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Thin Soup and a Thin Story

Filed under: — david @ 2 May 2007 - (Türkçe) (Български)

A firm called planktos.com is getting a lot of airplay for their bid to create a carbon offset product based on fertilizing the ocean. In certain parts of the ocean, surface waters already contain most of the ingredients for a plankton bloom; all they lack is trace amounts of iron. For each 1 atom of iron added in such a place, phytoplankton take up 50,000 atoms of carbon. What could be better?

Phytoplankton biomass does not last forever, any more than tree biomass does. The trick therefore is to get the carbon to sink out of the surface ocean into the depths, generally in the forms of snot and poop. Once it reaches a depth of a kilometer or so, it can decompose to CO2 again but the water will be isolated from the atmosphere for decades, maybe centuries.

There have been iron fertilization experiments of the ocean before, many of them, in the equatorial Pacific, the Southern Ocean, and the North Pacific. These are places where the ocean chemistry is right for iron fertilization, that is, where there is available nitrogen as nitrate or ammonia, and phosphorus. The experiments uniformly find that phytoplankton growth is stimulated by iron. But most studies have not found an increase in the rate of organic carbon sinking into deeper waters.

If could be, however, that a sustained fertilization will allow the snivelers and the poopers time to get their acts in gear and start exporting carbon more efficiently. This was the conclusion of a recent analysis of natural iron fertilization by the Kerguelen Plateau in the Southern Ocean (Blain et al, 2007). Previous iron fertilization experiments were generally single-pulse additions of iron dissolved in acid. The iron lasted a few days before sinking out on particles or mixing down. If iron were released into the ocean in the form of floating time-dissolving pellets, the steady stream of iron would probably be a more effective fertilizer than the single dumps were.

Once the CO2 concentration of the upper ocean is depleted by growth and sinking of phytoplankton, the timescale for gas exchange with the atmosphere is about a year for a one-hundred meter ocean mixed layer, typical of the tropics. Tropical surface waters, one could argue, will still be at the surface a year from now, so there is plenty of time for them to replenish their CO2 concentration by sucking it out of the atmosphere.

The problem with the tropics is that if tropical surface waters are destined to remain at the surface for a while, they are also probably destined to ultimately scrounge the iron they need, to use the available nitrogen and phosphorus. The water might duck into the thermocline for a few decades, but it will ultimately resurface and be subject again to photosynthetic plankton and iron fertilization from falling dust. Marinov et al (2006) showed that a stimulation of phytoplankton production in one part of the ocean usually acts to depress production elsewhere. So what’s the point of paying for a carbon offset to fertilize a water parcel now, when nature would fertilize it soon anyway? That’s against the rules of offsets; it has to be something that wouldn’t happen anyway.

The one part of the ocean where fertilization of the ocean does not depress the fertility elsewhere is the deep Southern Ocean. Here the water sinks to the abyss, rather than taking a leisurely tour through the upper ocean. But now the practical picture looks different. Instead of the benign tropics, you have sea ice, waters mixed to hundreds of meters down (bad for phytoplankton) and total darkness for much of the year. Fertilize that!

Modelers have long ago concluded that iron fertilization of the ocean can play only a small role in managing the carbon cycle in the coming century. Part of the issue is that the Southern Ocean also covers only a very small area of the surface ocean, just a few percent. Model experiments where the Southern Ocean is completely fertilized show a drawdown of maybe 15 ppm by the year 2100 [Zeebe and Archer, 2005]. We could change a light bulb and do better than that.

Perhaps however the total potential drawdown from ocean sequestration is the wrong question to ask. The total rate of biological export production in the ocean is probably of the order of 15 Gton C / year, and the fertilization enhancement could be at most maybe 1 Gton C / year. That can’t slay the 7 Gton C / year fossil fuel CO2 dragon all by itself, but could it help? Nowadays we’ve given up the idealistic search for a single solution, and we’re building the future out of wedges [Pacala and Socolow, 2004], or what the more dignified IPCC Working Group III calls a “portfolio of solutions”. Would carbon offsets by fertilizing the ocean be at least realistic?

The tropics I think would be fraud as a basis for carbon offsets because the fertilization would have happened anyway, eventually, naturally. I guess I could imagine the concept working as advertised in the deep Southern Ocean. Not so easy to fertilize down there, but if you manage to fertilize it, you will accomplish something that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

But the change in carbon chemistry of the ocean and ultimately the atmosphere need to be transparently documented, also, if we are to trade carbon offsets based on iron fertilization. Documenting a change in carbon content of surface waters might be possible in the tropics, but it would be a nightmare in the Southern Ocean, probably impossible to do reliably. Ocean chemistry data is generally cleaner than land data, less susceptible to local variability. In tranquil, well-behaved parts of the ocean like near the Galapagos, it would be probably easier to document changes in the carbon content of the upper ocean than it would be on land. On the other hand, the ocean moves around a lot more than the land does, in general. The Southern Ocean, in particular, is a maelstrom. Tracking a plume of fertilized water to measure the change in carbon content would be a mite trickier.

Southern Ocean surface water also has a harder time changing the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere, because it gets mixed into the interior so quickly. Ultimately it would take centuries to bring the atmospheric CO2 to a new equilibrium value. You would have to wait until your fertilized water filled up the entire deep ocean. I think the long time scale also means that a ton of carbon removed from Antarctic surface waters does not translate to a ton of carbon removed on some reasonable timescale from the atmosphere. The efficiency is much lower than that, and difficult to document.

