Feeding the billions in 2050’s sauna (Part I)

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His previous article on BNC was: The Swiss army nuclear knife


During the past few years, all the world’s major science journals have had a steady stream of papers on the challenge of feeding 9 to 10 billion people on a warming planet in 2050. They have been joined by reports from bodies with varying prestige and influence likeInternational Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)The World Bank and the Royal Society. CSIRO has a long history of interest in the issue and even billionaire packager Anthony Pratt is getting in on the act telling Australia that since it can produce food for 200 million people, it has a responsibility to do so.

All these reports pay swollen lip service to the food security issues of the poor. All rightly regard the current global levels of stunting and malnutrition … running at 30 percent or more in many poor populations … as unconscionable.

Do we simply need more of the same?

Most of these papers and reports fall into two groups. The first looks at population and food intake trends and guesstimates that adding 2 to 3 billion people by 2050 will require between 70 percent and 100 percent more food. They typically then suggest places where large buckets of money might be deposited to fund research directed at meeting these projections.

Continue reading


Strange bedfellows? Techno-fixes and conservation

I have a new paper out in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation that will be of interest to BNC readers.

It is called “Strange bedfellows? Techno-fixes to solve the big conservation issues in southern Asia“, by Barry W. Brook & Corey J.A. Bradshaw. Here are some details:


The conservation challenges facing mega-biodiverse South and Southeast Asia in the 21st century are enormous. For millennia, much of the habitat of these regions was only lightly modified by human endeavour, yet now it is experiencing rampant deforestation, logging, biofuel cropping, invasive species expansion, and the synergies of climate change, drought, fire and sea-level rise. Although small-scale conservation management might assist some species and habitats, the broader sweep of problems requires big thinking and some radical solutions. Given the long expected lead times between progressive economic development and stabilization of human population size and consumption rates, we argue that ‘technological fixes’ cannot be ignored if we are to address social and fiscal drivers of environmental degradation and associated species extinctions in rapidly developing regions like southern Asia.

The pursuit of cheap and abundant ‘clean’ energy from an economically rational mix of nuclear power, geothermal, solar, wind, and hydrogen-derivative ‘synfuels’, is fundamental to this goal. This will permit pathways of high-tech economic development that include intensified (high energy-input) agriculture over small land areas, full recycling of material goods, a transition from fossil-fuel use for transport and electricity generation, a rejection of tropical biofuels that require vast areas of arable land for production, and a viable alternative to the damming of major waterways like the Mekong, Murum and northern tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers for hydroelectricity. Rational approaches that work at large scales must be used to deal with the ultimate, rather than just proximate, drivers of biodiversity loss in the rapidly developing regions of southern Asia.

Low intensity geoengineering – microbubbles and microspheres

Guest post by John Morgan. John runs R&D programmes at a Sydney startup company. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO. He is a regular commenter on BNC.

A 9-page printable PDF version of this post can be downloaded here.


Crazy talk

Geoengineering is crazy. The sheer scale of the aspiration speaks of hubris. Terraforming the planet by pulling down billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, or pushing millions of tonnes of plastic up into orbit is absurd. The material intensities and costs are ridiculous.

And yet, with no deep cuts in emissions in evidence, with atmospheric CO2 at 390 parts per million and climbing at a rate of about 2 ppm a year, our “safe” working level of 350 ppm is rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror even as we’re pushing the pedal harder to the floor. We do a lot of crazy things.

But what if there was a geoengineering approach that used no materials, almost no energy, works at sea level, with cheap technology we could start deploying at scale today?

That’s exactly what Russell Seitz at Harvard is proposing. In this post I want to look at his idea of increasing the reflectivity of the oceans with tiny microbubbles, It’s a fascinating, low impact concept, though not without some challenges. So I’ll also propose a different means to the same end that addresses these issues, and of course has some of its own. Then we can talk about how crazy it all is.

Bright Water

In a remarkable paper published just over a year ago – which I highly recommend reading – Seitz proposed injecting microbubbles of air into seawater, effectively creating an “inverse cloud”. Sunlight is scattered back into space from these bubbles. This concept has no material inputs, bubble sparging equipment is cheap and low power, and could be installed on ships already travelling the worlds waterways.

We don’t need to launch giant lenses into space or build giant balloon tethered pipelines to the stratosphere. We have a much more down to earth delivery system already in place, in the form of more than 10 000 ships at sea, 1300 working oil rigs and many thousands of retired platforms (3500 in the Gulf of Mexico alone) not to mention islands and suitable coastlines.

