Sunday, February 09, 2020

Human Consumption of Natural Resources Exceeds an Annual 100 Billion Tonnes.

In 1969, the late Professor Albert Bartlett famously delivered a lecture, entitled "Arithmetic, Population and Energy", which begins with the observation that, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." The truth of this is profound and irrefutable, as is further compounded by Bartlett’s averment, as the first law of sustainability, that "You cannot sustain population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources”. Nonetheless, exponential growth has continued, unabated, over the past half century, as is attested by an increase in the consumption of natural resources from 27 billion tonnes in 1970, to 92 billion tonnes in 2017, which corresponds to around 12 tonnes/year for every person on Earth. If recycled material is also included, the total rises to 100.6 billion tonnes, and hence 13 tonnes for every breathing human on the planet, and significantly, the proportion being recycled has fallen from 9.1% to 8.6% in the past two years. This rate of material consumption is expected to rise to between 170 and 184 billion tonnes by 2050, on the basis of a BAU, “take-make-waste” economic model, which equates to more than 18 tonnes per person, given an expected population of 9.8 billion by then
Over the entire 1970-2017 period, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for resource consumption of 2.6% may be deduced, and hence we may infer that, by 2021, total annual demand for virgin natural resources will have exceeded 100 billion tonnes. The breakdown of this tally into individual components is interesting, and for 2017 amounts to: 24.06 billion tonnes [Gigatonnes (Gt)] of biomass, 43.83 Gt of non-metallic minerals, 15.05 Gt of fossil fuels, and 9.12 Gt of metallic ores; when these figures are compared with those for 1970 (9.00 Gt biomass, 9.20 Gt of non-metallic minerals, 6.21 Gt of fossil fuels, 2.58 Gt of metallic minerals), some patterns begin to emerge. Thus, the corresponding (2017/1970) ratios are: 2.67 (biomass), 4.76 (non-metallic minerals), 2.42 (fossil fuels), 3.53 (metallic ores). It is notable that all the other ratios are larger than that for the fossil fuels, which signifies that while use of energy is often taken as a proxy for overall economic growth, the latter does not depend only on energy, but all resources that are consumed in its wake, and which require increasing amounts of energy to place them into human hands.

Thus, the increased extraction and use of non-metallic minerals (4.76) is very striking, and represents mainly the mining and processing of sand and gravel, used to furnish concrete, glass and asphalt, but also silicone polymers, and electronic devices. An explosion in the use of these materials is being driven by urbanization and global population growth, especially in China, India and Africa, and according to one estimate, by 2060, annual demand will have risen to 82 Gt. In many parts of the world, sand mining is not regulated, and is the province of "sand mafias"; sand has also been described as a "conflict mineral". The growth in metallic ore consumption represents, primarily, an increasing demand for iron and steel, aluminium, copper, zinc, lead and nickel, as are used for construction purposes, and to make an enlarging variety and number of consumer goods.

Perhaps the baseline metric for overall consumption is the increase in population, over a given time period, which was 3.70 billion (1970) and 7.55 billion (2017), thus giving a ratio of 2.04; hence, it is clear that the increased rate of consumption for all resource types has advanced greatly beyond this, demonstrating that the enlargement in resource use is not simply in step with the increasing number of feet on the planet, but reflects the expansion of industrialisation and development of a global consumer culture. The ratio for the consumption of biomass (2.67) is larger than that for fossil fuels (2.42), although, the additional fossil fuel ratio (use) drives all other production/consumption increases.

The term biomass includes crops, crop residues, grazed biomass, timber, and wild-caught fish, and in 1970, one third of all extracted materials could thus be accounted for. However, by 2017, the proportion of total natural resources being used in the form of biomass had fallen to around one quarter, even though the total biomass being consumed increased from 9.0 Gt to 24.1 Gt over the same period. In many ways this is little surprise, since countries depend more on biomass-based materials and energy systems in the earlier phases of their economic development, while the increasing industrialization of the global population during the 1970-2017 period has meant a rising demand for materials and energy systems that are based on mineral resources.

Nonetheless, despite its falling share of the total, the total amount of biomass used per capita has continued to grow, averaging at a global CAGR of 2.1%, to be compared with the global population CAGR of 1.5%. Some 40%  of the total biomass extracted (9.5 Gt) was from crop harvesting in 2017, and a similar average growth rate was determined for grazed biomass to feed livestock animals, in reflection of the increased adoption of animal and dairy based food products by an expanding middle class in many parts of the world. The growth is shallowest for those kinds of biomass - such as wood, used to provide both fuel and building materials - which are most easily substituted by alternatives, and where yields cannot be readily enhanced through technological improvements - such as for wild-caught fish.

