The Week That Was
October 19, 2002

1. CHRIS HORNER POINTS TO THE LOOMING FIGHT BEFORE THE WTO - and urges the White House to withdraw formally from the Kyoto Protocol



A new study on the role that atmospheric soot particles may play in global warming suggests a new near-term control strategy, introduces a new element of uncertainty in climate models, and shifts more responsibility for curbing pollution to developing nations like China and India.






2. Radiation Assessment at Risk
by Toni Feder, in PHYSICS TODAY, October 2002

For nearly half a century, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has been an influential resource on radiation sources and their effects on human health and the environment. But if its budget is not resuscitated, UNSCEAR's data compilation and evaluation activities will grind to a halt.

UNSCEAR's budget, $674,000 for the two-year period 2002-03, is roughly half of what it was a decade ago. Because of the crunch, UNSCEAR cancelled its annual meeting this spring and will instead meet just once, in January, during the current two-year budget period. But hardest hit is the portion of UNSCEAR's budget that covers travel and honoraria for outside consultants: 10 years ago it was $180,000; by 2000-01 it had shrunk to $52,000; and for 2002-03 it was chopped to half that. "We can't run on that," says Norman Gentner, scientific secretary for UNSCEAR, which is based in Vienna, Austria, and has 21 member countries. "[The consultants] are world-level people. They get a pittance as it were. It's become impossible to function."

UNSCEAR takes topics such as the health effects of Chernobyl, non-cancer mortality from ionizing radiation, or the risks associated with radon in homes or radiation-based medical procedures, and assembles experts who comb and analyze the literature and draft reports that form the core of the tomes the committee puts out every few years. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, and other international and national bodies use data from UNSCEAR in setting safety standards and making policies, says the committee's chair, Joyce Lipsztein, a radiation protection scientist at Brazil's National Atomic Energy Commission. "UNSCEAR is not biased. It's just scientific, not political. That's why it's so valuable."

The squeeze on UNSCEAR's budget is part of a broader belt-tightening at the United Nations, Gentner says. UNSCEAR was especially vulnerable because, during the last negotiating phase, which took place before Gentner came on board, it was without a leader. The committee comes under the umbrella of the UN Environment Programme, and descriptions of the UNEP-UNSCEAR relationship range from "neutral" to "benign neglect" to "a divorce would help." Last year, the UN complimented UNSCEAR's work
and directed UNEP "to continue providing support for the effective conduct of the work of the Scientific Committee and for the dissemination of its findings to the General Assembly, the scientific community and the public." But, says Lipsztein, "that hasn't happened."

More than neglect is at work, says Poland's representative to UNSCEAR, Zbigniew Jaworowski of the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection in Warsaw. "UNSCEAR dared in 2000 to state that practically no adverse radiation effects were observed among the post-Soviet population exposed to Chernobyl radiation, and that no genetic effects have been observed in the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. As a result, UNSCEAR's activities have been all but stopped, and there are real prospects that UNSCEAR could disappear", he says.

While politicians may not always like UNSCEAR's conclusions, says Lipsztein, "among scientists they are not controversial." At a General Assembly this month, Brazil's mission to the UN will try to bring attention to UNSCEAR's plight. "Without the appropriate funding, UNSCEAR cannot continue," says Lipsztein. For countries around the world, she
adds, "that would be like not buying insurance."


3. Ozone Good News is Bad News

The United Nations recently completed a major report on the current status of stratospheric ozone, ozone depletion, and the ozone "holes." Why haven't you heard about it? The reason is simple: The report is chock full of good news. The rate of ozone decline is slowing...the Antarctic ozone hole is not enveloping the midlatitudes...penguins are not getting more sunburn. That hardly merits major media attention with so many environmental "crises" looming.
Antarctic forecast: premature break-up of ozone hole this week

Based on satellite data from the European Space Agency, the national meteorological centre of the Netherlands predicts the Antarctic ozone hole will break apart months earlier than usual. A scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) adds that the depth of the ozone hole is much smaller than previously seen.

The explanation lies with the natural year-to-year variability of atmospheric circulation that influences the size and duration of the ozone hole, according to the Dutch scientist. The ozone hole is surrounded by a vortex of strong winds that block the exchange of air between polar and mid-latitude regions. During the South Pole's spring and summer, the temperature increases and the winds weaken. As a result, ozone-poor air inside the vortex mixes with the ozone-richer air outside, and the ozone hole dissipates. Normally this happens in November-December, but this year we predict it will happen in September.
Ozone hole fears were greatly exaggerated
Letter to the editor (Financial Times, FT, September 28, 2002.

