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Facts and fiction

By Dave Elliott

Is the truth out there? An extended Xmas Whimsy

It’s usual for there to be a spread of viewpoints on most issues, and it’s always worth looking at a range views, including ‘outlier’ ones! On that, this is fun: www.xonitek.com/press-room/company-news/the-stone-age-didnt-end-because-they-ran-out-of-stones/

However at times you can get weary of obsessive time wasters and yearn for clarity! Sadly that may not be easy to achieve.

The energy debate is certainly awash with views, some of which reflect biases. Take this bleak view of nuclear power and Fukushima from the US:http://ecowatch.com/2014/06/14/fukushima-children-dying/ It’s hard to know if this is overstated, or if the UNSCEAR et al are right. See: www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/05/04/cancer-and-death-by-radiation-not-from-fukushima/

Maybe neither are! So whose information and analysis can you trust? In case you think it’s a simple pro and anti nuclear polarization, see this: http://m.greenpeace.org/international/en/high/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/yes-things-are-very-bad-at-fukushima-but-its-/blog/47984/

Given the uncertainties, and to try to limit the problems of bias, it’s tempting to rely on experts- ideally, independent ones. So it is interesting that in a recent poll of scientists, open to ‘climate scientists and other scientists or researchers with relevant expertise’, and run by Vision Prize, backed by two US Universities and the UK IoP’s Environmental Research Web, a strongly pro-nuclear view emerged. Of the nearly 100 scientists who participated, 71% agreed with the view that that nuclear power is a critical component of any realistic plan to achieve climate stabilization, while 67% agreed with the view that renewables will not be able to scale up fast enough, these views being based on the public statement made by Dr Ken Caldeira, Dr Kerry Emanuel, Dr James Hansen and Dr Tom Wigley in Nov 2013.

Is this how most scientists feel? This poll is suggestive, but doesn’t help to tell us for sure: given that it is by open invitation, it’s hard to know if its representative e.g. is it meant to reflect scientific views globally? In the USA? Where? And amongst exactly what sort of scientists? And what about engineers? People who know more about energy technology? At best it’s a limited ‘snap shot’ straw pool amongst a self-selecting group. And being ‘open invitation’ it invites bias. It’s possible for lobby groups (on either side) to high-jack open polls like this (making sure members and colleagues enter votes), so we can end up mainly measuring lobbying strength!

However, if this poll is even partly representative of scientific views, then there is a disconnect with most wider public opinion. Properly structured statistically balanced public opinion polls, with large samples (1000 +), have usually indicated strong opposition to nuclear in most but not all countries- the US and UK being key examples of the latter- coupled almost everywhere with strong support for renewables.

Does the Vision poll, despite its limits, mean the public have got it wrong? Are they just reacting subjectively to nuclear horror stories and indulging in wishful thinking about renewables? For what its worth, my own view is that, on one hand, it is reasonable to be concerned about producing more radioactivity, especially given that we have as yet no long-term waste disposal sites available anywhere in the world, and security threats proliferate. And, on the other hand, I suggest the assertion that ‘renewables can’t deliver’ is just that – an assertion. Although it’s one made regularly by anti-renewables and/or pro nuclear lobby groups. For a counter view, see my postings on the Ecologist’s web site, summarising the evidence e.g.: http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2477299/decarbonising_the_world_energy_system_without_nuclear.html

The strategic debates will continue, and so they should, given that there are often disagreements about facts or at least interpretations of them! For example take a look at these two inputs, which come to more or less diametrically opposed conclusions on the costs of nuclear and renewables:

Renewables 50% cheaper than new nuclear: www.agora-energiewende.org/topics/optimisation-of-the-overall-system/detail-view/article/klimaschutz-wird-mit-erneuerbaren-deutlich-preiswerter-als-mit-atomkraft/

Renewables (or at least PV) four times more expensive than new nuclear: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/cost-of-german-solar-is-four-times-finnish-nuclear

While debates on issues like this rumble on, my desktop file is bulging with reports covering many countries around the world claiming that renewables can supply near 100% of electricity (and maybe energy) by around 2050, with full grid balancing and given proper attention to energy saving. So, I find it rather difficult to accept the argument that renewables can’t deliver, given time. It may be harder in some countries than others, but, I submit, it will be even harder and take longer if we divert funding away from renewabless and energy efficiency and towards nuclear. Though you may disagree!

