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

MelbCupGuest 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.

USA-oil-useJust 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.

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There’s lies, damned lies, statistics and then there’s carbon accounting

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

It’s February and the September quarter 2013 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures have just been released but are getting rather less coverage than in the heady days when Kevin Rudd pronounced climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our time … etc.

The big issue at present is of course whether (or should this be “weather”) the carbon tax has done anything. Peter Hannam in The Age sketches the position of the players. Christine Milne pointing to the cuts in electricity emissions to claim yes, and Greg Hunt using the same figures to belittle the impact. Of course, we have an academic Frank Jotzo pointing out that what matters is what the emissions would have been without the tax. Ah! That’s obviously correct but rather tougher to estimate.

In total, our emissions have increased by 1.2 percent and Hannam singles our land-clearing as the culprit, because its gone up.

What the hell is land clearing? It’s easily the most complex of all the emission categories and it’s worth considering in some detail, because almost nobody ever does.

Land clearing is the sum of some other categories. Cutting stuff down is called deforestation and growing stuff is called either afforestation or reforestation depending on whether there was ever anything there before you started to grow stuff. The three terms are formally defined in the September Quarter document with afforestation and deforestation being formally defined as: “new commercial and environmental forest plantations by direct human action on land not forested in 1989.” It notes that net emissions are typically negative because growing stuff exceeds cutting stuff.

It all looks rosy until you go digging through the actual data. At which point things get very murky. The formal spreadsheets Australia submits to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are extremely detailed … as they should be. And we find that rather more categories are used to generate the three subtotals.

Basically, land is considered to be in one of a few states: Forest Land, Cropland, Grassland, Wetlands, Settlements, and two categories of Other. In each category, land can either be entering the category or remaining in it. If Forest becomes Grass (via clearing), then typically it stores less carbon so we get a positive carbon emission. That’s easy. That same land might emit carbon for some time after the initial clearing, so there is a category of “Grass remaining Grass”. That’s not so easy. And what about Forest remaining Forest? Well that’s also easy, if you don’t do anything, Forests accumulate carbon so you get a negative emissing … a gain. Gains are good.

Are you still with me?

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Stayin’ alive in the gene pool – Part III

This is the third and final part of a comprehensive series on radiation that has been published on BNC in weekly instalments during November 2013. This week — cancer…

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here.

Part I and Part II of this series showed that radiation, whether from reactor accidents or even nuclear war, pose no long term global risks for the biosphere.

If humans were malicious or stupid enough to engage in nuclear war, we would have much bigger things than radiation to worry about, both during and after. Worrying about the radiation impacts of a nuclear war is rather like worrying about the bad hair impacts of self immolation. The World War II atomic bombs killed most of their victims in exactly the same way that other bombs killed people. The fire bombing of Japanese cities killed more people and left a far larger legacy of horrific and frequently permanently painful burn injuries. During 1994 the humble machete killed over half a million people in Rwanda. In comparison with missing limbs and horrific burns, radiation’s impacts on most survivors was mundane. We’ll see later that sausages can increase cancer risk by more than being an atomic bomb survivor. The increased cancer rate in survivors gave them an average lifespan reduction of some two months and has had no long term impacts on later generations.

If you want to compare two causes of cancer then you count cases or perhaps deaths. Something that causes a million cancer deaths is worse than something that causes a thousand. Focusing on one person’s suffering in that thousand can cause a cruel, unjust and immoral allocation of resources away from the many to the few.

Peter, Paul and Mary and the no-nukes sales anthem

Thirty years of adverse branding has raised radiation’s minor disease contribution well above and beyond it’s station. Most of our current crop of politicians, including people like Bill Clinton, who killed the US Integral Fast Reactor program in 1994, grew up in a cultural soup of references to radiation as poison. For decades now, the anthem of the no-nukes movement has frequently been considered to be the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Power” with its many cover versions (here’s one … at 7:35). It has an ironic refrain:

Just give me the restless power of the wind
Give me the comforting glow of a wood fire
But please take all of your atomic poison power away.

Poetic license is no excuse for getting stuff back to front.

Wood fires are deadly. Cooking fires, mainly wood but also cattle dung, kill half a million children annually and another 3,000,000 adults. Woodsmoke is certainly natural. A naturally toxic soup of nasty natural chemicals.

