Will Tory plans kill onshore wind in the UK?

Eco audit verdict from 24th April, 2014 – Full story here

There seems to be little doubt that this policy will eventually sink the onshore wind industry in this country. The potential for the technology to compete without subsidies is poor and the handing over of power to local authorities will likely be the final nail in the industry’s coffin.

Tories and many industry leaders are loath to admit that this will put an end to onshore wind, saying that current capacity will be maintained and even grow for a time as projects granted permission before 2015 come online. But what industry survives without long-term growth? For onshore wind to continue to generate investment in research and development (and therefore to stay competitive) it will need to have the potential for new growth and projects. As Jennifer Webber, from RenewableUK says, this policy “will kill the industry dead”.

That is their prerogative, especially if the EU fails to introduce a 2030 renewable energy target as some observers are suggesting they will. But the Committee on Climate Change says the level of onshore wind will need to more than triple by 2030 if the UK is to meet its own emissions reduction commitments.

David Cameron said the policy was a removal of unnecessary subsidies. But this argument washes away quickly when you consider that onshore wind is less expensive than other renewable alternatives, which will continue to attract public funding.

What this is really about is votes in rural areas and an appeal to the NIMBYism that sways the Tory right towards Ukip. In the end, windfarms, like migrant workers and the EU, are seen as alien edifices being imposed on the British way of life. Renewable energy creates jobs, but it fails to create them in the areas where it changes the skyline. Thus locals feel the costs outweigh the benefits. The majority of Brits are for windfarms, but the Tories have decided that the votes they need are not only opposed, but they are so strongly opposed they will decide their vote on it.

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Will fracking make Europe less dependent on Russian gas?

Full story here

Eco audit verdict from 26th March, 2014

Britain has a duty to exploit its shale gas reserves, says David Cameron. But is fracking the answer to Europe’s reliance on cheap Russian gas? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Prime minister David Cameron’s faith in shale gas seems to be misplaced. While fracking may play a part in Europe’s long term future, it will not be in large enough quantities to offset dependence on Russian gas.

The message from Cameron is partly disingenuous. By saying fracking is imminent and there could be wells operating this year, he implies that shale gas could soon be contributing to EU energy. This makes it relevent to the game currently being played between Russia and the EU. This achieves the rhetorical aim of shoehorning fracking into the dominant story of the moment – the Ukraine crisis.

In fact, fracking is entirely irrelevent to the short and medium term energy strategies of the EU. Commercially viable fracking in Europe is only a few years closer than fusion power and contains almost as many uncertainties. The conditions that created the US shale gas boom were unique and, as Antony Froggatt of Chatham House says, “extremely unlikely to be repeated in other parts of the world”. Analysis of the potential for shale in Europe points to significantly higher production prices for Europe’s fracking industry. Under current global gas price conditions, even comparitively cheap indigenous shale gas would have to outcompete Qatari gas before it ate into Russia’s supply.

But that does not mean Cameron is wrong. He argues that the long game needs to be considered and weaning Europe off Russian gas is strategically important. If we accept prima facie that buying gas from Russia is bad. Then Europe’s huge shale reserve is one option for building resiliance and independence into the energy supply.

But according to academics it is simply not a very good one. Most think it might make up a small part of European energy in 20 years time. But it is unlikely to be the panacea Cameron seems to think. Although Harald Heubaum from Univeristy of London did say that you can never be certain with energy markets – very few people predicted the shale boom in the US.

Even so, why, at this moment in time, is Cameron so keen to talk primarily about shale gas and not about energy efficiency and renewable energy? Researchers say these measures are the most cost-effective and realistic ways to reduce the EU’s gas imports. His timing and omission of other options reveals his agenda.

February’s Guardian eco audits

The French today join the US and China as the latest country to crush its stockpile of seized ivory. But is it an empty gesture? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

As experts line up to draw links to climate change, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, looks at what is causing the series of storms and floods hitting the UK.

In the wake of a sodden winter, a series of sinkholes have opened up across Britain. But are they a natural phenomenon or induced by human activity. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

More than 1 in 20 badgers took more than five minutes to die after being shot by government contracted marksmen. After the badger cull also failed to meet its target number of kills, can the policy proceed? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

UN body calls Tasmania forest U-turn ‘exceptional’

Australia‘s move to strip part of Tasmania’s forest of its world heritage status one year after it was added is “very exceptional”, the UN has told the Guardian, adding its experts could not recall such a case in recent years.

