Energy · greens · progress

Debunking Limits to Growth

This  is a talk I gave at a Monthly Argument debate back in June at the Royal Oak Hotel in Fitzroy.

There is a widespread view among greenies that continued economic growth is impossible because of ecological and resource limits.  If this were true, it would be a very sorry state of affairs given the generally low level of economic development and widespread poverty in the world.   However, I will argue that there are no such limits.

I don’t deny that human activity is having some serious environmental impacts. However, I do not believe that this is a requirement of economic growth.

Let’s start with deforestation.  I don’t believe we need to destroy the forests. Firstly, we can limit our use of wood.  There are plenty of alternative materials for building construction and furniture. Most of the time we don’t need paper for the printed word anymore because it can be electronic. If we had fancier toilets we wouldn’t even need toilet paper. Whatever wood we do require can be met from plantations. Secondly we do not need to clear more forests for agriculture. Indeed as I discuss later, food production in the future will require far less land. There will however have to be some limited forest clearing for mines but these can be operated in a  much tidier fashion. And this forest clearing will be more than offset as farmland contracts; and we also see extensive reforestation.

What about greenhouse emissions? The solution is the development and adoption of a range of emission free technologies.  In the case of energy, there will be lots of ways of avoiding them.  These include  nuclear fission,  enhanced geothermal and further down the track nuclear fusion. Renewable energy can also play a modest role.

Then there is the capture of CO2 emissions. This could allow the continued use of fossil fuels and also industrial processes where CO2 is a by-product, in particular steel and cement production.

We can expect to see the development and deployment of all sorts of technologies that will enable us to put captured CO2 to good use. Here are some examples of processes that researchers are presently working on.

CO2 could be a feedstock for algae which would then be used for biofuel and animal feed, and maybe even human food.  CO2 could be turned into calcium carbonate and used to make cement and other building materials.

Seawater and calcium can be used to capture CO2  from power plants, and the resulting calcium bicarbonate then pumped into the sea, where it would benefit marine life by reducing acidity.

Then there is artificial photosynthesis that could convert carbon dioxide into valuable chemical products, including plastic, ingredients for pharmaceutical drugs and even liquid fuels.

Researchers have managed  to take CO2 out of the air and turn it into nanofibres for use in very strong materials. Others are working on a hydrogen producing process that takes CO2 from the air and stores it in an alkaline solution that can be disposed of in the sea to reduce acidity.

We can also expect to see processes that eliminate the production of CO2 in the first place. There is a promising technology that will allow us to produce hydrogen from methane without  CO2 emissions. And work is also being done on developing processes for the production of steel, cement and plastic that reduce and possibly eliminate the necessity of creating CO2 emissions.

The leakage of the greenhouse gas,  methane, is another problem we can get on top of.  We will get better at detecting and stopping up the leaks from mines, bore holes, landfill and other sources.

In agriculture, the greenhouse gases CO2, methane and nitrous oxide can be reduced by a range of advances in agriculture and food  production that I will discuss in a moment. And the same advances could see massive reforestation which would serve as a large carbon sink. Crops can also play a much bigger role in carbon storage. New plant varieties can be developed that are better at producing  so-called plantstones or phytoliths. These are tiny silica coated bits of plant material that last in the soil for thousands of years and already store considerable amounts of carbon. Then we also have the present development of a variety of rice which possesses a barley gene that results in lower methane emissions.

We will see all sorts of emission free transport options. Motor vehicles can be powered by biofuel, hydrogen or batteries.   Ships can be powered by hydrogen, nuclear power, biofuel or fossil with carbon capture.  Jet aircraft can be powered with biofuel or hydrogen.

What about pollution and other waste?  One of the arguments against growth is that you end up with an increasing waste stream and this becomes unmanageable and environmentally disasterous. I don’t think this has to be the case.

To start with most air pollution will disappear with the elimination of fossil fuel emissions. These include nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, ash and and about 20 toxic chemicals.

We can expect to see industrial pollution of our waterways reduced with cleaner technologies and more effective treatment and cleanup methods.

The problems with domestic waste can be overcome through better separation, treatment and disposal.

What about agriculture? Isn’t feeding more and more people on more and more affluent diets going to inevitably impact badly on the environment?

I do not believe so.  There are a range of advances that will allow us to produce more food while using less land and water, less fertilizer and pesticides and retaining soil quality. Firstly we have biotechnology breeding better plants and animals. Then we have better farm management methods. These include the progressive adoption of precision farming technologies. With precision farming you have  drones, GPS, satellite imagery and other technology that enable the close monitoring of every square inch of cropland for yield and soil differences so that the application of water, fertilizer and pesticide can be varied accordingly. We are also starting to see the manufacture of food.

