Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog Day & Climate Change

Photo courtesy of Robot Johnny at Flickr.com.
Well, the prediction is in, and Punxsutawney Phil says we can expect 6 more weeks of winter:

After casting a weather eye toward thousands of his faithful followers,
Phil consulted with President Cooper and directed him to the appropriate scroll, which proclaimed:

“As I look around me, a bright sky I see, and a shadow beside me.
Six more weeks of winter it will be!”

It turns out that our favorite groundhog has been predicting increasingly warmer weather in the last couple years.

Wildlife are often the first to feel the effects of climatic changes. Phil would probably be the first to agree that our country needs to develop solutions to global warming fast.

Coal Gasification is taking off in China

Photo courtesy of jbrussellphoto at Flickr.com.

China emits a staggering amount of carbon dioxide (more than the United States by some accounts), and the future will bring even more CO2 production from inside the Great Wall. According to several chemical companies, coal gasification is surging in China.

China offers fast-track permits and relatively easy financing as well as “cheap labor and minimal regulations” — factors that allow coal conversion plants to be built quickly and at 2/3 to 1/2 the cost of a similar project in the U.S. or Europe.

Coal gasification is a process during which steam and oxygen are injected into coal turbines to produce a cleaner burn. With this technology, it may be possible to double the efficiency of coal power plants (they currently operate at only 20-35% thermal efficiency). Theoretically, this higher efficiency would reduce the amount of coal we consume to fill our needs, which would extend the world’s coal supply and reduce pollution along the way. The improved efficiency of these power plants means less coal is required per watt of energy, but without regulatory pressure the efficiency of these plants may lead to the use of dirtier, cheaper forms of coal.

The potential environmental benefits to gasified coal include easier containment of pollutants, the ability to use bio-mass instead of coal, and the production of hydrogen during the gasification process. Yet, many of the green aspects of this technology require an incentive for companies to take advantage of them. Without hydrogen cars on the road or a cap-and-trade system for CO2 in place, there are few incentives for the gasified coal plants to capture these waste products.

In China’s current regulatory environment, gasified coal plants are simply bigger, more profitable pollution machines. If pollution controls are lacking, then the environmental effects will be felt beyond China’s borders. The average Chinese citizen is beginning to be affected by runaway levels of pollution, but the environmental movement is only just now gathering momentum in China. This is a country where agitating for change can be very dangerous, and arguing against “progress” is considered counter-revolutionary.

In the face of all this, China’s growing economy is creating an increasing demand for electricity:

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

So, there’s a good and bad side to this news. China is ramping up its production of CO2 faster than most people expected, but the new gasified coal plants in China may lead to technological advancements that will spread to other countries. In the coming years, perhaps America will be able to adapt green technology that was pioneered in China!

Photo courtesy of mykmyk at Flickr.com.

ps; Coal Gassification is not the same thing as Coal Liquefication. Here are some thoughts on Coal Liquefication and what it means for our gas tanks.

Underground coal fires around the world, an environmental problem

Photo courtesy of ibeginz at Flickr.com.

Did you know that there are hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of underground coal fires burning out of control? These fires can occur naturally, but most of them are caused by mining activity or industrial accidents near coal seams. These coal fires can cause dangerous subsidence, air pollution, and poisoning of the water table, all while consuming a valuable natural resource.

Concern and action is needed… because of the environmental impact — especially of mega-fires burning in India, China and elsewhere in Asia. One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.

Photo courtesy of njbruder at Flickr.com.

Underground coal fires are extremely difficult to put out once they start burning. They burn so hot that even pouring water on them will feed the flames (at extreme temperatures, water breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen gas). Coal is inherently unstable and will self ignite – that means that old abandoned mines are time bombs waiting to go off and all the tunnels act as a ventilation system!

Photo courtesy of radialmonster at Flickr.com.

Uncontrolled coal fires are a worldwide problem and they produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas:

Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200 million tons burn [in China] each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1 percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth… India, where large scale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them.

Underground coal fires happen in the US too – check out this video about Pennsylvania coal mining. In Centralia, PA, underground fires have been burning since the 60’s! If you can come up with a way to put these fires out, I suspect that the MacArthur Foundation will come and knock down your door!

Global warming, not the end of the world?

Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara writes about global warming on today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page.

You can sum up his position with the first paragraph of his editorial.

Global warming doesn’t matter except to the extent that it will affect life — ours and that of all living things on Earth. And contrary to the latest news, the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.

I think that Botkin makes an important point when he says that we can be so focused on global warming that we are ignoring other critically important environmental issues.

My concern is that we may be moving away from an irrational lack of concern about climate change to an equally irrational panic about it.

Many of my colleagues ask, “What’s the problem? Hasn’t it been a good thing to raise public concern?” The problem is that in this panic we are going to spend our money unwisely, we will take actions that are counterproductive, and we will fail to do many of those things that will benefit the environment and ourselves.

For example, right now the clearest threat to many species is habitat destruction. Take the orangutans, for instance, one of those charismatic species that people are often fascinated by and concerned about. They are endangered because of deforestation. In our fear of global warming, it would be sad if we fail to find funds to purchase those forests before they are destroyed, and thus let this species go extinct.

Click through to read the entire editorial.

Comments anyone?