Archive for the ‘Express 113’ Category

A Disaster is a Terrible Thing to Waste!

Posted by admin on June 16, 2010
Posted under Express 113

A Disaster is a Terrible Thing to Waste!

Environmentalists are hoping that the country will pay more attention to green issues after seeing the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico. Already, the United States has a reputation internationally as a laggard on many environmental issues (e.g. Kyoto Protocol), but will the preoccupation with the oil spill response help or hinder plans to move ahead with action to tackle climate change at home and abroad?

By Kate Galbraith in New York Times (13 June 2010):

“As Rahm Emanuel says, a disaster is a terrible thing to waste,” said Zygmunt J.B. Plater, a law professor at Boston College, paraphrasing a 2008 comment by the White House chief of staff about the then-burgeoning economic crisis.

Environmentalists, for their part, are hoping that the country will pay more attention to green issues after seeing the devastation in the gulf.

Already, groups are using the spill as a rallying cry. Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, said that his group’s canvassers had switched their fund-raising and petitions pitch from aiding a remote mountain range to urging an end to new offshore drilling. (President Barack Obama has declared a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, though his administration is reopening shallower waters to new rigs.)

“Given that it’s the biggest environmental disaster in American history, it wasn’t that difficult a decision to really prioritize it,” Mr. Metzger said.

Another environmental group, American Rivers, is anticipating more attention to wetlands issues in general, even though oil was spilled into the sea, not rivers. “People are simply more tuned into environmental issues right now, especially when it comes to clean water,” said Amy Souers Kober, a spokeswoman for the group.

There is a flip side, however: other environmental causes could get starved of money and attention. For the past 50-plus days, the oil spill has dominated the headlines, the news programs and even the comedy shows across the United States (the comedian Stephen Colbert recently suggested that the Gulf of Mexico be renamed the Black Sea). Other issues could get overlooked.

The green section on the Huffington Post Web site recently asked its readers on Twitter: “Do u miss the other stuff?” About 80 percent of the section’s coverage these days is devoted to the spill, it said.

Already, the United States has a reputation internationally as a laggard on many environmental issues. Treaties it has signed but never ratified include the Convention on Biological Diversity; the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; the Rotterdam Convention, which relates to the use of pesticides and hazardous chemicals in international trade; and, of course, the Kyoto Protocol, signed by President Bill Clinton but spurned by President George W. Bush and the Senate.

The Obama administration has tried to tackle climate change, but as for the other treaties, even if it were interested in moving forward, it would be tough because so much of the administration’s time is now consumed by the oil spill. From the public’s perspective, even pressing issues — like the International Whaling Commission’s coming vote on whether to allow some commercial whaling — have largely been lost in the noise.

Noah Sachs, an associate professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia and an expert in regulation of hazardous waste, said he had been hoping for movement on a bill in Congress that would overhaul and strengthen the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act and allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to control the use of some chemicals more tightly. So far, however, not much has happened. “I think the oil spill in the spring has deflected attention from that bill,” Mr. Sachs said.

In Texas, Mr. Metzger said that while the spill was important to focus on, “definitely the trade-off is putting less resources into some of the other issues we’re working on.”

In some ways, the relentless focus on the spill over the past two months has paralleled the constant attention to climate change over the past several years. In 2005, the Sierra Club, a leading American environmental group, decided to switch its attention more fully to climate, and most other groups have also increased their attention to the issue.

As with the oil spill, concerns have arisen that climate change has crowded out other causes. “As a conservation biologist I am continually frustrated by all the attention given to climate change by the media and politicians,” wrote Reed Noss, a professor at the University of Central Florida, in the Conservation Northwest Quarterly in 2007. He urged a stronger focus on the fragmentation of wildlife habitats — in other words, humans’ habit of building houses or roads almost everywhere.

But climate change has the potential to affect just about everything — and it has conversely afforded a range of groups the opportunity to hitch their causes to the climate bandwagon. This has resulted in some odd pairings: for example, the magazine of the Audubon Society, an American bird conservation group, has advocated “feed-in” tariffs, said John Farrell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a U.S. group. Feed-in tariffs are a mainly European method of requiring utilities to pay above-market rates for electricity from solar panels and other green sources. They have nothing to do with birds, except insofar as clean energy can moderate climate change in a small way, thus helping to preserve habitats.

As for the spill in the gulf, Mr. Plater of Boston College suggests that it may become a “wake-up call” for environmental causes across the board. Mr. Plater should know: he spent two years heading the legal task force of the Alaska oil spill commission after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in 1989.

