“It’s only by getting all the ships that you have available to do the same thing at the same time that you get a snapshot of the whole Antarctic,” Wolff said.

Other projects include the installation of an Arctic Ocean monitoring system, described as an early-warning system for climate change, and a census of the deep-sea creatures that populate the bottom of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.

Few aspects of the cryosphere will escape scrutiny. The Antarctic’s lakes and mountains — some trapped under about three miles of ice for more than 35 million years — will be sounded. And using telescopes, balloons and spacecraft, scientists at the poles will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun.

5 governors in West aim to cut emissions

By Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Five Western governors agreed Monday on a plan to cut their states’ emissions of gases linked to global warming and to establish a regional carbon trading system, though they stopped short of saying how drastically they will seek to reduce greenhouse gases.

The governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington said that within six months they will set a regional target for lower emissions. A year after that, they pledged, they will devise a regional cap-and-trade system, which would let companies that can’t meet their emission reduction targets buy credits from those that reduce emissions more than required.

“In the absence of meaningful federal action, it is up to the states to take action to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the country,” said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. “Western states are being particularly hard hit by the effects of climate change.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat seeking his party’s presidential nomination, said the five-state agreement should spur other states ahead. “You’re going to see a domino effect with more and more states taking action.”

The move won immediate praise from environmentalists. Jeremiah Baumann, an environmental advocate at the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, said, “This regional global warming solution will benefit the environment on a global scale.”

It remained unclear how much the five states will cut their carbon dioxide emissions, and how soon they will do it. Several states on the East and West Coast have adopted reduction targets in recent years, but in the immediate term all fall short of the targets that the European Union, Canada and Japan are seeking to meet by 2012 under the international treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol.

Carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels is the biggest of the greenhouse gases, so called because they create a heat-trapping blanket when released into the atmosphere. Others are methane, nitrous oxide and synthetic gases.

California passed legislation late last year mandating a 25 percent cut below current levels of greenhouse gases, which would bring its emissions down to 1990 levels. The four other Western governors have all established reduction goals through executive orders that are slightly more modest than California’s.

Dan Skopec, undersecretary for California’s Environmental Protection Agency, said the significance of the agreement is that companies in the five states will be able to trade emissions.

The Western states’ agreement came as scientists and interest groups continued to debate the best way to curb the country’s global warming pollution. In a presentation at the National Press Club on Monday, James Hansen, the outspoken climate scientist who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that the U.S. should stop building coal-fired power plants and that older polluting utilities “must eventually be bulldozed [before mid-century].”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Global Warming Alarm: Doomsday for Australia?

By Mark Litke

It was something of a double whammy for one of the world’s most desirable cities.

The ominous report issued earlier this month by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was frightening enough: The evidence of global warning was unequivocal, most likely caused by humans, and likely to continue for centuries.

But another report had been issued, just one day before, by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. And its conclusion read like a dagger through the heart of the land down under. If global warming continues at its current rate, the CSIRO report warned, life in the city of Sydney could be completely transformed by the year 2070.

In just one generation, Sydney could slide into a near permanent state of drought. There could be a dramatic rise in deadly bushfires. Temperatures would rise 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or more. Heat-related deaths would soar from nearly 200 to more than 1,200 a year. The report was very grim reading, especially for the people of Sydney.

To better understand how Australians were responding to this “doomsday scenario,” I met with Michael Archer, the dean of the science faculty at Sydney’s University of New South Wales.

Watch Mark Litke’s report on the “doomsday scenario” tonight on “World News.” Check your local listings for air time.

Professor Archer is a noted geologist and paleontologist, who has studied the history of climate change and its effects on prehistoric life. He is among the prominent scientists who have warned repeatedly that global warming posed a dire threat to mankind.

I interviewed Archer as we walked on the predictably sun-drenched Bondi Beach in the Sydney suburbs. It seemed an appropriate location, since Australians have known for years that the growing hole in the ozone layer over neighboring New Zealand has made the sun’s rays increasingly harmful in this part of the world.

Were residents of Australia surprised by the two reports?

In a sense, it was a confirmation of what we knew was going to happen anyway. As a geologist, I’ve seen these sort of things recorded in the rocks we’ve studied for the last 30 years. The thing that worries is the rate of change, the pace at which this is going to happen.

How are Australians responding?

