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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. 51

    Jim Eager posts:

    [[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?]]

    You said things would be made better with negative population growth. What that really means is, better for the survivors. It obviously has no effect on those who have died. You are tacitly assuming that you will be one of the survivors and not one of the dead.

  2. 52
    Timothy Chase says:

    James (#43) wrote:

    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 did some digging. There are of course a great many different species of bacteria inhabiting the digestive system of a cow (or aphid for that matter, I would presume). Cows do indeed rely upon a fermentation process performed by eubacteria. However these aren’t the same bugs which are involved in the production of methane. There we are talking about methanogens – anaerobic archaea – living fossils left over from when the earth’s atmosphere was without oxygen. They take advantage of the process of fermentation and are responsible for the methane which cows produce. They would be similar to the bugs that produce methane in swamps – relying upon a wet, oxygen-free environment in which to do their nasty deed.

    I got this from below…

    Control of rumen methanogenesis by inhibiting the growth and activity of methanogens with hydroxymethylglutaryl-SCoA inhibitors
    M.J. Wolin, a, and T.L. Millera
    International Congress Series
    Volume 1293, July 2006, Pages 131-137

    One of these little beasties is none other than methanosarcina acetivorans which has recently played a lead role in the study of the origin of life – due to its employment of what would appear to be the quite possibly the most primitive metabolic pathway.

    For those who are interested, please see:

    The Stepwise Evolution of Early Life Driven by Energy Conservation
    James G. Ferry and Christopher H. House
    Molecular Biology and Evolution 2006 23(6):1286-1292

    Then there are the anaerobic sulfate reducers – eubacteria. They are responsible for the “rotten egg” smell. Digestive sytems are where some of the oldest beasties still live and thrive today, safely tucked away from the corrosive, poisonous gas we know as “oxygen.”

  3. 53
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re 49. Barton, Yes, another example is the the Dua Anak Cukup (Two children are enough) program in Indonesia, which has been pretty successful. I would also point out that money spent on educating girls in developing countries is one of the most effective investments in population control that can be made. However, most voluntary efforts at population control are coincident with development efforts. These nations will develop. The only question is whether the additional energy they consume will come from clean sources.

  4. 54
    Jim Eager says:

    Re 51 Barton: ” You said things would be made better with negative population growth. What that really means is, better for the survivors. It obviously has no effect on those who have died. You are tacitly assuming that you will be one of the survivors and not one of the dead.”

    Quite the contrary, since I won’t be around much longer, I’m assuming I’ll be among the dead.
    Since my partner and I have chosen to replace only one of us, I am assuming that our offspring may have some chance of being among the “survivors”, though.

  5. 55
    Tony Weddle says:

    Has there been any recognition of what sustainability requires, regarding economic growth? It requires zero economic growth. Otherwise, even with occasional efficiency improvements, increasing amounts of resources are needed. Even renewable resources cannot support such a situation. Zero economic growth is required for sustainability but I doubt that many will realise that until it is too late to transition orderly.

    By the way, if an area 210km by 210 km receives more solar energy that the world currently uses in all energy, then a solar panel 2,100km by 210 km is needed to capture enough of that solar energy to meet our present energy requirements (assuming no growth in future). I have no idea if there are enough resources to build and implement panels and infrastructure of that total size. Also, has any scientist researched whether removing that amount of sunlight from a concentrated area, or even distributed globally, will have any impact on the environment, either locally or globally?

  6. 56

    #55: The forcing caused by a doubling in CO2 is, according to the current understanding, 3 W/m^2, or for the whole Earth surface of 510 million km^2, 1530,000 GW. By comparison, an area of 210×210 km^2 perpendicular to infalling light at the top of the atmosphere intercepts 1366 W/m^2 on average, i.e., 60,240 GW, or 4%. As a percentage of the total infalling sunlight, 174,000,000 GW, it is only 0.03%.

    Your scenario is 10x bigger, but on the Earth surface, producing only a 2.5x larger effect.

