The Week That Was
July 1, 2000


SEPP associate scientist Ted Rockwell has published a thoughtful article on "Scientific Integrity and Mainstream Science" (The Scientist, 6 March 2000). He discusses, with current examples, why mainstream science is not necessarily good science. As a nuclear engineer of some distinction, he focuses on the battle over LNT, the Linear-No-Threshold hypothesis (in current use to ensure radiation safety) and its shortcomings.

The Week That Was July 1, 2000 brought to you by SEPP


The Kyoto Protocol permits credits for carbon sequestration by trees and soils. But this raises all kinds of difficult questions related to monitoring and verification. Beyond this there are wider environmental implications. For example, higher crop yields produce more carbon accumulation in soils but also require higher fertilizer use. Conservation tillage has many environmental benefits but requires increased use of herbicides.

The IPCC has now issued a special report on "Land-use, Land-use change, and Forestry" The 460 page scientific report suggests that the 41 developed countries could meet their Kyoto goals of cutting 200 megatons of carbon emission per year entirely through land-use changes rather than by reducing emissions from fossil fuels. Such "carbon sequestration" could be increased by, for instance:
planting more trees; no-till agriculture; conversion of cropland into grassland; fertilization of pastureland; and improved forest management practices. (Globally, soil contains about five times as much carbon as vegetation does.)

A new report, "Agricultural Soil Carbon Accumulation in North America: Considerations for Climate Policy," is available on the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council at It concludes that annual accumulation in agricultural soils could represent a reduction of more than 10% of carbon-dioxide emissions of Annex-I countries, double the requirement of the Kyoto Protocol. But the real problem may be political: Green zealots who care less about climate change but insist that energy generation itself must be reduced.

Aside from the usual problems of accounting and monitoring, there is the problem of definitions. For example, how much canopy cover is required to constitute a forest? Boreal forests are different from savanna forests, which have sparse canopies. Another crucial problem the report notes is whether forests that are harvested commercially and planted should be counted.

There is an additional dispute about the carbon cost of applying nitrogen fertilizer to crops. It leads to increased crop biomass and also augments carbon inputs to the soil by increasing soil organic matter. But there is use of fossil fuels involved in fertilizer manufacture, storage, transport, and application. The dispute is aired in Letters to Science 288, 5 May 2000.


In February 2000, the German Bundestag passed a new law on renewable energy technology, which has some interesting wrinkles. It obligates electric utilities to buy electricity from specified renewables at a guaranteed minimum rate. This extra cost of electric power is passed on to all consumers in Germany; the old law placed the cost on the respective utility. The old law applied to wind energy; the new law covers most renewable technologies including solar, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower.

The guaranteed minimum rates vary according to the power source and its location and capacity. But the guaranteed rates are reduced annually by a fixed percentage ranging from 1% per year (for biomass) to 5% per year (for photovoltaic). The decreasing rates are supposed to reflect anticipated cost reductions following an assumed learning curve. This feature is one worth noting and copying. But let's see first how the German consumer reacts to higher prices.


California is in the lead in offering or coaxing consumers to buy green power. Fortunately, it is adding the additional cost only to those consumers who choose to sign up. We suppose that if they were to spread the cost to all consumers, they might be courting a lawsuit. But since the deregulation permits the purchase of power from a variety of sources, consumers can exercise their choice. In Los Angeles, the local municipal utility, the Department of Water and Power (DWP), has signed up about 1.5% of its customers for green power and hopes to have 10% soon. Many environmentalists are worried that without government subsidies, renewables will not make much of a dent.

Energy marketers promote their green alternatives on billboards, in direct mailings to homes, and in advertisements. If the California experiment fails, it will probably fail in the United States. We are waiting to hear…



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