Thursday, April 29, 2010

The economics of climate change mitigation 101

Debates about climate have become commonplace in the mainstream media over the last five years. Whether intentionally or not, much of the ink spilt has been quite misleading (particularly in reporting the degree of disagreement amongst climate scientists over the basic claims that global climate is shifting dangerously largely due to human activity). Nonetheless, some pieces stand out as worth reading.

One of them is by Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, and he has written a very readable article in the NYT discussing the economics of action (and inaction) on climate change. Although it has a few relatively minor mistakes on the climate science, it serves as a good introduction to some of the economic issues associated with an increasingly chaotic global climate. You can find the full article here. Here is a taste:

"The truth is that there is no credible research suggesting that taking strong action on climate change is beyond the economy’s capacity. Even if you do not fully trust the models — and you shouldn’t — history and logic both suggest that the models are overestimating, not underestimating, the costs of climate action. We can afford to do something about climate change."
His conclusion?
"[...] it’s the nonnegligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis. And that argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon."
The likelihood of such aggressive moves has been fairly low for some time. The chance of even timid moves in both the US and Australia have taken significant hits in the last week. Prime Minister Rudd has pushed back the possible implementation of an ETS until 2013; in the US, Republican Senator Graham has walked out of bipartisan negotiations days before a new energy and climate bill was due to be launched in the Senate due to reports that Democrats might try to debate immigration before the new bill.

When Krugman speaks of a "nonnegligible probability of utter disaster", what does he mean? He's talking about the (increasingly less) distant possibility that global average temperatures rise by 5ºC (9ºF) or more before 2100, disrupting the climate patterns humanity has known since the rise of agriculture. To give a small sense of the scale of this disruption, the difference in average temperatures between the last ice age and the present era of human civilisation is about 5ºC. Attempting to adapt to a climate shift of that magnitude and speed would be like trying to adapt to a train wreck as it unfolds.


byron smith said...

Read what Rudd said back in November. Here is a taste: "[The Coalition argue for] an endless cycle of delay [... Their next move will be] to wait until the next year or the year after until all the rest of the world has acted at which time Australia will act. What absolute political cowardice. What an absolute failure of leadership. What an absolute failure of logic.

The inescapable logic of this approach is that if every nation makes the decision not to act until others have done so, then no nation will ever act."

You said it, Mr Rudd.

byron smith said...

While we're discussing media reporting of climate change, it is important to emphasize that an honest journalist will report both sides of the current scientific debate: that is, will warming be as bad as predicted in the IPCC reports, or will it be much worse?

David Palmer said...

"The truth is that there is no credible research suggesting that taking strong action on climate change is beyond the economy’s capacity.

I'm sorry Byron, but this guy really doesn't have a clue.Roger Pielke Jr nails Klugman here

I think this paper delivered just a week ago in the context of the UK situation is well worth a read as well. I note Rudge is a FRS which must carry some clout.

Regarding Rudd's backflip on CPRS, I welcome it.

byron smith said...

Pielke Jr doesn't even read Krugman's full statement. He only looks at nuclear and wind, and fails to also consider solar, geothermal, natural gas and CCS. There are also no references and suddenly 650 becomes 750. It doesn't inspire me with confidence when he has been
wrong so many times before. Until someone more credible comes along, I'll stick with the Nobel economist.

byron smith said...

As for the paper from Rudge, the lack of references (or even argument) for a range of wild claims (the IPCC has politicised the science, the CO2 effect is logarithmic and various others I picked up in a quick skim) makes me doubt that the rest of the piece is worth reading.

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron,

It's become all very tribal, hasn't it.


Tor Hershman said...


Toby said...

I will try to explain what is meant by the "logarithmic" statement when I get time. There's some truth to it, but it's not the whole truth :).

byron smith said...

The US is inching closer with the release of the latest Senate proposal, which is far from perfect, but a significant improvement on nothing. Here is some analysis (with links to the proposed bill), and here is a tabulated comparison with the House Bill and Obama's proposal and here are some comments from John Kerry on the bill, of which he is co-author. Of course, none of these comments pretend to be other than partisan, and I'm sure there will be plenty of criticism out there too.

However, to cut off what I expect to be the main one: as I understand it, the rebate system seems to be effectively a cap-and-dividend, rather than a new tax. That is, the money goes back to the people. If you use less carbon, you gain money. This is not a new tax, unless you use more carbon than other people, in which case, you'll be paying for the right to pollute to those who don't pollute as much.

Eclipse Now said...

Hi David,
I guess it's tribal when political dogma's over-ride one's ability to accept the news coming in from the science. Politics was always one of those subjects to avoid at parties. Now climate science seems to have joined its ranks, not because of the science, but because of the way the politics has corrupted the scientific process.

