Will biofuels always be hopeless?

I think most readers of TOD are persuaded that corn ethanol is a boondoggle right now. Robert Rapier made the case well again on Wednesday. Also, a little while back, Kyle argued pretty persuasively that cellulosic ethanol will not be much better in the near term.

Fair enough. I buy all that.

But, I think it's very important to ask: do biofuels suck for deep fundamental unchangeable reasons? Or for contingent reasons that might be amenable to change over time with technological innovation? And I'm starting to think the answer might not be so obvious.

Flows of carbon in biomass products entering the global economy. Source: FAO.

It seems an important point. Farmers, land grant universities, and agricultural suppliers have spent the last fifty years optimizing the efficiency of corporate agriculture on the assumption that fossil fuels are incredibly cheap. So no surprise that that produced a system with a very low EROEI. However, is there hope that given a different set of incentives and a few decades, they can optimize the system to create a different outcome? Brazilian ethanol has reportedly got an EROEI of around 10. So that suggests the situation might not be hopeless in principle.

To get a sense of the relative scales of things, let's remind ourselves again of the basics of the carbon cycle:

Earth's carbon cycle with stocks in Gt (Gigatonnes), and flows in Gigatonnes/year. Click to enlarge. Source: Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

The Wikipedia's numbers are a little out of date. As I discussed some time back, by 2004, fossil fuel emissions were up to about 8Gt/year and climbing fast.

Still it's of considerable interest that the amount of carbon moving through the biosphere is an order of magnitude larger than the flux of fossil fuels. To repeat myself:

Plants absorb about 120 Gt of carbon/year and turn it into sugars via photosynthesis (and then onto other materials). This is the gross primary production of photosynthesis in the biosphere. Of this, the plants themselves burn about 60 Gt of carbon (in the form of sugars) to power their own operations, so that is released out into the atmosphere again immediately. The remaining 60Gt or so is called the net primary production. Almost all of the net primary production ends up going into the soil (a small amount passing through some animal on the way), but humans use and burn some of it. The soil releases back pretty much all of the carbon influx through the action of decay organisms.
Obviously, the energy density of biomass is not as high as that of coal or oil, but still, the ratio of energy flows is not going to be completely different than the 60/8 ratio of net primary carbon fixation to fossil fuel carbon usage (especially if we grant solar drying of the biomass). It's not obvious to me that there's no combination of technology, policy, and economics that could divert a sizeable fraction of that 60Gt into biofuels. It's also not obvious that there isn't scope for innovations to increase that 120Gt top line over time (especially in a world with more CO2 in the air to start with).

Here's a picture of the geographical distribution of primary producers:

Geographical distribution of plant density. Source: Wikipedia.

If we overlay that with human population density:

Estimated population density of the Earth in 1994. Source: NASA.

you can see why Brazil is the home of biofuel: the ratio of plants to people is probably as high there as anywhere. Thus the scope for using the plants to transport the people, as well as feed and clothe them, is exceptionally good.

But the US looks pretty good too. Europe, India, China, not so good.

How much of that 60Gt of global net primary productivity makes it into the economy now? I did some digging around at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It turns out that the major flows are wood and food (textiles and liquid biofuels are fairly neglible by comparison at present).

Let's take food for a moment, and just reassure those of you worried about peak food; we don't seem to be there yet (at least as of 2002). Here's calories/capita. Although cereal calories per person have peaked, total calories per person have not.

Global calories/capita 1960-2002. Source: FAO.

For a quick feel of what's involved in wood products, here are the major flows:

Global production of forestry products. Source: FAO.

Of course, these statistics should be taken as only rough indications. Adding up national statistics for wood production from a bunch of developing countries probably does not give a precision result.

Anyway, if we convert the FAO statistics into approximate carbon flows, we get:

Flows of carbon in biomass products entering the global economy. Source: FAO.

As you can see, only about 2.5Gt out of about 60Gt of net primary productivity makes it into the global economy.

Now I don't know enough to say how much that flow could be increased, nor how bad the resulting environmental impacts would be. But I think it's rather hard to make the case that getting to the order of magnitude of 8 Gt/year is impossible in principle.

But I do know that we've reached the point where defending our right to emit carbon on the scale we're doing it is several steps down the moral ladder from defending tobacco companies as innocent of causing cancer.

On the contrary, I believe we are committing evil in emitting so much carbon, and we need to change. We are heading for disaster after disaster.

And I think that's an important point when considering the subsidies for ethanol. Whenever the US, China, etc decide to leave the dark ages on these issues it's pretty obvious what needs to happen at an economic policy level. There needs to be big costs for anyone that emits carbon, and big payments to anyone who can prove they are sucking it out of the atmosphere and stashing it somewhere for a reasonable period of time. That would give everybody the right incentives and make possible business models for innovations that move us in the right direction.

Now, the ethanol subsidies are not what is needed. But they do at least have the right sign: they prefer biofuels to fossil fuels.

The closing price for carbon emissions today on the European exchange was €19.10/ton (about $24.40). Given about 2.4kg of carbon per US gallon of gas, that corresponds to about 6 cents/gallon. That's pathetic. In my opinion, it should be set on a ramp to go from the present value of nearly nothing to many dollars/gallon over the course of coming decades. And then the ethanol subsidies in 2006 might not look so big.

Fair enough, Stuart, I am sure there is more we can do with biofuels. My problem with biofuels, other than a low EROEI, it's that they should be used to protect the primary sector (agriculture, perhaps fueling fishing ships also) from international liquids fuel prices, ie: biofuels are for tractors. I don't want to see land being used to fuel cars in the morning traffic jam (I accept this is more an ethical stand than a technical one).

Our problem is that we are going to need more and more fuel, even counting with a reduction in car use in the west and all the mpg efficiency you can throw at it. We just need to stop this stupid car culture, starting from the ones who act as an example for the undeveloped world (that in turn would mean solving our urbanising problem, did you know that in Europe we are sprawling too!!?? at least in Spain)

We can throw and throw solutions, alternative fuels, efficiency, but I have my doubts about our chance to win over the Growth for Growth Sake Culture. Growth seems to keep ahead of us...

Completely agree that the best first step toward proving a positive EROEI is for the farmer to start using the biodiesel to run all the equipment on the farm. If it doesn't make economic sense for the farmer to use their own production to save money, then I think we can safely say that it is not self sustaining.

The best way to produce any bio based fuel is to start with the immense amounts of waste in all sectors of the economy.

As long as he doesn't take his tractor on a public road he can run it on biodiesel, tax free. That's a major savings right there.
Fuels for farm use are already exempt from taxes, under the idea that the taxes are supposed to pay for roads, which the farm use isn't affecting.
To destroy weed seeds in your field in a biological way, you can use fungus to 'eat' the weed seeds.   But you need carbon to get the fungus to 'bloom'.   Putting 6 ton of finished compost PER acre (thats alot of compost bob!)

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I just yesterday sat down and watched Dr. Bartlett's presentation on exponential growth (for about the fifth time) and so your comments are particularly resonating for me this morning.  I doubt our inventiveness (isn't that called technology or something?) will increase faster than our growth at any cost system we've set up, in light of the loss of the most energy dense source we've ever known.  We can choose to control our population and energy use or let Nature  choose for us--my bet's on the latter.
During the Asian Development Bank conference Friday, it was stated that world food production must double within the next 50 years to feed the Asian population.
However the potential for expanding arable land in Asia is limited and "future expansion in food production must come largely from land already in use," said Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in expanding agricultural production.
With the challenge of feeding the worlds population being discussed, adding soil degragation, and loss of major energy inputs, I agree that nature will soon show us the limits of growth.

In other news, Earlier this week flash floods in northern Thailand destroyed a number of villages, combining both climate change and deforestation as probable factors.

"In less than a week, these provinces got 300 mm of rain,'' Tara Buakamsri, climate campaigner for the South-east Asia office of Greenpeace, the environmental lobby, told IPS. ''There are reports that this is the most rainfall in Uttaradit in 20 years, or even more.
Citing BRT research, he said the flash floods had been partially caused by a drastic change of biodiversity when uninhabited jungles were transformed into plantations and farmland.
Related to this, I notice that on the above chart for food production, it looks like cereal production peaked in the 1990s, and is slowly dropping.

The "non-grain" food production is still growing healthily.

I am a proponent of conversion of biomass to ethanol through my BioConversion Blog so I suppose I should weigh in here.

Your thesis is based on a rather narrow definition of biofuel feedstock as being agricultural.

Add waste biomass to the definition and you start opening up possibilities. Waste has concentrations where people are in urban, agricultural, and forest environments. Convert waste biomass into ethanol - which new, clean bioconversion technologies are accomplishing in pilot programs - and you turn liabilities (corn stover, MSW, rice straw, infected trees, sewage, switchgrass, sulfurous coal, tires, auto fluff, etc.) into energy assets (ethanol and co-generated green electricity) without toxic emissions. Not to mention the positive environmental impact of ridding yourself of the waste.

Don't get hung up on "subsidies." Subsidies are spurring overdue investments that are going to get us from fossil fuel crisis to renewable fuel solutions. Biofuel subsidies are a pittance compared to fossil fuel subsidies with a much greater rate of environmental return.

Add waste biomass to the definition and you start opening up possibilities.

One man's 'waste' is another man's compost for soil fertility.

To destroy weed seeds in your field in a biological way, you can use fungus to 'eat' the weed seeds.   But you need carbon to get the fungus to 'bloom'.   Putting 6 ton of finished compost PER acre (thats alot of compost bob!)

The boys over at magic soil show a way how excessive electrical energy from renewable generation can be fixed into compost management.

Better make sure your 'plan' isn't destroying the soil food web just so you can keep the lights on and drive the SUV for a bit longer.

turn liabilities (corn stover, MSW, rice straw, infected trees, sewage

Corn stalks are fixed into animal protein in many opweations.  Rice straw and cornstalks can be made into tasty or medicinal mushrooms.  Sewage - Ha!  When one looks at what is dumped down the drainpipes by most people, the seperation of the toxic materials from the non-toxic is problematic.  The toxic crap effects the bio-process based fuel conversion,  and random addition of metals like platinum make sewage an explosive depolymarization methods.

Being optimistic is fine, but just looking at the energy side is a recipe for just adding TO the disaster.

I think that Eric's comment is very important, that many in this group are missing.

Soil health is very important. The biomass in the soil requires carbon to be recycled into it. If you take away that carbon, by converting it to fuels, you may have a recipe for a high rate of desertification.

Ikivo SVG   
"Waste biomass" is unused or transformed primary biomass obtained via agriculture. Thermodynamical laws tell us that you can not get more energy from the waste biomass than from the primary biomass; hence it makes much more sense to use the primary one directly.

Don't get me wrong - if we have waste that we can use - we should do it by all means. But in the end it may turn out a marginal source, limited by our agriculture capacity.

Lumber companies call the roots and branches they leave behind in a cut "waste biomass."  I'd call it mulch, and the little that stands in the way of mountaintop desertification.

(think "Soylient Green")

That is the amazing thing many seem to miss.
In a totally natural system, NOTHING is wasted.
It may seem like waste to humans, but it serves a purpose.

The more natural-like a system is, the better it operates, because it operates more in harmony with natural laws and processes.

Natural wastes from artificial systems (like agriculture) also serves a useful purpose.  Any divergance from this is simply asking for trouble further down the road.

This is the insight that organizations like ZERI are trying to harness.  Instead of single industrial processes with inputs, useful outputs and waste, you have process clusters, where the waste from one acts as an input to another.  Essentially every output is "useful" within the system.

An example might be co-locating a smallish coal-fired powerplant, an algal biodiesel facility, a pig farm, a biodigester and a mushroom-growing facility.  The "waste" stream works like this:

The power plant produces CO2 that is bubbled into the algae ponds.  The pigs produce manure that is passed through a biodigester to produce methane, and the remaining manure waste material is also added to the algae ponds as fertilizer.  The oil is extracted from the algae, and the remaining cell-wall waste is used as a substrate for growing mushrooms.  Following mushroom production, the substrate that has been "cracked" by the mushrooms is used as pig feed.

