Best of our wild blogs: 6 May 11

Spider hunters
from The annotated budak

Chinese Pond Herons - breeding plumage, feeding and panting
from Bird Ecology Study Group

plantain squirrel @ SBWR 30Apr2011
from sgbeachbum

Sea Fans! In Singapore?
from Biodiversity Singapore

Fishy again at oil-slicked Tanah Merah
from wild shores of singapore

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Lao minister says "trust us" on Mekong dam

Reuters 5 May 11;

HANOI May 5 (Reuters) - Communist Laos called on Thursday for trust on a controversial dam across the lower Mekong river that has sparked strong opposition from its neighbours and environmental groups.

In a rare direct comment from the secretive country, Khempheng Pholsena, chairwoman of the Laos National Mekong Committee and a government minister, said the Xayaburi Dam would be "socially and environmentally sustainable".

"Trust Laos," she told reporters in Hanoi on the sidelines of an annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank.

"We take the concern seriously. Please give us time," she added. Plans for the dam have put Laos on a collision course with its neighbours and environmentalists who fear livelihoods, fish species and farmland could be destroyed, potentially sparking a food crisis.

Last month the four countries that share the lower stretches of the 4,900 km (3,044 mile) Mekong -- Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam -- failed at a meeting to reach agreement on construction of the 1.285-megawatt (MW) dam, the first of 11 planned in the lower Mekong that are expected to generate 8 percent of Southeast Asia's power by 2025.

Vietnam, which has long been the closest ally Laos has, last month asked it to delay the $3.5 million project by 10 years.

The Lao government has hailed Xayaburi as a model for clean, green energy that will stimulate its tiny $6 billion economy and improve the lives of its 5.9 million people, over a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, many without electricity.

Its energy-hungry neighbour, Thailand, will buy about 95 percent of the power generated by the dam and three Thai firms have a stake in the project, according to an announcement on Thailand's stock exchange last month.

Pholsena said Laos had faced opposition to another dam project, the Nam Theun hydropower plant, but had laid concerns to rest, and would do the same again.

Laos needed to be "strong and stand on its own feet", she said. (Reporting by Tran Le Thuy; Editing by John Ruwitch and Robert Birsel)

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Indonesia: The blue revolution will have to wait

Bruce Gale Straits Times 6 May 11;

INDONESIA'S Minister for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Fadel Muhammad has big plans. He wants to create a 'blue revolution' in Indonesia that will make the country the world's largest fish producer by 2014. That's a tall order. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, China produced 47.5 million tonnes of fish in 2008, while India produced about 7.6 million tonnes. The comparative figure for Indonesia was just 6.7 million tonnes.

The term 'blue revolution' refers to an anticipated leap in aquatic productivity that many hope will rival the green revolution. The latter involved a surge in grain yields across Asia in the 1950s and 1960s that supported the rising populations of that era. Higher fish production in Indonesia now would certainly help boost food supplies at a time when climate change has contributed to shortages. But is the surge in productivity Mr Fadel is planning really possible?

The minister's optimism is based at least partly on the fact that Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago. 'Wherever you have water, you have fish, and two-thirds of our country is water,' he told the Wall Street Journal last month.

But there is little consensus on just how much potential remains to be exploited. According to Mr Fadel's own ministry, of the 11 fishing regions in the country, only the Arafura Sea (between Australia and New Guinea) remains underexploited. The most overfished areas include the North Java Sea, the Malacca Strait and the East Kalimantan Sea. Inevitably, this has had an impact on fishermen's incomes.

Late last year, the minister admitted as much, noting that fishermen along the north coast of Java earn an average of only 800,000 rupiah (S$115) a month. This is only half what their counterparts in Gorontalo province on Sulawesi island get.

Even so, there are those who believe that, with the right infrastructure in place, higher production levels are possible. According to Mr Purwito Martosubroto, the chairman of Indonesia's Tuna Commission, Indonesia's ability to become one of the world's leading tuna producers has been hampered by insufficient investment.

He points out that not only do the country's waters provide an ideal habitat for tuna due to their high salinity levels, but Indonesia is also close to Japan - the world's main tuna market. But 'tuna products cannot be shipped directly to Japan because of transportation problems'.

Illegal fishing by foreign fishing fleets is yet another longstanding issue limiting Indonesian fish production. Unfortunately, it is not something the fisheries ministry can do very much about. Officials in Jakarta estimate that the country loses around 30 trillion rupiah a year as a result of fish poaching. But despite efforts by the Indonesian navy, the problem remains.

Mr Fadel's main hope for an increase in fish production probably lies in aquaculture. Speaking to the media in January, the minister said that the government intended to focus its attention on 41 'minapolitan' (fish cities) across the country, 24 of which would concentrate on fish farming. One of these is in the Kampar district on the western island of Sumatra. The district's Koto Panjang Lake already has more than 2,000 floating fish cages where farmers raise millions of tilapia, carp, and catfish.

