Friday, 17 February 2017

Global Population and Energy

I had not heard of Hans Rosling before I saw his 2013 programme Don’t Worry: The Truth about Population which the BBC re-aired after Rosling’s death this month at the age of 68.  It was really impressive: a great communicator and a first-class mind has left us.  My condolences to Rosling’s family and colleagues.

What Rosling has to say though about population growth is vital for all of us to understand if we care about humanity’s future.  The planet will be fine: over geological time it has seen many mass extinctions.  After a few million years there is always a flurry of evolution as descendants of surviving species exploit the available ecological niches and, in their turn, evolve into new species.  If this happens, then the chances are that humanity will not be around to see it.  No, it is what Rosling said about the population growth by 2100 that must concern us.

Before watching his lecture, I was led to believe that global human population would be capped by available resources at nine billion.  Apparently it is not so, as Rosling is predicting a population of eleven billion by 2100 and probably continuing to rise, albeit more slowly, thereafter. Currently the world is at seven billion - an increase of three billion during my own lifetime. Population levels have already stablished in the northern nations: Europe, North America and Russia.  Latin America and Africa will see a doubling of their populations but Asia will see the bulk of new people.  This growth is not led by large families either.  Rosling points out that even in 2013, the average family in Bangladesh only has 2.5 children.  No, it is through most of us living longer that the the numbers of humanity will continue to growth.  Failing some drastic cataclysm, the momentum is now unstoppable.

Today we are in a world where the first stresses of this population rise are being felt.  The northern nations are the first to be living longer and having fewer children so our populations are stable, if not falling slightly as the old start to outnumber the young.  On the whole, people are defensive when it comes to foreigners and it is that that is leading to the rise of nationalism in all parts of the north: Putin, Trump, May and Le Pen.  This will only be a phase though as the momentum of humanity will ultimately be too great for such barriers to withstand.  The more serious struggle will be that of resources.

In my own field, that of energy, part of the social-conservative backlash has been directed against the new technologies of renewable energy.  I recently put up a comment on Twitter pointing out that while there is nothing wrong with the government investing in a new centre to maximise the exploration of North Sea oil and gas, they have severely cut investment in renewable energy at the same time.  Responses I got back were “Good: anything that requires a subsidy is a waste of time” and, more succinctly, “Green crap.”  Both responses come from the same source: social conservatism.  Or as a Tea Party member once told me: “All we want is simple.  Leave us the hell alone.”  That is not going to happen but it is nothing to do with political ideas.  It would be through weight of numbers.

There is also resistance from developing nations too.  Many see that the North has built wealth on the back of fossil fuels but now a section of us are saying that renewable energy is the only viable future.  The suspicion is that this is just a cover for the North to keep the fossil energy for themselves and slow down the economic development of people in the South.  “Why cannot we use oil and coal to generate wealth has you have done?” they ask.

Although the demise of fossils fuels have been predicted for some time, they will eventually run out.  If Rosling is correct and the population will rise even further than the often-cited nine billion, this will inevitably happen sooner rather than later.  That is an obvious problem for us all.  For instance, there is not one scenario being offered to the UK government that does not involve fossil fuels.  That is including from Friends of the Earth.  Even they cannot see a society model that, by 2050, we have cut our dependency on fossil fuels by more than fifty percent from current levels of consumption.  What happens to human civilisation when we are literally burning up our last scraps of coal?  I do not know but considering out current state, there cannot be a good outcome.

How much do we have left?  According to my current lectures at Heriot Watt University, the planet has about 40 years of oil, 50 years of gas and 90 years of coal left to use.  This is based upon rising demands for energy up to 2035.

Perhaps at this point I should address the basic issue about finite fuels.  After all, we always seem to be able to find more of the stuff.
 
Coal, oil and gas comes from the buried fertility of life on the planet.  Soon after the first plants were able to leave the seas and colonise land, there was an explosion of life. (Remember what I said about ecological niches being occupied?).  The first forests formed about 360 million years ago, during the geological period known as the Carboniferous.  Although there are coal reserves from younger periods (such as the lignites of Poland), it is mostly the remains of these ancient first forests we are burning.  Dry gas is associated with these coal beds.  That is the source of the gas fields of the Netherlands and the Southern North Sea.

In contrast, oil comes the biological productivity of ancient oceans.  The Northern North Sea oil comes from the Kimmeridge Clay, a carbon (fossil) rich layer of mud laid down only over a few million years about 155 million years ago.  Different areas of the world will have different sources but roughly similar mechanics.  The source rocks for the Gulf area (Saudi Arabia, UEA, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran) were laid down over a protracted length of time (about 80 million years!) during the formation and destruction of the an ancient ocean called the Tethys.  That is why about half the world’s oil reserves are to be found in this region.  As these muds, rich in the remains of marine plants and microscopic animals, are buried and heated, the chemical reactions start, over millions of years, to produce crude oil.  If that oil is heated further, wet gas is produced.  Heat it too much though and all the hydrogen is driven off, leaving only inert carbon.

