Naked Scientists Podcast

Naked Scientists episode

Sun, 20th Jan 2008

Combating Climate Change

Global air temperature (c) Robert A. Rohde

On this week's Naked Scientists, We look at ways to tackle the problem of climate change - including capturing carbon at sea, trapping carbon dioxide in coal to release a useful fuel, and a way to turn co2 to stone, with the help of old lava floes! Also, we find out how silicon nano wires can be used to make super-batteries, why sneaky squirrels are faking what they do with their nuts, how the price tag on wine affects it's flavour and the parasite that makes it's ant-host resemble a piece of fruit. Plus, in Kitchen Science, we find out how a digital camera can see the signal from your TV remote!

Want to know more about Climate Change? In this article, Alex Thompson reviews the evidence.

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In this edition of Naked Scientists

Full Transcript

  • 13:33 - Seeing Remotes

    If you have ever wondered how a remote control communicates with a TV? Well here is your chance to see them chatting away!

  • 15:52 - Catching Carbon - Is the Sea Safe for Sequestration?

    Could the ocean provide a good 'sink' for carbon dioxide? We invited Margaret Leinen, from Climos, and Dr Chris Vivian, from CEFAS, to discuss the pros and cons of sequestering in the sea...

  • 30:06 - Coal for Carbon Capture

    Could we trap carbon in dis-used coal mines? Meera spoke to Prof. Peter Styles about how not only could we lock away unwanted carbon, but we could also get useful fuel out!

  • 34:54 - How long should you turn off a fluorescent for?

    Love your show, Chris. Can you help us with the following question? Fluorescent lights are already efficient when they’re running but I’ve heard that it takes a lot of energy to turn a fluorescent light tube on. So is it more efficient to turn off a fluorescent tube immediatel...

  • 35:42 - Is there any point in useing low energy bulbs and heating?

    There’s a lot of talk about energy saving through the use of low energy light bulbs but since a lot of that energy ends up as heat if we’re using low energy light bulbs are we just turning up our thermostats and using more energy to heat our home?

  • 36:25 - Turning Carbon into Stone

    Volcanic lava could offer a solution to storing excess carbon - by turning it into rock! We spoke to Dr Pete McGrail, who has been working on pumping carbon dioxide into flood basalt, a rock left over from lava flows...

  • 42:33 - Rising Stars - Alternative Universes

    Each week we bring you one of Cambridge University's 'Rising Stars' - young researchers bringing you the latest from the coal-face of science...

  • 45:36 - Fatter Cyclists Faster Downhill?

    My bicycling club has been having a debate. All other things being equal, who goes downhill faster? A fat bicyclist or a skinny bicyclist?

  • 54:31 - How many watts is a burning candle?

    How many watts is a burning candle? I’m wondering if they make some sort of significant contribution to the heat in the room I’m in?

  • 54:47 - Would hyrodgen powered cars help the environment?

    I know that gasoline powered cars release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere so I was wondering if any or all drivers switch to hydrogen powered cars would it make a difference to the climate, because hydrogen powered cars are going to release water when they burn hydro...



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But we can (possibly) reduce the effect we have made on the climate and (possibly) get back to the 'natural order', and make advances to reduce the carbon we are currently producing.

I see the arguments against action and denial that we are responsible for the current levels of carbon as head in the sand thinking.

I know nothing about "injecting CO2 into lava flows" and thought that "seeding the ocean to grow more plankton" was dismissed as a bad idea, one we could not control or predict the outcome of., Tue, 15th Jan 2008

- I am staggered than I can seem to defeat an entire government policy in one simple equation, but this time I think I can

Each dollar invested in wind, will reduce less CO2 than each dollar invested in gas.

Am I wrong ? please slag off my maths

Replace a coal station with Wind save all the CO2
Replace a coal station with Gas save 50% + of the  CO2

- But cos of loading factor Wind stations cost many more times to build than gas with your Billion dollars you could build  more than double  gas power than wind even taking into account the free electricity generated

here's the maths for the London Array :
A nasty Coal Station produces X tonnes of CO2 per year
- It take 3 London Arrays to replace a 1.2GW coal power station so I spend £4500m and save X tonnes of CO2
- I know I will make "free" electricity with wind. Each London Array gives me on average of 300MW each hour of "free electricity", that would cost £6,600 per hour if I used gas, This is £58m in a year so my 3 LA generate £174m/year ie £3.5Bn over 20 years
- imagine I discount that from my outlay so I'm out of pocket by £1000m

