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Dead zones

February 19th, 2007

Another of many alarming reports about environmental damage that may be linked to climate change. In this case, the result is the emergence of dead zones in the ocean, the immediate cause being changes in currents.

Examples like this emphasise the point that uncertainty about global warming is not a reason for doing less, but a reason for doing more. The known (but uncertain) possible consequences of doing nothing add a lot more to the expected costs than do the known (but uncertain) possibilities of adaptation and so on producing lower-than-expected costs. Even more important, the ‘unknown unknowns’, that is, the possible consequences of which we are not yet aware, are dominated by nasty surprises that await us if we continue changing the climate rapidly.

There are fewer unforeseen possibilities on the other branch of the decision tree where we act to stabilise the climate. Despite alarmist claims to the contrary, for example, we have a pretty good understanding of the consequences of increased energy prices. We’ve experienced big changes in energy prices in the past, notably in the 1970s. Of course, those increases were associated with substantial economic disruption, but they were a consequence, not a cause of ‘stagflation’ – the postwar economic system broke down bin 1970 and 1971 before the commodity price boom of the early 1970s, including the oil price increase of 1973.

(Hat tip to my wife Nancy, for alerting me to this story).

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  1. simonjm
    February 19th, 2007 at 08:01 | #1

    lets not forget Marine life threatened by acidic oceans
    I wonder what that will do for the worlds krill population hmmmm? Opps there goes the food chain.

    Combine that with coral bleaching and the Great Barrier Reef is screwed.

  2. gordon
    February 19th, 2007 at 08:45 | #2

    When talking about unknown consequences of global warming it’s good to remember the evolutionary basis of our connection to the world as it is. The counterfactual would be “If the world had been different during our evolution (eg. hotter, colder), we might not have evolved as we did”. Perhaps the Neanderthals of Europe are an example – tho’ not an anthropologist, my understanding is that (so far as anybody knows) they evolved from Heidelberg Man in an ice age, and were adapted to that kind of world. We are adapted to the kind of world we have. Worry about AGW isn’t just a sentimental attachment to polar bears.

  3. Mike Hart
    February 19th, 2007 at 09:51 | #3

    There has been some interesting work done on this in Canada, it is called the ‘Starving Ocean’ syndrome. There is a web page for those interested in googling the term. Another one of those positive feedbacks.

  4. BilB
    February 19th, 2007 at 09:52 | #4

    Did you see the reports of “blooms” of jelly fish, causes and consequences. The full drama of oceanic effects, I fear, is yet to be discovered.

    Someone correctly made the comment that when the coal was being formed the earth’s CO2 levels were much higher. The implied conclusion being that varying CO2 levels are ok. The thought that vary CO2 levels also mean varying O2 levels.

    A perspective on this:


  5. February 19th, 2007 at 10:09 | #5

    Of course, those increases were associated with substantial economic disruption, but they were a consequence, not a cause of ’stagflation’

    Hmmmm … not convinced. Surely the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 had political causes (Yom Kippur War and Iranian Revolution) not economic.

    Call me an alarmist, but it seems to me we have constructed a civilisation based largely on the spectacular energy returns from using fossil fuels, most notably oil. In the early 20th century the energy returned from drilling for oil was something like 100:1. That ratio has slowly declined, but its still around 10:1 today for Saudi crude.

    There are some low-carbon energy sources that come close to matching this energy return (nukes, wind, solar) but all of these produce electricity and none are presently suitable for transportation. Some biofuels have a decent energy return but biofuels cannot be scaled to complete replace oil on a global scale. Other alternatives could be scaled (coal-to-liquids, tar sands, oil shale) but the energy return is poor compared with crude, and would result in sharply increased GHG emissions.

    For all sorts of reasons we will soon have to make do with using less fossil fuels (either because production can no longer meet demand due to resource limitations, or due a need to reduce GHG emissions) and our civilisation will no longer be able to rely on the fabulous bounty that fossil fuels have provided.

    When you burn 300 million years worth of fossil fuels in 300 years, surely there will be consequences.

  6. BilB
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:28 | #6


    “biofuels cannot be scaled to complete replace oil on a global scale”

    Not even slightly true. You just haven’t thought ofr researched this claim. Please do!

  7. BilB
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:30 | #7

    that is “thought of, or researched”

  8. Hermit
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:38 | #8

    Another problem with AGW (on land this time) is the Rise of The Woody Weed. We are trying desperately to grow plump juicy crops but it is taking more effort. Summertime frosts, hot wind storms, hail, rainfall slumps in peak growing season, bug infestations, hungry animals, irrigation cutbacks and bushfires all make it easier for land to revert to blackberries, mimosa, cactus or whatever. Having caused AGW we exacerbate the problems with urban sprawl displacing good farmland, induced salinity and creating herbicide resistance with GMO crops.

    At some stage we will have food shortages from both the sea and the land.

  9. February 19th, 2007 at 10:47 | #9

    BilB, if you want to point me at some cropland estimates required to replace crude oil with biofuels please do.

    Here are some for cellulosic ethanol (probably the most promising biofuel, but not yet a technological or commercial reality):

  10. jquiggin
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:49 | #10

    “Hmmmm … not convinced. Surely the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 had political causes (Yom Kippur War and Iranian Revolution) not economic.”

