WHY DO POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC LEADERS DENY PEAK OIL AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

23 08 2018

By Alice Friedemann, originally published by Energy Skeptic

Since there’s nothing that can be done about climate change, because there’s no scalable alternative to fossil fuels, I’ve always wondered why politicians and other leaders, who clearly know better, feel compelled to deny it. I think it’s for exactly the same reasons you don’t hear them talking about preparing for Peak Oil.

1) Our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels. To extend the oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a “Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure, railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency, and other obvious actions.

Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing countries. Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per barrel), is a huge disadvantage. I think the military route was chosen in the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from other nations. Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central banks keep lending us money.

2) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have any alternatives. Already Californians are seeing public television shows and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind, solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.

For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected to it. But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have. So you could be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.

[ED: read this about the impossibility of California going 100% renewables]

I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet. I gave my “Peak Soil” talk to a critical thinking group, very bright people, sparkling, interesting, well-read, thoughtful, and to my great surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so few people understand the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale of what fossil fuels do for us. I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a group before that wasn’t aware of the problem, I wished I were a counselor as well. The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we might not be driven extinct by global warming, which most past mass extinctions were caused by.

3) As the German military peak oil study stated, when investors realize Peak Oil is upon us, stock markets world-wide will crash (if they haven’t already from financial corruption), as it will be obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their money back.

4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the “Last Man (nation) Standing“. So leaders want to keep things going smoothly as long as possible. And everyone is hoping the crash is “not on my watch” — who wants to take the blame?

5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and have no solution to offer besides consuming less. Endless Growth is the platform of both the Republican and Democratic parties. More Consumption and “Drill, Baby, Drill” is the main plan to get out of the current economic and energy crises.

There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil) without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?

There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life, which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on growth for their survival. Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels. All that matters to politicians is the next election. So who’s going to work on a future problem with no solution? Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).

I first became aware of this at the 2005 ASPO Denver conference. Denver Mayor Hickenlooper pointed out that one of his predecessors lost the mayoral election because he didn’t keep the snow plows running after a heavy snow storm. He worried about how he’d keep snow plows, garbage collection, and a host of other city services running as energy declined.

A Boulder city council member at this conference told us he had hundreds of issues and constituents to deal with on a daily basis, no way did he have time to spend on an issue beyond the next election.

Finally, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett told us that there was no solution, and he was angry that we’d blown 25 years even though the government knew peak was coming. His plan was to relentlessly reduce our energy demand by 5% per year, to stay under the depletion rate of declining oil. But not efficiency — that doesn’t work due to Jevons paradox.

The only solution that would mitigate suffering is to mandate that women bear only one child. Fat chance of that ever happening when even birth control is controversial, and Catholics are outraged that all health care plans are now required to cover the cost of birth control pills. Congressman Bartlett, in a small group discussion after his talk, told us that population was the main problem, but that he and other politicians didn’t dare mention it. He said that exponential growth would undo any reduction in demand we could make, and gave this example: if we have 250 years left of reserves in coal, and we turn to coal to replace oil, increasing our use by 2% a year — a very modest rate of growth considering what a huge amount is needed to replace oil — then the reserve would only last 85 years. If we liquefy it, then it would only last 50 years, because it takes a lot of energy to do that.

Bartlett was speaking about 250 years of coal reserves back in 2005. Now we know that the global energy from coal may have peaked last year, in 2011 (Patzek) or will soon in 2015 (Zittel). Other estimates range as far as 2029 to 2043. Heinberg and Fridley say that “we believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.” (Heinberg).

6) Political (and religious) leaders gain votes, wealth, and power by telling people what they want to hear. Several politicians have told me privately that people like to hear good news and that politicians who bring bad news don’t get re-elected. “Don’t worry, be happy” is a vote getter. Carrying capacity, exponential growth, die-off, extinction, population control — these are not ideas that get leaders elected.

7) Everyone who understands the situation is hoping The Scientists Will Come up With Something. Including the scientists. They’d like to win a Nobel prize and need funding. But researchers in energy resources know what’s at stake with climate change and peak oil and are as scared as the rest of us. U.C.Berkeley scientists are also aware of the negative environmental impacts of biofuels, and have chosen to concentrate on a politically feasible strategy of emphasizing lack of water to prevent large programs in this from being funded (Fingerman). They’re also working hard to prevent coal fired power plants from supplying electricity to California by recommending natural gas replacement plants instead, as well as expanding the grid, taxing carbon, energy efficiency, nuclear power, geothermal, wind, and so on — see http://rael.berkeley.edu/projects for what else some of UCB’s RAEL program is up to. Until a miracle happens, scientists and some enlightened policy makers are trying to extend the age of oil, reduce greenhouse gases, and so on. But with the downside of Hubbert’s curve so close, and the financial system liable to crash again soon given the debt and lack of reforms, I don’t know how long anyone can stretch things out.

8) The 1% can’t justify their wealth or the current economic system once the pie stops expanding and starts to shrink. The financial crisis will be a handy way to explain why people are getting poorer on the down side of peak oil too, delaying panic perhaps.

Other evidence that politicians know how serious the situation is, but aren’t saying anything, are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett’s youtube videos (Urban Danger). He’s the Chairman of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, and he’s saying “get out of dodge” to those in the know. He’s educated all of the representatives in the House, but he says that peak oil “won’t be on their front burner until there’s an oil shock”.

9) Less than one percent of our elected leaders have degrees in science. They’re so busy raising money for the next election and their political duties, that even they may not have time to read enough for a “big picture view” of (systems) ecology, population, environment, natural resources, biodiversity / bioinvasion, water, topsoil and fishery depletion, and all the other factors that will be magnified when oil, the master resource that’s been helping us cope with these and many other problems, declines.

10) Since peak fossil fuel is here, now (we’re on a plateau), there’s less urgency to do something about climate change for many leaders, because they assume, or hope, that the remaining fossil fuels won’t trigger a runaway greenhouse. Climate change is a more distant problem than Peak Oil. And again, like peak oil, nothing can be done about it. There’s are no carbon free alternative liquid fuels, let alone a liquid fuel we can burn in our existing combustion engines, which were designed to only use gasoline. There’s no time left to rebuild a completely new fleet of vehicles based on electricity, the electric grid infrastructure and electricity generation from windmills, solar, nuclear, etc., are too oil dependent to outlast oil. Batteries are too heavy to ever be used by trucks or other large vehicles, and require a revolutionary breakthrough to power electric cars.

11) I think that those who deny climate change, despite knowing it is real, are thinking like chess players several moves ahead. They hope that by denying climate change an awareness of peak oil is less likely to occur, and I’m guessing their motivation is to keep our oil-based nation going as long as possible by preventing a stock market crash, panic, social disorder, and so on.

12) Politicians and corporate leaders probably didn’t get as far as they did without being (techno) optimists, and perhaps really believe the Scientists Will Come Up With Something. I fear that scientists are going to take a lot of the blame as things head South, even though there’s nothing they can do to change the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Conclusion

We need government plans or strategies at all levels to let the air out of the tires of civilization as slowly as possible to prevent panic and sudden discontinuities.

Given history, I can’t imagine the 1% giving up their wealth (especially land, 85% of which is concentrated among 3% of owners). I’m sure they’re hoping the current system maintains its legitimacy as long as possible, even as the vast majority of us sink into 3rd world poverty beyond what we can imagine, and then are too poor and hungry to do anything but find our next meal.

Until there are oil shocks and governments at all levels are forced to “do something”, it’s up to those of us aware of what’s going on to gain skills that will be useful in the future, work to build community locally, and live more simply. Towns or regions that already have or know how to implement a local currency fast will be able to cope better with discontinuities in oil supplies and financial crashes than areas that don’t.

The best possible solution is de-industrialization, starting with Heinberg’s 50 million farmers, while also limiting immigration, instituting high taxes and other disincentives to encourage people to not have more than one child so we can get under the maximum carrying capacity as soon as possible.

