Protesting on Climate Change

It is interesting these days to see the level of protest; so many people want to protest against doing something. In many cases, that is fair as what they are protesting about should not happen, but then the problem comes, what happens when they get the rhythm, and what sort of protests get results as opposed to the protestors just making a nuisance of themselves? Recently, there were widespread protests here against the inaction of governments on the issue of climate change and that is a fair enough target of protest but how should they go about it? Blocking major roads to prevent traffic from going home after work simply leads to the production of more greenhouse gas. Then there were people here who used superglue to attach themselves to windows. My view on that is they should have been identified so that any bills for damages could be sent, then they be left there. Since they glued their hands, they would need friends to even feed them and a couple of cold fronts were coming.

What I find interesting is that one of the proposed ways of attacking climate change is to plant trees and they even protest about that. They argue the trees grow, then get cut down and the CO2 is returned to the atmosphere so we are no further ahead. In my opinion, that is wrong. First, we buy time. The trees can stand for a reasonable length of time, and further, when we cut them down, we can use the wood to build houses, etc. Leaves fall and return some carbon to the soil. And, of course, when we cut them down, we can replant. But most important, from my point of view, is we can do this now. There is no king hit that will deal with climate change so we shall have to do a very large number of things and unfortunately we don’t actually know how to do many of them beneficially. There is nothing like getting started on what you can do, and that you know what the consequences of doing it are.

Another objection noted in our local paper was that, wait for it, had we started thirty years ago when we knew about the problem this might have worked, but now we need more trees than we can reasonably plant quickly. Well, maybe. It does take time to get the necessary seedlings. The argument seems to be, we can’t solve the entire crisis this way, so why bother? Yes, I know there is no king hit, but if you are going to solve this crisis with a number of different approaches, getting started now is better than not doing anything. As the callers for doing nothing argue, we only have the problem because we did nothing some time ago. Yes, it is true we have wasted a lot of time, but why will wasting more now be beneficial?

Another argument seems to be, the land is too valuable for food production to waste on planting trees. Well, if I look out the window from where I am writing this, I see a range of somewhat tortured hills that stand between 300 to 700 meters above the valley floor, and these hills proceed as hills and steep valleys for a considerable distance. They are largely devoid of big trees, despite the fact that this whole area was initially heavily forested. When the settlers came, the valley was cleared of forest for farmland (farming has now long gone, having been replaced by urban development) then the hillsides were denuded of forest for timber. Now there is light scrub in places, but the big trees are long gone, and this is typical of a lot of land here. Planting trees would stabilise a lot of such steep hillsides, which are often prone to severe erosion, especially with heavy rain, which is expected to become more common over time due to climate change, at least here. For such country where harvesting trees becomes unlikely, by planting a judicious mix of trees such a forest could be self-sustaining so once established and it would store carbon indefinitely.

There are additional benefits of forests. An article in he recent Physics World mentioned that forests decrease the effect of storms, the reason being that the rough land surface offers a frictional restraint on wind speed. The forest has to be reasonably large, and of course the beneficial effects tend to apply to places distant from the coast. The forests also offer a benefit to rainfall through evapotranspiration and it is notable that many areas that are now facing desertification in Africa once had reasonable rainfall and extensive forests. It should be emphasised that forests may also reduce total rainfall by reducing the effect of heavy tropical storms, however in general these do little to provide water in a useful form as the water runs off very quickly. Forests are also beneficial in that they hold up water from heavy rains and allow it to be absorbed by the soil, and hence be available later, and of course, reduce heavy erosion. Also, in areas prone to severe flooding, and we have seen many examples of flooded urban areas on television recently, by holding up the water and thus spreading its movement over more time, the effects of such floods are mitigated. To my mind, anything that achieves more than one benefit is far more worthwhile to pursue.

