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Sustainability: A Nobel Cause

Filed under: — stefan @ 9 October 2007

I would like to share with you some impressions from a remarkable event taking place today and tomorrow in Potsdam: 15 Nobel laureates are meeting with top climate and energy experts and politicians to discuss global sustainability. You can follow the event with its presentations here, with a couple of hours of delay.

After opening remarks by PIK director John Schellnhuber, the IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri presented an overview over the main findings of the latest IPCC report. Nobel laureate Mario Molina drew interesting parallels of the current situation with the ozone hole issue and the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, that came into force in 1986. “The scientific findings are clear: climate is changing, and it is a response to human activities,” Molina said. He also noted that the Montreal Protocol, as a side effect, has bought us about 10 years time in the climate issue, because the now banned CFC’s also have a greenhouse effect in addition to damaging the ozone layer.

Next speaker was the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a theoretical physicist by training. She pointed out that inaction on the climate issue would be at least five times more costly than reducing emissions, and she called for a reduction of global emissions by 50% by the year 2050. She reaffirmed that the European Union has pledged to reduce its emissions by 30% by the year 2020 if others join in, and that the target of the German government is a 40% reduction by 2020.

Next to speak was Sir Nicholas Stern, who explained the CO2 problem as a “flow-stock” problem – our emissions continually add to the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making climate stabilisation at a certain level more costly the longer we wait. Delaying climate action by 30 years would make it 3 times more expensive. He also spoke about the ethical problems – “economists shy away from the ethics”, he said, but they need to be discussed.

This was a good lead to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai (peace prize 2004) who joined by video link from Nairobi. She presented a passionate plea to preserve forests and plant a billion trees, and spoke of “carbon justice” in the relationship of the developed and developing world.

Several physics and chemistry Nobel laureates highlighted the tremendous potential of solar power for solving the world’s energy and climate problems. Carlo Rubbia (NP physics 1984) pointed out that a square of the size 210 x 210 km receives as much solar power as the whole world consumes in energy today. This is just a small pixel on the world map he showed, and just 0.13 % of the world’s desert area. Walter Kohn (NP Chemistry 1998) reported from a meeting in China a few weeks ago, presenting a number of interesting facts, such as that the solar cell production in China is growing at a rate of 40% per year. Alan Heeger (NP chemistry 2000) presented an inspiring lecture on cheap plastic solar cells – his lab is working on solar cells that can literally be printed on a roll of plastic sheeting, from a polymer solution. Present status is that they achieve an efficiency of 6.5 % with these printed solar cells, with much promise for rapid improvements.

I must stop now or I will miss the evening reception starting this minute. Tomorrow the event continues with a speach by the German environment minister on “The road to Bali”, and further scientific discussions. Join the video stream if you are interested!


85 Responses to “Sustainability: A Nobel Cause”

  1. 1

    Linux users not welcome :-(

  2. 2
    Chris says:

    I’m trying to understand that the implications of that 210 x 210 km figure. That’s 44000 square km. If Earth’s radius is 4000 km, then the cross-sectional area of Earth is about 50 million square km. (Note: cross-sectional area, not surface area.) This means the amount of energy we are using today is equivalent to about 0.0875% of the total solar insolation.

    That doesn’t sound like much, but at a 2% annual increase, it will only be about 350 years before humanity would be using an amount of energy equal to the total solar insolation on Earth. Could that possibly be right? Have I made a gross error here somewhere?

    What are the implications of this for growth and sustainability?

  3. 3
    Spartacus says:

    I have all due and considerable respect for Stefan. However, he does not mention that the notion of German politicans Merkel and Gabriel speaking at the convention when they are pushing the interests of the German energy cartel (RWE, E.ON, etc.) in all respects, inter alia by approving ca 40 coal-fired power stations and donating emission rights to those corporations in the near future, is quite risible.

    Stefan’s definition of “top” climate and energy experts is also questionable. Does top equal mainstream, ie non-radical,respectable and allegedly apolitical or mainstream political?

    Lastly, it is strange that nobody from any branch of the military and secret services in any country seems to have been invited to contribute at this conference. Yet those ladies and gentlemen are sure to be having their thoughts and making their plans, which we would all like to share.

