Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Global Warming Unstoppable?

Theory Also Says Energy Conservation Doesn't Help

Nov. 22, 2009 - In a provocative new study, a University of Utah scientist argues that rising carbon dioxide emissions - the major cause of global warming - cannot be stabilized unless the world's economy collapses or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant each day.

"It looks unlikely that there will be any substantial near-term departure from recently observed acceleration in carbon dioxide emission rates," says the new paper by Tim Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences.

Garrett's study Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide? was panned by some economists and rejected by several journals before acceptance by Climatic Change, a journal edited by renowned Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider. The study will be published online this week.

The study - which is based on the concept that physics can be used to characterize the evolution of civilization - indicates:

  • Energy conservation or efficiency doesn't really save energy, but instead spurs economic growth and accelerated energy consumption.
  • Throughout history, a simple physical "constant" - an unchanging mathematical value - links global energy use to the world's accumulated economic productivity, adjusted for inflation. So it isn't necessary to consider population growth and standard of living in predicting society's future energy consumption and resulting carbon dioxide emissions.
  • "Stabilization of carbon dioxide emissions at current rates will require approximately 300 gigawatts of new non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power production capacity annually - approximately one new nuclear power plant (or equivalent) per day," Garrett says. "Physically, there are no other options without killing the economy."

Getting Heat for Viewing Civilization as a "Heat Engine"

Garrett says colleagues generally support his theory, while some economists are critical. One economist, who reviewed the study, wrote: "I am afraid the author will need to study harder before he can contribute."

"I'm not an economist, and I am approaching the economy as a physics problem," Garrett says. "I end up with a global economic growth model different than they have."

Garrett treats civilization like a "heat engine" that "consumes energy and does 'work' in the form of economic production, which then spurs it to consume more energy," he says.

"If society consumed no energy, civilization would be worthless," he adds. "It is only by consuming energy that civilization is able to maintain the activities that give it economic value. This means that if we ever start to run out of energy, then the value of civilization is going to fall and even collapse absent discovery of new energy sources."

Garrett says his study's key finding "is that accumulated economic production over the course of history has been tied to the rate of energy consumption at a global level through a constant factor."

That "constant" is 9.7 (plus or minus 0.3) milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar. So if you look at economic and energy production at any specific time in history, "each inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar would be supported by 9.7 milliwatts of primary energy consumption," Garrett says.

Garrett tested his theory and found this constant relationship between energy use and economic production at any given time by using United Nations statistics for global GDP (gross domestic product), U.S. Department of Energy data on global energy consumption during1970-2005, and previous studies that estimated global economic production as long as 2,000 years ago. Then he investigated the implications for carbon dioxide emissions.

"Economists think you need population and standard of living to estimate productivity," he says. "In my model, all you need to know is how fast energy consumption is rising. The reason why is because there is this link between the economy and rates of energy consumption, and it's just a constant factor."

Garrett adds: "By finding this constant factor, the problem of [forecasting] global economic growth is dramatically simpler. There is no need to consider population growth and changes in standard of living because they are marching to the tune of the availability of energy supplies."

To Garrett, that means the acceleration of carbon dioxide emissions is unlikely to change soon because our energy use today is tied to society's past economic productivity.

"Viewed from this perspective, civilization evolves in a spontaneous feedback loop maintained only by energy consumption and incorporation of environmental matter," Garrett says. It is like a child that "grows by consuming food, and when the child grows, it is able to consume more food, which enables it to grow more."

Is Meaningful Energy Conservation Impossible?

Perhaps the most provocative implication of Garrett's theory is that conserving energy doesn't reduce energy use, but spurs economic growth and more energy use.

"Making civilization more energy efficient simply allows it to grow faster and consume more energy," says Garrett.

He says the idea that resource conservation accelerates resource consumption - known as Jevons paradox - was proposed in the 1865 book "The Coal Question" by William Stanley Jevons, who noted that coal prices fell and coal consumption soared after improvements in steam engine efficiency.

So is Garrett arguing that conserving energy doesn't matter?

"I'm just saying it's not really possible to conserve energy in a meaningful way because the current rate of energy consumption is determined by the unchangeable past of economic production. If it feels good to conserve energy, that is fine, but there shouldn't be any pretense that it will make a difference."

