The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012

(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.

Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.

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The ability to store energy efficiently and cheaply would solve one of renewable energy’s greatest challenges. Many renewable resources, such as wind and solar, cannot provide steady energy output. This represents a challenge to distribution networks, which have been designed to be fed with a steady electricity supply from centralized power plants but which encounter problems when supply fluctuates.

From Renewable Energy to Methane - The Process explained

Energy storage would allow dispatchers to “flatten” power peaks and “fill” gaps that occur with use of renewable energy. In reality, this means that electricity is stored when too much of it is produced, and consumed later when not enough power is available.

Today, pumped hydropower is the most widely used energy storage technology, although other technologies also are available, including compressed air storage or electrical batteries. But the storage capacity of existing technologies is limited, and researchers and companies are working to develop alternatives. Some of them are really promising; others deserve at least the label “interesting”.

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energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, Fraunhofer Institute, Germany, natural gas, renewable energy, Renewable Methane, technology series

The Waste Management Hierarchy

At a May 11 event in Washington, D.C. cohosted by the German Embassy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, panelists discussed the differences in how Germany and the United States deal with their municipal solid waste (MSW). Germany, which created a national ban on landfilling MSW without pre-treatment in 2005, sent only 1 percent of its MSW to landfills in 2007. Sixty-four percent of Germany’s waste was recycled or composted, and the remaining 35 percent was incinerated in waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. The United States, on the other hand, landfills 69 percent of its MSW, recycling only 24 percent and using 7 percent for WTE.

At first glance, WTE would seem to be a win-win. It involves incinerating MSW to run a turbine and produce electricity. WTE reduces the amount of space needed for landfills by 90 percent, prevents the expenditure involved with procuring fossil fuels and disposing of MSW, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding methane emissions from landfills and replacing fossil fuel consumption in waste transport and electricity production.

But WTE has many opponents, for a wide variety of reasons. Some object to the high costs. In the United States especially, with so much unused land, landfilling is cheap and the economics of any alternative are not good. Other critics worry about local air pollution or simply don’t want an industrial facility that deals in garbage near their homes or businesses. And some see WTE as taking attention and urgency away from recycling and composting (a better method of dealing with waste) and therefore believe it does more harm than good. This post will look deeper into this last claim.

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compost, composting, European Union, Germany, greenhouse gas emissions, Methane, municipal solid waste, recycling, United States, waste, waste-to-energy
Imagine if all cars were charged with electricity from renewable energy!

Imagine if all these cars were charged with electricity from wind!

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic must make their transport sectors cleaner and more sustainable in order to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With 1,590 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year emitted in the United States, 145 million tons in Germany, and 5,470 million tons worldwide, transportation is one of the major contributors to global warming. In relative numbers, cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains etc. generate a third of the United States’, 17 percent of Germany’s and 23 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions.

There are multiple ways to reduce the sector’s emissions, such as encouraging people to use public transportation, convincing industry to switch from road to rail, or by making current transportation technologies and fuels less polluting. Regarding the latter, the efficiency of petroleum-based engines in cars has improved considerably, particularly in periods of high oil prices such as 1975-1987 and the last few years. However, in the future it is a new technology, electric vehicles, that is seen as the route to a low-carbon transportation system. If charged with electricity from renewable energy, these cars have the potential to make individual transportation almost carbon-free.

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climate, e-cars, e-vehicles, electric vehicles, emissions reductions, energy, Germany, Green Technology, Innovation, low-carbon, renewable energy, transport, United States
Person walking up long path


The most recent negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change just concluded in Bangkok, Thailand. While some progress toward international climate change action was achieved, the talks were full of mostly minor diplomatic victories on procedural and scheduling issues. Big questions, especially the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and a new global climate agreement, remain unanswered. Meanwhile, worldwide carbon pollution continues to rise.

The Bangkok negotiations lasted from April 3—8 and marked the first session of the 2011 global climate meetings. Governments spent most of their time trying to agree on a schedule of what to decide on in 2011 meetings. So, if you thought climate talks already had been tough to follow, try listening to negotiators negotiate about what they are going to negotiate about later. On the final day, countries ultimately agreed on a workplan for the rest of the year. The two key areas of work are: figuring out if and how to keep the current Kyoto Protocol alive; and continuing to develop a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, one that will involve a larger range of countries cutting their climate pollution.

