Posts Tagged Lester Brown

Offshore wind: a huge resource Bryan Walker Aug 28

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Two wind energy items arrived in my inbox in close proximity recently. One was from the NZ Wind Energy Association (NZWEA) congratulating Meridian Energy on turning the first sod at Mill Creek wind farm in the Ohariu Valley north-west of Wellington. It’s a 60 megawatt farm of 26 turbines. The project will cost $169 million and is expected to be commissioned by mid-2014. It will increase NZ’s installed wind capacity from 623 megawatts to 683 megawatts.

NZWEA’s chief executive made appropriate remarks to accompany the announcement, reiterating the expectation that at least 20% of NZ’s electricity will be generated from wind by 2030 and noting the technology advances in harnessing wind which is now one of the lowest cost options for new generation in New Zealand.

It’s good to see the steady progress in the development of wind energy in NZ, although it seems to arouse little excitement in Government circles who reserve most of their interest for further  fossil fuel development. And a report in Saturday’s NZ Herald was a sobering reminder that the $7 billion invested in the oil and gas sector over the past five years puts it far ahead of any other local sector when it comes to investment in new productive capacity. NZ is hardly on the brink of transition from fossil fuels, hardly, it seems, even interested in the possibility while there’s money to be made from exploiting them.

The second item was from the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), and reported that offshore wind development is picking up pace. Globally wind power now has 238,000 megawatts of capacity installed. Most of that is land-based, but the focus of the article was on the rise in offshore wind capacity, which has expanded nearly six-fold since 2006 to currently stand at 4600 megawatts. The article provides a useful overview of the prospective future development.

More than 90% of the offshore wind installations are in Europe, where the UK leads the way with 2500 MW, over half the world total.  Outside Europe, only China and Japan have operational offshore wind farms. Although its first offshore project was not installed until 2010, China already ranks fourth behind the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Belgium, with 260 megawatts. And China is poised for big development. The government’s goal is 30,000 megawatts of offshore capacity by 2020. This could generate the equivalent of roughly one fifth of China’s current residential electricity consumption. Elsewhere in East Asia, South Korea has big plans for offshore wind, targeting 2,500 megawatts by 2019.

The US by contrast is moving only slowly in offshore development. It trails only China in land-based wind generating capacity but has yet to install a single offshore turbine. After a decade of fending off opposition a proposed 470-megawatt project off the coast of Massachusetts aims to begin construction next year, as do two other East Coast projects. A proposed offshore “transmission backbone” of highly efficient underwater high voltage direct current cables financed by Google and other investors would stretch some 300 miles from New York to Virginia, and could connect around 7,000 megawatts of offshore wind to the Mid-Atlantic’s population centres. It’s now under environmental review and complete construction would take approximately 10 years. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that wind turbines installed in the shallow waters of the Mid-Atlantic region could add up to nearly 300,000 megawatts of capacity—enough to power 90 million U.S. homes. For the entire Atlantic Coast, including deeper waters, the resource is estimated at 1 million megawatts.

The EPI report claims that nine of the top ten carbon dioxide emitting countries in 2010 have more than enough offshore wind energy potential to meet all their current electricity needs. (Iran is the exception.) Russia’s offshore wind resources, for example, exceed its current electricity demand by a factor of 23. Canada’s current electricity needs could be met 36 times over with domestic offshore wind energy.

It’s clearly an enormous resource, albeit not one that all the countries concerned are racing to exploit. Current leaders in offshore wind are expected to remain the principal sites for deployment, with China, the UK and Germany accounting for more than 70% of new installations.

Lester Brown is founder and president of EPI. His well-known Plan B, to which this article is one of many updates, called in 2009 for a crash programme to develop 3 million megawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40% of world electricity needs. There’s little in what is reported here to suggest we are on track to that sort of figure. Indeed, this update merely concludes: “As interest grows and technology advances, offshore wind appears headed for a prominent position in the world’s renewable energy mix.”

It’s not difficult to see the promise in renewable energy, but it is difficult as yet to see sufficient development to suggest we are serious about decarbonising our economies. It can even seem a little foolish to make much of the promise of renewables, given the political strength of climate change denial and the determination of vested interests to hold on to fossil fuel industries. It’s easier to lament the apparent incapability of the world’s political leadership to challenge the disastrous route we are on than to paint hopeful prospects for clean energy. But there is movement, either with or without government support, and it’s important to publicise that and to say over and over again that we do not need to burn fossil fuels to obtain reliable and abundant power.

The Lesson from China Bryan Walker Sep 15

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Environmentalist Lester Brown is a competitive long-distance runner even into his late seventies. There’s something of the dogged persistence of that sport in the way he keeps delivering the message that humanity must change course, and backing up what he has to say with masses of data.  The latest email I received a few days ago from his Earth Policy Institute underlined that message yet again, along with stark figures. It’s a short article headed Learning From China. I was taken with its directness and simplicity and thought it worth sharing here. He reflects that for as long as he can remember his own country, the US, with 5 percent of the world’s population has consumed a third or more of the earth’s resources. But today China consumes more basic resources than the US does. China uses a quarter more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is double that of the United States. It uses three times as much coal and four times as much steel.

