The Off Switch

Today there is an article on the BBC’s site (“Five ways to save the world“) referring to a documentary I have not seen. This particular documentary proposes 5 ”alternative” ways to control greenhouse gas levels. These ideas, straight from the brains of smart old white men, are as follows:

  • Using a fleet of futuristic boats to pump seawater into the clouds
  • Launching rockets to scatter mega tonnes of sulphur particles into the atmosphere
  • Using a big fucking orbiting space-mirror to reflect sunlight
  • Creating enormous phytoplankton blooms to lock up CO2
  • Artificial trees that capture carbon which is then sequestered (buried)

Of course all of these ideas, while undoubtedly interesting, are probably vastly more expensive and complicated than just doing simple things like turning off the lights or walking to the shops. As the article admits:

Even Professor Jones admits: ‘Once you start managing nature you have to continue to manage nature, there is no use hoping that it will restore itself to a new equilibrium set up by humans.’”

My suggestions to reduce CO2 levels are a little more down to Earth:

1 – Do like Australia may do and ban all the nineteenth-century light bulbs in use. This is a no-brainer, a ban that will lead to everybody saving both energy AND money in just a year or two. Why, I wonder, has this not been done before?

2 – Restructure electricity prices. My suggestion is to work out the average consumption in the word (yes, in the world) and arrange the process as follows:

Set the “base price” a little under today’s average world price and the “average amount” to today’s global average energy used per person.

For all energy used under 1/3 of your quota, you pay the base price for it (so much per kilowatt-hour).

From 1/3 to 2/3 the price is doubled (twice the base price)

From 2/3 to 3/3, the price per unit increases to 3 times the base price.

And from every 1/3 increase after that, the price per unit increases by one base unit cost. See this home-made diagram:


Figure 1: The Paddy Plan for electricity prices

This plan rewards low users and heavily penalizes heavier ones. And let’s face it, the only incentives that ever truly work are economic ones.

3 – Increase the price of gasoline. The gasoline price today is pathetically low. Really, it’s a joke. A litre of bubbled water in the local shop costs MORE than a litre of gasoline, despite the fact that a litre of gasoline has been sucked up from deep underground, processed and refined and transported halfway around the world.

How the HELL can anybody justify this low price? One or two dollars per litre is a fucking joke. Fuck the motorists – let them pay the REAL cost of gasoline, including the vast amounts we will have to start investing to clean up after their little jaunt around the city has finished. Of course, this requires public transport to be radically expanded, but then again the technology for buses and trains already exists – all we have to do is build more of them.

These things are all plausible, but they are “uncomfortable” and few politicians will suggest them. Much better to pump sulphur particles into the atmosphere or send up rocket ships or put big mirrors into Earth orbit instead of turning off the lights, getting a smaller television and taking the fucking train.

/ paddy


11 thoughts on “The Off Switch

  1. Fuck the motorists- I say ‘f y ‘. You try and live in the countryside without a car and see how you’d cope. Have you any idea how impossible that would be? Before the days of the motor car you could get everything you needed without having to leave your village. Today you can count yourself very very lucky if there is a village shop in your vicinity. Luckier still should it have a post office, a very rare thing indeed.

    Work is VERY hard to come by in the countryside and very often entails a lot of travelling along minor roads that have no public transport.
    We already pay through the nose for our petrol in this country (England) as well as for our heating oil. We have been paying over £200 for 500 litres of oil (which usually lasts for about a month) for a number of years now and it is crippling us. Everything is more expensive when you live in the countryside but most people who live there are harder up and earn a lot less than people in cities.

    I say NO to higer fuel prices!

  2. OK Lillan, fair enough, but then you obviously have an alternative solution to the problem of greenhosue gases, transport, cars and the obvious fact that global oil is running out and the prices will, in the long run, just keep on increasing, no matter what you say, how much you pay now, or how much you need your oil. And this solution is….?

