Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Creative collapsing: a way to avoid the climate disaster

Illustration from the paper "The Sower's Way." by Sgouridis, Csala and Bardi  recently published in the IOP Environmental Research Letters journal. The main points of the paper are summarized in a previous post. Note how fast the production of energy must fall in order to prevent temperatures from rising above the 2°C limit. It is a true "Seneca collapse", necessary for the survival of the human civilization. The paper shows that it is possible to control the collapse and to use fossil fuels to produce enough energy to create a 100% renewable infrastructure and at the same time to avoid going over the edge.

Everyone is happy about the COP21 agreement in Paris and that there seem to be a certain willingness to avoid to go over the 2°C limit and the probable "tipping point" that will follow. But make no mistake: the task is enormously difficult. Look at these data from "The Global Carbon Project".

The blue lines are the pathways needed to have a fair chance to remain within the 2°C limit. We have to get to zero from here to 2070, but hoping in a technological miracle that, later on, will make it possible to pump away from the atmosphere some of the CO2 emitted earlier on. Otherwise, we must throttle emissions even faster. 

No matter which curve you think is most likely, there remains the fact that it took a couple of centuries to arrive to the level of fossil fuel production where we are. Now, we need to go back to zero in a few decades. If this is not a "Seneca Collapse" I don't know what is. This is a kind of collapse that I describe with the words of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca "increases are of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid."

So, it is a collapse that we need, and we'll probably have it. Even if governments and institutions fail to act on curbing emissions, it is likely that the fossil industry will collapse by itself because of increasing production costs and sluggish markets - it is happening right now. The problem is that, normally, when something very big collapses, a lot of people get hurt and we would like to avoid that.

Is it possible to collapse gracefully and glide down in style along the Seneca cliff? In principle, yes. The recent paper by Sgouridis, Csala and Bardi , titled "The Sower's Way." takes inspiration from a strategy well known to ancient farmers, the fact that they had to save something from their current harvest for the next one; it is the origin of the common saying "don't eat your seed corn!" So, the paper reports a quantitative calculation of how much energy we must squeeze out of the remaining fossil fuels reserves in order to build up the renewable energy infrastructure that will smoothly replace the present, fossil based, infrastructure. And how to do that without going over the climate edge. If we can manage that, it will be only the fossil fuel industry that collapses, but not the rest of us. And the calculations show that it is possible.

A nice idea, but there is one glitch: it will be very expensive. The data show that, if we want this transition, we have to pay for it and to start paying right now. We need to step up investments in a new energy infrastructure of at least an order of magnitude in comparison to the present level. It sounds very difficult, but it is not impossible. Creative collapsing may be the only way to avoid a climate disaster! 

The paper title "The Sower's Way" is open access on IOP Environmental Research Letters. Comments on this blog are welcome. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Sower's Way: some comments

Image: sower by Vincent Van Gogh

The publication of the paper "The Sower's way: Quantifying the Narrowing Net-Energy Pathways to a Global Energy Transition" by Sgouridis, Csala, and Bardi, has generated some debate on the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog. In the paper, we argue that the Sower's strategy consists in using the energy obtained from fossil fuels (the seed of the past harvest) in order to build the renewable energy infrastructure (the next harvest) that will replace the old, fossil infrastructure. In other words, we argue for and we quantify a strategy consisting in not eating one's seed corn. 

Among the comments received, here are some extensive ones received by Max Kummerow, together with some answers by Sgouris Sgouridis

Max Kummerow wrote:

Important ideas, of course, in this paper.  A powerful image: eating the seed corn. And a real problem for the transition. Comments and suggestions for extensions:

1. Kummerow: Does it skip past or make a rational assumption about ending growth? That issue deserves more explicit treatment.  Growth in global demand (if I missed  this in the paper, my apologies, but missing it would mean it needs clearer exposition or more emphasis) at present rates (see my Kaya Identity paper draft) must be something like: population 1.1%+incomes (gdp/capita) 1.7% less -1.4% efficiency (E/Y) gains. That nets to 1.4% or doubling time about 51 years, or say, two doublings in a century. Or, 1,2,4 times more energy in a century. 8,16 in two centuries. I think you need some scenarios with different growth rates.