As for the argument that when the trees mature, they will be harvested and eventually the carbon will return to the atmosphere, I have two responses. First, at least some of it can be stored in buildings, where it will remain for quite some time. Second, you could burn it for fuel or convert it to biofuel, in which case the carbon will return quickly, several decades in the future, but it displaces fossil carbon you would have otherwise converted to CO2, so you are still ahead. Finally, you have bought time to develop new means of solving this problem. And, at the same time, you do generate a future resource, in some cases from land that is otherwise producing nothing except erosion. From my point of view, it probably does not matter whether we act because I shall be dead by the time the really worst of the consequences arrive. However, I would like my grandchildren’s children to have a reasonable chance at life, and that means that we must stop protesting against change because our society cannot continue this way. Change will come; the issue is, what sort of change? Let us control it and make it beneficial.

Fuel for Legacy Vehicles in a “Carbon-free” Environment

Electric vehicles will not solve our emissions problem: there are over a billion petroleum driven vehicles, and they will not go away any time soon. Additionally, people have a current investment, and while billionaires might throw away their vehicles, most ordinary people will not change unless they can sell what they have, which in turn means someone else is using it. This suggests the combustion motor is not yet finished, and the CO2emissions will continue for a long time yet. That gives us a rather awkward problem, and as noted in the previous posts on global warming, there is no quick fix. One of the more obvious contributions could be biofuels. Yes, you still burn carbon, but the carbon came from the atmosphere. There will also be processing energy, but often that can come from the byproducts of the process. At this point I should add a caveat: I have spent quite a bit of my professional life researching this route so perhaps I have a degree of bias.

The first point is that it will be wrong to take grain and make alcohol for fuel, other than as a way of getting rid of spare or spoiled grain. The world will also have a food shortage, especially if the sea levels start rising, because much of the most productive land is low-lying. If we want to grow biomass, we need an area of land roughly equivalent to the area used for food production, and that land is not there. There are wastelands, but they tend to be non-productive. However, that does not mean we cannot grow biomass for fuel; it merely states there is nowhere nearly enough. Again, there is no single fix.

What you get depends critically on how you do it, and what your biomass is. Of the various processes, I prefer hydrothermal processing, which involves heating the biomass in water up to supercritical temperatures with some additional conditions. In effect, this greatly accelerates the processes that formed oil naturally. Corresponding pyrolysis will break down plastics, and in general high quality fuel is obtainable. The organic fraction of municipal refuse could also be used to make fuel, and in my ebook “Biofuel” I calculated that refuse could produce roughly seven litres per week per person. Not huge, but still a contribution, and it helps solve the landfill problem. However, the best options that I can think of include macroalgae and microalgae. Macroalgae would have to be cultivated, but in the 1970s the US navy carried out an exercise that grew macroalgae on “submerged rafts” in the open Pacific, with nutrients from the sea floor brought up from wind and wave action. Currently there is work being carried out growing microalgae in tanks, etc, in various parts of the world. In principle, microalgae could be grown in the open ocean, if we knew how to harvest it.

I was involved in one project that used microalgae grown in sewage treatment plants. Here there should have been a double benefit – sewage has to be treated so the ponds are already there, and the process cleans up the nitrogen and phosphate that would otherwise be dumped into the sea, thus polluting it. The process could also use sewage sludge, and the phosphate, in principle, was recoverable. A downside was that the system would need more area than the average treatment plant because the residence time is somewhat longer than the current time, which seems designed to remove the worst of the oxygen demand then chuck everything out to sea, or wherever. This process went nowhere; the venture needed to refinance and unfortunately they left it too late, namely shortly after the Lehman collapse.

From the technical point of view, this hydrothermal technology is rather immature. What you get can critically depend on exactly how you do it. You end up with a thick brown fluid, from which you can obtain a number of products. Your petrol fraction is generally light aromatics, with a research octane number (RON) of about 140, and the diesel fraction can have a cetane number approaching 100 (because the main components are straight chain C15 or C17 saturated hydrocarbons. Cetane is the C16 equivalent.) These are superb fuels, however while current motors would run very well on them, they are not optimal.

