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).
188 thoughts on “The end of the coal boom”
Domesticating a few boutique food plants in the 21st C does not equate to the orginal domestications that lead to the rise of agriculture. I note there are no animals on your list. Macadamia nuts are a bit of an exception though we let Hawaii steal a march on us there with our seedlings. The aboriginals farmed fresh water fish somewhere in the Murray basin IIRC. I am not sure if that equates to domestication.
Overall, there are few species in the Australian environment which were suitable for domestication in the context of moving from hunting and gathering to herding and farming.
But if we keep growing indefinitely we will face such risks. The whole point of my argument re Australia was that need to achieve a stable population and steady state economy before we overshoot. We cannot keep growing indefinitely.
Also, Australia will face risks as parts of the rest of the globe implode. Regional wars and refugee pressures of the order of millions or perhaps even tens of millions will be part of this picture.
When the world faces a depopulation event, going from about 10 billion in 2050 to about 6 billion in 2100, life will not be smooth for any corner of the globe. The LTG World3 model predicts a die-off of about this magnitude. It is a robust model. It was calibrated by running it against known data 1900 to 1980-ish. Re-running it against real data from about 1980 to the present has confirmed the model is robust and basically tracking correctly.
I am astonished at how many people think we can keep growing the population and economy forever. To me it is patently obvious that this is impossible. I am also astonished when people dismiss the robust modelling of LTG and the clear ecological data about plague populations and die-offs. I am further aghast when people think we are not near the limits when the warning signs are so obvious; peak oil, peak water, peak energy, climate change, deforestation, fisheries collapsing, ocean acidification, hyper rapid extinction event and so on.
One estimate of the lifetime CO2e from the two biggest mines in the Galilee Basin going ahead is 3.7 bn tonnes
That’s from escaped methane, diesel, overseas burning of the coal and so on.
Meanwhile BHP Billiton has written to the Abbott government expressing their approval of carbon tax repeal and its replacement by Direct Action. Since DA is a mish mash of unproven and uncosted ideas perhaps BHP would like to believe in the tooth fairy as well. Ex CEO Marius Kloppers (a PhD in chemistry) endorsed carbon tax perhaps that’s why he was shown the door. Do you get the feeling the country is being run by boofheads?
Ikonoclast, Australia’s fertility rate is currently about 1.89. A rate of about 2.1 is required to maintain a stable population.
I thought agriculture was problematical in Australia due to recurrent drought; any population dependent on it would face difficulties with multiple years of inadequate yields. Without the transport and trade in food that allows the good yields of one region to supplement inadequate ones in another, agriculture was going to struggle.
Ken, there’s no sign I can see of a lack of resources making transport go away.
“I am astonished at how many people think we can keep growing the population and economy forever.”
I’m not sure if other commenters are thinking or discussing about the possibility of growing population and economy forever, but more about potential resource constraint which may impact Australia and the world (at least that was how I perceived the discussion).
Resource constraints predictions have too much uncertainty to simply adhere to doom and gloom prediction due to unpredictable technology advancement. What’s more it is unproductive to spend time convincing other people that doom is inevitable rather than spend time to discuss how to effective use existing technology efficiently and/or how to improve technology in these matters. Seriously, we are discussing inevitable doom in a thread about “peak coal” rather than discussing about where to go from here? In the end, how do you start researching/developing a technology and/or economic planning by assuming catastrophic doom is simply inevitable?
“Overall, there are few species in the Australian environment which were suitable for domestication in the context of moving from hunting and gathering to herding and farming.”
False, as per the list I gave you. Animals suitable to domestication include the emu.
I’ve noted time and time again that when you provide evidence to support your doomsaying you get caught out because your knowledge base is unusually thin. It is a little embarrassing to witness, to be honest.
@ Tom I think we need to find the least-worst path whatever that is. We don’t appear to have the stomach for really hard decisions so I fear like Mr Creosote we will wonder where it all went wrong. I think there is no easy way to get from 80% fossil fuel dependence to say 20% or serious recycling of metal and phosphate. But we know it has to happen eventually as everything will run out. Getting to that point relatively unscathed is the problem.
I share the same pessimism on the ability of collective action before considerable harm on the ecosystem from climate change. Therefore it is in my opinion, best to discuss ways which may be the least worst path like you have suggested. We should not spend so much time banging on catastrophic doom is inevitable because I don’t think anyone can put forward a plan or a model with doom being inevitable in the assumptions.
Well, it is hard to find specific information on Australian resource usage and possible constraints. While i think global factors are important, others are interested in Australia alone. I have found one article specific to the ecological footprint of the NT, but I wouldn’t think the results of this would be the same elsewhere in Australia. It does show we have an unfairly high level of consumption compared to global averages, and that there are differences w/in Australia (in this case between indigenous and non-indigenous australians. but it doesn’t really talk about overshoot as such, that I could see, although it did talk about lowering the footprint.
“An assessment of environmental sustainability in Northern Australia using the ecological footprint and with reference to Indigenous populations and remoteness”
Richard Wooda, Stephen Garnetta
a School for Environmental Research, Charles Darwin University, NT 0810, Australia
b Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
” To provide a quantitative analysis of environmental impact, we compare assessments within the Territory population, and between this and other populations. To do so we have adopted a holistic approach that is able to capture not only the direct impact on the environment through on-site activities (such as land use and fossil fuel consumption), but also the indirect impacts that occur in the provision of goods and services to the population to be studied”
“the Ecological Footprint is a measure of human demand on the bioproductive land area that is required to support the resource demands of a given population or specific activities. This includes the land area needed to provide biological resources (raw materials, food, timber, etc) as well as the (notional) area required to absorb the carbon dioxide emissions emitted due to the consumption patterns of its population….the Ecological Footprint is an indicator for the impacts of consumption of the population wherever the products and services are produced.”