    It is sad that climatologists, who by definition definitely did not choose their career because they wanted to be in politics, have not realised yet the implications of the current predicament for their own Weltanschauung.

  4. 4
    David Wilson says:

    I presume you mean ‘roll’ of plastic …, not ‘role';

    and … there are questions about how noble was Nobel;

    and even … from the news I have seen today there might have been worthier recipients than gene-splitting and better hard-drives … what ever;

    and … there is a bug in your Comment Interface, not just for Unix I don’t think,

    be well.

  5. 5
    Andrew Sipocz says:

    Tim Flannery was quoted in an article posted at ENN.com stating that greenhouse emissions had reached 450ppm, 10 years ahead of predictions. This number is to be reported in an upcoming release from the IPCC. I assume this number represents all greenhouse gases being reported as Carbon Dioxide Equivalent units, though the story makes it sound like it is all CO2. Is this level 10 years ahead of IPCC predictions? And if so, is CO2 the culprit or are other GHG’s increasing faster than expected? Also, it’s weird, living in the USA, and hearing dispatches like Stefan’s from the outside where political speach actually sounds rational.

  6. 6
    Mike Tabony says:

    On a loosely related topic, ABC News highlighted the Southeastern US drought last night with a story on Atlanta’s water woes. It seems that unless very strong restrictions are initiated this major US city may run out of water in another year of minimal rainfall.

    Do any of the climatologists on this site want to comment on a possible connection of this drought and global warming via a strengthening of the Bermuda high? Furthermore, is it possible that this drying is the new norm? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  7. 7
    Hank Roberts says:

    Martin, the first stream shows as:
    http://streamcm.eu/richmedia/pik-symposium2007/01/video.asx
    Possibly you can download it and then use VLC? Just guessing.

  8. 8

    Hank, sure… and Ubuntu is pretty good at handling Windows formats like WMF (which is used here). It’s about the message they are sending: scientists and social innovators especially need not bother. I mean, there are true open formats for streaming video too.

  9. 9
    David B. Benson says:

    Mike Tabony (7) — see the second comment on the Spanish perspectives thread just below.

  10. 10

    Chris, by that time we’ll have 6,000 billion people living on Earth… also at a 2% growth rate. Won’t happen, in spite of Asimov’s fantasies ;-)

    I haven’t listened to the talk, but I suppose this 210×210 km refers to a surface area on the ground, cycling through the day-night cycle, not perpendicular to incident sunlight. A latter type surface receives 40,000 GW, enough to provide a 40 billion population with electricity at 100% efficiency. Photovoltaic isn’t very efficient and because of day/night a planetwide daisychain of such solar arrays would be needed, with cabling.

  11. 11
    pete best says:

    Solar thermal engines are being developed for good energy capture and storage by compressed air and other means.

    Still with human global populations projections of 9 billion by 2050 and energy use set to grow by 50% by 2030 I doubt more than 10% of that will be met by sustainables. We need to move fast on alternatives to fossil fuels and their infrastructures for therin lies the real problem, latency of global rollouts, 40 years probably and thats when the technology is actually ready.

    I doubt we can avoid 2 C, some scientists have said as much. Can we stop before 3 C is the big question?

  12. 12
    Dan Robinson says:

    “Carlo Rubbia (NP physics 1984) pointed out that a square of the size 210 x 210 km receives as much solar power as the whole world consumes in energy today.”

    Does that maybe mean how much the human world uses, for its technology, or does it include what we use to grow trees to build our houses and food to build our bodies, or does it include what the whole biosphere uses? If the latter, we may run out of PV space even sooner, unless we think we can do without the bioshere.

    On the other hand, if we put PV stations in space, we can expand the earth’s effective energy collecting cross-section. But how long can this go on? Might we be better off with some negative population growth, as well as per person energy use, and doing so very quickly?

