Do you want to fly or do you want to eat?

The title to this post may seem like an odd question, but I think it is an inescapable one, as I hope to demonstrate. The US Department of Agriculture has a mandate for a huge biofuel planting programme, the largest in the world in 2005. Currently around 13.5 billion gallons are produced per annum. The aim is to grow this to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Then along came the US drought of 2012. US farmers are asking the USDA to forgo the biofuel mandate. It turns out that that they need all of that corn to keep food prices down.

The fact that biofuels compete with land for food crops and can produce food shortages has been noted by others. The US drought has simply demonstrated that the issue will affect rich and poor nations.

But the dream of using biofuels on a large scale for transportation has always been fanciful. US production targets for biofuels have been based on assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland. A recent report, using satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land, showed that meeting current US biofuel production targets with existing technology would require “devoting almost 80 percent of current farmland in the US to raising corn for ethanol production or converting 60 percent of existing rangeland to biofuels.”

The problem is particularly acute for one transportation sector, the airline industry. This is because biofuels are plan A in the airline industry for dealing with climate change. There is no plan B. As The Economist put it, “There is no realistic prospect for widespread electric air travel: the jet engines on aircraft need the high-energy density that only chemical fuels can provide. So if you want low-carbon flying, drop-in biofuels are the only game in town. And civil aviation alone is expected to use 250 billion litres [66 billion gallons] of fuel this year”. Remember, this is the aerospace industry, which just sky-craned a 1 tonne robot into the Gale crater of Mars. These seriously clever people have looked at aviation emissions from every angle, and, for the forseeable future, drop-in aviation biofuels are all we have to resolve the problem of jetting masses of people around the planet at 1000 kph without producing prodigious amounts of CO2 and other nasties.

One component of the US biofuels programme is an initiative called “Farm to Fly.” The idea is that the 13.5 billion gallons of biofuels can contribute to the 17 to 19 billion gallons per year requirement in the US for jet fuel. In other words, in order to reduce aviation emissions in the US in any meaningful way, a very large proportion of the biofuels produced must be pumped to airports.

There is lots of talk, a lot of conferences, and a lot of announcements about promising aviation biofuels trials and targets. But probe a little deeper and you will find that airlines are relying mainly on policy arguments about the percentage of total emissions for aviation in relation to global emissions, not unfairly targeting one sector, the value of tourism, etc etc. They know these biofuel numbers, and they know that the jig is up. They just hope to keep their audience distracted for a little longer.

So right now we face a stark choice. If we want to continue to fly essentially whenever and wherever at 1000 kph, and we really want to do that in a sustainable way, somewhere, someone is going to get less to eat. And increasingly that will include us. Think about that when food prices rise at your supermarket this year, and when they ask at the checkout if you want to use your FlyBuys card.

Tom Bennion is an environment lawyer who gave up flying in 2009.

68 thoughts on “Do you want to fly or do you want to eat?”

  1. I noticed that you qualified some of your statements concerning the impossibility of BAU for the aviation industry with reference to “high-speed” aviation. Have you looked into and/or do you have any thoughts as to the feasibility of airships, perhaps on a far more limited scale than present jet craft?

    1. Too slow: people want to make the best use of their vacation time.

      There are other routes for biofuels, such as algae–based or tree–based which don’t need to compete with food crops. There’s also succulent crops which are capable of growing the sugars necessary for this ethanol production chain, which don’t need such prime sections of the breadbasket. I think Agave fits into this category.

      However, one thing that might not be too bad, at least for continental travel, is auto–driving EVs with on–the–go charging (ie, induction charging on highways). In fact it doesn’t even need to be on–the–go, if it can automatically stop at a recharging station, recharge and then get back on the road. That way you could get in your auto–drive EV, configured into its horizontal bed mode, go to sleep and wake up at your destination. So long as you’re going somewhere within 8–12 hour’s drive this could be just as good as flying if not better. And hey—you didn’t need to spend hours at each end getting to the airport, going through airport security and waiting by gates. Or for longer hauls across land, it could transfer the vehicle into a high–speed train (like UK to France channel crossings). That’s all technology which is either production or near–production (apart from the train transfer mechanism which is a crazy idea I just made up of course). I expect that the first country to pull this off is going to set a trend that could kill air travel or at least diminish it markedly.

  2. First, how about:
    “Do you want to fly or do you want to smoke?”
    See this, which claims 3.7M hectares for tobacco, although of course, trees are cut down to burn for curing.

