The Ecologist


Jim Thomas

High-altitude windpower: pie-in-the-sky or sound science?

Jim Thomas


Since we don’t have enough land for the renewable technologies we need let’s go stratospheric instead, with a high-altitude solution…

Naming a sane technology to replace fossil fuels can feel like an exercise in futility. Leaving aside the need to scale back energy use generally, grasping at non-fossil options throws up problems galore: solar cells can be too inefficient, hydro schemes produce methane, ethanol causes hunger, and so on. As those same
energy technologies apply hi-tech adjustments to fix their blemishes (‘clean coal’, ‘nano-solar’, ‘cellulosic biofuels’) each tech upgrade brings yet further problems.

For a sharp dose of reality about this energy-tech quagmire I would recommend a natty little presentation called ‘Climate Change Recalculated’ by inventor Saul Griffith. Griffith counts land – the land required actually to erect all those wind turbines, nano-solar panels and vats of GM algae now being hyped in the press. In doing so he comes up with an aggregate land area for deployment, which he dubs Renewistan. Depending on how... Read More...

What technologies for solving environmental problems will we see in 2009?

Jim Thomas


Somebody somewhere has to have a cunning plan to fix our environmental problems and save the world – right? Jim Thomas sorts through the big tech ideas you’ll be reading about this year

Almost every day sees new technologies being proposed to fix old problems. 2008 witnesses global technology fights over the rapid development of biofuels, protests against ‘clean coal technology and GM crops staging a come-back of sorts. In all three cases, ‘solving climate change’ was presented as the excuse for gambling on high-risk technologies. That theme is likely to continue. Here are a selection of technological controversies on the drawing board. See if you can sort through the silver bullets, technofixes and false solutions that are sure to keep cropping up this year...


Three years ago, the idea of re-engineering the Earth’s climate was considered politically unacceptable. In 2009 though, geo-engineering, intentional large-scale manipulation of the climate, is poised to enter mainstream climate policy discussions. High-risk projects are now gaining a shocking respectability as panic rises over climate... Read More...

The third green revolution?

Jim Thomas


The thing is, I like urban farming. Rooftop gardens and window boxes excite me. Balconies filled with beans and tomatoes give me hope. Nonetheless, the ‘next big thing’ in urban horticulture has left me cold.

Vertical Farming’ is a proposal to urbanise industrial agriculture en masse. The idea is to shift food production from rural soils to city skyscrapers built as indoor factory farms. Would-be vertical farmers dream of high-rise, climate-controlled towers of steel, glass, lettuce and strawberries – new gardens of Babylon dubbed (without irony) ‘farmscrapers’.

Yes, you read that right. Lifting agriculture off the land and into air-conditioned penthouses may sound daft, but then – lets face it – so did selling bottled water and carbon credits. This idea, championed largely by biologist Dickson Despommier of New York’s Columbia University is gaining a rabid following, who argue that a growing population and dwindling land-base mean that old-fashioned ‘horizontal’ farming is no longer sustainable. Since 50 per cent of us have now migrated to cities, Despommier reasons that agriculture should follow us there. Doing so, he... Read More...

Dumping iron sulphate into the ocean, or, how to 'geo-engineer' the climate

Jim Thomas


Climate change due to human interference with fragile ecosystems? No problem - we can just dump 20 tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean

The time has come to talk about geo-engineering – and I mean really talk about it. If you’ve never heard the term then get used to it because ‘geo-engineering’ will be turning up more in editorials, policy pronouncements and heated arguments. It describes any large-scale techno-fix that deliberately tinkers with the climate, weather or ecosystems.

Polluting the upper atmosphere with nanoparticles that cool the planet? That’s geo-engineering. Turning plantations into charcoal to bury our problems in the soil? That’s geo-engineering. Changing the chemistry of the seas to soak up more greenhouse gas? Also geo-engineering.

As I write, an Indo-German experiment, dubbed Lohafex, is dumping 20 tons of iron sulphate over an area of the southern ocean about the size of the Maldives. The iron will prompt the growth of tiny plankton, leaving a long green scar on the ocean visible from space. Proponents say this plankton bloom will suck... Read More...

Can sugar fuel the planet?

Jim Thomas


The next big hit fuelwise will have corporations falling over each other to claim plant life, but the comedown could leave us in a sticky mess

What runs our economy after oil? How about sugar? All those acres of corn and cane being liquefied into biofuels– that’s sugar replacing oil. Those bioplastics that your food now comes wrapped in: sugar. By 2015, the chemical industry expects that a fifth of all its production of chemicals will be based on sugar.

As petroleum (fossilised sugar) becomes less accessible, the new feedstock of choice for our industrial system appears to be the white stuff. Or more precisely the green stuff – because the type of sugars you and I put on cornflakes is only a fraction of what is being eyed up for fuels, plastics and chemicals production.

This new sugar-fuelled economy is being labelled ‘the new bioeconomy’ and at a glance, the opportunity seems huge. Looked at from space, the Earth is after all a sugar-coated planet. If you were to boil down all the green parts of the picture – the forests, the prairies and the blooms of algae –... Read More...

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