Thursday, September 28, 2006

Biofuels the answer? Stay tuned...

Biofuels have gotten a lot of press as the answer to both global warming and to our dependence on foreign oil. In a well-written and -researched piece in New Scientist magazine, Fred Pearce warns us that the silver clouds of corn-based and sugar-based biofuels both have dark linings. Right idea, but we aren’t there yet.

Bioethanol is made from processing either starchy plants (like corn) or sugar-rich plants (like sugar cane). With corn, you first have to pre-process it to turn the starches into sugar, then the corn sugar or cane sugar is fermented and distilled to produce ethanol. Using biofuels instead of fossil fuels greatly reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases from an automobile. Good so far.

Trouble is, it takes a fair amount of fossil fuel to produce the corn-based ethanol due to that pre-processing step, not to mention the fertilizers and tractor fuel used in growing the corn in the first place. Study results vary depending on their assumptions, but the upshot is that if you look at the entire process, it’s not clear that corn-based ethanol is much of a leap forward, environmentally speaking. Then there’s the fact that it takes a lot of land to grow the corn: it’s estimated that if the U.S. turned its ENTIRE corn crop into ethanol, we’d meet about 10% of our fuel demand. And a lot of people around the world would go hungrier. There are already signs of a shortage of corn and a spike in prices worldwide as a result of the so-far modest demand for corn-based ethanol.

Sugar-based ethanol has its own problems. Although the ratio of greenhouse gases saved vs. used in the production is much higher, it also requires a lot of land and the fear is that tropical developing countries will clear-cut more forests to get that land, which will make global warming worse. Sugar growing is also very water-intensive, and fresh water is another non-renewable resource that’s getting scarce in many areas of the world. Finally, as word that sugar-based ethanol is more environmentally friendly spread and the biofuel industry jumped on the bandwagon, world sugar prices doubled, which is not good for a lot of world’s population.

All this means is that biofuels aren’t a biopanacea (yet) for replacing fossil fuels in our automobiles. As Fred Pearce points out, though, the industry is still in its infancy, and even the U.S. Department of Energy is funding research looking at alternative organic fuel sources that don’t have the downsides that corn and sugar do. The most promising alternative is fuel made from cellulose, the raw material that all plants are made of. One attractive possibility that’s been in the news lately is switchgrass. It can yield twice as much ethanol per acre as corn, and we can develop hybrids that grow on otherwise unused land with relatively low maintenance. What we need is an efficient process for converting the cellulose to ethanol. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Clinton Global Initiative

The big news from the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative was Richard Branson’s commitment to donate ALL profits for the next 10 years from his various companies (Virgin Airways et al.) to the development of clean energy sources. That is projected to be about $3 billion or so. As Bill Clinton said, “That’s serious money.” (Read the NYTimes article)

Overshadowed was the announcement by Clinton that he and several other conference attendees are setting up an investment fund (The Green Fund) which will raise $1 billion for the development of renewable energy sources. Add it up, and these two private efforts will outspend the U.S. Government’s Department of Transportation on clean energy research.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) brings together an impressive array of global political and business leaders for the purpose of addressing some of the world’s pressing problems, including energy and climate change. Besides generating practical ideas for initiating change, attendees are required to make financial or other commitments to help implement those ideas. There’s definitely an atmosphere of competitive philanthropy about the sessions, with major commitments announced and commitment documents signed with much fanfare.

Whatever works, I say, and good for all of them. Besides the $4 billion plus raised to combat global warming, another $3 billion or so was raised to help in the battles against poverty, disease and religious/ethnic conflict.

I happened upon CGI’s web site just in time to listen to Bill Clinton’s closing address. First, I really miss having a president who can talk intelligently off-the-cuff about important issues in plain English. Second, it was pretty uplifting to see major business leaders marching up to the dais to make commitments in the fight against global warming. Most commitments, unlike the well-reported Branson donation, were practical programs of action.

