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Changing climate change

Last week, Webdiarist David Roffey attended and reported on Greenhouse 2005. Next week the parties to the Kyoto Protocol which Australia did not sign, will meet in Montreal. Today Jeffery D Sachs, Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University reviews the problem of timing in adjusting to climate change.

Changing climate change

Jeffrey Sachs

by Jeffrey D Sachs

The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990, and 2005 is likely to be the warmest ever. This year, we've gotten a taste of the many kinds of dangers that lie ahead: more extreme hurricanes, massive droughts, forest fires, spreading infectious diseases, and floods. The climate is changing, and more is yet to come.

The world's governments will meet in Montreal at the end of November to plot the next steps, including specific measures that the world could adopt if the Bush administration abandoned its willful neglect of this critical issue.

Climate change is equated with "global warming," but much more than warming is involved. The rising concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is leading to more extreme storms, higher-intensity hurricanes, rising ocean levels, melting glaciers and ice sheets, droughts, floods and other climate changes. Even the chemistry of the land and ocean is changing, with the ocean becoming more acidic - thus threatening coral reefs - as a result of higher carbon dioxide.

The specific patterns of change are not known precisely, but the risks of continuing on our current global course are widely appreciated. Yet the United States has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which does little to change the long-term course of events on the planet, since it calls for only small steps up to the year 2012.

Under the terms of the UN treaty on climate change, the signatories - virtually the whole world - are to gather each year to discuss the treaty's implementation. The conference in Montreal - the 11th such meeting - should look beyond 2012, so that the world gets onto a safe and sustainable long-term climate path.

The actions that are needed are difficult to introduce, because they go to the heart of the world's use of energy, particularly its use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), which, when burned, release carbon dioxide - the key source of rising greenhouse gases - into the atmosphere. Yet the world economy depends on fossil fuels, and developing countries will need to use more, not less, of them as their economies grow. Even if the world runs out of oil and gas in the coming years, coal will prove to be plentiful, and solid coal can be converted at relatively low cost to liquid fuels for automobiles and other uses.

Unfortunately, clean, renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide, such as wind power and geothermal power, are not yet sufficient. Solar power can be produced on the required scale but is too expensive under current technologies. Nuclear power is relatively cheap, and could be plentiful, but poses huge dangers for increased proliferation of nuclear-weapons materials.

So: fossil fuels are plentiful, but harmful; renewable sources like wind are good for the climate but not plentiful. Solar power is plentiful but not cheap. Nuclear power is plentiful but not safe.

Improved technologies can offer a way out of this bind, but only if we think and act ahead. There are two main kinds of technologies that look most promising. The first is energy conservation through more fuel-efficient vehicles. New hybrid automobiles, pioneered by Toyota, use both gasoline and electric power to boost gasoline efficiency by approximately two-fold. A massive changeover to more fuel-efficient vehicles would make a big difference, especially as the numbers of vehicles on the road soars in China, India, and other developing countries.

The second big technology that could make a major difference is called "carbon capture and storage." The idea is to "capture" the carbon dioxide that is emitted in power plants and other big factories when fossil fuels are burned, thereby preventing it from entering the atmosphere. The captured carbon is then pumped into underground storage sites such as empty oil fields and other suitable locations.

All of the key aspects of the technology - capturing the carbon dioxide, putting it into pipelines for shipment, and then depositing it underground - have already been demonstrated, but they have not yet been tried, and proven, on a large scale. There is strong evidence, however, that it would not cost the world huge amounts to undertake large-scale carbon capture and storage.

The problem is timing. The changeover of the world's vehicles to hybrid and other efficient technologies will take decades, not years. So will the changeover of power plants to carbon capture and storage. If we procrastinate, the dangers posed by climate change will confront us as we talk, debate, and plan. The world needs to start acting soon - very soon - if it is to head off the major threats.

All major regions of the world will need to be involved. Today's developing countries are not yet major emitters of carbon dioxide, but with economic growth they will become so.  Therefore, all countries, both developed and developing, need to do their part, with rich countries helping poor countries cover the financial costs of adjustment.

Plenty of carbon dioxide will be emitted into the atmosphere as the world's climate negotiators fly to and from the Montreal meeting. Let's press our governments to make real progress when they meet; otherwise they will merely be adding to the problem.


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re: Changing climate change

I had a look at the pros and cons about geo-sequestration and it seems that there are grave doubts about putting all our eggs in this basket. This site explains it well enough for amateurs like myself although there are many others.

One has to ask, why are the technologies and values which have delivered this scenario of climate change trusted to deliver us out of the impending inferno?

Further, why is the coal industry treated like a sacred cow when there are new knowledges which promise to reduce our dependence on coal fired power stations?

The R&D scandal of the pre-election budget, which directed grants away from new alternative technologies, will take a lot of explaining in the years to come. Perhaps this will be Howard and Costello's greatest failure - failure of vision which will trap us into becoming the uranium 'garbage' dump of the world.

re: Changing climate change

"...fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), which, when burned, release carbon dioxide - the key source of rising greenhouse gases..."

I read that much and gave up. Can't we get better quality commentary on the environment than this? There's been little balance in Webdiary on this subject, with voice given almost entirely to highly speculative scaremongering.

re: Changing climate change

Jenny Stirling, you put it so well when you said, “This site explains it well enough for amateurs like myself”.

All Greens are amateurs, and I am glad at least one of you has admitted it. Now if we can only get Brown and Nettle to realise it and go out and get proper jobs and leave the running of the country to people who know what they are doing.

We have to go nuclear. It is plentiful and despite what people like yourself say, it is safe and will become safer as the years go by.

By all means piddle around amongst the trees. It will keep you out of trouble but please leave all the real thinking to people who know.

re: Changing climate change

Imagine rushing to draft a wish list of it and then ramming that legislation through both houses under your control - legislation designed to solve environmental problems.

re: Changing climate change

Yes Phil, the same sort of crap as from the Royal Society and other major scientific institutions.

