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A long weekend

I'm off tomorrow, by air to Amsterdam, back Tuesday. I might blog in the meantime — there's wifi in the hotel — but frankly, the plan is to forget everything and just relax. I'm bad at relaxing; I'm the kind of guy who, if things are going swimmingly, will invent whole new sources of angst just to have something to obsess about. Like, oh, the imploding pound (Sterling is down to a five year low against the dollar this morning, and it's not doing so hot against the Euro), US presidential politics, neo-Calvinist greens trying to convince everyone that looking after the environment is only possible if we adopt a lifestyle like 1960s East Germany, only with fewer luxuries, the latest neofascist police state wheezes to catch the eye of our beloved Home Secretary ... on which note, it seems even the outgoing director of public prosecutions is opposed to her expansion of state snooping powers (yes, the DPP is the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, and joins two former directors of MI5 in the pinko liberal soft on terror camp over that issue) ...

Aaagh. I need a break. Here's hoping a weekend binge on Oude Kaas, genever, and bokbier helps.



> In our society, scientists set the rules

Argh. Sounds like bad 1950s SF.


Going to the 'Dam to binge on cheese and beer, of all things, seems like a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to binge on other things.


Try not to wake up handcuffed to a sign post, in an armchair.


TheF: I can't smoke. (Borderline asthmatic; inhaling just about anything leaves me feeling as if my lungs are being reamed out with sandpaper.) And I don't much enjoy the effect of cookies -- being off my head for 24 hours without an "off" switch is not my idea of fun. So I'll stick to the bokbier, which isn't available elsewhere or at any other time of year (it doesn't travel well), and the peculiar local cheese (which doesn't seem to get exported, oddly enough).


I think the Charlie Stross barmy army might be interested in this thread, where Orson Scott Card's politics are pulled into itty bitty pieces, and which contains links to some interesting essay exposing his fascist leanings.


What manner of devilry is this? My link failed to make it through the aether in my previous posting:


Greenpeace @ Nuclear fusion: sigh. Where did this come from? It appears to originate in a press release from 2005, which is completely wrong about fusion. A lot of kickback against it on the greenpeace forums, but no sign of sign of a rethink.

I used to be a member of Greenpeace, and worked with them a lot, but they've lost the plot a bit recently and lack internal democracy to correct silly ideas.

Fusion is drastically underfunded to achieve its goals: ready in 30 years time is a sick joke.


Alastair @ 8 - Fusion could be ready in 30 years time, if only we put as much money into that as into buying jet fighters nobody wants (and we can't afford to arm), or building submarines to carry nuclear missiles we aren't allowed to fire. But I agree that isn't very likely.

With the blue badges, I'm only surprised that the government hasn't claimed that stolen ones will be used by terrorists to kill people. The only good thing I can see in the whole pile of idiocy is the possibility of a single coherent set of rules - the current system of local councils rolling their own is bonkers.


Wow. Amsterdam might not be enough. Were it not for your asthma, I would prescribe a basket of kittens.


Gotta say, I agree with the east german view of government green policy. It all seems concentrated on 'cut', 'do without', 'no fun' as a way to get to 80% reduction.

That's never going to work.

We need a positive remaking of how society works if we are to deal with fossil fuel in a way anyone will actually accept. That requires much much broader thinking than 'no plastic bags'.


Alastair @ 8 - Isn't Greenpeace now basically a company which makes its money by selling a clean conscience? (Much like the corrupt Catholic priests of medieval times who sold indulgences...)

A plentiful clean source of energy would put them out of business.


For your amusement, Charlie, Scott Adams says that he thinks war is uneconomic:

Where have I seen that before? :)


Madeleine: I'm borderline asthmatic. Takes damp rot or lots of smoke to set it off. I'd love a basket of kittens (but unfortunately the two elderly lady cats here most certainly wouldn't, and they've got ways of making their opinions known).

George @12: a clean source of energy wouldn't put Greenpeace out of business -- there are other material limits we're pushing up against and non-energy-related pollution is a serious problem too.


Ian Smith #11- funnily enough everone from GEorge Mombiot to the peak oilers on are cheing over exactly that question, how to make society work in the future without merely restricting everything.

As for fusion, its been tried for decades, and I'm sure you all know about ITER? The problem is fusion is a lot harder than people initially thought. The easy way to do it is to get lots of hydrogen together in one place. The hard way is doing it small scale on earth in a reactor which has to contain a continuous temperature and radiation bombardment worse than anything that has been made so far. (I think. Feel free to prove me wrong)
Plus, it has to be designed and built for the wearing parts to be replaced, avoidance of any issues with disposal of materials, and have a lifespan in the order of decaades.


I stand corrected. (And seriously, why do people always write my name this way? I'm not a little French cookie that recalls one of childhood, I swear.)

It seems to me that the "give up everything!" mentality toward green living is strikingly similar to "repent, for the end is nigh!" or "hurry up and atone, so your indulgence may be granted!" As if we just suffered enough for the environment, we might somehow erase prior sins through green penance. But the thing about penance is that it's not a lifestyle change, it's penance. Transactional thinking won't get us through this. We don't get to make grand symbolic gestures of self-sacrifice and then walk away.


