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Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg is a writer and speaker about energy issues. She is especially known for her work with financial issues associated with peak oil. Prior…

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India's Advantage In The Global Energy Squeeze

  • Economies with rapid growth face sustainability issues due to the intertwined rise of energy consumption and complexity.
  • India's lower per-capita energy consumption, cultural conservatism, and regional trade potential might buffer it against global energy shortages.
  • Traditional values and religion play crucial roles in maintaining societal cohesion, especially when faced with resource constraints and rising complexity.
India

I was recently asked to be a keynote speaker for World Management Conference (WMC 2023) in Patna, India. The academic group that asked me to speak was particularly concerned about Complexity and Sustainability. A PDF copy of the presentation is available at this link.

The primary things I pointed out to the group were the following:

  • The slower the growth, the more sustainable an economy is over the moderately long term.
  • Energy consumption and the use of complexity tend to rise together.
  • Too much complexity can lead to collapse.
  • In general, the most “efficient” economies can be expected to do best.
  • Over the long term, all economies will collapse.
  • There have been shifts in which economies get a major share of available energy supplies. Shifting patterns are likely again in the future.
  • India may come out ahead in an energy squeeze because its warm climate and conservative culture allow its energy consumption per capita to remain low.
Distribution of World Energy Consumption by Country Grouping, 1982 to 2022. OECD is largest in 1982, but has shrunk to 39% in 2022. China has grown from 6% in 1982 to 26% in 2022.
Figure 1. Share of total world energy consumption, by country grouping, based on data of the 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy by Energy Institute. Russia+ includes Russia and its close affiliates. For the earliest years, these were data for the Soviet Union. For more recent years, the grouping is for the Commonwealth of Independent States.

A great deal of my presentation was simply a restatement of the words on the slides, in a slightly different way. So, my comments on the slides will be quite brief.

Title Slide: Complexity and India's Sustainability
Slide 1.
Section Header Slide: Why Complexity Is Needed. Explanation: Complexity is a temporary workaround if there are too many people for resources.
Slide 2.
The problem giving rise to the need for complexity: Population tends to increase, but arable land a fresh water does not increase. Soon there is not enough food and fresh water to go around. Complexity solves problems!
Slide 3.

Of course, after complexity solves problems, population continues to grow, creating a similar problem all over again. This likely leads to the need for even more complexity.

Chart illustrating that the faster population rises, the more quickly it reaches limits. Slower growth is more sustainable.
Slide 4.

My crude drawing represents the difference between slow growth in population and fast growth in population. Rapid growth is difficult to sustain for very long because arable land and fresh water don’t grow.

There is a similar problem if fossil fuel energy is being used. If growth in consumption is very fast (for example, China’s growth pattern starting in 2002), it becomes impossible to keep up the pattern. There can be two different problems: (a) Running short of fuels, leading to the need for higher-cost extraction and/or imports, and (b) Overpromising in the financial markets, leading to debt defaults and stock market crashes. China seems to be encountering both difficulties, even though its population is falling, rather than growing.

Examples of complexity. Farming is a kind of complexity. A photo is shown of workers in India harvesting rice with a metal hand tool. Knives from metal are a kind of complexity.
Slide 5.

Organizing workers to plant and harvest crops represented a major step up in complexity, relative to hunting and gathering.

A metal tool, such as the one shown on Slide 5, greatly helped the productivity of farmers compared to using a sharpened rock or a piece of wood as a tool, or using only bare hands.

More examples of complexity. Pumps for water irrigation. Very large farm machinery. Hybrid seed. International trade. Companies, including international companies.
Slide 6.
More advanced complexity.  Computers and scientific models. Lots of government debt. Intermittent electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. Supply lines providing materials from around the globe.
Slide 7.
Current complexity uses a huge amount of fossil fuels. Diesel fuel powers international ships, huge trucks, and agricultural equipment. Oil products are used to make pesticides. There are no electrical  substitutes for any of these. Coal is used in making solar panels, iron and steel, and concrete. Natural gas is burned to offset the intermittency of wind and solar on the electric grid..
Slide 8.

Of course, this list of uses is very incomplete. For example, both coal and natural gas are burned to create electricity.

