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Can I have those coconuts, please?

Business, China, Economics, Environment, Managing people, Sustainability, US
By John Richardson on 27-Aug-2008

This article, by David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Shock, says that it would take three million coconuts to power one flight from London to Amsterdam on 100% biofuels.

Some of the comments posted at the end of this excellent article, first published in the New Scientists, agree with Strahan that we have reached “Peak Aviation” – no matter what the developments in second-generation biofuels.

The first generation nonsense of corn-based ethanol (as Andrew Liveris pointed in my post yesterday) and palm-based biodiesel have been thoroughly discredited.

But what the Strahan research also contends is that even the much-touted next wave of technologies will never realistically be able to 100% replace hydrocarbon-based fuels for aviation, transportation and power generation. The argument can also easily be extended to the chemicals industry, which, of course, is so tied into the production of transportation fuels.

Strahan supports this view with another startling calculation: an area bigger than China (10 million kilometres squared) would be needed to provide enough biomass to completely replace the world’s current demand for fossil fuels for all forms of transportation.

Then you need to contemplate the likelihood that we have reached, or are very close to reaching, Peak Oil. The huge growth in crude demand from developing countries is pushing us much closer to Peak Oil, if it hasn’t already arrived.

In The Last Oil Shock, Strahan quotes Dick Cheney in 2001 as characterising Republican energy policy thus: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it cannot be the basis of sound energy policy.”

But just a few years later, shortly after hurricanes Rita and Katrina had exposed the fine balance between crude supply, refinery capacity and demand, President Bush said: “We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy.”

Winston Churchill saved Britain, and the world, from the Nazis. He was, though, widely viewed as mad – even by many prominent Americans such as Joseph Kennedy – for sticking it out during the dark days of the Blitz.

The parellel here is that we need politicians and business leaders with the courage not just to react to temporary crises, as Bush did by telling people to conserve after the 2005 hurricanes.

We need the next president of the US to persuade the public to accept one-car ownership, greater use of public transport and recycling. A visionary leader has to emerge who will, in the long term, be willing to dismantle the whole structure of our current consumer economy through persuasion backed up by tough legislation.

The short election cycles in the US – when as soon as you are elected, virtually, you need to start worrying about the mid-terms and then your own re-election bid – might prevent any such leader emerging.

Equally, oil and chemical company CEOs don’t last that long. Even the current generation of leaders might be well into comfortable retirement by the time our modern way of life collapses as energy runs out.

There’s a marvellous line in Ian McEwan’s great novel, Saturday, where the main character enjoys a shower after a game of squash and reflects that his could be last generation to enjoy luxuries such as limitless hot water.

Our supposed betters, the politicians and the business leaders, need to have the courage to tell us, to make us, consume less – and American has to take the lead (as it eventually did, albeit a little belatedly, in the Second World War). Only if America takes the lead on conversion, and on climate change, will the result of the world follow.

We need the CEO of a plastics company to, for example, to come out and say “please use less of our products, for the good of humanity”. You can just imagine the reaction of his or her fellow Board members, however,

In this era of short attention spans fed by soundbites, spin, Google and YouTube – leading to erratic voters and equally erratic and fickle investors – visionaries of this nature are unlikely to emerge.

We are living on borrowed time