Hirsch recommended preparing for peak 20 years ahead of time, and we didn’t do that. So many of the essential preparations need to be at a local, state, and federal level, they can’t be done at an individual level. Denial and inaction now are likely to lead to millions of unnecessary deaths in the future. Actions such as upgrading infrastructure essential to life, like water delivery and treatment systems (up to 100 years old in much of America and rusting apart), sewage treatment, bridges, and so on. After peak, oil will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food, with the remaining energy trickling down to other essential services — probably not enough to build new infrastructure, or even maintain what we have.

I wish it were possible for scientists and other leaders to explain what’s going on to the public, but I think scientists know it wouldn’t do any good given American’s low scientific literacy, and leaders see the vast majority of the public as big blubbering spoiled babies, like the spaceship characters on floating chairs in Wall-E, who expect, no demand, happy Hollywood endings.

References

If you want an article to send to a denier you know, it would be hard to do better than Donald Prothero’s “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused“.

Fingerman, Kevin. 2010. Accounting for the water impacts of ethanol production. Environmental Research Letters.

Heinberg, R and Fridley, D. 18 Nov 2010. The end of cheap coal. New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future. Nature, vol 468, pp 367-69.

Patzek, t. W. & Croft, G. D. 2010. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy 35, 3109–3122.

Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Land, Energy, and Water. The Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size. Negative Population Growth.

Smil, V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

Urban Danger. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett youtube videos:

Zittel, W. & schindler, J. energy Watch Group, Paper no. 1/07 (2007); available at http:// go.nature.com/jngfsa

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The Third Industrial Revolution

21 08 2018

I belong to a degrowth group on facebook. The owner of this group posted a link to a youtube video titled “The Third Industrial Revolution: A Radical New Sharing Economy”. I downloaded it sight unseen so that I could watch it on my TV while it’s Jeremy_Rifkinpissing down with rain outside and I frankly have nothing else better to do……. luckily for those up North in terrible drought, we’ll be sending some your way next weekend. I’ve never liked Jeremy Rifkin’s crazy ideas, and had I realised he was the star attraction of this film, I probably would not have downloaded it in the first place, but having done so, and under the abovemnetioned weather conditions, I went ahead anyway……

The first half hour was for me the best part, because he clearly explains – with some crucial left out items – why we’re in deep shit. What really leaves me flumoxed is how someone who clearly understands thermodynamics and entropy cannot come to grips with their repercussions.

A ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ Would Seal Our Fate — Why Jeremy Rifkin is Dead Wrong

For me, it was extraordinarily hard to find where to start my criticism — not because of the lack of strength of his arguments, but simply because it is just plain hard to even know where to start! Explaining in the face of such universal ignorance of simple ecological limits and boundaries, and for such a long (1 3/4 hours) presentation, I fear I may ramble a bit during this difficult essay.

While I hope this post won’t offend anyone, I just think that some of us have to speak up to show him and his admirers that our generation blindly following his progressivist ideas  – at least not in its entirety – is almost as dumb as doing nothing at all…..

His ideas are not ‘radically new’. they are just a new version of the same old ‘more is better’ paradigm — more technology, more energy, more people, more jobs, more work, more impact, more control. He is after all a business man, and his main problem is that he simply doesn’t get the growth problem…. Maybe we have to try something that really is completely new:

Small is better. Simple is better. Local is better. Independent is better.

Less technology, less pollution, fewer cars (to be fair, he does say we’ll reduce the number of cars by 85%), fewer airplanes,  highways, fewer shopping malls, less noise, less trade, less work, less destruction, less disruption, less control, less worries… This doesn’t sound so bad after all, does it? But it is the complete opposite of what Rifkin has in mind for this world……

He makes it quite clear that in his ‘radically’ new economy, everything is smart. Smart phones, smart vehicles, smart roads and smart houses…..  he talks of retrofitting houses, which I know from experience does not work. Once you’ve built a lemon, a lemon it remains. That’s why I’m going through all the hassles of building my own…

There are serious concerns, expressed many times in this very blog, about the environmental impact that such changes would bring about. As far as we know it is highly unlikely that we have sufficient reserves of resources for producing so called “green/clean” technologies, on a global scale, good enough to replace the current, all-encompassing, fossil fuel-based system……

From what I saw in the video, there will be markets, corporations, stocks, products, consumers, factories, roads, cars, drones, workers, bosses, currency, more debts, taxes, laws — which all seems an awful lot like the system we currently have…. A truly ‘radical’ new economy would, surely, not see the exact same elements as its predecessor?

Rifkin forgets that there already was a “sharing economy”, usually referred to as ‘gift economy’ by anthropologists, and that this original sharing economy lasted for over 95% of our species’ two-hundred-thousand-years existence here on Earth. Ironically, this ancient economic system happens to be the closest to a sustainable form of economy that we have ever known. No resource was overexploited, no ecosystem disrupted and absolutely no pollution resulted….  and most of that was the result of infinitesimally smaller population numbers.

While it’s obvious Rifkin has some understanding of science, he remains an economist after all! Here are some of his failings as I see them…..

Chemistry

Chemistry matters because when we look at the periodic table of elements, we see all there is in our world. In the whole Universe actually… There are only 118 elements available to us. And we will never find replacements for those elements, they simply do not exist…… Of increasing interest are 17 different Rare Earth Elements (REE’s), elements 57–71 (the lanthanides) and scandium and yttrium, most of which are used to create solar panels, batteries, magnets, displays and touchscreens, hardware and other advanced technological appliances.

Figure 1. Slide by Alicia Valero showing that almost the entire periodic table of elements is used for computers.

To obtain them we have to rape and pillage the biosphere. This puts us into a predicament that Rifkin fails to address.  Those elements are used because of their unique and desirable qualities, such as the ability to absorb certain wavelengths (particularly efficient in the case of solar panels), produce strong magnets for the massive generators used in wind turbines, and colorful lights for the displays of our mobile phones, computers and TV’s.

Of the 17 REE’s, the only one that is not found in smartphones is the radioactive promethium! I guess the line is drawn at putting radioactive stuff to one’s ear….. Modern smartphones contain almost three quarters of all the elements in the periodic table, and all of them are essential for those devices to function. It is chemically not possible to create something like a smartphone without certain elements; and it is impossible to obtain those elements without destroying vast swaths of the already battered environment.

Geology

From a geological point of view Rifkin’s plans are highly unlikely. We simply don’t have enough resources left to do any of his proposed ‘revolutions’ in the realms of energy and communication.

Biology

Overshoot is what happens when a species follows simple biological laws: if you increase the food availability of any species, its population will increase, period. This is what we humans have done for the past 10,000 years, since the widespread adoption of agriculture. As a result of the food surplus that industrial agriculture creates (as opposed to the “just-enough” food quantity obtained by foragers), human population exploded. The biggest increase in human population was directly caused by the “Green” Revolution, when fossil fuelled chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were first used on a continental scale. It was like agriculture on steroids…..

I didn’t realise Rifkin was a vegetarian/vegan activist until watching this. He yet again displays his ignorance of the difference between industrial animal husbandry and regenerative agriculture, which, in my not so humble opinion, will be the third revolution…. Maybe someone needs to invent smart cows! Just kidding…….

The fact that Rifkin fails to adequately address overpopulation is reason enough for me to question his competence.

Ecology

Ecosystems function best and are at their most stable, resilient and effective when all components stay within their naturally imposed limits. From an ecological view, anthropocentrism has no foundation whatsoever. Instead of controlling our environment, we would have to let go of all control and hand the reins back to Mother Nature…… Ecosystems are networks (Rifkin, fond of technological and digital metaphors, would probably call them an ‘Internet’!) that seem resilient even when they suffer severe damage. But once a ‘tipping point’ is reached, like human overshoot, collapse is rapid and ruthless. The first of those tipping points might be reached as soon as the 2020’s mark, with increasingly extreme weather events threatening breadbasket regions around the world. Rifkin’s assertion that we have forty years to fix the mess just blew me away…..

Like it or not, we are inevitably a part of the ecosystem surrounding us, whether we act like it or not. Everything we do – and nothing we do is sustainable – has a direct impact on our immediate environment. Thanks to globalization, ecosystems are now impacted on a global scale.

