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Weekend reflections

August 10th, 2008

It’s time for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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  1. John Mashey
    August 10th, 2008 at 09:42 | #1

    Synopsis of Naomi Oreskes, You CAN argue with the Facts – Full Talk, April 17,2008 – Stanford U – 40 minutes .

    Naomi is an award-winning geoscientist/science historian, a Professor at UCSD and as of July, promoted to Provost of of the Sixth College there. She is also a meticulous researcher, as seen from past books, and from having reviewed a few chapters of the book she mentions in the talk. She unearthed some fascinating memos, although of course, impossible to replicate the exhaustive database of tobacco documents.

    If you haven’t seen her earlier 58-minute video, The American Denial of Global Warming”, you might watch that first. It’s first half is a longer version of the development of climate science, and the second half is about the George C. Marshall Institute.

    This talk has about 10 minutes of background, and the rest is new material on the Western Fuels Association.

    The video production isn’t flashy, but it’s good enough. The lecture room was packed, I had to stand. Interesting people attended.

    This, of course, is an informal seminar talk – for the thorough documentation, you’ll have to await the book.

    ======SUMMARY=====
    00:00 Background [fairly familiar, some overlap with earlier talk]

    10:30 1988, Hansen in Congress, IPCC starts

    11:05 “Tobacco strategy” to challenge science

    I.e., use of similar techniques, sometimes by same people

    14:50 Western Fuels Association (Power River coal companies)

    Sophisticated marketing campaign in test markets

    17:20 1991 – WFA creates ICE – Information Council for Environment

    ICE ~ Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC) –
    See Allan M. Brandt, “The Cigarette Century”

    21:00 WFA print campaign

    23:00 Scientists are more believable than coal people, so use scientists, create memes

    25:30 WFA produces video “The Greening of Earth”, provides many copies

    The Greening Earth Society (astroturf); more CO2 is good for the whole Earth Excerpts from video

    30:00- Video shows the Sahara turning completetely green

    32:20- “Plants have been eating CO2 and they’re starved”
    Discussion of circumstances under which CO2 does help and illustration of marketing tactics, cherry-picking, etc. I.e., how does one use a few tidbits of real science to create an impression very different form the overview? Are there lessons for scientists?

    40:00 end

    [Speaking as an old farmboy, plants need sun, water, soil, nutrients, and CO2, and sometimes right climate, i.e., sugar maples need cold. The Sahara will not be a new cornbelt, no matter how high CO2 goes.]

  2. Ikonoclast
    August 10th, 2008 at 18:13 | #2

    I will need a considerable degree of indulgence, patience and attention from the readers of this blog in order to treat this subject properly. The first requirement in any investigation is to identify and clear away presuppositions which can cloud the inquiry. This process cannot be undertaken without recourse to a modicum of real thinking. The central problem with the ‘standard’ schools of modern economics (Classical, Marxist and Neoclassical) is that none of these schools took any serious note of the fact that we live in a world with physical limits. Whilst modern economics was in its initial and even middle stages of development, these limits were far enough away to be ignored. This is no longer the case. We are about to hit these limits. Yet “limits to growth� denialism has been and still is as prevalent and pervasive as climate change denialism.

    On the surface, the simple reasons for both types of denialism have been a lack of education and a lack of imagination. Imagination in this context is really just the ability to extrapolate known trends rigorously (though not blindly) and to visualise the predictable end point of these trends. Furthermore, our imaginations must not shut down with incredulity if the predicted end point is horrible and fully at odds with our current situation. From my study chair, I am able to look out through a breezy open window, surveying a pleasant prospect of waving grass, tall gum trees and wide blue skies of spring optimism. It is hard to draw from this present tranquil scene any portents of catastrophe. Yet, we cannot allow our imaginations to be limited and lulled by feelings of present ease. We must do the hard thinking necessary to appraise our true position.

    Economics cannot be treated as free standing. The economy is contingent on the natural world. Indeed, the economic system itself is a natural system and part of the natural world. Therefore a unified theory of economics must incorporate knowledge from all fields but particularly from physics, philosophy, ecology, biology (including natural selection), psychology, physiology and socio-economic history. Humans themselves are natural and part of the natural world. Humans in no way stand in contradistinction to the natural world merely because they reason, reflect and invent. Human systems of society and economy are natural systems, part of the natural world and again in no way stand in contradistinction to natural systems in terms of matter and energy flows.

