Archive for May, 2012

Global Temperature: an update

May 31, 2012

The Berkeley estimate of the changes in the air temperature above the land surface of the Earth since 1800. Also shown is the data from the three previous estimates. For all practical purposes they agree perfectly.

When I first heard that anyone was attempting to reconstruct the past temperature of the Earth from the meteorological record I was, frankly, sceptical. It is such a hard thing to do properly, I thought it was impossible. I admired their chutzpah, but I didn’t pay much attention. I was wrong to be so dismissive.

There have been three peer-reviewed estimates of the air temperature above the land surface of Earth, known as NASA-GISS, NOAA-NCDC and HadCRU. They broadly agree and indicate that the Earth is warming by around 2 °C per century. Two more estimates are on the way.

I am on the steering committee for one effort, called the International Surface Temperatures Initiative (ISTI). My part is minor, but my colleagues are working to create a completely open database of the meteorological records, and an estimate of the Earth’s surface temperature through time that is derived through a completely transparent process.

The other recent effort is led by Richard Muller and is known as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature estimate – BEST for short :-). The BEST estimate of the air temperature above the land surface of the Earth is shown at the head of the page alongside the previous three estimates. The BEST estimate used a completely different technique for averaging, detecting discontinuities in temperature records and accounting for urban heat islands. But for all practical purposes, their results are in perfect agreement with the previous three results.

What is remarkable about this result is that before Richard Muller did this work he was openly scathing of the other three teams. In the You Tube video at the foot of this article he implies that the authors of the previous studies are – at best – dishonourable. Now that his team has done their own analysis he has completely changed his mind. Speaking before the US congress this March 2012 he said:

Prior groups at NOAA, NASA, and in the UK (HadCRU) estimate about a 1.2 °C land temperature rise from the early 1900s to the present. This 1.2 °C rise is what we call global warming. Their work is excellent, and the Berkeley Earth project strives to build on it.

None of the Berkeley papers have yet survived the thorny process of peer review, but I expect they will emerge eventually. Having read through the pre-prints I am impressed. They specifically examine the effect of poor-siting of meteorological stations (it makes no difference), and the effect of urban heat islands (they make no difference either). However  I would like to highlight a different aspect of this work.

Richard Muller is a clever man – cleverer than me for sure. But in my opinion, I would say that he might not have made sufficient effort to understand how people could have done what they did from a good motivation. But which of us has not made that same error? In the end, Muller has been compelled by the data to acknowledge the strength of these other works. And so he has changed his mind. Great: that is the process by which we learn. In fact ‘changing ones mind’ is almost a definition of ‘learning’.

Below is a You Tube video of Richard Muller talking in 2010 on Global Warming and Carbon Policy. He uses all the rhetorical embellishments that he condemns in others so be careful, but it is a good talk (52 minutes long!)

Below is a short video of how the Berkeley team estimate the temperature of the Earth has changed.

The difference between ‘Bio’ and ‘non-Bio’

May 30, 2012
A non biological washing powder

A non-biological washing powder

You learn something new every day. The other day I reviewed John Emsley’s book on sustainable chemistry, the gist of which is that chemical engineering is woven into the fabric of our lives, literally – in terms of the clothes we wear – and metaphorically, in terms of the ubiquity of chemically-engineered materials.

I wrote that I felt insulted by his comments about non-biological washing powders. My experience was that when my son was little, wherever his skin was in contact with his washed garments – such as wrist-bands or neck-bands, he developed a rash. But after switching to non-biological washing powder, the rash disappeared. So I was pretty sure I had seen the effect of the enzymes on my son’s skin and I didn’t appreciate being told otherwise.

But nothing in life is simple. I had assumed that the difference between ‘bio’ and ‘non-bio’ powders was just in the ‘bio’-bit: the enzymes. But as it turns out, that is not the only difference.

John responded to my review and was kind enough to put me right. I will let him explain in his own words:

Fair comment, except regarding washing powders. What was causing your son’s rashes were the fragrance molecules added to the product. I used to approve adverts for TV, and part of my remit was detergents. Consequently I visited the major producers, P&G, Unilever and McBrides (who do the own label versions), and there learnt about the research that was done to uncover why the newer detergents caused skin irritations.

Eventually it was tracked down to traces of fragrance molecules that were added to these products to disguise the slightly rank odour of surfactants. As a result, they stopped using these fragrances and substituted ones that didn’t cause skin irritation. Those are the ones now used. It was never the enzymes in these products which were guilty, but those were the ingredients which were singled out as being to blame. It is only in the UK and Ireland that ‘non-bio’ washday products continue to be widely used, much to the amusement of manufacturers in the EU.

Kind regards, John.