The extraction and processing of REM’s needed to produce all our technology is directlysamarco connected to the destruction of ecosystems all around the globe. Several major ecological catastrophes were directly caused by the mining and extraction of REE’s, such as the Samarco tailings dam collapse (2015) in Brazil or the silicon tetrachloride spill by a solar energy company in Henan province, China (2008). As implied by  recent, peer reviewed study (paywall) in the prestigious journal Nature, there is no reason to believe that this risk is going to decrease if global demand rises as predicted by all involved scholars and institutions.

Green Clean Smart technology

It should be obvious by now, especially to all followers of this blog, that neither solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric facilities, and electric cars, nor smartphones, computers and other high-tech gadgets come even close to being what might be termed “green” or “clean”. But what Rifkin proposes is nothing short of megalomania.

Smartphones (smart vehicles, smart roads, smart houses, smart toilets and any other ‘smart’ gadget), computers, televisions, electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, lasers, camera lenses, missiles and numerous other technologies all contain a broad spectrum of rare earth elements (REE’s), without which the production of those gadgets would be utterly impossible (strictly chemically speaking). The production and use of ‘screens’ technology alone, according to Jancovici, consumes one third of all the electricity produced worldwide….. The growth of renewables cannot even keep up with the growth of the internet.

Rifkin makes much ado about a meeting he had with Angela Merkel – herself a scientist – and the amount of renewable energy deployed in Germany, claiming Germany gets 30% of its electricity from these technologies. This isn’t even true…. it might be correct on paper, and on perfect days even more might be generated, but his hopium filled rhetoric would have you believe his dream is already happening…..  it isn’t. The recent demolition of a historic church to clear the way for the expansion of an open-cast brown coal mine has outraged locals in western Germany and environmentalists, as politicians moot giving up their own clean energy targets…….

Many of the minerals needed to produce smartphones and electric vehicles are considered ‘conflict minerals’ and are mined under slave-like conditions in Congo and other ‘undeveloped’ countries. The most common conflict minerals, cassiterite (a byproduct of tin mining), wolframite (extracted from tungsten), coltan (extracted from tantalum), cobalt, and gold ore, are all mined in eastern Congo. There is ample evidence to assume that Western corporations have a high economic interest in the region remaining unstable, since they get much better prices for the minerals desperately needed for the production of mobile phones, laptops, and other digital technology

It is impossible to produce even a single smartphone without causing enormous damage to the biosphere in the process. As the graphic above shows (click on it for a larger view), the materials and compounds come from all corners of the world and have to be transported conveniently and cheaply for the industry to continue to function properly and profitably. Container vessels are the backbone of the global economy, and without them nothing would function. They can’t be replaced with anything “renewable”, since no electric engine has as yet been invented that can move such masses over distances longer than 80km!!  The 16 biggest container ships (out of a total of about 100,000 vessels) produce as much pollution as all the cars in the world….

In case you’ve never heard this before, the shipping lobby works hard to hide and downplay their impact on climate breakdown from the public.  The UN body that polices the world’s shipping business, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has been absent without leave when it comes to avoiding or even addressing pollution caused by those ships.  By international law, nobody is allowed to burn the thick, sulphur-laden fuel  called bunker oil,  yet the shipping industry does not have to comply with that law. And sulphur is far from being the only pollutant. Every year it is estimated that container vessels belch out one billion tons of CO2 , as much as the entire aviation industry……. click on image for larger view.

Deindustrialise or perish

When we take a careful look at our species’ short history, it becomes obvious in which direction we must go. We got along quite well before people started thinking that they were better than other creatures, and better than their fellow men, the new mindset that emerged after the Agricultural Revolution……..entropy

If we want to stop pathological behavior, pollution, destruction, violence, chronic depression and mental health problems, discontent, and exploitation, if we want to share real things, communicate meaningfully, live in harmony with the biosphere, and nurture the world around us, we have to recognize our true Nature:  The Nature within us, the Wilderness that still lays deep in our heart, and the Nature and the Wilderness that are still around us, the biosphere, at the edges of the wastelands we’ve created and in between the cracks in the asphalt and the concrete we’ve coated the living Earth with, and that they are actually the same.





Money trees are magical; energy trees are not

9 08 2018

Another excellent post from the Consciousness of Sheep……..  a bit anglo-centric, but easily applies to anywhere not least Australia.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Equating money with wealth is among the most dangerous delusions currently afflicting humanity.

This is, perhaps, understandable given that so few people now have access to money in the quantities needed to improve their lives.

Government, meanwhile, effectively lies when it points to the various pots of money that it has allocated to this or that infrastructure, entitlement or service.  This is mendacious because money from central government is allocated as a block grant to local government and other public bodies.  In total, these public bodies lack the income to fund their legal responsibilities.  As a result, money that was theoretically allocated to provide for such things as mental health beds, fixing potholes and a host of other discretionary activities is actually deployed in firefighting the collapse of mandatory services like child welfare or social care for the elderly.

The solution to this for many in the political sphere is to loosen the purse strings.  Quite correctly, they identify the central flaw in the pronouncements of duplicitous politicians like Theresa May and Phillip Hammond; who tell us that “there isn’t a magic money tree.”  Because… well… actually, yes there is.  It’s called the Bank of England.  And were politicians to instruct it to do so, it can spirit into existence as much new currency as it likes.

The conventional way in which central banks spirit money into existence is via the issuance of government debt.  Government issues a bond (called a Gilt-Edged Security in the UK) which is auctioned to a closed group of banks and financial institutions.  The central bank then spirits new money into existence and uses it to buy these bonds back.  That new money then enters the economy via the financial sector.

This, of course, is no more than tradition.  There is nothing to prevent the central bank from conjuring new money out of thin air and then distributing it directly into the bank accounts of every citizen.  Indeed, this is one of the points made by those who favour some form of Universal Basic Income as an alternative to the UK’s overly bureaucratic and increasingly ineffective social security system.  The reason that money is not created in this way is simply that channelling it through the banking and financial system favours the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the wider population.

Midway between the current practice of handing new money to the already wealthy – who get to enjoy it before inflation devalues it – and channelling it directly to the people, is the proposed creation of a national investment bank.  Whereas feeding new money to the already wealthy serves only to inflate asset bubbles in unproductive areas like property, fine art and collectibles, an investment bank could provide funding for national infrastructure development.  This, in turn, would provide new jobs as well as enhancing the productivity of the economy as a whole.

The only requirement of any of these forms of currency creation is that the government removes sufficient money from the economy through taxation to prevent inflation running out of control.  Herein, however, is the problem that has vexed governments down the ages.  Exactly how much money does the government need to remove from the economy to prevent inflation?

The current practice of giving new money to the already wealthy requires very little government action.  The central bank practice of raising interest rates is considered sufficient.  This is because, like taxes, debt repayment is a means of removing currency from the economy.  Just as banks create new currency when they make loans, so currency is destroyed when loans are repaid.  When the interest rate rises, an additional proportion of the currency in circulation has to be destroyed in order to pay the higher charge.

Once governments start moving new currency directly into the economy – either through investment banks or direct transfers to people’s bank accounts – taxation has to be adjusted accordingly in order to prevent the money supply growing too high and causing inflation.

The problem is that just as central banks cause financial crises by raising interest rates beyond the point where creditors begin to default; governments have a habit of causing crises by allowing too much new currency to be created.  It is all too easy for politicians – who need to get re-elected – to promise new investments in popular services – without thinking about the impact of that new spending on the broader economy.  In the 1970s, the impact of this kind of currency creation was so great that governments around the world handed control of their money supply to the banking sector; and passed legislation and entered into treaties (like Maastricht) that forbid direct government money printing (states are permitted to bail out banks, but not businesses or citizens).

