Dust storm over Sydney

Dust storm over Sydney

When the wind blows hard from the south-west it can get murky in Sydney. Dust is picked off paddocks across the vast inland and carried way away from where it belongs fouling the air for Sydneysiders as it goes.

The wind was blowing this week when I went to visit colleagues in Mildura, an outback town in northern Victoria right on the border with NSW. The countryside around the town donated at least some of the dust that reached Sydney. I saw it happen.

Bare soil frisked up and spat skyward at the corners of paddocks is quite a sight. Immediately you say, “Good on ya, Mildura. Giving it up for Australia” without any hint of sarcasm. At least that’s what the Qantas lady at the information desk said when she found out I had just visited her hometown. She really thought it was a good thing even as the wind and dust played havoc with her companies flight schedule.

How can this be?

A schoolkid should know that topsoil blowing up into the sky is not a good thing at all. It is expense and potential for production leaving the land for the ocean contaminating the air as it goes. The farmer is in despair. He just spent a fortune on fertilizer and a lot of that nutrient left too.

It is dry in the outback just now, with drought conditions declared for most of NSW. Without rain, it is hard to keep the ground cover that holds onto the soil unless the farmer plans well in advance and takes care to choose the right cover crop and grazing regime. The blanket over the soil needs to roll out early, otherwise production declines and with it income. It is a perennial problem in drought-affected areas.

What would it take for the Qantas staffer to instinctively say “Oh no, that’s not good. Those poor farmers”?

Or better still, “Oh no, that’s not good. Why can’t the farmers put on a cover crop”?

This should be everyone’s immediate response.

Whilst topsoil careering off into the Tasman Sea is a natural process of erosion that has whittled Australia down for millions of years, it hampers the production of crops and livestock. Speeding upwind erosion by leaving fields bare just makes it worse.

And so one of this year’s great ironies rounds off this conundrum. On the flight, the cabin crew member announces that Qantas will match all donations up to $1 million for drought affected farmers.

Perhaps they could spend some of the funds on an awareness program.

Meat

Meat

“Less Meat Less Heat (LMLH) is a grassroots, non-profit organisation dedicated to shifting societal attitudes towards meat consumption and as such curtailing agriculture’s damaging influence on the global climate. Our work encompasses educating the public through sound science about the massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb. Through helping individuals transition to low-carbon eating habits we aim to leverage the power of individual action as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.

From the home page of Less Meat Less Heat website

Cows belch often.

They are ruminants, mammals that enlist microbes to ferment plants they ingest in a specialised stomach prior to digestion. This symbiosis means they able to exist on a diet high in cellulose, a key constituent of grass.

Only it also means that cows belch a lot. The bacteria that assist the cow to digest cellulose include methanogens that produce methane as a metabolic byproduct. This gas builds up and has to be let out. It’s similar for us only we tend to fart more than belch.

The problem for the climate change conundrum is that methane is a greenhouse gas over 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And methane is what ruminants burp.

An average dairy cow puts out around 100 kg of methane each year. Depending on how you calculate it, this is roughly equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from a car. Beef cattle belch a little less so it takes two to match up to a car. The global numbers are interesting though. There are a little over 1 billion cars on earth and somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 billion cows.

As far as the greenhouse gas balance goes, human consumption of meat and dairy products is roughly equivalent to the impact from our cars.

Note that this is without counting emissions from the clearing of woody vegetation to find or grow enough grass for the livestock.

Methane from ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) makes up over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and up to 14% of all global emissions.

This is a big deal.

So much so that some people, such as those responsible for the quote above, are adamant that meat from cows and sheep is an environmental disaster. Only there is a significant reason why agriculture is often left out of any national carbon accounting even though it is the source of a third of global emissions.

People have to eat.

In the next hour as souls depart and new ones join the human diaspora there will be a change. In an hours time, there will be at least 9,700 more souls on the planet than we have right now. Funerals and births are not yet in balance.

Assuming that these souls are nourished around 500ha of productive land will be needed to grow enough calories for their daily needs.

A year from now when 83 million new souls have joined, the planet has to give up 4.6 million ha of productive land to feed them.

This crude calculation makes some simple assumptions. Calorie intake is 20% more than is needed to avoid starvation but half that consumed by the average US citizen. Calories come from growing wheat, and not from animal products. All else is equal, so the 7.5 billion souls already here are being fed and watered too.

Having meandered away to the big picture reality, let’s look again at the “massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb” and “low-carbon eating habits… as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.”

If we all grew dreadlocks and avoided meat, then the calorific conversion from land to the plate would be improved. No need for the respiration of animals burning the calories before we got at them. And no need for their nasty methane emissions.

