Thursday, September 27, 2007

Finding solutions - Part One - Reducing

There three different approaches to how we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit. The first approach is to do less than we are doing, to stop all manner of things we do now. The second is to find a way to reduce the impact of what we do. And the third is to find ways to remove the gasses from out environment.

The first approach is very popular with people that have a problem with the affluence of our society. They remind me of the flagilationists of the medieval era - the world is wicked and we should suffer, we need to suffer, everyone needs to suffer. There is a strong connection between the mindset of the people using this as the solution to the problem as the ones that were arguing for a strong left wing government.

In my opinion, a lot of people have jumped on global warming to use it as a tool to attack the affluence of our society. People are talking about the end to flying, end to import and export, and the end to the private vehicle. It feels to me that they are using the issue to attack the lifestyles of others, to reduce everyone to an equivalent income and standard of living. There is almost a glee among the left with respect to being able to attack the lifestyles of the rich for environmental reasons.

I see an inherent problem with this approach. First of all the underlying interest is attacking affluence and not global warming. This alone will doom this approach because they will be seen as hypocrites if they do not accept other solutions and ultimately the other solutions will be much more popular with the majority. A further problem is that using the issue of global warming for a different "true" interest is deceitful and leads to loss of respect and trust.

Using this issue to further other interests will lead to the issue losing public support.

Reducing what we do has a place in what we emit, but it is the hardest one to sell the public on and I think is the least realistic one. Fundamentally to achieve it you will have to use government ability to regulate and force people to act differently. The history of this has not been very good. It is very hard to anticipate the consequences of a regulation. No set of rules can think of all the possible outcomes. I have seen this often when negotiating agreements - you can add more and more detail on hopes of capturing everything, but as you do that the text becomes so complex as to be unworkable and in that complexity it allows all new twists to avoid the intent.

You can also reduce by increasing costs, but that also has significant problems with how it all plays out. Very rarely are the full range of socio-economic and environmental impacts considered when one adds a new tax or fee to something. Ideally it is better to let an open market set the pricing and not government fiat.

The public is also not ready to give up the things that they are most likely to have an impact with:
  • Private Cars
  • Meat Consumption
  • Home heating and cooling
The public loves their cars, to think that there is anything that can be done to really expect the majority of the public to get out of their cars is quite unrealistic. If one were to increase the cost of cars I suspect that the type of car being sold will change. In the last generation the cars sold in Canada have dramatically increased the amount of luxury to them and it would not take a lot to remove that luxury and reduce the price to make up for any rise.

In the last 30 years we have seen almost all cars having air conditioning (and this in Canada?!?!?!). The average family no longer has a sedan but a minivan - virtually no trips are taken by families that require more than four seats. In 1977 you had an AM radio and cheap speakers, now you get an expensive sound system and increasingly a video system as well. I could go on for sometime on these extras but I would prefer to not write like Chomsky. The public is willing to spend a lot more for a car than ever before and if the price rose dramatically, the car manufacturers could come out with plain jane models for the same price as a 'base' model these days.

Methane has 20x the impact as CO2 on the climate. Our interest in eating chicken, pork and beef drives a huge livestock industry, and industry that is one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gasses. The one thing any person could do that would have a positive impact on the greenhouse effect would be to stop eating meat. Imagine trying to tell the majority population that they should all give up eating meat? It is not going to happen.

Meat is also very cheap these days. If one were to double or triple the cost of meat, it would still be cheaper now than it was a generation ago. There was a time when chicken was not a cheap meat. I can buy a chicken to feed a family of five for about $6 - $1.20 per person for the protein for a meal. If I go to a fastfood restaurant I will spend about $25 to feed five. For that price I could offer a chicken dinner to the family for three nights. If a chicken were to be $15, it is still not an expensive option.

Finally, heating and cooling our homes. Energy is so cheap that it does not pay for us to conserve energy. The cost to improve the energy efficiency of a house so often outweighs the savings that it does not make financial sense. I would love to construct a geothermal heating/cooling system for our new house, but the capital cost is very high and the pay back period is too long. If I went to a geothermal system, I would have almost no external energy needs to heat and cool my home (there is a small amount needed to run the pump, but that is it).

In the last generation air conditioning has taken off in Canada. This is utterly insane - but it is happening. People want their home to be 23 degrees 365 days a year and are willing to pay the price.

Reducing emissions from the general public is in my opinion an approach that is doomed to failure.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Some issues with climate change

I am still not convinced that we really understand what is happening or why with our climate. For us to understand we still need to do a lot more research, collect a lot more data and ultimately will need a lot more computing power to be able to make realistic outward projections.

Issues that are raised for me are the following:

More Plant Growth From Increased CO2

With more CO2 in the atmosphere, which we do know is there, there will be more vigorous plant growth. There has been some research done showing that the plains are getting woody shrubs growing due to higher CO2. This plant growth will lock up more carbon and should slow or reverse the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

We should see rapid expansion of forests in Canada and Russia due to this. We should also see more productive food crops.

The increased plant growth will also moderate the temperature and moisture at the surface and thereby moderate the local climate to some extent.

The Role of Methane in Climate Change

We focus on CO2 emissions, but do not spend nearly as much time on the issue of methane production. Methane has 20x the impact as CO2 on the climate, but I see almost no focus on this.

One big change that we have on the planet now when compared to 1000 years ago is the amount of livestock. The number of cows, pigs and chickens on the planet has constantly and consistently risen to a point where they are a major source of greenhouse gases. A recent analysis of the moose in Norway showed that they emit a substantial amount of methane.

No one is talking about tackling this issue. No one talks about getting people to eat vegetarian diets. I suspect that this would have a dramatic impact if it were to occur.


With a rising temperature, evaporation of water becomes quicker. Also, if the ocean level rises, the total surface area of the ocean rises as well, in fact it rises rather quickly. A 1 centimetre rise in the ocean should lead to about a 2 cm increase on the surface. This will also lead to more water evaporation.

This rise in water evaporation will lead to increased precipitation and this should lead to more productive land in many areas and therefore more plant growth. I am not sure how what impact this will have on food crops, but it should move a whole series of marginal areas into productive use.

The increase water in the atmosphere will increase cloud cover and insulate the planet. Someone needs to model how the two impacts will effect the climate.

Shift of Growing Regions

Canada and the Russia have a huge expanse of lands that should become productive if the temperatures rise. If the growing regions shift northwards by 250km, this would add about 800 000 sq km of more potential growing lands in Canada alone. This could in theory add another 55 millions tonnes of wheat - about 8% of the global harvest. Russia would add twice as much as Canada.

2 Stroke Engines

We worry about cars and planes but spend very little time thinking about all those 2 stroke engines. The boat motors, lawnmowers, leaf blowers etc.... tend to all operate on 2 stroke motors. They produce many times more carbon emissions that the same 4 stroke engine.

We should be looking at banning 2 stroke engines over all and looking at making gas powered home use equipment something of the past. There is no need to have a gas powered lawnmower or weed whacker for home use. Municipalities wishing to go green may consider banning the use of internal combustion engines for lawn and garden care.