Reducing Greenhouse Gases: The Problem

In the previous post, I looked at the prospects for helping combat global warming by decreasing the solar input to the planet, mainly by reflecting light back to space. The basic problem is the size of the planet: to reduce solar input by 1% you have to totally reflect one per cent of the incoming radiation, which involved ideal reflectors of area somewhat greater than 4 x 10^11 square meters.

Superficially, option two, which is to increase heat output, is easier. All you have to do is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, that is something of a problem because we are adding almost 9 billion tonne of carbon as greenhouse gases per year. So, to improve the current situation we have to devise a means of taking out more than 9 Gt of carbon, or over 33 billion tonne of carbon dioxide per annum. Worse, much of the carbon is in the form of methane, which is a much worse greenhouse gas, so a target of 50 billion tonne per annum of carbon dioxide is probably a minimal “hold the current state”. Again, the size of the problem is basically the problem.

Carbon dioxide is naturally removed from the atmosphere by weathering certain rocks. To oversimplify, silicates come in two main classes: granitic and basaltic. The granitic rocks have a much lower density than the basaltic, so they tend to float, and our continents are largely granitic, which, having a large fraction of their composition as aluminosilicates, and since aluminium does not form a stable carbonate, these rocks weather mainly to clays and not carbonates. Thus the main rocks of our continents are not going to help.

The basaltic rocks mainly comprise olivines or pyroxyenes, which are two families of iron/magnesium silicates, the former being nominally “salts” of silicic acid, and the latter salts of chains of polysilicic acid. These will weather to form silica and carbonates of their metals, but at varying rates. One of the proposals is to crush peridotite, one of the fastest to weather, into dust and incorporate it into soils. Powdering it increases surface area, thus increasing the rate of reaction because the reaction is limited to where the carbonic acid in water can get at something to react. It will still be slow, and the energy to crush the rock has to come from somewhere, and might be better used to substitute for the worst other means of producing energy. Another problem is that while peridotite is one of the most common rocks on the planet, that is because it is essentially an upper mantle rock, with only odd visits to the surface. Reacting the gaseous carbon dioxide with basalt is nature’s way of taking it from the atmosphere, but with all the basalt on the planetary surface, it will take centuries to remove the excess there now. This is not going work, although it would make sense to bury carbon dioxide if it were already isolated, but preferably into some basaltic zone.

A better way of removing carbon dioxide is to grow more forests, and in particular to permit the equatorial rain forests to regenerate. A further alternative is to grow massive amounts of algae, which would require ocean fertilization. Some marine algae are extremely rapid growing plants (with a microscope you can watch continuous cell division!). For macroalgae, in the 1970s the US Navy showed how such algae could be grown in open ocean water (as opposed to near coastlines) by growing on rafts and fertilizing with bottom water raised by wave power. The experiment succeeded until a rather unfortunate storm wrecked things, but that, to me is a design and engineering problem that could be solved. In short, the technology for growing plants is more or less available.

The algae could then be used to make synthetic fuels, and while that would merely cycle carbon dioxide, it is better than producing more. We could also bury carbon, as any such processing makes some carbon deposited as char. The growing of algae has one further possible advantage; it takes energy entering the oceans and stores it as chemical energy rather than as heat, and it also emits mercaptans, which should make more clouds after absorbing more ultraviolet light.

To be clear, neither of these will solve the problem, but growing plants will at least contribute to a solution.

So, why don’t we? Quite simply, economics. There are two main problems: the tragedy of the commons, and politicians. The first problem is that unless everyone contributes, the problem cannot be solved, but some, of course, will not mind climate change, or, alternatively, decide nothing will affect them, so why should they pay to fix it? Unfortunately, the expense is so great. This is part of why I favour the algal response. The growing of such algae will also support greater fish life, and hence improve the food supplies, and can be used to make liquid fuels, provided the right technology is used, and there is some chance it may increase cloud cover. By addressing three problems, two of which have money-making prospects as well, makes it more likely it would be successful. At first, of course, such algae could be grown near the current coastlines, and we know how to do that.