Sir, With reference to "Goodbye, hole in the sky" (September 21): for 30 years, environmental Cassandras have made a number of apocalyptic predictions. None of them, in the fullness of time, has ever come true. Afterwards, the Cassandras typically argue that the preventive measures they championed are the reason disaster was averted, while sceptics assert that the gloomy predictions were simply overblown in the first place.

So it is with ozone depletion. While it is true that atmospheric concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals targeted under the Montreal protocol are now declining, this in no way proves that these chemicals posed as serious a threat as originally suggested. Indeed, the recent UN Environmental Programme/World Meteorological Organisation (UNEP/WMO) report and other published evidence indicate that the public health and environmental impact of ozone loss, though real, was considerably exaggerated.

It should be noted that ozone depletion, in and of itself, does not cause harm. It is the ozone layer's role in shielding the earth from dangerous ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) that gave rise to the widely repeated fears of increased UVB-induced skin cancers and cataracts, as well as potential environmental harm. But the published research has yet to confirm the predicted long-term increase in ground level UVB over populated areas. Indeed, the latest UNEP/WMO report admits that the measured evidence is inconsistent and concedes that the expected increase in UVB attributable to ozone loss is small enough to be easily offset by other factors, such as clouds and aerosols.

The article states that "a girl in the Falklands suffered third-degree burns after being exposed to the sun for only 30 minutes". Such anecdotal claims, reminiscent of Al Gore's assertion in his 1992 best-seller, Earth in the Balance, that animals in Patagonia were being struck blind by the sun, have never been demonstrated scientifically. The continued need by supporters of the Montreal protocol to rely on anecdotal evidence, especially in a field where billions of dollars have been spent on research and thousands of papers have appeared in the literature, is a strong indication that ozone depletion never was quite as bad as some would like us to believe.

Ben Lieberman, Senior Policy Analyst, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC

4. Study: Emissions Changing Climate

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Black carbon soot from coal burning, diesel engines, open fires and other sources is contributing to global warming and climate change in China and India, researchers report.

[See here our op-ed article about the Asian Brown Cloud ]

A study appearing in Science magazine is based on computer modeling at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies by researchers Surabi Menon and James Hansen.
``If our interpretation is correct, then reducing the amount of black carbon or soot may help diminish the intensity of floods in the south and droughts in the northern areas of China, in addition to having human health benefits,'' Hansen said. The research, based on data from Chinese ground stations provided by Yunfeng Luo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is continuing in order to see if a similar pattern of disturbances exists in India.

Black carbon -- a product of incomplete combustion -- comes from industrial pollution, traffic, fires, the burning of coal in homes and biomass fuels. It is especially prevalent in countries such as China and India, where cooking and heating are typically done at a low temperatures using wood, cow dung or coal. Unlike carbon dioxide emissions, which add to global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere, soot emissions may contribute to global warming and climate change by absorbing sunlight, heating the air and making the atmosphere more unstable, according to the study.

Research into black carbon is a relatively new area, global climate change experts say. Some of the uncertainties include exactly how particles behave in sunlight and how much of the soot comes from any particular burning process. Daniel A. Lashof, a senior scientist and director of the global warming project for Natural Resources Defense Council, said the study shows there are very strong reasons for China to take action to reduce soot emissions from cook stoves and coal-burning furnaces. Doing so would moderate both the local health effects and the regional climate effects from those emissions.

[Here we agree with him. But then he quickly adds:]

``I don't think the study should be interpreted to mean that carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and power plants in the United States should be taken off the hook,'' he said. ``Those emissions are continuing to build up in the global atmosphere and are the primary driver of global warming.''


Black soot requires new model studies and control policies

A new study on the role that atmospheric soot particles may play in global warming suggests a new near-term control strategy, introduces a new element of uncertainty in climate models, and shifts more responsibility for curbing pollution to developing nations such as China and India.

Published in the September 27 issue of the journal Science, the report -- by researchers from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies -- suggests that by absorbing sunlight and altering weather patterns, light absorbing carbon-based particles could have nearly as much impact on global warming as carbon dioxide: a greenhouse gas that has long been considered the primary culprit in global warming. The soot particles are produced by diesel engines, cooking fires and other sources.