What would they know? Get out a copy of Michael Crichton's State of Fear - it's all you need to be a environmental expert hey Phil.

re: Changing climate change

There is little in this article other than what you normally get from an economist. Capturing carbon and putting it in the ground is stupid, because it doesn't address the cause. JD Sach has little understanding of the problem and wants to prolong the agony of fossil fuels, for as long as possible. Our economy only revolves around fossil oils because that is the only way the vested interests can maintain the current economic control of the planet.

Sach, fails to address biofuels and other than to use outdated and biased statistics. A combination of alternative fuels will have to be the answer, or we will just end up living in a totally chaotic world, fueled by social chaos and environmental chaos. Biodiesel will be the short term saviour until we find another form of non polluting propulsion.

Solar power is also capable of providing household and industrial energy considering the current advances. Currently, you can set yourself up and put any excess energy back into the grid. When you combine that with small wind generators, you have a system that will last for at least 20 years before replacement. New battery technology will improve that within the next two years.

re: Changing climate change

Raglar Hanavak, geo-sequestration is a great idea, we should do it ASAP.

Attacking the problem at cause is a great idea, we should do it ASAP.
This problem is multi-faceted and will require a multiplicity of solutions to be implemented in parallel.

Fossil fuel hegemony is only in part driven by the conspiracy you allege - fact is that no other energy source, save perhaps nuclear, comes anywhere near it in terms of kilojoules per buck as it stands. The economics of the alternatives are miles away and the taxpayer cost of moving faster at present is punitive.

Cranking petrol up to $5 per litre, for example, would seriously disenfranchise many in our society ill equipped to cope now. Is that fair? No.

Feeding "Micro power" back into the grid and all from households that is a fine plan in concept, but the economics are still a major league challenge.

There are major technical issues with that concept growing. Why? A power grid looks like a big tree. The generator is at the base of the trunk, and the branches get progressively thinner and lighter as you move towards the edge. If you start pumping even small amounts of power in at the edges the light legs of the grid out there get overloaded very fast and blow up as there's simply too much juice being fed through. Extend this logic and implementing micro power generation across the board requires the whole grid to be upgraded at massive capital cost. Examples exist already: what wind farms that have been implemented so far are typically in relatively remote rural areas, and the costs of upgrading the grid links from the wind farms back to the trunk run to millions.

The same issue applies to any form of domestic micro power generation be it solar, garbage, wind or whatever if the economics rely on power being fed back to existing grid structures. Same issue continues to apply to wind farms, large solar arrays and ocean power schemes too.

re: Changing climate change

As you say Carla, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The trick is to know that you don't know.

re: Changing climate change

Ping Ping we have a new expert for Webdiary. With gems like "All Greens are amateurs" and "By all means piddle around amongst the trees. It will keep you out of trouble but please leave all the real thinking to people who know" it will take no time at all for Carla Thompson to enlighten the green skinned troglodytes here at the Webdiary. :)

BTW Carla, I’m for nuclear being on the table as long as the cost of processing/storing waste, security and decontamination of plant and site is factored into the equation. BTW no subsidies unless you offer the same to the other sectors.

Solar + Stirling engines looks like it could compete with coal and gas and given our wide open spaces and sunshine it would beat nuclear hands down.

Still waiting for the government to be serious and have a independent study done into a number of different scenarios that include all options and mixes and also includes a serious energy efficiency drive.

Until I hear that we as a nation at the very least have that energy efficiency drive the government is only paying lip service to the problem.

re: Changing climate change

That there is a general lack of scientific education is a serious problem: To wit:

"Climate change is equated with "global warming," but much more than warming is involved."

What "global warming" means in this context is that there is more energy being retained in the earth's atmosphere than there was before the increase in anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, and less energy is being reflected out to space. It takes a fairly scientifically sophisticatd perspective to appreciate this. In the same context, "climate change" means the same thing, but in a way that doesn't impinge on the energy company's short term ability to make money.

ed Hamish: Hi kd and welcome to Webdiary. Next time however use a full name or contact Margo and tell her why you require a non de plume. Otherwise, no post.

re: Changing climate change

Robert, what a thought!

To think of those few men (and one woman in a sitting room overlooking Sydney Harbour) possessing almost all power in our political system today changing their ways and deciding to use it to address the most pressing need for our economic future - maintaining an environment we can live and work in and know our children, grandchilden and their children can continue to live and work in and perhaps occasionally take the chance to dive in and explore a colourful coral reef - is, most unfortunately, rightly described as wishful thinking.

What could make it realistic rather than wishful? What could turn these (mostly) men from thoughts dominated by winning at any cost their long held dreams of ideological (most likely pyrrhic) victories toward thoughts of doing what is really needed most and ensuring us a future history? Could they ever swallow their pride (or is it already manifest as hubris), admit they've not focused on the most pressing need and start doing all that is possible to support efforts to solve environmental problems?

I believe it would take one big change to enable the thought you've shared to become our reality. We would have to make a change away from the way we punish those MPs who 'fess up and admit an error. We'd need to make it safer for them to admit mistakes they have made (well some anyway). We'd need to cease the cries of backflip, flip-flop and so forth so that they feel safer in changing course. Only then could politicans admit they have been wrong to put off addressing the problems that could well limit our future and from that point they could move on anew to tackle what is ultimately the most pressing issue we all face - maintaining an environment where we can not only survive but continue to thrive and share prosperity.

re: Changing climate change

We hardly need the scientists to tell us about 'global warming' anymore. Anyone who denies the climate is not changing for the worse hasn't been outside for the past few years. As for, "please leave all the real thinking to people who know," presumably that means the party in power or JWH who don't quite know all they profess to as we have seen with the WMD intelligence. Still, they are our betters and have that born right to rule so who are we to argue?

re: Changing climate change

Before the political name calling gets too extreme might I suggest that people read the archives and current posts at Climate Science blog where these issues have been discussed with some authority and great depth. I personally think that mentioning Michael Chricton's State of Fear in this context is equivalent to mentioning Hitler in many blogs and should be deemed an immediate loss of the argument. :-)

re: Changing climate change

I must confess that this is not my area of expertise (I only got a decile 6 in HSC Chemistry and have not done any formal science outside of Psychology since).

