Exergy and Economy

(This post is a reaction to “The Physics of Energy and the Economy” on “Our Finite World” by Gail Tverberg)

Dissipative systems use exergy, which might be just a nitpicking, but I think not: to use those words make the process of dissipation more palpable.

I see the economy as a net of pathways, consisting of production units (from big companies down to single crafts(wo)men), which works most effectively in a semi-stable environment, i.e. no big fast changes. Then, the units can develop routine and skill in their respective task and the net does not suffer high transaction losses. Parameters change all the time: some production units become more effective than others, the amount of work to get raw materials changes, sometimes to lower, sometimes to higher levels, demand structure changes, the terms of exchange (aka prices) change and so on. To a certain extent, the net can rearrange, its elements can learn new skills, so that the overall efficiency does not plunge.

I support here the Marxian notion, that the relative value of anything on the market is in the long run defined by the amount of human work put into it.

So, to be more precise in definition, a collapse of the economy can be seen as the net beeing ripped apart, which leaves some chains of production more or less intact, while others, neighbouring to the rip, “die from starvation”, so to say. The overall production falls to the level of what is delivered by the relatively intact part.

Now enter two characters on the stage: productivity gains by investment, which is investment of work of course, reflected by a money stream, and information loss about the environment, aka negentropy loss, or entropy increase. They are somehow distant relatives of one another.

Productivity gains by investment decrease more and more, reflecting the fact, that human needs stay – more or less – the same, while the production process is approaching the most effective way to fulfill those needs.

OTOH, negentropy loss places a growing strain on the production system. Lower and lower concentration levels of raw materials can be compensated for by higher and higher exergy use for their concentration. A bigger and bigger part of our yearly exergy budgets is directed to raw material extraction, while the exergy stream is itself beeing limited by external factors, most prominently global warming, and secondly the growing scarcety of high concentration exergy itself.

Can the economy deal with this strain? My answer is: yes, if, and only if, the changes, which are undoubtedly profound, don’t come at too fast a pace, and if the economy is made deliberately more resilient.

What is a resilient economy? One with a little bit less specialization and more general skills, one with sounder financing to prevent one mesh of the net cracking to initiate a rip across the system.


The Web Of The Good

picture: NASA

picture: NASA

In November, the next, that is the 21st, UN Climate Conference will take place in Paris. It is a highly complex event with thousands of participants within the UNFCCC – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its goal is to set mandatory emission limits for all member states. Predictably, this will be a difficult task (even given, that climate change and its consequences are hardly disputed any more – except in the US of A).

The EU created with its cap-and-trade-system the biggest tool globally to decrease GHG emissions. But it went to work too faint-heartedly from the beginning. This is why the system is currently in the process of being reformed, concerning the rate of decrease as well as some modalities.

Meanwhile, under the radar of the mass media, a global emission alliance is forming from the bottom up.

It all started with single cities and regions which decided to put their own house in order first and give themselves their own emissions cap. This happened (and in some cases will happen soon) in Australia, New Zealand, California, Quebec, Tokyo, Kasakhstan, Mexico, Washington (State), Ontario, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative with 9 east coast states in the US, South Korea, some Regions in China.

California and Quebec have now joined their emissions allowances systems. This means, that a power plant in California, which did not use its bought allowances, can sell it to another in Quebec, which needs more than expected, et vice versa.

And this is just the beginning. More and more regions with local certificate systems will connect with each other and make their allowances mutually tradeable. The EU is no exception: expanding the certificate trade region is woven into its program, first with Australia.

The advantage of this approach: a big single global treaty is not necessary. The regions can follow individually their moral aspirations or not. Each region joining increases the factual and moral / normative power of the movement.

It is a bottom – up – process. The participants feel much less alienated compared to a process, where the formation of will must first rise to the very top, where some regulations are adopted, which subsequently take effect on the lower, local institutions. This whole process can easily be blocked by the unwilling. With the bottom – up – process, the unwilling become mere bystanders and will be bypassed.

Feels good.

(translation from my german blog post)


Texas, Syria und Indonesia and the cap-and-trade-system

A film about climate change on three spots:

Texas: Here, people believe intensively in God and that mankind cannot change big things like the climate, and that the drought, thats ruining texan agriculture is God-given. A female climate scientist, who manages to be a trusting christian at the same time, travels about and teaches the reality of climate change.

