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Freeman Dyson’s selective vision

Filed under: — david @ 24 May 2008

In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two recent ones about global warming, but his review is mostly shaped by his own rather selective vision.

1. Carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. The seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 shows that the lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the air before it is exchanged with another in the land biosphere is about 12 years. Therefore if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, I suppose. The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.

2. Economic estimates of the costs of cutting CO2 emissions are huge. In an absolute sense, this is true, it would be a lot of dollars, but it comes down to a few percent of GDP, which, in an economic system that grows by a few percent per year, just puts off the attainment of a given amount of wealth by a few years. And anyway, business-as-usual will always argue that the alternative would be catastrophic to our economic well being. Remember seat belts? Why is it that Dyson’s remarkably creative powers of vision (carbon-eating trees for example) fail to come up with alternatives to the crude and ugly process of burning coal to generate electricity?

3. The costs of climate change are in the distant future, and therefore should be discounted, in contrast to the hysterical Stern Report. I personally can get my head around the concept of discounting if the time span is short enough that it’s the same person on either end of the transaction, but when the time scales start to reach hundreds and thousands of years, the people who pay in the future are not the same as the ones who benefit now. Remember that the lifetime of the elevated CO2 concentration in the air is different from the lifetime of CO2 to exchange with the biosphere. Release a slug of CO2 and you will increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. The fundamental tenet of civil society is to protect people from harm inflicted by others. Are we a civilized species, or are we not? The question is analogous to using economics to decide whether to abolish slavery. I’m sure it was very costly for the Antebellum Southern U.S. to forego slave labor, but it simply wasn’t an economic question.

4. Majority scientists are contemptuous of those in the minority who don’t believe in the dangers of climate change. I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience. The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It’s made up to look like science, but it’s PR. We have documented Lindzen’s tortured and twisted representation of the science to non-scientists here and here. If Lindzen had a credible argument to support his gut feeling (and apparently Dyson’s), I can promise that I for one would take it seriously. I’ve got kids at home whose future I worry about. If Lindzen were right, no one would be happier about that than me. But I do get contemptuous of BS.

596 Responses to “Freeman Dyson’s selective vision”

  1. 551
    John Mashey says:

    re: #550

    Lynn: if you meant to refer to some others’ idea that people will be much richer in the feature, and therefore can more easily afford both mitigation and adaptation … which most economic models include…

    I’d observe that adapting to:
    – rainfall patterns that move (in some cases making drier areas drier and wetter ones wetter), which likely require more pumping (CA already spends 20% of our electricity pumping water), building dams, moving structures around in flood-prone areas.
    – rising sea levels, which require earthmoving for dikes, steel & concrete for sea walls, and later, rebuilding infrastructure uphill/inland.

    In the US, most of the existing infrastructure has been built with an average price of $20-$30/bbl of oil, accumulated over a century or so.

    Needless to say, the really great, 100:1 EROI oil is gone, and with the usual jiggles, the price is on its way up. What we have right now is mostly a demand shock, as demand keeps rising while oil production has flattened. When world oil production starts dropping, we’ll add a slow-motion supply shock as well. Neither will help reduce the price of oil.

    This is what I was talking about in #24.

  2. 552
    Rod B says:

    David (549), that sounds interesting and a bit better. Thanks for the info. I’d still keep my eyes open, though, to avoid the maxim that those who underestimate the difficulties, complexity, and problems (not to mention the UNKs and the UNK-UNKs) stemming from these types of networks risk highly likely disasters.

  3. 553
    Hank Roberts says:

    > The main challenge left appears to be establishing the proper
    > regulatory environment so that the transmission companies obtain
    > enough income to (convince investors to) invest in additional
    > capacity.

    That’s the main point in the AIP article too, though they say ‘re-establishing’ and go into detail about how it works and why.

