Monday, July 06, 2009

Human Population and the Earth’s Resources.

Part 5. of an essay on Global Warming with A. Koewius, put here for comments.

While accepting that the earth-system is a complex set of interacting mechanisms that transport heat from the equator and tropics toward the cooler polar regions, the influence of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere is expected to cause an accompanying elevation in the Mean Global Temperature (MGT) as its concentration increases. At the outset of this project, one of us (CJR) had looked askance at the geological record of temperature over time and felt unconvinced by the argument that humans were entirely culpable for rising CO2 levels and that in any case, there were profound periodicities in the temperature and CO2 levels over time. In particular, that every 100,000 years, an interglacial maximum occurs, during which the earth warms by 10 or more degrees as a mean, and the level of CO2 and indeed methane increase in accord with this. After perhaps 10,000 - 20,000 years the interglacial period comes abruptly to an end and the next ice-age ensues. This and other cycles is evident from ice-core samples taken over the past 750,000 years, extending to depths of three or more kilometres.

On detailed inspection, an unexpected result emerges and which is counterintuitive to the commonly understood global-warming model in which increases in CO2 act as a forcing factor to a rise in the planetary temperature. Indeed, it is found that there is a lag in converse to this notion: that the earth first begins to warm out of the ice-age and the atmospheric gases then increase in concentration; not the reverse. Global warming “deniers” (as is not too strong a term to use to label them, given the white heat of emotion that has entered the subject, and the huge amounts of money involved both in terms of grants for climate modelling research and far more the costs of various carbon-elimination schemes) often cite this as evidence that the GW model is wrong and that the earth may well be heating-up but by some unspecified mechanism that is unconnected with the levels of Carbon in the atmosphere. However, it is clear that the elevation in CO2 levels during the past half-century correlates closely with the mass of fossil carbon, burned in the form of coal, oil and natural gas during this same period, of which natural carbon sinks absorb around 40%. That the excess carbon originates from fossil sources is further supported by a decreasing ratio of atmospheric 13C/12C carbon isotopes.

To be sure, there are many uncertainties in detail, and we will only know the truth about climate change when the experiment has been fully conducted in real time, i.e. only those living in the year 2100 will know what the climate is like then. All else is theory, as is true of the present effort as discoursed in this essay. Nonetheless, if the degree of global warming is likely to be as severe (up to 6 degrees Centigrade) as some models predict, with attendant catastrophic effects on global climate, we are left with a question almost like bookmakers’ odds, as to how much we are prepared to gamble on the race - the survival of the human race and its civilization.

The betting-odds as defined by a scientific “consensus” - if there can ever be such a thing in the methodology of real science - are that we must make drastic cuts in our emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, or face unparalleled perils for humanity. However, it is not a single horse we need to review the pedigree of, in making our bets, since the business of whether we curb our carbon emissions is not simply a matter of choice but it is inevitable that we must burn less carbon, for the underpinning reason that fossil resources such as oil, gas and coal are available in only limited amount; hence their supply will fail our relentless demand for them, in short order - a mere “spike” in terms of the longevity of human civilization.

There is an Arab proverb that goes something like: “My grandfather rode a camel; my father drove a car; I ride a jet-plane; my son will ride a camel.” In an amusingly quirky way this points to the essential consequences of what has been dubbed “peak oil”, but peaks are appearing for many other resources, of energy in the form of gas, coal and uranium, and of many other pivotal elements upon which a population of 6.7 billion has grown. Simply put, there are too many of us and thus we are using-up too much of the earth’s resources too fast. It has been estimated that if each member of this vast population of species lived at a U.S. level of consumption, it would take 5 “earths” to provide for them, and the figure is not so much lower - and far in excess of this single earth that we have in reality - for all other Western countries.

Yet, in the illusion of limitless growth, which is the fundamental tenet of capitalism, each of the vastly populous developing nations such as China, India and others in Asia and South America, aspires to this collective absurdity, which even the present “haves” in the industrialised West cannot maintain for much longer; let alone that the “have nots” draw similarly on the bestowal of the planet, laid down millennia past. If we accept that we must use less fossil fuels, an action that assists both purposes of curbing carbon emissions, in the interests of mitigating climate change, and of putting the brakes on getting through them too fast, we step into the quagmire of how we are to go about this in practical terms. In the midst of the present recession, all attention certainly at governmental level across the world, is beamed onto how we can “restart growth”. Perhaps we can’t. Maybe we are witnesses to the end of capitalism and we need to converge our efforts - with the remaining resources available to us - upon a truly sustainable plan, which the status quo of “growth” and any projections based on it is not.

It is chilling that if a logistic function is fitted to global population statistics - albeit that the rate of growth is in decline; but the population is still growing - similar to that which may be applied to resource depletion e.g. oil, a peak in population occurs in the year 2028 at 7.1 billion (not much more than there are of us now), and then the numbers fall dramatically to 2.5 billion by 2100. This flies in the face of the predicted “over 9 billion by 2050” given by the WHO in an effort to encourage us to breed less. Almost certainly, a peak scenario of this kind, if real, will be a mirror of a peak and decline of the resources that such a huge population is dependent on to exist. Thus, even controlling population, as must be done, is a choice out of our hands. Even feeding so many may prove impossible, let alone that all meet a Western standard of living.

The issue of food production applies to the industrialised developed nations in the West perhaps more than anywhere else, since we have grown to depend on an industrialised system of agriculture which relies entirely on oil for tractor fuel and natural gas to make artificial nitrogenous fertilizers, since the quality of soil has fallen to a level that it would be effectively “dead” without constant external inputs of fertilizers, and useless to grow anything on. Without oil, we have no working farms, and even rock phosphate which is the basis of phosphorus fertilizers peaked over 20 years ago - thus our methods of food production, the most fundamental essential for human survival is living on borrowed time. Clearly, we must break our dependence on fossil resources, of all kinds.