    Our thinking is flawed if we attribute any artificial, separate or special character to humankind by assuming that reflective consciousness, inventiveness and choice-making somehow place man and his works in a category separate from nature. It is this faulty premise which leads to the supposition that the economy can stand above, beyond or outside nature in some fashion. It is this very assumption that we can somehow make choices outside the limits of nature which often leads us to make bad choices. There are not natural and unnatural choices as all choices are natural. There are only choices which are good or bad for us insofar as they lead to sustainable or unsustainable outcomes for us.

    The above definition of “natural� might give the reader some difficulty. It goes against our common understanding of the kind of distinction we are often meant to make between “natural� and “artificial�. However, we will find that “artificial� in everyday use is a shorthand word which conflates and blurs several concepts. In its derivation it means “made by skill, made by art� and we hence we get “artifice� and “artificial�. Yet the primary meaning of “artificial� is simply that a thing is man-made. People tend to deduce that natural objects and artificial objects are in some sort of fundamental opposition whereas artificial objects (objects made by man) are simply a sub-set of all objects. “Artificial� is oftentimes taken to mean unhealthy or unnatural. However, there are many cases where the “natural� is unhealthy and injurious to man (prussic acid is natural in some berries) and many cases where the “artificial� (that which is made by man) can be healthy. The plain fact is that everything is natural (the beneficial and the harmful), including what man does, and we should be looking as usual for the laws which govern these natural phenomena.

    My contention that everything is natural can be explained in this manner. Everything in the observed universe is natural. There is no phenomenon in nature (i.e. in the known universe which we observe and experience) which is not natural. If it were unnatural it would not be part of nature i.e. not part of the entire natural cosmos. At the risk of sounding flippant, everything is natural except that which is supernatural. The supernatural is a postulate of something which is both outside our observed experience and outside the entire set of currently observed, known and dependable laws of the universe. We are not going to be concerned with the supernatural in this investigation.

    The position this short paper takes is that human reflective consciousness, inventiveness and choice-making are phenomena of the natural world and understandable (to us) only in so far as we can integrate them with all other so-far observed laws of this universe. To posit that the above human qualities are outside the natural world would be to adopt the position that these qualities are supernatural or at least supernaturally gifted and can (at least to some extent) operate above and outside the laws of this universe. Indeed, this is the position that many people take either consciously or unconsciously. Some special quality of this type is attributed to human inventiveness, human adaptability and even human life in general. The human spirit is seen as special; as being a special case. This special quality, it is assumed, will enable us to somehow transcend natural limits. Such thinking may claim a place in fields such the arts, religion and metaphysics although I would be careful of making too many claims even in these arenas. Such thinking can claim no place in economics if economics seeks to be a science.

    The above may be a “straw man� argument in relation to the thinking of many sober and serious economists. I accept that. However, there seems to be a wide strain of thinking entrenched amongst laypeople and given rampant encouragement by some classes of economists (especially the neoclassical economists if they are to be judged by their popularisers like Julian Simon) that seems to plead this special case argument for man and his actions. They essentially claim that modern man as an enlightened “homo economicus� armed with up-to-the-minute technology and infinite invention and spirit can transcend natural limits and unfold an endless cornucopian future. This kind of wishful and indeed lunatic thinking is dangerous in the extreme. It justifies any degree of unsustainable exploitation by the success of the current moment alone and with no regard for the future. It has no regard for and indeed refuses to acknowledge the slightest possibility of imminent exhaustion and long term damage to the biosphere’s systems.

    This lowbrow religious and metaphysical belief, shared by some scientific humanists by the way, that we are a special case, particularly in the sense of being exalted by our possession of intellect, may have played a role in landing us in so much trouble. However, I ought to be cautious of any such claim as it is could be seen to be a borderline metaphysical claim in itself. Thoughtful religious people (whom I respect greatly and even envy for the power of their ultimate hope) will have no problem with adjudging, in a manner consistent with their religious views, that it is precisely this kind of hubris which has landed mankind in his current predicament. Our “special case� status is seen in a different light by such people who see man in one essential aspect as blind, ignorant, greedy and in desperate need of saving from himself.

