Home > Economics - General, Environment > The end of the coal boom

The end of the coal boom

November 4th, 2013

A bit over a year ago, I put up a post with the same title as this one, except that it ended with a question mark. At that point, most of the authorities I cited took the view that the decline in the world price of steaming coal was just a blip. In fact, prices have kept on falling and are now, in real terms, not much higher than they were in 2004. More importantly, there is now no expectation of a recovery any time soon. The clearest evidence of that is the abandonment or deferral of a string of proposals to create or expand coal export terminals, most recently by BHP at Abbot Point. Investors are desperately trying to get out of the most recently completed project, at Wiggins Island.

A few observations on this

* It’s common for participants in the Australian debate to claim that the rest of the world is going ahead with coal-fired power stations and fossil fuel projects at an unprecedented rate. That was the view that motivated these port expansion projects, and it’s been falsified as clearly as it can be by their abandonment.

* Much of the discussion about climate mitigation is based on the assumption that Australia can decide how much or how little of the burden we should bear. Leaving aside the risks of a free rider strategy, our status as a coal-exporter means that the biggest impacts will arise from decisions made overseas

* Finally, for some light relief here’s former Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser (paywalled) citing the now-abandoned Abbott Point project as evidence of the benefits of the Bligh government’s asset sales program, of which he was the biggest booster. It will be interesting to see if he now changes tack and claims that the state was lucky to get of these assets when it could (a more plausible line, but both dubious and contradictory of his previous position).

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  1. Ikonoclast
    November 4th, 2013 at 14:51 | #1

    World coal use continues to rise so which boom are we talking about? The price boom or the useage boom?

    I want to see coal use drop but it’s not happening yet.


  2. iain
    November 4th, 2013 at 15:39 | #2

    “the state was lucky to get of these assets when it could ”

    I reckon he should. I have argued this line, for example, for centralised and communal electricity assets. It is not that hard to foresee this stuff.

  3. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2013 at 15:42 | #3


    It’s on the way, or at least usage is going from boom to plateau


  4. ZM
    November 4th, 2013 at 16:01 | #4

    From the article it seems as if it could go either way – the Chinese government tend to keep their cards close to their chest as far as I can tell, and also keep their options open in terms of geopolitical issues. The last five year plan and other policies bring up the idea of a circular economy for China, and some students I’ve spoken to think this is a possibility, but I think it will depend a lot on the rest of the world – if the rest of the world continues down the track of glamourising over consumption, even if the Chinese government did want to put a circular economy in place I think it’s unlikely they’d be able to win the support of the population enough – you’d end up with all the cultural revolution stuff again if they tried I imagine
    WSJ : “Long-term estimates for Chinese coal demand, for the year 2035, range from 3.66 billion tons of coal equivalent, up from 2.29 billion tons in 2010, to as low as 1.51 billion tons, depending on Beijing’s environmental policies.”

  5. November 4th, 2013 at 16:11 | #5

    To what extent is this due to increased natural gas production in the US?

    And is your second observation truncated? “biggest impacts will arise…”

  6. Jim Rose
    November 4th, 2013 at 17:28 | #6

    2nd laws of supply and demand?

  7. quokka
    November 4th, 2013 at 19:07 | #7

    To what extent is this due to increased natural gas production in the US?

    In 2012, global consumption of energy from coal increased 2.8% and that from gas 2.5%. On a global scale the gas thing looks a bit over hyped.

    The increased consumption of energy from oil+coal+gas was over ten times that from non-hydro renewables in absolute terms. Non-hydro renewables includes biofuels etc as well as the obvious stuff.

    Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013

    As I recall, China had a very good year for hydro production in 2012. Factor that in too.

  8. John Quiggin
    November 4th, 2013 at 19:19 | #8

    “As I recall, China had a very good year for hydro production in 2012. Factor that in too.”

    Coal port investments are forward looking, with a life measured in decades. The fact that they are being abandoned means that companies like BHP are making long-term downward revisions in their projections of coal demand, not responding to seasonal fluctuations or even temporarily low gas prices.

  9. quokka
    November 4th, 2013 at 21:16 | #9

    Coal imports into China are pretty small beer compared to domestic production – in 2011 production was 3,576 Mt and net imports just 177 Mt. Furthermore domestic production has increased sharply from 2,226 in 2005 Mt in 3576 Mt in 2011 at a pretty steady pace. (Source IEA via Wikipedia). By these numbers, it seems a bit of a leap to project too much from reluctance to build more port capacity in Qld at this time to future Chinese coal consumption.

    A new report “Too many ports in a storm” from the Centre for Policy Development suggests that Qld existing coal port capacity has currently only 65% utilization. It seems all too easy to translate local Australian issues in the coal export business to predictions of future global coal consumption. All of this might be just the kind of fluctuations one could expect to see in a global coal market that continues to grow.

    There seems little doubt that the Chinese leadership is under significant pressure to do something about air pollution and by implication coal burning, but both what it decides to aim for and what it achieves remain uncertain. China runs on coal and it will be a tough nut to crack.

    Other nations – India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sth Africa and probably many more are bound to increase their coal consumption.

    I’d like to see a few years of declining or at least static global coal consumption before becoming in the least bit comfortable with peak coal.

  10. November 4th, 2013 at 22:50 | #10

    India is important too. The official plan to roll out lots of new coal generating plants have run into major problems, including water for cooling and rail capacity to ship the coal, but primarily the incapacity of Coal India ever to meet its production targets. Hostile take from Greenpeace here: http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/report/2013/Coal-India-Running-on-Empty.pdf
    Will this turn India into a big coal importer? My understanding is that cif prices are too high to meet the expectations of Indian electricity consumers. Is this still true?
    Indian state governments (latest Madhya Pradesh http://www.pv-magazine.com/news/details/beitrag/indian-state-madhya-pradesh-targets-14-gw-of-solar-power-by-2015_100013239/#axzz2jgGVkLRN) are turning to solar in a big way. It’s not ideal, but does at least guarantee power before the next elections.

  11. rog
    November 5th, 2013 at 04:00 | #11

    According to reports from the US (Goldmans) the bubble in coal prices has collapsed and Aus thermal coal should settle at $85/tonne this decade. This should translate to increased production on smaller margins just to stay in profit – if global demand peaks the whole chain will suffer.

    Projections of global demand has been overshadowed by the cost of consequences of coal fired power.

  12. November 5th, 2013 at 09:39 | #12

    The Terminal 4 (T4) proposal for Newcastle provides another bit of light amusement – amusing as long as you don’t live in Newcastle, I suppose. The original economic assessment of the project, by coal industry favourites Gillespie Economics, estimated an NPV for the project of up to $60 billion. Only months later it was declared unviable by its proponents, and put on the backburner.

    It has since been downsized and returned to the planning process at half its original size. Undeterred by their earlier model’s $60B error, the exact same assumptions have been applied to the new proposal, finding an NPV of $33B. Yet without a substantial increase in the rate of growth of throughput at the Newcastle port, this iteration too will be unviable.

  13. Hermit
    November 5th, 2013 at 10:41 | #13

    It’s hard to know what to make of this trend. India wants to install another 8 GW of coal generation capacity and Hunt has just approved the large Kevin’s Corner mine to supply coal to India. This year Germany is installing another 4 GW (for both local and imported coal) and China has 750 GW already installed. On the other hand 4 coal plants near Beijing are to be replaced by gas to improve air quality. Will Palmer’s ‘China First’ mine now go ahead?

    A time series of just two or three years is hardly enough to pinpoint causes for a coal slowdown. With renewables the price effect plus carbon tax/network charges is likely to be higher than the direct substitution effect. Hydro is good in La Nina years. Efficiency and reduced carbon intensity of GDP may only be good for the early increments then it gets harder. Even serious observers are uncertain
    I suspect China may be slowing whatever they tell the West. If so that exposes coal mining overcapacity elsewhere.

  14. John Goss
    November 5th, 2013 at 11:21 | #14

    It is important to distinguish between steaming coal used in power plants and coking coal used for steel making. The demand for high quality coking coal from China will continue to grow at a higher rate than their demand for steaming coal.
    How much China’s overall demand for steaming coal (imported and locally produced) will increase will depend on how quickly they are able to bring in solar and wind. They are ramping up solar at an enormous rate (9 GW expected extra capacity in 2013, 15 GW expected GW extra capacity in 2014) but they still have some way to go before it substantially reduces their need for additional coal fired power stations. (Output from solar is of course much lower than installed capacity). Currently they are putting in 50 GW of coal fired power plants a year. And these plants are high temperature and very efficient (and with sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide control technology). Solar is at present more expensive than these efficient coal fired plants (though it is rapidly decreasing in price), but, clearly China have made the political decision to put in lots of higher cost solar. Whether there is enough political will to continue the ramping up of solar when it starts to reduce the need for coal fired power stations remains to be seen. The coal sector is very powerful in China. So this may delay the inevitable levelling off of the growth in coal fired power in China.

