National Geographic trying to save paper

Save time and money, it says.img017

By signing up for two years, you save the Society the expense of sending renewal reminders to you next year (and you help us conserve paper)

Well, if you want to save paper maybe you could resist the temptation to stuff the envelope with all these different bits of paper.  That I really don’t need.

Thanks, that’s all.

Waggling wings, floating turbines, and dead dogs

I take the optimistic view on climate change – that mankind is sufficiently inventive and resourceful to overcome the problem.  A recent article in New Scientist magazine (Better world: Top tech for a cleaner planet)highlighted a few interesting ideas that are under development:

Waggling wings

Modern passenger planes are masterfully streamlined but the aircraft are still burdened by turbulence that forms as a result of friction between the plane's skin and the air that passes over it. Wind tunnel tests now show that if only a small part of an aircraft's wings were made to oscillate from side to side, the resulting decrease in drag would reduce fuel consumption by 20 per cent.  [UK: under development]

Floating wind turbines

Conventional offshore wind turbines are fastened to the seabed with giant thick monopiles. This limits their use to shallow waters, but the strongest winds are often far offshore, where the water is deep. So why not let the turbine float like a boat, anchored to the seabed with huge chains? In June, Hywind, the world's first full-scale floating wind turbine, was anchored 10 kilometres off the Norwegian coast. The 2.3-megawatt turbine floats in 200 metres of water. It will begin feeding power into the grid this month.  [Karmøy, Norway: available now]

On the other hand, here’s a more radical suggestion – kill and eat your pets:

How green is your pet?

SHOULD owning a great dane make you as much of an eco-outcast as an SUV driver? Yes it should, say Robert and Brenda Vale, two architects who specialise in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In their new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, they compare the ecological footprints of a menagerie of popular pets with those of various other lifestyle choices - and the critters do not fare well.

As well as guzzling resources, cats and dogs devastate wildlife populations, spread disease and add to pollution. It is time to take eco-stock of our pets.

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

Well, OK, they may not actually be recommending killing and eating them…


Cheap fuel, expensive food

I see that today's SCMP has a longish piece about biofuel on the mainland (Enormous potential in laggard biofuel - subscription required):

Ethanol – produced by fermenting crops such as corn, soybean, rapeseed and sugarcane, or other plants such as cane-like sweet sorghum, sweet potato and cassava – has figured in the plans of many biofuel producers in the mainland. Beijing hopes to raise the nation’s annual bioethanol output 10-fold to 10 million tonnes by 2020, and that of biodiesel by 20 times to two million tonnes.

But these targets were thrown into doubt in June after Beijing indicated it will ban biofuel projects that use staple food crops as a fuel source, amid rising food prices and food security concerns.

Well, yes indeed.  There was an interesting article in The Guardian (The looming food crisis) about the unintended consequences of developing alternative energy sources:

Land that was once used to grow food is increasingly being turned over to biofuels. This may help us to fight global warming - but it is driving up food prices throughout the world and making life increasingly hard in developing countries. Add in water shortages, natural disasters and an ever-rising population, and what you have is a recipe for disaster.

The mile upon mile of tall maize waving to the horizon around the small Nebraskan town of Carleton looks perfect to farmers such as Mark Jagels. He and his father farm 2,500 acres (10m sq km), the price of maize - what the Americans call corn - has never been higher, and the future has seldom seemed rosier. Carleton (town motto: "The center of it all") is booming, with $200m of Californian money put up for a new biofuel factory and, after years in the doldrums, there is new full-time, well-paid work for 50 people.

But there is a catch. The same fields that surround Jagels' house on the great plains may be bringing new money to rural America, but they are also helping to push up the price of bread in Manchester, tortillas in Mexico City and beer in Madrid. As a direct result of what is happening in places like Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana and Oklahoma, food aid for the poorest people in southern Africa, pork in China and beef in Britain are all more expensive.

