"Carbon cost" of Google search same as boiling a kettle

photo: manfrys

The BBC reports today on a study by Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross. Wissner-Gross claims that performing a standard Google search on a desktop computer produces 7g of CO2. A quick session with two searches will produce 14g of CO2 – the same as that from boiling a kettle.

From the BBC article:

Although the American search engine is renowned for returning fast results, Dr Wissner-Gross says it can only do so because it uses several data banks at the same time.

Speaking to the BBC, he said a combination of clients, networks, servers and people’s home computers all added up to a lot of energy usage.

“Google isn’t any worse than any other data centre operator. If you want to supply really great and fast result, then that’s going to take extra energy to do so,” he said.

According to Google Web History, I’ve performed 9,308 Google searches and it’s only counted the searches I’ve performed whilst I was logged on.

I’m guesstimating I perform about 40 searches a day; that’s 15,000 Google searches per year (sounds scary when you put it like that). My annual Google carbon footprint would be 105kg of CO2 (0.15 tons).

Google have disputed this figure; saying that a search only produces 0.2g of CO2.

I’m not able to comment on what I think of the methodoly as I don’t know how either figure was reached. But I think it is important to point out the difference between average cost and fixed cost.

As an example, imagine a server farm which was responsible for 100g of CO2 emissions every day. If ten people perform searches, the average carbon cost of a search is 100g divided by 10 searches = 10g of CO2 per search. This is the average cost of the search.

photo: kevindooley

Whereas, the marginal cost would be the CO2 cost of performing one more search. If we then performed an 11th search, the CO2 emissions of the server farm stay the same (we assume it’s running with spare capacity). The marginal cost of performing a search of zero grams of CO2.

With eleven searches, you could claim each search had a carbon cost of 9g. But that’s a bit unfair – considering the CO2 output of the server farm if you had made the search and if you had not, you find the CO2 output it exactly the same. Your search had a marginal cost of zero grams of carbon.

Whether Wissner-Gross and Google stated the average cost or the marginal cost I don’t know (although I suspect the first may have been the average cost and the second the marginal cost).

With Google’s server farms, we know that they will be running regardless of whether we perform searches or not. The important thing then is the marginal cost of a search – this being so close to zero, I don’t think any of us should feel a guilty conscience from using Google.

A Guide: How to save the Amazon Rainforest and the Environment

photo: jon hanson

It was interesting to open up BBC News and to read the article “Ownership key to saving fisheries“. In brief, essentially scientists have surveyed fisheries across the world and found that giving fishermen long-term ownership of fisheries is the way to keep stocks at a sustainable level. It’s a vindication of basic economics.

In this article, I want to discuss the issue of deforestation in the Amazon – one of the biggest environmental issues facing the world. I’ll run through a simple demonstration on how we could preserve the Amazon Rainforest using the exact same principle as that used in the Amazon.

The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest encompasses 1.4 billion acres (5.5 million square kilometres). In the 10 years from 1991 to 2000, about 500,000 square km of the Amazon was lost to deforestation. It’s been estimated that 17.1% of the Amazon has been lost to deforestation since the 1970. And at the present rate of deforestation, the Amazon Rainforest will be reduced by 40% by 2020.

That’s a big problem for all of us. The Amazon is a huge carbon sink – it locks away huge amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2. Deforestation not only reduces the world’s capacity to lock away CO2; it leads to the release of CO2 too. The existence of the Amazon Rainforest has huge benefits for all of us.

photo: angela7dreams

Ask a typical person on the street how to solve the problem of deforestation and you’ll get answers such as: prevent illegal logging or ban deforestation of the Amazon.

But then put yourself in the position of somebody who lives in or near the Amazon. Obviously, you’ll need to feed your family and make a living. Cut down some trees and sell the timber to make a bit of money. Use the land to farm and to graze cattle and to feed your family.

I think it’s extremely unfair for anybody to tell the people who live in the Amazon they can’t do this. I mean, how are they expected to make a living otherwise? Sure, we all lose out from the deforestation because it contributes to climate change. But it’s only fair that the people living in the Amazon should primarily be allowed to look after themselves and their families in the only way they have.

The Problem with Al Gore’s Public Commons

In 1989, Al Gore said:

Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us.

Essentially, Al Gore was blaming the Brazilians for cutting what does not belong to them – the Amazon.