  13. 13
    Dan Robinson says:

    Remember that it’s not about how much alternative “renewable” energy we use (perhaps while still increasing our carbon footprint, but about how little carbon, from whatever source, we cause to be burned. We hear about “carbon neutral” lifestyles, but this doesn’t seem to include the energy cost of building PVs, windmills, hybrid cars etc., or that of flying to sustainablility conferences instead of using the Internet.

  14. 14
    David B. Benson says:

    Sustainability for how long?

    Somewhat related to this question is some new data about after the end of the Eemian, so also about conjectures about Out-of-Africa. First the current thought from Alan Templeton, based on genetic information, is that Homo spaiens sapiens, modern humans, left Africa about 135–95 kya, with 135 kya most likely, but anytime thereafter, up to 95 kya is almost as likely. The latest, best data puts the height of the Eemian at 134 kya and its end by 131 kya. So all that fits together quite well, in my estimation.

    The recent announcment

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071008171121.htm

    fits in beautifully with the above dates: The climate changed, at least in tropical Africa, and so humans moved elsewhere.

    Likely was not the first time and certainly not the last…

  15. 15
    Geoff Russell says:

    Re #5 — see page 206 of AR4/Physical Science Basis (Chapter 2). About half the annual forcing increments from long lived greenhouse gases comes from methane. The usual images of methane forcing being less than half of CO2 (as in the SPM) compare 500 years worth of CO2 with 50 years worth of methane.

  16. 16
    yorick says:

    If the entire planet is at risk from GHG, why is Germany shutting down its nuclear plants and switching to coal? One can argue that it produces CO2 to create the nuke plants, but that CO2 has already been vented to the atmosphere. I just don’t understand that kind of thinking. But I guess I just don’t understand the kind of “rational” political debate that goes on in Germany.

  17. 17

    There is a good article on the methane crisis at http://www.earthsave.org.

  18. 18
    J.C.H. says:

    There is a good article on the methane crisis at http://www.earthsave.org.

    Comment by Bird Thompson — 9 October 2007 @ 7:44 PM

    Killing the cows will stop them from producing methane.

    Becoming a vegetarian does nothing as the cows will still be there.

    A far better strategy to reduce animal methane would be to suggest people switch away from eating ruminants, and then to kill off a major percentage of the ruminant population, both domestic and wild. It’s at least doable.

    I still have my grandfather’s Sharps buffalo gun: one shot one kill.

  19. 19
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #18 JCH [Becoming a vegetarian does nothing as the cows will still be there.

    A far better strategy to reduce animal methane would be to suggest people switch away from eating ruminants, and then to kill off a major percentage of the ruminant population, both domestic and wild. It’s at least doable.]

    Isn’t becoming a vegetarian one way of switching away from eating ruminants? If people do that, and preferably reduce or eliminate consumption of dairy products, the number of domestic ruminants kept will decrease in response to a reduction in demand. Populations of domestic ruminants are controlled and usually maintained by human intervention; if demand falls, some of the herds now maintained will not be economically viable. Individual domestic ruminants, of course, would continue to be slaughtered, but fewer would be bred to replace them – so over time, some of “the cows” would no longer be there – and the more people switch to vegetarianism and veganism, the fewer there will be. I haven’t yet found any comparative figures – does anyone have any? – but I’d be astonished if domestic ruminants were not responsible for most “ruminantogenic” methane, as their populations are huge, and they are bred to process large amounts of food. Your trusty buffalo gun could be usefully employed against destructive feral ruminant (or for that matter pig or rabbit) populations, particularly introduced populations on small islands, where extermination is practicable, but the environmental benefits would be reducing soil erosion and protecting biodiversity – the methane saving would be tiny.

  20. 20

    Dan Robinson says:

    [[ Might we be better off with some negative population growth, as well as per person energy use, and doing so very quickly?]]

    Do you volunteer to be one of the people who have to die, in order to make more room for the others?

  21. 21
    ghost says:

    To grasp the obvious, we must address population growth. Pushing carbon emissions reduction against the current population growth gradient doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. Hailing changes in energy sources strikes hollow without the population growth component. OTOH, maybe leaders figure AGW’s effects will eliminate excess population the hard way.

