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October, 2008:

Environmental Salvation May Be A Case Of Smoke And Mirrors

Alister Doyle – SCMP | Updated on Oct 28, 2008

Backers of extreme technologies to curb global warming advocate dumping iron dust into the seas or placing smoke and mirrors in the sky to dim the sun.

But, even though they are seen by some as cheap fixes for climate change when many nations are worried about economic recession, such “geo-engineering” proposals have to overcome wide criticism that they are fanciful and could have unforeseen side effects.

“We are at the boundaries, treading in areas that we are not normally dealing with,” said Rene Coenen, head of the Office for the London Convention, an international organisation that regulates dumping at sea.

The London Convention, part of the International Maritime Organisation, will review ocean fertilisation at a meeting this week.

Among those hoping for approval for tests is Margaret Leinin, chief science officer of California-based Climos, a company that is looking at ways to use the oceans to soak up greenhouse gases. “The world has not been able to get carbon emissions under control” Dr Leinin said. “We should look at other options.”

Climos is seeking to raise money to test adding iron dust to the southern ocean to spur growth of algae that grow by absorbing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air. When algae die, they fall to the seabed and so remove carbon.

Other short-cut ideas include spraying a smoke of tiny particles of pollutants into the sky to dim sunlight, or even deploying a vast thin metallic barrier in space, with 100 space shuttle flights, to deflect the sun’s rays.

The UN Climate Panel has said world greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, rose 70 per cent between 1970 and 2004.

But it said that fertilising the oceans or dimming the sun “remain largely speculative and unproven, and with the risk of unknown side-effects”.

“More evidence has been coming in since then, but it’s far from making a reliable case for geo-engineering,” said Terry Barker, head of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research and one of the leading authors of the UN panel report.

The seas are already suffering enough from a “chemical soup” of pollution from humans, he said. “There’s no need to add to the mess.”

With fears of recession amid the deepest financial crisis since the 1930s, some governments may find cheap geo-engineering attractive compared with reducing carbon emissions. “It would be shortsighted,” Dr Barker said.

Last year, the London Convention said that “knowledge about the effectiveness and potential environmental impacts of ocean iron fertilisation was currently insufficient to justify large-scale operations.”

Those doubts were “still valid”, the convention’s Mr Coenen said.

Firms such as Australia’s Ocean Nourishment, Atmocean in New Mexico and Climos are working on varying sea-based projects. Another firm, Planktos, indefinitely suspended operations in February after failing to raise cash.

Some like Climos hope that sucking carbon into the ocean, if it works, could qualify for credits as carbon trading.

“It is possible to design experiments to avoid harm to the oceans,” said Dr Leinin. Climos wants to test iron fertilisation in the Southern Ocean, at the earliest in January 2010, in a trial that could cost US$15 million to US$20 million, she said. If it works, Dr Leinin said, it could be one of the cheapest ways to combat global warming.

Among objections are that carbon makes water more acidic and could undermine the ability of shellfish, crabs or lobsters to build shells. That, in turn, could disrupt the marine food chain.

Backers of geo-engineering say the risks are slight compared to far bigger disruptions from climate change, stoked by human emissions of greenhouse gases, which could lead to heatwaves, floods, droughts, more disease or rising seas.

“We are already bludgeoning nature,” said Victor Smetacek, a professor at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, who is planning an iron sulphate fertilisation experiment off Antarctica early next year.

His institute will co-operate with India to disperse 20 tonnes of iron sulphate near South Georgia over 300 sq km.

“Iron has a very positive effect. Added to the ocean, it’s like water in the desert,” he said. “We don’t have space to store the carbon we are producing on land,” he said of proposals including planting more forests.

They will study how far algae grow and absorb carbon. The extra algae, as food, might help a recovery of stocks of shrimp-like krill, a species on which penguins and whales depend.

Among other schemes, Nobel chemistry prize winner Paul Crutzen has floated the idea of blitzing the upper atmosphere with sulphur particles to reflect some sunlight back into space.