Sgouridis: The paper assumes an end of growth (stabilization) in energy demand per capita. As is also expected/forecasted by the UN to level out, this creates a stabilization in total energy demand. We intentionally and explicitly do not bring into this a discussion on economic figures/GDP. They complicate and divert the issue. What we observe is that in OECD per capita energy demand has been stagnant for a decade or more. The growth in developing countries is slowing down. It is quite logical to assume that demand for energy to provide a decent life has to eventually converge to a point. It is clear that the world cannot support a US or UAE energy lifestyle for everyone on the planet. We assume that eventually there will be of some kind. The “easy" scenario of 2000W/capita by 2100 reflects a bare minimum (see the Marechal et al 2005 reference). My expectation is that a more reasonable estimate should be around 3000W.

2. And, for the scenario where growth ends, steady state economy, no growth in population or incomes (or energy consumption/capita, almost the same thing), how does demand stabilize?

Again, since we do not talk about incomes, for all we care income can increase nominally. It just not imply a growth in energy demand / capita. I agree this is unlikely and those who expect the great decoupling are in for a surprise but the point is demand in the OECD has already stabilized and there is a lot of slack for it to go down. Developing countries can go up by a bit. This convergence means that demand per capita cannot, should not, and need not be expected to grow eternally.

3. I’m sure you are enough of a philosopher and historian to share my worry that the rational paradigm can be overwhelmed by myths. My father, Fred, has been involved in a 60 year controversy about cholesterol and transfats, a place where myths die hard as well. And there are the big ones: religious beliefs. So there are no guarantees that just because science says humanity should do something, that it will get done. The limiting resource (Julian Simon’s insight) is actually human intelligence, or maybe ethics. It’s a very scarce resource right now. I think maybe papers on science should somehow mention the failures of science as a paradigm. The gap between discovery and application is wide in climate science.

These are extremely astute observations and I am personally in agreement. I would also say that it is about ethics rather than intelligence – the whole society has been captured by a cancerous host (financial capitalism) which manages to inject pieces of its DNA individualism, greed, market fetishism and others in essentially all of us turning us into consumable walking replicas to varying extent. This is true for education, science, and . Nevertheless, all these are very difficult to discuss especially in an academic paper. A suggestion of mine for limiting resources can be found here: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fenrg.2014.00008/full 

4. A "limits to growth" perspective would ask: What becomes limiting when we start building SET? Your paper is about energy limits to SET. What other limits appear?

Again, I am sure you know of the planetary boundaries paper by Rockström et al. (2009)."A safe operating space for humanity. Nature", 461(7263), 472–475. GHG the nearest physical constraint but others include our handling of phosphate and the phosphorus cycle in agriculture, pollution especially from hard to crack endocrine disruptors, and a lot more.

5. It is hard to get everything into models because of complexity. Another issue is capital constraints. How many dollars?

Definitely an important point. As I mentioned in #1 and #2, we only look at the energy investment not the $ figure of it. Overall energy investment ratios stay below 10% or so for a viable transition. On the capital investment, we can do some rough estimates. According to REN21 we invested 270Billion USD in renewable energy in 2015. This comes down to roughly 2.4$/W. Now since this includes projects that were contracted in the past and projects in regions with high finance costs (e.g. Africa) there is no reason for this cost not to be around 1.5 with today’s technology (the state of the art is 1.4). So with technology advances and scale economies this should go down to around 1$/W by 2035. Since by this time we will need to build a minimum of 6 TW/year, this means an investment of say 6 T$ just for the supply side. For the batteries and long term storage and conversion (Power to liquids) the investment along with the electrification would be at least equal. So overall, 12 USD trillion per year at the peak (it will go down after) should be expected. Now we probably spend already in excess of 7 trillion for energy as fuel bills (http://www.leonardo-energy.org/blog/world-energy-expenditures estimates for 2010 are 6.4 trillion) so the order of magnitude is certainly within the realm of what is already happening – it is simply a matter of saner investment. Why waste billions just for buying up land for fracking when you can build RE? This ties in well with my energy credits proposal in #3.