The inflation of the 1970s is explained in economics textbooks as being the result of profligate governments playing fast and loose with their national economies.  The difficulty with that explanation, however, is that exactly the same money creation policies kick-started the greatest economic expansion the world has ever seen.  The post-war Marshall Aid programme which printed new dollars into existence in order to rebuild the shattered economies of Western Europe and Japan, together with the spending programme of Britain’s Labour government (which didn’t receive Marshall Aid), paved the way for the twenty-year boom 1953-73.  With western growth rates similar to those claimed by modern China, states using newly created currency to invest in and grow the economy became the economic orthodoxy for three decades.

If the supposed relationship between money printing and economic growth and crisis is beginning to sound like a false correlation to you, it is because it is.  It is what I refer to as “the Keynesian paradox.”

Having witnessed the austerity, depression and eventual rise of fascism in the aftermath of the First World War, economist John Maynard Keynes argued that the big mistake made in 1919 was for governments to return to the economic orthodoxy of the pre-war years.  This had resulted in austerity policies at home and the imposition of reparations on the defeated enemy.  What Keynes argued for was close to what the US delivered in 1945, when it realised its best protection against the Soviet Union was a prosperous, interconnected western bloc.

Keynes’ proposition was straightforward enough: if you give newly created money to a wealthy person, they will exchange it for some form of unproductive asset – a house, a piece of art, a vintage car, etc.  If, on the other hand, you give the same new money to a poor person, they will spend it all more or less immediately – on necessities like food, rent, fuel and clothing.  In this way, new currency distributed to the poor would quickly circulate around the economy; stimulating growth.

Keynes was correct in terms of money flows but wrong about growth.  Indeed, there was a period in European history – the years following the colonisation of the Americas – when a sudden influx of new money (in the form of the gold and silver shipped back to Spain) had exactly the opposite effect.  Without the influx of precious metals from the Americas, the Hapsburg Empire might have gone on to become the United States of Europe.  Instead, it experienced a prolonged and ruinous period of inflation that resulted in internal revolt and division.  In effect, the sudden influx of precious metals had the effect of devaluing the gold and silver (and money based upon it) already in circulation; manifesting as rapidly rising prices across the economy.

More recently, excessive money printing (in order to inflate away reparation debt) in Germany resulted in the runaway inflation of 1924 that helped propel Hitler and the Nazis onto the world stage.

This is the Keynesian Paradox.  An economic policy (Marshall Aid) that patently kick-started the largest economic boom in history, also created the inflation of the sixteenth century and the stagflation of the 1970s.

Might this suggest that there was some deeper factor common to sixteenth century Europe and the 1970s that was absent or opposite to conditions in the late 1940s?  What else happened in the 1970s?  The world experienced a major oil shock as US reserves were no longer sufficient to regulate global oil prices.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, global oil production grew exponentially; fuelling the boom.  That came to an end in 1973:

World oil production exponential-linear
Source: The Oil Drum/COS

In the period since 1973, oil production has continued to grow; but growth has been linear.  The result is that the rates of growth enjoyed in the west between 1953 and 1973 are never coming back.  Indeed, much of the oil we are adding to the mix today is expensive; giving it a much lower value to the economy than the oil being produced in the aftermath of the Second World War.

One of Keynes’ contemporaries – English Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy – understood this far better than Keynes:

“Still one point seemed lacking to account for the phenomenal outburst of activity that followed in the Western world the invention of the steam engine, for it could not be ascribed simply to the substitution of inanimate energy for animal labour. The ancients used the wind in navigation and drew upon water-power in rudimentary ways. The profound change that then occurred seemed to be rather due to the fact that, for the first time in history, men began to tap a large capital store of energy and ceased to be entirely dependent on the revenue of sunshine…

“Then came the odd thought about fuel considered as a capital store, out of the consumption of which our whole civilisation, in so far as it is modern, has been built. You cannot burn it and still have it, and once burnt there is no way, thermodynamically, of extracting perennial interest from it. Such mysteries are among the inexorable laws of economics rather than of physics. With the doctrine of evolution, the real Adam turns out to have been an animal, and with the doctrine of energy the real capitalist proves to be a plant. The flamboyant era through which we have been passing is due not to our own merits, but to our having inherited accumulations of solar energy from the carboniferous era, so that life for once has been able to live beyond its income. Had it but known it, it might have been a merrier age!”

The economic expansion that Soddy correctly attributed to the fossilised sunlight locked up in coal deposits was to be multiplied a hundredfold by the oil-based expansion that followed the Second World War.  And indeed, had we known that it was oil rather than one or other version of politics or economics that was responsible for our brief period of prosperity, our age too might have been merrier.

In this, the sixteenth century Europeans might have had something to tell us; because they also experienced an energy crisis.  Given that this was a period when economies ran entirely on renewable energy, there is a corrective here too for those who imagine that returning to some pre-industrial idyll might be our salvation.  Sixteenth century Europeans chopped down their forests at a much faster rate than the trees could be regrown.  As historian Clive Ponting notes:

“A timber shortage was first noticed in Europe in specialised areas such as shipbuilding… In the 1580s when Philip II of Spain built the armada to sail against England and the Dutch had to import timber from Poland… Local sources of wood and charcoal were becoming exhausted – given the poor state of communications and the costs involved it was impossible to move supplies very far.  As early as 1560 the iron foundries of Slovakia were forced to cut back production as charcoal supplies began to dry up.  Thirty years later the bakers of Montpellier in the South of France had to cut down bushes to heat their ovens because there was no timber left in their town…”

Creating new currency – in this case the new precious metals from the Americas – into an economy that has outrun its energy supplies could only result in inflation because without sufficient energy there could be no economic growth.  Only when new sources of energy – in this case, coal from the Severn Valley – can be brought into production does the economy recover and a new round of economic growth begin.

When western states printed new currency into existence to rebuild their war-torn economies in the years after 1945, they did so while almost all of the planet’s oil deposits were still in the ground.  Much of the new currency was invested into economic activities that required oil for manufacture and/or transportation.  That, in turn, meant that a proportion of the new currency found its way into the accounts of the big oil companies; who used it to open up the vast oil reserves around the planet.  It was this cheap, abundant reserve of oil that allowed for massive currency creation without generating inflation.  It was precisely at the point when money creation overshot oil production that the inflation of the 1970s set in.

Fast-forward to the very different world of 2018: World production of “conventional” crude oil peaked in 2005.  The resulting inflation – followed by the inevitable interest rate rises – triggered the worst financial collapse in living memory.  Oil production is still, just about, increasing; but only at great expense.  Low quality and expensive oil from fracking, tar sands and ultra-deep water is keeping the economy going; but only at the cost of obliging us – businesses and households – to devote a greater part of our income to energy (either directly or through the energy embodied in the goods and services we purchase).

Unlike money trees, there is nothing magical about oil (which, a handful of electric cars aside, still powers almost all of our agricultural, industrial and transportation vehicles and machinery).  Even now, there is more oil beneath the ground than we have used so far.  But most of what is left is going to stay in the ground simply because it is too expensive (i.e. it requires too much energy) to extract.

Alternative energy sources do not really exist, other than by sleight of hand.  Most often, this is done simply by conflating electricity with energy.  But the crisis we face is primarily a liquid fuel crisis.  As such, the electrical energy generated by a wind turbine or a nuclear plant is irrelevant.  What has actually happened has nothing to do with ending our use of fossil fuels.  Rather, states around the world have turned to alternative fossil fuels – coal and gas – together with renewables and nuclear to free up the remaining extractable oil for use in industry, agriculture and transportation.  Oil consumption, however, continues to rise, because without it growth would end and the mountain of debt-based currency would collapse around our ears.

This brings us back to the money question.  There is a growing belief that the solution to our problems will come in the form of a switch from austerity economics to an expansionary policy based on distributing newly created currency via investment banks and/or universal basic incomes.  This, however, is highly unlikely to succeed until or unless we find a means of massively increasing the energy available (at the point of use) to the economy to counteract the decline in affordable oil that is beginning to emerge (replacing unaffordable oil with unaffordable renewables doesn’t really count).

Politically, the demand for an end to austerity is becoming irresistible.  We already see its manifestation in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist (right and left) parties across Europe.  Around the world, the people have put the elites on notice that they will no longer tolerate an economy in which a tiny handful of kleptocrats continue to accumulate wealth via a rigged financial system while everyone else sees their standard of living plummet.

