Elon Musk: Oil Campaign Against Electric Cars Is Like Big Tobacco Lobbying

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Elon Musk: oil campaign against electric cars is like big tobacco lobbying” was written by Adam Vaughan, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th October 2013 14.24 UTC

Attacks on electric cars by the oil industry are on a par with misinformation campaigns promoted by big tobacco companies and vested interests undermining climate science, according to Elon Musk, the serial entrepreneur who founded PayPal and the brains behind both the space exploration company SpaceX and the electric sports carmaker Tesla Motors. The oil giants, he reckons, are attempting to sow the seeds of doubt.

Speaking before the opening of Tesla’s new luxury store in the Westfield shopping mall in Shepherd’s Bush, London, last night, Musk told the Guardian: “It’s kinda like the battle against ‘big tobacco’ in the old days, and how they’d run all these ads about how tobacco’s no problem.

“Ninety-nine per cent of scientists can agree on one thing, but in the public mind [lobbyists] try to convey that scientists disagree. Technically true, but absolutely misleading,” he said.

Tesla has cornered the high end of the electric car market in the US, selling more than 14,000 of the base-priced $62,400 (£38,609) Model S in the past year. The car will be delivered to UK customers next spring, and is expected to cost between £55,000-£85,000, depending on the model’s specifications.

That is substantially more than the £16,000-£30,000 price range at which most other electric cars have been pitched. But Musk still has his eye on the mass market. The next Tesla car, currently dubbed “Gen3″, would cost less than £35,000 and will probably arrive within three years. The Model S, he said, would subsidise that car’s development.

“When somebody buys a Model S they’re helping pay for that in a way that buying an Aston Martin or Ferrari is not. Aston Martin is going to make more Aston Martins, Ferrari is going to make more Ferraris, but what we’re trying to do is make a compelling mass-market electric car.”

Musk, who is said to have inspired the character of the charismatic genius Tony Stark in the Iron Man films, does not think governments are doing enough to support the electrification of cars, despite a grant scheme that knocks £5,000 off the price of new plug-in vehicles.

“If we start seeing bazillions of electric cars on the road, then maybe we can reel back the incentives. The acid test is are there tons of electric cars on the road? Well, no, probably the incentives aren’t strong enough.”

Musk is standing by recent comments that hydrogen fuel-cell cars are not a plausible rival to battery-powered models like those made by Tesla. “They’re like obviously bullshit, it’s not even a question mark in my mind … In the case of hydrogen fuel cells, take the current state of the art, and compare how much space, weight and cost is associated with the powertrain of a fuel cell, and compare that with the Model S … it loses on every category.”

Musk, 42, considers himself an environmentalist, but says he is not “ultra hardcore”.

“That’s not me,” he says. “I sort of think we should figure out how to enjoy life and not have environmental catastrophe.”

He rates himself as “greenish” in his personal life. He switches off lights when he leaves a room, and has installed solar panels on his home, but “it’s not like I’ve got LED lights everywhere, and I’m not a vegetarian.

“Trying to convince the population to have some monk-like existence is simply unrealistic,” he says.

Born in South Africa, Musk was a teenage computer nerd with degrees in physics and business when he moved to California to study for a PhD at Stanford. He then quit within days of embarking on his studies to become an entrepreneur.

His first venture was an internet city guide, which he sold aged 28, banking $20m. Paypal followed, which eventually brought him an even larger fortune, and then came SpaceX, which aims to send people to Mars within 20 years.

Tesla Motors, which takes its name from the 19th-century physicist, Nikola Tesla, was venture number four. Musk joined as an investor in its early days, and the firm made its first production vehicle – the two-seater Roadster – in 2006.

The company, based in Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley, was listed on Nasdaq in 2010 and the Model S hit the road in 2012. Celebrity owners Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Stephen Spielberg and Demi Moore have generated publicity, as have the firm’s “stores” – in premium shopping districts rather than traditional dealerships. The shares have nearly quadrupled in value this year.

A few weeks ago the company’s image took a hit when footage emerged of a Model S on fire after a piece of metal had gone under the car and made contact with the battery.

The driver escaped unharmed, but the incident led Musk to take to his blog in defence of the car, which has been billed as one of the safest ever made. “Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse,” he wrote.

Musk told the Guardian that the company was committed to Europe, and he expected to be manufacturing electric cars in Europe “probably” within five years. They are currently made in Fremont, California, with some assembly carried out in the Netherlands. “It’s a bit silly transporting cars across the Atlantic,” said Musk, who also envisages a new European technical centre, focused on research and design.

The firm also plans to build a network of “superchargers” in the UK – charging points that can replenish the battery within 30 minutes – ready for when its right-hand drive Model S cars are delivered to customers in spring next year. The cars will eventually be powered by solar panels, he said, which should generate more power than is used by the cars recharging.

“What we’re trying to convey is that, if you have Tesla Model S, you’ll be able to drive for free, for ever, on sunlight.”

Tesla’s Model S

When you drive the Model S, it quickly – very, very quickly – becomes clear that it’s the opposite of the electric car stereotype of a Noddy car that doesn’t go very fast or very far. It’s packed to the gills with state-of-the-art technology, from the enormous string of batteries that make up the entire floor and enable its 300 mile-plus range, to the in-car entertainment and navigation system whose touchscreen makes an iPad look positively puny.

The exterior is classy and understated, rather than screaming, “No combustion engine!” as, say, the G-Wiz and BMW’s new i3 do. Tesla’s other car, the Roadster, is the sort to turn heads and attract Instagramming hordes, but the Model S barely raised eyebrows during a few hours in central London.

More than anything, the car is memorable for its astonishing acceleration. Unlike conventional cars, electric cars give instant torque and that, combined with the powerful motor here, means that putting your foot down results in a truly exhilarating rush.

Image: Elon Musk in the new Tesla Model S high performance electric car in the showroom at Westfield London. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

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Australia: How Do We Get To The Next Million Solar Roofs?