    Let us leave that aside for now. It would be more appropriate, scientifically speaking and with an eye to human history, to say that with technological progress we have embarked upon an open-ended experiment. The path of knowledge, science and technology has for several centuries been the path we use to obtain proximal (near at hand) goals. We never could (as a race) have predicted where this path would lead us in the long term. We never could, at the start of the industrial revolution, have predicted in any detail the problems and dilemmas with which we are now faced. Far seeing thinkers at that time and later could foresee certain things in broad outline. Malthus will be proved correct (the population cannot keep growing indefinitely) though the technical basis for his prediction looks thin today. The 19th C scientist who predicted that sun must burn out eventually was correct but his attempts at measuring that time failed badly because he could only envisage a coal burning sun and not a fusion reaction.

    The above will encourage Julian Simon style optimists who will reply in kind that we cannot predict what invention may save our bacon tomorrow. I agree. However, I will say that this invention might be a form of economics based on an energy theory of value and which emphasises full system viability and sustainability. Or it might be some new gadget which draws nearly limitless energy from one of the vacuum energy states of the universe. Well maybe, but I know which invention I want to put my money on in the near term.

    To quote from Charles Hall et al in the “Encyclopaedia of the Earth�;
    “An energy theory of value emphasizes basic physical laws rather than the psychical attitude of humans to explain economic phenomena….
    Like Frederick Soddy, we emphasize the physical aspect of life at the expense of the humanistic aspect but not because we deny or belittle the existence of the latter, rather because the former has been greatly ignored in the history of economics. Although a biophysical perspective is very different from either one of the two economic paradigms that hold political power in different nations, we feel that it is indispensable to solving many economic problems faced by all societies.�

    In the short section that I have elided thus (…), I feel the authors made some serious mistakes. Rather than quote from them I will offer my own amended and expanded statement (still using some of their words) which I think is far more supportable and much more in line with the thrust of an energy theory of value.

    Energy is a necessary but not sufficient cause of economic value. Nevertheless, energy is fundamental to economic production as one of the three basic and irreducible determinants. These are
    • matter to be formed;
    • energy to form it; and
    • conscious manipulation of matter and energy by humans (in a distributed social system) to meet their physical and psychical needs.

    Some economic decisions will appear not to be influenced by energy quality and availability. This will only be true within limits. Issues of energy quality and availability can never be ignored at the extremes of very cheap energy and very expensive energy. “Cheap energy� and “expensive energy� are not just money value terms, more fundamentally they are EROI (energy return on energy invested) terms. If, as a hunter gather, I come across a perfectly healthy animal that is trapped (assume a natural happenstance trap which cost me no effort) then I can kill, cook and eat this animal and obtain a large energy return on energy invested. If, at another time, food is so scarce that I must walk kilometres to widely scattered bushes, perhaps the Persoonia or geebung (jibbong), in a poor season to gather just a few edible fruits per plant then these will represent “expensive energy� i.e. a poor energy return on energy investment. If the land is too barren over a wide locality then I will use more energy walking to each plant than I get from the berries on each plant. I will starve. In fact, if I lay down to die (in the shade near some trickle of water), I will live a little longer.

    Criteria other than biophysical laws also must be considered when developing models to explain and predict human economic behaviour. I would suggest this “becomes truer� when basic needs are met and we thus have the luxury of meeting “higher� needs or rather of developing more complex behaviours.

    Notwithstanding all of the above, there is a case that energy can be regarded as the fundamental input in economics and that all production can be understood and accurately measured in energy costs. It provides a common or rather a lowest common denominator measure. Just as the labour theory of value identifies that the economic value of any made object or obtained object can be measured by the labour it cost, so too can the value of the object be measured by the energy it cost. The labour theory of value has several variants. Adam Smith essentially contrasted the utility of the made or found object with the disutility (effort, pain, labour) undergone in making or finding it. We can immediately see an aspect of this which is not so different from the notion of EROI (energy return on energy invested).

    For Karl Marx, value is the ‘socially necessary abstract labour’ embodied in a commodity.
    “Abstract labour refers to a characteristic of commodity-producing labour that is shared by all different kinds of heterogeneous (concrete) types of labour. That is, the concept abstracts from the particular characteristics of all of the labour and is akin to average labour.’ – Wikipedia.

