CO2 rising – the science of global warming

Below are two climate change book reviews by me; I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

I’ve provided an Amazon link to one and a Book Depository link to another — because I’m not out to promote any particular online bookstore (although I tend to find the latter cheapest, and as to the former, well, I love my Kindle 3G DX [I’m reading Weinberg on it right now])… Oh, and for Australians, never go past the Booko website!

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Volk, T. (2008). CO2 Rising: The World’s Greatest Environmental Challenge. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 978-0-262-22083-5.

Carbon atoms with personality. That’s the interesting literary device biochemist Tyler Volk uses to illustrate the fantastic convolutions that define the many and varied pathways of the carbon cycle. ‘CO2 Rising‘ tracks the fate of atoms ‘Dave’, ‘Coalleen’, ‘Oiliver’ and others, as they wend their waythrough the Earth’s crust, oceans, biosphere and atmosphere – indeed, all of the reservoirs of carbon on the planet.

In an entertaining way, the reader learns to appreciate the transience of some states of carbon (such as the brief moments an atom is bound up in a molecule of CO2 in a glass of beer, only to be later measured by the instruments of Dave Keeling on the peak of Mauna Loa), and the timelessness of others (such as the subterreanean lumps of coal and pools of oil, sequestering atoms for eons in dark geological vaults).

Understanding the dynamics of different carbon reservoirs is fundamental to appreciating the overarching premise of the book: most carbon is ‘out of action’ in limestones, ocean ooze or buried fossil fuels, for most of time. But as greater and greater quantities of ‘old carbon’ are unearthed to stoke the fires and cement kilns of modern industry, a long-balanced equilibria is disrupted. On a planetary scale, with global consequences.

The public hears a lot about climate change, but too little about just why too much CO2 – a natural part of our atmosphere – is bad news. Volk does an impressive job of illustrating, in engaging prose, the dangers to humanity of pushing the carbon cycle too hard, too fast. His bottom line? Natural systems have all the time in the world to re-adjust, dispassionately, to a disturbance like the recent pulse of fossil carbon. But for we fleeting beings, the way we manage carbon now, during this short century, will define us – or haunt us – forever.

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Mathez, Edmond A. 2009. Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future. Columbia University Press, NY. 318 p. ISBN: 978-0231146425

“Not another book about climate change!”.

That was my immediate reaction on first seeing Edmond A. Mathez’s new work. After all, there has been a swag of recent books on this general topic, ranging from the highly technical to those pitched very much at a popular audience. So a quite fair question to ask is whether this book adds anything useful. I can answer with a resounding yes – a few caveats notwithstanding.

The book surveys a broad and varied intellectual terrain – everything from the basic chemistry and physics of the atmosphere, oceans and ice caps, to the functioning of the carbon cycle and its links with the geology in deep time, to the scientific method and a reflection on how it structures thinking within such a multidisciplinary arena, to the projected geophysical, biological, socioeconomic impacts of a future century of global warming, and finally to the raft of possible solutions on offer.

The book is aimed at an intelligent lay audience, drawing its inspiration from a popular exhibition, curated by the author, at the American Museum of Natural History. In his ability to convey complex and often technically challenging science to a popular audience, in an engaging and accurate manner (yet replete with unobtrusively numbered references to the key peer-reviewed literature), Mathez has succeeded admirably. Indeed, it might well be the best of its kind out there at present.

Where it fell a little short was in the final chapter on energy and the future. The information on individual energy technologies, including the full mix of renewables and fossil fuel with carbon sequestration was accurate and well covered. But the section on nuclear power failed to ever mention integral fast spectrum reactors, which make huge strides in solving the very problems Mathez fretted about, such as limited uranium supplies, safety, proliferation, and management of high level waste. This is a critical oversight, because the scale of the carbon mitigation and energy replacement problem is so enormous that no useful technology can be disregarded.

Mathez clearly articulates the scale of the climate problem. Now we need clearer thinking and better communication on solutions that can solve it fully. After all, this is not a battle we can afford to lose.