    Well, in the same sense that World War I was caused by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, yes. But the underlying cause was the inflationary surge which started with the failure to finance the Vietnam war by taxaton. Of course, that was a political cause.

  11. grace pettigrew
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:49 | #11

    Its the positive feedbacks in a previously steady-state system that are the real worry – they are hard to predict, sometimes counter-intuitive and could be catastrophic. And they could be just over the horizon.

    But to say so out loud risks being labelled “extremist” and “alarmist”. Like Flannery, who has been psycho-analysed by Brad Norington on the front page of The Australian today for trying to cross disciplinary boundaries in getting his message out.

    COALition politicians like Costello, and The Australian editorialists, would rather spin the situation as being nothing more than a “slow and steady” increase in temps (maybe 50 years to go), and nothing to worry about if we all stay calm and sensible and don’t knock the economy.

  12. Razor
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:55 | #12

    Grace – Anture is not and never has been a steady-state system. Ocean currents have fluctuated over the course of history. How is this proof that man, and not nature is the dominant force in changing the climate?

  13. Razor
    February 19th, 2007 at 10:58 | #13

    That would be Nature. . .

  14. February 19th, 2007 at 10:58 | #14

    But the underlying cause was the inflationary surge which started with the failure to finance the Vietnam war by taxaton

    So the Yom Kippur War and Iranian Revolution would not have happened if the Vietnam war had been financed by taxation? I find that a little hard to believe…

    I’m not trying to pin all the blame for 1970s stagflation on the oil crises, but IMO the oil crises were caused by political events that exacerbated pre-existing economic problems.

  15. jquiggin
    February 19th, 2007 at 11:03 | #15

    If it weren’t for the inflationary surge, and the fact that oil prices (at that time effectively imposed on OPEC by the oil companies) were way out of line with the underlying market reality, the imposition of a boycott and a massive increase in prices would not have been a feasible strategy for the OPEC countries after the Yom Kippur war. In the same way, if it weren’t for the imperial rivalries and arms races in the years leading up to 1914, the assassination of an obscure aristocrat would not have started a world war.

    Of course, both the Yom Kippur war and Gavrilo Princip might have happened anyway, but their consequences would have been different.

  16. BilB
    February 19th, 2007 at 12:57 | #16


    Good article., from someone in a cold climate. Brazil yields 5000 to 7000 litres per hectare. A very quick calculation comparison of the writers claims and the Brazillian claims says that your collumnist is under stating by a factor of 2. But that is better than 9 which is how most of the American assessments conclude. Brazil sugar cane 7000L/h versus US corn 760L/h. Take note that many “third world” countries are now seeing the potential for


    African nations, India, China, and even Australia (more far away than third world). The available land areas are huge. And drier climates a suitable for bio diesel (read aviation fuel) production. Work on it some more. I have little doubt that the problem has a relatively Quik (and, as your collumnist comments, lucrative) fix.


  17. pericles
    February 19th, 2007 at 14:05 | #17

    Dead spots have always existed as oceanographers could willingly attest. Many years ago, when I was young, the Sargasso Sea was always of great interest in ripping yarns for teenagers. What is of more concern than daed zones caused by currents is the chronic over-fishing of the oceans. With sonar and satellite equipment, the industry is more than a match for natural predators. No-one has the courage to say so but trawling should be banned for five years and Australia should do its share by keeping poachers well away. The orange roughy population may never recover and as for the Patagonian toothfish, forget it! As a species, humankind needs to be reminded of the importance of the oceans and all that live and breeed in their depths. In the meantime, fishermen could be seconded to help chart changing currents and temperatures.

  18. gordon
    February 19th, 2007 at 14:34 | #18

    BilB, there are extensive tariff restrictions on import of fuel ethanol into the USA. As the IISD’s Global Subsidies Initiative publication “Biofuels: At What Cost?” notes: “…since 1980 the United States has applied an additional specific-rate tariff on ethyl alcohol intended for use as a fuel. The rate of this additional duty, initially 40¢/gallon and currently 54¢/gallon, has varied over time. It is scheduled to expire at the end of September 2007, but there are many legislators in the
    U.S. Congress who would like to see it extended, as in the past”. Corn production (the main feedstock for ethanol manufacture in the US) is also heavily subsidised as also described in “Biofuels: at What Cost?”.

  19. grace pettigrew
    February 19th, 2007 at 15:05 | #19

    Razor – how do “fluctuations in ocean currents over time” necessarily make the global weather system not a steady-state system? (Not sure what you mean by either Anture or Nature.)

  20. BilB
    February 19th, 2007 at 15:47 | #20


    I doubt that 54c (that is really 54c plus 2.5 percent) per gallon really makes a difference to Brazil who produce the ethanol for 85c per gallon. The US ethanol futures have ethanol at $2 to $1.85 for all of 2007. No matter how you look at it there’s money in that thar ethanol. And the demand is ever growing. America is probably 2 years away from commiting to Kyoto targets and the ethanol demand will grow in pace with production what ever and where ever that is.

    The beauty of ethanol as a farm based product import for all is that does not compete against local product. The US cornies will say that it does, but the reality is that they do not have enough land to spend on that value of crop to meet the projected US demand in total, so there will always be a huge need for imports. It’s either that or oil. The difference is that we can breath more comfortably if it is ethanol. The picture is even better for India and Africa.

