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    Record warm summers cause extreme ice melt in Greenland: an international team of scientists, led by Dr Edward Hanna at the University of Sheffield, has found that recent warm summers have caused the most extreme Greenland ice melting in 50 years. The new research provides further evidence of a key impact of global warming and helps scientists place recent satellite observations of Greenland´s shrinking ice mass in a longer-term climatic context. Findings are published in the 15 January 2008 issue of Journal of Climate. University of Sheffield - January 15, 2007.

    Japan's Tsukishima Kikai Co. and Marubeni Corp. have together clinched an order from Oenon Holdings Inc. for a plant that will make bioethanol from rice. The Oenon group will invest around 4.4 billion yen (US$40.17 million) in the project, half of which will be covered by a subsidy from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The plant will initially produce bioethanol from imported rice, with plans to use Hokkaido-grown rice in the future. It will produce 5 million liters per year starting in 2009, increasing output to 15m liters in 2011. The facility will be able to produce as much as 50,000 liters of bioethanol from 125 tons of rice each day. Trading Markets - January 11, 2007.

    PetroSun, Inc. announced today that its subsidiary, PetroSun BioFuels Refining, has entered into a JV to construct and operate a biodiesel refinery near Coolidge, Arizona. The feedstock for the refinery will be algal oil produced by PetroSun BioFuels at algae farms to be located in Arizona. The refinery will have a capacity of thirty million gallons and will produce 100% renewable biodiesel. PetroSun BioFuels will process the residual algae biomass into ethanol. MarketWire - January 10, 2007.

    BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc, which develops and operates carbohydrate-based transportation fuel production facilities, has secured capital liquidity for corporate overhead and continued project development in the value of US$15 million with Quercus, an environmentally focused trust. BlueFire Ethanol Fuels - January 09, 2007.

    Some $170 billion in new technology development projects, infrastructure equipment and construction, and biofuel refineries will result from the ethanol production standards contained the new U.S. Energy Bill, says BIO, the global Biotechnology Industry Organization. According to Brent Erickson, BIO's executive vice president "Such a new energy infrastructure has not occurred in more than 100 years. We are at the point where we were in the 1850s when kerosene was first distilled and began to replace whale oil. This technology will be coming so fast that what we say today won't be true in two years." Chemical & Engineering News - January 07, 2007.

    Scottish and Southern Energy plc, the UK's second largest power company, has completed the acquisition of Slough Heat and Power Ltd from SEGRO plc for a total cash consideration of £49.25m. The 101MW CHP plant is the UK’s largest dedicated biomass energy facility fueled by wood chips, biomass and waste paper. Part of the plant is contracted under the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation and part of it produces over 200GWH of output qualifying for Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), which is equivalent to around 90MW of wind generation. Scottish & Southern Energy - January 2, 2007.

    PetroChina Co Ltd, the country's largest oil and gas producer, plans to invest 800 million yuan to build an ethanol plant in Nanchong, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, its parent China National Petroleum Corp said. The ethanol plant has a designed annual capacity of 100,000 tons. ABCMoneyNews - December 21, 2007.

    Mexico passed legislation to promote biofuels last week, offering unspecified support to farmers that grow crops for the production of any renewable fuel. Agriculture Minister Alberto Cardenas said Mexico could expand biodiesel faster than ethanol. More soon. Reuters - December 20, 2007.

    Oxford Catalysts has placed an order worth approximately €700,000 (US$1 million) with the German company Amtec for the purchase of two Spider16 high throughput screening reactors. The first will be used to speed up the development of catalysts for hydrodesulphurisation (HDS). The second will be used to further the development of catalysts for use in gas to liquid (GTL) and Fischer-Tropsch processes which can be applied to next generation biofuels. AlphaGalileo - December 18, 2007.

    According to the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), Brazil's production of sugarcane will increase from 514,1 million tonnes this season, to a record 561,8 million tonnes in the 2008/09 cyclus - an increase of 9.3%. New numbers are also out for the 2007 harvest in Brazil's main sugarcane growing region, the Central-South: a record 425 million tonnes compared to 372,7 million tonnes in 2006, or a 14% increase. The estimate was provided by Unica – the União da Indústria de Cana-de-Açúcar. Jornal Cana - December 16, 2007.

    The University of East Anglia and the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre have today released preliminary global temperature figures for 2007, which show the top 11 warmest years all occurring in the last 13 years. The provisional global figure for 2007 using data from January to November, currently places the year as the seventh warmest on records dating back to 1850. The announcement comes as the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Michel Jarraud, speaks at the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Bali. Eurekalert - December 13, 2007.

