Trees and chalk dust
    as serious energy conservation

“Conservation” as an answer to our energy problems is mostly a dodge. Just how, I’d like to know, are we going to bring about conservation, other than by taxing energy use, for which there’s no substantial political support right now and which most advocates of “conservation,” including St. Albert Gore, don’t explicitly endorse? What are the costs, and the opportunity costs, of the proposed conservation measures? And will they save more than the rounding error in our estimates of future energy consumption?

There are, however, at least two conservation measures that have, as far as I can tell, modest costs (and in one case huge side-benefits) and potentially substantial energy-saving potential. Both have to do with reducing the “heat island” effect that makes cities much hotter than the surrounding countryside, causing discomfort (if not worse) and pushing up air-conditioning usage.

Today’s Washington Posthas a story about tree-planting in urban areas. The numbers are spectacular. In Los Angeles, tree-planting could reduce temperatures by as much as 5 degrees F., in addition to reducing air pollution and improving visibility. Yet apparently the urban, and especially suburban, tree cover ratios have been shrinking severely.

It also turns out that much of the “heat island” effect stems, not from the concentration of heat-producing activities, but from the fact that urban surfaces, especially walls, roofs, roadways, and parking lots, are a lot darker, on average, than rural landscapes. Lower albedo means more retained radiant energy. Replacing a black roof with a white one, or lightening up roadway and parking-lot asphalt by mixing in some chalk dust, could make a substantial difference at a trivial cost.

The problem is organizing to get the trees planted and the surfaces lightened. Giving away seedlings is one way to get homeowners to grow trees; an alternative would be to provide a small reduction in property tax for each tree on a lot. The roof-and-parking-lot problem could be handled with either incentives or building-code modifications; the roadway problem is just a matter of changing the specifications when road-building and repair contracts are let. But of course all that is much easier to write than it is to do in practice. (Not all trees, for example, are created equal.)

Still, compared to other ways of reducing energy use and cleaning urban air, trees and high-albedo surfaces seem ridiculously cheap.

There’s a big political problem here. A candidate who says he’s going to deal with our energy problem by drilling in ANWR will have his opinion taken seriously by reporters and pundits, even though the actual contribution of such drilling to reducing imports is trivial. But a national-level politician who proposed tree-planting or chalk dust would wind up the butt of jokes on late-night TV. Somehow the ideas lack gravitas. I have no clear idea what to do about that.

In the meantime, a Governor or Mayor who wants to hone his environmental credentials on the cheap (fiscally and politically) could do a lot worse than pushing these programs.

Comments

  1. Brett Bellmore says

    I don't think the idea, which I've proposed on occasion myself, lacks any particular gravitas. But it does really infuriate people who see in these problems a lever with which to compel everybody to mount their prefered hobby-horse. Global warming isn't just a real threat, it's also a club with which to try to force mankind to abandon a high energy industrial civilization some people find offensive for other reasons.
    What you've just pointed out is a way global warming can be fought without massively altering our society. In that sense it's as objectionable to some people as the use of nuclear power.

  2. aimai says

    CAn you drop the "ST. Albert Gore" stuff? Its juvenile, irritating, and counterproductive. Perhaps if people stopped making fun of Gore's brand of serious idealism we wouldn't have the problem that "somehow the ideas lack gravitas." They don't lack gravitas–a better writer and thinker would argue that the small solutions, the cheap solutions, the "mix chalk in it solutions" are *exactly* what the public wants to hear because such solutions enable them to lift the overwhelming burden of guilt they feel when they realize the depth of the problem.
    aimai

  3. serial catowner says

    I find it amusing how often those who have studied a matter are expected to put their time and effort forth to furnish a mild form of amusement to people who don't really intend to get involved.
    As noted in the post, most people don't think there is a problem, and would quite rightly regard some new tax as a form of political trick. I myself think there is a big problem but, as matters stand today, I would regard some new tax as a form of political trick. Because it would be.
    Consider another matter, the legalization of marijuana. I have publicly advocated this for 40 years, have in that period done much reading and even accumulated many college credits in allied subjects and worked in the health care industry for decades, and have not learned anything that makes me modify my position.
    I can do this because I just don't care. This is my personal line in the sand and if you don't like it, want to fire me, or fail to invite me to your picnic, I just don't care.
    I don't expect any help from experts like Mark, and I don't expect any real change until ordinary people tire of the expense of jailing a million pot-smokers a year.
    Most people can't take that kind of stand about even one subject, and I'm certainly not going to take it about two. If global arming is going to happen, it will happen until John Q. Public demands solutions from the experts. If Al Gore has no desire to be surrounded by the yipping ankle-biters of the no-tax crowd as he is fed through the coporate-media grinder, I sympathize deeply, and it confirms my feeling that he is smarter than a thousand of his critics put together.
    At the bottom line, the "clear idea" of what to do consists of believing that something needs to be done. Having no children, I am content to yield the floor to those who- they have never been shy about waving that trump card in other matters during my lifetime. In 20 years we could transition entirely to renewable energy, probably for less than 5% of our GDP per annum. When people consider it important we'll do it, and I will be in full support, pretty much regardless of what it may cost me personally. Until then, I have other fish to fry.

  4. paul says

    Taxing energy use isn't the only way to encourage conservation. One big problem is that many of the benefits of conservation (reduced peak power loads, reduced environmental impact, less need for new capital investment) don't flow to the people doing the conserving. Where's the market when we need it?
    Utility companies have done a tiny bit along these lines by promoting more efficient appliances (and timed use, which isn't really conservation, but comes close). But it's so obvious that there's more to be done.
    On hot days in desert towns you can tell the difference albedo makes just by walking. As long as you're on the (light-colored) concrete sidewalk, things are bearable, but as you get close to the asphalt of the nearest street, the heat floods over you. (This kind of thing, of course, shows the compounding effect of urbanheat islands — the more unpleasant it is to take a step outside, the more people stay in air-conditioned buildins and drive in air-conditioned cars, making it just that bit more unpleasant to be anywhere else.)

  5. serial catowner says

    Having said all that I would again point out that what you do personally to reduce energy use will benefit you now, and in the future, regardless of what society does.
    If you decide to ride a bicycle to work, that will benefit you immediately and on a daily basis, both physically and socially, and if in the future we all need to ride bicycles, you will already know that is not a big problem.
    If you insulate your house, or install solar power collectors, you will enjoy lower power bills and a higher value for your home, in the here and now.
    It will be great when we as a society decide to confront our energy problems, but that day may come sooner if we individually do what we can now. And, of course, it is much easier to craft a policy that benefits you, if you are the person crafting the policy.

  6. Hal says

    What kind of trees would you plant? Palms, which I think could thrive on their own, don't provide much shade. Shade trees would need to be watered artificially in a dry climate like Los Angeles.
    Are you counting the environmental costs of importing the extra water from the Owens Valley or wherever?
    I think it's a great idea; I am just asking.

  7. Valuethinker says

    Brett
    The point isn't that conservation will solve the problem of global warming, the point is that conservation is an essential *part* of solving the problem.
    To get from 7 billion tonnes of Carbon pa (multiply by 3.65 times to get the CO2 release) from human activity, down to 2-3.0 bn tpa, which is the best guess level at which the ecosystem can remove Carbon as fast as we can create it, will require an enormous effort on *all* levels. And even if we start now, we are still facing CO2 levels of 550ppm by mid century v. 320ppm now.
    Remember too that on any reasonable projection, global GDP (and hence carbon production, if we do nothing) will be at least twice what it is now. So the problem is even bigger– in effect we have to halve carbon release, at the same time as doubling GDP.
    What we are beginning to understand is that the impact on global climate of 550pm v. 320ppm is nonlinear: the changes in average temperature could be *much* larger than we had anticipated.
    We will need not just hybrid cars, not just wind power, not just ICGG coal fired stations with not just electricity conservation, not just wind powered shipping, not just bicycles for all sub 5 mile journeys, not just urban trees.
    but *all* these measures. And new generation technologies, too.
    We have the technology to do it, and the economic wealth to do it, whether we have the political and societal will is another matter entirely.
    What is being asked is not more than it took to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (roughly half of the GDP of the engaged powers for 6 years) and to win the Cold War (roughly 6% of GDP pa for 45 years) but then, we had Pearl Harbour and other obvious warnings of the danger.

  8. Valuethinker says

    Serial
    I am with you, with one caveat. There isn't time to wait until the world 'catches up' with our realisation. Probably 40% (right now 70%) of the population will never be convinced of what is going on– when an industry lobby can run TV ads 'CO2, we call it life' without significant public censure is a measure of how high the mountain is to climb.
    CO2 released now is retained in the atmosphere for c 30 years, so what we do now affects climate 30 years out. We have to make radical changes *now* in the next 15-20 years, to significantly improve the climatic outlook for mid century.
    A terrible thing to say, but I pray for a really bad global-warming related disaster in the US of A. Say a 100-fold Katrina: destruction of Miami or something else, with a death level of at least 10k. Property damage in the hundreds of billions.
    Because it's been long ago proven that one dead American (this criticism is true of any developed country) is of far greater significance to US public opinion than 100,000 dead third worlders. The tsunami had far more impact in Europe (where for example nearly 1000 Swedes were killed, equivalent to 30,000 Americans) than it did in America. Don't even mention Darfur.
    Most Americans know nearly 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq, I doubt more than 1 in 250 Americans know than 50-150k Iraqis have died.
    Human beings react badly to subtle warning signs. What we need is a really horrific warning sign, one which causes significant devastation in the US of A.

  9. Valuethinker says

    Mark
    One problem we have hear with urban trees is the 'subsidence problem'.
    Basically, when the UK has a dry spell, the trees suck up more water from the ground. That causes cracking in house walls, and in extreme cases separation of the house front wall from the rest.
    It's insurance death. Any history of subsidence, and your building is basically uninsurable.
    I don't know if the US has similar insurance issues, but it is a major problem for homeowners, and a major cause of trees being pollarded (pruned) and cut down.

  10. says

    I've lately wondered why we shouldn't have one or two "cool it" days per week, when we cover all our lawns with wet white bed sheets. Evaporation plus high albedo — it's something a lot of people could do to peck away at warming.

  11. says

    "
    Just how, I'd like to know, are we going to bring about conservation, other than by taxing energy use, for which there's no substantial political support right now and which most advocates of "conservation," including St. Albert Gore, don't explicitly endorse?
    "
    Easy. Don't tax energy use. Tax having babies. Or, even better, a hard limit, one half baby quota per person (tradable right). Or, best of all, baby quota plus very high taxes on babies.
    You think I am joking. One hundred years from now, no matter how else China views their leaders of the last 30 yrs, they will bless the fact that they instituted the one child policy.

  12. says

    The only reason a gas tax is not considered practical is because very little imagination has gone into how to sell it.
    Try this:
    Impose an escalating carbon tax that adds 25 cents or so every six months to the cost of a gallon of gas, and pegs the lowest possible price at what is currently being charged, so that if there is a decline in what the companies charge the tax makes up the difference. This provides a predictable price level enabling alternative energy providers to have a safer environment for introducing initially more risky alternatives. They know an unexpected discovery or advances in petroleum refining technology will not suddenly lower prices.
    Here is the crucial part: make this a zero net tax measure – for every dollar coming in from the gas tax, reduce income taxes a dollar. Conservative, libertarian, and simply selfish opposition can thereby be defanged. Many Americans will figure they can game the new system and thereby pay fewer taxes. That is what we hope every American thinks because the better they are at it, the more the problem is solved.
    The incentives are finally sane and the government is not presuming to know how to reduce emissions, just making them expensive, as they should be.
    Creativity and the market will determine how best to avoid those taxes, and in the process encourage the new technologies and transportation choices we want people to make.
    There are ways to deal with the legitimate problem of poor people needing to commute, but until this basic point is granted there's no reason to discuss them.

  13. CalDem says

    You should read your Colleague Donal Shoup's manifesto on the evils of parking zoning for another simple idea to reduce pollution. He points out that forcing builders to include huge amount of parking reduces the cost of driving substantially- and of course adds to the dark surface problem. You could legislate maximum parking limits at the state level to et the local gov't into line.

  14. Brett Bellmore says

    Valuethinker, get out a boxcutter, and escape that box you're thinking in.
    What sparked this discussion? A post pointing out that you could, relatively cheaply, counter the urban heat island effect by adjusting the albedo of urban areas.
    Of course, this post was framed in terms of countering the heat island effect being a way of reducing energy consumption, but it should remind us all that global warming is just the urban heat island effect writ large, and that there are more variables we can tweak than just CO2 output.
    So, what do you focus in on like a laser? CO2 output, of course. And not just that, but what non-CO2 emiting major energy source do you omit all mention of? Why, nuclear, of course.
    So typical of what I've come to expect.

  15. BoulderDuck says

    Umm, just curious – has anyone actually proposed that mixing chalk into asphalt would significantly lighten it?
    The trees help (although their albedo is not that high, so this is a bit tricky in the water scarce west. I think the main way they would reduce temp is thru transpiration).
    I agree with your main point: there is a lot of low hanging fruit on the energy conservation tree. But you may be pushing your point a bit here. No need to do that, because there is a lot of low hanging fruit on the energy conservation tree!!

  16. Valuethinker says

    Gus
    Cutting income tax would be highly regressive. The poor and middle incomes would pay the carbon taxes, the high earners would reap the benefits.
    Better to:
    - do as Alaska does, and rebate a fixed amount to each family, each year. $500 per person to a poor family would make a huge difference
    Those individuals who use more carbon than the average, would pay out more in carbon tax than those who used less. That would be entirely independent of your income, a rich miser could wind up benefiting, and a poor spendthrift could wind up being hurt.
    So on libertarian grounds its difficult to object.
    - the other possibility is to reduce Social Security Taxes. These are highly regressive, a disincentive to work and in the case of the employer a disincentive to employ. Probably the worst taxes in the US system.

  17. Valuethinker says

    Brett
    Just following up on your other comment, what other solutions do you see to global climate change than reducing CO2 output?
    Do you mean abatement in terms of moving away from coastal areas, depopulating sub Sahara, perhaps Americans relocating out of areas that are growing more arid, ending agriculture in the US South West?
    These are things that will *inevitably* happen, the UK government has already begun plans to abandon certain coastal areas (the Dutch have as well, actually turning polders back into flood barriers). Looking at history, they have happened before eg the death of some of the native American civilisations in the South West, due at least in part to lack of rainfall.
    The question is what we can do to slow down the transition to a much warmer world which is inevitable, reducing the costs of adjustment
    and to avoid the 'tipping point' where the world climate goes into complete chaos (to an unforeseeable new equilibrium) because of our activities. The latest climate science suggests such very abrupt reversals have taken place a number of times in the last 20 million years.
    Some of the scarier scenarios out there include the great meltdown (the release of sub permafrost methane in a very short period of time, on a positive feedback loop with rising termperatures); reversal of the Gulf Current (plunging Europe and then North America into a new ice age); obliteration of the Amazon due to drought (accelerating global warming by half a century — remember the Sahara was once a jungle); collapse of the plankton system within the ocean due to rising acidification (the oceans die, and perhaps the land thereafter).
    None of these, as far as we know, is likely in the next 50 years and perhaps not the next 100. All are possible, all have happened within geologically recorded history.
    It's a sure bet that with 6 billion of us, headed on for 8 billion, we would be in a major crisis if global temperatures move up faster than is currently anticipated. Just the impact on food production, water supply and habitability.
    Katrina killed merely a thousand or so, and did 50 billion of damage. Look at the fuss it caused. The heat wave in France in 2003 only killed 15,000 or so, and damage was probably limited to a few billions of euros.
    Multiply those numbers by 10,20, 100 times, and you start to see a very serious problem for the world economy. That is the sort of scale of disaster that is likely (even certain) within the next 50 years.
    The situation I see us in is almost exactly analagous to where we were with the CFC problem. The ozone layer was decaying, much faster than we realised, and the potential consequences were huge. Plankton lose the ability to photosynthesise above a certain level of UV exposure. Birds would go blind, leading to an explosion of insect and rodent populations in temperate climes. We could have made the earth significantly less inhabitable.
    Fortunately the problem was (just) realised in time, and preventative measures taken. It is likely that stratospheric ozone levels will be restored to their pre CFC levels, sometime in the middle of this century.
    Global warming places us in the same quandary, with the same need to take decisive action.
    So I'm really not sure what else you think we can do besides lower CO2 production? It's not trivially easy to increase, for example, the planetary albedo, or to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by sequestration schemes.

  18. Valuethinker says

    Maynard
    Chinese and Indian CO2 production is soaring.
    Yet India has a falling birth rate, and China the strictest one child policy in the world.
    So I would argue from this evidence that reducing the number of new babies, does not, in and of itself, reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere.
    One bullet solutions don't tend to work with problems as systemic as, and as complex as, the likes of global warming.

  19. says

    Valuethinker-
    We have no real argument.
    If income taxes were lowered as I envision the scheme – raising the level at which no taxes are paid – the cuts would start at the bottom, virtually the same as your rebate idea. And I think psychologically it is appealing.
    But your rebate idea is fine by me. I think it would work as well. The basic point is to shift incentives – and do so in a way as to defang most opposition.
    I think the social security option is riskier because there are so many ideologues out to destroy the program and linking two values the radical right hates offers them too many possibilities for mischief. If carbon taxes automatically lowered income taxes by the same amount it carries a flavor of tax cut to any one who thinks they can game it.
    And we know how minds switch off in this country when the magic words "tax cut" are spoken.
    best,
    Gus

  20. Valuethinker says

    Gus
    The problem with income tax is that only half of US households pay income tax.
    And a cut of 1% in the base rate, say, is worth $5k to a highly paid corporate lawyer (and $100k to a CEO) but only $400 or so to the average taxpayer.
    Since our personal expenditure on carbon generating activities is very unlikely to be scaled to the same extent as our incomes (say Larry Ellison makes 1000 times what I do: I doubt he manages, even with his MIG fighter, to burn 1000 times as much Carbon as I do) the tax cut could be quite regressive.
    Particularly given that all the goods and services I buy, eg at WalMart, are going to go up in price.
    Better as I say to rebate on a per person basis.
    Agree mucking around with Social Security is dangerous. But I think if you could cut the *employer* contribution to SS, you could actually get a net *increase* in GDP from the imposition of carbon taxes.
    My gut, without having studied it, is a 'wedge' tax ie one on labour income falling on the employer, is so dramatically a bad idea (in terms of shifting demand for labour down, and lowering employment and wages), that its replacement would be very positive for the economy.
    But I don't know of any reliable studies on the elasticities, and agree with you re the politics.

  21. Valuethinker says

    Brett wrote:
    Global warming isn't just a real threat, it's also a club with which to try to force mankind to abandon a high energy industrial civilization some people find offensive for other reasons.
    What you've just pointed out is a way global warming can be fought without massively altering our society. In that sense it's as objectionable to some people as the use of nuclear power.
    Brett
    I certainly don't treat GW as a way to abandon high energy civilisation. Nor does anyone else I know who is a thinking person.
    What I treat GW as is the greatest threat to our civilisation we know of, other than all out nuclear war (between the major powers). Up there with major asteroid impacts.
    Even a new Black Death is only likely to kill 30% of us. Enough to rebuild civilisation will be left over, just as after 1346 Europe rebuilt, (although medieval civilisation collapsed, it was replaced by the Renaissance).
    GW is bigger than that.
    The problem is our propensity to release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and CH4 and other greenhouse gases, not energy intensity per se.
    The root of that problem is that our main fuel sources are oil, natural gas and coal. Paleozoic carbon.
    What must change is that latter. Whether by conservation, by alternative generation sources, by carbon sequestration.
    The civilisation of the future will be as solar powered as our current civilisation, except our current civilisation uses solar power from *several 10s of millions of years ago* (aka gas, oil and coal) and the next iteration will use the solar radiation which hits the earth directly (wind and solar) plus a bit of associated effects (tides (ie liquid water), geothermal etc.).
    There is nothing holy in being energy intensive. If a process uses half as much energy, we should use it.
    Uranium is a highly finite resource. It might be part of the transition, but the economic case has never been successfully made (except, arguably by France, and then, irony of ironies, in the last 2 big heat waves they have had to cut nuclear output, due to loss of cooling water levels).
    Oil is finite. We were going to go down this transition curve in the next 100 years. What global warming says is we need to do it in the next 50.
    Or less.

  22. James says

    Nicholas: Yes, Mayor Daley has endorsed both the tree-planting and green-roof projects as part of a broader green-city plan for Chicago:
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12512892/
    "Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has described green roofs as part of an effort to make his city "the most environmentally friendly" American city. Chicago, which installed a green roof on its City Hall in 2000, has offered developers more regulatory incentives than any other North American city, Peck said.

  23. Brett Bellmore says

    "The problem is our propensity to release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and CH4 and other greenhouse gases, not energy intensity per se."
    Well, no, and that's the point. The problem is that the planet is warming. Greenhouse gasses are "a" cause, not "the" problem. By defining the problem as you do, you artifically narrow the range of solutions, to exclude any that don't involve reducing greenhouse emissions.
    Such as arranging for various surfaces to have a higher albedo, as in the present instance. It's a form of closed mindedness you should watch out for.

  24. Valuethinker says

    Brett
    I did ask you about that. You still haven't answered the question of how we could meaningfully do something which would reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the lower atmosphere (or increase re radiation).
    I'm all for increasing albedo, although my sense is the effect is marginal. (it's a big planet, covering a lot of it with reflectors is going to be hard).
    Whitening up the pavements, planting urban trees are useful as *conservation* measures, because people will use less air conditioning, burn less coal and gas (caveat: does that mean we will use more energy to heat in winter?). They aren't fundamentally altering the earth's albdeo (big solar cell arrays might do that– but we are talking really big).
    In theory, at least, we could launch dust particles into the upper atmosphere (tricky in terms of knowing the long term side effects). or we could build large orbiting mirrors (beyond current spaceflight capabilities, but not inconceivable).
    Latest data is of course, that albedo is shrinking due to declining glaciation.
    The reality is we need *all* these clever tricks. But since the root causes is human emission of greenhouse gases, *that* is going to be where the bulk of the rectification is going to have to take place.
    With massive state intervention in electricity markets, you can make nuclear part of that *but* it's never going to be more than a small part of the whole solution.

  25. Brett Bellmore says

    "I did ask you about that. You still haven't answered the question of how we could meaningfully do something which would reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the lower atmosphere (or increase re radiation)."
    Sorry to have been inattentive.
    Albedo manipulation isn't a new idea; I've proposed it before, and Mark refered to it here about a year ago:
    http://www.samefacts.com/archives/climate_change_
    Manditory albedo standards for roofing and paving materials, encouraging the use of different groundcovers and landscaping trees, manipulating jet fuel and flight plans to enhance contrail production during the day, and suppress it at night, introduction of inert particulates into power-plant exausts, dumping ping pong balls into the ocean, and balloons into the atmosphere… There are lots of things we can do, once we stop being so obsessed with CO2, and *only* CO2.
    Some of this is fairly low hanging fruit compared to the lifestyle changes that are proposed to combat global warming. I'd be a lot more impressed by the seriousness of global warming activists if they'd start urging that fruit be picked.

  26. Valuethinker says

    On 'global warming activists' there is no such unitary group.
    What you get are people coming at it from different angles eg power, transport, etc. Plus the 'Paul Revere's' ie the climate scientists.
    On albedo I have a number of issues:
    - if the reflection back is at ground level, at infra red frequencies, it doesn't work
    - some of the proposed solutions have very significant possible environmental impacts: eg the ping pong balls in the sea could potentially fill up the oceans with lots of plastic balls, which take centuries to decay, threaten marine life (directly by cutting off sunlight, indirectly if they swallow them)
    - contrails is one I am particularly dubious about (because we don't know enough about contrails and their effects)
    - power plant exhausts is, I suspect, a complete nonstarter: 1. most of the exhaust would wind up at ground level, where it is the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality from air pollution by power plants 2. it won't last long enough in the air to arrest global warming by much (SO2 has the same function: it blocks global irradiation, but it lasts only days in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 lasts years- -therefore it's not rational to stop trying to halt acid rain, because of global warming).
    - on human based Albedo… well, if you mean preserving the Amazon, yes (but that has CO2 implications which are probably more important). If all of human habitations had white roofs, the vast majority of the savings would be on *air conditioning* and the CO2 production necessitated by that.
    - atmospheric balloons (see also space deployed solar shades). Maybe. But if the balloons drift, you can have lots of problems. And of course you have permanent shade *under* the balloons (less photosynthesis). Not an obvious starter, nor (guessing) do we have enough helium? (I'm assuming for safety reasons hydrogen balloons would be a nonstarter– what if there was a lightning storm?).
    you wrote:
    Some of this is fairly low hanging fruit compared to the lifestyle changes that are proposed to combat global warming. I'd be a lot more impressed by the seriousness of global warming activists if they'd start urging that fruit be picked.
    I reply:
    I would argue this is mostly *high hanging* fruit, on the verge of speculative or impossible– see above. Again, as I say, the virtue of white painting pavement, growing urban trees etc. is felt because the CO2 producing activities of refrigeration and air conditioning are left.
    There must be some gain there (I don't have the skillset to quantify it) but humans as urban creatures don't cover enough of the world's surface to make a big difference.
    If you read Larry Niven, then one idea he has might make sense. His Slavers (or rather their Tnuctipin allies) bred a form of sunflower that reflects light (when the tnucptipin staged their revolt, they reprogrammed the 'helpful' solar plants to attack the slavers– it makes a great territorial defence/ barrier, a few hundred miles of sunflower plantation).
    If we could breed that form of fast growing plant, hardy in many environments, that has an actual light reflector, maybe that would have a significant impact on world albedo (of course, a plant that good would probably destroy lots of local ecosystems).
    A related institutional problem to all of the above (as with all carbon sequestration schemes) is that it's hard to measure the 'good' we would be doing, and therefore reward the benefit to the economic actors. Measuring and/ or taxing carbon removal is much easier.
    Again in the limited case of urban albedo the gain to implementers will come from lower air conditioning bills and lower CO2 emissions.
    The circle always comes round to greenhouse gas emissions, and what to do about them, because we don't know enough/ don't have the technology, to meaningfully effect the climate in other ways (the same objection to dumping iron filings in the sea to reduce acidification).
    (further aside on nuclear)
    Nuclear I sense is a distraction. It's about 5% of US energy use, and I can't see a world where it's more than 10%, even in a crash expansion.
    By contrast, a US with 20% of its electricity (or about 5% of its total energy use) from wind power is almost certain, it's simply an issue of how fast the US gets there (with better storage and demand management, 33% by wind is certainly feasible– depends on where fuel cells and flywheels get to).
    Roughly speaking, this 20% would be 200 gigawatts of power capacity, costing $200bn, assuming a 25% Load Factor (in practice, you might get 30%). By contrast, an equivalent amount of nuclear power would cost something over $120bn (depending on your assumptions of load factor– I'm assuming about 100GW or 100 nuclear units) *without* considering the cost of disposal of nuclear waste, security and proliferation issues, cost of uranium etc.
    The same limits on nuclear are true for virtually every other industrialised country The world has 460 operating reactors, I can't reasonably see more than 1000 ever operating (given that within 30 years, 80% of those 460 will no longer be operating so we are talking net new reactors of 1400).

  27. Valuethinker says

    Brett
    I did ask you about that. You still haven’t answered the question of how we could meaningfully do something which would reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the lower atmosphere (or increase re radiation).
    I’m all for increasing albedo, although my sense is the effect is marginal. (it’s a big planet, covering a lot of it with reflectors is going to be hard).
    Whitening up the pavements, planting urban trees are useful as *conservation* measures, because people will use less air conditioning, burn less coal and gas (caveat: does that mean we will use more energy to heat in winter?). They aren’t fundamentally altering the earth’s albdeo (big solar cell arrays might do that– but we are talking really big).
    In theory, at least, we could launch dust particles into the upper atmosphere (tricky in terms of knowing the long term side effects). or we could build large orbiting mirrors (beyond current spaceflight capabilities, but not inconceivable).
    Latest data is of course, that albedo is shrinking due to declining glaciation.
    The reality is we need *all* these clever tricks. But since the root causes is human emission of greenhouse gases, *that* is going to be where the bulk of the rectification is going to have to take place.
    With massive state intervention in electricity markets, you can make nuclear part of that *but* it’s never going to be more than a small part of the whole solution.

  28. says

    If we want to think in terms of science fiction that may be practical in the short term, Larry Niven had a more practical and safer idea than sunflowers, though he applied it for other purposes. In Ringworld there are huge panels that produce artificial nights by blocking the sun. Reflective panels deployed above the equator would be within the realm of not-so-distant practicality. Their effect on us would be akin to a large volcanic eruption, except more benign. Earth's albedo could be increased in principle as much as we wanted. And since what goes up into orbit tends to come down, there is little chance of irreversible screw ups leading to an inadvertant ice age.
    Arthur C. Clarke also had a relevant idea – his space elevator in geosynchronous orbit, as a means of cheap access to space. Good way to get panels up there eventually. It would also be pretty non-polluting compared to rockets. There are already conferences on this idea co-sponsored by places like Los Alamos, and I believe a large prize is being offered annually for developing the needed technology.
    But in the immediate run things like what are being discussed here along with a carbon tax will have a more important impact.

