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December 2009 Archives

None of us are perfect. Like Canon Chasuble, I myself, for example, am peculiarly susceptible to draughts. Worse than that: I once submitted several decades of revised data on the annual mass balance of White Glacier in northern Canada to the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zürich - and managed to date all the balances wrong by one year. Fortunately, I noticed the blunder and was able to correct it but this story illustrates an important truth: blunders happen.

I am not the only glaciologist, nor the only scientist, to have blundered. One weakness of WGMS is that, being underfunded, it doesn't thoroughly check the data submitted to it because it can't afford to. In fact, my blunder would have been quite hard for anyone but me to detect. But for anything more intelligent than lists of raw numbers, science has a way of testing the validity of claims. It is called peer review, in which we insist that results not be published until they have been given a thorough going-over by more than one qualified colleague. This is far from a guarantee of correctness, but long experience shows that it is far better than doing nothing.

I recently came across a collection of blunders in no less a place than the second volume, known as WG II, of the Fourth Assessment Report of IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. WG II reproduced an unreviewed claim that Himalayan glaciers are very likely to disappear by 2035. The claim was first made in 1999 in a more restricted way, concerning only the central and eastern Himalayas, in a news story in New Scientist, and slightly earlier in an Indian electronic magazine Down to Earth. According to Google, it has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times, presumably in trusting good faith every time. One recent repetition was by Rajenda Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC.

It is a tangled story, but in essence the claim is wrong because the date 2035 seems to be a hasty misreading by somebody, now unidentifiable, of the date 2350 in an obscure report. In its context, 2350 was a reasonable date, but changing it to 2035 turns the claim about the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers into garbage.

There is no comfort for climate sceptics in this. A few years ago one of them, a botanist writing to New Scientist, tried to reason from the supposed fact that 555 out of 625 glaciers reported to WGMS were advancing. This claim provoked the not very scientific but understandable response from WGMS spokesperson Frank Paul that, "This is complete bullshit". Investigation showed that there were two levels of wrongness about the claim. Superficially, it was wrong because the sceptic had failed to press the Shift key: he should have typed 55%, not 555. More deeply, it was just plain wrong. The sceptical article was the start of a trail, traced impressively by George Monbiot, that leads back to a non-existent paper not published in Science in 1989.

Depending on what set of years you look at in the real WGMS records, the actual percentage of advancing glaciers is usually nearer to 5.5% or even 0.55% than 55%. It did approach 55% between 1975 and 1985, but, as Figure 5.1 in the WGMS summary of glaciological facts and figures makes clear, the global percentage is distorted by the over-representation of measurements from central Europe. A well known cooling peaked at about the period 1965-1970 in the Alps, which are much studied but host only a tiny proportion of the world's glaciers.

Like me and Canon Chasuble, peer review is not perfect, but there is no question that it reduces the risk of blunders happening and wasting everybody's time. "Everybody" includes concerned lay folk as well as the scientists. One partial antidote to the effects of blunders that is available to all, including those who have to take the experts' words on trust, is the first of Bertrand Russell's ten commandments for liberal thinkers: "Do not feel absolutely certain about anything."

There has been plenty of bad news about nuclear power recently (e.g. see my last-but-one blog), but in the seasonal spirit of "good will to all", here is something a little bit more positive – and lighthearted!

The UK is planning to get around 8% of its electricity from nuclear plants at some point after 2020 – and around 30% from renewables. It might be argued that, instead of trying to compete with renewables, coal and gas in the electricity market, which may prove hard, perhaps nuclear ought to look to other markets.

Top of the range options include the production of hydrogen, and possibly other synfuels, that could be used in vehicles – that is a high added-value product. I looked at some of the emerging ideas for hydrogen and synfuel production in an earlier post.

The US Department of Energy's new "Next Generation Nuclear programme", with up to $40 m on offer for an initial planning phase, is now looking at the idea of extending the application of nuclear energy "into the broader industrial and transportation sectors". But high temperature reactors of the type being explored are still some way off & work on South Africa's Pebble Bed Modular Reactor was recently halted due to financial constraints.

Less speculatively, you don't need new technology: conventional nuclear plants, like all steam raising power stations, produce a lot of waste heat. There has been much talk recently of using some of this for local heat networks – linked to nuclear "Combined Heat and Power" plants. Some plants in Russia already do this, as I noted in an earlier post: Selling heat as well as power can improve their economics.

Heat from the turbines at nuclear plants is already quite widely used for other purposes. For example the 5400 MW nuclear plant at Gravelines, near Dunkirk, feeds waste heat to a Sea Bass farm, which evidently produces around half of all worlds' farmed sea bass. And the existing Olkiluoto nuclear power station in western Finland, provides heat for growing Latvian zilga grapes in a nearby vineyard. Even more exotically, there is a large tourist crocodile farm at Civeaux in Provence, fed with heat from a nearby nuclear plant. I'm sure there are other examples.

Perhaps more practically, nuclear plants have been used for the desalination of seawater. For example, in Japan, I'm told, 10 desalination facilities linked to pressurized water reactors operating for electricity production have yielded 1000–3000 cubic metres/day each of potable water, and more than 100 reactor-years of experience have accrued, while Pakistan plans a desalination plant coupled to its KANUPP reactor near Karachi. Morocco is also, it seems, planning nuclear-powered desalination, as is China (at Yantai, producing 160,000 cu m /day, using a 200 MW reactor). And South Korea and Argentina have each developed small PWR-type reactors designed for cogeneration of electricity and potable water.

Mind you, renewables can also do this. The various Concentrated Solar Power plants being built of planned in North Africa can desalinate seawater. And in Texas, Renew Blue's wave-powered "Sea Dog" water-pump device is near completion, on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico. It will desalinate seawater. Some could then be sold in bottles, rather than Perrier and the like.

