How China will eat the World

and please ignore or correct any of my dodgy math. I was just wondering so I set my self a little challenge to look at the figures, of course there are caveats in that the subject of resources is complex and it seems most of the official figures are little more than guesses. So when will China eat the World?

Coal consumption- is somewhere between 3.7 and 4 billion tons in 2012- in 20 years China’s total consumption  will be 160 billion tons.

Chinese coal reserves are between 70- 90 billion tons so that would be gone well before 2033. With  Global reserves an optimistic 600 billion tons there is still plenty of the stuff in the ground- However most of the coal reserves are in the US and Russia – the US consumes 1 billion tons every year so it might want to keep a little back for itself and the 600 billion figure is not proven reserves- that is reserves that can and will be mined but all reserves. Alaska has billions of tons of coal but it is very unlikely it will be ever mined because of the energy costs of building and operating mines as well as ports and towns to support the workers in such an isolated place. Knowing how much of that 600 billion figure is actually usable is a mystery.

Unlike oil or gas where it possible to find new reserves the likelihood of new coal fields is very low. If the World [excluding China] had zero growth in coal extraction and a constant 3.5 billion ton extraction rate each year for 20 years then 70 billion tons needs to be subtracted from the 600,  add China’s 160 billion tons of extraction and that [= 230 – 600] amounts to = 370. If China grew 7% for another 10 years 210 billion tons of coal would be consumed and if the World remained at zero % growth in the same period  it would consume 35 billion tons. Which means that 600 billion ton figure could last 30 years if everyone else stop coal consumption growth- which they won’t.

Oil consumption- China is seeing not 7% growth in car sales but 15%-20%. Currently oil consumption is 9 million barrels a day – about 10% of world production [90 million barrels a day]. Oil figures are designed, it seems to confuse- being in barrels a day rather than tons a year- World consumption is 5 billion tons each year-  of which China’s share is 10% of 5,000,000,000 = 0.5 billion tons.

Motor car growth does not represent all oil consumption growth as about half goes into other aspects of the economy- so lets be reasonable and assume it will be 10% increase each year. In 20 years time China will have consumed 31 billion tons of the Worlds oil reserves.

Current world oil reserves 280 billion tons and if the rest of the world remained at zero % growth about 100 billion tons would be consumed and if we added China’s consumption that is half of all the remaining oil gone in 20 years. And if China’s growth continued it would consume nearly twice as much in the follow 10 years as it did in the previous 20- that’s another 50 billion tons.

However about a third of the total 280 billion tons of oil is Canadian and Venezuelan tar and heavy oils which is the difference between peanut butter pouring out of a jar verses the normal crude that comes out like milk- Canadian tarsands  will last simply because at double the  current rates of extraction =1 billion barrels per year, it will take over 150 years to extract.

China would consume half of all oil reserves in 30 years BUT only if everybody in the world sustained their consumption rates- and I don’t think India would be happy with that- and it came out of the ground in a uniformly growing amount. Oil is  not sitting in a warehouse allowing for instant supply on demand-  as fields decline so their output slows. For China to sustain it’s growth in oil consumption it also has to work out a way to defy physics.

Iron ore- Iron is everywhere and the Earth has a core of the stuff but economic iron ore is less common and with exponential growth of just 2% in world demand the rich sources of the ore would be gone in 64 years. China who is rapidly become the consumer of half of all global resources imports most of Australia’s iron ore which is expected to last 50 years.

Aluminium- there is currently over 130 years of reserves of bauxite [aluminium ore] at current rates of consumption Globally growth in consumption is 5% where as in China it 7%- and again the exponential rate of consumption means that for every ten years twice as much will be consumed bringing the 130 to 30 years at current rates of growth. China consumes 42% of global  aluminium with it to exceed 50% in the next 10 years.

Uranium- current consumption and reserves give about 60 years before new resources must be found. 60 years at current rates of consumption. China is increasing nuclear power by 5x times in 10 years and as there are limits to how much coal it can import within the coming couple of decades so that number can only increase. Power stations are not the same as cars- if power station construction growth is 20% it does not mean they will end up with thousands of nuclear plants in 50 years but if the current number of nuclear power station is doubled over 20 years that uranium supply is not going to last 60 years.

If in some la la land China could grow exponentially at 10% or even 7% each year then China would eat the world in about 30 years, sure some things like iron ore would be abundant but the coal to smelt it and the diesel to power the trucks that mine it would be long gone. Other countries have shown similar growth over similar number of years in history such as Britain and the Age of Coal or the US in the Age of Oil but in each case the finite resources were a lot less finite than they are now. China is hitting some real limits to growth now and these limits are not geographical but those of the Globe, unless it can start exploiting resources in asteroids and other parts of the Solar System thee is a very large wall looming- or cliff. All of this speculation ignores the growth expectations of the Indians or Russians or Brazilians [ and we cannot ignore the rest of the developing world either] or for that matter the growing populations with growing expectations in oil producing countries like Iran Iraq, Saudi etc.

