tl;dr. We’ll probably have less and less energy in the coming decades, and should prepare for it. Here are the main takeaways:

  • Fossil fuels are finite and will peak in the coming decades
  • Renewables and nuclear rely on them to be built, depend on finite metals, or have limited growth potential, so they’ll have trouble scaling up
    • [Edit: Comments also pointed out that batteries and solar panels are improving, which I mention in post 1, but scaling them up to replace the entire fossil-powered infrastructure will take a lot of time, among other problems]
  • As economic growth relies on more and more energy, this would trigger a long-term recession, with many associated risks - possibly a crash of the economic system
  • Food production could decline seriously, and trade could be disrupted
  • We will probably not colonize the galaxy
  • However, this may also reduce our risk of going extinct from man-made causes, like AGI, climate change or bio-risks

 

[Edit: This post won a prize in the Red Teaming Effective Altruism Contest! This is appreciated. I'll try to integrate the feedback it provides, so I shall make a follow-up post addressing the common counters given against claims of energy depletion - and explain why I'm still worried about this topic in spite of that]

 

This post is a short version of 3 posts I wrote on the problem of energy depletion. These posts are organized like this: 

1 - Energy, why it is the most important part of any society, the decline of fossil fuels and why alternative energy sources will probably not scale up

2 - Consequences: The role of investment, impact on economic growth and systemic risks. Plus, what that means for EA causes.

3 - What we can do, what we can't do, and why few people really anticipate this problem

The claims below may sound very strong, but the data and full reasoning behind it can be found in these posts. You can check post 1 here (I advise reading them in order). I could not fit everything into these posts, so I also wrote a 140-pages-long Google Docs that goes into more detail about pretty much everything. If you have any objection in mind, I probably adressed it in these full posts or this doc.

[Edit: French president Emmanuel Macron, a neoliberal who has been a long-time skeptic of limits to growth and defender of technological progress as a solution, just said at the end of August that “We are living the end of what could have seemed an era of abundance… The end of the abundance of products, of technologies that seemed always available, [...] of land and materials”. This is a very strong message for a G7 president, which seems to indicate that we're closer to limits to growth than we though. You can keep that in mind. More details here.]

The issue of energy depletion

The industrial civilization that we live in depends on a huge supply of affordable energy. Most of its components are very energy-intensive: food production, transportation, manufacturing of goods, extraction of resources… even the health sector. Most of this energy, even today, is provided by fossil fuels, especially oil, which is used in the fabrication or transport of almost all goods. However, these fuels are finite, which means that unless an alternative exists, our current growth-based industrial civilization cannot last. 

The current viewpoint of EA on the topic, to the best of my knowledge, is that energy growth will continue for the coming decades, with technology and innovation solving the issue. However, I did a considerable amount of research in the last few years on this topic, and I have found severe limits everywhere I looked. From what I’ve seen, an "energy descent" seems a more likely prospect.

This conclusion differs considerably from what we usually hear, so I tried to present here the strongest claims made by a number of experts on energy depletion and limits to growth, which is a field EA has less exposure to (we have more of these experts in France).

It felt appropriate to include this post in the Red Teaming EA contest, especially as it challenges many longtermist worldviews. The main idea challenged here is the assumption that past growth trends will continue forever, and that the future of humanity will be an industrial civilization similar to the current one (an “extended present”).

In this 80 000 Hours post about existential risks, they suggest that we should “improve our understanding of whether any kind of resource depletion currently poses an existential risk”. The research done here suggests this could be the case.

The decline of fossil fuels

I present here the following claims:

  • Oil production will decline in the short to medium term (before 2040, it’s even possible that we won’t reach the levels of November 2018 again). The situation is different from the last oil shocks, since most countries today see a decline in oil production. If we look at the top 3 producers, Saudi Arabia announced that it would peak in 2027, Russia that it had peaked in 2019, and many executives from US energy companies believe that US production has peaked.
  • The reason for that is that oil extraction proceeds according to the low-hanging-fruit principle: the highest-quality and easiest-to-get resources are usually harvested first, so that we are now left with the stuff that is harder and costlier to extract. This is a diminishing returns problem. This doesn't mean we will "run out", as there are still a lot of resources in the ground. But it means that they will be less and less affordable each year. Natural gas and coal should last a little longer but not that much.
  • There is a very tight link between energy production and GDP growth. Some studies point to a one-way causality, with a dependency ratio higher than that of labor or capital. This makes sense, as goods and services need energy and natural resources to be produced. The data so far seems to indicate that an absolute decoupling is very unlikely at a global level. All of this means that a long-term decline of GDP will probably happen, unless we find a way to ensure a continuous supply of affordable energy. In the worst but probable case, long-term decline of growth means that we would have to redefine what we expect of human potential.


Can renewables replace fossil fuels?

As fossil fuels availability declines, there will be more investment in alternative forms of energy. However, there is no convincing lead to solve this problem of affordable and abundant energy supply at the scale needed. Alternatives work well at small scale, but replacing the entire fossil fuels system is extremely challenging:

  • Oil, coal and gas are used at every step of the manufacturing of all alternative energy sources. They require long and complex supply chains that are currently very dependent on cheap transportation by trucks, planes and ships (98% of which require oil). There could be alternatives, but they imply significant losses in efficiency (like for hydrogen) or geographical limits (like biofuels). The same issues apply for high heat in manufacturing, necessary for steel and concrete, and for plastic manufacturing, which are both very hard to substitute as well.
  • Metals are required for solar, wind, nuclear, batteries and electric cars, but the amount of metal you can extract depends on the amount of energy at your disposal. This is made worse by declining ore grades, which means that metal extraction is getting more and more energy intensive each year. Recycling is possible but never at 100%. Moreover, the supply of most metals is expected to be under tension at some point (except iron, aluminum and a few others), so substitution will be limited. Limits on energy will then probably mean limits on material extraction.
  • They might imply environmental consequences such as deforestation or competition with land (for biofuels), greenhouse gasses (for making gasoline or diesel with coal or gas), risk of nuclear proliferation (for nuclear power), local pollution and water depletion (for minerals extraction, e.g. for lithium)...
  • They need a lot of time to be deployed (building factories, smelting plants, mines, upgrading the electric grid…). Mines take 7-15 years to go from exploration to production, and nuclear plants need 10-15 years to be built. Energy transitions usually take between 50 and 70 years, so it's hard to deploy them in a hurry.

 

With prices rising, won't there be more investment and innovation?

To compensate for these limitations, I can see three possible options:

  • 1) Building an entirely renewable energy system that would be much bigger than the current fossil-based one, in order to compensate for losses in efficiency and the needs for storage. However, societies would have to allocate more and more of their resources in energy production every year, for the same amount of energy. This means that they can allocate less resources for other things like food, heating, transport, infrastructure or economic growth.
    • Moreover, prices will rise, but they cannot rise forever: if something gets too expensive, people simply cannot afford it. Some studies point out that when energy prices reach about 10% of GDP, a recession ensues. All of this puts a limit on energy investment.
  • 2) Doubling down on energy efficiency. However, efficiency cannot grow indefinitely, and the growth rate of efficiency declined in the last 50 years.
  • 3) Inventing an entirely new energy system. Many technologies exist or can be imagined, like fusion. However, we should also focus on the following questions: Can these technologies be developed and deployed fast enough? Are they truly sustainable, or do they depend on finite materials? If they are much more complicated and costly to develop, will they be attractive for investors?

 

Given these limitations, I think the most likely scenario is that, at a global level, we’ll have a decline in energy availability in the coming decades.

Of course, this is a complicated topic where it’s easy to get to wildly different conclusions, because our assumptions on how the economy and society work matter a lot. I had a lot of (great) discussions from ALLFED’s cofounder Dave Denkenberger, but we still do not agree on some key points. He tends to think that if a solution has been commercialized, then it will be scaled up to prevent energy descent because there will be enormous economic incentive to do so. I tend to think that there will be a limit on investment capacity because prices cannot rise too high, especially on things that require long-term investment like smelters or nuclear plants or mines.

Consequences on the economy and society

What would a decrease in energy availability imply? As oil is used in the transportation or manufacturing of 99% of products, this would mean that about every item gets less affordable. In the short term, our energy intensive and highly distributed economy would be vulnerable to an energy decline. Those shocks would translate into a more severe social and economic crisis, as the financial system isn’t geared to sustain a forced degrowth. This happened in the 1970s, but also in 2008, when the price of oil went from $20 to $140 in the span of 6 years. What follows after that is more speculative, however.

Having less and less energy each year would have major implications on several key topics:

  • Food is currently highly dependent on fossil fuels for transportation, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery. In the US, 10 calories of fossil fuels are used for 1 calorie of food. An estimated 4 billion people are alive today because of the surplus provided by natural gas fertilizers.
  • Transportation over long distances would be much more difficult. About every item around you has been moved by a diesel-powered truck or ship at some point. These liquid fuels are hard to replace, so trade would be more difficult over time. Countries that rely on international trade for their basic needs (food, heating, water, medicine), which is most countries, would be very vulnerable in case of a trade disruption.
  • Materials: A society with less energy would also have less and less cement, steel, plastics… Metals and materials would be harder to mine, extract, refine and transport. This means less goods and services of all kinds. This could trigger a feedback loop: less energy means less metals, but alternative energy sources rely on a larger amount of metals, meaning less metals to produce energy…

Another worry is that these issues might not arise gradually, but might come in the form of sudden shocks, too quickly for adaptation. For instance, a somewhat likely outcome is that financial institutions, deprived of growth, might crash down. Supply chains could be disrupted in such an event. Other events could also play in, like a country deciding unilaterally to keep its resources for itself. When crises arise, trust in the future tends to be lower, making cooperation and long-term planning harder. There are different ways to adapt to this problem, but leaders could adopt short-termist thinking, aiming for simple but suboptimal solutions. All of this would lead to greater political instability: agricultural disruption tends to cause civil conflict, which in turn causes interstate conflicts, especially in a period of perceived decline and rising inequality.

I do not have the skills to make cost-effectiveness estimates, but the scale of people affected would be great (most people on Earth, really). I personally assign a high probability (>85%) to an energy descent in the next decades. I also think a long-term recession is highly probable (a “Mad Max” scenario less so, but still possible). This is a topic for future research.

How this changes the future of EA

This could have very large implications for EA, and longtermism in particular, over some key points: 

It’s possible that the idea of near infinite expansion of humanity with space colonization may not be an option. The articles I’ve seen on that point out that centuries of energy growth and technological progress would be necessary to solve the challenges linked to get to other stars - which appears unlikely. Indeed, the whole process of colonizing a new planet requires a lot of materials and energy. This could be a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox.