“The total footprint of the population of the Northern Territory is approximately 1.6 million global hectares, which, due to its small population and large land area, is just over 1% over the Territory’s land area. The average per-capita footprint was estimated at 8.3 gha. Fifty-four percent of this is due to the non-Indigenous population of Darwin, and about 79% due to the non-Indigenous population across the Territory. For comparison, the non-Indigenous population of Darwin is about 48% of the population, and non-Indigenous population across the territory is about 69% of the total population”
“The breakdown of the total footprint into consumption categories shows the dominance of the footprint embodied in service provision — ranging between 23 and 37% of overall footprints. Included in this category are trade margins, with associated transport impacts. Food and mobility footprints are also high — reflecting the large impacts of meat production and the large distances travelled by the population within the Northern Territory, and in flights.”
“The average ecological footprint of people in the Northern Territory is about four times higher than the global average of 2.2 gha and 25% higher than the Australian average of 6.6 gha (Global Footprint Network, 2006). Within the Northern Territory, remote Indigenous people have the lowest footprint and Indigenous people as a whole have lower footprints than non-Indigenous people.”
“Overall there is a footprint of approximately 8.3 ha per person in the Northern Territory, roughly 25% higher than the national average. Reducing the ecological footprint, however, is something to which there could be political aspirations”
Ronald, sorry, I wasn’t very clear; I was referring to the (lack of) invention/development of agriculture prior to European presence, which a few comments had raised. Without the ability to trade food across vast distances any community reliant on pre-tech agriculture in Australia would struggle to produce enough in the the rare good seasons to last through more common poor ones.
I’m not sure the biggest short term risk of social breakdown in the current context is actual resource shortages – I think the reliability and durability of organisational structures upon which economic systems depend is more problematic. It the economic system fails to function properly then shortages, even of resources that are abundant will follow. In some respects that is one of the few arguments I think has merit for justifying a failure to press ahead with rapid change. Of course, long term commitment and the absence of deliberate obstructionism – such as we see from affected commerce, industry and their mainstream political advocates – makes the process of change less problematic.
I think we are probably more stable and secure in this than the US, where millions of people are heavily armed, poorly informed and itching to take matters into their own hands.
I mostly think Ikonoclast is right – so far the best efforts to address climate change, population and sustainable use of resources fall way short of the minimum needed, even in nations where climate science denial and obstructionism has not had the committed backing of a major mainstream political coalition and the biggest corporate interests. We are not lacking any resources except commitment.
I don’t have exact figures for the amount of electricity required, which would probably vary depending on the exact technology. The Haber process requires 94kJ per mole of ammonia produced. Electrolytic hydrogen production has varying power requirements depending on the particular technology. The Norsk Hydro technology used 4.2kWh per cubic metre of hydrogen produced. A recent feasibility study into the use of offshore wind to produce ammonia found that a 300 tonne/day production facility would require 145MW in offshore wind capacity.As the Haber process requires relatively high temperatures and pressures, it is a fairly energy intensive process. But we know that renewable energy can (and does) produce electricity in very large amounts.
The restraints are essentially the same as those for any industrial process – the availability of raw materials, energy, finance and labour. In this case the raw materials are air and water, and the energy supply is renewable electricity. As all these things are available in very large quantities, they don’t represent significant constraints on expanding the process to a very large scale if required.
In terms of the numbers required to produce 100 million tonnes, if we rely on the 145MW for 300 tonnes/day figures taken from the feasibility study mentioned above, to produce 100 million tonnes/year using that approach, 132GW of wind capacity would be required. Globally, 44GW of wind capacity was added to the world’s electricity infrastructure. So, taking that as an example, the world could notionally add the amount of renewable energy capacity required to produce 100 million tonnes of ammonia per annum in around three years (obviously in reality it would take significantly longer than this, but the figures give an indication of the scale involved). If you’re interested, the full feasibility study is here
A rather flippant and not particularly thoughtful response.
It’s worth noting that we’re not talking about some pie-in-the-sky hypothetical technology here. Nitrogen fertiliser production using renewable energy and electrolysis-produced hydrogen was a mainstay of fertiliser manufacturing until it began to be replaced by fossil-fuel-based methods in the mid 20th century. Large-scale production (i.e. millions of tonnes) of nitrogen fertiliser using hydropower continued until the end of the 1970s. It’s a technology that’s already proven on a large scale. It declined purely because the fossil fuel alternative was cheaper. I imagine you would agree that that state of affairs won’t last forever. Large-scale production has not yet been undertaken with renewable energy other than hydropower, but no new technology is required to do it.
This issue is significantly different from global warming, which (unfortunately) policy makers appear to regard as sufficiently remote from immediate concerns that it can be largely ignored.
In contrast, notwithstanding the lackadaisical attitude in Australia, countries with big populations are acutely aware of food security issues, and it is highly unlikely that they will ignore emerging risks to fertiliser production. As there is an existing, practical technical alternative to fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertiliser production, IMHO it is reasonable to suppose that the alternative will be increasingly adopted once those countries perceive sufficient uncertainties in gas availability.
There are a great many things to be worried about in the way humanity is headed (global warming and the degradation of the oceans being two good examples). I don’t believe the supply of nitrogen fertilisers is particularly high on the list.
I have now found this article about the ecological footprint of Australia as a whole, it seems quite thorough and reputable, although it is old, so perhaps there is newer information somewhere?
M. Lenzen, S.A. Murray
A modified ecological footprint method and its application to Australia
Ecological Economics, 37 (2001), pp. 229–255
“In the updated ranking of the ecological foot- print of nations, we found Australia to have and
ecological remainder, i.e. remaining ecological capacity of 5.0 hectares per capita (ha/cap) Considering that Australia’s per-capita land clearing rate and greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in the world and that the ecological foot-print method is promoted as a policy tool for planning towards sustainability, we asked ourselves what we could conclude from this find- ing. It appeared to us that we could not conclude whether, within Australia, a problem exists at all and, if so, what it is (land clearing, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.), what the causes are (domestic consumption, exports, immigration, etc.), and what policy responses could be taken. We became concerned that this finding could be interpreted as to suggest that Australians are using their land at least sustainably, and therefore do not need policy changes. This concern motivated us to further investigate the methodology of the ecological footprint.”