  21. wilful
    February 19th, 2007 at 15:51 | #21

    There is a technique being investigated where algae are fed carbon dioxide and heat from coal fired power stations, and produce biodiesel and stockfeed out the other end, at some extraordinary rate of efficiency. That’s a good way of recycling your carbon at least once. No links right now, though maybe somebody else can assist. Sounds very promising…

  22. rog
    February 19th, 2007 at 15:53 | #22

    It has been previously thought that dead zones were caused by pollution which increased the plankton which produce organic matter which sinks to the bottom and breaks down, this bacterial process depletes the lower levels of water of all oxygen (anoxic).

    The largest dead zone is the Black Sea and the cause is entirely physical, the Bosphorous si too shallow to allow proper mixing of upper and lower levels of water.

  23. rog
    February 19th, 2007 at 15:54 | #23

    “pollution” being fertilisers and flood waters exiting river deltas.

  24. BilB
    February 19th, 2007 at 16:44 | #24


    That is exciting. It does not solve the coal process, though. The CO2 still winds up in the atmospere, it is just delayed by one energy cycle. But it should be just as valid pumping atmospheric CO2 through the process to make a closed loop energy cycle. And the biodiesel is your aviation fuel. Everyone is happy. A system like that can be operated in tandem with a concentrating solar power facility where the space and the hardware are all laid out. This would add to the overall energy recovery and make the electricity even cheaper.

    Where we are heading is really thrilling.

  25. Razor
    February 19th, 2007 at 16:46 | #25

    Dear Grace,

    The Earth and it’s climate is not a steady state system. Never has been and never will be. For you to claim otherwise ignores science, including that supporting human caused global warming!

  26. February 19th, 2007 at 16:54 | #26

    BilB wrote:

    I have little doubt that the problem has a relatively Quik (and, as your collumnist comments, lucrative) fix.

    I wish I could share your confidence. Unfortunately you haven’t told me anything I didn’t know. I had already read the bioenergy study via this link:

    Implications for Tropical Countries
    Based on the findings in the report, it suggests that many tropical countries have the potential for sustainable fuel production. This should be particularly true of any country that can grow excess sugarcane according to Brazil’s methods

    Unfortunately most of the world’s transportation fuel is not used in tropical countries, its used in the west, and increasingly north Asia.

    I would dispute your assertion that “the available land areas are huge” or that biodiesel is a viable option in drier climates. The yield per hectare is much lower for biodiesel than it is for ethanol, particularly crops that can be grown in drier climates.

    Compare these two tables:

    Of course, it would be fantastic if we can make Algal Biodiesel work, but that’s very much unproven at the moment.

    A study done in Western Australia suggests:

    For example, to replace the 1.5 billion litres of diesel used per year in WA would require an area of canola 145 km by 145 km square. To put this in perspective, wheat currently takes up an area approximately 204 km by 204 km square

    I would also dispute your assertion that biodiesel is suitable for aviation because of its tendancy to gel at low temperatures, although I know that this problem is being addressed. But the problem with biodiesel remains the low yield per hectare.

    I should note that I would love to be proved wrong on all of this and look forward to reading any studies that suggest that I am.

  27. February 19th, 2007 at 20:40 | #27


  28. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 03:46 | #28


    I really dont know what you are trying to prove. The reality is that it is about percentages. The Brazillian per person CO2 per person emissions are one nineth of Australian’s for their entire population of 185 million. They have done their bit for the environment already and well ahead of time. Brazil’s gross CO2 emissions equal Australia’s. Brazil’s ethanol provides around 35% content for their entire car fleet. Large quantities of their ethanol are exported to the US via the Carribean so their fuel mix could be higher than 35% if they used all of their production internally. But the point is that any percentage of ethanol in fuel is contibuting to the GW solution. From Richard Branston’s point of view if he could replace 10% of the aviation fuel his fleet uses with bio fuel he would be able to sleep better at night. And commercially it provides a price upper limit to the cost of his oil based aviation fuel.

    This is not a black and white thing. This is a progressive conversion thing. It is a changing technologies thing. What is important is that ethanol gives us the best vehicle to make rapid change where it is possible. We simply have to get the blithering idiots like John Howard and George Bush out of the way. There are many other solutions as yet undrempt of that, which given an environment of need, will leap forward to close the gap between our achieveable agricultural output and the required target. An example would be the fuel algae mentioned in another post somewhere. This has the advantage of working in a manner that the oil companies are comfortable with and understand,ie masses of tanks, pipes and pumps. This has unknown potential but given that this is the process that gave the earth its oxygen in the first place I would be reasonably confident.

    I remember in 1980 something my accountant buying his first computer for 20,000 dollars. It was an IBM xt. Just one year after that I bought a similarly powered machine for 5,000 dollars. What made that difference possible was the removal of a monopolistic obstacle which opened up the technologic gates allowing many minds and energies access to perform. Now I have computers everywhere and a stack of older spares in the corner just in case. The same forces are at play in the energy field. The road blocking oil monopolies will soon loose their control, because of the mass need and changing perceptions and this will allow massive innovation in the energy field. It will happen because the need is great and the money is there to make it possible.

  29. grace pettigrew
    February 20th, 2007 at 06:08 | #29

    Dear Razor – what planet do you come from?

  30. gordon
  31. gordon
    February 20th, 2007 at 08:31 | #31


  32. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 08:38 | #32


    The US “coddles” ethanol in lieu of appling a carbon tax to oil. That is all there is to it. Keep an eye on California. An “Echange” is under way, and it is unstoppable.

