All the Lovely People
Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 24th July. I’m Anthony Day.
What’s that you’re watching on the internet? Don’t try and hide it. It’s up to you what you watch. But there are suggestions that browsing time may have to be limited. No I’m not talking about parental controls. More about that in a moment.
Is that a fridge in the corner over there? No, it’s 60kWh storage unit, with not a lithium ion to be seen. And hang on, don’t knock that building down. Think of all the embedded carbon! But first, let’s talk about all the lovely people.
Writing in The Lancet, Professor Stein Emil Vollset of the University of Washington and colleagues predict that global population is set to decline. According to the BBC they describe their results as “jaw dropping”. On the face of it that’s good news, as we wonder how we will feed a constantly growing population and an expanding middle class with expectations of a Western life-style. The other side of the coin is that the researchers do not expect population to peak before 2065, by which time it will have reached 9.7 billion. (I drew your attention to a book called Factfulness a while ago. Its authors came to a similar conclusion: that population will reach a peak, although they thought the peak would be nearer 11 billion and not be reached until 2075. And after that they thought the population level would stabilise.)
The Lancet study sees a peak at 9.7 billion, which is 24% up on today’s 7.8 billion, followed by a decline. There will be an increased demand for food, and there will be an increased demand for all the things that are fuelled by a consumer society. This will put pressure on resources from rare metals to drinking water, and the production and consumption will inevitably raise emissions. Is it good news then that the researchers predict a decline? It will be due, they believe, to increased female education, leading women to choose to have fewer children and to have them later in life. Already the birth rate in many countries, including the UK and other Western nations, has fallen below replacement level. By 2100 the prediction is that world population will have fallen back to 8.8 billion - still 13% up on the current level. Of course, if we have successfully coped with a 9.7 billion peak, coping with only 8.8 billion should be relatively easy. Shouldn’t it?
The devil is in the detail, and it’s worth looking at the detailed charts and tables which form part of the report. Links on the blog. The first thing to note is that while world population will peak on average in 2065, individual countries will move at very different speeds. For example, Japan is considered to have peaked in 2017 whereas the population of Australasia will not reach its maximum until 2096. There are vast differences in rates of decline as well. Western Europe will decline by about 17% from the peak by the end of the century, including the UK with a fall of only 4.5% and Germany with a fall of 22%. The US sees a fall of 7.5% and Canada just 2.5%. These declines are all calculated in relation to the peak. Across the world Japan sees a fall of 54% and China is close behind with a fall of 49%, both countries falling to levels way below today’s population. Such dramatic declines imply a rapidly ageing population with direct consequences for a nation’s prosperity. The authors see China becoming the world’s greatest economic power in the course of this century, but predict the US will regain that position before 2100.
Clearly these changes will lead to social and demographic tensions for the rest of this century. Who knows how this will play out? Let’s hope our governments are constantly scenario planning for a wide range of futures 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 years hence, and beyond.
Energy for IT
It's just over a year since we heard from Dr Alice Courvoisier talking on the Sustainable Futures Report about rare metals. (5th July 2019). It’s worth revisiting that episode and reconsidering global plans for electrifying the transport fleet with electric motors and even hydrogen fuel cells, not to mention plans for more wind turbines and solar farms, which all depend on rare metals.
Recently Alice has been in touch to draw my attention to the work of The Shift Project, a French thinktank which has published a number of studies of energy use by IT. There’s an app - Carbonalyser - which monitors the impact of your internet use in terms of emissions and displays it in your browser. It’s from Mozilla, and for the moment works only with the FireFox browser. Well. it’s supposed to. I can’t make it work at the moment.
The Shift Project produced a report last year on the contribution of digital technologies to global emissions. This is before the explosion in the use of conferencing software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams brought about by working at home as a response to the pandemic. Even so, there are some important insights. They say:
“Digital technologies now emit 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), that is to say more than civil aviation. This share could double from now to 2025 to reach 8% of all GHG emissions, i.e. the current share of car emissions.”
These emissions are split between those arising from production (45%) and those from use (55%). Production includes the manufacture of Computers, TVs and smartphones; use is divided between terminals, data centres and networks.
The Shift Project promotes “digital sobriety”, which means “…prioritising the allocation of resources as a function of uses, in order to conform to the planet’s physical boundaries, while preserving the most valuable societal contributions of digital technologies.”
They also examined the nature of network traffic and found at the time of their research 80% was accounted for by video. All other internet activity used just the remaining 20%. This 80% includes 20% for applications like live television streaming, live video (Skype, telemedicine, etc.) video monitoring and security. Another 34% is represented by Video on Demand, Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc; 21% by YouTube and similar and 18% was used by the video content of social media. What is probably most startling is that 27% of network traffic, more than the total amount of traffic which does not involve video, is accounted for by pornography.
As the authors say: “The climate crisis and the planet’s finite raw resources require that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and our consumption of energy and raw materials. In a world confronted by such limitations, not choosing between uses will lead to the random imposition of constraints rather than to arbitration between options.