I would put ocean fertilization on the avoid list, along with planting trees. It’s too hard to pin down the actual amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere by your actions. It’s also not a long-term solution, since the ocean leaks. Humankind would have to keep fertilizing the ocean indefinitely in order to preserve the claimed CO2 drawdown. If you’re concerned about climate change, build a windmill. Ocean fertilization does not seem to me suitable to be the basis for a reliable financial commodity, or a practical tool for geo-engineering climate.

David Archer

Blain, S. Effect of natural iron fertilization on carbon sequestration in the Southern Ocean. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature05700, 2007.
Marinov, I. The Southern Ocean biogeochemical divide. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature04883, 2006.
Pacala, S. and S. Socolow, Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305: 968-972, 2004.
Zeebe, R. and D. Archer, Feasibility of ocean fertilization and its impact on future atmospheric CO2 levels. Geophys. Res. Letters, doi:10.1029/2005GL022449, 2005.


137 Responses to “Thin Soup and a Thin Story”

  1. 101
    david kubiak says:

    Since the conversation here seems to be vearing into economic theory, will diplomatically cease and desist on the ocean iron restoration discussion. However, would like to sincerely thank Dr. Booth for the Falkowski links and refs.

    And in response to Dr. Magee’s comment, would urge him and everyone concerned not just to watch us from afar, but to join us at some point. Have therefore included this link to our Request for Proposals doc to invite collaborators and third party scientific oversight.

    The best way to keep applied science honest, productive, and transparent is not by fulminating against its imagined abuse, it’s by getting up close and personal and looking over its shoulder. Ergo we welcome that participation and your personal research…

  2. 102
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #100 “You are talking about China and India giving up their main energy resource–coal, at a time when they feel they need to dramatically increase energy consumption just to maintain order.”
    No, I’m not. I’m talking about getting them to sequester the CO2. Still tough, but it had better be possible, or we’re probably stuffed (unless their economies collapse) whatever the rest of us do.

    “Also, I draw a distinction between economic growth and growth of resource consumption. I think it is possible to have the former without the latter, since economic growth is just the increase in the total value of goods and services produced.”
    It may be possible, I agree, but in terms of energy use, it’s never yet been done, and the faster the rate of growth you require, the harder it will be. We need a very steep decline in CO2 production by rich countries, and that’s just not going to be possible without reducing energy use.

  3. 103
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick, The US economy has managed to keep growing while decreasing the energy cost per $ of GDP. Yes, there’s still room for improvement. I’d like to see a lot more Insights on the road than SUVs, but if we have to have SUV, then at least there are starting to be Hybrid alternatives out there. What I’m trying to imagine here is what kind of regime the US, China, India and Brazil could sign up to–and I can pretty much guarantee it’s not one that envisions zero growth. I think you also have to resign yourself to the fact that companies and individuals are going to make money off of this. If there’s no money in coming up with solutions, there will be no solutions. My old Classical Mechanics prof used to claim that we had to take tests because there were only 3 prime motivators for the human species: sex, greed and fear. Well, fear doesn’t foster creativity, and sex would be too distracting (and then there’s that population issue, too), so greed is what we’ve got left.
    As to carbon sequestration, I don’t consider it a proven or economical technology. I think it will be a lot easier to keep track of a few hundred tons of radioactive waste than to sequester hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide.
    The arguments about peak oil and whether coal will fill the gap in some ways are missing the point. There is more than enough coal and oil out there to cook us.
    People act in accord with what they perceive their interests to be–usually their immediate interests. You won’t change that, but maybe you can find a way so that their immediate interests are more in concert with what is needed to achieve stability.

  4. 104

    Last post didn’t get through, apparently. If it did, I apologize for the double posting.

    [[Will deglaciation of the Himalayas and parts of Greenland increase the silicate weathering cycle by exposing glacial rock powder to chemical weathering?]]

    One of the ways that cycle works is that more rock gets exposed to weathering when the world warms. But it is an extremely slow cycle in human terms, probably not immediately relevant to our global warming problem.

  5. 105

    [[Leaving aside the question of whether it would be desirable for humans to learn to live in an economy without "growth" per se, nobody knows how to do it and prosper. ]]

    We will have to give it up sooner or later, simply because the Earth is finite and the speed of light is an absolute limit. The most benign possible outcome, I suppose, would be a “techno-peasant” economy where each household is virtually independent and trade still happens and markets still work, but the total GPP isn’t expanding. But one way or another, we are headed for a no-growth economy some time in the future.

  6. 106
    Nick Gotts says:

    “The US economy has managed to keep growing while decreasing the energy cost per $ of GDP.”
    Yes, so do other economies, but no-one has yet managed to grow the economy while shrinking energy use.

    “What I’m trying to imagine here is what kind of regime the US, China, India and Brazil could sign up to–and I can pretty much guarantee it’s not one that envisions zero growth.”
    I’ve never said they would or should.

    “My old Classical Mechanics prof used to claim that we had to take tests because there were only 3 prime motivators for the human species: sex, greed and fear.”
    He was wrong. Curiosity, empathy, desire for social prestige and approval, and dislike of inequity have all been shown experimentally (if such demonstration is needed in addition to intuition) to be powerful motivators. Besides, I’m not suggesting those doing the work of production or R&D are not paid.