So I will talk with my wife, and may be we will try using biological washing powder again, and see how we get on now.

Sustainable Chemistry

May 30, 2012

A Healthy Wealthy and Sustainable World is indeed possible according to John Emsley. But only if we exploit the skills of chemical engineers.

I have just read two books with a positive message about the role of chemical engineering in modern life.  A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World and Islington Green are both by John Emsley, and they both tell the same story, but in two different ways.

A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World, tells the story ‘straight up’. It considers the role of chemistry in the food we eat, the water we drink, medicine, transport, plastics and city life. In each case Emsley considers whether the status quo is sustainable, and whether it could be conceivably made so. Emsley takes a narrow view of sustainability as implying non-reliance on fossil fuels. But even that’s a tough call and his discussion of what this involves is interesting. If you were teaching GCSE or A level chemistry this would give you a plethora of applications of basic chemistry in the context of our daily lives.

Islington Green tells the same story by introducing two comic-book caricatures  Justin Thyme and Teresa Green (!) who start out trying to live an ‘organic, green’ lifestyle without using any ‘chemicals’. However they end up deciding that the most sustainable and convenient choices are those offered by the chemical industry. Along the way Emsley shares a few traditional Yorkshire opinions on the valuable contribution that merchant bankers make to our society.

I have been an admirer of John Emsley for years, ever since I acquired his book about The Elements now sadly out of print, but replaced by the excellent Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements. I also enjoyed his book on ‘The Elements of Murder: a history of poison‘. He writes in a clear, uncluttered style which is refreshing to read.

But I do have a caveat. If you are sceptical about the role of the chemical industry, you will find little to persuade you to change your mind. He devotes a fair amount of time to demolishing the ‘straw arguments’ of hypothetical ‘greens’, but fails to even acknowledge more mundane concerns. For example Emsley fails to mention the ozone hole

In the 1950s the chemical industry introduced a range of super-chemicals to replace hydrocarbons: chlorocarbons, fluorocarbons and mixed chloro-fluoro-carbons. These chemicals performed fantastically in refrigerators and a range of other applications. But they had the unintended consequence of lingering in the atmosphere and through a bizarre and unanticipated feature of atmospheric chemistry, destroyed the ozone layer above the Antarctic (mainly) and the Arctic (a little) each spring.

This episode must have cost billions of pounds, required the re-engineering of an entire industry, and the ozone layer will still take more than 100 years to return to normal. Independent of whether these chemicals are made with or without fossil fuels, chemistry of this type is clearly not sustainable.

The positive story about the role of the Chemical Industry is a story worth telling, and Emsley tells it well. But in my opinion it is a story worth telling with a little less hubris.

[UPDATE: May 30th: I have updated this article, removing my comments about Biological Washing Powders which may be found here.]

12 miles

May 28, 2012
London traffic at night

London traffic at night. Aaaaaaaghhhhh


I drove into London on Friday night to collect my wife from St. Pancras station. She was returning from a week’s work in Paris, and since her train got in at 9:40 p.m. I thought it would be a mercy for her not to have to travel through the underground to Waterloo and then catch a train to Teddington. My wife was grateful, but the journey was like entering Hades, and London seemed reluctant to let me leave.

Three points stand out .

The first was the sheer arbitrariness of traffic regulations. Bus lanes would appear à propos of nothing with a warning of prosecution if they were entered between times which varied from one bus lane to the next. Straight-ahead lanes would become compulsory right-turn lanes. And what appeared to be direct routes from A to B were confounded by arbitrary one-way systems. As a private driver I got the basic message: you are scum, these streets are for buses and taxis: get lost.

The second point was the complete absence of a system for collecting or delivering people to the station. At Heathrow, when I collect my wife, I am directed to a car park where I pay around £5/hour to leave my car. There is no alternative, but the car parks are clean, unthreatening, and convenient for the relevant terminal. And at least I am told where the car park is! At St. Pancras, I identified the car park entrance just as we were leaving, after circling St. Pancras for the third time. As a private driver I got the basic message: you are scum, how dare you try to collect your wife: get lost.

The third point was the appalling nature of traffic control. At intersections, the portion of road in the middle of a junction is precious. To avoid congestion, this critical region of road needs to be filled with moving cars at all times. In London, the traffic controls seem designed to minimise the use this precious resource. A traffic policeman of average intelligence (!) in the centre of junction would improve traffic throughput by (I estimate) 50% at least. And the astonishing number of traffic lights dramatically worsened traffic flow. As a private driver I got the basic message: you are scum, we don’t care how long you wait or how much fuel you waste: get lost.