Out of this cluster you get electricity, biodiesel, natural gas, pork and mushrooms.  All significant wastes get used within the cluster.  Now the devil is in the details as always, but the theory is to mimic natural systems insofar as waste re-use is concerned.

Excellent thinking, GliderGuider. Right you are.
There is an other way of analysis: In Europe on a hectar you can grow under absolutely optimal conditions about 3500 Liters of biodiesel  (raps seed). That is gross without imput costs or labor. That works out as 35000 kilowatt hours. The Insolation is about 1200/kwH/square meter or about 12.000.000/kwH per hectar; This gives you a conversion efficiency of 35.000/12.000.000 or not even one percent !!!. Compare that to a wind mill or a solar cell  and you know why or future will be electric.
No-one disputes that direct conversion of light to electricity is more efficient. The nice thing about biofuels (and the only reason I don't completely dismiss them) is that biomass doubles as very low cost energy storage. With solar electric energy, you only have three options: 1) use it immediately, 2) send it elsewhere over costly transmission lines, 3) waste it into the ground. Today's batteries have pitiful capacity (per investment dollar as well as in absolute terms) compared to biomass. Yes, I would prefer more investment in electricity storage research but biofuels (which are comparatively low-tech) shouldn't be ruled out as yet.
It seems to me if you have spare electrical generation you cant use or transport away, you could electrolize it, capture and store the H and O2 and either sell the gasses or combust them in a steam generation unit at a point in time where extra electricity is needed.
My favorite suggestion is to use the hydrogen for upgrading heavy oil or increase the yield of FT-diesel from black liquor.

The main problem is the capital cost of the electrolysis cells. Figuring out how to produce them in a more efficient way using less material would be a major win.

Actually thin-film PVs, which currently are the only ones having a chance to be used on a large scale have only a marginally better efficiency: 3 to 6%.

Add the energy/costs needed for their research, manufacturing, infrastructure, electricity storage etc.etc. and it becomes obvious why biodiesel is a preferrer way (well, at least for now).

Stacked junction concentrator photovoltaic cells have reached 39% efficiency at a concentration factor of 236. Because the cells occupy  less than 0.5% of the illuminated area the semiconductor use is much smaller than even thin film silicon cells. This more than compensates for the exotic materials in the cells. Such systems do need trackers and a low cloud location as the give almost no output in diffuse light. A 10MW array of this type is under construction in Spain. It is calculated to recover its energy investment in 4 to 6 months.
There are problems with this appoach but I think it is far from certain that thin film silicon is the only appoach with a chance of large scale use'
I  will happily put my money  on a  free piston stirling solar in any shootout with any PV- concentrator, no matter how many stacks and eff. .  Best lifetime $/watt wins.
The effect is much more than marginal. Conversion of solar energy to biomass is less than 0.3%. Thin film PV is 10 to 20 times more efficient.
Yeah, but you are getting fuel you can put in your car. If you used the electricity to produce some liquid fuel, you'd have to factor in some additional conversion process with more losses.

In the end it comes down to costs (both financial and energetical) - obviously $1 invested in biofuels would yield much more energy in a suitable form than $1 in PV, despite the seemingly higher efficiency.

How about less people and more biomass (a technical name for nature), rather than vice versa?
That's a great idea. I'll jump after you jump ;)

Paradoxically population growth is related to wealth anyway. If you look at growth in the wealthy westernised nations it's fairly low, at zero or even in decline in some places (I believe the UK population is currently kept stable via immigration).

The places with the biggest population growth are the poorer areas where a child is insurance, a pension and a hedge against risk all rolled into one. As life gets more stable people have fewer children ....

Not all populations work that way.  The net fertility of Mexicans in Mexico is 2.4, the net fertility of Mexican immigrants in the USA is 3.5.
I suspect that fertility in Mexico may be underestimated, birth registration is still far from complete there.
A couple of quick points since I'm still digesting this post. Firstly The OECD Factbook gives a figure of global annual CO2 emissions of around 23 Gt, much higher than Wiki. There's a parameter called carbon turnover which could be manipulated to achieve higher biomass productivity. I'm not sure if high levels are stable however. Thirdly I think the administration of the European carbon trade system has been inept. The allowances to pre-existing emitters were way overgenerous and the means of earning a credit are misconceived eg a wind farm 'creates' a credit for coal burning, as if.
23Gt sounds like the mass of the CO2.  If you take 23 * 14/(14+16*2) to get the weight of the carbon, you get 7Gt of carbon (which sounds like a reasonable number for a couple of years ago).


Excellent post and a great start for a thread.  Unfortunately, I am not a good enough chemist to dispute any of your major points, which all seem pretty straight forward, and within the normally accepted framework on carbon exchange.

My area is much more in the design side of the physical environment, and  mechanical techology side.  If you and others concerned about carbon release (including me, so that should be "those of us concerned") seem to agree on any major accepted points, then the broadly accepted view would be (a) burn less fossil fuel and (b) keep more live plants.  I know that's a great simplification but it gives us a great place to start.

I will not for this moment go into burning less fossil fuel, since volumes have been written about this right here on TOD, and in books and articles around the world.  Since we know burning less FF  is a good thing, all debate becomes how we can best achieve that humanely and effectively, leaving people able to heat their homes, cook their food, and move about to some degree greater than walking/bicycling, which are laudable but do have their limits (time, weather, safety, health,etc.)  We have of course discussed a multitude of methods to reduce fossil fuel consumption and of course, more will be forthcoming.

Right now, I want to turn to the other point, that being (a) Plants, and how to retain them in quantity, quality, and variety, and (b) soil, the place from which plants are born, live, and die.

Having already given myself away as a non-chemist with no real expertise in soil chemistry (only the rudimentary basics) what could a "technical type" possibly have to say about soil/plant conservation?

Don't underestimate the contribution the designer/technicians can make in this area, especially those that are willing to read a bit broadly and outside their own normal field.

I have read here on TOD references to the great environmental/ecological writings of my fellow Kentuckian Wendell Barry, who has made the eloquent case for topsoil preservation, actually more, he means "respect" of the extremely valuable and prolific medium that topsoil is.  I will not go deeply into this in this post, for sake of brevity, but if you put "Wendell Barry on topsoil" in a google search bar, it should give you an idea of the variety of thought, and depth of feeling Mr. Berry brings to this subject.

Think for a moment.  Counting from about 6 inches above the ground, to about 18 inches below it (roughly) you have an 2 foot thick medium of extreme biological variety, chemical complexity, and the most extreme value in supporting life, and in fact, acting as the womb of life that can extend hudreds of feet into the air, and dozen (s) of feet below the ground.  It is this thin layer that must be treated with the respect it earns by way of it's contribution to feeding animal and plant life, and feeding and purifying the atmosphere.  If you go much over a couple of feet off the ground, or much more than a few feet below ground, you get essentially "free space" to use, if you take proper care of that 2 foot blanket.  Digging below that blanket (topsoil) gets us resources, such as coal, oil and natural gas, plus the metals, iron, nickel, copper etc.  We can dig hundreds of feet, thousands, but we must be careful about that "blanket" of topsoil at the surface.  Likewise, we can build towers upward thousands of feet, and encase in them the equal of hundreds of city blocks, while only occupying the one block or so the building sits upon in terms of topsoil space.

The secret is verticalization, both upward and downward.  

In the 1970's, when the energy crisis was at it's worst, and the "green" movement was being born, there were many plans laid for underground cities.  Underground homes were built.  Certain industrial and storage facilities found it to be the perfect solution.  Humans can easily survive at 58 degree tempeture, whch is approximate tempeture throughout most of the populated world at only a few beet below ground.  It is much easier and less fuel consuming to heat or cool from a point of 58 degrees to a comfy 68 or 70 degrees than it is to heat from a point below 0 (in northern states like Wisconsin or Michigan) or to cool from a point above 100 in California or Texas. Climate control solutions from going underground for many buildings and even city secttions make it worth it on energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction alone, but it gets better.

If I design sections of a city to exist underground, I can use the topsoil land surface for....yep, you got it, soil preservation and plant diversity.  It's a win/win propositon, except....of course, the capital cost of excavation and building underground.

But with good architectural design, and creative construction techniques, it can be done, and in fact, if people could understand what the saving of plant life and the retention of the treasured layer of topsoil were worth in real terms, for the survival of the planet and the humans on it, it would be done now.  It will be done in the future.   The better thinkers have always known this.  

In his legendary Public TV series "Cosmos", the late Dr. Carl Sagan was speaking of how an "advanced" civilization could be identified from long distance in space, either by telescopic view, or by passing space probes.

Sagan postulated (this in the 1970's) that beside our radio and television signal, going in a wave out into space at the speed of light, we would also be visible by our lights on the surface.  The surface of the earth shows the population of a technical civilization by it's lit cities, lights visible to a spacecraft, and giving a pattern of rich/poor, technological/non-technological.  This along with the television/radio wave makes an advanced civilization visible, and for Earth, it has only been true this last century.

Unless....Sagan speculated, if the civilization is MUCH more advanced than we are....then, it would move below surface to conserve bio-diversity, resources, and topsoil, and be more protected from weather, or enemy attack by bomb/missile.  Underground cities of millions would be networked by high speed tunnel transport, and networks of fiber optic cable, one to another, to dispatch information at the speed of light....thus, the surface would again go dark, natural as it had been for millions of years, and the television and radio signal would go more and more silent, as more information was dispatched to the fiber optic intercity network....we would become essentially invisable (or very low visible at close range only) again, and the surface of the earth would host plants (including our cultivated ones, play areas, recreation, and one thing that would be visible once a passerby was close enough.....the giant solar and wind arrays in deserts and on the plains, now able to provide a great percentage of power to the extremely energy frugal underground cities.....

In such an arrangement, could bio-fuels make sense?  Possibly, but they would not be anything like the current image of giant, square fields being combed over by fossil fueled machines, and sprinkled with massive herbicide/pesticide.

Instead, it would be much closer to "detritus" hunter gathering, with the dead fallen growth, and decayed plant matter collected for methanol or methane production, combined with plant and animal waste including human waste....a unique "natural gas" by dying plants and animals and their byproduct.

I will leave it at this, and let you folks look at the side of verticalization I did not address, the more controversial one.  Allow me to give you a starting place:  

A well designed, ecologically planned skyscraper is the environment and topsoil's best friend.

If we verticalize upward correctly, and downward correctly, the surface of the Earth with it's treasured layer of topsoil and plant diversity can be our protector from greenhouse gas and global warming.  The stable climate of the Earth below ground would reduce our heating/air conditioning cost to a fraction of what it is today.

It's all in the design.  We have thousand of feet, miles in fact, of earth and sky to use without harm, if we do it right....and we would never be far from trees, plants, gardens, waters, and life mixed right into our verticalized cities and homes.

The point that I don't think people understand correctly is this:
Humans are NOT  having an energy/carbon/food/space crisis because we are "too advanced".

We are having these problems because we, and our technology, are still so unbelievably primitive.

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

If you want to see a really great house of the future, watch Teletubbies. While the Tubs themselves creep me out, their house rules. Their vacuum cleaner rules too, but look at the house - it's a combination of underground while still being light and airy.
Bilbo Baggins has the best hole/house.
I just spent a week in a "casa cueva", or cave house apartment in Granada, Spain.  Words can not do justice to the damp that seeps out of those picturesque walls.  A cave takes a lot of technology to make it bearable...
Yea, I like the idea of underground housing but I'm also really big on the importance of natural light and fresh air to human well being.  Can we really build underground cities without suffering from mass seasonal affective disorder from lack of natural light and sick building syndrome from poor air circulation?  
I like the way you frame your concepts there. Just to expand on it, however, I would like to point out another topsoil protection solution based on mechanical design: green roofs. Of course, they only apply to roofed structures and they don't give you continuous topsoil cover but they are much more feasible than underground cities. They also get a bad rap for being boring, expensive to build and fraught with engineering problems like water leakage and structural stress and ghastly new-age design. All of those problems, however, are pretty much solved with today's technology.
Some green roofs are installed in Sweden. They are mostly motivated by looking nice (if they survive) and for delaying runoff water from rainfall. Its odd enough to be newsworthy and is thus sometimes used to give public buildings a "green" image.