That’s national consumption. What if per capita consumption in China were to catch up with the US? That will happen by 2035 on the conservative assumption that China’s economy slows from the 11 percent annual growth of recent years to 8 percent.

If the Chinese spend their income more or less as Americans do today, then things get pretty well impossible.

If, for example, each person in China consumes paper at the current American rate, then in 2035 China’s 1.38 billion people will use four fifths as much paper as is produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.

If Chinese grain consumption per person in 2035 were to equal the current U.S. level, China would need 1.5 billion tons of grain, nearly 70 percent of the 2.2 billion tons the world’s farmers now harvest each year.

If we assume that in 2035 there are three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The entire world currently has just over one billion. To provide the needed roads, highways, and parking lots, China would have to pave an area equivalent to more than two thirds the land it currently has in rice.

By 2035 China would need 85 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 86 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.

It’s hard to gainsay his conclusion:

What China is teaching us is that the western economic model–the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy–will not work for the world. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2035 is projected to have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the ’American dream.’ And in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.

Who in the world of planners, economists and politicians actually stops to think about this? These days there’s a plethora of interviews and discussions and reports by experts on the emergence of China as a new economic force and the extraordinary rapidity with which it is happening. But it is hard to find in the mainstream media any reflection on the factors Brown draws attention to.

He never utters warnings without also pointing to solutions.

The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy–one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress.

And he finishes with that haunting question on which so much depends.

But can we muster the political will to translate this potential into reality?

Note: Two of Brown’s books have been reviewed on Hot Topic here and here.

Lester Brown and the water lilies Bryan Walker Apr 06

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When I was reviewing Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption I was frequently aware of similarities with Lester Brown’s writing, most recently World on the Edge. The parallels were highlighted further for me when I viewed an excellent recent documentary on Lester Brown’s advocacy which has recently screened on PBS in the US. I recommend the film as providing a clear overview of Brown’s thinking. It is available streamed during the month of April. For those who don’t have the time to look at it I’ll briefly highlight one or two significant points which are echoed by Gilding and which sound themes that are surely central to any hope of preventing the full danger inherent in climate change.

Brown uses the infamous Enron Corporation as analogous to what we are doing. Enron was leaving costs off the books, everything looked great, but the procedures were fraudulent and the company was bankrupt.

Economist Paul Krugman comments at this point in the documentary on the exclusion of environmental costs from market operations:

’What we have now is a situation in which the most pressing problems of the world, which are environmental and ecological, are ones that the market has no incentive to deal with.’

When is the reckoning? Brown speaks of the 29th day. Water lily pads in a pond have been doubling in number each day for 29 days and the pond is now half-covered. There’s still plenty of room for wildlife. But on the very next day it is fully covered and will soon become a choking mass of dying vegetation unable to provide a safe haven for wildlife. ’Has our planet reached the 29th day?’ he asks — rhetorically, so far as one commenter is concerned who considers we are well into the 30th.

Brown is not one for half measures. We must reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2020, a figure even more radical than Gilding’s hopes of 50 percent by 2023. Does he really think that can happen? Can we change that fast?

’I sometimes go back and re-read the economic history of World War II,’ he says, and the documentary produces clips from old news film, starting with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. We hear extracts from the 1942 state of the union address from President Roosevelt announcing the astonishing goals for building planes, tanks, ships and armaments.

’Our task is unprecedented and the time is short … Let no man say it cannot be done. It must be done and we have undertaken to do it.’

The point of this example, says Brown:

’It did not take decades to restructure the US industrial economy. It did not take years. We did it in a matter of months.’

He thinks we can make the necessary carbon emission reductions in the time that’s available. But we’re going to have to move very fast.

And it doesn’t need a Pearl Harbour to produce the will for change. Bruce Bobbitt, a former Secretary of the Interior, at this point in the film attests:

’My personal experience in my lifetime with the dynamics of change was the civil rights revolution that began in the 1960s.  Remarkably in the course of five years we went from 100 years of complacency through a civil rights war that culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965… Change which seems impossible suddenly becomes quite real very rapidly, driven by a massive change of understanding and attitudes.’

Brown and Gilding are far from lone voices. Many others have written and spoken in similar terms. But the themes which stand out bear regular and frequent repetition:

  • Things are already much worse than is immediately apparent. We are carrying on in denial of the underlying reality not only of climate change but of many other looming environmental threats. We have passed the limits of the planet’s capacity, but we are hiding the fact.
  • In the case of climate change urgent action is now required to reduce emissions drastically. Both Gilding and Brown turn to World War II for demonstration of the feasibility of the kind of dramatic turnaround in our economies that is required. The technology is available. It needs only to be employed.

The advocates say it needs to be done and it can be done. One doesn’t need to be a hardened cynic to find oneself adding, ’But it won’t be done’. Yet to say that now is to accept defeat before we have to. All honour to those who keep battling.

