“Orwell watch”

Scott Rosenberg has an interesting take on the Saddam Hussein trial verdict: Saddam trial Orwell watch.

I have other thoughts on the verdict (something about the fact that many other crimes will go untried, truth will not be found, the death penalty should not be celebrated etc.) but not the time, nor the energy to expand.

Iraq death toll

CNN: Study: War blamed for 655,000 Iraqi death [via Scripting News]

War has wiped out about 655,000 Iraqis or more than 500 people a day since the U.S.-led invasion, a new study reports.

…President Bush slammed the report Wednesday during a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. “I don’t consider it a credible report. Neither does Gen. (George) Casey,” he said, referring to the top ranking U.S. military official in Iraq, “and neither do Iraqi officials.”

“The methodology is pretty well discredited,” he added.

No mention by Bush of why the methodology is discredited. Later:

Last December, Bush said that he estimated about 30,000 people had died since the war began.

…The authors said their method of sampling the population is a “standard tool of epidemiology and is used by the U.S. government and many other agencies.”

Professionals familiar with such research told CNN that the survey’s methodology is sound.

Doesn’t matter which way you cut it – Bush’s accepted figure of 30,000, Iraq Body Count’s figure of between 43,850 nd 48,693 (which relies solely on media-reported deaths), or 655,000 in the new study – Iraqi’s have suffered a huge loss of life. America launched this attack supposedly in response to the loss of life on 11 Sept 2001 – around 3,000 people. At least 10 times that loss of life in Iraq. At least…

What bugs me most about Bush’s statement is that the US military have explicitly stated that they do not track deaths of Iraqis – so how on earth they can support the 30,000 figure I do not know.

Majora Carter at TED

I meant to post this a while back, but remembered it today and wanted to pass it on.

Abe pointed to a podcast of Majora Carter’s talk at TED. She talks at 100 kms an hour, but packs an hour’s worth of impacting, pertinent and hard hitting commentary into her 30 minute slot.

She links the issues of urban renewal, environmental degredation, poverty and race and shows that there are solutions available if we think more about what we’re doing and how we do things.

I especially like the story she relays about meeting Al Gore.

Anyways, if ya got a few minutes check it out.

Update 20-Oct-2006 The video of the speech is also available on Google Video.

Climate fears “tempered”

You may have seen the news over the weekend that the peak scientific body studying climate change, the IPCC, has reduced it’s worst case scenarios for climate change.

After reading the piece, I think you could be excused for thinking that this is really good news and the pressure is off.

In 2001, the scientists predicted temperature rises of between 1.4C and 5.8C on current levels by 2100, but better science has led them to adjust this to a narrower band of between 2C and 4.5C.

The basic gist of the piece is that if we can contain the CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels in the atmosphere to the same that they are today, the minimum temperature rise will be 2°C.

Sounds ok, right? Actually, a 2°C rise is the generally accepted threshold before global warming becomes “really dangerous”. And even at 2°C, we will see significant impacts on our planet, affecting many, many people.

What is also important is that population growth (estimated at around 25 million by 2050) and growth in economic activity will place upward pressure on energy consumption – i.e. we will be using a lot more energy than we are now (50% growth by 2020 according to the government). This means that under a “no action” position our emissions are expected to grow significantly.

It is vital that we start to introduce renewable and lower-emissions technologies to generate our energy to keep the atmospheric CO2 levels at their current levels. As the ACF says in the Australian piece:

Australian Conservation Foundation energy program manager Erwin Jackson said the projections required an urgent and immediate response from the federal Government to drive accelerated investment in low-emissions technology in Australia.

“Every day we delay taking action, the problem gets worse,” Mr Jackson said.

“The Government keeps throwing up the costs of action but totally ignores the costs of inaction.

Later in the article:

A recent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics report on the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions estimated Australians would incur a fall in real wages of about 20 per cent if the nation was to unilaterally cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.

Note the “unilaterally cut”. I read that to mean ‘outside international mechanisms such as the Kyoto protocol’. If my reading is correct, I suspect that the high cost is a result of our inability to take advantage of the carbon trading mechanisms that Kyoto, and potentially other future international schemes, provide. In other words, by choosing not to sign Kyoto, as Howard has done, the Australian government is putting our economy at risk.

But even if my reading is incorrect, a recent report produced by AGL, Frontier Economics and WWF-Australia came to a quite different conclusion. From the media release related to the report (excuse the technical language):

The study shows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector could be limited to between $5.19 billion net present value (NPV) and $24.16 billion NPV, depending upon the reduction pathway chosen. This represents a one-off cost of between $250 NPV and $1,172 NPV per Australian today, or 43 cents – $2.00 per person per week to 2030.

Emphasis mine. What does that mean? Well – the report estimates that the total cost to the Australian economy would be a maximum of $2 per person per week. Or less than one coffee.

To be clear, the report doesn’t suggest that we each individually have to spend that money – just that the effect of change won’t cost the economy as much as some are suggesting.

But regardless of the scenarios, the longer we wait to act the more expensive reductions become. The environment minister goes on to say:

“It highlights the need for an effective global response to climate change as Australia alone cannot alter the pattern of world emissions,” Senator Campbell said.

“We are taking a leading role internationally to achieve effective engagement by all major greenhouse gas-emitting countries.”

It is true that a global response is required (e.g. the Kyoto Protocol). It’s also true that major emitters need to engage (e.g. Australia – the biggest per-capita emitters in the world – and the U.S. – with the biggest total emissions in the world – not signing the Kyoto Protocol).

But, for the government, “effective engagement” seems to mean doing very little at all. The AP6 agreement, which I can only assume is what the minister is referring to, will result in a doubling of Australia’s emissions by 2050. Does that sound like an “effective response” to you?