“The price is not a factor … it’s peanuts,” he said in Nicosia earlier this month. “The cost has been estimated at some US$10 million to US$20 million a year.”

Similar smoke is released by volcanic eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 or Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. The Indonesia eruption led to a “year without a summer” in many parts of the world, according to reports at the time.

Other proposals reviewed by the UN Climate Panel include installing a metallic screen covering a 106 sq km patch of space 1.5 million km away from Earth in the direction of the Sun.

The 3,000-tonne structure could be put in place over 100 years by 100 space shuttle flights. “The cost has yet to be determined”, the panel said.

Another idea is to spew more sea spray into the air – a natural process caused by waves. This could make low-level clouds slightly whiter and bounce solar rays back into space.

Advantages are that the only ingredient is sea water, and the system could be turned off. But the UN panel said “the meteorological ramifications need further study”.


Go Green To Beat Recession Blues

Timothy Chui – The Standard | Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Businesses that manage to survive the global economic crisis will face even bigger challenges from climate change unless they retool their operations now, according to the world’s foremost climate- change economist.

“The risk consequences of ignoring climate change will be very much bigger than ignoring risks in the financial system,” former British Treasury economist Lord Nicholas Stern said.

Describing the current financial crisis as the worst since World War II, Stern is forecasting recession for 80 percent of the developed world.

He said governments, while spending to bolster the financial system, should also take the opportunity to reshape the economy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“Markets will change. If you get locked into high carbon technology and the price of carbon goes up, which it will, then you’ve got a real profit risk. Those who innovate first will get the biggest returns,” he said.

Stern told an assembly of leading businesses at the Climate Group’s 2008 Conference at the JW Marriott yesterday that Hong Kong, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is among the top 10 most vulnerable cities to climate change from sea level rise and air pollution.

Fresh from last week’s Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing, where mainland authorities signaled their commitment to the global climate change effort to be outlined in Copenhagen next year, Stern said the likely target of 50 percent carbon dioxide reductions by 2050 would require developed nations to cut their emissions by 80 percent.

The former economist also called for more public money to be poured into carbon neutral research and development, including carbon neutral road transport and power generation.

The author of 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change said regulations such as banning combustion cars from cities by 2020 may revolutionize automobiles the way regulations that abolished leaded fuel did.

Head of HSBC Corporate Sustainability Teresa Au Pui-yi pegged the impact of rising sea levels at trillions of dollars.

Chief executive officer of Climate Group Steve Howard said delaying some key technology such as carbon capture and storage by one year would mean the concentration of CO2 mid-century going up one part per million.

“We probably only have leeway of a few tenths of parts per million,” Howard said.

Low-carbon Path Offers Way Out Of Downturn, Says HSBC Adviser

Kandy Wong, SCMP – Updated on Oct 28, 2008

The current economic crisis should not be an excuse to delay implementing low-carbon-emissions policies, according to Lord Nicholas Stern.

Rather, he said, it was the time to lay the foundations for tackling global warming.

“The transition to a low-carbon growth path will lead to numerous new opportunities across a wide range of businesses and industries,” said Lord Stern, a former chief economist for the World Bank and now a special adviser for HSBC’s economic development and climate change group.

That was why, he said at a press briefing yesterday in Hong Kong, he was confident countries and companies would launch carbon-reduction programmes even amid the current global crisis.

Big retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores and Tesco of Britain were concerned about the energy used throughout their supply chain, he said. Eventually, Tesco would label products with the amount of emissions in their making.

“This is the way the market is going,” Lord Stern said.

According to figures from the United States Energy Information Administration, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations climbed 2.2 parts per million last year to 383 ppm.

The agency also found that since 2000 carbon dioxide levels had risen 2 ppm annually, compared with 1.5 ppm during the 1990s and 1.6 ppm in the 1980s.

Lord Stern said the “transformation to a global low-carbon economy is one way through the economic downturn … on to a more sustainable growth path for the future”.

It is estimated that the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions will reach 31.1 billion tonnes by 2010, up from 28.1 billion tonnes in 2005.

