Archive for the ‘Earth science’ Category

Smoke and mirrors

July 7, 2011

A just-released PNAS paper by Robert Kaufmann and others claims to account for observed global surface temperatures since 1998 by including in its model the ‘global dimming’ effect of sulfate aerosols emitted with the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas, and the smelting of copper, zinc, lead and nickel.

It has attracted some attention from the mainstream news media (which welcomed it either as a chance to tut about Chinese pollution or spout hogwash); so too have recent warnings of drought and near-famine conditions in the Horn of Africa.

This brings to mind something that has received very little attention outside the world of environmental science, a 2002 paper co-written by Leon Rotstayn from CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. ‘Tropical Rainfall Trends and the Indirect Aerosol Effect’ modelled the effects on rainfall of sulfate emissions and found that they helped account for decades of strikingly decreased rainfall observed in northeast Africa from the 1960s onwards, which led ultimately to the calamitous Sahel famine of the 1980s. Simulations revealed that precipitation in the low-latitude band between Senegal and Eritrea is very sensitive to changes to oceanic temperature gradients in the nearby Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins. Such marine temperature changes, and the human misery that resulted, may have been induced by the activity of coal-fired power stations, diesel vehicles and oil refineries in the northern hemisphere, which caused the latter to cool relative to the south. For now that is an open question.

Much interesting work has been done on the climate and water-cycle effects of atmospheric brown clouds over the Indian Ocean and East Asia formed by black-carbon and sulfate aerosols resulting from nearby and upwind industrial activity and household burning. These may include the recently observed moderate cooling in China and India, disruption of the summer monsoon, floods in southern China and drought in the north. Uncertainties, apparently, abound when estimating the precise effect on cloud formation, precipitation and radiative forcing of atmospheric aerosols. But, just like in Ethiopia and Sudan during the 1980s, what was previously attributed to overfarming and desertification can be simulated by other means, and may thus have another explanation.

The Ethopian-Sudanese famine of the 1980s was one of the great televised and photographed horrors of the late 20th century. The reality of these events and their use as a business opportunity has remained obscure, as Alex de Waal, formerly of Human Rights Watch, argued in his book on the ‘disaster relief industry’, Famine Crimes. De Waal’s detailed retelling of the famine, focused on its social and political underpinnings, ought to be supplemented with knowledge of research into its possible physical basis.

The alternative is the grotesque line of BBC foreign correspondents about ‘biblical famine’, the video below having become the template for all subsequent treatments of the subject.

Green can be gold

June 15, 2011

Behind GetUp! stand creepy figures like Evan Thornley, who among other things is a co-founder and board member of Per Capita, a ‘progressive’ think tank modelled jointly on Peter Mandelson’s Policy Network and Will Marshall’s Progressive Policy Institute.

As with its British and North American cousins, the Australian body (Per Capita) secretes an unappealing centrist brew, combining economic liberalism with the authoritarian paternalism put forward by people like Cass Sunstein (designing ‘choice architectures’, etc.).

Thornley is CEO of Better Place Australia, a company that produces battery-charging stations for electric cars.

Better Place is a key source of funding for the Climate Institute, which together with GetUp! has been the chief organizer of the public campaign ‘Say Yes to a Price on Pollution’.

In this latter enterprise, Better Place stands alongside firms including energy retailer AGL, Jemena (a privatized wing of the WA State Energy Commission), Pacific Hydro, General Electric (the world’s largest producer of gas turbines), and OgilvyEarth, a PR company specializing in greenwashing; or as its website puts it, ‘sustainability communications’ that demonstrate ‘green can be gold’:

We help brands harness the power of sustainability. Sustainability is not an abstract concept, it’s about identifying smarter ways to do more with less. OgilvyEarth partners with brands to use sustainability to drive brand value, achieve long-term growth and increase profits.

We help global brands become category leaders and change agents. We work with visionary companies that want to make sustainability a growth driver for both their business and the communities they serve. We believe that sustainability is the new path to prosperity, and in the power of communications to change everything.

