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Is global collapse imminent ?

September 3rd, 2014

Reader ZM points me to a paper with this title, by Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne. Not only does Turner answer “Yes”, he gives a date: 2015. That’s a pretty big call to be making, given that 2015 is less than four months away.

The abstract reads:

The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.

A central part of the argument, citing Simmons is that critics of LtG wrongly interpeted the original model as projecting a collapse beginning in 2000, whereas the correct date is 2015.

I’ve been over this issue in all sorts of ways (see here and here for example, or search on Peak Oil). So readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t buy this story. I won’t bother to argue further: unless the collapse is even more rapid than Turner projects, I’ll be around to eat humble pie in 2016 when the downturn in output (and the corresponding upsurge in oil prices) should be well under way.

Given that I’m a Pollyanna compared to lots of commenters here, I’d be interested to see if anyone is willing to back Turner on this, say by projecting a decline of 5 per cent or more in world industrial output per capita in (or about) 2015, continuing with a sharply declining trend thereafter. [minor clarifications added, 5/9]

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  1. ZM
    September 12th, 2014 at 12:20 | #1

    Thanks :)

  2. September 12th, 2014 at 14:51 | #2

    As more and more countries eliminate absolute poverty, more and more pressure is going to come on the few remaining poverty stricken nations to continue to supply land, resources, and labour at low cost. Clearly decreasing poverty means the world is heading for an economic crisis. Or maybe not, for I believe we can escape this trap through the use of technology and creative state making. The world currently has vast tracts of almost enitrely uninhabited land ranging from Antartica to the Gobi Desert to central Australia. What we need to do is create new poverty stricken states in these areas and populate them with poverty stricken robots. These new states can then be exploited to give the rest of the world the growth it needs to to ensure continually increasing living standards for all. (For all humans that is, not those filthy povetybots.)

  3. Nick
    September 12th, 2014 at 15:31 | #3

    Bot-people?

  4. September 12th, 2014 at 16:23 | #4

    Yes, bot-people. And when the poverty stricken bots attempt to seek refuge in Australia we’ll detain them or send them back over the border, possibly via catapult, and there won’t be a gosh darned thing the humanitarians can do about it because they’re not human. And we can revel in our cruelty and pretend we are big men. (Women can join in and pretend they are big women, but I’d prefer it if they pretended they were big men. I’m willing to provide fake bald patches and socks.)

  5. September 12th, 2014 at 16:33 | #5

    And for people who are worried about trees grown to sequester carbon burning down that can easily be solved by cutting the trees down and setting them on fire. In a low oxygen environment, of course. Electricity can be generated from the pyrolysis if desired and the char that results can be used as a soil admendment or just dumped in the ocean (take that, seabed!) to sequester the carbon. Or the pyrolysis can be skipped and the plant matter can be dumped straight in the ocean. Or in a cold water lake in those strange places where such things apparently exist.

    Note that the char (charcoal, biochar, whatever…) can be used as a substitute for coal, but that’s not carbon negative. But it is carbon neutral which is a darn sight better than the carbon positive act of burning coal.

  6. Hermit
    September 12th, 2014 at 17:41 | #6

    Of course fossil fuels are forms of organic matter that by chance were buried before they could oxidise or ferment with the help of microorganisms. The fact Nature had done this for half a billion years beforehand was a windfall when h. saps arrived. Nowadays the public doesn’t seem so keen on burning wood for electricity as we see with the Drax UK coal/biomass power station and the chopping of beech trees in Germany
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-renewable-energy-policy-takes-toll-on-nature-conservation-a-888094.html
    I suspect if you do the numbers we can’t grow trees fast enough to do the required carbon removal. We should preserve the trees we have and let them fall where they stood to rot slowly. From observation a good role for buried charcoal is to hold moisture in the lattice structure and for wood ash to raise the pH of ‘sour’ compost.

  7. September 12th, 2014 at 23:24 | #7

    @Hermit
    I suspect if we do the numbers it would make a lot more sense to stop burning coal.

  8. Hix
    September 13th, 2014 at 06:37 | #8

    Sorry still pretty much the same to me. Sure its a spectrum and sure the op is about a particular strong claim, but ultimately its all about uterly unrealistic pessimistic asumptions about technological progress and adaption.

