Archive for the ‘carbon capture and storage’ Category
The BBC have very helpfully posted the recent Panorama programme ‘Energy Bills: Power Failure’ on YouTube (as embedded below). Presented by Tom Heap (who regularly does spots on CountryFile), it is very fair-minded and includes contributions from a wide range of people. Therefore, even if you do not live in the UK, I would recommend watching the programme because: it is very good at describing the problems that we all face; and makes it crystal clear that we must find a solution (but does so in a way that somehow avoids being dogmatic).
Some questions I would like help in answering are as follows:
1. What is the instrumental music used in the opening night-time sequence in Blackpool?
2. Why do so many poor people use the most expensive (pay-as-you-go) way to heat their homes?
3. Can we give Angel Gurria (Secretary-General of OECD) a Nobel Prize for plain-speaking?
4. How can anyone avoid concluding that Ed Milliband is an opportunist and a con-man?
5. Why did the CEO of RWE nPower not admit profit margin on generation (as opposed to sales)?
6. Is the need for decarbonisation actually incompatible with power generation being privatised?
7. Why has carbon capture and storage not been made a priority in order to continue burning coal?
8. Is it realistic to think that (in a post-carbon era) energy will ever be cheaper than it is now?
9. When will the UK government admit that fracking is not actually low-carbon and (thus) not the answer?
10. Has Michael Fallon not read the BGS report that says only 10% of shale gas is probably recoverable?
UPDATE (23/12/2013): I think the answer to Q1 is “Burn” by Ellie Goulding (see comments below).
Although much delayed and interrupted by other stuff, this is now the third part of my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006. The first and second parts were published on this blog last month (i.e. here and here).
Once again, I will assume the reader is familiar with the concept of Gaia (as described in part one of my review and on Wikipedia). Also, as discussed in part two of my review, I will also assume the reader is aware of Lovelock’s subsequent attempts to repudiate his ‘alarmism’ (April 2010) and, even more astonishingly, disavow his faith in the objectivity of climate scientists (June 2012). However, in all of this, I hope readers will recognise that I am trying to be pragmatic and objective; as opposed to dogmatic and prejudiced.
Previously, I had got as far as Lovelock’s assertion (circa 2006) that humanity needs to get off its addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Therefore, I now continue by looking at the ways in which he suggests we might (or indeed might not) do that. However, it must be stressed that Lovelock accepts (or at least accepted) that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will not prevent excessive climate disruption unless we decide to leave most fossil fuels in the ground (or radically reduce the rate at which we are burning them).
Lovelock’s first non-fossil fuel option is hydrogen; and his first point is that, as with electricity, hydrogen has to be manufactured. In addition to pointing out that it can be manufactured from fossil fuels and in nuclear reactors, Lovelock explains how hydrogen can be produced from water by hydrolysis. However, the problems inherent in transportation and distribution of hydrogen (e.g. very low atomic mass and high explosive potential) and the low amount of energy return on energy input (EROEI) mean that this is unlikely ever to be commercially viable.
In contrast to this, hydrogen could be widely used in fuel cells (i.e. as used to generate electricity on the command module in the Apollo missions), although this is not without its own problems and dangers. Wikipedia has a good summary of methods of hydrogen production, from which the important takeaways appear to be that hydrogen is:
(1) mostly produced from hydrocarbons (steam reforming); and
(2) mostly used in oil refineries to derive lighter products from heavy ones (hydrocracking); or
(3) used in other chemical processes to produce other things (e.g. ammonia and methanol).
Both Lovelock and the above Wikipedia article refer to the potential of a hydrogen economy. Indeed, Lovelock refers specifically refers to the work of Geoffrey Ballard – who pioneered the concept of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. like rechargeable batteries), which would consume hydrogen in use (by driving an electric motor) and generate it when not in use (by being recharged).
Expressing his hope that this technology will become widespread, Lovelock moves on to explain why he hopes that renewable technology will not: In essence, his objections are based on:
(1) low EROEI (i.e. in manufacture of hardware with a low energy conversion efficiency); and
(2) low energy density (i.e. need for large areas of land to be given over to electricity production).
