Monday, February 04, 2008

Algae hold the key to the biofuel conundrum

  • 02 February 2008
  • Rachel Nowak
  • Magazine issue 2641

It is no secret that biofuels made from food crops such as corn and palm oil have driven up food prices and depleted rainforests, often without reducing net greenhouse emissions. The message was driven home by two recent UK reports, first from the Royal Society and then last week from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.

The days of unbridled enthusiasm for first-generation biofuels have passed, even if production is still rising. Last week the European Commission controversially called for 10 per cent of transport fuels to be biofuels by 2020. Yet the drive to develop second-generation biofuels - ethanol brewed from plant cellulose in the form of wood, grass, or even waste - is edging towards commercialisation in the US.

Many experts say this next generation holds the greatest promise in the short term for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport, with potentially far fewer of ...

The complete article is 688 words long.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ratifying Kyoto Protocol takes time: law expert
Posted 2 hours 21 minutes ago
An international law expert has cast doubt on whether the newly elected Federal Government will be able to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the short term.
Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd has nominated ratifying the treaty quickly as one of his top priorities.
But Professor Donald Rothwell from the Australian National University says the normal ratification is a lengthy process requiring a National Impact Analysis, a parliamentary inquiry and development of new laws to support the treaty.
He says even if this is cut short, the treaty cannot be ratified quickly because of the need for new laws.
"Indeed, even under the Howard Government, there were exceptions that were permitted for emergency treaties," he said.
"Ultimately however the Kyoto Protocol will require that new Australian law to give effect to the Kyoto Protocol in Australian law and that ultimately requires an act of Parliament."
Professor Rothwell says there is still a point to signing the protocol even if the climate change conference in Bali next month reaches a new agreement.
"Bali is really seeking to negotiate the successor to the Kyoto Protocol which would see a new climate change instrument kick in from 2013," he said.
"If Australia ratifies Kyoto it will be expected to meet its Kyoto obligations between the period of 2008 and 2012 and to that end, having law in place to give effect to Kyoto will be quite important."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

  • 13:00 21 November 2007
  • news service
  • Robert Adler
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Scientists have moved us a step closer to a hydrogen-based economy by successfully "wiring up" carbon nanotubes to hydrogenase – a biological molecule that can be used to harness hydrogen as fuel.

The conductive nanotubes act as tiny wires, shuttling electrons from hydrogenase molecules as they drive hydrogen-based chemical reactions.

Reacting hydrogen with oxygen releases electricity and could therefore offer a greener way to power cars, for example. Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen offers a way to store electricity generated using technology such as solar panels.

But existing methods of drawing electrical power from these reactions relies on rare and expensive precious metals such as platinum, palladium, or ruthenium. Connecting nanotubes to the catalyst hydrogenase promises a much cheaper approach.

"We need to be able to develop ways to generate energy that are cheap and effective," says Paul King, who led the research effort with Michael Heben at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Colorado, US. "Now we have a nice trick from biology that may be more effective in the long term."

Spontaneous attachment

The researchers forged an electrical connection between individual hydrogenase molecules and single-walled carbon nanotubes by first using detergent-like surfactants to create separate suspensions containing hydrogenase and nanotubes.

When these two mixtures are combined, the nanotubes spontaneously attach themselves to the hydrogenase molecules, producing stable, electrically conductive bonds. Connecting the nanotubes up to a circuit could provide a way to draw electricity out of the chemical reaction for practical use.

The researchers are still studying the exact location and nature of these connections, but believe that the nanotubes attach themselves to the electrically active sites on each hydrogenase molecule.

In the past, getting these sensitive natural enzymes to connect with other materials has been challenging. "We were surprised, at first, at the result," says King. "It wasn't clear that they would interact, but they just self-assemble. And it's a very strong and an apparently stable interaction."

The researchers were able to check that the connections successfully transmit electrons by observing changes in the optical properties of the suspended nanotubes, which occur when they absorb charged particles.

