Food, energy, and fossil fuels


in Art, Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment

Yesterday night, I had an interesting conversation about energy, fossil fuels, agriculture, and human population. The key fact is that global agriculture is now deeply dependent on fossil fuels. They are needed for everything from running industrial farming equipment to producing fertilizer to operating the vast logistical networks through which food is processed and distributed. The key question is, what will the ramifications be when we inevitably transition from a global energy system based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable sources?

The transition is indeed inevitable, though it could happen in either of two ways. Either we can voluntarily cut back on using fossil fuels due to well-founded concerns about climate change – and awareness of the opportunities that exist in renewable energy – or we will draw down reserves to the point where it takes more energy to extract one calorie worth of fossil fuel than the fuel contains.

So, what might the post-fossil-fuel world look like? To get one idea, we can consider the world as it existed before the Industrial Revolution brought about large-scale fossil fuel use. Back in 1500, there were about half a billion people alive on Earth. The energy they relied upon was overwhelmingly from renewable sources, such as the embedded solar energy in plants. It seems plausible that returning to that kind of an energy system would return the planet’s capability of sustaining human beings to about the level that existed then: a bit higher, perhaps, because people now live in more places, and a bit lower, perhaps, because of the damage we have caused to the planet in various ways.

For an alternative, we need to consider an enhanced renewable-backed future that includes clever approaches to harnessing renewable sources of energy: solar, wind, wave, geothermal, etc. It seems to me that if we are going to have a world that does not use fossil fuels and which sustains something like as many billions as are alive now (to say nothing of in 2050 or later), such technologies are going to need to be deployed on massive scale and the world’s agricultural systems will need to be adapted to rely on them.

Fossil fuels have been an enormous energy boon for humanity. Quite possibly, they have allowed us to far overshoot where we would otherwise have been, in terms of energy use and population. Quite possibly, both of those will need to fall substantially in a post-fossil-fuel world. If there is any chance of that not taking place, it will depend on the massive deployment of the kind of advanced renewables that are already technologically feasible. That deployment will take dedication, foresight, financing, and energy. Indeed, there is surely no better use for whatever proportion of the world’s remaining fossil fuels we choose to burn than in making the solar and wind farms that will need to form most of the future energy basis for all human civilization.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

” or we will draw down reserves to the point where it takes more energy to extract one calorie worth of fossil fuel than the fuel contains.”

I think it’s a bit naive to think we will stop at this point. We already subsidize the production of fossil fuels, why would we begin to do so less as they become rarer?

We are perfectly happy to subsidize the production of bio-diesel even when the product contains less energy than the inputs.

It seems logical that we will continue to extract fossil fuel until long after it takes more than 1 barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil.

Milan March 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm

That doesn’t seem logical at all.

While it makes economic sense to burn more than one calorie of natural gas or of coal to produce one calorie worth of oil, it will never make sense to burn more than one calorie worth of oil to get one calorie worth of oil.

As the EROI of any energy source approaches 1:1, the incentive to use it decreases to nothing.

Milan March 26, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Look what happens to net energy output as EROI approaches 1:1.

Milan March 26, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Just think what it means, in concrete terms, when the EROI of oil gets very poor.

Eventually, drilling for the last little pockets of oil would require much more energy than the oil contains. That might be a sensible thing to do if two conditions are met:

1) We have ample sources of energy of other types
2) We have reason to value oil more than energy in other forms.

What is really problematic is when the EROI of fossil fuels taken all in all starts approaching zero – where even the most abundant remaining fuel takes nearly as much energy to locate and process as it contains. Even for coal, that point may be as little as 60 years away, if use continues to increase at a rate of 3.4% per year.

Tristan March 27, 2010 at 12:00 am

I don’t literally mean they will burn 2 barrels of oil to get one barrel of oil. Rather, we will use the energy of many barrels of oil to extract one.

My prediction is we will use energy to extract a barrel of oil which is of a higher value itself than the oil which is extracted by that energy. This is illogical, but with subsidy, it could (and I think will be) “market” rational.

crazzy bill March 27, 2010 at 12:19 am

Yeah, why not have big nukes powering the oil recovery operations (oil sands, shales)??? Turn useless nuclear energy into good ol’ oil…

Along this line of thought, there was a discussion recently on the oil drum about experiments done in the 60s where they used actual nukes to fracture and liquidize the oil shales. Almost as scary as the proposals to power oil sands recovery with nuclear power stations.

Milan March 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

My point is that – no matter how cheap and abundant energy is – you will eventually reach the point at which fossil fuels are no longer worth extracting, if you don’t decide earlier on to abandon them for other reasons.

All I am saying is that the quantity of fossil fuels is finite, and it will never be sensible to extract every gram of coal, mililitre of oil, and cubic centimetre of gas contained in the lithosphere.

Even with nuclear-powered shale oil operations, you will eventually need to find a new energy basis for global agriculture.

Tristan March 27, 2010 at 9:03 pm

My point is that we should expect the extraction of oil to continue past the rational market point, because we unduly subsidize oil production, because we live in corrupt states where welfare is more likely to be directed towards the unbelievably rich than the least well off.

Milan March 28, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Regardless, we will eventually need an agricultural system that does not rely on fossil fuels.

Tristan March 28, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Agreed. A good start would be to stop subsidizing meat production.

Milan March 28, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Definitely, and we should be doing research and development work on things like alternative sources of fertilizer and the electrification of farming equipment.

magictofu March 31, 2010 at 12:53 pm

The good news is that technologies exists to replace fossil fuel use for farm machinery, nitrogen fertilization and the transportation of goods. We are not necessarily using them, but they exist.

The bad news is that the other important fertilizers (phosphorus and potassium) are in limited supply, particularly phosphorus.

Some people are obviously concerned:

In other words, the sustainability crisis we are facing is not all about energy.

magictofu April 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

Another good piece on “peak phosphorus” in Foreign Policy:

“Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. This is the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of. “

Milan April 22, 2010 at 10:35 am

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