The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on February 13, 2008

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nonukesGermany has made a decision to abandon nuclear energy. No nation has to use nuclear energy for their electricity needs – there are abundant alternatives, and Germany has a plethora of alternatives. Unfortunately, according to the Washington Post, Germany is finding that their anti-nuclear, green impulse has had an unintended consequence – they’re transitioning away from nearly carbon-free nuclear energy and back to the dirtiest energy source there is – coal.

This is a huge problem because the EU has demanded that Germany cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, and yet Germany is also phasing out nuclear energy, a source that provides a quarter of Germany’s energy needs. According to the Washington Post article, German environmentalists are torqued off over the fact that Germany is building even more coal plants to meet the nation’s energy needs. Instead, environmentalists desire even more solar, wind, biomass, and hydroelectric energy in place of Germany’s growing dependence on coal. But the sun doesn’t shine all the time, the wind doesn’t blow all the time, biomass is hard to scale appropriately, and there are only so many rivers that can dammed. Every energy source has it’s environmental problems – flooded terrain for hydroelectric, strip mines for coal, radioactive waste for nuclear – but too many environmentalists want a perfect solution. There isn’t one. There is no way to escape the law of unintended consequences, and abandoning nuclear energy has created an ugly tradeoff for Germany’s environmentalist community.

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In another story about energy generation, NPR aired a story about how Costa Rica may have its hydroelectric power cut dramatically by global heating. In a nation where over 80% of it’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power, if global heating interferes with rainfall patterns, the nation’s economy and future could be at risk. I didn’t know this, but Costa Rica’s economy is based on high technology and tourism, two relatively energy-hungry industries, so if Costa Rica’s clean hydroelectric power is cut dramatically due to reductions in rainfall, it will dramatically affect the nation’s two main industries. And it’s high-tech industry has already begun to feel the effects of altered rainfall patterns – there have been rolling blackouts across the capitol due to insufficient water in the resevoirs used for the hydroelectric power.

It’s almost obscene that a country as green, both literally and figuratively, ultimately might have to start burning coal just to power its own industries, but that’s one of the downsides to becoming too dependent on any single source of energy. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and Costa Rica will be able to adapt to their energy problems without resorting to coal.

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When natural plants are cleared and the land converted from its natural state to farmland, the process releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide. This information has been known for a while. A new study released last week has found that the amount of carbon emitted through this process may, in fact, overwhelm the amount of carbon savings from any biofuels that are created using crops grown on that newly converted farmland. According to the National Geographic, a new study has found that this “carbon debt” usually takes decades to pay off using biofuels, and in the case of tropical forests, the carbon debt is too great to ever repay.

According to the National Geographic article, the fastest that any current biofuel crop can pay off the carbon debt is 17 years for sugarcane. Carbon debt is paid off when the aggregate carbon emissions saved by the biofuel exceed the emissions released when the land was originally converted over to crop use from its natural state. Corn ethanol takes 93 years, and if the land is peatland rain forest cleared for palm oil, the debt is an outrageous 423 years. Unfortunately, we need solutions that can take hold in 50 years or less, and that means, barring dramatic improvements in cellulosic ethanol production that don’t require clearing land for crops, every existing biofuel crop except sugarcane will actually make global heating worse instead of better. Using palm oil is the worst, though, because the average lifespan of a palm oil plantation is 100 years – 323 years less than the payback period of the carbon debt.

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tap waterAt the moment, I’m drinking a glass of filtered tap water. Generally speaking, I drink tap water instead of bottled water because it’s cheaper and easier, and unless I’m in one of the few places with truly nasty water, I adapt to slight flavor variations within a day or two. But I do drink bottled water from time to time, like when I’m going on an airplane – it’s hard to justify the annoyance of taking an empty Nalgene bottle through security only to fill it up from a drinking fountain out on the concourse. But given just how bad bottle water is for the environment, I may have to change my thinking.

Tap water is cheap, nearly always safe to drink, doesn’t require disposable (albeit recyclable) containers created from oil or natural gas, and takes relatively little energy to create. All that’s required is some settling ponds, chemical treatments, inexpensive filtration systems, and ta da! safe, drinkable water. But much bottled water requires energy to produce via reverse osmosis, energy and oil to create the plastic bottles, may contribute to cavities, and is no safer than tap water. In fact, plastic bottles not only decompose into small fragments that are often fatal to wildlife, but if you try to reuse the bottle instead of recycling it immediately after it’s been used, then you’re exposing yourself to diseases that you left there the last time you drank out of it. After all, anyone who’s tried to clean out a narrow-necked water bottle knows that it’s much harder to clean than a wide-necked Nalgene bottle. So drink your tap water with pride, and if you don’t like the flavor, filter it or add tea to it – you’ll do yourself, your local wildlife, and the climate a favor in the process.

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According to the San Jose Mercury News, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) announced last week that all governments and companies would start paying fees for contributing to global heating by emitting carbon dioxide. For every metric ton of CO2 emitted, the emitting business or governmental entity will be charged 4.2 cents, resulting in tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in new taxes on the most polluting industries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Industry has all but pledged to pass the additional costs on to their customers, especially the local oil refineries and power plants. At 4.2 cents per metric ton, the tax on carbon emissions is far below the EU cap-and-trade value of $40 per ton, but I agree in principle with the environmentalists:

“[S]omebodyhas to go first.”

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