The latest news on carbon credits

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The Kyoto treaty is in the news again as the Obama administration considers implementing a cap and trade system for carbon dioxide. It turns out that a lot of participating countries have fallen short of their Kyoto commitments, and are now required to purchase approximately $46 Billion of carbon credits to make-up for surplus CO2 production. This could mean that the price of carbon credits is about to spike upwards from their current low levels.

So, what exactly is a cap-and-trade system?
Cap and trade is a regulatory framework for controlling the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that affect the climate. It is one of several proposed systems, with the largest alternative being a carbon tax. The cap in cap-and-trade refers to a limit set on the level of emissions. This cap can be company specific, region specific, national, or international. When participants spend more than their allotment, they can trade credit with other participants who haven’t produced as much as their allowed.

What are carbon credits?
Carbon credits are warrants that represent carbon neutralizing behavior (ie; maintaining a forest, sequestering carbon underground, or breaking down greenhouse gases). In some countries, factories and power plants are required to purchase carbon credits that offset their pollution. These vouchers are used to fund the development of clean technology and conservation, and they also make green business practices more competitive by putting a price tag on externalities. A cap and trade system promotes land conservation by placing a value on pristine wilderness areas. In turn, this reduces carbon emissions by deterring development.

Many different companies offer carbon credits and carbon offsets. If you’re interested in purchasing some for your personal use, there are plans that you can use to neutralize the impact of a plane trip, counterbalance your home’s expenditures, or to offset your daily commute. Here’s a price survey of various companies that offer carbon credits.

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There are concerns with how carbon credits are computed. Critics argue that carbon credits are often miscalculated, that they’re rewarded for projects that were going to be built anyway, or that the expense is not justified by the results. A recent report by the US General Accounting Office offers some support to these criticisms. Projects that have applied for carbon accreditation under the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) were found to have serious problems. Several of these projects involved displacing Chinese farmers to build hydroelectric dams, and construction on some of the dams had even been underway before the project managers asked for carbon credits.

The end users of carbon credits are increasingly demanding third-party validation. In order for carbon credits to be more than modern-day indulgences, there are some important stipulations that need to be met. The carbon savings must be measurable, unique, and independently verifiable. This prevents unscrupulous carbon dealers from selling non-existent credits or selling the same credits over and over again. In the terminology of the Clean Development Mechanism, only actions that provide “additionality” are eligible for carbon credits:

If I buy carbon offsets, I make the implicit claim that I forgo reducing my own emissions (i.e. I still fly) but in exchange I pay someone to reduce their emission in my stead. If I buy carbon offsets to “neutralize” the emissions I caused during air travel from someone who would have reduced their emissions anyway, regardless of my payment, I, in effect, have not only wasted my money, but I also have not neutralized my emissions.

Currently, the majority of projects applying for CDM accreditation involve hydroelectricity. There are only a finite number of suitable rivers in the world though, so future savings will have to come from new techniques and green technologies. Microturbines fueled by waste are one of the largest areas of potential growth, and US companies are spearheading development in that area.

San Antonio recently became the first city to deploy a power plant that uses methane from sewage to generate power. Burning this renewable resource is a clean solution, because methane has more than 20 times the impact on climate change that carbon dioxide does. There’s no word yet on whether San Antonio is applying for carbon credits on this project, but it’s certainly more useful than methane flare projects that are already cashing in.

Several states are pursuing a different tactic to reduce their carbon footprint; they’re attempting to reduce overall power use. A California law is now in effect that requires all state facilities to reduce their energy use by 20%. There have been some unexpected results. In addition to new systems at government offices and service centers, Corrections facilities around the state have also been forced to go green. California’s not alone; many prison facilities nationwide are adapting energy saving technology. From prison gardens that use compost to water boilers that burn wood waste, cleantech is saving thousands of dollars and introducing prison populations to some innovations that were originally developed for the Hollywood elite. With state budgets feeling a pinch, how long do you think it will be before San Quentin starts selling carbon offsets?

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Shrimp, shrimp farming, and the environment. Is your meal safe?

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Shrimp are delicious, and the average American eats about 4 lbs of these crustaceans each year. Even though shrimp account for a huge portion of our diet, very few people think about where the shrimp on their dinner table came from. That’s changing as disturbing news about some overseas shrimp farms comes to light.

The majority of shrimp consumed in America come from east Asia. The same countries that gave us milk tainted with chemicals and toys painted with lead are raising the shrimp we eat. A surprising number of these shrimp have traces of harmful chemicals, pesticides, and bacteria. Shrimp that are raised in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia and other associated areas are generally raised in conditions that would not pass inspection in the United States.

One of the scarier chemicals found in shrimp farms is chloramphenicol. This is an ultra-strong antibacterial agent that shrimp farmers use to control disease in overcrowded conditions. It has been banned in the west for decades because it causes blood disorders and has no safe level of exposure. Chloramphenicol isn’t the only dangerous antibiotic used on shrimp farms. Other antibiotics have been tied to liver failure, cancer, and toxic shock.

Shrimp farming can also have a devastating effect on the environment. Coastal areas that are suited for shrimp farms are very sensitive. They often have species that are threatened by other forms of development, and the fish farms produce a lot of pollution. Some shrimp farms have been caught using abusive labor practices and even slave workers.

Since 2005, seafood has been required to carry a “country of origin” sticker. This simple label makes it a lot easier to spot potentially dangerous shrimp.