A big caveat to the limits of growth are the ‘black swans’- things that we just don’t think about but should- like water. Nuclear power stations work reasonable well but they need lots of water, so it is possible with abundant uranium [or thorium] to keep the lights on unless there is a drought and the river diminishes no amount of fuel will allow it to run. Unbridled growth in China has brought extreme levels of pollution and at some point middle-class Chinese will demand change.

I don’t envy Chinese dictatorship- it has entered into a doomed arrangement where it offers wealth in exchange for freedom from its people- if the cars are not delivered, if the electricity fails and if the people cannot be bought with consumer goods then it will be the Chinese curse of ‘may you live in interesting times’.

So given these stark limitations what do you think will really happen?

 

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“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

is a statement of fact that neatly ties in with Thatcher’s funeral, the miner’s strike of 1985 and history in the making.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” is said by Al Bartlett and I was recently reminded of his lecture [available in full on his website] by fellow blogger Pedantry on his Wibble blog. The lecture seems to be recorded over a decade ago but Al is still doing live presentations so it would be interesting to see how it has changed in the light of recent human history. The 1 hour lecture is broken up into 10 minute parts so if you have any attention deficiency I would recommend this one.

It is of interest to me because it deals with coal. Specifically he deals with US coal but it can be extended to world coal consumption. Of course this is of great interest because if we burn all the reserves of coal rather than leave it in the ground then we will push Global Warming beyond the ‘safe’ 2c into 4 or 5 or 6c. How safe a 2c warmer planet will be is a matter of conjecture given that just 0.8c we have now is…well.. interesting to say the least and it will be decades before the current heat escapes from the oceans into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels have been the fuel of ALL growth over the last 200 years:- population, rising standards of living, healthcare, agricultural productivity- you name it and fossil fuels have fuelled it and that includes things like debt as well as the larger economy. My guess, and I come with no special expertise beyond reading what different experts have to say, is that we hit the oil peak in 2005/6 and since it has been a plateaux with a downward tendency reflecting the global economy.

In a world that didn’t need to deal with climate change [or choose to ignore it] there is the option to return to coal as a replacement for oil, after all, there is 200 years of coal reserves and surely the  technology is there to make coal into petrol as the South Africans did during apartheid.

One of the first problems in investigating the state of coal [or peak oil] is the complete lack of information. Government agencies and energy analysts may write reports on reserves of the most important founding asset of our civilisation but the quality of the data they draw on is frankly appalling. Saudi Arabia is secretive about how much oil it has in reserves as are other OPEC countries, whereas the top 200 private oil companies are looking to build confidence in investors to sustain its $1.5 trillion debt whilst it spends more for diminishing returns on investment. Countries and business lie.  China has huge reserves of coal and consumes half of all the coal mined in the World but Chinese coal estimates haven’t changed in 20 years despite billions of tonnes being extracted.

China may have enough coal reserves to plunge the World into a 4c nightmare warming, or it might have far less- we don’t know. Given that fossil fuels are the very foundations of modern human civilisation I find it extraordinary that governments  at Global level don’t make it a priority to find out how much there is and how likely we are going to turn AGW into CAGW.

One thing the few studies do agree on is the lack of information concerning world coal reserves but as a primer there are few things that are worth knowing about coal.

Resources and Reserves-

All fossil fuels are spoken of in terms of resources and reserves – resource is all the estimated barrels or tons or cubic feet [of gas] and reserves are what can be considered to be used. When it comes to resource and reserves the reality is that less than half of the resource is recovered. Resources of coal will include seams that only an inches thick, or very deep or inconsistent so even ‘proven’ reserves may stay in the ground.

Coal is not coal

Coal is quite a general term and there several distinct types ranging from lignite to anthracite and in the top end of quality there is graphite  and jet. In energy terms lignite has the third of the energy equivalent of oil and ‘hard’ coal has 2/3rd the energy oil weight for weight, but even this is a generalisation. Coal may be very wet and require drying out, it may be high in sulphur causing acid rain or high in mineral content which is how much ash is left or full of ‘wet gas’ : methane, making mining problematic.

We always exploit the best first

It is that simple- the low hanging fruits are picked first, and we tend to select the ripest- insect free ones first. The best also mean the cheapest with the best return. The undeniable fact is that tarsands, tight oil, deepwater and Arctic drilling are the most expensive oil fields out there and is what scrapping the oil barrel looks like: proof that Peak Oil has happened. In the US the same can be said for coal despite increasing production energy output of the coal mined peaked in 2004. A billion tons of coal now is not the same as a billion tons a decade ago- the industry is forced to mine more to get the same energy back.

The ideal coal mine would have seams 2 metres thick and few geological faults, in reality coal seams can be an inch thick and interrupted by geological faults as well as be prone to flooding and plenty of other issues to detailed to mention, the Miners Strike and the battle with the Thatcher Government was not supposedly about Britain running out of coal but the economics.

The US has the World’s largest reserves of coal  and thankfully has an independent scientific community, the US Geological Survey of the most important coal fields in Wyoming that produce 37% of US coal production reported that the original reserve of 200 billion tons had been reduced to 77 billion by 2006 of which only 10 billion tonnes could ever be recovered.  At current rate of extraction that would mean the field would be exhausted by 2026 and that certainly requires no increase in consumption because as Al Bartlett makes clear modest growth has an exponential effect.