These considerations could significantly affect AI development, and there are some scenarios where the consequences of the energy descent could prevent its development. Preventing natural extinction risk, like asteroids, might not be possible, but man-made extinction risks are only a problem in a very energy-intensive society. I tend to think that finding ways to obtain even more energy would actually increase our probability of extinction from AGI, massive climate damage or bio risks, since we’d have more time to deploy them. Richard Heinberg makes the case that we are overpowered, having so much power (=energy) that we are able to wipe ourselves out accidentally. In such a case, I’m not sure a decline in energy availability should be prevented at all costs. The total value of the future would be lower than that in space colonization scenarios, but I don’t think the latter is a realistic option. This scenario might actually improve our future prospects compared to the median case. 

In the long run, a major transformation of our society is to be expected with the plummeting of energy affordability. To make this transition as painless as possible, more work should be done to make accurate projections, and determine what futures are possible or not. EA forecasters could make a valuable contribution by producing forecasts that consider all facets of this issue carefully. A forecasting tournament on important indicators could be a good way to kickstart this. Even more ambitiously, there could also be forecasts on the probability of an “energy descent” scenario, once precisely defined.

Actions we could take

Many actions can be taken, and are proposed in post 3, but I'm not sure about which are the most cost-effective. These actions include:

  • Developing ways of making food that are less energy intensive (like ALLFED does).
  • Help make territories less dependent on external inputs for basic needs. Supporting policies that develop food autonomy and resilience, in order to be better able to accommodate a sudden disruption in the economy or supply chains.
  • Help develop the new political, social and economic systems that could be useful in the future, for when they might be needed. New worldviews will be needed, we can also help here.
  • Developing technologies that are more resilient, less complex, less energy-hungry, and easier to produce and repair.
  • Find ways to improve social cohesion, cooperation and decision-making.

Conclusion

It helps to look at this problem from a wider lens: we found a very large battery of stored energy in the ground, in the form of fossil fuels, and as it depletes, we’ll have less of it. This is an uneasy topic that challenges our worldviews deeply, but any projection into the future would be incomplete if it doesn’t take this topic into account. There is a lot we can do to prepare for a lower-energy future. If having forever more material goods is not an option, then we’ll have to learn how to live happily in a constrained world, in a truly sustainable way.

 

[Edit: It appears that many people stick to reading this post, which I understand, as the others are long- but I have to remind that this post is the most unconvicing one as it is only a summary version without much data.]

You probably have many objections in mind, which is normal, most of what we hear on this topic goes the other way. I highly recommend checking the full version, then, which is much better. It adresses stuff like why the recent improvements in renewables are not enough - same for efficiency. 

The full version provides sources, data and graphs, and details why this is neglected, why energy transition models do not include what of what I’ve exposed above, and why the relationship between the economy and energy is so strong (there's probably a bidirectional causality in there). 

It is still somewhat summarized, though - the long version is the 140-pages additional doc.

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I think a deeper look at several of these points shows that it's not as bad as it seems. 

1) It is already quite possible to make solar cells  and batteries without any particularly rare metals [1], and some solar cells can be constructed either from films with active areas only nanometers thick (meaning only a few million tons are required to coat the world in them) or entirely out of organic components [2]. Similarly, while the most commercially viable batteries at present may involve somewhat scarce metals like lithium, it's possible to make them out of most substances, including iron, which is the 4th most abundant element on earth, as well as storing energy in compressed air or capturing hydrogen from water. When materials get scarce, technology is directed to solve these problems; there is not a physics-based limit on human energy consumption at anything near our current level. 

2) Energy use per person has been falling in many developed nations for some time as GDP per capita rises, and energy use per person globally has not been rising that fast (about 12% over the last 4 decades) [3], whereas GDP per capita at PPP has > doubled. So, assuming that population... (read more)

5Corentin Biteau3mo
Hi! Thanks for taking the time to answer. Did you look at the full version? It should provide an answer to the points you are making (this here is just a summary without much data). I really tried to do a deeper dive there. 1. About solar and new technologies, I try to answer these points in post 1 [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/qG8k5pzhaDk6FhcYv/the-great-energy-descent-part-1-can-renewables-replace] . I tend to be wary of ambitious announcements about new technologies - they take a lot of time to be deployed, and there is quite an history of very promising technologies that worked in the lab but end up not working at an industrial scale. Plus, zinc and copper are among the metals facing declining ore grades and that will eventually face a peak (earlier than rare earths, ironically). For the organic panels - how much land is needed to grow the biomass? 1. But even if it did work (which would be good news), then that shouldn't change the core issue of solar: it still produces only electricity, not what is required to move trucks and smelt cement or steel (plus it's intermittent). 2. For storing energy, there are batteries from other metals, like iron, as you said, but their properties are less good, from what I understand. For instance, what is the energy cost of making these batteries? From what I read, [https://www.manhattan-institute.org/mines-minerals-and-green-energy-reality-check] "The energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil is used in the processes to fabricate a single battery that can store the equivalent of one barrel of oil". You can check the deeper dive about storage here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.rls4r6a2ribu] , and for metals here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.n1ed2
9Robin3mo
1. These are not new technologies - thin film and primarily-organic PV have been commercially available for decades. They don't out-compete silicon based on price point/efficiency, not unviability [1-2]. The organic films are again very thin, so very little land is required to grow the material to make them (the question would be how many times over a piece of land could produce the feedstock to cover itself in a year, I'm sure it would be tens of times). Similarly, the volume of copper and zinc mined in a year is enough to put a few nanometers around the world, and a few years of that would generate a fair amount of power already (not that I recommend doing this). Also, silicon itself isn't scarce, just the dopants, which are required in extremely small quantities. 1. You can already buy electric trucks [3] and smelt iron by hydrogen [4]. Planes (much harder to decarbonise) can already be powered by biofuel [5]. 2. Their properties are less good but if they were much cheaper we would spend more money researching them to make them better. The comparison between manufacture energy requirement and storage energy requirement is irrelevant because the storage happens cyclically more than 100 times once you've got 100 batteries you use the to make the 101st. You don't address iron oxide batteries in your work, nor do you investigate things like compressed CO2. Several of your arguments substitute technological challenge and economic considerations with material ones, most notably your section on hydrogen, which for grid-level storage does not suffer from any of the fundamental-material problems your work otherwise attempts to demonstrate. 2. While the total energy requirements of the world increased, they increased much more slowly than GDP; this is sufficient to demonstrate decoupling. The decoupling I sh
8Corentin Biteau3mo
These are very good points you're making, thanks for the thoughtful answer. 1. For solar, when I spoke of new technologies, I spoke mainly about your 2020 link - but I agree that solar panels can be made without rare metals, this is true. It's probably possible to make version of them that do not rely on too complicated stuff. The limits on metals are rather about the quantities required for batteries: current energy transition plans focus mainly on lithium (which will mean shortages given the long downtimes). It's possible to switch to other metals to avoid stuff like cobalt (say we use Sodium Sulfur), , but by the time we decide that this would mean a serious delay. For copper and zinc, the issue is more that they're used about everywhere, so there's a lot of competition for their uses. 1. For planes, steel or trucks, my main point is not that it's impossible to replace them. My point is that alternatives are less energy-efficient, or have more constraints, or are more expensive (less affordable), or will a take a long time to deploy. "We can do that", yes, but at what scale? 1. Land constraints : How many biofuels would be required? Won't that compete with land and food? You can check the section on biofuels here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.qvbrri7bcb0q] . 2. Efficiency losses : For hydrogen, the problem is not about materials, indeed. It's rather a problem of lower efficiency, and high investment required. For storage, I think the highest issue for hydrogen is the low round-trip efficiency, only at about 30-40% from what I've seen, meaning we lose a lot of the energy invested. I'm sorry, I mixed several different challenges in the storage and hydrogen parts, so the structure

I think we're getting closer to an agreement. I would be more tempted if your thesis were "energy will become much more expensive at some times of day/year, as will certain minerals, and this will depress GDP compared to naive expectations." It's not obvious to me that low energy storage does more than require heavy industry to relocate to more consistent climes and/or stop for a few days each year, which would depress GDP but hardly to the level of existential threat. 