  9. September 13th, 2014 at 15:00 | #9

    And another update on weekend electricity in South Australia. Grid demand at around noon was a little over 1 gigawatt and the skies were mostly cloudless so solar was probably producing over 400 megawatts. That means rooftop solar was supplying around 29% of total electricity use and grid demand at noon was significantly lower than at around 4:00 in the morning which is the traditional off peak time.

  10. Hermit
    September 13th, 2014 at 17:25 | #10

    RB what do you think of the idea that SA builds a nuke instead of new submarines? With Cooper Basin gas expected to double to $8 a gigajoule after Gladstone LNG opens then base and intermediate load electricity will get very expensive. The Torrens Island gas fired power station is also inefficient by modern standards.

    While this AEMO report on SA energy options is relatively recent it is already outdated in that geothermal, wave power and coal gasification have not gone ahead. Figure 2-1 of that report shows SA’s electricity in 2013 was 8% solar, 14% coal, 23% wind and 50% gas. it’s the 64% coal and gas that needs replacing. SA has perhaps 40% of the world’s easily mined uranium so I don’t think they’ll run out anytime soon.

  11. Ivor
    September 13th, 2014 at 17:51 | #11

    @Hermit

    Why do these nuclear weeds keep popping-up?

  12. Hermit
    September 13th, 2014 at 18:10 | #12

    @Ivor
    Simple arithmetic which I sometimes get wrong myself. The correct source is Figure 2-2 not 2-1 of the report which gives gas + coal as 69% for SA with solar as 4% in 2013. Perhaps we could wish away awkward facts.

  13. September 13th, 2014 at 18:48 | #13

    Hermit, nuclear power from Hinkley C, if it goes ahead, will cost over 17 cents a kilowatt-hour. And that is at an existing site in a country with a current nuclear power program and does not include the cost of insurance. That is several times as expensive as new wind in South Australia. Also, point of use solar provides electricity to consumers at a lower cost than any form of utility scale generation including coal, gas, wind, hydroelectricity, and most defintely nuclear. And finally I’ll mention that the South Australian grid is already entirely powered by renewables at times and as such is completely unsuitable for a large baseload generator such as nuclear power. There is simply no way nuclear power can compete anywhere in Australia, even if Bill Gates paid the insurance costs for free, and there is no useful niche it can fill in any capacity. To suggest that a nuclear power plant should be built in South Australia is nuttier than a lumpy chocolate bar.

  14. Ivor
    September 13th, 2014 at 19:42 | #14

    Hermit :
    @Ivor
    Perhaps we could wish away awkward facts.

    Like Fukushima?

  15. Ivor
    September 13th, 2014 at 19:46 | #15

    @Ronald Brak

    The cost of solar may well plummet, if these guys succeed.

    http://rt.com/news/186716-solar-panels-3d-printable/

  16. September 13th, 2014 at 20:12 | #16

    @Ivor
    Well, solar cells have already plummeted in price, Ivor, so if printed solar cells pan out it would be a double plummet. At current prices rooftop solar makes nuclear power completely uneconomical in Australia and further advances will make solar even cheaper.

  17. Ivor
    September 13th, 2014 at 21:24 | #17

    @Ronald Brak

    Yes, just so.

    We just need to ensure that the population does not grow so that there is not enough space for renewables. They use a lot of area.

  18. September 13th, 2014 at 21:52 | #18

    What did Thomas Edison say?

    We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
    In conversation with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone (1931); as quoted in Uncommon Friends : Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh (1987) by James Newton, p. 31

    Amazing what you can learn from Facebook and Wikipedia!

  19. September 13th, 2014 at 22:05 | #19

    @Ivor
    Well, no, in Australia solar takes no land out of use. Sure there are a few tiny solar farms in Australia at the moment, but the ones that are currently approved will be the last on grid ones that will be built here. Utility scale solar can’t just can’t compete with point of use solar in Australia and point of use solar almost entirely goes on roofs. It is possible that solar thermal capacity with storage will be built, but the economics of that don’t look like it will pan out either given the likelyhood of home and business energy storage taking off in Australia and other developments.

    Wind takes up very little area. New wind, which tends to use large turbines, only removes about 1% of the land they occupy from its original use. Wind uses up less land per kilowatt-hour generated than coal in Australia. And that’s not even counting land indunated by rising sea levels.

    As for population growth, Australia is a population whole. The birth rate is below replacement level and the population only grows by sucking in people from other countries, which makes a little more room for the people left behind. I would like to see every woman in the world able to freely decide how many children she would like to have and be completely confident that the children they have will never starve or die for lack of basic sanitation or medical care. That should result in the world population peaking at well below 9 billion. Without that, well world population might peak at 13 billion or more, but that seems an extremely unlikely outcome to me.