    That’s still fairly small, compared to the 1M hectares US US is using for ethanol, but it’s bound to be prime farmland.

    For sure though, land transport has to go electric, and eventually whatever air travel exists will have to rely on whatever biofuels can be done.

    Do recall that most corn in US is fed to livestock or made into HFCS and it is unclear if the latter does us much good.

    Of course, the issue for NZ with the conjoined climate+energy problem is that it’s the most isolated first-world country.

  3. The end of fossil fuel use will herald the end to “energy mining” as such.

    As we return to the “energy harvesting” paradigm – the high tech sequel – biological processes harnessing solar power will certainly play a significant role.

    The current corn to ethanol processes are not going to be the end all in this. I believe that we will be able to grow engineered algae successfully to convert solar energy into hydrocarbon or carbohydrate fuels which can be used as high density energy storage for flying as well on a relatively small footprint of the globe and without significantly affecting agricultural land use.

    Obviously as the climate changes growing food will be the necessary priority regarding fertile land use.

    As we wean ourselves off the fossil fuel addiction new ways of travel will emerge too. NZ will increasingly so feel its outpost position on the globe. The splendid isolation from the coming upheavals befalling the densely populated middle East, Europe and Asia will also have its price.

    May you live in interesting times….

  4. Thomas

    As to algae fuel. I am highly skeptical. The US Dept of Energy estimates 39,000 km2 or 1⁄7 the area of corn harvested in the United States in 2000 is required if current algae technology is to replace all US fossil fuels:

    I am pretty sure that does not include jet fuel, which would want lets say conservatively about 1/2 that area again. No actual work detailed work has been done on where to locate these immense farms. They need a reasonable water supply. And I suspect they take a bit more work to operate than a corn field.

    And there is the little matter of more extreme weather happening more frequently.

    If someone can point me to a paper that sets out in detail the 20 year investment and land management plan to produce anywhere near the world demand of 66 billion gallons of aviation fuel required (growing at around 5% per annum!) I am eager to see it.

    1. Tom, I think you are to pessimistic about bio-algae. The same wikipedia article you linked to reminds us that The United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (39,000 km2) which is only 0.42% of the U.S. map or a square of about 200km on its side. Scaled to the NZ population say we might need something like a square of 25km on the sides to grow all our transport fuels. Aviation fuels are a fraction of that again. How many sheep paddocks would it replace?

      So if all goes well (which is a big if) then naught point 42% of the US land size would be enough to grow all of the US petroleum based fuel needs.

      If we reduce the amount of non aviation fuel needs through electrification and efficiency gains and for arguments sake concentrate on the aviation fuel for a moment then things look up considerably. Currently aviation fuel use comprises about 2% to 3% of global CO2 emissions and fossil fuel use. In the USA aviation use represents about 6% of total domestic oil consumption. Scaled to that it would seem that the land area of algae production for aviation fuels of US needs would theoretically be less than 0.04% of the US land mass.
      This would seem doable.

      Since algae are not grown on soil, land could be used that is otherwise unsuitable for food production. Some companies are investigating vertical growing arrangements too.
      It would seem that growing and processing bio-algae should be a realistic undertaking which is likely going to happen on a commercial scale without competing with land based food production.

      Further, using biological processes to take CO2 out of the atmosphere might be our best option if we actually were trying to undo some of the damage we have done with burning fossil fuels. Growing and then sequestering algae by pumping their biomass into spend oil wells etc might be one of these options. Ocean fertilization another possible scenario currently under investigation.

  5. I would expect aviation to be the most difficult and therefore last transport/energy use to convert away from fossil fuels. We can achieve a 90% reduction in their consumption by converting other users to other energy sources, so fossil fuel use in aviation is all a bit academic.

        1. But, of course, your objection is actually to the ‘environmentally friendly’ aspect, which you find more offensive than ‘killing machine’.

          In fact, if anything military runs on bog-standard fossil-derived fuels doubtlessly it’s a ‘machine defending liberty’.

          Hell, don’t we need all these obscenely expensive toys to protect us from the very third world – and generally undeserving – hordes that us Warmist fifth-columnists are trying to hand the world’s wealth over to? When we’re not inexplicably attempting to kill them with wind farms, of course, which are the weapons of mass destruction of your world…

            1. Well no ‘absolutely nothing’ andyS, anyone looking back over your posts here could deduce that you will regurgitate any threadbare argument against wind turbines or climate science, and get quite upset when others point out the inadequacy of your evidence.
              In the context of this website, I think we know more than enough about you and your imaginary world.