This short 10 minute Science Show segment discusses the history of the wedding of the Republican party with climate-Denialism. There was a certain point in history where eyewitnesses suddenly decided that AGW could become a 'threat to the American system of government' because it is a threat that might best be dealt with at the global level. And for this reason, they perceived the possibility of a world government that might have some clout on their way of life... and immediately decided to reject the whole business.

However, it gets worse. To many, many churches in the USA, to be an American Christian is to vote Republican. I'm thinking of James Dobson and his band.

I am deeply ashamed and embarrassed about the way many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are needlessly wasting their time trying to confront a scientific consensus that involves almost every reputable scientific academy on the planet. (No scientific academy actually opposes AGW any more).

I think the sheer complexity of climate science calls for some humility. We don't go to the barbers for brain surgery. We should leave certain things up to the experts.

So unless one has a Phd in Climatology and have some startling new evidence about to actually get published in a real climate journal, I think many Christian Denialists should reconsider this past time of theirs as simply bad missiology.

I think it is sad for the gospel and could erect a stumbling block that just doesn't need to be there!


Dave L

PS: Did you catch Catalyst a few weeks ago? Even Antarctica is starting to melt. It will take quite some time, but it is on the move.

Eclipse Now said...

There was a certain point in history where eyewitnesses suddenly decided that AGW could become a 'threat to the American system of government'

Sorry, I meant eyewitnesses *described* the government suddenly deciding...

byron smith said...

Good article from Peter Hartcher on Rudd's loss of nerve on an ETS.

"[Rudd] had hoarded popularity to wage a fight on a big issue, but, ironically, he has lost his popularity by failing to attempt the fight.

The electorate wants a leader with the courage of his, or her, convictions. Rudd instead allowed one of his deepest commitments to become immersed in the counsels of political pragmatism. He will probably survive, but it is the most excruciating lesson of his political life."

Eclipse Now said...

The wiki on the CPRS has some good criticisms that I pretty much agree with. For once I found myself politically aligned with the right-wing: I didn't like the CPRS either! It seems an enormously complicated way to deal with climate change.

If I ran the world, I'd simply ban any new coal or gas fired power plant from being built, and (this may come as a bit of a shock) enable quicker legislation for the next generation of nuclear power plants to be built!

Sorry for saying the "n" word. I have for a long time loved the idea of renewable power, but am not convinced it is ready. For years I've had concerns that renewable power just was not cheap enough to provide baseload power. Wind turbines might be cheap as an additional power source, but can't be baseload because they are only 35% capacity. EG: You have to build 3 or 4 times the wind power capacity compared to a nuclear power plant which has 90% capacity.

Basically, a renewable power grid is probably possible, but would cost 7 to 10 times as much as a nuclear grid.

Gen3 nuclear can burn 'waste' from today's reactors. What a great idea! Instead of having to store radioactive waste for a hundred thousand years, we run it through various 'breeder' reactor designs and 'burn' the waste down to just 10% of the material. Today's 'waste' is simply unused fuel that could run the world for 500 years without opening a single new uranium mine! The 10% that is left over is so 'hot' that it only has to be stored for about 300 years and then is safe.

The only way we can deal with nuclear waste is to build Gen3 nuclear power plants to burn it all, which would also solve climate change 7 to 10 times cheaper than a renewable energy grid. By the time we'd burnt all today's waste in 500 years, we'd probably have other fantastic technologies. (EG:'Super-batteries' that enabled a cheap renewable energy grid, fusion, or have a space industry on the moon or asteroid belt that could shoot giant space-based solar power stations into orbit around the earth... the mind boggles what could be happening in 500 years).

And we'd have solved all our waste issues!

For more on Sustainble Nuclear, see this selection of articles by Climatologist Professor Barry Brook.

byron smith said...

So, once you've banned all new coal/gas plants, there would then be a lag of about 50 years for all the existing plants (about 58 at the moment) to be decommissioned and replaced with nuclear ones. So in 50 years, you would have reduced emissions by about 33% (those data are for the US, though I imagine Oz might be broadly similar). Where would you remove the other 47-57% required to reach 80-90% reduction by 2050?

I am no expert on this, but I have read some interesting things about the possibility (and actuality) of wind supplying baseload power. See here. Or if you'd rather watch some videos, try here and here.

byron smith said...

NB I also agree with many of the criticism on Wikipedia, though note that most of them are due to the scheme being not nearly ambitious enough: targets too low, too many free rides. But I've come to the position that getting something in place is important to get the ball rolling. As public awareness increases, so will political will to raise the targets. For this argument put in a US context, see here.

Eclipse Now said...

Hi Byron,
I love "Climate Crock of the week", and I hope he is right.

"Failure rate" of 1-2% seems a bit misleading. We're not asking when the wind turbine 'fails' but when it simply stops working due to lack of wind.

