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Sun Seekers

Africa is the poorest continent on the planet, and approximately three quarters of the people living south of the Sahara have no access to electricity. But the continent is wealthy in terms of sunlight. Proposals are now being developed to tap into those solar riches to provide people with a low-cost, renewable source of electricity.

photo of sunshine on a desert landscape, camels with packs in backgroundSun ChoiThe Sahara Desert is the sunniest place on the planet, and
therefore an ideal spot for capturing solar energy. Governments
in West Africa are eager to tap into this electricity source.

“We have the natural resource – enough sunshine that can supply our total power requirements,” says Kwame Ampofo, a member of the Ghanian Parliament and an energy expert.

According to NASA scientists, the sunniest piece of land on our planet is in the Sahara Desert in northern Niger. One of the main projects under discussion would create a solar-thermal energy plant in the desert and then transmit the electricity to the more populous coasts. Solar-thermal generation uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight and boil water to drive electrogenic turbines.

“This form of power generation could serve the populous coastal regions well, if connected to the northern parts of West Africa, where there are desert areas with good solar radiation for much of the year,” says Gerhard Knies, a German physicist. “This technology has been shown to work and is in operation in Spain and the United States. Above all, it does not pollute, is inexhaustible and will not be subject to rising fuel costs.”

Although the initial investment costs would be high, over time the project would save money. With gas and oil prices at record highs, government budgets are being stretched, even in oil-rich countries such as Nigeria. Additionally, renewable energy projects are expected to generate other benefits. Clean energy could help protect coastal regions in Africa, which face serious potential damage as climate change continues to contribute to erratic weather patterns and rising sea levels.

—Reuters, 9/25


Palming Off Responsibility

Environmental groups working in the forests of Indonesian Borneo say that two major palm oil companies have violated an agreement not to clear land in orangutan habitat and are putting thousands of the great apes in jeopardy.

Subsidiaries of the companies IOI Group and Agro Group have cleared orangutan habitat despite having signed the voluntary standards established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, according to Novi Hardianto of the Center for Orangutan Protection. Greenpeace sought to get a moratorium on land clearing, but the Indonesian palm companies rejected the proposal.

Increasing global demand for palm oil – which is used in food, beauty products, and to make biofuels – is driving massive deforestation in the Borneo forests.

photo of an orangutan, closeistockphoto.comThousands of orangutans are at risk since two major palm oil
companies violated an agreement not to clear land on Borneo.
Increasing demand for biofuels is driving deforestation
on the island.

“If it keeps going at this rate, we’ll see orangutans in this environment wiped out within three years,” Hardianto says.

Hardianto says the land clearing shows that the voluntary standards are insufficient to stop the loss of orangutans outside of conservation areas, and that is why a moratorium is needed. In rejecting the moratorium proposal, the Indonesian Palm Producers Association said that the voluntary standards are enough to protect species.

An executive from Agro Group denied the claims that forest clearing is occurring in orangutan habitat around the Kuala Kuayan area.

“Definitely not, because we just obtained the license to establish palm oil in Kuala Kuayan early this year and we’ve just started our assessment,” Edi Suhardi, a company executive, says. “This accusation is garrulous and baseless.”

The Center for Orangutan Protection estimates that 20,000 orangutans live in the wild in central Borneo, and that close to 3,000 of them die every year.

—Agence France-Presse, 9/4

Cat Food

With rising sea levels shrinking India’s unique Sundarban Islands and pushing the region’s tigers out of their habitat, the ancient question – What’s for dinner? – is taking on an uncomfortable new meaning as cat attacks against people increase.

The Sundarbans are a 10,000-square-mile swamp consisting of hundreds of tiny islands crisscrossed by water channels. The area – a UNESCO World Heritage site – is already experiencing the effects of global climate change. Rising sea levels have submerged two islands and put others at risk. At the same time, saltwater intrusion is defoliating the area’s mangroves, turning once lush forest into barren territory.

The slow-motion destruction of the Sundarbans is threatening the swamp’s 200 or so tigers as the number of crocodiles, fish, and large crabs that the cats feed on decreases. This is forcing tigers closer to human settlements, and has led to a spike in attacks on people.

In the past six months, several fishermen have been killed in the area. Sundarban villagers often pass through tiger territory on the way to their fishing grounds or to collect wild honey.

“Owing to global warming, the fragile Sundarbans lost 28 percent of their habitat in the past 40 years,” says Pranabes Sanyal of the World Conservation Union. “A part of it is the core tiger reserve area from where their prey migrated.”

A century ago, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India. A government survey published in 2008 shows that the population has dropped to around 1,400, down from 3,600 in 2002. While most studies put the Sundarban tiger population around 250 animals, some say the number could be as low as 75.