In a Perspectives article published with the NASA Goddard paper, atmospheric researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology describe some of the policy implications of the new findings. Among them:

* Because black carbon particles have relatively short atmospheric lifetimes, successful control efforts could curb their effects in a matter of months or years. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, meaning control efforts couldn't impact global warming for generations.

* Soot emissions come primarily from developing nations such as India and China. If these emissions do in fact play a large role in global warming, that could shift pressure for environmental control to those nations. Industrialized nations in North America and Europe are responsible for the bulk of carbon dioxide emissions.

* Efforts to control soot may also bring immediate improvements in human health since the small particles thought to be most active in affecting climate are the same PM 2.5 particles that cause respiratory distress when trapped deep in the lungs.

* Little is known about the worldwide impact of soot emissions or even how to properly measure them. Significant new research will be needed before the role of black carbon emissions can be reliably assessed.

"The study reported this week in Science really raises some important policy issues regarding soot," said Michael Bergin, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author of the Perspectives article. "In the past, researchers have felt that soot didn't really have a significant warming effect. But as we've learned more about the amount of black carbon emitted by countries like China and India, it appears now that soot could have important climatic effects, and that these effects may be almost as much as those of carbon dioxide."

In their Perspectives article, Bergin and Professor William Chameides, also in Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, point out the differences between black carbon soot and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. For instance, soot particles are removed from the atmosphere on time scales of weeks to months, while carbon dioxide lingers for hundreds of years. That could point toward a better near-term control strategy.

"This could be 'low-hanging fruit' in trying to deal with the anthropogenic (human-caused) effects on the climate," Bergin noted. "From a policy standpoint, the payoff for controlling soot could be on the scale of years rather than centuries."

Black carbon creates its warming effect through an entirely different mechanism than greenhouse gases, which act as an insulating blanket to keep heat within the earth's atmosphere. Black carbon absorbs light from the sun, converting that to heat. The effect varies, depending upon what is beneath the carbon particles.

If a light-colored surface lies below the carbon particles, the heating effect is increased as incoming photons heat the particles on their way toward the surface, then heat them again as they reflect off the land or clouds. The particles are also involved in cloud formation, which impacts precipitation patterns. Those weather changes, seen in regions of China and India with large soot emissions, may in turn affect the global climate.

"There are a lot of possible atmospheric effects from soot," Bergin said. "We really don't yet understand all the feedback cycles involved."

In fact, researchers are just beginning to learn about black carbon soot -- and even to agree on what it is. Formed by the incomplete combustion from diesel engines, cooking fires and coal burning, black carbon can take different forms. Depending on the specifics of the combustion process, soot can take many different forms from spherical particles to chain agglomerates.

"The nature of the particles and how they absorb light could be different," Bergin explained. "So one gram of soot from one part of the world could be different from a gram of soot from another part of the world. We are really at the beginning of trying to understand the influences of soot on climate. Right now, there is a great deal of uncertainty in any estimate of the climatological impact of soot."

A key uncertainty is the amount of soot going into the atmosphere. Localized studies in China and India, where crops wastes are burned for heating and cooking, show very high levels. In developed nations, elevated soot levels are found in urban areas -- which have often been excluded from climate studies to avoid confusing global climate change with the local "urban heat island" effect.

Because nations such as China and India produce so much black carbon, a new focus on this pollutant could shift control responsibility to the developing nations. Controlling soot emissions would include developing more efficient combustion techniques, both for biomass burning and diesel engines, Bergin added.

The Science report calls into question the accuracy of global climate change models, which have not considered the effects of black carbon.

"This creates some opportunities for climate modelers to revise their approaches and to add a potentially important anthropogenic climate forcing agent to their models," said Bergin. "We now have an opportunity to include more of the important anthropogenic effects. It could be that there are other feedback cycles in the global climate system that we don't understand."

Controlling soot could have an impact broader than global climate change. The tiny particles that appear to be most active in absorbing radiation are of the size implicated in causing human health effects because they can lodge deeply in the lungs.

"These health impacts could make it politically much easier for policy-makers to enact the kinds of controls needed," said Bergin. "The control strategy could provide a double-whammy by increasing the health of both human beings and the environment."