    Solar cells are rather dark, similarly to desert rock, so the net albedo effect would be a small fraction of this. The electric energy generated is just released as heat in the areas of consumption, i.e., redistributed without changing the total balance.

  7. 57
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 43 James : ruminants

    The ruminants (Order Artiodactyla – cloven-hoofed mammals; Sub-Order Ruminantia) include deer, moose, elk, giraffe, cows, buffalo, et al). The first two of their chambered stomachs serve as microbial fermentation vats, where methane is produced. You can read more about this process at:
    (Hint: Turn down your speaker volume.)

    The U.S. EPA website has some useful information about the scale of methane production by ruminants:

  8. 58
    J.C.H. says:

    If you look at the improvements, there are problems. Fertilizers and improved diets come at a cost – perhaps more NOX and more CO2.

    For those unfamiliar with raising cattle, a cow-calf operation usually involves substantial grass feeding. The bulk of the animals and the bulk of their short lives are spent in the cow-calf phase. The grass diet creates more methane.

  9. 59
    Terry Miesle says:

    Solar cells are rather dark, similarly to desert rock, so the net albedo effect would be a small fraction of this. The electric energy generated is just released as heat in the areas of consumption, i.e., redistributed without changing the total balance.


    You presume the only way to produce power from solar energy is via photovoltaics. While effective, and increasingly efficient, it’s not the only way. Solar-heated steam turbines are another effective method. Those would use lenses or mirrors, all means of concentrating light and infrared to heat a fluid. It’s just another steam engine, using something other than hydrocarbons. That heat can be stored for use after dark, as well, thus addressing the “sun don’t shine after dark” problem. Stay tuned, this is an interesting area.

  10. 60
    Terry Miesle 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.


    Be glad more of the population ISN’T meat-eating, then. Their population is more than 3X ours. Meat is still expensive there, and for many, religiously forbidden. Don’t forget the resources used to raise livestock also causes emissions and pollution runoff, at greater levels as the process becomes more industrialized.

  11. 61
    Alex Tolley says:

    #29 “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.”

    Are you sure of this. It seems like a very low efficiency, below even that for plant photosynthesis (~ 2-3%).

    #12 “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? ”

    Essentially any extra energy trapped extra-terrestrially and used on earth acts as a device to pump in extra heat. Ideally one should try to trap the energy that would hit the earth and use that. Of course there are various offsets possible – such as trying to increase earth’s albedo to compensate for extra energy trapping.

    Theoretically, the higher efficient of PV cells to plants should suggest that if we replaced plant life with these cells, we could trap energy for energy and food production at a much higher rate than for plants.

  12. 62
    Jay says:

    The solution boils down to the following:
    1. Bring population growth under control – more of a developing world issue
    2. Bring down the per unit consumption of energy and other resources – more of a developed world issue

    The steps required to achieve these goals can be complex, e.g. improving literacy, women’s rights and access to birth control – in the south, / and change of lifestyle to one that imposes a lighter burden – in the north.

  13. 63
    dean says:

    Re: #61

    Yea, the numbers were pretty close to being accurate (They survived significant reveiw from co-workers, some of which are experts at photovoltaics, at the time). The overall efficiency was calculated by taking the amount of energy delivered to the grid divided by the amount of energy the sun delivers to the same area.

    The big issue is where the losses come from. from what I remember, it broke down about like this:

    30% loss due to the latitude
    20% loss due to land taken up by officespace and roads rather than solar panels(assumed from an aerial view of the plant)
    90% loss of what’s left due to inefficient photovoltaic cells.

    those were the obvious big drivers. Other things that account for the low overall system efficiency are things like “balance of plant” issues (how much energy does it take to run the systems that capture the energy) and atmospheric losses (no idea how much is lost here). some of those issues are able to be improved (photovoltaic efficiency, for example) and some cannot (atmospheric issues and latitude), altho they can be designed around to some extent.

    The point is, even with current state of the art production facilities, there is a huge potential to solar. Typically when things are this inefficient, we’re good at improving them. One of the big issues with any sort of thermodynamic system is that we’ve pretty much hit the limit on overall system efficiency. There’s just not much left to improve. Therefore, we better move to something else.

