Saturday, December 02, 2006

Me and Stephane are on the Case

Well, blow me down. , my very favorite Canadian candidate, just won the leadership race for the Liberal Party. This guy is a smart, sweet man with all the right values. I once participated in a conference at a big table with him at the other end, and I was truly impressed – almost smitten. He was a fervent environment minister. I heard that he even bought a dog and named him . So I am going to vote Liberal next time just to help him.

I was already helping, I think, yesterday when my forum, “Climate Change and the Coming Energy Crisis” came together. There was a good turnout – especially in the afternoon. Unfortunately, there was a fire alarm while we were showing ’s film, but everyone came back in and packed the room fully. The panelists were fascinating, though I wish they had debated a little more. Probably I should have made time for them to address each other before opening the floor up for the audience to ask questions.

There were three perspectives represented there – all addressing some of the same problems but seeing them in different lights. First, and most importantly, there’s the climate change perspective, which simply points out that if we don’t cut the emissions of by about 80 percent, the planet will cook and most species — possibly including our own — will perish. To reduce greenhouse gases, we must stop using fossil fuels and switch to some .

Second, there’s the “” perspective, which points out that we’re depleting the world’s reserves of oil and other fossil fuels, which will create grave economic problems, since all practicable alternative fuels yield far less net energy and therefore will not enable us to do as much work as at present or to keep ourselves warm and well-fed. This energy shortage may endanger humankind as much as the s that are determined by the use or non-use of fossil fuel. In a sense, it’s a question which will do us in first, the energy shortage or the climate change. The peak oil people worry more about energy, though they recognize the dilemma.

Though their analyses differ, both the climate change and peak oil perspectives should be able to agree on a single policy. Both sides require the urgent development of alternative renewable fuels, greater efficiency in the use of energy, and conservation to make our existing fossil fuel resources tide us over until we have perfected and institutionalized these new practices.

However, there is yet a third perspective that is not satisfied with these solutions either. It is a pessimistic perspective that combines the preceding two concerns with an additional worry: the of ecological systems. This view is perfectly aware of the climate change threats and of the looming energy shortage, but it does not even accept the solution that would satisfy the other two perspectives: renewable energy. These ultimate pessimists believe that the use of energy is inherently damaging to the planet, even if it comes from, say, or wind power. The use of energy always has an impact on the environment. Whatever work we do and even our own biological functioning, affects the world physically, often to the detriment of other species. We cannot avoid having such impacts, and the more of us there are, the worse are our effects on the planet. My friend Jack Santa Barbara, who holds this ultimate pessimism, expresses the problem with this formula: I=PAT, where I means Impact on the planet, P means , A means affluence of society, and T means technology. The more people there are, the more affluent they are (with access to more energy), the more technology they use, the more impact they will inevitably have on the planet, making our world less sustainable. There is no answer to this.

On the panel, Jack didn't spell all of this out. He confined himself to expressing a pessimistic opinion about the possibility of getting the renewable fuels that we will need without ruining ecological systems.

Personally, I don't believe things are that serious. I think that the effect of energy on the planet is not necessarily deleterious; it depends on what you do with the energy. Nor is technology usually harmful. And, yes, there are more problems with larger populations, but by exerting smart social influences (e.g. through the use of persuasive storytelling) we can help curtail the expansion of population even more than is happening already. And I do think we can bring our greenhouse gas emissions down by 80 percent or more, if we get cracking. That's called . Stephane and I are going to create it. You're allowed to join us in the project.


Anonymous Jack Santa Barbara said...

Metta, I wrote the following on your blog and then realized I had not signed in and was afraid I would lose it if I tried to sign up. So could you pl add this for me. thanks J

Metta has not quite made my position clear, so I would like to restate it here. In a nutshell it is that technical solutions ( transition to renewables) are essential to dealing with both the climate and energy crises, but are not likely to be sufficient. I believe it is likely that significant social changes are also necessary if we are to truly respect the precautionary principle to ensure a sustainable future. Details follow.

I wholeheartedly agree that we should be making a transition to renewable energies as quickly as humanly possible ( which is considerably faster than is politically likely - even with a PM Dion). And a speedy transition to renewables will make a significant improvement in humanity's future well being. There are a variety of important technological improvements being driven by the sustainable business movement that should also be encouraged and speeded up. But I do not believe they will be sufficient to deal with climate change or the energy crisis. One major challenge is that the net energy of all renewable is considerably lower than that for all the fossil fuels.

Energy has a central role in all complex societies. Societies and civilizations grow, and innovate and thrive on surplus energy ( see Tainter, Diamond and Homer-Dixon). Once the surplus energy ( the amount over and above that needed to maintain the complex society at a given level of development) is no longer available, the physical infrastructure of that society inevitably decays. To the extent that our social and psychological well being depends on the physical infrastructure and what it allows us to do, so too do those less material aspects of our society degrade.