Madeline @16: I have a friend who spells her name Madeleine.

Yes, it's going to take more than penance to get us out of this fix. And throwing away technological civilization -- the best tool we've got -- is in my view exactly the wrong way to do it.


Charlie, the lower Pound is a good thing. The only people who benefit from a strong Pound are the bankers in London. For the rest of the country a lower Pound will improve Britain's industrial competitiveness and exports, which will cushion unemployment in the coming downturn. And, as you have stated, you get half your income in US dollars, which are now worth more Pounds. A 10 percent decrease in the Pound is a 5 percent increase in your income. You do obsess too much.


Tigerfort @9: Agreed, it could. But it was "30 years away" two decades ago when one of my fellow physics students when to work at JET, Culham. And "thirty years away" iwhen the first tokamaks were built in the 1950s. Getting it working takes tens of billions in investment and years: government level rather than business-level. And everybody hopes someone else (The US, Europe, Japan ... ) will do it. I want my nice clean fusion energy. Until then , solar :-)

Greenpeace was never a democracy. It started out as a bunch of sailors on ships: if you agreed with the captain you signed on for the ride. Unfortunately it became a global brand and displaced a wider green movement. Instead of people becoming actively involved in polticis the 1990s, we paid our Greenpeace dues.

The irony of 'cuts like East Germany' is that as a political philosophy so many greens have taken on board the free market: instead of dictating _solutions_ we/they set only necessary goals ("no coal; no rises in CO2"), and leave it to the free market to deliver the goodies like cheap solar panels, energy-efficient transport,etc.
Only the existing cartels have the "free" market sewn up, and don't want to invest in disruptive new technologies.


If we want to avoid the worst of climate change, then what most climate scientists say we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% within 40 years. That's a 2.5% improvement in the carbon efficiency of our economy, year on year. But if we want the current 2% economic growth to continue, then we need a 4.5% improvement in carbon efficiency.

Can technological improvement deliver 4.5% every year, for forty years? Well, the UK in the 20th century moved from coal, to oil, nukes and gas, in roughly that order. From 1920 to present, carbon efficiency improved by 1% per year, that's what the general march of technology gets you. Not enough.

The US, after the 1970s oil shocks, put a massive pile of money into energy research, insulating houses and fuel efficiency standads for cars, all the low-hanging fruit. This progress got them just over 2% for twenty-five years. Still not enough.

California has pushed electricity efficiency more strongly than anyone else, for the last couple of decades. It's got them about 2.5%. (Electricity efficiency =/= carbon intensity, but it's close enough for this discusson.) Still not enough.

Technological progress has yet to deliver the rate of improvement needed to markedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the face of continued economic growth. Technological civilisation is half of the solution, but that's not enough. Fundamentally, I'm an engineer at heart, and by training, but science and engineering isn't going to solve this one all by itself.


RE: "And I don't much enjoy the effect of cookies -- being off my head for 24 hours without an "off" switch is not my idea of fun."

I, too, dislike the loss of control that can come with eating such cookies. My solution has simply been extreme moderation. I will only have a bite or two, and then get on with drinking. This allows me to enjoy a sense of calm I never possess otherwise. However, experimenting with the right dosage is probably not worth risking in this situation.


Jez- I am no economist (IANE?) and might be completely wrong, but the way you are putting it suggests that economic growth is directly related to carbon efficiency.

Now, I do know that the only true growth is that increasingly efficient use of resources or discovery of new easier to exploit ones. But meanwhile in the real world, economic growth measurements get confused by lending and debt and make believe and all the rest of it.

On the other hand, I suspect you are entirely correct regarding the inability of mere technology to make the necessary changes.


"in the pinko liberal soft on terror camp over that issue" are you taking the piss?


The Vlad: are you coming here often? :)

guthrie & Jez: Most of the aforementioned plucked fruit were so low-hanging as to be practically sitting on the ground. I don't think anyone's ever really done a hard drive on energy efficiency -- not just of individual technologies but whole nations. Better, electrified transport within cities, more efficient use of nitrogen fertilisers, etc, etc. The figures I've seen knowledgeable people quote are reduction in _growth_ (not overall economic activity) of a few percent, to achieve the 60% target. Instead of GDP doubling by 2050, it doubles by 2055. Of course, I heard those figures quoted before global financial markets turned to poo and placed a far larger brake on economic growth. Even the most conservative consequences for not doing aiming for those targets are pretty scary.


Guthrie @22 - Sorry, I should have been clearer.

Greenhouse gas emissions depend upon the size of our economy times the carbon efficiency of our economy. If the economy grows, then emissions go up; if the carbon efficiency improves, emissions go down. If we want emissions to go down and the economy to grow, then the carbon efficiency needs to improve lots.

(Strictly speaking, the term used is generally carbon intensity, but that just confuses people.

I disagree with the New Sci articles - endless growth is possible within finite resources, so long as you have endless increases in productivity. Productivity here means how much value you can add to each unit of energy, land, water, GHG emissions, whathaveyou.