    “As to carbon sequestration, I don’t consider it a proven or economical technology. I think it will be a lot easier to keep track of a few hundred tons of radioactive waste than to sequester hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide.”
    As you’ve said yourself, what you (or I) want or think is not relevant here: China and India are not going to stop building coal-fired power stations any time soon, short of a serious economic downturn; even if and when they do, they won’t be rushing to decommission those they have built.

  7. 107
    Nick Gotts says:

    RE #103 “People act in accord with what they perceive their interests to be–usually their immediate interests.”
    Not always. Aside from obvious historical examples (Raoul Wallenberg, Aung San Suu Kyi…) there is plenty of experimental evidence that people will act in the common interest, and against their own immediate interest, in some circumstances. There are also several plausible mechanisms, both biological and cultural, that would allow altruistic behaviour to persist beyond what neoclassical economics and what I’d call naive Darwinism would suggest. I refer you (pardon my choice) to a review article:

    Gotts, N.M., Polhill, J.G. and Law, A.N.R (2003) “Agent-Based Social Simulation in the Study of Social Dilemmas”, Artificial Intelligence Review 19, 1, 3-92. Despite the title, it covers some of the relevant empirical work as well as theory and simulation modelling.

    By the way, if what you said earlier about what you’d prefer to spend your time doing is true, but people act only in their own perceived interest, what are you doing on this site?

  8. 108
    James says:

    Re #103: [The US economy has managed to keep growing while decreasing the energy cost per $ of GDP.]

    You might also consider that it has done so even during a period when energy costs have been close to negligible. For instance, even at today’s $3/gallon, the annual fuel cost for an SUV is around 5-10% of the purchase price. That low cost creates very little incentive to lower the amount of energy used. Increase the cost of energy (particularly carbon-based energy), and you increase the incentive. Nor does this need to impact economic growth or quality of life. Which contributes most to GDP: a $40K SUV or a $100K Tesla? Which do you think would be more fun to drive?

    And #106: [China and India are not going to stop building coal-fired power stations any time soon, short of a serious economic downturn; even if and when they do, they won't be rushing to decommission those they have built.]

    It’s pretty easy to imagine scenarios in which they would: the western world imposes high CO2 taxes, which makes coal a high-cost energy source, and imposes tariffs on imports proportional to the originating country’s CO2 output. Since their economies are driven by exports, they either change their energy production, or they have that serious economic downturn.

  9. 109
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “People act in accord with what they perceive their interests to be–usually their immediate interests.”

    People act in order to realize value — that is, they act to maximize in their experience (to “make real”) that which they value, and minimize that which they do not value or that which is antithetical to that which they value.

    Nick Gotts wrote: “… there is plenty of experimental evidence that people will act in the common interest, and against their own immediate interest, in some circumstances.”

    In some instances, people value the well-being of others — e.g. children, other family members, tribe, community, nation, species, all sentient beings — more than they value their own personal, individual well-being. Such people realize value by “acting in the common interest.”

    And not only “people” (human beings) act in order to realize value; but all entities which are capable of experiencing “better” or “worse” subjective states and are able to modify their experience for better or worse through action, will act to realize value.

    Even a simple thermostat could be said to act in order to “realize value” — the thermostat is capable of experiencing (sensing) variations in temperature, and it has been programmed to “value” temperatures within a certain range, and it is capable of acting to modify the temperature by turning a heat source off or on.

    Of course, in contrast with a thermostat, sentient beings as complex as humans and other animals have complex systems of values, complex relationships between values (e.g. where realizing one value may tend to negate another), complex relationships with their environment, and more complex situations in which to determine what the effects of their actions are liable to be with regard to realizing or negating value.

  10. 110
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick and Secular,
    I don’t deny that people are capable of altruism, but it’s not the way the smart money bets. People have to perceive a benefit–or in Secular’s words, maybe, a value–in a particular action. I don’t see humans acting to benefit their offspring all that often. Oh, sure, they may put some money into the college savings account, but they vote down the school bond issue.
    My point is that there has to be some expectation of gain–for somebody at least–if action is to be taken. Climate change is one of those really difficult threats–very real, but at the same time nebulous. You cannot point to any weather event (not honestly, anyway) and say, “There, that’s a result of climate change.” It’s a little like the stock market. If people pay too much attention to the day-to-day, they get scared and pull their money out. The trend is to move higher, but most people don’t have the attention span to follow the trend.
    Nick uses the analogy of WW II, but a German Panzer or Stuka divebomber were pretty easy threats to visualize. Climate change is not, and it will be more difficult to capture the public imagination because of that. Of course, the temptation is to point to an event like Katrina and a destroyed city, and try to make that the face of climate change, but that will fail because it’s not honest.
    I think we have a much better shot at getting people on board if we can do so without dramatically changing their lives.

  11. 111
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “Of course, the temptation is to point to an event like Katrina and a destroyed city, and try to make that the face of climate change, but that will fail because it’s not honest.”

    I disagree that it is “not honest” to point to Katrina as “the face of climate change”. It is true that that particular hurricane did not form at that particular time and follow that particular path towards the Gulf Coast as a result of climate change. However, as I understand it, it is also true that after passing over Florida, Katrina was weakening, and that it was re-energized and blown up into a city-destroying Category 5 monster by the extraordinarily warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and those extraordinarily warm waters can be “honestly” attributed to anthropogenic global warming.

