Leaving on a jet plane

Image credit: freefoto.com

According to PR Newswire there is an “initiative to promote aviation biofuel development in the Pacific Northwest” that “will include an analysis of potential biomass sources that are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, including algae, agriculturally based oilseeds such as camelina [wildflax], wood byproducts and others.”

Because biomass sources absorb carbon dioxide while growing and can have higher energy content than fossil-based fuel, their increased efficiency and use as aviation biofuel could potentially save millions of tons of aviation greenhouse gas emissions.
Air travel currently generates approximately 2 percent of man-made carbon emissions, and the industry has set aggressive goals to lower its carbon footprint, including the use of aviation biofuel when it becomes available.

According to a recent post on Scientific American, the airline industry conducted a number of test flights in 2008 and 2009:

“[C]ommercial airlines have flown four successful test flights using a variety of biofuel-jet fuel blends. Boeing was involved in all four flights, including a Virgin Atlantic flight using a coconut- and babassu-derived biofuel blend; an Air New Zealand flight using a jatropha-derived biofuel blend; a Continental Airlines flight using a blend of algae- and jatropha-derived biofuel; and a Japan Airlines flight using an algae-, jatropha- and camelina-derived biofuel blend…[And, Air New Zealand reported] that using a 50 percent blend of biofuel with traditional jet A-1 fuel can improve fuel efficiency by more than 1 percent.”

Now using fuel efficiently should be sufficient reason to consider a change. Yet, everything now gets pushed through the funnel of one’s carbon footprint and climate change.

So, natural sources put 210 billion metric tons (98.5 per cent) of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere comes from natural sources in the world’s carbon cycle, and people add 3.2 billion metric tons (1.5 per cent) to the total (source: John Christy at University of Alabama, Huntsville). And, air travel accounts for 2 percent of human-caused carbon emissions.  So, if we grounded all air travel, instead of 213.2 billion metric tons of CO2 going into the atmosphere (natural + man-made), the atmosphere would receive only 213.136 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, the difference is .064 billion metric tons. A 1 percent improvement in fuel efficiency for the total air industry would then mean (if my math is correct) instead of 213.2 billion metric tons of CO2, the total would be  213.19936.

Again, if the fuel is more efficient and less expensive, do it. Otherwise, it appears at first (and second and third) blush to make more sense for us to grow food or fiber, rather than fuel, in the ground.


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Gaming Malthus with “Fate of the World”

I have submitted this to the Record-Bee for my December Green Chain column.

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” – John Stuart Mill

In 1901, while searching for giant clams for dinner, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatos found an encrusted bronze device near the wreckage of a 2,100-year-old Roman merchant ship. It was discovered off the southern coast of Greece near Antikythera (an-ti-ki-theer-uh) Island, so it became known as the Antikythera mechanism. Sophisticated imaging has revealed its elaborate gears and the inscribed names of places and months. It is an orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system. In a letter, Cicero describes such a mechanism which, “at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night.” It also computed equinoxes, solstices, phases of the moon, and eclipses of the moon and sun and, as an added benefit, the timing of future Olympiads. The Antikythera mechanism was a computer.

Stadiatos dived for dinner and discovered the past, now you can dive into the dystopian future—which a new video game purports to reveal—unless you can prevent it. The scenario for Fate of the World (FotW) starts in the year 2020 when climate change induced disasters strike. Then the “World Environment Organization,” (a turbo-charged United Nations), makes you the climate czar to “decide how the world will respond to rising temperatures, heaving populations, dwindling resources, crumbling ecosystems and brave opportunities.” Here’s an example from a review in Britain’s Guardian:

“Put an emissions cap on a growing economy, stifling growth, and they’ll get fed up and throw your agency out of the area. Encourage investment and prosperity and there’ll soon be environmental consequences. Each turn sends you forward five years – and you’re informed as the game progresses of the many changes that take place in the world as temperatures increase.”

Gabion Rowlands of Red Redemption, the game’s development company, claims FotW provides realistic glimpses at scary futures because it relies on current scientific models. He believes climate change will cause “population issues, land issues, possibly resource wars, mass migration; a whole range of disasters and impacts, in fact.”

Color me skeptical.

I could point out that 98.5 per cent (210 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2 is the greenhouse gas most mentioned) entering the atmosphere comes from natural sources in the world’s carbon cycle, while people add only 1.5 per cent (3.2 billion metric tons) to the total.(Christy 2002) (The IPCC says the the human caused CO2 figure is 7.2. Still a small fraction of natural.)

I could point out global warming is not likely to precipitate world chaos; after all, using previous warm periods as guides, the earth should be wetter (because of greater evaporation from the oceans), with fewer droughts, with more drinking water, and with higher crops yields. (Ridley 2010)

And, I could point out that all the models use a positive feedback to amplify effects. Without these yet unproven feedbacks doubling CO2 produces a 1C degree change over the coming century—hardly cataclysmic. (Lindzen 2010)

I will point out FotW’s undercurrent of misanthropy—people are the problem. FotW beats a familiar rented mule: overpopulation. Boil down the babble, this drives FotW: lower the number of people and you lower the output of CO2 thus saving the world. One of the game’s producers posits that a player could fix things by deciding to decimate much of the planet’s population with an engineered super-virus. “The first thing to say about this is the obvious, that killing every last person in Africa would have less impact on climate change than getting Westerners to use 10% less energy.”

So that’s the idea: damage occurs in direct proportion to the number of people and their affluence and technology. More effluence with affluence. It is “not rocket science,” according to biologists Anne and Paul Ehrlich. “Two billion people, all else being equal, put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than one billion people. Two billion rich people disrupt the climate more than two billion poor people.” Which is why North Korea makes a shining example and Eden-esque paradise.