The most common small house roofing material is concrete tiles and some more traditional fired clay tiles and for larger houses corrugated steel or tarred paper with flaked shale.

The first generation of galvanized corrugated steel got a bad reputation for rusting and were more or less outcompeted by corrugated aluminium. The aluminium roofs got some problems with thermal movements loosening nails and enlarging the holes around nails and screws. Those problems were solved but they were anyway outcompeted by cheaper corrugated steel with a thin zink layer combined with a plastic paint.
Hand layd sheet metal is quite common in cities and whenever an architect designs a roof with a lot of "convoluted" parts.
Tarred paper roofs got a bad reputation from needing major maintainance every 15 years or so.

The realy traditional roofing materials are straw, peat, wooden tiles, tarred if it is an important house such as a church and for realy prestigious houses copper sheet since a few hundred years.

I think the most important lesson is to not build flat roofs. Building flat roofs is asking for trouble in a climate where you have a winter that freezes any water still on the roof and thus damage the roofing material. Unfortunately it was a fad during the late 60:s and early 70:s. That even created a niche for wedge shaped additional insulation to combine insulation with increasing the runoff angles.

My favorit roofing material is aluminium, copper is nicer but it adds significant heavy metals when you roof a city with it. I hope some glass substrate solar cells will become cheap and long lived enough to be used as roof tiles.

I don't know much about the brazil case
but the big questions are
How much 'hand labour' as apose to machines do they use ?
What land are they using ?
Are they just digging up some forrest and planting crops where the fertile land is ? I guess this will last about 4-5 years before the land becomes useless.
This would explain the energy return from biofuels.
The Brazil situation is quite interesting, for a number of reasons:

Allow me to quote from Robert Rapier's blog:
1) "First, sugar cane is the optimum crop for producing ethanol, because the ethanol yield per acre is about twice what you can get from corn. Unfortunately, there are few areas in the U.S. that are ideal for sugar cane production. Brazil is currently exporting ethanol to the U.S. and Europe, and they can ship it to the U.S. for cheaper than we can make it here. (So, we slap a tariff on it to make sure they can't undercut our corn-ethanol producers)."

2) Biomass provides relatively little of Brazil's liquid transportation fuels, only about 10%.  The rest comes from Petrobras, the sizeable efforts put into petroleum exploration and deepwater offshore drilling, and from natural gas.  This is the primary source behind most of Brazil's near energy independence, not ethanol or flex fuel vehicles.

  1. Brazillian sugarcane is grown on massive monocrop plantations, using relatively traditional methods, including a great deal of human labor, especially for harvesting. Think guys with machettes.

  2. Most of the sugarcane is grown in the fairly flat and clear south central pasturelands, although an increasing amount is grown in the northern states by clearing Amazonian rainforest, using slash and burn techniques.  There is a growing push to expand sugar production in this area, and the government is subsidizing sugarcane production in the northern states, due to higher production costs.
Moreover, cane area is expanding into the state of
Sao Paulo, which has traditionally grown citrus.
The yields from sugarcane (measured by total reducing sugars) have also increased with the development
of new and more productive sugarcane varieties.

5) Typically, two full crops of sugarcane can be grown each year, due to the climate.
Nonsustainable methods are used, to minimize inputs. Sugarcane is typically grown in a particular location for 2-4 crops, then the land is exhausted, abandoned, and production moves elsewhere.  In former rainforest areas, this is particularly true, as the land is marginal and ill-suited to long term intensive agricultural use.

  1. Brazil is a very large country, with lots of potentially available land space. Most of the population is poor, and lives in densely populated cities along the coastal area. Few private Brazilians own motor vehicles, and those who do are usually among the most wealthy.  Most private Brazilian vehicles are small and have decent fuel economy.

  2. The amount of sugarcane Brazil produces for sugar dramatically affects world sugar prices.  Recent increases in the amount of Brazilian sugarcane used for ethanol has increased world sugar prices by +98% in the last year alone.  This has made sugar production more profitable than ethanol production. Brazil is in the top three sugar producing countries in the world.  Brazilian ethanol is also sold abroad, but often with an import tariff.

  3. Brazil has wisely allowed at-the-pump prices to rise in the last decade, to be closer and more in tune to world price levels. This is to bring market forces to bear on consumers, to remind them of the real price of liquid fuels.
It has been effective.

9) As with all agricultural endeavors, nature, weather, climate, and unfortunate circumstances often play a pivotal role. Brazils ethanol crop crashed in 2001, they actually had to import ethanol from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in that year.

Bizarre Twist:
If the US goes full-tilt on ethanol production from corn residues, it might shift demand for the rest of the corn crop. The result might be a significant price hike on corn syrup, making sugar the cheaper (or only) alternative for sweeteners in everyting from soda to cereal... and everyone will turn to Brazil first. This might effectively undermine cane-for-ethanol production in Brazil without government subsidies and other "price-correction" mechanisms.

Sorry about the spaced out formating. I'm still getting the hang of indents and bullets, apparently.
The result might be a significant price hike on corn syrup, making sugar the cheaper (or only) alternative for sweeteners in everyting from soda to cereal... and everyone will turn to Brazil first

A much better development (that I'm holding my thumbs to happen) is that sugar demand will be shifted towards sweeteners (for that junk soda we're drinking) and will be reduced/abandoned for all the other crappy food we are consuming in US (cause we don't have much choice usually). We all know there are three white poisons: heroin, salt and sugar. At least the last one can be spared and maybe we will be allowed to get a little bit healthier.

Turning all sugar cane/corn to ethanol might be not be such a bad idea after all...

The thing that scares me about going from 2.5Gt to 8Gt of production is that we aren't going to do it on the existing lands.  We are going to have to farm, or at least 'manage' many, many, more acres.

Of course, maybe I don't need to worry about that.  You say it may not be impossible in principle to hit 8Gt/yr ... but in practice?  In practice do you have that much diesel for the tractors, trucks, ...

My "up too early" brain (3:56 AM here) can only think that while properly managed forests(*) are good on a micro-level, but it would take kind of a hippie utopia (all of us swarming over the hills in sandals with mules) to get that 8Gt without spending more.

* - and not abused forests branded with the "managed" name

   I think forest management is an excellent idea.  We have plenty of low/medium security prisoners who would love the opportunity to get out of the concrete box. But forestry is something anyone with the smallest patch of land can plant a tree.
I agree, but the caution from the climate scientists is that broadly speaking, North American forests are now at maximum growth - because we have cut so much down in the last 200 years.  Young forests are bigger CO2 sinks than older ones.

While there are many trees that grow like weeds in my area without 'inputs' (including avacados, yum) ... it's another silver bb, not a silver bullet.


 This is a really good site.  I don't remember where but I read if all the unused islands in parking lots and streetside grass were forested we could remove like 20-30 of the US CO2 production a year.  This is a large amount and in the future harvesting is simple, a road is already there.

Over in Los Angeles we have the Tree People.  They do good things, but it's kind of a drive for me.


On the macro level, things don't look so good:

Planting 44 million more urban trees per year in the U.S. for the next 50 years, for a total of 2.2 billion trees, would replace trees lost to mortality and increase urban tree cover by 5% (see Rowntree and Nowak 1991). Those 2.2 billion trees, however, would only store an additional 150 million tons of carbon. At current rates, 59.8 billion tons of carbon would have been emitted in the U.S. over those 50 years, 400 times more carbon than would have been stored. The situation is made worse by the fact that these figures assume that all of the trees planted must remain alive and healthy to keep absorbing carbon dioxide.

So, planting 44 million trees per year for fifty years would result in absorbing one quarter of one percent of the carbon dioxide the U.S. would emit over the next fifty years. These figures are not presented to belittle the idea of planting trees to help ease environmental problems. But we should not be planting trees in U.S. cities and towns thinking that we are absorbing great amounts of carbon dioxide and reducing global warming. Landscape tree planting or even rural tree planting in the U.S. can not make a significant dent in absorbing the carbon dioxide we release.


... still worth supporting though, because without tree replacement it is even worse.

I would think broader and bigger.  How many poor people in africa do we give food to?  Instead for foreign aid why don't we pay dissillusioned youth (jobless/no education) to restore forests in those countries.

 This is not to say we should not reduce CO2 outputs but it would offset some of the US production.  Fruit and nut trees in africa could provide food also.


Speaking of "The Lorax"

Great book anyone with children should buy it.

One of my all time favorites. Very prescient.
As well as The Wump World.
You do understand that to "offset" you must incarcerate for a century or more, right?  It's not good enough to be "carbon neutral" because that gives all the effort back.  In the case of biomass fuels it's given back quickly (ethanol) or within a decade or two (wood biomass).

For an offset, you have to think about how to keep it locked up long term.  I did learn in an earlier TOD thread that burning biomass partially, and digging remaining charcoal back into the soil, does provide a fairly long-term incarceration ... but that is also a high effort activity.

You can also just leave the biomass in place and let it rot. As long as you continue to grow more biomass and keep layering, you gradually increase the carbon content of the underlying soil. Peat bogs are examples of how far this can go, but it can also be done by just grazing a pasture with livestock in such a way as to maximize the sod's growth.

I can imagine selectively cutting down older trees in a forest to maximize the total growth and carbon capture.

As I understand it (not an expert) it varies with the biome, but yes places like peat bogs are great carbon sinks.  Perhaps moisture is a factor.  It certainly looks as though in our dry southwestern forests the trees rot to dust, and the ground stays pretty much decomposed granite.  That's not at all like the peat-rich forests I in B.C., the Yukon, etc.  (Haven't been to Calgary.)
By the way, I did catch that you said fruit trees ... but my local lesson is that if you drive up through central California you see old orchards being replaced with new.  And when you get home, you find almond wood sold in bundles at the supermarket.  Fruit woods at the barbecue store.  Etc.

If we reclaim that fuel biomass now, you can be sure that aged orchards will be cycled the same way in poorer and more fuel starved nations.

Right but if you are flying a plane thats capacity is 1000 lbs and you have 2000lbs of canaries, will it take off if you keep half of them flying all the time?  Joke

A rotating orchard sequesters mor carbon than a field of grass and it produces some food.  

If they legislate to prevent trees from being cut down without permits that might help a little.

I really wish I could see a rotating forest/orchard as a sink, but I see it as neutral.  Maybe you can picture this better if you think of 20 fields, F(1) ... F(20).  In each year you cut and plant F(n), and next year F(n+1).  You've always got the same carbon in place, just concentrated in different fields.
But right now the carbon is floating in the atmosphere...
We can look up the Gt in standing forests to see how that ranks, but let me get back to what I really see as incarceration and then look at it from that angle.

The 8 Gt/yr of carbon that we release comes from deep underground.  It is the result of many years (millions?) of growth and incarceration.  Would we, in any plan to create cycled forrests/orchards, be equalling that previous growth?  

No.  A cycled forest only does one small one-time take-up in its inital growth.  That's what I take the article I quoted above to mean.  Beyond that, you have to be careful that you are not replacing a biosphere (like grases) that might be laying down deeper and deeper soils in true incarceration!

I love trees/forests/orchards.  I might even go help the Tree People plant some ... but if we want to allow ourselves to think that we are reversing global warming, we have to go beyond carbon-neutral as our best practices.  We have to think about how to get carbon locked up for centuries.

We need to put carbon "in the bank," a little more each year, and never take it out.

Hey, I found a big list of "urban forestry" folks.  Rather than paste it all in here:


I have always detested streetside trees for safety reasons. They obstruct visibility when placed within 10 feet of the road and are not forgiving enough when struck by a vehicle. It is part of the insanity of city governments to not only allow but actively engage in planting trees close to roads. Grasses and low shrubs could as much if not more CO2 per square meter than trees as well as providing a safety buffer.
They are there to make the city look nicer and they might help the air quality a little. If they are a security problem you can lower the speed limit. Planting trees along 70 km/h roads and up would indeed be realy stupid.
OTOH, the trees are vital for safety reasons.  Trees provide an important real and psychological barrier to trucks/cars leaving the roadway and running over pedestrians.  It's part of the insanity of automobile dependence that anything that might slow motorists must be removed.  If peak oil is a problem, we should be planting trees along all roads to discourage fast traffic and encourage public transit, walking, and biking.

