Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Creative collapsing: a way to avoid the climate disaster

Illustration from the paper "The Sower's Way." by Sgouridis, Csala and Bardi  recently published in the IOP Environmental Research Letters journal. The main points of the paper are summarized in a previous post. Note how fast the production of energy must fall in order to prevent temperatures from rising above the 2°C limit. It is a true "Seneca collapse", necessary for the survival of the human civilization. The paper shows that it is possible to control the collapse and to use fossil fuels to produce enough energy to create a 100% renewable infrastructure and at the same time to avoid going over the edge.


Everyone is happy about the COP21 agreement in Paris and that there seem to be a certain willingness to avoid to go over the 2°C limit and the probable "tipping point" that will follow. But make no mistake: the task is enormously difficult. Look at these data from "The Global Carbon Project".


The blue lines are the pathways needed to have a fair chance to remain within the 2°C limit. We have to get to zero from here to 2070, but hoping in a technological miracle that, later on, will make it possible to pump away from the atmosphere some of the CO2 emitted earlier on. Otherwise, we must throttle emissions even faster. 

No matter which curve you think is most likely, there remains the fact that it took a couple of centuries to arrive to the level of fossil fuel production where we are. Now, we need to go back to zero in a few decades. If this is not a "Seneca Collapse" I don't know what is. This is a kind of collapse that I describe with the words of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca "increases are of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid."

So, it is a collapse that we need, and we'll probably have it. Even if governments and institutions fail to act on curbing emissions, it is likely that the fossil industry will collapse by itself because of increasing production costs and sluggish markets - it is happening right now. The problem is that, normally, when something very big collapses, a lot of people get hurt and we would like to avoid that.

Is it possible to collapse gracefully and glide down in style along the Seneca cliff? In principle, yes. The recent paper by Sgouridis, Csala and Bardi , titled "The Sower's Way." takes inspiration from a strategy well known to ancient farmers, the fact that they had to save something from their current harvest for the next one; it is the origin of the common saying "don't eat your seed corn!" So, the paper reports a quantitative calculation of how much energy we must squeeze out of the remaining fossil fuels reserves in order to build up the renewable energy infrastructure that will smoothly replace the present, fossil based, infrastructure. And how to do that without going over the climate edge. If we can manage that, it will be only the fossil fuel industry that collapses, but not the rest of us. And the calculations show that it is possible.

A nice idea, but there is one glitch: it will be very expensive. The data show that, if we want this transition, we have to pay for it and to start paying right now. We need to step up investments in a new energy infrastructure of at least an order of magnitude in comparison to the present level. It sounds very difficult, but it is not impossible. Creative collapsing may be the only way to avoid a climate disaster! 

 
The paper title "The Sower's Way" is open access on IOP Environmental Research Letters. Comments on this blog are welcome. 



24 comments:

  1. It may be worth while to watch this series of talks at a Sustainable Living Festival in Australia. Two speakers argue for collapse, either by choice or inevitability. Two speakers argue that we can do what we need to do with ecomodernism. At the end, the audience votes strongly against the collapse option, and in favor of continuing to live like we do, just greener.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roO5FJZNmBM

    Don Stewart

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    1. Well, nobody likes to collapse if that can be avoided. And that's the gist of our calculations. We can avoid collapse, if we are willing to forsake something in order to have a better future

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    2. whats the point in voting against collapse and then going home in a car, which they almost certainly did. their definition of living greener was most likely trivial lip service like fancy lightbulbs and putting the recycling out on monday morning rather than anything that would make a difference, like never driving and flying, having no children, growing own food and living in a unheated house.

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  2. Recent large scale PV has been bid at US2.4c/kwh. CSP with overnight storage is <10c in Chile(as I recall) Wind is following PV down in cost, so 'expense' is not such an issue, likely to be significantly less expensive than ff like for like replacement. If we are correct surmising that fossil industry will collapse regardless within a few years there is no excuse and plenty of motivation to get switched before ff collapses.

