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Energy: Science, Policy, and the Pursuit of Sustainability

Energy: Science, Policy, and the Pursuit of Sustainability

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Energy: Science, Policy, and the Pursuit of Sustainability

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468 Seiten
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Feb 22, 2013
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9781597262484
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Buch

Beschreibung

In the early 2000s, energy prices have fluctuated wildly, from historic highs in the winter and spring of 2001 to the lowest wholesale prices in decades a few short months later. As the largest user of fossil-fuel energy, the United States is the key player in the world's energy markets, and our nation's energy policy (or lack thereof) has become a subject of increasing concern.Energy: Science, Policy, and the Pursuit of Sustainability is an essential primer on energy, society, and the environment. It offers an accessible introduction to the "energy problem" -- its definition, analysis, and policy implications. Currpatterns of energy use are without question unsustainable over the long term, and our dependence on fossil fuels raises crucial questions of security and self-sufficiency. This volume addresses those questions by examining the three broad dimensions of the issue: physical, human, and political-economic. Chapters consider: the laws of nature and the impacts of energy use on our physical and ecological life-support systems the psychological, social, and cultural factors that determine how we use energy the role of governmactions in adjusting costs, influencing resource consumption, and protecting the environmhow markets work, and the reasons and cures for market failures in responding to long-term environmental and energy problems Energy links energy use with key environmental issues of population, consumption, and pollution and offers readers a range of material needed for an informed policy perspective.
Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Feb 22, 2013
ISBN:
9781597262484
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

Robert Bis professor emeritus of physics, and Randall Baker is professor of public and environmental affairs, and Lloyd Orr is professor emeritus of economics, at Indiana University.

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Introduction

The Energy-Environment Problem

Everything that happens in both the living and the nonliving world is due to the flow and transformation of energy. Energy drives the economy, and all living creatures require it. Indeed, from a thermodynamic perspective, humans are just very complex organisms for processing energy. There can be no more fundamental question than fueling our existence.

What we often think of as development has been a process of moving out of the struggle to secure food (basic energy) for our subsistence to creating an energy surplus by harnessing the power of animals, wind, water, and other local resources. With the Industrial Revolution, the increase in productivity derived from mechanical energy is now heavily dependent on nonrenewable energy resources. Currently, most energy use in the developed world is for purposes other than basic subsistence.

There is growing concern in all nations about the long-term sustainability of the energy-intensive lifestyle that the industrialized world has developed and, moreover, whether the earth can ever support this level of development for the majority of the world’s people. These concerns stem from the pressures of continuing growth in population and in energy use per capita on a planet that has finite resources and a finite capacity to assimilate wastes.

Experts do not agree on how many people the earth can support for an indefinite period, but a commonly quoted range is somewhere between 4 and 16 billion. The true number will depend on the quality of life that future generations are willing to accept and on unforeseeable technological change. How to stabilize human numbers and natural resource consumption at levels that are compatible with the earth’s long-term carrying capacity—and human aspirations—is one of the most challenging problems facing humankind. Rich countries have stable or declining populations as a consequence—directly or indirectly—of greater prosperity and security. The same path to population stabilization may not be feasible or desirable in poor countries because of limited energy resources and environmental constraints. Approaches that combine prosperity with reductions in fertility rates by other means and over a shorter time span are more likely to be successful for developing nations.

World population is now at 6 billion and growing at the rate of about 1.5 percent a year, adding around 80 million people (roughly one-third of the population of the United States) to the earth annually. If this growth rate were to continue for another fifty years, world population would reach 13 billion in the year 2050. United Nations projections, under reasonable assumptions of reduced fertility, are that world population could reach between 8 billion and 12 billion in the year 2050. While some industrialized countries are currently experiencing low population growth rates—and a few, actual population decline—this has little impact on global trends because these countries hold less than 15 percent of world population. Over 95 percent of population growth is occurring in the world’s least developed countries.

To see the absurdity of unlimited population growth, consider that if world population were to continue to grow indefinitely at the current rate of about 1.5 percent a year (corresponding to a doubling time of forty-seven years), the average population density on all continents of the earth, including Antarctica, would reach one person per square meter in 676 years!¹ Clearly, life-support systems would collapse long before this.