There are, however, things I find puzzling, not the least that we should be reading about an economist's view of a scientific issue.

First, I can see no definite evidence of "global warming". We have not been keeping records on a geological scale, one Krakatoa can throw the data out completely anyway and the ice core data seem equivocal to me.

Secondly, that does not mean we should not be taking measures to reduce the amount of "greenhouse gases" we release into the atmosphere.

Thirdly, all the indications are that emerging third world economies are going to exacerbate the problem (if there is one), while other economies are going to act in their own short-term interest as humans have always done. (Remember that there is a good argument for Australia's deserts being created by Aboriginal land management by fire and they seem to have eaten the megafauna out).

Fourthly, and here is where I would welcome some expert assistance from qualified Webdiarists, as to our water problems here in Australia, why is it not possible (and economic) to use solar power to evaporate seawater and condense it into potable water?

As to this (I must say rather strange) idea that we should stockpile C02, why not dissassciate H2O, combine the released O with Ca and Co2 to form CaCO3 (thus chalking up a winner if you will forgive the pun) and use the H2 as fuel?

As for this bullshit about coral, reefs form all the time all over the place (it has to do with the way corals reproduce). The Devonian (I think) barrier reef is somewhere under Kuranda at the moment.

For the long-term, get off the planet I say. My nursing home may as well be in orbit as here.

re: Changing climate change

David Eastwood, I don't quite agree that pushing energy from households into the grid would blow up the grid. It would in fact make it more efficient. Generators pump energy into the grid from a very few spots and by the time it puts the 1KW or so into your house up to 10% has been lost due to the distance. If your neighbour produces 2KW, consumes 1kW and sends 1kW back into the grid, then the local powerlines are loaded by 1kW less energy and the losses to your place is a little less as some of the power has less to travel. So unless somebody is thinking of sticking a 30MW gas turbine in their backyard the network load will shrink as people consume the energy they produce and the overall efficiency of the network will grow because the system losses will be less.

re: Changing climate change

Thank you Bob Howard for your post. I was happy to see one that dealt explicitly with the media misreporting, especially in the US. I am reminded the insults Churchill received when trying to alert Britain to the danger posed by Germany, prior to WWII. The 1920s in Europe were devoted to hedonism and few people wanted to listen to his dire predictions of renewed war between the states. I am afraid the fact of polar ice caps melting is just too big and terrible for most of us to comprehend.

re: Changing climate change

David Eastman, the cost of geo-sequestraion is going to be massive because it will require the replacement of all existing power stations. There is general agreement in the industry that the existing plants cannot be safely or efficiently upgraded. There is also no guarantee that we are able to safely store the liquid CO2. Yes research is underway to find suitable sites far enough underground so that the CO2 remains liquid and not gas but nothing looks remotely feasible for another 15 years.

By which time the social dislocation you speak of will well and truly be a fact of life. Ok. Everyone here on Webdiary wants to best answer, hence Carla's frustration with my comments but there is no one answer as you aptly point out. My beef is that the promising alternatives were just ignored in government sponsored research dollar allocation.

As we have seen with Enron in the USA, the ethics of big business cannot be trusted to deliver the 'best' outcomes for society. Their bias is always going to be towards cornering the market because it is the nature of the beast. We do need competition between private and publicly funded research in order to facilitate the widest range of possibilities and outcomes for sustainable energy production. This issue is too important for market dogma to run the show.

As for using nuclear power, all that will do is to delay the crunch time. It may give us something of a breathing space but unlike coal, there are not huge deposits of uranium around the world. So in the space of this century, we will be looking for other sources of power AND we will have the environmental, social, economic, political problem of safely storing enriched uranium.

I too am frightened about the prospects of risking other technology when we have this option staring us in the face but I have to say, we need to think of future generations and the legacy we will leave them if we take the softer option of nuclear power generation. There are some things worse than material poverty - poverty of spirit, health, and hope being the major ones I can think of.

re: Changing climate change

Malcolm, the scientific evidence is overwhelming, and being added to every day. Paleoclimatologists can give you a pretty good rundown on the climate for the last 400,000 years, and an outline for the last two million years - and we're in uncharted territory on greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations, with levels never seen before on the planet.

Ragnar, David, et al, nobody in their right minds who understands the science wants to put our eggs into any one basket. The overwhelming evidence is that the world is going to warm up by more than two degrees in this century. If we do EVERYTHING we can think of, including some things we can conceive of but haven't invented yet, we might be able to restrain it to only 2-3deg warming. That means almost all these investment decisions are no-brainers: invest in geosequestration - yes; invest in as much wind, solar, biofuels, as we can - yes; do everything we can to get energy efficiency - yes; work on clean coal technologies - yes; put billions into ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) - yes; build more nuclear fission stations - yes (so long as we can fix the waste problem, and the cost problem - because if you cost in dealing with the waste and the security/terrorism problems, nuclear fission is by some margin more expensive than any other technology).

Lots and lots of business opportunities for investment here, which Australia is isolated from to some extent by being outside the mainstream on Kyoto etc. Now that the 9 north-eastern US states, California, Oregon and Washington state have signed up for the Kyoto rules, in reality Australia is the only standout, because whether or not GWB is in, nearly all of his economy is in. This is also, BTW, going to cost Australian business a lot, because being the only significant economy outside Kyoto makes investing in Australia more risky, and risk costs money. As Sir Crispin Tickell told many people in the Sydney investment community last night, even China is joining in.

