International business briefs: US energy efficiency, Tsunami destroys reefs, EPA encourages EMS implementation, Zimbabwe food crisis, US deadly gas tests

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) will present recommendations on the critical role that energy efficiency should play in natural gas policy at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee natural gas policy conference to be held on January 24. ACEEE research results have shown that energy efficiency is the most viable near-term strategy for moderating natural gas prices, and also is vital for stabilizing longer-term gas markets. The proposal is based on a recent ACEEE analysis, which illustrated that if gas demand was reduced by as little as 4% over the next five years, wholesale natural gas prices would be reduced by more than 20%. These savings would put over $100 billion back into the US economy at a cost of $30 billion in new investment, of which less than one-quarter would be federal and state public funds. Moreover, this investment would help bring back US manufacturing jobs that have been lost to high gas prices, and would help relieve the crushing burden of natural gas costs experienced by many lower-income households.

It will take months before scientists can accurately assess how much damage the Indian Ocean tsunami has caused to coral reefs, a reef conservation group has stated this week. The giant wave that has killed almost 160,000 people and devastated coastlines, has damaged coral reefs that act as a crucial barrier against heavy seas, attract tourism, and provide food and a livelihood for many coastal communities. Scientists report that reefs may have broken in the areas closest to the underwater earthquake's epicentre. However, other likely causes of damage included pollution and deadly bleaching by the sun as coastal waters were sucked far out to sea during the tsunami. Decomposing bodies, rubble and trees are also reported to be caught up in the reef.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with local governments and others to help understand the benefits of an Environment Management System (EMS) and assist those that choose to put one in place. EPA in cooperation with the Global Environment and Technology Foundation has worked with more than 30 local governments around the country to reduce operating costs, improve their compliance and significantly reduce environmental impacts in the community. In the first year of implementing an EMS, the city of San Diego's Solid Waste Division was able to reduce air emissions from heavy equipment more than $800,000. EPA is also leading a program to work with non-profit organisations, called EMS Local Resource Centers, to help increase the number of local governments that adopt EMS.

Zimbabweans living in rural areas are finding it harder to afford staple cereals and levels of malnutrition could rise by March 2005, a food monitoring agency has stated. Staple foods prices are too high for the poor majority, and South African social protection programmes are inadequate, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) new report. Over the last four years, Zimbabwe has suffered intermittent food shortages, caused by drought and serious disruptions to agriculture due to controversial land reforms. In their report, FEWSNET said cereals such as maize were becoming less available in most rural areas, and the rising price was preventing poor households from buying sufficient food. Mugabe's government has accused some agencies of working with the opposition to destabilise the country under the guise of humanitarian aid. It has also largely terminated food aid distribution, which is vital to the health and wellbeing of 40% of the country's population, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. President Mugabe has denied mismanaging the country since taking power when Zimbabwe became independent from Britain 25 years ago, despite the country's chronic shortages of food, foreign currency and fuel, as well asrecord inflation and unemployment.

And finally, the US Environmental Protection Agency is issuing an annual reminder for Americans to test for radon gas in their homes. Jeff Holmstead, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, has signed a proclamation declaring January as National Radon Action Month. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States with about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year related to radon exposure. A radioactive, invisible, odorless gas that comes from the decay of naturally occurring uranium in the earth's soil, radon can accumulate in homes at dangerous levels. Because families spend more time indoors during the winter months, January is an opportune time to test for radon. Simple, inexpensive do-it-yourself radon test kits are available at local hardware stores. EPA recommends that houses with radon levels of four picocuries or higher of radon should and can be fixed to prevent accumulation of radon gas indoors.



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