Let the wind blow (again) Bryan Walker Mar 16

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Lester Brown doesn’t let up when he’s published a book. Over successive months his Earth Policy Institute produces follow-up articles focusing on particular topics. The latest is on wind power, which was strongly advocated in his recent book World on the Edge as the early leader in the move to renewable sources of energy. What he has to say about the global development of wind power ties in with my recent update on wind power in New Zealand and is well worth reporting here. What follows is mainly extract from his article.

There are now more than 70 countries developing wind resources. Between 2000 and 2010, world wind electric generating capacity increased at what Brown describes as frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts to nearly 200,000 megawatts.

Measured by share of electricity supplied by wind, Denmark is the leading nation at 21 per cent and looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50 per cent by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore. Three north German states now get 40 per cent or more of their electricity from wind. For Germany as a whole, the figure is 8 per cent‒and climbing.

In terms of volume, the US leads the world with 35,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, followed by China and Germany with 26,000 megawatts each. Texas, long the leading US oil-producing state, is now also the nation’s leading generator of electricity from wind. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online and more under construction. If all of the wind farms projected for 2025 are completed, Texas will have 38,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity‒the equivalent of 38 coal-fired power plants and enough to satisfy roughly 90 per cent of the current residential electricity needs of the state’s 25 million people.

Since wind turbines occupy only 1 per cent of the land, farmers can continue to grow grain and graze livestock on land devoted to wind farms. In effect they double-crop. For thousands of ranchers in the US Great Plains, wind royalties will dwarf their net earnings from cattle sales.

In considering the energy productivity of land, wind turbines are well ahead. For example, an acre of land in northern Iowa planted in corn can yield $1,000 worth of ethanol per year. That same acre used to site a wind turbine can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. Brown points out that this helps explain why investors find wind farms so attractive.

Turning to China, Brown describes impressive expansion. The country is well endowed, with enough onshore harnessable wind energy to raise its current electricity consumption 16-fold. Today, most of China’s 26,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity come from 50- to 100-megawatt wind farms. More wind farms of that size that are on the way, but China’s new Wind Base program is an enormous advance. It will create seven wind mega-complexes of 10 to 38 gigawatts each in six provinces (1 gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts). When completed, these complexes will have a generating capacity of more than 130 gigawatts. This is equivalent to building one new coal plant per week for two and a half years.

Of these 130 gigawatts, 7 gigawatts will be in the coastal waters of Jiangsu Province, one of China’s most highly industrialized provinces. China is planning a total of 23 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity.

Back in Europe prospects are also ambitious. Europe now has 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind online, but wind developers are planning 140 gigawatts of offshore wind generating capacity, mostly in the North Sea. There is enough harnessable wind energy in offshore Europe to satisfy the continent’s needs seven times over.

Spain, which has 19,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity for its 45 million people, got 14 per cent of its electricity from wind in 2009. On November 8th of that year, strong winds across Spain enabled wind turbines to supply 53 per cent of the country’s electricity over a five-hour stretch.

In 2007, when Turkey issued a request for proposals to build wind farms, it received bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, far beyond its 41,000 megawatts of total electrical generating capacity. Having selected 7,000 megawatts of the most promising proposals, the government is issuing construction permits.

In wind-rich Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta are the leaders in installed capacity. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has received applications for offshore wind development rights on its side of the Great Lakes that could result in some 21,000 megawatts of generating capacity. The provincial goal is to back out all coal-fired power by 2014.

How does all this development fit into the Earth Policy Institute’s Plan B to save civilization?  At the heart of the plan is a crash programme to develop 4,000 gigawatts (4 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020. This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, not an impossible remove from the doubling every three years over the last decade.

It would mean installing 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each over the next 10 years. If that sounds intimidating Brown suggests comparing it with the 70 million automobiles the world produces each year.

At $3 million per installed turbine, the 2 million turbines would cost $600 billion per year worldwide between now and 2020. Compare that for size with world oil and gas capital expenditures that are projected to double from $800 billion in 2010 to $1.6 trillion in 2015.

Brown is partly reporter and partly advocate, but the two are not hopelessly disjoined. There seems no inherent reason why what is already under way around the world should not grow with greater rapidity to the level he advocates, especially if government policies help push it along.

[Beach Boys]

World on the Edge Bryan Walker Jan 06

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Lester Brown has for years been unwavering and persistent in drawing attention to the gathering environmental dangers humanity faces and pointing to the alternative practices which might yet save us from the worst effects. His widely read Plan B books have appeared at regular intervals throughout the last decade. I reviewed the fourth of them on Hot Topic in 2009. A new book now published is shorter but no less urgent, as its title indicates: World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

He points to three areas where the foundations of human civilisation are under severe threat, particularly because of the effects on food production. Water is being overpumped from aquifers and the world’s farmers are losing the water war, with dangerous consequences for food production as harvests consequently shrink.  Soils are eroding and deserts expanding on an alarming scale, resulting in lowered soil fertility and contraction of land available for farming. Global warming is bringing a climate instability to which agriculture is not adapted, the threat of sea level rise which will shrink rice harvests in vulnerable areas, and changes to water supply from mountain glaciers already affecting farming negatively in some places.

