Ronald Bailey All Over Milan

Ronald Bailey spent last week hob-nobbing in Milan with the climate change crowd, and shares his analyses in four separate articles at Reason. A good series, and a good read.

Part the First: finding out why all this hot air, and if there’s really a there there for the 4000-plus delegates at the COP-9 conference. His conclusion:

Extrapolating the surface temperatures yields an increase of 1.7 degrees centigrade by 2100. Wentz’ trend would result in a 1.5 degree centigrade increase and Christy’s would be 0.74 degrees—all at the bottom of the range of increases identified by the IPCC. “We might see a degree of warming over the next century. None of those temperature increases is going to cause much of a catastrophe,” says Christy. Even the alarmist report from the German Advisory Council on Global Change concluded that the world can tolerate a rise of up to 2 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels.

So perhaps the delegates in Milan can just relax. Since they most likely won’t, I’ll be sending daily dispatches about the goings on in Milan. Ciao.

Part the Second: hydrogen mines and how much of the avoidance of climate disaster is supposed to come from “the hydrogen economy” and dynamic technological change. But the kicker in this story is that producing hydrogen requires the use of electricity, which if generated using fossil fuels kinda defeats the purpose of the hydrogen, right? This presents the hydrogen environmentalists with a dilemma — want hydrogen? Need nuclear.

But can solar power and wind power supply the energy needed to make hydrogen fuel? Not likely says, Jesse Ausubel, director of the Human Environment program at Rockefeller University. Ausubel does see one way to the carbon-free hydrogen economy—nuclear power.

“Nuclear energy’s special potential is as an abundant source of electricity for electrolysis and high-temperature heat for water splitting while the cities sleep,” writes Ausubel. “Nuclear plants could nightly make hydrogen on the scale needed to meet the demand of billions of consumers. Windmills and other solar technologies cannot power modern people by the billions. Reactors that produce hydrogen could be situated far from population concentrations and pipe their main product to consumers.” In other words, nuclear power plants will become the “hydrogen mines” of the future.

But the way forward to the carbon-free nuclear/hydrogen future is hampered by the Kyoto Protocol, which excludes nuclear power as a “clean” source of energy despite the fact that it produces no greenhouse gases.

Part the Third: will we all need personal carbon permits? I’ve jokingly asked my students this for years! This article is a superb analysis of the possible transaction costs imposed under a global carbon cap-and-trade scheme:

The core of the idea is to set an appropriate level to which greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be allowed to rise and then allocate globally the right to emit carbon on a per capita basis. The UNFCCC commits signatories, including the United States, to the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” “Dangerous” has never been defined, but the proponents of contraction and convergence suggest that levels of greenhouse gases be stabilized at 450 parts per million (ppm) to 550 ppm. In order stop at those levels it is estimated that global carbon emissions will have to be cut by between 40 and 60 percent—the contraction part of the scheme.

Part the Fourth: constructing the byzantine structure that is international climate policy, and further evidence of the contradictions inherent in the structure.

COP9 delegates built a new flying buttress by finalizing some of the very complicated requirements for how to account for “carbon sinks.” A carbon sink is anything that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which essentially means forests. The idea here is that rich countries that emit more greenhouse gases than they are allowed under the Kyoto Protocol can get offsetting credit by paying for carbon sequestering forest projects either at home or abroad.

One might think that encouraging the expansion of forests would be applauded by environmental activists, but that’s not so in this case. First, they are very wary of sinks, and point out that forests are only temporary repositories of carbon since they eventually die. For example, Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) issued a press release urging “Northern countries to focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions at home and on promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency” instead of funding forest projects in poor countries. The FOEI also objected to the fact that the COP9 delegates did not oppose counting plantation forests or the planting of genetically modified trees.

At the end of the day, one must keep in mind that all of this hard bargaining and meticulous nitpicking over regulatory arcana is taking place against the background fact that the Kyoto Protocol has still not come into force six years after it was negotiated. It may turn out that Persanyi’s Kyoto Protocol cathedral is being erected on foundations of sand.

Versions of these articles are also available at Tech Central Station:
Meeting in Milan
Hydrogen mines
Personal carbon permits
The Kyoto cathedral

4 thoughts on “Ronald Bailey All Over Milan

  1. Contraction and Convergence! A 96% per capita reduction in CO2 emissions in the US! Well, at least now the cat is out of the bag; the magnitude of the economic impact of the UN IPCC process can now be estimated. Someone call McCain & Lieberman and let them know where this juggernaut is headed.

    The next step is a similar reduction in methane emissions. Unfortunately, since we can’t eliminate termites, I guess we’ll have to eliminate cows and other animals that pass methane. Oops, that would include us! Too bad; so sad.

  2. So-called “environmentalists” and “Greens” usually _ignore_ any “natural” sources of substances they class as “pollutants” or “greenhouse gases;” they only object to such substances when they are “man-made.” Furthermore, they consider _any_ emission of a “man made” substance harmful, no matter _how_ small an amount it is (e.g., the “Delaney Clause”) — even if the amount is infinitesimal compared to “natural” emissions of the same substance. (Question: What is the single most important “greenhouse gas” in the Earth’s atmosphere? Answer: _Water Vapor_ !!! Good old H2O vapor provides _FIVE TIMES_ as much “greenhouse effect” as even “naturally” occurring CO2, which in turn still outweighs “man made” CO2). Apparently, “environmentalists” and “Greens” still believe in the discredited doctrine of “Vitalism,” and feel that molecules produced by “nature” come clearly labeled “Product of Gaia — can do no harm to the environment or to any living thing,” whereas molecules produced by human activities come clearly labeled “Product of soul-less capitalist greed — will immediately give cancer to any lifeform, melt the icecaps, and destroy the ozone layer.”

