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Weekend Thoughts: Patrick Mazza on Climate Change/Ulf Bossel on Energy
Nov 24, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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"The New World War II" below comes from Patrick Mazza of Climate Solutions, the Pacific Northwest think-tank. It's a provocative response to the just-published climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Sustainability and Energy" after that provides one of the most original perspectives on ways of thinking about different energy sources, It's by Dr. Ulf Bossel, Director of the Swiss-based European Fuel Cell Forum , whom we met when we both spoke the "Driving Sustainability" conference in Reykjavik, Iceland in September­calcars-news/­861.html . After you read through that, read a bonus insight you may find useful.

19 November 07­?s=journal&aid=21

The alarm bell is gonging. The world's climate scientists have now sounded a call to general quarters - The world must now level off global warming pollution, begin to reduce it within seven years, and cut it up to 85 percent by 2050, or set off the greatest catastrophes in the history of the human race, and some of the greatest in the Earth's geological record.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading scientific body on global warming and climate change, released its latest scientific synthesis report over the weekend­pdf/­assessment-report/­ar4/­syr/­ar4_syr_spm.pdf . It came as the firmest statement yet that the climate crisis is now upon us and immediate action to dramatically reduce the fossil fuel pollution causing global warming is crucial.

"Warming of the climate system is now unequivocal," the scientists report. New heat records continue to be made, sea level rise is accelerating and tropical storms are intensifying. If humanity does not quickly gain control of its global warming emissions, a quarter of more of the Earth's species are threatened with extinction. Our own species is threatened with water stress and accompanying disruptions in food supplies. This Washington Post article presents a good summary of the findings.

It appears global warming and its effects are accelerating faster than expected, and even the harsh new IPCC report might be too optimistic. This Der Spiegel commentary notes details that did not make it into the synthesis:

  • Since 2000 carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have been growing over twice as fast as the average in the 1990s.
  • The Arctic ice pack surface reached a record low in 2007, 23 percent below the previous record in 2007. These images reveals the extent of ice loss.
  • While Earth's oceans and plants have been absorbing half of human CO2 emissions, it appears their capacity to do so is declining.

The goal now is to hold temperature increases below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, beyond which loss of rainforests and polar ice becomes virtually inevitable. And when rainforests release their massive carbon stores into the atmosphere, while sunlight-reflecting icecaps turn into solar energy-absorbing blue oceans, climate change begins to feed on itself. Ultimately, these natural feedbacks could easily dwarf the effects of human global warming emissions, creating an utterly horrifying reality for our children's generation and those that come after.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressing the IPCC meeting in Spain where the findings were announced, said, "These things are as frightening as science-fiction movies. But they are even more terrifying, because they are real."

It is clear that we humans have already committed our planet to a level of climate damage. Even if we stay below the 3.6 degree threshold, the Post article notes, " the seas will continue to swell for centuries from thermal expansion and meltwater from ice caps and glaciers; the oceans will turn more acidic; most coral reefs will become lifeless expanses; floods and storms will increase; and millions of people will be short of the water they need, the report said."

As a climate activist now going into my tenth year working on this issue, I have often pondered why it is so hard for people to wrap their heads around it. My conclusion is that it is so large and encompassing it is out of scale with virtually anything else we can comprehend. Nuclear war or an asteroid strike are comparable, but neither of those are everyday affairs. Global warming is happening all around us, as a result of the most mundane of our activities - driving a car, turning on the lights, buying stuff made and transported with fossil energy. It's hard for us to see what's happening because we are so enmeshed in it.

This sets up a great deal of cognitive dissonance. We go about our everyday business, head to work, take care of the kids, do the shopping, while all the time our world plunges towards catastrophe. In some ways we seem like a global RMS Titanic, where the passengers danced to the band while the captain ordered the boilers stoked with more coal, trying to set a new trans-Atlantic speed record - All the time, headed toward the iceberg.

Rather than playing out the voyage of those unfortunate souls, let us be inspired by another historic parallel, World War II and the people who won it. Faced with deadly peril they rose to the challenge with full commitment and dedication. Individually they planted victory gardens. Together they built the ships and planes, and fought the fights needed to win. In just the same way, we now must do all we can personally to reduce our own emissions, while we join together to make fundamental changes in our energy and economic systems.