By Kylie Catchpole

There are now one million Australian homes with solar electricity. That means 2.5 million Australians now rely on solar power – more than the population of Brisbane. Australians have clearly shown their enthusiasm for generating clean energy – so how do we get to the next million?

Early risers

As recently as 2006, there were only 900 homes in Australia with solar power systems. In 2012 alone some 320,000 new systems were installed.

Solar’s enormous growth has been driven by a massive decrease in the cost of solar electricity. Across Australia, the cost of solar electricity is now below the retail price of fossil fuel-derived electricity.

The time it takes a household to payback the cost of installation of solar power is between 5 and 10 years, compared to a guaranteed system lifetime of 25 years.

In contrast to stereotypes about inner-city greenies, the first million solar homes have tended to be from the mortgage-belt suburbs, where people are worried about ever-increasing electricity prices.

Coodanup in Western Australia is the suburb has the highest number of installations of solar photovoltaic systems, with over 5000 installed as of July 2012. The next highest are three Queensland localities, Abbotsford, Booral and Aroona, with over 4000 systems each.

These are the solar early adopters. But convincing the early adopters to move to clean energy isn’t the same as convincing the mainstream.

Reaching the masses

One of the barriers to more widespread adoption of solar power is the upfront costs. A solution for those who would like to move to solar but don’t have the cash up-front is solar leasing. In solar leasing, a company owns the solar photovoltaic system, and leases it to the home owner for a monthly payment.

Solar leasing is already very popular in the US, and has been recently introduced to Australia. Internationally, solar leasing has already captured a US$1.3 billion market, and is expected to grow to US$5.7 billion by 2016, according to GTM Research.

The increasing cost of conventional electricity has provided a strong motivation for many people to switch to solar.

But while most people understand that solar electricity protects households from increasing energy costs, it is less understood that widespread solar can also help to reduce the cost of the rest of the electricity mix. This is because solar can provide power that would otherwise have to be met by expensive “peaking” gas plants – generators that provide the additional power needed when the grid faces peak demand. In Germany, solar has reduced the cost on the electricity price exchange by 10%.

The large proportion of renewables currently being integrated into the South Australian electricity grid show that this can be achieved without placing current systems under pressure. South Australia’s energy mix now sees 29% of its electricity derived from renewables, up from approximately nothing 15 years ago.

Thinking outside the home

Beyond solar panels on homes, there is a completely untapped market for solar systems on commercial buildings. We now see plenty of solar systems on residential homes, but few on supermarkets, office buildings and shopping centres. Why not? The paybacks here are at least as attractive as they are for residential systems.

The main issues are split incentives (where one company owns the building and another pays the electricity bill) and lack of capital. There is plenty of opportunity for innovative financing arrangements between companies that could make installing solar on commercial infrastructure a win-win situation.

Looking beyond roofs, the potential for solar farms in Australia is clearly huge. Australia has a vast solar resource. To provide all of Australia’s electricity from solar power would take up less than 1% of the land area.

The Australian Electricity Market Operator has relased a draft report which shows that 100% of Australia’s electricity could be produced by renewables, with solar rooftops and solar farms expected to provide around 25-30% of the total.

The main barrier to the installation of solar farms to tap into this free and unlimited resource is investment uncertainty. The recently approved ACT solar farm provides a model of how this can be overcome, at the least possible cost. The ACT government held a reverse auction process in 2012 where companies bid for the lowest electricity price that they would be prepared to receive for the solar generated electricity.

As a result of this, a 20 megawatt solar farm will be built next to the Monaro highway in the southern part of the ACT, that will avoid emitting half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and power over 4000 homes.

Solar has been moving forward much faster than anyone would have predicted only five years ago. Australia has an enormous solar resource, and it makes sense that we should use it. The potential for solar leasing, commercial buildings and solar farming makes it clear that we are only at the beginning.

Kylie Catchpole receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.The Conversation

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Image CC licensed by Michael Coghlan

Is Carbon Pricing In Australia Reducing Emissions?

By Jenny Riesz and Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne

Australia’s carbon pricing mechanism has been vilified by the Federal Opposition and certain members of the business community, but it is a key part of Australia’s response to climate change. So one year on, where does it stand?

Far from being “absolutely catastrophic” and a “wrecking ball” to the economy as initially predicted by Tony Abbott, the Australian economy is still ticking over much as it was. Anyone with genuine concerns on the impacts of the carbon price should be comforted by experience to date, and those engaging in fear mongering will need to find a new story.

Tempting though it is to try to attribute various changes in the economy to the carbon price, it is remarkably difficult to unpick the many factors at play. Our economy is an immensely complex system, and the carbon price is but one influence among many.

In fact, the carbon pricing scheme was actually designed to have a relatively smooth and non-disruptive entry into the economy. It should start slowly, and pick up momentum over time as businesses adapt and become increasingly equipped to respond. The real impacts will emerge over the long term, affecting long-lived infrastructure in sectors such as electricity. The carbon price should provide gentle, firm and growing pressure to transform our economy over the coming decades.

The electricity sector is one of the most important areas where the carbon price needs to have an effect. More than one-third of Australia’s emissions come from our predominantly coal-fired power system. So while we carefully acknowledge that the carbon pricing scheme is a long-term mechanism and we shouldn’t expect dramatic outcomes immediately, it’s interesting to explore what the impact of the carbon pricing scheme may have been over the past year.

The greenhouse emissions from the National Electricity Market (covering around 80% of electricity supply in Australia) showed a 7% reduction from 2011-12 to 2012-13. However, much of this is due to demand, which reduced 5% over the same period. According to the electricity market operator, the reasons probably include dramatic increases in rooftop solar, customer responses to higher prices (mostly caused by rising network costs), increasing incentives for energy efficiency, and reduction in industrial and manufacturing loads (driven by the high Australian dollar).

Much of the remaining reduction in emissions is probably related to significant increases in renewable generation over the past year. Some of this is from an increase in wind generation (driven more by the Renewable Energy Target than the carbon price). A significant proportion comes from increases in hydro generation, a consequence of annual variability in hydrological inflows.