I think the biggest problem we’ve got in Australia is the one that we have all around the world. We are very poor responders to SLOW change. If someone takes a swing at you. You know what to do — DUCK. But if somebody tells you over the next 50 years your world is going to profoundly change, you think, “Eh! Am I gonna be alive or not? … Do I really worry about it?”

We’ve always been a little bit, “Ah, she’ll be right, mate! Ya know, it’s not too much of a panic.” But just now, they seem to be worrying up. I think the message is coming in from all over the globe from this latest report. Suddenly people are saying, “Okay, maybe MY life won’t change personally that much, but what about my KIDS?”

The people of Sydney certainly did not need a report to know that something was terribly wrong. This part of Australia is in its seventh year of drought.

Absolutely! Everybody who’s been affected by this drought says they don’t have any living memory of anything as bad as this. We know that geologically, there have been far worse droughts in the past. So we think, “Okay, this is a taste of what’s to come.”

If we have climate change, what we do know is southern Australia is going to go powder dry, northern Australia is going to be afflicted with violent weather patterns. We don’t know what’s going to happen in eastern Australia. My guess is mangrove forests are going to invade the beaches, Bondi Beach (where we’re standing now) is gone, so there are changes coming down the line.

Yes, the drought has been a wake-up call.

Could what’s happening in Australia be the “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the world?

Yes, in more ways than one. We’ve got about 95, maybe 98 percent of our population living along the coastline. [With the ice sheets at the poles and Greenland melting] the sea levels will be 100 meters (330 feet) higher than they are today. Forget Venice. I mean we’re talking about sharks in the middle of (downtown) Sydney.

The warnings now being issued by the scientific community sound almost biblical, the coming of an apocalypse.

They are apocalyptic. On the other hand, they’re appropriately apocalyptic. We think of an apocalypse as something that happens overnight. Okay, this is a slightly slower apocalypse, if you like, but it’s no less profound. And it’s going to obliterate the world as we currently know it. It’s going to make change within one generation very, very visible and very uncomfortable. It is an apocalypse. I don’t think that’s inappropriate.

A buyout deal that has many shades of green

By Andrew Ross Sorkin

The New York Times

About two weeks ago, Fred Krupp, the president of a nonprofit advocacy group called Environmental Defense, received an unusual phone call.

William K. Reilly, the former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H. W. Bush, was on the other end. But before Mr. Reilly would explain the reason for his call, he said he needed an assurance from Mr. Krupp that he would keep the conversation confidential.

After receiving such a pledge, Mr. Reilly dropped a bombshell: the TXU Corporation, the Texas energy giant that had become the whipping boy of the nation’s largest environmental groups, was in talks to be sold to a group led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company and Texas Pacific Group, two large private equity firms.

Mr. Reilly, who works for Texas Pacific, said he wanted to negotiate a cease-fire. If the investors succeeded in taking over TXU, Mr. Reilly said, they would commit themselves to scale back significantly on TXU’s plan to build 11 new coal plants and adhere to a strict set of environmental rules. In return, he wanted the support of Mr. Krupp and his peers, who had spent the past several months waging a bitter and public war against TXU.

Early Monday, after several weeks of marathon negotiations that brought together both environmentalists and Wall Street bankers, TXU announced that its board of directors had approved the bid from Kohlberg Kravis and Texas Pacific for about $45 billion, which would be the largest buyout in history.

The deal was noteworthy not just for its size, but for the confluence of business decisions and environmental concerns that drove the ultimate transaction. Because private equity firms are unregulated and historically have valued their privacy, neither Kohlberg Kravis nor Texas Pacific were eager to become an “enemy combatant” of the environmental groups, people involved in the talks said. Reducing the coal plant initiative will also free up billions of dollars in planned spending that the firms will be able to use for other projects or to help finance the transaction.

Within TXU, the controversial plan to build a raft of coal plants had become so damaging to its stock price that its board had been privately weighing a plan to scrap part of the project, said people involved in the talks, bringing the number of new plants to 5 or 6 from 11.

Shareholders had sent the stock on a roller coaster ride from more than $67 a share to as low as about $53 over concerns about the risk and vast expenditure; the stock closed at $60.02 on Friday.

Indeed, it was the quick drop in TXU’s stock price that got the attention of Kohlberg Kravis and Texas Pacific, which look for undervalued companies and try to turn them around. Together, both firms approached C. John Wilder, TXU’s chief executive, in January with an offer for the company, these people said.

