Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Economic Growth And Climate Change — No Way Out?

Dave Cohen has posted a new entry on his Peak Watch blog on Economic Growth And Climate Change — No Way Out? I recommend you to check out the full article. Here is a short excerpt:

Humankind has reached a fork in the road. The business-as-usual path implies robust economic growth with a rise in the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to anthropogenic climate change. The other path, whatever its actual form turns out to be, shuns business-as-usual in an attempt stabilize greenhouse gas levels (mainly carbon dioxide CO2) in the Earth's atmosphere (e.g. at 450 ppmv, parts-per-million-by-volume) to avoid catastrophic warming (e.g. > 2°C). Considered alternatives invariably lay out a vision of the future in which emissions steadily decline while economies continue to grow. Is such a vision realistic? This essay questions standard assumptions underlying this "have your cake and eat it too" view.


The main conclusions of this essay subvert standard views of how the future looks if humankind chooses to make a serious effort to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.

For now, and in the "foreseeable" future, putting the breaks on economic growth appears to be the only practical way out of the climate dilemma. Unfortunately, this solution is politically impossible, a circumstance which is reinforced by economists' incontestable, unshakable belief that economic growth will continue in all future emissions (energy) scenarios. This conclusion rests upon the equally incontestable, unshakable Assumption of Technological Progress.

The inescapable conclusion in 2010 is that continued economic growth at near 20th century rates in the 21st century is incompatible with taking positive, effective steps to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, such assumptions are not compatible with a near-term peak in the conventional oil supply.

Our species faces unprecedented challenges in this new century. Our response to those challenges will define Homo sapiens in ways we never had to come to grips with during the Holocene (roughly the last 10,000 years) or before that in the Pleistocene. The problems we face in this century are unique, even on geological time-scales extending far into the past beyond the 200,000-year-old Human experience on Earth.

Both our limitations and our abilities, such as they are, will be displayed in the bright, harsh light of the energy & climate outcomes in the 21st century. Regardless of who we pretend to be, our response to these challenges will tell us who we really are.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

21 Hours - Why a Shorter Working Week Can Help Us All to Flourish in the 21st Century

A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.

This new report by nef sets out arguments for a much shorter working week. It proposes a radical change in what is considered ‘normal’ – down from 40 hours or more, to 21 hours. While people can choose to work longer or shorter hours, we propose that 21 hours – or its equivalent spread across the calendar year – should become the standard that is generally expected by government, employers, trade unions, employees, and everyone else.

The shape of the report
The report first describe the way people use their time today. Next, it looks at experiments with shorter working hours and some of their effects. It considers how our notions of ‘normal’ working hours emerge, and then set out reasons why a move towards 21 hours could help meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Finally, it explores the main problems that arise and how these might be addressed.

In conclusion
We are at the beginning of a national debate. This report makes the case for a substantial reduction in paid working hours, aiming towards 21 hours a week as the norm. The current norm of a nine-to-five, five-day week in paid employment does not reflect the way most people use their time. Unpaid work is generally overlooked and undervalued. A much shorter working week offers very considerable benefits to the environment, to society, and to the economy. There are serious problems to confront in the transition from where we are to where we want to be: they are mainly concerned with the impact on earnings and on employers’ balance sheets. We have set out suggestions for addressing these problems, acknowledging that an important pre-condition is a strong democracy and an effective and accountable government. Our suggestions include ways of incentivising employers, compensating lost earnings, sharing unpaid time more equally between women and men, and changing the climate of opinion. None of these options will work on its own and there are doubtless many more possibilities. The next step is to make a thorough examination of the benefits, challenges, barriers, and opportunities associated with moving towards a 21-hour week over the next decade. This will be part of the ‘Great Transition’ to a sustainable future.

Check out the full report on the web site of the new economics foundation. It is available for download in pdf.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Infrastructure: Priorities and painful decisions

Christine Patton is a former risk and process management consultant; and currently Co-chairs the Transition Town OKC initiating group. She has a nice blog "Peak Oil Hausfrau". Check out her blog entry on the difficult decisions we need to face to maintain the most important infrastructure we built. Here is a short extract:

When cheap energy reigned, we built acres of infrastructure, without giving too much thought to the energy, materials, and money that we would need to maintain and operate these constructions. Now, we have come to completely depend on these systems, most of which did not exist in their current form one hundred years ago:
  • Roads, highways and bridges,
  • Water and sewage systems,
  • Housing and buildings (schools, hospitals),
  • Electric grid and power plants,
  • Landfills and hazardous waste disposal systems,
  • Dams and canals,
  • Public transit (including subways, buses and railways),
  • Internet and communications, and
  • Energy extraction, processing, and delivery systems.
The crumbling of this legacy of infrastructure is one of the many day-to-day living problems that we face over the next fifty to a hundred years. Unlike our natural systems, which can regenerate themselves (if not destroyed completely), and which are self-perpetuating and self-healing, our built infrastructure requires regular maintenance and investment. Maintenance depends on a base of knowledgeable personnel with access to information about the systems, affordable materials and energy, factories that produce needed parts, and regular investment to fix what's broken or decaying.

