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    Portugal's government expects total investment in biomass energy will reach €500 million in 2012, when its target of 250MW capacity is reached. By that date, biomass will reduce 700,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. By 2010, biomass will represent 5% of the country's energy production. Forbes - March 22, 2007.

    The Scottish Executive has announced a biomass action plan for Scotland, through which dozens of green energy projects across the region are set to benefit from an additional £3 million of funding. The plan includes greater use of the forestry and agriculture sectors, together with grant support to encourage greater use of biomass products. Energy Business Review Online - March 21, 2007.

    The U.S. Dep't of Agriculture's Forest Service has selected 26 small businesses and community groups to receive US$6.2 million in grants from for the development of innovative uses for woody biomass. American Agriculturalist - March 21, 2007.

    Three universities, a government laboratory, and several companies are joining forces in Colorado to create what organizers hope will be a major player in the emerging field of converting biomass into fuels and other products. The Colorado Center for Biorefining & Biofuels, or C2B2, combines the biofuels and biorefining expertise of the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Founding corporate members include Dow Chemical, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. C&EN - March 20, 2007.

    The city of Rome has announced plans to run its public bus fleet on a fuel mix of 20 per cent biodiesel. The city council has signed an accord that would see its 2800 buses switch to the blended fuel in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. A trial of 200 buses, if successful, would see the entire fleet running on the biofuel mix by the end of 2008. Estimates put the annual emission savings at 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. CarbonPositive - March 19, 2007.

    CODON (Dutch Biotech Study Association) organises a symposium on the 'Biobased Economy' in Wageningen, Netherlands, home of one of Europe's largest agricultural universities. In a biobased economy, chemistry companies and other non-food enterprises primarily use renewable materials and biomass as their resources, instead of petroleum. The Netherlands has the ambition to have 30% of all used materials biobased, by 2030. FoodHolland - March 19, 2007.

    Energy giants BP and China National Petroleum Corp, the PRC's biggest oil producer, are among the companies that are in talks with Guangxi Xintiande Energy Co about buying a stake in the southern China ethanol producer to expand output. Xintiande Energy currently produces ethanol from cassava. ChinaDaily - March 16, 2007.

    Researchers at eTEC Business Development Ltd., a biofuels research company based in Vienna, Austria, have devised mobile facilities that successfully convert the biodiesel by-product glycerin into electricity. The facilities, according to researchers, will provide substantial economic growth for biodiesel plants while turning glycerin into productive renewable energy. Biodiesel Magazine - March 16, 2007.

    Ethanol Africa, which plans to build eight biofuel plants in the maize belt, has secured funding of €83/US$110 million (825 million Rand) for the first facility in Bothaville, its principal shareholder announced. Business Report - March 16, 2007.

    A joint venture between Energias de Portugal SGPS and Altri SGPS will be awarded licences to build five 100 MW biomass power stations in Portugal's eastern Castelo Branco region. EDP's EDP Bioelectrica unit and Altri's Celulose de Caima plan to fuel the power stations with forestry waste material. Total investment on the programme is projected at €250/US$333 million with 800 jobs being created. Forbes - March 16, 2007.

    Indian bioprocess engineering firm Praj wins €11/US$14.5 million contract for the construction of the wheat and beet based bio-ethanol plant for Biowanze SA in Belgium, a subsidiary of CropEnergies AG (a Sudzucker Group Company). The plant has an ethanol production capacity of 300,000 tons per year. IndiaPRWire - March 15, 2007.

    Shimadzu Scientific Instruments announced the availability of its new white paper, “Overview of Biofuels and the Analytical Processes Used in their Manufacture.” The paper is available for free download at the company’s website. The paper offers an overview of the rapidly expanding global biofuel market with specific focus on ethanol and biodiesel used in auto transportation. It provides context for these products within the fuel market and explains raw materials and manufacturing. Most important, the paper describes the analytical processes and equipment used for QA testing of raw materials, in-process materials, and end products. BusinessWire - March 15, 2007.

    Côte d'Ivoire's agriculture minister Amadou Gon has visited the biofuels section of the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris, one of the largest fairs of its kind. According to his communication office, the minister is looking into drafting a plan for the introduction of biofuels in the West African country. AllAfrica [*French] - March 13, 2007.

    Biofuels and bioenergy producers in Ireland, a country which just recently passed bioenergy legislation, are allocated excise relief for imported biomass. Unison Ireland (subscription req'd). - March 13, 2007.