World economies have grown even faster than population, averaging 3.7 percent growth per year from 1950 to 1997. The World Energy Council projections for economic growth rates in the next few decades are 2.4 percent a year for developed countries and 4.6 percent a year for developing countries, with a total average of 3.3 percent a year. The global demand for energy, the essential engine of economic development, is expected to grow at similar rates. Physical growth rates such as these, corresponding to doubling times of fifteen to twenty-nine years and an average of twenty-one years, cannot continue indefinitely on a planet with finite space and resources.

Growth in world energy demand of 3.3 percent per year could not be met for long. A steady growth rate of 3.5 percent per year, corresponding to a doubling time of twenty years, would result in five doublings in one hundred years and ten doublings in two hundred years, corresponding to increases in energy demand by factors of 32 and 1,024. Meeting such large increases in energy demand in environmentally acceptable ways would not be feasible with existing or foreseeable technologies.

The question is not whether there will be limits on specific physical growth rates of this sort. It is, rather, what will be the nature of these limits and their consequences for ecological systems and human well-being?

The world is already beginning to feel the effects of the finiteness of oil and natural gas resources. It is projected by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists that global production of oil—currently the world’s largest energy source—will peak early in the twenty-first century and decline permanently thereafter and that oil reserves recoverable economically by existing and foreseeable technologies will be close to exhaustion by 2100. Natural gas will not last much longer, because the amounts of energy stored in the earth as oil and natural gas before extraction began in the middle of the nineteenth century were about equal. To date, we have used less natural gas than oil, but the rate of natural gas use is increasing as oil reserves decline. Coal reserves are large, but there may be severe environmental constraints on the rate of coal use.

Many earlier predictions of oil and other resource production peaks and exhaustion times have been proven wrong because of unforeseen discoveries and technological developments, which during the last two centuries have always been more rapid than resource depletion. But this pattern cannot be expected to continue indefinitely—there are limits to how long nonrenewable resources can last. In the case of oil, the limit will be reached when the energy required to recover a gallon of oil is greater than the energy content of the oil. It may become economical to switch to substitutes long before that point is reached. Renewable substitutes, such as solar and wind energy, have effectively unlimited lifetimes but are nevertheless limited sources of energy because they are so widely distributed and low in concentration compared to fossil and nuclear energy. As a result, they require very large collection areas (the equivalent of one-third of the state of Wyoming to supply the current U.S. total energy needs).

Energy and Sustainability

Sustainability is necessarily a vague term, and the definition is not always clear. The most widely accepted general definition of sustainable development is that given by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environmental Development:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.²

The physicist Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel laureate and author of The Quark and the Jaguar, offers the following definition of sustainability:

The achievement of quality of human life and of the state of the biosphere that is not purchased mainly at the expense of the future. It encompasses survival of a measure of human cultural diversity and also of many of the organisms with which we share the planet, as well as the ecological communities that they form.³

An economist’s definition of sustainability is given in Chapter 6:

The preservation for future generations of a set of economic and social opportunities that are at least as rich and diverse as our own. It is not a specific goal so much as it is a process of continuous change and adaptation.

Many other similar definitions of sustainability exist that vary somewhat depending on what it is one wants to sustain. The focus of this book is energy sustainability, but since everything that happens in the world—all life and physical processes—involves the flow and transformation of energy, energy sustainability clearly is at the core of all sustainability issues; it is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for sustainability in its broadest sense.

Overview

Given the critical, broad, and challenging issues discussed above, we set out in this book to contribute to the definition, analysis, and policy implications of the sustainable energy challenge in a manner comprehensible to those who are not specialists in the relevant disciplines.

As we might expect with such fundamental issues, they do not reside easily within any one of the disciplinary boxes into which the sum of human knowledge has been divided. Although the individual chapters have been written by specialists and practitioners in a variety of academic fields—some of which are not always immediately associated in everyone’s mind with the energy problem —this work has developed from its inception within a strongly interdisciplinary framework, thus—we hope—avoiding some of the worst aspects of edited studies in terms of style, homogeneity of purpose, and integration.

Resisting the normal temptation to think of the natural sciences as the hard sciences and the social sciences as the soft sciences, we examine the uncertainties of forecasting anticipated life spans of fossil fuels. We then ask why the warnings of science are often ignored and why people behave as though some miracle cure will always spring from the unlimited ingenuity of humankind. Why—given the history of building modern society on depletable assets and a historically rapid expansion of consumption—do we not have adequate policies that recognize this condition and steer us toward an alternative resource base and consumption pattern?