In the US during the 70s [according to al Bartlett’s lecture] there was 500 years of American coal ‘at current rates of production’ but as his graph points out just 3% growth [the average growth in coal extraction between 1970-90] each year [and it may be pointed out that China has exceeded 10% growth in recent decades] American reserves of coal run out in 70 years making the last ton of US coal to be burnt will be in the 2040s. A higher 7% growth rate which has been seen in the past would mean coal mining would come to an end in 40 years [from 1970s] however growth has been restrained in the US coal sector but the reductions in reserve estimates means that 2025 or so is about right. Coal has already peaked in the World’s  largest reserves perhaps a decade ago and the decline, due to the nature and rate of extraction is a cliff not a curve. Unlike oil wells which deplete slowly because of physical constraints as pressure drops or in the case of Saudi the sea water pumped in to squeeze out the last of the oil makes up a greater percentage of the oil/water that is extracted, coal on the other hand can be in full production one year and simply run out the next.

Britain has demonstrated a number of firsts- it was the birth place of the Industrial Revolution, the cradle, if you like of our modern consumer world where a number of factors came together and humanity was able grow beyond the limits set by nature. And initially that paradigm shift was driven by coal. One of the many turning points occurred just a half hour drive from where I live: Iron Bridge was where Abraham Derby started to commercially use coke rather than charcoal to make iron, turning coal into coke had been known for years but he exploited it to make far more iron than anyone before him. Coal was king reaching a peak around the First World War at 300 million tons per year.

Britain also has had gas and oil and just as coal needed to be imported, the junction between our a declining coal and the potential of North Sea Oil and Gas coming on line was the 1970s, a period of domestic strife and recession, marked by the birth of punk in 1976. By the 1980s oil and gas were being exported and it was only in 2005 that Britain was forced to import oil and gas again, there is still some left but the monies from the exports has dried up forever. The peaks and troughs in fossil fuels is reflected in the politics as both Thatcher and Blair benefited from such wealth. This history of fossil wealth failing to enter into the mythology that surrounds Thatcher’s demise.  Now Britain is experiencing its own post- peak fossil fuel decline.

'UK Balance' graph from the APPGOPO presentation, November 2009

British coal is perhaps an insight into how global coal supplies will pan out.

As a kid I remember being told we had 400 or 200 years of coal but the real figures have turned out to be something different.

The proved recoverable coal reserves of the United Kingdom were reported at 45 billion tons with estimated additional resources of 145 billion tons in 1980.

In the following years the “proved” recoverable reserves were downgraded several times: to 9 billion tons in 1987, to 8.6 billion tons in 1990, to 3.3 billion tons in 1992, to 2 billion tons in 1995, to 1 billion tons in 1998, and finally to 0.22 billion tons in the latest report in 2004.

Between  1980 and 2004 1.8 billion [metric] tons [2 billion US short tons] were mined yet the reserves shrank from 190 billion tons to 0.22 billion.

Current UK consumption is 64 million tonnes – China used 3.7 billion tonnes in 2012 [figures vary!]

If one were to approach the UK coal reserves with caution it would be evident that deep mines are more expensive than open cast mining, and that we have a higher paid workforce than China or Poland and our geology is more problematic. This is true but coal has quadrupled in price in a decade and the mines that were not closed down by the Tories  and subsequent privatisation have been profitable- they simply ran out of coal or hit geological problems. Thatcher and Scargill were both wrong:  Arthur Scargill claimed that job losses were not just those of the miners effected but their sons, British coal mining would have been profitable as prices soared but there was never long term future. It was an ideological clash  but the tragedy was the oil wealth was not spent to provide a transition for the communities affected.

There is certainly huge resources of coal in the world whether in Alaska or Siberia or Mongolia but these are distant locations from any market and cannot be pumped like oil but instead needs a huge workforce, infrastructure and distribution network which currently would be run on oil unless the return to Victorian methods. Likewise there are possibly huge reserves in Montana USA that could make up for the steep declines that may hit Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Montana boosts it has twice the reserves of Wyoming but produces only a tenth of output so with global demand for coal being at an all time high why is the coal staying in the ground? One reason, perhaps, is that most of it is under ranchers fields who see no profit in seeing their land strip mined and the other is one of geography- it simply is too far way from major cities and the power plants that feed them. The same could be said of Russia’s huge resource under Siberian forests or Alaska coal under frozen tundra.

China and coal is the most interesting of all- will they cook us with their 10 coal power station being built every week – or what  ever- or is something else going on?

Due to the rapid growth in extraction China’s coal reserves – the third largest in the World- the date of depletion is moving rapidly to the near future. Quite when is a mystery but if the Wyoming reserves, those of the UK, Germany and Poland are any kind of clue then it is likely that estimates for Chinese Coal will range from half as much to just 10% of the assumed amount.

China is fully aware that their current rate of exponential growth is not sustainable and under their 5 year plan [2010-2015] they are looking to cap extraction at around 3 to 4 billion tons. Based on their 1990 reserve figures this would give 40 years of consumption at zero growth with growth in electricity demand being taken up with nuclear/wind/solar and possible shale gas. [Even conservative estimates reckon on peak production occurring in 2020 followed by a sharp decline].  If they have the reserves they say they have then we have to worry about their CO2 emission, if they don’t have the reserves we face a transition from fossil fuels to renewables which will be bumpy and possibly unachievable.