For that matter, we should be putting traffic calming measures on all roads and taking out lanes and parking to make additional room for public transit and cyclists.

The roadside trees around here seem to be chosen for their tendency to grow up and naturally shed their lower branches.  That makes them a lot less of a visual obstacle than "shrubs."
Another thought is that we can take China as a model for future earth.  It would be kind of worst case because if everywere were populated 'managed' as agressively we'd lose a lot of biodiversity (eat it).

That said though, maybe some calc could be done on the fraction of plant Gt(s) captured there, and then compare it to other areas.  It could provide an upper limit - actually a number of limits as the Chinese output has been recorded through the many 'fuel ages.'

One argument against growing crops entirely or mainly for biofuels is that post peak oil, agriculture will struggle to grow enough food to feed the world due to reduced productivity resulting from increased fuel and fertliser costs.  However, consider what agricultural land is used for at present:

  1. A huge amount of good quality land is used to grow grain and fodder crops to feed meat-producing livestock.  Up to 10 units of fossil fuel energy are used to produce meat with one unit of food energy in it.  The same land used to grow crops to be eaten by humans directly could, even with mechanised farming, produce 10 food energy units.  Ok, not everyone wants to be a vegetarian, but if meat consumption were reduced more land would be available for growing foods, energy crops, etc.;

  2. Large amounts of land are used to grow non-food crops - tobacco, flowers, ornamental plants, vines, crops for making beer and spirits (well yes, cutting out those last three would be a last resort!);

  3. Lots of good land is used to grow luxury food crops - area-intensive things like asparagus and TODers could name lots of other examples of crops which take up a lot of space but don't produce many calories;

  4. So-called intensive ("mechanised" would be a better term) agriculture does not necessarily get the best yield per acre.  It's simply the cheapest at present because fossil fuel and fertiliser are cheap and with machines on huge farms you need few people working.  Many studies have shown that in most countries - especially USA - small farms get higher yield per acre than big ones.  With more people working each acre of land the crops get planted at more suitable times, get looked after better and harvested more effciently.  The ultimate expression of this is Permaculture where crops are intermixed, layered, etc. to give very high yields per acre, but nearly everything needs doing by hand. A post-peak world might see the reversal of the trend that has been going for centuries, of less and less people working on the land.

So there are things that can be done to free up agricultural land to grow more fuel crops, but some people might have to choose between steak and gas!
I agree with your point about the amount of waste in current agricultural production. I have never understood why people have such a powerful reaction against using land for fuel, when they seem to be OK with it being used for even less productive purposes - such as tobacco, as you noted.

However, I doubt that even in fairly drastic post-peak scenarios we will really not be able to produce fertilizer. Fertilizer is a very small portion of oil (or more often natural gas) produced. I suspect that as oil supply shrinks, fertilizer prices will go up, but production quantities will go down much more slowly. Rather they will displace a very small additional amount of other fuel uses.

I suspect that as oil supply shrinks, fertilizer prices will go up,

You just suspect?
Because natural gas prices are so high, fertilizer plants aren't producing fertilizer; either because they can't afford the natural gas, or because it's being sold off to higher bidders for other uses. This affects farmers and horticulturists including greenhouse vegetable growers.

How about this gem:
"Oil based pesticides are available, for now, as they were produced last winter. But restock, so I am told, will not happen. What is there is there and that is it..."

My point was that non-fuel uses of oil/natural gas are priced at on a different basis that fuel uses. Even if overall supply of oil does not increase, it does not imply that a shortage of  all derived products will follow.

The fact that Urban Survival has a pessimistic take on this doesn't exactly surprise me.

it does not imply that a shortage of  all derived products will follow.

ALL being the key word.   Because some of the derivied ARE in short supply due to manufactors stopping production.   Not to mention that the supply of money for most of us is not elastic, therefore compared to past usage patterns, a shortage exists.

The fact that Urban Survival has a pessimistic take on this doesn't exactly surprise me.

Interesting.  Rather than debunk the message sent to Ure and reported by him, you go for the messenger.  

I went by Home Depot an their pesticide aisle is in full stock.  If Farmers percieved a shortage would they not hoard thisa relatively cheap commodity?  Even if Petroleum was short in supply aren't manufacturers all on an equal field? Why would they not produce and raise the retail price?  $500 barrels I would expect that but we are only at $70 barrel. Not much when manufacturing a product that sells for over 20$ a gallon.
I went by Home Depot an their pesticide aisle is in full stock.  

And this addresses the claim:
""Oil based pesticides are available, for now, as they were produced last winter. But restock, so I am told, will not happen. ""

exactly how?   Not to mention the margin is better on consumer VS manufactor most of the time.  

If Farmers percieved a shortage would they not hoard thisa relatively cheap commodity?  

When did Home Depot start keeping 55 gallon drums?   What farmer would pay a 10X factor for SEVIN?

Even if Petroleum was short in supply aren't manufacturers all on an equal field? Why would they not produce and raise the retail price?

Well, that is why I was looking for comments that actually dig into the raw stock side and the production side.   Just saying 'it doesnt make sense ERGO not true'

Remember too, people are used to paying a low price for food, and farmers are expecting a low price.   So why would a farmer make the investment if s/he doesn't think they are going to see that money back?


 I don't think petroleum is a signifigant portion of the investment of producing pesticides (vs labor, overhead etc)

  I don't think pesticides are a large percentage of farming (labor fertilizer taxes equipment)

I don't think petroleum is a signifigant portion of the investment of producing pesticides (vs labor, overhead etc)

Assuming the 'they are not making any' IS true, perhaps the simplist explination is makers are waiting for the price of oil to drop to $35 a barrel.   wink

Remember too, people are used to paying a low price for food, and farmers are expecting a low price.   So why would a farmer make the investment if s/he doesn't think they are going to see that money back?

The unreasonable part is that all farmers are quiting farming and no pesticides are to be restocked.

I know local Swedish farmers who are not sowing this year due to being offered too low contracts to make a profit and not daring to take the chance that the spot market picks up this year. But they like the trend of ethanol plant building, some of them expect a better market fairly soon, especially as grain stocks seems to be in a decline. But my main point is that decisionsy vary, most farmers sow. That the supply chain should put out the lights and go home is not even on the map.

The sad part form an enviromental point of view is that manny of the fallow fields are not especially intensively cultivated and we could overall have much less nutritient runoff if they were farmed and the best fields farmed a little less intense. This would probably make sense with higher fertlizer cost.

If the trend with lower grain price do not change and the grain prices wont pick up there will probably be a delay of 5-10 years and then volontary mass planting of spruce, birch, hybrid poplar and so on. Exept for areas close to cities where redundant fields are used for hobby hourses and some golf courses. As have been the trend for decades. On the other hand rapeseed is getting popular. The question is what kind of biomass to grow, when you plant trees you make a decision for generations and get a major cost to get land usefull as a field again.

While rambling about Swedish farming I can mention that another sad trend is the abandonment and forest planting on meadows and pastures. Some meadow only plants have found a refuge on road verges(?) that are mechanically moved at the same season as hay have been harvested in meadowes for something like 2000 years. Milk production have been more or less constant wich means that the number of cows is drastically lower and you need >100 cows, 200-300 is normal for new herds, to afford employing someone to not work 12/7/365 yourself wich few people like to do nowdays and also to afford the capital needed for robots and other automation to keep the labour cost and work environment reasonable.

Cows still graze during summertime, it is even mandatory, but you dont send a herd of 150 high lactating cows to a scenic pasture with oak trees, you give them a new fresh slice of cultived field every day or two to graze on and then you move it as if it were a lawn to spread out the cow patties and get a perfect regrowth. But heifers and cows waiting to calf usualy graze old pastures if there are any nearby. But the muzzles(?) are overall way to few and to concentrated to maintain the old cultural landscape.

Raising cows for meat production helps some but beef is too cheap, it depends on people more or less doing it for tradition. Some even rent cows to graze their pastures.

And no we have no feedlot farms in Sweden. If I eat a Big Mac I know the meat comes from an animal who has been out in the summer grazing. This makes some of the McD hatered on the net a little harder to understand.

It has  been some years since I realy followd the field. I was a little to quick on how cows are fed and graze during lactation, how it is done and how much of the feeding is grazing might vary.

It is not especially long since stall based barns were superseeded with "free moving" barns where cows walk between computereized feeding stations, rubber resting mats and a milk robot as they like. (Some barns even have an autostarting rotating "car wash" brush to scratch against so that they brush themselves. A funny detail is that cows queue in pecking order. ) This might have removed some of the need for the summer exercise and thus lactating cows might not be sent out to graze.

And, of course, there's the high proportion of good agricultural land used to grow houses.
I don't know how far biofuels can go, even with an electrical stretch like E85 plugin hybrids charged overnight with nuclear or renewable electricity. To me ethanol subsidies have not been a giant mistake, more like an ill advised fling; coal-to-liquids on the other hand is more like a date with death. I think but I'm not sure that a better result could be largely obtained by replacing subsidies with a fossil CO2 cap-and-trade system, making sure not to repeat the mistakes the Europeans have made. The cap must be tight, like about half current emissions. It could mean that fossil derived nitrogen fertiliser becomes more expensive than compost or legume rotation. Home grown tractor fuel could work out cheaper than diesel from oil. Or maybe the whole system will collapse or clearly won't provide. We have to have the right incentives in place before we can know how big a role biofuels can play.
I have a pretty strong emotional reaction to this thread.

Best to let the numbers do the talking.

The net primary productivity of the best ecosystems (warm, wet, tropical sun) is 9000kcal/m2/year.  That is 36,000 btu.

Assume that your ecosystem is a magic imaginary engineer ecosystem and makes 100% biofuel.

There are 5,800,000 btu in a barrel of oil.  Best case scenario, you need 160m2 to "grow"a barrel of oil.  To grow 3x10^10 barrels of oil per year you need 4.8x10^12m2.  That is a square plot 2200km on each side - not counting access roads or housing for the workforce and their machines.  Don't forget that you also need a comparable piece of land to replace the natural gas and coal.

Ok, now you are going to destroy upwards of ten million square kilometers of the tropics to grow biofuels to run your machines.  After all, the thermal depolymerization of all the megafauna would be only a one time harvest.  This is a project that would inspire countless youths to be saboteurs at the very least.  As treebeard said, a wizard should know better.

Can we go back to talking about a system of maglev "rocket trains" in evacuated tunnels?  That was more realistic.

And a wizard would instead do, what?

I am afraid that magic is not available. All options with better moral then having people starve are reasonable.

All options with better moral then having people starve are reasonable.

That really depends on your point of view.  Homo sapiens is in an overshoot condition right now, so in the long run some level of population reduction is likely inevitable.  There will be some cost associated with delaying this, and that cost will be borne by other sectors of the bioshpere.  If there is a moral value to keeping other plant and animal species alive, then it may come into direct conflict with the morality of keeping people alive.

When you consider that the best we can probably hope to do in terms of maintaining human numbers amounts to nothing more than a temporary holding action, and this holding action will probably have permanent effects on the rest of the planet, it's pretty easy to make a case that not allowing human numbers to "restablilize downwards" is the greater immorality.

Let me know what city you are in, so I know where not to send relief.
Two points in followup:

First, "sending relief" implies local surpluses that can be redistributed.  It's easy to imagine scenarios where that's not the case.

Second, what makes the human species so special, other than the simple fact of our personal memberships?  Does morality only become a factor when our own outcomes are considered?  The same brains that give us the ability to direct our actions also give us the ability to consider the outcomes of those actions.  What is the morality of laying waste to the rest of the planet just to promote our personal survival?

Given the evident problems in trying to maintain our species with biofuels, I think even unpopular questions like this deserve a place in the dialogue.

We need to shoot for about a billion people, max.  After we go through the great famine, the great drowth, the great flood, the great heat waves, etc., etc., we should be about there. Our great, great grandchildren, if any, will thank us.

The trouble with all these schemes to free up more food is that the population just expands to take up the added surplus. In our attempt to prop up the human race, we will only ensure its demise.  Cut back, conserve, simplify, depopulate.  Do this consciously and with forethought or nature will do it for us.