Controlled reaction

Nanotubes normally absorb and re-emit light at characteristic wavelengths but, after hydrogenase is added, this photoluminescence disappears, suggesting that the enzyme is feeding electrons into the nanotubes as it catalyses the oxidation hydrogen.

The team found that they could control the catalytic reaction by changing the pH balance of the solution or the amount of hydrogen in it.

As expected, when they added oxygen, which inactivates hydrogenase, the nanotubes lit up again. In the absence of oxygen, the hydrogenase-nanotube connections continued to work for up to a week.

"This is an exciting result," says John Peters, at Montana State University, US. "The ability to attach hydrogenase enzymes to conductive materials paves the way for biohybrid, precious-metal-free fuel cell technologies and new hydrogen-producing materials."

This is just what King and his colleagues are aiming to do. "It's a way to go directly from solar energy to chemical energy in the form of hydrogen," he says. "Downstream, we would like to use the enzyme in place of a catalyst, for example platinum, in solar-hydrogen energy production."

Journal reference: Nano Letters (Vol 7, No 11, pp 3528)

Energy and Fuels – Learn more about the looming energy crisis in our comprehensive special report.

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  • 22 November 2007
  • Fred Pearce
  • Magazine issue 2631

THE warning is of "abrupt and irreversible" climate change. They are words we have heard often enough - but never before from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its "synthesis report" published last week - which is intended mainly as a summary of findings presented in three detailed studies released earlier this year - has in fact gone further than those reports.

IPCC chiefs headed by chairman Rajendra Pachauri were stung by criticisms from scientists that their report on the physical science of climate change, agreed in February, had painted too rosy a picture. The charge was that their efforts to concentrate on findings with a 90 per cent certainty or better had resulted in them leaving out scarier but less certain scenarios. The synthesis report tries to make amends.

For instance, the February report predicted that sea levels will rise "between 18 and 59 centimetres" by 2100. Many ...

  • 23 November 2007
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CHINA is leaving the US in the dust in its spending on clean energy - but it still has plenty to do if it is to shake off its sooty reputation.

According to a study released last week by the Washington-based think tank, Worldwatch Institute, China will invest more than $10 billion on renewable energy this year - double the amount invested by the US in 2006. China is on track to hit its goal of 15 per cent energy from renewables by 2020, up from 8 per cent today, the authors say. "I think the targets are realistic, even conservative based on what they have done so far," says Eric Martinot.

However, China remains heavily dependent on coal, the fossil fuel that emits the most carbon per unit of energy. Seventy per cent of its energy comes from coal compared with less than 25 per cent in the US.

From issue 2631 of New Scientist magazine, 23 November 2007, page 5

Saturday, November 17, 2007

IPCC report urges swift action on global warming

Posted 1 hour 23 minutes ago

The IPCC says retreating glaciers and snow loss in alpine regions, thinning Arctic summer sea ice and thawing permafrost show that climate change is already happening (File photo).

The IPCC says retreating glaciers and snow loss in alpine regions, thinning Arctic summer sea ice and thawing permafrost show that climate change is already happening (File photo). (Reuters: NASA)

The world's top scientific authority on climate change is set to adopt a landmark report that warns that the impacts of global warming are already visible, will accelerate this century and are potentially irreversible.

The document, crafted by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), summarises the first overview on the greenhouse-gas effect since 2001.

It is styled as a guide for politicians facing tough decisions on cutting pollution from fossil fuels, shifting to cleaner energy and bolstering defences against drought, flood, storms and other problems that are set to intensify through climate change.

The IPCC is going to adopt a 20-page "summary for policy-makers" and a 70-page technical document.

These will be followed by a press conference attended by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who has warned that the world is on the verge of a "catastrophe" due to global warming.

The report encapsulates three phonebook-sized assessments, issued earlier this year, that effectively consign once-powerful "climate sceptics" to a small and shrinking minority.

The IPCC says the evidence of a human role in observed warming is now "unequivocal".