  3. I think if you’d seen the documentary you’d have been a little kinder to it. Every one of the scientists involved was fairly explicit about the fact that their strategy was a mechanism to buy time to allow us to develop alternative technology and change our lifestyles in pretty much the way you are sugggesting. The problem, as you know, is that we may already be approaching (or have reached) the “tilt-point” at which no amount of low wattage light bulbs, extra jumper-wearing and cycling to work will reverse our predicament. Our reliance on fossil fuels can’t change overnight – it’s simply the inertia of economics, and what we need is time to come up with solutions that people will employ not because their ecological conscience (or ability to see the bigger picture) suddenly kicks in, but because it’s at least as easy as the current way of doing things. The single biggest impediment to combating climate change is human nature, and real solutions simply have to take this into account. Therefore, your suggestion that governments ban old filament light bulbs is sensible, because the relative price of the more energy efficient bulbs is now not so much greater, and people would not be greatly inconvenienced. On the other hand, restructuring electricity prices in the way you suggest, while it makes arithmetic sense, is not feasible, because people will feel victimised. I challenge you (and everyone who visits this site) to come up ten strategies to help decrease carbon emissions that will work because they will not exceed the “inconvenience threshold” of the majority of the population of the average developed country. Come on you fckrs (there’s the swearing!) lets save the world by being only mildly inconvenienced!

  4. Well you know me – always one for semi-fascist solutions that antagonize my readers and wouldn’t work anyway…

    Still, now that I understand the point of the documentary, I can agree with the sentiments. Buying time is definitely something we need to do while Mr. Bush and his boyos topple towards decrepitude…So here’s my list:

    1 – Ban old lightbulbs – and encourage a move towards LED lighting, which is even more efficient!
    2 – Give big tax cuts for hybrid cars
    3 – House insulation – make it mandatory, and give a tax cut
    4 – Up the tax on imported food and make locally produced food cheaper
    5 – Enforce REAL energy efficiency standards on appliances
    6 – Re-design electricity meters to show actual real-time consumtion and use a “block-buying” system like they have in South Africa
    7 – Encourage locally produced energy like small-scale turbines and PV
    8 – Do national energy audits to locate where savings can be made
    9 – Start sequestering CO2 – if necessary, charge a bit more for electricty from power stations that sequester, and I think you will find that people will pay extra (I would)
    10 – Install heat-exchangers to collect and re-use the heat from our “used” water and the hot air leaving our buildings

    Ok, all these things are do-able, so let’s get to it, for fuck’s sake.

  5. OK, some good ones there – DrMrsD and I already use only the energy efficient light bulbs (not LED obviously) and we had our house insulated a couple of weeks ago (it’s toasty). Your suggestions are already having a real effect – I’m just about to spend my lunchtime looking up heat exchanger options on Google.

    Here’s my attempt (some overlap with yours PK)

    1. Remove or reduce VAT on any device/material which can be retrofitted to current energy inefficient buildings

    2. Consider retrofitting such devices to your house as they become affordable

    3. Nuclear power (controversial, but it doesn’t produce CO2). I wonder whether a, doubling or tripling of the global research budget for development of a viable fusion reactor woud be effective in cutting the current proposed 50 year timescale?

    4. Buy a (new) diesel car, preferably one that can also run on biodiesel or plant-derived oil. This is a country-dweller specific one, since the hybrids perform better in stop-start city traffic, but really suck on open roads since the electric motor seldom has a chance to kick in.

    5. Make climate change a compulsory component of the education of all children. I’m not talking about a whole course, just a few lessons. Get to their malleable brains and teach them how to use the off switch.

    6. Use your fossil fuels more efficiently. We recently plumbed our solid fuel range into our oil-fired central heating as an experiment to see whether we could reduce use of both fuels.
    6b. Insulate all hot water pipework, it’s amazing how much of the stuff is exposed in older houses.

    7. You’ll love this one PaddyK – If you have to fly – fly Ryanair! Actually, what I mean is fly with airlines with newer fleets, as they are more efficient, and output less CO2.

    8. I don’t know about the economic feasibility of this one, but maybe governments could offer zero interest loans for any energy-saving device which would pay for itself over a certain number of years. The monthly repayment for the loan would then be equal to the monthly saving in expenditure offered by the device, and the term of the loan would equal the period of time over which the device is “paying for itself”. There ar a whole bunch of things which would “pay for themselves in 5 years” I might consider using, but the capital outlay is simply too high for me to consider.