The mistake, however, would be to assume that simply printing currency will solve the problem.  Without useable energy to back it up, new currency is worthless.  Its only role is to steal a fraction of all of the currency already in circulation.  This may have small benefits if channelled to ordinary people, since it will be the accumulated currency of the wealthy that is devalued the most – a kind of hidden tax.  But the ensuing price increases are far more likely to be experienced by those at the bottom of the income scale; as their ability to pay for necessities is rapidly eroded.

The crisis of our age, then, is not to pick the fruit of the magic money tree; but to discover the location of the magic energy tree whose fruit has fertilised the money tree for the past 250 years.  Sadly, that magic (fossilised sunlight) energy tree has shrivelled with age.  We may never see its like again.





Not so renewables

12 05 2018

Lifted from the excellent consciousness of sheep blog…..

For all practical purposes, solar energy (along with the wind, waves and tides that it drives) is unending.  Or, to put it more starkly, the odds of human beings being around to witness the day when solar energy no longer exists are staggeringly low.  The same, of course, cannot be said for the technologies that humans have developed to harvest this energy.  Indeed, the term “renewable” is among the greatest PR confidence tricks ever to be played upon an unsuspecting public, since solar panels and wind (and tidal and wave) turbines are very much a product of and dependent upon the fossil carbon economy.

Until now, this inconvenient truth has not been seen as a problem because our attention has been focussed upon the need to lower our dependency on fossil carbon fuels (coal, gas and oil).  In developed states like Germany, the UK and some of the states within the USA, wind and solar power have reduced the consumption of coal-generated electricity.  However, the impact of so-called renewables on global energy consumption remains negligible; accounting for less than three percent of total energy consumption worldwide.

A bigger problem may, however, be looming as a result of the lack of renewability of the renewable energy technologies themselves.  This is because solar panels and wind turbines do not follow the principles of the emerging “circular economy” model in which products are meant to be largely reusable, if not entirely renewable.

dead turbine

According to proponents of the circular economy model such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the old fossil carbon economy is based on a linear process in which raw materials and energy are used to manufacture goods that are used and then discarded:

 

This approach may have been acceptable a century ago when there were less than two billion humans on the planet and when consumption was largely limited to food and clothing.  However, as the population increased, mass consumption took off and the impact of our activities on the environment became increasingly obvious, it became clear that there is no “away” where we can dispose of all of our unwanted waste.  The result was the shift to what was optimistically referred to as “recycling.”  However, most of what we call recycling today is actually “down-cycling” – converting relatively high value goods into relatively low value materials:

 

The problem with this approach is that the cost of separating small volumes of high-value materials (such as the gold in electrical circuits) is far higher than the cost of mining and refining them from scratch.  As a result, most recycling involves the recovery of large volumes of relatively low value materials like aluminium, steel and PET plastic.  The remainder of the waste stream ends up in landfill or, in the case of toxic and hazardous products in special storage facilities.

In a circular economy, products would be designed as far as possible to be reused, bring them closer to what might realistically be called “renewable” – allowing that the second law of thermodynamics traps us into producing some waste irrespective of what we do:

 

Contrary to the “renewables” label, it turns out that solar panels and wind turbines are anything but.  They are dependent upon raw resources and fossil carbon fuels in their manufacture and, until recently, little thought had been put into how to dispose of them at the end of their working lives.  Since both wind turbines and solar panels contain hazardous materials, they cannot simply be dumped in landfill.  However, their composition makes them – at least for now – unsuited to the down-cycling processes employed by commercial recycling facilities.

While solar panels have more hazardous materials than wind turbines, they may prove to be more amenable to down-cycling, since the process of dismantling a solar panel is at least technically possible.  With wind turbines it is a different matter, as Alex Reichmuth at Basler Zeitung notes:

“The German Wind Energy Association estimates that by 2023 around 14,000 MW of installed capacity will lose production, which is more than a quarter of German wind power capacity on land. How many plants actually go off the grid depends on the future electricity price. If this remains as deep as it is today, more plants could be shut down than newly built.

“However, the dismantling of wind turbines is not without its pitfalls. Today, old plants can still be sold with profit to other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Russia or North Africa, where they will continue to be used. But the supply of well-maintained old facilities is rising and should soon surpass demand. Then only the dismantling of plants remains…

“Although the material of steel parts or copper pipes is very good recyclable. However, one problem is the rotor blades, which consist of a mixture of glass and carbon fibers and are glued with polyester resins.”

According to Reichmuth, even incinerating the rotor blades will cause problems because this will block the filters used in waste incineration plants to prevent toxins being discharged into the atmosphere.  However, the removal of the concrete and steel bases on which the turbines stand may prove to be the bigger economic headache:

“In a large plant, this base can quickly cover more than 3,000 tons of reinforced concrete and often reach more than twenty meters deep into the ground… The complete removal of the concrete base can quickly cost hundreds of thousands of euros.”

It is this economic issue that is likely to scupper attempts to develop a solar panel recycling industry.  In a recent paper in the International Journal of Photoenergy, D’Adamo et. al. conclude that while technically possible, current recycling processes are too expensive to be commercially viable.  As Nate Berg at Ensia explains:

“Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.

“’The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to, to use a term, de-manufacture,’ says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S. The panels are torn apart mechanically and broken down with acids to separate out the crystalline silicon, the semiconducting material used by most photovoltaic manufacturers. Heat systems are used to burn up the adhesives that bind them to their armatures, and acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate precious metals.

“Robards says nearly 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value…”

Ironically, manufacturers’ efforts to drive down the price of solar panels make recycling them even more difficult by reducing the amount of expensive materials like silver and copper for which there is demand in recycling.

In Europe, regulations for the disposal of electrical waste were amended in 2012 to incorporate solar panels.  This means that the cost of disposing used solar panels rests with the manufacturer.  No such legislation exists elsewhere.  Nor is it clear whether those costs will be absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to consumers.

Since only the oldest solar panels and wind turbines have to be disposed of at present, it might be that someone will figure out how to streamline the down-cycling process.  As far more systems come to the end of their life in the next decade, volume may help drive down costs.  However, we cannot bank on this.  The energy and materials required to dismantle these technologies may well prove more expensive than the value of the recovered materials.  As Kelly Pickerel at Solar Power World concedes:

“System owners recycle their panels in Europe because they are required to. Panel recycling in an unregulated market (like the United States) will only work if there is value in the product. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) detailed solar panel compositions in a 2016 report and found that c-Si modules contained about 76% glass, 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet), 8% aluminum (mostly the frame), 5% silicon, 1% copper and less than 0.1% of silver, tin and lead. As new technologies are adopted, the percentage of glass is expected to increase while aluminum and polymers will decrease, most likely because of dual-glass bifacial designs and frameless models.

“CIGS thin-film modules are composed of 89% glass, 7% aluminum and 4% polymers. The small percentages of semiconductors and other metals include copper, indium, gallium and selenium. CdTe thin-film is about 97% glass and 3% polymer, with other metals including nickel, zinc, tin and cadmium telluride.

“There’s just not a large amount of money-making salvageable parts on any type of solar panel. That’s why regulations have made such a difference in Europe.”

Ultimately, even down-cycling these supposedly “renewable” technologies will require state intervention.  Or, to put it another way, the public – either as consumers or taxpayers – are going to have to pick up the tab in the same way as they are currently subsidising fossil carbon fuels and nuclear.  The question that the proponents of these technologies dare not ask, is how far electorates are prepared to put up with these increasing costs before they turn to politicians out of the Donald Trump/ Malcolm Turnbull stable who promise the cheapest energy irrespective of its environmental impact.





It’s the Consumption, Stupid….

2 05 2018

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics – The Gaping Hole in the Middle of the Circular Economy

paul mobbsA great article by Paul Mobbs, an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).