Syria: It is the former farmers, whose living has been destroyed by the long drought before the civil war, and who did get nothing from the regime, who joined the rebels first (see last blog post).

Indonesia: Here, the government is so corrupt, that it doesn’t even protect a national park from beeing converted into oil palm plantations.

40 % of world wide CO2 – emissions come from deforestation, not from human energy use!

(This is why the use of wood pellets for heating has to be scrutinized, wether the pellets come from over-exploitation. Hard to find out for imports. Generally, the motto should be “Don’t heat, insulate!”.)

Indonesia is in absolute numbers as well as per capita one of the larger emitters of GHGs in the world – only because of the astronomical emissions caused by slash-and-burn (look up here).


yearsoflivingdangerously_indonesiannationalpark_3 Image: Oil palm seedling in a slash-and-burned Indonesian national park.

There are several attempts to stop the palm oil frenzy. The EU has after long years of discussion implemented an obligation to label ingredients of food, but not before end of 2014 and with no hint of wether the palm oil comes from proper cultivation.

Emission certificates: A general emission certificate system including imports would help in this case. The importer would be obliged to buy certificates according to the emissions related to his goods. This would mean for him to give proof as to where his palm oil comes from exactly. Palm oil from slash-and-burned areas would be more expensive and less sought after.

Basically, the same arguments hold for an emission tax, if it is applied to imported goods, too.

It could be so simple… All this is far from our daily life. Still.


Syria – the first climate war?

This is certainly an exaggeration.

But there is at least some truth in it.

What few know is, that Syria suffered a heavy drought between 2006 and 2011. The NYT writes (here), that it forced a million peasants into the cities, adding up to another million refugees from Iraq, all left on their own, more or less empoverished without proper education and jobs.

With all the surrounding powers financing one ore the other insurgent group to fight their proxy war, the connection from drought to instability in this case is not one-to-one (and will probably never be), but it is definitely there.

An NCAR analysis (look here) predicted, that the mediterranean area will have very severe drought problems in 2060. Recent statistics (look here) show, that this prediction is corroborated by an already measurable increase in drought in the mediterranean area (NOAA):

Microsoft Word - JCLID1100296_CoverSheet.doc

Update: There appeared a balanced article in the Guardian – here.


Global warming “hiatus” – it might be the ice

There has been a big guessing why the heck the plot of global atmospheric temperatures did not go straight up the last 18 or so years. hiatus 1964-2012

I plotted the curve from 1964 – 2012 here, with a linear fit for the data from 1964 to 1998, the beginning of the so called “hiatus”. (Data are frome here, with the NASA GISS temperature set as basis.)

As you can see,  there is not much of a hiatus. But if you look sharply, you could see after 1999, the red data points, a slow-down of atmospheric (not global!) warming, resulting in a lag of about 0.1 K.

The big hiatus rumoring through the press can be seen only, when we fit our straight line to a shorter period between 1985 and 1998, which is statistically questionable.

hiatus 1964-2012 fit1985-1998

Doing that means assuming, that atmospheric (not global!) warming did accelerate in the middle period. Now, we get a temperature lag of about 0.2 K against the expectation.

A lot of interesting work has been done to find an explanation for this fact, the most notable I know of by Foster and Rahmstorf, who calculated the deviations from the middle line caused by volcanoe eruptions and El-Nino/La-Nina events, the big southern pacific air and sea current oscillation, with linear contributions. They found out, that the “hiatus” can be explained quite well by these. Even more convincing was the simulation of Kosaka and Xie, who allowed for nonlinear feedback of El-Nino/La-Nina events to atmospheric temperature and got a theory – measurement accordance almost too good to be true. The British Met Office argued in a meticulous discussion, that a lot of the heat unaccounted for must be gone into the deep sea, which is no contradiction to the former.

arctic sea ice volumeBut there is one striking point, where a lot of energy has been dumped during the last 18 or so years: the arctic ocean. Let’s look at another plot: the volume of the ice floating on it (from here):

Between 1995 and today more or less 8000 km³ of perennial ice melted away. Could not the heat necessary to do this be reflected in the warming lag of the atmosphere? And it could.