2-3deg warming brings on some irreversible changes. Notwithstanding Malcolm's view, I'll be sorry to see the Great Barrier Reef go - but it's too late to save it now. The melting of the Greenland ice shelf - 97% certain at 2deg, 100% certain at 3deg warming - will mean a sea level rise of 7-10 metres is now pretty certain over the next few hundred years. The drought yet to come for eastern Australia combined with dry-land salination means we need to plan for the end of farming in the Murray-Darling basin. The rise in sea-levels and increased power of storm-surges means I wouldn't recommend putting money into beachside high-rises in Queensland. But most of these will be long-term changes, and accepting that they're on their way means we can plan for what to do about them.

Denying it's happening until it's too late is not a sensible option. Then we only have to worry about the potential for rapid and catastrophic change...

re: Changing climate change

Michael Janos, I'd love to think you were right there, but my intuition, and discussions with practicioners in the field (I am a venture capitalist investing in these and other technologies) tell me otherwise, sadly.

But, if we pull back from the idea of pumping power back into the grid at the extremities on a wide scale (it will certainly be feasible in some areas, for example near large wind farms that have had to install grid upgrades to function) and pursue the notion that homes can generate their own power and store what they don't immediately use for later usage. The way battery technology for one is moving this looks a lot more feasible day by day and the grid constraints disappear. It also means that households will develop much better backup solutions in place for when the grid does fail and the overall reliance on centralised industrial scale power generation and transmission will fall.

re: Changing climate change

Jenny Stirling, thanks. I agree with you in many ways. But, given all the issues around any alternative like sequestration, or "more nuclear" or whatever surely we need to dive into them sooner rather than later?

I'll divulge that I too was at the Crispin Tickell briefing in Sydney last night, where he talked of, and a seriously high powered group debated these and related issues.

At the risk of stealing David Roffey's thunder, as I recall he was planning to write a WD piece reviewing this session, I believe your fears of the market not ever delivering the right outcomes are unfounded. Enron etc were governance problems, not big business problems. They were about crime, not capitalism.

Sir Crispen relayed some of his discussions with big business, major multinationals in energy and other areas (eg. BP, Exxon Mobil, GE). It is clear they get the message for the most part and are starting to make serious moves to push progress. This is happening in part because their shareholders and customers are making them do it, in part because their own Boards and Managements are driving it and in some cases (not here or in the USA, for example) because Governments are making them do it.

Sure there is a long way to go, and sure it will take a long time, but it's started.

One key hurdle on the research front may prove to be National Interest. Where research is state funded, as much is here in Australia, it's usually on "National Interest" grounds. As a result we often compete with other countries in research.

Normally this is a good thing for the usual economics based reasons but, if we truly believe that these are urgent global problems perhaps a bit less international research competition might allow more alternatives (and we need plenty) to be explored and developed more rapidly?

This could only happen through inter-governmental co-operation, of course. I don't know that a model for that particular type of cooperation exists at this point.

re: Changing climate change

On the 'peak oil' thing, sadly we don't actually get to run out of fossil fuels any time soon enough to save us, and as it happens we've already burned enough of them to get most of the nasty effects even if we went all-nuclear tomorrow (and if we went all-nuclear we'd have 'peak uranium'). The 'peak' bit is about whether we can pump the stuff fast enough to meet all demands. Almost certainly not is the answer. That doesn't stop us crapping up the planet, but it does put up the price more than somewhat.

re: Changing climate change

2005 has seen more named tropical storms than ever before, more hurricanes than ever before, more Cat 5 hurricanes than ever before, and the strongest storm ever recorded (Wilma). But I'm sure E Burrows is right that just saying those things doesn't mean it was remarkable in any way.

re: Changing climate change

David Eastwood: sorry I misunderstood, I thought you were talking about domestic/small generators pushing energy into the grid. You ARE talking about multiMW units, in which case a higher capacity transmission line is required. I know people who look for generation sites and the key is to look for a place where a gas pipeline (or windy hill) is crossed by a major transmission line, because they are expensive to build. Note that a lot of hospitals do send excess energy (over 1MW from memory) from their generators back into the grid through not particularly large distribution lines.

re: Changing climate change

If the "peak oil" people are right (and we will be starving to death, riding donkeys and shaving with rocks by 2020), then we won't have to worry about Global Warming.

Sorry, I meant Climate Change. ;-)

On a serious note, I got pretty sceptical after the article's first paragraph referred to 'more extreme hurricanes' as a 'taste' of the future. Presumably, he is referring to Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. I'm still amazed this myth is plodding along. The American meteorological bureaus and research centres (who have recorded the frequency and intensity of US hurricanes for decades!) publicly stated that there was nothing remarkable about the recent 'hurricane season'. But I guess that gets less news ratings that an unqualified extremist claiming that Rita is "proof" that the sky is finally falling.

And isn't is funny how they use that phrase "hurricane season"? Why, it's almost like these things happen all the time...

re: Changing climate change

An interesting discussion, to which I wish to contribute. I crave readers’ indulgence as I have to leave my computer for a few days, and have to leave my calculations unchecked. Needless to add, I would sincerely like to be proved wrong (not just in mathematical error) in what follows (started late last night and hurriedly finished today).

First, many thanks to Jenny Stirling for her link. Given the problems admitted to there (at the outset) by those in favour of the process, and the historical experience of such problems to escalate in the scaling up and engineering, there is good reason to be wary, particularly if the clearly huge investments involved divert resources away from renewables, which ultimately are the only way humanity can satisfy its energy needs in the medium to long term.