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25 Comments

  1. The focus on reducing carbon emissions overlooks the all-important fact that methane is a far more potent global-warming gas than carbon dioxide. This explains another fact, namely that “livestock production” (raising animals for the consumption of meat and dairy products) is the number one cause of global warming. For more information, please watch the brief video titled “ANIMAL AGRICULTURE: THE FACTS” — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcjyn2GFJxk&feature=player_embedded and read the following article, titled “A New Global Warming Strategy: How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes” — http://www.earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm By the way, these reports do not include information about the destruction of oceans and seas and the estimated consumption of fish or “seafood,” amounting to about 110 million tonnes annually.

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  2. There is a perception that overall La Nina weather conditions help farmers. However the rain has to ease up between now and Christmas to harvest grain crops
    http://www.businessspectator.com.au/bs.nsf/Article/East-Australia-faces-wheat-harvest-delays-on-rains-AF6Y5?OpenDocument&src=rab
    Yesterday I met some people from WA who were dismayed by the west missing out on the rain in the same way as northern hemisphere wheat areas like Russia. If the public thinks we are enjoying benign conditions perhaps we should wait a few months to see if food prices are affected. Note that a lot of grain is fed to meat animals so it doesn’t just affect the price of bread.

    I think the clean energy debate will come to a head with the conjunction of a hot dry year with high oil prices, say approaching $200 a barrel. That year may not be far away.

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  3. Mathez would appear to be typical of a lot of people who “get’ climate change but can’t or won’t get their heads around one of the best ways to tackle it.

    This blinkered vision is not just confined to climate change of course.The religious devotion of so many to our present economic system in spite of the damage it has done is a good example. Bill Mitchell seems to be flogging a seemingly dead horse at the moment when he expounds on Modern Monetary Theory but I live in hope that the message will finally get through,probably when the horse has bolted.

    George Mobus,on his blog “Question Everything” has some interesting views on human sapience,or more commonly,the lack of it.

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  4. NEW EPA REGULATIONS: LET’S START BURNING NATION’S CROPS AND FORESTS

    If you think corn ethanol has become one of the nation’s biggest boondoggles, wait until you see where the Environmental Protection Agency has in store for the nation’s utility industries.

    EPA pulled back the curtain yesterday with new rules saying that utilities will be allowed to escape the carbon regulations that begin next January if they switch to burning farm and woodland wastes instead of coal.

    “The new guidance allows for the substitution of biomass — wood waste, switchgrass or other agricultural products — for fossil fuels as a way to meet the new air quality rules,” reports The New York Times. “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that would generate new income opportunities for American farmers and forestry companies while reducing global warming emissions.”

    It is hard to imagine a more insane energy policy – although it certainly seems plausible that it could happen. Already several utilities around the country have substituted wood wastes for coal under the illusion that they are helping global warming.

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  5. A lot of people seem certain that we can replace half a billion years accumulation of coal, oil and gas (along with an oxygen rich atmosphere) with flakey realtime flows of wind, water and sunlight. To do this they throw absurdly generous subsidies at tiny experiments and tell themselves the real deal can’t be too far away.

    With biomass burning it helps to overlook inconvenient data. The huge amounts of diesel and partial coal fired electricity needed to create the residues are regarded a sunk cost so the carbon flows are ignored. Lost nutrients (NPK etc) are replaced in the growing areas since they are currently cheap. Meanwhile soil carbon is reduced. In Australia this currently applies to bagasse burning from sugar cane processing and to at least one proposed wood waste mill.

    I note the bagasse mills said they couldn’t survive if Renewable Energy Certificates were priced below $50 per Mwh or 5c per kwh. I presume they would get a feed-in tariff rather than RECs under the Greens proposals. It would be most odd if the proposed wood waste mills got subsidies (REC or FIT) while there was no carbon tax on the vast amount of diesel used in trucks and harvesting machines. If it contributed to the decimation of old growth forests it could be regarded as government sponsored vandalism.

    Alternative suggestion; let the ‘waste’ rot where it falls to retire the carbon and recycle nutrients. Get serious amounts of electricity some other way that involves minimal carbon.

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  6. DV82XL, Ya. I agree.

    To the others I urge you to ask yourselves:
    And where does this never-ending steam of stupidity come from?

    – Who led and supported the anti-nuclear movement for the past 50 years?

    – Who argued for bio-diesel (causing massive deforestation in the tropics)?

    – Who gave raptupus applause to the film that opened the Copenhagen conference (an example of extremist alarmism at its worst)? (answer: just about all the attendees, including Australia’s 120 odd politicians, minders and bureaucrats in attendance).