We have built a civilization on high net energy over the last century that cannot be sustained by renewable energy sources. This is because all of the renewable energy sources have a lower net energy than the fossil fuels we are now dependent on ( see for more info and details). Net energy is simply the energy left over after we subtract the energy required to produce the energy in the first place; it is what energy is left to actually do work. As we move toward renewables, we will have to make hard decisions about how to ration the lower amount of energy that will actually be available to do the work. What are the most important uses of energy for human well being? This rationing will be very difficult politically and we should be having a broad based discussion about this now.

(It should also be noted that when we speak of a high net energy society we are only talking about less than 10% of the global population (ie those with annual incomes greater than $10,000 purchasing power parity). There are still almost 2 billion people who do not have electricity on our planet. Energy is a huge equity issue, and what is available to some will not be available to others.)

While renewable energy sources will be important, they will likely not be sufficient. Increasing the amount of renewable energy so that we can either maintain or even grow our current level of total energy production and consumption is not feasible in a low net energy world. It may not even be desirable (see below). There are problems with assuming we can supply all our energy needs with renewables. Firstly, with a declining net energy we are not likely to have the energy to build such an extensive renewable energy system. If our most advanced societies are currently operating on a net energy of, for example, 20:1 and after global conventional oil peaks, that ratio declines to, say 5:1, then we will have to invest in four times the production infrastructure to simply maintain the current amount of energy actually available to do the work. This would be an enormous financial and material investment. It would also be an enormous energy investment which may simply not be available.

The second problem with building a renewable energy system that was large enough to maintain our current energy supply actually available to do work, is that it would likely have dramatic negative impacts on various ecosystems which are already stressed ( see the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report of 2005 It is important to appreciate that this ecosystem impact goes well beyond that of greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not that using renewable energy has an negative impact on ecosystems. Ecosystems are pretty resilient and can handle a lot of what we throw at them. But if the sheer amount of energy we force upon ecosystems passes a sustainability threshold, then we run the risk of altering those ecosystems, perhaps irreversibly. We know that all complex systems can be pushed beyond their current equilibrium dynamic, and that the new equilibrium they eventually settle into can be very different from their current one ( ). This is the tipping point scientists are increasingly telling us that the climate ecosystem is in danger of passing. We seemed to have pulled back from an atmospheric ozone depletion threshold, but we are proceeding with haste to potential thresholds for species extinction, water loss, soil degradation and possibly toxic accumulation, among others. These other thresholds are only partly related to greenhouse gas emissions ( eg climate change will speed up species extinction that is occurring anyway due to habitat loss and toxins from expanding human infrastructure (cities etc) and industry).

To elaborate a bit more - energy is about doing work, and work is about moving matter. The more matter that is moved, the more ecosystems will inevitably be affected. There is definitely a sustainable range in which ecosystems can be affected without their underlying dynamic changing; this is the range of energy use we should strive to stay within ( and renewables will allow us to get more work done with less damage than fossil fuels). But once a sustainability threshold is passed, that underlying dynamic changes (see ). Matter is moved every time more minerals are mined, every time more fish are harvested ( naturally or in aquaculture), every time more trees are harvested, every time more crops are grown (for food or fuel), every time a new home is built, every time a new car is made, etc. All this matter that is moved as we use energy affects water quality, soil fertility, biodiversity loss, the amount of toxics in our environment, etc. And it does not matter if the energy is fossil based or renewable. The energy itself (regardless of source) can surpass sustainable scale. In other words, renewable energy could be unsustainable if there is too much of it And because of renewable energy's lower net energy we are going to need lots more of it simply to maintain current levels available to do work.

The existence of these tipping points is not in question - they are facts. What we do not know is what level of energy production and consumption is unsustainable - what energy levels will produce these tipping points. We have hardly begun to ask this question. But we do know that the current level of TPES (total primary energy supply) of some 430 EJ per year is destroying global ecosystems ( according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report - ). Some of this is due to the nature of our primary energy sources - fossil fuels, but not all of the damage is due to greenhouse gas emissions (and perhaps not even the major part altho that is clearly the case for climate change). Shouldn't we at least be concerned about the total amount of energy and its impacts on ecosystems? Given that we are affecting so many ecosystems over such large surfaces of the planet might at least get us to pay attention to this question.

It is also true that if all of our energy were being produced solely by renewables it is likely the impact on global ecosystems would be less - at least on the carbon cycle and greenhouse effect. But we have to ask the question of how much energy (regardless of source) ecosystems can sustainably bear. This is a critical question in trying to solve both our climate and energy threats, as well as our water, biodiversity, soil degradation and toxins, etc. But the question is not being asked in the right places.