Yet, Garrett says his findings contradict his own previously held beliefs about conservation, and he continues to ride a bike or bus to work, line dry family clothing and use a push lawnmower.

An Inevitable Future for Carbon Dioxide Emissions?

Garrett says often-discussed strategies for slowing carbon dioxide emissions and global warming include mention increased energy efficiency, reduced population growth and a switch to power sources that don't emit carbon dioxide, including nuclear, wind and solar energy and underground storage of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning. Another strategy is rarely mentioned: a decreased standard of living, which would occur if energy supplies ran short and the economy collapsed, he adds.

"Fundamentally, I believe the system is deterministic," says Garrett. "Changes in population and standard of living are only a function of the current energy efficiency. That leaves only switching to a non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power source as an available option."

"The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear power plant per day."

"If society invests sufficient resources into alternative and new, non-carbon energy supplies, then perhaps it can continue growing without increasing global warming," Garrett says.

Does Garrett fear global warming deniers will use his work to justify inaction?

"No," he says. "Ultimately, it's not clear that policy decisions have the capacity to change the future course of civilization."


The global economy and its carbon dioxide emissions as a simple heat engine

  • Garrett, T. J., 2009 Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide? Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9717-9 HTML PDF

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Climate Science Report

Climate change accelerating beyond expectations, urgent emissions reductions required, say leading scientists

Global ice-sheets are melting at an increased rate; Arctic sea-ice is disappearing much faster than recently projected, and future sea-level rise is now expected to be much higher than previously forecast, according to a new global scientific synthesis prepared by some of the world’s top climate scientists.

In a special report called ‘The Copenhagen Diagnosis’, the 26 researchers, most of whom are authors of published IPCC reports, conclude that several important aspects of climate change are occurring at the high end or even beyond the expectations of only a few years ago.

The report also notes that global warming continues to track early IPCC projections based on greenhouse gas increases. Without significant mitigation, the report says global mean warming could reach as high as 7 degrees Celsius by 2100.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis, which was a year in the making, documents the key findings in climate change science since the publication of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

The new evidence to have emerged includes:

  • Satellite and direct measurements now demonstrate that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets are losing mass and contributing to sea level rise at an increasing rate.
  • Arctic sea-ice has melted far beyond the expectations of climate models. For example, the area of summer sea-ice melt during 2007-2009 was about 40% greater than the average projection from the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.
  • Sea level has risen more than 5 centimeters over the past 15 years, about 80% higher than IPCC projections from 2001. Accounting for ice-sheets and glaciers, global sea-level rise may exceed 1 meter by 2100, with a rise of up to 2 meters considered an upper limit by this time. This is much higher than previously projected by the IPCC. Furthermore, beyond 2100, sea level rise of several meters must be expected over the next few centuries.
  • In 2008 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were ~40% higher than those in 1990. Even if emissions do not grow beyond today’s levels, within just 20 years the world will have used up the allowable emissions to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

The report concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change.

To stabilize climate, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases need to reach near-zero well within this century, the report states.

The full report is available at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

If Nothing Else, Save Farming

It’s probably too late to prepare for peak oil, but we can at least try to salvage food production.

A new blog post by George Monbiot. Go to the original full article here: If Nothing Else, Save Farming

I don’t know when global oil supplies will start to decline. I do know that another resource has already peaked and gone into freefall: the credibility of the body that’s meant to assess them. Last week two whistleblowers from the International Energy Agency alleged that it has deliberately upgraded its estimate of the world’s oil supplies in order not to frighten the markets. Three days later, a paper published by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden showed that the IEA’s forecasts must be wrong, because it assumes a rate of extraction that appears to be impossible. The agency’s assessment of the state of global oil supplies is beginning to look as reliable as Mr Greenspan’s blandishments about the health of the financial markets.

If the whistleblowers are right, we should be stockpiling ammunition. If we are taken by surprise; if we have failed to replace oil before the supply peaks then crashes, the global economy is stuffed. But nothing the whistleblowers said has scared me as much as the conversation I had last week with a Pembrokeshire farmer.