Those broader changes will require a combination of private sector innovation and public policy leadership. Most crucially we need to set firm legal limits on our global warming emissions with targets and timetables to progressively reduce levels. They must achieve or even better exceed the targets laid out by the IPCC scientists. We can no longer treat the atmosphere as a free dumping ground.

The changes required to meet the climate challenge are truly as large as anything we have undertaken since World War II. The scale can seem overwhelming without taking into account a hugely important and hope-inspiring fact - Since the challenge originates from everywhere, we can take significant actions to address the challenge anywhere. Today, led by Seattle, U.S. cities representing a quarter of the American population have committed to try to reach Kyoto climate treaty goals. States representing half the U.S. population are at some stage of setting limits on their own global warming emissions, including economic giants such as California, New York and Illinois.

Northwest states including Washington and Oregon are engaged in this process, with some significant gains already booked. Arguably, Northwest states and cities are several years ahead of the curve as a result, already beginning to level off global warming pollution. Each state has made moves such as adopting standards for auto tailpipe emissions, appliance and building efficiency, and use of renewable electricity and fuels. Now the challenge will be to continue leading by enacting legal limits on pollution that push the pollution curve downwards. A Climate Action bill to advance this process will reach the Washington Legislature in 2008.

The people of our parents' and grandparents' "greatest generation" who won World War II, when presented with a clear threat, rose in response with an unprecedented devotion of resources, as well as courage and commitment. As the climate threat becomes just as clear, it is time for us to rise to our generation's great challenge, reduce global warming pollution, build clean, prosperous economies, and leave a legacy to our children and theirs of a habitable world in which they too can prosper and thrive. It's up to us to lay claim to our own generation's greatness. The time is absolutely now.

by Ulf Bossel, European Fuel Cell Forum

The words "sustainable" and "sustainability" have become fashionable. Investments are called "sustainable" if profit is guaranteed for a number of years. Paper mills receive "sustainability" awards for recycling waste water and natural gas is claimed to become "sustainable" when it is converted to hydrogen by steam reforming. These examples show that the true meaning of the word is not properly understood. "Sustainability" needs to be defined. Things as such cannot be sustainable. Only processes can be organized in a sustainable way.

In simple terms, sustainability is living forever from nature without hurting it. Long-term, our chosen energy options must be sustainable, because energy is essential for services such as warmth (in buildings), mobility (for transport) and mechanical power, lighting and electronics (from electricity). It is also essential for obtaining materials, by mining and refining, synthesis, and recycling.

Sustainability has two requirements. The first concerns the harvesting of energy and materials from nature. The concept of sustainability (German: "Nachhaltigkeit") was first postulated in 1713 by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, the Supervisor of Mining for Saxony [PDF at­reports/­E23.pdf includes cover page of the original "Anweisungen zur Wilden Baum-Zucht" (Instructions for the Natural Tree Growth)]. He stated that avoiding future shortages of timber and firewood requires harvesting only the natural growth of wood, not the tree stock itself. His rule has since been adopted by prudent forest managers in Europe and elsewhere. It amounts simply to living on the interest from an investment, not on the capital itself.

The second concerns the return to nature of products and wastes arising from the use of energy and materials. These can arise anywhere in the chain between the source and the sink. For example, power plants lie between coal mines and electricity users. However, the carbon dioxide they emit is harmful for nature. Hence the second sustainability criterion is violated in this case.

The reserves of coal, oil, natural gas and uranium are limited. In our time scale, they do not regenerate. Hence we can use them only as long as they last. In addition, their emissions -- carbon dioxide and radioactive waste -- cannot be absorbed by nature. Consequently, none of these energy sources can satisfy both sustainability criteria. In fact, sustainable energy solutions cannot be based on any of the "below-ground" energy deposits.

