So, continuing with my odyssey behind enemy lines in the land of the eco-panglossians, we now come to the matter of energy. And if you’re still reading, Tom, with this post we begin our countdown towards the question of sustainably synthesized fertiliser (having made you wait so long, I fear my comments on this are going to be a terrible anti-climax when I finally get to them…)
Let me begin with a comment made by the inestimable Mr Strouts on his blog a while back, to wit that ‘Fifty years is a looooong time in the world of energy’. Now, it strikes me that this view is historically incorrect. From the dawn of human history to the nineteenth century there was basically little more than wind, water and biotic energy available. The technologies that made use of them at the dawn of the nineteenth century were a good deal more sophisticated than those that made use of them at the dawn of, say, the ninth century or previously, but there wasn’t an awful lot of difference in the nature of the supply. So perhaps we could posit the alternative hypothesis that for about 200,000 years very little happened at all in the world of energy. Or to express it in a more Stroutsian manner, that fifty years is a shooooort time in the world of energy. Arguably this began to change in the nineteenth century, when humanity started to rely more on fossil fuels. Doubtless the energy sector of today looks very different to that of the early nineteenth century, but our basic reliance on fossil fuels is much the same, so whether fifty years is a long time or not in the modern world of energy seems to me moot.
We can’t of course predict what the world of energy will look like fifty years hence, but perhaps we can learn a few lessons by looking back over the last fifty years. Actually, the data I’m going to present only look back over the last 31 years (from 1980-2011 to be precise) because this time series is all that’s available on the excellent US Energy Information Administration website. I’ll leave it to others to judge what 62% of a looooong time is – a long time, if not a looooong time perhaps? Hopefully long enough to be worth a look, anyway.
So, my first graph (Figure 1) presents total world primary energy production, which in 1980 amounted to 287 quadrillion BTUs. Of that, 89% came from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). Fast forward to 2011 and total world primary energy production has leapt to 518 quadrillion BTUs, of which 87% came from fossil fuels. So perhaps I ought to concede that Graham is right and things have changed. We’re now producing nearly twice as much energy as we were 31 years ago. But on the other hand we’ve scarcely budged our proportionate reliance on fossil fuels. Plus ça change…
It’s often argued that we’re getting better at getting more out of our energy, so I suppose another interesting statistic would be per capita energy use over the same time period. I’m not really sure how relevant this figure is, because eco-panglossians are not the types to bother over such trifling possibilities as the limits to human growth, and limits-to-growthers are not going to be placated by any per capita sleight of handery. Still, let’s look at the figure anyway – here it is, in Figure 2. Goodness me! In 1980 we produced 64.7 quadrillion BTUs per billion population (or 64.7 million BTUs per capita, if you prefer), whereas in 2011 we were producing 74.1 million BTUs per capita – a 15% increase in energy intensity.
Perhaps you could argue that this is a good thing, reflecting increasing energy availability to people who previously went without. Well, there is some evidence for that: as Figure 3 shows, per capita energy consumption has declined 9% in the heaviest per capita energy consuming region (North America) and increased 65% in Asia and Oceania (mostly reflecting China’s rise – I wonder if there’s any connection there). The Asia and Oceania figure also includes Australia, which has recorded a 13% rise to a whopping 289 million BTU per capita, while things look pretty static in Europe. Here’s another figure: in 1980 per capita energy consumption in the highest consuming region (North America) was nearly 20 times more than the lowest consuming region (Africa). In 2011 that discrepancy was still sixteen fold, with most of the relative decrease associated with decreasing American consumption rather than increasing African. Even China’s current per capita consumption is still less than a quarter that of the US. So arguably there’s been limited progress on distributional equity, even leaving aside any larger sustainability issues about energy dependency.
Let us turn from total energy production and consumption to the production of electricity. Figure 4 shows total world electricity generation from 1980-2011. Its growth exceeds the growth of total energy production – we’re now generating 2.6 times more electricity than we were in 1980. But it’s worth pointing out what a small proportion of global energy production the electricity sector occupies. In 1980, electricity generation amounted to about 10% of total global energy production. In 2011 the figure was 14%. And if we look at the mix of electricity generation methods, we see once again that it’s dominated throughout by fossil fuels (70% in 1980, 67% in 2011). The corresponding figures for nuclear power were 9% (1980) and 12% (2011), and for renewables 22% (1980) and 21% (2011).
Let’s just point out the implications of those figures in relation to nuclear power, which is one of the eco-panglossians’ major hobby horses. The likes of Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas seem to see it as our energetic saviour, but leaving aside any specific rights and wrongs of the technology, let’s not forget that it’s a method of generating electricity, which currently furnishes only around 14% of our total energy needs, and of that 14% only 12% currently is nuclear. Supposing we increased nuclear generation tenfold (which I imagine would be difficult to do any time soon even with a complete consensus over it, and even then only in the richer countries) – it would still be providing us with less than 20% of our total energy.
