Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ways to Save the Planet 2 - if it isn't beneath you

We've had two more episodes of the series Ways to Save the Planet, that I discussed earlier. And, surprisingly topical for once, the Greens' spring conference has unanimously passed a motion condemning geo-engineering.

For the full text see page 30 of this pdf, but I will bring you some edited highlights.
Ocean-fertilisation poses an unknown but potentially serious threat to marine biodiversity, which plays an essential role in regulating the global carbon cycle, as well as putting fishing communities at risk.
Pity they didn't see episode 1 of Ways to Save the Planet which fertilised the top layer of ocean with deep water nutrients, causing a previously empty bit of ocean to fill with life.  Remember that much of the Pacific is desert-like already in its lack of biodiversity. These wave-powered pumps, if they work in earnest, are a means to greatly increase biodiversity. It deserves better than knee-jerk opposition. There's more...
Climate geo-engineering by increasing the earth’s albedo poses a major and unknown new threat to the climate system, to biodiversity and to people.
Er, how do you know the threat is major, if it is also unknown? We have a major and known threat of global warming, and that means - why do I feel like I am talking to a 4 year old here - it would be good to have a controllable system for global cooling.

Sure, the future is unpredictable if we control the amount of cloud cover or its reflectivity to manage the global temperature. But here is the thing. The future is unpredicable full stop. And it is rather more predicatable if we deal with global warming than if we don't.

So, as I was saying, two new episodes. The first was about a design for a tethered high altitude helium balloon wind turbine. Strictly this is renewable energy rather than geo-engineering, but the ends are much the same. They built a scaled down prototype which worked after a fashion. It would take a full size prototype to test whether such a turbine would have the output predicted. If so, 9.5 million of them could generate all the world's electricity. They would need 2500 times the global annual production of helium, which might be an issue. 

In the same niche, there's a video on TED, suggesting kites can be used to generate power.

The second new episode was on increasing the reflectivity of clouds - stratocumulus over oceans - by spraying micron-size droplets of sea water at them. As usual there were some problems. First they insisted on unmanned radio-controlled low carbon boats to deploy the equipment, and so went for the somewhat oddball Flettner rotor propulsion system. Plenty to build and test there, and it worked surprisingly well. It's not clear how much power the rotors would need, or where it would come from. There were solar panels on the CGI ships, which wouldn't be much good under cloud - but then if it is cloudy, the ship is already in the right place, right?

There was less success actually making the droplets small enough, but you can't have everything.

But what I thought was most telling about this episode was the objections. At the end of each episode a handful of experts - presumably - in lab coats are asked why the proposal is a bad idea or wouldn't work. Usually, they have given sound objections. 16 trillion lenses in space, are you kidding? But this time, they were stuck. All they had was vague objections to the principle of geo-engineering, much like the stuff from the Greens. But unlike blankets on icecaps, robot ships could be turned off at the first sign of trouble.

Unlike, indeed, a massive tree-planting operation, if that is done for geo-engineering purposes. Come on people, show some sense of perspective. I know you can hug a tree more easily than a robot ship, but that is no guide to how best to save the planet.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ways to Save the Planet

Is there anything we can do to combat global warming other than reduce greenhouse gases? Actions which seek to cool the planet down directly, or sequester carbon from the atmosphere come under the heading geo-engineering. The little bolds and I have been following a series on the Discovery channel on this subject, called Ways to Save the Planet.

There are three basic responses to geo-engineering ideas:
1. Noooooo. Mucking about with the planet got us into this mess.
2. Aaaahhhhh. You see all we need is a little ingenuity, and everything will be back to normal. Global warming will be solved, if it is even happening at all anyway, which I doubt.
3. OK, will that work then?

