Sunday, June 10, 2007

G-8 trumps Kyoto?

The G-8 meeting didn't save the world from melting, but it offered more promise than this skeptic, at least, expected. I'm not a climate change skeptic – I'm a ‘doing anything about it' skeptic. Let's face it, everyone who was reluctant to make a sacrifice for the future could point to the big flaw in the Kyoto Protocol.

Since the recent G-8, we have some reason to hope that the most problematic developing nations will be drawn into the next phase of carbon emission reductions. Within a few years, China will overtake the USA to become the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Cutting emissions from the earlier signatories was, unfortunately, a futile gesture until China and India were committed to full participation in any future protocol. There is a good chance that the proposed talks under UN auspices will result in those committments.

So now we have the possibility of full world participation, and with the date 2050 becoming headlined, we have the time to develop intelligent plans and bring them into operation. Let's face it – the Kyoto Protocol had everybody going off half cocked. Not to blame the signatories especially, except in letting those industries and others with vested interests in burning carbon fuels gain a foothold to stonewall.

If we proceed from here with a bit more wit, the naysayers will have the ground cut from under their feet. The so-called climate scientists who took money from Big Oil and Big Coal to pretend that the evidence of climate change was anything but an condemnation of our burning fossil fuels no longer have credibility – let them slink away to freeze in the dark.

What are the parameters for progress? Firstly the development of fuel technologies that will make it unnecessary for the world to burn carbon-containing fuels beyond some fixed date in the definable future. Carbon-containing fuels include coal, oil, natural gas, wood, methane, ethanol, and all the biodiesels that are attracting so much attention. Let me be specific – the governments who push ethanol and biodiesel as a solution to the problem are obfuscating and obscuring the truth. In a word – lying. The move is, at best, a political attack on the power of the oil producing countries in the Middle East.

What energy sources do we have to replace them? The sun and the sun driven systems are important – solar power, hydro power, wind power, tidal power. The earth itself contains enough heat in its core to power our societies for millions of years – geothermal power development is a must-do. Why are the oil people obstructing this? The systems would require deep holes drilled into the Earth's crust – and drilling holes is their forte.

A very big requirement, especially during the forty year change-over I'm suggesting, is an alternate fuel for our transportation. The most attractive is hydrogen, both burned in combustion power units and employed as a fuel in fuel cells. Hydrogen doesn't come free, but it is the most abundant element in the universe. Ours would have to come from water and we need a source of abundant, cheap electrical power to split the hydrogen from water. Despite all the problems associated with the industry it seems that nuclear power would have to provide the majority of this electrical energy.

Now, don't scream at me. I know all about the bogeyman scenarios. Despite all the fuss about the Three Mile Island accident, it must be stated that the safety systems of the culprit reactor worked as they were supposed to do and prevented a melt-down. At Chernobyl, the much hairier Russian design was contained – if at great cost to the volunteers who gave their lives to tame the reactor fire. The Ukrainian coal mines have had a much greater loss of life that happened at Chernobyl, and twenty one years later the monitoring of the radiation effects of the fire have shown the damage to environment and humans has been less than feared at the time.

The problem of spent fuel rods is not insoluble, despite all the shouting. The Canadian Candu heavy water reactors can take the spent fuel rods from the rest of the industry's light water and gas cooled reactors and use them as its fuel – thus lowering the radioactivity problem of the spent rods to a degree. If the world had a ratio of (I believe) a Candu reactor to every five of theirs, the spent fuel rods could all be utilized. Not that the spent rods from a Candu are completely safe, but they are safer.

The radioactivity of the spent rods produces heat. The simplest nuclear power generators aboard spacecraft are not reactors, they simply use the heat of radiation to send a propellant fluid through a generator turbine. Thousands of tons of spent rods getting hot underground as they decay? I think even James Watt could have figured out how to make use of them.

The sweetheart solution would of course be the development of a cheap and hazard free fusion powerplant. I well remember all the optimistic drawings in the New Scientist I used to buy as a teenager showing how the plasma from the fusion could be directly converted to electrical power in a magnetohydrodynamic generator. Nice dream. Hasn't been much news out of the research labs for a number of years. Are they making progress? I'm getting pessimistic enough to guess that the only fusion power we will ever use will come from that big bright object in the sky. It's the machine that put all that fossil fuel underground in the first place – seems only right that it should play the major part in weaning us away from it.