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What Is Your Energy Philosophy?

Barry Brook's picture
University of Tasmania
  • Member since 2018
  • 143 items added with 99,583 views
  • Aug 31, 2011

People seem to like to infer motives. (Perhaps it’s an inherent evolutionary trait, allowing anticipation of your prey’s or predator’s next move?) I find that a lot of people get me wrong about my position on energy and sustainability — often deliberately so, I suspect. So here’s a post to clarify my position, and allow you to let others know about your philosophy (in the comments below).

Consider this a personal view, but one I would justify as being informed by extensive reading, talking and thinking. It doesn’t mean I’m right, just that I’ve made the effort to properly contemplate. I think that’s all you can ask of anyone — you, or the people you’re debating!

General philosophy: Anthropogenic climate change is a very urgent problem — probably the most serious one now facing humanity. We must solve it: there is no choice here and hiding our heads in the denial sandpit is pointless. We must also deal with other issues of global sustainability, especially clearance and degradation of tropical landscapes, overfishing, fragmentation of natural habitats within urban-agricultural areas, and chronic pollution from fossil fuel combustion. Most of these problems have common solutions, centred on the need for abundant clean and sustainable energy (not less), ‘techno-fixes’, stabilisation of population, provision of viable economic and agricultural systems, and a functioning, realistic and pragmatic society. We need to use all practical, cost-effective and timely options at our disposal.

Climate change: Human activity, via the burning of fossil fuels and also through agricultural and forestry changes, is almost exclusively (>95 %) responsible for the substantial global warming witness in the last 3-5 decades (+0.5C). It is also mostly (>70%) responsible for the warming since 1910 (+0.8C in the last 100 years). The most likely trajectory for the next 40 years (through to 2050) is an additional +1.2C (to +2C compared to pre-industrial), and a further +3C by 2100. There is some (low) probability that feedbacks in the climate system will double the 2100 estimate (or more) — much as I’d like to, I cannot dismiss this possibility. Sea level rise by 2100 will be > 1 m, and will continue for centuries thereafter (probably >10 m by 2300). Some of this may be avoidable, but I doubt it — especially the +1.2C warming between now and 2050 and the ongoing sea level rise. We’re just too far committed to a fossil-fuel-intensive pathway now and for the next few decades, and it will take substantial time to ‘turn the ship around’. There is plenty of hurt on the way — we can adapt to some of it, but many impacts will be difficult to ameliorate.

Peak fossil fuels: We are depleting accessible supplies of coal, oil and gas substantially, and peak global production of traditional sources will almost certainly arrive within the next few decades — probably sooner rather than later (although locally, they will continue to be abundant, e.g. coal in Australia). This will increase extraction and processing costs, which will in turn spur increasing exploitation of unconventional supplies, including underground gasified coal, coal seam methane, fracked shale gas, tar sands and Arctic hydrocarbons. It may be that demand will outstrip supply by about 2030, after which there will be an increasingly compelling reason to manufacture synthetic fuels such as ammonia, methanol and (I hope), serious investigation of boron as an energy carrier. Carbon prices will accelerate this decision. Peak fossil fuels will not, in and of itself, lead to significant greenhouse gas abatement this century. Too little, too late.

Exponential growth: Nothing can grow forever — obviously. As a scientist who’s done research into regulation of natural populations, I appreciate the concepts of carrying capacity, birth-death balances, overshoot, and so on. However, I do not think it likely that the global human enterprise will ‘crash and burn’. There is a lot of inertia — and resilience — in our society, which frankly hasn’t been tested seriously since 1939. But it will get a good run over the next few decades. I suspect that growth in the next 50 to 100 years (I dare not look further than that) will increasingly shift to areas of the economy that are not dependent on — or at least reaching the limits of — primary natural resources. Areas of ongoing expansion might include knowledge systems, cyberspace, mineral resources, energy intensification, and so on. Most of the world’s fisheries will be exhausted, and perhaps 50 % of today’s tropical forests will be gone by 2050. About 10% of species will be extinct by then, and perhaps twice that percentage will be ecologically dysfunctional (and most of these committed to future extinction, once lags have played out). Mainstream ideas around a steady-state economy will gain traction in the coming decades (see Footnote), but will take many years, more national defaulting, and considerable soul searching, to achieve — if ever. Growth forever might be possible, if we make the break to outer space (I’m only half joking here).