  33. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 08:40 | #33

    that is “applying” of coarse

  34. February 20th, 2007 at 08:57 | #34

    BilB, I’m not trying to prove anything, but I think it is very important that in our attempts to reduce GHG emissions we choose the right solution, and I am unconvinced biofuels are the right solution.

    Its like the clean coal vs renewables debate. Both potentially reduce GHG emissions, but like you I am opposed to clean coal because it makes a lot more sense to keep the carbon in the ground rather than burning it then trying to bury it.

    Similarly, if we’re going to power transportation using the sun (which is essentially what you are doing with biofuels) there are much more efficient ways than growing plants, harvesting them, refining them into liquid fuels (using a lot of heat), distributing the fuel (by truck) to service stations then burning the fuel in relatively inefficient internal combustion engines. In the long term it would be much more efficient to electrify most of our transportation and use the sun (and other renewables) to generate the electricity. Here is wikipedia on the well-to-wheel efficiency of biofuels:

    Photosynthesis is known to have an efficiency rate of about 16% and if the entire mass of a crop is utilized for energy production, the overall efficiency of this chain is known to be about 1%. This does not compare favorably to solar cells combined with an electric drive train.

    Typical solar PV panels are around 15% efficient, with the best panels exceeding 20% efficiency. The electrical grid loses about 8% through transmission losses, and brushless DC electric motors can exceed 90% efficiency. According to the CEO of Tesla (yes I know he has an interest in pushing EVs):

    The full cycle charge and discharge efficiency of the Tesla Roadster is 86%, which means that for every 100 MJ of electricity used to charge the battery, about 86 MJ reaches the motor.

    I think it is instructive that George Bush is a big supporter of corn ethanol in the U.S. and in your own words he is a blithering idiot.

    I don’t believe you can apply what has happened in the IT industry to other industries including the energy sector. The IT industry’s rapid progress is unique rather than typical. It is interesting that a lot of proponents of ethanol in the U.S. are from the IT industry (e.g. Vinod Khosla) and seem to have the expectation that Moore’s Law will be repeated with ethanol and biofuels.

    IMO, one of the most realistic commentators on the biofuels debate is Robert Rapier.

  35. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 10:08 | #35

    Dear carbon sink,

    What are you proposing. I hope that it is good because as we are all becoming horribly aware the earth has gone into carbon crisis…..and we don’t know what we are going to do ho ho…sob. I mean it is really bad. Even the aliens don’t come here any more. There hasn’t been a ufo sighting in like…forever. God vacations on one of his other planets, now, you can tell by the drop in miracles, I mean that given the population increase you would expect a miracle a month…but ..nothing. No..I do not call Tony Abbot a modern miracle. True it is amazing that he has a job at all, let alone a cabinet position, but that is more an expression of the Tony Principle…or is that the Peter Principle. Hmmmm, maybe that was the Liberal Principle all along..I’ll look into that. What ever! It is all falling to pieces. And, so, Carby, what have you got in mind?

  36. wilful
    February 20th, 2007 at 10:24 | #36

    The efficiency rate of photosynthesis is not really relevant – we have sun INXS. Growing woody crops is far less efficient that growing bioengineered algae. While this is early development technology, it is likely to be highly prospective.

  37. February 20th, 2007 at 10:47 | #37

    The efficiency rate of photosynthesis is not really relevant

    Perhaps, but the efficiency of the entire process from biofuel-crop-to-wheel certainly is. There is no doubt that the solar-panel-to-wheel process is vastly more efficient than the biofuel-crop-to-wheel process.

    Are you disputing that, or are you saying that efficiency is unimportan?

    BilB, I really don’t know what to make of your last post. I suggest you read Robert Rapier’s blog.

  38. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 12:12 | #38

    Hey cs,

    I’ve now read RR and basically we agree. He clearly isn’t aware of concentrating solar power. And he isn’t aware of the domestic concentrating solar air conditioner. That’s forgiveable ’cause no-one else has either. I see half a plan there, but it is all good.
    you’ve got none to Buckley’s of getting me on public transport because I go to work at 3am and go home at 6pm, but I am keen for an electric vehicle, when there is abundant solar power to fuel it. In between I’m helping the environment filling my motorbike with John Howards E0. That is a good starting point, it is all down hill from here.


    I finally agree with MT on something. I whoes idea it was?

  39. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 12:14 | #39

    that was I wonder whoes idea it was (fat fingers)

  40. wilful
    February 20th, 2007 at 15:29 | #40

    Are you disputing that, or are you saying that efficiency is unimportan[t]?

    Efficiency is important when you’re making valid comparisons of like with like, and including full life cycle costs. In short, there is far too little data to really tell. Your quoting of percentages is a bit meaningless and misdirecting. I will certainly agree that current corn ethanol processes aren’t efficient, but I wouldn’t give up on the idea fully as yet.

  41. February 20th, 2007 at 15:41 | #41

    Your quoting of percentages is a bit meaningless and misdirecting

    I’m not trying to misdirect anyone. There’s not much space in blog comment to get your point across, and the point I am trying to make (with percentages) is that using biofuels is currently very inefficient, is of dubious benefit when it comes to GHG emissions, and there are possibly much better solutions around.

