climate policy and climate science inhabit parallel worlds

The mask slips : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

It says a lot about the outcome of the UN climate talks in South Africa at the weekend that most of the immediate reports focused on the wrangling that led to an agreement of sorts, rather than the contents and implications of the agreement itself. Late-night talks, later-night arguments and early-morning pacts between battling negotiators with the apparent fate of the world resting on their shoulders give the process a melodrama that is hard to resist, particularly for those who experienced it first hand in the chaos of the Durban meeting (see page 299).

Such late finishes are becoming the norm at these summits. Only as nations abandon their original negotiating positions and reveal their true demands — throwing international differences into stark relief — does a sense of urgency develop and serious negotiation take place. Combined with the consensus nature of the talks, which demands that everyone agrees to everything, the result is usually a cobbled-together compromise that allows as many countries as possible to claim victory and, most importantly, provides them with a mandate to reconvene in 12 months’ time.

So it was this time. In the search for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, we now have the Durban Platform, which comes on the heels of the Bali Road Map and the Copenhagen Accord.

It takes a certain kind of optimism — or an outbreak of collective Stockholm syndrome — to see the Durban outcome as a significant breakthrough on global warming, as many are claiming. Outside Europe — which has set itself binding emissions goals over the short and long term beyond what it will inherit under its stated plan to carry on with unilateral cuts under an extended Kyoto — there will be no obligation for any nation to reduce soaring greenhouse-gas emissions much before the end of the decade. And that is assuming that all flows smoothly in future UN talks, and that a global deal with binding commitments proves easier to find in talks due to start in 2015 than it has so far.

The Durban deal may mark a success in the political process to tackle climate change, but for the climate itself, it is an unqualified disaster. It is clear that the science of climate change and the politics of climate change, which claims to represent it, now inhabit parallel worlds.

This has always been true up to a point, but surely the mask of political rhetoric has now slipped so far, to reveal the ugly political reality underneath, that it can never be replaced. How can politicians talk now with a straight face of limiting global warming to 2 °C? How will campaigners frame this result as leaving yet another ‘last chance’ to save the planet?

That does not make the political process redundant — far from it. Introducing policies to curb emissions was never about saving the planet or not, or stopping global warming or not. It is about damage limitation — the 3 °C or 4 °C of average warming the planet could experience in the long term, according to some analyses of the Durban outcome doing the rounds, is clearly much worse than the 2 °C used as shorthand for dangerous at present. But it is preferable to the 5 °C or 6 °C that science suggests is possible if emissions continue to rise unabated.

To prevent that outcome will be just as difficult politically as was the now abandoned attempt to find a global successor in time to follow Kyoto. But it remains possible — and there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed. Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt. But as the Durban Platform crowds with politicians, the climate train they wait for has left the station.

Comments

  1. 2011-12-14 02:05 AM

    Report this comment #34028

    Jeffrey Thaler said:
    Well written editorial, and unfortunately too accurate. There is a theme arising out of Durban on the limits of legal-political processes, as well as the growing gap between scientific and political “realities”. How to bridge that gap, so we are not just mitigating significant harms to the world our children inherit, is the still-to-be-resolved challenge that requires work outside of the big conference halls. Time and growing GHG emissions are not waiting for any of us.

  2. 2011-12-14 03:13 AM

    Report this comment #34039

    Fred Singer said:
    The Nature editorial (Dec 15; The Mask Slips) talks about science and policy in parallel universes. Quite correct ? if you mean ?separate? and ?disconnected.? COP 17 was never about climate, let alone science. It was all about money: (1) How to assure continuing government careers for 200 delegations, with annual vacations paid by taxpayers. (2) How to transfer $100 billion a year from industrialized nations to LDCs (or more precisely, to their kleptocratic rulers), using ?climate justice? or ?climate guilt? (depending on who is doing the talking). (3) How to gain a national advantage by setting differential emission limits.

    By now it should be obvious that (1) the enshrined temperature limit of +2degC is based on fiction and has no scientific basis. As an annual global average, climate models tell us, it will mean warmer winter nights in Siberia and Canada; perhaps -35deg instead of -40; and little warming in the tropics. (2) It should also be obvious that even strenuous and economy-killing efforts at mitigation, will have little effect on atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, let alone on climate. If a demonstration is needed, just look at the lack of warming since 1998, in spite of rapidly rising levels of greenhouse gases.