  4. 554
    CobblyWorlds says:

    #551 John Mashey,

    The point you raise concerns me greatly. I’m some 75%+ convinced by the argument (TOD/EnergyWatch) that we’re at peak now and that we’re seeing it’s effects. In the Arctic alone we have a process that could lead to a situation where serious secondary impacts/amplifications coincide with the downward slope of peak oil. Already the food price rises have exacerbated existing drought and poverty in Madhya Pradesh and Ethiopia, Haiti’s government have fallen. I fear a “perfect storm”.

  5. 555
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (552) — I sit here surrounded by academic power engineers (“The best in the West”) working with academic computer scientists to enhance grid stability everywhere in, at least, the U.S. The WPG has survived, so far, windstorms, tornadoes, transmission line overloads (no power on the HVDC California intertie for awhile) and most impressively, the loss of the HVDC intertie inverter station in the last big Southern California earthquake.

    While the regulatory authorities do not expect 100% reliability, they do set reliability goals for the power companies. Failure to meet these means possible fine or even loss of license. The electrical power industry is highly regulated and has been around for quite some time. I’ll say that ‘disasters’ are rather unlikely, unless you are referring to loss of electrical transmission in parts of the south after Katrina. Such events are considered to be ‘acceptable risk’.

  6. 556
    Rod B says:

    David (549), Actually, the lower amount of corn planting this year is predominately weather related. Too wet during corn planting window, and planting corn late has a much greater impact on yield than does planting soybeans late. JCH, you can also do a lot more fun stuff hidden in a cornfield that you can’t do between soybean plants, and not so fun stuff like getting lost!

  7. 557
    Rod B says:

    Hank (199), sorry for the tardiness. The article on chestnut growing was interesting with some new (to me) info. But chestnuts or hazelnuts and their trees being competitive with soybeans and corn is just way beyond even imagination, either the annual crop or the every couple of decades or so harvesting the lumber. Nor is it obvious how GW is significantly aided — simply from the trees absorbing CO2?? Any analysis sources?

  8. 558

    Re 525:

    (Sorry, oldie but a goodie)

    FurryCatherder (511) — Multiple smaller producers promote grid stability given the proper regulatory and control environment. This is, in effect, already here in the Pacific Northwest and will continue to grow by such small increments. I assure you the regional power companies are on top of it.

    As has been demonstrated in a variety of research papers, at some point the increased regulation expenses associated with micropower generation (small wind and solar) double the cost of wholesale power production. One study out of Michigan showed that at a 20% market penetration, regulation expense alone rose to $0.02 / kwh, which is comparable to bulk coal generation at $0.02 to $0.04 / kwh. I’m not sure how “single largest contingency” planning would work when large scale micropower solar production meets cloudy week.

    Here in Texas we had a power emergency when wind output in West Texas stopped because the wind stopped blowing. I don’t recall what ERCOT did to manage the emergency — someone mentioned it to me in passing, and I verified that somehow or other the wind just stopped blowing out west of me (I live in Central Texas).

    I’m not a tree huger by any stretch (my other car is an old Corvette Stingray), but I am able to tell which way the wind is blowing, and after we were threatened with rolling blackouts in ’06, I started thinking standby power wasn’t a bad idea. I now produce several megawatt hours a year on my roof and when a big storm comes through, I check the house’s batteries rather than looking for flashlights and candles.

    There are ways to make micropower generation work, but they are all far more spendy than industrial scale renewable energy, if only because of economies of scale. Add to that the high regulation expenses associated with micropower, and why the heck are we doing this again?

  9. 559
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #540

    Power generation for many years, and largely still is, carried out by state government monopolies here in Australia. In spite of being CO2 emitters, in other respects their behavior is not to bad. The fact that the old Soviet Union was a dictatorship in a morally bankrupt culture was likely the reason that they behaved so badly, not that they were government owned. Why not compare the behavior of Government owned monopolies in Sweden, Norway, France etc.


  10. 560
    TTT says:

    Dyson’s magic-wand claim that we will very soon genetically engineer trees to eat up all the extra CO2, reminds me of Gregg Easterbrooks’ magic-wand claim in “A Moment On The Earth” that we will very soon genetically engineer all predatory animals into being vegetarians and thus re-establish the Garden of Eden on Earth and make everything perfect. Yes, seriously.