Here is the copy of an excel sheet, the electronic equivalent of a back-of-envelope-calculation, in which I tried to find out, whether or not the ice loss could be correlated with the warming lag.

melting enthalpy of water 333 1,00E+03 J/kg
lost perennial ice volume since ca. 1995 8000 1,00E+09
density of ice 0,9 1,00E+03 kg/m³
lost perennial ice mass since ca. 1995 7200 1,00E+12 kg
heat used to melt lost ice mass 2397600 1,00E+15 J
2,3976 1,00E+21 J
mass of earth atmosphere 5,15 1,00E+18 kg
specific heat of air under standard conditions 1,05 1,00E+03 J/kgK
total heat capacity of the atmosphere 5,4075 1E+21 J/K
temperature decrease of the earth atmosphere (even distribution of heat contribution assumed) -0,44338419 1,00E+00 K
Difference between expected and real atmospheric temperature, ca. 0,1 1 K
antarctic volume gain rate 35,5 1,00E+09 m³/year
years since 1995 18
approximate gain since 1995 639 1,00E+09

The result is, that when the heat energy for the melting of the perennial arctic sea ice had been taken evenly from the hole of the atmosphere and from nothin else, and its specific heat capacity can be considered everywhere the same, a temperature lag of more than 0,4 K would have happened.

As is not so well known, the antarctic sea ice increased over the last decades, thus puzzeling once more the scientific community. Massonet and colleagues calculed this mass increase here. In the lower part of the spreadsheet, I looked at the size of this effect. It is not bigger than 10 % of the arctic loss.

This is all terribly incomplete of course. The atmosphere does not contribute evenly to the melting. A lot of the heat during summer melting comes not via the atmosphere, but directly from the solar radiation because of increasing surface absorption. It is quite possible, that a small shift in the regional radiation balance is responsible for the lions share of  the melting, as the sea ice simulation team of the University of Washington warns here. The atmosphere is pretty strongly coupled to the top layers of the continents and the seas, so those should have contributed to the melting, too.

On the other hand, the observed temperature lag is only 0.25 to 0.5 of what would be expected in an atmosphere-only model. So this seems to be somehow already accounted for.

It might not be the whole truth, but it’s worth looking at it.


How to make life difficult for the Nsa’s of this world forever

One of the most alarming parts of Edward Snowdens revelations was the NSA not only listen to the data traffic of many countries, but also having cracked internet encryption.

In oder to do this, they need to get the keys and this works via two mechanisms:

  1. By calculating the key using the intercepted message and
  2. by direct acces to the key, using an software exploit or a back door implemented into the software by the vendor.

Against way # 1 we ought to use open source software.

Against way # 2 help data compression and using several encryption channels in one message. And here’s how it works:

The data thief alway has to test a lot of keys and needs some criterion to find out, which is the right one. I. e. he or she needs some information already known to him to get the information he wants to know.

decryption mechanism

The trick consists in avoiding to put known-to-him (or easy to get) information together with the secret into one encryption channel. And this is what data compression is about: reduction to the essential

Take e.g. a piece of english text. It is possible to develop a compression algorithm, that is optimized for english text. With it, every arbitrary string of characters can be decompressed into a grammatical correct – and may be even meaningful – piece of english text.

In most cases, the data thief will know more than just the language of the document. So the names of company staff may appear, of the form of the document will be that of a business letter. Or the language stems of a subset of english specific for a kind of business. All those informations have to be transmitted separately, with their own keys. The important part, e.g. business numbers, the height of a proposition, the dimension of a drawing, have to be transmitted with their own keys. So the data thief can no more draw conclusions from the marginal to the central part of the message.

This approach will make encrypted messages secure against any future increase in computing power.

To support data security, as few information as possible around the communication should be made public, and it should always be clear, which information has already been made public.


about “sustainable growth”

What is growing? The “gross product” (GP).

That is: the sum of the monetary evaluations of all products and services of a subsection of mankind, called state. There is a subtle difference between gross national product and gross domestic product, which is of no importance for the following, so just “GP”.

As a side note, it would be better to speak not of “products and services” but of “transactions”. In a economic transaction something happens between people, accompagnied by an exchange of money. This concept depicts better the flowlike nature and the diversity of the process.