“There was a three-day extended discussion last week in Beijing about carbon emissions and low-carbon growth,” Lord Stern said. “The European leaders will get on with lowering emissions” while the US and China will also take action in the next months, he said.

Leaders from Asia and Europe agreed there should be new regulations for carbon reduction, new market prices for carbon and higher prices for high-carbon emission products.

In 2006, Lord Stern’s publication, the Stern Review, estimated that the overall cost of climate change will range from 5 per cent to 20 per cent of gross domestic product if actions are not taken to reduce carbon emissions.

On the other hand, he indicated that taking strong action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would cost about 1 per cent of GDP annually.

“I believe the challenges of the financial crisis for Britain and the United States may last for one to two years more. But, regardless, governments in different countries are taking actions to boost the [sustainable] economy,” Lord Stern said yesterday.

World leaders have agreed to cut overall carbon emissions by 50 per cent globally by 2050.

New Air Quality Measures Inadequate

SCMP | Updated on Oct 25, 2008

The announcement by the chief executive that the government will adopt the very lowest tier of the World Health Organisation air quality interim targets, rather than the WHO guidelines, will not help clean up Hong Kong’s air and may even cause further deterioration (“Beginner air quality standards criticised“, October 16).

We should be concerned about this move.

The low tiers of interim targets are there to help poor countries with low levels of expertise move to an entry level for environmental management, not regions with a high gross domestic product and capable of making urgent radical interventions.

The 24-hour target for particulates of 150 micrograms per cubic metre is so permissive it is 15 micrograms per cubic metre above the maximum level observed in 99 per cent of days in 2006. Compliance will not lead to any improvement in the present high average annual levels of pollution.

There is a real risk that retaining a permissive target level will lead to further increases in pollution as has happened with the present inadequate air quality objectives.

Hong Kong’s typical daily levels of pollution, particularly in the cool season, are consistently so high that they always exceed the WHO annual guidelines by several hundred per cent.

These current annual levels of pollution are associated with our very high burden of avoidable illness, premature deaths and community costs due to health care and lost productivity. There will be no reduction of this burden without more stringent regulations.

The 24-hour targets are not intended to be used in the absence of an appropriate annual target which would improve air quality across the year.

The WHO 24-hour guidelines should be applied together with the annual guidelines in order to maximise health benefits and reduce both short-term and longer-term morbidity and mortality. The chief executive’s proposal appears to pre-empt the outcome of the government’s current review of our outdated air quality objectives, but it is clearly not part of a strategy for air quality improvement in the foreseeable future.

Anthony J. Hedley, Wong Chit-ming, school of public health, University of Hong Kong

HK$1b Pledged To Improve City’s Environment

Angela Seet – SCMP | Updated on Oct 24, 2008

HK$1 billion would be allocated to the environmental and conservation fund to help combat pollution in Hong Kong, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said on Friday.

He said the Legislative Council had pledged this amount in its annual report, Environment Hong Kong 2008. This is published by the Environment Bureau and Environmental Protection Department (EPD).

But Mr Yau said public concern about environmental issues was growing.

“As Hong Kong becomes increasingly conscious of the need to protect the environment, the community also understands that raising the quality of life must be done in a sustainable way,” he said.

The territory is under more pressure to deal with serious environmental problems including â poor air quality, inadequate waste management, and damage to the natural environment.

The American Chamber of Commerce said in its annual environmental survey recently said 69 per cent of respondents said they knew professionals who are thinking of leaving Hong Kong (or have already left), and over half (56 per cent) knew professionals who had declined to come to the territory because of the unfavorable environment.

Mr Yau said the government was also working more closely with the mainland.

“Regionally, we are co-operating extensively with our counterparts in the mainland on a wide range of issues. We are also working to meet our international obligations on climate change,” he added.

Permanent Secretary for the Environment and Director of Environmental Protection Anissa Wong Sean-yee said: “There was intense concern in the community about air quality.