In an attempt to double national output, the ministry says it intends to send thousands of fishing experts to train local fish farmers across the country in how to get their products to market and deal with various diseases. The latter is particularly important. Industry sources say that many fish produced on Asian farms contain dangerous toxins and antibiotics, the result of treating fish kept in dirty water in overcrowded conditions. In Kampar, fisheries officials have responded by setting up a testing facility with new equipment from Europe to diagnose fish illnesses and evaluate water quality.

But not all problems can be handled by the fisheries ministry. One example is the traffic jams along the edge of the Koto Panjang Lake as trucks arrive to pick up the fish.

The ministry is also trying to promote the fish processing industry. Last August, Mr Fadel designated the fishing port of Tual in Maluku as an 'integrated fishery city', with the expectation of it developing cold storage facilities and related industries.

The waters around Maluku are considered promising for fishing, with large populations of squid, lobster, shrimp and other fish. As in Kampar, however, infrastructure remains an important constraint. As Deputy Industry Minister Alex Retraubun has pointed out: 'If power blackouts happen repeatedly in Ambon (the provincial capital), how can the fish-processing industry develop?'

It was a good point. The success of Mr Fadel's programme is heavily dependent upon the ability of other ministries and government departments to resolve a wide range of longstanding national weaknesses. The blue revolution may just have to wait.

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Pink dolphins bounce back from 2010 Amazon drought

James Painter BBC News 5 May 11

Several months ago, parts of the Amazon rainforest were in the grip of one of the most severe droughts on record.

River levels were at historic lows and the impact on wildlife was severe.

The number of pink river dolphins in a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon dropped by nearly half in October compared with 2009, as the level of the Samiria River, a major tributary of the Amazon, fell.

Along a 20km (12 mile) stretch of the river, a population of 250 declined to about 140.

But now a team of conservation experts working in the region has found that many species have recovered more quickly than expected.

This includes the pink dolphins, which, according to surveys conducted in March, have seen their numbers increased by nearly 10%, compared to the same period last year, prior to the drought.

The number of grey dolphins is also up from March 2010 - by 30%.

"This is a very good sign and suggests that the Samiria River is recovering from the drought of 2010," says Dr Richard Bodmer from the University of Kent, who has published extensively on the area for the last 25 years.

The research is being carried out in the Pacaya Samiria national reserve in the upper reaches of the Amazon, an area covering more than 20,000 sq km (700 sq miles).

It falls within one of the three regions worst affected by the 2010 drought, when parts of the Amazon and its tributaries reached their lowest levels for half a century.

"This reserve is a flooded forest, where we get high levels and low levels in the rivers every year," says Dr Bodmer.

"But the 2010 drought and the record floods the previous year were much worse."

Now the water levels are extremely high again and local officials have declared a state of emergency.

"We are being hit on both sides - extremely high levels of water or droughts," says Dr Bodmer.

Dr Bodmer and his team of Peruvian researchers, backed up by volunteers from the conservation organisation Earthwatch, are monitoring the effect of these weather extremes on the pink dolphins and other wildlife.
Smoker's cough

Conservationists regard pink dolphins as a remarkable species - partly for their colour, which no-one can explain for sure.

But they are also the only species of dolphin able to move their neck horizontally as well as vertically. This enables them to find their way underwater between tree roots.

Several of them played around the boat when we visited a favourite spot of theirs on the River Samiria in late March.

You could glimpse sudden movements of pink, but it was easier to hear them than see them. They expel air loudly like old men with a smoker's cough.

They are apparently curious and intelligent, like their distant cousins the sea dolphins. Between 10 million and 20 million years ago, their ancestors were trapped when this region of the Amazon formed part of a large inland sea area.

Other species appear to have recovered well, too, but the picture is not entirely positive.

Chestnut-fronted macaws had apparently left the reserve or died in significant numbers during the 2010 drought. The latest figures suggest their numbers have recovered strongly now that the rivers are back to high levels.

However, the spectacled caiman, a smaller relation of the crocodile, continues to be a cause for concern. Its numbers in the first three months of 2011 were still 60% lower than in 2010.

Several communities of Cocama Indians live on the river banks of the Samiria within the reserve. They are still talking about last year's drought, and fear it may be repeated in the future.

Tedy Yuyarima, a 42-year-old shaman from San Martin de Tipishca, says the drought was the worst he has ever known.

"Our community depends on fish like the piranha both to eat and sell," he says.

"During the drought it was very difficult to travel for several months because the river was so low. We had to push our boats through less than 20cm of water."

The fish were left stranded in packed, rotting piles. The cormorants and other birds just picked out the best flesh and left the rest.

"We couldn't eat the fish as they had infected abscesses," says Mr Yuyarima.
Multiple threats

The community is still worried the fish stocks may not build up again in 2011. But the early signs from Dr Bodmer's team suggest that fish numbers are recovering.

