Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘renewable energy’ Category

A personal exchange of email with LEGO

with 3 comments

In my original email to LEGO (via the Greenpeace website), I tried to be as brief as I could. Sadly, all I got was a generic reply that did not address the issues I was raising. Here is the correspondence to-date (any further responses from Lego will be appended as comments by me):

—–Original Message—–
From: Martin Lack
Sent: 04 July 2014 19:48
To: Responsibility
Subject: Invest in the future not the past – stop sponsoring Shell

Dear LEGO,

Fossil fuels are a 19th century technology and a finite resource. A post-carbon era is inevitable, the only question that remains is whether 10 billion humans will be able to share in it.

I’m really disappointed to learn that you have agreed to help Shell clean up its image, while it helps to endanger the environmental biodiversity of the Arctic.

You claim that it is your ambition to protect children’s right to live in a healthy environment, both now and in the future. If that is true, please cut your ties with Shell now.

Yours faithfully,

Martin Lack

———————

On 17 July 2014 10:08, CustomerResponseTeam@LEGO.com <CustomerResponseTeam@lego.com> wrote:

Dear Martin Lack,

Thanks for getting in touch with us.

I’m sorry to hear you feel so strongly about our co-promotion with Shell. We really appreciate you taking the time to write and share your concern with us, and I’ve passed your thoughts and opinions to our promotions team.

We’re determined to help make the world that children will inherit a better place. Our unique contribution is to inspire and develop children through creative play. By entering a co-promotion like the one with Shell, we can put LEGO® bricks into the hands of even more children around the world. This allows more children to develop their imagination and creative skills through building and creating models with LEGO bricks.

The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in one specific part of the world. We expect that Shell lives up to their responsibilities wherever they operate and that they take appropriate action to any potential claims should this not be the case. We’re sad to see the LEGO brand used as a tool in any dispute. We believe this is a matter where Greenpeace and Shell must work out their differences between themselves.

For more information, you’re welcome to read our CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s comment on this Greenpeace campaign. There’s also more information about our responsibility agenda in this area of LEGO.com. More information on the environmental targets that we have set for ourselves can be found here.

Please let us know if you need anything else.

Kind regards,

Tanja
LEGO® Service

———————

Dear Tanja/LEGO,

Thank you for taking the time to personalise your response to me; and for explaining LEGO’s thinking in working with Shell. I understand and accept that, since Lego is itself a product of the petrochemical industry, such a “co-promotion” makes good business sense.   However, the Arctic is not just a “specific part of the world” in which Shell is operating. In order to preserve a habitable planet for future generations, the Arctic is somewhere that Shell should not be operating!  Even if it were good, therefore, this makes Shell’s operational safety record (etc) irrelevant.

The only reason it is now possible to operate in the Arctic is because the ice is melting; and most of the ice is melting because of the exponential growth of fossil fuel use since the Industrial Revolution.  Humans may well use fossil fuels to make all sorts of things (including Lego) but this does not make it right for us all to disregard the long-term consequences of continuing to pump geospheric carbon (i.e. that derived from fossil fuels) – in the form of CO2 – into the biosphere (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans).  In combination with deforestation and the exponential growth of livestock farming, global warming and ocean acidification were therefore an inevitable result of the exponential growth of the human population on this planet since the Industrial Revolution. However, now we know we are in a hole, is it not time we stopped digging? See my blog post regarding the Rio+20 Summit: ‘When in hole keep digging?’ (21 June 2012).

If LEGO truly wants to preserve a habitable environment and planet, it should place conditions upon its support for Shell.  Given that the vast majority of relevant scientists agree that there are now 5 times more fossil fuels left on this planet than it would ever be safe for us to burn – something the IEA, IMF, OECD and Pentagon all acknowledge – LEGO needs to encourage Shell to find alternative means to meet (or reduce) global demand for fossil fuels. As such, although “turkeys will never vote for Christmas”, the petrochemical industry needs to invest in finding non-fossil alternatives for its current products.  Such things definitely exist (e.g. biosythetic fuels and energy from waste products).  What is lacking is the corporate will or political incentive to pursue them.  Things that are worth doing are rarely the easy option.  Shell’s exploration in the Arctic is both the wrong option and the lazy option; one that is collectively endangering the future habitability of this planet.

Therefore, I hope I may look forward to LEGO placing conditions upon its future support for Shell, which needs to adopt a long-term business strategy that does not contradict the science and economics underlying the call for humans to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. For more information, please see this recent blog post: ‘Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change’ (2 May 2014).