- 1.2GW gas station costs £350m (BBC) so if I take my £1000m I can buy almost 3 of thoses
- gas will always generate CO2 but at less than half that of coal So I would end up with 3 plants each making X/2 tonnes CO2
- So I would have cut actual CO2 emissions by almost 1.5X

..Actually now E-on's own site now puts New Grain Gas Power Station at £500m for 1,275MW , at that price gas is still quite  a bit more effective than Wind but not 50%  (but then I used  gases reduces 50% when I could have used 60% )
from an Industry magazine " which is part of the company’s plan to build 18 plants with an aggregate generating capacity of more than 13.5 GW over the next five years."

... wow that's 60 London Arrays in size. Switching to gas is more than 50% of the CO2 than saved using windpower. So E-ons gas building program will reduce 30 times more CO2 than 1 London Array. 50% higher gas prices it would put a different perspective on things, but bear in mind dollar for dollar other alternatives  like lagging would still save more CO2 than wind.

.... As ever if you don't use power in the first place there's  no CO2 live in a city in a flat above a chip shop within walking distance to your job ...and use contraception. stewgreen, Sat, 19th Jan 2008

But is the 'natural order' (whatever that is) actually a solution to anything?

The problem is, and has been since the dawn of mankind, that climate changes, and we have (and always have had to) learn to adapt to those changes.  It matters not why the climate changes, but it does and always has changed.

I see this notion that all we need to do is make sure that all climate change is natural will bring some utopic future as being more burying of heads in the sand.

We can argue about how the climate would look without man's influence, and how it will change with man's influence.  The reality is that nobody has a clear answer to either question.  What we do know is that it will change, and it would have changed no matter what we did.  It may possibly change differently (by how much, and in what way is still speculation).

There are always people who will claim that Hurricane Kartrina would not have happened without global warming - except natural disasters like Katrina have always happened.  Shutting down all power stations does not mean we can stop building flood defences.

If we anyway need to build flood defences, and we cannot predict exactly when, where, or how dramatically, the next hurricane or high tide will hit us, whether we shut down all power stations or not - it makes more sense simply to build better flood defences than to dismantle our entire infrastructure and make it the more difficult to obtain the energy we need to use to build the flood defences, in the vain hope that the flood may possibly be just a little less frequent, or a little less dramatic.  We don't know what they would be in either case - so in both cases, it makes more sense just to plan for the worst, than to simply pretend we can stop floods from happening (they always have happened - which is why every civilisation has dramatic flood myths and legends going back to the dawn of time).

The point is, absolutely nothing we could do (short of destroying the entire planet) will 'solve' climate change.  The most we could do is a slight modification, which may improve matters, but just as likely will have unforeseen consequences of its own, and whatever changes we make will not remove our primary need to be able to adapt to whatever the climate can throw at us. another_someone, Sat, 19th Jan 2008

I have not read the full text of the replies, so i apologise if i get things wrong.

Yes the climate does always go through it's cycles of change, we can not stop that. but we are accelerating (to my understanding) that change, what we are being asked to do is limit the way we are directly changing the climate and accelerating that change.

It is total nonsense to suggest that we have no records of said changes and the way mankind has increased that rate of change., Sat, 19th Jan 2008

I did not say anything about cycles, because while there is no doubt that we have had climate swings from one extreme and the opposite extreme, it is far more complex than a simple cyclical pattern would imply.

To suggest that the Earth's climate is simply cyclical, and that humans are accelerating that cycle, implies that we could accurately predict the period of the cycle, and we would know when the ice caps would naturally have melted, and when we would get the next deep ice age.  The reality is nobody actually has anything but the most vague idea, and in fact it was only a few decades ago that scientists were confidently predicting we are heading for a deep freeze.

Nor did I say there were no records of past climate - I merely suggested that no-one had any accurate future predictions of what climate would be (or even a complete picture of what climate was - we do have records, but they are still highly fragmentary, and often highly contested by both sides of the climate debate - there are still those who claim that the mini ice age of the 17th century was only a local phenomenon, and not a global one - and they rely on the fact that there are inevitable gaps in our documentation of the climate only a mere 4 centuries ago in order to make this claim).

To suggest we have documentation on how mankind has increased the rate of change in the climate is to suggest you have accurate ways of saying what the climate would have been if mankind were not here.  I would suggest that information is unavailable.  In order to have such information, we would need a historic record without any gaps, and a climate model that could tell us accurately what the weather will be like, 20 years, or 100 years, into the future.  At present, we have difficulty telling the weather 12 months into the future.