Humankind’s unwillingness to respond to the warnings of resource exhaustion is partly due to a history of predictions about the life spans of certain strategic minerals and other resources that proved to be wrong. For example, copper, instead of disappearing in a welter of stratospheric prices as predicted several decades ago by Meadows and Meadows in Limits to Growth, ⁴ is now at historically low prices because technology (plastics in plumbing, fiber optics instead of electrical cables, and satellites) has rendered it obsolete for some of its historically most important purposes. Technology was the joker in the pack, and so there is a reasonably well founded tendency to sit back and have faith in the technology gods.

Meeting world energy needs in the twenty-first century is only half of the energy problem. The other half is finding ways to do this in environmentally acceptable ways. As world oil and natural gas resources become exhausted (or too scarce to be economical), we will be forced to turn to alternatives. Coal and nuclear energy are two short-term possibilities, though both have serious environmental impacts. A more environmentally friendly long-term solution to the energy problem will require greatly expanded development of renewable energy sources—primarily solar and wind—coupled with worldwide improvements in energy efficiency and reduction of energy waste.

We attempt throughout this book to use the terms efficiency and waste consistently. In the thermodynamic sense, efficiency is defined as the fraction of energy input that is converted into useful work. Waste refers to energy lost due to extravagant lifestyle choices—for example, driving a 14 mpg vehicle to work instead of using a 50 mpg vehicle or taking public transportation, walking, or riding a bicycle when the latter are feasible and preferable from an energy and environmental standpoint.

This book’s most important mission is to provide the reader with the range of material needed for an informed policy perspective. Of course, most people will immediately respond by saying that they do not make policy or that they are just some small cog in a gigantic machine. However, the message of the past fifty years has been that policy comes from a groundswell of popular concern and anxiety. Rachel Carson did not create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but she did express the real concerns of many people. Unfortunately, it all too often takes, in addition, some form of crisis to make change happen, and this usually leads to less than optimal, often ill-conceived short-run policy actions.

The chapters concern themselves with the two dimensions of the energy sustainability problem: the physical dimension and the human dimension. Chapters 1 to 3 deal with the physical dimension of the energy sustainability problem: the physical laws of nature that humans must live by and the daunting challenges of finding ways to provide the world with the energy it needs to sustain and advance human well-being worldwide while simultaneously dealing with the environmental consequences that threaten human health and ecosystems. Chapters 4 to 7 deal with the human dimension: the psychological and cultural factors that determine how we use energy, the political and economic factors that determine its governance in a democratic society, the limits of markets in responding to environmental and long-term energy problems, and the ethical problem of motivating people to protect future generations. Although there are no absolute laws such as those in the physical sciences that govern human and social behavior, there are effective laws of human nature that limit what people are willing and able to do in specific personal and cultural situations. These limits can be just as constraining as the laws of science.

Although all life processes and every action, large or small, involves energy, most nonscientists have only a vague idea of what energy is in the scientific sense and little understanding of how energy flow controls and constrains everything that happens. In Chapter 1, Robert Bent, Andrew Bacher, and Ian Thomas examine what energy is and the basic principles of energy transformations—the first and second laws of thermodynamics—which are the rules of the game humans must play by. Chapter 1 also includes a discussion of the insidious nature of exponential physical growth, which is unsustainable in the long term for any given material resource.

Growth of both population and energy use per capita is the basis for increases in nonrenewable resource depletion and environmental degradation. In Chapter 2, John Sheffield examines world population trends and forecasts, projected future world energy demand, and the realistic options the world has for meeting this demand. How many people the earth can sustain depends in complex ways both on the type and level of lifestyle supported and on future technological developments—both of which are largely unpredictable. Population and resource projections are highly uncertain because no one knows what future generations will want, what choices they will make or, technologically speaking, what they will be able to do that might seem miraculous to us now. It is clear, however, even with these uncertainties, that meeting future world energy needs will require population stabilization, new energy resources and technologies, substantial improvements in energy efficiency, and energy conservation through changes in lifestyles.

Paradoxically, energy use contributes simultaneously to human well-being and to environmental problems that threaten the quality of human life. In Chapter 3, Russell Lee addresses the second half of this dilemma—the impacts of energy use on human life-support systems, both physical and ecological. All sources of energy have environmental impacts. Meeting present and future world energy demand without doing intolerable and irreparable damage to the environment is one of the most difficult economic, technological, political, and social problems facing humankind today. In countries at the top end of the income scale, the combination of affluence, cultural factors, and cheap energy leads to high per capita energy use. At the bottom end, poverty blocks alternatives to antiquated technologies that are wasteful of energy and harmful to the environment. An additional difficulty is the great uncertainty about how nature will react to the environmental pressures being put upon her by humankind.