“It was being tackled from several angles, including the launch of an 18-month study to devise new air quality objectives and develop a long-term strategy for achieving them, Ms Wong said.

She said the government was also trying to identify more sustainable solutions to waste management.

However, green groups and medical academics in Hong Kong believe the government is still not doing enough to deal with environmental issues.

On the issue of air pollution, they argue it is time for the government to adopt World Health Organisation air-quality guidelines.

Anthony Hedley, professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said last month the territory and the Pearl River Delta were “among the most heavily polluted areas in the world”.

The report is available electronically from

More details on Environment Hong Kong 2008, visit

Air Pollution Lowers Birth-Weights

Belle Dumé – environmentalresearchweb | Oct 23, 2008

Last year, a groundbreaking study by researchers at Yale University, US, found that air pollution increases the risk of low-birth-weight babies. But the results were criticised for various reasons, such as the fact that some pre-term babies were included in the analysis. The authors have now addressed these issues through a new analysis and have also investigated other factors, including whether some infants were particularly susceptible to air pollution effects based on the mother’s age, or the sex of the baby.

Michelle Bell and colleagues have found that the mother’s age – whether she is younger than 24 or older than 40 – or the sex of the baby do not make a difference to the relationship between air pollution and low birth weight. The original results also remain the same if the pre-term infants (those born at less than 32 weeks) are excluded from the study. The researchers estimate lower birth weight with higher exposure to pollutants, even those that meet federal limits.

The pollutants considered were nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate matter with aerodynamic diameters of less than 10 m and 2.5 m (PM10 and PM2.5) during pregnancy. The analysis was based on 358,504 births in the US states of Massachusetts and Connecticut from 1999 to 2002. Birth data was obtained from birth certificate registries from the Division of Vital Statistics, Reproductive Statistics Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics.

For each baby, Bell and colleagues took the following factors into account: place of birth and residence; the mother’s age and racial origin; mother’s marital status; parental education level; whether the mother smoked or drank alcohol during her pregnancy; gestational age in weeks; child’s sex; birth weight; type of birth (caesarean or natural); quality of prenatal care; and birth order. The dataset was limited to single births with a gestational length of 32 to 44 weeks and weights of 1 kg to 5.5 kg.

The team estimated air pollution in a given area using data from air monitors and weather reports. Air pollution data was obtained from the US Environmental Protection Agency, and weather data from the National Climatic Data Center.

“Findings indicate that while some populations are at higher risk of low birth weight (for example, infants of younger or older mothers, female infants, and infants born in more polluted regions), the relationship between air pollution and low birth weight did not differ by mother’s age or infant’s sex,” say Bell and co-workers. “Results were further robust to exclusion of pre-term births.”

The study also showed that lowered birth weight was linked to exposure to particulate pollution in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, and exposure to carbon monoxide in the first and third trimesters.

The team does stress however, that many questions remain unanswered, such as why exactly air pollution should affect the birth weight of infants. The effect of individual pollutants also needs to be better analysed.

The researchers published their work in Environmental Research Letters.
About the author

Belle Dumé is a contributing editor to environmentalresearchweb.

Costly Delays

SCMP | Updated on Oct 22, 2008

How sad, perverse, yet fitting that the only way we could tackle the problems on the environment was this global meltdown.

The economy is slowing and so are demand and consumption. Do we need a depression to prevent pollution and destruction of our natural habitat?

When the economy picks up again, will we learn that making money doesn’t compensate for polluted air, water and global warming?

When will we learn that we cannot continue to procrastinate on fixing the problems of the environment? Governments and individuals have made a concerted effort and spent trillions of dollars trying to fix the economy but so little to help the Earth.

Harriet Wen Tung, The Peak

Clearing The Air Will Take Time And Money, Says Environment Chief

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP | Updated on Oct 21, 2008

The environment minister yesterday tried to play down expectations about the pace and scope of efforts to reduce air pollution, saying every measure had its price and a public consensus was needed on the way forward.