    Marx made the unit of ‘socially necessary abstract labour’ (e.g. one abstract or average person hour) the prime accounting unit in his system. Even machines that make things do not refute this thesis. The machine was earlier made by labour. The machine embodies the person hours or labour units expended it its making and so may be measured in these units. The machine might make a thousand items before it breaks down totally (i.e. is fully depreciated) and thus the items made each contain one thousandth of these labour units plus proportionate labour unit values of any other inputs.
    This does not mean that labour has ascribed to it the creation of all value even by Marx.
    “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour which is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.� – Marx.

    The labour theory of value, in any of its variants (Smith’s or Marx’s for example), is not necessarily intrinsically or absolutely true, at least not in any higher socio-political-historical sense. It is not some kind of universal human truth (whichever variant is under consideration) which can tell us how to justly organise our entire society. Attempts to elevate economic theories to such a prescriptive status rapidly degenerate into grim ideological programs of either the Communist or the Imperialist Neoconservative type. Rather, labour theories of value properly understood are sets of formally developed systems which are or can be functionally true and useful in some contexts for organising our economies in the broad sense (depending on the contexts and on the theory variants).

    In the same manner, the claim for an energy theory of value in economics is simply a claim for a formal system that will enable a standard measure to be applied across both the physical sciences and economics. No high, abstract or rarefied philosophical truth is being laid claim to. This standardisation will simply have the formal and practical value of unifying our thinking on these matters and linking the biophysical world and our economic system in a measureable way. This is necessary because the disjunction between the biophysical world of limits and the endless growth of human systems and the human economy was only possible while the limits to (physical) growth were still distant. The very scientific and visionary M. Hubbert King is worth quoting at length.

    “The world’s present industrial system is handicapped by the coexistence of two universal, overlapping and incompatible intellectual systems; the accumulated knowledge of the last four centuries of the properties and interrelationships of matter and energy; and the associated monetary culture which has evolved from folkways of prehistoric origin.
    The first of these systems has been responsible for the rise, principally during the last two centuries, of the present industrial system and is essential for its continuance. The second, an inheritance from the pre-scientific past, operates by rules of its own having little in common with those of the matter-energy system. Nevertheless, the monetary system by means of a loose coupling, exercises a general control over the matter-energy system upon which it is superimposed.
    Despite their inherent incompatibilities, these two systems, during the last two centuries, have had one fundamental characteristic in common, namely exponential growth, which has made a reasonably stable co-existence possible. But, for various reasons, it is impossible for the matter-energy system to sustain exponential growth for more than a few tens of doublings and this phase is now almost over. The monetary system has no such constraints and according to one of its most fundamental rules must continue to grow by compound interest.�

    To quote Richard Heinberg from “The Party’s Over�;
    “Hubbert thus believed that society, if it is to avoid chaos during the energy decline, must give up its antiquated debt-and-interest-based monetary system and adopt a system of accounts based on matter-energy – an inherently ecological system that would acknowledge the finite nature of natural resources.�

    King perhaps puts the case too strongly. It is not that we must give up all notions of growth. For example, the potential for knowledge growth and technological progress still appears very open-ended at this point. It is also likely to be the case that the decried debt-and-interest-based monetary system need not be given up entirely but rather can be modified ways that appropriately acknowledge the underlying and sustaining value of environmental systems. Introducing a carbon dioxide pollution tax (or cap and trade permits) is an example of this.

    J.Q. seems quite sanguine about the prospects of utilising non-fossil renewable energy sources, particularly solar. I agree with him on the issue of solar power, particularly when giant solar convection towers are proven technically feasible and economically efficient, which I believe they will be. J.Q. seems quite sanguine too about the theoretical capability of our entire system (economic-industrial) to transition to these energy sources, to cope with the change-over costs (making the passage with relatively modest costs compared to total GDP) and to smooth the change process with major energy efficiencies. I am not nearly so hopeful on this score. I hope I am wrong. As to possible social, civilizational and geopolitical obstacles to this change let us both remain silent on that score. There are too many imponderables. I would be interested to know if J.Q. knows of any modelling which indicates that a capital construction program of alternative renewable energy sources is still doable in technical terms and economic terms in the time left to us by the expected “dwindle rates� of conventional power sources (basically fossil and nuclear). Let us further assume (optimistically but necessarily) that we are successful in stopping coal burning before we do burn too much of it and wreck our climate. Can we do it do you think?