It’s not just population that matters; it’s the number of people times the energy and resource consumption per person that is a measure of humans’ impact on the environment. Affluence reduces the number of people who can be supported by a given resource and technology base. Understanding human behavior is crucial to developing realistic policies aimed at conserving energy. The social and cultural factors that shape consumption and resource use patterns in both developed and developing countries are examined by Richard Wilk in Chapter 4.

In a democratic society, policy reflects the prevailing values, desired futures, and desired quality of life of the voting public. In Chapter 5, Randall Baker focuses on the difficulties of formulating energy policies for the long run in a democratic society, in particular the need for widespread public understanding of the issues, the role of crises in mobilizing public concern and political action, and the problem of the public perception of possible crises and the links between energy and the environment when the signals and evidence are confusing.

Given resource limitations (scarcity), how those resources can be effectively and equitably allocated within the current generation and between current and future generations is the central question underlying sustainable energy. To formulate an effective sustainability policy, a basic understanding of how modern economic systems work and how they may fail to meet the needs of the present and future generations must be developed. To deal effectively with the failure of markets to fully reflect the social value of environmental resources and the needs of future generations and to formulate effective energy and environmental policies, a thorough understanding of the interactions of policies with the interconnected system of markets is essential for long-term success. For the economics of the environment and sustainable energy, the economy must be seen within the context of ecological systems, the fundamental laws of energy transformations, and the potential for continuous adaptation and technological development. Lloyd Orr addresses these fundamental economic questions in Chapter 6.

The concept of sustainability involves looking ahead to the future and therefore necessarily includes how we view our responsibilities to future generations. Whether we owe future people anything is a fundamental moral question. We presume in this book that we owe them something—for example, a healthy state of the biosphere and economic and social opportunities at least as rich and diverse as our own. We assume that morality requires this. There is widespread agreement on this but also disagreement about the nature and seriousness of the problem and the best way to approach it. Social inaction is more a matter of not knowing than of not caring.

Exactly what morality requires of us regarding the rights of future generations is a philosophical problem in its own right but one that is not taken up in this book. Instead, in Chapter 7, Norman Care turns to the perhaps more controversial question of what moves people to do what morality requires. While there may be fairly universal agreement that morality requires something of us regarding future people, there is no tight connection between what morality requires and actually being moved to do what morality requires. Care considers possible motivators for current citizens of a free society to support moral policies that honor our legacy to future generations.

We conclude with some general thoughts on the goals of this book. Energy sustainability is fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem. Our purpose is to add breadth and perspective to our understanding of this problem by approaching it from multiple vantage points and showing how the different disciplinary approaches are interrelated. We focus on basic facts and fundamental principles in the belief that a broader understanding of these principles by policy makers and the general public is needed in a democratic society to move us toward a sustainable future.

Notes

1 Albert A. Bartlett, Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis, American Journal of Physics, 46 (1978): 876-88.

2 Brundtland Report, United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.43.

3 Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1994.

4 Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

Chapter 1

Rules of the Game

ROBERT BENT, ANDREW BACHER,

AND IAN THOMAS

We begin with the rules of the game—the fundamental laws of nature that govern all energy transformations. Understanding these laws is crucial to achieving sustainability—-nature cannot be fooled! The two most important natural laws governing energy transformations are known in science as the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and they have profound implications regarding the sustainable use of finite energy resources. We also consider in Chapter 1 the implications of steady growth in world energy use, in particular so-called exponential growth (constant percentage growth per year) in a solar system of finite energy resources. This is not sustainable. These basic principles underlie everything else in the book.

—Editors’ note

Scientific theories are often expressed in terms of laws of nature that describe how the world works. Although new research continues to provide scientists with a deeper understanding of the universe and occasionally forces them to modify their theories, the laws of nature are absolute laws—they cannot be changed or circumvented by human ingenuity or by technological advances. In this sense, they are the rules of the game—the game of human survival and well-being. We have no choice but to obey these rules, so we must strive to understand them and to find ways to live in harmony with them.