Although the carbon price is probably a relatively minor factor in the emissions reductions we’ve seen over the past year, there has been some re-shuffling of the dispatch order, reflected in the total volume generated by each power station over the year. Figure 1 shows the percentage change in annual generation at a selection of the biggest generators in 2012-13, compared with the average of the previous three financial years. Generators are ordered firstly by region, and secondly by emissions intensity (graphically depicted for each generator in the lower graph).

Figure 1 – Percentage change in generation at a selection of major generators, comparing total generation in 2012-13 with average of previous three years. Source: Generation data from NEM-Review. Total annual generation in 2012-13 compared with average of previous three years.

These results show that generation over the past year has generally gone down at the most emissions-intensive power stations, such as Victoria’s brown coal generators Hazelwood and Yallourn. Correspondingly, generation has increased at many of the less emissions-intensive generators, including gas-fired Tallawarra and Pelican Point, and some of the lower-emitting black coal generators.

But there are many exceptions to the trend, with even some of the lowest emitting generators showing a reduction in generation in the past year and vice versa. This is at least partly due to the transmission network’s physical limits, which constrain how much the dispatch order can change. Consider the case of Victoria. The Victorian generators use lower quality brown coal, and are therefore among the most emissions intensive in the grid. You can reduce generation at the most polluting power stations in Victoria, but the others in that region then need to keep operating at close to previous levels because there are limits to how much power you can import over the grid from South Australia and New South Wales. This means that many of Victoria’s generators are minimally affected, despite being some of the most emissions intensive in the grid.

Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that many of these changes in dispatch are not solely due to the carbon price. For example, much of the drop in generation at Yallourn power station is due to flooding that put several units out of service. In South Australia, a high supply of wind is causing low prices, and Northern power station has responded by withdrawing units from the market during low demand seasons.

Although it’s difficult to point to concrete short term changes in the electricity market, the carbon price is having an impact on long term investment decisions, which is where the real benefits will start to play out. The economics of power systems mean that it’s much easier to materially affect the investment decisions for a new plant than to affect the short-term dispatch decisions of an existing plant. It has been argued that this already means wind is now cheaper than coal if you’re building a new plant, due to the very large impact of the carbon price on financing costs for emissions-intensive generation options.

The market is clearly responding to long term investment signals towards lower emissions generation. The vast majority of new plants in the planning stages are either renewable or gas-fired. Here again we must acknowledge complexity and the contribution of many factors – much of the investment in renewables is driven by the Renewable Energy Target scheme, and could not be supported by the carbon price alone at this stage.

But the lack of proposals for significant new coal-fired plant is a good indication that the carbon price is having an influence over investor decisions. This is where the real pay-off lies – by avoiding the installation of more coal-fired generators we avoid the very significant greenhouse emissions that would result from those power stations over their 30-year-plus lifetime.

This highlights an underlying truth – the intention of the carbon price is to drive a long term transformation of Australia’s economy. This means that whatever happens to the carbon price in the next few years, it’s the long term policies we put in place to respond to climate change pressures that will ultimately have significance.

We acknowledge the use of NEM-Review software supplied by Global ROAM for electricity market analysis.

Roger Dargaville receives funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Jenny Riesz does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Image: One year on, what difference has the carbon price made? AAP Image/Alan Porritt

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How A Giant Tree’s Death Sparked The Conservation Movement 160 Years Ago

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago” was written by Leo Hickman, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 27th June 2013 12.00 UTC

Today marks the 160th anniversary of a seminal, but largely forgotten moment in the history of the conservation movement.

On Monday, 27 June, 1853, a giant sequoia – one of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring sights – was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.

A section of the bark from the “Mammoth Tree”, as newspapers soon described it, had already been removed and was sent to San Francisco to be put on display. The species had only been “discovered” (local Native American tribes such as the Miwok had known of the trees for centuries) that spring by a hunter who stumbled upon the pristine grove in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada whilst chasing an injured bear. Word of the discovery quickly spread.

In the age of PT Barnum‘s freak shows, the speculators, mostly gold miners, had sensed a commercial opportunity. The section of bark – re-erected using scaffold, with a piano inside to entertain paying visitors – would later be sent to Broadway in New York, as would the bark from a second tree felled a year later. The bark of the “Mother of the Forest” – as the second tree was named – would even go on to be displayed at London’s Crystal Palace causing great excitement and wonder in Victorian England before it was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1866. (The bark of the original mammoth tree was also lost to fire as it lay in storage in New York in 1855. A fitting end, perhaps, as fire plays such a crucial role in the life cycle of giant sequoias.)

The fame of the trees was such that a hotel was quickly built at the site to host the influx of tourists. To entertain the guests, tea dances were regularly held on the stump of the mammoth tree and a bowling alley was built on the now prone trunk. (This page has a wonderful range of images of the Mammoth Tree and the Mother of the Forest.)

The remarkable, engaging story of these two doomed trees is too detailed to be told here, but what is worth recalling on this anniversary is the reaction their destruction caused in the media at the time – and its subsequent effect on some progressive politicians a decade later when they cited their felling and exploitation as an inspiration to establish what later came to be known as the US national park system.

Was the outrage expressed by some in the popular media of the day evidence of the first stirrings of an environmental consciousness in the US? It would be wrong to assess such statements without noting the historical context of that age – a time of the “manifest destiny” when nature was viewed as a God-given resource for Mankind to exploit – but it is also hard to ignore the clear outrage and bemusement among some commentators that such magnificent natural specimens had been brutalised in this way.

According to Gary D Lowe, a local historian, author and “Big Tree” aficionado, the first-known negative commentary came a month before the tree was felled. An article in the Sonora Herald, a local newspaper, reported that Captain Hanford, the man leading the enterprise, “is about stripping off the bark”. The report went on: “This will of course kill the tree, which is much to be deprecated.”

On 27 June, 1853 – the same day the tree finally fell – a report in San Francisco’s Placer Times and Transcript also noted an article, again in the Sonora Herald, expressing regret that Captain Hanford was preparing for a “portion of the mammoth tree” to be sent to New York.