One example: WalMart committed to substantially reducing the amount of packaging used in the products it sells. Such reductions contribute to the fight against global warming by (a) reducing the number of trees cut down to produce the paper parts, (b) reducing fossil fuels used to make the plastics specifically and the energy used to make the packaging generally, (c) reducing the fuel used to transport goods by reducing their size, and (d) reducing the waste processing afterwards. As one step, they will begin a program of rewarding suppliers for minimizing packaging. If their program is successful, they estimate that, by 2013, they will have avoided over 600,000 metrics tons of CO2 emissions and taken over 200,000 plus trucks off the highways per year.

In another, the Green Building Council announced a joint venture with Newland Communitiesto launch a $250,000 program to education consumers about the virtues and value of building green.

But beyond the occasional monster effort were hundreds of smaller ones that definitely add up, many in subtle but long-lasting ways. In encouraging potential contributors to realize that even small scale efforts can have a big impact, Clinton related how he and George Bush Sr. caused a couple of schools in New Orleans to be rebuilt (post-Katrina) using green-building standards. Those kids will be learning about environmental stewardship every single day, said Clinton, “and they’ll take that with them wherever they go.”

Friday, September 22, 2006

Are you kidding me?

Here’s a good one. The Cato Institute published a “policy analysis” entitled: “Is the sky really falling? A Review of Recent Global Warming Scare Stories” written by Patrick J. Michaels, who has some impressive-looking climatology/ecology credentials. This “study” is not only featured on the Cato Institute’s web site, but also on the George C. Marshall Institute’s web site. (See a previous post – the top British science academy has written ExxonMobil to stop funding the GCMI because it disseminates misleading information about climate change).

Michaels’ thesis is that, for political and press-bias reasons, only the bad news about climate change gets published. His “proof” of this claim? I have to quote it in full, just so you know I’m not making this up (if you want to read the whole thing, click here .)

“It is highly improbable, in a statistical sense, that new information added to any existing forecast is almost always ‘bad’ or ‘good’; rather, each new finding has an equal probability of making a forecast worse or better. Consequently, the preponderance of bad news almost certainly means that something is missing, both in the process of science itself and in the reporting of science.”

I try to be open-minded, but that’s about the lamest thing I’ve ever seen a supposedly reputable scientist say. In print, no less. Memo to Michaels – not all slices of data are random.

Follow me on this one. Suppose your neighbor comes to you and says that he has been measuring the temperature outside his front door since June 1st. It’s now June 30th, and he says that there is a definite warming trend, because every week was warmer than the week before.

Using Mr. Michaels’ logic, however, we’d have to assume that your neighbor is withholding data, since the “odds are” that half the weeks should be colder.
There’s another explanation, of course, namely that we’re heading from spring into summer. During this time, temperature fluctuations aren’t random (half warmer, half colder).

The reason, Mr. Michaels, that almost all the studies report “more bad news on global warming” is not because scientists are suppressing half the data. It’s because global warming is actually happening.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Choosing enemies over friends

Brazil has been working toward energy independence since the big world oil crisis of 1973. They may achieve it this year. How? They’ve systematically invested in ethanol made from homegrown sugar. It was a long, expensive process, but today ethanol accounts for at least 20% of its transportation fuel use, while the rest of the world limps along at 1%. Good for their energy independence, great for global warming (besides the reduced emissions, you can’t grow sugar in the Amazon rain forest).

The Brazilians have gotten so good at this that they have ethanol left over for export. The U.S. has a rapidly growing demand for ethanol, and a (finally) official mission to wean ourselves off imported oil. You’d think, says Thomas Friedman in a column entitled “Dumb as we wanna be” (published yesterday in the New York Times), that importing Brazilian ethanol would be a no-brainer.

