Almost all transport is currently the result of oil. Nitrate fertilisers derived by natural gas play a major role in feeding the world . As these two fossil fuels peak (oil is peaking and natural gas will in the coming decades) food production is the most obviously threatened industry, subject to expenses relating to both. Without significant changes to practices, this will lead ever increasing costs and unavailability over the coming decades – something even more troubling when we include population growth.
The HNCs have argued that on the back of abundant nuclear energy, we can make changes to transport and derive fixed nitrogen through other means. Business-as-usual advocates (BAUs) have argued that fuel and fertiliser can be derived from coal – of which we are a long way from peak supply. I have concerns about both arguments, but mostly relying on coal.
Iron age with plastic surgery
In an article by Prof. Vaclav Smil (2009), he accurately highlights just how iron-age we remain. In 2008, primary iron smelting produced 930 million tonnes, almost all of which is used to produce steel (Smil, 2009). Coke, derived by pyrolysis of coal, is important part of steel production (Smil, 2009). Even with improvements, 420 million tonnes of coke, plus equivalent to another 100 million tonnes of coke were required for the 2008 iron production (Smil, 2009). Without coal, we would need to rely need to revert back to charcoal produced by woody biomass (Smil, 2009). Just to maintain current iron production, a yearly requirement of wood – even if high-yield species were used – would require a land area around half the size of Bazil’s Amazon tropical rain forest (Smil, 2009). Obviously production of that magnitude is absurd.
What strikes me as equally insane is that in any city I’ve visited, there numerous steel graveyards left to rust rather than be recycled.
Just like jets and large cargo ships, there remains to date, no meaningful alternatives to fossil fuels (for steel production). Just like bio-fuels, non-food related agriculture would be impractical to maintain business as usual as fossil fuels creep beyond peak (regardless of how long we have for coal). To maintain practices as they currently are is nothing short of greed at the expense of future generations.
By reducing our dependence on fossil fuels (nuclear high grade energy on the grid, supplemented with renewable and passive design where suitable), electrification of efficient and high impact TODs, and encouragement of increased density cities, surrounded by multi-land use practices (including nearby primary food production – cheap transport/local rail) we can make meaningful steps to reduce our emissions. Recycling of steel will also help preserve coal supplies. In this way, we can protect flight, cargo shipping and steel production for a longer time period (and help keep costs down), where emissions are less of a concern and increase development time for substitutes.
Modifications as argued by BAUs are not required, if we can think innovatively and approach city development with fresh eyes. It would also insure that we use this finite supply with increased efficiency rather than mindlessly burning it up. The HNCs also risk complacency when they say that they can just make nitrogen fertilisers. If we explore other methods, we may not need nitrogen fertilisers at all (would be good to avoid related pollution).
Our dependence on oil, coal and gas goes beyond the tank. Like coal based coke, many of the materials we use around us came from these hydrocarbons. About the only substance around me that isn’t directly created from these fossils is the wood of the desk. Even the concrete is reinforced by steel. We burn it all up, we’ll find ourselves increasingly requiring new methods of our practices. We cannot avoid this fact. What we can avoid is the sharp price increases and radical last-minute changes typical of knee-jerk realisation. If we begin adaptations sooner rather than later, we can insure heavily-dependant industries have more time to adapt and improve while the rest leap forward.