The New York Times has a good piece on the environmental problems associated with palm oil production. Palm oil can be thought of as the European equivalent of ethanol, to the extent that it is increasingly sought after as a substitute and additive for petrol. Unlike ethanol–which in the US is primarily produced domestically–Europe requires extensive imports of plam oil, given that it is a tropical crop.
The article points out that Indonesia and Malaysia have been expanding their production of palm oil as the demand for biodiesel increases in Europe. As a result, more rainforests and peatlands are being transformed into palm plantations, causing significant localized environmental problems, while the big European importers reap the benefits of a so-called “green fuel.”
Given dwindling global fossil fuel supplies and increasing demand for alternatives, it remains unclear what types of policy shifts can take place. Large multinational agribusinesses like Cargill are building European refineries to facilitate the processing required to turn the raw oil into biodeisel. The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia show little resolve to adequately regulate the production and other countries, like Venezuela, are getting into the palm oil game.
As the discussion in the US turns to ethanol as a replacement for petrol, it is important to recognize that there are significant ecological consequences associated with the production of biofuels.
Committees from both the US House and Senate yesterday took up the issue of climate change, albeit in a fairly modest fasion. Barbara Boxer held an “open mic” session where Senators could expound on their concern for the effects of climate change and express disappointment that nothing has been done about it–conveniently forgetting that they are in a unique position to actually make policy.
The House hearing, chaired by Henry Waxman, had more substance. His focus was primarily on the ways in which the Bush administration has silenced government scientists and distorted climatological studies. The Financial Times has a good run-down of the hearings–particularly the testimony of former senior associate with the Climate Change Science Office, Rick Piltz–who points out that all of his reports had to be vetted by a Philip Cooney–a Bush appointee whose previous job was as a petroleum industry lobbyist. The radio show, Democracy Now, has some interesting excerpts from the hearing, particularly involving NASA scientist Drew Shindell who explained that political appointees forbade climate scientists from speaking to the press.
Waxman had some strong words for the administration suggesting a conspiracy to supress information. I have not watched the entire hearing, but it appears that C-Span has it available on their website.
Rep. Henry Waxman, Chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, is holding a hearings today on whether government employees have been pressured by the Bush Administration to downplay the scientific evidence relating to anthropogenic global warming.
This is especially apposite as there are several bills being considered in the House and Senate dealing with climate change as well as Speaker Pelosi’s new Select Committee.
Additionally, the political pressure on government scientists appears to be on the increase as the New York Times reports today that all executive branch agencies must have their proposals to define regulations vetted by Bush appointees. This makes it likely that government scientists will continue to be sidelined in favor of the narrow special interests represented by the administration.
When the US Vice President isn’t harboring delusions about how swimmingly the occupation of Iraq is going, he apparently spends a considerable amount of time helping campaign contributors get no-bid federal contracts.
No, we’re not talking about the travesty of Iraqi “reconstruction.” Rather, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, Cheney has been involved in promoting a scheme concocted by a couple of Southern California entrepreneurs and Republican campaign donors to treat sewage running into the country from the booming northern Mexican metropolis of Tijuana.
The corruption angle in the story is pretty straight-forward: the businessmen meet with Cheney, local Congressman–including 2008 Republican Presidential Candidate Duncan Hunter, give them campaign contributions, and soon thereafter the donors are given a no-bid contract for the clean-up.
If the corruption isn’t bad enough, the article discusses how the plan itself–which involves diverting run-off that has reached the US back to a treatment facility in Mexico, where it is diverted once again after processing back to California, and then pumped into the ocean– has been called unworkable by government regulators.
One of the main problems that the scheme can not address is the fact that much of the sewage leeching into the Tijuana River and smaller arroyos leading into the United States comes from dispersed points of origin. Tijuana’s massive population growth as a result of trade liberalization policies initiated in the 1990s has not been accompanied by the requisite development of modern infrastructure. Slums and squatter communities have emerged in the highlands around the city and the waste produced in these settlements is not captured by any sewer–rather it flows unimpeded into the various valleys around the metropolis.
This is a much larger problem than can be addressed by an ill-conceived treatment scheme and highlights the real lack of leadership in dealing constructively with pressing environmental problems.
It was widely speculated before his speech to Congress last night that Bush would try to lift his historically-low approval ratings by introducing significant initiatives relating to energy use, environmental protection, and global warming.
It is unclear how the speech will affect his approval ratings, but it would not be disingenuous to characterize the initiatives that he introduced last night as predictibly underwhelming. Rather than calling for a cap and trade emissions programme that is argued for by many environmentalists and business leaders, Bush wants to reduce gasoline consumption over the next decade primarily to “dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
His main approach is extraordinarily short-sighted: wait for the hope of cellulosic ethanol to join with traditional, corn-based ethanol as a replacement for gasoline. As it stands now, these types of “alternative” fuels require both massive amounts of energy to produce, acres of farmland, as well as massive agricultural subsidies. Curiously, Bush didn’t indicate whether or not he will push to drop the tariff on imported ethanol. While importing ethanol would not “reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” the fact that most of our current imports come from friendly and stable governments like Brazil and Costa Rica makes the national security argument untenable.