Things break. Water lines crack, electric lines snap, and potholes appear magically overnight. Infrastructure is especially vulnerable in severe weather and during natural disasters, but also from lack of regular maintenance and from accidents, and of course from willful malfeasance. We currently have the capacity to come in after a disaster, clean up, and repair the damage. Will we be able to do so when everything costs twice as much and when state, municipal and corporate revenues have been cut in half?

This is reality. With a future of decreasing energy supplies, we will have less and less available to maintain the systems that support our globalized, high-energy, consumer lifestyle, on top of the resources we need to meet our daily needs. We will need to decide where to spend our money, our materials, our energy, and our manpower. How will we prioritize? Will it be haphazardly, fixing whatever is broken, patching things together until the point that resources are no longer available? Will we only maintain systems in the places of the rich and powerful?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!

At TED2010, Bill Gates unveils his vision for the world's energy future, describing the need for "miracles" to avoid planetary catastrophe and explaining why he's backing a dramatically different type of nuclear reactor. The necessary goal? Zero carbon emissions globally by 2050.

Today Bill Gates talked about the nuclear reactor project, TerraPower, at TED 2010. As an investor in several promising energy projects, Gates said it is our responsibility to pursue technologies that achieve cheap energy with “zero carbon” emissions.

TerraPower determined a new type of traveling-wave reactor would be the best approach to meeting the world’s energy demand. Our team decided to pursue nuclear energy after investigating many different technologies and solutions. With advances in computing power in just the past few years, we are able to make radical contributions to science that weren’t possible a few years ago. We believe the traveling-wave reactor concept provides the kind of innovation that society needs.

This video explains the traveling-wave reactor and how it works.

[via Intellectual Ventures Lab]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ecological Economics - Revaluing the Environment

Growth for growth’s sake is no longer an option. Ecological economists are calling for a ‘green’ revision of incentives and investments, as the starting point for achieving societies that are sustainable in environmental, social as well as economic terms.

Peter May, past president of the International Society for Ecological Economics, has written an excellent summary of the role of ecological economics in the transition to a sustainable economy (appearing in the current issue of The Broker). He contrasts the principles of ecological economics (EE) with those of mainstream economics and points out the key fundamental difference — EE practitioners recognize that the economy is a subsystem of the biosphere, while mainstream economists tend to view the economy as the whole and the environment as the subsystem.

Principles of ecological economics

EE takes as its starting point the notion that the economy is situated within the biosphere (in contrast with mainstream economic theory in which environmental problems are considered only as external reflections of the larger economic system). Resources such as air, water, food, wood, fibre, minerals and energy sources are the foundation of the economy. The economy also draws on the Earth as a sink for its wastes, such as carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals and chloro-fluorocarbons.

Facing reality

What does all this imply for the green economy? From an EE perspective, business as usual is no longer an option. A return to the expectation that a bull market will allow us to ‘grow our way out’ of crisis would mean we have learned nothing.

Rather, it is time to face the reality of biophysical limits and to find institutional and behavioural responses to the underlying contradictions that have brought the global economy to its knees, and that have degraded biodiversity and overheated the planet.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Environment, power, and society for the twenty-first century

"Get a rare, fresh, enlightening glimpse of the Big Picture of our environmental and energy problems - Highly recommended." -- Choice

Howard T. Odum possessed one of the most innovative minds of the twentieth century. He pioneered the fields of ecological engineering, ecological economics, and environmental accounting, working throughout his life to better understand the interrelationships of energy, environment, and society and their importance to the well-being of humanity and the planet.

Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy is a major modernization of Odum's classic work on the significance of power and its role in society, bringing his approach and insight to a whole new generation of students and scholars. For this edition Odum refines his original theories and introduces two new measures: emergy and transformity. These concepts can be used to evaluate and compare systems and their transformation and use of resources by accounting for all the energies and materials that flow in and out and expressing them in equivalent ability to do work. Natural energies such as solar radiation and the cycling of water, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen are diagrammed in terms of energy and emergy flow. Through this method Odum reveals the similarities between human economic and social systems and the ecosystems of the natural world. In the process, we discover that our survival and prosperity are regulated as much by the laws of energetics as are systems of the physical and chemical world.

The Book Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy is available on Google Books with limited preview.

Climax and Descent (Chapter 13)

The growth of civilisation on the nonrenewable reserves of the earth is surging to a climax of information miracles, stormy economics, turbulent populations, concentrated wealth, and bewildering complexity. Although the future is always masked by the oscillations of smaller scale, the empower of society may be at climax in transition to times of receding energy. This last chapter uses principles of energy hierarchy and pulsing to anticipate the future, suggest adaptive policies, and seek a prosperous way down.