And the final point – I don’t care what I said at the start – the fourth point is the sheer volume of traffic in London at around 10:00 p.m. on a Friday. It was astonishing. And yes, I know that I was part of the problem. This city really doesn’t know when to go sleep, but I do. And that is what I am going to do right now. Goodnight.


The Alom Shaha Motor

May 24, 2012
A simplified diagram of the Alom Shaha motor

A simplified diagram of the Alom Shaha motor. The red arrows indicates that an electric current is flowing in the copper wire. The green lines show the conventional indication of a magnetic field. When an electric current flows through a magnetic field a force acts on the particles carrying current. The direction of the force is perpendicular to both the current and the magnetic field. This drives the wire around the battery as seen in the video.

A little while ago I saw a great demonstration by Alom Shaha of an ingeniously simple motor. It was so simple that I immediately thought even I could make it.

Now Alom went to great pains to first talk about the demonstration and get people to think what was going to happen and make a testable prediction. I will not subject you to that. Instead I invite you to watch and wonder, secure in the knowledge that at the end I will offer an explanation of sorts.

The motor works as follows:

  • Electric current flows through the copper wire when it touches both the upper terminal of the battery, and the magnets attached to the base of the battery.
  • The magnets are metallic and so electric current can flow through the magnets to the lower terminal of the battery.
  • Near the magnets, the electric current flows through a region of strong magnetic field. In this region there is a force on the wire.
  • The strength of the force is given by

Force (in newtons) = current (in amperes) x length of wire in field (in metres) x magnetic field strength (in tesla)

    • The current is probably between 0.1 amperes and 1 ampere (I guess)
    • The length of wire in a strong field is around one centimetre (0.01 metres)
    • The magnetic field strength is (I guess) somewhere around 0.01 tesla
    • Putting these together we get a force in the range 0.000 01 newtons to 0.000 1 newtons
    • This is equivalent to the gravitational force exerted on an object weighing a few tens of grams – such as a few twopenny pieces.
    • Because the wire does not weigh very much, and is free to rotate with low friction, even this small force is sufficient to set it in motion
    • As the slow motion footage shows, the electrical contact of the wire with the magnets is only intermittent. During this contact, the wire will receive a ‘kick’.
  • The direction of the force is at right angles to both the direction of the magnetic field and the electric current.
    • In this poor implementation of the original Shaha™ design, the force is unlikely to be directed at exactly the correct direction to cause just rotation.
    • Some part of the force will cause the wire to move away or towards the magnets which is what causes the unstable rotation – and the occasional loss of contact with the magnets.

I apologise for trying to explain this, but I just wanted to make the point that this is not ‘magic’. It is exactly the same phenomenon that takes place in every motor in every one of the thousands of devices in your life. In an engineered motor, great care is taken to:

  • To reduce the friction of the rotating part.
  • To put more wire into the magnetic field so that a given current produces the largest force.
  • To have the strongest magnetic field created by the lightest components.

And even if you couldn’t follow the explanation, I hope you enjoyed the movie. If you want to reproduce this then you may like to know that I used these magnets from

What Climate Sceptics are Sceptical About: Part 2

May 23, 2012
Radiation Balance

Two possible paths for infrared radiation from the Earth’s Surface. It can either be ‘scattered’ out into space, or ‘scattered’ back to the Earth. If the infrared light can reach a point high enough in the atmosphere then it can be radiated out into space, cooling the Earth. Alternatively it can be scattered back to the Earth’s surface.

My first correspondent thought I should be worried about being associated with the Climate Change activists. My second correspondent wrote to me privately because he didn’t want to be associated with Climate Sceptics!  But he did have a question that had puzzled him. In other words he was a sceptic in the dictionary sense of the word, rather than the ‘tribal’ sense.

This correspondent said that he had understood that the ‘CO2 bands were saturated‘ and so he couldn’t see how increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide could further affect the cooling of the Earth’s surface. This is a subtle point which I had worried about a few years ago. Let me explain.

Averaged over all times of year and locations around the globe, each square metre of the Earth’s surface is warmed by approximately 240 watts of sunlight. The surface cools by radiating infrared light with wavelengths ranging from around 5 micrometres to around 30 micrometres with the most intense radiation at wavelengths around 10 micrometres. CO2 molecules undergo internal vibrations at just the right frequency to absorb infrared light with wavelengths in small ranges around 5 micrometres, 10 micrometres and 15 micrometres: these are called the ‘CO2 absorption bands’.

There is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that any infrared light with a wavelength within the range of a carbon dioxide absorption band will be trapped in the atmosphere. My correspondent was asking “If all the radiation leaving the Earth’s surface is already trapped on Earth, how can adding more CO2 make any difference?“.