    In many ways I see the ethanol meme as similar to the hydrogen meme from a few years ago (George Bush jumped on that one too). Lets see if it survives a few years of critical analysis. Hydrogen didn’t.

  42. BilB
    February 20th, 2007 at 17:06 | #42


    The corn ethanol inefficiencies are irrelevent (for the US) when considered in relation to the problem. On a national US scale the subsidies are a tiny blip. If we were talking electricity a power distributor buys power at anywhere from 30 dollars to 200 dollars per megawatt hour. Of course they prefer to buy it at 30 dollars but to meet their customer demands they will pay a lot more for small quanities. The price variation is a function of availablity and timing. The same principle applies to motive fuel. There is a national need for ethanol in fuel to replace lead in the first instance and to replace fossil carbon in the second place. The cost of it in the national fuel bill is neglible. The bonus of the activity is that it replaces imported fuel and the benefit of that far exceeds the cost of the subsidies.

    I am having trouble understanding carbonsinks thread on this too. The lowest price for things is not always the right price. Why are electronic terminations sometimes gold plated when they could all be tin plated? Because sometimes gold is what you need to get the effect that is needed. The same applies to fuels. Why would you go to the trouble of farming ethanol? Because it has the desired effect of stabilising CO2 in the atmosphere. And there are an awful lot of people who like to do that sort of thing. The fact that it can be cheaper than petrol is a real annoyance. Whether it will or wont replace all of the worlds petrol consumtion is totally meaningless at this stage.

  43. Amy McArthur
    February 20th, 2007 at 17:07 | #43

    Solar panel run trams –very good idea. Probably not likely to work effectively in Melbourne, which has abundance of electric trams (world intergovernmental consensus on global warming not likely to improve terribly unhelpful weather there) but could have decent prospects in Queensland, WA and NT? Mr. Quiggin could you please evaluate merits of project, asap?

  44. February 20th, 2007 at 17:48 | #44

    Why would you go to the trouble of farming ethanol? Because it has the desired effect of stabilising CO2 in the atmosphere

    Does it? That is one of the points I am trying to make, and you are apparently missing. It is precisely because ethanol production is so inefficient and requires so much energy that the greenhouse impact of ethanol (particularly corn ethanol) is more likely positive than negative.

    In a paper published in Science Alexander E. Farrell (an assistant professor of energy and resources at Berkeley) wrote:

    The impact of a switch from gasoline to ethanol has an ambiguous effect on GHG
    emissions, with the reported values ranging from a 20% increase to a decrease of 32%

    Farrell concluded that ethanol made with natural gas produces slightly less GHG emissioins than gasoline, but ethanol made with coal produces more GHG emissions.

  45. February 20th, 2007 at 17:50 | #45

    ProfQ, could you please close my italics tag after “In a paper published in Science” in post 44. Ta.

  46. BilB
    February 21st, 2007 at 06:31 | #46


    As with oil production where all of the energy to process the oil comes from the oil, similarly all of the energy to farm and process sugar cane to produce ethanol comes from the end product or waste products along the way. Surely from your reading you would have noticed that the end waste product of the cellulose to ethanol stage is lignin which is burned to produce most of the energy for the ethanol distillation. And surely you have heard of farmers who run their farm vehicles on methane gas generated from various materials around their farms. If a farmer is using diesel to power his implements then that is a convenience rather than a necessity. All of the production equipment should be running on either ethanol or solar supplied electricity.

    Leave corn farming out of this. That is a stepping stone program that will evolve into something more efficient as commitment and need builds (its called evolution).

    I don’t understand why you are bagging this when you know that it is the solution. Or, I ask again, what are the alternatives in your opinion?

    And ethanol from any fossil fuel is just rediculouly of the point. New Zealnd built a gas to ethanol plant at great cost to convert their Maui gas, not to ethanol, (the ethanol is a half way stage in the process apparently) but to petrol. The full plan, however, was to have by the mid 1980’s all of New Zealand’s vehicles running on 30% ethanol made from sugar beet and the balance 70% petrol coming from the gas. This plan which was way ahead of all world thinking was squashed by a conservative Labour government who didn’t have the foggiest clue about environmental issues. New Zealand at the time had roll reverse political parties.

    I suggest that you take a long hard look at what is going on in this country.

    Following the Lima Agreement in 1970 something a long process of divesting manufacturing began. Progressively huge parts of Australia’s manufacturing sector has moved off shore. What is left has had to computer mechanise (employ as few people as possible) to stay competitive. At the same time Australia’s farming sector has been steadilly declining. Australia’s population has increased. To keep people employed we have been inventing service jobs (you will surely have noticed the steady stream of new regulations affecting every corner of our lives with each new regulation requiring people to monitor compliance [try going onto a building site]) and paying for that with mining revenues. This is why Howard is so pro mining. He knows full well that a decline in the mining sector will trigger off a massive recession. Australia’s manufacturing is hanging by a thread and no longer has the ability to accomodate re-employment of dislocated people. ie we have no flexibility. Our economic agility is near nil. The sad thing about all of this is that what we are mining the most is coal, about-to-go-out-of-fashion coal.

    The fix is a simple one. Australia, of all of the countries in the world, has the most scope for the mining of solar energy. And there are many ways in which this can be done. And there are many ways in which the mined energy can be put to good economic advantage.