A big aspect of this is producing animal products minus the animal. This is hugely important because so much land, water and grain goes into livestock and chicken production.

The so-called lab burger where muscle fibre is grown without the animal has recently passed the taste test. Although it has been suggested that at least initially it would be easier to synthesize the tasty features of meat such as blood and fat and then add them to soya or some other legume.

Some start up companies are presently endeavoring to market cow free milk and chicken free egg white. They use genetically engineered yeast to create the appropriate proteins.

Vegetarian meat substitutes are also becoming tastier. Bill Gates is backing a couple of companies working in this area.  One of these, caled Beyond Meat has appointed an ex-CEO of McDonalds to its board of directors. So they obviously think they are ready for prime time. Of course to really take off they will have to become cheaper than mince meat.

There is also research being done into ways to turn the indigestible cellulose in plants into digestible starch. This means we will be able to eat the stalks and leaves as well as the grain.

Non-renewable resources

Let’s look now at non-renewable resources. It is often argued that as well as ecological limits to growth there are resource limits. I am refering here to the minerals we rely on for energy and materials.

Firstly, what is the situation with energy? I would suggest there are vast untapped resources that will become increasingly available with advances in technology. These include nuclear fission and fusion,  geothermal and also emission free fossil fuels. These add up to virtually boundless sources of energy from the point of view of any relevant timescale.  With the next generation of nuclear power, nuclear fuel will be used 100 times more efficiently than present reactors. The fuel for fusion power is limitless. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen and the lithium resourse is huge if we take into account extraction from sea water. In the case of geothermal, if you drill 6 or so kilometres into the ground you get to very hot rock.

What about non-renewable mineral resources? I am thinking here of metals like iron, copper and tin. And also phosphorous and potassium for agriculture. Harnessing these will certainly become ever more challenging but increasing productive capacity and technological improvements will deal with that problem. We will have to dig deeper for ore bodies and process poorer grades. In some cases we will have to resort to undersea mining.  So all of this will require increasing amounts of energy and capital equipment.  Opponents of growth argue that we will get to a stage where most of our non-renewable resources will be devoted to their own extraction so that little is left for anything else including replacing worn out capital and that would result in the economy collapsing.  This is a view famously expressed in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth.

If we extract them fast enough or long enough this would certainly happen. But I am sure that before we reach that stage we will start extracting resources from the rest of the solar system including, the moon, asteroids and Mars. I expect we will achieve the capacity to do that during the next century or so.

However, we still have of a lot of fairly accessible resources down here on planet earth and also our use of resources does not have to grow as fast as the economy. This is because of so-called dematerialization and also recycling.

Dematerialization includes doing more with less such as using stronger and lighter metal alloys and replacing something with nothing such as paper records  with electronic ones. The smart phone is perhaps the best example at the moment of dematerialization. Your phone also acts as a camera, radio, answering machine, torch, photo album, dicta-phone, music centre, satellite navigation system, video recorder and player, compass, stop-watch, Filofax and diary. There is also speculation that autonomous vehicles will lead to considerable dematerialization. It has been suggested that a motor vehicle stock no larger than the present one would be able to meet the needs of the whole world of 10 billion or so people. A vehicle would usually be hired rather than privately owned so that when it  drops you off it just moves on to the next traveller. This would also reduce the area and materials required for parking space.  Also these vehicles would have far less materials because they would have electric motors, would not need to be crash resistant and many of them would be one or two seaters because that is what people would need most of the time.

Dematerialization as economies reach a certain stage of development is revealed in the fact that even though the US and Western Europe have grown by around 50 per cent in the last 20 years, the consumption of metals, cement and plastic has been static.

Anyway at the other extreme we have China which is very much at the material stage of development, when the basic infrastructure and housing stock is still being developed.  Half the world’s steel and aluminium and 60 per cent of cement is consumed in China.

As well as dematerialization, recycling also takes the pressure off resources. In developed countries more copper is recycled than mined. Two thirds of aluminium  ever produced is still in use. Asphalt is recycled and concrete is reused as aggregate. A  very high proportion of steel is recycled.

Substitution can also play a role if a particular resource becomes  harder to get. For example, future magnesium batteries may prove to be cheaper and more effective than lithium ones and aluminum wires can replace copper ones.

So to sum up. Firstly, we are not going to run out of stuff anytime soon. Secondly, economic growth does not require us to trash the environment.  Although in saying this I am not denying that we could do considerable damage if we do not make the right decisions on forests and other natural assets and if we fail to pursue with sufficient vigor the avenues of research and development that are bound to deliver the clean technologies that we need.


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