“Amator” [Latin for “friend”] is dreadfully shocked at the vandalism and barbarity of flaying that giant of the woods, and depriving California of its greatest “growing” exponent.

However, the same report also goes on to say that the stripping of the tree’s bark is “characteristic of California enterprise” and that Hanford’s efforts to exhibit the bark in New York will allow “millions of the inhabitants of the earth to see it, has rendered his adopted state a lasting benefit, given to science a page, and the world a natural curiosity”. So any sadness at the tree’s demise was counteracted by the boost to local pride.

But these were reports in local newspapers with little influence outside the communities they served. A far more significant report came that autumn when Maturin M Ballou, the Boston-based editor of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, one of the most widely read magazines of the day, printed an illustration of the “largest tree yet discovered in the world” on 1 October, 1853. The accompanying text said:

To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree…In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing the Niagara Falls with the same purpose!…But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigour, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas, It is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it.

Five months later, on 11 March, 1854, Ballou printed a further remark in his magazine:

A tree of such gigantic proportions as well might excite the wonder and curiosity of the world. Although the destruction of such a magnificent object was an act of vandalism not to be forgiven, yet the desecration has been committed, and it is useless now to reiterate our vain regrets.

However, the ripples of outrage took a further year – and the stripping of the Mother of the Forest – to really gain traction. Then came this editorial in the New York Herald, dated 17 December, 1855:

The finest, the most beautiful and symmetrical of these trees, (though not the largest) has been cut down…From this beginning, unless the Goths and Vandals are arrested in their work, the destruction of the incomparable forest will probably go on till the last vestige of it is destroyed. In this view, the point that we make is, that the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. We say that Congress should interpose, upon the presumption that these trees are public property, are on the public lands of California, and because Congress has already interposed to protect the public live oak forests of Florida from the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators…We repeat, that it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil. Let it be the law that this…Mammoth Grove shall stand.

The next notable article was printed in the March 1859 issue (pdf) of Hutchings’ California Magazine. It was also later reprinted the following year in the popular tourist guide, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California:

In our estimation, it was a sacrilegious act; although it is possible, that the exhibition of the bark, among the unbelievers of the eastern part of our continent, and of Europe, may have convinced all the “Thomases” living, that we have great facts in California, that must be believed, sooner or later. This is the only palliating consideration with us for this act of desecration.

And then, in 1864, came the culminating moment when John Conness, the senator from California, rose in Congress to make a speech urging his colleagues to pass a bill that would see the now nationally famous Yosemite Valley and its neighbouring grove of sequoias in the mountains above Mariposa secured and protected “inalienable forever”. In making his case, he directly referenced the fate of the felled trees at Calaveras just over a decade earlier:

From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World’s Fair that was held in London some years since…The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be; and, although the section of the tree was transported there at an expense of several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth. They would not believe us. The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury. The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood.

The bill passed and the “Yosemite grant” paved the way for the first official national park being established at Yellowstone in 1872. Celebrated conservationists such as John Muir would all later visit the stump of the original “mammoth tree” to reflect on both its fate and influence. However, the grove of sequoias at Calaveras – where the story of the US conservation movement arguably began – did not become a state park until 1931 following a decades-long fight to see off the desires of lumber companies.

Today, the trees are now safe from the “Goths and Vandals”, but not, alas, some of the side-effects of modern civilization: urban ozone, climate change, uncontrolled frequent fires, to name but a few.

Footnote: I first fell under the spell of the story of the Mammoth Tree five years ago – I feel it has many lessons for us today – and have been researching the tale, on and off, ever since, with the expert guidance of Gary D Lowe. Gary has written a number of booklets on the topic, including one about the Cornish plant hunter William Lobb who was in California at the time and, upon hearing of the tree’s discovery, rushed to the site to collect seeds and then took the first ship back to London to deliver them to his employer, Vietch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea. But that’s a whole other story… Please email me if you want one of Gary’s books, or know more about this wider subject.

Image: Tourists inspecting the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ in Calaveras County, California, c1860. The ‘Mother of the Forest’, without its bark, can be seen in the background. Image: LoC

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Looking Back From 2030: How The Climate War Was Won

By John Wiseman, University of Melbourne and Gerald Frape

Minimising serious debate about climate change risks and solutions looks likely to be a key feature of the Australian media’s approach to the 2013 election campaign. There are however two powerful reasons why this silence is profoundly disturbing and misguided.

Evidence of the likelihood and risks of global warming beyond 4 degrees continues to grow. As IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde bluntly notes: “unless we take action on climate change future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”.

And as momentum towards a decarbonised global economy continues to build so to do the economic and social opportunities for Australia of being a first mover in the impending transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The recently launched University of Melbourne research report, Post Carbon Pathways, shows that the key features of the post carbon economy road map are now widely understood. We need rapid replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy; rapid reductions in energy consumption and improvements in energy efficiency; and the drawdown and sequestration of carbon into sustainable carbon sinks.

The biggest roadblocks preventing a rapid transition to a post carbon future are now clearly political rather than technological. This leads to the increasingly crucial and urgent question: how might the transition to a just and resilient post carbon future actually occur at sufficient speed and scale? One way to approach this most difficult puzzle is to conduct the following thought experiment.

“Imagine it is 2030. Imagine we now live in a world in which the transition to a just and resilient post carbon society has occurred so there is now real hope that catastrophic climate change will be avoided. How did this happen?”

Here are some of the ways in which leading international climate and energy researchers interviewed for the Post Carbon Pathways project responded to this challenge.

Jenny Clad, former Executive Officer of Al Gore’s Climate Project tells a story of evidence and education:

Little by little, every year, the evidence, the increased education of the public, of the politicians, the work from businesses. All of this inch-by-inch is going to have the effect of making the deniers and those who profess to do nothing and put more money into drilling oil, digging out coal, more and more marginalised.

Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, focuses on the transformational power of creativity and innovation:

As we look back on this now, one wonders what all the fuss was about. We used to think that catastrophic climate change was a big problem because we supposed that it had to be solved by difficult treaties between national governments. But that assumed – quite wrongly – that the solutions would be costly and painful rather than attractive and profitable, for the simple reason – now so blindingly obvious in hindsight – that it was so much cheaper to save the fuel than to buy it in the first place, let alone burn it. So as the economic logic gradually overcame the dogma that it must not have been cost-effective to save energy or we’d have done it already, we really unleashed the dynamism of individual choice and corporate and social innovation.

The scenario raised by Climate Reality Project Co-ordinator, Kevin Curtis, is all about courageous political leadership:

How we got there is a collection of acts of leadership by leaders who emerged to seize the moment. Who just said “no we cannot let our climate be so fundamentally changed. We can’t afford what that’s going to do.” It’ll be consumers demanding new products, it’ll be companies providing new products, it’ll be the media. It’ll be people from all walks of life demonstrating true leadership, taking on the status quo, taking on a sense of negativism and “it’s too late-ness”. It won’t be coordinated, it won’t be controlled, it will just happen and it will happen if all of us in the next five years get the word out.

For Club of Rome member and Chair of Safe Climate Australia, Ian Dunlop:

The trigger is going to be some sort of natural disaster that wakes people up. Before long the community will wake up to what is occurring and demand action along the lines that … “we have been looking at the problem for 30 years and done virtually nothing. Now we have to really start moving”. The pressure will then come on the business and political worlds for real action. It will require different leadership from anything we’ve seen before as we will have to move to a war-footing.

John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, draws together all these threads of evidence, innovation and leadership:

One driver is that, very sadly, disasters will happen. Hurricane Katrina changed a lot in America. The second thing is leadership. What Merkel did with the German experiment [driving a rapid shift from nuclear and fossil fuel energy to renewables] is happening because Merkel had the guts to say she was wrong. This type of leadership will be necessary, maybe in China, maybe in the United States, maybe in Australia even. The third thing is social innovation. For example I just went to a region in Germany where people say “We want to have energy supply completely done on a communitarian basis. We the citizens will buy the power plants. We will buy the networks and the grids. We will do it”.

If none of these scenarios sound totally convincing to you – here’s the challenge. Looking back from 2030 what were the actions that led to a real chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change? And what role did you play in this story?

John Wiseman is Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

Gerald Frape is a sessional lecturer at the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of New South Wales The Conversation

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Global Warming Predictions Prove Accurate

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Global warming predictions prove accurate” was written by Duncan Clark, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 27th March 2013 16.56 UTC

Forecasts of global temperature rises over the past 15 years have proved remarkably accurate, new analysis of scientists’ modelling of climate change shows.

The debate around the accuracy of climate modelling and forecasting has been especially intense recently, due to suggestions that forecasts have exaggerated the warming observed so far – and therefore also the level warming that can be expected in the future. But the new research casts serious doubts on these claims, and should give a boost to confidence in scientific predictions of climate change.

The paper, published on Wednesday in the journal Nature Geoscience, explores the performance of a climate forecast based on data up to 1996 by comparing it with the actual temperatures observed since. The results show that scientists accurately predicted the warming experienced in the past decade, relative to the decade to 1996, to within a few hundredths of a degree.

The forecast, published in 1999 by Myles Allen and colleagues at Oxford University, was one of the first to combine complex computer simulations of the climate system with adjustments based on historical observations to produce both a most likely global mean warming and a range of uncertainty. It predicted that the decade ending in December 2012 would be a quarter of degree warmer than the decade ending in August 1996 – and this proved almost precisely correct.

The study is the first of its kind because reviewing a climate forecast meaningfully requires at least 15 years of observations to compare against. Assessments based on shorter periods are prone to being misleading due to natural short-term variability in the climate.

The new research also found that, compared to the forecast, the early years of the new millennium were somewhat warmer than expected. More recently the temperature has matched the level forecasted very closely, but the relative slow-down in warming since the early years of the early 2000s has caused many commentators to assume that warming is now less severe than predicted. The paper shows this is not true.

Allen said: “I think it’s interesting because so many people think that recent years have been unexpectedly cool. In fact, what we found was that a few years around the turn of the millennium were slightly warmer than forecast, and that temperatures have now reverted to what we were predicting back in the 1990s.”

He added: “Of course, we should expect fluctuations around the overall warming trend in global mean temperatures (and even more so in British weather!), but the success of these early forecasts suggests the basic understanding of human-induced climate change on which they were based is supported by subsequent observations.”

Feature image: Predictions of rising temperatures due to human-induced climate change have proved accurate. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

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Peugeot’s Hybrid Air: The Car Of The Future That Runs On Air

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Peugeot’s Hybrid Air: the car of the future that runs on air” was written by Tim Lewis, for The Observer on Sunday 24th March 2013 11.39 UTC

There was a sense, when I arrived in Paris a couple of weeks ago, that France was if not quite in meltdown then certainly enduring a profound existential crisis. Unemployment had metastasised to 10.6%, and the country’s credit rating was in the dumps. President François Hollande’s maligned plans for a 75% “supertax” had sent some of the most famous French citizens scuttling to Belgium. In November, a cover of the Economist showed seven baguettes tied with a tricolour, a lit fuse poking out of the middle. The article warned: “Mr Hollande does not have long to defuse the time-bomb at the heart of Europe.”

French manufacturing, in particular, was on its knees. Worldwide sales at carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroën were down 8.8% in 2012, the sixth successive year they had decreased. Three of its biggest markets – Spain, Italy, Portugal – were even less interested in new cars than France. The company had announced plans to shrink its French workforce by 8,000, almost one-fifth, over the next two years. Workers responded with violent protests, burning tyres and cutting power cables.