    And getting back to the subject of dead zones, all of the models of GW effects on ocean currents that I have seen indicate a progressive breakdown of currents as the seas become warmer. At the extreme end the currents only circulate locally. This means progressive shutdown of many sea farming industries. More economic pressure. It is crucial that Australia makes the adjustments to new sustainable industries now while the economy is in a strong position.

  47. February 21st, 2007 at 07:40 | #47

    I don’t understand why you are bagging this when you know that it is the solution.

    But I don’t know that it is the solution, that is my point (again). I was exactly where you were 18 months ago — a true believer in biofuels — but after a lot of reading my views have changed.

    Or, I ask again, what are the alternatives in your opinion?

    In the short term I believe biofuels will have a minor role to play (mainly as an additive to petrol and diesel) because our entire transportation infrastructure is built around liquid fuels, and that will take many years to change.

    In the long term I believe we need to electrify as much of our transportation as possible, using low-carbon sources of electricity. The main reason is because the solar-panel-to-wheel process is so much more efficient than the biofuel-crop-to-wheel process … and better efficiency means lower GHG emissisions. For the forseeable future there will still be plenty of fossil fuel inputs into the biofuel production and distribution process, whether its the heat required for the refinery or the diesel required to havest the crop or distribute the fuel.

    Frankly, I find it unbelievable that biofuel proponents don’t see what an amazingly complex and inefficient process growing crops for fuel is. It beggars belief. In many ways biofuels perpetuate the old liquid fuels and ICE paradigm, and I don’t think we will ever significantly reduce GHG emissions from transportation until we move on from that.

  48. BilB
    February 21st, 2007 at 09:21 | #48


    Well that is a bit clearer. So you’re an electrically powered guy. No problem with that in principle. The problem is in the practice. The current situation is that every body owns cars now that can be powered by ethanol. Very few people own solar powered cars.

    Stage 1: ramp up the supply of ethanol to the maximum possible. At the same time start installing concentrating solar thermal power facilities (this technology is fully matured and ready for immediate installation). Start promoting distributed power solutions for domestic dwellings(this is already under way but it needs better cooperation from house designers and house builders). Start electrifying road public transport. Modify road regulations to allow the for electric vehicles of a useful power to be used unregistered (the current limit in NSW is 250 Watts [useless] noting that the average electric wheel chair is 3000 watts). Promote the availability of gas and solar airconditioners (see Broad airconditioners). Initiate a complete study of geothermal energy sites and test drill. Ban incandescent light bulbs in favour of flourescent energy efficient lighting.

    Stage 2: Set practical mandatory requirements for future vehicle manufacture (hybride, bio fuel, fuel cell, battery electric,etc). Establish a program of building conversion for energy self sufficiency. Extend the wind power program and other allied programs…..

    I’ve got to go and do some work. Please feel free to modify the program or fill in the blanks I will think some more on what the program should be from my point of view.

    As to your problem with ethanol, believe it or not but there are a lot of farmers who LIKE to do that sort of thing for a living. There are a lot of farmers who need to be growing things to keep their land. It actually works for Brazil. It will work in India and South Africa. Last year Brazil paid off their Paris Club debt and this year will pay off their World Bank debt, entirely because of ethanol and a strong manufacturing sector. From here on forward the standard of living for Brazillians will steadily increase while holding their CO2 emissions steady or reducing. This while most other World Bank debtors are hoping for debt write offs. You cannot seriously say that ethanol is uneconomic, that it does not work, that it does not reduce CO2 emissions. Look at the list of CO2 per person emissions along with the standard of living figures. It works.

    But it is correct to say that it is not the whole answer. It is truy that solar thermal collects and converts more energy per sq klm that can be recovered through plant growth, and the high efficiency solar photovoltaics offering up to 50% efficiency will bring a whole new era of power opportunities. At that stage directly solar power vehicles become a possiblity. That may not be too many years but as far as I am aware the problem is that it is difficult to commit to production when the technology is moving so rapidly. If we suddenly had an influx of high powered electric vehicles now then we would have the ludicrous situation of powering our vehilcles with coal (may as well go back to steam).

  49. gordon
    February 21st, 2007 at 09:42 | #49

    Biofuels? No, no; we must start with light bulbs – or maybe just import more Volvos and BMWs. This is from “AM” yesterday (20/2/07). I swear I didn’t make it up.

    “TONY EASTLEY: The Federal Government will today announce its intention to phase out incandescent light bulbs within three years.

    By 2010 the government hopes Australians will have ditched the energy hungry devices in favour of compact fluorescent lights.

    Federal Environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull is speaking here with Emma Alberici.

    MALCOLM TURNBULL: It’ll be illegal to sell a product that doesn’t meet the standard, so that will happen by 2009, 2010, and so by that stage, you simply won’t be able to buy incandescent light bulbs because they won’t meet the energy standard…

    “…EMMA ALBERICI: Lighting is said to represent about 25 per cent of commercial sector greenhouse gas emissions, what about all the businesses around the country that leave their lights on at night? Will you consider fining them?

    MALCOLM TURNBULL: No, I don’t think that we’re likely to be doing that.

    EMMA ALBERICI: Why not?

    MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well Emma, I think you’ve got to look at measures that are, that are effective, and ultimately you know, you say you want to fine a business with its lights on. How do you know when you see the lights on in a business, how do you know whether the floor is empty, whether there are people working there, whether there are cleaners working there?