    Sorry folks, I wrote this as a rush job. Hope it’s not too long and obtuse.

  3. Ian Gould
    August 10th, 2008 at 18:29 | #3

    I recently got to thinking about voting systems and alternatives to the current representative system od democracy.

    The most popular proposed alternative is direct democracy where rather than electing members of Parliament voters vote directly on legislation.

    Direct democracy has some real virtues but it can also lead to a system where only the special interests particularly concerend with a particular issue turn out and vote.

    I’d support a system of citizen-issued referenda on the Swiss system but only a minority of legislation is suitable for such an approach,

    Referenda can also be abused and manipulated to support demagogues – Hitler and Napoleon were both adept at this.

    So what I’d suggest is we adopt the principle of proxy voting from the corporate realm.

    Voters would assign their proxy to a representative but could transfer the proxy to a different representative if they were unhappy with their representative or vote directly on an issue they really cared about.

    Representaitves would not have equal voting power – they’d have as many votes as they held proxies. There’d be upper and lower limits to how many proxies any one representative could hold (say between 0.5 and 5% of the electorate).

    Once the sytem was up and running you might not even need elections any more – representation
    would change as people shifted their proxies.

    It seems I’m not the only person thinkign along these lines.

    This website proposes a similar system called direct representation.

    http://www.directrep.org

  4. Ikonoclast
    August 10th, 2008 at 20:18 | #4

    I should have added to my last question, “and let us further assume (just as optimistically and just as necessarily) that we are successful relatively soon in capping world population growth and gross physical infrastructure growth.”

    (Because if we don’t by general consent voluntarily cap our global population growth then at some point the rest of nature will do that job for us and in ways less pleasant than said voluntary capping.)

  5. Socrates
    August 11th, 2008 at 10:23 | #5

    Did anyone else find the media news coverage on the weekend slightly disturbing? Russia and Georgia are now engaged in what appears to be virtually a full scale war in South Ossetia (2000+ dead in 3 days) yet it was the fourth item on weekend news. Only SBS led with it on Saturday.

    I confess to not being as interested in the Olympics as nationalism demands but even so, was a gold medal really more important than this? Even our cautious PM Rudd made a statement expressing genuine concern for this incident, yet it barely got mentioned. Does it take a spike in oil prices before anyone cares which countries are getting bombed into oblivion?

  6. Ian Gould
    August 11th, 2008 at 19:45 | #6

    Socrates, its rather difficult to blame the Ossetian conflict on the Evil Americans OR the Evil Muslims so most of the usual pundits of the left and the right are at a loss as to how to address the issue.

  7. Ikonoclast
    August 11th, 2008 at 20:36 | #7

    Come, come gentlemen. All wars are about resources. Many justifications and rationalisations are brought in and overlayed, many atavistic emotions are stoked and add to the general conflagration but the raw fact is that it’s always about resources at base.

  8. Ian Gould
    August 11th, 2008 at 23:20 | #8

    The Russians have now pushed past the borders of South Ossetia. They’re bombing the Georgian city of Gori and the capital, Tiblisi.

    A Russian tank column was apparently stopped on the outskirts of Gori.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/12/world/europe/12georgia.html?ref=europe

    Coming next – anschluss with Belarus.

  9. gerard
    August 12th, 2008 at 15:00 | #9

    interesting post Ikonoclast. I predict that one day economics courses in universities will take physical, matter-energy stocks and flows as their starting point, rather than disembodied, highly abstract relationships based on a suite of unscientific assumptions.

  10. Socrates
    August 12th, 2008 at 16:10 | #10

    Ikonoclast

    Substitute “usually” for “always” and I’ll agree. Some wars are started by sheer stupidity and fear.

  11. scott
    August 13th, 2008 at 16:00 | #11

    I would be interested to know if J.Q. knows of any modelling which indicates that a capital construction program of alternative renewable energy sources is still doable in technical terms and economic terms in the time left to us by the expected “dwindle rates� of conventional power sources (basically fossil and nuclear). Let us further assume (optimistically but necessarily) that we are successful in stopping coal burning before we do burn too much of it and wreck our climate. Can we do it do you think?