    Imagine how much energy we would have available if we could make a solar power plant that operated at an overall efficiency of 10%. We could then power the world by converting only a few thousand square miles to powerplant.

    and there would be no need to even discuss controversial issues like forced family planning or demanding a change in lifestyle.

  14. 64
    Michael says:

    Why is nuclear power completely ignored in the debate concerning global warming? There are IFR’s or ALMR’s which promise to use both U235 and U238 with much greater efficiency than current reactors. Some links I came across:

    I am not an Engineer or a Physicist, just a lowly economist. I would honestly like to know what makes us think Nuclear, in the form of integral fast reactors or advanced liquid metal reactors can’t help solve our energy sustainability problems.

    I have read somewhere that, provided we use 235 and 238 efficiently, the sun will go supernova before we run out of fuel. And, I am under the impression that, besides plant construction, nuclear does not produce the same sort of emissions as coal or natural gas fired plants.

  15. 65
    dean says:

    RE #64

    The problem with nuclear is almost entirely political. the technical issues can be resolved and safe, nuclear power is commonplace.

    The politics has two sides to it. First is that there’s a perception that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are the guaranteed end result of a nuclear powerplant. the second is that we don’t trust certain countries to have the knowledge and ability to build nuclear plants. it could be a fine alternative for the US and Europe, but it’s not a realistic world-wide resource (again, mainly for political reasons).

  16. 66
    dean says:

    RE #62

    I fundamentally refuse to accept that these are the only two solutions. With all the energy available around us (Solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear), there’s absolutely NO reason to assume we have to lower our standard of living.

    we just have to decide to go after these sources.

  17. 67
    Hank Roberts says:

    Michael, as an economist, you can figure out why no insurance company has been willing to handle risk/liability for the nuclear power industry by looking at the length of time the waste is dangerous and comparing that to the lifetime of the plants in revenue service. Compare the economics of the Canadian “CANDU” system (which doesn’t need enriched uranium, nor reprocessing of ‘spent’ fuel, so has a less risky waste stream). The numbers are easy to find in your field.

  18. 68
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    First is that there’s a perception that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are the guaranteed end result of a nuclear powerplant.

    No, the assumption is that with a sufficient number of nuclear power plants at least one will have a catastrophic failure.

  19. 69
    Michael says:

    Re #67 I’ll check out the CANDU system. I have not seen the insurance figures. I wonder if coal plants dole out settlements for black lung and how that affects their insurance. Considering the relatively mild impacts (in terms of fatalities, when compared to the deaths due coal mining) of Three Mile Island , I would be surprised if insurance was the problem. I would imagine the greater problem is that the government isn’t commissioning the creation of new reactors. But, I don’t know this for certain.

    This is not my area of research, but basic political/economic insight might reasonably suggest the following problem with alternative fuels. Coal, natural gas, and oil are easily obtained and have great value if burned. However, they create greenhouse gases in the process, which yields negative externalities of unknown size and duration. [Even if we could all agree on the size of the impacts we expect to happen, there are all sorts of other hereto unimaginable potential impacts. It could be that the planet is resilient and will continue to be habitable without major incident, regardless of what we do. It could be that our expectations have been well molded by research and we pretty much know what will happen if we continue burning our stock of gas and coal. Or, it could be that the planet is even now struggling to cope with the tremendous fungal-esk bloom of human activity and we won’t know what to expect when multiple systems begin to fatigue in the presence of our waste.]
    Politically speaking, even if a large group of individuals, say all of the developed nations, decided to tax the use of coal and gas in proportion to its expected harms, other people would burn their endowment of fossil fuels. Nothing short of a nearly global agreement could foreseeably stop people from burning something that is relatively worthless, coal, for something valuable, energy.