It says retreating glaciers and snow loss in alpine regions, thinning Arctic summer sea ice and thawing permafrost show that climate change is already on the march.

By 2100, global average surface temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius, compared to 1980-99 levels, while sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59 centimetres, the IPCC forecasts.

Heatwaves, rainstorms, water stress, tropical cyclones and surges in sea level are among the events expected to become more frequent, more widespread and/or more intense this century.

The draft of the new report warns that all countries will be affected but poorer countries - ironically those least to blame for causing the problem - will be hit hardest and have the least resources for coping.

Bali conference

Publication of the synthesis comes in the run-up to a conference in Bali, in Indonesia, where the world's nations will gather to ponder the climate crisis.

The December 3-14 conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is tasked with setting a "roadmap" of negotiations for intensifying cuts in carbon emissions beyond 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol runs out.

Carbon pollution, emitted especially by the burning of oil, gas and coal, traps heat from the Sun, thus warming the Earth's surface and causing changes to weather systems.

Emissions are spiralling, driven more recently by coal-fired plants in fast-growing China and India.

In its present form, Kyoto will not even make a dent in this threat.

In a commentary published in the International Herald Tribune today, Mr Ban called for urgent action on global warming.

"I believe we are on the verge of a catastrophe if we do not act," he wrote.

"I am not scare-mongering. But I believe we are nearing a tipping point."

But Mr Ban has characterised the IPCC report's conclusions as "encouraging".

"The over-arching message: we can beat this," he wrote.

"There are real and affordable ways to deal with climate change."


Tags: environment, climate-change, world-politics, spain

ASEAN summit to promote nuclear energy, solar power

by Martin Abbugao Tue Nov 13, 9:38 AM ET

SINGAPORE, Nov 13, 2007 (AFP) - Southeast Asian leaders will promote the use of civilian nuclear power, along with other alternative energy sources, when they meet in Singapore next week, a draft statement obtained Tuesday said.


Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will also agree to establish a "regional nuclear safety regime" to ensure that plutonium, a key ingredient for making atomic weapons, does not fall into the wrong hands.

A draft of an ASEAN Declaration on Environmental Sustainability, obtained by AFP, said the leaders will agree "to take concrete measures to promote the use of renewable and alternative energy sources such as solar, hydro, wind, tide, biomass, biofuels and geothermal energy"

They will also support "civilian nuclear power" for interested countries -- a move which environmental campaigners see as worrying.

But the draft says ASEAN will ensure "safety and safeguards that are of current international standards and environmental sustainability".

Heads of state and government from ASEAN's member states Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are to sign the document next Tuesday during their annual summit.

Host Singapore has said it wants climate change to be the focus of the summit, but the meeting is instead expected to be dominated by rogue ASEAN member Myanmar's deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in September.

The document commits ASEAN states to implement environmentally sustainable practices, improve cooperation to fight trans-boundary pollution and to take action against illegal logging.

Weak law enforcement to control the use of fire for clearing agricultural land in ASEAN's biggest member, Indonesia, has been identified as a main cause of the haze that blankets wide swathes of the region each year.

ASEAN leaders will also pledge to improve energy efficiency, reduce the loss of biodiversity in the region and halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2010, according to the draft.

But the decision to promote civilian nuclear power has sparked criticisms from environmental activists.

Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have announced plans to build nuclear power plants by 2020 in a bid to cut their dependence on crude oil and natural gas.

World oil prices topped 98 dollars a barrel earlier this month.

"If they are going nuclear, I think they are going into disaster for the region," warned Nur Hidayati, a campaigner for the environment watchdog Greenpeace.

"The nature of this region is that it is very unstable, and so when there is an accident, the whole region will suffer," she told AFP by telephone from Indonesia, referring to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Southeast Asia also does not have the technology, the expertise or the raw materials to operate a nuclear power plant, she charged.

This means governments will have to import them from foreign sources, defeating the objective of gaining energy security, Hidayati added.

