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Cement Industry Is at Center of Climate Change Debate

Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times
In booming economies from Asia to Eastern Europe, cement is literally the glue of progress. A binding agent that holds the other ingredients that together make concrete, cement is a crucial component in buildings and roads – which is why some 80 percent of it is made and used in emerging economies.

China alone makes and uses 45 percent of worldwide output. In places like Ukraine, production is doubling every four years.

But making cement means making pollution, in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. Cement plants account for 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Cement has no viable recycling potential; each new road, each new building needs new cement.

Now, green incentives may be increasing pollution. The European Union subsidizes Western companies that buy outmoded cement plants in poor countries and refit them with green technology. But the greenest technologies can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by only about 20 percent.

So when Western companies revamp Eastern factories, the emissions decrease for each ton of concrete produced. But the amount of cement produced often goes way up, as does the total pollution generated.

Many of the world’s producers acknowledge the conundrum.
(26 October 2007)

Fantasy Stories: Cap-and-trade

Dave Pollard, How to Save the World (blog)
I attended a seminar recently on carbon cap-and-trade schemes. While skeptics say such schemes are merely a licence to pollute, I have kept an open mind about them. They are a useful subject for discussion and learning. The idea of such schemes is that each country sets a ‘cap’ — the maximum amount of carbon that all users of petrochemicals collectively can import, produce and sell (‘upstream’ schemes) or can emit (‘downstream’ schemes). That cap is then divided into a large number of ‘allowances’ that are given out (or auctioned) to importers and producers of petrochemicals, or to emitters of CO2. The sum of the allowances cannot exceed the cap. To the extent you need more allowances than you’re allotted to continue to operate, you need to buy them from those who aren’t fully using theirs. Supply and demand will then determine the ‘market’ price for these allowances. The lower the cap, the higher the value of each allowance.

It’s an interesting approach in theory, but is has a lot of practical problems:

  • If you use an ‘upstream’ approach, you are effectively just jacking up the wholesale and retail price of petrochemicals. Some have argued that you might as well just put a big tax on petrochemicals, use the proceeds to fund renewable energy sources and research, and dispense with the cap-and-trade scheme entirely.

  • If you use a ‘downstream’ approach, you are massively increasing the number of companies that have to purchase allowances. Some believe the administrative cost of such schemes could exceed the cost of the allowances, and undermine the viability of the whole project.
  • There are a lot of incentives for cheating the system. We all know how well governments enforce pollution laws today. It is likely the cost of bribing officials would be less than the cost of allowances, so it is quite possible that CO2 would ‘mysteriously’ continue to rise far beyond the levels provided for by the cap.

What is more interesting is that the proponents of caps, both environmentalists and polluters (willing to do their part as long as there’s a level playing field) extol the virtues of such schemes, but do so from utterly irreconcilable worldviews.
(25 October 2007)

Climate controversy heats up Australian election

Madeleine Coorey, AFP
Australian Prime Minister John Howard was defiant Sunday in the face of reports his environment minister urged him to reverse government policy and sign the Kyoto Protocol ahead of upcoming polls.

The prime minister is battling for his political life in the November 24 election against a Labor Party leader who has vowed to immediately sign onto the UN-backed Kyoto process if he wins.

Howard’s conservative coalition has long refused to ratify the international treaty, saying it would disadvantage Australia’s economy.

But media reports detailing a cabinet meeting held six weeks ago say that Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull urged his colleagues to join Kyoto to bring the government some much needed kudos on green issues.
(28 October 2007)

Climate Change’s Uncertainty Principle

David Biello, Scientific American
Scientists say they can never be sure exactly how extreme global warming might become, but that’s no excuse for delaying action

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its first report in 1990 predicted that temperatures would warm by 0.5 degree Fahrenheit (0.3 degree Celsius) per decade if no efforts were made to restrain greenhouse gas emissions. But the panel of scientists and other experts was wrong: By 2001, the group estimated that average temperatures would increase by 2.7 to 8.1 degrees F (1.5 to 4.5 degrees C) in the 21st century, and they raised the lower end to 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) this year in their most recent report. In essence, neither this international team of experts nor any other can say with any certainty just how bad global warming may get.

There is a simple explanation for this, says atmospheric physicist Gerard Roe of the University of Washington (U.W.) in Seattle: Earth’s climate is extremely sensitive. In other words, small changes in various physical processes that control climate lead to big results.

…Some of these feedback processes are poorly understood-like how climate change affects clouds-and many are difficult to model, therefore the climate’s propensity to amplify any small change makes predicting how much and how fast the climate will change inherently difficult. “Uncertainty and sensitivity are inextricably linked,” Roe says. “Some warming is a virtual certainty, but the amount of that warming is much less certain.”

Roe and his U.W. co-author, atmospheric physicist Marcia Baker, argue in Science that, because of this inherent climate effect, certainty is a near impossibility, no matter what kind of improvements are made in understanding physical processes or the timescale of observations.

…Therefore, waiting for more scientific certainty before acting is a mistake, Roe says. “People are comfortable with the idea that stock markets, housing prices and the weather are uncertain, and they are used to making decisions on that basis,” he notes.
(25 October 2007)