Reducing emissions: Goldberg machines are not meant to be planning advice

Guest Post by Alex CoramAlex is Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Western Australia and a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University and the University of Massachusetts.  He mostly works on problems in mathematical political-economy.

Rube Goldberg machines are devices for achieving some straightforward objective in a manner that requires great expenditure of effort and resources and is so fanciful and complicated that there is little chance of succeeding.  Their appeal results from the fact that they are the consequence of ignoring simpler ways of achieving the same result.  They also demonstrate the mathematical point that an unconstrained solution is better than a constrained solution.  They are about the last thing we should think about when faced with a serious problem.

Right now we are faced with such a problem.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that to reduce the possibility we will push the climate to a new trajectory anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut by between 50 and 80 percent on current figures by about 2050.  They need to go to zero sometime after that. If this is not achieved temperature increases may vary from manageable to possibly over 4 degrees centigrade.  In the latter case the result would be large scale species extinction and possible economic collapse.  This is about as bad as it gets, short of maybe an asteroid strike or something similar.

No solution to these problems is simple, of course.  However, some are beginning to look a bit like Rube’s machines.  To see the point consider the following stripped down view of the options.

Plan A.  Follow Clausewitz’s dictum ‘in war moderation is madness’ and throw everything we have at it.  This means solar, wind, bio-fuels, nuclear the lot. Since hydro is difficult to expand I leave it to one side for this discussion.

Plan B.  Exclude nuclear and just use solar, wind and bio-fuels.

As soon as we try for plan B we complicate things by excluding the main potential source of low emissions expandable base load energy.

Suppose we try to get all the energy we need using solar voltaic. First we need land.  There are a lot of maps on the internet that give the total land required as reassuringly small dots that add up to about the size of Texas.  A better way to do it is to scale up solar installations like the Topaz plant in California.  From this we need about 200~km^2 for each average size 1 GWe power station we replace.  Imagine, for example, that the population of India uses about half current US energy per person.  In this case it would be necessary to cover between 10-20 percent of India’s land mass with panels.

To get an idea of the nature of the second problem just draw a horizontal line that represents a few days and draw average energy requirements as a line that goes up and down a bit.  Now draw some humps of about six hours wide once every twenty four hours.

What is apparent is that the gaps are bigger than the energy filled in bits.  And some of the energy is wasted because it is at the wrong time.  Depending what you want to assume about back up, there are periods where we may have to fill in by100 percent.

So let’s add wind to the diagram. Just draw a line that spikes up and down between the maximum and zero in a random fashion.

Is wind totally random?  As far as getting it to correlate with gaps in the sun, near enough. There is no reason why the wind should coincide with our sunshine humps.  Sometimes it adds to surplus when we don’t want it.  Sometimes it adds nothing when we do want it.

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A path to energy nirvana, or just a circuitous detour?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

My previous BNC post started with a story about satnavs, those great little replacements for a dog-eared street directory. Everybody understands the value of planning a route. Everybody understands that just because a road is heading in the general direction of your destination, it may not be good choice; let alone the best choice.

It might be a dead end or take you on a long circuitous route to or past your destination. Everybody knows this but when it comes to climate change, it’s as if basic smarts take a holiday and anything that can demonstrate a CO2 savings (i.e., heads in the general direction of a solution) produces cheering and cries of victory. The article went on to show that we’ve wasted over a decade with biofuels because they demonstrably cannot decarbonise our transportation system. Not ever. It was an easy argument; a slam dunk, a lay down misere.

But what about renewable energy? Specifically wind and solar? Are these dead end technologies? It certainly isn’t a slam dunk, but lets examine what’s been happening in South Australia for the past decade.

On Sunday the 8th of February, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill called for a Royal Commission into all things nuclear after a long political history of being anti-nuclear and after being heavily involved in the past decade of wind and solar roll outs in South Australia.

This launched a small flurry of opposition with Greens Senator Mark Parnell rejecting the call with claims about any involvement in the nuclear industry by SA leading to dirty bombs; SA Conservation Council CEO Craig Wilkins invoked a threat to our clean food image. Following an op-ed by me in the Adelaide Advertiser, Wilkins followed with a letter claiming that SA couldn’t possibly have a nuclear reactor within 10 years, and went on to say that (Advertiser Letters 18th Feb):

credible commentators are suggesting that SA could be 100 percent renewable in 10 years

Why have nuclear inquiry if success is imminent?

What on earth is going on? If SA could have 100 percent of its electricity being generated by renewables in 10 years, I’d certainly be cheering and dancing in the street. And what’s with Weatherill? Doesn’t he have any “credible commentators” on his staff? Or is he getting advice from real engineers instead of credible commentators.

Let’s look at the numbers.