The large cats in the mangrove forests are suffering the same problem as tigers throughout India – dwindling prey, compounded by poaching from humans.

Of course, when they run out of food, the tigers poach back.

“The tendency to seek alternate prey in the form of livestock – and sometimes humans – might be higher in these tigers,” says Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India.

—Reuters, 10/21

Chemical Warfare

Tens of thousands of US troops, military contractors, and Iraqi civilians may have been exposed to cancer-causing dioxins and poisons such as arsenic and carbon monoxide as the military continues to burn tons of hazardous waste in an open-air burn pit.

According to an investigation by the Military Times, a large black plume of smoke wafts continually over the living quarters and combat support hospital at Joint Base Balad, the largest US installation in Iraq. Since complaints about the burn bit started to surface in 2006, the military has placed three “clean-burning” incinerators at the base. But as of last summer, the burn pit was still taking in 147 tons of waste per day. The base generates 250 tons of waste daily, about three times more than Juneau, Alaska, which has a comparable population.

The burn pit at Balad – which is fired by jet fuel, exposure to which can cause leukemia – has consumed plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, paint and solvents, unexploded ordinance, and medical waste, including the amputated limbs of Iraqi patients.

“It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years,” Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis wrote in a December 2006 memo. “In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals. There is also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke.”

Curtis’s memo warned that troops may have been exposed to contaminants including benzene, arsenic, Freon, carbon monoxide, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfuric acid, and xylene.

A health assessment of the burn pit, dated December 2007, shows dioxin at 51 times acceptable levels, particulate exposure at 50 times acceptable levels, and volatile compounds at two times acceptable levels. For troops stationed at the base for more than a year, the risk of cancer from dioxin exposure is eight times higher than acceptable levels.

Troops who have been or currently are stationed at Balad say that many service members complain of sinus problems, nasal congestion, and headaches, which most people assume are connected to the smoke from the burn pit. Almost everyone on base has some version of “plume crud” – coughing up “black stuff.” Although many troops acknowledge the burn pit is a problem, the prevailing philosophy, according to one reservist, is “just suck it up.”

“Plastics are the worst,” an Army aviator wrote on his blog in July. “I’ve taken some pictures of the giant plumes of jet-black smoke that billow up from the burn pit. There is no way this would ever be allowed back home because of all the toxins and pollutants that result, but hey, we’re not at home, so it must be OK, right?”

The uncontained incineration of waste appears to be part of the military’s standard operating procedure. Most large installations in Iraq and Afghanistan have burn pits. A recent report by the Rand Corp concluded that the military has no training policy for ensuring those pits are operated safely.

Despite the growing criticism within the ranks, military officials higher up the chain of command continue to defend the practice. An August statement from the Defense Department’s Office of Force Health Protection and Readiness had this to say:

“While exposure to burn pit smoke may cause temporary coughing and redness or stinging of the eyes, extensive environmental monitoring indicates that smoke exposures not interfering with breathing or required medical treatment at the time of exposure usually do not cause any lasting health effects or medical follow up.”

—Military Times, 10/29


New Wave

Renewable energy proponents’ longtime dream of harnessing the power of the world’s oceans became a reality this fall when Portugal brought online the first commercial wave-powered electricity generating station.

The aptly named “Waves of Portugal” project consists of three steel “sea snakes” anchored to the ocean floor three miles from Portugal’s northern coast. Each of the 420-feet long, 10-feet diameter segmented machines are positioned facing the waves so that their sections move with the swells. The joints in the snake contain a hydraulic pump that pushes high-pressured liquid through motors that in turn drive power generators. The electricity is then transmitted to shore via underwater cables.

“It’s logged into the national grid, which makes it the world’s first commercial wave power project,” says Anthony Kennaway, a spokesman with Babcock and Brown, the investment firm managing the system.

Each of the sea snakes can generate about 2.25 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1,500 households. In the next few years, project managers plan on installing an additional 20 sea snakes at the site, which would boost the wave park capacity to around 21 MW.

Even then, wave power would fulfill only a fraction of Portugal’s overall electricity needs. The country’s wind turbines are already producing more than 2,000 MW. All together, about 40 percent of Portugal’s energy comes from renewable sources, if hydroelectric dams are counted.

Still, the project managers are optimistic that with continued development of the technology, wave power could eventually be a major source of energy, providing Portugal with up to 20 percent of its energy requirements.

“The price is not competitive at the moment,” Kennaway says. “But we hope that in 15 years, wave power will be where wind power is now – that is, extremely competitive. Portugal could be for wave power what Denmark was for wind power.”