    9. Go visit a wind farm. You might find that they’re not as bad as you think, and stop objecting to them!

    10. Every time you meet an American, berate them for the ridiculously large size of cars in their country. That one might not acheve much, but really, come on now, like you need a Hummer to drive down the road to Wal Mart?

  6. Dr. Dan, you’re right about the tv programme. I’m in the middle of watching it (on video – remember those?) and its very interesting, even sci-fi in a way. These scientists are the real deal and know what problems we are facing. They are trying to buy us all some time and realise it may already be to late. At least they are doing something!
    All the ideas posed above are good. I haven’t got 10. What about the more fuzzy ones? Such as getting a converter fitted to you’re standard car so that it can run on either petrol or ethanol or any mixture of the two. I know its almost impossible to get ethanol here (Ireland) but its all over the place in Brazil. Its not a complete solution but it buys time maybe.
    And then there is carbon off setting… Is it a scam or a way to salve conscience or might it buy time too?
    Remember its the economy stupid.

  7. I can never make up my mind whether carbon trading and offsetting are effective strategies, or, as you say, a salve to our conscience. I see several main problems (I admit this is based on a very facile understanding of the area):

    1. The models used for these processes don’t neccessarily reflect the true complexity of the situation – so it may seem as if off-setting and trading are beneficial, whearas, in fact they may not be.
    Here’s an illlustration of what I mean from the BBC News website, where Tesco have decided to reduce the quantity of plant produce they import, without really considering how effective this will be overall, nor the effect it might have on global poverty. I’m not saying the strategy is wrong, just that the situation is more complex that it outwardly appears:

    2. Carbon trading removes the onus on developed nations to make it financially feasible to implement technology that might make a real difference in the longer term. Ireland is currently 12% points over it’s Kyoto target, it intends to make up the shortfall by purchasing carbon credits. We’ve also just built two peat-fired power stations. Hmmm.

    3. Any economic mechanism that involves billions of Euros, as carbon credit trading surely must, is open to exploitation. Again, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just pointing out that where there is an opportunity to make a profit, this will naturally be exploited, in some case to the detriment of the concept behind carbon credit trading.

    That’s why I like the technology-based fixes (nuclear fusion, photovoltaic cells, hydrogen fuel cells, “zero” energy buildings) – if they can be made as cheap or cheaper than their CO2 producing counterparts, then they will be adopted, simply eliminating or radically reducing the previously produced carbon.

  8. Wow, the comments are getting far longer than the article – I will summarise the comments in another entry in a few days.

    Now some comments from me:

    1) NUCLEAR POWER – I have to admit its looking better all the time. And after last nights BBC documentary on Swedish TV, showing that low levels of radiation are far less dangerous than advertised, I am even more well disposed. And as for the nuclear waste – just save it up, maybe it will be currency in the galactic empire some day. Else just dump it into the sun.

    2) ETHANOL AND BIOFUEL – Not as good an idea as it appears. Anything with the full support of George Bush has to be suspect. And the energy to make a litre of ethanol may be more than the energy it contains, as well as putting a huge strain on global agricultural land and water supplies. Also, a huge ethanol industry will possibly put more CO2 into short-term circulation, making the problem worse.

    3) CARBON OFFSETTING – Sounds like a scam. If there was a company who would pull it from the air and sequester it for me, then maybe, but right now it seems like a business-as-usual way to salve our western conscience.

    4) COMPRESSED AIR – A novel transport solution. There is a french prototype car called the MiniCAT that runs on tanks of compressed air. Air can be very effectively compressed in a purely mechanical way with, say, a wind turbine, completely avoiding the inefficient electrical cycle. This is a great solution, but not, as far as I know, even being considered.

    5) HYDROGEN – A problem. Energy intensive to make, and leaking hydrogen will add a shit load of water vapour to the atmosphere and worsen the global warming.

    The main problem is that our civilisation has a level of energy useage far above that which we can generate ourselves. And once the cheap energy in the ground runs out, then what? No, I don’t know either…

  9. Well, how will I get to work? If they raise the price more I guess I won’t be able to, or a lot of others. Who’s going to feed you! Have a nice day!

  10. Goat: What a bizarre series of questions. Get a smaller car, or take a bus. Or share a car. Just work it out, for fuck’s sake. And do you feed me now? I hadn’t noticed…

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