To understand why the CO2 concentration does matter, one has to think what happens to the light after it has been absorbed by a vibrating molecule of CO2. The vibrating molecule re-emits the light in a random direction – a process known as scattering. Roughly half the light will travel upwards through the thinning atmosphere, and half will travel back downwards, warming the Earth.

Thinking about the upward-travelling radiation, the atmosphere grows less dense with height and so as the light travels upwards, it travels further before being absorbed again. And eventually it reaches a height where upward-travelling radiation will leave the Earth for ever – taking with it a fraction of the radiation which left the Earth’s surface. This is how the Earth cools itself. When the intensity of radiation leaving the top of the atmosphere balances the sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, then the Earth’s surface temperature will be stable.

What fraction of radiation leaving the Earth’s surface makes it out of the atmosphere? As the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, the fraction of radiation which makes it to the top of the atmosphere gets smaller. The Earth’s surface will then warm (from the downward-scattered radiation) until it can achieve radiation balance again: this is the process of Global Warming about which ‘Climate Activists’ (and me!) are concerned.

Some numbers and a reminder about water. Over the course of the twentieth Century, we think the Earth’s surface radiated roughly 390 watts per square metre, and around 61% of that reached sufficiently high in the atmosphere to drive 240 watts per square of infrared light into space. Around 150 watts per square metre of the radiated infrared light returned to the Earth – this is called radiative forcing.

We estimate that around 144 watts per square metre of the radiative forcing was caused by water vapour (H2O) in the atmosphere, and around 6 watts per square metre of the radiative forcing was due to CO2. We think the effect increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 30% has been to increase the amount of radiative forcing from around 6 watts per square metre to around 8 watts per square metre.

What Climate Sceptics are Sceptical About: Part 1

May 21, 2012

After asking “What are Climate Sceptics sceptical about? a couple of Climate Sceptics contacted me to let me know. I will deal with the second response in another article, because the first response was so extraordinary – and long! It is reproduced almost in full below, but I have removed any clues to the author’s identity since it was written to me privately.

Now I disagree with much of the content of the letter, and at first I was shocked by the association of ‘Climate activists’ with (in order of appearance) ‘Nazis, Communists, Islamists, KKK, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot’. But actually, the letter is written perfectly civilly, and if you can bear to read to the end, the authors main point is humorously made. The point can be summarised as:

Many climate activists utter opinions which can be interpreted as politically extreme – and so I should be careful about the people with whom I associate.

Having written recently about the difficulty of communicating across ‘tribal’  boundaries, I guess I should take this a lesson in the difficulties involved.

The difficulty in communicating arises because we disagree about what is fundamental. As I understand him, the author adopts the view that all this ‘Climate Change stuff’ is ‘just another specific political issue’, and he interprets everything through that political lens. In this sense, he reminds me of Bjørn Lomberg (author of The Sceptical Environmentalist) who views all this ‘Climate Change stuff’ as ‘just another specific economic issue’.

In a follow up e-mail, I asked whether the author disagreed with any of the specific scientific points I had made, and he said ‘No’. But these ‘technical points’ didn’t change his fundamental political opinion. Why would they? He would only be amenable to political arguments.

Personally I consider the science to be fundamental – I want to know ‘What is happening?”. However our best scientific efforts still have significant uncertainty and our politicians and economists find that difficult to deal with. Additionally, the time-scales of decades to centuries have previously been all but ignored by politicians and economists. I feel that if politicians were genuinely addressing the reasons for people’s concern – the reasons that had driven them to extreme political positions – then the extremists would find it harder to gain support.

Ignoring the hyperbole, the author’s rhetoric makes one point very well. If the Climate is going to change, then for all its difficulties, we would be better off in a democratic country than a non-democratic one.

The Letter


Dear Dr Podesta

Thank you for your thoughtful article in C & I.

I have a problem when it comes to the climate story. Scientists dependent on Government money of some sort seem to be flag wavers for global warming, and  they save the rest of us a lot of work by showing how their opposition is said to be paid by Big Oil or some such private provider. As an ancient political researcher, I reckon it is about politics.

I read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies years ago. It had a lasting impact. Especially about how the thin veneer of civilisation, democracy, liberty and prevailing morality can be  swept away by a brutish elitist power grab.  It’s the same philosophy  that resorts to threats to life and limb, property destruction, public smears, vilifying dissent, curtailing free speech and imposing un-democratic regulatory ‘laws’ to get its way.

We tend to associate these hallmarks of totalitarian intolerance, vicious  rhetoric and Luddite terrorism with brown-shirted National Socialism, red-book  toting Communism or radical Islamism; movements alien to Judeo-Christian-rooted Western culture. But the same kind of rhetoric, threats to dissent and the push to circumvent the normal democratic processes are also close to  home among the green-shirts of burgeoning eco-fascism.