The Cocama Indians are involved in projects to manage the forest in a sustainable way, but extreme weather makes this more difficult, says Mr Yuyarima.

A team of British and Brazilian researchers recently confirmed that the 2010 Amazon drought was more widespread than the one in 2005, which was regarded as "a once in a century event".

The two droughts have been associated with warmer waters in the North Atlantic off the Brazilian coast, caused by warmer global temperatures.

Some computer models suggest that the Amazon could suffer more droughts as the planet warms.

"We cannot ignore these larger global events, which are impacting the local ecosystems and people here, and testing the resilience of the wildlife," says Dr Bodmer.

"At the moment, these impacts worry me, but they are not as dramatic as they could be. But if these weather extremes continue in the future, this will change."

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Japan's dolphin hunters extend season

Yahoo News 6 May 11;

TOKYO (AFP) – Fishermen in Japan's dolphin-hunting town of Taiji have extended their catch season by one month and this week caught some 60 long-finned pilot whales, according to a local official.

Every year the town's fishermen corral about 2,000 dolphins into a secluded bay, select a few dozen for sale to aquariums and slaughter the rest for meat, a practice long deplored by animal rights campaigners.

The picturesque town in Wakayama prefecture, western Japan, drew global attention after "The Cove", a hard-hitting film about the annual hunts, won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2010.

This catch season began in September and was due to end in April.

"But we resumed the hunt after the Wakayama government extended its permission by one month until the end of May following a poor catch this year," a Taiji Fisheries Cooperative official told AFP by telephone on Friday.

Some 60 long-finned pilot whales, an oceanic dolphin species, were caught on Wednesday and auctioned off Thursday, said the official.

Animal rights activist Scott West of the group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reported on the catch in a blog post.

"The pilot whales in the Cove did not quietly go to their deaths," he wrote, describing how more than 20 of the animals were killed. "They fought as best they could, churning up the water and dashing on the rocks."

Meanwhile, Taiji fishermen gave up whale hunts in nearby waters this year and instead sent their whaling vessel to Kushiro, Hokkaido, replacing a whaling ship from another port that was destroyed in the March 11 tsunami.

Japan hunts whales under a loophole to a global moratorium that allows killing the sea mammals for what it calls "scientific research", although the meat is later sold openly in shops and restaurants.

In late April, Japanese whalers launched their annual coastal hunt in Kushiro with five crew from the tsunami-devastated whaling town of Ayukawa joining their first voyage since the massive quake and tsunami struck.

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UK fish retail labels 'inadequate' say conservationists

BBC News 5 May 11;

Consumers are not being given enough information on labels to allow them to make the choice to buy sustainable fish, according to conservationists.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said it is still "virtually impossible to tell precisely where most fish and fish products have been caught".

But the British Retail Consortium said retailers do "give consumers as much information as possible".

The MCS's views come amid the launch of its new website aimed at consumers.

Where labelling by retailers is concerned, the MCS said information that is more detailed than the species, the ocean it comes from and the fishing method is needed to help people discriminate between sustainable and unsustainable seafood.

The MCS has published comprehensive updated advice on buying fish caught from sustainably managed stocks.

The latest advice issued by the conservationists shows improvements in the management and status of stocks in some fisheries, including cod from the eastern and western Baltic and the north-east Arctic, and anchovies from the Bay of Biscay.

However, the situation has worsened where other fish are concerned.

Dover sole caught by the destructive method of beam trawling in the western English Channel, the Irish Sea and south-west and west Ireland has been listed as a fish to avoid.

And consumers have also been urged to avoid yellowfin tuna caught using purse seine nets or long lines in the Indian Ocean.

But eating skipjack tuna caught using poles and lines in the Western Atlantic has the green light thanks to improvements in data on the stocks.

Dr Peter Duncan, of the MCS, said: "If supermarkets could get their produce from well-managed fisheries and label it as such, it opens up new opportunities for the public and fishermen. It's a win-win."

He added: "The use of a traffic light system to indicate the nutritional value of supermarket produce is now well-established. However the labelling of fish and fish products sold in supermarkets has not kept up.

Sutainable fish 'importance'

"It is still virtually impossible to tell precisely where most fish and fish products have been caught."

But Andrew Opie, the British Retail Consortium's food director, said retailers know the importance of sustainable fish to their customers.

"They're doing everything they can to source sustainable produce and give consumers as much information as possible," he said.

"Supermarket customers are already told the species of fish they're buying, how it was caught and the region it came from - much more information than is provided by most of the catering industry, for example.

Mr Opie also scrutinised the term "sustainable".

He said: "What is meant by 'sustainable' fish changes all the time, depending on stocks, the environment, and which pressure group you listen to.

"A raft of different interpretations among environmentalists lies behind much of the confusion, not the labelling provided by supermarkets."