Not only would it be cheaper, but their sugar-based ethanol also:
  1. has lower greenhouse gas emissions than our corn-based variety;
  2. uses much, much less fossil fuel to produce (sugar ethanol creates 8 times as much energy as the fossil fuels it takes to make it, while corn-based ethanol only produces 1.3 times as much); and
  3. can be produced in poor, tropical countries so that its purchase could help alleviate poverty in that part of the world, a fair amount of which is in our own back yard.

Instead, he continues, the Midwest farmers and agribusinesses who produce U.S. ethanol have convinced Congress to levy a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. So we’re taxing imported fuel that, if we purchased it, would help out an ally and neighbor. On the other hand, we don’t tax imported crude oil that, when we purchase it, definitely helps out a few rich enemies. As Friedman asks, “Is this stupid, or really stupid?”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Climate change misinformation

One of the biggest challenges facing those trying to get the public to understand the severity of the global warming problem is that there is so much bad information out there masquerading as science, and so little good science being presented to the public at large in an accessible way. The trouble is that as a rule scientists mostly just talk to themselves, and in a language that most of us can’t understand. This is a rule that has to be broken, otherwise they’ll continue to have the same kind of problems they’ve had trying to explain why the “theory” of evolution is something you can take to the bank, despite the fact that it’s a “theory.” You know, like the theory of gravity.

Sometimes its relatively easy to weed out the bad information just by using the common sense “duck test” (if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck….). Articles that contain good information, for example, are usually full of references to peer-reviewed scientific journals. These are journals where a scientist can’t get something published until a panel of “peers” reviews it for methodology and reasonableness. Articles no with science or bad science rarely have references, and when they do, the references are to articles in non-scientific publications, to interviews with individual scientists (no peer review there!), or to “studies” by “institutes” that, it turns out, get all their funding from companies or organizations with an ax to grind. One piece I saw that was trying to debunk the science of climate change, a piece that unfortunately got a lot of air time, was full of footnotes – pretty impressive-looking until you got to the footnote list at the end and realized that the main source for the “science” was an “opinion piece” on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

The most insidious misinformation, I think, comes from those studies from supposed think-tanks, “institutes” with impressive sounding names like “The George C. Marshall Institute” and “The Competitive Enterprise Institute” for example. These institutes are experts at dressing up their misinformation to sound like the real thing. Taking their cue from the Republican party (no coincidence there!), they have been attempting win the argument by controlling the language of the debate.

Okay, back to the need for scientist’s to fight smoke with fire. Just recently, the Royal Society, Britain’s top scientific academy, wrote a public letter (click to read it) to ExxonMobil taking the company to task for publishing misleading scientific information, specifically naming a piece in ExxonMobil’s “Corporate Citizenship Report” that claims that there are no objective studies showing that global warming is caused by human actions. After pointing out the huge number of such objective studies that have, in fact, been published, including one co-authored by one of ExxonMobil’s own scientists, the letter says: “It is very difficult to reconcile the misrepresentations of climate change science in these documents with ExxonMobil’s claim to be an industry leader.” The letter also points out that, in addition to its own misrepresentations, the company has given $2.9 million to fund 39 different groups that routinely misrepresent the science of climate change to the public, and asks the company to stop funding such groups. [In fairness, ExxonMobil also gave money to 24 organizations who do present the climate change situation accurately.]

I applaud the Royal Society’s willingness to send (and make public) this letter, and I hope scientific organizations the world over with take heed and start to get publicly involved. Of course, it helps that the British government doesn’t have its head in the sand about global warming, unlike another large, English-speaking country I could name…..

Friday, September 15, 2006

Global Warming and the Supremes

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear its first global warming case this session. Back in 2003, the great state of Massachusetts sued the Environmental Protection Agency for deciding not to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by America’s cars and trucks. Now, Massachusetts has been joined by a consortium of nearly 75 cities, states and environmentally-concerned organizations in petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the EPA’s decision, based on the fact that the EPA has a pretty broad mandate to regulate emissions that can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

The EPA is defending its decision not to regulate (and has won so far through the lower courts) with arguments based on mostly on law and some on “merit.” It’s saying, basically, that it doesn’t have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and even if it did, it wouldn’t because the science is too fuzzy.