A little harsh? Consider this.

Gaia Theorist and climate visionary James Lovelock has just become the latest high-profile alarmist to admit, as indeed you appear to, the movement never actually knew what it was talking about.  Lovelock recanted his climate alarmist sins admitting, ‘The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing’.  True enough. But previously Lovelock was one of many quite prepared to ‘put  democracy on hold’ for the cause (leftie code for ‘stopping you and me  from having a say’ and them getting their way) Since Lovelock’s  defection, former alarmist colleagues have been busy trying to find a  low-carbon emitting bus to throw him under. Environmental writer Steve  Zwick claimed in his Forbes blog that Lovelock is “not a climate  scientist, let alone a contributor to the IPCC. Most climate scientists cringe when he starts to talk about the climate.” Its a shame Zwick didn’t warn us before Lovelock went AWOL that he was really a non-believer all along.

But then Zwick is intolerant only to those who disagree with him.  Zwick’s combustable rhetoric resonates more with early National Socialism than with Lovelock’s restrained academia. Even as polar bears, penguins, glaciers and icy seas are all reportedly flourishing – all contrary to alarmist predictions – Zwick’s intolerance has an  unmistakable Kristallnacht – style resonance. In his Forbes blog, Zwick  demands, ‘Let’s start keeping track of them now, and when the famines  come, let’s make them pay. Let’s let their houses burn. Shocked at reading back his own inflammatory rhetoric, Zwick feebly tries to damp  down the public response in various addendum blogs.

Not that we should misrepresent him. Zwick does not advocate burning down the houses of sceptics now. Zwick merely wants to exact revenge after the warming apocalypse breaks, advocating standing idly by as sceptics’ houses mysteriously spontaneously combust. I believe the KKK has a similar policy.

A brief perusal of his Facebook page reveals Zwick is a ‘follower’ and  defender of the character of Peter Gleick. Gleick, for the uninitiated, is the environmental scientist who recently hit the headlines as a proven liar when he impersonated a member of the Heartland Institute – whose  crime was to disagree with Gleick on climate issues – to steal some of  their documentation. It’s what eco-fascists don’t like to call criminal  deception’.

Journalist Alex Lockwood (in the left wing Guardian) proposes ‘the internet should be nationalised as a public utility in order to contain the superfluous claims of warming sceptics’. Fred Pearce (again in the Guardian) demands we ‘silence the doubters’. At the 2007 Live Earth concert, Robert F. Kennedy Jnr called for sceptics to be ‘treated as traitors’ following this up with the demand that all coal executives  ‘should be in jail for all eternity’.

Fascist intolerance? We’re only getting started.

Alarmist high priest James Hansen has called for sceptics to be put on trial for ‘high crimes against humanity’.  Hansen has also endorsed a book by Keith Farnish that advocates sabotage and environmental terrorism by blowing up dams and demolishing cities to return us to an agrarian age. Hard left Grist magazine columnist David  Roberts wants ‘war crimes trials for these bastards – some sort of  climate Nuremberg.’

Canadian environmentalist author, David Suzuki, suggests finding a ‘legal way of throwing our [climate foot-dragging political] leaders into  jail’ their climate negligence being ‘a criminal act’. Wouldn’t the Canadian Civil Liberties Association be appalled? After all, Suzuki is a former board member. Talking Points Memo is fairly representative of the views of hard left websites, asking, ‘At what point do we jail or  execute global warming deniers?’ Don’t you just love the liberal virtue of tolerance?

Kari Norgaard is professor of climate change at the University of Oregon. At a recent London conference she called for sceptics to be  viewed as ‘racists’ and climate scepticism as a ‘sickness’ needing to  be ‘treated’. And the infamous Climategate emails scandal revealed key contributors to the UN IPCC reports threatening science editors, burying data and sounding generally like Richard M. Nixon at his most  paranoid.

Surely we can expect better from government-sponsored officials?  Apparently not. The above mentioned Professor Norgaard has recently  urged President Obama to ‘ignore democracy’ and act on climate via  executive fiat. She also backed Obama’s appointment of John P.  Holdren – an avowed eugenist who has called for a ‘planetary regime’ to enforce abortions and mandatory sterilisation programmes – as his senior advisor on science and technology issues. Eugenist? Enforced  population control. Isn’t that what the German National Socialists were  most famous for practising? Not to mention Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot –  leftists all – of course.

In 2007, US EPA chief, Michael T. Eckhart was exposed as authoring an email threatening to ‘destroy’ the career of a climate sceptic. In April this year, a senior Obama-appointee to the EPA boasted that the  agency’s ‘philosophy’is to ‘crucify’and ‘make examples’ of US energy  producers – the people without whom all modern society would grind to a halt, by the way.