If Chinese coal is 10% or 50% of the estimate reserves we should know within the next 5 to 20 years. whatever the answer to this mystery the phrase ‘stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea’ comes to mind.

Links– and the most comprehensive report on the subject.

Graphs of our changing world.

Interesting Graphs from around the web of a changing world and in particular a changing Britain.

Graph showing utility prices for the last 20 years

Infographic provided by Castle Cover

In this UK gas and electricity price history 2005 marks the point when prices start to climb, inflation is about 5%+ above ordinary inflation and it is expected to get worse meaning household energy bills will double every 7-10 years. But don’t be too hard on the Water Utilities who have been amazingly consistent.

With Electricity going up now is the time to buy solar panels as they have never been so cheap. The halving in price for an average 4kw system in just a few years is unlikely to continue.

https://i1.wp.com/crudeoilpeak.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/EIA_UK_oil_production_consumption_1980_2009.jpg

2005 a year that marked the point when North Sea oil production declined to the point the UK needed to import oil again.

File:Exports BP 2009 gas m3 GB MZM NONE auto .png

Unfortunately gas production was also in decline around the same time.

UK debt

Debt appears to have replaced North Sea oil revenue.

http://gailtheactuary.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/egypt-oil-production-and-consumption-v2.png

In comparison to other countries the UK did perhaps, spend the money wisely – Egypt spent a great deal of  its oil wealth subsidising basic food stuffs like wheat and selling fuel for pennies, when the oil declined so did the public compliance with its tyrant.

https://i2.wp.com/www.economicshelp.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/growth-v-inflation-79-10.jpg

Since the peak of growth in the late 80s [and despite the short sharp recession of 91 which was as much to do with growth and over inflated house prices that crashed over night] the trend has been down, slowly to the point we are at zero growth as of 2013.

It is all about oil.

http://gailtheactuary.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/world-food-index-vs-brent-oil-price.png

It’s all about oil even when we are talking the price of bread.

Trends in crime since 1981Thankfully a decline in growth does not equate to more crime and if anything crime has declined at a similar rate to growth. All reported crime which has remained static, tends towards antisocial behaviour increasing with serious offences decreasing. Some crime has diminished because security is better and stealing DVD players and other ‘luxury’ goods are not worth the returns.

Perhaps the end of growth will also be reflected in a reduction in obesity. Does peak oil also equate to peak fat? the UK figures perhaps indicate that obesity rates are in the decline.

Chart showing UK real disposable income

Real disposable income in the UK is declining fast, wages are no longer keeping up with taxes and inflation. Interestingly the spikes and dips correlate with North Sea Oil production, a pattern that one would expect from major oil exporting countries like Saudi Arabia or one of the Gulf states.  It is often assumed the oil importers would be the first to suffer in a post peak oil world but it appears that the producers like the UK [and Egypt as well as many other countries in the same situation] suffer earlier.

A late find: it occurred to me that total oil production was irrelevant as what mattered is oil exports- Saudi could increase production but if its home use is so great exports would decline, and guess what? from this blog.

 

Global oil [in exports ]  has declined a staggering 5%, no wonder we are in recession.

 

 

Conspiracy nation: 37% Americans think climate change a hoax; 30% fear a New World Order; 27% think Obama is the anti-Christ

I have reposted Watching the Deniers blog because it makes for interesting yet disturbing reading, there are also some nice links. If the numbers are correct and a third of Americans are just plain barking mad then this is obviously disturbing. As humanity enters into a new post industrial age when we have to deal with both AGW and diminishing oil and growth people need to turn to logic and not faith. Yet I fear past experience may signal a future road map where faith whether religious fundamentalism or fascism will stifle the words of reason that need to be so desperately heard.

Watching the Deniers

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The prevalence of conspiracy theories within a society or nation can have a profound effect on its politics. Indeed for the last several decades scholars of conspiracy culture have been signalling the growing acceptance of conspiracy beliefs across the globe and their potential to distort political debate.

As Kathryn Olmsted notes in her work, Real Enemies: conspiracy theories and American democracy from World War 1 to 9/11the prevalence of conspiracy theories can lead the ordinary citizen to become:

“… less likely to trust the government to do anything: to conduct fair elections, say, or spend their tax money, or protect their children or the planet. The result is a profoundly weakened polity, with fewer citizens voting and more problems left un-addressed for a future generation that is even more cynical about the possibility of reforms.’ (page 238)

And while there has been a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories, there are some that are particular to what…

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Apocalypse or how I came to embrace the end of the World

After spending a decade or so studying Apocalyptic belief as part of my larger book Serpent in the Labyrinth I became more dismissive and critical of religious voices of doom. The original basis of the book was to explore ancient mysteries like Atlantis and the Trojan Wars from a sane perceptive: that is without lost super civilisations and space aliens, except much of explanation I concluded was the loss of great human civilisation and space aliens and the revelation of who Jesus really was. I should mention the space alien was neither green nor little but a very large close proximity comet that visited ancient skies on a regular occurrence and whose debris [as gravitational forces slowly pulled it apart] was to occasionally load the high atmosphere with space dust causing decade long winters.