    In general, it is no more “dishonest” to attribute specific extreme weather events to anthropogenic global warming than it is “dishonest” to attribute a specific case of lung cancer contracted by a lifelong chain smoker to the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. True, some people who never smoke get lung cancer, and some lifelong chain smokers never get lung cancer; and in any specific chain-smoking lung cancer victim it may not be possible to prove that in their particular case the cancer was caused by their smoking and not by something else.

    But we understand the mechanism by which smoking causes lung cancer (just as we understand the mechanism by which global warming fuels more powerful hurricanes), and we have epidemiological evidence that there is a powerful correlation between smoking and lung cancer (just as we have evidence that there is a trend towards more powerful hurricanes that correlates with global warming).

    So, if a lifelong chain smoker develops lung cancer, it is entirely reasonable and certainly not dishonest to say that their cancer was caused by their smoking, and to point to them as “the face of smoking” and a warning to others of what is likely to happen to them if they smoke. Similarly, if a hurricane like Katrina grows to extraordinary size and power, in accordance with what we already understand to be the mechanism and the trend of global warming-fueled stronger hurricanes, then it is entirely reasonable and not dishonest to portray that extreme event as “the face of global warming” and a warning of what the future holds if global warming continues unabated.

    The same goes for floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other extreme weather events that are increasing in frequency and severity as a result of anthropogenic global warming and resultant climate change.

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “I think we have a much better shot at getting people on board if we can do so without dramatically changing their lives.”

    As it happens, I don’t believe that we can effectively address climate change without people in the developed world, particularly the USA, “dramatically changing their lives”. So, it would be dishonest of me to try to “get people on board” by suggesting that such change won’t be needed.

    On the other hand, I think that much of the “dramatic change” that is needed will actually be — or at least can be — good for people, and for communities, in many ways. For example, a shift to consuming locally grown organic vegetarian food would very powerfully help to reduce GHG emissions from the agricultural and transport sectors, and would also have many other benefits in terms of health, economics, food security, etc.

  12. 112
    James says:

    While not a good example of the consequences of climate change, Katrina looks like a very good example of why we shouldn’t count on government to deal with that change. Remember that when it finally made landfall in Lousiana, Katrina was not a particularly powerful storm, having downsized to (IIRC) cat 3 from its out-in-the-Gulf cat 5. Most of the damage to New Orleans came from levee failures and other government mismangement, rather than from the direct effects of the storm.

    Look at the chain of events that led to the destruction. You have a decision to build & maintain a city that’s actually located below sea level, protected by a levee system that was designed and maintained (or not maintained) by various government agencies. Other government agencies dredged & channelized the Mississippi, causing erosion & degradation of the protective Delta. People had been warning for years that it was a disaster in the making, but no one in government paid much attention. Decisions had been made long ago as to the “best” technology to use, and no one in government had the ability to change them in light of new information. And in fact still don’t, as the goal of the post-Katrina response seems to be to restore the status quo.

  13. 113
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #110 “I don’t deny that people are capable of altruism, but it’s not the way the smart money bets. People have to perceive a benefit–or in Secular’s words, maybe, a value–in a particular action. I don’t see humans acting to benefit their offspring all that often. Oh, sure, they may put some money into the college savings account, but they vote down the school bond issue.”
    I’d think putting money into the college savings account is a pretty good example of altruism toward offspring – the contrast you make might better indicate that people are more willing to show altruism toward kin than to others, which is true. However, non-kin altruism is also an important part of the human behavioural repertoire, there is a lot of plasticity in “human nature”, and people in different societies act differently. For example, people in most rich countries are much less averse than in the US to collective action and even high taxation, though there’s been a hefty political push against these things over recent decades. Altruism and enlightened self-interest often work in the same direction (in considering the actions of states and corporations, we need to rely pretty much entirely on the latter, as you’ve said – they don’t empathise!), and the extensive literature on social dilemmas is even more relevant there. (For those unfamiliar with the term, a social dilemma arises when each of a group of agents can choose more or less “cooperative” actions; each will be better off individually by taking the “non-cooperative” choice, whatever the others do; but all will be better off if all make the “cooperative” one. If there’s a one-off interaction, the rational choice for a selfish agent is the non-cooperative one; but if there are repeated interactions and learning is possible, stable cooperation can often result even between selfish agents. Any altruism, and ability to selectively punish non-cooperators, will generally tend to push the system in the direction of cooperation.)

    Re #109 I agree with Secular that we can’t avoid fairly radical change in the ways (rich) people live if we are to deal with climate change, and in doing so, we need to encourage people’s ability and tendency to identify their interests with those of others, individually and collectively, and to encourage this tendency to extend more to the largest scales – humanity, and even sentient life as a whole.

    Re #108 “And #106: [China and India are not going to stop building coal-fired power stations any time soon, short of a serious economic downturn; even if and when they do, they won't be rushing to decommission those they have built.]

    It’s pretty easy to imagine scenarios in which they would: the western world imposes high CO2 taxes, which makes coal a high-cost energy source, and imposes tariffs on imports proportional to the originating country’s CO2 output. Since their economies are driven by exports, they either change their energy production, or they have that serious economic downturn.”