At the time, neither Kohlberg Kravis nor Texas Pacific told TXU about their ambition to scale back its controversial coal plants. But behind the scenes, both firms had been developing a new strategy for the company with the help of Goldman Sachs, their lead adviser.

Goldman Sachs has been a longtime proponent of reducing carbon emissions. Its former chief executive, Henry M. Paulson, now the secretary of the treasury, was also the chairman of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental activist group.

Texas Pacific’s co-founder, David Bonderman, is member of the board of the World Wildlife Fund, and Mr. Reilly is chairman emeritus. Mr. Bonderman called Mr. Reilly to help work on the deal and create what they ultimately called The Green Group, a committee of advisers that included Mr. Reilly, Roger Ballentine of Green Strategies and Stuart E. Eizenstat, the former chief domestic policy adviser for President Jimmy Carter.

“We didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” said a person involved in the bidding group who was not authorized to talk about the transaction before its formal announcement.

Under the terms of the deal, TXU shareholders will receive $69.25 in cash for each TXU share. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Citigroup will take small stakes in TXU as well as help finance the debt with J.P. Morgan Chase. In addition, the investor group will assume more than $12 billion of TXU’s debt.

The deal represents a 20 percent premium over TXU’s closing price on Thursday before word of the deal began to leak and was reported Friday on CNBC after the market closed, TXU said.

It is unclear whether shareholders will agitate for a higher price from the investor group or push for other suitors to emerge. Several recent “go private” deals have drawn opposition from shareholders who expressed concern that they were being shortchanged.

Monday’s merger agreement allows TXU’s board to solicit bids from other potential buyers through April 16, and TXU said it intends to do so.

The investor group has not laid out any specific plans to grow revenues through alternatives to the coal plants, but TXU is not likely to lose money, at least initially, as a result of scaling back. Three of the plants are already in the works and other eight that will be canceled would not have been built for years.

And the group will be getting more than just a utility. TXU is in the midst of an experiment to run broadband Internet over its power lines as part of a venture with Current Communications.

Global warming worries to boost renewables

By Alister Doyle
Reuters News Service

OSLO (Reuters) – Three decades after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter experimented with solar panels on the White House roof, grim U.N. warnings about climate change may kick-start wider global use of renewable energy.

“The political willingness to act is now significantly higher,” Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), told Reuters.

Governments from Japan to Germany are already subsidising energies such as wind, hydro, biofuels, geothermal, solar or tidal power, spurred by worries about security of supply, climate change and high oil prices at about $60 a barrel.

Steiner said warnings by the world’s top climate scientists in a February 2 report that blamed mankind more clearly than ever for causing global warming — mainly by emitting greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels — would be a big new spur.

“This will change the variables, renewable energies will become a more significant part of our energy mix,” he said.

Past waves of optimism for renewables, such as during an energy crisis in the 1970s under Carter, foundered on technological barriers and a lack of competitiveness when oil prices fell below $10 in the mid-1980s.

Many experts also warn against exaggerated hopes this time, despite increasing public pressure to act.

“There will be a push for renewable energies, but they have limitations,” said Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises governments in developed nations. Windmills cannot generate electricity on still days, for instance, and solar power doesn’t work at night.

“They can be part of the solution but they are not the magic bullet,” Birol said. He said energy efficiency was the main way both to curb climate change and to cut energy imports, and renewables and nuclear power are secondary solutions.

According to the IEA, renewable energies met 13.2 percent of world primary energy demand in 2004 and their share is likely to edge up to 13.7 percent by 2030, on present trends. Fossil fuels will remain dominant at about 80 percent.

Most of the total renewable energy used is biomass, firewood burned by 2.5 billion people in the Third World. Even in an alternative scenario with stronger incentives for renewables, their share would reach just 16 percent by 2030, the IEA says.

BIGGER THAN NUCLEAR

“Anybody who claims that they can make an energy revolution overnight I think is not being realistic. Coal, given the deposits around the world, is going to be part of the energy mix,” Steiner said.

Still, he noted that clean energies dominated by hydropower generated 18 percent of world electricity in 2004 — ahead of 16 percent for nuclear. “Renewable energies are already quite an important part of our supply system,” he said.

Carter, a Democrat, put solar panels on the White House roof in the late 1970s amid worries that oil supplies were running out and could be shut off by more Arab oil embargoes.