Politicians are a more intractable problem. An example: in New Zealand politicians were determined that an emissions trading scheme would be its response. Some New Zealanders began planting trees to get credits, but then Ukraine and Russia produced mountains of such paper credits, there price crashed, and while the current trees might be absorbing carbon dioxide, nobody is in a rush to plant more. If you have travelled the world, you will see vast area where forests have been removed and nothing done with the resultant land. Forests could be regrown, especially tropical ones. The problem then is, who pays for them? Why should Brazil, say, spend a lot of money to plant forests to benefit everyone else? It is politics and governance again.

Remedies for Climate Change: (1) Reflect!

In my post of a week ago, I raised the issue of climate change, and argued that because there is a net power input to the surface now, due to reduced cooling caused by the blanket effect of the so-called greenhouse gases, even if we stopped producing such gases right now, we would still have serious problems because the current rate of net ice melting would continue. Now, it is all very well to moan about it, but the question is, what should our response be? This is too complicated for one post, so this will start a small sequence, although not all will be consecutive.

The easiest response is to do nothing and keep going as we are. Eventually, the sea will rise by about 60 meters. That would drown London, Beijing, and a number of other cities, in fact almost every port city, and it would remove a huge amount of prime agricultural land. Suppose we do not wish that, what can we do? In logic, there are four main options: lower the heat input; raise the heat output; store input energy as chemical energy; increase snow precipitation on polar regions so that it makes up for the increased melting. The last option means we accept everything else, such as increased temperatures and worse storms, but we protect our land. Obviously, we should also reduce our output of so-called greenhouse gases, because while even stopping this output does not solve the problem, at least it stops making the problem increasingly more difficult.

You may argue that such options suffer from failure to be practical. Possibly, but unless we investigate, how do you know? Another argument sometimes put forward is we should not do anything because there could be unintended consequences. That too is true, but is drowning London and starving a great fraction of the population a desired consequence, because that is what happens if we do nothing?

Lowering the heat input is most easily achieved by reflecting more radiation to space i.e. increase the albedo of the planet or place reflectors in space. Increasing the albedo is probably most easily done by increasing cloud cover. One proposal I have seen to do that is to spray seawater into the air. The biggest single problem with this proposal is that there appear to be no readily available analysis of the costs and benefits. How would we power the sprays? If that were done through solar, or wind energy, that would be more helpful than doing it by burning diesel. How long would such salt-laden clouds last? We simply don’t know. Some might argue that clouds contain water, which is itself a powerful blanket material. That is true, and it is why cloudy nights are warmer than cloudless ones, nevertheless there should still be a significant net benefit, because the reflection to space is of visible and even ultraviolet light, whereas the blanket effect merely affects infrared light, of a moderate frequency range, although it does it 24 hrs/day.

How about space reflectors? The cost would be enormous, although there is one possibility. Suppose one could develop solar-powered lasers that were sufficiently powerful to ablate space junk. You do not need a major mirror, but merely a large surface area. If you could boil away the metal and condense it as dust, that would still qualify as area. As an aside, it does not need to be that bright, although it should be. If sunlight is absorbed in space, that is almost as effective because the dust then re-radiates the energy as heat, and most will be directed to space.

It is also possible that there could be other minor ways of contributing. Thus the concept of everyone painting their roof white, as suggested by physics Nobel laureate Steven Chu, or even using aluminium for roofs is often rejected as making contributions that are too small, nevertheless, every ordinary householder still has to paint their roof or replace it at some time, and does it hurt to be helpful?

Another possibility might be to inject something into the exhaust of jet engines at high altitude. The point here is the jets are flying anyway, and you would end with micron-sized white dust in the contrails. Materials have to be chosen so they do not form slags in the engines, hence the choice depends on technical details of which I am unaware. Materials, in order of higher melting point dust, might range from a mercaptan or dialkyl sulphide (no solid, but would produce sulphuric acid on oxidation, which would condense water vapour and make clouds), diethyl zinc (which would produce white zinc oxide, melting point 1975 oC, and hence would remain as a dust in any working engine) or alkyl silanes (which would produce silicon dioxide, similar to volcanic ash, with a melting point above 1600 oC. The actual melting point depends on the form of the solid).