” Therefore, ecological remainders or deficits do not reveal whether ecosystems in that country are managed sustainably or not. A re mainder may be unsustainably used for exports, and therefore may not indicate remaining capac- ity. A deficit of a country may be entirely due to imports, with associated impacts outside its bor- ders, while local ecosystems may be well pre- served. As a consequence, ‘overshoot’ can only be indicated in a global, but not in a regional context.”
” Land cover distur- bance is an indication of the unsustainability of farming or forestry practices, as it can be a pre- cursor to soil erosion and other causes of land degradation (Graetz et al., 1995). Until more de- tailed data are available on the unsustainability of various activities, land cover disturbance is the best indication available.”
” the intensity of human-induced changes to land varies consider- ably independent of productivity (compare Van den Bergh and Verbruggen, 1999). For example, land converted to roads and buildings is drasti- cally altered from its natural state, whereas land used for non-intensive grazing may be only slightly altered. When comparing the ecological footprints of different populations, the propor- tion of land within that footprint that has been drastically altered, or is used less intensively, is not known. This information can also not be concluded from consumption – land use matrices, because the land types a – f used by Wackernagel and Rees do not reflect land condition. For this reason, we introduce new land types and a weighting system for these types, which reflect the degree of alteration of land from its natural state.”
” comparisons between cit- ies’ and nations’ footprints and physical areas can be meaningless, because administrative boundaries are arbitrary from environmental per- spectives (Levett, 1998; Van den Bergh and Ver- bruggen, 1999). The result that, for example, Singapore runs an ecological deficit of ?7.1 ha/ cap, while Australia has an ecological remainder of 5.0 ha/cap (Wackernagel, 1997) does not mean that Singapore’s consumption is more unsustain- able than Australia’s consumption, since neither of the figures is based on information concerning to what extent the commodities that both societies consume are produced unsustainably, or about where impacts occur. ”
“According to Australian farmers’ perceptions, more than 16 Mha (106 ha) of agricultural land are degraded as a result of water and wind erosion, salinity, acidity, and compaction of soils, weed infestation, and feral animal invasion (ABS, 2000a). In conventional ecological footprints, this land is classified as consumed. However, a much larger area is sufficiently disturbed in order to cause significant biotic erosion. This has been demon- strated in a comprehensive study of the landcover disturbance over the entire Australian continent (Graetz et al., 1995).”
“Based on this judgement, the authors arrive at significantly disturbed areas of 153.2 Mha in the ILZ, 93% of which occurs on various agricultural lands, and of 115.2 Mha in the ELZ, which occurs solely on grazing land. These estimates are conser- vative, since Graetz et al. (1995) ignore habitat fragmentation and invasion by feral animals and weeds (see also Glanznig, 1995, p. 9). We assume that land used for crops and dairy cattle (about 20 Mha located entirely in the ILZ) is completely cleared, and therefore significantly disturbed. Therefore, more than 60% of Australian grazing land is significantly disturbed.”
“Most of Australia’s total land use based ecolog- ical footprint of 13.6 ha/cap is caused by pastures for food (e12, mainly beef), followed by pastures for consumer goods (e42, mainly clothing), pas- tures for services (e58, mainly retail trade, and e55 – 56, mainly accommodation and restaurants), and emissions land for food (g12, beef). A nega- tive entry is the emissions land for other services (g58), which contains the CO2 sequestration and soil carbon uptake service provided by the natural environment.”
“A comparison of totals shows that Australia’s ecological footprint is considerably lower at 6 ha/cap when expressed in terms of world-average productivity, because the latter are higher than average Australian productivities.”
“For the incorporation of the hypothetical en- ergy and emissions land, we consider the pro- jected disturbance of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems due to climate change and sea level rise under doubled CO2 equilibrium conditions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 1995) estimates that, as a consequence of temperature changes and water availability, a sub- stantial fraction of forests ‘‘will undergo major changes in broad vegetation types, [and] the spe- cies composition of forests is likely to change; entire forest types may disappear, while new as- semblages of species, hence new ecosystems, may be established. […] Some species with climatic ranges limited to mountain tops could become extinct, [and] some coastal ecosystems are particu- larly at risk, including saltwater marshes, man- grove ecosystems, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, coral atolls, and river deltas’’. However, ‘‘the whole global agricultural production could be maintained relative to baseline production, [but] regional effects would vary widely’’. Accordingly, we classified 4000 Mha forests as becoming sub- stantially disturbed (C = 0.4), 200 Mha mountain and coastal ecosystems as becoming significantly disturbed (C = 0.6), and 5000 Mha agricultural land as becoming slightly disturbed (C = 0.2) by current greenhouse gas emissions of about 40 Gt CO2-e worldwide (27 Gt CO2 + 10 Gt CO2-e CH4 + 3 Gt CO2-e N2O; IPCC, 1994). Distur- bance due to human migration as a result of climate change is not taken into account. This scenario yields parameters given in the top row of Table 7. Due to the substantial uncertainty in predicting impacts of climate change on land, these figures should be taken as a crude approximation.”
“Nevertheless, Aus- tralia is a net ‘disturbance exporter’. Finally, com- paring Table 5 with Table 2 shows that the trade-adjusted land-use based disturbance-based ecological footprint (7.2 ha/cap) is about half the size of the trade-adjusted land use based ecologi- cal footprint (13.6 ha/cap).”