But we still need 2,500 calories per person per day.

If all this energy came from plant products, agriculture was near perfect efficiency and all else was equal, the 7.5 billion souls need a little over 4 million km2 of productive land to generate enough vegetarian calories.

There are roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth, so we should be fine. Plus there are ever more sophisticated technologies that can intensify food production to deliver greater yield from smaller areas. Hydroponics is a fine example.

So in theory at least there is enough land to feed perhaps 9 or even 11 billion souls. No worries and no fuss.

And as ‘less meat, less heat’ proclaim, without meat, we can mitigate the threat of climate change.

If only it were that simple.

Solutionless

Solutionless

When you see the trajectory of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade or so, the pattern is a storyboard for the country’s political journey.

There was the ‘biggest moral challenge of our age’ in 2007 when a long period without emission reduction was obvious.

The carbon price that actually started to slow and then reverse emissions through the late 2000’s to the point that the country was tracking to meet its internationally agreed targets

Then the trashing of that ‘great big tax’ in 2014 to send the numbers upward again, and most recently, the apathy that has kept them climbing.

Here are the numbers as graphed.

The current numbers would have Australia with a cumulative failure to meet Paris commitments target by at least 40 million tCO2e a year or 7% of the annual emissions.

Not a good look. Arguably a renege.

It feels like right of centre governments can only understand graphs that project from bottom left to top right and so they create them, whatever the metric. And when it comes to emissions we have seen before how easy it is for them to have Lost the plot. So here we are with a government apparently unconcerned or oblivious to the combined facts that emissions are rising again, despite the growth in renewables, and the country is about to fail badly on an international commitment. Meantime the evidence continues to pile up that the planet is indeed warming and there are very tangible consequences for the people who live on it.

There are many Australians concerned about this tendency to abdicate on the issue of greenhouse gases. Even the medical profession who presumably have little interest in atmospheric physics are talking about the consequences of a warming world for health and safety.

So on the one hand there is evidence that denial has won and policies that do little and still question that there is even a climate problem, have won out, notwithstanding the rhetoric from podiums.

On the other, there is a growing sense of urgency that the problem is not only real but is with us in our daily lives, affecting our health and wellbeing.

This schizophrenic state is confusing to the majority of people, who, let’s face it, are not thinking much beyond their next Maccas or chai latte. And the handful of folk with part of an eye peering up from their screens toward the periphery of their personal bubble, don’t think with numbers.

So the coolaid speeches easily distract them.

Coolaid, the product of a tendency to spout excessive praise so as to massage the egos of anyone close enough to hear and in doing so ignore or deny any negativity

It is much easier to drink in the rhetoric than to question it. Especially as all the subtext is aimed at making you feel safe and eager to spend your money. Why else would you “vote for me”.

Instead the majority are able to ignore the reality of the numbers and the specifics that happen every day, even as we watch streaming shows like Homeland, The Handmaids Tale, and, ever so gently, Designated Survivor, that try to show us what is around the next corner.

It is actually rather sad. The human condition is so prone to being duped that almost anyone can do it. We can even believe the real housewives.

Unfortunately, sadness is an emotional blink from despair.

Dams

Dams

A decision is made to dam a modest sized river In the foothills near a big coastal city. The city is growing and water security is regularly a hot political topic as the area is prone to drought.

Construction on the dam wall begins in 1948 and on its completion the wall creates a lake with the capacity to hold a little over 2,000 Gigalitres of accessible water.

When the dam was completed the city was home to 1.8 million people. Today there are over 5 million inhabitants and the lake remains the primary source of freshwater for these people and their economic activities.

Downstream of the dam the floodplain has become an important area of agricultural and peri-urban development. The dam protects against flooding and the planners have allowed people to live in previously inundated areas. The dam not only holds a large proportion of the water supply to the city it also protects built and commercial assets from flooding.

When the engineers say that the dam wall could be raised by 14m, what do you think the planners will do?

Naturally, they will allow greater access to land on the floodplain, most likely by releasing some areas for residential development. It is a growing city after all.

In the planning meeting some wag says that it will all be alright because the climate is changing “It will be drier anyway, so no worries”.

This comment goes unchallenged despite the evidence for increased storm frequency and intensity in the region, and the obvious connection between this and major flood events.

Here is a hint with a biblical origin.

Don’t buy a house on a floodplain…. especially downstream of a dam.

Post revisited – Lest we forget

Post revisited – Lest we forget

It is said that old elephants can remember when they were young and the places their parents led them to find water. This memory is triggered in dry times and they lead a new generation to the permanent springs and pools. Makes sense for a long-lived, mobile animal and, indeed, could be a primary benefit of longevity. Evolutionary biologists would add that this also explains why elephant females are the only other mammal we know of where, like humans, older females go through menopause. It helps them live longer.