    If we are to have a global agreement, i.e. a massive political solution. It seems like a small drop in the political bucket to change peoples opinions about nuclear -supplant the fears of Three Mile Island with the reality of the dangers of any system that includes the mass production and distribution of energy and a dose of optimism concerning the technological advances in not just nuclear power, but all of the fields that could help promote the safe mass production of energy. Lets not forget that Three Miles Island happened over a quarter of a century ago. Had we even figured out it was a good idea to put wheels on luggage yet?

    I am all for taking the path of least technological resistance. Otherwise politicians can always say “The science just isn’t there yet” when really they mean “My constituency cannot see how to make money out of this yet.”

  20. 70
    Hank Roberts says:

    Well, there’s one PhD thesis out there that says TMI couldn’t have blown its containment the second time it was at risk (when they finally flooded the core) even if they’d done it the standard way, with ordinary water instead of the special strong solution of borate they actually made up, brought in, and used. That’s reassuring. I think. Maybe.

    Of course the standard flood design uses water and would be used in a hurry.

    Note the thesus writer’s ironic allusion to the immortal phrase “spontaneous energetic disassembly” from the original TMI accident.

  21. 71
    J.C.H. says:

    The energy companies want people to believe that environmental regulation killed the nukes. I was a customer when one of the last nukes to be built powered up – Comanche Peak. My first “glow in the dark’ electricity bill was huge: simply awe inspiring. They were practically giving away natural gas and coal, so my coal-dust-encrusted bill was dirt cheap by comparison. Businessmen try not to make a habit of building plants that are at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

    Back in the 1980s they got burned by the crashing fossil-fuel prices, which remained very low throughout the hibernation of the nukes. Now the bear is awakening. Take a guess why? They blamed environmentalists because no energy man ever passes up a chance to blame environmentalists. They weren’t telling the truth. Surprised?

  22. 72

    [[I have read somewhere that, provided we use 235 and 238 efficiently, the sun will go supernova before we run out of fuel.]]

    The sun will never go supernova. You need a much more massive star for that. The sun will eventually become a red giant, and before that happens the Earth will already have become uninhabitable.

    Nuclear could be a good energy source if we could A) take care of the waste safely and B) prevent catastrophic accidents. But I suspect that if you really did create a system with safe reactors and safe waste disposal, the electricity it produced would cost more than conventional electricity, and thus there would be no reason to build it in the first place.

  23. 73
    Alex Tolley says:

    #64: “I have read somewhere that, provided we use 235 and 238 efficiently, the sun will go supernova before we run out of fuel.”

    The sun will become a red giant somewhere around 5bn years from now. We don’t really need to worry about nuclear fission power running for that long. However, the reality is that sources of uranium are economically exploitable for about 1 century at current usage, let along ramping up production of reactors. Even assuming large, unknown untapped reserves, the idea that nuclear fission is a huge potential energy source is wrong.

    I suspect you may be confusing nuclear fission for nuclear fusion. There is a huge resource of deuterium on earth, it is just that no one yet knows how to make a fusion plant to use this fuel. Fortunately there is a vast nuclear fusion plant already in operation, it has a good record of stability and is safely situated 93 million miles away…

  24. 74
    James says:

    Re #66: [With all the energy available around us (Solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear), there’s absolutely NO reason to assume we have to lower our standard of living.]

    I really can’t see how any of the issues discussed in #62 imply a lowering of living standards. Of course they are to some degree subjective, or a matter of perspective. For instance, you might think (as a neighbor of mine does) that buying a large diesel pickup and the fuel to idle it for half an hour every morning represents an improvement of your living standard, but I assure you it decreases mine :-)

    That applies in a more general sense, too. It may for instance improve your living standard to have a car to drive to work every morning, but when everyone else in your town does the same, the result is hours wasted in traffic, and a lower overall quality of life.

  25. 75

    #48: there’s a good wikipeia article on this (based on the IPCC report IIRC). The gist is that capturing the CO2 from the exhaust stream costs a lot of energy, but still less than the plant produces. You would end up burning up to 60% more — with all the associated problems — for releasing 90% less CO2.