Carla Thompson’s (22/11/2005 7:47:14 PM) glib assurance: “We have to go nuclear. It is plentiful and despite what people like [Jenny Stirling] say, it is safe and will become safer as the years go by” has been answered well by Simon Moffitt (22/11/2005 8:49:06 PM). I would only add that the world’s known uranium resources are only good for about 100 years of nuclear fission-based generation, after which it is plutonium or nothing. But taking the uranium path means building infrastructure and training large numbers of nuclear science and engineering specialists, and thus creating economic momentum favouring the plutonium path when the uranium runs out. And plutonium is inherently about the unsafest fuel to base electricity generation on.

An answer to Malcolm’s question (“why not dissociate H2O, combine the released O with Ca and Co2 to form CaCO3 (thus chalking up a winner if you will forgive the pun) and use the H2 as fuel?”): Apart from problems with the rest of it, where do you get the calcium (Ca) from? The only possible source for the amount needed is from roasting limestone, (Ca dissolved in seawater is snapped up immediately by marine organisms) involving burning fuel to do it, and driving CO2 out of the limestone to form quicklime (CaO). A moment’s reflection shows that this will result in a net increase in atmospheric CO2. But yes, I think that solar distillation has great possibilities for producing fresh water. However I had better not get started on that here.

I have great reservations about geosequestration of CO2. We have considerable experience of disposal of solid and liquid wastes, but gaseous wastes of large volume have to date been simply vented to the atmosphere. Now we are going to try and pump them under high pressure into what we hope are rock formations satisfying at least three criteria: they must be vast, and stable, and porous. To test any candidates other than disused oil and gas wells for just gas holding capacity, it would first be necessary to pump huge volumes of a harmless gas like air into them and maintain it under high and constant pressure for years. But as I see it, there are some fundamental problems arising out of the basic physics and chemistry of the situation.

Carbon dioxide liquefies at ordinary temperatures at a pressure of around 70 atmospheres. (By comparison, a car tyre normally operates at around 2 atmospheres. So a CO2 gas cylinder, which holds the CO2 as gas over liquid, needs to withstand a pretty hefty pressure, as do the rocks sealing in the CO2 in a sequestration deposit.) Pumping liquid CO2 down disused oil and gas wells would appear to me to be the most obvious first approach. The rocks the wells tap into have successfully held the oil and gas, often under high pressure and temperature conditions, for millions of years without it leaking out. BUT, the water that often lies below the oil in a well does not mix with the oil. Not so with CO2. Soda water is made by dissolving CO2 in water under (mild) pressure. Someone may be able to enlighten me, but I cannot see CO2 being trapped like oil. Pumping it down into other porous sedimentary layers could conceivably see it migrating horizontally and bubbling out into the sea at distant submarine outcrops 1, 10, 100… years later, to create problems on whatever scale.

Most crude oil is 84-88% carbon, and 11.5-14.5% hydrogen by mass. In other words, and simplifying it a bit, 100 tonnes of crude oil contains around 85 tonnes of carbon. One tonne of carbon produces 3.7 tonnes of CO2 when burnt completely. If all that carbon is converted into CO2 and pumped back down wells, the 85 tonnes of carbon going down into the rock strata will be converted to 312 tonnes of CO2. That is, the carbon will of necessity carry with it 227 tonnes of oxygen, the latter extracted from the atmosphere during combustion. (The hydrogen is converted into water vapour or steam in the same process and joins the atmospheric water cycle.) So our 100 tonnes of oil has to be replaced by 312 tonnes of CO2 (85 x 3.7 = 312) for geosequestration to deal with all the CO2 generated (ignoring issues such as differing densities and volatilities of the oil and waste CO2). And to hold the CO2, the wells will have to have over triple the capacity (on a mass basis) they needed to hold the oil that came out of them. Moreover, if the CO2 dissolves in groundwater and then contacts carbonate rock like limestone, the result could conceivably be the leaching out of the limestone in the way limestone caves are formed. This of course is possible, as oil wells commonly contain natural gas over oil over water, and limestone is a common porous rock.

But there appears to me to be a further problem with geosequestration. The world’s coal reserves are about 980 billion tonnes. The oil reserves are around (a rubbery) 115 billion tonnes. The Earth in other words has about 8.5 tonnes of coal for every tonne of oil. Bituminous coal, (such as is mined in NSW), is about 77% carbon, 5% hydrogen 7% oxygen and 11% other substances by (dry) weight. Lignite (such as is mined in Victoria) is 67% C, 5% H and 20% O. Assuming all the world’s coal to be lignite (which it is not, but it involves a carbon mass rather generous to the geosequestrationists), 100 tonnes of lignite at 67% carbon converts to about 250 tonnes of CO2. On this basis, in the world’s coal deposits we are talking about 660 billion tonnes of carbon, converting to 2440 billion tonnes of CO2. The carbon content of that coal is slightly less per tonne than that of oil. It would appear that even if stable long term sequestration is a possibility, the world’s exhausted oil and gas wells are likely to be stretched beyond capacity. And the other strata must be treated with far greater suspicion as to their CO2 holding capabilities. Geosequestration in short means that a significant portion of the world’s continental masses have to become giant lemonade bottles, expected to hold around three times the total mass of all the coal deposits in the world as gas under high pressure, and for a long, long time.

The danger is that the whole exercise will become a boondoggle, serving only to siphon huge amounts of public money into the corporations doing the (perhaps temporary) geosequestration. Before too many googillions of dollars are plunged into it, one would hope that a scientific consensus would form in favour of it. That does not seem to be happening at the moment.

Of course, excellent devices have been developed for removing CO2 from air and sequestering it in stable structures. They are called forests.

re: Changing climate change

E Burrows notes "If the 'peak oil' people are right (and we will be starving to death, riding donkeys and shaving with rocks by 2020), then we won't have to worry about Global Warming."

You know the old saying: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."

The problem is not so much that we're running out of oil (though eventually that will happen); it's that we're running out of cheap oil. New finds are increasingly in places where it's hard to extract (offshore basins for example) and/or expensive to refine (lower grade).