I am firmly in camp number three. There is no reason in principle to reject geo-engineering. The planet is not God, and if it decides to kill us we are entitled to disagree and fight back. Even if global warming were halted by reduction in greenhouse gas emissions alone, we would probably need geo-engineering technology sooner or later anyway - nature has the power to turn nasty without our help. But any project has some enormous hurdles - that the earth is basically very very big, and any solution has to do an awful lot, and without using monumental amounts of energy.

There have been 4 episodes so far, all, unfortunately a little underwhelming. They follow the usual Discovery channel formula of injecting tension by having some mechanical thing go wrong, or threaten to do so, to dramatic background music and interviews with anxious engineers. Gripping.

And what were the ideas? A wave-powered pump bringing nutrient rich deep ocean water closer to the surface. Dangerous mucking about with the ecosystem? Not really - much of the Pacific is like the Sahara desert. Deep water nutrients would make an oasis - they would create an ecosystem where there is currently next to nothing. Greater plankton growth would mean faster carbon sequestration, and some of this carbon would find its way to the ocean floor for a reasonably long time.

Did it work? Briefly. But despite falling apart after a few hours, the location of the pump a week later was found teeming with life. So it looks like this idea could work. It's not going to do enough to change the nature of the challenge significantly, but can make some difference at a reasonable cost.

Next up covering the icecaps with reflective material to lower the albedo and thereby prevent melting and keep the earth's albedo lower. This one kinda puzzled me a bit. Surely you'll get more albedo bang for your buck covering something that isn't alraedy white. What I remember of the programme was an hour spent struggling with the practicalities of airlifting big rolls of white stuff to the arctic and unrolling it. Would it work? No idea.

Third was scattering the light from the sun with lenses in space. Discovery is in its comfort zone here with high tech lenses, rockets and so on. How many 60cm lenses are we going to need? 16 trillion! That's a whole lotta lenses. Well maybe if we make them 1 micron (0.001mm) thick, they'll be light enough that we can launch lots into space. Cue an hour of testing rockets and guns that might launch squillions of extremely fragile lenses without shaking them to bits. What fun. Did the rocket work? No. 

Clearly reducing the amount of light reaching the earth would reduce warming. A big lens in space - what could be simpler. But this idea involves a monumental space programme. How much, if it ever works at all, are 16,000,000,000,000 lenses going to cost to make and launch? Keep thinking, and lets not bank on this one.

Fourth was planting large numbers of trees by dropping seeds from an aircraft. Take a tree seed, in a lump of compost, wrap in a layer of wax, hard enough to break the ground surface, but which shatters on impact so doesn't impede the growth of the tree. Take 1000 of these in a cargo net under a helicopter and drop from a height and speed calculated to give a good spread pattern.

Again this was great fun, because the experiments involved aircraft, and dropping things out of them. The methods were ingenious, but I couldn't help wonder if - given the work that must be put into sourcing the seeds and assembling the wax canisters, and round tripping the helicopter (it would still take hundreds of trips to seed a square kilometre), whether it might not be easier to hire a few people with spades to plant the trees properly.

So we get to the dramatic final test of the idea. Did the seeds bury themselves in the ground at the right depth and the right distance apart from each other? Yes. Did they actually grow? No. Why not? Er, maybe the soil pH was wrong. Sigh. And maybe the guy with the spade would have known that.

Well that's all we've had so far. There's another 4 episodes, to come, and I hope they plan to end on a high note with some more promising ideas. Some geo-engineering ideas can be double-edged. If you lower the earth's temperature by controlling light or albedo, you do nothing for acidification of the oceans. So if it turned out that global warming wasn't a preeminent threat to us after all and was in fact no more serious than ocean acidification, then we may have to modify our strategy with this in mind. Much geo-engineering is diplomatically problematic. Whatever the global effect, there are likely to be local effects, that the locals may not like. Nonetheless, I think a common cause would be good for our diplomatic relations.