  20. Hermit
    September 13th, 2014 at 23:16 | #20

    RB I think you’ll find that Hinkley C is still cheaper than what ACT will pay for solar power from Royalla except it will work at night and at full bore in rainy weather. I’m struggling with SA getting from 69% fossil fuelled electricity in 2013 to presumably 0% at some unstated time in the future. I guess it’s just one of those things you have to believe in.

    As for not needing baseload power that’s a big relief. Perhaps they should dynamite this 1.28 GW power station
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torrens_Island_Power_Station

  21. September 14th, 2014 at 00:42 | #21

    @Hermit
    Hermit, you may be the only person in the world who has trouble seeing how SOUTH AUSTRALIA could reduce its dependance upon fossil fuels to generate electricity. In nine years South Australia went from getting almost no energy from renewables to getting about 40% of its electricity from wind and solar. South Australia currently generates electricity from wind equal to about one third of its total consumption and about 6% from rooftop solar. South Australia is the shining star in the firmament of the Southern Hemisphere’s renewable revolution! Vive la revolución solar y eólica! And after all this, after this great victory for the planet, for humanity, for the future, your conclusion is we need to build a nuclear power plant? C’est un non sequitur, n’est-ce pas? Or, if you don’t speak French: Eeeehhhhhh? Nani? Kore wa non sequitur des ne?

  22. September 14th, 2014 at 00:53 | #22

    @Hermit
    And Hermit, don’t try to pretend that solar power costs whatever some idiots in the ACT are paying. We can all install solar for about $2 a watt now on someone’s roof and that’s before the RET subsidy, so there is no point playing silly buggers about this. (Or if you prefer Japanese: We do not wish to behave like laughing homosexuals on this matter.)

    And if you are suggesting that Torren’s Island Power Station is baseload, you are either playing silly buggers or are confused. Currently Torren Island’s capacity factor is about 14%. After taking a break from having any operating baseload capacity it’s back in South Australia with a unit of the Northern Power Station operating in baseload mode. Feel free to dynamite that if you want, but be warned, I will finger you.

  23. Ivor
    September 14th, 2014 at 00:59 | #23

    @Ronald Brak

    Unfortunately roofs also take up area.

    A growing population needs more roofs.

    Believing in something being unlikely is not substitute for understanding the processes that make it likely.

    Science often contradicts belief.

  24. September 14th, 2014 at 01:45 | #24

    Ivor, what if we introduced a roof trading scheme to hold roof area constant and used the revenue raised to subsidise roofless underground housing for the growing population?

  25. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2014 at 08:21 | #25

    Australia is not short of hot, open, empty, windy spaces. We have plenty of land for solar and wind power.

    I have done the calculations for my suburb near Brisbane’s city limits. Roof space alone (residential and retail) could provide all the electrical power the suburb needs including extravagent amounts of air-conditioning. Unutilised light-industrial zoned land in the next suburb could easily provide all the space necessary, including buffer zones, for thermal energy storage tanks. Solar roofed sheds, garages and car parks could recharge a suburb-sized fleet of electric cars and light electric trucks.

  26. Ivor
    September 14th, 2014 at 08:55 | #26

    @Ronald Brak

    The rich get the light and the poor end up submerged in darkness.

  27. September 14th, 2014 at 09:30 | #27

    @Ikonoclast
    That’s very interesting about your calculations for your suburb, Ikon. Have you published that anywhere or do you intend to do so? I would be interested to learn more about this.

  28. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2014 at 10:35 | #28

    @Val

    I am only a layperson in these matters. My calculations were back of the envelope stuff. My house uses about 50% of its north facing roof for solar panels and a solar evacuated tube hot water combined. My house (household of 4 adults) has consistently produced all the hot water it needs and 150% to 166% of the electric power it needs. That is to say, we export to the grid net power that is sufficient for 1/2 to 2/3rds of the power needs of another household like mine. That is from just half of our north facing roof.

    Therefore, if every house in the suburb utilised all north facing roof space they would produce about 300% of household power and heating needs. This would cover extra requirements like more air-con (we don’t use much of that) and recharging electric cars. If shopping centres covered their roofs and carparks with solar panels there is no doubt they could power themselves and recharge their customers’ cars while they shopped. Roofing that is basically integrated solar panels is here now. Alternatively, solar panels mounted just above the roof (leaving an air gap) are wonderful insulation. Most of that radiant sunlight energy that used to go into roofs and roof spaces is turned into electrical power. Thus other insulation and air-con costs are reduced.