“Only a regional, disturbance- based, disaggregated approach can ensure that the main problems associated with a population’s land appropriation as well as adequate policy solutions can be inferred from ecological foot- prints. The figures in Tables 3, 5 and 6, for example, show that Australian grazing activities (X4.5 ha/cap, weighted) cause more disturbance than present Australian greenhouse gas emissions ( X 2 ha/cap, weighted), while a productivity- based, unweighted ecological footprint would yield the opposite result (f3 ha/cap for grazing, and ?4 ha/cap for all greenhouse gas emissions)”
” Looking at more long-term implica- tions, Daniels (1992) points out that, since the 1980s, Australia has sought to escape from the predicament of increasing foreign debt and falling primary commodity prices by expanding the vol- ume of primary exports such as meat, wool, wheat and aluminium in order to maintain total export revenues and living standards. Since these exports are associated with a high level of land degrada- tion and/or greenhouse gas emissions (see Tables 5 and 6), Australia has become locked into an environmental – economic dilemma through in- creasing dependency on degrading production and further erosion of environmental quality. Daniels (1992) argues that, in order to avoid long-term losses of productivity, biodiversity, and real in- come, Australia has to re-direct its domestic pro- duction towards more value-adding and less land- and emissions-intensive commodities.”
“Overshoot’ in conventional ecological foot- prints is interpreted as the additional land that would be needed to sustain the consumption of the reference population (Wackernagel et al., 1997, p. 13; Wackernagel, 1999). This might be true of consumption requiring agricultural and forestry land, but it is not true for energy land. As we have demonstrated for Australia in the previ- ous two paragraphs, this is because an energy land overshoot could be accommodated using current technologies, which require no or very little additional land. This finding shows the need to consider multiple sustainable energy scenarios within conventional ecological footprint assess- ments. However, in a disturbance-based ap- proach, this is not a concern, since it is not land that would be needed to assimilate emissions that is calculated but land disturbance due to climate change.”
“We acknowledge that the ecological footprint as developed by Wackernagel and Rees illustrates global unsustainability, and raises awareness about environmental degradation caused by ex- cessive consumption. However, we believe that, at least in its present form, it is unsuitable for plan- ning and policy design. Comparisons and policy guidance should be based, at the very least, on disturbance-based assessments of meaningfully delineated regions. We have developed a modified ecological footprint approach, which (1) rests on regional land use data on all land types, (2) reflects the degree of disturbance, and (3) uses input – output analysis in order to correctly allo- cate impacts to consumption categories, and to distinguish imports, domestic consumption, and exports. Using this approach, we have shown that, in Australia, land disturbance is mainly a consequence of the production of exports by graz- ing industries.
When determined based on actual land use on all types of land, Australia’s ecological footprint is about 13.6 ha/cap,”
“In principle, regional comparisons could be based on the ratio of land disturbance to available area. However, this ratio still does not yield in- sights about the degree of unsustainability of a region’s consumption, if the degree of disturbance that can be tolerated in the long term by relevant ecosystems is not known. We therefore do not see our modified ecological footprint as an indicator for unsustainability. “
That should have read “globally, 44GW of wind capacity was added to the world’s electricity infrastructure in 2012“.
‘When the world faces a depopulation event, going from about 10 billion in 2050 to about 6 billion in 2100, life will not be smooth for any corner of the globe. ”
The UN “low” population projection for 2100 is 6 billion, and does not include a mass die-off. It is a soft landing projection where there’s plenty of food for everybody, and the cost of stabilizing the climate isn’t as high as otherwise.
Ikonoklast, if you want a surefire prediction of doom, I suggest nuclear holocaust. Sooner or later, some crazy person will get access to one of the buttons, unless we manage to disarm them all first. You can’t be proven wrong if you assert this will happen sooner rather than later.
And, unlike the negative effect of doom-mongering on the environment, this prediction might actually spur people into action.
nuclear holocaust need not involve exchanges of icbms. here is david suzuki at a conference on water at the university of alberta, edmonton, last week. i-phone video by a student, aaron paquette, who was going to keep it for private use & notes, but thought it too important not to share & so posted it on you tube.
for those with slow connections or tight plans, suzuki opines that one more level 7 earthquake near fukushima (which he reckons as having a 95% probability in the next 3 years) would render japan uninhabitable and necessitate the evacuation of the west coast of north america.
this is the kind of scenario i personally fear most. and war. i was a cautious optimist about climate response until i read gwyn dyer’s “climate wars” in 2009.
But doesn’t that very fear cause you to support strong action to reduce carbon emmisions and a more constrained and redistributed global economy?
“The third part of Dyer’s presentation was “Why Don’t We Act?” Well, he says, we know what to do. Developed countries, the cause of 80 percent of the excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide, would have to reduce their emissions by 40 percent in 10 years. And they would have to give advanced technology and billions of dollars to developing countries for them to stop any increase in their emissions. This, in Dyer’s opinion, is not going to happen. No politician in any rich country will win an election on a platform of huge giveaways and massive costs. Most of the scientists and all the generals he interviewed expect carbon dioxide levels to rise to 500 or 550 ppm with temperatures increases of 6°C.”
A recent news release by a number of climate scientists advocated rapid introduction of nuclear power to counter the AGW threat. I have argued for nuclear power but only because I have little faith that other safer measures will be in place in time. However that is also now true of nuclear power. We need more than new power sources we need a transformation of our whole attitude towards how we handle the environment. The BIG problem I have is that in a panic various governments will rush towards nuclear power with poor safety standards, the result being a number of nuclear accidents.
@John H. Can you imagine the scenario of another GFC this time beyond the capacity to reinflate with developing nations going broke and civil unrest overthrowing govts exposing existing nuclear facilities to chaotic forces?
You could also add a naturally occurring catastrophe or two, say floods, to devastate an economy.
I think being blasé or complacent about the environment, climate change and LTG is more dangerous than “doom-mongering” and actually gives more succour to BAU. But that is simply my opinion.
In 2014, maybe the 2nd quarter, I will be able to do a decent survey and essay of the dangers and put it in the idée fixe thread. Can’t see myself having much spare time before then. Family putting too many demands on me. I can actually understand a person of my age wanting to retreat from the world for a year or so and pursue private contemplation and studies. There is something about modern life that assails us with endless annoyances. One needs a retreat.
From the Ten Commandments of Leo Szilard:
Do your work for six years; but in the seventh, go into solitude or among strangers, so that the recollection of your friend does not hinder from being what you have become.