The conservation group is also urging people to vary the type of fish they buy, as the majority of sales focus on just five species - tuna, cod, salmon, prawns and haddock.

The MCS said fish such as pollack, gurnard, coley, dab, sprats were all tasty alternatives.

And consumers are being urged to avoid some fish altogether, such as eels and bluefin tuna.

The conservation group has launched a Good Fish Guide website to make it easier for people to shop for sustainable seafood in supermarkets and restaurants.

The more comprehensive Fish Online website used by the public, chefs and industry, has also been updated.

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Food prices driven up by global warming, study shows

Scientists warn that farming practices must be adapted to a warmer world and rises in global population
Damian Carrington 5 May 11;

Global warming has already harmed the world's food production and has driven up food prices by as much as 20% over recent decades, new research has revealed.

The drop in the productivity of crop plants around the world was not caused by changes in rainfall but was because higher temperatures can cause dehydration, prevent pollination and lead to slowed photosynthesis.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, Washington DC, said the findings indicate a turning point: "Agriculture as it exists today evolved over 11,000 years of reasonably stable climate, but that climate system is no more." Adaptation is difficult because our knowledge of the future is not strong enough to drive new investments, he said, "so we just keep going, hoping for the best."

The scientists say their work shows how crucial it is to find ways to adapt farming to a warmer world, to ensure that rises in global population are matched by rising food production. "It is vital," said Wolfram Schlenker, at Columbia University in New York and one of the research team. "If we continue to have the same seed varieties and temperatures continue to rise, then food prices will rise further. [Addressing] that is the big question."

The new research joins a small number of studies in which the fingerprint of climate change has been separated from natural variations in weather and other factors, demonstrating that the effects of warming have already been felt in the world. Scientists have shown that the chance of the severe heatwave that killed thousands in Europe in 2003 was made twice as likely by global warming, while other work showed that the floods that caused £3.5bn of damage in England in 2000 were made two to three times more likely.

Food prices have reached new record highs this year, and have been implicated as a trigger for unrest in the Middle East and Africa. A rising appetite for meat is a critical factor, said Wolfram. "We actually have enough calories to feed the world quite comfortably, the problem is meat is really inefficient," as many kilogrammes of grain are needed to produce one kilogramme of meat, he said. "As countries get richer and have a preference for meat, which is more expensive, they price people in poorer countries out of the market."

"The research provides evidence of big shifts in wheat and maize production," commented Prof Tim Wheeler at the Walker Institute for Climate System Research, Reading University, UK, who added it had involved "heroic" statistical analysis. But he said that, while long-term climate change impacts were another pressure on food prices, short-term price spikes were linked to extreme weather events, such as the Russian heatwaves and wildfires in 2010.

The study, published in the journal Science, examined how rising temperatures affected the annual crop yields of all major producer nations between 1980 and 2008. Computer models were used to show how much grain would have been harvested in the absence of warming. Overall, yields have been rising over the last decades and the models took this into account. The scientists found that global wheat production was 33m tonnes (5.5%) lower than it would have been without warming and maize production was 23m tonnes (3.8%) lower. Specific countries fared worse than the average, with Russia losing 15% of its potential wheat crop, and Brazil, Mexico and Italy suffering above average losses. Some countries experienced lower production of rice and soybeans, although these drops were offset by gains in other countries.

The losses drove up food prices by as much as 18.9%, the team calculated, although the rise could be as low as 6.4% if the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere strongly boosts plant growth and yields - a factor that is not well understood by scientists.

Global food prices have risen by about 200% in recent years, says Schlenker. Other causes of the rise are the increased demand for meat and the diversion of food into biofuels. Nonetheless, the researchers conclude that the negative impact on crops overall is "likely to be incurring large economic and health costs".

The US, which has the world's largest share of overall production, stood out in the analysis because it appears to have lost no production to climate change as yet. Schlenker said this was because the rise in temperature there was very small compared to other parts of the world. This was perhaps due simply to luck with the weather, or the cooling influence of aerosol particles, such as soot, that blocks warming.

"US farmers are having a good time in the sense that their yields have not been impacted much and prices have been pretty high, so for them it has been pretty profitable," he said. "But most climate models predict that eventually the US will warm."

Adapting farming to climate change could involved moving to cooler areas as existing areas warm, said Schlenker, but often soils are poorer in the new locations. He highlighted the potential of biotechnology - genetic engineering - to develop new crop varieties that are more resistant to heat, but said the potential remains unproven. "What happens over the next 20 years depends on how optimistic you are about finding those extra ways of adapting."

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World food prices stable apart from cereals: FAO

Yahoo News 5 May 11;

ROME (AFP) – World food prices remained almost stable in April, though tension surrounded cereal prices and climate conditions in coming months will be decisive, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said Thursday.

After a drop in March following a run of higher prices for eight months, the FAO Food Price Index "averaged 232 points in April, little changed from March, (but) it was still 36 percent above April 2010 and only two percent below its peak in February 2011," the Rome-based body said in a report.

