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Lester Brown: Conservation, Not Biofuels
Ethan Zuckerman, 19 Oct 06

Lester Brown is the author of Plan B 2.0 and the president of the Earth Policy Institute. He’s interested in the radical rethinking we need to go through in looking not only at climate change but at international competition for resources.

He points out that China now consumes more of most basic resources than the US. China now uses more steel, grain, coal and meat than the US does - it’s only in oil consumption that we outpace China. If China catches up with us in terms of consumption per person - which they may by 2031, when their incomes are predicted to catch up - the planet will not survive. That would imply 1.1 billion cars in China, which would require paving as much land in China as is currently planted in rice. We simply can’t continue at this consumption pace.

Instead, we need systematic change. He points to wind farms, supplying 40 million households in Europe with power; solar rooftops in Japan; Geothermal heating for houses in Iceland, which doesn’t need to import heating oil; bicycle friendly streets in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Brown recently read Jared Diamon’s “Collapse” and wonders what warning signs societies should be looking at to predict their collapse. He suggests that we should be looking very closely at the price of oil.

Almost all of our food commodities - corn, wheat, soy - can be turned into ethanol. Traditionally, this only happens with government assistance, because it’s so expensive to produce fuel ethanol. But with the rise in oil prices, lots of folks are investing in ethanol on a for-profit basis. Unfortunately, no one is looking at how much grain might be required. An economist calculated that if every ethanol distillery planned and in construction was brough online, Iowa would use 2.3 billion bushels of corn a year. It produces only 2.1 billion bushels. Do we want a future where nations like Malaysia are fighting over palm oil - use it as a foodstuff or convert it to food? In the US, the entire grain harvest would provide only 16% of all auto fuel needs. If ethanol catches on in a big way, we could see competition between people who want to drive, and people who want to eat… which could lead to instability in developing nations with rising food prices.

Moving in a different direction - conservation - would make much more sense. Converting the entire US auto fleet to hybrids would raise fuel economy from 22 MPG to 55 MPG. Add a second storage battery to a Prius and it can be plugged in and used without fuel for short drives. Invest in thousands of wind farms, and we could have electric cars that run for less than they’d cost running $1 per gallon gas. (By contrast, filling an SUV with ethanol requires as much grain as would feed a human for a year.)

“The key to restructuring the global economy is to get the market to tell the truth.” The
prices we’re paying now aren’t real prices - our gasoline prices don’t include climate change, respiratory injury and other consequences. If we included these costs, we’d be paying $10 a gallon, not $3. We need to restructure the tax system to lower income taxes and raise carbon taxes, as they’re doing in Sweden.

Brown observes that socialism collapsed because it didn’t let the market tell the economic truth. Capitalism, he believes, may collapse because it doesn’t tell the ecological truth.

For those who don’t believe the US can retool to build windfarms and electric cars, he references the transformation of the US economy after Pearl Harbor. FDR banned the purchase of new private cars, forcing the auto industry to produce enough armament to fight wars on two oceans. “He didn’t say, ‘Go shopping.’” If we wanted this sort of a transformation, we’re capable of putting it together - it requires political will.

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I'm glad to see Lester back on track after a brief seduction with "the hydrogen economy."

This is the first generation in a long time to have to cope with declining essential resources. It should be an interesting ride.

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 19 Oct 06

And, it requires real leaders. So far, we're long on ideas, short on leaders. Amen to Lester Brown - anyone reading this should go out and buy "Plan B 2.0" immediately. It's a perfect blueprint for how to reach our new economy.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 19 Oct 06

How bout conservation AND biofuels.

Posted by: Peter Sinclair on 20 Oct 06

How about: biofuels as a lever for social justice? It can be produced in the South cheaply (because of an abundance of land, rain, sunshine and high yielding crops), and sold for a high price in the North. That way, some redistribution of global wealth might take place.

I would like to see more stress on the immense social and economic benefits that biofuels will bring to the South.

Energy conservation is important, but eradicating poverty is too. We are now going to have to weigh off both.

On another note: I think Europeans and Americans should not criticize China's hunt for resources (including biofuels from the South). After all, the Euro-Americans are the ones who caused countless resources wars and plundered their colonies, installed dictators and looted the globe. China might be doing the same, but this time at least the ordinary gents in Africa might benefit for once.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 20 Oct 06

I quickly needed to add that not investing in biofuels in the South will result in a global climate catastrophy that will affect us all. We need to stress the GHG-reduction potential of biofuels. Energy conservation (negawatts) are a great way of reducing emissions too, but they probably require much larger investments by industry.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 20 Oct 06

Efficiency gains are prerequisite to biofuels, because of arithmetic.

(The citation for this argument is in Hoffert, Volk and Wigley: "Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet," Science, 298, 981-987, 2002.)

A terrawatt (TW) is one trillion watts. Humans currently use about 13TW primary energy annually. The United States uses about one fourth of this.

Terrestrial photosynthesis collects, on average, 0.7 W/m2. To produce 1TW, all the photosynthesis from about 1,295,000 square kilometers is needed. For 13TW, 16,835,000 square kilometers would be needed - all the net photosynthetic productivity from an area slightly smaller than South America.

We currently use land about equal to South America for crops. Obviously, we do not take all the photosynthetic productivity from this land, which is a good thing.

