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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. February 21st, 2007 at 10:27 | #1

    gordon:
    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.

  2. BilB
    February 21st, 2007 at 11:08 | #2

    carbonsink

    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.

  3. February 21st, 2007 at 15:51 | #3

    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

    http://sydneyalternativemedia.com/blog/index.blog?topic_id=1085698

  4. Peter Wood
    February 22nd, 2007 at 01:11 | #4

    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”…

  5. February 22nd, 2007 at 08:42 | #5

    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.

  6. BilB
    February 22nd, 2007 at 10:52 | #6

    carbonsink

    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.

  7. February 22nd, 2007 at 12:38 | #7

    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.

  8. BilB
    February 22nd, 2007 at 15:17 | #8

    carbonsink

    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.

    http://www.solar-thermie.org/hintergruende/documents/cspnow.pdf

    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.

  9. February 22nd, 2007 at 17:21 | #9

    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.

  10. February 22nd, 2007 at 17:54 | #10

    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.

  11. February 26th, 2007 at 07:36 | #11

    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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