Challenged by President George Bush to produce 35bn gallons of non-fossil transport fuels by 2017 to reduce US dependency on imported oil, the Jagels family and thousands of farmers like them are patriotically turning the corn belt of America from the bread basket of the world into an enormous fuel tank. Only a year ago, their maize mostly went to cattle feed or was exported as food aid. Come harvest time in September, almost all will end up at the new plant at Carleton, where it will be fermented to make ethanol, a clear, colourless alcohol consumed, not by people, but by cars.

I think it's generally accepted that this is a somewhat crazy policy.  I seem to have read several articles recently about the concerns that scientists have, such as this one (Corn biofuel 'dangerously oversold' as green energy):

Ethanol fuel made from corn may be being "dangerously oversold" as a green energy solution according to a new review of biofuels.

The report concludes that the rapidly growing and heavily subsidised corn ethanol industry in the US will cause significant environmental damage without significantly reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels.

"There are smarter solutions than rushing straight to corn-based ethanol," says Scott Cullen of the Network for New Energy Choices (NNEC) and a co-author of the study. "It's just one piece of a more complex puzzle."

The report analyses hundreds of previous studies, and was compiled by the environmental advocacy groups Food and Water Watch, NNEC and the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment. The study was released as the US Congress debates key agriculture and energy laws that will determine biofuel policy for years to come.

The Guardian article suggests that the problem may only be temporary:

Others say that the food price rises now being seen are temporary and will fall back within a year as the market responds. Technologists pin their faith on GM crops, or drought- resistant crops, or trust that biofuel producers will develop technologies that require less raw material or use non-edible parts of food. The immediate best bet is that countries such as Argentina, Poland, Ukraine and Kazakhstan will grow more food for export as US output declines.

I think that is correct.  It was widely assumed that growing population would lead to major global food shortages by the end of the 20th century, but in fact that hasn't happened.   

Out through the window

New Scientist (subscription required) asks why so few eco-friendly buildings are being built.  Good question.

In Hong Kong (and large parts of China) that means designing buildings that can be kept cool in the summer without excessive use of air-conditioning.  It's not happening, is it?  Developers prefer to throw up apartments with thin walls and hardly any insulation.  Even if you are sceptical about global warming, surely it has to be a good thing to be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter without having to pay a small fortune to CLP or HK Electric? 

There are lots of things that could be done, but so far developers don't seem interested: 

Danny Harvey likes his Toronto office, especially the 8-square-metre window that lets the sunlight flood in. But one day last week he did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Winter temperatures in the Canadian city can drop to -20 °C, and Harvey estimated that keeping his office at 20 °C in such weather pours 2000 watts of heat through the window. That wastes more energy than boiling a kettle all day.

For Harvey, a climate change expert at the University of Toronto who has developed plans to radically reduce energy use in buildings, that is hard to bear. What he sees outside his window makes it even worse. All across town, the energy sins committed by the architects of his office are being repeated. Apartment blocks are springing up and big windows are in fashion. High-performance windows that could drastically reduce heat loss are available, yet builders are not using the best products. "Every single apartment is a future liability," says Harvey.

It need not be that way. According to a newly published collection of studies by Harvey and others, the carbon dioxide generated by energy use in buildings - a third of the global total of man-made CO2 emissions - could be cut by almost 30 per cent in little more than a decade. The technology to achieve this already exists, in contrast with aviation or power generation, say, where reducing emissions may require significant innovation. What's more, future energy savings mean most of such spending would pay for itself in three to seven years.

That's a very short payback period.  One would also hope that such apartments would have higher resale values.

So are the studies likely to boost the fight against climate change? Unfortunately not. The papers, which appear in a special issue of Building Research & Information, may map the route towards a much more sustainable future, but construction experts say that much of the world is taking a different path. In China, rapid urbanisation is fuelling a construction boom, and the country's developers are ignoring environmental building codes. Meanwhile, the world's other big greenhouse gas emitter, the US, is building larger houses that are helping wipe out gains from improved efficiency standards. "The trends are in the opposite direction to what we need," says Danny Parker, a buildings researcher at the University of Central Florida in Cocoa.