The expected, relentless increase in resource use is due to a current reliance on extracting virgin materials to fuel growth, rather than using those resources, already recovered, more effectively. For every tonne of resources that is reused, more than 10 are extracted, and no country is living within its own limits Nearly half the materials that enter the economy are used in long-term products such as housing, infrastructure and heavy machinery. However, through better design of products, so they can be reused, and an expansion of end-of-life reprocessing facilities, the consumption of virgin materials might be curbed, acting within the framework of a circular economy. Indeed, such circular design follows the example of nature, in which there is no waste: for example, in a forest, where the leaf litter from the previous season becomes nourishment for the soil from which new life is put forth in the next, and nutrients and water are cycled as an intrinsic part of its living mechanism. To recast the "take-make-waste" model to provide a system that is not only sustainable but regenerative is undeniably a sobering challenge, but really is the only viable course of action, since to even maintain, let alone grow, present levels of resource extraction is a patently untenable exercise.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Endangered elements, critical raw materials and conflict minerals.

The following is a fairly lengthy abstract of a quite detailed article published in the journal Science Progress dealing with humankind's use of natural resources, currently being consumed at a rate of almost 100 billion tonnes per year.

Amid present concerns over a potential scarcity of critical elements and raw materials that are essential for modern technology, including those for low-carbon energy production, a survey of the present situation, and how it may unfold, both in the immediate and the longer term,  appears warranted. For elements such as indium, current recycling rates are woefully low, and although a far more effective recycling programme is necessary for most materials, it is likely that a full scale inauguration of a global renewable energy system will require substitution of many scarcer elements by more Earth-abundant material (EAM) alternatives. Currently, however, it is fossil fuels that are needed to process them, and many putative EAM technologies are insufficiently close to the level of commercial viability required to begin to supplant their fossil fuel equivalents, necessarily rapidly and at scale. As part of a significant expansion of renewable energy production, it will be necessary to recycle elements from wind turbines, and solar panels (especially thin-film cells). The interconnected nature of particular materials, e.g. cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, all mainly being recovered from the production of zinc, aluminium and copper, and helium from natural gas, means that the availability of such “hitchhiker” elements, is a function of the reserve size and production rate of the primary (or “attractor”) material. Even for those elements that are relatively abundant on Earth, limitations in their production rates/supply may well be experienced on a timescale of decades, and so a more efficient (reduced) use of them, coupled with effective collection and recycling strategies should be embarked upon urgently.
Of all essential commodities, the fossil fuels may well run into production limits during the next few decades, and indeed, the underpinning determinant of how we extract resources, inducing those of energy, is the availability of energy itself, and those resources that provide it. As we, inevitably, use up high grade ores, and move on to poorer quality deposits, in which the desired element is increasingly diluted by other materials, the energy input to the whole extractive and processing mechanism increases: in terms of the production of energy resources, this is expressed as declining Energy Return on Investment (EROI). As the quality of mineral deposits declines, the volume of material that needs to be exhumed from the Earth, and processed, enlarges relentlessly, leading overall to increasing amounts of waste for each mass unit of metal, or other element, recovered, and much more additional energy is needed. A coupling between the declining quality both of ores and energy sources can only compound the situation.
It has been indicated that there are insufficient, proven, reserves (and resources too, in certain cases) of several metals required to build a fully renewable energy system, to meet the global demand for energy that is expected by 2050. For scarce elements, recycling is indicated to be of limited value. It is possible that incorporating potentially less efficient technologies (but based on elements that are more widely available) might prove a viable strategy for reducing the risks of supply constraints . The future development of renewables may also rely on the recovery of materials from conflict zones and other politically unstable regions, which could pose problems for its large scale expansion. Moreover, how such a fully renewable energy system might be maintained, beyond 2050, remains a serious open question.  Meanwhile, major changes in our global demand for energy are necessary, and it may be wise to spend the fossil fuel equivalent of our remaining carbon budget on the extraction of metals required for low-carbon energy technologies.
Current consumption of resources means that the global materials base is unsustainable, and it is necessary to optimize our use of energy, to close material cycles, and to curb irreversible material losses, of all kinds. Mining of sand and gravel, used to furnish concrete, glass, asphalt and electronic devices, has risen to the point that their supply too is a matter of concern; levels of freshwater use are also now approaching newly defined planetary boundary limits. Natural resources are being consumed on an unprecedented scale, and currently, an annual 92 billion tonnes of raw materials are being extracted, which corresponds to around 12 tonnes for every person on the planet. The timescale of our intentions regarding the use of resources is critical, and the question of whether technology can solve our current problems, and meet future needs “sustainably”, has yet to be answered fully. Perhaps such considerations of what is sustainable only properly make sense, if societal viability over the duration of a civilization (say, 500 years) is planned for; yet we have only the next few decades, at most, to undertake the appropriate actions to establish  this. In regard to the sustainable use and regeneration of essential natural resources, it seems likely that the Earth Stewardship scenario, with the design system of permaculture as a creative response pathway toward achieving it, may be the most effective option.