    So, the ridiculously cheap power from coal-fired plants would become a little bit more expensive. How realistic such scenario is, depends entirely on people’s willingness to absorb this price hike.

    BTW underground storage in geological formations works. After all, that’s where much of our fossil fuels have been waiting for us over millions of years ;-)

  26. 76
    dean_1230 says:

    Re #74:

    I disagree. Even your point about not driving to work impacts our standard of living.

    For example, I drive to work and it takes about 30 minutes one-way. By driving i am now able to run to the hobby shop and browse for whatever catches my eye over lunch. I can go out to lunch rather than having to eat in (and there’s nothing within walking distance). I can stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up something for dinner. By driving I have freedom to go wherever I want. That’s a serious plus in the ‘quality of life’ category.

    Contrast that to riding the RTA. For me to be at my desk at the same time I am now, I’d have a 1-way ride time would be close to 2 hours. this in the city that just won the award for having the best public transportation system and with being right off the light rail line on one of the trip. So instead of spending one hour in my car, I’d spend 4 on a bus/rapid.

    You immediately jumped to owning a diesel truck, but what if that truck was a plug-in electric with the grid being powered by solar? I still get the freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want and I’m not hurting the co2 levels at all.

    Many points in the blog (and many more points in the overall environmental movement) are about controlling our lives. How many posts here talked about population control? That’s “quality of life”. Many here think cars should be eliminated or at least forced mass-transit use. That’s “quality of life”.

    I do not believe our goal should be to eliminate cars… I think our goal should be to figure out a way to have cars and no pollution! Most people drive no more than 150 miles a day. if you could recharge your car overnight and get 150 miles, then you could make a serious dent in the amount of gasoline consumed. Now imagine being able to recharge a battery in 15 minutes and getting 250-300 miles on a recharge. Truck stops would now have electric charging stations. Hotels would have outlets in their parking lots. Power companies would love it because this power drain would come mainly at off-peak times (overnight), thus allowing them to run more efficiently. And we’d not see a change in our lifestyle one bit! We’d still be free to go wherever we want!

    That should be our goal…

  27. 77
    Doug Watts says:

    “For example, I drive to work and it takes about 30 minutes one-way. By driving i am now able to run to the hobby shop and browse for whatever catches my eye over lunch. I can go out to lunch rather than having to eat in (and there’s nothing within walking distance). I can stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up something for dinner. By driving I have freedom to go wherever I want. That’s a serious plus in the ‘quality of life’ category … You immediately jumped to owning a diesel truck, but what if that truck was a plug-in electric with the grid being powered by solar? I still get the freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want and I’m not hurting the co2 levels at all.

    I think the point is that your diesel truck isn’t a plug-in electric powered by a solar grid.

  28. 78
    dean says:

    no, the point is that people don’t want to give up the freedom that driving to work gives them. so instead of trying to convince them that they need to, why not try to figure out a way to let them have their freedom AND reduce pollution.

  29. 79
    Doug Watts says:

    RE: 78. Because adults are supposed to be responsible for the consequences of their actions and behaviors. It is not somebody else’s job to invent something that cleans up your messes for you; and until someone else does this you have the “freedom” to go pollute the public commons.

  30. 80
    dean_1230 says:

    You miss my point entirely…

    I agree that it’s our job to fix the problem. but I do not accept that the “fix” involves the removal of freedom.

    I also see a bigger reason for moving away from fossil fuels at this time. Mainly economical reasons. We’re now seeing that the production of oil is diminishing worldwide even as demand is increasing. Eventually we’ll run out. If we don’t start finding other methods for generating the energy we need, then the economic impact of being forced to (by not having any more oil) will be catastrophic. Someone talked about a Manhattan Project-like effort to develop renewable/sustainable energy. That’s a very sound idea that has gained absolutely no traction by any current politician (it’s such an important topic in the current US Presidential campaign that CNN doesn’t even list it as an issue).

    And that’s a crying shame!

  31. 81

    Hoping that it will contribute to this debate, here’s a letter I recently wrote to New Scientist.

