Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Back of the Napkin

Architects scribble on the back of a napkin all the time in order to capture ideas that erupt in odd corners in the wee hours. That approach might be beneficial for looking at the problem of dealing with climate change, and the fact that it's necessary to begin immediately with big carbon reductions in order to ensure global survival. This is not an overstatement.

So, each year, 7 GtC (Gigatons of carbon) are emitted globally. The USA produces about 20% of it, or approximately 1.4 GtC. So how much carbon reduction is possible by curtailing emissions and improving the carbon sinks? Limiting this napkin scribble to a direct reduction of California's portion of the 1.4 GtC per year and ignoring the global complexities, a straightforward approach is as follows:

Using the data for carbon emissions shown on Google Earth, one then goes to the Vulcan Project site and extracts the data for California, and you get 101,840,000 metric tons which have to be cut back in some portion EACH YEAR.

Then, using the emission reduction goals laid out in 2005 by our esteemed Governator, we follow the requirements  for these reductions targeted with the years by which these goals must be met. That will tell us how much carbon emission has to be cut using various strategies, at least until these goals are modified by some kind of global agreement.

Then these strategies have to be put into place to cut these carbon emissions; they need to be comprehensive and synergistic in order to accomplish these goals. So, doing the math, they can be laid out in a standard framework from which the many, many ways of reducing carbon can be accomplished. In addition, carbon sinks can be expanded and improved with the restoration of natural landscapes and watersheds. It's a two-pronged strategy.

As you can see from the framework, the carbon emissions can be tackled by sector depending upon what conditions exist in the various counties and cities in the state. The first steps involve the use up-front "hurt money" such as one finds in real estate development, in order to pay for coal and oil plant closures and rapid expansion of solar plants and wind farms, for example. Transportation efficiencies must increase drastically, particularly around the coastal ports. Structures must be constructed in existing urban areas that are "Net Zero" in energy and water consumption. Cities themselves can become regenerative. The list goes on and on, many people have developed these, and my list is here.

Enforcement of the strategies laid out within the framework will need careful oversight, and it's possible to measure carbon emissions in real time at specific locations. But the interesting thing is, by implementing many strategies at once, it's very possible to reduce carbon emissions quickly and to magnify this effect each year. Once the shift starts, it's simple to keep reducing the carbon because removing pollution and emissions sources increases the capability of the new power networks to grow rapidly. It's especially effective if the carbon sink restoration is allowed to take hold early on, as these restored areas of natural processes will do what life does, and that is, grow and function. All we have to do is get out of the way (i.e., shrink human habitation).

As the use of oil becomes unnecessary, its value diminishes, and it's no longer a fiscal lever for global power and conflict. For example, Randy Essex of RMI examines the futility of old-think with respect to oil supplies in the Middle East, coupled with military intervention. This perpetuates a destructive cycle which can be dispensed with by moving to renewable electric supplies with the tremendous savings in production and transport.Because of that, it behooves the large carbon-emitting countries to put a portion of their defense budget into shifting into a zero-carbon world because of the significant direct benefits it provides for national security. Germany has already started down that road. Ultimately the payoff for countries that are not large emitters is the preservation of their cultures and biospheres with the adoption of the new energy technologies.

As I said, this is just the back of a napkin.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Just a Pixel

The City of Los Angeles has posted its Climate Change portal which examines in detail a study area that is simply one pixel in the large climate models:

The study looked at the years 2041–60 to predict the average temperature change by mid-century. The data covers all of Los Angeles County and 30 to 60 miles beyond, including all of Orange County and parts of Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and reaching as far as Palm Springs, Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. The study overlaid this entire area with a grid of squares 1.2 miles across and provided unique temperature predictions for each square. This is in contrast to global climate models, which normally use grids 60 to 120 miles across — big enough to include areas as different as Long Beach and Lancaster.