Here’s the gist of their argument, which I present as an example of the Bush administration’s recurring strategy for stonewalling in pursuit of corporate appeasement.
  1. First, they say the petitioners, all 75 of them, are not legally entitled to bring suit against the agency because they can’t show they’ve been harmed by the EPA’s decision not to regulate, and even if they were, they can’t show that a reversal of the EPA’s decision would remedy the problem.
  2. Second, they maintain that the Clean Air Act (CAA) doesn’t specifically empower them to deal with greenhouse gases, and when Congress has wanted them to deal with a new category of tailpipe emissions (such as CFCs), Congress has specifically widened the CAA to deal with the issue.
  3. Third, they say that the CAA gives them wide latitude in exercising “judgment” as to what constitutes a credible threat to public health and welfare, and that, in their judgment, there is still too much scientific uncertainty (based on a 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences) as to whether global warming is human-induced, and if it is, by what mechanisms (i.e. to tailpipe emissions really matter?), and even if the mechanisms were known, the best remedies have yet to be identified.

Short version: the usual Bush head-in-the-sand approach of asking for more studies. And note what a small part the scientific merit plays in all this.

It will be interesting to see how the Supremes handle this issue.

On the one hand, they are distinctly “conservative” (interesting irony there – the conservatives battling conservation) and would be under pressure to side with the administration on this one. On the other hand, the amount of scientific research that supports the fact that global warming is a clear and present danger has increased dramatically in both substance and airtime in the years since this lawsuit was initiated – you’ve got to hope the Supremes have some desire to not appear utterly stupid. Best of all, the NAS, on whose 2001 report the EPA is resting the “merits” of its case, has since issued a report confirming the “hockey stick” graph, which says that, yes, Martha, global warming is human-induced.

My money, sadly, is that the Supremes will acknowledge the science but rule in favor of the EPA’s stonewalling on a technicality or two. It would be the safe thing to do.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Would that it were true

When out promoting his film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore introduces himself as “The man who used to be the next president of the United States.” There’s a pause while people laugh, then Gore deadpans: “It’s not funny.”

No, it’s not funny. Think of what an intelligent president could have done with the convergence of two powerful forces: the strong, post-9/11 sentiment to be free of dependence on foreign oil, and the growing consensus that global warming is pushing our country (and the rest of the globe) toward catastrophe.

He could have pushed the twin engines of alternate fuels and greater efficiencies hard, promoting them not just as a matter of national security (which they are), not just as a moral obligation in the face of global warming (which it is), but as an unparalleled opportunity to use the US’s legendary entrepreneurial skills to seize leadership in the everyone-knows-its-coming environmental products and services industry.

He could have used the White House bully pulpit to get his energy-industry cronies to see the handwriting on the wall, telling them, in effect, “You can’t lick them – so join them.” Then, instead of giving them billions in tax-payer financed incentives to expand their petroleum-based lines of business, give them the same billions in incentives to transition to a 21st century lines of business.

By now our auto fleets would be averaging 35 miles to the gallon and the word “hybrid” would be losing some of its meaning. Wind and solar power technologies would be rapidly improving, bringing down the cost to consumers and causing another future-oriented sector of the economy to flourish. Maybe, just maybe, we’d have had one less reason to invade Iraq.

If only.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Well, CAN we do anything about it?

One of the ongoing debates in the global warming biz is whether we can solve the problem with known technology or whether we have to rush to develop something revolutionary (can you say “hydrogen fuel cell”?). We need both, argue scientists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala in a 2004 paper in Science magazine (re-presented as a well-written piece in the September issue of Scientific American): we can level off our CO2 emissions for the next fifty years using existing technology, then plan on new technologies to help us reduce our emissions substantially over the following fifty years.