    I think what we need to do is encourage greater awareness of the importance of energy efficiency, as people become more conscious of it, they will make a lot of, take a lot of these steps themselves.

    EMMA ALBERICI: The Europeans are being even more proactive. The European Commission plans to cut CO2 emissions from cars by putting emission caps on vehicle manufacturers.

    Why not follow their lead?

    MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well we do actually follow the European emission standards because so much of our vehicle fleet is imported, we the pattern in Australia has been to follow the European emissions standards…”

  50. February 21st, 2007 at 10:13 | #50

    Stage 1 is to put a across-the-board price on carbon, and that includes liquid fuels for transporation. We hear a lot of talk from politicians ATM about emissions trading and higher electricity prices, but I can guarantee you no politician from either major party will propose raising petrol taxes in the near term.

    If we ramped up ethanol production now, the greenhouse impact would be negligible and perhaps even positive. Petrol prices may fall, and it would simply allow people to continue using their gas-guzzling vehicles, thus perpetuating the problem.

    I am completely aware that there are no electric vehicles on the road, and there is no infrastructure to support a fleet of EVs (e.g. recharging stations). I am also aware that if we switched to EVs today most of the electricity would come from coal, and we would be no better off in terms of GHG emissions.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that renewable-powered EVs are a better solution in so many ways and at some point we will have to go down that path. Why not start now?

    It is clear that biofuels can never fully crude oil. You may not see that as a problem, but consider that the most optimistic predictions suggest crude oil production will peak around 2030 (the pessimists think it has peaked already). Consider that it takes around 20 years to completely turn over a vehicle fleet. 2030 is just 23 years away. That means we need to choose which path to follow around now.

    You cannot seriously say that ethanol is uneconomic, that it does not work, that it does not reduce CO2 emissions

    Yes I can and I do, and I believed everything you do about ethanol and biofuels 18 months ago.

  51. February 21st, 2007 at 10:27 | #51

    Holden just spent a billion dollars on a new Commodore that is heavier, faster and more powerful than the previous model, but it is no more fuel efficient. Despite this our motoring press is showering it with praise.

    There is no way that any Australian government is going to slug the new Commodore with a tax on carbon emissions, or raise petrol taxes. That would be hurting families.

  52. BilB
    February 21st, 2007 at 11:08 | #52


    I agree totally on the carbon tax. Consider that added to stage one. I’ve been proposing a single desk oil buying board to facilitate the transition and reduce the influence of oil market manipulations. And I agree totally on the electric vehicle initiative. I would be riding an electric motor scooter now instead of my 400cc yamaha if there was a suitably powered one available. It is maybe 2 years away.

    But I have to say that you only have half a plan. So map out the rest of it what is going to power industry in your scenario. What is going to power heavy haulage and farm machinery.

    For the moment we will leave the ethanol thing aside because there is clearly a divide there.

    Holden’s problem was that they followed Howards lead and committed to the developmment expenditure before Howard became redundant. Now they are stuck with the production commitmment. I wonder if they will do it again five years from now.

  53. February 21st, 2007 at 15:51 | #53

    Hi Prof. Thanks for the entry via crikey.com.au Monday 19th Feb 2007 blog summary.

    Lots of anomolous climate effects all over the place. The sceptics say its a ‘distillation of the internet’ artefact but they always have a view based on sophistry it seems to me. Whether its piling up ice in a dam near Dalgety from extreme rain/ice storms, over warm currents south of Tasmania, or NASA satellites probing dynamic reservoirs of water UNDER the Antarctic ice shelf, we are in a pickle, 6m sea rise Greenland melt, 6m west Antarctic. No wonder they are making Norwegian seed store 130 metres above sea level just to be sure (It must be true it was in the Sydney Daily Telegraph last Friday.)

    Please consider my political blog for your links column at right, if you get the time to see this. Here is my globalWarming topic list, with heaps in the month of February for a start


  54. Peter Wood
    February 22nd, 2007 at 01:11 | #54

    I like the comment about ‘unknown unknowns’ – it raises important issues about integrated assessment models, which probably do take these into account.

    It also recalls a famous speech by a former US defence secretary who now looks very much older than he did seven years ago. Of course if we consider climate change to as serious as many governments consider terrorism to be, we are labelled as “alarmist”. Best to be “alert, not alarmed”…

  55. February 22nd, 2007 at 08:42 | #55

    BilB, Holden would have built exactly the same car regardless of who was in government. They’re initial planning (~2002) would have assumed business-as-usual with oil prices in the $20-$30 barrel range. I doubt the engineers would have even considered CO2 emissions per kilometre. No doubt Holden were extremely worried in mid-2006 when oil prices were pushing $80. Even though oil prices have fallen back to ~$60, its still well above what they would have been planning for.

    Holden does offer a factory fitted LPG option, and I understand there will be a diesel option soon which would significant improve fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions … something Holden might need if there’s another spike in fuel prices.

    What is going to power heavy haulage and farm machinery

    I doubt that battery-powered EVs could do the job — it would probably require diesel power (or bio-diesel power). Similary, you can’t fly planes with battery/electric power either. That’s another reason why we should conserve liquid fuels and only use them for special purposes (heavy machinery, jet engines etc) and use EVs for light duty such as urban transportation. I believe its something like 90% of vehicle miles are spent moving people around cities.