  22. 22
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re 21 and others. Development has proven the only effective form of population control. Wherever development has occurred, fertility has fallen. Wherever population control has been imposed by force it has ultimately failed–either because people rebel against it (e.g. Indira Gandhi’s India) or because it has led to a distortion of the population (the distorted sex ratios in China). Ironically, development necessarily entails some increase in energy consumption, at least in the poorest nations such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa. As many of these nations near economic takeoff, it is imperative that they have the option to choose clean and carbon neutral energy sources. It is not either-or when it comes to development and addressing climate change. We must do both, or both will fail.

  23. 23
    yorick says:

    Did methane start rising again. Last figures I saw showed it leveling off around 2000 and flat. Was this complete “denialist” bunkum?

  24. 24
    Terry Miesle says:

    We know how to address population growth. And those tactics bring a lot of other benefits. Increasing education, income and life expectancy in any population will decrease the number of children born and increase the survival rate of those children. At the same time, the population will move away from less sustainable practices and undesirable social practices.

    As far as vegetarian practices go, be glad much of India is vegetarian. If that culture were more meat-eating, we’d have a lot more methane in the air from ruminants. We know it takes more energy to raise cattle for food than directly using that grain for human consumption. Natural grazing practices are quite different from much of our current meat manufacture system.

    It’s high time these prestigious institutes like Nobel begin to focus on this issue, it’s literally our future.

    As to the total area of land required for PV use, who says it has to be single-use? When I fly out of O’Hare, I see vast swathes of open rooftops exposed to sunlight nearly all year. When is power use the highest? The specious arguments against PV use don’t hold up well when exposed to practical application. Hopefully the recent developments pushing efficiency past 50% will be easily and efficient to manufacture soon. The other side of that is less efficient but extremely inexpensive methods, which may be good for home application.

  25. 25
    Jim Eager says:

    Re 20: “Do you volunteer to be one of the people who have to die, in order to make more room for the others?”

    Barton, was this hyperbole necessary? All that needs happen is for the birth rate to drop below the replacement rate. Although world-wide the rate is in fact rising, this has already happened in most of the industrialized world, exactly where the highest per capita consumption is. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_territories_by_fertility_rate

  26. 26
    Bo Norrman says:

    VIdeo does not play on Mac :-(
    Any chance that the videos can be converted to Quicktime and reposted?

  27. 27
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #22 [All that needs happen is for the birth rate to drop below the replacement rate. Although world-wide the rate is in fact rising, this has already happened in most of the industrialized world, exactly where the highest per capita consumption is.]

    The global population is still rising, but the rate of growth is falling in all major regions:

    From “World Population Prospects
    The 2006 Revision
    Highlights” (http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2006/WPP2006_Highlights_rev.pdf)

    “Over most of human history, the world population grew very slowly if at all. Growth
    rates began increasing slowly during the 17th or 18th centuries as mortality started to decline. With
    accelerating gains in longevity, the growth rate of the world population increased, especially
    during the 20th century, when it reached a peak at 2 per cent per year in 1965-1970 (figure 2).
    Since then, the speed of population growth has been decelerating, largely as a result of falling
    fertility in the developing world. By 2005-2010, the population growth rate at the world level had
    reached 1.17 per cent per year and is projected to decline to 0.36 per cent per year by 2045-2050.”

  28. 28
    Timothy Chase says:

    ghost (#21) wrote:

    To grasp the obvious, we must address population growth. Pushing carbon emissions reduction against the current population growth gradient doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. Hailing changes in energy sources strikes hollow without the population growth component. OTOH, maybe leaders figure AGW’s effects will eliminate excess population the hard way.

    The global population is leveling off – and is currently projected to level out at 11 billion between 2040 and 2070.

    There are two main reasons:

    1. The availability of birth control. This may actually be viewed as a kind of counterweight to the earlier introduction of Western medicine which resulted in a reduced death rate without a reduced birth rate.

    2. The wealth effect. As the per capita income of a nation exceeds $(1964) 300/yr, population growth begins to decelerate, and as the per capita income continues to rise further, population growth continues to decelerate. The wealthier a nation is, the more education that is required of its citizens. In poor agrigarian societies, it is possible for a family to have their children work alongside them in the fields as early as age three and actually see the living standards of the family improve slightly.