—Reuters, 9/24

Filthy Lucre

Compared to many other countries, Norway is something of a green superstar, building mass transit, discouraging people from driving, and even making its prisons sustainable. The irony is that the country’s ability to take these steps is supported by its massive petroleum wealth. Norway, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, has a $295 billion oil fund that, despite the plunging global markets, increased in value between the end of 2007 and September.

Environment Minister Erik Solheim believes that some of that oil and gas revenue should be invested in renewable energy stocks. Demonstrating clear financial support for renewable energy and similar green technologies could encourage private investors to follow suit, Solheim says.

“More people would look to these funds as a source of stability in the financial markets and a source for long-term investment in the future of humanity, like clean energy,” he says. Despite his enthusiasm, Solheim did not attach a dollar figure to this plan.

“Even if we start with a small percentage [of the fund], then we can gain experience,” he says.

While money derived from oil and gas is not exactly sparkling clean, the fund’s guidelines state that environmental protection is a goal. Demonstrating its commitment to this effort, the fund has withdrawn from some companies that it has accused of environmental abuses, including mining companies Freeport McMoRan and Rio Tinto. Both companies deny the allegations. The Norwegian government is currently reviewing the ethical guidelines under which the fund is administered, and its conclusions are expected to be released in 2009.

Not surprisingly, there is some opposition to Solheim’s suggestions. Svein Gjedrem, a Norwegian economist and governor of the Central Bank of Norway, doesn’t believe any portion of the fund should be earmarked, preferring that the fund simply aim for the highest returns possible.

—Reuters, 10/24

Party for the Planet

The Netherlands – home to legalized marijuana and the headquarters of Greenpeace International – is a country well known for its progressive politics and party-friendly lifestyle. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that these two Dutch instincts have converged to create one of the world’s first eco-friendly nightclubs.

Rotterdam’s new WATT nightclub incorporates sustainability principles into everything from its architecture to its menu as a way of attracting environmentally conscious clubbers. The venue is expected to save about 30 percent on energy and carbon emissions and 50 percent on water and waste compared to other nightclubs.

“We want to show that sustainability can be integrated into lifestyles, and integrating it into something fun shows that sustainability can be fun,” says Michel Smit, a consultant with Sustainable DanceClub who helped develop the idea.

In recent years, many restaurants and cafés have sought to attract a green-conscious clientele by shifting their menus to organic and local foods. WATT is one of the first party venues to make a similar move.

The club’s showpiece is a dance floor that uses the energy from the dancers to generate some of its own electricity. A meter on the wall shows how much power is being generated, encouraging revelers to go even wilder as the disco lights get more dynamic.

“When you start dancing, you generate electricity, and it makes the floor come alive,” says Daan Roosegaard, who helped with the design. “The more you dance, the more the floor comes to life.”

Other green elements include an organic café menu and a “minimal waste” bar that serves drinks in recyclable cups and stores beverages in large tanks in the basement to save energy through a central cooling system.

The club promoters’ next step is to take the concept around the world and bring the self-generating dance floor to other countries. “We are not just focusing on Holland,” Smit says. “We want to make as many clubs as possible sustainable, worldwide.”

—Reuters, 9/5


Whoa or Woe?

Will the financial markets’ meltdown and the likelihood of a deep recession push the budding green economy into the red? Or will the future not be as black as many people fear? As headline writers and journalists try to navigate the color wheel looking for pithy answers, there is at least a consensus of uncertainty: No one knows what an economic downturn will mean for the sustainability industry.

photo, abstract of arrows pointing up and down, and numbers negative and positivebigstockphoto.comWill the financial crisis be helpful or harmful to
the growth of the green economy? While a
slowdown could trim investment in environmental
technologies, it might also prompt a rethinking
of growth-at-all-cost orthodoxy.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a slowing economy will be bad news for environmental enterprises. According to this line of thought, environmentalism is a kind of luxury, dependent upon prosperity, and when the economy starts to tank, environmental concerns are one of the first things tossed aside.

This dynamic may already be at work. As sales falter, some companies are postponing green initiatives that they were proudly trumpeting only months ago. At the same time, the credit crunch appears to be limiting the amount of capital available for investments in renewable technologies such as solar and wind energy. The American Wind Energy Association, citing the “evolving financial crisis,” predicts that construction of new wind farms will slow in 2009. And in October, Duke Energy, one of the largest utilities in the US, cut in half a $100 million plan to install solar panels on customers’ roofs.

“The general economic slowdown is taking everybody’s eyes off what was an increasing momentum around concerns of climate change and the cost of energy,” says Paul Maeder, a general partner with the venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners.

