Saturday, January 24, 2009

War against ivory trade takes to the sea

It's the "other" ivory. And this week, conservationists in London stepped in to stop its sale. It might not be as well known as the stuff that comes from elephants, but the ivory from the narwhal, the tusked whale of the northern seas, is just as much in demand – and with that demand comes a threat just as severe as the one elephants face.

Not only is the narwhal's single spear-like tusk (which can be 8ft long) an object of great beauty, it is the object of myth and legend – in the Middle Ages it was considered to come from the unicorn – and so is highly prized by collectors. The demand for tusks is increasing and, as a result, so is hunting in the narwhal's core area of northern Canada and Greenland.

Campaigners from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) believe the rising hunting rate is a threat to the animal and so when seven narwhal tusks were entered into a major antiques sale at Bonhams, the London auction house, this week – where they were expected to fetch up to £10,000 each – they pressed for them to be withdrawn. The company agreed to do so; now the campaigners are calling on Bonhams to exclude narwhal tusks permanently, although the auction house confined itself to saying the tusks were withdrawn from the sale "for procedural reasons" and gave no indication about future policy.

"We welcome Bonhams' decision to remove the narwhal tusks from sale, and we hope that the company will extend this decision to future sales both at its UK auction houses and overseas salerooms," said Chris Butler-Stroud, the WDCS chief executive.

The tusks were entered in The Gentleman's Library Sale, an annual auction bringing together natural history curiosities of the sort that might have adorned the library or the smoking room of a wealthy Victorian; when it took place on Wednesday, the full sale of more than 1,000 items – featuring items from antique globes to antlered deer heads – raised nearly £900,000.

WDCS believes that the seven tusks originally listed for auction would have represented the largest single offering of narwhal ivory in the UK since the European Union banned its import from Canada in 1984 and limited imports from Greenland to personal effects only (ie, not for resale) in 2004.

Although elephant ivory is banned from general sale, apart from in specially licensed auctions – one such took place last year – the sale of narwhal ivory is still legal, although the trade has to be monitored. But the WDCS believes that demand is steadily growing, with prices rising accordingly, and that this is pushing native peoples in artic Canada and Greenland to hunt more and more of the animals.

One of the main narwhal populations in Greenland has been listed as critically endangered on Greenland's Red List of Species, and in 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, cited over-hunting as the major threat and warned that the species as a whole could become "endangered" or "critically endangered" within five years.

The society has also contacted Bonhams' US branch, Bonhams and Butterfields, with its concerns, as it has sold at least four narwhal tusks at its Los Angeles salesroom in the past two years, for prices ranging from $11,000 (£8,000) to $20,400 for a single tusk.

"The publicity surrounding sales such as these, and the high prices fetched by the tusks, adds to the motivation for hunters to take as many narwhals as possible, and for management agencies to set quotas way above sustainable levels," Mr Butler-Stroud said.

Kate O'Connell, a WDCS researcher in the United States, said: "I think most people would find it abhorrent that such a trade should impact on such a beautiful animal."

Narwhals: The facts

The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is a toothed whale closely related to the all-white beluga. Its single tusk is an elongated incisor tooth that in fully-grown males ranges from 7ft to 10ft long. An exclusively arctic species, it is hunted only in Canada and Greenland, where between 300 and 500 animals are taken annually by native people. However, last November, hundreds of narwhals were trapped in the ice on the northern coast of Baffin Island, perhaps because the ice-formation regime in the arctic is being altered by climate change. Eventually all 629 were killed by Inuit hunters.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cleaner Air Worth Five Months of Life

Solar industry growth dimming with economy

(01-20) 14:38 PST -- The solar industry remains a bright spot in a down economy. But while the field continues to grow, the rate of progress may be slowing as the credit crunch and technological difficulties blunt the effect of government subsidies, industry sources say.

A layoff announced last week by Hayward's OptiSolar Inc. highlighted some of the issues facing the sector. The local company, which builds power-plant-size solar arrays, blamed the 290 job cuts on trouble securing financing. Industry observers said its troubles also reflect the challenges of moving new technologies from the lab to the field.

"The Silicon Valley plants are now coming to the proof of principle point," said Neal Dikeman, a founder at Jane Capital Partners, an energy investment firm in San Francisco. "Everyone has simply underestimated how difficult this is."

As the new Obama administration pegs its job-creation hopes on industries like solar, the question is not whether the field will grow, but whether it will grow faster or slower - and with what subsidies.