An astoundingly obvious conclusion was that saviour gods who would arrive during a world gripped in an apocalypse, normally floating in the sky, were representations of the comet whose dustloading occurred every thousand years or so. I say saviour gods because Jesus was only one of many and if humanised gods were not a cultures thing then they usually went for fire-breathing dragons. These ‘cosmic winters’ as they are described by astronomers only appeared to have a 1000 year cycle as tree-ring data [summer growth rings that can be traced back to an exact summer even five and half thousand years ago] reveals events dating back at least 5,000 years that were pretty random except humans seem to have forecast ‘the End time’ to happen around 2,000 years ago give or take a century. There were global events notably 200 b.c.e, but not an apocalypse and in an unrelated event a few hundred years later, just as Christianity was getting going, the Roman world was devastated by plagues which many saw as the beginning of the End. The collapse of the Roman Empire was a long drawn out affair but most of it was in ruins by the time the next ‘cosmic winter’ of significance occurred in 540 c.e. [although it could be argued that half of the Empire was to last till the 15 century as the Byzantine Empire].

In the Atlantis myth the civilisation is sunk beneath the waves because the Gods were angry with the arrogance of Atlantian man and, as some would have it, that arrogance of power over nature included death rays, flying machines and ‘dark’ crystals: a myth which emerged recently with Edgar Cayce, the American mystic  deluded nutter or con-man. As much as it could be a warning  from history for us the boring old real history of Rome is possibly a better example.

The Roman Empire was remarkably successful and long lived emerging around 700 b.c.e and hanging on until the 6th Century c.e. and it took a very different approach to empire than those before and since. The Greeks, Hitties and Egyptians before Rome, and Arab Islam and Mongol  after did a lot of fighting and invasion and kept slaves and expanded empires but the Romans were different in that they industrialised their empire. Rome invaded and expanded its empire to sustain growth, with much of its technology being borrowed from the defeated, far from being Romulians of the Star Trek Universe they were much more Borg. Roman war culture and growth were entirely linked.

To be a real Roman your family really had to come from Rome or at least your ancestors would have to and life for real Romans was that of the elite even if you were poor, in much the same way the Western world of today is an elite minority when compared to the whole of humanity. As elites they enjoyed the privilege of Romans at the expense of everyone else. Small farmers sold up their lands to ever  growing estates and headed to the big smoke as did most people who considered themselves Roman and so as to keep the economy going and feed an ever growing urban [Roman word!] population the estates needed workers. Slavery served the purpose to work the fields and pander to the needs of the growing middle-classes but new sources of slaves required the acquisition of new lands  which required the world’s most modern and well equipped army. As the empire grew so did the population so ever more land, slaves and military spending were needed to meet demand.

Most Romans were neither middle-class or particularly useful members of society but in big cities they were to be feared as the mob who could terminate an emperor’s reign or at least give a pretence for the next emperor to murder his way into office. To quell the mob emperors provided welfare of free bread and to keep them amused, the circus. The circus was manipulation of the mob, it was a symbol in reverse: in the real world the Empire was surrounded by savages that threatened every Romans way of life but the circus turned it inside out and savages in the arena became surrounded by civilised Romans. Fear of savages destroying Rome gave emperors control over the rabble, I think most of the parallels between our world and Rome are obvious and I don’t want to dwell but I rather think the circus has been replaced by the Murdoch media machine.

Eventually the decline and fall of Rome was slow and bumpy, in the first instance the rigid structure of society, that is, people were restricted in employment: you did what your father did, which did not allow for adaptability. Rome also reached it limits of growth as the easy fertile and populous lands were quickly exploited in the first few centuries; in the later part of the Empire these rich pickings with good returns had run out leaving only marginal lands like Scotland, Wales, the forests beyond the Rhine and Eastern Central Europe. Getting a return on these invasions was difficult as they were further away, yielded less rewards but cost more in men and resources to invade. Emperors would big up these invasions describing the battles as conclusive and victorious and another land where the riches would flow and of course, yet another potential market for Roman pottery and goods. The truth was different, these were no Gaul or Libya or Egypt and the Roman Army that held it all together was getting overstretched.

In the 2nd Century c.e. a new threat destroyed many of the cities- it was plague which was probably brought back by soldiers from the Eastern frontier and these devastating pandemics would continue to turn up in the following centuries causing some to delight in prophesies of doom and also causing the authorities to stamp out such beliefs which, is why Christianity was loved by the downtrodden poor who were told of god’s riches to come and despised by government who saw it as undermining civilisation. These plagues also happened for another reason: the rise or growth of Rome allowed for urbanisation and population growth which in turn meant more people in close proximity and urban poverty: plagues are just nature’s limit to growth.

Rome ran out of resources that it could afford to exploit and although the world was [and is] full of resources the empire ran out of money to pay the soldiers- to invade the lands- to harvest slave, land, minerals- to feed its ever growing populations and maintain its existence. The roads became too long to maintain, the border too long to defend and the costs out stripped returns.   With the addition of plagues, climate change, and civil unrest as standards of living declined and the Empire was doomed.