I the the moral question is straightforward.  If you are not ready to put yourself forward as the first casualty, or your kin ... then all you are really doing is putting forward neglect as a way to advance your own (and your kin's) position.

I can certainly see the genetic drive behind it, but not the higer order morality.

It's certainly not a given that anyone's "higher order morality" is worth squat when it comes to survival value.
Yours is a specious comment. If we are in overshoot, then the surplus energy/food/other resources will reach an end eventually. At that time, we will have no choice but to limit who gets what. We can do that ourselves, via some mechanism that will no doubt be debated as immoral for decades afterwards or we can allow everyone to fend for themselves in a survival of the fittest world. The latter choice will no doubt have a high probability of destroying civilization as individuals strive for survival. The former choice might save civilization, if we deem that worth saving, however there will be moral fallout no matter what criteria we use in deciding who lives and who dies.

The only way to avoid this choice is to find a new source of resources that can support the population that is in overshoot. If you don't have a suggestion for that, then snide pseudo-moral remarks are not in order because you will have to make that choice eventually (or your descendants will). Given that we've exploited the entire planet, the conclusion seems inescapable that some population dieoff is inevitable.

Once again - your snide remark does nothing to address the current overshoot which will come home to roost eventually and which will force this choice to be made in one form or another.

Who's making specious arguments?  There is a lot hanging on "if we are in overshoot" there.  In particular, if you are going to put forward some form of "death of others" you better show that all non-violent (and non-neglectful) stratigies are insufficient for real conditions.

And moraly, I'd like to see this as less of a "death of foreign tribes" thing.  It is fair to point out that few people who recommend a "1 billion person earth" are ready to sign up (with their kin) for a "1 in 6" death lottery.

Given the extent to which our species is dependent on the energy content and multi-faceted utility of petroleum, I'd say that it's pretty much a given that we are in overshoot.

I doubt that in the coming turmopil anyone will get to decide that others will get to do the dying, except wherever actual warfare breaks out.  Our survival instincts will make sure that we all try to ensure that someone else goes first of course, but that should just result in a kind of nasty free-market competition for the shrinking resource base.

I don't think that most of us who foresee (not recommend, but foresee - there's a big difference) a billion-person species think that any of us will have much of a say in who lives and who dies.  We do recognize that in such a scenario, any individual (including us and our loved ones) has to a first approximation only a 15% chance of survival.  Would I volunteer my family?  No, but then I'm not volunteering anyone else either.  We won't need to.  Based on what I've seen so far we will have little choice in the long run but to let Mother Nature do her thing.

Further, this is not to say that even dieoff doomers like me think we shouldn't fight like hell for our species.  I do think that we need to do everything reasonable to survive.  But I also think that whenever we make a specific decision to do something like pave the earth with soybeans to run our cars, that it behooves us to give other species some consideration.  In that analysis, morality should play a role alongside expediency.

When you consider that the best we can probably hope to do in terms of maintaining human numbers amounts to nothing more than a temporary holding action, and this holding action will probably have permanent effects on the rest of the planet, it's pretty easy to make a case that not allowing human numbers to "restablilize downwards" is the greater immorality.

Maybe you can explain what "not allowing human numbers to 'restablilize downwards'" means.

It means "trying to stop the dieoff".

Simply put, I view attempts to maintain our species numbers at the expense of other species to be fundamentally immoral.  If we can do it without messing up the rest of the biosphere, fine. But at this point I haven't seen any realistic prospect of that.  Ethanol and biodiesel sure don't look promising when you pull back to look at the big picture.

We may be fairly close on a lot of our views here, but for what it's worth, I'm not going to stand up and ask anyone to suffer anything I would not want me or my family to suffer.  I am going do unto others as I would have them do unto me.
Neither would I ask that.  I do expect that there will be enough suffering to go around without asking for any  special distributions.  Our job is to minimize that suffering for everyone on the planet, human or not.
If we are in overshoot, then the surplus energy/food/other resources will reach an end eventually. At that time, we will have no choice but to limit who gets what.
You're assuming that there's no way to convert to living on income (rather than depleting capital) before then.  I know it's physically possible to do this; the question is, are we smart enough to do it, including the effort required to throw out the entrenched interests?
E-P, this is what vexes me also: seeing we have the ability to live off income but doubting if we can agree to get there...(without frying the planet)
Thoughtful ad hominem attack there.  If you cannot use logic, get off the board.
Contradictory complement there ;-)
For me it is important to keep the rest of the biosphere and species intact sice they will be important for the well being and happiness of future generations of humans. All of it wont be intact, some parts will be "strip mined" in some way or another.

The main problem is to get from today to a long term sustainable and culturally rich future withouth mass suffering on the way there.

I think the best we can do is a holding action with both gains and losses while we develop technology and culture that is sustainable. Compare this with solving enviromental problems where we both have solved problems and new ones.

The main problem is to get from today to a long term sustainable and culturally rich future withouth mass suffering on the way there.

Fair enough.  Everyone (even curmudgeons like me) hopes we can figure out a way to do that.  I am reminded, though, of a sign seen in many production shops (garages, print shops etc.).  It says "My work can be fast, good or cheap.  You can only pick two."

All options with better moral then having people starve are reasonable.

Consider the number of people who have more power than the average world citizen and how many of said members will create long term problems for a short term gain.

Now consider these simple equations:

Energy used = Energy produced

Energy used = number of people X rate of use

Consider that 'quality of life' is tied to rate of energy use.

Now ask yourself this:
If the people in power are willing to do whatever 'evil' for  their own short term gain, why would they not look to balance the energy equation by reducing the number of people just so they can keep their energy rate up?


I appreciate your post, as you effectively quantify the qualitative misgivings I instinctively have whenever I hear talk of biofuels.  If you could expand on that a bit with realistic scenarios rather than best-case ones, I would appreciate it also

I didn't say I thought it was a good idea to grow fuel crops instead of food.  In fact it's about as bad an idea as any when millions are starving, climate change and soil erosion are going to ruin millions of acres of cropland, SUVs are still being sold to people most of whom could get around perfectly well with a 1 tonne car, suburbia and out-of-town malls are still sprawling and most of us live in badly insulated homes.  However, the points made above mean that lack of fossil fuel for agriculture does not mean millions have to starve to death (note "have to").

And here's another one, the ITER experimental fusion reactor: "If all goes well with the experimental reactor, officials hope to set up a demonstration power plant at Cadarache (France) by 2040."  

It also says that if all goes well, fusion may be producing "10-20% of our power by the end of the century".  A huge "if" and how many tens of billions will have gone into it?  Will we even have energy to build the things!?

Article at:

I can't see how millions/billions of people starving to death can be prevented. As an example, in Somalia, one of the poorest countries, women have an ave of 6.76 children. Millions of people who are starving and unable to feed themselves are reproducing at a fast clip. It seems like the eventual mass die off might be inevitable.
This is one of the points that "Danial Quinn" got wrong in
his ISHMAIL series.  His point was that with a food shortage
people would quit procreating, when in fact as you have just
shown, the more starving they are the more children they
have in the hope that at least one will survive.  I see
this every day in nature.  Out here in the part of the west
where I live, we have been a drouth condition for the past
five years, and longer.  Where I live, we have had less than
ten inches of rain, in the past 3 years, and most of that
fell in a few thunderstorms.  This year, the Mesquite bushes
that are here put on an over abundance of seed.  I asked a
biologist about this and he told me that was the way nature
works,in a drouth.  The more stress the plant has, ie; no water it knows or thinks it's dieing, and puts out enough seed to keep the species going.
Yes, and the converse is that something about Western culture and/or massive energy use discourages a rising birthrate. Hence the many nations whose birthrate is falling (e.g.,Italy, Spain, Japan,etc.)  Russia is a more extreme example, since it suffers both from a longterm declining birthrate and a very low life expectancy.  The country recently passed ecomomic incentives for births.
Why not take a shot at fusion? Long odds that it will help in time, sure, but it costs much less than war.
See doctorbob's post below (from BBC) concerning AD 2040 date for a working reactor.
Too little (being put into research), too late (the SHTF long before then).  

The old adage seems appropriate:
"Fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be."

Now I don't know enough to say how much that flow could be increased, nor how bad the resulting environmental impacts would be.

Well, you could start by observing that our current flow rate is already causing massively unsustainable degradation of ecosystems all over the world (via overharvesting, deforestation, desertification, islandisation, soil erosion and aquifer depletion) and then make the not unreasonable assumption that increasing that flow by a factor of three isn't likely to improve matters. We're already facing very serious environmental problems even if you completely discount climate change - and of course, the impacts of climate change are likely to make matters worse.

I am afraid that magic is not available. All options with better moral then having people starve are reasonable.

Well, that's a question of timescales, isn't it? We might be able to put off such drastic consequences for a generation or two, but if they then come back with a vengance then we've not only made matters worse in terms of human suffering (by increasing the number of people affected), but we've also managed to destroy many additional species and ecosystems.

You're right - magic is not available. The idea that we can accelerate the already unsustainable exploitation of our environment by a factor of three with no adverse consequences smacks somewhat of magical thinking.

We have to start regarding our natural ecosystems in much the same way you would regard the life support systems on a small spacecraft, and stop tinkering until we really know how it all works!

We have to start regarding our natural ecosystems in much the same way you would regard the life support systems on a small spacecraft, and stop tinkering until we really know how it all works!

Thinking of our planet as a garden or a spacecraft is the right mindset but we can not abstain from tinkering until we know how everything works.

We need to start solving the more pressing problems ASAP and tinkering with successes and failures gives faster accumulation of knowledge. And a lot can be done with the knowledge our culture already have. But it would of corse be good to limit implementation of wild and risky ideas to small areas.

Yeah, I see your point. The problem is how do we tell the wild and risky ideas from the sane and sensible ones? For example, "traditional" ploughing vs no-till - which is the riskier and more experimental? Some would say that no-till is a radical, untested idea, others would point out that ploughing has only been practiced for a few thousand years whereas no-till seems to have worked OK in nature for hundreds of thousands of years. It can be very difficult to tell definitively.
That is a key question with no simple answer. I am only sure that we must try, refining the answers will take millions of man years of work.
Yeah, "spaceship earth" is a metaphore due for a comeback.

In my opinion, the first thing you do when you think you might be in trouble is to slow down on consumption ... that's the least damaging 'action' and the safe thing to do while you figure out which (irreversible?) changes to make.

"Solving pressing problems now" is one reason I propose adding aerosols (H2SO4 is a good one) to the stratosphere to block some sunlight and halt global warming until we can pull the greenhouse gases back out.

Face it, if we get much further into positive-feedback loops it won't matter what we try to do.  We've got to act now.  A few billion dollars a year to place a few million tons of H2S in the stratosphere is a drop in the bucket.

"We have to start regarding our natural ecosystems in much the same way you would regard the life support systems on a small spacecraft, and stop tinkering until we really know how it all works!"

Well, but that's not amongst our reasonably likely options, is it?  We have the planet we have, we have the populations that we have, with their various current cultural expectations (for affluence and for family size), and we have a little bit of influence on which directions things move in. So the question is what are the best directions to promote moving off in?

It's certainly true that more intensive exploitation of the biosphere has risks to the soil and to other species.  I hope to quantify those issues better in future.  But what's pretty clear now is that the risks to those entities of not altering our current climate trajectory are pretty damn huge, too, right?

Nice work, Stuart. It's useful to see the charts gathered from worldwide statistics.

As I see it, biofuels is what we shall have when the fossil fuel runs out. But I don't see them replacing current usage patterns nor supporting a global commodity market.

I see the future of biofuels as occupying a niche in the inevitable relocalization of all commerce and human activity. So instead of moving enormous 'oilbergs' of biodiesel or ethanol across oceans, we shall be producing a few gallons here and there around the farm, and using it locally.

do biofuels suck for deep fundamental unchangeable reasons?

When your metric is oil where you shoot'n at some food, up from the ground comes a bubbl'n crude of course biofuel looks bad.   When you compare the photon -> human useable energy path, biofuels look bad too.

