Carbon Non-Neutrality

Balancing rocks Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Zone

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

U.S. President Obama, 25 June 2013

It was good to hear the U.S President make a broad speech on climate change and how he sees the role of the United States vis-a-vis climate change challenges.

It was also good to hear him speak directly to the ongoing controversy regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States.

What was disappointing was the mention of the Keystone XL in conjunction with any notion of carbon neutrality. Even if every single aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline itself were able to meet some definition of being ‘carbon neutral’, i.e. by “achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference“*, and even if the extraction of the oil from the tar sands wasn’t included in the calculation, the fact of the matter is that this pipeline is just one more way of delivering our energy drug of choice – oil – into the U.S. energy cycle.

Rapeseed field

Rapeseed field

Way back when, before 2008, people were still talking about ‘peak oil’ and subsidies abounded for renewable alternatives. If there was one good aspect to the notion of running out of oil, it was the acknowledgement that most alternatives released less CO2 into the atmosphere over the long term.

Then came the financial meltdowns, and the miraculous discoveries of new oil reserves. And now we find ourselves talking more about adaptation and resignation to fossil-fuel use as the main path towards energy independence.

Overall, the President’s speech was promising and left little doubt that under Barack Obama, climate change issues are being taken seriously. It is a welcome call to action from one of the world’s largest economies, and one of its most influential polluters.

Yet there’s still that support of oil as a main source of American energy independence.

I am not neutral when it comes to the use of fossil fuels: ‘Carbon neutral’ refers to a balance that is hard to achieve in the best of circumstances, and impossible when talking about the traditional fossil fuel economy.

Every major federal investment made into the exploitation of this fuel source is an investment that wasn’t made into a better, cleaner, renewable solution.

It’s an investment into the past, not the future.

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

*Definition from Wikipedia. There are many variations of what ‘carbon neutral’ actually means in various contexts, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Transcript of the full speech here.

The Bottle Around the Bubbly


A little small talk tidbit for all those soirées in this month of holiday parties:

A bottle of champagne contains around 50 million bubbles, at three times the pressure of a car tire.

As an interesting prerequisite to the ‘invention’ of champagne, it was necessary to invent a bottle that could contain the pressure generated by all that pressure and thus avoid exploding bottles – a health hazard, not to mention a terrible waste. From what I have read, it was an Englishman from a region known for its hard cider who first came up with a technique for producing a robust glass that could withstand increased internal pressure. His name was Christopher Merret. One of those multi-faceted, inquisitive types that seem to pop up regularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, he was a physician and naturalist with a special affinity for the effects of minerals on glass-making and smelting. In 1662, he translated an Italian book, The Art of Glass (1611), and added a long series of notes based on his own observations.

Merret described how to add iron, manganese or carbon to molten glass in order to produce a bottle that could withstand the entropic powers of secondary wine fermentation, thus making possible the ‘verre anglais‘ used by Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon to make champagne. Perhaps not coincidentally, Merret also discussed how adding sugar and molasses could lead to secondary fermentation, leading to the first recorded description of sparkling wine.

At any rate, the first ‘official’ production of champagne – in 1692, thanks to Dom Pérignon – owes at least a little of its success to the existence of non-exploding bottles.

In more recent times, the weight of the heavy champagne bottle, which was standardized in the early 1970s at 900 grams, or about two pounds, is being retooled in an effort to reduce the product’s carbon footprint. The new bottles will use 65 fewer grams and have more slender shoulders while still retaining the robust strength necessary to contain those 50 million tiny bubbles.