However, she supported ASEAN's efforts to promote solar, hydro, wind and geothermal power.

"There is still a lot of potential in the region that is not being tapped effectively. It is better for governments to look at these alternative energy sources that are relatively clean and safe," she said.

Singapore has embarked on a strategy to establish itself as a centre for solar energy development.

Last month, Norway's Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) said it planned to invest more than 3.0 billion euros (4.31 billion US) to build a manufacturing plant in Singapore for solar wafers, cells and modules.


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China sees reduction in coal emissions

Thu Nov 15, 12:05 AM ET

BEIJING - China said measures to improve the environment by cutting pollution at coal-fired power plants has started to show results, with emissions of a key air pollutant falling so far this year.


Emissions of sulfur dioxide, a main marker of air pollution, fell by 1.8 percent year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2007, State Environmental Protection Administration Director Zhou Shengxian said Thursday in a statement on the agency's Web site.

This compared to a 1.2 percent rise in 2006 from a year earlier. Zhou attributed the decrease to the installation of facilities that cut emissions of sulfur from coal-fired power plants.

"This shows measures to improve environmental quality have worked," Zhou was quoted as saying by the official China Daily newspaper.

China has some of the most polluted cities in the world and many of its rivers and lakes are full of toxic poisons after decades of breakneck economic growth.

The stunning economic growth means it accounted for 58 percent of carbon emissions worldwide in 2000-06, the International Energy Agency said in a report last week.

The environmental concerns extend to next summer's Beijing Olympics, with the International Olympic Committee and others voicing concern about the city's notoriously bad air pollution.

China aims to cut major pollutants by 10 percent between 2006 and 2010, but missed its target last year.

While China is against binding emissions caps, fearing they could harm economic growth, it is looking to technology — such as installations on power plants — to help cut emissions.

Zho said that a measure of water pollution, called chemical oxygen demand, or COD, also fell fractionally.

His report came a day after a commission on China's Yangtze River said the amount of sewage dumped into that waterway rose last year to a record 30.5 billion tons, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

That was an increase of 3.1 percent, or 900 million tons, from the year before, according to Hu Jiajun, a spokesman for the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission, Xinhua said.


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China Powers Ahead on Renewable Energy

Ali Rahman, OneWorld US Thu Nov 15, 9:31 PM ET

WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (OneWorld) - China is well on its way to acquiring fully 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2020, while the United States is dragging its feet on transitioning away from fossil fuels, according to a pair of reports released here this week.


Nations across the globe invested over $50 billion collectively into renewable energy conversion last year, and in 2007 China alone is expected to account for some $10 billion of investment, explains "Powering China's Development: The Role of Renewable Energy," released Wednesday by the Worldwatch Institute, an independent Washington, DC research group.

With this large financial commitment, China looks poised to pass solar and wind energy leaders in Europe and North America and become a leader in renewables manufacturing, the report notes, adding that, at this pace, China will draw 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050.

"The future of the global climate may rest in large measure on China's ability to lead the world into the age of renewable energy, much as the United States led the world into the age of oil roughly a century ago," said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin.

Renewable energy continues to be marginalized in many national energy plans despite its numerous benefits, say environmental and geopolitical experts. The environmental benefits are well-known, but also important, they say, is that renewable energy sources -- unlike traditional fossil fuels -- will never run out.

While the Chinese government advances closer towards its renewable energy goals, the United States appears to be lagging. The U.S. Congress recently discussed dropping several key provisions from the energy legislation it is considering.

The terms in question would mandate a 35-mile-per-gallon (mpg) fuel efficiency standard for the U.S. fleet of cars and light trucks; an expansion of renewable energy tax incentives; and a 15-percent share of the nation's energy to come from renewable sources by the year 2020.

But the United States had already set its goals low, and by dropping these provisions it will fall farther behind the rest of the world, said the Sustainable Energy Network, an umbrella group of over 500 organizations, businesses, and individuals that promotes renewable energy and energy efficiency.

