SUMMARY: Super-scientist Mark Jacobson from Stanford explains soot-causing warming + a way to run the world on clean energy by 2030. We visit an Ultra-Mega coal power plant in India. Manzoor Qadir on the farm soil loss larger than France since 1990. Radio Ecoshock 141105

It’s a full show for you this week on Radio Ecoshock. Super-scientist Mark Jacobson from Stanford explains soot-causing warming – plus a way to run the world on clean energy by 2030. We visit an Ultra-Mega coal power plant in India, ten times larger than U.S. stations. It’s already killing people. The show wraps with Manzoor Qadir on the farm soil loss larger than France, just since 1990. You won’t believe what’s killing the land. I’m Alex Smith.


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Trying desperately to find some good news, I thought I’d call up Dr. Mark Jacobson, author of the 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”. Read that article here. Mark could only spare 20 minutes, but how hard could it be?

Doing my usual background research, I discovered I completely underestimated my guest. Jacobson has two big fields of research. Finding answers to the climate threat is just one. Mark is also a distinguished atmospheric scientist with answers to many of the most vexing questions we’ve encountered on Radio Ecoshock. He’s published over 100 papers in the Journal of Geophysical Research, and authored several books. The latest is “Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions“, from Cambridge University Press, in 2011.

Mark Z. Jacobson is the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University. He is a Professor of civil and environmental engineering.

This is important stuff. For example, Jacobson found that about 18% of all carbon emissions come from a source most environmentalists hardly ever think about. The paper is “Effects of biomass burning on climate, accounting for heat and moisture fluxes, black and brown carbon, and cloud absorption effects”. That was published July 27th, 2014 in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Here is a good article on the 18% of global warming from burning biomass figure. The original article containing that figure is here.

So it’s “burning biomass”. What’s that? Think of millions of acres of African grasslands burned every year, as part of agriculture. Actually burning the savannah doesn’t help the soil as the farmers think. But it blows megatones of carbon into the atmosphere, including black soot. More on that in a moment.

Biomass burning also includes all the fires set to destroy forests for more farmland. That’s happening in South America, and yes still in the Amazon. It’s all over the world. Indonesia and Malaysia are forest biomass burning hotspots. This category of carbon sources also includes all the home cooking and heating fires. More than a billion people burn wood or dung to cook and keep warm.

What’s wrong with biomass burning? Here is a summary from Wikipedia:

Using computer modeling he developed over 20 years, Jacobson has found that carbonaceous fuel soot emissions (which lead to respiratory illness, heart disease and asthma) have resulted in 1.5 million premature deaths each year, mostly in the developing world where wood and animal dung are used for cooking. Jacobson has also said that soot from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and burning wood is a ‘bigger cause of global warming than previously thought, and is the major cause of the rapid melting of the Arctic’s sea ice’.

Burning biomass is killing millions of people directly, warming the planet in a big way, and contributing to that “dark snow” and blackened ice in the Arctic (recall Jason Box’s stunning photos of blackened glaciers on Greenland). Darker snow and ice attracts the sun’s heat and melts faster.

Jacobson tells us these soot particles only stay in the atmosphere for a week or two, but that’s long enough for them to sweep around the world, and accumulate in the Arctic.

There’s more. In the interview I ask Mark whether the global dimming effect of burned biomass pollution will be greater than it’s warming impacts. You know that soot in the atmosphere can block some of the sun’s rays, and actually hides up to 1 degree of warming we have already caused, but not yet felt.

Jacobson’s work is original and important in showing that cooling by global dimming is less, and less important, than the various warming impacts of this pollution. In a nutshell:

1. scientists forgot to include the actual heating from the fires themselves. That’s right, massive forest and grass fires cause short-term localized heating, but it all adds up.

2. the black soot tends to disperse cloud formation. That means more sun reaches the surface, warming the planet.

3. as discussed above, once it lands, black soot speeds heating of the earth’s surface, and melting of frozen places

Yes, some of the carbon from burned plant material will be re-absorbed when new plants grow, but the net impacts lead to significant warming. If you want to follow up further, I recommend this 2010 Jacobson paper: “Short-term effects of controlling fossil-fuel soot, biofuel soot and gases, and methane on climate, Arctic ice, and air pollution health.”

Since Jacobson also emphasizes solutions, I ask him to outline some of the ways we could reduce the impacts of biomass burning. Also you can find a good article about soot and global warming here.


Jacobson is one of the few scientists who study both the problems and the solutions. His landmark 2009 article in Scientific American claimed we could power the world with renewable energy alone. We could end the fossil fuel age by 2030. Others say that’s impossible. How could we do it?

