Do you want to fly or do you want to eat?

The title to this post may seem like an odd question, but I think it is an inescapable one, as I hope to demonstrate. The US Department of Agriculture has a mandate for a huge biofuel planting programme, the largest in the world in 2005. Currently around 13.5 billion gallons are produced per annum. The aim is to grow this to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Then along came the US drought of 2012. US farmers are asking the USDA to forgo the biofuel mandate. It turns out that that they need all of that corn to keep food prices down.

The fact that biofuels compete with land for food crops and can produce food shortages has been noted by others. The US drought has simply demonstrated that the issue will affect rich and poor nations.

But the dream of using biofuels on a large scale for transportation has always been fanciful. US production targets for biofuels have been based on assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland. A recent report, using satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land, showed that meeting current US biofuel production targets with existing technology would require “devoting almost 80 percent of current farmland in the US to raising corn for ethanol production or converting 60 percent of existing rangeland to biofuels.”

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Rationality wins US greenhouse gas case

Tom Bennion, a Wellington environment lawyer who has not flown since 2009, takes a look at the recent Environmental Protection Agency versus the “Coalition for Responsible Regulation” case in the USA.

Opponents of regulation of greenhouse gases in the US, including a number of states, have just received a spanking in the DC Court of Appeals, a level just below the Supreme Court. The court has thrown out a variety of challenges to EPA rules regulating greenhouse gases. I will briefly explain the ruling (pdf here) and then comment on prospects from here.

The background is that in 2007 the Bush era EPA argued that it could not regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. In Massachusetts v. EPA the Supreme Court determined that it could.

Subsequently, the Obama era EPA has made an “Endangerment Finding” that greenhouse gases may “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Then it issued a “Tailpipe Rule” setting emissions standards for cars and light trucks which would save around 960 million metric tons of CO2e emissions. It also issued “Timing and Tailoring Rules” requiring only the largest stationary sources such as new power stations to meet emissions standards, on the basis that regulating every small polluter would be overly onerous.

Various states (drought afflicted Texas and thawing Alaska among them) and industry groups attacked both the Endangerment Finding and the rules on the basis that the Endangerment Finding and Tailpipe rules were “arbitrary and capricious” exercises of discretion by the EPA resulting from factual and procedural errors, and a misreading of the Clean Air Act.

The three member appeal court threw out all of the challenges.

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Water, water everywhere…

New Zealand’s response to the water crisis in Tuvalu and Tokelau is making headlines. Foreign Minister McCully announced yesterday:

Tuvalu has declared a state of emergency relating to water shortages in the capital, Funafuti, and a number of outer islands. A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 left this morning to take supplies and personnel to Tuvalu. The supplies include two desalination units as well as water containers. Two Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff on board, including our Wellington-based High Commissioner, will remain in Tuvalu to help assess needs on the ground. New Zealand will be working with partners and other donors to consider the best medium-to-long-term response options.

Tuvalu, with 11,000 inhabitants, is not the only island nation in trouble. Tokelau, with 1400 inhabitants, has declared a state of emergency because fresh water supplies might run out in a few days. Samoa is rationing water also.

There appears to be a reasonable probability that there is a causal link between the drought and water scarcity affecting the islands and climate change.

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More lunacy from Lomborg

Lomborg.jpgNewsweek recently carried an article by Bjorn Lomborg entitled “A Roadmap for the Planet.” His basic thesis, by now familiar to all, is that “exaggerated environmental worries—and the willingness of so many to believe them—could ultimately prevent us from finding smarter ways to actually help our planet and ensure the health of the environment for future generations.” This is because we have successfully dealt with similar issues before. “Although Westerners were once reliant on whale oil for lighting, we never actually ran out of whales. Why? High demand and rising prices for whale oil spurred a search for and investment in the 19th-century version of alternative energy.”

According to Lomborg, we have for generations “consistently underestimated our capacity for innovation.” The fact is that “would-be catastrophes have regularly been pushed aside throughout human history, and so often because of innovation and technological development. We never just continue to do the same old thing. We innovate and avoid the anticipated problems.”

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Something changed

The “Signs of Change” conference was held this week bringing together by video conference lecture theatres in Kerikeri, Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Invercargill [writes Tom Bennion]. Up to 200 attendees in all. The conference was organised by Christchurch engineering professor Susan Krumdeick who has for some time been active in researching ways to manage the risks related to resource limits (eg peak oil) and climate change — at local and national scales.

Susan’s approach is refreshingly upbeat while being entirely realistic and pragmatic about the changes required. The focus is on the need to get serious about the changes needed for the economy, society and infrastructure to cope with these challenges. She advised delegates that, as people who want to do the right thing, the thing to do now is not to buy a solar panel, but rather to understand that technology is not a magic solution, it’s a form of grief and bargaining. The changes required are simpler but more profound, but we can nevertheless all live reasonably comfortable and happy lives.
A kind of manifesto for the conference was produced. I’m not usually one for broad poetic statements of this sort, but I nevertheless found it uplifting.

We have enough
We can share what we have
If we used less, it would be fine
We can move ourselves
The economy does not need to grow in order for us to thrive
Business can be ethical and fair
Business can express and nurture cultural values
Health is the care of humans
Public space belongs to humans
We can meet at the market face to face
We can have humane relationships with the animals we depend on
We can work with Earth’s systems
We can build our homes and buildings to last for 600 years
We look upstream to manage our waste
We derive wealth from our waste
We protect and restore what nature creates
We listen to what Earth’s complex systems tell us
Our leaders listen to us and derive power from the mana of ethical behaviour and decisions
The powerful protect the weak
We are becoming indigenous
We are weaving all the threads together
The most important people in our village are those who will be us some day and we are listening to them.

Presentations covered a wide range of topics, from energy and waste management in cities, health, cycling, local food production, rail and electricity demand management. It was apparent that many initiatives that are happening now are occurring at or below the local government level, and not attracting the politics that affects national initiatives.