However, we're in an overshoot situation, where the rate of economic growth has far exceeeded the rate of productivity growth. Oops.

Chris L @24 - Yup, we're still talking about growth here, just slower than usual. If you put the cost of the challenge in dollars terms, you get the usual headlines screaming that "solving climate change will cost $X ZILLION!!!". If you put the same figures in terms of "solving climate change means our financial wealth will double by 2035, rather than by 2030", then people are much more accepting. But then, no screaming headlines.

As for a hard push for improving carbon intensity, the US in the 1970s might have just been picking low-hanging fruit, but that means there's a big return, per dollar spent. Improving on the average early 1970s US car was trivial engineering. The 1980s replacement was smaller, better designed engine, much more fuel efficient, and probably Japanese. Now we've picked the low hanging fruit, and life for engineers gets harder - petrol engines are pushing on fundamental limits of efficiency and the only way to get further improvements means radical changes like all electric.

Of course, beyond the technological change, there's social changes like not driving a massive bastard Hummer. Hmm... social change, perhaps not too tricky after all?


guthrie @15

I'm one of them that reads the theoildrum, although I tend to plow my own furrow. Practically there are two KEY targets, an easy one and a hard one.

The easy one is the use of gas & coal to generate electricity. Its fairly easy to ramp up solar/wind and particularly tide, then nuclear, then fusion (if it ever works). Only difficulty is preventing the US and China from burning fossil fuels because they're cheapest. Perfectly possible to cut hydrocarbon usage with a large scale but conventional programme.

The hard one is transportation fuel. There's nothing for it, that one cannot be addressed with the status quo. You have to reengineer a hell of a lot to cut that down to tractable levels. In essence you need to get rid of everyone's car, that's the scale. Battery tech means electric vehicles are always going to be local, and thus probably not economic to own. Rail is OK for long distance but to get rid of the car we need to get rid of the commute and reengineer shopping etc. - its a massive shock to the system.

But then, who likes the commute? Pointless wasted time that costs you money and you don't get paid for. Cars are horribly expensive to own and run. Should be easy to pry the cars from their hands, no?

What is needed for people to want to ditch the car?


guthrie@#15, fusion is also harder because we have to run a fusion reactor a lot *hotter* than the solar core if we want to get useful power output, even using deuterium/tritium fusion rather than hydrogen fusion.

It's good for the lifespan of the sun, I suppose, but hydrogen really *really* doesn't like to fuse much: IIRC the power output per unit volume of the solar core is something like 20W/m^3. I think we could do with a lot more power out of the few cubic metres in our fusion plants...


Right thanks Jez, that was the kind of clarification I was looking for. However surely it will get like money- with finite resources, you have to increase the velocity of said resources round and round the system.

I recall an economist, perhaps richard Tol, pointing out that sorting out global warming would cost less than fiddling about with interest rates or a recession.

Surely I'm not the only person who thinks we should be making furniture and stuff well, but in a large variety of shapes, styles etc, then when you get fed up of your furniture go and freecyle it and get someone elses furniture instead. Ok, painting your walls will be trickier, the most efficient solutions will probably involve colour changes, but thats still a decade or two away and probably more expensive to manage than you would think.

Ian Smith- yup, I see the personal car has to go. But if you try and get rid of it people will call you an eco fascist or accuse you of wanting to live like 1960's East Germany...
There is also the massive problem of commuting and job locations. Even with large scale public transport, we'll have to reverse many of the trends of the last few decades. Or work more from home?


Speaking on the economics of warfare, the question becomes how does one handle an enemy that doesn't know when to quit?

It seems to me the only "superpower" ever to get this right was Rome, even if it did take 3 Punic Wars to
bring this about. Seriously, you don't see much interest in studying the history of Carthage, do you?

Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.

As for a sustainable planet, a study I perused a long time ago basically stated that an adoption of a 1930's
style North Korean agrarian society was the only way to achieve such a goal. Not exactly the picture I envision for the future.


I don't want to come across as an apologist for the car, because I'm not, but saying "We need to get rid of cars" is neither helpful nor true. I've got two cars, but don't do that many miles (OK, OK, one of them is older than me and not actually registered, but that's not the point). If _one_ of those cars was electric, to be used for all short trips around town, I'd use about 75% less fuel. If I could register an electric car for $SMALLFIGURE, it would make perfect sense to have both. A lot of people in less dense urban areas could make the same decision (I live in New Zealand's largest city, but it doesn't really have a high enough density to make public transport a universal panacea).

There are companies that specialise in converting existing, already made, paid-for cars into electric cars. Those of you in the UK could buy an electric Citroen Berlingo at one stage. What say you could get a subsidy to have that conversion done?

Transport is the single largest item in most household energy budgets, cutting fuel use for transport by even 25% would be a very good step.


If you run out of stuff to worry about, I think I can dig up stories about the cocoa bean going extinct, and about "peak coffee"...


I got to work this morning on an electric trolley bus, powered by carbon-neutral electricity. I live in New Zealand's capital city.