    Denialism has long since jumped the shark into pure kookery.

  11. 561
    David B. Benson says:

    FurryCatherder (558) — Yes, although I wasn’t writing about micropower. Still, I expect the problems associated with some micropower generation will be solved.

    Regarding wind and solar, what is needed is continent spanning power wheeling. The big transmission grid will be your friend.

  12. 562

    Re 561:

    Regarding wind and solar, what is needed is continent spanning power wheeling. The big transmission grid will be your friend.

    And Kirchoff’s Law will be your enemy.

    You can’t wish solutions to problems into existence. How is this continent spanning grid going to work in something like Asia? And why the heck do we need a grid that size? And are you “expecting” the problems to be solved, or are you busily solving the problems?

  13. 563
    Bert says:

    Actually Dyson’s vision of carbon eating vegetation is already a reality: the necessary biotechnology is available to begin mitigating atmospheric carbon (see “Soil carbon sequestration in phytoliths,” Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 37:117-24, 2005 and

  14. 564
    Nick Gotts says:

    #540 BPL “Nationalization doesn’t really help anything.”

    Oh, right. That’s why US health care is so much more efficient than that in Cuba (multiples of spend for equivalent results in terms of longevity, infant death rates etc), and why everyone in Sweden, Norway, Austria etc. is starving. I see.

    “Monopolies are inefficient by definition”. No, they are not. I suggest you look up “monopoly” and “definition” in your dictionary. Sometimes, they are less efficient than competition, sometimes – if run as a public service rather than to maximise profit – more so.

    Barton, I’ve lived through large-scale privatisation of essential services networks in the UK. I’ve seen how the rail service has deteriorated, how leakage from water mains has grown and public willingness to restrict consumption during droughts has vanished, how energy and telecoms companies spend much of their energy in trying to poach each others’ customers with introductory offers, then rely on inertia to keep them while they impose concealed price rises.

  15. 565
    Hank Roberts says:

    Yup. There are problems with public utilities, but ‘Balkanization’ doesn’t solve them.

  16. 566
    Hank Roberts says:

    Bert, that’s an interesting paper (drop the trailing period to get the link to work):

    But think about the problems we have now from high silica plants. Low to zero value for wildlife. Increased fire risk from material that doesn’t decompose annually so accumulates as dry thatch. Cancer.

    Sometimes I wonder if we’re mindlessly producing a complete suite of materials suitable for some replicator technology that will displace us by assembling our successors out of PCBs, CFCs, carbon nanofiber, silica fiber and all the other persistent and unhealthy material we’re accumulating. Charles Fort would have had something to say about this.

  17. 567
    Bert says:

    As Hank Roberts points out, problems with high silica plants would certainly be a consideration if increased carbon sequestration in phytoliths required increased silica uptake by the vegetation.

    However, it is not the amount of silica that determines how much carbon a vegetation type (e.g. cultivar) sequestrates in phytoliths (but of course you need some silica uptake), rather it is the efficiency by which the plant silica entraps carbon as the phytoliths develop. For any given silica content, different plants trap very different amounts of carbon. Fundamentally for this process, it isnt the amount of silica the plant takes up that is important but rather the way the plant uses it.

  18. 568
    David B. Benson says:

    FurryCatherder (562) — HVDC currently provides regional grid interties. There are substantial costs, not the least of which is the 3–5% loss per 1000 km.

    Nonetheless, even spanning Asia may occur someday. The largest project that I know of some planning for is to dam the Congo and tributaries, wheeling the power as far as Europe and the Middle East. Africans will also benefit. (The Congo ecosystem might well not.)

    I’m not solving the problems, but there are others in these very buildings who are working on some of the grid stability and control questions. Not to mention in various DoE national laboratories…

  19. 569

    Nick Gotts writes:

    #540 BPL “Nationalization doesn’t really help anything.”