If you listen carefully, the documentary segment of "Climate Crock" on wind in Denmark admits that they contact power stations to 'put on the brakes' when the wind is abundant, or 'put on the accelerator' when the wind has died down, or even import energy when there is not enough wind.

Import from where? Coal fired countries, or nuclear powered France.

I'm just saying that nuclear power can provide enormous amounts of clean energy much faster, with far less concrete and steel, in a 90% capacity power plant that doesn't produce Co2, and that if we *have* to go with nuclear to solve both peak oil and global warming, I'm not against it.

It's an extremely complicated debate, and I'm not even a scientist. I raised questions and resisted the guys at Brave New Climate for a long time. But I noticed that these guys started to raise many of the same 'peak oil doomer' arguments against renewables that I'd heard in the more 'cult-like' aspects of the peak oil movement.

Some really heavy hitters in both the climate and energy debates are 'converting' to nuclear.

So for what it is worth, I guess all I'm saying is that *IF* the baseload problems with renewables can't be beat in the near-term future, then a renewables grid is going to cost far too much and be an unethical waste of money.

I honestly hope I'm wrong, and that some form of 'super-battery' arrives and renewable costs come down further and further.


byron smith said...

I am not opposed to nuclear on principle. I'm yet to be persuaded that it is actually cheaper than renewables when long term costs are factored in (though I haven't looked at this closely, simply noted the competing claims of those from each industry). I was mainly questioning whether nuclear alone provides a silver bullet for carbon mitigation. I am open to the possibility that it may be an important contribution.

I also accept that 3rd generation nuclear plants are likely to be significantly superior to 2nd gen and that some criticisms of 2nd gen plants might be irrelevant.

Eclipse Now said...

So when we count the real cost of wind farms, we need to make sure we count all the backup storage systems, hydro, compressed air, etc systems that are part of that cost.

It's not just an economic argument, as many of the experts involved think that it just cannot be done. I don't know that I'd go that far, but they've sure convinced me that we need to ask serious questions about how much it is going to cost to build a renewable grid.

Because while Climate Crock correctly says a big enough wind grid could possibly be reliable for about a third of our electricity... where does the rest come from? Solar thermal? What about a whole week of overcast foul stormy weather? That's when Renewable Backup system 3 comes in, and then system 4... and basically renewables advocates often seem to end up advocating building almost 3 or 4 times the power inputs that nuclear power would take.

I sometimes wish I didn't care about this stuff, because I'm not technical enough to process many of the papers that discuss these matters.

Basically, I'd love to see how much it cost a whole nation to go renewable compared to the electricity prices in France.

byron smith said...

I wonder whether it is a question of a whole nation, or of a whole region. The arguments for the stability of baseload renewable power rely on a broad grid that can draw power from numerous sources over a wide area.

What about a whole week of overcast foul stormy weather?
This may be relevant in a small area or nation, but becomes irrelevant for a larger grid.

Personally, I think demand reduction is crucial, though both efficiency gains and a sea change on our attitudes towards energy use.

Eclipse Now said...

hi Byron,
there are a number of podcasts Barry presents on his "Sustainable Nuclear" page. If you don't have time to read, maybe you could download a few of these and listen to them while doing the dishes or other manual stuff? (Boy I love iPod's. Now that many people hardly make time to read, it sure is good to be able to listen to many quality shows such as "Beyond Zero Emissions" which is a pro-renewables show I listen to, just to catch all sides of the debate.)

byron smith said...

Thanks Dave.

Eclipse Now said...

I forgot to mention, there's a good debate between my own my old hero on renewables, Diesendorf, and my new hero on nuclear, Brooks. It's a 3 part video debate, so make sure you get a cuppa when you're ready for some passionate debate between leading activists / experts from both camps. Brooks is a Professor of climate scientist, but has been so manic in his research of all energy systems that he is now publishing books on nuclear power and hitting the airwaves a lot here in oz, and comes across as a quite the authority!

He's just co-authored "Why V Why", a debate with Ian Lowe (of ACF fame, who co-chaired our peak oil panel at the NSW Parliament house Sydney Peak Oil night in Nov 2005) on climate change!

byron smith said...

Thanks for the extra links. Here's another one for you, which has been one of the more readable ones for me. As that post points out, estimates for nuclear have an unknown factor to them since few large scale nuclear plants have been built for a few decades.

byron smith said...

Personally, I think demand reduction is crucial, though both efficiency gains and a sea change on our attitudes towards energy use.
PS This doesn't just mean using less energy, it means using energy more intelligently, especially by reducing peak demand.

Eclipse Now said...

Hi Byron,
without wanting to sound like a Conspiracy theorist, the first article may ignore some of the real costs in backing up a wind grid. But it was quite encouraging to see wind's costs projected as so low! The technology has come a long way, and listening to BZE (Beyond Zero Energy) there's more advances to come with down-stream blades.

