Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cold Fusion and Population - Environmental Musings

The center of gravity on climate change/global warming/... on the left is pretty fairly represented by Dean Baker's recent blog saying it's lights out figuratively and literally if we don't change our profligate energy ways. And this is by far more important inter-generationally than the current aggregate-demand-deficit-led fiscal deficits. Dean's post is here.

And, given mainstream science, he's absolutely right. This leads to the growth-neutral advocates with whom I have a moral problem in that it condemns the poorer nations to less wealth than we living in advanced countries enjoy. If that is to be the outcome, we should be crystal clear sure of our environmental arguments. I do not challenge results like those from the IPCC.

However, there are a couple of mitigating things going on, one in the realm of economics, and one in the realm of heterodox science.

First, for a recent department seminar on environment, I put together some data using the Kaya model and UN population projections to project CO2 emissions. What this clearly shows is that among greening of energy sources, energy efficiency, and population growth, it's population growth, through GDP growth, that has the greatest impact on CO2, by a factor of at least three times.

And, the closer we are to the UN 2010 population low estimate of growth, the better off we are, in fact, my analysis shows we bend down the CO2 curve starting in about 2050. Fertility reduction is what we should focus on. Fortunately, it is clear in the literature that GDP per capita growth and female education both significantly correlate with reduced fertility rates, and those trends are in train around much of the world.

So the best solution for CO2 mediation in the current context is headed in the right direction; we should give it a major shove. Helicopter drops of books and family planning items. You can see my slides here. Make sure to check out the embedded motion chart to visualize the effects of GDP and education growth on fertility by country. There may be hope in the following sense.

Growth of per capita income is not necessarily that bad for the environment, and those defending De-growth (reduction of GDP) might understate the economic, social and environmental effects of their policy suggestions.

Second, I will talk a bit of non-mainstream science, and thereby prove myself crazy for doing it publicly.

Remember cold fusion? In 1989 Professors Pons and Fleischmann, right here at the University of Utah, reported experimental results for an over-unity chemical reaction in a press conference. They were immediately, viciously, humiliated and attacked by the scientific mainstream, especially those whose gored ox was pulling the generously funded hot fusion projects. The cover story was that this violates thermodynamic laws. Case closed.

Except physics has evolved theories in which such results are supported without violating thermodynamics.

And one of the many serious experimenters working in cold fusion since 1989, Andrea Rossi, has announced and shipped an over-unity megawatt heat generator that uses its modern incarnation LENR, which stands for Low Energy Nuclear Reaction. The mainstream science is still out on this, but if its commercially successful, who cares?

Well, Dennis Bushnell, the chief scientist at NASA Langley, cares, and has spoken. He thinks LENR is a revolutionary epoch-changing technology whose time has come, a true game-changer.

I have gone on further than most care to read in one blog, so will stop and not embed more word or links in this post. Depending on the interest and tolerance for these surprising ideas, I will offer to follow up on this and post more sources.

Let me finish by saying, if true, this will put us on the road to virtually unlimited, very cheap, zero pollution distributed and compact energy sources. That would change much that is wrong with our current economies on the physical (but not distributional) side. And Dean Baker would be freed of his inter-generational global warming dilemma, so can get back to creating jobs here and now.


  1. putting aside cold fusion (which i don't know enough about to speak of) I want to know more about why you think gdp growth doesn't have that bad of an environmental effect. Doesn't the data show that gdp is heavily correlated with energy use? I know in the u.s and a few other industrialized countries energy use plateued a bit while gdp grew, but my impression was that came from moving some really energy intensive manufacturing overseas.

  2. Hi Nathan. All correct. But the big driver of emissions is energy consumption through gdp growth through population growth...the most stable relationship in this model is the growth rate of gdp per capita. So, if we plug in the population projections, we can get CO2 projections. The UN low population total estimate plateaus around 2050; thus, so does CO2, and declines from there. My point is the most powerful lever to control CO2, absent cold fusion or equivalent miracle, is to drive down population by encouraging reduced fertility. And we know how to do fact most of the world is on that train..fertility is dropping across most of the world. You may want to look at some of the graphs (all global) in the link if you haven't already.