Three consequences are selected and highlighted for a world where the human population continues to soar. The first is the emerging politics of food scarcity. We are adding 80 million people a year. Three billion of us who are already here are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The massive ethanol distillery investment in the US has added an epic competition between cars and people for grain. Some of the more affluent food importing countries are now buying or leasing large blocks of land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. The countries doing the buying or leasing include Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, India, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Brown writes of an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries. A dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is in the making.

The second consequence Brown dwells on is the phenomenon of environmental refugees, people displaced by rising seas, more-destructive storms, expanding deserts, water shortages and other environmental factors. As the impacts of climate change begin to bite it will be rising-sea refugees who will likely dominate the flow. The book details some of the places where people are already moving as refugees within their own countries and warns of the potentially massive and chaotic movement of people across national boundaries as the pressures intensify.

The third consequence he considers is the increase in the number of failing states. Virtually all of the top 20 of them are depleting their natural assets — forests, grasslands, soils and aquifers — to sustain their rapidly growing populations. Failing states not only cause misery to their citizens but also threaten the international cooperation necessary in an age of increasing globalisation. It is in all our interests that the causes of state failure are addressed with urgency.

This is the world at the edge to which our environmental heedlessness has brought us. We don’t have to go over that edge, but to avoid doing so we need a monumental effort undertaken at wartime speed. This is Plan B. It has four components: the stabilisation of the climate, the restoration of Earth’s natural support systems, the stabilisation of population, and the eradication of poverty.

To stabilise climate we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2020.The first step is raising energy efficiency. This can entirely meet the projected growth in energy use between now and 2030. The second step is replacing all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with that from renewable sources, meaning wind, solar and geothermal. Nuclear is too expensive if full-cost pricing is applied. Carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired plants is also excluded, given the costs and lack of investor interest within the coal community itself.  Brown sees wind as the early leader and calls for a crash programme to develop 4000 gigawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020. That’s 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts over the next ten years. Not really an intimidating target when compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces every year. The third step is to end deforestation and engage in a massive campaign to plant trees and stabilise soils.

Brown’s writing is never just exhortation. He looks everywhere for evidence of movement in the directions we need to take, and details it. It is not the case that Plan B solutions are untried. There is a great deal to encourage the concerned reader as Brown points to hopeful developments already taking place. Whether it be Scotland announcing in September that it was adopting a new goal of 80 percent renewable electricity by 2020 and expecting 100 percent by 2025, or the explosive growth in solar cell production in recent years, or the seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land in South Korea since the end of the Korean War so that nearly 65 percent of the once denuded country is now covered by forest, or the rapid reduction in fertility rates some developing countries have shown achievable, there are many signs that Plan B is not pie in the sky.

But we have to move with speed. Brown insists that the key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through full-cost pricing. An honest market will reflect the full cost of burning gasoline or coal, of deforestation, of overpumping aquifers, and of overfishing. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world’s energy economy. Wind, solar and geothermal will be revealed as much cheaper than climate-disrupting fossil fuels.  At present we are being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that will lead to bankruptcy.

When Brown is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the scale and urgency of the needed changes he reminds himself of the economic history of the US during the war, when within three years from 1942 the US turned out an astonishing 229,000 aircraft and added more than 5000 ships to the American Merchant Fleet.  The conversion to a wartime economy happened within months. But it took a Pearl Harbour to motivate the turnaround. He trusts a cataclysmic event on the climate front, such as the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet, will not be needed to galvanise action, since it might also unfortunately indicate that we were too late. He hopes rather that the rapid changes needed can result from a dedicated grassroots movement pushing for change that is strongly supported by political leadership as, for example, civil rights change in the 1960s was achieved in the US.

Brown understands the precariousness of human civilisation as the time of environmental reckoning draws ominously closer. He expresses it in patient and telling detail that addresses the intelligence and humanity of the reader. He equally buttresses his outline of the solutions with solid information as to how and why they can work. Whether sanity and clarity carry weight in the halls of power may be moot, but Brown well represents the thinking of the substantial body of people who see the perils ahead and want their governments to mobilise to avert them.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]

Ramping up renewables Bryan Walker Aug 26

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There may be conflicting reports as to whether renewable energy can replace fossil fuels in time to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and there are still plenty of people in positions of authority, like our own Energy Minister, who see little reason to hurry the process. The heavy lobbying influence of big oil and coal interests remains powerful. But it’s heartening to be reminded from time to time that transition is nevertheless under way in many parts of the world and that it’s gathering pace. An Earth Policy Institute article has arrived in my inbox offering just such a reminder. It refreshes what Lester Brown had to say about the shift to renewable energy in his book Plan B 4.0.

I reviewed the book on Hot Topic last year, but at the risk of repeating myself I’ll report some of the points which he now reiterates and updates. The first is that the transition to energy powered by wind, solar and geothermal sources is moving worldwide at a pace and on a scale we could not have imagined even two years ago. Texas, the oil state, is a prime example. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, 370 more in construction, and a huge amount in the development stage. When all of these wind farms are completed, Texas will have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity–the equivalent of 53 coal-fired power plants. This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state’s 25 million people, enabling Texas to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil.

