Some Words on Geo-Engineering

Unfortunately, these few but essential words on geo-engineering as a “solution” to the climate change problem referred to in the title of this post are not mine. Due to an acute lack of time and high temperatures (and thus intellectual shortages), I have to rely on others. Not as bad as it seems, though – the article on geo-engineering by Herman Daly is really worth reading (and, for that matter, the classic text by Bastiat he refers to, too). It is a very well compressed critique of the “engineers’ solutions” to climate change (without any offence against engineers in general), showing the main flaws of these approaches.

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17 thoughts on “Some Words on Geo-Engineering

  1. As far as I am concerned the essay by Mr. Daly is a sort of “silly” one. One cannot forbid people suggesting solutions because one does not like them. It has nothing to do with people’s intelligence. If those proposals are feasible is a totally different matter.
    At times discussions about climate change and proposed solutions look like an ideological battle with all “strings” attached. Most often than not true engineering advice is simply ignored – so why bring “engineers and engineering solutions” into the picture?

    Regards,

  2. What Daly wants to tell, as far I understand it (and he is right), is that geo-engineering is wrong, because its proposals frequently ignore systemic (e.g., climatic) consequences. There is nothing about forbidding anything in his text.

    Honestly, after one more time looking through the article, I don’t really understand why you consider it “silly”.

    I would be pleased if you were able to make your arguments a little bit more concrete.

  3. ” it can now be applied quite literally to the cosmic protectionists who want to protect the global fossil fuel-based growth economy against “unfair” competition from sunlight — a free good. The free flow of solar radiation that powers life on earth should be diminished, suggest some, including American Enterprise Institute’s S. Thernstrom (Washington Post 6/13/09, p. A15), because it threatens the growth of our candle-making economy that requires filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses. ”

    “Why then do some important and intelligent people advocate geo-engineering?”

    ” Panicky protectionist interventions by arrogant geo-engineers to save growth for one more round will just make things worse.”

    This is why I called it “silly” ( not silly to be clear). Calling names and implying things is not the best way to discuss issues.

    Why do you believe that geo-engineering is wrong? How do you define “wrong” in such a case? It is most likely not feasible for purely technical reasons. As it happens in life we may have theoretically and technically sound concept, application of which might be impractical or limited by the state of technology.
    In the same way one may discuss “green” energy which is technically sound, however, has several serious drawbacks. Why a person proposing a “carbon tax” is a serious and thoughtful one while we doubt intelligence of those proposing solutions like geo-engineering?

    Regards,

  4. Sometimes some polemic tones are good in such a commentary. But this is a question of taste.

    Why I believe that geo-engineering is wrong? In most cases (there are exxceptions, e.g. “fertilizing” the oceans with iron to facilitate the reproduction of algae, but it proved rather futile), such as those desribed by Daly, the problem is not that much their technological feasibility, but, as I wrote in my previous comment, the ignoring of systemic issues. You cannot “cut off” the influx of radiation from the sun without causing much damage to Earth. Perfectgreybody once wrote a very good piece on this. That’s why I am opposing most geo-engineering solutions (along with one more argument: I find it silly to seek solutions of problems caused by man’s interference with ecosystem in still more interference).

  5. Let me be clear. I do not defend geo-engineering. In my view ( and limited knowledge on the subject) we lack ability to implement those ideas on the scale needed. There is always problem of long term consequences of our actions -in fact human beings are rather bad at predictions.
    Personally, I will see geo-engineering as one of the proposals which might be investigated. People making those proposals are not different from others proposing different solutions.
    ” Why do I climb the mountains? Because they are there.”

    Regards,

    P.S. On Friday I had a chance to see an interesting advertisement by Siemens. It showed wind generators on top of hills at the sea coast ( somewhere in the world). What attracted my attention was the damage done to those hills as a result. Something to be considered when we go from current fractions of % to 50 % or more of power generated by non – conventional means.

  6. There is some difference between knowing that there will be adverse consequences (as in the example above) and guessing that there will be some. In the latter case we have to be cautious. In the former there is no discussion about applying the proposal.

    What attracted my attention was the damage done to those hills as a result.