Wyn Evans, who runs a mixed farm of 170 acres, has been trying to reduce his dependency on fossil fuels since 1977. He has installed an anaerobic digester, a wind turbine, solar panels and a ground-sourced heat pump. He has sought wherever possible to replace diesel with his own electricity. Instead of using his tractor to spread slurry, he pumps it from the digester onto nearby fields. He’s replaced his tractor-driven irrigation system with an electric one, and set up a new system for drying hay indoors, which means he has to turn it in the field only once. Whatever else he does is likely to produce smaller savings. But these innovations have reduced his use of diesel by only around 25%.

According to farm scientists at Cornell University, cultivating one hectare of maize in the United States requires 40 litres of petrol and 75 litres of diesel. The amazing productivity of modern farm labour has been purchased at the cost of a dependency on oil. Unless farmers can change the way it’s grown, a permanent oil shock would price food out of the mouths of many of the world’s people. Any responsible government would be asking urgent questions about how long we have got.

Instead, most of them delegate this job to the International Energy Agency. I’ve been bellyaching about the British government’s refusal to make contingency plans for the possibility that oil might peak by 2020 for the past two years, and I’m beginning to feel like a madman with a sandwich board. Perhaps I am, but how lucky do you feel? The new World Energy Outlook published by the IEA last week expects the global demand for oil to rise from 85m barrels a day in 2008 to 105m in 2030. Oil production will rise to 103m barrels, it says, and biofuels will make up the shortfall. If we want the oil, it will materialise.

The agency does caution that conventional oil is likely to “approach a plateau” towards the end of this period, but there’s no hint of the graver warning that the IEA’s chief economist issued when I interviewed him last year: “we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau … I think time is not on our side here.” Almost every year the agency has been forced to downgrade its forecast for the daily supply of oil in 2030: from 123m barrels in 2004, to 120m in 2005, 116m in 2007, 106m in 2008 and 103m this year. But according to one of the whistleblowers, “even today’s number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.”

The Uppsala report, published in the journal Energy Policy, anticipates that maximum global production of all kinds of oil in 2030 will be 76m barrels per day. Analysing the IEA’s figures, it finds that to meet its forecasts for supply, the world’s new and undiscovered oil fields would have to be developed at a rate “never before seen in history.” As many of them are in politically or physically difficult places, and as capital is short, this looks impossible. Assessing existing fields, the likely rate of discovery and the use of new techniques for extraction, the researchers find that “the peak of world oil production is probably occurring now.”

Are they right? Who knows? Last month the UK Energy Research Centre published a massive review of all the available evidence on global oil supplies. It found that the date of peak oil will be determined not by the total size of the global resource but by the rate at which it can be exploited. New discoveries would have to be implausibly large to make a significant difference: even if a field the size of all the oil reserves ever struck in the USA were miraculously discovered, it would delay the date of peaking by only four years. As global discoveries peaked in the 1960s, a find like this doesn’t seem very likely.

Regional oil supplies have peaked when about one third of the total resource has been extracted: this is because the rate of production falls as the remaining oil becomes harder to shift. So the assumption in the IEA’s new report, that oil production will hold steady when the global resource has fallen “to around one-half by 2030″ looks unsafe. The UKERC review finds that just to keep oil supply at present levels, “more than two thirds of current crude oil production capacity may need to be replaced by 2030 … At best, this is likely to prove extremely challenging.” There is, it says “a significant risk of a peak in conventional oil production before 2020.” Unconventional oil won’t save us: even a crash programme to develop the Canadian tar sands could deliver only 5m barrels a day by 2030.

As a report commissioned by the US Department of Energy shows, an emergency programme to replace current energy supplies or equipment to anticipate peak oil would need about 20 years to take effect. It seems unlikely that we have it. The world economy is probably knackered, whatever we might do now. But at least we could save farming. There are two possible options: either the mass replacement of farm machinery or the development of new farming systems, which don’t need much labour or energy. There are no obvious barriers to the mass production of electric tractors and combine harvesters: the weight of the batteries and an electric vehicle’s low-end torque are both advantages for tractors. A switch to forest gardening and other forms of permaculture is trickier, especially for producing grain; but such is the scale of the creeping emergency that we can’t afford to rule anything out.