South Dakota has begun development on a vast 5050-megawatt farm that when completed will produce nearly five times as much electricity as the state needs. It will become an exporter, as some ten American states and several Canadian provinces are planning to be.

Brown then moves across the Atlantic to point to the hopes of the Scottish government for the development of an enormous off-shore wind generating capacity of some 60,000 megawatts. I reported  on Hot Topic a few months ago on a major survey which has identified North Sea potential from wind and wave of even larger potential, capable of producing six times as much electricity as is currently used in the UK. If joined to a northern super-grid it could enable access to a single European electricity market and export opportunity.

Algeria plans to build 6000 megawatts of solar thermal generating power for export to Europe via undersea cable

It’s not only the developed world that is embracing renewable energy on a rapidly growing scale. Brown instances Algeria’s plans to build 6000 megawatts of solar thermal generating power for export to Europe via undersea cable. He points to their awareness that they have enough harnessable solar energy in their vast deserts to power the entire world economy. Solar energy is clearly of enormous potential not only in the Mediterranean region but also in the south-west US and the Indian desert and China, and there is regular news of new developments in all of these areas.

Brown touches on Turkey where construction  permits are being issued for 7,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, in response to bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts. In Indonesia the state oil company Pertamina is responsible for developing most of a planned 6,900 megawatts of geothermal generating capacity.

’These are only a few of the visionary initiatives to tap the earth’s renewable energy. The resources are vast. In the United States, three states–North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas–have enough harnessable wind energy to run the entire economy. In China, wind will likely become the dominant power source. Indonesia could one day get all its power from geothermal energy alone. Europe will be powered largely by wind farms in the North Sea and solar thermal power plants in the North African desert.’

The 20th century saw the globalisation of the world energy economy as countries everywhere turned to oil, much of it from the Middle East. This century, says Brown, will see the localisation of energy production as the world turns to wind, solar and geothermal energy. It will also see the electrification of the economy.

’The transport sector will shift from gasoline-powered automobiles to plug-in gas-electric hybrids, all-electric cars, light rail transit, and high-speed intercity rail. And for long-distance freight, the shift will be from diesel-powered trucks to electrically powered rail freight systems. The movement of people and goods will be powered largely by electricity. In this new energy economy, buildings will rely on renewable electricity almost exclusively for heating, cooling, and lighting.’

Can renewable energy be expanded fast enough? Brown thinks so, encouraged by the phenomenon of the extraordinary growth of the communications and information economies in only the last thirty years. Others don’t. Barry Brook in Australia is one, with his views summed up in this recent article and much more on his Brave New Climate website. Not that he’s arguing for fossil fuels — in his view nuclear power is the only technology that can get us there fast enough and economically enough. 

Lester Brown falls back on the analogy of the Second World War when the American economy changed direction with extraordinary speed and prospered in doing so. He’s not alone in sounding this theme, but he was an early proponent of it. The difficulty with this concept is that our societies are hardly yet ready to see climate change in the stark terms which obtained in 1939 and 1941. 

Whether renewables will be ratcheted up quickly enough or not they certainly represent one of our best hopes of containing climate change impacts. Don’t forget to tell Gerry Brownlee so before September 2, when submissions on the new draft energy strategy close. I’ve said elsewhere on Hot Topic what I see as wrong with the draft.  Simon Boxer of Greenpeace has put it succinctly:

’It’s a document that lacks vision and goals. It shows that the Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee is ignoring the climate crisis. It’s a route map to a dead end.

’The Government’s energy strategy prioritises drilling and mining for more oil and coal, while providing virtually no stimulation for the development of renewable energy and clean technology. It fails to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change and makes no attempt to set measurable emissions reduction targets.’

If you’d like some suggestions the Greens offer a thoughtful submission guide.  If you’re lacking time a shortcut is offered by Greenpeace or WWF . Many of the 40,000 submissions received by the government on Brownlee’s proposals to mine conservation land no doubt used form statements provided by organisations. They still count, so use one of the offered quick responses rather than pass the opportunity by.

Lester Brown: Russian heat hits world grain supplies Bryan Walker Aug 13

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One of the things that persuaded Gwynne Dyer that it was time to write his book Climate Wars was the realisation that ’the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply’. He’s not the only one to recognise that. Many of us hearing about what the Russian heat wave is doing to crops have no doubt been wondering what the effect of so much loss might be on global supplies. Right on cue Lester Brown, whose Plan B books always lays great stress on food reserves, has produced  an update on what the failed harvest in Russia might mean.

’Russia’s grain harvest, which was 94 million tons last year, could drop to 65 million tons or even less. West of the Ural Mountains, where most of its grain is grown, Russia is parched beyond belief. An estimated one fifth of its grainland is not worth harvesting. In addition, Ukraine’s harvest could be down 20 percent from last year. And Kazakhstan anticipates a harvest 34 percent below that of 2009. (See data.)’

He notes that the heat and drought are also reducing grass and hay growth, meaning that farmers will have to feed more grain during the long winter. Moscow has already released 3 million tons of grain from government stocks for this purpose. Supplementing hay with grain is costly, but the alternative is reduction of herd size by slaughtering, which means higher meat and milk prices.