But all of this is avoiding what I was saying in the first place.  Even if one assumes mankind is accelerating change, that still accepts the change will happen, only it would happen slower.  The fact is, if the change is inevitable, we need to concentrate on managing the consequences of inevitable change, rather than focussing all of our energies on simple delaying the inevitable (by an uncertain amount, and may be no delay at all).  Delay cannot be regarded as a solution, and ultimately the focus of our attention must still be upon dealing with that which will happen, not merely spending vast effort on a delaying tactic, and then sitting back and saying that was a job well done. another_someone, Sat, 19th Jan 2008

But i never quoted anyone, or made presumptions. I merely stated what i think is correct, the fact that it may not be is quite likely.

Before we get in to a round of he said she said, i would like to make it clear to one and all that i know absolutely nothing, i only know what i have read and heard on the subject. I have then decided which side of the argument i will follow. I make no presumptions or state facts, except those that i directly quote and may have a link to. Should i make a presumption, it will be clearly stated.

Also, i hate posts which are full of quotes from others, so this i will not do.

Climate models are just that, models, based on the best data that is available at the time. These are bound to be updated and changed as new information is gathered. I would be worried if we were told, year in, year out that the model of 20 years ago is the same one we have today. These models and predictions are (to my knowledge) based on the data from all sources and areas, change in the models and predictions has to be expected.

"To suggest we have documentation on how mankind has increased the rate of change in the climate is to suggest you have accurate ways of saying what the climate would have been if mankind were not here"
One does not lead to the other, we know what past levels of co2 were, we know that they have never been higher than they are today (last million-ish years). Nobody is saying that we could know what todays climate could have been without that increase...just that the levels are unprecedented...manmade / caused.

"At present, we have difficulty telling the weather 12 months into the future."
Two different subjects, predicting tomorrows, next weeks or next months weather is a totally different discipline to predicting climate change., Sat, 19th Jan 2008

Never and "one million year-ish" are very different matters (especially given the planet is about 4.6 billion years old).

But the point is the CO2 levels are not a measure of climate, they are only a measure of CO2.  We are talking about climate change, not the levels of CO2.  One may assume (whether rightly or wrongly) that one influences the other, but simply saying that we can measure one so must know the measure for the other is false.

What I was saying is the our records of past climate are fragmentary.

Even with regard to CO2 levels, I suspect we are assuming that it is fairly evenly spread throughout the atmosphere, because there is no way we can measure in historic terms and geographic or diurnal variance in CO2 (and if such variance exists, it can have a significant impact upon how CO2 would influence temperature, if it has any discernible influence at all).

another_someone, Sun, 20th Jan 2008

OK, before we get in to the usual merry go round. Can we try a different approach?

It has been said for a number of years that we are x years from a sort of point of no return. A point in time when any efforts we make to reduce or reverse the effects we have made on the climate will count for nothing.

Have we reached that point? If not, how far from it are we?, Sun, 20th Jan 2008

Forget co2, the real problem is the loss of vegetation from vast areas of once fertile and productive land, now transformed into arid environments that have a huge resulting deficit in rainfall, and when it does rain in these areas, flash floods cause even more of the fertile soil to be washed away. Arid lands heat up and return the suns energy to the atmosphere and cool rapidly at night. The returned heat to the atmosphere than goes on to have a serious effect on the weather patterns.

Hell, if it's not raining in the new deserts where is all that extra rain going to fall? You got it on a land that has tree and grass cover, producing the now ever more familiar floods, while other parts of the world experience the opposite. Cutting co2 output isn’t going to do jack to help the changing weather patterns, in fact making the air cleaner is going to help the suns energy to reach the sandy soils more effectively if anything.

But there you go.

Address the ever expanding deserts by arresting their progress and reversing the loss of vegetation and we shall see a more even distribution of annual rainfall, while at the same time provide areas of land for growing food, oil crops, and forestry to feed the starving millions, generate employment and wealth.

Andrew K Fletcher Andrew K Fletcher, Mon, 21st Jan 2008

Is not the title of this thread a bit presumptive.

We may be able to reduce our carbon footprint, but nothing we do will by any stretch of the imagination 'solve' climate change (i.e. it will not, and cannot, stop the climate from changing). another_someone, Thu, 5th Nov 2009

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