Lovelock suggests that the concept of sustainable development has been hijacked by those who promote renewable energy as a means of avoiding dealing with the impossibility of perpetual economic development on a finite planet with finite resources. This is a point on which I would agree – and have agreed (as published here by the Geological Society of London). However, even so, I find his complaints about the industrialisation of the countryside somewhat tiresome. The bottom line is this: anything that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels must be a good thing; as must be the use of any fossil fuels consumed in working towards that goal.
Lovelock does himself no credit whatsoever by suggesting that pursuit of wind power is short-sighted because climate change will alter planetary atmospheric circulation. Such an assertion is almost (but not quite) as stupid as suggesting that harnessing the Earth’s tidal energy is likely to slow the Earth’s speed of rotation (to any significant extent). Similarly, his suggesting that the UK would need 276 thousand wind turbines (each 100m high) to meet national demand for electricity is nothing more than a straw man argument (because no-one is suggesting that this can or should be the aim and it ignores the agreed need for overall consumption to be reduced).
Lovelock’s comments about tidal energy, pre-date the development and testing of numerous technologies (e.g. around the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland), but he does make the valid point that, as with CCS, it will take decades for any technology to become widely available and implemented. However, this does not change the fact that it would be almost insane for an island nation such as the UK not to pursue these technologies. The down-side to all this is that it will require additional power distribution infrastructure to be built. However, so will micro-generation (as opposed to centralised generation), unless everyone is to become self-sufficient and not feed-in unused power to the national network (the income from which is the main reason most people install the systems).
Lovelock then moves on to consider hydro-electric power (HEP). He makes the point that HEP is not without environmental cost (loss of farmland, enforced displacement of populations, and interference with fluvial deposition patterns including the benefits of regular flooding of farmland). However, he also seems to ignore the fact that HEP can be of considerable benefit to communities in areas where population density, competition for land and ecological carrying capacity are all low.
On the subject of biofuels, Lovelock merely re-states his objections to the diversion of agricultural land away from producing food (and takes another swipe at those who favour the inherently inefficient use of land for organic farming). It is on this subject that the intellectual incoherence of Lovelock’s position is most clearly displayed: being simultaneously pessimistic (about the prospects for so many people living on such a small planet) and optimistic (about the potential for technology to solve all our problems) – especially if we embrace GM crops.
However, given that he could not possibly have heard of it in 2006, Lovelock may be forgiven for not mentioning a new avenue for sustainable biofuel production that emerged in 2010 – namely GM algae that photosynthesise ethanol (instead of glucose). However, even this may now be eclipsed by the potential of the latest idea – higher mixed alcohol fuels. These can be produced form any solid, liquid or gaseous waste product and, therefore, could solve all our energy problems (but only if fossil fuel companies don’t buy up the patents to such ideas and then make them disappear).
Finally, in his long preamble to consideration of the future potential of civil nuclear power, Lovelock turns his attention to solar energy: Here, once again, his argument is primarily based on low EROEI and on the cost of manufacturing the hardware (not to mention all the other finite metallic resources required).
On this front, I must confess I have some sympathy: Harnessing the energy the Earth receives from the Sun (especially in mid-to low latitude countries where population densities are and probably will remain low) would seem like an obvious choice. However, pursuing solar power generation on a large scale simultaneously in a large number of countries would have a serious impact on the demand for – and cost of – copper (and other even rarer metals), which is already high as a consequence of the success of hand-held electronic devices such as mobile phones.
As for Lovelock’s justification for his pro-nuclear stance, that will be the subject of the next post in this series (although I am not promising when that will be).
As promised earlier this month, this is the second part of my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006. Having been told by many people I should read it, I have now done so (almost). It is a deeply challenging book – for people with or without religious beliefs; and for people with or without strong views regarding the environment.