I know the risks of contamination with nuclear material are miniscule, but somehow, personally, I'd prefer my water to be kept well away from radioactivity. So, if I needed bottled water, I'd prefer Renew Blues' offering. But then some spa waters are very mildly radioactive, which was once claimed to be part of their curative value. And, it might be a bit of a stretch, but these days the nuclear industry sometimes argues that low levels of radiation aren't that dangerous: Radiation risks questioned.

On balance though, I think I will stick to beer. Happy Christmas drinking, whatever your choice!

I agree with some prognosticators that attribute all global warming to natural processes. From normal cycles of the atmosphere to the regular Earth orbit and wobble about its axis. From sunspots to wildfires, natural processes dominate the flux of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into and out of the atmosphere. But there is one natural process that is usually categorized incorrectly: the actions of that species that is Homo sapiens.

H. sapiens, or we humans, follow the same trend as many other animal species in discovering food and energy resources and using them to proliferate and maintain numbers. However, we have a seemingly innate ability to acquire knowledge and pass it on to younger generations such that the subsequent H. sapiens don't have to "reinvent the wheel" every generation. This accumulation of knowledge began with the first writing, continued with the teaching of agriculture for stable food supplies, and is now culminating in the transfer of information (and much of it simply data or low-value information) across the internet as is occurring when you are reading these words.

The process of accumulating knowledge, using that knowledge to create even further new knowledge of how to make new tools and extract and use natural resources has been occurring for approximately 10,000 years. Over this time, we have discovered laws of physics, incredibly advanced the science of medicine, and established societal laws and governmental structures. All the while we H. sapiens expand in population (with a few bumps in the road due to disease) and extract more renewable and fossil resources from the Earth each year. H. sapiens is a part of this Earth just as much as are Oncorhynchus mykiss (rainbow trout), Gorilla gorilla (Western Gorilla), and Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Sequoia). Granted, the trees have a hard time extracting resources beyond their roots, and the trout don't have opposable thumbs that allow them to grasp rocks in the stream bed to make houses or fish pens. G. gorilla have thumbs but don't seem able to venture out far from their original habitat. Most plant and animal species simply expand when resources (prey, nutrients, sun, rain, etc) are abundant and contract when they are scarce – simply a response to immediate stimuli. But those darn H. sapiens make clothing and shelter that allows them to stay in climates and conditions for durations that would otherwise kill them. This learned planning ability to plan ahead for the future seasons and years has been used to further the natural expansion and reach of humans across all continents of the globe.

With these thoughts in mind, why call anything done by us humans to date anything other than "natural"? We don't make steel, we find iron ore and carbon-containing substances to combine them when heated to form a substance with new properties we call steel. Using steel and other transformed materials we assemble objects, composed of many of these refined and purified substances, that would otherwise not exist on Earth. But oysters do the same thing in constructing their shells. We just do it a lot more, a lot faster, and into more materials.

If we consider the terms "man-made" and anthropogenic as describing actions that go against the continued expansion of Homo sapiens, then what past decisions can fall into that category? Two candidates come to mind: (i) the Chinese one-child policy and (ii) the OPEC/Arab Oil embargoes of the 1970s. it In restricting the spreading of a sixth of the world population, the one-child policy is meant more to preserve the Chinese state more than the humans in general. But don't short-change the one child policy as being a possible climate policy – as was suggested by some at the recent Copenhagen talks.

And the oil embargos, in hindsight, could be considered the first greenhouse gas policy and/or energy conservation policy. By restricting the flow of resources to a large part of H. sapiens, the leaders of a few resource-rich countries triggered a drastic change in the growth of energy consumption of the world, and hence greenhouse-gas emissions. Annual growth in world energy consumption was increasing close to exponentially until the 1970s, and after that it has been growing only linearly (i.e. at a slower rate). We could possibly attribute 100s of exajoules (or quads) of annual energy conservation to OPEC.

Perhaps embargoes and tariffs in general are a truly man-made construction. The one-child policy and oil embargoes were targeted with the intention of preserving the wealth/power of certain political entities – one with some intent to punish other political entities. Political states being the result of increasing complexity in society, they are inherently man-made. Thus, organization by treaty and by writing is man-made. And perhaps that is why negotiating a limit on greenhouse gas emissions was not successful in Copenhagen this December – because such a limit is a man-made restriction of a natural tendency, not a natural restriction of an anthropogenic tendency.

Luckily for my country, Canada (glacierized area 201,000 km2), Antarctica (12.35 million km2) isn't a country at all, and many people have yet to get around to thinking of Greenland (1.76 million km2) as a country. So, if you will allow me Greenland, I live in the world's most heavily glacierized country, not excluding Russia (78,700 km2). But what about the bottom end of the list?

Mexico had 23 glaciers on three volcanoes, but the three on Popocatepetl got wiped out by an eruption a few years ago. (The secret is to stress the first e.) Venezuela is hanging on grimly but certainly unavailingly to its last five glaciers in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida. There are glaciers in all of the other Andean countries, and in Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The most poorly known of Indonesia's glaciers, which are all in New Guinea, disappeared between 1989 and 2003. The others are likely to go soon.

Spain still has a couple of dozen glaciers in the Pyrenees. There used to be a glacieret in the Sierra Nevada, in Andalusia. It was the southernmost glacier in Europe until it disappeared in or about 1913.

Turkey has about 20 km2, and Iran about 27 km2, of glacier ice on scattered mountains.

Would Mongolia surprise you? Depending on which source you consult, it has between 350 and 840 km2 of glaciers in the Mongol Altai and nearby ranges in western Mongolia. There is much more to Mongolia than the Gobi Desert and memories of Genghis Khan.