Let’s sum up for a moment: burning houses, threats to life, limb,  business, destroying careers, inflammatory rhetoric, deception, lies and  preventing free speech. The message from the eco-fascist Left is resolute: don’t mess with us, or else. These are not people Joe Public would want to break bread with.

And we should also be clear about this: fascism per se has its roots in the beliefs and ideology of the radical Left, not as is often portrayed, the Right, radical or otherwise. German National socialism (it still exists), communism, even Islamism, all favour Big Government, centralised power and control, the subversion of democratic processes and, especially, the restriction of liberty and free speech.

If fascism in any guise doesn’t get what it wants, it has always sought ways of grabbing power first by bullying others to keep silent, then asserting the need to ‘put democracy on hold’. We can all understand  the extreme need in times of war. But as Lovelock says, we have no  idea what the climate is doing. Yet the eco-fascists are gaining social  headway, imposing their will through regulatory ‘laws’ often emanating  from unaccountable quangos (quasi-non-governmental organizations),  unelected czars and other un-democratic agencies such as the  European Union.

Still not convinced things are that bad? Well here’s my last shot.

In April the US Department of Homeland Security released  its Environmental Justice Strategy. It makes provision to incorporate the notion of ‘environmental justice’ as a ‘homeland security’issue. If you thought Homeland was all about apple pie and keeping citizens  safe from terrorists, think again. Under President Obama they are  about to create local ‘federal law enforcement’ agents empowered specifically to enforce green laws and regulations in the name of ‘securing the homeland’. In short, a green police force. If it can happen in the land of the free, how long before the cop green-print recycles to  the socialist European Union?

Now I am not saying that you subscribe to any of this undemocratic nonsense yourself, but I like to remember the story about the drunk and the pig, I’m sure you know it…

‘Twas an evening in October,
I’ll confess I wasn’t sober,
I was carting home a load with manly pride.

When my feet began to stutter,
and I fell into the gutter,
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Then I lay there in the gutter,
and my heart was all a-flutter,
Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:

“You can tell a man that boozes
by the company he chooses,”
Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.

Recognising the future when we see it

May 17, 2012
The future: Just how different will it be? Picture Copyright DIsney

The future: Just how different will it be? Picture Copyright Disney

Fifty years ago, when I was 2 years old, the Scientific American wrote:

The possibility of applying machines of the digital-computer type to the problem of information retrieval has spurred an increasing number of workers. If we could perfect an information retrieval machine, the wisdom accumulated in the libraries of the world would be more readily available.

And during my lifetime, the seemingly unfeasible challenge of ‘perfecting an information retrieval machine’ has been solved. In other words, 50 years ago someone spotted the possibility that already existing trends could transform the world. And it happened.

I was reminded of this by an optimistic TED talk by Amory Lovins on how we can continue to live advanced lifestyles, but perfectly sustainably. He asserted that by 2050, the USA could transform its energy outlook, living sustainably, reducing carbon emissions by 80%, and all without any new inventions.

Now 2050 is a year I could conceivably live to see. I had planned to die in 2040, but if things are looking as good as Mr. Lovins implies I might stick around. His presentation style is dull, but the prospect he outlined seems exciting, at least as realistic, and much more desirable than that foreseen by Tim Jackson in his vision of a sustainable future.

The talk is filled with details but there are two basic themes: transportation – which currently is based around oil – and electricity supply – which currently is based around coal and gas. He envisages that both fields will be transformed. Transportation will become primarily based on electric vehicles, with residual use of biofuels by aeroplanes. The electricity for the electric vehicles and much else would be generated by a smart electrical grid  driven by sustainable technology, but with some residual use of gas.

His basic narrative is as follows:

  • Currently 67% of fuel use is used to move the car, not its contents. When carbon-fibre composites replace steel in the construction of cars, then the weight savings will allow smaller engines, which will require lighter bodies and a virtuous circle will drive big fuel savings and make electric cars economical. Eventually the change would happen for lorries and buses. Various policies and trends would drive the elimination of petrol as a fuel.
    • ‘Feebates’ would tax older cars and subsidise newer more efficient ones.
    • Road pricing would reduce congestion
    • Alternative communities – ride sharing – would use cars more efficiently.
    • Smart growth – building houses near places of work and shopping – reduce the need for car travel.
    • Traffic management efficiency will reduces stops and starts.
  • As a result of all these changes, ‘peak oil’ will come in demand not supply.
  • At the same time demand for electricity would fall:
    • Referring to a retrofit of the windows in the Empire State Building, he cites massive improvements in the use of heating and cooling
    • 60% of energy is used to run motors, and he says 32 specific improvements will reduce this load
    • Plant re-designs using fatter pipes and smaller pumps save energy and capital costs.
  • And renewable costs would fall
    • Germany has more solar workers that the US has steel workers
    • For each of the last 4 years half of new capacity has been renewable and total installed capacity now exceeds nuclear (60 GW). This much renewable power generation can be built every year.
    • Replace coal-fired stations with gas-fired stations.
    • Use a distributed grid model with linked micro-grids.
    • Reward utility companies for reducing people’s bills not selling them more electricity.