The Russian ban on grain exports and possible restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan could cause panic in food-importing countries, leading to a run on exportable grain supplies. Beyond this year, there could be some drought spillover into next year if there is not enough soil moisture by late August to plant Russia’s new winter wheat crop.

The grain-importing countries have in recent times seen China added to their list. In recent months China has imported over half a million tons of wheat from both Australia and Canada and a million tons of corn from the US. A Chinese consulting firm projects China’s corn imports climbing to 15 million tons in 2015. China’s potential role as an importer could put additional pressure on exportable supplies of grain.

The bottom line indicator of food security, Brown explains, is the amount of grain in the bin when the new harvest begins. When world carryover stocks of grain dropped to 62 days of consumption in 2006 and 64 days in 2007, it set the stage for the 2007—08 price run-up. World grain carryover stocks at the end of the current crop year have been estimated at 76 days of consumption, somewhat above the widely recommended 70-day minimum. A new US Department of Agriculture estimate is due very soon, which will give some idea of how much carryover stocks will be estimated to drop as a result of the Russian failure.

We don’t know what all this will mean for world prices. The prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007—08 run-up in grain prices began. Whether prices will reach the 2008 peak again remains to be seen.

Brown performs the obligatory ritual of acknowledging that no  single event can be attributed to global warming, though I would have thought that by now that proviso could be taken as read. It’s surely more important to affirm, as of course he does, that extreme events are an expected manifestation of human-caused climate change, and their effect on food production must be a major concern.

’That intense heat waves shrink harvests is not surprising. The rule of thumb used by crop ecologists is that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent. With global temperature projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius during this century, this effect on yields is an obvious matter of concern.’

Demand isn’t going down to match the reduction:

’Each year the world demand for grain climbs. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million more people. In addition, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. And this year some 120 million tons of the 415-million-ton U.S. grain harvest will go to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.’

And the obvious conclusion:

’Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly–before climate change spins out of control.’

There’s a podcast in which Lester Brown speaks at greater length, elaborating the matters covered in his written update, and amongst other things commenting on how we might be thankful, from a global grain harvest perspective, that it was Moscow and not Chicago or Beijing which experienced temperatures so far above the norm. The grain loss would have been much higher in either case.

It’s worth adding that while the Russian event is dramatic in terms of its obvious impact on exports of grain globally, there are plenty of other places where food production is threatened by extreme events or by other  trends which are in line with climate change predictions. It is impossible to look at the vast flooding of land in Pakistan and not wonder how they will cope with the washing away of millions of hectares of crops — there have been “huge losses” according to the BBC.

’We need to cut carbon emissions and cut them fast.’

Lester Brown: US falling out of love with cars Bryan Walker Jan 07

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Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0, places more hope for climate stabilisation on shifts that he sees taking place in society and the economy than in internationally negotiated agreements. Not that he rejects such agreements, but he regards them as somewhat obsolete, for two reasons: first, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed; second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify the agreements, we may simply run out of time.

He’s just issued a Plan B update which illustrates the kind of positive changes he sees taking place without the stimulus of global agreements. He announces that America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end. The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline. In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million, or nearly 2 percent in one year. While this is widely associated with the recession, it is in fact caused by several converging forces. He sees no reason why the trend of scrappage exceeding new car sales should not continue through to 2020.

The forces at work?

Market saturation for one. The US has five vehicles for every four drivers.  ’When is enough enough?’  Japan apparently reached car saturation in 1990. Since then its annual car sales have shrunk by 21 percent.

Ongoing urbanisation is having an effect. ’The car promised mobility, and in a largely rural United States it delivered. But with four out of five Americans now living in cities, the growth in urban car numbers at some point provides just the opposite: immobility.’ Public transport schemes are being expanded and improved in almost every US city, and attention being given to more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets. Car use in cities is being discouraged.

Economic uncertainty and reluctance to undertake long-term debt is affecting household choices. ’Families are living with two cars instead of three, or one car instead of two. Some are dispensing with the car altogether. In Washington, D.C., with a well-developed transit system, only 63 percent of households own a car.’

A more specific uncertainty is the future price of gasoline. Motorists have seen gas prices climb to $4 a gallon, and they worry that it could go even higher in the future.

Finally, Brown points to a declining interest in cars among young people as perhaps the most fundamental cultural trend affecting the future of the automobile. Half a century ago getting a driver’s license and a car or a pickup was a rite of passage. Getting other teenagers into a car and driving around was a popular pastime.

’In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars. Many do not even bother to get a driver’s license. This helps explain why, despite the largest U.S. teenage population ever, the number of teenagers with licenses, which peaked at 12 million in 1978, is now under 10 million. If this trend continues, the number of potential young car-buyers will continue to decline.’

If his expectation of shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet is sustained it also means that there will be little need to build new roads and highways. Fewer cars on the road reduces highway and street maintenance costs and lessens demand for parking lots and parking garages. It also sets the stage for greater investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.

 ’The United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.’

Brown is ever the optimist, but he seeks to be well grounded.  Has he been too quick to discern a trend, or has close attention to emerging possibilities alerted him to something of real promise?