In these desperate times, however, there was one solitary flower growing up through the concrete. In January, Peugeot announced that it had developed a car that ran on air. It officially launched the Hybrid Air vehicle to the world at the Geneva motor show this month, and revealed that it would be in production by 2016. The car did not solely run on air, of course; the new technology was twinned with a petrol engine. But Peugeot believed that it had significant advantages over battery-powered electric hybrids, such as a Toyota Prius. Their cars would be cheaper to buy, for a start, and extra savings would come from a fuel economy of around 81 miles per gallon.

If Peugeot could back this up, Hybrid Air would shake up the whole car industry. The ailing French giant could certainly do with it being a success – its long-term survival might just depend on it.

At a Peugeot technical centre in Carrières-sous-Poissy, a few miles west of Paris, two engineers – project leaders Karim Mokaddem and Andrés Yarce – show me a Hybrid Air vehicle. From one side, the car looks no different from the compact hatchbacks that Peugeot and Citroën are famous for, but it has been sawn in half to better illustrate the new technology. Most visibly, running down the middle of the undercarriage, there is a blue, four-foot-long accumulator – what Mokaddem calls, with a wry smile, “the scuba tank”.

The pressurised steel tank is filled with around 20 litres of nitrogen, plus some hydraulic fluid. Much like a Prius, Hybrid Air vehicles recover energy every time the driver brakes or decelerates. But instead of using this kinetic energy to charge a battery – as electric hybrids do – the Hybrid Air system has a reversible hydraulic pump that compresses the nitrogen in the tank and then unleashes it the next time the driver pumps the accelerator.

“It’s mainly a …” Yarce searches for the word, “a syringe. The nitrogen compresses or decompresses and actually pushes the oil and the hydraulic components to transform this energy into a force that makes the vehicle move forwards. It’s as simple as that.”

The system does not produce vast amounts of energy – in fact you would struggle to drive even a mile before the petrol engine was forced to kick in – but if you are stop-starting around the city all day then the savings in fuel could be significant. “We named the prototype cars Kiwi One, Kiwi Two, etc, because the amount of energy stored within the scuba tank is exactly the same amount you’d find in a kiwi fruit,” explains Mokaddem.

Another advantage over hybrids already on the market is that Peugeot’s new cars do not require an expensive lithium-ion battery or electric motor, meaning that they will start from around £17,000. That’s almost £5,000 less than a Prius. The parts are simple and easily serviced, a fact that would be attractive in the emerging markets of China, India and Russia.

For all the interest that Hybrid Air has inspired – both positive and sceptical – the Peugeot engineers are keen to downplay the idea that it is a radical solution. They acknowledge that the idea of hybrid hydraulics has been around for years. UPS has run a fleet of delivery vans since 2009 that use pressurised hydraulic fluid – rather than nitrogen – that converts braking energy into forward momentum. It has clear benefits for any vehicle that needs to make regular stops, such as street cleaners or a school bus.

“I’m not going to say this is a real innovation, for sure not,” says Mokaddem, as we stand underneath another Hybrid Air vehicle, its conspicuous blue tank reminiscent of the air ducts of the Pompidou Centre. “We have made a new gearbox, sure, but the components are known components, and the innovation is how we have put them together to make the most efficient car.”

“It’s putting them together in the right way,” agrees Yarce. “It’s mainly like Lego.”

Of course, if the idea of running a car on nitrogen was so obvious, then someone would have developed it fully before. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new technology is that it has been unveiled by Peugeot, a company that celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2010, and has not been known, in recent times certainly, for pioneering R&D.

“It’s true that today the market is dominated – on the hybrid side, for sure – by Asian technology, that’s reality,” accepts Mokaddem. “So it was a little bit unexpected for a European car maker to develop such a new approach. Why? I don’t know.”

The development of Hybrid Air required Peugeot to overhaul entirely its approach to product development. The project, which was started in 2010, was worked on by a team of around 100 entirely in secrecy. They took this last part very seriously: Mokaddem could not reveal any details, even to his wife and children. “They thought I had become a spy,” he jokes. With a small number of employees working on the project, and little hierarchy, the intention was to create – within the second-biggest carmaker in Europe – a unit with the energy and enterprise of a startup.

From the start, the team was encouraged to think of a “disruptive innovation”. The term comes from Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and describes a technology that does not just alter the market but creates an entirely new one. An incremental innovation, for example, would evolve a two-blade razor into a three-bladed one; a disruptive innovation would jump from compact discs to the iPod, or from volumes of encyclopaedias to Wikipedia.

When they had decided to focus on fuel economy, Mokaddem encouraged his fellow engineers to re-consider a car from first principles. They were pushed to think outrageously. The original prototype for Hybrid Air borrowed the hydraulic parts from an Airbus jet. The noise it made was excruciating, but when the car edged forward a few metres, the team knew they were on to something interesting. Ultimately, they adapted parts more commonly found in elevators and tractors.

Since its launch, the Hybrid Air project has provoked extreme and sometimes hysterical reactions. A comment on one online forum worried that the presence of the accumulator was like driving around under “a compressed air bomb”. Both Mokaddem and Yarce explode into laughter when I put this to them. “We took into account gunshots, fire, lots of strange situations – the system will not explode and we have tested that,” says Yarce. “We are completely confident today that there are no safety risks.”

Another concern was a misunderstanding that the car could “run out of air”.

“The air is isolated inside, it’s a closed circuit, so we always have air inside,” explains Yarce. “It’s just a question of whether it’s compressed or not. Clearly the system is based on a petrol combustion engine, so you need petrol to compress the air the first time. And, well, if you don’t have any fuel, you clearly won’t be able to move – that’s the same as a standard car.”

It will be a couple of years before we find out if Peugeot can fully realise the promise of Hybrid Air. The engineers need to do more work on the brakes and the hydraulics and they ultimately believe they can achieve 117mpg by 2020. Whether it can take down an established hybrid supplier such as Toyota remains to be seen.

But, for now, the project has at least provided some much needed hope for a beleaguered company and its precarious workforce. “PSA Peugeot Citroën needs to stand up and show we are still alive,” says Mokaddem. “That we have ideas and we can differentiate ourselves. We are part of a new generation that is saying, ‘We are a company with 200 years of history, but we are still young.’ We are not going to die.”