Now there are any number of holes that can be picked in this narrative. Will electric cars really take off? Do we even know how to mass produce carbon fibre products? Do we have enough lithium on Earth to build all those batteries? And so on. That is not the point.

  • Firstly it is good to hear any narrative which explains how, starting where we are now, we can make things better without having to beat ourselves up about bad we have all been.
  • Secondly, the USA that Mr. Lovins anticipates in 2050 is quite different to that which exists today. ‘Alternative’ communities and ‘building houses near to where people work’ while mundane ideas in themselves, represent significant departures from historical trends. These social changes are just as radical as the technological changes upon which he dwells.
  • And finally, the details don’t matter. The person who wrote the words at the head of the article might have envisioned – as the head of IBM was alleged to have done – that there might be a need for as many as 5 computers world-wide. The idea was correct, but the implementation was radically – and unimaginably – different.

My friend Ed – aneasthetised  by the dullness of the talk – asked me: is this really possible? And the answer is, ‘Yes, it is possible. But it is far from inevitable’. As you might imagine, Shell and BP have a more conventional view of how things will develop.

I am a carbon capture sceptic

May 15, 2012

The Mongstad demonstration CCS plant.

I sincerely hope that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will work. But a few calculations, and a little bit of reading leave me thoroughly sceptical. I can imagine that we can technically conquer the ‘CC’ part of the challenge, and perhaps even the ‘S’ part might be just possible. But it is another ‘S’ – one with two lines through it: ‘$’ – that makes it unfeasible.

The concept of CCS is simple: if power stations burn carbonaceous fuels such as methane or coal, they add a ‘capture unit’ which stops the carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Instead the carbon dioxide is ‘captured’ and somehow ‘stored’.

A few calculations reveal the scale of the CC and S problems. A large coal-fired power station produces roughly 1 gigawatt (GW) of electricity. During every hour of operation it produces around one million kilograms – 1000 tonnes – of carbon dioxide .

  • According to the counter on the Zero Emissions Platform (ZEP) web page, the entire world is currently capturing less than 500 tonnes per hour.
  • Assuming we can capture this carbon, the storage requirements as a liquid at room temperature would  fill a container 50 metres in diameter and 16 metres high. Every day.
  • On this mild May day, the UK would need 13 such containers, just for the coal-fired plant. And as if you didn’t know, there are 365 days in every year and the power station would be expected to operate around 90% of the time.

Of course engineers have proposed solutions to the storage problems.

  • The one I like the most is to react the carbon dioxide with calcium oxide to create calcium carbonate – limestone – which could be used in the construction industry.
  • The scheme which seems closest to implementation involves keeping the carbon dioxide as a gas, and sending it on a pipeline to underground geological structures. Typically these would be structures from which we have previously extracted natural gas or oil. This would generally require building new power stations near to places where the carbon dioxide could be stored.

Both schemes are eye-wateringly expensive. Covering the opening of the world largest CCS plant at Mongstad in Norway, Richard Black recounts the superlatives for the BBC with the headline ‘Norway aims for Carbon Leadership‘. However Spiegel Online captures the essence of the project in its headline and byline’:

Norway’s ‘Moon Landing’: Massive Carbon-Capture Facility Spawns Skepticism and Hope.

This is the world’s largest plant, but it is still only at demonstrator scale, capable of capturing less than 1% of the output from a large coal-fired power station i.e. just 80,000 tonnes per year.

To implement this technology requires investment at ‘moon landing’ levels. It requires the construction of a new infrastructure on a scale and complexity equivalent to the entire existing gas delivery infrastructure and – IMHO – that just isn’t going to happen in the UK. As Richard Black mention in an earlier BBC article, and as the EU’s ZEP report concluded,

CCS requires a secure environment for long term investment.

Sadly, no government on Earth can currently provide that.

Slowly I am coming to appreciate the role of finance in re-building our energy infrastructure. I now understand that if the capital investment required to drive a project forward is beyond a certain threshold, then long-term projects will never be funded privately. The combination of political and technical risk will simply never make purely financial sense. In contrast, solar PV and wind-farm projects can proceed incrementally with investment  on the level of millions of dollars, which will then add up to billions. These projects don’t make as much strategic sense as other investments, but the risk is much lower and it is possible to start them now. As the old saying goes “A wind farm in the field is worth two nuclear power stations on the drawing board.”

