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    • CommentTimeJan 26th 2009 edited
    So, I wanted to start up a thread on climate change. I'd prefer that it wasn't about a debate on how anthropological the process is (mostly because I credit Whitechapliers with more sense than that, but in equal measure because that conversation is intensely boring. See the comments to any George Monbiot article on the Guardian's website for proof), but rather a clearing house for

    • new developments in alternative tech or clean energy (I know Kosmopolit is all over this one)
    • discussion on mitigation, adaptation in affected areas of our planet
    • information on political wranglings, with particular reference to the Copenhagen COP a.k.a. the one where Obama saves the planet (because Poznan was the one where everybody was waiting for Obama)
    • personal, national or international perspectives on climate change

    Where I'm coming from? I work for the campaigning arm of an international development NGO. We have recently changed emphasis dramatically to campaign 70% on climate change and 30% on health and education - which may seem surprising to many, given the traditional area of expertise this charity is associated with. But our campaign work is informed by our research, and our research is informed by our programme work. And as we work in so many countries, so many regions worldwide, we're coming up against the effects of an increasingly unpredictable climate more and more. It's wiping out hard work we have done and setting back projects we are working on now. There gets to be a point where the hard work being done and the money being spent by programme staff is giving diminishing returns because of drought, flooding, crop failure -- caused by climate change.

    So, from my point of view, with what I know from my job, I see climate change in terms of poverty and suffering. Of course I see the same pictures of polar bears standing on ice cubes that you do, but the angle I see this from (and the angle I don't think our public campaigning is really getting across well, truth be told) is that climate change is not an abstract future environmental problem, but that it is affecting humans now, and it is hitting the poorest first and worst.

    So. What do you think?

    Is President Obama going to switch the US on to renewable energy? Can geo-engineering work? Has climate change affected your country? What will a low-carbon future look like? Is there any political will to change to one? What does a warming planet mean to you?
    • CommentTimeJan 26th 2009
    I'm hoping to see some action around methanol as an alternative fuel. Specifically, I would like to see the auto industry mandated to produce flexible-fuel vehicles. A push for a methanol-based FFV economy based on non-food agricultural products (i.e.: not corn) would be able to accomplish a lot more in the short term than anything else I've been able to think of.

    I found a couple of interesting articles about it in the /New Atlantis/. If you set aside the political rhetoric the author brings about energy independence, there's some pretty good science.

    The New Atlantis » The Methanol Alternative

    Integrating methanol into our energy system would have numerous benefits in the not-so-distant future. As the authors point out, it would make the transportation of liquid natural gas much safer by converting it to less-hazardous liquid methanol before shipping it. Methanol could also be used to produce plastics, synthetic fabrics, and many other non-fuel products currently made from petroleum.

    Importantly, methanol can also be produced (in conjunction with an auxiliary electricity source, like nuclear power) by chemically recycling carbon dioxide, which can be found naturally in the air or readily captured from atmosphere-polluting industrial emissions. The methanol produced can, in turn, be used to produce synthetic hydrocarbons and other products now obtained from fossil fuels. If successfully tapped, methanol “has the ability to liberate mankind from its dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and hydrocarbon products,” while reducing the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

    Consider ethanol as a comparison. The commercial competitiveness of ethanol is somewhat confused by the complex influences of a variety of subsidies and tariffs. By contrast, methanol is currently selling—without any subsidy—for about $0.80/gallon. Given that methanol’s energy content is about half that of gasoline, that price is the equivalent, in energy terms, of gasoline for $1.60/gallon. In other words, we can produce a useful and economically viable vehicle fuel, using a huge domestic and Western hemispheric resource base, at prices lower than gasoline.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeJan 26th 2009
    Personally I'm keen on biochar but it's too soon to assume it'll work as advertised.

    Lovelock is keen on the idea but he's been approaching "emeritus status" for a few years now.

    The short version: you heat vegetable matter, pretty much any vegetable matter, in a vaccuum. You end up with a fine black solid which is mostly carbon and a gas which can be turned into liquid fuel or burnt. The neat bit is you can use some of the syngas to heat the feedstock and still have some left over. The biochar - the carbon-rich solid - can be added to soil and makes it more productive. People in the Amazon did this for thousands of years and we know the biochar will stay in the soil and that the soil will remain fertile even at very high levels.

    Because the carbon comes from the atmosphre in the first palce, you can burn the syngas and all up you're actually reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere.
    • CommentTimeJan 26th 2009 edited
    @Kosmopolit -

    That's some really interesting stuff - bookmarked. And I think the two are complimentary as well, if you posit using methanol as a gas/oil substitute with biochar as a coal/fertilizer substitute. In both cases we need to cultivate a hell of a lot of biomass.
  1.  (4859.5)
    I recommend reading my mate Merrick aka Bristling Badger, who's been on protest and other green actions since Newbury. He writes often on the politics and science used to justify (mostly UK) government actions (such as plane use, coal-based generators etc).