    Most “environmentalists” and “Greens” appear to completely lack =ANY= sense of proportion or perspective: =NO= perceived “risk” is acceptable; =NO= trade-off can be tolerated. Moreover, they fail to recognize that =ALL= life-forms “impact” on their environment. (For example, termites, ungulates, elephants, and other “non-farmed” plant-eating species emit large amounts of methane and other “greenhouse gases.” And anyone who lives in the northern or the eastern USA or in Canada will tell you that single pair of beavers can “clearcut” a _HUGE_ region of trees in the process of building _their_ dams, and no doubt have rendered many “regulatorially defined” species of “snail darter.” The list goes on.) Nor can they recognize that humankind and their activities are JUST AS MUCH A PART OF “NATURE” as is any other species or _their_ activities. Ultimately, what their politics reveals is their own SELF-hatred and SELF-loathing that they have projected on every _other_ member of their own species, while they try to convince themselves that they are really among the “righteous” and “ecologically enlightened,” and “better” than all those “greedy, wasteful, polluting capitalists.” The ultimate example of “Green” self-hatred may be seen in the British organization VEHEMENT, which calls for the human species to “voluntarily” _RENDER ITSELF EXTINCT_ for its “many crimes against nature.”

    As for cattle farts and human farts, the “Greens” almost certainly consider the latter “man made,” and likely consider the former to be a “product of human greed and exploitation,” and therefore also “Harmful To The Environment.”

  3. Lynne, I’d like to know on what basis Jesse Ausubel thinks photovoltaics couldn’t be made to work. If you ever come across a good and well thought out argument for why photovoltaics can’t become a major source of energy please post a link to it. From the cost side it seems inevitable that materials advances will lower photovoltaics costs by orders of magnitude. It is just a question of when this will happen.

    As for the amount of sunlight available as an energy source: I’ve talked this out with friends who know more about solar radiation and physics and they seem to think that if photovoltaics could only be made cheap enough that we could get enough energy from the sun by covering a tenth or a hundredth of a percent of the United States with photovoltaics. Given that a lot of that covered area could be roads and buildings the net increase could be fairly minimal.

    The next problem with solar is storage: the sun doesn’t shine at night and the night is long near the poles during the winter. But, again, I expect advances in technology to solve that problem with better cheaper batteries and in ways to convert electricity to chemical energy.

    Animal methane release: A lot can be done about that and probably pretty cheaply. Some work has been done comparing methane release based on diets of different grasses (I think this was in NZ or maybe Oz) and agricultural scientists think they have identified compounds that affect intestinal methane production. Well, bioengineer the feed for cattle, sheep and other animals to adjust the chemical mix of the feed and then methane emissions could be lowered by orders of magnitude. I think I posted about this once but can’t remember when.

    Methane as a green house gas is a much cheaper thing to tackle than CO2. Even if global warming is going to turn out to be a net problem some day (and that has yet to be proven) we could buy ourselves a couple of decades of delay in temperature increase by decreasing methane emissions.

  4. There are four fundamental problems with any attempt to shift a large fraction of the electrical energy load to solar power:

    1.) Inefficiency — The most efficient solar cells that have so far been developed can only convert about 30% of the light that falls on them to electrical energy — and those are hyper-expensive and complex laboratory curiosities which use exotic, scarce, and even toxic heavy-metal-based materials, such as gallium arsenide or indium arsenide, and whose complexity and high reject-rate make them totally unsuitable for mass production. Typical “mass-production quality” solar cell efficiencies are only on the order or 5–10% efficient

    2.) Diffuseness, Inconvenient “Duty Cycle,” and Non-Storability of solar energy — Solar energy is very weak; even at an impossible 100% efficiency, it can only supply about 750 watts of power per square meter at high noon, so that at more typical efficiencies, many tens to hundreds of square meters of photovoltaic panels will be required to supply the electrical demands of an average household.

    Moreover, solar power is only available during part of the day, and varies with the time of day and the seasons: Solar power is most abundant for a couple of short hours near high noon on a clear summer day, yet is most needed in the long dark hours of a cold winter’s night. Clouds further decrease the available “duty-factor” of solar power: As British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle once remarked, “anyone who thinks one can run an industrial civilization on solar power has never lived in England.”

    Finally, the lack of an effective method for long-term storage of “excess” solar power arriving during times of abundance (such as clear summer noons) so that it may be used during those times when it is most needed (such as cold winter nights) makes it a very awkward primary energy source. (The only truly “long-term” methods for storing solar energy are known as “plants” and “coal”). A globally integrated electrical grid capable of shipping energy from the daytime summer hemisphere to the winter to the antipodal winter night hemisphere might partially ameliorate the lack of storability of solar energy, but it does not completely solve it.

    3.) Insufficient production facilities — Current photovoltaic panel production facilities do not have the capacity to manufacture enough panels to generate more than a _FRACTION OF A PERCENT_ of the world’s current electrical demand per year. Even if one makes the totally unreasonable assumption that one can _DOUBLE_ the world’s photovoltaic manufacturing capacity _EVERY YEAR_, it will take almost a _DECADE_ to meet the current world demand — and meanwhile, the world’s demand for electricity is _itself_ growing at a significant rate!

    4.) Expense — Photovoltaic power is still _MANY TIMES MORE EXPENSIVE_ than even _nuclear_ power, let along fossil-fuel power. Until the amortized relative cost of power from photovoltaic panels is brought down by nearly an order of magnitude (or the relative prices of other forms of energy rise by nearly a factor of ten), solar power is _ECONOMICALLY NON-VIABLE_.

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