  6. Andrew W

    I think you are spot on. So the question becomes, on what policy and scientific basis do we continue to support high CO2 emitting long haul holiday flights (and a fast growing number of them) for the next 20 years over other priorities? They are absolutely essential because ….

  7. So the question becomes, on what policy and scientific basis do we continue to support high CO2 emitting long haul holiday flights (and a fast growing number of them) for the next 20 years over other priorities?

    Well, I could point out that many people around the world (including in very poor countries) depend on that tourism for their livings.
    I could point out that Man does not live by bread alone.
    I could point out that the international understanding that’s created between common peoples, both the jetset and those in countries they visit, is one of the reasons that the late twentieth century is the most peaceful periods Man has ever known.
    But the truth is that asking your question would never occur to me, because I don’t believe in dictating to others how they should spend their money.

  8. Andrew

    This is the precisely the debate I think we have to have. Why does flying get a response of ‘dont dictate to me’ when on so many other matters we discuss and accept regulation and restraint to prevent environmental degradation?

    You cant get flights out of many airports late at night because of noise issues for nearby residents. So why cant examine whether to regulate air travel due to CO2 emissions and potential planetary peril? Has 1000 kph travel become a kind of human right?

    There are answers to each of your points:

    – there are many downsides to tourism. Or, to balance concerns about the poor and damage from flying, why not give the money that would have been spent on a flight on charity?

    – yes, agree we dont live by bread alone. I would love to see the data on that issue though, in relation to the relatively recent phenomenon of mass international aviation.

    – common understanding promoted by flying etc. Again, I would love to see the data on the contribution flying makes to current world conditions. Do we, for example, take account of or leave out internal travel, say in the continental US, Europe?

    Lets say we agree tourism, the better life, international peace, are partly a result of greater international travel. Can we at least discuss whether its possible to continue those things with less 1000 kph travel? What flights contribute? What dont? Will other technologies help? A national campaign to ‘take essential flights only’, that sort of thing?

    Again, it strikes me as odd that we have lots of discussions about potential constraints on all sorts of other areas of life with much lower per person emissions (eg car use, household energy use etc), but there is relative silence in this area.

    1. I doubt that there’s any significant connection between tourism and tolerance, at least not in the sense that tourism might be a cause of tolerance.

      I think tourism is essentially a state of unreality and irresponsibility, and that for most the people of the countries visited are not much more than another ‘charming’ component of the exotic backdrop.

      To put it another way, I think dispositions towards tolerance and respect precede any travel, and, while such attitudes may once have driven inclinations to it – when it was expensive to do it, and that wasn’t so long ago – cheap (in every sense) tourism is now such a de riguer marker that you’re leading ‘the good life’ that most of those now gadding about are essentially hedonists indulging because they can, and because ‘that’s what you do.’

      At my workplace I am constantly struck by the crossover between ‘I’ve just been to Phuket (Bali, Singapore, Hong Kong etc.)’ and ‘the navy should just sink all those Illegal boats.’

      (In Australia, thanks to the triumph of Stupid, ‘Illegal’ is the catch-all word that denotes refugee or asylum-seeker. The level of literally bloody-minded Nativist hostility – blackly, tragically hilarious given the tiny numbers of the desperate actually involved – is completely-comparable to that that marks the US. If Australia ever becomes dramatically less habitable we need hardly look to our neighbours to reciprocate any of our kindnesses! And let’s not even start on the majority of the European-descent population’s attitudes to the local indigenes, whom they’ve been living ‘with’ for years…)

      The most-travelled branch of my large family is also characterised by the worst sort of small-minded Howardism and insouciant, casual assumptions of ‘obvious’ superiority. I don’t think they’re unrepresentative.

      I also think that Tourism is literally a way of life all the time for many – perhaps the majority in the West. I think you can put together a coherent argument that most Australians are little more than tourists on an extended holiday on the face of this continent; they know little about it, and care less; certainly don’t much care if its ecosystems are collapsing. No, its function is to provide a consistently sunny backdrop to their ‘good’ lives and a bit of scenic variety in the back of the snapshots!

      (I attended a conference on native-grasses a few years ago with a speaker whose comment was that this was the first time she could recall feeling like she was actually in a room full of Australians. Everyone in the room knew what she meant.)

      Sadly, this argument can easily be extended globally, at least for the affluent…

  9. Fair enough Tom,

    I agree with you entirely about the impracticality of biofuels.

    My own position is that fossil fuel use can be dramatically reduced without cramping peoples lifestyles.