Why the latest buzz-phrase in consumer sustainability is not only failing to tackle the core problem, but why it is doomed to fail

Listening to Radio 4 this morning I heard the two juxtaposed keywords that I’ve learned to dread over the last couple of the years; ‘circular economy’. It’s a great idea, and I can’t fault the true belief of those promoting it. My problem is that the way they describe it has little to do with the physical realities of the world, and hence it’s really just a “get out of hell free” card for affluent consumers – who are, it would appear, the most vociferous proponents of this idea.

As is so often the case with feel-good eco-stories, the Today programme’s[1] interviewer was all light and fluffy; and obviously flummoxed because they did not have the confidence to ask any basic, challenging questions of the interviewee.

The segment was examining the new research[2] from Portsmouth University. They’ve found a ‘mutant’ enzyme from bacteria they found living on plastic in recycling centres. As with all enzymes[3] – like the things they add to washing powder so you can clean clothes without boiling them – these complex molecules accelerate chemical reactions by working on the chemical bonds which hold things together. In this case, the enzyme breaks down the bonds of the polyethylene terephthalate[4] (PET) molecule.

Great idea; and if shown to be ecologically safe, great chemistry. That’s not the issue here.

Enter ‘the Circular Economy’

The scientist then described the value of this enzyme as part of the ‘circular economy’[5] – a concept proposed in the 1980s, and popularized in recent years by organizations such a the Ellen MacArthur Foundation[6], of moving from a linear to a circular economic process:

  • ‘Linear’ economy – meaning that materials are created, used and disposed as waste, requiring that new resources must be reduced to replace them, which is how the core of the global economy works today;
  • ‘Circular’ economy – meaning that all materials and products are manufactured and sold so that their content can be fully recycled and used in new products once more, obviating the need to produce new resources to replace them.

It is a lovely idea. One which I would whole-heartedly support, but for one slight technical hitch I perceive in this concept; The Laws of Thermodynamics[7] – and my particular favourite, The Second Law of Thermodynamics[8].

The Laws of Thermodynamics arose in parallel with industrialization, having first been used to described the operation of steam engines. Over time science has perfected the principles of these ‘laws’ and now finds that they are universal.

The Second Law deals with irreversible reactions – that is, operations which once undertaken cannot be undone.

What the ‘circular economy’ idea would propose in relation to PET plastic bottles is: Take some natural gas (yes, contrary to the idea that plastics come form oil, most plastics are made from the light by-products of oil refining, but mostly natural gas and gas condensate) and turn it into PET plastic; then make a plastic bottle with a blow-moulding machine; use the bottle; then recycle the bottle, and keep recycling after each use – obviating the need to use more natural gas to create plastic. As a result, the use of the bottle becomes ‘circular’.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The thermodynamic restrictions of human hope

Of course, there’s always a big hairy “but” in situations like this.

In this case, the use of plastic represents a ‘reversible’ reaction – you can make plastic, and then recycle the plastic to make more plastic. Sorted!

The energy expended in doing that, however, is an irreversible[9] process. It can’t be recovered.

The Second Law dictates that energy can be used, but in the process the ‘quality’ (for which read ‘usefulness’, or ‘density’, or ‘value’) of that energy is degraded; and once degraded, that ‘quality’ cannot be recovered without using even more energy than was expended when the energy was first used.

For example, water flowing downhill can turn a turbine to make electricity; but it takes more electricity than that was generated to pump that same volume of water back to the top of the hill again.

Now at this point proponents of the circular economy will talk about using renewable energy, thereby avoiding the issue of finite resources being used to power the process. That’s true, up to a point; and that point is, what are those renewable energy system made from? Finite resources.

Limits to renewable energy

Just because renewable energy is ‘renewable’, it doesn’t mean the machines we require to harvest that energy are freed from the finite limits of the Earth’s resources[10].

There are grand schemes to power the world using renewable energy. The difficulty is that no one has bothered to check to see if the resources are available to produce that energy. Recent research suggests that the resources required to produce that level of capacity cannot currently be supplied[11].

The crunch point is that while there might be enough indium, gallium, neodymium and other rare metals to manufacture wind turbines or PV panels for the worlds half-a-billion or so affluent consumers (i.e., the people most likely to be reading this), there is not enough to give everyone on the planet that same level of energy consumption – we’d run out long before then.

For example, the first metal humans smelted[12] about 9,000 years ago was copper. Ever since copper has been a brilliant indicator of human development, with consumption increasing in line with human development ever since. One reason for that is that as industrial use has fallen (e.g., replacing copper pipes with plastic) we’ve used more copper for new technologies (e.g., electronics – roughly 14%[13] of the weight of a mobile phone is copper).

Copper also has one of the best, most mature recycling systems, but even then it’s been estimated that only half of all copper is reused[14].

The problem is, due to its long and intensive global use, we’re approaching ‘peak copper’[15] – the point where the remaining amount of copper in the ground, and more importantly its falling ore quality, reduces the amount which can be economically produced annually. And more significantly, the ecological impact[16] of the falling copper ore quality is that the energy consumed and the greenhouse gases emitted by production increase exponentially.

Now of course we’ll use copper more efficiently. And if we run short, rising prices will increase recycling rates – though it will also increase the disruptive theft[17] of copper in society. The difficulty is that, just last week[18], the copper industry announced that it worried about production after 2020.

Strategy is important, but ‘real’ change is critical

OK, back to the ‘circular economy’.

What really matters here is not so much the material used in production, but the energy density of production. Energy density isn’t just a matter of how much energy it takes to produce an article, but how long that article lasts. That in turn affects the ‘return’ on the energy invested in its production – or EROEI[19].

Let’s say a plastic bottle takes six weeks to be manufactured, filled, bought, consumed, collected and reprocessed to the point of re-manufacture. That’s good because recycling plastic can represent a saving of more than 50%[20] on the energy used to produce it compared to virgin materials.

What determines the long-term sustainability of this though is not just the one-time saving, but the viable fraction that can be reclaimed and reused.

Let’s assume that, at best, we can recover 60% of the content of the bottle over each 6 week cycle. After 1 cycle, 6 weeks, we have 60% of the material left. After 2 cycles, 12 weeks, we have 60% × 60% = 36% left. After three cycles there’s 60% × 36% = 22%. After four cycles, 13%, etc.

By the end of one year (8 or 9 cycles) we’d only have 1% of our plastic left.

The obvious response is, “well, let’s recycle more”. The problem is that achieving a higher recovery rate actually requires expending more energy, reducing the energy saved – and as you get nearer to 100% the amount required is likely to exceed the energy involved in producing new plastic from raw materials.

For example, recycling in densely populated urban areas is easy, because waste management is an essential part of being able to run an urban area. But what about more sparsely populated rural areas and villages? At what point does the energy expended running a collection vehicle exceed the energy saved from materials recovery? (answer – it’s completely dependent upon local circumstance, and so has to be evaluated as part of the planning process rather than generalized in advance).

“It’s consumption, stupid!”

It’s the same as the falling copper ore problem. The more diffuse your source, the more energy you have to expend to recover it. Getting the easy to find plastic, let’s say the first half, will be easy. Getting the next 20% might take as much effort. The 10% after that twice again. And the last 20%? It might produce no saving at all.

Alternatively we could extend the life of the bottle – by refilling instead of recycling. That would have a significant effect, but even then, on each refill cycle a certain number of bottles would be rejected.

Don’t ignore this option though. It is arguable that, in lieu of increasing recycling rates, extending the service life of resources probably has the best energy profile – since it reduces not only the need to re-manufacture resources, but also the need to recycle/replace them. The problem is that reuse often requires far greater change and co-operation by consumers – precisely the thing our ‘liberal’ economy hates doing because it involves dictating the actions of consumers.

Forget Bill Clinton’s line about ‘the economy’; “It’s consumption, stupid!”

More importantly, throughout this whole process, energy is expended[21]; and energy is the one thing we can’t recover. Therefore we have to avoid re-manufacture or recovery in the first place. The difficulty is that no one wants to advocate this – combining multiple reuse, high recycling AND longer service life – as it means the effective elimination of consumerism, fashion, ‘innovation’, and many of the other totemic traits[22] of the modern consumer materialist economy.

