Cleaning up our mess
Many climate models base their predictions on humanity becoming capable to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a massive scale. On paper it all looks great: let’s take a carbon removal technology, apply Moore’s law to it (halving it’s price every few years, while assuming there are no technological/resource limits whatsoever) and voila: magical unicorns roam the skies and suck carbon effortlessly at almost zero cost.
Yes, I’m talking about the fairy tale of Net Zero. Were it not for these magical carbon capturing technologies, we would have no carbon budget left for 1.5 °C, and — realistically speaking — nor for 2.0 °C. Climate change is not our only problem though. It is but one symptom of humanity being in planetary overshoot: there are too many of us consuming way too much, compared to the size and finite resources of the planet. The other major consequence of this phenomena — yet vastly under-reported compared to climate change — is resource depletion, contributing greatly to the global energy crisis, and to the recent supply chain shortages. None of these processes can be understood however without recognizing what is our business on the planet.
The business model
In order to understand what we are doing to the planet, let’s start with the basics — the laws of physics. These principles are so fundamental, that no creature on Earth, and as I suspect, neither in the entire Universe has managed to escape them. Without going to much into details (read my earlier posts for here and here if you are do interested) here is the deal:
#1 Energy cannot be created or destroyed
#2 As energy is transformed, more and more of it gets wasted
The total amount of energy in the Universe is always constant, it merely shifts forms. By doing so however, its quality increasingly gets degraded to lower and lower levels, until it reaches its ultimate form: waste heat. In this final phase its capacity for work is basically zero — thus it becomes useless to any system as a source of power, and have to be got rid of (hence the name). This is entropy.
The same very basic principle is true for matter as well:
#3 Matter cannot be created or destroyed — only transformed.
It is simple enough: man is not destroying coal by burning it, he just makes it react with oxygen and turns it into carbon-dioxide — while obtaining an immense amount of energy in the form of heat. Matter tends to degrade into lower and lower quality junk over the eons anyway, until it looses all its chemical energy, orderliness, purity etc. and gets dispersed into the environment as physical waste. This is entropy too. All we — bright chimps with oversized brains — did, is that we have sped up this degradation of matter and energy considerably. Nothing more, nothing less.
Pure, clean metals are a rare thing in Nature for the same reason: they tend to react with oxygen (oxidize) rather quickly and by doing so, get robbed of their potential chemical energy. There is an escape hatch though. By the use of additional (external) energy this process can be reversed — at least temporarily. Sometime between the 5th and 6th millennia BC we have discovered how to recover copper from it’s ore by heating it in fire (smelting), and making tools and ornaments from it. Anyone who saw an old metal object though knows, that with time copper develops patina, iron develops rust, and given enough time underground, they finally turn to dust.
We use up valuable stores of energy to turn a piece of concentrated metal ore into pure metal objects, then let them revert to their original state. Scientifically speaking: we dissipate energy, and in the end increase entropy. Said more profoundly: we make a lot of fuss only to create an even bigger mess in the end. This is our business.
The race for technology
“Nature knows best” — goes the slogan — and it could not be closer to the truth. The Universe had billions of years to develop “technologies” to deal with entropy, the inevitable degradation of matter and energy. The first crucial technology was the invention of stars. Some experiments failed spectacularly resulting super-novas and black holes, some were too weak to support life. Luckily, we have got a rather stable model, Sun v1.0, which will shine reliably for many hundreds of millions of years to come. Through its stable radiation of heat and light, it provided the necessary energy to throw entropy into reverse. It fostered the creation of life on a planet rich in various minerals, ready to be converted into plant matter. This was done via another great technological advancement: photosynthesis — turning CO2 back into oxygen and into carbon (a basis of hydrocarbons and all life). The story went on for a very long time, adding invention upon invention, until we got something we call complex life... Of which we are a part of — not separated from it. We were developed in Nature’s lab too, as part of a huge product portfolio (aka ecosystem), and evolved to work together with other creatures.
And here lies the crux of our predicament. We have learned how to rob other living beings, and ultimately planet Earth, of their stored energy and used it to make objects for our pleasure. Let’s take trees for example. By burning them in a smelter we have made metal tools, which we have eventually thrown away, lost, or buried with our dead — and thus returned them to dust. Both the beautifully complex structure of wood with all its stored energy and the concentrated mineral is now gone forever, turned into scattered metal oxide somewhere in the ground, and CO2 in the atmosphere. We have became so good at this, that now we burn millions of tons of coal, oil and gas to make fancy stuff to amuse ourselves with every year. It follows from the 3 simple principles above, that waste is the inevitable by-product of everything we do.
If we were indeed as smart as we think we are, we would have noticed how unsustainable this whole business model is. It should’ve dawned on us earlier that turning concentrated stuff and energy into waste (both physical and heat) on a finite planet is not a ticket to eternal life. Doing this at a rate, well beyond nature’s capacity to cope with the resulting waste on the other hand, is a suicide mission on a planetary scale.
