Foundations

People make stuff. A lot of it. By one account, we’ve made more stuff than there is stuff in nature. Let’s assume this is true; it probably is. What stuff have we made? Well, we made roads, buildings, machines and such. What has nature made? Through evolution, nature has trees, elephants and amoeba. Our stuff, for the most part, needs humans to maintain it and to get value from it. Nature on the other hand has effectively created autonomous beings that fend for themselves.

Where is the future leading? The trends indicate that the quantity of human stuff continues to increase by about 30Gt per year. All this stuff needs human effort to maintain usefulness. In contrast, the amount of natural stuff has remained somewhat the same for a very long time. Exceptions are for global catastrophes such as asteroid strikes, massive volcanic eruptions and climate change. However as Homo sapiens take over, we replace nature with human stuff. Thus, the future necessitates increasing human effort, energy, to sustain stuff.

Nature continued over billions of years. Changes occurred such as the extinction of dinosaurs and the expansion of mammals. Will the future see the same for human stuff? Will it remain useful after global catastrophes? And will people leave enough natural stuff to sustain the future?

Foundation
Foundation

Bhasan Char

Imagine a brand new island. Being surrounded by water serves to keep strangers away and you could build what you want and do what you want. It could be a brave new world. Bhasan Char is just such an island. It didn’t exist in the previous century. But now it lies off the mouth of the Meghna River; a river that washes sediment from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal. In doing so, this river created this island.

Let’s stay imagining. As this island is new then we’d imagine little life, perhaps some vegetation though no soil yet. Maybe some birds. But not much else. Also, being little more than a sandbar then it’s close to sea level. So close in fact that storm surges would flood most if not all the island. This is perhaps less idyllic than most people would imagine.

Now add people to our island, to Bhasan Char. To make analysis easy, let’s use a round number of 100,000 people. This equates to 400sq.m. per person; note, Canada has 266,000sq.m. per person. The 400sq.m. must include everything; a home, agricultural land, (solar) energy production and any industry. Seems like a lot to include for a sandbar doesn’t it?

There are plans for a large number of people to live on Bhasan Char. As it is over 20kilometres from the mainland then supplies, such as energy, will need to be ferried frequently and regularly. The supplies must continue even during extreme climate events. Is this the life you imagine when you think of living on an idyllic island? Can Earth keep supporting people to do what they want and when they want?
Shoreline

Electric Vehicles

Going green is our new mantra. This mantra espouses sustainability. While a clear definition of sustainability awaits, we do know that some things seem more sustainable than others. For example, electric vehicles get proclaimed as the new, sustainable transportation, i.e. they don’t emit green house gases. Let’s see if this satisfies our mantra.

Humans are enamored by vehicles. We have over 1.2billion in operation today. But transportation needs energy, about 1.1×1020Joules annually, much of which is for vehicles. Further, we should surpass 2billion vehicles by the year 2035 hence more energy is needed. As transportation is key to our GDP, then human prosperity may well depend upon continued infatuation.

Today, we produce 1×1020Joules of electricity. Fossil fuels generate about 63% of this. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Currently, electric vehicles consume an insignificant amount of electricity. But, to meet our mantra, we need to remove fossil fuels from electrical production. And to meet future energy demand for vehicles, we need to at least double electricity production. This future for electricity isn’t sustainable.

From the above, can you see whether electric vehicles satisfy the mantra? Going green by replacing petrol burning cars with electric vehicles wouldn’t reduce energy consumption. It may sustain the GDP, at least temporarily. We ask, “Can we maintain personal transportation in our mantra and still go green?”

Cement and Concrete

People seem to have a reluctant relationship with Earth’s natural world. We know that nature provides us with our necessary food. But most of us buy it in shops. And, with most of us living in cities, even our homes and workplaces are removed from nature. For these, concrete is the most effective separator. It’s a human invented material that is the foundation for most of our civilization.

Concrete results from mixing cement with water and with a suitable filler such as sand or gravel. Its use in the Roman era Pantheon demonstrates its durability. Its longevity can be further enhanced as we use rubble from destroyed concrete structures as filler for new concrete structures. However, cement can’t be re-used. New concrete requires new cement. And cement is costly.

Let’s scale the cost. Annually we produce over 4×109 tonnes of cement, equivalent to the cement for about 1000 dams the size of the 3 Gorges Dam. This amount is to remain constant to well past 2050. Its production calls for an annual expenditure of 3.5GJoules of energy per tonne. This amounts to an allocation of 1.4×1019Joules of energy annually, about 3% of total energy consumption. As most of the energy comes from fossil fuels then there’s resulting pollution at a rate of 0.54t of CO2 per tonne of cement, about 8% of global CO2 emissions. Because of this, cement is a significant parameter when modeling future climate change. Over history, humans have used about 128×109 tonnes of cement to enable living apart from nature, which is almost a thousand times greater than the weight of all humans. Concrete is costly both in energy consumption and pollution emission.

Concrete separates us from nature. And estimates are that we will continue this separation for decades to come. Should we continue to separate ourselves from the ecosystem? Or are you willing to fight this apparent primal urge to treat nature as a threat? For a prosperous future, we recommend you look for ways to live with nature rather than apart.

Solar on More Than Tops of Buildings

Singapore may soon get 20% of its energy from solar parks in Australia. The plan is to cover 10,000 square kilometres of outback with solar collectors and send the resulting 10GW of energy through a 4370 kilometre long undersea cable. With this, Singapore, covering a land area of only 725 square kilometres, would make a strong step toward becoming carbon neutral by using large areas of a far away land.

Expand this idea further and there’s great potential. Globally about 15% of Earth’s land surface is barren, i.e. not able to support life. If we cover this land with solar collectors then it would generate 138% of the total primary energy that humans used in 2018. While most of the barren lands occur slightly north of the equator, e.g. the Sahara desert, most people live in temperate climates further away from the equator. So conducting electricity for thousands of kilometres is essential. But this and others seem to be simple engineering challenges that are keeping us from this potential.

Now imagine a future where every major population centre is tied to solar parks in barren lands throughout the world. If this were achieved then we’d have a very good chance of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Are you ready to place your reliance upon solar parks in far away lands rather than on far away oil fields?

Ouarzazate
Ouarzazate – James Allen, NASA