Tuesday, June 24, 2008

PopSci Environmental Reports

Popular Science has several environmental features that were posted late yesterday, including Five Ways You're Killing the Planet, 10 Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet, and Five Looming Eco-Disasters.

As for their Five Ways You're Killing the planet, it is true that the five things they identify are bad for the environment, but the reality is that these five things are each a relatively small part of the bad we're doing to our environment. Driving SUVs and burning coal for our electricity are far worse, overall, than the fact that you live in a suburb and leave your computer on (although turning your computer off when you're not using it is not only better for the environment, it's better for your finances in terms of your electric bill). Plus, I don't do most of the things they highlight... I haven't flown anywhere in about three and a half years, I turn my computer off every night, and I live in the city, not the suburbs. Plus, I recycle my electronics and plastic.

On their Ten Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet... well, let's just say that "audacious" doesn't begin to cut it. Solar power satellites? Maybe in about two hundred years. There are so many drawbacks, such as the massive cost to put them in orbit, that launching them isn't justified. Plus, while the article highlights the dangers of one of the satellites accidentally missing its rectennas on the ground, what happens when some militaristic nation decides to intentionally turn the microwave beams on enemy targets?

The idea of bioengineering all of our crops to be more "hairy" in order to reflect more infrared light is just pretty unrealistic and would again take many, many decades to become viable. Plus, nobody know whether the bioengineering changes could lead to greater problems in the long run. Trapping liquid CO2 in giant plastic bags on the bottom of the ocean? Okay... what happens when the bags leak, and we end up with acidic oceans that kill off a lot of the plant life that is currently absorbing CO2 from our atmosphere? Harnessing a tornado for energy? An interesting idea—and definitely audacious—but I'd rather the first several attempts were built well away from my home (or any other populated area).

Some of the ideas, though, I thought were pretty interesting, if not so audacious. Capturing sewer gas to power buses? Okay. Collecting pig urine to make plastic? Eew, but okay, call Mike Rowe and let's get started. I especially like the idea of capturing the heat given off by pedestrians' bodies to heat nearby buildings and the idea of making beer using a more energy efficient steam process. As long as my dunkel still tastes the same, if it can be more environmentally friendly, I'm all for it.

And the Five Looming Eco-Disasters includes one that is a favorite pet peeve of mine: biofuels. Corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel will never, ever make even a small dent in our petroleum needs here in the U.S., and between creating them and using them, they give off more emissions than gasoline. Rain forests are being cut down for farmland to grow crops for biofuels, because they've driven the crop prices so high that there's too much money in farming now (especially in the U.S. where we subsidize everything farmers do so heavily that our food prices are going crazy).

Other looming eco-disasters include the massive new Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant being built in India and the Japanese plan to start harvesting methane hydrate from the ocean floor. But both of those projects, at least, have some merit. Tata Mundra has 13 percent fewer emmissions than normal coal-fired plants, and if the Japanese plan turns out to be able to safely harvest methane hydrates it could provide a new, cleaner energy source and possibly reduce the risk of a major catastrophy.

The report also highlights a Russian plan to create a floating nuclear reactor to visit energy-starved Arctic communities. Apparently Popular Science is unaware that we've had ocean-bound nuclear reactors producing energy for decades in the form of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, and we've had a tremendous safety record with them (in fact, if those vessels used diesel fuel, the cost to the environment would be extremely high).

So all in all, some interesting information in these environmental reports from Popular Science, but I think some more thought (and science) could have gone into the reporting.

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