  15. November 5th, 2013 at 14:24 | #15

    @John Goss

    You’re right to distinguish the met coal and thermal coal markets, John, but they’re linked in interesting ways. Lower quality met coals – PCI, semi soft, semi hard – are often sold off into thermal markets. Increased demand for these met coals pre 2008, took them out of thermal markets, which was one factor in the price spike in thermal coal. A lot of Australian coal projects are now living and dying by perceptions of what will happen with these coals – Maules Creek, Watermark, Rocky Hill as three examples.

  16. John Goss
    November 5th, 2013 at 14:30 | #16

    The coal markets are fascinating at present. I don’t think there is any question that King coal is dying. The only question is how long it takes and in what manner it occurs. And of course how long it takes will have a major impact with regard to greenhouse gas control.

  17. rog
    November 5th, 2013 at 14:58 | #17

    China has recently dropped their export tariff, I think it was 10%. This will allow Chinese producers to export to their neighbours. It also signals and end to the need to build stockpiles.

    Australia needs a fall in AUD to keep competitive and it doesn’t seem to be falling enough.

  18. wilful
    November 5th, 2013 at 18:48 | #18

    John, I assume you’re pretty familiar with Paul Fritjers. He has a reliably pessimistic view of any actual effective action on climate change, such as here and here. He seems like a serious commentator – I’d be interested in your response.

  19. John Quiggin
    November 5th, 2013 at 20:00 | #19

    Paul and I are colleagues and friends, but we have had some pretty vigorous discussions (aka shouting matches) on this topic. I commented on one of the linked threads.

  20. rog
    November 6th, 2013 at 05:20 | #20

    John Howard is back in the media verballing climate change as a new religion and dissing Club of Rome. He might like to read CSIRO analysis of the evidence

  21. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 05:56 | #21

    Chinese domestic production is falling, partly due to the increase in imports (including from Oz) that we have already seen, but mainly due to weak demand


  22. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 07:40 | #22

    From today’s China Daily
    “Kalee Kreider, special adviser for climate science at the United Nations Foundation, said the air will clear relatively quickly in China compared with the Western world as the central government becomes more aware of the public demand for better air quality.

    In 2012, consumption of standard coal equivalent in China was 3.62 billion metric tons, with coal accounting for 67.1 percent, a fall of 1.3 percentage points compared with 2011, said a report issued by the commission on Tuesday.

    The report, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, said the consumption of non-fossil fuel in 2012 was 9.1 percent, up 1.1 percentage points from 2011.

    Li Gao, deputy head of the climate change department at the commission, said, “Developing countries are willing to contribute in tackling climate change, but their ability will be limited if preconditions such as financial and technological support from developed countries are not fulfilled.”

    Li was speaking during a discussion with environmental non-governmental organizations last week.”

  23. Ikonoclast
    November 6th, 2013 at 07:48 | #23

    Climate change is a done deal. We have made the Faustian bargain.

    “It has been remarked that all technology is a Faustian bargain: one obtains conveniences and sometimes luxuries, but in exchange one gets an increased potential for catastrophe.” – Frank von Hipple.

    Now, we can strike out the words “an increased potential for catastrophe” and substitute the words “certain catastrophe”. The proof that catastrophe is certain is contained in footprint analysis which demonstrates we are already in overshoot. Currently, we using up earth’s resource stocks and environmental services about 50% faster than they renew. This is on average as some stocks (mineral concentrations) do not renew on any timescale useful to humans. In overshoot situations a die-off catastrophe is 100% certain. It’s an invioable biophysical law.

    This is (relatively) simple maths and certainly simple physics. Psychologically accepting the truth is the hard part for people.

  24. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 08:06 | #24


    You keep asserting this, but you never provide any evidence beyond vague assertions. My maths (and I do have a 1st class Honours degree in the subject as well as hundreds of relevant journal articles) says:

    * 100 per cent renewables is entirely feasible and consistent with rising living standards
    * The projected maximum population of the world could be fed well with existing ag technology
    * There are no other resource constraints more important than energy and food

    I’ve spelt this out numerous times, in detail, and you haven’t produced any counter

    None of this implies that we will get it right, and there is plenty to suggest that we won’t (of course, we are not feeding the current world population, although there is more than enough food produced to do so). But saying that all of this is 100 per cent certain is not only wrong, but effectively arguing in favor of those who want to do nothing. After all, if we’re doomed anyway why not enjoy life while we still can?

  25. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 08:51 | #25

    @Ikonoclast – I can’t entirely remember but at least in Goethe’s Faust didn’t the angels step in somewhere?

    But thank you for the opportunity to bring up Macbeth, you seem to be of a like mind with him in Act 3 – tho there’s witches rather than angels in this one:

    “I will tomorrow, and betimes I will, to the weird sisters : more shall they speak, for now I am bent to know, by the worst means, the worst. For mine own good all causes shall give way: I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er: strange things I have in my head that will to hand, which must be acted ere they may be scann’d”

  26. quokka
    November 6th, 2013 at 09:16 | #26

    The Guardian is reporting that the Chinese Air Pollution Control Action Plan contains plans to build 18 new synthetic natural gas plants (SNG) – coal-to-gas. It claims that the full life cycle GHG emissions are worse than just burning the coal and water use is high.

    Among the links in the article are reports that the ban on new coal plants around Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou affects only 5% of proposed new coal plant projects in China.

    Other reports suggest that in Indonesia a couple of the coal mining companies are going into the power station business (with government support) to hedge against a somewhat fickle international market. Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in Indonesia. Small on the global scale but an indication that the international coal market is not everything.

    It is claimed above that solar is expanding in China at an enormous rate – 9 GWp in 2013 and 15 MWp in 1014. Not really – at 20% capacity factor (probably generous for fixed PV) that’s only equivalent to about 2 GW and 3 GW of coal respectively. There should be 12-15 GW of new nuclear coming on-line by the end of 2014 or thereabouts. Unfortunately, that’s not going to make a whole lot of difference either. These things need to go ahead a lot faster – in fact their growth rate needs to exceed that of coal globally by a convincing margin before peak coal becomes a reality. The historical drivers for coal use on a world scale haven’t changed despite short term wobbles in commodity markets.

  27. November 6th, 2013 at 09:28 | #27

    @John Quiggin

    I think “100% certain” is probably too high, but it is still very concerning.

    Just to take one factor, about half the world’s agriculture output is due to I-NPK.

    Even if we manage to save our current level of arable land and good soils, and continue to have enough water, fertiliser could be a seriously limiting (or even reducing) factor in having food for all the people in the not distant future.

  28. Ken Fabian
    November 6th, 2013 at 09:47 | #28

    Refusal to face the challenge – to fail to try – is something worse IMO than to try and to fail. When one side of politics seeks to refuse the challenge and the other is lacking conviction to do more than seek to appear to be trying, I can share in Ikonoclast’s pessimism.

    ZM, I think the deus ex machina plot element – angels or equivalent stepping in – is a strong meme; on one side we have God, Free Market Economic growth exceeding Earthly physical limitations and undiscovered climate regulating feedbacks making the dire consequences disappear. On the other we have techno fixes – peel and stick solar cheap as chip wrapper, with high capacity batteries printed on the back. Neither is good enough to bet our future on. Actual mainstream political commitment on the other hand would be sufficient.

    I’m not sure there will be sufficient mainstream political will to actually try until the consequences are so seriously damaging that doubt and denial no longer work; but at that point the needs of short term adaptation and of preserving an unsustainable level of economic prosperity may overwhelm rational forethought and planning.

  29. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 10:33 | #29

    Ken Fabian, I was talking about Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in particular, not a general memeish thingamy.

    “The last act finds Faust having accomplished most of his grand design of pushing back the primal energies of the Ocean, and establishing his own land, attempting to redesign the natural environment. He is frustrated by an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who hold a cottage and chapel on strategic high ground which Faust wants to mould to his design. Goethe weaves into his play, the classical myth of Baucis and Philemon. (These were an old couple in Phrygia who provided shelter for Zeus and Hermes while they were wandering incognito through that land. Everyone else had refused the travellers hospitality, so they sent a great flood upon the land. Only Baucis and Philemon were saved and rewarded by having their cottage changed into a temple where they held priestly office). In the last act of Goethe’s play, Faust wishes them to move from their sacred spot and Mephisto sends his henchmen to evict them, however, the old couple die in the struggle and the house is burned to the ground. Through this tragedy Faust loses his sight.

    In his final hours he tries to press on with his great scheme to drain the marshes and establish a great paradise on Earth won from the ocean bed, where he believes humanity through struggling against the forces of nature will become free. Ironically, Mephistopheles leads the blind Faust to believe his workmen are completing his life’s work, when they are actually digging his grave. Faust dies believing that his plan was nearing completion.”

    Then come the angels and so forth.

  30. quokka
    November 6th, 2013 at 11:16 | #30

    For those who haven’t seen Hans Rosling’s The Magic Washing Machine, see it. Rosling divides the world’s population into four “classes”. The “fire people” who have no electricity, the “bulb people” who have electricity but no washing machines, the “washing machine people” who have electricity AND washing machines” and the “air people” who are fortunate enough to be able to indulge in air travel.

    If one single thing defines our historical context, it must be hundreds of millions jumping these “class” boundaries. That means economic development which means more energy consumption easily outstripping progress on energy efficiency and conservation. And the choice of technologies for increasing energy supply remains “all of the above” with little indication of that changing any time soon on a global scale. China is not the whole world. It is not even all of Asia and some very populous Asian countries are also undergoing rapid economic growth.