Unesco spokeswoman said changes to world heritage sites were not uncommon. But, to the agency’s knowledge, the appeal to remove an area so soon after a national government had asked for its addition was unprecedented.

“It is highly unusual that a boundary change entail removing an extension requested just one year earlier,” she said. “Our experts in the world heritage centre have no memory of any similar cases in recent years.”

Shifting political agendas within the deeply polarised community of foresters and environmentalists who live on its fringes have caused the Tasmanian world heritage area to be changed more often than any other Unesco site.

“This site’s boundaries have already been modified four times, mainly for extensions. It’s the only site on the world heritage list to have undergone so many revisions,” the spokeswoman said.

The coalition government described the requested annexation of 74,000 hectares of forest as a “minor boundary modification”, saying the forests were “degraded” – a claim quickly disputed by the Wilderness Society. The area is part of a 172,500-hectare addition to the world heritage area requested by Australia and approved by Unesco last year.

Unesco’s world heritage committee will consider the amendment in June. It will decide whether the changes are classed as minor or major according to how they affect the overall value of the site. Minor boundary changes are significantly simpler to affect.

“The number of hectares is not what counts. Rather, changes are defined by their impact on what we call the “outstanding universal value” of the site; in other words, those characteristics that led to it being listed in the first place,” the Unesco spokeswoman said.

Peter Valentine, associate professor at James Cook University, said the committee was unlikely to consider any revocation to be minor and raised concerns about the precedent it could set.

“Because Australia did make a claim that the extension was a valuable addition, supported by both IUCN and the world heritage centre, it is unlikely that the committee would agree to just excising part of the world heritage area at the wish of the new government. Such an action would be a serious problem for future world heritage protection everywhere.

“It is my view that what the Australian government is asking cannot be seen as a minor boundary change. If the area is now so badly damaged perhaps the committee would seek an explanation of how this happened and what steps would be taken to ensure rehabilitation (which is an obligation under the world heritage convention).”

December eco audits

Will energy bill changes be carbon neutral?

As European diplomats meet in Brussels to decide Europe’s 2014 fishing quotas, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, investigates whether recent reforms can create a sustainable fishing industry.

Are the UK’s carbon targets too low?

Should the government have more, not less, ambition on carbon reduction? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Can new EU legislation protect fish stocks?

As European diplomats meet in Brussels to decide Europe’s 2014 fishing quotas, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, investigates whether recent reforms can create a sustainable fishing industry.

Should rich countries pay for damage caused by global warming?

Guardian Eco Audit

21 November, 2013

Developing nations have said the issue of loss and damage is a ‘red line’ which must be addressed for talks in Warsaw to progress. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates the basis for the demands and how it could impact progress at the climate conference. 

See how the debate unfolded here.

Is biodiversity offsetting a ‘license to trash nature’?

Guardian Eco Audit

12 November, 2013

Plans to replace habitat destroyed by development has been described as too simplistic by the Environmental Audit Committee. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates if biodiversity offsetting can deliver on its promise to benefit the environment and the economy.

Click here to see how the debate unfolded.

Harlequin toad rediscovery raises hope for deadly fungus survivors

Published in the Guardian 6th November, 2013 Sightings of a toad thought to be extinct in Costa Rica have lead researchers to believe other isolated fragments of Central America’s disappearing amphibians may survive in regions scourged by a deadly fungus. The Costa Rican … Continue reading

John Howard praises Abbott’s defiance of climate zealots

Published in the Guardian, 6 November, 2013

John Howard has told an audience of climate sceptics in London that Tony Abbott’s defiance on global warming in the face of left-wing zealotry was the foundation of his electoral victory in September.

In a lecture at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, established by former Thatcher minister and climate sceptic Nigel Lawson, the former Australian prime minister insisted that the high tide of public support for “overzealous action” on global warming has passed.

“I am very sceptical about the possibility of a global agreement ever being reached when you look at what happened in Copenhagen,” he told reporters before the speech, adding there was no real prospect of a deal between the major emitters Europe, the US and north Asia.

In the speech, titled One Religion is Enough, Howard described his own dalliances with an emissions trading scheme (ETS) as purely political and questioned the scientific consensus on climate change.

“Tony Abbott now has the great responsibility and honour of being prime minister of Australia because a little under four years ago he challenged what seemed to be a political consensus on global warming,” Howard said, describing Abbott’s stance as “courageous”.