    I largely agree with this, though I’d prefer even the threat of imposing such measures to be held back until it’s clear we can’t come to a negotiated agreement. (Not to mention the fact that China at least could take serious economic measures in retaliation – like selling off dollars. I find it one of the more amusing, and in some ways hopeful but in others dangerous ironies of the current state of the world, that the US capitalist elite and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party are locked in an economic embrace from which neither can escape without risking severe damage.) However, I think it would be a lot easier to persuade India and China to use sequestration equipment, and even retrofit it, than to stop building coal-fired power stations and shut existing ones – which is why I say technical research on sequestration is perhaps the most vital there is. Both coal and renewable energy sources have the great advantage, for these countries, over oil, gas and nuclear power, that they do not make the country dependent on imports which may show sudden price rises (as uranium has in the past few months), and be subject to politically motivated interruption. It’s not just the US and Europe that have reason to worry about relying on foreign energy suppliers!

  14. 114
    James says:

    Re: [I think it would be a lot easier to persuade India and China to use sequestration equipment...]

    Sure, and it would be a lot easier to persuade them to use nuclear fusion, too. The problem, of course, is that since neither technology is working at anything more than lab scale, we’d be betting the future on an unproven, and quite possibly unworkable, technology, when there’s a proven alternative that can be built today.

  15. 115
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #114 “Sure, and it would be a lot easier to persuade them to use nuclear fusion, too. The problem, of course, is that since neither technology is working at anything more than lab scale, we’d be betting the future on an unproven, and quite possibly unworkable, technology, when there’s a proven alternative that can be built today.”

    I refer anyone interested in this debate to the IPCC special report from 2005, available at:
    http://arch.rivm.nl/env/int/ipcc/pages_media/SRCCS-final/IPCCSpecialReportonCarbondioxideCaptureandStorage.htm

    According to this, post-combustion CO2 capture technology is mature. There are (or were at that point) three “industrial scale” storage projects in operation (for CO2 from gas fields), where “industrial scale” means on the order of 1m tonnes/yr. You must have a bloody big lab, James!

    I quote from the executive summary:

    “In most scenarios for stabilization of atmospheric
    greenhouse gas concentrations between 450 and 750 ppmv
    CO2 and in a least-cost portfolio of mitigation options,
    the economic potential of CCS would amount to 220�
    2,200 GtCO2 (60�600 GtC) cumulatively, which would
    mean that CCS contributes 15�55% to the cumulative
    mitigation effort worldwide until 2100, averaged over a
    range of baseline scenarios.”

  16. 116
    James says:

    [According to this, post-combustion CO2 capture technology is mature...]

    Right. I’ve got a coal-fired power plant and a bunch of money: where do I go to order this mature technology? And how much is it going to cost me?

    But if I want a nuclear plant, I can go to GE, Westinghouse, or whoever, order one, and they can tell me when it will go on line, and how much it would cost to build & operate – leaving out the political factors, of course.

  17. 117
    Hank Roberts says:

    Both technologies have the same problem — no proven way to dispose of the dangerous byproducts, which are still external costs.

    That’s changing.

  18. 118
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #116 “Right. I’ve got a coal-fired power plant and a bunch of money: where do I go to order this mature technology? And how much is it going to cost me?”

    As I’ve stressed, technical research is needed, but expert opinion is that CCS is technically and economically feasible. Read the IPCC report I cited, or at least the executive summary, if you haven’t. But perhaps you think on this matter we should ignore the IPCC? If so, why?

    “But if I want a nuclear plant, I can go to GE, Westinghouse, or whoever, order one, and they can tell me when it will go on line, and how much it would cost to build & operate – leaving out the political factors, of course.”

    Leaving out the political factors is precisely where you make your mistake. The Chinese and Indian governments are not going to do that – they are not going to make their industrial strategy indefinitely dependent on foreign supplies of uranium when they can avoid doing so – and even in planning for the US or Europe, it’s unwise to leave these factors out of account, because they’re not about to go away. Nor is building nuclear plants going to reduce emissions from existing and planned Chinese and Indian coal-fired stations. Only carbon capture and storage can do that.

    Re #117. “Both technologies have the same problem — no proven way to dispose of the dangerous byproducts, which are still external costs.”

    CCS is certainly not the solution I’d choose, if I thought safe alternatives could be deployed fast enough. But the biggest problem with nuclear power is that people won’t want to dispose of some of the “dangerous byproducts”, but will use them to make nuclear weapons. Of course, China and India are already nuclear-weapons states (although proliferation from those states is more likely, the more nuclear material they have), and indeed both already have nuclear power programmes, but as the quotations I gave in an earlier post show, neither plans to supply more than a few percent of their energy that way in the near future. I can’t see how they could be persuaded not to use their massive, cheap coal supplies over the next few decades, or coerced to do so without risking a disastrous level of international conflict – so we need CCS whatever other states decide about nuclear power.

    “That’s changing.”

    Sorry, do you mean ways to dispose of the byproducts are on the way to being proved, or the external costs are being internalised?

  19. 119
    Luke Silburn says:

    Both technologies have the same problem — no proven way to dispose of the dangerous byproducts, which are still external costs.

    True, but there’s *lot* more of the dangerous byproduct for coal.

    Less dangerous on an atom-for-atom basis perhaps, but still ‘quantity is a quality in itself’ (and the prospect of multi-megaton carbon burps becoming news events as common as, say, the Texas City refinery fire doesn’t fill me with much joy).