Last year, Congress enriched and extended a 30 percent federal tax credit on solar installations. California, which adds another 15 to 20 percent in incentives on top of that, has seen solar installations soar, according to California Public Utilities Commission analyst Molly Tirpak Sterkel.

"We have continued to see strong, in fact record, installations in California despite the economic conditions, and we are optimistic that it will continue in 2009," she said.

But industry sources say the nationwide market, while still growing, is growing slower.

Ron Pernick, with the market research firm Clean Edge, said solar installers are still hiring but at a slower pace in part because of the credit crunch and a wait-and-see attitude about government incentives.

"Until we get clarity from the Obama administration and the credit markets loosen up, it's going to be real hard for some of these solar outfits," Pernick said.

'Financing is a problem'
Barry Cinnamon, chief executive of Akeena Solar in Los Gatos, said his firm's solar installation business has slowed from a growth rate above 40 percent to something more in the 25 to 30 percent range. He hopes that falling prices for solar arrays, coupled with more generous federal tax incentives, will re-energize orders.

"The economics of solar have never been better," Cinnamon said. "But financing is a problem. They can't borrow money to put in the system."

Financial analyst Jesse Pichel, who follows the solar industry for Piper Jaffray, said all three segments of the installation marketplace are feeling the credit pinch to varying degrees. The residential sector must contend with plunging home equity and declining consumer confidence. Corporate buyers are leery of the capital expenditures required to put in huge arrays. The third solar market is for industrial-scale installations to sell power to utilities, and Pichel said it faces the largest financial and technical hurdles.

Focus on current contracts
OptiSolar falls into this last category. The Hayward firm says it will focus on completing current contracts, including a 550-megawatt solar plant for PG&E in San Luis Obispo. A PG&E spokeswoman said the utility remains confident OptiSolar will hit the project's Dec. 31, 2010, deadline. That deal is one of about 40 contracts PG&E has made with alternative energy suppliers to meet a state-imposed requirement that it get more than 20 percent of future power from renewable sources.

To spur installations nationwide, the solar industry wants Congress and President Barack Obama's administration to sweeten the new federal tax incentives.

Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, argues that tax credits work only when consumers and businesses pay taxes. With the recession hitting paychecks and profits, he says tax liabilities will shrink, making credits less appealing. He wants the 30 percent credit to be refundable, so even if buyers do not pay taxes on the installation, they could still get the benefit.

In a press conference after Obama's stimulus speech, Resch said solar companies have been talking about layoffs in the industry's 80,000-person workforce. He said the goal of creating 165,000 new jobs by 2011 would be jeopardized unless "these tax credits are improved."

Pichel, the financial analyst, said European countries have driven solar installations using a different strategy, promising to pay certain prices for solar-generated power. That has created large markets in countries such as Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece. Pichel said Europe now accounts for about 80 percent of global solar demand versus close to 10 percent for the United States.

"Solar continues to be an industry driven by subsidies," he said

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Genes remember sugar hit

SYDNEY (AFP) – Human genes remember a sugar hit for two weeks, with prolonged poor eating habits capable of permanently altering DNA, Australian research has found.

A team studying the impact of diet on human heart tissue and mice found that cells showed the effects of a one-off sugar hit for a fortnight, by switching off genetic controls designed to protect the body against diabetes and heart disease.

"We now know that chocolate bar you had this morning can have very acute effects, and those effects can continue for up to two weeks," said lead researcher Sam El-Osta, from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.

"These changes continue beyond the meal itself and have the ability to alter natural metabolic responses to diet," he told Australian Associated Press Friday.

Regular poor eating would amplify the effect, said El-Osta, with genetic damage lasting months or years, and potentially passing through bloodlines.

The study's findings were reported in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tequila gives Mexico an environmental hangover

THE benefits of a good name only stretch so far.

A "geographical indication" (GI) that legally ties products like champagne and tequila to their place of origin and cultural heritage does not always help the region it sets out to protect.

Sarah Bowen of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and her colleagues found that tying the making of tequila to the Jalisco region of Mexico has made its production socially and ecologically unsustainable.

Tequila's blue agave plant takes six years to mature, leading to an unstable local supply. This, plus a huge leap in demand for the drink since the 1990s, has driven many liquor companies to grow their own near Jalisco (Journal of Rural Studies, DOI: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2008.07.003).

This has led to "environmental degradation and the elimination of traditional practices", says Bowen. Tequila - the first GI granted outside Europe - should be a lesson to other poor nations, says Bowen. "The specification of sustainable production practices within [the GI] legal framework is essential," she says.

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