    But with the introduction of more indirect methods of production and a greater division of labor, more education is required before a child is able to become a productive member of the family. Elementary school, high school, and by the time that we are talking about college, the child has become an adult who will in all likelihood move out of the home – and be concerned principally with maintaining their own household. At that point children become a luxury.

    *

    Many countries are already seeing negative population growths (particularly in Europe) – and others are leveling off around zero at this point (e.g., Japan springs to mind). The rest (with only a handful of exceptions) are decelerating. The best way to control population growth is the combination of birth control and higher standards of living.

    Of course climate change is going to make this more difficult, at least with respect to the standard of living. Business As Usual will hit the world economy very hard some time before the turn of the century. A study commissioned by the British government and lead by a former senior economist for the World Bank suggests that we could be looking at an economic crisis on the same order as the Great Depression. I suspect it would actually be deeper and a great deal more prolonged.

    *

    In fact there are those who would suggest that we should maintain the third world in a state of poverty – as advanced economies tend to produce a great deal more carbon dioxide per capita. However, without extreme measures of the sort that very few would likely endorse, third world countries will advance – only more slowly, and therefore with an extended period of higher population growth – and consequently a larger population once it stabilizes.

    *

    The alternative is to develop technologies with a smaller carbon footprint, particularly cheap renewable energy, and make them available to everyone – while simultaneously trying to lift the living standards of third world nations up to the level of modernized countries. Solar energy of the sort mentioned in the above essay is one such possibility. There are others.

    What I would suggest (and have suggested before) is that we should create an international Manhattan Project – for the development of cheap renewable energy.

    Ps

    My apologies for covering what I have covered before (albeit earlier in greater depth), but it seems on-topic, and no doubt it will be new to some.

  29. 29
    dean_1230 says:

    A few months ago, some people i work with did a similar calculation on solar potential. If you assume perfect conversion of all the energy that the sun delivers to our orbit, how big an area would you need to supply the world in electricity. Our number came out to a little over 120 sq miles (roughly on par to the 210 km^2 number).

    Now, we’d never realize this number for many reasons: atmospheric distortion, non-perpendicular alignment of the array, tracking errors, efficiency of the array (currently about 5% for cost-effective arrays and 10-15% for horrendously expensive arrays), etc.

    As an example of the current state of the art, there’s a solar power plant in Portugal that covers about 150 acres. Of the total amount of energy that the sun delivers to the earth over 150 acres, that powerplant captures and converts about 0.8% into electricity.

    For solar to become practical (and I fully believe it will), we have to attack those systemic inefficiencies. I fully believe we’ll figure out how to get a 30% efficient, cost effective array. Ideally it will be integrated with the shingles of our house.

  30. 30

    Good to see all those countries with TFRs of under 2 (the replacement rate) therefore leading the way toward negative population growth. We need negative population growth in terms of food animals too. Humans as a dominant species cannot maintain vast animal farms without producing huge amounts of methane (which is 21 times as potent a GHG as CO2) as well as depleting & polluting water & soil. We must change our lives.

  31. 31
    J.C.H. says:

    Deer are smaller animals, but they produce a their fair share of methane. It’s basically a function of body size.

    Estimates of the deer population in the United States vary widely, but I think 40 to 60 million is a reasonable guess. There is also a fast growing buffalo population. Add in North America’s Elk, Moose, and Caribou, and it gets to be a healthy number and a lot of methane.

    If the buffalo commons were to be drained of cattle, then an enormous habitat for wild ruminants would suddenly be useless for anything else.

    It is not just as simple as going veggie. I don’t see any reason in the logic for allowing domestic ruminant populations to gradually decline over decades. It’s cruel, and that is just a gigantic amount of methane that could be nipped in the cud now.

    I also think there would be fierce, perhaps violent, resistance to forced vegetarianism. It’s far more reasonable to offer a red-meat alternative, which is easily achievable. After we’re done shooting Bambi and Elsie, we’ll eat Trigger.