    Regards
    Luke

  20. 120
    P. Lewis says:

    If Nick Gott’s link to the IPCC chapter is too much to digest, then there’s a potted version at Carbon capture and storage at Wikipedia.

    Then, hot of the presses is capturing carbon from the air technology.

    And then there’s the US DOE-sponsored FutureGen zero-emissions coal-fuelled power plant.

    So, there are mature technologies for CO2 scavenging and there are developments in the pipeline. Given we are only just entering the mitigation phase and the long lead times involved with industrial-scale projects, I’d say the future’s bright (ish) on the R&D front.

  21. 121
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Re #120:

    CCS applied to a modern conventional power plant could reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by approximately 80-90% compared to a plant without CCS. Capturing and compressing CO2 requires much energy and would increase the fuel needs of a plant with CCS by about 10-40%. These and other system costs are estimated to increase the cost of energy from a power plant with CCS by 30-60% depending on the specific circumstances.

    This goes back to what I’ve written here earlier — this sort of behavior is insane considering that renewables are capable of producing power at costs that are competitive to fossil fuels.

    If I were to anthropomorphize (heh) this kind of behavior, I’d say that the governmental bodies making these sorts of decisions are crack addicts. Not only will this behavior directly raise energy costs, but they will indirectly raise them by increasing fossil fuel demands, scarcity and costs.

    Energy production needs to be reducing consumption, not finding new and better ways of increasing it. Given BP’s involvement, their profit motive needs to be called into question — any technology that will increase revenues for fossil fuel industries needs to have NO involvement by fossil fuel companies.

  22. 122
    James says:

    Re #118: [As I've stressed, technical research is needed...]

    But you’ve been claiming that it’s a mature technology. Maybe we’re using different definitions of mature: mine is that you can buy it “off the shelf”.

    [Nor is building nuclear plants going to reduce emissions from existing and planned Chinese and Indian coal-fired stations. Only carbon capture and storage can do that.]

    I don’t quite follow the logic of that. If the Chinese & Indians aren’t willing to build nuclear plants, why would they be willing to build coal-fired plants with carbon capture? Either they are willing to go along with reducing CO2 emissions, or they aren’t. If they are, why wouldn’t they prefer to use the logical approach, rather than some Rube Goldbergish CCS scheme?

  23. 123
    Rod B. says:

    Nick and P. Lewis (118 & 120), why on earth would anyone assume that the IPCC is a highly credible group to assess the industrial market or even technological maturity of carbon capture processes? And how is it that a R&D effort scheduled for sometime around 2009-2012 is proof of CC maturity???

  24. 124
    Rod B. says:

    SecularAnimist says (111), “…warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and those extraordinarily warm waters can be “honestly” attributed to anthropogenic global warming.”

    With any scientific certainty, it most certainly can NOT be so attributed, though it might be suspected. (Like in another post, we do NOT know the mechanism of tobacco causing lung cancer, though we suspect it does and have some decent correlations.) Ray is right. Using hyperbole is not a good way to convince people, at least in this arena

    [Response: Actually, you are wrong. In the most rigorous sense of the term "attribution" as it is used in the context of climate studies, Santer et al (2006) have indeed attributed warming in the Atlantic tropical cyclogenesis region to anthropogenic forcing at a relatively high level of confidence. Of course, there is no such thing as "scientific certainty" with such things. -mike]

  25. 125
  26. 126
    Rod B. says:

    Mike (124), astute and rigerous response and references. But it’s still a tremendous leap of logic to jump from them to a warming of the Gulf a degree or two about the time Katrina came across Florida. It’s still hyperbole to me and, right or wrong, imparts a degree of dishonesty on the masses. It just sounds too much like the advocacy groups well known for inflating their points and numbers as fast and as large as feasible.

    [Response: We are in agreement that the particular meteorological conditions that surround individual events such as Katrina (let alone Katrina itself) cannot ever be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Now, anomalous SSTs over a large region like the Gulf of Mexico or the main development region of the tropical Atlantic, averaged over a season, thats interesting but still quite nebulous in its implications. But a spell of anomalous such seasons contributing to an anomalous decadal trend...That's where climate change detection and anthropogenic attribution begins to emerge as a possibility. And thats more or less the conclusion of the Santer et al study with respect to the Atlantic cyclogenesis region. -mike]

  27. 127
    Rod B. says:

    Hank, I didn’t say there wasn’t a cacophony and massive chorous that doesn’t claim with absolute certainty in their collective minds the mechanism of tobacco causing lung cancer (and any and all other maladies that they can add with impunity). I just said it is not a scientific certainty.

  28. 128
    Hank Roberts says:

    Do you believe it’s impossible to know anything for sure, in science?
    http://tobaccodocuments.org/pm/2063641995-2010.html
    http://www.google.com/search?q=%2Btobacco+%2Bcarcinogenicity+%2Bproof

  29. 129
    P. Lewis says:

    Re #123 (Rod B)

    Nick and P. Lewis (118 & 120), why on earth would anyone assume that the IPCC is a highly credible group to assess the industrial market or even technological maturity of carbon capture processes?

    Why, I wonder, would anyone assume that the IPCC (Working Group III) is not a highly credible group to assess the industrial market or even technological maturity of carbon capture processes? The authors and editors and their affiliations are listed in the various IPCC reports if you desire to check their credentials.

    And how is it that a R&D effort scheduled for sometime around 2009-2012 is proof of CC maturity???