Shrimp is the No. 1 seafood choice in the United States, and nearly 90 percent of it is imported. About 80 percent of the shrimp imported from foreign markets is farm-raised…

So, how can we protect ourselves from tainted shrimp? In the grocery store, US raised and wild caught shrimp are good places to start. At the restaurant, ask owners the origin of shrimp they serve. Encourage suppliers to certify the sustainability of their shrimp with the Marine Stewardship Council. Or, you could try raising your own shrimp!

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Direct link between severe weather and air pollution?

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As I write this, a large swath of China has been devastated by winter storms. Some news services are referring to this unprecedented weather as China’s Katrina.

Millions of people are without power, and essential supplies are running low due to blocked roads and collapsed bridges. There’s some worry about civil unrest throughout the country, and inflation is escaping the control of government agencies as people buy food and coal on the black market. I’d guess that a few companies who rely on Chinese factories are going to feel the pinch in coming weeks. You can see the extent of the problem on these satellite photos.

The question that comes to mind is what’s causing this crazy weather? Paradoxically, severe ice storms are one of the side effects predicted by global warming models. Other side effects include more powerful hurricanes, increased wildfires from lighting strikes, and more devastating tornadoes. One of the other paradoxes of climate change is that while some areas along the coast experience flooding, other areas my be plunged into drought.

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The United States is also experiencing some of these problems. Fierce winters have dropped unprecedented amounts of snow in the American Northeast. A new study hints at direct links between rainfall in the Southwest US and air pollution. This has some interesting implications on the drought that’s gripping the region.

These ongoing events will add some fuel to the fire of the global warming debate. Considering the amount of CO2 that the US and China are responsible for, it seems almost like justice that we’re experiencing the effects. Unfortunately, climate change doesn’t affect just the people who are responsible for it. Many island nations that produce virtually no pollution are being swamped by rising sea levels. Conservationists are just as likely to lose their homes to wildfires as anyone else. Tornadoes can hit wind turbines and do more damage than they would to coal power plants.

Severe weather affects us all.

Coal Gasification is taking off in China

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China emits a staggering amount of carbon dioxide (more than the United States by some accounts), and the future will bring even more CO2 production from inside the Great Wall. According to several chemical companies, coal gasification is surging in China.

China offers fast-track permits and relatively easy financing as well as “cheap labor and minimal regulations” — factors that allow coal conversion plants to be built quickly and at 2/3 to 1/2 the cost of a similar project in the U.S. or Europe.

Coal gasification is a process during which steam and oxygen are injected into coal turbines to produce a cleaner burn. With this technology, it may be possible to double the efficiency of coal power plants (they currently operate at only 20-35% thermal efficiency). Theoretically, this higher efficiency would reduce the amount of coal we consume to fill our needs, which would extend the world’s coal supply and reduce pollution along the way. The improved efficiency of these power plants means less coal is required per watt of energy, but without regulatory pressure the efficiency of these plants may lead to the use of dirtier, cheaper forms of coal.

The potential environmental benefits to gasified coal include easier containment of pollutants, the ability to use bio-mass instead of coal, and the production of hydrogen during the gasification process. Yet, many of the green aspects of this technology require an incentive for companies to take advantage of them. Without hydrogen cars on the road or a cap-and-trade system for CO2 in place, there are few incentives for the gasified coal plants to capture these waste products.

In China’s current regulatory environment, gasified coal plants are simply bigger, more profitable pollution machines. If pollution controls are lacking, then the environmental effects will be felt beyond China’s borders. The average Chinese citizen is beginning to be affected by runaway levels of pollution, but the environmental movement is only just now gathering momentum in China. This is a country where agitating for change can be very dangerous, and arguing against “progress” is considered counter-revolutionary.

In the face of all this, China’s growing economy is creating an increasing demand for electricity:

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

So, there’s a good and bad side to this news. China is ramping up its production of CO2 faster than most people expected, but the new gasified coal plants in China may lead to technological advancements that will spread to other countries. In the coming years, perhaps America will be able to adapt green technology that was pioneered in China!

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ps; Coal Gassification is not the same thing as Coal Liquefication. Here are some thoughts on Coal Liquefication and what it means for our gas tanks.

Underground coal fires around the world, an environmental problem

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Did you know that there are hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of underground coal fires burning out of control? These fires can occur naturally, but most of them are caused by mining activity or industrial accidents near coal seams. These coal fires can cause dangerous subsidence, air pollution, and poisoning of the water table, all while consuming a valuable natural resource.

Concern and action is needed… because of the environmental impact — especially of mega-fires burning in India, China and elsewhere in Asia. One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.

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Underground coal fires are extremely difficult to put out once they start burning. They burn so hot that even pouring water on them will feed the flames (at extreme temperatures, water breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen gas). Coal is inherently unstable and will self ignite – that means that old abandoned mines are time bombs waiting to go off and all the tunnels act as a ventilation system!

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Uncontrolled coal fires are a worldwide problem and they produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas:

Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200 million tons burn [in China] each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1 percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth… India, where large scale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them.

Underground coal fires happen in the US too – check out this video about Pennsylvania coal mining. In Centralia, PA, underground fires have been burning since the 60’s! If you can come up with a way to put these fires out, I suspect that the MacArthur Foundation will come and knock down your door!