Investments in renewable energy companies reached a peak of $2.6 billion in North America, Europe, China, and India in the third quarter of 2008. That number will almost certainly shrink. One example of a slowdown in “cleantech” investing was Tesla Motors’ announcement that it would delay the launch of its battery-powered car due to a lack of funds.

“The vault was closed to us,” says Tesla Senior Director John Thomas.

Some observers, however, challenge the conventional wisdom. They point out that, for the environment at least, there’s a silver lining in all of the financial woes: A slower economy causes less greenhouse gas emissions as the consumption of coal, oil, and gas slackens.

“In one month, the crisis has done more for the environment than all the environmental summits in the world,” says Marc Fiorentino, president of EuroLand Finance, a French company.

In the long run, the environmental benefits of the autumn 2008 crisis may be profound. Some people suggest that the market volatility may force a reconsideration of the economic orthodoxy that holds that constant growth is the precondition for prosperity. Free market fundamentalism could be replaced by a humbler, wiser approach that links economic success with the stewardship of natural resources, an emphasis on social needs, and smarter technology. More people may start to recognize that consumer-driven growth is economically unstable as well as environmentally destructive.

“The old way of thinking about the economy is up for negotiation, and the opportunities to build economies that incorporate both financial and environmental prudence are there to be taken,” says Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development at Britain’s University of Surrey. “What’s needed is political leadership that understands this link and is prepared to act.”

—Reuters, 10/27, 10/29; AFP, 10/26

Blasting Forward

Good news – blowing the tops off mountains will soon be so much easier!

photo of a mining operation taken from the airVivian StockmanMountaintop removal coal mining has buried some 2,000 miles
of valleys and streams in Appalachia. A Bush administration
change of water quality rules could worsen the situation.

The Bush administration has made changes to the Stream Buffer Zone Rule, a 1983 regulation that prohibits coal-mining companies from conducting activity within 100 feet of an intermittent or perennial stream unless water quality and quantity will not be adversely affected.

The changes to the rule would allow mining companies to conduct activity within those 100 feet at the discretion of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM). The rule now asks only that coal mining companies avoid the area within 100 feet of stream or “show why avoidance is not possible,” according to a statement by the OSM. Waivers can be granted by the OSM to companies, permitting noncompliance with the softened rule.

But even while the buffer zone rule has been in place, adherence to it has been weak. According to a statement by Earthjustice, more than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachian valleys have already been buried under the rubble of mountains destroyed in the course of coal mining.

Anyhow, who cares about relaxing the rules? Only more than half of Americans. A poll conducted by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research and Consulting showed that “two-thirds of American voters oppose the Bush administration’s effort to repeal the Stream Buffer Zone Rule. Fully 66 percent oppose repeal, including roughly half (49 percent) who ‘strongly oppose’ repealing the rule, which for 25 years has protected our nation’s water resources from toxic debris caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. Only two in ten (20 percent) support the Bush administration’s effort to gut this critical safeguard (just 8 percent support it strongly), and another 14 percent are unsure.”

It appears that neither the voice of reason nor the voices of the people can be heard over the dynamite blasts.

—Reuters, 10/20; Grist.org, 10/27


‘Gas Tax’

No one said reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be easy. Leaders in New Zealand are finding out just how difficult the task is as a proposal to cut emissions runs into opposition from the country’s powerful ranching interests.

photo of many sheep on a hillside, cloudy sky above Jaap van’t VeenThe number one source of greenhouse gases in New Zealand
is the methane emitted by the country’s sheep and cattle herds.
A proposed tax would force farmers to pay for that.

A longtime leader in environmental policies, New Zealand says it is determined to meet its commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. The challenge for policy makers in New Zealand is their country has very little heavy industry. Instead, the number one source of the nation’s global warming gases are the large sheep and cow herds that roam the ever-green hillsides. In the course of digestion, those ruminant animals belch methane, a gas that is 20 times more heat trapping than CO2.

Under the government’s proposal, beginning in 2013, farmers would pay a tax on their herds. At first, ranchers would pay only 10 percent of the tax bill. After 2018, the subsidy would be slowly phased out until 2031, when farmers would pay the full cost.

Not surprisingly, Kiwi farmers are in a stink over the plan. Meat & Wool – an industry group – estimates that 80 percent of sheep and beef farms would be uneconomical if the tax is passed. In rural areas, bumper stickers reading “FART – Fight Against Ridiculous Taxes” are proliferating.

“I cannot accept a tax on animals doing a natural thing,” says farmer Gavin King. “They have evolved over thousands of years burping and farting, and to think that we can change that in a short time is stupid.”