Endangered elements, critical raw materials, conflict minerals, conflict resources, indium, Energy Return on Investment, EROI, planetary boundary, low-carbon energy, civilization, permaculture, circular economy, renewables, renewable energy, fossil fuels, Earth stewardship, Earth-abundant materials, periodic table, wind energy, solar energy, phosphorus, indium, fracking, sand, gravel, sand mining, freshwater.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth.

This is a book review that I wrote, which will be published in the journal, Science Progress, of which I am an editor.
"The Uninhabitable Earth." DAVID WALLACE-WELLS. Allen Lane 2019 ISBN 9780241355213; xx + 310 pp; £20.00

As set in motion by human hands, the forces of the Anthropocene – a word coined to mark the scale of our intervention in Nature as numbering among those of previous geological epochs – are predicted to drive the Earth system in expressing climate change to a degree that for many of the almost 8 billion, let alone 11-12 billion predicted to be here by 2100, the Earth would have become barely tolerable, and for some, actually uninhabitable, depending on the degree of warming that prevails by then, and the attendant consequences to the natural commons of air, land and water, which would be manifest unevenly around the globe. Even if we could halt our carbon emissions, instantly and today, the intrinsic inertia of the Earth system would nonetheless unfold the rising of sea levels, the degradation of land, and other changes (some, as yet, unknown) for centuries, perhaps millennia, to come. The book, “Uninhabitable Earth”, begins with “Cascades”, and takes a look at some of the likely consequences of climate change, the magnitude of which will be tuned according to the degree of warming that is unleashed, including mass migration of climate refugees, water scarcity, famine, a more extreme climate,  wildfires, outbreaks of disease, and extreme “once every 500 years” events that become more the norm (“rain bombs”, mighty hurricanes), since the effects are not binary - “yes”, “no”; “on”, “off” - but exponential, and worsen over time, so long as we continue to produce, and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The author notes that, although there has been a self-comforting trend, particularly among Western liberals, to contort their own consumption pattern into performances of moral or environmental purity – less beef, more Teslas, fewer transatlantic flights – unless such actions are scaled up by politics, they amount to relatively little, beyond a “feel good factor”, in the face of bleaker evidence from science.

How politics will bend the overall scene is a moot point, since, for example, signing up the Paris Agreement is no more than a set of promises, and not binding in terms of any punitive consequences, for those who do not meet their targets. In any case, the United States is notorious in withdrawing from the Agreement, due to President Trump’s wish to protect the US coal industry, which he perceives as being disadvantaged by it, over other countries, especially China. The integrated nature, and scale, of the problem, is emphasised by the term “Elements of Chaos” (as entitles the second section of the book), and is in line with the concept of “The World’s Woes”, which stresses that many of the issues (e.g. peak oil, soil erosion, water stress, overpopulation, carbon emissions, etc.) that presently confront us are not individual problems, that can be tackled in isolation, but are interrelated symptoms (“cracks in the wall”) of a broader reality of systemic failure. Thus, the term “the changing climate” has previously been used, rather than ”climate change” – i.e. as driven by fossil fuel burning/global warming – to encompass the many features  of change that we currently experience, although the climatic shifts driven by the additional energy, absorbed into the Earth system, are likely to play out over the most protracted timescale.