    This is the core of the climate problem.

    PS Rosling’s Two Centuries of Global Change presentation at the launch of IPCC AR5 is equally compelling.

  31. Ikonoclast
    November 6th, 2013 at 11:29 | #31


    Show me the angels.

  32. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 11:30 | #32

    Is there a little hope in The Magic Washing Machine? I’m not sure I would like to see it otherwise.

  33. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 11:40 | #33

    Ikonoclast – well, I believe Goethe’s angels are of the immaterial sort that cannot be shown as such.

    But, materially, and over time, I’m sure you would agree that there have been many in many places who have been influenced to do good? Although of course they are human and and subject to circumstances and also therefore unlikely to be perfect. Sometimes they tried to do good with painful consequences?

    ” I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

    “”Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

  34. Ikonoclast
    November 6th, 2013 at 11:44 | #34

    @John Quiggin

    The Global Footprint Network has done the work. I accept Climate Change science and I also accept biophysical and footprint science. I accept and thus assert that the science in all these areas is now robust.

    “There are no other resource constraints more important than energy and food.” – J.Q.

    Potable and irrigation standard fresh water is up there too of course. By extension, bio-services (absorption and processing of waste by the environment) are critical as well. Also, Liebig’s Law (of the minimum) asserts that any shortage of any necessary resource constrains the whole system. There are many resources critical to various segments of our economy.

    Yes, I know the “doomed anyway” argument plays into the hands of the BAU advocates. But what does one do when the truth could give succor to the wrong side of the argument? Denialism and complacency are probably equal or worse mistakes than being honest about our predicament. Final realisation that we face a global civilizational emergency might galvanise people. Some degree of collapse is now unavoidable IMO. If people are galvanised early enough (thought it seems very late to me) we might save some regions of civilization. That’s a best case scenario again IMO.

    The argument could hinge on whether you agree or not that Footprint Science is robust.

  35. Tim Macknay
    November 6th, 2013 at 12:10 | #35


    “I accept and thus assert that the science in all these areas is now robust.”

    You seem to think it’s more robust than the practitioners themselves do. The Global Footprint Network are aware of the limitations as well as the value of their methods. You won’t find them claiming that their method can predict the future.

    I’m reminded of the words of the population biologist Joel Cohen (who has spent considerable time investigating the Earth’s carrying capacity):

    “The more confidence someone places in an unconditional prediction of what will happen in human affairs, the less confidence you should place in that prediction.”

  36. quokka
    November 6th, 2013 at 12:11 | #36


    Of course there is hope in the washing machine. The “magic” is that it freed hundreds of millions of women from drudgery. At the end of the presentation, what pops out of the washing machine? Books! As women had more time to read to their children.

    There’s always hope. If there isn’t then fake it as constant doom mongering is not going to get us too far. It is still easily possible to be “reality based” and have hope. Or more pertinently, genuine hope can only be “reality based”.

    There was hope in the bottom of Pandora’s Box too. Hint, hint.

  37. Mel
    November 6th, 2013 at 13:32 | #37

    Here we go- the ol’ NPK furphy.

    Nitrogen can be fixed from the atmosphere by plants. In fact some plants introduced to Oz, like subterranean clover, do it so well that their spread is a threatening process for various native plant species, for example many of the herbaceous plants of Melbourne’s Basalt Plains.

    Tim Worstall hits the peak PK peanuts over the boundary for six.

  38. John Goss
    November 6th, 2013 at 14:16 | #38

    Quokka at 26. In my comment at 14 I was careful to say that ‘output from solar is of course much lower than installed capacity’. Your 20% factor may be a bit low, but its ballpark. and that is why I said that although there is an enormous rate of increase of solar ‘they (China) still have some way to go before it (ie the substantial increase in solar) substantially reduces their need for additional coal fired power stations’. Solar will have to continue to increase at very high rates for at least another 3 to 5 years for it to have a significant impact on coal fired power stations, but when the Chinese decide to do something, annual increases of 30 to 50 % per year for 5 years are not uncommon. So we will have to wait and see, but there are prospects for radical changes in the coal industry in China in the next 10 years. Interesting times.

  39. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 14:26 | #39


    That was a fairly ambiguous sort of comment, so I would appreciate it if you spelt out your meaning more, I am not sure whether to be cross or not. I’m leaning towards crossness – but perhaps I have misunderstood?

    Well, i do have a washing machine so i am far from perfect, but technically women would have not have had so many household chores and so on to do if some men had done their fair share anyway, instead of gallivanting around making tools (i don’t know, but i’d guess a man invented the washing machine in the first place) and hunting, and conquering places and all of the other things (ok, there were some women maybe like that, but not to the same extent)

    Ha, no way can you blame women for books! If you happen to be someone who reads – and we do get taught to read nowadays – and you read old things – you are reading a lot of what men wrote and passed down to children through the ages. Whereas what women told were typically dismissed as old wives tales and what not. Or as hysterical etc etc

    Well, while you actually still breathe you still have actual hope, if you extrapolate from the motto.

    I am happy to hear about your “reality based” hope, I am sure I’d be greatly cheered up by it (as long as you’re not, you know, faking it).

    Now, to Pandora’s Box and your inexplicit hints – which actually make me pretty cross indeed unless I have misunderstood your misunderstanding of it.

    I know some of the surviving variants of Pandora’s Box, not all, and i’m sure a lot were lost to time as things are. It is old and Greek and fairly dark (give me bucolic verse or persephone or something like the golden ass any day) I think – but of course, if you address a woman, with non-specific hints, why not bring up Pandora!?!

    From what i remember (anyone please correct me, i am not going to bother looking it up right now) i think it generally follows from Prometheus – who stole fire for men (or maybe they were titans or something at this stage?) and taught them to eat meat – trying to pacify the gods by giving them part of the flesh, but, as a trickster, Prometheus taught the men to give the gods only the less edible parts. Zeus punished Prometheus by binding him to a rock, and vultures pecked out his liver or something.

    Ok, I’m getting a book I have after all. Literature and the Crime Against Nature.

    “Mythically, it was Prometheus who determined that the Neolithic Golden Age should be replaced by the terrible age of Bronze:
    Earth’s natural plenty no longer sufficed.
    Man tore open the earth, and rummaged in her bowels.
    Precious ores the Creator had concealed
    As close to hell as possible
    We’re dug up – a new drug
    For the criminal. So now iron comes
    With its cruel ideas. And gold
    With crueller. Combined they bring war –
    War, insatiable for the one,
    With bloody hands employing the other.
    Now man lives only by plunder.

    I can’t remember the direct link, but to punish men or Prometheus or both Zeus created Pandora and gave her as a gift to Prometheus’ more stupid brother or something like that. She was very attractive and he was happy to wed her, but Zeus had given her a vessel, which she was to open. And when opened out came all of the evil, and hope stayed inside. etc etc

    If anyone can correct me on this I would be pleased. And if you can tell me what your “reality based” hint is, that would be great. Maybe I am cross for no reason.

  40. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 14:38 | #40

    Perhaps something from the land we dwell on would be more appropriate than something from the cradle of Western civilisation

    “Many years ago this land that we now call Melbourne extended right out to the ocean. Port Phillip Bay was then a large flat plain where Boon Wurrung hunted kangaroos and cultivated their yam daisy.

    But one day there came a time of chaos and crises. The Boon Wurrung and the other Kulin nations were in conflict. They argued and fought. They neglected their children. They neglected their land. The native yam was neglected. The animals were killed but not always eaten. The fish were caught during their spawning season. As this chaos grew the sea became angry and began to rise until it covered their plain and threatened to flood the whole of their country.

    The people went to Bunjil, their creator and spiritual leader. They asked Bunjil to stop the sea from rising. Bunjil told his people that they would have to change their ways if they wanted to save their land. The people thought about what they had been doing and made a promise to follow Bunjil. Bunjil walked out to the sea, raised his spear and directed the sea to stop rising. Bunjil then made the Boon Wurrung promise that they would respect the laws.

    The place the Kulin then chose to meet as a means of resolving these differences is where this Parliament [of Victoria] is now located. The Kulin nations met here regularly for many thousands of years. They debated issues of great importance to the nation; they celebrated, they danced.”

  41. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 15:24 | #41

    Some rough calculation: Installed global coal capacity of coal-fired power is of the order of 1000GW. To reduce that, it’s necessary to install enough renewables to meet demand growth. If that condition is met, then any further expansion of renewables + additions of gas and any net addition of nuclear, comes at the expense of coal.

    5 per cent growth is 50 GW. if we assume availability of coal is four times that of renewables, we need 200 GW of renewables a year to meet growth. Not long ago, that would have seemed absurd, but we are already looking at 100GW for 2014 (equal mix of wind and solar). Wind is probably going to be stable, but cost of solar continues to fall rapidly. So, if we get decent policy (a BIG “if”) we could get to peak coal, at least in electricity, by 2020.

    Still a long way to go, but not hopeless as suggested by some commenters

  42. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 15:31 | #42

    I’m an agricultural economist (recent president of the Aust Ag & Res Econ Society). We worry about lots of things concerning food supplies, but NPK constraints aren’t among them.

