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The History of Energy part seven: Can less mean more?

21 Aug 2023 7 minute read
The Earth from Apollo 17

Gareth Wyn Jones

The global challenges of climate change and heating, biodiversity loss and the other aspects of environmental decay that confront humanity are unique.

Our species is now so powerful, so dominant and so resource-demanding as to be despoiling the wildlife, soils, oceans and atmosphere on a global scale. We, humans, are even commanding about 20 % of all terrestrial photosynthesis but, as much as 80%, in areas of high population density.

This is, in addition, to burning billions of tonnes of fossil fuels annually to energise our life styles. Small wonder all other wildlife is being squeezed out.

Fossil fuels

Despite the conferences, the promises and the gradual rise of renewables, some 80% of our energy, globally and locally, still comes from burning fossil fuels.

As we’ve been discussing, these emissions are endangering the very fabric that sustains us. Yet these emissions underpin the exceptional material prosperity of close on a billion people. Even so, some 650 million live on less than $2 a day.

Almost a quarter of the global population, about 23 percent, live below the poverty line, defined as $3.65 a day in the poorest countries, and almost half the world’s population, nearly 4 billion, live below the $6.85 poverty line set for the middle income countries. (To put these numbers in a Welsh/UK context, currently $12.3 per day = £10 per day = £3,650 per year).

The poorer half use much less energy and release far fewer greenhouse gases, as we discussed in the last article, and the latter mainly from their food.

Prosperity and poverty may be fellow travellers but with drastically different profiles.

Pollution. Photo marcinjozwiak on Pixabay

Human food chain

Fortunately the rate of population growth is slowing. Nevertheless we face, by the middle of the 21st century, the daunting problem of giving hope and sustenance to some 10 billion humans without wrecking the Earth.

This in a context, let me note again, that about 30% of all GHG emissions come from the human food chain.

Methane emissions from ruminants are but one issue, although a very important one in Wales. Land loses CO2 when ploughed, so increasing arable areas will create a spike in emissions unless there is a parallel drop in animal emissions.

Also crop yields are near-linearly related to available nitrogen.  Much of that comes from the energy-intensive Haber process for converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. But about 1% of the nitrogen that is applied to increase yields of food crop is lost to the atmosphere as N20; a greenhouse gas x 300 as effective as CO2.

Much food is also wasted by the prosperous; while food is spoilt by the poor, largely because of inadequate storage; they have neither electricity or fridges. The post farm-gate food chain contributes about a third of the sector’s total emissions; transport, refrigeration, processing, storage, display in supermarkets and of course cooking etc. at home.

Hill farmers

As Albert Bartlett wrote, ‘Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food’. I can hear the cries of Welsh hill farmers in my ears but lamb is not going to provide the billions with their daily 2,500 food calories and, unfortunately, even upland grazing is far from carbon neutral.

We may enjoy our lamb but cereals are the key energy commodity as is being demonstrated yet again by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Of course, feeding such grains and soya to animals in feed-lots to satisfy the world’s growing demand for meat, does nothing to solve our problems. Globally some 220 million hectares are devoted to wheat, 206 million to maize and 165 to paddy rice which implies that much vaunted vertical farming, that is growing crops in doors using hydroponics and artificial light, is at best a distraction [cf. Wales ~2.1 million hectares].

These numbers summarise very scary issues. we are warned that poor harvests in some cereal producer-countries may well precipitate a global food problem well before warming exceeds 1.5oC. We are riding our luck!

Social upheavals

Our cruel dilemma deserves emphasis. The Industrial Revolution and its attendant secondary agricultural revolutions, including the displacement of many indigenous peoples from their lands, allowed agribusiness to flourish and the human numbers to soar, albeit often in poverty and near servitude.

The consequential moral and practical responsibilities now fall on this generation.

Greenhouse gas emissions from all humanity, including from such basics as food production, must be reduced to near zero in 25 years. In doing so we must seek to avoid mass starvation and mass migration.

Failure will leave important and populous regions such as the plains of northern India from the Indus river to the Bay of Bengal as death traps. This will ensure huge social upheavals and mass migration. In all likelihood it will lead both ‘reactive’ and ‘proactive’ aggression as we’ve discussed.

The directly affected will react as their livelihoods are threatened  and the authorities and external powers will proactively seek to minimise the impacts of the unrest on their status or patch.

As occurred in Syria some will see an opportunity to make serious mischief.  Such strife cannot and will not be confined within neat geographical limits.

Extinctions

Life on our planet has lived through many crises; at least five major extinctions and periods of Snowball Earth and of great heat and, more recently. a sequence of Ice Ages.

Living organisms have survived, diversified and indeed flourished. The extinctions were caused by external or major geological events.

The dinosaurs were not the agents of their own demise. Given a bit of asteroidal luck. they might have reigned for a few more million years. Now we, after but a few centuries of industrialisation, are the agents of our own possible downfall, even destruction. Fortunately we also have agency; we are the only potential source of our own salvation.

Energy transition

I have been arguing that a fundamentally salient problem arises from our use of energy. To reiterate “every damn thing depends on energy transition”.

Broadly, more energy allows more work and greater power leading to greater complexity and an accelerating speed of change, now reinforced by digitization and AI.

