Stern Remarks #2 : The Unbearable Fragility of Complexity

I have been reading Nicholas Stern’s book “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet : How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity”, and I feel that it is somehow my role to be making some rather critical remarks about it.

For example, I have been made more and more concerned with Stern’s belief in complex solutions. There are many in influential positions around the world that have a strangely trusting acceptance in new and complicated technology, when the clear evidence from even recent history is that high tech is not always a sure thing, home run, done deal.

Nuclear Power, for example, is spectacularly prone to failure due to its many weak points. And new designs have been fraught with issues. Even the “back end” role of Nuclear Waste reprocessing has gone pear-shaped recently :-

“The company that runs the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant admitted that it may have to close for a number of years owing to a series of technical problems.”

The thing that Stern does not really appreciate is that Technology is not the same as Science, and that Engineering is not the same as Technology.

In Scientific theory, any number of complex designs for Nuclear Fission reactors can be dreamed up, but a good number are simply not possible because we don’t have the Technology for one or more of the required elements to physically construct the plant according to the designs.

And then, even if the Technology is reasonably sure, the Engineering may prove to be error-prone, fault-prone or just plain risky. Look at the countless reports of safety devices failing at Nuclear plants. Look at the myriad of outages caused by materials “fatigue”.

The reason for this is that Engineering is in the real world, and reactor designs are only on paper, or in CAD software. In the real world, metal rusts, gases get contaminated, pipes and valves leak, people forget or miss the signs, vortices, eddies and shearing components all make for systems failure.

And so, although there are some good complex technologies, it is not wise to expect radically new higher technology than we have now. It is just not wise to trust all the theoretical designs for Energy production and storage that get dreamed up. We might not be able to engineer them.

Here is just one example from Stern’s book :-

page 172
Chapter 8 : The structure of a global deal
“Biofuels…Although it is likely that electric or hydrogen road transport will play prominent roles in a few decades, biofuels may well be a significant part of supply between now and then. And if serious advances are made in second-generation biofuels…then they may compete favourably with electricity or hydrogen over the longer term.”

Sadly, it seems that one of the second-generation biofuel hopefuls, jatropha, has the thirst of a whale :-

“10 Jun 2009: Jatropha ‘Wonder Crop’ Requires Huge Quantities of Water, Report Finds : The oil-rich biofuel crop jatropha, once hailed as a “green gold” because of its ability to grow in arid regions, actually requires more water than other food and biofuel crops, according to a new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jatropha requires five times as much water per unit as corn and sugarcane, and 10 times as much water as sugar beet, the most water-efficient biofuel crop, according to research conducted by the Netherlands-based University of Twente.”

Whereas hydrogen as a fuel has significant issues owing to, amongst other things, the cost of the cells :-

“Widespread use of stationary fuel cells running on natural gas seems likely post-2010, particularly if high temperature fuel cells achieve their cost and performance targets. The transition to a transportation system based on a hydrogen economy will, however, be much slower and more difficult than widely realized. In particular, it is unlikely that hydrogen vehicles will achieve significant (45%) market penetration by 2030.”

And so, with regret, I have to say that Nicholas Stern is spectularly out-of-date, even though his book was published only this year.

I wonder how many other of Stern’s “unicorn” fabled as yet undeveloped technologies are going to pop the same disappointing way ?

page 66
“A promising approach to lowering CO2 in the atmosphere while producing energy is biochar bioenergy…In addition, energy produced from the thermochemical processing of biomass that stores carbon as biochar in the soil can be considered carbon negative due to biochar’s higher carbon content.”

page 92
“Moreover, by taking strong action we might start a wave of discovery which could increase growth rates in the near future.”

page 98
“There will be dislocation in the transition to a low-carbon economy, one that in its sources and use of energy is very different from the economy that exists now…”

page 112 (in support of financing more Research and Development)
“The basic argument for public support [that is, public money] for R&D, and for the rapid deployment of technologies…because, given the dangers we face, we need ideas quickly. The arguments are stronger for newer technologies and for technologies that are furthest from the market…One example of a fundamental research priority for climate change policy is energy storage…including nanobatteries…nuclear fusion. There will be many more. One which may turn out to be interesting is the transformation of carbon dioxide into solids which could then be used as construction material, or for surfacing roads [irony alert]…It is of vital importance that research institutions around the world be supported to pursue new ideas in an open way.”

