Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Leaving aside the obstinate few, the world is now coming to realize that our activities are irreversibly changing the climate through sending so-called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Finally a number of politicians (but not President Trump) have decided they have to do something about it. Economists argue the answer lies in taxes on emissions, but that will presumably only work if there are alternative sources of energy that do not cause an increase in emissions. The question is, what can be done?

The first thing to note is the climate is significantly out of equilibrium, that is to say, the effects have yet to catch up with the cause. The reason is, while there is a serious net power input to the oceans, much of that heat is being dissipated by melting polar ice. Once that melting process runs its course, there will be serious temperature rises, and before that, serious sea level rises. My point is, the net power input will continue long after we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether, and as yet we are not seeing the real effects. So, what can we do about the gases already there? The simplest answer to that is to grow lots and lots of forests. There is a lot of land on the planet that has been deforested, and merely replacing that will pull CO2 out of the air. The problem then is, how do we encourage large-scale tree planting when economics seems to have led to forests being simply cut and burned? In principle, forest owners could get credits through an emissions trading scheme, but eventually we want to encourage this without letting emitters off the hook.

Now, suppose we want to reduce our current rate of emissions to effectively zero, what are the difficulties? There are five major sources that will be difficult to deal with. The first is heating. Up to a point, this can be supplied by electricity, including the use of heat pumps, but that would require a massive increase in electrical supply, and an early objective should be to close down coal-fired electricity generators. We can increase solar and wind generators, but note that there will be a large increase in emissions to make the construction materials, and there is a question as to how much they can really produce. Of course, every bit helps.

The second involves basic industrial materials, which includes metal smelting, cement manufacture, and some other processes where high temperatures and chemical reduction are required. In principle, charcoal could replace coal, if we grew enough forests, but this is difficult to really replace coal.

The third includes the gases in a number of appliances or from manufacturing processes. The freons in refrigerators, and some gases used in industrial processes are serious contributors. There may not be so much of them as there is of carbon dioxide, but some are over ten thousand times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and there is no easy way for the atmosphere to get rid of them. Worse, in some cases there are no simple alternatives.

The fourth is agriculture. Dairy farming is notorious for emitting methane, a gas about thirty-five times stronger than carbon dioxide, although fortunately its lifetime is not long, and nitrous oxide from the effluent. Being vegetarian does not help. Rice paddies are strong emitters, as is the use of nitrogen fertilizer, thus ammonium nitrate decomposes to nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is also more powerful and longer lived than carbon dioxide.

The fifth is, of course, transport. In some ways transport is the easiest to deal with, but there are severe difficulties. The obvious way is to use electric power, and this is obviously great for electrified railways but it is less satisfactory without direct contact with a mains power supply. Battery powered cars will work well for personal transport around cities, but the range is more questionable. Apparently rapid charge batteries are being developed, where a recharge will take a bit over a quarter hour, although there is a further issue relating to the number of charging points. If you look at many main highways and count the number of vehicles, how would you supply sufficient charging outlets? The recharge in fifteen minutes is no advantage if you have to wait a couple of hours to get at a power point. Other potential problems include battery lifetime. As a general rule, the faster you recharge, the fewer recharges the battery will take. (No such batteries last indefinitely; every recharge takes something from them, irreversibly.) But the biggest problem is power density. If you look at the heavy machinery used in major civil engineering projects, or even combine harvesters in agriculture, you will see that diesel has a great advantage. Similarly with aircraft. You may be able to fly around the world in a battery/solar-powered craft, but that is just a stunt, as the aircraft will never be much better than a glider.

One answer to the power density problem is biofuels. There are a number of issues relating to them, some of which I shall put in a future post. I have worked in this field for much of my career, and I have summarized my thoughts in an ebook “Biofuels”, which over the month of July will be available at $1 at Smashwords. The overall message relating to emissions, though, is there is no magic bullet. It really is a case of “every bit helps”.