    Well, by way of answering this, in addition to Nick’s initial link there is also the IPCC Special Report Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, released in 2005 I think, in which you can find the following from the referenced review in Chapter 1:

    Capturing CO2 typically involves separating it from a gas stream. Suitable techniques were developed 60 years ago in connection with the production of town gas; these involved scrubbing the gas stream with a chemical solvent (Siddique, 1990). Subsequently they were adapted for related purposes, such as capturing CO2 from the flue gas streams of coal- or gas-burning plant [missing comma?] for the carbonation of drinks and brine, and for enhancing oil recovery. These developments required improvements to the process so as to inhibit the oxidation of the solvent in the flue gas stream. Other types of solvent and other methods of separation have been developed more recently. This technique is widely used today for separating CO2 and other acid gases from natural gas streams10. Horn and Steinberg (1982) and Hendriks et al. (1989) were among the first to discuss the application of this type of technology to mitigation of climate change, focusing initially on electricity generation. CO2 removal is already used in the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels; Audus et al. (1996) discussed the application of capture and storage in this process as a climate protection measure.

    10The total number of installations is not known but is probably several thousand. Kohl and Nielsen (1997) mention 334 installations using physical solvent scrubbing; this source does not provide a total for the number of chemical solvent plants but they do mention one survey which alone examined 294 amine scrubbing plants. There are also a number of membrane units and other methods of acid gas treatment in use today.

    And from Chapter 3 there’s this:

    CO2 has been captured from industrial process streams for 80 years (Kohl and Nielsen, 1997), although most of the CO2 that is captured is vented to the atmosphere because there is no incentive or requirement to store it. Current examples of CO2 gas and production of hydrogen-containing synthesis gas for the manufacture of ammonia, alcohols and synthetic liquid fuels. Most of the techniques employed for CO2 capture in the examples mentioned are also similar to those used in pre-combustion capture.

    and this:

    We have reviewed processes – current and potential – that may be used to separate CO2 in the course of producing another product. One of these processes, natural gas sweetening, is already being used in two industrial plants to capture and store about 2 MtCO2 yr-1 for the purpose of climate change mitigation. In the case of ammonia production, pure CO2 is already being separated. Over 7 MtCO2 yr-1 captured from both natural gas sweetening and ammonia plants is currently being used in enhanced oil recovery with some storage (see also Chapter 5) of the injected CO2 in these commercial EOR projects. Several potential processes for CO2 capture in steel and cement production exist, but none have yet been applied. Although the total amount of CO2 that may be captured from these industrial processes is insignificant in terms of the scale of the climate change challenge, significance may arise in that their use could serve as early examples of solutions that can be applied on larger scale elsewhere.

    Perhaps 60 to 80 years is insufficiently technologically mature for you!!! The technology is mature (lots of it anyway), it’s just that applications of this mature technology vis-a-vis climate change mitigation are only just beginning to catch up/become an environmental requirement.

  30. 130
    James says:

    Re #129: Seems to me that there is a rather significant difference between extracting some CO2 from an exhaust stream because you have a market for the CO2, and trying to capture essentially all the CO2 in a powerplant exhaust, and then transport & store it somewhere, in such a manner that it will stay out of the environment essentially forever. The anti-nuclear types get all worked up about having to store tiny amounts of nuclear waste (which, being solid, tends to stay where you put it) for hundreds or thousands of years, while the proponents of CCS wave away the problem of safely storing billions of tons of CO2 (a gas, which will leak out of any container if it can) for much longer periods.

    On top of the technical problems of doing all this, you have the economic problems. As mentioned above, the energy required to do the CCS makes coal-fired plants significantly less efficient, so in order to put X megawatts of power out on the grid, you have to burn that much more coal, with all the environmental problems that mining & transporting it will cause. On top of that, consider how you arrange to monitor the storage sites for a period of time that in human terms is essentially forever. Not to mention what happens if, a century or so from now, your supposedly secure storage starts to leak?

    The whole idea just seems like something Rube Goldberg would have come up with on a good day, and why? Just to appease a public that has been lied to so long and so loudly that they go into hysterics any time the word nuclear is mentioned.

  31. 131
    Alvia Gaskill says:

    Nature Issues Guidelines for Role of Climate Scientists and Perhaps Others

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v447/n7141/full/447132a.html

    Since this topic area began with a critical look at ocean fertilization vis a vis what is known vs. what is being attempted, the linked editorial that recently appeared in the online version of Nature magazine bears examination.

    The author, the news and features editor, traces some of the recent history of efforts to develop technologies to reduce incoming solar radiation and predict the impacts of such hypothetical technologies on global and regional climate.

    He tries very hard to make the case that not enough is known to proceed with anything but paper studies, even though the most recent modeling he cites seems to allay some of the concerns.

    What I find most distressing about this editorial is the not so subtle warning to “geoscientists” and “climate scientists” that their role is not to solve problems, but merely to study the Earth and report on their findings in scholarly journals. After all, we know so little about the atmosphere, we can’t even begin to talk about manipulating it on a grand scale and the geoscientist (whatever that is) should steer clear of drawing up such plans.