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Nuclear Waste Part 2: The nuts and bolts of waste

This is the second in a four part series on nuclear waste which is running on BraveNewClimate.com over a four-day period, authored by Geoff Russell. Click here for Part 1.

Everyday items can kill - do you see the ingested button battery in this x-ray?

Everyday items can kill – do you see the ingested button battery in this x-ray?

What’s special about nuclear waste?

In Part I, we found that radioactive decay in the earth’s crust is continuously releasing as much energy as 44 million large nuclear reactors. Is that troubling? Presumably not. I’ve not heard calls from anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott or Jim Green to seal the surface of the planet with a layer of lead to save future generations from horrible deformed babies.

So what is it about nuclear power waste disposal that people find so troubling? Dig a hole into that crust and replace some naturally radioactive rock that hasn’t moved for billions of years by the aforementioned waste. Fill and forget. Of all our hazardous waste disposal problems, this is one of the few that’s been properly solved. Others remain unsolved and kill large numbers of people on a daily basis.

What exactly are the differences between the waste-products of nuclear electricity generation and those from other energy sources?

  1. Nuclear waste quantities are small and contained. A typical reactor produces about 30 tonnes of high level radioactive waste per year. This is fuel rods rendered quite safe by a suitable layer of water. Most long term disposal plans involve melting and mixing the rods with ceramic material of some kind to create a stable compound. After this, the 30 tonnes of rods will occupy just a few cubic meters and there are many ways of disposing of them safely and permanently. More about this later.But a coal plant with a similar electrical output will be producing 400,000 tonnes of coal ash containing variable amounts of arsenic, mercury and chromium. These poisons don’t have half lives, but are toxic forever. They have, just like nuclear fuel, been mined from the earth’s crust but, unlike spent nuclear fuel, they are incredibly hard to collect and return to their source. Compared to coal waste, dealing with nuclear waste is a stroll in the park. Continue reading

Log, slash, truck and burn – welcome to renewable electricity nirvana

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. He has published a book on diet and science, CSIRO Perfidy.

Back in 2011, the federal Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency commissioned the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) to investigate two future scenarios in which the National Electricity Market was fuelled entirely by renewables … as defined by the Department. An essential component of AEMO’s 100 percent renewable solution involves the annual transport of 50 million tonnes of plant material from farms, native forests and plantations in what can only be described as a massive soil mineral mining operation. Log, slash, truck and burn. For details read on.

AEMO has just released draft findings and been met with typically enthusiastic headlines among renewable advocates: “100 percent renewable is feasible: AEMO” and “100% renewables for Australia – not so costly after all”. It took the Financial Review to point out that “not so costly” means doubling the wholesale price of electricity. The AEMO report was welcomed by the Australian Conservation Foundation “100 per cent clean energy on the way”.

Martin Nicholson on BraveNewClimate.com responded quickly saying it’s possible to meet the modelled electricity demand using nuclear power for less than half the lowest cost scenario of the AEMO report. This is $91 billion compared to the range estimate of $219 to $332 billion for 100 percent renewables with Nicholson using the same source of costing estimates as AEMO.

A nuclear solution would also avoid some of the uncosted gotchas, the extra “challenges” contained in the report: land acquisition of half a million hectares, boosting the distribution network, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, biomass logistics infrastructure, and DSP. What’s DSP? … demand side participation. A wonderful piece of euphemistic jargon whereby people either do without or get their electricity at some inconvenient time. E.g., Why cook dinner when you get home from work when you can cook it at lunch time when the solar PV is powering and just re-heat it later? All you need is the will and a new oven remotely controlled by your smart phone. I call it the demand side kitchen rules.

Let’s first sketch AEMO’s broad findings before looking at the most contentious issue.

Climate change isn’t just about electricity

Firstly, note that the study doesn’t deal with Western Australia or the Northern Territory. It’s strictly about areas in the NEM (National Electricity Market), the eastern Australian grid.

Second, the AEMO study is about electricity. Electricity is about 1/4 of our fossil fuel energy use, and about 230 of our 580 million tonnes of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) greenhouse gas emissions. The AEMO study dealt with switching to electric vehicles by assuming that all charging would be done at times of high solar PV output and would thus absorb it’s entire assumed rooftop PV output.

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