    It doesn’t seem to be a case of “can” but “when”. As for modelling, well justifying capital expenditure on economic terms is not something I have much experience with, but it seems to me that the right policy approach (at least in Australia) can and is easily shifting the balance in favour of renewable energy generation. And really the policy levers have hardly been nudged.

    My question with your philosophical post above is what purpose do you think an “energy theory of value” could serve?

    How does such a perspective ascribe value to essentials like biodiversity, health, climate stability, social cohesion, an education system or cultural heritage? Such concepts can’t be represented in Joules or kg.

    Notwithstanding all of the above, there is a case that energy can be regarded as the fundamental input in economics and that all production can be understood and accurately measured in energy costs

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by production. If we’re talking widgets, then perhaps this is an approach. But, I ask again to what purpose could such a theory be deployed?

  12. Ikonoclast
    August 16th, 2008 at 09:12 | #12

    I think energy is the basic “counter” for everything and thus we can measure everything in energy cost terms. (I maintain the philosophical reservations expressed in my little essay and thus make this statement with simply pragmatic rather than absolute intent.)

    Every act of acquiring material (goods) or making material (goods) costs energy. All materials in nature are useless to man until acquired or shaped by work. It takes energy to do work. Even water in a stream is useless to a thirsty man until he does the work of bending down, cupping warter up with hands to mouth and swallowing. His body will do further work internally to move the water to where it needs to be in the body.

    The above example is non-economic work though in society it will still take work to earn the food to get the energy to move water personally and utilise it internally.

    Also, every piece of economic work takes energy and energy can be used (as at least one term in an equation) to count the value of all work. With damage to nature and the environment (for example CO2 emissions form fossil fuels) we can cost this by the cost of the remedial work in energy terms.

    For example, assume one million tons of CO2 have been emitted to the atmosphere by a coal generators over a given period. What would it cost in energy terms to capture this CO2 from the free air, compress it and store it undergound (the only proposed relatively harmless way so far)? This includes both raw energy inputs and “congealed” energy inputs concretised as machinery. What that energy costs at today’s energy prices is the cost of the primary remdial work only.

    By the way I don’t agree carbon sequestration will ever be a proposition. Prevention is better (cheaper in energy cost terms) than cure. That is why renweables will prove a better proposition.

    Going back to the statement, “Also, every piece of economic work takes energy and energy can be used (as at least one term in an equation) to count the value of all work.”, we can derive the simple equation thus.

    Economic Energy Value (N) = Energy input (E) times Energy unit (U) cost at market prices for any particular product, including all amortised energy costs from energy concretised in machinery plus the cost of remedial work to repair all negative externalities (including damage to environment, calculated in the same way.

    OR $N = (E1 x U) + (E2 x U)

    This Economic Energy Value may vary quite widely from the Market value of the product or service in question.

    This difference will be a measure of the “environmental irrationality” of the market place.

    As we use this method of valuing (by market methods aided by legislation) and it begins to impact it will bring the (“true”) Economic Energy Value and the market value into a closer fit with each other. Negative externality costs will be included in product and service costs.

    This is the theory. We can only approximate that in reality but approximation will be enough. We can always err on the side of slightly over-costing negative externalities especially as there is much remedial work to be done to clear our large historical hangover of damage caused by historically uncosted negative externalities.

  13. scott
    August 18th, 2008 at 19:27 | #13

    What would it cost in energy terms to capture this CO2 from the free air, compress it and store it undergound (the only proposed relatively harmless way so far)?

    In energy terms, very little.

    Plants sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, using solar energy, at a rate of about 130TW globally (70TW on land and 60TW in the oceans). As anyone that has studied basic biology knows, photosynthesis and the Calvin-Benson cycle converts CO2 to carbohydrate, lignin and cellulose.

    Humans can then fix this carbon permanently (well at least with a half life of several thousand years) employing some very simple chemical engineering processes such as hydrothermal carbonisation and pyrolysis.

    Both of these processes are exothermic, to the extent that the energy liberated from the plant material as heat is more than enough to drive the reaction, in an appropriately designed reactor.

    As the net primary productivity of the planet in carbon terms is an order or magnitude greater than fossil fuel emissions, humanity could theoretically deplete atmospheric CO2 using this simple approach at very little energy cost.

    All the while not doing anything about reducing emissions….

