Lack of Environment

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

Archive for the ‘carbon capture and storage’ Category

Open Letter to David Cameron

with 7 comments

29 March 2016

The Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP
The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London
SW1A 2AA

Dear Prime Minister,

Whatever happened to the greenest government ever?

Given my experience of working in environmental consultancy or regulation, I understand the importance of making pragmatic, risk-based decisions (as opposed to dogmatic, opinion-based ones).  I therefore believe that government policy should be formulated this way.  Unfortunately, however, this does not always seem to be the case.

As a pragmatic scientist, I am not ideologically opposed to nuclear power.  However, I do question the logic of pursuing ‘Hinkley Point C’ when equivalent investment in distributed renewable technologies – from domestic solar PV to submarine tidal stream – could probably generate more electricity faster.  Indeed, as Greenpeace has recently pointed out, the UK could meet nearly all its electricity generation needs from renewable energy sources by 2030.[1]

With regard to risk, the scientific consensus is that, in order to minimise anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), the World must now embark upon the fastest-possible transition to a zero carbon economy.  Therefore, I also question the logic of simultaneously promoting investment in shale gas; discouraging investment in renewables; and cancelling investment in Carbon Capture and Storage research.

It is now over 50 years since scientists started warning of the climatic implications of continuing to burn fossil fuels;[2] and 50 years since fossil fuel company executives started spending huge sums of money on being “Merchants of Doubt”.[3]  As such, along with their counterparts in the tobacco industry, they have clearly not acted in the long-term interest of humanity as a whole.

However, as with the individual health benefit of ceasing to smoke tobacco, the sooner we stop burning fossil fuels the greater the collective environmental benefit will be. Therefore, I am pragmatically opposed to shale gas exploration because burning it is not consistent with the need to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible.

I am certain that you would like to secure an enduring political legacy; and would therefore like to ask just one question:

What could be better than being remembered as the Prime Minister that committed the UK to meeting nearly all its electricity generation needs from renewable energy sources by 2030?

Yours sincerely,

Martin C. Lack

————
[1] See: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/uk-can-be-almost-entirely-powered-renewable-energy-2030-new-study-shows-20150921.

[2] Nuccitelli, D. (2015), ‘Scientists warned the US president about global warming 50 years ago today’, Guardian newspaper, 5 November 2015: London.

[3] Oreskes, N. & Conway E. (2010), Merchants of Doubt,  New York: Bloomsbury. See: http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/

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).

Only a fool says, “There is no Gaia!”

with 6 comments

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.

Written by Martin Lack

30 September 2013 at 00:02

From Daisyworld to Crazy World – please do not blame Gaia

with 12 comments

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.

Written by Martin Lack

9 September 2013 at 01:01

My final word on Fracking?

with 30 comments

Professor Iain Stewart presenting one of his many excellent TV programmes (this one about the north-west of Scotland).

(Probably not!)

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.

———

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’.

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