Here’s the problem of a public commons. It could get a little mathematical, so bear with me.

Let us, hypothetically, say that a single acre of the Amazon Rainforest benefits everybody in the world by one millionth of a dollar. Every acre of the rainforest locks away CO2… that’s good news

photo: markg6

According to Google, the current world population is 6.6 billion. So the economic value to society of an acre of rainforest would be \$6,600.

Now, we’ll enter the mindset of somebody living in the Amazon (call him Barack). Just like the rest of us, Barack benefits from lower CO2 levels by one millionth of a dollar. CO2 levels don’t have any local effects so we can make this assumption the benefits are the same for everybody. So the economic value to the private individual (Barack) is \$1/1,000,000.

Barack could choose to cut down this acre of rainforest. He can sell the wood, and then he can graze his cattle on the cleared land. That’ll probably make him a good \$2,000 or so.

So Barack has two choices:

• Cut down the rainforest and make \$2,000 of money
• Leave the rainforest standing; benefiting him by \$1/1,000,000 in a lower CO2 level.

It’s quite obvious to see that Barack will cut down the rainforest. He doesn’t care about the rest of us who all lose out by a millionth of a dollar – in fact it’s such a small amount that none of us would really make a big fuss about it. Would you make a fuss about a millionth of a dollar?

But look at it from a global perspective: as a global community, we’re all losing out on the rainforest worth \$6,000 and getting timber and beef which is only worth \$2,000 to us. As a community, we’re made \$4,600 worse off by Barack’s decision.

We can pay Barack to preserve the rainforest

photo: Hamed Saber

So here’s a proposal. What if we gave Barack the deeds to that acre of rainforest? He’ll own it and have responsibility to look after it. In fact, we’ll collectively give Barack a sum of \$4,000 to preserve that rainforest because we know we’re getting a lot of good out of it.

Now Barack has two options:

• Cut down the rainforest and make \$2,000 of money
• Leave the rainforest standing and make \$4,000 of money

It’s a no brainer. Barack will preserve the forest.

Now look at it from a global perspective. Collectively, the global community is benefiting by \$6,600 from Barack’s acre of rainforest. But we’re only paying him \$4,000 to preserve it – so we’re collectively made better off by \$2,600 by Barack’s decision to save the rainforest. Everybody wins from property rights.

To sum it all up…

Without property rights: Barack cuts down the rainforest. Barack makes \$2,000. The world loses out by \$4,600. CO2 levels rise.

With property rights: Barack preserves the rainforest. Barack makes \$4,000. The world benefits by \$2,600. CO2 levels fall.

So there we have it. The big environmental issues won’t be solved by telling other people what to do, banning deforestation or giving money to people to plant trees. We don’t need to wait for scientific advances to fix the environment. We just need some open-minded thinking and some basic economics.

Beerconomics: More on the economics at Reading Festival

Economics, simply, is the study of incentives. It’s absolutely fascinating to me because it’s a triumph of mathematical logic over subjective guesswork. It’s applicable to every day life and it answers the big questions on how we can solve the big issues facing society today.

photo: jared

Recently, I went to Reading Festival. It’s a weekend music festival with 80,000 people. And as you can imagine, there are some huge effects on the environment from such an event. People burn and dump all kinds of things around the site, leaving both air and ground pollution behind. Not only is it bad for the environment, it’s potentially harmful to the health of the music fans who attend the festival.

I want to focus on three specific issues at Reading Festival:

• There is a huge amount of litter around the site. People don’t bother putting their rubbish in the bin.
• Those who are more considerate for the environment often find the bins will overflow from the sheer amount of trash. Because of the overflowing trash, the busiest parts of the arena had a very pungent foul-smelling stench. And it cost a lot of money for the festival to employ people to regularly empty the bins.
• Some revellers at the festival insist on throwing the contents of their drinks over huge crowds of people, especially in crowded tents. This is a huge nuisance and it’s highly unhygenic. Several friends of mine have told me of instances of people relieving themselves in paper cups and then throwing these over crowds of people – frankly a very disgusting and antisocial thing to do. There is also a risk of injury to the person hit by the bottle/cup.

The festival has a paper cup deposit scheme. The scheme is very simple and straightforward and in my opinion did a great job at changing some of the incentives to reduce litter and anti-social behavior.

It worked by placing a deposit of 10p on the cup which each drink was sold in. A pint of beer would cost somewhere in the region of £3.50 (\$7) which would include 10p which would be refunded when the cup was returned.