Perhaps, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. Researchers in New Zealand, with financial support from farmers, are investigating whether they can create a vaccine to reduce the animals’ flatulence and belching. Scientists are also trying to identify varieties of cows that belch less, in the hopes of breeding animals with fewer burps.

The controversy reveals the challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in less industrialized nations. In countries that are highly dependent on industry, new technologies and 21st century designs can play a key role in cutting emissions. But when it comes to countries with large ruminant herds, there may be no technological quick fix.

The only solution may be to reduce herd size, a notion to which some farmers are surprisingly open.

“I am not going to pay a … tax on my animals farting and burping,” King says. “I will kill all of them before I do that.”

—BBC, 10/2; The [Christchurch] Press, 8/29


Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Ever eager to burnish its environmental credentials, the Brazilian government often announces with great fanfare various initiatives to safeguard the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest. Last August, for example, President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva established an international donors fund to pay for conservation efforts; Norway has already pledged $1 billion. And earlier in 2008, the government said it was prepared to use federal troops to halt illegal logging.

As it turns out, those soldiers may have to patrol the government itself.

In October, the Brazilian Environment Ministry released a list of the top 100 largest illegal loggers in the Amazon – and the six worst deforested areas all belong to the Brazilian government.

Carlos Minc, the country’s environment minister, was irate, and promised to prosecute all of the loggers, including other government agencies. “We’re going to blow all 100 of them out of the water and then some,” he said.

The government properties where the deforestation has occurred are managed by the Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), an agency set up to distribute land to the poor. About 550,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest were destroyed on the six INCRA parcels as settlers chopped down trees to sell as lumber and to clear ground for planting crops and grazing animals.

INCRA is contesting the claims that the deforestation is illegal, and the matter is set to be investigated by a third party.

Electoral pressures may be fueling the deforestation on government lands. According to Minc, mayors in the Amazon region are ignoring illegal logging in the hopes of gaining an advantage in upcoming elections.

The revelation that small farmers are among the worst loggers is also likely to renew long-standing debates over who causes the most damage to the rainforest. Some of Brazil’s largest landowners are using the announcement to argue that poor peasants are as much to blame for deforestation as are large agribusiness concerns.

From 2004 to 2007, destruction in the rainforest decreased. But in the last year, the number of acres chopped down has begun to creep upward again.

“They are small deforestations, of 50 to 75 acres per person,” Minc says, referring to the forest loss on INCRA lands. “On the other hand, a small one deforests little, but thousands [put together] deforest a great deal.”

—Environment News Service and Reuters, 10/1

Pineapple Upside Down Country

Pineapple doesn’t seem so sweet to many Costa Ricans these days. Since 1996, production of the fruit in Costa Rica has more than tripled, surpassing coffee and bananas as export crops. Pineapple now consumes more than 100,000 acres of land, and the boom has caught officials off guard. As new growers join the gold rush, government agencies have been unable to maintain firm control of the industry, resulting in illegal clearing of forests and contamination of water and aquifers. In 2007, Bromicil, an insecticide used to protect pineapple plants, was detected in the water supply. Now the government delivers water by truck to thousands of affected residents.

photo of a worker washing pineapples Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate Pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica has
tripled in the last decade, and has resulted
in water contamination and the illegal
clearing of forests.

Environmentalists, prominent scientists, and other concerned citizens have demonstrated against this crisis by demanding a moratorium on plantation expansion and a zero-tolerance stance against agricultural chemicals in their water supplies. A protest in August left hundreds of vehicles stranded for hours on the country’s main export artery between San José and the port of Limón.

But pineapple companies believe that whatever problems they’ve created have already been addressed, and that their industry is now clean.

“Where there were problems, we’ve worked to solve them,” says Abel Chaves, the president of Costa Rica’s National Pineapple Producer and Exporter’s Chamber. “If allegations remain, they should be investigated, and if a company is found guilty, it should be charged.”

Meanwhile, the government struggles to keep up with the industry’s expansion, contending with outdated regulations. For example, a loophole in Costa Rican law means that firms operating since before 2004 are exempt from submitting environmental impact studies. And those companies that are required to comply have been found to be very inventive with their findings. TicoVerde provided a report that referenced species not even found in their region of operation; regardless, the government agency responsible for environmental permitting approved the study. A nearby municipality that has been affected by the company’s plantation has filed a lawsuit against the government and has demanded that TicoVerde’s permits be revoked.

Foro Emaus, an organization comprised of 22 community action groups pushing for reform of the industry, has a simple goal in mind: “We simply want them to obey the law, and the government to enforce it,” says Lourdes Brenes, the organization’s director.

—Miami Herald, 8/29

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