The idea of people being mere consumers and not innovative producers is probably as old as humanity. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death (through famine, war, or disease must) visit the human race.” In other words, people breed until they exhaust all available food and all natural resources; so keeping human population in check is necessary. Note that in Malthus’s time, population stood just shy of one billion. Today it exceeds six billion.

Malthus went onto computer chips in 1972 when a think-group calling itself the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth.” It is based on World3, an MIT professor’s computer model. The code that girded World3 followed the precepts of Thomas Malthus. Author Peter Huber explains one of World3’s subroutines: “Agricultural investment increased agricultural output, which increased birthrate but also pollution; pollution decreased agricultural output, and so on.” Instead of predicting higher temperatures as FotW does, the Limits to Growth predicted crippling shortages of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas within a decade. The shortages never happened.

To me, FotW looks like Malthus on a computer chip again—it is misanthropy cloaked in science. They conjure climate change as the latest trump card requiring draconian remedies. And, for being ‘just’ a game, it’s serious stuff. According to an opinion piece in the journal Nature, “Over the past decade, evidence has grown that computer-based play can support learning in schools.” A British government study “found that students whose lessons included interactive games were more engaged in curriculum content and demonstrated deeper understanding of concepts than those who did not use games.”

Now I have no window into our future and we should not be complacent, but let us consider what has actually occurred on this earth—not a model—since 1970. Despite the world’s population nearly doubling since 1970: we are three times richer (in real terms); the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped more than two-thirds; we are better fed (the average person in a developing country eats nearly one-third more calories); forests still cover 99% of what they did in 1970; known mineral reserves have not grown too scarce; and, rather than shrinking, petroleum and natural gas reserves have more than doubled and quadrupled respectively. By the way, the world’s population growth rate has been falling since the 1970s; it is not expected to double and reach 12 billion, ever.

The users of the Antikythera mechanism set their model of an earth-centric universe in motion by turning a crank. At the front, pointers indicated the future location and phase of the planets and sun and moon. Because they had the earth at the center, planets went into “retrograde,” that is they appeared to move backward in the heavens. The most learned minds fashioned the orrery to mimic the way they believed their celestial sphere worked. (Though many had speculated about a heliocentric system, it took more than 15 centuries to upend the old model with Copernicus declaring the sun to be the center of our solar system.)

So too, do World3 and FotW give flawed answers via their electronic gears and cogs.

I am recommending a “Don’t Buy” for Fate of the World. Get a DVD of the old Soylent Green instead; in 40 years FotW futures will look as realistic as that movie does now.

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Should there be a new way of living for the top one billion? – The iPat edition

Malthus cautioned law makers on the effects of...

T. Robert Malthus. Image via Wikipedia

Andrew Revkin asks on his blog, Dot Earth, ‘Would the world benefit from a set of millennium development goals for the “top billion”?’

Michael Schesinger, a climatologist at the University of Illinois, among other things, wrote,

“Perhaps humanity and the Earth can survive with 9 billion people in 2050, but what type of world will that be?”

I answer:

It’s a misanthropic question framed as one of great concern for the lives of the yet unborn, animal and plant.

By all indications the world of 2050 will be wealthier, happier, better fed (using less acreage than is used to grow food today), less violent, more interconnected, and more urban than today. Because it will be more urban and therefore denser, it will use less land.

I know, I know, I’m naive. Edward Abbey wrote, “[W]e can see that the religion of endless growth–like any religion based on blind faith rather than reason–is a kind of mania, a form of lunacy, indeed a disease…Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

People are less than worthless, in Abbey’s curmudgeonly view, they are an invading virus.

Schesinger’s pessimistic assessment of the world of 2050 apparently mirrors Abbey’s, Lester Brown’s, Tertullian’s, Thomas Malthus’s, Paul Ehrlich’s and others. The world careens toward a Tertullian/Malthusian catastrophe. Brothers and sisters the end is near and we stand upon banana peels between vipers and the abyss. We stand on the brink of droughts and mass starvation; forests reduced to stumps, no oil, foul air, frozen earth [scratch that frozen bit, put in scorched due to global warming instead] and polluted water. The high prophet of 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich summed it up for us: “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why? Ehrlich sprinkled scientific dust on his Malthusian catastrophe with what is now called the IPAT formula: I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology). There you have with mathematical clarity, we’re the seven hundred pound gorilla playing with china plates.

Yet, that’s the wrong way to look at it; it’s not a zero-sum game.

You may have noticed Ehrlich miscalculated by 40 years and counting. Humans are still here. The world’s population has almost doubled since his prediction, yet things are better. Instead of cleaning off every whit of resource and the world being poorer, sicker, and hungrier, we find that since 1970: we are three times richer (in real terms), the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped by over two-thirds, a greater percentage of people are better fed, the average person in a developing country eats more, the world’s forests cover 98% of what they did in 1970, and the known oil reserves have nearly doubled.

Why? Because, IPAT is Malthus dressed up as mathematical empiricism and empirical evidence points otherwise. For instance, the development of agriculture reduced the acreage needed to support one person thereby freeing up land for wildlife. The development of oil meant kerosene lighting which meant that whales were preserved and not hunted to extinction. The use of petroleum products to power plows and conveyances freed up 1/3 of agricultural acreage needed to feed the animals so that it could be available for wildlife. Technological advances have generally meant lowered impact on land not more.

IPAT’s pseudo-formula leaves out a resource that weighs heavily in earth’s favor and ours: the ingenuity of humans to solve problems is inexhaustible.

I suspect I won’t change anyone’s mind here. As the late Julian Simon said, “First, humanity’s condition will improve in just about every material way. Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.”

Malthusian die-hards, cheer up. I don’t want to completely pee on your parade. Things may yet grow worse. As Bullwinkle J. Moose used to say, “This time for sure.”

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