    Much more worrying is the withdrawal of public funding for basic research and reliance on the corporate sector to produce new crop varieties.

  43. November 6th, 2013 at 15:37 | #43

    The argument about Phosphate, for example, can be twisted just as it can for oil (or any other finite resource for that matter). The issue is not over mixing up the terminology and confusing ‘reserves’ with ‘resource’ for a snide gotcha point. The key is rate of production.

    There is gold in seawater, but nobody is getting rich extracting it.

  44. Hermit
    November 6th, 2013 at 15:57 | #44

    @John Quiggin
    Coal must be bigger than 1 TW if the world is using 15-17 TW according to various sources. The thing to remember is generating capacity must cover periods when neither wind nor solar are helping. On a still frosty night aluminium smelters still need steady electrical power so the ‘pots’ won’t solidify.

    I don’t dispute that wind and solar can replace coal. We know it is technically possible to drive a solar powered car from Darwin to Adelaide. The reason Mum, Dad and the kids aren’t doing it is because it requires more sacrifice or inconvenience than we are willing to accept. If the election can be taken as a referendum on electricity prices I’d say there is no appetite to increase the RET. We may now be entering into an era of subsidy fatigue in which we may never get 2m solar rooftops and the best wind farm sites near existing transmission have been taken up. Then there are grid stability problems with power surges and the diseconomics of running backup generators on a stop-start basis.

    The problem would be solved if we could store wind and solar electricity on the Gwh scale for days at a time. So far the century old lead acid battery remains the cheapest at $200 per kwh. To run the smelter on one calm night we might need 2 Gwh or $400m in battery capex with rapid depreciation costs. Therefore I suggest there has to be adequate realtime generation to cover wind and solar kept below a destabilising level.

  45. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 16:02 | #45

    Here’s the FAO. Only had time for a quick look, but doesn’t seem to be much of a constraint here


    If I’m reading it right, inferred reserves (the best estimate of the amount that can eventually be extracted at reasonable cost) are equal to about 1000 years of current consumption.

    To repeat, none of the experts I talk to seem to regard this as worth mentioning among the many problems we face in producing enough food to feed the world in 2050. Is there serious research I am missing?

  46. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 16:04 | #46

    As regards rate of production, the FAO states “n the past 100 years, phosphate has been discovered at a rate (Figure 2) that exceeds the rate of consumption ”

    Also relevant, their comment on offshore deposits “One source of future phosphate production is offshore deposits. Deposits of this type occur along the southeast coast of the United States of America, on the Peru-Chile shelf, off the coast of Namibia, on the Chatham Rise off New Zealand, off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, and off the Congo River delta. None of these offshore deposits is being mined, and they will probably not be mined while ample reserves exist onshore.” (emphasis added).

  47. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 16:06 | #47


    Again with the aluminium smelters. I’m imposing a personal topic ban on this. If you can’t make a point without reference to aluminium smelters, don’t make it at all.

  48. Ikonoclast
    November 6th, 2013 at 16:09 | #48

    I’m going to be sorry but I’ll give this a try. It takes not advanced mathematics but simple and basic reasoning to deduce that something must give or change in our human global situation.

    1. The earth is finite.

    2. Human population, human physical infrastructure and human use of resources and waste sinks are all growing exponentially. (A general trend briefly interrupted recently by the GFC.)

    3. Exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite system (the biosphere).

    4. It is a characteristic of exponential growth in a finite system that there is just one further iteration from half full to completely full. This is making simplifying assumptions ignoring the issues of both overshoot and of growth slowing as the limit is approached. We will come back to these issues.

    5. It is a characteristic of exponential growth that it also exponentially draws down on finite stocks and flows. Picture the exponential growth graph shooting up and the reverse exponential depletion graph of resources plummeting down. When these opposite exponential trends cross over the overshoot gap widens very rapidly.

    6. The feedback from point 5 above (signaling that growth must halt and indeed reverse) is late, due to living of natural capital stocks, and the system is already well into overshoot before feedback shortages and feedback pain signal that the growth paradigm must be ended and a new paradigm sought.

    7. A growth slowdown might be perceived as a signal that growth is levelling off to a stable, sustainable plateau. But in a condition of rapid overshoot, the resource base is now so depleted and the environment so compromised that the previous carrying capacity has been severely degraded. A collpase or die-off is then inevtiable in any natural biophysical system.

    8. The belief that we can plateau sustainably is predicated on two notions. First, that we, or a few of the most perspicacious of us, can foresee that growth must cease and we must plateau sustainably. Second, that having perceived this, we can then actually act effectively on it.

    9. At this point, we are somewhat like the captain of a supertanker travelling at full speed. The captain now realises for some reason that he must stop his supertanker as fast possible. The problem he faces is the immense momentum of his ship and the long stopping distance required. Modern industrial civilization and its attendent political and capitalistic apparatus has immense momentum and tendencies to continue BAU. It is very hard to stop or even to slow down apart perhaps from inadvertant economic recessions and depressions. These do not in any case slow demographic growth, at least not until after a considerable lead time.

    10. To argue that we can voluntarily slow and sustainably plateau this system at this late date is to ignore the history of our failure to deal with the rise in CO2 emissions, to name one example. The extant evidence is that this system (late stage capitalism) and the humans who run it consistently fail to apprehend environmental and limits to growth signals (until it is too late).

  49. November 6th, 2013 at 16:17 | #49

    There’s gold in seawater, but a lot more Potassium. Sea salt is about 1.1% potassium. There’s not so much phosphorus in seawater, but if you are looking for an extremly extensive source of it that I’d suggest limestone. And we got a lot of limestone in Australia. Quite possibly the largest contigious chunk in the world. Not that anyone is likely to want to import it as there are more convenient sources, but we do use limestone for phosphorus for local use in Australia to save on transport costs.

  50. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 16:27 | #50


    Your argument has no numbers in it, and is formally identical to the same argument put by Malthus 200 years ago. So, assuming the argument is valid, the collapse could be due tomorrow, or in 200 years time or in 2000 years.

    And, your point 10 is circular reasoning. How can you claim that “the humans who run it consistently fail to apprehend environmental and limits to growth signals (until it is too late).” unless you already know what “too late” means.

    As regards at least some acute problems, the claim is false. Middle capitalist societies experienced severe and dangerous air and water pollution resulting from exponential growth – London smogs and the deadly condition of the Thames in 1900 being examples – and late capitalist societies have fixed them. You can swim in the Thames now whereas you would have died if you tried it a hundred years ago.

  51. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 16:46 | #51

    I understated my case. According to this link, the Thames is the cleanest it’s been in 200 years


    “The stocks are attracting predators including porpoise, seals and dolphins which have been spotted as far upstream as London Bridge.”

  52. jon frankis
    November 6th, 2013 at 17:00 | #52

    @John Quiggin
    Looking back on the history of some western cities through the last century it’s plain to see today how wrong were the voices of their times who made then the arguments, against the costs of preferring clean air and water and so on, that their descendants make today as they agitate about the unaffordability of insuring against global climate chaos. Problem today even bigger than then, anti-activists no cleverer – but solutions (carbon taxes etc) even clearer and better understood than they were back then. Makes you wonder about the sapience of the species.

  53. John Quiggin
    November 6th, 2013 at 18:03 | #53

    Indeed, stupidity is a constant

  54. may
    November 6th, 2013 at 18:42 | #54

    John Quiggin :I understated my case. According to this link, the Thames is the cleanest it’s been in 200 years
    “The stocks are attracting predators including porpoise, seals and dolphins which have been spotted as far upstream as London Bridge.”

    maybe we could get them over here in the west to sort out the dying Swan River?

  55. Mel
    November 6th, 2013 at 19:12 | #55

    Human urine is full of phospohorus. If we were to ever get within a bull’s roar of Peak Phosphorus we would start using this readily available resource. Note that this is already done on a tiny industrial scale and as a cottage industry by permaculture types etc…

    Also note how oil etc known reserves were frighteningly low according to so many just 60 years ago. The rising cost of oil meant more reserves were discovered and extraction technologies improved to make previously unrecoverable reserves viable. The same will happen with phosphorus.

    I think I’ll stay relaxed about this particular scare.

  56. November 6th, 2013 at 20:13 | #56

    @John Quiggin

    Thanks for the link to the FAO.

    Just to be clear on the chronology of this discussion, Ikon (perhaps loosely) made a comment about our situation including the phrase “100% certain”. JQ took issue with that degree of certainty/pessimism.

    I mentioned, quite specifically as one single factor among many factors which might be of concern, inorganic fertiliser (I-NPK). About 50% of agricultural production is dependent on it.

    As far as I understand things, JQ isn’t saying “everything’s just fine, there is nothing to worry about” (he has explicitly stated the opposite in the comments here, in fact).

    My view is that there are quite a few things to be worried about. I was simply noting that as we operate things at the moment fertiliser is a vital component among many others.

    The FAO piece was very guarded and, rightly, noted the qualifications and caveats around its assessment.