The challenge of feeding 7 or 8 billion people while oil supplies are falling is stupefying. It’ll be even greater if governments keep pretending that it isn’t going to happen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Challenges: Food Insecurity and Climate Change - Summary Presentation for Plan B 4.0


“In early 2008, Saudi Arabia announced that, after being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the non-replenishable aquifer it had been pumping for irrigation was largely depleted,” writes Lester R. Brown in his new book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

“In response, officials said they would reduce their wheat harvest by one eighth each year until production would cease entirely in 2016. The Saudis then plan to use their oil wealth to import virtually all the grain consumed by their Canada-sized population of nearly 30 million people,” notes Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.

“The Saudis are unique in being so wholly dependent on irrigation,” says Brown in Plan B 4.0. But other, far larger, grain producers such as India and China are facing irrigation water losses and could face grain production declines.

A World Bank study of India’s water balance notes that 15 percent of its grain harvest is produced by overpumping. In human terms, 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced from wells that will be going dry. The comparable number for China is 130 million. Among the many other countries facing harvest reductions from groundwater depletion are Pakistan, Iran, and Yemen.

“The tripling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices between mid-2006 and mid-2008 signaled our growing vulnerability to food shortages,” says Brown. “It took the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression to lower grain prices.”

“Past decades have witnessed world grain price surges, but they were event-driven—a drought in the former Soviet Union, a monsoon failure in India, or a crop-withering heat wave in the U.S. Corn Belt. This most recent price surge was trend-driven, the result of our failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining world food production.”

These trends include—in addition to falling water tables—eroding soils and rising temperatures from increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Rising temperatures bring crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, rising sea level, and shrinking mountain glaciers.

The number of hungry people, which was declining for several decades, bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 825 million. It then climbed to 915 million in 2008 and jumped to over 1 billion in 2009. With world food prices projected to continue rising, so too will the number of hungry people, leaving millions of families trying to survive on one meal per day.

“We know from studying earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians, Mayans, and many others,” says Brown, “that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their demise. It now appears that food may be the weak link in our early twenty-first century civilization as well.

“The world is entering a new food era, one marked by rising food prices, growing numbers of hungry people, and an emerging politics of food scarcity. As grain-exporting countries restrict or even ban exports to keep domestic food prices from spiraling out of control, importing countries are losing confidence in the market’s ability to supply their needs. In response, the more affluent ones such as Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea are leasing and buying large tracts of land in developing countries on which to grow food for themselves.”

Our early twenty-first century civilization is showing signs of stress as individual countries compete not only for scarce food but also for the land and water to produce it. People expect their governments to provide food security. Indeed, the inability to do so is one of the hallmarks of a failing state. Each year the list of failing states grows longer, leaving us with a disturbing question: How many failing states before our global civilization begins to unravel?

“Will we follow in the footsteps of the Sumerians and the Mayans or can we change course—and do it before time runs out?” asks Brown. “Can we move onto an economic path that is environmentally sustainable? We think we can. That is what Plan B 4.0 is about.”

Plan B aims to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the economy’s natural support systems. It prescribes a worldwide cut in net carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2020, thus keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations from exceeding 400 parts per million. “In setting this goal,” says Brown, “my colleagues and I did not ask what would be politically popular but rather what would it take to have a decent shot at saving the Greenland ice sheet and at least the larger glaciers in the mountains of Asia.”

Cutting carbon emissions will require both a worldwide revolution in energy efficiency and a shift from oil, coal, and gas to wind, solar, and geothermal energy. The energy efficiency revolution will transform everything from lighting to transportation.

The shift to renewable sources of energy is moving at a pace and on a scale we could not imagine even two years ago. Consider the state of Texas. The enormous number of wind projects under development, on top of the 9,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity in operation and under construction, will bring Texas to over 50,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants) when all these wind farms are completed. This will more than satisfy the needs of the state’s 24 million residents.

Nationwide, new wind generating capacity in 2008 totaled 8,400 megawatts while new coal plants totaled only 1,400 megawatts. The annual growth in solar generating capacity will also soon overtake that of coal. The energy transition is under way.