    EDF Energies Nouvelles, a subsidiary of energy giant Electricité de France, has announced a move into biofuels, by sealing a preliminary agreement with Alcofinance SA of Belgium. Upon completion of a reserved issue of shares for €23 million, EDF Energies Nouvelles will own 25% of a newly formed company housing Belgium-based Alcofinance's ethanol production and distribution activities. Alcofinance's projects are located in the Ghent Bioenergy Valley. BusinessWire - March 13, 2007.

    Fuel Tech, Inc., today announced a demonstration order for its 'Targeted In-Furnace Injection' program, part of a set of technologies aimed at controlling slagging, fouling, corrosion, opacity and acid plume problems in utility scale boilers. The order was placed by an electric generating facility located in Italy, and will be conducted on two biomass units burning a combination of wood chips and olive husks. BusinessWire - March 9, 2007.

    At a biofuels conference ahead of the EU's Summit on energy and climate change, Total's chief of agricultural affairs says building environmentally friendly 'flexible-fuel' cars only cost an additional €200 (US$263) a vehicle and that, overall, ethanol is cheaper than gasoline. MarketWatch - March 8, 2007.

    During a session of Kazakhstan's republican party congress, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced plans to construct two large ethanol plants with the aim to produce biofuels for exports to Europe. Company 'KazAgro' and the 'akimats' (administrative units) of grain-growing regions will be charged to develop biodiesel, bioethanol and bioproducts. KazInform - March 6, 2007.

    Saab will introduce its BioPower flex-fuel options to its entire 9-3 range, including Sport Sedan, SportCombi and Convertible bodystyles, at the Geneva auto show. GreenCarCongress - March 2, 2007.

    British oil giant BP plans to invest around US$50 million in Indonesia's biofuel industry, using jatropha oil as feedstock. BP will build biofuel plants with an annual capacity of 350,000 tons for which it will need to set up jatropha curcas plantations covering 100,000 hectares of land, to guarantee supply of feedstock, an official said. Antara [*cache] - March 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has decided to increase the acreage dedicated to biofuel crops -- soybean, rape, sunflower, and sweet potato -- from 1,721 hectares in 2006 to 4,550 hectares this year, the Council of Agriculture said. China Post - March 2, 2007.

    Kinder Morgan Energy Partners has announced plans to invest up to €76/US$100 million to expand its terminal facilities to help serve the growing biodiesel market. KMP has entered into long-term agreements with Green Earth Fuels, LLC to build up to 1.3 million barrels of tankage that will handle approximately 8 million barrels of biodiesel production at KMP's terminals on the Houston Ship Channel, the Port of New Orleans and in New York Harbor. PRNewswire - March 1, 2007.

    A project to build a 130 million euro ($172 million) plant to produce 200,000 cubic metres of bioethanol annually was announced by three German groups on Tuesday. The plant will consume about 600,000 tonnes of wheat annually and when operational in the first half of 2009 should provide about a third of Germany's estimated bioethanol requirements. Reuters - Feb. 27, 2007.

    Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs has announced that government vehicles in Taipei City will begin using E3 fuel, composed of 97% gasoline and 3% ethanol, on a trial basis in 2007. Automotive World - Feb. 27, 2007.

    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The bioeconomy at work: bioplastic fuel lines to handle aggressive biodiesel

Tropical biofuels are allright, but they are used in cars. Now it takes quite a bit of energy and petroleum to manufacture a car in the first place. So why not make the car itself a bit more 'bio'? Indeed, many auto makers are trying exactly that. In the near future, we will be driving biofuel powered cars made almost entirely from biomaterials.
It is nice to see how, more and more often, designers imagine concept cars that tap deeply into the bioeconomy. The recent Los Angeles Auto Show design challenge featured an interesting fresco of bio-cars, from pure fantasy concepts (a Hummer made from a breathing, 'phototropic shell' filled with algae that suck up CO2 from the atmosphere and release pure oxygen - see pic) to more realistic vehicles (the entirely reclycable Mercedez-Benz RECY that uses laminated wood body panels and a lot of natural rubber). No doubt, concept cars broaden our horizon and stimulate our minds. But in the meantime, engineers are working humbly and in silence to develop real-world applications that work in real cars.

The list of greenhouse gas reducing, oil-free biocomponents already used in our cars is growing steadily. Just a few examples:
So what more do we need? Oh, yes, bioplastic fuel lines. But if we use biodiesel or ethanol, fuels that are considerably more aggressive than gasoline or diesel, then we need a strong, heat-resistant fuel line with superior chemical properties and mechanical ageing resistance. Is it possible to skip petroleum and use plant material to manucature such a high performance fuel line? Apparently it is.