“Not choosing means potentially allowing pornography to mechanically limit the bandwidth available for tele- medicine, or allow the use of Netflix to limit access to Wikipedia.
“From the standpoint of climate change and other planetary boundaries, it is not a question of being “for” or “against” pornography, telemedicine, Netflix or emails: the challenge is to avoid a use deemed precious from being impaired by the excessive consumption of another use deemed less essential.
“This makes it a societal choice, to be arbitrated collectively to avoid the imposition of constraints on our uses against our will and at our expense. In the 21st century, not choosing is no longer a viable option.”
It would be most interesting to have an update from the Shift Project, given that some of the data in their report is now up to two years old. While usage patterns will have changed over the period, the technology used for power generation will also have changed, both influencing the carbon footprint. The central point remains: if we are to meet safe emissions levels there must be a cap on Internet usage until we can run it on emissions-free energy. There must be agreement on how that limited usage may be shared.
I haven’t heard from Canada for a while - or from the US, which is one of my biggest audiences, but two listeners have been in touch from Australia. Carol Dance forwarded a link to Climate News Update, which in turn took me to theage.com.au and an article about energy. Yes, we can’t get away from energy in the Sustainable Futures Report.
This is about hydrogen storage using metal hydrides - a sort of solid-state energy storage. University of NSW researchers led by Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou say they have developed metal alloys capable of storing surplus electricity in the form of hydrogen much more cheaply than lithium batteries… In fact they have drawn up plans for a fridge-sized energy storage unit for domestic users. The unit contains the hydrogen store and a fuel cell which is used to release the energy within the hydrogen as electricity as required. At other times surplus electricity from solar panels or from cheap tariffs is fed into the unit where an electrolyser uses the current to release hydrogen from water and the hydrogen goes into storage. The unit is expected to hold up to 60kWh, which is about five times the capacity of existing lithium ion storage batteries. The key questions will of course be about reliability and price.
The chosen brand name for the unit is LAVO. A search reveals that it doesn’t appear to be launched yet, but the search also turned up LAVA, the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, which has an energy storage project under construction in Heidelberg, Germany. It looks amazingly futuristic on the website, but it doesn’t actually identify the technology that will be used. Presumably no connection.
Also in Australia, Jim Coad has been in touch. He’s in Victoria but tells me that despite the upsurge in COVID cases in the state he’s safe and well. He directed me to an Australian podcast, Future Tense with Antony Funnell. This particular episode was about sustainability in construction.
He started off by describing a building which was under demolition. He pointed out that this particular building, mainly of concrete, had a significant carbon footprint during construction due not only to the diesel-powered equipment but more significantly to the emissions from the energy-intensive production of cement.
Building back up
He went on to present two shiny new buildings under construction in the Brisbane CBD, but then admitted that they were actually two 1970s buildings being refurbished. The two, 12m apart, were joined into one, not just by a bridge but connected at all levels. Six more floors were added to the existing 17 and lower floors were widened to give more space. The project saved some 11,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and was financially attractive. Demolition in the crowded CBD would have been problematic, particularly as there was a heritage building at ground level which had to be preserved. Demolition would have taken time, with further time for construction from the ground up. The chosen project involved a small amount of demolition but then construction went ahead with the core of the buildings already in place.
Richard Ryman is a professor at Rutgers University and a director of materials company Solidia. He explained how traditional cement production creates 5-8% of global GHG emissions. Solidia’s new process creates green cement using less limestone in a rotary furnace operating at 200 degrees lower than conventional techniques. The product cures by absorbing co2. It does not react with water and needs 80% less water in the production process.
If you can’t avoid new build, using green materials like these helps reduce the embedded carbon.
Before I go I want to tell you about a film I’ve come across. It’s called Spaceship Earth, it’s released on 8th August and there’s a link to the trailer on the blog.
Some may remember that back in the 1990s, a troupe of hippies spent two years sealed inside a dome called Biosphere 2. The idea was to create a completely sealed ecosphere in which the eight “biospherians” would grow their food in a natural cycle which would provide all they needed including the air to breathe. In the event, after some time there was a build-up of CO2 and a fall-off of oxygen levels which significantly affected the team. There was factionalism and arguments as well. After oxygen and some food was imported the experiment continued.
A parable for our times? I look forward to watching it.
And that’s it…
…for this week. Next week’s episode will be the last before I take a break until September. Next week’s episode will contain a wide range of stories, while early in September I’m planning to look in detail at hydrogen.
But that’s all for now. Stay safe. Enjoy life as much as you can and look out for another Sustainable Futures Report on Friday 31st July.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
Alice Courvoisier says:
“I’m still listening with interest to the podcast and thought I’d point this French think tank out:
“Their reports on the energy consumption of the digital world - and in particular of videos - are well worth looking at. These are hardly mentioned in the current discourse, and of course, somewhat touchy topics in lock-down times.”
Climate News Update - Australia
Concrete and construction