    Fossil fuels should stay underground

    Let’s face it: the Kyoto Protocol has been a dismal failure. Riddled with loopholes like “carbon credits” that let rich countries off the hook from cutting back their domestic emissions, it was nonetheless decried as unfair by big polluters in those same countries, who lobbied against it so well that it took 7 years to be ratified by a quorum of signatory nations. Even then, its emissions targets are a fraction of those needed to meet its stated goal of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. With Kyoto being renegotiated amid dire news about the already-observed and projected effects of climate change, a fundamental rethink is imperative.

    Kyoto stands in total contrast to its forerunner, the Montreal Protocol, which former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reportedly called “Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”. Indeed, by eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals which are also greenhouse gases, the Montreal Protocol has actually had more impact on climate change than several Kyotos (“Plugging the ozone hole cut global warming too”, New Scientist, 05 March 2007).

    One critical difference between the two protocols – which may partly account for this difference – is the fact that Montreal regulates production, not emission, of CFCs. Imagine a Montreal-style treaty which allows industry to produce CFCs in unlimited quantities, but makes governments responsible for ensuring that they don’t get released into the atmosphere: doubtless such a treaty would rival Kyoto in its worthlessness. Montreal works because it targets the manufacturing of CFCs, the only stage of the process where regulation can be effective. Even so, continued manufacture of illegal CFCs represents a serious problem (“Illegal CFCs imperil the ozone layer”, New Scientist, 17 December 2005.)

    Kyoto, on the other hand, set itself an impossible goal: to regulate the entire carbon cycle of the planet Earth, a vastly complex and often poorly-understood set of both natural and artificial processes; and to do so at the level of emissions, a globally distributed anti-bottleneck in the system. Not since the days of King Canute – or the Indiana House of Representatives’ 1897 attempt to legislate for the value of pi – has there been such a hubristic mismatch between governments’ ambitions and their capabilities.

    To successfully halt climate change – and failure to do so is a prospect awful to contemplate – government action must be clear, effective and foolproof. Using Montreal as a model, an effective successor to Kyoto could be a treaty which regulates countries’ rights to manufacture the substances mainly responsible for climate change: in effect, mandating substantial cuts in worldwide extraction of fossil fuels. This would not correct all the anthropogenic imbalances in the Earth’s climate system – but it would deal with the lion’s share and, more to the point, unlike Kyoto, it would be clear, unequivocal, and probably work. Other treaties on other aspects of the problem might also be necessary – why should one document be expected to do everything?

    Of course this would be difficult to achieve, since it amounts to mandating a global economic crisis – or if you believe the predictors of “peak oil”, exacerbating one which is already upon us. But the effects of such a crisis would be minor compared with the likely impacts of climate change, and there is at least one example – Cuba – of a nation that has successfully navigated major cuts in fossil fuel use, while largely maintaining its quality of life (“World failing on sustainable development,” New Scientist, 03 October 2007). This is largely a matter of people’s willingness to work together for sustainability – and we are more likely to do so if we voluntarily jump off the oil cliff than if we are pushed.

    What is necessary, then, is that enough fossil-fuel-producing nations should be convinced that it is in their own (and the world’s) best interest to become fossil-fuel-_stewarding_ nations instead: keeping their reserves underground where they are now, to be extracted later when more is known about how much we can safely burn, and how best to use it. In fact, given rising trends in oil prices, this approach may be economically justified for the countries in question, quite apart from considerations of climate change; or there may be climate-concerned investors who are willing to pay countries to artificially limit their production, either buying the oil, gas or coal itself (with the intent of leaving it in the ground), or purchasing options on its production that expire at a certain date in the future. But whatever happens, citizens concerned about climate change need to wake up to the fact that we can’t afford to rely on scientifically dubious carbon offsetting or sequestration, or on bending over backwards to limit our own emissions in the naive hope that the rest of the world will follow suit. The only safe place for the world’s remaining stocks of fossil fuels is to stay where they belong – underground.