Imagine now a gigantic societal price list, in which all transactions are listed by some category.

Prices vary by time and place. So if we divide all transactions by sort, region and time into categories, like “20 minutes physiotherapy 2013 in Germany” or “1 biological bread 2013 in France”, we get a distribution of price events around a mean and take this mean as price for the category.

So the GP can be represented as sum of amount x price for all categories.

How is it growing? (given no-inflation conditions)

  1. Increase of total working time.
  2. Increase of added value per working hour, i.e. the productivity.

Now productivity can be broken down into two kinds:

  1. Quantitative productivity. The concept relates to measurable and countable quantities: numbers of pieces, amount of material put out or treated.
  2. Qualitative productivity. If it is growing, the products or services created per working hour is considered more valuable by a sufficent number of people, reflected by a higher price.

Question: Do we need growth at all?

Answer: Basically not, but … productivity is increased every year. If economic value added stays the same, total working time decreases. As individual working times are inflexible, more and more people become jobless. This is a problem.

And what is “sustainable”?

The term has been coined with respect to the world as a whole, but with a clear focus on the catching up of the “third world” and on longterm foresight, i.e. a considered and resource–sparing advancement. It contains also an aspect of minimizing risk and creation of corresponding institutions. (See Wikipedia for that.)

As another side note, I don’t like very much the term “development” in the context of the productivity slope between world regions, because this very broad term is squeezed into a very narrow meaning: the catchup of the poor countries – which has never been meant serious at that (over here). It is somehow a smudging term.

It is clear, that a process, which is using up the existing resources as fast as possible and is piling up high risks by changing the climate is not “sustainable” in the above sense.

Qualitative productivity, sustainability and the societal price list

The remarkable property of qualitative productivity is, that it is strongly linked to the societal price list. This is the point, where one has to disengage oneself a little bit from the mainstream paradigm, and because of which I wrote down all this.

If a cell phone gets a better display or a car a greater mileage or a physician a better education, these are all very clear cases of  higher qualitative productivity.

But there is another aspect, which is not so obvious: value system shift in society, expressed and reflected in a change of the societal price list.

An example is pure biologically produced foods. In the last ten years, more and more people were ready to pay more money for food, if it was biological. Now with conversion to pure biological production, quantitative productivity decreases. But as biological foods are considered more valuable – and are consequently higher priced – the GP can grow nevertheless.

A similar case is subsidized regenerative energy use. Here, e.g. with high state subsidies in Germany, the value decision was not taken as a sum of many individual decisions, but by a small circle of government people. So for society as a whole, regenerative energy use was worth the cost, even if the individual may have grumbled about it.

The flexibilty of the societal price list

Such a price, which has not been created by market forces, is nevertheless an expression of a sense of value, only by the “volonté générale”, as opposed to the “volonté de tous”, which translates into the will of the market.

Lately it has become clear, that market is not the highest authority for economic advance. That it can’t cope with certain tasks in society is commonplace. To be added is, that it is influenced to the highest degree by fashions, moods, advertising, culture and subculture et c. Like a snake, it curls and twists left and right, back and forth. Apart from basic needs, there is no prior structure, no “natural” decision in weighing up of the different impulses towards status, attractivity, distraction, community spirit, lust et c. Even health and to be alive itself has for different people at different times a different significance.

Advertising is in this game not just a liar, who only promises pleasure. To a certain degree, its promise is self-fulfilling: if something has been described to me as beautiful, I tend to experience it as beautiful. (This comes out of the deeply social nature of our emotions.)

Now if sustainability becomes important to us, so important, that we start to be ready to spend money for it, we immediately get our “sustainable growth”.

The societal price list, the societal system of values, expressed in prices, can easily lead to sustainable advance  – and it is in our own hand.

What does this mean specifically? A brainstorming.

We could promote higher positive value  – i.e. demand -  to the following things:

Education, Art, child care, care for old people, physical and mental health care, biologically produced food and raw materials.

We could promote a higher negative value and charge a higher price for:
green house gas emissions, non natural use of landscape and consumption of fossil raw materials.

Complete the list yourself 🙂 .

March 2017
« Feb    

Blog Stats

  • 853 hits