Where biofuels make sense is as a way to 'fix' electrical energy from excessive renewable power generation.   Most bio-processes need additional physical prcoessesing be it a screw press to get seed oil, airflow to dry the grass (or whatever), grinder to get the particle sizes small enough for bacteria or yeast or fungus or whatever bio-process will be used, pumps, heating, cooling.   Any process that can be started or stopped w/o effect is well suited to act as a load leveler  (oil presses, some drying stages, grinding operations are examples of load leveling applications)    By using excessive renewable power this way, solar energy can be stored to be released as 'pulses' when needed.   Like, say, to make the fuel for rockets so weather sats can be launched.  (What farmer would not support keeping weather sats running?!?)

The "downside" is the farmstead becomes a producer of fuel watts instead of food calories and could break down the present large agra business model.    

Butyl alchohol might not be a 'loser', as you don't need to distill the product.  And as part of the old ABE process (acetone, Butyl, Ethyl), the ways to make it are well known.

These people have been playing with butyl

A lot of the plants that you would use need to stay as living plants and not harvested to make fuels for us to burn.   Vast portions of the Plants are in the form of trees.  Another thing we have to look at is the Coming "dust bowl" weather the High Plains are having.  Add that to the need to use plants in those areas for a Fuel source and You get a bad mix.  

Brazil is in a Tropical Rainforest Region.  Tropical Rainforests do not have great soils after the first few years of clearing them to use as Cane plantations or crop areas.  The lushness is because of the Bio-matter on the forest floor. Using to much of the Bio-matter to make fuels would turn some areas into wastelands because the bio-matter needs to stay in place not used to get your hummer to the mega-plex to watch the latest Holly-bio-unit Cleb-fest.

As a side note:
 Most cities and a lot of the less informed homeowners cut grass and rake leaves and put the bio-matter at the curbside to get hauled to a landfill. Wasting their own soil's and landscape's greatest prize the bio-matter produced on their own land that should be used to enrich the soil, so they don't have to use so many fossil-fuel imputs to make a green lawn again.

 Also we could ban-mowing of lawns and save many millions of gallons of gasoline a year.  Not to mention totally destroy most part time and full time jobs in lawn care, But they could go into sugar-cane production as farm hands and do it the human way instead of the machine way.

Actually, landfills might be one of the few things we are doing with bio-products that qualify as century+ carbon incarceration (if we don't dig them up and burn them).

Let the insulting begin!

Don't repeat yourself to no purpose. You already saw the more relevant graphs for the last 500k years.
Sorry if you were hoping for something more insulting.
The last 500K years is about 0.01% of the planet's history, 600M years is about 13%. Why is considering a sample of 0.01% considered more relevant than a 13% sample? Especially when we are still currently in an Ice Age, which is a very atypical condition for the Earth.

In a few hundred years we will have certainly burnt every fossil fuel we are ever going to, but even the effects of that will only appear as a tiny blip in an ice core 500,000 years from now.

If we are going to worry about climate change, we should worry  about the next glacial period. A glacier 1km thick over London makes a few feet of water look like child's play.

because the one with 500k years was done with a more accurate method to determine the temp and c02. the father back you go the less accurate it is because they have to rely on indirect indicators for the temp and c02 that could easily be skewed by other things.
farther not father..
Nope, the accuracy of the 600M year data is really no worse than the 500K year data. They both use indirect methods. And what makes you sure that the last 500K years is not skewed by something? We can only be sure of all the effects over the last few hundred years when written records have been kept.

Why should we prefer the last 500K years which just happens to be when we are in an Ice Age, over the vast majority of time when the Earth was not in an Ice Age? If there is an abnormal period, it is the current very low temperature.

I really don't get why people are so desperate to preserve a state of the Earth that has existed for only 0.01% of the time. I think there is a strong anthropocentric bias here - people want to preserve the state that is beneficial for our current human civilization. The Earth and it's ecosystem has, and will, survive far more extreme variations than anything even we are creating now.

I have some really bad news for you. Our civilisation has bloomed during an interglacial period - an abnormal period within an abormal period. Our current civilization will be wiped out when the next glacial period hits (maybe 10,000 years time), and humans may well become an endangered species again. It seems trivial to worry about a few extra feet of water over the next hundred years. Sea level has already gone up some 120m since the end of the last glacial period.

If we can't cope with a small sea level rise now, how are we going to cope with 120,000 years of glaciers?

I defer to the experts - but I suspect that the long time frame plot of temp and CO2 while interesting, does not take into account other effects.

1/ The Sun was less bright in the past.
2/ The continents were arranged differently which would probably affect things like continental interior climate => plant distribtuions => albedo.

In fact checking in at wiki we find that there were in fact no (or few) plants on land 500 million years ago! Just bare earth - so that extra CO2 might explain why the planet was warm with a higher albedo than now?!

I note that your graph is a lot smoother then some alternatives for CO2 here and the temperature proxy delta O18 here

I guess that this just goes to show that any three variable collection of data, out of context, can show anything... or nothing.

Sorry, this post refers to lads post above.
My goodness! what a wonderful pile of information to chew on.  My screen didn't show all of the image, so I linked and printed the whole thing. Thanks.
Aha!! We are about to become crude oil. Notice the similarities in CO2 and temperature readings between today and the Permian eras (lots of oil was formed back then, yes?). What will they call us? Any ideas?
It is very misleading to post such graphs. On this timescale like this the other factors affecting the Earth temperature - e.g. sun activity, insulation, Earth albedo, distibution of oceans and land, water vapor etc. etc. have most certainly played much more central role than CO2. In the timescale we are talking about e.g. 100 years you have to make comparisons with something you are sure that corresponds to the current Earth conditions. If you look at it the graph is meaningless to prove your concept.

From the graph posted the only period that looks like resembling current Earth is the middle of the Permian. It could be correct to compare our current point to it or it could be not - this needs detailed proof too. But if we suppose that it is a correct comparison, it is worrisome that in the warming that began in the middle of the Permian CO2 vs temperature correlation is more than obvious.

Okay, from this graph, one would conclude that as little as 30 million years ago the average annual mean temperature of the earth was a full 18 degrees Farenheit hotter than it is today.
Utter bullsh*t.  
There are tens of thousands of species of plant and animal on the planet that have been around much longer than that, and yet the much smaller temperature change at the end of the Permian period (tiny uptick visible around 248 million years ago) wiped out 95% of the world's species?

Laherrere was unable to even show where this data supposedly originated.
As Laherre says in Part 1 of his presentation:
"I am not sure how to find and to tell the truth, but for me a graph is worth a thousand words, but as long as data is not flawed! Reliability of data is the big problem."

I read somewhere that the best ice core measurement of CO2 levels goes back only 650,000 years. How does Laherre's graph get to go back millions of years?
By the way, I endeavored to find the source for Laherrere's graph.  He cites "Gerhard, 2004" but doesn't provide a bibliography that I can find.  Googling suggests this is Lee Gerhard, but I can't figure out where it was published.

Maybe it was a dream, but I recall writing the same exact question in those words --anyway; how does Laherre manage to measure temperature & CO2 levels from millions of years ago when there were no humans or thermometers or CO2 meters around back then? Critically questioning TODders want to know.
Not sure; but I think they use the "ice cores" from
Antartica.  I read it somewhere, probably in National
Geographic at one time.
Antartica's ice is only a few million years old. It had a temperate climate as recently as 200 million years ago, thanks to continental drift.
See for yourself:

Stepback, yes, I remembered you'd asked this pertinent question previously and just reasked the same question, since this is just a repost of the same chart.

I can think of some ways to do it:
  1. CO2 - analysing tiny bubbles of air captured in fossils, or in ancient rocks that can be dated
  2. Temperature - if the captured air contains traces of water vapor, it can be analysed using the classic O16/O18 method - the same one used for determining the temperatures for the last 450K years from the Vostok Antarctic station.

I guess because of the small amounts of especially H20 the method would be inaccurate, but it would give some rough idea.
Quite a bit of speculation built into this response. First, we don't know how Laherre did it, if at all. Second, even if one finds a gas bubbled sealed in a date-able rock, it is a large set of assumptions to get to the point where the gas bubble is deemed a satistically fair "sample" of the Earth's atmosphere in the given time period. The gas may have originated from a source other than the Earth's atmosphere, i.e. outgassing from microbial debris also trapped in the rock and now disintegrated.

The ice core samples go back only 650,000 years and they were proclaimed as going the furthest back ever for ice core sampling technique.

My aim was only to show that you must not dismiss people's claims a priori, just because you don't know how they reached to them.

When scientists publish their studies they bet their reputation on being able to prove their claims; I find it hard to believe that Laherre made up his data just to show there is no CO2/temp correlation.

(like someone else said a little bit of googling would have saved this discussion)

"Critically questioning TODders" should simply go find the research, rather than speculate about the source or methods of the data! I don't believe Laherre created the chart, I've seen it before on the web but my source got deleted.

With 10 minutes googling, I've found that the CO2 data comes from a model called GEOCARB, Berner has a paper on it GEOCARB III: A REVISED MODEL OF ATMOSPHERIC CO2 OVER PHANEROZOIC TIME (may well be the same paper Gerhard used). There are a number of ways of finding paleoclimate data previous to ice cores, e.g. from sediments, this information is easily found on the web.

Haven't found the source for temp yet, but I am sure it has good science behind and isn't just some guy drawing on a chart ;-)

One of the problems with the climate debate is that because it is so politically charged a lot of real science gets obscured, and people make categorical statements about climate that aren't really justified. It's not that the science is uncertain, although there are still questions to be answered, but the science is more nuanced than the for/against positioning allows. The science that filters into the public debate is really the tip of the iceberg.

Temperature data from the past is mostly derived from oxygen isotope ratios in marine carbonate fossils.  The most sensitive and definitive of these are microscopic species of foraminifera that lived at or near the sea surface, and upon death sank to the bottom.  The chemistry of measurement is not overly complex.  For a good explanation try this reference:


The derived temperatures naturally become less accurate in older sediments.  Forams aren't found much before early Mississippian, but other larger invertebrates go back to the Camrian.  The process doesn't work, of course, if the carbonate structure has been replaced over time.

I don't know what might by measured from pre-Cambrian strata except calcareous algae, and also only if unaltered.
Now that I have leafed through M. Laherrere, I must commend the scope of the work.  But I'm not sure what it all means, yet I would hesitate to think it not relevant. I do like graphs and color though.


My bad: I forgot the www. in the reference above.

-- Mort.

Slow down.
I certainly appreciate this graph considerably more since I finished reading James Lovelock's work on the Gaia hypothesis.    The point is that global life makes the planet inhabitable for more life.  Stuff changes -- like the sun gets hotter as it ages, and yet global temperture remains fairly well bounded in the hospitable range. (Hospitable at least for bacteria!)  Lovelock might say that, as you can see, we are reaching the point where further reduction in CO2 will not be possible to compensate for increasing solar input(after the present CO2 blip due to humans) and the system will need to readjust itself in some other way. The cap at a global average of 22C is interesting.  Does anyone understand that mechanism?  We are probably driving ourselves hard toward that state as we speak.  That's 8C warmer than today.  
/speculation on
OK, here is my guess for the 22C cap:
With increasing tempuratures water vapor increases. Water vapor tends to increase solar forcing on one hand (1) but also increase cloud cover and Earth albedo on the other hand (2). As average air humidity moves closer to 100% factor (2) will become predominant. At some point the two must balance against each other and cap further increase of the temperature.

Probably someone can do the calculations but 22C looks a reasonable one.
/speculation off

Interesting points you make Stuart, but exponential population growth is the 8000 lb gorilla, and our all technotopian ideas will be stomped into pieces by its huge, furry feet.  We will have to face up to Diminishing Returns and Disintegrating Biosphere very soon.  Yet, I agree that there is a ton of slack presently, especially when it comes to using crops to feed "food animals."  If only the "free" market really was so, meat and dairy would be expensive as hell and thus demand dustruction would occur.  Strangely, the result of a huge reduction in animal product consumption this would actually increase population growth!  Just consider that about 5000 people die every day in just the US from heart disease, which is completely preventable via a vegan or near-vegan diet (see the peer-reviewed work of Dr. Dean Ornish, etc).  In other words, imo the nutrional science clearly shows that most deaths in industrialized countries are diet-related.  What a sick irony - a switch over to a plant based diet would increase overpopulation by keeping a lot more people alive and consuming :)
Still, I think the end results would be positive.