Mark outlines the huge untapped potential for renewable energy (solar, wind, tides, etc). He’s very quick on his feet with facts and figures. Listen to the interview.

The National Geographic article sidebar says “The authors’ plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide.”


I raise the objections that listeners send me every time we discuss renewable energy. For example, what about the emissions from building the solar panels or wind machines.

Mark replies that there are several different solar technologies. The most energy intensive are the crystaline solar panels. Even there, it takes six months to a year of using a solar panel (depending on where you live) before you are gaining energy, and saving carbon emissions. Since good panels produce for at least 25 years, that means 24 years of saving carbon with solar. The large solar plants that use mirrors to reflect the sun to a central source use much less carbon to build. Wind machines also produce much more energy than they take to produce.

What about all the birds killed by wind machines, and large solar plants? Yes, the best estimates (by wildlife groups, not industry) are that wind machines currently kill about 500,000 birds a year. Just so you can compare, household cats kill 80 MILLION birds a year. Another 100 million birds a year die from hitting buildings. Maybe we should keep our cats indoors, or put a bell on them, instead of trying to stop wind power?

Mark’s research into “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030” acknowledged two key limitations. The first was a possible shortage of relatively rare elements required for their production. In this interview, Jacobson gives us the numbers, showing there is enough lithium and neodymium already available to power the world with renewables.

The second main hurdle was social, especially finding the political will. We have to tell all the oil and coal workers their jobs are obsolete. Plus the richest people in the world, like the Koch Brothers, have to give up their fossil-fueled wealth. What if we could save a livable climate, but can’t do it socially? That’s a tougher one for a scientist to answer.

But Jacobson does have figures showing there would be a net growth in jobs in a renewable civilization, over the fossil society. The Koch Brothers already have enough money, so we won’t shed a tear for them.

Personally, I think a massive reduction in energy use is part of the answer. But if we don’t go big on solar, wind, and geothermal – I’m reminded of the doomy map produced by James Lovelock for the Royal Society. It showed a wide band of deserts – dead zones – stretching around the world, where large parts of North America, China, and Europe used to be. It’s hard to argue against that cost of not trying for rewewables on a big scale.

This is a really good interview, with one of America’s important scientists. Don’t miss it.

Download or listen to this Mark Jacobson interview (21 minutes) in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


At 4,000 megawatts (when completed) the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) is ten times the size of the average coal generating station in the United States. It’s one of four such monster coal projects in India, as the world’s second most populous country makes a deadly dash for coal power.

Prepare to enter a world of opposites. That’s where a mega coal plant in India is classified as “environmentally friendly technology”. Where electricity customers in Europe can buy credits from a coal plant as a “clean development mechanism”. Where hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars help build that deadly coal project.

We’re going to travel to a small place in the big State of Madhya Pradesh in India. That’s the 6th largest state, with a population of 72 million people, right in the middle of the country. Our destination is the village of Sasan, in the Singrauli district. There we’ll find the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project being built by the Indian Government.

Unlike other big Indian coal plants, this one is not on the coast, ready to accept coal ships from Indonesia or Australia. The Sasan Power Project is fed by 3 Indian coal mines relatively nearby. Our guide today is Nicole Ghio of Sierra Club International.

Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International

This one coal burning complex adds megatons of carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere every year. India, and next-door neighbor Bangladesh will be hit hard by the climate disruption it helps create.

Sierra Club just teamed up with 4 other NGO’s to publish the report titled “The U.S. Export-Import Bank’s Dirty dollars“. The sub-title reads “U.S. tax dollars are supporting human rights, environment, and labor violations at the Sasan Coal-Fired Power Plant and Mine, in India”.

Find that report here.

I’ve learned that the Sasan mega project is owned by Reliance Power, which is in turn part of a business conglomeration owned by Anil Ambani. The families of the two Ambani brothers are listed as the second richest family in the world. The Ambani’s are something like India’s Koch brothers. Reliance Power is a subsidiary of the corporate complex owned since 2005 by Anil Ambani. He is also one of the largest promoters of the Bollywood film industry, and owns 44 radio stations. His business is run from Mumbai.

At a cost of 4 billion dollars, the Sasan coal plant is listed as the single largest industrial project in India’s history. Through a funding agency called the U.S. Import-Export Bank (EX-IM) – the U.S. taxpayer kicked in about 900 million dollars toward this project, as a loan. At first Ex-Im denied the funding for Sasan, as dirty coal. Then they turned around and approved it, after Reliance Power promised to build a comparitively small amount of renewable energy as well. Oh well – that makes all the pollution OK!