• This article was amended on 24 March 2013 to correct two mentions of hydrogen to nitrogen

Image: The Peugeot Hybrid Air, with the blue ‘scuba tank’ clearly visible.

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Climate ‘Belief’ Is Politics, Not Science

By Clive Hamilton

It is hard to imagine a scientific breakthrough more abstract and less politically contentious than Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet in Weimar Germany in the 1920s it attracted fierce controversy, with conservatives and ultra-nationalists reading it as a vindication of their opponents – liberals, socialists, pacifists and Jews. They could not separate Einstein’s political views – he was an internationalist and pacifist – from his scientific breakthroughs, and his extraordinary fame made him a prime target in a period of political turmoil.

There was a turning point in 1920. A year earlier a British scientific expedition had used observations of an eclipse to provide empirical confirmation of Einstein’s prediction that light could be bent by the gravitational pull of the Sun. Little known to the general public beforehand, Einstein was instantly elevated to the status of the genius who outshone Galileo and Newton. But conservative newspapers provided an outlet for anti-relativity activists and scientists with an axe to grind, stoking nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment among those predisposed to it.

In a similar way today, conservative news outlets promote the views of climate deniers and publish stories designed to discredit climate scientists, all with a view to defending an established order seen to be threatened by evidence of a warming globe. As in the Wiemar Republic, the effect has been to fuel suspicion of liberals and “elites” by inviting the public to view science through political lenses.

At the height of the storm in 1920, a bemused Einstein wrote to a friend:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.

The controversy was not confined to Germany. In France a citizen’s attitude to the new theory could be guessed from the stance he or she took on the Dreyfus affair, the scandal surrounding the Jewish army officer falsely convicted of spying in 1894, whose fate divided French society. Anti-Dreyfusards were inclined to reject relativity on political grounds.

In Britain, suspicions were less politically grounded but relativity’s subversion of Newton was a sensitive issue, leading Einstein to write an encomium for the great English scientist prior to a lecture tour.

Like Einstein’s opponents, who denied relativity because of its perceived association with progressive politics, conservative climate deniers follow the maxim that “my enemy’s friend is my enemy”. Scientists whose research strengthens the claims of environmentalism must be opposed.

Conservative climate deniers often link their repudiation of climate science to fears that cultural values are under attack from “liberals” and progressives. In Weimar Germany the threat to the cultural order apparently posed by relativity saw Einstein accused of “scientific dadaism”, after the anarchistic cultural and artistic movement then at its peak. The epithet is revealing because it reflected anxiety that Einstein’s theory would overthrow the established Newtonian understanding of the world, a destabilisation of the physical world that mirrored the subversion of the social order then underway.

Relativity’s apparent repudiation of absolutes was interpreted by some as yet another sign of moral and intellectual decay. There could not have been a worse time for Einstein’s theory to have received such emphatic empirical validation than in the chaotic years after the First World War.

Although not to be overstated, the turmoil of Weimar Germany has some similarities with the political ferment that characterises the United States today – deep-rooted resentments, the sense of a nation in decline, the fragility of liberal forces, and the rise of an angry populist right. Environmental policy and science have become battlegrounds in a deep ideological divide that emerged as a backlash against the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Marrying science to politics was a calculated strategy of conservative activists in the 1990s, opening up a gulf between Republican and Democratic voters over their attitudes to climate science. Both anti-relativists and climate deniers justifiably feared that science would enhance the standing of their opponents. They responded by tarnishing science with politics.

Einstein’s work was often accused of being un-German, and National Socialist ideology would soon be drawing a distinction between Jewish and Aryan mathematics. Although anti-Semitism plays no part in climate denial, “Jewish mathematics” served the same political function that the charge of “left-wing science” does in the climate debate today.

In the United States, the notion of left-wing science dates to the rise in the 1960s of what has been called “environmental-social impact” science which, at least implicitly, questioned the unalloyed benefits of “technological-production” science. Thus in 1975 Jacob Needleman could write:

Once the hope of mankind, modern science has now become the object of such mistrust and disappointment that it will probably never again speak with its old authority.

The apparent paradox of denialist think tanks supporting geoengineering solutions to the global warming problem that does not exist can be understood as a reassertion of technological-production science over environmental impact science. Thus the Exxon-funded Heartland Institute – the leading denialist organisation that has hosted a series of conferences at which climate science is denounced as a hoax and a communist conspiracy – has enthusiastically endorsed geoengineering as the answer to the problem that does not exist.

The association between “left-wing” opinion and climate science has now been made so strongly that politically conservative scientists who accept the evidence for climate change typically withdraw from public debate. So do those conservative politicians who remain faithful to science.

The motives of Einstein’s opponents were various but differences were overlooked in pursuit of the common foe. Today among the enemies of climate science we find grouped together activists in free market think tanks, politicians pandering to popular fears, conservative media outlets like the Sunday Times and Fox News, a handful of disgruntled scientists, right-wing philanthropists including the Scaifes and Kochs, and sundry opportunists such as Christopher Monckton and Bjorn Lomborg.

While Einstein’s theory posed no economic threat and industrialists were absent from the constellation of anti-relativity forces, the way in which climate denial was initially organised and promoted by fossil fuel interests is now well-documented. In the last several years, climate denial has developed into a political and cultural movement. Beneath the Astroturf grass grew.

This is an edited extract from Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton, published by Allen & Unwin.

Clive Hamilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Large Rise In CO2 Emissions Sounds Climate Change Alarm

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Large rise in CO2 emissions sounds climate change alarm” was written by John Vidal, for The Guardian on Friday 8th March 2013 10.55 UTC

The chances of the world holding temperature rises to 2C – the level of global warming considered “safe” by scientists – appear to be fading fast with US scientists reporting the second-greatest annual rise in CO2 emissions in 2012.

Carbon dioxide levels measured at at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii jumped by 2.67 parts per million (ppm) in 2012 to 395ppm, said Pieter Tans, who leads the greenhouse gas measurement team for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The record was an increase of 2.93ppm in 1998.