Then again, given that a large amount of the world’s wealth is derived from resource exploitation, any change to that pattern is likely to have huge implications for the day-to-day economy[23] that the most affluent consumers rely upon in order to consume.

The ‘Circular Economy’ must accept thermodynamic reality

Arthur Eddington[24] was a British scientist (and Quaker) who advanced physics and astrophysics in the first decades of the 20th Century, and popularized the theories of Albert Einstein – against the then anti-German and anti-Jewish prejudice of the science establishment.

In relation to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Eddington produced a famous statement:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

The ‘circular economy’ is, in my opinion, a ruse to make affluent consumers feel that they can keep consuming without the need to change their habits. Nothing could be further[25] from the truth, and the central reason for that is the necessity for energy to power economic activity[26].

While the ‘circular economy’ concept admittedly has the right ideas, it detracts from the most important aspects of our ecological crisis today[27] – it is consumption that is the issue, not the simply the use of resources. Though the principle could be made to work for a relatively small proportion[28] of the human population, it could never be a mainstream solution for the whole world because of its reliance on renewable energy technologies to make it function – and the over-riding resource limitations on harvesting renewable energy.

In order to reconcile the circular economy with the Second Law we have to apply not only changes to the way we use materials, but how we consume them. Moreover, that implies such a large reduction in resource use[29] by the most affluent, developed consumers, that in no way does the image of the circular economy, portrayed by its proponents, match up to the reality[30] of making it work for the majority of the world’s population.

In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations[30] on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option. Practically then, it is nothing more than a salve for the conscience of affluent consumers who, deep down, are conscious enough to realize that their life of luxury will soon be over as the related ecological and economic crises[31] bite further up the income scale.

 

References:

  1. BBC Radio 4: ‘Today’, 17th April 2018 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qj9z
  2. Guardian Online: ‘Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles’, 16th April 2018 – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles
  3. Wikipedia: ‘Enzyme’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzyme
  4. Wikipedia: ‘Polyethylene terephthalate’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate
  5. Wikipedia: ‘Circular economy’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_economy
  6. Wikipedia: ‘Ellen MacArthur Foundation’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_MacArthur_Foundation
  7. Wikipedia: ‘Laws of thermodynamics’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics
  8. Wikipedia: ‘Second law of thermodynamics’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics
  9. Wikipedia: ‘Irreversible process’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreversible_process
  10. BioScience: ‘Energetic Limits to Economic Growth’, vol.61 no.1, January 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/brown2011.shtml
  11. EU Joint Research Committee: ‘Critical Metals in Strategic Energy Technologies – Assessing Rare Metals as Supply-Chain Bottlenecks in Low-Carbon Energy Technologies’, 2011 – http://www.oakdenehollins.com/pdf/CriticalMetalsinSET.pdf
  12. Wikipedia: ‘Chalcolithic’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcolithic
  13. U.S. Geological Survey: ‘Recycled Cell Phones – A Treasure Trove of Valuable Metals’, July 2006 – http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3097/fs2006-3097.pdf
  14. Environmental Science and Technology: ‘Dynamic Analysis of Global Copper Flows’, Glöser et al., vol.47 no.12 pp.6564-6572, May 2013 – https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es400069b
  15. Wikipedia: ‘Peak copper’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_copper
  16. Resource Policy: ‘The Environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints’, Gavin M. Mudd, vol.35 no.2 pp.98-115, June 2010 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/mudd2010.shtml
  17. Wikipedia: ‘Metal theft’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_theft
  18. Mining: ‘Copper supply crunch earlier than predicted – experts’, 10th April 2018 – http://www.mining.com/copper-supply-crunch-earlier-predicted-experts/
  19. Wikipedia: ‘Energy returned on energy invested’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_returned_on_energy_invested
  20. Ecological Modelling: ‘Analysis of energy footprints associated with recycling of glass and plastic – case studies for industrial ecology’, vol.174 no.1-2 pp.175-189, May 2004 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304380004000067
  21. Sustainability: ‘Energy, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: Five Propositions’, vol.2 pp.1784-1809, 18th June 2010 – http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/2/6/1784/pdf
  22. Nature: ‘Time to leave GDP behind’, vol.505 pp.283-285, 16th January 2014 – http://www.nature.com/polopoly_fs/1.14499!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/505283a.pdf
  23. International Journal of Transdisciplinary Research: ‘The Need for a New, Biophysical-Based Paradigm in Economics for the Second Half of the Age of Oil’, vol.1 no.1 pp.4-22, 2006 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/hallklitgaard2006.shtml
  24. Wikipedia: ‘Arthur Eddington’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Eddington
  25. Journal of Cleaner Production: ‘Why are we growth-addicted? The hard way towards degrowth in the involutionary western development path’, vo.18 no.6 pp.590-595, April 2010 – https://degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Van-Griethuysen-why-are-we-growth-addicted.pdf
  26. The Australian National University : ‘The Role of Energy in Economic Growth’, Centre for Climate Economics & Policy, October 2010 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/stern2010.shtml
  27. PNAS: ‘Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy’, vol.99 no.14 pp.9266-9271, 9th July 2002 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/wackernagel2002.shtml
  28. The Corner House: ‘Energy Security: For Whom?, For What?’, February 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/cornerhouse2012.shtml
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The Collapse of Saudi Arabia is Inevitable

23 04 2018

I’ve been saying this for years now…….  but here’s one of the world’s best journalists explaining it way better than I can….. and you better believe it, when Saudi Arabia goes the way of Syria, it will be the trigger for global collapse to start in earnest.
By Nafeez Ahmed

nafeezSeptember 28, 2015 “Information Clearing House” – “MEE”- On Tuesday 22 September, Middle East Eye broke the story of a senior member of the Saudi royal family calling for a “change” in leadership to fend off the kingdom’s collapse.

In a letter circulated among Saudi princes, its author, a grandson of the late King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, blamed incumbent King Salman for creating unprecedented problems that endangered the monarchy’s continued survival.

“We will not be able to stop the draining of money, the political adolescence, and the military risks unless we change the methods of decision making, even if that implied changing the king himself,” warned the letter.

Whether or not an internal royal coup is round the corner – and informed observers think such a prospect “fanciful” – the letter’s analysis of Saudi Arabia’s dire predicament is startlingly accurate.

Like many countries in the region before it, Saudi Arabia is on the brink of a perfect storm of interconnected challenges that, if history is anything to judge by, will be the monarchy’s undoing well within the next decade.

Black gold hemorrhage
The biggest elephant in the room is oil. Saudi Arabia’s primary source of revenues, of course, is oil exports. For the last few years, the kingdom has pumped at record levels to sustain production, keeping oil prices low, undermining competing oil producers around the world who cannot afford to stay in business at such tiny profit margins, and paving the way for Saudi petro-dominance.

But Saudi Arabia’s spare capacity to pump like crazy can only last so long. A new peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering anticipates that Saudi Arabia will experience a peak in its oil production, followed by inexorable decline, in 2028 – that’s just 13 years away.

This could well underestimate the extent of the problem. According to the Export Land Model (ELM) created by Texas petroleum geologist Jeffrey J Brown and Dr Sam Foucher, the key issue is not oil production alone, but the capacity to translate production into exports against rising rates of domestic consumption.

Brown and Foucher showed that the inflection point to watch out for is when an oil producer can no longer increase the quantity of oil sales abroad because of the need to meet rising domestic energy demand.

In 2008, they found that Saudi net oil exports had already begun declining as of 2006. They forecast that this trend would continue.

They were right. From 2005 to 2015, Saudi net exports have experienced an annual decline rate of 1.4 percent, within the range predicted by Brown and Foucher. A report by Citigroup recently predicted that net exports would plummet to zero in the next 15 years.

From riches to rags
This means that Saudi state revenues, 80 percent of which come from oil sales, are heading downwards, terminally.

Saudi Arabia is the region’s biggest energy consumer, domestic demand having increased by 7.5 percent over the last five years – driven largely by population growth.

The total Saudi population is estimated to grow from 29 million people today to 37 million by 2030. As demographic expansion absorbs Saudi Arabia’s energy production, the next decade is therefore likely to see the country’s oil exporting capacity ever more constrained.