  32. 32
    Jim Galasyn says:

    re Flannery , this story quotes him on greenhouse gases:

    “They’re all having an impact. Probably 75 percent is carbon dioxide but the rest is that mixed bag of other gases,” he said.

    So there you have it.

  33. 33
    J.C.H. says:

    As far as vegetarian practices go, be glad much of India is vegetarian. If that culture were more meat-eating, we’d have a lot more methane in the air from ruminants.

    India, by most estimates, has at least three times as many cows as the United States – at least 300 million cows to the United State’s 100 million.. They also have large populations of sheep and goats.

  34. 34
    Timothy Chase says:

    yorick (#23) wrote:

    Did methane start rising again. Last figures I saw showed it leveling off around 2000 and flat. Was this complete “denialist” bunkum?

    Its leveled off for the time being. Pretty close to zero although not quite negative.

    But the thawing of the permafrost in Siberia, Canada and Alaska is just getting started. Shallow at this point and requires moisture. Have yet to hit the motherload of yedoma – and precipitation will be increasing in the subpolar as time goes on. Then there are the shallow water methane hydrates up along the northern coasts – and we recently discovered that they are closer to the surface than we had any reason to suspect. I understand the ocean currents around Antarctica are changing, too. Taking warm water deeper. Then there is the increased poleward flow of the ocean currents – partly driven by Hurricanes, I understand.

    But yes, the economic setback in Eastern Europe, improved methods of growing rice, the leveling off of the cattle population – we seem to be doing better with regard to our methane emissions. No more exponential growth. In fact it is quite possible that the growth rate of anthropogenic emissions is now negative. Not sure.

    In any case, it is good news.

  35. 35

    Watch out Chris you are confusing miles with kilometers, Earth radius is 6 373 km.

    The big question is how are we going to curve GHGs and continue to develop at the same time, specially if China is lightning a coal thermo a week, taking advantage of it’s free coal. Yesterday Rajenda Pachauri stated if there isn’t a real price for coal, around US $ 60 or $ 80 a ton everything will be useless, but as cheap coal is one of the main reasons for China´s appeal for the industry to move there and China has declared it will not sacrifice its fast development at any cause, this is not to be a realty very soon.

    The other very difficult solution was given by Pachauri as well, it’s the changes in the way of life of big polluters at USA, Europe, and elsewhere (there are rich people driving SUVs and building mansions all around the world) specially if there are non rich people at the line expecting to get their share and their time to buy their own SUV.

  36. 36
    J.C.H. says:

    I think it has nothing to do with animal methane tailing off. The United States has around 30 million fewer cattle than back when I punched them, but those cattle were just moved/replaced overseas.

    I think it’s things like better management of landfills and the oil and gas industry has fixed all their pipes.

  37. 37
    Timothy Chase says:

    Re: Methane Emissions (#34)

    I was mistaken.

    Methane Emissions Rising (But You Wouldn’t Know It), Study Says
    Sean Markey
    for National Geographic News
    September 27, 2006
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/09/060927-methane.html

    Drying out of the wetlands is currently causing a reduction in nature’s output, but since 2000, our emissions have been increasing. Biomass-burning (e.g., clearing of land for farming and dry fuels in the third world) and fossil fuels appear to be the cause. China seems to be the source of the increase in methane from fossil fuels. With the recent increase in the rate of growth of carbon dioxide emissions (over the same period), this not good news.

    The inversion attributes this signal to decreasing anthropogenic emissions, in particular to the northern fossil source (Fig. 3). This is in qualitative agreement with the latitudinal CH4 differences analysed in Fig. 1b. After 1999, however, anthropogenic emissions increase again, especially in north Asia. This may reflect the booming Chinese economy. By 2003, we find that anthropogenic emissions recovered to their levels in the early 1990s.

