10 February 2009

The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind

Synchronicity. Not just an irritating album from the Police, but yesterday's Word of the Day for Unkie Dave.

As I started the day with the guilty pleasure that is my morning cappuccino I found myself reading a recent issue of New Scientist purchased by the Very Understanding Girlfriend and conveniently left out on a tabletop to distract me from more productive pursuits. I go through phases of reading New Scientist, it being the bathroom magazine of choice for a number of our friends, most notably those who insist on putting "Dr" on their credit cards but would be of no actual use in a medical emergency*, but more recently it has been out of favour with me for displaying the same incessant cheerful positivity about the beneficial aspects of all technological advances as the architects of Skynet or the folks who think it a good idea to teach chimpanzees how to craft rudimentary knives, open doors, drive cars or direct 'Watchmen'.

The most recent case in point was an article on CO2 scrubbing, which featured the work of Klaus Lackner and Allen Wright. They have built a device that captures CO2 directly from the air on giant sheets of plastic. The plastic is then sprayed with sodium hydroxide, which reacts with the CO2 to create a sodium carbonate solution. The solution can then be heated (to over 900C!) separating out the Sodium Hydroxide for reuse and leaving behind the CO2 that can then be stored somewhere, possibly in giant sinkholes (the article was a bit vague on what you would actually do with all the CO2 once you have removed it from the atmosphere). Lackner and Wright envision a final product the size of a standard shipping container that could be deployed easily anywhere in the world in multiple units, each unit scrubbing a tonne of CO2 a day.

Great, global warming solved so, we can all rest easily.

The synchronicity occurred late last night as the Very Understanding Girlfriend and I did something we almost never do, channel surf. We ended up catching most of a program on Discovery Science on scientific solutions to Climate Change, and were surprised to see none other than Klaus Lackner and Allen Wright talking about their CO2 scrubber. Of course this being Discovery and not New Scientist, the language they used was a little less scientifically rigorous, referring to their scrubber as 'an artificial tree', though they did refer to the same model of deploying a fleet of container-sized scrubbers, each removing a tonne of CO2 from the air per day. Or, as they helpfully explained, the equivalent of the output of a single car for a full year.

Somehow after reading the New Scientist article I failed to grasp the enormity of the task ahead, so cheery was it and upbeat and positive about the technology. In 2008 alone there were 52,940,559 new cars produced, which in total would release 145,000 tonnes of CO2 per day into the atmosphere. Thus with an average shipping container being just over 14 square meters, you would need over 2,000 square kilometers of containers just to offset the CO2 produced by that single year's production run** on a daily basis.

Okay, so maybe global warming hasn't been solved.

The problem that I had with both the New Scientist article and the TV program was that not once was there any mention of combatting the problem by reducing our use of things that produce more CO2, for example buy building, buying and using less cars. Both started from the same first principles, that our rate of consumption was a given and there was no point in even trying to change that, and so any solution to climate change must be one that allows us to grow at our current rate unchecked.

Whether it is providing a magical solution to climate change, or the prospect of Greentech revolution pulling us out of our economic recession, we are being told that technology will solve all our current problems and thus we are protected from ever having to ask ourselves the tough questions about our behavior and lifestyles. Our consumption will never have to change because we will find a way to offset that consumption, and no doubt make some money in the process.

In fact the easiest way to combat climate change is to get people to change their behavior; to buy less, to drive less, to use less electricity and to eat less meat. It really is that simple. But of course if we all consumed less, then the corporations would make less money, and we can't be having that, now can we?

But despite opposition from the corporate media to the concept of reduced consumption, it is actually quite easy to get people to change wasteful behavior. The campaigns by Irish local and national government to encourage recycling, including the introduction of Green recycling and Brown organic composting bins to Dublin households and the introduction of the plastic bag tax (originally 15¢, now 22¢ per bag) that reduced bag consumption by over 90%, show how easy it actually is for the Government to change consumer behavior when the political will is there.

However it is also all too easy for the government to add to the problem, as the Bush administration did for the last eight years by sowing confusion in the minds of the citizens as to the reality of climate change and their part in its creation and prevention. And before you think that just because Bush is gone everything will be fine now, you need only look to recent events in Northern Ireland where Sammy Wilson, Northern Ireland's Minister for the Environment, actually banned government-produced ads that encouraged people to turn off lights and reduce their energy consumption because the ads were part of an "insidious propaganda campaign that we are responsible for climate change". Yup, following on from the DUP's recent call for Creationism to be taught in schools, their Minister for the Environment also denies that climate change is man-made.

So although New Scientist and others irk me because of their incessant technological positivity, I am still glad that as a society we are finally accepting the need develop global solutions, rather than still denying the scale of the problem. I just wish that more people accepted their own role in these solutions, rather than expecting someone else to make everything better.

* as opposed to our amazing Finnish friend Johanna who is both an MD and a PhD, for which there should be a title in English that sounds better than 'Doctor Doctor', a phrase unfortunately forever ruined by the Thompson Twins.

** admittedly less if you stacked the scrubbers on top of each other, but you get the idea.

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At 4:07 pm, Blogger Kate said...

interesting addition in relation to money - the Northern Ireland minister for Environment Sammy Wilson has announced he's putting a ban on the British Goverment's version of the 'power of one' style climate change ads on television because he feels anyone who believes that say, turning off sockets and switching off things on standby will make a difference is an idiot. He also branded these ads "Environmental Propoganda".

This from a minister for the environment - some fairly powerful lobbyists up North so.

At 4:37 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

You'll be switchin off all those plastic n pcb heavy gadgets of yours then will ya? :P

me either...

At 4:40 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@2Bit - Sure why would I be doing that when Sammy Wilson says there's no point.

Ah, Sammy Wilson, the unsung hero of electronica.

At 2:55 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

He's doing my next remix :D
"stacked the scrubbers on top of each other" it's all rock n roll round your place eh? :P


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