In the first part of my book review (as per the above link), I said that I thought the concept of Gaia was convincingly argued and well explained. Indeed, I still consider that to be the case.
However, throughout my reading of the book I have been troubled by a little voice in my head repeatedly reminding me that Lovelock has since said he was wrong to be such an Alarmist (April 2010) and/or Fracking is the answer to our energy problems (June 2012).
This kind of inconsistency and intellectual incoherence also runs right through the book. However, to be fair to Lovelock, once you have been fooled into thinking burning carbon is not the problem you once thought it was, fracking is bound to seem like a dream come true. I will return to this issue later but, for now, let’s get back to the book.
Just as it deeply inconsistent to argue that humanity is on a self-destructive path and then argue that it may not be so bad as we thought – or that now we know we are in a hole we should just keep on digging it deeper – it is also inconsistent to argue:
–(1) that the primary problem is the post-Industrial increase in the global human population and then argue that the best solutions may be highly technological and require the consumption of vast resources; and
–(2) that modern agriculture has reduced biodiversity and then argue that Rachel Carson was wrong see modern agriculture as the problem in her seminal book, Silent Spring, and that DDT should not have been banned.
Sadly, Lovelock does both of these (and more).
However, to be fair to Lovelock once again, he has always been pro-nuclear and anti-wind; and – in this book – he explains both positions very clearly and convincingly. There is no intellectual incoherence or internal inconsistency here. There is, however, a great deal to challenge the conventional wisdom of environmentalists. Although I think Lovelock takes his opposition to wind farms just a little too far, I think he is absolutely right to challenge the anti-nuclear stance of most environmentalists. However, once again, I think Lovelock damages his case by being a little too enthusiastic – offering to heat his own house by having a nuclear waste repository in his own back garden. However, rather than be side-tracked into a debate about the safety of the civil nuclear power generation, let’s do as Lovelock does – and review all the options.
Lovelock prefaces all his remarks by pointing out how completely dependent modern civilisation is upon the constancy of supply of electricity. Given this, he then looks at all the energy sources we could use to generate this electricity, starting with fossil fuels:
Bizarrely, Lovelock begins by trying to falsify the argument that fossil fuels are a finite non-renewable source of energy. Sure, their energy is ultimately derived from the Sun, but, if we are using them up many times faster than they are formed, their potential future formation is irrelevant (as is the fact that the Sun is also a finite source of energy). However, before moving on to compare individual fossil fuels, Lovelock does make the valid point that there is nothing “unnatural” about using them; and then concludes by making the fundamental point that the rate at which they are now being burnt vastly overwhelms the planet’s natural capacity to recycle the CO2 produced by our doing so.
Lovelock then begins his comparative review of fossil fuels by pointing out the inefficiencies of burning any solid or liquid fuel to generate electricity; whilst also acknowledging that the petroleum industry can produce petrol, diesel and aviation fuel from natural gas. However, in a way that makes his most recent pronouncements about Fracking appear very strange, he then goes on to point out all the problems of reliance upon natural gas: These arise from the fact that it is very hard to prevent between 2 and 4 percent of methane escaping without being burnt. As lovelock explains, because methane is nearly 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas (GHG), the warming effect of the unburned methane is almost equivalent to that caused by burning the methane that does not escape. This is just one reason why relying on natural gas is not a good idea.
Along the way, Lovelock also alludes to the problems of scaling-up carbon capture and storage (CCS) to the point that it becomes effective (i.e. atmospheric CO2 concentrations will only begin to fall when sequestration is greater than emissions). He points out that, as with every other technological innovation in history, it will probably take humanity about 50 years to get to the stage where this is happening globally. In 2006, at least, Lovelock was adamant that time is a luxury humanity does not have; and that we must stop using fossil fuels (for generating heat and power) as soon as practicable (within a decade being suggested as a sensible target).
Although I have not completed Lovelock’s review of all our energy options, I think I will stop there. The rest of my book review will have to wait. However, I would just like to conclude by returning to the subject of Lovelock’s subsequent pronouncements (2010 and 2012). In light of the most recent statements by the IPCC, these would now appear to have been very foolish indeed: Gaia is not mocked; and as humanity sows, so it shall reap.