The gulf spill, he said, affects 100 times as many people as were affected in Alaska and has also devastated a far larger and more diverse economy. So whereas Alaska’s problems have been tough to keep in the forefront, Americans will not quickly forget what transpired in the gulf.

“Nobody’s talking right now about whales and rain forests,” Mr. Plater said, “but what we are discovering is there is a huge economic backlash when environmental things go wrong.”


Climate Chaos Lurks, Science Communicators Consider Change of Tactics

Posted by admin on June 16, 2010
Posted under Express 113

Climate Chaos Lurks, Science Communicators Consider Change of Tactics

Nearly 60 million people living around the Himalayas will suffer food shortages in the coming decades as glaciers shrink and the water sources for crops dry up, a Dutch study shows, while in Australia representatives of scientific organisations including the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology meet to discuss better communication of the science behind man-made climate change, in the wake of crumbling political and public consensus on global warming.

By Michael Casey, AP Environmental Writer in the Courier Mail (10 June 2010):

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Nearly 60 million people living around the Himalayas will suffer food shortages in the coming decades as glaciers shrink and the water sources for crops dry up, a study said Thursday.

But Dutch scientists writing in the journal Science concluded the impact would be much less than previously estimated a few years ago by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The U.N. report in 2007 warned that hundred of millions of people were at risk from disappearing glaciers.

The reason for the discrepancy, scientists said, is that some basins surrounding the Himalayas depend more on rainfall than melting glaciers for their water sources.

Those that do count heavily on glaciers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahamaputra basins in South Asia could see their water supplies decline by as much as 19.6 percent by 2050. China’s Yellow River basin, in contrast, would see a 9.5 percent increase precipitation as monsoon patterns change due to the changing climate.

“We show that it’s only certain areas that will be affected,” said Marc Bierkens, an Utrecht University hydrology professor , who along with Walter Immerzee and Ludovicus van Beek conducted the study. “The amount of people affected is still large. Every person is one too many but it’s much less than was first anticipated.”

The study is one of the first to examine the impact of shrinking glaciers on the Himalayan river basins. It will likely further fuel the debate on the degree that climate change will devastate the river basins that are mostly located in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.

Scientists for the most part agree glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate as temperatures increase. Most scientists tie that warming directly to higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

Some glaciers, such as in the Himalayas, could hold out for centuries in a warmer world. But more than 90 percent of glaciers worldwide are in retreat, with major losses already seen across much of Alaska, the Alps, the Andes and numerous other ranges, according to researchers in the United States and Europe.

Some scientists have come under fire for the 2007 U.N. report, which includes several errors that suggested the Himalayas could disappear by 2035, hundreds of years earlier than data actual indicates. The mistake — the 2350 apparently was transposed as 2035 — opened the door for attacks by climate change skeptics.

The findings by the Dutch team in Science were greeted with caution with glacial experts who did not take part in the research. They said the uncertainties and lack of data for the region makes it difficult to say what will happen in the next few decades to the water supply.

Others like Zhongqin Li, director of the Tianshan Glaciological Station in China, said the study omitted several other key basins in central Asia and northwest China which will be hit hard by the loss of water from melting glaciers.

Still, several of these outside researchers said the findings should reaffirm concerns that the region will suffer food shortages due to climate change, exasperating already existing concerns such as overpopulation, poverty, pollution and weakening monsoon rains in parts of South Asia.

“The paper teaches us there’s lot of uncertainty in the future water supply of Asia and within the realm of plausibility are scenarios that may give us concern,” said Casey Brown, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts.

“At present, we know that water concerns are already a certainty – the large and growing populations and high dependence on irrigated agriculture which makes the region vulnerable to present climate variability,” he said.

“This paper is additional motivation to address these present concerns through wise investments in better management of water resources in the region, which for me means forecasts, incentives, efficiency.”

Birkens and his fellow researchers said governments in the region should adapt to the projected water shortages by shifting to crops that use less water, engaging in better irrigation practices and building more and larger facilities to store water for extended periods of time.

“We estimate that the food security of 4.5 percent of the total population will be threatened as a result of reduce water availability,” the researchers wrote. “The strong need for prioritizing adaptation options and further increasing water productivity is therefore eminent.”


Tom Arup in The Age (15 June 2010):

Representatives of scientific organisations including the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology will meet today to discuss better communication of the science behind man-made climate change, in the wake of crumbling political and public consensus on global warming.

The conference in Sydney, organised by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), is part of a long-term bid to develop a ”national communication charter” for major scientific organisations and universities to better spruik the evidence of climate change.