In response to Congress' threat to drop the provisions, 100 of the group's members, including Public Citizen's Energy Program and the Redwood Alliance, sent a letter Wednesday urging lawmakers against this action. The letter declared that the goals to be dropped are actually less than "what has been technically and economically achievable for many years."

Although a target fuel efficiency standard of 35 mpg is "a significant improvement," the groups said, with hybrid technology the United States is easily capable of reaching 55 mpg, and with fuel cell technology could possibly go as high as 80 mpg in the future.

The same can be said of the tax incentive and energy share provisions of the bill, according to the groups. The goal of a 15 percent renewable energy share by 2020 pales in comparison to Germany's plan to source 45 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

Many U.S. states, including California, Minnesota, Hawaii, and Colorado, have set goals of 20 percent renewable energy shares by 2020 or earlier. If these states can make these ambitious targets, then the nation should at least aim for similar goals, say the letter's signers.

If the United States does not wish to fall behind in global efforts to convert to cleaner and safer renewable energy, then it must move forward -- not backward -- on the legislative front, the groups warned.

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China the focus in clean cars race

By ELAINE KURTENBACH, AP Business Writer Fri Nov 16, 3:38 AM ET

ANTING, China - Automakers racing to find affordable ways to make cars environmentally sustainable are zeroing in on polluted, fuel-scarce China to help them take clean car concepts from the laboratory to the market.


Mounting alarm over global warming and soaring crude oil prices was evident among automakers showcasing their latest green technologies at the Challenge Bibendum, held this week in Shanghai's "Auto City" — an industrial zone to the west of the city.

At the 2004 Shanghai Bibendum, named after the puffy mascot of French tire-making sponsor Michelin, the talk was all of phasing in various technologies over decades.

Today, with crude oil prices encroaching on $100 a barrel, it's of moving ahead with all technologies as soon as possible, especially in China, where environmental crises and fuel shortages resulting from its embrace of the automobile make it a microcosm of global trends.

"We used to talk about timeframes of short-mid-long-term. Now all of them are in play to figure out what are the different options for the different markets," said Elizabeth Lowery, vice president for environment, energy and safety policy at General Motors Corp.

With its huge market and high velocity growth, China is "critical" to the effort to reduce dependence on petroleum and carbon dioxide emissions, Lowery said in an interview.

In both oil consumption and vehicle sales, China ranks second globally after the United States and is fast catching up. Vehicle sales jumped 25 percent last year to 7.2 million units, including trucks and buses.

Spurred by the country's growing dependence on oil imports, the government targeted cleaner cars as a priority in February 2006 as part of a broad range of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency.

It has promised grants and tax breaks to support industry efforts, and recently issued rigorous standards for makers of alternative fuel vehicles.

The urgent need for progress was evident outside the Bibendum venue, where a gray haze hung over the sleek concept cars whizzing around the parking lot.

Worldwide, automakers are investing billions of dollars to develop more eco-friendly vehicles to meet stricter standards on auto emissions and fuel efficiency, helped by recent advances in battery and fuel cell technology.

Late last month, GM announced plans for a $250 million alternative-fuel research center in Shanghai.

Both Toyota and Honda produce hybrid vehicles, which are powered by electricity and gasoline, in China and GM has said it plans to start selling a gas-electric hybrid here next year.

The challenge remains making the technologies affordable, and that hinges on boosting production volumes to reduce manufacturing costs per vehicle. Automakers are looking to the double-digit growth in China and other developing markets such as India to help realize those economies of scale.

"What really counts is applying the right technology on volume vehicles," said John Viera, director of sustainable business strategies at Ford Motor Co.

Herbert Kohler, chief environmental officer and vice president at Germany's Daimler AG, echoed that sentiment. "The number one issue is commercialization: To get the cost down."

Viera urged that Beijing promote clean cars, both hybrids and others, with tax breaks and other policy incentives.

"When we have government support, we shall launch these products for Chinese consumers," he said. "We need governments to be our partners."