Most blades are in front of the tower, requiring the blades to be stiffer and heavier to avoid them bending back and shattering on the tower. There's a new manner of fixing them to the turbine downstream of the prevailing wind, behind the tower that will make them cheaper. Net result: bigger blades and bigger turbines that would normally be too heavy can be stuck on old turbine poles when the older wind turbine is retired after 20 years... resulting in a far cheaper 'rejuvenating' of that wind farm, and far cheaper brand spanking new wind farms as well.

I also wonder if we can move off the natural gas into a bio-gas storage mechanism? I'm no engineer, but I wonder how much bio-gas we can harvest from the likes of Biochar (cooked up agriwaste producing char for the soil and biogas for storage), and then compress and store in old salt mines etc? (Like the Compressed Air Storage, only GAS for burning, not air for running a turbine under pressure!)

Also, these giant gravel batteries look interesting. But don't be fooled by the price. I forgot a few things when trying to calculate the cost, and Barry Brook corrected me saying:

eclipsenow, I hope it works out – sounds interesting in principle and the energy density doesn’t look too bad. From the figures given, 540 cubic metres stores 16 MWh of energy, or 30 kWh per cubic metre. To store one day of output of a 1 GW power station would require 1,500 of those 7m tall, 7 m diameter twin silos. Let say you stacked them in a 15 x 15 m square (for each silo), that would require about 1 square km of silos (ignoring interconnections and local generators etc.) Could be useful for storing cheap baseload nuclear-generated electricity for peaking purposes.

Yet I keep coming back to nuclear because, as the articles you quoted say:
1. We'll need the factor in the significant costs of storage to get a true cost for wind.

2. We'll also need to **significantly** rebuild the electricity grid into the 'smart grid', which will cost enormous sums of money.

**None** of this is necessary if we make nuclear cheaper by rolling smaller 300 MW modular power plants off the production line, as they are already 90% reliable.

Let's make them on a production line, according to the best international safety standards, and creating an easy ordering framework, legislation, and economies of scale. The *main* reason nuclear is so expensive is they are individually built 1GW or 1.5GW plants that take heaps of legislation and approval costs to get through.

Eclipse Now said...

Instead, there should be a easy ordering system. "I want 4 nuclear power plants, and fries with that to go please" and they are delivered on site a few months later. Done. Right now it can take 10 years to fight it out in the courts, in litigation often bought against the application by local greenies. What power utility wants to deal with all that?

Also, 300MW plants are easier to handle for smaller grids. You wouldn't want to build a 1GW plant in Africa somewhere where the grid is not as 'industrial strength' as it is in the larger USA grids. Heck, even the USA has some smaller country town grids that can't bigger plants. So 300MW seems like the maximum size that can be deployed off the back of a delivery truck, ideal for smaller grids and deploying to Africa, and pretty much goes baseload straight away without the need for an expensive, unproven 'smart grid'.
Lastly, Counterpoint have released their interview with Barry Brooks and Ian Lowe. This one goes for 50 minutes and is more in depth, so abandon the others for now. I'm going to listen to it now while I go out and rake leaves on this chilly Autumnal morning!

Eclipse Now said...

Ooops.. that wasn't the Barry Brooks quote I was after... it was this one.


$/kW is generating capacity (peak, in the case of wind), whereas $/kWh is energy storage. To store 1 day of energy from a 1 GW power plant requires 24 million kWh. At $55 per unit, that’s a storage cost of $1.3 billion for 24 hours of storage. Not ridiculously expensive by any means, but neither is it cheap as chips as you might have thought it to be, given the implicit comparison you made above. I’ve used the upper price figure cited, since we’ve not even seen a demonstration unit yet.

Regarding rise in steel and concrete prices, these will effect the cost of renewables at least 10 times more than nuclear power, see:

byron smith said...

Dave, thank again for your links and quotes.

As I said, I'm open on nuclear, though one of my concerns has to do with safety, not in general operation, which I'll admit is actually better than most other forms of energy, but long term. That is, as I understand it, nuclear plants are safe so long as a nation is rich enough to afford to look after them carefully. Given the 60+ year life span (and then at least another few decades for decommissioning) of a typical reactor and the wide variety of very serious challenges to the present trajectory of industrial society, would a new generation of nuclear plants present a potentially expensive liability for any nation whose economy falls apart in coming decades?

I guess the breakup of the former USSR might be a good case study. How did their reactors fare during their decade or so of decline? (I genuinely don't know, though obviously there were no major disasters) What if decline goes for longer or is more severe? I realise that power plants are likely to continue to be high priority items in any budget, but it's not an angle that I've heard discussed much.

I'd also love to hear your thoughts on geothermal, especially given this news.

byron smith said...

An example of cutting nuclear decommissioning budget in hard economic times.

Eclipse Now said...

