Mark Lynas

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Image source: Hemmy.net.

Image source: Hemmy.net.

The Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has become the most visible developing country spokesperson on climate change. Nasheed has continued to press for radical reductions in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, most recently arguing for a 350 parts per million target in a meeting with activist and author Bill McKibben in Copenhagen.

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The Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed stands in the sea off Kurumba to show the threat the islands face. Photograph: Chiara Goia. Source: Guardian.

The Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed stands in the sea off Kurumba to show the threat the islands face. Photograph: Chiara Goia. Source: Guardian.

Plans for a new windfarm are set to make the Maldives the country with the highest proportion of renewable power in the world.

The 30-turbine proposed windfarm, close to the capital Malé, will deliver 75 megawatts of electricity at full capacity, enough to provide electricity for the whole of the capital, the international airport and the surrounding resorts. Excess power will be used to run desalination plants that will produce bottled drinking water from the sea.

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The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives will be the first country to be overwhelmed by the effect of climate change. The republic is a collection of coral atolls with maximum heights of one or two metres above sea level. Climate change is increasing worldwide sea levels and the atolls will probably go underwater by the end of the century.

The 300,000-400,000 people who live on the Maldives are not responsible for global warming. Their emissions per head (even including aviation fuels for incoming international tourism) are less than a seventh of typical European levels.

Many countries have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The government of the Maldives seeks to encourage this trend by going one step further with a plan for near carbon neutrality within ten years.

This is an immensely challenging target. Chris Goodall (author of this blog) and Mark Lynas, the prize-winning climate change author, were asked to provide a short outline of how it might be achieved and what it might cost.[1]

In the rest of this note, we show our calculations. We will be the first to acknowledge that this work is incomplete. Although it was tempting to conduct fieldwork in some of the most attractive island resorts, we did our analysis using publicly available information and with help from officials attached to the Maldives government.

Our work shows that near neutrality is possible, but expensive. It will take at least $1.1bn for this small island state. The Maldives imports almost all its fuels in the form of refined oil products. Rates of financial return to the investment therefore depend largely on the price of oil. If expectations of future oil prices exceed $100 a barrel, we judge that the plan is sufficiently attractive to be financeable by international institutions such as the World Bank.

Comments on this work will be very gratefully received.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Switchgrass biofuel crop
Switchgrass biofuel crop

Will next-generation biofuels have a less destructive effect on agriculture? A study just published by US government scientists suggests that so-called ‘cellulosic’ ethanol has much better energy balance than today’s biofuels.[1] By energy balance, we mean the energy used to make the fuel compared to its energy value when burnt in a car’s engine. News summaries of the paper’s contents focused on one estimate that suggested that to make cellulosic biofuels might only need 6% of the energy value contained in the fuel. Depending on which crop is used, where it is grown, and how it is refined, most of today’s biofuels have only a weakly positive energy balance. So the paper gives hope that we might expect considerable progress towards carbon-neutral transport fuels when we can start refining all vegetable matter, not just foodstuffs, into fuels.

Cellulosic biofuels may well become important sources of motor fuels. There is certainly huge amounts of money flowing into the field. Unfortunately none of the news articles covering the US research pointed out the technology for turning cellulose into fuel is still a long way from commercial viability. Yes, we can turn grass into ethanol, but at prices which will double the price of petrol. And the greenhouse gas savings will almost certainly not be as attractive as the paper suggests, not least because the authors did not include the serious impact of nitrous oxide emissions from fertilised fields.

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Bjørn Lomborg, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, is the most formidable critic of those who think that cutting climate-changing gases is the most important problem the world faces. He made his name with ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ and his new book continues his drive to get the world to see global warming as just one of the world’s important problems.

Lomborg believes climate change is happening, and that mankind’s activities are responsible. But he tells that we shouldn’t do much about global warming because the costs are very high and the benefits are limited and far-off. Like most books written by partisans in this impassioned debate, much of what he says can be questioned.

Nevertheless, this is an extremely valuable polemic: it stresses repeatedly that taking action to stop climate change may have very high short-term costs. If by clumsy attempts to hold down emissions we stunt the prospects for global economic growth, we may do more harm to the world’s poor than would be inflicted by climate change. It needs to be said time and time again that disease and malnutrition are killing far more people today than climate change. We are making progress diminishing the impact of these scourges. Despite what you sometimes read in the newspapers, world food supply and life expectancy are improving. Panic-stricken action on climate change must not be allowed to halt this progress. We need a rational assessment of whether it is best to spend money on slowing climate change or to whether we would achieve better effects from focusing resources elsewhere.

Bjørn Lomborg is an able debater with a passionate interest in his subject. But he overstates his case, focuses on only parts of the issue and avoids any discussion of a possible future acceleration of global warming. Even with these weaknesses Cool It needs to be part of the continuing debate on how to respond to the climate threat without crippling the poorest economies of the world.

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