A Tesla roadster or equivalent would cover me for 95% of the driving I do and would be carbon-zero in use, as NZ's got hydro, geothermal, and wind power.

Cut out eating meat and long-distance flights and NZ's pretty much there, when it comes to GHG reductions.

Dunno about the rest of yous all though...


Jez, you have to admit that Wellington's a boutique city. All the accoutrements of cityhood, without the actual population (Wellington central has less than 100 000 actual residents, last I heard). I lived there for five years, I'm not having a dig.


A Tesla roadster or equivalent would cover me for 95% of the driving I do and would be carbon-zero in use, as NZ's got hydro, geothermal, and wind power.

We have all those things, but we're not quite carbon neutral. You might want to take a look an article expressing some serious scepticism about the 90% renewables by 2025 target - Sunday Star Times, 23 Sep 2007, p.D1.

We're still going to need petrol for the foreseeable future. At some point, biofuels are going to be mentioned *sigh*.


Didn't take long for the JAFA's to start getting defensive, eh? But anyway, enough snarking...

Wellington urban area is around 380,000. If it was in England, it'd be about the eighth largest city. So not very boutique, really.

Admittedly, the great public transport is mainly down to the luck of most of the land being somewhat steep, concentrating growth into corridors suitable for buses and trains.


Ian Smith @26, ability to make functional human bodies. Even with a powerchair, I wouldn't be able to bring some of the things home that I need to. I drive less than 3K miles a year and I'm able to handle most of what I need myself. Without a car, I'd not only need a powerchair and lots more time, I'd need an assistant for shopping.


Ah, but Jez, do you extend the warm welcoming glow of Wellingtonian-hood to include people who live in the Hutt Valley or Johnsonville? 'Cos that's where a lot of the population lives.

Tony, you expect any self-respecting person to buy, let alone keep for a month, the Sunday Star Times?


Wellington to Upper Hutt is the same distance as North Shore to Manukau. The Wellington urban area is no different in size to the Auckland urban area, it's just much better organised.

I wonder how bored Charlie is of the continual fraternal Auckland/Wellington bitching? The main problem is that New Zealand remains quite nice, so there's not much else to do apart from indulge in petty rivalries.


Didn't take long for the JAFA's to start getting defensive, eh?

Defensive? Snark? Madam, I could snark for the Olympics. When I get defensive, you will know me by the trail of shattered egos. There are sections of the Usenet where my name is still spoken in hushed terms, in reverence and awe. Awe, I tell you!

Charlie, stop laughing.

And besides, I live in Hataitai, not Parnell.

Tony, you expect any self-respecting person to buy, let alone keep for a month, the Sunday Star Times?

I'm a librarian. I haven't bought a paper in years, and yet I read about a dozen of them a week. But he bad news is that the Herald on Sunday is probably the best of a bad lot.


I wouldn't describe three comments as "continual", Jez, unless you know something I don't.... or have I got your little civic hackles up? Isn't that cute. TBH I think I need more than two months residence before I can let anyone call me a JAFA.

Tony, is the Sunday Star Times really the best we've got? I thought the Sydney Morning Herald was a joke of a daily paper, have things gone to rack and ruin in my absence?


The Herald on Sunday is probably the best, followed by the Sunday Star Times. I am not impressed with the quality of either (but they beat the Otago Daily Times by a long shot). The Weekend Herald (the Saturday version of the New Zealand Herald) isn't too bad either.

And as regards cutting emissions, check this out:


Jez @32 Wellington did seem like a good place for windpower. And NZ is very nice.

I had been thinking that the Antipodean distaste for nuclear (fission) power was a mistake, until I reflected that with a population of 4E6 NZ probably can't produce the population of nuclear engineers and so on required to build and run them, and that people who live somewhere else may be marginally less fanatical about their construction and use standards. (They may not be, because "somewhere else" for this sort of topic probably means in another unconnected and independent biosphere, but the perception isn't ridiculous). Even the adjacent long thin but cyclic country is only 13E6. How big a population is needed to generate the generators of the generators?


dave @18: I also travel quite a bit. (I was hoping to go back to Japan some time in the next year or two ...)

Jez @25: carbon efficiency ... you're using it wrong. The term you want is fossil carbon emissions. (If the carbon we're emitting is also being recaptured and turned back into fuel, then it's not imposing any additional net burden on the greenhouse gas side of the equation.) This is a subtle but important detail as it allows a whole slew of extra technologies that a simple-minded ban on carbon emissions doesn't.

I'd read and comment further, but alas, I have to run and catch a plane. (I am aware of the irony.)


Adrian @42, we also in all seriousness don't need it. NZ is already something like 80% renewable in energy production with hydro, geothermal, and wind -- that's free-as-in-beer power, no nasty overheads like nuclear power has. Australia is well-placed to be the only solar-powered nation on earth, should they ever get the political will together for an investment anywhere near what an equivalent nuclear programme would require.


It seems plausible that an English-speaking country, with what seems to be a pretty decent lifestyle, does not need to worry about a local shortage of nuclear engineers.

I'm inclined to think that a lot of wittering about the lifetime costs of fission power is based on the expensive esperience of plants designed without taking much account of decommissioning costs.

