The Weekly Carboholic: GPS degradation to affect climate measurements too


According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the the Global Positioning System (GPS) could degrade significantly as early as next year. The GAO report says that the existing GPS satellites are aging and need to be replaced, but new satellites are years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. For this reason, the constellation of 31 GPS satellites has a chance of falling below the minimum number needed (24 satellites) to provide the required accuracy for military uses starting in 2010.

Normally, the trials and tribulations of the GPS system might not be considered a climate issue, given that most people only know about the everyday items that use GPS signals – smart phones and car navigation systems for starters. But GPS is used for thousands of lesser known applications. For example, many telecommunications central offices use GPS receivers as the master clock that enables them to efficiently transmit data and voice communications across the country. And survey equipment uses GPS to plot road locations and elevation.

GPS is also used to track the 3000 Argo ocean probes that monitor temperature and salinity in the global ocean, and the movement of glaciers on Greenland and the amount of post-glacial isostatic rebound are both measured by very accurate GPS receivers. A less accurate GPS system would make these measurements less accurate as well, possibly resulting in related climate science data (on sea level rise, ocean heat content, etc.) becomming less reliable.

In a Twitter “press conference,” Air Force spokesman Col. Dave Buckman downplayed the risks found by the GAO. According to the IDG article, Col. Buckman said that it was “very unlikely” that users would even notice the reduction in accuracy. That may be true for the average person driving a car around town, but scientific users, like military users, need position to be as accurately determined as possible, especially for things like glaciers that move (generally) very slowly, or for sea level rise where the changes could be millimeters per year.


Secretary Chu suggests white roofs to combat climate disruption

According to The Independent, Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested that buildings have their roofs painted white in order to reduce climate disruption. The rationale is simple – white reflects energy. A white roof would reduce the amount of solar energy absorbed by the building, improving its energy efficiency by reducing the amoung of electricity required to cool the building. Less air conditioning means fewer carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel power plants.

In addition, white roofs (and lightly colored walls and streets) would increase the amount of energy reflected from the surface back into space. This is called “albedo,” and the more energy is reflected, the less is absorbed and kept within the Earth’s climate system. In fact, as the Carbo mentioned back in 2008, the albedo effect is huge – the energy reflected alone could save the equivalent of 44 billion tons CO2. The Independent article quotes Sec. Chu as saying it would be like removing every car in the world from the road for 11 years.

This idea is relatively intuitive to anyone who owns a dark-colored car or who uses a windshield sun shade – dark-colored cars or cars without the sun shade get much hotter in the summer sun than light-colored and/or shaded cars do. But there’s another beneficial side effect too – light colors not only reflect energy from the sun back out into space, but also reflect the building’s own energy back into the building. As a result, lightly-colored buildings will not only need less energy for cooling in the summer, but they’ll also need less energy for heating in the winter.

All that for the cost of a couple million coats of paint.


Ecuador wants cash to leave carbon underground

Oil is carbon that hasn’t been burned yet. At least, that’s the argument that the government of Ecuador is making. According to the Washington Post, Ecuador is trying to get carbon market credit for leaving the 410 million tons of CO2 in the ground instead of extracting it and selling it (in the form of 850 million barrels of oil) on the oil market.

While there has been some discussion around the Web that paying nations and companies to leave fossil fuels in the ground might be a viable method to quickly reduce CO2 emissions, the Post reports that the Ecuador proposal is the first of its kind. This partly due to the fact that the Kyoto Protocol specifically prohibits claiming energy reserves left untouched as a carbon credit. The Post quotes Ecuadoran environmentalist Roque Sevílla as saying Ecuadorans hope that the Copenhagen meeting this December might loosen the rules and allow the Ecuador proposal to become a “pilot project.”

There is one major problem, however. The land above the oil reserves is a National Park and is supposedly already protected from drilling. This means that Ecuador is asking to be paid for not extracting oil that shouldn’t be extracted in the first place, and this could be considered fraudulent. As such, the Ecuadoran proposal may fail even if carbon credit payments for fossil fuels not extracted are approved in Copenhagen. Time will tell.