To date, we’ve helped the world’s biggest organizations, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, DuPont, the Environmental Defense Fund, Kraft, IBM, the WWF and the United Nations.

Together with groups such as the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, GetUp! and the Climate Institute organised Price on Pollution rallies held in March, to build public support for the federal government’s proposed ‘carbon tax’ (promotional leaflets and videos for the events sneakily described them as supporting ‘climate action’, a purpose which organisers then described in decidedly narrower terms after the fact).

A second wave of public demonstrations took place ten days ago across major Australian cities.

It attests, among other things, to the political desperation that many people feel, and the seriousness with which they take the problem of global warming, that many thousands of people turned up to each set of events. Few are convinced by glib promises from the political right that human societies will readily adapt to climate change.

In a paper published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (‘An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress’), the authors suggested that, under increased local temperatures projected in the more pessimistic scenarios of some global-warming models, humans would find themselves unable to thermoregulate. Were wet-bulb temperatures to stay above 35 °C for extended periods, the thermal gradient allowing bodies to dissipate heat via sweating or vasodilation would be lacking, with lethal results. Under such conditions, imaginable in some currently habitable regions, continued human settlement would be impossible.

Research like this, when it reaches public ears, rightly terrifies many. So, for example, does the risk of regional inundation for various ranges of sea-level rise.

But the presence of thousands of unaligned people at the Price on Pollution rally (which was not clearly publicized as such) and Say Yes demonstration also reveals political confusion, and the effect of intense propaganda efforts. The result is that most people can’t distinguish friends from enemies.

This is by design: a feature rather than a bug. It is how popular criticism of inaction by the political class, and business-as-usual for conventional electricity generators and other commercial and industrial users of coal, gas and oil, is absorbed and diverted into partisan backing for Labor and the Greens, and lobbying for that competing sector of capitalist firms which produces wind turbines and photovoltaics.

Ordinary people are bombarded, by those such as GetUp’s Simon Sheikh, with sales talk about the renewable-energy sector as a ‘new engine of prosperity’, and exhorted to help ‘kick start investment in clean energy’ and ‘unlock clean energy’. They are informed that ‘a price on pollution’ will swiftly bring on the ‘opportunities’, ‘thriving economy, ‘green jobs’ and ‘abundance’ of a ‘clean-energy economy’.

And they are placated, told to put away the pitchforks: according to the co-founder and Chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (who also works in advertising/PR), ‘[the] good news is that all the technological solutions we need to solve climate change exist today. They are already being implemented globally; from China to California, Germany to Brazil.’

The only problems are ‘old, out-of-touch men’ and ‘fear of change.’

The political character of these people is demonstrated by the national director of AYCC’s ghastly description of ‘a full-blown generational war…between young and old, past and future’:

Firstly, this debate is pitting the voices of the past against the views and perspectives of younger generations. Secondly, it’s a fight between staying locked into ancient 19th century energy technology versus unlocking the clean, renewable energy resources that will power Australia into tomorrow…

When you know that you will be directly affected by decisions made by those in  power, you think about things in a new light. It’s an entirely different  world-view to those who are only a decade or two away from leaving this world  behind…

Of course, it’s obvious why our generation supports putting a price on pollution. We need this legislation to pass to give business a reason to clean up their act and switch to more efficient ways of doing things. Unless this happens, we can wave goodbye to our futures as they drift away in carbon-filled smoke plumes emitted by polluting industry.

The other reason that young Australians  and any Australians who support the idea of progress  support a carbon price is that we want to see Australia move forward into the 21st century with a modern clean energy economy.

When I was at school, most people owned landlines! Now, few young people can fill out the “home phone” section on a form. Instead, we’ve seen the evolution from computers to mobile phones to smart phones and beyond within just a few years.