All was not lost, Rome as the centre of the universal or Catholic faith avoided pillage by paying off threats with gold [depleting reserves that could not be restored] and the richer Eastern Roman Empire held itself together and evolved into the Byzantium Empire that survived until 1450 relying on a more market based economy. Byzantium still contracted from its height when it was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and was eventually over run by a new adaptable although brutally violent civilisations from both east and west. Curiously the beginning of the end were the crusaders who it seems were triggered around 1100 to seize the Holy lands because God had sent signs in the form of comets and fireballs from heaven. The space alien of the ancients made a spectacular although final return around the time it was expected.

If you are interested the space alien is most likely comet Encke which is a dull and small rock which still has a short three year orbit. That’s entropy for you.

CO2 is a tiny componant of atmosphere

so how come something so tiny can have any effect?

and whilst I’m at it I have a few more questions for those so called scientists such as…. how come it can be freezing in the desert at night yet 50c 12 hours later, surely if CO2 acted as a greenhouse gas it wouldn’t get so cold when the sun went to bed?

CO2 is a tiny component of the air, just look at the facts and everyone will agree it nearly nothing at all. 400 parts per million is about 0.04%= almost zilch, it is not even half a % but just half of tenths of one % and human generated CO2 doesn’t even make up half of the total atmospheric CO2 so that mean our contribution is half of tiny- half of zilch. It feels nonsense that something so tiny could cause the modern world to collapse and that is the problem with being human: many strongly believe in a loving imaginary supreme being looking over their lives and noting if they have been naughty or nice- like Santa. But belief does not make it so.

Here is another – I can’t believe that- fact from the know it all scientists: most of the universe is nothing and even most of the things in the universe are mainly nothing. There is more space in the universe than it appears so if you took all of humanity, all 7 billion of us and took away all that spare space between atoms that doesn’t seem to be doing much except giving electrons room to jiggle about, then all of humanity would condense down to a lump of mass the size of a sugar cube or is it the Albert Hall? I can’t remember I heard it on BBC Radio 4. Don’t quote me on the tiny detail but things are not what they always seem. Belief is the problem with humans because it can be true and most likely false which is why science was invented.

As for CO2 with its big influence and tiny presence there are a few more examples that are less controversial, that is science that most people don’t have a problem with.

We don’t have a problem with ozone – o3- that tiny layer of gas high up in the atmosphere that acts as Earth’s sun lotion and stops the almost non existent [it has no mass and is just invisible light] ultraviolet light  that would otherwise burn our eyeballs out, fry our skin and mutate cells into monster cancer ones that would eventually battle against us until death. I can attest that no one would be mad enough to contradict the tiny but important contribution of O3. And O3- ozone- makes up only 2 to 8 parts per million in the ‘ozone layer’. Hardly a layer, in fact hardly anything at all making CO2 at nearly 400 ppm [2013 CO2 394ppm] sound a lot.

How about volcanoes?  Volcanoes are not controversial at least in a climate science sense and sometimes they change the global weather, admittedly not for a long period of time but Mount Pinatuba in 1991 erupted and ejected gas and aerosols into the high atmosphere. The amounts of gas and aerosols was around 20 million tonnes which eventually was to transform into a sulphuric acid haze that lasted a month or so and as it travelled around the world it lowered temperatures by 0.5c – if the haze had not been washed out by rain then the effect would be permanent.

One volcano ejecting 20 million tonnes reduced global temperature for a month by 0.5c – so how many ppm of sulphuric acid is that? The whole weight of the earth’s atmosphere is about 5.5 quadrillion tons (55 followed by 14 zeros) and I was rubbish at maths and refuse to embarrass myself by getting it all wrong.  But here is a guide, Croatia emits the same amount of CO2 each year into an atmosphere with 3,000 billion tonnes of CO2 in it. Tiny means very little when it comes to effect: a tiny mosquito can inject a tiny protist [not a bacteria but one up from it] that causes malaria and death, and tiny amounts of poison will kill. And that is the whole point of science in that it reveals the hidden and often tiny elements of our universe that we would otherwise not see. It required science to explain that  [once] invisible bacteria caused disease and the tiny invisible force of gravity which is so weak even a child can defy it [for a short period when jumping]  yet holds the universe together.

Next time someone points out that they just can’t believe CO2 can make much difference because its tiny you may point out the universe doesn’t give a damn but also point out that it contradicts the other denier meme that CO2 is such an important plant food without which their would be no life on Earth. Lets start being straight; these people are either idiots or lying.

The issue of deserts being an example of how rubbish CO2 is as a greenhouse gas is a little more complex but has more to do with educational fallacies – i.e. facts learnt when young which aren’t facts- than the reality.

The argument from the sceptics is that in the desert it can go from 50c to below zero within a 24 hour period therefore all the radiate heat of the day simply escapes into space at night and therefore CO2 is poor at reflecting heat back whereas water vapour is very good and water vapour is the main greenhouse gas. This is correct to a degree but just like people’s perceived ideas of why clouds float and why the sea is blue [water is actually blue in colour] the root of issue is not entirely correct.