Geosequestration will probably make sense in certain situations, especially where carbon dioxide is released as a by-product of fossil-fuel extraction, rather than as a combustion product of fossil fuel burning.

The ocean acidification issue is a real one. It is still not clear how marine organisms will respond to this change in chemistry of the oceans, but there is no doubt the pH will continue to fall due to the dissocation of carbonic acid from CO2. It's only a question of how far, how fast, and where the impacts will be greatest.

On the question of: should we put effort into new non-fossil fuel sources of energy such as nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal? Or should we institute energy efficiency measures? Or should we keep looking for more sources of fossil fuel, but bring in cleaner ways of recovering and burning it? Or should we start adaptation strategies for the climate changes already locked in? Or should we put our efforts into new technologies?

The answer: YES! All of the above. Plus anything else I forgot to mention. The more you understand the scale of the problem, the clearer it becomes that we cannot dismiss any options, including nuclear.

re: Changing climate change

As someone with a modest technical background in electronics it seems to me that the most critical factor in the energy equation, both domestic and transport but not industrial, is not so much generation, but storage. And the most promising on that front currently seems to be lithium-iron batteries. Do any Webdiarists have a good technical understanding of these they could share, in layperson's terms? (I know it is a copout, but I really don't have the time to do the necessary research.)

With regards to CO2 sequestration and underground storage. Firstly, I am concerned about the long term reliability and safety of such a method. It may very well be stable for many millenia, but if we plan to be on planet earth for a very long time (and I hope we do) then this method could be a very real danger. A sudden or relatively gradual release of millions of tons of stored CO2 into the atmosphere, due to geologic events or other causes, could be truly catastrophic. This is an issue where we need to take the very very long term view. Even 10 000 years of certain safe storage isn't enough in this instance. Secondly, it doesn't fundamentally solve the issue of clean sustainable energy generation. And thirdly, it is economically and technically unproven on the scale required to feed our increasing energy demands.

Thanks to Ian MacDougall (23/11/2005 2:26:33 PM) for an excellent and informative post.

I think the bottom line is that we are going to have to learn to live with substantially lower levels of available energy, with all its consequences.

E Burrows (23/11/2005 2:41:58 PM), as I recall the meteorological scientists said the issue was not the increasing number of hurricanes overall, but the increasing frequency of the much more destructive category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Can you provide a link/evidence to back your statement? Or is it going to just remain insubstantial sarcasm and ridicule? :) or :( Take your pick.

re: Changing climate change

Michael Janos No, you were right. I did mean small household scale systems.

If a few hundred or thousand of these in a relatvely localised area each pump small amounts back into the grid at the same time, then the overload hot spots happen a bit upstream where the local aggregation occurs, in the "mid level branches" perhaps.

There may possibly be some interesting mid-scale aggregation possibilities where the houses equipped with generation capability "augment" nearby houses that don't have such capacity, but there will be some tricky pricing and subsidy issues around that concept, and chances are the supply and demand will be mismatched anyway.

When the sun's up we're all at work.... If all the micro generators use a renewable energy source that's time dependant - eg: Solar, then all you get is a big spike in excess power at the time the sun shines and no-one's home. As it's hard to send power across time zones the localised energy spikes will usually need storage, unless they get used for some other purpose (channeling it into desalination would be a good idea...) or they will get wasted. Best do that storage very locally to cut down on infrastructure costs.

re: Changing climate change

David Eastwood are you aware of the Vanadium Battery 100% recharge/discharge it looks like the technology is already here.

The above and

re: Changing climate change

Has anyone done any calculations on the energy required to sequester the CO2 produced by burning a tonne of coal? Extracting and pumping CO2 to great depths in suitable geological formations sounds like a very costly proposition in energy terms.

If we add the energy required to mine and transport coal to the powerstation and the losses in transmission, burning a tonne of coal for electricity generation could possibly end up being an energy sink! The energy balance will only become more problematic as the 'low-hanging fruit' is exhausted.

I'm with Ian MacDougall:

Of course, excellent devices have been developed for removing CO2 from air and sequestering it in stable structures. They are called forests.

And S Kirby:

I think the bottom line is that we are going to have to learn to live with substantially lower levels of available energy, with all its consequences.

re: Changing climate change

Simon Moffitt yes, I am very well, even intimately, aware of that particular technology, though I will disclose that I haven't invested in it.

re: Changing climate change

G Pulford, Malthus speaks!

"Global economics" such as it exists as an entity is not based on never ending growth in non-renewable resource consumption. It's based on growth in economic output, and it doesn't explicitly state that it goes on forever in my view.

I share your praise for UNSW's solar program, I know it well. Most of the research is based on cranking up existing silicon based technologies, for sound reasons as there is lots of upside in doing that. I also know of many other equally clever Solar programs working on very different approaches to solar energy. Between them all the answer gets closer by the day.

In terms of your prescriptions, all laudable, but they won't happen unless economics is used as the lever to make them happen. Throwaway example: Tax large capacity engines in cars based on the real cost to the planet of their existence and then use the revenue raised to develop or operate technologies to reduce emissions.

That's proper economics in action, abetted by good policy. Global application of this sort of thinking is precisely what's needed.

re: Changing climate change

Allright, Ian MacDougall, what about a carbonate other than Calcium?

As to G Pulford's ideas, once the necessity to do something becomes great enough, cost is not a barrier. I still see no reason that humans should not continue to expand either into the oceans or space. If we need to get rid of waste products, and the need is sufficiently great, we can just hurl stuff into space.