In April, the prices of rice, sugar and dairy products declined, while those of meat and oil and fatty products were "mostly unchanged," but the price of most cereals went up, particularly wheat and maize.

Overall, the FAO cereal price index was 5.5 percent higher than in March, drawn upwards because maize prices rose 11 percent and wheat increased by four percent "as a result of unfavourable weather and planting delays. But large export supplies kept rice prices under downward pressure," the report said.

"A sliding dollar and increased oil prices are contributing to high food commodity prices, particularly grains," said David Hallam, the director of the FAO's trade and marketing division.

"With demand continuing strong, prospects for a return to more normal prices depend largely on how much production will increase in 2011 and how much grain reserves are replenished in the new season."

Any prospect of rising food prices leads to fears of renewed food riots of the kind that affected several African countries in 2008 and which have also taken place in Haiti and the Philippines.

The FAO warned that "world cereal stocks for the crop seasons ending in 2011 are forecast to decline to their lowest level since 2008, mostly due to depleting coarse grain inventories." However, "the wheat stock-to-use radio will remain relatively comfortable, while rice inventories are even expected to rise."

"Although the early outlook for cereal production in 2011 is good, weather in the coming months will be critical," said FAO grain analyst Abdolreza Abbassian. "Production prospects for 2010 were extremely favourable at this time last year but unfavourable weather conditions between July and October changed that outlook drastically."

"Among all the cereals, maize is the most worrisome," Abbassian noted. "This year we would need above-average, if not record, yields in the United States for the maize situation to improve, but maize plantings so far have been delayed considerably due to cool and wet conditions on the ground."

Global food prices hold steady
But cereals markets remain tight
FAO 5 May 11;

5 May 2011, Rome - Food prices remained virtually steady in April after falling in March following eight months of successive increases, FAO announced today.

However, while the FAO Food Price Index averaged 232 points in April, little changed from March, it was still 36 percent above April 2010 and only two percent below its peak in February 2011.

A fall in sugar prices and a decline in rice helped stabilize the index, but international prices of nearly all other food commodities remained firm.

"A sliding dollar and increased oil prices are contributing to high food commodity prices, particularly grains," said David Hallam Director of FAO's Trade and Market Division. "With demand continuing strong, prospects for a return to more normal prices hinge largely on how much production will increase in 2011 and how much grain reserves are replenished in the new season."

Wheat and maize prices rise

There was little change in the index because although international grain prices increased sharply in April, the rise was more than offset by declines in dairy, sugar, and rice, while oils and meat prices were mostly unchanged.

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 265 points, up 5.5 percent from March and 71 percent from April 2010. Maize prices rose 11 percent and wheat increased four percent in April 2011 as a result of unfavourable weather and planting delays. But large export supplies kept rice prices under downward pressure.

The FAO Oils/Fats Price Index, which had fallen by seven percent in March, was nearly unchanged in April.

The FAO Sugar Price Index averaged nearly 348 points, down seven percent from March and 17 percent below its January record.

The FAO Dairy Price Index averaged 229 points, down 2.4 percent from March. A good start of the northern hemisphere season has kept prices from rising after seven months of steady growth.

The FAO Meat Price Index, although at a record level, remained stable as compared to a revised estimate of 172 points in March.

Cereal market to remain tight

Latest indications point to a recovery in world cereal production in 2011 in response to high prices providing more normal weather conditions prevail. World wheat production is expected to increase by 3.5 percent and rice by three percent.

But world cereal stocks for the crop seasons ending in 2011 are forecast to decline to their lowest level since 2008, mostly due to depleting coarse grain inventories. Global wheat inventories are forecast to decrease too, but the wheat stock-to-use ratio will remain relatively comfortable, while rice inventories are even expected to rise.

"Although the early outlook for cereal production in 2011 is good, weather in the coming months will be critical," said FAO grain analyst Abdolreza Abbassian. "Production prospects for 2010 were extremely favourable at this time last year but unfavourable weather conditions between July and October changed that outlook drastically.

"Among all the cereals, maize is the most worrisome," Abbassian noted. "This year we would need above-average, if not record, yields in the United States for the maize situation to improve but maize plantings so far have been delayed considerably due to cool and wet conditions on the ground."

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Big natural disaster claims hit Swiss Re, top insurers

Yahoo News 5 May 11;

ZURICH (AFP) – Global reinsurance giant Swiss Re reported a quarterly loss on Thursday as insurers shouldered the burden of exceptionally high claims for natural disaster damage this year including Japan's quake and tsunami.

The events in Japan on March 11, as well as the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand on February 22 and floods in eastern Australia since January also hit profits at Europe's biggest insurer, Allianz, as well as Zurich Financial Services.

But Swiss Re, one of the world's biggest reinsurers, reported a second quarterly net loss running, of $665 million (447,4 million euros), in the first three months of 2011 compared to a profit of $158 million a year earlier.