The question, of whether technology can solve all our current problems, has been asked before and, indeed, one is reminded of the “4 (possible) scenarios” proposed by David Holmgren, one of the originators of permaculture, which is a design system, based on three core ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Shares (return of surplus). Holmgren looks toward the future on the timescale of development of an old growth forest (say, 500 years), and concludes as “technofantasy”, the idea that technological advances will be able to, not only meet all energy and other needs, but absorb and repair the damage already done, and which we may continue to do, over that same time period, and, presumably, beyond it. Holmgren sees permaculture as a pathway to achieving a state of harmony between humans and Nature, “Earth Stewardship”, where resources are used not only sustainably but regeneratively, and that a more apposite icon for the latter is a tree, rather than a solar panel, since, arguably, all solar panels and wind turbines will have become trash (possibly toxic waste) long before then, unless better initial design and the cycling back of materials and solar/wind-generated energy into the system, overall, can be achieved. In the present book, Wallace-Wells is similarly sceptical (“The Church of Technology”) – and fearful – particularly over technologies for geoengineering, e.g. spraying particles (probably sulphate aerosols) into the atmosphere, with the intention to reflect sunlight back into space and reduce the burden of warming at the Earth’s surface. However, he also cautions that without the existing levels of atmospheric pollution, global warming would be even worse, and that if we manage to clean the atmosphere (i.e. reduce pollution), this could have the unintended, and highly undesirable, consequences of reaching the 1.5 oC limit more quickly than has been anticipated, and ushering in more extreme heating effects over the coming century and beyond. It is, therefore, a Faustian deal: a tug-of-war between controlling pollution and driving climate change. Moreover, once such technology had been inaugurated for climate control, it could never be discontinued, since if it were, climate change would ramp ahead at a yet steeper gradient.

The remarkably wasteful nature of our current use of resources – of all kinds is a significant and underpinning urger of The Changing Climate, and, in principle, is where we might act most effectively. For example, some 50% of all plastics manufactured end up being used just once then thrown away, much of this for packaging, which accounts for almost half of all plastic waste. Here, undoubtedly, is an example where behavioural changes can be made, to curb both the waste of finite fossil resources, and the pollution that is engendered, since much of this waste escapes collection and enters the open environment. Deglobalisation/relocalisation has been proposed as one overarching approach to ameliorating this present situation; meanwhile, Bitcoin mining uses more electricity than the whole of Switzerland. Our concerns, so far, over the effect of climate change on water have, as Wallace-Wells stresses, been most often focussed on saltwater, in the form of storms and sea level rise, and building barriers against it; however, of the water there is on Earth, it is freshwater that is most precious, but is under increasing demand pressure, and in June 2019, Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, ran out of water: just one of 21 cities in this very populous, and rapidly industrialising nation, that are predicted to run out of groundwater by 2020. As Wallace-Wells quotes, “If climate change is the shark, the water resources are its teeth.”

The book takes the line that climate change, and what we can expect from it, is not only worse, but incomprehensibly worse, than we have been led to believe. Yet there are grounds for optimism, so long as we act now, and sufficiently. Thus, whether the strap-line of the book’s title, “A Story of the Future”, will prove true to history depends very much on what we do now – from this moment.  It is, however, not merely a few minor, personal, lifestyle choices that are necessary, but change at all levels: social, governmental, individual, material, and perhaps, as has been suggested by Gus Speth, a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defence Council, “spiritual.” As Wallace-Wells points out, the term “Anthropocene” can be taken to imply conquer, which has connotations of the biblical “dominion”, of man over the Earth; that we have the divine right to use the resources of this planet only to our own ends, whereas a more modern view is that what is required of us is (Earth) stewardship, as expressed by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si, encyclical letter, on “Care for Our Common Home”. Wallace-Wells describes plastics and bee death as “climate parables”; however, these can be viewed, alternatively, as “poster children” for a system that is failing, and needs to be fixed, and plastic pollution, particularly, has united people from all walks of life, and across the world, in a sense of awareness and drive to “do something” to protect the environment. In this respect, they provide powerful rallying banners, even if their implications in climate change are, at most, fairly minor, and they are, rather more, elements – among many – of The Changing Climate: inflicted upon the Earth as (to quote the Pope) a “sister” that we have “abused and harmed”, who “groans in travail”, and whose wounds we must help to heal, or become ourselves wounded, as further environmental destruction unfolds. It is time to question what we mean by “growth”, and those values of a consumer based economic system that is underpinned by enlarging debt, and the consumption of finite resources – primarily the fossil fuels –  hence, of itself, being non-maintainable, not being supported by solid, and sustainable foundations. As Wallace-Wells asks, “If you strip out the perception of progress from history, what is left?” Indeed, maybe this is merely a perception, and even partly an illusion.

In summary, this is a thought provoking, and largely well written book, in which the author’s assertions are convincingly substantiated by a comprehensive list of up-to-date references. The tone of the writing is quite measured, which makes the facts presented all the more stark. Since the material is based on interviews that Wallace-Wells conducted with numerous experts and thinkers from different formal disciplines, it is not only the opinion of the author that is expressed, but the spirit of those working directly to wrestle a view of what is happening now, and what will most likely become the “now” over the course of the present century, and beyond. It is true that we (or those alive then) will only know how things have played out on arriving at a given future date, for this is an experiment that we are all participating in, and are subjects of, in real time, but all evidence there is warns that humankind now levers on the fulcrum of the greatest shift in our known history – and the direction is our choice.