Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Are Biofuels Relevant?

There appears to be a theory running around regarding the world's economy that goes something like, "We've had troubles, but in a few years it will be business as usual." Is that correct? I think some have considered me to be just plain pessimistic because I think the answer is, "Not really," and I also think things will get very much worse in the course of time. Since I am now semi-retired and research work for a private researcher in NZ is not exactly promising in these tight economic times, I wrote a thriller and self-published it as an ebook, which is set in about 2030 when economies were on the verge of total collapse due to a lack of oil. Part of the reason for writing it was to get people to think about our future prospects if we continue to do nothing about them, but the question is, can things really get that bad?
In this context it might be of interest to read an article by Murray and King (Nature, 481, 433). Their basic point is that oil production has now become inelastic (i.e. an increase in price does not lead to an increase in production) and the peak production is about 75 million bbl/day. Yes, small new fields are being discovered, but the fields we know about are declining between 4.5-6.7% per annum. They quote the US Energy Information Administration as projecting the demand for oil at 2030 (the accidental date of my novel!) at a 30% increase, and to do that, we need new fields to produce about 64 million bbl/day, which is almost as much again as what we are producing now. That is not likely to happen. Does it matter right now? The increase in the price of petrol of 20 cents/litre between 2010 and 2011 cost the US $280 million/day. Italy currently spends $55 billion/a, up from $12 billion in 1999, and that difference is very close to the annual trade deficit.
Murray and King's point is economies cannot continue like that. If they cannot make changes, then change will be imposed. Thus for every additional dollar spent on petrol, that is a dollar that cannot be spent on something else, which means somebody else's job disappears when the products they make cannot be sold, which in turn means that there is less tax to pay for government services (let alone pay off debt) and of course, the unemployed person, besides taking a benefit and incurring additional government costs, cannot spend on services, which leads to further unemployment, etc. Then again, if society does not get started soon and lets the debt get out of hand, it will not have the capital it needs to make the necessary changes.
An immediate conclusion might be, biofuels cannot possibly make up that slack, and that is probably correct, at least in the near future. In my opinion, the only possible area available for such massive production is the oceans, and as yet we have no idea how to make that practical. Tar sands and coal similarly cannot make up the slack, because there is simply insufficient there. So, do we give up on biofuels?
In my opinion, no. Biofuels cannot replace oil, but do they have to? Oil is used for a number of uses, many of them because the oil is there. Oil is not necessary to make electricity, but it is difficult to see an alternative to liquid fuels to power aircraft. Similarly, I live not that far away from a major road, and what is interesting is that at rush hours there are a large number of cars going both ways, although there is obviously a preference for commuters going to work in the major city centre. But the question then is, why don't we arrange our lives so that we live closer to work? If everybody lived within 5 km of work, they could all cycle to work. Logic suggests there are answers that can make the future quite attractive, but it needs both cooperation and coordination, and there appear to be few if any indications from politicians that they see such possibilities. The problem, of course, is that the real difficulties will occur some time in what the politician sees as the distant future (i.e. well after the next election), which raises the question, what should people that believe such problems are coming do about it? Suggestions welcome, because I think that if at least people begin discussing it, at least there will be wider appreciation of the problem, assuming there is one. 
Posted by Ian Miller on Jan 26, 2012 3:06 AM Europe/London

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