    So, yes, I would agree with the editorial, if properly expanded.

  3. 2011-12-14 05:18 AM

    Report this comment #34049

    Kevin Matthews said:
    Yes, great editorial. Coming from the world’s leading scientific journal (which of course would prefer not to have to say such things) one would hope that authorities and media around the world take significant notice.

    Thinking about the whole UN climate negotiation process, and how complex and cumbersome it is to seek unanimous agreement from 194 countries….

    Then comparing what has come out of the COP17 cycle – significant and landmark progress, even if still sharply insufficient to the urgency of need – to what has come out of the U.S. Congress over the last several months or more, with its supposedly streamlined and results-oriented binary democracy approach – practically nothing.

    And suddenly – surprise! – consensus (in this entirely limited comparison) looks pretty darn effective – just from a simple results-accomplished perspective.

    For which differential, there is, in turn, good scientific reason.

  4. 2011-12-15 05:14 AM

    Report this comment #34107

    John Wheelahan said:
    No, there are no parallel worlds – the science and politics of AGW share the same scam. Spare us the crap about 6 degree C temperature rise , when you know that this is a lie. No temperature rise for a decade!
    The science and politics are about money – the greatest swindle since the South Sea Bubble. Hundreds of billions of dollars are to be given to African despots, conmen, swindlers and bankers for a scientific fanatsy. These beneficiaries will live in luxury in their Mediteranean villas while the poor of the third world countries and developed countries will be the sufferers, and pay the price. Please get real, Nature Editor.

  5. 2011-12-15 07:21 AM

    Report this comment #34146

    Patrik D’haeseleer said:
    I think it is very clear that the “global consensus” approach to dealing with climate change has failed.

    I may be time for those countries who are willing to do something about it to band together and go it alone. And then start charging tariffs on any goods imported from countries not part of the coalition, proportional to the amount CO2 pollution caused by those countries.

    If we can get Europe, Africa and the island nations on board, I don’t think it would take too long for China and India to follow suit.

  6. 2011-12-15 11:35 AM

    Report this comment #34154

    Michael Lerman said:
    I do not subscribe to the concept of global warming induced by human activities. About a 1,000 years ago Greenland was green and cows brought by the Vikings polluted the clean Arctic air. Instead of global warming Greenland got frozen till today. I often go to The Canadian Arctic and indeed can testify that the mean temperatures in July are higher than previously (~10 years ago), and though my Inuit friends blame the US government, I argue and try to persuade them their view is wrong. Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

  7. 2011-12-18 06:28 AM

    Report this comment #34314

    Karin Green said:
    I find this comment in the article troubling: “Those, including this journal, who have long argued the scientific case for the need to control greenhouse-gas emissions should back this new political mood to the hilt”, especially when you say something like ” there were at least encouraging signs in Durban that previously obstinate countries recognize that it is necessary, even if it is delayed”.

    To me, this bodes ill for an open minded and unbiased editorial policy!

  8. 2011-12-19 06:47 AM

    Report this comment #34516

    Jeffrey Eric Grant said:
    The COP people have been at it for a long time! I would think that if the science is solid, then the arguements would have moved foreward, at least a little. Instead, we are still talking about the evidence of global warming, and how to mitigate against it.
    AGW is all based on atmospheric rise in CO2 that was put there by human activity.So, now we have closed the talks in Durban, still with no agreement on the cause of the increased CO2 that will, someday, maybe, eventually, turn the world temperatures a little warmer. Not in my lifetime; maybe not even in yours!
    I challenge anyone on this thread to answer either of the following two questions:
    1) direct me to a recent empirical scientific study that concludes that increased atmospheric CO2 caused the inclease in atmospheric temperatures more than about 2C/100yr?, or
    2) Since water retains less CO2 when it is heated, how can the worlds oceans be both warmer and more acidic at the same time?

How to make green steel

CultureLab: How to make steel go green – with songs!.

Michael Marshall, environment reporter

greensteel2.jpg

This is something you don’t see every day: a substantial, carefully-researched book on how to reform our manufacturing industries, paired with an album of songs on the same theme.

Let’s start with the book. Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open tackles a particularly thorny question: how can we cut our greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level, without shutting down essential industries? It focuses on steel and aluminium, which between them account for 28 per cent of all industrial emissions, although later chapters briefly consider cement, paper and plastics as well.