For a quarter of a century I puzzled over why the guidelines for the World Glacier Inventory included the two-letter country code BU for Burma. Then along came Google Earth, and I was able to zoom in on Hkakabo Razi, a 5,881 m peak near the northern tip of the country. (Sorry, I haven't got a trick for pronouncing this one.) Sure enough, there were the glaciers. This is another demonstration of how Fritz Müller, the architect of the World Glacier Inventory, was decades ahead of his time (or at least of me). As far as I can make out, the Burmese glaciers cover 10-15 km2. I even bought a digital version of a Soviet map of northernmost Burma so that I could inventory them. It is an excellent map, but maddeningly all of the contours are brown and it doesn't show the glacier outlines.

Australia makes a good trick question for trivia contests, because of Heard Island. Heard, with 231 km2 of glacier ice (in 2008; 288 km2 in 1947) and the highest Australian mountain (Mawson Peak, 2745 m), is 4000 km southwest of Perth, in the vastness of the Southern Ocean. But it is a bona fide territory of Australia, cobber.

Sadly, what I used to consider the most surprising glacierized country is now off the list. Marion Island is a part of South Africa about 1800 km southeast of Port Elizabeth. The summit ice on Marion Island, covering about 1 km2, was one of the world's most elusive glaciers. The only useful description in the scientific literature was by a passing ornithologist, and the only usable map is a crude sketch by him. Like the Soviet map of Hkakabo Razi, the South Africans' official map of their only glacier is excellent with the sole exception that it doesn't show the glacier. It does say "Ice Plateau", but that is it as far as glaciological content goes.

We will never know now what South Africa's glacier used to look like. Paul Sumner and colleagues reported recently that the summit ice on Marion Island disappeared during the 1990s, leaving only remnants protected by falls of volcanic scoria.

I admit to a weakness for useless trivia. Nevertheless the search for little glaciers in improbable countries is not a complete waste of time. Of the 131,000 glaciers in the incomplete World Glacier Inventory, 97,000 are smaller than 1 km2. They only account for 8% of the total inventoried area, but the true figure is probably greater. It is time-consuming to count and measure tiny glaciers, so they tend to be omitted from surveys. And that kind of percentage is not negligible if we want the best accuracy when estimating quantities such as the glacial contribution to sea-level rise.

Why did Copenhagen end in a disaster? Of course, there are a multitude of reasons. The negotiations were not well prepared, the personal dynamics did not work out very well. A major point is probably that the negotiations were overloaded with too much content and too high complexity. Consider for example that a global cap requires binding commitment from 193 countries, or at least of 17 countries that emit more than 90% of all greenhouse gases. If one country, for what reason whatsoever, does not agree to its "appropriate share" (assuming for the moment that such a share can be determined), then other countries will have reduced incentives to stick with their original commitments. A simultaneous global monetary transfer does not simplify matters.

Beyond these general issues it is very clear that the global powers failed in assuming their respective responsibilities.

European Union. The European Union was close to upscale its commitment of 20% reduction from 1990 till 2020 to 30% or 40%. As a coal dependent country, Poland blocked this target. However, it is also a sign of weak leadership of Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown that they could not forge a deal with Poland. Germany embarrassed itself with its new minister of development, Dirk Niebel, who wants any climate fund not to be additional of existing development aid.

United States: The United States could not agree to any numbers. The major problem, of course, is the US Senate where a 3–4% reduction until 2020 (with baseline year 1990) is still up in the air. Hence, Obama could not even commit to this low number. Furthermore, the financial contribution for adaptation in the world's poorest nations is not more than a third of that what the EU and Japan committed each for 2010–2012. Here, Obama could have shown much more leadership. Somewhat worrying is the discourse within U.S. media, providing the playing field for disappointing US policies. The scope of the overall challenge is rarely mentioned. In the New York Times, some hacked e-mails were blown up to a big story without getting the context right. As a result of wildly fragmented story lines, it is possible that a significant minority of US senators considers climate change to be a scam.

China

By now China is the world largest GHG emitter. Without China, there is no solution. China displays some political will in reducing the carbon intensity of it economy. However, China does not agree to a binding cap while it would have financial resources at hand to realize ambitious measures. China played a very self-confident role in Copenhagen, and wants to be understood as a global leader. However, for a global leader one ingredient is missing: assuming responsibility (see also the US and the EU).

Enough of the blame. Let's look for a way out of this mess. One big problem is that the discussion was framed in terms of burden sharing, money to be paid, and economic loss. This is the facile view of the story.

There is also another, bright perspective. It is bottom-up, as pointed out by Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Nobel prize-winner Elinor Ostrom. Let us look at the specific perspective of the above mentioned world regions (real action probably has to come from communities, climbing up the political decision-making ladder).

Consider that a first mover towards ambitious emission reductions will gain also most of the resulting economic advantages (results of a meta-study called RECIPE). There is a clear rationale for, e.g. the EU, to commit to more ambitious targets.

The US would profit enormously from emission reductions, notably gaining energy independence. Super-costly wars in the Middle East would not be necessary anymore. This would free scarce US resources, e.g. for guaranteeing safe trade routes in world oceans – much more rewarding for the US and the world.

China has to gain a lot from reduced coal consumption. China is still the world's air pollution haven with hundred and thousands of fatalities every year. As a result, life quality is not even closely growing with GDP. In fact, there are a multitude of co-benefits for local or regional sustainable policies.

Fortunately, many citizens and politicians understand that climate change mitigation can increase social welfare, also locally. We need to work hard to realize such policies as soon as possible.

Wave power and tidal current turbine technology, if successfully developed, could supply the UK with about 20% the electricity it needs and possibly much more. The UK has one of the world's best resources, but there are also significant potentials elsewhere. For example it has been claimed that the US could generate 10% of its electricity from wave and tidal schemes.

Wave power was the initial leader – the UK launched a R&D programme in the 1970, with some scale model devices being tested in open water. However we then lost a couple of decades following the withdrawl of government funding for most of the work in 1982 and for the remainder in 1994. Work on Tidal power was also halted – the emphasis at that time being on large tidal barrages across estuaries. Now however, all three options, wave, tidal-current turbines and tidal barrages, are back on the agenda, with the UK still being in the lead, just.