  1. I think most of these are economic points about how expensive it is to make the transition, rather than showing it's impossibile. It certainly won't be cheap in any individual sector, but as a fraction of the global economy we aren't necessarily talking very large amounts of investment for these changes, and many governments already have plans and incentives to make this happen. A lot of this analysis feels like you trying to make a new Integrated Assessment Model (IAM) from scratch without writing down equations, and I think the disagreements you have with existing IAMs are not as substantial as you think. Things like land use constraints for biofuels are typically included in good models, as is the ineffi
... (read more)
3Corentin Biteau3mo
Yes, we may get closer to an agreement on several points. My thesis is close to how you formulated it, although it's more of "I think energy will get more and more expensive overall[or at least less affordable],and it should reduce overall GDP for a long period". The issue of storage is not just that energy will be less available at time of the year, it's that there is a serious risk of blackout and/or the grid straight up crashing down (but we'd go for blackouts first). Blackouts would impact many things that depend on electricity: communications, refrigeration, ATMs, hospitals, most factories and microchips production... Relocation is possible but 1/ Relocating entire industries takes time, and costs money and energy 2/ Living in remote sunny locations (where few people are) needs a good transport system (for food and water) - and these are areas most exposed to climate change. 1. Most of these are economic points, indeed. But this is because energy is an integral part of the economy - as I said, I think it's more useful of seeing money as a way of allocating goods and services that are produced with energy. This is a view usually held by heterodox economists, so most people have not heard of it - as mainstream economists don't include natural resources as an input of their models. But it fits rather well with data, so seeing the economy as a material phenomenon helps immensely. So when I say investment, it's not just a matter of printing more money, it's a matter of dedicating real materials and energy towards the transition (at the expense of other uses). 1. It's also worth remembering that investment inalreadyfalling short of what is needed in the energy sector, like for the US grid (see post 2 [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/8sW4h368DsoooHBNP/the-great-energy-descent-part-2-limits-to-growth-and-why-we#Limits_on_investment] ). BloombergNEF puts the bill at $173 trillions - 2 times world
6Robin3mo
Getting closer, anyway. Maybe we will have to We already know how to solve the blackouts problem via dedicated generation (or storage) for high-impact sectors. In a renewable economy, very large amounts of energy are available very cheaply at certain times, so for instance a factory with a 1-day battery that can produce at night before sunny days is able to work nearly as efficiently as they do now. You aren't actually relocating very much of the economy (only very heavy industry) and this constantly relocates towards incidentally-sunnier countries anyway for labor-cost reasons. 1. I'm not an economist so I don't know that it's pointful to get into a long debate about economics, but it's pretty clear from how governments can reshape the economy during wartime implies that they have tremendous capacity to restructure the economy when they want to. Your analysis doesn't make sense to me because green tech is something that makes energy; it's an energy loan, not an energy expenditure. 1. Investment in a green transition solves much of the long-term underinvestment problem at the same time, so the historic underinvestment is not really an additive factor. 2. Good IAMs don't take GDP as an external input, and the fact that one you cite does is a bad sign. I had not heard of this IAM before (I work around IAMs professionally but don't code them myself), but it doesn't seem to understand the basics of the laws of supply and demand, assumes fixed demand and then complains when this can't be fulfilled. This means it supports your point that GDP is suppressed, but doesn't qualify by how much. It also assumes, for instance, that it is impossible to increase recycling rates. The possibility of recycling largely solves your point c), since recycling requires no additional land and less energy than we currently spend making plastic - it's simply that the pro
4Corentin Biteau3mo
Then again, thanks for these points, it's interesting to exchange with you. For storage, I agree that what you describe could be an option if batteries continue to get much cheaper and better. However, getting 1 night of batteries for factories would still be more energy-costly compared to what we do today (because of 60%-80% round-trip efficiency, the need for building overcapacity, additional mineral extraction, and the energy cost making batteries). So we'd have to use more energy to do the same thing. I agree that the "net energy we get back" would still be net positive, but the reason I mention the energy cost of green technology is because of the EROI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), that has to be high [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.q0yyk7jwlhrv] (10-12) to sustain a complex civilization. 1. Governments can make wartime economies to handle energy differently, yes, and probably will. However, getting to that point would mean a very different world order. This would have probably been caused by a serious economic crisis. But we'd be in the realm of systemic risks described in post 2. What history taught us is that for a war economy to go on, you need an external enemy (and maybe an internal one too). This could have serious implications, like countries with resources (oil, gas, coal, metals, phosphorus) could decide to keep these resources for themselves. Of course, this would mean a serious energy descent for countries that are dependent on trade, and that don't have an army big enough to weigh in. 1. I didn't express myself clearly, sorry. What I say isn't that "with the current amount of investment in energy, we won't have enough for the transition, so we should need more for green energy". What I'm saying is "it's probably not possible to have a much bigger investment capacity than we have now". Oil prices are
2Robin3mo
Yes, I think our exchange has been fruitful and thought-provoking. Battery-wise: I think this is why I focus on energy cost variability rather than absolute energy cost, energy may well have a negative cost at some times but very large at others. The analyses of the effects of these are different. Civilisation requires a large energy surplus, but I don't see any reason to assume that the EROI specifically needs to be any value above 1. If I change the unit of the solar cell (let's say EROI 10) to a solar-powered solar cell factory (EROI = 100 because the first 10x is all reinvested) then that same physical system suddenly passes your test. I don't see what research you were citing here in the first place, but suspect it still suffers this problem. 1. I think both my comments about a war-footing and comments about China are similar: the Chinese government basically does what most governments do during wartime all the time. If it became obvious that the economy required us to do more government-led organisation (which I gather you think it does), I think we would. Climate change can have the same impact as an external enemy in these considerations, and there's some evidence that it psychologically does act this way. 1. I think I got what you were trying to say, but I haven't tended to respond fully to your comments on oil prices because I want to get out of oil in basically all cases, avoiding this problem altogether. As above, I don't think we are dependent on oil to make the transition (it's a very expensive form of energy anyway). It strikes me incidentally that your too-low/too-high price analysis won't hold up to including inflation. 2. I guess most of these are criticisms are correct statements, it's just very easy to list effects that models of the global economy don't have but hard to evaluate which missing factors are really important. I don't fully understa
4Corentin Biteau3mo
I'm curious, what would make you consider an option "we do not manage to do an energy transition" as a possible scenario? 1. I agree that I don't worry that much about China for this reason. China is able to do this because it has a goal of becoming n°1 and surpassing the US within 30 years - but as soon as it is less dependent on money from rich western countries, well, I'm not sure it will continue to supply resources and metals (controls >60-70% of refining) and solar panels in the same terms. I fail to envision a scenario where every nation is in"war economy" state but international cooperation and trade go on as usual. 1. We are very dependent on oil to make a transition because almost all (>99%) mining trucks, ships, long-distance trucks depend on oil. Same goes for plastic production and making asphalt. This indidentally means that oil is currently necessary for the extraction and transport of almost of all the world’s primary energy (solar panels and windmills are transported by road, as is coal). We could switch to electric trucks or stuff like that (at what scale? with what materials?), but by the time >50% of global transport changes (when?), every price increase in oil will affect the availablility of the rest of energy sources. 2. I don't base myself on prices as a reference for scarcity because the relationship between oil prices and production looks like this: 1. (by the way, see here [https://inflationdata.com/articles/inflation-adjusted-prices/historical-oil-prices-chart/] for only oil prices but inflation-adjusted) 2. Do you have sources for the betterment of the financial system? I know there are more regulations since 2008 and several patches have been applied, but from what I got it still seems that the root causes of the problem are still there (no se
3Robin2mo
Three scenarios where we do not make a green transition: Firstly, we are structurally prevented by government forces, for instance, in many countries there is difficulty in obtaining planning permission to get renewables in place, or have perverse tax incentives (gas cheaper than electricity for instance) that make the transition difficult. Both of these are currently happening in the UK, but not enough to resist the pull of renewables completely! Secondly, energy demand takes off so quickly (perhaps due to AI) that we expand green power without reducing FF, until the sort of problem you indicate occurs. Third, something disrupts the global supply chain that renewables currently depend on. However all of these seem likely to be self-limiting because if the situation really got that pressing, you'd assume governments and society would adapt to fix them unless there's a bad actor or civilizational collapse. 1. International trade between allies does very well in a war though, and even enemies keep trading through many wars. I'm not entirely sure who the enemy is in this case. 1. Currently true, but the more true it is, the stronger the incentive will be to switch over quickly when oil prices rise. I anticipate a very quick switchover because it looks like the advent of affordable electric trucks will align closely with (and usually combines with) the advent of driverless technology, meaning the two biggest costs of trucking can be slashed simultaneously by changing over 2. Oh right - yes, this is because production can be freely moved within reason. Basically we're not yet in the regime where oil is being treated as a scarce resource. We may indeed regret this in centuries to come, though I suspect we'll find replacements. 2. The big legislation is the Besel III rules, which have been continuously strengthened since the crash, regulating the fraction of money banks need to
4Corentin Biteau2mo
Sorry for the long wait! I was on a vacation. The points you put forward are important, if think all three scenarios you point out could happen, especially combined.To rephrase what you said, there are: 1. Systemic lock-ins, where the dominant actors prevent the arising of other solutions. I think another factor is implicit, it's that weknowhow to use fossil fuels everywhere, so most of the time it's the safest bet in industry or transportation. Of course, it's not preventing a transition, but it's slowing it down seriously. More on that here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.ahrp7593hbq7] (p. 75). For instance, the European Commission wants to allow the use of coal and gas for green hydrogen. 1. Public opposition, you're right. In say Poland or France there is quite some opposition to windmills (I've seen that a legal complaint was filed for 7 out of 10 windmills projects in France). 2. Energy consumption still going up, and fast. If the global economy continues to grow at about 3.0% per year (although it could be less), we will consume as much energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did cumulatively in the past 10,000 [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800919310067]. Also, I'd be more optimistic if renewables were actually reducing fossil fuel use, instead of just adding up to it. 3. Supply chains breaking down. Talking about these below. A long enough recession could trigger this, as said in post 2. I think this is where we have probably a different view on things. "Fixing the situation" requires several components, some of them being international cooperation for trade and goods, trust in the future (for investment) and a long-term vision (for making the right technological choices). These elements are in decline, at least in the US or Europe. Not for China though, as you said
5Robin1mo
Yes, I've also been busy and I think the conversation is getting hard to follow and delivering diminishing returns. But to address a few points: I think we are mostly in agreement that these scenarios are both bad and plausible, but disagree about the badness and plausibility. However on the second point, the paper you quote is simply not providing enough evidence of its point. Potentially 40 or so years of constant consumption would pass this test, but you should not assume that consumption of energy or resources is constant per GDP, as it simply hasn't been in recent history. The growth in energy consumption the last few decades seems to have been linear rather than exponenetial, but forcing it into exponential form gives an average 1.7% average growth this century https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/global-energy-substitution. Material consumption of, e.g. cement seems to have flatlined recently (as it is mostly done in China), and is also not exponential for any real stretch of time https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46455844 [https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46455844]. I don't know very much about supply chain disruption, but I definitely don't feel you've demonstrated that they can persist for many years. There's quite a strong financial incentive to sort them out and most of the disruptions I can think of seem either based on sanctions or to resolve in around a year. I'd be interested to see any historic examples you have. My historic counter-example would be guano, a slowly-renewing natural resource that was required agriculturally and at risk of depletion, but saved by the invention of the Haber process https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-the-western-world-ran-on-guano [https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-the-western-world-ran-on-guano]. While I agree that France would struggle to go renewable all on its own, I am sure it can go renewable without the aid of any single other continent, given the diverse range of ways of
4Corentin Biteau1mo
Oh, great to hear from you ! How have you been doing ? Here are my answers to these points. I must admit that yeah, we have a different view on things - which is good as I learn a lot of stuff -, but I feel like I could explain better the extent of our predicament. I have found this podcast episode [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xw1zSCXojrg] which should explain why I am still worried about all of that, and deeply worried. Now, it has exagerations on a number of points, and some of the data isn't the most recent, I absolutely agree, but damn, overall I really have trouble seeing how to solve all the issues she points out. Now for the individual points: Thanks for pointing out the limits in Cherp et al. It's useful to know that, energy production is still going up to some extent - not fast enough, but still up. Energy consumption going up. You are right that we probably won't consume as much energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did in the past 10,000 - that was indeed an exageration, sorry. But the overall amount of energy consumed is still going up, which is a problem. * Even by accepting the hypothesis that most of the world economies will be service-based in the future (which begs the question of where industry will be done), like rich countries, a recent report [https://assets.website-files.com/604110fea440e9cd8bc0b482/61692275d6b5345d31adde73_Energy-digital.pdf] estimates that this scenario, in my eyes optimistic, would still lead to an energy demand around 780-950 EJ in 2080, so 35-65% higher than in 2019. * As for materials, there is a recoupling [https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jiec.12626] of materials and economic growth, meaning we use more and more materials per point of GDP, at the moment when the economy was supposed to be dematerialized with the advent of the Internet. This trend is expected to worsen with a metal-based energy transition. For me, the risk of supply chains breakin
2Robin14d
I've been quite stressed, for reasons other than lack of materials! How about you? I'm not particularly impressed by the podcast. It seems to lack any imagination in working out how to decarbonise the construction of renewable energy itself, which is not generally regarded as a fundamental problem (as opposed to being slightly expensive to transition). I encountered this twitter thread which I think explains better than I did why EROI isn't that useful: https://mobile.twitter.com/AukeHoekstra/status/1341730308060831744 [https://mobile.twitter.com/AukeHoekstra/status/1341730308060831744] Exponential energy consumption increase cannot be delivered for long, by any means. But renewable power can easily sustain a doubling of current power consumption. We have a diesel crunch at the moment in Europe, meaning we are eating into our stockpiles, however all countries still have more than 61 days of consumption or import stockpiled, so considerably more than a week! Some states are less than the 90 days of imports required though. We would see factories shut down due to cost long before we started killing off food transport, so in practice this would last longer. Agree that the rollout of electric vehicles will be expensive and will take time. But I hope that we will also reduce the number of cars required by carsharing, which autonomous vehicles makes easier. As we transition to renewable power, the prices of fossil fuels stabilises as demand is reduced. This makes greening harder, but diffuses the problem you foresee with food distribution. 5Tb an hour of data doesn't seem like that much, particularly after Moore's law kicks in! A fully renewable grid well realistically require some fossil backup for the next few decades while we get hydrogen sorted. However there price of this should also stabilise, as above. I guess I'm unclear what the lifeboats you suggest are. I agree that on the margin more people should stockpile food, and possibly more in general. I don't k
3Corentin Biteau14d