    Attempting to cap GDP per capita is probably futile; we should push everything green we can, but fertility reduction is the high leverage silver bullet.

  3. I haven't seen any discussion in degrowth literature about capping per capita gdp. in fact, My professor (who is admittedly a somewhat odder member of this line of research) explicitly talks about how population growth worsens this problem and policies that lead to declines in population should be a central goal of any environmental policy especially because it helps to raise per capita gdp. My impression of most of the more lefty (as in further to the left then Herman Daly) degrowth thinkers is they want to minimize practices (ie expenditures) that lead to the destruction of stocks of natural wealth. It reminds me of Marx's criticism of Quesney that depreciation charges need to be included in net output.

  4. Point taken on resource sustainability. That is where cold fusion taken broadly as a proxy for breakthroughs at the level of theory in physics becomes important.

    I have been exposed to degrowth arguments that do argue for zero per capita growth in total, so a transfer from wealthy to poorer nations. The strongest outcome in the data is that world per capita GDP growth is not going to stop short of Armageddon (always a possibility). A recent degrowth example is Ken Rogoff's blog. I think I'll post a follow up on that.

  5. Daly essentially is arguing for zero per capita GDP growth. He has fixed (preferably reduced) population with fixed (preferably reduced) GDP (through put) and redistribution from rich to poor.

  6. And don't forget that productivity depends on growth. Degrowth would lead to catastrophic fall of labor productivity. The Dewealth of Nations.

  7. "And don't forget that productivity depends on growth. Degrowth would lead to catastrophic fall of labor productivity. The Dewealth of Nations" I don't think that's necessarily true Matias. Productivity growth has been coupled with intensified energy use for decades. Re-aiming the means of gaining productivity growth to efficiency and economy in using natural inputs does not mean that productivity will fall tremendously. it just means the mechanism will be different. it is true that decreasing the use of hydrocarbons and other natural inputs may lead to a fall in productivity. it can however, be counteracted by new types of investment, strategies for labor induced productivity growth etc.

    Also remember that increased energy costs (or even quotas) can make unskilled human labor and beasts of burden competitive again so that energy induced productivity falls are counteracted by increased employment of previously "unemployable" sources of wealth.

    While I have plenty criticisms of Daly, i think there is ways of decoupling growth from quality of life and productivity (or even by decoupling growth from increased energy use and pollution).

  8. Hi Nathan. If you really pin me down, what I believe based on knowledge of current developments in physics, setting aside 'cold fusion' however hopeful that looks at the moment, is that we are nearing the end of an approximately 400 year epoch of using carbon based stored energy to drive Kuznetsian growth to a new energy epoch that will cause us to rethink our economics.

    The thought experiment is: what do economies, and economics, (and...), look like if energy, the only non-recoverable input, is everywhere very very cheap and very very plentiful?

  9. Maybe IPCC projections are off:

  10. Hi Nathan. A couple of things. First, productivity goes hand in hand with output growth (both short term fluctuations and long run trend) as per Okun and Verdoorn. Well established regularities. So GDP per capita must grow to avoid productivity falls.

    I've heard now people defend 4% GDP decrease per year, a reduced population of no more than 2 billion people, and the suggestion that Europe is doing well, since the crisis means no growth.

    What Steve (and I too) defend is that stabilization of population, with lots of demand led growth (rising GDP per capita) would make it easier for the technical change (whether we get free energy or not) to reduce the environmental impact. Growth is needed to solve our environmental problems, not de-growth. Keynesian environmentalism is possible!

  11. Hello Kevin. Maybe. But I do my own CO2 emission projections, and am about to convert them to accumulated CO2/temperature. You can see how I do so in the embedded slides.


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