"In the first quarter of 2011, we experienced exceptionally high losses from natural catastrophes," chief executive Stefan Lippe said in a statement.

The firm's biggest rival, Munich Re, issued a profit warning last month, saying the natural disasters would cost it 2.7 billion euros.

Swiss Re's pre-tax costs due to natural disasters reached $2.3 billion during the first three months of 2011.

Its overall net loss was nonetheless smaller than the average $1.0 billion forecast by analysts' polled by Swiss business news agency AWP.

Swiss Re underlined that the disasters had tested the resilience of the insurance industry as a whole.

"The accumulation of natural catastrophe events is expected to turn 2011 into a year with one of the highest historical natural catastrophe claims burdens," the company said.

Germany's Allianz said that its first-quarter net profit slumped 44 percent to just over 900 million euros ($1.3 billion) because of 750 million euros in expenses related to natural catastrophes.

That included some 320 million euros from insured damage caused by Japan's magnitude 9.0 quake and resulting tsunami, which left nearly 26,000 people missing or dead.

Swiss insurer Zurich's first-quarter net profits also slumped 32 percent to $637 million, below analysts' expectations, after natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific region cost it $517 million.

Nonetheless, all the insurance firms insisted that their underlying business was otherwise strong.

"Although we spent almost 200 million euros more on natural catastrophes ... we were able to keep our operating profit close to the previous year's level," Allianz chief executive Michael Diekmann said.

Swiss Re stood by its five year performance targets, claiming its stregthened capital base helped underwrite large and complex risks.

"The impact of natural catastrophe losses in the first quarter creates an additional challenge but it will also accelerate the market turn we had previously expected in 2012/2013," Lippe added.

After years of price declines, parts of the insurance industry have been pushing for increases in premiums and underwriting capacity to reflect greater disaster risks as the market expands.

Swiss Re has also estimated that the global cost of catastrophes more than tripled last year to $218 billion with the highest human toll for decades.

The risks and occurrence of disasters such as floods and storm damage from extreme weather events have grown with climate change, according to the company.

Swiss Re has also highlighted a pattern of growing losses from earthquakes due to bigger urban populations as well as rising wealth and growth in seismically active areas.

Japanese authorities have estimated that direct losses from its biggest ever earthquake and tsunami, which also triggered the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago, could reach $300 billion.

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Climate change panel: renewable energy to be key

Michael Casey, Associated Press Yahoo Groups 5 May 11;

DOHA, Qatar – The world's top scientific body concluded that renewable energy in the coming decades will be widespread and could one day represent the dominant source for powering factories and lighting homes, according to a draft report obtained by The Associated Press Thursday.

But the report also warned that such expansion will be costly and policy changes will have to be enacted to ensure that renewable energy can achieve its potential in helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It called for better balancing competing demands for land, addressing "institutional barriers" that prevent the installation of solar energy as well as overcoming the constraints to transmitting renewable energy to users.

The four-day meeting of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which began Thursday in Abu Dhabi was largely bullish on replacing fossil fuels.

"It is likely that renewable energy will have a significantly larger role in the global energy system in the future than today," said the report. "The scenarios indicate that even without efforts to address climate change, renewable energy can be expected to expand."

A spokesman for the IPCC refused to comment on the report, saying it was still subject to several days of negotiations.

The report found that renewable energy — including solar, hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal and ocean energy — represented only about 13 percent of the primary energy supply in 2008. But its growth is picking up with almost half of new electricity generating capacity coming from renewables in 2008 and 2009.

That growth will continue through 2050 with 164 different scenarios predicting the use of renewables significantly increasing as the world shifts to a low-carbon economy.

The most ambitious projected it will represent 77 percent of global energy sources in 2050.

Commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions coupled with cheaper technology for renewable energies will spur their growth, especially as the increasing shortages of oil and other fossil fuels raises those costs.

But the report made clear there are plenty of challenges that could hamper the growth of renewables as they still need to be better integrated into existing energy supply systems.

Policies also need to be changed to attract massive investment to build the infrastructure and spur the technology innovations needed that make renewables more affordable and dependable.

And despite its rosy predictions for renewable use, at least one environmental group observing the talks say the report falls short of their expectations.

"IPCC delivers a landmark report that shows the rapid growth potential for renewable energy — but unfortunately does not endorse a 100 percent renewable energy pathway until 2050," said Stephan Singer, director for Global Energy Policy at WWF International.

"We need to be fast if we want to tackle pressing issues as varied as energy security and efficiency, and at the same time keep climate change below the danger threshold," he added.

Renewable Energies To Leap, Costs Fall: U.N.
Alister Doyle Reuters 6 May 11;

Renewable energies such as wind or solar power are set to surge by 2050, and expected advances in technology will bring significant cost cuts, a draft United Nations report showed on Wednesday.