Yet I suggest this all has little significance yet for policy. Potential geo-engineering projects are much like potential technologies to save or generate energy. Some will work one day, some won't; we don't know yet which is which. Meanwhile we should apply the technologies and policy options we have. We are hardly at risk of doing more to combat climate change than might later prove to be necessary.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Gaining Faith in Twitter

Back from the Lib Dems spring conference in Harrogate, the greatest revelation for me was the use of twitter to comment on live proceedings. The 'back-channel' is the technical term for this kind of electronic muttering at the back of the room instead of paying attention to teacher. It has long been said about conferences that the main point is getting to meet people and talk to them, rather than the official speeches and whatnot. Twitter, it seems, brings some of the benefits of being able to talk, to a medium in which you are expected to sit, listen, and clap politely.

I signed up to Twitter a couple of years but didn't really see the point and didn't use it. And I still don't really - I probably won't use it again until the next conference. But during the debate on faith schools - and is this really yet another Lib Dem first? - I had to do what I could to sway the vote, and I had access probably to a handful of other delegates following the #ldconf tag.

I was energised by supporters of Amendment 3, including Vince Cable and Tim Farron, calling the original motion an attack on faith schools - which it was not - and calling for support for Amendment 3, as a "compromise". In fact the original text was a compromise - it respects parental choice of a faith school, and even allows new faith schools, but it demands of faith schools the same high standards of non-discrimination, tolerance and inclusivity, that are expected of all other taxpayer-funded schools. Extremists on both sides will argue that you can't trust the other lot to run schools at all. But that is prejudice. This position does not prejudge a school by the faith, or not, of its leadership, and is supported by a broad coalition of liberal believers and liberal atheists. This coalition is exactly the kind of initiative that is vital in today's society that is at risk of having walls go up between believers and unbelievers.

Rabbi Jonathon Romain spoke at the fringe meeting in support of this compromise, saying 
I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football in the break with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk back with an atheist - interacting with them and them getting to know what a Jewish child is like. Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.
A Rev Chad of St Chad's (no relation) also spoke at the fringe explaining that he felt the christian ethos was about reaching out to the community, not erecting barriers to keep it out.

It is hard to credit then, the arguments for amendment 3. I suppose if somebody comes to you and says "I represent Jews, or Catholics or Hindus..., and I say this policy is an assault on our faith schools", it is difficult to disagree. But it remains the case that opinion among believers is as divided on these questions as opinion always is, and anyone claiming that a faith speaks with one voice is being a little mischeivous.

Amendment 3, then, sought to maintain selection by faith, that is in Romain's words, to erect barriers not bridges, in part 1, and in part 2, to allow discrimination in employment against senior teachers (eg a head of chemistry) who were of the wrong faith, or who suffered a crisis of faith or the failure of a marriage. Part 1 passed, thanks to the the wrong "assualt on faith schools" hyperbole - that I can't blame delegates for buying in to. Part 2 fell, thank, er, Providence.

Overall I am satisfied with the outcome. I raised this whole issue a year ago on Lib Dem Voice, at a time when many in the party blogosphere were holding pointless and destructive arguments over the existence of God and the merits of religion. And even then I thought the selection by faith issue would be too tough to crack and suggested a compromise on it. It is a shame perhaps that my compromise wasn't put to conference. It allowed selection by faith, but insisted that a declaration of faith be considered sufficient. This addressed the problem of people having to go to church under false pretences, of believers missing out because some cleric or other thinks they don't believe well enough or objects to their lifestyle/social class, etc. It reflects the fact that faith is simply not visible to somebody outside one's own head, and does not justify giving unelected clerics, or anyone else, a gatekeeper role to public services that we have already paid for through taxation.

But the win, as far as I am concerned, is this coalition of liberals. I joined the Lib Dems to make common cause with other liberals, not with (or against) other atheists. The religion and faith schools questions seemed to threaten to divide this party. Blair and Bush might be mocked and condemned for their pro-war faith, but really it doesn't matter. Non-believers can be just as hawkish. What matters is your politics. 

I hope you understood all that from my tweets.