It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future,Saul Bellow,Viking, Penquin
,New York, 1994157
“A professor in California has estimated that on an average weekday the New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime. I am ready to believe that this is more or less true, although I suspect that an educated Elizabethan was less confused by what he knew. He would certainly have been less agitated than we are. His knowledge cannot have lain so close to the threshold of chaos as ours.”
“What good is such a plethora of information? We have no use for most of the information given by the New York Times. It simply poisons us.”
I have now looked for an article on ecological footprints and overshoot – because the previous article stated that overshoot could only be indicated on a global scale. This is the first article I have found, it looks quite reputable to me, and is quite recent. I’m sorry I can’t just sum it up,and say which resources are likely to be constrained in the future. From what I gather it doesn’t work like that and also I don’t have a lot of ability with scientific language or have a sufficient understanding to render it into plainer english.. The actual paper also gives lots of figures and equations etc. There may be criticisms as to the data used or methodology, I really don’t have the training to make a judgement, I just have to take these things on faith, like a lot of other people.
Volume 24, January 2013, Pages 518–533
“Accounting for demand and supply of the biosphere’s regenerative capacity: The National Footprint Accounts’ underlying methodology and framework”
Michael Boruckea, David Mooreb, Gemma Cranstonb, c, Kyle Graceya, Katsunori Ihaa, Joy Larsona, Elias Lazarusa, Juan Carlos Moralesa, Mathis Wackernagela, Alessandro Gallib
“Economic prosperity and societal well-being depend on the planet’s capacity to provide resources and ecosystem services. While most policy decisions are made under an assumption of limitless resources and ecosystem services, the planet has boundaries and sustainable development cannot be secured without operating within them.
Environmental changes such as deforestation, collapsing fisheries, and carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere indicate that human demand is likely to be exceeding the regenerative and absorptive capacity of the biosphere. As the demands upon natural systems rapidly increase due to the swelling global economy and the need to attain better standards of living, several studies suggest that many of the Earth’s thresholds are being exceeded and that, because of this, the Biosphere’s future ability to provide for humanity is at risk”
“The first systematic attempt to calculate the Ecological Footprint and biocapacity of nations began in 1997. Building on these assessments, Global Footprint Network initiated its National Footprint Accounts (NFA) program in 2003, with the most recent Edition issued in 2011. NFAs constitute an accounting framework quantifying the annual supply of, and demand for, key ecosystem services by means of two measures.
Ecological Footprint: a measure of the demand populations and activities place on the biosphere in a given year, given the prevailing technology and resource management of that year.
Biocapacity: a measure of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area available to provide the ecosystem services that humanity consumes – our ecological budget or nature’s regenerative capacity.”
“The National Footprint Accounts measure one main aspect of sustainability only – how much biocapacity humans demand in comparison to how much is available – not all aspects of sustainability, nor all environmental concerns. The attempt to answer this particular scientific research question is motivated by the assumption that the Earth’s regenerative capacity is the limiting factor for the human economy in times when human demand exceeds what the biosphere can renew.”
“The National Footprint Accounts measure one main aspect of sustainability only – how much biocapacity humans demand in comparison to how much is available – not all aspects of sustainability, nor all environmental concerns. The attempt to answer this particular scientific research question is motivated by the assumption that the Earth’s regenerative capacity is the limiting factor for the human economy in times when human demand exceeds what the biosphere can renew.”
“The calculations in the NFA are based primarily on data sets (Table 1) from UN agencies or affiliated organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT, 2011), the UN Statistics Division (UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database – UN Comtrade, 2011), and the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2011). Other data sources include studies in peer-reviewed journals and thematic collections.”
“Aggregating results into a single value has the advantage of monitoring the combined demand of anthropogenic activities against nature’s overall regenerative capacity. It also helps to understand the complex relationships between the many environmental problems exposing humanity to a “peak-everything” situation (Heinberg, 2007). This is a unique feature since pressures are more commonly evaluated independently (climate change, fisheries collapse, land degradation, land use change, food consumption, etc.).”
“The use of global hectares allows for the addition of Ecological Footprint (and biocapacity) values of different land use types into a single number: consumption-focused applications that have a global context, and global sustainability studies aiming at comparing the Ecological Footprint (and biocapacity) results of Nations benefit from the use of global hectares.”
“All manufacturing processes rely to some degree on the use of biocapacity to provide material inputs and remove wastes at various points in the production chain. Thus all products carry with them an embodied Footprint and international trade flows can be seen as flows of embodied demand for biocapacity (see Fig. 3).”
“The Ecological Footprint represents demand for ecosystem products and services in terms of appropriation of various land use types (see Section 1) while biocapacity represents the productivity available to serve each use. In 2008, the area of biologically productive land and water on Earth was approximately 12 billion hectares.”
“In every year, the total biocapacity of the planet, expressed in global hectares, equals the total number of biologically productive physical hectares on Earth. Therefore, the number of global hectares of biocapacity available on the planet in any given year only reflects the total physical bioproductive area of the planet and is entirely insensitive to changes in yield. This can cause difficulties of interpretation when comparing changes in biocapacity and Ecological Footprint over time as it is hard to represent actual variations in demand and supply of regenerative capacity.”
“To create an appropriate time series for the percent uptake of anthropogenic carbon emissions into the ocean, in the NFA 2011 Edition we have used ocean uptake data (in Pg C yr?1) from Khatiwala et al. (2009) and divided this data by the corresponding (total anthropogenic) carbon emissions data (in Pg C yr?1) from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (Marland et al., 2007). The outcome of the revised calculation shows a relatively constant percentage uptake for oceans, varying between 28% and 35% over the period 1961–2008.
Implementing this change has caused a major shift in the total humanity’s Footprint value from 1961 to the late 1990s; this has significantly contributed to a shift in the global overshoot state – the first occurrence of overshoot is calculated as occurring in the early 1970s (NFA 2011 Edition), changed from the mid 1970s (NFA 2010 Edition).”