Continue reading "Out through the window" »

It's surprising that you print this rubbish

His blog hasn't been updated for months, but Simon Patkin has found time to write to the SCMP (subscription required):

Greenie gibberish

Richard Fielding's letters-page diatribe in favour of environmentalism and against free enterprise can only be described as gibberish ("Profiteering from the end of the world as we know it", February 3). For example, he writes: "Industry think-tanks still preach that crazy environmentalist conspirators want hair shirts for all ..." It's surprising that you print this rubbish. What is not surprising is that his letter is typical of the way environmentalists present their views, and their anti-development mentality in general. Al Gore is already calling anyone who disagrees with him a denier, while others want to penalise TV weathermen who disagree with the environmentalist viewpoint.

Those scientists who do speak out against environmentalism are subject to a barrage of spiteful accusations, and a few militants now want Nuremburg-style trials to charge critics of environmentalism with crimes against humanity - a chilling threat to free speech and individual rights.

Despite the millions they receive in government and corporate funding, it's obvious that environmentalists are not quite as certain of their global warming nonsense as they pretend to be. The environmental lobby group is now a global industry, but its ideas can only lead to disaster.

SIMON PATKIN, Causeway Bay

Gibberish?  Pots and kettles, Simon, pots and kettles.  And where does this stuff about "Nuremberg-style trials" come from?

How can anyone describe global warming as 'nonsense'?  You can argue about exactly what is happening, and what we should do about it, but surely everyone now accepts that it really is happening and that man has caused it. 

The SCMP published an article (taken from Men's Journal) in their Sunday magazine about how Exxon Mobile say that they are very concerned about environmental issues, whilst simultaneously funding groups who put forward the same type of arguments that we hear from Simon Patkin. Today there's another letter, asking where Simon's so-called "think tank" gets its money.  Sadly for Simon, I fear that if Exxon Mobile wanted to mobilise public opinion in Hong Kong then he would not be very high on their list of people to call.   

Continue reading "It's surprising that you print this rubbish" »

A green Bush?

I was recently listening to John Micklethwait the new(ish) editor of The Economist on the New Year’s Day edition of Start the Week.  He made the rather startling prediction that 2007 would be the year the George Bush would ‘go green’.  His argument was that some of his natural supporters, including neocons, evangelical Christians, big business and farmers, are coming round to the view that something has to be done, and that Bush himself also believes this but also does not want to upset the oil industry.

Micklethwait expanded upon his thoughts in an editorial in The Economist (subscription required):

Business is changing its mind too. Five years ago corporate America was solidly against carbon controls. But the threat of a patchwork of state regulations, combined with the opportunity to profit from new technologies, began to shift business attitudes. And that movement has gained momentum, because companies that saw their competitors espouse carbon controls began to fear that, once the government got down to designing regulations, they would be left out of the discussion if they did not jump on the bandwagon. So now the loudest voices are not resisting change but arguing for it.

Support for carbon controls has also grown among some unlikely groups: security hawks (who want to reduce America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil); farmers (who like subsidies for growing the raw material for ethanol); and evangelicals (who worry that man should be looking after the Earth God gave him a little better). This alliance has helped persuade politicians to move. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's Republican governor, has led the advance, with muscular measures legislating Kyoto-style curbs in his state. His popularity has rebounded as a result. And now there is movement too at the federal level, which is where it really matters. Since the Democrats took control of Congress after the November mid-term elections, bills to tackle climate change have proliferated. And three of the serious candidates for the presidency in 2008—John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—are all pushing for federal measures.

One of the more tedious aspects of the debate on global warming (and most things environmental) is the assumption that it’s a left vs. right issue.  Those on the left instinctively support the environmental lobby, and those on the right assume that it’s all a left-wing plot to bring down capitalism, so they are against it.  It’s certainly easier than taking the trouble to study the real evidence and thinking about it, I suppose.

However, the evidence is starting to become overwhelming, and in the last few days a new report was published that offers an even more pessimistic view of what will happen if we don’t take action:

The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says there is 90% certainty that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are driving climate change. Read the global reaction to the report here.

“The word unequivocal is the key message of this report,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, adding that those who have doubts about the role of humans in driving the climate “can no longer ignore the evidence”.

The IPCC report says the rise in global temperatures could be as high as 6.4°C by 2100. The report also predicts sea level rises and increases in hurricanes. It is the work of 1200 climate experts from 40 countries, who have spent six years reviewing all the available climate research. It was released in Paris, France, on Friday (read the 21-page summary here, pdf format). Listen to audio from today's press conference.

The last IPCC report, issued in 2001, predicted that temperatures would rise by 1.4°C to 5.8°C by 2100, relative to 1990 temperatures.

But the new report says temperature rises by 2100 could, in the most extreme scenarios, range from 1.1°C and 6.4°C. The most likely range is 1.8°C to 4.0°C (see figure 1, right), with the report predicting that 4°C is most likely if the world continues to burn fossil-fuels at the same rate (read the The impacts of rising global temperatures).

I’m sure that there will still be those who stubbornly refuse to accept that this can be true.  All those scientists are only saying this so they can keep their highly-paid jobs and get their hands on more of our tax dollars.  Of course they are.

Fact or Fiction

Simon Patkin is at it again.  Today's Sunday Morning Post includes a letter from him entitled "Don't be fooled by alarmists on global warming".  He is responding to Christine Loh's column (Global warming won't wait - subscription required) on Thursday which referred to the Stern Review

The time she has seized on a report saying that global warming could cost 20 per cent of gross domestic product.  Note the emphasis on the word could - environmentalists use "could" to turn a claim into a certainty.

Except that this is what she actually wrote: 

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a report commissioned by the British government, was published on Monday. It notes the urgent need for the world to bring down greenhouse-gas emissions, because climate change will impede growth and development.

But it will take significant reductions to stabilise gas emissions even at 1990 levels. As the Stern Review notes, the actions of countries, cities, companies and individuals will be critical.

Sir Nicholas Stern, the principal investigator of the review, is a noted economist. He made it clear that the emission of greenhouse gases imposes a cost on others that is not borne by the emitter. Without intervention by policy, the emitters do not consider that cost in their decision-making.

Sir Nicholas highlights the need for a broad economic view in reducing emissions. Policymakers need to look at the economics of growth and development, industry, innovation and technological change, the international economy, public finance, the environment and so forth.

Mr Tsang should ask the government's chief economist to digest the Stern Review, and to give him and senior officials a briefing on how the Hong Kong administration can be at the forefront of climate issues. Assuming Mr Tsang will serve a second term as chief executive, he needs to have a clear view of how Hong Kong can adapt its policies to further reduce greenhouse emissions.

This will require the government to develop an energy policy, something it has been reluctant to do. What Hong Kong has are a number of policy areas involving energy. But the government does not have a comprehensive energy policy that focuses on achieving efficiency, conservation, environmental protection, public health and energy security.

Nowhere does Christine Loh repeat the figure of 20% mentioned by Simon Patkin.  Instead she is making the point that the Hong Kong government needs to to take note of climate change and to have an energy policy that takes this into account. 

Simon then moves on from attacking Christine Loh for something she didn't write to fiction of a different kind:

Michael Crichton's novel State of Play gives an excellent analysis of the environmentalists' attempt to deceive us over global warming.  But I wonder if he will be treated by the environmentalist left the same way the religious right treated Dan Brown and his novel The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown?  Michael Crichton?  Get me outta here.

Scare stories

I have now got round to reading Senator Inhofe's speech about how global warming is all a hoax perpetrated by self-interested scientists and the media.  Before I get to that, though, I have been reading New Scientist magazine:

"Further global warming of 1 °C defines a critical threshold. Beyond that we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know."

So says Jim Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Hansen and colleagues have analysed global temperature records and found that surface temperatures have been increasing by an average of 0.2 °C every decade for the past 30 years. Warming is greatest in the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, particularly in the sub-Arctic boreal forests of Siberia and North America. Here the melting of ice and snow is exposing darker surfaces that absorb more sunlight and increase warming, creating a positive feedback.