The conference will hear an address from Australia’s chief scientist, Penny Sackett. Representatives of the CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Academy of Science and Department of Climate Change, among others, will attend.

Public scepticism and apathy towards climate change has reportedly risen in Australia in recent years. A recent Lowy Institute Poll showed the number of Australians who wanted action now on climate change had dropped from 68 per cent in 2006 to 46 per cent in 2010.

FASTS president Cathy Foley said although public scepticism was on the rise, scientific evidence of man-made climate change had not changed, and it was sad the community was less and less trusting of scientists.

Dr Foley said a well-organised and funded climate sceptics’ movement had increasingly captured attention.

”We are concerned the debate around climate change has become a left-wing versus right-wing debate – or a kind of religious argument – when it should really be about the strength of the scientific evidence,” Dr Foley said.

The conference was not about politics or ”brainwashing” the public, she added.

Many in the scientific community have expressed frustration about the shift in public mood on climate change after the failed Copenhagen climate change summit last year.

The summit failures came as damaging emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia, in Britain, were leaked, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted it had wrongly stated most of the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 because of global warming.

In response, the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology in March released a snapshot report on climate change, showing Australia has warmed significantly over the past 50 years and stating categorically ”climate change is real”.

In February, scientist Tim Flannery urged scientists to again explain the evidence of man-made climate change to a ”confused” Australian public.


Lucky Last – Australia Needs to Wake Up to Its Renewable Resources

Posted by admin on June 16, 2010
Posted under Express 113

Lucky Last – Australia Need to Wake Up to It Renewable Resources

It’s official.  Australians per person are the worst polluters in the world. For a country so well endowed with renewable energy, that’s quite an achievement. But then there’s a big difference between having renewable resources and utilising them. So says Dr Peter Seligman, an associate of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne and author of the new book “Australian Sustainable Energy – by the numbers”, which is downloadable and free. Read More.

Here’s why Peter said he decided to embark on the book:

I’m an Australian Electrical Engineer. As an engineer I find it annoying that wherever you look, information on renewable energy is unreliable or presented in ways which are not meaningful without calculation and comparison to some relevant standard. The potential of any particular technology is often overstated or understated, depending on the particular bent of the writer. Then there is the simply wrong information, the megawatts per hour, (usually meaning megawatts) the failure to state whether power is average or peak (a factor of 3 to 8 between them).

The next irritation is scale and proportion. You would be led to believe by some, that just by switching off our mobile phone chargers, recycling bottles and cans and putting some solar panels on our roof, we can make a significant difference.

How big a difference? What is it as a proportion of our total energy use? Telling us in tonnes of CO2 or number of homes doesn’t usually help. The Prime Minister announces that we are going to build the world’s largest solar power station2 – 1000MW, equivalent to that of one coal fired power station. What he doesn’t tell you, or maybe even realise himself, is that 1000 MW of peak power from solar is about 250 MW average power. He also doesn’t mention that Australia is using 25,000MWon average so this world’s largest will supply about 1% of our present use of electricity. He doesn’t mention that electricity accounts for about half of our total energy use so that power station will provide 0.5% of our total energy.

Instead he may tell you how many homes it will provide power for, or how many tonnes of CO2 it will save. Big numbers that mean nothing to most people.

Finally, even reputable and very well known authors are capable of making any or all of the mistakes I have mentioned.

When I first encountered Sustainable Energy – without the hot air3 (SEWTHA) by David MacKay, it was like a breath of fresh air, not hot air. Here at last was someone who spoke my language.

On a visit to Cambridge in August 2009 I had the privilege of lunching with David MacKay at Darwin College. At our enjoyable meeting I mentioned that there were many people in Australia who would have been interested in an Australian version of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air (SEWTHA). I also mentioned some material that I have been writing on sustainable energy in Australia. David and I agreed that it would be good to write an OzSEWTHA and we informally agreed that I would attempt it. Rather than being a translation it would be a supplement, with information relating specifically to Australia. Further, I mentioned that I had included financial aspects of sustainable energy in my writing and David said that he welcomed that addition. This is the result. In the event, it has become more than a supplement; it is a book in its own right.

This book differs in one important way from David MacKay’s. David’s book uses a yardstick of kilowatt hours per day per person – kWh/day/person. He then calculates all renewable sources in terms of these units and calculates how much of the UK’s needs could be provided by utilising all the available sources using the same units. The answer is that the UK cannot supply all its needs from renewable energy, it would have to go offshore, or treat nuclear as renewable.