I suspect the threshold investment level is around ten billion US dollars – which means that the Severn barrage will never be built without explicit government investment. Similarly I cannot imagine that CCS will ever take off if it requires ‘moon landing’ levels of investment, and even building a single new nuclear power station looks unlikely.

What are ‘Climate Sceptics’ sceptical about?

May 11, 2012
Michael de Podesta

Michael de Podesta at work.

After giving a talk at the Royal Society of Chemistry in January 2012, I was asked to write a short article addressing points raised by ‘climate sceptics’. This article below was published in the May 2012 edition of Chemistry and Industry Magazine. 

I am a temperature measurement specialist from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, and for the last eight years, I have been talking to the public about the temperature measurement problem of the century – Global Warming.

Through those years it has been interesting to experience first-hand how public attitudes have changed. Initially, there was a good deal of scepticism about whether there were indeed any observed changes in Global Climate. This was followed by a couple of years in which people seemed to think the issue had been settled and it was obvious that the Global Climate was changing! In recent years, amongst a wide acceptance that ‘something is happening’ people have been concerned about whether there is anything we can do. But amongst this concern – partly stimulated by the Climate-Gate furore – there has been an emergence of a group with an almost militant sceptical stance that I simply don’t understand.

So why am I am concerned?

#1: Never Mind about ‘warming’ or ‘cooling’ – why is the Earth’s surface the temperature that it is? This has been understood for more than a century, and was the subject of primary school science songs in the 1950s. The greenhouse effect makes the Earth’s surface around 33 °C warmer than it would be if the atmosphere contained no water vapour or carbon dioxide. Most of the warming (around 31 °C) comes from the water vapour and liquid water in the atmosphere. The warming arises because water – and to a lesser extent carbon dioxide – absorb the infra-red radiation emitted from the Earth. It is the emission of this radiation which cools the Earth – balancing the warming by the Sun.

#2: The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing. There is no doubt about this, or about its origin: basic calculations and the isotopic signature of the changes indicate that it comes from burning carbonaceous fuels. The corresponding decrease in oxygen concentration has also been detected. The amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere is staggering. The atmosphere already contains around 2,800 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and each year we add roughly another 30 billion tonnes – approximately 1% of the total. The rise in atmospheric concentrations is around half this – roughly 0.5% per year – because carbon dioxide is absorbed by growing plants and by the oceans. This has resulted in a measurable decrease in the pH of seawater.

#3: What will be the effect of the extra carbon dioxide? At this point I could refer to any number of publications and models which indicate that we should expect an increase in the average surface temperature of the Earth. But actually, I don’t think that anybody knows what will happen. Although Climate prediction is easier in some ways than weather forecasting, there are many uncertainties. However in broad terms there are just three possible outcomes. Either the carbon dioxide will have no effect; or it will cause a cooling; or it will cause a warming. It would be astonishing if changing the concentration of an infra-red absorbing gas by 30% had no effect at all – truly unbelievable in fact. And although it is not predicted, a cooling of the Global Climate is conceivable – the Climate system has many non-linear elements and feedback responses. But a Global Cooling would have serious consequences too. However every published calculation I have seen predicts that the additional carbon dioxide will warm the Earth.

And that is why I am concerned.

  • Sceptics can argue whether the changes we have observed so far are real. Personally, I find the disappearance of two million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice quite convincing. But I understand that others may not.
  • Sceptics can argue whether the air temperature above the land surface of the Earth is really increasing. The 4 teams that have tried to average the meteorological records agree that since 1970 the Earth has warmed at a rate of more than 2 °C per century. But some dispute this.
  • Sceptics can argue that observed changes are just ‘natural cycles’ and point out that the ‘Little Ice Age’ was not caused by humans. To me this shows the sensitivity of the Climate System to small changes, but I understand others view things differently.
  • Sceptics can argue that it is better to enjoy the benefits of an economy based on carbon fuels and to just wait and see what happens. Personally, I think it would be prudent to switch to renewable energy sources, but I understand there are other arguments.
  • Sceptics can argue that the near unanimity of the scientific community is evidence of a conspiracy. I think there is an alternative – and simpler – explanation.
  • Sceptics can disagree with predictions of future temperature rises and sea-level changes. I sympathise: it is possible that these could be wrong.

Being sceptical about these latter points is understandable, but these are just details. We are putting colossal quantities of an infra-red active gas into the atmosphere and we don’t know what the effect will be. We should all be concerned.

%d bloggers like this: