Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The Language of Climate

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  • Rich Lock,

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    Perhaps a better approach to the problem of air travel is to develop alternatives. Airships have potential but they aren’t as fast, which for some purposes is just fine. Sea travel really is too slow for most human interactions, but it’s worth noting that all mail is now delivered by air, which is convenient sure, but is also wasteful. There have been huge changes in aircraft engines, particularly around noise, perhaps a stronger focus on fuel efficiency could see a whole other class of aircraft that were even more fuel efficient.

    Current engines and aircraft run about as efficiently as they ever can, without some real eureka breakthrough that would allow a step change. Next time you’re watching an old ‘60’s or ’70’s film that includes footage of a passenger plane taking off, have a look at how much particulate crap spews out the back, and compare that to today’s engines. Even if such a breakthrough were to happen, it would take decades to cascade through the current global infrastructure.

    For example, it’s well-known that the flying wing style design is roughly around 40% more fuel-efficient than the ubiquitous tube-with-wings of today’s airliners. But even leaving aside the inherent problems of instbility/control difficulty, no-one’s developing one, because:

    1) it would take billions to develop a practical passenger/freight-carrying example as you’d be starting more or less from scratch rather than tinkering with an existing design, which is what all aerospace companies spend 99% of their time doing;

    2) studies show that passengers don’t like it as most of the seats are clustered in the centre rather than at the edges close to the windows (even the centre aisle in today’s layouts is seen as preferable).

    3) 100% of existing commercial airports are set up to slot a plane into a box of certain dimensions at the terminal in nice neat rows at the various gates so that an umbilical tunnel of standard size can be attached to the doors for loading/unloading (see pic). You’d either need an entirely new infrastructure, requiring investment at each airport you want to fly into, or a lot of design concessions on your aircraft. The Airbus A380 was seen as a big breakthrough when it was introduced, but it’s still just a tube-with-wings, and it was carefully designed to fit exisiting infrastructure.

    Air travel is a big problem for global warming, not just because a lot of carbon products are burnt, but because a lot of stuff happens in the upper atmosphere. Contrails from high-atmosphere flights are a big contributor to climate change, for example.

    It’s my view that people only stop doing something when you make it harder than the ’better’ alternative. The only reason anyone uses public transport in London to commute is because the other choices are worse – if you drive, you’re stuck in traffic for hours, you pay a congestion charge, and you don’t have anywhere to park when you get where you’re going. Cramming onto a tube like a sardine is seen as a slightly less hideous alternative. The only way to stop people flying is to make it too expensive to do on a regular basis.

    I have deliberately not bought a car - I don't need one where I currently live, but I would certainly like one. I'd drive a lot more if I had one. When I was in NZ, I deliberately didn't fly back to see family in the UK very often. It caused quite a few minor family political problems....

    My preference would be to tax aviation fuel (currently tax-exempt for historical reasons that date back to immediately post-WW2 and which are no longer relevant). This would require enormous global political will to overcome extreme resistance from the air industry, but would cut down on the proliferation of cheap and cheerful airlines that are ubiquitous in Europe (easyjet, ryanair, etc) that offer £1 flights.

    A slightly more local ‘carrot’ to cut down on emissions from driving would be to offer tax breaks to companies that offer employee concessions such as working from home or far more flexible working hours. My old firm used to close down any discussion of this by basically saying that we couldn’t be trusted to work from home, and that as we were a ‘service provider’, we had to be available to ‘service’ our clients within standard hours – i.e. everyone works the same hours because everyone else works the same hours. Both reasons were, frankly, bullshit (and the first was more than a little insulting, especially given that the metrics of ‘good/bad’ employee were by far more easily measurable than any other firm I’ve ever worked for). However, they do illustrate the inherent conservatism of the current mindset, that will only be changed by making ‘bad’ things too expensive to continiue doing, and ‘good’ things financially attractive.

    In terms of how we discuss the climate and the language we use, that requires a sea change in the media business model and mind set. Climate change is a story that’s been unfolding for decades – it’s 25 years since I first started talking about this stuff – CFC’s in aerosols and so on. It’s been decades since the big climate change summits in Rio and whereever. If I want to thoroughly understand a topic, I’ll generally read a few books about it – you start to get an understanding of ‘The War On Drugs’ by reading David Simon’s ‘The Corner’, and Ed Vuliamy’s ‘Amexica’, and Misha Glenny’s ‘McMafia’, and half a dozen others.

    The news media runs on scoops, and gotcha’s, and soundbites, and 24-hour rolling news, and ‘balance’ (here’s a chap in a white coat, ‘balanced’ against this other chap in a fetching tin foil hat). They have made a virtue out of getting an insignificant factoid to air five minutes before their rival. That does not lend itself to anything like a deep appreciation of what the problems are, and what needs to be done.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    PS, in terms of investment, I doubt governments will be doing anything significant in the near future given that the prevailing flavour is austerity with a sour undertone of denialism. If we need a lot of money thrown at problems, our best best is probably to hope that today's internet billionaires start having children, stop farting around with space projects and start thinking about their possible grandchidren's futures.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I'd think that a big competitor for short air travel on continents would be high speed trains. That's technology for which there is considerable room for efficiency improvement. The main cost is the infrastructure. At the extreme end of dreaming about it, they could travel in vacuum tunnels at higher speeds than any aircraft, whilst using much less energy (and electricity at that). But we're talking building a wonder of the world there. Short of that there's the high speed trains already in existence that beat the crap out of traveling in any blimp ever invented. If we had an Auckland to Wellington that was even capable of 200km/h on average, I think it would be a big competitor to flying, not to mention the benefit to all towns along the line. If 320km/h lines around Europe managed to connect up most of the major centers, they'd definitely rival air travel around the continent.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10650 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to BenWilson,

    What about BECCS? It struck me as a reasonably good idea.

    All the technical problems of CCS + all the (claimed) problems of biofuels!

    You're right that in theory it's a good idea -- but the details are awfully tricky...

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • Farmer Green,

    Just in case nobody posted this; it may be of some relevance.
    Or you may think that it’s half the problem.
    Whatever.

    How to convert a sceptic (why would you ?) ;-

    http://joannenova.com.au/2014/04/how-to-convert-me-to-your-new-religion-of-global-warming-in-14-easy-steps/#more-34624

    Lower North Island • Since Nov 2012 • 776 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Rich Lock,

    Current engines and aircraft run about as efficiently as they ever can, without some real eureka breakthrough that would allow a step change.

    God knows I don’t have time to write this – but I guess it’s my field…

    Aircraft engines are indeed very efficient for Brayton Cycle (gas turbine) engines — but the Brayton Cycle itself is pretty inefficient compared to other thermodynamic cycles.

    As a fairly obvious example, you could have pretty significant efficiency improvements in aircraft engines (in a device essentially similar to current Brayton technology) by using isochoric combustion, (i.e. detonation rather than deflagration) in the combustion chamber. This is currently being worked on by the USAF.

    Of course, vast efficiency improvements could be realized by the use of fuel cells (using methanol + onboard reformer) + electric motors – for which aircraft are actually a pretty good candidate (rather better than cars). You could even manufacture liquid hydrogen for the fuel cells – and if the hydrogen was produced using hydro, wind, or nuclear then it would be essentially zero CO2. (All the above would be for aircraft travelling just subsonic using – probably – ducted electric fans.)

    It sounds like a big step (and I realize that this is what you meant by “step change”), but it’s technically quite doable. And consider that we’ve already made a big step in aeronautical engineering from piston engines to turbines.

    Key point: there’s nothing inherently high CO2 about rapid air travel. If you wanted to tax it then it would be smart to direct the taxes into alternative high-efficiency (and, ultimately, lower fuel cost) technology such as aeronautical fuel cells, etc. While it's an expensive technological leap, significantly reducing aircraft CO2 emissions is probably less costly (to the world as a whole) than abandonment of rapid air travel.

    Extra info: Boeing and NASA did a prototype fuel cell plane a few years back.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock, in reply to David Haywood,

    And consider that we’ve already made a big step in aeronautical engineering from piston engines to turbines.

    That is a good example of what I meant by step change. My bigger problem is that while all this is lovely to talk about, and makes for a great theoretical discussion, as a society we have a built-in momentumand resistance to change at almost every level from the individual up to global.

    We’re still using much the same turbines 70 years after we made this particular change. I recently revisted my old graduate (aerospace) employer 20+ years on. They’re still working on improvements to the same models of exactly the same turbine engines 20 years later – not different brand-new designs – the same engines, just Mk [X]+3 intervening iterations (or whatever). This accounts for the vast majority of the rescource of thousands of employees. Scale that up to include airports, fuel suppliers, distribution chains, etc across the globe and you have a model that will take decades to change, for appreciable but limited benefit (you don’t overcome the contrail issue, for example).

    In the short term, I’d prefer a focus on using what we already have in a different or more limited manner. You don’t need to build more roads if you give incentives to have travel structured in a manner that means not everyone is on the road at the same time every day, for example. If air travel is a problem, then it needs to be made less accessible (it needs to cost more). That's not paletable, but medicine rarely is.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

  • Gareth, in reply to david kinniburgh,

    I have a bit of a go at that. The Herald failed to notice that Moore got excoriated in the same paper at the same time...

    Bucolic in the backblocks… • Since Jan 2008 • 269 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Rich Lock,

    using what we already have in a different or more limited manner

    Fewer cows seems to be an unspeakable option for some reason.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19707 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    Ezra Klein's Vox is up, the marquee piece is about how people use and accept evidence selectively. It's kind of depressing but also completely in agreement with experience - there may be real limits on how far argument can take us.

    Of all the ways we might deal with climate change, I think our best chance of success would work a bit like an iPhone: a leap forward in technology that involves no real effort on the part of users and that accordingly becomes socially desirable.

    Since Nov 2006 • 797 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to David Haywood,

    Key point: there’s nothing inherently high CO2 about rapid air travel.

    That's a very interesting point indeed, David.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22830 posts Report Reply

  • Michelle Ducat, in reply to Martin Roberts,

    We have skype and the internet as alternatives to flying now too. Not quite the same as seeing people face to face.
    I think it's great if we can live low-carbon (and I know it's easier for some than others), but even better if we are working to make collective change. e.g. Tom Bennion's No Flying as a movement or this - A Just Transition: climate change, unions and the future of work https://www.facebook.com/events/691727760874417/?ref=22
    I've wondered if civil defense and local resiliency could be the way we start talking about it in my flood and earthquake prone neighbourhood. Or maybe it's through supporting the Living Wage, which aims to give people enough time in a family so they can participate in civil society. Or the Oil Free movement which could be the Nuclear Free Movement of our era. Wouldn't that be great?

    Lower Hutt • Since Apr 2014 • 3 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to David Haywood,

    This is the of thing that will work, if and only if, we can shift governments from focussing on minimising loss from dealing with climate change and instead focus on the opportunities it create and necessitates.

    Even the discussion here quickly focused on negatives, denying ourselves things, instead of figuring out how to have better things.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4458 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh,

    Well, here's a good, powerful and thoughtful use of language re: climate change.

    As for long-distance travel, I've always been a bit envious of my early 20th century predecessors of the International Settlement era and their long home leaves and travel by ship. Somehow air travel just does not feel like proper travel to me. But car, bus, train and boat travel, when you can sit and watch the scenery (or ocean, at least) pass by, that actually feels like you're going somewhere. Still, I must admit to having a psychological limit to how much time in a train I can face. Oh, and if China can do high speed rail (albeit at prices not much different from flying), why the hell can't NZ?

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Hebe,

    Climate change from a teenager's POV; Finn's at it again:

    http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/04/07/guest-blog-finn-jackson-wont-get-fooled-again/

    Christchurch • Since May 2011 • 2898 posts Report Reply

  • Don Christie,

    Coming here a little late. I was in London when the Saraha storm hit. I didn't really notice it. But I do know that, thanks to congestion charges, London is a much nicer place to be and travel around then it has been for a long time. In other news the UK's greenhouse emission levels have:

    "been falling gradually over the last two decades, by around 21% since 1990, as energy efficiency improved and the use of gas power displaced more carbon intensive coal. "

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/27/greenhouse-gas-emissions-fall-in-the-uk

    Dear New Zealand, that's what happens when you show leadership.

    In related news I did fly here, and do so every 9 months or so. The Internet is brilliant and does reduce the need for face to face meetings but it is still very hard to reproduce the connections and more constant flow of discussions that you can get from personal interactions...Hugging is harder.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1645 posts Report Reply

  • Farmer Green, in reply to Sacha,

    Fewer cows seems to be an unspeakable option for some reason.

    Indebtedness/banker pressure/virtual insolvency.
    The least indebted farmers are able to make the transition out to a lower stocking rate/less environmental impact/higher profitability situation.

    Most are trapped in an obsolete paradigm, into which they were encouraged to enter by a mixture of greed , ignorance and self importance (the backbone of the country etc) and self -deception.

    Lower North Island • Since Nov 2012 • 776 posts Report Reply

  • Farmer Green, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    and if China can do high speed rail (albeit at prices not much different from flying), why the hell can’t NZ?

    Just electric rail would be a good start.
    How does a high speed train in full flight cope with a significant earthquake?

    Lower North Island • Since Nov 2012 • 776 posts Report Reply

  • Farmer Green,

    I am a denier because I doubt that people in Godzone, 100 years from now , will be worse off than we are today.
    I am a denier because I believe that if , 100 years from now, that most of the people in Godzone are worse off than we are today, it will be because of inequality, over-population, indebtedness to foreign interests, dissipation of capital (of various sorts), entrenchment of a class of elite . . . etc. etc. (feel free to add) and not because climate has made survival of humanity in Godzone nigh on impossible.

    Because I am a denier , anything that I might choose to say about any aspect of the future of Godzone can safely be dismissed as denier nonsense/propaganda.


    DILLIGAF?
    If you answered no to that, then ask yourself : "why does FG bother to write?"

    Lower North Island • Since Nov 2012 • 776 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Farmer Green,

    denialism diminishes your credibility, so why you believe it's worth doing remains a mystery to me.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19707 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Michelle Ducat,

    We have skype and the internet as alternatives to flying now too. Not quite the same as seeing people face to face.

    reliable, affordable genuine hi-resolution video will change that. We don't have it yet.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19707 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    snakes and ladders...
    Game on - cast the die...
    I'd always thought 'denier' was something to do with silk thickness
    (and I'm not talking about QCs here)

    Maybe they're just hosed off about stocking their future?
    ;- )

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7943 posts Report Reply

  • Farmer Green, in reply to Sacha,

    <q>remains a mystery to me.</

    For real?


    "Because I am a denier , anything that I might choose to say about any aspect of the future of Godzone can safely be dismissed as denier nonsense/propaganda."

    That is not a big problem for me. If it is a problem for nobody, then it is not a problem at all. That being the case case I simply cannot contribute to the future prospects of Godzone , for the simple reason that I am a denier.

    I can still provide for my descendants to whatever extent I think is appropriate for them. You would call that delusion , no doubt.

    Lower North Island • Since Nov 2012 • 776 posts Report Reply

  • Farmer Green, in reply to Ian Dalziel,

    FFS , lighten up Ian :-).

    Nice one.

    Lower North Island • Since Nov 2012 • 776 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    Well, here’s a good, powerful and thoughtful use of language re: climate change.

    Chris, your link seems damaged or misdirected?

    I see someone else at The Telegraph / Herald
    has taken Charles Moore to task...

    But Charles has utterly misunderstood the issue, and told an entire scientific discipline that he knows best, and it's important that someone points out that he's got it wrong.

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7943 posts Report Reply

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