I'm also inclined to think that a significant part of the supposed problem with spent fuel rods comes from exaggerated fears of the long-term risks. Generally, the intense radioactivity comes from short-lived radio-isotopes.

It's questionable whether New Zealand needs fission power.

The UK is, I think, missing the boat.

But what idiots put so many British nuclear power plants so close to sea level?


But what idiots put so many British nuclear power plants so close to sea level?

Well, where would you have put them? Bear in mind that Britain is rather short of mighty rolling rivers - the biggest we have is smaller than the Milk River in Montana (ever heard of it? No, didn't think so) - and the rivers we have are generally where we put our cities. Also, when they were planning nuclear plants in the 1960s, no one expected that the ice caps were going to start melting...


Why it is important at what height above the sea level nuclear power plants are?

1. Nuclear power plant is not a whole city.
2. It`s not like the ocean is going to rise 10 meters.

Protecting nuclear power plants from the sea rise would be easy.


Adrian @42, Israel, at 7E6, can maintain a reactor (actually, more than one), build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and launch it`s own satellites on it`s own rocket. Not to mention all other sorts of crazy shit. 8-)

So I honestly don`t see why NZ population can`t maintain civilian nuclear power plants.


There isnt much need for NZ to build reactors - being basically a long chain of mountains placed at a ninty degree angle to the prevailing winds means they are not going to run out of easily exploitable hydropower until their total population reaches rather insanely higher levels than it currently is. For countries not similarily blessed by accidents of geology, "build lots and lots and lot of modern pressurised water reactors" is a perfectly reasonable way to cut carbon emissions while maintaining growth- Its cheaper than wind, cheaper than solar very much so, and counting externalitites, its even cheaper than coal. - its not politically popular, but if it gets framed as
Pick one of the following options:
A:Nuclear power
B:No growth.
C:Fry the planet

people are probably going to go with A. And that framing is going to happen, because it is effectively the choice we currently have.


mildly off topic -

are the laundry selling off more buildings?


20: "The US, after the 1970s oil shocks, put a massive pile of money into energy research, insulating houses and fuel efficiency standads for cars, all the low-hanging fruit. This progress got them just over 2% for twenty-five years. Still not enough."

There were a few years of frantic activity, and then oil prices started falling again, so the activity level decreased. The Reagan-Bush administration(s) cut subsidies for greener energy heavily (while having no problems with subsidies for anything else).

The Clinon administration was a bit better, but still had to deal with a GOP Congress, and low oil prices made this seem a Greenie luxury.

Then, of course, we elected a brace of Texan OilScum to the presidency.

So I'd rate it as less than 10 years of even a moderate effort, and 0 years of anything which could be described as serious.


Anatoly @48 They really want to ... and the safety standards for a military effort in a continual state of ... emergency at least ... may be lower than those for a civil power programme. And is it a power programme in the electric sense?

And 7E6 is nearly twice 4E6, although half an Australia.

I'm not so well aware of NZ and Oz power projections that I could tell whether at the end of the 10 year lage in building power units the projected power needs are covered by the projected hydro; wind and solar production.

I agree that the UK has been let down by a string of governments failing to resist the mad and stupid in order to do difficult important things. Hmm.


It's questionable whether New Zealand needs fission power.

It doesn't. It has hydro power still untapped - the drawback are the environmental effects, and that problem would exist with nuclear power as well. The big thing these days is wind power, but we have people objecting to the aesthetics of that as well, which seems pretty silly to me.

You're also forgetting the problem that nowhere in NZ can be considered earthquake free.


I love you English folks who think that fissionable fuels are delivered by the uranium fairy riding on the back of a unicorn. Australia is one of the major producers of uranium, and having read a bit about it while I lived there, I think it's unlikely they could ramp up production very much, sans Soviet-style environmental laws of convenience.

One of the mines is in the middle of the Kakadu world heritage area, and they have to shut it down every summer because the monsoon rains overflow the tailings pond (there's no easy engineering solution to that, I was up there in the rainy season and I've never seen so much water in my life). The other big one is Olympic Dam, which is a festering environmental sore in many respects. Just in one aspect: there probably isn't enough water available in South Australia for them to use any more than they already do.

Just saying...


Adrian @42 (and others) NZ has so much in the way of cheap renewables that nukes just aren't anywhere near cost-competitive. Renewables are about 65-70% of national electricity production, depending upon how much rain ends up in the hydro lakes.

All of our growth in electricity demand for the next ten to twenty years can be covered by more geothermal and wind at a cost that's competitive with fossil fuels. Wind is noticeably booming, but geothermal is expected to increase by 250% within 20 years, with enough baseload power coming on stream to replace Huntly. (For those readers not up-to-date on the NZ generation system, Huntly is our only big coal station, 1GW, and getting old.)

Here's a great big report from NZ's Royal Society on this:
(Note - I helped put this report together.)

Charlie @25 I'll admit to being vague with my language. Strictly speaking, I should be saying net carbon intensity. However, that's not yet a concept in wide use, outside of the policy wonk world.