“According to the 2011 Edition of the National Footprint Accounts, in 1961 humanity’s Ecological Footprint was approximately half of what the biosphere could supply annually; humanity was living off the planet’s annual ecological interest, not drawing down its principal (Fig. 5). Since then, humanity’s overall Footprint has more than doubled, first exceeding the planet’s biocapacity in the early 1970s. This situation, known as overshoot, has continued to increase, reaching 52% in 2008.”
“In 2008, humanity’s Ecological Footprint consisted of 22% cropland, 8% grazing land, 10% forest land, 4% fishing ground, 54% carbon uptake land, and 2% built-up land. As these annual “biocapacity deficits” accrue into an ever larger ecological debt, ecological reserves are depleting, and wastes such as CO2 are accumulating in the biosphere and atmosphere.Per capita Ecological Footprint and biocapacity results for all countries for the past two years are reported in Table 2 and Table 3. These tables contain an ordinal ranking of countries by Footprint and biocapacity respectively, as well as a comparison with values from the previous NFA 2010 Edition.”
“Regardless of the changes at the national level, trends for both editions show an overall decrease in world biocapacity and an overall increase in Ecological Footprint during the 47-year time series.”
“Due to the increase in agricultural productivity over the last 50 years, one hectare of cropland in 1961 provided fewer resources for human consumption than one hectare of cropland in 2008, and thus corresponds to fewer constant global hectares of biocapacity.”
“NFAs aim at measuring whether or not humans are able to live within the Biosphere’s ecological budget. To answer this research question, a systemic approach is used to assess, in a combined way, the impact of pressures that are usually evaluated independently. Therefore, NFAs have been developed as a resource accounting framework, where the various pressures are first analyzed independently and results are then aggregated into a single number. Aggregation, however, has the drawback of implying a greater degree of additivity and substitutability between the included land use types than is probably realistic”
“Finally, NFAs are specifically constructed to yield conservative estimates of global overshoot. On the supply side, biocapacity is overestimated as both the land degradation and the long-term sustainability of resource extraction is not taken into account. On the supply side, Ecological Footprint is underestimated as it does not track freshwater consumption, soil erosion, GHGs emissions other than CO2 as well as impacts for which no regenerative capacity exists (e.g., pollution in terms of waste generation, toxicity, eutrophication, etc.)”
Ikonoclast, I take it you don’t currently think Australia is likely to run out of resources any time soon, but you fear Australia may be invaded by countries who think invading is a better option than paying for the resources that Australia is obviously only too happy to sell? (You’d think it would be difficult for a country that’s running out of resources to invade one that isn’t, wouldn’t you?) So maybe we should consider whether or not other countries that may invade Australia are likely to face civilisation collapsing or widescale death as a result of resource shortages. Let’s take the example of the only country that currently has the ability to successfully invade Australia any time it likes. Do you think the United States is likely to suffer from resource shortages that will cause civilisation there to collapse or failing that kill large numbers of Americans in the next 100 years?
Aargh, Ronald Brak, I quoted all that information for you to read – from three whole journal articles and you don’t seem to have glanced at any of it so far – I hope you might take the time to do later.
Now, I am loathe to bring up past mistakes and misdeeds and so forth, because there is an endless chain, but, Re: “You’d think it would be difficult for a country that’s running out of resources to invade one that isn’t, wouldn’t you?” – Why do you think that our soldiers (it is Remembrance Day soon) called Robert Menzies “PIG IRON BOB”?
ZM, as I mentioned before, I’m not very bright and so I’d like the name of one particular resource that Australia might run out of in say the next 100 years so I can contemplate in my slow ponderous way whether or not it is likely to be a problem and if so whether or not I should stock up on it.
With regards to Imperial Japan, that’s an astoundingly clear example of the difficulties that can result from being out resourced by opponents and the very negative returns that can result from a resource war. Or rather a war of national self-aggrandisement with resources as one excuse/justification.
Not the best approach, Ronald Brack. Resource life is a function of extraction rates, and in the span of 100 years an overpopulated world can achieve resource depletion rates that would defy comprehension.
Thanks for the info and links.
Are you sure about the “millions of tonnes in the 1970s”? I found some info from ‘HydroWorld’ that I read as being quite a bit less (?):
It still sounds like so much promising new tech, great in theory and even in the lab but not about to be reality in the volume and price needed.
I agree we have all sorts of trouble brewing (climate, water, oceans….), but I’m not sure why some topics seem to be “off limits” or subject to extremely vigorous reactions.
One theme I’m picking up from this thread is that there seems to be a drive to carefully balance (rational) negativity with hope. It seems that the thinking behind this is that if people at large believe our looming problems are too large they will bury their heads and not get behind action on climate change – or something along those lines (?).
I’m open to argument, but I’m not sure running a kind of Hope & Change line will deliver the type of urgent results the world undoubtably needs.
Any resource you think I should stock up on, BilB, that you think might be of great value to me or my family before the year 2,113?
With respect to resources over the next 100 years. That is a long projection time and many things could change. What we might run out of is dependent on how wise or foolish we are. If we seek to grow population and infrastructure endlessly we will run out of just about everything eventually except so-called ubiquitous resources. Sunlight and oxygen are examples of ubiquitous resources. But let me have a go at “particular resource(s) that Australia might run out of in say the next 100 years”.
1. Crude Oil. Australia is already past its peak oil so we will definitely run out of crude oil and crude oil products if we don’t import them or synthesise them or substitute in some way. Over a span of the next 100 years the world will also run out of oil apart from remnants so importing it won’t be an option. In addition our dwindling supplies of crude oil are light fractions and sour (high sulphur content). So we can’t produce diesel and lubricating oils (not easily) and the cost of removing the sulphur is significant.
However, we do have ample coal and ample gas provided we are not foolish enough to sell it all to China. Coal and gas can substitute and allow synthesis of petrol and lubricants though this a dirty process which releases much CO2. One would hope we won’t do it. Our wisest course would probably be to leave the coal in the ground and switch to gas, wind and solar for stationary (electrical) power. That is easily do-able for Australia.