Tidal current turbines seem to have the edge in many ways. Whereas with wave energy you are trying to extract energy from a chaotic interface between water and air with multiple energy vectors, with tidal flows, a few metres under the sources, you have nice laminar flow and a more stable environment. And whereas with barrages you are in effect blocking an entire estuary, with freestanding tidal turbines you are only intercepting parts of the flow, so the environmental impact is much lower.

It's perhaps not surprising then that there are reputedly 150 or so tidal projects at various scales under tests around the UK. Most are small lab tests but some full-scale systems are now in place – notably the 1.2 MW Seagen tidal turbine in Strangford Loch, Northern Ireland. That has now been signed up to received Renewable Obligation Certificates for the power it feeds the grid. A 10 MW tidal farm is now planned off Anglesey. Next in line is the novel "Open Hydro" open-centred turbine device, the Pulse Tidal oscillating hydrofoil system, the "Lunar Energy" ducted rotor device and Neptune's vertical-axis "Proteus" ducted rotor.

There are many others under test – for example TidalStream Ltd reports that their unique tidal-turbine platform design – Triton – has successfully undergone validation testing at the deep-water test basin at Ifremer in Brittany, France. Meanwhile Swanturbine's Cygnet device is being be assembled at Swanturbine's facilities in South Wales ready for deployment at the European Marine Energy Centre Tidal Test Site (EMEC) in Orkney. A 1.8 MW full-scale machine is under development. And ScotRenewables, located on the Orkney Islands, has raised £6.2 m to build a working prototype of its floating tidal turbine. An 8-metre long prototype will, it's hoped, go into the water at the EMEC in 2010. Commercial versions would weigh 250 tonnes, and have generation capacity of 1.2 MW.

There are many more projects emerging elsewhere in the world, such as Clean Current's ducted rotor and Verdant Power's propeller units, as well as some novel ideas like Indigo Pearl Marine's open centre "Mer" Vertical Axis Turbine tidal device, while Atlantis, who had already developed a ducted rotor system, have just announced details of a new double-rotor propeller unit, with contra-rotating blades.

But wave energy is not out of the race. The leader is the UK developed Pelamis wave snake system – a 2.2 MW version of which was installed in Portugal. There have however been minor hitches with this system as you'd expect with any new technology – and money for new projects is tight. But new ideas for wave energy are emerging. Cornish wave power developer Orecon has won a contact to install three of its 1.5&nnbsp;MW wave devices off Portugal. Meanwhile a 350 KW version of Aquamarine's Oyster sea bed mounted "hinged flap" inshore system has been under test in the UK. Next will be a 2 MW demonstration unit, to be expanded if all goes well to 10 MW in 2012. Cardiff-based Tidal Energy Ltd meanwhile is about to test its DeltaStream wave device.

A clever new idea is the 500 kW Wave Treader (developed by Aberdeen-based Green Ocean Energy), which is a new wave unit designed to be attached to an offshore wind-turbine tower, adding to its energy output while sharing the infrastructure costs of cabling and foundations. And Web Engineering in Wiltshire have developed and patented a Sea Wave Energy Accumulator Barge, a novel variation to the "overtopping" reservoir wave-energy concept, but fixed to the sea bed, unlike the floating Danish "Wave Dragon" system.

Progress is also being made on the novel Danish Waveplane concept, which has a series of slots, in three rows, with the higher waves reaching the top row of slots, the rest going into the lower ones. The captured water is let tangentially into a horizontal pipe in such a way as to create a spinning vortex of water, which drives a turbine. Even so it's certainly not always straight forward to develop new ideas. For example, the UK's Trident Energy has been deploying its novel linear motor based wave device for testing off the Suffolk coast at Southwold, but its 20 kW demonstration device sank when being taken out to sea. Moreover, while small wave and tidal systems may be interesting, there is still inevitably a major focus on large tidal barrages, if nothing else because of their scale-like 11-mile long 8.6 GW barrage proposed for the Severn estuary. A new round of consultation on that and its rivals is planned and interest is still being shown in smaller barrages elsewhere in the UK, including the Mersey, Solway Firth, the Wash and the Humber.

The UK maybe at the forefront in tidal power and also wave power but the potential elsewhere is also large – especially for tidal. For example, Tidal Today's second annual Tidal Summit held in London in November was told that South Korea's theoretical tidal resource was up 1000 GW, and they have some ambitious projects underway or planned, including nearly 2 GW of tidal range projects and 100 MW of tidal current turbines.

That's not to say that wave power is out of the running – there are many projects underway around the world, including a range of tethered buoy systems, and in the UK work is in now underway on the £42 m Wave Hub project 10 miles off the coast of North Cornwall. The seabed "socket" can take up to four devices at any one time for field testing, without the need for them to build additional grid links. That could speed up the development wave power.

For updates on these and other renewable energy projects, visit www.natta-renew.org.

One of the things we have been taught by Hinduism, the majority religion of India, is that everything is connected to everything else. Two recent papers about groundwater extraction in north India offer a fine illustration of the truth of this proposition.

Matthew Rodell and colleagues, writing in Nature, analyse data from the GRACE satellites to show that in three north-western states of India more water is being pumped out of the ground than is being put back. The net extraction rate over six years is 18 gigatonnes/yr, give or take five, which translates to an equivalent depth of water of 40 mm/yr. The qualifier "net" is important because on top of the natural processes of recharge during the monsoon months there must be some recharge from the glacier meltwaters originating in the Himalaya to the north. Rodell and colleagues estimate this recharge as 3 Gt/yr. I reckon it is likely to be somewhat more but the point is that we have to take them together. The conversion of the two non-renewable resources, glacier ice plus groundwater, to ocean water makes an even bigger problem.

