Attenborough’s call for “a million sustainable innovations” to solve climate change

Thanks to (funded by European Union) for this mashup of Attenborough’s speech, past footage, and related imagery.

Inspired this week by Sir David Attenborough’s “rewrite our story” speech at the start of the climate conference (COP26), I see opportunity for young innovators (like my kids) during their lifetimes, and wonder again if I should shift my attention from saving whales and studying marine bioacoustics to working more directly on climate change as an “issue of our time.” The common thread for me is population — of Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs) on one hand, and of human beings on the other.

In my lifetime, I expect to see either the extinction of SRKWs, or possibly the beginning of a recovery. When I chose to work on SRKWs instead of hydrothermal vents and the origins of life back in 2003 I imagined we’d soon see something like the 2.9% growth rate by 2020 that NOAA set as a target, but that definitely didn’t happen and is looking unlikely for decades due to the SRKW population structure and failure to recover salmon along the west coast of the U.S. and Canada.

Source: Puget Sound vital sign: SRKW population indicator

For humans, there’s a small chance I may get to witness humanity “getting over the hump” — just starting to experience a global population decline and stabilization — but it’s much more likely that only the next generation or two may bear witness to that. Interestingly, researchers right here in Seattle at the University of Washington (UW) have offered new forecasts recently (see 2020 Lancet paper) which build upon the 2019 UN and other recent forecasts.

Might we hope to see some inflection by 2050?! (source: 2020 Lancet paper)

Based on this breakdown of population history and forecasts by continent/region (below, from the Pew Research Center), it seems my chances of seeing human population peak and start to decline will hinge primarily on how population growth in Africa is handled, and secondarily in Asia. That continent may be a prime landscape for innovations that improve the living and education standards, especially for women (specifically the “educational attainment and contraceptive met need” components of the UW forecast model), and that — ideally, simultaneously, secondarily — turn the knob on climate change (e.g. reducing deforestation,

Another figure in the Lancet paper shows the year in which countries will have their net reproduction rate fall below the replacement level. If the goal is slow Africa’s contribution to global population growth as soon as possible, this figure may suggest where in Africa innovation could be of greatest benefit. Zimbabwe, Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Chad are highest priorities. Secondary foci could be Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, and Algeria.

Source: 2020 Lancet paper

Of course, the population density in each of those countries in Africa, and others around the world, is also important in generating significant change. The final figure of the Lancet paper that wowed me is the ~1 billion person range in Nigeria’s population trajectories:

Source: 2020 Lancet paper

Biodiesel is way better than fossil diesel: a 1998 life-cycle analysis

After 15 years of burning B100 in our 2003 VW Jetta TDI, it’s nice to have happened upon the helpful insights within this 1998 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

Reductions in Petroleum and Fossil Energy Consumption

As one component of a strategy for reducing petroleum oil dependence and minimizing fossil fuel consumption, the use of biodiesel offers tremendous potential. Substituting 100% biodiesel (B100) for petroleum diesel in buses reduces the life cycle consumption of petroleum by 95%. This benefit is proportionate with the blend level of biodiesel used. When a 20% blend of biodiesel and petroleum diesel (B20) is used as a substitute for petroleum diesel in urban buses, the life cycle consumption of petroleum drops 19%.

In our study, we found that the production processes for biodiesel and petroleum diesel are almost identical in their efficiency of converting a raw energy source (in this case, petroleum and soybean oil) into a fuel product. The difference between these two fuels is in the ability of biodiesel to utilize a renewable energy source.

Biodiesel yields 3.2 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed in its life cycle. The production of B20 yields 0.98 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed. By contrast, petroleum diesel’s life cycle yields only 0.83 units of fuel product energy per unit of fossil energy consumed. Such measures confirm the “renewable” nature of biodiesel.

Reductions in CO2 Emissions

Given the low demand for fossil energy associated with biodiesel, it is not surprising that biodiesel’s life cycle emissions of CO2 are substantially lower than those of petroleum diesel. Biodiesel reduces net emissions of CO2 by 78.45% compared to petroleum diesel. For B20, CO2 emissions from urban buses drop 15.66%.

In addition, biodiesel provides modest reductions in total methane emissions, compared to petroleum diesel. Methane is another, even more potent, greenhouse gas. Thus, use of biodiesel to displace petroleum diesel in urban buses is an extremely effective strategy for reducing CO2 emissions.

It’s refreshing to see a clear flux diagram showing how soybean carbon cycles!

Other interesting bits:

  • A barrel of typical (1995) crude provides about 100 kg of liquid fuel. Upon combustion each kg of fuel generates 3.15 kg of CO2. (ref)
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: “Oil is Changing” site

Succinct goal to stabilize CO2

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt quote from his comment at 10:17 in a March 7 Congressional hearing live blog:

CO2 stabilisation requires cuts of 60-70% in emissions at some point in the next few decades (and the sooner it occurs the lower the stabilised value will be). That *will* require concerted international action, which is made up of national actions. The only ethical response is to work towards building the conditions for international action.