This created positive incentives for several different groups of people.

Those who’d have littered:

photo: bobcat rock

The 10p deposit multiplied by the number of drinks consumed over the whole weekend and the number of people in the group would have added up to a fair bit of money. I saw many people who had stacked up whole piles of cups in their backpacks, obviously with the intention of getting their deposits back at the end.

Some people would continue to litter. They would lose their 10p deposit which goes into the coffers to employ somebody who would tidy up the litter.

Those who were anti-social:

The deposit also creates a disincentive to throw the contents of your drink over large crowds of people for the same reasons: you’d never get your 10p back. I would say that this is actually quite a weak incentive as I still saw a fair amount of this happening. Whether me and my friends were drenched in cups of beer, water or urine I’ll never know. But whatever it was, I’m sure it would have been more of a frequent occurance if the deposit system didn’t exist to encourage people to hold on to their empty drink cups.

Those who were environmentally conscious:

photo: Matthew Johnston

I’d like to believe the vast majority of people would look for a bin to throw their rubbish into. For those people, it wouldn’t be any harder for them to hand them in to get a 10p deposit back instead. It’s a great way of rewarding environmentally conscious behaviour.

There are even more environmentally conscious people in society who would pick up other people’s litter in order to keep their own towns, cities and streets clean. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen at festivals because nobody actually lives there – for 360 days a year, they don’t benefit from a cleaner environment at Reading Festival.

The 10p deposit rewarded these more environmentally conscious people and gave them incentives to keep the place tidy. I saw two enterprising girls who, in the interval between two acts, walked through the arena collecting the cups which people had left behind or thrown. They could probably have got a free lunch from the amount of deposit money recieved from returning the cups.

For the festival organisers:

The scheme costs very little. It saves the festival organisers money – the bins don’t fill up as quickly and litter in busy areas (where it would cause the most discomfort to revellers) would quickly be picked up by the revellers themselves. And there is no reason to think that the 10p price hike on all drinks would have caused a fall in sales, because everybody knew they’d get that money back.

Conclusions

photo: Steven Fernandez

This, in my opinion, is economics at it’s best. A scheme which benefits everybody – the organisers who recieve additional funds towards cleanup and have less to cleanup, the music fans who benefit from a more hygenic festival experience and the entrepreneurs who benefit from free lunches at the same time as helping to keep the environment clean. Best of all, it barely costs anybody anything.

Some of the big problems facing society today such as the environment can be solved with bottom-up approaches, harnessing the power of crowd-sourcing and economic incentives. These solutions are simpler, cheaper and infinitely more effective than the centrally-planned approaches such as employing huge armies of litter pickers. That, to me, is the beauty of good economics.

Computers and Climate Change

photo: azrainman

Computing equipment (PCs, computer equipment and data centres) were responsible for 830 million tonnes of CO2 in 2007. That’s 2% of all human CO2 emissions putting IT on a par with aviation. By 2020, many expect IT emissions to increase to 1.4 billion tonnes, with most of that due to corporate data centres.

Sounds bad, right? Not so. An article in the Economist this week discusses the enabling effect of IT.

A study found that by 2020, IT would reduce CO2 emissions in other industries by 7.8 billion tonnes and hence contribute to tackling climate change rather than helping it along. For example, IT enables video conferencing which has a low CO2 footprint compared to air travel which it may replace. Computers can also be used to improve efficiency in all kinds of ways: for example planning a quicker and shorter route for a delivery driver. Obviously that leads to a drop in CO2 emissions in transport.

It’s certainly an interesting article which is worth checking out but I suppose we can live with the knowledge that computers aren’t part of the problem, they are part of the solution.

Cuba the only sustainable developed country in the world

photo: Topyti

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet report (full report as PDF) is an interesting read. Page 19 of the report contains an interesting observation. The graph plots Human Development Index against Ecological Footprint.

The Human Development Index is the UN’s measure for standard of living and development. “Human Development Index (HDI) is an index combining normalized measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita for countries worldwide.” The threshold for acceptable human development is defined as a HDI of 0.8.

The Ecological Footprint measures the use of natural resources and effects on the ecosystem.

It compares human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them. It is an estimate of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate (if possible) the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste, given prevailing technology and current understanding.