    Contribution of anthropogenic and natural sources to atmospheric methane variability
    P. Bousquet, et al
    Vol 443|28 September 2006, pg 441

  38. 38
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re: Negative Population Growth
    It is interesting to consider the implications of negative population growth. First, it’s never happened during recorded history on a global scale. Those few occasions when it has happened regionally have been accompanied by severe upheaval. In the Dark/Middle Ages the population of Europe actually fell due to a combination of famine, plague and nearly continual warfare. Nobility and monasteries could not find enough peasants to work the land, so they offered very favorable terms to freemen to bind themselves and their families to a lord and his land in perpetuity. This was the beginning of feudalism in Europe, which clearly wasn’t such a good thing for the peasants.
    In Africa, from the late 1500s to the late 1800s the population fell as a result of the predations of the slave trade and colonialism (read “King Leopold’s Ghost”), and the continent is still recovering.
    The population of Soviet Russia fell slightly and briefly from ~1920-1945 due to the combined effects of civil war, famine, Stalinist purges and WW II, but this was a temporary effect. And of course, the population of native Americans plummetted after Europeans came, but the rise in European population shortly more than made up for this.
    Negative population growth has some very serious and odd economic implications. For instance, with 11 billion people, food will be in very short supply, and it will strain all of our technical capabilities to do so. However, as the population falls, we will still have high productivity. Inded, farmers will have to maintain that level of productivity to stay in business. Prices will fall. Markets will be glutted. Farmers will go out of business, but that will merely increase competitive pressures. Similar trends will be seen in manufacturing. Governments will struggle with their tax base and with providing services despite the shrinking population.
    So while negative population growth is essential and desirable, we should not think we are out of the woods if it occurs.

  39. 39
    Nick Gotts says:

    re #31 [Deer are smaller animals, but they produce a their fair share of methane. It’s basically a function of body size.]

    Rather, of rate of increase of body size – and domestic animals are bred to grow fast.

    [Estimates of the deer population in the United States vary widely, but I think 40 to 60 million is a reasonable guess. There is also a fast growing buffalo population. Add in North America’s Elk, Moose, and Caribou, and it gets to be a healthy number and a lot of methane.]

    According to the USDA, the USA had just over 95m cattle in 2002. And they are going to be producing a lot more per head than deer. Add in sheep and goats, and it’s clear that even in the USA, considerably more methane will be coming from domestic than wild ruminants. The preponderance will be greater in more densely-populated parts of the world. I’ve found a figure in Wikipedia for total world cattle: 1.3 billion – I can’t vouch for it.

    [It is not just as simple as going veggie. I don’t see any reason in the logic for allowing domestic ruminant populations to gradually decline over decades. It’s cruel, and that is just a gigantic amount of methane that could be nipped in the cud now.]

    I don’t understand why it is cruel to allow a population to decline over decades. It is individuals, not populations, that suffer. I
    agree if you mean that there are reasons for wanting to abolish large parts of the livestock industry immediately: it often causes great suffering to the animals concerned.

    [I also think there would be fierce, perhaps violent, resistance to forced vegetarianism.] Which of course no-one has suggested. I do suggest that ruminant meat and dairy producers should have to buy permits to produce the greenhouse gases they do, raising the price of these items and so reducing demand, and hence the size of domestic herds.

  40. 40
    SecularAnimist says:

    Barton Paul Levenson wrote: “Do you volunteer to be one of the people who have to die, in order to make more room for the others?”

    Well, we all have to die. We “volunteer” for that by virtue of being born. More to the point is to volunteer to be one of the people who does not reproduce, which I have done and encourage others to do as well.

  41. 41
    J.C.H. says:

    Which of course no-one has suggested. I do suggest that ruminant meat and dairy producers should have to buy permits to produce the greenhouse gases they do, raising the price of these items and so reducing demand, and hence the size of domestic herds.

    Good luck. The United States is a Republic. People vote. Vegetarians make up one percent of the population.

    I don’t see any substantive studies on wild ruminant methane production, so I’ll just speculate. First, they eat in the summer to get fat as fast as they can. The quality of food is better, so more of the hydrocarbon goes to fat – less methane production per unit of food, but still a lot of methane. Over the winter the quality of food diminishes, so they are unable to process as high a percentage of hydrocarbon to fat. That could actually mean more methane gets burped out if their volume of food intake is high – depends on the winter. The science seems to indicate that a rich diet, like the corn used to finish cattle, results in significantly less methane (more fat faster), and poor diets, like the grass feed to cattle on the range, tend to result in more methane.