Section Header: How Complexity Hits Limits
Slide 9.
1. The most useful complexity is found first.The complexity with the highest return, relative to investment, tends to come early. For example, the  wheel. Damming water for irrigation. Burning coal to produce electricity.  Later inventions often have much less favorable returns.  Solar panels need the subsidy of going first. Electric vehicles usually cost more than regular vehicles; need subsidies.
Slide 10.
2. Growing complexity leads to wage and wealth disparity. Best educated people tend to get the highest wages. Property owners tends to amass wealth, both from capital gains due to inflation and rents collected.  Problem is that there are not enough goods and service left over for poor people. They can't afford food and shelter.
Slide 11.
At side, the Energy Complexity Spiral illustration by Joseph Tainter. Third way economy growing complexity reaches limits: Growing complexity enables the use of more energy. Item a) Use of energy to make better tools takes energy, but at the same time it sometimes adds to energy supply. Item b) Greater complexity makes cars more fuel efficient, but also may make them less expensive to operate, enabling more people to afford the vehicles. Item c)Adding more layers of government adds more wages, and thus more buying power. The great buying power indirectly raises fossil fuel prices, enabling more extraction.
Slide 12.

As an example of a) above, a metal shovel allows more food to be grown. Food is, of course, an energy product that humans eat. Another example would be better drilling approaches that allow more oil to be extracted from a well.

Regarding b), greater complexity makes cars more fuel-efficient cars, making the cars less expensive to operate. This makes them more affordable, so more people can afford to buy them. This is known as Jevons’ Paradox. Although the devices look more efficient, the fact that more people can afford them allows the total amount of fuel used to increase.

Item c) relates to adding “buying power.” If more people can afford goods because of more government spending or more government debt, the added buying power keeps the demand, and thus the prices, of energy products up higher than they otherwise would be. The higher prices motivate businesses to extract harder-to-access energy resources that might not be profitable to extract if the prices were lower.

4. Growing complexity leads to a shortage of inexpensive to produce energy supplies. International trade takes oil, leading to shortages of  diesel and jet fuel. Manufacturing of solar panels takes coal, and eventually aids in driving up the the price of coal.  Problem is that the most easily
Slide 13.

We extract the least expensive to extract oil, coal, or natural gas first. Even if our techniques get better, at some point, the price of fossil fuels used in growing and transporting of food becomes unreasonably high. Poor people, especially in low-income countries, have a hard time affording an adequate diet.

5. Growing complexity invites collapse.Three references are giving for "The Economy is a self-organizing physics-based system. An image by Gail Tverberg is shown, illustration how an economy grows as added layers, with unneeded earlier layers gradually being removed.  The inside becomes hollow. The system becomes fragile. Economies often collapse.
Slide 14.

Slide 14 shows a chart I put together to try to explain the physics-based way economies are built. In a way, they are built in layers, with new businesses being added at the top, over old businesses, and new laws being added to old sets of laws. New human customers are added, too, and some die or move away.

Every action that contributes to GDP requires energy of some kind. It could be human energy powered by food, or human energy plus fossil fuel powered energy. Moving a truck or train requires energy. Even moving electrons, as in heating food or transferring electrons within transmission lines, takes energy.

One thing that keeps the system in balance is the fact that many of the consumers are also employees. If wages are not high enough (particularly for the poorer members of the economy), it becomes increasingly difficult for them to afford the basic goods and services that they need for living. Of course, changing interest rates or the availability of credit also affects the affordability of goods and services.

Chart titled: Collapse follows a predictable pattern. This chart shows a line that rises and falls, sort of like a mountain. On the way up, the caption says "Complexity Rises" and "Fossil fuel consumption rises or more wood is cut for fuel. The top of the mountain is labelled, "Too much complexity." <b>"Too much wage and wealth disparity."</b> On the way back down, the labels are "Population falls!" and "GDP falls!"
Slide 15. Hand drawn chart by Gail Tverberg showing some of the processes that change as an economy gradually grows too big and too complex for its resource base.

Early in the life of the economy, both energy consumption and complexity rise, as depicted in The Energy-Complexity Spiral by Joseph Tainter, illustrated on Slide 12,

At some stage, the economy reaches a point of too much wage and wealth disparity. Poor people cannot afford the necessities of life. Riots by poor people become common, as they did about 2018 and 2019, indirectly because of low wages and low benefit levels. Governments find ways to make goods more affordable, as many did in 2020 (partly by ramping up money supply and partly by limiting travel, thereby reducing oil demand and thus oil prices).

