Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

Concrete in china

On Bill Gates’ recommendation we just bought the Kindle edition of Vaclav Smil’s recent book: Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization. In his book review Bill closes with these thoughts: 

What does all this tell us about the future?

First, the good news: Thanks to technical advances, we can make major industrial products like steel and cement more efficiently than ever. On average, making a ton of steel today takes a third as much energy as it did in 1950, and produces 10 percent less carbon.

On the other hand—getting back to relative dematerialization—there’s no end in sight to the rising demand for more materials. Even though the richest countries are leveling off, many other countries are catching up. Smil points out that if the poorest 80 percent of the planet reaches a living standard that’s just a third of what people in rich countries enjoy, the world should expect to continue using more materials for generations to come.

So if consumption won’t level off anytime soon, are we doomed to run out of the stuff that makes modern life possible? As usual, Smil refuses to provide pat predictions. He does say we shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about running out in the next 50 years. Beyond that, there are a lot of variables, but we might need to limit the use of some materials or do a better job with recycling. Smil nods to several innovations that could help avoid future shortages, such as new materials that could cut our need for cement by 65 percent.

I agree with Smil that humans have an amazing capacity for finding ways around scarcity by using materials more efficiently, recycling them, or finding substitutes. The big concern isn’t so much whether we will run out of anything—it’s the impact that extracting and using these materials is having on the planet. For example, the cement industry now accounts for about 5 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s one reason I think that developing affordable energy that produces zero carbon is one of the most important things we can do to lift people out of poverty.

Is it not obvious that abundant, affordable carbon-free energy is essential to produce the materials demanded by once-poor peoples — from concrete to steel to nitrogen fertilizer?

Bill’s TED 2010 talk Innovating to zero! remains one of the very best arguments for investing much more in energy R&D — particularly in advanced nuclear power, such as the Gates-funded Terrapower traveling wave reactor.

At TED2010, Bill Gates unveils his vision for the world’s energy future, describing the need for “miracles” to avoid planetary catastrophe and explaining why he’s backing a dramatically different type of nuclear reactor. The necessary goal? Zero carbon emissions globally by 2050.

Lastly, don’t miss the 2 minute video interview with prof. Smil on Making the Modern World.

A Stunning Visualization of China’s Air Pollution

 

NASA image: Satellites Map Fine Aerosol Pollution Over China

Were you thinking of a China holiday perhaps? The interactive images in this Atlantic article might dampen your enthusiasm: 

(…) China’s censors have tremendous power in print, online, and even in public spaces such as Tiananmen Square. But when it comes to air pollution, even the Chinese government can’t obscure the facts. People see and breathe it every day.

The debate over whose statistics are most “accurate” can be confusing — how to sort out truth from spin? That’s why a group of us at the Asia Society decided to launch China Air Daily, a website that provides up-to-date information on air pollution in the country’s largest urban sectors, and even compares them to major cities from elsewhere in the world. 

So if you need to fly to China, check out China Air Daily first.