Defining exactly what net carbon intensity means is frustratingly complicated. You have to take into account all the greenhouse gas emissions, all the uptake of greenhouse gases into plants, oceans and soil, and assorted weird factors like emissions of soot, particle sizes of soot, and height within the atmosphere of emissions, which is why aircraft may or may not have higher emissions, per unit of fuel burnt, than cars.

Lots of NZ emissions here are methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture. Our uptake of emissions is strongly affected by land use changes, all of which is pretty vague, hard to measure and hard to get paid for.

If you chop down a forest and turn it into a dairy farm, which has been happening plenty round here, then yes, you'll lose the carbon tied up in the wood. Unless that wood ends up in a building. But then what's the effect on the carbon that's stored in the soil? (This can be more than the carbon that was in the wood.) Well, that depends, and it depends on how the farm is managed, what's done with fertilizer, water flow, how hot it is, how many cows you put on there, what grass mix you plant, and all the rest of the complications. So it's not clear, yet, how best to manage land to make a profit out of absorbing carbon (while still making a profit out of milk, beef, lamb or whathaveyou).

Possibly, the best technology for reducing net emissions in NZ is the wire fence, coz if you can fence off a decent patch of scrub, and kill the possums and deer that eat the shoots, then you rapidly end up with regrowing native bush, sucking up carbon. But how do you measure that carbon, and how do you get the international community to accept your measurements and pay you for the credits? There's a floor of our Ministry of Agriculture working on this kind of problem right now.

I used to be a rocket scientist. This stuff is harder.


Chris @54: I'd hate to see what a unicorn would look like with severe radiation poisoning...


But how do you measure that carbon, and how do you get the international community to accept your measurements and pay you for the credits? There's a floor of our Ministry of Agriculture working on this kind of problem right now.

Not to mention Seeby Woodhouse...


Unless you can get an international agreement on carbon emissions trading & credits, you're looking at a trade war.

For instance, if countries like the US or New Zeeland have systems that have a market based carbon credit approach which includes land use in the credits while other countries put a carbon tax on industry and transit, you're looking at a disparity. Some countries might try to tax goods from countries that have carbon credit trading. Or another example may be in the creation of credits. Some countries may want a static number of credits created by fiat to meet national carbon goals, while others may want generate new credits for sequestration. What happens if the US starts handing out credits for reforestation or other activities that remove carbon from the market, essentially creating a lower price for carbon emissions than in countries that don't do that?

What will the WTO do when one country brings a complaint against another because they don't recognize each others conflicting emissions reduction programs?


Chris @54 (dropping in briefly): the reason we see an apparent shortage of fission fuels is (a) lack of prospectors looking for reserves elsewhere, (b) unwillingness to use MOX fuel due to terrorism-phobia, and (c) total lack of funding for research into thorium reactors. Add MOX and a breeder cycle, and we've already got 500 years of fuel sitting around. Go to thorium and we're looking at $BIGNUM years, but that's a different fission technology (and one that oddly enough doesn't produce Pu-239 as a by-product).


Have (had?) a fun break. Try to stay out of the canals.

If you are desperately in search of something to worry about, how about the Chagos Islanders' ruling, on which my take is that the UK government can ignore court rulings whenever it likes (okay, so I'm naive in believing royal powers are limited).


have a fun break, sir. man does that city kick butt. I miss it.


It's pretty interesting to go back and look at the energy stuff they were playing with in the 60's/70's. Like someone apparently looked into hydrazine and anhydrous ammonia fuel for cars (some of history's truly great ideas there).


@62: Rocket scientists back in the 50s tried a lot of different fuel/oxidiser combinations, pretty much anything that would burn, even mercaptans (which the oil industry would pay for them to take away). Apparently the test-firing range still smelled horrible ten years after they gave up on that bright idea.


Ian @26:
From what I've read about battery tech, I could expect to get about 40 miles per charge if/when I switch over to a plug-in electric car. Yes?

If that's what you mean by battery vehicles always being local, then I don't see that it will require all that much changing of infrastructure, and I doubt very much that people will give up their cars.

I live on the outskirts of a small U.S. city. Density is still low enough that one could buy a house on an acre or two of woodland for 200-300K at the height of the housing bubble, and more land isn't unusual. At that low density, public transportation obviously has problems.

My commute is almost precisely the US average: 25 minutes one way. If I had an electric car with 40 miles range, I could get to work and back on one charge. I could get to the city center, or out to local parks with good hiking, or to my favorite fishing spot, or to the homes of friends scattered around the area.

Sure, there are areas of the U.S. where people have insane commutes, but if 75% U.S. commutes are, as wikipedia claims, within the theoretical range of battery-only travel in something like a chevy volt, why would people ditch their cars? Electric cars would have to be very, very expensive to get me to move to a house in a more dense urban environment.


Something that might make a big difference to electric cars: a standard charging connector.

Just take the parking meter a step further, and add a recharge option. But that depends on there being a standard way of connecting.

That standard connector might be AC mains, feeding through a switch-mode PSU system. It still will need a safe, weatherproof, physical connector.