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2011, 2012, 2013, 2018, April, Bangkok, Bonn, Cancun, carbon pollution, civil society, Climate Change, commitment period, cooperation, countries, December, developing countries, diplomatic, Durban, emerging economies, emissions limits, gap, Germany, governments, japan, June, Kyoto Protocol, negotiators, November, path, Policy, political challenges, procedural, rich countries, Russia, scheduling, South Africa, spirit, steps, successor, technical challenges, Thailand, UNFCCC, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United States, workplan

A skyrocketing PV market in Italy. Will it soon find its right flying altitude?

Feed-in tariffs (FiTs) have spurred impressive growth in renewable power installations over the last decade. In Europe, 77 percent of all new electricity generation capacity from renewable sources installed between 1997 and 2008 occurred in countries using FiTs, making the continent the world’s largest renewables market. FiTs have also proven to be relatively popular: since 2005, 38 countries worldwide have adopted the measures (which reward renewable electricity producers with a determined tariff for the electricity they feed into the grid), whereas only 12 have introduced renewable portfolio standards (regulations requiring that a specified share of electricity come from renewable energy sources).

Yet while FiTs can create incentives for renewable energy deployment, proper design is critical. As some governments have already discovered, inflexible and overly high feed-in tariffs can cause renewable energy markets to overheat.

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Czech, feed-in tariffs, FiT, Germany, Italy, market, photovoltaics, renewable energy, solar power, Spain

Turbines and birds don't always play nice

The most recent issue of the magazine new energy contains an article describing the initial findings of a collection of studies commissioned by the German Environment Ministry on the subject of “Birds of Prey and Wind Turbines: Problem Analysis and Suggested Solutions.” I had always thought of this issue as somewhat of a sideshow, but understood that a small but vocal community took it very seriously and succeeded in keeping it in the public eye.

Although the article (and by extension, the studies) may not have completely changed my outlook, it did point out that aggregate, top-line numbers are not the best way to judge wind turbines’ effects on bird populations. The article also highlights some relatively painless measures that developers and landowners can take to help partially mitigate the situation.

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Altamont Pass, bird, bird death, eagle, Germany, hawk, raptor, renewable energy, United States, wind farm, wind power, wind turbines

In 2007, the European Union (EU) adopted its integrated approach to climate and energy policy. By 2020, the region aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 percent below 1990 levels, to generate 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent. While the EU is on track to meet or exceed its goals in the first two categories, it is set to miss its energy efficiency target and is poised to reduce its energy consumption by only 9 percent.

Maybe they should try more double paned windows

Under current EU rules, energy efficiency is the only energy and climate target that is not legally binding. Despite the forecasted shortfall, two weeks ago Europe’s heads of state shied away from taking decisive action on energy efficiency and announced a review of the region’s energy savings plan in 2013 at the earliest. European leaders said they did not want to place additional constraints on their economic policy during a period of economic crisis.

What explains the difference in success rates among the EU targets? Critics contend that the lack of enforceability is to blame for the region’s shortcomings in energy efficiency. A closer look at the EU’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however, reveals that binding targets alone may not be sufficient to reach energy-efficiency goals.

2020, carbon footprint, energy consumption, energy efficiency, European Union, Germany, GHG emissions, Kyoto Protocol, renewable energy, United Kingdom

Shortly before Christmas last year, Spain passed a milestone. The country’s prime minister and king attended a ceremony for the opening of a roughly 400-kilometer high-speed railway line connecting the capital Madrid with the third-largest city of Valencia. That brought Spain’s high-speed network to a total of about 2,000 kilometers, surpassing France’s 1,960 kilometers.

France became Europe’s pioneer of high-speed rail service in 1981 (following Japan, which initiated its Shinkansen trains in 1964 and now has about 2,400 kilometers of track). Spain only entered the high-speed league in 1992, when a line linking Madrid and Sevilla opened. All three countries demonstrate that passenger rail can be a highly attractive and thoroughly competitive transportation option.