Finally, there is also the possibility of growing certain crops that give off gases that may increase cloud cover. Thus certain marine algae are reported to give off mercaptans, which would be photooxidised to sulphuric acid and thus form clouds, and also each molecule would remove some number of photons from the solar input. Removing ultraviolet also removes the corresponding heat input.

An important point to consider is that all light that is not reflected to space is either converted to heat eventually, or is locked away as chemical energy. The Earth continually presents to the sun a cross-sectional area of about 40.5 x 10^12 square meters. You can work out for yourself the area required to reduce the solar input by whatever per centage you wish, after correcting for whatever efficiency you choose, but as you can see, it is a very large area, no matter what.

It may strike you that trying to solve this problem this way is simply too difficult and expensive. Possibly, but my argument is we are wrong to rely on one king hit. For me, this is the problem to be solved by a thousand cuts, so to speak. In later posts I shall add thoughts on the other alternatives. However, the above thoughts seem to me to form the start of a concept. There are some things we might try that either might have other benefits or are reasonably cheap to put into practice, and these should take some form of precedence. But the overall conclusion is clear: there is simply insufficient data available to reach any reasonable conclusion.

What is the cause of the Lorentz contraction?

Do you ever ask yourself, what is the cause of . . . ? I think you cannot expect to make significant advances on what you are familiar with unless you can answer such questions. However, what I consider to be one of the more serious problems of modern physics is the belief that if you have an equation that accounts for observation, then the problem is solved. For only too many, physics IS mathematics, and everything about us is determined by mathematics. That is not a new thought; the Pythagoreans and devotees of Plato held this belief. That is why there were five elements (earth, air, fire, water, ether): there are five and only five “Platonic solids” in solid geometry. We all know how well that turned out. Now the mathematics are more complicated, but we get the same outcome: belief.

What has inspired this are my thoughts on Special Relativity. The question is, physically, what is the primary cause of what is happening, and what are the consequences? What we see mathematically is that to make correct calculations when motion approaches the velocity of light, we must alter the value of certain variables by multiplying or dividing by what is called the Lorentz contraction term. Thus if a rod is moving at a speed v approaching the speed of light c and is aligned in the direction of motion, then lengths in this direction will appear to be shorter by a factor of √(1 – v2/c2). The question then is, what is going on?

It is easy to derive this in terms of length contraction if we believe the speed of light is constant. If it is, following Feynman in “Six Not-so easy Pieces” then we can build a simple apparatus with two equal arms at right angles to each other. If we put mirrors on the end, and send light signals each way, and if the result must not be able to be used to measure the velocity of the instrument if it is moving without acceleration, then with a bit of algebra you find this only makes sense if the length in the direction of travel has contracted by the factor √(1 – v2/c2). That time must dilate by a factor of 1/√(1 – v2/c2) arises because if it did not, again you could work out the absolute velocity of your apparatus. The length contraction arises because light going there and back at right angles to the direction of motion has to travel along the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle, which is perforce longer than the two arms. However, as Feynman notes, you can also get all of special relativity if you assume the mass increases by the “rest mass” being multiplied by 1/√(1 – v2/c2).

The length contraction is derivable, nevertheless it raises another interesting question: how does the length “know” to contract? The length of the space ship is possibly understandable, but the problem is it is also the length in whatever direction you are travelling. Alternatively, we could ask why does the time dilate? While the velocity of light must be constant, that does not explain why, because it does not relate the effect to anything external. As an example, in my cat paradox, if you are in a space ship raveling at almost light speed towards Epsilon Eridani, and if you fix the frame of reference as your ship, then it appears Epsilon Eridani is hurtling towards you, and you are stationary. Now, if you put v into the equations, it is Epsilon Eridani that suffers time dilation. Of course you can get around this, but my argument is every time you try, you do not use the space ship’s frame of reference.

Elsewhere, Patrice Ayme has argued that given time dilation, you also get a corresponding mass increase for a physical reason rather than a mathematical one ( ). If I have this right, the argument is that if time dilates, then collision of the object with “force carriers” is much less frequent and hence inertial mass is, or appears, higher. The logic of mass increase, however, also implies time dilation by a reverse logic.

