Has Geo-engineering Moved On?

Last year I wrote a series on this blog about the environment entitled ‘Can We Improve the Health of the Planet?’ Read all of the posts and report on the series here through the Bassetti Foundation website. The posts received a lot of comments, and one of the most commented was a post about geo engineering called ‘Engineering a Solution to Global Warming’.

To summarize the argument we are talking about ways of cooling the planet using technological intervention.

One of the modes put forward and that I addressed in the post is to remove carbon from the atmosphere in an attempt to minimize the problem of global warming due to heat retention.

This week in Nature magazine a short article appeared that described an experiment that according to the researchers that conducted it seems to be the first time large amounts of carbon have been removed from the atmosphere and stored.

In the case in question scientists have used iron sulphate and the ocean. The iron is dropped into the water which causes a chain if events that pulls the carbon from the atmosphere, hopefully for good.

Ocean Fertilization Technique

The iron in powder form stimulates the growth of algae that lives for about 3 to 4 weeks. Their growth relies on carbon from the air, drawn through photosynthesis. When the algae dies or is eaten and excreted it sinks to the bottom taking all of the carbon with it.

One of the scientists involved in the experiments states that a single atom of iron draws 13000 atoms of carbon from the air, a large proportion of which finds its way to the ocean floor.

Many scientists are skeptical however. The amount of carbon removed is quite literally a drop in the ocean compared to that produced, and critics argue that this insignificant result could open the gates for other geo-engineering experiments, some of which (as my previous post outlined) seem rather unwise.

E-Waste and Computer Recycling

I am by no means a ‘techie’ as Christopher calls himself, but a quick look round my house reveals a quite astounding history. In various cupboards I find an HP desktop computer from about 10 years ago, very rarely if ever used, another obsolete Hitachi desktop from 15 years ago, my last Chinese laptop (the lid broke off), an IBM Thinkpad, an HP laptop, an old Vaio and even an Ollivetti laptop from 20 years ago.

I have never thrown them out for various reasons, one being security, another being that one day I might need my undergraduate dissertation for something and the third being that I want to know what happens to them when they are taken away.

Recently I have learned that all is not quite what it seems with recycling of computers too, and this makes my quandary all the more difficult.

Chinese workers take apart electronic trash on the street in Guiyu, China.

Several companies offer to recycle your old computer for you, and an enormous industry has grown up around the trade in old technology. In China entire cities have been born that specialize in taking our old stuff, but I feel that recycling is a bit of a big word to use for the ensuing process, as it has positive connotations. The computers are dismantled and all of the re usable pieces taken away, then the rest is dumped in a large pile. People from the surrounding areas scratch a living by doing a bit of home made scavenging, be that boiling components on their cooker at home or dipping cables in acid baths to extract the tiny bits of semi precious metals that they contain. Obviously this is done without regulation, and the results are often poisoning for those involved and the surrounding areas. See this photo essay about the city of Guiyu pictured above, probably the largest e-dumping ground on Earth today, and where a large portion of the products in question end up.

Another possibility is that the computers are shipped as donations to the Third World. These donations come in containers, not packaged in cardboard however but just thrown in, so although some do work, the majority don’t. The recipients have to unload them and try each one to see if it is usable. Those that don’t have to be dumped, and can be found piled up in heaps or abandoned by the roadside outside the larger African Cities, again to poison the ground etc.

This video from Ghana goes into greater detail.

India has some recycling sites and used to import waste for processing but now the problem is that the country itself is now a major producer of waste as it becomes one of the most technology saturated countries on the planet. And India is not alone, consumer societies all over the ex developing world are hungry for new technology, and obsolescence is just round the corner. This short article in Time expands upon the argument.

Large sums of money are involved as we would imagine, but the industry is practically non-regulated in real terms. Government regulation does exist but with the majority of the work carried out in the informal economy it is not adhered to, and dirty job as it may be it provides income for hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers.

And we are speaking about a problem that can only get worse. I personally don’t think it has to or should be like this however, it is not fair and it is exploitation, and so my question is ‘what can be done about it?’ Or more correctly ‘what can we do about it?’ We are the guilty party after all.

Holding Back a Rising Sea

Last week I went to a presentation at MIT made by a group of engineers that are half way through building a high technology barrier to protect Venice from rising waters. The project goes under the name MOSE (Moses).

People standing in water in Venice

Tourists in a rather damp Venice

Venice is a city built on an island situated in a lagoon that has been artificially shaped by human intervention over the last 500 years. The problem of rising sea levels and storms has meant that the city is regularly flooded, and so the project is to build a barrier spanning the three large openings to the lagoon so that it can be sealed in times of high tide and storms.

The flooding has been exacerbated by works carried out in the 1980’s and 90’s to build an industrial zone that involved the drainage of marshland areas, leading to a softening of the ground that made the city actually sink.

This is a 50 billion Euro project, and one of the biggest of its type ever attempted. A look at the data about the Thames Barrier (the first of its type) shows that the problem of high tides is getting worse. It was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 1990s, and 80 times since 2000, but why?

Strangely enough the problem is related to global temperature rise as we might imagine but not so much because of the melting of the icecaps. The fact is that water expands when it is heated so warming even by a couple of degrees has the effect of increasing its volume. The International Panel on Climate Change state that 70% of the presumed rise will be due to this factor.

So back to the barrier. The entire project is quite an undertaking as this YouTube video demonstrates. Years of planning followed by years of preparation, reclamation of marsh lands and sea defense construction not to mention the construction of an off shore oil terminal so that the ships no longer have to enter the lagoon. But Criticism is also rife.

An aerial shot of part of the MOSE project

Part of the finished engineering works on the MOSE project in Venice

Some engineers criticize the project on purely technical terms, other groups point to the lack of environmental impact study and others the cost.

This video also on YouTube tells a completely different story to the one above. Critics are arguing (amongst other things) that we do not know all of the variables involved (which seems to be true) and that the entire ecosystem of the lagoon will change.

I am no engineer so I cannot argue about the choices made, but I do have one simple question. With all of the movement of water involved in this project (serious high tides and the passage of thousands of liters of sea water a minute) would it not have been possible to build something that produced electricity instead of consuming it in huge amounts?

Venice's flood defense plans

Details of how the flood defenses will work

The stakes are high as you might imagine, Venice is one of the most touristed cities in the world, but the high tides are flooding the monuments ever more regularly. We are talking about more than a meter of water, and footage on international TV of tourists walking on raised platforms through St Mark’s Square and fresco covered churches full of water does not go down well.

It is an old problem though, and one that is shared by many cities today. New Orleans is discussing a similar solution, and here in Boston the issue is also under debate.

They are all looking for a high technology solution to an age old problem that is getting steadily worse.