By developing explanations and plans now for making descent prosperous, we can be ready when the shocks of change galvanize the attention of society. Some can have faith in the future from understanding energy principles. Other will find faith in religions that adapt the necessary commandments for once again fitting culture to the earth. The people of Easter Island disappeared, leaving only their monuments as an example to the world of what happens when culture cannot downsize to fit its environmental production.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Oil Crunch - A wake-up call for the UK economy

  • Taskforce warns Britain is unprepared for significant risk to companies and consumers
  • Poorest to be hit hardest by price rises for travel, food, heating and consumer goods
  • New policies must be priority for whoever wins the General Election
  • Recommended packages include legislation, new technologies and behaviour-change incentives
  • Fundamental change in demand patterns triggered by emerging economy countries
London, 10 February, 2010: A group of leading business people today call for urgent action to prepare the UK for Peak Oil. The second report of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES) finds that oil shortages, insecurity of supply and price volatility will destabilise economic, political and social activity potentially by 2015. Peak Oil refers to the point where the highest practicable rate of global oil production has been achieved and from which future levels of production will either plateau, or begin to diminish. This means an end to the era of cheap oil.

The report, “The Oil Crunch - a wake-up call for the UK economy”, urges the formation of a coalition of government, business and consumers to address the issue.

The Taskforce states the impact of Peak Oil will include sharp increases in the cost of travel, food, heating and retail goods. It finds that the transport sector will be particularly hard hit, with more vulnerable members of society the first to feel the impact. The Taskforce warns that the UK must not be caught out by the oil crunch in the same way it was with the credit crunch and states that policies to address Peak Oil must be a priority for the new government formed after the election.

Having assessed the systemic changes caused by the global economic recession, coupled with the projected growth from non-OECD countries, ITPOES predicts Peak Oil will occur within the next decade, potentially by 2015 at less than 95 million barrels per day. (In 2008, production levels were 85 million barrels per day.) The study finds that the recession has delayed the oil crunch by two years. This provides invaluable time to plan for a future which will see structural increases in oil prices coupled with shortages and increased market volatility. The UK will be particularly badly hit by these factors with a tightening of supply leading to greater oil import dependency, rising and volatile prices, inflationary pressures and the risk of disruption to the transport system.

Key recommendations from the report include the acceleration of the “green transport revolution” to see the ongoing introduction of lower carbon technology and trials of sustainable bio fuels. This would cover private vehicles, but also extend to the general transport network, with the government urged not to cut investment in public transport. A focus on new clean technologies should be combined with wide scale behavioural change promoted through incentives and education to produce a modal shift to greener modes of transport.

ITPOES’ membership includes Arup, Foster + Partners, Scottish and Southern Energy, Solar Century, Stagecoach Group and Virgin Group. The report will be launched at an event at the Royal Society with presentations from Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group; Philip Dilley, Chairman of Arup; Ian Marchant, CEO of Scottish and Southern Energy; Jeremy Leggett, Chairman of Solarcentury; Brian Souter, CEO of Stagecoach Group; and Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic.

The Taskforce recognises that oil demand in the OECD area (developed countries) is now flat or declining but also recognises that demand in non-OECD (developing countries) continues to expand rapidly, having already recovered from the recession. Demand in the non-OECD areas already accounts for 45% of global oil demand and is expected to reach 50% by the middle of the decade.

The report issues a range of recommendations including:

General policies:
  • Government, local authorities and business must face up to the Peak Oil threat and put contingency plans in place
  • A package of policies are required to deal with the economic, financial and social impact of potential high oil prices
  • There is a need to accelerate the green industrial revolution
  • Government support should be boosted for alternative technological solutions and associated infrastructure, such as electric vehicles
  • Policies and fiscal measures to support and incentivise a shift from the traditional car to more fuel- and carbon-efficient modes of transport to be established
  • Government investment in public transport must be maintained
Power generation and distribution policies:
  • Government must provide a stable pro-investment regulatory and political climate
  • The nation’s power generation and transmission distribution infrastructure must be changed to adapt to new demand patterns, price spikes and supply interruption
Retail and agriculture:
  • Measures must be taken to protect the public, particularly the most disadvantaged, from the impact of rising fuel costs on food and other consumer goods prices

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Publications by the new economics foundation

nef (the new economics foundation) is an independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being.

Growth isn't Possible

Four years on from nef's Growth isn’t Working, this new report goes one step further and tests that thesis in detail in the context of climate change and energy. It argues that indefinite global economic growth is unsustainable. Just as the laws of thermodynamics constrain the maximum efficiency of a heat engine, economic growth is constrained by the finite nature of our planet’s natural resources (biocapacity).

The Cuts Won't Work

Why spending on a Green New Deal will reduce the public debt, cut carbon emissions, increase energy security and reduce fuel poverty.

The Great Transition

Creating a new kind of economy is crucial if we want to tackle climate change and avoid the mounting social problems associated with the rise of economic inequality. The Great Transition provides the first comprehensive blueprint for building an economy based on stability, sustainability and equality.

The Consumption Explosion

Overconsumption, not overpopulation, is the real threat to the environment. Even the recession has had little impact on our burgeoning ecological debt.

Ecological Debt

This book explores a great paradox of our age: how the global wealth gap was built on ecological debts, which the world's poorest are having to pay for.

A Green New Deal

The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.

Hooked on Oil

How fossil fuel profits could be taxed to fund a clean energy economy.