Another characteristic of "below-ground" energy is often overlooked. More and more energy is needed for recovering energy from sources of deteriorating quality, for transporting the crude materials over longer distances and for refining lower-grade crude to obtain high-grade fuels for market needs. Even for a constant net energy demand, the gross primary energy requirement must increase exponentially. The price of energy from such sources, and their carbon dioxide emissions, follow this exponential trend. Eventually, the "energy cost of energy" exceeds the "energy return" -- and what was an energy source becomes an energy sink. At some point, neither increased prices nor increased energy conversion efficiency can overcome this.

Therefore, sustainable energy can never be achieved with "below-ground" fossil or uranium sources. The character of the original coal fuel does not change if it is converted to hydrogen. Even "clean coal" can never be a sustainable energy option because of the dwindling coal supplies. In the event CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) becomes commercially feasible, it is likely to suffer from similar exponential increases in the energy fraction used and in cost as the easier locations to store CO2 become filled.

In contrast, renewable energy sources exhibit no such exponential increase, because no energy is required to make the sun shine or the wind blow. After the initial energy investment in a renewable energy plant, the "energy return" is always positive and, averaged over time, remains the same. The fuels generate no harmful emissions; the only emissions come from constructing the generating, storage and distribution facilities. For energy supply, only renewable sources can satisfy the sustainability criteria. However, even some renewables are not always harvested sustainably. Ethanol from corn is not sustainable -- the total fossil energy input from plowing the fields to distilling the mash may exceed that of the end-product, and large quantities of water are required. Silt deposits in water reservoirs may gradually reduce the hydroelectric power production. Arable land may be spoiled by intensive farming. Geothermal wells may be exhausted as they are cooled by heat extraction.

The sustainability criteria are best satisfied by solar, wind, wave and most hydropower options. This renewable energy is available "above ground" in our biosphere -- installations for harvesting renewables from sun, wind, and waves are all visible. Land for energy production is occupied by installations, but not consumed. Although there may be some visual impacts, all "above-ground" renewable energy installations satisfy the sustainability criteria.

Other options that can help to meet the sustainability goals are energy savings and increased energy efficiency. The first reduces the energy consumption by responsible use of energy -- e.g., turn off lights when leaving a room. The second reduces energy losses of energy conversion processes -- e.g. use more efficient lamps for the conversion of electricity to light. Together, energy saving and energy efficiency can reduce the demand for fuels and any resulting emissions.

Today, significant losses result when "below-ground" energy resources are converted to motion and electricity. This also applies to hydrogen produced inefficiently by electrolysis, or with CO2 emissions from natural gas. In a sustainable future, energy services will be supplied at the highest efficiency by electricity from renewable sources. Except for biofuels and solar heat, most energy from renewable sources is harvested as electricity. This may be obtained from wind turbines, photo-voltaic arrays, and thermal power plants "fueled" by concentrated solar, municipal waste, biomass and geothermal heat. Clean electricity will become the "lead currency" of a sustainably organized energy "electron economy." It can produce warmth via heat pumps and motion in electric cars with high efficiency. For long distance land, sea and air transport, requiring high-density portable fuels, the remaining oil or biofuels will be preferred.

The difference between "below-ground" and "above-ground" sources is not just a matter of definition, or a reflection of ideology or wishful thinking. Only the "below-ground" sources are subject to the exponential growth of primary energy requirements, carbon dioxide emissions and energy prices. Mankind must escape from these exponentially increasing constraints, the sooner the better. Achieving a sustainable energy future can become a common political goal, with all regions, countries and continents effecting the necessary transition. Some countries have already accepted this requirement while others hesitate even to recognize the problem. A swift and determined switch to energy savings, increased energy efficiency and renewable energy supplies would increase the level of sustainable energy service. Why are we so reluctant to start the transition?

Inspired by this distinction, Rochelle Lefkowitz, President, Pro-Media Communications of NY and CA (my wife), turned the distinction "below ground and above ground" fuels into a catchy distinction that might become a "meme":

FUELS FROM HELL: extractive: oil, coal, nuclear FUELS FROM HEAVEN: renewable: solar/wind/hydropower/tidal (geothermal, which shares the characteristics of heavenly fuels, is the exception that proves the rule)

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