The United States has led the world in each of the last four years in new wind generating capacity, having overtaken Germany in 2005. But this lead will be short-lived as China appears set to blow by the United States in new wind capacity added in 2009.

China, with its Wind Base program, is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with generating capacities that range from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts, for a total of 105,000 megawatts. This is in addition to the hundreds of smaller wind farms built or planned.

“The soaring investment in wind, solar, and geothermal energy is being driven by the exciting realization that these renewables can last as long as the earth itself,” says Brown. “In contrast to investing in new oil fields where well yields begin to decline in a matter of decades, or in coal mines where the seams run out, these new energy sources can last forever.”

The combination of efficiency advances, the wholesale shift to renewable energy, and expansion of the earth’s tree cover outlined in Plan B would allow the world to cut net global carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020. In contrast to today’s global electricity sector, where coal supplies 40 percent of electricity, Plan B sees wind emerging as the centerpiece in the 2020 energy economy, supplying 40 percent of all electricity.

We are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet and avoid the resulting rise in sea level? Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau? Can we stabilize population by lowering birth rates before nature takes over and halts population growth by raising death rates?

“Yes,” affirms Brown. “But it will take something close to a wartime mobilization, one similar to that of the United States in 1942 as it restructured its industrial economy in a matter of months. We used to talk about saving the planet, but it is civilization itself that is now at risk.

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us must push for rapid change. And we must be armed with a plan outlining the changes needed.

“It is decision time,” says Brown. “Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice. We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilization unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilizes to save civilization. Our generation will make the decision, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

Worrying Trends

The new summary presentation of Plan B 4.0 outlines worrying trends:
  • As levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to increase, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that Earth’s average temperature will rise 1.1-6.4˚C during this century.
  • Our current trajectory is already outpacing these projections.
  • For every 1˚C rise in temperature above the norm, yields of wheat, rice, and corn drop 10 percent.
  • The glaciers feeding rivers like the Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges, and Indus, which provide critical irrigation water, are disappearing at accelerating rates.
  • The United States has been converting more and more corn into fuel for cars; yet the grain needed to fill an SUV’s 25 gallon tank once with ethanol could feed one person for an entire year.
  • World grain and soybean prices tripled from mid-2006 to mid-2008, causing riots and unrest in dozens of countries.
  • More than 1 billion people in the world are suffering from hunger.
  • In an effort to ensure their own food security, some affluent food importing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea, have begun buying or leasing land abroad to grow their own food.
  • It was food shortages that led to the collapse of several ancient civilizations.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Landscape of Oil - Photos by Edward Burtynsky

In stunning large-format photographs, Edward Burtynsky follows the path of oil through modern society, from wellhead to pipeline to car engine -- and then beyond to the projected peak-oil endgame.

In his new TED Talk Edward Burtynsky photographs the landscape of oil:

To describe Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's work in a single adjective, you have to speak French: jolie-laide. His images of scarred landscapes -- from mountains of tires to rivers of bright orange waste from a nickel mine -- are eerily pretty yet ugly at the same time. Burtynsky's large-format color photographs explore the impact of humanity's expanding footprint and the substantial ways in which we're reshaping the surface of the planet. His images powerfully alter the way we think about the world and our place in it.

With his blessing and encouragement, and others use his work to inspire ongoing global conversations about sustainable living. Burtynsky's photographs are included in the collections of many major museums, including Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A large-format book, 2003's Manufactured Landscapes, collected his work, and in 2007, a documentary based on his photography, also called Manufactured Landscapes, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival before going on to screen at Sundance and elsewhere. It was released on DVD in March 2007.

When Burtynsky accepted his 2005 TED Prize, he made three wishes. One of his wishes: to build a website that will help kids think about going green. Thanks to WGBH and the TED community, the new site, Meet the Greens, debuted at TED2007. His second wish: to begin work on an Imax film -- and this work is now ongoing. And his third wish, wider in scope, was simply to encourage "a massive and productive worldwide conversation about sustainable living." Thanks to his help and the input of the TED community, the site got an infusion of energy that has helped it to grow into a leading voice in the sustainability community.