Most of the water irrigates cropland, from which it evaporates or finds its way into the rivers. One way or the other, most of it ends up in the ocean – which is what makes it non-renewable.

VM Tiwari and colleagues published on the same subject, apparently independently but relying also on GRACE, in Geophysical Research Letters. They focussed on the whole northern subcontinent, and found an extraction rate of 54 Gt/yr, give or take nine, equivalent to 20 mm/yr of depth of water removed. Add to this most of the 13 Gt/yr of whole-Himalaya loss from glaciers and you get an awfully big problem, affecting 600 million people according to Tiwari and colleagues. (This glacier number is so rough that it doesn't even have an error bar, and it is not clear that the ice loss has been separated cleanly from the groundwater loss.)

One striking thing about these interconnections is that the two papers are the first firm evidence for significant contributions to sea-level rise from "terrestrial storage", that is, aquifers, dams and the like. Up to now it has been conjectured that the terrestrial source is small, but it looks as though we will have to rethink that.

600 million is an awful lot of people. Rodell and colleagues quote the New York Times to the effect that most middle-class residents of New Delhi do not have a dependable source of clean water, from which I infer that a) all upper-class residents probably do, and b) probably no lower-class residents do.

Whatever its source, the water we are adding to the ocean spells trouble for people living near sea level. This includes the members of the government of the Maldives, who now hold their cabinet meetings wearing scuba gear; the 60,000-odd inhabitants of the coral islands of the tiny Indian union territory of Lakshadweep, just north of the Maldives; and the many more inhabitants of the delta of the Ganga-Brahmaputra in Calcutta and neighbouring Bangladesh, where it is rainy and swampy enough that they don't have much call for irrigation but they inherit the problem of groundwater extraction in Rajasthan, Haryana and the Punjab by a roundabout route.

So another striking thing about the interconnectedness of Himalayan glacier mass balance, Indo–Gangetic extraction of groundwater, evaporation from irrigated fields, lack of clean water in New Delhi, and the impending submergence of the Maldives, Lakshadweep and the delta of the Ganga-Brahmaputra is that it also demonstrates that the Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees and other adherents of the Indian subcontinent are all connected to each other – and to me.

In the continuing discussion of what will facilitate an economic economy in the United States, people are generally not connecting the dots that point to what kind of economic growth is even possible in the future. The very large dot that most politicians and economists are not connecting is the role of energy, and more specifically the services that technologies provide when consuming energy resources. Sometimes green energy or the production of energy resources is mentioned as a sound bite, but little to no substantial insight exists.

Economic growth models (i.e. production functions) are commonly written assuming that growth results from investments in three areas: labour (hours worked), capital (intellectual knowledge and physical infrastructure), and energy (consumption or services from consuming energy). Research from the last several years, with particularly keen contributions by Robert Ayres of INSEAD, shows that for developed economies to grow in modern times, investments in labor are relatively insignificant. However, investments in capital and energy enable almost all economic growth with each category contributing roughly the same impact. Therefore, with the current economic discussions focusing on how to decrease the unemployment rate, we shouldn't expect robust economic growth if employment increases soon, and vice versa. This is exactly what is behind the "jobless recovery" that economist and politicians spoke of earlier this decade and that we are discovering may be happening again. The recovery is jobless in the United States and other developed economies, but not in developing economies where labour is cheaper. See the video from Meet the Press at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34386643/ns/meet_the_press/

So how do we envision what will happen with a transition to a "green economy"? Some of the US stimulus money is meant to facilitate this transition. During Meet the Press this Sunday, Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan (home of the US auto industry) held up an article from the Detroit Free Press (www.freep.com/article/20091213/SPECIAL04/312130004/1318/Auto-supplier-turns-trouble-to-triumph-by-venturing-into-turbines from minute 7:30) indicating that at least one automotive supply company has changed focus to adjust to a changing economy. Instead of waiting for a rebirth of the auto industry, the company changed to manufacturing parts for wind turbines using the same basic set of tools and skills from the existing workforce.

The question we can ask ourselves is: "Does making wind turbines instead of automobiles facilitate more jobs and/or more economic growth?" I certainly do not know that answer, but it seems the path to understanding should focus upon what service is being provided. The auto industry provides transportation and facilitates trade of goods via shipping. The wind turbines provide electricity as a service to homes, businesses, and factories. If electric vehicles become prominent, then electricity will begin to provide transportation services as well.

Businesses and governments are striving to create new ways to provide the same services, and it is not clear if these are fundamentally transformational or if they simply represent a diminishing return of investment of time, labour, money, and energy. Increasing efficiency in energy usage induced from the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s showed that there was much to gain from using less energy to provide and expand the same services. Certainly there is less room for improvement now, but many claim that there is still so much room for efficiency improvements that economic growth can reoccur easily. However, to me it is not clear if investments in using more information in a smart utility grid will be sufficiently offset by increased energy efficiency. Putting insulation in your home is simple and straightforward and easily measureable. Installing a smart meter that communicates with your mobile phone so you can communicate with household and commercial appliances, heaters, and air-conditioners is significantly more investment in complexity. Measuring if that investment produces returns that outweigh that complexity will be more difficult to determine, but that is now on the agenda of many companies after the recent awards of US stimulus money for smart grid projects throughout the US.

The nuclear industry does seem to be having bad luck. Its flagship new projects, the European Pressurized water Reactors (EPRs) being built in Finland and France, are both well behind schedule and seriously over-budget, with a range of construction problems and errors pushing up costs and putting completion years away. For example the estimated final costs for Olkiluoto 3 in Finland have risen from €3 bn to €4.5 bn and the completion date has been put back from 2009 to 2012. The second plant, at Flamanville in France, is already 9 months behind schedule, and is not now expected to begin operation until 2013, rather than 2012 as originally hoped. The cost of the power produced by it will be around 20% more than planned – around €55/MWh instead of the €46 announced when the project was launched in May 2006.

