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.

What can we learn from Kerala?

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

Kerala is a state on the South Western coast of India; about a third the size of Tasmania or just slightly bigger than Hawaii. It’s been on my radar ever since it featured in an inspirational segment of David Attenborough’s 2009 “How many people can live on planet earth” documentary (35:16).

With 33 million people in an area half the size of Tasmania, you can imagine it’s rather crowded. Some official methods of forest counting nevertheless claim that 44 percent of Kerala is still covered in forest of some kind or another, but scientific studies put the figure much lower at about 21 percent of the country having forests with a crown density higher than 40 percent and another 5 percent with a crown density between 10 and 40 percent. The statistical discrepancy brings to mind Australia’s little Kyoto trick of defining a forest as an area with trees over 2 metres in height and a crown cover of 20 percent or more.

Kerala is experiencing many developing country problems; for example, it is heavily dependent on a couple of million of its population working in the Gulf states and sending back cash. This helps it to import food with its area dedicated to rice halving in recent times as cash crops like rubber and coconut take over. Kerala’s chicken consumption is also increasing and now triple the Indian average. While it’s still just 15 grams a day, chickens are net food consumers, not producers. The bottom line is that Kerala’s remaning forests are under threat from all manner of activities, both legal and illegal.

But the inspirational part is that Kerala has been educating its girls and reaping the rewards; families are now small and the population is stable. Kerala’s life expectancy at birth is 74; the highest of any state in India. It also has the highest literacy rate of 93 percent. Kerala’s Human Development Index of 0.854 is similar to that of Australia in 1980. This is a spectacular achievement considering that Kerala’s installed electrical capacity is about 2700 MW plus another 266 MW from the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the border in Tamil Nadu. So if it’s all running, she can generate about the same power as the South Australian peak demand, which services just 1.6 million people. In 2001, 77 percent of households cooked with wood, LPG was next with 18 percent. Down at the bottom is electricity at just 0.1 percent along with an assortment of kerosene, coal, biogas, crop residues and cow dung. Cooking smoke is a potent killer of young children in India. In 2010, Kerala had the lowest mortality rate for children under 5, but that still meant 16 deaths per 1000 births. More electricity would help, but there still needs to be a cultural shift. Rice is a staple in Kerala and the preferred method of preparation is parboiling, a fascinating ancient process which improves the nutrient profile but lengthens the cooking process. More cooking means more energy and wood fires have a cultural significance that will be tough to shift. I haven’t worked out where the firewood comes from but Kerala uses about 8 million tonnes of it for rice cooking alone. This is more than all the wood and paper products Australia produces from its 2 million hectares of plantations.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in neigbouring Tamil Nadu state, with first unit (1,000 MW) commissioned in the year 2013. With initial capacity of 2,000 MW, this station will be expanded to 6,800 MW capacity.

Kerala’s been on the radar of the World Health Organisation for over half a century ago and the reasons have nothing to do with population or rice or wood cooking fires or dodgy forest data. Kerala has a very high rate of background radiation due to sands containing thorium. The level ranges from about 70 percent above the global average to about 30 times the global average. For thousands of years, some of the population of Kerala have been living bathed in radiation at more than triple the level which will get you compulsorily thrown out of your home (evacuation) in Japan. The Japanese have set the maximum annual radiation level at 20 milli Sieverts per year around Fukushima while some parts of Kerala have had a level of 70 milliSieverts per year … for ever.

The Limits of Planetary Boundaries 2.0

Back in 2013, I led some research that critiqued the ‘Planetary Boundaries‘ concept (my refereed paper, Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?, appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution). I also blogged about this here: Worrying about global tipping points distracts from real planetary threats.

Today a new paper appeared in the journal Science, called “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet“, which attempts to refine and clarify the concept. It states that four of nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, re-imagines the biodiversity boundary as one of ‘biodiversity integrity’, and introduces the concept of ‘novel entities’. A popular summary in the Washington Post can be read here. On the invitation of New York Times “Dot Earth” reporter Andy Revkin, my colleagues and I have written a short response, which I reproduce below. The full Dot Earth article can be read here.

The Limits of Planetary Boundaries
Erle Ellis, Barry Brook, Linus Blomqvist, Ruth DeFries

Steffen et al (2015) revise the “planetary boundaries framework” initially proposed in 2009 as the “safe limits” for human alteration of Earth processes(Rockstrom et al 2009). Limiting human harm to environments is a major challenge and we applaud all efforts to increase the public utility of global-change science. Yet the planetary boundaries (PB) framework – in its original form and as revised by Steffen et al – obscures rather than clarifies the environmental and sustainability challenges faced by humanity this century.

Steffen et al concede that “not all Earth system processes included in the PB have singular thresholds at the global/continental/ocean basin level.” Such processes include biosphere integrity (see Brook et al 2013), biogeochemical flows, freshwater use, and land-system change. “Nevertheless,” they continue, “it is important that boundaries be established for these processes.” Why? Where a global threshold is unknown or lacking, there is no scientifically robust way of specifying such a boundary – determining a limit along a continuum of environmental change becomes a matter of guesswork or speculation (see e.g. Bass 2009;Nordhaus et al 2012). For instance, the land-system boundary for temperate forest is set at 50% of forest cover remaining. There is no robust justification for why this boundary should not be 40%, or 70%, or some other level.

While the stated objective of the PB framework is to “guide human societies” away from a state of the Earth system that is “less hospitable to the development of human societies”, it offers little scientific evidence to support the connection between the global state of specific Earth system processes and human well-being. Instead, the Holocene environment (the most recent 10,000 years) is assumed to be ideal. Yet most species evolved before the Holocene and the contemporary ecosystems that sustain humanity are agroecosystems, urban ecosystems and other human-altered ecosystems that in themselves represent some of the most important global and local environmental changes that characterize the Anthropocene. Contrary to the authors’ claim that the Holocene is the “only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies,” the human-altered ecosystems of the Anthropocene represent the only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary civilization.

What the Melbourne Cup can teach us about journalists… and real emissions cuts

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

Last week, The Age published a piece by its Economics Editor, Peter Martin, called Power down: What the Melbourne Cup can teach us about fighting climate change. It began with a pretty interesting observation about changes in electricity usage that happen as people down tools or computers or something and watch the Melbourne Cup. It wasn’t that long ago that I took the constancy of the electrical output at wall sockets for granted. Martin echos my own fascination at finding out a little of the black art, otherwise known as power engineering, that makes it happen. It’s not magic, people have to do stuff … sometimes on a minute by minute basis.

Martin turns this into an energy efficiency rant by somehow imagining that we consumers can, by collective action, conquer climate change in the same way that US consumers crushed the oil crisis in the 1970s by switching to 4-cylinder cars and insulating their houses. What? Is that what really happened or did Martin just make it up or repeat something he heard in the pub from somebody who heard it from a mate who knows Amory Lovins?

Let’s check. We can go to the International Energy Agency website and with a little hunting find a chart of US Oil use since 1972. Here it is.

Just looking at it is instructive. The standout decline is down the bottom. Fuel oil. None of the others look to contribute much on their own. Fuel oil’s use peaked around 1978 and then crashed. Print the image and measure. It’s down by almost 11 millimeters over the following decade on my printout … close on 100 million tonnes.

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘\$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.