    The problem that would remain is energy storage. Molten salt tanks can solve this and are safe enough for a light industrial area. At night the stored heat generates steam to drive steam turbines driving electrical generators.

  29. September 14th, 2014 at 11:43 | #29

    @Ivor
    Ivor, I’m not so optimistic. On average the rich would probably get the nicer accommodation.

  30. September 14th, 2014 at 16:30 | #30

    South Australia electricity update: On a sunny spring Sunday today, rooftop solar was supplying around 33%, or one third, of total electricity use at around noon. That means rooftop solar was producing up to one half as much electricity as the utility scale grid generation was supplying. Wholesale electricity prices (Regional Reference Prices) were lower at that time than they were in early morning. Assuming average output, about half of the grid generated power would have come from wind and so South Australias electricity would have mostly come from new renewables for much of the day. As one can see, this is not a good grid to build a nuclear plant in, and renewable capacity is continuing to expand.

  31. Hermit
    September 14th, 2014 at 17:02 | #31

    @Ronald Brak
    I imagine SA people have cooked their Sunday roast dinner around midday and are keeping it in a reflective blanket until 7 pm. Ditto coffee and toast for 7 am tomorrow. If SA renewables are expanding I guess they didn’t need the RET after all.

    You might notice that an expansion has been approved of SA-Victoria electricity transmission. That is not only to export SA wind power when they have some to spare but also to import brown coal fired electricity when they don’t. However when Holden closes (with up to 13,000 direct and indirect job losses) followed by the ASC with another 2,000 SA will have a glut of generating capacity. If SA dispatchable power consists mainly of expensive local gas fired generation and imported coal power I suggest the state will find it impossible to attract large new industries. The desal plant may have also to work hard if there is a dry summer.. sure it has some PV panels I’m taking 24/7 operation.

  32. BilB
    September 14th, 2014 at 17:35 | #32

    It is an old fight and just as dirty as ever.

    http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/big-oil-attacks-ethanol-industry

    It is worth googling the players such as abengoa.

  33. September 14th, 2014 at 17:46 | #33

    You are completely right, Hermit. In order to attract new industry to South Australia we need to forget about renewables which are currently supplying electricity for about 5 cents a kilowatt-hour and build a nuclear plant like Hinkley C that will provide electricity for almost 18 cents a kilowatt-hour at current exchange rates before allowing for insurance costs, before allowing for the extra costs of a greenfield development, before allowing for the extra cost resulting from the lack of a domestic nuclear power industry, and before allowing for the cost of currency hedging for all the overseas equipment and expertise that will need to be brought in. That is simply a brilliant plan, Hermit. I can’t think of anything that is more likely to attract industry to South Australia than the opportunity to pay a bare minimum of an extra 13 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by nuclear power. Why just the other day in Sydney a Hong Kong business man was saying to me he would jump at the chance to build high quality short haul cargo vessels in South Australia if only electricity prices were double what they were now. He made a point of saying how the state was throwing his business away by consistantly lowering the average wholesale price of electricity through the use of renewables, since the contracts of large industrial users are tied to it. Why can’t we learn from the example of the Phillippines that catapulted itself into history by building the Bataan nuclear power plant that was such a huge boon to businesses, but mainly Westinghouse.

  34. Ikonoclast
    September 14th, 2014 at 18:17 | #34

    @Hermit

    There are plenty of solutions.

    (1) Cook and eat the sunday roast for lunch. Have some cold leftovers for dinner.

    (2) Build solar updraft towers which make power 24 hours a day.

    (3) Combine solar, wind and molten salt heat storage systems throughout the state.

    But you have been told all this stuff before.

  35. September 14th, 2014 at 18:29 | #35

    @Ikonoclast
    Ikonoclast, unfortunately solar updraft towers aren’t terribly pratical:

    http://cleantechnica.com/2014/07/03/energy-towers-behind-rd-funding-pleas-hype/

  36. hix
    September 16th, 2014 at 00:06 | #36

    The problem with printed solar cells so far is that they dont last very long. Production is already cheaper than standard silicium cells. Theres more than enough space for free land solar installations just about everywhere, not just in countries as sparesely populated as Australia.

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