6. And, has anybody noticed that phasing out coal, if I read Jim Hanson correctly will increase net climate forcing by more than a watt/m2? The sulfur aerosols from coal are a major cooling factor, reflecting solar radiation. Hansen said (2009) that net forcing is about 2 watts/m2. But that is net of 1.5 watts cooling from aerosols. So do the cumulative carbon targets account for effects of increased warming as the coal is phased out. (Short term v long term tradeoff.)

This is an interesting question but we have taken the targets as is from the IPCC WGI 2013 report. In my view, they should include the eventual effect of the sulfur aerosols but we need to check this point.

7. The key factor is cumulative carbon. I’m not clear how the graphs in this paper relate to cumulative carbon.

As discussed in #6. Cumulative carbon in each of the carbon scenarios stays within the IPCC indicated limit (I.e. 550, 1000, 1500 by 2100). There are no further emissions from fossil fuels. 

8. What about technological feasibility? Can steel be made with renewable energy? Can everything be done without fossil fuels? How about making nitrogen, for example?

Nitrogen is an easy one – it is abundant and we can get to it either by liquefaction (cryogenic distillation) which is electrically driven or membranes (at lower purities). Hydrogen from electrolysis can be used instead of methane in the Haber-Bosch process. For steel, electric arc furnaces are a direct replacement alternative to CH4 driven ones. There are things that are harder than steel; some large agriculture farming equipment, and ships will need to be supported by either (limited) or power to liquids processes (can be fully renewable). There is a discussion of this but obviously not extensive.

9. Just for curiosity, what is the EROI now and after SET? Lower?

You can see the collective EROEI in the graph in the appendix. It more or less stays flat (PV goes keeps going higher, but eventually it drops).

10. Finally, I think population deserves a lot more attention. Countries like Japan, Germany, Italy are headed for big population declines (absent immigration, a big qualification). So maybe the world could reduce population. That is very cheap and feasible, requiring behavior changes and a little investment. Divergent fertility is evolving the world by “cultural selection” (Kaufman, 2010) towards continued population growth. UN 2050 estimates for 2050 have risen by 800 million between 2002 and 2015 revisions. No end of population growth in sight.

Good points all but also note that UN 2050 estimates fell between the 2010 and 2015 revisions. I think there is a tendency to reach equilibrium but the issue of cultural selection is something that I am not able to discuss.

More to chew on. You could expand this paper into a book on LTG of energy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Sower's way: the path for the future

Our paper on "The Sower's Way" has been published in the IOP Environmental Research Letters journal. It is an attempt to quantify the physical limits of the energy transition from fossils to renewables.

The title of the article takes inspiration from a strategy well known to ancient farmers, the fact that they had to save something from their current harvest for the next one; it is the origin of the common saying "don't eat your seed corn!"

Starting from this ancient wisdom, we performed a quantitative calculation of how much "seed" we need in the form of fossil fuels in order to have enough energy to build a new "harvest" of renewable energy that can replace the old one. All that without emitting so much CO2 that we would go over the 2°C limit and without anyone being left out. 

Of course, it is a calculation that depends on a lot of debatable parameters, but we did our best to remain within realistic consideration, without asking for technological miracles or drastic reductions in the human population. We just assumed current technologies and that the population curve would follow the UN projections. At the same time, we recognize that perpetual growth is a dream that only madmen or economists can think as possible. We assumed that humankind would gradually move toward a stabilization of the economy and of the population on a level of per capita energy sufficient to survive. 

It is possible, here are the main results from the paper

You can see how we assume a rapid growth of renewable energy, built up in the beginning using fossil energy but, in the later stages of the transition relying on renewable energy to continue the process, while phasing out the fossil fuels which are completely abandoned by around 2060. In this scenario, emissions do not go over the COP21 limit.