We can consider ethanol as an example. It has an RON somewhere in the vicinity of 120 – 130. People say ethanol is not much of a fuel because its energy content is significantly lower than hydrocarbons, and that is correct, but energy is not the whole story because efficiency also counts. The average petrol motor is rather inefficient and most of the energy comes out as heat. The work you can get out depends on the change of pressure times volume, so the efficiency can be significantly improved by increasing the compression ratio. However, if the compression is too great, you get pre-ignition. The modern motor is designed to run well with an octane number of about 91, with some a bit higher. That is because they are designed to use the most of the distillate from crude oil. Another advantage of ethanol is you can blend in some water with it, which absorbs heat and dramatically increases the pressure. So ethanol and oxygenates can be used.

So the story with biofuels is very similar to the problems with electric vehicles; the best options badly need more research and development. At present, it looks as if they will not get it in time. Once you have your process, it usually takes at least ten years to get a demonstration plant operating. Not a good thought, is it?

How to reward people fairly? 1

Does anyone think economies should not be more efficient? Does anyone think they should not be fair? In the future, resources and opportunities are going to be scarcer, so how do we realize the two goals of efficiency and fairness? This is one of the topics I have included in my futuristic novels, and since I do not have the answers (every answer I postulate, I then show how someone gets around the rules, which then leads to undesirable outcomes) here is the chance for you, the reader, to show me the light.

One obvious current problem is how to reward people fairly? Obviously, what is considered “fair” will vary between people, and it is unlikely that there will ever be detailed agreement, and an example I gave in Red Gold was, on Mars, who gets paid the most: the carrot grower or the pumpkin grower? The carrot grower might claim carrots are more valuable, but the pumpkin grower might claim to produce more oxygen, which everyone breathes, but is inconvenient to charge for its use. There is another problem. Markets appear to be fair, but the general assumption is that the addition or removal of one player makes little or no difference. Where you have only one or two providers for a product, that assumption fails and monopoly behaviour is seldom fair.

What about salaries, particularly for unique positions? Consider Apple Computers. Now it is possible to justify whatever they paid Steve Jobs, because he rescued what was almost a basket case and turned it into what it is now. However, his predecessor took over the leading personal computer company and turned it into a basket case, and at the same time, took home tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of his doing that. That is neither fair nor efficient.

Closer to home (New Zealand) we have a state-owned company called Solid Energy, which, recently, was worth several billion dollars, and is now deep in the minus column. The management, who brought about this disaster, take home what are, for here, enormous salaries. Three examples of their “brilliant management”:

1. They spent something like 70 million dollars on a study to convert lignite to liquid fuels. I could have reached the correct conclusion for a few per cent of that, and got fat on it! There were several reasons why the idea was a lost cause, e.g. they did not own the land, the lignite was very wet, there were major environmental protests promised, the technology is well-known but nobody wants to use it because it is economically wrong right now, and there were more. It was always a dog!

2.  They spent a similar amount of money on a project to grow canola and make biodiesel. The problem was, apart from the fact this is a bad idea in its own right, they planted a huge area in a region where nobody else tried to grow it. The overall yield was negligible, most of the plants well dead before seed formation. They overlooked a golden rule of new ventures: unless you are sure, start with a small experiment. Small costs less when it fails.

3.  Over the last couple of years coal prices were extremely high, so they bullishly expanded. So far, so good. However, they were unprepared for the prices to fall again. Now, you do not have to be extremely bright to work out that the reason prices were high was because supply was short, and the reason for that was that the huge mines in Queensland were shut down due to flooding. Equally, you do not have to be extremely bright to realize that such highly efficient mines would eventually reopen, supply would be full to overfull, and prices would drop. Good management would keep an eye on Queensland, and close down the least efficient in time.

My question is, why did such stupidity justify excessive pay? For that matter, why are so-called investment bankers paid huge bonuses for bubble trading, with the taxpayer picking up the pieces when the bubble bursts? Why do not people who made fortunes generating shonky derivatives and dressing them up all nice go to jail for fraud? That is where I would go if I generated such rubbish and sold it, but it appears that when an “approved bank” does it, it is OK.

None of which answers the initial question, so feel free to offer your suggestions.