    Sure, there are damages caused by renewable energy generation. No discussion here. But, as I am emphasizing over and over again: you cannot set equal almost sure, globally severe consequences of fossil fuels usage and those caused by renewables: mostly of local character, and often (not always, though) of a rather “aesthetic” kind.

    One more thing: you seem all the time to be pledging for economies of scale in the area of energy generation. So, here are two examples: Desertec and the Three Gorges Dam. I am sure you don’t like them. By pointing to them I would like to emphasize that there is no clear division: big, “efficient” solutions are good, small, decentralized ones are bad (since inefficient). Nor is it otherwise. We always have to assess the special case and make a specific judgement. And: there are no perfect solutions. To any problem. Decentralized renewable energy generation is not always “good”. But it is not smart to dismiss it just because it is “inefficient” – there are more categories of assessment than that.

  7. An interesting thing: China is, unintendedly, “geo-engineering” against climate change. According to latest scientific research, the Chinese emissions of sulfur (through coal burning), which is an aerosol, slow the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions (emitted in huge amounts by… China’s coal burning power plants).

  8. I am aware of that information. It somehow underlines my point or doubt if we can geo-engineer on a scale required ie. the effort could be even bigger ( in any term) than what that huge economy is doing now. Let me come back to your and my views on the link between size and “efficiency”.
    Just consider sendint 1 parcel, 100 parcel and 1000 parcels from A to B over a distance of 100 km.
    In the first case one would use a motrbike rider with the result being( assumed to a degree): 3 l of petrol consumed, 6500 g of CO2 emitted and cost of the service (say) 250 currency units(CU)
    If I did the same for 100 parcels ie. 100 trips by a bike or 100 bikes each carrying 1 parcel the result would be: 300 l of petrol, 650000 g of CO2 emitted , cost 25000 CU.
    I might hire a pick up and sent all 100 parcels with the effect: 14l of petrol, 30000 g of CO2 emitted, cost 550 CU.
    In the case of 1000 parcels one might use 10 pick ups with the results above being multiplied by 10 ( 140 l,300000 g., 5500 CU)
    But I could take a truck , then the result would be: 50 l of petrol consumed, 100000 g of CO2 emitted and cost to me 1100 CU.
    And so on. Obviously it would become wasteful to use a track to carry 1 or 100 parcels.
    This is why we try to built big ships, big power stations and big planes when big needs are to be satisfied. I know a person living in a distant area who uses a wind generator to provide electricity for his needs. That is a nice system but you would not apply it when trying to cater for the needs of a suburb of hundreds of houses for the same reasons as in the examples given above.
    Coming to the photograph I mentioned previously. It is not the view of the generators on top of the hills that disturbed me but rather the extent of the damage done to the evironment by supporting infrastructure – that is for 5 or six units built.

    Regards,

  9. I fully understand why we have chosen to use big, efficient systems in transporting, power generation and so on. But efficiency is not the sole important issue (something economists often seem to forget about, too).

    By now, in Germany over 15% of the electricity generation is from renewables – with steeply rising tendency. Of course, 100% today would be impossible. But we are improving all the time – in grid management, in storage etc.

    It is not the view of the generators on top of the hills that disturbed me but rather the extent of the damage done to the evironment by supporting infrastructure – that is for 5 or six units built.

    What about mining? Concrete and steel production? We need all this for conventional power generation. These are huge damages to the environment, too. Furthermore, I am not claiming that renewables are good per se. Three Gorges are not. About Desertec or offshore wind parks I am rather ambivalent. So, you may be right that in some cases renewables are really harmful to the environment. But this doesn’t mean that they are generally.

  10. My very simple example included three aspects ( which are in a way at the centre of discussions): monetary costs ( reflected here in the fees to be paid), use of resources ( petrol used) and environmental aspect ( emissions of CO2 in this case). You cannot find more. I might have looked at the capex expenditure and find some deviations but the message is clear- by switching to big number of small units you do increase your “costs” ( not only i monetary terms). Yes, you may find some exceptions, possibly with the introduction of modern/latest technologies, but right now it is as I have shown it in the example.
    It is correct that mining and mineral processing has a serious environmental impact. Conversion to “green” energy does not mean those industries will disappear. To the contrary – the demands will increase not decrease,
    Apart from the manufacturing needs , provision will have to be made for an infrastructure ( however basic) for each unit installed: roads, substations, transmission lines etc. Implications will be exactly as in my example.
    I am not against “green” energy, it may in fact be a practical solution to satisfy needs of households – also at a cost (in many ways). Beyond that I do not have a lot of optimism. In fact I would not like to hear one day a statement: Our fellow citizens, we are terribly sorry but the concepts we have adopted on such a scale and at huge cost do not work as expected.

