The Weekly Carboholic

coskata_logo.gifThis week we start off with some interesting news from the world’s largest auto maker, General Motors. According to the AFP via Raw Story, GM is partnering with renewable energy company Coskata to convert trash into ethanol. Supposedly, the energy return is 7.7x more energy out than is used in creating the fuel, and the inputs are pretty much anything that has carbon in it – trees, grass, oil, even plastic bags and trash. In the case of trash, tree bits, and even biological wastes, I can buy that this might be true. And given that Coskata’s process might be able to help us address another persistent environmental problem, namely trash disposal, further research and development is certainly warranted. However, it’s unclear from Coskata’s website and description of their process how it can do that. Last week’s Carboholic showed that switchgrass, when grown on actual farms, had only a 5.4x energy output just from the farm yields (never mind the losses incurred in the actual ethanol conversion process), yet Coskata claims that they’re getting much more than that from a lot of different feedstocks. Something’s not adding up here, and I hope it’s not GM marketingspeak getting ahead of the actual science. One thing that the renewable biofuel market doesn’t need more of is false hope – biofuels have enough problems as it is.

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worldwatch.gifAccording to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, the Worldwatch Institute is claiming that global heating is already dramatically changing the global economy. Specifically, Worldwatch has seen a 33% increase in funding for renewable energy from 2005 to 2006, and the increase is expected to be an additional 27% in 2007. In dollar terms, the increase was from $38 billion in 2005 to $51 billion in 2006 to an expected $65 billion in 2007. And this is just the investment in renewable energy. Chemical giant DuPont is already 75% below their 1991 levels of carbon emissions and have saved themselves about $3 billion in the process. Swedish researchers have discovered that organic beef produce 40% less carbon and take 85% less energy. There are 575 global heating and environmental hedge funds and socially responsible investing has become the fourth largest venture capital category globally. All in all, the planet is already adapting its economy to face the challenges of global heating. And that’s a good start.

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In other economic news, the BBC reported last week that Japan is preparing a massive package of aid that will go to developing nations to help them cut carbon emissions. The precise details of the aid will be announced later this month, but the BBC claims that Japan will offer over $10 billion in aid, much of it to developing Asian countries.

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outback.JPGUnfortunately, while the economic picture is looking reasonably good right now, the same cannot be said about the prospects for Australia’s Outback. The AFP reported last week that researchers in Australia expect that global heating will make the notoriously harsh Outback even harsher. Specifically, scientists from the University of Adelaide and Charles Sturt University expect that the long-running drought will get even worse than it already is, flooding will worsen as a result of drought-parched soils incapable of absorbing what little rain does fall, that cyclones (aka hurricanes to those of you in the U.S.) will strike more often and harder, and that exotic diseases will afflict even more of the Australian continent. Given the economic hardships faced by Aboriginals living in the Outback, these effects are expected to hit them the hardest.

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Similarly, there’s some bad news about the Minnesota peatlands – they’re expected to decompose faster in the hotter weather. The problem with decomposing peat is that the decomposition process dumps significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And while the Minnesota peatlands are decomposing, think about this fact for a moment – the decomposing peat in Minnesota represents only about 1% of all peatlands in the world, and if Minnesota’s peat is decomposing due to rising temperatures, it’s a pretty good bet that a significant percentage of the rest of the world’s peat will be doing the same. And increasing temperatures aren’t the only thing that can increase carbon emissions from peat – drying it out by lowering the water table can as well, and both global heating and population growth can cause water tables to fall. Thankfully, the state of Minnesota has a plan to keep the carbon content of the peat bogs right where it is – raising the water table, restoring drained areas, and applying “best management practices” to peatlands in order to keep them as natural as possible.

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Global heating deniers like pointing to Antarctica and saying that it’s adding significantly more ice than it’s losing. Not only has NASA measured the most dramatic melting on Antarctica in 30 years between 1999 and 2005, but a new paper from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab says that radar mapping of the West Antarctic ice shelf shows that it’s losing ice at almost the same rate as Greenland. The paper’s lead author Eric Rignot of JPL has hypothesized that the cause is warming in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a deep ocean current that runs close enough to the edge of the Western Antarctic ice shelf to cause it to melt from below. Whether global heating is truly the cause is still an open question, but that’s the simplest explanation that fits all the facts to date.

2 comments on “The Weekly Carboholic

  1. Another excellent post in this series.

    I was struck by this: “Swedish researchers have discovered that organic beef produce 40% less carbon and take 85% less energy.” While i would hardly call it a “discovery”, it points to some interesting facets of environmentalism. First, we can probably assume that by organic they mean grass fed, grazing (as the cow is built to do) if you will. Grass farming of livestock used to be the way it was done, and if you dig a little, you’ll find that it is regaining popularity. Go to EatWild.org to find farms near you.

    Soil is an amazingly complex cosmos all its own. We all know that plants metabolize C02, much of that gets transferred into the rootzone, where it becomes food for soil microbes. Plowing, however, disturbs those microbes. Organic livestock farmers generally call themselves “grass farmers” because their only real job is to grow grass. The pasture is stripped so that the cows are let into certain areas at certain times. Generally, the cows graze a strip, followed by chickens, sheep, or goats. No strip is ever grazed to the ground. Top soil actually builds because the grazing forces the grasses into new growth, the cows drop manure/fertilizer right on the crop land, and the chickens degrub that cow dung while spreading the manure and adding some of their own. (Cow and chicken shit together form a well balanced fertilizer)

    In effect, the sod layer and the topsoil beneath it is never disturbed. Water retention improves dramatically. And the whole system is elegantly efficient. Rather than buying $250,000 combine to harvest the feed crop and drag it to the barn for the cows to eat, the farmer lets the cows do the harvesting themselves. No manure pits, no manure spreaders, etc. The idea is that rather than ramp up production to make a profit, you cut costs to make a profit. Old fashioned farm efficiency. Oh, and by the way, you haven’t even tasted beef until you’ve tasted grass fed beef (much higher in vitamins too), and you might be surprised to find that egg yolks are actually a deep orange and so stiff that you can separate them from the white with your fingers.

    Environmentalism starts at the breakfast table: farm well, eat well, live well.

    A very good personal story (and its easy to skip the bits about the pros and cons of particular grazing crops) is called “All Flesh is Grass” (sorry, can’t recall the author). The Salatin (Poly-Face Farm) section of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is also a good source for understanding the method.

    Thanks again,
    AGK

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