Yours very sincerely,

Martin Lack

Written by Martin Lack

23 July 2014 at 12:00

The Arctic 30 are back – please help Shell say no to Gazprom

with one comment

Latest email from Greenpeace:

Hi,
Five months ago, they tried to silence us. They arrested our activists, and threw them in jail for peacefully protesting oil drilling in the Russian Arctic. The oil giants thought they could scare us away with intimidation. But as long as the Arctic is in danger, we’ll take action to protect it. We’re ready to do whatever it takes to prevent an oil spill in the home of the polar bears. This morning, 80 activists confronted a tanker carrying the same oil the Arctic 30 protested against to a refinery in Rotterdam. Seven of the original Arctic 30 joined them. 

Join the action, tell Shell and Gazprom that Arctic drilling is a losing battle.
As dawn broke, a dramatic chase unfolded with the Rainbow Warrior chasing the Russian tanker into Rotterdam harbor and the Esperanza speeding in to support the Warrior. As the tanker slowed down to turn, the more nimble Rainbow Warrior slipped in front and put itself between the tanker and the dock where it was to unload the oil. Dutch police then quickly stormed the Warrior taking control of the ship and arresting the crew. They are safe and are currently in contact with colleagues on the ground. This isn’t just any oil. It’s the first ever Arctic oil extracted from ice-covered waters by Shell’s partner, Gazprom. It comes from the Prirazlomnaya platform, where the Arctic 30 were violently arrested following a peaceful protest last year.No Arctic Oil
These aren’t just any activists. Despite spending two months in jail for their last protest, seven of the Arctic 30 are back, defiantly fighting for the Arctic. Their fellow brave activists witnessed their unjust detention, but refuse to be silenced.They know the Arctic is too valuable to lose. They aren’t alone. You, me, and over 5 million people are standing with them.

Plagued by our daring actions and relentless pressure, oil giants and investors are finally waking up to the risks of drilling in the frozen north. Just last month, Shell backed out of their Arctic drilling plans. If we keep up this momentum, we know we can win. 

As a citizen and consumer, you have the power to resist the destruction of the Arctic. We engage in peaceful civil disobedience because public confrontation is often the only way to get results from billion dollar companies.

But only you, and our millions of dedicated supporters, can amplify our voice.

Click to stand up against Gazprom, Shell, and all Arctic destroyers. 

Wherever they go, we’ll follow. For every plundered drop of Arctic oil, we’ll make sure the other oil giants pay the price of humiliation and infamy. However they try to destroy the Arctic, we’ll be there to stop them. Thank you for standing with us.

Ben Ayliffe
Arctic Campaigner

 

BBC Panorama on the Energy Crisis in the UK

with 13 comments

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).

James Lovelock stuck between a rock and a hard place

with 7 comments

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).

George Monbiot is as incisive as ever

with 9 comments

I admit it, even though I am (or would like to be) socially conservative, George Monbiot is one of my heroes. His long track record of illuminating the stupidity of climate change scepticism was one of the reasons I decided to pursue the subject in my MA research.

In his most recent offering on his blog (and in the Guardian on 20 August), George has brillianly highlighted the astounding double standards at the heart of current UK energy policy:

“The government is introducing a special veto for local people to prevent the construction of wind turbines… [Whereas the] government’s new planning guidance makes [Fracking] developments almost impossible to refuse… If local voters don’t like it, they can go to hell…

It has taken me 20 years and an MA in Environmental Politics to work out why I was so uncomfortable being involved in the extractive industries (i.e. mineral exploitation). George achieved this in little more than a few minutes:

Extracting resources, like war, is the real deal: what politicians seem to consider a proper, manly pursuit. Conserving energy or using gas from waste or sustaining fish stocks are treated as the concerns of sissies and hippies: even if, in hard economic terms, they make more sense.

UK looks likely to back the wrong horse

with 12 comments

Sad to say it but, having reached cross-party consensus and implemented the Climate Change Act in 2008, the UK has now:
— failed to honour the promise this contained;
— failed to listen to the advice of its own scientific experts;
— failed to dismantle the subsidies that support fossil-fuel production;
— failed to provide certainty for investors in renewable energy (at any scale); and
— failed to take a lead to encourage other countries also to work towards a sustainable future.

I therefore think John Ashton, a former Foreign Office climate expert, was right to conclude recently that no-one who has voted for this new Energy Bill can be considered to be taking the threat of anthropogenic climate disruption seriously.

Here is the latest email from Greenpeace UK summarising what happened in the UK’s Parliament yesterday:

The vote was this afternoon and was amazingly close. But we lost.

MPs have just rejected a clean power future – and I thought you’d want to be the first to know.

It’s been a tense few days as we waited for MPs to vote on a clean power target in the Energy Bill, and it’s not the outcome we all wanted.

But there is a silver lining.

Thousands of us told our MPs to back clean electricity, and as a result the rebellion against George Osborne’s dirty, costly dash for gas continued to grow steadily right up to the vote.

We lost by just 23 votes. That’s the third closest vote since the election. If just 12 more MPs had switched sides, we’d have won.

Osborne may have won this round, but the Energy Bill will now go to the House of Lords. There will be another vote, which gives us another chance to secure our clean energy future.

The battle for Britain’s energy future is far from over.

Over the next few days, we’ll be thinking about where to take the campaign next. But right now we’re recruiting for our core volunteer lobbyists – the people who go and challenge their MPs face-to-face, in their constituency offices.

We need as many of these volunteers as possible to make sure we get the political impact we need. You’ll be trained for free and given all the support you need to become an effective lobbyist – for the good guys.

Let’s use today’s news to make us stronger. Volunteer for the Greenpeace lobbying network now.

[Greenpeace UK]

P.S. In two days, 21 people will be sentenced for occupying one of George Osborne’s dirty gas power stations. Some of them are facing prison sentences. Please follow [i.e. 'Like'] the Facebook page of Greenpeace’s No Dash for Gas campaign for updates.

Nick Reeves says we’re all ‘Fracking Mad’

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The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!

I know this has been said many times.  Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE.  If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…

CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article.  Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”.  However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad.  Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system.  However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):

Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.

Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns.  Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it.  However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:

The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.

This is an important point well made.  However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake.  Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come…  And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:

What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?

Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise.  As Reeves puts it:

In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations?  It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)

The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable.  We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up.  Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem.  Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.

Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global.  However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:

 The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were.  But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.

Peak Oil – I think humanity is past it!

Ruin is the destiny to which all men rush

with 26 comments

As the Bishop of London said at the funeral service for the late Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven today, this is neither the time nor the place to argue about her legacy. Comments on this post are therefore disabled (until tomorrow at least). However, even putting aside politics, all those miners of coal who have have shown such crass disrespect for the late Margaret Thatcher need to bear in mind that mining coal is one of the most environmentally damaging things humans have ever done. Therefore, in seeking to make the UK less dependent upon coal, it could be argued that Mrs Thatcher’s greatest mistake was pursuing gas rather than renewable energy. This mistake, replicated the world over for several decades now, is a mistake for which we and our children and our children’s children shall pay a very heavy price.

“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it” — Orlando A. Battista.

Can technology save us?

with 33 comments

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’.

Irreversible but not yet unstoppable

with 6 comments

irreversible not unstoppableWith regard to ongoing climate change, this is currently an important distinction.

However, as highlighted by Joe Romm on the Think Progress website on 17 March 2013, it is not one that will always be true. With the author’s kind permission, this article, entitled ‘The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible’, is reproduced in full below.

If you have not already read it, I would very much recommend that you do so. However, by way of a summary, here are the key points as I see them:

1. The burning of fossil fuels is causing change that will not be reversible in any timescale meaningful to humans: Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say this will be at least 1000 years, the Geological Society of London (GSL) has warned it could take at least 100 times longer than that to undo the damage we are now doing. That being the case, the longer we fail to address this issue the greater the likelihood that the GSL estimate will be correct.
2. Warming will only ever stop if total CO2 emissions are less than the rate of CO2 removal; and one is already twice the other. Any change (current and future) could only be reversed if the CO2 content of the atmosphere were to be reduced (i.e. if removal exceeds emissions). Artificial carbon capture and storage (CCS) is almost certainly impossible to achieve safely, at scale, and within the timescale required (to prevent unstoppable change). That being the case, change is effectively irreversible; and we must stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
3. Wait and see is no longer a survivable option; we need to decarbonise our power generation systems as fast as possible. Burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels without CCS is very likely to cause unstoppable climate change (i.e. what is called a “runaway greenhouse effect” resulting from feedback mechanisms now observed to be mutually-reinforcing the change human activity has already caused).

Here, then, is Joe’s article in full:

———————

The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”

The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.

We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.

This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.

First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).

Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going very slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!

Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.

The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”

It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:

Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.

McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?

Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.

For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions.Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.

It’s also worth reading RealClimate’s piece “Climate change commitments,” based on a Nature Geoscience letter by Mathews and Weaver (sub. reqd.), which has this figure:

Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.

Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.

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With my thanks once again to Joe Romm, for permission to republish the above, all that remains for me now is to wish you all a pleasant [Passover/Easter/Spring Equinox] festival of renewal!

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