Certainly a surprising number of a safety issues have emerged during construction; evidently more than 3,000 mistakes have made by the builders so far at Olkiluoto. See the quite striking poster summary from Greenpeace at www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/finland/fi/dokumentit/ol3SafetyPoster.pdf

Some of this might be put down to teething problems with "first of a kind" plants. But perhaps more fundamentally for the future, UK, Finnish and French nuclear-safety regulators have objected to aspects of the EPR design: "The EPR design, as originally proposed by the licensees and the manufacturer, Areva, doesn't comply with the independence principle, as there is a high degree of complex interconnectivity between the control and safety systems."

http://www.stuk.fi/stuk/tiedotteet/svFI/news571/files/82389010005557285/default/eprstukasnjahseenglanniksi.pdf

As World Nuclear News noted, some safety systems protect against the failure of control systems and so should be impossible for them to fail together, which means Areva must re-work the design if it is to get regulatory clearance – and before construction of EPRs in the UK.

Meanwhile the US nuclear regulator has objected to a key part of the Westinghouse AP1000 design: it said that it would have to be modified to receive approval for use in the US.

www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/news/2009/09-173.html

The AP1000 is another candidate for UK deployment.

The UK Health & Safety Executive is looking at both the EPR and AP1000 designs, and, according to media reports had identified possible problems which, if not progressed satisfactorily, would mean that H&SE "would not issue a design acceptance confirmation".

www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/27/nuclear-power-reactor-design

H&SE however pointed out that they were only part way through their assessment and that there were confident that any issues would be resolved.

www.hse.gov.uk/press/2009/e09110.htm

Some politicians also seem confident about the merits and viability of a major new nuclear programme. Gordon Brown told the CBI that "we will now build not 12 gigawatts of nuclear capacity but 16 gigawatts, a total for new building that is bigger than all our current nuclear capacity". But with possible technical problems still unresolved, and with delays mounting, the prognosis for rapid deployment does not look too good.

The financing issues are also looking difficult. Although the UK government have insisted they will not subside the nuclear programme directly, the City Group economic consultants have concluded that nuclear can't be financed just by private sector: www.citigroupgeo.com/pdf/SEU27102.pdf. In fact, although no direct financial support is being given, a range of indirect subsidies are in train. For example, government seems to be accepting to need to support a "floor price" for carbon in the EU Carbon Trading System of around £30/tonne, which would help make nuclear more economic, but would load consumers up with extra costs. The Times talked about an extra £227 on annual energy bills, although EDF put it lower. Even so, it's likely to be politically difficult.

And more problems are looming. Plans for long-term nuclear waste disposal could come unstuck because of new evidence of corrosion in copper, a material that was to be used to seal waste underground. Examination of copper artefacts from the Vasa, a 15th-century galleon raised from Stockholm harbour, has shown a level of decay challenging the scientific wisdom that copper corrodes only when exposed to air.

www.karnavfallsradet.se/Bazment/191.aspx

The waste issue is likely to be made even tougher since, to improve their economics, the new nuclear plants proposed for the UK will have high fuel "burn-up". This means that the fuel is enriched to a higher level and stays in the reactor longer, with more of the fuel being converted to plutonium and other radioactive by-products of fission. This in turn means that the spent fuel is hotter and more radioactive- which could present problems with plant operation, waste management, storage and disposal. Especially since, given that there are no plans for reprocessing, it will have to be kept on site at the nuclear plant for many decades (EDF has just suggested 60 years for the proposed new plant at Sizewell) before it goes off somewhere (as yet undetermined) to be kept isolated for 100,000 years or so.

All this makes it rather hard to accept the governments claim, in its recent the National Policy Statement (NPS) on nuclear, that it is "satisfied that effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations" and that "as a result the IPC [Infrastructure Planning Commission] need not consider this question" when reviewing the plant planning applications.

This has drawn a lot flack. Four former members of CoRWM, the UK government's first advisory committee on radioactive-waste management, including its chair Prof. Gordon Mackerron, noted that their 2006 report had only looked at "legacy" waste – the new wastes opened up new issues: "In the absence of a process or acceptable policy for new build wastes, they may remain on site indefinitely. It is quite possible that, as a result of sea level changes, storm surge and coastal processes, conditions at some of the most vulnerable coastal sites will deteriorate thereby making it increasingly difficult to manage the wastes safely. The problems presented by managing wastes in the very long-term will be both generic and site-specific. Consequently we find it hard to understand why the IPC, when considering applications for the development of individual sites, need not consider the question of waste management. Given the levels of public anxiety raised by the issue of nuclear waste and the burdens of risk and management that are imposed on future generations we believe consideration of safe management of wastes at each site should be a primary concern of the IPC."

The NPS is a consultative draft. Whether the suggested block on discussion of waste by IPC will survive remains to be seen.

While climate-change negotiation is mostly about absolute mitigation targets, and the money flow between countries, more specific policies appear under the code word of NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation actions), and at various side events of research institutions and international agencies. Beside avoiding deforestation, transportation is one of the crucial issues.

Here is why: in Europe, a cap exists for industry and the electricity sector but not for the transport sector. In fact, emissions from the transport sector are rising. There is no chance that Europe will meet any ambitious post-2020 Kyoto targets without reigning in emissions from the transport sector. The same is true for US, where emissions from transport constitute an even higher percentage of overall emissions.

Emission-wise of higher importance is the rising affluence and motorization of Asian cities. While currently car ownership is relatively low, the bulk of upcoming individualized motorization is expected to come from developing countries, at least doubling the current number of cars on the road, from 1 billion to 2 billion.

What can be done about it?