In Australia, the situation is quite different. We could supply all of our needs many times over. In fact, in theory we could supply the whole world with renewable energy, if we were prepared to do it and could transport it. No, in the case of Australia the question is more, what proportion of the country (and it is usually in the order of a few percent), would we require to supply all our needs?

Summary of the book:

It’s official, Australians per person are the worst polluters in the world. For a country so well endowed with renewable energy, that’s quite an achievement. But then there’s a big difference between having renewable resources and utilising them.

In this document I try to identify and quantify the most promising renewable resources. I then examine how they could be used in combination to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to practically zero. Following on I consider where we are at and the policy of the government.

As an exercise, I try to design a renewable power system for Australia, which could meet our needs for a comfortable lifestyle. I try to dispel the statement that renewables can’t supply baseload power, not through dogma, but by calculating how it could be done. Contrary to popular belief, the numbers show it is not too expensive to store electricity on a large scale. In fact the cost of pumped water storage, including the powerlines, dams, pumps and pipes is only a fraction of the cost of the wind and solar power sources themselves.

Further I discuss some specific systems that are of particular interest in the Australian context (Wind Farm co-ops, Refrigeration & Cooling). I describe some personal strategies that people can use to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These are the ones you usually don’t read about in the newspaper, and they are based on a bang-for-buck philosophy.

The thorny issues of Carbon offsetting, Renewable Energy Certificates and Rebates are discussed. Finally – and in implementation, this should come first – I discuss efficiency and waste using some examples drawn from personal experience.

In writing this document I found that costs varied, mostly due to changes in the exchange rate of the Australian dollar. Rather than continually update the document, I have stuck with what I had. The Australian dollar at the time of writing was about 90 cents US, 56 UK pence and 62 Euro cents. In some cases I used US dollars but since at the time of writing they were close to $1, I didn’t differentiate. I don’t think that the rate of exchange will significantly change any of my conclusions.

Conclusions of the book:

1. In theory, Australia could comfortably supply all of its power requirements renewably.

2. In practice, for some interim period, the use of some non-renewable sources may be necessary but the overall carbon footprint can be reduced to zero in time.

3. The major contributors would be geothermal, wind and solar power.

4. To match the varying load and supply, electricity could be stored using pumped hydro, as it is at present on a much smaller scale. In this case, seawater could be used, in large cliff-top ponds.

5. Energy efficiency would be a key aspect of the solution.

6. A comprehensive modelling approach could be used to minimise the cost rather than the current piecemeal, politically based, ad hoc system.

7. Private transport and other fuel based transport could be largely electrified and batteries could be used to assist with storage.

8. In a transition period, liquid fuel based transport could be accommodated by using biofuels produced using CO2 from any remaining fossil fuelled power sources and CO2 generating industries.


Peter Seligman, was born in the UK of Czech parents in 1944 and emigrated to Australia via Czechoslovakia in 1948. He studied engineering at RMIT and then Monash University. In 1966 he worked on a private project to develop a land navigation device which was built, demonstrated and was the subject of a patent application. His final year project in Electrical Engineering was the design and construction of a braille digital multimeter for a blind engineer. This was followed by an “oscilloscope” for the blind. Peter received his B. Eng (elec) at Monash 1968 and PhD in 1973. His thesis topic was “Auditory Pattern Transmission”.

From 1973 – 1979 he worked for the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company on fail safe electronics and the computer control of railway systems. He was also involved in the design of photovoltaic solar energy systems for railway signalling in remote locations. A private project was the development of a trenching machine to insulate earth for heat storage for solar heating systems. A working machine was demonstrated. This was the subject of a provisional patent.

Dr Seligman was a key member of the team that developed the Melbourne/ Cochlear multiple-channel cochlear implant. He worked in the field for 30 years and was particularly responsible for the development and improvement of speech processors.

He designed the first portable Speech Processor for the University of Melbourne device. He joined Cochlear Ltd (Nucleus) in 1983 and was instrumental in speech processor miniaturisation and signal processing. He holds over 20 patents in the Cochlear Implant field.

In 2009 Dr Seligman was awarded a Doctor of Engineering (honoris causa) by the University of Melbourne for his contribution to the field of cochlear implant signal processing. Since his retirement from Cochlear Ltd in 2009, he has been able to devote more of his time to the area of sustainable energy and conservation, a field in which he has been active for 35 years.

Dr Seligman is an associate of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne.

For a free download on his book “Australia’s Sustainable Energy – by the numbers”, go to the website.