So far, progress toward commercialization has illustrated the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution. For some countries, such as major biofuel producer Brazil, ethanol is a viable option. Others are increasingly relying on hybrids and other advances in traditional fuels while they experiment with fuel cell technology.

China has sought to curb an expansion in biofuel production to help protect food supplies and control prices. Thus automakers such as Ford, Daimler and Volkswagen AG are focusing on diesel, which can be processed from a variety of resources, including coal and natural gas.

"Our aim is to make diesel as clean as gas engines and gas engines as efficient as diesel," Kohler said.

Meanwhile, tire makers and chemicals manufacturers are developing new materials to reduce vehicle weight, wind resistance and ground friction — factors that can account for about a third of the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

Even road contractors have a crucial role to play in reducing pollution, recycling materials and using paving that can maximize efficiency, noted Jean Beauverd, chairman of the International Road Federation and president of road building company Colas Switzerland.

"There is a general agreement that business as usual is not an option," Beauvert said.


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Absorbing CO2 by Dumping Urea Into Ocean Pisses Off Activists

By Brandon Keim EmailNovember 05, 2007 | 11:52:52 AMCategories: Climate, Environment, Government, Oceans

Sulusea The Philippines government has approved an Australian company's plan to absorb excess CO2 by dumping massive amounts of urea in the Sulu Sea. Environmental activists say the dumping is a potentially risky, scientifically unsound gamble that underscores the dangerous absence of international geoengineering regulations.

Like iron seeding, urea dumping is supposed to nourish blooms of greenhouse gas-gobbling plankton. But iron seeding is controversial, with some scientists saying it might produce even more CO2 -- and compared to urea dumping, iron seeding is well understood.

According to a statement issued by the Ottawa-based ETC Group, UK-based Corporate Watch, Malaysia-based Third World Network and the Philippines' SEARICE,

Urea and nitrogen fertilizer pollution caused by agricultural run-off has been linked to the creation of toxic algal blooms in the scientific literature, and raises the possibility of dead zones from oxygen depletion.

The groups called for regulators currently meeting to discuss the London Convention to evaluate urea dumping as well as iron seeding. The Convention, enacted by the International Maritime Organization in 1972, prohibits oceanic waste dumping -- but while simply pouring urea into the sea would be illegal, doing so to absorb carbon dioxide is permitted, or at least not forbidden.

That regulatory loophole is symbolic of the general absence of international guidelines for large-scale climate modification projects, both at sea and on land; and Sulu Sea urea dumping, proposed by the Ocean Nourishment Corporation and planned in the future for Malaysia, Chile and the United Arab Emirates, is symbolic of projects that are only going to become more common as climate change and entrepreneurship collide.

I've written a lot about geoengineering on WiSci, so check those posts out to learn more about the issues. The bottom line: geoengineering could work, and if the worst-case climate scenarios become more probable, we might need it. But there are enough question marks and potential problems to demand that humanity do it as wisely as possible.

Pissing for Profit in the Pacific [Press Release]

Backgrounder: Ocean Nourishment Corporation plans imminent urea dumping experiment in Southeast Asian seas [ETC Group, Third World Network, Corporate Watch & SEARICE]

Image: NASA

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Q&A: All We Are Saying Is, Give (Clean) Coal a Chance

By Alexis Madrigal Email 11.06.07 | 12:00 AM
Stanford research fellow Jeremy Carl says, "Coal is as dirty as it gets," but warns against throwing the possibly cleaned-up baby out with the dirty bathwater.
Photo: Jeremy Carl

Coal is dirty. But coal is driving the U.S., Chinese and Indian economies. And therefore, coal is not going away. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind generate only 1 percent of the world's electricity. Do the math: Making coal burn cleaner might be the most pressing environmental problem that no one talks about.