From the POV of governments, how do you tax electricity used in motor vehicles? Transport fuel can be a big source of income, but can you seperate one use of electricity from another?


Given the weather here, Charlie chose the right weekend to go abroad.

Dave #65- a safe weatherproof connector is a piece of cake. But a bit more expensive than your average 3 pin plug.

Kevin #60- how about we start lobbying the Queen? Just once I'd like to see a hand delivered sealed and signed document from the Queen that makes the PM go white, in true wish fulfilment style.


The worst thing about the Chagos ruling is that the BAE defence was accepted - you are right in a sense, sir, but *HANDWAVE* TERRORISTS!! *HANDWAVE* AMERICANS!! *HANDWAVE*!!

More formally, the "defence of the realm" was accepted by the court to include the maximalist demand of the US representatives (possibly coached by HMG) to have no-one on any of the islands. It is now the law of the land that keeping even one Chagossian from landing on an island from which they would need a seagoing ship to reach the US airbase is a defence interest on a par with ruling the Narrow Seas.

Fuck the government, the judges, your mother, God.


Dave: Never been to Alaska, but I understand that some of the more northern towns there have electric outlets in the parking meters to plug your car into - you need to run the electric engine heater if you're parked for any length of time, to keep the engine from getting so cold that it won't start. The concept and connectors, at least, could be adapted. (Park your car, put in money for parking time + charge.)


Clifton #68:

The electric outlets at parking spaces is quite common in Calgary, Alberta (and I'd guess all through northern Canada).


Some London boroughs have them on parking spaces, for electric vehicles.


I didn't see electric parking spots, but at a new shopping center (out in the county, which is too bad because I might have been able to get it changed if it was in the city), there's an arm of the center and in front of the last store there's a hybrid parking space. Next to it, just past the last store, there's a pregnant woman parking space. And next to that? All the way off the end of the stores? Four handicapped parking spots.


#62: re hydrazine as car fuel...not only in the 60s/70s:

a Ruby Goldberg-esque fuel cell system using hydrazine, designed by Dahiatsu an proposed in 2007


oopps, the link was cut by wrong HTML tags:


Dave @65: what do you think caravans use to hook up to the mains power at campsites? These are not really major stumbling blocks.

Charlie @59, if I may channel Peter Sellers for a moment: Indian scientists would appear to be way ahead of you.


Charlie is more correct than he knows. The issue of finite uranium supplies has been dealt with, and 25 years ago, in a 1983 article by physicist Bernard Cohen. (Alas, I can't find the pdf: he published a technical paper that goes into more detail. This article summarizes his work.)

To quote:

Deriving 100 times as much energy from the same amount of uranium fuel means that the raw fuel cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced is reduced correspondingly. In fact, the fuel costs per unit of useful energy generated in a breeder reactor are equivalent to those of buying gasoline at a price of 40 gallons for a penny! (see Chapter 13 Appendix). Instead of contributing 5% to the price of electricity as in present-type reactors, the uranium cost then contributes only 0.05% in a breeder reactor. If supplies should run short, we can therefore afford to use uranium that is 20 times more expensive, for even that would raise the cost of electricity by only (20 x .05 =) 1%. How much uranium is available at that price?

The answer is effectively infinite because it includes uranium separated out of seawater.1 The world's oceans contain 5 billion tons of uranium, enough to supply all the world's electricity through breeder reactors for several million years. But in addition, rivers are constantly dissolving uranium out of rock and carrying it into the oceans, renewing the oceans' supply at a rate sufficient to provide 25 times the world's present total electricity usage.2 In fact, breeder reactors operating on uranium extracted from the oceans could produce all the energy humankind will ever need* without the cost of electricity increasing by even 1% due to raw fuel costs.

The Japanese have demonstrated that the low-energy extraction methods discussed by Cohen do indeed work.

More details in this paper, provocatively titled "Nuclear Power Is Inexhaustible."

Bear in mind, also, that thorium is roughly as common as lead. No one is currently worried about a lead shortage, are they?

25 times current world energy usage seems a pretty reasonable upper limit, and several millions sounds plenty long enough to me. If we haven't developed technology sufficiently exotic to render breeder reactors obsolete after several million more years of technological civilization, I'd say it's time to pack it in as a species and declare ourselves Special Needs candidates.


mclaren, what makes you think I wasn't aware of this?

Nuclear power is unpopular essentially for a single reason: the dubious psychological connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Which is understandable, given that the first generation of civilian power reactors were built to support military plutonium production objectives, but we've had fifty years to get over that headache.

My take on the plutonium energy cycle is this: it is highly unlikely that terrorists will ever obtain nuclear fuel and use it to build a working fission bomb -- even more unlikely if we switch from highly enriched uranium (for some applications) to plutonium (which makes the bomb-making side of the exercise considerably harder). Most terrorists seem to find making a propane tank go "bang" a challenging exercise. Nuclear terrorism without state sponsors is massively over-sold as a threat.

We can make it even harder if we centralize the Pu power cycle, by building clusters of reactors around reprocessing and disposal plants and never letting material off the premises until they're in a non-fissile, inert form destined for deep burial. Yes, that entails accepting power transmission loss; the solution is to look for economies of scale.

