Two reports in Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) journal, got considerable media coverage on Feb. 8-9 with results in both showing that expanding biocrops for energy will greatly increase the soil emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) mainly carbon dioxide from the exposing of buried plant debris. The UN report released in Spring 2007 and prepared by the Scientific Expert Group (SEG) under the aegis of Sigma Xi said that “Even if human emissions could be instantaneously stopped, the world would not escape further climate change.” The Winter 2006 issue of AAAS Matters called for carbon dioxide sequestering. So we are going the wrong way with bioenergy thinking sponsored by BP at Berkeley and need to get a program that will actually remove some of the 35 percent overload of carbon dioxide mentioned in my Nov. 30, 2007, commentary.
Why are many scientists ignoring that our massive organic waste mess represents a wasted biofuel crop that can be utilized to actually remove some of that gas from recycling by using the pyrolysis process mentioned June 12 while also getting some fuel and steam? And this processing for organic wastes would stop new dumps from emitting methane, which the Air Resources Board is now concerned about and may request its control at dumps with expensive systems. Not letting our organic wastes get to dumps will greatly reduce dump maintenance costs as keeping those wastes from possibly leaking germs and toxins is a major expense in dumps. Getting some charcoal in the pyrolysis process for burial represents actual reduction of our carbon footprint. along with getting some steam for electric power and a fuel mix to refine. Setting up this process will not usurp land and water from food production and in fact might free up land destined for dumps. As I pointed out before, many other organic wastes can be utilized in the process including separated solids from sewage, animal, but not bird, feces of farms and paper wastes going to be recycled costing considerable sums to do so. Also pyrolysis would destroy germs and toxics in organic wastes keeping them from polluting water supplies that may be becoming a bigger problem than global warming for human survival in underdeveloped countries.
Larry King recently had a show on “Dirty Jobs,” largely talking about farm animal poo and indicating that the farmer on the show was obtaining methane from it. But the anaerobic microbial process of generating methane still requires energy from converting carbohydrates into carbon dioxide. Several biofuel programs actually end up with a feces-like pile of cellulose and lignin waste that no one in the BP granting group seems to be concerned about. Composting of some organic wastes, a sort of poo, that’s getting a lot of media play, is just a rapid reemitting system for carbon dioxide that nature had trapped for us.
A point in the SEG report is that climate change may soon lead to serious dust-bowl-like conditions in our Southwest and elsewhere so a comprehensive tree wind break forestation program ought to be set up. If properly coordinated, this program with planned cuttings could supply wood for pyrolysis in quantities to generate a sizable amount of our electric energy more cleanly than bioethanol, while reducing our carbon footprint. The July 23 Time magazine has an article on giving credit for saving trees, but they end up recycling much carbon dioxide when the leaves, flowers, seeds and diseased parts fall to the ground to rot. To get real reduction in our carbon footprint, we need to be raising fast-growing trees on marginal land for wind breaks and then cut grown trees for pyrolyzing to get charcoal, thus keeping some trapped carbon from recycling.
Some may not realize just how fast the effects of global warming are coming on, as land calving along with glacier calving is being seen along the Alaskan coast line.
According to U.S. Geological Survey scientists (San Francisco Chronicle, July 5), permafrost that held cliff edges has melted to allow chunks of land to crash into the sea much faster than in the past. The real problem with permafrost melting is in Siberia as massive amounts of organic detritus called yedoma are being exposed (Science, June 16, 2006). The authors expressed concern for exposed yedoma decomposing to emit carbon dioxide and methane, or it may dry out to be easily ignited to become nature’s own infernal combustion machine. Nature will then be in control of humankind as she has that yedoma spewing methane and carbon dioxide, or if burning, heat energy speeding the drying of more yedoma as well as massive amounts of carbon dioxide, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen and black sooty particulates.
By the way our governor may think that he is exerting some control on global warming by calling for a sizable reduction in vehicle emissions but a 10-20 percent population increase leading to increased vehicle numbers in the same proposed time period will likely cancel out the reduction. Why is he not calling for more of the windmills recently put up in the Rio Vista area to reduce power supplied from fossil fueled plants? Having those set-ups would lead to many new jobs for workers that can not be outsourced especially if the much less efficient older windmills were taken down to provide the metal for the new ones.
The money BP wants to grant for bioenergy should be put into maximizing the pyrolysis process to be actually removing some carbon from recycling with the added benefit of cutting the pollution of water supplies by organic wastes.
Fremont resident James Singmaster III
is a retired environmental toxicologist.