When did things get so complicated?

Looking through my old scribblings I found this from 2007, when my CAGW scepticism was still in the embryonic stage.

They say the best way to boil a frog is slowly. If you drop a frog into a pan of hot water, it’ll say “Bugger that for a game of soldiers” and hop straight out. But if you drop it into cold water, and slowly increase the temperature, it won’t notice it’s getting warmer until it’s too late. Lately I feel like that frog: at one time it seemed easy to form a view about the rights and wrongs of this issue or that, and decide whether I could do anything, and if so, what it should be. But nowadays I just feel bewildered. Is it just me? Or did the world suddenly get a lot more complicated?

Take the environment as an example. We know we should recycle our waste (or better still, reuse it or allow others to do so). We shouldn’t throw stuff away. We shouldn’t put certain things in the rubbish (batteries/toner/glass/newspapers/magazines). Reduce our water consumption as far as possible. Save electricity by switching appliances off when they aren’t going to be used for a while. Some nice, simple rules that are easy to follow.

We stopped using CFCs because of ozone depletion (and they think the hole in the ozone layer might actually repair itself by the end of this century – hoorah!) We switched to unleaded fuel.

Nuclear power was sold to us way back when as a source of free or almost free electricity. Of course, that wasn’t why we wanted in on nuclear power generation – it was really about generating plutonium for nuclear weapons. Accidents such as those that happened at Four Mile Island, Windscale, Chernobyl, Tokaimura. Add to that the problem of what to do with the waste and we see why nuclear power has rightly earned itself a bad name.

Solar power is inefficient. Wind turbines consume more energy to build and decommission at the end of their life than they generate in their lifetime. Wave generation has undesirable effects on estuary wildlife.

Unleaded fuel was introduced to reduce the amount of lead in the environment. This was A Good Thing. But the additives used instead of lead to increase unleaded petrol’s octane rating are often more toxic and some are carcinogenic. And removing lead from petrol did nothing to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted, which we are told is a major cause of global warming.

So now we’re told we should start thinking about alternative fuels. The Golden Child is biofuels, and in particular bioethanol. Using bioethanol, they say, will reduce carbon emissions because the carbon released from engines which use it was not in the environment anyway and was just temporarily locked up in the plants which were used to greate the fuel – e.g. sugar cane. Using biofuel also has the potential to improve global security; we won’t any longer feel the need to invade middle eastern countries to make sure the oil keeps flowing our way. Seems like a no-brainer.

But it’s not all good news.

In Brazil, the world’s largest producer of bioethanol, 10% of all fuel sold at the pump is bioethanol. This figure is achieved by devoting just 3% of it’s agricultural land to bioethanol production, derived from sugar cane. To reach that same 10% figure in the USA would require 30% of the USA’s land, and in Europe, we’d need to set aside 72%.

But let’s suppose that we can do that, and that we can mix petrol with 10% ethanol. Will it make things any better? The cost of producing the biomass to produce that much ethanol requires the use of fertilisers, pesticides, etc. which have negative environmental effects. Converting the biomass to ethanol also requires a lot of energy, leading to increased carbon emissions.

The USA is currently producing ethanol from corn, and is predicted to turn over about 20% of it’s corn to this purpose by 2007. If the USA converts a significant proportion of the corn it produces to ethanol, world supplies of corn will be significantly reduced, leading to price increases. The corn required to fill an SUV tank just once could feed one person for a year. Bioethanol production may well turn into a competition between the 800 million people in the world who own motor cars and the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day and spend over half their income on food.

Producing ethanol from corn is more environmentally costly than from sugar cane, as the corn starch first has to be converted to sugar. Ok, so what about sugar cane? Is that a viable alternative? Well, it’s better at producing ethanol, but what other factors are there? Brazil and others are seriously ramping up their sugar cane production as the market for biofuels gathers pace. This requires more land, both to grow cane and to grow other crops displaced by sugar cane. Where does this land come from? The rainforest. Sugar cane requires a lot of water. Not a problem in Brazil, but in countries without plentiful rainfall, this water has to come from somewhere. Already, in parts of India, irrigating sugar cane has depleted ground water and reduced water tables by up to 50 metres. Ultimately this will lead to dry wells, parched fields and yet more hungry people.

Theoretically it ought to be possible to use biomass other than food crops grown specifically for the purpose. Straw, waste hardwood and waste paper might be a viable source of biomass. But this hasn’t been done successfully yet, and very few companies are even trying. And what if we do? Much of our paper already comes from recycled sources. If we start using waste to produce biofuels, won’t we have to cut down more trees to keep ourselves supplied with paper? I guess it’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with the bright idea of simply cutting down trees to make biofuels, cutting out the paper stage.

See what I mean? It’s just too complicated


One response to “When did things get so complicated?”

  1. abuVeliki says :

    I agree with much of what you write but the claim that “wind turbines consume more energy to build and decommission at the end of their life than they generate in their lifetime” got me wondering.

    All studies I found via a quick web search show energy payback periods below or around twelve months. One Example: http://ele.aut.ac.ir/~wind/en/tour/env/enpaybk.htm Sure, this one is authored by a wind industry association but I doubt they and all the others are wrong by an order of magnitude. Any pointers?

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