Why, then, this big eco-panglossian fanfare for nuclear? Writing of the new nuclear plant being built just down the road from me at Hinkley Point using expensive and old fashioned pressurised water technology, the self-styled scientific rationalist Mr Strouts opined “technology does not follow some kind of god-given path to heaven”. He follows this plausible contention with the sentence “So we can embrace Hinkley C as a victory against extreme Luddism of the Greens, while lamenting that it is not Thorium”. Non-sequitur alert! In this avowedly non-teleological teleology, thorium is more heavenly than PWR, but PWR is more heavenly than whatever the Greens support and, being closer to heaven, therefore ought to be supported. Here, scientific rationalism crumbles under only moderate stress, to be replaced by an irrational technophilia for its own sake, regardless of whether it makes sense in the circumstances. This is the beating heart of eco-panglossianism, all too evident in Whole Earth Discipline, its sacred text: never let cold rationality or economic nuance get in the way of techno-boosterism.
Another entertaining aspect of the Hinkley Point fiasco is the fact that, after the British government of the 1980s deregulated the electricity industry because they disliked the socialistic implications of a centrally planned public supply, they’re now giving British public money to a publicly owned utility company from the planned economy of China to build the darned thing. But let us leave that thought hanging until another time.
The conclusions I’d draw from the EIA data and the wider energy scene are as follows. For a looooong time, people were reliant on renewable biotic, wind and water energy. After that, for a long time we’ve been reliant on fossil fuels, we’re now more reliant on them than ever before and we have few other tools in the box, or new ones in the offing. (This, incidentally, is also pretty much the conclusion of Vaclav Smil in his book Energy: Myths and Realities (AEI Press, 2010), Smil being very far from a fellow traveller in the camp of those of us Graham likes to call ‘greentards’). We may not be in any imminent danger of running out of fossil fuels, but the growth of the unconventional sector is surely suggestive that, if not yet over, the party has at least got to that stage when you start rummaging in cupboards or secretly filching half drunk glasses in order to keep your spirits up.
This is the point at which I think the eco-panglossians are at their weakest and least rational, and therefore at their most stridently outspoken. Doubtless drawing inspiration from the fairytale world of neoclassical economics where rising prices incentivise a smooth transition to substitute goods, they are generally of the opinion that somebody is bound to think of something. And of course they might turn out to be right. ‘Never bet against human ingenuity’ in the words of Daniel Lacalle. From the looooong perspective of five decades, no doubt fracking or the tar sands create the impression of limits being transcended – or at least of a breathing space being created so that if somebody sorts out nuclear fusion, if somebody sorts out batteries, if somebody… But from the looooong perspective of 200,000 years, I’m inclined to take a Philip of Macedon approach to these ‘ifs’. As one of the respondents on Lacalle’s blog excellently put it: “Colossal quantities of surplus energy allows human ingenuity (specifically, technology). It does not follow that technology allows surplus energy. Your betting advice seems to assume reversal of causality.” Yes indeed – I’m happy to applaud human ingenuity, but I can’t find much evidence in human history to suggest that we will easily overcome the dwindling availability of cheap, versatile and highly concentrated fossil energy. So why not give ourselves a head start– slap a massive carbon tax on fossil fuel for us westerners, divert the lion’s share of what’s remaining to low income countries where grid energy is in short supply so they can prepare well too, incentivise a shift to a more renewable electricity-based energy mix, and contemplate a future of energy descent.
In my earlier post on energy, I wrote “If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried” to which Strouts responded by posting some pictures of Tigger (himself) and Eeyore (me) along with the thought “You can almost hear [Smaje’s] hands wringing together and his mournful cries of “woe is me!”
Very droll…though I suspect irony detection isn’t Graham’s strong suit. Still, he’s reading me wrong. I’m Tiggerishly optimistic that humans won’t succeed in transcending energy limitations long term, which cheers me up no end because energy availability is a strong ecological limit to which all species, including humans, are pretty well adapted and know how to not only cope with, but thrive in, given half a chance. Don’t get me wrong – a bit of cheap and concentrated energy is a marvellous thing, and can help improve human wellbeing if judiciously used. The problem is that ‘judicious use’ seems rare among the human virtues. In the unlikely event that humans do overcome energy limitations long term, well then yes I do have to confess an Eeyoreish streak – it’ll be a disaster for the poor, a disaster for other species, and we’ll soon get tripped up by that raft of other limitations I alluded to that at present we’ve scarcely even begun to think about. But more on that in upcoming posts.