As the economy tries to bounce back, inflation and broken supply lines can become problems, as they did in 2021. More fighting tends to take place, as it did with the Ukraine conflict beginning in 2022. In some ways, the economy begins to sound like the book Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, with a great deal of censorship of opinions not conforming to government-sponsored views.

If the problem really is a resource problem that cannot be fixed with more complexity, the high level of wage disparity will ultimately lead to the population falling because poor people cannot afford necessities. Large cities are particularly prone to collapse. GDP can be expected to fall at the same time.

Section Header Slide says "The Standard Narrative Says "Growth Forever." The subtitle is, "Physics says that inefficient economies are squeezed out."
Slide 16.
Politicians, educators, and businesses cannot admit that collapse might be ahead. The standard narrative is <b>Business as usual will continue forever.</b> All we need is more complexity.  Intermittent electricity from wind and solar can substitute for fossil fuel. Our biggest issue is "Climate Change."This  is  nonsense. We humans have little control over climate. But lots of academic papers are written on this basis. Our economy is powered by energy of the right kinds, under the laws of physics. Intermittent electricity cannot substitute for diesel oil or jet fuel.
Slide 17.

Politicians cannot admit that such a problem might be lying ahead because they want to be reelected. Educators want students to think that high-paying jobs for people with advanced education will continue to be available in the future. Businesses want people to believe that the cars and homes that they are purchasing will be worthwhile investments for many years in the future. Mainstream media has no choice but to tell the stories governments and businesses want told. Governments offer research grants on projects associated with the favored technologies, giving financial incentives to publish academic papers supporting the chosen narrative.

The whole process is assisted by the fact that academic areas within universities each seem to exist within their own ivory towers. Researchers within economics departments don’t understand that there is a physics reason for the world’s high energy consumption; “scientific modelers” don’t understand the limits of a finite world. Scientific modelers assume that growth can happen indefinitely, while both history and physics indicate that this is impossible.

Physics tends to squeeze our inefficient economies and favor efficient economies. Evolution occurs with plants and animals. Something similar happens with ecosystems and with economies. Survival of the best adapted occurs as conditions change. For an economy, best adapted seems to mean "Able to produce goods and services inexpensively, compared to other countries. The Soviet Union  was not well adapted prior to its collapse in 1991: cold climate, expensive oil wells compared to other countries, lack of good ports, long shipping distances. China was well-adapted in 2001, with its inexpensive coal for producing goods. But now its coal is depleting and its fiancial model of savings as extra homes is not working.
Slide 18.
Figure 1 chart called "Distribution of World Energy Consumption" is shown again. Text says, "Chart shows major shifts in energy consumption. The group of countries included in "Russia+" were squeezed down very early; after 2001, China has been favored.
Slide 19.

The chart shown on Slide 19 is a repeat of Figure 1, shown at the beginning of this post. In this chart, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an organization of 37 rich countries of the world, including the US, Canada, most of the countries of Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Its energy consumption clearly has been squeezed down since 2002, when China’s energy consumption started rising after it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001.

As mentioned on Slide 18, the share of world energy consumption of Russia (+ closely affiliated countries) has been squeezed back for a very long time. This may be part of the reason why Russia seems to be so unhappy.

India’s share of world energy consumption is small, but it has been growing.

The share of energy consumption by countries in the Rest of the World has also been growing. This group would include OPEC countries, plus the many poor countries around the world.

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India uses much less energy per capita than many other countries:1. India's climate doesn't require heating of homes and businesses• Sales price of goods can be lower in the international market• Makes the economy more competitive2. Some of India's agriculture is performed using low-level tools• Primarily uses human energy, not fossil fuels3. Most people don't have vehicles• Vehicles used tend to be small4. Tradition mandates conservative life-style•Mothers often don't work outside the home5. Intermittent electricity iscourages use of refrigerators
Slide 20.

In item 4 on Slide 20, regarding vehicles being small, I mean that motorcycles, 3-wheeled auto rickshaws, and mini trucks are used to a much greater extent in India than in the richer countries of the world.