We know the same kind of progress can happen in our energy systems if only the vested interests of the past would let go. Once a carbon price and some solid renewable energy investment levels the playing field, we’ll unlock new technologies, industries and jobs that have been waiting for years to come on-stream.

This inane, polyannish pose has not been adopted to win over a newspaper readership. It is repeated on the AYCC’s webpage (as is the divisive attempt to promote an age-based identity politics, a flimsy vehicle indeed on which to carry the weighty ambitions of the body’s leaders).

Nor does it spring merely from some naive youthful optimism. Identical sentiments are expressed by representatives of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Climate Institute, etc.

The Climate Institute, which expects a ‘thriving economy’ as Australia ‘cuts pollution and modernises industry’, nonetheless cites with approval a meta-report commissioned by the CFMEU, showing the Australian coal industry also continuing to ‘thrive’ under the Labor Government’s proposed emissions-abatement policies.

And it is not merely for reasons of political salesmanship that climate change is presented as an exciting opportunity to be seized.

Indeed, the ‘level playing field’ incessantly called for by advocates of ‘renewables’ would begin via a stream of transfer payments from the state bureaucracy to the non-fossil energy sector.

This is to be expected. Like many costly public goods (railways, road tunnels etc.) and utilities, energy infrastructure is an uninviting prospect for private investors. A conventional coal-fired power station requires large fixed-capital outlays; the stock is long-lived and depreciates slowly over many decades. Stacks, cooling towers, turbine rotors, boiler tubes, coal conveyors etc. can remain functional for 40-50 years, during which period capital is immobile, even while technological innovations may occur elsewhere. The depreciation allowance then sets a limit on the rate at which costs can be recovered, capital withdrawn and transferred to new facilities or to more profitable lines of production.

Firms in this sector derive more benefits from limiting installed capacity, so that it falls short of demand, prices are bid up and profits are higher. (This is why each Australian state except Tasmania is expected to fall short of its reserve reliability margin, a safety benchmark of available excess capacity over and above peak electricity demand, within the next few years. South Australia and Victoria have already had inadequate supplies during recent summers).

For this reason, such capital-intensive projects have historically been undertaken by the public authority. More recently, government subsidies have been required to induce private involvement: these may take the form of guaranteed cash flows, as with PFI/PPPs, or tax breaks, or sale of costly assets at very favourable terms (e.g. NSW electricity).

This is also and especially the case with ‘renewable energy’, expansion of which would require huge levels of investment at comparatively high capital costs (according to all estimates from the US, UK, Australia and the International Energy Agency).

A concentrating-solar thermal installation, like those being constructed (including on US Army land) in the Mojave Desert, requires a steam turbine and power block, fields of heliostats or parabolic mirrors, as well as high-voltage transmission lines to send power to low-insolation regions. In Australia, connection to the grid is estimated to cost up to $15 per megawatt hour in remote areas.

In general, the lower energy density of renewables (energy per unit of volume or mass) compared to oil, coal and gas, plus problems with intermittency, transport and storage, mean that productivity will be lower, and cost per mW hour higher.

If ‘renewable’ operating capacity is ever to be installed, uncompetitive high-cost producers must be made confident of somehow recouping the investment of vast sums of capital. Thus the Australian government’s Mandated Renewable Energy Target provides guaranteed wholesale demand for wind, geothermal and hydro-electric electricity generators at premium long-term prices (generating units are issued with tradable certificates, the price of which is set at the marginal production cost of the least-efficient producer, allowing more efficient producers to earn differential rent).

The ‘price is set in such a way that the marginal plant coming into the market earns enough from electricity market and certificate transactions to recover the long run marginal cost of generation.’ This is to encourage a desired $11 billion investment in new renewable capacity by 2020. Feed-in tariffs, meanwhile, offer a state-level subsidy.

These public funds grant part of the ‘opportunity’ to be ‘seized’.

Of course, few people will be concerned that a maker of wind turbines is primarily concerned with his own enrichment, if his work leads to emissions abatement or the mitigation of climate change. After all, as the saying goes, it’s not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our nightly dinner.