So, our calculations don't confirm the pessimistic assumptions of those who see humankind as doomed. At the same time, we don't confirm the overoptimistic assumptions of some people who see the transition as easy. It will not be. If we want it, we have to pay a high price for it and to start paying right now. We need to step up investments in a new energy infrastructure of at least an order of magnitude. Not easy, considering the state of the debate, but not impossible, either. It is a big challenge, but there is still a chance for a better future for everyone if we want to take it.

The paper is open access on IOP Environmental Research Letters. Comments on this blog are welcome. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

An asteroid called "Peak Oil" - the real cause of the growing social inequality in the US

In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Stan Sorscher reports the graph above and asks the question of what could have happened in the early 1970s that changed everything. Impressive, but what caused this "something" that happened in the early 1970s? According to Sorscher,
X marks the spot. In this case, “X” is our choice of national values. We abandoned traditional American values that built a great and prosperous nation.  
Unfortunately, this is a classic case of an explanation that doesn't explain anything. Why did the American people decide to abandon traditional American values just at that specific moment in time?

In reality, the turning point of that time has been known for a long time. The first to notice it were Harry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison with their 1988 book "The Great U-turn: Corporate Restructuring And The Polarizing Of America." They noted that a lot of economic parameters had completely reversed their historical trends in the early 1970s, including the overall inequality measured in terms of the Gini coefficient. For nearly a century, the US society had been moving toward a higher degree of equality. From the early 1970s, the trend changed direction, bringing the US to an inequality level similar to that of the average South-American countries.

So, what was that "something" that changed everything in the early 1970s? Nobody really knows for sure, but at least there was a major measurable change that took place in 1970: peak oil in the US. (image below, from Wikipedia).

It was a true asteroid that hit the US economy and that changed a lot of things. Possibly the most important change was that the US ceased to be an oil exporter and became an oil importer. That change was "user transparent," in the sense that the Americans who were filling up the tanks of their cars didn't know where the oil that had produced their gasoline was coming from (and mostly didn't even care). But the change implied a major transfer of capital from the US to foreign producers, while a large part of it returned to the US in the form of investments. It was the "petrodollar recycling" phenomenon that mainly affected the financial system; all that money never really trickled down to the poorer sections of the US society. That may well explain the increasing inequality trend that started in the early 1970s.

But, if the oil peak of 1970 explains the inequality trends, shouldn't the new reversal of the trend - the "shale oil revolution" change everything again? Perhaps surprisingly, there is some evidence that this may be the case

The data from the World Bank indicate that the Gini coefficient for the US has peaked in 2006 and has remained constant, or slightly declining, ever since. Again, that makes some sense; one wouldn't have expected a return to the low inequality values of the 1960s since the great shale oil boom didn't transform the US into an oil exporter. At present, with the recent peaking of the Bakken field, it looks like that the good times of half a century ago will never return.

All this would require a lot of work to be better quantified and proven. But it is not a surprise that our life depends so much and so deeply on the production of that vital black liquid that we call "crude oil". And with the probable downturn of the US production that seems to be starting right now, we are going to see more, and more radical, changes in our society. What these changes will be, we have to see, but it is hard to think that they will be for better equality.

Note added after publication: in fact, the US became an oil importer already in 1940; the 1970 peak only caused a rapid increase in the volumes imported. You can see the history of these trends in a post by Matt Mushalik on "resilience.org", from which I took the figure shown below. Thanks to Mason Inman for having alerted me about this point

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Peak oil by any other name is still peak oil

Guest post by Diego Mantilla

One of the most compelling charts I have ever seen is the “Growing Gap” chart that used to appear in every ASPO Newsletter. This is the one from the last ASPO Newsletter, written by Colin Campbell and published in April 2009.

Since then, more than seven years have passed, and peak oil has disappeared from the mainstream press headlines--almost. On August 29, Bloomberg published a story alerting to the fact that conventional oil discovery has reached a 70-year low. It published a very interesting chart, using data provided by Wood Mackenzie, the oil consulting firm, to show that fact. Unlike the ASPO chart, Bloomberg's chart only goes back to 1947, the year before Ghawar was discovered.

