Saturday, July 17, 2010
We are often told that one major consequence of industrialization and modernity is the resulting climate change and its deleterious effects. We are further told that if we value planet earth then we should avoid all the activities that result in a major reallocation of carbon in the world. Note that based on the first law of thermodynamics no element is ever destroyed, all what we can do is to release carbon from being locked in fossil fuels to be released as a gaseous compound in the atmosphere. Is such a minute reallocation important for the planet? If we are to recall that this planet has been hit by a meteorite travelling at a tremendous speed, has experienced a cooling process and has a tremendous capacity to adapt and heal itself. In the words of James Lovelock the earth is a “homeostatic super organism” that will constantly change and adapt as to ensure its survival. So does the planet care about our reallocating carbon or any other element for that matter? Physics and common sense tells us that the answer is an unequivocal no. But that does not mean that climate change is not the biggest challenge that humans have ever been faced with. The operative word in the previous sentence is human.
In order to fashion a real and meaningful solution to any problem requires a clear understanding of what is the problem all about. Climate change is not about maintaining a carbon balance for the sake of the earth but it is a purely anthropocentric concern about life for the human species. No one can deny that human civilization has evolved to become an evolutionary factor. A major by product of human activity is climate change which will result in putting into motion a process that many ecologists are calling the sixth extinction. Climate change combined with the growing needs for more roads, buildings, deforestation have radically changed the nature and characteristics of the habitat and thus is leading to more and more extinction.
If we do value these changes, and we should value them, then the solution is not to develop an alternative to the internal combustion engine, although that is desirable, but what is required is a recognition that the biggest threat to human civilization and biodiversity as we know it is the human species itself. The threat is not purely that of numbers, although numbers do count but it is a combination of numbers and levels of affluence. The expression I= PAT as developed by Paul Ehrlich emphasizes clearly the relationship between environmental degradation (I), pure number of humans (P), lifestyles (A) and the level of technology (T). Note that if we are to constantly seek a higher level of affluence, for a larger and larger population then the inevitable outcome is greater and greater ecological degradation.
There are a number of studies that show conclusively that the planet is already beyond its carrying capacity. A popular and easy to understand measure is the estimate of how many global acres are required to provide a particular life style. Such estimates vary from one country to the other and from one household to the other. A simple back of the envelope application of the above shows that if a Western life style is to be adopted by the 7 billion inhabitants then the resources of six planets will be required.
Sustainability is everyone’s concern, large countries, small countries, poor countries and rich countries. Since sustainability does not recognize artificial political boundaries then it must be dealt with on a global level and coordinated policies. Yale University in cooperation with Columbia University have developed a rather sophisticated Sustainability Index based on 76 variables and 21 indicators that shows a weak relationship between GDP and Sustainability Index of each of the 146 countries sin the study. For example, three of the top ten most sustainable countries are not OECD member (Uruguay, Guyana and Argentina). Other rankings that are of interest: Japan is the 30th while the US is the 45th and the UK is the 65th.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Energy is best defined as the “capacity to do work”; there cannot be life without it. That is simply what is meant by saying that life on planet earth will come to an end when the sun becomes so hot in a billion years or so that water on earth would evaporate and life on its surface will become impossible. Meanwhile the energy flows from the sun to the plants that sustain herbivores that in turn are eaten by carnivores and then at the top of this food pyramid the omnivores. This was the case for 100’s of millions of years. A most significant change started with the industrial revolution and it is still going on unabated, the use of machines powered by various forms of terrestrial energy. All machines are in essence dependent on coal, oil or electricity which is produced in most cases from fossil fuels.
The global economy consumes about 500 Quadrillion BTU’s each year and this level of consumption is projected to rise at about 1.4% every year for the next 20 years. Over 86% of all this energy comes from the three major fossil fuels of oil, coal and natural gas. All other forms combined (nuclear, hydro, biomass and all other renewable) account for less than 14% of energy consumption.
Oil supplies the largest proportion of energy in our industrial society and its role is looked upon as being the most crucial for civilization, so much so that a few are already predicting collapse of society as we know it when oil becomes scarce. Peak oil is the term used to describe what some of the best known geologists argue is inevitable. Peak is the point in time when the world would have used half of all the available oil reserves in the world. Whether we have passed the peak as of 2008 or whether we are to pass it in the next couple of years or even decade is not materially important. What is significant is that many, but not all, geologists, energy traders, oil company executives, academicians, environmentalists and common citizens have adopted the new paradigm of peak oil.
Even if we are to leave the issue of climate change aside for the purposes of this post yet it is clear that peak oil is a game changer. The world oil production is about 86-87 million barrels a day and the prestigious and mainstream IEA, International Energy Agency, projects the need for over 110 million barrels each day by 2030. If the world is already at peak then where is the additional oil going to come from? A quick survey of plans by the major oil companies of the world shows clearly that we are digging deeper and in more difficult terrain than we ever did simply because the low hanging fruits have already been picked, so to speak.
There are at least two important implications associated with peak oil. (1) The less the availability of conventional oil then the greater is the incentive to exploit the non conventional oil reserves like Venezuela’s heavy oil, Canada’s tar sands and eventually Colorado’s shale. Each of the above produces oil but at a much greater cost. (2) As conventional oil becomes less abundant; we have already lifted half of all the oil reserves; then again the energy return on investment ; EROI; will decrease and continue decreasing to the point whereby it would require more energy to lift a barrel than the energy embodied in that barrel.
The implications of the above two facts that result from peak oil are very clear. As the world demand for energy increases and the supplies cannot keep pace the resulting imbalances will play havoc with the price of oil. We have already witnessed what a slight shortage could do in 2008 when the price per barrel rose parabolic ally to over $140. Under the scenario of peak oil towards the end of this decade that previous price will be appreciably overshot. There are some who project a price of over $300 per barrel given the tight market conditions predicted by peak oilers.
Arab countries can very easily be producing about 30 million barrels of oil each day by 2020 if Iraq is to achieve its planned goal of 8 million barrels per day. Furthermore it would be easy to project exports of about 22 million barrels each day. If the above scenario is to play out and if the resulting economic crisis does not lead to the use of military force then the Arab oil exporters can expect an annual cash flow of over $1 Trillion. Could peak oil, a major challenge for most of the world be exceptionally beneficial to the Arab countries? And if so are they ready to absorb such flows of funds in order not to clog the international flow of funds.