  29. Brett Bellmore says

    Actually, it should be feasible to keep large, solar heated hot air balloons up in the atmosphere for very long periods without using either helium or hydrogen.
    And white roofs are a very low hanging fruit indeed, which help in several ways.
    With respect to solar, I'd be very interested to see a hard analysis of the net effect of solar panels on global warming, given that, while they produce power without CO2 (After their manufacture, anyway.) they also tend to be darker than the surfaces they replace, and thus directly contribute to global warming by lowering the Earth's albedo.
    To get any net global warming benefit from large scale solar, we might have to be *very* careful where we site it.

  30. Valuethinker says

    Brett
    Good point on balloons, although since air temperatures drop as you rise (up to a point– about 20 miles up I think?) I'd have to think about the technological obstacles. Bad weather would be another, I would presume. Either way, we are talking a *lot* of balloons (see calculations below re surface area of the planet).
    White roofs are good for air conditioning. It's a carbon avoidance strategy.
    But what portion of the earth's surface do you think is covered by human rooftops? I am thinking it must be very small sub 1% (that is after all, 3% of the earth's land surface, which seems an absolutely huge number).
    So the albedo effect would be trivial.
    On solar panels the converse applies. Even if we did cover every rooftop on the planet with solar cells, it wouldn't have a huge impact. Because again human habitations (rooftops) aren't a big portion of the planet's surface.
    My on the fly calculation is that the earth's radius is 4,000 miles. Therefore (4 pi r squared) the earth's surface area is 200 million square miles?
    6 billion people. Assume each takes up 400 square foot of roof space (an unreasonably generous assumption outside the first world– the Chinese live in 2-3 story apartment blocks each with several families, each not more than 20'X20', even outside the cities). That's 69,696 people take up one square mile of roof (5280' sq / 400).
    6 billion people take up 85,752 square miles of roof space or about 0.04% of the planetary surface, about 0.12% of the land surface.
    That's a rough and ready calculation so my maths may be very wrong somewhere.
    I can't see that it would make a huge difference.
    Maybe one could spread white panels in the desert or mountains (and not get them covered by sandstorms) but we are talking *seriously* big panels.
    None of the suggested albedo methods seem to have any hope of making a significant impact on the albedo of the planet.
    Any way you come down to it, you are talking major reductions in atmospheric green house gas emissions.

  31. serial catowner says

    Let's try to remember the root of the problem- we took millions of tons of carbon (probably billions, really) out of the earth and dumped it in the atmosphere.
    In days of yore, quite a bit of heat radiated from the earth into space. Now the increased carbon in the atmosphere acts like a blanket, keeping that heat in the atmosphere. Until quite recently, the oceans have acted as a heat sink, resulting in rising ocean temperatures but less rise in atmospheric temperatures. (The rise in ocean temperatures doesn't seem that great because the oceans are basically HUGE.)
    Increasing albedo will help, but the basic problem of heat trapped in the atmosphere by increased carbon will still remain.
    And, no, solar collectors will never form a significant albedo effect, because the amount of land covered by enough solar collectors to meet our wildest dreams is still a trivial portion of the earth's surface.

  32. Valuethinker says

    Serial
    Estimated man made output of carbon is 7 billion tonnes pa. Multiply by 3.65 to get the equivalent CO2 tonnage.
    Estimated reuptake is 2-3bn tpa. The difference is what is causing the rise in global CO2 concentrations.
    CH4 (methane) is also important in the picture, but atmospheric concentrations are measured in parts per billion v. pp million for CO2, and methane lasts a lot less time in the atmosphere (tritium based radiation studies show CO2 molecules circulate in the atmosphere for 30-40 years).
    CO2 has risen from 270m ppm in pre industrial times, to 380 now. It is now rising at between 1-2ppm per year.
    It is hypothesised (but we don't know) that 550ppm is a 'stable' level at which we can tolerate the degree of climate change undertaken. Some degree of climate change is certain.
    But we don't know. And on current trends, we will reach that point of discussion as early as 2050, and certainly before 2100.