I thought I would reproduce the “Growing Gap” chart using Wood Mackenzie's data.

Neither Wood Mackenzie nor Bloomberg make public the data behind the chart, but I used a digitization program, WebPlotDigitizer, to extract data from the chart. The results are not perfect, of course, but give a good enough estimate. One must keep in mind that discovery data are not precise and may have a significant margin of error.

In order to obtain conventional oil production, I subtracted US tight oil production and Canadian tar sands production from the EIA's global crude plus condensate number. I know I must also subtract the extra-heavy production from the Orinoco Belt, but it is hard to find data for it. In any case, this is a very good estimate. According to data gathered by Jean Laherrère, the Orinoco extra-heavy production is only around 1 Mb/d today.

The following chart shows the digitized Wood Mackenzie conventional discovery data and the production data described above. According to the data, since 1980, when the gap between production and discovery began to appear, humanity has extracted about 47 percent more conventional oil than it has discovered.

And the following chart shows a three-year moving average of discovery, to replicate the ASPO chart. Notice that discovered volumes are generally larger than Campbell's data, but the drop since 2011 is more precipitous than he anticipated.

According to the Bloomberg story, this shortfall in discovery will be felt 10 years from now, when it begins to “hinder production.”

Peak oil by any other name is still peak oil.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The power (and the limits) of propaganda

There is a new and very interesting report on the attitudes of the public on Global Warming. It was published on "Environment" on Aug 26, with the title. "The Political Divide on Climate Change: Partisan Polarization Widens in the U.S. It is written by Riley E. Dunlap, Aaron M. McCright and Jerrod H. Yarosh.

The report provides updated data from Gallup polls that basically confirms some interpretations that I had proposed in earlier posts. We seem to be completely stuck with this debate. The percentage of Americans who agree with the scientific interpretation of global warming today is basically the same as it was 10 years ago. You can see it from the figure above; all the data of the report are consistent on this point.  The two camps advance a little and retreat a little, but the front line moves very little.

The figure at the top is also interesting because it provides a long-term assessment of what propaganda can do. You see the remarkable dip in the public belief on the importance of global warming that was originated by the "climategate" psyop that raged in 2009-2010. It is something that will be remembered for centuries as a milestone in the history of propaganda. But look at the data: all the climategate sound and fury had some effect only for a few years. And note how it was most effective on the Republicans, that is the people who were already the most skeptical about climate science. On the democrats, the effect is nearly zero.

We see here both the power and the limits of propaganda. And it tells us something rather chilling. If we ever were able to mount an important information campaign in favor of science, it could hardly be more effective than Climategate was against science. At best, such a campaign would intensify the belief in good science of those who already believe in good science. The debate is stuck: as we keep preaching to the choir, nothing will change.

The reason for this situation is clear from the report - and not just from that. Partisan polarization is increasing in the US and, probably, everywhere in the Western World. And as long as the polarization is so sharp, nothing that can be said by one side will affect the other. And, while we are going nowhere, global warming is marching on.

Is there a way to unlock the situation? Possibly, but it can only be drastic. We know that there is a way to recompact the people of a country and have them fight for a common goal: war. That may be the reason why the West seems to be so much on a war footing nowadays; it is a desperate attempt to recover some kind of national unity while facing a terribly difficult economic situation. But, of course, a major war would spell disaster for all attempts to stop climate change. That is, unless it were to be the right kind of war.....

Friday, August 26, 2016

The earthquake in Italy and the silliest comment ever received about climate change

It is hard to take precaution against events that are difficult or impossible to predict. That holds for all kinds of "systemic shocks" which include earthquakes, economic crises, climate-related events, and more. 