This is a follow-up book to David MacKay’s much-vaunted Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. Both feature academics from the University of Cambridge carefully working out how we can transform an emissions-heavy sector of the economy.

The eight authors, led by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen, first take a close look at how steel and aluminium are produced from their respective ores, asking “how much can the metals industry do to clean up its act?” The answer they come up with: “plenty, but nowhere near enough”.

So they take a second approach, asking whether we can redesign the things we make to use less metal, use them for longer, and recycle their components when they wear out. This also offer plenty of options. Reassuringly, when the two approaches are combined the total emissions cuts are substantial.

 

Some of the ideas they come up with are so simple, I wondered why no one thought of them before. For instance, the average fridge lasts about 10 years, and gets thrown out when the compressor fails. This is a small part, but it takes a lot of work to replace so it’s cheaper to buy a new fridge. If fridges were redesigned so that the compressor was easy to replace, they would last far longer. “You shouldn’t have to buy two fridges in your lifetime,” they say.

Of course, this is another example of a solution for climate change that involves huge numbers of people taking concerted action. The problem is people’s disinclination to get off their backsides.

It’s quite a technical book, so it may not have much popular appeal, despite its nicely chatty style. But for policy-makers trying to cut emissions, and anyone in manufacturing, it should be required reading.

And so to the album, a collaboration between Allwood and soprano Adey Grummet, which is much better than it has any right to be. Worthy music on eco-conscious themes can sound like Spinal Tap’s Listen to the Flower People, but With Both Eyes Open actually contains a couple of good tunes.

The strongest songs get away from the details of materials science and become universal. The opening track, You Gotta Start, is an up-tempo number extolling the virtues of having a go, even when you don’t know exactly what you need to do. It’s not just about sustainability.

Similarly, the title track is a passionate call to arms, urging people to move away from blind consumerism. The closing line – “the stuff of life is life and not just stuff” – is better and more relevant than anything Coldplay will write next year.

Given how specialist the subject matter is, I’m not sure how many people the album will really appeal to. Of the 12 songs, I only expect to keep the two I’ve highlighted on my MP3 player. Unfortunately, the rest just restate ideas from the book in a slightly less clear way.

I worry that the album will give people, particularly policy-makers, the impression that the book is somehow flaky and not worth paying attention to. That would be a crying shame, because the book’s lessons are clear, well-supported, and vital.

Book information
Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open
by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen
UIT Cambridge
Free online or £31.82

Battery Fires Reveal Risks of Storing Large Amounts of Energy

Battery Fires Reveal Risks of Storing Large Amounts of Energy: Scientific American.

STORAGE RISK: Storing large amounts of energy, in batteries or other devices, inherently poses risks — but also offers benefits. Image: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons

People still need electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, which is why renewable energy developers are increasingly investing in energy storage systems. They need to sop up excess juice and release it when needed.

However, storing large amounts of energy, whether it’s in big batteries for electric cars or water reservoirs for the electrical grid, is still a young field. It presents challenges, especially with safety.

The most recent challenge first appeared in May, three weeks after a safety crash test on the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors Co.’s plug-in hybrid. The wrecked vehicle caught fire on its own in a storage facility, raising questions about its lithium-ion battery.

Last week, after a series of additional side-impact crash tests on the Volt battery, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched what it called a “safety defect investigation” into the risk of fire in a Chevy Volt that has been involved in a serious accident.

Problems have also afflicted spinning flywheels, which allow power plants and other large energy users to store and release powerful surges of energy. In Stephentown, N.Y., Beacon Power’s 20-megawatt flywheel energy storage facility suffered two flywheel explosions, one on July 27 — just two weeks after it opened — and one on Oct. 13. The company declared bankruptcy earlier this month.

In Japan, sodium-sulfur batteries at Mitsubishi Materials Corp.’s Tsukuba plant in Ibaraki prefecture caught on fire on Sept. 21. It took firefighters more than eight hours to control the blaze, and authorities declared it extinguished on Oct. 5.

NGK Insulators Ltd., the company that manufactured the energy storage system, said it is still investigating the incident’s cause and has halted production of its sodium-sulfur cells, which are installed in 174 locations across six countries.