There are things that humans remember and there are many more that we do not. Our minds are not wired to have all things recorded and catalogued for instant retrieval. They are selective in both what is archived and especially what is remembered and when.

This is true even when the memory is mission critical. How many blokes can instantly recall the birthday of their better halves? It is not how humans do things.

We remember all kinds of things seemingly at random.

No doubt there are triggers for what is recalled so the process has some determinism but there are very few common things that we are all routinely reminded of beyond what it takes to get through life without being arrested.

Then there are the fearsome, nasty and scary things that we block. These rarely make it back into our conscious thoughts unless we are at the therapist.

If we didn’t quite understand something, any memory of it is often vague. Our maths teacher, Mr Dickinson, is remembered for his unfortunate surname and not his explanation of differential calculus.

So even if you read this post from May 2011, you are unlikely to remember it…

Lest we forget

April 25 each year is a public holiday down under and every Australian knows why. It is ANZAC day, a time to remember the brave and courageous soldiers who lost their lives in war. Many thousands attend dawn services across the country come rain or shine.

Australians also know about the Easter and Christmas holidays when many a shrimp finds its way onto a barbie. A fair number also know the religious significance that prompts these days of leisure.

Earth Hour is not a holiday but it is a similar sort of homage, this time to the environment. It began in Australia and is now a global gesture toward restraint in our appetite for energy. There is not a holiday for the environment though. So World Environment Day (5th June) passes without notice; as do the minor events such as World Tree Day (18th September) or World Soils Day (5th December).

There is strong public opinion that the environment is important. Not long after the 2006 release of the documentary movie, The Inconvenient Truth, that went on to make over US$50 million worldwide, action on climate change was palpable. People in Australia took to the streets, “take action,” they said.

Since that time there has been policy paralysis.

Unable to handle lobby group pressure, fearful of what might happen to a carbon intense economy fueled by minerals revenue and coal-fired energy, and an unwillingness to take the real issues to the public, the politicians have achieved nothing.

Initially there was goodwill. Australia signed up to the Kyoto protocol in Bali and there was bi-partisan talk of a market mechanism to price carbon. But the greens said it was not enough and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was voted down. An odd call that.

The topic was rested.

Then there was failure in Copenhagen, little more in Cancun and deathly quiet over the prospects for Johannesburg. Leverage for the true believers has faded. The vacuum has been filled in part by skeptics, not about the science per se, but about the need to do anything about emissions. And the public seem to have forgotten what all the calls for policy initiatives were about.

We don’t remember that the idea was to become less emission intensive through energy conservation and shifts to alternative energy sources; perhaps even sequester some carbon into the landscape. It has also been convenient to forget that, given the way our economy works, a trading scheme was a handy mechanism to achieve these goals.

We also see to have forgotten that signing up to Kyoto means setting an emission reduction target. As at 2007 emissions were 597 million tCO2e or 77 million tCO2e more than the 5% reduction on 1990 levels. And emissions will, notwithstanding economic slowdowns, rise and grow the actual tonnage of reductions required in the absence of a policy to reverse the trend. Or, of course, Australia could renege on even a modest target.

The noise over a carbon tax is just a smokescreen, a handy way to keep the real policy issues hidden. Perhaps this is because a focused debate, something that talks about what was asked for, would remind us of what we may have forgotten. That a few short years ago most people wanted something done about the challenge of climate change.

Perhaps we should have a climate day, make it a holiday and then we will not forget.

Lest we forget climate day. Well it doesn’t really ring true does it? We can remember and celebrate heroism and sacrifice but not risks to the fabric of our existence.

Alloporus has even slowed on climate related posts and rants. It is not remembered often enough, despite times of deep reflection. Goodness, this year we even forgot to turn the lights out for Earth Hour.

Unfortunately, the earth, its climate and the resources it allows us to consume, is not often in our thoughts. It is slipping away from our culture and we remember less and less of the experiences that it gives us.

In time we will forget about it altogether.

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

A post revisited — Investment in energy research

This post on the remarkable level of investment in energy R&D in the US was written in September 2011. It is not my intent in these retrospectives to play the ‘I told you so’ card but given the egg on the faces of the current and recent Australian governments over energy security, it is pretty hard not to.

Did politicians really think that we have coal, oil and gas and so the job was done?

Emission notwithstanding, did they just sit back and let the end of life for major coal-fired power stations be someone else’ problem?

