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State Zero

Written By: - Date published: 10:38 am, December 17th, 2020 - 21 comments
Categories: uncategorized - Tags:

This short post reprises a comment on Kaya’s Identity a few weeks back.

Kaya identity is expressed in the form:

F = P . G/P . E/G . F/E


F is excess global CO2 emissions from human sources
P is global population
G is world GDP
E is global energy consumption

G/P is the GDP per capita
E/G is the energy intensity of the GDP
F/E is the carbon footprint of energy
If we want to get F, total carbon to zero, we have to get one of these four factors to zero.

Assuming that at some stage this century we must drive F (total carbon rate) to zero, this implies at least one of these factors must also be zero. But which ones?

Setting P = 0 is the human extinction plan and I think we can rule that one out. Nonetheless humanity is now entering an entirely new demographic state we have never been in before; many developed nations are now at zero or even negative population growth. This has long term implications well worth exploring in a future post.

Setting GDP/capita to zero (or essentially to pre-industrial levels) is the mass poverty option and not achievable. Even just ‘dialing back’ has significant implications.

Setting the Energy Intensity/GDP to zero is also physically impossible. Otherwise commonly thought of as ‘energy efficiency’ it’s been improving steadily since around the 1960’s and automation in particular has been increasingly applied capturing more and more opportunities. Much of my own career was either directly or indirectly aimed at improving production efficiencies.

This leaves setting the Carbon Footprint/Unit Energy to zero as the only viable option. Ulitmately this means using no fossil carbon whatsoever. There is also an argument that by mid century the need to reduce carbon from the atmosphere will become a compelling need. In other words a negative Carbon rate.

The reason this expression is called an ‘Identity’ is because in many ways the four terms all interact; they’re not independent variables. In this sense the expression is really only telling us that ‘carbon = carbon’, but the value of it is in teasing out these four measurable levers which are all too often conflated and confused.

Next post will look at the population lever, and why it’s fundamental.

21 comments on “State Zero ”

  1. Peter chch 1

    Why would 'F' 'HAVE TO' be zero? Throughout civilisation F has never been zero. F only became a problem as a result of huge worldwide growth of 'P', along with'F/E' growth.

    As P decreases (as it is forecast to) and energy efficiency improves, F will reduce.

    Driving these down faster should be the goal (and dare I say it, reform of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church on contraception, and the relief of poverty which drives the need for big families in less developed countries).

    There will never be a carbon free future based on current technologies. Wind power, electric vehicles etc still require carbon immessions to produce the required steel and plastics and so on.

    • RedLogix 1.1

      Why would ‘F’ ‘HAVE TO’ be zero? Throughout civilisation F has never been zero.

      Good question. You are right, all human civilisation has used carbon for fuel; mainly wood and dung. But these sources were all carbon neutral because they were in balance with the photosynthesis/carbon cycle.

      It was only when we started using fossil carbon sources (essentially photosynthesis energy stored millions of years ago) that we disturbed this balance. The argument is that while we have gotten away with perturbation for a few hundred years, we will eventually have to restore the balance to something like pre-Industrial levels.

      Worth a future post to explore this in more detail though.

    • Andre 1.2

      Carbon-free steel is possible by two routes. Electrolytic and hydrogen. Steel is still almost entirely made using coal because of the massive installed infrastructural base, and because using coal is cheaper when you can just dump your hazardous waste into the atmosphere.

      Concrete is often also cited as unavoidable emissions. But it's not. About half the emissions are from heating. But that heating could be electrical, either directly with a plasma torch, or vie the energy-wasteful indirect route of turning the electricity into hydrogen. The calcination process is the other half of the emissions. That occurs inside a closed chamber, so it's a ready opportunity to capture than store the emissions. Furthermore, concrete reabsorbs CO2 over its lifetime, reached the endpoint of the reaction is reached, the concrete has reabsorbed most of the CO2 emitted during calcination. So with a combination of zero-carbon heat and capturing and storing the CO2 from calcination, concrete could be turned into a small but steady CO2 sink, rather than the large emitter it is now.

      Plastics really don't emit very much at all. The whole point is to turn the carbon in the oil into more useful polymers, so any emissions represent wasteful losses. The huge problems with plastics are much more to do with the environmental effects of wasteful disposal.

  2. Andre 2

    It's missing agriculture.

    Which is a significant emissions source on its own, whether through belching sheep and cows, flooded rice paddies, fertilizer, whatever else may be the demon du jour.

    Agriculture is of course also closely linked to population, but there is still considerable choice in how much emissions there will be in producing our necessary food. Some of those choices involve technologies that are irrationally demonised.

    • RedLogix 2.1

      Yup. It's not an equation in the usual sense; virtually all of the terms are coupled in multiple dimensions, which is something I'll try to explore in the next few posts.

      But specifically I'd suggest agriculture falls mostly into the GDP/Capita term.

    • Peter chch 2.2

      You are referring to nuclear power (irrationally demonised)?

      • RedLogix 2.2.1

        In the next post I want to explore the pattern of Malthusian thinking on population and how this has morphed over time to influence the modern environmental movement … and how all human societies have a long record of irrational responses to perceived threat.

