Can Technology Save us from an Environmental Apocalypse?
Yesterday I heard about something of a technological miracle. A company that makes alternative engines for transportation vehicles (a Green Investment, if you will), reported that the State of California has certified one of its natural gas engines as being cleaner than electric car engines. Westport Innovations is introducing the "ISL G Near Zero (NZ) NOx natural gas engine" for medium duty trucks and busses.
"The engine was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Air Resources Board (ARB) in California that meet the 0.02 g/bhp-hr optional Near Zero NOx Emissions standards. . . Cummins Westport ISL G NZ exhaust emissions will be 90% lower than the current EPA NOx limit of 0.2 g/bhp-hr and also meet the 2017 EPA greenhouse gas emission requirements. CWI natural gas engines have met the 2010 EPA standard for particulate matter (0.01 g/bhp-hr) since 2001." [Westport ISL G press release]
Vehicles equipped with these engines will create less smog and greenhouse CO2 than electric vehicles. Why? Because electric vehicles must get their electricity from somewhere, and in California most electricity is produced from natural gas fired plants.
Natural gas is preferred to coal, for anyone wanting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because it has a lot of hydrogen in it. Petroleum gasses consist of molecules that have a chain of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Burning hydrogen creates water. Burning carbon creates carbon dioxide. So burning coal, which is almost entirely carbon, produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than burning natural gas.
Most environmentalists, both of the ordinary citizen kind and paid non-profiteers, are very enthusiastic about solar energy (and wind). In theory solar energy produces no pollution of any kind. So in the ideal green world, solar panels capture energy, and electric automobiles and trucks would run on that energy. Most environmentalists advocate for moving to all solar and all electric vehicles as soon as possible, which would still take a while, given that solar currently creates only about 1% of U.S. electricity.
Of course the real world is more complicated than the imaginary utopias of environmentalists, or the imaginary utopias of climate change deniers.
While waiting for solar, let's think about the thesis of natural gas being better than coal. The first objection of environmentalists is that natural gas is cheaper than coal (the real reason coal plants are being abandoned in the U.S.) only because of fracking. Environmentalists hate fracking. They hate mountaintop removal for coal too. How does one fairly compare the side effects of natural gas extraction versus coal extraction? [a question I can't answer here]
You can see why environmentalists want to go straight to solar. But environmentalists are in denial about the complications of solar. The main active component of solar cells is silicon, but that has to be supported on some long lasting, strong material like aluminum or steel.
Producing a commercially usable solar cell requires separating silicon from silicon dioxide (sand or quartz) and extracting aluminum or iron from their ores. That involves huge amounts of energy, which comes from coal fired plants in China. It involves building massive plants to shape the raw silicon and steel into panels. Those plants are mainly in China, so the tons of panels have to be transported to the U.S. first by ship, then trucked to distribution centers. If they go on roofs it takes energy to life them up there. Even when installed they are not care-free. Cleaning them requires energy, and if they are covered with dust they produce no electricity. Also, they take up space that could be used for rooftop gardens.
Solar panels have high upfront costs. A single panel generates surprisingly little electricity. That is why it take years, perhaps two decades, for a panel to pay for itself compared to just buying electricity from a utility company.
That is no reason to not install more solar power. But it does bring us to the essence of the global warming problem: the size of the human population.
In The Martian the lead character says something like he is going to "science the hell out of the problem." I like science, I liked the movie, and I think we should science the hell out of the global warming problem. And other environmental problems like habitat destruction and lack of clean water. But the real solution involves the Secret Sauce.
Very few people want to talk about the Secret Sauce. I have noted that in the United States even the Green Party politicians don't want to talk about it, much less the Democrats.
The Secret Sauce is reducing the human population. Reducing it in California, in the United States, and in the World.
The science is available, but not the culture or technology, much less the political will. The science is birth control.
The governments of California and the United States encourage people to have children. They do that many ways, most notably through the income tax exemptions for children and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
We need a One Child Policy, to be in effect for about 3 generations until the human population has reached sustainable levels. 3 generations is 60 years, which should allow us to better understand what is really long-term sustainable for the Earth.
I believe in making such a policy as minimally coercive as possible. By eliminating tax credits for children, after the first child of a couple, we could probably get a good balance. Some religious crazies would probably insist on having more children than they should, but some couples (or singles) will have none, so it should balance out.
Our economic system would need some alterations as well, but then it needs alterations anyway. Average people could have a higher standard of living if there were less people competing for what little is left of the world.
Meanwhile, hurray for converting trucks from diesel to natural gas. Hurray for solar. But let's no be naive. The human population can be brought down gently and humanely, or Nature will bring it down in a crash. Talk about it. Ask politicians and environmental groups and churches about it. We are out of time. We we be far better off if we started a One Child Policy a generation ago. We have the tools, let's use them.