Sadly, in this case, the invisible hand is not nearly so dextrous. For there are solid physical and economic reasons to suppose that growth of ’emissions-free’ electricity-generating capacity will not cause a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions at all.

Given the Ivanpah project that US firm BrightSource Energy, together with Bechtel, is currently developing in the desert of California’s Inland Empire, and the still-more-impressive efforts of various German firms around the Mediterranean coast, it does seem that ‘renewable’ plants will be installed up to a utility scale, that some of these plants could be commercially successful, and that ‘clean energy’ may become a ’new engine’ of profitability for some.

But, if so, this will occur even as carbon dioxide emissions increase, (thaw-assisted) drilling for gas and oil goes ahead in the Yamal Peninsula, the South Kara Sea and Alaska’s North Slope, research is explored on how to liberate methane clathrates from beneath permafrost, and fossil fuels continue to provide most of the primary energy supply for the countless conversions, reconfigurations of matter and entropy reductions that make up the productive processes of a capitalist world economy. (Thus Chevron has contracted BrightSource to build a field of solar thermal collectors to generate steam injection for enhanced oil recovery.)

Too see why, we need only look at the structural materials  steel, aluminium, plastics, cement, fibreglass  that are used in producing ’renewable’ energy.

This allows us roughly to calculate what is called embodied energy, a life-cycle assessment of the direct and indirect energy needed to produce some output, summed over each step from raw-material extraction to transport, assembly, installation and final decommissioning. Ferrochrome, the main feedstock for stainless steel, is usually held to require over 50mJ/kg; aluminium costs around 200mJ/kg.

Though domestically most Australian coal (~80%) is used for electricity generation, once exports are taken into account the majority of bituminous coal mined is used as an input in steel production. Steelmaking requires the smelting of iron in giant blast furnaces, into which coke (derived from black coal) is introduced as a reducing agent. The ThyssenKrupp steel mill at Schwelgern in Duisberg goes through 2.5 million tonnes of coke each year. Its 140 huge coke ovens, each with a 93 cubic-metre capacity, are fed with 79 tonnes of coal at a time, a cycle repeated 135 times per day.

It is almost impossible to imagine a capitalist economy without a steel industry. Not only is steel a key constituent of everything from kitchen cutlery to the reinforced concrete of buildings, but almost every production process uses machines or tools containing the material.

In concentrating-solar thermal stations, two-thirds of the material making up a heliostat is steel, as with the pylons, thermal storage tanks and pipes. And, just as in coal-fired plants, the steam-generating boilers and turbogenerators that produce electricity are usually composed of a high-chromium steel alloy. Finally, the transmission towers that support lines connecting to the power grid are built mostly of steel.

Thus one of the chief investors in the Andasol 3 plant in Spain is MAN Ferrostaal. The DESERTEC Foundation that wants to dot concentrating-solar plants across North Africa and the Middle East, then lace high-voltage direct-current transmission lines to Europe, is made up of the cream of German industrial, power-supply and engineering firms, including some of the world’s biggest companies: E.ON, RWE, MAN and Siemens as well as Deutsche Bank, Swiss-Swedish firm ABB (the world’s biggest builder of transmission and distribution grids, including substations, cables, transformers, circuit breakers, etc.) and several of their Italian counterparts.

Wind turbines, parabolic-trough collectors and electricity transmission lines themselves, on the other hand, are composed mostly of aluminium (the cables are reinforced with steel), the light, highly malleable and ductile material that is used widely in construction, transportation (jet airliners have aluminium-alloy airframes, and carry freight in aluminium ULD containers and pallets), packaging, household items, and as a heat sink in electronic goods.

As we have seen, smelting of aluminium from bauxite ore requires huge amounts of energy (more than three times as much as steel production) and water. The Alcoa plants in Victoria accordingly have their own lignite-fired power station, along with government-subsidised electricity, and other remarkable concessions, provided for in a deal signed by the ALP state premier John Cain in 1984.