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  3. Dear Ugo,

    Have you factored in global dimming? If we do collapse/finish with fossil fuels wouldn't we then see an almost immediate temperature rise of two or three degrees celsius?

    Under what political programme could the transformation take place? I am guessing the energy being diverted away from the traditional economy towards a 'green' economy would necessarily mean a severe reduction in the resources available for maintaining the 'consumerist/globalised' model. Would this mean a period of enforced austerity amongst the developed world and quite possibly the collapse of commodity-producing economies which provide the goods for that privileged first world? Isn't it the very illusion of destined privilege and material excess that provides the drive for first world citizens to take on the irrational debt that is so vital to keeping the global productive economy afloat?

    What kind of persuasion targeted at a mass culture so dominated by a sense of manifest entitlement could allow for an austerity program so alien to it? What could possibly entice us to break from the habits of lifetime and destroy the comforts we are so accustomed to? I'm reminded of the abject failure of attempts by various Marxist-Leninist inspired governments to engineer a 'New Man". What kind of political programme do you suppose? The formation of a "Green Man"?

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    1. Fear, Lust/Greed.
      Those are the only two motivators that get people to venture to change.
      Some of the biggest proponents of sustainable living are survivalists and 'preppers'.
      And realistically they are often some of the best suited to short scale disruption, though long scale disruption like Peak Oil and Global Climate Change may leave them more vulnerable than one might suppose.
      An advertising campaign showing how sustainable preppers weathered the storm and helped their communities to the acclaim of those communities (aka increasing their sexiness) would do wonders for people taking up the cause of alternative energy and more sustainable local infrastructure.
      But it wont happen, as such a campaign would need at least as much funding as the anti-drug use campaigns.

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  4. at some point what is mathematically/physically possible has nothing to do with what is politically (im)possible, we desperately need plans for our coming lives in the ruins after the inevitable not more utopian blueprints.
    -dmf

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  5. I see from an earlier post on this blog that global dimming dies not inform your calculus on avoiding catastrophic climate change. You may disregard my previous question as already answered.

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  6. Dear Hugo,
    You say that the transition to renewables is not impossible. One could challenge your optimistic vision quite succinctly with this rhetorical flourish... "there is a world of difference between the possible and the probable"

    Can you recall that people far more influential than your group of creative collapsists have been demanding that we take decisive on climate change since at least the late 1980s
    ? How does their failure to re-engineer human society impact on your optimism? If the nonaction of Paris is the best that thirty or so years of climate activism can do then what hope is there for a radically unconventional status quo challenging scheme like yours? You might say that the collapsing state of the fossil fuel industry will beget transition. Isn't it far more likely that as with any other collapsing polity we will double down on what worked for us even as it fails us? The crazy financing of unconventional oil plays seems to follow such a pattern. You like to characterise pessimism about renewables as doomerism. Perhaps you might like to regard optimism about renewables in a similar pigeonholed way? Have you succumbed to techno-narcissism?

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  7. P.S Spending orders of magnitude more money on renewables infrastructure IS radically unconventional and likely to be opposed by the status quo because in an era of decreasing tax revenue and deflation arguments about increasing subsidies ten or twenty fold for alternative infrastructures will be drowned out by the various local dramas which play out when times get tough. Trump's demagoguery and the various nationalisms taking hold serve as evidence of the type of irrational rather than rational phenomena that are engaged in to preserve a threatened status quo.

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  8. What does "expensive" even mean in this context? A big pile of money is not going to be very useful in a +4C world. Money has been a very useful organization tool for capitalism, but what ultimately matters is what we have the labor, energy and other resources to accomplish. If we make the political choice to direct our resources into de-carbonizing, we will have to make laws that either push the money in the right direction, or make money largely irrelevant.