There are many who are persuaded that no fundamental changes in lifestyle, in the West at least, are necessary. In the U.S. the car is king, in part due to the large distances routinely traversed in getting to work and the need to escape from urban dormitories to find amenities like schools, shops etc. Europe is not so much different, and air-travel too is a normal feature of life both for business and pleasure. Those who might also be quite appropriately called “deniers” - to the resource dearth issue - comfort themselves that we will simply switch from and oil-based economy to a hydrogen economy, or a totally electrified system with personal transport preserved in either scenario. This is unlikely in the short term, or ever, since the provision of fossil fuels, most pressingly oil, is under imminent threat, and there is insufficient time remaining to inaugurate and install anything close to 600 million vehicles as currently grace the world’s highways. Hydrogen powered and electric planes are unlikely to ever be a serious contender and all in all, a relocalisation of society appears on the cards, from the increasingly global to one that uses far less transport. If the loss of oil and gas is forced upon us abruptly, the result will be anarchy, since we will suddenly be without mechanisms for food production and distribution and the means to earn money with which to buy what is available.

The issue of time is almost criminally negligent, since even ignoring M. King Hubbert’s “peak oil” warning of 1956, when he worked for the Shell Development Company, the later oil-shocks of the 1970s made clear the vulnerability of the West upon the price and availability of cheap oil. In 1973, the Arab OPEC nations decided to punish the West for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur (also called the Ramadan) War, and by closing its valves by a mere 5%, the price of oil shot up by 400%. The Iran Iraq conflict in 1979 had a similar effect due to a reduction in the supply of cheap oil onto the world markets. Oil and economies are inextricably linked and it has been speculated that the hike in the price of a barrel of oil to nearly $150 triggered the stock market crash last summer (2008) and augered-in the present recession. The price of oil is now around $70 again per barrel, up from around $25 only a few months ago, and a further crash is on the cards if it rises once more toward its previous high. There were various projects begun in the 1970s to find substitutes for oil, including making oil from algae, which is enjoying a renaissance - but once cheap oil came back onto the markets, the incentive for such alternatives evaporated and many (such as the US Algal Oil project) were discontinued on grounds of cost. If the price of oil rises above $100 a barrel some of these schemes, including the environmentally filthy fabrication of synthetic “oil” from the tar sands, and getting “oil” by cracking primordial kerogen from “oil shale”, will become economically appealing .

None of these schemes will come on-stream quickly enough to compensate for the loss of conventional crude oil within a decade or so however and they will cost a fortune, given the unparalleled swathe of “new” engineering that would be necessitated. In the short order, it is the depletion of resources that is the greatest threat to humanity, with the effect of global warming perhaps as some future legacy to be reaped as a driver of climate change. On account of all the above, we need to move away from carbon based fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The end sight is easy to envisage, on some ideal horizon of optimism. i.e. We give-up on the idea of the global supermarket and focus on local food production and economies, thus needing less in the way of fuel ab initio. Methods of regenerative agriculture (permaculture) are key in this respect, and it is estimated that 40% of human carbon emissions could be captured by soil if it were farmed using regenerative methods - e.g. deliberately moving around herds of grazing animals and growing cover crops. “Forest gardens”, which involve a symbiosis of species-diversity capture N and P nutrients naturally via a mixture of flora and fauna working in an interacting holistic ecology. Probably we cannot solve all our energy and resource problems nor support 7 billion people, but a planned way-down from our peak of excess is the only way to mitigate anarchy and the loss of the fruits of humanity, rather than the fearsome population crash that is sometimes called a “die-off”. It is this uneasy transition that poses the real challenge.


Yorkshireminer said...

Spot on Chris, I can't disagree with one word. I think that the reason I have not been posting so much lately is that I agree with you. you will have to be more controversial if you want a few more comments.

Deep Regards


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks very much Dave,

glad you agree. I will see what Alexander Koewius (my co-author on the rest of the article a retired German engineer who knows his maths!) thinks of it when he returns from holiday with Frau Koewius, but by then I will have put up the web site with a journal publication to follow.

This however, is pure "Chris" as he asked me to write the epilogue to our thinking, so I hope to have done him justice here.

Deep regards too,


Car Reviews said...

I have read this post and found it very interesting.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks! I don't know that I have offered any simple solution, but I don't think there is one. Just some steps humans might take collectively to cut our vulnerable state in the service of oil.

I am convince that running short of energy and other resources - liquid fuels most pressingly - will strike us more immediately than global-warming, although that legacy may lie in wait for us later on.

Either way, we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, rather than planning to consume ever more of them in the interests of economic "growth"!



Anonymous said...

you highlight the fact that we may be approaching the "end of capitalism" and the end of the growth era. i think you're spot on with this analysis, and have been developing this line of thought on my own blog,

i also want to say that i congratulate you for considering how the scarcity of energy (oil) will affect the world's people. it seems to me that this is an entirely political question.

we can use the remaining oil for war, vacations for the rich, and unnecessary consumption - or we can use the resources responsibly and ensure that no one goes hungry or is denied health care unnecessarily.

just some thoughts


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Thanks for the comment... I think your blog is excellent and I couldn't agree with you more!

So, it is only greed that prevents the world from using what resources we have left in some form of equanimity rather than hell-for-leather all out war to grab what is left - as seems to be on the cards.