    It probably would mean using nuclear power on a much larger scale for electricity production both for current fixed uses and for land transport, I cover my favourite idea for electrification of the roading system here:

    I don’t see the popular Green answer of a lesser degree of industrialisation, with less wealth, as realistic, going backwards in terms of wealth is a certain recipe for conflict, both domestically and internationally.

    I don’t see the popular Green/Red answer of greater government control as anything but disastrous, it’s been tried often enough before, always with the same results, if we have to survive on thinner energy margins, better to rely on competition than centralisation.

  10. Andrew

    Thanks for engaging. Your trolley system is interesting.

    I would make 2 points arising from it. To implement it would require considerable centralisation and government control. I think any solutions to our current crisis will require control government input. That will get more intense the longer we wait to act.

    The other is about how dangerous this crisis is and what measures are urgently required. There is talk of the effort being equivalent to the effort in WW II. My English born father remembers the family car and every other car on the street being towed away to be melted down for the war effort in 1940. The point was to save democracy and the economy for the future. It turns out that that was the right decision.

    My beef is that we dont even seem to be considering really easy things like getting rid of airpoints and flybuys and a campaign reminding people to limit flights if they can. The most we have managed is a virtual non-signal through the ETS applying to Air NZ.

    Heck, some countries even ban flyer loyalty programmes as anti competitive. We arent allowed to even talk about that?

    This is really dumb. There is a perfectly rational argument to made that if we took some steps now we might actually save some space for long haul flights in the future.

  11. Austerity programs are easy to implement when the threat is easily seen, horrific and imminent, as with your WW2 example. This is not only not the case with AGW, It cannot be the case with AGW, there is always going to be huge uncertainty about what’s going to happen 10 or 20 years ahead, and there’s no significantly greater threat next year than there was this year.

    Look at Greek’s economic problems, far more imminent, potentially far more destructive in the foreseeable future, but despite this, half of the population is in revolt over moves to address the problems.

    Look at the global economic situation, as soon as a more immediate problem comes along that conflicts with addressing AGW, the measures to address AGW go out the window.

    So any measures to address AGW will have to deal with the realities of human nature, just as with the topic of this post, we need to address the reality that there is a food vs biofuels conflict.

    Since the roads are already state owned, I don’t see the electrical road reticulation idea as being an expansion of Government control.

    1. Unfortunately, Andrew, it is the physics of climate that is actually real, not the petty and short-sighted desires that you trumpet as “realities of human nature”.

      Previous civilisations have collapsed due to localised climate shifts far milder than the one we are forcing upon our only planet; or do you think that you and those you love are somehow immune?

      If so, I know just the place for you…

  12. Both are real Rob, and your conclusion that I don’t realize that is a reflection on you, not me.

    A scientist can be perfectly correct about some scientific fact, but if he can’t persuade his fellow citizens something has to be done to address this fact, and as a result civilisation goes down the drain, being correct will count for naught. My examples illustrate the realities of the task of persuading the public on the threat of AGW, If you don’t recognise those realties you’re not living in the real world.

    1. The global public is already well aware of the risks of AGW, Andrew, apart from those few countries, such as the US and Australia, where fossil fuel pollutocrats rent politicians and journalists to spread confusion and maintain their profits.

      The massacres of Rwanda and Darfur, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the looming global food crisis as the US corn crop withers, all have their genesis in AGW.

      If you don’t recognise those realities, you’re not living in the real world!

      1. “and the looming global food crisis as the US corn crop withers

        I do wonder how long before that really starts to have an effect on the world’s economies.

  13. Andrew W @ August 19, 2012 at 11:33 am
    Thats a thought-provoking reply. A couple of thoughts in response which are me wondering aloud why we ‘reframe’ global warming as the one environmental/political issue we put in the too-hard-backet.

    When I hear talk of uncertainty about global warming 10 or 20 years into the future, I think of my mortgage. There’s ‘uncertainty’ about what interest rates I will be paying. Has been since I got the thing 17 years ago! But its in one direction – there’s always going to be me paying interest to the bank. In spite of the interest uncertainty, if I stop my repayments, the debt is just going to grow exponentially. Every fortnight I delay a payment makes me worse off. Just like failing to reduce GHG emissions while they accumulate in the atmosphere.

    With the understanding that temperature rise is generally proportional to cumulative GHGs, I think we can can have high confidence that the risks of global warming are materially different this year from last year. Particularly when even staid bodies like the IEA say we are rapidly running out of time to have half a chance of staying within 450ppm atmospheric CO2. If people disagree with the idea of risk increasing notably in one year, try rethinking it with 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. Its just one-directional.