Hi Byron,
Some good links there, especially the new jet-powered drill for geothermal energy. As a non-scientist non-technical sort, I guess the main questions that the Nukies (pro-nuclear activists) would ask is has it been demonstrated yet, what percentage of geothermal power is the drilling anyway (my guess is VERY significant, so this drill might be a huge announcement), and how mature is the industry and how well do they really understand deep Hot Dry Rock geothermal really?

The economics of today’s nuclear power plants can already beat the guessed at estimates of a wind & solar grid with various biogas backups (as proposed by the non-nuclear BZE for Australia). Even their plan for Australia’s renewable energy future did not include deep geothermal because it is not commercially ready to go yet.

Byron I'd honestly LOVE geothermal to prove so much cheaper than nuclear that it became the next energy super-power. I wish it were already a commercially demonstrated technology. I wish it were in the BZE plan and came in far cheaper than nuclear! But I just listened to the Science Show podcast and it seems years away at best. I'd also love geothermal to be here now because convincing Australians to go nuclear may require a political miracle! (Even though many of the normal objections are misinformed and cliché).

Can we still plan for nuclear power with the potential chaos of the future in mind?

Unless something else that is *truly* baseload comes along, I wonder if we have any choice? Maybe we'll stumble onto a renewable system that is only 100% to 200% more expensive than nuclear... if we're really lucky. But right now, I'm really questioning many of the assumptions behind renewable proponents. We're going to build 3 or 4 times the capacity AND massively upgrade the grid to a smart grid AND have money to roll out EV's and wean off oil AND build fast rail everywhere, all at once?

I don't think so. I think we'd be far safer to get off the coal, and start building today's technology nuclear and plug that straight into today's grid.

If we do it quick enough it might prevent a lot of that chaos and economic depression from happening in the first place.

Adopt nuclear power and Electric Cars now, and deflate some of the risks of peak oil, and create cleaner cities and encourage energy security. Adopt nuclear power now, and run Seawater Greenhouses that could regreen the Sahara and provide water security for any nation near the ocean with a low humidity desert. (Seawater Greenhouses are my next favourite thing after biochar). Adopt the mass production of smaller nukes bring Africa into the 21st century! And while there are risks, what’s the cost of our backing the wrong energy technology if our grids do start to crash? Or if nothing can compete with coal, and we stay on that here in Australia?

Industrial civilisations have given us amazing technologies and sciences, but also amazing risks. Power supply always have risks. According to the last podcast I linked to, more people die falling off wind turbines than have died from nuclear accidents (on a per GW power produced basis).

byron smith said...

more people die falling off wind turbines than have died from nuclear accidents
Yes, I said that while we're wealthy enough to look after them, nuclear plants are relatively safe (though weapons proliferation is another issue). My point was to raise the question: how confident are we that our society will be wealthy enough to maintain adequately a large number (50+ I presume, or many more if they are 300MW, though I haven't looked into these numbers) of old nuclear plants in 50 years' time? And building nuclear in order to increase the chances of that being true (which is more or less what you are arguing) may only work as an argument if you can show that doing so would make a very significant difference to that likelihood. For instance, (picking numbers entirely out of the air), if without extensive nuclear by 2060 we had a 50% chance of being in a society rich enough to afford the upkeep on scores on nuclear plants, and with extensive nuclear we had a 52% chance of being rich enough, then I'd say that is a bad bet, but if it increased the chance up above 95% then it might be worth doing. The reason I raise this is that an unaffordable coal or wind plant is far less of a risk than an unaffordable nuclear plant.

Seawater greenhouses are new to me. Just reading about them now.

Eclipse Now said...

Hi Byron,
if the worst comes to the worst, the nuclear plants can just be left to sit for a while under their concrete superstructure until society is rich enough to decommission them. The decommissioning of a nuclear plant is over-rated. I think by far the major concern in a collapse scenario is what happens to the waste. Now if we're using Integral Fast Reactors (GE has the 311MWe S-Prism plans ready to go) then that waste is so 'hot' that it only has to be buried for 300 years and then is relatively safe.

But if I've learned anything from the last 6 years, it is that society will be bankrupted and just plain unable to handle the difficulties ahead without vast amounts of relatively cheap electricity.

So now, until informed by more of a 'scientific consensus' that renewables can even approach the deploy-ability and price of nuclear, I find myself in the controversial position of being for nuclear power out of concern for the society I live in.

byron smith said...

I understand and appreciate your position. As I've said all along, it may well turn out to be the best one (and that is certainly where you've ended up after far more research than me on this).

Can I clarify: you say that if worst comes to worst, leaving a constructed and otherwise functional nuclear plant entirely empty with the doors securely locked would not result in disaster after days, months, years left unattended? And are you saying that the fuel would need to be removed and buried somewhere (securely) first? Correct?