"One possible rap against his portfolio -- it prettifies the terrible. Burtynsky calls his images 'a second look at the scale of what we call progress,' and hopes that [they] acquaint viewers with the ramifications of our lifestyle."

Washington Post

Monday, November 16, 2009

‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society

The new Searching for a Miracle: ‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society report by Richard Heinberg and Jerry Mander is intended as a non-technical examination of a basic question: Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100? In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another. Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed—but in any case they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment. And contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations. To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time—too long in practical terms—for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.

Perhaps the most significant limit to future energy supplies is the “net energy” factor—the requirement that energy systems yield more energy than is invested in their construction and operation. There is a strong likelihood that future energy systems, both conventional and alternative, will have higher energy input costs than those that powered industrial societies during the last century.We will come back to this point repeatedly.

The report explores some of the presently proposed energy transition scenarios, showing why, up to this time, most are overly optimistic, as they do not address all of the relevant limiting factors to the expansion of alternative energy sources. Finally, it shows why energy conservation (using less energy, and also less resource materials) combined with humane, gradual population decline must become primary strategies for achieving sustainability.


The world’s current energy regime is unsustainable. This is the recent, explicit conclusion of the International Energy Agency1, and it is also the substance of a wide and growing public consensus ranging across the political spectrum. One broad segment of this consensus is concerned about the climate and the other environmental impacts of society’s reliance on fossil fuels.The other is mainly troubled by questions regarding the security of future supplies of these fuels—which, as they deplete, are increasingly concentrated in only a few countries.

To say that our current energy regime is unsustainable means that it cannot continue and must therefore be replaced with something else.However, replacing the energy infrastructure of modern industrial societies will be no trivial matter. Decades have been spent building the current oil-coal-gas infrastructure, and trillions of dollars invested. Moreover, if the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is wrongly managed, the consequences could be severe: there is an undeniable connection between per-capita levels of energy consumption and economic well-being.2 A failure to supply sufficient energy, or energy of sufficient quality, could undermine the future welfare of humanity, while a failure to quickly make the transition away from fossil fuels could imperil the Earth’s vital ecosystems.

Nonetheless, it remains a commonly held assumption that alternative energy sources capable of substituting for conventional fossil fuels are readily available—whether fossil (tar sands or oil shale), nuclear, or a long list of renewables—and ready to come on-line in a bigger way. All that is necessary, according to this view, is to invest sufficiently in them, and life will go on essentially as it is.

But is this really the case? Each energy source has highly specific characteristics. In fact, it has been the characteristics of our present energy sources (principally oil, coal, and natural gas) that have enabled the building of a modern society with high mobility, large population, and high economic growth rates. Can alternative energy sources perpetuate this kind of society? Alas, we think not.

While it is possible to point to innumerable successful alternative energy production installations within modern societies (ranging from small homescale photovoltaic systems to large “farms” of threemegawatt wind turbines), it is not possible to point to more than a very few examples of an entire modern industrial nation obtaining the bulk of its energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas. One such rare example is Sweden, which gets most of its energy from nuclear and hydropower. Another is Iceland, which benefits from unusually large domestic geothermal resources, not found in most other countries. Even in these two cases, the situation is more complex than it appears.The construction of the infrastructure for these power plants mostly relied on fossil fuels for the mining of the ores and raw materials, materials processing, transportation, manufacturing of components, the mining of uranium, construction energy, and so on. Thus for most of the world, a meaningful energy transition is still more theory than reality. But if current primary energy sources are unsustainable, this implies a daunting problem. The transition to alternative sources must occur, or the world will lack sufficient energy to maintain basic services for its 6.8 billion people (and counting).

Thus it is vitally important that energy alternatives be evaluated thoroughly according to relevant criteria, and that a staged plan be formulated and funded for a systemic societal transition away from oil, coal, and natural gas and toward the alternative energy sources deemed most fully capable of supplying the kind of economic benefits we have been accustomed to from conventional fossil fuels.

By now, it is possible to assemble a bookshelf filled with reports from nonprofit environmental organizations and books from energy analysts, dating from the early 1970s to the present, all attempting to illuminate alternative energy transition pathways for the United States and the world as a whole.These plans and proposals vary in breadth and quality, and especially in their success at clearly identifying the factors that are limiting specific alternative energy sources from being able to adequately replace conventional fossil fuels.