The most comprehensive U.N. overview of the sector to date said renewables excluding bioenergy, which is mainly firewood burned in developing nations for cooking and heating, could expand by three to 20 times by mid-century.

"The cost of most renewable energy technologies has declined, and significant additional technical advancements are expected," the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in a draft obtained by Reuters, based on a review of 164 scenarios.

"Further cost reductions are expected, resulting in greater potential for climate change mitigation and reducing the need for policy measures to ensure rapid deployment," it said. The IPCC is to meet in Abu Dhabi from May 5-13.

It said most scenarios pointed to a "substantial increase in the deployment of renewable energy by 2030, 2050 and beyond."

In 2008 renewable energy production accounted for about 12.9 percent of global primary energy supply and was dominated by bioenergy with 10.2 percent, followed by hydro power, wind, geothermal, solar power and ocean energy.

The projected expansion is likely to continue even without new measures to promote a shift from fossil fuels as part of a U.N.-led fight against climate change, it said.


U.N. talks on a new deal to combat global warming have made little progress. A summit in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to agree on a binding treaty to combat global warming, which IPCC blames mainly on emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Costs of renewables have been a hurdle. "The levelized cost of energy for many renewable energy technologies is currently higher than market energy prices, though in other cases renewable energy is already economically competitive," the report said.

The draft, written before Japan's nuclear disaster in March, also said renewables by 2010 would probably account for a bigger share of low-carbon energies than nuclear power and fossil fuels from which greenhouse gases are captured and buried.

The 30-page summary for policymakers, part of a Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources, will be published on May 9.

The summary is due to guide governments, investors and companies, including wind firms such as Denmark's Vestas and Suzlon and solar firms such as First Solar or Suntech Power Holdings.

Most of the 164 scenarios showed renewable energies would rise to supply above 100 exajoules (EJ) a year by 2050, reaching 200-400 EJ a year in many scenarios. That is up from 64 EJ in 2008, when world supply was 492 EJ, it said.

The exajoule, or 10 to the 18th power joules, is a typical measure of global energy use.

"An increase of production of renewable energies (excluding traditional bioenergy) anywhere from roughly three-fold to 20-fold is necessary," the report said of the 2050 outlook.

Renewables' share of total energy supply varied widely in the scenarios, reaching up to 77 percent of total energy supply by 2050.

It also said the technical potential of renewable energies -- especially solar -- was substantially higher even than projected world energy demand.

Deployment of renewables has leapt in recent years. About 140 gigawatts of added electricity generating capacity came from renewables in 2008-09 of a world total of 300 GW, it said.

The review of 164 scenarios showed that renewable energies could lead to cumulative carbon dioxide savings of 220-560 billion tonnes from 2010 to 2050. That compares with 1.53 trillion tonnes of cumulative fossil and industrial carbon dioxide emissions in a reference scenario for the same years.

Global renewables investments, in four illustrative scenarios, were forecast at $1.36-$5.1 trillion for the decade to 2020 and $1.49-$7.18 trillion from 2012-30. Real costs would be lower, due to factors including savings on other energies.

(Editing by James Jukwey and Jane Baird)

Renewables major part of 2050 world energy mix: UN
Marlowe Hood Yahoo News 7 May 11;

PARIS (AFP) – Renewable power from the Sun, wind, water and biomass can and should generate a major portion of the planet's energy supply by 2050, according to a draft United Nations report obtained by AFP.

Renewables have the potential to bring power to the world's poorest regions, boost energy security for nations dependent on imports, and curb the CO2 emissions that fuel global warming, the draft said.

The 30-page "summary for policy makers" -- boiled down from 1,500 pages -- is being vetted at a May 5-13 meeting of the 194-nation Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in Abu Dhabi, and will be unveiled Monday.

"The final version is likely be substantially different in wording and perhaps somewhat in emphasis, but not a great deal in substance," said an industry representative participating in talks.

By far the most comprehensive UN assessment of the status and potential for the clean energy sector, the report weighs 164 separate development scenarios.

Six types of renewables accounted in 2008 for 12.9 percent of global energy supply: biomass (10.2 percent), hydropower (2.3), wind (0.2), solar (0.1), geothermal (0.1) and ocean (0.002).

Once traditional use of firewood and animal dung for cooking and heating is set aside, however, that percentage drops to about seven.

Coal, oil and gas together make up 85 percent, and nuclear energy two.

Boosted by some government policies, declining technology costs and rising fossil fuel prices, "deployment of renewable energy has been increasing rapidly in recent years," the draft summary said.

The sector contributed, for example, nearly half of the 300 gigawatts of new electricity generating capacity added worldwide in 2008 and 2009, with more than 50 percent installed in developing countries. Coal accounted for most of the rest.

The report says there is virtually unlimited technical potential for renewables, with much of it coming from solar energy.