5. The concrete jungle overheats
(Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 19th July 1997)

"Estimates of carbon dioxide emissions from one of the world's growth industries have been grossly underestimated"

Cement kilns contribute more to the world's output of carbon dioxide than aircraft and could soon be responsible for 10 per cent of the greenhouse gas. New calculations by an industry scientist reveal that cement manufacturers already produce 7 per cent of global CO2 emissions - almost three times previously published estimates - and that CO2 output is increasing faster from cement works than from any other industrial source.

The silence on cement manufacture as a cause of global warming contrasts with the growing concern over aircraft emissions, which are estimated to contribute a maximum of 5 percent. Last month at the Earth Summit, the European Union called for a global tax on aircraft fuel. But proposals for an internal EU tax on energy, aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, specifically excluded the cement industry because its energy use is so high that it was thought a tax would damage it.


6. Commercial wind 'farms' are not sustainable.
(Report from Wales)

Their infrastructure requires the use of concrete, steel, aluminium, etc. which are all obtained from finite resources. They industrialize vast areas of valuable, unspoilt landscapes - another finite resource.

Wind 'farms' produce their CO2 pollution before they start to generate electricity! The manufacture, shipment, installation and subsequent dismantling of these gigantic units creates pollution.

Commercial wind 'farms' use huge amounts of concrete for service roads. The foundation for each turbine contains enough concrete to fill a municipal swimming pool. The material required for the service roads and foundations leaves a very big hole in the ground somewhere else - a quarry. Iron ore mines must remain open to provide the material required for metal turbine towers, transformers and ancillary buildings. The ecological damage is irreversible

10,000 lorry loads of material were needed to build 12 kilometres of new service roads for the wind 'farm' at Carno That meant an average of about 30 lorry loads a day, with all their polluting CO2 emissions, going to the site for the whole of the 10-month construction period.

All this for an average, intermittent, unreliable 10MW of electricity towards the UK's need for an average, secure supply of 45,000 MW of electricity. The intermittent supply requires back-up at all times from either nuclear or fossil -fuel plant.

Carno wind 'farm' cost about £30 ($45) million to build. How can the developers possibly claim that wind 'farms' are "clean and green and free"?

SEPP Comment: Plus subsidies paid by taxpayers and higher power costs to users


7. Environmental Air Quality Improving in Canada

What makes a good environmental indicator? It should provide a direct measure of pollution and of environmental degradation or improvement, experts say. It should be tracked over time in order to determine whether there is an improving or deteriorating trend. Good indicators should measure pollution, not consumption, although the two are commonly confused.

When these techniques are employed they show that contrary to public opinion there are many reasons to be optimistic about the progress that has been made at improving our environment since the first Earth Day in 1970. Following are some examples:

o Since 1980 in the United States, overall environmental quality improved by 18.6 percent, the level of sulfur dioxide decreased by 47.7 percent, and nitrogen dioxide decreased by 16 percent.

o Overall, environmental quality improved by 17 percent in Canada relative to 1980.

o The ambient level of sulfur dioxide decreased by 61.4 percent in Canada between 1974 and 1999, and many cities experienced similar reductions, including Toronto (-66 percent), Montreal (-77 percent), and Vancouver (-67 percent).

o The annual mean nitrogen dioxide level fell by 28 percent between 1974 and 1999, and many cities also experienced declines, including Toronto (-12 percent), Vancouver (-23 percent), Ottawa-Hull (-40 percent), Calgary (-25 percent), Quebec (-40 percent), Winnipeg (-6.2 percent), Hamilton (-49.8 percent), and St. John's (-53 percent).

The index of environmental indicators for Canada, the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and South Korea shows that fears about increasing environmental degradation in these countries are unfounded. Environmental quality is getting better, not worse. While there are still some serious environmental problems that need to be addressed, overall environmental quality continues to improve.

Source: Laura Jones, Liv Fredrickson and Tracy Wates,
"Environmental Indicators (5th Edition)," Critical Issues
Bulletin, The Fraser Institute, April 2002.

For more information:


8. Africa's deserts in retreat
New Scientist, 18 Sept 2002

The Southern Sahara desert is retreating and farm land is taking over, as we reported last week. But there is confusion as to why. Some speculate it's increased rainfall, others think that farmers are doing a better job of managing soil and water.

Hey, what about Global Warming? It's being blamed for all kinds of ills, so why not blame it for this encroachment of agriculture onto the "fragile" desert? Global warming -- surely you guys at the New Scientist must have heard of it - GH effect -CO2….



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