Renewable energy is one avenue which Saudi Arabia has tried to invest in to wean domestic demand off oil dependence, hoping to free up capacity for oil sales abroad, thus maintaining revenues.

But earlier this year, the strain on the kingdom’s finances began to show when it announced an eight-year delay to its $109 billion solar programme, which was supposed to produce a third of the nation’s electricity by 2032.

State revenues also have been hit through blowback from the kingdom’s own short-sighted strategy to undermine competing oil producers. As I previously reported, Saudi Arabia has maintained high production levels precisely to keep global oil prices low, making new ventures unprofitable for rivals such as the US shale gas industry and other OPEC producers.

The Saudi treasury has not escaped the fall-out from the resulting oil profit squeeze – but the idea was that the kingdom’s significant financial reserves would allow it to weather the storm until its rivals are forced out of the market, unable to cope with the chronic lack of profitability.

That hasn’t quite happened yet. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia’s considerable reserves are being depleted at unprecedented levels, dropping from their August 2014 peak of $737 billion to $672bn in May – falling by about $12bn a month.

At this rate, by late 2018, the kingdom’s reserves could deplete as low as $200bn, an eventuality that would likely be anticipated by markets much earlier, triggering capital flight.

To make up for this prospect, King Salman’s approach has been to accelerate borrowing. What happens when over the next few years reserves deplete, debt increases, while oil revenues remain strained?

As with autocratic regimes like Egypt, Syria and Yemen – all of which are facing various degrees of domestic unrest – one of the first expenditures to slash in hard times will be lavish domestic subsidies. In the former countries, successive subsidy reductions responding to the impacts of rocketing food and oil prices fed directly into the grievances that generated the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, and its unique ability to maintain generous subsidies for oil, housing, food and other consumer items, plays a major role in fending off that risk of civil unrest. Energy subsidies alone make up about a fifth of Saudi’s gross domestic product.

Pressure points
As revenues are increasingly strained, the kingdom’s capacity to keep a lid on rising domestic dissent will falter, as has already happened in countries across the region.

About a quarter of the Saudi population lives in poverty. Unemployment is at about 12 percent, and affects mostly young people – 30 percent of whom are unemployed.

Climate change is pitched to heighten the country’s economic problems, especially in relation to food and water.

Like many countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is already experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of stronger warming temperatures in the interior, and vast areas of rainfall deficits in the north. By 2040, average temperatures are expected to be higher than the global average, and could increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius, while rain reductions could worsen.

This would be accompanied by more extreme weather events, like the 2010 Jeddah flooding caused by a year’s worth of rain occurring within the course of just four hours. The combination could dramatically impact agricultural productivity, which is already facing challenges from overgrazing and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices leading to accelerated desertification.

In any case, 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s food requirements are purchased through heavily subsidised imports, meaning that without the protection of those subsidies, the country would be heavily impacted by fluctuations in global food prices.

“Saudi Arabia is particularly vulnerable to climate change as most of its ecosystems are sensitive, its renewable water resources are limited and its economy remains highly dependent on fossil fuel exports, while significant demographic pressures continue to affect the government’s ability to provide for the needs of its population,” concluded a UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report in 2010.

The kingdom is one of the most water scarce in the world, at 98 cubic metres per inhabitant per year. Most water withdrawal is from groundwater, 57 percent of which is non-renewable, and 88 percent of which goes to agriculture. In addition, desalination plants meet about 70 percent of the kingdom’s domestic water supplies.

But desalination is very energy intensive, accounting for more than half of domestic oil consumption. As oil exports run down, along with state revenues, while domestic consumption increases, the kingdom’s ability to use desalination to meet its water needs will decrease.

End of the road
In Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Egypt, civil unrest and all-out war can be traced back to the devastating impact of declining state power in the context of climate-induced droughts, agricultural decline, and rapid oil depletion.

Yet the Saudi government has decided that rather than learning lessons from the hubris of its neighbours, it won’t wait for war to come home – but will readily export war in the region in a madcap bid to extend its geopolitical hegemony and prolong its petro-dominance.

Unfortunately, these actions are symptomatic of the fundamental delusion that has prevented all these regimes from responding rationally to the Crisis of Civilization that is unravelling the ground from beneath their feet. That delusion consists of an unwavering, fundamentalist faith: that more business-as-usual will solve the problems created by business-as-usual.

Like many of its neighbours, such deep-rooted structural realities mean that Saudi Arabia is indeed on the brink of protracted state failure, a process likely to take-off in the next few years, becoming truly obvious well within a decade.

Sadly, those few members of the royal family who think they can save their kingdom from its inevitable demise by a bit of experimental regime-rotation are no less deluded than those they seek to remove.

Nafeez Ahmed PhD is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the ‘crisis of civilization.’ He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.





A mockery of Drawdown

10 02 2018

Is it Possible for Everyone to Live a Good Life within our Planet’s Limits?

By Dan O’Neill, originally published by The Conversation

Imagine a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, if everyone on Earth were to lead a good life within our planet’s sustainability limits, the level of resources used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.

These are the sobering findings of research that my colleagues and I have carried out, recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability. In our work, we quantified the national resource use associated with meeting basic needs for a large number of countries, and compared this to what is globally sustainable. We analysed the relationships between seven indicators of national environmental pressure (relative to environmental limits) and 11 indicators of social performance (relative to the requirements for a good life) for over 150 countries.

The thresholds we chose to represent a “good life” are far from extravagant – a life satisfaction rating of 6.5 out of 10, living 65 years in good health, the elimination of poverty below the US$1.90 a day line, and so on.

Nevertheless, we found that the universal achievement of these goals could push humanity past multiple environmental limits. CO₂ emissions are the toughest limit to stay within, while fresh water use is the easiest (ignoring issues of local water scarcity). Physical needs such as nutrition and sanitation could likely be met for seven billion people, but more aspirational goals, including secondary education and high life satisfaction, could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level.

Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. Worryingly, the more social thresholds that a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it tends to transgress.

Measures of a ‘good life’ vs overuse of resources for different countries (scaled by population). Ideally, countries would be located in the top-left corner. O’Neill et al, Author provided

No country currently achieves all 11 social thresholds without also exceeding multiple biophysical boundaries. The closest thing we found to an exception was Vietnam, which achieves six of the 11 social thresholds, while only transgressing one of the seven biophysical boundaries (CO₂ emissions).

Vietnam has come closest to balancing sustainability with a good life, but still falls short in some areas. O’Neill et alAuthor provided

To help communicate the scale of the challenge, we have created an interactive website, which shows the environmental and social performance of all countries. It also allows you to change the values that we chose for a “good life”, and see how these values would affect global sustainability.

Time to rethink ‘sustainable development’

Our work builds on previous research led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which identified nine “planetary boundaries” that – if persistently exceeded – could lead to catastrophic change. The social indicators are closely linked to the high-level objectives from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. A framework combining both planetary boundaries and social thresholds was proposed by economist Kate Raworth, and is described in her recent book Doughnut Economics (where the “doughnut” refers to the shape of the country plots, such as the one above for Vietnam).

Our findings, which show how countries are doing in comparison to Raworth’s framework, present a serious challenge to the “business-as-usual” approach to sustainable development. They suggest that some of the Sustainable Development Goals, such as combating climate change, could be undermined by the pursuit of others, particularly those focused on growth or high levels of human well-being.

Interestingly, the relationship between resource use and social performance is almost always a curve with diminishing returns. This curve has a “turning point”, after which using even more resources adds almost nothing to human well-being. Wealthy nations, including the US and UK, are well past the turning point, which means they could substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being. This would in turn free up ecological space for many poorer countries, where an increase in resource use would contribute much more to a good life.

If all seven billion or more people are to live well within the limits of our planet, then radical changes are required. At the very least, these include dramatically reducing income inequality and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as possible. But, most importantly, wealthy nations such as the US and UK must move beyond the pursuit of economic growth, which is no longer improving people’s lives in these countries, but is pushing humanity ever closer towards environmental disaster.