One major benefit of a plan like theirs is that we actually do something while we’re waiting the 30-50 years for new technologies to be developed to the point where they can make a measurable difference.

A second is that they provide a practical reference frame for actions we can do.

Here’s the background:
  1. To avoid disaster, we have to avoid doubling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. They set a target maximum of 500 parts-per-million (ppm) (vs. the 280 ppm pre-industrial level).
  2. To stay below 500 ppm, we have to basically hold the current CO2 emission rate constant for the next 50 years, and then substantially reduce it in the 50 years after that.
  3. The current emissions rate is 7 billions tons of carbon per year (7 GtC/yr). If we do nothing, this rate will double in the next 50 years (to 14 GtC/yr). Therefore, we have to look for solutions that will, in aggregate, reduce emissions by 7 GtC/yr by 2056.

The authors acknowledge that no single solution can accomplish this goal, so they break it up into seven more manageable chunks (which they call “wedges” from their graphical illustration) of 1 GtC/yr each. So at least seven existing, proven technologies can accomplish an emission savings that will amount to 1 GtC/yr by 2056.

Once such “wedge” can be obtained by doubling our automobile gas mileage from 30 mpg to 60 mpg. The math: assume each auto travels 10,000 miles a year and gets 30 miles to the gallon. With current fuels, each car therefore puts about ton of carbon in the atmosphere each year. Assuming 2 billion cars on the road in 2056 (a four-fold increase), they would put out 2 GtC/yr in greenhouse emissions. A doubling of the vehicles’ fuel efficiency would halve that amount – a savings of 1GtC/yr or one “wedge.”

The authors present a list of 15 such solution, including substituting natural gas for coal in power plants, capturing and storing CO2 generated by existing and future plants, using electricity more efficiently in buildings, etc. Admittedly, some of these interact, so you can’t simply do all 15 and expect a 15GtC/yr savings. For example, producing cleaner electricity means that you can’t save as much by using that electricity more efficiently.

Still, with 15 (at least) technically feasible methods at our immediate disposal to combat global warming, what are we waiting for?

Friday, September 8, 2006

The Other overpopulation

It’s well known that overpopulation is one of the prime drivers of our environmental problems. Too many people are chasing too few resources, resulting in environmental degradation. We in the so-called highly-developed countries think that the solution to overpopulation is for those less-developed countries to practice population control.

Which is pretty self-serving, because it ignores the reality that sheer numbers of people is only half the story. The impact of a population on the environment is a function of both the number of people AND the amount they consume.

So its true that in many developing countries, the sheer number of people is overwhelming their own resource base, even though most of them are living in poverty.

But we highly developed nations are also contributing mightily to population/resource problem – it’s just that we’re working the other side of the equation: consumption. In fact, with 20% of the population, we consume more than half the resources. For example, according to the Worldwatch Institute highly developed nations account for:
  • 86% of the aluminum used
  • 76% of the timber harvested
  • 68% of the energy used
  • 61% of the meat eaten
  • 42% of the fresh water consumed
Another way to look at a population’s contribution to environmental sustainability or degradation is to consider its "ecological footprint".

Scientists consider that there are about 28 billion acres of productive land and water on the planet. So for Earth's 6.5 billion people, a sustainable ecological footprint is 4.3 acres per person. The current average: 5.7 acres, which means we’re using up the planet faster than it can replenish itself.

In the US, each person's ecological footprint is a whopping 23.7 acres. To put this in perspective, we'd need about four additional planet Earth's to extend our standard of living to the rest of the world.

I'm not advocating that we all start living in poverty to solve this imbalance. But lets keep it in mind when thinking about who’s to blame for overpopulation, and start working on ways to maintain a healthy standard of living on a much smaller environmental footprint.

Credit where credit is due: much of this info came from a textbook called Environment.