    Robert Alcock

    Bilbao, Spain

  32. 82
    Mary C says:

    Re 76-80. H-m-m, isn’t there an old saying about one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure? Some of us think that clean, reliable, efficient mass transportation would improve our quality of life. That’s at the personal level–with the bonus of benefiting the environment at the same time, so we’re actually looking at improving our quality of life in two ways. Unfortunately, the mass transportation industry was long ago steamrollered by the automotive industry. I want both–mass transportation and my safe, environmentally friendly automobile with the option of using whichever one is appropriate for a particular need to get somewhere. But too often mass transport loses out to autos, so we see little progress for the most part in really bettering the public transit systems.

    Reminds me that years ago a friend of mine was outraged at the building of the Washington Metro, considering it a monstrous boondoggle that “nobody would use.” Of course, she was willing to get up at 5:00 a.m. to drive into Washington before rush hour, but, what the hey. Anyhow, I wonder what D.C. traffic would be like today had the Metro never been built.

  33. 83
    Svend Jensen says:

    re 82. Mary C.
    Regarding public transport systems, for the past 6 months I have been working in Karlsuhe,south western region of Germany, pop. approx 350,000 with extensive ferequent & quiet tram services through city and to points 60 km north and south (hi speed). City centre with the main 1km pedestrian shopping street is served only by trams, no cars or bicycles allowed. Cycle tracks are abundant, well maintained and car drivers respect bikers and of course lots of these kiddies carts behind mums and dads. Drunk cycle riders are not tolerated but helmets are not yet compulsary. Sure, Karlsruhe is the most bike-friendly city of Germany after Freiburg and on a par with the Netherlands. The irony is we are surrounded by some of the largest car and truck factories in Europe and the 4 lane highways with autos belting along at 160 km plus..
    Wealthiest area of Germany too, but it does bring home how easy it is to live in a carless city. European Union has recently passed a law that all regional trains must have space for bicycle riding passengers. In Denmark you often have to book ahead though..France, UK and other southern European countries have a lot of catching up to do…

  34. 84
    Hank Roberts says:

    In related news:

    “In recent months, a Cold War-style game of imperial conquest has developed beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean and the Northwest Passage, a submarine-driven dispute involving the United States, Norway, Denmark and especially Canada and Russia.”

    “This opens up the possibility of enormous oil and gas resources, larger than those stored in the Middle East, available to whoever can claim to own the roof of the world. It’s a dark irony that the burning of fossil fuels that contributed to the ice melt may end up making it possible to extract another century’s worth of earth-warming petroleum reserves from beneath that ice. But it’s a possibility that is driving countries like Canada to spend millions.”

  35. 85
    Bruce Tabor says:

    Hi Chris, Martin Veemer, Dan, Dean_1230, Tony Weddle and others:

    The 210 x 210 km is not a bad estimate. It mainly omits the efficiency of energy conversion.

    To use an example from web sources:
    The current world total primary energy supply (TPES) is about 15 Terra Watts (TW) or 15*10^12 Watts:

    Insolation is about 1366 W/m^2 perpendicular to the suns rays at the top of the atmosphere. This declines to about 1000 W/m^2 at the earth’s surface and once you take into account the early morning, evening and night it is about 250 W/m^2 of mostly visible light:
    Using these numbers (15*10^12 Watts & 250 W/m^2) I get 245 x 245 km.

    We can do better by using measured useable insolations and a realistic photovoltaic efficiencies. Central Australia has an average solar insolation of 5.89 kWh/m2/day – about 245 W/m^2:

    Photovoltaic cell efficiencies continue to improve and have reached 42.8% for research cells:
    Let’s assume the near future will bring widespread affordable cells with 30% efficiency (my impression is that commercial cells are currently 8-12%). Used in Central Australia these 30% efficienct cells would provide about 74 W/m^2 for a total area of about 450 x 450 km. This is 2.6% of Australia’s area, 0.14% of the earth’s land surface area or 0.04% of the earth’s total surface area.

    Not trivial but not impossible.