Ah, sorry to hear you've been stressed. The FTX debacle doesn't arrange things (I myself have a 6-months in indefinite hold because of that). I'm kind of disappointed that you handwave all the information in this podcast with a "lack of imagination". I feel a bit like if I'd been told "don't worry, everything will sort itself out". Well, what if it doesn't ? I'm not asking for a scenario in which everything turns to be fine because this or this technology exists. I know it's a possibility. I'm wondering if things will really turn out that way. I read the book Life after fossil fuelsand it felt to me that she really tried to take a look at the solutions proposed, in more depth than almost anyone I've seen. Anything you can think of is probably on her website Energy skeptic, but it's more of a mess (and of course, pessimistic, but that shouldn't come as a surprise). But even if we somehowfind a solution to replace almost all our fossil-based industrial system by something powered by intermittent electricity (the biggest 'if' in any sentence), I am still worrying over several points : Time constraints * It would take timeto do research and put into place these solutions. Replacing all of our industrial system that took many decades to build would take loads of time. * Renewables, so far, can replace electricity production. But if needs more complex supply chains to go beyond that (batteries, which needs mines that take time to be opened). * Right now less than 1% of truck transportation, ship transportation, cement making, steel making, most metal smelting, fertilizer production, mineral extraction, is made using electricity (and I'm not even talking about renewable electricity) * This means that until, say, 70% of the infrastructure switches to being powered by renewables, increases in oil, gas and coal prices (or at least decreases in availability) will have a huge impact on the affordability on the tranport of almost all co
1timunderwood2mo
"So let’s imagine an EROI [for solar panels] of 2:1. That would mean that, to simplify, half of our society's resources go toward producing energy. Let's say this means that, roughly, 50% of people are working in the energy sector (directly or indirectly), which is already huge." I'll probably finish reading/ skimming your longer document in a bit, but there is a clear mistake in this sentence, and I think if you consider it for long enough, you will realize it severely and perhaps fatally undercuts the entire argument you are making. If solar panels had an EROI of 2 to 1, and all our energy came from solar panels, you then need to make two solar panels for every single one that you are using for net energy generation. This doubles the cost of using solar panels from what it would be with an infinite EROI, which doubles the amount of resources (excluding returns and costs of scale effects) required to make enough solar panels to run our civilization on. So if with infinite EROI you needed to make say 1 quadrillion kilowatt hours worth of solar panels to run your civilization, now you need to make 2 quadrillion kilowatt hours worth, since half of them will be used up in the process of making the rest. The point is, this says nothing about whether 50 percent of society's resources are being used to make these solar panels, or 1 percent, because that depends on how hard it is to make solar panels. If it is very easy to make and deploy solar panels, any positive rate of return on EROI is fine, while of it is extremely expensive and hard to make them, we can't transition even of the EROI is infinite.
1Corentin Biteau2mo
I'm not sure I'm following through. What is infinite EROI? That would mean for every unit of energy invested, you get infinite EROI. That doesn't seem physically possible. I'll try to reformulate, then. With an EROI of 2:1, that means that for every solar panel invested, I get 2 solar panels: one that will be used to provide electricity for society, another that will be used to make other solar panels. So yeah, for every solar panel that produces electricity, you need to build another solar panel. EROI 2:1 -> 50% of energy left for the rest. I think we agree on that so far. (of course, this wouldn't work in the real world, since the payoff of solar panels takes 20 years, it's very long, while you need the energy to build the panel quickly. They also wouldn't provide the high heat required to smelt metals, without switching to hydrogen with an energy loss. And the EROI doesn't take into account making the infrastructure and providing the needs of workers: food, clothes, heat. But let's suppose this works this way.) Why am I saying that 50% of the resources of society would be used for making solar panels? This is a huge simplification, of course, but this follows the section of the doc that adresses investment and EROI (quote here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.bud4jlwmwcz2] , but I advise starting from there [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.q0yyk7jwlhrv] ): This is the last sentence that makes me think that a global EROI of 2:1 means 50% of GDP going to energy (so about 50% of resources and workers). Of course, these stats are mostly from fossil fuels, so if solar were easier to make, the relationship would change. I'd argue, however, that fossil fuels are on average easier to produce than solar - for instance, there are more jobs in the clean energy sector [https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/09/iea-clean-energy-jobs/] than in fossi
1timunderwood2mo
So you are doing useful work by identifying a serious potential problem and trying to get the rest of us to take it seriously. As a neural circuit in the global brain it is a good thing that the Peak Oil movement exists. I'm not quite sure how to approach this because you are making a conceptual mistake with this argument and I want you to actually see what it is. And I think this is a case where there is a clear truth of the matter that we can both get to and agree on. But since there was also an argument you had in the comments on your google doc with someone pointing out the same thing I am here, it is clear that there is something about this issue that is hard for your mind to jump to seeing. At the same time it is perhaps is a bit hard for me to explain it, since my mind immediately sees it intuitively. First I am making a narrow point. If my point is correct, it is still totally possible that peak oil is the correct model. I am begging you, try to just pay attention to the point, and decide if you think it is correct, and only afterwards ask if it has any broader implications. The purpose of my arguing here, is to help you improve your economic model on this single point, and not to change your broader point of view. With that long preface, my simple point is this: The EROI is not enough to tell you what portion of civilization's real resources go to energy production. You need more information. An EROI of 2:1 is not enough to tell you if the energy system requires 1 percent of GDP or 10 times the world's total GDP. You need more information than just the EROI. I think you already know this, since you were trying to point at evidence from historical recessions and economic performance to figure out what the economic impact of changes in EROI would be, since just saying EROI of 2:1 does not actually say '50%', the 50% comes from using additional information to figure out the economic impact of that number. To establish that EROI alone does not tell
6vincentzh22d
I happen to chance upon this discussion while browsing around, and decided to create an account to reply to this discussion because it is a topic of great interest to me. I think the main reaon why you believe that Corentin's argument on EROI affecting percent of GDP required to maintain energy production is a conceptual mistake, is because you have assumed that cost of production (of energy producing equipment) is not linked to energy use. However, the basis of the EROI argument stems from biophysical economics, and is based on the key assumption that the vast majority of economic activity and economic value are in fact embodiement of energy. One may or may not choose to agree with this assumption, but if you do take this assumption to be true, then Corentin's point that for e.g. a 2:1 EROI needs roughly half of society's resources is correct. So in the simple equation that you described: let: * Cbe the cost of entire energy system * E be the total energy produced/demanded * eout,eqbe the energy produced per unit of equipment * ceqbe the cost per unit of equipment * ein,eqbe the energy used to produce each unit of equipment Then,C=E/eout,eq∗ceq Because we assume that economic cost of production of anything is directly related to energy, thenceq=αein,eq, whereαis some factor describing the economic cost in terms of energy. Substituting it in the energy cost equation, we getC=αE/eout,eq∗ein,eq eout,eq/ein,eqis exactly the definition of EROI of the energy producing equipment, and thusC=αEEROI. Furthermore, with the same key assumption, the total economic output, in other words GDP can be also be expressed in terms of total energy produced or demanded by the economy, i.e.GDP=βE. We finally obtain that: C=α⋅GDPβ⋅EROI If the scaling factorαandβbetween economic cost and energy is roughly similar for the particular case of energy producing equipment, and for the general case across the whole economy, then EROI approximately determines the proportion of th
1Corentin Biteau21d
Thank you for this ! I had trouble putting this into mathematical terms, so this is helpful. I'm trying to read more stuff about EROI in order to explain it better. It's a good concept but if we have a disagreement about how to use it, then it's really hard to agree on something. I hope you managed to find some interesting stuff in this post ! Feel free to share it if you found it useful.
8vincentzh20d
Thank you for your excellent posts summarizing multiple sources of information across domains of energy and material limits of human development, ecological economics etc. I am still reading through your in depth 3-parts works as I speak, and I am finding many useful sources of information for my further reading.
3Corentin Biteau2mo
Hi, thanks for the thougful response. You spent quite some time to put things down clearly, and I appreciate that. I think i can accept your conclusion, for the most part. Saying "a EROI of 2:1 means half your resources go to energy production" is indeed a big simplification on my part, which is based on several simplifications I have made and didn't detail : * Currently, energy makes about6,5% [https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-16/energy-costs-set-to-reach-record-13-of-global-gdp-this-year?leadSource=uverify%20wall] of global GDP (well, that was 2021. For 2022, it's about 13%). So between 1/10th and 1/20th (closer to 1/20th). This means for every point of GDP invested in energy, between 10 and 20 points of GDP are created. * Currently, the global EROI of energy is between 20:1 and 10:1 (closer to 20:1, but depends on whether you take final or out of the mine well). So for every unit of energy, between 10 and 20 units of energy are created. * From this, I make the overal simplification of "EROI is representative of the share of energy in global GDP, roughly" * "Half of resources" translates roughly to "Half of GDP" (since there is a 99% correlation between energy consumption and GDP on a year by year basis, even if this gets bigger over 50 years) * That the current relationship, for fossil fuels, still stands with solar These are indeed huge simplifications I made in my head, but I can get why you don't see them as valid. I unfortunately didn't really understand your algebra bit - I am not very good at reasoning with equations, it doesn't really "click" with the way my brain works. But I understand your overall point. So ok, let's drop the assumption that a 2:1 EROI requires half of society's resources. I indeed don't really know the exact percentage. This wasn't really my main point, so I removed references to this assumption in the full doc. However, what empirical data seems to indicate is that
2Miguel Lima Medín2mo
You may be interested on this paper: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513006447 [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513006447] It explores the question of whether EROI correlates with several quality of life metrics. Section "5.1. The concept of minimum EROI" covers your debate with Corentin about what is the lowest EROI for a complex society.
1timunderwood2mo
It doesn't really defend the concept of minimum EROI as a thing that actually makes sense. My whole point is that minumum EROI of creating the seperate pieces of an energy system makes no concept. A very bad EROI where the components are extremely cheap in terms of other resources is fine, a very high EROI where the components are extremely expensive in terms of other recources can't be used. Imagine a completely automated robot that is building solar panels in space, and beaming the excess energy to earth. It doesn't matter to us right now if it used 1 (ie an EROI of 100 to 1) percent of the energy to maintain the system, or 99 percent (an EROI of 1.01 to 1), because it isn't using any terrestial resources. On its own, minimum EROI is a nonsense phrase. It only makes sense once you've specified the whole technological package and environmental context. You have an equation with multiple terms in it. EROI is only one term, and sufficiently large changes in the other terms can compensate for changes in EROI.
3Corentin Biteau2mo
Oh, ok, I get a bit better what you're saying. (yeah, it's tough arguing on EROI, people usually have very different views on it). I agree that the cost of unit equipement matters a lot too. However, I'd argue that these costs are increasing when EROI is declining. The simple reason is that you need more stuff to do the same thing. This is not a 100% correlation of course, the cost of labor matters too, but there's a general trend, I think. For oil with 50:1 EROI at the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia, you just had to put a drill in place and get the oil. Shale oil, in the other hand, with an EROI between 5 and 10, requires complex chemical compounds, horizontal drilling, hundreds of trucks transporting water, and a lot of financial investment. If the EROI of shale oil was 50:1, then you'd get back 10 times more oil, so it'd be much cheaper, you'd need less materials, and you'd have more resources to power the rest of the economy. Since there is a strong coupling between GDP and material use and resource use (at a global level), it would make sense that an increasing material and energetic cost translates to an increased financial cost. There can be improvements of course - like solar panels getting a higher EROI and being much cheaper at the same time. Now, let's take the automated robot that sent solar energy back to Earth (a purely theoretical prospect with not relevance to the problem of energy depletion as will exist for the next decades, of course). With an EROI of 1.01:1 instead of 100:1, then it would need to depoly 10 000 more solar panels for the same thing. You'd need 10 000 times more solar panels, so 10 000 more materials, more rockets, more robots to build these, more factories, more maintenance... Not talking about the fact that all the computing stuff would require specialty metals that are in a finite amount. Also, the process would be 10 000 times longer, which is of great importance. So I have a hard time seeing how this wouldn't multiply
1timunderwood1mo
The main point about EROI, and I don't think we disagree on this, is that the raw amount of produced energy that needs to be put in is only one factor. You also need to know how much human labor has to be put in, and how much physical stuff has to be put in. I'd note a lot of the complaints here that in a bad EROI environment with needing to build more stuff, you are also running out of key metals is double counting. The reason that the EROI is 2 to 1 in that scenario, instead of 10 to 1 is because we've run out of the easy sources of those metals, so pointing out that the metals are also hard to acquire in that context doesn't say anything new. "Since there is a strong coupling between GDP and material use and resource use (at a global level), it would make sense that an increasing material and energetic cost translates to an increased financial cost. " I don't know if I really want to dig into this very deeply, since it involves a familiarity with economics that you clearly don't have, but theings like this claim, and the '99 percent correlation between energy use and gdp growth' simply do not mean what you think they mean. For example, you might get a correlation that is nearly as strong between gdp growth and fast food purchases, or clothes purchases, or home improvement purchases, or almost anything except for medical and government spending. That is what a recession literally is: It is when people buy less of stuff that can be cut back on easily. And booms are when people buy more of that stuff. You are going to find extremely high correlations between gdp growth and any variable consumption good if you are looking for that, but it is meaningless in terms of saying what is causally important for allowing continued economic growth. In a similar way that recessions usually follow very high energy prices (which is causal), does not actually mean that the economy cannot deal with energy taking up that big of a proportion of total resources without going into
2Corentin Biteau1mo
Ok, I can agree with that. It's just that today, human muscles are such a small part of the labor produced (one barrel of oil = 4.5 years of manual labor, after conversion losses) that I didn't though of including it. For the metals, I understand that it's extraction is already in the theoretical 2:1 figure. I just mentioned them to point out that we don't really know how energy costly it is to get specialty metals of electronics in a "sustainable" way (from either extremely abundant ores or from common ground). My personal impression on the topic is that, except for iron and aluminium and maybe a few others (rare earths, ironically?), getting stuff like indium, tellurium or molybdenum from common ground (for electronics) would be so ridiculously expensive that we'd give up before that. I agree here that just using the energy/GDP correlation is not enough. This is why I tried to make a section [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.f6cwl9ryzkct] listing the scientific papers that study this correlation, and conclude that it is more serious than, say, the relationship between GDP and tomatoes. Here is one account [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282977126]that you might find of interest: So we are not dealing with a random commodity here. We are dealing with a factor of production. If we look at a biophysical standpoint, the economy is the production of goods and services. Energy is what allows to produce these goods and services (and the food/transport/housing of the workers). It seems unlikely that we can produce ever more and more goods and services using less and less energy. Maybe for a short period as we use the lowest-hanging appels, but not in a sustained way. The historical record seems to indicate that less energy and more GDP at a global level is a very strong departing of the current trend, and unlikely to happen. Maybe not impossible (for how long?), but we shouldn't assume this as
2Miguel Lima Medín2mo
I agree with the example of the robot in the space. There the EROI doesn’t matter so much. Until we have this solution in place, we would have to analyze the whole technological package and environmental context, as you very well said. I would be very interested to know what your assumptions about this whole technological package and environmental context are, especially when it comes to a fast transition to replace a declining amount of energy from fossil sources. Have you ever done this exercise for your country or the world? I would love to see the results.