But to agree with you a bit, I don't think we have tapped into sustainable agriculture very much.  Using the Grow Biointensive Method for example, would be an enormous improvement in yield, supposedly (needing just 4000 square ft per person/year)?  And on top of that, human bodies are quite adept at thriving on many less calories than is consumed in the industrial world.  So while the calorie graph may be reassuring, insufficient calorie consumption is still rife in poor countries, because we humans don't distribute things equally.

If we keep reproducing exponentially, nothing can be done to stop the suffering from accelerating.  Period.  Damn, that Albert Bartlett lecture is a real slap in the face from reality, and perhaps I will regret watching it - knowledge torments me, that bastard.

Congrats on a meaningful and thoughtful discussion.
An early post in this topic discussed verticality and the importance of the two feet or so of the sirface soil layer.  At present that soil is being badly abused -- almost sterilized -- by the routines of factory farming, particularly as with cotton, corn and soy beans.  Essentially it's a like an open-air, dry hydroponic process.  The soil is being reduced  to little more than the physical support for the plants and their roots.  The essential organic matter is mostly gone, and the support troops, the helpful insects, bacteria and fungi, have been decimated by the heavy dosing of toxic chemicals.  That makes it susceptible to being washed away more quickly.

My father-in-law was a county ag agent, and until he died he groused about "mining" the soil.  He was an advocate of processes like "no-till," which results in retaining much of the accumulated "waste" to house and feed those soil support troops, while they helped to restore tilth.  There is value in re-using such waste in that way, and in growing and turning under off-season cover crops, value that cannot easily be calculated in $ or energy balance.

The real need is to reduce the burning of fossil fuel, but we are stuck with the realities present socioeconomic patterns.  I favor biofuels as a stopgap while we reduce dependence on foreign oil, and while we retain as much as possible of domestic oil where it is in the ground.  Replacing the present petroleum-based lifestyle with one more sustainable, such as rail-bus-electric (by whatever means) vs auto-truck-oil, is a task that will take decades.  Do we have decades -- or just a few years?  It's a daunting prospect, but we can't give up.  The alternatives are worse.

-- Mort.  

Re "mining" the topsoil & "no till " methods.

The plant roots need oxygen; so no till requires the biomass to keep down compaction , allowing oxygen in during dry periods. In a liquid fuels scarce world the agricultural biomass is needed for many reasons , where it came from
As stated previously re natural ecosystems " agriculture is artificial". Our crops require quite specialized & maintained growing environments.

Re: "It's also not obvious that there isn't scope for innovations to increase that 120Gt top line over time (especially in a world with more CO2 in the air to start with)."

Numerous studies (too lazy to cite right now) have shown that CO2 fertilization has limits and even in some cases actually impairs primary production above certain levels. In almost all cases, the primary limiting factor is soil nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).

I have some other comments as well. For plants and animals undergoing the stresses of a warming climate, the basic rule of thumb is change (through adaptive mutations), move (migration of species) or die. Again, numerous studies have pointed out how the range of species is moving in response to the climate. Adaptation is not an option in the short timeframe (a few hundred years) we're looking at--except if you're bacteria or a fungus. Furthermore, large carbon sinks like the Boreal regions of the high Northern latitudes and the various rainforests (the Amazon, SE Asia) are in trouble and there are serious indications of dieoff. Land use changes must also be taken into consideration everywhere on the Earth. Species have difficulties in moving their range in a human dominated environment. We are currently in the midst of a mass extinction. However, this is happening quickly (in Geological Time) but slowly enough such that humans do not notice it--but evolutionary biologists do.

We might expect land-based gross (and net) primary production to decrease in the future. Another example involves predicted (by climate models) droughts in primary food production areas in continental interiors (eg. the American midwest) and the Amazon has already experienced unusual drought conditions just recently.

I admire your attempt to find some hope going forward but this is a good example of how the twin problems of Peak Oil and Climate Change interact. Stll, biofuels are more helpful than fossil fuels generally and any contributions we can get from them are better than nothing.

nice post, best,


The rate we are going, biofuels will be the way of the future.  Oats and hay for the horses and donkeys, wood for cooking.  This is a low risk strategy, and has been shown to be workable over a longer period of time than any other solution.  I believe this should work for populations of up to about 750M worldwide, although that number may need revising downwards if the climate has been adversely affected by out fossil fuel binge.
I wish I knew more about horse husbandry and organic agriculture instead of computer programming.
Your on;   I wish I knew more about computer programing
than I do about farming, and animal husbandry.
I'm not sure that this analysis tells us much that is useful, other than showing that we can't prove the infeasibility of agricultural biofuels if we zoom out far enough.  As Kyle's switchgrass article demonstrates, the devil is in the details.

On the other hand, no mention has been made so far of bio-oil from algae, which is a far more productive source than any terrestrial plant (as well as an effective way to sequester carbon).  If you're going to talk about what can be done (as opposed to what will be done), leaving algae out of the picture is a pretty serious oversight.

I agree.  Of all the biofuel sources I've read about, only algal biodiesel seems to have enough long-term potential to be worth bothering with.  Even it has production issues, but the potential is so enormous that it needs to be worked on first thing last week if not earlier.
Don't know much 'bout biology
But I did find this web site on energy from algae.

Seems that unlike land-based plants that grow as solid matter rooted to the ground (and thus needs to be cut --meaning expending energy to cut & gather the land-based plant matter), microscopic water-based plants can be flowed through pipes, making them much easier to handle in the overall processing picture.

Brazilian ethanol has reportedly got an EROEI of around 10.

Ethanol for fuel has to be distilled from a water-ethanol mixture. Robert Rapier explains that this uses 40% of the energy in the resulting product. Given this, how could Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane possibly have an EROEI of 10? Have they found a much less energy intensive method of separating the ethanol and water? If so, why isn't it being used in corn ethanol plants here? If they burn biomass for distillation, shouldn't this be considered an energy input?
They are drying the sugar cane residue and using it as a fuel for the destilation process, which dramatically increases EROEI. I think the same could be done with ethanol from corn, but I guess it is not economical by now.
Just a few  comments from the screen porch, where I am enjoying a lovely spring day in the foothills of the eastern mountains.  My son-in-law just finished bailing and storing the hay from the few bits of relatively flat land we have.  He used 15 gallons of diesel.  He could have used about 8 of his bales of hay and done the same job with any one of several well-known technologies.  Farm machines need not be using diesel.

Any biomass and lots of other stuff going to landfills could be easily turned into solid fuels that do a great job of space heating and displace some of the things used in buildings that could go into vehicles,  Not every fuel has to  be a liquid.  Silver bb's add up.

RR talked about the big energy cost of separating ethanol from water.  What about multiple effect evaporation?  What about parallel use of heat for both evaporation and other uses already going on?  What about----?

Point being you can grab a technical problem all kinds of ways, and if you are serious, you should  go ahead and grab at all of them, and winnow out the best ones.  (Pay? who said anything about pay?)

I have 4 grandkids.  If everybody had no more than that, we would  be slowly sliding down in world population with out need for genocide or lemming leaps.  Four grandkids does not make me feel deprived  the least bit. No saintliness required.

People have found that the right propaganda in the form of soap operas has a powerful effect on reproduction- and surely other things  might work as well.

I was born when Hoover was president.  Been around long enough to see it is silly to think in terms of fractions of generations-things keep going.  Sure, they can plunge off a cliff- I think of Hitler- but the best and only thing to do is to keep plugging away at whatever is your thing.  It all adds up in the long run.  

Sure, in the long run we are all dead, but not all at once.

It is not just the evil men do that lives after them.  EVERYTHING they (and women too) do does.  So I say, just go for it- how it turns out, ain't no way to know- don't fret on it too much.

RR talked about the big energy cost of separating ethanol from water.  What about multiple effect evaporation?  What about parallel use of heat for both evaporation and other uses already going on?  What about----?

I am convinced that there are more efficient ways to do it. I am not sure what the limit is, but we need to encourage ethanol producers to become more efficient and not waste our natural gas endowment. One way I can think of is to substantially increase the tax rate on all fossil fuels. Any "renewable" energy source having a poor EROI is going to become uneconomical because their fuel costs will rise sharply, and this will place a premium on efficiency gains.


Agree with all that.  Well stated, as always. Hey, somebody with entire brain still intact please post thermodynamic  lower limit to energy required for ethanol-water separation.
Ok so I tried something and it didn't work.  Would someone tell me how to get out of the HTML mode once I get in it.
ie doing a block quote, I got my comment into the block
quote, but everything else went into new block quotes. So
once again, once you get in, how do you get out?
Try this:

<blockquote>your text goes here</blockquote>

Your 'Comment formatting:' mode needs to be HTML or Auto. Plain text mode (like this comment) ignores HTML tags. Make sure to put a '/' before the 2nd blockquote.

Scroll down.
Sounds like you are trying to edit your "preview" copy. You can't do that. You can only edit in your edit window.

Probably you forgot to include an end-of-blockquote tag:

< /blockquote >

I got it;   I didn't put the  / in front of blockquote. Is
that what cuts it off?  I already see the answer to that
question below.
Yes, in most html a "word" starts something and "/word" stops it.  In greater-than/less-than brackets of course.  That's how you do bold witth the word "b" and itallics with "i".
Growing Algae in seawater pumped in from ocean, fed sewage from the city and CO2 from a power plant, easily produces 15000 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year.  (See www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html)
About 35000 square miles of ponds in the desert southwest (of about 1 million square miles of desert available)would entirely replace dino-oil use by US.  This without taking up cropland or fossil fuels.  This is entirely renewable and CO2 friendly.  Why is nobody talking about this?
Engineering issues behind large scale algae farming discussed here http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2006/1/16/155759/653
I share MicroHydro's reaction to this thread: Very depressing and disturbing.  The biosphere is already under enormous strain--faltering in some places already.  And here we are trying to calculate how we can make the biosphere support an ever-growing population.    We are trying to appropriate more and more of the biomass to ourselves.

Every successful species, if unopposed, will propagate until it exhausts its environment, crashing its own population. Unfortunately, we are omnivores.  

Simply put: We must propagate less and know that growth is limited and may have to be reduced.   What business model will accept this? What economic model will accept it?

I really do not like the solutions that are slowly being forced on us.  For TOD to take a position on population growth seems repugnant, counter-productive, outside the realm of its concern, sure to bring hostile reactions from many quarters, and maybe ill-advised from a PR point of view.  But, I see no way around it.

I suspect, however, that in the long run, groups with such divergent interests as Family Planning and Peak Oil will find common cause.  Many such groups exists, isolated from one another, concerned only with their own battles.  They will come together at some point.
Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?

United Nations projections indicate that over the next 50 years, the populations of virtually all countries of Europe as well as Japan will face population decline and population ageing. The new challenges of declining and ageing populations will require comprehensive reassessments of many established policies and programmes, including those relating to international migration.

Focusing on these two striking and critical population trends, the report considers replacement migration for eight low-fertility countries (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States) and two regions (Europe and the European Union). Replacement migration refers to the international migration that a country would need to offset population decline and population ageing resulting from low fertility and mortality rates.

A better answer than child rewards, perhaps?  I'm sure Russians would enjoy a neighborhood Salvadorian restaurant as much as I do.  (Did I mention that papusas are tasty?)

Darn, should be "pupusas"

We have a pupuseria down the road from us in Ottawa, believe it or not.  Wonderful things they are, as is the other El Salvadoran cooking at the same restaurant.

I haven't really thought this out, but it seems like the solution to the resource depletion problems is not to rearrange the people on the planet...in the case of the US, to import more people who will adopt the ridiculously wasteful lifestyle.  We are still using more energy than anyone else, and our birthrate is right about at replacement level. Who says the "ageing and decling populations" requires a solution, anyway?
I think the idea is twofold.  First, it heads off people who call for renewed growth in developed countries.  You accomplish your desire for young workers in a population-neurtal way.  Second, I expect the folks that migrate to those wealthy nations will follow the same curve themselves.  Low birth rates are, as I understand it, a response to first-world cost/benefit situations.