Easter. A scientist’s peek

As Easter approaches, the scientist in me asks, bearing in mind the number of strange events told in the bible, what really happened? What the scientist does at this point is to examine the evidence and ask questions, so let us do that now. First, when were the accounts written? The answer is, apparently decades later, which means that details may not be correct, even with the best of intentions. Then, the text was revised under Constantine’s orders over 250 years later. The priests at Nicaea had a choice: do what Constantine wanted, in which case Christianity would be a permitted religion in the Roman empire, or reject Constantine, and get thrown over some cliffs. If they wanted to bring the message of Christ to the world, then surely a little softening of the Roman position was a small price to pay? Who would Constantine want to blame? Surely not the Romans, so that left “blame” to be more liberally apportioned to the Jews. This strongly suggests which way variations would go.

Thus in the bible, contrary to what Hollywood states, Jesus was not arrested by Roman soldiers but rather by representatives of the temple, who came bearing swords. Temple representatives bearing swords? They then needed Judas to “betray” Jesus. Exactly how this was a betrayal beats me; Jesus had clearly stated that he would be crucified because it was prophesied, so in principle, it was needed. But stranger still, a man has come into the temple, overturned all the money-lenders tables and had started preaching, so why not use one of them, who would most likely do it to get revenge? Why not find someone who had seen Jesus preach? If they were worried about his following, someone must have known what he looked like. Why did these Jews of the temple not care about saving the temple 30 pieces of silver? In my view, Judas was given a bad write-up.

Then consider the arrest. For some reason, one of the disciples has a sword, and he proceeds to cut off the ear of a priest. My first question: what were all the others with swords doing while all this was going on? Just standing around? Actually, only cutting off an ear would be extremely difficult; just how would you do it, without doing more serious damage elsewhere? Then why was a disciple of the prince of peace bringing a sword to there? Did they always carry swords? If not, why then? If so, why is this never mentioned elsewhere? Then, according to Luke, but not the others, Jesus put the ear back on and healed the man. Now, put yourself in the place of some of the priests. Here is a man who claims divine powers, and he just picks up a fallen ear and puts it back on a priest, and the man is healed. Would you not just pause and ask yourself, could he really be divine?

Now, consider Pilate. Pilate had faced mobs before. On one occasion he had a cohort of soldiers dressed up as Jews, and when the Jews got out of hand, he had the soldiers lay into the mob with clubs, and the floor was littered with Jews with broken bones. Pilate was not the man to give in to a Jewish mob, and had he, his future would be bleak. Tiberius had little sympathy for governors who gave in to mobs. Then why did Pilate say he could find no fault? No Roman governor would say that and order a crucifixion, again because word could get back to Tiberius, who could very well say, “No fault on you, so come to Capri and be thrown over the cliff.” No, if Pilate ordered a crucifixion, he would say something like, “He is guilty of leading a revolt,” even if he knew he was not. Then there was the crucifixion itself. Jesus was declared dead and brought down a few hours into it, without having his legs broken. He was then wrapped in cloth, and given away for burial. That never happened in any other Roman crucifixion. Criminals were literally left “hanging around” for days while the crows fed on the bodies, and eventually the remains would be discarded.

What could have happened? In my novel “Athene’s Prophecy” I offered the possibility that since there had been over 200 claimants to be the Jewish Messiah, and all had died but failed the resurrection test, Pilate offered the Jews exactly what they did not want: a Messiah that preached peace. (The Jews believed their Messiah would get rid of Rome, so Pilate had an incentive to stop the appearance of more Messiahs.) That would explain the label put on the cross. Accordingly, he permitted the body to be cut down at a time when in principle the crucifixion might be survivable. Pilate would not care one way or the other, as senior Roman soldiers were not full of our feelings of political correctness. That, of course, is mere speculation, but I believe the Muslims believe he did not actually die.

Is that what happened? We have no way of knowing what actually happened. What we do know from Tacitus is that according to the accounts he had, Cristus was crucified, and his disciples had started a serious religion that promoted peace. (The fact that throughout history Christianity has been responsible for uncountable murders is beside the point; the message given is that of peace.) In my opinion, the story told in the bible cannot be literally true, and what probably happened at Nicaea is that the priests, in massaging the story to be accepted by Constantine, effectively wrote it as a parable, showing up various character flaws while discarding that which would not be acceptable to Constantine. In this context, recall there is apparently a Gospel of Judas, and that was most certainly discarded.

In my opinion, we should forget the details because they are probably wrong, and instead concentrate more on the fundamental message of Christianity.