    Personal experience - been using solar powered hot water from Smart Energy UK here in Bristol for the last 3 years. Mostly good - we estimate about 1/3 of our hot water comes from the solar. Had a shitload of repairs needed to the kit last year, but eventually fixed (and made the £100 annual repair cover worth it). Will move to solar electric once the tech gets more efficient, guessing 2-4 years.

    Have you all read Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capitol trilogy? Hard SF about what we can do to counter climate change in the near future and how hard the politics would be. Tends to big-science solutions, but much good stuff in there.
    • CommentAuthorStefanJ
    • CommentTimeJan 26th 2009
    Well, this sucks:

    Expect 1,000 year climate impact
    WASHINGTON - Even if the world can cap carbon dioxide emissions tied to global warming, expect to see droughts and sea level rise that span centuries, not just decades, according to a new study sponsored by the U.S. government.

    "People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that's not true," lead author Susan Solomon told reporters.

    Instead, the team concluded, warming tied to higher CO2 "is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop."

    * * *
    I contributed great gobs of ideas to the Viridian Green project. Right now, not so much. Living in an apartment, you can't much around with much in the way of green household tech.

    One thing I SHOULD do is get a bicycle. I think I could handle a bicycle commute, although the dog would have to learn to hold her bladder for an extra half-hour. And I'd lose my 15 minute nap just before work.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeJan 26th 2009
    "What will a low-carbon future look like? "

    I think the key word there is "low".

    As opposed to "no".

    If we reduce GHG emissions by 80-90%, tghat means we can continue emitting 10-20% as much carbon dioxide indefinitely or until the fossil fuels run out.

    The major sources of GHG emissions:

    Stationary energy
    Land-use change (polite euphemism for deforestation)
    Cement production

    The easiest of these to fix should be land use change. The money going to tropical countries for letting their forests be destroyed is actually pretty trivial in a global sense. There's a pretty obvious deal possible where the tropic countries agree to protect their remaining rainforests in exchange for additional aid including, in particular, access to green technology. "We'll build you a wind farm if you stop illegal logging."

    Transport is more difficult but we now have the technology coming to market that could solve the problem within the next 20-30 years. That's battery-electric vehicles; plug-in hybrids and biofuels.

    Stationary energy is essentially a matter of cost - coal-fired electricity remains the cheapest option. There's a lot we can do to increase the efficiency of coal - the best new plants put out 50% more power per unit of coal as the least efficient old units. Using coal efficiently and getting rid of the oldest and least-efficient coal-powered generators is going to be key. Coal produces around 50% of world electricity. If we use it as efficiently as possible it could continue to produce 10-20% of world power indefinitely.

    Steel-making and cement making are the ones no-one likes to talk about. Steel-making uses a lot of coal and there are very few alternatives even on the horizon. Cement production currently involves turning calcium carbonate into calcium oxide and discharging the carbon dioxide driven off by that into the atmosphere. That's on top of the fuel used in the process.

    We really need good solutions for the steel and cement industries - and if we can fidn them that means we can continue to use even more coal in power production.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeJan 29th 2009
    We need a lot more of this.

    It's a hybrid solar/gas system. during the day, superheated air is used to run a turbine. At night, the same turbine is run using gas - biogas in this case but you could also use natural gas.

    Gets around the intermittency problem and makes the whole system more economically attractive because your investment isn't sitting there doing nothing overnight.
  2.  (4859.9)
    I haven't seen a better alternative to the transport issue than hydrogen cars. Using the most plentiful element in the universe, they produce electricity on exposure to oxygen, with the only emission being water. Already set up to some degree in California as far as I'm aware.
    • CommentAuthoroga
    • CommentTimeJan 30th 2009
    I'm with the view that it's all about solar rain. The ramping up activity of the sun as we move into a more "dense" area of the milky way is bombarding our planet and causing our magnetic core to spin up and heat up, which causes climate change. This is a cyclic process.

    This guy, Mitch Battros, has an equation that has been recognised by bods at NASA and others:

    Sunspots => Solar Flares => Magnetic Field Shift => Shifting Ocean and Jet Stream Currents => Extreme Weather and Human Disruption

    I've been following his posts with interest for a few years.

    These two links seem to back it up too: Mars Melt and Causes
  3.  (4859.11)
    I handed in 20-30,000 dissertation for law honours yesterday. On climate changing, Kyoto, and domestic emissions trading.

    The New Zealand government, late last year, created a special select committee to review our ETS and, basically, the science for climate change. This is why I was homicidal on election night.

