15 January 2008

Everyone Has Suggestions For Carbon First Steps

Ten things you can do now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Lights--Turn off lights when you aren't using them. Motion-sensitive switches can help. Replace incandescents with compact fluorescents.
  2. Transport--Take fewer trips; combine trips. Drive easy (no need to roar away from the light). Drive at the most efficient speed on the highway (probably 55-65 miles per hour). Check tire pressures weekly. Observe service intervals. Substitute shared transport (bus, train, streetcar, carpool) for some trips.
  3. Heating/Cooling--Set thermostat lower when heating, higher when cooling. Open windows when appropriate for fresh air rather than relying on air conditioning. Service heating and cooling equipment to maintain efficiency. Attend to weatherstripping, etc.
  4. Reduce Waste--Keep things like paper and cardboard out of landfills by recycling (or just not using as much). Reduce use of paper in the office (print less; use both sides). Especially don't send food scraps, garden waste etc. to landfills. If your town doesn't collect them separately for composting, lobby to have them do so.
  5. Government--Write your public officials--Let them know they should do something serious about greenhouse gas emissions. Inform yourself on the issue so they can't fool you.
  6. Air Travel--Take fewer plane rides. Try not to take a plane for a trip less than 600 miles. Use web tools for some distance meetings.
  7. Standby--Unplug power adapters and chargers when you aren't actually using them. Turn electronic devices all the way off by unplugging or turning off power strip. At least turn your monitor off when your computer is off (if you can see a little yellow light it is still sucking power).
  8. ENERGY STAR--Look for the ENERGY STAR symbol when you buy new appliances or electronics.
  9. Hot Water--Reduce your use of water heated with fossil fuels. This means washing clothes in cold water, fixing leaks, and taking shorter showers. Consider a low-flow shower head.
  10. Meat--This one is more controversial, but livestock production does account for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Just reducing the amount of meat we eat could (beef especially) cut our carbon footprints by half a ton or more.
If you take action in these ten areas you probably can reduce your carbon footprint by 25%. That still leaves a lot more to go. Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries have to decline by about 90%.

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12 January 2008

How Big Is China?

The scale of China is hard to comprehend from numbers

Chinese Workers from Film Board of Canada http://www.nfb.ca/collection/films/fiche/medias.php?id=53006I recommend a film that gives a sense of it: Manufactured Landscapes. This is a 2006 documentary (imdb link) by Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal. It is built around the work of Edward Burtynsky, who makes large photographs of very large human-influenced landscapes. The film's page is here, and another, with a trailer, here. (There is also a trailer at Burtynsky's site.)

The film isn't just about China. There are some spectacular images of peasant shipbreaking in Bangladesh, mines in Canada, and freeways in Los Angeles. But it brought home to me the incredible scale of the modernization of China. It's sort of the Total Perspective Vortex of movies.

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06 January 2008

Fight Greehnouse Gas Emissions

Global climate disruption requires a global response on the scale of World War II

The generation that was in its 20s and 30s in the 1940s made a supreme effort to resist and roll back German and Japanese aggression. We call that effort "World War II", "the Second World War", "the 1939-1945 war", or "the Great Patriotic War" (Великая Отечественная война). Millions were willing to risk death in combat. Many millions did die in combat, or as civilians in the perils of war. Their leaders were not perfect, but they were (eventually) able to arouse their people to undertake this great task. The generation that fought that fight is known today, at least in America, as "The Greatest Generation".
Query: If the U.S. hadn't sent its youth off to war, and turned its economy to war production, what language would the elite now be speaking in Paris--German or Russian? (There are some scenarios, I know, where they would still be speaking French.)

What does this have to do with global warming?

The dangers posed by global climate disruption are as great as those that generation faced, though admittedly different in character. The danger is less direct and obvious. And it is harder to point to the "bad guys". (But remember that the United States was able to tolerate most of Europe being conquered by Germany, and Manchuria by Japan. There was no political consensus to make big sacrifices until the Pearl Harbor attack. It is interesting to think what might have happened if the Japanese had not attacked Hawaii or the Philippines.)

There will probably be no events comparable to the invasion of Poland, the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the invasion of the Soviet Union to precipitate an all-out response to the threats of climate change. How can we get people to mobilize to take the steps necessary to roll back greenhouse gas emissions and (possibly) avoid some of those dire consequences?
Hurricane Katrina caused the loss of 1,835 lives. At Pearl Harbor 2,333 military personnel and 35 civilians died. The population of the U.S. in 1941 was about 134 million. Today it is about 301 million, more than twice as large. So are we waiting for a disaster that will kill 5,000 before we take action? Or would even that be accepted, discounted or debated to death?