So what is fundamental? The constancy of the speed of light? Or does that arise from the length/time dilation? Which is the chicken and which is the egg? One interesting fact is that you have to choose one to be fundamental, and the rest follows. You could start with the mass augmentation, and everything else follows from the usual relationships. The constancy of the speed of light is an attractive place to choose for its being fundamental because that arises essentially from Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, namely c = 1/√(εμ), where ε and μ are the permittivity and permeability of space. If you choose that, then the equations of special relativity follow from Feynman’s argument about length contraction.

Furthermore, there is fairly clear evidence that the time dilation effect is real. Muons are generated by cosmic ray events in the upper atmosphere and they travel at relativistic velocities. Muons have a very short lifetime and if they were constrained to that lifetime without time dilation they could only travel so far before they decayed, but we know from observation that they can travel so much further. They can also travel so much further in particle accelerators, and this is only explicable in terms of their “clocks” that govern their decay rate are going slow, in accordance with relativity. Of course, their clocks might go slow because of mass augmentation.

So, what is the issue? For me, if length and time contraction are fundamental, in the case of my previous posts on a space ship going to Epsilon Eridani, all the space between the ship and Epsilon Eridani has to “know” to contract, otherwise a light beam from the ship to a mirror somewhere near Epsilon Eridani travelling at the same velocity as the ship would be a means of determining the ship’s velocity, which is allegedly forbidden. (One can always find the velocity by reflecting light from something fixed about Epsilon Eridani; the reason for having the mirror travelling at the same velocity is so there is nothing external to the frame of reference.) On the other hand, if the mass enhancement is the real cause, then the effect is a consequence of the energy poured into the entity during acceleration. Thus in one case, the effect is due to space “knowing what is coming”, the effect is non-local and only applies to the travelling object. By that, I mean if the fast moving ship overtakes a snail, the space on the path somehow distinguishes between them. (Mathematically, the distinguishing is trivial, but physically?) Why does the space light years away respond differently and correctly to two objects at the same time? If it is mass that is enhanced, the effect is due to the entity “recording what has been done to it” and the effect is local to it. By that I mean its clock will slow, and the distance will appear to contract. I know what I prefer, and as usual with me, it is not the same as what everyone else seems to think.

Global warming: Heads in the sand, everyone!

One of the most popular topics for “head in the sand” thinking is global warming. Never mind the evidence; only too many assert that the models are wrong, so there is no need to worry. What I find annoying about this is there is no evidence supplied to support the assertion, although you can usually see a quote in some “scientific” journal. You will see some claims about “peer review” but that is irrelevant. Some time I shall post about peer review, but for the present that does not matter because who asserts something is irrelevant to deciding truth; it is what is said that matters, and specifically, what the evidence is to support it.

Very recently we have heard more on this topic, and the climate change models have been shown to be almost certainly wrong. Not that the deniers can take any bows; the models were wrong in the other direction. Up until now, the modellers have argued that by the end of the century sea levels would rise a meter, mainly due to thermal expansion of the oceans and the loss of minor glaciers, with a small effect due to fragmentation of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica due to “bottom-warming”, i.e. ice melted by contact with warmer ocean currents, together with a little “top-warming” from sunlight.

Now they have become aware that the major ice sheets are undergoing top-warming from contact with moist warm air. The net result is that the ice sheets are thinning for major distances from the sea, and the end-position if this net heating is left to go on unchanged is now considered to be a sea level rise of up to sixty meters. In New Zealand, where I live, the cost assigned to the loss of houses due to a 1.5 meter sea level rise was assessed as about $20 billion. That does not include commercial buildings, and worse, it does not include required changes to infrastructure because here quite a number of roads run along beside the sea. This helps the view for tourists and holiday-makers, but only too many of the low bits of those roads will have to be moved. Worse, the high bits through tortured hilly regions will have to be rebuilt. Certainly, these roads are high enough but they have to connect with something. It only takes a small section to be submerged, and if the low-lying land is flat enough, then there may be real problems connecting a new fragment with existing sections that climb up steep hills. Worse than that, the reason these roads run alongside the sea is that often this is the only flat land, and a new coastline will have the sea smashing into mountainous land. A road-building nightmare.

The next thing we see is that we have numerous exhortations that society must as a priority reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Sorry, but this won’t work, although it will reduce the rate at which the problem gets worse. The reason is this. At present we have net melting of ice. The polar bear habitat is shrinking rapidly, and this can only happen by the heat input melting more ice than can be laid down through winter snow. This is clear evidence the planet is receiving net heat input.