When he published The Revenge of Gaia in 2006, James Lovelock probably felt that he had finally been accepted back into the mainstream scientific community. If he was right to think so, then that is a major indictment of the scientific community.
In the book, Lovelock begins by trying to explain the complicated history of an idea – much misunderstood and maligned – that others named ‘the Gaia hypothesis’. It is a peculiar thing in science but, names that detractors devise in order to ridicule an idea often end up – when the idea later proves worthy – being adopted as the common name for it. The ‘Big Bang Theory’, the idea that the Universe had a definitive beginning some 13 billion years ago, being another case in point.
As such, the book is effectively a review of the history of environmental science. I say this as someone who is not quite old enough to remember watching – although I was deliberately made to watch – the live television coverage of Neil Armstrong being the first human to walk on the Moon. As I point out at the beginning of my own book, it is commonly accepted that the concept of ‘the Environment’ developed – just as Fred Hoyle had said it would – once humans had seen a photograph of the Earth taken from Space.
However, not long after the concept of the environment was born, Lovelock was challenging it: The concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’ – along with reductionist and mechanistic thinking in science as a whole – being something that Lovelock makes very clear he considers deeply unhelpful. In the book therefore, Lovelock begins by explaining what Gaia is; and what it is not.
As implied above, Gaia was not Lovelock’s name for his ‘hypothesis’ – it is just the name everyone else gave it. Furthermore, Lovelock uses the term hypothesis very reluctantly: Reading the book, it becomes quite clear that he does not see Gaia as a hypothesis or an idea; he sees it as an insight into the way Nature works. Therefore, despite using the word hypothesis, Lovelock defines Gaia as seeing the biosphere as… “an active, adaptive, control system” that has maintained the Earth as a place capable of supporting life for at least the last 3 billion years (i.e. page 29 in the paperback).
It is therefore tempting to see Lovelock’s insight as being of similar importance to science as that of Charles Darwin almost a century earlier. This would be ironic, however, as evolutionary biology was probably the biggest impediment to the Gaia hypothesis being accepted. This is because (as Lovelock also points out on p. 29) “…a self-regulating biosphere could never have evolved, since the organism was the unit of selection, not the biosphere.” Another possible reason that the Gaia hypothesis failed to catch on, one which is also ironic as it too was a problem that Darwin faced, is that Lovelock managed to upset both the British scientific community and Church leaders. This is because, far from seeing Gaia as evidence of Intelligent Design, the Church mainly saw the Gaia hypothesis as a piece of ‘New Age’ thinking masquerading as science. Indeed, it is entirely possible that disapproval of both groups was mutually-supportive; with both being strengthened in their prejudice towards the idea by the opposition of the other (i.e. both dismissing Gaia as ‘unscientific’).
However, although he may use labels like ‘hypothesis’ and metaphors like ‘the living Earth’, Lovelock warns his readers not to “…assume that I am thinking of the Earth as alive in a sentient way, or even alive as an animal or a bacterium.” (p.20)
So much, then, for what Gaia is not. What, however, is it? I think the best analogy that Lovelock produces is actually an anecdote from his own childhood: This is the account (on p.47) of an early visit to the Science Museum in London during which, for the first time, he saw a working model of a steam engine “complete with James Watts’ famous governor.” As Lovelock points out, Watts’ innovation was an early example of a control system using a negative feedback (i.e. a self-correcting rather than self-reinforcing mechanism) to govern the otherwise uncontrollable engine.
So, then, Lovelock’s insight was to see the biosphere as a self-regulating system, wherein changes that might otherwise make the planet uninhabitable for life tend to be eliminated in the same way that a gyroscope tends to self-stabilise. The latter being a consequence of the Law of conservation of angular momentum – the same thing that enables an ice dancer to change their speed of rotation just by moving their arms. The ice dancer may be intelligent but the gyroscope is not. Thus, there is nothing unscientific or hypothetical about the concept of Gaia.