First a couple of interesting graphs from AEMO’s 2014 South Australian Electricity Report.

The graph shows exports and imports of electricity into SA. After a steep decline in 2006, we see a gradual rise in imports of electricity starting in 2007. Why?

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Satnavs, biofuel and climate change

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Even if they don’t own one, most readers will have seen a Satnav, those miracles of modern technology which will direct you across town to a suburb and street you’ve never been to before. After you enter your destination, there’s a little pause and perhaps the screen displays a message like: “Calculating…”, and then the instructions start.

Okay, so why the pause?

Once it’s located its required satellites and knows where you are, the Satnav runs some form of shortest path algorithm to work out how to get to the destination. If you are interested, here’s a walk through of one popular algorithm in action.

Really impatient people might be annoyed by the pause. For such people, there’s a much faster way of proceeding which would make that pause so short as to be imperceptible. Here’s the algorithm for a no-pause Satnav. First make a list of each road passing through your current location. After all, you have to travel down one of these. Then consider some point a small distance (say 30 meters) away on each of the roads. It’s high school maths to determine if this point is closer to your destination than your current location. If it is, then off you go. Then at the next intersection of any kind, do the same thing again. The algorithm would be lightning fast, the pause would vanish, and it always takes you in the direction of the destination.

At this point you should get out a piece of paper and start doodling. Might the algorithm use dead end roads? Ah … yes. If you go down one, can you ever get out? Ah … no. Consider roads slightly less than tangential to a circle around your destination. Might the algorithm take them? Ah … I guess so. Could you end up driving backwards and forwards along such a road forever? Ah … yes, theoretically.

Obviously, the algorithm sucks; even though at each point it always chooses a road that takes you toward the destination. But it can suck even it doesn’t make any of the mistakes I mentioned. It can suck by simply taking a hopelessly circuitous route.

If you think about it, this algorithm is pretty close to the current international approach to tackling climate change. Of course, a Satnav is just for one person, but the climate change mitigation process is highly parallel, so it’s like everybody involved is using this same sucky algorithm.

How often have you seen news stories about some so-called climate friendly project; they all have a prominent claim somewhere like: “This project will deliver clean energy to Y thousand homes!” or, “This project will save X tonnes of CO2”? All such claims tell you is that the project is taking you somewhere closer to zero-carbon nirvana. They tell you nothing about whether you will ever get there or how long it might take.

Consider as an example: the on-going global roll out of biofuels.

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An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

Professor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia.

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  1. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  1. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA.
  1. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy.
  1. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada.
  1. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA.
  1. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Professor Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA.
  1. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  1. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.
  1. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France.
  1. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia.
  1. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  1. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia.
  1. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.
  1. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA.
  1. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia.
  1. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland.
  1. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  1. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA.
  1. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China.
  1. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia.
  1. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  1. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA.
  1. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  1. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Dr Menna E. Jones, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom.
  1. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada.
  1. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA.
  1. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  1. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA.
  1. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA.
  1. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA.
  1. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
  1. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  1. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia.
  1. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
  1. Professor Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA.
  1. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland.
  1. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia.
  1. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada.
  1. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA.
  1. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA.
  1. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India.
  1. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA.
  1. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  1. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.
  1. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
  1. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia.
  1. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA.
  1. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey.
  1. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway.
  1. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  1. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  1. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
  1. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA.

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.


Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. (Accessed 14 March 2014).

Nuclear power to do the heavy lifting in reducing China’s greenhouse gas emissions

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy

On November 12, 2014, China and the United States agreed to new limits on carbon emissions starting in 2025. China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 and also promised to raise the share of zero-carbon energy to 20 percent of the country’s total. United States would cut its own emissions by more than a quarter by 2025.

This agreement makes perfect sense when you realise that according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China and the US are the two biggest emitters of CO2 from energy production, contributing 42 percent of the world total in 2012. The top six countries make up 60 percent of the world total. IEA measures CO2 emissions in each country from fuel combustion only.

Source: IEA Key World Energy Statistics 2014.

According to the IPCC, CO2 emissions from energy production in 2004, primarily from burning coal, oil and gas, accounted for about 60 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Countries can reduce their total GHG emissions significantly by switching to low-carbon energy sources made up of nuclear, hydro, biofuels and renewable energy (RE) including geothermal, solar and wind, then.

The table below shows the major energy sources in 2012. Coal, oil and gas are the largest contributors to GHG emissions but they also contributed 82 percent of total energy. Coal made up 30 percent, oil 31 percent and gas 21 percent. Biofuels made up 10 percent, nuclear and hydro 5 percent each, but RE only produced 1 percent of total energy. For the world to replace coal alone, low-carbon sources would need to produce 4000 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) of energy annually.

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