The Azimuth Project
Recycling runaway effect

This text is part of an essay at the blog randform

Intro

The section Economic growth and limitations dealt with the fact that the more the material resources are going to be depleted the higher the energy demand for recycling and/or reuse will be. At the same time due to climate change and other environmental concerns the percentage of recycling/reuse needs of energy production itself (like for the CO2 byproducts) may rise. One can call this a recycling runaway effect. Moreover this increased energy need goes along with a rising energy demand by a growing population and higher civilization standards.

Recycling runaway effect and energy demand

Current calculations of energy demands and possible energy mix scenarios are usually based on current costs and average needs. If at all, then they often take the above described recycling runaway effect only partially into account (for example by considering climate change costs). There are rather few concrete scientific calculations and models concerning the rising energy demands and mixes and that these models are rather in development. It is however already visible in these simplified calculations that the current energy production will need to be greatly expanded. For example in a scenario in Powering the planet: Chemical challenges in solar energy utilization which assumes an increase of globally averaged GDP per capita by 1.4 % ( i.e. 1.4 % economic growth) and assumes that the averaged energy intensity E˙/GDP{\dot E}/GDP (where E˙\dot E is the so-called energy consumption rate, i.e. it the averaged energy consumption per year) decreases fom 0.29 in 2001 to 0.2 by 2050 to 0.15 by 2100 (due to improvements in technology) comes to the conclusion that the world energy consumption rate is projected to double from 13.5 TW in 2001 to 27 TW by 2050 and to triple to 43 TW by 2100. The authors assume a population of 9.49.4 billion by 2050 and of 10.410.4 billion by 2100. They are thus roughly using the medium fertility variant (replacement level) of the UNDEP population prognosis 2010 (see population). However if recycling costs are taken into account (as in the recycling runaway effect) then the averaged energy intensity may eventually even rise (or to decrease slowlier) and thus – if economic growth is assumed to be the same – lead to an even gloomier prognosis. The energy intensity may by the way also decrease slowlier or even climb in the future because the future retrieval of ressources may become on average more difficult/energy intensive (due to a growing scarcity). With the high fertility variant energy consumption would aquire roughly a factor of 1.5. Thus for example if the energy intensity would stay constant one would in this variant have by 2100 roughly not only 33 times but 3*1.5*2=93*1.5*2=9 times more energy consumption than in 2001.

As a result quite a lot of energy mix studies see the implementation of nuclear (fission) energy production as inevitable. (Nuclear fusion is still in a research state.) Unfortunately in that context a broad negligence about the possible costs and risks of in particular future nuclear (fission) technology takes place. Mostly due to the peak uranium effect, future nuclear fission technology will use very different technology (notably breeders). However the fact that some reactor technology of breeders is more risky than most of nowadays reactor technology is not the central concern here – the major problem may be the waste problem.

Up to now the nuclear waste problem has not yet reached a visibility (and impact) comparable to that for greenhouses gase. However it is to be expected that for nuclear fission the same mechanisms as already decribed above for the case for the byproduct CO2 will take place. That is the recycling or diminishment of waste byproducts from nuclear (fission) energy production (here a simple reuse is usually not possible and recycling of waste is often only possible to a certain extend) will not automatically take place in a (free) market economy if resources are abundant. However resources from nuclear breeders can be seen as abundant on an intermediate time-scale. For example, uranium 238 and thorium are largely available, and apart from extracting the bred fuel often not much further reprocessing (“recycling”) takes place. (For a brief technical introduction see e.g. a randform blogpost). So one can observe again that as for the case of CO2 (please see example on page Economic growth and limitations) - there are basically no (free) market mechanisms, which will take care for the recycling or diminishment of nuclear energy waste. It should be clear that nuclear waste is already now an environmental problem ( Note: The reader is kindly asked to read further also if disagreeing), but the future nuclear waste (especially the one from breeders) may pose an environmental threat not only by its sheer amount, but also in part by its new physical properties. At the case of CO2 (and at the case of nuclear waste itself) it has however become clear how difficult it is to invigorate political actions which address this growing waste problem.

On the other hand solar energy, which has among the renewable energies may be the greatest expansion potential and which has a relatively small waste problem (especially in comparision to nuclear energy) is seen by proponents of nuclear energy as no realistic substitute for fossil and nuclear fuels, while environmentalists see solar energy as an easy and sufficient alternative. For details see e.g. Potential of solar power.

However as long as other energy production means are cheaper there exists no (free) market mechanism which encourages investments in research and development.

Conclusion

The reasoning in this section, in Economic growth and limitations and economic growth and labour were intended to display that the paradigm of economic growth has to be put under strong scrutiny: there are indications that economic growth may not be sufficient and may not be always necessary for a happier, socially balanced planet. Moreover economic growth fuels energy and material resource needs, which may drive the planet to its boundaries. Energy generation from both fossil and nuclear fuels pose environmental threats. With a free market economy there exist basically almost no countermeasures to address this problem. However alone solar energy could e.g. make the replacement of fossil and nuclear fuels possible if the economical and political measures are going to be changed. Unfortunately the implementation of political regulations is not always desired, the specific political countermeasures may be inappropriate and/or too weak etc.

In particular it is thus to be asked whether the basic economical structures could be changed, while keeping the political measures in mind. This is for example addressed in the project Experiments in massive multiplayer online games for economic and political change.