However, The Revenge of Gaia is much more than the reminiscences of an old man whose idea took some time to be accepted. The Times newspaper described Lovelock’s book as, “Riveting… a stark warning to mankind” – and the BBC’s Andrew Marr described it as, “The most important decade for decades”. This is because it is; and buried within its pages is a very stark warning indeed…
‘Daisyworld’ is an early computer model that Lovelock created to prove that the biosphere could be self-regulating: This simplistic model biosphere contains only two types of flower; white daisies (that reflect heat) and black daisies (that absorb it). Running the Daisyworld model, Lovelock demonstrated that the changing populations of the two daisies had a similar effect to Watts’ governor on the steam engine; counteracting external factors that might otherwise alter the Earth’s temperature.
Nothing too scary in that, I agree. However, what makes the book almost impossible to put down, is the way in which Lovelock repeatedly emphasises two things: (1) that the Sun is now nearly 25% hotter than it was when life on Earth first emerged 3 billion years ago; and (2) that the biosphere is capable of supporting more life when colder than it is now. With regard to the latter, Lovelock points out that, with the exception of areas surrounding coral reefs, cold polar oceans support much greater biodiversity than warm tropical seas.
However, the really scary thing in the book is this: Lovelock and his colleagues did not stop with Daisyworld. In 1994, James Lovelock and Lee Kump produced a more sophisticated model in which the CO2 content of the atmosphere was gradually tripled from its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm over a 20 thousand year period. The results, subsequently supported by a variety of different and more complex models, suggest that our current biosphere is likely to collapse when atmospheric CO2 reaches 500 ppm and/or average atmospheric temperature rises above 20 Celsius (i.e. 3 Celsius above its pre-Industrial level) – because the surface layer of the oceans becomes too warm for oceanic algae producing cloud condensation nuclei (i.e. vital for the maintenance of the hydrological cycle).
At current rates of increasing CO2 emissions, the Earth will reach this state within the next 40 years. Furthermore, just phasing out the use of fossil fuels in the next couple of decades (something we seem reluctant to contemplate doing at present) will not be sufficient to prevent the 500 ppm target being reached later in this century. To do that, CO2 will have to be artificially removed from the atmosphere. It is time, I think, that we got serious about investing in carbon capture and storage.
In order to limit this blog post to a reasonable length, I have simplified a great deal and omitted an awful lot. Therefore, if you have never read The Revenge of Gaia, I would recommend that you do so (as I am doing). However, I reserve the right to return to this subject in the near future. In the interim, I would particularly welcome comments from anyone who has actually read the entire book.
Herewith appended below is an email I sent today to Professor Iain Stewart (and copied to all those named in it).
However, please note that I have just found the BBC TV programme to which it refers has now been posted on You Tube (also appended below).
Dear Professor Stewart,
I wanted to express my appreciation for the sensitive way in which you handled the issues in last night’s Horizon programme and for all the facts, figures and research findings it contained. I was particularly interested in the evidence that shale gas has escaped from poorly-constructed wells in the USA. Even if the UK can improve on the 6 to 7% failure rate in the USA, 100% success (i.e. no failures) is highly improbable. Therefore, if fracking must be pursued (for whatever reason), this would make it imperative that the British Geological Survey establish baseline monitoring for methane as soon as possible. Would it be possible to get a copy of the transcript of the programme (or a list of References)?
Given my geological background and my MA in Environmental Politics, I have written a great deal about Fracking and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) on my blog. However, having started out very much opposed to both Fracking and CCS, my position has evolved as a consequence of ‘exchanges of views’ I had last year with Professor Peter Styles (Keele) and with Professor Robert Mair (Cambridge/Royal Society). As a result of these exchanges – summarised or linked to here on my blog – I would agree with Peter that we probably need shale gas. However, I believe Peter also agrees with me that we probably cannot afford it*. I also understand that the remit of the Royal Society specifically excluded the long-term sustainability implications of pursuing fracking.
