The Weekly Carboholic: UK says Greenpeace stopped climate damage

Posted on September 17, 2008

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carboholic

In an unexpected development, jurors in the UK acquitted six Greenpeace activists in a case involving £35,000 ($62,591) worth of damages to a coal-fired power plant. The defense had argued that a 1971 law (Criminal Damage Act 1971) permitting damage to property in order to prevent even greater property damage applied to the activists. Specifically, the Greenpeace activists claimed that they were preventing “damage to properties worldwide caused by global warming”. And the jurors agreed.

This case defines a precedent for UK law that will be difficult to sort out. Does it mean that Parliament comes back through and refines the law to prevent this kind of “abuse” in the future? Or does it mean that the UK cannot build any more new coal plants without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)? Does this precedent apply to less carbon-intensive electricity generation such as natural gas cogeneration facilities? How does the court weigh projected global losses from sea level rise, wider ranges for diseases, or extreme weather vs. exclusively UK-centric losses?

Perhaps most important, though, is whether this kind of defense can be utilized by Greenpeace and other activist groups elsewhere in the world, and if so, where.

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The U.S. House of Representatives passed tonight H.R. 6899, the Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act, by a 236-189 roll call vote. This bill represents an attempt by the Democratic leadership of the House to reclaim control over the energy and oil debate. Republicans have been using the “Drill, Baby! Drill!” and “Drill here. Drill now. Pay less.” mantras to great effect, putting pressure on Democrats at all levels to open up the outer continental shelf (OCS), the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and push oil shale. In the face of this political pressure, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the other Democrats in the House crafted an energy bill that gave the Republicans the vote they demanded on drilling, but that also limited the impacts of OCS drilling on coastal tourism, renewed the renewable energy tax credit, and that stripped away many oil company subsidies. In essence, it was simultaneously a compromise and an attempt to shut down the political power of the drilling message.

For a variety of reasons, most Republicans voted against H.R. 6899 (see the roll call vote link above). In doing so, the Republicans gave the Democrats an opportunity to say “Republicans are beholden to Big Oil – when we offered them a vote on ‘all of the above,’ they voted against it”. And at least one Republican, Don Young of Alaska, found the entire bill “ingenious”:

“The Democratic leadership can say they tried to open some (Outer Continental Shelf) areas for production, but by eliminating the revenue-sharing provision none of the states will want to have production off their shores. The Democrats can claim credit for ‘trying’ to boost oil production while at the same time prevent any new energy production from occurring.” (source: San Francisco Chronicle)

Good legislation (with “good” defined in general terms as legislation that solves one or more national problem instead of creating more) seems to fall into two general categories – “lose-lose” compromises like this bill and “win-win” bills that are often stuffed full of Congressional earmarks. As such, it’s not unexpected to find that environmental groups such as Environment America (mentioned in the SF Chronicle article) or the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in opposition to it. There are, after all, some bad (from a carbon emissions standpoint) parts of the bill, such as the oil shale section mentioned in the NWF link above, and environmental groups think it has gone too far. But the Bush Administration is also unhappy with the legislation. They think it hasn’t gone far enough.

The Administration has already released an official Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) that indicates that President Bush will very likely veto HR 6899. The SAP refers to removing tax subsidies for oil companies as “tax increases.” It suggests that giving states control over whether the federal government develops oil shale and OCS oil leases from 50-100 miles offshore is unacceptable even though the GOP is ostensibly the party of smaller government and local control. It also labels a national renewable mandate a “poison pill” that, as it was threatened with a veto previously, will force Bush to veto this bill as well.

Given that this bill changes the dynamic in the drilling for oil vs. electric vehicles and renewable energy debate, the fact that large environmental groups and Republicans and the Bush Administration all dislike the bill is a good sign. If everyone hates it, it’s probably a good compromise.

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According to Seacoastonline.com, high electricity and oil prices have led to a resurgance in interest in offshore wind farms along the east coast. Four states – Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – are all looking at putting large wind turbine farms up to 12 miles offshore where they’re far enough away from the coast to minimize tourism impacts but still close enough to provide large amounts of electricity to the states. The wind farm off of New Jersey would be a combined 350 MW, or roughly enough electricity for 100,000 homes.