It's a recognition that Los Angeles takes climate change very seriously; it's not a theoretical problem, and is trying to help the businesses and residents of the city prepare for the coming changes. The local Los Angeles Times has covered the issue of climate change denial in its press coverage. For example, the attitude of the climate deniers is challenged, in an interview with E.O. Wilson:

What are the consequences of this attitude on, say, climate change?

I've been asked this numerous times: Are we going to be able to pull this thing out in time? I believe in a dictum I first heard from the [deputy] prime minister of Israel, Abba Eban. He said, when all else fails, men turn to reason. Maybe this will happen in time, but right now we are pouring species and biodiversity down the drain for nothing.

Another LAT article questions the wisdom of ignoring the problem:

Droughts in Texas and Louisiana, melting glaciers in Alaska and wildfires in Arizona -- with combined losses running into the tens of billions of dollars -- might lead some to conclude that fighting climate change would be cheaper than ignoring it. But such logicians probably aren't members of Congress from those states, many of whom have deep ties to the oil and gas industry or are simply philosophically opposed to environmental regulation.

While climate change is really a discussion about carbon emissions and how to drastically reduce them, the conversation in Los Angles has been about local efforts in city planning and the restoration of the LA River. What's not mentioned is the impact of the Ports of Los Angles and Long Beach, the single biggest pollution source for the region, as well as their transportation infrastructure which stretches all across Southern California via the Alameda Corridor and designated highways. This transit corridor issue has reared its ugly head again with a new attempt by Metro to run freight through local cities. The surrounding communities are dead set against a massive, destructive proposed project which will drastically increase truck emissions, the 710 connector.

That issue aside, the approach that the city is taking in its local region is an emphasis on restoration projects, which includes habitat regeneration and the accompanying job creation that results from it. These projects can go far beyond simply restoring ecosystems, as a Volkswagen production facility in Mexico demonstrates.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Power of We

On this blog action day, it's appropriate to talk about how countries can collaborate and bring about change in the control of greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest threat to our planet and its life that we've ever seen. The carbon is building up, heating the planet, acidifying the oceans and melting the arctic.

Clearly the people of the world need to get together and rapidly agree on what the carbon limits must be. That's why it's so important to frame this around a constructive approach which is put out there in a big way as global public policy, and it's a powerful motivator if there's a consensus-based template out there that gives people tools to use immediately within their local ecosystems. These numbers have to be based upon actual real-time carbon measurements, which are completely do-able. There's also the possibility of anecdotal experience and its recording of climate change and its effects on people all over the world. It's a "witnessing" of the real climate impacts by people who have lived in a place for decades.

The solutions are pretty obvious in a lot of areas, but something needs to be mapped out by region and agreed to, quickly. Global policies have to change, and the many multiple ways in which these mitigation measures can be implemented can also be financially productive.

The focus on these solutions could be collaboratively managed by region, with the highest emitting countries responsible for the majority of the carbon reduction management, working in tandem with the smaller countries on the same continent. All would have access to the same data pool and observations (transparency). It's like online cybergaming but with real world impacts. Then these countries can trade off resources and carbon taxes locally, and use this balance to bring down the carbon impact in their region, according to agreed-upon global targets. Then each continent compares its carbon reduction rate to the others, and the race is on! The diagram above represents a conceptual grouping for North and Central America.

Who pays for the cost of these solutions? How are these costs quantified, the solutions actually implemented, enforced in the face of corruption, and the measurement of improvement communicated in a reasonably unbiased way? That's what's important about carbon reduction, otherwise known as convergence and contraction. It's a creative exercise done in a collaborative way.

It's the hope for a younger generation. We can't envelop people in despair, we need the world's people to cooperate in an urgently necessary task. So then what is the measure of success?

Acres of forests?
Smaller populations?
Restoration of watersheds?
Farming practices that work with natural processes?
Solar and wind power?
Net zero building practices?
Recycling instead of mining?
No more gas and oil?
Record carbon sequestration?

This might even be more fun than starting wars. Same goal, actually, control of resources and a share of the wealth, except that this is replenishment of resources for everyone, puts the carbon back where we found it and shares a responsibility for the common good. It's time for the old global regime to step aside.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Limiting Climate Change?