Subsidies, quotas warping “renewable” definition

What do the following things all have in common: trash pellets, nuclear reactors, coal mining waste, and microwaved tires? According to the NYTimes, depending on what state you’re in, they’re all considered as renewable as solar power or wind energy.

According to the article, companies are lobbying the state and federal governments to include their particular energy source in the definition of what is renewable.

“A banana is renewable — you can grow them forever,” said Bob Eisenbud, a vice president for government affairs at Waste Management, which receives about 10 percent of its annual revenues of $13.3 billion from waste and landfill energy generation. “A banana that goes into garbage and gets burned,” he added, is “a renewable resource and producing renewable energy.”

But is it really? The article says that many environmentalists disagree with Waste Management’s characterization, or with the inclusion of other sources of energy that emit CO2 via burning something.

The environmentalists have a point. Burning tires that have been microwaved in an effort to make them burn more efficiently is a great idea because millions of tires take up huge amounts of space and can harbor insects that are vectors for disease (especially mosquitoes). But tires are petroleum products, a carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and so burning tires isn’t a whole lot different from burning oil directly.

Similarly, converting waste to electricity and burning it reduces the waste stream, but is solid waste a “renewable resource” or a byproduct of modern civilization? I’m personally inclined to say “byproduct,” at least until you consider landfill gas emissions (mostly methane). However, when carbon capitalism finally comes along, landfill emissions of methane will become ~20x more expensive than the CO2 emitted from burning the methane, so the methane “renewable” question will likely take care of itself.

The NYTimes article points out that the problem of defining “renewable” goes beyond whether burning waste should qualify or not. Hydropower is certainly renewable, but it’s already heavily subsidized by the government. So should the government give hydropower utilities even more money than they’re already getting?

Graham Mathews, a lobbyist representing Covanta Energy, summarized the first part of this problem for the NYTimes article by saying “Energy policy is balkanized by region, and that dictates the debate. The politics become incredibly complicated.” In essence, since there is no federal law defining what is and, just as importantly, what is not “renewable,” state politics will define what does and does not qualify for federal credits and what technologies apply to state renewable electricity standards.

But Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate energy committee, said that defining too many questionable technologies as “renewable” throws the numbers “way out of whack,” and then “the whole purpose of the renewable electricity standard is defeated.”

I’m sure that companies lobbying for including nuclear or coal mine waste as “renewable” would never want to defeat a renewable electricity standard….

7 replies »

  1. As do I, actually. Their request may be fraudulent or not – that’s not for me to decide, although I’ll happily raise the question. But they had the guts to ask at least, and the worst thing that happens to them is the international community says “no.” If that happens, they’re no worse off than they are now.

  2. Be careful of what you ask for. Wouldn’t this mean countries would be less likely to designate national parks on the off chance that they’d get paid to NOT drill/pump/whatever if the source wasn’t officially on national parkland?

  3. Good questions. No idea to who pays. Devil in the details and all that.

    The national park unintended consequence is tricky. If the nation’s laws are written that mineral rights under national parks are off limits, then getting paid to protect something that should already be protected is questionable. If oil development is going to happen regardless of the nation’s laws, then paying the nation reinforces corruption.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, or even if there really is one.

  4. From what I understand, there are actually 2 GPS systems out there, one for military and one for civilian. Is the military version in danger? Also, why couldn’t they save money and use the military system for civilian use with proper safeguards?


    • Actually, there’s one set of US satellites that are used two different ways – the military signal is intentionally degraded for civilian use via encryption or some other coding method. At one point I heard that the military had stopped doing this, but I wouldn’t trust my memory on that. In addition, there are some places where ground stations have been put into place in order to produce much higher accuracy measurements within range of the ground station. But these stations are expensive and won’t work for scientific uses like the Argo ocean float system.

      Because the signal is the same for both uses, the loss of satellites will affect both the civilian and the military system.