    As it is difficult to assign firm figures for current DAPR production and consumption, it is also difficult to estimate world resources of PR most suitable for direct application. The criterion that a high-solubility DAPR must have more than 5.9 percent P2O5 soluble in neutral ammonium citrate (NAC) (Hammond and Leon, 1983) limits the number of deposits to be considered.
    Although detailed consideration of small deposits and portions of large deposits containing highly soluble PR or redefining the solubility level of the PR chosen to perform the analysis may serve to increase the amount of potential world resources of the most suitable DAPR, it is apparent that the potential world resources of the most suitable DAPRs are limited and that these represent only a fraction of total world PR resources.

    As I understand it, about 150 million tons of Phosphate Rock is mined annually. The “DAPR” is the stuff that can be ground up and applied directly. The rest is processed chemically/industrially to come up with stuff like “SuperPhosphate”.

    Maybe we should be thinking about these things. We know there is a lot of oil in deep waters, we suspect there’s lots in the Arctic and there’s plenty of oil-like stuff in the ‘tar sands’. Doesn’t mean it is feasable (economically or environmentally) to carry on with “Business As Usual”.

  57. Ikonoclast
    November 6th, 2013 at 20:32 | #57

    @John Quiggin

    My position is consistent. I accept Climate science. I accept Limits to Growth science. I accept ecological footprint science. Climate science and LTG science have been rigorously developed and are, for all practical purposes, indisputable empirical disciplines, albeit still working on reducing uncertainty for predictive purposes. Ecological footprint science is more developmental and makes a number of simplifying accounting assumptions. However, it is still more nearly scientific than orthodox economics (IMO).

    Thus, I make the decision to listen to scientists and researchers in these fields and not to economists. When I support the validity of climate science (as a general statement) you do not ask me to produce the numbers. You know where the relevant numbers are in the relevant reports. When I support LTG, thermoeconomics and ecological footprint science you ask me for the numbers. Once again, the numbers and models are in the relevant scientific literatures. You can check them.

    My contention that growth (in population and infrastructure) must cease at some point is indisputable. My contention that we are in overshoot now is supported by ecological footprint analysis (and climate science for that matter as we have overshot a safe or at least optimum CO2 concentration). The general principle that overshooting carrying capacity results in a reduction of carrying capacity (temporary or permanent as each case may be) is well known in ecology. The die-off phenomenon which follows from this is also well known.

    The idea that the human animal is resistant to these basic outcomes of the laws of physics, biology and ecology based on our intelligent analysis, complex goal-seeking behaviours and technology use is true to a point (that unknown point where limits can be stretched to). But ultimately limits will still apply.

    We tend to think of our complexity and extensiveness (of civilization) as a strength. And it is… right up to the final point. But at the point where it fails it is our ultimate Achilles’ heel.

    To summarise, credible and supportable ecological footprint analysis puts us in overshoot now. The standard result of an overshoot is a die-off.

  58. Ikonoclast
    November 6th, 2013 at 21:16 | #58

    On a somewhat lighter note, was anyone else as foolish as I was to watch the new show “Revolution” on TV the other night?

    For those who didn’t watch, the premise of the show is that electricty stops working and modern civilization collapses… of course. This time it is not aliens (as in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) but humans who “stop” electricity working. It is hinted that humans did it but how or why is not yet made clear.

    Let’s be a little literal here. To stop electricity, or electrical devices, working over a whole nation or over the whole globe would take some sort of massive field. This would take enormous energy and would probably fry all life in the process. But let us suspend disbelief and accept that the “MacGuffin Field” exists and can do this. Hang on a minute, how come it doesn’t stop electricity in the human body? Think of the total shut down of the brain, nervous system, heart etc. Hmmm, but again, let us suspend disbelief and accept somehow that it stops inanimate electrical systems but not biological electrical systems.

    Now it is 18 years after the electricity is stopped and we meet the late teenage or young adult heroine. After 18 years of total civilizational collapse we see perfectly well nourished people living a kind of Little House on the Prairie meets the Andy Griffith Show meets the Amish At Home in a bucolic American idyll. The heroine is model beautiful, perfectly coiffured, perfectly fed and dressed in really cool, really clean clothes and stunning boots. This is 18 years after total civilizational collapse and (logically) hundreds of millions of human deaths on the North American continent alone. I kind of thought survivors of that sort of catclysm would look haunted, ill-fed, dirty, desperate and dressed in tatters. Silly me. Of course it would be a trendy idyll… until the villains turn up.

    The villains are evil people who keep the remaining guns (guns seem to still work as they are chemical not electrical) and use swords a lot as guns seem to be scarce. These villains are a militia who can have guns themselves but they have most evilly disarmed the citizenry! The right to own guns is a national obsession in the USA of course. The NRA would give this show’s message the full seal of approval.

    As guns and bullets are in short supply, fights soon degenerate or should I say escalate into elaborate, improbable sword duels so staged that surely they were directed by Tarantino (of Kill Bill fame) doing a guest spot. After, the Kill Bill homage is over there is… more silliness, much more. And all the young lead characters are so plastically and shiningly beautiful you will need sunglasses or maybe a barf bucket.

    What interests me most is that fear of collapse is so close to the surface in our cultural psych. A (more gradual) power down collapse is indeed possible given the looming critical energy shortage. But why is a MacGuffin Field invoked rather than the many very real possibilities? Clearly, the real possibilities are too frightening so collapse has to be precipitated by an impossible event. That keeps it all safely impossible and entertaining.

  59. ZM
    November 6th, 2013 at 21:37 | #59

    “Your argument has no numbers in it, and is formally identical to the same argument put by Malthus 200 years ago. So, assuming the argument is valid, the collapse could be due tomorrow, or in 200 years time or in 2000 years.”

    I don’t know if Ikonoclast is a scientist, or has access to academic databases.
    There are various lengthy papers with figures, none of which I really understand, I can only read the words.
    This is the first example I have found, but I am happy to provide more:

    Exergy based ecological footprint accounting for China
    Ling Shao, Zi Wu, G.Q. Chen,
    State Key Laboratory of Turbulence and Complex Systems, College of Engineering, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
    Volume 252, 10 March 2013, Pages 83–96
    Ecological Modelling for Global Change and Coupled Human and Natural Systems

    “The EF and EEF always exceed the biocapacity in the study period. The varying trends of the ecological overshoot based on conventional EF and EEF are similar, although some calculations and principles of conventional EF and EEF are different. To illus- trate and demonstrate the possibility and actual occurrence of the ecological overshoot, which is the forgotten core concept of sustain- ability (Wackernagel and Silverstein, 2000), EEF, as a modification and complementary concept of the conventional EF, can help deter- mine the overall depletion status of the natural capital based on the second law of thermodynamics. The consistent results of the eco- logical overshoot founded on conventional EF and EEF show that the basic assumption of the conventional EF is reasonable and the extent to which human use of nature capital is not overestimated, but underestimated.”

    Any comments as to the veracity of this would be appreciated.

  60. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 07:05 | #60

    @John Quiggin

    I thought stupidity was a variable. 🙂

  61. November 7th, 2013 at 07:10 | #61

    ZM, maybe it would help you to consider specifics. Can you think of any resource crunch that could cause civilization to collapse, or anything remoting approaching that, in Australia?

  62. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 07:14 | #62

    @John Quiggin

    There are small (in global terms) successes in fighting pollution. At the same time, unacceptable levels of pollution occur all the way from Gladstone harbour’s seawater to Beijing’s air. One of the most global of all pollutants, CO2, is still on the rise of course. Coal plays a big role in all of this.

    An interesting question is this. Why were we able to more or less win the fight against CFCs but we cannot, at least so far, win the fight against CO2 emissions? Is there something fundamentally different about these two fights? Was substitutability an easier option relatively for CFCs but not for fossil fuels? I simply pose the questions. Why does this problem appear more fundamentally intractable?

  63. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 08:01 | #63

    Ronald Brak,

    it is quite easy to think up various resource crunches which would have negative impacts on Australia – water and food being the greatest, but in terms of how these are taken from producer to consumer today then minerals and fossil fuels (if we don’t hastily transition to renewables) come in to it, shortages of rare earth minerals would alter the availability of computer devices perhaps etc etc

    However, you look at the science papers to see what people who do physical analysis of these issues and have devoted substantial amounts of time to it have to say. Science reports frequently contain a lot of data and a lot of interpretation of data – some of which goes over my head – and which would be difficult for me to sum up in a quick comment

    I am not a scientist, and I can only read the narrative parts of science reports (whereas I think scientifically/technically minding people do not so much understand science reports strictly as narrative).

    The idea is that human consumption of renewable resources (ie i guess this means plants and what not) is exceeding the capability of these resources to regenerate and also has negative, perhaps disastrous, effects on biodiversity and the ecological systems. Also, another related idea is that present consumption (and discarding rather than recycling – although I’m not sure things can be infinitely recycled ???) of non-renewable resources (minerals) or in human scale non-renewable resources (fossil fuels) is currently proceeding at a rate that will not leave so much for future generations – that is to say the son of you son’s son or daughter of your daughter’s daughter etc.

    Exacerbating this trend of likely over consumption is vast global inequity – as more people in non-wealthy countries endeavour to similar material living standards as you see people in wealthy countries having – the rate of resource consumption will most likely increase.