Deserts mentioned in a generic sense are, in this case, the hot variety as opposed to just arid areas like the Antarctic. If you take a random desert: Mojave for instance, you can look up the temperature ranges. So with weather station data in the link you can see the averages high and low temperature for January is 6 C to 18 C, in spring it is around 15C to 20C and the summer temperature range is between 28C to 41C. These are averages and demonstrate that temperature has a range of around 13c but there are also extremes of maximum highs and lows but these will not have occurred on the same day or even same year. The high/low range for winter is -6C to 29C and for summer 14C to 52C so perhaps it is possible to misinterpret the extreme temperatures as being a kind of normal or average. What is clear is that in summer baking heat of 41C during the day will drop to the uncomfortable heat of 28C at night which in the UK would be a heat wave.

Perhaps sceptics are talking of another desert that proves CO2 is lousy greenhouse gas. Each desert is unique and the lack of water vapour occurs for a number of reasons,  Atacama Desert in Peru ranges from see level to 10,000 feet and perhaps has the biggest range in temperature which can be between freezing and 25c  but it is important to see in the context of a big desert with wide ranging geographical influences like mountains and  oceans and height and that range cited is a ‘can’ and not an average. 25c is a big extreme for sure but not as big the extremes of our planet where the hottest place is Death Valley up around 50C  in record years and the coldest in Antarctica is a chilling -80C.  Weather ranges can be extreme in any one place in a given 24hour period- the UK record in Scotland is around minus 25c shooting up to just above freezing during the day which is nothing compared to a 24 hour period in 1916 in Montana USA when it fell 37c from 7c because of a weather system moving in.

Weather is a complex system so stating it goes from hot to freezing in the desert doesn’t really tell us anything, a 20c range in 24 hours may sound a lot but we think nothing of 10c difference in the UK between most days and nights. Without proper study and plenty of data my investigation into temperature differences in deserts are not particularly valid, yet even this minimal study demonstrates that the well known ‘fact’ that deserts are extreme where it is freezing at night and roasting during the day is just a fallacy. The answer to finding the real facts is science.

 

The End of Growth: Where Next?

I recently discovered Gail Tverberg’s Our Finite World Blog which explores the longer term issues that face us in a post peak oil and AGW world. Her blogs expertly point out and explain why our current global recession is a direct result of the end of cheap and abundant oil and that the current plateaux of growth and oil production will ultimately turn into a decline.

There has been much debate as to what that decline will be: will it be less than 3% = not too bad, or more = bad; yet if one were to listen to politicians in any country and the economists that advise them then any kind of long term decline is not going to happen. It may seem madness to assume that oil will continue to gush out the ground in ever greater amounts for an ever growing global population in an ever growing world economy but the arguments in favour of this our loud and prominent.

The voice of un-reason goes like this- there is plenty of oil and gas, and we are better at finding it and getting it out of the ground. Even without climate change this logic is flawed. The rational conclusion is that oil [and other fossil fuels] is entirely linked to the last 200 years of population, innovation and economic growth so without the fuel of growth there won’t be any. Where next in a world without growth?

Initially I started writing this blog mentioning how China and Russia have lent the baleouts to us in the West, I commented on how this relationship between China and the West was ultimately doomed. We bought goods with Dollars, Sterling and Euros then went into debt and were lent the money back by China so we could carry on shopping. Quite clearly it is a doomed relationship. But once I got to the topic of financial markets that have invented products to keep the notion of growth going my head started to get confused.

In simple terms what we know as growth and prosperity has been driven by oil so naturally when the oil starts to decline in output so does global growth. The recession we are currently in is nearing 5 years which is a record, and the oil price is at an all time- long term high, yet the oil producers are unable to increase demand despite the continued rise of Brazil, India and China. The optimists will say there is nothing to worry about, there is plenty of oil, in fact trillions of barrels in Canada but the easy oil is gone. The stuff left over, the undiscovered fields in the Arctic and the deep water wells in the Mexican Gulf are expensive, really expensive and not only that these difficult to get reserves don’t have a tap as big as the old oil fields.

Peak oil was never about running out but the bigger picture is the end to the easy growth we have seen over the last fifty to a hundred years. Slow or no growth is a bigger issue than more expensive petrol or electricity, its biggest consequence is the inability of governments to pay back debt. Greece is the current demonstration of what happens when debt cannot be repayed. Even the current Greek crisis is far gentler than the next global crash because Germany is committed to maintaining the Euro and is a lender and as such the Greeks are still being lent money to payback interest on its debt. There is also universal optimism shared by most if not all politicians and economists that things will return to the growth experienced in the past and it is this infectious economic outlook which means that lenders continue to lend. If, however, growth grinds to a halt those debts will not be paid back which in turn means governments will be unable to borrow which means that tax incomes will have to match spending. We won’t be descending into chaos where money is a thing of the past but our currency will be devalued making imported goods and energy even more expensive. Projections of gas prices rises are a doubling over ten years but this is on the international market: if the pound is massively devalued then that gas will cost even more.

The lack of flexibility in government income means that sudden increased unemployment, caused by ever rising fuel costs for instance, will mean increased welfare spending will have to come from other government spending. With such pressures on spending it will be difficult for the UK to maintain such a big military or free libraries or arts grants or free t.v. licenses for pensioners.