Edward Yau Tang-wah said boosting natural gas use in electricity generation was one of the ways to help meet the World Health Organisation’s air quality targets – which are much stricter than Hong Kong’s. But those targets would not be met without there being a price to pay, he said. Gas costs up to 50 per cent more than coal, though fuel prices were likely to remain volatile.

“Furthermore, some existing coal-fired generation units will have to be replaced by gas-fired units. It will involve more capital investment and we have to be cautious about that,” Mr Yau said on an RTHK programme.

He said the replacement of coal-fired turbines could be delayed if more effort was put into saving energy.

“Even if fuel prices are getting ever higher, if we are using the energy wisely we will still have a hedge against the rise,” he said.

He would not speculate about the impact on fuel bills of the government asking power suppliers to use cleaner fuel.

Mr Yau said that because he wore two hats as environment secretary and energy chief, he had to balance both carefully with due regard to public sentiment, although he fully supported cleaning up the air.

“We will not restore the blue skies at any cost. The administration will have to be cautious about the direction in which he head, the steps we take and how quickly we take them.

“That’s what we are doing and what the public is asking us to do,” he said.

Mr Yau admitted that meeting the WHO targets would be difficult and required a multi-pronged approach, with measures to cut emissions from power plants and vehicles.

“We need a basket of measures, though they might have varying impacts. But we have to achieve the WHO standards, so we should be ready for the price we have to pay.”

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in his policy address last week, outlined plans to adopt a set of WHO pollution standards to replace the city’s outdated air quality objectives.

Bonuses Offered To Encourage Beijing Firms To Fight Pollution

SCMP | 20 October 2008

Beijing enterprises (SEHK: 0392) could get a government bonus ranging from 500,000 yuan (HK$567,450) to 2.3 million yuan for ceasing high-pollution production, the city’s finance bureau said yesterday. The move was to encourage the replacement of high-pollution industries with environmentally friendly businesses, it said.

Companies such as small cement and paper producers will be on the top of our list,” the bureau said. Bureau officials said fiscal incentives would be granted in accordance with the amount of energy, water and emission the companies saved or cut. The municipal government would conduct verification of the steps taken by the companies to fight pollution before giving out the bonuses. Xinhua

Author Discusses His Vision Of Alternative To Kyoto Accord

Dan Kadison – SCMP | Updated on Oct 20, 2008

An environmental writer thinks the international community should produce a new climate agreement because the Kyoto Protocol is failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

British author Oliver Tickell, 50, sat down with the South China Morning Post in the city last week and asserted why the climate accord should not be reformed after its commitment period ends in 2012.

“We’re better off having an agreement which is actually designed to be effective, efficient, equitable, and operate on a much shorter time scale,” Tickell said.

His book, Kyoto2, published in July, focuses on climate change, the accord and solutions to the problem.

The Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and came into force in 2005, calls for certain industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets for a 2008 to 2012 commitment period. Unfortunately, Tickell added, it “provides an inadequate vehicle” for eliminating pollution.

“For a global agreement that’s really going to work … all countries have to be involved. And greenhouse gas emissions have been going up faster in the developing countries with no targets – China, India, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa.”

Tickell’s book proposes a three-part strategy in which greenhouse gas permits are capped and auctioned off to fossil-fuel producers, the estimated trillion dollars raised from the purchase of permits are spent on energy improvements, and regulations are enacted.

“What you’re doing is bringing down those emissions in a targeted way, in an efficient way. At no point does the carbon price have to reach a level at which it is painful.”

As for Hong Kong, Tickell said there were environmentally friendly features that other countries could learn from – walkways and the Mid-Levels escalator for pedestrians, plenty of green space and the taxis burn clean fuel. To make it greener, Hongkongers could build more green-friendly buildings, use more energy-efficient appliances and rely on less air conditioning, he added.

Tickell met city corporate and environmental leaders, discussing climate change with the Climate Change Business Forum and the Earth Champions Foundation.

The Post is the media sponsor of the Earth Champions Quest, a search for local people and groups improving the environment.