But if I've learned anything from the last 6 years, it is that society will be bankrupted and just plain unable to handle the difficulties ahead without vast amounts of relatively cheap electricity.
I agree that electricity is crucial to our whole way of life and the world as we know it, that feeding nine billion is impossible without vast resources of power. Do you think that any kind of power-down (perhaps using nuclear as a stop gap) is feasible or desirable in which the goal would be moving to a way of life with significantly less energy demands? I am not talking about some neo-primitivist dream to return to hunter gatherer existence after a massive die-off, but I am talking about widespread shift in cultural assumptions and values occurring over decades where we embrace less as more and reject the idea that increasing consumption is always the best path?

I guess what I'm asking is whether you think nuclear is a silver bullet to continue (more or less, with perhaps a greater attention to ecological sustainability) our present trajectory of growth, or is nuclear a silver bullet to smooth the transition into a very different world? Ultimately, I guess I'm asking: in your opinion, is development actually sustainable, or do we need a different model of pursuing human flourishing?

Eclipse Now said...

So Byron, I'm convinced that with abundant cheap electricity we have the technology to meet all human needs many times over, and that how will do this will be the environmental battle of the future.

Some peakniks might want to think through more conventional environmental campaigns, like saving biodiversity, saving rainforests, recycling, etc, and getting away from the Powerdown meme's because I don't think they are that likely. Energy efficiency, YES! New Urbanism and Fast-Rail instead of trucking, of course! But how are we going to grow potatoes in our front garden after the collapse? I don't have time for that. We could of course be stupid enough over peak oil to NUKE OURSELVES back to the Stone Age... but there's nothing I can do to prepare for that! (Except trust in the Lord, whatever happens).

Basically, only by growing our technology and meeting all human needs in sustainable ways can we STOP the growth in the human population, and have time to evaluate where we want our civilisation to go. I don't think energy depletion will 'force' a particular direction: that's up to us activists still. So there's still a lot of work to go!

PS: This next conservation story is very encouraging, save it for a night where you're particularly down about the world our children are inheriting. "Willie Smits restores a rainforest!"?

As well as the desert Seawater Greenhouse, have you considered one of these Vertical Farms running on nuclear power, so that we grow much of our food right in the city in pest-free, climate controlled, 24 hour growing in a super-skyscraper? It might come to that if climate change wipes out some of our grain belts! Vertical Farms are completely climate-controlled, so once build they're fantastically water efficient, drought-proof, food-security engines!

Eclipse Now said...

Just imagine what that would mean.. energy independence, freedom from oil security worries ever again, and the job done!

So too many environmentalists have been relying on peak oil as a sort of environmental judgement day, when nature will smack us back to hunter-gather, or at least FORCE us to 'take it easier' and Powerdown.

But peak oil does not equal peak energy. If we have vast quantities of cheap electricity, we can switch to EV's and have a bit more time to rethink how we do things.

We would have reliable baseload power to switch to EV's, fast rail, New Urbanism, new Desalination methods that are coming out, and all manner of other very high tech, very optimistic technologies that are coming our way.

Why New Urbanism when we've got the option of the EV? Well, it's already happening. People LIKE it. Young people are tending to "Get" New Urbanism and denser, diverse walkable city living. Professor Peter Newman told the Science Show recently that 'infilling' of our cities is increasing, and more young people are starting to think of the city as their home. And one day we'll see a lot more structured approaches to town planning.
Did I already share the "Built to last" youtube with you yet? It makes the startling claim that housing 1 million people in suburban sprawl = 400 square miles, but housing the same in New Urbanism only takes 40 square miles.

Eclipse Now said...

Very perceptive and important questions Byron, and I really understand your concerns on growth.

But I wonder how realistic a Richard Heinberg style Powerdown really is? If absolutely forced into it, I think society could powerdown but it would require a WW2 style propaganda message and war-like crisis.

However, I'm not sure it will come to that. There are too many options that could be deployed in a hurry if we really wanted to!

And I think some of these experts actually know it. When asked about nuclear Power in the 2006 forum all Richard Heinberg answered with was: "Well, it would take a really complex society to run it". There was no technical reason offered as to why it couldn't work, but a pre-existing assumption of collapse that would make it unlikely.

Low and behold, we've already got a society that could mass-produce nuclear power stations in a hurry if we needed to. Emergency powers in parliament have and could again change entire industries overnight.

All it would take for Australia to be completely energy secure on nuclear power would be about 35 to 40 conventional reactors, and retooling our car industry for EV's. And we could do that quite fast! Forget waiting for smaller modular S-PRISM's to come out of a factory — we could be largely energy independent for a fraction of the cost of a renewable grid in about 10 to 15 years if we really wanted to.

byron smith said...

Thanks Dave, for both the links and the optimism!

I'm afraid I don't currently share that optimism for a variety of reasons that I'd be happy to go into. But putting aside questions of what is likely or unlikely to happen, do you think that a world with average levels of resource consumption considerably lower than those currently found in the developed world is desirable? That is, do you see global* economic growth (and growth in resource use)** as inherently desirable?