    The Royal Society of Chemistry has announced it will launch a new journal in summer 2008, Energy & Environmental Science, which will distinctly address both energy and environmental issues. In recognition of the importance of research in this subject, and the need for knowledge transfer between scientists throughout the world, from launch the RSC will make issues of Energy & Environmental Science available free of charge to readers via its website, for the first 18 months of publication. This journal will highlight the important role that the chemical sciences have in solving the energy problems we are facing today. It will link all aspects of energy and the environment by publishing research relating to energy conversion and storage, alternative fuel technologies, and environmental science. AlphaGalileo - December 10, 2007.

    Dutch researcher Bas Bougie has developed a laser system to investigate soot development in diesel engines. Small soot particles are not retained by a soot filter but are, however, more harmful than larger soot particles. Therefore, soot development needs to be tackled at the source. Laser Induced Incandescence is a technique that reveals exactly where soot is generated and can be used by project partners to develop cleaner diesel engines. Terry Meyer, an Iowa State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is using similar laser technology to develop advanced sensors capable of screening the combustion behavior and soot characteristics specifically of biofuels. Eurekalert - December 7, 2007.

    Lithuania's first dedicated biofuel terminal has started operating in Klaipeda port. At the end of November 2007, the stevedoring company Vakaru krova (VK) started activities to manage transshipments. The infrastructure of the biodiesel complex allows for storage of up to 4000 cubic meters of products. During the first year, the terminal plans to transship about 70.000 tonnes of methyl ether, after that the capacities of the terminal would be increased. Investments to the project totaled €2.3 million. Agrimarket - December 5, 2007.

    New Holland supports the use of B100 biodiesel in all equipment with New Holland-manufactured diesel engines, including electronic injection engines with common rail technology. Overall, nearly 80 percent of the tractor and equipment manufacturer's New Holland-branded products with diesel engines are now available to operate on B100 biodiesel. Tractor and equipment maker John Deere meanwhile clarified its position for customers that want to use biodiesel blends up to B20. Grainnet - December 5, 2007.

    According to Wetlands International, an NGO, the Kyoto Protocol as it currently stands does not take into account possible emissions from palm oil grown on a particular type of land found in Indonesia and Malaysia, namely peatlands. Mongabay - December 5, 2007.

    Malaysia's oil & gas giant Petronas considers entering the biofuels sector. Zamri Jusoh, senior manager of Petronas' petroleum development management unit told reporters "of course our focus is on oil and gas, but I think as we move into the future we cannot ignore the importance of biofuels." AFP - December 5, 2007.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Researchers: lack of farming opportunities, Western subsidies key causes of conflict in third world

Researchers from the University of Ghent and the from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO), have come to some highly counter-intuitive findings about environmentalism, agriculture and the key drivers of conflict and social instability in the third world. The researchers from Ghent found that a lack of farming and trading opportunities for developing country farmers, partly the result of agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries, is a major cause of conflict and war. Their Norwegian collegues found that environmentalism as defined here in the West does not necessarily contribute to peace; what is more, the opposite is true, the less green a country, the more stable and less prone to conflict it is, they found. 'Green peace', they found, is often a contradictio in terminis.

In a time in which 'sustainable development' is an aim we are all striving for, these findings come as a stark warning that simplistic solutions to achieving it, might result in the opposite effects. It is certainly too soon to put the findings within the context of bioenergy and the opportunities it could bring in developing countries, but it looks like much of the ideological fabric on which some organisations from the West are based, is highly questionable. It is time to question ourselves, as well as environmentalists and conservationists, in light of the scientists' analyses.

Researchers Dr Thomas Demuynck and Dr Arne Schollaert of Ghent University's Center for the Study of Social Economics, analysed the complex relationship between trade barriers, lack of modern farming opportunities in Africa, and the potential for social conflict that arises from this underdeveloped rural sector.

The vast majority of Africa's people are employed in agriculture. In some countries, farmers' share of the total population runs up to more than 80 percent. It is however naive to believe these peasants are not connected to the global economy. On the contrary, globalisation and the effects of international commodity prices have a direct effect on these communities, a large number of which are involved in growing crops for the world market. Many third world economies are highly dependent on exporting commodities, often the leading source of their growth.

