Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The carbon is loose...

Pondering the whole climate-change-remediation question has often led me to a dead end. Like ag trade reform, we eventually run into the emerging economies and their obvious self-interest in not going along.  Just as India really doesn't want to lower barriers that protect its farmers, neither does China want to give up burning really cheap coal.

And just how developed countries can compensate enough with stringent carbon-emission measures remains a mystery to me.  I'm not the only one thinking we might need a Plan B as well as Plan A.
Cut to the chase. We rich people can’t stop the world’s 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach. We can’t even make any durable dent in global emissions—because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast, because the other 80 percent of humanity desperately needs cheap energy, and because we and they are now part of the same global economy. What we can do, if we’re foolish enough, is let carbon worries send our jobs and industries to their shores, making them grow even faster, and their carbon emissions faster still.
Regardless of the abrasive tone of this screed, the author does illuminate what may be a better reaction.  First, go nuclear as fast and far as possible for electricity generation.

But at the same time, we need to get really, really good at recapturing carbon from the atmosphere.  Huber skips lightly over this, remarkably short on useful hint of just how we can do this.
 If we’re truly worried about carbon, we must instead approach it as if the emissions originated in an annual eruption of Mount Krakatoa. Don’t try to persuade the volcano to sign a treaty promising to stop. Focus instead on what might be done to protect and promote the planet’s carbon sinks—the systems that suck carbon back out of the air and bury it. Green plants currently pump 15 to 20 times as much carbon out of the atmosphere as humanity releases into it—that’s the pump that put all that carbon underground in the first place, millions of years ago. At present, almost all of that plant-captured carbon is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by animal consumers. North America, however, is currently sinking almost two-thirds of its carbon emissions back into prairies and forests that were originally leveled in the 1800s but are now recovering. For the next 50 years or so, we should focus on promoting better land use and reforestation worldwide. Beyond that, weather and the oceans naturally sink about one-fifth of total fossil-fuel emissions. We should also investigate large-scale options for accelerating the process of ocean sequestration.
Carbon zealots despise carbon-sinking schemes because, they insist, nobody can be sure that the sunk carbon will stay sunk. Yet everything they propose hinges on the assumption that carbon already sunk by nature in what are now hugely valuable deposits of oil and coal can be kept sunk by treaty and imaginary cheaper-than-carbon alternatives. This, yet again, gets things backward. We certainly know how to improve agriculture to protect soil, and how to grow new trees, and how to maintain existing forests, and we can almost certainly learn how to mummify carbon and bury it back in the earth or the depths of the oceans, in ways that neither man nor nature will disturb. It’s keeping nature’s black gold sequestered from humanity that’s impossible.
If we do need to do something serious about carbon, the sequestration of carbon after it’s burned is the one approach that accepts the growth of carbon emissions as an inescapable fact of the twenty-first century. And it’s the one approach that the rest of the world can embrace, too, here and now, because it begins with improving land use, which can lead directly and quickly to greater prosperity. If, on the other hand, we persist in building green bridges to nowhere, we will make things worse, not better. Good intentions aren’t enough. Turned into ineffectual action, they can cost the earth and accelerate its ruin at the same time. [More]
Maybe it's just me, but I think I caught an inference about reshaping agriculture in places to return some land back to permanent grass or forest, just the opposite of what biofuel is doing. In fact, the big issue with ethanol/biodiesel is the land-use repercussions in places where rainforests compete with date palms, for example.
With governments and consumers scrambling for alternatives to fossil fuel, worldwide demand for biofuels has gone through the roof; in Europe, where more than half of all automobiles run on diesel, consumption of biodiesel is set to triple by 2010. US subsidies for biofuels, mostly ethanol, will add up to $92 billion between 2006 and 2012, and producers in developing countries like Indonesia are often eligible for millions of dollars in development money from the World Bank.
But amid the hype, problems have emerged. Biodiesel emits less than one-quarter the carbon of regular diesel once it's burned. But when production—and the destruction of ecosystems in the developing countries where most biofuel crops are grown—is factored in, many biofuels may actually emit more carbon than does petroleum, the journal Science reported last year. Because oil palms don't absorb as much CO2 as the rainforest or peatlands they replace, palm oil can generate as much as 10 times more carbon than petroleum, according to the advocacy group Food First. Thanks in large part to oil palm plantations, Indonesia is now the world's third-largest emitter of CO2, trailing only the US and China. [More]
But his overall point is well taken. Ignoring the energy needs of the other 5 billion humans on the planet won't lower the rate of carbon emissions effectively. While the US in particular could be much more energy efficient and should set the example for the future of energy generation, expecting emerging countries to not use dirt cheap fuel to power their rise from poverty is illogical.

The tricky part is the technology of sequestration.

And no, sending US farmers a check will not get that job done. Oddly, one good step is using landfills. [Read more about current sequestration recapture techniques]

Without invoking the space program, I tend to believe more focus on recapture would be a good investment, especially if the technologies were adaptable to power plants in the growing economies.


From Virginia said...

I think we can solve this. Nuclear, absolutely! Also, there are numerous other approaches that will develop in time. Here are two possibilities: Cold Fusion, (yes, still a possibility!)

and satellite solar

numerous others will surface no doubt.

Ol James said...

Yes Sir, I agree. I do think there should be a way to sequester the carbon into the ground tho. Bear with me.This is Allan Nation's Blog from The Stockman Grass Farmer's website. some interesting thoughts and ideas are risen.-
There are a few folks here that used to make and sell charcoal and had their pits. Well the EPA stopped that.( Still the best stuff for cooking IMOHO.
They plant their gardens on these sites......and..WOW. Everything grows much bigger than comparable types seen at the market. Lettuce the size of basketballs and larger, cabbage the same. All plants put in these soils show significant size. The taste is better and the shelf life is increased.
What to do with the captured carbon??Pump it into a well and feed the ground. Plant around it and wait for a few decades and pump the oil & gas out. Not near a wasteful and costly as..say...cap-n-trade or credits. This way some conglomeration doesn't do a Ponzi or Madoff on us,