Scientists have elaborated the laws of nature as they pertain to energy. The first of these is known as the first law of thermodynamics. It asserts that although energy can be converted from one form to another, the total amount of energy in all forms stays the same (is conserved) in all physical processes—energy is never created or destroyed. This is also known as the principle of conservation of energy. A naive interpretation of the first law might lead one to conclude that, since energy is never destroyed, there is no energy crisis and we have nothing to worry about. However, as we explain later, the situation is not so simple as that. Although energy is never destroyed, some energy is dissipated—degraded into a less useful, lower-grade form—during every energy conversion. Because energy is dissipated in all interactions, and because it is essentially impossible to convert low-grade energy back into a useful, high-grade form, the total amount of useful energy in the universe is continually declining. This universal trend is equivalent to a transition from a state of order to a state of disorder—also known as the law of entropy—and is mandated by the laws of probability, specifically by the second law of thermodynamics. Put another way, a disordered universe is far more probable than an ordered one, so there is an irreversible tendency toward a disordered universe full of useless, low-grade energy.

According to our scientific theories, then, all useful energy will eventually be used up. However, the time scale for the degradation of all of the energy in the universe is immense and, in the meantime, the earth receives an abundance of useful, high-grade energy from the sun. Humans could, theoretically speaking, survive on this planet for billions of years to come by learning how to rely on the sun’s energy as other earthly life forms do. However, we are running out of time to make the transition from the depletable stocks of energy sequestered over geologic eras within the earth to a reliance on the flow of energy from the sun—the ultimate source of so-called renewable energy. If we do not act reasonably soon, this inevitable transition is likely to cause immense human suffering.

In the final section of this chapter, we discuss the nature and implications of exponential (constant percentage) growth, the conflict between this kind of physical growth and sustainability, and the need to understand the arithmetic of exponential growth in order to anticipate and prepare for limits to steady growth of this kind in world population and resource consumption.

The possibility of new energy sources on earth that we are not using today is discussed in Appendix 1. Energy units, factors for converting one unit to another, and a graphical comparison of unit sizes are given in Appendix 2.

What Is Energy?

Everything that happens in the universe involves a flow and transformation of energy. Whenever a living thing or an inanimate object experiences any kind of change, energy moves from one place to another and changes form. But what is energy?

A popular (and quite accurate) conception of energy is that it is a resource that makes life easier for us—a resource that takes us from one place to another, provides heat and light, powers our entertainment devices and labor-saving appliances, and improves our quality of life. The development of energy technologies began in the middle of the eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in a steadily increasing usage of energy—mainly from fossil fuels—in industry, commerce, agriculture, transportation, and the home. This in turn resulted in the steadily increasing productivity that is such a desired feature of modern economies. Two and a half centuries later, human beings are now prodigious users of energy compared to other species, using ten to a hundred times as much as is needed for biological survival.

Even though people know roughly what they mean when they talk about energy, there has always been something a little mysterious about it. It is an abstract quantity, an attribute or property of matter that cannot be seen or touched like material objects. Energy comes in many different forms, and there is a mathematical formula for computing each one.¹ It is not surprising, then, that it took scientists most of the nineteenth century to develop an understanding of energy and to discover its important operating principle: the conservation of energy.

To understand just what energy is, it is useful to look first at the many forms in which it comes. Primary energy resources on the earth include fossil fuels, natural nuclear sources, and renewable forms of energy, such as solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass. In principle, fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal are renewable but only on a geological time scale—hundreds of millions of years. The nuclear fuels, deuterium and uranium, were made during the creation of the universe (the Big Bang) and in the interior of stars on a cosmological time scale—billions of years. Therefore, fossil and nuclear energy sources are fundamentally limited and depletable (see Appendix 1).² As these sources become depleted, humans will be forced to learn how to live on renewable energy—primarily on energy from the sun—as other species do.

Renewable energies include hydroelectric power generation, solar thermal energy, the direct conversion of solar energy to electrical energy (photovoltaic energy), wind energy, the capturing of the sun’s energy in biomass, ocean thermal energy conversion, wave energy, geothermal energy, and tidal energy. Of these, only geothermal energy and tidal energy are of nonsolar origin; the others are indirect ways of harnessing the sun’s radiation. Because solar radiation is a product of nuclear reactions in the core of the sun and geothermal energy is produced by the decay of radioactive nuclei beneath the earth’s surface, only tidal and wave energy are of nonnuclear origin. Biomass is our source of food energy and, in fossil form, our main source of nonrenewable energy. Chapter 2 discusses renewable energies in more detail.

Clearly, all of these physical resources contain energy, and an interesting

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