    Oh, right. That’s why US health care is so much more efficient than that in Cuba

    If you had mentioned the National Health in the UK or the Canadian single-payer health insurance system, you might have had some credibility. But no one with any sense wants to live in Cuba.

    Those systems are not popular because they’re efficient; they aren’t efficient. They’re popular because inefficient health care is better than no health care at all, and that’s what many people used to have. It’s what people in the US have now (including myself and my wife), which is why I favor national health care here. But to expect that nationalizing the energy industry would somehow increase efficiency is economically illiterate.

  20. 570
    Nick Gotts says:

    Who said anything about wanting to live in Cuba? Cuba’s life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality rates are very close to those of the USA, on a tiny fraction of the budget.

    Saying that something is “economically illiterate” is an assertion, not an argument. When you come up with an argument, I’ll answer it.

  21. 571
    Ken says:

    I think Dyson’s vision is, if anything, too narrow – or have too many of the more exciting ones are already taken? I’d have thought Space Power Satellites up his alley or a Global Grid that can send Australian and African and Middle East solar power to the US without excessive losses – maybe the energy transmission technologies of SPS employed to enable a Global Grid. Or deep drilling for geothermal power, or a Manhatten type project to develop the energy storage we desperately need. Climate Engineering is what he’s talking about and it is going to keep rearing it’s head. GM organisms that might perform such functions as sequestering Carbon probably deserve consideration. In that context Dyson doesn’t seem all that visionary.

  22. 572
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Fun stuff:

    At Toyota greenhouse, C02 emissions no villain
    ROKKASHO, Japan, June 22 (AFP) Jun 22, 2008

    In a sprawling greenhouse with shiny silver ducts running through, stacks of cardboard boxes feature prints of a flower alongside the distinctive red Toyota logo.

    In an experiment aimed at putting to use some of the carbon dioxide blamed for global warming, the giant auto group is using Asia’s largest greenhouse for potted flowers, stretching across 20,000 square metres (five acres).

    “Nowadays you automatically think of C02 as a villain. But it’s what plants need to grow,” said Teruo Takatomi, president of unit Toyota Floritech Co. Ltd.

    The system generates power by burning natural gas, with electricity used for lighting over plants, “waste” heat for warming water, and emitted carbon dioxide falling on plants to promote their photosynthesis.

    “You have gas emissions when you generate electricity. After removing nitrogen oxide from the gas, C02 is returned here for plants to inhale,” farm chief Takuya Sato said, pointing to the overhead ducts.

    The new system introduced in March is expected to help the company slash C02 emissions by a combined 460 tonnes a year, he said.

    The farm is the first large commercial facility in Japan to introduce a form of “trigeneration” system — production and use of three different resources from a single fuel, according to project partner Kansai Electric Power Co.

    The system comes along with a machine that provides high-oxygen water to help invigorate plant roots.

    “The point of the system is — let’s generate power and use the byproduct too, leaving almost nothing wasted,” said Hiroshi Teshima, an energy business official at Kansai Electric.

    “People who grow plants say that C02 during winter is as effective as sunlight,” he added.

  23. 573
    toluwani says:

    i will love to know facts and figures about this ghg that comes out from steel foundries especially the electric arc furnace operation and the application of the above article to it.

  24. 574
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Hiroshi Teshima, an energy business official at Kansai Electric.
    > “People who grow plants say that C02 during winter is as
    > effective as sunlight,” he added.

    Citation needed, obviously.

  25. 575
    John Mashey says:

    re: 572-574

    This is actually at least plausible, although I’d want to see the numbers as well.

    Liebig’s Law of the minimum, which any farm kid learns (if not by name) by the time they’re 10, says that plant growth is limited by whatever is in shortest supply.

    If one has a temperature-controlled greenhouse, with adequate water and fertilizer and sun, then it’s well-known that some crops grow better if one pumps in CO2. People sell lots of CO2 gear, or:
    Google: garden supply carbon dioxide

    I don’t know about Japan, but I used to see a lot of greenhouses in nearby Korea, so greenhouses seem useful in that geogrpahy. Using waste CO2 and heat directly, rather than burning yet more gas to heat greenhouses and provide CO2 seems like a good idea, at least in general, like an extension of CHP. Maybe every coal plant should have big greenhouses attached.