I really appreciate this work. I've been looking into some of the same questions recently, but like you say everything I've been able to find up to now seem very siloed and fail to take into account all of the potentially important issues. To convince people of your thesis though, I think it needs more of the following:

  1. Discussion of more energy transition scenarios and their potential obstacles. It currently focuses a lot on the impossibility of using batteries to store 1 month worth of electricity, but I'm guessing that it might be much more realistic to use batteries only for daily storage, with seasonal/longer term variations being handled by a combination of overcapacity and fossil fuel backup, or by adaptation on the demand side.
  2. Discussion of counterarguments to your positions. You already do some of this (e.g. "Dave finds it pessimistic, he thinks they give too much importance to land use and climate impacts, and that the model should have higher efficiency and growth of renewables.") but would appreciate more details of the counterarguments and why you still disagree with them.
  3. In the long run, why is it impossible to build an abundant energy system using only highly avai
... (read more)
3Corentin Biteau3mo
Thanks for this feedback! This is really useful, it can help me to improve. 1. This could be a good idea, making different scenarios could clarify things, indeed. I think I will do that. 1. I didn't have the impression that I focused so much on battery storage, however - I talk about it for metals, but the issue of metal scarcity spans is valid for many technologies. For me, the biggest issue is manufacturing: hard to change at the speed required, requiring a lot of investment, and leading to considerable losses in efficiency. 2. For seasonal storage specifically, I wouldn't count on finite fossil fuels, and overcapacity is both energy costly (building even more of what we have) and has limited potential (the "one month of storage required" already is for a "supergrid" over the Mediterranean sea). Adapting demand would work better, but I don't know to which extent this can be done - factories need to be used 60-90% of the time to pay for the investment cost. 2. Same, good idea. I though about detailing common counterarguments but everything seemed very long already. But doing so could also clarify things. How do you suggest I do this? Making a new post with scenarios and counterarguments ? Or editing the existing ones ? 3. This is an interesting question, and it could be an additional kind of scenario that would not take into account the issue of time. There are several reasons I see limits to that, but a main limit is low EROI, indeed. There are 2 different opposing trends: on one side, EROI can improve because of technological progress - but on the other, EROI will likely be lower because of declining metal ores, storage, and the need to replace transportation and roads and manufacturing with less efficient solutions (like hydrogen). 1. Another question I have is whether we can maintain our complex society a

Thanks for this post, I can only skim it right now, but will try to get into it more later. I remember researching some of these issues back in 2008, when there was a lot of speculation about fundamental supply issues driving oil prices. I've been thinking about it a bit wrt drilling for natural gas. 