To be ‘clean’, the construction of ‘renewable’ electricity-generating infrastructure would thus imply an impossible kind of bootstrapping: requiring a huge expansion in aluminium production, with the latter powered by the non-fossil energy for which it is itself the key material input. This, more or less, is the problem of energy cannibalism.

Many of the remaining industrial components of the ‘clean-energy sector’ are derived from crude oil.

Some are made from plastics (besides their more well-known use in clothes and women’s stockings, polymers of propylene and ethylene make piping and electrical-wire insulation) or use hydrocarbon feedstocks for solvents (xylene and benzene), epoxy resins and adhesives (polyurethane), insulation and lubricants.

Meanwhile, given the nature of the energy conversions involved, solar thermal plants, wind farms and geothermal are usually located far from high-load urban areas (farther, the residents of Silesia and northern Bohemia may regret, than lignite-fuelled power stations sometimes are).

The low transport costs that underlie their supply logistics are made possible by internal-combustion engines using petroleum-derived liquid fuels.

The two key prime movers of the post-1950 world economy are diesel engines and gas turbines.

All cargo ships  container ships, tankers and dry-bulk carriers  merchant fleets, and military vessels, except the largest submarines, are propelled by diesel engines. So too are the cranes that deposit and offload cargo and the trucks and trains that transship it.

The world economy of distinct production units interacting via commodity trade  tracing freight routes between terminals, entrepôts and ports in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Long Beach  is unthinkable without these enormous engines. The largest specimens from Wärtsilä and MAN can weigh up to 2300 tonnes.

Meanwhile the widebody commercial jet aircraft that carry passengers and cargo between continents depend on massive turbofan engines that burn fuel derived from kerosene. The largest of these turbofans, installed on Boeing 777s, is produced by General Electric, the Climate Institute’s supporter.

The single-minded and convenient focus of activists, lobbyists, administrators and legislators on electricity generation has thus obscured some of the deeper problems posed by climate change.

The problem of fossil-fuel-based economy is not limited to coal’s use for heating and electricity, nor even that of oil for private passenger transport. The economic ‘miracle of compound growth’ has always been based on the provision of apparently free natural inputs, whose only costs are due to the labour and other commodities used in extracting them.

Indeed, under a conventional input-output analysis the economy’s productive process seems to make matter appear from nowhere, as it does not include entries for energy reserves or unused natural resources (i.e. ‘oil remaining in the ground’), depleted resources or waste produced as either inputs or outputs of the petroleum/energy industry. But, despite appearances, such a production process is conservative.

Historically, productivity growth has depended on finding fuels with successively higher ratios of energy delivered to energy costs (EROI).

A capitalist economy built on increasing labour productivity (output per unit of labour) depends on constantly raising energy intensity (energy per unit of labour) or energy productivity (output per unit of energy).

This is why, in the potted history of IG Farben that Thomas Pynchon includes in Gravity’s Rainbow, he describes industrial capitalism using the imagery of Kekulé’s famous dream about benzene’s molecular structure, in which it resembled a snake eating its own tail:

Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity – most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the system is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide…

Of course, socialists do not get off as easy as many like to think. Any society that wants to provide its members with a decent material standard of living must consider (for it is constrained by) the technical conditions of production: the material relations between product types indicating how much of an industry’s product is needed as input for each other industry.

At any given time, the existing technical coefficients constrain the available material transformations that economic actors may perform, e.g. the particular way in which a specific good may be made. This appears to those actors as a dependence on certain material inputs.

This dependence will not disappear with capitalism.

But it is this in-kind (i.e. non-monetary) technology matrix (of which the price list for all goods is just a one-dimensional projection, with much information lost) that must form the basis of dealing with the problems of climate change and carbon dioxide emissions.