My desk top is also awash with claims and counter claims about climate change. I was interested to note from one of the more useful inputs that atmospheric carbon dioxide gas concentration rises due to human activities are not evenly spread in the atmosphere around the world at any particular point in time, due to the location of power plants, factories and cars (mostly for the moment in the global north), the time taken to mix the extra injected CO2 gas globally (about a year), and the differing annual forest absorption/decay cycles and sea absorption/release processes around the world. http://carboncycle2.lbl.gov/resources/experts-corner/annual-cycles-of-atmospheric-co2-concentration.html You can watch it happening, and the result getting worse year by year, in this excellent animation: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA7tfz3k_9A  

I was also intrigued by a study, reported in Environmental Research Letters, which suggested that mass removal of air CO2 (so called ‘air capture’) would lead to ‘ an 
increase in the ocean-to-air CO2 flux, largely replacing the air CO2 
removed’ i.e. in time, the seas would outgas trapped CO2 pushing atmospheric levels back up. http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/5/2/024011

The seas have absorbed about 50% of our CO2 emissions, but tragically, it seems, if we managed to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere by air capture, then some of this huge sea reservoir would be slowly outgassed to replace at least some it. The rate of outgassing might be low, so initially air capture would still yield a net reduction in atmospheric CO2: there’s evidently a complex balance between absorption and release processes, depending on, amongst other things (including temperature), the small partial pressure difference. Also, over time, some of the absorbed CO2 is sequestered as geological carbon in seabed/rock formations and some say we could inject more to get it stored this way.So long term that might work. http://web.mit.edu/energylab/www/pubs/overview.PDF

For the moment though, most of what’s there is still in surface layers, interacting with the atmosphere. It is possible that, if air extraction was to go ahead on a very large scale, eventually most the untrapped extra sea-absorbed CO2 would be outgassed, so that then, if air capture was continued, the atmospheric CO2 levels would start to be reduced. But it would take a very long time, however it was done, whether by direct chemical absorption (with NaOH air filters), biochar production (and its use to increase soil carbon retention), or carbon negative Biomass Energy Carbon Capture (BECCS). Although in the case of BECCS you would be avoiding new emissions from fossil fuel burning. That’s valuable, if you think CCS can work on large scale and are happy with large-scale biomass (land) use. But tragically, the most attractive option environmentally for carbon capture and storage, reforestation, would not avoid the outgassing problem. As far as I can see, you would still get slow compensating CO2 blow back from the seas for a long while.

However the aforementioned ERL paper notes that there is another approach which might be more effective- direct ocean CO2 extraction i.e. from the sea itself. Indeed it boldly claims that, with sea capture, you then won’t need air capture: ‘schemes that consume/remove and sequester excess ocean 
CO2can ‘effectively address both excess
 ocean and air CO2, sidestepping the need for direct air CO2 capture.’

Removing CO2 from sea water has its problems (e.g. it needs energy), but the concentration is about 140 times higher than in air, and some clever ideas for sea extraction have emerged: www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/05/30/1222358110.abstract Though if synfuels are then produce using the CO2, as some suggest, and then burn, the process is no longer overall CO2 negative. For an interesting overview see: http://bravenewclimate.com/2013/01/16/zero-emission-synfuel-from-seawater/

While sea capture has its attractions, it still seems like a very long shot on any significant scale. Basically the message would appear to be that we can’t repair the earth much, except maybe very long term. Too much CO2 has be released, and trapped partly in the seas and land, to let us get the planet back even near to how it once was. But we can stop making it worse by not burning fossil fuels. That seems the only major option. Unless Gaia comes to the rescue and allows the sea to absorb a lot more CO2 without getting too acidic! Or some other natural feedback loop intervenes. But don’t hold your breath.

*The new year will see the long-running bimonthly newsletter I produce, Renew, shift from the NATTA web site to: http://renew-on-line.blogspot.co.uk and alternating with the shorter Renew Extra at http://renewextra.blogspot.co.uk Full details at https://renewnatta.wordpress.com

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this and calling out the Vision Prize results. We agree that they are suggestive of a disconnect between scientific opinion and public opinion on several key issues.

    One unique feature of the Vision Prize poll is that we compare the beliefs of our expert participants to what they predict the results to be. Thus far, we have found that our experts agree more than they think they agree. So not only does the general public overestimate scientific disagreement on some issues (as others have shown), but perhaps even scientists themselves do so as well.

    The methodology points you raise are important ones. Vision Prize is “open invitation” in the sense that we invite anyone who is generating original scientific research in a climate-related field to register. However, we do verify that participants meet this requirement before asking for their responses to the poll. As for overall caliber of our experts, as well as geographic and disciplinary distribution, feel free explore our participants page.

    It is true our expert panel is not a random sample of scientists. For example, we likely over-represent scientists that have an interests at the intersection of science and public policy. But for the case of assessing expert opinion, our view is that our opt-in approach — with screening for relevant expertise — offers a reasonable way forward, especially in a field like climate science where the population of interest transcends multiple domains and affiliations.

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