French specialty industrial chemicals group Arkema announces [*French] that its bio-based Rilsan PA11 polyamide (to which we referred earlier) has been approved by several automotive contractors for biodiesel fuel lines in Europe and Brazil. Rilsan PA11 indeed features superior ageing resistance to biodiesel at high temperature. The entirely renewable high performance bioplastic is derived from castor seeds:
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Today’s increasing use of biofuels has led Arkema to develop a new Rilsan grade, "M-BESN Noir P210TL", specifically for biodiesel. Biofuels are in fact much more aggressive than traditional crude oil based fuels. Arkema’s Rilsan biodiesel grade benefits from the inherent properties of polyamide 11 that ensure superior performance compared to polyamide 12, in particular with its outstanding chemical and mechanical ageing resistance at high temperature in the presence of pure biodiesel.

Arkema has been renowned for many years for its specific polyamide grades for fuel lines in diesel cars. Rilsan PA11 BESN Noir P20TL is now the reference material for diesel fuel lines thanks to its outstanding resistance to high temperatures in the under-hood environment of vehicles. Used instead of rubber and metal assemblies, Rilsan also enables significant cost savings.

In addition, biobased Rilsan PA11 can be combined with conductive Rilsan PA11 -- also made from ricin -- whenever electrical conductivity complying with Standard SAE J1645 is required (Rilperm 2101 multi-layer fuel line technology).

By adapting its product range to the requirements of carmakers, Arkema aims to strengthen its position as a dedicated high-performance polyamide supplier to the automotive industry.

Arkema is committed to sustainable development by developing and marketing products for today’s generations, and not at the expense of tomorrow’s generations. The use of renewable source fuels such as biodiesel and flexfuel combined with the use of biobased Rilsan PA11 can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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A quick look at nanotechnology in agriculture, food and bioenergy

Nanotechnology is one of those typical science fields that evoke fantasies of humans losing control over their own creations. The idea that molecular machines may invade every aspect of our lives, including our guts and stomachs, makes us uncomfortable. Just like genetically modified organisms do. Luckily, besides the scientists who are developing nanotech-applications, there is just as big an army of intelligent people who critically assess the potential dangers and advantages of this new world. In fact, nanotechnologists themselves are often the first to point out the risks (see for example the Nano Risk and Benefit Database at Rice University or the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, to name just two.)

The ability to create materials and operate machines that have useful properties at the nano-scale (about a billionth of a meter, or roughly the size of molecules) has the potential for dramatic changes in realms as diverse as energy production, medical science, and biotechnology, among many others. Increasingly, governments, companies and NGOs around the world recognize the possibilities arising from these new technologies, and many have noted the particular applicability of nanotechnologies to the needs of the developing world - including leaders in the developing nations themselves.

Nanotechnologies are becoming mature. They're gradually leaving the realms of theory and of the lab to enter the stage of useful applications. In agriculture, they portend various applications aimed at reducing pesticide and water use, improving plant and animal breeding, and creating nano-bioindustrial products, from renewable nano-fibres that make materials much stronger, to plant-based dyes and paints that can change change their color and act as sensors.

These applications are commonly known as “agrifood nanotechnology.” However, while it is clear that agrifood nanotechnology is expected to become a driving economic force in the long-term, less certain is precisely what to expect in the near-term. Some of the key questions include:
  • What individual products are moving rapidly through the pipeline?
  • What impact will these products have on the farming, food and bioenergy production chain?
  • When these products arrive in the grocery store, in the fuel tank or on the farm, is there any reason to be concerned or excited about putting them in our bodies or using them in our environment?
Working for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Jennifer Kuzma and Peter VerHage, from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy (CSTPP), have analyzed publicly available data on current research projects in agrifood nanotechnology and are trying to formulate preliminary answers to these questions. Their recently published report Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food Production: Anticpated Applications [*.pdf] has produced one of the first analyses of the current level and nature of the agrifood nanotechnology research portfolio, estimates on possible areas and timeframes for commercialization, and an early look at potential benefits and risks. It also has resulted in creation of a database with over one hundred and sixty research projects (publicly available and searchable with Microsoft Access: *.mdb, compressed version and full version).