Plan B (not from outer space) Bryan Walker Oct 12

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Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save CivilizationI hadn’t expected to be doing a Hot Topic review of Lester Brown’s book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, since he writes about a variety of sustainability issues. However the 90 pages or so he devotes to climate change were irresistible for their sensible optimism and I report them here.

The Plan B books have been appearing in updated form since 2003. They are no light undertaking. Intended to influence, they have translators into 22 languages and achieve worldwide circulation. Several thousand individuals purchase five or more copies for distribution to friends, colleagues and opinion leaders. Ted Turner does so on a large scale, distributing copies of each Plan B to heads of state and their key cabinet ministers, the Fortune 500 CEOs, and members of Congress. A film version of Plan B 4.0 is in progress.

Brown is a generalist. His work is to pull together scattered information and communicate it to the public. The results are scary on the reality of the problems and upbeat on the solutions. On climate change he is unflinching. He reports recent studies projecting a sea level rise of up to two metres by the end of the century. Up to a third of all plant and animal species could be lost. The chorus of urgency from the scientific community intensifies by the year. Higher temperatures diminish crop yields, increase the severity of storms, flooding, drought and wildfires, and alter eco-systems everywhere. The effects of melting glaciers on irrigation is a massive threat to food production.

Selecting items like this doesn’t do justice to the overall organisation of the chapter in which he sets out the threat. In 20 pages he presents a valuable summary reminder of what a continuance of anthropogenic global warming will result in for human life. It’s chapter 3 of the book, which by the way is available for free download here on the Earth Policy Institute website. The chapter can be recommended for anyone who wants to know in short compass what it all adds up to and why it matters supremely.

 Always positive in the face of threat, Brown sets out his Plan B response. He stands with James Hansen and others on the necessity to reduce CO2 levels to 350 parts per million concentration. Plan B envisages cutting emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to keep levels from exceeding 400 ppm before starting to reduce them. This will be challenging, ’but how can we face the next generation if we do not try?’ And it’s feasible.

Two steps are needed. The first is an energy efficiency revolution, the beginnings of which are already under way. The revolution in lighting technology is a good start, and one which many countries are joining (while New Zealand is pulling back by decision of our benighted Minister of Energy). Compact fluorescents (CFLs), using 75 percent less electricity than incandescents are the first step. The light-emitting diode (LED), using up to 85 percent less is the ultimate. Lighting is not a small matter. It currently uses 19 percent of the world share of electricity. This would be cut to 7 percent with a move to CFLs in homes, advanced linear fluorescents in offices, shops and factories, and LEDs in traffic lights.  The lighting efficiency gains would be even greater if LEDs reduce in cost and can be used more widely.

Energy-efficient appliances are already lowering considerably their electricity requirement. A worldwide set of appliance efficiency standards keyed to the most efficient models on the market would offer as much or more than the 12 percent of world electricity savings from more efficient lighting.

Low energy use buildings are already being built in some countries.  There is enormous potential for reducing energy use in buildings. Even energy retrofits on older inefficient buildings can cut usage by 20-50 percent.  Brown discusses the LEED certification offered by the US Green Building Council in interesting detail. New buildings can easily be designed with half the energy requirements of existing ones.

The overall electrification of transport will mean much greater energy efficiency, especially as the power comes increasingly from renewable sources. New technologies have opened the way for hybrid plug-ins and all-electric cars and all major car makers have plans, as Brown details, to bring them to market. The future of intercity travel lies with high-speed trains, which under Plan B will be powered almost entirely by renewable electricity. Japan has set the standard, but many countries are now participating. Public transport has a significant role to play; shifting public funds from highway construction to public transport would reduce the number of cars needed. (A point lost on our Transport Minister, who shares the Energy Minister’s preference for outdated practice.)

A striking section on metal recycling demonstrates that it requires only a fraction of the energy needed to produce the metals from virgin ore. Design of products so that they can be easily disassembled for reuse or recycling carries economic benefit, as do reusable containers. Waste reduction is central. In summary, there is a vast worldwide potential for cutting carbon emissions by reducing materials use, and beginnings have been made. 

There follows an illuminating account of what a smart grid combined with smart meters can add to energy efficiency and how moves in that direction are already under way in various parts of the world. He concludes the chapter (4) by expressing his confidence that the energy-saving measures identified and proposed will more than offset the nearly 30 percent growth in global energy demand projected by the IEA between 2006 and 2020.

The second major step is the shift to renewable energy.

’…this energy transition [to wind, solar and geothermal energy] is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even two years ago. And it is a worldwide phenomenon.’

He instances Texas which is looking to have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, which will more than satisfy the state’s residential needs and enable it to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil.  Some 70 countries are now using wind power. A Stanford University study concluded that harnessing one fifth of the world’s available wind energy would provide seven times as much electricity as the world currently uses. Plan B involves a crash programme to develop 3000 gigawatts (3 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40 percent of world electricity needs. That’s 1.5 million 2-megawatt wind turbines over the period. Intimidating? Compare it with 70 million cars per year. 

