Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ice Shelf Loses Much More Ice in Northern Canada

Another sign that a great melting period is underway in the Arctic region was detected as a satellite photo revealed that an 8-square-mile chunk of ice had broken away from the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf on the northern coast of Canada. An article from BBC News reports that research scientists think the end is quite near for the entire Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which is 170 square miles and 130 feet thick, as evidence grows that its stability has been lost. One member of the research team, Derek Mueller, from Trent University, Ontario, noted that for awhile ice appeared to be reforming but in more recent years this new ice broke up. Dr. Mueller believes the ice shelves in this region can no longer regenerate. This may be good news for corporations seeking to exploit any resources in this region but loss of ice, which reflects solar radiation, suggests that global warming could be accelerated in the near future as the dark ice-free water absorbs solar radiation. This is the positive feedback circuit of warming melting more ice and more melting ice resulting in increased warming and so on. Nations rushing to drill for oil or gas in the Arctic now that everything is melting seem oblivious to all this scientific stuff about positive feedback mechanisms since if their efforts are successful it will all simply result in burning more fossil fuel and therefore releasing more greenhouse gases which will further increase the warming. How dumb can you get?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gore Says We Need Electricity without Fossil Fuels within 10 Years

In one short speech Al Gore compressed the time frame for generating all electricity without the use of fossil fuels from perhaps 40 years to only 10 years. He believes that 10 years is the maximum for the country to set a goal and that a massive effort should be undertaken to increase the use of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Considering that only a tiny fraction of our electricity now comes from solar, wind, and geothermal his challenge appears to be a tall order to say the least. According to The New York Times Gore said that the “goal is achievable, affordable and transformative.” Everyone would probably agree that it is transformative. Far fewer would agree that it is achievable and affordable. As do many people, Gore seems to emphasize the wonders of technological innovation as a key element in solving the global warming problem as well as the energy dependence problem. However, it appears that existing technology can take us pretty far.

Realistically, it seems that the only way fossil fuels can be phased out as a source of electricity in the near future is for the demand for electricity to sharply decrease. Initiatives such as The 30% Solution and The 2030 Challenge are aimed at doing just that as well a reducing the use of fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) for heating buildings. These initiatives are based on the use of stricter building energy codes. More efficient building can be built without the need to develop new technologies. Extremely energy efficient buildings are already being built. What we need is all new buildings to be built in this manner. Many buildings are also being renovated to make them far more energy efficient. Again, what we need is all new significant renovations to be done in this way.

Gore’s call for a phase out of fossil fuels for electricity within 10 years will probably just cause more apathy because it seems impossible and probably is. The trick is to call for changes that really are achievable but are still drastic enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to solve the climate crisis. It appears that Gore has yet to find the right formula.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

G8 Countries Fight Climate Change with Vagueness

As the effects of global warming become more and more evident with fires from extreme dryness raging on the US West Coast, 500-year storms hitting the Midwest two straight decades, prediction from scientists that the North Pole may be free of ice this summer, and so forth, the Group of 8 wealthy nations meeting in Japan agreed on a global warming statement that was short on adequate commitment and long on ambiguity. They did agree to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2050, however, this was far short of the 80% to 90% reductions called for by leading climate scientists and the usual baseline year of 1990 was not mentioned. They also did not set any short term goals, such as a specific target to reach by 2020. As reported in The New York Times, emerging economic powers such as China and India supported the 50% reduction target, which is the first time these countries have committed to any reduction target, but they refused to take action until wealthy countries took aggressive action. Given the urgency of the global warming problem and what would be required to take effective steps, the G8 did little more than put their toe in the water.

One way to comprehend the feebleness of the G8 global warming statement is to compare it with The 2030 Challenge from the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030. This challenge calls for the global architecture and building community to immediately reduce the fossil fuel greenhouse emissions of all new buildings, developments, and major renovations by 50% and then by increments of 10% every five years beginning with 2010 so that by all 2030 all new buildings and major renovations are carbon neutral. This would permit an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired power plants and a phase out of such plants by 2030. It wouldn’t completely solve the problem but it would be a very significant step. The action could begin at once and no new technology is needed. Of course the coal industry would take a big hit and that is not something the G8 leaders are eager to confront. Maybe we need new G8 leaders. Perhaps the only hope is that we will be getting a new leader of the United States very soon.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Biofuels Blamed for 75% of Food Price Increase

More trouble for biofuels as an energy solution appears to be on the horizon. The Guardian is reporting that leaked information from a report by the World Bank which is not yet published says that 75% of the increase in global food prices is attributable to biofuels. According to the Guardian the US government has said that biofuels from plant sources are to blame for less than 3% of the rise in food prices. Quite a difference in opinion. The Guardian also says that the World Bank estimates that so far 100 million people have fallen below the poverty line because of rising food prices.

Only last year biofuels seemed to be a savior for both fighting global warming and achieving energy independence. There has been so much enthusiasm over biofuels that about one third of the US corn crop now goes to producing ethanol. And the US Congress was so enthralled with this replacement for gasoline that last year it mandated that billions of gallons of biofuel be produced in the coming years. But this year has been a different story entirely. Not only have there been concerns about the link to increasing food prices but scientists have argued that clearing land to grow crops for biofuels actually would result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions compared with using gasoline. The emerging problems associated with biofuels were outlined a few months ago by Michael Grunwald in an article in Time magazine titled The Clean Energy Scam.

The big question that this negative information raises in the US is whether Congress will roll back their mandate for biofuel production. Based on the science and concerns about humanity it is hard to see how the mandate can remain intact. Yet, because of political considerations predicting what Congress will do isn’t a given. It has to be hoped that the mad rush to biofuels will be replaced by a cautious approach based on an assessment of the facts. We don’t want to plant ourselves into oblivion.