An ecological footprint of 1 means that if everybody in the world made use of resources in the same way as the citizens in this country, the Earth could just sustain it. An ecological footprint of 2 means two planet Earths would be needed to sustain this lifestyle if everybody in the world lived like this. Of course, if the ecological footprint is more than one planet Earth, this lifestyle is not sustainable.

photo: Drown

As you’d expect, the two are correlated. The higher the standard of living, the greater the ecological footprint.

It’s interesting to note that the only country which is sustainably developed is Cuba. If everybody on Earth was to adopt the Cuban lifestyle, everybody would have an acceptable standard of living and we would be operating at 80% of our planet’s ecological capacity.

What this suggests is that if everybody in the world adopted the lifestyle of US citizens, we would need more than 5 planet Earths to sustain it. The USA is obviously appropriating well more than it’s fair share of natural resources.

Of course, I’m not seriously suggesting we all adopt Cuban laws and lifestyles but I think it’s a good way of visualising how sustainable the lifestyles of different countries are. Perhaps there are a few ideas we could adopt from Cuba though.

Computers and the environment

photo: Randy Son Of Robert

The Economist has a really good leader this week about Computers and the environment. It is estimated that data centres consumed 0.6% of the world’s electricity in 2000 increasing to 1% by 2005. Data centres are responsible for more CO2 emissions than Argentina or the Netherlands and it is estimated that the carbon footprint of cloud computing will be greater than that of aviation in 10 years.

The corollary of more computing in the sky is more and bigger data centres on earth. These are warehouses packed with humming electronic gear, and in particular thousands of servers, the powerful computers that crunch and dish up data. The biggest facilities are the size of half a dozen football pitches and house as many as 80,000 servers (see article). They are huge energy hogs: in America alone, according to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), data centres already account for 1.5% of electricity consumption.

photo: nattu

There was an interesting analysis at the end of 2006 about the energy consumption of Second Life avatars. Second Life ran 4,000 servers at full power 24/7 and there was an average of 10,000 to 15,000 avatars in Second Life at one time. The annualised power consumption was estimated to be 1,752 kWh. This compares to a worldwide average of 2,436 kWh per year. This means the energy consumption of a second life avatar is roughly the same as a real person. Of course, in developed countries most people consume nearly 8,000 kWh so our digital equivalents are much less power hungry, but it’s still a significant figure. Food for thought perhaps.

The Problem with Fuel Taxes and Road Pricing

photo: 708718

Congestion and pollution are two “external costs to society” which are associated with driving. When you take your car out of the garage and take a trip down to the local supermarket or pick up the kids from school, you are imposing costs on other people: exhaust fumes which others must breathe and you take up space on the road contributing to traffic jams.

To correct for social costs, governments use taxes to make sure the individual pays for the costs they impose on society or to “internalise the external costs”. There are three taxes which are used to try and discourage driving:

• VAT on Buying a Car
• Fuel Tax

People hate taxes. People remark that death and taxes are the only two certain things in life and I think that fuel tax is one of the most hated (in the UK, fuel tax is 64p for every litre). The government argue that this fuel tax is to correct for “external costs” but I will argue that the fuel taxes is unfair and are targeting the wrong people.

The Costs of Driving

photo: Pro-Zak

Urban motorists impose greater external costs on society. City roads are full to their capacity and that means traffic jams everywhere. An extra car on the road is only going to make it worse. Congestion wastes everybody’s time. Secondly, population density is so much higher in cities meaning that the exhaust fumes produced will affect a lot more people. And not to mention noise pollution…

In contrast, rural roads are much quieter and less congested. Because there is so much spare capacity on the roads, an extra car on a rural road isn’t really going to add to congestion or effect anybody else. And although exhaust fumes are still emitted and noise pollution is still produced, it effects a lot less people: there are less people for it to affect.

So the external costs imposed by drivers in cities are greater than the external costs imposed by drivers in the country.

The effects of taxes

photo: kevindooley

When you buy a car, you pay value added tax on the vehicle. To keep the car on the road, you must also pay road tax. Both of these taxes will discourage people to own a car because they increase the cost of owning one. But once you own a car and it’s licensed to drive on the road, these taxes will play no part in your decision about whether to use the car to drive to work or not: whether you use it or not you’ve already paid the tax. And whether you live in the city or the country you pay the same amount of VAT and road tax.