Solar energy is the second source undergoing dramatic expansion. Photovoltaic installations are increasing rapidly, by 45 percent annually, and production costs are falling fast. Solar thermal electricity, which uses reflectors to concentrate sunlight on a closed vessel containing water or some other liquid, is on the move, with big plans mooted for the southwest US and Algeria and the Indian Desert. Solar water heating, now seen in many countries, is another obvious benefit.

There is more. Geothermal energy in a variety of forms is a barely tapped source, with very large  potential.  Hydro power from the movement of tides and waves is starting to be developed. Biomass offers a small but worthwhile contribution. Brown doesn’t rule out nuclear, but thinks it is expensive by comparison and unlikely to reach a level of new development which would do much more than replace current aging plants.  Carbon capture and storage doesn’t figure, at least at this stage, for reasons of expense and lack of investor interest.

The chapter (5) is full of facts and figures to support his sense that movement on renewable energy is strongly under way and that the resource is more than adequate to our need to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2020. It won’t just happen. Strategic government intervention is needed to put a price on carbon, to offer appropriate assistance to desirable developments, sometimes to mandate changes. He frequently turns to the analogy of wartime mobilisation. But he clearly looks to the vigour of enterprise and innovation in business and industry to see the job through. Indeed there is a strong sense of that vigour already present and poised like a wave ready to be caught. If we do catch it it will take us safely to shore.

[Dexys Midnight Runners]

US should aim for 80% by 2020 Bryan Walker Sep 22

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Renowned American environmentalist Lester Brown offers measured optimism in an article published in the Washington Post on Sunday. He claims a surprisingly dramatic 9 percent drop in US carbon emissions over the past two years and the promise of further huge reductions.  Part of this decline, he acknowledges, was caused by the recession and higher petrol prices but part of it came from gains in energy efficiency and shifts to carbon-free sources of energy, including record amounts of new wind-generating capacity. He looks ahead to the prospect of further reductions.  

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and cut carbon emissions are under way at every level of government — national, state and city — and in corporations, utilities and universities. Beyond this, millions of climate-conscious Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to achieve the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country’s 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

On the supply side he points to the utilities beginning to turn their backs on coal. One hundred proposed coal-fired power plants have been cancelled since 2001. About 22 coal-fired power plants in 12 states are being replaced by wood-fired power, wind farms or natural gas plants.  

While some U.S. coal plants are closing, wind farms are multiplying. Last year, 102 wind farms came online, providing 8,400 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity, the equivalent of eight coal-fired power plants. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of this year, and 57 more are under construction. More important, 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) await access to the grid so that construction can begin.

U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year and with new government incentives, this rapid growth should continue. Solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are going up fast in California, Arizona and Nevada. The availability of a molten-salt heat-storage technology that enables the plants to continue generating power up to six hours past sundown is spurring investor interest.

Oil use is going down and purchase of vehicles with better mileage ratios is increasing.  The shift to plug-in hybrids and electric cars will come faster than most policy-makers anticipate, as it becomes apparent that their fuelling cost from wind-generated electricity is low.

I don’t know whether Brown’s optimism is well founded.  I do know that he is always realistic when describing the environmental threats confronting the world, not only in climate change but also in water shortages, food shortages, population pressure, soil degradation and the like. The first part of his Plan B books is always extremely sobering as he details the challenges.  But the pessimistic tone of what he writes there is always matched by the vigour with which he advocates the Plan B solutions later in the books.  It appears from the Washington Post article that he considers that the US is at last on the solutions path in relation to carbon emissions. 

Indeed he draws some striking conclusions.

’Although Congress is considering legislation that would cut emissions only 15 or 20 percent by 2020, it’s clear to me that with just a little effort, the United States could far surpass this. Given the potentially catastrophic climate change the world is facing, we should push in Copenhagen for an 80 percent reduction by 2020.’

This is the amount he thinks we need to cut to have a decent shot at saving the larger ice masses. It would halt the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, now 387 parts per million , at 400 ppm in 2020. Reductions could then begin to the 350 ppm that the James Hansen says is necessary to stem global warming’s most egregious effects.

If the United States were to push for an 80 percent cut, will the rest of the world follow? In particular will China and India cooperate?  He points out that the two countries are among those whose food security is most affected by global warming, and the world does not hold food supplies adequate to supply their giant populations by imports. This he implies is a spur to change from the fossil-fuel pathway. He points to the extraordinary growth in wind energy in China and the advance of solar cell technology, and notes that the pace of building coal-fired power stations seems to be slowing, with many of the older, dirtier coal plants being closed down.  For India, the answer lies not only in wind energy but in the Great Indian Desert. The harnessable solar energy there could power the entire Indian economy. The new solar thermal power plants, which can generate electricity several hours after sundown, could wean India from its coal addiction.

’Stabilizing the earth’s climate is a complex undertaking and fraught with risk. If the United States leads — and does so boldly —  I believe the world will follow.’

’Follow’ — that’s our cue isn’t it? 

Is Brown just singing to keep his courage up?  Or is he really discerning a shift, the early stages perhaps of a wave that will confound our pessimism?  He is always worth attention, and I was certainly happy enough while reading him to at least hope he might be right.

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