Sunday :: Dec 28, 2003

Environmental Story Roundup


by Mary

Posted by Mary
Clean air has long been known to be important for the health and well-being of living creatures. Now we find that it also has an effect on making a healthier planet. NASA published a report this week saying that cleaning up soot in the atmosphere could help reduce the rate of the melting icecaps and glaciers.

Soot contributes to the problem of global warming because it changes the albedo of the ice making it absorb more heat from the sun and thus more susceptable to melting. This year has seen the most extensive melting of the Artic ice cap recorded as well as the disappearance of glaciers on mountains all over the world which is now affecting the ski industry. One of the more troubling problems about melting ice caps is that it creates a positive feedback loop that reinforces greater melting.

"Polar sea ice has an important function in moderating the global energy balance," he said. He explained that sea ice has albedo of 0.8. That is, it reflects 80% of the solar radiation. When the sea ice melts you have water, which has an albedo of 0.2.

"The sea ice goes from absorbing 20% of solar radiation to absorbing 80%," said Dr Hinzman. This creates positive feedback for further warming.

The NASA scientists think that we could buy ourselves some time by cleaning up the soot. They note that the major contributors of soot in the atmosphere these days are India and China who are using coal and organic fuels extensively and Europe and North America from the use of diesel fuel. They report that eventually we will need to deal with the carbon dioxide buildup as it is the major contributor to global warming, but by cleaning up the soot, we will relieve some of the time pressure.

Australia is the home to the World Solar Challenge and as such encourages innovative solar powered cars from all over the world. Recently a Japanese team built and tested a hyper-clean car powered by hydrogen and solar power which traversed 4000 kilometers across Australia. Designed by Japanese students from Tamagawa university in Tokyo, the car emits pure water as its sole waste product. One commentor remarked, "It's interesting that clever university students have come up with this design, instead of the major car companies." So when do you think our car companies will come up with a viable model?

Speaking of alternative energy - one of the more depressing stories I read this month was how US energy policies are once again leaving the US out of the lucretive and potentially very important technology race to find ways to build and deliver alternative energy systems. During the past few years, while Japan has been putting significant money and energy into developing solar power for homes, the US has been sleeping at the switch. During the 1990s, both Japan and the United States committed to investing in solar energy.

Japan's New Sunshine Project began in 1995. It was popularly known as the "70,000 Roofs Program," the number of grid-connected residential installations it promised to have by 2002. In 1997 President Clinton launched the Million Solar Roofs program. In theory the different numerical goals implied a much more aggressive American effort. In practice the U.S. program had virtually no resources and achieved little national impact.

Indeed, when observers compare national solar cell programs they often ignore the inactivity of Washington and focus on the pioneering initiatives by California's local and state governments. To this day the center of the U.S. solar cell program is in Sacramento. In 2002 almost 50 percent of all new installations in the United States were in California.

California's admirable effort, however, could not compensate for the feeble federal program. The statistics tell the story. In 1996 the U.S. was the world's leading producer of solar cells, manufacturing 60 percent more than Japan. By 1999 Japan had surged ahead. By 2002 it was producing twice as many solar cells as the United States and almost half the world's total production.

In many ways, the Japanese commitment to investing in solar power is the same as their investment into developing hybrid cars. In both cases, they put the money where it counted because for them energy was expensive and in order to control their own destiny, they had to find newer, better ways of producing and consuming energy. In the United States, we are held hostage to king oil. Despite our conquest of Iraq, we are no more capable of holding back the future and "cheap" oil is no less an obstacle to using energy more wisely. Meanwhile, the technology of Japan will once again be more valuable and more important than our ancient and polluting technology. After the last time the Japanese ate our lunch by showing you could build integrated circuits and cars with less defects and using less energy, you would think we would have learned our lesson. Yet, once again, we Americans watch the technology of tomorrow shunted aside by our industries and our government while other countries make the future investment. It is fitting that they will be reaping the future reward while we eat their dust.

Mary :: 5:14 PM :: Comments (4) :: Digg It!