Yes, this process could be made sustainable. Theoretically. Do not think big though: think of indigenous cultures who have learned how to live within their boundaries after failing miserably in conserving a vital resource. Eventually all cultures screwed up really bad during their history — at least once. They all overshot the resources of their environment and the capacity of Nature to cope with the entropy (or mess) they have created. Some managed to survive this encounter with reality, and developed what Micheal Dowd calls a pro-future culture, others just disappeared into the mist of history. Our modern industrial civilization’s moment of truth has just arrived. Welcome.
We have used up an immense amount of energy stored in fossil fuels in the past 200–300 years. This energy, originally stored as fossilized plant matter was all coming from the Sun, and was collected, condensed and concentrated for more the 500 million years. Not 1 year, 500 000 000 years.
The waaaast amount of CO2 released by burning these fuels (together with the majority of Earth’s forests) cannot be tucked back under Earth’s crust without using energy on a similar magnitude. Covering a desert with solar panels, thinking that a few year’s (decades?) worth of sunlight in an area smaller than 1% of Earth surface stands the chance of catching, separating, condensing, forwarding, pressure pumping etc. even a tiny portion of this waste is magical thinking on an epic scale. Nature had the time to develop and perfect the tools (mainly photosynthesis and rock weathering) to deal with this type of problem. She has the resources (100% of Earth surface, including the oceans) and most importantly the time to deal with all this mess. If takes a million years, then call it a million.
Humanity on the other hand, with its immature technology, has access only to a tiny fraction of the necessary resources. Solar photovoltaics, as well as wind turbines are built using relatively rare minerals (metallurgical grade silicon, arsenic, gallium, neodymium etc.) vs plants, which are built out of super-abundant carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. The metals we need for our tech — in the right concentration and purity — are available only in very limited quantities. You sure might have a billion tons of them in Earth’s crust, but if your desired resource lies 30 miles deep, in ores containing 99.9% rock and only 0.1% metal then… Tough luck, as they say. “Producing” these materials would take an awful lot of energy (mostly from fossil fuels due to their high energy density — which might be no longer available to us). This would make the whole exercise a fool’s errand: burning more and more of fossil fuels just to get rid of them. This is the fallacy of our times.
The true cost of “renewables”
The thing regarding “renewables” or carbon capture technologies which rarely — if ever — gets mentioned, is that mining the necessary resources above creates environmental mayhem… Compared to which a forest fire looks like a picnic. It starts with clear cutting an area and removing the top soil — effectively killing all life — then replacing once natural habitats with poisonous, potentially radioactive acid lakes, and waste dumps spreading their deadly dust in the wind.
Knowing all this, proposing mining as potential “solution” to carbon capture is plain idiocy. Of course, it all happens far away from the overly sensitive consumer. Hidden from plain sight by the high mountains of Latin America and the hills of Inner Mongolia. All what we’re allowed to see is the bright polished surface of a brand new panel, or a spotless white turbine blade. Not this:
When it comes to the end of their life-cycle, man-made “renewable” and carbon capture technology has another competitive disadvantage compared to Nature: recycling. Used photovoltaics with all their rare precious metals end up on waste dumps, together with wind turbine blades, whereas nature has a perfect, zero waste process to decompose its solar panels (leaves), and to store the resulting carbon in the ground (top soil). Who would pay for this anyway? Even if such a feat were possible you would still had to feed the workers operating the machinery, pay for the raw materials and the energy.
Again, if this were a problem far away in the future, on a planet with endless resources I would be fine thinking about these “technical” issues. Now, however, we have a burning energy crisis on a burning planet with rapidly depleting mineral resources. Not an ideal combination.
With our every move we create entropy. We burn dense energy resources. We destroy large swathes of land and call it mining. We produce an enormous amount of stuff and even more waste. This is our business. This is industrial civilization. Building carbon capture plants only creates an even greater mess, and releases more CO2 than they catch.
Forgive me for being so blunt, but human agency in this matter is absolute, undiluted, 100% hubris. We are nothing more but spoiled 3-year olds, who played with mom’s box of matches, and while having a fantastic time, burned the entire house to the ground. No one would expect the said children to rebuild that home, why do we think then that we can restore Earth which we have just set on fire…? We don’t have the knowledge how to do this sustainably, neither the materials, nor the energy. Besides we will most probably make matters worse by doing so.
Let’s face it: we have messed this up. Big time.
Now, that we have admitted it, it’s time to move on, and arrange for a future on a radically altered planet. It is high time to plan how we are going to make it through the coming bottleneck with an opening barely larger than a needle prick. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be ugly. But we will make it. And we will learn. Or perish.
Until next time,