Uranium is a back-stop but it takes a long lead time to build reactors and ultimately uranium is not a renewable resource. With our high solar, wind, wave, tidal and geo (heat) endowment we really don’t need to use uranium.
Our transport fleet needs to be converted from petrol and diesel to natural gas. That is why we should not sell our endowment of natural gas to China. We would need to move to mass transit in a big way meaning electric trains. Electric cars will move some people but not in a major way.
2. Water. Water will be a key problem for Australia and we will run out periodically in various regions over and over in the next hundred years. Don’t forget the Murray was nearly dead until some fortuitous rains finally arrived. Don’t forget Brisbane was down to 6% storage capacity IIRC before the last major drought broke. So with fresh water we will never “run out” overall. There will always be some somewhere. But regional crises will occur on a rolling basis. When this gets common enough it becomes a limiting factor on population and economic activity. So we will run out of enough water for further growth at some point.
3. Food. Food will eventually become a limiting factor like water. Whether we in Australia will be limited by food in the next hundred years I cannot predict. However, we can predict we will limited by water (which also limits food) unless mass solar desalination becomes viable.
In summary, at some point we must reach the limit to growth. It is not a matter of running out of renewable resource totally but a matter of reaching the point where we consume all annually replenishable resources each year and having nothing to spare for growth. This assumes we do not overshoot and suffer some collapse after the overshoot.
We must plan now to reach a stable, sustainable peak population. That will involve several hard choices but the alternative of overshoot and collapse is much, much worse.
Ikonoclast, do you think that any of those possible shortages you mention have the potential to cause civilisation to collaspe in Australia or significant numbers or Australians to die in the next 100 years?
Megan, if you take a flash light battery and the wire from a couple of twisty ties you can make hydrogen gas in a glass of water. It’s that simple. It’s nothing we can’t handle. And I’ve just roughly calculated that Australians spend less than a cent a day to pay for the nitrogen ferilizer used to produce their food. (Less if you’re a vegetarian!) So if we double, or even triple that cost, it’s not going to be a disaster.
Apparently we’re up to 130 million tonnes p.a. now. So, using some figures from Tim’s feasibility study we need:
Megan, that comes to about six cents a day per person which has got to be at least a cent or two short of what’s required to collapse civilization. There are cheaper options, but even if there weren’t we can afford six cents a day.
Australia is in less danger of collapse and die-off than many regions of the world. That doesn’t mean we are in no danger. I do tend to think that “collapse” will take a very region dependent path. Some regions are in much more danger and more imminent danger than other regions. I would nominate MENA (Middle East and North Africa) as an area where the precursor conditions for collapse, if not the collapse itself, have already commenced. The problems in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria (to name 5 countries) might appear to be socio-political and militarised and on one level they are. However, underlying those problems are resource shortages which are starting to bite. Fuel and food, the prices and shortages thereof, are the key issue.
Initially, collapse looks like civil war and/or economic depression because collapse induces both of these phenomena. Further confusing the picture, nations can also have civil wars or economic depressions for reasons other than resource shortages. Russia was a case in point in the 1990s where it contracted severely due to the disruptions of changing from communism to (unfortunately) crony or mafia capitalism combined with a modern form of Chekism (rule by the Secret Police). Russia, by ecological footprint analysis, is not yet in overshoot whereas, for example, China and the USA are.
To take another example, Greece’s problems are complex. Being tied to a pan-European currency means Greece does not have currency sovereignty. It cannot set monetary policy appropriately for its own economy and even its fiscal policy is largely dictated from Brussels (EU). Its economy produces too little of value, is corrupt and inefficient. Its military is too large for such an impoverished country. All of these things are problems. But behind that Greece is deficient in basic resources and cannot import enough of them due to its own lack of foreign earnings. So there is a component to Greece’s problems that is due to resource shortages.
There are two issues here. These are the degree of resource autarky (self-sufficiency) that a country possesses and the degree to which it can import resources where it is not self sufficient. Greece suffers a double-whammy now. It is deficient in basic resources and has little to trade for these basic resoources.
As resource shortages become global, we can be certain that countries will ban exports when domestic requirements need to be met first. Russia suffured a wheat shortage relatively recently and banned wheat exports for a time. Such actions will become more common in a resource constrained world. We can expect to see international trade decline markedly as desperate countries hold back resources for domestic use. In that situation, countries self-sufficient in most basic requirements will fare better. Australia will meet that condition provided we stabilise our population by about 30 million at the most.
However, desperate countries will not sit on their hands while better endowed countries more or less look after themselves. Expect regional conflicts and various sorts of resource wars. A country short of resources can initiate war and if victorious for a time it, or at least some of its armies, can live off the spoils of war for a time. This was true in the Napoleonic era and Napoleon’s campaign in Italy, early in his career, is a case in point. Japan did it also in WW2 as it took over S.E. Asia particularly for its oil and rubber resources. Whether this kind of geostrategy would translate to the modern world is any one’s guess. War is waged a lot differently now though it is more heavily resource dependent than ever.
Collapse and die-off will be a very complicated, regionally determined and conflict determined event, that is what I am saying. Will Australia run out of non-renweable resources and use all renewable resources annually within a 100 years? Who knows? Will India, China or Indonesia invade us to take our resources? Who knows? But all of these are possibilities. We cannot expect smooth sailing even if we remain self-sufficient for that time. Much of the rest of the world will be in a desperate bind and they won’t leave any corner of the earth unscoured for resources.
Ikonoclast, could you name some of these resources you think Australia might get invaded for?
Ronald Brak, you seem quite bright enough to read and write at any rate, so I’m sure you can read the quotes one by one and if any particular one perplexes you greatly I’m sure the commenters hear would be kind enough to assist you.
Dear Family of Brak, I am afraid Ronald vocally underestimates his own intelligence a great deal, but I am sure if he would only apply himself more and try to make you proud of him, his opinion of his ‘brightness’ would greatly improve. Yours etc.
I know you are being deliberately obtuse but it’s a worthwhile discussion.
Invasion is not necessarily a military or deliberately hostile act.