2Corentin Biteau3mo
Yeah, from what I found, one thing that drove the increase in price back then was linked to difficulties in oil extraction: the combined production of the Middle East, Europe and North America declined by 4% between 2004 and 2007 (I have some elements on the financial crisis here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.pyvnp5peukjm] ). There was more discussion on this issue back then, but then shale oil arrived and delayed the "all-liquids" peak oil by 10 years. I don't see how that can last, though.
1Noah Scales3mo
I'm curious about your take on conservation efforts, fuel efficiency, better conversion in energy plants, more human power, etc, etc. I keep the belief that smarter conservation measures could make up a lot of difference over the next several decades. How about you? Also curious about your take on the implications of moonshot energy production coming through, that is, cheap nanotube solar cells paving roads,cheap nuclear fusion, so the thought experiment that energy production becomes potentially limitless. Is that valuable or dangerous?
5Miguel Lima Medín3mo
Earth is an open system in terms of energy but a closed system regarding materials. We receive from the sun much more energy than we are transforming today into usable energy. I think the limiting factor to create devices (be them renewal energies, fusion, …) that transform this sun's energy into usable energy are land, materials, and available energy (mainly fossil) to build the devices in the first place. So, it would be impossible to create something on infinite scale. But let’s assume we can create an energy transformation device that overweighs so much the energy we can consume that we can call it in practice an “infinite” energy source. Even in this (in my mind far away) scenario we would see then the bottleneck in materials and economic growth will not be able to go on forever. At some point on time humanity will face the moment “OK, from now on we will be less humans and/or have less per capita”. This is in addition to @Corentin Biteau concerns on whether keep growing the energy we can use is a good thing or not.
1Corentin Biteau3mo
I talk about that in Post 2 [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/8sW4h368DsoooHBNP/the-great-energy-descent-part-2-limits-to-growth-and-why-we#Limits_on_investment] . There are many ways to improve how we use energy indeed, without necessarily making a dent in human well-being. However, this depends on 2 important things: * How the remaining energy is shared. If the 10-20% wealthiest still manage to get a good chunk of energy production for non-essential items (like using planes or eating meat every day), then less energy will come at the expense of the poorest. * Using only what we really need (and removing stuff like planned obsolescence or luxury items) would certainly damage economic growth. But a society without economic growth would certainly be very, very different - then again see post 2 [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/8sW4h368DsoooHBNP/the-great-energy-descent-part-2-limits-to-growth-and-why-we#Impacts__What_might_happen_when_energy_declines_] on systemic risks. I point the limits of nuclear fusion here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.kyx95x99ez1r] - I think it's best to see it as a "bigger and safer nuclear plant". An interesting prospect (if it exists), but still dependent on complex supply chains, finite metals, alot of funding, and very slow and complicated to build. I also think that having more energy would be dangerous. Indeed, we are already having a lot of trouble managing correctly the power we have - risks of nuclear wars, AGI, biorisks, and the ongoing destruction of the natural world. So infinite energy would be worse. More about that here [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/9zTLPy3zqJ7YfS7kn/the-great-energy-descent-post-3-what-we-can-do-what-we-can-t#Should_we_push_for_more_energy_] .
3Noah Scales3mo
Excellent, I wondered after i wrote that if I was going to get a reminder to read your other posts. Very cool. Thank you, Corentin.

Hi, Corentin.

I'm not sure I can give your work the attention that it deserves  There are a few authors (eg, Richard Heinberg) that were on a reading list from 2008 that I still have not finished.

I wanted to offer a conclusion I have reached about humans and resource limits.

Lets consider briefly, our oceans. Our ocean health is in decline, and loss of it as a carbon sink in combination with loss of its biodiversity could destroy civilization. I don't offer that as an argument, just an assertion. 

To do our best to protect the oceans, we should end:... (read more)

3Corentin Biteau1mo
Thanks for the answer. I absolutely agree with you ! Especially this point : Of course, this applies particularly well to our current growth-based civilisation - many other human societies [https://richardheinberg.com/museletter-344-evolution-and-climate-change-through-the-lens-of-power] knew that ecological overshoot could prove deadly so they developed values that allowed better to stay within limits. And I absolutely agree with your point. For most topics on ecology, there are thresholds upon which we trigger catastrophes : climate change, energy depletion, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, destruction of marine life, deforestation, water depletion, pollution... The threshold may be close for some causes, and far away for others, but this is not the main : in a society whose impact continues to grow as fast as possible, we inevitably cross this threshold at some point. This is why our current civilisation is not sustainable. We may try to solve one problem separately (say climate), but then we increase the damage caused in another area (more mining and resource depletion for renewables). I'm interested by this sentence. Do you have a few link on this topic ? I'd tend to agree but I haven't stumbled on high quality sources yet for that statement.
3Noah Scales1mo
Hi, Corentin As far as the statement, "Our ocean health is in decline, and loss of it as a carbon sink in combination with loss of its biodiversity could destroy civilization." You can attribute it to me though I think it's uncontroversial in its current form[1] [#fnoaoy8xmpbs]. Interpreted as meant, it has parts: 1. the ocean's health is in decline 2. if the ocean's health reaches a low enough level, then it will lose its ecosystem resource values for humanity (for example, its value as a food source). 3. if the ocean's health reaches a low enough level, then it will stop serving as a carbon sink. 4. if the ocean loses its ecosystem resources and loses its function as a carbon sink, then human civilization could collapse[2] [#fnl59nc8c89k]. The statement you quoted does not say that the ocean's health will decline precipitously. I say that elsewhere. I think beliefs 1, 2, and 3 are not that controversial but I can constrain them or give them nuance if that's really necessary. Belief 4 is speculative which is why I wrote "could.[3] [#fnq6na4qq5c9k]" I have not read any source that says human pressure on the ocean has locked-in the destruction of ocean ecosystems, and only one source suggesting that within a short period of time, it could. That said, what specifically would you like sources for, among beliefs 1-4 above? 1. ^ [#fnrefoaoy8xmpbs]It becomes controversial if I write it as "will destroy civilization" or "We will lose all ocean biomass." I do reluctantly believe that we will lose all (really most) ocean biomass, but that belief is contingent on human choices for at least several more years. If I see massive global change in a different and positive direction, then I will think differently about the future of the ocean. 2. ^ [#fnrefl59nc8c89k]I believe that the ocean will lose its biomass, primarily because of human neglect, but human civilization could survive that one stressor. That is o
1Corentin Biteau1mo
Ok, this is interesting ! I think I can agree with the reasoning. The same goes for land biodiversity: continuing the current decline (for which there is almost no trend of improvement) will at some point cause ecosystems fuctions to stop working and triggering a global catastrophe (when is more tricky). I would have liked sources for number 4 but if I understand correctly that's more of a logical conclusion you obtained on your part ? Then do you have sources for number 3 ? I feel this may be underestimated in climate models.
4Noah Scales1mo
Hi, Corentin. Belief 4 can be rephrased as: "poor ocean health could lead to civilization collapse." My use of "could" there is meant to communicate an ambiguity between two possibilities: 1. a pathway along which poor ocean health, in combination with other causes, is sufficient to lead to civilization collapse. 2. a pathway along which poor ocean death is sufficient to cause civilization collapse. As I mentioned in a footnote, I'm interested in interactions between: * an ocean that loses zooplankton and capability to support most phytoplankton * terrestrial ecology. * human civilization. Those interactions could cause civilization collapse along the second pathway or just contribute to the first pathway. The first pathway has additional causes that it requires, or preconditions at points along its causal pathway, to lead to civilization collapse. Belief 3 is, as I think you noticed, open to interpretation. My intended meaning was basically that an ocean, absent the biological pump, has a simpler total flux of CO2 through it that does not provide a net carbon sink. Ocean mesh models are not supported by small enough mesh sizes (about 1km, according to a recent podcast I listened of a climate modeler) to allow small-scale predictions of current, heating, and temp changes, so precise computer modeling of changes to PH, temperature, ocean currents, and areas of CO2 exchange with the atmosphere is not possible, but if the question is: * what happens to the ocean carbon sink if all the ocean plankton die off as the water heats up and PH drops and pollutant levels increase? the answer is: * well, the ocean will cease to be a net carbon sink, and could become a net carbon source. but if you find differently, let me know, and we can have the debate, and I will bring whatever sources I can to bear. As far as I know, most scientific discussion of changes in ocean health are still speculative and meant to: * communicate lesser changes over l
3Corentin Biteau1mo
I agree with you on a lot of points ! As for the links, do you have something on the declining health of the oceans that could act as a summary for "we have a problem and it could be big". I don't think I'll go deep into this topic - I mostly want something that I can link to when I say a statement like "oceans health declining could be a very serious problem". This is very true, I'm still surprised as to how so many people have a "we'll somehow find a solution" mindset despite so little actually happening. This is true as well. The last sentence is particularly enlightening. A "green growth will work" stance is very risky, but we won't be the ones bearing most of the risk, as we have the money to go elsewhere and be protected by the negative impact - up to some point. So it will come at the expense of others.
4Noah Scales1mo
All right, I'll put together a list of links on ocean health. What points of mine do you disagree with? I'm interested in your feedback. Have Heinberg and other Peak Resources people moved into degrowth strategies, or have a holistic take on resource use? At this point, I see the fundamental problem less about how we are bumping up against limits as how we treat limits in general. Human civilization definitely tests them in damaging ways.
3Noah Scales1mo
I am working on a list of links and a narrative to tie them together (one that suggests a serious problem), and will hopefully have something soon. Meanwhile, I'l dump some links into this to show you where I am at. The topic area is fairly complicated, and timing within a window of a decade or two depends on factors like rates of plastic pollution and predictions of overfishing given contraction of populations from other causes. There's also some complicated science that I am still wrapping my head around, particularly to do with: * oxygen depletion * the lifecycle of various types of phytoplankton * micro-plastics as particulates. Finally, there's new problem indicators (like the cancellation of the snow crab season in Alaska this year, and why it happened), and each story about them gives the marine bio community reason to pause. I would like to dig through the IPCC predictions of, for example, fish populations by the end of the century, and reconcile them with predictions I find in papers (for example, 60% population loss of fish populations due to temperature changes by 2100 under business-as-usual). There's ocean tipping points (for example, average surface ocean PH of 7.95 according to one source), below which irreversible ecological changes occur, but those boundaries are not a consensus. Then there's whether humanity could leave the business-as-usual pathway by one of several plausible exit points well before the end of the century, but find itself on a pathway with the same (or worse) 2100 endpoint for the oceans because of intrinsic feedbacks, for example, due to: * carbon dumped from the ocean * sudden thaws of permafrost * rapid freshening of water around Greenland or even the Antarctic * changes in AMOC I'm not a marine biologist (my undergrad's in geophysics), but I have painted myself enough of a picture to get, in broad strokes, that marine life will perish under a business-as-usual carbon production and pollution production scenario
2Corentin Biteau1mo
I agree, we're pushing some massive changes into complex important systems we really have trouble understanding, this is usually a recipe for disaster. This is a strong conclusion, but I can agree with it. Just two questions : * Is your conclusion still valid given the estimates of greenhouse gasses that take into account fossil fuels depletion, like I point out at the end of post 2 (i.e. not IPCC models, closer to 2 to 3 degrees of warming) ? * Is pollution (like plastic or eutrophisation) strong enough to make marine life perish at a global level ? Or is it just very bad locally ?
2Noah Scales1mo
OK, well, I'm running behind, having not read post 2 and having not yet linked up my last post, but if you're asking whether we stop producing GHG's at 2-3C, then does that include methane and coal? Either way, it comes back to how fast and how much feedback kicks in between 2-3C GAST. Coal matters because there's an aerosol effect associated with it that we already take advantage of, somewhere in the range of 0.5C degree GAST decrease, from what I remember. * There's global methane hydrate melting [https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2201871119] with slowing of the AMOC and heating of the water below the surface level, the earliest prediction for that from a tipping point expert is after 2C [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkDbCpn0_9I] , I think that's the link, the discussion comes up in the Q and A, it's worth watching. When AMOC slows is model-dependent, and the models don't agree. I also came across a news article about a recent expedition that found a new methane vent in the laptev sea [https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/oct/27/sleeping-giant-arctic-methane-deposits-starting-to-release-scientists-find] . * Then there's abrupt permafrost thaw, wildfires in permafrost land acting as a positive feedback, and the eventual contribution of gradual thaw. * then there's loss of terrestrial sinks. Need for biomass in an energy crisis will strip forests, drought will cause wildfires, disease will continue to harm forests, and damaging forest management policies, as in the Amazon, could do the rest. The plastic problem is global [https://www.nature.org/en-us/newsroom/ca-ocean-plastic/]. Fishing gear contributes a lot [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/06/dumped-fishing-gear-is-biggest-plastic-polluter-in-ocean-finds-report] to the problem. My guess is that it gets dumped wherever fish are being harvested, but it could be the opposite. How much of an impact it has on ocean life depends on how much it s
3Corentin Biteau8d
Oops, I though I had answered this comment - sorry about the delay. Thanks for the links, this is interesting. I am not sure I will dig into this topic right now but I might at some point when looking into ecological collapse, so this might provide a good start. I was aware of the huge impact of discarded fishing gear on plastic, but probably neglected other impacts you mentioned. Well put, exactly the problem. Every time there is an issue, whether social or ecological, someone says "yeah but we can do that to solve the problem". But we don't. That's the issue.