The prevailing wisdom says that a ‘price on pollution’ will allow cost-minimizing firms to incorporate ecological information into their decisions: as individual firms maximize profit by minimizing costs, and as pollution becomes a cost expressible in monetary units, the (properly regulated) market will coordinate an environmentally rational outcome.

Similarly, in 1920 the Austrian liberal Ludwig von Mises wrote that, given the choice ‘whether we shall use a waterfall to produce electricity or extend coalmining and better utilize the energy contained in coal’, calculation must occur in terms of a single common unit.

‘Technology and the considerations derived from it would be of little use’, he wrote, ‘if it were impossible to introduce into their schemes the money prices of goods and services. The projects and designs of engineers would be purely academic if they could not compare input and output on a common basis:

The practical man, eager to improve human conditions by removing uneasiness as far as possible, must know whether, under given conditions, what he is planning is the best method, or even a method, to make people less uneasy…Such comparisons can only be made by the use of money prices.

On this view, there can be no rational decision between alternatives (say between building a new coal-fired power plant or investing in a hydroelectric turbine), without the presence of a single scalar unit by which the two alternatives can somehow be made commensurable.

To this Mises’s great opponent, Otto Neurath, replied that such a comparison took place across multiple dimensions. And for such problems ‘no longer sums of money, but things themselves [should be] taken as the basis for our decisions’:

The question might arise, should one protect coal mines or put greater strain on men? The answer depends for example on whether one thinks that hydraulic power may be sufficiently developed or that solar heat might come to be better used, etc. If one believes the latter, one may ‘spend’ more coal more freely and will hardly waste human effort where coal can be used. If however one is afraid that when one generation uses too much coal thousands will freeze to death in the future, one might use more human power and save coal. Such and many other non-technical matters determine the choice of a technically calculable plan.

We can see no possibility of reducing the production plan to some kind of unit and then to compare the various plans in terms of such units…

How can one numerically compare, beyond the amounts, things like the protection of man power with the protection of coal deposits? In spite of the most careful assessment of all qualities, with due regard to numerically estimated coal deposits yet unexploited, one can still not mark each plan by a number obtained through additions and subtractions, etc., and then take the plan which gives the biggest number.

Economic plans can be compared only in the way one compares pears and books; one can prefer one plan to another only on the basis of a total estimate.

This shouldn’t be read too hastily, as it might be, as a rejection of quantification, numerical calculation or formal decision procedures. It is rather a demand that the decisionmaker attend to the particulars themselves in natural units, rather than reduce all the multifarious dimensions to a single one (i.e. monetary magnitudes. A similar charge would later be levelled against neoclassical economists during the Cambridge capital controversy, which concerned the adequacy of aggregate measures of the productivity of heterogeneous capital goods).

The latter method (i.e. money-price calculation) is a poor surrogate for in-kind calculation, for it involves a loss of information, only taking into account things bought and sold as commodities, and neglecting the technical dependencies existing between various inputs and outputs.

Assessing a hierarchy of needs, and determining how future costs and benefits are to be discounted relative to those of the present, are political decisions that cannot be left to the profit motive:

Savings in coal, trees, etc., beyond amounting to savings in the displeasure of work, mean the preservation of future pleasure, a positive quantity. For instance, that coal is used nowadays for silly things is to be blamed for people freezing in the future. Still, one can only give vague estimates. Saving certain raw materials can become pointless if one discovers something new. The future figures in the balance sheets of the capitalist order only in so far as the demand is anticipated. The freezing people of the future only show up if there is already now a demand for future coal. Just as before, capitalism would cut down the forests even if the consequence were karstification in a hundred years. In the tropics, and elsewhere, capitalism engages in over-exploitation without any disturbance. In short, for it savings would be a loss of profits.

So it appeared in 1925, and indeed we have got erosion and sinkholes, and much else besides.

To suppose today that the profit motive is the best instrument to wield against the physical effects of climate change is a hallucination induced by the profit system itself. And the hallucination is encouraged, even among the doubtful, by media touts, political placemen and the moneyed interests that both represent.

It should be resisted.