Australia could be invaded for it’s (perceived) space, it’s clean water and air, even for it’s civilisation as in – democracy, effective health and education system, social security and law and order.
Nations which are already overpopulated in that they rely heavily on food imports could be the ones to watch.
In light of discussions on invasions etc., Remembrance Day is approaching, and the older men and women have tables set up on the footpaths selling plastic poppies and pins in my town. It made me think that it’s inappropriate to call for a “war economy” when people have and do go to war, and if anything it’s the people who don’t want to change things to mitigate climate change that are warring against ourselves in the future and the people to come. Therefore, I still think that a more controlled and rationed economy would be good and is necessary, but I think now I will call it something like an economy of peace, or words along those lines anyhow.
An economy of Respect for Life. (can’t claim that as my own).
The ‘eaters’ don’t buy the fertiliser. The farmers need it if they are to produce the amount of food they do now (let alone increase its usage).
The farmers have to buy it and, at least the way we run capitalism at present, the people selling it will profit or simply refuse to supply.
I won’t go back and re-calculate the figures but that $159 billion is the annual production cost. Someone has to build the plants in the first place – lets say that needs a few trillion dollars.
If the farmers can’t get the fertiliser or can’t afford it then obviously they will grow about half as much food (on average), obviously some farmland will be so degraded that it will either grow nothing much or a great deal less than half.
On your recurring question about Australia, let’s say nothing much happens here but massive disruptions occur in the region leading to great misery and suffering. Let’s assume we can simply look after ourselves for the basics and everyone else be damned. Let’s assume we need to get even more “tough” on our borders – using lethal force quite liberally.
Of course some of us might feel that is unacceptable and we might seek to speak out or protest, and our governments might feel the need to impose special emergency laws to prevent such disruptive and negative activity.
We could argue about the state of Australian “civilisation” under that scenario, but personally I would consider it to be very unwell.
Maybe to make it easier you could set parameters for “civilisation” and “collapse”.
Salient, trust me, I can be obtuse without even trying. For example I honestly don’t understand how an invasion could not be a military or a delibrately hostile act as you suggest it could be. It seems unlikely that a group of friendly tourists could arrive and take over everything north of the Brisbane line accidentally. I also don’t understand why a country would invade Australia for coal when Australia has never shown any sign of not selling it to anyone and in fact is willing to not only sell it, but to susidise its sale. Also the price of coal is dropping as the world moves away from its use which means the coal pit that you’ve captured with no functioning mining equipment at the end of a heavily damaged railway line of a stupid gauge with no rolling stock that leads to a blown up coal terminal that’s been terminated won’t be much of a prize. And to make things worse robot mining trucks are now squashing your supply line. I also find the suggestion that China might invade Australia because it is overpopulated odd. China’s population has almost peaked and will start declining after 2030. Also they don’t have a navy. Sure, they could build one, but they’d better hurry up if they want to invade before their population starts decling and they lose the incentive. Indonesia’s fertility rate is basically at replacement level at the moment and their populaton growth rate is below Australia’s. Also they have a naval problem too. They could make landings but oddly enough Australia’s defence forces are of such composition that it would make maintaining supply rather difficult. Lucky that, isn’t it? India’s population will continue to grow for several decades before it levels off, but its growth is now quite slow compared to the past and is now less than Australia’s also. It also has a navel problem. And it would have the problem of dealing with our allies such as Indonesia and China. And if Indonesia tried to invade it would have problems dealing with our allies such as China and India. And if China tried to invade it would have problems with our allies such as Indonesia and India. If your only experience with foreigners involves Argentinian ants, you may mistakenly think that they’re all on the same side. Well let me assure you, this isn’t the case. The concept of balance of power is not a limited resource that is likely to soon disappear. Of course China could encourage India to stupidly attack Australia so that it would foolishly weaken itself by expending resources, so there is that to look out for, but I really don’t think India is that stupid. And besides, they’d rather give us a right good thrashing in cricket than anything else anyway. (Note that no two cricket playing countries have ever gone to war with each other.)
Anyway, I’m not saying that in the future all the nations of the world will necessarily hold hands and make out in the name of peace, but what I am saying is that if Australia is ever attacked it won’t be a war for resources even if that is a justification that is given, it will instead be because sometimes people can be really nasty to each other. (And even to themselves – See Germany, Japan, the United States, and basically any country that’s engaged in a war that’s had more than one reason in the modern era.)
Meagan, if you think electrolysis is too expensive, why not use a cheaper method?
Well, Remembrance Day coming up and all, Ronald Brak perhaps we could spare a thought for the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” who assisted Diggers? Are we their allies? Honestly, just google UN Act of Free Choice, or Tranmigrasi program, or Human rights abuse Papua. Did Australia step in to help them? No, it was decided not to be in our “interests”. Would it be in any of those countries’ interest to assist us if another was to invade (which I think is unlikely, I think companies buying up land and leaving Australian’s with less is more likely than invasion, and I hope neither come to pass)?
Regarding Germany and Japan, as I’m sure you’re aware, the imperialism of other European countries contributed greatly, as did the terms after the German defeat in the largely senseless First World War.
We do! It’s called fossil-fuel based Business As Usual.
Megan, yes, use natural gas.
Cheer up, ZM. Australia has had allies in every external military conflict it’s ever been in. Provide our Prime Ministers can refrain from eating live koalas on national television I’m sure we’ll be able to drum up a few in the future. Even if they’re only helping out because we promise to give them a good deal on poorly defined ‘resources’ that will apparently be incredibly valuable in the future.
As far as I can see we’ve only ever been involved in conflicts because of our allies in the first place, except for when we helped out East Timor, but that was more protection than a battle, and then we stole their oil resources by not defining the sea boundaries fairly.
That was where we started.
Now this “civilisation” and the “collapse”. Let’s say we use drones and our good friends the US to kill every sorry miserable soul who seeks to escape their misery by attempting to come here, and the police state we will have to impose in order to keep things “nice” here?
Is it your argument that as long as “we” are OK we still are civilised in that scenario?