    Of course, the use of CO2 for controlled-environment-grown plants has nothing to do with the fantasies of the Western Fuels Association about greening the Sahara, or helping plants grow in general (Liebig’s Law still rules, and no matter how high CO2 goes, the Sahara won’t be growing corn.)

  26. 576
    Lanczos says:

    Hmmm… I read the article by Dr. Dyson and then found a link to this “rebuttal”. I had a few thoughts as someone who is trying to increase their knowledge on this subject prior to forming firm opinions:

    1. Dyson’s article which reviews 2 books is well written; he gives a summary of both books and discusses the main conclusions. From the last part of the article it is clear that he himself is skeptical of the doom and gloom scenario and makes an appeal for the other camp to be more open about hearing the skeptics. This article in contrast, is in point form and uses profanity as the last word. You have managed to prove Dr. Dyson correct in pointing out the bitter nature of the important arguments. From an outsiders point of view I am immediately more likely to side with Mr. Dyson who seems to present his point of view in a very well spoken manner.

    2. Your point #1 makes no sense to me? You say: “The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined.”
    How is this possible? There must be a finite total quantity of carbon on earth, correct? That total is a sum of the amount in the earth and the amount in the atmosphere. How can it be possible to put the entire amount of carbon in land, living things, and soil in the atmosphere as you say? Doesn’t that mean that there would be no more carbon in the land biosphere? This is a closed system after all with a carbon cycle operating. It seems your statement is misleading.

    As I said, I am trying to make my mind up about this issue but you do yourself no favor by the tone of your post. Mr. Dyson comes off as a well spoken scientist perhaps with too much faith in hypothetical and imaginary solutions; but, you come off as somewhat arrogant and dismissive. Personally I learned a lot more reading his article that yours.

    [Response: Hmmm… well if well-spokenness was a prerequisite for being correct I doubt science would have progressed very far. Still, you point is well taken, even if your conclusions are wrong. In terms of point 2, the extra carbon is from coal and oil which have accumulated for millions of years and outweigh the amount of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere (including soils). (Up to 4000 GtC in fossil fuel. reserves compared to ~600 GtC in terrestrial biosphere, roughly 2000 GtC in upper level soils). – gavin]

  27. 577
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Lanczos, I saw Dyson speak last year, and my impression was that he is far from being a climate change “skeptic.” His most ominous prediction was that ocean acidification may turn out to be the more imminent issue. If the oceans die (i.e., become much less basic and fully anoxic, with attendant mass extinction), it won’t matter much how hot the world gets; humans will be killed by starvation (a billion of the world’s poorest people rely on fish protein for daily survival) and H2S poisoning.

  28. 578
    Jim Galasyn says:

    This gets a nod from Lackner:

    A dash of lime — a new twist that may cut CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels

    Scientists say they have found a workable way of reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere by adding lime to seawater. And they think it has the potential to dramatically reverse CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, reports Cath O’Driscoll in SCI’s Chemistry & Industry magazine published today.

    Shell is so impressed with the new approach that it is funding an investigation into its economic feasibility. ‘We think it’s a promising idea,’ says Shell’s Gilles Bertherin, a coordinator on the project. ‘There are potentially huge environmental benefits from addressing climate change – and adding calcium hydroxide to seawater will also mitigate the effects of ocean acidification, so it should have a positive impact on the marine environment.’

    Adding lime to seawater increases alkalinity, boosting seawater’s ability to absorb CO2 from air and reducing the tendency to release it back again.

    However, the idea, which has been bandied about for years, was thought unworkable because of the expense of obtaining lime from limestone and the amount of CO2 released in the process.