Many of the anticipated applications deal with biofuels, bioenergy and the biobased economy at large. Drawing on the report and on an overview of nano-biotech research in France, we list some of those future applications:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Nanotechnology and cellulosic ethanol
Dependence on fossil fuels can potentially be decreased through nanoscience. A research program at Purdue University focuses on applying nanotechnology and principles of polymer science to improve processing of cornstalks to ethanol, an important biofuel. The researchers are using nanoscience to break apart cornstalks into nanomaterials for easier and cheaper transport of biomass for ethanol production.

Transportation of biomass to fuel production plants is currently costly and inefficient. This “nano-processing” step may ultimately make it possible to reduce ethanol production costs significantly as well as to decrease fossil fuel use during transport.

At the University of Marseille, France, microbiologist Marcel Asther works on the fabrication of enzymatic nano-particles that make the breakdown of ligno-cellulose more efficient. This way, any kind of cellulose-rich biomass becomes a potential biofuel feedstock.

These projects can be categorized as “medium” benefit to the environment, given their ability to replace fossil fuel. However, the life cycle issues (that is, energy, carbon dioxide emissions, and chemical use) associated with these processing steps need to be considered in full.

Nano-catalysts and nano-channels for biodiesel from waste fats
At Iowa State University, researches developed a nanotechnology that accurately controls the production of tiny, uniformly shaped silica particles that can transform (waste) fats and oils into biodiesel efficiently. The particles are basically honeycombs of relatively large channels that can be filled with a catalyst that reacts with soybean oil to create biodiesel. The particles can also be loaded with chemical gatekeepers that encourage the soybean oil to enter the channels where chemical reactions take place. The results include faster conversion to biodiesel, a catalyst that can be recycled and elimination of the wash step in the production process.

The particles can also be used as a catalyst to efficiently convert animal fats into biodiesel by creating a mixed oxide catalyst that has both acidic and basic catalytic sites. Acidic catalysts on the particle can convert the free fatty acids to biodiesel while basic catalysts can convert the oils into fuel. And the particles themselves are environmentally safe because they are made of calcium and sand.

Nanotech and water & irrigation management
Nano-sensors are being developed that can measure water stress on plants in an individualised and localised manner. Each plant, root system or plot of land can then be given the exact amount of water it needs, thus rationalising the use of this precious resource.

Nanotech and biomass waste detection/management
Many agro-industrial processes consist of mechanically separating and treating fibres, such as cotton. Losses during these processing steps are high, in the case of cotton up to 25%. Nanotechnologists such as Margaret Frey, are developing nano-fibres based on the cellulose contained in this waste. The waste is detected and captured during the cotton processing steps, before it actually becomes 'waste'. The resulting fibres are a thousand times smaller and can be used in high-tech micro-fabrics.
Similar projects are under way that intervene in various processing stages used to transform other agricultural products, all of them potentially resulting in efficiency increases and new products being derived from existing biomass streams.

Cellulose nano-crystals and fibre-enhanced bioplastics

Several researchers are developing nanocrystals based on plant-matter (cellulose), that can be used to strengthen bioplastics, in ceramics and in biomedical applications such as artificial joints and disposable medical equipment. Using cellulosic nanocrystals to strengthen plastics has advantages over the glass that is often used as glass-fibre: glass is heavier, harder on processing machinery and therefore more expensive to work with, and it stays in the ground for centuries. The cellulose nanocrystals will break down quickly in a landfill.

Nano-bio-sensors and environmental sensors

A whole range of intelligent nano-sensors is being developed that can be used to detect pests, diseases, or micro-organisms that damage plants. The sensors come in different forms, but can generally be applied on an individual plant level, just as they can be applied en masse. The applications are opening up an entirely new era of 'nano-phytopathology' and pest management. The advantages are myriad: problems can be detected much earlier, managed much more locally and focused, which results in lower losses and lower costs.
Besides detecting growth-threatening factors, other nano-sensors are being developed that detect and signal all possible local environmental factors: from nutrient deficiency to water stress and temperature sensitivity.

Nanotechnology and micro-dosing of nutrients, fertilisers, pesticides
Almost all large fertiliser and pesticide producers are investing heavily in nanotechnologies that allow these products to be applied in doses that are adapted to each individual plant, over a carefully registered period of time. The same advantages as with the nano-sensors hold: much more rational use of fertilisers and pesticides, lower costs, lower environmental damage.