    Re the debt crisis in Greece. My sister lives in Greece. Yes they are having a tough time. No it wasn’t a reason for my sister not to contribute towards groceries while she stayed with me last month. Again, competing in the policy debate with recessions etc. is common to all environmental/justice/underdevelopment issues. It does not put global warming in the undiscussable “too-hard basket”. (AGW is already in the hard basket, no doubt about that)

  14. Andrew

    I agree with you that persuading fellow citizens is an issue with AGW.

    But how much of an issue? 140,000 people have signed a petition that there should be no more petroleum mined offshore. Whatever we think about that, its a hell of a lot of people turning down a particular economic direction that has a reasonable chance of producing an improvement to GDP.

    So I think a public discussion about flying less or at least ditching carbon incentive schemes is in order and not really a stretch at all.

    1. Whatever we think about that, its a hell of a lot of people turning down a particular economic direction that has a reasonable chance of producing an improvement to GDP.
      Tom, as of now they haven’t turned down anything, and perhaps a fairer analogy would be to ask them if they: should we burn coal or build wind turbines to generate power? Oh, and by the way, if you answer “wind turbines” the penalty is going to be a 10% increase in your power bill from next month onwards.

      1. You are railing against an analogy you call dumb further down the page, then present your own. It is, being charitable, simplistic to state ‘burn coal or build wind turbines and pay 10% more’. What grid is this for, does it have a generous surfeit of generation capacity (albeit high emission) at present, what are the range of practical renewable generation options available, what are current prices sensitive to, where does your 10% come from etc.
        I am all for presenting the options to electorates, customers and stakeholders for them to decide, but not in a senselessly lobotomised manner. Just because so many people choose to read the Daily Mail, there is no reason to assume that they can not comprehend anything closer to reality. They are after all functioning in the real world and do not make every decision based on short term marginal cost alone.

    2. My point being, as it probably wasn’t clear to some, you can get people to say they like wind turbines, or better education, or ice cream, but it means little unless you tell them the cost, and a cost that is paid in the distant future is discounted compared to an immediate cost; higher power bills, higher taxes, $5 a scoop.

      Obvious to most

      1. If you answer “coal”, then the penalty is going to be chronic breathing problems for a significant number of people in your area, some of them being killed by it, plus higher levels of mercury and other heavy metals, plus for the lucky ones who are also near some open cut coal mines, then plenty of hazardous dust and toxic run-off. In short, tens or hundreds of billions in extra taxes to pay for the public health costs of burning dirty coal, plus exposure to future penalties from countries that start to take action against fossil hydrocarbon combustion.

        Oh, and an unliveable climate in coming decades.

        I already pay for 100% renewable power, and it is actually cheaper than a standard package. I also use about 15% of the typical domestic power demand of my country.

      2. ‘Obvious to most’ sugests that you may be seriously underestimating the complexity of the issues you are pronouncing on.
        ‘ice cream $5 a scoop’ – or what? The do nothing senario for energy production is not tenable (as Byron points out to you), unlike walking past your ice cream van.
        ‘or better education’ private tuition? university fees plus the oportunity cost of not being in a paying job? Obvious to most?
        Glad to see you so comitted to simplistic analogies you call dumb elsewhere.
        If you look at the economics of adding renewables as simplistically as just the additional capital cost (eg a much hyped GWPF paper) and ignore the cost of fuel and the externalities of its consumption, you get a pointless argument that is obvious to most. That is why the likes of GWPF make it. That is why others point how vacuous it is to make such pronouncements.

  15. Flying versus Eating: Al Jazera had a good article on the “hunger wars” to come.

    The “bad harvest of 2012” is nothing compared to what is to come.


    If this was just one bad harvest, occurring in only one country, the world would undoubtedly absorb the ensuing hardship and expect to bounce back in the years to come. Unfortunately, it’s becoming evident that the Great Drought of 2012 is not a one-off event in a single heartland nation, but rather an inevitable consequence of global warming which is only going to intensify.
    As a result, we can expect not just more bad years of extreme heat, but worse years, hotter and more often, and not just in the United States, but globally for the indefinite future.

    1. Thanks for the link Thomas, I think it supports my view that the pie has to keep growing – at least for the foreseeable future, humanity is in no position to abandon the highly concentrated and flexible energy source we have in fossil fuels unless we can substitute with others that are very nearly as good.

