498: What sets the limits on pollution? Why don’t we pollute less or decrease faster?

August 23, 2021 by Joshua
in Podcast

My notes I read from:

Why do we still pollute, part 1: the questions

Does the following sound familiar?

  • We use a lot of energy, but we’ll electrify everything and power them with wind and solar.
  • Yes, we need to build a lot, but prices are cheaper than ever for renewable power and batteries. They fell faster than anyone expected and will keep falling. More solar energy hits the Earth daily than we need in a year.
  • There are some problems, like that the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and we haven’t electrified some things, like heavy loaded trucks, airplanes, and container ships, but they’re just engineering issues that we’ll resolve.
  • Nobody at the time of the Wright brothers could have predicted the 747. People a decade ago didn’t predict prices and capacity for renewables and batteries falling so fast.
  • A world where we live like today just without carbon emissions is around the corner. All we have to do is wait, maybe fund some research.

Those ideas sound enticing and compelling. Why was everyone so gloomy?

What actually are the limits and why? The prices are lower but why not lower still? Is there a lower limit or do you believe it will drop to zero? Why aren’t we building more solar and wind farms? Why aren’t we damming more rivers? Why haven’t we electrified planes, boats, and for that matter more cars? If electric cars are better, why do people still buy internal combustion engine ones?

Something is setting those limits. What? Do batteries and electric vehicles only require we build more factories, in which case it’s only a matter of time, or are there limits that we can’t overcome? Maybe some we can overcome and some we can’t. If so, it matters which.

Also, I’ve written in my blog that humans have historically responded to new sources of power by using the old one and the new one. Our environmental problems aren’t too little power but too much pollution, just supplying new power doesn’t mean we stop using fossil fuels. Headlines keep touting record using of renewables, but the meaningful measure is how much we’re reducing pollution. We can easily keep building renewables and never stop burning coal and oil even if we can substitute.

Why aren’t we closing coal plants? Why do we keep using jet fuels for jets?

It’s tempting to believe that somewhere near the source of power supplies there are a few people or companies that are gearing up to supply what we need. Maybe they’re going as fast as they can. They’re just waiting for supplies or a few key technological developments.

You probably realize it’s not as simple as that. There are markets and market forces driving development and things get implemented as they can. When market forces drive some development, they do, but not all things respond to market development. For example, people knew about problems with pollution and the greenhouse effect for generations but didn’t act. Why now? Are there things that market forces can’t resolve or won’t address? You probably know about the Tragedy of the Commons, Jevons Paradoxes, and Rebound Effects, which are systems effects where markets produce the opposite goals people expect or desire. How significant are they?

Briefly, the tragedy of the commons occurs when private citizens benefit from using a resource that can be depleted but the public loses, for example overfishing the oceans, depleting aquifers, and polluting the atmosphere. Jevons Paradox is that when you make a technology more efficient, you decrease the pollution in each use, but by making it cheaper, more people use it more and for more things, so you may increase the total pollution. Rebound Effects are more broadly when our attempts to decrease pollution end up creating more, which might include replacing some business travel with video conferences, but then traveling for other reasons anyway, or traveling more for vacation with the time or money saved, resulting in more flights.

There are other effects too. Prices are supposed to cause markets to allocate resources, but in some cases they don’t. Fish that become scarce sometimes see higher prices, promoting fishing more scarce fish. Fishing technology makes fishing deeper and more aggressively cheaper, so the market sees more fish even though the ocean has fewer, to the point where fish find each other slower so reproduce slower.

What if these effects mean our solutions create problems greater than our problems?

If we don’t change our systems, these systems effects may overwhelm us. They’re easy to ignore, but what if they dominate our situation? What if our air becomes unbreathable? About ten million people a year die from breathing—a number greater than the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust and near estimates of how many people died in the Atlantic Slave Trade, over years and centuries. Pollution is killing that many per year, a number which is increasing, and we can’t stop that polluted air from dispersing all over the globe. If we keep increasing that pollution, might all of Earth’s air kill people globally? Besides dying, what would life be like if the whole globe is like Beijing or New Delhi all the time? Pollution doesn’t come only from carbon dioxide.

What other processes are we doing that pollute besides emitting greenhouse gases? What if renewables that lower greenhouse emissions don’t reduce other pollution? What if nuclear and fusion produce other pollution?

You know about the concept of embedded carbon—how much carbon was emitted in making something. We generally think if we use the thing enough, the one-time manufacturing hit averages down to negligible. What it it doesn’t? Cars don’t last forever. Even if electric vehicles last longer than internal combustion engine ones, what if the embedded carbon and other pollution in manufacturing it doesn’t become negligible over its lifetime, yet billions of people keep buying them year after year?

You might say, but we can bring down the embedded carbon by decarbonizing the manufacturing process. Can we? Are there limits to what we can decarbonize? While no one at the Wright brothers’ time could have imagined or predicted the 747, we can imagine a lot more that we can’t reach. We reached the Concorde and other supersonic flight, but pulled back from it. Why?

Just because we made advances in one field, does that mean we’ll produce the advances we want in another? We thought antibiotics and vaccines would stop pandemics, yet the current one has us more worried about a future one. This one may metastasize with another variant. The delta variant may continue to grow. Who knows if antibiotics will keep working?

I’m prompted to ask these questions all at once for two main reasons.

The first is that our media, business leaders, and politicians keep focusing on the march of progress on solutions. Partly, I love hearing about more renewables and how people replace business trips with video, but we don’t focus on shutting down polluting plants and we don’t pay attention to system effects. If you make a polluting system more efficient, you pollute more efficiently. That describes our world today. We use less effort to produce more pollution than ever. I can swipe my finger on a cell phone screen and causes a 2-ton vehicle to travel miles to bring food in containers that will poison wildlife for centuries, maybe millennia. That cell phone is billions of times more efficient than ENIAC or the computers that put people on the moon, but they drive server farms that pollute more than most nations. We pollute more with less effort than ever.

The second is that I’ve come across news that answers a lot of the questions, which I’ll talk about in part 2, but the news is more like the Concorde than the 747. That is, it looks like when we look at the engineering and details, we aren’t at the start of uncharted territories but at the ends of long lines of research reaching limits from the laws of physics.

Nobody wants technology to help us more than I do, but if we try to fight the laws of thermodynamics, we will lose. I talked to the chief engineer of a company that has won awards for developing battery powered planes. We recorded a podcast episode that’s in the editing pipeline so you’ll get to hear it from him. There is a rosy future for electric planes, just not carrying people across oceans. I’ve also read a few reports on technological limits I’ll summarize and link to in the next episode.

First, I wanted to pose the questions I’ve pondered that led me to pursue the answers enthusiastically. The answers matter. If potential solutions don’t work, the faster we pursue ones that can, the more likely we can succeed to some degree. We can’t bring back the ten million people who died in the past year from breathing air, nor the lives lost from past behavior that we can’t change, nor even the lives to be lost from results locked in for the next centuries. The people dying today are dying from past behavior. But we can change our behavior today to avoid killing people from our behavior. We wish past generations had changed. We can.

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