Low prices and subsidies
Dr Schollaert, who studies agricultural economics as they play out in Tanzania, and Dr Demuynck found that there is a strong correlation between low prices for tropical commodities (such as sugar, cacao, rubber), Western commodities (sugar, grains, meat) and the economic stability of developing countries. Low agricultural prices result in economic conditions which show spikes in the potential for social conflict, tend to block efforts towards democratisation, and are often followed by explicit violence.

Decades of agricultural subsidies in the West - originally developed right after the Second World War to ensure food security amongst Europeans but no longer needed since at least the 1970s - have led to a boost in supplies of farm commodities on the world market. The situation today is that in a large number of African countries, imported agricultural products - including costs for their transcontinental transport - are now cheaper than locally produced products.

This has led to a 'catastrophic dependence' that has destroyed local agriculture and has thrown millions of farmers back into a status of subsistence cropping. Economies of the South were consequently forced to limit themselves to producing a small number of tropical commodities - coffee, cocoa - with oversupplies as a result. World demand for these products did not grow fast enough to ensure stable prices. What is more, processed products face excessive import duties (socalled 'tariff escalation') compared with raw materials which offer only small profit margins for the farmers and secondary industries. This way, processing and manufacturing industries have had not the slightest chance to emerge.

The effects of this lack of opportunities can be seen in many developing countries today: a very small labor market, and undiversified economy based on a small number of globally traded tropical commodities, and virtually no alternatives.

Explosive cycle

The researchers then mapped this situation to the potential for social conflict. They found that a lack of economic alternatives and diversification leads to ever lower prices for tropical commodities (because of oversupplies), increasing poverty, unemployment and a growing pool of dissatisfied laborers with no opportunities to make a living.

Part of this economically inactive workforce will migrate to the expanding mega-cities and slums, where employment opportunities are not much brighter. The remaining ruralites in the country-side form a mass of disgruntled people often willing to engage in any form of 'economic' activity. This is what makes the situation highly explosive and often leads directly to conflict. Any 'cause' that offers a way out of misery will be welcomed, be it the exploitation of low-value minerals, waging resource wars, or following dubious charismatic figures: lack of real economic opportunity allows these 'causes' to recruit this vast 'sleeping' group of laborers:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

When they take up such a cause, out of necessity, the remaining rural productivity further declines, and the ever growing cities become every more dependent on imported agricultural products with no local counter-balance. Schollaert and Demuynck warn that this perverse cycle has become completely untenable and could lead to further conflicts in the future.

Environmental footprints and conflict
Helga Malmin Binningsbø, Indra de Soysa and Nils Petter Gleditsch - from NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science, from the Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW), and from the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) - for their part found that 'sustainable development' and working for the environment is no guarantee for peace. On the contrary.

They are some of the first researchers to empirically investigate whether the often heard claim that conservation and attempts to limit the exploitation of natural resources leads to 'green peace'. They found the contrary to be true.

The NTNU scientists looked at the environmental pressures in 150 countries in the period from 1961 to 1999. By using an internationally recognized technique for measuring a country’s environmental sustainability – 'The Ecological Footprint' – the researchers were able to compare these numbers with statistics on armed conflict during the same period.

Their conclusion may seem paradoxical: lands where resources are heavily exploited show a clear connection to a lack of armed conflict. Or alternatively, nations troubled by war during the research period had lower exploitation rates of their natural resources. The findings give researchers solid empirical support for stating that environmental scarcity is not the reason behind violent conflict:
  • A higher Ecological Footprint is negatively correlated with conflict onset, controlling for income effects and other factors, they found.
  • There is now a strong scientific case against the Neomalthusian model, which says that resource scarcity leads to conflict.
The scientists tested a more general argument about the effects of resource scarcity by examining the most widely-used measure of environmental sustainability: the ecological footprint. Contrary to neomalthusian thinking, they find that countries with a heavier footprint have a substantially greater chance of peace. Biocapacity and the ecological reserve also predict to peace, but these results are more fragile. Finally, separate tests for smaller conflicts, for the post-Cold War period, and with additional control variables do not yield stronger support for the scarcity thesis either.

The findings are highly important for the fields of development economics, for policies dealing with natural resource exploitation and for the debate about the socio-economic effects of climate change and its mitigation.

The researchers from Ghent repeat what many others have found: unfair trade rules and the lack of the development of a modern farming sector are eroding the entire fabric of developing countries' economies, with the result that both rural groups and urbanites are suffering. Eradicating subsidies, opening markets and encouraging the development of a modern agricultural sector in these countries should be a priority for development organisations. Some, like the World Bank, have come again to this insight and have, for the first time in decades, put rural development back at the top of their agenda.