Peak oil [indeed peak gas and coal] is not just about energy bills and the amount of driving any one can afford to do it will be about the end of growth. I doubt very much that the wealthiest people or countries will be happy to go down with the rest of the world but the fight for resources is in a world where China, Russia and the developing world and especially amongst the oil producing nations will be impossible. America is one of the few countries with the military might to continue to demand its huge share of global resources but just like Rome 1500 years ago it will not be able to compete with small nations surrounding it. Military conflict consumes even more resources than normal so ultimately a domineering military becomes self defeating.

How can the world’s politicians and economists be so blind to the blindingly obvious? Some countries are not so blind: Germany is investing heavily in renewables and has been in negotiation with German industry to come up with solutions. The main innovation will most probably be the storage of surplus solar and wind energy as hydrogen to either make into natural gas or to power a new technology in transport. It is expensive not only in the cost of investment but also with Germans paying the highest price for electricity in the world. Other nations seem hooked on the illusion of growth and it is ultimately a comforting illusion.

The illusion strongly held by economists is that we will find a way, that we will either find oil in places we haven’t looked and/or develop new technologies to extract it or we will invent a new energy source like fusion. Energy producing countries boast of reserves that will last decades if not centuries, apparently Saudi oil reserves remain the same after 25 of extraction and China’s coal reserves will last 70 or more years. Yet back in the 70s I remember being told UK reserves would last 300 years yet 25 years later recoverable reserves were cut by 99% without fanfare or explanation with the remaining 30 years of production declining at a faster rate.

What the 2008 crisis should warn us of is that nations and companies like to sell an optimistic future: Enron, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Lehman Brothers [a company worth over half a trillion dollars] went bankrupt with people completely unaware of their decline. Just like individuals who are unable to pay back debt there is the human condition that pretends that everything is normal and it is one that dates back to at least the 11th century B.C.E: Ramasis III is considered to be the last great Pharaoh, his monuments are huge, his memorials to his deeds daring but despite the appearance of a golden age the reality was of famine and war and the closing chapter of the Great ancient Egyptian civilisation. The civilisation did of course continue but only a former shadow of its self, no doubt historians in the future will look at Britain as the empire that went into slow decline following the the second World War.

One could argue that Britain [and indeed the USA and Europe excluding Germany] has already entered a new period of no growth and if we were to look to history as to what is in store we would see other countries and civilisations tended to react in a similar way. Disturbingly it is the extremes who end up with the most credible voices, it is those who summon up a cultural golden age where god or national purity ensured wealth and prosperity. It is often the voice of blame that condemn the godless of a distinguishable group in society for the decline. Take your pick: it can be Jews or Gipsies or single mothers or immigrants. Already UKip [or your local right wing political party] is trying to exploit the situation with some success and in Greece the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is having greater success as it proclaims Greece for Greeks.

Japan’s stagnation called the Lost Decade which in fact started in 1990 and was only slowly coming to an end prior to the 2008 Crash, is another example of what a long term state of no growth means to people. The end of growth in Japan meant that career aspiration came to an end: no growth meant no career ladder to climb as old workers stayed in employment rather than retire and without companies expanding the prospects of employees moving into more challenging roles was restricted. Whilst there are millions of people happy in their job despite the lack of change the prospects are worse for young adults leaving education; the problem is not just dead end job prospects but on a wider level business is not exposed to bright, young and latest thinking which is an element of longer term innovation.
Politicians are not going to even think about functioning in a zero growth world economy and the answer to try to avoid problems in the future will be costly and result prematurely in disruption of the economy. Currently government incentives to kick start the economy is to build confidence in long term prospects and encourage people to spend and businesses to invest. Left or Right the ultimate vision is much the same with only the means being contested but encouraging people to buy our way into growth will just bring about change quicker.

I don’t profess to fully understand what a zero growth future means, I am sure it is not going to be some Mad Max post apocalypse and I am certain some countries will do well despite the constraints on global resources. Doomsday scenarios of mass famine, war pestilence and plague may ensue but currently global food production could feed almost twice the population, it is just half of it is fed to animals to provide meat. What is more likely is a society with more division with a greater separation between the wealthy and poor: a dystopia much beloved by British sci-fi writers.

The solution is a new politics although it would have zero public support. Without mineral or energy resources the choice are either low tech and low skilled but globally competitive workforce battling it out with India and China for the last opportunities of growth or a highly educated workforce and society.The first step is make education free- the notion that students should be taking out loans in a world where loans are reliant on future growth is madness. In a post peak world we would be foolish not to grow our own energy, as every energy import needs to be paid with a growing slice of the cake that is not growing. The future is about abandoning energy greedy lives and inventing products that do everything for a lot less. Governments could start now just by ensuring house building is green and future planning is matched to work and services. Now seems a perfect time to rebuild the infrastructure whilst we still have giga tonnes of carbon credits, before nature forces a halt, whilst borrowing is still cheap and whilst we still have a small reserve of oil and gas wealth. To squander our resources on tax breaks and keeping people out of work and education is and will be regrettable.