    In terms of collapse, I think this is impossible to predict with any great deal of accuracy, because so much depends on people’s actions – but then I view futurology and models as not necessarily likely anyhow – you’re meant to take them with a grain of salt IMO

    Graham Turner of the CSIRO dd a study a few years back comparing the modelling scenarios of The Limits to Growth with actual historical consumption and whatnot, finding one scenario closely matched the historical data.

    I believe in free will however, so you never know exactly what people will do next, although you ave your ideas.

    The Turner work is available here:

  64. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 08:10 | #64

    The other part of your comment was – in Australia – and on this I think we have to look at how the numbers of refugees in the world are very high – these numbers are likely to increase with food shortages climate change etc. large numbers of people fleeing from countries experiencing turbulence due to the effects of shortages and climate change might come to Australia. While it would be awful to say this is negative – it would put stress on the Australian society in trying to either accommodate these refugees or using material and human resources in trying to exclude them (as we are doing at present)

  65. November 7th, 2013 at 09:20 | #65


    “Also, another related idea is that present consumption (and discarding rather than recycling – although I’m not sure things can be infinitely recycled ???) of non-renewable resources (minerals) or in human scale non-renewable resources (fossil fuels) is currently proceeding at a rate that will not leave so much for future generations – that is to say the son of you son’s son or daughter of your daughter’s daughter etc.”

    While that statement by itself is likely to be correct. The thing about the difficulty in predicting the future is what sort of resources are useful or are considered essential in the future. For example fossil fuel is not considered important in pre-fossil fuel era, and the same applies to Phosphate before it has its useful purpose in the society.

    The challenge of climate change is the transition from fossil fuel to alternate/renewable energy sources is not fast enough to avoid warming of temperature which has significant adverse effects on the ecosystem, agricultural and water supply etc. If human do overcome this challenge, what will the possible shortages of various resources we use today have impact on the future is unknown, and they may not even be meaningful to the future human race if those resources are simply not required in the future.

  66. quokka
    November 7th, 2013 at 09:35 | #66

    The IEA publication Southeast Asia Energy Outlook 2013 is an interesting read. Coal is projected to be easily the fastest growing energy source to 2035 with annual growth of 6.2% and electricity production from coal increasing from 217 TWh in 2011 to 914 TWh in 2035. Fossil fuels go from 86% of electricity production in 2011 to 78% in 2035 while total electricity production goes from 686 TWh to 1879 TWh.

    Coal is projected to likely remain the cheapest technology, but this could be affected by the development of the international LNG market and gas prices.

    Hydro is projected to remain the most important renewable with the most potential for growth. Solar and wind are not significant.

    Also, significantly, investment in the transmission and distribution network is projected to exceed that in generation capacity for the period to 2035, which is a bit of a reminder that LCOE is not everything when it comes to the cost of electricity.

    SE Asia is not the whole world but not insignificant either.

  67. November 7th, 2013 at 10:08 | #67

    ZM, I find it hard to think of how Australia could run out of food or water barring a sudden calamity such as a major asteroid impact. What are some scenarios in which you think Australia could run out of food or water in say the next 100 years?

  68. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 10:22 | #68

    Well, water (not including desal water) is in short supply (are you up north where its more plentiful?) already in many places, depending on the weather. i think climate change, extensive fires, and long term drought are probably the chief natural/physical threats to food supplies.

    But I’d say the larger threat is cultural/human – in terms of global economic shifts – as poorer countries have a larger middle class their will be more competition for food supplies in general, and prestige food (like beef etc) in particular. This is seen in what people refer to as the global and grab – state and privately owned companies buying up land in foreign jurisdictions. Depending on how our economy goes, food in general, and specific sorts of food, may become more expensive. This is more likely to affect the poor in Australia than others – but depending on the numbers affected this can lead to significant social disruption as you see happening in history and current affairs.

    For example, reading about parts of Africa suffering famine you will also read about agricultural land that is owned by foreign corporations growing flowers to export to Europe. This is a very unfair kind of practice.

  69. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 10:23 | #69

    Global land grab, sorry

  70. November 7th, 2013 at 11:49 | #70

    ZM, increased drought would certainly be a problem but is more likely to be something that would reduce economic growth rather than pose a serious threat to the safety of Australians. After all, serious drought is something Australia has had a lot of experience with and we’ve always demonstrated the ability to feed our own population and still produce surplus for export. Real food prices do seem likely to rise due to increasing world population and climate instability, which could cause real problems for many people, but as a large net food kilojoule exporter Australia should benefit from increased food prices. So from my point of view Australia is very resistant to resource shocks. And by resistant I mean Australians are very unlikely to die from them. Problems such as several years of drought resulting in Tom not being able to buy a new model mercedes or Ahkima having to put off buying the latest xbox seem relatively trivial to me. The United States and Europe also appear pretty resistant to resource shocks to me. And if these places are resistant they can lend a hand to areas that may be have problems. Or at least trade with them. For example, even on emergency war footing Japan is going to have trouble feeding it’s own population without imports, but since Australian civilization is unlikely to collapse we can continue to sell food to them. So I just don’t see rescource constraints ending or crippling civilization, but I do see real problems in our wastes idiotically reducing our wealth, continued destruction of the natural environment, and the negligent murder of millions in poor type places resulting from continuing damage to atmosphere and environment. But civilisation is not about to go away due to a lack of resources.

  71. November 7th, 2013 at 11:54 | #71

    Oh dear….

    Dwindling coal prices have fuelled speculation that long-awaited projects in the Galilee Basin, in central west Queensland, will not proceed.

    But Premier Campbell Newman is confident the strategy will ramp up mining in the basin.

    “I know it will be of great interest to potential project operators that we are also willing to consider new ways to lower their start-up costs,” he told the Australian Financial Review.

    “Specifically, we’re going to look at proposals for a ramp-up royalty period for the first mover as a key incentive.”

    Mining companies and the Queensland government will negotiate the size of the discounted royalty rate.

    The announcement of the strategy comes less than a week after federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved GVK’s Kevin’s Corner project in the Galilee Basin, set to be the country’s largest coal project.

    The Alpha Coal project – a joint venture between GVK and Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Coal – was approved in August last year and is expected to be up and running in 2016.

    Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal and Indian energy company Adani also have projects planned in the Galilee Basin.

    Mr Newman will formally announce the Galilee Basin development strategy at the 2013 Major Projects Conference in Brisbane on Thursday.

    Not only are we cooking the planet but we’re doing it on the Qld taxpayer’s dime.

  72. November 7th, 2013 at 12:39 | #72

    @ Megan

    I read that too and thought of this thread. While it might start with the Galilee basin, how long before other marginal projects also need “key incentives” and “lower costs” to begin, or continue projects?

  73. Hermit
    November 7th, 2013 at 12:54 | #73

    The non-mining of the Galilee Basin could be regarded as a turning point if it happens. It means we have finally resisted temptation to use the dirtiest cheapest energy source and flog it without a second thought for the consequences. The GBR says thanks…less acidification, less dredging and fewer Shen Neng type incidents. Perhaps we could think of the basin as a pre-sequestered carbon reserve that should stay that way. It seems silly to plant a few trees here and there while digging up then burning millions of tonnes of locked up carbon. It’s a pity that view is not shared by either the state or federal governments.

  74. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 14:32 | #74

    @Ronald Brak

    Re “civilisation is not about to go away due to a lack of resources”.

    Well, we all foresee different things. You and Prof. J.Q. don’t foresee a resource problem and a possible civilizational crisis. I do. I have explained, over and over, the iron-clad logic of the dilemma and process but people seem to believe what they want to believe and disregard plain logic based on real physics, biophysics and ecology.

    1. Endless growth, in extent and complexity, cannot continue indefinitely in a finite system (the biosphere).

    2. Therefore growth must cease at some point.

    3. There are two likely ways for growth to cease. The first is by levelling out to a sustainable plateau. The second is by hitting a peak in overshoot mode thus damaging the carrying capacity of the biosphere and causing a population slump (a die-off).

    4. The first method requires foresight, planning and management by humans and/or certain serendipitous factors. One serendipitous factor currently is a continued decline in the rate of increase of the global human population. On the other hand, increased consumption per capita is working against this.

    5. The second “method” is the natural manner in which biophysical factors limit and reverse population plagues of any species. Such species in plague or bloom mode rapidly increase in number beyond a sustainable population. In doing so they eat out food or prey sources and often do other damage to the local or regional ecology. The sustainable carrying capacity of the environment for that species is degraded. So whilst population is going one way (rapidly up), the sustainable carrying capacity is going the other way (rapidly down). These conditions clearly cause the population to peak and then plummet rapidly (die-off).

    6. The jury is out concerning the issue of whether humans are foresightful enough and disciplined enough to chart a course to a sustainable plateau rather than over-shoot it, damage the envirionment and suffer subsequent die-off.

    7. Technological fixes extend our ability to exploit the environment (food, energy and other resource sources) and thus extend our ability to increase our population. However, this extension is not open-ended and infinite. This extension has its limits also.