Despite recent estimates that pollution from China's booming coal industry reaches U.S. shores in as little as five days, the green-tech investment boom that has funded the rise of biofuels has bypassed coal. Even the head of the World Coal Institute recently proclaimed the last 10 years "a lost decade" for clean coal, saying it's time to play catch-up.

Stanford's Jeremy Carl, a research fellow in the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, couldn't agree more. He spoke on the phone with Wired News to discuss China, the holy grail of clean coal and how many coal plants he'd trade for Kyoto's accomplishments.

Wired News: Why'd you get into clean coal?

Jeremy Carl: I looked at the numbers. It's a question of where the big sources of emissions are and where we can attack them.

WN: Can you give us an idea of the scale of coal power? Can you put coal in context as an energy source?

Carl: Only oil makes a bigger contribution to global energy. In terms of energy in the industrial world, it's about 40 percent of electricity production.

WN: How dirty is coal?

Carl: Coal is as dirty as it gets. Coal has every element in the periodic table. And depending where in the world you get it from, "coal" can mean 100 different substances. If you sent the sort of coal you might use in a typical Indian plant to a supermodern boiler in Japan, it would shut the place down.

WN: But there's got to be good things about coal.

Carl: It's cheap. And coal doesn't have the kind of extreme risk that nuclear power has. You're not going to build a dirty bomb out of coal. And unlike other fossil fuels, it is really widely distributed, so there is less of a coal OPEC.

WN: And that distribution would seem to make resource wars less likely to break out over coal?

Carl: Yes.

WN: Is there an energy source that could replace coal?

Carl: Natural gas is the only viable replacement, and it's not clear that the natural-gas supply could scale up to replace coal.

WN: So, how can we can make coal cleaner?

Carl: The most-well-known is flue-gas desulfurization, which takes sulfur dioxide out of smoke stacks, and came out of concerns about acid rain. There are other pollution-control devices for nitrogen oxide and mercury filters.

WN: What about up-and-coming technologies like carbon capture and sequestration? Can you tell us about that?

Carl: You're taking carbon from a smokestack and pressure-injecting it into a geological formation of some sort. We actually already do this process at an industrial level. We know how this works.

WN: Seems like we're spending a lot of time on the backend scrubbing pollutants out. Should we be designing in a cleaner process on the front end?

Carl: A lot of people point to integrated gasification-combined-cycle (IGCC) plants, which gasify coal before burning it, as the holy grail because they get you a cleaner process. It gives you a more concentrated stream of carbon that you can sequester underground more cheaply. The capital cost is very high, though, and we don't have a lot of experience in designing them.

WN: We hear a lot about China's coal industry. Can you compare it with the U.S. industry, which ranks second in the world?

Carl: We mine about (1.1 billion tons) of coal per year. China was at about 1.4 billion tons seven years ago. Now they are at 2.4 billion tons. So, they essentially took the second-biggest coal industry in the whole world and replicated it in seven years. And if you look at the Chinese plans, they plan to ramp it up even more in the future.

WN: Given the obvious environmental impacts of these plants, why don't we have better answers for these problems than the Kyoto Protocol (which the United States didn't sign, and which exempted China and India from emissions restrictions)?

Carl: I'll give you a speculative, personal answer. It has to do with the politics of the type of people who were negotiating Kyoto. And the pressure put on by environmental groups that were uncomfortable with coal. There was just so much pressure on the symbolic importance of getting a deal done.

WN: What would you have rather seen?

Carl: I think there has been some really good criticism that says, "Was the U.N. really a good forum for this? Or would it have been better to have taken the 10 countries who consume 60 percent of global energy and do something with real teeth in it?" I think that would have been a much better approach.

I would have happily traded every emissions gain from Kyoto for eight clean coal plants sequestering carbon in different countries. Because then we could have a real discussion that says, "This works. Now let's see who has to bear the cost."

WN: Why would that be such a big deal?

Carl: Because right now we're having a conversation with China and India where we're trying to get China and India to build clean coal plants by saying, "Here's this thing that's never been tried before at a mass scale. You should build one." And that's not going to wor