Both the current climate change crisis and the AI revolution have brought these issues into sharp focus.  I argue the way forward to retain our humanity, our well-being, our “souls” to use the old religious term, and our sanity is deliberatively to seek to limit our energy use.

The onus to do so must lie primarily with those now using the most, as the energy-deprived poor deserve better and their share. Furthermore these changes must happen quickly.

Nimbies and deniers

This core conclusion chimes with the time-line in the 2022 6th IPCC Report. The rapid reducing GHG emissions to avoid a highly dangerous increase in the mean global temperature of over 2oC  must take place in the next decade or two if we are to avoid dangerous tipping points.

However installing, globally, whole new energy systems powered by renewable electricity and maybe hydrogen will take time and a substantial investment not only of money but of natural resources including lithium, copper and rare earths.

Such massive change will inevitably meet with resistance as all renewable energy resources and electricity storage schemes have their downsides.

The nimbies and deniers, as well as voicing some justifiable concerns, will peddle disinformation. I would argue therefore that both the practical short-term priority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and my broader energy-based analysis are mutually reinforcing.  Cutting emissions through reduced energy use should be the overwhelming priority.

Can this be achieved? Why are we so reluctant to face reality?

Read all the previous installments of The History of Energy here.


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Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
6 months ago

I fully agree with Professor Gareth Wyn Jones’s conclusion that we must reduce our energy use. Wales is currently increasing production by any means possible. This will not be sustainable, and while providing for renewals, green sources, housing insulation and efficient public transport, it must stop – urgently.

We should also realise that at every stage of the energy production chain, from extraction, refining and transportation to end use, because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, heat is produced. We need rather less of that! Reducing consumption will help, as will improved end-use efficiency.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
6 months ago

It is solvable now if we take action as soon as possible. The solution to rising CO2 levels is restoring the natural cycles of the planet; That is having enough photosynthesis to place the oxygen we, and other animals use. We have got to get the right balance of O and CO2, either extremes will be a problem as illustrated in Chris Packham’s ‘Earth’ series. Also 30% of all green house gases and pollution is generated by transport. There are real problems with the transport system at present. Most of the problems come from Air travel and the transport that… Read more »

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
6 months ago

Don’t forget ‘the least efficient mode of transportation that has ever been mass-produced” – cars. As the whole-life environmental cost of electric cars appears to be substantially larger than ICE cars, you are right to focus on electrification. But buses (of any type) will never be a solution to access needs (sic). Light light rail (sic) is the solution for urban areas and regions. On-demand buses and taxis will have a role as rail feeders.

Mawkernewek
6 months ago

Apparently dinosaurs were actually quite significant greenhouse has emitters, enough to affect the world’s climate:

<a href=”https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(12)00329-6.pdf”>Could methane produced by sauropod dinosaurs have helped drive Mesozoic climate warmth?</a>

Annibendod
Annibendod
6 months ago

“Can this be achieved?”
Yes.

“Why are we so reluctant to face reality?”
Pride.

Nothing more important than taking care of the natural world and all the diversity of living things on Earth. We are dead without it.

Ap Kenneth
6 months ago

Less can mean more. ICE engines waste 70% of the energy as heat and noise, whereas Electric are about 93% efficient losing 7% as waste heat.
Electric loses energy in transmission losses but fossil fuels also use energy, pumping, transporting and refining the oil. There are massive gains to be made by transitioning to systems that donot burn stuff.

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
6 months ago
Reply to  Ap Kenneth

including uranium (another fossil fuel), please note.

CJPh
CJPh
6 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

Whether uranium is worth exploring (or other fissile nuclear materials) is one argument, but I’m sure you’d agree that you misspoke (or mistyped) when stating that Uranium is a fossil fuel. It isn’t.

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
6 months ago
Reply to  CJPh

Ah, I admit that it’s not a common understanding, CJPh. And certainly not one that would be sanctioned by the UK Government to which it is ‘green’. But in extraction (like coal, also emitting radiation), refining (like oil), combustion (like coal in a reactor), heating a boiler (of sodium instead of water) and otherwise (like coal, oil, gas, biomass), it bears a close resemblance. Similarly low overall efficiency. I concede that It is near-unique in being extremely dangerous post-use (but in s**g heaps, air, soil and water pollution – perhaps not). Fortunately, nuclear energy is now increasingly expensive that a… Read more »

CJPh
CJPh
6 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

Thanks for clearing that up, and sorry for being pedantic. Energy policy and environmental issues seem to be the area most replete with slippages of language and junk science (on both ‘sides’). The importance of clarity here is paramount, I feel – by the logic you’ve set here, despite my agreeing with your assessment, we could call dairy products “fossil fuels” despite being neither fossil nor fuel. Similar claims can be made for, say, wind energy (the use of petroleum by-products in lubrication) and current gen electric vehicles (mining of rare earth metals in battery tech). It may very well… Read more »

Ap Kenneth
6 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

If there was a league table of technologies to be abandoned nuclear would be there but after coal, oil, gas, wood chip and rubbish incineration. The cost alone will likely see it abandoned over time. As CJPH mentions Thorium could be worth further development but Fision to me still seems an unlikely prospect (guarentee that some breakthrough will be made tomorrow 🙂 )

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