Our political economy is structured to double the amount of energy used every 20 to 30 years. Even though energy intensity - the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of Gross Domestic Product - has been falling, it hasn't fallen fast enough to offset exponential growth of population and consumption. But, as has been noted here before, if we could increase improvements in energy intensity from 1% to 2% a year, we could actually reduce growth of energy use.

(I've written about this arithmetic several times here at WorldChanging - sorry for the repetition, but we really need to be aware of the scale of the issue.)

My guess is this arithmetic has convinced Lester Brown that efficiency is the best way to make biofuels realistic and effective.

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Oct 06

the arithmetic also shows that we need to also use nuclear power. solar added 1.7GW in 2005. Wind added 12 GW in 2005. Using the 13TW figure and 26 years. Then we will be ading 500GW each year on average. 4TW for electricity. 40% from coal.

A Harvard study showed that 100,000+ die each year in China from coal pollution. The America Lung Association indicates 24000 die each year in the US from coal. 10,000 die in the coal mines each year. Over 200,000 real deaths each year is about the same as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

24000 american deaths is 24 times the american deaths each year in Iraq. About 1000 each year. The war has been going on for 3 years.

In 2005 we used 4.6 billion tons of coal. There are only a few parts per million of other materials but it is still 20,000 tons of uranium and thorium every year into the air. Say what you will about nuclear waste but at least they are trying to store it in vats instead of in the air and in your lungs.

We have to up-power existing reactors. New MIT work on nuclear fuel and the coolant, will allow 50% more power generation and more safety. Change the fuel rods into cylinders and get more surface area. The coolant water can be modified to allow higher running temperatures.

Then we need to mass produce more reactors. Get rid of the bureaucratic delays. The actual reactors only take 4 years to build and cost $1.5 per GW. They are making them that way in china. Work on better reactors. Thorium liquid flouride reactors were built in the 1960s. They do not have the proliferation issues, can process our current waste and make them one hundred year problems instead of 10,000 years.

In the 35 years, that Greenpeace has been fighting against nuclear reactors, coal has killed 20 million people. Nuclear has killed less than one thousand. 56 in Chernobyl, plus I am allowing for some factor of error for whoever else anyone wants to include against nuclear.

Just because coal is a little cleaner than it was in the 1950's when it darkened the skies of western cities as it still does in china and russia, does not mean the problem has gone away. People talk about chernobyl but forget about 1952 in London when a fog trapped coal pollution and caused 1200 people to keel over and die. 8000 died in the following weeks.

Coal also causes 40% of green house gases, biggest source of mercury (which is why they tell people not to eat tuna and definitely not for pregnant women or children), arsenic etc...

Wind, solar, biofuels all great. But we also need nuclear if we want to stop coal the real enemy.

Posted by: Brian Wang on 23 Oct 06

This is all straight from my mouth, absolutely no copying/pasting:

They're called fast neutron reactors? Aren't these a variant of the nuclear-fission reactor that could help spur a new generation of more effective nuclear power plants? I've seen and heard of many advancements in nuclear power, and that is only one shining example of what science has known and is currently improving on. There is an unfair distrust and prejudice for the nuclear lobby, but even I can at times distrust corporations and big government (in a serious tone). However, the science is telling us that nuclear technology CAN be remarkably safe and one of the best means available to supply the world with energy.

There is another benefit, aside from effective power generation, to safer/better nuclear power. In total, space travel and various other projects can capitalize on nuclear technology because of the sheer amount of energy involved - it is quite a bit! As an example of one such project, look up "Project Orion" on google. It was a project that started in the 1950's to propel mankind into space. It used nuclear technology to acheive this end. They were discussing travelling times to Jupiter under 1 month, and a journey to Saturn in several. If you don't beleive it, look it up! The program was shot down in the mid 60's due to the fears of anything nuclear at the time. Understandably, this was not long after the cuban missile crisis and there were many concerned people gravitating around this issue during that period. This fear of anything nuclear continues, however. Admittedly, they were planning to use mini-nukes in their design(s) of the propulsion system, but we would not likely implement this into a modern day cousin, at least not without much further study of its safety margins. The least that a new generation of nuclear power plants could do is remove the taboo label that is so grossly administered to anything nuclear. Removing this taboo, to some extent anyway, will not only accompany great strides in nuclear power generation, but it will also engage new generations of people towards an understanding of what 'nuclear' means and what 'nuclear' can do for the world.

Posted by: john on 25 Oct 06

Sorry for my lengthy comments:

I mostly agree with what is stated in the above article, btw. I just had to reply to that comment about nuclear power! Too important to ignore.

I also agree that, if some of the money that is pumped into the pentagon and defense agencies were to be transferred to an alternative energy or a nuclear power crash program, it would likely result in more, not less peace. Arguably, it is only my opinion and time can only tell. But the longer we wait the more ground we lose. If people really want a "pearl harbor" in order to understand that climate change is a real phenomena, then all they need to do is sit back and wait for the bad news. Predictably, people of the future may find themselves in a 'fix'. Not only are they protecting themselves from violent regimes who are increasingly finding themselves on slippery ground, but they're having to protect themselves from a changing, hostile environment. Who will be our friends in those trying times? Honestly, we can let this grow into a fat cancerous tumour through inaction or denial. Our other choice is to figure out how to purge it. Going on what we know and what we've seen, this is a war on multiple fronts. Is there a common thread? My own feeling is that yes, there is. I think its a resource war. The more effective we're at satisfying people, and the more effective they're at educating themselves, the better we all are at averting global disaster.

Posted by: john on 25 Oct 06



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