    8. Technological fixes also extend our ability to overshoot. It’s like climbing higher and higher on a long ladder. Yes, you can reach more but if the ladder (system) becomes unstable or breaks you have further to fall and that fall is more damaging.

    9. Prof. J.Q. begrudgingly admits there ultimately must be limits but argues the limits are not near. The argument that the limits are not near stands up very poorly to the extant evidence. Need I mention climate change, species extensions, loss of rainforest, ocean warming, ocean rising, ocean acidification, wild fisheries collapse, peak oil and so on?

    10. All of these are signals and evidence that the limits are near. Even arguing for more growth by claiming the limits are not near is a very weak argument IMO. If the limits are not near, the early warning signs are. We have seen how slow we are to change with CO2 emissions still rising. So we need to take the earliest, premptive, precautionary action possible right NOW and plan and move to a steady state economy NOW.

    Getting to a safe place early leaves leeway for unforeseen events. It’s insurance. Getting to a safe place late or not getting there at all spells disaster. It’s a no-brainer really if you apply straight logic. Note, applying logic means stopping thinking like an economist and starting to think like a scientist and (empirical) philosopher.

  75. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 14:35 | #75

    Sorry, “species extinctions”.

  76. November 7th, 2013 at 15:32 | #76

    Ikonoclast, do you have any scenarios in which a lack of resources causes civilisation to collapse or at least widespread human death in Australia in the next 100 years?

  77. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 15:48 | #77

    Ronald Brak,
    Grrrr – did you look at either of the two actual *scientific* papers I cited. The Graham Turner one is free if you don’t have access to university databases – this is why publishing in journals controlled by those companies is bad – people can’t access the information without having a library membership somewhere that purchases access rights 🙁

    “increased drought would certainly be a problem but is more likely to be something that would reduce economic growth rather than pose a serious threat to the safety of Australians. After all, serious drought is something Australia has had a lot of experience with and we’ve always demonstrated the ability to feed our own population and still produce surplus for export.”

    We have never had such a large and growing population, nor have we ad so many foreign owned agricultural properties AFAICT nor have we had such ridiculous free trade laws that mean farmers dig up their trees etc and sell up, nor have we had cities with exurban perimeter towns consuming prime agricultural land, nor have we had such lax planning laws that people who don’t genuinely need dams fr good reasons dig them and divert water from natural watercourse and potable water reservoirs etc etc i could go on I’m sure

    “Real food prices do seem likely to rise due to increasing world population and climate instability, which could cause real problems for many people, but as a large net food kilojoule exporter Australia should benefit from increased food prices.”

    What proportion of food exports are Australian owned for Australians to benefit other than from insufficient taxes and duties?

    “So from my point of view Australia is very resistant to resource shocks. And by resistant I mean Australians are very unlikely to die from them. Problems such as several years of drought resulting in Tom not being able to buy a new model mercedes or Ahkima having to put off buying the latest xbox seem relatively trivial to me.”

    Not *everyone* in Australia has the money to be most concerned about buying a Mercedes. Ahkima could have an irregular income and little savings, so an Xbox might be doable now but not later if circumstances change.

    “The United States and Europe also appear pretty resistant to resource shocks to me.”
    Sure, well it depends. England doesn’t have sufficient agricultural land to feed its population. I think the US does, but their are environmental problems with the grain growing area in the midde that I’m sure you can google to find out about. I would like you to find a paper with scientific evidence to support this claim. Both Europe and the US I imagine import more material goods than they export, judging by their economic problems.

    “And if these places are resistant they can lend a hand to areas that may be have problems.”

    Yes they could, OTOH they could exploit problems to force deregulation and free trade agreements on countries – which – if you follow the news – is what they do

    “Or at least trade with them.”

    They mostly seem to trade to further their own interests, not out of benevolence it generally seems to me. Can you show me a counter example?

    “For example, even on emergency war footing Japan is going to have trouble feeding it’s own population without imports, but since Australian civilization is unlikely to collapse we can continue to sell food to them.”

    generally war interrupts trade, no?

    “So I just don’t see rescource constraints ending or crippling civilization, but I do see real problems in our wastes idiotically reducing our wealth, continued destruction of the natural environment, and the negligent murder of millions in poor type places resulting from continuing damage to atmosphere and environment.”

    Resource constraints are not only food and water – plus I forgot to mention in my reply the problem of complex trade pattern in moving food from producer to consumer, chemical use, machinery etc all of which depend on resources and global social stability

    “But civilisation is not about to go away due to a lack of resources.”

    I don’t know what you mean by this. Civilisation is generally dependent on certain resources. Civilisations can change (I can’t think of an example but I guess there might be one or two), or they might at a final point collapse (Easter Island etc etc)

    The complexity and interrelations of our current global civilisation coupled with a high global population and terrible military technologies means a collapse at that final point, if not staved off – is likely to be all sorts of grim

    This is why actual science papers by actual environmental scientists matter, who have the resources, training, intelligence, and time to come up with a reasonably synthesised account of all of these factors *matter*, rather than me just speculating off the top of my head

  78. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 15:56 | #78

    For another scientific paper I am happy to provide the name of, although people may not have access to databases – it’s by Turner too,

    “The Limits to Growth Model Is More than a Mathematical Exercise. Reaction to R Castro. 2012. Arguments on the imminence of global collapse are premature when based on simulation models.”

    By: Turner, Graham M. GAIA: Ecological Perspectives for Science & Society. 2013, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p18-19. 2p. , Database: Environment Complete

  79. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 15:58 | #79

    Turner’s qualifications:
    B.Sc., PhD Applied Physics, University of Sydney
    Principal Research Fellow
    University of Melbourne · Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute

    I searched, and its freely available at http://www.researchgate.net/publication/257527288_The_Limits_to_Growth_Model_is_More_Than_a_Mathematical_Exercise_Reaction_to_R._Castro._2012._Arguments_on_the_Imminence_of_Global_Collapse_Are_Premature_when_Based_on_Simulation_Models._GAIA_214_271_273

  80. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 16:08 | #80

    Ronald Brak :
    Ikonoclast, do you have any scenarios in which a lack of resources causes civilisation to collapse or at least widespread human death in Australia in the next 100 years?

    That’s a reasonable question. Some of the standard assumption models of LTG had world population peaking at about 2030. Other updated models have the world population peaking in about 2050. It’s notable that the later the peak, the more precipitous the population decline thereafter. This is consistent with ecological overshoot behaviour. By 2100 it appears the population would be about 60% of peak if the later models are roughly correct. If we hit 10 billion by 2050 (slightly higher than most predictions now) then that would mean a decline or collapse (take your semantic choice) to 6 billion people by 2100.

    Australia might behave differently. On the face of it there is no internal reason why we could not grow population until 2100. But I hope we don’t because that would put us in overshoot by then and we would decline some time after.

    A safer trajectory for Australia would be to seek to stabilise on a plateau at no more than 25 to 30 million. However, in the period of 2050 to 2100, with 4 billion or more people are dying off, and most of the rest very, very hungary I doubt that the world will be anything like a stable place. Anything could happen and probably will in terms of large regional conflicts (civil wars and regional wars). Studies (Stanford U. I think) have shown a high correlation between high food prices / food shortages and major unrest. This is not surprising.

  81. November 7th, 2013 at 16:27 | #81


    What a coincidence! In the “New Yorker” (21/10/13) I just saw a review of two books.

    The review is quite wishy-washy he says/ he says stuff, so it’s hard to get much from it.

    But the nub of it is that one author suggests we have too many people (says about 2 billion would be sustainable, apparently). The other says we don’t have enough people and desperately need more!

    Alan Weisman: “Countdown: Our Last, Best, Hope for a Future on Earth?”

    Steven Philip Kramer: “The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do About Falling Birth Rates.”

    Apparently we get most of our Nitrogenous fertiliser through the ‘Haber-Bosch’ industrial/chemical process, fabricating it at high temperature and pressure using the N which is abundant in the air and H which comes from fossil fuel gas. So you need to mine the gas and then power the plant to get the fertiliser. Again, about half our agriculture depends on this stuff.

    One thing I found interesting is that the population was about 2 billion when the process was invented in about 1907. When Ehrlich wrote about population in 1968 it was 3 billion and now we’re at about 7.2 billion. Apparently the UN projections from this June are 8 billion by 2025, 9 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100! Crikey, that’s going to require a lot of gas.

  82. November 7th, 2013 at 16:35 | #82

    ZM, I’m afraid I didn’t read the papers. This is because I’m not very bright. Things have to be quite simple for me to grasp them. This is why I’m so interested in concrete specifics of exactly which resource we might run out of and what effect that might have. It’s the only way I can really get a handle on things.

  83. Hermit
    November 7th, 2013 at 16:38 | #83

    I think an early sign that resources are not infinite will come with regrets over the Gladstone LNG hub. Ian Macfarlane says this will create an east coast gas shortage as early as 2016. If thousands of trucks and buses convert to compressed natural gas because diesel has gotten too expensive that will also greatly increase local gas demand.

    Possibly Hunt can explain how gas vs coal will pan out under Direct Action. Small coal stations are closing with gas peaking and intermediate plants filling the gaps. That must mean electricity prices will increase as gas gets more expensive. I suspect that will quickly erase any savings from repeal of carbon tax. Resource depletion is not years away; it’s here now.