    Tim Kruger, a management consultant at London firm Corven is the brains behind the plan to resurrect the lime process. He argues that it could be made workable by locating it in regions that have a combination of low-cost ‘stranded’ energy considered too remote to be economically viable to exploit – like flared natural gas or solar energy in deserts – and that are rich in limestone, making it feasible for calcination to take place on site.

    Kruger says: ‘There are many such places – for example, Australia’s Nullarbor Plain would be a prime location for this process, as it has 10 000km3 of limestone and soaks up roughly 20MJ/m2 of solar irradiation every day.’

    The process of making lime generates CO2, but adding the lime to seawater absorbs almost twice as much CO2. The overall process is therefore ‘carbon negative’.

  29. 579
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: 578

    Worth a look because huge engineering gambles never have unintended consequences. Why not bet the planet rather than come up with ways of conserving energy and mitigating the damage done in sensible, incremental ways?

  30. 580
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Jeffrey, I don’t think anybody denies that conservation is a large part of the solution, but it’s inadequate by itself. I like the stabilization wedges approach proposed by Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative.

    I find this approach of cracking lime and injecting it into the oceans to be very interesting, because it tackles both issues of climate change and ocean acidification at once.

  31. 581
    Phil. Felton says:

    Re #579

    I’m rather mystified by the chemistry employed in this lime process, one mole of Calcium carbonate produces one mole of CO2, when injected in the ocean the best it can do is to take up one mole of CO2 not two as indicated above! Unless the CO2 produced in the calcining process is sequestered a lot of energy is expended to no purpose.

  32. 582
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Phil, the cquestrate people describe the chemistry here:

    Detailed Description of the Idea

    Addition of Calcium Oxide to Seawater

    If, however, the calcium oxide generated is added to seawater (either directly, or more probably, first reacted with water to form calcium hydroxide) then it reacts with carbon dioxide dissolved in the seawater to produce calcium bicarbonate.

    Note that at the pH levels present in seawater, the bicarbonate ion (HCO3-) is by far the dominant ion formed, rather than the carbonate ion (CO32-). Thus for every mol of carbon dioxide generated from the calcination of limestone, approximately 1.79 mols of carbon dioxide are sequestered when the calcium oxide is added to seawater, a net sequestration of 0.79 mols of carbon dioxide. The exact amount of carbon dioxide sequestered will depend upon the exact conditions (including pH, temperature and pressure) where the reaction takes place.

    The addition of calcium oxide to seawater leads to the sequestration of carbon dioxide, by enhancing the capacity of the oceans to act as a carbon sink. It does this by shifting the series of equilibria (below) to the right, thereby increasing the capacity of seawater to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and by decreasing the propensity for seawater to desorb carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

  33. 583
    Phil. Felton says:

    Re #582

    That’s even worse and would fail a routine question in HS Chemistry!
    Calcium bicarbonate is soluble and so Calcium bicarbonate would sequester no CO2.
    In order to change the composition the addition of calcium ions would have to precipitate calcium carbonate, hence only 1 mole of CO2 removed. In fact seawater is supersaturated wrt calcium but precipitation of calcium carbonate doesn’t occur because of competition and inhibition by Magnesium.

  34. 584
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Phil, my chemistry is beyond rusty (corroded?), so I could probably be convinced of anything. Maybe it’s worth posting your critique at the Cquestrate site.

  35. 585
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Phil, I believe the question is one of the solubility of CO2 in water at different pH levels–they are contending that 1.79 moles of CO2 will dissolve in H20 for every mole of Ca. Note that this is not really long-term sequestration, since the surface waters mostly stay there.

  36. 586
    Phil. Felton says:

    Re #585
    This is not what they say on their site, it just looks like bad Chem to me.

  37. 587

    In the similar discussion of the dissolution of MgCO3 that can follow its production from air and pulverized olivine (Mg2SiO4), Felton repeatedly criticized my belief that this reaction,

    CO3⁻⁻ + x CO2 + (1-x)H3O+
    (1+x) HCO3⁻ + (1-2x) H2O,

    has considerable rightward tendency on the grounds that the equilibrium CO2 pressure must be proportional to the square of bicarbonate concentration divided by that of CO3⁻⁻.