There is another danger here. Because the net energy of fossil fuels is so much higher than that of renewables, it will be very hard to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. The G8 and IEA ( ) energy plan calls for a massive ($20 trillion ) investment over the next two decades ( expect cost overruns) for more oil and gas exploration, more use of coal and more nuclear - renewables play a very small role in this plan approved last summer in St Petersberg. And here is a further rub - all the "clean coal" technologies ( also now being referred to as "zero emission" coal) require considerable amounts of energy to do the cleaning - significantly reducing the net energy of coal. So if we want to keep using coal, but demand that it be "clean" for air quality purposes, we are going to have lower net energy coal. And there is still the problem of the CO2 emissions, which are NOT extracted in the "clean coal" process. So we have to think about sequestering the CO2 in deep mine shafts or burying it in the deep ocean ( naturally this would require yet more energy).

Carbon sequestration needs lots more research for us to have any confidence that the carbon will stay where it is put and not contribute to climate change. And what about the issue of the extensive piping network that would have to be built to transport this CO2 to where it can be buried? Smil estimates that even trying to sequester 10% of global emissions would require a pipe network larger than that which currently exists to transport oil. Where will we get the energy for this infrastructure in a world of declining net energy?

I do not understand how asking difficult questions is being a pessimist. I am attempting to identify science based issues that should be answerable. I think answers to these questions are critical to how we plan our energy future - globally, because what we do collectively will impact all of us.

A final point is that I believe that humans can thrive with considerably less energy per capita, and possibly with less TPES - but it would mean considerable social and psychological adjustments. See Smil's "Energy at the Crossroads" for an interesting discussion of how much energy humans need to achieve objective measures of well being. He suggests that a high level of human well being, measured by objective indicies, is achievable with 1/3 what we currently use on a per capita basis in NR America. But to provide this level for 9-10 billion people would require a tripling of the current level of total primary energy supply. So we are again faced with the question of how much to is too much for ecosystems to bear.

We need to be asking this question as well " how much energy do we need for a satisfying life"?

So even if we invented a cheap source of clean energy,it would not solve our problem of how to strike the right balance between human well being and ecological sustainability. Given that we know so little about the later ( we only seem to learn about some ecosystem service that is critical to human wel being when we start losing it), it would be prudent to not push ecosystems to their sustainability threshold. Creating a safety margin with respect to our energy use to ensure ecological sustainability is likely a wiser approach. Assuming that technical solutions to climate and energy (and all the other sustainability issues) will provide all the answers, may not be justified. We have never created large scale technical solutions to anything that did not have significant unintended consequences. Our most desirable technologies of the past have turned out to threaten our survival. What lessons can we learn from this? Let's not forget the precautionary principle as we seek a sustainable energy future.

Every civilization must confront its limits if it wishes to survive. Technology will be part of the solution to our current threats. But we must keep in mind that whatever level of technology we have, there are still the issues of the size of our human population and the per capita consumption that, combined, ultimately determine the environmental impact - and whether or not it is sustainable. Ultimately, it will be ecosystem integrity which determines the limits of our technical cleverness.

It is my belief that until we clearly address these questions we are unlikely to have a sustainable future. I am also concerned that failure to address these issues will lead to solutions that will make things worse.

Cheers Jack

9:30 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Thanks, Jack for that thorough post. It occurs to me that since there are
so many critical problems, perhaps we should be focussing alot more of our brainpower on how we can avoid our usual adversarial methods for resolving our differences. If some of us feel we have to win out over our 'opponents' we may be losing some valuable experience just because 'they' drew differing conclusions from theirs. Experience is our best teacher if we realize that we ourselves can (& do) draw faulty conclusions from it, often! Unfortunately, we have no way of guaranteeing un-faulty conclusions. We should always proceed with caution (the precautionary principle!) as we test our ideas. It surely helps if we try to harmonize our ideas before we test them [as Jim Rough has found with his Wisdom Councils!).
[This email is not from Helen Paulin!] It is from rrrexxx!

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like to think that I care about the environment as much as anyone, but I can't help but feel that Mr. Dion's (and others) focus on Kyoto is misguided. This article has influenced some of my own thinking about this: Impossibility of Prediction (third article down) -- it won't let me copy exact URL:
I enjoy your blog.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Thanks Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, for liking my blog. I'm glad you are an environmentalist and I wouldn't contradict your claim to be one. I'm not enthusiastic about the Kyoto Protocol either -- but only because it is so weak. It's only a tiny fraction as demanding as we need. Like it or not, our way of life is going to undergo a dramatic shock within just a few years. I am not at all sure how much to expect from this shock, but it is not going to be an easy matter. And the sooner we get onto addressing it, the better.

11:26 PM  

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