    Regards,

  11. There is one thing in your analogy that makes it rather useless: when we generate power using renewables, there are no or almost no carbon emissions. That is exactly why we want them. A coal plant and a wind turbine are not comparable in the same way as a truck and a motorcycle.

    For the usage of renewables we can use much of the infrastructure that is already there. There is a need for additions, of course, but not all has to be built from scratch. And if we are talking about developing countries: they have hardly any infrastructure now, so it is rather indifferent which kind they “get”.

    With mining I meant mainly coal, oil and uranium. Since the idea is to replace them with renewables, they will “disappear”, you might call it, per definitionem (not fully, of course, especially in the case of oil).

    Our fellow citizens, we are terribly sorry but the concepts we have adopted on such a scale and at huge cost do not work as expected.

    What about that?: “Dear fellow citizens, we are terribly sorry but we considered “green” technologies too expensive and inefficient and didn’t switch to them when we still had the chance to prevent catastrophic climate change.”

  12. “There is one thing in your analogy that makes it rather useless: when we generate power using renewables, there are no or almost no carbon emissions. ”

    Yes, they are, however, now hidden in other activities – somehow the industry will have to produce the goods and supply spare parts and provide certain level of maintenance etc. But you are missing the point. My example is for the purpose of showing the trend , not to quantify results of any specific solution.

    regards,

  13. But your trend is omitting an important (the most important?) parameter!

    somehow the industry will have to produce the goods and supply spare parts and provide certain level of maintenance etc.

    So? When I am writing about the emissions from energy (not only electricity!) generation from renewables, I mean life-cycle emissions. There is nothing hidden there.

  14. Exactly so. They will not vanish because we want so. Big volumes result in big volumes everywhere. If you have 100 bearings and you know that 2 of them will fail you will have to make provision for that ie you need or will need 2 extra bearings. So if you run into hundreds of millions of units in operation you will need millions to replace, meaning: get respective minerals, go through various processes and finally produce those bearings – this will be an ongoing process.
    As you can see there is a lot involved. Obviously one can start manipulating the markets by introducing subsidies and imposing taxes. That is fine but it does not change the relationships and impacts. Just think about something. In case all households are supply with electricity from wind and sun. How do you protect them against power loss if there is no sun and wind?

    Regards,

  15. In case all households are supply with electricity from wind and sun. How do you protect them against power loss if there is no sun and wind?

    There are ever better ideas how to store electricity from renewables and how to use it “intelligently”. I am not an expert, so I won’t describe the proposals I’ve heard of, but there are a lot, and some quite advanced.

  16. It has not been my intention to trick you into detailed answers.Electrical energy storage is a practical problem which affects us in many ways. This is why some researchers conclude that at this stage we need “conventional power” backup for the “green” energy sources. All ideas are better from what we have in operation – this is what is really beautiful about ideas. However, few of them fulfil the initial promise once an attempt at implementation is made.
    So called intelligent systems have been known for a while. They can do a lot and help us improving operation of many industrial systems and improve control of processes. What we must,however, remember is that they are unable to convert a badly devised concept into a good one.

    Regards,

  17. Nobody is saying that we must switch to renewables overnight (nor did I). We need “conventional power” for some time – that is right. The questions are: how long? and which ones? The latter seems to be easy answered: natural gas burning is more energy efficient, causes less emissions and gas power stations are much more flexible than those where coal or uranium is used. Still, there is only limited amount of gas available – new, “unconventional” sources (e.g. shale gas) are highly problematic from the ecological viewpoint.

    In respect to the first question, the answer is maybe even more ambivalent: there is a huge range to be found in assessment studies (from some 20% renewable primary energy worldwide in 2050 up to almost 80%) and many uncertainties.

    So, maybe your scepticism is with good cause. What I am trying to do here is to show the potentials that we have and the need for them – mainly from an economic point of view. Whether we are going to seize the possibilities and prevent what may come – this is another question.

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