*Not just in developing countries to get people out of absolute poverty, but also in developed countries.
**I realise that economic growth is not strictly equated with resource use growth, but historically there has been a close correlation and I am yet to see a serious attempt to try to show how they can be decoupled.

My own hunch is that not only is some kind of powerdown (I am not necessarily talking about Richard Heinberg, since I don't know much about him, but note that he buys into 11th Sept conspiracy theories, which is generally a bad sign...) is not only necessary but actually desirable, that is, that consumerism is not simply an ecological problem (though it is certainly that), but also and very importantly a social, moral and spiritual problem.

byron smith said...

PS I found this reply from Joe Romm to Hansen on nuclear and carbon tax quite interesting. I think Romm is overoptimistic about renewables, but his point about the unachievability of 350 ppm by market forces + nukes might carry some weight?

eclipsenow said...

Hi Byron,

Yes, again even more important questions!

"do you think that a world with average levels of resource consumption considerably lower than those currently found in the developed world is desirable? "

Yes and no. Yes if we can quickly (over 20 years) adapt and retrofit our cities around the variety of walkable city plans (Such as New Urbanism, Ecocities, and Village Towns) with local agriculture and local renewable resources supplying our needs.

But no if such a society teeters on the brink of collapse because we did not roll out the new energy infrastructure fast enough.

"That is, do you see global* economic growth (and growth in resource use)** as inherently desirable?"

Yes if it lifts the bottom billion out of extreme poverty through sustainable technologies and helps stabilise population growth.

On a planet fast approaching peak everything this would *have to* come from an industrial ecosystem running on recycled, renewable materials and abundant cheap energy.

It's not so much that we can all gorge ourselves on modern consumerism, but so that all human *needs* can be met (and maybe even a few worthwhile *wants*. EG: I want the internet. I kind of need it for work... but I don't need it to exist.)

Green power with increasing use of recycled materials and *different* materials would meet our needs.
EG: 70% of American steel demand comes from recycled steel, fast growing hemp for paper instead of old growth forests, New Urbanism and ecocities instead of the tens of thousands of extra kilometres of wiring, plumbing, paving, and sewerage required to maintain suburbia, etc.

Have you seen the TED “Cradle to Cradle” talk?

“Waste = food”, both biological and industrial. Industrial permaculture or industrial ecosystems thinking is spreading into a variety of interesting industries.

However, my very real concern is that the doomers out there are waiting for a peak oil judgement day. This meme is spreading on "The Oil Drum" to the point where the FACTS about nuclear energy are being censored!

As George Monbiot points out, if all greenies sat back waiting for peak oil to judge Western Civilisation they may just be complicit in it surviving *largely unchanged* and watch the destruction of the biosphere!

Monbiot's article is well worth reading as it highlights a dangerous new coal mining technology that potentially increases recoverable coal reserves so that 'peak coal' is not going to be an issue for the next century or so! What a disgusting and frightening thought, especially when denialists seem to be winning the culture war at the moment.

byron smith said...

That Monbiot article significantly misrepresent DM, as I argued here (and I don't think we can equate DM with peak oil doomers on the Oil Drum, who may fall under Monbiot's critique).

Just to be clear, I am certainly not advocating the greens or anyone else ought to sit around and wait for industrial civilisation to collapse (from whatever cause). First, I don't think that is likely (not in a sudden dramatic collapse scenario so beloved of many novellists and screenwriters, at least). But more importantly, to do so would be entirely irresponsible. The question is not whether we ought to try to do something in the face of serious crises, but to ask what kind(s) of responses are best?

I am all for industrial ecology, new urbanism and so on. I am also for lifting the poorest billion or so out of stupid and absolute poverty. But I don't think they ought to aim for a lifestyle like those currently prevalent in the developed world. And I am throughly unconvinced that the ongoing pursuit of economic growth (as traditionally measured) by the wealthiest nations is a healthy response to our predicament. Pursuing ways of thinking that connect up production and waste (cradle to cradle)? Absolutely! But not for the sake of greater profits; for the sake of truth, respect, humility and care for our neighbours.

But I suspect that we are basically on the same page here: It's not so much that we can all gorge ourselves on modern consumerism, but so that all human *needs* can be met
I guess we are just focusing on different aspects of the problem. On the one hand, there are the technical problems of 4th gen nuclear and the conceptual problems of production lines vs cycles. On the other hand are the political, social, psychological and spiritual reasons why we are so often so bad at accepting such alternative ways of thinking: the self-destructive inertia associated with business as usual.

byron smith said...

Another assessment of the economic impacts of mitigation.

Eclipse Now said...

Hi Byron,
Of course I agree that prevention is better than the cure. The Stern report proved that quite some time ago. It's good to see models like this coming out in the recently recalcitrant USA!