Nevertheless, this leaves me wondering whether you could encourage the BBC to do a second programme to address the consequences of humans burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because they are there; and/or the need for ‘Western’ per capita energy consumption to be drastically reduced? Having read David MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air, I think our biggest problem is that most people do not think holistically about the problems we face or, even worse, they seem to think concepts such as ‘ecological carrying capacity‘ are just [eco-Fascist] propaganda. However, although it would seem that CCS is now going to be essential in order to minimise anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), I think it is also the biggest obstacle to getting politicians to take decisive action to decarbonise our power generation systems.
Even if such a second Horizon programme is not likely, I remain very appreciative of all you have done – and are doing – to raise the profile of ACD as an Earth Science issue that should be of concern to all.
Kind regards, [etc]
* If fracking becomes the new energy boom, it is very hard to see how CCS will ever be able to be rolled-out on a global scale to keep pace with unabated CO2 emissions.
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.
I must credit recent subscriber xraymike79 with apparently coining this term, in his recent post, entitled ‘Mankind’s Infantilism and the Death of the Planet‘. However, before clicking, please note that this contains adult themes that some might find disturbing. For example, here is just a snippet:
This Earth is all we really have. Start caring for it and respecting it with the same reverence and homage we pay to our electronic toys of mass distraction, i.e. TV, iphones, video games, computers, etc.. Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
Now is probably not a good time to admit that I have been tempted back to Sky with a 75% reduction on my subscription for 9 months. However, the above chimes with an item written by John Hulburt, posted on Learning from Dogs yesterday, entitled ‘E Pluribus Unum’. For example, take this:
We know we’re in trouble when our legislatures have been purchased, when faith in our financial system has been willfully damaged, when political leaders engage in childish tantrums to get their way regardless of anything or anyone else, when awareness of moral reality has become meaningless and when we fail to appreciate the depths of a looming abyss. What do we gain by purposefully destabilizing our economy, reopening settled social issues and blatantly risking our inclusive future as a species for a mess of pottage? Who do we think we are?
Good questions, gentlemen. Who do we think we are; and when are our politicians going to stop lying to themselves and us? Here is a quote from James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren:
Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets they have nominally accepted. (p.184)
Hansen then goes on to at least six ways that governments are planning to fail (because they assume carbon capture and storage can be made to work fast enough to prevent catastrophe), by encouraging (1) construction of new coal-fired power plants; (2) construction of new plants to turn coal into oil; (3) development of tar sands (the dirtiest of all unconventional fossil fuels); (4) exploration for fossil fuels in wilderness areas; (5) hydraulic fracturing despite methane release; and (6) opencast coal mining everywhere. For more on this topic see: ‘Hansen says we should FART‘ (i.e. fundamentally alter resource trajectories).
It is little wonder, then, that Thomas L Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, said this:
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
Friedman’s ambivalence to hydraulic fracturing (elsewhere in his piece) may be deeply flawed but, sadly, I think his analysis of recent history and prediction of what Obama will now do are both probably right.
Therefore, it is also little wonder that James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend system is not being taken up: because it is not in the interests of big business to take it up. It is only in the interests of the Environment; and the Environment does not seem to matter. See Hansen’s recent ‘Fork in the Road’ [PDF].
The Earth is being sold to the highest bidder and most of its inhabitants are too busy distracting themselves to even notice. The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror…
I know I said it was irrelevant but… Our politicians seem to be in danger of gambling the future habitability of this planet on it (climate sensitivity) turning out to be low… Low enough, that is, for us “to have our cake and eat it” before they make carbon capture and storage a reality.
Over on the Skeptical Science website, Dana Nuccitelli has written a good summary of this issue.
(Please accept my apologies for all the mixed metaphors)
With my thanks to the Keep Britain Tidy campaign for inspiring this post.
I believe the time has long since past for us humans to admit that the scale of many of our activities now exceed the capacity of our environment to assimilate and recycle the wastes we produce.