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  9. If the idea of the article is to suggest that it might be possible to further grow the global economy, perhaps reaching a state that the author feels more comfortable with in terms of a greater share of the global population sharing the electricity supply and other facets of heretofore modern life in developed nations, then what consideration has been given to the additional thermodynamic heat being trapped by the already substantial blanket of carbon dioxide? I recognise that there is mention of potential new technologies developed in the future to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but with increasingly expensive and difficult to extract declining mineral resources combining with more land being turned over to energy production, how can we be sure that so-called renewable energy will allow us to maintain what we have, let alone provide what we need to develop in addition to such maintenance? At what point do we recognise that there are finite limits to what may be achieved and sustained? Would it not be more responsible to seek a managed decline rather than continue to insist on trying to push beyond the finite limits of the system we are all part of?

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    1. Curt, excuse me, but that's exactly what the paper does: it takes into account the limits to the amount of heat that can be accumulated in the atmosphere without going over the tipping point.

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  10. Ugo
    According to a Wikipedia table, the US currently consumes 9538.8 W per capita. As I read your graphs, you propose 2000 W per capita. While that would be an increase for some countries, it would be a severe shock to Americans. Australia, where the debate took place, currently uses more than 7000 W per capita. If you asked the average American or Australian, I suspect they would describe the medicine you prescribe as a Seneca cliff or the equivalent. The fact that it may be 'fair and equitable' is likely to get lost in the uproar.

    Don Stewart

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  11. I mentioned previously I live on <300w , so can see how aggregate for society should be possible under 2000w ( typically 'overheads' are a factor of 2 to 5) I am Australian. Prescribing 300w per capita would create an uproar, there is no intrinsic reason why it is not possible and too onerous, especially when compared to the imminent alternatives.

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  12. Great article thanks for sharing!

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  13. Thank you for the statistics and the road-map, professor Bardy. It puts into perspective clearly what needs to be done. Next step: How to convince the politicians? Or how to convince the population of the high-consumption countries so they can convince their politicians? The only obstacle we have is human will (or lack of it in the case of the majority), but especially in the case of those who consume the most.
    People in low-consumption countries don't have much adapting to do - they did not (all) get used to over-consuming, on the other hand, Those who did get used to it would do almost anything to protect their perceived privilege (or right) to consume more than everyone else and their entire world-view is based on this (this is the case for individual and politicians). In fact, it is not up to the whole world to consume less - it is (mainly) up to a few large nations at the top of the consumption scale (who is making it everyone's problem). Those nations also drive the economic world models fueling fueling global consumption. Even if 100 smaller nations consume less, the high-consumption nations will have us all sitting in a global sauna very soon. With the smaller countries having no choice in the matter even if they consume very little.

    I too believe it is practically doable, but the resistance to change is a true force to contend with - one which to me seems to be much more powerful (for now), than the will to change. There is human ego involved here... for example, how many 1st world countries/nations are prepared to "demote their status" (as it is perceived in terms of living standards and quality of life) to the equivalent of 2nd world/developing world nations?

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    1. Jean-Jacques
      Bill Clinton was speaking off-the-cuff a couple of years ago. The subject turned to oil depletion and the questionable practice of growing biodiesel fuel instead of human food. Clinton remarked that 'the rich countries have enough money to buy all of the arable land in the poor countries, and simply use all that land to grow fuel for their vehicles.' (My paraphrase...I can't remember the exact words.) He also said in response to a different question that 'if Obama really wants to do something about emissions, he should simply close all the land-fills'. He didn't elaborate on that, but I take it to mean radical recycling by necessity of having no place to put the trash.

      While Bill Clinton is smarter than the average politician, the lesson I took from the exchanges was that the people with the power DO understand. I think they just can't figure out how to get re-elected if they do the right thing.

      Don Stewart

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    2. To Jena -Jacques and the others who seem to have understood the "Sower's idea", if you are interested in discussing it more in depth, please write to me at ugo.bardi(kludgykludge)unifi.it

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    3. Jean-Jacques
      I very much agree with your point of view. We can look at fossil fuel consumption per capita at both ends of the range and put some numbers to it. An extra 10 millions of Americans might be worth half a billion low-end consumers in terms of consequences for the world we inhabit in common. And there are of course many millions of Americans who do not have a fun time even in the richest large country.