      Regarding others comments that can be summarized as “we just need to try harder to persuade most of the people before it’s too late”, well, good luck with that.

      1. Right, so your response to driving at speed into a brick wall, is not to apply the brakes, but continue on until someone can provide a better solution? No thanks dude.

        And don’t worry, I am actually one of the more realistic ‘warmists’. Bad things have already been set in motion, so pain and suffering is inevitable. It’s too late to avoid that now. But applying the brakes never becomes a bad idea.

  16. Right, so your response to driving at speed into a brick wall, is not to apply the brakes, but continue on until someone can provide a better solution? No thanks dude.

    Your analogy is just dumb.

    I haven’t been arguing about what I think should be done to address AGW, I’m talking about the realities of convincing the general public that they should make certain sacrifices for uncertain and long term security.

    To most people the brick wall is a long way off and transparent or not even there.

    1. The analogy is accurate, it’s your comment above that is dumb. Just a refresher:

      “I think it supports my view that the pie has to keep growing – at least for the foreseeable future, humanity is in no position to abandon the highly concentrated and flexible energy source we have in fossil fuels unless we can substitute with others that are very nearly as good.”

      That course of action will see the demise of coral reefs from mass bleaching and ocean acidification. Just a reminder; over 30% coral reef cover has been lost in the last 40 years, and reef cover continues to decline at 1-2% per year. As the ocean continues to warm this will rapidly accelerate and bleaching will not just a phenomenon closely associated with El Nino – it will happen every year. That is extinction mode. With hundreds of millions of people directly depending on the coral reefs for sustenance – the collapse of this ecosystem will have profounds effects for all humanity, not just financial ones either.

      And that’s just one example, there are many more “monsters’ lying in wait for global civilization.

      “To most people the brick wall is a long way off and transparent or not even there.”

      Yes, but ‘most people’ also thought the Earth was flat. Did we let them have their way, or were the ignorant educated in the error of their thinking?

      It’s quite odd that you think humanity will continue in this wilful denial. Already we are starting to see the consequences of global warming manifest themselves in extreme temperatures and wild weather the world over – this is already changing public perception. Public opinion will shift radically over the next decade too, as the ‘losses’ start to pile up. I think you will be surprised how quickly this happens. Not yet perhaps, but the next El-Nino dominated interval is going to open some eyes.

    2. Here’s an opportunity for you to educate yourself then, Andrew:

      We have found that people have difficulty identifying with the threat of climate change: it is far in the future, and shrouded in uncertainty. However, and perhaps especially in Australia, people have no difficulty in identifying with weather extremes and their effects: cyclone damage, drought and flood, bushfire.
      For many of us, our experience of climate change will come mainly through changes in the frequency and severity of extremes. We can confidently expect there to be more severe heatwaves and bushfires, and we have some certainty that drought and flood will become more common also.

        1. Of course, Andrew, we must defer to your infinite wisdom regarding these matters…

          We are truly blessed, on this blog, to be in the presence of such luminous intellects as yourself and AndyS!

  17. Lets say that the environment gets nasty, what effect will that have on things like food supply, energy generation and peoples standard of living? They’ll drop right? So how will society act to combat these immediate threats? Well what happens if you have a heat wave in the States? answer: power consumption goes up because everyone turns on their air conditioning to combat the short term problem, just as (already covered); if you have an economic recession people abandon long term strategies to combat AGW to address the immediate problem.

    So, to address the long term problem of AGW we need to adopt strategies that both increase wealth and simultaneously reduce emissions.

    1. Andrew, this is what we have governments for, to take the lead where there are clear long-term threats to society. The regulation of smoking, seat belts and motorcycle helmets are obvious examples, not to mention the funding of education, defence and diplomacy.

      BTW, emissions increase with wealth. You’re not an Ayn Randian by any chance, are you?

      1. It’s relatively easy for governments to pass legislation that targets a minority of the electorate, passing legislation that adversely affects the majority in the short term is difficult, if not suicidal.

        BTW, emissions increase with wealth.
        That’s the correlation that has to be decoupled, it’s not a law of nature.

        You’re not an Ayn Randian by any chance, are you?
        Like a socialist must be a communist.

  18. This seems to me to be primarily a disagreement about messaging.

    My question would be, is there 4-5% of the electorate that would, for example, vote for a publicity campaign about getting people to think about reducing flights? In fact, currently we only need one green electorate to go in this direction and a coalition with the Greens and Labour at the next election.