It is a central purpose of this document to systematically review key limiting factors that are often left out of such analyses.We will begin that process in the next section. Following that, we will go further into depth on one key criterion: net energy, or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).This measure focuses on the key question: All things considered, how much more energy does a system produce than is required to develop and operate that system? What is the ratio of energy in versus energy out? Some energy “sources” can be shown to produce little or no net energy. Others are only minimally positive.

Unfortunately, as we shall see in more detail below, research on EROEI continues to suffer from lack of standard measurement practices, and its use and implications remain widely misunderstood. Nevertheless, for the purposes of large-scale and long-range planning, net energy may be the most vital criterion for evaluating energy sources, as it so clearly reveals the tradeoffs involved in any shift to new energy sources.

This report is not intended to serve as a final authoritative, comprehensive analysis of available energy options, nor as a plan for a nation-wide or global transition from fossil fuels to alternatives. While such analyses and plans are needed, they will require institutional resources and ongoing reassessment to be of value.The goal here is simply to identify and explain the primary criteria that should be used in such analyses and plans, with special emphasis on net energy, and to offer a cursory evaluation of currently available energy sources, using those criteria.This will provide a general, preliminary sense of whether alternative sources are up to the job of replacing fossil fuels; and if they are not, we can begin to explore what might be the fall-back strategy of governments and the other responsible institutions of modern society.

As we will see, the fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of the current century.

This preliminary conclusion in turn suggests that a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all. It also raises questions about the sustainability of growth per se, both in terms of human population numbers and economic activity.

Download the full pdf report from the website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

World Energy Outlook 2009 Edition

The time has come to make the hard choices needed to combat climate change and enhance global energy security, says the latest IEA World Energy Outlook

Since WEO-2008, the economic downturn has led to a drop in energy use, CO2 emissions and energy investment. Is this an opportunity to arrest climate change or a threat that any economic upturn might be stifled at birth?

What package of commitments and measures should the climate negotiators at Copenhagen put together if they really want to stop global temperatures rising? How much would it cost? And how much might the developed world have to pay to finance action elsewhere?

How big is the gas resource base and what is the typical pattern of production from a gas field? What does the unconventional gas boom in the United States mean for the rest of the world? Are we headed for a global gas glut? What role will gas play in the future energy mix? And how might the way gas is priced change?

All these questions and many others are answered in WEO-2009. The data are extensive, the projections more detailed than ever and the analyses compelling.
  • The past 12 months have seen enormous upheavals in energy markets around the world, yet the challenges of transforming the global energy system remain urgent and daunting.
  • How we rise to that challenge will have far-reaching consequences for energy markets.
  • The scale and breadth of the energy challenge is enormous — far greater than many people realise. But it can and must be met.
  • Households and businesses are largely responsible for making the required investments, but governments hold the key to changing the mix of energy investment.

World Running Out of Oil?

(via Guardian) Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower

The world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit, according to a whistleblower at the International Energy Agency who claims it has been deliberately underplaying a looming shortage for fear of triggering panic buying.

The senior official claims the US has played an influential role in encouraging the watchdog to underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves.

The allegations raise serious questions about the accuracy of the organisation's latest World Energy Outlook on oil demand and supply to be published tomorrow – which is used by the British and many other governments to help guide their wider energy and climate change policies.

In particular they question the prediction in the last World Economic Outlook, believed to be repeated again this year, that oil production can be raised from its current level of 83m barrels a day to 105m barrels. External critics have frequently argued that this cannot be substantiated by firm evidence and say the world has already passed its peak in oil production.

Read the full report here.

The Peak of the Oil Age - The Uppsala Energy Outlook

A new study has been accepted for publication in the journal of Energy Policy. The article performs an analysis of the oil production forecast done by the International Energy Agency in 2008 and highlights several shortcomings as well as confirms other parts.