Let's start with the OECD perspective, particularly EU/US. A presentation by Ottmar Edenhofer from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK) and myself addressed the question of how to set a cap on transport emissions, and potentially include transport into an intersectoral emission-trading scheme. "Broad is beautiful" in the sense that increasing coverage decreases abatement costs – even if a high-cost sector joins the scheme – and is superior to separate emission trading schemes. However, as also pointed out by Bracken Hendricks, from the Center of American Progress, and Thomas Becker, head of policy relations of BMW, complementary policy instruments, such as fuel efficiency standards, are required to realize abatement in transportation.

For low-carbon development in Asian cities, the community focuses on the so-called Avoid-Shift-Improve approach. Of particular importance is the "avoid" part here: the dense urban fabric shall simply be retained and modernized but not erased in favor of broad motorways (presentations on this topic, including my own, can be found here). This automatically favors the most environmentally friendly modes: walking and cycling. In this sense spatial planning, and clever land-use taxation, can provide multiple benefits, from climate change mitigation to improved accessibility, and reduced air pollution. Such measures work best as part of policy packages, i.e. together with investments in public transit, and restriction of car use. Half-baked measures will not work. It is not clear how the benefits of these policy packages can be quantified, and be included in some sort of extended policy CDM. Perhaps, one should rather focus on capacity building and leveraged financing and grants via international funding agencies.

In the side-event of the 'Bridging-the-Gap' initiative, whose purpose is to get transportation into a post-Copenhagen treaty, climate ambassadors from Costa Rica, South Africa, France and South Korea gave excellent statements on their perspective on transort and climate. As a highlight the chief negotiator of Costa Rica explained the transport issue in depth, emphasizing the status dimension of the automobile. In fact, on their way to carbon-neutrality in 2021, Costa Rica understands the transport sector to be the major challenge.

All of us who live near enough to a pole, or high enough up a mountain, have done experimental work on the densification of snow. When I was six I once, to test a hypothesis I have now forgotten, posted a snowball through the letterbox outside my school. My hypothesis was unsound, and in the aftermath I was taught my first, painful lesson about the complexities of densification.

When I grew up, I learned a little more. To be specific, I learned about Sorge's Law. Sorge's name (pronounced zor-guh, with the g hard) is well known to glaciologists because in 1954 Henri Bader suggested that it be commemorated by assigning it to a surprising but very important physical relationship: when snow accumulates steadily and there is no melting, the density is always the same at any one depth beneath the surface. The name has stuck.

Density is mass per unit volume. New snow can have a density as low as 50 kilograms per cubic metre if it is particularly fluffy, but the snowflakes collapse rapidly and as time passes the new snow, densifying under its own weight, takes up less and less space. We call it ice once it reaches about 830 kg m-3, at which point the air spaces have pretty much closed off and turned into bubbles. Pure ice has a density of 917 kg m-3, but most glacier ice is a bit less dense because of the remaining bubbles and other voids.

Ernst Sorge's observations were made in Greenland in the winter of 1930–1931, in a hand-dug pit 16 metres deep. His Law actually has rather meagre observational support but, as Bader showed, it follows from some rather simple algebra. It means that, as new mass is added by snowfall, an equal mass of old snow turns into ice (that is, crosses the 830 kg m-3 borderline) at depth.

That gives us a valuable payoff. Provided that nearly the whole thickness is ice, not snow, a change in that thickness, or equivalently in the surface elevation, can be converted to a change of mass by multiplying by the density of the ice. We rely on this extensively when trying to convert volume balances into mass balances. The volume balance, in cubic metres, is thickness change (m) times area (m2). There is nothing wrong with it, except that the mass balance, in kilograms (volume change times density), is more useful for purposes like estimating sea-level change. But a volume balance is considerably easier to measure. You can do it remotely, with laser altimeters, and you don't have to measure the density in the field, expensively.

The savings from invoking Sorge's Law are extremely attractive. For example, we can extend its range of validity by assuming that the density profile also remains unchanged when the rates of melting at the surface and refreezing at depth are constant and equal. But what if this assumption, or the more basic assumption of steady accumulation, does not hold? We don't mind much if the snowfall rate varies from year to year, or with the seasons. (In interior Greenland, for example, more snow falls in summer than in winter.) We can handle that kind of flickering behaviour, as long as we know about it.

A more subtle problem is that the temperature may vary over the years, and that alters the compaction rate (slower when it is colder). A less subtle problem is that on many glaciers nowadays the density profile is being eaten away by continuing mass loss. In their middle reaches, the glaciers are losing stuff that would still be there, suffering compaction, if Sorge's Law applied. Here, Sorge gives too great a density for the lost mass.

What this adds up to is a pressing need to know more about how often Sorge's Law really holds on glaciers, and how to make accurate corrections where it doesn't. Remote sensing can deliver much more knowledge than laboriously digging holes. What would be really nice would be a way to measure not just the glacier surface elevation changes from space, but also the density profile. That is not around the corner, and until we get there we all need to remember that volume change is not the same as mass change. The density we adopt for the conversion is a source of uncertainty.

After most of the talk of major bank failures and bailouts had taken a hiatus since the last half of 2008 and early part of 2009, some writers are beginning to reflect back upon certain investments of the last decade or two. A couple of nice articles are listed here:

"How Dubai's burst bubble has left behind the last days of Rome"

"An Empire at Risk" by Niall Ferguson

Additionally the highly notable writer and multidisciplinary scientist Vaclav Smil will soon have a new book on "Why America is Not a New Rome" that aims not to take the traditional view that the US is an analog to Rome, but rather a sufficiently different animal with less dominant characteristics.