What does all this mean, then? It means that despite the apparent “good news” on the weekend, nothing has really changed – we still need serious action from the government, businesses and people to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. And we need to remain vigilant and continue working towards a sustainable future.

Update 2006-09-05: Via Andrew Bartlett I came across John Quiggen’s take on the same article.

In the comments “carbonsink” says:

Anyone who has actually read the ABARE report can tell you that ABARE examined six scenarios, most of which show significant reductions in GHG emissions with minimal impacts on the economy. The Oz has plucked the scariest number from most extreme ABARE scenarios and presented it as the likely impact of any attempt to reduce GHG emissions.

The fact is, ABARE’s modelling shows that significant reductions could be achieved with just a 0.07% percentage point reduction in the annual rate of GDP growth

Update 2006-09-07: Seems that the report doesn’t even say what the Australian article suggests. That’s the impression I get from reviewing some of the commentary in the links in another post by John Quiggen at Crooked Timber. Tim Lambert’s explanation is probably the most clear.

Who killed the electric car

Who killed the electric car - inset

Last night I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at Who killed the electric car (IMDb page) which is due out in cinemas in Australia on 2 November this year.

I’d heard a bit about the film, and I was keen to see it – it seems to be custom made for someone like me – a technology-junky with an environmental bent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The film primarily follows the fate of the EV1 electric car, introduced in 1996 to the Californian market by General Motors (under the Saturn brand) in response to California’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle” (ZEV) legislation that aimed to have 10% of cars sold in California having no tailpipe emissions by 2003. Electric cars were the chosen approach to solve the problem because General Motors (GM) had previewed a concept car, called the Impact, prior to the legislation being introduced and seemed the most promising and realistic technology at the time.

If we are to believe the filmmakers, and the many people they interviewed, electric vehicles were a roaring success – with waiting lists for cars like the EV1 numbering in the thousands. (As an aside GM contests in the film that the waiting lists looked good on paper, but that individuals willing to put their money on the table were limited. Given Toyota’s backlog of orders for the Prius in the U.S. I tend to believe that GM are perhaps not completely on the level in this regard.)

And yet GM, and other manufacturers, were not convinced and eventually withdrew the cars from the market. Through the non-renewal of leases, in what seems to me to be an unusual arrangement (it seems all electric vehicles were leased – no-one was able to purchase the cars outright). This meant that all of the cars “sold” to customers were eventually returned to the manufacturer where, contrary to car company claims, the cars were destroyed – even though the cars worked perfectly well and many customers wanted to pay out the residual on the lease to own the cars outright.

After presenting some background, the film steps into a pseudo-murder-mystery mode – looking at the various factors that may (or may not) have been the cause of the electric car’s demise.

I spent most of the film in disbelief, that such a promising technology that even I didn’t know existed (as someone who follows green-tech pretty closely I found that quite astounding) could end up on the scrap-heap. What was most surprising to me is that there seemed to be a significant amount of infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing any alternative fuel initiative.

The film goes into great detail about the vested interests and political maneuvering that caused the ZEV program to be revoked. A few minutes were devoted to hydrogen fuel cell technology which has replaced electric vehicles in the U.S. as the “next silver bullet”. The film made a pretty strong case that this re-focusing is a delaying tactic on the part of all involved, when a perfectly good technology already exists, and that hydrogen fuel cells were unlikely to be a realistic for some time to come, if ever at all.

They also suggested that the Japanese car manufacturers, such as Toyota, saw the development of hybrids by U.S. manufacturers (which began to be developed as a “compromise” between the Californian government and car manufacturers) as a potential threat and decided to enter the game and develop their own technology. When the U.S. manufacturers dropped the ball, Toyota and Honda entered the U.S. market and have done extremely well. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with the lack of government foresight in Australia regarding renewable energy, but I digress.

By the end of the film I was feeling pretty angry about the whole thing – dumbfounded at how far backward things had gotten. (The film also takes a bit of a “bag everyone” approach – no-one comes out smelling rosy really, not even Toyota who are considered by many, including myself, as leaders in this area.) Thankfully the film took a quick detour and had a look at what’s on the horizon – plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, conversions of existing cars to all electric drive-trains, and improvements in battery technology.

The inventor of the battery technology that found its way into the second generation EV1 was a highlight, demonstrating some solar technology that looked very interesting. But most of all it showed that the glimmer of a better future that the EV1 represented is starting to find its way out into the world – in new technologies, alternative car companies, and evangelists starting to make a dent in the entrenched industries and vested interests. It just seems such a shame that the momentum created by the EV1 and the ZEV legislation is only just starting to be rebuilt.

I’d definitely recommend the film – certainly got me thinking and inspired me. It demonstrated that with political willpower and strong public support, solutions exist to solve a significant proportion of the issues related to car emissions (namely smog/health issues and global warming).

Texas to build 11 new coal-fired power stations

At work I’ve learnt beyond a shadow of a doubt that global warming is real and societally we need to change the way we generate electricity. Australia is the largest greenhouse gas emitter per-capita, but overall our impact is minimal on the global scale.

The U.S. is the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. TXU, Texas’ largest electricity provider, is planning 11 new coal-fired power stations in the coming months, which will emit 78 million tons of carbon dioxide. (For comparison, Australia has around 32 coal-fired power stations – this map shows some of them.)

U.S. based Environmental Defense is running an email campaign urging the head of TXU to not build the coal-fired power stations.

This decision will impact all of us – not just Texans – so it’d be great if you could consider sending an email, as a concerned global citizen, to TXU.