Unfortunately, the story points out that some communities are resisting the farms for the same reason that Cape Cod initially resisted a wind farm off its coastline – the turbines supposedly mar the residents’ views. But the oceanography of the east coast sea bed is conducive to putting turbines miles out at sea, where winds are also conveniently stronger, and a 400-foot tall turbine 12 miles away will appear as a short twig sticking out of the ocean. Other problems mentioned in the article include difficulty in finding buyers for the wind farms’ electricity and the lack of a long term renewable energy tax credit like the one included in H.R. 6899.

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The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog brought to my attention a presentation by Hashem Akbari of the Heat Island Group at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory titled Global Cooling: Increasing World-wide Urban Albedos to Offset CO2. In the presentation, Akbari calculates that every 10 m2 of urban surface that is converted from a dark, solar absorbing color to a light, reflective color effectively offsets the heating effect of one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere. If all of the roofs and roads in all of the world’s cities were made light colored instead of dark, Akbari estimates that this alone would offset 44 billion tons of CO2 emissions, which is well more than the total CO2 emissions at present and will be more than the IPCC business-as-usual projections for 2025 too. Akbari also estimates that, at $25 per ton of CO2, switching to reflective roofs and pavement would save $600 billion total, with well over that in reduced electricity consumption from air conditioning.

Unfortunately, Akbari specifically removed any consideration of how much retrofitting every road surface and roof would cost. Given that this would require a massive increase in concrete (which has higher reflectivity but produces a great deal of CO2 in the production of the concrete’s cement) and a lot of new paint and light-colored gravel for commercial roofing, the economic costs would be significant. However, if his calculations are accurate and hold up to scrutiny, then adopting a building code requiring new construction to have light-colored roofs might serve as a viable and relatively inexpensive global heating mitigation approach.

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Last year, James Hansen of GISS and Columbia University said that we may have already exceeded the maximum safe threshold for CO2 in atmosphere – we’re presently at approximately 387 parts-per-million (ppm) and Hansen said that we needed to target 350 ppm as the stabilization threshold, not 450-500 as recommended in the last IPCC assessment report. Last week the Guardian reported that Professor John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has adjusted the CO2 target threshold even lower, down to a pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.

“It is a very sweeping argument, but nobody can say for sure that 330ppm is safe,” [Schellnhuber] said. “Perhaps it will not matter whether we have 270ppm or 320ppm, but operating well outside the [historic] realm of carbon dioxide concentrations is risky as long as we have not fully understood the relevant feedback mechanisms.”

As concerning as this is, however, the end of the Guardian story introduced something far more worrying than even targeting a CO2 concentration that the Earth hasn’t seen in over a century – the idea that humans are emitting carbon faster than officially acknowledged, that we have to peak our carbon emissions no later than 2015 and cut them dramatically after that, and that if we don’t, we’re all but guaranteed to exceed the 2 degrees C maximum global temperature increase target. If you read the full paper by two Tyndall researchers, it’s clear that we have a problem:

  • If emissions peak in 2015, stabilization at 450 ppmv CO2e requires subsequent annual reductions of 4 per cent in CO2e and 6.5 per cent in energy and process emissions.
  • If emissions peak in 2020, stabilization at 550 ppmv CO2e requires subsequent annual reductions of 6 per cent in CO2e and 9 per cent in energy and process emissions.
  • If emissions peak in 2020, stabilization at 650 ppmv CO2e requires subsequent annual reductions of 3 per cent in CO2e and 3.5 per cent in energy and process emissions.

And in case you’re not depressed enough already, here’s a couple more quotes from the paper’s conclusions that should do it for you:

Given the reluctance, at virtually all levels, to openly engage with the unprecedented scale of both current emissions and their associated growth rates, even an optimistic interpretation of the current framing of climate change implies that stabilization much below 650 ppmv CO2e is improbable….

Even atmospheric stabilization at 650 ppmv CO2e demands the majority of OECD nations begin to make draconian emission reductions within a decade. Such a situation is unprecedented for economically prosperous nations. Unless economic growth can be reconciled with unprecedented rates of decarbonization (in excess of 6% per year15), it is difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession being compatible with stabilization at or below 650 ppmv CO2e.

Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emission trends and a commitment to ‘limiting average global temperature increases to below 4C above pre-industrial levels’, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society.

Image credits
IHT
Vestas Wind Energy via MSNBC

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