The only real remaining threat is weapons proliferation among unstable regimes, and that is a stumbling block I can't suggest a short-term fix for, other than investigating the circumstances that give rise for such systems, or maybe exporting cheap, subsidized electricity to them from stable states with contiguous borders. I suspect the problem will be self-correcting in the long run as nuclear weapons go out of fashion, replaced by much more precise smart weapons (why destroy the entire city if all you want to do is take out certain installations in it) but it may take another generation for political leaders who understand this to rise to positions of power.


I suppose you could class the suicide bombers as smart weapons. At least, by the intelligence standard which the military use for their hardware, although I see that DARPA are handing out money for artificial cat brains.

There are some cats I would trust to control the latest laser-wielding battle-droid, and a good few humans I wouldn't.

In my book, the ultimate smart weapons are dropped by parachute from a Hercules. But they rather insist on being able to get home afterwards.


Charlie, there are other reasons nuclear power is unpopular. Radioactive waste is one of them. The one I'd have thought this govt. would be interested in is the terrorist threat. The terrorists don't need to make nukes: it might not be as easy to hijack a plane as it was a few years ago, but with the level of paranoia we're supposed to have, do we want to create a whole new generation of targets? (There are also arguments around lifecycle analysis, lead times and civil liberties, but those are a bit more esoteric.)



Much of the radiological waste problem we face is a legacy of the military weapons program. (The Hanford, Chelyabinsk-40 and Sellafield sites are among -- but not the only -- offenders here.) Again, burning fuel to exhaustion rather than retiring fuel rods when they're 98% unused might just cut down the scale of the problem. Looking for a deep waste depository on a multinational scale -- rather than insisting on burying waste in the country where it's produced -- would help. And I should note that the really high level waste is dangerous precisely because it has a short half-life; which means it doesn't need deep disposal and storage for centuries at a time (it decays rapidly).

As for creating new targets, there are any number of designs for reactors that entail putting the reactor vessel and reinforced concrete containment structures underground. If you're afraid of bombs, build bomb-proofing into them, yes?

The civil liberties arguments are a side-effect of the current narrow perspective on how a nuclear fuel cycle should be run (which in turn is predicated on the cold war status quo and proliferation issues prevailing since then). I'm saying we ought to look at what a safe, sustainable, fission-based power cycle ought to look like. I'm betting it could be done without major civil liberties issues, proliferation paranoia, and creating terrorism targets. The problem is, we've got a huge existing nuclear infrastructure base, and it's a thinly-civilianized military one (i.e. not the right thing at all: over-priced, somewhat hazardous, and designed with the wrong set of priorities in mind).


That was quick!

We agree on that last part. I reckon we need to stop them doing the wrong thing before your preferred method will go anywhere. I'd prefer fusion, myself, but we don't have the expansible 30 years to spare.

Meanwhile, any public support for fission just takes resources away from other things we should be doing anyway (for environmental justice as well as sustainability reasons) - e.g. energy efficiency, clean technologies, and reducing travel by letting people work where they live or vice versa. There's also timescale issues: there are things we already know how to do that aren't being done while the govt. tries to persuade us to invest in something the private sector's already decided isn't economic without massive subsidies.

Sorry about only popping up to argue, btw.

I suspect the problem will be self-correcting in the long run as nuclear weapons go out of fashion, replaced by much more precise smart weapons (why destroy the entire city if all you want to do is take out certain installations in it) but it may take another generation for political leaders who understand this to rise to positions of power.

That makes sense if you want an actual warfighting weapon. However, I thought that the four main uses for nuclear weapons depend on their city-killing power:

1. Deterrence
2. State terrorism (eg Hiroshima/Nagasaki)
3. False flag attack (eg neo-Nazi terrorists nuke Israel and frame Islamists)
4. Genocide


George @81: nobody has actually had the balls to do #3 (and arguably it's impossible -- fission isotope distributions leave unique fingerprints that can be matched to the fuel source: American and Soviet bombs gave quite different fallout mixes, for example). There are cheaper ways to do #4 -- for example, machetes (as in Rwanda a decade ago). That leaves #1 and #2, and #1 tends to check-mate #2 insofar as if there's a multilateral deterrent set-up then #2 becomes impractical without fear of retaliation in kind.

So we're left with: deterrence. Which boils down to: we've got to spend many tens of billions on an ongoing basis because those other guys have got to spend many tens of billions on an ongoing basis to maintain weapons neither of us want to use or have any use for. It's a gigantic bluff, and one that only makes sense if you're convinced that the other side will seize any opportunity to invade/conquer/destroy you.

That may hold true for Israel wrt. the Arab world, or for India/Pakistan, or even North Korea/South Korea. For the rest of us, though, it looks like a very expensive waste of time.

There are cheaper ways to do #4 -- for example, machetes (as in Rwanda a decade ago).
I was thinking of genocidal wars of aggression against foreigners (who may be well-armed, but not have any defence against nukes), not genocide of domestic minority groups.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 22, 2008 1:17 PM.

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