This time it will take money and life-style adjustments, not lives (we hope)

How much money will it take? Several trillion dollars per year. Most of this will have to be supplied by the developed world, even for changes in the developing world.
  • People in the developed world have the most to lose, in terms of reduced consumption.
  • The developed world has the money.
  • The greenhouse gases currently causing the problem were put there by the developed world.
  • That’s only a few thousand dollars per capita if paid for by the 20% of the world’s population living in the developed countries.
  • (To sequester a ton of CO2 could cost hundreds of dollars. The world currently emits about 37 billion tons a year. Say it cost $100 per ton to sequester some and prevent some other emissions, say a total of half of that 37 billion tons. That would cost about $2 trillion. That’s about $1,600 for each person in the most developed countries.)
For comparison, just for the U.S.A.:
  • We have spent more than $400 billion on the war in Iraq. It will probably end up costing close to a trillion dollars before it is all over.
  • We spent about $3 trillion to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II (in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars) and hundreds of thousands of American lives. (Source here.)
  • We were willing to spend 38% of GDP on fighting World War II.
However, that money will have to be spent effectively. For example:
  • Over the past 20 years the U.S. government has spent tens of billions of dollars to subsidize the production of ethanol from corn, as a substitute for petroleum fuels.
  • That money has gone into the pockets of corn farmers and ethanol producers.
  • Today, after all that spending, the amount of petroleum fuel being substituted by bioethanol is almost zero. Nor has the use of bioethanol reduced our emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • Face it, politicians don’t know how to address this problem. It is up to us.
So here are our choices:
  1. Either get depressed, squabble, prevaricate, and do nothing (or take only token action), or
  2. Get serious, take on this challenge, bear this burden, and be known as a great generation.
If we aren't willing to make changes and spend money, then people in the future may look back and say, "They could have been one of the great generations, but instead they were the ________ generation." (I would be interested in what epithet you might suggest.)

Yes I know the illustration is a WW I poster. I just thought it was apropos.

No offense meant to Germans or Japanese. It's just that the geopolitical situation brought about by their governments in the 1930s and 1940s called forth the effort mentioned above.

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04 January 2008

Should We Do Something About Climate Change?

Here's something worth watching about the uncertainty of global warming

If you can't see the video watch it on YouTube here.

What do you think? What will you do?

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02 January 2008

Do Cow Farts Cause Global Warming?

Cows can digest things we can't, especially including the cellulose in grass and grain. They do this by maintaining cultures of microorganisms in their complicated series of "stomachs" that can break down cellulose. The cows then digest the microbes and the sugars and fatty acids they produce. (Brief overview of ruminant digestion here. If you are interested in delving into the digestive physiology of ruminants in more detail, start here.) Some of these microbes produce methane (CH4). Some of the other microbes can use that methane as food, but a certain amount of it escapes as belches or farts (mostly belches). (Some people have microbes in their guts which produce methane, and thus their farts also contain methane--but nothing compared to the amount cows produce.)

The publication Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2006 (pdf) summarizes the total greenhouse gas output of the US:

Of the 605 million metric tonnes CO2 equivalent of methane shown in the graph, about 115 million tonnes CO2e is from "livestock enteric fermentation"--mostly cow burps and farts. That is less than 20% of the methane load, and less than 2% of the 7 billion tonne CO2e total. Of course raising cattle causes other greenhouse gas emissions.
  • There are about 56 million tonnes CO2e of methane and 55 million tonnes CO2e of nitrogen oxides released from cattle wastes as they decompose. (Some of that methane can be captured and used to generate electricity or heat, while releasing carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas.)
  • About 227 million tonnes CO2e of nitrous oxide is released from nitrogen fertilization of soils (30% of it from nitrogen fixed by the crops themselves, not from industrially produced fertilizers).
  • Most of the nitrogen fertilizer used on crops (89%) is used on corn (maize). About half of the corn produced in the US is fed to livestock, a large fraction to cattle, especially dairy cows. So about 50 million tonnes CO2e emissions associated with fertilizer use should be indirectly blamed on cows.
  • (Another large fraction of corn is used to make ethanol as a motor fuel, indirectly causing the release of significant amounts of greenhouse gases in the corn production. But that's another story.)
So cattle are responsible for about 3.5% of US greenhouse gas emissions, on a CO2 equivalent basis. To keep this in perspective:
  • 2% of greenhouse gas production is in the form of methane from garbage decomposing in landfills.
  • Roughly 2% is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from air conditioners, refrigerators and industrial processes.
  • Other industrial processes (especially cement manufacture) produce about 2%.
  • Burning jet fuel accounts for more than 3%.
  • 12% of greenhouse gas emissions are CO2 emitted generating electricity which is used in residential applications like lighting, TVs, computers, and refrigerators.
  • 17% came from burning gasoline in cars and trucks.
So cow farts and burps do contribute some to greenhouse gases, and thus to global climate change. But they are not a major cause. Nonetheless, improvements in fertilizer use and waste management in agriculture could reduce the cow-related burden on our atmosphere. Reduced consumption of beef and dairy products would probably have little effect. (If half of US consumers cut their consumption of beef and dairy products in half -- and the resulting drop in prices didn't stimulate the other half to increase their consumption, or drive more exports -- it would reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by about 1%.) Maybe this will become more of an issue in the future.

Update 8 May 2012: If you think cow burps are bad, recent research suggests dinosaur flatulence was a lot worse.

Shared from David Wheat's Science In Action blog.