The jump comes as a study published in Science on Thursday looking at global surface temperatures for the past 1,500 years warned that “recent warming is unprecedented”, prompting UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, to say that “staggering global temps show urgent need to act. Rapid climate change must be countered with accelerated action.”

Tans told the Associated Press the major factor was an increase in fossil fuel use. “It’s just a testament to human influence being dominant”, he said. “The prospects of keeping climate change below that [two-degree goal] are fading away.”

Preliminary data for February 2013 show CO2 levels last month standing at their highest ever recorded at Manua Loa, a remote volcano in the Pacific. Last month they reached a record 396.80ppm with a jump of 3.26ppm parts per million between February 2012 and 2013.

Carbon dioxide levels fluctuate seasonally, with the highest levels usually observed in April. Last year the highest level at Mauna Loa was measured at 396.18ppm.

What is disturbing scientists is the the acceleration of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which are occurring in spite of attempts by governments to restrain fossil fuel emissions.

According to the observatory, the average annual rate of increase for the past 10 years has been 2.07ppm – more than double the increase in the 1960s. The average increase in CO2 levels between 1959 to the present was 1.49ppm per year.

The Mauna Loa measurements coincide with a new peer-reviewed study of the pledges made by countries to reduce CO2 emissions. The Dutch government’s scientific advisers show that rich countries will have to reduce enissions by 50% percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if there is to be even a medium chance of limiting warming to 2C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.

“The challenge we already knew was great is even more difficult”, said Kelly Levin, a researcher with the World Resources Instistute in Washington. “But even with an increased level of reductions necessary, it shows that a 2° goal is still attainable – if we act ambitiously and immediately.”

Extreme weather, which is predicted by climate scientists to occur more frequently as the atmosphere warms and CO2 levels rise, has already been seen widely in 2013.

China and India have experienced their coldest winter in decades and Australia has seen a four-month long heat wave with 123 weather records broken during what scientists are calling its ‘angry summer’.

“We are in [getting] into new climatic territory. And when you get records being broken at that scale, you can start to see a shifting from one climate system to another. So the climate has in one sense actually changed and we are now entering a new series of climatic conditions that we just haven’t seen before”, said Tim Flannery, head of the Australian government’s climate change commission, this week.

Earlier this week the Met Office warned that the “extreme” patterns of flood and drought experienced by Britain in 2012 were likely to become more frequent. One in every five days in 2012 saw flooding but one in four days were in drought.

Feature image: Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory, where record CO2 increases are being documented (Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP)

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Shark Killings Exceed 100m Every Year As Humans Become The Predators

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Shark killings exceed 100m every year as humans become the predators” was written by Tracy McVeigh, for The Observer on Saturday 2nd March 2013 16.58 UTC

Sharks are being slaughtered at an unsustainable rate, with a new study showing that 100 million are being killed every year.

Ahead of the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which begins on Sunday in Bangkok, the authors of the study, published in the journal Marine Policy, warn that the rate of fishing for sharks, most of which grow slowly and reproduce late in life, is exceeding their ability to recover.

“Sharks simply can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. “Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many species of shark in our lifetime,” he said.

Sharks are caught for their meat, liver oil, cartilage – and especially their fins. Shark finning has been banned by several countries but researchers have found no decline in the numbers of dead sharks, many of which are dumped at sea after their fins have been hacked off. “Their numbers are crashing,” said Elizabeth Wilson of the Pew Global Shark Conservation campaign. “We are now the predators.”

Conservation charities including WWF are lobbying hard for this Cites meeting, the first since 2010, to take decisive action on the illicit wildlife trade, with rhino and elephant also under threat. The UK Border Force’s specialist Cites team finds illegal items “every day”. Recent seizures include a box of ivory bracelets, a stuffed snow leopard and four rhino horns worth more than £1m. Officer Tim Luffman says shark fin and medicines made from tiger are common finds. Ivory, worth around £1,000 a kilo, has been outpriced by rhino horn at £40,000 to £60,000 a kilo on the black market. Border Force officials are also finding rare orchids, endangered live fish, coral and birds of prey.

Luffman said: “Logically if you have a heavy weight of ivory you’ll put it on a shipping container but every plane that lands here at Heathrow carries freight and as soon as the wheels of a plane touch down on our soil, or a vessel enters our waters, then the cargo is in our country and it’s our responsibility.

“It’s not the case, as it once was, of rogue traders so much as organised crime, although of course we still get the tourists and holidaymakers trying to bring in souvenirs they’ve bought that they shouldn’t have.”

The team now has specially trained wildlife sniffer dogs who regularly patrol the baggage areas and can pick out ivory and other illicit items just by smell. Heather Sohl, a chief adviser on species at WWF, said the UK was leading the world in taking wildlife crime seriously. “At Cites we will be calling for all countries to be held accountable and for sanctions to be brought to bear if they are not,” she said.

International wildlife trade is diverse. At the moment rhino horn, already popular in traditional Asian medicine, has become hugely trendy in Vietnam in “health” drinks, after a rumour took hold that a government minister was cured of cancer after drinking it.

Some 668 rhinos were slaughtered in South Africa in 2012 – up from just 13 in 2007. The trafficking of rhino horn to Asia, where it is prized in traditional medicine, “continues to be one of the most structured criminal activities currently faced by Cites”, experts say.

WWF has launched a petition to ban all trade in ivory in Thailand, collecting half a million signatures that were presented to prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra this week. The charity is also calling for sanctions against Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Thailand, which it says have flouted the law for years.

Delegates to the Cites meeting are expected to strengthen protection for multiple plant species, including Madagascan ebony and rosewood. Proposals to protect sharks, which failed in 2010 in the face of opposition from Asian countries, will be considered before the meeting ends on 14 March and may bring in limited export permits.

Image: Sri Lankan fisherman drags a shark to market in the town of Weligama. Sharks are caught for their meat, liver oil, cartilage and fins. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

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