He said that the energy crisis was, “apart from war, the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes.” The panels were ridiculed by many Republicans — and taken down by his Republican successor, Ronald Reagan.

RENEWABLES IN VOGUE

In a sign of changed attitudes, firms such as U.S. retailer Wal-Mart (WMT.N: Quote, Profile, Research) now win wide praise for installing solar panels on superstores.

And renewable energy firms are booming.

“Everything happening around climate issues is affecting the solar industry positively,” said Erik Thorsen, chief executive of Norway’s Renewable Energy Corp. (REC.OL: Quote, Profile, Research), one of the world’s biggest makers of solar energy equipment.

REC’s share price has roughly doubled since a 2006 listing, giving the firm a market capitalization of $12 billion. Trading at around 39 times its forecast 2007 earnings, the firm has a higher valuation than Internet giant Google (GOOG.O: Quote, Profile, Research). A minority of analysts worry the boom is a bubble.

Thorsen says solar power could be the prime source of energy by 2100 — consigning fossil fuels to an interlude in human history since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century — even though prices are far from competitive with fossil fuels.

Birol at the IEA said the world had a chance in the next decade to shift course — many power plants built in western nations after World War Two are up for renewal, and China is opening coal-fired power plants at a rate of almost one a week.

“The lifetime of power plants is about 60 years,” he said. “If trends do not change we cannot ask the Chinese to close down their power plants.”

The U.N. Climate Panel, the bedrock for government environmental policy-making, said in its February 2 study that it was “very likely”, or at least 90 percent certain, that human activities were the main cause of global warming, up from “likely” or a 66 percent probability, in a 2001 report.

It projected wrenching changes from rising temperatures including higher seas, more droughts, more powerful storms and floods.

Industry groups say the IEA projections for renewables are too pessimistic and environmentalists want to phase out nuclear power.

“There is a bright future for renewable energy,” said Christine Lins, Secretary General of the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC). “Climate change is getting more and more in the center of the discussion but we also see that there is still lots to do to make this happen,” she said.

50 PERCENT BY 2050?

EREC and Greenpeace issued a report this year saying that 50 percent of all world energy could come from renewables by 2050. But this hinged on shifts in government policy, forecasts of rising oil prices and penalties for emitting greenhouse gases.

Renewable energies have all been around for a long time.

U.S. Bell Laboratories patented the first solar cell based on silicon in 1955, and Italian engineers first generated electricity from geothermal steam in 1904.

“In many cases the technology is there, but hasn’t reached the market,” said ex-Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who introduced tax breaks during his 1996-2006 term to foster everything from biofuels to cuts in heating with oil.

“The market is not enough to solve this. We also need political decisions,” he said.
Among these, the European Union has a goal of generating 21 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, up from 14 percent in 2005. China plans to spend $180 billion on renewables.

Even environmentalists have objections to some renewable energies, such as damage by windmills. Ten white-tailed eagles have been killed in just over a year by wind turbines on the remote islands of Smoela off Norway.

“The frequency is as high as from turbines in the Altamont Pass in California, which is often seen as a bad example of bird deaths,” said Arne Follestad of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

He said birds seemed less vulnerable in heavily populated areas where turbines were often sited on harbours, in fields or near roads. “If you go to a pristine area you meet species that live there to avoid human activity,” he said.

Gore thought to be among Nobel nominees

By Doug Mellgren
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

OSLO, Norway — Former vice president and environmental advocate Al Gore is believed to be among 181 nominees for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

In releasing the final count Thursday, awards committee secretary Geir Lundestad would only give a total number – 135 individuals and 46 organizations – without listing any names, in keeping with the prize rules.

The five-member awards committee keeps its list of candidates secret for 50 years, and refuses to indicate who might be under consideration. However, those making nominations sometimes announce them.

This year, those include Gore, for campaigning to draw attention to the threat of global warming, Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved the lives of Jewish children during World War II, and American TV host Oprah Winfrey.

Other announced nominees include Canadian Intuit environmentalist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Bolivian President Evo Morales and U.N. AIDS envoy to Africa Stephen Lewis.

Those with nomination rights include former peace laureates, the awards committee and its staff, members of national governments and legislatures, selected university professors and others.

The winner is usually announced in October. The prize always is presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of its creator, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.

On the Net:
http://www.nobel.no