Human civilization has made remarkable progress in the past two hundred years starting with the Industrial Revolution. This has been well documented in two current books, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future by Johan Norberg.
But for human progress to continue indefinitely into the future depends on sufficient economic growth. Faster growth means more progress. The purpose of the Republican tax plan now working its way through Congress is to speed up economic growth in the U.S.
It is a legitimate question to ask whether there are environmental constraints on faster growth. What are the world’s largest environmental problems and how serious are they? In rough order of severity:
Global warming is a very serious problem, for which the evidence is overwhelming. The use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar is growing but not fast enough to stop the world wide increase in carbon emissions. It will require the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China, working together to solve this huge problem but it can be done.
World population is likely to stabilize at about 9.2 billion (the Rational Optimist, page 206) by 2075 and then start to decline. This is because in country after country economic progress has led first to slower mortality rates and then to slower birth rates. When this demographic process eventually reaches Africa, world population will begin to decline.
Pollution is on the decline around the world (see above chart from Norberg). Air pollution is declining in the U.S. (see Ridley, page 279) and China is beginning to get serious about it.
Natural resources are simply not running out, see here and here.
Conclusion. Yes, the world has environmental problems (mainly global warming) but no, they need not stand in the way of economic growth indefinitely into the future.
I have been reporting for several days on a fascinating new book, “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” by Robert Bryce and, in particular, what it means for climate change. Here are some key points:
As Mr. Bryce says, “It’s time to focus our inquiry on the key question: if we agree that too much carbon dioxide is bad for the Earth’s atmosphere – what are we going to do? What’s the best “no regrets” climate policy as we move forward?” Here’s how to proceed:
We will need much more energy in the decades ahead in order to raise the living standards of the more than two billion people who are still living in energy poverty.
Hydrocarbons now provide 87% of the world’s total energy needs. There are still no affordable, scalable substitutes for the vast quantity of hydrocarbons that we use today.
People in the industrialized countries cannot and should not hinder the efforts of the world’s poor to gain access to cheap, reliable sources of energy.
We must give a very high priority to adapting and hardening our cities, networks and structures so they can better survive severe weather events.
N2N (natural gas to nuclear) provides the best no-regrets energy policy because those fuels can provide significant environmental benefits with relatively low economic costs.
The combination of natural gas and nuclear energy has reduced America’s carbon footprint by 54 billion tons over the last six decades. By comparison, wind, solar and geothermal sources reduced emissions by just 1.5 billion tons over the same period.
In other words, we need to be practical about the new sources of energy which will be needed to meet growing world demand. Renewable energy sources cannot nearly provide what is needed. Exploiting the current abundance of natural gas while further developing nuclear energy is the best way to proceed.
I look at a lot of books and every once in a while I find one that I really like. Such is the case for “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” by Robert Bryce, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute.
The book starts out: “We are besieged by bad news. Climate change, pollution, famine, water shortages, war and terrorism, the mess at Fukushima, political gridlock, and the ongoing debt problems and economic malaise in Europe and the United States are dominating the headlines.” This leads some people to embrace “collapse anxiety,” the feeling that our problems are so great that our prosperous Western lifestyle cannot be sustained and soon may crash. “This pessimistic worldview ignores an undeniable truth: more people are living longer, healthier, more peaceful, lives than at any time in human history. Amid all of the hand wringing over climate change, etc. the plain reality is that things are getting better, a lot better, for tens of millions of people around the world.”
“Dozens of factors can be cited for the improving conditions of humankind. But the simplest explanation is that innovation is allowing us to do more with less. We are continually making things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.” Computers are becoming smaller and faster. Nearly everything we use is getting lighter. Our engines and farms are getting denser. Innovators are driving down costs and making goods and services cheaper.
For example, how does the SFLDC perspective apply to energy use?
In July 2012 blackouts hit northern India leaving 600 million people without electricity, even though India’s coal use doubled between 2002 and 2012. India relies on coal for 2/3 of its electricity production and has enough coal reserves to last a century. In India and worldwide, coal use will almost surely continue to increase.
Consider the following power densities (footprints) of various forms of energy:
i) biofuels: .3 watts per square meter
ii) wind energy: 1 watt per square meter
iii) solar photovoltaic panels: 6 watts per square meter
iv) oil well: 27 watts per square meter
v) natural gas: 28 watts per square meter iv) nuclear plant: 50 watts per square meter
Conclusion: From a power density point of view biofuels are a very inefficient source of energy and wind energy isn’t a whole lot better.
What is the best energy policy going forward? Stay tuned!