The other tax is fuel tax. This affects people’s decision on whether to drive to work or school. If it costs £2 to drive to work you might choose to do it every day but if it cost £8 you’d probably only drive if it was raining or for some reason the trains weren’t operating.

As I’ve mentioned, the external costs of urban driving are greater. So a fair tax which “internalises external costs” should penalise urban drivers more. But the taxes on urban driving are actually lower than taxes on rural driving. Places in the city are situated much closer to each another and so less fuel is needed to drive between them. As the amount of tax paid is directly linked to the amount of petrol used, this means urban motorists are paying less tax than rural motorists. This is unfair.

Is it essential to drive?

photo: fabbio

Another factor that economists must consider is “how necessary is it to drive?”

In the city, there are a huge range of alternatives to driving. In London, there is a flat rate 90p charge on all bus journeys, where ever in London you go. Buses are also very frequent: you shouldn’t have to wait any more than 10 minutes. I’ve found that I rarely have to wait more than a few minutes.

When I’m in the country, it often costs £3 for a single bus journey and the bus only comes once an hour or sometimes even every 2 hours. And there is about a 20 minute window for the time that the bus arrives.

In the city, everything is also much closer to each another. That makes cycling or walking a much more viable option.

So in the country there is often no choice except from to drive because everything is so far away from each another and there are no viable public transport options. In these areas, motorists must pay extortionate amount of taxes. Meanwhile urban city drivers, with the luxury of viable alternatives such as the bus, escape with lower amounts of tax. I think this is the fundamental unfairness of fuel tax.

Solving the problem

photo: billjacobus1

The problem is that fuel tax penalises the wrong people. The solution is to tax urban drivers more to account for the greater amount of “external costs” they impose by driving.

In London we also have the congestion charge zone (£8 to enter Central London per day) and the low emission zone (£200 per day for heavy polluting vehicles to enter London). I think this somewhat solves the issue but it’s only restricted to London.

A few years ago the Labour government floated plans for a national road charging scheme.

Motorists will receive regular bills, possibly monthly, charged at variable rates by time and geography: rural country lanes would likely be charged at the bottom of the range, around 2p a mile, with inner city rush hour roads attracting the top £1.30 rate. The government hopes motorists will change their driving habits – by staggering journeys, sharing cars or switching to public transport – to the extent that there could be a 50% cut in congestion.

From a point of view of an economist, I feel that this is the perfect solution to the problem. It would reduce congestion which would lead to time savings for everybody and stop country motorists from being unfairly penalised.

In 2007, 1.7 million people signed a petition against the national road charging scheme. The idea seems to have fallen from the agenda. Because of the inherent unfairness in fuel taxation, I hope the government will reconsider a national road charging scheme.

Visualising carbon dioxide emissions

It’s often very hard to visualise carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 is invisible, not only that, the CO2 is released around power stations rather than in our own homes. I was doing a little bit of research for a presentation I’m giving next week and came across the following video from the Victorian Government in Australia. I think it’s a fantastic way to visualise CO2 emissions in an advert.

Each balloon represents 50g of greenhouse gas. You can work out your household CO2 emissions but a typical household might emit about 6 tonnes of CO2. Thats 1.2million of those black balloons.

Improving Energy Efficiency: Can it really save the world?

It’s Earth Day today. This is a day to raise awareness about the environment and issues such as climate change and resource depletion. But I’d like to raise something which is often overlooked though, to do with the economics of climate change. But can we really cut our energy usage by switching to more efficient appliances?

Let’s take energy-saving light bulbs as an example. An standard 100W incandescent light bulb is exceptionally inefficient – it produces about 95% heat, only 5% of that energy is turned into visible and useful light. However, new energy-saving fluorescent light sources can produce the same amount of light for just 20W.

OK, so there are considerations such as the amount of energy which used in manufacturing new fluorescent light bulbs for us to use or the costs of installing additional insulation to reduce heat loss because less heat is now produced by light bulbs. Although they are very valid points, they’re not the issues I wish to explore.

On the face of it, if we all switched from 100W incandescents to 20W fluorescents, there would be a 80% drop in the energy consumption! Hey, presto! But that isn’t the whole story. Because economics tells us that when the price of something falls, consumption increases. In other words, because our lighting systems now consume less energy and cost less to run, people will demand more lighting systems.

Take a look at this graph from the presentation “Energy Services and Energy History: Lighting and Transport in the UK” (slide 11).