“Clearly, storing large amounts of energy is difficult from a physics standpoint; [the energy] would rather be somewhere else,” said Paul Denholm, a senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

He explained that energy naturally wants to spread out, so packing it into a small space like a battery or a fuel cell creates the risk of an uncontrolled energy release like a fire or explosion. Similar issues come up with mechanical storage, whether it’s water behind a dam, compressed air underground or spinning flywheels.

Some storage risks are ‘grandfathered’
However, these risks are not unique to storing electricity. Fossil fuels, which are technically forms of stored energy, pose plenty of problems in their extraction, refining, distribution and delivery.

“We basically have grandfathered these risk factors. Gasoline catches on fire all the time,” said Denholm. Electrical energy storage systems aren’t inherently riskier than petroleum or natural gas, according to Denholm, but their risks are different.

The NHTSA shares Denholm’s assessment when it comes to cars. “Let us be clear: NHTSA does not believe electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than other vehicles,” said the agency in a press release earlier this month responding to the Volt fire. “It is common sense that the different designs of electric vehicles will require different safety standards and precautions.”

For batteries, the main issue is how they control the heat they generate. “What you really want to avoid is cascading failure,” said Denholm. “A failure of any one of those batteries is not a huge event, but if you don’t have proper thermal management, a failure in one battery can cause failure in another.”

This condition, known as a thermal runaway, happens when a cell fails and releases its energy as heat. This heat can cause adjacent cells to fail and generate heat, as well, leading to melting materials and fires.

Controlling temperatures is relatively simple when the batteries are in a fixed location, say, next to a wind farm, but it becomes harder when they are placed in a car or bus.

“The biggest thing that people become concerned about [for batteries in cars] is the ability to be able to tolerate abuse,” said Joe Redfield, principal engineer at the Southwest Research Institute, a nonprofit engineering research and development group.

In a car, a battery is exposed to a wide range of humidities, temperatures and electrical loads. All of these factors influence the battery’s reliability, and if they get too extreme, they can cause a thermal runaway condition.

New problem for firefighters
The problem is compounded by the fact that newer lithium-ion batteries store more electricity than other electrochemical storage systems. “The lead-acid battery has been around a long time” and is a mature technology, said Redfield. “The energy levels of lithium-ion batteries are much, much, much greater than that of lead-acid storage.”

This becomes a major problem for firefighters and first responders in the event of an accident involving lithium-ion batteries. Water can’t always be used to extinguish an electrical fire, since water can conduct electricity.

In addition, in the case of a thermal runaway, it’s usually not the batteries that catch fire but their fumes, though lithium itself is flammable. Even after the fire is extinguished, the batteries can still generate tremendous amounts of heat and reignite fumes, hampering rescue efforts.

One solution is to separate batteries into modules, making it easier to isolate a failed battery from the rest. Another trick is to have a master kill switch, a mechanism that quickly disables the electrical system and discharges the batteries.

The Department of Energy and the National Fire Protection Association are working together to train firefighters and rescue workers to identify these switches in vehicles and grid storage systems as well as in how to respond to battery fires, according to the NHTSA.

Redfield said that the best way to prevent such incidents is with a battery management system that evenly distributes electrical loads and controls temperatures. “It’s not just for safety; it’s primarily there to provide performance and battery life,” he said.

Electrics get high marks in crash tests

“As the operating temperature increases, the lifetime diminishes dramatically. You want to ensure the longest battery life, and if you achieve that, then you’re clearly in the safety limits of the operating environment,” he added.

Overall, Redfield expects that energy storage systems will help increase renewable energy use and curb fossil fuel dependence in the United States. The bumps along the road are significant, but they do not result from an inherent flaw in the idea.

“Failures in new technology have almost always been the result of design shortcuts that were made in putting the new technology into progress. Every now and then, you have some uncharted territory — things we haven’t seen before — but typically, they are few and far between,” said Redfield.

“It really is going down the same path we’ve gone down many times before. We don’t need to make the same mistakes we’ve made with liquid fuels.” After the earlier testing, NHTSA gave the Volt a five-star crash test rating — the agency’s highest — and it did the same for Nissan’s all-electric Leaf.

Meanwhile, a second testing agency, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has given the Chevrolet Volt a “G,” the highest safety score possible, after side crash tests on the front, side, rear and rollovers.

Research by an affiliate of the insurance group, the Highway Loss Data Institute, estimates that overall chances of being injured in a crash are 25 percent lower in hybrids because their large batteries make them heavier than similar gasoline-powered cars.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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