Is spectacle Copenhagen’s only lasting legacy?

Between the aquarium of drowning-delegate sea-level rise protesters, the chicken flock of animal rights protesters, and the cocktail party of fur-coated protest protesters, there will certainly have been a lot to see these past two weeks in Copenhagen during the latest United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Unfortunately, however, spectacle may be the talks’ only lasting legacy. Rainforest advocates and tropical countries alike may have won a small victory with a deal to pay countries to keep their forests intact, and the U.S.’s pledge to raise $100 billion to help poor countries combat climate change is encouraging. Still, a binding resolution anywhere near the scope of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol seems a pipe dream as the talks come to a close by the 18th. It really makes you wish for the all-encompassing silver bullet solution that everybody can agree upon and painlessly enact.

The original silver bullet, of course, is exactly that: a bullet made of silver. An invaluable part of the standard monster-fighting arsenal, it can be used as needed against werewolves, vampires, and all manner of other ghouls. Ironically, however, society seems too sophisticated to accept even this original folkloric incarnation. Contrary to what you might remember from childhood, Twilight’s Edward says that vampires can only be killed by being shredded into pieces and burned. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula the protagonists decide that the only satisfactory way of killing one particular vampire is by driving a stake through its heart, followed by cutting off its head, followed by stuffing the dead mouth full of garlic.

Still, even if the silver bullet remains elusive, the alternative energy industry has no shortage of good ideas, many of which even come close to the ideal.

Nuclear power is closer to a silver bullet than perhaps any other single technology. Cold war memories of the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactor failures have dramatically colored American opinion on nuclear energy, and there may be legitimate global concerns about China’s exploding reactor industry. Nevertheless, nuclear fuel contains more than a million times more energy than gasoline gram-for-gram, a statistic that is hard to ignore, particularly if the proper safety measures are taken. France took note of this and now derives as much as 40 percent of its energy needs from nuclear plants. This is at least partly the reason why France emits only about one fourth as much carbon dioxide per capita as does the U.S.

Solar power may still need some breakthroughs in terms of cost and efficiency, but new ideas of plants are springing up all the time and there is no shortage of new ideas or research in the field. Gasoline alternatives such as ethanol suffer at present from the side effects of coming from food crops such as corn, but major efforts are underway at Berkeley and elsewhere to develop useful automobile fuels from plant material that would otherwise be wasted, such as corn stover. Research leading to more cost and energy efficient batteries (see Jim Gunshinan’s recent post) has the potential to revolutionize the automobile industry as well.

Perhaps I shouldn’t mince my words about cutting emissions. Even with technological advances it will be hard and painful and will rest upon a lot of belt-tightening. But technology can help, and perhaps make it slightly easier for the world’s leaders to commit to some new kind of binding resolution in future global talks. Here’s to the UNFCCC in 2010.

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Climate Talks in Copenhagen: No Silver Bullet? 30 April,2013Christopher Smallwood


Christopher Smallwood

Christopher Smallwood is a Graduate Student in Physics at UC Berkeley. He is interested in the nexus between the basic research community and society at large. Originally from the Bavarian-themed tourist town of Leavenworth, WA (yes, real people actually do live there!), he graduated with an A.B. in Physics from Harvard College in 2005, taught fifth grade at Leo Elementary School in South Texas, and has been pursuing his Ph.D. in the Bay Area since the fall of 2007. Currently, he studies experimental condensed matter in the Lanzara Research Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His past research interests have included Bose-Einstein condensation, rubidium-based atomic clocks, hydrogen masers, lenses and mirrors, mayflies, mousetrap cars, toothpick bridges, fawn lilies, the slinky, Legos, vinegar and baking soda volcanoes, wolves, choo-choo trains, and the word "moon."

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