Carbon Roundup: Bali, Skeptics, and Corn

by Frank Ling

Roadmap from Bali

So what exactly happened in Bali last week and what does it mean for green technologies? After negotiations that were at times bitter and contentious, representatives from 187 countries agreed to push for a new climate accord by 2009 to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. In this time frame, the countries will have to figure out what the developed and developing nations are responsible for.

Only after intense international pressure did the US finally agree to the comprised version of the accord, which leave out specific targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts. At the same time, developing countries including China and India agreed to certain actions.

But was this a win-win situation? Unfortunately for the US, they did not appear like a diplomatic statesman despite finally approving the accord. Brian Walsh and Nusa Dua at Time says:

“It should be difficult for a country to make the final concession that allows a landmark deal to fall into place, and still appear selfish and churlish — but the U.S. somehow managed to do that. Years of blocking climate action at every turn meant the Bush Administration came into the Bali talks with little public credibility, and while there was a sense before the talks that the U.S. might show flexibility, that hope was quickly dispelled.”

Nevertheless, businesses in the US and around the world are more concerned about the policies that will enable the growth of low carbon technologies. Is a global change imminent? Alexis Madrigal at Wired writes:

“Around the world, green/sustainable/clean/eco-friendly businesses are gathering steam. Their legislative priorities are very different from the traditional corporate interests but also different from traditional environmentalists who emphasize conservation. Regular old businesses are also beginning to realize that they can be part of the solution to climate change too. As Greg Laden points out, a corporate tipping point might have been reached. Combined with the zeal and smarts of the climate change activists, this mostly passive backing could prove effective in changing politics around the world.”

Skeptics Strike Back

In spite of the general scientific consensus that climate change is real and that action should be taken in spite of any lingering uncertainties, a vocal group of US experts maintain that global warming is a natural phenomenon.

In contrast to the recent IPCC report that details the grave consequences of climate change, these scientists wrote in a recent edition of The International Journal of Climatology that the recent warming trends in the atmosphere and the surface of the planet are not indicative of greenhouse gas warming. They believe that today’s climate changes are due to factors beyond human control.

In this article in Agence France-Press, climatologist and noted skeptic Fred Singer is quoted as saying “that other factors — like variations of solar winds and terrestrial magnetic field that impact cloud formations and the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, and thus determining the temperature — are much more influential than human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.”

Not So Corny

Many studies now suggest that the reductions in imported oil and emissions from corn-based biofuels are overstated. Now, there is further evidence that indicate the high production levels of corn are causing serious detriment to the environment.

Today more corn is grown than any time since World War II. The fertilizers used in these crops make their way into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, 7900 square of miles of ocean become a dead zone where fish, crabs, and shrimp die from a lack of oxygen.

In the Associated Press, Henry Jackson says, “Environmentalists had hoped to cut nitrogen runoff by encouraging farmers to apply less fertilizer and establish buffers along waterways. But the demand for the corn-based fuel additive ethanol has driven up the price for the crop, which is selling for about $4 per bushel, up from a little more than $2 in 2002.”

While most farmers recognize this negative consequences of growing corn, it only makes sense for them to grow corn due to the high price it fetches.

Is it time to curb our enthusiasm for corn-based biofuels?

Coming Up Next Week: The Energy and Farm Bills.

Frank Ling is a postdoctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley. He is also a producer of the Berkeley Groks Science Show.

2 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    If you are going to comment on this issue, please stop saying things like “climate change is real”. Well of course it is. The climate is a dynamic system of countless components and inputs, and has always and will always “change”. The term you’re searching for is Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW–man-made globle warming). TIA

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