Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


November 11, 2007

Population Growth and Global Warming

Category: Big Things,Economics,Editorial,Observations,Policy – Tom Harrison – 7:11 pm

In the last 35 years we have put more CO2 into the atmosphere than we have in … all of the preceding history of the world. We must not just stop, but reverse this trend quickly. The single fastest, most effective, most dramatic change we can make to reverse global warming is to not use energy we don’t need to use. We can see why by finding some truth in a common lie told by our trusted financial advisers.

Liars, Cheaters, and Lying, Cheating Car Salesmen, Statisticians, and Financial Advisers

Financial advisers are fond of pointing out that $5,000, invested in an account paying 7% interest will double in about 10 years. Then that value will double again in the next 10, and so on. If you invest that money when you are 20 and withdraw it when you are 70, it will have doubled 5 times and be worth $160,000. One interesting aspect of this is that in the period between when you are 60 and 70, you will get your last doubling ($80,000). Financial advisers are also fond of pointing out that stocks pay a higher return. One way of looking at a higher return is that the doubling time gets smaller. 12% doubles in less than 6 years. Cool!

Also interesting, regardless of the doubling rate, you will get as much in the last period as you got in all the previous periods … combined. This phenomenon is simple math. It is compound interest, also known as an exponential function, and as it happens, applies to any regular growth. You can increase number of times things are doubled by increasing the growth rate, or increasing the time. If you live to 100 years old, in my example above your $5,000 investment at 20 would make your heirs millionaires ($1,280,000! Go wild!). The last $600K is earned between the age of 90 and 100, which is as much as you had saved in the first 40 years before.

There are some fallacies with our financial adviser’s claims (notably your interest rate has to be 7% more than inflation, and his/her fee for this to actually work out as it is implied). But those financial advisers are all charlatans anyway. So bear with me for a moment and consider the following two things:

  • If the rate or time period increases a little, the amount at any moment of time becomes dramatically higher
  • The last doubling happens in a time that is short compared to the overall duration

and this is one item I gleaned after listening to the video, a presentation by Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, which I have linked below. Population growth, and growth of consumption by that population have combined to create one of these steady growth curves over the last few centuries. We have consistently required more energy, and over the last century, most of that has come from fossil fuels, which of course emit CO2 and other greenhouse gasses.

This means that in our most recent (current) doubling period, we have put more CO2 into the atmosphere than we have in … all of the preceding history of the world. This assumes steady growth and consumption, which was true at least until the mid 1970s; since then, growth has slowed a little, then picked up. If you assume a 2% historical growth rate of energy use, the doubling period is about 35 years, and that works out about right.

So without predicting the future, we can just measure up to the present, and conclude that the energy used, and CO released is a done deal, it’s up there. It’s quite hard to get back CO2 — carbon sequestration is promising, but not something we would be able to deploy at scale for some number of years, even if we diverted all our mental and financial resources to the problem today. There’s a problem of momentum.

Momentum of People and Planets

Momentum manifests itself in several ways. Societies tend to have momentum. It takes a long time to get large human endeavors (such as carbon sequestration, man on the moon, racial/gender equality) into action. It also takes a long time to stop existing large human endeavors (I’m thinking “Iraq War”). Al Gore says in An Inconvenient Truth that he has been working on his message for at least 20 years, and we’re beginning to see positive signs of change. Beginning.

The earth also has a lot of “momentum”. Here’s an analogy. An ice cube taken out of the freezer takes a while to melt, especially if the temperature is only a little above freezing. When my gas burner comes on, it takes a good long time for heat to start coming out of the radiators and warm up the house, and because the house is well insulated, a long time to cool down. Our house has about 1750 square feet of living area; the earth has a good deal more. So even if we turn off the furnace, the earth will continue to warm for a while, and then gradually cool back down. The question is, how gradually?

Peak Oil, Peak Coal to the Rescue

Fortunately for global warming, we have one positive development: “peak oil” models show pretty conclusively that we have used about half of the total predicted supply of oil — we are near, at, or past the peak now (depending on what you are measuring) and our attempts to demand more from a dwindling supply are, not surprisingly, driving up the price of oil (and indirectly, the price of energy overall). There are two good things about having passed the peak of oil production:

  1. Higher energy prices tend to reduce consumption
  2. We can only double the amount of CO2 from oil that’s already in the atmosphere, and then only at a reduced rate
  3. Reduced supply tends to stimulate demand for alternative energy sources

I did indeed mean to say that there are two good things about running out of oil. The third item on my list is a bad thing, at least if you’re concerned about global warming. The problem is, we have a great deal of coal to burn up, and coal is by far the easiest alternative fuel to oil and gas. Yes, it is expected to behave like oil has. Predictions for when we will have hit the peak of our ability to produce coal give us another 20 or 30 years to increase the rate of coal-originated CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. I do have to say, this is a rather absurd prediction, since it attempts to fit a curve based on some pretty thin data. In whatever way you interpret the data, whether you think we hit peak coal production sooner, in 20 or 30 years, or longer, one does have to ask about that momentum question.

Zero Growth Just Won’t Cut It

We have a great deal of momentum built in our society, in the US in particular, and one we have spread to developing countries by encouraging their growth. Growth at any positive rate, or even just coasting at zero growth implies that at least for some time, we will continue to release carbon into the atmosphere at the highest rate ever (a record we have been breaking pretty much daily for the last 50 years or so).

So whether we reduce our growth rate now, or just “coast”, we are already at a point where the earth’s momentum is beginning to melt the ice cube. Slowing growth or coasting isn’t nearly enough; we need to throw our systems into reverse — hard reverse.

Whatever else you may read about new energy forms, more efficient vehicles, wind, solar, bio-fuels, carbon sequestration, hydrogen, sustainability, and all the rest, none of these are as immediately feasible as one simple, obvious thing. The single fastest, most effective, most dramatic change we can make to reverse global warming is to not use energy we don’t need to use. All of the other solutions matter only if we can reverse the momentum.

Conservation isn’t the only thing we need to do, but it’s a damned good place to start. And while we’re at it, we need to address all the others, and yes, we need to address our inexplicable need for “growth”. As Dr. Bartlett points out, growth of our population can only lead to bad things for humanity.

Dr. Bartlett’s Fine Video Lecture

There are some misleading claims made in the video posted below, not incorrect ones. Dr. Bartlett is mainly concerned with population growth. He applies his steady growth models as predictors, but always qualified, properly, with an “if” — “if we continued at this rate…” then bad things happen. We have some indications that the human race is not exactly similar to lemmings, that is, we tend to respond, if slowly, to impending risks of the destruction of our species. So if I quibble with the implication of his assertions, I think the overall argument must be considered. I urge you to curl up with a sweater and nice cup of tea and listen to all of this talk. It’s well worth your time.

1 Comment

  1. Food will be worth more than oil or gold.
    The public should be educated about paradigms.
    When the paradigm changes, everyone goes back to zero.
    Nothing done previously means anything.
    That may reduce the ignorance that brought us here today

    Comment by Leo — December 2, 2007 @ 10:59 pm

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