    1. Well, I guess if you’re only targeting a small section of the public, taxing international flight to reduce it’s frequency’s probably not so hard. Don’t think it’ll make a heck of a lot of difference to total emissions though.

      1. Nothing will (on its own) since emissions come from such a wide variety of sources. But since we need to cut total emissions in developed countries by >80% in a matter of decades at most, then there is no part of the economy that can get a free pass on emissions.

        In the UK for instance, in the absence of any curbs on aviation emissions and combined with the legislated reduction of emissions from all other sectors, aviation will compromise 25% of UK emissions by 2030. Even in the absence of emissions reductions, the current growth rate of aviation emissions means they will compromise 20% of global emissions by 2050 (and of course far more if emissions are being reduced elsewhere).

        Aviation is special for two reasons. First, international aviation (like international shipping) is not currently covered by international negotiations on emissions targets, so all national legislated targets ignore aviation emissions and do not contain plans to reduce them. The EU has just started trying to address this and is facing a possible trade war with US and China as a result. Second, as the above post made clear, unlike most of other high emission activities, there are no obvious replacements currently available. So, in the absence of major technological breakthrough, the only way is down.

  19. I think it is a matter of the steady drip drip of messages that this is very serious and governments are starting to get quite concerned that will ultimately deliver big change. Might be too late, but then we have to work with what we got. My not trying is not an option when it comes to my children.

    I focus on the flying issue because I think its central to our current “fossil fuel rich” view of our present and future. Getting people to pause and rethink flying means that you are also altering how they see the future. Questions about the alternatives will become more urgent. People will be more ready to explore them.

    1. Yes, flying is a good symbol of a whole attitude and way of life that needs re-thinking.

      The term “human” probably ultimately derives from the Latin term “humus” or ground. This is also where we get the word “humble”. We belong with our feet on the ground.

  20. A good start toward correcting the problem this article rightly identifies would be — post haste — to terminate frequent flyer miles programs. Sure, use the miles the you’ve got, but no more miles would be issued. We need to end this incentive to travel.

  21. Mike Cheiky addresses that in his presentation Thomas. Because the C4 biomass used has low energy density you don’t want to transport it too far to a processing plant. They calculate that the maximum realistic plant output would therefore be 50,000,000 gallons of bio-fuel per year. A bit under 200,000 tonnes.

    However, micro plants would be a goer in the developing world for a number of reasons explained in the video.

  22. This is perhaps the most exciting development I have seen proposed in a long while! I hope the trial plants for this will go forward as soon as practical.

    I would encourage Gareth to run a post on this! We are definitely in need of technologies like this and bio-mechanisms are the only way can have a faint hope of making a dent into the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere. The system proposed here seems to address several of our most pressing problems at once.

    A concern could perhaps be the long term stability of the sequestered carbon in the ground and the availability of water to run this to the extend necessary without impacting on current food production. But it sounds great and I hope to hear about results of the first plants.

    1. The JustWondering link provided by JustWondering seems to have stopped working.

      So the link to the company and the technology is here:

      and the presentation by Mike Cheiky is here:

      I think their technology is work a close look indeed and look forward to hear from others what they think. Where is the catch?
      Water resources are one logical restraint perhaps. The super growth promoted by the company will require irrigation and good soil moisture management for sure.

  23. Had a look at this. Its really interesting and exciting. Seems to be a more efficient biofuel process trying to use all the outputs to boost future yields.

    But still requires large amounts of land and water and fertiliser. Would need to see his land and water equations. He says 1, 2 and 3% of world’s landmass are ‘all’ that is needed, but that is a hell of a lot of productive land. If you say, we can use deserts, you need to find the water. And this is a week when we are told we are in trouble with finding enough water for food crops for 9 billion people:

    There are also so many practical problems with this (as with any biofuels). If you are using lands unproductive for farming, what other values do they have? Are you going to affect other species? What planning laws need to change to get the still quite substantial areas you need? What will arguments look like when you say you need to endanger x or y desert species because you need this new biofuel growing area to maintain the airline industry? How will crop insurance work? (the insurance bill from the US drought is massive).

    This is all real world messy stuff. I just ask you to stand back. Global warming is on us with a vengeance. I dont think its a time to be trying to work through all these issues in order to lock up significant plots of land and water and create new industries for the purpose of maintaining the possibility of large numbers of us flying to Europe or Sydney to go shopping. That seems like a lot of misdirected effort and becomes a dangerous fantasy given the speed this is coming on us.

