Energy

The Weekly Carboholic: China's carbon emissions exceed the U.S.'

carboholic

It’s official – China has officially overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). In 2007, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that it expected China to exceed the U.S. by the end of the year, but a new Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency study reported by the New York Times says that China’s 2007 CO2 emissions were 14% higher than the U.S.’, and that China’s emissions expanded by 8% from 2006. This is why environmentalist organizations and other parties concerned about global heating around the world are calling on China to be part of whatever follow-on agreement replaces the Kyoto Protocol.

However, that being said, the story also points out that the U.S. per capita emissions are way, way higher than China’s – 19.4 tons vs. 5.1 tons per capita respectively. The NYTimes article says that Russia’s and the EU’s emission per person are 11.8 and 8.6 tons respectively. This tells us two things. First, if China is planning on having a standard of living roughly equal to Europe’s, then China’s emissions are likely going to rise at least another 70% before they start falling as the EU’s emissions are supposed to. That’s huge. Second, it means that Americans are going to have to figure out how to do everything we do today with less than half of the CO2 emissions we currently have, or we’ll have to accept that our economy and culture are going to undergo a massive collapse.

Both are Bad Things™.

(Thanks to S&R’s own Dr. Denny for the link)

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Nuclear advocates (disclosure: I am one) often claim that nuclear power generates no greenhouse gases (GHGs). This is true, but only on a very limited basis – the nuclear reaction that leads to the generation of electricity releases no GHGs. Unfortunately, mining uranium ore, refining it and separating usable U283 from it’s largely useless U235 isotopic cousin, and then reprocessing or storing the waste are all energy-intensive, and so hardly GHG-free. Even so, though, IPS News reported last week that the IEA has called for the construction of 1,400 new nuclear power plants between now and 2050. This would be more than three times as many plants than are operating today and would require massive new uranium mining operations.

According to the article, though, the IEA proposal has been met with downright hostility from some of the environmental community (such as Greenpeace and, as quoted in the article, the German Green Party) for one main reason – 1,400 new reactors would require spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed into new fuel, and that’s both an environmental nightmare and a potential proliferation problem.

It’s also vital if nuclear power is going to be a bridge technology. The question is whether alternative technologies can be commercialized fast enough to make wide-scale nuclear generation unnecessary. And that’s a question that the utilities, governments, utilities, and citizens will determine over the coming years.

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According to the AFP, the Jason 2 oceanographic satellite will be launched tomorrow from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Jason 2 will orbit with the Jason 1 satellite and track sea level rise along with ocean surface topography. Beyond determining the effects and locations of sea level rise, mapping the surface of the ocean aids in the detection of El Nino/La Nina events, the accurate mapping of oceanic currents, and estimating the future strength of tropical cyclones.

And, for a space geek like me, it’s just plain cool.

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Back in March, the Weekly Carboholic reported on a paper that indicated there had been no observed oceanic heating since 2003, and that the scientists involved with the ARGO system that took the data were at a loss to explain why. One of the possible causes was an undetected systemic bias to the data that was yet to be removed. A new study reported by The Canberra Times points to a new analysis of ocean temperature data since 1961 that discovered just such a bias in the data.

It turns out that the “expendable bathythermograph” devices had manufacturing flaws that led to them systematically mis-measuring the depth to which they’d plunged as they were taking temperature measurements. The researchers were able to correct or minimize the bias in literally millions of temperature measurements since 1961. The corrected data has revealed that the oceanic temperature and sea level rise climate models have been underestimating oceanic heating and that actual measured heating and thermal expansion has been underestimated by over 50%.

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Scientists have begun to suspect that radical changes in climate have been at least partly responsible for most of the mass extinctions throughout the history of the Earth. Whether triggered by cometary or asteroidal impact, the eruption of massive volcanoes, or wild shifts in the sun’s output and the Earth’s Milankovich cycles, the end result has been a radically altered climate that the majority of species alive at the time cannot adapt to. But for the first time a scientist has suggested that changes in sea level is the driving factor, not the climate change.

According to an AFP article in the Independent Online (IOL), geologist and sole study author Shanan Peters of the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that the last five mass extinctions all correlated with massive changes in sea level, including the suspected impact that corresponds to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Peters appears to suggest that it’s the flooding or exposure of new land due to sea level changes that cause mass extinctions.