Climate change poses clear threats to human societies and natural ecosystems. The panel on Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, part of the America's Climate Choices project, calls for the United States to respond to these threats by starting now to change the way we use and produce energy. In this video, several members of the panel discuss its conclusions, including a proposal for an emissions budget to guide U.S. policy as well as measures that might be taken to reach that budget's goals.

The National Research Council has issued three reports (Advancing the Science of Climate Change, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change and Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change) examining how the nation can combat the effects of climate change. The reports are part of a Congressionally requested suite of five studies known as America's Climate Choices.

These resouces are promoted by the Citizens Climate Lobby. The report was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, posting this video about 18 months ago. The published report is available at this site, and there's also a free summary download. While it takes a reasonable position on managing carbon emissions, it doesn't go nearly far or fast enough; the suggestions are tepid and there's no teeth behind the core strategies outlined. There don't seem to be any numerical carbon goals or any specific ways of attacking the issue in a coordinated fashion, such as the C&C strategy. At most, it recommends a carbon tax. What really needs to be rapidly implemented is a tax on fuel consumption and an immediate end to oil and coal subsidies, with a concerted shift to wind, thermal and solar power sources for net-zero development.

This report is a small step in the right direction. But the giant leap for mankind has not yet been made, tragically so.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Urban Black Holes

 A black hole is an area of spacetime where an immense mass generating extreme gravitational forces prevents anything, including light, from escaping. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that marks the point of no return for anything that crosses this horizon. This kind of structure is a good analogy for what I've defined as black holes in the ecological system of our planet.

A comparison of the properties of the natural environment versus the built environment is simple. For example, a tree requires only the natural energy of its immediate environment versus the immense embodied energy required for a house. Not only that, the tree provides oxygen, creates its own micro ecology and cools its immediate vicinity with shade and the absorption of energy in the infrared wavelength. Sort of a natural solar collector and carbon sink. In this way, life has created its own method of sustaining itself using sunlight and water. Then you look at what human civilization has produced, which are structures which reverse the natural processes and use tremendous amounts of energy during their lifetime plus the embodied energies of its structure and the oil, gas and water used to make and transport its parts, as well as the energy to build it and snuff out the functioning ecosystem that used to be in its place. So these are little hotspots where the energy transfer works in reverse to the natural flow. When one aggregates many of these hotspots over an area, it creates a very destructive black hole. These black holes can be mapped.

So clearly if these black holes are not significantly balanced out with a healthy biosphere, the entire system collapses. This is in addition to the heat of carbon that's emitted by their existence as well as the transportation and shipping networks that support human habitation systems. Climate change is but one facet of the black hole problem. So there is a limit to the built environment that the planet can handle without the destruction of the ecological systems that support life on the planet.

Urban expansion - the black holes - will threaten biodiversity and impact the ability of the natural environment to function. There is a limit to the amount of human habitation that the planet can support, and we've passed that limit. We're now encroaching on the last remnants of the natural environment that provides what little balance is left in the ecosystem.

An explanation of the fiscal drivers that create these massive urban developments is described in an article that outlines how cities grow, particularly in California, but also across the globe. In effect, the financial models force more and more building for the cities to survive on the revenue this produces. This fiscal model is what drives the black holes that are shredding the ecosphere. The model is shifting to the premise that the form of cities must change because sprawl is too expensive, a retreat from the event horizon. Unfortunately for the fiscal model, the proposed solution of creating more dense development feeds right into the expansion of these black holes; it becomes a self-perpetuating cancer. This is not a solution for the long term. And these dense centers are poised to explode even further.

Unless human civilization comes to grips with its destructive proclivities, and reduces its footprint on the planet, there's not much hope for continued sustainable life on the planet. The ecological footprint must be reduced very rapidly by all the countries on the globe, and readjust our priorities as a civilization that allows us to adapt to the limitations of planetary resources and ecology. Therefore, the adoption of a new fiscal measure of productivity is imperative in our global systems.