Nuclear Fusion, of course, as the anecdote goes, has been 35 years away for the last 35 years.

page 123
“Nuclear power and CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] both have powerful critics within environmental communities who are arguing for strong action on climate change. My own view is that we will need all the technologies available…We need to know now if CCS can work…”

page 136
“A committed transition to a low-carbon economy can usher in a new era of innovation and creativity…By the time this book is published, there will be countless additional technological possibilities.”

Sorry to say, Nick, but I’ve counted the technologies you specify in your book and nothing really new new has emerged since your book was published. Although there has been this :-

“The ‘Searaser’ uses the power of the ocean to pump water inland for electricity generation. Mark Anslow reports on the simple invention that could soon be making waves in renewables.”

What’s truly interesting here is that this technology is very, very simple, akin to the Siphon of the Ancient Greeks.

page 145
“…wonderful new technologies…”

page 147
“…breakthrough technologies, possibly to include advanced solar, enhanced photosynthesis, algae…”

It looks like Nicholas Stern has been bamboozled by the energetic snake-oil-of-dubious-technological-benefit salesmen in the United States :-

page 185
“The creativity and vigour of those involved in the new technologies across the United States is remarkable These reasons give grounds for optimism on the direction of future progress.”

“The PG&E deal [Solaren] is a scam. Pure and simple. We don’t need to study it in detail any more than one needed to study Bernie Madoff’s investment scams.”

page 195
“the private sector stands ready with a whole wave of potential investments and new technologies.”

page 207
“We can recognise the technologies that can take us both to a more energy-efficient economy and to energy sources which are low-carbon, and we are constantly developing more.”

Er, no. The number of energy sources hasn’t changed and is never likely to change. The Earth system revealed to us the possible sources of Energy many thousands of years ago (apart from Nuclear Fission and the dangling promise of Nuclear Fusion, which are relatively newfangled things).

As for vectors of Energy, you know, storage methods and means, fuels and gases, yes, these are developing, but there is nothing really radically new coming up.

Combining simple things to make complex systems does not necessarily hold the best hope : take for example Carbon Capture and Storage, or the Nuclear Waste reprocessing and reuse efforts.

We have expanded our knowledge to the outer limits of complexity and possibility. There are no magic technologies waiting to appear. And the most complex proposals offer the highest scope for failure.

One thought on “Stern Remarks #2 : The Unbearable Fragility of Complexity”


    “Sunday, June 14, 2009 : posted by Kurt Cobb : What if the techno-optimists and cornucopians are half right? Some days I wake up and wish for the world’s techno-optimists and cornucopians (TOCs) to be right. The future would be so much easier for all of us. But perhaps more immediately, the present would become a less worrisome time zone. Those who anguish about peak oil, climate change, water depletion, and the panoply of resource and ecosystem disasters that are already arriving or are in the making would get a pleasant reprieve. And, the vast majority of citizens on the planet who almost never give such things a thought would simply go on as they have been. That this majority should, in my view, give more thought to such matters goes without saying. But if the evidence were so clear–I don’t say obvious because it’s obvious to me but still unclear to most others–then we’d already be making significant progress on these problems. Instead, they are getting worse, some of them very rapidly. But, how pleasing it would be if I were wrong, and the TOCs were right. We could all sit back and wait for the miracles to arrive from the scientists, the engineers, and the various high priests of high technology. We could count on the Earth to give us her abundance in whatever quantity we need, when we need it, and at prices and energy costs we can afford. But what if the situation is not clear cut? What if the TOCs are half right? What if, for example, oil shale were to become a low-cost, high-volume source of oil for the world in relatively short order because of technological breakthroughs (which the techno-optimists keep telling us are inevitable)? There is as much potential oil locked in oil shale in the American West as in all the world’s known oil reserves combined. But herein lies the problem. The TOCs cannot count on solving any single ecological or resource problem in isolation. For as those who understand oil shale know, both large amounts of water and large amounts of energy will be necessary to extract oil from it. No worries, say the TOCs. We’ll design a process that needs neither copious quantities of water nor extravagant amounts of energy. So, let’s say they succeed, and let’s assume there is enough other oil production to sustain projections of world economic and population growth through 2050. Now, all the other resource and ecosystem problems are likely to get worse…That points us to the biggest danger of all: It’s not that the TOCs are dead wrong, something I believe might actually be clear to nearly every thinking person if it were true. Rather, the biggest danger is that the TOCs are half right and that their endless parade of techno-fixes will prevent resources from flowing to other endeavors which are much more likely to produce a sustainable world in the long run.”

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