The assessment of future global oil production presented in the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2008 (WEO 2008) is divided into 6 fractions; four relate to crude oil, one to non-conventional oil and the final fraction is natural-gas-liquids (NGL). Using the production parameter, depletion-rate-of-recoverable-resources, we have analyzed the four crude oil fractions and found that the 75 Mb/d of crude oil production forecast for the year 2030 appears significantly overstated, and is more likely to be in the region of 55 Mb/d. Moreover, analysis of the other fractions strongly suggests lower than expected production levels. In total, our analysis points to a world oil supply in 2030 of 75 Mb/d, some 26 Mb/d lower than the IEA predicts.

The connection between economic growth and energy use is fundamental in the IEA's present modelling approach. Since our forecast sees little chance of a significant increase in global oil production, our findings suggest that the "policy makers, investors and end users" to whom WEO 2008 is addressed should rethink their future plans for economic growth. The fact that global oil production has very probably passed its maximum implies that we have reached the Peak of the Oil Age.

The study is available online as PDF here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Economies Evolve by Energy Dispersal

( -- Terms such as the "invisible hand," laissez-faire policy, and free-market principles suggest that economic growth and decline in capitalist societies seem to be somehow self-regulated. Now, scientists Arto Annila of the University of Helsinki and Stanley Salthe of Binghampton University in New York show that economic activity can be regarded as an evolutionary process governed by the second law of thermodynamics. Their perspective may provide insight into some fundamental economic questions, such as the causes of economic growth and diversification, as well as why it’s so difficult to predict economic growth and decline.

Abstract: Economic activity can be regarded as an evolutionary process governed by the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The universal law, when formulated locally as an equation of motion, reveals that a growing economy develops functional machinery and organizes hierarchically in such a way as to tend to equalize energy density differences within the economy and in respect to the surroundings it is open to. Diverse economic activities result in flows of energy that will preferentially channel along the most steeply descending paths, leveling a non-Euclidean free energy landscape. This principle of 'maximal energy dispersal‘, equivalent to the maximal rate of entropy production, gives rise to economic laws and regularities. The law of diminishing returns follows from the diminishing free energy while the relation between supply and demand displays a quest for a balance among interdependent energy densities. Economic evolution is dissipative motion where the driving forces and energy flows are inseparable from each other. When there are multiple degrees of freedom, economic growth and decline are inherently impossible to forecast in detail. Namely, trajectories of an evolving economy are non-integrable, i.e. unpredictable in detail because a decision by a player will affect also future decisions of other players. We propose that decision making is ultimately about choosing from various actions those that would reduce most effectively subjectively perceived energy gradients.

Read the full research here: Economies Evolve by Energy Dispersal by Arto Annila and Stanley Salthe.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Collapse - The Movie

Americans generally like to hear good news. They like to believe that a new president will right old wrongs, that clean energy will replace dirty oil and that fresh thinking will set the economy straight. American pundits tend to restrain their pessimism and hope for the best. But is anyone prepared to the worst?

Meet Michael Ruppert, a different kind of American. A former Los Angeles police officer turned independent reporter, he predicted the current financial crisis in his self-published newsletter, From the Wilderness, at a time when most Wall Street and Washington analysts were still in denial. Director Chris Smith has shown an affinity for outsiders in films like American Movie and The Yes Men. In Collapse, he departs stylistically from his past documentaries by interviewing Ruppert in a format that recalls the work of Errol Morris and Spalding Gray.

Sitting in a room that looks like a bunker, Ruppert recounts his career as a radical thinker and spells out the crises he sees ahead. He draws upon the same news reports and data available to any internet user, but he applies a unique interpretation. He is especially passionate about the issue of "peak oil", the concern raised by scientifists since the seventies that the world will eventually run out of fossil fuel. While other experts debate this issue in measured tones, Ruppert doesn't hold back at sounding an alarm, portraying an apocalyptic future. Listening to his rapid flow of options, the viewer is likely to question some of the rhetoric as paranoid or deluded, and to sway back and forth on what to make of the extremism. Smith lets viewers form their own judgements.

Collapse also serves as a portrait of a loner. Over the years, Ruppert has stood up for what he believes in despite fierce opposition. He candidly describes the sacrifices and motivators in his life. While other observers analyze details of the economic crisis, Ruppert views it as symptomatic of nothing less than the collapse of industrial civilization itself.

Thom Powers, Toronto International Film Festival