These are just a small number of examples. A lot of research is going into developing nanotech applications in livestock production - from intelligent drugs for cattle, to smart chickenfeed - which will eventually amount to less environmental stress from these sectors. The developments are important if one wants to calculate the future potential of biomass for energy. With increasing rationalisation in the livestock sector - which consumes a lot of biomass and limits land resources - more land will become available for energy crops. Studies that estimate the global potential for the production of biofuels explicitly take into account successful high-tech developments in agriculture and livestock production (earlier post). Nanotechnology in agrifood is definitely one of those factors that substantiate the predictions that high amounts of bioenergy can be produced in the distant future.

When it comes to the commercialisation of all these applications, Jennifer Kuzma and Peter VerHage estimate that of the 160 projects analysed in the database, some 30 will be on the market within five years, whereas the majority (55%) will be commercialised over the medium term, within 5 to 15 years. The nanoproducts that will see a rapid introduction are those used in food packaging. One example: intelligent plastic films with nano-fibres embedded in them that detect when packaged food is no longer valid for consumption. The majority of the research involves nano-bio-sensors and the biological treatment of foodstuffs.

Another interesting view of the database shows that 47% of the projects deal with the post-harvest stage, 39% deals with applications in direct consumer products, 27% deal with trade, transport and commerce of agricultural products, and some 25% deal with pre-harvest technologies.

More information:

Le Magazine Agricole Grandes Cultures: Dossier: Nanotechnologie, une révolution en marche - Dec. 6, 2006

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies: Agrifood Nanotechnology Research and Development.

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We are all Sun worshippers

Long ago the ancient Egyptians practised a religion of the Sun, now we can no longer afford to ignore this inexhaustible resource," writes Jean-Michel Severino, director of France’s international development agency, the Agence Française de Développement, in an interesting op-ed piece in the The Guardian. Severino explains the advantages of biomass and bioenergy over both fossil fuels and other renewables, and why we must become Sun worshippers, once again.

From climate change to volatile oil prices, all signs point to a looming global energy crisis. Confronting the growing challenge means that humanity can no longer afford to ignore the inexhaustible resource found in the organic material that the sun provides each day through photosynthesis. Solar energy enables plants to absorb carbon gas and thereby produce not only oxygen, but also matter that the animal kingdom uses for food - and that our machines can use for energy.

Since the Neolithic (or late Stone Age) period, humans have been cultivating this "biomass" in order to feed themselves. Yet, even in today's world, its energy potential is ignored. Beginning with the industrial revolution, humans sought energy from coal, and later from oil and natural gas, but this leads to the exhaustion of non-renewable resources.

Existing alternatives for diversifying energy production are limited. Nuclear energy presents a number of disadvantages, owing to concerns about safety and disposal of radioactive waste. Hydroelectric power is already widely used, while wind and solar energy are structurally sporadic and disparately available.

Biomass, on the other hand, has several advantages. Supplies of it are large and available throughout the world. Moreover, the technology necessary to convert it into energy - including high-yield burning, gas conversion, and liquefaction into synthetic fuel - has long been mastered. Widely used during World War II, this technology has since advanced considerably.

Biomass energy, however, is the victim of unfair competition from fossil fuels. Oil's price reflects its extraction, refining, and distribution costs, but not that of creating the raw material. Millions of years and 200 tonnes of plant matter are necessary to produce one litre of oil, whereas just 15 kilograms of plant matter are required to make one litre of synthetic fuel.

Untapped potential
After the oil glut, with oil below $20 a barrel, interest in developing energy from biomass ebbed, attractive only to "green" militants and those interested in fundamental science. Yet the potential is immense. The planet's biomass - forests, pastureland, savannas, and crops - make up productive capital that generates a 10% "return" every year. Like a battery that runs out and is then recharged by the sun, this supply is renewable indefinitely, as long as it is managed properly. The annual return on this capital is currently estimated at 60 billion tonnes, yet only two billion tonnes is consumed for food purposes and 10 billion tonnes for energy:
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Increasing the responsible use of this energy source would contribute to the fight against climate change by reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and diminishing the amount of fossil fuel required to produce energy. Moreover, its abundance in southern countries promises to facilitate their economic development. Considered the "energy of the poor" until today, biomass could become a source of wealth if it is grown and harnessed with the support of the international community.

Thus, "energy crops" could be developed to produce biofuel. Residue from forest, agricultural, and agro-industrial activities could be collected and converted. For example, the six million tonnes of waste produced annually by Niger could theoretically be used to meet that country's entire energy needs.

However, in many places, energy cropping would certainly compete with food crops. Long-term estimates project that over a 50-year time horizon, most of the planet's arable land would have to be used to feed the world and for forest conservation. Thus, areas dedicated to energy production, particularly biofuel, may not reach the level that societies would wish. But, while such competition would reveal new global scarcities, it would also bring higher prices, thereby encouraging producers to increase yields and productivity.