It’s the little bubbles of nothing that make it really something

The appeal of this technique comes from the fact that you only need very small bubbles to scatter light. Leveraging the cube law relationship for volume gives you a lot of scattering power if you can make really small bubbles. The air from a single 1 cm bubble, could fill a trillion 1 μm bubbles.

Continue reading

Livestock and Climate Change … Status update

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.

The United Nations report Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) came out in 2006 with an estimate that 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock. If you exclude deforestation emissions, then the number drops to 14 percent. Some 95 percent of these emissions are direct emissions of methane or nitrous oxide with just 5 percent being from associated energy use as shown in the table which is a contraction of a table from LLS.

Livestock Greenhouse Giga Tonnes
Emissions CO2-eq
Energy Related 0.16
Methane 2.20
Nitrous Oxide 2.20

The reason the energy emissions are so small is that almost no processing is included. The energy associated with the refrigerated meat chain from abattoir to consumer, cooking costs, energy to build the trucks that carry the animals and later the meat etc. None of this was included.

A couple of years after the LLS report, BNC published a piece by myself, Barry Brook and Peter Singer which showed that Australia’s most powerful climate forcing was livestock and not coal fired power stations. The demonstration relied on the difference between radiative forcing, a concept roughly equivalent to warming and used by climate scientists, and the less accurate concept of carbon dioxide equivalent used in the Kyoto protocol.

Two years later and it’s time for an update. The NOAA chart shows that methane levels are rising again after a flat spot during the early 2000s, and the biggest single source of anthropogenic methane is livestock.

This update will look at implications of livestock growth predictions, the Goodland/Anhang photosynthesis imbalance theory, industry attempts to show beef is carbon friendly, and ruminant methane reduction research. I’d like to also cover black carbon and ozone issues, but that will have to wait. I have written a small section to explain why black carbon and ozone are really, really important, but the detail will have to wait.

Continue reading

QLD floods highlight the cost of climate extremes

After a long, hot period of drought in eastern Australia, spanning much of the 1990s and 2000s and referred to as the worst in 1000 years (see also discussion on BNC on the drought here and the strange winter of 2009 here), the period 2010-2011 has seen record rainfall and rural flooding events in Australia. This has culminated this week with the 3rd largest city, Brisbane, being struck by severely damaging and costly urban floods, inundating the central business district and overwhelming many thousands of homes and businesses. To quote:

BRISBANE is besieged by the flood of the century, with more than 30,000 properties to be inundated tomorrow… The Queensland capital is now the scene of a natural disaster unprecedented in contemporary Australia. The Brisbane River is due to reach 5.2m on a 4am high tide, 30cm down on the predicted peak, but approaching the mark set in the devastating 1974 floods that claimed 14 lives.

This all comes on the back of an earlier ‘drought breaking’ flood that struck central Queensland earlier in 2010, which I described in this post:

Do the recent floods prove man-made climate change is real? In this post, I said:

Earlier this year in Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology released a Special Climate Statement on the recent exceptional rain and flooding events in central Australia and Queensland. February 28th 2010 was the wettest day on record for the Northern Territory, and March 2nd set a new record for Queensland. Over the 10-day period ending March 3rd, an estimated 403 cubic kilometres (403,000 gigalitres) of rainfall fell across the NT and QLD. Extreme, indeed.

For further background on these events, you should read the latest special climate statement, released on 7th January by the Bureau of Meteorology: An extremely wet end to 2010 leads to widespread flooding across eastern Australia. It says:

It was the wettest December on record for Queensland and for eastern Australia as a whole, the second-wettest for the Murray-Darling Basin, the sixth-wettest for Victoria and the eighth-wettest for New South Wales. For Australia as a whole it was the third-wettest December on record. This followed an extremely wet spring, the wettest on record for Queensland, New South Wales, eastern Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin. The heavy late November and December rainfall followed a very wet July to October for Australia, meaning many catchments were already wet before the flooding rain. It was Australia’s wettest July to October on record and also the wettest July to December on record.

The point of this post is not to try to attribute these extreme weather events directly to climate change, although I think there is a real influence at work here. A major factor is one of the strongest La Niñas on record, as detailed in this excellent piece by climatologist Neville Nichols. Climate scientist Will Steffen from ANU also had this to say:

Continue reading