    The science behind pyrolysis is uncontroversial, although the IPCC has completely overlooked it to date, and there are many other claimed advantages of using the products. Google agrichar and biochar.

    The ecological and economic implications of such an effort however, are probably not as easy to express in terms of energy….

  14. Ikonoclast
    August 23rd, 2008 at 11:09 | #14

    An interesting reply Scott. On initial appraisal it sounds to good to be true. The plant bit is good and fine of course as the solar energy is free and from outside the biosphere.

    However, to have enough plants we would have to be vastly extending forests (intead of clearing them at breakneck pace) and putting in other kinds of plantations too I guess. We would have to let these forests and planations fend for themselves laregely or else count the extra energy costs of tending them.

    I’ll check the process at the links you mention. But I wonder whether you are counting the transport energy costs to get all this bulky plant material to these installations and the costs of building these intallations on a scale that would have such an effect.

    Better to plant lots of forests (for sure) and also go into renewable/semi-renewable power in a big way; solar, tidal, wind and hot rocks.

  15. August 23rd, 2008 at 18:41 | #15

    Basically, it’s straightforward and low technology to make charcoal by almost mediaeval methods from renewable wood sources, particularly if nitrogen fixing plants were used as feedstock, then sequester it by bulldozing it into landfills and/or water (either the sea, or streams that wash it out to sea), ideally after letting phosphates and other nutrients leach out and get back into the soil via settling ponds and green manure. That’s because charcoal isn’t biodegradable and is only naturally recycled by sun bleaching (i.e., by the traces of hydrogen peroxide produced in moisture by ultraviolet light). You could even run the bulldozers off charcoal fuelled gas producers. And there’s always Terra Preta

  16. Ian Gould
    August 24th, 2008 at 00:09 | #16

    As Scott noted, the production of biochar releases energy – probably enough energy to power the whole production process – and used as a soil conditioner it reduces the need for artificial fertiliers.

    You might also find that the area of forest required is less than you think. The nice thing about biochar is that it removes carbon from the atmospehre for centuries. So set up plantations of fast-growing trees like Laurel or grasses like Myscanthus and harvest them annually.

    I think Scott might be being a little harsh on the IPCC, it’s innately a cautious,k conservative and slow-acting body and biochar has really only been discussed actively for a year or two.

    If the scientsits are right and we ultimately need not judt to stop emissions but to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels biochar may be the best way to do so.

    There’s also the Green Horizons process being promoted by US physicists to extract carbon dixoide from the atmosphere and use it as a feedstock to produce plastics.

  17. scott
    August 28th, 2008 at 14:28 | #17

    Biologically, there are only four limitiations (1) sunlight, (2) water, (3) land, and (4) nutrients, none of which are prohibitive.

    In this respect, tropical countries are in a perfect position (certainly far better than the temperate “developed” world) to make a real dent in global CO2, either through biochar or biofuels.

    Substantial capital would be required to create these mostly tropical plantations, and unfortunately, as noted in Oliver Moreton’s recent book, “the world has not, to date, shown much enthusiasm for making vast investments in developing countries in ways that benefit all concerned. Big investments in developing countries tend to be linked to the extraction of raw materials, and they tend not to do much good to the citizens of the countries invovled.

    “It is not too hard to imagine bioenergy (or biochar) cash crops as a new form of exploitation; the British environmental writer George Monbiot argues that the cars of the rich would be fed at the expense of the bellies of the poor, with cash-crop biofuel plantations taking over croplands and despoiling the earth as they go: ‘Those who worry about the scale and intensity of today’s agriculture should consider what farming will look like when it is run by the oil industry.’”

    This is the problem, but again, it’s not an energy problem. More like a management problem – the same sort of problem that results in millions malnourished globally, despite the fact that millions of tonnes of food are wasted every year by those who have it.

  18. alan
    February 3rd, 2009 at 23:04 | #18

    Scot’s comments have homed in on the “need” to grow forest to supply the required lignin. Don’t food cropwastes contain this which could be charred?. Have yet to see a comparison of the fertiloiser value of biochar compared to rtaditional compost, but that would be useful.

    The other question mark is the EROI – would it cost more energy to build the corbonisation plant than surplus energy would be produced or (or the equivalent carbon sequestered) is worth?

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