Italy may be an especially vulnerable place for earthquakes. It is a country located in a highly seismic zone where a large number of  buildings have been erected just by piling up bricks, without worrying too much about safety. The results can be seen in the earthquake of a few days ago and in several other earthquakes of the past decades. (see the image above, source). But, if Italy is a bad place in terms of precautions against seismic events, it is normal that everywhere large earthquakes strike, the damage is enormous. Even Japan, although a country that places a lot of attention on earthquake safety, was badly hit by the 2011 tsunami and by the 1995 earthquake near Kobe.

The discussion about the recent earthquake in Italy raised up some comments on my Italian blog, one of which I found especially silly. Summarizing it, it said, "If earthquakes cannot be predicted, how can you pretend to predict climate change? We should just wait and see."

I think that the logic of this comment doesn't need to be deconstructed but, at least it is further evidence that human beings are not rational creatures. Nevertheless, it raises an issue worth discussing about the predictability of climate change. Much of the debate on climate turns around the often raised objection against the need of doing something that says, "if you can't predict exactly what's going to happen, then we should just sit and watch". Obviously, nobody would even dream to raise such an objection against reinforcing buildings against earthquakes, although in practice the idea is often resisted. Nor, anyone would maintain that you shouldn't wear seat belts in your car because you can't predict exactly when an accident will occur.

So, why is the debate on climate change so special? In one sense, it is the sheer vastness of the problem. While you can always think that the next earthquake will strike somewhere else, there is no escape from climate change: it affects the whole planet and that surely makes people tend to react by disregarding even the most elementary rules of logic. In another sense, it I think that the problem is in the very concept of "predictions". Geologists know a lot about earthquakes. but they have wisely abstained from trying to make predictions about them. Climatologists, instead, have made a big effort to develop predictive tools and they keep publishing diagrams telling us what temperatures we should expect for 2050 or 2100. That has led to a heated debate about the validity of the models which, as all models, can only be approximated (the map is not the territory).

Don't make me say that there is anything wrong in climate models. They are sophisticated, physics-based tools, perfectly valid within the assumptions that they make. There is, however, a problem. Climate change and seismic phenomena are, at the most basic level, similar in the sense that they are both about the accumulation of energy in a reservoir. Geological faults cause the accumulation of elastic energy in the earth's crust. Greenhouse gases cause the accumulation of thermal energy in the atmosphere and in the oceans.

Now, it is known that the release of elastic energy in the crust is not a linear phenomenon and that, as a consequence, it generates sudden and catastrophic events. How about the release of thermal energy in the atmosphere/hydrosphere system? Mostly, we tend to think that it is a linear phenomenon: higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause rising temperatures and, indirectly, rising sea levels. But, unfortunately, that's not the whole story and it cannot be.

Complex systems tend to react to forcings in strongly non-linear ways, something that I termed the "Seneca Effect". And the rising temperatures may create plenty of sudden catastrophes when linked with the other elements of the ecosphere and also of the human econosphere. Just think of the effect of a sudden increase in the sea levels on the world's economy, largely based on marine transportation. And think about the effects on agriculture: much of the recent turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East may be seen as a non-linear reaction to rising temperatures and droughts.

But the most worrisome sudden transition related to greenhouse warming is known as the "runaway greenhouse" or the "Venus catastrophe." It is the planetary equivalent of a major earthquake; something like what happened to the city of Amatrice, in Italy, completely razed down a few days ago. Of course, we may say that such a transition is "sudden" only in terms of a different time scale in comparison to earthquakes, but it may still be rapid enough to cause gigantic damage. We don't know for sure if such a catastrophe can occur on the Earth but, according to some recent studies, it seems to be possible. And make no mistake: a runaway greenhouse effect is not just a hotter earth, it involves the extinction of the biosphere.

In the end, the main problem of this whole story is that we don't know how to convince people about the risks related to non-linear phenomena, earthquakes, climate change and the like. Should we emphasize the risk? That has the unwanted effect that people tend to run away plugging their ears and singing "la-la-la." Or should we sweeten the pill and tell them that there is nothing to be really worried about; just a few minor adjustments and everything will be fine. That has the effect that nobody is doing anything, surely not enough. Will we ever find the right strategy?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)