Monday, October 20, 2014

Stroll In the Park on a Sunday Afternoon

It seems some people believe that moving to a low carbon economy is something easy that just requires "political will," and that the way forward is to pressure politicians with tumultuous "climate marches."

Well, it is not that easy, not even close.

To get an idea of the barriers to a low carbon economy, let's focus at the personal level. Here are some things an individual can do to drastically reduce her / his carbon emissions. Bear in mind that reducing the carbon emissions of humanity would literally be many orders of magnitude more difficult than this.

1. Eliminate air travel. Period. No looking back. Vacations should be relatively local. If you are used to travelling for business, then use video-conference to be in touch with your customers. Sure, it won't be as effective as face to face interactions, but  it is one of the prices to be paid for a lower carbon footprint.
2. Have less children or none at all. Off the bat, a new person that lives 65 years and produces the current average annual CO2 emissions (4.5 tons) would add almost 300 tons to the atmosphere in her lifetime. One billion persons would add 300 Gigatons, and this is considering the average emissions stay at today's value.
3. Eat less meat.
4. Buy much less stuff.
5. Adjust the thermostat in your A/C: make a point to be colder in winter and warmer in summer (without actually freezing or dehydrating).
6. Use your car less, much less or make without it altogether.
7. Try to enjoy cold showers, or at least cool showers.
8. Turn off every light / device as soon as you are through using it.
9. Assimilate (properly vetted) GMOs. We need to produce more food with less land/energy input.
10. In summary, embrace a lower standard of living for you and your family.

However, when things are distilled at the personal level, many "greens" rebel. They are not willing to participate in the game anymore. They want to just join in two or three "climate marches," pressure their university to "divest" from fossil fuels, glue a bumper sticker in their car with the "#GoSolar" message and re-tweet some Greenpeace thoughts.

Well, that will never work.

In truth, very few people will downgrade the standard of living of themselves and their children to "save" their eventual great-grandchildren. This is just human nature. Thus, bar a black swan (or two), the best way to reduce emissions (in addition to decreasing population) is technology.

Technology can help in two ways:

1. Do more with less (e.g., an LED light bulb produces many more lumens per watt than an equivalent incandescent lamp).
2. New massive amounts of low carbon energy. Current nuclear and renewables are at the most a stopgap. We need much better nuclear (fission and fusion) and other types of energy in the near future.

A happy, high energy future (with much less reliance on fossil fuels) will only materialize via technology.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Barking at the Wrong Tree?

Even though the science might (or might not) be settled, the climate discourse is still heated between those that sustain that carbon dioxide emissions are increasing the global temperature of the Earth and those that do not see it as a menace.

However, I believe this discussion is misguided and thus that we are barking at the wrong tree.

If the first camp is correct, then we need to drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption. To be able to do this without destroying the world's economy (and thus severely curtailing the possibilities of reducing poverty and even shoving many / most of us toward that same poverty) would require a massive substitution of fossil fuels by other, lower carbon energy sources.

If the second camp is correct, the so called "deniers" then we still all probably agree that fossil fuels will not forever be cheap and abundant.

Consequently, it seems to me, both groups should agree that the (eventual) replacement of fossil fuels should be a top priority.

If we look around today, we see lots of PR from the renewable, efficiency and even the nuclear camps, but where the rubber meets the road, (in other words, massive alternative energy production ramp-up) we don't see anything worth noting.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that by the year 2040, close to 80% of our primary energy will still come from fossil fuels, however, since consumption is projected to increase in absolute terms that means more CO2 emissions than today.*

Yes, renewables (solar and wind) will survive and maybe even thrive in the coming decades but there is no way they will dominate the global energy market. Why? Because they are diffuse (in other words, weak), intermittent and unreliable. Renewables are in a sense a road to the past. Centuries ago, practically 100% of our energy was renewable but our civilization moved forward with denser and more reliable energy.

Current nuclear is not that much better. Yes, it is low carbon, yes it is orders of magnitude denser than renewables (and even than fossil fuels) but it is still too expensive and hard to scale up rapidly.

In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel states that "only when your product is 10X better can you offer the customer transparent superiority." Well, that is certainly not yet the case respecting our current alternatives to fossil fuels.

The solution to our energy quandary has to be technology. We won't advance toward the future by walking backwards.

New nuclear (fission) designs in the drawing board seem great on paper, but to prove their concepts we would need massive implementation in the real world. This is not happening. At least not yet.

Even though it might not feel like it, our civilization has been upgrading its energy sources to better ones:

Coal is better than wood, wind and water.
Oil is better than coal.
Natural gas is better than oil.
Nuclear is better than natural gas.

Sure, the above statements are arguable, but the point is we have been moving to denser more reliable energy that is actually cleaner. (Without coal, we would probably had destroyed all our forests to use them as fuel).

So, bottom line, our civilization has been moving forward and there is no way back (at least not if we plan to support +7 billion persons).

Renewables are in a sense a return to the past. New nuclear (fission and fusion) can be a step forward, maybe even a giant step forward.

How much time do we have to replace, say, 50% of fossil fuels with nuclear? That depends on when fossil fuels will become painfully expensive / scarce.

Try as we might, this transition will probably not be fast. It may take 100, 150 years, or more, but as JFK used to say: let us begin!

Feel free to add to the conversation in Tweeter: @luisbaram


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Monday, October 13, 2014

(Not so) Binary World

We seem to be continually surrounded by efforts to encase reality into a binary description that ill suits it.

For example, we read, "Was such and such person a hero or a villain?" And then arguments are presented to try to encase the person in either of the two categories (no grays, though).

Probably the most famous instance of trying to frame the world in a binary slot is by my friend Leo Tolstoy.

He starts Anna Karenina with this phrase:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  

Very few things in human interactions are black or white. With respect to the phrase above we would have to start by defining "happy" and "unhappy." Then obviously a family has several / many members and each one will experience all sorts of moods during a lifetime and those moods will affect the interaction with the other members of the family. Additionally a family is a dynamic entity, gradually some members die, others join it whether by birth or marriage, some go away, others return.

The internal life of a person is more like a kaleidoscope of feelings, drives and desires, consequently, when the kaleidoscopes of each family member are put together the result is something even more difficult to classify or even track. On the other hand the reality between a "happy family" in Madrid in 2014 is certainly very different from one in Japan in 1500, and even more separated from the equivalent in Mayan society in the year 500.

However, this binary fixation is applied to all sorts of things, not only to families. In the energy discourse we are continually bombarded with the "clean energy" or "zero emissions" monikers when in real life no energy is clean or zero emissions.

Yes, when considering their life-cycle, all energies emit GHG and produce dangerous waste. Thus, the most we can say about an energy source is that it is cleaner than something else.

Real life has more variables and, for example, low carbon technologies in the laboratory such as solar panels or wind turbines don't perform as well in the world at large. There we have to consider energy systems and not isolated components.

In energy we are really facing a sort of continuum that starts with (arguably) the dirtiest source, coal and gradually moving to the (arguably) cleanest sources: hydro and nuclear energy.

But yes, after so many years living in this society I have also been bitten by the binary bug, so I beg your pardon but I will finish this entry with a binary statement that I do believe is true:

There are two types of people on Earth: the ones that divide the world in two and the ones that do not.

Thank you.

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