Because it is not just plant food, these wastes include carbon dioxide.
As I have said many times before, a frontier mentality is no longer sustainable: Using a passing river as a source of water, a laundry, and a toilet is OK if you live in a sparsely populated wilderness but; when you live in an overcrowded slum it is likely to lead to premature death.
Many things that we humans now do have become a problem simply because of the scale at which we are now doing them; and that includes the doubling of the CO2 into our atmosphere (which we look likely to achieve within the next few decades).
Is this to be the White Man’s Folly?
Yesterday, in the UK’s Observer newspaper, Andrew Rawnsley highlighted an important delusion currently infecting a large proportion of – the senior partner in the UK’s coalition government – the Conservative Party.
In his article, entitled ‘The fracking dream which is putting Britain’s future at risk’, Rawnsley proposes the name “frack-heads” for people seduced by the idea that hydraulic fracturing will be “a remarkable bonanza of cheap energy” – because “[b]elievers in shale gas have a tendency to rave about it as if they are using a mind-bending substance“.
In recent months, I have posted a number of items about hydraulic fracturing on this blog; many of them prompted by what Grist blogger Dave Robert has written about it; and by the films of Josh Fox (i.e. Gasland and The Sky is Pink). Most recently, of course, Bill McKibben has reminded the World that we have five times more fossil fuels than it would be safe to burn and, burning all of them is therefore gambling the future habitability of this planet on making Carbon Capture and Storage work. I remain convinced that we should be making more effort to decarbonise our power generation systems as soon as possible.
But what of Rawnsley’s article; what has he got against fracking? Well, initially, it is not clear, because parts of his article read like some twisted April Fool’s Day joke; such as when he points out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has:
“…paved the way for drilling by trailing tax breaks to incentivise the exploration of shale gas and announced a new regulatory outfit, the Office for Unconventional (Shale) Gas, dubbed Ofshag…
So, Rawnsley correctly boils-down the enthusiasm of the frack-heads as being the pursuit of perpetuating the delusion of cheap energy; and a determination to insist that there is such a thing as a free lunch. However, sadly, on his way to explaining why he thinks fracking is risky, Rawnsley gets a bit confused: He rightly observes that climate change deniers “are prominent among the frack-heads” but then spoils it all by asserting that fracking “seems to offer something to greens because shale gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal.” However, in all of what remains of Rawnsley’s article, he never once even comes close to pointing out the inherent danger of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because we can.
So, as I said, what is it that Rawnsley thinks is risky? Well, just in case you can’t be bothered to read his article, he basically re-states the position of the UK government’s advisors – that it probably can be done safely. Despite this pragmatism, however, Rawnsley foresees a great deal of popular opposition to something that will, nevertheless, be far more intrinsically dangerous – and therefore unpopular – than wind turbines. Rawnsley then makes the point that UK geology is very different from that in the USA; which may make shale gas even harder to extract here than it has there. However, all this is just a pre-amble to Rawnsley’s penultimate paragraph, in which he almost pulls together a coherent and comprehensive argument (emphasis mine):
The risks of this “dash for gas” are multiple. It locks Britain into a continued reliance on an expensive, polluting fossil fuel. Money spent on gas diverts investment from renewables, which is especially bonkers when the green energy sector is one of the few parts of the British economy that is currently displaying good growth. It makes it less likely that we will meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions. Should shale gas truly turn out to be viable, there would be dividends. But if, which seems much more likely at the moment, the claims made for it prove to be false, then Britain is going to be even more exposed to future price shocks and blackmail by foreign suppliers. We are already hazardously dependent on imports from Russia and the Middle East. Much of our gas comes through the Straits of Hormuz from Qatari platforms just outside Iran’s territorial waters. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel terribly secure. Nor do I sleep easier at night when I think about Vladimir Putin’s finger hovering over our national light switch.
I therefore agree with Rawnsley that this is “fracking crazy” – I just think it is a shame he failed to mention Bill McKibben!