    Good to see so much more sense here. Will be following this thread with interest.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeJan 30th 2009
    Brad, the hydrogen cars in California cost over a million dollars each and are leased out by Honda as a PR exercise. No-one currently has the technology to build a fuel cell small enough and light enough to fit in a car without using an excessive amount of Platinum. There's also still no technology for the safe storage and distribution of hydrogen at a reasonable cost in the volumes required.

    Oh and 99% of current Hydrogen involves using natural gas and emitting the carbon dioxide byproduct into the atmosphere.

    Ten years ago I was real keen on fuel cell cars but electrics (including hybrids and plug-in hybrids) have really leap-frogged ahead of them.
    • CommentTimeJan 31st 2009
    I agree with Kosmopolit. Hydrogen looks wonderful, but transport is the main problem. Where it might be useful is as a storage mechanism -- we all know the big problem with wind and solar is that the wind don't always blow and the sun don't always shine. When baseload is low and generation is occurring, plug either of those into an electric water splitting machine and capture the hydrogen for conventional combustion when baseload is higher or generation is lower. Efficiency over the electricity-H-electricity cycle is an issue but if the alternative is the waste of that capacity it may be worthwhile.
    • CommentTimeJan 31st 2009
    This is what looks so good to me about methanol - minimal effort to convert vehicles to FFV's, and you use the existing infrastructure. It seems kind of counterproductive and a bit of a distracting spectacle to focus on electric and hydrogen, when the methanol solutions seems so much easier and more practical.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeJan 31st 2009
    In the next five to ten years, we'll have the technology to produce long chain alcohols from ethanol or bio-engineer plants to produce them directly.

    Those can be used directly in unmodified petrol engines and have the same energy content as petrol - unlike ethanol.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeJan 31st 2009 edited
    Power storage is one of the key issues.

    There are lot of technologies being developed for this - this is one of the more interesting ones:

    During times of energy surplus, sea water would be pumped out of the reservoir into the surrounding North Sea, until it was completely empty. Letting the sea flood back in via turbines emplaced in the dykes could generate 2 gigawatts or more for up to 15 hours at a stretch. In other words, the "Energy Island" could store about 30 gigawatt-hours.


    My main reaction is to wonder if you could use this as a form of tidal power - let the water flow in as the tide rises; then release it as the tide falls.
    • CommentTimeFeb 1st 2009
    Like you, I'm instinctively in favour of biofuels because they use existing infrastructure and transport tech (there's a big installed user base for the internal combustion engine ...). However, I am extremely sceptical of first gen. biofuels such as ethanol, palm oil derivatives and jatropha. Their carbon equivalent output across lifespan is a considerable percentage of that of traditional fossil fuels, due to the intensive methods of growth and the cracking processes used in their mass production.

    Not only are they questionable on carbon grounds, but the World Bank last year thought up to 75% of the recent catastrophic food price increases was caused by diversion of staple foods for biofuel. The effects of the food crisis tipped many of the world's poorest back into food poverty, caused riots and nearly ended several governments. This is Not a Good Thing.

    Even President Obama thinks biofuel is more of an energy security issue than a climate one. I would cheer future generation biofuels that do not interrupt food supply and are genuinely carbon neutral. I would applaud them. But until I see otherwise, I'll continue to think that current biofuel policy is more about continuing to shovel subsidies to midWest and EU agribusiness than a solution to climate change.
  4.  (4859.18)
    "...the World Bank last year thought up to 75% of the recent catastrophic food price increases was caused by diversion of staple foods for biofuel"

    I'm not in a position to check at the moment but from memory one person at the World Bank in a report clearly marked as their private opinion suggested that. Other equally authoritative experts thought differently.

    We can also now employ a simple test - are the biofuel subsidies still in place? Have food prices remained high?
    • CommentTimeFeb 1st 2009
    You're right. That's not a particularly reliable statistic. I apologise. Try these:

    * The IMF thought that half of 2007's increase in demand for foodstuffs was due to biofuels;
    * The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation thought that biofuels accounted for 10% of food price rises;
    * The International Food Policy Research Institute thought that the figure was 30%.

    References available on request :)

    Here's the World Bank reference: Here it says that 70-75% of food price increases 2002-2008 were due to biofuels. This report states that it's difficult to quantify the exact causes of price increase, but that biofuels have contributed substantially, that subsidies and mandates have contributed to the use of biofuels, and that biofuel crop cultivation has contributed to decreased cultivation of other food crops.

    This is a major black mark against first generation biofuels as far as I'm concerned. Like I said, future iterations may eliminate the land use/food price problems and make the fuel carbon neutral. In that case I would be all for them. It would avoid a lot of problems if we could keep our cars and planes as they are. But even were we to ignore this generation's detrimental effect on world food supply, they're not even carbon neutral, and as such it's not accurate to see them as a solution to climate change.
    • CommentTimeFeb 1st 2009