Thus, while cultivating energy would create new constraints, it would also open new possibilities for many economic actors. The farmer and the forest worker could become more involved in the market, the mine engineer could begin to take an interest in crop fields, the banker in plant shares, etc. But, in order to prepare for a scaling up of energy cropping, new policies must be implemented, both in northern and southern countries, in terms of agriculture, land and water management, protection of biodiversity, fuel taxes, and information and awareness raising.

The ancient Egyptians and the Incas practiced a religion of the Sun, believing it to be at the beginning of all life on Earth. Science has since proven this to be the case. Nowadays, when it has become more important than ever that we embrace renewable resources, we should use the Sun to cultivate our energy, just as our ancestors used it to cultivate their food.

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Plant a tree and save the planet? Let's think again.

Via Eurekalert, Atmospheric Science. It has become fashionable for organisations, companies and individuals to engage in 'feel good' strategies to reduce their 'carbon footprint' and to confess their 'CO2 guilt'. One of these strategies has been to green-up by planting trees. This carbon-offsetting strategy has become a bit of a commerce, with companies and NGOs selling certificates proving you have contributed to reducing climate change voluntarily by planting a tree somewhere (an overview and introduction of the commerce: "feel free to buy a tree, so you can keep driving your gas guzzling SUV"). This consumerist, individualist and fashionable approach to tackling climate change may be dangerous because it doesn't tackle any problem in a structural way. Moreover, it is not really based on science.

Let's start with a simple question: can planting trees really stop sea levels from rising, the ice caps from melting and hurricanes from intensifying as some carbon offsetting commerçants claim? A new study shows that this is most often not the case, and it cautions that new forests in mid- to high-latitude locations could actually create a net warming. The study does confirm the notion that planting more trees in tropical rainforests could help slow global warming worldwide. Several scientists studying different forest types earlier found very conflicting results, with some forest types showing a net warming effect, whereas other types may mitigate climate change (earlier post).

The new study is the first to investigate the combined climate and carbon-cycle effects of large-scale deforestation in a fully interactive three-dimensional climate-carbon model, scientists from the Université de Montpellier II, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Carnegie Institution found that global forests actually produce a net warming of the planet.

The study provides a holistic view of the deforestation issue. “This is the first comprehensive assessment of the deforestation problem” says Govindasamy Bala, lead author of the research that will be presented on Dec. 15 at the American Geophysical Society annual meeting in San Francisco. The models calculated the carbon/climate interactions and took into account the physical climate effect and the partitioning of the carbon dioxide release from deforestation among land, atmosphere and ocean.
“Our study shows that preserving and restoring forests is likely to be climatically ineffective as an approach to slow global warming” - Ken Caldeira, co-author of the study from the Carnegie Institution.
Forests affect climate in three different ways:
  • they absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help to keep the planet cool;
  • they evaporate water to the atmosphere and increase cloudiness, which also helps keep the planet cool;
  • and they are dark and absorb a lot of sunlight, warming the Earth.
Climate change mitigation strategies that promote planting trees have taken only the first effect into account. “Our study shows that tropical forests are very beneficial to the climate because they take up carbon and increase cloudiness, which in turn helps cool the planet” Bala said. But the study concludes that, by the year 2100, forests in mid- and high-latitudes will make some places up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than would have occurred if the forests did not exist:
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“The darkening of the surface by new forest canopies in the high latitude Boreal regions allows absorption of more sunlight that helps to warm the surface. In fact, planting more trees in high latitudes could be counterproductive from a climate perspective,” Bala said.

The study finds little or no climate benefit when trees are planted in temperate regions.

“Our integrated systems approach allowed us for the first time to estimate the total effects of land cover change in different regions of the world,” Bala said.

Not feel-good initiatives, but changing our energy system
Afforestation has been promoted heavily in mid-latitudes as a means of mitigating climate change. However, the combined carbon/climate modeling study shows that it doesn't work. The albedo effect (the process by which less sunlight is reflected and more is absorbed by forest canopies, heating the surface) cancels out the positive effects from the trees taking in carbon.

“To prevent climate change, we need to transform our energy system. It is only by transforming our energy system and preserving natural habitat, such as forests, that we can maintain a healthy environment. To prevent climate change, we must focus on effective strategies and not just ‘feel-good’ strategies.”

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