    – Who gave a standing ovation to the “Down with Capitalism” speech by Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, at the Copenhagen Conference (answer: 75% of the attendees including most of the Australian minders and bureacrats) ?

    – Who included the clauses to introduce World Government and UN taxing powers in the draft Copenhagen agreement?

    – Who has continually tried to blame Climate Change for every bad event that occurrs?

    – Who used climate change as a means to argue for as many as possible of their ideologically based policy to be tied to stopping Climate Change?

    – Who used climate change as an argument for higher taxes and more redistribution of wealth?

    – Who continually equates solar power and wind power with stopping climate change? (This has been going on for twenty years. Just look at the ABC and most of the media. They invariably equate renewables and climate change in the same sentence).

    Then ask yourselves: “Who’d trust these ideologically driven people?

    Who’d trust anything they argue for?”

    I expect most will jump out of their trees now to defend themselves and say they are not Left and Labor is not Left and so on. (a few may think! for a while!)

    Instead of defending your beliefs, you’d do better to hear the message.

    The massive exaggeration you continually perpetrate, the tying of Left ideology to the way you want to reduce emissions, your lack of understanding of or interest in the effects the crazy schemes you advocate would have on the economy, are all a powerful ‘turn-offs’ to the Conservatives.

    I urge you to get your head around this.

    You cannot fix a problem if you don’t recognise it.

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  7. DV82XL:

    While I basically agree with your cynicism regarding biofuels, I’m not sure that their production necessarily leads to soil degradation.

    Yesterday, I was discussing the matter with the CEO of anaerobic digester plant importer who is also in the business of biomethane production in the UK. The biomethane is cleaned up and fed into the (low pressure) national gas grid. He agreed that he had a window of opportunity which might close as soon as low cost nuclear power came along and admitted that his profitability was dependent on ROCs (renewable obligation certificates) which are ,in effect, subsidy.

    I was interested on his views on animal manure and cardboard digestion. He was prepared to take it off my hands for £25/tonne. I asked him why he needed £15000/annum from me when I was offering him a potential source of energy and, of course, he replied that it was a low grade source. He did, however, say that he’d pay me £25/tonne for whole crop maize as well as returning the digestate. The point he was making and the only point of this comment was that the return of the digestate made the whole process sustainable , certainly from a topsoil point of view.

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  8. No biofuels don’t necessarily have to lead to topsoil degradation, however large scale monocropping has in some places. Also topsoil management is not well developed in much of the Third-world, so while it is not necessarily inevitable, it’s a very high risk that may not be practically avoidable in the long run.

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  9. He did, however, say that he’d pay me £25/tonne for whole crop maize as well as returning the digestate.

    Does the £25/tonne include returning the digestate to the soil? Does it include returning it to the soil without further damaging the soil?

    The answer, of course, is NO!

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  10. I’m a bit of a fan of the pyrolysis myself.

    You get three product streams, char(mixed with ash containing the non-volatile nutrients), non-condensable gas and condensable gas.

    The char is the important stuff; although the gaseous stuff driven off is perhaps useful as a minor fuel/chemical byproduct. This is a very stable form of carbon(the residence time in soil is estimated between 100 and 10 000 years) and does appear to significantly help soil fertility in degraded soils. If you optimize for char you can capture almost 50% of the carbon in the crop wastes and wood wastes. There are limits to how much char can be put to good use world-wide, but they seem to be high enough to make a bit of a dent in atmospheric CO2 at least.

    Since the char is not accessible for microbrial decay, you still have to leave some crop wastes to sustain soil bacteria. I don’t think this is a show-stopper; the majority of soil carbon is lost because of tilling and we’re combatting that problem on multiple fronts. Most directly with pesticide resistant GMO soy and corn; this allows you to combat weeds without tilling, stabilizing the soil(old root systems) and slowing the ingress of oxygen necessary to degrade organic matter. We’re also making slow, steady progress toward bringing the yields of perennial cereals up to the levels of annual cereals. All things being equal perennials are better because they form larger root systems and have a stronger tendency to form symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria(e.g. nitrogen fixing bacteria), need less plowing, sowing and pesticides.