All this was something I had hoped we would see in my lifetime, brought up in part as I was on hard science fiction like Heinlein (before his carotids went) and Clark (before he'd spent too much time in the sun). I doubt now that I will. Sad really. If all the money we have spent on futile warmongering (Vietnam, Iraq, the USSR's disaster in Afghanistan etc) had been spent on space, I'd probably be corresponding from orbit by now (and you can save the cheap shots thanks.)

re: Changing climate change

Any approach to global warming that is based on global economics is doomed. Economics is part of the problem not the solution, because it is based on the flawed assumption of unbounded growth. You can't keep growing economies and keep the planet cool - it's against the laws of physics. Modernising a developing country takes HUGE amounts of energy. This energy has to come from somewhere - usually from burning fossil fuels.

The US is pushing for technology to solve greenhouse problems, this is a furphy designed to net them and their industries more money while the developing world is expected to buy their technology. Carbon sequestration is probably not the answer, it takes huge amounts of energy to set up and maintain.

I agree that nuclear is not "safe", but you must also factor in the cost of disposal and storage - the safety aspect is due to contamination risk not so much terrorist risk. I wish those nuclear fusion guys would hurry up and get something usable together, but it may take centuries. By the way, UNSW in Sydney has one of the best solar cell research programmes in the world - all strength to them. Keep up the good work, guys. One day it will be feasible.

In the meantime, we should all be looking at ways we can use less energy and natural resources (including air and water) and be more efficient with what we have got. Stop using cars with engines 3 times bigger than what's needed (it will be a good thing when petrol prices go up by a factor of 3). Eat less meat. Insulate your roof space. Get a rainwater tank. And for chrissakes, stop wrapping supermarket items in 3 layers of packaging and carrying it home in throw-away plastic bags. Will everyone please go out and buy some grocery bags and some low wattage fluorescent lights? And remember to turn your TV off at the switch rather than leave it on stand-by! Oh, and get rid of Howard - he is a BIG part of the problem.

re: Changing climate change

I haven't been taken out for ages.

I'm not so sure it would cost that much. Ever read Clarke's idea of the elevator to the sky? I can't remember the name of the book off the top of my head but anything Clarke thought up had to be taken seriously.

re: Changing climate change

Simon Moffitt, on topic and timely. An interesting link to new developments in energy storage from the Warren Centre.

re: Changing climate change

Malcolm, they'd be expensive shots. If I were so minded it would be economically preferrable to take you out with a Porsche Cayenne Turbo crossing Macleay Street near the Post Office.

re: Changing climate change

S Kirby, glad you took the point.

David Eastwood (you little venture capitalist you - want to invest in an upcoming dynamic political party?) we replace the mass by mining the asteroids. Der.

re: Changing climate change

If we're really serious about saving the environment, there's only one thing to do: renounce Western Civilisation and move to caves.

re: Changing climate change

S Kirby, bit of a gravitational / physics question, Malcolm too for that matter. How much mass can the Earth afford to lose before its orbit around the sun is altered enough to significantly affect our climate, and which way would it go? The idea of a year being two or three days longer or shorter would be a real bugger too.

re: Changing climate change

Malcolm B Duncan (24/11/2005 7:47:24 AM), huge problem with flinging "stuff" into space. Space launches have a fairly high catastrophic failure rate, compared to most other technologies. An exploding rocket will spread stuff from here to Breakfast Creek and back, and if it is seriously radioactive stuff, then this disposal method is simply way too dangerous. Not to mention expensive.

If, however, the proposed space elevator becomes reality then it may well be an excellent solution. (Elevator up to low earth orbit, then very cheap fling at the sun.) The feasibility of a space elevator depends on developing materials strong enough to support their own weight for the 100 odd kilometres up to low earth orbit, and the recently discovered carbon 60 may well meet that criteria.

re: Changing climate change

No David Eastwood, it is a question of supply and export.

I assume the cheque is in the mail, you can have the whole shebang for $10M flat. That gets you 16 years.

The constitution and membership form is at the A time to tear down thread in the October Archive and I hope www.taxationreformnsw.org will be up with links by Monday.

re: Changing climate change

Malcolm, that would never work. That's like saying, "we'll constrain fossil fuel use by limiting the amount of CO2 we pump into the air to that the earth can re-absorb itself" ... so we'll get heavier and heavier, and my vague recollection of astrophyics 101 as taught to me a log time ago says that we're all doomed as we are going to crash into the sun.

As to the other proposition, put me down for a bzillion, convertible to preference shares at my discretion. I've always wanted to own a government.

re: Changing climate change

Check this out. Scully's comments and the NSW State Government's failure to choose an alternative based on sensible greenhouse criteria is breathtaking.

re: Changing climate change

David Eastwood: "(solutions) won't happen unless economics is used as the lever to make them happen. Throwaway example: Tax large capacity engines in cars based on the real cost to the planet of their existence and then use the revenue raised to develop or operate technologies to reduce emissions.

"That's proper economics in action, abetted by good policy. Global application of this sort of thinking is precisely what's needed."

Excellent point. Industry (chairman of GE as an example) is now asking for policy steps like support for carbon trading schemes because they recognise a potential market but need government to "make" one in the case of carbon emissions. The successful prototype of a market like this is the cap-and-trade system put in place during the George H W Bush Administration to address sulfur dioxide emissions.

There are also "legacy" incentives in place that prevent some of the solutions. For example, the SUV market in the US is partly a holdover from the fact that as fuel-economy and emissions standards were put in place, trucks were exempted so as not to disadvantage industry sectors that used them (construction, agriculture, etc). SUVs were technically classed as trucks (I don't know if this is true here in Australia?) and Detroit took advantage of this loophole.

Similarly, the market for small pickup trucks - sorry, I mean "utes" - in the US is in part a result of the "voluntary" import quotas imposed on Japanese auto manufacturers. Trucks were exempted and Toyota, Nissan, and others started pushing small utes and the precursors of SUVs (like the ForeRunner and the Pathfinder) into the US market.

re: Changing climate change

Alternative technologies are very well advanced, Magnan industries provides vanadium Redox fuel cell stacks ranging from 0.5 - 5KW power output.