The glaring ommission in Bush’s speech was any treatment of point-source pollution reduction stemming from power plants or industry. This, of course, would have required him to at least consider cap and trade schemes–something he does not seem prepared to do.
On Friday, the Guaridan published excerpts of an interview with UK environment minister Ian Pearson taking the global airline industry to task for resisting efforts to mitigate CO2 emissions produced by air travel. The interview was notable for the vituperative tone taken by Pearson–especially towards the US airlines and Irish discount carrier, Ryan Air.
While passenger airline travel makes up a small proportion of global emissions, the per-capita emissions stemming from air travel are significant. The Guardian article explains that the amount of CO2 emitted for a passenger flying round-trip from London to New York is equivalent to the amount emitted for a year’s worth of home heating.
The New York Times today highlights another–probably bigger–problem facing Europe’s carbon footprint: the proliferation of automobiles. While Europe’s central cities maintain the walkability of their medieval origins and have accomodated public transit adequately in many places, recently Europe’s metropolitan regions have taken on more sprawling” forms of growth. The Times article highlights the congestion in Dublin where suburban growth has not been accompanied by public transit development, requiring more people to drive to get to employment and shopping sites.
Certain places, like Denmark, have been successful in decreasing demand for automobiles by levying heavy taxes; but throughout other places in Europe, there has been less of a political committment to addressing this pressing issue. In Britain, there may be fissures of change as last month’s report on transport policy for the Treasury by Sir Rod Eddington broached the idea of increasing taxes for automobile CO2 emissions.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet yesterday with the biggest news being that Rona Ambrose is out as environment minister. Ambrose is moving to the position of intergovernmental affairs minister while John Baird is leaving as president of the Treasury Board to take her place.
This represents a recognition by Harper that his political miscalculation of 2006 could come back to haunt him in elections anticipated for later this year. Harper came into office leading a minority government and quickly put environmental concerns on the back burner. He further exacerbated problems by pledging to step away from Canada’s obligations under Kyoto and supporting a roundly-criticized “Clean Air Act” that would push off substantive emissions reduction until 2020.
This assult on climate change provisions occured at the same time as there emerged a wider recognition amongst the Canadian populace of the problems associated with climate change. In the international arena, Canada came under fire during last November’s UN climate change conference in Nairobi for backpedalling on Kyoto, causing embarassment at home. The elevation of environmental concerns to a top priority in Canadian politics culminated in last month’s election of former envrionment minister Stéphane Dion as head of the opposition Liberal party.
Ambrose never had the political skill to adequately defend the Tory change in policy. New environment minister, John Baird, was described yesterday by Canadian pundits as more politically adept than Ambrose. Whether Baird’s appointment will actually result in a shift in policy emphasis is unclear. What is clear is that if an election is called this year climate change and environmental policy will figure as high-profile issues.
Yesterday marked the completion of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on India’s Narmada River.
The erection of this dam and others in the Narmada valley have been the subject of intense political struggle in India and reflect the intense social and environmental tensions apparent as the country has embarked on a path towards urbanization and industrialization. According to the dam administrator’s website, planning for this dam began in the late 1940s and has basically encountered consistent opposition–particularly from environmental and social justice groups.
From a social justice perspective, the dam is having significant impact on indigenous and farming communities who have either been displaced by the dam [a figure of 320,000 has been given by anti-dam activists] or will no longer have access to fertile farmland. Additionally, those who have been displaced have–in many cases–not been given compensation as required by law. From an environmental perspective, there are many questions about how the dam will withstand India’s perennial monsoon seasons and the affects of subsequent deforestation in the Narmada basin will have on the changing hydrology.
The World Bank took the rare step of withdrawing financing of the project in the early 1990s due to the social, political, and environmental problems associated with the dam.
Over the years there have been numerous violent demonstrations, non-violent protests, and hunger strikes to stop the dam and to demand compensation to its victims. Sardar Sarovar will undoubtedly generate more electricity to power India’s growing economy, but it has been done at the expense of thousands of people whose way of life and culture will be irretrivable.
For more information on Sardar Sarovar, I would suggest looking at this recent article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal and Adnan Patwardhan’s compelling film, “A Narmada Diary.”
The Times published a story today that detects a “middle stance” in debates on the potential effects of climate change. The main thrust of the analysis is that the debate surrounding the anthropogenic aspects of climate change has been dominated by dire predictions of disaster, on the one hand, and antagonistic disbelief, on the other.
The “middle stance” is represented by commentators who acknowledge that antrhopogenic factors exist, but that the debate should be centered around assessing levels of risk.
Rather than being something new, as portrayed in the article, this “middle stance” is better described as the long-standing skepticism inherent in the scientific project that guides both policy analysis and the “hard science” of climatological research.