Well in Australia they did. In America too I suspect. Trump is not pulling the Paris pin because he is a climate sceptic, he’s keeping coal going so that, at least on his watch, the lights stay on across America. Nothing will kill your voter base faster than blackouts attributed to poor planning.

So here is what Alloporus thought in 2011 about energy R&D…


Investment in energy research

In the US Federal research funding into energy is $3 billion. This figure includes investment into oil, coal and gas as well as solar and other alternative energies.

Then there is a further $5 billion invested by the private sector for a total of $8 billion in an industry worth $1 trillion a year; making investment in R&D only 0.8% of revenues.

Apparently $8 billion pays for about 9 days of military involvement in Iraq – pretty scary and perhaps something they might look at when considering reducing budget deficit, but I digress.

The point here is that 0.8% is woeful. Any company that spent less than 1% of revenue on R&D would not last long. Given that energy is so critical to economic performance and given that we have reached peak oil and will eventually run out of coal and gas too, 0.8% seems irresponsible.

And then there is a huge global movement that believes we must tackle climate change by reducing emissions from greenhouse gases.

What should the investment be? In successful economies upwards of 3% of GDP is allocated to R&D, which is roughly $430 billion. This amount must cover many sectors but energy security should be worth at least 5% of the available budget or an order of magnitude more than the current allocation.

We are kidding ourselves if we think that energy security can be achieved when we invest peanuts.


There is money to be made from energy. There always has been. I bet that the first hunter-gatherers who figured out through trial and error how to transport fire with them as they wandered were revered and feared. The thinking and testing that went into creating and catching a spark to start fires was, well, gold to the people who mastered it.

The smart individuals who put a wheel into running water or threw a lump of coal onto the campfire might also have made a relative bob or two.

So it’s not about the returns. It is that it is future money. The power stations cornered the market for a period long enough to scorch the space for new investment. If end of life is 30 or 50 years away there is no market for anything else until then. There is no need to look forward as energy is secure.

This lack of foresight might just be our undoing.

Time for scepticism

coal mineAt what point did scepticism become a dirty word?

Perhaps it was when political correctness overtook us and we were forced to accept convention or risk ridicule from everyone, including the kids. Maybe it was when we disappeared into the virtual world where the only thing reminding us of reality was stiffness from ‘smartphone neck’. Or maybe it was when the media purposely made sceptic and denial mean the same thing.

Here is quick reminder of the real definition of sceptical… not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations.

What this means is that a sceptic is not convinced by the first thing she hears. She thinks about new information, turning it around to see it from all sides. She seeks other opinion, even counsel. She thinks some more and then makes a decision to believe or not.

The sceptic is not a denier even though she may choose to reject what she is told. She is much smarter than that — she starts with the idea that whatever new information is heard may not be all that it seems.

Recall any scene from your favourite reality TV show. The editors pull together snippets of action to present the most drama and then milk it with liberal use of mood music enhancement. This can make the little craziness in the scene much wilder and entertaining; but if we believed all these capers as the truth we would be foolish indeed.

Now let’s consider how the sceptic would deal with a more difficult example.

Should we believe the Australian government when it says that giving mining companies taxpayer funded offset credits to capture methane at new coal mines is a good tactic to achieve policy targets for emission reduction?

Under any carbon price mechanism the idea is to reduce the carbon intensity of human activities. This means that energy generation, manufacturing, transport and agriculture [the sectors that make up almost all the greenhouse gas emissions] should release less carbon to the atmosphere than in the past. Where the activity can’t be made less intensive, such as a coal-fired power station, emitters can buy credits [or are given allowances] that, in time, make them commercially inefficient and so they are replaced by cleaner technologies.

Methane gas is often associated with coal seams. The whole coal seam gas debate is about extracting this methane as a fuel source. But when the resource in demand is the coal, the methane is either incidental or too expensive to capture. Usually it is released to the atmosphere where it contributes to climate change effects because methane has 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Capturing and burning the methane from coal mines would reduce this emission source because methane converts to carbon dioxide when burnt. And carbon dioxide has a net global warming potential of 1.

Burning methane would reduce net emissions from the activity of mining coal.

Except how does this contribute to emission reduction when new coal mines will extract millions of tons of the very stuff that generates greenhouse gases in the first place. No matter that most of the coal is exported and ends on the emissions accounts of another country.

Whatever the rhetoric the taxpayer is actually paying for more emissions not less. In effect it subsidises the development of new coal extraction capacity. This cannot be “a good tactic to achieve policy targets”.

So what should the sceptic do with all this? Be themselves and be sceptical, very sceptical.

This is a ruse by the mining sector to get paid for emitting, the exact opposite of the original policy objectives.