      A couple of factoids came my way last week. They both seem likely to be accurate and might help frame our thinking.

      For crude oil: “All of the daily production of [equivalent to] Canada, China, Mexico, and the United States is consumed by the United States ...”
      "...40% of the world's population still cook on open fires..."

      NB I am not looking at moral judgements here. People must cook, and we know adverse environmental consequences will arise from open wood or coal fires, not forgetting the serious health consequences. We might learn something from a concept of an improved sufficiency at both ends of the spectrum. There are ways theoretically the world might be made a better place even if the present industrial and financial model leads to a dead end (see Seneca collapse and etc.).

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  14. Everything I observe in the historical pattern of human social relations indicates that humans will behave just like every other species that finds itself without sufficient checks from predators and disease--- expand its population until it exhausts the resources of its' biological niche, and then collapse back to a sustainable level or go extinct. The difference is that homo sapiens biological niche is the entire planet, and we have invented many technological means to overwhelm the planet-- from rapid climate alteration to nuclear warfare while failing to develop the maturity and wisdom to act responsibly as species.

    Speaking of technologies, I'm always amazed that discussions among environmentalists always assert that the world could somehow sustain the industrial civilization we have created if only we would switch to renewable energy. Certainly some level of population and societal complexity could be built upon a renewable energy base, but it certainly isn't one with 7 billion people and an endless exponential growth rate of 3% like our economists and politicians tell us should be the goal of economic policy!

    I submit that the only energy technology on the horizon that could be plugged into the existing infrastructure and sustain industrial civilization long enough to transition to a more balanced relationship with the geosphere is the Liquid Floride Thorium Reactor. But the reasons why this particular technology isn't the basis for our energy system are a perfect example of why the human species is incapable of making rational choices about its' future.

    Technical Background:

    http://energyfromthorium.com/lftr-overview/

    http://www.epri.com/abstracts/Pages/ProductAbstract.aspx?ProductId=000000003002005460

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  15. Ugo
    I was having some coffee and rereading Capra and Luisi's book The Systems View of Life this morning. I propose a very fundamental question to you.

    I have previously called your attention to Nick Lane's book The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. In that book, Lane explains how the need to mediate between two autonomous but fundamentally different actors, the host cell and the mitochondria, have shaped evolution and resulted, among other things, in death as the destination for eukaryotes because Nature could not find a better ultimate solution to the conflict.

    In their Introduction, Capra and Luisi describe the historic tension between mechanism and holism in Biology. They suggest that the 'clockwork' paradigm from a few hundred years ago is being replaced by a 'network' paradigm, with the network being fundamentally integrated to accomplish certain overarching objectives. (Think Gaia...)

    But my question to you is this: Suppose humans are to be understood as the uneasy symbiosis of two fundamentally different processes: physical and aspirational...analogous to the symbiosis between the host cell and the mitochondria. There is no particular reason to assume that the physical characteristics and the aspirations are any better aligned than to assume that the marriage between the host cell and the mitochondria proceeded smoothly. In fact, if we simply look at the obvious destructiveness of human aspirations in terms of the natural world, we would probably conclude that Nature hasn't yet figured out how to generate the equivalent of eukaryotic death in order to keep the conflict from spinning even farther out of control.

    My label for the problems generated by two autonomous actors who need to cooperate closely in order to achieve objectives is the Two Clocks Problem. (Clocks in the broad sense of 'what makes them tick'). We can see this problem in everything from host cell and mitochondria to rabbits and foxes to husbands and wives to trading and wars between nations. And perhaps between the physical environment and the aspirations of humans?

    If my hypothesis is correct, then some attention should probably be paid to the nature of the conflict between aspirations and physical reality, and mechanisms which might ameliorate the conflict.

    Don Stewart

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    1. Excellent observations, yours and those of Capra, Luisi, Lane. Thank you, Mr Stewart, for bringing them into Cassandra's tertulia.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)