    What’s wrong with that?

  38. 588
    Hank Roberts says:

    So why not just barge limestone and dump it into undersea volcanos?

  39. 589
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re: CO2 sequestration using CaO

    I’m no chemist, but I do deal with carbonate chemistry (in seawater and in the blood of marine animals) in my day job – the basic chemistry appears to me to be correct. However, the logistical problems (including energy cost) of adding CaO to the ocean in sufficient quantities to raise the alkalinity of the entire ocean, or even the surface waters of the ocean, seem rather daunting. And, I have serious reservations about the proposed mechanisms for dealing with the CO2 generated from the calcining of limestone. For example, it suggested that

    Carbon dioxide [could be] introduced into a transparent, sealed vessel which is filled with water and contains algae where photosynthesis will occur in the presence of sunlight….Carbon dioxide and water are converted into sugars and oxygen….Were such a system to yield 10 tonnes of glucose per hectare per year (comparable to the yield of a conventional sugar cane plantation), then …

    Growing algae in flasks on such a large scale seems, to me at least, to be just a bit problematic. And, as any home gardner would tell you, plants – as well as algae- need fertilizer (e.g., N, P, K) – I’m quite sure the production and shipping of such large quantities of fertilizer would not be carbon neutral.
    These kinds of ideas are fun to read about in the pages of Popular Science and other magazines, but it is hard for me to take them seriously. I’m convinced our time and energy is better spent finding ways to wean our society from fossil fuels than coming up with questionable geo-engineering solutions that, even if they work, will soon become useless as we run out of fossil fuels.

  40. 590
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Hank, that’s brilliant! You should post that comment over at the Cquestrate site.

  41. 591
    Hank Roberts says:

    Chuckle. If it’s a good idea someone will find it.

    Simplify– quarry limestone shaped as hollow ‘boats’ (eliminate barging), give’em sails and GPS (eliminate motors), let them sail themselves to the target then scuttle. Avoid routes crossing undersea cables. Add some kind of volcano detection (acoustic?) so they can aim their dive into the deepest volcano available.

    Prob’ly only need to quarry out a hole the size of Rhode Island or maybe France, anyone done the numbers?

  42. 592
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Hank, here’s what they say at the Cquestrate site for the required total volume of limestone:

    Nullarbor Plain as a Potential Site

    One location where this process would be feasible is in the Nullarbor Plain, in Australia. An area of scrub with annual rainfall of between 200-300mm and solar irradiation of approximately 20MJ per m2 per day, it is a sparsely populated piece of limestone 200,000km2 in extent. Calculations show that to remove a billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere would require the disposal, through this process, of approximately 1.5km3 of limestone (assuming the carbon dioxide generated in the calcination of the limestone is successfully sequestered). Given that there are approximately 10,000km3 of limestone in the Nullarbor Plain and that humankind have emitted a total of 305GtC between 1750 and 2003, it would require the consumption of approximately 5% of the limestone in the Nullarbor Plain to return the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to pre-industrial levels.

    To offset current emissions (in the region of 7GtC per year) would consume 10.5km3 per year and require some 80 billion GJ of heat energy – equivalent to a power output of 2500 GW. At double that power output, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could be reduced back to pre-industrial levels in about forty years.

  43. 593
    Phil. Felton says:

    Re #587
    Actually I criticized Cowan’s post once not repeatedly and responded to a follow up question.
    His olivine proposal and the lime one suffer from the same misunderstanding of chemical equilibrium.

    The relevant equilibria are:

    CO2 + H2O ⇌ H2CO3 K0
    H2CO3 ⇌ H^+ + HCO3^- K1
    HCO3^- ⇌ H^+ + CO3^- K2

    In the case of seawater this results in 93% HCO3^- and 6% CO3^2- with the remainder being CO2 and H2CO3.