      • Andre 2.2.2

        I wasn't in that comment. In the context of agriculture, nuclear energy doesn't have much relevance. Except as a means of avoiding the heavy metals and other toxins emitted from coal making their way into our food chains.

        But in the context of where our energy comes from, and the safety of the various options, yes, nuclear is irrationally demonised.

        I was more thinking of genetic modification techniques. Which could play a huge role in making our agriculture more resilient to water stress, heat stress, nutrient availability, reducing livestock emissions. Also technologies such as vat-grown substitutes for milk and meat and egg.

        • RedLogix

          I'm genuinely unsure which direction agriculture will take; it could continue down the hi-tech intensification route, or it could veer toward the systems/permaculture path. Both have real merits.

          I suspect both approaches will thrive for some decades yet, each developing it's own strengths, but in the long run it's probably unhelpful however to present these as a binary choice. Future generations will likely implement a more sophisticated melding of both that in our current phase we find hard to visualise.

          The point you raise however is a good one in that agriculture will remain a central factor in our economic/environmental future and a prime responsibility for governments everywhere.

          • left_forward

            The massive scale desertification of land across the globe due to inappropriate land use practice is a critical problem. It is being caused by a failure to understand the role of rich microbial soil, not only for efficiently providing healthy food, but also in sequestering carbon.

            When we develop life in the soil through known biodynamic practice (the opposite of the predominant hi-tech / chemical fertiliser based / monocultural / large scale / intensification approach), we sequester carbon. If we do this everywhere, the F in Kaya's Identity will trend towards zero, and into the negative if supported by reducing at least the F/E factor in the equation.

            • RedLogix

              Yes, much of the agricultural intensification of the past few centuries has been relatively crude and failed to take into account costs to the entire system.

              The good news is that globally agricultural land/capital has more than halved since 1960. In fact we now grow about 25% more food than we can eat (much of the surplus being used for bio-fuels). The problem is that we don't distribute it very well.

              The even better news is that we do have a strong opportunity to adjust our diets to improve this even further. Simply 'dialing back' on how much meat we eat is a very low hanging fruit indeed … if you'll pardon the mangled metaphor 🙂

              The real question as you point out however is that despite this astonishing progress and very real gain in human welfare, is that our current methods have too many unintended consequences for the natural world. This is why I strongly support the Permaculture (and Biodynamic) ideas being taken seriously; they have much to teach us.

              Another tech that really appeals to me is aquaponics. Murray Hallam is one of the leading figures here in Aus and we're planning a site visit as soon as COVID restrictions allow.

              But yes, many many opportunities in this space …

          • lprent

            …but in the long run it’s probably unhelpful however to present these as a binary choice.

            Few things I have ever worked with in tech or looking back through history are really binary choices. I can’t think of an idea that doesn’t carry crippling disadvantages, often found out after using them for awfully long time (imagine why physical money is a bad idea during a pandemic).

            Invariably you find ideas and concepts from another area being pulled through to another round of innovation. Often carrying its own issues (I’m waiting for some scammer to really realise in a usable form some of the disadvantages of NFC for non-contact payments).

        • RedLogix

          nuclear energy doesn't have much relevance.

          Mass scale desalination … out of economic reach for the present, but definitely possible.

          • Andre

            Looks to me like the agricultural opportunity for vast excesses of cheap energy might be more in the area of vertical farms.

            The only way it can currently make any kind of sense spending lots of money on electricity to grow veges under LEDs is if you've got a market of hipsters willing to pay ten bucks for a courgette or fifteen for a head of fancy lettuce. But if the price of electricity goes way down, mass market fruit and veges grown under LED may become actually rational.

            A third big branch in future agriculture beyond the regenag/organic/boutique and the bid industrial farming is the potential for vat grown ingredients. If the end product is fast-food cheese or ice cream or burgers, will it really matter that it didn't come from an actual live cow? Modifying nutrients and carbs into new forms by vat fermentation doesn't strike me as conceptually any different to fermenting milk into yoghurt or cheese, or making tofu, or wine, or …

  3. "The Limits to Growth" predicts that modern civ will hit hard environmental/ resource limits by 2030. Crop failures, fishery depletion, water crises, wildfires, mass migrations, resource wars, peak oil, rich nations falling into poverty. Everywhere that humans go, native flora and fauna are bulldozed. Malthus was right, humanity must stop growing and consuming everything.

    • RedLogix 3.1

      Yup. Malthus was absolutely correct three centuries ago, and the influence of his ideas are still extremely relevant. Next post yes

  4. Pat 4

    F is excess global CO2 emissions from human sources

    And therein lies the flaw….the emissions do not need to be from human sources and the term excess is subjective.

    If F is a balanced carbon cycle then there is no requirement for any of the factors to be zero but as has already been pointed out by others 'F' is not the only limitation.

  5. Ad 5

    The post certainly makes it easy to conceive of China's central and state governance as a series of applied and enforced algorithms.

    • RedLogix 5.1

      "Ubiquitous surveillance being one of the better known end points of the civilisations"

      A Fire Upon the Deep: Vernor Vinge.

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