Nonetheless, because humanity has effectively used fossil fuels to link the globe in trade, we have clearly seen how one country can facilitate unwarranted investments in another country. Sometimes these investments are intended for purely economic gain with foreign banks lending money to Dubai for creating some of the world's most extravagant buildings and land forms in a country that is one of the least endowed with natural resources. In fact, the only reason that the Arabian Peninsula even has the relatively recent capability of fostering a large population is that fossil fuels power desalination plants to quench the thirst of the inhabitants. It is clearly not energetically-wise to air-condition a beach in the desert (as in one beach in Dubai). As noted in the articles above, because of the different rules about debt obligations, the lives of some expatriates from the EU that have invested in Dubai's real estate bubble are being completely transformed. Pay debt on time, or go to jail. This is a little different than going through bankruptcy and simply raises the risk-reward ratio when investing in countries and societies not based upon the EU and US Anglo-Saxon model of politics and economics.

In speaking of investments in countries with a different political model, the US investment in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 is a case study in the type of marginal return on investment that can slowly characterize the collapse of a society. This topic of course could be debated until you run out of breath, but think about it from the following perspective. The US is investing money (as well as energy to fly around other countries!) to maintain the status quo of security. The events of September 11, 2001 started a chain of events in the US that have:

(1) spurred the creation of a new cabinet-level government agency – the Dept. of Homeland Security;
(2) induced a soon-to-be deployment of 100,000 troops in a country (Afghanistan) whose inhabitants the US already trained to fight insurgent/guerilla warfare;
(3) changed the US focus into that of nation-building a country that has never acted as a unified nation to begin with; and
(4) increased the amount of heroin flowing throughout the world as Afghanistan is now the major world supplier of poppy.

On the last point, we are now making investments and decisions for the "War on Terror" in Afghanistan that clearly, albeit indirectly, go against the US "War on Drugs" that has been on-going for almost four decades now. This is pretty much the definition of marginal return on investment when you attempt to solve one problem and it makes an equally ravenous problem become more untenable. All together, because of the minimal efforts by other countries of the world in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is attempting to almost single-handedly maintain some order of world stability that is requisite for the continuation of globalization and international trade. All other countries have essentially been convinced that their investments can't possibly make a difference, and they are likely correct.

Any investment in global stability has to start with the largest economic and military power. Of course, this is the same argument for the need of the US to lead in global climate treaty negotiations starting this week. So far, the US leadership chooses to act under uncertainty with the global military option more readily than under the uncertainty of the global climate/energy policy option.

In his speech to the British Wind Energy Association's Annual conference earlier this year, Conservative Shadow Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, said that renewable-energy companies should be encouraged to offer greater benefits to the local communities who agree to host wind farms. He said that the Conservatives: "...want to see communities benefiting from new wind development in their area. This is why I would encourage renewable energy companies to offer discount rates or shares in commercial projects to the local community so they can shares in the profit. We will also look at changing licence obligations to allow companies to offer discounts to those living near to a facility. Of course, more and different innovations should be expected from private industry. Whilst this will never take away the local community's ability to say no to a development, it sets out clearly that there can be benefits to hosting a facility, which is the right approach to increasing the number of wind turbines in the UK."

The Local Government Association had already come up with a similar idea – residents should be offered discounts on their energy bills and free energy efficiency measures when wind farms are built in their community, with a "community tariff" to share the financial benefits of renewable energy generation with local communities The ideal of offering compensation to win local approval for projects perceived to have negative local impacts is not new – the nuclear industry has been doing it for decades. Some wind farm developers have also provided grants for community projects, or other inducements to smooth the way to acceptance – though nothing yet as ambitious as the current plan to provide very large incentives and local benefits to any community willing to accept a nuclear waste repository in their area. Perhaps worth £1 billion or more. By contrast, the going rate for wind farms is evidently only in the ten to hundred thousand range!

Charles Hendry's approach is a bit more radical – he suggests offering continuing income via shares, or even discounted prices for electricity locally. It's hard to see exactly how that would work – where do you draw the local boundary? Just for those in sight of the wind farm? As with other forms of compensation, it could backfire – it may be perceived as being an attempt at bribery to win local acceptance. A much more direct option is of course for local communities to club together and invest in their own wind farm, or some other such scheme, to be run as a partly or wholly locally owned co-op project. Then, after they have paid back any loans, they get all the cash benefits.

This is very common in Denmark, where about 80% of the wind projects are owned either by local farmers or local wind co-ops (the "Wind Guilds"). One result has been very much less opposition to wind power. As the Danes say "your own pigs don't smell". As a consequence, Denmark now gets around 20% its power from the wind – with local people even owning shares in large offshore wind farms like the one off Copenhagen and the one off the Island of Samsoe. It's similar in Germany, with about half of the 25 GW of wind projects being locally owned.

By contrast, there are only a handful of community-owned schemes in the UK, which has only managed to get 4 GW of mostly large company-owned wind farms installed so far. One of the main problems here, apart from local opposition, is the nature of the UK's Renewable Obligation support scheme, which, to put it charitably, is not designed for community schemes. The proposed new Feed-in Tariff for schemes up to 5 MW may help. That is certainly the experience with Feed-in Tariffs elsewhere in the EU.

Direct financial gain is of course only one possible type of compensation. There could also be local employment gains. These can be overstated. On-site construction work is inevitably only temporary – a few months for a wind farm. Operational jobs may be permanent, but not many people are needed. The real job gains are in manufacturing the equipment. In Spain and Portugal wind farm developers must show how many jobs they will create by sourcing supplies locally in order to get planning approval for their projects. Vestas has noted "There is a strong political will in most countries to favour local manufacturers." But not so far in the UK. Indeed we don't have any significant wind technology manufacturing going on here. Instead we import the hardware.

Not everyone agrees with "local content" rules: they are seen as protectionist – undermining free markets. But then you might say the same of any attempt to provide local advantages via compensation. In effect you are trying to "internalise" locally some benefits which otherwise, unlike the local impact costs, are "externalised".

To keep up to date on renewable energy developments and policies, visit http://www.natta-renew.org.