Perhaps India can "come out ahead" in the next squeezing out because of its low energy consumption per capita.  Chart shows energy consumption per capita (in gigajoules) with the following amounts: US = 284; Europe = 118; China = 112; World = 76; India = 26; Central Africa = 5.
Slide 21.

It might be mentioned that China’s per-capita energy consumption is now almost as high as that of Europe. At the time it joined the WTO in 2001, China’s energy consumption per capita was only about 25% of high as that of Europe. China would now seem to be in danger of having its share of world energy consumption squeezed back because it is itself becoming relatively rich.

India is a major importer of oil. Using oil sparingly makes it more affordable. Chart shows India's oil consumption, which had been rapidly rising, next to its oil production. India's oil production is less than 20% of its consumption. The difference is made up by imported oil.
Slide 22.

The chart shows that India’s oil consumption has been rising, while its oil production has been trending downward for about a decade. Imports make up the difference. In an oil-constrained world, the question is whether oil imports will really continue to be available at an affordable price. Diesel and jet fuel are in particularly short supply.

India's energy consumption is 88% fossil fuels. Wind and solar account for 3% to 6%, depending upon the approach. Chart shows India's consumption of all types of fuels rapidly rising between 1982 and 2022. Coal provides a little over half of India's total energy consumption.
Slide 23.

India, like pretty much everywhere else in the world, gets the vast majority of its energy supply from fossil fuels. Using the Energy Institute’s (EI’s) way of counting, about 88% of India’s energy consumption in 2022 came from fossil fuels.

It is confusing to know how to count wind and solar because their electricity is not available when needed. If they are given credit as if they provide dispatchable electricity (which is EI’s approach), then their combined percentage is 6%. If wind and solar are counted as only replacing fuel, then their combined share of energy supply is about 2% or 3% in 2022. The International Energy Agency (IEA) uses the approach providing the lower indications, as do many researchers.

Section Header: What should India's complexity strategy be?The key is keeping complexity from rising too much.
Slide 24.

When an economy starts shrinking, as shown in Slide 15, there is a problem with supply lines breaking in an overly complex society. Much of the world experienced some broken supply lines in 2020 and 2021. We can expect more broken supply lines again in future years.

Supply lines are likely to get shorter because of the shortages of diesel and of jet fuel. In particular, fewer goods and services are likely to be shipped across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. More trade will be regional in nature. For example, India will probably have a larger share of its total trade with other countries of Southeast Asia than now.

We can expect more fighting among countries because the world will basically be in a situation of “not enough to go around.” India would do well to stay out of these wars.

Intermittency of electrical supply will likely become more of a problem in the future. Replacement parts after storms will be more difficult to obtain.

1. Primary focus for added complexity: Reducing the cost of production of the fuels the economy requires.• Inexpensive energy that keeps current devices operating is key to staying away from collapse• More fossil fuels, at inexpensive cost, would be ideal!• Or new liquid fuels that could be obtained cheaply and work in today's devices

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Leave a comment
  • DoRight Deikins on September 30 2023 said:
    «Large cities are particularly prone to collapse.» And this is a problem for India with Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, etc, though probably not as great a problem as the large western cities such as London, NY, Houston, Phoenix, and LA (Los Angeles, not Lower Alabama) which tend to use highly complex systems to support their size. The cities of India still have a more locally oriented community structure.
  • fredric longabard on October 01 2023 said:
    I look at the photo of life in the India city and have to ask, would these people like to have more? I think the answer is yes they would. Your explanations of how economies develop and decline are compelling with the addition of politicians the driving force behind the decline phase as they convince the public they can raid their own treasury as is happening in the United States today.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on October 01 2023 said:
    India is currently the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil and also the third largest consumer of primary energy.

    And with rising population and fast growing economy, this trend is going to continue well into the future.

    And with scarcity and even shortages of energy resources looming on the horizon, it matters not a jot whether you consume your energy needs slowly or fast. India has still to compete for its needs with other countries in the world.

    Energy security will be far more quint essential in the future than now because of scarcity and perhaps shortages. The fact that India has a lower per-capita energy consumption than other economies has no bearing on its security and the needs of its economy and people. It still has to secure its needs in a highly competitive market where many factors including alliances and military power will figure prominently.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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