(Some knuckleheaded cable news anchor said just this month that Americans should start having more babies in response to our immigration trends!)

Just to be clear, I think it is possible that we are on a natural curve toward lower global population.  If that is true, shifting (and lifting) populations hastens it.

Not so.  World population in expected to increase,  reaching 9 billion by 2050.


The complaint about aging populations is merely an economic one: Gee, why should they be getting any of the pie?

As a matter of cold hard fact, U.S. non-immigration population growth is at one million a year.  If you add in immigration (excluding illegals, I guess), you  get 3 million plus a year.

The population growth should frame every discussion concerning the future.  I am surprised that TOD has never approached this issue directly.

Economic models rely on consumption growth--i.e., population growth. You have heard some of my criticism of "greed" as a driving economic force--not all.  When energy depletion and global warming take hold, economic theory will have to change.  The purpose of a company may not be simply "to make more profit."  Profit itself will have to be redefined.  What a stock market looks like then should be interesting--as well as the whole financial contraption for making more money.

I think the reason I'm cautiously optimistic is that in my youth all countries had expanding populations.  Now "over the next 50 years, the populations of virtually all countries of Europe as well as Japan will face population decline and population ageing."  Somehow, that feels like turning a corner.

I think the humane approach to the population problem is to understand and encourage such trends.

That census graph indicates just the opposite.  

I know what you are saying; I have heard the same thing as well.  But when I check on actual population growth, I see the same thing.  True, part of the "growth" is longer life times.

Doesn't this one show China peaking:


I think we'd really need to see a history of those "earth population projections" and then see if they are (as we hope) being revised downward.

(Admittedly China took a less humane approach to the problem.)

I had a post on population issues here.

I'm coming in late with a post although I've glanced at the thread off and on today so I've stuck it at the end.

It pisses me off when a bunch of people who don't have the capacity to do squat for their own survival pontificate about what should be done to assure the continuation of their lifestyle.

I'll be brief.

  1.  You can't take "biomass" for "biofuel" without replacing the major and trace nutrients, that is, P, K, CA, S, Mg, Zn, B, Cu, Mo.  I'm not listing these to impress anyone with my knowledge of soils but rather because crops need these elements.  So, are the residues going to be trucked back to the farm at some kind of energy cost?  And, then spread by the farmer with equipment he doesn't have at additional energy cost?

  2.  I'm not even going to get into the soil rhizosphere and organic matter.  A good link is


FWIW, it's a few hundred pages of excellent information.

  1.  No one is set up to "harvest" biomass unless they spend a lot of money.  Rice growers might since they can't burn in CA (well, they rotate burning) as well as some wheat farmers who bale the straw.  But no one is going to spend upwards of $100k to buy some kind of attachment for their combine to glean corn stalks.

  2.  Nonusable wood, what was it called in a post, "waste biomass" I think, is a looser too.  With the exception of pine plantations in the south with flat terrain, timber is harvested from hills and mountains.  I live in timber country and there is no way in hell that "slash" is going to be dragged to a central point, chipped (because that is the only way to move it efficiently) and hauled off with a positive ERoEI.

My wife just came in to say it is already 2 hours late for dinner.  All of these efforts are an attempt to maintain an unsustainable status quo.  It won't work!
I am certainly aware of the nutrients problem, and listen up whenever someone experienced speaks.  For what it's worth though, I think we can predict what is going to happen.  In the short term "bio-energy" will be produced fairly widely, and with a huge reliance on fossil fuels, petrolium-derived inputs, etc.  In the longer term, we will have to 'get real' and balance the production honestly.
No one is set up to "harvest" biomass unless they spend a lot of money.
According to the report of the Corn Stover Collection Project, the collection is not difficult or expensive.  In part, it consists of not doing some standard operations (not spreading the cut stalks but leaving them as windrows).  Both hay and straw are typically baled for transport or storage, and corn stover is not different enough to present major problems.
I live in timber country and there is no way in hell that "slash" is going to be dragged to a central point, chipped (because that is the only way to move it efficiently) and hauled off with a positive ERoEI.
So don't.  Instead, haul to the bottom of the hill, fast-pyrolyze to bio-oil (which goes in a tanker), and haul the ash back up with the next truckload.  Portable plants doing gasification and Clostridium fermentation to ethanol might be feasible as well.  If a logging operation is producing ethanol on-site, the equipment could carburete ethanol to co-fuel along with diesel.  An operation which generates more fuel than it uses becomes energy-positive.
There needs to be big costs for anyone that emits carbon, and big payments to anyone who can prove they are sucking it out of the atmosphere and stashing it somewhere for a reasonable period of time.


I couldn't agree more. I think what we need is a substantial tax increase on all fossil fuels. Not only will this encourage alternatives, but it will punish alternatives with a poor EROI and encourage maximum efficiency.

If you want to find out really quickly whether or not corn ethanol really has a positive EROI, jack the taxes up really high on natural gas, coal, gasoline, and diesel. If the EROI is poor, corn ethanol producers will be out of business. Those who developed processes focused on energy efficiency may survive.


I'm coming at Stuart's comments from a little different direction.

I applaud the dynamic approach Stuart is using, looking at the possibilities for future development and technologies. So often we analyze these situations with an implicit assumption that we will have no better technologies or tools than what we have in hand today. In fact, over the time frame of the 21st century, we will likely see great technological change, just as we have for the past several hundred years. From this perspective, the possibilities for biofuels are indeed probably much greater than they might seem today.

The bottom line is that the solar energy falling on earth is far greater than the amount we consume today. There is ample sunlight to power a lifestyle far more energy intensive than anything the world has ever seen.

One place where I differ with Stuart is in the suggestion that we are "commiting evil" in emitting carbon. I assume that he sees this as evil because the effects will fall on innocent third parties. (Normally one would not consider an action evil if the negative consequences fell on the actor.) Probably in this case most of those third parties are in future generations, when atmospheric carbon levels will have built to a much greater degree than today, and greenhouse warmth will have had more time to build up and become consequential.

The problem is that this view implicitly assumes a static perspective regarding the capabilities and potential of our descendants. Those future generations will not be helpless babes forced to passively live with consequences of our profligate ways. No, they will be powerful, capable adults when it is their turn to run the world, adults with technologies and capabilities that we can only dream of.

The world is not coming to a halt. Human knowledge, science and technology will continue to advance. The world of the future will be far more capable and competent, and in all likelihood, far wealthier than the world of today.

It is not evil to transfer problems from the less capable to the more capable. It is not evil for Mexicans to come from their impoverished country to the wealthy United States. It is not evil to offer health and income support to the poor at the expense of higher taxes on the rich. It is not evil for children to depend on their parents, or for their elderly and enfeebled parents to then depend on the children.

In the same way, it is not evil for us to transfer the problems of carbon sequestration and mitigation to future generations who will have far more capable tools for dealing with these problems than what we have today.

Let me provide a bit of quantitative support. What are the costs today of reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Unfortunately I don't have a quote handy, but I have seen estimates of about $50 per ton of CO2 in terms of the hit on the economy. Compare that to this article:


It surveys and reviews over 100 estimates of the actual discounted cost of CO2. There is a wide range of results, but the median is $14 per ton of carbon. That is much less than the estimated costs of reducing carbon emissions through conservation. According to these analyses, conservation today does not make economic sense.

The reason for this is because of the economic practice of "discounting" future harm. Harm tomorrow is less threatening than harm today, and harm 100 years from now is far less. Implicitly, this recognizes the tremendous uncertainty inherent in such distant estimates. I have outlined above some of the reasons to discount simplistic projections of harm, namely the unpredictable possibilities of future technologies to sequester CO2, to add aerosols to the atmosphere to cool the earth, or to mitigate the harm in many other ways that we may not have even thought of.

Given the knowledge that we have today, using the best analytical tools that we have at our disposal, CO2 appears to be a manageable problem over the time frame of the next century. Of course, there is room for disagreement when dealing with such an unpredictable time frame as 50 or 100 years in the future, but at this point there is no strong case to say that we are behaving in an "evil" fashion or that today's carbon emissions are irresponsible.

Global warming? Pshaw! Never heard of Moore's Law? In twenty years, Nerd Rapture, aka the Singularity, is coming! We'll all be immortal uploads!
Moores Law! What "Law"?
See graph halfway down. It should perhaps be renamed 'Moores Hypothesis' or 'Moores Paradigm'. ;-)
Two things:

The first, the biggest, is that we are reducing the earth's biodiversity rapidly through over-fishing, over-cutting, and global warming.  No matter how smart our grandkids are, they are not going to bring back a coral reef which is dead, gone, without a DNA trace.

The second thing is that the whole argument is a slippery slope for every kind of environmental injustice.  Why not take the scrubbers off our coal plants, right?  I'm sure the grandkids will figure out how to fix the lakes, oceans.

  I can't remember if it is a boy scout or outward bound saying but it was "leave it better than you found it."

It was in reference to a campsite because eventually campsites would become unusable. This definately applies here.  I have been fortunate enough to see at least parts of most of our national parks and wilderness in several other continents. I want my kids to be able to do the same.  And as far as biodiversity god, nature, gaia made all those creatures with all their unique proteins for a reason.  We may need them some day.  


It is not evil for Mexicans to come from their impoverished country to the wealthy United States.
If all it does is remove the pressure on their corrupt elites to do something about their impovershment, it's evil for us to let them come.  Remittances to Mexico now create more income than Mexico's exports of oil!

Mexico is the wealthiest nation in the Americas south of the USA (tied with Costa Rica).  If it's moral to allow 80 million Mexicans to keep coming here until the USA is no more desirable than Mexico, why wouldn't this also extend to all of Brazil, Argentina, Peru and the rest of the continent?  When do we stop?  How much crowding and additional ecological damage is too much?  Do the citizens of the United States get a vote about their own future?

The problems in Mexico will not be fixed by exporting them.  The only moral thing to do is put the onus on the people with the ability to change the system there, which is Mexico's social, political and economic leadership.

Yes, they will always be hopeless. They will, inevitably, be ramped up as much as possible, mining our soils as an offset to pumping oil. Biofuels will never replace more than a fraction of our current petroleum use.

Source: The United States of America Meets Planet Earth

Other estimates of US primary productivity range as low as 70 EJ.

The fundamental problem is you can't substitute the use of stocks of stored solar energy by current solar income.

I found this web page  with a collection of fascinating numbers.  I can't vouch for them, but if they are correct, they put some pretty hard limits on what we can achieve with biomass:
Primary energy consumed by the world in 1998: 382 quadrillion Btus (quads)
Potential for gains through energy efficiency today: 50%
Potential for gains through energy efficiency and lifestyle changes by 2025: 75%

I think the 75% number is dreaming in technicolor, so let's take 50%, for a minimum of 191 quads required for a 1998 population/lifestyle.  Then they say:
Global biomass energy potential: 254 quads

Further, they claim:
Global wind energy potential: 341 quads
Global geothermal energy potential: 468 quads
Global tidal energy potential: 72 quads
Global biomass energy potential: 254 quads

No that's a total of a bit over 1100 quads.  How much renewable energy can we harvest by any and all means in the next 20 years, if we are going to need, say, 200 quads by 2025 to offset oil decline and population growth?

Are my numbers or inferences wrong?

Quantity of oil consumed in 2000: 28 million barrels
Quantity of oil discovered in 2000: 6 million barrels

This makes me a little less eager to trust the rest of their numbers.

Hmmm.  A confusion like that - m/b-illions does eat their credibility a bit.  Hey, what's three orders of magnitude between friends?  It's obviously an amateur page.
Re Peak Phosphorous and the energy drain of bulk handling of biomass. Folks are working on both problems.  As a result of sanctions Cuba is developing 'solubilising bacteria' that liberate P from soil. Insoluble phosphate (apatite) is very common in many rocks. It would be ironic if the US turned to Cuba for help with this problem.

A Canadian company http://www.dynamotive.com/biooil/technology.html
has developed a way of boiling down (pyrolysing) woodchips in the forest so that an energy rich oil can be taken away for FT synthesis.  Maybe this technology would be as developed as grain ethanol if it had the same help.