Our Baseload

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us again that we are human. Normally we live, create life and eventually after many years we hope to die of relatively painless old age. This pandemic sees many people across the world dying long before old age expectations. The final effects on human birth and death rate may be as noticeable as with the Spanish Influenza of 1918.

With many countries mandating only essential activities because of COVID-19 then we’d also expect energy consumption to drop. And it has. But for the first quarter of 2020 it only dropped by about 3.8%. The second quarter sees a reduction of 10% from the previous year. Now, given the continual proclamation to restore economies, we’re seeing activities return to usual and energy consumption responding in accord.

This small drop in energy consumption due to COVID-19 indicates that even while we are cloistered at home we still demand a huge amount of energy. Also, it indicates that if we continue to rely upon the economy to nurture our lives and give us a grand old age then we need continual access to huge amounts of energy. What happens when we consume all the non-renewable energy sources?

Plan the Future

Can a civilization have an existential crisis? To answer, lets scale the civilization. Given our ever shrinking global village, well say that theres only one civilization on planet Earth. This civilization measures itself via Sustainable Development Goals. This civilization nurtures itself through aid packages and trade deals. This civilization even contemplates its future via Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP) in Earth System models. This indeed seems a civilization and one that is robust. But why does it exist?

The SSPs might be the best avenue when considering existence. These pathways attempt to model the civilization out to the year 2100. Through various assumptions on resource availability, technology development and population, experts move qualitative narratives to quantitative values. Energy is of course central to this and the expectation is that demand in 2100 will increase from the current 350 EJ energy to a range of 400 to 1200 EJ based upon scenarios. Anyway you look at this, the energy demanded by existence goes up, sometimes significantly!

So the civilization exists and will be using more and more energy. For what purpose? Is it to maximize everyone’s standard of living? Is it to maximize procreation? Or perhaps it has no real purpose and planning for the future is simply leisure (le loisir). How do you think energy be best applied to achieve your imagined future? What value do you see in civilization?

Moss
Moss

Land Use

The Earth is a rocky sphere that orbits the Sun. Via plate tectonics it recycles its surface. Currently the land portion of Earth’s surface has an area of about 148.9 million square kilometres. This is expansive. For example, the whole surface area of the Moon is only about 6% of this; just the area of Europe. So we have lots of land to use as we see fit.

Let’s consider our use of the Earth’s land surface. We know the use from satellite data that measures the area of certain types of biomass. In 2017, the FAO estimates that agriculture covered 4.83 billion hectares, that forests covered 4 billion hectares and that other land such as deserts and barrens covered 4.165 billion hectares. While these numbers are just shy of the estimated total land area, they provide a very clear division of land use.

Let’s stop and think about these values. From them we see that humans have mastered the planet’s surface. Our agricultural area exceeds the forest area. Add infrastructure area (i.e. cities) to the agricultural area and the human affect becomes noticeable greater. We have taken over! And to think that only a few thousand years ago people had neither agriculture nor cities. What does this imply about land use for the future?

Land Use – All within 1km

Cats

We may be surprised at how seemingly small decisions can make for a big impact. Pets are an excellent example. A pet is an animal kept for companionship or pleasure. They serve no purpose other than to help make us happy.

Apparently we need lots of joy. For example, we are enjoying an estimated 200 million to over 1 billion domesticated cats. Chances are good that you’ve encountered domestic cats so we won’t describe them. But do you know their effect? For one, a typical cat needs 250 to 300 food calories a day. Taking this as an average and assuming a median number of cats then these carnivores take about 2.5e+17 Joules of energy each year. That’s a lot of energy.

Also, while cats reportedly originated in Egypt, we’ve placed them everywhere except the Antarctic. And we’ve let some of them run wild. Thus, in the U.S. alone they are responsible for the deaths of about 2 billion birds and 15 billion small mammals annually; including the extinction of some.

Small decisions, such as having a pet, can lead to big consequences. A consequence of having cats as pets has led to them getting a much larger share of (autotrophic) energy than they would have naturally obtained. And through extinctions, they’ve eliminated future competition for this energy. How will other small decisions be affecting our future?

Feral Cat – Unsplash

Essential Services

Depending on where you live, you may be experiencing the end of a government mandated stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This order has minimized commuting and constrained work activities to whatever can be accomplished in-residence. Only essential services continue. In consequence, there’s been a dramatic drop in our energy consumption.

Let’s look at this via oil. By the numbers, the world oil production has been hovering at just less than 100 million barrels per day. This value has been somewhat consistent for the past two years as demand and supply were well matched. Due to the order, the estimated consumption drop for the month of April 2020 is 29 mb/d. That is, we are using 1.77e17 Joules less energy from oil each day because of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order.

This number is spectacular, especially from a conservationist point of view. Even more spectacular however is the amount of energy still being used. That is, even though the global economy is nearly shut-down we are still using 4.34e17 Joules of energy from oil. Each and every day! And this is solely for oil.

Oil supplies about 34% of the total primary energy consumption across our world. Assuming all primary energy consumption experiences the same drop means that humans need 12.77e17 Joules per day of energy (208 mb/d). This equates to about 700 dams the size of the Three Gorges Dam. This is just to sustain ourselves. One could say that this is the basal daily amount for our civilization.

Can we sustain this? Is it possible to create this amount of primary energy without affecting our planet? What will we do when the fossil fuels are no longer available?