Drafted before the Fukushima plant meltdown in Japan undercut the so-called nuclear renaissance, the summary said renewables will likely make a higher contribution to low-carbon energy supply by mid-century than nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS) combined.

Overall, a majority of projections reviewed show a "substantial increase" -- ranging from 3-to-20 fold -- "in the deployment of renewable energy by 2030, 2050 and beyond."

Many scenarios showed renewables reaching 200 to 400 exajoules (EJ) a year by mid-century in a world where total primary energy supply is forecast to be about 1,000 EJ, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

An exajoule is a unit of measure for energy.

Clean energy's share of future supply varies hugely across different forecasts, with the most ambitious envisioning a world in which it covers three-quarters of all energy needs.

But the continuing growth of renewables is not inexorable and faces many barriers, ranging from vested political interests to inadequate incentive structures for developing new technology, and fossil fuel subsidies.

"To achieve international climate mitigation targets that incorporate high shares of renewable energy, a structural shift in today's energy systems will be required over the next few decades," the report said.

It will also take a lot of money -- 1.4 to 5.1 trillion dollars for the coming decade, and another 1.5 to 7.2 trillion dollars for the period 2021-2030.

Clean sources of power must play a critical role if the UN-backed goal of preventing average global temperatures from rising more than 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is to be met, the IPCC said.

Currently, use of fossil fuels in the energy system accounts for some 60 percent of all greenhouse gases.

UN climate talks have remained largely stalemated since the near collapse of the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, even as scientists warn that climate change is accelerating.

"Renewable energy can help decouple development and rising emissions, contributing to sustainable development," the draft summary said.

Global cumulative CO2 "savings" between 2010 and 2050 will total 220 to 560 gigatonnes (Gt) off a projected accumulation from fossil fuel sources of 1,530 Gt over the same period, according to various scenarios.

The IPCC meeting has set aside four days to review every line of text in the summary.

UN climate meet must not be talking shop: Zuma
Yahoo News 5 May 11;

CAPE TOWN (AFP) – The next round of UN climate talks in South Africa must not be a talking shop, but push for concrete decisions, President Jacob Zuma told the World Economic Forum on Africa.

South Africa will host the summit in Durban at the end of the year and Zuma said he hoped that participants do not "just make speeches as we always do".

"By the time we get to Durban, we should have narrowed the gap. We should have clarified the issues, we should be able to know where are the problems," said Zuma.

"So that we get there not to talk all the time but to say these are the issues, these are the decisions that we need to talk and persuade those who are finding it very difficult. For the sake of humanity, I think we need to take very concrete decisions in Durban."

The last UN climate summit took place in the Mexican resort city of Cancun in December.

The Cancun agreements focused mainly on the easiest steps to be taken, after an effort 12 months earlier in Copenhagen to achieve a much more wide-ranging accord saw the UN climate process almost collapse.

Climate scientists told to 'stop speaking in code'
Karl Ritter, Associated Press Yahoo News 4 May 11;

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Scientists at a major conference on Arctic warming were told Wednesday to use plain language to explain the dramatic melt in the region to a world reluctant to take action against climate change.

An authoritative report released at the meeting of nearly 400 scientists in Copenhagen showed melting ice in the Arctic could help raise global sea levels by as much as 5 feet this century, much higher than earlier projections.

James White, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told fellow researchers to use simple words and focus on the big picture when describing their research to a wider audience. Focusing too much on details could blur the basic science, he said: "If you put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it will get warmer."

Prominent U.S. climate scientist Robert Corell said researchers must try to reach out to all parts of society to spread awareness of the global implications of the Arctic melt.

"Stop speaking in code. Rather than 'anthropogenic,' you could say 'human caused,'" Corell said.

The Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the global average in recent decades, and the latest five-year period is the warmest since measurements began in the 19th century, according to the report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program — a scientific body set up by the eight Arctic rim countries.

The report emphasized "the need for greater urgency" in combating global warming. But nations remain bogged down in their two-decade-long talks on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The World Bank's special envoy for climate change, Andrew Steer, said the new findings "are a cause for great concern." The sea rise will affect millions in both rich and poor countries, but would particularly affect the poor, he said, because "they tend to live in the lowest lying land and have the fewest resources to adapt."

Steer said bank studies showed the costs of major flooding events on infrastructure and the economy could run into billions of dollars.

"It is clear that we are not on track in the battle against climate change," he said.

Bogi Hansen, an expert on ocean currents from the Faeroe Islands, said one problem is that scientists can come off as unsure about conclusions because they are reluctant to talk about anything with 100 percent certainty.

White, the Colorado scientist, agreed. At a news conference later Wednesday, he said those opposed to reining in fossil fuels "sow the seeds of doubt that give the people the impression that ... unless every single one of us lines up behind an idea, that decisions can't be taken."

The AMAP report will be delivered to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Canada, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia, at an Arctic Council meeting in Greenland next week.

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