Howard’s speech described the advocates of climate change mitigation as “alarmists” and “zealots” for whom “the cause has become a substitute religion”. He said “global warming is a quintessential public policy issue” and policymakers should not become subservient to the advice of scientists.

“Scientists are the experts in science, judges experts in interpreting the law and doctors skilled at keeping us healthy, provided we take their advice. But parliaments, composed of elected politicians, are the experts at policymaking and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others.”

He added that he had grown up being told ulcers were caused by stress but it was later revealed a virus was to blame.

“You can never be absolutely certain that all the science is in.”

Howard said he admired the work of many of the scientists who contributed to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but he said the body itself was fundamentally political, not scientific.

“One has to question whether the IPCC approach represents in its totality pure, disinterested scientific enquiry. Because after all it was spawned by a political process,” he said.

Howard said the science of climate change had been shown to be mercurial and this had lead to a change in public opinion.

“The high tide of public support for over-zealous action on global warming has passed. My suspicion is that most people in countries like ours have settled into a state of sustained agnosticism on the issue. Of course the climate is changing. It always has. There are mixed views not only about how sustained that warming is, seemingly it has not warmed for the last 15 years, and also the relative contributions of mankind and natural causes.”

The period between 2007 and 2013 saw a fall in public acceptance of climate change science. In 2013, only 66% of Australians said they were convinced climate change was occurring.

Howard described a recent comment by Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which drew a link between extreme weather, the NSW bushfires and climate change, as an “extraordinary proposition”.

He said that a television programme he had watched, which aired on the ABC during the ensuing spat between the Figueres and the government, featured a painting of the Black Tuesday bushfires of 1851. He said this illustrated that bushfires were tragic but commonplace events that punctuated Australia’s history. Abbott and environment minister Greg Hunt had previously employed similar arguments to discredit Figueres.

When asked by the audience about the Australian media’s portrayal of the climate debate, Howard said there had been a balanced conversation on the issue on most parts, except within the ABC.
“It would be wrong to say that all of the Australian media are signed up to the alarmist agenda, even though some of them are.

“The groupthink of the ABC on this issue is quiet clear … On this issue it’s signed up, there’s no doubt about that. It’s equally fair to say that sections of the Murdoch press, and particularly the national newspaper the Australian, are more sceptical.”

During his failed bid to win re-election in 2007, Howard advocated an ETS. He said the promise was an aberration necessitated by a “perfect storm” of ongoing drought, severe water restrictions, bushfires and the release of the Stern review and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. He added that a strong economy made economic arguments against action difficult to sustain. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at the time 73% of Australians expressed concern about climate change.

“The global warming issue helped Labor,” Howard said, “as its views at the time were more fashionable than ours.”

Since being deposed, Howard has reverted to what he describes as “climate agnosticism”. In 2011, he launched an “anti-global warmist manual” written by geologist and climate sceptic Ian Plimer. The book encouraged schoolchildren to question their teacher’s interpretations of climate science.

At the lecture former Liberal leader was forced to defend his decision to read Lord Lawson’s book An Appeal to Reason twice despite not having picked up any other book on global warming.

Asked if that was unbalanced, the ex-PM said he re-read the work as a courtesy after being invited by Lord Lawson to deliver the lecture.

Howard said it was a “counterbalance” to advice previously received from government departments and stressed he’d read “numerous articles” on climate change.

Abbott, often considered a political scion of Howard, has taken a similarly utilitarian approach to climate change policy. He supported Howard’s last-minute ETS in 2007 and Malcolm Turnbull’s carbon trading policy in opposition. But since becoming Liberal leader Abbott has opposed Labor’s carbon tax.

Howard told the audience in London that Kevin Rudd’s vacillation on an ETS was a “foolish” political move, which ultimately lead to both his downfall and the election of Abbott.

Most economists believe Abbott’s direct action approach to curbing carbon emissions will be more expensive than an ETS. But on Tuesday Howard refused to be drawn on his protegee’s policy.

“It’s better for the government that’s proposing the direct action plan to engage in the debate,” he said.

Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council which arose from Abbott’s extirpation of Labor’s Climate Commission, said: “Howard’s comments are out of step with 97% of climate scientists from around the world who have found through years of diligent research that climate change is a significant risk.”

“The earth continues to warm strongly posing serious economic, health and environmental risks for Australia.

“Policy makers should rightly debate what to do about climate change, however, the science is simply indisputable.

She also urged the “need to base climate change policy on sound scientific facts, not opinion and intuition.”