While it’s true that the flooding caused by rising sea levels would flood entire regions and likely drive local species to extinction, it’s fair to ask whether the correlation between that extinction means that it’s the sea level rise itself that is ultimately the causative event. For example, when tectonic forces lifted the Isthmus of Panama out of the ocean, it cut the Atlantic off from the Pacific and totally reshuffled oceanic currents around the globe – should we blame the currents for causing extinctions, or the rise of the Isthmus of Panama? If the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet, the impact itself probably didn’t kill most of them, the resulting (likely) centuries-long cold snap is what did the killing, but does that mean we blame the radically colder climate for the extinction, or do we blame the comet or asteroid that likely caused the cold in the first place?

In my opinion, it’s fair to say that there was correlation between changes in sea level and mass extinctions, if Summers did actually find such a correlation. But given how the ocean is more reactive to the environment around it (atmospheric temperature, tidal effects, solar heating, etc.) than causative, I believe that it’s far more likely that the changes in climate and geology that drove sea level changes are the actual causative agents in those mass extinctions.

10 replies »

  1. Pingback: www.buzzflash.net
  2. I just read an article in American Scientific that you might want to discuss in relation to this; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2040532.stm (the article had to be bought in the online AS version, we have the magazine subscription only)..
    anyhow, quick question before I take on my day.. how do you think the use and building of nuclear energy plants can be ‘sold’ to a very hardcore group of environmentalists? I myself am a ‘permie’ (permaculturist) but I consider myself pragmatic enough to understand the fact that energy for the masses can only come through something like nuclear energy. Since you mentioned you were a proponent, how would you frame an answer that could at least ‘nudge’ people into thinking about possibly accepting that notion. One can never make people turn around a 180degrees on their positions..
    alright, gotta go now..
    Ingrid

  3. Ingrid – I think the first thing to do is make it clear that you understand that the concerns of hard-core anti-nuclear activists are valid. Even though I’m a proponent of nuclear, it’s not because I’m ignoring the track record of nuclear power in the US and the former Warsaw Pact states. I recognize that many existing plants suck, that there were a lot of really crappy designs out there that are still operating, and that we haven’t figured out the best way to deal with radioactive waste. Once you do that, it gives you a starting point with which to explain why, in the face of all those concerns, you still think nuclear is a better option than coal or even natural gas, or why you feel that nuclear is a necessary bridge technology to truly “green” technologies that can power human civilization without crushing our standard of living.

    For example, radioactive waste is absolutely a problem. But not only are there a number of different ways to handle it (each with their relative strengths and weaknesses), we have to ask ourselves whether a small amount of highly radioactive waste is more or less dangerous than a comparably massive amount of coal waste, wastes that are presently much less regulated than radioactive waste. Did you know that coal ash (solid coal waste) is radioactive itself but is unregulated and so is often used as filler in gypsum wallboard (drywall) and that nuclear power plants are required to report releases of radioactivity into the environment that are much less radioactive than what is released by coal in its smoke and fly ash?

    Many people have been (understandably) conditioned to fear radioactivity, yet I get more radioactivity from living at altitude (Colorado) in a state with high amounts of radium in the ground (and I have a basement) than I would if I pitched a tent and slept every night on top of a nuclear plant’s containment vessel. Not only that, but the human immune system requires some amount of radiation to stay healthy – people in radiation-free environments actually get sick, because the mechanisms in their bodies to repair radiation damage go haywire when there’s nothing to fix.

  4. . . . people in radiation-free environments actually get sick, because the mechanisms in their bodies to repair radiation damage go haywire when there’s nothing to fix.

    You mean nuclear power plants as a giant immunization booster shot? Novel argument.

    What to do with nuclear waste must be a precursor to any discussion of expanding nuclear power.

    Would that we could discuss free energy without being dismissed as part of the tinfoil-hat crowd.

  5. that’s a very logical and sound approach Brian. From what little I investigated myself on my ‘permie’ blog, there are safer versions than the American ones. And apparently up in Canada they’ve been doing particular research… I have to delve into the belly of that ol’ blog to look for the references. Even James Lovelock, from the gaia theory, has considered nuclear energy to be a viable alternative (http://www.ecolo.org/lovelock/). Shock and horrors ensued naturally BUT.. as you said, the first thing to do with any hot button issue, is to acknowledge concerns and valid reasons for opposition.. Jacques Ellul (50s French philosopher of ‘truth and propaganda) basically said that you cannot change people’s opinion 180degrees on anything, you need to nudge them little by little..
    Ingrid

  6. You mean nuclear power plants as a giant immunization booster shot? Novel argument.
    I wouldn’t go that far, Russ. Look at more as a way to point out to people that radiation isn’t necessarily evil, that our collective fear of radiation is not entirely rational – if we need a little radiation to be healthy, then radiation in all its forms isn’t bad, only large doses of radiation are bad.