For the planet to heat, there has to be net power input, which is the difference between the solar input and the radiated output from the planet. If the heat input is constant, that can only arise through something keeping in more than it did previously. The agent that is doing that is the blanket of greenhouse gases covering the planet.

My point is, if we totally stopped producing greenhouse gases tomorrow, the current rate or heat retention, and hence the current rate of melting, would continue. The usual way of returning to balance between heat in and heat out would be that the planet warms until at the new temperature it radiates enough out. However, ice melts with the water being at the same temperature as the ice so the overall warming only partially occurs.

The problem is, there is a constant heat input from the sun, and the temperature is determined by the rate at which the planet radiates out excess energy. While it is a grey body, the rate at which it radiates heat from surface is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature. Accordingly the temperature rises until heat out equals heat in, and the system is at equilibrium. (Of course, this only happens on an overall average, because the planet does not get uniform heating, and there are weather events and ocean currents that move heat around.)

Think of yourself in summer lying in bed, and you are quite comfortable. Now someone throws three blankets over the bed. Are you going to stay comfortable? Not likely. Even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions completely, in this example it is no better than that someone stopping throwing extra blankets on the bed. We cannot make further headway until someone starts to remove the extra blankets. That is what has to happen. The trouble is, so far governments cannot even stop the throwing on of extra blankets.

Exposed Trusts

I found there were two major items of interest this week on the news. The first was the fact global warming was much worse than expected, but I shall leave that for a later post. Also interesting was the disclosure of some files that somehow or other leaked from a Panamanian law firm, and were about prominent people who had foreign trusts, most presumably for the purposes of tax evasion. Some of the media made a great fuss about some people associated with Putin having these trusts, as if this was somehow Putin’s fault. It might be, but we have more spectacular examples. There was the Premier of Iceland who was directly involved, and had to resign, despite his asserting he had done nothing wrong. If he had really done nothing wrong, why resign? Why not simply explain his position? Then there was David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain. His father apparently uses such a haven. Now, you cannot be blamed by association, he would say, but it is not exactly a good look.

My favourite, though, is Poroshenko, Premier of Ukraine, the man who asserts he is there to stamp out corruption. When he took office, he promised to sell his confectionary company, worth billions. So he sold it. Well done? Well, no, he sold it to a trust that one way or another ends up with there being only one owner of this company: Poroshenko. He sold it to himself, but moved it to a tax haven. Sneaky!

Of particular interest here was the revelation that New Zealand was listed as a tax haven. And in case you are thinking of moving here for the low taxes, think again. It is not a tax haven in the usual sense, but thanks to some inept politicians, it is a contributor, although in much the same way as many other countries. As an aside, what New Zealand does in this respect is very similar to what other OECD countries do, except New Zealand has a different approach to taxing them.

What New Zealand does is permit foreign trusts, and they can be owned by foreigners. The requirement is they are registered, which means they are recognized by the Inland Revenue Department, and they must have a nominated trustee. However, under New Zealand law, and this is different from the other countries, if a person or an entity does no business in New Zealand during a financial year and does not enter the country, they are permitted to file a nil return, i.e. if they are not physically in the country, and their business is done elsewhere, they pay no tax in New Zealand. That seems reasonable, but there is a catch. If the trust merely owns another trust somewhere else, and that one owns a company that is doing business in several other countries still, then as you can see, there is an impenetrable barrier to tracking the money. Our IRD states it will inform other tax authorities if they ask, but what can they ask? They have to know the answer to the ownership issue before they ask, and there is no record of any transaction to ask about.

Of further interest is the fact that lawyers and accountants here apparently make somewhere between 25 – 50 million dollars annually “monitoring” the trusts, acting as trustees, and filing nil tax returns. All of which to benefit the unworthy rich in other countries who refuse to pay their legally required share.

Of course there can be legitimate uses for such trusts. Apparently, such trusts started with the Crusades, where Crusaders left their property in trust while they were away. That was an obviously sound reason for creating the trust. Now the property is away and the rich are being trusted, and these men are anything but trustworthy.