I think I quite disagree with this post because batteries are improving quite a lot, and if we are capable of also improving Hydrogen production and usage, things should work pretty well. Finally, nuclear fusion no longer seems so far away. Of course, I agree with the author that this transition will take quite a long time, especially in developing countries, but I expect this to work out well anyways. One key argument of the author is that we are limited in the amount of different metals available, but Li is very common on Earth, even if not super cheap, so I am not totally convinced by this. Similar thoughts apply to land usage.

8Corentin Biteau3mo
Oh, yes, batteries and hydrogen are improving a lot, I mentioned that. But the issues lie elsewhere. For batteries, it's the fact that there are not enough materials for seasonal storage, even if you doubled battery capacity - plus the energy cost of making batteries. For hydrogen, it's the explosiveness, the dependency on platinum and the fact that it leaks easily without costly infrastructure. For fusion, it's the time required - even fast tracks scenarios plan that it may provide 1% of energy by 2060. And as pointed out by Jaime Sevilla, Li being common is not the main point - what matters is the energy cost of mining. Less energy going to mining means less metals. Another topic that matters is the time- lithium mines take 7 to 15 years to go from exploration to production. Current plans by the IAE are already deemed irrealists given the current mining pipeline. There are summarized version of this in post 1 [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/qG8k5pzhaDk6FhcYv/the-great-energy-descent-part-1-can-renewables-replace] . I also have a specific document where I put a details versions on the issues at hand. You might want to check the ones on metals [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.n1ed2723yyau] , storage [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.rls4r6a2ribu] , hydrogen [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.1hldk411rjfc] , and fusion [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.kyx95x99ez1r] .
8Jaime Sevilla3mo
I don't buy many of the claims in the post, but I think this comment is a bit uncharitative, since it posits many technological developments that might not happen. I think I am more interested in the discussion of what is likely to happen in the absence of technological improvements, as an upper bound of the scale of the problem. We may then look into factoring technological improvement to get a more realistic picture. I understood the point of the author as not that metals are uncommon, but that they are very energy intensive to extract?
5PabloAMC3mo
Yeah, perhaps I was being too harsh. However, the baseline scenario should be that current trends will go on for some time, and they predict at least cheap batteries and increasingly cheaper H2. I mostly focussed on these two because the current problem of green energy sources is more related to energy storage than production, photovoltaic is currently the cheapest in most places.
7Miguel Lima Medín3mo
I agree the baseline scenario is that current trends will go on. In geology the resources availability trend (for both fossil energy and mining) follows the Hubbert's curve. It doesn't follow a straight line up to the infinite. After a period of going up, it follows a period of going down, once we pass the peak. The peak doesn't mean that the resource is completely depleted, but it means that the amount we can extract this year is less than previous year. To the date I'm not aware of any other scientific explanation better than Hubbert's curve, and this should be our baseline. It is more difficult to predict exactly where we are in the Hubbert's curve for each resource and whether the peak will happen this decade, but it is a fact that it will take place.
5Denkenberger3mo
I think the Hubbert curve makes sense for something that is meaningfully finite, like fossil fuels. However, minerals are not meaningfully finite. For instance, aluminum, iron, and silicon are very common in the Earth's crust, so it would not be that difficult to mine from "common rock." Even for something like phosphorus, if you had to mine from common rock, it would not increase the price of food very much. Some rare minerals may very well peak this century (and platinum and palladium may have already), but I don't think that low concentration ores are a significant impediment to energy increase at least over this century.
2Corentin Biteau3mo
We've already discussed this (of course we did ^^), but I'd like to point out once again that the amount of minerals we can extract from the ground depends on how much energy we have: aluminum in common ground has a concentration 5 times inferior to that in ores. Had we infinite energy, this wouldn't be a problem (and we didn't have this issue so far as energy kept growing). But the issue w're dealing with is precisely that of having less energy to mine them. This is why energy prices and metal prices are highly correlated. Less energy for mining means less metals being available (which is a problem since renewables require more metals). (for readers, all of that is detailed here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.caeyuzdwbb5g] ). I agree that aluminum, iron and silicon are abudant (as well as rare earths, ironically), but this study [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.1mcl1vdined5] pointed out that most minerals are expected to peak before 2100, given exponential growth. This is probably not accurate for relatively "new" resources (like lithium), where there still is the potential for more discoveries, but this sounds reasonable for resources where most discoveries have already been done. I'm quite skeptical that we can run our complex society with common minerals only - especially for computing.
4Denkenberger3mo
A smart phone may be more difficult, but basic computing is not a challenge because silicon is abundant and the dopants are used in minuscule quantities. But the more important issue is that wind turbines, solar cells, and even energy storage in the form of thermal energy storage can all be done with common minerals (limestone for cement is about 10% of the Earth's surface). So if that means we don't have an energy descent, that means we have energy in order to continue mining the rarer minerals from common rock. You link to your report, but I assume you are referring to your reproduced figure 4. Of course if you assume a Hubbert curve, it's going to go to zero in a century or two. But if we do have sufficient energy, I'm arguing that curve is fundamentally not appropriate for minerals.
3Corentin Biteau3mo
Oh, yeah, while there is ever more energy, metals are not a problem. Although with constant energy, a Hubbert curve is appropriate, since we'll get to crummy ores with low concentration which will mean a decline at some point. But the main problem is that keeping the current level of energy is unlikely. Which means less minerals. Even if we can build solar cells and windmills with common materials (with of course lower efficiency), we can't build an infinity of them - there are limits of low EROI, transport, financial and energetic cost, locations... (thermal storage is also good for half a day, but do not work for seasonal). So we may still be able to extract a few rarer minerals, but we still have the original problem: we don't run out, but there is a large decline in availability.
1Denkenberger3mo
Since wind power peaks in the winter and solar power peaks in the summer, we can generally handle seasonal variation by appropriate fractions of these energy sources. Backup plans include overbuilding, hydrogen, and biofuels. As you know, I don't think EROI, transport, financial and energetic cost, or locations would be limiting factors.
2Corentin Biteau3mo
Well, as pointed out in the "energy storage [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.fzvuxjsu0cqa] " section : "A study in Europe found that even with a giant supergrid across the European Union, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, a much larger and sunnier area than the United States, there would still need to be 1 month of energy storage to keep the grid up during seasonal variations (Droste-Franke 2015). Palmer (2020) thought that up to 7 weeks of storage would be required as well as large amounts of renewable overbuild. " Overbuilding would add to the energetic, material and financial cost of the energy system. As I already pointed out, using biofuels [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.jjtu4s4r5t5p] or hydrogen [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.1hldk411rjfc] also imply a loss in energy efficiency. Transportation also requires materials and takes time [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.ahrp7593hbq7] to scale up. What I still do not understand, however, is why you think that financial and energetic costs are not limitations? I mean, if more and more of societies' resources go to energy production (financial, material, energetic resources), for the same amount of energy as an output, this would mean that these resources cannot go toward providing food, housing, heating, and investment in capital for more economic growth. Surely this would reduce GDP at some point, no ? I mean, even if efficiency can increase, yes, it cannot do so indefinitely.
1Denkenberger3mo
It is true that hydrogen is inefficient and expensive. But biofuels, especially from agricultural and logging residues, can be quite land and energy efficient. I believe energy makes up about 8% of the global economy. We will need to produce more energy as the EROI falls and as minerals become less concentrated, and I think energy prices will increase. However, the economy is expected to get much larger (expansion of services, etc), so the percentage of GDP that is energy may not increase. Even if it doubles over the next 30 years, the drag on economic growth is ~0.3%/yr, much smaller than the current 2% growth. So I don't see energy limitations as preventing the world from achieving developed country wealth and expanding into space in the next centuries.
2Corentin Biteau3mo
Yeah, if biofuels can be made from agricultural and logging residues, that would be interesting. But as I pointed out here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.9fcz19pr6f94] , there is almost no commercial facility that does that today, despite many companies trying to do that, billions in funding and tax incentives (2 factories are doing that today with sugarcane bagasse, but it is simpler to treat than other residues). It may be possible to do that someday, but by then I do not count on it given the short timing we have. We'd also have to solve the logistical issue of collecting a huge amount of sparse and fluffy residues and bring them to the factory. Yeah but getting the energy to be larger means using more energy, as we still have relative decoupling, not absolute. There can be increases in efficiency but as I mentioned they have slowed down in the last couple decades. (For other readers I give more details about the economy in this section [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.f6cwl9ryzkct] ). Well, empirical data rather seems to indicate that when energy reaches about 10% of GDP, a recession ensues. The current small share of energy in GDP is not representative of its importance. This is because energy has a multiplier effect in GDP: the price of oil is counted in GDP when it is bought at the gas station, but also in the price of trucking services, and in the price of any product transported by truck out of a factory (so about everything), etc. I mean, say Russia were to cuts gas exports to Germany. It's about 10% of energy, so by your reasoning, one could conclude that this would affect Germany's GDP by only 0.5-0.8%. If you were to go to the German government and tell them this is not a big deal, what do you think they will answer?
2Denkenberger3mo
You're referring to liquid biofuels, which I agree is more challenging (and required for aircraft, or hydrogen). But in that case, even if cellulosic ethanol isn't economical, we can turn solid residues into Fischer Tropsch liquids, as was done in World War II with coal. To solve the seasonal mismatch of renewable energy and electrical demand, we can just burn agricultural residues or logging residues in repurposed coal power plants. Since the solar resource is orders of magnitude greater than what we need, we don't need absolute decoupling (and we do have examples of absolute decoupling for some countries). We are talking about different timescales. I agree that if energy increases from 8% to 10% of GDP in one year, then that would overwhelm the 2% economic growth. However, for it to overwhelm economic growth over decades, the price of energy would have to increase an order of magnitude or more, which I don't think is plausible. I don't think there is a multiplier effect in equilibrium - it would be great for an economist to weigh in here. For instance, people have modeled the impact of a carbon tax-sometimes it is paid directly in fuel, and other times it is paid indirectly such as in buying other products. But the overall drag on the economy I don't think is any larger than the total carbon tax. Again, in the German case, it's all about speed. If you have an abrupt reduction in energy supply, that is very disruptive to the economy. But resource exhaustion is not nearly that abrupt.
3Corentin Biteau3mo
Do you have any empirical data on that claim? Or is that just a guess on your part? On my part, I personally tend to think that my personal instinctive takes about how the economy works are false, so I try to rely a lot on empirical data. For the multiplier effect, see the paper I mention here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.jc45lce8l7f1] . For a carbon tax, the main perk of a progressive carbon tax is that it is predictable and gives time to adapt, so it would be a good thing, I agree. Unfortunately, there are many things preventing a strong carbon tax, like fear of offshoring or overall very low public support (see the Yellow Vests in France). I'd argue it is quite abrupt, at least when it comes to impact on prices. Like oil price going from $20 in 2002 to $140 in 2008 (when overall oil supply didn't really decline, it just didn't grow fast enough). See this graph [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.73az53qro5he] . Geopolitical factors like Russia exporting less are expected to increase in the future, not decrease. Well, current burning of biomass for electricity in Europe already contributes to deforestation [https://news.mongabay.com/2021/02/500-experts-call-on-worlds-nations-to-not-burn-forests-to-make-energy/] . So I don't think residues will be enough. For biomass, using Fischer Tropsch liquids for coal has been done (and has only been viable with low coal prices and subsidies, like in Germany). But doing that with biomass is far less mature, I haven't seen a commercial plant for that (See this report [https://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Aviation-biofuels-report.pdf] page 7-8). Limits for solar are less about the theoretical potential, but about the materials needed to harness it (electric cars and batteries), deployment speed (with the rehauling of the grid), and land use (see Halstead's report [https://drive.goog
3Denkenberger3mo
Link didn't go to specific part of document. But even if it were a shortfall from business as usual demand of 2%/year for oil, that is ~0.8%/year for all energy, which is a different order of magnitude from 10%/year for energy. Renewable energy is better distributed across countries than fossil fuels, so I would expect geopolitical disruptions to decrease in impact.
2Corentin Biteau3mo
Well, the shortfall for oil in the 2000s was still big enough to be highly linked to the 2008 financial crisis. You can check it here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.pyvnp5peukjm] - if the link doesn't work, search for the title "The 2008 financial crisis: the third oil shock?". The graph I refered to that didn't work was this one: Relationship between oil price and oil production.Jancovici [https://jancovici.com/en/energy-transition/energy-and-us/what-is-energy-actually/] , based on data from BP statistical review Renewable energy is more distributed, yes, but when I talk about supply shocks, I'm talking about the fossil fuels dependency that we have right now - and that is likely to stay there well into the next 3 decades. Renewables also rely on metals, some of which are poorly destributed (like lithium and copper in China and Australia, and platinum in South Africa) . China also directly controls approximately 80% of the raw materials value chain (mining, refining, smelting, manufacture and recycling). This does not account for Chinese-held corporate foreign investment in industrial assets worldwide. Specifically, the country has reduced its exports to attract more industry to the country. The Made in China 2025 plan is designed to secure the remaining 20% for Chinese interests in the name of long-term security (seehere [https://tupa.gtk.fi/raportti/arkisto/16_2021.pdf], page 61).
2Denkenberger3mo
I looked at the reference and I don't see evidence for the 80% number. The majority of the mineral budget (total ~1% of GDP) is cement, iron, and aluminum. It looks like China mines little iron and aluminum, though it does refine a lot of them. Eyeballing it looks like China is ~half production and consumption minerals, which is a lot. But the idea that China would control 100% of the world's mining, refining, smelting, manufacture and recycling is hyperbole.
1Corentin Biteau3mo
Ok, I looked again and the 80% figure is a bit a stretch compared to the initial formula, I can agree. I think it's not just "China is mining these minerals" but "China is involved in the material chain at some point, through mining or refining or smelting or manufacturing or recycling" (with varying degrees of dependency). That could be where the 80% figure comes from. 100% is not realistic, but China's share is the value chain is increasing. But even if we were to stick to 50% of control as you suggest, or 60%, this would not change much of the issue that there is a lot of dependency, indeed. A lot of potential vulnerability would arise if China were to cut down some of its exports (whether voluntarily, or by accident, or because of a pandemic).
2Miguel Lima Medín3mo
Materials: I recommend chapter 8 and 9 of this paper https://www.15-15-15.org/webzine/download/100-decarbonization-with-100-renewable-energy-systems-through-power-to-gas-and-direct-electrification/ [https://www.15-15-15.org/webzine/download/100-decarbonization-with-100-renewable-energy-systems-through-power-to-gas-and-direct-electrification/] [Update]: I noticed in the attached document by Corentin there are is already information about materials. It is probably better to check first there.
1Nebulus3mo
While I have the same intuition as you, I wonder if the author means other kinds of metal could be the bottleneck. Also, my intuition points that minerals are not a bottleneck if we can make it cost-efficient to extract extraterrestrial minerals (ie, asteroids and comets). But can we?
4Corentin Biteau3mo
I described it more in post 1, but the constraints on minerals are on the timing (the time required to open mines) and on scale (the quantities required are too big, the large majority of metals is expected to peak by 2100 given exponential growth). What matters the most, though, is energy - mining, refining and smelting require a lot of energy (mostly from diesel trucks and coal for high heat manufacturing, both very difficult to substitute). The grade of ores is already declining. Given infinite energy, we could mine common ground and get anything we want, but this is of course impossible. Mining from common ground would actually be the prospect of space mining [https://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-04-18/the-age-of-diminishing-returns/], since there is no geological process that makes concentrated ore on asteroids and other planets. Overall, the amount of metals we can mine depends on the amount of energy at our disposal. Which is a problem since it will decline. As said above, you can find in the additional doc a full section on metals. [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.n1ed2723yyau]