    The condensable gas stream is a mixture of CO, CH4, H2 and CO2. A mixture of CO and H2 is known as syngas and can be used to produce a wide variety of interesting things depending on H2:CO ratio(which can be adjusted with the water gas shift reaction, CO + H2O CO2 + H2). There is a big challenge here; finding at least one path way that is viable on a small scale(it’s not going to be economical if you have to ship agricultural waste many kilometers) and can be operated and maintained without too requiring much expertice.

    Among other things you can ferment syngas to ethanol(which can be dehydrated to ethylene or etherified to diethyl ether), you can make methane(can be partially oxidized to methanol and etherified to dimethyl ether), you can make hydrocarbons with fischer-tropsch(chain length distribution depends on H2:CO ratio), you can run the water gas shift reaction all the way to the right and make ammonia with haber-bosch.

    The condensable gases form an acidic, tarlike substance known as pyrolysis oil. There are some interesting chemicals there that may be worth recovering; but it is a poor fuel that you should probably syngasify or burn for heat to drive other processes on the farm(drying of corn and beans?).

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  11. Soylent we have to ask what would work in the WA wheatbelt. As in how to keep getting a lot our kilojoules from grain when off-farm inputs (NPK, diesel) are in short supply. Biochar enthusiasts favour using oil powered machines to take wood from forested areas then plowing the charcoal with another oil powered machine into open fields some distance away. I don’t see it working in millions of hectares of prairie or rangeland country.

    I’ve experimented with charcoal made from perennial grass (eg tall fescue) and burning it in oxygen from water electrolysis. Next step would be to combine the CO2 with the hydrogen from water splitting. However I don’t have platinum catalysts or high pressure equipment. To me pyrolysis oil seems like a dead end; the product looks like sooty vinegar and not worth the trouble.

    In short I don’t see any easy answers. Perhaps we will have to grow root crops close to home fertilised with human waste. The traditional demarcation between city and farmland may become blurred.

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  12. Victor: It’s important not to overstate the role of livestock in causing global warming and equally important not to understate the changes required in the global food system as part of any solution. Note the asymmetry. If we hadn’t
    unearthed so much buried carbon, we wouldn’t have global warming, but now
    that we have, we need, among other things, to roll back 200 years of deforestation and livestock population expansion. The fact that
    the rollback has become absolutely essential as part of the solution doesn’t mean
    it caused the problem.

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  13. “Biochar enthusiasts favour using oil powered machines to take wood from forested areas then plowing the charcoal with another oil powered machine into open fields some distance away.”

    There is some quality difference between chars, certainly, but don’t cut down perfectly good trees to make char, that’s just dumb.

    Use part of the crop residue, wheat straw in this case, as feed for the pyrolysis process. Some straw will be siphoned off for use in livestock; it is used as bedding and feed, but it must be a restricted part of lifestock diet due to it’s low digestibility.

    Pyrolysis plants have to be kept small because you’re not going to want to transport bulky biomass over long distances. In it’s simplest form, producing only char and flaring the byproducts off, the plant can be made extremely small and simple. If you want to capture pyrolysis oil and non-condensable gases it’s going to need to be much bigger. If it has to be so big that it requires transportation of biomass longer distances than a few km then it’s probably a lost cause. If it can be made sufficiently small it could be crammed into a standard container, the largest size of which is 40 feet in length. If this can be accomplished the plant can be transported on a truck to wherever it needs to go, servicing a number of farms each harvest in the manner of a travelling salesman.

    “To me pyrolysis oil seems like a dead end; the product looks like sooty vinegar and not worth the trouble.”

    The product is not pyrolysis oil, it is char.

    Pyrolysis oil and non-condensable gases are byproducts that may or may not sweeten the deal. A relatively simple use for them would be to use simply burn them on location in order to dry the wheat(instead of propane, natural gas, diesel etc.).

    There are a number of neat products you can make from the non-condensable gases and pyrolysis oil; it’s not physically impossible to develop processes on a sufficiently small scale that are capable of doing so economically. The pyrolysis oil contains some interesting chemicals of fairly high value that you want to isolate if you can; then you’re going to want to turn the pyrolysis oil into syngas and make methanol, dimethyl ether, ethanol(fermentation of syngas), fischer-tropsch liquids(H2:CO ratio can be adjusted to produce predominantly short or long hydrocarbons, as you may wish), ammonia(haber-bosch).