We run a medium size tourist resort on solar/wind power and are about to trial a Magnan fuel cell stack of 2kwh. In the five years we have been on solar, we have recouped our costs and have been using free energy for the last year. The life of our gel batteries and charging equipment has another 15-20 years to go before replacement. We use gas for cooking and hope to produce our own methane within two years. We also make our own biodiesel that has cut our petro diesel costs by more than 60%. This next year we will produce all our fuel requirements of 8000+ litres from 17 tonnes of triglyceride plant oil derived from mustard and wild radish (prolific weed).

There are many other alternatives that are availible and in development, it appears that it is only those that have vested interests, can't see beyond their programming or have a view of th word that is besmirched by the polluted energy hungry shoe boxes they live in.

The reason we aren't driving electric cars now is purely because vested fossil fuel interests won't allow it. In the 70's we had the pritchard steam engine which got 450 mile to the gallon of kerosene. Ford bought that out and then it disappeared. Then there was John Cauvanagh who built an electric car that he drove around Moe in Victoria for many years until the government made him take it off the road, why because oil companies complained when he decided to go into production. John mysteriously died not long after that from an unknown cause.

Check out these sites if you want to see what is around the corner. Lutec Australia, Stirling solar generator, the quantum solar hot water heater, solar towers, sunballs, ultra bright LED lighting, and 3rd generation solar cells that were developed for the mars rovers power supply. Build your house with a solar roof.

I can understand how those that are trapped within cities are fearful of what is coming energy wise, they are at the mercy of current energy providers whose infrastructure is collapsing. No matter how much semantic rhetoric you put out, the crunch is almost on us.

Of course there is always the probability that oil is the pneumatic system of the planetary plates, removing it has placed greater stress on these plates. Pumping carbon into the ground would probably have the effect of rupturing the surface as the pressure grows underground.

Nuclear won't work, as the lead time is so long that by the time they get around to it, it will be too late.

So it will be large population area's that will suffer the most and there is nothing you can do about that, it won't be 10 or 20 years away, it is within five years that we will be subject to big shortages of energy.

re: Changing climate change

David Eastwood (24/11/2005 1:49:12 PM), jeez, David, you know how to ask the tough ones. I doubt you would get a definitive answer from the world's best climatologists and physicists, let alone little old me (I don't speak for Malcolm). I can give you an idea of the some of the factors you would need to take into account to get a reliable answer:

• How the mass is lost. Evenly/unevenly around the globe? Gradually or suddenly?
• How the mass loss affects earth's orbital period, orbital eccentricity, rotational period, rotational axis, magnetic field, gravitational strength at the surface, gravitational relationship with the moon, and with the other planets, particularly Jupiter. (This may suprise some, but two of the main factors in the possibility of life on earth are 1) Jupiter's critical contribution to the stability of the orbital mechanics of the solar system; and equally importantly 2) Jupiter also sucks up most of the space detritus that was either left over from the original formation of the solar system, or that continues to enter from outside the solar system, mostly in the form of comets and asteroids. Without Jupiter we would almost certainly not be here, and the lack of a Jupiter equivalent is almost certainly one of the main limiting factors in life developing on any planetary systems elsewhere in the universe.)

Then there is a whole host of interactive chemical and biological factors here on earth which affect climate.

Climate is a very sensitive multifactorial dynamic system and it wouldn't take much change in any of these factors to significantly or even drastically alter climate. Recall how tiny amounts of CFCs started seriously altering the protective ozone layer.

About the only things I would be brave enough to suggest are that 1) it wouldn't need to be very much mass to have a significant effect, probably less than 1%, and 2) obviously if the mass loss caused the earth to move closer to the sun then the hotter earth would be, and vice versa.

However, the earth's mass is about 6000 billion billion metric tons, so even 1% of earth's mass is shitload of material. Furthermore, the mass of the earth is actually increasing very slowly due to space debris continually falling onto its surface at the rate of about 100 million kilograms per day (a tiny fraction of earth's mass, about one quadrillionth of 1% per day). Taking these two facts into account, it seems highly unlikely that we mere humans are EVER going to remove so much mass from earth into space that it will make any significant difference to earth's mass, and hence climate, and hence presumably your investment decisions. (Calculations relating to earth's mass can be found here.

There are infinitely more critical and urgent anthropogenic climate factors, like greenhouse gases and habitat destruction and overharvesting of resources, to concern ourselves with.

Malcolm B Duncan (24/11/2005 6:32:58 PM), not quite sure what point you refer to.

David Eastwood (25/11/2005 9:11:15 AM), the end phase of the sun's life and its expansion will start about 500 million years from now, and will swallow up the earth and incinerate it about 1 billion years from now. More accurate to say that the sun is going to crash into us.

Incidentally, Scientific American (July 2005) has a major article on the feasibility of capturing and storing CO2.

re: Changing climate change

Admirable post S Kirby. I can now continue to dream sweetly. Thank you.

re: Changing climate change

Interesting contribution from Polly Toynbee in today's Guardian:

What should be the ground rules for this review? Global warming is more dangerous than any other threat. Its progress is certain, its deadly effect already striking down the weakest. A few Chernobyls would do nothing like the damage caused by melting ice caps, flood and drought. Let's all agree on that, right? Nuclear power with low CO2 emissions is better than doing nothing.

So here's the first question: does nuclear give us more clean kilowatts per buck? Second: if the price of other clean forms of generation is roughly comparable or even a little more, why needlessly store up nuclear waste that is a hazard for centuries? Third: will the government ensure an absolutely transparent level playing field, so that nuclear decommissioning costs and accident insurance are upfront and not fudged? Fourth: if investors demand fixed energy prices for decades ahead to make it worth investing in unproven technologies (nuclear or alternative), will that price guarantee be for all technologies?

re: Changing climate change

On the space elevator idea, see Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars pp 589-594 for what happens if a terrorist cuts the cable at the in-orbit anchor ...

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