    Or, put another way, atropine is a poison that can stop your heart, but it’s also one of the few things that will keep you alive if you’re exposed to sarin nerve gas. Many toxins that kill you at high doses are useful medicinally at low levels. We’ve been conditioned to think that radiation is bad at all exposure levels when that’s not actually true.

    Waste is a problem, there’s no doubt about it, but while nuclear waste is very, very dangerous, it’s so concentrated that, in some respects, it’s easier to store and dispose of than coal ash is. There’s also the fact that, if designed and operated right, new reactors will produce far less waste than the reactors we already have, and some reactor designs could actually use some of the existing waste as fuel.

    That being said, there are solutions to the waste problem. My personal favorite is vitrifying waste into glass (which dissolves very, very slowly in water), encasing the glass in stainless steel and concrete drums, and then burying those drums at the bottom of an oceanic trench, preferably in a subduction zone that will suck the waste slowly down into the mantle. By the time the waste is even close to being expelled volcanically, it will have largely decayed and been diluted enough to be effectively harmless compared to the background radiation of all the other lava or ash.

    But that’s just me.

  7. I was having a nice email discussion with my dad yesterday about nuclear power (he’s a former nuclear submarine captain, and has enough training in nuclear power from the Navy he might actually be qualified to be called a nuclear engineer, I’m fuzzy on that part). He would love there to be new and better nuclear power plants in the US, but acknowledges we have some hurdles to clear, including security for the fuel, especially if we start hauling it from one nuclear power plant to the next as it gets reused.

    I’m a greenie, but I spent my childhood around nuclear submarines. It’s a different perspective on nuclear power when you’ve slept next to one (remember Sam, you ignore the easy shots). It’s interesting to see the tide turn within environmental groups from “all nuclear is bad” to “uh, about those nuclear power plants”.

    Nuclear power isn’t scary. This is scary: I drove a nuclear submarine, I was 12.

  8. Does China have to claim all of its CO2 emissions, or do the emissions that come from manufacturing stuff for America count towards America’s (or Europe’s) totals? And if China didn’t spend so much time/energy making products for the rest of the world, what would their emissions totals be?

    I’m not trying to let China off of any hooks. But every time there is an inter-governmental talk about climate there is the “rich” world argument that the “developing” world needs to cut its emissions by equal or better amounts than the “rich” world. The Chinese and the Indians have a point when they say that it is hardly fair for White people to get rich without worrying about the environment while Yellow, Brown, Red, and Black people must subsume their desire for wealth to the common good.

    I think that they’d be better served arguing that a large chunk of their emissions should really belong to Whitey.

    I’d like something better than nuclear, but nuclear is a far far far cry better than coal and petroleum. I do worry that the nuclear industry will work to quash other developments…as was the case with wave power in England a few decades back.

  9. or do the emissions that come from manufacturing stuff for America count towards America’s (or Europe’s) totals?

    I suspect, but can’t prove, that China’s emissions that are on behalf of the developed world still count against China. Which isn’t fair by any stretch.

    I worry about nuclear being used by the big utilities (who know nuclear and probably have an easier time lobbying for it than for wind, solar, etc.) to squash other things as well, and that’s definitely something that activists of all stripes should be on the look-out for. And I’d rather have something other than nuclear too, but I just don’t see a short-term option at this point. I’d love to be proven wrong, though.

  10. I don’t think that you will be proven wrong, Brian. You could be, but you won’t be. I say this because we’re looking for the silver bullet, or rather we’re looking for THE thing to replace petroleum.

    I don’t think that we can approach renewable energy that way.

    Solar and wind are the big look getters. Where i live, solar could provide a small amount of energy. Wind could provide a fair to great amount of energy, but the best place to put windfarms would be off shore…unfortunately, fresh water freezes so the units can’t be floating. (And since there’s only a very few places that could do off shore, fresh water wind farming i don’t expect to see a lot of research into it.) Hydrogen seems to make the most sense for us. But hydrogen makes no sense for Arizona.

    So i feel left with the lesser of two evils (though coal is cheap because they need to fill the holds of the boats with something when they come to get the iron).

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