Earth is already as warm as at any time in the last 10,000 years, and is within 1 °C of being its hottest for a million years, says Hansen's team. Another decade of business-as-usual carbon emissions will probably make it too late to prevent the ecosystems of the north from triggering runaway climate change, the study concludes (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 103, p 14288).

and an editorial:

AMONG climate researchers, the consensus is growing that global warming may be close to a tipping point beyond which runaway feedbacks could take hold, creating what George W. Bush's top climate modeller this week calls "a different planet" (see "'One degree and we're done for'"). Yet the political discourse that should be helping us find ways to respond to such warnings remains a mess.

Last week, the Royal Society in London sent a measured complaint to the oil company ExxonMobil, asking it to end its long-standing and extensive funding of lobby groups that the society says "misinform the public" on climate change. What response does it get? Nothing from ExxonMobil and its lobbyists, whose contempt for one of the world's oldest scientific institutions seems to rival their contempt for good science. Instead, we get lectures from climate change sceptics, such as the UK-based Scientific Alliance, which claims the Royal Society wants to "close down debate". It further charges that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the cornerstone of scientific consensus-building on the issue, has become politicised.

This is farcical. The Scientific Alliance and its ilk have done more than anyone to politicise this debate, and now they have the cheek to claim purity of purpose. There is plenty of room to discuss the nature and extent of climate change, but the politically and commercially motivated abuse of science carried out by some climate change sceptics and those who back them needs to be exposed for what it is. Let the contrarians speak, by all means. But bullying, like censorship, has no place in scientific debate.

Sadly, I think that the last thing that Senator Inhofe and friends want is a real scientific debate.

Continue reading "Scare stories" »

Odd one out

On Monday, the SCMP printed one of Simon Patkin's (always entertaining) letters.  Today they have printed two replies:

Evidence of warming

Simon Patkin's accusations of "Shrill alarmism" (October 2) reflect an increasingly aggressive right-wing view in the US that anyone who disagrees with the party line is either biased, un-American or both.

His selective evidence is telling. Would he perhaps consider the following - to use his term - "biased" evidence?

  • On September 20, European scientists released a photograph dated August 2003 which shows the normally ice-bound North Pole-32 meteorological research station sitting beside open water;
  • Satellite images last month showed dramatic openings - over an area larger than the British Isles - had appeared in the Arctic's perennial sea ice during late-summer storms.
  • Scientists say it is "highly imaginable" that a ship could soon sail unhindered to the North Pole; and
  • The journal Science recently reported year-round Arctic sea ice shrank by one-seventh between 2004 and last year.

    Mr Patkin writes that US Senator James Inhofe blames left-wing media for biased reporting. This is the same senator who called the US Environmental Protection Agency a "Gestapo bureaucracy". This is the same senator who is involved in a lawsuit to suppress a scientific report on the possible effects of climate change in the US.

    This is also the same senator who has received more oil and gas campaign contributions than any senator except John Cornyn of Texas.

    The recent studies Mr Patkin refers to were partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute.

    Mr Patkin seems to espouse the view of the American right that environmental activism is simply another movement targeting US infrastructure and unity.

    American self-interest has never been more aggressively pursued than in recent years.

    Biased? Alarmist? Who is the pot and who is the kettle here?

    DAVE DEARMAN, Tuen Mun

  • I think I have agree with Mr Dearman's analysis.  Simon Patkin's view of the world seems to be that one is either for or against capitalism, and that environmentalists are all left-wing anti-capitalists.  Of course it's no problem to find individuals and groups who do take that extreme position, and it suits Simon to pretend that this discredits all those who express concern about the environment.

    However, the reality is that concerns about global warming can now be heard from those on the right of the political spectrum (The Economist and the British Conservative Party come immediately to mind) who had previously been deeply sceptical.  In addition, many large corporations (including several energy companies) are starting to get worried, and even to take action - though Simon apparently regards them as traitors to the cause.

    There probably was a time when Simon could have got away with dismissing environmentalists as irrelevant left-wing extremists, but the debate has moved on and now it is the climate-change-deniers who seem out of touch. 

    Continue reading "Odd one out" »