France still reigns supreme in Europe by yardsticks other than track length. In 2008, the latest year for which the European Commission offers data, French travelers racked up 52.6 billion passenger kilometers in high-speed rail travel. Second-place Germany had a mere 23.3 billion pkm, followed at a distance by Italy (8.9 billion pkm) and then Spain (5.5 billion pkm).

These figures reflect the fact that France’s high-speed system has been around for a longer time than those in neighboring countries and is thus well established. But France has been able to build up substantial ridership by ensuring that its fast trains (trains à grande vitesse, or TGV) are “TGV pour tous”—that is, affordable for everyone. Thus, discounts are available for the poor, the young, the old, the sick, and large families.

Including all rail trips, fast and slow, France leads the continent with 85 billion passenger kilometers, just slightly more than its neighbor Germany (82 billion passenger km). The United Kingdom and Italy follow at a distance with 52.7 and 49.8 billion pkm, respectively, and Spain with 24 billion pkm. In France, an astounding 62 percent of all train travel took place on high-speed lines in 2008. On the continent as a whole, the average share was one-quarter.

The Figure to the right adjusts rail travel data for the different population sizes of Europe’s five largest countries. Spain still ranks behind France, Germany, and Italy in high-speed travel, but the country’s enormous efforts to expand its tracks (which another Green Economy post will explore) will surely change the picture in years to come. Already, the popular Madrid-to-Barcelona line has drawn many people who formerly traveled by air, and RENFE, Spain’s rail operating agency, expects to quadruple its market share of the Madrid-Valencia distance to 41 percent, again mostly at the expense of airline travel.

To understand why people switch, there is no better way than to experience Spanish rail yourself.  I still recall the pleasant experience of traveling from Sevilla to Cordoba on the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) train back in 2006. The trains are not just fast, but reliable and comfortable. In today’s world where air travel involves many hours wasted getting to and from airports and waiting at flight gates, and ever-more intrusive security measures, train travel offers an enjoyable alternative.

Spain and its European neighbors remain among the global rail leaders. In 2008, people in the 27 member countries of the European Union traveled 409 billion pkm on all types of intercity and commuter trains. Amazingly, however, that was just slightly more than the rail volume in Japan (405 billion pkm). Given that Japan’s population is just a little over one-quarter that of the EU, that makes the Japanese the world’s rail travel champion. (See Table.)

Passenger Rail Travel and Population Size, 2008

Billion Passenger Kilometers Population (Million) Travel per Capita (Billion pkm)
European Union 409 495 826
United States 37 305 121
Japan 405 128 3,164
China 778 1,325 587
Russia 176 142 1,239

Source: European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, EU Energy and Transport in Figures, Statistical Pocketbook 2010 (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2010), p. 106 (for rail statistics); Population Reference Bureau, 2008 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: 2009) (for population data).

European Union, France, Germany, high-speed, infrastructure, Italy, japan, rail, Spain, track, transportation, United Kingdom

On Monday evening, Worldwatch hosted a well-attended official side event at the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancún titled “Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps: Insights from Those Who Are Leading the Way.” The event explored Worldwatch’s unique approach to designing energy roadmaps worldwide and highlighted a handful of countries that are making measurable progress in the path toward low-carbon development.

Dan Kammen speaking at the Worldwatch event

The panel consisted of Norbert Gorissen from the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU), Rae Kwon Chung from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (and South Korea’s former climate ambassador), the World Bank’s new renewable energy czar Dan Kammen, Jiang Kejun from the Energy Research Institute of China, and Nelly Cuello from the Dominican Republic’s National Council on Climate Change. The meeting was moderated by Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin.

Following an opening presentation by Alexander Ochs, Worldwatch’s Energy and Climate Director, the panelists shared thoughts on how their countries (or in Kammen’s case, the World Bank and California) aspire to position themselves as leaders in creating low-carbon development strategies. Each of these players is moving ahead with ambitious policies even in the absence of real progress at the international level.

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BMU, California, Cancun, Caribbean, China, COP-16, Dominican Republic, EEP, Germany, low-carbon roadmap, south korea, World Bank