Category Archives: Soapbox

Bringing an end to thermodynamic whoopee

Two weeks ago I used two infographics to illustrate the dominant role of energy use in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the disportionate production of greenhouse gas emission by the rich [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021].  Energy use is responsible for 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 16% of the world’s population are responsible for 38% of global CO2 emissions.  Today’s infographics illustrate the energy flows from source to consumption for the USA (above), UK and Europe (thumbnails below).  In the USA fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are the source of nearly 80% of their energy, in the UK it is a little more than 80% and the chart for Europe is less detailed but the proportion looks similar. COP 26 committed countries to ending ‘support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022’ and recognised ‘investing in unabated fossil-related energy projects increasingly entails both social and economic risks, especially through the form of stranded assets, and has ensuing negative impacts on government revenue, local employment, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and public health.’  However, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels we need a strategy, a plan of action for a fundamental change in how we power industry, heat our homes and propel our vehicles.  A hydrogen economy requires the production of hydrogen without using fossil fuels, electric cars and electric domestic heating requires our electricity generating capacity to be at least trebled by 2050 in order to hit the net zero target. This scale and speed of  transition to zero-carbon sources is such that it will have to be achieved using an integrated blend of green energy sources, including solar, wind and nuclear energy.  For example, in the UK our current electricity generating capacity is about 76 GW and 1 GW is equivalent to 3.1 million photovoltaic (PV) panels, or 364 utility scale wind turbines [] so trebling capacity from one of these sources alone would imply more than 700 million PV panels, or one wind turbine every square mile.  It is easy to write policies but it is much harder to implement them and make things happen especially when transformational change is required.  We cannot expect things to happen simply because our leaders have signed agreements and made statements.  Now, national plans are required to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels – it will be difficult but the alternative is that global warming might cause the planet to become uninhabitable for us.  It is time to stop ‘making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ to quote Kurt Vonnegut [see ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016].











Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.  He wrote ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’.

US Energy flow chart:

EU Energy flow chart:

UK Energy flow chart:

Disruptive change required to avoid existential threats

Decorative ink drawing by Zahrah Resh 2005It is easy for ideas or plans for transformational change to transition into transactional processes that deliver only incremental change.  Transformational change is about major shifts in culture, strategy or technology that causes substantial alterations in structure, organisation, behaviour and performance; whereas transactional changes occur within the existing structure and organisation.  Leading transformational change is hard and requires courage, vision, a willingness to listen to all stakeholders, decisiveness and communication, i.e. procedural justice and fair processes [see ‘Advice to abbots and other leaders‘ on November 13th, 2019].  If any of these components are absent, especially courage, vision and decisiveness, then transformational change can transition to a transactional process with incremental outcomes.  When the need to change becomes urgent due to existential threats, the focus should be on disruptive change [see ‘The disruptive benefit of innovation‘ on May 23rd 2018] but there is a tendency to avoid  such transformations and retreat into transactional processes that provide the illusion of progress.  Perhaps this is because transformational change requires leaders to be selfless, courageous and to do the right thing not just the easy thing [see ‘Inspirational leadership‘ on March 22nd, 2017]; whereas transactional processes occur within existing frameworks and hence minimise psychological entropy and stress [see ‘Psychological entropy increased by ineffectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021].  This tendency to avoid disruptive change happens at all levels in society from individual decisions about lifestyle, through product development in companies, to global conferences on climate change [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021].

Image: Ink drawing by Zahrah Resh, 2005. See ‘Seasons Greetings in 2020‘ on December 23rd, 2020.

Acknowledgement: thank you to a regular reader of this blog for the stimulating this post with a comment about transformational change left to the last minute becoming transactional.


Where we are and what we have

Pie chart showing green house gas emissions by sectorIn his closing statement at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN stated that ‘Science tells us that the absolute priority must be rapid, deep and sustained emissions reductions in this decade. Specifically – a 45% cut by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.’   About three-quarters of global green house gas emissions are carbon dioxide (30.4 billions tons in 2010 according to the IEA). A reduction in carbon emissions of 45% by 2030 would reduce this to 16.7 billion tons or an average of about 2 tons per person per year (tCO2/person/yr) allowing for the predicted 9% growth in the global population to 8.5 billion people by 2030. This requires the average resident of Asia, Europe and North America to reduce their carbon emissions to about a half, a quarter and a tenth respectively of their current levels (3.8, 7.6 & 17.6 tCO2/person/yr respectively, see the graphic below and ‘Two Earths‘ on August 13th, 2012).  These are massive reductions to achieve in a very short timescale, less than a decade.  Lots of people are talking about global and national targets; however, very few people have any idea at all about how to achieve the massive reductions in emissions being talked about at COP26 and elsewhere.  The graphic above shows global greenhouse gas emissions by sector with almost three-quarters arising from our use of energy to make stuff (energy use in industry: 24%), to move stuff and us (transport: 16%), and to use stuff and keep us comfortable (energy use in building: 17.5%).  Hence, to achieve the target reductions in emissions and prevent the temperature of the planet rising more than 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, we need to stop making, buying, moving and consuming stuff.  We need to learn to live with our local climate because cooling and heating buildings consumes energy and heats the planet.  And, we need to use public transport, a bicycle or walk.  By the way, for stuff read all matter, materials, articles, i.e., everything!  We will need to be satisfied with where we are and what we have, to learn to love old but serviceable belongings [see ‘Loving the daily current of existence‘ on August 11th, 2021 and ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2013].

Infographic showing CO2 emission by region and wealth

Do you know RIO?

Infrared image of group of people in meetingDuring the pandemic many political leaders have been heard to justify their decisions by telling us that they were following advice from scientists.  I think it was Thomas Kuhn who proposed that the views of a group of scientists will be normally distributed if the group is large enough, i.e., a bell-shaped curve with a few scientists providing outlying opinions on either end and the majority in the middle of the distribution [see ‘Uncertainty about Bayesian methods’ on June 7th, 2017].  So, it depends which scientist you consult as to what advice you will receive.  Of course, you can consult a group of experts in order to identify the full range of advice and seek a consensus; however, this is notoriously difficult because some voices will be louder than others and some experts will be very certain about their predictions of the future while others will be very cautious about predicting anything.  This is often because the former group are suffering from meta-ignorance, i.e., failing to even consider the possibility of being wrong, while the latter are so aware of the ontological or deep uncertainties that they prefer to surround their statements with caveats that render them difficult or impossible to interpret or employ in decision-making [see ‘Deep uncertainty and meta ignorance’ on July 21st 2021].  Politicians prefer a simple message that they can explain to the media and tend to listen to the clear but usually inaccurate message from the confident forecasters [see ‘Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts’ on September 2nd, 2020].  However, with time and effort, it is possible to make rational decisions based on expert opinion even when the opinions appear to diverge.  There are several recognised protocols for expert elicitation which are used in a wide range of engineering and scientific activities to support decision-making in the absence of comprehensive information.  I frequently use a form of the Sheffield protocol developed originally to elicit a probability distribution for an unknown uncertainty from a group of experts.  Initially, the group of experts are asked individually to provide private, written, independent advice on the issue of concern.  Subsequently, their advice is shared with the group and a discussion to reach a consensus is led by a facilitator. This can be difficult if the initial advice is divergent and individuals hold strong views.  This is when RIO can help.  RIO stands for Rational Impartial Observer and an expert group often rapidly reach a consensus when they are asked to consider what RIO might reasonably believe after reading their independent advice and listening to their discussion.


Anthony O’Hagan, Expert knowledge elicitation: subjective but scientific, The American Statistician, 73:Sup.1, 69-81, 2019.