Traditional drilling and oil exploration focuses upon finding the accumulations of this oil and gas as the fluids migrated and are trapped in rocks.  Fracking is only different insofar that the hydrocarbons still trapped in the original source rocks are freed up by mechanically breaking up the mudstones.   The point is about fracking is that after the source rocks have been exploited, there is nowhere else to go.  Fracking is a symptom that the sponge is starting to be squeezed in order to extract the final drops.

What of nuclear though?  Current power stations are based upon the fission of uranium.  This technology is problematic because of the weaponisation of byproducts.  Nuclear weapon technology is jealously guarded, even if that particular genie is out of the bottle.  However, this particular blog is about energy and not nuclear weapons.  Although there is plenty of uranium left in the planet, most of it is beyond the reach of human extraction. Only small quantities are trapped in the Earth’s crust and therefore mineable.  Current reserves are thought to be good for another seventy years.  Thorium is a far more plentiful element but there has been little investment in extracting the power contained within it.  Probably because its byproducts has far more difficult to weaponise.

In short, the world is not expected to have a single finite source of fossil energy expected to last beyond this century.

I haven’t even started to talk about what burning all these ancient reserves are doing to the climate.  The big question is:
Is mad-made climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, real?

Quick answer is yes.  Yes, it is real.

Climate-change deniers use the figure that “only” ninety seven percent of scientists claim that climate change is man-made and that they speak for the brave three percent.  Even this is a lie.



Have a look at this graph from jamespowell.org.  Climate change deniers have had zero impact on the scientific debate on the evidence.  This means that there is either a global conspiracy involving millions of scientists or, more likely, the evidence for man-made global warming is effectively unanimously accepted by those who consider the evidence.
 

Climate change deniers also point to natural climate change variation during geological time.  This indeed happens.  The next graph, from the University of Berne, shows the natural carbon dioxide level (CO2) over the past 60,000 years in terms of parts per million (ppm).  The ramp up from 20,000 to 12,000 years ago covers the period of glacier melting at the end of the last Ice Age.  The spike, right at the end, covers the last two hundred years up to 2004 - the period of the industrial revolution.  In 2016 CO2 have now past the 400 ppm.  As explained previously, the majority of fossil fuel energy which as been locked up in the planet’s crust is now being liberated into the atmosphere.  



CO2 is a vital atmospheric component for preserving solar radiation and keeping the planet warm and habitable.  Never in the course of geological history however has there been such a rapid and concentrated injection of CO2 into the planet’s atmosphere and all scientists expect the result to be rapid increases in global temperatures.  These changes in temperature will not be evenly spread but will see higher rises at the poles and more modest increases over the equator.  The effect upon habitats and ecosystems are also expected to be drastic as most species cannot react quickly enough to such rapid change.  Sea levels will also rise, mostly due to thermal expansion of ocean waters.


These are the challenges.  What is to be done?

If we do not do anything, human society is in for a very rough time that will effect us all, even social conservatives.  It is possible to do nothing to address the energy situation but then one is into a series of short-term military interventions, killing millions without any permanent solutions.  It is possible that in the face of huge population growth, usable energy will give out almost completely, leading to catastrophic problems in food production and supply. 

I tend not to be a doom-monger though.  Even without wilful negligence of current conservative thinking, solutions often still arise.  Again though, these tend to be short term and limited in scope, especially in democratic systems.  Authoritarian systems such as China do have an advantage when performing long-term planning.  The Chinese are indeed one of the highest investors in renewable energy technology.  This is perfectly understandable because their own history shows the negative results that social upheaval can have.  People tend to remember only the Second World War and the Communist revolution but they also remember events like the Taiping Revolution: one of the bloodiest civil wars in global history.  The challenge for Western nations is achieving desirable long-term outcomes without having to resort to dictatorship and the crushing of individual human rights.

Therefore I call upon all governments, but especially nationalist governments in the west, to first of all accept the scientific evidence and give no heed to climate change deniers.  The same can also to be asked of the mass media organisations.  Giving equal weight to the deniers is not upholding their right to free speech, it is simply propagation of a lie.  I am not going to stop people to state there is no such thing as global warming: it is just that they are simply wrong and are continuing to say so in the light of all available evidence.

Secondly, once the evidence is accepted as real, act upon it.  This does not mean leaving it to the market place.  Wise government is able to foresee trouble ahead and act in good time to minimalise the worst outcomes.  If this means having to subsidise prices from renewable energy resources and invest in energy storage research, then do it.

Thirdly, this appeal is to both governments and green activists.  We will need all the resources available to us over the next century.  This includes fossil fuels and nuclear.  Do not arbitrarily block  the exploitation of these reserves.  They will be needed.  Instead we need a long term policy approach to manage these resources, having them last as long as possible while taking measures to minimalise the effects of CO2 release: either through carbon capture or keeping the carbon in situ while releasing the hydrogen for energy usage.  We cannot have a position where hydrocarbons are bad: renewables good.  Yes, we need to maximise our investment and research in renewables but we will also still have to use fossil fuels.

By nature, I am not a pessimist.  These are huge challenges but, if we are smart, we as a species and civilisation, may be able to get through this next century.  We all need to wake up, look to the future and not harken either back to the past or some green nirvana that can never be.  We all need to accept and act upon the evidence.



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