Should we try to get more of it, and more use from it, or should we try to get less of it?
This is no laughing gas1 November 2007
There are farmers who would like to exploit their cattle for more than their yields of milk, meat, fats, leather and so forth. These farther-seeing husbandmen would like also to profit from their livestock’s prodigious output of methane gas, an emission which is much more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide but which is also a much under-used biofuel.
Perhaps methane’s most challenging form for utilisation – though most of this hydrocarbon’s manifestations present problems – is that offered in such copious measure by the emissions of oxen. These effluvia continue to stimulate the imaginations of inventors. Inevitably, perversely maybe, they also stimulate the imaginations of some less seriously involved persons: see, for example, the cartoon (reproduced below) on p55 of MPS for December 2006.
But the humorous potential of bovine methane is a mere side-effect of the real, typically human, dilemma that the product poses: should we try to get more of it, and more use from it, or should we try to get less of it? I confess myself depressed by the second of those choices. It is, however, the one that is exciting some research workers.
At the UK’s Institute of Grassland and Environment Research they flaunt a statistic that inspires them: cows account for between a quarter and a fifth of the methane resulting from human activity in their country. To these researchers the logical thing is therefore to develop grazing plant strains and cattle feeds that would ease the animals’ digestive processes and thereby ‘dramatically’ reduce their methane emissions.
To your poker-faced columnist that piece of information epitomises an everlasting dilemma. I have in mind the struggle between, on the one hand, those who would counter adverse side-effects of scientific and technical advance with austerity and self-denial, and those on the other hand who would rather seek both to protect the possible benefits and to foster further progress and human enrichment.
Returning from the everlasting dilemma to the specific one of what to do about the crude biofuel emissions of cattle, perhaps the first thing one should decide is not to treat them as a laughing matter. We might then opt for getting bigger methane outputs, not smaller ones. It would be no joke to breed cows for high yields of methane and milk! Nor could the most inventive and enterprising of us face with hilarity the tasks of taking both products all the technical and commercial way from the livestock end to the consumer destination†.
I have a funny feeling that this is not a project for just one research institute: or any existing body I can think of.
A demon that looks the part
There has been mixed news for carbonophobes, the people who speak as if they believe that carbon is responsible for climate change rather than that it is indispensable for life.
Researchers at the University of California have worked out that a third or more of the Arctic warming hitherto blamed on the greenhouse effect has come from quite another cause. The true culprit, they say, is Arctic snow that has turned into an absorber instead of a reflector of solar radiation. This dire change has been brought about by soot, a product of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases, of course including CO2 from complete combustion of carbon in fossil fuels, have thus been exonerated.
The reportage that I have seen does not make clear whether complete combustion of the guilty soot could have produced enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases to have had about the same warming effect in the end as the dirtied snow has allegedly had, or maybe a larger or smaller one. But nobody will dispute that clean white snow must look better than the soot-soiled stuff. And that soot is generally more like real solid carbon to look at than is CO2 gas.