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On Carbon is the Problem: Is Graphene the Solution?

Let's assume that all waste heat dissipated by current generation electronics is saved by graphene, or some other new wonder material. What proportion of total electricity is that? Let's call it 20% overall, based on around 50% of domestic usage being devices and lighting.

Electricity currently is around 40% of total enegery use. So we save 8% of our energy bill. Assuming 80% of energy is sourced from carbon-emitting fuels, we reduce carbon emissions by 6%.

So, a useful saving but not a game-changer. And, of course, new materials will not avoid all waste heat (the second law...).

 

October 31, 2013    View Comment    

On Debunking the Myths of Global Climate Change

Unlike the others, I think this post lacks perspective. Yes, we all know that the political clamour about the 'green economy' is just a way to sell the idea of change to a public who otherwise would not accept new taxes or other inconveniences.

"1. Higher prices on greenhouse gases are enough to drive the transition to a clean economy."

Not enough by themselves, but a very good and necessary start. We will achieve nothing worthwhile without taxing carbon in some way. The price of fossil fuel is artificially low due to large sunk investment in infrastructure, covert and overt subsidies and complete lack of accountability for the cost of pollution and environmental destruction. Taxing carbon in some way is only making good some of those subsidies, so that less polluting technologies can compete fairly. The higher the tax, the more effect it will have. Innovators will innovate if they believe that a carbon tax at a meaningful rate is a long-term reality.

"2. The U.S. can make major contributions to solving climate change on its own."

Yes, it can. Or rather, it can almost single-handedly prevent any meaningful coordinated action by stalling. As for the US _only_ comprising 12% of GG reductions by 2050, could you tell us perhaps which other single source of reduction will be as big? My guess is it's the biggest. Not only that, but it's symbolically the key to unlocking reductions from the other major players such as China and India. Because USA currently consumes 25% of all fossil fuel energy with less than 5% of the world's population, it's hardly surprising that everyone else wants to see the biggest and most rapacious consumer take action before fully committing to planned reductions.

"3. Cap-and-trade is a sustainable global solution."

Here we can agree. A tax on carbon-based energy at source would be far simpler and more effective, preferably backed up by global agreement.

"4. We don’t need innovation; we have all the technology we need."

Depends on your world view. "The reality" is that on a finite planet we cannot continue to consume energy at our current rate, assuming of course that we're talking about everyone and not just small pockets of highly militarised groups who have appropriated most of the world's resources for their exclusive use. Even with 4-gen nuclear widely deployed, there will be an almost impossible task to rebuild our entire infrastructure at the same time as all of the other limits to growth are simultaneously beginning to bite. At this stage it doesn't matter what techno-fixes we try to come up with - they will all only serve to mitigate the limits to growth, not to bypass them.

"5. “Insulation is enough” (e.g. energy efficiency will save us)."

Who claims that it will? It's just a necessary step away from the self-destructive madness that will otherwise collapse our civilisation under a glut of resource conflicts. Why do we delay doing this? Lack of political courage mainly. They know what needs to be done, but dare not tell us in case we turn from denial to anger.

"6. Low growth is the answer…just live simply.".

Like it or not we're going to trend towards that, because we'll be unable to sustain the complexity of our current society as we ever more rapidly exhaust the cheap resources on which it's founded. Let alone halt and even reverse the destruction of the biosphere which is threatening to change our world in some fundamental and unforeseeable ways. We do indeed have all the technology we need to make the major restructuring. That's not to say that we won't improve it, just that we need to get started with what we already have because time is not on our side. However, no matter how we try to restructure we will not succeed with a like-for-like replacement of fossil fuels, because we won't be able to concentrate enough energy without entirely subverting the entire planel to that end. That would be both a prodigious feat of organisation, and an environmental catastrophe which would eventually destroy us. Either we will realign ourselves as a part of nature, or nature will do it for us, and no technology however it is developed can allow us to continue as we are.

"7. Information technology (IT) is a significant contributor to climate change."

Ok, depends how you define 'significant' It's not our biggest worry for sure.

"8. Going green is green (e.g., it makes economic sense to go green)."

Well, it makes sense if there are carbon taxes in place.

"9. We are world leaders on the green economy, and it’s ours for the taking."

By 'we' you mean USA? It's yours for the taking if you want to take it. But you don't, so you won't.

"10. Foreign green mercantilism is good for solving climate change (and good for the U.S.)."

Not sure what this point means, but in general the USA should look to its own resources to replace fossil fuels.

Here's hoping for a bit more incisive analysis in future.

July 1, 2010    View Comment    

On Do climate sceptics and anti-nukes matter? or: How I learned to stop worrying and love energy economics

Big question Barry. Your piece implies that the developed world is paralysed by its internal conflicts of interest, and will not voluntarily act to reduce its own resource consumption (and hence standard of living). Initiative for crashing or saving our industrial society is thus passed to China, India, etc. Are you feeling dispirited by the irrational tendency in the blogosphere and recent perverse decisions by governments around the world?

We need to think of how a sustainable pattern of energy use could come about. Also, who will develop next-generation nuclear and why? Imagining that China and India will do it in the short term is fanciful. They are geared solely towards the quickest growth, which means cheapest energy, which currently means coal, gas and to a lesser extent oil. They may develop a mass market for some wind and solar, but it's hard to see them prioritising a speculative and very high technology option like nuclear.

Further, it's hard to see coal ever being more expensive than nuclear, unless carbon emissions are somehow priced at a realistic level. This looks most unlikely to happen by treaty, and I can't think how else it will come about. Once coal is sufficiently depleted to be expensive in its own right, the energy costs to establish a new nuclear capability will be prohibitively high.

So, I think that climate 'sceptics' and anti-nukes do matter, at least where they penetrate to the levels where decisions are made. We need governments to make far-sighted decisions to price carbon emissions and invest in nuclear power engineering. Nuclear has a long lead time with respect to human lifetimes, as does climate change. Both require foresight, planning and commitment. Governments are the only bodies who have the resources and position to do that.

With next-generation nuclear (of various types) there is a prospect of a relatively high energy future, where industrial society could potentially continue for some relatively long time and provide relatively high standards of living. Without next-gen nuclear, it's doubtful whether industrial civilisation can continue due to population overshoot, and therefore it will collapse to a level which requires much less energy to produce food and goods, probably on a much more local basis. Renewables should not be dismissed because they cannot be scaled to provide all of the base-load power for us to squander at today's rates, but it looks improbable that they will be able to prevent the convulsions of decline as we slide down the fossil energy slope.

I'll bet that most governments contain individuals who know these things, but not a sufficient number to turn a minority opinion into a majority opinion. Here climate and nuclear differ.

Countering the nonsense of climate sceptics is easy, because they are essentially a PR campaign with no underlying substance. I doubt whether even the US government is deluded enough to dismiss climate science. Despite the inevitability that sceptic PR will be exposed as insidious nonsense, it's important that governments are encouraged to actively promote policy on what they know privately is right. Essentially, to radically promote efficiency in energy and material use, price CO2 emissions and stimulate renewables.

Anti-nukes should be easier targets, because their arguments can be refuted by science less open to populist misinterpretation than climate. Problem is, governments are not yet ready to admit that nuclear solutions are going to be necessary. They need to be lobbied strongly and through the most effective channels. The blogosphere is not one of those, IMO. Perhaps a book like David MacKay's on renewables (www.withouthotair.com), with an easily understood fact and number based approach, would be one way?

February 22, 2010    View Comment