    There is at least one promissing approach, microchannel Fischer-tropsch, which is small enough to comfortably fit into a container sized volume when fed natural gas as the feed stock. There might be fouling problems using pyrolysis oil, that may or may not be solvable without making the machinery too big.

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  14. Soylent I agree that a breakthrough in 100% localised and small footprint biofuel would be revolutionary but it doesn’t seem to be happening. It would get the oil import monkey off our back. If a breakthrough does occur I think it will probably not involve oils/lipids or fermentation from algae, oily trees/shrubs or starchy plants, nor reactions requiring costly water separation. That cuts out biodiesel, bioethanol , crop biomethane and in my opinion pyrolysis oil . I agree we shouldn’t use certain crops (eg maize, sugar cane) since not only do they compete with food but perennial grasses, weeds and garbage won’t need irrigation and protection from invaders. However in temperate areas the fuel value of plants is tiny compared to the incident sunlight over a growing season. That is why I think we should use bio and waste carbon boosted with hydrogen from a concentrated source.

    My suggestion is to create CO2 free of dust, tar and nitrogen by burning bio carbon in pure oxygen from water splitting. That is 99.x % pure CO2 not 0.04% as in air capture or ~13% as in flue gas. The next step involves catalysts and added hydrogen. That’s where my backyard experiments have come to a halt.

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  15. John Newlands, on 17 November 2010 at 10:16 AM — Biofuels from whatever source and by whatever process can only provide a most partial solution to the impending transportatin fuel shortage in all but perhaps a few regions of the world.

    Photosynthesis now cannot replace the reults of millions of years of photosynthesis long, long ago.

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  16. Unlike UAE Australia is a member of the OECD so we are supposed to be some kind of leader. Remember we also export 260 Mt of coal a year and about 20 Mt of LNG though the figures are a couple of years old. Based on a 7 barrels of oil per tonne I don’t believe we export as much contained carbon as Russia or Saudi Arabia. However their oil exports are declining whereas Australia is building more coal, LNG and LCSG export facilities. Some might think this makes us liars about wanting global carbon cuts.

    If the punters at home are going to be slugged carbon tax then I don’t see why overseas coal and LNG customers should be spared. Apparently the parliamentary committee will give themselves the whole of 2011 to chew over carbon pricing. Funny I thought we voted on it back in 2007.

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  17. “If the punters at home are going to be slugged carbon tax then I don’t see why overseas coal and LNG customers should be spared.”

    John, look at the politics; bare with me for a while.

    If Australia has a carbon tax on domestic use of carbon this gives Australian companies a competitive disadvantage compared to foreign companies not burdened by a carbon tax. You make a lot of politically powerful enemies this way.

    If you try to establish a world-government body that applies a uniform tax on carbon everywhere you need an extraordinary degree of political cooperation. Countries would be forced to open themselves up for the possibility that this body will misuse its authority to create rules and regulations as an instrument for the more powerful nations to disadvantage or punish other nations.

    The solution I propose is a carbon tax that is not applied to any exports. Nor is it applied in any stage in the production; it is only applied at the end user and it is applied for both domestic production and imports. It’s close to neutral on trade; you can adopt it unilaterally. If another country adopts the same policy it does not cause double taxation of any good or service that crosses the borders between them. It doesn’t require all countries to agree on a single price for carbon; nations can ramp it up at different rates, starting at different points on time independently from one another.

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  18. Soylent I think Australia could be in the box seat when it comes to controlling major carbon flows. India’s steel industry depends on Australian coking coal and they are apparently helping develop a deposit in Mozambique to diversify supply. Aleklett and Heinberg say China (see sidebar) is about to peak in domestic coal production and China is building a rail line to Russia to get more coal. However Australia’s coal exports of 260 Mt to all countries are small compared to China’s 3,000 Mt annual consumption. Therefore if Australia made export coal and LNG more expensive it could hurt both them and us. Since carbon tax is supposed to be revenue neutral perhaps they could ask for the money back if they promised to do green things with it.

    The thing that bugs me is the way Australia preaches carbon restraint to the rest of the world while helping fossil fuel exports. Kind of like a pimp teaching Sunday school.

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  19. Pingback: Energy and climate books I read in 2010 « BraveNewClimate

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