Geoengineering: We will need to do this. The most plausible option is stratospheric aerosol seeding using high-flying aircraft, and an international agreement on this will be reached by 2040. The most attractive option is CO2-drawdown via enhanced weathering. I think we will do both, on a large scale, by around 2050.

GM crops and nanotech: Essential for adapting our agricultural production to climate change, lower fertilizer inputs, pesticide resistance and the need for increased productivity to meet rising population demands (increasing human population size [until around mid-century, topping out at 9 billion], and more kilojoules per person). Benefits of GM seem to far outweigh the risks, and a scientific approach should be taken to testing, deployment and monitoring. In a related matter, sea water desalination will be needed on a large scale. For desal, I also think the benefits generally outweigh the impacts, provided the energy inputs come from zero-carbon sources like nuclear, wave and solar.

Energy: My primary focus is to advocate for a decarbonisation of the global energy supply — encompassing electricity, transport fuels and industrial uses. To this end, I support a rational (science-, engineering- and economic-based) deployment of nuclear fission, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, and various renewable energy technologies. I see costs and benefits for each choice, and I judge them primarily on the basis of carbon intensity, cost, sustainability, dispatchability, scalability, timeliness and risk. Landscape impacts, visual amenity etc. are a fairly low consideration for me, on balance. I would like to emphasise here that I am NOT a ‘pro-nuclear advocate’ (as some like to label me) in a way that I see all things nuclear as good and other options as bad. No — I simply see nuclear fission as ticking more boxes than any other current technology — and Generation IV nuclear especially so. However, if some improved form of solar, or geothermal, or whatever, can do better than nuclear on the balance of these criteria in the future, then I’ll switch my principle support to them. No problem — whatever works best, overall. By 2050, my best guess is that 40 % of global final energy will come from traditional fossil fuels, 35 % from nuclear fission, and 25 % from some mix of biomass, hydro technosolar renewables, and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. I will flesh this out a bit in a future post.


Where do you stand? (I’ve probably missed stuff — feel free to propose areas of global significance that I’ve overlooked).


Endnote: This post was partly motived by a recent essay from George Monbiot, called Out of the Ashes. In it, he argues that now, 2011, is the time to start planning for a new economy, not dependent on growth. Whether you agree or not, I recommend you read it — it has a lot of useful material for underpinning an informed opinion on this matter.

Barry Brook's picture
Thank Barry for the Post!
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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 31, 2011

First, thanks for asking. Polite, open minded dialog is important and rare on this issue.

I had the opportunity to meet up with quite an international group of young people in Duluth, Minnesota a few days ago. I actually got to describe some of the work I once did as a Biophysicist, and continue to do. I guess economic and environmental uncertainty helps open minds.

I described how everybody around here fought what we now call the internet. Yet, today it is probably the biggest energy saver, and freedom and prosperity boon in recent history.

And I encourage reading of the article Michael Tobis reviewed:

The important point of the article is not the rotten politics, but the significant range of CO2 possible and what the effects might be. There was great emphasis by this physicist author on plant growth. As a Biophysicist I have made every effort to put greater focus on plant growth; but nobody listens. So I was surprised by how consistent the article was with my effort.

My emphasis with the youngsters is how much faster and bigger plants are growing. I work to exhaustion trying to push the wilderness back and am losing ground. The raised CO2 in air and water is driving rapid plant growth. Whether we call it agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, I don’t care. But the endless focus on manufactured technology has missed the earth’s fundamental feedback loop of plant growth. Call it biofuels or whatever you want, you don’t even have to dig for it, and it will burn anyway if we ignore it; as Australia discovered.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 1, 2011

I find it appalling to think that some believe that for every baby that is born, someone must quickly die in order to avoid an “undesirable” increase in population.

The solar system is filled with an almost inexhaustible supply of mineral resources. The asteroid belt alone has a whole planet’s worth, already chopped up into low-gravity pieces. But only an energy rich society can have access to these resources.

If we live sustainably, then large increases in human population are much less of a threat to the survival of humanity than the low birth rates from which many western countries suffer. If we are not careful, we could breed ourselves to extinction.

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on Sep 2, 2011

This is a great question because the way we see things does drive policy preferences; it’s likely we can advance conversations more quickly by understanding where we eachother is coming from.

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