    I found this rather patronizing and although I am not a climate scientist (whatever that is) or a geoscientist, I would be offended if I was one. The goal of the climate scientist with regard to geoengineering, according to the article, is to accumulate enough published work over the next 6 years, actually less than that given the cutoff for the reports, to have an entire chapter included in the next IPCC report on Mitigation. Hopefully, the article implies, that work will be complete enough to forever discredit geoengineering so that scientists can concentrate on developing technologies to reduce emissions.

    The article also refers to NAS president Ralph Cicerone as receiving the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, when in fact, he was recognized on the award and was not one of the awardees.

    OK, the patronizing, fingers drumming on the mahogany table in the Nature Faculty Club Conference Room attitude aside, what are the broader ramifications of these implied guidelines?

    For one, we have to suspend the studies of underground carbon sequestration or at least geoscientists have to limit their contribution to models showing how it won’t work. After all, we can’t predict earthquakes and if you are going to try and stuff a hundred billion tons of CO2 in the ground, there is the very real possibility of some or all of it coming back out again.

    And you can forget about bioengineering of plants to make biofuels. Or at least help from the botanists and geneticists. Too busy polishing up those manuscripts to send off to Nature, although I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on that, since the last time I looked, the spell checker in London was still fast asleep.

    What these guys don’t seem to appreciate is that by talking down the idea of doing any of the climate engineering projects, they are dooming all of them to never get the attention they would need to determine if they could be done in the first place!

  32. 132

    [[Hank, I didn't say there wasn't a cacophony and massive chorous that doesn't claim with absolute certainty in their collective minds the mechanism of tobacco causing lung cancer (and any and all other maladies that they can add with impunity). I just said it is not a scientific certainty. ]]

    It’s a scientific certainty to anyone with a clue. We know the mechanism of action, we have attribution studies and clinical studies and epidemiological studies and, I would guess, some tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies on the subject altogether. Inhaling tobacco smoke causes lung cancer. Deal with it.

  33. 133
    P. Lewis says:

    Re #130 (James)

    The point being made was simply about whether the technology is mature or not. It largely is (though that doesn’t preclude new technology, as I linked to elsewhere here).

    And I have absolutely no qualms about nuclear power I might add.

    There are undoubtedly some interesting scientific, economic and political points to debate on the storage aspect, but I’m afraid I’ve not the time (nor, currently, the inclination) to pursue them with anyone (though I’ll keep my eyes peeled on the current thread).

  34. 134
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #122 “But you’ve been claiming that it’s a mature technology. Maybe we’re using different definitions of mature: mine is that you can buy it “off the shelf”.”

    Actually, I’ve been unintentionally conflating two points in the executive summary of the IPCC report on CCS:

    http://arch.rivm.nl/env/int/ipcc/pages_media/SRCCS-final/IPCCSpecialReportonCarbondioxideCaptureandStorage.htm
    for which I apologise. Here’s the relevant text:

    “Post-combustion capture of CO2 in power plants is
    economically feasible under specific conditions. It is used
    to capture CO2 from part of the flue gases from a number
    of existing power plants. Separation of CO2 in the natural
    gas processing industry, which uses similar technology,
    operates in a mature market.”

    Storage (as opposed to capture) technology is not mature, nor have I claimed otherwise, nor does the IPCC report. That’s where most of the research is needed.

    However, the point remains that this large group of relevant experts considers CCS technically and economically feasible. You need to argue it with them, not me.

    “[Nor is building nuclear plants going to reduce emissions from existing and planned Chinese and Indian coal-fired stations. Only carbon capture and storage can do that.]

    I don’t quite follow the logic of that. If the Chinese & Indians aren’t willing to build nuclear plants, why would they be willing to build coal-fired plants with carbon capture? Either they are willing to go along with reducing CO2 emissions, or they aren’t. If they are, why wouldn’t they prefer to use the logical approach, rather than some Rube Goldbergish CCS scheme?”

    First, using CCS means they still get electricity from existing plant (about 80%-90% of the amount without CCS), rather than none. I thought this point was too obvious to need stating. Second, as I’ve pointed out more than once already, they have lots of cheap coal and little uranium, and are not likely to want to make their electricity supply dependent on importing a raw material which can and does vary sharply in price, and could be subject to politically motivated interruptions of supply.

  35. 135
    Rod B. says:

    re 129: James’ response (130) is more learned. My more simple response is the question, why on earth would government and industry spend hundreds of million dollars to build a test (R&D) plant for industrial strength carbon capture in the next 5 or so years when it’s been around for decades already??! P Lewis, I wish you’d let those guys know and save my money…

  36. 136
    James says:

    Re #134: [First, using CCS means they still get electricity from existing plant...]

    Well, I’ll concede that I probably don’t understand the reasoning of the people making Chinese & Indian energy policy decisions – or the Americans, either. What seems obvious to you isn’t to me, though. You have X dollars, yuan, or rupees to spend, and want to reduce CO2 as much as possible while still producing a given amount of energy. To me it seems obvious that the better course is to build new nuclear (which after all is a proven technology), rather than to spending the money retrofitting existing plants with unproven technology.

    I likewise can’t take the “but they have no uranium” arguments that seriously. Even in the current political climate, Iran & North Korea seem to be able to get all the uranium they want. Then there are breeder reactors…

  37. 137
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #136 If you want evidence of the risks of a state making itself dependent on a small number of foreign suppliers of a crucial source of energy, consider the OPEC price rises of the 1970s, and the problems several European countries have had recently with Russian gas supplies. I’m sure the Chinese and Indian governments will have done so.


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