However, I'd love to know how the Clean Air Act produced between '$6 trillion and $50 trillion in benefits' when the WORLD economy is only around $70 trillion?

I also wish I knew more about how economist's model climate change costs. Did they have someone that understood the potential and problems of renewable energy? It says 'interagency' but I'm not sure who all the other players were.

It's all about trying to prove prevention is better than the cure. It's about getting up the guts to get off carbon.

But what if there was no "small economic drag that carbon controls would create"? What if breeder reactors like the S-PRISM end up cheaper than coal, but the irrational laws against it are not repealled? What if burning the world's nuclear waste in breeder reactors for the next 500 years creates energy independence and is the only way to shift transport from oil to electricity that is abundant and reliable? Yet Integral Fast Reactors like the S-PRISM are currently banned?

It's a mad world out there.

byron smith said...

The trillions were gained over a 20-year period compared to a hypothetical situation without regulations. From the EPA.

"The report estimates the benefits and costs of historical air pollution control programs under the Clean Air Act by comparing the differences between two scenarios: a scenario which reflects historical economic and environmental conditions observed with the Clean Air Act in place and a hypothetical scenario which projects the economic and environmental conditions which would have prevailed without the federal, state, and local programs developed pursuant to the goals of the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Acts.

"Using a sophisticated array of computer models, EPA found that by 1990 the differences between the scenarios were so great that, under the so-called "no-control" case, an additional 205,000 Americans would have died prematurely and millions more would have suffered illnesses ranging from mild respiratory symptoms to heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, and other severe respiratory problems. In addition, the lack of Clean Air Act controls on the use of leaded gasoline would have resulted in major increases in child IQ loss and adult hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Other benefits which could be quantified and expressed in dollar terms included visibility improvements, improvements in yields of some agricultural crops, improved worker attendance and productivity, and reduced household soiling damage.

"When the human health, human welfare, and environmental effects which could be expressed in dollar terms were added up for the entire 20-year period, the total benefits of Clean Air Act programs were estimated to range from about $6 trillion to about $50 trillion, with a mean estimate of about $22 trillion. These estimated benefits represent the estimated value Americans place on avoiding the dire air quality conditions and dramatic increases in illness and premature death which would have prevailed without the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Act and its associated state and local programs. By comparison, the actual costs of achieving the pollution reductions observed over the 20 year period were $523 billion, a small fraction of the estimated monetary benefits.

"While the estimated net benefits may seem large, they reflect the huge differences between actual historical air quality achieved in the U.S. and a model-predicted world without the Clean Air Act in which seven metropolitan areas in the U.S. would have had higher concentrations of particulate matter (a critical pollutant responsible for much of the adverse human health consequences) than Bangkok, Thailand. Six metropolitan areas would have been worse than Bombay, India; two would have been worse than Manila, Philippines; and one U.S. metropolitan area would even have been worse than Delhi, India (one of the most polluted cities in the world)."

Eclipse Now said...

That's amazing, and I wish it had played out in the higher ballpark!

But when I hear "Clean Air Act" I tend to think of "Who killed the electric car?" Have you seen it? A mate at church who works for Better Place lent it to me.

(He's a Japanese man who has actually driven the Better Place electric taxis in Tokyo. He says they had to damp down the acceleration so that it behaves like a 'normal' car, which is a real shame. EV's have full torque from the second you put your foot down. You'll ALWAYS be the first way from the lights... if they didn't damp it down as they have).

byron smith said...

I haven't seen WKTEC. What is the link between that and the Clean Air Acts?

Eclipse Now said...

Oh, sorry, yeah.

California had their own version of a clean air act that required a certain percentage of cars to be ZERO emissions: not just in Co2 but also in particulates. They're choking to death.

That's how the electric car was born. GM complied at a surface level, and then fought it with their big oil mates at the legislative level. THEN Fed's started to get nervous that these cars could just be plugged in any old place and were not dependent on a fuelling infrastructure. George Bush decides that Hydrogen is the way forward. (His mates in big oil are pleased because first, hydrogen infrastructure and cheap enough fuel cells are a long way away — if ever — and second: if we DO arrive at a hydrogen economy, they'll be supplying the hydrogen!)

So eventually the Californian Clean Air Act was overturned as the 'judge' decided that it had unfairly discriminated against Hydrogen which he thought would one day be the way America would move.

And of course, the moment the bill was gone GM bought all the cars back and crushed them. They simply couldn't risk people out there getting hooked on these things. There was no internal combustion engine to service! All the car service stations would lose revenue only charging to change the wiper fluid and rotate the tyres every 6 months! That's about all they take to service, and they couldn't risk too many people finding out about that!

byron smith said...

Ross Gittens on climate economics in Oz in the SMH.

byron smith said...

Vertical farms reconsidered by Monbiot.