  56. BilB
    February 22nd, 2007 at 10:52 | #56


    That was my point. Howard’s “global warming is overstated” position gave Holden all of the wrong signals. I think that Holden should sue the federal government for their losses when the product fails to meet its targets.

    Vehicle miles yes maybe but not kilometre litres. I don’t have the split but I would expect to find that commercial fuel consumption is very significant.

    I think that you have missed something in your assessment of bio fuels. If ethanol can be manufactured for 25c per litre and that is buying fuel for parts of the process at retail rates, and that cost includes employment, property ownership, plant ownership and maintenance, etc, then the argument that the production uses more fuel than it produces is a fantasy.

  57. February 22nd, 2007 at 12:38 | #57

    I very much doubt Holden make decisions on climate change and future oil prices based on Howard government rhetoric 🙂

    Please show me a credible study (e.g. in a peer-reviewed journal, not from some biofuel lobby group) that shows that corn ethanol production is carbon neutral (or negative) and produces more energy than is consumes.

    Note: I accept that biofuels grown from some tropical crops (sugarcane, palm oil) produce good results, but these crops cannot be grown in most locations.

  58. BilB
    February 22nd, 2007 at 15:17 | #58


    You’re probably right about Holden. That begs the question, though, what guides their decisions.

    Corn ethanol is an aberration. At 760 litres per hectare versus 5000 to 6000 per hectare for cane ethanol you would wonder how it came about. I don’t think that anyone is seriously saying that US corn is the model to expand. I don’t know if they can grow cane in those areas, but they can grow it in some southern US states I recal hearing being said. Australia has excellent prospects for cane growth and is equalling Brazil’s yields in the Ord River area.


    Download the pdf and look at the world map. It shows the area theoretically which if covered with the concentrating solar system would provide all of the worlds electricity (37,000 terrawatt hours [and this figure is verified by the nuclear lobby]) as it is expected to be in 2030. This system is up and running being installed in various places around the world. The pilot plant at Kramer Junction has been in production for 25 years with yields improving every year as mirror technology and collector technolgy improve. Mirror replacement is 1% per year. Your solar photovoltaics will have higher yields when the production costs are reduced, but for now this is the front runner solution. Cost is 1.9 billion dollars per gigawatt of plant size. This plant size is achieved with 20 sq kilometres of collector. The hybride plant uses gas for the nonsolar hours. In average operation 13% of the power comes from gas. Non solar hours can be augmented with wind power. Geothermal is a natural companion.

    This is the sort of solution that will power your electric vehicles along with bio fuels and distributed power generation (roof top solar). Australia’s own expert in this field, Prof David Mills, has just buzzed off to California where he will be properly appreciated.
    There is one small facility being installed at Liddel Power station and a fairly significant plant being planned for Mooree.

    If you like electric vehicles send a letter to John Howard and urge him to allow the poor guy who is trying to import the Reva (ugly but practical) vehicles (held up with govt red tape for 3 years) into Australia.

  59. February 22nd, 2007 at 17:21 | #59

    That begs the question, though, what guides their decisions

    An assumption that business-as-usual continues forever. i.e. low oil prices and no price on carbon emissions.

    Corn ethanol is an aberration. At 760 litres per hectare versus 5000 to 6000 per hectare for cane ethanol you would wonder how it came about

    It might have something to do with the very powerful farm lobby in the US, and the fact that the US a) consumes an awful lot of imported oil, b) grows an awful lot corn, and c) grows very little sugarcane.

    Here is some reading for you. Why don’t you try posting some questions over at TOD.

  60. February 22nd, 2007 at 17:54 | #60

    BilB and others, while Carbonsink’s views are sound as far as they go, unfortunately they build in a fallacy: that the bofuel approach is an other things being equal thing, aiming at direct substitutions of fuels and so on. That builds in some very unrealistic stuff, like growing biofuels with energy intensive iputs, the way similar crops are produced now, and so on. Things like assuming that the same transport solutions will be applied, the same business needs for transport will continue, and so on.

    That’s all very unrealistic. sure, we can’t predict all the consequential changes, but we do know which direction they will be in if not their magnitude. But that reduces Carbonsink’s estimates from being estimates to being upper bounds. It’s not enough to be absolutely discouraging, and it certainly doesn’t mean that some shift of weight is bound to be futile. Even if it turned out that you couldn’t do 100% biofuels for fallacy of composition reasons, say, it looks worth doing at least some – and that in turn provides the necessary information to get a better slant on things further down the track.

  61. February 26th, 2007 at 07:36 | #61

    This is an example of the dubious benefit of biofuels:

    The Indonesian government has endorsed a massive biofuel program which foresees an increase in oil palm plantations [search] to eventually over 26 million hectares. Far from reducing climate change emissions, it will rapidly release up to 50 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of over 6 years of global fossil fuel emissions and could well make the generally accepted 2C degree of warming that is considered “dangerous” unavoidable. A recent study has found that one ton of biodiesel made from palm oil grown on Southeast Asia’s peatlands is linked to the emission of 10-30 tons of carbon dioxide. Shockingly, this is 2-8 times as much carbon released as in production of a ton of fossil fuel diesel.

    …and on paper palm oil is one of the best biofuel crops. The more you read stuff like this, the more you begin to doubt that biofuels are the answer, they may even make the problem worse.

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