    If CO3^2- is added (in any form), by Le Chatelier’s principle the equilibrium (K2) shifts to maintain the ratio between HCO3^- and CO3^2- (i.e. HCO3^- increases and CO3^2- decreases). However the increase in HCO3^- means that K1 is no longer in balance so again the equilibrium shifts to the left and so on. The net result of adding CO3^2- is to increase the concentration of all species so as to maintain the same ratios. If the ocean was originally in equilibrium with the atmosphere then the net result of adding CO3^2- is to outgas CO2!
    Similarly to sequester CO2 by adding Ca^2+ it’s necessary to precipitate out CaCO3 which will shift equilibrium to the right, however anywhere in the ocean won’t do it has to be where it will cause precipitation. However, experience indicates that Ca^2+ will return to its previous level of saturation so there will be no effect!

  44. 594
    Mike says:

    I also sense a “cane toad problem” in this tree proposal. There is the potential for these genetically modified trees to overshoot and remove *too much* carbon in the atmosphere, especially if we make technical breakthroughs that obviate the need to use fossil fuels. In that case, we have to spent tons of money uprooting and exterminating these trees to stop global cooling!

    Creating trees that gobble carbon means you have to keep putting out carbon to balance them.

  45. 595
    o_____ says:

    The September 25 issue of the NYRB has this exchange

    Which mainly hovers on the 4% discount rate used by Nordhaus and approved by Freeman Dyson, who comes with more geoengineering ideas besides the “carbon eating tree”

  46. 596
    Toni says:

    [Letter to Dyson and to NYRB]

    Dear Mr. Dyson, You are the victim of an idée fixe that you are unable to evaluate and question critically. The “carbon eating plants” that you are touting as the miraculous solution to Global Warming are a Science Fiction fantasy with little scientific substance or merit (which is why you cannot point to any published literature supporting the concept, let alone any technical feasibility studies). Even if these plants could be developed within the urgent time frame we are discussing, there is no way we could reengineer one fourth of the planet’s land flora without provoking a major ecological desaster (do you even realize you’d have to kill all those trees before you could start replacing them?) Maybe you are old
    enough to not care about the real world consequences of these “fascinating” thought experiments but for those of us who care about the future, you come across as one deeply irresponsible mad scientist.

    You also come across as incompetent. In your exchange with Dr. May (NYRB #15, 2008), you insist that the relevant atmospheric carbon residence time is twelve years because after that period, an average CO2 molecule will be matabolized by a plant and if that plant were a “carbon eater”, that molecule would be removed from the atmosphere. You are missing the fact that even your (fictional) carbon eaters would have to have a metabolism just like all other plants. Most of the CO2 molecules that they fix, they would release back into the atmosphere by respiration. Plants that “do not reemit the carbon dioxide that they absorb” (Dyson) are biologically impossible!

    The relevant question is therefore not how many carbon molecules are fixed by land plants in a given time period but how many of those fixed could, at least theoretically, be removed from the metabolic cycle. This crucial question you have not even attempted to answer. The example of phytolith producing plants is far from encouraging since only a tiny fraction of the carbon fixed by these plants gets transformed into phytoliths. This is not a question of one order of magnitude, as you have suggested, but of many orders of magnitude.

    Mr. Dyson, forgive me for being frank but I believe you need a dose of reality which apparently the people surrounding you are not capable of supplying. You need to step back from this debate and stop defending an indefensible idea. It is sad to see you making a fool of yourself, but it is alarming to think that your irresponsible fantasies might be taken seriously by at least some naive but well-meaning policy-makers because of your fame as a scientist (never mind that the field of your scientific specialization does not equip you to judge the scientific questions of Global Warming any better than the average person).

    The editors of the NYRB deserve serious blame for inexcusably failing to exert editorial oversight, and for consistently allowing the Global Warming debate to be mischaracterized in the pages of their magazine. It is a scandal that a fringe author not competent in the field of Global Warming is allowed to take up almost all of the column space in what is
    dubbed a “debate on Global Warming”, while most critical letters are being repressed.