The Reasoned Review

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2009 was a dark year for airlines around the world – darker, indeed, than 2001. They lost a full 12% of revenue, and the hand-wringing has begun.

On one hand it seems clear that from an environmental perspective, this is unquestionably a good thing. Airline emissions are notorious, they drink fuel like water (1500 million gallons per year, yo!), and constitute a thoroughly dirty and unsustainable enterprise. A 12% drop in revenue means approximately 12% less airplanes will be up there, churning out exhaust. Surely that must be a good thing.

But at the same time one invariably reads news like this through anegative lens. A 12% drop in revenue means that many workers unemployed, that much profit evaporated, that much slower GDP growth.

And herein lies the ultimate contradiction in “sustainable growth”, the reason why Copenhagen and Kyoto failed. If GDP roughly corresponds to energy produced, then, given current technology, GDP equals emissions. You cannot increase GDP while “curbing” carbon emissions. Under our current economic paradigm, we can’t cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Alternative energies” simply haven’t manifested, at least not in such a form as to replace oil and coal. The truth is we’ll never get the dense free energy we got from hyderocarbons. Not ever again. Gasoline packs 44 Megajoules per kilogram. Windfarms can give us only 300-500 joules per square kilometer of land (that’s 4 orders of magnitude less). “Biofuels”, again, produce four or five orders of magnitude less energy.  The only thing that comes close is uranium, which is great if you like prohibitively expensive energy, waste you can’t dispose of, and the occasional cancer-inducing meltdown. Oh, and all the good uranium has already been taken and put into useless nuclear weapons.

So whatever GDP “growth” we later achieve is not likely to have anything to do with “alternative energies”. Oil and coal are what we got, and it’s likely to remain that way for some time. I think it’s important to remember this next time our GDP takes a hit – nature cheers when GDP shrinks.


Written by pavanvan

January 23, 2010 at 5:38 pm

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