The cost of lighting (and efficiency) has been falling steadily since 1300, yet it is obvious that we are using much more lighting now as costs have been falling. Since 1900, the efficiency of lighting improved 50 times. Meanwhile, the amount of lighting used has increased by 155 times. So despite all the huge efficiency improvements over the last 100 years, we’re still using 3x as much as energy as we were before.

What I hope this has demonstrated is that improving energy efficiency won’t necessarily decrease energy usage. But would switching to more energy-efficient bulbs cut energy usage in our developed world today? Perhaps. For me, the cost of leaving the light bulb on is so small that I barely even think about it. So a light bulb which costs less to leave on probably won’t cause me to leave the light on for any longer then I currently do. But in some countries, if the price of leaving the light bulb on is now a fifth, I could envisage households which might decide that rather than just having one light bulb in the lounge on, they could now install a light bulb in every room in the house. This increased usage of lighting would negate any of the benefits of improved energy efficiency.

It might all seem a bit pointless talking about light bulbs, but I chose it as an example because it’s easy to explain and there’s a lot of good data. But this same theory can apply to all kinds of other things.

Let’s say that a new generation of cars has twice the fuel efficiency. This means the cost of running the car is half what it was before. More people will therefore decide to use cars, and perhaps to use cars on those short journeys they wouldn’t have before. Also in the less economically developed countries, this could make running a car a viable proposition for many people.

My conclusion is that we can’t rely on improvements in efficiency to reduce our energy usage. It simply won’t work. In fact, it could even lead to increased energy usage and make things worse. That’s not to say we shouldn’t create efficient light bulbs and cars but they’re not going to save the environment. We need more proactive ways of dealing with our use of fossil fuels.

Unexpected Consequences

There’s an article in this week’s New Scientist (12th April 2008, p17) by William Laurance from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute entitled “Expect the unexpected” which I thought was really interesting. He talks about some of the unexpected ways in which we’re damaging the planet.

Take biofuels. Many countries, including the USA, have promoted biofuels as alternatives to using fossil fuels. Why? Because when you grow corn, the plant will “breathe in” carbon dioxide. When you put it into your car and burn it, it’ll release an equal amount of CO2. So biofuels are supposed to be carbon neutral and won’t contribute to climate change.

In order to encourage people to use biofuels, governments have subsidised them. In essence, they tell farmers that they’ll give them an additional amount of money for every gallon of biofuel they produce, on top of the amount of money they sell it for. This encourages farmers to produce biofuel because they can earn more money from it: basic economics.

So what’s been the effect of this? Well, US farmers have switched from growing soya to growing corn. This made soya more scarce and drove up the price of soya across the world. The higher soya prices then acts as an incentive to others to produce soya; you can now make more money by selling soya.

That’s lead to deforestation in the Amazon in order to clear the way for soya production. And the deforestation has lead to forest fires.

In the Amazon, the trees help to generate their own rainfall. Why? Rain falls and the dense vegetation quickly recycles the moisture, returning it to the atmosphere so it’ll rain again. As deforestation continues, less water vapour is recycled. That means less rain in the future: a feedback loop.

Anyway, I won’t repeat the entire contents of the article as Laurance gives many other examples of unexpected consequences of rising demand for wooden furniture, logging and fishing.

It does really make you think about how everything in the world can be linked together in so many ways and all impact upon each another. In some of my own physics research, I found that an increase in global temperature would lead to a greater occurrence of lightning. Effects of lightning? Forest fires may be created and nitric oxides are produced. A significant number of forest fires could reduce CO2 absorption. Nitric oxides are fertilisers: could this lead to better forest growth? Nitric oxides also lead to the production of ozone in the atmosphere which is a greenhouse gas. More greenhouse gases = further global warming. Did anybody expect that?

The fact is there are just so many different interlinked processes going on in the world around us. It reminds me slightly of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis:

The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis that proposes that living and nonliving parts of the earth are a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism. Named after the Greek earth goddess, this hypothesis postulates that all living things have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that promotes life overall.

It’s a controversial theory. Says Lovelock on climate change:

He says the global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, is simply an attempt to appease a self-regulating Earth system.

Professor Lovelock thinks the Earth’s attempts to restore its equilibrium may eliminate civilisation and most humans.

He wants a rapid end to the destruction of natural habitats, which he says are key to planetary climate and chemistry.