  84. November 7th, 2013 at 16:46 | #84

    Ikonoclast, I was wondering just which resources you think we may run out of here in Australia.

  85. November 7th, 2013 at 16:57 | #85

    Megan, hydrogen gas doesn’t have to come from natural gas. And with a decent carbon price it would not. Electricity from any source can be used to produce hydrogen from water.

  86. rog
    November 7th, 2013 at 17:03 | #86

    @ZM is this what you are looking for? Plenty of links but people must search.


  87. Mel
    November 7th, 2013 at 17:10 | #87


    Note, applying logic means stopping thinking like an economist and starting to think like a scientist and (empirical) philosopher.

    That is a cheap and rather fatuous dig at our host, PrQ.

    The truth of the matter is that Disaster Pron appeals to something in the human psyche, hence the public’s insatiable appetite for disaster books and films. Allied with that, egotistical flakes with nothing better to do have warned that the End of Nigh since the beginning of recorded history. Some of the more intelligent doomsayers have something useful to say and on balance they provide a corrective for complacency. Most, however, are boorish oafs who do no good at all.

  88. Tim Macknay
    November 7th, 2013 at 17:20 | #88


    The jury is out concerning the issue of whether humans are foresightful enough and disciplined enough to chart a course to a sustainable plateau rather than over-shoot it, damage the envirionment and suffer subsequent die-off.

    I take this to be an admission that when you used the words “certain catastrophe” earlier you were indulging in hyperbole and that you acknowledge that catastrophe is not certain.

  89. ZM
    November 7th, 2013 at 17:21 | #89

    Ronald Brak,

    ” I was wondering just which resources you think we may run out of here in Australia.”

    I think it’s important to remember that the economy etc is largely global now. If there are resource constraints elsewhere or food shortages or natural disasters or social unrest or war, it will affect us here. We are not a powerful country alone – we are currently in a position where we have a number of close relationships (commonwealth, us, china, Asian-pacific neighbours etc) – but if things become fraught, we may be put into a position where we have to take sides – this is already happening to some degree with the rise of China and the US pivot to Asia – I think it was the Philipiines (?) that became a kind of battleground – the US the other year made arrangements with them and the China Daily editorialized about how China should punish the Philipines. We are bigger and more important perhaps, so the China daily was more diplomatic about the US base up north here.

  90. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 17:25 | #90

    @Ronald Brak

    Fresh Water, or rather lack of it, is a big limiting factor in Australia. Add to that poor soils, a huge arid area and a very unreliable climate (droughts and floods). We also lack oil but have enough coal and gas. These fossils though should not be burnt.

    Vast areas suitable for solar, wind, wave and tidal power are a big plus for us. I see no reason why solar and wind power de-salinators would not be good for us long term along much of coasts, at least for drinking water. I doubt irrigation water could be produced economically. Maybe some metals will get is short supply globally so that could limit infrastructure and the electric and electronic componentry.

    You know there is an historical-geographical reason that India and China have a billion people or more each and we have 22 million. They are vastly more fertile and productive land masses. High mountain ranges and tectonic plate boundary zones on land are the key. High mountain ranges mean much rain and snow and thus great rivers for water and fertile silt or loess. Plate boundaries with uplift zones are geologically where many (though not all) good mineral deposits are found.

    You might say civilization started first in the great river basins so they had a big head start. The great river basins are the reasons that agriculture and civilization could start. Startup or “boot up” was possible there. Australia was always a continent (in time span terms of the arising and arrival of humans) where civilization could be transplanted but would have very great trouble starting locally. Lack of animal and plant species suitable for domestication was also a factor.

  91. Tim Macknay
    November 7th, 2013 at 17:34 | #91


    Apparently the UN projections from this June are 8 billion by 2025, 9 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100! Crikey, that’s going to require a lot of gas.

    It doesn’t require gas at all. Gas is simply a (currently) cheap and convenient feedstock for nitrogen fertiliser. But nitrogen fertiliser can also be produced easily using renewable energy. Before the Haber process was commercialised, Norsk Hydro produced nitrogen fertiliser with hydroelectricity using an electric arc process. It’s more expensive than using gas (at present), but ho hum.

  92. Fran Barlow
    November 7th, 2013 at 18:33 | #92


    applying logic means stopping thinking like an economist and starting to think like a scientist and (empirical) philosopher

    I’d say ‘logic’ works in all these paradigms, and certainly, good public policy entails considering how each of these disciplines can inform an optimal response.

  93. November 7th, 2013 at 19:42 | #93

    @Tim Macknay

    And Ronald, too.

    What sort of volumes are commercially/practically available by either extracting it from water by electronic separation or by arcing?

    What amounts of electricity are required?

    Are there no restraints?

    What are the numbers for producing 100 million tonnes annually?

    I have no doubt it can be done, it’s the scale at which it can be done I am asking about.

  94. Ikonoclast
    November 7th, 2013 at 20:11 | #94

    @Fran Barlow

    A genuine chain of empirically based logic deductions cannot be applied from illogical, unempirical a priori assumptions such as those which inform orthodox economics.

  95. Mel
    November 7th, 2013 at 22:25 | #95


    Lack of animal and plant species suitable for domestication was also a factor.

    One often hears this claim but of course it isn’t true. There is no good reason why weeping grass (Microlaena stipoides) couldn’t have been developed as an edible grain, something that is now happening. Ditto for hundreds of corm producing herbaceous plants, grain producing wattles and then of course we have the domesticated Macadamia nut and water chestnuts up North. Water ribbons also show considerable promise according to Nick Romanowski.

    Incidentally, weeping grass is low P tolerant and the relevant genes may one day be isolated and put into rice etc.. and this is yet another reason not to take the End is Nigh lobby too seriously.

  96. November 8th, 2013 at 00:39 | #96

    No point really in worrying about climate change either. There’s bound to be a carbon capture or geo-engineering solution around the corner.

    Lots of unproven concepts are quite promising as long as you take the “Yippee, Everything Is Great As Is” lobby seriously enough.

  97. November 8th, 2013 at 00:43 | #97

    This one is going straight to the pool room:

    One often hears this claim but of course it isn’t true.


  98. November 8th, 2013 at 02:51 | #98

    @John Quiggin
    Forecasts for global PV panel production in 2014 are from 40 to 55 GW. The thing is, the trend growth rate since 2000 is 44% per year. The industry is back to health. The default on-trend forecast has to be that annual installations will be 100GW in 2016 and 200GW in 2018.

    To think it’s going to be less, you need to identify – not handwave – some bottleneck in supply or demand, or a fundamental technical limitation. A policy reversal in China would do the trick, but in favour of what? The election of a few reactionary governments like Abbott’s is no longer enough, since solar is below socket parity more or less everywhere. Jinko’s cost of production is at 50c$ a watt now, and that’s without adding new capacity. Think of the multi-gigawatt fabs the major producers are planning now.

  99. November 8th, 2013 at 06:11 | #99

    Ikonoclast, if you are suggesting that Australia could run out of water, our experience with droughts shows that if average rainfall was say havled it would be quite disastrous for the environment and agriculture, but Australia could still manage to feed its own population and produce some food for export. You can check out Isreal for an example of how a developed country can cope with very limited water supplies per capita and maintain agricultural production. (And Israel has also demonstrated how people can get buy on less than ten liters of water a day, although oddly enough it’s not actual Israelis that they demonstrate this on.) Currently Australia already uses desalinised water for agriculture in the sense that it is used to stop cities bidding water away from irrigation rather than used directly. There is nothing to stop Australia using more desalination or greatly reducing the amount of water cities use.

    You mention that we lack oil but we have more than enough liquid petroleum to allow us to run down our current oil burning infrastructure and electrify transport. We also unfortunately have large amounts of oil shale that could be exploited and was exploited on a small scale until 1952 when its subsidy was stopped. So we’re not about to run out of oil.

    You mentioned Australia’s poor soils, but we’ve demonstrated the ability to both not make them worse and to improve them. One method of improvement is to add charcoal (biochar in trendy speak) to the soil to amend it which has the advantages of improving both water and nutrient availability for plants. It also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in the ground, although unfortunately we lack the ability to create kilometer thick artifical coal seams as the Coalition seems to believe. So we’re not going to run out of soil either.

    To sum up, we don’t seem to be facing any resource shortages that put civilisation in Australia, or even the lives of significant numbers of Australians, at risk.

  100. November 8th, 2013 at 07:27 | #100

    Megan, there are a variety of methods of producing hydrogen without using natural gas. Electrolysis of water is one method. It is more expensive than using natural gas, but this isn’t really a problem for people in developed countries as it might increase people’s daily food bill by a cent or two. A cent or two a is a problem for the world’s poorest people, but it’s probably better than actively killing them by dumping CO2 into the air. Producing hydrogen from water is not particularly complex. Depending on what the price of natural gas does it may be cheaper to use natural gas to produce hydrogen and then sequester the CO2 released, but as the spot price of electricity may regularly be quite low in the future this may not be the case. Or it may be cheaper to use hydrogen solar cells that produce hydrogen from water and sunlight. It remains to be seen.

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