  42. 42
    David B. Benson says:

    Coalfield fires — The linked article

    http://www.eoearth.org/article/Coal_fires

    states that the coalfield fires in China “only” contribute about 0.1–0.2% of the annual increase of carbon in the active carbon cycle, much less than earlier estimates.

  43. 43
    James says:

    Re #31: [Deer are smaller animals, but they produce a their fair share of methane. It’s basically a function of body size.]

    I was thought that a lot of the methane production of cattle was due to their particular digestive system. IIRC the ruminants have multiple stomachs which sort of ferment their food, producing methane as a byproduct. Perhaps someone knows more detail?

    I’d be quite willing to switch from eating beef to venison :-)

  44. 44
    Almuth Ernsting says:

    Re 37:
    I understand that relatively stable methane levels in the atmosphere could be due to a shortening of the atmospheric life-time of methane, masking global increases in methane emissions. I read one study which suggests this possibility:

    Fiore, A. M., L. W. Horowitz, E. J. Dlugokencky, and J. J. West, 2006: Impact of meteorology and emissions on methane trends, 1990-2004. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L12809, doi:10.1029/2006GL026199

    If this is correct, then we could be seeing be a very limited negative feedback from global warming just now which increases hydroxyl concentrations which in turn breaks down the methane faster. According to the authors of this study, such a negative feedback would only be limited, i.e. eventually rising methane emissions could well overtake any increases in hydroxyl in which case methane concentrations in the atmosphere would begin to rise again.

  45. 45
    Hank Roberts says:

    Depends. You won’t find venison replacing beef, too much risk of chronic wasting disease transmission.

    Methane production’s getting a lot of attention; lots of variables.
    http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0531513106001610
    http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=1796088

  46. 46
    bjc says:

    Funny how the argument always seems to revert to issues of control: What I eat, how I travel and how much I procreate. I am not sure I want to elect anybody who sees it as their business to attempt to control any of these three “freedoms”.

    But enough of politics, what is the best data source on methane production and absorption?

  47. 47

    Re #40: Those who volunteer not to reproduce, will they have no demands on the younger generations when being older? will they never need help from the continously falling number of young people? Or will they all plan suicide at the onset of failing self-care?

  48. 48
    pete best says:

    All of the western countries bar scandanavian ones probably are investing in coal fired power with he hope of CCS comping along to validate their choices. Hmmm, how likely is it really that CCS will ever make a massive difference to Co2 emissions ?

    40 years to cut co2 emissions globally by 80%. How likely is it ?

  49. 49

    Ray Ladbury writes:

    [[Re 21 and others. Development has proven the only effective form of population control. Wherever development has occurred, fertility has fallen. Wherever population control has been imposed by force it has ultimately failed–either because people rebel against it (e.g. Indira Gandhi’s India) or because it has led to a distortion of the population (the distorted sex ratios in China). Ironically, development necessarily entails some increase in energy consumption, at least in the poorest nations such as those of Sub-Saharan Africa. As many of these nations near economic takeoff, it is imperative that they have the option to choose clean and carbon neutral energy sources. It is not either-or when it comes to development and addressing climate change. We must do both, or both will fail.]]

    While nothing you write here is wrong, you do leave out another strategy — local voluntary efforts implemented nationwide. That is having increasing success even in underdeveloped nations. An example is Bangladesh, where fertility has fallen from something like 7 per adult woman to 3.

  50. 50
    J.C.H. says:

    Francis Massen Says:
    10 October 2007 at 4:02 PM

    The Japanese are working on a robot to assist with elder care. Surely you are not suggesting elder care is a reason to reproduce at an unsustainable level?

    James Says:
    10 October 2007 at 1:06 PM

    I should have said deer are smaller ruminants. They are ruminants, so switching to eating them will do nothing to reduce animal methane. Keeping meat eaters in bambiburgers would require 100s of millions of deer.

    Somebody agrees with me. I had some Roo when I was in Australia; it has a bouncy flavor:

    http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,22562480-662,00.html


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