The bioenergy sector obviously offers a new global market - with virtually unlimited demand - that would allow third world farmers to diversify away from tropical commodities like coffee and cocoa, on which they have become dependent and for which markets do not expand enough. But they should be allowed to go further than merely producing the raw materials for biofuels, or else, the same old dynamic could reemerge (overproduction, low prices, rural collapse).

However, the Ghent researchers analysed the situation over a long term, including the period in which farm prices reached historic lows. They do not analyse the effects of recent upsurges in these prices. However, other institutes have said rising farm product prices could actually be a good thing for poor third world countries that are dependent on the agriculture (e.g. the WorldWatch Institute counter-intuitively stated that biofuels and increasing agricultural prices could be a major boost to the world's poor, who are farmers).

We would caution, however, for the optimism on the potential of biofuels to contribute directly and immediately to rural development. It is beyond a doubt that increased prices for products such as palm oil are benefiting smallholders in the developing countries. But it is too early to tell whether this is true for basic staples like maize and other grains. Many subsistence farmers produce merely for themselves and don't have any surpluses to sell on local markets, let alone world markets. High maize prices therefor could have dramatic effects on urban markets in these poor countries, - with cities being largely dependent on imports because local infrastructures and low productivity do not allow these countries' own farmers to supply them.

On the other hand, investments in productivity and infrastructures could unlock the vast 'sleeping potential' for agriculture in the South, especially in Africa. There, with the most basic of modern inputs, a very large increase in productivity is waiting to be realised. If this potential were to be tapped, it could supply regional markets and offer a counter-weight to subsidised products from the West. But then, this presupposes a simultaneous phasing out of precisely these subsidies and trade barriers, else the funds needed to invest in this much needed type of rural development will not be available. A catch-22.

The Norwegian research for its part is most controversial because it implies that natural resource exploitation and 'dirty development' (a high carbon footprint), seem to offer more chances for peaceful development than what we commonly call 'sustainable' development. Importantly, peace and the absence of war are the most basic preconditions for development as such.

At Biopact, we have often said that Modernity could well be the conditio sine qua non for countries to develop in a cleaner way: they have to go through this long dirty phase, after which they can become as environmentally conscious as the West (note that only now, two centuries after Europe and the US deforested 95% of their forests, forest cover is finally increasing again in these countries; it is the enormous wealth obtained from 'dirty development' that allows them to appreciate the real value of natural resources and to invest in it).

The idea that poor countries can short-circuit this long modernisation phase and 'leapfrog' into a green future, is noble, but highly problematic. It is a thoroughly Western idea, projected onto poor countries. Nobody knows whether it will work, but the Norwegian scientists show that it might not. On the other hand, their research only looks at the way in which things evolved in the past and over a large sample of countries. This should not obfuscate the fact that there are indeed small number of poor countries in which 'sustainable development', conservation and the transition towards a post-industrial, truly green economy, works. Examples could be the Dominican Republic, or Cuba.

Moreover, new instruments are being developed that tie hard market fundamentals and economics to natural resource conservation. These concepts and tools - such as ways to compensate poor countries to conserve their tropical rainforests, through carbon markets - could offer a viable strategy to side-step the apparently unbreakable relationship between environmental desctruction and modern development. It is too early to tell whether these instruments will work. But this also implies it would be unwise to simply discredit them on the basis of the Norwegian research.

Picture: 'primitive' subsistence farming in developing countries - lack of market opportunities prevents the development of a modern agricultural sector and could lead to conflicts.

Hat tip to Dirk.

Helga Malmin Binningsbø, Indra de Soysa, Nils Petter Gleditsch, "Green giant or straw man? Environmental pressure and civil conflict, 1961–99", Population and Environment, Volume 28, Number 6 / July, 2007, DOI: 10.1007/s11111-007-0053-6

AlphaGalileo: Does working for a better environment really lead to peace? - December 12, 2007.

Thomas Demuynck and Arne Schollaert, "Westerse handelsbelemmeringen zijn belangrijke oorzaak van conflicten in derde wereld", University of Ghent, Center for the Study of Social Economics, November 2007.

Thomas Demuynck and Arne Schollaert, "Agricultural commodity prices and civil conflict", January 18, 2008, [in press as a Ghent University Working Paper].

Biopact: Worldwatch Institute chief: biofuels could end global malnourishment -
August 23, 2007

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