Tag Archives: global-warming

Environmental Effects of the Shipping Industry

I don’t usually give much credence to Daily Mail articles—given the paper’s editorial stance and propensity for junk food news—but I made an exception for one penned by Fred Pearce, New Scientist‘s environmental consultant.

Still not completely free from sensationalism, Pearce looks at the pollution emitted by the shipping industry, particularly some of the world’s largest container ships.

Because of their colossal engines, each as heavy as a small ship, these super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations.

But, unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel [bunker fuel]: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use. […]

Thanks to the IMO‘s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year – the same as 50 million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year.

With an estimated 800 million cars driving around the planet, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars.

Before I come to any personal conclusions on this, I would like to see figures on the environmental effects of the feasible alternatives. After all, the scale of these container ships is staggering:

The only ships mentioned by name in the article, the Emma Mærsk and the seven other Maersk PS-Class ships, are all the equal largest container ships in the world. All are a few feet shy of quarter a mile long, have gross tonnage of over 150,000 and can hold upwards of 11,000 shipping containers. I find these figures hard to comprehend.

via The Browser

How Congestion Pricing and Traffic Jams Help the Environment

When us laymen think of ways to solve traffic congestion we typically think of two ways: congestion pricing to force those who are most price sensitive off the roads and on to public transport (which should be improved using the funds gained through said pricing), and adding capacity to the roads. But do these solutions really help: do congestion charges and additional capacity really affect overall driving habits and are they beneficial for the environment (do they increase public transport use)?

Traffic jams can actually be environmentally beneficial if they turn subways, buses, car pools, bicycles and walking into more-attractive options. […] The traditional solution to traffic congestion is to create additional road capacity. But projects like those almost always end up making the original problem worse because they generate what transportation planners call “induced traffic”: every mile of new, open roadway encourages existing users to make more car trips, lures drivers away from other routes and tempts transit riders to return to their automobiles, with the eventual result that the new roads become at least as clogged as the old roads. […]

In 1999, the Australian researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy concluded that “there is no guarantee that congestion pricing will simultaneously improve congestion and sustainability,” and mentioned several ways in which congestion pricing can defy the expectations of its supporters, among them by causing motorists to “drive exactly as they always have if the congestion charge is covered by their firms (e.g., a majority of London’s peak-hour commuters have company cars and perks).”

Some have interpreted David Owen’s column to be anti-congestion charging: I don’t believe he suggests this, primarily because of his final paragraph, describing what he believes is the most effective congestion management program:

A truly effective traffic program for any dense city would impose high fees for all automobile access and public parking while also gradually eliminating automobile lanes (thereby reducing total car traffic volume without eliminating the environmentally beneficial burden of driver frustration and inefficiency) and increasing the capacity and efficiency of public transit.

It isn’t the solution; it’s part of the solution.

Computing and the Climate

In what appears to be a bit of an advertisement for climateprediction.net–a distributed computing project to test the accuracy of various computer models of climate change–The Economist looks at the impact of computing on the environment; specifically carbon dioxide emissions.

According to a report published by the Climate Group, a think-tank based in London, computers, printers, mobile phones and the widgets that accompany them account for the emission of 830m tonnes of carbon dioxide around the world in 2007. That is about 2% of the estimated total of emissions from human activity. And that is the same as the aviation industry’s contribution. According to the report, about a quarter of the emissions in question are generated by the manufacture of computers and so forth. The rest come from their use.

via More Intelligent Life

The Most Important Century

The next 50 years will bring technological, social and geopolitical change greater than we can imagine, says Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, but the emerging problems of population growth and climate change make this century arguably the most important in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, even from the perspective of an astronomer.

It’s sometimes wrongly imagined that astronomers, contemplating timespans measured in billions, must be serenely unconcerned about next year, next week and tomorrow. But a “cosmic perspective” actually strengthens my own concerns about the here and now.

Ever since Darwin, we’ve been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past. But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. No astronomer could believe this.

Our sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it’s got 6bn more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding universe will continue – perhaps for ever – becoming ever colder, ever emptier. As Woody Allen said, “Eternity is very long, especially towards the end”. Any creatures who witness the sun’s demise, here on Earth or far beyond, won’t be human. They will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug.

But even in this “concertinaed” timeline – extending millions of centuries into the future, as well as into the past – this century is special. It’s the first in our planet’s history where one species – ours – has Earth’s future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life’s immense potential.

As Richard says (via), the article “seems to be a truncated version of his book Our Final Century“.

Can Technology Solve Our Climate Problems?

After reading Cambridge physicist David MacKay’s much lauded Sustainable Energy (free download available), the FT Economist Tim Harford worries that we are “too complacent about technological fixes for the twin problems of climate change and finite oil and gas reserves”.

Harford suggests that if we contemplate the idea that technological progress may not solve these problems, we must therefore start thinking realistically about behaviour shifting incentives—specifically, higher carbon ‘taxes’.

Technological progress and economic growth loosen the corset of cost-benefit analysis, but not the laws of physics. No matter how cheap and efficient solar collectors become, there is only so much solar power available per square metre of land. Hydroelectric energy is constrained by the quantity of rainfall and the height of reservoirs above sea level. The most perfectly designed windmill is limited by the energy of the wind. It would barely be possible to make the numbers add up even if renewable energy generators were free.

To power a modern country through renewable energy requires country-scale facilities. […] Technological progress will be essential but, barring a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, it will not set us on a path to an energy system purged of fossil fuels.

[…] The challenge is to encourage the right behaviour. Centrally mandated efforts will not do the trick, in part because “the right behaviour” is not a universal constant. […]

Dealing with climate change will need many small decisions to be made differently. The government cannot micromanage these. This is why a carbon price, whether set through taxes or emissions permits, is needed. It is not so much a nudge as a shove in the right direction.

The full article requires (free) registration to the FT site.