Corentin, you might be interested on this European project to explore pathways towards post-growth economics

To explore “how dramatic reductions in energy and resource use can be achieved, while at the same time ending poverty and ensuring decent lives for all” seems to me a very important and neglected problem. Based on the difficulties highlighted in your post I’m not sure how tractable it is, but I’m glad that some funds go into researching this issue.

1Corentin Biteau1mo
Oh, this is interesting. I'd like to see the results ! I hope this will be focused on stuff that can be actually attained without a wide support from all governments worldwide - I feel this is something often missing from most of the litterature.

"If having forever more material goods is not an option"

If we believe the second law of thermodynamics, then infinite comsuption of materials is not an option, as recycling will never hit 100%.
 The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics - The gaping hole in the middle of the circular economy

"then we’ll have to learn how to live happily in a constrained world, in a truly sustainable way."

I agree this is the natural consequence and the path to follow for Effective Altruism when it comes to longtermism: the needs of future beings shouldn't be limitted by our egoist e... (read more)

1Corentin Biteau3mo
I absolutely agree !

When I worked as a Department of Energy Global Change Fellow in the 90s, there was a well-known commentary that we're always at peak oil (coal, natural gas, etc.). It never turns out to be true.
Also, about 15 years ago, New Scientist ran a very convincing article that we were about to run out of the metals we need for modern society. It, also, didn't turn out to be true.
I think that posts like this will read like "The Population Bomb" in the future.

4Corentin Biteau1mo
By the way, I read some of the stuff you wrote on your blog, and I really enjoyed it. I also checked the One Step for Animals website - this is a great job, I really like it ! I think it really makes sense .
2MattBall1mo
Thanks so much, Corentin! You might like my latest book: https://www.losingmyreligions.net/ [https://www.losingmyreligions.net/] Take care!
1Corentin Biteau1mo
Yeah, I intend to if I have some time ! From the outside it seems very interesting
3Corentin Biteau2mo
Well, peak oil is unavoidable from a physical standpoint. If we extract a finite resource faster than it is replenished (which takes millions of years), we can't sustain exponential growth indefinitely. Same goes for peak coal and gas. I agree that so far, when faced by the prospect of less oil, we've managed to switch to other sources : offshore oil, North Sea, shale oil... But it gets harder and harder to extract. Discoveries are at an all-time low, Saudi Arabia announced it would peak in 2027, Russia in 2019, 2/3 of US producers think oil has peaked in the US... I really don't see what country can compensate for the decline of everyone else. Maybe someone will step up, but who? I explain all of this at length here [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ripciOx0QeqZZsxYL80DnY5Vn6iXcTzdkffpSYOA52Q/edit#heading=h.7lk2s1omqkuy] . For metals, their extraction depends on the amount of energy we have, so they don't deplete while we have an ever-growing amount of energy (which is why predictions on mineral depletion have turned out wrong most of the time, I agree). I can get where your line of thinking comes from - after all, making conclusions from how things went in the past usually makes sense. But it seems risky to me to assume that something (no idea what) will save the day. I'd really like some good data on what exactly will step up to continue fossil fuels production, and how, and how fast, and at what amount.