    Much easier to think about relatively modest biofuels production for airlines and other uses along with a mix of other efforts to reduce non-essential flights. Starting with easy stuff like ditching frequent flyer / fly buys programmes. There are also plenty of other interesting technical challenges to be getting on with, like further internet cables to Australia and the US, very high end teleconferencing hubs, and even scoping out specs for an Auckland / Sydney passenger service by water, perhaps a (first?) Tasman crossing by airship, hybrid/airship etc, etc.

    And quite apart from any technical challenges, we havent even done really simple stuff like an in-depth survey of business trips to Australia, to what extent could trips be reduced, replaced? What incentives and tools would business need etc.

    1. C4 plants include cacti and are generally able to grow in places where food crops can’t due to their low requirements for water. The other problems are real but must be weighed against the alternative, ie emissions getting out of control and wreaking more havoc. I think once the full costs are included in the ticket price these behavioral changes will already happen, no need for intrusive changes like forcing them to stop their loyalty programs. Predicating arguments on a complete downfall ,takes for good science fiction but I don’t think its a good starting point for discussion today. Call me an optimist perhaps…

  24. Spot on with your comments re displacing other production. If you have a soil resource capable of supporting a crop and water (precipitation or irrigation, remembering the expanses of land lost to agriculture by irrigation salt build up) you will most likely have an existing food and fibre production system (farming). Most of the exceptions to this will be nature reserves or conflict zones.
    There may be some new uses for biomass byproducts and previously unused plants, that turn out to be better than returning that byproduct to land or not cropping that plant in the first place, but I have not seen any yet.
    By all means lets keep looking for alternative renewable liquid fuels that may give a marginal improvement in our transport C emissions, but the priority is to do the dominant activity on the cost curve, cut back.

    1. It looks to me that this system (CoolPlanetBiofuels) is not using the edible part of the plant but converts the rest of the biomatter into fuel plus long term charcoal like carbon ground enhancing carbon storage.
      In this it differs entirely from the old style corn to ethanol cycle which displaces food production and does not sequester CO2.

      We have reached the stage where emissions reductions, not matter how steep they are, will be insufficient to reduce CO2 to safe levels soon enough and at present we are not even stating to stabilize emissions let alone reducing them.

      Biological mechanisms are in my mind the only hope to sequester CO2 and to do so without adding the need for more primary energy generation.

      This scheme deserves some scale trials and just looking at NZ I would think we would have heaps of suitable places to test this, including existing corn fields. Remember, the edible part of the plants will not be converted to fuel but remain in the food market! So what risk would be take trying this out?

      1. The straw and chaff would normally be returned to the soil (directly or as farm yard manure), a process that is beneficial. The benefits of returning charcoal to soil instead of OM are far from clear, may not manifest in many soil/climate/land managements, and need more study. Yes the char is recalcitrant (has a longer half life) but the consumption of that OM substrate by soil fauna is key to many of the benefits from organic returns. If sustainably sequestering C in soil is your aim, walk away and let the grassland/scrub/woodland do it itself, with attendant water catchment, habitat and amenity enhancement to boot.
        There may well turn out to be a role for biochar, for instance for domestic sewage instead of lime stabilised sludge cake, but I strongly doubt the benefits of growing substrate for pyrolysis. Any significant market will displace other crops and other beneficial uses of the ‘waste’.

        1. You wouldn’t want to char everything forever and with no end of course! Almost everything I’ve read about biochar does it only insofar as it benefits the soil mycorrhizae and hence the growth of the plant. The locked-in carbon is a benefit, for sure, but improved soil health is what guides how much you put back in.

    1. And here, for the balance of opinion, a site highly skeptical on anything bio-whatever:

      There is no technology that represents a magic bullet. However there are many technologies that can co-operate to form part of the solution. Just as Wind and Solar already form a significant component in some countries electricity generation so will intelligent use of bio-mechanisms form an important part of local problem solving tools going forward.

      Pyrolysis of bio-matter for communal fuel production and return of bio-char to the soil looks like it has its merits in places where it fits into the local conditions.
      There is a very active research community working on Bio-Char and has been for a while. Its an interesting field to keep an eye on.

  25. Actually, in terms of alternative fuels, I find the LanzaTech work on converting CO2 waste streams from industrial processes a fairly interesting technology.

    In terms of biochar, there is an interesting NZ history. Nelson Maori were mixing it into some soils there hundreds of years ago for fertility. I agree there has to be a limit to how much you can mix in.

    But again, my overall point is that hitting the demand curve and seeking efficiencies should be the first strategy. Its really cheap and provides immediate, significant emission reductions.

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