The Sasan plant is powered by 3 captive coal mines owned by the Indian government. These mining operations were just slapped by the Indian courts for improper license granting and corruption. They are also deadly, being responsible for severe accidents to miners, including child miners. Nicole Ghio says that when people protest pollution and working conditions, they sometimes “disappear”, or their children do, courtesy, she suspects, of the mine or power plant operators.

Many people were displaced by this large power plant. Some got compensation, others did not. There are still people taking water right near the very toxic giant power plant sludge ponds. The mining overburden covers a big area, and is not well-controlled. It’s an ultra mega mess.

I ask Nicole about the position of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who did not attend the world leaders’ summit on climate change in New York this past September. Ghio says Modi is at least more friendly to renewable energy than his predecessors, and includes in the current five year plan. However, the country is firmly committed to coal, as a way to get electricity to the over 200 million Indian citizens who have no access to electricity.

The problem is, Ghio says, centralized electricity sources don’t work for the power-less. It’s always too profitable to route that power to the Indian Middle Class in urban areas, who can pay the bills. Plus there’s the outrageous cost and power losses that come with establishing a new grid. Solar power right where it’s needed, in the community, on the roof, is a far better answer.

It astounds me that the Sasan coal plant has qualified as a Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, under the Kyoto Protocol. Allegedly that’s because these new coal plants are “super-efficient” getting more power with less coal. But the U.S. built “super-efficient” coal plants in the 1970’s. It’s old tech from an old power source.

If I’m a power grid customer in Europe, part of my bill could go to purchase better sources of power, using the Clean Development Mechanism. Of course, I’ll never know my money is going to pay off the richest family of India, and their coal plant. However, Nicole says this Clean Development Mechanism money has not yet been implemented for the mega coal plants in India. Not yet. It’s insane to call coal good for the climate!!

The big worry for all of us goes beyond the millions of people killed by coal pollution every year. It’s even more serious than the warming and melting of glaciers hastened by the black soot coming out of those stacks. It’s this: if the second-most populous nation of the world, projected to become the most populous, plans it’s modernization on coal, global warming from those emissions could destabilize the whole world. what happens in India is a problem for all of us.

Listen to this 20 minute interview with Nicole Ghio of Sierra Club International in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Find out more in the Sierra Club blog “Compass“. And follow Nicole Ghio on Twitter for the latest on the coal front.


It’s amazing the things we don’t know about the simplest things, like the air, the soil, and the water. Did you know that “freshwater” contains tons of salt? It carries enough that constant irrigation, without proper drainage, can kill off farmland due to salinization. That’s happening all over the world, from Australia’s Murray Darling Basin, to America’s San Joachim Valley, to the Indus valley in Pakistan and India.

When I read that the world is losing 2,000 hectares a day, almost 5,000 acres every day, of valuable farm soil to salt damage – I thought aha! Rising seas are impinging on the deltas. No, this is a completely different problem brought on by human agriculture. Valuable crop land is disappearing just as our increasing population needs it most.

Here to explain is lead researcher Manzoor Qadir. He’s the Assistant Director, of Water and Human Development, at the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Based in Canada now, Dr. Qaadir has taught in Germany and Pakistan. He was a senior scientist at ICARDA, the global agricultural research center.

There is a solution for salt degradation: proper drainage and water circulation. That’s been done on a large scale in the Murray Darling Basin in Australia, and it’s working. Governments have to take the lead. Individual farmers can’t do it.

Download or listen to this 15 minute Radio Ecoshock interview with Manzoor Qadir in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Learn more about salt degradation of farmland in this Al Jazeera piece.


If you are in the New England region, plan to attend the “Restoring Ecosystems to Reverse Global Warming” Conference at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. That’s being held November 21-23, 2014. Find the details here.

Two of the big speakers that caught my eye are on Friday evening: Bill Moomaw, from the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, and Adam Sacks, the Executive Director of the organization Biodiversity for a Livable Climate. Full disclosure: I got this tip from Karl Thidemann, also with Biodiversity for a Livable Climate.

Karl’s a remarkable man, being one of the pioneers of the electric car. He’s never given up organizing for solutions to climate change. We’ve been email buddies for years now. Karl never misses a chance to tell people about Alan Savory and his technique to restore land with properly managed cattle. It may be one of the few ways to capture large-scale carbon back into the soil. You can find Savory’s TED talk here on You tube. Even Richard Branson tweeted about that one.

Bill McKibben and Paul Hawken have been tweeting about this upcoming New England conference. Plus, expect to find a speaker from the New England group Mothers Out Front.

You may recall in my interview with George Marshall last spring, he told us young mothers are the least likely to want to talk about climate change. I said mothers are the people we need most in the movement. And here you go, Mothers Out Front is organizing, and hoping to spread. I’ll see if we can get an interview with them.


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